Alison Crowther-Smith

Archive for the ‘Allotment’ Category

Allotment at Home Up-Date: IT’S FABULOUS!

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

Well, 7 months after the project took its first muddy and tentative steps in January’s freezing and wet rain, February’s freezing and wet rain, and March’s freezing and wet snow, I can report that it is an overall success and I love it.  There have been some things that I would not do again, some planting and sowing failed (partly, I think, due to the long, cold winter, extending into spring), and some things I would modify, but it is really a great project, delivering all of the benefits I identified as essential and most of the desirables at the outset, plus some unexpected bonuses.  Yes, I am a project manager.  It’s my (real) job, I can’t help it.  I project the (desired) outcomes, I deliver the project, I measure the outcomes against the initial spec.  Job done.

Here are some ‘before and after’ images.

The area on the left side of the drive, then and now:

The area on the right side of the drive – then and now:

Some jungle shots:

Some gratuitous allotment/food-porn shots:

If I had been gardening my allotment now, in this extended hot and dry spell, I would have been making tactical sacrifices.  Because there is no mains water, only what we collect off our shed roofs and save, plus what we can share from the pond that was dug some years ago, and is pumped into a bank of shared bowsers, I had to walk from the top of the field, to the bottom, with empty cans or buckets and then back up with full vessels, to pour onto the most needy plants.

At this time of year that would be the 4 raised beds, the squash and courgettes, and the beans.  I would have decided not to water the cage, or the spinach, or the raspberries and rhubarb.  And I am pretty sure the spinach would have died and I would also be unable, short of doing this every day for several hours, to really stop the runner beans from aborting their flowers, or to make the courgettes and squash hydrated enough to thrive.  In short, I’d have kept most of it alive but that’s not easy or fun.  I did this in the first and second years there, especially the first which was hot – but not as hot, for as long, as this mid-summer has been.  It was hot and exhausting, boring labour.

Here, even though 80% of my allotment is in raised beds, I can water it very easily and quickly.  Furthermore, as the canopies of the squash and courgettes are so lush and thick, they are in turn providing shade for both their own roots and the roots of companion plants, such as runner beans.  Thus I have minimal moisture evaporation despite the beds being in full and intense sun for much of the day.

Even last year which was a fairly wet summer with long, cool spells, I never got such lush and impressive growth.  There is no mildew on the courgettes or squash – this is always a problem, but it’s easily remedied by just cutting off and destroying the affected leaves.  Here, so far, it just has not happened.

There has been some black fly on the broad beans, mainly I think because I had such a late sowing, the first 2 having failed due to 1) mice; and 2) snow x 2.  But here, with mains water at hand, I can blast the affected plants with a water jet which is the most effective and organic method of tackling black fly.  And in any case, the black fly has not been at all bad, perhaps because I am on hand to inspect and deal with it at least once, often twice a day so they never really get going.

Other benefits:

  • I can pick crops whenever I want, rather than collecting enough for 2 or 3 days.
  • I can attend immediately to any problems or small tasks that crop up;  all my tools are to hand and I have time.
  • Time saved is incredible.  If I had a spare half-hour there was no point going to the allotment as it took me 10 minutes to walk there.  Here, I can use even a spare 10 minutes to really good effect.
  • It is far less tiring.  I have no-dig, virtually zero weed control is needed and if it is hot, I can come inside or move to shade.  On the allotment, there was no shade, a lot of digging and constant weed-wrangling due to the open nature of the site, backing onto weed-infested fields and it having been left in such bad shape before.
  • I have a loo!  And a kettle!
  • It is possible to make a really productive and attractive site.  I always thought the allotment was attractive to be fair, once I had it in hand, but this is really beautiful.
  • I can sit in the allotment, in a comfy garden chair and have my breakfast, my coffee, a glass of wine – and just enjoy it.
  • I do not have to leave the dogs.  Rupert is now too old to go to any hostile, hot or cold places.  He has been really poorly recently and so I can just let him potter about and then put his bed in the sun or shade, depending on the day.  Right now, it is very hot and I would have been unable to leave the boys here for fear of them, and especially Roo, getting too hot or stressed.  I’d have to wait for evening or some respite care for him.
  • It is my environment and I control the use of all products.  I garden 100% organically and whilst this is not always ‘easy’, at least here, I do not have to try and do this in a mixed environment.  In fact, because I used pest control methods that mainly relied on barriers, I did not really get that much trouble but there is no doubt that if Allotment A uses chemical warfare and Allotment B does not, Allotment B may get some collateral damage as the little twats move away from the war-zone and over to my peace-camp.  Sigh.  Also, to be successfully organic, the whole environment – i.e. your own garden, or the whole allotment field, has to be organic.  If it is not, it is hard to get that long-term build up of organic benefit as the cycle is always being disrupted by the use of non-organic chemicals or methods beside you or nearby.   So for  example I had all my allotment broad beans eaten by mice this year for the first time ever and I believe this was because the ecosystem of the plot had been seriously disrupted.
  • It is peaceful.  It is so peaceful, calm and private.  There is no distracting mobile-phone chatter, no machinery or building noise.  There is a downside to this, see later, but overall, it is huge bonus and if I am honest this was one of the ‘must have’ benefits of the project before I began.
  • The level of produce is not lower, on average.  It is in some areas (broad beans, for example) but it is higher – and easier – in others such as salad crops, herbs and squash.
  • The rest of my garden – the majority of it, I mean the bits that are not allotment – are getting far more attention because I am here so much more.  Once I got my village allotment, the rest of the garden here really suffered and it became a source of anxiety and irritation.  Now, balance has been restored.

Downsides and what went wrong?

  • I have to improve the soil quality in some of the beds.  And in all cases, raise the soil levels.
  • There is clearly not much point sowing seeds for crops such as spinach or peas direct as I was able, successfully to do on the allotment.  They just do not like it.  I have no idea why. But this is easily remedied by sowing in pots and growing on.
  • I need to re-think where I site some crops.
  • I have been unable to get carrots going.  Again, I do not know why as on the allotment I did have great success, also in raised beds.  Maybe my timing and the weather.
  • Some pests were obviously imported by me along with some of the soil I moved from one side of the fence to the beds.  Mainly, probably, slug-eggs, resulting in instant death to germinating seeds as soon as the tiny slugs emerged.
  • As ever, I have over catered and there is some crowding going on.  Less will have to be more next year.
  • Raised beds are targeted by ants far more than open ground so I need constant and better ant control tactics.
  • It is a bit lonely.  I really never met all the allotment holders as my activity was almost always on weekdays, as I often work at weekends and go out on many evenings.  Plus when I was there, I was head-down-race-against-time-working-before-I-need-a-wee.  But I do miss chatting to my one-side neighbour, and the old neighbour on the other side who gave his plot up last year, though one of them has been for tea and a look round here!  But I have high levels of self-reliance and on balance, I’d rather have the peace and the huge efficiency savings I have gained.

Next:

  • The broad beans are almost over and so over the next 2 weeks, this will liberate 5 raised beds.  These will then be populated with later sowings for French beans, and I will have another go with late carrots and peas.
  • Some of the salad crops went over very fast, so I will re-sow for these too.
  • I have pricked out several squash plants that self-seeded in the compost – probably butter-nut squash as these are the only squash seeds I ever discard, we eat the others, roasted.  Anyway, this means I can continue to site them into free beds or old bath-tubs as in the images, or tyre towers, 2-high.

I have not been to the allotment for weeks.  I won’t go back now, as Mark has kindly offered to put it all to bed and save me that heart-aching (but not heart-breaking) job.  I do not miss it.  It is too joyful, busy and productive here for that.  But yet, I am so grateful that I had my allotment years.  Had I known that Florence and Will would buy a house with such a big garden and thus (completely reasonably and understandably) bow out of the allotment almost right away, I would never have gone in for it.  So it was lucky that I did not know.  I would never have learned how to grow vegetables on a big scale, and also that this is my favourite sort of gardening any time.

 

 

Musings: My Diary (if I wrote one) from a week or so ago…

Monday, June 11th, 2018

Monday:  exciting news today is that it is time to take Rupert for a check up at the vets.  This means, as I have a special needs dog in the form of Arthur, who cannot be left alone unless Rupert is also there, that we all have to go.  I have decided today is the day to have The Talk with the vet.  Roo is fine, he is really well actually so it is a good day to talk to LV (lovely vet) about The End Game Plan.  Rehearse calm conversation about how I would like this to go.  Naturally, having completely composed myself on the drive in, I instantly dissolve into tears before I have even one full sentence out of my mouth.  Distressing interlude begins for all of us as Arthur begins to whine, Roo begins to yip and LV goes out to get tissues for me.  LV fills in gap in my conversation – me being reduced now to wet sniffs and gulps instead of words – with a cheerful discourse on Losing A Much Loved Pet.  Decide to abandon The Talk until another time.  Arthur wees on the floor. Know how he feels…

Tuesday:  appointment book reveals that I have an appointment at the dental hygienist.  My old hygienist has left and so I have a new one.  Becoming less afraid of dentist was really only achieved by previous hygienist being angelically nice to me and I have had a good 2 years.  Tell literally everyone I meet today that I am Very Nervous.  Receptionist glances at colleague, decides I am probably harmless and indicates a chair in the waiting area as far from her as is possible.  I sit and read about spiral knitting.

Steve (new hygienist) has 2 or 3 goes at alerting me to my appointment and eventually the old man sitting next to me digs me sharply in the arm and demands to know if I am Alison.  I admit it, and then Steve gently leads me into the office.  S asks if there have been any changes since my last appointment.  I tell him I have become, once again, overcome with Dentist Nerves. As angelically nice woman has left.  Steve listens, and then asks me if any dental or medical changes have occurred.  I tell him I have given up drinking fizzy water to which I believe I had become addicted.  Steve agrees that this is Wise and pops out for a moment.  Nurse enters.  I tell her I am Very Nervous and that I wish my other hygienist had not left.  Steve comes back in.  Nurse tells him that I am Very Nervous.  Steve nods, maybe a little wearily, and then coats the entire interior of my mouth with a thick gel or paste, rubbing it firmly into my gums especially.  This is a first and I try (but fail) to say so, my mouth being full of his hand and also a lot of paste.  Instead I gag on his finger but happily am not actually sick, I just urge a lot and my eyes completely fill with tears.  I decide to close my eyes and think of a Fairisle chart.  Procedure is totally painless.  Am unsure if this is the paste, or the skill of the hygienist.  Am blissfully grateful and happy!  Thank S and nurse in manner of Academy Award winner, and float into reception to make next appointment.  Rave to receptionist about how Great S is.  Skip back to car, bestowing smiles and cheerful mini-waves to all I pass.  Achieve car, and look in mirror.  Startled and disappointed to see that tiny coat of mascara I applied earlier is now all over cheeks and temples, in improbably huge dried-up rivers of coal-like stains, probably due to the gagging.  Drive home in dark glasses.

Thursday:  finally complete The Allotment at Home Project.  Last delivery of gravel has been dumped, the last lining is down.  Gravel Man and I say farewell, for ever…Immediately begin agony of indecision re old allotment.  Now is the moment to go one last time, empty the shed and never go back.  Instead of following this plan – which has been widely shared and agreed with many interested parties – I sow seeds for things I have no room for, here. Also, pot on squash and spinach.  Reflect that I could just keep it for another year.  Rule – which is flagrantly dismissed by several plot holders, I note – that 75% of the plot must be under productive cultivation is a problem as I am now only growing garlic, rhubarb and raspberries.  Wonder if planting a few stands of beans and half a dozen mystery squash will suffice. Family express strongly held view that I have got an allotment here now and I cannot reasonably keep the other. Continue to sow beans…

Friday:  attend the gym for usual classes.  I am very early so I decide to cast on a Moebius.  This witchcraft further sets me aside from the demographic and I regret getting out knitting  – or at least think in future I will knit only ‘normal’ things in gym foyer.  Put knitting away and instead attend to some admin on my phone. Lovely Retailer (LR) with whom I have worked for many years, is retiring and I have been asked to offer some autumn teaching dates for the New Lovely Retailer (NLR) who has bought the shop. LR asks for Brioche. Having sworn never to teach this wretched subject again, and indeed, having firmly refused several times in last year, I inexplicably give in and say Yes.  But only In The Round.  Instantly regret this but have sent email so too late.  Spend entirety of classes thinking about Bloody Brioche.  Find, part way through Spin, that I am standing up and have been for ages whist rest of class is toiling in seated climb.  This lapse due to finding that, mentally at least, I have no idea how to knit Brioche any more.  Entire knowledge of it has fled.   Assume this is self defence.  Hope it will somehow, magically, be restored once I try and do it.

Try to wrench mind away from BB in the torture that is BLT class.  In the end, compromise thus:  I make a bargain with myself (or the devil, unclear on this matter) that IF I can hold the pose we have been contorted into – which in my opinion leaves me with one hand too few on the floor, but anyway – for the duration of the 10,000 leg raises, on each side, without putting my hand down or stopping, Bloody Brioche will be unparalleled success.  I do hold the pose but sadly catch glimpse of self in mirror and am horrified to observe demented expression and mad hair.  That’s Brioche for you.  Do come.

Go home and eat chips.

Saturday:  receive text from Lily who is euphoric about the completion date on the house she and Jack are buying in Bridgwater. And this has just been confirmed.  Text back with equally euphoric reply.  Which is entirely false as this news, looming as it has been for so long, is in fact most unwelcome.  Try to tell myself this is Good (I know), and Normal (yes, yes), and that others Have It Far Worse (yes, I suppose so but do not care in the least and if we were all honest, we’d say the same). Yet, day clouded with terrible self-pity about this year being the first for 29 years when I will not have 1 or 2 children living at home. Am disappointed that I am not, after all, that paragon of motherhood who wishes nothing more than for her off-spring to leave; mainly because it is Good and Normal, and also because she is about to join the local symphony orchestra on a good-will tour of Middle East, so timing could not be better.  No.  I am not that woman.  I don’t even really like going to Taunton.  Decide to keep allotment.  That evening, try to think about Blessings.  For example, M and I will have so much more quality time.  Glance at M, asleep behind the Telegraph which he believes confers properties of invisibility.  Cast on Bloody Brioche.

 

 

Allotment at Home: almost there!

Friday, May 11th, 2018

There has been so much progress! I have to say that since the muddy, freezing days of January and February when the turf was lifted but there was nothing in situ, the state of play now is just great.  Back then I was despondent and regretted ever starting this project but now I am sure I have done the right thing.

Last night, I picked all the ingredients, here in the garden, for this salad:

allotment at home salad

The first part of the project is 100% complete. All the beds are up, the gravel is down and each bed has been planted up.  Honestly – as I suspected – the furthest two beds beneath the rowan tree are far too shady so what I plant in there will need a lot of careful management, but otherwise, it is all good.

Here are some images of the progress here:

The second area is 75% there.  The beds are all in place, but now I have to fill them all (three are filled) and then lay the lining and the gravel.

Area Two:

The third area is the old veg garden – and this is clear, and ready for a modified brassica cage from the old allotment to go up this Sunday.  The plants are almost ready to go in, so just in time.

I had not been to the old allotment for weeks – so when I did go last weekend, it was a bit of a sorry state.  But then, I saw that a lot of plots were in even worse states with weeds and long grass and I assume their owners had been down there!  Anyway, it’s all tidy now and I have removed almost all the stuff I want – mainly the raised beds, the canes, some tyres and tools.  There are 1.5 beds to come back still – but this, though physically hard, is not at all slow or difficult.  And the cage.  I will keep the plot tidy until I finally give notice.

Taking the old allotment down:

When I went down, I thought I would feel sad – but in fact it just vindicated my decision. It is not a place of quiet solitude now – and also there are still no ‘facilities’ so it feels like hard labour compared to having a cuppa and a loo handy, here, in between work.  There, you just end up racing round to get it done before you need a drink or a wee!

 

Allotment at Home Phase One

Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

allotment lawn all done 2

The first phase of Bring the Allotment back home is almost complete.  The turf was all lifted some weeks ago and then sourcing and building the raised beds started.  I have a mix of home made wooden beds, beds made of pallet-cuffs, and some metal hexagonal shaped beds.

This is what the area looked like before we started. Allotment lawn before

I then had three trees felled – two in this area and one in the next area across the drive.

As the beds went into place, the turfs were moved from storage and placed in the bottom of several planters.  Then I was able to put down heavy duty weed suppressing lining.  I have had mixed results with this on other gravel paths.  For one thing they are not weed suppressing. For another the frayed edges can quickly make their way through the gravel and be unsightly and a nuisance.  But I think I needed some lining, mainly to stop the gravel being mashed into the earth.  So I laid a path way of lining in each area – a long and painstaking process as this is a series of odd shapes.  And each piece was turned under at all the raw edges, by hand, and then the whole of each piece was secured, including the folded edges, with home-made metal ‘staples’ which I hammered in all around.

Allotment weed membrane 1

The lining does not always reach right to the edge of the beds, but it is down in every area where I will have to walk.

I then ordered 2 tones of gravel.  Which I then delayed three times as it was first too cold, then too wet and then too snowy to work outside.  When I finally got the first 2 tons schlepped, I was still 2 tons short, so I ordered some more – and it snowed again.  Eventually, this Monday and with snow still lying about, I got the last of it down.  All that remains here is for me to fill each bed with soil and compost.  Most of the soil is being dug and barrowed from the other side of the drive.  This is also part of the work to complete the last phase of the project.  At the moment I have the two biggest beds full, and two more almost there. full

I will also need to rig netting on each raised bed to deter cats and birds.

I am very pleased with it so far.  I know it is not beautiful, but it is a highly practical space now, with twelve raised beds.  I have four more on the allotment, and three more here, so the next phase is well in hand.

Allotment lawn area part gravelled

It has been a much bigger, longer and harder task that I thought.  But this is always the way, or it is for me.

I have not even been to the allotment other than to look at the snow for about three weeks, but I will be down soon to plant out broad bean seedlings and have a tidy up.  Then, the cage will be dismantled and brought home.  I will also dig up and pot on some raspberry root-shoots and bring them home.  Finally, the raised beds there and the tyres will be emptied and brought home.

The space you see here is about 1/2 of a full allotment plot, I think but longer and thinner; and of course I have sacrificed space by having only raised beds.  But I think these are far more productive than open ground growing for everything except fruit canes, and beans.  When I have completed phase two and re-configured the old original veg plot, I will have c 1.5 of a full allotment. Perfect.

The light is good in this area, even for March.  This plot will not have the almost uninterrupted full sun that much of my allotment has; but in very hot spells that has been a mixed blessing really.  Here, the beds at the far end will get early and mid-late morning sun; and the rest will have sunlight or at least good light later in the day.  I think it will be fine.  It will also be much more sheltered and far more peaceful.  I am looking forward to planting it all up and having it literally on my doorstep.

 

Allotment at Home

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

As I get into year 3 on my allotment, I have made a decision.  I think.  You must be relieved.  Maybe (I am not promising) I will now stop mythering.

The allotment is going to move to home. The main reason I wanted an allotment was because my own little veggie garden here is in 50% deep shade from c May – October from a very large neighbouring ash tree.  This is now called Area 1. The parts that are not so affected are sometimes in shade from the house next door – the charming Whitlow – and the lightest, best parts are full of soft fruits.

Also, Florence and Will wanted a share in the allotment, but of course they instantly bought a house with a gigantic garden.  So why do I want it now?  As you know, loyal reader, I have mused long over this.  I have now almost decided that I don’t like the allotment as much as I did.  There are a number of reasons for this, most of which I cannot influence.  But my original veg garden is too small and dark.  So if I want to carry on vegetable growing on a largish scale, which I do, I must either grit my teeth and stick with the allotment, or find an alternative at home.

In other parts of this garden, the bits you never see if you come to a workshop, I have the veggie garden mentioned above, and two other potential areas for veg growing.  One of these is a long and quite narrow stretch of fairly poor quality lawn and borders right outside the back door.  This was, until a few years ago, in deep shade from two huge trees which I had to have removed due to their dangerous proximity to the house.  In the intervening years this area has recovered and with some further tree removal, I think this could be a good candidate for vegetable growing Area 2.

There is also a further bit of land, bigger than the lawn, with a large open wood store at the end.  It is partly paved, partly border – empty border, as I had a big hedge grubbed out 18 months ago.  This, with the removal of the slabs and the rocks, and some levelling work could be the area where the frankly pathetically useless brassica cage would go.  This area would be a good candidate for vegetable growing Area 3.

If I add all this up, it is at least as big as an allotment.  But of course, some of it is less favoured than my allotment mainly due to the shade.  If I then change the way I grow vegetables I think I can be at least as productive but with less effort.  I have learned a lot about allotmenting these past 3 years.  Such as how to grow new vegetables, how to work with barrier and other organic deterrents to have 100% organic veg (with sometimes limited success but anyway…).  And I have learned that growing veg in raised beds is an utter joy.  I only have 4 plus some tyre beds – new for this year – but this is my most successful and most enjoyable growing, really.  Yes, the squash and the courgettes and beans have thrived in open ground.  But all root crops, salad, peas, edible flowers and garlic do very much better in raised beds.  The crops that do well in the open will also do even better, I imagine, in raised beds.

So, the allotment project will continue but in 2018, it will gradually move here and 80% of it will be devoted to raised beds, with gravel paths round each one.  Even in the cage, it will be a raised bed garden.  Raised beds do not need digging, ever.  They are easy to clear, provide protection against some flying and most soil-dwelling pests. They are easy to net, and are a bit warmer than open ground all year round.  The downsides are:  you get a bit of lost space and they need watering in dry spells.  This latter is not a problem if it is at home, but it was, a bit, at the allotment.

The preparation work started at home this weekend.  We cleared Area 3 of a ton of rocks, some old path lining, the gravel and a bit of other stuff.  This was back-breaking but not as bad as digging was 3 years ago.  Next, I will take down the cage at the allotment and reconstruct it here. It will need to be smaller but it is modular.  Then we will build the prototype beds – 2 to start with and perfect this skill for as little outlay of money and effort as possible.  Then we will make the maximum number we can fit into the cage and lay slabs (recovered from the ground of Area 3) and gravel as paths.  This has to be first as I plant into the cage from May onward and still harvest into February – but after October it won’t be my allotment any more.

Step 2:  lift the turf on Area 2.  Level and populate with more beds, and gravel paths.  Step 3:  as the raised beds and tyre beds at the allotment become empty from mid-summer, deconstruct, bag the earth and bring it all back to plant seeds for late summer and autumn crops here.  Step 4:  take raspberry root cuttings at the allotment and plant them here – they are great.  Step 5:  prepare the original Area 1 for crops that really need an open position such as broad beans.  Step 6:  transplant all herbs from Area 1 to Area 2, in raised beds.  This will liberate more space in Area 1, too. I love planning, don’t you?

Here are some pics.  These show Areas 1 – 3, and also the work in progress and to date on Area 3, which began this weekend.

If I don’t like it or am too sad about the allotment, I can still keep it!  But you know, it’s just not the same there.  It is no longer a haven.  So I do not think that will happen.  It’s not as much fun, or as calming and enjoyable. I don’t enjoy going as I did before – and that is partly influenced by factors that I cannot see changing.

Onward.  I can put all my energy into Project Allotment At Home.  I don’t think I would ever have had the confidence or the planning ability – or even the very idea – to do this (if it works) if I had not had my allotment.  So as with most things in life, they lead you to things that you didn’t foresee – but they too, are good. Veg on!

Allotmenting Continues

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017

I have renewed the allotment for another year.  It seems silly to be hasty, especially as I have really got it under control now (except for the twatting white fly in the brassica cage – it is no longer a draw; they win).

No progress has been made on the ‘allotment at home’ project, though I look at the space a lot and think about it.  However, several other allotment holders have chucked it up this year, including my immediate neighbour and his immediate neighbour. One chap (or family) has now taken on both of these and jolly lucky they are too, to get two such good-condition plots side-by-side with almost no need to weed-control from the get-go.  One of these plots did in fact change hands last year but they only lasted one season.  I think often people just do not realise what a lot of work it will be, and the level of commitment needed, especially if like me, the first few months have to be spent entirely on weed removal and hand-digging. If I had known, I definitely would not have taken it on – which is not to say I am sorry because I do love my plot now.  But it’s a slave driver; and somehow, it feels ‘different’ this year, less peaceful, less calm and friendly.  So I sense that I am edging slowly closer to being able to part from it with no regrets, maybe even with relief – if and when that time comes.

Meanwhile, I am growing prosaic brassica (though see note above ref twatting white fly), spinach, beans, garlic and shallots.  The plot is still producing food.  Mainly perpetual spinach and kale.  The kale is on its last hurrah but as we’ve been harvesting this for about 6 months now, I think that is pretty good going.

The spinach – not the same at all as the small-leaved spinach that you can buy in bags at the supermarket – is a muscular plant, more closely aligned I am sure to chard than the bought-spinach.  It has stems like chard, which I cook first in a small lake of butter, garlic, mustard seeds, salt and pepper.  Once this is tender, I add the shredded leaves.  These do not wilt into a tiny ball of green sludge as small spinach is liable to do; it stays reasonably in shape.  I love it.  Mark really dislikes it and furtively pushes it about and usually leaves half of his portion.  We have arrived at a compromise:  once he takes over the growing/cooking duties, he gets to choose the vegetables. Thus, I anticipate that we will be eating spinach for a while yet.

My favourites are the red cabbage and this perpetual spinach;

I sowed this spinach in March, direct where it is to grow and although I only got c50% success, this is more than ample for one household for months.  I think it will slowly succumb to the cold now so in March I will sow more.  We were cropping it by May this year.

2017 was the best year ever for runner and French beans.  We ate them until we were unable to look one in the face, and then we froze them.  So I can vary the spinach/kale based diet with runners and Frenchies every week.

The raspberries were also fantastic.  They are all autumn varieties.  I rescued three plants from the weed jungle two years ago, and they thrive; plus I was given a lot of bare-rooted pull-ups in the hot summer of 2016.  I assumed they would be summer raspberries, but they also are autumn.  This is ideal as all summer, from early July to early September, we have loganberries, gooseberries and blackberries in the garden here.  So by September, when they are all over, in come the raspberries.  These are my favourite soft fruit.

The strawberries, also rescued from the weed-cluster years, and then lovingly grown on as runners by me, have been rotivated into the earth.  I never met such a sulky, ungrateful and lazy bunch of plants. But then, that’s strawberries for you, isn’t it?  I reckon I got a mean half-dozen unappetising little sods off them.  Pointless.  They are no more.

2017 was not so good as 2016 for courgettes, but it was still very good.  However, it was great for squashes of all sorts, some of which we are still eating as they store very well just in the open fresh air on a bench by the door.  They are delicious and so pretty.

I have now got four raised beds.  These will be supplemented in 2018 by the tyres I scrounged to grow potatoes.  Remember the great potato sadness of 2016/17?  I give up, Asda has lovely ones and that’s fine.  But the tyres, stacked in twos or threes, make ideal small raised beds. So I am going to allocate a courgette or squash to each of my tyre-beds – there are four, directly by the big raised beds.

So I am now beginning my third year as an allotmenter.  Who’d have thought it?  I feel much more confident, and also I know what I like to grow, what succeeds, and what I like to  eat.  I no longer care what other people like.

I continue to grow 100% organically.  It does really get on my nerves, when twatting white fly gets my brussels but if the alternative is spraying with chemicals, it’s not worth it.  What does work is barrier control, resignation to the fact that you will probably have to ‘share’ some of the crops with the birds and the twats, and avoiding things that you can’t protect without resorting to the nuclear option.  I really do think harsh chemicals including the old blue slug pellets should be banned from sale and use.  I have not used chemicals for years and after a couple of tough years (this is at home really, at first), the eco-system of the garden has adjusted, I have stopped growing slug salad-bars and I get very little trouble.  In fact (and I am really not, except once, a tree-hugger) I gently remove snails from my way and relocate them to the hedge row.  I don’t kill them, for they are a blackbird’s breakfast!  And if I poison them, the birds may also suffer and die.

In 2018 I will grow two or three new things, as I have each year, and so far the list is:

  • garlic
  • broad beans
  • shallots (new)
  • spinach
  • chard
  • kale
  • red cabbage
  • courgettes (three types)
  • squash (four types)
  • French beads – dwarf and climbers
  • runner beans
  • carrots
  • pea-shoots
  • mixed salad leaves (new)
  • raspberries
  • rhubarb

In the spring, I may also begin work on the ‘allotment at home’ project.  If that goes well, I could stop the allotment in late 2018 – or run them side-by-side for a year.  Then the lease on the field where we have our allotments will be up again, and maybe it will be renewed but there is no guarantee and that is partly why I feel I need to have a Plan B.

 

Allotment Up-Date: should I stay or should I go now?

Sunday, August 13th, 2017

I am well into year two of Project Allotment. This year has been much better than last in many ways.  First, almost no digging. Second, I have learned a lot and it shows in terms of how I plan things and how well they turn out.  Third, I have just about managed to keep the brassica cage free of cabbage white fly with the use of diatomaceous earth.  This is an organic dusting powder.  It is a faff to apply it and it isn’t 100% successful but it has made a big difference.  Last year, by now, the cage was infested, but this year they are just beginning to be obvious – so I have re-applied the DE.

I have maintained an organic approach – no pellets, no poison.  I do lose a bit of stuff here and there but I think it is worth it.

There have been failures.  The potatoes were poor.  Not worth the effort.  The carrots were also poor in terms of germination.  And I planted the squash way too close together so it is very crowded.

On the other hand, the kale and cabbage are 90% better, and I have had (and am continuing to have) amazing bean crops, good courgettes and interesting and delicious new squash types.

So, it seems a bit counter-intuitive to tell you, dear reader, that I am thinking of giving the plot up.  Not in October 2017, probably, which is renewal time.  But maybe at some point in the following year.  I have not decided for definite but I have it in my mind.  There are pros and cons.  As I am powered by lists, here is my pros/cons for giving up the allotment list:

Pros:

  • I find it incredibly time hungry, as it is very labour intensive and in spring and summer I do go to the plot at least 3 times a week, often more.
  • It is not inconvenient as it is only 1/2 mile away but that is an issue when pushing a loaded wheel barrow, or riding an over-loaded bike.
  • It is basically still trying to be a pasture field and so despite the efforts of the previous plot holder before he gave up a year or so before I got it, and mine, if you turn your back for more than 3 days, the bind-weed and other invasive, pernicious weeds just move back in and bring all their mates.
  • Someone has taken some of my Japanese squash – which are big and heavy, and some of the black French beans. These are not things birds could or would take.  That was upsetting. It won’t be anyone on the allotments or our local badgers who do steal fruit and sweetcorn.  But the field is not secure at all so I guess it is inevitable, sometimes. Jo has also had fruit taken and last year someone had his brassica cage vandalised.
  • It has really set off my always lurking OCD nerve. I can’t just cut the grass, for example.  I have to cut the grass and then edge the whole plot and then pick up all the clippings and then hoe it neat – this is just the edges.  I wish I could be more relaxed but I can’t.  So, it’s a bit obsessive. Obsessions are, basically, my one weakness.
  • I am very allergic to a lot and an increasing number of things and many of these are down the allotment.  I am bitten by all the insects despite my spraying myself with jungle strength insect repellent, and I react very badly to these bites, both at the site of the sting or bite and also all over. I am allergic to soil on my bare skin, so I have to garden in gloves – but I am also allergic to most gloves so I have to line the gloves with cotton gloves, soaked in E45.  Despite this, my hands are in an awful state.  (I think I am also becoming allergic to some animal fibres but anyway…). My new allergy is to the plants themselves especially courgettes and squash leaves, raspberry leaves and runner bean leaves.  Spiders bite me whenever I go into the cage even if I wear long sleeves and trousers, and then I get blisters.  To be honest, it is just miserable to be so allergic to my allotment.  The garden can, of course, set off reactions but rarely so extreme.
  • The garden is suffering neglect.
  • I worry about it if I have to miss a few days and kind of dread the return to what I know will be a lot of hard effort.
  • I am often very tired.
  • I have learned a lot and some of this could be translated into my garden here.

Cons:

  • I actually love my allotment and I am very proud of it. I know I would miss it terribly. It is often a place of great happiness and peace for me.
  • After all that work (and this is not a response I am proud of) I can’t bear someone else to just walk onto the plot and take it on.  Is the answer to let it go to pot for a few months and then quit, I hear you murmur?  Frankly that thought is unworthy of you and I am disappointed, I shall pretend you didn’t suggest it.
  • I have invested in some equipment but mainly the cage which I think I can bring home.
  • Related, I have a plan (very provisional) to turn part of my garden here into a mini-allotment. It is at the thinking stage only but I do believe it may have merit.  There will be a lot of work associated with this initially and some cost, but still, it would be a realistic alternative.
  • We love the food I grow.  I have not thrown money at my allotment and not really bought much at all, so it really is a thrift project for me which has given us so much produce that you just can’t buy anyway.
  • I might be able to go down to a half-plot. But you see, the OCD nerve would kick in then, if the partner plot-holder left his/her plot (joined onto my MY plot) in a state.
  • I am not a sociable person in any way but I have slowly and quietly made some very nice ‘acquaintances’ down there. But on the whole it is just me there and I like that.
  • Whilst it is very hard work, it is really away from it all as there is no internet coverage and very poor phone signal. So, audio books are marvellous for allotmenting.

What do you think I ought to do? Give it up, or keep it?  You are wise, advise me.

 

The Allotment in Year 2

Friday, May 26th, 2017

I am so glad I kept the allotment on.  Year 1 – The Year Of The Great Dig – was good, but very hard.  Year 2 is proving to be far nicer.

This is day one, 18 months ago:

Allotment Day 1 1 Allotment Day 1 2

The lessons I learned from the first 12 months have stood me in good stead.  Mainly, this is about recognition and hopefully control of pests, and knowing what to plant that will probably do well and we will enjoy.  And when to plant/sow of course.  These images are from this year, about 3 weeks ago – the plants are further on now and the spaces have almost all been filled up:

allotment beans mid may 2017 Allotment cage mesh and beans allotment top - with new planter Allotment early May 2018 1

I had a lengthy and boring debate with myself and anyone who would listen about netting for the brassica cage.  Yes, you read that right.  Mere mortals can only gaze in wonder at my utterly fascinating rock and roll life style, I know.  If I am not debating super-fine mesh netting, I am probably Googling ‘ways to kills twatting pests on my allotment, only organic and preferably not too horrid, please and thanks’.

Anyway, to replace the netting that the cage kit came with would have cost upwards of £250 – maybe £300.  As Mark was heard to murmur, we could buy brussels and cabbages in That Waitrose for several years and still have change…I agree.  It contradicts all the ‘rules’ (mainly self imposed, it is true) that I have applied to being an allotmenteer.  The main rule is that it ought to be economically viable.  But the old netting is not fine, and it admits little aphids and pests, chiefly cabbage white fly.  The cage was infested with these little sods in 2016.  I didn’t know what they were so by the time I got around to trying some incredibly ineffective organic control, it was too late. I am trying to be organic.  But sometimes I do wonder if I might as well sit in the cage and chant/clash finger cymbals/light incense. It can’t be less effective than fatty acids and nematodes have been…

This year, I am combating them and any other insect pests, with my new organic weapon, Diatomaceous Earth (DE).  This is a powder, slightly coarser than talcum powder and off-white. It is ground up fossils.  River fossils to be exact.  You sprinkle this onto the plants/earth/critters and the tiny but deadly razor-like structure of the powder particles damages the exoskeletons of the insects if it touches them. Then they die.  So I think that if I see any of them, I will sprinkle them directly and as a precaution, I am lightly dusting the plants and the earth in the cage, and also the potato towers – for I am having another go at growing potatoes in tyre-towers, despite the miserable failure in 2016. I think that if I break the cycle of the cabbage white fly, I may prevail.

DE is organic and harmless to humans though you are advised not to inhale it or get in in your eyes.  If it rains, you have to re-apply it, and if there is any on your crops when you harvest them, you just give them a good wash.  But you have to beware getting it into your eyes or breathing it in.  So I have to wear a surgical mask and my cycling glasses in order to apply it.  If anything could further single me out as a bit of a weirdo, it will be this. One problem is that as soon as I put on the mask thing, the glasses completely fog up so I have nudge them off my nose slightly.  I try to do it when there is no one else about…anyway, I will let you know how this goes!

Old crops from 2017 that I am repeating are:

  • Broad beans
  • Garlic (2016 fail)
  • Potatoes in towers (2016 fail)
  • Runner and French beans
  • Pea shoots
  • Carrots
  • Raspberries – absolutely thriving this year!
  • Rhubarb
  • Strawberries – to be frank I have the sulkiest, meanest strawberries I have ever seen and this is their last chance. I have taken runners from last year so these are Year 1 plants.  2018 is your cut-off year, guys, put out some of the good stuff or you’re compost.
  • Courgettes
  • Japanese squash
  • Kale*
  • Brussels*
  • Chard*

*All victims to a greater or lesser extent of the Great Twat-Off Festival of 2016.

So I have ruthlessly cut out Kohl Rabi, broccoli and purple sprouting.  All pointless.

New for 2017:

  • Giant Red Mustard leaves
  • A red curly kale called Scarlett
  • Red cabbage
  • Summer cabbage
  • Various different squash

Here is the red mustard.  It needs a lot of space, it is far bigger than a lettuce crop:

allotment red mustard

 

This is good picked small and eaten as a salad leaf – not that mustardy, less spicy than wild rocket. It is also nice wilted like spinach when the leaves are much bigger.  I cut out most of the stem and then chop the leaves into slices, and wilt it with butter and salt and garlic.  I love it.  The people for whom I have cooked this are less impressed.

Here are the early 2017 harvests of pea shoots and mustard:

allotment pea shoots and red mustard

 

 

 

 

 

Allotment Soup and Upside Down Rhubarb Fool Cheesecake

Monday, September 5th, 2016

Squah and Courgettes for soup

This soup is really yummy and I have been serving it at workshops last weekend.  Everything in it was grown on the allotment! It contains no brassica which I know some people don’t like and it has gone down very well.  Here is the recipe which made enough for 8 so you could freeze some. I serve it with bread and sometimes warm buttered toasted crumpets, pickles and several cheeses:

  • 3 or 4 squash (I used Japanese squash that are orange and quite like small pumpkins, and Patti-Pan squash which look like yellow, fat flying saucers)
  • 5 or 6 large courgettes (I used mainly yellow and two large dark green ones).  A marrow would also do nicely though you might de-seed it.
  • 3 large brown or white onions
  • 3 cloves of garlic (I made one lot with garlic and one lot without)
  • 3 teaspoons of ground ginger
  • Vegetable stock
  • 2 teaspoons of coriander seeds
  • 2 teaspoons of mustard seeds
  • Black pepper (lots) and some sea-salt flakes
  • Rape seed oil

De-seed the squash but do not peel.  Chop into smallish chunks and add larger chunks of the courgettes and the sliced onions and garlic, peeled and whole.  Pop them into a large roasting tin and douse with a good slug of good quality rape seed oil.  Add the spices, salt and pepper, mix it all up and roast it for ages.  I start mine slow and then move it up for the last hour or so.  Eventually, it will start to caramelize a bit and will all be very tender. Transfer to a huge stock pot.  Add enough veg stock to cover well and simmer for a few minutes.  Cool.  Blend. It will go velvety thick.  Too thick probably, so if you want to eat it now, add more water or stock, re-heat and serve.  If you want to freeze it, as I did, freeze it now and then once it has de-frosted and you have re-heated it, let it down a bit more then.  it looks odd at first when you de-frost it but just heat well and stir a lot, then add more water or stock to get it how thick you want it.

Another crop that has been abundant is rhubarb.  Here is upside down rhubarb fool cheesecake pots and this makes about 8 – 10 small pots:

Rhubarb fool cheesecake pots

  • Lots of rhubarb washed, trimmed and chopped
  • Some fresh grated ginger
  • 6 slightly crushed whole cardamon pods
  • Caster sugar to taste
  • A large pot of double cream (and optional, I am doing this next time, substutute half the cream for a full pack of cream cheese)
  • About 4 oz of butter
  • About half a pack of digestive biscuits

Put the rhubarb, sugar, ginger and cardamon in a shallow roasting tin and roast for as long as it takes for the fruit to be very soft and deepening in colour.  It should still be quite syrupy.  Fish out the pods and squeeze the black cardamon seeds back into the mixture, chuck away the skins.  Mash or blend it – I mash so it is still textured.  Cool and chill.  Whip the cream to a soft peak consistency.  Add about 2/3rds of the chilled rhubarb mix and stir it all in well.  Crush the biscuits to a coarse powder and add the melted butter.  Mix well.  Cool and chill.  Spoon the rhubarb/cream mix into your pots and on top of each add a generous dollop of the rhubarb compote that has no cream in it.  These can now be covered tight and chilled and will keep fine for 24 – 48 hours.   The biscuit mix can be put in a food bag, air pushed out, sealed and chilled for up to 24 – 48 hours too. When you want to serve them, make sure the biscuit mix is back to room temp and sprinkle a generous layer on the top of the rhubarb.  To make it even more cheesecake-ish next time I am going to blend the rhubarb compote with half cream, half cream cheese.  I will let you know how that goes.

 

 

The Allotment Goes Berserk!

Friday, August 12th, 2016

So it’s August and project Allotment is in month ten.  For ages it was just digging. Then it was just sowing and waiting.  Then a few bits of pieces of cropping excitement – mainly rhubarb which I now actually hate, broad beans, rather poor garlic.  Then the pace picked up and we started picking chard.  No-one likes chard in my family and hardly anyone at the allotment field grows it, but I cannot give it away because it really does taste like soil.

Then pea-shoots began and the spare greens off the brassica, and then kohl rabi, broccoli, courgettes, French and runner beans and squash!  It’s all come at once really.  So there are lots of beans in the freezer and I have an extensive recipe collection for courgettes.

This for example, was a recent harvest that I picked for Florence and Will:

There are amazing Japanese squash which sends out long tendrils and would have been perfect for a climbing frame had I made one.  I will do next year, if I still have the plot.  Yellow courgettes are far prettier, more vigorous and less watery than green ones and look really lovely in dishes – they also keep their shape better.

Two crops that have gone well are the French beans and the runner beans but with the latter, I think I did two things wrong.  The site is exposed especially the top and this is where they are.  It is far too windy and dry for them.  I guess I had banked on it raining and it has hardly rained for weeks now.  This site (the Burial Mound as was, or Newt Corner) is the furthest away from any source of water so getting them hydrated was an impossible mission.  Also, I put them in too soon.  This is a mistake I have made all along with several crops, beginning with the broad beans back on late November 2015.  I set the runners off in my greenhouse and they thrived; it was mild so they were fully hardy by April and they went in in early May.  It was fine for a bit as it wasn’t hot and dry but late June saw the start of a pretty much uninterrupted spell of very hot, windy weather and they bolted.  They set beans and went full on for maturity as they were stressed, they aborted beans and blossom and all in all, while I have had many beans, they have gone ‘stringy’ in late July and will be down by the end of August.  I have never taken beans down before early October before.  See, here is a recent harvest, clearly already going over:

The cage has been mixed.  The netting does keep out cabbage whites and large butterflies but it is not fine enough to keep out tiny moth/flying critters (or maybe they were dormant in the soil, I do not know).  These have eaten some of the leaves – not enough to strip and kill a plant as a cabbage white crop of caterpillars would, but enough to be a nuisance and a pest.  I planted it a bit too densely and made an error in sowing and planting out so many chard which no-one – literally no-one or anything, not even pests – like to eat. If I grew it again, which I probably won’t, I’d not bother clogging up the cage with it.  I defy cabbage whites to decimate it, despite it being classed as a brassica.  It is fact just coloured soil. So much chard (and also in the front, red cabbage):

Jo next door gave me 12 black French bean seeds, dwarf variety.  I germinated them and got 8 plants.  They are now cropping.  Gorgeous to look at:

Easy too, and although they lose the colour when cooked even if you saute them, they taste delicious.

One of the best crops, if not ‘show garden perfect’ has been the carrots.  Home grown carrots taste delicious, much more, um, carroty!

Here is a beautiful squash flower:

And here is the squash climbing up the side of the cage netting!

last month I sowed a final lot of French beans and 2 weeks ago I popped them in to the plot.  I don’t know if it will work but I am hoping to get a late summer/early autumn crop from them:

That is Rowan Pure Wool 4 Ply they are tied in with, by the way.  The plastic is the protection and watering system recommended to me by Jo.  The stems are so slender, these can stay in situ until I take them down in the late autumn.

Here is one of the beautiful and tasty Japanese squash:

It has been a very interesting experiment, the allotment. I have always gardened but allotment gardening is different from ‘normal’ gardening.  Also, despite always eating lots of vegetables, we now eat far more veg than any other food group!  All main meals are planned around the vegetables I am picking on the allotment.  So typically I will cook say, lentil dahl, and add finely diced carrot, courgettes and shredded beans, and then stir in some chard leaves (like spinach and the strong taste of the dahl disguises the soil flavour.  Or I will roast chunks of squash, saute some courgettes, steam some beans and serve it with salmon or chicken, really plain.  This has been the best part of the whole experience.  Picking can take ages and I sometimes cannot bring it back in one go unless I walk there and back with the wheelbarrow!

Would I do it again?  I vacillate.  Sometimes I think yes, definitely (usually when I am eating a butter-laden bean) and other times I would say not.  The thing is, having fought and worked so hard on it, I now feel obliged to keep it. Florence and Will have now ‘officially’ bowed out of the project, with my blessing as they have so much to do at home, but I know they’d help me if I was desperate and Mark often helps.  So, let’s see what the autumn and early winter feel like in terms of hours and commitment.  Then I will decide.

Produce on the Allotment

Saturday, July 2nd, 2016

I feel better about the allotment.  Mainly.  But I know now that I can never go away between March and November, ever again.

The allotment is beginning to be very productive.  I have an adequate supply of courgettes which I adore:

The yellow variety is also very vigorous and taking over, as is this squash:

Courgettes and squash are close relatives and they have a similar habit but this squash is now all over the raspberries and the carrots. It is a thug.  I think you crop these once the fruits are about the size of a grapefruit – this one is about the size of a golf ball now.  It has dozens of fruits.  Can’t wait as I love squash.  My allotment neighbour, Jo, gave me two of her patti-pan squash plants and they are also thriving with tiny space-ship shaped fruits already.  They are in stiff competition with the courgettes but I think they will be OK.

The runner beans are loving the burial mound and we have picked a very few already:

And the French beans are doing well too down at the other end of the plot.  I think I will sew some more French beans as I have some left and some space.  Jo also gave me 12 dwarf French bean seeds, that grow black bean pods.  These lose their colour when you cook them, so I’m going to stir fry mine and see if they will stay black.  I got 8 to germinate and they are all in now, doing well.

I have now picked all the kohl rabi:

This alien look-alike is very much like turnip, but less turnip-y.  I stir fry it in little slices.  We grew a lot but it all goes, obviously, so I think I will grow more next year.  I harvested the last of it today to make way for the red cabbage:

This is in the brassica cage.  They were not grown from seed, this lot were £2 for 18 seedlings in the garden centre so I grabbed them.  Also in the cage the kale is pathetic but the other stuff is great.  The first broccoli is forming:

And sometimes I slice off spare leaves and bring them home to stir-fry or braise. If you cut out the tough stem it’s lovely.  Jo told me (I ask Jo All Of The Questions, as you probably guess) that if a brassica leaf is resting on the netting, a cabbage white butterfly will sometimes stick its arse through the net holes and lay eggs on the leaf!  Eugh.  Jo didn’t say arse, she said oviduct, which isn’t an arse at all, it’s the bit where the eggs squirt from. Amazing.  So anyway, I carefully cut away any leaf that is touching the net and take it home, to eat.  After first microscopically inspecting it for signs of oviduct activity, obvs.

Jo also says that once I have cut off the broccoli, it will make some more so not to pull the plant up.  The purple sprouting and the brussels look really good too.

This was about 3 weeks ago; it’s all much taller now.

The chard is rampant.  I have acquired a taste for it, as long as I don’t have too much leaf.  I add butter – a lot of butter, cumin seeds, onion salt, a little garlic, tumeric and pepper.  We have yellow, white, red and pink.  Very pretty.

No-one wants any though, I cannot give the stuff away. Also, it can’t be stored except in water – it goes all floppy, so you have to pick it and rush home.  I now usually cycle to and fro.  Mark has fixed up my old mountain bike and added a basket.

Rhubarb wine has happened:

Will made it and it was very nice, also very pretty.

I also planted celery, cheap sale seedlings from the garden centre again.  We didn’t enjoy the celery we ‘saved’ and grew from last winter, so why grow some more?  Because I was in the garden centre after caving, tried, dirty and in a hurry.  Without glasses.  I thought it was celeriac.  I now have some celeriac too.  And leeks and onions all reduced, most of which I have not got around to planting yet.

A lot of wonky carrot have been harvested, with more to go.  But despite being sown in fine soil in seed beds, they are so bent!  Still they taste fine.

One lovely thing was that Colin who has a gold-medal style allotment and a lovely dog called  Monty – who doesn’t bark or even need a lead, he is so good, unlike my hysterical boys who swear and yell at everyone if I take them down there – lent us his GIANT rotivator.  The top of the plot was bone dry clay after the broad beans came out with cracks big enough for me to put my hand in.  There is no way I, or even Mark or Will could dig it, not even enough to plant something else.  We all tried and some of us cried frustrated tears of rage as I recalled The Great Winter Dig of 2015/16 when we first took it on.  But lo!  a rotivator is the answer – look at this, after being rotivated, by Mark, the machine is enormous and heavy and frankly terrifying, it looks like a monster eating soil.

But today I went down and worked for 4 hours, because I have been away for 2 days.  And I did almost the exact same things today as I did last week. I do go at least 3 times a week, often more now we are able to pick things, but it is an absolute tyrant.  I know I could care less about the grass and the edges and the weeds. If I was a different person that is.  So I must treasure the produce and also the place we have been lucky enough to make and be allowed to garden.  Last week, one evening I came home with this lot. Pea-shoots, chard and carrots:

All meals are planned round what we pick.  It IS worth it.  Mostly.

 

Allotment Blues

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

It’s all ups and downs at the allotment.  Is this normal?  I don’t know.  I am a gardener, not an allotmenter.  There is a big difference.  Show me a shrub or a leaf, a bulb or a flower – and I can almost certainly identify it.  And I have grown vegetables and fruit for many years – on a tiny scale.  But I don’t know a squash from a courgette until it’s in the frying pan, and the range of insects and pests that an allotment can generate is industrial.

Before I start moaning, which I am going to, some pretty images from last week:

And:

So, downs.  First, the potatoes have died in their towers.  Cause:  ants.  Huge colonies of dark brown or black ants had secretly and unseen, invaded the lower regions and in making their soil-cities, totally undermined the potatoes.  The tops just suddenly died.  We have dismantled two infested towers – the lovely pink ones – and await the imminent demise of the two others – ant activity is obvious.  I am just so sad about this. There was nothing but mush left.

Second, the brassica cage is preventing large butterflies such as cabbage whites from getting in.  But the mesh is not fine enough to stop smaller flying predators, notably tiny white moths (I think) and small flying beetles about 4mm long.  A few eggs have been laid so I have been frantically inspecting the cage every day.  This strategy is not sustainable. I think the producers of this cage and net probably assume that gardeners will also spray the crops for other pests, but I don’t.

Also in the cage, ants undermined three plants (this was about a month ago so I set organic ant-baits and this worked, insomuch as no more plants died.  Yet). And though we bought and watered in nematoads which are an organic and critter-friendly anti-slug treatment, slugs have eaten and killed some kale.  So I have set down some organic slug bait now.  The cage is also hard to weed.  This last problem is entirely my own fault.

In the lower part of the plot, slugs have eaten some of my climbing French beans – again, organic slug bait is now down.  I am not hopeful.  I think I may as well do an anti-slug dance down there and place the matter in the hands of the universe; it has about the same chances of success.

Ups:  the courgettes are starting to show fruits, as are some Japanese squash that Will bought off the interweaves and I germinated and planted.

Courgette, Black Beauty:

Courgette, Summat Yellow Off The Intertrawls:

The runners look OK – but they are right beside the blighted potato towers so I am on ant-alert up there.  The broad beans are all out of the ground. We have a fair few bags stashed in the freezer too.  In the end, it was so dry and warm here, they kind of bolted in that they just went from baby-beans that were tender and delicious, to being uber-leather-jacketed-beans in the space of about four days.  The garlic is also out and it was rubbish but I have some to use and store and after all, I only used shop bought bulbs for about a quid.

The carrots in the raised bed are great, as are the pea-shoots. And the free raspberries are all, bar one, alive and sending out new growth.

We have eaten the first cut of chard.  Hmm. I think I ought to have tasted some before I planted so much of it.  It is like spinach – which I love – but with an aggressive soil after-taste.  I hear from Lily that ‘soil’ is fashionable in them fancy restaurants where they present you with a box of grass and some dry-ice.  Any ideas for cooking it in easy ways that may mitigate the tangy earthy palette?  I cooked a mix of white, ruby and orange chard, all baby stems which I kind of steamed/fried with a little butter and then when that was tender I  added the shredded leaves to wilt.  I mean, it worked; it was edible.  Just not very nice.

The wet June a lot of places have had, has not happened here.  The communal water tanks, pumped from the pond, are dry and our own water butt is half empty.  It seems that it is ‘usual’ for folks to take from the communal tanks routinely and use the plot tank only when really needed, but we didn’t realise that.  Plus, it is a fair walk with buckets and cans to the pond area and I frankly do not have the time to schlep water in some soft-focus idyllic version of real allotment life, in which the truth is you need military standard anti-mosquito spray and clothing to go within five meters of the pond and the lush, bug-infested grass around the water tanks.  I sustained EIGHT bites a fortnight ago and lost the thick end of two nights’ sleep as a result.

Beneath this lot, there is a pond:

And there were a bazillion of these, this one was captured by Mark:

So…in month eight of Project Allotment, here’s what I think.  It has been incredibly hard work and to a great extent this has paid off.  It looks OK, it is all dug and we have had some produce with the potential for more.  I love the place it is in and, when I am not under pressure, I love the being there part.  I have learned a lot too.  However, I just do not have time to do this properly.  The reality of ‘sharing’ a huge project like this is that it needs someone to be there, if only for an hour or two, at least four times a week.  I am the only partner with a ‘flexible’ timetable, so this is almost always me. I expected it to be 60% me, and 40% the other three.  This is not the case – and it’s not a ‘fault’, it’s just a fact.  I find myself worrying in a low-level way about it more than I think happy up-lifting thoughts too.  If I went away for two weeks, even if the others were here, I know it’d be a nightmare when I got back because they just can’t spend the time there that it seems to need.  And at least half the work feels ‘remedial’ – weeding, pest-control, grass cutting, water schlepping.

I think I may be edging towards handing in our notice in October. Meantime, I will keep it clean, tidy and weed free, and get from it what I can.  But this model is not sustainable.

 

 

Finally, Produce From The Allotment (that is not rhubarb)

Sunday, June 5th, 2016

In month seven of Project Allotment, it’s all going rather well.  We have been able to harvest our first non-rhubarb crops:  broad beans and pea shoots:

We did not grow the wine.

The broad beans are really delicious, and as we are picking them small and young all they need is a quick saute with seasoning, butter and garlic.  We also had some with crispy bacon cubes sizzled first.  I will definitely grow these again, but I will do some things differently.  First, I will sow them a bit later in the winter – December, not November.  Then I will plant them much closer together, as most folks on the allotment do.  And I will add a sort of rope and stake support framework as they really suffered in the big storms we had from January to March.  And I might add a second sowing of a later variety that goes in in February, and crops in the mid-summer.  If I make the sowing closer, I reckon I can double the output over a longer period.

The pea shoots were an experiment in a raised bed. I just found an old packet of dried peas in the cupboard and popped a lot of them in – 98% germination and they LOVE it!

Beans in the background.  These are now over half way up the poles.  The pea-shoots are so tasty; the idea is to pick the tips continuously so they do not make pea-pods.  This salad crop is eleventy pounds a bag in that London or Waitrose.  This is free!  I am very chuffed.

In other news, the brassica cage and I have been spending a lot of time together and I really wish I had a door rather than a complex system of veils and hooks plus bricks.  But, the bastard cabbage whites are thronging elsewhere so my little plants are safe, at least.

Here are the little plants in situ (note: still had to put in 2 rows of orange chard, this shot was about 3 weeks ago):

And this is now:

A lady in our village was giving away raspberry plants the other week – she had loads that were taking over her garden so she was just pulling up canes with roots and she kindly gave me about 20 canes.  I have put them in, and they do look a bit sorry for themselves but in the winter I rescued 3 canes/plants from the weed infested top border at the allotment and re-planted them; even though they looked as if they had died at first, they are thriving now. So I am hopeful that these will ‘take’.

The courgettes are all in and they are just beginning to show tiny courgettes, some of which are yellow!

It said on the packet they would be yellow!

Also, did you know that the roots of ruby chard, are PINK:

It’s hard to see, but they are very softly pink, really pretty.

The potato towers are now 4 tyres high and now it is time to let the potatoes grow above the soil level.  The pink ones will be ready in about 4 – 6 weeks I think.

The carrots in the seed beds have gone very well and should be ready to start eating the ‘thinnings’ in a week or so; the ones in the ground went less well but I am still hopeful that we will get some decent ones.

And the nuclear rhubarb is STILL growing.  Here it is after being picked again, with the fork in shot for scale:

Rhubarb is now included to take home, free of charge, after all my workshops and I will be making rhubarb fool pots every time, sorry. I have also got a new recipe for rhubarb cream cookies and a rhubarb cinnamon cake recipe to try.  If you don’t like rhubarb…well, I guess you could have an apple?

When I got the plot, officially that was 1 November 2015, the man who had it before kindly gave me the shed and water butt.  I said then that I’d bring some produce up for him and I wrote down his address.  Well last night I was able to deliver the first batch:  rhubarb (which I am going to assume he absolutely adores, as the patch he grew is the most productive of all on the field); and a large bundle of broad beans.  I left them on the step.  I hope they are not on holiday…

It’s not all gone brilliantly.  The garlic is frankly poor and way behind where it ought to be.  I think it may not like the heavy and now bone-dry rock-hard earth. But anyway, it’s not good.  And the strawberries which were all rescued from the choking weeds are also very poor, probably they are just old.  I am not a big fan of them anyway, so I might plant some youngsters from runners or I might not bother at all and use this ground for something else.

I also have a few flowers that I either took myself from here or rescued:

Here is a shot of most of the plot:

What a difference this last few months have made.  I feel very at home there.  To be honest, about a month ago, I did get very overwhelmed by it all – this allotment plus a garden here plus 2 jobs etc – and I thought I’d let it go come the autumn.  But Mark has helped a lot and last weekend they kids went down for a half-day on their own and I had a long break from it.  But usually I am happy to wander down and on average I guess I spend 2 hours at a time – so sometimes it’s more like 4 or 5, but others it’s just a quick watering session.  There is no shade, and I think I will need to have some sort of shelter, even if it’s just an old sun-shade umbrella as it has been very hot and very dry.  No real rain for a lot of weeks now.  There are cracks in the earth that I can fit my hand into, and I can’t dig it!

The whole field looks amazing at the moment.  Some of the plots are like show-gardens and I love looking at them all.  Everyone does things slightly differently and I have learned a lot.  For example, the lady next door gave me two little squash plants she had grown, Patty Pan Squash.  She also lent me two tubes of plastic to ‘shelter’ them in – cut from a squash bottle or similar.  You just nestle it round the small plant and this not only lends some shelter, and protection from slugs, it also make it easy to water direct into the space.  So we have saved all ours (Will and I drink litres of cheap fizzy water every week) and I chopped them up to snuggle young brassica plants into.  After a few weeks you can just lift them off.  Clever.

The pond at the bottom is just lovely with so many wild and marginal plants now many feet tall.  And the frog population is vast – the grass round the pond and the water butts is alive with tiny frog-lettes.  Mark caught one long enough for me to take this:

‘Allotment v Woman’ (so far, it’s a draw)

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

The allotment is swinging into full-on summer mode.  In the greenhouse, which is here and not on the allotment, I have many veg seedlings nurdling their way through to becoming food.  Chard, sprouts, kale, beans, chillis, courgettes and squash are all doing well, and this weekend will see a start on the pricking out that will take a while.

On the plot, I have baby broad beans:

And the potatoes are continuing to sprout – though not the white ones which went in later than the pink ones (note scientific use of the correct variety names.  You’re welcome).  So I have removed the top tyre from the white towers, in order to admit more light as they seem to be struggling to get going.  Here’s a pink one, fighting its way back out:

In the seed beds, I have grass-like carrot seedlings, which I must now thin out:

I thought these had failed, or been washed away in the heavy rain storms we had just after I sowed them, but they have done very well, so far. Spurred on by this and also cos I had a half-pack of seeds left over, I have sowed a further bed with carrots.  I also sowed, very densely, peas.  I don’t want peas, or mange-tout, but I do want pea-shoots, the leafy salad crop that is the tender green leaves and stems on peas.  This, my friends, sells for its own weight in GOLD in them fancy shops, such as that Waitrose (where I never go, for fear of becoming convinced that every-day essential items include, for example, yak-breath cheese or truffle infused custard, and then buying the yak-breath cheese and coming home with it, only to instantly wonder what the HELL I WAS THINKING).  Anyway, I digress as ever. Pea-shoots.  Yes, they taste of peas, but not very, and they are delicious.  About five years ago I sowed a bag of dried kitchen peas in a border here to see if I could replicate the pea-shoot salad thing that was causing mayhem in M&S food halls all over London and Cornwall.  I could!  It worked, so well in fact that we went on to have actual peas, as we could not eat all the pea-shoots in time!

I have sowed half  an old bag of dried peas, so we will see.  I sowed them thick, only centimeters apart as I do not care if they are crowded and in any case I can thin them.

I also sowed two rows of carrots in the ground of the plot, so I could compare results. These have germinated but less well.  There are extended patches in each line with no seedlings, so I think the rain did for these.  Or maybe the seeds blew out of my hands as I often decide to sow very fine dust-like seeds in the teeth of a gale force wind, being basically a Chelsea Gold Medal winning veg grower, as I am.  Also, these lines in the main plot are infested with weed-seeds as is the entire plot, but especially the middle third section.

A lovely crop of fresh dock leaves in amidst the beans:

This is a source of deep irritation to me.  For one thing, I hate hoeing.  It’s something I rarely do at home.  I have the weeds pretty much under control, and in any case, I like the free things you get if you hoe infrequently, such as foxgloves, alliums and even tomato seedlings from the home-made compost.  But on the allotment, the seeds are epic.  The first thing I did, back at the end of October 2015, was to dead-head the weeds.  Some of these beasts were several feet high, interlaced with old cabbages and unidentifiable vegetables that had all gone to seed as well.  I knew I had no  chance of digging these up and disposing of them before they all set even more seeds, so I chopped them down to about six inches above ground level, carted the seed-bearing vegetation away, and then set to with The Big Dig.

Clearly, they had already had a field day though and now, even if I turn my back for three days, they all just come back up.  The chief culprits are docks, dandelions and I think, plantains.  It is very testing, each time I go there, to have to hoe these up before I can do anything else.  Still, allotment life seems destined to be a journey of peaks and troughs and I am sure it is good for my soul, if not my back.  But the carrot lines need hand-weeding and this is a whole new level of joy.

Carrots or weed-seeds?

At home I have gooseberries and I layered some lower branches in the late autumn.  This has made me three new plants and I dug them up and moved them to the allotment this week:

We were going to make a large brassica cage and we priced it up.  But two reasons have made me change my mind.  1)  I am not very good at DIY and so I quail at the prospect – and it is very expensive; a ready-to-assemble kit, while not bespoke or as roomy, is cheaper.  And 2)  if I give the allotment up, I will find it far less easy to de-construct a complex beam and met-post structure, much less be able to use it at home.  But with a kit, I can more readily see me being able to get it down and re-use it.  Now that is not to say I am going to give it up.  Far from it.  But, I am realistic enough to know that I can’t do this as a solo project.  Mark has dug a lot for me, and the kids who are really my allotment partners, do come down as and when they can – but they can’t, with the best will in the world, do much more than they now do.  So I have decided to give it a full year, and in this year, now almost half over, to give it my very best shot and what time I can reasonably afford around my work and home demands.  If, after this year, I am still loving it (mainly) and I have reaped rewards of food and well-being, I will carry on.  If not, I will keep it tidy and weed-free and then hand it on.

This week, Lily came down with me and completed the shed painting which I really appreciated:

And finally, a gratuitous goat-arse shot. Meet my friend, Manny:

The Allotment Project (AKA Oh My God! It’s Rhubarb Madness)

Monday, April 18th, 2016

When I first got the allotment, one lady told me that she had to take over-supply of produce (beans, I think) home in a wheelbarrow.  Yesterday, I had to take some rhubarb home in my wheelbarrow.

This patch of rhubarb is just incredible.  It has never died off totally over winter, which my rhubarb at home does.  I had to cull a lot of it in November as it had completely overgrown the shared pathway nearby.  And about three weeks ago, I thinned it by 1/3rd, composting all the old, woody stems, and still having about 14 lbs of fresh, tender pink stems left, most of which I gave away at the Knitting Club Afternoon Tea that week.

So we thinned it again yesterday, removing about 1/3rd again, as it had easily replaced all that I picked before, plus a lot more growth.  It stands at almost hip-height to me and is thickly dense with the finest, slim and pink stems, topped with lush, exotically huge shading leaves.  It is, effectively, forcing itself in this thicket.  I note that it is eleventy-pounds sterling for a half kilo in the hallowed halls of M&S, so this patch of mine is basically a huge money-heap, except that I will be giving it away, at Knitting Club Tea events, so do come!

I walked round the allotments before I left, to stagger back home with my cwt of rhubarb.  Almost everyone has some growing, but none is the size of mine.  I can, of course, take no credit for this as I inherited this nuclear-fruit.  Still, I do have a sense of reflected pride.  I haven’t killed it.  In fact, Mark and the others voted to dig it up and compost it when we first took the plot over, but I vetoed that.

In other news, the first lot of potatoes had once again peeped through so a fresh pile of loam was heaped on their little purple leaves.  Florence murmured that it must be the most dispiriting of all vegetable-lives, that of the potato, since any progress you make into the light and the air is instantly smothered with another bucket-full of earth.  No sign of the white potatoes yet, but these were planted three weeks after the purple ones.  More tyres have been acquired but we will need, I estimate, two more.

The broad beans are doing quite well.  These are a very early variety, that can be sown from November, which is what I did.  November was very mild, as warm at times, as September can be, and they instantly grew.  And then they grew some more.  Then we had a lot of storms and some were broken, others bent.  I began to worry that I had made a mistake, especially as no other plot-holders had any broad beans in at all.  Then, about a month or six weeks ago, other plots began to sport broad beans, but they were obviously not sown from seed in situ, as they just arrived as little plants.  I assume the idea was to sow a little later, and at home perhaps and then bring them down to the allotment after the worst of the storms had passed.

Anyway, mine are bigger (at the moment) than everyone else’s and a lot less straight!  But they are smothered in flowers and bees.  Broad bean flowers have a nice, sweet scent but you do have to lie on the grass or the earth, really, to get your nose close enough.  I am hopeful of a good if not a bumper crop, that will be mighty early as planned, so I can pop in the French beans once the broad beans have gone.

In the greenhouse, I have sown brussel sprouts and chard.  Plus courgettes (three varieties:  Black Beauty – in fact, dark green, it assures me – £1 for a lot of seeds, Wilkos; plus a pale green one and a yellow one.  So far, 100% germination from the £1 Wilkos, but some hopeful signs from their exotic sisters).  The chard will be red, and also an orange variety.  What is enchanting, is that the tiny, waif-like seedlings are already red and pale orange, right from the get-go.  So clever.

and orange:

Outside, kale is germinating.  I have also sown squash seeds – two types, both of which are sulking; and chillies, again a £1 Wilkos special.  Nada at the moment.

We earthed up the celery, apparently this is necessary:

And the beans and garlic look lush:

But I think the best news is that we have a breakthrough on the Vast Digging Project.  Aside from clearing a fresh mountain of weeds and roots, it is basically all now dug, from top to bottom.

My hip and knee injuries have probably not been worth it, but there we are.  When I think back to the bright and warm day in the autumn when we took it on, and my heart really did sink, to this weekend when it looks, if bare, under control and full of potential, I can’t really believe we did all that work.  I vow never to have to dig it again in this way.  I hoe it every week, all over, as the weed seeds which had such a field day last year are very determined to regain control.  I hate this job but it beats digging hands down.

In my wander about last evening, I had a look at the lot we almost got.  I do not know the man who has this, but it looks like civil engineering to me, and I certainly could not have managed this.  I am just so glad we got the plot we did, and that we have taken it from this:

And this:

To this:

Newts! On The Allotment!

Saturday, March 5th, 2016

Great excitement last week here when, during a solo-dig in the Burial Mound at the top of the allotment, I unearthed a pair of newts:

They must have been sleeping in the earth itself, or the matting of long grass at that end – the last bit of digging to do up there.  They were very sleepy but I checked them over for signs of injury, and they were fine, so I then popped them into a depression in the dug earth and mounded it over with a covering of grass and weed-roots.  I do hope they will be alright.  It was a hard frost that night.  I have been so tempted to have another look but have left them alone.  What do you think?  Please don’t say I am a newt-killer.

I once dug up a pair of newts (do they always hibernate in pairs?) in the earth at my parents’ grave, when I was weeding and planting some new flowers.  That was nice.  Dad would of loved it.  And we found several, wide-awake newts, in the bottom of our little pond once when we emptied it to clean the lining. They were fine.  So, I think it is even more important that no-one uses slug pellets on the allotments but I expect that is a sentiment I should keep to myself. The allotments have a large pond dug out at the bottom of the field, so I guess it is likely that there will be all sorts of lovely wild-life, but we are about as far from the pond as you can get.  I did consider taking them down there, but short of hurling them over the fence into the enclosure, I couldn’t think where to leave them.  So, for now, they are re-buried where I found them and I will leave this area alone for a few weeks.  Other than this little bit, the Burial Mound is now all dug and kind of edged too. It was far easier than the rest of the plot and the loam is fabulous.  Here is sunset at Burial Mound:

The grass has continued to grow as if it was summer, and as I can’t get the heavy petrol mower down there, and if I could, I can only start the bloody thing about one time in ten, and you can’t use it on Sundays, we have bought a cheap and cheerful push-mower which now lives in the shed:

I can lift it and push it fairly easily.  It did  a great job too, look:

The second log-seat is coming on (too heavy to move more than one at a time) and the second lot of first early potatoes is chitting:

I am going to plant them with three weeks between them, as all the potatoes in a tower will have to be harvested in one go – this way we will stagger the gluts of deliciousness.

Then I did a bit more digging in the main bed.  There is literally a tiny strip of weeds left now about 3 or 4 feet at most.

I have also started to re-dig the very bottom where we first began.  I reckon I will complete the whole dig next week if it doesn’t rain or snow.  Digging the heavy earth has definitely impacted on my leg joints and energy levels.  So I only do about an hour if it is in heavy soil.  It is all heavy down here. Most of our seeds are now purchased too, and sowing will be kicking off in the greenhouse next month.

The other day I was down there as the sun was going down.  The sun was still on a good bit of the plot even at 5 pm in March.  There is no building to cast shade, so really the shade is just from the curve of the earth.  The plot is south-facing, if you are at the top, it is sloping down to the south if you like.  The sun will therefore be on the bit near the bottom last – where my log seats are.  That’s handy for summer evenings with a cold drink after a hard day’s work:

The Allotment in February

Saturday, February 20th, 2016

It’s been fairly quiet down on the allotment.  Well, actually it’s been stormy here and the allotment has been a bit bashed, but I have not been down much recently due to being the UK’s research hub for the most colds and coughs one person can have and not be a solo-global-epidemic.  Four plague attacks since October.  Just greedy.

So I have only had a few wanders down there since January and usually just to have a look, but the last week I got some actual work done.  First, I noticed that the torrential rain storms had clearly surged their way right over our plot on the way to flooding the plots at the bottom of the field.  In several places, top soil was just washed off the land onto the grass, as here on the bottom corner (the animal footprints must be fox I think):

But aside from the water pipe being blown off the side of the shed, the main problem is the broad beans.  They got off to such an amazing start with the mild and wet December, they are tall – and vulnerable.  I have re-firmed them all but I think I will be staking them next week.  Do you think they will be OK?  Some of them did die, kind of rotted off near the base, probably due to nibbling rabbits but I planted the gaps with my spares.  I do hope they will make it.

I have made no progress with the small strip of land in the middle – the last bit of the main plot to be dug – as this is where we think our arch for courgettes and squash will go, so I want that decided.  Or, we may have a large brassica cage there.  Here is another query: do you think I can grow courgettes up, as climbers, if I tie in and support them?  They have spiral tendrils, like they want to climb, but I have never seen it done and the interweaves tell me nothing useful, so I am asking you, gentle reader, because if you can’t, I don’t want to try it and look like a right prat in front of my allotment neighbours who all seem startlingly Good at Everything.

But up at the top of the plot, by the goats, I have re-dug The Burial Mound which yielded a very satisfying haul of weed roots, and begun digging the rest of it near to the where the potato towers will go.  This is not the easy work that the rest of this area was but it’s not too bad.  I need this clear so I can a) use the excess soil, of which there is a lot, to gradually fill the potato towers, and b) this is where I want the runner beans to go as I think they will love this rich, fertile soil being the greediest of crops really.

I have about 5 feet left to clear, which doesn’t sound much but it is hard work, as the grass here is thatched and compacted.

Meanwhile, we have now got some old tyres and this is where they will live; we need about 4 more.  I think a tower of 5 is about right and probably not fatal if one toppled onto me, or anyone.  Here they are:

I have bought 2 sorts of first early potatoes, a red one and a white one, whose names escape me now and anyway, it was a random choice based entirely on the images of melting butter all over the cooked potatoes which accompanied the display in Wilkos. I am a marketeer’s dream.  Also, do not ever buy your seeds in expensive garden centres, which anyway largely only seem to stock candles, cakes and slate-art.  Go to Wilkos.  I adore it there and I think you will, too. These Wilkos finest seed spuds are now chitting, in the shed:

And you know I had the trees felled here in the garden?  Well, we are transporting some of the chunky bits down to the allotment to serve as seats and nature reserves. Here are the first ones.  I sat on them today but briefly as it was rather damp:

There are signs that some of the other, more established plot holders who therefore have no need to dig in winter, are back in harness, though I never or rarely seem to coincide with them, perhaps because I rarely go over weekends.  But, I must tell you that the very overgrown plot I feared we would get has been taken! Do you remember? Yes that one – and so much work has been done there. I have seen him digging in it a few times but he must attend almost every day, he has got so much done.  But my, it is an utter mud bath my dear, an absolute swamp!  So hats off to him.  Or them.

It has been just over 4 months since we got the plot.  I still love it and the best is yet to come.

New Year on the Allotment

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

2016 will be the year of the allotment.  It’s rather awkward having a brand new obsession hobby when I barely have time for all the others, but it will have to elbow its way in.

As 2016 skids into sight, I have managed a few more allotment sessions.  I had hoped to have all the main area dug in December but something happened – oh yes, Christmas.  So I have left it with a scant 6 or 7 feet still to dig, plus a very small bit of the top border.

Before Christmas, I was suddenly and inexplicably simply exhausted.  To the point of being unable to dig for more than about 20 minutes, for example, and worse, cutting gym classes!  Maybe it was just the busy season plus there has been a lot of work.  So Mark has been helping a lot and between us we have the allotment at a state I could not of dreamed of in late October when we began.  That is barely 8 weeks ago.

Here is the main plot, showing how much is done, how little is left, and how excellent the soil is:

Also, Mark hard at work. From where the last lot of wooden planks are, I’d say Mark has dug about 80% of that to where he is in this picture.

 

In other news, the garlic is all through – a 100% germination success rate, marred only by me hoe-ing one shoot off by mistake.  I have often planted garlic in December and it always shoots within a few weeks but I have never known it to show so fast and grow so high in December before.

 

I have now been able to remove the lines of string I put out to show where I had sown the broad beans and garlic too.

At the top of the allotment, where The Great Grass Mound was, super progress has been made, largely by me as though it is messy the work here is much lighter than that in the main plot where the earth, though good, is very heavy at the moment.  To my secret relief, this coffin-shaped mound (well, maybe 3 coffins laid end-to-end) did not contain any bodies or grisly remains.  Just a bazillion roots and a massive, gorgeous cashe of loamy earth, as I had hoped.   The first dig is almost complete and next I will dig it all again for a second go at the pasture grass root systems.

The plastic compost bin will be moving; more tyres will arrive and grow new potatoes; and a new compost area will also be built at the bottom, next to the original one.  This was about 2/3 rds full of compost, but Florence and Will have transported all of this into the raised beds:

Now, one problem with the newly dug area in the main plot is that once it has been dug, weed seeds and grass roots instantly germinate, so they have to be hoed off.  But you can’t really step onto the soil.  It is very claggy at the moment, and I think it may damage its structure, plus it is just nasty and sticky so you can’t walk properly in mud-platform wellies.  So I have developed my ingenious Two Mat System (copyright, patent pending).

I knew those 2 old back door mats would come in handy.  I chuck one onto the freshly dug soil and I jump on it.  I hoe/weed as far as I can reach.  I chuck the other mat a few feet away ensuring it is in reaching distance, and I hop onto that.  When I lift mat number 1, I hoe any compacted earth that was beneath it and on I go!  This energetic device also serves to entertain and fascinate other folks who may be allotmenting, and the pygmy goats who are my constant companions in the next field.  I love jumping.  Try it!  It’s like outdoor caving.

My seed-bed area (before the raised beds) has served well for fill in beans and garlic, as it is sheltered and by the shed, with afternoon sun:

And the fill-in beans, some of which I have needed to plug gaps or replace seedlings eaten by rabbits, have come up lovely.

Yesterday, knowing Storm Frank was on its way, I sprinkled in some organic chicken poo pellets.  I swear by this stuff.  The whole Association plot is not organic, but my allotment, like my garden, will be.  I have now disturbed and re-homed at least 6 frogs and toads, moving them to cosy long grass out of the way, so I know there is lots of wild life.  I can’t bear to think of slug pellets being eaten by slugs and then by the sweet frogs, who will then also die.  If we let them live, then they will eat the slugs!  I also know some folks like to spray for weed control, and this is a choice of course – it may have eased my back had I done so.  But I would not wish to eat the food that the land then grew, so to me it is pointless.  But, each one to his or her own; at least we four all agree that organic is best, so I guess we will lose some crops, and not win any prizes for perfect-looking things, but I don’t mind – or care.

The very overgrown rhubarb plants were fiercely cut back by me about 7 weeks ago.  It has been so mild, I now have rhubarb here that is more like how it usually looks in March.

Will, Florence and I now spend many happy hours in the kitchen drawing pictures of the things we will make in the spring – the walk-in brassica cage, and most exciting of all, The Tunnel of Gourds!  I bet you can hardly wait, can you?

I also rescued 3 raspberry canes and a mass of oriental poppies, all thriving.

The War on Weeds is Being Won!

Saturday, December 12th, 2015

There is a slow but steady progression in my digging activity.  We now have only about 8 feet left to dig over on the main plot.  This clearly shows the narrowing strip now about 2/3 rds down the main bed and about 8 feet deep, of weedy ground.  The bottom bit is basically already done as we began here back in late October.

I find I can dig properly (in fact, I am forking) for about 45 minutes and then I have to do something else.  My back aches a bit, but really I have to stop because I get so tired.  Usually I then hoe some of the ground I first dug, because it was so infested with weed roots, they are not idle or dead, they just grow back from any fragment of roots that remained. Also, it was very weedy and a lot of these had seeded before I had a chance to dead-head them.  So, I hoe for 15 minutes, then I resume digging.  But even so, I can only do up to 3 hours hard work on one session.  It is exhausting actually.  It annoys me to get so tired by it.  One thing I do have is stamina – or so I thought.  I am not a sprinter, but I can do things such as steady running or road cycling for several hours if I have to.  Or want to.  This is not true of digging.  Perhaps it is the passing of years.  Oh happy thought!

I now only go to the allotment for serious digging work on days when I do not go for a run, cycle or attend a gym class.  I run and cycle a lot, and I had been running on Sunday mornings – this would be my ‘long run day’ but this is usually only 6 – 9 miles, not a marathon.  Then after a rest and some food, I might wander down the allotment in the afternoon and dig.  But this has had to stop.  It literally brought me to grinding halt.  I still run, but I dig on other days.  Not even the allotment can stop the running!

The plot where the new seed beds are is also the site I plan to use for potato tyre towers and today, we laid down the rest of the fabric we needed and some more wood chip but then ran out of chip – again.  To the left of this picture, the Giant Grass Mound.  It is about 2 feet high and runs the entire width of the allotment.

Mark cut the grass too.  Yes, it is still growing in this mild December, but today it was really windy so the glass was fairly dry.  You have to mow the grass directly around your own plot and any grass on your plot.  It looks a lot better for this haircut. But you can’t use a petrol or power mower on Sundays, and I can hardly move our petrol mower anyway, so I need a light-weight hand-push mower, really.  I notice that a lot of people have a lot of grass on their plots – they sort of created beds with grass paths.  Usually these are the plots that grow a lot of soft fruit, and they do look very attractive. But we have only one strip of grass on our plot and I am certainly not sowing any!

I then had a happy 20 minutes or so ferreting about in the giant grass mound at the top of the plot.  This is where the previous, and original, plot holder heaped up turfs etc as he dug the plot out of the meadow.  It is easy digging, very light, no clay.

 

The grass is pasture grass, rank, coarse and with extensive fibrous root systems, but quite easy to pull out once you fork it loose.  What I am finding is top quality loam.  It is like hitting a seam of gold to the allotmenter!  It will be slow but not heavy going, and I will do a strip every now and then.  And it will be so worth while.  It is going to be fertile soil too.  We need this border for runner beans and also to site a new large compost heap which we will be making soon with some pallets we have been given.

 

Allotment Life in Winter

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

Lots of activity on the allotment!  Unfortunately, 95% of this is digging.  Get an allotment which needs a 100% dig-over to remove rank weeds and call it a fitness regime.  This is how I am making it work in my head because to be quite honest, digging and then sifting for weed roots (some of which are HUGE) is not fun.  It is fun when compared with some activities though such as train travel in winter, or colour-coding your sock drawer.  I also take my audio book and headphones down when I am solo-allotmenting.  My current book is The Kraken Wakes, by John Wyndham, beautifully read by Alex Jennings. So now when I look at the earth that has been worked I think of sea-dwelling alien space craft.  Nice.

Anyhoo, we are now 2/3rds through the main dig.  There is a large, uninterrupted plot – the main dig – which is about 75% of the whole plot.  Then at the top, is a wide grass path, then a border that was the worst in terms of weed-choke, and directly behind this, a raised up mound of what I hope will be earth, but it is literally covered with lush pasture-grass.  On the flat part, we also inherited plastic composters.  Then one day Colin left a huge pile of wood to make into seed beds or compost bins and we are using the flat part of this ‘bed’ to house three of these.  We have moved the plastic composters to the bottom end of the site.

The digging progresses:

Soon I will have to bite the bullet and start digging over this rank-grass mound, not least so that we can then use the earth underneath to fill the tyre-towers we are planning to use to grow new potatoes, also on this bed, and next to the three seed beds.  If I plunge my fork into this grass bank and find it is a huge heap of rotting weeds, I will cover it over, clip it with hand shears and call it a feature.

The grass mountain when we took the plot on:

A real bonus was finding that the main compost bin – not really a bin, as it has an open front – that we inherited was literally full of really high-grade loamy compost that the previous plot-holder had made.  Will has been barrowing this up to the top and using it to partially fill our new seed beds.

Our first two, of three, seed beds:

In the meantime, we have planted all the broad beans and they are up.  But many have been fatally nibbled.  I suspect rabbits.  It is all open land about us and I think rabbit damage will be a significant threat, which it is not in my own garden.  So I think I will sow some more, later this month, into the obvious gaps.  Usually, if you plant these early beans in late November or December, it is cold enough for rabbit activity to have ceased or declined, but it has been very warm.

I have also planted four rows (six heads, broken into cloves) of garlic, which is about forty plants potentially.  I am growing broad beans because they are delicious when harvested small, expensive and difficult to buy in the shops – and you need masses.  Plus, the pods can be used to make wine!  This is the main reason for our crop choices:  rare, expensive or significantly better tasting if home-grown.  Some crops such as broad beans, are all of these.

Bean!

Garlic isn’t, really. It is cheap, widely available and not that much better, dried, as you buy it in the shops, than if you grow and dry your own.  However, it is significantly more delicious when cooked ‘wet’, i.e., right after harvesting and cleaning.  It is still very juicy, and often pink.  You then slice off the bottom where the roots are so it sits flat, and the top to expose the cloves.  You sit this in a garlic roaster or just sturdy tin foil, drizzle liberally with olive oil, and salt, scrunch up the foil to contain it in a loose parcel or pop on the top of the roaster and slow roast it.  Once done, which is a couple of hours, you can spread the soft, sweet garlic-mash onto seared ciabatta, or toasted bread, or French bread with about half a centimeter of butter on it. You can’t buy garlic in this state – fresh and wet.  It will be like this for a few weeks, after which it dries out and is just like the supermarket product.  The garlic isn’t through yet.

Garlic going in.  See you soon.  I hope.

These two crops, plus at the bottom, the rescued strawberries, giant rhubarb patch, rescued purple sprouting and few other lame ducks we transported down here, such as celery (Mark’s most hated veg.  Fact.  And anyway, will it over-winter?  Do we care?) leave about 60% of the main plot free for now.  This is the digging we are now engaged upon.  It looks to be getting easier in that there are fewer weed-choked areas, though there are weeds everywhere we have not cleared, but harder in that is heavier earth.

In my own garden, I rarely dig unless I want to dig in compost.  I intend to use this plan at the allotment.  But for now, the plans are:  complete the digging of the main plot; dig and remove weeds from the grass-mound-mountain at the top; erect and fill the last seed-bed; scavenge tyres and store for growing new potatoes; buy a plastic bench to sit on by the shed and admire the work.

Yesterday, I went down there for the last hour and a half of day-light and a bit more was dug.  I also edged the whole main plot, but my edging shears are no match for the pasture grass despite having been sharpened.  But it does look tidier.  I also hoed the areas where, already, the weeds are showing their heads.  There was no-one else there, there rarely is.  I have been unable to go on Saturdays and Thursday due to teaching of late, but I usually go on Sunday and once or twice in the week.  I am often alone with the pygmy goats in the next field my only company.  Last evening at 4.30 as it was getting properly dark, I walked all round the allotments looking at the plots.

Several at the bottom end where we were supposed to get a plot, remember, are already so wet there is standing water in the edges and depressions.  That plot we might have inherited has now been officially surrendered by its plot-holder but nothing else has changed.  It’s just been left.  I guess if no-one wants it, we as a collective, may reduce it to the ground at least and cover it with heavy plastic to at least contain and kill many of the weeds because it is a nuisance to the lady who allotments beside this one.  She has two plots I think, and they look lovely.  Peas are thriving on one bed, all neat in rows with twiggy supports.  I never knew you could grow peas in winter.

Anyway it was nice wandering round in the dusky afternoon.  Here in this part of Somerset, this time of day with its dusky light is called ‘dimsy’. So you might say, for example, say I walked round as it was getting dimsy.