Alison Crowther-Smith

Archive for the ‘Gardening’ 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.

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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:

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:

Tree Huggers of the World Unite

Monday, January 25th, 2016

Leaf of the Day will never be the same again.  The beech tree, prime leaf drop culprit at Court Cottage, is no more.

When we moved in over 10 years ago, there were three fairly mature trees in the back garden area. This is a bit you do not see if you come to a workshop.  There is access to the main drive, garage, car-port etc from the side road – there’s a wood store and the veg garden etc.  There is also a piece of ground that I am going to call ‘lawn’.  It resembles lawn in that it is partially green, though much of this is now moss.

These trees – a copper beech, a cedar and a rowan-tree – were planted about 30 years ago.  In the time we have lived here, we have had them crowned/reduced three times, pretty drastically.  There is, however, a limit to how effective this will be in terms of a) keeping the trees looking good; and b) encouraging them to not push the cottage right over.  The cedar in particular was looking less stately and more towering lollipop as a result of its 3 haircuts, while the beech was just spreading, as they do, being forest trees.

Here they are:

The last time we had a tree surgeon over which was a couple of weeks back, he told us honestly that he could reduce them, again, but they’d just keep coming back at us; that it’d cost almost 4 times as much to have them topped/pruned as felled; and that if he lived here, he’d get shut of them.

The ‘little’ fir trees on the side of the drive are actually too tall to trim without a tall ladder – but the beech and the cedar dwarf them.

I wavered still, but Mark was keen to have them chopped down.  And in the end, I had to agree because of the proximity to the cottage – closer than any sane person would plant forest trees and within bough-touching distance by the close of 2015.

The chap whose company came over to look at the trees was very kind.  Basically, he humoured me as I blathered on about how sad it was, how we loved the trees, how we’d miss them, how we’d tried to practice SRT in the beech tree (fail)…he didn’t say much but I could tell he was sympathetic.

So anyway, very soon, came dreaded the day – and of course, it dawned frosty, blue and beautiful, just so the majestic trees would look their very best as they spread their limbs out against the glittering, winter-ice sky and rosy dawn.

I began a sniveling, eye-watering limbering up to full-on crying at sunrise.  By 7.30 I was quietly sobbing in the kitchen, trying but failing to imagine my view without the trees, as I stood in the gloomy-end of the kitchen, looking at the ‘lawn’ and drive. It is (was) gloomy here all year round. In summer, the copper beech, in full leaf, robbed about half this area and half the kitchen of any natural light save that filtered by its bronze leaves.  Copper beech, stately and lovely as they are, especially when viewed in park-land estates or on telly when watching Woolf Hall, are light-thieves.  They actively soak up light around them, quite apart from creating a shade so deep it is oceanic in its depths.

Even in winter, it towered and anyway, the cedar was evergreen, so it always loomed.  Recently it had taken to shedding its pernicious brown needles, much finer than a Christmas tree’s, all over its potion of ‘lawn’, the drive and the paths.  From here, it was easy for all humans and animals who use the back door, which is everyone basically, to tread these all over the house.

But still, that morning, I was very sad.  The moment arrived when the tree-men maneuvered their truck and trailer down the road – always an exciting time for this village, any work being done by someone they have not approved, are related to or recognise.  Well!  The owner had sent two little boys! They were tall for children it is true, but still about eleven years old.  So now I was upset and anxious about these little boys having chain saws and climbing things – on my property – and also, being English, I was suppressed, being unable to express this anxiety in case they were insulted.  Mark took a quick look, in response to me hissing at him that the kindergarten class of tree-surgery had rocked up.  He pronounced them to be adults. Hmmm.  Only just.  I made them tea (they declined squash and cookies, most odd) and may have brought them up to date with my ‘I love these trees, but they have to go’ dilemma.

I went indoors and actually begged Mark to give them the cheque for the work – just to go away.  He said no.

As they fiddled about on the road, out of eye-line, I crept out and bade a last goodbye to my trees.  I took some photos.  Then  I wondered, as you do, just how wide that cedar had grown.  When we moved in it was mature but still fairly slender.  It looked much sturdier, so thick-set now.  So, I put my arms around its trunk.  My longest fingers could only just touch.  That’s a big tree.  It wasn’t meant to be a hug, but of course, it sort of was.  It was just my curiosity to see how big it had grown.

Unfortunately at this moment, the older (well, taller) of the two man-child tree-surgeons wandered back up the drive carrying a mile or two of coiled ropes.  Our eyes met.  He paused.  I let go of the tree and stepped away.  He proceeded to lay out the ropes.  We agreed, via the silent code of our people, not to attempt an explanation or ever to mention it.  So, he thinks I am a red-eyed tree-hugger.

Some hours – but fewer than you might suppose – and an awful lot of noise later, the children had finished playing in the trees.  They were no more.  I had also asked them to leave circles of the trunks for me, on the drive, plus any boughs we can saw up for fire-wood.  The circles make great eco-seats for the garden, we have two stacks of them from some trees that were felled elsewhere and were given to us – they are useful, home to lots of creatures and they look nice.  Now I have enough to make some more seats here and take to the allotment to sit upon.

And, I like it better now.  It is bright, light and just less gloomy.  So much soul-searching, and so many other solutions tried – but Mark and the tree-man were right.

The ‘lawn’ may recover; or I might use this space to keep chickens – a recurring dream. It may never be realised, but this would now be a good space. The  rowan-tree was spared, posing no threat and probably being full size now, but it may do better now it is not cowering in the vast shadow of the cedar.

And a small lesson learned about being less resistant to even fairly small changes and to listening to the views and advice of others.  They were right, and I am glad.

Allotment Up-Date

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

Much progress is being made in Project Allotment.

We have now been clearing and even planting here for about five weeks.  It is very hard work as those of you with an allotment or even a garden will appreciate. I can manage about two hours of work if it’s digging, which it almost always is.  The earth here is medium-heavy, with some clay but also a fairly fine structure once you have worked it over twice.  It will be good for brassica.  My soil here, just half a mile away, is much finer, less ‘strong’ and in my past twenty five years of gardening, the soil was sand-based, so it is a long time since brassica growing has been possible.

But we have now also reached the sowing stage and the first crop went in about two weeks ago.  Broad beans that can withstand the winter and crop early in the following summer.  They are already through.  I also sowed a few in pots to fill any gaps and these, growing in the shelter of the shed wall, are thriving.

About half the main plot is now dug over.  A pincer movement is underway with most digging coming from the top end of the sloping plot, which is west, and some activity at the bottom end, to clear space for rescued plants – mainly oriental poppies.  I want the plot to have a good mix of vegetables but also some flowers. It will be interesting to see what colour these poppies will be. If they are orange they can stay at the allotment; if they are lovely mauves and soft pinky greys as some can be, they can come and live here.

When we went to the allotment yesterday, on a cold but sunny, dry and still day, there was a huge pile of wood by the gate with a notice saying it had been left by one of the plot holders and it was free, to make compost bins or raised beds.  We snaffled enough for three raised beds.  There is masses of it, and I think many of the plot holders will not need any as several have raised beds already and everyone, including us, has about eleventy-nine compost contraptions.

The first one is up, and filled with the loamy soil from one of our many compost deposits.

These will go at the top of the plot, which is a bit illogical as raised beds need more watering than earth in dry weather and this is the furthest point from our water tank.  However, the logic is that they are sited on a bed that was very overgrown, far worse than the rest of the plot, so it saves digging, we can just level it.  And, behind here is a long and high earth/loam mound, on which is growing a verdant crop of long rank pasture grass; this I can remove and then shovel the soil underneath directly into the raised beds.

And then we have a picnic after our work.  Win-win.

Did I tell you that when we took it on, the lease had only one year of a five year agreement to run?  Well, it looks as if the farmer whose land it is, is likely to be willing to give us a further five years.  This is such a relief, mainly for the plot holders who have been there for four years.  It also means we are more likely to dig it all over and really make an effort, and it determines what we ‘invest’ in terms of structures such as brassica cages etc.

Last night I see we had the first frost of the winter.  I am going down there today for a few hours as it is sunny if very cold, and I have no actual deadlines for the first time in well over a year.  This combination feels so good.  I am about to plant two more lines of broad beans and then the garlic – 60 plants.  I use shop-bought garlic and you just break up the bulbs into cloves and pop these in.  They need a winter, ideally, and some frost.  But first I need to clear a bit more land.  And on Saturday, weather permitting, Colin (who is the lovely chap who donated the timber for raised beds, and who has the most adorable golden retriever) has said we can rotivate some of the plot.  But first I must clear it of weeds.  Very motivating!

The Allotment Project

Sunday, November 8th, 2015

If I look at this objectively, I have no time to take on an allotment.  So I am not going to look at it objectively.  I think objectivity is over-rated and may be the cause of much under-achievement.  My own garden is often a work in progress and I work on knitting related things and other writing work an awful lot.  Not a complaint. I am lucky but you know – busy.  And I have a bazillion hobbies!  But I have always wanted an allotment because then you can grow a very serious amount of veg and fruit.  And I have often looked at allotment plots and thought how pretty and productive they seem.

There is an allotment society in Puriton and recently I asked if there was a spare plot.  There wasn’t but nor was there a waiting list so I was first in line.  In September the Chairman showed me round the field and showed me a plot he thought might come free when the renewals went out, late that month.  I agreed that it might. Clearly no-one was ever gardening this neglected ground.  It was about 3 feet high with rank weeds, all seeding onto the immaculate plot of the lady next door.  The skeletons of crops from at least 18 months earlier were being used by climbing weeds.  I must admit, I quailed because I just do not know if I could have coped with it.  But as it turned out, when the Chairman emailed me again, it was with great news! The plot I was getting, whilst pretty neglected, was a prime location, and though overgrown, it seemed less bad than the other one. The plot-holder was reluctantly giving it up, because of work commitments.  He’d kind of let the place go a bit but basically kept on top of it until probably mid-summer. That was long enough for a lot of weeds to move in, and crops that season to go over.  But so much better than the other plot!

Day One:

So in October, I rocked up to the Puriton Allotment Society AGM.  Florence and Will are partners in this venture so they came too.  I met the man whose plot I was taking over and he gave me his shed, key, water tank and all the stuff in the shed!  How sweet is that?  I have in turn promised him a box of veg now and then, in a rash flush of optimism.  I do hope I get some.

Week One:

 

Very weedy:

It has now been four weekends since we took ownership.  I am so glad we did not get the very overgrown one.  This is such hard work, I do not think I could have coped with the other one.  My allotment is at the top of a sloping field.  The plots at the bottom can flood in wet spells, even though they have dug drainage and a large pond.  My plot is right in the middle of the plots, with a field above it, in which I have the company of ponies and two pygmy goats.  The pond, which is right at the bottom of the field, is thick with bull-rushes and irises, wild birds and dragon flies.  Just up from here, the association has placed two picnic benches and planted some fruit trees around them.  It is pretty and I like it.

The Pond:

Picnic Area:

So far, we have dug a wide strip at the bottom end, near the shed, and re-claimed a load of strawberry plants that were choked with weeds; we dug them up and re-planted them after we dug this section over.  I think they may be old and unproductive, but I have a dozen young plants here that I will be moving there.  Will has been working on the compost heaps and we have tidied up all round the shed.  This is where I want a bench to go.

Then we started digging near the top of our plot so we could clear the ground and plant winter things.  This makes sense as it is higher ground so seeds and plants in there over winter will be less likely to be sitting in water-logged earth for weeks on end.  We have now planted three long rows of early, over-wintering broad beans and will plant three more rows in about a month.  And I am now preparing the next section to plant garlic which needs a winter in the  ground.  This needs to be in during December ideally. If I can keep going, I will also plant winter onions, which is a new crop to me.  The rest of the ground I will just turn over for now.  There is a very overgrown patch right at the top which I might put under black plastic for a few months.

Real Progress:

 

And more progress:

Then, in the spring, we will plant seeds for kale, brussel sprouts and broccoli, turnips, maybe carrots and lots of French and runner beans.  There is a rhubarb patch already.  I also fancy rainbow chard and Will wants to grow squash and corn.  The broad beans will be over in early summer in time for us to plant the French and runners there.  We also need to build cages for the greens as the ones I grew here this year were attacked by white cabbage butterfly – the caterpillars literally shredded the crop of kale in a weekend.  We grow organically so protection with the cage is the only way.

The neigh-bours (see what I did there?):

 

I have met a few of my fellow allotment-holders.  One lady gave me a bunch of beetroot; one man offered to rotivate the plot for me once I had the basic weeds out; one man showed me his simply enormous carrot and gave me lots of encouraging advice on how not to have to work so hard. Everyone is friendly.

Improbably Huge Carrot (man’s hand for scale purposes):

 

My shed, wheelbarrow, water tank and compost heap at the top of this picture by the way.  Also, it was nice that he didn’t think I was a complete weirdo when I said I needed a picture of the Giant Carrot; in fact, he suggested having his hand in the shot for scale.  Well, fair enough, he had just bounded over to me with it hidden behind his back, announcing that he had something amazing to show me.  I think I have found my people.  My people other than the knitters.  And the cavers.

One of the things I like best is the walk to and fro.  It is half a mile from our house, level and to the end of the village, down the old parts, Purewell and Waterloo are the roads I walk down.  Aren’t these lovely names?  I usually take the barrow so I can ferry the bags of rank weeds back for transporting to the tip, but once this is done I won’t need it.  The other thing I like is how isolated it feels, only half a mile from home.  There is often no-one there except me.  I tend to go twice or three times a week, for bursts of two to four hour work – and it is very hard work indeed.  When I am on the allotment, I don’t think about anything except the allotment.

I will keep you posted on my new adventure.

 

Garden in September

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

September is, as we have established many times, the best month of the year.  I love it for its gentleness and promise.  All that is really going to grow and be harvested has, by September, finished with growing and is either ripening or setting seed.

It is often warm and sunny, with a mellowness that can elude July and August, if they have a mind to be hot.  Unlike this year.  So this year, after so much rain and cold in the official summer months, I am especially grateful to September for being, so far, warm, golden and soft.  The claws of winter are still sheathed.  We can still hope for sun.

Here is some of my garden, this September.

Winter Summed Up

Saturday, November 29th, 2014

winter sky and fennel Nov 2014

Fennel against the winter sky today.  I like leaving the dead flower heads on fennel and sea holly.  Very structural and the birds love it too.

Today, I had an exciting planning meeting.  About knitting.  2015 will be good.

In the meantime, we have to get through winter.  I hate the cold, and the wet.  But I love the ideal of winter and its festivals and celebrations.  This image is the ideal.  In my planning meeting, it struck me (for the eleventy-fourth time) that as someone who loves sunshine and hot weather, it’s odd that I almost always design in the chilly, cool, wintry colour spectrum and draw most of my inspiration from bleak, spare, cold images.

 

Seeds

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

One of the best aspects of this time of year, as we approach the curve of the year and glimpse autumn, is that the flowers we enjoyed in June and July continue to reward our gardening labours by yielding seeds and berries.

This last few weeks, aside from having undertaken a huge batch of free-lance writing projects, which lasted from 1 May to 13 July, I have been gardening.  My garden and I are at peace.  Though I toil for hours and often see little reward or evidence other than the sacks of waste to schlep to the tip, I do feel I have arrived at a much happier place with it.  This has partly been achieved by growing far fewer vegetables that I usually attempt.  It is partly a result of more regular, less exhausting efforts.  And it is partly the result of anticipating work that needs to be done, and doing it early.

But one thing I won’t do early is cut off the seed heads of the prettiest bearers.  My garden, large and semi-wild, is all gardened pesticide-free.  I want to encourage the birds to eat the snails, the frogs to eat the slugs, the hedgehogs to eat the – um, whatever they might find that they like to snack on, and for none of these creatures to die because I used pellets or sprays.  And along with this goes the leaving of seed heads.

In this way, I get to enjoy their grace and quirks, thus extending the life-season of the flowers that preceded the seed heads; the birds get to eat the seeds and berries; and I get literally hundreds of free plants. I can easily propagate from these seeds and have grown agapanthus, acanthus, aquilegia, allium, foxgloves, lavender, hollyhocks and angels’ fishing rods from saved seeds.  Sometimes I collect and sow in pots – but this is faffy.  Usually I just scatter ripe seed on fresh soil and see what I get.  I then transplant the winners and hoe up the rest.  This cuts out a whole stage of gardening labour, see notes above.  Win-win.

Yesterday was the 1st of  August 2013.  It was hot and still and perfect.  I gardened literally all day, thus breaking one of my own rules, see notes above.  But it was good gardening. Like with running when now and again, you hit a ‘golden’ run and feel you could run forever.  This is usually transitory and lasts from mile 3 to mile 6 and then it’s gone.  I thought, yesterday, I could garden forever.  I was almost right.

Once I had literally ground to an exhausted halt, I took these pictures of seeds and berries, which I think are just as lovely as flowers.  I hope you like them.  I look at them and I can sense the next season, can’t you?  I can’t feel autumn yet, or smell it, but rather like being in a bedroom by the sea, with the curtains closed, you sense the light from the ocean…that feeling.

Hint:  irritatingly and I have no idea why or how to make it revert, the new version of the software for this blog has reduced the scale of images. You can click on them to see far more detail but then you will need to hit the ‘back’ arrow button on your computer to remain on the blog.  Sigh.

This is an English lavender, half in flower, just going to seed and I will cut it as soon as it has stopped attracting bees as this is good for the plant. But for now, the bees - like this one - are still feeding

This is an English lavender, half in flower, just going to seed and I will cut it as soon as it has stopped attracting bees as this is good for the plant. But for now, the bees – like this one – are still feeding

 

This French lavender - the sort with 'ears' - is just going to seed now

This French lavender – the sort with ‘ears’ – is just going to seed now

 

French lavender seed heads, so fat and corn-like. They are hugely promiscuous, as are the English

French lavender seed heads, so fat and corn-like. They are hugely promiscuous, as are the English

 

The acanthus berry is a really fat, shiny seed. I also love the 'wings' of the flower, still holding on and the way the seed is held by the cone of the flower

The acanthus berry is a really fat, shiny seed. I also love the ‘wings’ of the flower, still holding on and the way the seed is held by the cone of the flower

 

The English garden classic, rose hips, one ripe, one not

The English garden classic, rose hips, one ripe, one not

 

The dark berries of this black elder flower are beloved by birds and half have been eaten already

The dark berries of this black elder flower are beloved by birds and half have been eaten already

 

Arthur is in this picture of a giant allium seed head for scale purposes. He's a medium sized mini-Dachshund. The allium was GIANT. He was a bit freaked out by it, and I can't say I blame him

Arthur is in this picture of a giant allium seed head for scale purposes. He’s a medium sized mini-Dachshund. The allium was GIANT. He was a bit freaked out by it, and I can’t say I blame him

Angels' fihsing rods, grown by me from seed, fishing against a perfect late summer sky

Angels’ fishing rods, grown by me from seed, fishing against a perfect late summer sky

 

Bronze fennel seed umbrellas; these will tempt long-tailed tits into the garden

Bronze fennel seed umbrellas; these will tempt long-tailed tits into the garden

 

My favourite seed-pod, the poppy. Unlike the oriental poppy, usually sterile, these will yield thousands of plants next year - if I let them!

My favourite seed-pod, the poppy. Unlike the oriental poppy, usually sterile, these will yield thousands of plants next year – if I let them!

 

The seeds of crocosmia 'Lucifer' look like a zip.  This year I am going to sew some in pots to see what I get. Note the ladybird, this year there have been many

The seeds of crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ look like a zip. This year I am going to sow some in pots to see what I get. Note the ladybird, this year there have been many

Alliums, the most structural of seed heads; this is a close up of the sharp seeds, I love the purple hue behind

Alliums, the most structural of seed heads; this is a close up of the sharp seeds, I love the purple hue behind

Summer Memories

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

Why a sudden and longed for summer which features actual sunshine and proper heat should make me rather sad, I do not know.  But it has.

In my garden, I grow flowers in colours that I wouldn’t wear, probably; or knit.  However I do love pink, that is true.  Loving pink may be my defining ‘thing’.  I really hope it isn’t, but I have a feeling that it could be. I do wear pink sometimes. Usually at the gym. One of the boldest flowers in my garden is a bright pink phlox:

phlox (2)

This is my phlox, with a clashy orange flower behind.  I was still deep in my Christopher Lloyd phase.

The scent of a phlox is odd – not unpleasant, but not as sweet as the appearance of the flowers might suggest. It is also one of those scents that has the power to overwhelm you in a tidal wave of remembered days, dragged out of the past and tumbled into your present-day.  An undignified and jumbled heap of memories, conjured by a side-swipe from a flower.

It gives out its strongest scent in the evening, the phlox.  One evening this week I was gardening in the border where the phlox grow. I was in fact uprooting the spent foxgloves and tipping their sand-fine seeds onto bare patches of earth to provide me with more foxgloves next year.  Foxgloves remind me of my father.  A lot of gardening activities and flowers do that because we gardened together, from when I was a small child until the year before his death.  ‘You only ever need to plant one foxglove, Al’, said dad, ‘because it makes a thousand seeds; just don’t pull them out until they are ready and don’t hoe.’  But, if you plant two very different foxgloves – say, one white, or cream, and one purple – over the next few years, they will mingle and interbreed and reward you with lovely, unexpected variations.

So I was shaking the seeds out, trying to remember which plants had been so lovely, for some had come up wearing white ‘gloves’ with deep purple splashes in its throat, and I was as usual when dealing with the foxgloves, thinking – slightly, gently but not deeply – of dad.  And I brushed past the phlox.  It released its odd, clove-and-vanilla scent in a puff, a cloud that caught me totally off my guard.

In a frozen moment, staring down at the soil, I felt I was back in another garden.  Not my childhood garden.  My aunt’s.  Aunt Edith had a suburban garden in Denton, Greater Manchester, with a square front lawn, prone to flooding in the winter due partly to the clay and also the tilt of the land.  Around this small lawn, flowering at this time of year, she grew the most prolific phlox I have ever seen. The tall, more leggy phlox that is less fashionable now.  In whites, pale mauve and pale pink.  Far more attractive than the vivid pink ones I have grown, and far more scented.

Dad and I – and I am about eight years old – are tidying the garden for Aunt Edith in return for which dad will be allowed to dig up small clumps of the phlox to take to our own garden.  As we work, dad tells me about the phlox and why they smell strongest in the evening.  Why the colours are pale and luminous.  And why they are one of his favourite flowers.

Then we soak newspaper and dig up the clumps of phlox. We gently fold the sopping paper around the roots and dad cuts off the flowers and many of the leaves, because this will reduce the shock.  We carefully lay the parcels in the boot of the Anglia, which is marginally less stifling than the passenger areas of the car, and we take them home.

This is a journey of some 200 miles, for we then lived in Northamptonshire.  On the way home, we sing, usually ‘She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes’, ‘Cockles and Mussels’, and some Methodist hymns in which dad attempts to teach me to harmonise with limited success.  On the way, we’ll stop for his favourite motorway snack – coffee and a terrible English version of the American donuts he loved so much.  At Kettering, we’ll ring mum from a coin box, but only giving three rings so she knows we are half an hour away.

When we get home, it’s almost dark, though still hot outside.  The phlox have to be our priority, so by torch light, and before we eat, we heel the plants into the earth of our own garden and soak them with buckets of water, puddling the water around with small barricades of muddy soil.  We are hot, we are dirty, hungry and tired.  I am eight, he must have been in his late forties.  We are delighted.

The phlox from Aunt Edith’s garden lived on in our garden, though dad always said they weren’t as good as hers due to the different soil.  Not clay.

One brush from a far inferior phlox in my garden, all those years later and I am rushed back in time.  I can see my dusty white pumps.  I can smell the wet newspaper.  It hurts so much, I wish I couldn’t.

This garden of mine is the first garden I have ever had that my dad never saw for we moved here, away from Burnham-on-Sea and all its associated memories, after his death.  In all the other gardens I have tended, whether as a tenant or house-owner, dad regularly visited, less so as he aged; and I’d prepare extra-hard for his visits, to show him something lovely and good.  To show him, I suppose, that I had learned so much from him. His delight in my gardens was just as keen as that from his own.

I always just wish – foolish and even maudlin though it it, I know – that I could walk round this garden, the best I think I have ever made, with him.  Just once.  And when it overcomes me, I wonder too, if other people have these thoughts.

Usually I can just let – or more accurately fail to prevent – the foolish, hopeless wish flash through my head, sharp like a blade but swift so it doesn’t register as pain, and it’s gone and I’m fine.  But this summer, perhaps because it’s a proper summer and the foxgloves and the phlox have been so good, I’m not fine.

Here are some other things from the garden this hot proper July.

Angels' Fishing Rods - grown by me from seed

Angels’ Fishing Rods – grown by me from seed

 

'Lucifer' - fiery, out of my usual garden comfort zone and spreading like wild fire round the garden

‘Lucifer’ – fiery, out of my usual garden comfort zone and spreading like wild fire round the garden

 

More Lucifer - and the roof of the summer house

More Lucifer – and the roof of the summer house

 

Pale lemon hollyhock, complete with fat bee

Pale lemon hollyhock, complete with fat bee

 

I have had this plant for years but this is the first time it's flowered properly

I have had this plant for years but this is the first time it’s flowered properly

 

The green apples are a sign of the year wearing on. By September these will be red, it's an ancient 'eater'. beloved by the dogs for its fallers

The green apples are a sign of the year wearing on. By September these will be red, it’s an ancient ‘eater’. beloved by the dogs for its fallers

For once, this year, I have spent some time just sitting down

For once, this year, I have spent some time just sitting down

Please say that wasn’t summer…

Saturday, May 11th, 2013

…that lovely few days we had before, over and just after the May Bank Holiday?  The same time I was away, working in London…?

Because it’s now mid-May and it’s actually quite cold again.

Before the usual summer service was resumed, I look some pictures in the garden.

I have a love/hate thing going on with the weather now, because I hate that it’s (mainly) been very cold this spring, with the season about 4 – 6 weeks behind where it should be.  For example, now, 11 May, it feels like mid-late March with the strong westerly winds from the sea and a temperature struggling to get above 12 – 16 (except for a few days last week).

On the other hand, I love that this has retarded the garden somewhat.  Daffodils were late and lasted much longer than last year when March (and March alone) was hot.  The magnolia came into blossom in April and still has some flowers despite the stormy wind.  The tulips – and I planted four new sorts for this season – have lasted really well, with the early and the late varieties coinciding for at least two weeks and still going.  The plum, which is a relative new-comer here, is blossoming very late and with, hopefully, no real threat of frost, which was not the case for the last two years.

So the long cold late winter/spring scenario has been both a trial and a real blessing.  I suspect that our weather has been so topsy-turvey for so long now that this spring is actually more normal than I remember.

Anyway, here is late spring chez nous.

The flowering quince has the best display for years

The flowering quince has the best display for years

Birch catkins

Birch catkins

The hellebores are almost over but I do love the chocolate and mint in this flower

The hellebores are almost over but I do love the chocolate and mint in this flower

Un-planned clashes are very pleasing;  nature is far more daring than I am

Un-planned clashes are very pleasing; nature is far more daring than I am

Cow slips have self-seeded in the lawn so I am mowing around them

Cow slips have self-seeded in the lawn so I am mowing around them

A single, perfect magnolia  flower, one of thousands this year on the mature tree

A single, perfect magnolia flower, one of thousands this year on the mature tree

The magnolia petals have made an almost autumnal display on the gravel paths

The magnolia petals have made an almost autumnal display on the gravel paths

One of the new tulip varieties planted in autumn last year

One of the new tulip varieties planted in autumn last year

Green and cream tulip, new this year

Green and cream tulip, new this year

Pink and white - another new tulip for 2013

Pink and white – another new tulip for 2013

Primroses continue past their usual span this cold spring - a major bonus

Primroses continue past their usual span this cold spring – a major bonus

This winter-flowering cherry bloomed on time in December; then it was so cold in March and April, it did it again.

This winter-flowering cherry bloomed on time in December; then it was so cold in March and April, it did it again.

What a clash, but how up-lifting

What a clash, but how up-lifting

Acid green and common, wild red tulips - both fully naturalised in the garden and needing no intervention, unlike their refined cousins

Acid green and common, wild red tulips – both fully naturalised in the garden and needing no intervention, unlike their refined cousins