We’ve seen four days of wamth and bright sunshine which has brought our community of allotmenteers out in droves as the new season moves into full throttle. For us it’s meant that every trip up to the plot means taking a load of plants which have been propagated in the flat. Hardening everything off properly means a great deal of shuffling plants between the greehhouse, the cold frames and the most sheltered spots on the allotment as they progress towards open ground. In our heads and on the laptop we carry a model plan of campaign between sowing and harvesting, but trying to second guess what the weather will be doing, six weeks down the road, is a bit of a nightmare and so – just like a motorway – we get traffic jams and empty stretches.
Key to the whole show is the date of the last frost and so early yesterday I had twenty minutes on the computer searching the meteorological entrails and at last I’m as sure as I can be that there will be no more frost. The first wave of plants are on the allotment and ready to be planted out, and in a week’s time we’ll start moving the second wave of tender subjects out of the flat and into the hardening off phase.
That all sounds a bit cerebral, but of course gardening is never like that because planting out is back breaking work. The plot was designed to be as productive as possible and so the width of the paths was calculated on two measurements – the main paths on the width and turning space of a wheelbarrow, and the secondary paths on the length of my wellingtons – 13″ if you’re really desperate to know! It was intended to make it possible to work all the beds without ever having to walk on them, but there are always unintended consequences and in this case it’s having to kneel to plant out with your knees aligned to the path and your upper body aligned at 90 degrees to the bed. It’s the only way not to cause carnage to the plants on the adjoining bed.
So by yesterday teatime we were completly crocked and the proposed dish of broad bean tops was abandoned in favour of fish and chips. Luckily we have a prizewinning chippie just up the road. On the plus side all the brassicas are now in, and in a new departure they’re interplanted with tagetes, calendula and nasturtiums. Everything in me is shouting NO to adding competing flowers to the vegetable beds but unless we try it we’ll never know whether companion plants are all they’re cracked up to be. This can be difficult because our basil supply last season was infested with whitefly – which it’s supposed to repel. Our weirdest flight of fancy was to plant petunias around the edge of the asparagus bed to repel asparagus beetle which were a problem last year. The problem with assessing any of these measures is the usual one that confronts any experimenter – too many variables – but on the other hand it will make the veg garden more beautiful and please the pollinators no end. As I was watering the petunias in I remembered an old music hall song – “I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion bed” and I wondered whether these pretty flowers might repel onion fly as well.
Companion planting seems to work in a number of ways, firstly by attracting pollinators and insects like hoverflies that reduce pest numbers or by distracting the pests away from your veg, and even by emitting chemicals through roots and flowers that repel the bugs and slugs. I’m happy to concede that music hall songs and folk magic is not the most scientific approach, but there may well be some hard facts within the practice and anything that reduces the reliance on deadly chemicals has got to be worth the effort. It makes me think of the exhausting effort to destroy ragwort because it’s ‘poisonous to livestock’. But cattle and, for all I know horses too, have learned to avoid the plant which only becomes dangerous when it’s incorporated into hay and silage where it can’t be differentiated. Wholesale spraying with chemicals kills the plants – but not very well – while denying the innocent and harmless cinnabar moth a habitat, and polluting the watercourses. We have to end the practice of regarding the soil as a neutral medium into which we can pour seeds, chemicals and fertilizer with ever diminishing returns. The idea that we can use smart science endlessly to increase yields is an earth threatening fantasy.
And so, as you see in the photos, we’re using both companion planting and physical barriers to control pests, and if – and only if – we experience a crop threatening attack, we may consider using pyrethrum which is hideously expensive but on the approved for organics list. This is a working allotment, not a shrine, and we have to defend the best against the perfect.