To be honest, after a two week break in Pembrokeshire I was dreading going back to the allotment. Two weeks is an awfully long time to leave any garden to nature and my particular worry was that our plot – in which we deliberately allow nature to have an almost free hand would have totally succumbed to the fatal embrace of the bindweed which has been an absolute pain this summer.
The reason, of course, is that bindweed roots travel deep and fast so it laughs at drought while many other shallow rooted plants keel over. Our strategy this season was to keep the ground covered at all costs, and so as a matter of principle when the drought began to grip we largely stopped weeding in order to keep the soil shaded and as cool as possible. I know people make the most tremendous fuss about weeds stealing sunshine, water and nutrients from the crop; but in our own wildly uncontrolled trial we found that our crop plants, so long as they had a bit of headroom, soldiered on through the heatwave, and whatever nutrients the weeds steal will be quickly returned to the soil via the compost heaps.
There were two other weed species that had a field day this year. One was the Sow Thistles, and the other was the clump of Fumitory which I was unwilling to weed out, because it is a notable rarity here in the centre of Bath. However two weeks of rain and sunshine tested the theory to the limit and it was that thought which was beginning to bother me as we recovered from a pretty exhausting harvest.
But what we didn’t expect was such a large late crop of vegetables, as we approached the Equinox on Friday. When we went to see the allotment yesterday we harvested two whole deep bags full of produce. Old potatoes were weighing in at a pound and a half each and of course it’s been so dry we didn’t have blight to contend with this year. That said we always grow blight resistant varieties of both potatoes and tomatoes. There were aubergines, peppers, runner beans, carrots, cucumbers, courgettes and apples and yet more tomatoes grown outside. The large crop of squashes have been hardening off in the sunshine ready for winter storage, so contrary to all expectations we’ve had the best overall harvest ever. We even managed to eat the whole crop of sweetcorn and didn’t concede a single cob to the marauding badgers.
The downside to all this was the excessive amount of watering we still needed to do. With just 1750 litres stored it’s clear that we would have lost crops if we hadn’t used the council provided cattle trough. Quite apart from the shame of using high quality drinking water on thirsty crops, there’s the physical wear and tear on us and our knees, carrying two cans at a time which weigh in at forty pounds and need to be carried down very rickety paths at the risk of damaging tendons and joints. I may just have muttered “I’m getting a bit old for this malarkey” once or twice! And so we need to think about drought resistant crop varieties and perhaps consider growing more perennials. The tap-rooted vegetables were left pretty much to their own devices and they’ve done amazingly well. The second issue will be weed seeds, but in early season it’s relatively easy to keep them down with a sharp hoe. The final part of the climate change conundrum is to keep the ultimate height of plants lower, which will make frost and wind protection much easier. That the climate is changing rapidly is beyond denial and hoping that next year will bring better weather is wilful magical thinking. The biggest sadness would be to lose the wonderfully flavoured -Robinson’s “Show Perfection” pea. Make no mistake, this is not a cardboard flavoured show variety, but it does grow easily to 6-8 feet.
We had also theorised that growing far more insect attractors and digging a pond would attract more predatory wasps and pollinating insects. For whatever reason the Ladybirds never really got going this year, but aphid numbers were well down so maybe the other predators took up the slack. It’s impossible to make any great claims, but our deliberately scruffy approach – although it looked terrible enough to earn reproachful looks from our tidy neighbours – kept producing abundant crops where the weed free and bare earth allotments failed on a grand scale.
I think obsessive tidiness is an entrenched value in British allotments. The catalogues are full of model specimens growing in straight rows on cleared ground, but our holiday in Wales, next door to a large organic farm, showed just how much of a role natural soil fertility and good, rich, moisture retaining soil, plays out in providing increasingly good yields over time. The grassland wasn’t overrun with any noxious weeds in spite of a no-till and no chemicals regime. What this means of course is that it’s almost certain that the kind of approach we’ve been trying to master on 100 square metres, could be upscaled to hectares. Sadly, though, the Council allotments Officer’s twice yearly assessments still seem to overvalue the straight row, weed free allotment over and against the holy disorder of our own attempts to garden thoughtfully.
So our holiday fears were not realised, and that was the most tremendous morale booster. But a second bonus followed quite naturally because all those fresh ingredients led straight back to the stove, just as the new seed catalogues were dropping into the post box. Today we ate the best mushroom soup ever, thickened with bread and made with one and a half pounds of field mushrooms brought back from the organic fields in St David’s. With the equinox two days away and the nights drawing in, there are a few joyful hours still to be had, planning for next year as we clear the beds and pile on compost and leaf mould ready for next season.