I should have mentioned in the previous posting that the hotbed has now stabilised at just under 20C and so we’re going to start sowing direct into the upper layer of soil tomorrow. The plan is to sow early salad vegetables, so lettuce, radish, spring onions and beetroot should come in very early. Really exciting stuff!
Back at the Potwell Inn allotment to install some fronts on the new compost bins this afternoon. We were eager to see whether the worms had sorted themselves out after being moved into a new home and we were delighted to see that they had resumed their activities at the top of the heap. They’re not keen on daylight so you need to be pretty sharp to get a photo before they all disappear. One thing that interested us greatly was how they appear to enjoy the cardboard in the heap. Yesterday I threw all of the half -rotted carboard that we took off the California cylinder into the heap and today the worms seemed to be congregating especially densely around it. One of the challenges with any heap is keeping the moisture level right. I heard somewhere that it should be moist but not wet enough to squeeze water out. This lot looks pretty wet, but the presence of woodlice suggests it’s not too wet. Having mixed it all up whilst turning it yesterday there’s quite a mixture of fresh material and worm cast – that’s the dark looking stuff that contins all the goodess. It’s a miraculous thing to watch, plant material decomposing through the action of all manner of fungi and bacteria and then being passed through the worms and turned into highly valuable garden gold. I swear I can hear the heap shouting “feed me now” every time I walk down the path. So that’s bin number one and we’ll probably stop feeding it when there’s enough fresh material in the adjoining bin to attract the worms through the gaps in the structure. I’m assuming that once the fungi and bacteria have kicked the process off, the worms will move next door where they’ll find a greater abundance of food. That’s the theory – bearing in mind that we had no idea they would colonize the cylinder so abundantly. If they’re happy they just seem to keep multiplying, presumably until their appetite fails to be matched by the food supply. Our only task is to feed and to turn the heaps regularly.
Bit of a catch-up today – mainly down to a combination of babysitting our grandchildren and doing some serious damage to my knees on Sunday, wheelbarrowing loads of earth around the allotments and not knowing when to stop. How are you supposed to know when to stop if nothing hurts? – I pointed this out to Madame who was unsympathetic and thought I was just being my usual driven self. Of course I was driven, I’d just built four aircraft hangars and I needed to reassure myself that they were nothing more terrifying than generously proportioned compost bins – which is what they turned out to be after a pretty wet morning wielding the manure fork.
So we were up there at the crack of lunchtime, just as the sky turned a rather nasty blue-black as in fountain pen ink. The task, having cleared the decks on Sunday, was to divide the contents of the California cylinder into its three components. The problem with the cylinder design has always been that it’s very difficult to turn without dismantling it entirely. What we were hoping to find was an upper layer (the wormery) with all the recently added kitchen waste, with a middle layer of partially composted material and a lower layer of ready-to-use compost.
And – as is the way with allotments – the moment we’d uncovered everything (including ourselves) the first wave of three very sharp storms crossed over us forcing us to take refuge in the tiny greenhouse, standing room only! Eventually, after two further intermissions while rain stopped play, we managed to shift everything into its new home. I have never in my life seen so many worms. There were thousands of brandling in the upper layer, demonstrating the reason that the heap was consuming all our kitchen waste with such ease. Two bins away, the leaves from the autumn were getting used to their new surroundings having been moved from their temporary home in a builder’s 1 tonne bag.
The bottom layer was the best compost we’ve ever made and after a fat mouse had been evicted accidentally we simply spread it in a thick layer over the bed in which the potatoes will be planted next month. Everything was tidied away and that meant every single bed has been prepared for the spring onslaught. We’ve never been in such a good position at this time of year before – it’s all down to two of us both being retired and able to give the allotmement the time it needs.
Back at the flat, the daffodils were flowering in the window boxes and I can claim 100% germination for the Habanero chillies. The others, with the exception of the Bhut Jolokia are germinating slowly. Even better the orchids which Madame re-potted last year and which have been sulking ever since, have now – at last – started to flower again.
And finally our middle son announced over the weekend that he’s applied for an alloment as well. I can’t believe how happy that made us feel.
I’ve been staring at this photo for ages, and I spent hours last night lying awake and asking myself “why aren’t I more pleased?”, and I’m coming to the conclusion that something like Newton’s third law governs gardening as well as bus-pulling competitions. Every brilliant idea or project has at least one equally valid and opposite way of achieving the same end, and within about ten minutes of any irrevocable decision being made in the garden I will be haunted by the thought that I should have done it the other way.
Yesterday being a wonderful harbinger of spring, we saw bright sunshine and a temperature of 16C for a brief period and so I siezed the chance to finish constructing the new compost bins and drove the posts into place. Late in the afternoon, too late really, I forced myself to keep going until the last board was screwed on and stepped back to see what looked like sufficient volume of bins to hide a couple of double decker buses. So, far from feeling content, I instantly went into panic mode, wondering how on earth we were going to find enough composting material to fill them. I am not one of those fortunate (or stupid) people who is untroubled by self-doubt. Every detail of the design and construction had been the result of an interminable inner dialogue, fuelled by the easy availability of contradictory advice. I remember years ago reading Christopher Lloyd’s book on small gardens and being puzzled at some of the choices he was making. Always ready to canonize a man who’d written a book, it slowly dawned on me that his idea of a small garden was something not much less than an acre; but blessed as he was by a total absence of self-doubt he was encouraging me to consider the best place to put the Wellingtonia on our patio.
Compost bins bring out the certainties like almost no other topic in gardening. Lawrence Hills was particularly good at laying down the law, as was F H Billington and any number of others. The precise design of the air inlets, the height in relation to width, whether circular is better than rectangular and so it goes on. Organic writers on composting remind me of a vestry meeting of the local Strict and Particular Baptists. I think the reason I felt a bit down when I surveyed my compost bins is that the completion of each stage on the allotment represents a final choice after which only time will tell – they’ll either work or they won’t.
All too many expert gardeners have learned their skills on a much larger scale than we have to operate on. Growing one crop means not being able to grow another because there’s no more land available than the 250 square metres we’ve managed to cobble together from two half-allotments and a borrowed piece – and the converse is that we don’t have the benefits of scale, bringing in green waste from a larger operation. So we compost our own kitchen waste, we save urine because it’s full of available plant nutrients, all the green waste from our allotment is composted of course, and we can bring in our own paper and cardboard waste supplemented by liberating packaging cardboard from the basement. Then we could rake up the grass movings (along with the dog mess) from the park outside the flat and, in the autumn we have the much battled-over leaves, brought in by the Parks Department. Last night when I thought about the compost bins I’d constructed they seemed to have grown to the size of aircraft hangars. I saw a summer ahead during which – and in order to sustain the no-dig ethos – we’d have to expend an ever greater amount of energy running a compost factory. Only time will tell, but 3 cubic metres a year is a lot – I mean a massive target.
Eventually, this morning, we went up to take a second look and they seemed to have shrunk a bit. One of the bays can be filled immediately with last autumn’s leaves and the existing cylinder will probably yield about a third of a bin each of new, progressing and finished compost. Experience tells me that one full bin of finished compost needs three of unprocessed waste, so that means filling the starter bin between eight and nine times a year. Strangely I find it’s always comforting to know the extent of the challenge but it’s massive.
But the daffodils in the window boxes are in full flower and this morning early I bottled 5 litres of raspberry vinegar so what’s there to worry about?
So there’s idiocy and confirmation bias. Idiocy is thinking that I possess some sort of magical power to make things grow, and confirmation bias is when I do an experiment and skew the interpretation of the result towards my preferred, or expected conclusion. For instance, many years ago when I was a curate one of my jobs was to take emergency calls from the local hospital on Saturday nights so I could say a prayer for people as they were they dying – (only if they’d asked, I hasten to add). Three times I was called out to someone who, when I went back on Sunday morning to take communion to the wards, I found sitting up cheerfully in bed. I began to suspect (hope) that my prayers were being more effective than I had previously believed. When I mentioned it to the doctor he patted me on the arm and said he thought it was more likely to be the blood transfusions. So to backtrack a bit, idiocy would be to believe that I possessed supernatural powers, and confirmation bias would happen if I used my very limited data to prove the claim.
And so to the Habanero chillies:
… this year I’m determined to germinate at least one Habanero after not getting any at all last season.
Habaneros (Scotch Bonnet) and the other members of the Capsicum chinense varieties have something of a reputation for being slow and tricky to germinate. This could be a rumour spread by specialist growers to inflate their sales of plants, but in my experience they can be – well – difficult. So exactly a week ago I sowed all my chilli varieties in the propagator in my office/study/junk room. In the light of last year’s experience I changed several of the variables, making the drawing of conclusions almost impossible. I changed the seed-sowing compost and I increased the propagator temperature significantly to 25C and I used a different model of lamp which seems both whiter and more intense, and after I’d done all that and watered them with a very dilute seaweed growth stimulant I remarked in this blog that coincidentally the moon was waxing in its first quarter.
Even the seed packet notes that the ‘chinense’ varieties can take up to a month to germinate. This morning – Oh Joy – they were germinating, not quite like mustard and cress on blotting paper, but lustily, vigorously, beautifully. Sensibly the little voice in my head says – don’t count your chickens – but I’ve not only counted them, I’ve mentally written to Tesco to offer a contract. They’re going to be very short of chillies if we leave Europe. So – seven days and three of five varieties are poking their tiny heads up into my artificial chilli paradise, and the question is – is it the moon? to which the answer can only be where’s the evidence? I’m such a hardboiled sceptic but between idiocy and confirmation bias there’s a rolling expanse of comfort blankets, lucky charms and pixie dust and I’ll buy into anything that keeps them going and avoids them all damping off, because I’m human and when I woke up today and looked at them I was so on fire with joy I made a gallon of stock, strained the raspberry vinegar and cooked meatballs in tomato sauce – our own of course – and all before Madame stirred – so the Potwell Inn will be living high on the hog for a while.
I forgot to mention yesterday that when we took the fleece off the asparagus bed, the deep layer of very smelly seaweed we mulched it with in the autumn has almost completely disappeared into the soil. This is exactly what the gardener at Heligan said would happen – in fact she said there would be just a few bits of crispy seaweed lying on the surface. Her prediction was completely correct, so many thanks for the idea.
So finally, two years and ten months after we signed the agreement on this first plot, we finished laying out the beds and paths on the two plots combined (one each). What with changes in design and the inevitable mission creep along with learning from unforeseen problems it’s been a long haul, but one we’ve enjoyed enormously.
The last two beds and the hotbed along with their associated paths took most of the day but it’s finally cleared and composted and, assuming the no-dig regime continues to deliver, that’s it for us with digging. Tomorrow is the big push on finishing the compost bins and, if possible, starting to move the compost and its huge population of worms into new luxury quarters.
But not everything goes to plan, and the hotbed has unnaccountably stalled. There could be a number of reasons for this – for instance a lack of oxygen, or too low a proportion of carbon in the mix. Just in case oxygen was the problem I drilled a series of air inlets around the bed, and rodded through the manure to try to get some air in, but if it doesn’t heat up I’m going to have to remove the soil layer and mix some more carbon rich material into the manure. Just for luck I watered it with a liquid seaweed mixture to add some micronutrients to the brew.
Madame, meanwhile, was building supports around the broad beans and sowing French marigolds and nasturtiums which we use in quantity along with calendula for companion planting. This afternoon in full sun it was easy to believe that spring has actually arrived, but bear in mind that the ‘beast from the east’ came much later last year and we lost most of our runner beans to frost at the beginning of May. There’s a real balancing act between sowing early and having space and weather to get the young plants safely into the ground. If you get it wrong you land up nursing loads of suffering plants while you wait for the weather to improve.
Anyway, this recycling collection appeared on the pavement outside our block today and I was greatly amused to speculate on which of the tenants in our house lives entirely on pizzas. I’ll be keeping a sharp eye out for someone obviously suffering from beri beri.
And she replied – “Well if you’d stop cursing for a minute maybe I could speak to you”. Honestly it really showed that she had never attempted to build a two tier greenhouse staging from a set of photocopied instructions (poorly) translated from the Martian. Thirty six bolts – painstakingly inserted and tightened – had to be removed because I had got part number 1463 upside down, twice. In my defense I would say that I was taught to do these sorts of jobs by my beloved grandfather who would curse large and beautiful buildings into existence on the basis of 70 years of experience and so – much as it pains me – I thought a bit of cursing might help. My knees were hurting and my back ached and I just wanted to share the suffering a bit because I’m generous.
It had not been a great day anyway. First thing we drove over to B&Q to buy the 8′ X 6′ polycarbonate sheeting to cover the hotbed. I had not properly thought through the logistics of getting it into the back of our very small car and so we had to drive home crouched in the brace position and relying on the wing mirors because there was no rear view mirror on account of the large sheet of plastic resting on it. It was a tricky drive but we got home perfectly safely, or at least perfectly undamaged.
So after the staging was successfully erected (whatever was all the fuss about?) we cut the sheet roughly, very roughly to size with a razor knife and then I attemped to breathe some energy into the hotbed which was stuck moodily at 20C. I made about 10 dibber holes down to the serious muck and then administered a gallon of human activator thereby evicting a beautiful iridescent beetle and a number of brandling worms who didn’t much care for being pee’d on. This is the bit they never tell you about in the allotmenteering coffee table books. There, it’s all gingham dresses and roses, except in real life it’s not – we could feel the coming season growling at us and we were barely ahead.
Yesterday was spent wheelbarrowing woodchip down to fill the paths. It only arrives intermittently and although in public we all pretend we’re utterly committed communards, we would happily commit murder if anyone else got there first. And so we left today – contented at winning several small skirmishes – and ready for some serious sowing tomorrow.
On the menu – squid poached in a red wine and tomato sauce with mushrooms, flavoured with garlic (loads), cardamon, mace, coriander seed and basil with a dash of lemon juice and some creme fraiche at the end. Yesterday two old friends I haven’t seen in years made contact via this blog. I was deeply touched.