The thrills and spills of seasonal work on the allotment

Our neighbouring allotmenteers went on a gardening course with Sarah Raven last week and among the multitude of new ideas they were buzzing about afterwards, one in particular stuck in my mind. The soil is all important – the beginning and the end of any attempt to grow things. Of course that’s right, but it was only as I was turning the compost heaps again today that I remembered how much I enjoyed this time of year when I was working as a groundsman, and we began all the routine maintenance jobs; repairing the wickets, hedging and draining and looking after the machinery. Of course we had to maintain the football and rugby pitches and mark out the white lines every week., but it was the time when all the foundations for the next season were laid.

And on our plot today we were already setting things out for next season. Peas and broad beans are all ready, in fact the first batch of broad beans is already growing in the ground. The fruit trees are ready for their winter pruning and we’ve prepped ready for five new trees. The tall perennial herbs have been divided and moved to their new spot near the pond; the asparagus bed has been cleared, weeded, given a supplement of calcined seaweed , then composted and sheeted. All the beds have been manured or mulched with leaf mould and sheeted even though some of them will be planted up before Christmas. We’ve had rain and then a few days of early morning frost which will help the garlic; the new batch of leaves is stored for next year – there should be about two cubic metres of finished leaf mould.

Then the paths have all been topped up with new wood chips which rot down surprisingly quickly so they swallow up to thirty wheelbarrow loads every autumn to bring them level with the path edging. That’s a lot of trudging up and down the steep site, but when it’s done the plot looks somehow more purposeful if that makes any sense.

Sadly, today I dug out all of the leeks for burning, because they were attacked again by allium leaf miner and were beginning to rot where they stood. That’s the third year we’ve lost them all and so I think we’ll give them a miss now for a few years. although I’m sure the plant breeders will be looking for more resistant varieties. We don’t put the affected leeks into the compost because especially at this time of year we’re unlikely to reach high enough temperatures to kill the pupae, and today I found a cluster of eggs laid near the base of one plant. These obviously need to be destroyed or we’ll just perpetuate the infestations, but the insect now seems to be everywhere in the UK. Our best hope of control is the same as it is for any other pest – physical barriers, good soil, strong plants and masses of predators at the right time. That’s why we overwinter the broad beans – it toughens them up enough to resist the aphid attacks until the ladybirds arrive.

There really is a correlation between abundant insect attractors and improved predation on garden pests, and one of the principal deficiencies of spraying with chemicals is that it often kills the predators as well as the target pest; thus making yet more applications of spray necessary. Modern apple production requires quite staggering numbers of spray applications; every one of which can make the situation worse.

The compost heap still heats up obediently every time it’s turned, and the more often it’s turned the quicker it does its job. One indicator of how well it’s doing is what’s happening to the bean vines which are often quite slow to rot. This year the vines were taken down in mid September and a couple of months later they’ve all but disappeared in the the heap. the worms don’t like it too hot and so they move up and down in the bin until they find a congenial spot – many thousands of them can congregate of a single bin. You just need to keep the heap at the right level of moisture – not too wet and not too dry but just right.

The same goes for plants which prefer their moisture in modest amounts; so this time of year too, when we get heavy rain, we can see which parts of the plot need additional grit to help with drainage. With the exception of bog plants I can’t think of any normal garden vegetables that don’t absolutely hate standing in waterlogged ground. Plants can die from lack of oxyen – they can easily ‘drown’ if they’re left too long.

It would be quite wrong to think that allotments can be ‘put to bed’ in late September and not tended again until spring. These quieter growing months are a marvellous opportunity for planning, remedial work transplanting and new planting of trees, and the odd bit of civil engineering. I wish I could add digging to the list because I absolutely loved doing it and miss it terribly now we’ve given it up; but I honestly can’t think that, aside from keeping me warm and fit, it does anything for the soil at all – and if you miss the exercise, get a bigger wheelbarrow and fill it up – or, if you must, drag a tractor tyre up a hill with chains.

And there we are – a whole posting without a single apocalyptic rant about the environment, but I think our chat with the young smallholder yesterday reminded me that while, as the astrologers might say, our economic and political systems might dispose us towards destructive practices, they really can’t compel us. We can resist and go our own way, knowing that although we may not be saving the planet on our own, we’re at least not making it any worse.

And finally yesterday’s 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf. I’ve eaten my words and unreservedly recant all my previous statements on the impossibility of making a decent 100% loaf. Thinking back, during the first lockdown I changed a large part of the time and temperature settings during baking, none of which changes I’d ever applied to a wholemeal loaf. So the combination of leaving out the second rise – cutting the overall proving time down to 18 hours instead of 26; and shortening the bake by 30%, the first ‘new method’ loaf emerged pretty triumphantly with a soft crumb, open texture and a good crust, not an impenetrable barnacle hard carapace. The flavour was intense – as you’d expect – but with none of the bitterness you sometimes get with a fast, yeast driven wholemeal loaf. And best of all, it tasted of wheat: really wheaty with a rich taste of the granary floor (if that makes any sense). As children my sister and I used to love feeding the chickens at my grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns. The grain was kept in a shed, and we would go and fetch an old pot, fill it with grain and go out to feed the hens. The loaf reminded me of, and tasted as good as that experience.

End of summertime – Storm Barbara obligingly removes leaves.

I should have made a video really, but today the weir steps had all but disappeared under the flow of the river. You might have thought that this would deter the crowds, but a quick look across the water towards Southgate suggested that our rapidly increasing Covid infection numbers was not enough to deter Christmas and half-term shoppers. Cognitive dissonance is alive and shopping in Bath! As ever we skulked along the far side and out through Henrietta Park and Sidney Gardens to the canal which, unsurprisingly I suppose, had its own traffic jams.

Yesterday’s allotmenteering focused on getting the strawberry bed finished. This was really part two of the pond building because the surplus soil was transferred from the hole to the raised bed; but with the storm glowering in the skies I had to work like stink to get it finished – cue rather stiff back! I don’t think we will be seeing the plants until early spring, but they may come with the tree order which I made yesterday before we set out to work.

The idea was that the predicted heavy rain would keep us at home all day today but what we saw was a fairly continuous drizzle and some very strong gusts of wind. According to my phone we’re still owed about 15mm rain today, but Bath sits in a bowl, surrounded by hills and so we tend to get the rain courtesy of the river. The wind, however stripped the leaves off many of the trees and next week I’ll be hoarding them as the Council sweeps them up and dumps them at the allotment site. This is an incredibly useful (and much sought after) resource, and stacked under weights in one of our line of compost bins, we can make finished leaf mould in a year – a brilliant soil conditioner, especially for the raspberries which enjoy a low pH mulch. So that means come rain or shine I need to be up at the plot, emptying last year’s supply ready for the new.

The fallen leaves are also useful as a source of ‘brown’ material in the other compost heaps, so if there’s any opportunity I’ll turn the two heaps and add layers of leaves to step up the carbon content. The plan is to turn the heaps regularly and get them heating up – one of them recently reached 60C – so that’s another backbreaker.

It was a tremendous pleasure to get the first two bits of civil engineering done, but there are still several more to complete including installing new terracing boards at the bottom of the plot along with posts and wires to support the Tayberry and blackberries that are also on order. Then there’s a pergola and sheltered area for us between the greenhouse and the shed and finally I’m going to build removable cold frame lights to sit on top of the compost bins. I want to see whether I can create a warm bed by capturing waste heat from the compost. Last season we grew cucumbers and squashes very successfully on top of the leaf mould – they just thrived there.

But in case you thought the Potwell Inn allotment never ever experienced the shadow of pests and diseases, I’m sad to say that we forgot to put the fine insect mesh over the leeks at the end of September and they’ve been badly infested with allium leaf miner (again). It’s a pain – particularly because it was down to my own carelessness; but every problem is a lesson and it’s obvious that the smaller and weaker the plant the more it was damaged. This is the third season we’ve been attacked and so I think we’re going to have to find a way of growing them that avoids the worst of this relatively new pest, but sturdy plants in healthy soil seems to be one part of the answer.

The rest of the day was spent pondering over the seed order. I’ve downloaded the latest RHS list of what are known as ‘Award of Garden Merit’ (AGM) fruit and veg. If you’re wondering which variety to choose from a catalogue with fifty options it’s a good resource to refer to. When in doubt we grow the AGM variety because it’s been independently tested for everyday, ordinary gardens and allotments. We don’t always agree because every plot is pretty much unique and we’ve discovered a few varieties that for whatever reason, really thrive on our plot – but I still check against the list. It’s all too easy to turn to the old favourites and ignore the fruits of more recent breeding trials. I wouldn’t dream of ignoring the blight resistant tomatoes and potatoes that have come on to the market in recent years. No-one who’s lost an entire crop overnight would want to have the experience again. This year we’re going to try fly resistant carrot varieties.

So hopefully we’ll have the seed order off tomorrow and then we can relax. Last year we had to subsist on old and saved seed because the garden centres and seed merchants we so disrupted. Meanwhile a few more photos from today’s walk.

Thinking about colour

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IMG_6314So yesterday I started thinking about the colour set for the red cabbage leaf painting. If I were to use the closest colours I could get to the ones printers use in three colour printing, I could use them in two alternative combinations of warm and cool. But this morning as I was trying a few swatches, it occurred to me that I could get closer to the purple red I need by using alizarin crimson. Then a couple of experiments with the two blues moved me towards French ultramarine which gives a warmer touch.  But there are also many browns and greens to be got and sticking with my three tube resolution I tested cadmium orange and Indian yellow.  Why bother? Why not just open a different tube for every colour I can see?  Well, because it’s far less interesting and it costs a fortune and I don’t need to work that way. I’m just an apprentice, and I just learn a lot more by using a restricted palette.  Didn’t I learn all this at art school decades ago? No I didn’t because art schools went through a long phase of treating technique with great suspicion. Imagine a conservatoire that didn’t allow students to practice scales because it might disrupt their inner musicality?  That was what art schools were like in the seventies – ideas were supposed to emerge untroubled by anything resembling skill.  I’ve no idea whether things have changed, but if I were offered that kind of education on a huge loan I’d think twice.

Anyway, today was meant to be a drawing day because the forecast was for rain, but it didn’t rain and so we went up to the allotment and while Madame sowed peas – douce Provence do well over the winter – I dug up strawberry offsets and planted them out in their new bed.  It’s a little late to be doing it but if they get their roots down and we have a decent autumn we’ll have new plants for free and we can give many of the fruit bushes more space when we move them.

It’s been a good year for Jays – we saw six together yesterday, but todays unusual sighting was a parakeet.  We heard it first, and then caught sight of its brilliant green plumage. Sadly we also noticed that someone has nicked a bag of compost – there’s obviously a thief on the site, but very little we can do about it. I’m cooking pork shoulder in cider tonight, with pommes dauphinoise and chard off the allotment. If this is brief it’s because I’m knackered.  The only thing we could do to prevent any more compost being stolen was to get it all on to the beds – which involved much heavy lifting. As I was prepping the new strawberry bed I noticed that the worm population has exploded since last year – good news and confirmation that all this emphasis on organic matter is paying off.  Not so, sadly, with the leeks which have been struck down for the second year running  by allium leaf miner. There are just a couple of plots that haven’t been affected but the variety doesn’t seem to matter.  Next year we’ll have to think whether leeks are one crop we should give up for a year or two.

I’ve ordered second hand copies of Gerard’s and Culpeper’s herbals – Gerard was only 17p so well worth a try. Culpeper just arrived and that’s where I’m off next.

Has eelworm invaded the overwintering onions?

You know how it is when it seems something might be amiss with a crop but you hang on in the hope that it was just a silly mistake and it will all blow over as soon as the weather improves. Some hope! We try to celebrate life’s rich tapestry as best we can but when push comes to shove a bit of ruthlessness is called for. IMG_5328These onions, (Autumn Champion, grown from sets), looked fine until a few weeks ago and then, just when they should have taken off, they began to show signs that something was wrong.  We had been careful because we previously lost a crop of leeks to allium leaf miner, and so they were covered with fine insect mesh from winter onwards. However, facts are facts and these onions looked sick.  It’s sometimes difficult for a non expert to diagnose these pests and diseases, but the effect on the leaves was very like leaf miner.  So that gave three possibilities – allium leaf miner, onion fly and eelworm. According to the books it’s a bit early for leaf miner, the mesh should have seen off the onion fly as well and so that left eelworm as the prime suspect. Whatever it was, the remedy was much the same – dig them up and burn them and then don’t grow alliums on the plot for three years.  The RHS rather loftily suggest that the ground should be left fallow, but our allotment doesn’t stretch into the blue remembered hills, and we can’t afford to leave a whole bed empty so we’ll probably try to kill any remaining eggs, cysts or pupae with the flame gun and then observe the rotation carefully.

It’s always sad to lose a crop, but we have the spring planted onions which appear to be OK, and the leeks, garlic and shallots are all alright too, so in a break in the rain and for fear of going stir crazy we went up and did the deed.  As we were pulling them out I examined them carefully to see if any further light could be shed on the problem, and most of the post mortems showed no signs of maggots or pupae, supporting the eelworm hypothesis.  However I did find a couple of plants with 2mm brown pupae that looked very like allium leaf miner – so it was an open verdict. Much as I hate any green material going off the allotment, I’m afraid this lot went straight to the tip. Just for reference or any further ideas I’m including a photo of the pupa and another plant.  Please don’t take this as a sign I know that much about plant pathology, I’m only one page ahead in the textbook!

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Our first proper garden

Pickwick Lodge CottagesThis photo of our first real garden was taken in 1970.  We were students at Bath Academy of Art and we rented this cottage on a farm in Corsham, Wiltshire for two and a half years.  The art school was a twenty minute walk across the fields. You can just see through the doorway to the back garden where we kept a goat. We had an outside toilet, a very deep well which must once have been the water supply and a gigantic water cistern which we discovered by accident when we were ploughing there and the plough caught on a large metal ring which, when we levered the stone up led to a two chamber storage cistern big enough to swim around. The connection betwen the two chambers involved diving through a small hole – I was thin in those days!

There may be some small correlation between the garden and the fact that I was on probation for the whole of the second year for failing to attend! These were magical gardening days that all came to an end when a herd/drove/drift/sounder of pigs somehow got in and rooted it all up in an hour. It was a good training in philosophical patience! – and I resumed my studies in ceramics in the nick of time.

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A wet and windy day day today – the opportunity for searching through the albums this afternoon – but the temperature stayed in double figures so we managed a couple of hours on the allotment where we installed the insect mesh over the overwintering onion sets. It’s been so windy we haven’t worried too much about allium leaf miner, but this is the beginning of the season when the females lay their destructive eggs.  Storm Gareth has had a very long tail but the forecast is for improving weather after a last wet weekend and so we felt that regardless of the weather we needed to protect the alliums. The insect mesh is expensive but since we took to protecting all our vulnerable crops with it we’ve been mercifully spared the maggots that cost us our entire crop of leeks in the first season. It should be said that we’re also growing from seed now, meaning the young plants are not out in the open and exposed to the flies in garden centres. Madame checked the stakes on the tallest brassicas to protect them from the wind.

The biggest point of interest now is the possibility of a small crop of asparagus quite soon. Storm Gareth seems to have slowed things down but the Mondeo – the early variety is showing signs of producing its first spears.  We’ll harvest each variety for a month, enough for a few tasters we hope, and then let the plants continue to establish themselves. We’re hoping that the thick mulch of seaweed over the winter will help them to grow vigorously. Elsewhere we’re harvesting purple sprouting broccoli, savoy cabbages, kale, carrots Swiss chard and rhubarb.  Next week the weather looks fine and we’re hoping to get a good number of seeds in.

Every time we go to the supermarket now we buy any variety of pears we can find because we’re taste testing them before ordering some container grown cordons in the summer. At the moment the front runners are Doyenne du Comice and Conference but there’s a cross, bred from the two parents, called Concorde.  I’ve never seen it in the shops but it’s billed as a heavy yielding pear with the best qualities of flavour and texture from both its parents.  We’re looking to plant five more cordons and a damson, a plum and a greengage are the fruits I’d most like to grow.