Parting shot

IMG_5366Often the best view of the allotment is at the end of a day’s work, when you can look back across from the vantage point of the high path alongside the shed and see the bigger picture. We enjoyed full sunshine all day and the temperature was in the high teens, so you could almost hear the plants growing. All the forecasts suggest that we’ve seen the back of the frost and so we’ve begun sowing and planting out the tender varieties.

The Plan – the great winter fantasy plan – is now at the stage where almost every day brings the need for some amendment or other. I was reading yesterday that every military battle plan ends with the first contact with the enemy. I’m sure that applies just as much to gardens and allotments – for instance on our plot we had a bed designated for onions and roots; but the overwintering onions were hit by eelworm and so we can’t use that bed for any of the alliums for three years – which means that we’ll have to plant brassicas there this year.  You can imagine it’s a bit of a house of cards and it can make you wonder whether it’s worth planning, but if you don’t plan at all you can forget something until it’s too late, so you lose the crop. So we stagger on and the master copy is gradually overwritten with what really happened. I guess the only truly static plan is the retrospective one.

We took the fleece off the potatoes during the day, and they are truly impressive plants.  However long experience tells us that impressive haulms don’t always signify big crops. This year’s potatoes are growing on a piece of borrowed land, and our neighbour is notably parsimonious with his compost, so we anointed it with a thick layer of the Potwell Inn finest triple A grade. Our fervent hope is that we haven’t produced a luxuriant crop of leaves at the expense of the potatoes. The broad beans have begun to set pods and so today the tops are coming off.  In Italy they’re a delicacy, but we’ve nver tried them, so broad bean tops are on the menu for tonight. We also took down the last of the overwintered brassicas and after I’d smashed the stumps with the back of an axe they all went into the compost with a handful of chicken manure and a good watering.

Elsewhere we’ve got an abundant supply of lettuce and salad leaves but as always with successional sowings you land up with some supply gaps and we’re waiting for some more radishes and beets to catch up. The tomatoes are getting their final repotting before planting out today and we’ve decided to expand our companion planting.  We’ve found a variety of basil (sold by Chiltern Seeds) that’s adapted to the UK climate so we’re going to interplant that with the tomatoes and throw in some nasturtiums and petunias as well. The asparagus bed is getting the same treatment to discourage the asparagus beetle.  Elsewhere we’ve got calendula dotted around and of course the big umbellifers are attracting lots of plant friendly parasitic wasps. You can only try these ideas.  I doubt that any of them are a complete cure, but all we need to do is tilt the balance in our own favour.

There are a handful of civil engineering jobs ourstanding as well.  Yesterday a woven hazel fence panel arrived at the flat but it weighed a ton and was far too big to get in our little car, so I’m going to call in the heavy mob, AKA our son, to help me carry it up. What we’re planning is to create a sun trap between the shed and the greenhouse and build a staging for big containers protected from any north winds. The last job will be to grow a windbreak on the eastern edge which is our least protected side.  We’re not allowed fences, but anything that produces food is alright!

In an ideal world I’d grow more flowers

IMG_5112But we don’t live in an ideal world – even at the Potwell Inn, and so even photos like this are compromised by the fact that the last touch of sun from a beautiful day was just disappearing behnd the trees. On the other hand, when we went up in the morning to plant the last few potatoes, the sun was reaching the whole of the plot after its winter sleep. Roughly speaking it reaches all parts directly between the two equinoxes, which means that for the whole of the growing season we’re no worse off for sun than our neighbours at the top of the slope and much better protected from the wind all year round. Prospective allotmenteers often reject the plots at the bottom of the site, especially if they come in mid winter with the ground frozen hard, and it’s worth remembering that it can take several seasons to get the measure of any piece of ground.  I’m quite sure that real allotments – as opposed to the imaginary variety – all have their different challenges, and waiting for the perfect plot to come along is a recipe for never doing any gardening. Half the fun is knowing your patch of earth and working with it to produce some food.  There’s an issue of mindset here – piece of ground isn’t a blank canvas, it’s a complex ecosystem that you can only join on its own terms. The saddest thing is when new allotmeteers take on a plot, blitz in in spring and sow or plant anything and everything only to see the weeds reassert themselves and the crops fail in the sumer.

But to return to the starting point, I love flowers and I’d dearly love to grow more of them but with limited space it’s a matter of priority to grow food and so our compromise is to grow as many beautiful insect and bee attractors as we can.

These are lifted from Ken Thompson’s excellent book “The Sceptical Gardener” –

  • Of the lavenders Hidcote Giant is shown as better than Hidcote
  • Marjoram
  • Cardoon
  • Erisymum linifolium ’Bowles Mauve’ (Wallflower) – best for butterflies
  • Echinops – Globe Thistles
  • Catmint – ‘Six Hills Giant’
  • Borage
  • Agastache foeniculum – Giant Hyssop
  • Echium vulgare – Vipers Bugloss
  • Salvia verticillata – Lilac Sage, Whorled Clarey

The photo at the top of the posting is of our globe artichokes which, with a bit of luck will flower this year.  Yesterday we were casting around for somewhere to plant three angelicas we’d raised from seed and they can grow to very tall plants so they needed to be somewhere they wouldn’t stifle the neighbours.  It’s a gamble but I though the two old toughies could fight it out between them. We grew angelica in a previous garden and it self-seeded freely for several years and then disappeared, but it’s a lovely flowerhead that attracts insects (like all its cousins in the Apiaceae) and better still, the stalks are edible.  I’m desperate to make a bit of crystallised angelica for the Christmas sherry trifle!

So flowers that attract pollinators and that you can eat are a double whammy.  We scour the books looking for likely companion plants, and grow herbs wherever we can.  We’ve got two specific herb beds one for tall ones and the other for short ones – drrr – not exactly Gertrude Jekyll but it works for us, and that’s all that matters. Last week we spent a happy hour just chewing herb leaves – how sad is that? There’s an empty patch in the herb bed where we’re hoping last year’s begamot will eventually wake up and show its head but who knows?

The chillies, aubergines and peppers are all roaring along in the propagators and will have to be displaced this week by the tomatoes.  Hello summer, goodbye floorspace! And we ‘solved’ the oversupply of seed potatoes by planting all the Red Duke of York in big bags and pinching half a bed for the Sarpo Mira. We even found time to have an afternoon snooze in the sunshine – the very essence of allotmenteering.