A change of gear and mood on the allotment

This is the time of year when there’s a definite change of pace on the allotment. There’s a change of crops too as we harvest the last of the summer vegetables like courgettes and (still) a few tomatoes and French beans, and start clearing those which have ‘done their bit’. We had a rogue volunteer squash that grew from last year’s compost and after we’d cleared and sheeted the potato patch we allowed it to range freely over about 20 square metres.  But as the temperature dropped over the past couple of nights we could see the plant wilting and so today it went into the compost, along with the asparagus. The trug we brought home was more typical of autumn with its muted colours, and the parsnips are doing well in their no-dig bed –  the latest sowing of spinach is growing nicely under its cloche, and we staked the purple sprouting broccoli ready for the expected winds.  There’s stil basil to pick and tonight that’s going into what’s bound to be one of the last panzanellas of the year.  We need to pick the borlotti beans in the next couple of days, but gradually, one at a time, the beds are moving into their winter modes.  The decision to convert both allotments into beds was quite costly, but it’s paid off handsomely because we can work them all in any state of the ground. Without digging the whole task of preparation is much quicker and there’s no evidence that crops have been affected adversely at all. We’re hoping for a spell of dryer weather to sow the overwintering broad beans and peas, but we’re not bothering to overwinter any of the alliums because the results have been very patchy.

Without doubt one of the less welcome aspects of the autumn has always been, for me, a debilitating spell of low mood, but although it’s been lurking there like the black dog for a couple of weeks, I’ve found the allotment an enormous help. It’s impossible not to be uplifted outside in the fresh air, and a couple of hours quiet weeding is a cure for any sort of melancholy. Obviously once the remains of the dying season have been composted, pickled, cooked or – in extremis – burned, the new season always feels that much closer.  Our soil in in great form – three full seasons of TLC and tons of compost have turned it from a sticky clay-loam, full of couch grass and bindweed, into a rich soil that runs through the fingers and makes weeding so much easier.  Even an attempted invasion of creeping buttercup into the asparagus bed was easy to deal with.  The individual plantlets could be gently lifted and the soil shaken of, leaving no bits of root to sprout next spring.

A little extra time away from gardening has allowed us to do a few more experiments in vegetarian cooking in the Potwell Inn kitchen. There’s no doubt it’s a challenge, but we’re enjoying the new styles, and vegetables that have gone straight from the soil into the pan, taste so much better – plus the fact that we’ve laboured over them makes wasting them unthinkable. As I was writing this, Madame called me into the kitchen to taste a new recipe for braised red cabbage and it was fabulous, much more restrained than our go-to recipe has always been. It’s like being let loose in a sweet shop, so many new flavours and textures to play with. Prepping the panzanella this afternoon, I was using our own tomatoes, chillies and garlic and my own sourdough bread – it transforms the way you regard the raw materials when they haven’t come double wrapped in plastic, doused in chemicals and a fortnight old already.

The compost bin is almost full to the brim for the third time since I built it in the spring.  It’s been inclined to run a bit wet and cold because of the rain we’ve had so I’m going to put a roof over the whole group of four bays so I can control the moisture and gather rain from another nearly 50 square feet of roof, it seems all wrong to water with tap water when there’s the possibility of harvesting several thousand litres a year on site.

Below, the compost bins when they were first built with our cold frames – now stolen – in front, and beyond them, the hot-bed experiment which was so successful we’re going to build two more where the coldframes used to be.

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Sometimes life requires log-rafting skills

I’m still not completely sure I’m doing the right thing by passing so many of my books on, but the decision stands and the total I’ve disposed of is in excess of 350 – or nearer 750 if you count the ones I got rid of when we moved here. But they were the easiest ones, and now it feels like I’m eating ino my own history as box after box goes into the car boot. The ‘disposed of’ group includes a surprise hoard of college library books that I’d completely forgotten I ever had, but felt obliged to return to their rightful owner – which I did yesterday, and then discovered another four stowaways.

It’s feels like a rather revealing thing to do, as I hand them over a box at a time to the woman in the Oxfam shop. She was kind enough to say what interesting books they were, and inadvertently threw me into a bit of a tail spin because I felt I’d handed over something immensely personal – like a secret diary – to a complete stranger who would be listing them in some kind of inventory. No different than Google or Amazon and every other internet company who steals my most revealing information and then sells it on, but this was more personal and almost intimate.  When I was an early teenager and because I was incredibly shy, buying books or clothes became an absolute torment because I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I’d be judged by what I was buying.  It was only through the kindness of a bookseller called John- he was a bit of a legend – that I was given permission to browse all day if I wanted and buy whatever I wanted, but  I never realized that disposing of my books would land me in the same place.

So now each book that goes into the boxes leaves me second guessing what the reaction will be – goodness knows what today’s four boxes of rather arid theology will have done to my street cred – especially after four similar ones on Monday. So not for the first time I blurted out the first thing that came into my head, and I wondered aloud why on earth I’d kept them all, and postulated that it was in case I forgot who I was. I could almost see her thinking I was trying to tell her I’d got some sort of dementia, not least because on Monday I’d said (in another moment of brain fade) that I was doing this so our children wouldn’t have to “when I popped my clogs”.  I’m half expecting a letter of condolence from Oxfam and then my pointless shyness will turn into a clusterblurt.

So four more boxes of books and two guitars gone today, and my oldest son has contacted a removal company to take the piano to his house, while enquiring anxiously about the philosophy books which I promised I wouldn’t get rid of because I know that (eventually) he’ll give them  good home. Meanwhile Madame has jokingly accused me of fancying the woman in the Oxfam shop, but I think I’m suffering a bit from some weird variant of Stockholm syndrome.

So the reason for the reference to log rafting in the title is that the raging flume of my unconscious has also to allow for the fact that this is busy busy time on the allotment. Now the crops are coming in earnest, and we’re struggling to cope with the pace of things.  The overwintered broad beans have, at last, all been harvested and so we’ve had two sessions in which the Potwell Inn kitchen is transformed into a freezer production line. The three experimental plantings of garlic have now also been taken up and it’s clear that of the three varieties we tried the early purple bulbs were far and away the most successful.  The batch of five elephant garlic yielded four real lunkers.

As the beds are emptied and become clear, our aim is to hoe the weeds off, give the beds a covering of composted manure and a handful of chicken pellets or fish blood and bone and get them back into production as soon as we can.  This year we’re able to try the no-dig idea more easily because after three seasons of hand weeding we’re pretty much on top of most unwanted perennials, and the annuals are hoed off as they germinate. Today while I prepped the beds, Madame planted more runner beans raised in root trainers and also some modules of celery. After a bit of a wobble with the weather last week, the sun shone and after a few hours we were able to celebrate the solstice with the allotment looking at its most productive. “Blimey” – said Madame – “this feels more like a market garden”.

And as I type the title ‘Madame’ once again, I’m reminded that a friend said recently that she didn’t like me calling her by that name because it made her sound like a brothel keeper. Although nothing would delight me more than the thought of the Daily Mail reporting something like “retired priest found dead in Bath brothel” I’m afraid the explanation is much simpler.  Madame prefers not to have her name published in the blog because she doesn’t want to lend her implicit imprimatur to the words I publish before she’s seen them, any more than I would suggest improvements to her drawings before they’re finished. There are certain subjects over which we do allow forceful dissenting views – not least the planting, disposition and maintenance of the allotments because we are both very srong willed and neither of us wants to assign agency to the other.  It must work pretty well beause so far I’ve never had to remove a sharpened fork from my back, and it’s never got beyond the withering look and toss of the head stage.

And so  we’re in ‘second crop” mode while we’re feasting on the first, almost at the stage of being able to choose what to eat off the allotment and then taking it home, while the autumn harvest is beginning to take shape in the ground. When I built the line of compost bins I was convinced they were far too big and we’d never fill them – but as you see the first bin is now pretty much full and in a couple of weeks it will be ready to turn.

How to compost a bicycle

IMG_1267.jpgIt’s not particularly difficult to compost a bicycle, but there are certain special compost heap designs that favour the process. Obviously this can be a very slow form of composting and so it’s important not to rush the process since partially composted bicycles can make the formation of a fine tilth for seed sowing very difficult. The easy ingress of air and rainwater is known to favour rusting, and of course the addition of iron to the soil is of some benefit to maintaining colour in hydrangeas.  The impact of aluminium and rubber is less well, known but leather saddles are favoured by some species of worm.

Fortunately most dedicated allotmeteers have innumerable old wooden pallets lying around awaiting a purpose and so I have photographed a number of suitable designs below. Please note in the above illustration that the bicycle tyres have been deflated for safety reasons.

Bicycles also make excellent supports for summer displays of bindweed.

 

If you don’t like worms look away now.

IMG_4993Back 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.

Compost bays finished! – so now what?

IMG_4974I’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.

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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?

“No dig” experiment- first results

Yes I know you should try to reduce the number of variables in an experiment to draw any safe conclusions from the data but …. This experiment started in early autumn  when we sowed the carrots in the packet above in two adjoining cold frames and in two different sowing mediums. There were three questions I wanted to investigate:

  1. Would the carrots germinate and grow from an autumn start?
  2. Did one growing medium work better than the other?
  3. Would the tap roots penetrate the soil pan which had been deliberately left undug.

Question one is easily aswered – we had a good germination, and the plants continued to develop until the present moment. Question two is a bit more complicated because the composted horse manure got the seeds off quicker and the plants put on much more growth than the ones sown in SylvaGrow, the greener but more expensive option. However when we pulled some thinnings today it was clear that although the SylvaGrow plants had not put on so much top growth, the roots had easily penetrated into the soil pan and, given a couple more months, looked set to give us a useful and very early crop of properly shaped Early Nantes style carrots. On the composted manure side we had better top growth and fatter carrots but they were shaped more like Chantenay carrots and seemed to be sitting on top of the soil pan growing outwards rather than downwards as they should. Obviously I can’t rule out the possibility that one frame was bedded on tougher soil, but they were both on a piece of ground that had never been dug but had spent one season mulched with wood-chip to kill the weeds.  So I think the takeaway point is that these seeds seem to meet their claim and the experiment also supports Charles Dowding’s no-dig approach, but the question of growing medium needs more experimenting.  We’ve had a fabulus crop (still harvesting) of Early Nantes and Chantenay in an open bed of improved soil, so perhaps the answer is to forget about expensive growing medium and improve the soil. The other plants in the photo were some winter lettuce sown in modules which have all been eaten, and very good they were.

Elsewhere on the allotment things are going pretty well.  With a week at least of mild weather predicted, we took the fleece cloches off the broad beans today to let them enjoy the warmth and sun.  There were one or two frost casualties but on the whole the plants are looking good. One of the advantages of autumn sowing is that the plants tend to tiller into a number of stalks, giving a higher potential crop, and it’s interesting that this seems to be what’s happening to the plants that were damaged by the cold weather in spite of the protection. I’ve been reading James Wong’s book “Grow for Flavour” and one of the points he makes is that a bit of stress is often good for plants.  In fact I’m wondering if the lack of heat in last season’s chillies might have been due to the way I mollycoddled them. This season I’ll change the watering regime and see if that drives them on – mind you that might well give me some desperately hot chillies that I won’t be able to eat. Garlic, shallots and onion sets are all doing well and so things look pretty optimistic.

But my main focus today was to start work on the new compost bins.  As ever planning is a dynamic exercise and when I saw the sheer size of the proposed 4′ X 4′ layout I revised downwards and decided to go for a 4’X3′ footprint which will give a row of four. The rationale is that you need to get bays filled fairly quickly in order to keep the turning frequent. So there we are, a great day’s work and I can’t wait to get going tomorrow. The hotbed continues to slowly heat up and we’re going to give it some extra “human activator” to drive the heating.  The bacterial action is strongly underway now with the temperature at 20C, but it should go to 50C fairly quickly.  I don’t want to sow there before the temperature peaks in case it damages the seedlings.

Oh and the birthday parties went well yesterday as well – great family day, but (this is an addendum if you like) all the while we were working on the allotment a couple of homeless women were setting up a tent on the site.  As we left I saw one of them injecting herself in the leg -no way of knowing what she was injecting, but what a sorry state to be in. Is this the dream? To have reduced the whole country to something like “The Wire”? Is there no shame?

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