On the allotment, always look a gift horse in the mouth.

I thought I might post a photo of the Hungarian Hot Wax plant that I transplanted into open ground a couple of days ago – as you can see it’s a really happy bunny now. The other photo is of the garlic crop that Madame has finished peeling and dressing. We’re continuing the drying in the shed because it’s still seriously smelly and a bit much for the landing in the flats we live in. This was all being accomplished while I was with our middle son dismantling a greenhouse he’d found online and going free to anyone willing to collect it. We were very fortunate today because this was an 8X6 greenhouse with only one pane missing a corner and, by coincidence, I took along my tool box with exactly the right set of spanners.  He provided 30m of bubble wrap, a can of WD40 and a roll of gaffa tape.

Free greenhouses can cover a multitude of sins, anywhere between free ground clearance of a no-hope structure held up by old bindweed, and a a shining, almost new one that turned out to be slightly the wrong colour for a fussy and very wealthy gardener. On a scale of one to ten, this one was a definite seven. In fact there were two greenhouses there for the taking but three and a half hours in, and on a baking hot day, we settled for the one, knowing that there were six other bidders willing to take it. Really it’s just a matter of patience, a bit of common sense and the right tools for the job. There was, for instance, a mild steel addition to the ridge that was so rusty the bolts had to be drilled out. Brambles had grown inside, and really  needed taking out before we began, but we had strong gloves, and next time I’d take a pair of secateurs. You’ll need a step ladder to reach the bolts in the ridge.  But the first advice is to take a good hard look at it and if it’s not right – too big or too small, bent, corroded or otherwise compromised by missing pieces just say no.  There are plenty of better ones out there and in any case you’ll be buying a whole bunch of new bolts, clips, rubber strip and springs so the free greenhouse is going to cost you transport, about two days of your time plus the cost of the new components which, honestly, are well worth it.  If you can get hold of the assembly instructions online from the manufacturer that would be an absolute bonus. Then take out all the glass first and dismantle the structure carefully making sure that vulnerable uprights don’t flop about and bend when the horizontal bars are removed.

Horticultural glass is very fragile and sharp, and for safety’s sake is better carefully bubble wrapped and taped before moving it.  If you’re really anally retentive you can number all the bits but it’s going to take an eternity to re-erect anyway.  Finally, don’t skimp on the foundations where it’s about to be re-erected because if they’re not rectangular and level and if they’re not deep enough, the pieces will not bolt up easily, and the glass will start to crack as it subsides. The rubber strip to hold the glass in the frames is essential but a pain to install – there’s a knack to it that you will have to learn. But don’t let me put you off, you’ll get a great greenhouse for fifty quid and a couple of days work – what’s not to like?

Other freebies are not quite such good value. We’ve seen so many people spend a great deal of money on second hand scaffolding planks.  Scaffolders know they’re on to a good thing and will try to charge you far more than they’re worth, but they never sell them on until they’re totally knackered and you’ll be lucky to get three years out of them.  New, pressure treated gravel boards are often half the price if you get them from a local sawmill, and they’ll last ten years.

Water butts, old nets and especially old carpets are often (in order) leaky and needing new lids and taps, full of holes of the kind that badgers can stroll through, and poisonous and rightly banned on sensible allotment sites. If, on the other hand, a local stately home or disgraced member of parliament is disposing of pure wool carpets without underlay, take them without hesitation, although you might have to prove their provenance to the site rep.

I could go on for ever about free manure.  There are hundreds of well meaning stables out there who think they’re acting charitably getting you to dig out their muck and spread it on your allotment. Sadly most weed seeds seem to pass through horses digestive systems merely strengthened and rendered more potent. “Well rotted” all too often means “just cooled down” and so if cheap manure is offered, see how long it’s been stacked, or take it home hot for hotbeds and make sure it gets even hotter – enough to kill the weed seeds. Beware also that they’re not full of wormer – it kills the good ones as well as the baddies! We once introduced Creeping Buttercup into one of our gardens by spreading manure from a local farmer whose fields were notorious for being overstocked with horses that consequently picked up and passed on all manner of parasites.  They were also starved of decent grass and comprised mainly noxious weeds.

There are plenty of really useful free things out there – not least brandling worms. I know there are lots of suppliers out there who would love to sell you a small box of worms for twenty quid – don’t bother – just make a good compost heap and they’ll appear all on their own.  All they seem to think about is food and sex, so not only do they digest your compost and turn it into something wonderful, the also multiply to meet the amount of food you supply them with.

Cardboard is great – especially the brown stuff.  Worms absolutely love it and you’d be amazed how much free cardboard can be found outside shops.  Bike shops are the absolute tops because one box will line a whole path, or bed, or you can tear it into shreds to add carbon.  When you turn the heap the worms can always be found amongst the cardboard.

Free mushroom trays are so useful as well – we’re lucky, two of our sons are also chefs and one of them supplies us from wood-ash from the pizza oven.  Ask around – there are loads of cafes that would love to save money by giving you their coffee grounds – but remember in compost terms they’re a ‘green’ component.

Human urine – you know it makes sense! – bio-available nitrogen, enough for one person (at ten to one dilution) to fill a watering can with plant food.

And best of all – free advice. Every allotment site has a few people who really know what they’re doing. Pay attention to what they say.

Happy gardening!

 

 

Worms worms worms!

 

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.

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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.

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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. IMG_4977

Last bit of civil engineering for 2018

IMG_4820Is there something about New Year’s Eve that compels us all to reflect back on the year? Two years ago we were at St Ives in the campervan, being rocked and battered by the remains of a huge Atlantic storm.  Then last year we were with friends in Shaftesbury.

Last night we were at a lively gathering of neighbours next door and consequently I woke up at the usual time feeling very sleep deprived and – shall we say? – a bit muzzy. Rather too much wine, I’m afraid, but three and a bit years after we moved here we’ve made friends with most of the people who live in the street on a long-term basis. Every year we have a fluctuating population of students and temporary residents and it can be hard to tell one group from the other when you first move.

I would love to be able to say that I’d finished all the raised beds by today, but it’s been a much bigger undertaking than we ever dreamed, and apart from the expense, much of the earlier layout and borders on the first allotment have needed to be replaced and repurposed in other places. It took two years on the waiting list for us to get a second adjoining plot and so all the original rotation plans had to be changed, and it’s taken a year to bring the second plot completely into a new design so we could then move back and redesign the first one.  The bed on the right of the photograph is the foundation for the new compost heaps from which we aim to produce a far greater quantity of compost during next year. There will be three bays each capable of holding approximately two cubic metres of material, and that’s a big ask because the existing setup is so full of brandling worms it simply eats up the waste, which means that the first bay will shring to less than 50% of its original volume.

As I write this I hear Madame calling from the snug where she sits holding her glass of milk stout. (I made all of that up).  “Where are you?” ; “Writing”, I reply.  “What are you writing about?” she asks.  “The new compost heap”. “Are you completely bonkers?” she says, “- who in the world is interested in the compost heap?”

Well, I’m not sure that I know who is interested, so passing on rapidly I can say that most of any achievements on the allotment are pretty small-fry compared with crossing the North Pole on a unicycle, but for allotmenteers life is marked by a good deal of hard work and the odd moment of unexpected joy.  ‘Though I felt pretty miserable when I woke up and reflected on the many occasions during last night when I could have refused a top-up; I also knew that if I didn’t get up to the allotment and at least try to do some work I would feel much worse. So that’s what I did and I felt better after a lot of earth moving and wheelbarrow pushing and if – and I mean if – if it all comes together then next season will go well, BUT whereof I cannot speak, thereof I must remain silent – to nick a phrase from Mr Wittgenstein…. and Madame nods approvingly.

But we’ve had a good year and grown things we’ve never grown before. The extra space meant we were able to grow some potatoes which will last a week or two longer, and tonight we baked a couple of them and among other things we enjoyed our own home made tomato ketchup in a lashed-up marie rose sauce.  Earlier in the day I snacked on the remains of the game terrine between slices of my own sourdough bread and anointed with last year’s piccallili.  It feels good to write that!  This day 12 months ago the seed potatoes had already arrived and we were worrying whether we should chit them straight away. This year we’ve bought them from a different supplier who promises to send them a month later. It turns out that life’s rich tapestry is woven from many tiny threads.

Have a great New Year.

 

“Industrial”? – a bit of planning that’s all.

 

 

One of our neighbours told us, back in the summer, that a friend of his had described our allotment as “a bit industrial” . I’m quite happy with that, although I would have preferred “purposeful”. I think some plots look like squatter camps but thank goodness the allotment is one of the few places left where we are free to express our individual preferences without too much interference. I recall Jim Callaghan’s brilliant put-down of Shirley Williams – “Just because she’s  scruffy she thinks she’s an intellectual”. Organic gardening is either purposefully planned or it’s a pile of old pallets and a carpet heavy with good intentions.  Once you’re serious about getting as close to self-sufficiency as you can with only 250 square metres to play with, you have to plan carefully and then hope that the weather plays along with you. We made the decision to go “no dig” last season, and we’re busy organising the whole plot into manageable beds according to the plan in the photo, so that we have access to beds 365 days of the year, never having to walk on them. However this has left us with the need to raise the level of the soil quite a bit to bring the plants above the waterlogged clay substratum that channels three or four streams down through the site – one of them almost certainly passing underground alongside the greenhouse. The design of the beds is to allow some of that water to drain towards the paths  and divert it away from us.

Last night in one of my regular periods dream gardening I eschewed counting sheep in favour of working out the cubic meterage of compost we’d need to make if we were to cover the whole plot with 5cm each year. I reckon it’s coming out at around 10m³ and that’s ten of our current 1m³ cylinders – a deeply sobering thought. The alternative would be to spend about £350 on buying it in. So how on earth could we possibly make so much compost, given that there’s no way of affording a commercial product.  As I wrote last week, there’s something that feels ethically wrong with throwing money at a problem, but even more important, soil is a living entity with its own ecosystem.  It’s not a neutral medium for supporting plants and feeding chemicals.  And so our ambition to fill our raised beds with good soil has to be achieved the slow way.

Here’s what we’ve got going for us:

  • One small household’s worth of green waste
  • A plentiful supply of dead leaves and woodchip
  • A plentiful supply of cardboard
  • A park opposite the flat that’s mown every couple of weeks in the summer leaving the mowings on the ground and easily raked up
  • All the green waste, trimmings, clippings and weeds from the allotment.
  • Occasional sacks of seaweed stowed in the car when we go up to North Wales. It smells so bad it must be good!
  • A small army of brandling who just love the cylinder.

I’m not at all confident that we can fill ten cylinders and reduce them to compost  in a year without giving them lots of stimulus to increase the heat.  Regular turning would help a lot, but the cylinders make turning very difficult indeed, and so I think we’re going to have to build a row of 4 bins –  4′ square and 5’6 tall and turn the load to the right maybe four times a season, adding wood ash, seaweed and “human activator” and trying as best we can to get the balance of green and brown waste exactly right. It would take up one whole bed, but the impact on the rest of the plot could be enormous.

Lots of fairly heavy work in prospect, then, but we both love a project.  The beds are nearing completion but the weather has been coming from the south west for ages, and that’s a wet quarter for us. Never mind.  We plan to celebrate the solstice on Friday with a slap up meal of all our own veg.  The only other job is to complete the seed order before then so we can truly look forward to next season.

 

How to discourage a hungry Gastropod

A lively exchange of emails after my last posting with my good friends and Potwell Inn regulars Kate and Nick who run a smallholding in the Brecon Beacons. Apart from establishing that they do have a Goose Arse apple tree on their patch, Kate was telling me about an experiment they are planning using birch tar to discourage the slugs and snails that are a constant problem on their allotment patch.

This year they were using sheeps’ wool which had some deterrent effect, Kate says.  They’ve got mountains of the stuff because the economics of sheep farming are frightening. Last year it cost £70 for shearing them and they made £3.81 for the wool. They’ve never made more than 50% of the shearing cost on the wool, and last year’s is stacked up in the barn with little hope of a return except by composting and digging it in to the bean trenches. The pictures show how Kate is experimenting with it as a means of slug control, but whichever way you look at it the hours and the expense of lambing, day to day feeding, abattoir fees, vet’s fees, and fencing can only represent a very poor return on investment. They do it because they love it but the hill farmers are almost all gone now because, in reality, you can’t do it without subsidising it yourself by working. I know buying woollen shirts won’t change the world, but it’s a great example of the way that our countryside is being deformed by our shopping habits.

Anyway, during the winter Nick will be attempting to make some birch tar from their plentiful supply of trees.  Over the years they’ve replanted hundreds of the native trees that would once have formed much of the landscape and they’re beginning to come to the point where some of the less long-lived can be harvested. Apparently the birch tar is waterproof, and when mixed with vaseline it can be smeared on fences (or perhaps raised bed boards) where it is effective for some weeks. This year we used nematodes on some of the beds, but it’s very expensive and in any case in such a dry season we didn’t have any real problems.  We also use ferrous phosphate when we’re forced to but none of us like – or can afford – any sort of chemicals, even when they’re approved for organic systems, but we have agreed to give the tar a try on our allotment. Kate wonders whether it would be better known if it really worked, but the licensing regulations are so stacked in favour of big pharma, smaller companies will never have the money or the facilities to test them to meet the regulations and so they’ll linger on as folk remedies. If it deterred foxes, badgers, rats, pigeons, cabbage white butterflies, carrot and onion flies and human browsers too it would definitely be a winner!

 

Compost experiment – phase 1

I know that the first rule of successful experiments is to reduce the number of variables, but I think this one scrapes in as phase one of a longer term test of two canonical chunks of gardening wisdom. the two statements are:

  1. You must never plant carrots into newly manured ground because they will fork.
  2. You must always prepare the ground deeply to get long roots – so we’re testing Charles Dowding’s ‘no-dig’ method.

There’s a third subsidiary aim which is to test the claims made on behalf of ‘Early Nantes Frubund’ carrots that they can be sown successfully in August and September . Will they give an early crop? We shall see. Continue reading “Compost experiment – phase 1”

It’s always local

I harvested the very last strawberry today and it was delicious.  We also pulled a few of the beetroots that are ready now and we continued picking the runner beans and French beans that we only planted as a gamble against the frost.  It was a gamble that’s paid off and although the tomatoes and the more temperature sensitive crops are beginning to show their age and vulnerability, we’ll still get a few more treats before we turn to the winter veg in earnest.  But on the plus side, the garlic and shallots have all burst into leaf since I planted them and today we went up to the allotment in pouring rain to check that the cold-frame lights were still in place and (inevitably) to have a good look around.  The only problem that Storm Callum seems to have caused was to displace part of the Enviromesh cover on the alliums, guarding against allium leaf miner. Continue reading “It’s always local”