The hazards of babysitting allotments, and more thoughts on water.

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Every silver lining – it’s said – has an accompanying cloud, and one of the best things about allotmenteering is that there are always neighbours who will keep an eye on your plot while you’re away.  But there are risks – your neighbour might treat the job as more of an aspiration than a commitment, although it’s usually our children who go down that route. On the other hand the risk to the Good Samaritan is that something horrible like blight might happen to the neighbour’s tomatoes and it’s them that will have to break the news. We have a friend whose daughter’s hamster died one Christmas Eve many years ago.  He had to visit every pet shop in Bristol, with the deceased pet in his pocket, asking if they had another one “exactly like this.”  Mission accomplished,  and with the daughter in the dark about the ruse, they all celebrated Christmas without an accompanying cloud.

The reason for this visit to memory lane is that we arrived at the allotment this morning to find a Good Samaritan in a bit of a state – she’s always taken her responsibilities very seriously. Our neighbour’s tomatoes had suddenly developed some sort of disease while she was looking after them.  We knelt and prodded and poked and examined the source of the problem which was not centred on the leaves but in the stems which had developed long brown lesions.  When I cut one open and peeled it I could see decomposition beginning at the centre and it felt suspiciously soft. Later, at home, I checked with several books – the RHS book by Pippa Greenwood “Pests and Diseases” is especially approachable – and I decided it is probably Tomato Pith Necrosis, nasty but not completely fatal as long as you cut the infected stems off and burn/dispose of them. By the time we came on the scene she was already planning to dig them all up and burn them but we were certain it wasn’t blight (too early for a start) and she agreed to wait until the holder of the plot got back off holiday. She’d already texted him with the bad news and so I texted him later with the better news. The disease is soil borne and can be spread by splashing – for instance by watering with a rose from above – and also by handling.  Tomatoes hate having their leaves handled.  Needless to say we all solemnly washed our hands with gel and then we sped off to the Potwell Inn plot to make sure ours were alright.

IMG_5731.jpgHappily all was well in the tomato department but while Madame was picking some peas she found that the Pea Moth was cranking into gear – that’s why getting them sown and picked as early as possible is always a good idea.

Elsewhere the young leeks are doing fairly well, but along with the autumn and winter crops already growing, they’re a reminder that nothing stands still for long on an allotment, and the seasons are always queuing one behind the other.

Meanwhile I’ve been revisiting some of the calculations I did before I posted on the subject of watering with stored rainwater.  When I went back over the figures the combined water gathering area of the shed plus greenhouse is not 7 but only 5.5 square metres. So I had a look around, and if I roofed the compost bins that would give me an additional 4.5 square metres, and if, as well, I built a rain gathering roof between the shed and the greenhouse it would add yet another 2.5 square metres.  That would give a water harvesting area of just under 12.5 square metres. Because there is always inefficiency in harvesting, let’s say that the effective harvesting area is 10 square metres.  That means that for every mm of rain that falls we could harvest between 10 and 12.5 litres of rainwater.  The average annual rainfall in Bath is 761 mm so that would potentially yield nine and a half thousand litres in a year.  That’s about 5% – peanuts compared with the almost 200,000 litres that would fall each year on the whole plot in any case, but the thing is that it doesn’t rain every day and so the stored water is buffer against temporary shortages. Three thousand litres of stored water would provide 75 full watering cans a week for a month, or 25 a week if the drought went on for three months. The harvesting area could refill the tanks three times in an average year and, most importantly they could harvest during those short heavy thunderstorms and intense showers that would otherwise be wasted in run-off to the rivers.  Another thing I ddn’t factor in yesterday was that 20% of the overall area of the plots comprises pathways that don’t need watering anyway – that’ll teach me to check my calculations more carefully before I post!

So all this, combined with the other measures I wrote about yesterday, (soil improvements, mulching etc.) could easily be part of the way forward.  What really struck me was the sheer volume of rain that falls in a year, and how much of it is wasted in run-off.  I haven’t even mentioned grey-water because on an allotment it’s not a factor – but you can see the huge impact of more widespread adoption of water storage.

But yesterday I also alluded to compost as part of the solution to global climate change, and again I checked the calculations I made when I built the 4 compost bins in February. I calculated that the absolute maximum compost we could make would be about 3 cubic metres – and that would be pushing it. All the organic gardening books suggest mulching with up to 15cm of compost.  Calculated for our standard allotment that would mean making around 30 – yes thirty – cubic metres of finished compost a year, and I’d say that would be an absolutely impossible target. Some form of rationing will have to be done unless we/you are as rich as Croesus.  There are other soil conditioners like leafmould that we can make, but they come (free) in the autumn and the heap spends a year shrinking to less than half its original size. So that makes about half a cubic metre. Apart from buying in manure, which I’ve no objection to except that it takes up so much space (27 cubic metres? – don’t be silly) – that’s a quarry lorry full. So that leaves us green manuring, and, because we’re not digging, the green manure would have to be composted – no problem there.

Sorry, that’s a lot of detail but it makes me wonder how realistic some of the gardening gurus actually are. TV gardening programmes are entertainment, and just as not everyone who watches Jamie Oliver actually cooks his recipes (which, incidentally are very good), so too with gardening shows.  Whole new gardens without a blemish are planted up in five minutes and never a pest appears to darken the horizon, and ….. I begin to wonder if coffee table gardening isn’t the first cousin of  the romcom – not much reality.

Finally, just to leaven the lump a bit, not all vegetables need a great deal of water.  While I was researching this I discovered that watering does nothing for parsnips, and carrots do worse if they’re watered any more than occasionally.  Our own experience with potatoes shows they need very little, so there’s some silver lining there.  For me the take-home point from all this work with a tape measure and a calculator is a better understanding of the inputs that make for a sustainable and drought resistant allotment. Far from being minor issues they need to be brought into the long term planning of facilities and crops.

 

First batch of garlic

IMG_5698Actually that’s not quite true because we’ve been eating new season garlic for quite a while as the main batch dried in the greenhouse.  The picture shows about half the crop, and the results show that the variety Early Purple Wight was the most successful of the three varieties we tried. We’d thought that most of the alliums were a bit of a disappointment this year, and we dug up the onions when they appeared to be suffering from some kind of (unidentifiable) affliction. However, less fearful (diligent?) allotmenteers left their affected plants in and many of them have recovered and now look well, so maybe we were overcautious, but the combination of twisted and wilting foliage with softness in the sets suggested some kind of rot. We found no evidence of fly infestation at all. so that’s another one to put down to experience.  There’s a lot of “no idea” in gardening if we’re honest, but plants are amazingly resilient and can come back from the brink.  It’s been so dry this season, and it’s been difficult to give the plants enough water.  When we planted the leeks out a couple of weeks ago they looked terribly sorry for themselves, but even the sickliest have pulled themselved into the ground and are looking more vigorous now. Our sage plants, particularly, respond to ruthless pruning with loads of new growth. Parsley seems to hate being watered from above with a rose, and most of our plants seem to prefer a good soaking straight from the can at ground level. There’s a mass of detailed experience that comes into play on the allotment, and so many things that can go wrong – but the rewards are immense, and we don’t beat ourselves up too much if we get it wrong.  Life’s too short to waste with gloomy reflections on the inevitable failures.

So it’s been water hauling, garlic peeling, thinning out and weeding in the warm sunshine.  I had to get the strimmer out yesterday to deal with a couple of out-of-control paths and a big patch of nettles on an adjoining plot. Actually I’m quite happy to have nettles around the place because, as my friend Rose says, they’re not weeds – they’re habitat.  However they’re also deep rooting mineral miners and great as accelerants in the compost heap and so I took half of them for the heap in the hope that they too will regenerate with fresh new growth.  But strimming in hot weather is a pain and it’s fearfully noisy and smelly with exhaust fumes. We’ve now got four abandoned allotments neighbouring ours and when I put up an insect barrier to protect the eastern edge of the plot from strong winds it was soon decorated with airborne seeds.  How much habitat is too much? We have much discussion about what it’s appropriate to put in the compost bins and my rule of thumb is to exclude bindweed and couch roots and any weeds that have actually set seeds, but bung the rest in, roots and all, mixed with all our kitchen peelings, tea leaves, eggshells, shredded paper and cardboard. Since I don’t encourage the heap to get too hot it probably doesn’t kill seeds, but since we don’t dig, thereby bringing new seeds to the surface, most of the seeds that germinate when we spread compost are easily hoed off.

While we were in Cornwall rediscovering the meaning of chilling out we decided to limit time on the allotment to something more manageable. Naturally that resolution didn’t get much further than the allotment gate, and yesterday we were there for best part of six hours, but with fresh peas available I couldn’t resist making a risotto when we got back. I can’t pretend it was a vegetarian dish because there was home made chicken stock and a little pancetta along with the arborio rice, shallot and parmesan. I always use butter rather than oil in this recipe, and I always add a splash of white wine in the early stages. There’s something very comforting about pulling up a stool and a glass of wine to drink while I keep the risotto moving in the pan. But some, at least, of the ingredients had come straight from the allotment and we finished off with a pile of summer raspberries from a neighbour.  Beware of allotmenteers bearing gifts, they’re usually about to go on holiday! Our corner of the site is a small and unofficial cooperative where we take mutual obligations seriously, so no free lunches then, but you can get away for a break without worrying too much about the plot!

My newly revived interest in medicinal herbs has led to our son’s partner calling the flat “Hogworts”!

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A drop of the good stuff ?

 

Finally – today the very first load of compost came out of the new row of bins and was spread across the beds we’d just removed the broad beans from. I said a few days ago that, at the time I built them, I thought I’d made them much too big, but with the sudden acceleration during spring, and now we’re harvesting crops, the first bay was filled to the top and ready for its first turning – which meant I had to clear the second bay of compost that was moved from the previous setup.

I think we must have tried every conceivable method of making compost over the years, and for a long time we’d settled on double cylinders made from sheep wire and lined with thick cardboard. These were wonderful but had one major disadvantage – it was very difficult to turn compost from one cylinder into another without constantly catching the tines of the fork in the sheep net, and in practice we usually dismantled the nets altogether – which was time consuming and a bit messy.  So when the opportunity came along to build some more conventional bins in a row, we decided to make the switch. We knew we were making good compost the old way but we had to weigh up whether the benefit of having an efficient system would be more worthwhile than the loss of a twelve by four bed. The answer to that question has come in two ways.

Firstly the value of the compost has been more than demonstrated by our crop of potatoes.  They were grown on a borrowed patch of ground that had been a bit cold and neglected.  Our soil is clay loam, potentially very fertile but inclined to waterlogging and easily poached when walked on – another reason for moving to raised beds. It hadn’t seen much by way of organic material over the years and so it had a look and feel I can only describe as ‘starved’. Last autumn we gave it a thick layer of compost and covered it with builders black plastic until it was time to plant the potatoes. Even in that time much of the compost had disappeared and the worm count was very much higher.  Better still the ground was easier to work by far.  We planted four varieties in the ground and they’ve all thrived – we’ve almost finished eating the Jazzy and we’re into the Arran Pilot. Pink Fir apple and Sarpo Mira are both flowering and the earlies we’ve lifted have given pretty reasonable yields. What’s more, when the plants are lifted the soil is sweet and friable, quite different from its condition last autum.

So that’s the first reason and the second is the sheer ease of turning – so easy in fact that I’ve been regularly turning the ‘live’ heap in situ to add shredded paper and cardboard if it starts to get a bit anaerobic. Our son brings big bags of grass mowings every fortnight, and these can be a nightmare to compost without creating a stinking mess.  However we shred all our paper waste at home, and down in the basement there’s a large bin for cardboard waste and we regulary filch the good stuff because it’s so handy for weed control, or temporary covering and in this instance tearing up into small pieces and mixing it with the grass cuttings.  What’s particularly noticeable is how much the worms love it. If we chuck a big piece of corrugated carboard in, a week later it’s got its own population of brandling worms, often in the hundreds. So the heap consists of all our green kitchen waste, shredded paper, cardboard and egg boxes (which seem to disappear quicker than you could imagine, along with all the green waste from the allotments. I’ve said before, its difficult to know whether it’s a compost heap or a giant wormery and – to be honest – it really doesn’t matter because all that counts is the quality of the compost.

Do we add any activator to it? Well, there are no rules but if it’s gone cold and slow the best activator of all is a drenching with urine, or sometimes a sprinkling of pelleted poultry manure or fish blood and bone.  The urine has the added advantage that it discourages people from nicking our food if they know it may just have been watered with a ten to one mixture of what Lawrence Hills used to call “human activator”. It’s best to imagine the heap as a dynamic environment that thrives when interest is shown in it. Getting the carbon/nitrogen balance is critical, and so is controlling the moisture levels.

If it gets too wet, neither the worms or the bacteria are happy just as they’re unhappy if it gets too dry or too hot. Paying attention to the details means that we can make far more compost in a given time.  Of course a neglected pile at the end of the plot will eventually make something like compost but on our site it would always be full of bindweed roots as well.  Weeds are often lazy and thrive in a neglected heap. We never put any pernicious weeds or annual seeds in the compost because we deliberately keep the heat down for the benefit of the worms.  Consequently annual seeds, couch and bindweed are not killed in the process and the’re best disposed of elsewhere – a green waste collection or a well controlled incinerator or couch fire in the autumn. We try to keep bonfires down to the minimum although if the temperature is kept low by controlling the air intake they will last for days with barely a whisper of smoke or steam.

At the end of the day, good compost is probably one of the most important crops we grow and absolutely worth all the attention.  Having the bins in a line, with removable slats at the front, makes turning a pleasure.  It’s still hard work, but it takes a fraction of the time and buying compost – we’ve used tons of the stuff getting the plots into shape – is very expensive.

So the crops are flowing in faster than we can eat them which is good news for the family.  A couple of days of hot sunshine has given us chance to plant out everything that was left in the flat, the greenhouse and the cold frames – quite a moment to savour.  I love planting things out after they’ve been in a series of pots.  There seems to be a qualitative difference when they discover their roots are free to stretch themselves and I swear I can hear them singing in their own plant language.

The sunshine has also brought out the crowds on to the green outside the flat.  The university students are all pretty much finished now and we play musical neighbours with a stream of parents (for freshers) and vans (from the second year onwards) fighting a guerilla war with the traffic wardens. It’s lovely to see the barbeques and to hear the sound of the young people enjoying themselves.  I even find a bit of late night music and partying strangely comforting.  But it’s also brought out a huge number of rough sleepers,  we even get tents on the green until the police turn up and move them on. Last night I was watching the fun when I spotted a young man crouching between two cars smoking crack from a piece of foil. The dealers like this place because there’s no CCTV and an abundance of escape routes on both sides of the river.  The police have taken to riding bikes but it doesn’t seem to have made much difference. It’s heartbreaking to see so many young people in deep trouble with disordered lives, homelessness and mental illness. How much is a human life worth? Almost any time we walk into the centre we see someone toppled over, unconscious or comatose after using spice. Last week we heard a young woman hurling abuse at an invisible person, and then a little later a fire engine nosed down the road to put out a fire she’d started. Moving the problem out of sight isn’t working and by and large our neighbours are sympathetic to their plight. Last year neighbours were remonstrating with the police after a man and his partner who’d been camping peaceably on the green were heavy handedly moved on by the police. The council policy seems to be to keep the tourists happy at any cost – even human cost.

There are days when even the joy of growing our food is tainted by the thought that so many people will never be allowed to experience it!

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.

 

Say hello to Gareth, Hannah, Idris, Jane, and Kevin.

P1060263Another storm from the Met Office alphabetical list rattles up from the Atlantic today, so yesterday saw us on the allotment preparing. Our plot is partially sheltered from all but due easterly winds because it’s at the bottom of the site with a row of trees to the south and west. This makes it a frost trap, and it doesn’t get nearly so much sun at this time of the year as the plots at the top.  By the equinox things even out a bit and the sun is high enough in the sky to fool the trees. But there’s always two sides to ill fortune, and we gain a great deal from our sheltered position, for instance in the higher plots polytunnels are shredded and even sheds sometimes overturned.  Our sheltered position doesn’t, however, protect us from gusts of 60mph and all the turbulence that these storms bring and so yesterday we fixed a windbreak around the broad beans, and battened down the hatches on the coldframes with a layer of fleece.  It’s not really very cold, so the response of the beans to their pampered existence is to produce even more flowers. We shall either emerge as cunning horticultural whizzkids or hopelessly over-optimistic amateurs and we shan’t deserve either label because to garden well you need to take a few risks and enjoy a good deal of luck.

Sad day too, when we discovered that one of the stalwarts of the site had died at the weekend. We could see that he was in failing health, but he managed to conceal the extent of his illness from everyone. He had wicked nicknames for everyone on the site, and usually managed to nail them in a word or two. He was quick to befriend us when we first took on our plot, and I’ll miss our exhange of friendly insults when I pass his shed.  His allotment was an extension of his personality and it will be awful if the next person on the plot clears away all his unusual perennials without even knowing what they are.

IMG_5003The most enjoyable part of the day was the first turning of the new compost bins.  After years of  building cylinders that needed to be dismantled before you could access the compost, it was a joy to wield the big manure fork and turn the heap into the next section in no more than ten minutes.  When I first turned the compost into the new bins the temperature shot up and I was fearful that the brandling worms would desert the heap altogether.  But they must have retreated to a lower, cooler layer and yesterday they were back in their thousands.  This, of course, has been a slow winter heap and shortly we’ll be adding loads of fast decomposing green material to the new one so having the sections in a row means the population of worms can find which bin works best for them and set up permanent residence. It’s quite wonderful the way they found their way into the original heap.

Back at the Potwell Inn, the sole casualty of our holiday appears to have been the sauerkraut which we stored in the fridge to slow down the fermentation. It appears that the drying atmosphere of the fridge has sucked a lot of the juice out. Sadly I left the valves open on the jars to allow any gas to escape. I haven’t had time to taste it yet, but there are a couple of large savoys left on the plot and if needs be I’ll just start again. We need to clear out the last of that brassica bed ready for planting the potatoes in the next ten days when this sequence of storms has blown through. On another bed, though, we’ve started to harvest the purple sprouting broccoli, and we’ve still got lots of carrots in the ground.  Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had something to put on a plate right through the hungry gap?

 

 

At last – the cunning plan

2019 allotment planOr at least as much of it as I could force on to a PDF and then convert to a JPEG. It’s harder and slower than you’d think. I suppose it would have made more sense to do the plan before the seed order but we had a clear idea of what we wanted to grow and – as always happens – it’s only when you start the detailed planning as to where exactly things are going to go, that you realize you just need a few more square metres. But we don’t have a few more square metres and so it’s going to be a very tight fit.  There’s another challenge, inasmuch as some crops come out in time to get a second crop in afterwards, but the very thought of trying to plan successions that way (although the software allows it) –  makes my head spin.

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All this planning is attributable to my being felled by a cold and kept indoors with only my protestant work ethic for company. Oh and miserable weather just about topped it. But after three or four days, the streaming eyes, the sneezing and the hacking cough have subsided a bit and we were able to go up to the allotment clutching the print-off in order to see just how difficult the plan is going to be.  It’s now true midwinter and growth has slowed almost to nothing among the plants.  It’s as if everything is taking a break and waiting for a sign to wake up again.

But one group of residents has not stopped for a moment this winter. The compost heap has become a wormery without any effort at all on our part. With plant growth at a standstill the only thing going on to the compost heap has been our household green waste – peelings, eggshells, cardboard, coffee grounds and leaf tea all go on every couple of days but the heap never grows.  Down at the bottom of the heap the magic has happened and when I separate the two layers I’m confident we’ll have excellent compost.  Lifting up the old carpet and the cardboard on top reveals an astonishing amount of worm activity. I’ll need to be careful when the heap is turned into its new home. The worms have found their own way into the heap and they are really thriving, so I’d quite like to start a proper wormery, but what would be the point when the system is working so well without any interference from me?

Now the new raised beds are almost finished there’s still a bit of old-fashioned digging to do in order to remove the last of the bindweed and couch before we forsake digging altogether and rely on our friends the worms to do the work for us as they take the mulch down into the ground. It’s a win-win situation, but I’m not sure the summer is going to be all about lounging around drinking Pimms.  It’s going to be just as hard work to source and produce the quantity (about 10 cubic metres) of compost we’ll need to run the no-dig system really well. And there in the middle of the plan are the three new compost bins that will be the engine of our productivity – when I finally get around to building them.

Compost bin? Wormery? who knows?

IMG_4254I’m not sure what to call this beast any more. It doesn’t seem to obey any of the rules that  I thought we’ve been following for years, but goes on it its own sweet way consuming everything we put into it.  It’s supposed to be a compost heap, and at the beginning that’s how we treated it. A compost heap is an exercise in managing cycles – loading, turning and eventually extracting the finished compost, and that’s how ours has always worked in the past.  But this one seems to be different.  We began it back in the summer when we relocated it from some neighbouring unused ground.  We didn’t really pay too much attention to it apart from makng sure that it was kept moist through the dry summer. We compost all of our suitable household waste  (probably 5Kg a week) – peelings, eggshells, cardboard, tea leaves (not bags) plus anything that comes off the allotment. It’s not huge, it’s 1m diameter by about 1.5m tall which is just over 1 cubic metre – about the maximum size we can manage.  Any bigger and it’s difficult to remove the wire frame to get to the compost.  It couldn’t be simpler to make, you just make two cirular cages with sheep wire, one about 25 cm larger than the other and line the gap with heavy cardboard.  The boxes bicycles are delivered in are easy to scavenge in town. Then you fill the wire and cardboard tube with whatever comes along.

In the summer we started to feed the heap with urine diluted 10:1 with water and it heated up considerably, not to the 60C claimed by some systems but above 40C which, at 10C above ambient even in the hottest weather, showed that something microbial was happening. While this was happening I noticed that very large numbers of brandling worms were moving to the top, presumably to avoid the heat. We’d never added any worms to the heap, they just seemed to find their own way there. As autumn came on they moved down again and I expected that the heap would slow down and not do much until the spring.  I was mindful of the fact that it was now very full and would need turning as soon as I could build a second container. But whatever process is going on seems not to have diminished at all, and each time we top the heap up, within days it’s reduced once again, and I’m beginning to wonder whether the primary process is driven now by worms.  So has it turned from being a compost heap to a wormery?  I’m really concerned about disturbing it while it’s working so efficiently so I think I’m going to leave it alone over the winter, maybe wrap it up a bit with some insulation and see what happens. I’ll just build a second compost heap alongside it.

If it has turned itself into a wormery, then extracting the compost is going to be a bit more difficult because the cages don’t permit the easy removal of material from the bottom, and so I might just build a proper worm bin with a means of extraction and then try to move the original contents, complete with worms, across to it.  I don’t know exactly what the weight would be but 1 cubic metre could be 500-600Kg depending on the moisture content.  I’d always thought that I’d need to buy worms to start the process, but as always nature needs very little help in doing what it always does. I guess I’ve created an ideal environment for brandling worms to breed in and they’ve just done their thing. I’m delighted, hopeful, grateful and I feel properly put in my place once again.

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The timber has arrived for the new batch of raised beds and so the next couple of weeks are going to be devoted to civil engineering. There are a lot of outstanding jobs to be done, not least plumbing together the four water butts because the mains water supply has now been turned off and we need to get all 1000 litres of rainwater gathered over the winter. I also now need to get a wormery constructed and finally I want to do some experiments with a moveable hot-bed next season. Our second LED propagator light has now arrived so soon it will be time to sow chillies ready for an early start. Yesterday we removed all the window boxes to the greenhouse to protect the geraniums from the frost, and we’ve replaced them with another six boxes planted with spring bulbs.  For a while it looked very bare through the windows, but there’s something hopeful about seeing the green spears poking through the soil. It all sounds easy but everything has to be lugged up and down three flights of stairs and across the sloping allotment site and my knees are complaining.