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!

 

 

At last! the seed order

IMG_4796And there’s three pages of it, which sounds a bit excessive, but it’s a boiling down of all our previous seasons; garden visits (especially Heligan); conversations with other allotmenteers; oveheard radio and TV programmes and not least, many happy hours poring over the seed catalogues; googling; and the odd blind gamble. As the photo demonstrates, we’ve already got half packets of some of the varieties we intend to grow – even after this week’s purge of out-of-date ones, so a little of the expenditure is spread over from last year and not included.

What are the other costs of allotmenteering, then? Well, the rents come to £93.36 for our two half-plots. Last year’s other big expenditure was composted manure while we get our own operation up to speed and that cost about £200.  We’ll probably spend the same again this year as we build up the soil.  Add to that the cost of gravel boards, posts, pegs and the other materials required to make the beds and you can see that allotmenteering is by no means free. That’s the bit the coffee table books don’t tell you about when they sell the dream, but you have to see all this as a long-term investment. Nets, cloches and tools can last for years and so if we look after them we can write down much of this expenditure over the next decade.

This year we used five different seed suppliers.  It’s always worth checking what they’re charging and how many seeds there are in a packet.  Even the cost of postage can vary widely between companies so once you’ve decided what to grow, shop around for the best deal. Don’t leave ordering too late because some vegetables – especially the heritage varieties, but even those that just get a mention in an influential forum, will run out.

We’ve spent decades trying to garden on some pretty awful soil.  The last big garden was further up the Cotswolds on cornbrash which was quite productive but there was no real depth of soil and huge amounts of loose limestone rocks.  I remember chatting to the gravedigger one day (we lived next to the churchyard), and he said that if he had to dig in a spot where there was no access for machinery it could take an hour to dig an inch. It certainly felt that way when you pulled up the turf to break a new patch and took almost all the topsoil off with its roots. That was our first experience of raised beds and we got lucky.  The boards were free, courtesy of a builder who was renovating an old chapel and allowed us to take away all the floorboards. I knew a lorry driver who worked for a quarry company and I asked if he ever came across any topsoil.  I drove back to the house one day and found him with an enormous tipper lorry dropping off about 30 tons of lovely soil.  Then, in a similar vein, I asked a farm contractor if he could lay his hands on a bit of manure and a similar quantity was dumped outside our front door, (and very rich it was!).

Here on the allotments we’re much more fortunate with more than a foot of rich alluvial  clay/loam topsoil that’s capable of growing almost anything it seems, but is inclined to get waterlogged – hence all the organic material.

But is it worth it? We’re certainly out all weathers, and it can be hard physical work at times, so no gym subscription needed.  But the clincher is that we reckon the value of our produce exceeds the cost of producing it by at least 10:1 so long as you’re prepared to discount the value of your own labour and call it pleasure. If you think of the cost of organic vegetables and then add the bonus of having them so fresh they taste better than anything you can buy, and then the combination of tangible and intangible value makes allotmenteering a no-brainer.

I can see a clear blue sky through the window this morning and that means we can get out into the fresh air and maybe create two more beds for the overwintering broad beans we’ve started under glass. Last year we had very little sucess with freezing runner and French beans, but the broad beans froze well and taste miles better than the shop-bought ones. Is it worth it? See for yourself.

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