Meanwhile back at the ranch

 

A rare day of sunshine on the allotment today and so we made the most of it because there’s the tail end of hurricane Lorenzo about to do one final lap of honor around the UK before finally (we hope) petering out. This is a challenging time of year for allotments because although there are a multitude of jobs to be getting on with, the weather often gets in the way.  We used to call these unsettled patterns “equinoctal storms” but the Met Office get a bit sniffy about the term, saying there’s absolutely no connection between the frequent storms and the day length. They just happen at the same time. Often!

But the last of the tender crops need to be gathered in and new ones sown almost immediately to allow germination before the cold weather really kicks in. That  means the ground needs to be weeded and prepared with compost even if you don’t dig.  Any ground that’s not going to be planted up immediately needs feeding and sheeting, or sowing with a green manure crop.  That’s not something we’ve ever done – I’m not sure what you do with the crop if you don’t dig it in – maybe if it’s tares you can cut it off leaving the roots with their nitrogen nodules intact in the ground, and compost all the green tops – it still gets fed back into the earth but a little later.

It’s this time of the year when we get a sudden mass of green material for composting. We’ve already dealt with the bean vines, but today it was the turn of the peppers, aubergines and those of the tomatoes not affected by blight – oh and the giant sunflowers which need sawing into pieces which are then either bashed with the back of an axe or split down the middle to expose the soft core to the composting bacteria. I often chop the vines a bit with a sharp spade – but you need some air circulation, so turning it all into a soggy mess will lead to slimy anaerobic conditions. The trouble with having a mass of fresh green material at this time of year is that at lower temperatures it can sit there sulking rather than composting. This is a great time to use some human urine to get things going.  We dilute it 10:1 for growing crops, but I’ve put it on the compost heap neat with no obvious ill effects. It’s rich with bio-available nitrogen and it really doesn’t smell.  We tell everyone we’re doing it to discourage the fastidious from browsing our crops! And keep the heap covered with old compost bags because it won’t thrive if it’s inundated with cold rain.

One of our success stories this year has been the outdoor chillies, peppers, tomatoes and aubergines.  The peppers were intended to be grown in the greenhouse but as ever we’d sown far too many,  so early in the season we planted some very poor and bedraggled specimens in a patch of sheltered open ground that happened to be empty. They absolutely loved it, and we’ve had our best ever crops from the open ground, leaving the pampered indoor plants standing still.  The only exception were the hot chillies, but they made the most of the greenhouse and they’ve been fantastic.  It’s touch and go whether the Habenero’s ripen fully, but I ate a tiny slice of an underripe one today and it was fierecly hot already. The mildest chillies – the Hungarian Hot Wax are still flowering and fruiting outside even now.

But all good things come to an end and so we came home with a big basket of green peppers, red cabbage and broccoli which is still cropping well plus a large quantity of green tomatoes. I’m looking for a recipe for a green pepper relish now. We ripened a few peppers on the windowsill earlier and roasted them to use as an ingredient in cooking.

The Sweet Cicily I sowed has resulted in a couple of very vigorous bushes so one of them is going to have to live in a container.  The other is on a patch of unuseable land near the greehouse and it’s very pretty and very useful – sweet and fragrant – so it can stay where it is for the time being. One major winter job is to reorganise the fruit cage and move the strawberries to a new spot.  It’s far too crowded, and a faff to get in and out of which has led to it becoming a bit neglected. Access is so important when planning beds and plots.

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Home then, thoroughly knackered with a day of gallery visits tomorrow for a change. It’s amazing, though how after a cup of tea and something to eat we felt energized again, which was just as well because the harvested  vegetables needed preparation and washing before they could be stored. It’s amazing how many slugs can live in a red cabbage, for instance.  But a soak in salted water and a couple of rinses soon gets rid of them and it’ll keep in the fridge until tomorrow evening when I’m baking anyway so I’ll make some spiced red cabbage at the same time.  Anyone for green tomato chutney?

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.