More garlic

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Carcassone Wight hardneck garlic. Next year’s crop

Well I did say that garlic growing had reached a whole new level of personal interest after the Allotment Association talk last Monday, and I wasn’t wrong.  The book I ordered – all 450 pages of it – was definitely a good buy, and coupled with some information from the talk I’ve been doing a bit of online research to see what the state of play is for organic gardeners..

The first thing to say is that the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm is not an organic operation and makes no claim to being one. I certainly don’t want to mount any high horse about that; it sounds like a commercial decision based on the challenges of achieving a consistent crop, and we’re free to buy or not to buy their products. Two things that were said induced me to get online.  In the QA session after the talk it was said that the farm uses Dithane to control fungal diseases like white rot.  They also operate a seven year field rotation, so they’re obviously taking no chances.  When he was asked what to do if you get white rot, the speaker said “buy another farm!” – I’ve got more on that later.

In fact they can’t use Dithane because it’s been banned in the EU, and they probably went over to Systhane until that was banned as well, and current regulations seem to say that there are no chemical fungicides available to gardeners for use on food plants. That’s not a worry for us because we wouldn’t have used them anyway, but we have to accept that our losses to disease will be much harder to reduce and will need a holistic approach to plant health coupled with some hard observation of soil, weather conditions and rotation.

The second thought provoking suggestion in the talk was to give the garlic a dose of sulphate of ammonia in February.  Sulphate of ammonia is a chemical fertilizer, produced by reacting ammonia with sulphuric acid. It adds, I discovered, both nitrate and sulphur to the ground but there are all the usual downsides of producing sappy, insect friendly growth and so-on. It also uses 1% of the world’s total energy production in its manufacture.  But alliums – onions, garlic etc – all need sulphur which is one of the molecular components of the garlic byproduct, allicin, which is so good for us. Normally there’s sufficient sulphur in the soil, but apparently – and here you must remember my knowledge of plant biology is limited – apparently waterlogging does severe damage to plant roots and restricts the uptake of essential minerals.  The take home point for us is that when we inherited our allotment the soil was continually waterlogged in the winter, and despite adding tons of compost; digging drains and raising beds, it’s still on the wet side.

The sequence of plant problems is that weakened plants get diseases more quickly and more severely than healthy ones. For the third consecutive year our leeks have been a miserable failure while others on higher allotments have not been affected. So putting aside sulphate of ammonia what else could be available to us as organic gardeners? One suggestion is to spray with a solution of Epsom salts – magnesium sulphate. It’s apparently allowable, but I’m assuming it’s a manufactured chemical and I know it hasn’t been made from natural Epsom spring water in living memory so it feels pretty non-organic to me. Then I came across some research on seaweed fertilizer which pretty much fits the bill.  We often use it as a foliar spray, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to use it in February.  Research suggests that it’s a very effective source of minerals including sulphur. Anecdotally I can say that a car load of bagged and wet seaweed certainly smells as if it’s got some sulphur about it! – and it it makes a brilliant soil conditioner too. So in February we’ll spray the young alliums with liquid seaweed extract and I’ll report back. Other than that, I think we need to carry on raising the beds further above the water table and digging in organic material and horticultural grit.

Back to the book, and it’s been a revelation. I need to get a bit of organic chemistry into my head, but garlic’s claim to be a superfood seems to be well supported by independent research. The last 100 pages of the book are a summary of research into the use of garlic in folk and complementary medicine and  the use of alliums  and their derived substances as attractants, antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides and repellents in the environment. There’s all sorts of peer reviewed research in there including some work on companion planting which I’ve yet to read properly because I get excited and start skim-reading – a very bad habit and the reason why I’m not referencing any of the ideas.

But allotmenteering is all about taking the abstract and making it concrete, and so this all boils down to creating the best conditions for our own garlic by growing it in large pots filled with a home made mixture of soil, compost, horticultural sand, a sprinkle of fish blood and bone (not vegan then), and some vermiculite and perlite. This year we’re comparing 2 rows of Early Purple Wight softneck, grown direct in the allotment soil, and 25 plants of Carcassonne Wight hardneck in pots. They’ll all get the same seaweed treatment and hopefully we’ll be able to figure out how much the waterlogging is contributing to our difficulties. In practice this means carrying many kilos of ingredients down the steep paths and mixing them up in the wheelbarrow, which is extremely hard work but massively cheaper than buying bags of potting mix – which sometimes rely on peat in any case. This way we’ve only ourselves to blame if we get the mixture wrong.

So, after a hard day, we consoled ourselves with roasted root vegetables (mostly off the allotment) and couscous; another vegan tryout that was well worth the effort, but notwithstanding the affection of American readers for all things pumpkin – especially on Thanksgiving Weekend – even after being anointed with miso and all manner of herbs it didn’t really taste of very much.

The garlic book is –  “Garlic and other Alliums – the Lore and the Science” by Eric Block, Royal Society of Chemistry Press. 454 pages and I can’t put the price here because Madame occasionally reads this blog!

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Our moment in the sun is over and we get back to work on the allotment

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With three days almost completely taken up with the exhibition in Bristol, we came down to earth yesterday – quite literally – with less of a bump than a sigh of relief. IMG_5365We had the greatest of times, met so many people, and it was fun but I went into extreme extrovert mode which, I’ve discovered is a kind of protective device. I’m much shyer than I appear to be – especially in big crowds of strangers. The benefits of sailing through the occasion and having a wonderful time are always offset by the payback. I was greatly assisted by the little pendant I was given that said I was an artist.  Although I had a painting in the show I’ve never felt able to describe myself as an artist so the badge helped save me from trying to explain.

Luckily an early bus gave us a chance to wander around Bristol Docks on Sunday morning.  Sadly St Nicholas Market (above) was closed but quite apart from team loyalties – we were both born and brought up in Bristol – any comparison between the dockside development in Bristol and Cardiff, which I wrote about last week, would come down in favour of Bristol just for the sheer diversity on offer. It’s more than 30 years since we lived on the docks, but we were there for 20 years in a succession of different flats and I have to pay tribute to Peter Ware, the architect, who almost single handedly started the fight to preserve the Georgian buildings in Hotwells and the character of the whole area. Consequently Bristol has retained and repurposed hundreds of old buildings that set the context for the new ones.

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But time and seasons wait for no-one and so we went up to the allotment at the crack of lunchtime to see what needed attention. Our first job was to remove the protective netting on the garlic and shallots which seemed to give a sigh of relief and stretch towards the sky.  I swear they were six inches taller after a feed with liquid seaweed which also gave them a good watering.

The fleece also came off the peas, and we put a net over the whole bed to protect it from the birds.  Birds, especially pigeons, are a particular menace on the allotments and without wishing them any ill will, we do everything we can to persuade them to go elsewhere. The other most frequent visitors are jackdaws which are great eaters of grubs.  Some people shoo them off, but I think they’re irresistable in their glossy black coats and grey capes. Robins, come too when we’re digging and we even once spotted tiny goldcrest which came and then went, never to be seen again.

Gradually we’re taking the propagated plants up to the allotment and we’ve regained one of the windows.  The chillies are all doing very well and I’ve been snacking on the Hungarian Hot Wax as they slowly turn yellow.  The tomatoes are due their last re-pot before going out and the greenhouse aubergines are flowering.

Down on the coldest patch, the potatoes have shrugged off any frost under their fleece which is being lifted upwards on the shoulders of their haulms.  Suddenly the allotment is taking on its summer form once more.  We spend a lot of time weeding and watering which are both jobs I really enjoy – unlike many people, I know. But allotments, while they can be sometimes very domineering and far from the cliché of outdoor therapy, have many sides to them. They aren’t just about the satisfaction of growing food.  They certainly feed the spirit, but there’s also a strongly aesthetic feel about them as well. Like works of art in themselves, they are expressive of their gardener’s personality. So maybe I really do deserve the little pendant with an A on it?