As easy as 1,2,3 – possibly

Reflecting on the season which is drawing to a close, there’s a lot to be thankful for – not least the new polytunnel which has done all we hoped for. It was a big investment for us and it was a nightmare getting it up in the freezing cold and wet of March; but without it I don’t think we’d be making tomato sauces for storage on anything like the scale we’ve been able to. Within two weeks we’ll be taking up the vines and any green tomatoes will be turned into chutney. We weren’t so lucky with the aubergines mainly due – I think – to the humid weather which apparently makes the pollen sticky. But after a week of hand pollinating with a watercolour brush, the mass of flowers look as if they are setting some fruits at last. All we need now is warmth and sunshine to finish them. The other great polytunnel successes have been the melons – which I’ve already written about.

However, it’s been a savage year for slugs and then recently blight which has destroyed most of our neighbours’ tomato plants. We took the decision some years ago to grow blight resistant varieties as far as possible. They’re more expensive because they’re F1 hybrids but we’ve harvested over 60 lbs so far with another 20 still to come. Most of our neighbours have lost the lot – which is terribly discouraging, especially for newcomers. Let’s be clear, these varieties aren’t GM or anything like that; they’re just the result of old fashioned field trials and – so far as we’re concerned – they’re worth every penny. We only grow early potatoes now so blight isn’t an issue; but we have grown blight resistant potatoes (Sarpo varieties) in the past and they’ve worked very well. There’s a dilemma here because it would be lovely to continue with heritage varieties but if they die before they provide any food you have to wonder whether it’s worth the heartache. The devil here, of course, is climate change which has utterly altered the weather that most heritage varieties were selected to grow in.

But that only addresses the problem of blights and fungal infections. Pests are another problem and once again there’s a dilemma because since we started filming our nocturnal visitors we’ve seen foxes, cats, badgers, squirrels and an assortment of greedy birds. The one animal we haven’t seen – and if the image of the allotment as a wildlife haven were true, we should have seen – is the hedgehog. In five years not a single one has been seen on the allotment, and the reason is patently obvious – it’s slug pellets. Most of us talk the talk when it comes to controlling slugs and snails harmlessly; but when slugs fell a whole row of spinach seedlings in a night, it takes a whole lot of forbearance not to reach for the pellets. Now that metaldehyde has been banned, the new iron phosphate replacement might fill the gap but hedgehogs, badgers, toads and birds would be far more effective. Surely giving up the pellets would be a sacrifice worth making if we could get the natural predators back on the job?

And that immediately raises another dilemma. How do you keep the ‘useful’ predators off the crops you want to eat? Badgers especially can destroy a whole year’s corn in one rampage. The photo says it all!

Badgers destroyed this crop on a neighbour’s plot 2 days ago.

There’s a cultural tic that afflicts a lot of allotmenteers that treats any expenditure at all as a bit – let’s be honest – middle class incomer, far too rich so and so’s. I’ve witnessed many a cutting remark about those of us who choose to invest our savings in physical crop protection – fences, insect mesh and butterfly nets; but to me it seems absurd to expect to grow a significant amount of food without spending any money in defending it. This year we invested heavily in micromesh to try to stop repeated attacks of allium leaf miner and carrot fly – and guess what? It has worked brilliantly, which is why organic market gardeners and farmers whose chequebooks are permanently welded shut to preserve the bottom line, willingly shell out on physical crop protection. Pests and diseases are indiscriminate and all we can do is keep them out of our food supply without declaring chemical war on them.

Cabbage butterflies, slugs, snails and aphids aren’t going extinct anytime soon, but the higher predators who rely on them for food, well might. We need to include positive effects on biodiversity, healthy exercise as well as fresh organic food in the profit and loss account for any allotment. I’ve come to believe that there’s even a place for the rat in the great scheme of things – so long as they’re not peeing on our lettuces!

Four days late but snow finally arrives

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And at the risk of destroying any residual reputation I might have for competence, it really did arrive in style. When we went to bed last night it was snowing gently and the forecast was for nothing too much.  However when we woke up, the view from the flat told a different story and it was clear that around three or four inches had fallen overnight, with more falling out of the sky as we watched. With the number of nets we’ve got up this was always going to present a problem and so I went up to the allotment before breakfast to see what the damage was. When you think about it it’s obvious that the larger the horizonal area of a net, the quicker it will collapse under the weight of the snow. img_4926The fruit net was the worst casualty with a couple of feet of snow inside which had torn the net wherever it was supported.  My brilliant idea of a tall pole with a football on top was a complete failure  – it just ripped a football sized hole through the net. So that’s one that needs a redesign and some new netting.  The other two 10′ square nets were buckling under the weight, but I got there just in time to shovel most of the snow out before too much damage was done. The stars of the show were the home-made nets made from water pipe bent into the shape of a Roman arch – there’s one in the top photo. They at least were able to move in the wind and their more flexible structure had enabled them shed the snow as it built up.  All they needed was a vigorous shake to clear them completely. There was one hoop net that fared less well because of its flatter shape.  So heres a good rule for snowproofing nets – forged through exprience.

Semi-circular nets on hoops seem to do better than anything else in the snow.

I didn’t touch the cloches because they were obviously capable of carrying the snow without deforming because they were so much smaller in surface area. The last unknown is the area covered with fleece.  Whatever was growing underneath has been pressed into the ground, but hopefully the plants will recover as soon as the snow melts.

The weather stats for this week have been pretty severe.  We’ve had the coldest night in years and today the highest snowfall as well.  It was 1C out there when I was shovelling snow, but with the windchill it was more like -6C.  I belatedly discovered that my raincoat was leaking somewhere and as soon as I came indoors and thawed out I realized my clothes were wet through to the skin. Snow has the most amazing ability to penetrate your clothes.  If there’s the smallest crack the snow will find a way in.

As I left I met two other allotmenteers at the gate and both were suffering from the same problem – overloaded nets.  But there’s a large resident pigeon population on the site and if they spot any brassica leaves in weather like this they’ll strip them to the ribs. So there’s no alternative to nets if you’re cropping all year round. I could see, though, that we were all secretly enjoying the challenge.  That’s the spirit, there’s no such thing as a cockup, just a learning opportunity.  In my heart I knew yesterday that the fruit cage was vulnerable, but it would have been hard work to take the net off on my own and so I didn’t.  My fault entirely.