First day of term

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I think the allotments department must have had a bit of a binge last week because suddenly the site was crowded with newcomers, many of them thirty-somethings with children in tow, and some with parents and in-laws to advise as well. The sun was obviously a big factor, although there was a bitter east wind blowing across the higher parts of the site; down at the bottom we were more sheltered and soon started peeling off the precautionary sweaters and jackets. Clearly – and this is marvellous – the allotment has escaped its traditional culture and become something of a trend. Whether it’s to do with likely food shortages, the increasing interest in vegan and vegetarianism,or a turn against intensive horticulture isn’t clear, it’s probably a bit of all three.

The biggest worry is that although allotmenteering is marvellously therapeutic and healthy when everything goes according to plan, it can bring immense disappointments too; for instance the mice have just eaten the whole of our second sowing of peas.  They had the first sowing too and so we’re starting the third batch under glass in root trainers while I purge the offenders.  I think the whole therapeutic gardening meme deserves unpacking a bit.  It shouldn’t promise instant happiness and freedom from stress because what it does far more selectively is accustom us to dealing positively with disappointment; to treat success and failure equally as imposters, as Mr Kipling said before he started the cake business. My guess is that some at least of these newcomers have very little experience of gardening.  One of our new neighbours today was hacking at his very weed infested and tussocky plot in a way that’s guaranteed to bring disappointment later in the year when the newly invigorated bindweed kicks off. It’s hard to intervene when people aren’t actually asking you for advice. We should probably set up a mentoring scheme, but the men in particular as as likely to ask for help as they would ask for directions from a passer by. Why wielding a spade should engender such powerful elk-dragging feelings in young men is a mystery and so the apprenticeship often takes far longer than it need.

I think the ghastly phrase ‘self sufficiency’ has a lot to answer for. Short of inheriting 10 acres of prime mixed farmland and a private income, complete self sufficiency is a fantasy. The rest of us just have to grow what we can and buy the rest as thoughtfully as possible. Better still, accepting that we’re dependent on others as they depend on us is the foundation of human community – you know, that thing that’s not functioning very well at the moment, especially in supermarkets. Panic buying is the dysfunctional 21st century form of self-sufficiency.

Paradoxically the one thing I’d want as the first taught skill on my imaginary mentoring scheme would be digging, especially for prospective no-diggers. I watched my mother and father and my grandparents dig, long before  I bought my first RHS book with those wonderful pictures of men in trilbys leaning on their spades in front of an immaculately trenched row. There’s really no easy way to get the ground ready for no-dig systems – I know because I’ve tried them all over the last 50 years – flame guns, strimming and even (wash my mouth out with salt water) – glyphosate! True, they all produce immediate results, but none of them produce more than cosmetic improvements. Get rid of the weeds by proper digging first and while you do that you’ll learn all about the depth of your soil, you can improve it by composting and break up any soil pan to improve drainage. Then – and it might take three years – you can put the spade in a car boot sale, although it’s pretty useful for lots of other jobs. You can grow things from day one as you clear the ground, but a thorough digging over as crops are harvested will help to discourage even the evil weeds like bindweed. Slow and steady is the way to go and year on year, results will improve.

My second tip would be to choose one guide rather than read a dozen books, all with different views. As time goes on you’ll find out for yourself what works. And my third tip is to invest in the best tools, seeds and plants that you can afford. Using poor tools makes hard work of any job. That’s it really.

I should say that most of us old-stagers have decided to interpret the social distancing rules as  permission to do even more allotmenteering.  My prediction is that this year could be a great year for allotments so long as we move the imaginary fences out a couple of metres and don’t insist on having face to face conversations.  In fact I’d go further and say that local authorities ought to buying suitable land with a view to doubling or tripling the number of allotments as a contribution to the greening of the environment. Well tended allotments are highly productive and could make an important contribution to food security, biodiversity, carbon capture and – notwithstanding my earlier comments – general wellbeing.

When we first moved on to our plot the first thing I did was to repurpose some old planks we found and make a double bench. Before we turned a single spadeful we had somewhere to sit down, drink a cup of tea from the flask and plan. Sometimes our plans coincided and sometimes they didn’t but eventually we always came to a common mind. Gardening is at least 50% daydreaming, and rushing into the first plan is sure to give you backache. Just as it is with fitness training, the most important part is what’s happening when you’re not training.

The photo shows how the bench has evolved on our plot over the last four years.  It’s a little piece of paradise, sheltered from the wind (and the neighbours) with a brolly and a grisly but free plastic table for picnics and potting. Everywhere was busy busy busy – it looked like a Pioneer Corps training camp today, and it filled us with pleasure.

Tomorrow I’ll write a bit more about our strategies for coping with self isolation. Meanwhile please respect the need for keeping a safe distance from older people and remember that many vulnerable people look pretty normal.  Asthma, heart disease and diabetes are invisible so it’s better for everyone if we take a step or two back.

 

A change of gear and mood on the allotment

This is the time of year when there’s a definite change of pace on the allotment. There’s a change of crops too as we harvest the last of the summer vegetables like courgettes and (still) a few tomatoes and French beans, and start clearing those which have ‘done their bit’. We had a rogue volunteer squash that grew from last year’s compost and after we’d cleared and sheeted the potato patch we allowed it to range freely over about 20 square metres.  But as the temperature dropped over the past couple of nights we could see the plant wilting and so today it went into the compost, along with the asparagus. The trug we brought home was more typical of autumn with its muted colours, and the parsnips are doing well in their no-dig bed –  the latest sowing of spinach is growing nicely under its cloche, and we staked the purple sprouting broccoli ready for the expected winds.  There’s stil basil to pick and tonight that’s going into what’s bound to be one of the last panzanellas of the year.  We need to pick the borlotti beans in the next couple of days, but gradually, one at a time, the beds are moving into their winter modes.  The decision to convert both allotments into beds was quite costly, but it’s paid off handsomely because we can work them all in any state of the ground. Without digging the whole task of preparation is much quicker and there’s no evidence that crops have been affected adversely at all. We’re hoping for a spell of dryer weather to sow the overwintering broad beans and peas, but we’re not bothering to overwinter any of the alliums because the results have been very patchy.

Without doubt one of the less welcome aspects of the autumn has always been, for me, a debilitating spell of low mood, but although it’s been lurking there like the black dog for a couple of weeks, I’ve found the allotment an enormous help. It’s impossible not to be uplifted outside in the fresh air, and a couple of hours quiet weeding is a cure for any sort of melancholy. Obviously once the remains of the dying season have been composted, pickled, cooked or – in extremis – burned, the new season always feels that much closer.  Our soil in in great form – three full seasons of TLC and tons of compost have turned it from a sticky clay-loam, full of couch grass and bindweed, into a rich soil that runs through the fingers and makes weeding so much easier.  Even an attempted invasion of creeping buttercup into the asparagus bed was easy to deal with.  The individual plantlets could be gently lifted and the soil shaken of, leaving no bits of root to sprout next spring.

A little extra time away from gardening has allowed us to do a few more experiments in vegetarian cooking in the Potwell Inn kitchen. There’s no doubt it’s a challenge, but we’re enjoying the new styles, and vegetables that have gone straight from the soil into the pan, taste so much better – plus the fact that we’ve laboured over them makes wasting them unthinkable. As I was writing this, Madame called me into the kitchen to taste a new recipe for braised red cabbage and it was fabulous, much more restrained than our go-to recipe has always been. It’s like being let loose in a sweet shop, so many new flavours and textures to play with. Prepping the panzanella this afternoon, I was using our own tomatoes, chillies and garlic and my own sourdough bread – it transforms the way you regard the raw materials when they haven’t come double wrapped in plastic, doused in chemicals and a fortnight old already.

The compost bin is almost full to the brim for the third time since I built it in the spring.  It’s been inclined to run a bit wet and cold because of the rain we’ve had so I’m going to put a roof over the whole group of four bays so I can control the moisture and gather rain from another nearly 50 square feet of roof, it seems all wrong to water with tap water when there’s the possibility of harvesting several thousand litres a year on site.

Below, the compost bins when they were first built with our cold frames – now stolen – in front, and beyond them, the hot-bed experiment which was so successful we’re going to build two more where the coldframes used to be.

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Sometimes life requires log-rafting skills

I’m still not completely sure I’m doing the right thing by passing so many of my books on, but the decision stands and the total I’ve disposed of is in excess of 350 – or nearer 750 if you count the ones I got rid of when we moved here. But they were the easiest ones, and now it feels like I’m eating ino my own history as box after box goes into the car boot. The ‘disposed of’ group includes a surprise hoard of college library books that I’d completely forgotten I ever had, but felt obliged to return to their rightful owner – which I did yesterday, and then discovered another four stowaways.

It’s feels like a rather revealing thing to do, as I hand them over a box at a time to the woman in the Oxfam shop. She was kind enough to say what interesting books they were, and inadvertently threw me into a bit of a tail spin because I felt I’d handed over something immensely personal – like a secret diary – to a complete stranger who would be listing them in some kind of inventory. No different than Google or Amazon and every other internet company who steals my most revealing information and then sells it on, but this was more personal and almost intimate.  When I was an early teenager and because I was incredibly shy, buying books or clothes became an absolute torment because I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I’d be judged by what I was buying.  It was only through the kindness of a bookseller called John- he was a bit of a legend – that I was given permission to browse all day if I wanted and buy whatever I wanted, but  I never realized that disposing of my books would land me in the same place.

So now each book that goes into the boxes leaves me second guessing what the reaction will be – goodness knows what today’s four boxes of rather arid theology will have done to my street cred – especially after four similar ones on Monday. So not for the first time I blurted out the first thing that came into my head, and I wondered aloud why on earth I’d kept them all, and postulated that it was in case I forgot who I was. I could almost see her thinking I was trying to tell her I’d got some sort of dementia, not least because on Monday I’d said (in another moment of brain fade) that I was doing this so our children wouldn’t have to “when I popped my clogs”.  I’m half expecting a letter of condolence from Oxfam and then my pointless shyness will turn into a clusterblurt.

So four more boxes of books and two guitars gone today, and my oldest son has contacted a removal company to take the piano to his house, while enquiring anxiously about the philosophy books which I promised I wouldn’t get rid of because I know that (eventually) he’ll give them  good home. Meanwhile Madame has jokingly accused me of fancying the woman in the Oxfam shop, but I think I’m suffering a bit from some weird variant of Stockholm syndrome.

So the reason for the reference to log rafting in the title is that the raging flume of my unconscious has also to allow for the fact that this is busy busy time on the allotment. Now the crops are coming in earnest, and we’re struggling to cope with the pace of things.  The overwintered broad beans have, at last, all been harvested and so we’ve had two sessions in which the Potwell Inn kitchen is transformed into a freezer production line. The three experimental plantings of garlic have now also been taken up and it’s clear that of the three varieties we tried the early purple bulbs were far and away the most successful.  The batch of five elephant garlic yielded four real lunkers.

As the beds are emptied and become clear, our aim is to hoe the weeds off, give the beds a covering of composted manure and a handful of chicken pellets or fish blood and bone and get them back into production as soon as we can.  This year we’re able to try the no-dig idea more easily because after three seasons of hand weeding we’re pretty much on top of most unwanted perennials, and the annuals are hoed off as they germinate. Today while I prepped the beds, Madame planted more runner beans raised in root trainers and also some modules of celery. After a bit of a wobble with the weather last week, the sun shone and after a few hours we were able to celebrate the solstice with the allotment looking at its most productive. “Blimey” – said Madame – “this feels more like a market garden”.

And as I type the title ‘Madame’ once again, I’m reminded that a friend said recently that she didn’t like me calling her by that name because it made her sound like a brothel keeper. Although nothing would delight me more than the thought of the Daily Mail reporting something like “retired priest found dead in Bath brothel” I’m afraid the explanation is much simpler.  Madame prefers not to have her name published in the blog because she doesn’t want to lend her implicit imprimatur to the words I publish before she’s seen them, any more than I would suggest improvements to her drawings before they’re finished. There are certain subjects over which we do allow forceful dissenting views – not least the planting, disposition and maintenance of the allotments because we are both very srong willed and neither of us wants to assign agency to the other.  It must work pretty well beause so far I’ve never had to remove a sharpened fork from my back, and it’s never got beyond the withering look and toss of the head stage.

And so  we’re in ‘second crop” mode while we’re feasting on the first, almost at the stage of being able to choose what to eat off the allotment and then taking it home, while the autumn harvest is beginning to take shape in the ground. When I built the line of compost bins I was convinced they were far too big and we’d never fill them – but as you see the first bin is now pretty much full and in a couple of weeks it will be ready to turn.

A to B – missing out the glyphosate

Yesterday I posted a picture of the allotment looking eastwards across some vacant plots. If you take a look at that picture you’ll see that the weeds are now waist height, the bindweed is about to come into flower, along with willow herb, and the grasses are ripening their seed. Couch, bindweed and all the other suspects thrive here because the soil is good and bindweed in particular has more than one way of preserving itself, not least by roots growing over a metre down into the soil. Seeds can bide their time for years until favourable conditions come along.

But the next door allotment was in use until two seasons ago, when it was doused with glyphosate and lay there looking sick and yellow for the rest of the season. You can’t blame anyone taking on a new and overgrown plot for seeking out the easiest way of eradicating the weeds so they can start growing food. Those with plenty of patience might cover the ground with black plastic held down by stones or pallets and wait for a season for the weeds to die. The trouble is that this method is good for killing annual weeds, but the real baddies seem to laugh at it. The rotavator is a terrible idea because it just chops the couch and bindweed into little pieces, and every one becomes a new plant.

At this point, just as the desperate realization that this is going to be hard sinks in, along comes the bottle of glyphosate promising to do the job with not much more effort than pumping up the spray and taking a stroll through the weeds.  Spray it on, they say,  the weeds will die and the weedkiller will be inactive within a day of touching the soil. The trouble is, everything about that statement is wrong. Without venturing into the scientific evidence that long exposure can give you cancer, the watercourses and rivers are becoming polluted and it lasts for years not days –

Glyphosate doesn’t work very well

Trust me I’ve used it in the past, and although it kills annual weeds it doesn’t render their seeds infertile, and it doesn’t kill couch and bindweed either.  Of course it looks as if it’s worked as the leaves dessicate and turn yellow, but deep down where the rhizomes and roots live, they’re just taking a break until next season. It’s a con trick because you can’t use it once and enter for the best kept allotment award the next year, since next year the weeds will be back but they’ll be growing through your courgettes and lettuces which you won’t want to sacrifice by spraying again.

Tough though it may seem, the only way to deal with these weeds is to clear the site and then dig it, dig it again and again and then give it the treatment under the plastic and finally cover it with compost, cardboard, mulch or whatever.  Even no-diggers need to get the ground as clear as possible before they put the spades on ebay. It’s hard work but by the end of it you’ll know more about your soil than you ever thought possible, you’ll know how it’s affected by rain and drought, the names of the annual weeds and when the sun rises and sets on your patch from season to season. The worms will multiply and improve the soil, consuming organic material and turning it back into plant food. You’ll be able to grow things right from the outset as long as you remove every speck of root you find and dispose of it – not in the compost heap because it seems to survive there as well. Remember the old saying –

The farmer’s boot is the best fertilizer

  • and as Nietzsche said, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!

Taking a longer view

14th April 2016
Some work to do then

Here are some photos of the allotment as it is today.  It hasn’t aways been like this This blog began as a private journal that I kept for three years after I retired. Sadly – or gladly – the software I was using (Day One) and which I loved, upgraded automatically one night and suddenly the various bits of my computer setup would no longer talk to one another and, after fruitlessly complaining, and receiving a rather lofty and patronising response – “you should buy a better computer” – I dipped out and moved to WordPress. Good move!

Anyway, what that means is that I can refer back to the previous three years of the allotment and today I made what may be an interesting discovery.  It started after a conversation with Madame about whether our broad beans really are early this year.  I won’t go into a blow by blow commentary except to say that in spite of some very different weather over the past three seasons it seems that the earliest date of cropping hasn’t changed all that much.  I wonder if the real impact of the weather has been to affect the quality and quantity of the crop.  In the second year of the allotment – with more ‘normal’ weather we had a great crop. Last year the first pickings of the overwintered Aquadulce Claudia broad beans came at roughly the same time but were very poor. This year we’ve had an easier time but I’m sure we won’t beat our previous date of first picking and we’ll have a much better crop.

We allotmenteers tend to use earliness as a measure of success, but I reckon we’d do better to measure the crop.  One of the big concerns about climate change is that the varieties we grow will not cope with changed climatic conditions, and maybe the symptoms won’t be failure to grow at all, but greatly reduced crops.

IMG_5151So we’ve had a lovely week, the water troughs have been turned on, and everything seems to be growing merrily but one experiment seems to have reached a conclusion.  The carrot on the left was part of an experiment to test two types of compost, a new carrot variety, and to see if the carrot roots would penetrate a soil pan. Just to take the last test first, it’s clear that this carrot at least has fattened up in the layer of compost but hasn’t penetrated the soil pan at all.  I guess the root just wasn’t strong enough – so point taken (unintentional pun) – and this isn’t a refutation of the no-dig method at all, but it doesn’t work miracles. The soil structure will still need easing and improving before ‘no-dig’ will work properly, and yes I’m well aware of the dangers of confirmation bias! IMG_5153

But there was a piece of extra good news and that was that we cut the first four spears of asparagus today.  It’s a bed that’s only had one season but the first spears have been emerging for a couple of weeks.  We’ve been agonising about whether to cut any spears this year, but today I thought “it’s right at the beginning of the season, why not take a few spears?” So I did, I cut just four and presented them to Madame at supper time. So – honest truth –  the very first spear to emerge wasn’t terribly good, but ranked by age they got better and better. Oh my goodness that was a great moment.  The chillies and peppers have all been moved from the propagators to the south facing windows in the kitchen.. Tomorrow we’ll sow the tomatoes and cucumbers.

One further thought.  Is the light in the spring and autumn actually brighter than the light in high summer? The sun is moving away from its closest proximity, but it has a very special quality at this time of the year.  For me the effect is almost emotional, I can smell and taste the change of season and it’s lovely.

 

Still not Easter!

A word of reproach from carolee last night for re-using a photo from the beginning of February, and so – hot from the egg boxes – here are the potatoes we’re chitting (to the annoyance of the management company) under the window on the landing outside the flat. It’s just that the conditions are perfect for them there, cool and light, which means they don’t develop unmanageably long and straggly shoots as they search for the sun. Last year we stacked them in old mushroom boxes  and although they all planted out successfully some of the shoots had got a bit out of control. Short, stubby and vigorous is the aim.

I know many people say it’s not worth growing potatoes because they’re so cheap in the shops, but the market – especially for new potatoes – is shrinking because so many people are cutting down on carbohydrates in the hope of living for ever, and that means they may not be so available in the future especially if imported varieties fall foul of import tarriffs.

But there’s much more to it than price. This year we’re growing some Arran Pilots for no better reason than they were what my parents and my Grandfather always grew.  They’re by no means the best or the easiest variety to grow but I can’t get out of my memory of the exquisite flavour of the potatoes dug and taken straight to the kitchen where you could peel them with the flat of your thumb and eat them with butter. OK so that’s two major dietary transgressions on one plate, but hey, none of us is going to live forever really!

So this year we’re growing the Arran Pilots, Jazzy and Red Duke of York as first earlies, although the last of the three will develop into a brilliant large roasting potato if left in the ground. Then we’ve got Pink Fir Apple which make the best potato salad ever, no arguments and will also sit in the ground getting bigger. Finally there are Sarpo Mira maincrops which, being blight resistant, worked very well for us last season when we tried them for the first time. We grew them alongside Desiree and although the Desiree did better in the drought conditions, the flavour and texture of the Sarpos gave them the edge.

The potato bed will see the first major no-dig experiment because we’ve left it undug from last season – just cleared of weeds and mulched with a thick layer of compost topped with plastic sheeting. The plan is to plant them in holes and cover them with yet more compost and some heavy duty fleece to protect them from any late frosts. It’s a risk, but until we’ve tried it we won’t know whether the technique is worth pursuing. But suddenly the season seems to have turned and we’ve moved in a breath from preparation to the nurturing stage. Clearly there’s still loads of opportunity for the weather to bowl us some googlies, after all – until Friday it’s still late winter. But the smell of the earth is right, the birds are singing and the Potwell Inn is buzzing with energy!

And then there was sauerkraut

IMG_5008Something tells me that the reason so much produce gets wasted on allotments is to do with the fear of dirt and bugs.  The idea of the perfectly presented vegetable is so engraved in our minds that we forget that such paragons of beauty don’t exist at all in the real world. The other day I was up at the top talking to Terry.  He’d just dug up a couple of leeks, Musselburghs, as it happens and they looked pretty much like leeks always do in late February – tatty, dirty and unappetising.  Then he whipped out a large knife and in three strokes he cut off the roots and then the top in a deft delta shape.  Off came the outer yellow leaves and in ten seconds the ugly duckling became a showbench swan. I silently resolved to get a knife like that, purely for the theatrical effect.

The brassica bed on our plot is looking similarly tatty. Leaves don’t last for ever and often the reason some other people’s brassicas look  healthier is that they sensibly remove the outer dying leaves before they fall off and attract slugs.  Everyone should try it, especially if there’s a plot inspection due. We’ve borrowed about 50 square metres off our neighbour who’s temporarily indisposed, and yesterday I cut him a savoy cabbage by way of a thank-you. He’d come up for some of his purple sprouting broccoli but the pigeons had got there first. Again on the face of it our small gift wasn’t a great specimen, but a bit of a trim with my penknife made it look as good as anything in the supermarket. It was then I resolved to use up some of the surplus by making a batch of sauerkraut.

And so this morning, as planned, we went up to check things out.  Nothing stirring in the hot bed yet, but then we weren’t expecting too much for a few days.  However the compost heap had leapt into action after being turned and the worms have all retreated (hopefully) to a place of safety after the temperature had increased to 35C.  It’s absolutely true what they say: turning is what keeps the composting process going.

After that discovery while Madame looked after the greenhouse, I cut savoys and an odd red cabbage for the sauerkraut.

Back in the kitchen it didn’t take long to clean and shred the cabbage, salt it and get it into the fermentation jar. By then, of course, I was in full-on cooking mode so off I went on pommes dauphinoise and roasted pork belly on cider using up another pile of our own veg that were unlikely to be used in anything except stock.

IMG_5012Then, back up to the allotment where I was able to dig the very last patch of unused ground.  I’m fully committed to no-dig gardening and although it might sound contradictory, I needed to dig this patch to remove the last of the rampant couch and bindweed.  However I’m bound to say I love digging and I’ll miss it immensely. When we’d finished we wandered down through the organic allotments towards the pub and we were taken for a rather inspiring guided tour around the community garden. What a lovely day – our pints never tasted better!

“No dig” experiment- first results

Yes I know you should try to reduce the number of variables in an experiment to draw any safe conclusions from the data but …. This experiment started in early autumn  when we sowed the carrots in the packet above in two adjoining cold frames and in two different sowing mediums. There were three questions I wanted to investigate:

  1. Would the carrots germinate and grow from an autumn start?
  2. Did one growing medium work better than the other?
  3. Would the tap roots penetrate the soil pan which had been deliberately left undug.

Question one is easily aswered – we had a good germination, and the plants continued to develop until the present moment. Question two is a bit more complicated because the composted horse manure got the seeds off quicker and the plants put on much more growth than the ones sown in SylvaGrow, the greener but more expensive option. However when we pulled some thinnings today it was clear that although the SylvaGrow plants had not put on so much top growth, the roots had easily penetrated into the soil pan and, given a couple more months, looked set to give us a useful and very early crop of properly shaped Early Nantes style carrots. On the composted manure side we had better top growth and fatter carrots but they were shaped more like Chantenay carrots and seemed to be sitting on top of the soil pan growing outwards rather than downwards as they should. Obviously I can’t rule out the possibility that one frame was bedded on tougher soil, but they were both on a piece of ground that had never been dug but had spent one season mulched with wood-chip to kill the weeds.  So I think the takeaway point is that these seeds seem to meet their claim and the experiment also supports Charles Dowding’s no-dig approach, but the question of growing medium needs more experimenting.  We’ve had a fabulus crop (still harvesting) of Early Nantes and Chantenay in an open bed of improved soil, so perhaps the answer is to forget about expensive growing medium and improve the soil. The other plants in the photo were some winter lettuce sown in modules which have all been eaten, and very good they were.

Elsewhere on the allotment things are going pretty well.  With a week at least of mild weather predicted, we took the fleece cloches off the broad beans today to let them enjoy the warmth and sun.  There were one or two frost casualties but on the whole the plants are looking good. One of the advantages of autumn sowing is that the plants tend to tiller into a number of stalks, giving a higher potential crop, and it’s interesting that this seems to be what’s happening to the plants that were damaged by the cold weather in spite of the protection. I’ve been reading James Wong’s book “Grow for Flavour” and one of the points he makes is that a bit of stress is often good for plants.  In fact I’m wondering if the lack of heat in last season’s chillies might have been due to the way I mollycoddled them. This season I’ll change the watering regime and see if that drives them on – mind you that might well give me some desperately hot chillies that I won’t be able to eat. Garlic, shallots and onion sets are all doing well and so things look pretty optimistic.

But my main focus today was to start work on the new compost bins.  As ever planning is a dynamic exercise and when I saw the sheer size of the proposed 4′ X 4′ layout I revised downwards and decided to go for a 4’X3′ footprint which will give a row of four. The rationale is that you need to get bays filled fairly quickly in order to keep the turning frequent. So there we are, a great day’s work and I can’t wait to get going tomorrow. The hotbed continues to slowly heat up and we’re going to give it some extra “human activator” to drive the heating.  The bacterial action is strongly underway now with the temperature at 20C, but it should go to 50C fairly quickly.  I don’t want to sow there before the temperature peaks in case it damages the seedlings.

Oh and the birthday parties went well yesterday as well – great family day, but (this is an addendum if you like) all the while we were working on the allotment a couple of homeless women were setting up a tent on the site.  As we left I saw one of them injecting herself in the leg -no way of knowing what she was injecting, but what a sorry state to be in. Is this the dream? To have reduced the whole country to something like “The Wire”? Is there no shame?

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Just me and the robin

This is the same patch of land separated by two and a half years, and the part that comes in between is best represented by this next photograph:

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There’s a conundrum in the middle of all this work that came to a bit of a head yesterday when I was preparing the third of the raised beds in that part of the plot which is shown in the first two photographs. I was up at the allotment early, grabbing as much as possible of this warm and dry weather before the weekend when it’s likely to get  very cold once again.The earth is in good heart and easy to dig at the moment.  It’s curious to think that the beginning of the “no dig” beds is some pretty profound moving around of the earth, but the plot was infested with couch and bindweed and the only way to get on top of them is to dig in search of the roots and remove as many as is humanly possible. It’s hand-to-hand combat that’s lasted for three years now, but yesterday showed that the battle is all-but won with barely half a trug of roots. The most pernicious weeds have slunk back to the edges where they can be controlled by regular mowing.

So it was me and the robin. He was only too pleased to help me by darting in at my feet to pluck a grub from the ground and every very now and then he would perch on one of the grapevine posts and sing his little song to encourage me. I was profoundly glad of his company and kept up a very one sided conversation with him as I dug. I’ve explored the reasons for creating the beds before, but in summary, drainage is an issue and the slope of the ground invites some gentle terracing which is best accomplished by the beds.  The deep woodchip paths function as drains, and the soil which is displaced – many cubic feet of it – is used to level the beds.

So between the natural but limited abundance of the groundcovering weeds, and the productivity of the allotment when it’s in full swing, there’s also a responsibility to to the earth and to its biodiverse inhabitants from nematodes to buzzards.  yesterday, when I’d finished the third bed, it all looked very empty and anything but biodiverse. The next step is to add a great deal of compost and some seaweed meal before covering it until spring. Let’s not kid ourselves that there’s no pleasure to be had from digging.  Healthy outdoors work with immediately visible rewards is not to be sneezed at, and most of us allotmenteers derive a good deal of pride from getting our plots cleared during the winter. But with our soil in particular, apart from clearing the deep rooted weeds, digging does more harm than good. In winter the soil which is a highly productive clay/loam balls up on the wellingtons and easily gets poached.  You wouldn’t want to let livestock anywhere near it. img_4869So beds it is, and no-dig beds it’s going to be.  As I was clearing the last of the parsnips from one bed it was very pleasing to see how straight and unforked they are, and I wish we could claim some responsibility for the success of the crop but they were thrown in much too late as an experiment. Next season we’ll do it properly.

Then when I got home (aching a bit) I found an article in the Guardian reporting some new research on the best habitats for wildlife. Now I know that our allotments can take delight in (wary about) the foxes and badgers which are a delight to watch but a blessed nuisance in the summer.  Badgers have a sixth sense about when you’re going to harvest the sweetcorn and always get there 24 hours earlier! We have a wide variety of birds – again a mixed blessing – and butterflies (ditto) and so it goes on.

The research, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, found allotments and gardens often had 10 times more bees than parks, cemeteries and urban nature reserves. Baldock said nature reserves were important for other wildlife but were often less suitable for pollinators, being dominated by trees rather than meadows.

I wrote about this on  8th January this year to almost no response, so I changed the title which helped just a bit – It’s there under the title “Dig for Victory”. I’m not being a snowflake about this, I just think it’s really important and we need to get the message out there.  Ground clearing and war on weeds can only be an environmental step forwards if it supports biodiversity.  I don’t think bindweed and couch are in any danger of becoming extinct – not least (If you read Richard Mabey’s excellent book on weeds) – because bindweed has the most devious and cunning ways of reproducting itself. cropped-img_4357But the collapse in pollinating insects is the really big worry  – not just for gardeners and allotmenteers but for the multitude of small mammals and birds who rely on them for food.  So the next stage on our allotment, after ground clearing is the establishment of food plants not just for the Potwell Inn but for all the insects and small mammals we need to support.  The earth isn’t just there for our convenience. So this year we’re having a big push on foodplants, nectar flowers and companion plants. We only ever share our land, and we’ve got nets and fleece and (for sweetcorn) hard barriers to preserve the bits we really need, but that brings the responsibility to look out for the needs of the other inhabitants of the land. An allotment is a pretty intensively cultivated environment but that doesn’t mean we have to regard the rest of the natural world as a threat. The link to the article is below.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/14/city-bees-allotments-gardens-help-arrest-decline-study

 

 

 

 

“Industrial”? – a bit of planning that’s all.

 

 

One of our neighbours told us, back in the summer, that a friend of his had described our allotment as “a bit industrial” . I’m quite happy with that, although I would have preferred “purposeful”. I think some plots look like squatter camps but thank goodness the allotment is one of the few places left where we are free to express our individual preferences without too much interference. I recall Jim Callaghan’s brilliant put-down of Shirley Williams – “Just because she’s  scruffy she thinks she’s an intellectual”. Organic gardening is either purposefully planned or it’s a pile of old pallets and a carpet heavy with good intentions.  Once you’re serious about getting as close to self-sufficiency as you can with only 250 square metres to play with, you have to plan carefully and then hope that the weather plays along with you. We made the decision to go “no dig” last season, and we’re busy organising the whole plot into manageable beds according to the plan in the photo, so that we have access to beds 365 days of the year, never having to walk on them. However this has left us with the need to raise the level of the soil quite a bit to bring the plants above the waterlogged clay substratum that channels three or four streams down through the site – one of them almost certainly passing underground alongside the greenhouse. The design of the beds is to allow some of that water to drain towards the paths  and divert it away from us.

Last night in one of my regular periods dream gardening I eschewed counting sheep in favour of working out the cubic meterage of compost we’d need to make if we were to cover the whole plot with 5cm each year. I reckon it’s coming out at around 10m³ and that’s ten of our current 1m³ cylinders – a deeply sobering thought. The alternative would be to spend about £350 on buying it in. So how on earth could we possibly make so much compost, given that there’s no way of affording a commercial product.  As I wrote last week, there’s something that feels ethically wrong with throwing money at a problem, but even more important, soil is a living entity with its own ecosystem.  It’s not a neutral medium for supporting plants and feeding chemicals.  And so our ambition to fill our raised beds with good soil has to be achieved the slow way.

Here’s what we’ve got going for us:

  • One small household’s worth of green waste
  • A plentiful supply of dead leaves and woodchip
  • A plentiful supply of cardboard
  • A park opposite the flat that’s mown every couple of weeks in the summer leaving the mowings on the ground and easily raked up
  • All the green waste, trimmings, clippings and weeds from the allotment.
  • Occasional sacks of seaweed stowed in the car when we go up to North Wales. It smells so bad it must be good!
  • A small army of brandling who just love the cylinder.

I’m not at all confident that we can fill ten cylinders and reduce them to compost  in a year without giving them lots of stimulus to increase the heat.  Regular turning would help a lot, but the cylinders make turning very difficult indeed, and so I think we’re going to have to build a row of 4 bins –  4′ square and 5’6 tall and turn the load to the right maybe four times a season, adding wood ash, seaweed and “human activator” and trying as best we can to get the balance of green and brown waste exactly right. It would take up one whole bed, but the impact on the rest of the plot could be enormous.

Lots of fairly heavy work in prospect, then, but we both love a project.  The beds are nearing completion but the weather has been coming from the south west for ages, and that’s a wet quarter for us. Never mind.  We plan to celebrate the solstice on Friday with a slap up meal of all our own veg.  The only other job is to complete the seed order before then so we can truly look forward to next season.