Hotting up in the flat, sleet and rain on the allotment!

Outside on the green, the buds on the trees are swelling, lending a faint green haze to the view, although the hawthorn is well ahead of the pack. Not the least reason for celebrating the leaves is that they obscure the riverside housing developments which are not only thoroughly ugly but also poorly built – so much so that after only four years many of these ludicrously expensive buildings are having missing fire protection and non existent waterproof membrane installed at vast expense (I hope) to the developers and even vaster inconvenience to the residents. Of course many of the  Georgian buildings we so admire these days were thrown up in much the same kind of speculative fever, but at least they look good from the outside.

Enough of that, though, because as we approach the equinox, seeds sown during late winter and raised in the propagators are now demanding better lodgings, and like teenage children they have to be accommodated within our rather small flat. Each year at this time we get the camping tables out, one in front of each south facing window, and they rapidly fill with small plants.  Every few weeks they need potting on into even bigger pots, and long before mid-May when we can put plants like tomatoes, chillies, courgette and peppers straight into the ground, we’re struggling to find space for them all. When removal day finally arrives the flat seems uncannily empty, but at least then we can change the early window boxes for their summer equivalents.

The kitchen doubles up nicely as a potting shed but the competition for space is fierce and so this year I’m fixing up the greenhouse to house a dozen trays of the plants as they slip off the end of the production line. It probably doesn’t sound much, but the allotment rules only allow a six by four structure; a rule that’s generally honoured in the breach by our neighbours but it’s a more manageable size for two of us. Incredibly, few of the bigger greenhouses are ever used to their capacity and almost every autumn we see a few over ripe tomatoes clinging to tinder dry brown foliage, roasting in the sun. It’s amazing how the enthusiasm of Easter fades as the season progresses.

Some kind of pattern finally establishes itself for us. It takes a season or two to adjust to the land and to our own needs, for instance we know we need to grow fifteen outdoor (blight resistant) cordon tomatoes to keep us in sauces through the year. In addition we need a handful of salad tomatoes, and a surprisingly large number of roots – ready for winter. We’ve cut down on potatoes, and this year we’re focusing on our favourite earlies. A couple of courgettes are more than enough, and we need more borlotti beans.

Last year we discovered, much to our surprise, that the aubergines and peppers and the less fierce chillies actually preferred it outside. We made far too many pickles, more than even our hungry extended family could help us consume, and so a single gherkin plant would probably do. Which brings us to the big economic question – is it cheaper to buy plants or sow seeds? Well, packets of F1 hybrids often only contain 10 seeds, but if you only want a couple of plants, it might be cheaper to buy them at the garden centre because they don’t last forever and they may not be viable after five years.  The advantage of growing from seeds is access to a far wider range of varieties,  but plants are professionally reared and get you going quicker.  I don’t think there’s an answer  except to put in a word for open pollinated and saved seed.  With a little care, and once you’ve discovered what goes really well on your own patch, this is free source, and sometimes seed will even adapt to your precise environment and soil – just as potatoes and maize have done in South America.

Weatherwise, it’s been continuing in much the same pattern; a day of sunshine and a week of rain, even sleet today. The south west of the UK is fairly mild and they’ve had it much worse further north, but we’ve seen freak frosts and even flurries of snow as late as May.

I’ve been reading George Monbiot’s book “Feral”. I’ve had it on the shelf for ages and made a start several times but put it aside because I found it – dare I say – a bit intense. This time I soldiered through the first couple of chapters and I think, at last, I can see where he’s going with it and so I’ve sealed my intent to finish it with a bookmark. More to follow, then.

Moving day for chillies

It’s been an extraordinary Easter weekend and weather records are being broken all over the UK.  Given that the Easter is a moveable feast, it’s hardly surprising that it’s warmer when it’s three weeks later than last year, but even so it’s been exceptionally hot, feeling more like June than April.

We had a binge on beetroots, sowing five small blocks of different varieties for a bit of a flavour experiment, and as I was sowing I noticed just how expensive the so-called ‘heritage’ seeds are. It manifests itself not in price, but in the feeble quantity of seed you get for your money. I’m rapidly converting to seed saving, I think.  We’ve grown quite a few things from saved seed this year, and it seems to me that once you’ve ensured proper name and date labelling and storing seed properly, there’s everything to gain and nothing to lose.  Obviously the big companies would just love you to spend pounds on new seed every year, and they love to hint at forbidding difficulties, but this year’s overwintering onion sets have been a sad waste of time and money and next season we’ll grow onions from seed – wider choice and a fraction of the price. Beside saving money, it seems that plants adapt to local conditions much quicker than we normally assume and so seed, soil and situation can converge to give excellent results. In our last parish there was a gardener called Tim Brommage – a retired firefighter – who had a variety of small tomatoes saved year by year since the 1940’s and quite delicious.  Sadly he died in his nineties and took the seeds and the knowledge with him.

No doubt F1 hybrids and commercial varieties have their uses if you want to grow vegetables exactly like the ones in the supermarket, but it’s likely to be disappointing if you don’t follow the same intensive regime – chemicals and all. Commercial varieties have to be as tough as old boots to survive long journeys in a lorry and high yields often leads to poor flavour. Time to welcome the quirky, the knobbly and downright weird open pollinated plants  – after all, allotmenters aren’t only interested in profitability, thank goodness!

Early on Sunday morning when I went up to the allotment early to water and open the greenhouse, the Abbey bells were ringing.  It was a hauntingly beautiful sound and somewhere at the back of my mind the last piece of a jigsaw dropped into place and I realized that the feeling of listlessness I’d been feeling since Thurday coincided exactly with the fourth anniversary of the last Easter I’d celebrated in my parishes. I really thought I was over it, and yet the sense of bereavement had insinuated itself into the depths of my mind, so I watered and sang easter hymns to myself and that was that.  The allotment is a great consolation and I’m glad not to be tearing around the countryside taking services on four hours sleep.  Madame too is pleased that I’m not collapsed in a chair exhausted after days running on empty.  But it’s over – sometimes I miss it so much, but there’s no looking back.

So the bank holiday Monday was supposed to be at least a bit of a break, but the Potwell Inn is so overrun with growing plants we simply had to get some of them out to make room for the newcomers. This year we bought a second set of propagator lights, and that’s been very useful but it’s given rise to several horticultural traffic jams. The chillies have done so well in the warm sunshine of our south facing windows that several of them have set their first fruits. With the second wave of plants close to being potted on, we had to move the first twelve large plants up to the greenhouse.  So they all went into the lift and down to the lobby, and thence to the allotment where I carried them down a tray at a time in the wheelbarrow.

But the greenhouse was running at a steady 35C despite our best effort to cool it down, and so one of the aubergines immediately fainted with heat stress.  A & E procedures were immediately adopted and the aubergine slowly recovered during the afternoon. Beyond that I spent a pleasant afternoon hoeing where it was safe, and hand weeding where it wasn’t. For the most part the couch grass is vanquished to the edges of the plot, but the bindweed never seems to give up, and it can grow a foot in an hour if it thinks I’m not watching. This is probably the busiest time of the gardening year, and it’s all too easy to let things slip.  The payoff comes later.

Lost Gardens of Heligan II

_1080673So what would the “take home” message from Heligan be. I’m not sure that I care for the impression the expression gives – as if all the love and care and experience we encountered in our five days there could be pre-digested and regurgitated into a sentence like philosophical bird vomit.  But we definitely found things we wanted to remember and try for ourselves when we got back to the allotments, and here are some of them: Continue reading “Lost Gardens of Heligan II”