A curate’s egg of a day – good in parts.

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We’ve planted five varieties of potato this year –

  • Jazzy (first early)
  • Arran Pilot (first early)
  • Pink fir apple – maincrop but we dig them early for the best potato salad ever
  • Red Duke of York – again a later potato and fabulous roaster, but also good early
  • Sarpo Mira – which, being highly blight resistant, we leave in the ground.

The reason we try to get the vulnerable varieties out of the ground early is because the allotment site is plagued with blight. The problem with doing it this way is that we can be overwhelmed with new potatoes early in the season – but then, better overwhelmed than stuck with tasteless supermarket potatoes.  But this season – need I say – has been very odd, with a dry early period followed by some pretty cold weather and now almost continuous rain for a couple of weeks. The rain has come just in time for the early potatoes which looked set to be a tiny crop, but they’ve plumped up nicely this week.  The photo shows Jazzy at the back, and a few Arran Pilots next to the beetroot. It’s only when you see them together that the whiteness of the Pilots shows up.  We’ve never grown them before but they’re the ones my grandfather and my parents always grew, and I remember what a wonderful flavour they had from my childhood, so I can’t wait to get them into a pan.

As for the rest of the vegetables, the weather is causing a mixed bag of results right across the site. Only the overwintered broad beans have survived the aphid onslaught, but at least the ladybirds peaked at exactly the right time and we’re seeing six plus larvae on a single plant.  It’s the larvae, not the hatched ladybirds with the prodigious appetite for blackfly.

Tender plants have all suffered stress in the cool wet conditions, and the onion crop has been hit hard everywhere, but the cabbages have enjoyed every moment of the weather and made steady growth.  So I suppose that’s the whole challenge of allotmenteering – no season is ever the same as the last one and with global heating playing the wild card, we just have to duck and dive and ride the weather.

However that was only a part of the day because this morning I took the first car-load of books down to the Oxfam shop.  This is turning into a bittersweet time as I declutter my study to make space for new projects. Today’s books weren’t just old novels, some of them had been very important at the time for all sorts of reasons, and I could almost remember where and why each one was bought. When I came home I made a start on the serious collection of music books, which seemed more unsettling and painful than ever. I’ve been flunking this moment for four years – I knew I should have sorted through them when we moved here, but we ended up only letting the painless ones go.  These latest ones represent a huge investment of time and money during the period I was deeply involved in music, and I had to summon up every ounce of resolve to pass them on to new owners. Music kept me sane for a very long time, especially during the most stressful periods. Anyway that’s enough, and I’m saying to myself that I was really using them as a comfort blanket – something I could define myself by during the period of introspection and loss of role after I retired.

By lunchtime we’d cooked soup for supper and then went for a second look at the Bath Society of Artists show. Julia Trickey – who taught me – has sold a magnificent painting of leaves found in the Bath Botanical Garden.  Among the leaves was a Harts Tongue fern, and when I looked carefully there was even dry brush detail in the sporangia.  Epic stuff. In the photo below the horizontal pile of books in the foreground has been resting on the lightbox for months now and that’s why I’m clearing up.

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Parting shot

IMG_5366Often the best view of the allotment is at the end of a day’s work, when you can look back across from the vantage point of the high path alongside the shed and see the bigger picture. We enjoyed full sunshine all day and the temperature was in the high teens, so you could almost hear the plants growing. All the forecasts suggest that we’ve seen the back of the frost and so we’ve begun sowing and planting out the tender varieties.

The Plan – the great winter fantasy plan – is now at the stage where almost every day brings the need for some amendment or other. I was reading yesterday that every military battle plan ends with the first contact with the enemy. I’m sure that applies just as much to gardens and allotments – for instance on our plot we had a bed designated for onions and roots; but the overwintering onions were hit by eelworm and so we can’t use that bed for any of the alliums for three years – which means that we’ll have to plant brassicas there this year.  You can imagine it’s a bit of a house of cards and it can make you wonder whether it’s worth planning, but if you don’t plan at all you can forget something until it’s too late, so you lose the crop. So we stagger on and the master copy is gradually overwritten with what really happened. I guess the only truly static plan is the retrospective one.

We took the fleece off the potatoes during the day, and they are truly impressive plants.  However long experience tells us that impressive haulms don’t always signify big crops. This year’s potatoes are growing on a piece of borrowed land, and our neighbour is notably parsimonious with his compost, so we anointed it with a thick layer of the Potwell Inn finest triple A grade. Our fervent hope is that we haven’t produced a luxuriant crop of leaves at the expense of the potatoes. The broad beans have begun to set pods and so today the tops are coming off.  In Italy they’re a delicacy, but we’ve nver tried them, so broad bean tops are on the menu for tonight. We also took down the last of the overwintered brassicas and after I’d smashed the stumps with the back of an axe they all went into the compost with a handful of chicken manure and a good watering.

Elsewhere we’ve got an abundant supply of lettuce and salad leaves but as always with successional sowings you land up with some supply gaps and we’re waiting for some more radishes and beets to catch up. The tomatoes are getting their final repotting before planting out today and we’ve decided to expand our companion planting.  We’ve found a variety of basil (sold by Chiltern Seeds) that’s adapted to the UK climate so we’re going to interplant that with the tomatoes and throw in some nasturtiums and petunias as well. The asparagus bed is getting the same treatment to discourage the asparagus beetle.  Elsewhere we’ve got calendula dotted around and of course the big umbellifers are attracting lots of plant friendly parasitic wasps. You can only try these ideas.  I doubt that any of them are a complete cure, but all we need to do is tilt the balance in our own favour.

There are a handful of civil engineering jobs ourstanding as well.  Yesterday a woven hazel fence panel arrived at the flat but it weighed a ton and was far too big to get in our little car, so I’m going to call in the heavy mob, AKA our son, to help me carry it up. What we’re planning is to create a sun trap between the shed and the greenhouse and build a staging for big containers protected from any north winds. The last job will be to grow a windbreak on the eastern edge which is our least protected side.  We’re not allowed fences, but anything that produces food is alright!

Hi Veronica – Hi Violet

So there were mouse ear, bluebell, red campion, herb Robert, violet, celandine and wood anemone, all growing within a small area and there were many more, including primroses, marsh marigolds and little spurges. I had to stop.

In a ideal world- that’s to say the one we don’t actually inhabit – I would organise my botanising a bit better – but what I mostly do is start out resolved not to spend the whole walk rooting around at ground level, and then reinforce my decision by leaving behind everything I will eventually need.  Field guides – out, pocket magnifier – out, camera with ridiculously expensive macro lens – out. Mostly, then, I take my mobile phone a weatherproof notebook and a space pen that writes in the wet.  Serious field botanists are the ones that walk around with a permanent crick in their necks carrying a clipboard with the vice-county list on it and they know the plants by heart. I’m so unconfident that I could easily persuade myself that a dandelion might not really be a dandelion at all, but any one of a dozen similar looking plants.

This is a serious challenge, although I joke about it. I was in my twenties before I realized that not all dandelions were dandelions but could be cats’ ears or hawkbits; and even dandelions live such promiscuous lives that their microspecies number in hundreds. There are people out there who can sort them out, but not me. So I muddle along like all self-taught amateurs, fearful that I’ll make a complete idiot of myself by mispronouncing a name or fail to get even close to identifying a plantain properly.

I know that the proper way to do it is to gather all the information I know I’ll need but in reality I never do.  My phone photos don’t have sufficient depth of field and so the very detail I need is just out of focus and useless.  I fail to observe the shape, pattern and placing of leaves, or whether the roots are creeping, and if the stalk is square or hairy, and don’t even ask about flowers! I found a despairing note today in my journal from three years ago where the identification of a very common plant hinged on my understanding what a ‘hemi zygomorph’ might be. Aaargh.

Some families are real killers – Apiaciae, umbellifers to most of us, are stinkers and I’ve spent hours getting them wrong.  The culprit at Heligan last week was Angelica sylvestris  – wild angelica – which I can’t say I’ve ever noticed before.  But our walks took us through a very wet and marshy habitat which has a flora all of its own. All of which grumbling is a long way of saying that my resolve to list all the flowering plants we found has been frustrated by my inability to nail the second plant from the left, top row because I only had a rubbish photo.  The closest I can get is one of the forget me nots, but which one I can’t say because I didn’t get enough information. Veronicas and Violets have the same capacity to drive me mad because even with 100% hindsight there’s no substitute for plodding through the keys with a hand lens and a partner with more patience than Madame posesses. Enough! There’s a daisy and a dandelion there that I am confident I recognise and can name, except the dandelion will have to be Taraxacum agg, which is scientific for WTF?

Why am I writing this? I love every moment of it, and every foray into the ordinary everyday plants that I vaguely recognise (like most people) makes the world feel richer, deeper, more complicated, more generous and simply more beautiful.

Potatoes, however, are easier to list – I just had to walk up the rows at Heligan and write them down.

  1. Pink fir apple
  2. Shetland black
  3. Lumpers
  4. Tyecroft purple
  5. Herd laddie
  6. Ninetyfold
  7. Vitelotte noir
  8. British queen
  9. Beauty of Bute
  10. Edgecote purple
  11. Early market
  12. Snowdrop
  13. International kidney
  14. Forest gold
  15. Myatts ashleaf
  16. Lord Rosebery
  17. Royal kidney
  18. May queen
  19. Early rose
  20. Sharpes express
  21. Red Duke of York
  22. Epicure
  23. Arran pilot

On the allotment ths year we’re growing pink fir apple, Arran pilot, jazzy, red Duke of York and sarpo mira. I love the fact that these old varieties are being kept alive because we may well need their genetics in the future, but I’m grateful for the efforts of plant breeders who can increase blight resistance in a potato like sarpo mira to the point where they’re safe to grow, even in our blight ridden weather.

Later today we’ll be up at the allotment.  The potatoes are very nearly ready to ridge up for the first time.  We’re expecting warmer weather for at least a week, and every day we creep closer to the time when our tender plants won’t be ravaged by a late frost. Happy days.

Potato planting day

IMG_5105This is one of those days that – for me at least – seem to carry a weight of memories which almost demand a moment or two of reflection. Traditionally potato planting took place on Good Friday, but there are a couple of flaws  in that association.  Firstly we now live in a determinedly post-Christian society when the majority of people have little idea of when Good Friday falls.  The second problem is that the reason most people don’t know exactly when it is, is because – being tied to the moon’s phases –  it wanders around all over the calendar. There are some early Easters when it would be inviting disaster to plant on Good Friday and others when you might miss a couple of weeks of delicious new potatoes. So the last week in March – in our part of the world – seems about right.  The young leaves won’t be appearing above ground until the last frost has passed – although for us last year there was a late frost on May 3rd, and we lost all the runner beans, but the spuds were fine. Runner beans, for US readers – are a bit of a British obsession.

So today’s the day. This year we’re growing them on a 20 square metre piece of our neighbour’s allotment.  He’s having a hard time at the moment and he’ll have the patch back when he’s up and running again. He’s an inveterate and very neat digger, and although he didn’t actually make a face when I described our plans not to dig it, I could sense he wasn’t keen and so, yesterday it was cleared, dug and fed.  It’s spent the winter under plastic sheeting, so there were no weeds to speak of. Because it’s down at the bottom, in the wettest part of the ground, I’ve given it most of last year’s compost supplemented with two or three bags bought in to open up the texture with organic material. The biggest harvest during digging was a crop of green ‘bio-degradable’ caddy liners.  It’s true, very slowly (I mean glacially slowly) they are breaking down but I can see it might take several years yet.  True to my experimental self I returned a number of them back to the new compost heap to see if a second season will finish them off.

But why is potato planting so significant? Back in the day, and still happening in one of my old farming parishes to this day, the first Monday after Epiphany (6th January) was recognised as “Plough Monday” and celebrated in Church by the local Young Farmers who carried a old Ransomes plough into the church to have it blessed. It was a single share mouldboard plough such as might have been pulled by one or two horses – not a team of oxen! They (the young farmers not the oxen) would file in with storm lanterns and hand tools and celebrate the new season with some acceptably jolly hymns and a sermon with more humour than hellfire followed by tea and sandwiches. How on earth do you persuade thirty or forty teenagers to turn up at church on a freezing January night? For me, as for them, it seemed like the right thing to do – to mark the turning of the seasons in formal terms. So long as they had a reason – however obscure – for turning up, we all thought it was worth doing.

IMG_5103So is potato planting the horticultural equivalent?  Does all the sowing that’s been going on in propagators and on windowsills for weeks, demand a formal marking of the new season?  and doesn’t potato planting – occasionally associated with a Christian festival but more likely with a long weekend bank holiday – doesn’t that make the planting of potatoes the ideal candidate? Compared with sowing a row of seeds, planting potatoes is a much bigger deal.  It takes longer, gives you backache and feels especially significant.  Needless to say I didn’t have enough space – entirely my own fault.  The 2 Kg of left over seed potatoes correlated exactly with the 2Kg of Arran Pilot seed potatos that I bought on impulse.  What’s the point of all that planing if even I don’t follow it? IMG_5107So tomorrow there will be a discussion about which bed to raid. But spring is here, the equinox is past and the days are longer and warmer. Our autumn sown onions, which had been looking a bit sorry for themselves, have suddenly perked up and thrust upwards. The garlic, similarly, is looking well and the elephant garlic in particular looks like a stand of leeks (to which they’re related).

At this time of the year, as a postwar child, when rationing was still happening, and everybody grew their own vegetables, I can vividly remember walkng down to my friend Eddie’s house, and being intoxicated by the smell of fresh warm earth being turned. Planting potatoes is powerful by association, and this past week as our fellow allotmenteers have been getting on with it, there’s an unspoken but shared feeling that -with or without any religious ritual – this is the beginning of the allotment year, regardless of all the plants we’ve already sown and overwintered.

 

 

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!

It’s not Easter yet!

IMG_4949One of my earliest memories is of potato planting on Easter weekend.  Traditionally, in the UK potatoes would be planted on Good Friday and, as I remember it, the intoxicating smell of freshly dug earth would follow me all the way as I walked a couple of miles down to my mate Eddy’s house. Bear in mind, of course, that I’m thinking of a time 60 years ago when growing vegetables was an almost universal preoccupation among what Channel Four News likes to describe as “ordinary people” – I prefer a less patronising way of describing the vast majority of us. There are – or were- things that were done with no real idea why, apart from the fact that they needed to be done and they’d always been done. I think that’s a pretty good definition of culture – the way we do things round here –  that’s to say right here in the West Country and not the way someone who lives in a flat in central London might see it. And so horiculture is a subset of culture as a whole and concerns the growing of things where we are.

But memories fade and cultures evolve away from the old preoccupations with putting food on the table and so we’re left with the urge to sow seed but not the accompanying local knowledge inherited from parents and grandparents.  Which is a very wordy way of addressing the fact that crowds of allotmenteers on our site have been enjoying the unprecedented sunshine and warm weather this week.  Last Easter the garden centres were facing bankruptcy and were only saved by the equally unprecedented hot summer. I wonder if we shouldn’t rather be worried than celebrating this latest evidence of climate change.

The earliest date for Easter – which is the only Christian festival tied to phases of the  moon – is March 22nd, and the latest is April 25th. That’s almost 5 weeks, which is a very long time in the spring.  Last season we had our last frost at the beginning of May and we would have lost all our tender runner bean plants if we hadn’t kept a large number in reserve. It was a gamble we lost decisively! So our response to the tradition of planting potatoes on Good Friday would need to be “it depends when Good Friday falls”, but the takeaway point is that in this part of the UK the answer has to be not yet! They’re safer being chitted. 

It’s so distressing for new allotmenteers to experience the way that after all the winter digging and preparation the weeds appear to come back with renewed vigour, and it’s even worse to lose an entire crop to a late frost. Every year we see newly fledged allotmenteers losing heart and walking away from their plots. You can almost hear the bindweed laughing. I don’t want to make it sound more daunting than it is, but the best gardeners have patience and resilience built in to their DNA. Forget the ‘magical’ chemicals that do more harm than good. There are certain weeds that are desperately hard to eliminate, but resilience, patience and low cunning will see the back of all of them.  Find out what they like most and deprive them of it – that’s the way. Often a winter under plastic sheeting or weed control mat will weaken them, but then if we pile on the pressure by hoeing and hand weeding and especially mulching, we can tip the balance in our favour. Better wait a year than waste a crop, and no-one will criticise you for it, in fact your neighbours will probably share their surplus with you in grateful thanks that your plot is no longer exporting noxious weeds on to theirs.

So for all those who are starting out on the adventure – good luck, and if enough of us share our accumulated knowledge, who knows? Maybe our children and grandchildren will know when to plant potatoes.

 

 

 

That’s it – we’re on the treadmill now

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I promise there’s no theorizing in this post!

In actual fact I could have celebrated the moment months ago when the overwintering broad beans, the peas, garlic, shallots and onions all went in, but that felt different. There was winter to contend with and, to be fair, spring is still a long way away  But today when Madame set out the seed potatoes for chitting it felt more like the first stirrings of the new season – as if the starting gun had been fired – and it’s true, once you’ve started the spuds (and the chillies tomorrow) you’re locked in.  Have we got enough I wondered when we surveyed the egg boxes. There are another couple of kilos on the way but will there be enough maincrops to take us through? If we get another summer like the last one, probably not, but if there’s more rain around we’ll manage. Last season we hardly watered the potatoes, there just wasn’t time since there are no hoses on our plot, and any watering has to be targeted. The biggest fear is that they’ll turn off the water supply to the troughs which would leave us rationing the 1000 litres we’ve got stored.  I’ve half a mind to add a fifth water butt for luck.

Perhaps underwatering has an upside though, because where they used to grow thousands of tons of early potatoes in Pembrokeshire we always noticed that when they were heavily watered the flavour was greatly diminished. These days in Pembrokeshire many of the farmers have given up on potatoes altogether and those that are left will be vulnerable when the pickers stop coming from Eastern Europe. Last season on the allotment however, although the crop was small, the flavour and texture were amazing.

So there was definitely a sense of excitement around in spite of very strong winds and downpours of wintry rain. We had to go up and check the fleeces and cloches which had suffered a bit overnight and to my delight the hotbed has already climbed to 15C since it was completed on Tuesday.  I drilled a hole in the side of the bed so I can push a thermometer into the centre without removing the cover.  Tomorrow all the timber for the compost bins is arriving and just as a special extra treat a fresh load of woodchip has been dumped at the site.  I feel like we won the lottery! The forecast is terrible and working in waterproofs is very sweaty, but somehow it seems as if we’ve got the wind in our sails.

Autumn jobs on the allotment

Even as I write this there’s a bit of an inward groan – it’s so, well …. everyday. There’s very little breathless excitement about allotmenteering, after all a potato is just a potato and you’d need to be a bit of a propeller head to get excited about the minutiae of varieties.  But that’s just the way it is – you need to keep on keeping on. Continue reading “Autumn jobs on the allotment”