However there was a mild overnight frost and we shall have to hope that they survived. They’re pretty well protected from any cold wind but not fleeced. Yesterday was such a beautiful day that you could forget that this is still early spring and quite likely to throw a nasty surprise. As ever we scan the weather forecast and try to second guess what will happen on our patch but forecasts deal in the generalities of towns and cities not sites and plots. I noticed on a friend’s facebook page that someone had commented that there was no point in wasting time teaching children to grow things because they could learn gardening in half a day. I couldn’t possibly comment.
Our allotment site is served by cattle troughs which are turned off in October and on again in April. That, of course, means that there’s a period – especially in early spring – where everyone is sowing and nurturing young plants, but there’s no water supply unless you’ve got some storage. For several days we’ve seen allotmenteers wandering around the site, watering cans in hand, looking for an inch of water at the bottom of a trough. I’ve never been so glad that we installed some storage last winter, and so at the beginning of spring we had 1000 litres of rainwater in the butts. We’ve moved into a period of high atmospheric pressure without any rain just at the time when the growing plants need it most. You wouldn’t believe the pleasure that turning a tap and filling a can can bring. This wasn’t so much for watering, the earth is hardly parched at this time of year and it’s only the plants under cover that need it. Yesterday I wanted to spray the growing plants with dilute seaweed foliar feed. Applying it to the leaves does seem to work but it involves getting out the big sprayer which, being bright yellow, is liable to send out misleading signals to other organic gardeners. On the other hand, allowing people to imagine you’re using all manner of toxic chemicals might discourage them from grazing.
Back at the Potwell Inn Madame and me had one of our Big Talks which always involves a bit too much wine and no time or energy for cooking. I love our Big Talks – very therapeutic. So supper was one of those storecupboard pot luck meals, rendered even more interesting by the fact that I retrieved an unlabelled box from the freezer and had to defrost it to see what was inside. It was the simplest of tomato sauces made during the glut last summer and it was absolutely lovely. Linguini + tomato sauce + a bit of Parmesan and, for me a few anchovies scraped from the bottom of a jar in the fridge. It was an unbelievably good way to anticipate this coming season.
But there was no basil yet. We’ve got a succession growing well in pots, and just as an experiment I took one of the two varieties and stuck a pot in the propagator with the young chillies. Here’s a side-by-side of the difference between the two pots. It can’t be temperature making all the difference because the kitchen stays at a steady 20C, and that’s the setting in the propagator. So it must be mainly down to the overhead UV light.
Finally, a photo of the chillies which are almost ready for their big pots so we can get the tomatoes going. The stowaway basil plant is on the left at the back. These get a foliar seaweed spray once a week and I’m very happy with their progress. The biggest disappointment was that not a single Bhut Jalokia (the 1000000 Scoville unit chilli) germinated. Next season then!
The Potwell Inn is proud to present the very latest and most sophisticated ever version of the semi-automatic propagator watering device (world patents pending). Having thought through the problems and making several minor adjustments to the width of the feeder strip a sudden bright idea came to me and I added a second cork to hold the ribbon of capillary mat above the surface. Then as a final whimsical thought I added a twig of bay as a kind of mast to which I could lash the ribbon with a piece of string. It now resembles a raft and is bobbing very satisfyingly at the top of the cistern. Whether it works better that the previous iterations is yet to be seen. Meanwhile the hottest of the chillies are refusing every temptation to germinate while the Hungarian Hot Wax are thriving but I refuse to give up because it’s the first day of spring.
Back on the allotment the hot bed has worked pretty well and the seeds I sowed about a week ago are beginning to germinate, so lettuce, spring onion, radish and beetroot are on their way. In the kitchen, the sauerkraut is almost ready to go into the fridge. Busy times are ahead.
If there’s a downside to allotmenteering (or gardening for that matter) it’s how to get a break during the growing season. I suppose our allotment has the additional problem that all the water is turned off between late October and mid-March, and so we early starters need to make our own provision. Back at the Potwell Inn, we have just under fifty tender capsicum seedlings in the two propagators. Normally I water them once a day with a fine spray of very dilute seaweed growth stimulator, but I thought I’d do an experiment to see if I could use capillary matting attached to a large water source. In its first iteration I passed a wide strip of matting from a small bucket, through the ventilator of the propagator and under the matting inside. A rapid flood occurred because evidently too much water was flowing from the source. So I wondered if the flow rate correlated with the width of the connecting strip, and I halved the width, but that also wicked too much water into the propagator. Quick rumble of the little grey cells and so next I wondered if the amount of wicking that was submerged in the source bucket was the problem. The solution was to shorten the wick and attach it to a wine bottle cork with two drawing pins – as per photo – a very cheap cistern arrangement. That’s been running all day and it’s certainly slowed down the transfer of water to the propagator. If that still proves too much I’ll halve the wick width once again and carry on with the cork cistern – total cost about a pound. The next stage is to work out how large the cistern needs to be for us to have a week away. I should say that the lights are timer controlled to give 12 hours of fairly intense daylight at 24C.
Up at the allotment I spent a couple of hours yesterday reinstating the timed dripper system to water the seedlings in the greenhouse. It took some time last year, researching the available gadgets, to make sure the one we bought would function at the very low pressure provided by the water butts. This battery operated model has been reliable for a whole season, and works on a reasonably small head of water. Given that there’s no clean water available on the site for some weeks yet, I was so pleased when I rigged up a temporary tap from the water butts to find fresh clean rainwater – 1000 litres of it – flowing reliably through the system. Madame had taken a look at the rainwater in the trough but someone appeared to have washed a paintrush in it so it had a nasty blueish hue and was almost certainly contaminated with anti-fungal chemicals.
The other independent watering system we’ve used is soaker hose which we installed under the tomatoes last season and which worked very effectively over the first 2/3 of its length. That’s a point worth noticing, the hose we used was years old and had become kinked. It would probably have worked under mains pressure, but trickle fed from a water butt wasn’t working at all.
I haven’t photographed the watering can but that became the mainstay of the watering regime during the hot weather last season.
None of the hoses – large or small – last forever, and under intense heat and sunlight most of the plastic hoses in the dripper and soaker hose systems had degraded and become stiff and liable to disconnect themselves. I’d recommend changing them annually if you want complete reliability. Allotmenteering is incredibly rewarding but even the most dedicated of us need to factor in a degree of resilience against holidays or unanticipated absences, and that can’t safely be done at the last minute. With climate change well and truly in charge we really have no idea what climatic conditions we’re facing season by season. Half of my time this winter has been spent mitigating potental excess rainfall and now I’m fully absorbed in planning for drought and heat. Ah well, life’s rich tapestry in the 21st century but you’d think there might be a bit more action at the top. We’re not going to save the world with 1000 litres of water and a bit of clapped out soaker hose!