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.

These were the flowering broad beans – yesterday

 

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.

IMG_5117Our 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.

IMG_5120But 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!

IMG_5118

 

Please welcome the Mark IV water feeder

IMG_5022The 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.

Trying to create chilli heaven!

IMG_5005If 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.

IMG_3868Up 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.

IMG_3876The 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!