And finally –

 

 

14th April 2016
Some work to do then

So finally, two years and ten months after we signed the agreement on this first plot, we finished laying out the beds and paths on the two plots combined (one each). What with changes in design and the inevitable mission creep along with learning from unforeseen problems it’s been a long haul, but one we’ve enjoyed enormously.

The last two beds and the hotbed along with their associated paths took most of the day but it’s finally cleared and composted and, assuming the no-dig regime continues to deliver, that’s it for us with digging. Tomorrow is the big push on finishing the compost bins and, if possible, starting to move the compost and its huge population of worms into new luxury quarters.

But not everything goes to plan, and the hotbed has unnaccountably stalled. There could be a number of reasons for this – for instance a lack of oxygen, or too low a proportion of carbon in the mix. Just in case oxygen was the problem I drilled a series of air inlets around the bed, and rodded through the manure to try to get some air in, but if it doesn’t heat up I’m going to have to remove the soil layer and mix some more carbon rich material into the manure. Just for luck I watered it with a liquid seaweed mixture to add some micronutrients to the brew.

Madame, meanwhile, was building supports around the broad beans and sowing French marigolds and nasturtiums which we use in quantity along with calendula for companion planting. This afternoon in full sun it was easy to believe that spring has actually arrived, but bear in mind that the ‘beast from the east’ came much later last year and we lost most of our runner beans to frost at the beginning of May.  There’s a real balancing act between sowing early and having space and weather to get the young plants safely into the ground.  If you get it wrong you land up nursing loads of suffering plants while you wait for the weather to improve.

Anyway, this recycling collection appeared on the pavement outside our block today and I was greatly amused to speculate on which of the tenants in our house lives entirely on pizzas. I’ll be keeping a sharp eye out for someone obviously suffering from beri beri.

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An outbreak of benign paganism cheers me up.

 

Last night I was over at the Littleton Cider Club Wassail, blessing the orchard for another year. It’s aways a friendly match between me and the Green Man as to whose minstrations are most effective in promoting a good apple harvest, although neither of us was competing for last year’s garland since the crop was only 40% of the normal and the Club had to gather apples (with permission) from a disused cider orchard in Berkeley where the last 60% were gathered.  That meant that the Club were able to brew their usual duty free 1000 Litres.  Actually you’re allowed to brew up to 7000 litres before HMRC take an interest, as long as it’s less than 8.5% alcohol after which it becomes wine. 1000 Litres is a lot of cider all the same.

I think the poor crop was universal last year, with the combination of late frosts and the dryest summer on record.  I know the allotment apples were down, and most of them were affected by codling moth so we’ve paid more attention to greasebanding this year. The five newly planted cordons all got through the drought but the Lord Lambourne on the new plot had been allowed to break out from its espalier habit and is slowly being brought back to a proper shape with some pretty severe pruning.

There were all the usual fun and games at Littleton with more shotguns than ever.  They only fire blanks but use black powder which gives a very loud noise and a satisfying burst of smoke and flame- unlike normal cartridges with the shot removed which only make feeble puffing noises. But the cartridges – which are marked ‘for salutes’, I believe, cost three times as much as the ordinary ones.  I don’t know whether any scientific research has been done on the most effective way to drive out evil spirits but we certainly gave it our best efforts last night even though numbers were reduced by the awful weather. So the singers and the mummers all got on with their respective jobs and hopefully everyone arrived home safely, especially those travelling northwards into Gloucestershire who were reporting some flurries of snow.

It’s always harder to go back to Littleton because everyone is so pleased to see me and I get thoroughly unsettled and almost always spend a restless night exploring the parish in my dreams and standing – in my imagination – in the churchyard watching the River Severn from its vantage point.

Back home, though, we’re slowly plodding through the process of making raised beds whenever the weather permits and we’ve now got just two more to create, bringing us to a total of 25 if you include the borrowed patch. Some are already permanently planted with soft fruit and apples, and we’ve created three beds for perennial herbs.  Because we’re working on ground we’ve been using for three seasons on the old plot, such digging as we need to do is pretty superficial, only to remove the last stragglers of couch and bindweed.  Then, as each plot is finished, it’s given a sprinkling of seaweed meal and a thick mulch of composted manure before it’s covered with black polythene to protect it and warm the soil for an early start.  Luckily I bumped into an old friend at Littleton and I was able to arrange to collect a load of fresh horse manure from a local stable – so it looks like the hotbed project might be on again.

The Growveg website – which is well worth a visit if you haven’t seen it, sends out regular newsletters and the latest one came today with an article by Benedict Vanheems delving into the health and happiness benefits of gardening.  Here’s a quote to whet your appetite:

Serotonin is one of two chemicals that keeps us happy. The other is dopamine, which affects our emotions. The act of picking our own fruits and vegetables is shown to release dopamine in the brain, triggering feelings of mild euphoria and bliss. This is the natural reward pathway that kept our hunter-gatherer forebears on their toes but that today is blamed for modern addictions such as compulsive shopping or our obsessions with social media. Gardening on the other hand is a far healthier ‘addiction’, one that builds on rather than detracting from mental and physical health.

 

A pugnacious little visitor keeps me company.

img_4848OK it’s a terrible photo, but it was barely above freezing and although the robin isn’t shy, it’s not feeding from my hand yet. This is one of those drrrr photos – if only because there can’t be a gardener anywhere in the UK whose heart hasn’t been warmed by this little bird.  I say ‘in the UK’ carefully because we once had a hilarious conversation with a man in Central Park New York, when we asked him what was the name of the thrush- sized bird with a red breast which was there in large numbers.  When he said that it was a robin we got into one of those moments of mutual incomprehension that often spring up when two distant cultures share a language. So, for any North American readers out there, I’m talking about the British Robin which is about 1/3 the size of its Central Park namesake.

Our robin shows up almost every day and is very bold, darting in to search for food wherever there is uncovered or disturbed earth. It occupies a special place in the order of things because it’s as wild as any bird and yet its boldness encourages us to think of it as being tame – or at least tameable – and living in a fragile relationship with us gardeners. In fact it’s a bold little opportunist, a chancer who will sit three feet away and sing a song that always seems tinged with sadness.  If there’s a minor key for birdsong then the Robin has mastered it, each phrase of the song ending with a question mark, like a young person’s ‘upspeak’. There are three birds that the Potwell Inn must have.  The Blackbird must sing on summer evenings and at dawn.  The House Sparrow will chirp away tunelessly around the yard at the back, and the Robin will sing its song, like ice in a glass, out there where the allotment joins the orchard. The very thought puts me in a good mood.

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So yesterday I set out with far too many layers of midwinter clothing to finish the last (bar two) of the paths on our original plot. We’ve had nights of frost, and being at the bottom of the sloping site our ground gets frozen very easily. Allotments are rarely in a perfect place, and half of our two plots accumulate cold air beyond the reach of the winter sun which, for several months never rises above the dense row of Leylandii at the bottom. So the frost is the bad news, but on the plus side we’re completly sheltered from the South Westerlies, our predominant winds which bring gales every year and regularly rake the sunnier plots at the top of the slope, even overturning sheds and sending cloches tumbling across the site. Better still, being at the bottom of the hill gives us a degree of protection from the North and East.

Our biggest logistical challenge, building the new beds, is working around the standing crops, in this instance of leeks and  Swiss chard in order to get the boards in place. Some of them will have to be sacrificed, but they were planted last year with the new paths in mind and I don’t think we’ll be wasting too many.

And so the sun shone and despite the hard ground I made two long slits in the ground to take the boards and screwed them into place.  After a couple of hours of digging and measuring interspersed with periods of watching the Robin I came back to the flat and felt I’d made a stand against the winter.

“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.

 

I’m not as young as I was

Philosophically speaking that statement is always undeniably true, but these last two days have offered plenty of reminders – not least my 72nd birthday on Monday followed by our 51st wedding anniversary today. Who’d have believed you were that old? (I rather hope I) hear you say but after a day on the allotment building paths and beds I believe I am a little older than the 35 I usually admit to. Sunshine in December is never to be ignored and the broad bean plants have germinated and are heading towards unruly adolescence so the question of preparing the bed for them is not theoretical. But the recent rain has saturated the ground, and so the allotment is saturated at about 12″ below the surface making it imperative to get beds and paths workable as soon as we can or else we shall be driven off the land altogether for months.

So at last the east-west path is completed and filled with about 6″ of woodchip.  Our two plots are side by side so it’s a very long path and quite a feature.  I’ve been mulling over whether I should give it a name – 5th Avenue or Broadway, in honour of several lovely trips to New York.  But being just a bit rigid about these things I felt that those rather hyperbolic names should be reserved for the north south paths, so that leaves something like Columbus and West 103rd for the new path.  I rather like biblical names as well, and I’d almost decided to call the water butts Tigris and Euphrates however that leaves one butt without a name, but it does suggest the possibility of Straight Street for the new path. I realize that American readers are more likely to be biblically literate than our fellow UK allotmenteers, but the small problem of two nations divided by a single language becomes clear with “butt”.  So I’ll let the whole question of giving names to paths rest for the time being.

The practicality of pegging the boards is always made much harder when it’s wet. If the pegs are wet they split when you hammer them in, but even if you keep them dry you need to make quite a large hole with a crowbar to get them started, and the wet clay sucks the end of the bar to the extent that it requires heroic strength to pull it out again. Madame told me that my grunts and curses were providing great entertainment to passers by on the footpath.  Obviously she told me that after we got home! However I did finally get about 40′ of edging in, at which point I realized that we would need prodigious quantities of topsoil to raise the beds above the wet zone and level with the top of the boards. The earth is hungry and seems to absorb an awful lot of compost, seaweed, leaf mould and manure, but it is slowly improving. I did a quick calculation and I think each bed would need approximately 1.3 tonnes of topsoil to bring it level.  That’s about £75 per bed and we’ve got eight beds that need raising – that’s £600 and I dread to think how many wheelbarrow loads. Way beyond our budget and frankly I’m not a fan of throwing money at the problem in any case.  So that leaves all the free methods we’ve access to, and a big effort on the compost front.  Time and patience solves most problems, and gives the allotment a kind of ecological integrity.

Later, with our wedding anniversary fast approaching we sat side by side on the bed rubbing a shared tube of Voltarol into our sore knees in a companionable sort of way.  There are some scenes you can never imagine when you’re twenty one years old. It’s not the capacity to do the jobs that’s lacking, it just takes a lot longer to recover.  But I’m feeling immensely proud of what we’ve achieved and I’m so looking forward to next season.  Suddenly there’s a foretaste of spring in the air.  We woke today to the sound of  a blackbird singing.  It’s often like that hereabouts,  we get a taste of the season to come and then the door slams shut for a few months, but it will come with a new beginning and new challenges.

I’m sitting on the seed order, unwilling to commit to just one selection.  I feel like a child in a sweet shop.

Meanwhile – back on the allotment

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Even with the eyes of a proud parent I’d never claim that our allotment in winter is ‘handsome’ – as the Cornish might say.  I think, perhaps, ‘showing potential’ is a better description. The months between November and April – and that’s half a year, can be a stark reminder that we have no control over the weather and our aspirations to clear ground and to build raised beds run into the hard reality of sodden soil and rain from the south west.

But yesterday the rain stopped and the clouds cleared for just long enough for us to go and do some work.  When we took on the first plot in May, three years ago, it was a weed infested field and our whole priority was focused on clearing, sowing  and planting to make the most of our late start. It was a good year for crops, the ground having laid fallow for as many as three years. But as we’ve come to understand the soil better, we’ve realized that ‘though it’s very fertile – it’s also very fragile. It’s an alluvial loam with a clay content high enough to ball-up when it’s wet. There’s about 12″-18″ of topsoil overlaying an impermeable clay layer which led to serious waterlogging last year. Our strategy has been to pile on as much organic material as we can in order to improve the soil structure.  The decision to move to raised beds was pretty much forced on us by the soil conditions and so, three years on, we’re revisiting the design of the first plot to incorporate the lessons we’ve learned and the plots have piles of boards and pegs stacked here and there, ready to sieze any opportunity to do some infrastructure work. The most urgent need is to get at least one 12’ X 4’2″ bed ready to plant out the overwintering broad beans which are doing well in the tiny unheated greenhouse.

The ground is already so wet that it would be foolish to walk on it, so we’ve concentrated on building a deep surround which will contain the mulch on the grape vine next to a path.  Since we have a free supply of leaves most of the allotmenteers on the site use leaves.

So a couple of hours of damp work saw the surround all but complete, but more than that, it was lovely to be out in the fresh air after an enforced week inside.

Black Friday at the Potwell Inn

IMG_4749Well, it was so unbelievably quiet at the Potwell inn today that after a lunchtime that was about as much fun as a funeral director’s waiting room I went up to the allotment in the kind of gloom that only November can offer. Being a fully paid up member of the age of the electric light bulb and the wireless set I find it just a bit difficult to understand why most of my customers spent the day glued to their computers in search of a bargain on the interweb, or whatever it’s called. For me there’s nothing to beat a couple of hours of declining afternoon light, digging a trench and setting the third side to a group of four raised beds.  I was even reasonably warm with my old tracksuit bottoms under my overalls. These four beds are for next year’s potatoes, but the side I was completing today also borders the grape vine as I work towards replacing all the posts and wires.

Back home I cooked the “feijao frade com chourico” I posted about yesterday and you’ll have to look at that posting to see the photo.  I know it’s shameless self-promotion but I get lonely leaning on the bar waiting for the door to open.  Actually I was rather proud of my efforts today, and now I’ve got the second LED propagator in my tiny study, I can even fight off  my ‘seasonal affective disorder’ while I write stuff that only a tiny number of people want to read. But I’m being positive because ‘the tough get going when the going gets tough’ as the bishop once explained to me when he gave me a couple of extra parishes to look after. A dear man and so gifted.