A touch of frost, then …

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You win some and then you lose some, and last night the evil chill of an east wind brought some serious frost damage to the site. We’d taken what we thought were reasonable precautions, and so we weren’t as badly hit as some of our neighbours whose potatoes were scythed off, but nonetheless we lost a few plants; some runner beans whose protective fleece was blown off, some marigolds in the full force of the wind and the growing tips of the grape vine, which will soon regrow, judging by previous mishaps. Being veterans of allotment disappointments we have spares in the greenhouse and in the flat too so we’ll manage – but it’s hard not to reproach yourself for not doing more.

But we knew it was a bad one from the moment we looked out of the window on to the green, where the parked cars had a rime of frost on their roofs and so it wasn’t long before we were up at the allotment assessing the damage. I really hate losing plants – somehow it feels personal. The temperature inside the greenhouse dropped to 2C and by the look of things outside it must have fallen a degree or two below zero outside. My first thought was that I must get cracking on my elevated coldframes over the compost bins – certainly before next winter. The second thought was a bit of a ponder on storing some of the daytime heat we often get this time of the year and releasing it underneath the frames at night. I’ve seen it suggested in permaculture books that stones are goood heat ballast and many years ago I saw an experiment at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth in which a recycled household radiator painted black and behind a bit of double glazed window glass was heating water to about 80C on a sunny day.

Charles Dowding blogged earlier today that these days are known in weather lore as the ‘ice nights’. I’ve never heard that expression but I’m certainly going to put them in the diary for next year. I’d say it’s been a funny old year except I think I’ve said that every year for decades!

The plastic label dilemma – solved?

If you’re so opposed to using plastic in the garden that nothing would induce you ever to use it, then this isn’t going to be useful advice. We’ve tried just about every alternative from hideously expensive black painted ones, to lollipop sticks, custom wooden labels and bits of cardboard.  We’ve even done the old trick of sticking a cane through the seed packet, but none of them are nearly as permanent and indelible as the plastic label and a permanent marker. Several lots of cardboard and wooden labels have gone mouldy almost as soon as they went into the propagators and so last year’s chillies were a pot luck supper until they fruited and we could finally see what they were.

The problem is that permanent ink is hard to get off – or at least that was the assumption we made until today when it suddenly occurred to me that I had a bottle of surgical spirit in the cupboard.  So I gathered up a handful of used labels and after a quick rub with surgical spirit – meths would probably work as well – they came up as good as new. That’s fabulous news because it means we can carry on using them year after year – they stay legible for a season or more, but you can erase the sowing date, or whatever, and use it again.

We’ve had a succession of busy days at the allotment and yesterday the final package of seeds arrived from Kings and so we’ve got everything we need for this season and after the experiences we’ve had this year, we’ll get our full seed order in early in future. Today we finished building the frame for sweet peas and sowed sorrel. More photos tomorrow.

Turning over an old leaf

It’s a bit of a funny time on the allotment, especially for no-dig allotments, because where in the past we’d be using up every suitable occasion during the winter to dig the last few patches of ground, now there’s not so much of the warming work to be done. That’s with the exception of path making and mulching. We’re lucky to have supplies of free leaves and woodchip provided by the Council, and it can be hot and heavy work taking it all down in the wheelbarrow. The paths are nearly all finished.  When they were made, it took many barrow loads of woodchip because they were 18″ deep so they could function as drains to the beds. They function very well, but the chippings rot down surprisingly quickly and we need to add at least a couple of inches every year to keep them full.

The leaves, taken from all the parks in Bath and shared between the sites are incredibly useful for building humus in the soil.  Most of us put anything up to six inches on any empty beds, and then cover them with some kind of membrane. It’s amazing how they seem to disappear before spring, taken down by the worms and chewed into small pieces by woodlice, earwigs and all the other insects, but the impact on soil structure is profound, and even after four years there’s no comparison with the heavy and dense clods of clay that used to be there.

So today we moved a couple of gooseberry bushes into better positions, made possible by removing the strawberry bed to another plot outside the cage. If there’s one lesson that comes up over and again with gardening, it’s the negative effect on yields of overcrowding the plants. Then, after a weeding session I started trucking the leaves down while Madame spread them around the cage in a thick layer. There was no-one else working on the site and no competition for the leaves, so I was able to hunt around at the bottom of the heap to get the ones that had been compressed and begun breaking down.  I find my ancient stable fork perfect for the job, and the leaves go into a council cardboard sack which, when full weighs a ton (figuratively speaking) but  I can get three barrow loads into one bag.  Five full loads later the job was almost finished and I had a backache.  That’s the point at which you say to yourself “we’ll be glad we did it in the spring” which is true but no consolation.

Our departing neighbour also bequeathed us his storage bench and half a dozen office water cooler bottles which have been outside in the frost, sun and rain for at least four years functioning as mini cloches. They work brilliantly with newly planted sweet corn, but at the moment they’re encouraging some chard.  There’s a load more stuff in the greenhouse waiting but after weeks of rain and a few nights at -2C we’re waiting for the soil to dry and warm up a bit. Now’s one of the weird times when the weather can go from wonderful to frightful and back again in a day.  In previous years we’ve sown seeds too early and had to protect tomatoes and chillies while they grew leggy and weak.  This year we’ll be more careful – this is where a diary is particularly handy.

The potatoes have all gone now.  The sack of Pink Fir Apple I was storing in the garage have all chitted too early to be of any use for eating or growing, but in any case we’ve lost the big chunk of land which we borrowed from our neighbour, so we’ll grow far less potatoes this season. But the other roots are still in production  – Madame would love to know how to dig a parsnip without putting the fork through it somewhere! The roots in general have done well, the alliums were disappointing and we’re still holding our breath hoping that the purple sprouting will deliver.  Every year we discuss whether it’s a waste of space and every year it comes good at the last possible moment and we have our feast. The other crop we’re eagerly awaiting is the asparagus which we’ve mollycoddled for two full seasons while it got its feet down.

The weeds are all under control at the moment, although I noticed a few acer seed propellers in the leaves, so I daresay they’ll all germinate. The couch grass is all but vanquished in the beds but the bindweed never gives up.  They don’t call it devils guts for nothing, although that’s a name that’s used traditionally for all kinds of pernicious weeds like dodder which we hardly see these days. We worked quietly until about 4.30, appreciating the growing day length, and then misty rain and gathering darkness drove us off and, because we were the last people on site, we came home and wolfed down a couple of mugs of tea and some biscuits.

Our youngest son, who’s a chef like his older brother, has just inherited a new general manager who can’t say a sentence without management-speak creeping in. He’s full of the kind of inspirational garbage that makes you want to chew your own arms off, but our son entertains us with such wicked impressions of him – it would make a tremendously funny novel!

Borlotti beanfeast

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Not a huge crop, admittedly, but satisfying all the same and if you taste the beans in this semi-dry state you’ll soon know why it’s worth growing them yourself.  Last year we froze some so they could be dropped into soup without pre-soaking, but this year they’ll need soaking first simply because we waited for them to reach maximum size before picking them.

IMG_6250But it was Madame who picked these, because I was over in Bristol with two of the boys putting the glass into A’s recycled and free greenhouse. The careful preparation as we dismantled it from its original site in Bath really paid off. Every nut, bolt and clip was stored separately in boxes and we wrapped the panes of glass in fours in 50 metres of bubblewrap (which will be re-used as insulation).  The three of us made an amiable crew,  light work of the job and managed to complete the greenhouse with only one cracked pane – easily replacable.   It ought to  go without saying that there is real family life beyond the wild storms and mutual incomprehension of adolescence but I don’t see it much mentioned these days since we were instructed by our jailers to regard generation X as a bunch of snowflakes while they were told that we had stolen their inheritance. Well the truth is in our family at least we still love and respect one another, and the inheritance (such as it ever was) is in some offshore bank account, stolen in yet another distraction robbery by those who presume to lecture us on our morals. End of harrumph.

So as A contemplated the first sowings on his family’s new allotment, the Potwell Inn crew went up to ours and while Madame planted out spinach and weeded, I sorted out the compost heap.  One of the advantages of living in a block of flats is that the communal waste area provides an endless supply of cardboard, not to mention occasional window boxes and plant pots. The bonanza days are when a flat is re-let and then we get big corrugated carboard boxes – the worms’ favourite honeymoon hotel. All compost heaps need carbon and carboard is a great source. We’ve put hundreds of egg boxes in ours over the years, and I’ve never seen a single one in the resulting compost, they simply disappear.  So yesterday I took up a couple of huge thick boxes and sawed them up (much quicker and safer than a knife or by tearing them). At present the fragments are lying in an insulating heap on the top, to encourage the heap to heat up a bit, and then next time the heap is turned in a week or so, they’ll be a bit softer and easier to incorporatate into the green material.

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Meanwhile, back at the Potwell Inn, the winter supply of basil is coming along nicely in the propagator.  It’s right next to a window, casting a daylight glow into the street for twelve hours, and I’ve been expecting a visit from the community police  – but I guess they see the window boxes and conclude that we’re more lkely to be septuagenarian garden freaks than threats to the Queen’s peace – whatever that might be!

 

 

On the allotment, always look a gift horse in the mouth.

I thought I might post a photo of the Hungarian Hot Wax plant that I transplanted into open ground a couple of days ago – as you can see it’s a really happy bunny now. The other photo is of the garlic crop that Madame has finished peeling and dressing. We’re continuing the drying in the shed because it’s still seriously smelly and a bit much for the landing in the flats we live in. This was all being accomplished while I was with our middle son dismantling a greenhouse he’d found online and going free to anyone willing to collect it. We were very fortunate today because this was an 8X6 greenhouse with only one pane missing a corner and, by coincidence, I took along my tool box with exactly the right set of spanners.  He provided 30m of bubble wrap, a can of WD40 and a roll of gaffa tape.

Free greenhouses can cover a multitude of sins, anywhere between free ground clearance of a no-hope structure held up by old bindweed, and a a shining, almost new one that turned out to be slightly the wrong colour for a fussy and very wealthy gardener. On a scale of one to ten, this one was a definite seven. In fact there were two greenhouses there for the taking but three and a half hours in, and on a baking hot day, we settled for the one, knowing that there were six other bidders willing to take it. Really it’s just a matter of patience, a bit of common sense and the right tools for the job. There was, for instance, a mild steel addition to the ridge that was so rusty the bolts had to be drilled out. Brambles had grown inside, and really  needed taking out before we began, but we had strong gloves, and next time I’d take a pair of secateurs. You’ll need a step ladder to reach the bolts in the ridge.  But the first advice is to take a good hard look at it and if it’s not right – too big or too small, bent, corroded or otherwise compromised by missing pieces just say no.  There are plenty of better ones out there and in any case you’ll be buying a whole bunch of new bolts, clips, rubber strip and springs so the free greenhouse is going to cost you transport, about two days of your time plus the cost of the new components which, honestly, are well worth it.  If you can get hold of the assembly instructions online from the manufacturer that would be an absolute bonus. Then take out all the glass first and dismantle the structure carefully making sure that vulnerable uprights don’t flop about and bend when the horizontal bars are removed.

Horticultural glass is very fragile and sharp, and for safety’s sake is better carefully bubble wrapped and taped before moving it.  If you’re really anally retentive you can number all the bits but it’s going to take an eternity to re-erect anyway.  Finally, don’t skimp on the foundations where it’s about to be re-erected because if they’re not rectangular and level and if they’re not deep enough, the pieces will not bolt up easily, and the glass will start to crack as it subsides. The rubber strip to hold the glass in the frames is essential but a pain to install – there’s a knack to it that you will have to learn. But don’t let me put you off, you’ll get a great greenhouse for fifty quid and a couple of days work – what’s not to like?

Other freebies are not quite such good value. We’ve seen so many people spend a great deal of money on second hand scaffolding planks.  Scaffolders know they’re on to a good thing and will try to charge you far more than they’re worth, but they never sell them on until they’re totally knackered and you’ll be lucky to get three years out of them.  New, pressure treated gravel boards are often half the price if you get them from a local sawmill, and they’ll last ten years.

Water butts, old nets and especially old carpets are often (in order) leaky and needing new lids and taps, full of holes of the kind that badgers can stroll through, and poisonous and rightly banned on sensible allotment sites. If, on the other hand, a local stately home or disgraced member of parliament is disposing of pure wool carpets without underlay, take them without hesitation, although you might have to prove their provenance to the site rep.

I could go on for ever about free manure.  There are hundreds of well meaning stables out there who think they’re acting charitably getting you to dig out their muck and spread it on your allotment. Sadly most weed seeds seem to pass through horses digestive systems merely strengthened and rendered more potent. “Well rotted” all too often means “just cooled down” and so if cheap manure is offered, see how long it’s been stacked, or take it home hot for hotbeds and make sure it gets even hotter – enough to kill the weed seeds. Beware also that they’re not full of wormer – it kills the good ones as well as the baddies! We once introduced Creeping Buttercup into one of our gardens by spreading manure from a local farmer whose fields were notorious for being overstocked with horses that consequently picked up and passed on all manner of parasites.  They were also starved of decent grass and comprised mainly noxious weeds.

There are plenty of really useful free things out there – not least brandling worms. I know there are lots of suppliers out there who would love to sell you a small box of worms for twenty quid – don’t bother – just make a good compost heap and they’ll appear all on their own.  All they seem to think about is food and sex, so not only do they digest your compost and turn it into something wonderful, the also multiply to meet the amount of food you supply them with.

Cardboard is great – especially the brown stuff.  Worms absolutely love it and you’d be amazed how much free cardboard can be found outside shops.  Bike shops are the absolute tops because one box will line a whole path, or bed, or you can tear it into shreds to add carbon.  When you turn the heap the worms can always be found amongst the cardboard.

Free mushroom trays are so useful as well – we’re lucky, two of our sons are also chefs and one of them supplies us from wood-ash from the pizza oven.  Ask around – there are loads of cafes that would love to save money by giving you their coffee grounds – but remember in compost terms they’re a ‘green’ component.

Human urine – you know it makes sense! – bio-available nitrogen, enough for one person (at ten to one dilution) to fill a watering can with plant food.

And best of all – free advice. Every allotment site has a few people who really know what they’re doing. Pay attention to what they say.

Happy gardening!

 

 

Hot stuff in the study

IMG_4952Sorry about the utterly naff heading but I keep getting advice from Mr WordPress that suggests snappy headlines reap many benefits in the circulation department. Truth to tell, I think I almost prefer the Potwell Inn the way it is because it’s easier to get to know the locals. Anyway, as planned, the timber for the compost bins all arrived today amidst gale force winds and driving rain and for the third time in as many weeks I got soaked to the skin.  But the driver from the sawmill is so cheerful it’s almost a pleasure to talk about not very much with the rain running down your neck.  Sensibly he prefers to wear shorts because when you’re out delivering all weathers you don’t have to put up with wet trousers flapping around your legs.

Back at the Potwell Inn with the wind moaning through the windows it seemed like a perfect day for a bit of armchair gardening and so I spent a happy hour browsing the fruit tree catalogue and making a list for another line of cordon fruit trees. I think we’ll get a damson, a Victoria type plum, an old style greengage, a pear of some sort and then maybe three more if we extend the bed to the bottom of the plot. But that sent me straight back to the computer because it would mean relocating some of our planned crops and then I wondered if we could plant a stepover espalier along the bottom and catch twenty two played out in its usual way –

However much land you’ve got you always need just a bit more

But really, I was just like a child delaying opening the last present because today was ordained for the sowing of chillies. There’s something profound about putting the first seeds into the dirt, and this year I’m determined to germinate at least one Habanero after not getting any at all last season. So the propagator was warmed and set up in my study, the new lights installed and the compost warmed and watered with a very dilute seaweed solution. And there it is behind me as I type, glowing daylight in the depths of winter and daring the local police to pay us a visit!  I love it.  I love looking after them, reading them a story at night and turning the light off at a sensible time (I made some of that up). When I finished with the chillies I had one half-tray left and so I sowed a few Corno Rosso red peppers – a bit early and possibly a bit hot for them, but nature is a constant surprise and with an early start they may well fruit just a bit earlier too. Anyone who’s ever grown an allotment will know that the real skill (which I don’t possess) is to space things out a bit. It’s great having a cornucopia in late july, but it’s better to have a constant supply of goodies through the seasons.

Looking at the enormous pile of wood waiting to be built into a three bay compost bin, it’s not hard to feel slightly uneasy at the expense.  I’ve no idea why allotmenteers seem to regard it as a point of honour to furnish the entire plot with old pallets and carpets and refuse to buy a tomato seed if they can scrape one out of the morning’s bacon and eggs. I’ve never met a birdwatcher who boasted that they’d built their binoculars out of a couple of tin cans and the bottom of a wine bottle; or a runner who would run a triathlon in two left shoes they’d just salvaged from the tip. We recycle a lot – today we liberated a large polystyrene fish box that will protect our tender plants from late frosts. The compost bins, the hotbed and the cold frames are the beating heart of the whole setup because they provide the food and the nurture for what feeds us.

It takes me twenty minutes to sow and label fifty seeds which, in my imagination I can already see ripening.  Apart from the usual TLC which really isn’t that onerous, the whole miracle is accomplished within nature and handed back to us as a gift.  Surely a few pounds to pay our respect to the soil isn’t an extravagance? When we moved on to the first plot we found an old bicycle in the compost heap. I’ve no idea how long it takes to compost a bike, or a piece of carpet underlay but I’ll guarantee it would still have been there long after I re-enter the carbon cycle!

So no I don’t feel bad about spending out on making the plot work as well and as easily as possible. As one of my mentors once said to me after I commiserated with him about having to do an awful visit, he replied “it was my duty”. That’s not a word we hear too often round here.

And finally – I just closed the shutters and noticed that we have a first quarter waxing moon. Since my seeds are in darkness under artificial light they won’t be affected by any light but ……. who knows?