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?