The thrills and spills of seasonal work on the allotment

Our neighbouring allotmenteers went on a gardening course with Sarah Raven last week and among the multitude of new ideas they were buzzing about afterwards, one in particular stuck in my mind. The soil is all important – the beginning and the end of any attempt to grow things. Of course that’s right, but it was only as I was turning the compost heaps again today that I remembered how much I enjoyed this time of year when I was working as a groundsman, and we began all the routine maintenance jobs; repairing the wickets, hedging and draining and looking after the machinery. Of course we had to maintain the football and rugby pitches and mark out the white lines every week., but it was the time when all the foundations for the next season were laid.

And on our plot today we were already setting things out for next season. Peas and broad beans are all ready, in fact the first batch of broad beans is already growing in the ground. The fruit trees are ready for their winter pruning and we’ve prepped ready for five new trees. The tall perennial herbs have been divided and moved to their new spot near the pond; the asparagus bed has been cleared, weeded, given a supplement of calcined seaweed , then composted and sheeted. All the beds have been manured or mulched with leaf mould and sheeted even though some of them will be planted up before Christmas. We’ve had rain and then a few days of early morning frost which will help the garlic; the new batch of leaves is stored for next year – there should be about two cubic metres of finished leaf mould.

Then the paths have all been topped up with new wood chips which rot down surprisingly quickly so they swallow up to thirty wheelbarrow loads every autumn to bring them level with the path edging. That’s a lot of trudging up and down the steep site, but when it’s done the plot looks somehow more purposeful if that makes any sense.

Sadly, today I dug out all of the leeks for burning, because they were attacked again by allium leaf miner and were beginning to rot where they stood. That’s the third year we’ve lost them all and so I think we’ll give them a miss now for a few years. although I’m sure the plant breeders will be looking for more resistant varieties. We don’t put the affected leeks into the compost because especially at this time of year we’re unlikely to reach high enough temperatures to kill the pupae, and today I found a cluster of eggs laid near the base of one plant. These obviously need to be destroyed or we’ll just perpetuate the infestations, but the insect now seems to be everywhere in the UK. Our best hope of control is the same as it is for any other pest – physical barriers, good soil, strong plants and masses of predators at the right time. That’s why we overwinter the broad beans – it toughens them up enough to resist the aphid attacks until the ladybirds arrive.

There really is a correlation between abundant insect attractors and improved predation on garden pests, and one of the principal deficiencies of spraying with chemicals is that it often kills the predators as well as the target pest; thus making yet more applications of spray necessary. Modern apple production requires quite staggering numbers of spray applications; every one of which can make the situation worse.

The compost heap still heats up obediently every time it’s turned, and the more often it’s turned the quicker it does its job. One indicator of how well it’s doing is what’s happening to the bean vines which are often quite slow to rot. This year the vines were taken down in mid September and a couple of months later they’ve all but disappeared in the the heap. the worms don’t like it too hot and so they move up and down in the bin until they find a congenial spot – many thousands of them can congregate of a single bin. You just need to keep the heap at the right level of moisture – not too wet and not too dry but just right.

The same goes for plants which prefer their moisture in modest amounts; so this time of year too, when we get heavy rain, we can see which parts of the plot need additional grit to help with drainage. With the exception of bog plants I can’t think of any normal garden vegetables that don’t absolutely hate standing in waterlogged ground. Plants can die from lack of oxyen – they can easily ‘drown’ if they’re left too long.

It would be quite wrong to think that allotments can be ‘put to bed’ in late September and not tended again until spring. These quieter growing months are a marvellous opportunity for planning, remedial work transplanting and new planting of trees, and the odd bit of civil engineering. I wish I could add digging to the list because I absolutely loved doing it and miss it terribly now we’ve given it up; but I honestly can’t think that, aside from keeping me warm and fit, it does anything for the soil at all – and if you miss the exercise, get a bigger wheelbarrow and fill it up – or, if you must, drag a tractor tyre up a hill with chains.

And there we are – a whole posting without a single apocalyptic rant about the environment, but I think our chat with the young smallholder yesterday reminded me that while, as the astrologers might say, our economic and political systems might dispose us towards destructive practices, they really can’t compel us. We can resist and go our own way, knowing that although we may not be saving the planet on our own, we’re at least not making it any worse.

And finally yesterday’s 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf. I’ve eaten my words and unreservedly recant all my previous statements on the impossibility of making a decent 100% loaf. Thinking back, during the first lockdown I changed a large part of the time and temperature settings during baking, none of which changes I’d ever applied to a wholemeal loaf. So the combination of leaving out the second rise – cutting the overall proving time down to 18 hours instead of 26; and shortening the bake by 30%, the first ‘new method’ loaf emerged pretty triumphantly with a soft crumb, open texture and a good crust, not an impenetrable barnacle hard carapace. The flavour was intense – as you’d expect – but with none of the bitterness you sometimes get with a fast, yeast driven wholemeal loaf. And best of all, it tasted of wheat: really wheaty with a rich taste of the granary floor (if that makes any sense). As children my sister and I used to love feeding the chickens at my grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns. The grain was kept in a shed, and we would go and fetch an old pot, fill it with grain and go out to feed the hens. The loaf reminded me of, and tasted as good as that experience.

Doubt sets in after excavations commence.

A grace day today because we were expecting rain all day and instead, the sun shone.

I would quite like to be the kind of gardener/allotmenteer who is so on top of things that they’re never surprised at the way a project turns out, but on the other hand a bit of serendipity adds a certain excitement to life. Last season when I built the compost bins I thought they were miles too big; but in the light of experience they’re just about right. In fact they’re pretty much perfect for the amount of green waste we can compost each year. The water storage supports looked miles over spec until the water butts filled up and the whole lot collapsed; so I’ve had to completely rebuild them and add extra strengthening; and then when I first thought of building a new raised strawberry bed I didn’t really think through what an enormous amount of soil I’d need to fill it.

The same sense of surprise will probably go for the pond as well. I had thought that I could find much of the soil I needed for the strawberries when I dug the hole for the pond, but, having started to remove the topsoil, I realized that the pond would need to be about 6′ deep to get enough subsoil to raise the level of the strawberry bed. The net result of all my (mis)calculations is that the whole plot is beginning to take on the general appearance of a building site: not – I should say – at all unusual for our plots in October, because this is the time where we figure out where everything needs to go, and we’re doing some fairly wholesale hard plantings of trees, involving a rebuild of one side of the fruit cage.

But I love it; the sense of possibilities that comes at this time each autumn. We think back how the various varieties we’ve grown have done, and base the seed order on our experience. The strawberries, for instance, have never really lived up to their catalogue descriptions so today Madame ripped the lot up and added them to the compost. You have to be ruthless with allotments sometimes. Better to lose a year and replant than stick with the old ones and lose five. When the new bed is finished, we’ll replant with some (hopefully better) choices. By Christmas we’ll have four or five new cordon fruit trees, three replacement soft fruit bushes and we’ll have created new boundaries with some hard woven hazel fencing, and some vigorous blackberries and maybe tayberries trained on wires, with a rambling dog rose trailing over the shed.

All of the tall biennial and perennial herbs will have been divided and moved to an entirely new bed, and replaced with a row of lavender bushes and finally (so far) I’ll have built an open extension connecting the shed and the greenhouse with a rather complicated roof to give us somewhere dry to sit. I’m too embarrassed to show you a photo of inside the shed! Next season we’ll also be growing a bed of cut flowers for the first time. We’ve been able to release some of the vegetable space because our son now has his own allotment; and so next year we’ll be sharing our plot with the birds, the insects and pollinators and still grow enough to keep ourselves fed. All this, I should add, on under 250 square metres of land. Allotments can be very intensive even if they are organic!

But as I dug out the topsoil for the pond, I was delighted that in less than three years it’s gone from being waterlogged clay, largely subsoil – because the previous tenant had left two layers of carpet on it – to deep and rich loam. Mind you, we’ve cosseted that patch with grit, leaf mould and goodness knows how much compost. It’s good to see how quickly you can turn around a plot that we were told ‘wouldn’t grow anything’. The pond will complete the greening works this year, and we’ll be keeping a keen eye out for some new amphibian residents. We already know we’ve got at least one toad living in the specially created void under the water storage.

I don’t doubt that all the challenges will be resolved by next spring and that next season will be the best ever (fingers crossed on that one). One small disappointment is that so many of the keen new allotmenteers who joined us during the lockdown and worked so hard on their plots, have melted away now that they’re back at work. In the unlikely event that any of them will read this, I’d beg them to hang on in there. Allotments can very quickly look terrible at this time of the year, but a bit of blood, sweat and tears and a great deal of guile can soon win them back. It was absolutely evident that the sudden influx of newcomers represented a genuine longing for a richer, more fulfilling life than endless meetings, deadlines and school runs. We run our allotment on the basis that we’re available pretty much every day to tend it, but it would be easy enough to design a minimum intervention plot – lots of soft fruit and cordon trees with perennial crops and herbs. Anything that contributes even something to the kitchen and gives you an outdoor space to enjoy has got to be good. If our plot demonstrates anything it’s that allotments begin to take on the personalities of their allotmenteers just as dogs look like their owners – they say; I couldn’t possibly comment.

The earthy spirituality of the allotment

So yesterday I completed the new raised strawberry bed in a bit of a rush because the weather forecast was predicting a week of rain. It was in the same place as the two glass cold frames that were stolen last year, so I just used the same board foundations. However, the business end – ie. the new planting surface – is about two feet higher than the old frames, and the idea of simply burying all that topsoil was too much to bear (about £150 to replace) so I dug it out, down to the subsoil, and moved the good stuff on to two nearby beds. I’ve got a bit of a ‘thing’ about never wasting soil. When we moved on it was very poor after years of neglect, and covered with not one but two layers of buried carpet. The official description of the soil is ‘clay loam’ but that hardly described the waterlogged and claggy mess that we inherited. The previous owner had assured us that the ground was hopeless and nothing would grow on it – but he’d failed to investigate beyond the top three or so inches, so he never figured out why it was so bad. We’ve also got two underground streams running through the middle and along one edge of the plot, so you can see that soil management became the number one priority.

When building an allotment on quite a steep slope as ours is, terracing is the obvious answer. Initially we dug deep trenches to form the wood chip paths which function (quite successfully) as drains, and threw the topsoil up on to the beds, so it’s hardly rocket science to point out that left us with rather sunken ‘raised beds’. Over the last four years we’ve added tons of compost, brought in topsoil, leafmould and, in the wettest places, agricultural sand and gravel to increase the depth and improve drainage; and the upshot is that every ounce of topsoil has become precious, with nothing ever going off site. Now, after four years, the beds are level and uniformly deep (a full spit and more of rich dark earth) and we’ve managed to steer a middle path between too much and too little drainage. The driest areas are at the bottom of the plot where the retaining boards are 18″ deep and the drainage must be quite fierce.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and without any intention of conducting an experiment, Madame recently shoved a few desperately weedy looking Swiss chard plants into one of the plots because there was a space, and they just roared away. Now they look like veg catalogue supermodels. The empty strawberry bed is waiting for me to dig out the new pond, and all the subsoil from the big hole will go into the base of the raised bed where we’ll cover it with a layer of woodchip, followed by a mixture of compost, topsoil and sand. I’ve heard experts say that woodchip increases acidity and locks up nitrogen, disrupting fertility for ages. They also say that leaf mould does much the same thing and I can only respond by saying – not in my experience. Wood chip rots down pretty quickly on the paths, and whenever I dig into it I always find an abundance of earth worms in the degraded layer. As for leaf mould, the soil is hungry and will consume all the leaf mould we can produce. Indeed when we moved on we covered several of the beds with six inches of leaves straight off the trees and covered them with sheeting. By the spring they’d all disappeared, taken down by the worms, and the soil texture was greatly improved. If I put on my potter’s hat for a moment, leaves and wood from different species all have different chemical characteristics and Chinese potters exploited this to control their glazes – some leaves rot fast and others don’t. It’s life’s rich tapestry and the lignin in the leaves is the resistant residue that does wonders for soil structure. In our experience both wood chip and leaf mould make excellent mulches; they don’t however, add much by way of fertility so plants still need compost and any other food you care to use. The exception might be raw seaweed, straight off the beach and, stinky though it may be, rots down quickly and adds some very valuable minerals to the soil. In the photograph top left, beyond the stolen cold frames is the asparagus bed. It produced so freely in the summer that we (almost) got fed up with eating it. But that too needs lots of compost and a good mulch. Two years ago we brought an enormous sack of seaweed back and mulched the bed and the asparagus and the soil both loved it. The bed was so smelly when we spread the seaweed that our neighbour packed up and went home.

There’s no magic ingredient or secret recipe, heritage variety or anything else you can market that makes good produce. It’s about soil.

Press here for the politics!

The soil is the beginning and the end of it all. When I look at some of the impoverished stony waste that much industrially farmed land has become and watch farmers struggling to force one more harvest out of it with ever more powerful chemicals, I’m sad rather than angry. Having worked in rural parishes for 25 years I grew to admire and respect the farmers I knew, even though I profoundly disagreed with the path they’d taken. It was the British government that started the madness during and after the war by driving productivity at the expense of everything else. Industrial chemical manufacturers were left with nothing to sell after the use nerve gases was banned and so they repurposed their factories and their research departments to make insecticides and herbicides. Then the supermarkets bludgeoned the farmers into a downward spiral of land abuse and falling prices aided by industry lobbyists acting as advisers. Finally the CAP made everything even worse by subsidising quite the wrong things. How did this all happen without a fuss? Well maybe the way in which government ministers are offered ludicrous amounts of money to work a few hours as corporate ‘advisors’ in these industries when they leave government has something to do with it. It’s not corrupt in the most direct sense. Nobody is suggesting that the big companies actually bribe government ministers, but surely the prospect of huge corporate earnings after a career in parliament, acts as an incentive not to annoy the future paymasters? In the case of the defense industry it’s even easier – you just let them drive a tank and they’re yours forever!

In the end, as the Ash Wednesday ceremonies have it – we are dust and to dust we’ll return -glorious, holy, space dust (you don’t have to be religious to see this) living in all our infinite diversity on the thinnest of layers on the surface of the earth. Every atom in our bodies has been circulating since the big bang in a myriad of forms, both animate and inanimate because the earth wastes nothing – nothing that is until the human race came along and imagined in our hubristic way, that it was all put there by some beneficent God (insert variety here) who put it all there for our exclusive use and pleasure.

And that thin layer, the ecosphere on which all our futures and possibilities are rested, is dying. Everything we know or have ever known or loved and treasured has come out of that vulnerable crust of soil.

And that’s why the allotment is – in the broadest and least sectarian manner – holy. Allan Ginsberg (and Patti Smith) were right. This is urgent!

A change of gear and mood on the allotment

This is the time of year when there’s a definite change of pace on the allotment. There’s a change of crops too as we harvest the last of the summer vegetables like courgettes and (still) a few tomatoes and French beans, and start clearing those which have ‘done their bit’. We had a rogue volunteer squash that grew from last year’s compost and after we’d cleared and sheeted the potato patch we allowed it to range freely over about 20 square metres.  But as the temperature dropped over the past couple of nights we could see the plant wilting and so today it went into the compost, along with the asparagus. The trug we brought home was more typical of autumn with its muted colours, and the parsnips are doing well in their no-dig bed –  the latest sowing of spinach is growing nicely under its cloche, and we staked the purple sprouting broccoli ready for the expected winds.  There’s stil basil to pick and tonight that’s going into what’s bound to be one of the last panzanellas of the year.  We need to pick the borlotti beans in the next couple of days, but gradually, one at a time, the beds are moving into their winter modes.  The decision to convert both allotments into beds was quite costly, but it’s paid off handsomely because we can work them all in any state of the ground. Without digging the whole task of preparation is much quicker and there’s no evidence that crops have been affected adversely at all. We’re hoping for a spell of dryer weather to sow the overwintering broad beans and peas, but we’re not bothering to overwinter any of the alliums because the results have been very patchy.

Without doubt one of the less welcome aspects of the autumn has always been, for me, a debilitating spell of low mood, but although it’s been lurking there like the black dog for a couple of weeks, I’ve found the allotment an enormous help. It’s impossible not to be uplifted outside in the fresh air, and a couple of hours quiet weeding is a cure for any sort of melancholy. Obviously once the remains of the dying season have been composted, pickled, cooked or – in extremis – burned, the new season always feels that much closer.  Our soil in in great form – three full seasons of TLC and tons of compost have turned it from a sticky clay-loam, full of couch grass and bindweed, into a rich soil that runs through the fingers and makes weeding so much easier.  Even an attempted invasion of creeping buttercup into the asparagus bed was easy to deal with.  The individual plantlets could be gently lifted and the soil shaken of, leaving no bits of root to sprout next spring.

A little extra time away from gardening has allowed us to do a few more experiments in vegetarian cooking in the Potwell Inn kitchen. There’s no doubt it’s a challenge, but we’re enjoying the new styles, and vegetables that have gone straight from the soil into the pan, taste so much better – plus the fact that we’ve laboured over them makes wasting them unthinkable. As I was writing this, Madame called me into the kitchen to taste a new recipe for braised red cabbage and it was fabulous, much more restrained than our go-to recipe has always been. It’s like being let loose in a sweet shop, so many new flavours and textures to play with. Prepping the panzanella this afternoon, I was using our own tomatoes, chillies and garlic and my own sourdough bread – it transforms the way you regard the raw materials when they haven’t come double wrapped in plastic, doused in chemicals and a fortnight old already.

The compost bin is almost full to the brim for the third time since I built it in the spring.  It’s been inclined to run a bit wet and cold because of the rain we’ve had so I’m going to put a roof over the whole group of four bays so I can control the moisture and gather rain from another nearly 50 square feet of roof, it seems all wrong to water with tap water when there’s the possibility of harvesting several thousand litres a year on site.

Below, the compost bins when they were first built with our cold frames – now stolen – in front, and beyond them, the hot-bed experiment which was so successful we’re going to build two more where the coldframes used to be.

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