If you ask me ‘why bother?’

IMG_5264Sometimes, when it’s snowing and you have to go up to the allotment to clear the nets, or when it’s pouring with rain, or so hot that even walking up there makes you sweat, it’s easy to ask that question and the answer is in the photo. If you’ve ever seen better true spinach, fat, fresh and bursting with life – in a supermarket – I’ll eat my new and beloved hat. This is the season for true spinach in the UK at least, and it’s also the season when the garden centres are rammed with people wanting to grow something, anything to make contact with that strange and powerful urge that must be encoded into our DNA. We went today to buy more seed trays and compost and I was happy to queue up ten deep at the checkout because every single customer was on to the same thing as me.  As I often used to say at live music events, if the authorities knew how much fun this was they’d tax it or close it down. If I have one criticism of garden centres it’s their eagerness to get tender plants out sooner than they really should, which must lead to many disappointments and losses for inexperienced gardeners.

Back at the Potwell Inn, the hotbed has excelled itself in spite of my own lack of experience and we’ve been eating lettuce and lovely radishes.  Elsewhere on the allotment the container potatoes seem to need earthing up every other day, and the others, planted into the soil, are beginning to pop up enough to start modestly ridging them.  Our decision to eschew any more asparagus pickings until next year has provoked a tremendous response from the plants.  The apple trees are in full blossom although the grapes caught the frost just as they did last year.  Back then, we were devastated twice – firstly because we foolishly heeded the advice of a famous TV gardener that it was OK to prune in the early spring.  It wasn’t, and the plants bled their sap copiously to the point where we feared for their survival. Trust me, autumn pruning is safer. Then the frost all but destroyed the swelling buds. Amazingly the vine threw another bunch of buds and we had a tremendous crop. So rule two for allotmenteers is – ‘never despair, plants are tougher than you’d ever imagine.” I can’t remember rule one by the way but it’s almost certainly about not giving up.

Peas, broad beans and carrots are up and the herb plots are full of energy.  We decided while we were down at Heligan that we would expand the number of mints that we grow and so we came back with four more varieties that we’ll plant apart to avoid the possibility that they’ll all do the hokey cokey and taste the same.

IMG_5265In the flat the chillies are actually in flower and need repotting into their final sized pots. This is always the conundrum.  If you sow too early you land up with a lot of tender plants that need to be indoors for a couple of weeks at least before you dare move them into the unheated greenhouse. So just as the M5 was utterly congested yesterday as we drove back from Heligan, so too is our plant supply. Every spare  surface within a yard of a window is pressed into service. We were so busy today I didn’t have time to ID the flowering wild plants I photographed, so that list – plus the list of potato varieties they’re growing at Heligan will have to wait.

But this photo, taken down near the charcoal burner at Heligan did amuse me!

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Making hay – in a manner of speaking

We know that cooler weather is on the way, but meanwhile we’re -metaphorically speaking – making hay. The three photos are, left to right, the allium bed which was planted up in the autumn and is now thriving with three varieties of garlic and some shallots.  In the centre the kitchen window is filled with chilli plants which are loving the heat and light, and finally the fruits of the carrot experiment which had to come to an end today because we need the space in the cold frame.  The carrots were sown in the autumn in pure composted horse manure and on top of a very hard soil pan, and so germination was fine but the roots really failed to make much progress. I think that successful no-dig gardening must depend on adequate initial preparation of the soil, a lot of organic material, the removal of pernicious perennial weeds  and an open texture. The key thing is that this can’t be achieved in one season and to make a go of it you need to go through the whole process patiently, particularly for deep rooting crops like carrots and parsnips.  We’re happy to do that because we can see that it’s a method worth waiting for, but I think sheeting a weed infested patch of ground for a few months and then trying to use the no-dig system is likely to lead to disappointment.

Elsewhere on the allotment the apple trees are coming into flower, so the blossom needs protecting from sharp frosts. Madame used to work at an apple research station where they had the most amazing frost protection system that involved spraying a fine water mist on the trees during frosts.  The effect was so beautiful that it regularly attracted visitors and film cameras.  We can’t afford anything so exotic for our few cordons, so it has to be a cover of fleece.

Most of the day was spent weeding, transplanting Swiss chard plants into their growing positions, feeding the old-stagers and perennials, and sowing seeds.  We’ve become great fans of liquid seaweed foliar feed, and everything gets a spray several times during the season. The container potatoes have already poked their shoots through the soil and so needed topping up with peat-free compost.  Some of the seedlings which we recently transplanted needed a touch of water and I wandered around the allotment with the watering can, my heart filled with the sense of promise.  In many ways this is the best season of the year because come July the occasional skirmish with weeds escalates into grim hand-to-hand combat if you haven’t already fatally weakened them. So at this stage of the year it’s wise never to pass a weed, however small, without uprooting it. Once they’ve set seed you’ve created years of misery for yourself. Later we cooked the first batch of spinach and added it to a fish pie.  I love real spinach.  I love chard and perpetual spinach too, but there’s not doubt that true spinach has a unique flavour.  It’s just a shame that it only really thrives in spring and autumn/winter.  In hot dry weather it bolts at the drop of a hat, and then we eat the spinach beets.

Someone pinned this touching tribute to Terry, one of our longest serving allotmenteers, on the entrance gate to the site.  His funeral takes place on Monday and we already miss him greatly.

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