Not grapes!

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We were just packing up on the allotment yesterday when  noticed this addition to the shed door. They may look very like grapes at this magnification but in fact they’re tiny (less than 1mm) eggs – I’ve no idea what sort of insect they belong to but they’re strikingly pretty and we’ll leave then there to see what emerges. A quick internet search suggests they could be lacewing or shield bug eggs, but most insects lay their eggs on their food source and so far as I’m aware the shed door is not the habitat of choice for any insect I can think of. If they are, in fact, grapes I shall put an ad in the Daily Mail and sell them on as the new wonder-food that everyone’s investing in. Pretty scruffy painting on the door too – I have to admit – let’s call it vernacular painting and pass rapidly on.

I have seen books and websites that suggest you can run an allotment in an hour a week.  I’m sure you can, just as you can water an allotment in ten seconds with the aid of a second hand fire engine and a full lake of water, but that’s not really the point. There’s an old saying that the best fertiliser is the farmer’s boot. Such archaic folklore is obviously out of date in the age of farm machinery with GPS and onboard computers but that’s part of the problem. Swinging by your allotment for an hour a week or ploughing a hundred acre field without stepping outside the air conditioned cab misses out one vital part of managing your patch of dirt – pondering time.

Pondering is one of the most fruitful exercises in gardening. Standing stock still in the middle of the plot and looking at the lie of the land, the direction that the wind and the rain come from, the condition and even the smell of the soil, the particular weeds that like to grow there, the birds, the pests, the time the sun spends on the plot and the time it’s hidden behind the trees, the places where frost gathers, the habitual path that the badgers take (just try blocking it and you’ll see what I mean), the recollection of the seasons as they affect that particular spot and the way things are at this precise moment; what flourishes and what’s in trouble?  Pondering is the equivalent of a platoon of Royal Engineers building a bridge between the present moment and the future.

So yesterday Madame had a flash of insight that managed to unite three key aims on the allotment. From the first moment I started to build the compost bins I was aware that we were taking out a very large bed of ‘full sunshine’ ground. Space is the most precious commodity we have when there are only 250 square metres to work with, and sometimes you have to make compromises.  Maintaining an organic plot requires big inputs of compost and becoming as self-sufficient as possible in compost is a big money-saver. We also take in garden waste from our neighbours who would otherwise have to drive it to the municipal tip.

We also want to store as much water as possible because with climate extremes becoming almost commonplace we need a buffer against watering bans. Rainwater is, in any case, less damaging because it contains less chemicals like chlorine.

But the loss of twenty square metres of growing space is a big price to pay, which is why Madame’s idea is so brilliant. Yesterday we were pondering where we might put four ridge cucumber plants.  They’re a bit space consuming because, like courgettes and squashes they like to wander. There are four compost bins in a row.  One is used to store leaf mould – so we fill it heaped high with leaves in the autumn, and then we don’t touch it for a year while it gradually reduces to half the original volume. Next to that we store the compost, grit and sundries that we still have to buy. The third bin is for the final stage of our home composting and the last is the ‘live’ bin that’s regularly topped up, turned and mollycoddled.

Madame’s big idea was to plant out the cucumbers in bags of compost on top of the leaf mould. But two heads work better than one and in a flash we could see that by securing a removable floor above each of the bins, and then building a polycarbonate sloping roof over each of the bins and harvesting the rainwater falling on them, we could combine all three objectives :

  • Making compost
  • Harvesting water
  • Increasing cold frame space

It’s three crop vertical gardening in a confined space.

 

 

Seasonal stocktake

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At last, with a supply of spring vegetables coming in we can make a seasonable vegetable stock with produce straight from the ground.  Obviously the stalwarts are there the year round, but as our youngest chef/son pointed out yesterday, there’s a sweetness in the early veg that you can’t easily find in winter. This one, aside from onion, carrots and celery – all the usual suspects – had spring onions, the very last of the overwintered leeks, Swiss chard, the runts of last year’s garlic crop, fennel and fresh herbs wherein lay a lesson. We’ve never used lovage before in a stock but we did yesterday and we discovered that, like nutmeg and saffron it’s a flavouring that needs using with discretion, because if it’s not it can be a bit overwhelming.  Yesterday’s stock had a single leaf the size of a hand in it and I’d say that’s about the limit.

The other early job, aside from cooking breakfast, was to put a slow braised piece of topside (a very occasional treat at the Potwell Inn)  in the oven for the whole day in a wine and stock sauce. It’ll do us for at least three meals but yesterday evening I cooked a proper ‘Sunday meal’ to replace the calories I’d burnt off earlier in the day. When Madame prepped the veg I protested that there were far too many for us to eat, but (I think to our joint amazement) we cleared the lot.

Earlier we went to the allotment to take a delivery of topsoil.  The bed system works very well most of the time, but when it comes to earthing up potatoes you need quite a lot of soil, and in any case we needed extra soil to top the beds up. I created a one metre cube store with pallets to keep it tidy but as it was brought down in barrow loads I had to extend the store twice and by the end I think I had around one and a half tons – which sounds a lot but doesn’t go that far in practice – enough to make a couple of deep beds, from scratch, that’s all.  I decided to spread the soil out before the rain arrives on Tuesday but it was a very hot day, and By the time I’d top dressed three beds I’d shifted the whole load and I ached.

This morning we went up to the allotment to clear up, feed and weed before the rain and also to test the new water butt pump to make sure it would be capable of raising stored water from the bottom to the top of the slope. Happily, apart from having to lug a heavy generator down to the plot, it worked seamlessly and with sufficient pressure to generate a decent spray after travelling about 60 feet along a pipe. Once I’ve finished the last bit of civil engineering there should be enough stored water to keep the plants alive for several months in an emergency. I keep asking myself if we’re being ridiculously pessimistic, but climate change brings flood and drought conditions – neither of which are conducive to good growth.

But all the while there’s a certain weariness with the lockdown. There’s the constant fear of being overwhelmed by a miasma which by now is as much psychological as it is physical, but none the less real for that. We seem to alternate days of vitality and optimism with days of gloom – living like lighthouse keepers with no relief crew in prospect.

Water doesn’t flow uphill – does it?

It’s trickier than you’d think, collecting rainwater. In theory at least, all you need to do is shove one end of a pipe into the end of the guttering and the other into a water butt and it will fill up with pure sweet rainwater. In the imagination the rain flows in, filling the tank in no time at all.  But in practice much of our rain is of the 0.1mm per hour drizzly stuff, and so you have to be very patient and make sure that there are as few leaks as possible and finally you need to keep all the pipework as level as possible because water won’t flow uphill. As you see from the photo, my efforts to raise the water butts to the maximum possible height meant that the flexibility of the delivery pipe has introduced a bit of a dip that I’ve now levelled up with the help of a long cane and a cable tie. I won’t know how well it’s all working for a week or so, but a similarly inefficient system filled four barrels totalling 1000 litres so far this winter. But it’s worth the effort.  Water is one of the principal inputs for an allotment, along with recycled compost and manure and if it’s possible to be self-sufficient in any of them, it’s all the better for the environment.

But water butts are one of the most commonly neglected items you see on allotments. They languish in the shade of a collapsing shed; sometimes with surplus water trickling from the top or more likely a lidless dump from a discontinued comfrey water experiment; the best but least attractive thing about it being to provide a breeding space for rat tailed maggots which eventually become hoverflies.  Why is this? Why do we install them with our heads full of their promise and abandon them a season later? My feeling is that it’s due to the very slowness of filling and emptying them. Aside from a season like the one we’re enduring at the moment, when the water table seems to be at knee height, most seasons provide more intermittent showers than satisfying downpours and so we wait patiently until the water butt fills; unwilling actually to use it in case we need it later in the season. Then, as autumn approaches and we contemplate using the water we discover that the tiny outlet tap delivers water so slowly it takes an eternity to fill a can, and the pressure is too low to feed a soaker hose. The dilemmas accumulate.  You can always bale the water out with the watering can, but if you elevate the butt to get a stronger feed you need to be 7′ tall to reach. The trick is to have two watering cans, leaving the second to fill while you use the first.  Alternatively, dripper systems can function well on low pressure feeds – we use ours in the  greenhouse. In practice, though, sadly it seems quicker to walk to the council provided water trough and use expensive drinking water. Watering, it turns out, is a skill that has to be learned.

On our plot we’re planning to store water wherever we can harvest it, but – and here’s the challenge – we’re on a slope. The greenhouse and the shed are at the top of the slope, so that’s fine.  But there’s a big opportunity to harvest water if I build a roof to the compost bins – about fifteen square metres – but they’re at the bottom. So how do we move the water from the bottom to the top? At the moment we’ve got a petrol generator which weighs a ton and needs to be driven up from the flat; and along with a small submersible pump we can move water very efficiently if rather noisily.  But I’m intrigued by the thought of lifting the water with a home-made hydraulic ram pump to move it up to the new storage system. I first saw a hydram in use in Ffestiniog, and then a friend had one in the Brecon Beacons, they’re wonderful pieces of engineering but they cost an arm and a leg if you buy a ready made.  But the joy of internet searches is that there are YouTube videos galore that show how to make one with a bunch of old plumbing spares. I watched an inspiring video of an (I think) Indonesian man making a large pump and installing it in a stream with the help of friends to fill what looked like a 10,000 gallon tank – enough to supply a hamlet.  I’m wondering if I could build one that’s portable so it could be moved from tank to tank …. who knows? – but if I can make water flow uphill that will be wonderful.

 

Dealing with drought (?)

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I know, it makes me feel a bit premature too, since we’re probably about to break the record for the wettest February since records began – but if climate change means anything at all it’s the fact that our weather is becoming less and less predictable. The swings are wilder; feast and famine come together in the weather cycle and ironic though it might seem, we’re investing heavily in water storage at the moment at the Potwell Inn because it’s raining. Starting to wonder what to do after it’s been dry for six weeks and the government is planning a hosepipe ban will be too late. We’ve been storing 1000 litres for a year and I’ve been busy planning and building a new storage layout, connecting the butts and increasing our capacity to 1250 Litres immediately and later perhaps adding another 500 Litres to take the water running off the compost storage bins.  It seems all wrong to use pure drinking water for the allotment, but for the most part we’re all very inexperienced when it comes to efficient watering. I’m quite sure we water too much – in my case because I actually enjoy it on a summer evening – but much of it will be wasted. So one of our climate change lessons for the next few years is to learn how to water just enough and not too much.

We’ll also need to be looking at the plants we grow; the varieties that work and a whole range of new horticultural skills. There will be things that can’t survive the new weather regime and I’m sure the seed catalogues will be offering lots of expensive new varieties.  On the other hand, open pollinated varieties using the best seed gathered on our own allotment year on year might do even better.  I’ve read that it’s surprising how quickly adaptations happen. There’s a good case for looking again at some of the trad varieties that could bring useful genes into play. I once had a micro-variety of cherry tomato that had been treasured since the war by a retired firefighter.  It had no name – just ‘Tim’s tomatoes’ and the fruit was absolutely delicious.  Sadly they died with him but whatever they were, they loved life exactly the way Tim grew them.

There are so many things we can do as growers to mitigate climate change.  That’s not an excuse for not doing all the things we know about in our personal lives, the way we shop and travel and dress. But change, when it comes, will come slowly and we need to prepare for the extremes in the meantime. We’ve done some trials with windbreaks and frostbreaks (hardly needed this winter);  I’ve written often about drainage and improving soil condition – all these things can add resilience to an allotment. Our allotment is sheltered from the prevailing southwesterly winds by a line of tall trees, but the northwesterlies, northerlies and northeasterlies can be incredibly cold and destructive and so we’ve put all our structures – greenhouse, shed and compost bins on the North side, and we’ve built a strong windbreak to the east. We’re not allowed to have fences or hedges but there’s nothing in the rules about training vines and growing vigorous soft fruit along wires.

The hotbed, although it’s quite small has also given us flexibility during the early months of the year.  It’s surprising what you can grow on 12 square feet of fertile soil, kept at a steady 20C. Climate change is a real challenge, but it’s one we can rise to.  I’ve just spent the happiest couple of days sourcing exactly the right kinds of pipes and connectors and one additional water butt that fell into my hands when I walked into a local garden centre and saw the very thing I was looking for next to the till waiting to be returned to the wholesaler. I did a deal with the boss on the spot and got it at a reduced price. So that’s in the back of the car along with a pile of connectors and pipes that I can’t wait to assemble.  For the first time we’ll have a free (OK it cost a bit) but a sustainable source of rainwater that flows freely to a convenient tap at watering can height. It’s been a logistical challenge but by a bit of judicious juggling I’ll have preserved all bar a couple of gallons of the water that we’d already stored. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed it.  That’s one bit of infrastructure to cross off the list, and then I’ll turn to putting a roof over the compost bins and harvesting the rain off another 60 square feet. Further down the line I want to try out an idea for solar heating using an old radiator that I saw at the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth years ago and I might even have a go at an irrigation scheme run off a 12V battery and a solar panel on the shed, used to operate a solenoid valve and ……….

Madame gets exhausted by my enthusiasms so I’d better shut up. The flat is full of seedlings. Greta Thunberg came to Bristol today.  Bristol – for the benefit of the political commentariat who never leave London (the Great Wen as William Cobbett would have it) – Bristol is a large city near the confluence of the Wye, the Severn and the Bristol Avon where people speak with a funny accent and around which the electrification of the railway was diverted because too many people voted Labour. George Ferguson the previous Mayor was very involved in Green Politics and the present Labour Mayor has continued in the same vein. There were about 30,000 people there at the demonstration and the march passed off completely peacefully as everyone except the police and the media expected.  The local evening news reported that ‘thousands’ of demonstrators turned up and probably by 10.00 pm the BBC will be reporting that ‘quite a few’ people came and ruined the grass on College Green. It’s a good job, then, that these wicked demonstrators have already started raising money to repair the damage to the grass caused by 30,000 pairs of feet. Meanwhile the police were busy filming these nascent terrorists – some of them at primary school – are we living in la la land?

Still waiting for the police to drop by!

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Well, we’re not exactly expecting anyone to break down the doors but every time we walk back to the flat we look up and see the daylight lamps blazing away over the propagators we think it should at least raise a tiny bit of interest. In any case I’m longing to invite a suspicious officer into the flat to check us out, with –   “Sorry mate – Madame’s maxed out on the basil today and she can’t really speak at the moment, but do come in for a cup of green tea and a flapjack“. 

We love our propagators.  They take a bit of getting used to but once you’ve got the hang of it even so-called difficult subjects become a lot easier.  The first year I sowed chillies I faffed about so much with the temperatures that the only seeds that germinated at all were the Hungarian Hot Wax. The second year went much better, but we discovered that far from being terribly delicate, the old monsters – well at least the Hot Wax and Jalapeno actually preferred it in a sheltered spot outside on the allotment. Only the hottest ones needed protection.  They also resented overcrowding – so if you’re struggling with hot chillies try giving them more space. We also went from ordinary seed compost to composted coir, but we’ve decided that for all its green credentials it’s better to make a home made mix of compost, soil and vermiculite rather than pure coir. One more thing worth trying is to get them germinated and then turn the heat down a bit.  Ours germinate well at 25C but once they’re looking healthy we’ll turn the heat down but still give them lots of light – about 12 hours.  I’m sure there are dozens of experts out there who know better but this year we’ve had 100% germination of the chillies.  ‘Don’t worry’ seems to be the order of the day.

But we’ve also had two dry days and so at last I made a start with moving the water butts to a new and much higher position alongside the shed. There’s room for three 250 litre butts, but when they’re full they’ll weigh 750 Kg  and so the stand needs to be really – no really strong.  The maths is easy –  one litre weighs a kilogramme. I like that kind of unit.  But I don’t like the proliferation of standards that makes joining the water butts together into a nightmare. When Britain ruled the world we just made up a standard, announced it to the world and expected everyone else to comply – and if they didn’t we sent a gunboat up the high street.  So in what ought to be the simple issue of things like nuts, bolts and pipe fittings there are always two standards – one for the heritage lovers, let’s say British Standard Pipe fittings – doesn’t that sound grand – and another for the rest of the slightly more intelligent world. But marooned on this delusional island as we are, it becomes necessary to learn three standards for almost every fitting except those you can hit, and there is a flourishing but incomprehensible market in adaptors which sit like translating apps between a threaded hole and a pipe.

Why bother? you might wonder.  Well it’s because standard water butt taps turn a big – 25mm outlet into a very small one – about 1/3 the diameter which, when you’re filling a watering can or trying to feed a soaker hose turns a generous flow into something with prostate problems.  So my idea is to replace the cheap plastic taps with much more expensive 25mm all-the-way-to-the-pipe taps, and join all the butts together with fancy blue pipe so I can fill a watering can before it gets dark.

The carpentry bit went smoothly and I was able to build the platform without any outlay, just using timber left over from other projects on the allotment. I baled out the first butt and moved it on to the stand but my first attempt to fit a new bung failed miserably.  Like all good gardeners I carry a vernier in my toolbox – no really – and the replacement seems to be just under 1mm bigger in diameter than the original, although they’re both supposed to be 3/4 BSP. Is this, I wonder, because these mains pressure components are meant to be what we experts call “a bash fit”?  Who knows? But as a precautionary measure I’ve ordered a different manufacturer’s so-called ‘compatible’ component which I’ll try tomorrow.  The take-home lesson for today is the one that all plumbers understand and cost into their quotations, namely nothing ever fits first time and endless waiting at the stores counter is just part of life’s rich tapestry.

The fates never smile across the whole of the Potwell Inn at once, and I’ll settle for 100% germination even if the payback is a lot of fiddling around with pipes – at least the sun shone and the birds sang and Madame sowed the first parsnips – which will probably take until midsummer to germinate. In a tiny vignette from our charmed existence at the Inn, we were sitting companionably on the sofa watching something tedious on the idiots’ lantern and I turned to Madame and said – “you smell nice”.  “Oh” she said – “you smell sweaty”. Hm.

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The hazards of babysitting allotments, and more thoughts on water.

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Every silver lining – it’s said – has an accompanying cloud, and one of the best things about allotmenteering is that there are always neighbours who will keep an eye on your plot while you’re away.  But there are risks – your neighbour might treat the job as more of an aspiration than a commitment, although it’s usually our children who go down that route. On the other hand the risk to the Good Samaritan is that something horrible like blight might happen to the neighbour’s tomatoes and it’s them that will have to break the news. We have a friend whose daughter’s hamster died one Christmas Eve many years ago.  He had to visit every pet shop in Bristol, with the deceased pet in his pocket, asking if they had another one “exactly like this.”  Mission accomplished,  and with the daughter in the dark about the ruse, they all celebrated Christmas without an accompanying cloud.

The reason for this visit to memory lane is that we arrived at the allotment this morning to find a Good Samaritan in a bit of a state – she’s always taken her responsibilities very seriously. Our neighbour’s tomatoes had suddenly developed some sort of disease while she was looking after them.  We knelt and prodded and poked and examined the source of the problem which was not centred on the leaves but in the stems which had developed long brown lesions.  When I cut one open and peeled it I could see decomposition beginning at the centre and it felt suspiciously soft. Later, at home, I checked with several books – the RHS book by Pippa Greenwood “Pests and Diseases” is especially approachable – and I decided it is probably Tomato Pith Necrosis, nasty but not completely fatal as long as you cut the infected stems off and burn/dispose of them. By the time we came on the scene she was already planning to dig them all up and burn them but we were certain it wasn’t blight (too early for a start) and she agreed to wait until the holder of the plot got back off holiday. She’d already texted him with the bad news and so I texted him later with the better news. The disease is soil borne and can be spread by splashing – for instance by watering with a rose from above – and also by handling.  Tomatoes hate having their leaves handled.  Needless to say we all solemnly washed our hands with gel and then we sped off to the Potwell Inn plot to make sure ours were alright.

IMG_5731.jpgHappily all was well in the tomato department but while Madame was picking some peas she found that the Pea Moth was cranking into gear – that’s why getting them sown and picked as early as possible is always a good idea.

Elsewhere the young leeks are doing fairly well, but along with the autumn and winter crops already growing, they’re a reminder that nothing stands still for long on an allotment, and the seasons are always queuing one behind the other.

Meanwhile I’ve been revisiting some of the calculations I did before I posted on the subject of watering with stored rainwater.  When I went back over the figures the combined water gathering area of the shed plus greenhouse is not 7 but only 5.5 square metres. So I had a look around, and if I roofed the compost bins that would give me an additional 4.5 square metres, and if, as well, I built a rain gathering roof between the shed and the greenhouse it would add yet another 2.5 square metres.  That would give a water harvesting area of just under 12.5 square metres. Because there is always inefficiency in harvesting, let’s say that the effective harvesting area is 10 square metres.  That means that for every mm of rain that falls we could harvest between 10 and 12.5 litres of rainwater.  The average annual rainfall in Bath is 761 mm so that would potentially yield nine and a half thousand litres in a year.  That’s about 5% – peanuts compared with the almost 200,000 litres that would fall each year on the whole plot in any case, but the thing is that it doesn’t rain every day and so the stored water is buffer against temporary shortages. Three thousand litres of stored water would provide 75 full watering cans a week for a month, or 25 a week if the drought went on for three months. The harvesting area could refill the tanks three times in an average year and, most importantly they could harvest during those short heavy thunderstorms and intense showers that would otherwise be wasted in run-off to the rivers.  Another thing I ddn’t factor in yesterday was that 20% of the overall area of the plots comprises pathways that don’t need watering anyway – that’ll teach me to check my calculations more carefully before I post!

So all this, combined with the other measures I wrote about yesterday, (soil improvements, mulching etc.) could easily be part of the way forward.  What really struck me was the sheer volume of rain that falls in a year, and how much of it is wasted in run-off.  I haven’t even mentioned grey-water because on an allotment it’s not a factor – but you can see the huge impact of more widespread adoption of water storage.

But yesterday I also alluded to compost as part of the solution to global climate change, and again I checked the calculations I made when I built the 4 compost bins in February. I calculated that the absolute maximum compost we could make would be about 3 cubic metres – and that would be pushing it. All the organic gardening books suggest mulching with up to 15cm of compost.  Calculated for our standard allotment that would mean making around 30 – yes thirty – cubic metres of finished compost a year, and I’d say that would be an absolutely impossible target. Some form of rationing will have to be done unless we/you are as rich as Croesus.  There are other soil conditioners like leafmould that we can make, but they come (free) in the autumn and the heap spends a year shrinking to less than half its original size. So that makes about half a cubic metre. Apart from buying in manure, which I’ve no objection to except that it takes up so much space (27 cubic metres? – don’t be silly) – that’s a quarry lorry full. So that leaves us green manuring, and, because we’re not digging, the green manure would have to be composted – no problem there.

Sorry, that’s a lot of detail but it makes me wonder how realistic some of the gardening gurus actually are. TV gardening programmes are entertainment, and just as not everyone who watches Jamie Oliver actually cooks his recipes (which, incidentally are very good), so too with gardening shows.  Whole new gardens without a blemish are planted up in five minutes and never a pest appears to darken the horizon, and ….. I begin to wonder if coffee table gardening isn’t the first cousin of  the romcom – not much reality.

Finally, just to leaven the lump a bit, not all vegetables need a great deal of water.  While I was researching this I discovered that watering does nothing for parsnips, and carrots do worse if they’re watered any more than occasionally.  Our own experience with potatoes shows they need very little, so there’s some silver lining there.  For me the take-home point from all this work with a tape measure and a calculator is a better understanding of the inputs that make for a sustainable and drought resistant allotment. Far from being minor issues they need to be brought into the long term planning of facilities and crops.

 

Worrying about water

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Yesterday morning early I was trudging back and forth to the water trough, worrying about just how dry the soil has become over the past couple of weeks.  We had a decent spell of rain before that, but my impression is that we’re distinctly down over the average. Here in Bath the average annual rainfall figure is given as 761mm.  I did a bit of investigating and soon realized that I had no idea what that figure really meant, and so it came as a surprise to me that the figures given in mm aren’t ‘per square metre’ – in fact they’re not related to area at all. If you want to find out how many litres of water fall on your patch of ground in an average year, it seems that 10mm of rain is equivalent to 10 litres of rain per square metre – that’s to say, in average year our 250 square metres of allotment receives very roughly 20,000 litres of rainwater.

So far so boring, you may think, but many allotments are completely dependent on a water supply that can be turned off if there should be a drought.  Most of us are familiar with the need to have a waterbutt attached to the shed and/or the greenhouse but when you look at the data, a single waterbutt is hardly going to save the day – and that’s where I came in. Yesterday, let’s say I used 20 cans of water (it’s peak watering season), and so that’s 200 litres of water – or pretty much one whole water butt full – that’s to say if the Council or the water companies decided to pull the plug, on our allotment we’d have four good waterings left. So, at a pinch, we could probably survive for a month, but what about a three month drought? It’s a fairly simple calculation – we’d need 12 water butts – 3000 litres of stored water.  However, gathering that amount of water in order to store it would be a huge challenge – we have about 7 square metres of roof altogether, so we would need somewhere in the region of 500mm of rain allowing for some inefficiency.  Not only that, water butts take up a lot of space – we’d need to go for 1000L caged containers.  Any way you look at it, making provision for a drought is both complex and expensive.

IMG_5682The only way to mitigate our water use is to increase the water capacity of the soil by increasing the amount of organic matter and making use of mulches to reduce surface evaporation. It’s clear from our experiments with mixed plantings, that covering the ground completely (courgettes, for instance under sweetcorn) lashings of leafmould and so-on really increase the moisture holding capacity.  The Potwell Inn allotment needs most watering on the areas where the soil is exposed – it’s obvious really. Another approach – one which I’m sure the seed merchants will soon be all over – is to develop drought resistant varieties, but we could also start to develop extremely locally adapted plants through seed saving.

The take home lesson from all this, so far as I can see, is that in the teeth of global heating, we allotmenteers are going to have to adapt very quickly. It’s easy to feel virtuous when we grow our own organic food, but we need to be modest about our potential.  Collective action across a whole allotment site could be worth investigating – we’ve got three underground streams running through the site – it would take a lot of work and investment but at the moment it’s just running into the river.

When I sat down to write this I felt a bit glum, but now I’ve done the maths and given it some thought, sustainability is a real possibility on the allotment. It seems almost a crime to be pouring purified drinking water on our plants when alternatives are possible. It’s easy to think that the only harvest that matters on an allotment is the stuff we can eat, but we need to harvest every scrap of green waste we can get our hands on, and every available fallen leaf so we can make quality moisture retaining composts and mulches; and then every possible harvestable drop of rain to reduce our tapwater consumption.

To repurpose an old saying – “We have seen the enemy – it is us!”

 

These were the flowering broad beans – yesterday

 

However there was a mild overnight frost and we shall have to hope that they survived. They’re pretty well protected from any cold wind but not fleeced. Yesterday was such a beautiful day that you could forget that this is still early spring and quite likely to throw a nasty surprise. As ever we scan the weather forecast and try to second guess what will happen on our patch but forecasts deal in the generalities of towns and cities not sites and plots. I noticed on a friend’s facebook page that someone had commented that there was no point in wasting time teaching children to grow things because they could learn gardening in half a day. I couldn’t possibly comment.

IMG_5117Our allotment site is served by cattle troughs which are turned off in October and on again in April. That, of course, means that there’s a period – especially in early spring – where everyone is sowing and nurturing young plants, but there’s no water supply unless you’ve got some storage. For several days we’ve seen allotmenteers wandering around the site, watering cans in hand, looking for an inch of water at the bottom of a trough. I’ve never been so glad that we installed some storage last winter, and so at the beginning of spring we had 1000 litres of rainwater in the butts.  We’ve moved into a period of high atmospheric pressure without any rain just at the time when the growing plants need it most. You wouldn’t believe the pleasure that turning a tap and filling a can can bring. This wasn’t so much for watering, the earth is hardly parched at this time of year and it’s only the plants under cover that need it.  Yesterday I wanted to spray the growing plants with dilute seaweed foliar feed. Applying it to the leaves does seem to work but it involves getting out the big sprayer which, being bright yellow, is liable to send out misleading signals to other organic gardeners. On the other hand, allowing people to imagine you’re using all manner of toxic chemicals might discourage them from grazing.

Back at the Potwell Inn Madame and me had one of our Big Talks which always involves a bit too much wine and no time or energy for cooking. I love our Big Talks – very therapeutic. So supper was one of those storecupboard pot luck meals, rendered even more interesting by the fact that I retrieved an unlabelled box from the freezer and had to defrost it to see what was inside. It was the simplest of tomato sauces made during the glut last summer and it was absolutely lovely. Linguini + tomato sauce + a bit of Parmesan and, for me a few anchovies scraped from the bottom of a jar in the fridge. It was an unbelievably good way to anticipate this coming season.

IMG_5120But there was no basil yet.  We’ve got a succession growing well in pots, and just as an experiment I took one of the two varieties and stuck a pot in the propagator with the young chillies.  Here’s a side-by-side of the difference between the two pots.  It can’t be temperature making all the difference because the kitchen stays at a steady 20C, and that’s the setting in the propagator.  So it must be mainly down to the overhead UV light.

Finally, a photo of the chillies which are almost ready for their big pots so we can get the tomatoes going. The stowaway basil plant is on the left at the back. These get a foliar seaweed spray once a week and I’m very happy with their progress.  The biggest disappointment was that not a single Bhut Jalokia  (the 1000000 Scoville unit chilli) germinated. Next season then!

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