A dirty story with added compost

It’s almost a week since I last posted, but it’s been very far from lazy – in fact we arranged to take the campervan down to Cornwall and then, 24 hours later and in view of the worsening Covid situation, we cancelled. Whatever respite the relaxation of the restrictions brought, it’s been blotted out by the imminent arrival here of 22,000 students from all over the world – that’s 25% of the population of the city and enough of a threat to make us want to pull up the drawbridge once again. I certainly don’t think it’s fair to blame students for the flare-ups across the country; everyone with more than two grey cells knew that trying to persuade thousands of young people to live like saints was never going to happen, and the punishment of having them locked in their halls with the threat of not being allowed to return home for Christmas is cruel. Goodness knows what they’ve been through these past months with the A level fiasco, and this added burden must surely lead to mental health problems for some. In my view they should never have been encouraged to return to university only to be penned up like sheep. There’s an irony in the fact that our youngest son’s halls were designed by the same architects who designed Swedish prisons!

And of course the great joy of living in an HMO (house of multiple occupation) – as we do, is that we have a continuous stream of students moving in and out, hardly any of whom we ever get to know -so our minds, once again, are focused on staying safe and working on the allotment to secure next year’s food, bearing in mind that next season we’ll have brexit affecting food supplies too.

We’re nowhere near self-sufficient, but our whole lifestyle has had to change. No more popping out to Sainsbury’s – we plan ahead and get one food delivery a week, which has meant that our food expenditure has dropped – no more impulse buys. So when we weren’t at the allotment, much of our time this week has been spent preserving and storing food for the winter. Our relationship with the food we eat is so much closer; we don’t throw leftovers away and we’re more and more vegetable based.

Back on the allotment

On Thursday the big delivery of timber arrived from the sawmill and all of it needed taking down from the path at the top where the driver and me unloaded them. Trust me a wet plank nearly 5 metres long is a tricky carry. As ever I’d accidentally ordered the larger diameter wooden stakes – that’s about the third time I’ve done it now; so the long awaited storage racks look rather over-spec now I’ve finally built them. I’ve also rebuilt the collapsed water butt stands- adding new supports and tomorrow with a bit of luck, I’ll build the new deep beds for the strawberries. If there’s one lesson we’ve learned it’s not to grow crops that need a lot of attention like watering and regular picking anywhere the least bit inaccessible. The easier it is to get to them the better they’ll grow and this is the fourth move in four years for the strawberries.

Then the musical chairs begin in earnest. First we need to empty the compost that’s ready, and the leaf mould that’s also ready and get them on to the empty beds to make room to turn the first bin which is now full, and start a new empty one for the masses of autumn green waste. Then we need to dig out the topsoil from the new strawberry beds and store it so that the subsoil from digging the new pond can be used as a bottom layer. The hotbed also needs emptying – spent hotbeds are full of wonderful soil conditioners and compost. The plan is to give the whole plot a couple or three inches of mulch. Trust me it’s easier to write than to do; turning a couple of cubic metres of compost is backbreaking work, and all the other civil engineering jobs are based on sheer manual labour.

The really big project is to build a sheltered area and pergola into the gap between the greenhouse and the shed. I’ve been designing it in my head for weeks now, and it’s a tricky one because the roofs of the shed and greenhouse are aligned in different directions so I’ve been experimenting with folded card to see how to join the two together. The answer came in a flash of inspiration while I was playing with some cardboard and all I need to do is fold the roof at the correct compound angle. The next job will be to calculate the angles and lengths exactly and work out what the best joints will be – I’ve no intention of resorting to joist hangers. The object is to create a sitting area for Madame and me because at the moment we’ve only got room for a chair and a stool. Guess who usually gets the reclining chair ….. bitter …. me?

I’m never happier than when I’ve got a bit of a project going, and what this prolonged period of lockdown has taught us is that we need to focus on more than just growing food – or at least we need to broaden the project to feed our souls as well as our bellies – hence the wildflowers and the pond and, just maybe, a little fire pit for the cold days in winter.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that we enjoy an apple I/D competition and I bought the RHS apple book for Madame earlier in the year. So finally we think we’ve identified our inherited apple tree as a Ribston Pippin. It’s not easy to sort it out from Lord Lambourne, which we have always thought it was, but the tiniest details of shape, ripening time and (would you believe?) stalk diameter and length seems to have clinched it. The tree was very neglected when we inherited it, but some pruning to restore something resembling its original espalier shape and a lot of TLC have seen it giving us some big yields. This year many of the fruits have been affected by bitter pit but to be honest the skin is a bit tough anyway and the blemishes disappear with the peel. You’d never be able to sell it in a supermarket but the flavour is marvellous.

We’ve also begun ordering next year’s seed – 3 garlic varieties and overwintering broad beans are on their way, and when it rains on Wednesday next we’ll spend the day making lists. That’s the thing about allotments, there’s never a truly slack time. These past few sunny days have been a blessing and the clearing, mulching and temporary sheeting are all going well. We did think about green manuring, but it doesn’t fit well with no-dig, and so we compost all our green waste and let the worms do the digging.

Compost

But the big story today turned out to be compost. As I mentioned above, turning a 3 cubic metre pile is hard going, but first I had to empty the next adjoining bin to make space. Home made compost doesn’t look like the commercial stuff until you’ve run it through a coarse sieve but it’s ten times better than anything you could buy. Today’s take home point is that if you’re trying to produce compost in a short time – say a under a year- then don’t add any woody waste unless you’ve got a shredder, it won’t rot in the time. The second point is that as we’ve gone on experimenting I can say that so-called compostable caddy bags will eventually break down but I’m not convinced that they’re reducing to anything innocuous. We leave them in but I’d like to know whether we’re just adding microscopic particles of plastic to the allotment. What definitely don’t break down are ordinary tea bags and Jiffy Seven modules so they’re off our list. The only tea bags that definitely disappear seem to be the Tea Pig range – after about a couple of months they begin to degrade into something that looks like translucent seaweed and then you can’t find them any more.

Today the heap was at 40 C and turning will only make it hotter – I was astonished that a single rat beat a hasty retreat as I was working – talk about a cushy life. But organic life is the heart and soul of the allotment and as I worked there were countless brandling and, towards the cooler area at the bottom, larger earthworms, not to mention all the centipedes, millipedes, earwigs and their companions in the drier parts. Good heaps don’t smell bad at all. If they stink they’ve gone anaerobic and need turning immediately and probably lots of shredded cardboard added too.

The sieved compost looked great. I wheelbarrowed four or five loads out to the beds and spread it around two inches thick – the plants just thrive on it. The photo at the top isn’t very good I know, but it illustrates one of the most important qualities of compost. You’ll see that it’s clumped into larger particles and this isn’t clay, but the action of colloids, and they’re part of the story of how compost improves water retention. I suspect that all of the compost in the photo had passed through the guts of our worm population which makes it worth its weight in gold. The other major soil additive is leaf mould, and that’s awaiting my attention later this week. It’s stored for a year under the weight of some bags of compost which helps it to compact and rot (aided by ten or fifteen litres of urine in three applications) – and this year we grew a magnificent crop of cucumbers in the grow bags – because they were able to source water but probably not much nutrient in the leaf mould. However it does wonders for soil structure and so we produce a couple of cubic metres a year from the leaves that the council dump on the site. Leaf mould is a largely fungal process and therefore slower, but compost relies on bacteria and millions of tiny invertebrates. I wouldn’t want to be without either.

Exciting times, then. The propagator is on in my study with the first crop of winter basil and it seems the new season is well and truly underway.

If you don’t like worms look away now.

IMG_4993Back at the Potwell Inn allotment to install some fronts on the new compost bins this afternoon. We were eager to see whether the worms had sorted themselves out after being moved into a new home and we were delighted to see that they had resumed their activities at the top of the heap.  They’re not keen on daylight so you need to be pretty sharp to get a photo before they all disappear. One thing that interested us greatly was how they appear to enjoy the cardboard in the heap.  Yesterday I threw all of the half -rotted carboard that we took off the California cylinder into the heap and today the worms seemed to be congregating especially densely around it. One of the challenges with any heap is keeping the moisture level right.  I heard somewhere that it should be moist but not wet enough to squeeze water out.  This lot looks pretty wet, but the presence of woodlice suggests it’s not too wet.  Having mixed it all up whilst turning it yesterday there’s quite a mixture of fresh material and worm cast – that’s the dark looking stuff that contins all the goodess. It’s a miraculous thing to watch, plant material decomposing through the action of all manner of fungi and bacteria and then being passed through the worms and turned into highly valuable garden gold. I swear I can hear the heap shouting “feed me now” every time I walk down the path. So that’s bin number one and we’ll probably stop feeding it when there’s enough fresh material in the adjoining bin to attract the worms through the gaps in the structure. I’m assuming that once the fungi and bacteria have kicked the process off, the worms will move next door where they’ll find a greater abundance of food. That’s the theory – bearing in mind that we had no idea they would colonize the cylinder so abundantly.  If they’re happy they just seem to keep multiplying, presumably until their appetite fails to be matched by the food supply. Our only task is to feed and to turn the heaps regularly.

At last – the cunning plan

2019 allotment planOr at least as much of it as I could force on to a PDF and then convert to a JPEG. It’s harder and slower than you’d think. I suppose it would have made more sense to do the plan before the seed order but we had a clear idea of what we wanted to grow and – as always happens – it’s only when you start the detailed planning as to where exactly things are going to go, that you realize you just need a few more square metres. But we don’t have a few more square metres and so it’s going to be a very tight fit.  There’s another challenge, inasmuch as some crops come out in time to get a second crop in afterwards, but the very thought of trying to plan successions that way (although the software allows it) –  makes my head spin.

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All this planning is attributable to my being felled by a cold and kept indoors with only my protestant work ethic for company. Oh and miserable weather just about topped it. But after three or four days, the streaming eyes, the sneezing and the hacking cough have subsided a bit and we were able to go up to the allotment clutching the print-off in order to see just how difficult the plan is going to be.  It’s now true midwinter and growth has slowed almost to nothing among the plants.  It’s as if everything is taking a break and waiting for a sign to wake up again.

But one group of residents has not stopped for a moment this winter. The compost heap has become a wormery without any effort at all on our part. With plant growth at a standstill the only thing going on to the compost heap has been our household green waste – peelings, eggshells, cardboard, coffee grounds and leaf tea all go on every couple of days but the heap never grows.  Down at the bottom of the heap the magic has happened and when I separate the two layers I’m confident we’ll have excellent compost.  Lifting up the old carpet and the cardboard on top reveals an astonishing amount of worm activity. I’ll need to be careful when the heap is turned into its new home. The worms have found their own way into the heap and they are really thriving, so I’d quite like to start a proper wormery, but what would be the point when the system is working so well without any interference from me?

Now the new raised beds are almost finished there’s still a bit of old-fashioned digging to do in order to remove the last of the bindweed and couch before we forsake digging altogether and rely on our friends the worms to do the work for us as they take the mulch down into the ground. It’s a win-win situation, but I’m not sure the summer is going to be all about lounging around drinking Pimms.  It’s going to be just as hard work to source and produce the quantity (about 10 cubic metres) of compost we’ll need to run the no-dig system really well. And there in the middle of the plan are the three new compost bins that will be the engine of our productivity – when I finally get around to building them.