…And the Livin’ is Easy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARemember a few months ago when it was cold and wet (very wet in certain areas of Britain)? Well now it’s hot. Very hot. And dry as well. We’ve had the odd scattered thunder storm over the last week, which resulted in lots of spectacular photographs of nocturnal lightening being shared on social media, though not by me because I generally sleep through such events. So we’ve had a little rain but far too little to keep crops in tip-top condition.

So about 7.30 am most mornings I visit the allotment and give the greenhouses, cold-frame and polytunnel a good soaking, and they need it because the soil dries out under cover in no time. On alternate days I also give most outside beds a thorough going over with the hose as well, although I tend to concentrate on salads and squash, which need a constant supply of moisture to keep growing unchecked, and leave the root crops (such as parsnips) to send their roots deep for moisture.  So far this year I’ve had some very good results (that faint grin you detect reading between the lines is a sure sign of smugness, guaranteed to precede calamity) but I’ve also had a couple of problems.

First the good news.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis week I’ve picked the first aubergines (Bonica) from the greenhouse. These were sown on 3rd March and transplanted into the greenhouse bed on 12th May. They suffered a bout of grey mould a few weeks ago but I picked off the affected leaves and they seem OK now; they certainly have plenty of flowers and young fruits on them. I’ve also picked the first of the Blue Coco climbing french beans. These have small, delicate lilac and white flowers and purple-tinged pods, which turn green when cooked. They taste delicious and I would recommend this variety to anyone who likes french beans.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sweet peppers (Macedonian Sweet) and chillis (De Cayenne) are also romping away in the greenhouse. The plants are hip-high and they have plenty of green fruits on them, which will begin turning orange and red any day now. This year I have tried growing sweet potatoes for the first time. I will post a full blog about these in the autumn (hopefully after harvest) but at the moment I am amazed by how much growth they seem to put on each day. If the top growth is anything to go by I shall be tucking into some bumper tubers in a few months time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe courgettes (Atena Polka) have been providing a crop for a couple of weeks now and it’s been hard to keep up with them. I have them growing beneath sweetcorn (Sweet Nugget) but it has only been for the last couple of weeks that the sweetcorn has managed to rise above the courgettes’ massive leaves. The cobs are just beginning to set, promising delicious yellow chin-drippers in September.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe flowers I’ve grown around the plot this year have been spectacular. The annuals, (calendula, nasturtiums, poppies and sweet peas, amongst others) have grown better than I can remember from previous seasons; their abundance of colour has added a tropical touch to the plot. The dahlias, especially the orange cactus varieties, also contribute an exotic flavour to the overall vista and the sunflowers are also just coming into their own. The herbs, particularly the mints, bergamont, thymes and hyssop, have been flowering profusely for a while now and attracting many bees and hoverflies.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sunny, warm weather has provided good growing conditions for most crops growing on Maddi’s allotment, but it has also bought its problems, of which the most serious has been blight on the polytunnel tomatoes. Sungold is the worst affected, which has brown mottled patches on leaves, stems and fruit, but even Fandango, which is advertised as having a degree of blight resistance, has started to succumb. I’ve cut off (and disposed of, not composted) the leaves showing tell-tale signs but even taking this step I know that the crop will be severely depleted. I’ve heard tales that diluted aspirin sprays applied every three weeks or so help prevent the attack and I may well give this a try next year.

My early carrots (Amsterdam Forcing) have been nibbled by carrot fly larvae, leaving blackened trails around about a third of the crop. This is not too serious at the moment because the larvae are still young and they haven’t had too long to do their worst. Once carrot fly damage has been found it is worth digging up the whole crop and freezing as much as possible. The longer they are left in the ground the more damage the larvae will cause.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvery garden has its problems and by mentioning the blight and carrot fly damage I hope I haven’t created the impression that I’m fighting a losing battle with nature! Overall this year is shaping up to be one of the best growing seasons I can remember and I don’t think I’ve felt as on top of things on the allotment as I have so far this year. Walking around the plot, hoeing or watering, I take a great deal of pleasure in seeing (and eating) the results of my efforts; lush chard, swelling squash and bendy cucumbers all remind me of the winter work, carrying manure, digging and weeding, that facilitated their growth. I did that – I made them grow!

Remind me, what is it that comes before a fall?

Summer Pruning Apple and Pear Espaliers (and not much else)

P1010493Like most bloggers I’m adept at putting my best side forward and conveniently forgetting to mention the things that don’t quite work out. The fruit plot on Maddi’s allotment is one of those things.

I’ve put a lot of time, effort and money into this part of the allotment but I think it’s about time I took stock and consider my options. This part of the allotment is towards the top of a slope and is bounded on three sides by ‘weed’ trees and scrub that have grown over the years as the allotments on this part of the site have been abandoned. Now, this site (like most others in Southampton) is over-subscribed; there is a four year waiting list to get a plot, so why were the allotments near the fruit plot abandoned and allowed to get into such a poor state? The answer is water – a lot of it.

Puddle Path Feb 14Towards the top of the plot are a series of natural springs that spew water most of the year but over the past couple of winters, when we’ve had record levels of rainfall, these springs have pretty much saturated the ground and made it very difficult to cultivate the area. I suppose other allotmenteers have tried growing fruit and vegetables here in the past and given up. When I took over the plot, three years ago, the fruit plot was head-high in brambles. I cleared the area in late summer and realised then that the soil was poor; it had thick layers of a revolting blue-tinged clay just below the surface and I noticed that relatively few weeds (other than the brambles) were growing there. A series of soil tests confirmed my suspicions that the ground was very acidic (an average  pH of 5.5) and it was practically devoid of all nutrients, presumably leeched out by the constant washing it received from the springs.

Freshly Mucked Fruit PlotNothing daunted, I cleared the area and dug it over – old bramble roots are a sod to take out but into each life some rain must fall… I decided that raised beds were the way forward. By adding lots of compost and manure to the beds where the fruit was to grow, the bed heights would be raised, thereby increasing soil fertility and drainage. I spent quite a bit of time building the timber edging to the beds and when the fruit canes, trees and bushes arrived from the nursery everything was ready for them. Over the winter and following spring the water in the ground made it just about impossible to walk around the plot and I became increasingly worried that the fruit roots would rot before they could get growing. In fact, everything did OK apart from the raspberry canes; all twenty four of them withered and died before their first summer. I tried a new batch of canes last year and they all died too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI planted two pear trees (Conference and Buerre Hardy) that I’m training as espaliers. This is basically a tree that is shaped to within an inch of its life so that it produces (in theory at least) a lot of fruit in a small amount of space. I’ve grown one against the side of the south-facing shed and the other in a nearby bed of its own. I hammered in posts and tied in horizontal wires as a frame against which to train the pears and also used bamboo canes as supports for branches before they get tied into their horizontal tiers. These two tress have grown well and appear not to mind the wet winter soil too much although there was no blossom on the lower tiers this spring and I was hoping that there would be some, so perhaps they’re not as happy as I think.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApples and pears trained as espaliers or fans need to be summer pruned. This encourages fruit buds to form in the late summer and autumn and directs growth to the newly forming parts of the tree. It also clears leaves from around ripening fruit (sic) to let the sun in. For the first few years of growth, each spring and summer, the young stems that will form the horizontal branches are tied into the canes leaning over at an angle and then are tied down to their final positions over the winter. In summer, new growth from the main stem is cut back to a few leaves and growth from the horizontal tiers is cut back to a few leaves above the basal cluster, which is where the blossom and fruit should grow next year. Specialist books on pruning explain this much better than this, and some of them have excellent diagrams to help, but once you’ve done it a few times it’ll seem the easiest thing in the world.

As I’ve mentioned before, we have deer on site so I erected a 1.8m high black heavy-duty net fence around the plot to keep them out. It didn’t work, they chewed their way through it and then chewed their way through the young shoots of the currant bushes I’d planted – no crop this year and no photographs of black, red and whitecurrants or gooseberries. I dug a drainage channel along the back of the plot and down one side to take excess water away. This didn’t work very well either; the channel certainly took surface water away from the plot but there was plenty left over that soaked like a sponge into the ground I’d lovingly prepared. Last week I found an adult fox asleep on the bed under the Morello cherry fan I’m trying to train; he sneaked off pretty sharply through a hole he’d evidently created (and I’d not seen) into the surrounding undergrowth. I’m beginning to realise that the wildlife around here is getting more benefit from the fruit plot than I am.

By replacing the net fence with a galvanised metal wire one, and properly maintaining it, I reckon I can keep most of the larger animals away from the fruit, but the fact remains that the underlying poor soil and the surrounding trees, that cut out a lot of natural light in the summer, make this a difficult place to grow fruit. So, what to do?

Well, I could keep going. I could replace the fence and make it deer and fox-proof at some expense. I could continue to add mulches to raise the beds and increase fertility and I could concentrate on growing the plants that tolerate the conditions and just forget about raspberries. Alternatively, I could just give it up as a bad lot and give in to nature; why push a boulder uphill? I think though that I’ll do something in between. I’ll attempt to move the fruit bushes (the currants and gooseberries) down to the main vegetable plot (which is well drained and receives plenty of sunshine) in their dormant season this winter. I’ll keep the pear espaliers and the cherry fan going and try growing shallow-rooted vegetables in the vacated beds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOr perhaps Father Christmas will come early this year and bring me the plot next door to Maddi’s allotment, which is currently vacant…

 

Football and the Art of Gardening

CAUTION – THIS BLOG INCLUDES THE GRATUITOUS MURDER OF METAPHORS AND SIMILES; READERS OF A NERVOUS DISPOSITION SHOULD MOVE STRAIGHT ON TO THE FLOWER BLOG

The FIFA World Cup is currently being played out in Brazil and because the weather has been ever so slightly hot here in the south of England, I have been enjoying TV pictures of sun-drenched beaches and stadia, full of enthusiastic supporters, as a background to some pretty exciting and skillful football, with a little more empathy than might have been the case had it been pouring with rain with miserly temperatures.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn previous World Cup competitions, the group stages have tended to be pretty dour affairs, with teams demonstrating a greater fear of losing matches than desire to win them, but not this time. In this tournament, teams have been ‘having a go’; they have been attempting to score more goals than they let in and the tactical emphasis has been on creative forward play rather than ‘park the bus’ defences. The exuberance of much of the play has reminded me of those fantastic walled kitchen gardens found in country houses and large estates, where a myriad fruit and vegetable varieties of assorted shape, colour and size create a visual firework display that, at its best, takes your breath away. And just like those kitchen gardens, the best teams have demonstrated that the whole is better than the sum of its parts. Costa Rica, Colombia and, perhaps most notably, the USA showed what a committed group of players can achieve, even when, as was often the case, man-for-man, they were not as good as their opponents. A row of emerald green cos lettuce looks good but pair it with burgundy lollo rosso or verdigris cavolo nero kale and sparks may fly.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALike this World Cup, gardening is, for the most part, a summer activity. Of course, planning, preparation and training go on all year round but the zenith occurs in the heat of the summer, when most of our crops bear fruit. Unless you’re an England fan, in which case the planning, preparation and training was apparently for naught. Like a single poppy growing against the odds in a bed of sweetcorn and courgettes, the England team were not long for the competition and were plucked as quickly and gently as possible from the scene, to leave a more harmonious event in their absence. Having been born in Glasgow I could claim to support Scotland but, alas, they did not even qualify for the finals (an unreliable seed strain left in the packet whilst stronger, more resilient varieties were given their chance) so I must bear my share of the pain for at least another four years.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe winners of the competition are still to be decided but it looks like one of the hardy perennials, Brazil, Germany, Argentina or Holland will take the honours. These are the teams with pedigree and breeding who will always perform well when their time comes. They are to football what globe artichokes, asparagus, runner beans and rhubarb are to the productive garden. This year we were pleasantly surprised by the performance of rarely trialed varieties like asparagus kale (Switzerland), blue coco french beans (who else but France), Syrian black broad beans (Mexico) and, most thrilling of all, sweet potatoes (the plucky USA). But when push come to shove, the prize will be taken by one of the old guard, as sure as eggs are eggs.

There have been some memorable moments of individual skill in this world cup. Who will forget the heroics of Tim Howard, the USA goalkeeper, in the ultimately vain attempt to deny Belgium passage to the quarter-finals; my sweet peas have put on a terrific show this year but, like Howard, are beginning to wilt under the constant pressure of aphid attack – something has to give. My aubergines looked as good as any I have ever grown but have recently found themselves able to wither from some sort of diving disease (grey mould), rather like one of the Dutch strikers, who seems able to trip over the most innocuous, and sometimes nonexistent, of tackles inside a penalty box.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApart from the excitement and quality of most of the matches, I think my abiding memory of this world cup will be of those individuals in the crowds who have had their faces (and sometimes whole bodies) daubed with makeup, depicting their national flags or emblems. The Dutch fans are famous for creating fields of orange at their sporting events but other nations too have taken up the challenge of supporting their teams through judicious and sometimes non-judicious use of colour. Most of the crowds have been dressed in yellow, the colour of the host nation’s shirts, made more garish when Brazil played Colombia, who also normally play in yellow. These are the high-summer colours of the flower borders and also of my nasturtiums, calendula and Californian poppies, scattered amongst the vegetables. The Argentinian and Grecian blue and white regalia are mimicked by the borage and some of the comfrey flowers, but whilst these colours add depth to the flower display, they jar a little; we need warmer colours in the heat of summer, some Spanish and Portuguese reds and yellows and African reds, oranges and greens to add fizz and heat to the lushness of all those vegetable greens. And for sparkle, the odd white highlight of cosmos – alas I mean Germany, not England.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe spectacle of the World Cup will be over soon enough and already coaches and team leaders will be planning for the future, (arguably, England have already started this process by picking a young and inexperienced team for this World Cup). And planning for Maddi’s allotment has already begun. I’ve written previously that I want the plot to become more ornamental next year, so I’m busy researching planting combinations and varieties that will help to achieve the effect I’m after. I will try new types of vegetables and try to push the historically conservative boundaries of my planting. I will adjust the design of the bed layout and it’s about time I bought some decent gardening clothes (instead of using ex work clothes); it’s a pity I can’t redesign my kit every year or so and make loads of money by pressurising my fans (?) to have to buy the latest strip, like most football teams.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd, like the national football teams, there will post mortems and analysis on this year’s performance. Some players will be ear-marked for future potential (so far my sweet potatoes show Pele-like qualities) and there will be cuts, retirements forced and unforced (over-wintered peas and broad beans in the polytunnel were failures and do not earn their places in Team Maddi). And then there will be the wildpicks, the erratic potential match-winners that have yet to come through the youth development system (cucamelons? oca? balsam pear?). One thing’s for sure – the next generation will have to go a long way to maintain the standards of play from this year, but isn’t it the promise of tomorrow that always spur us on?

Growing Asparagus from Seed

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMost gardening books and websites recommend growing asparagus from one year old crowns purchased in the spring when the plants have died back and are dormant. The spider like crowns and their roots are planted on a small mound of soil, quite deeply, and then the soil is gradually heaped up around the growing spears over the first few years of growth. Grown this way, asparagus spears should not be cut for at least another two years in order to allow their root systems to develop strongly, so that they can withstand the late spring harvesting over the twenty years or so of their productive lifespans. Although the crowns are quite expensive, this method is recommended because it saves a year of waiting for the first crop compared to growing plants from seed.

P1010537I bought a dozen crowns of  asparagus (Mondeo) and planted them in a raised bed near the fruit plot on Maddi’s allotment in the spring of 2012, two years ago. I tended them carefully, pulling weeds by hand because hoeing can damage the roots, and kept them well watered during hot summer spells. In the first summer I was relieved to see that they had all survived the transplanting process and had all sent up a few thin but nevertheless asparagus-like ferny fronds. I didn’t crop any spears. In the second year, they all grew well but again, the spears seemed small and a little spindly, so I didn’t crop any spears so as to allow the roots to build up their reserves. This spring, the spears were still a little on the thin side and. although I had been looking forward to a first, modest harvest, I decided once again to let the crowns build up their reserves for another year, so no harvest in year three.

Asparagus likes a well drained, almost sandy, soil, and although my asparagus is growing in a raised bed on a slope, the underlying soil is heavy clay and I suspect that the poor drainage is affecting the growth of these plants. I cannot do much more to improve the drainage of this bed so I decided last winter that I would create a new asparagus bed on the main vegetable part of maddi’s allotment, where the soil is deeper, finer and better drained but, having spent rather a lot on the plot recently, I decided to try and save some money by growing plants from seed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI chose asparagus Connover’s Colossal because I know from past experience that this is a hardy and tasty variety that generally grows well in the south of England; the packet cost £1.99 for 120 seeds compared to £17.99 (plus postage and packing) for 10 crowns from an online supplier.  I sowed 50 seeds in general purpose compost in seed trays late in March this year and after four weeks found that every single one of them had germinated (despite being left outside on our garden table) – so far so good! I then transplanted each seedling to a 7.5 cm pot of general purpose compost and grew them on outside in our garden. No pests (not even slugs and snails) and no diseases set them back; they grew healthily and easily, surviving on occasional watering and quite a lot of neglect.

LaOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAst week (third week in June) I pulled up the autumn sown onions (Shakespeare) and bought them home to dry off under cover. In recent years I have sown a green manure, such as phacelia, in the vacated onion bed, but this year I decided that this would become the new asparagus bed. I gave it a good digging over, removing the few weeds that had survived the hoe, and created two shallow furrows along the length of the bed, about 10 cm deep, 30 cm wide and 60 cm apart, using my rake. I scattered a little blood, fish and bonemeal into each furrow and raked it in. I then transplanted 28 of the strongest looking asparagus seedlings into the furrows, each about 40 – 50 cm apart, and buried each seedling a little lower in the ground than it had been in its pot. As the seedlings grow this summer I will gradually rake the soil in the bed so that it is level and each seedling is buried a little deeper.

I will keep the bed well watered this summer and in the autumn, when the top-growth dies back, I will cut the stems to about 5 cm above ground level and then add a winter mulch of manure or compost, whatever is handy, to add even more height to the soil covering the developing crowns. I will repeat this over the next few years so that in three years time the asparagus spears will be growing in mounds running the length of the bed.

P1010541OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApart from poor drainage, the worst problem to deal with for the new plants will be the asparagus beetle and its grubs. The beetles appear as if by magic each May and lay their eggs on the new leaves. When hatched, the grubs munch their way through the leaves and if left unchecked, they can completely defoliate the plants. There are chemical controls to deal with the beetle but I prefer an organic (if brutal) approach and I squash the beetles and grubs by hand. The beetles are devious; they hide behind stalks when approached or drop to the ground as you try to pick them off.

I won’t cut any spears for three years and it will be interesting to see how these plants grown from seed compare in vitality with the established crowns growing further up the plot. At least those will provide a crop next spring so hopefully I won’t have to wait for another three years before being able to taste the delicious young spears.

 

Transplanting Leeks

Leeks January 2014One of my aims for Maddi’s allotment over the next few years is to increase productivity, by which I mean firstly to increase the amount of fruit, vegetables and flowers the plot provides for us but also to grow better and healthier plants more consistently. One way of increasing the amount produced is to have crops growing in the ground in quick succession so that as one variety finishes its cropping season, another takes its place in the appropriate bed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy autumn-sown broad beans (Aquadulce Claudia) have just finished cropping, and what a fantastic crop it was! I think the wet, mild winter we had must have suited the plants because they were hardly set back by the few frosts and, whereas I normally expect damage to the young plants from strong winds, and thereby a few losses, this year saw nothing but healthy and consistent growth. Seven full carrier bags of beans have now been shelled and eaten, but mostly frozen, and the plants and pods added to the compost bin. The spring-sown broad beans (Bunyard’s Exhibition) are just beginning to pod up and we will eat most of these fresh from the plants over the next month or so, keeping the frozen beans for use later in the year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarly in April, I sowed a row of leeks (Musselburgh) in a seedbed near the cold-frame. These are now 20 – 30 cm tall and ready to be transplanted into their permanent positions, where they will grow steadily until the late autumn when I will start harvesting them. If space is at a premium, you can sow the leeks in a a shallow seed tray; I did this for many years and got very good results. One bed of leeks generally lasts us until February. Leeks are a hardy plant that will withstand pretty severe weather; ideal for extending a season into the winter and early spring, even with quite heavy soil. I have now transplanted these leeks into the bed vacated by the broad beans, so this bed was ‘unoccupied’ for only a few days.

Because it has been so hot and dry in recent weeks, the ground beneath the broad beans had become compacted and difficult to fork over; digging beds in the heat of summer is always difficult. One trick to alleviate this problem is to give the bed a thorough soaking a few hours before you dig it, preferably overnight. This softens the surface of the ground, making it easier to remove weeds and dig. Even with a really good watering, it is still surprising to find how dry the soil is just below the surface but the process of lightly forking over the bed will allow rain, or the hose, to penetrate deeper towards plants’ roots.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI usually rake in blood, fish and bonemeal to the surface of ground before sowing seed or transplanting young plants, but one of the the benefits of growing broad beans, like most of the legume family, is that their roots ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil. So by cutting the bean plants off at ground level and incorporating their roots into the soil, their nitrogen is made available to following crops, in this case, the leeks. You can see the nitrogen-fixing nodules, if you look closely, on the broad bean root in the photograph.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou generally have to treat young transplants very gently but leeks do not need mollycoddling. I use a trowel to make a hole 20 cm deep and simply drop a leek into it. Don’t bother back-filling the hole, just fill it with water and the roots will be covered enough to anchor the plant and for the leek to grow happily. I plant four rows along a 1.2 m wide bed, with a spacing of 15 cm between plants. This is quite closely spaced but it allows me to hoe between rows and I’m not trying to grow exhibition sized specimens. Some people recommend trimming the roots and leaves of the young plants; the roots to encourage quick re-growth and the leaves to minimise loss of moisture through transpiration. I have never bothered with this and have always had good results. Leeks are a pretty robust crop whose only real problems are a little rust (ignore it, it won’t really affect the plants) and the leek moth (pretend you haven’t noticed it or cover the bed with horticultural fleece and, other than making one or two layers of the outer skin slightly soft and mushy, it will be only a minor irritation). Keep them well watered in dry periods.

That’s all there is to it; leeks are a really easy and robust crop to include in your kitchen garden, providing delicious stems deep into winter and early spring. I am also growing the variety Jolant, which will crop earlier than Musselburgh, and that I will use to infill gaps as they arise in beds around the plot, minimising ‘unused’ space.

As a footnote, I would add that leeks are a very ornamental vegetable whose foliage contrasts nicely with other, broad leafed, plants so if, like me, you are interested in creating a visually stimulating garden and like the ‘potager’ style, leeks are a very useful addition. Like most of the allium family, their seed heads are also quite beautiful and if you leave one or two to flower they will attract lots of beneficial insects to your plot.

These are the days

IMG00050-20140620-0920I arrived at Maddi’s allotment early this morning so that I could spend an hour or so giving everything a good soaking. The weather here has been hot and dry for a few weeks now and the young plants need regular water to maintain un-checked growth. By 9 am three or four people were using, or waiting to use, the nearest stand-pipe so by getting there early I was able to thoroughly water all the beds, the greenhouse and the polytunnel, without feeling I was being rushed or hogging the tap.

Watering by hose is a pleasant summer task that I enjoy because it gives me time to see how plants are doing and spot potential problems, such as the arrival of the first aphids or a spike of horsetail hiding behind foliage. Of course, water is a precious commodity and not to be wasted. Just a couple of years ago we had regional hose-pipe bans due to low water levels in aquifers, reservoirs and rivers but after the record-breaking rains over the last two winters and this spring, those days seem far off, but not forgotten. Several of my allotment neighbours connect their hoses to sprinkler systems but this sprays water indiscriminately and, particularly in hot weather, a lot of it simply evaporates before getting into the ground. I prefer to walk around with my hose spraying water directly at the base of plants where it is most likely to be of benefit.

IMG00038-20140620-0803As I walked around the plot I realised that each year a moment arrives when the hurley-burley of seed sowing, transplanting and shuffling for crowded greenhouse space has come to an end and the crops in the ground are beginning to race away, enjoying the warmth of summer temperatures. And this year, that time has come. A weekly hoe of each bed means weeds are a minor nuisance and not the menace they threaten to be. I can enjoy the plot and take delight in each new flower, fruit, pod and leaf. Every day I can take fresh produce home to eat (today was french beans, broad beans, kale and strawberries) and I can see later season’s crops developing by the day.

The pleasure my plot gives me at this time in the year is hard to compare with many of life’s other activities. It is not the same as scoring a winning try in rugby, sharing Maddi’s exam successes or getting married. It is not the same as sharing a pint with friends in a pub or standing on the peak of Snowdon.  It has something to do with the quiet satisfaction of developing a plot and learning, and applying, gardening skills over a long period of time, a sense of delayed gratification that young people, especially, find hard to grasp. Despite this blog, and my tweets, the pleasure of gardening is essentially a private one, shared sparingly with neighbours and family. It is a quiet satisfaction of knowing “I helped nature produce that”.

IMG00046-20140620-0819I get a lot of pleasure in the winter from clearing land, building sheds or laying paths but these are transitory pleasures, which are taken in short doses between rain showers, frosts and premature darkness. But this moment in early summer when most of the hard work has been done and the allotment is pregnant with promise, this is the time to take a moment and think back to the planning last year, the digging-in of manure, adding fertiliser, raking, sowing and thinning of seedlings and the nurturing of young plants in cold weather, before temperatures rose and it was safe to plant out. Think also of the times in the past when failures were all too frequent; when seeds were sown too early, manure was not thought beneficial and weeds were rampant because there were not enough hours in the day for all of life’s tasks. Remember these things and then look again at what has been achieved this year. And smile contentedly because all is right with the world.

Be sure to wear flowers in your hair.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf vegetables feed the stomach then flowers feed the soul but sometimes flowers feed the stomach too. I have grown more flowers on Maddi’s allotment this year than ever before, partly because I now have enough room to do so and partly because I want the plot to look more attractive than in previous years. Straight, military rows of weed-free roots, shoots and pods give me a happy buzz but add to that the colour and random unruliness of annual, biennial and perennial flowers and I think a kitchen garden is raised to new heights.

P1000116Some plants I’m growing as purely ornamentals. I have a flower bed containing crocosmia, evening primrose, lupins, cosmos, poppies, cornflowers and Jacob’s ladder, amongst others, and this is purely for the fun of it. These are not for cutting and certainly not for eating but this is the first bed I pass as I get to the allotment and as it begins to fill with summer colour it lifts my spirits and makes me want to get stuck in and garden.

P1010465In another bed I have three rows of gladioli, five dahlias, twelve chrysanthemums, more cosmos and a couple of wigwams of sweet peas. These are all for cutting and taking home but not yet; they’re all growing strongly ready for their show in a month or two. The gladioli are ‘Peter Pears’ (orange), ‘Plumtart’ (plum) and ‘Passos’ (a lurid purple and white mix), all grown from bulbs bought in the spring. There should have been six dahlias (mixed pompom and cactus) but one failed totally to appear above ground. The gladioli and dahlias will be at their best at the end of July and into August but the sweet peas (grown from seed collected in my garden at home last year) are just beginning to flower – their fragrance is stunning.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOther flowers are being grown partly because they look good but also because I can eat them. Nasturtiums are one of my favourite edible flowers; generally orange and yellow in colour with a distinct peppery taste. They can be added to salads, where the vibrant colour lifts the plate, but I tend to graze on them when I’m working at the plot. I’m growing a row of calendula alongside the spring sown broad beans. These are a short variety, growing only to about 30cm, and their large daisy-like flowers also range from orange to yellow. The petals can be added to rice dishes to colour them (like saffron but at a fraction of the price) but also to other dishes to add a sparkle of colour. As a complement the warm oranges and yellows of calendula and and nasturtium, the delicate blue flowers of the prolifically self-seeding borage add a classy touch to salads or Pimms. The flowers can be frozen in ice cubes and added to all sorts of summer drinks.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd then there are the herbs, that disparate and wonderful family of plants that add flavour and punch to almost every conceivable plate of food, from both leaf and flower. I have only recently discovered how good rosemary and lavender flowers are when added to a wide range of dishes and I grow both both of these in my herb bed, alongside numerous thymes, mints, lemon balm, sage, fennel and curry plants. The flowers of all of these herbs are not only edible but actually taste very good too.

Growing flowers on an allotment for looks and taste is very worth while, but there is an added bonus – bees and other beneficial insects are attracted to them. Bees pollinate other crops and their numbers are apparently in sharp decline so anything we can do to feed and nurture them has got to be good. Hoverflies, ladybirds and many other insects visit these flowers and eat their way through countless aphids and other pests in a completely natural way. Butterflies by day and moths in the evening and at night will also visit allotment flowers but, in general, they prefer wildflowers in rough patches (nettles, brambles etc) and maintaining an area like this at the edge of a plot is always a good idea.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs I wander around my plot I am constantly reminded of just beautiful some of the very commonplace ‘weed’ flowers can be, from the tiny blue and white speedwell to the taller pink rosebay willowherb. Recently I noticed that a bramble patch was beginning to flower at the back of Maddi’s allotment and my first thought was to look forward to a bumper crop of blackberries later in the summer. But I was intrigued by the flowers in one area that seemed to be larger than I had remembered from previous years. Close up the flowers were stunning and I reckon that if brambles were less common, many more people would pay good money for their flowers and fruit.

So, whether you’re going to San Fransisco or not, be sure to wear some flowers, though not necessarily in your hair!

We’re all going on a Summer Holiday…

I have just spent 9 days working from 7 am to 7 pm installing a new kitchen for my parents-in-law while they were away on holiday in Wales. Apart from now feeling absolutely shattered, one of the consequences has been that I have only been able to visit Maddi’s Allotment once in that time (for 15 minutes very early in the morning) to water the greenhouses and polytunnel.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I was working for a living, I would generally visit the allotment for 3 hours on a Sunday morning each week and get as much done in that time as possible, but there were always compromises. To weed and hoe the plants already growing or sow the next batches of carrot, beetroot and peas? Spend an hour watering crops or weed instead? Each week I would leave the plot exhausted and pleased with whatever I had managed to get done but a little frustrated that there was still more that could have been achieved but with not enough time. Of course, this frustration was entirely the result of  not living up to the allotment standards I aspired to; if I had been a little more laid back I’d have been content that I’d got lots done and satisfied with the harvests even though the plants I’d sown were having to compete fiercely with slugs,weeds and aphids, and often losing the fight.

One of the many advantages of now not having to earn a living is that I can visit the allotment as often as I want. In fact I usually go there for 3 or 4 hours at a time and 3 or 4 days each week (not weekends because my wife still works during the week so weekends are our time together). This sounds quite a lot (and for people with young families or who work, it is) but I am the first to admit that I spend a fair chunk of this time sitting watching things grow or reading, writing, musing, day-dreaming or planning. But even so, I now have plenty of time to get things in good order – I still have weeds but they are very small; I have them in my sights and I can pick them off any time I want…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABack to kitchen-fitting; for the first time since giving up work I have not been to the allotment for a prolonged period and I was becoming increasingly convinced that the worst possible things would be happening there. The wet and mild spring has meant marauding armies of slugs and snails – would I have any crops left? Would the lack of watering result in desiccated husks of tomatoes, cucumbers, chilli peppers and aubergines? Would the unsupervised weeds have smothered everything? As irrational as these thoughts were, they did all occur to me and I was expecting the worst when I got to the plot last Monday morning.

Had the slugs devoured everything? Had the greenhouse and polytunnel crops withered away? Had the weeds murdered the infant crops? Of course not. Not even close.

I did spend an hour watering everything, greenhouses, polytunnels and outside beds, and a further hour cutting back the grass paths around the plot, but I should have done this before I started work on the kitchen – they needed doing then. I had given the polytunnel and greenhouses a good soaking before I abandoned the plot and the single visit during works was enough to see everything through. The slugs and snails had nibbled here and there but nothing serious. In fact, they had attacked the fennel bulbs I had sown from seed in April, but had managed to leave intact plants at about 20 cm spacings; a very professional piece of thinning – thanks guys!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd weeds? Well, the plot was in pretty good order before I started on the kitchen so the weeds that have germinated whilst I was away are numerous but small and easily hoed off.

So at the risk of disappointing readers who prefer a bit of a cliffhanger ending, this tale is a bit of a damp squib – nothing went wrong. I now feel more confident that when I go away for a few days (as my wife and I intend to do regularly when she retires from work next month) the allotment will be able to take care of itself. Since returning, a couple allotment neighbours have offered to water the polytunnel and greenhouses for me when we go away again so all in all I’m a happy bunny.

And in case you were wondering, I didn’t actually manage to finish fitting the kitchen in the time available – I’ve got to do that this weekend, but I think they’re pleased with the work to date!

 

Money Saving Tips

PoundsHaving an allotment means spending money. It can’t be helped; from the initial annual rent to buying seeds and plants, the pennies soon turn into pounds, (cents into dollars, for my American friends). This not to say that this initial investment does not return huge dividends. I know from records that I have kept in the past that the monetary value of produce from my allotment exceeds the input costs by at least a factor of five. In other words, for every £10 in spend on the plot, I get at least £50 worth of fruit, vegetables and herbs from the plot. And I’m not going to even try and quantify the non-financial benefits of ‘growing my own’ because anyone not convinced of the sense of well-being that is gained from growing your own food is probably not reading this. Don’t take my word for this; visit Jono Stevens’ excellent blog, www.realmensow.co.uk, for confirmation.

Whilst I wouldn’t for one second compare having an allotment to running a successful business, there is one similarity, at least, between the two activities; cutting costs and improving productivity can improve ‘profits’, which in allotment terms translates as more food for less money.

Running an allotment on a shoestring is music to many allotmenteers’ ears. British allotments are bastions of thrift, reuse and recycling and mostly this is to be applauded but there are times when this can be self-defeating. The kindness of an allotment neighbour giving me a tray of his strawberry runners to plant on my own plot was was at first well received but turned to disappointment a few months later when the whole lot died from some unknown virus, and I’d lost the opportunity to plant my preferred nursery bought, certified virus-free, stock.

Nevertheless, there are many ways to save money, particularly when taking on an allotment for the first time and the start-up costs can seem daunting. Here are five of my top ways to save money, without compromising on the quality or quantity of your crops:

1.     Save and reuse as many plastic pots, trays and bottles from the kitchen as possible. Margarine tubs, yoghurt pots, grape and mushroom trays can all be used to start seeds off or for growing on seedlings after pricking out. Plastic squash bottles can be used for a whole range of things from growing containers (use them to create vertical growing systems), cloches or watering devices (see my recent post on using them to irrigate tomato plants in the polytunnel). I use plastic bottles on bamboo canes to stop me stabbing my eyes when bending over and plastic milk bottles to store comfrey tea before using it as a fertiliser – the possibilities are endless, and ‘free’.

2.   Grow your own perennial plants from seed. The impulse to buy ‘crop-ready’ plants such as rhubarb, so that you get a crop as soon as possible is always tempting but, with a little patience, plants that can be expensive to buy fully formed can be propagated from seed at a fraction of the cost. Rhubarb, comfrey, globe artichokes and asparagus can all easily be grown from seed, and a packet of seeds will provide dozens of plants, which you can grow yourself, give away to friends and neighbours or even trade for other seeds or plants. It takes longer than buying mature plants, but the savings can be enormous.

3.   Use second-hand or reclaimed tools. Most people who use tools regularly want the best tools they can afford, me included. But garden tools (spades, forks, rakes, hosepipes, trowels, hoes, dibbers, string lines, etc.) can be very expensive if you have to buy them all from new. If you can afford it, all well and fine, if not get some second-hand tools from charity shops, recycling centres or ‘freecycle’ internet sites to get you started. After that, drop really big hints before Christmas and birthdays.

4.   Shop for seeds wisely. There are many places to obtain seeds but your local industrial-sized garden centre is unlikely to be one of the best. They often stock just 2 or 3 company’s seeds at the top retail prices. Go on the internet and look for smaller independent seed suppliers. These companies often sell seeds at a fraction of the price of the larger firms and in quantities far better suited to the home grower – do you really want 50 gardener’s delight tomato seeds when 10 would be more than enough? See my post on comparative seed costs earlier this year.

5.   Buy wholesale and share. If your allotment site is lucky enough to have a shop where items are bought wholesale and sold on at cost to plot-holders (usually ‘manned’ by volunteers on a rota) you will already be aware of the savings that can be available by buying in bulk. If not, consider getting together with other plot-holders to set such a scheme up. Alternatively, buy items such as bird netting and fleece in large rolls from the internet, and then divide them pro rata between friends and neighbours. My local hardware store happily orders in 20kg bags of blood, fish and bonemeal for me at considerably less cost than buying smaller cartons elsewhere.

This short list is by no means exhaustive; there are many other money saving ideas that ‘old hands’ can share. So come on all you frugal fogies – post your ideas on the comment box below. The winner of the best money-saving tip will get the 2014 HowsmugamIaward, but be warned – competition will be fierce!

Space – The Final Frontier

Brassica SeedlingsDo you remember seeing plate spinners on TV years ago? They’d appear on variety shows on a set with dozens of thin poles sticking up from the floor on which they would balance and spin china plates. Gradually, they would add more and more plates, some spinning fast and some wobbling precariously, until the studio was full of potentially explosive spinning discs and the spinner would have to rush from pole to pole in order to keep the whole lot from crashing to the ground. I used to watch them with the same fascination that I watched the downhill skiing on ‘Ski Sunday’ ; the skiing was spectacular but the occasional crash was even more so.

P1010414Propagation in the spring feels a bit like plate spinning. There is a finite amount of space available for seed trays (windowsills, greenhouses, cold-frame etc.,)  and as the seeds in each pot or tray germinate they must be shuffled about from one place to another until the young plants can be safely put out into their final positions as and when the weather and temperatures allow. As one tray is moved along the production line, another takes its place; we seed growers hate a vacuum.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI sowed some sweet peas for the allotment at home in January and they were kept on our bedroom windowsill because this is the only warm south facing spot available in our small house. They all germinated and grew away but, being so early in the year, light levels were low and the young seedlings became lank and leggy. So they had a car journey down to the allotment, where they were placed on staging in the polytunnel. Much better light levels here but also a lot cooler than at home. I pinched them out to encourage bushier growth and the result was a series of practically leafless stalks that looked more useful as cocktail sticks than potential garden flowers. However, a few weeks later, they had recovered and put on more growth; they had each sprouted a few more stems and, more importantly, several new leaves.

But space was at a premium. Countless more trays and pots of seedlings needed the space on the polytunnel staging so the sweet peas had to be moved again. This was in the middle of March and the ground was still too wet and cold to plant the sweet peas outside into their allotted places so they were put onto the path in the greenhouses. The greenhouses on the allotment are cooler than the polytunnel because there is a small gap between them where they have been positioned, end to end, across the plot. This gap was an asset last year as it added much needed ventilation to the tomatoes and cucumbers growing in there, but it has recently become a problem that I must address since it has allowed mice access and they like eating the freshly sown pea, bean and sweetcorn seeds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sweet peas sat in their trays on the path for another two weeks. They were duly tripped over, bashed, under-watered and then over-watered but at least the mice didn’t eat them. At the beginning of April these sweet peas were planted outside in two or three different places, each having a wigwam of canes through which to grow. Now, towards the end of May, I am happy to report that they are all about 60cm tall, with lush, rather glaucous green foliage and with a goodly number of embryonic flower buds. That’s Flora for you; things sometimes grow despite, rather than because of, your efforts.

My seed growing/plate spinning act is drawing to a close. It has now reached the stage where, as plants are being put into their outside quarters, fewer new seeds are being sown to replace them. Peas, for example, are being sown in batches every three weeks, but the weather is now mild enough for the seed to be sown directly in the ground (mice permitting!) so valuable greenhouse and polytunnel space is not being taken up. Of course, as the seed trays are gradually removed, their places are being taken with plants that have to be transplanted into the greenhouses and polytunnel. Tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, sweet peppers, chill peppers, lettuce, sweet potatoes and aubergines are all now planted in the covered borders and are already showing signs of benefiting from the increased ‘leg-room’.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeed trays are gradually being cleaned and put away in the fruit plot shed, ready for use again next year, but the last of this season’s malingerers are still hanging around, needing a gardener’s TLC. I have sown some Asparagus (Connover’s Colossal), globe artichokes (Violetto di Romagna), several varieties of perennial poppies, dahlias, gysophillia, rudbeckia and various succession sowings of salad crops, to name but a few. These are spread between patio tables (and one chair) and my lean-to bike shed at home as well as various spare locations at the allotment. It it still hasn’t come to an end; biennial sweet williams and wallflowers will be sown soon, so the plate spinning hasn’t quite finished but at least nothing came crashing down this year.

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