Allotment Secrets – Green Manuring

Green manuring is the big, but largely unknown, ace in the hole for the serious allotment gardener. Growing vegetables is an intensive business after all, and every vestige the goodness that goes into your lovely crops has to come from sun, water and … soil. So what you take out of the soil has to be replaced and the easiest way to do this is to use a green manure on parts of your plot that are not in current cultivation.

So, for example, let’s assume you had a lovely crop of winter veg and didn’t fill that area with summer plants – what you should do, to guarantee a rich and fertile soil, is sow a green manure and then dig it into the ground before it flowers so that it doesn’t become a weed and so that all the goodness of the crop goes into the earth. This does two things; it provides a small amount of nutrient that subsequent plants will be able to extract from the soil, but – more importantly – it increases the humus content of the soil which means that it can absorb plant foods more easily and has an improved structure which is easier to work and more retentive of water. Suitable green manures are mustard seed, annual lupins, rape, winter spinach or vetch, or many companies now sell a blend of green manure that you simply sprinkle on the soil and then dig in. These crops will all need a nitrogenous fertilizer (I use ammonium sulphate granules) at about 2 ounces a square yard sprinkled on the soil as you dig the crop in – this allows the bacteria in the soil to do their work of breaking down the crop. If, however, you plant a nitrogenous fixing green manure such as peas, beans or clover, the fertilizer isn’t necessary.

Now the thing you’ve got to bear in mind is that if you don’t get to your green manure in good time, it will flower and seed all over the place which will make you VERY unpopular with other allotment holders, so don’t plant a crop unless you’re absolutely sure you’ll be on hand to cut it down and dig it in.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Saturday, June 30, 2007 0 Comments

Allotments in the News

Win some …

Allotment holders who are being forced to make way for the Olympic Park in East London have reached an agreement that allows them to harvest this year's crops before being evicted. Plot-holders at Manor Garden Allotments had asked the High Court for a judicial review to stop the London Development Agency (LDA) evicting them. But in a last minute move, the LDA has agreed access should continue to some plots until September when the plot-holders will move to a temporary site in Waltham Forest, although they can return to Hackney Wick when the Games are over. The LDA said it would be taking ownership of the Hackney Wick site on 2 July but it conceded that a limited number of allotment holders would be allowed supervised access for two days a week until September. A spokesman said, ‘We have also arranged compensation and support packages for allotment holders - and after the Games we will be providing a larger allotment site on a landscaped Olympic Park.’

Lose some …

Hampshire allotment gardeners are considering their next move after being dealt a major blow by the High Court in their fight to save their town centre plots. Mr Justice Calvert Smith blocked their route to judicial review although they have seven days to appeal. Eastleigh council can now press ahead with its plans to build 140 affordable homes on allotment land at South Street and Monks Way.

The council says it has a waiting list of more than 5,000 families queuing up to get a permanent roof over their heads and claims, ‘the disposal of the sites is necessary in order that an early start can be made on the construction of new housing which is urgently required to help reduce the enormous current demand for housing in the borough.’

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, June 26, 2007 0 Comments

Allotment-holders up close

This is the Chair of my local Allotment Association – Andrew Faulkner. He says all he has to do as Chair is head up the AGM and sign the minutes, but I suspect his wry, convivial nature makes him an ideal figurehead for a bunch of highly individual and dedicated allotmenteers. He’s been an allotment holder since 1983, when he didn’t have a garden so thought he’d get an allotment … his mother became interested and helped him work that plot until she was eighty-four!

Since 2006 he’s been sharing a new allotment with Dick, whom I haven’t met yet, because he’s been on holiday, and who spent around 200 to 300 hours rebuilding the greenhouse on the new allotment. It’s a masterpiece of ingenuity – it has a rainwater irrigation system that funnels off the roof to fill both the water butt and the pond, which contains a newt and has been thronged with damselflies every day I’ve visited. Andrew has a surprise for me, and for his co-allotment holder, he’s installed a pretty little waterlily in the pond. He’s faintly apprehensive about it (Dick says waterlilies are invasive) which is why he waited until he was on holiday – and he’s bought a peace offering too, a new bird-feeder for the allotment, which he hopes will offset any waterlily-related problems!

Waterlilies apart, the two men get on brilliantly, although they are only on the allotment together for about an hour every day, and the allotment shows it – there are melons and globe artichokes, a tiny wildlife meadow, salad vegetables, fruit trees, onions, the famous tobacco which Andrew is growing for his pipe and maybe some cigars and a beautifully comfortable and well-insulated shed where we drank squash while I interviewed him.

It’s not all fun though; in the 1987 hurricane his allotment greenhouse blew away, and its replacement was taken by a storm in 1989 and last year, he had a terrible attack of sawfly on his gooseberries – because there’s no natural predator for them, he had to go and squash each one by hand! Andrew’s been a pioneer of organic gardening, switching from pesticides in 1987 because he became persuaded that there was a logical balance in nature that provided a predator for every pest (except the sawfly!)

What advice would he give somebody wanting to take on an allotment? “Don’t accept a corner plot, garden organically, provide plants used by small mammals and invertebrates so that you’re doing your bit for nature.”

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, June 25, 2007 0 Comments

Growing up Gorgeous, the Globe Artichoke

What are you going to grow? Why not the gorgeous Globe Artichoke?

Proper name: Cynara scolymus

Description: this useful plant is a perennial but bear in mind it’s not full frost hardy across the UK. Usually it is grown for the flower-buds which are deliciously edible, but canny gardeners know that you can blanch the leaf shoots too, which gives a second crop that can be cooked like celery.

Soil and site
: Globe artichokes need a good fertile soil that is well drained but not so porous it dries out too quickly (here's a tip, just put some soil in a flat tray with drainage holes, saturate it and leave it to dry. If it forms a crust, it’s probably too porous). Because the plants stay in place for up to four years, make sure you manure the ground in advance to give all the nutrients they need over their lifetime. This is a big bushy plant, taking up an area of around three to four feet across and five tall. So you must make sure that not only does it have ample space in itself, but it doesn’t shade out or encroach on other crops. It tends to prefer sunshine to shade.

Cultivation: Plant offsets in April, making sure they have plenty of space, or grow from seed in March in a heated greenhouse, moving outside in May. Keep well watered and give a sprinkle of nitrogen based fertilizer in spring. Much with compost or some other organic matter in summer and support taller growing varieties with stakes. Do not allow the plants to flower in their first year – prevent this by pinching out all the flower buds! When the plants mature in year two, restrict the number of main buds (called king heads) to five or six. Cut these king heads when they are about for inches across, snipping through the stem about six inches below the bud, this means smaller buds will develop giving you second crop. Once the flower has expanded though, the head is inedible. In autumn, cut down the foliage - and on exposed sites, earth up the crowns and cover them lightly with bark or newspaper, ensuring there is enough air circulation for them not to rot. Remove in early spring.

Next time I’ll talk about how to get that second crop from the stems and the – fortunately - rare problems experienced by this wonderful crop.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, June 20, 2007 9 Comments

What's happening in Allotment-land?

This week, Ron's sweet peas are so impressive that the whole of the allotment office is scented by the single vase he's placed on the other side of the room at least ten feet away. Watch out for Ron's sweet pea tips a bit later in the year - he's won prize after prize for them so what he knows is well worth finding out.

Louise has been harvesting broad beans and making flower arrangements. She got her allotment three years ago during a fallow period in her artistic life but now new ideas are coming to her and she's keen to discuss how plants and the act of growing them influences her artistic processes. I'm green with envy at her runner bean markers - small squares of glass set on prongs that fit into the top of garden canes. 'Oh yes, I made those' she says airily and now I'm keen to find out exactly how Louise has developed her plant/glass art - but she has to run off and take the broad beans to her mum so we agree to talk later.

Andrew takes me up to his plot to look at his tobacco plants. Andrew shares his allotment with Dick and between them they've created one of the tightest-packed plots I've ever seen, but it's not a neat place, like a vegetable factory, instead they've got bee plants, bird plants, the smallest wildlife meadow in the world quite probably, a pond with newts, and some rare and wonderful fruit and veggies. I'm impressed by their melons growing under horticultural mesh, and that tobacco looks pretty good too - watch out for Andrew's future adventures in tobacco curing!

The big thing this week is plant collection. In a few days it will be time for the St Catherin's Hospice plant sale and Shirley and Jan are filling their cars with plants donated by allotment holders. I've got my eye on a very fine striped geranium and a rather nice lupin, so it will be interesting to see if I manage to bag them on the day. It's Andy's allotment they are currently denuding of plants, and Andy's pet seagull watches it all with a beady eye.

Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, June 19, 2007 0 Comments

Allotment Blog

Welcome! Pull up a chair, grab a rich tea biscuit, and hopefully somebody will stir their stumps soon to make a nice big jug of lemon barley water - it won't be me though because I'm busy being the welcome committee.

What's it all about?

Well, gardening is the new sex, isn't it? Which means that allotment gardening is the new Kama Sutra. Okay, not really, but with its own film "Grow Your Own" about to hit the big (okay middle-sized and art cinema) screen and with half the world seeming to want to eat food produced on their doorsteps, allotments are more popular now than ever before. Growing your own fruit and veg is better for you and better for the planet, having a place to commune with nature is good for your health and spirit and the waiting lists for allotments have never been longer. It sounds like a completely positive story, doesn't it?

But allotments are also a bit scary, aren't they? I mean, all those old crusty men in flat caps who grow mammoth onions and sneer at newcomers... well this blog aims to demystify some of what the crusties talk about in such mysterious terms, to get excited about allotments, to look at the new and downright sexy things allotment gardeners are up to on their plots, and to work out what some of the rules and regulations of the allotment world actually mean.

Along the way we'll deal with common pitfalls (and no, I don't mean traps dug at night by the crusties to trap vegetable thieves), suggesting the best kit and equipment for allotmenteering, sharing recipes and tips, and generally having a good time.

You're welcome to suggest your own topics or chip in with your experience which will probably be somewhat more substantial than mine - I'm pretty new at this after all - and maybe we'll have some competitions along the way; but not for giant onions!

Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, June 13, 2007 1 Comments

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