Ingenuity in action
Sometimes I’m just amazed at how clever allotment holders can be. This fence, for example, is not only attractive to look at and rabbit proof, it’s composed of elements that would otherwise have been thrown away.
There are probably a hundred examples of this kind of ingenuity within half a mile as I sit in the shed, looking out – there are plastic bottles used as cloches for winter brassicas that are just being planted out and plastic bottles used as root funnels to get water to the right area of squashes and pumpkins. There are old supermarket baskets being used to cover plants that are prone to rabbit or squirrel attack and as the fruit and nut season approaches, any number of home-made apple and pear picking devices are being dusted off. These range from long poles with various grabbers, buckets and sieves on the end, to sheets and curtains that are supported on sticks or trestles and used as catch-nets.
And at the other end of the year, there’s no end to the home-made dibbers; some with inch gradations that allow planting depth to be perfect, some with special reservoirs that deliver sand or grit to the bottom of the hole so that the bulbs sit on a bed of free draining soil. There are dandelion removers, wheelbarrow ramps, onion storage systems, many irrigators and water entrapment devices, human fox traps and – my favourite – a sit down sieve that you operate with your foot.
Shed Aesthetics – the real tin lizzy
I’ll tell you what you don’t see often these days; the old Anderson Shelters that used to be found on allotments (and being used as pigpens) right up until, I suppose, the late seventies.
An Anderson Shelter was made from six curved sheets bolted together at the top, with steel plates at either end – they were half buried in the ground with earth heaped on top. The entrance was protected by a steel shield and an earthen blast wall. Why? To protect the great British Public from Hitler’s dastardly air raids, of course
Anderson Shelters were given free to people receiving the dole while men who earned more than £5.00 (ah, inflation!) a week could buy one for £7.00. By the end of 1939, around two million families had shelters in their gardens.
In March 1941 the government began issuing Morrison Shelters, which were named after the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison (grandfather of Peter Mandelson, but you knew that didn’t you?) the shelters were made of very heavy steel and could be put in the living room and used as a table. One wire side lifted up for people to crawl underneath and get inside. Morrison shelters were fairly large and provided sleeping space for two or three people but you couldn’t use them on an allotment as a shed!
Negotiating with your neighbours
My own allotment site was in our local newspaper last week. An article that detailed how the waiting list for allotments has been closed, because there are too many people on it already, but many plots (nearby tenants say) that are supposedly in cultivation are actually abandoned and unkempt. The argument is twofold:
1 – people who want allotments can’t get them because others who aren’t using them have blocked their access
2 – untidy and weed covered allotments make work harder for neighbouring plot holders who have to remove seeded weeds that blow or creep over the boundaries.
There is another side to this though; it’s not always easy to find allotment time – for example I haven’t actually got down to my site for nearly a week, which is daft at this time of year, but work and other commitments have just got in the way! Extra work or losing your job, illness, pregnancy, the dog having puppies or whatever … almost anything can derail the plans of even the most determined allotmenteer – especially if that allotment holder is relying on public transport, because even a twisted ankle can really put a spanner in the ‘travelling to the allotment’ works. So, if an allotment holder continues to pay the rent, the local council will tend to give them the benefit of the doubt, and quite often, after a few months of difficulty, the allotment holder will be able to return to their plot, and to the healthy exercise, satisfaction and nutritional rewards of growing their own.
So when a plot looks like this, and the neighbours get annoyed, there’s a complicated negotiation to be gone through between the allotment holder, the allotment officer, and the local council, to try and get things on the optimum course … and sometimes it takes longer than anybody expected (a bit like gardening really!)
Back to the kitchen …
It’s that time of year; windowsills full of tomatoes, bags full of windfall plums, pears threatening to fall from the trees like hailstones, courgettes turning to marrows here there and everywhere, and apples … always and everywhere, apples.
And this is the superlatively good Tarte Tatin that I’ve adapted from a recipe by fellow blogger Clotilde Desoulier whose excellent recipes can be found at the blog Chocolate & Zucchini.
60g fine (caster for preference) sugar
170g plain flour
85g unsalted butter (yes, you can make it with margarine, but it won’t taste as good)
2 tablespoons milk
70g brown sugar
35 g butter
1k any old apples (as long as they don’t go mushy when cooked – we use the generic apples we pick in hedges for this, or the rather bland ones that grow on the allotments, doesn’t matter, they all come out tasting great)
Mix the flour and sugar, cut the butter into the mix and then rub in with your fingers until its like breadcrumbs, add half the milk and then knead the dough. If it doesn’t form a smooth dough, add the rest of the milk and knead again. Wrap in clingfilm and put in the fridge for half an hour.
Grease a 22 or 25 cm cake pan or quiche dish.
Put the brown sugar with 1 tablespoon water in small heavy pan and melt over a medium heat until it caramelises. As soon as it becomes a golden/light coffee colour, remove from the heat. Beat in the butter and pour the result beige paste into the bottom of your dish, allowing it to spread out.
Remove dough from fridge and roll out – this is rather tricky as it can be very crumbly and fragile but don’t worry about small cracks in the dough as you can repair them as you go. Peel, core and slice apples into thick slices – arrange them in a spiral on top of the caramel. Prick the dough all over with a fork, then lift it and lay it over the apples, tucking the edges in around them like a blanket. If it breaks or tears, just pinch it back together gently with your fingers.
Cook for around 45 minutes at 180 degrees C and then run a knife around the pastry edges to loosen it before setting a plate on top of the cooking dish and inverting them together to get the pastry where it belongs (on the bottom) and the apples where you want them (on the top!) – if any stay in the dish, just hoik them out with a fork and put them back in the pattern.
Believe me, this is the BEST apple pie you’ll ever taste.
Weird and wonderful crops
I think our mutant rabbit (Donny Darko if you’re under thirty, Dylan from the Magic Roundabout if you’re over thirty!) is about as weird an allotment crop as I’ve ever seen. He was very tasty too, but perhaps you have a better mutant to share with us? Send them in, I’ll feature anything really peculiar on the blog …
Why do these things happen? Well ….
Twisty, woody, or multi-branching carrots occur because carrots are a root crop and must penetrate deeply into the soil. This means the type and texture of the soil will influences their shape. Heavy, crusted, or overheated soil effectively prevents them from germinating, and rocks and clumps or clods of dirt will cause developing carrot roots to split and distort into a forked shape as they grow around these obstacles. To avoid these problems, prepare the seedbed for carrots well before sowing seed. Dig it up thoroughly, turning it over and breaking up lumps into small pieces. Cover the newly sown seeds with sand or fine soil that will not crust over when dry and keep the surface moist. Provide shade for seeds planted in mid-summer so that the soil does not heat up.
Tomatoes that are misshapen, with scars and holes in the blossom end are caused by cold weather during blossoming and perhaps also by overly high levels of nitrogen. To manage this, avoid setting out plants too early in the season. The Americans call this catfacing – but I haven’t managed to track down any research on rabbit-facing yet!
Allotments under threat
Daemienne Sheehan from The Oldie Magazine is researching an article on the threat to allotments by new housing. While the current definition of what constitutes a brownfield site still appears to offer some protection to allotment holders, a looser proviso that all allotments be ‘kept up to standard’ could mean that some allotments face the danger of being designated as derelict and therefore remain open to being taken back by councils AND - property developers. She wants to know if this is the case and whether if it could become a likely scenario – she’s on a deadline, so if you have knowledge or ideas, bung them in asap and I’ll pass them on.
On the same theme, Ilford South MP Mike Gapes has tabled (well more like slammed on the table , to look at the wording) the following motion in the House of Commons:
This House notes that Conservative controlled Redbridge Council has drawn up secret plans to sell off a large number of local land sites, including popular allotments and car parks in a desperate effort to raise up to £150 million; further notes that many of these sites are in Ilford South the most overcrowded and poorest part of the Borough, including allotments in Goodmayes Park extension and Vicarage Lane South; congratulates all those involved in the campaign by local residents again the secret Tory plans and welcomes the letter to the Member for Ilford South on 23rd March 2007 from the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Communities and Local Government, Baroness Andrews, which confirms that “where a statutory allotment is disposed of; the 1908 Allotment Act requires that any proceeds must be used for the purposes of allotments, and only surplus may be used for other purposes”; that Planning Policy Guidance 17 “provides protection of urban green spaces” and draws the attention of Redbridge Conservative Councillors to the statement of the Minister that “open spaces which local communities need should not be built on”.
The council approved the proposals early in August, hoping to raise about £25m for capital projects not related to allotments, which is why Mr Gapes has tabled his motion. In all, nearly 500 individual plots will be affected by the decision but the council insisted many could be saved through relocation to alternative sites within the borough and the sale in any case requires the approval of the Secretary of State for the Environment. If you’re internet-savvy, you can use the online comment form -here - to share your opinions on this issue with Redbridge Council!
Lovely leafy beets
There’s not a huge amount of stuff you can be getting into the ground at this time of year, which is why it’s such a pleasure to contemplate one’s leafy beets!
They thrive in most soils, although the more nice rich compost/manure you can give them, the more lush those leafy leaves will be; they handle either sun or partial shade and the really really lovely thing about them is that successional sowing from now until the end of August will give you a crop that can be picked through the winter and spring.
Leafy beets include Spinach Beet, Seakale Beet and Swiss Chard, and my especial favourite, Rhubarb Beet, aka Rhubarb Chard – so named for its red mid-ribs and stems and burgundy purple leaves.
Growing leafy beets
Sow about an inch deep in drills protecting your sowing from birds and cats with mesh or cotton on sticks. Thin to about eight inches between plants and do not transplant, beets and chards are not fond of root disturbance – you can use the thinnings as a salad crop, and they are really good with oak-leaf lettuce and rocket, I find.
Harvest the leaves when they are large enough, starting with the outers and without lifting the beet from the ground – try not to cut the leave but break them off as near the rootstock as possible, taking a few from each plant rather than denuding one plant entirely. You’ll get several pickings from each plant.
Cook the mid ribs like asparagus and serve with melted butter – very good with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. You can tear the leaves and use like any other green leaf crop by boiling or steaming briefly. The greatest thing about the Rhubarb Beet or Chard is that if a couple of plants bolt off and flower it doesn’t matter at all – simply pick the flowering shoots before the buds open and cook like sprouting broccoli – gorgeous!
Growing up gorgeous – artichokes again!
Loads of comments suddenly appeared on the last globe artichoke article, so I thought I’d pick up the threads before I move onto one of the great joys of this time of year, the leaf beets.
So, Barrie wants a photo of the globe artichoke when it’s been put to bed for the winter and I will certainly provide that when the time comes, and Merenda wonders why she can’t harvest globe artichokes in their first year from seed or offset, and I’ve explained all that in detail as a response to her comment, so you’ll have to go and hunt it down in the archives if you’ve been wondering why your globe artichokes seem to be carved out of balsa wood!
But back to the plot, in both senses of the word. Just about now, we’re getting organised for a rare treat that we’ll enjoy in a few weeks – artichoke stems. Here’s how to get a second crop from your plants.
1 – when the flower buds cease to appear, cut down the foliage of the plants, taking off about two foot from the top of the plant and quite a few leaves. Between now and the end of the month you should start to see some new shoots appearing at ground level.
2 -When they are about a foot to eighteen inches tall, bundle them together (we normally have four clumps around the base of a plant) and surround them with brown paper, corrugated cardboard or drainpipe – the first two you have to tie loosely around the stems with string, the last one you slide over the top of the clump.
3 – After five weeks or so, take off the blanching material and you should find you have some pale, rather bendy stems. Cut them and cook them like celery; we braise ours with finely chopped onion, some celery seed and good vegetable stock with a dash of sherry added.
If you’ve had woody artichokes this year, you can still get a decent blanched shoot crop by following these instructions … but keep a couple of those offshoots out of the blanching, pot them up in November and use them for next year’s plants and DON’T FORGET to pinch out every flowering bud or you’ll have rock-hard artichokes again.
Shed Aesthetics 2
The 'ice cream parlour' shed belongs to Keith, who is a lucky chap, as the allotment he shares with Chris as a co-worker actually backs onto Keith’s own garden. And the shed in question is called the ice cream shed because one of Keith’s allotment neighbours, Margaret, thought it looked like those ice cream kiosks you get on the seafront and made up the signs on the door which read Keith’s Amazing Architectural Ice Cream Parlour and a list saying Choc Ices, Knickerbocker Glories, Ice Cream Sundaes, Wafers and Ice Lollies and finally Ice Creams are offered free of charge but we hope you will consider standing on your head while you eat it!
Keith’s is an astonishingly tidy shed, unlike my own, which is the kind of shed Terry Pratchett talks about when he describes one as ‘the kind of place where, if you turned your back for a minute, the hosepipe would disentangle itself and tie the wheelbarrow to the bicycles’ or something of that nature.
I’d love to have a tidy shed, but it’s not in my nature. In fact it seems beyond me to have a shed that you can turn round it without knocking something over, and rather horribly, a mouse crawled into the footings in July and died (or maybe drowned!) so the whole place is permeated by the smell of decomposing mouse, liberally topped with copious libations of Jeyes Fluid to render the place a bit more nose-acceptable. It’s one of those things that happens from time to time, isn’t it - mouse decease – I mean, and you just have to either accept a rather rancid couple of weeks, or tear the shed down to the foundations to find the sad little corpse. Being a tough cookie, I splash the Jeyes Fluid around, telling myself it’s a fine disinfectant and wood preservative as well as an odour blocker, and get on with sorting my autumn bulbs.
Perhaps though, there’s another way - what would you do?
Is it a bird ... Is it a plane ...?
No, it’s our allotment officer – Crispin.
If you’ve ever wondered exactly what an allotment officer does, you’re not alone. And I was fascinated to discover how Crispin’s workload actually breaks down, because it’s not what I expected at all.
His job, put in the simplest terms, is to get as many people using as much land as possible through the allotments. That means encouraging the people who’ve already got allotments to use them, and getting people off allotments who aren’t using them. Obvious, isn’t it?
But there’s a complication. Each individual plot under debate has to be examined against three criteria in our district at least. Is it 75% under cultivation? Is it free from flowering weeds? Is it tidy? If those three are breached, the allotment holder may be asked to leave. However, one person’s ‘tidy’ may be another person’s ‘mess’ and 75% under cultivation is hard to judge – dug over ground may have no crop planted while apparent grassland may hide native herbs and flowers … so Crispin spends a lot of time looking, talking and discussing. Not as much time as he’d like though, because his work also involves answering thousands of letters, emails and phone calls every year, from allotment holders or the public. These calls and queries deal with many issues – bonfires on allotments, vandalism, vacant plots, disputes between allotment holders, disputes between allotment holders and nearby householders, rights of way, theft, dilapidation, insurance, waiting lists, giving up allotments, finding co-workers … it’s an endless process.
One of the major issues is crime – and he wishes that more people who suffer vandalism or petty theft on their allotments would get a Crime Report Number from the police and then call him with it, so that he can use that statistical evidence to bring about change: maybe better security, maybe more police patrols, maybe more education in schools … but it seems that allotment holders rather assume they will ‘get hit’ at some time in their allotment careers and that’s something that we all need to take on board. If our houses were raided we wouldn’t brush it off, so we shouldn’t ignore allotment theft and damage either. We’re not helping ourselves, or the community, if we do.
Interestingly, the demographics of allotment rental in this area are changing – many people in the 20 - 35 age group are seeking plots; and many of them wish to be organic gardeners, but our 2300 allotments are already oversubscribed. Is there any chance of more land being brought into use for allotments? Possibly so – it’s under discussion at the Council level, so finger’s crossed for an allotment friendly decision!
It was an eye-opener to spend time with Crispin and see how complicated his job is – I still think he’s a lucky man to have it, but I have a greater respect now for the balancing act all allotment officers must carry out, to keep the rest of us happy.
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