I don’t know this particular allotment holder, but I like their style! The combination of excellent autumn ground-clearing and careful working around the little patch of wildflowers which will set seed-heads for the birds over the winter is an absolute winner. It’s a picture that tells you everything you need to know about the best of allotment life – a mixture of efficiency and environmental care that explains why allotments are my obsession.
Speaking of which, this is the time of year when hard-core allotment holders do what I can only call an informal audit – they sort of tour the site, pointing out to each other which plots are more than 66% waste ground or which haven’t been worked in the previous twelve months – because the process of removing allotment holders is a long and complex one, the serious allotmenteer knows that nothing much will happen this year, or even next year, but even so, this annual process goes on, and the old guard simply keep count, seeing whether fruit has been harvested, or ground turned. They might even tidy up a neighbouring plot themselves, to stop perennial weeds seeding into their own soil. Otherwise they just … watch.
It can be a bit intimidating at first, that feeling that there are eyes on you back as you hunch over fork or spade, but when you look up you can’t see anybody in sight, but it wears off very fast. And soon a camaraderie is established. This year I even found myself wandering round my local site with a couple of the veterans, pointing out a tree whose damsons were piling up under the tree and rotting, and a pond where duckweed had begun to creep OUT of the pond and into the paving, and I realised, slowly, I was one of them. I was a member of an old guard.
A busy few weeks
My next couple of weeks are going to be pretty busy. As well as preparing the ground for next year by digging in the goode olde mucke, which has to be done on dry days because wet soil is really horrible to work and anyway, isn’t friable enough to mix well with the manure, I shall be:
Planting out garlic bulbs for a crop next summer – November is the last possible date for this and if it turns out to be too wet to plant the bulbs outside, I shall simply start the cloves off in modular trays and over-winter them in a cold frame or even bring them home and put them in my plastic greenhouse until I can plant them out on the site in March, or, if the weather is good, February.
Sowing green manure where I grew Brussels sprouts last year - the crop will be dug into the soil in February or March to give organic nourishment to the soil in spring. Winter rye can be sown as late as November and that’s what I’m going to try.
Pruning my raspberry canes, blackcurrants and redcurrants - we don’t have gooseberries on the plot as yet, although I want to get some soon. I like the dessert gooseberries best, the red ones, but they are a pricey investment, so I might just settle for some of the standard green ones, which a generous allotment neighbour has offered to give me as hardwood cuttings taken last autumn and ready to plant out early in spring.
This week's chore
I spoke to my father last night. His allotment is in Torquay, so their weather is definitely more clement, most of the year, than ours, but we’re still undertaking the same task – ye good olde mucke spreading.
It’s the perfect time of year to get compost or well aged manure onto your plot; the frosts will give it a good chance to break down over the winter if there’s anything that still needs to break down, it acts as a mulch around anything that needs protecting from the cold snaps, and it’s easier by far to spread goodness now, than wait until spring and have to work round all the plants that are already coming up.
It is back-breaking work though. Barrowload after barrowload to be wheeled around the site, tipped out, forked over the surface, and then back for another barrowload. One of my neighbours seems to have the right idea – more barrows!
But there’s also something very satisfying about knowing that what you do now will earn you dividends over the year ahead – all that rich food that will penetrate the soil, giving nutrients to the plants, and breaking up the soil surface to make it easier to work and better at holding water, it does make the task worthwhile.
Allotments in the news
Halifax allotment holders are reeling, after burglars struck twice in a week, stealing tools and smashing up plots across their site. Eighteen plots on the Cableform allotments, off Albert Road, Sowerby Bridge, were targeted twice in three days by thieves, who smashed through doors and windows, making off with anything they could lay their hands on. Plot holders have lost power tools and gardening implements and fear the cost of the damage could rise to hundreds of pounds.
It’s possible that the new Bridgend Asda development will be halted until problems over contaminated allotments are solved. Bridgend Town councillors are angry the situation remained unresolved two months after tests showed soil on two plots contained polyaromatic hydrocarbons. Asda had committed to having the allotments relocated and usable before work on the store began. Councillor Eileen McIlveen said, “We want them on there doing samples to prove something one way or another. The deadline has passed. Have they been told to stop building? Because they should have been.” Councillors also decided to refund all the affected allotment-holders their rent for the year as the plot holders have been unable to eat their produce since August, when soil testing began. “It’s pitiful to see what is going to waste,” said the council’s clerk, Carol James. “Morally, I think we need to refund their plots.”
A Scottish project aimed at encouraging families to take up gardening is set to expand its drop-in service. Organisers of the Bridgend Community Allotment health scheme in Craigmillar will increase the days its drop-in service is available from two to five in spring 2008. Evening and weekend sessions will be provided, specifically aimed at families. The initiative is the first partnership scheme between NHS Lothian and the city council's parks unit.
It was a dark and stormy night
After last night’s weather, this is how our site looks this morning.
There are only a couple of fences that have been battered by the wind, but quite a lot of trellising and other support structures that people were using for their summer vegetables has succumbed to the gale.
Well of course because it was a mighty wind! But there are other reasons:
1 – the plants that were growing up the trellises, like runner or broad beans, sweet peas etc, have all stopped growing – they are either totally dead or heading for dormancy, so the feeder capillaries that extend from the roots have atrophied (died off, in ordinary speak) and the roots themselves are no longer conveying nourishment and moisture to the plant – this means the roots shrink and so there is a gap around each root. When the wind blows, the roots move around in this small gap and become even less well anchored, until eventually they give up their grip on the ground all together.
2 – the plant surfaces: stems, leaves etc, are all drying up. Because they no longer have sap rising through them to feed their growth, they become dryer and lighter. This is just like hanging out a thousand tiny sails – once they catch the wind, they have no resistance to it and don’t bounce back into place as they would in the height of summer because there is no moisture in the plant cells to keep them supple – so the tend to remain in the most extreme position that the wind blows them to, and once enough of them are full face to the wind, they act like a solid sheet, catching the wind and moving with it, and the support they were growing up is suddenly not a support any more, but a mast, with a huge sail and over it goes!
The moral of this story?
Take down your summer climbers before the November gales.
Sheds, security and villains
After the summer months many people will lock allotment equipment in their shed because it won’t be used until the following spring. Local police forces are reminding householders, and allotment holders, to pay attention on their shed security.
Garden equipment can be expensive to replace and more alarmingly, many of the tools stored in a shed could be used by a housebreaker to gain entry to a property. Spades, screwdrivers and hammers have all been used to overcome the security of homes, so it is vitally important that the shed and its contents are as secure as possible. It is also important that to check the security of the shed regularly, because if the worst happens and it is broken into, it is important the police are advised as soon as possible. If you’re not going to be visiting your allotment so often in winter, perhaps you can arrange with another allotment holder that you’ll check his/her shed whenever you go to the site and he or she will check yours whenever they visit.
There are various styles of locks available. One of the most common is a padlock and hasp, but the type used and how they are fitted to the shed means the level of security varies greatly from minimal to very secure. For maximum safety, the hasp should be attached to a secure mounting point, such as a solid piece of wood attached to the interior of the shed, as the shell of the shed is relatively weak. The hasp itself should also have concealed fixings or recessed bolts. For additional security the use of a closed shackle padlock should be considered as they offer greater security than standard a padlock. An alternative is a mortice style lock specifically for sheds; this style of lock also offers relatively good security.
If you have a shed with a window, consider placing a screen or blind on the inside – if people can’t see in, they are less tempted to break in, as they don’t know if it will be worth their trouble.
Sitting and swapping
It’s depressing to think that the last day for sitting out on the allotment has probably passed. For me it was yesterday, when the chill of the morning had passed, and it was almost possible to imagine it was July and I was shelling peas again under the summer sun. Almost, but not quite possible: the numb extremities gave the game away, as did the fact that I was sitting on two of our local free newspapers to provide some insulation between my nethers and the cold chair.
Even so, it’s a great time of year to look back on what worked and what didn’t, to plan for the year ahead, and to start browsing the seed catalogues or organising swaps with your neighbouring allotment holders. In many areas of the country there are seed swaps – Seedy Sundays – in February, and I know my own event in Brighton produced some great crops for me last year. And this year, a friend of mine who’s emigrating has given me some fantastically rare and lovely seeds from her garden, so I’m packaging them up, some for me, and some to swap at my Seedy Sunday.
Events are held in Lewes and Brighton in Sussex, Llanfairpwll in Wales, Blackawton and Instow in Devon, and Southampton. Many allotment groups organise their own swaps, or the Women’s Institute have some excellent swaps going on. If there’s nothing happening in your area, why not try to set something up?
Salford lead the way in recycling ... their own waste products!
Salfords's allotmenteers are an imaginative bunch. The plot holders at Tindall Street allotments, in Peel Green, are hoping displays will come up smelling of roses after their own 'manure' is spread on their flowers.
Dan Griffiths, site manager, said, "We are very proud to have this toilet - we think it’s the first of it’s kind in Salford and will help us plough back manure into our plots. We won’t be using it on our fruit and vegetables - just on the flowers."
The toilet unit, bought with a £6,000 Lottery grant, has two internal boxes. After availing him or herself of the facilities, the user puts a handful of sawdust-type material inside the toilet bowl to encourage composting. After a year, the compost will be ready to be used on the allotments.
When that happens, the gardeners will transfer their attentions to the other box and the whole process starts all over again.
It's that time of year again. After the clocks go back and the cold starts to bite, when the allotment holders who were with us throughout the year suddenly disappear. Like migrating birds, they vanish, and although they will appear again in March, it will only be for a few days, maybe only a single Sunday morning, as they survey what six months of neglect has done to their patch, and then they are gone for good.
What can we do about this?
Diehard allotmenteers can't understand what causes this failure, as winter veg is just as tasty and cheap as summer stuff, but it's something, I think, to do with the dark - once people realise they are leaving their allotment at dusk, they feel their winter hours are better spent elsewhere.
Community allotments are one answer - if there is a gang of you working together, it's a lot more fun.
Changing the way the clock goes back is another answer - and one that's being seriously considered in parliament.
Solar lighting is a third possibility and it's being tested in some allotment sites this year ...
Allotment photograph by Indigo Goat, used under a creative commons attribution licence
I’d be the first to admit these don’t look great – but they taste wonderful! If you can ignore the murky appearance as they mellow (it looks a bit like eyeballs floating in engine oil) you'll be rewarded by a superb pickle to accompany cold meats.
We harvest the crabapples from the many trees around our allotment site – being careful not to strip the trees as birds like crabapples too and need them through the winter – and we keep our jars for about two months. The first one gets opened at Christmas, to go with cold turkey, which is massively enhanced by the tangy flavour of these pickles. They look good out of the jar too, and make a lovely presentation dish when they are arranged in a shallow plate.
2 lbs brown sugar
1 pint apple cider vinegar
3 cinnamon sticks (broken in half)
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon allspice
A couple of pounds of crabapples
Sterilise your jars.
Wash the crabapples and prick each one several times with a fork.
Stir the sugar, vinegar and cinnamon sticks together. Tie cloves and allspice in a piece of cloth and place in pot. Bring this mixture to a boil and keep there for a minute.
While the sugar mixture is heating, pack your jars about 3/4 full of apples (watch out, they will expand). Add a cinnamon stick to each jar. Remove the spice sack and ladle the hot brine over apples (leaving about half an inch of head space). If necessary clean the rim and jar threads with a damp cloth before sealing the lids
Process the jars in a boiling water bath for about twenty minutes and refrigerate any jars that do not seal properly.
Allow fruit to absorb the flavour of the syrup for at least a week before enjoying.
Autumn vegetable roast
Using up that pumpkin flesh? Here’s our favourite recipe – dead easy – very autumnal and equally as good with butternut squash, large courgettes and peppers, or even parsnips!
1 medium squash or 1/2 pumpkin – skinned and cut into bite-size chunks if you’re not using the stuff you carved from a Halloween pumpkin
10-12 small shallots or two small red onions (quarter these)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Fresh sage, thyme and rosemary.
Now it’s really simple. Pre-heat the oven to 180 C. Peel the shallots and cut off the stalks and roots. Put the oil in an oven-proof dish and heat for a couple of minutes in the oven before adding the shallots/onions and squash. Stir with a spoon to coat the ingredients with oil. Roast for 30 minutes, until the squash or pumpkin is tender. Add the thyme and rosemary and roast for another 5 – 10 minutes then Roughly chop the sage into the vinegar and pour over the roasted vegetables just before serving.
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