Three sisters planting for allotments
A friend of mine is trying out this system of planting, made famous by several Native American tribes and thinks I should too. The basic principle underlying the process is simple and elegant – if it works. What you do is plant the three sisters: sweetcorn, squash and beans all in the same hole. The theory is that the corn makes a support for the (runner) beans, the squash (courgette or cucumber) helps to suppress weeds by providing a ground cover something like a living mulch and the beans are a nitrogen fixer, improving the soil for both the other crops. The beans should finish first, and when the corn is ready to harvest the squashes can be allowed to run rampant, as they do.
Hmmm … I can see how it might work somewhere closer to the equator, but here? I think that the wetter, cooler climate of the UK will cause the following:
1. The beans will get very leafy and shade the squashes
2. The corn will mature more slowly than the beans, meaning that the cobs also get shaded by the bean leaves and thus won’t ripen
3. The squashes will be slow to ripen but will otherwise do fine (they are pretty indestructible)
It seems to me that this might not be a system that translates very well to the British allotment, not least because one usually has enough space to grow whatever one wants, and although I can find quite a number of people online who’ve said they are going to grow the Three Sisters way, I can’t find any reports on the results and that makes me wonder how well it works.
Has anybody out there tried it? Want to share the outcomes?
Allotment weather and first steps on the plot
Well what a weekend! Blazing sun on Saturday, enough to burn even the most well sun-creamed allotmenteer’s nose, gales and rain on Sunday, and a Monday of persistent rain, mist and misery. We’re in a bit of a finger’s crossed situation, we won’t know until this evening whether our temporary (old sheet) windbreak actually help up through the vicious weather, and my big fear is not just that it blew down, but that it scythed its way across several neighbouring allotments, taking the tops off people’s Brussels Sprouts and wrecking their bean wigwams as it went!
We’ve got tomatoes to be planted out, once the weather settles (assuming it ever does) plus some beans, although the peas have been dire this year once again – either Sussex doesn’t like peas or peas don’t like germinating for us, I’m not sure which! We were going to try a special local variety this year, but we forgot (as usual) and by the time we went to buy them, they’d sold out.
We’ve also got to move a water butt that will (eventually) take the water from the shed guttering to give us a lovely, reasonably constant source of irrigation, and some wood to make fences. It’s difficult, to be honest, to know where to start – plant up as much as possible, then worry about structural things like paths and walls, or work on the structure first, and then plant up once we’re sure the plot will be somewhat protected and easy to get around. We’re open to good advice, if people want to offer some!
The view from the allotment
Yes, we’ve got a new plotshare! We’re really excited about it, and about the ideas that the original plotholders have for the site, which include a little green space for their kidlets to range semi-freely while Mum and Dad work on the plot – it’s quite wonderful.
Perhaps one of the most wonderful things is the view from ‘our’ plot into that of our back neighbour, who clearly thinks (as I do) that allotments should be beautiful as well as useful. Her plot has been established for many years, of course but it’s a reminder of how well things can work out if you plant with an eye for attractiveness as well as utility.
We have practical things to do first though, including establishing some permanent paths (currently there are grass paths, which require a lot of maintenance and can be treacherous in winter) and getting some windbreaks up, as the courgette and bean seedlings are being battered around by today’s ‘light breezes’ which is Sussex for ‘mild gale’ anywhere else! And there’s a shed to be got and installed, seedlings to be planted up, half a plot to be rotavated, a terrible mess of bindweed and couchgrass and other nasties in one corner, totally strangling what used to be some rather nice plum trees … there’s a lot of work ahead, and I can’t wait!
Perhaps you have to be an allotment holder to develop this particular reflex, it’s the one that springs into action when you see the first potato flowers appear above the big green leaves and it’s a kind of manic grinning superiority. It stays on your face as you wander around neighbouring plots, noting that your potatoes are ‘ahead’ and only fades if you come across an allotmenteer who has more floriforous potatoes than you.
The humble spud may seem an unlikely cause of such joyous facial displays, but anybody who has eaten ‘fresh from the ground’ potatoes knows that there is nothing to compare to them – even artichokes and asparagus are hardly more wonderful than the taste of home grown spuds.
And the reason I’m going on about them is that we met somebody yesterday who might want some assistance on their plot – I’m not going to say too much about it, because I might jinx things, but one of the ways I measure the real nature of an allotment holder is their potatoes. Anybody can grow potatoes, there’s no trick to it, but taking pleasure and pride in your spuds is the mark of somebody who doesn’t have pretensions about allotments (which I once heard described by a truly pretentious woman as ‘my little potager’) and who knows the true value of fresh home-grown veg. The person we met yesterday bent over his potato rows and smiled the smile of a happy potato grower, so I hope he’s going to take to us too, as it made me like him at once.
Allotment pond update
On Sunday, when we had ‘weather’ I found myself wandering around the allotments with three very heavy, somewhat seeping, carrier bags. No, I hadn’t been nicking stuff (there must be a very special circle of hell reserved for people who steal from allotments, and I have no intention of ending up there) I was transporting pond plants to Maurice’s pond.
Maurice, I’m sure he won’t mind me saying, is an ‘older’ allotment holder. In fact he’s in his nineties, and his plot is one of my favourite places to visit. He has some very unusual and lovely things (like his medlar tree, of which more later in the year) and beds full of highly organised and productive plants, interspersed with flowers. He’s been installing a pond, with the help of his co-worker, Mark, and my contribution has been to divide some of the plants from my own pond for him. It’s not quite such fun to contemplate a pond in the drizzle as it is to stand around it in the sunshine, but it still looked great now its been bedded in and my plants: a water grass, a marsh marigold and an arum lily, looked quite at home within seconds of being removed from their bags and plonked onto the ledge.
He’s also been ‘donated’ about half a ton of ornamental stone, I’m not sure what it is, some kind of iron ore bearing rock, which looks very dramatic and I can’t wait to see how he uses it to shape the rockery behind the pond. I’m always impressed by the ingenuity of allotment holders.
Allotment news roundup
Norwich girls Jazmine Malin and Hayley Massingham, have taken on an allotment! The two 12-year-olds are planting up the 12 metre square patch of earth as their entry for a competition being run by the Partners Against Crime Taskforce. The competition, called Wham, encourages teams to make a real difference to the area where they live by building better community relations and improving the local environment. The entry which judges feel has had the biggest impact will win a foreign holiday. Both Jazmine and Hayley hope that not only will pupils from local schools get involved but people from the local area will come along and help out, thus encouraging the old and young to build bridges and get to know one another better.
But before the girls can start to reap the fruits of their labour there is a lot of work to be done. The ground must be cleared and well dug. They are inviting as many people as possible down to the allotment on Sunday for a day of digging to give things a kick start. Hayley Staniforth, the extended school coordinator for Cromer, who helps form partnerships between the community and local schools, is helping the girls with their project. To get involved, or help out on Sunday's dig, call her on 07867 572153.
On the downside of allotment life, a group in Gildersome, Morley have hit out at vandals who burnt their clubhouse to the ground. Tony Eastwood, secretary of Gelderd Road Allotments, said they were disgusted by the arson attack at the beginning of May. The fire service was called but were too late for the shed and everything it contained. Mr Eastwood said, ‘They call us the last of the summer wine gang, there are six of us, all pensioners who like to get away from it all and do a bit of digging, and get out from under the feet of our wives. The shed was where we could go when it rained or to have a cup of coffee in the morning and have a chat.’ He said that to replace the shed would cost them £800, far more than any of them can afford.
Making an allotment seed bed
So far we haven’t had one of these, because, as you may have realised by now, we are sort of ‘squatters’ helping out on various allotments as we wait and hope for one of our own … which could be a long wait indeed, given that there are twice as many people on the waiting list as there are actual allotment plots on our site. Still, we’re happy being allotment-jobbing-gardeners, and it does mean we learn a huge amount from other people and get to experience many different styles of allotment.
So as well as contributing to Maurice’s pond (only by providing plants, he has a co-worker already who did the heavy digging) and helping Sally with a bit of trellis building, this weekend has been devoted to helping build a seed bed.
Seed beds are small areas of an allotment or garden used to germinate seedlings that can be moved to permanent sites later – the soil has to be very thoroughly dug over, with stones and other debris removed and we’ve been doing that, standing on a nice wide plank so that we don’t compress the soil behind us as we work. Now, with a few days of glorious fine weather, we are going up to rake the top surface to form a fine tilth – a soil top which is fine and crumbly and will allow plants to take root easily.
Then we’ll use the same plank to make a v-shaped drill in which to plant the seeds: the plank means the line of seedlings will be nice and straight without having to fiddle with sticks and strings. And then we wait for them to come up …
I was reading The Cottage Smallholder yesterday and noted that Fiona has to net her fruit not just to keep the birds (and her dogs) from eating the ripe fruit, but because the birds (but not the dogs) eat the unripe fruit too!
We certainly have problems at our allotments, but this isn’t one of them and I’ve devoted most of today, while I’ve been pottering around, to working out why. And I think I’ve found the answer. It’s seagulls!
Yes, while they can be a real pest, I suspect that the seagull behaviour over our allotments keeps the fruit-hunting birds away; they certainly like to land in the mornings and poke around in turned soil, but if they see smaller birds congregating on the site they tend to fly down and scare them off so that they can try and grab whatever the little birds were finding. Of course they aren’t equipped to peck fruit from bushes though. Finally, a use for the pestilential things! One person on our allotments actually has a pet seagull that he feeds with cat food on a fork – rather him than me: they have vicious beaks and always look to me like homicidal maniacs who are trying to remember where they left their axes.
We also have a rat problem, and I’m not sure what to do about it. Rats will, I’m told, dig up my root crops and eat my peas and beans, but putting down poison is a no-brainer (a) because I know it builds resistance in the intended victims and (b) there are too many dogs, cats and children on the site for bait to be safe. So, short of taking the dog up with me whenever possible, I’m not sure what to do. So far the only thing the rat has done is tunnel under the compost bin and eat some of the scraps we put in there, but I wonder what it will do next …
What’s up Doc?
Well, May Day supper is going to be lamb pitas with … early lettuce and spring onions and some skinny and red hot radishes. As Don, one of our allotment chums, grew some potatoes under-cover in a combination old tyre and plastic cloche type arrangement, we also have the first salad spuds of the year, from him! It’s a real joy when you eat the first meal of the year where all the veg came from your plot (okay, and from the plots of your generous friends) and even the mint that’s going into the lamb dish was harvested today by my own hand. The radishes could have done with another week, maybe, but they are searingly hot and make your mouth know it’s alive, that’s for sure!
And of course the work is coming faster than the crops now. Today it’s been hoe hoe hoe. May is the month for hoeing. Getting the heads off weeds now when they are tiny, means they don’t get their roots down which can make them harder to get rid of. And of course that means sharpening the hoe every ten minutes – I don’t know how people work with blunt hoes, Sweeney Todd could use mine to shave customers, because it makes the work of weed decapitation about 80% easier. And the other thing I’ve been doing, because the other half won’t, is thinning out the first lettuce and carrots – he’s too soft hearted to do it and then we end up with weedy plants, I’m ruthless and give the survivors the space to flourish!
Allotment year one - pacing yourself
I'm reading a book called The Half Hour Allotment by Lia Leendertz, which is published by the RHS, and while it's full of good ideas, there's one that I feel faintly nervous about them promulgating so widely. It's the suggestion that in the first year, or first few years, you should leave 2/3rds of your new plot fallow while you get on with cultivating the final third.
Nice idea but ... as Ms Leendertz goes on to point out, this can cause consternation in your neighbours who don't want weed seeds and creeping perennials spreading from your unworked section to their hard-cultivated plot, and can actually break the terms of your rent, because there are quite a few allotment sites that require you to keep more that 33% in cultivation at any one time!
Having said that, it is important with a new plot, whether allotment or vegetable patch in the garden, to pace yourself. You WILL get gluts, even if that seems unimaginable now, and you WON'T have allowed for how much time it takes to harvest, process and store glut vegetables. You WILL find some weed, pest or problem that takes up much more time than you planned - for us it's the perennial weeds, for a neighbour it's a constant battle with a fox that digs up her seedlings (on purpose, she says).
So fallow doesn't have to be fallow. Potatoes, for example, can be planted until June, they break up the soil (so you've got lovely soil to plant in next year) and keep weeds down (because their leaf cover and deep roots don't give perennials a chance to get a good grip), and even if you get only a small harvest from late plantings, it looks like you're keeping the plot in cultivation.
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- End of month recipe: Caramelised Onions
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- Allotment horror story
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