The secret treasures of allotment life

Okay, the secrets of plot 201 is what I really mean. Like Sarah at She Who Digs we’ve got a new plot!

Well, not exactly. Once again we’re co-workers, but this time on a plot which hasn’t been worked for at least a year – and it really shows. The weeds were up to my chin when we first saw it, and the path had completely disappeared under grass and who knew what (I know what now, see below!)

201 does have a glorious shed, something like a small Swiss chalet – and of course there’s a downside to that too, because several of the panes of glass in the three windows have been broken and the pear tree that hangs over the roof in a very pretty way has also rubbed some very pretty holes in the roofing felt, meaning that the roof leaks in a very unpretty way which has to be sorted out pronto. But even so, I can imagine long summer evenings in the shed with a glass of something cool and refreshing, or maybe even an hour in a hammock under the pear tree … why not? A girl can dream.

Back to reality. I was expecting nettles, and I got them. I was prepared for thistles and that was good, because we have plenty. I was even ready for bindweed, fortunately, as that seems to be our major crop at present (it was twelve feet up a holly tree and five yards along the fence – is there a Guinness Book of Records entry for the most invasive bindweed?) but what I wasn’t expecting, and had no idea could even happen, was the total invasion of plot 201’s gorgeous brick-built path by … strawberry runners!

Yes, seriously. The middle section of the path is so riddled with tiny strawberry plantlets that it’s a danger to walk on it. When we finally found the strawberry bed they came from, we were amazed, it's more like a strawberry jungle - but an invading one. Who knew strawberries could be such a pest?

I’m reduced to digging them out, one by one, with an old fork. And there’s something really weird about that. Because as I was squatting in the rain, turfing out weeds with a bit of cutlery, I remembered a picture my Mum took of me when I was two-and-a-half, crouching in the garden, digging a hole with a soup-spoon – according to her, it was my constant obsession for months. Some things never change then!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, October 28, 2008 3 Comments

Allotment problems

It’s not always fun on the allotment. Last night was our AGM and while that was actually a lot of fun, and I ended up being elected to a post of authority (you can just call me Madam Secretary from now on!) there was a significant amount of frustration expressed about some of the nastier aspects of being an allotment holder, so I thought I’d be honest about the trials and tribulations that were expressed at the meeting. In reverse order:

At number 3: The problem of people who won’t lock gates – this is a perennial problem at least as persistent as bindweed, and it leads to strangers wandering around the site and getting lost (and sometimes, getting locked in!) petty theft and vandalism and a general feeling of insecurity about leaving tools and produce on the allotment site.

At number 2 in the annoyance stakes – people who neglect their plots. We can all succumb to a bit of weediness or neglect at times, but this particular problem is related to people who wait until they get a weed notice, then turn up and strim and rotovate the entire plot, then do nothing until they get another weed notice … why do they have an allotment if they don’t do anything with it, is the cry from their neighbouring plot-holders? Why indeed?

Number one in the ‘allotment problem’ category – at least in the minds of those who came to the meeting – were dogs! It seems we have two large black dogs that are allowed to roam free on the site. Nobody present knew if they came from a nearby house or belonged to a plot-holder, but they have been galloping around one section of the site, trampling overwintering onions and causing mayhem. Bad enough, but the idea of coming across two large black dogs in the dark as you leave your plot in the evening is quite scary, and for some of our less mobile members could be really frightening.

We take our dog to the allotment, but always on a lead and when he’s there he’s secured on a running line on our plot so that he can’t annoy anybody. It’s really unpleasant to think that all the hard work people put into growing crops can be destroyed by one thoughtless person and two boisterous dogs – it’s not the dogs’ fault, of course. Just wait until we locate the owner – there will be some very honest expressions of annoyance to be heard!

I wonder what problems other allotment holders experience – anybody care to share their woes?

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, October 23, 2008 2 Comments

Allotment sheds …

Or, if you prefer, what goes up had better not come down! Because on Saturday, when the weather was glorious and the team was foregathered in one place (‘the team’ is what we rather grandiosely call it when the three of us are on the plot at the same time) it was the right time to put up Duncan’s shed.

The shed has been a bit of a saga – there were several attempted deliveries that didn’t work out, and then a second shed arrived after the first one, for no discernable reason at all, and then the shed had to be painted with some form of preservative, and as Duncan doesn’t have anywhere to store and paint a shed, and we do, it had to come to our house, then it had to go back to the plot, then we had to buy paving … you get the picture – it’s been one of those projects that seemed to go on forever without actually progressing.

And then, suddenly, it did. It’s a very small shed, and there are two quite large men in ‘the team’ so my role was limited to making tea and doing a bit of digging over what will become the bed for the over-wintering broad beans, while they did all the levelling and hammering, and cursing and tearing up of instructions (they were actually completely the wrong instructions, for an entirely different shed, so it’s not as drastic as it sounds) and then suddenly, there was a avocado and lavender coloured shed where no shed had been before ….

And the first of the garlic has poked its head above the soil where, it seems to me, I only planted it only hours ago. No sign of the seed onions or the onion sets yet, but I am living in hope of them appearing any minute.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, October 20, 2008 1 Comments

Allotments get addictive

It’s worrying how much time we are finding we can spend on the plot. At least in the summer we could kid ourselves that we were busy doing ‘real’ things: digging, watering, weeding, harvesting.

Now, as October wanes, and all but one variety of onion sets are in the ground, there’s no digging, very little watering, minimal weeding and only sporadic harvesting left to do (note to self – next year, plant more late season cropping stuff!) and yet we still seem to be able to spend three or four hours up there on both Saturday and Sunday and also a snatched half-hour before dark on a weekday evening.

What exactly are we doing in that time? Well one thing is that we’re putting up the fence and painting the shed, cutting the ‘meadow’ which has been a bit of fallow land this year, and now needs to be cut with shears for winter stubble. And mainly, every time the sun shines, we’re heading up there to soak up the rays and just relax, footling around with watering cans and hoes but really, just enjoying ourselves.

And of course, the overwintering broad beans go in soon, and the last of the spring cabbage, and then it’s time to dig in the expired beans from this year to enrich next year’s potato bed … perhaps we’ve earned a bit of idleness in the sun?

And the picture shows yours truly getting her kit off on the plot!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Friday, October 17, 2008 2 Comments

Curing Squash

A couple of people on the plot asked what we were doing to cure our pumpkins, as a result of my last post. The thing is, we don’t have anywhere that we can easily and securely cure pumpkins so we have to take them off site.

‘Curing’ a pumpkin begins with harvesting – pumpkins and gourds should not be picked while they are still soft. Green or immature fruits only keep for a few weeks before they begin to shrivel. They should be bright in whatever if their normal colour – orange for pumpkins, anything from pure white to deep yellow for various other forms of squash and gourd and – most crucially – have a fairly hard rind.

So harvesting should be done after the vines have withered and the stems have actually turned brown and begun to dry – of course if your weather turns inclement (for which read rainy) you may have to harvest early and know that your pumpkins won’t lass as long.

Use a sharp knife or pruning shears to cut the fruit from the vine. Wash the fruits in warm, soapy water to remove any traces of soil. After wiping off any excess moisture, spread the fruit out on layers of newspaper in a place that offers good air circulation and a temperature of at least 21 degrees C – much warmer than most people think is necessary! Leave them for a week or two to toughen their skin and heal surface cuts, making them impervious to outside infection, rot or damage, then you can store them in whatever place you have that is dry , has good circulation of air, and doesn’t drop below 7 degrees C. Alternatively – make lots of pumpkin soup in the days after you harvest and freeze it for the months ahead!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, October 13, 2008 0 Comments

And into the ground the onions go …

We certainly picked a hot day to plant out the onions – and while we won’t know the outcome of the germination for a couple of weeks, I can already say that it’s certainly worthwhile doing the business with paper and paste if you’re a little bit cack-handed (clumsy, in polite speak) as I am. It wouldn’t be the easiest procedure on a windy day, but we had a fine, calm one. And the ‘simple’ method, of digging a trench and dropping an onion seed into it every six inches, sounds great but when you try to drop just one, tiny, black, onion seed at regular intervals, you end up doing a lot of cursing, in my experience.

We also grabbed the chance to plant out our garlic: we’re growing two varieties this year, Mediterranean Wight and Solent Wight, just to see how a softneck and a hardneck garlic compare.

We’re also busy harvesting all the squashes – we lost all the pumpkins Duncan planted, not quite sure why, but we think the planting through a growing membrane allowed water to build up under them as condensation which then rotted the side that was on the ground/membrane. Next year we shall lift them all onto mesh trays to try and give them an air gap. The hard squashes have done much better though, and as the neck that joins the fruit to the plant has begun to narrow, showing that the parent plant is becoming dormant and no longer feeding nutrients to the fruit, it’s time to get them off the site and somewhere warm and dry for a couple of days to toughen the skins, before putting them in a cool airy place to keep until they are wanted.

And, like everybody else, we’re still weeding. Weeds are the first things to appear in spring, and the last to disappear in winter … depressing, isn’t it?

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Friday, October 10, 2008 0 Comments

Fun with paper and glue

You may be wondering exactly what this picture has to do with allotments. Well, it’s our first ever, home-made, seed planting strips! Yes, they are a little late going in, but as we live in the soft south, we’re still hopeful that they will produce a crop.

The thing is, onion seed is fiddly, really really fiddly. And you can’t transplant onions. So … if you want to be sure your tiny onion seed is properly spaced when it goes into the ground, it requires some work (so we’ve been told) with paper and glue.

What you need to do is get some nice long strips of newspaper, about half an inch deep and the full width of the best of the press – the Telegraph is a perfect size, I’ve found – and measure six inch spacings. At each six inch point, you put a dab of ‘glue’ made from flour and water, and onto the glue you dot a single onion seed. Allow the whole business to dry and then pack it into a long tray for transport from home to the plot.

When you get there, all you need to do is dig a shallow trench about half an inch deep and lay the paper strips into it. Cover the trench and water if necessary. If you’re clever, you’ll pick a day when rain is forecast for the afternoon so you don’t even have to water them in.

You might be thinking this is a lot of effort (I might be thinking that too, after an evening spent with paste-brush, scissors and tiny seeds) and wondering if it’s worth it? Well, as yet we don’t know, so what we’re doing is preparing half our over-wintering onion seed this way, and simply dropping the other half into prepared rows by hand. As they grow we’ll be able to see if the extra work in preparing the strips has been worth it, or not, or even if it's better to make the extra investment in onion sets and not grow from seed at all. Watch this space …

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, October 7, 2008 0 Comments

October allotment tasks

According to the sage old allotment holders around me, we can probably continue harvesting carrots until around mid-October, although the slight frost that glazed the surface of the car this morning is a grim warning that winter is close – the point is that you need to lift carrots before there is a ground frost because it ‘pinches’ them, making them both soft and very sweet as some of the starches turn into sugars (which is the opposite of what happens to peas if you don’t harvest them, when the sugars turn to starch – life is strange) and because carrots keep for a month or more if laid in a box of slightly moist sand and kept in a cool dark place, harvesting early can mean having good firm carrots well into November, and nobody likes a limp carrot, do they? Ditto radishes.

On the other hand, tomatoes can continue to ripen on a windowsill if you pick them before the first frost and lay them in good sun. But if you let the frost get to them, and they wilt, disease will apparently invade the plant (like a shipload of Daleks) and may begin to build up, not just in the plant but in the surrounding soil too. Much as I love tomatoes I’m starting to think of them as the hypochondriacs of the allotment world, forever fainting or falling over or getting mysterious conditions that blight them forever.

And our onion bed is ready, after Tony's painstaking hand-weeding, our spring cabbage and some rhubarb kale are in the ground and broad beans are just waiting to hit the dirt, as they say!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Saturday, October 4, 2008 3 Comments

Onions in autumn

There’s nothing like ignorance to get you through, is there? And my ignorance when it comes to overwintering onions is … profound. So far I’ve managed to find out that:

Onion sets are planted with the point at the top and the roots at the bottom and with the pointy bit level with the soil. They need to go into either very well-tilled soil or, if they are going into clay or less well worked ground, you need to dig or dib a little hole for them as they can easily be damaged by being pushed into the ground.

Unlike other plants, the smaller sets can actually be more productive because the bigger they are the greater the likelihood of bolting.

Pigeons and starlings (and in our area, seagulls) all have the habit of pecking the tops off the growing sets or just pulling them out of the ground. This year, rather than netting them, I’m going to try covering them with that weird and wonderful Scaraweb that somebody gave me (looks like Father Christmas crashlanded on the allotment and left his beard behind) but if the pesky pigeons do strike, I shall immediately go for a netting tent approach instead.

And so tomorrow - in go the onions!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, October 1, 2008 0 Comments

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