Allotment tasks - February Pond
I got a phone call last night saying that Maurice is ready to install his new pond! Back at the late end of last summer, we volunteered to help him dig out the space for the line that he’s been given, but that was before my other half was told he shouldn’t be doing any digging, as he’s developed golfer’s wrist or hockey player’s elbow or bowler’s bicep or some such thing that means he’s not supposed to lift or dig. So guess who’s going to be up to her oxters in a big hole?
Anyway, it is that time of year. We’ve been working on our home pond this month, and I notice that several of our allotment friends have been doing the annual maintenance on theirs.
A big spring clean for a pond involves taking out some pond water and putting it in a big container, moving all the fish into that container, putting the plants in another container, and pumping out the pond. Then you need to scrub out the bottom and sides of the pond with fresh water and a soft brush (a hard one might damage a flexible liner), pump out that water, return the plants, fill the pond with fresh water (rainwater for preference, if it has to be tap water, you need to let it sit for two or three days so it can run through the filter and dechlorinate.
Put the fish in plastic bags with their old water and some air, and float the bags on top of the newly cleaned pond until the water in the bag and the water in the pond are the same temperature. If the clean water temperature differs more than a few degrees from the old pond water, the shock could kill all the fish.
Really rotten allotment jobs in February
There can’t be a nastier time of year than February, on the allotment. I know I should be trying to find the good things about this month, but I do really, really, really detest almost everything that has to be done this month.
The worst job is turning over last year's potato bed and looking for those titchy leftover potatoes that hid in the ground and – if you don’t remove them – can spread diseases or pass on blight to this season’s crop. They have a lovely name: volunteers, but it’s a perfectly rotten job, back-breaking, time-consuming and fiddly.
The seed flats and everything above three inch pots are going to be used from next month onwards, and although every November I say I’m going to wash and sterilise all the pots at the end of the growing season, so they are ready for spring, I never do, and so I end up ferrying bagloads of flats and pots backwards and forwards as this is a task much more easily done with hot water at home.
The final horrible task for February is spreading black polythene over the first beds we’ll be planting next month, so that the soil underneath gets a chance to warm up before we begin to plant out seedlings that will be protected by cloches.
Allotment herbs and fruits in February
This is the time of year when we sow parsley. At home we put the seeds in those long biodegradable tubes and grow them in a bottom-heated propagator, but on the allotment, we put them in the greenhouse. They hate being transplanted, so they also go in biodegradable tubes up there, but instead of having bottom heat, the parsley gets sown with boiling water, which encourages it to germinate. Parsley’s said to go to the devil nine times before it comes up, which gives you some idea how slow it is to get going! There are strange compounds called furanocoumarins on the surface of parsley seeds, which actually get into the soil and stop the seeds of other plants germinating – this is a sensible evolutionary approach on the part of the parsley because it means it has a more than usually good chance of outdoing the competition, but these compounds, once they disperse in the soil, actually have an odd habit of affecting the parsley itself – which is why soaking the seeds or watering them with really hot water that destroys the effect of the compounds, can speed the process up.
It’s also the time of year to divide mint. We don’t grow mint at home, but keep it in a trough at the allotment because it’s such an invasive plant. Even a small piece of root is very likely to grow, and once it grows, it will take over a vegetable plot or border, smothering and strangling everything in its path, even bindweed. The allotment trough is lined with zinc, and there’s not much chance even of mint punching its way through that!
Chives can be split and replanted too, at this time in the year, as long as the soil isn’t actually frozen when you lift them.
One of the gardens that backs onto our site has big bud mite on its redcurrants. It’s one of those things that you can’t really describe but recognise as soon as you see it. It simply shows up as weirdly large buds which then don’t produce any fruit in summer. There’s no treatment, either preventative or curative, for the infestation, so we can only hope that it doesn’t spread and that somebody on the allotments knows the people in that house and can suggest they pick off the infested buds.
Allotment crops – freezer to plate
This is a really wonderful cake (or pudding) which I make for the winter days when we’ve been out on the allotments and we’re frozen and starved when we get home. It’s very easy, very substantial and has the taste of summer. It’s good enough to serve for a dinner party pudding, and robust enough to hand slices to any horny handed son of the soil who normally turns up his nose at ‘fancy’ food – and I find there are quite a few of that type, in allotmentland! It uses blackberries from the freezer, which we harvest off our plot (thornless, sweet and very large) and mix with wild brambles (thorny, small and tart) to get the perfect combination of juicy sweetness and tangy flavour. It's also very easy.
120g butter or margarine
2 large eggs
120g plain flour
Rumble (it should be called crumble, but the boy called it rumble when he was a toddler and it’s been rumble in our house ever since)
60g butter or margarine
50g plain flour
Preheat oven to 18ºC/gas 4. Grease and bottom line a 500g loaf tin, using greaseproof paper which rises up the narrow sides over the top (this allows you to lift your cake out at the end of cooking without disturbing the topping)
Place the fat in a mixing bowl. Add sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating in well with each addition. Fold in flour. Spoon the mixture into the loaf tin, spreading to the edges. Top with the blackberries. Place the remaining flour in a bowl. Add the remaining fat and rub until the absorbed and the mixture resembles crumbs. Mix in the sugar and oats to end up with a fairly loose dry mixture
Sprinkle this mixture over the blackberries, spreading it out evenly but not pressing it down
Bake for 45-50 minutes until golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before turning out. Great hot or cold, or with yoghurt for breakfast or warmed slightly with a cup of tea when you come in from a day’s heavy digging.
Allotment crops – asparagus?
I’m starting to wonder if we’re grown up enough to grow asparagus. Okay, we’re in our forties, so if we’re not grown up enough now, we never will be, but it’s such a luxurious, complicated crop, isn’t it?
Well the Royal Horticultural Society begs to differ. Their website says:
Asparagus can be raised from seed or young dormant plants - crowns - can be purchased. Sow seeds of an all-male F1 hybrid singly into modules in February and transplant in early June. Most gardeners choose one-year-old crowns, planting in March or April.
Right, so we’re going to buy crowns, I’ve got enough seed trays on my hands as it is. Then what?
Fork over the prepared area and dig a trench 30cm (12in) wide and 20cm (8in) deep. Work in well-rotted manure in the bottom, cover with 5cm (2in) of the excavated soil and make a 10cm-high (4in) ridge down the centre of the trench. Place the crowns on top, spacing them 30-45cm (12-18in) apart (right). Leave 45cm (18in) between rows and stagger the plants. Spread the roots evenly and fill in the trench, leaving the bud tips just visible. Water in and mulch with 5cm (2in) of well-rotted manure.
Okay, we can do that – in fact we have a trench already dug to much these proportions.
Asparagus beds must be kept weed free - best done by hand as the shallow roots are easily damaged by hoeing. Mulching discourages weeds and retains moisture. Apply a general fertiliser in early spring and repeat once harvesting has finished.
Oh dear, I knew hand weeding would appear somewhere – and as the male of the species is six foot two, I know which of us will be deputised to stoop over the asparagus trench as being ‘closer to the ground’.
To avoid top-growth breaking off in wind and damaging the crown, use canes and twine either side of the row for support. Remove any female plants (those bearing orange-red berries) and any seedlings.
Hmm, that sounds a bit more complicated – I can spot the females but I’m never good at pulling up baby plants …
To harvest, cut individual spears with a sharp knife 2.5cm (1in) below the soil when they are no more than 18cm (7in) tall. In warm weather, harvest every two to three days for best quality spears. Do not harvest for the first two years. In the third year, pick from mid-April for six weeks, and in subsequent years for eight weeks.
Ah, so if we do it now, we don’t get to eat it until 2011? Better get cracking then ….
Allotment Gardening – February tasks
What we’re up to right now, is:
Sowing certain plants indoors trays or pots - early beetroot, beans, summer cabbage, globe artichoke, lettuce and broad beans.
Last year we grew heritage broad beans, red ones, which were obviously a precursor of the Windsor variety. To just run through the difference - broad beans come in two main types (there are others, like dwarfing and heritage but with a bit of lateral thought you can usually see where your two foot tall beans or your burgundy coloured beans fit into one or the other type):
• The Long-pod plants have up to nine oblong beans per pod, hence the name! Generally considered the most hardy of the broad beans, these are the only ones it’s really worth sowing in autumn – when they should give you a crop about three weeks earlier that a spring sowing of the same variety.
• The Windsor varieties have only four to six round beans per pod. These are generally said to be tastier than the Long-pods and are less inclined to develop leathery skins. But they aren’t as hardy and should really only be sown in spring.
So we’re splitting the difference and going for dwarf broad beans and heritage beans grown from last year’s saved seed.
Sadly we don’t have room for spinach, although I notice a neighbour is sowing flat after flat, so maybe I’ll have something that he’ll be willing to swap for some of his first spring spinach to go in salads.
We’re also going to try, after last year’s success, sowing outdoors under cloches because while our February sown beetroot did nothing, we had plenty of lettuce and spring onions by doing this last year.
We’ve covered our rhubarb and we’re using up the last of our parsnips – the year’s turning again!
Allotment skills - using stuff up
This is one of the rare bones of contention in our allotment life. I mentioned it in my last post, and it’s the horrible fact of the glut. There’s nothing you can do about a glut – try as you might to avoid one, if you have seven kilos of courgettes to use up, you can bet that there are another seven waiting in the wings, and that your neighbours will be moaning about the tendency of the average courgette to hide under the leaves and turn itself into a thin-skinned marrow, regardless of your desire to never see another marrow or courgette again.
Marrow jam, courgette bake, marrow rum, courgette chutney, stuffed marrow, stuffed courgette, marrow bread, courgette flower fritters (a brilliant idea, stops the plants growing any more courgettes, for one thing!), marrow stew … it just goes on and on and life can become insufferable when tomatoes, or strawberries, or rhubarb or whatever suddenly go into glut production. And that’s why I rely on Grow Organic, Cook Organic to kick-start my kitchen creativity. I found it useful when last year’s rhubarb glut overwhelmed me – the recipe for Rhubarb and Ginger Ice-cream was a revelation because ‘the boy’ who has never knowingly eaten rhubarb, actually consumed gallons of the stuff and brought home his teenage friends to consume it too! Some of the recipes might seem a bit high-falutin’ such as Red Onion and Mushroom Tartlets with Goat’s Cheese, but it’s worth giving them a try because they really are designed to work with home grown fruit and veg.
Do wind chill factors affect plants, does anybody know? I have a feeling they must do, but I can’t find any information in any of my books on the subject, only lots of stuff about ambient or air temperature.
In any case, it feels like it’s freezing on the allotments, although the temperature gauge says 7 degrees, so that’s why I’m wondering about wind chill. Things are coming up, like rhubarb (is it possible to stop rhubarb coming up, I wonder?) and garlic, but whether the latter carries on coming up is anybody’s guess. The harvest last year seems to have been variable in the extreme, with the eastern side of the UK having a better garlic crop than the western side, apparently. Because it keeps raining, and the mud is somewhat clinging, there’s no real point digging over the ground, although there’s no reason not to weed, and many of my neighbours who did weed and then put down weed suppressors in January, have been back to hold them down with BIGGER rocks and BIGGER stakes this week, because there’s quite a lot of weed-suppressing material (newspapers, old carpets and bits of fruit box) that has blown into the surrounding fences in the gales we keep having.
I’ve been thinking about successional sowing, which we were utterly useless at last year and whether there’s a simple system to be better at it this year – any suggestions? We had loads of simple crops like lettuces and carrots that it should be possible to sow and harvest in succession, but we seem to forget, or our new sowings catch up with our old ones, and we end up with a glut – carrots are okay, there’s no limit to the amount of carrot one can freeze or turn into carrot soup or carrot cake, but what on earth do you do with a glut of lettuce?
Allotment in winter - bleak midwinter
And it certainly is! We had frost like snow this morning on our site, stuff you could crunch underfoot, frozen locks and general dismay, and still no office to lurk in …
Still there are (or were) signs of new life. For those lucky enough to have fruit trees on their plots the buds are (or were) fattening. The brackets, of course, relate to the sad fact that anything that was burgeoning before this cold snap is likely to be blighted by it. Have you ever noticed, by the way, how poetic the language of gardening is? Buds burgeon and blossoms are blighted or nipped by frost – it’s all very lyrical. Anyway, as of this morning, looking at the more protected southern aspect plots, I think the buds in some places, like on this fig, have survived.
The unpredictable weather is annoying everyone – there are broad beans sprouting under glass and sweet peas springing into life under newspaper (as Ron advised last year) and yet the changeability of our weather conditions is making it impossible to plan more than a couple of days ahead – will it be okay to put plants outdoors in the cold frame in late February, as people did last year? Who knows?
What is clear is that at least the chilly snap has done its job in breaking up the soil and if the rain (which fell in buckets earlier in the week) can just hold off for a few days more, folk might actually be able to get out there and dig over the soil for the spring – if it ever comes.
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