What’s coming up on the allotment?
Garlic – yes, even the stuff that went in this spring is showing beautifully. It’s something of an annoyance to me that Maurice grows better garlic than I ever have, although not because of Maurice – he’s very generous about sharing his produce and his garlic is just wonderful: strong but sweet, full of flavour and not fibrous. The reason I get so annoyed is that I grew up on the Isle of Wight, the home of UK garlic production, and a place that actually has a Garlic Queen every year (go figure!) and so surely I ought to be able to grow it really well? My garlic is okay but I think Maurice’s soil is better than mine, or something.
One problem is that, as you can see in the picture, garlic casts no shade and so it gets swallowed up very fast by weeds because it doesn’t shade its own roots to keep them clear of lower weed growth. The RHS recommends growing it through opaque mulching film but Maurice doesn’t, so neither do I.
On the plus side, it doesn’t need watering and only suffers from virtually not problems. A lot of people don’t realise you can cut the green leaves to use in a salad (or on top of a hearty omelette, very tasty!) but really you get the joy when the leaves turn yellow and you lift the bulbs, carefully, with a hand fork, before laying them out to dry in an airy place, ensuring no bulb touches another. Once they begin to make that rustling sound you can move them to a ventilated container or plait the stems and hang the plait in an airy but not too warm place.
Hmmm. There’s a huge amount of this going on – and if you take over a new plot, I can bet that it’s about a 50/50 chance that you’ll find your new ‘green’ space has become a municipal dump.
The culprits may be:
1. fly-tippers who get onto allotment sites when gates are left open and dump car boot loads of rubbish on untenanted plots or along paths
2. the dear old general public, who wander along public rights of way, dropping (accidentally) rubbish or depositing (deliberately) old fridges and mattresses
3. your fellow allotmenteers – especially where bonfires are not allowed, some folk develop the habit of using unused plots as rubbish dumps.
What can you do?
• Check the allotment rules and bye-laws – the council may have to clear the rubbish for you
• Talk to your allotment association – many organise skips a couple of times a year so that plot holders can get rid of this kind of rubbish
• Call the council if you suspect flytippers – they can launch prosecutions if they identify the culprits
And if all else fails
Buy a crate of beer and a couple of disposable barbecues along with some sausages and salads and invite your mates up to the plot to help you shift the rubbish with a Barbie and beer reward … but only when all the litter is gone!
Allotment problems – dealing with the plot
And the plot may thicken, or flood, or have a lovely topsoil of hardcore and old asbestos tiles or be a kind of allotment thoroughfare over which everybody drives or walks, or it could turn out that the previous plotholder has grown a wonderful crop of onion rot, potato blight and carrot fly for many years!
It’s not easy to turn down a plot, especially if you’ve been on a waiting list for years and years, but what can you do if your heart sinks when you see the patch that’s up for offer? You might think there’s nothing to be done, but actually there’s quite a lot and over the next couple of weeks I’m going to devote some time to exploring how you can improve your plot offer, or negotiate it into something a little more like a vegetable des res.
This week – flooding plots!
These come in two types – the kind where the whole site floods and the kind where only your allotment and those nearby flood. If it’s the former, check the byelaws – allotment land is supposed to be ‘fit for purpose’ and if it floods every year your allotment association may be able to mount a complaint that leads to new land being assigned – that’s a long term process though.
If it’s only your plot and that of a few neighbours:
Get together to lay ground drainage and dig ponds – short lengths of pipe can be dug into the ground wherever there’s a slope so that they run the water off downhill and at the lowest point of the plot (hint, it’s where the most water gathers!) a pond will take most of the water off your land fast. A nice deep pond can be used for hand-watering in summer and if nothing else, you can enjoy growing waterlilies.
Lift solid paving – it’s amazing how much rain runoff happens because people have laid concrete, tarmac or paving slabs. Normally water takes 4 – 6 hours to soak the soil to subsoil level, at which point it is saturated and will start to flood – so that’s 4 – 6 hours of rain before flooding. But runoff happens within three or four minutes of rain falling on a non-porous surface, so if you calculate the area of paving slabs or solid paths you have, that much of your plot will start to flood after about five minutes – scary isn’t it? Of course that water will still soak into the soil, but it’s got up some speed by then and will tend to coast over the soil surface, eroding your topsoil and running as fast as it can towards the lowest point, where raindrops tend to hit and stick, and require a lot of water to fall fast to become runoff.
Raise your beds – even a few inches is enough in plots that are just a bit marshy, but up to a foot is necessary in really boggy areas. More than that is probably not going to be cost effective for you, although you might want to go to two feet, if you can afford the wood, the soil to fill them, and know that you’re going to stay on your plot for years to come.
Plant water-hungry plants – many crops are water hungry in summer, not so many in winter, when rain tends to be heaviest, so try to make your corner plants and hedges ones that will take up a lot of water: any bog plants will thrive, willows and elders take up a lot of water from the soil but remember that if your plot actually floods, it may not be safe to eat your produce, depending on where the floodwater has come from …
Allotment spuds and tomatoes
Why mention potatoes and tomatoes in the same sentence? Because they are related! Yes, both are part of the nightshade (solanaceae) family, although you’d never know it to look at their fruits – the potato flower does give some hint of the relationship though.
Not only is it still fine to plant maincrop potatoes (traditionally the cut-off date has been considered to be the middle of April) but if your soil hasn’t warmed up, you may actually get a better crop from putting them in a bit later, as cold soil will check the development of early crops. If you did get them in the ground early and if you planted early potato varieties, don’t forget that you still need to protect the emerging plants from any frosts that might still be on the horizon, as potatoes can be severely damaged by a late frost. The easiest way to do this will small potato plants is to draw a little soil from the edges of the bed over the whole plant it will shove its way through in a few days without any difficulty – larger plants will need a cloche or horticultural fleece cover for the frost-threatening nights, but don’t leave it on in the day. Leave 15 inches between each potato for these later crops, using a generous amount of well rotted garden compost to cover the entire length of the trench before raking the soil back over.
You should also wow tomato seeds about now because they need a little heat to germinate, you can keep them in a heated greenhouse, or on a windowsill or in a bottom heated propagator. Water the compost well, scatter the fine seed over the top and cover thinly with vermiculite or sand. When two sets of 'true' leaves appear, pot them on. Plant them slightly deeper than before so that the baby leaves (scientifically termed the cotyledens) are just sitting on the surface. Keep them on a warm windowsill and turn them every day.
Potato courtesy of baronsquirrel
We have an invasion!
Not bodysnatchers, not even ground elder, simply cats.
I think, without any evidence, that one of the allotment cats has had kittens and now those dear little things are old enough to be out and about and what they’re out and about for is their lovely little kitten deposits which are turning up on several plots round and about. It’s a difficult one, because you need allotment cats or you have allotment mice, and any allotment holder knows that once you get mice, you’ve got problems. But nobody wants cat ‘doings’ in their vegetables, and so you have to find ways to discourage the cat, without harming it, or driving it off your plot entirely.
So what are the options?
There’s the encourage/discourage route: growing catnip and having a bowl of nice clean drinking water in an area of the allotment that’s an acceptable cat toilet as a kind of a carrot, while in areas that you want to exclude the cat from, you can grow mint – the really strong, square stemmed kind, in buckets, and cut it hard back every three or four weeks to keep the odour strong – peppermint and eucalyptus oils are really good cat deterrents so if you get a few offcuts of wood, even just small blocks, and you scatter them around the cat toilet area, with a few drops of peppermint and eucalyptus oil on them, you’ll find your cat problem evaporates – but so does the oil, so you need to keep renewing it or the cat will return!
Then there’s the physical barrier route – if there is a place that the cats are using constantly, cut some brambles or rose suckers and lay them across that spot so the cat would have a prickly toilet! It will soon be discouraged from that particular spot.
Cat courtesy of photogirl17
Cold, chilly and clammy? Plant some cabbages
There aren’t a lot of things that will positively thrive in the kind of weather we’ve had across the UK since April started, but cabbages are extremely hardy members of the brassica family, they are resilient and enjoy cold damp winters, and above all they are capable of withstanding low temperatures which would destroy many other crops, even while they are still at the seedling stage.
Because of all this, cabbages are easiest crops to grow – although getting people to eat them may be a different matter! If your children hate cabbage, they aren’t being difficult on purpose. Some young people have a tastebud receptor that responds to one of the key ingredients of cabbage as though it were rotten eggs (it is in fact a sulphur-based compound and as we all remember from school chemistry, sulphur smells a bit like bad eggs) and the interesting thing is while around 40% of the population have it, most of them find that particular receptor atrophies over time, so by the age of twenty or so, they don’t think cabbage is horrible any more! One way to help them get through this, if you’re determined they should eat their greens is to steam or stir-fry young cabbage, then serve it with toasted sesame oil and sesame nuts which counteracts the flavour. To get rid of the smell, chuck a handful of parsley into a small pan of boiling water and let the steam clear out the cabbagey odour – it really works.
Back to the allotment: any well drained ground suits a cabbage, but if possible dig in a goodly amount of manure several months before sowing and make a series of sowings from mid spring to early summer for successional harvesting.
Cabbages grown outdoors should be transplanted when four or five true cabbage leaves have appeared and they are greedy, so you need to give them plenty of water and plenty of fertiliser during the growing period.
Cabbages courtesy of jmurawksi
Allotment tasks for April
Assuming that you’ve already shovelled away the snow from your paths, that is! Given the unpredictability of the weather, this is possible the time to focus on the work that can be done indoors by giving the bulk of your attention to plants that can be sown now to germinate either in the greenhouse or on a windowsill at home. For me, this means pots of:
And we tend to start off our tomatoes in a little bottom-heated propagator as we grow both the cherry tomatoes and the really big beef tomatoes which are so wonderful as a stuffed vegetable – and those latter get a better start with bottom heat which means we get bigger fruits come harvest time.
Neighbours of ours are daring to sow French beans under cloches outdoors, but I still think they’ve jumped the gun. You can’t sow French beans without some kind of weather protection until all threat of frost is passed, (early or late May, depending on where you live) but they won’t cope well with extremely low temperatures even under a cloche or polytunnel so I think that by waiting a week or two, we’ll get just as good a harvest as they will.
Allotment greenhouse courtesy of Beachcomber1954
April allotment tasks
Here’s a general gardening tip that may help if, like us, you’re pondering when – if ever – it may be possible to plant out some of your more tender crops: peg horticultural fleece over the ground a week or so before you intend to plant. Even such a small rise in soil temperature can make a big difference to the success of the seedlings. Usually, in April, there’s a long list of plants to sow or seedlings to plant out, especially if March has been bitter – and now April is shaping up not to showers but snow flurries, covering the soil may even make the difference between plant survival and failure.
If you are planting out carrots, that horticultural fleece can also serve to protect them from carrot fly – if you bury the edges of the fleece after you’ve covered the seeds, the carrot root fly can’t gain access to lay her eggs alongside the seeds. If she does get in, the eggs hatch and then the grubs dig into the carrots and destroy the crop.
What you might be putting in the ground now is:
• Peas (in mild areas) and broad beans
• Cruciferous plants like Brussels Sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower
• Leafy crops like kale, chard, kohl rabi, spinach
• Salad crops like rocket, lettuce and radish
Allotments courtesy of muggers
April showers, peas and pods
Everybody always tells you that early peas can be sown outside from mid March right through to June, but we had that ‘gardener’s gut feeling’ this year that kept us from early sowing, even though we’re on the south coast. And a good thing too, given that frosts and floods have kept us busy in the last two weeks of March! Now we are starting to sow successionally, and using varieties which are both earlies and maincrops, but specifically that do well in Sussex, as the first couple of years of pea harvest here have us the unhappy experience of ‘empty pod’ which is apparently a problem with some varieties here.
Because pea plants can cast quite a shadow over smaller vegetables, we’ve adopted the clever idea of Bert’s Pyramids – allowing us to have lots of plants in good sun with their shade being cast into the pyramid’s interior! Making pyramids from cane isn’t particularly difficult, much to our surprise.
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- End of month recipe: Caramelised Onions
- Fingering onions
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- Allotment horror story
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- Water, weeds and wintry weather on the allotment
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