The ugly side of allotment life
Holes in potato tubers! And not just holes, but holes still inhabited by ‘the usual suspects’. I knew should have got these potatoes out of the ground and here’s the ugly evidence: keeled slugs making merry in my crops!
Actually holes in spuds can be caused by several pests, including wire-worms which have an interesting life-cycle: four years eating your potatoes and only three weeks as a click beetle, but it’s usually slugs. Often you’ll spot small round holes in the skin, but bigger excavations inside the tubers. Keeled slugs live and feed mainly in the soil seeking out decaying organic matter as well as living plant material. Damage to potato tubers takes place from late summer to autumn. Because the damaged spuds will get secondary rots, mildews and infections you should throw them out.
• Limit slug damage by lifting potatoes once the tubers have matured (guess who left it too late?)
• Pick varieties that slugs aren’t so keen on such as 'Pentland Dell', 'Wilja', 'Charlotte', 'Golden Wonder', 'Estima', 'Sante'
Use nematodes like Phasmarhabditis hermaphrodita, which is watered onto the soil in the evening after the potatoes have begun growth but before the top growth is too dense to allow access between the rows. Wish we'd thought of this in the summer ...
• Once you know you’ve got keeled slugs in your potatoes, get them out of the ground asap. You can put undamaged potatoes in a clamp and preserve both their keeping qualities and their lovely fresh taste
• Rotate your crop next year.
What does your allotment say about you? I’m fascinated by other people’s plots and the way they reveal personalities.
On our site we have quite a few very orderly allotments, everything measured with a ruler (and sometimes, it looks like the plants have been subjected to a spirit level as well, they are so perfectly level), everything in its place, neat, tidy, productive and organized.
And we have many higgledy piggledy plots, with haphazard fences and twisty paths, odd-shaped beds and weird little bits and pieces of furniture, sculpture and other idiosyncrasies. Angela has a rustic swing on hers, our next door neighbour has a porch that sags in the middle so it looks like a boat hung up on the front of his shed, and there’s a wonderful allotment on one end of one of the rows that has a chessboard area planted with lettuces and herbs and two topiary ‘kings’. And there are lots like this one, with an exuberance of things that aren’t quite crops but probably couldn’t be called flowerbeds. A sort of compromise between utility and beauty.
Ours falls somewhere between the two extremes. Our beds are straight(ish) but our paths definitely meander. Our fence is level but probably won’t end up being straight because we’ve only put up half of it and already we can see that it would be a lot easier to go round a couple of old tree roots than dig them out. I suppose that anybody looking at our plot would say that we have good intentions but get derailed quite easily, and that’s probably true of our lifestyle in general! I wonder whether any researcher has ever investigated the way that our allotments match up to our personality types – it would be a fascinating project.
Companion planting - is it rubbish or is there something to it?
Here's a list of the things I've been told to plant together or seen planted together:
• French marigolds in between tomato plants
• Carrots and leeks together because they have strong scents that drive away each other's pests
• Nasturtiums with cabbages because the nasturtium leaves are apparently more popular with caterpillars than cabbage leaves (I'd love this to be true!)
• Garlic planted among roses to ward off aphids
You see, I'm about to order my seeds for next year, and I was wondering about all this - I can bring home some garlic to put in around my roses, and I can harvest nasturtium seeds from any of my neighbouring allotments, so should I get some French Marigold seeds and try the experiment? Or is it complete tosh?
Saving seeds – tomato harvesting
Showing off a bit here – those tiny specks are the tomato seeds I’ve saved for next year’s harvest, ranged in the middle of some of this year’s harvest: a courge (the French for overgrown courgette), a squash, a calabrese and a tiny weeny cucumber.
The two sets of tomato seeds are vine tomatoes from our own plant and a black tomato that Sue gave to us. In the wild, tomato fruit falls from the parent plant and decomposes on the ground – during this process the gelatinous fluid that surrounds the individual seeds is broken down. Apparently to harvest tomato seeds yourself you need to duplicate this, not only to remove the gel but to kill off any seed borne tomato diseases that are usually destroyed by the decomposition process.
So you have to squeeze the tomato seeds into a jar or glass filled with cold water and put it in good light to ferment for up to ten days, during which time the water will smell horrible and will go clouded, then scoop the gunk off the top, taking any rotten seeds with it, and pour the rest into a fine sieve, stirring gently under running cold water until only clean seeds remain. Then you spread out the seeds to dry, making sure they don’t touch each other – this can take up to 12 days, less if you put them in sun. The dried seeds can then be put into a labelled envelope and kept in a cool dry place for the following year. This is the first time I’ve done it, so my fingers are crossed!
The celery tasting report
Okay, I’m having to admit a bit a failure here. The celery was a rather a bust. I think I need to do a lot more research into what you need to do to grow good celery!
The thing is, it has a fantastic flavour, but it’s very fibrous – even the blanched version. I suspect our mistake may have been not enough watering to boost the water-holding cells in the plant or possibly too much wind-chill (leaves get tougher when exposed to windy conditions so I think celery stems might too) but the good news is that the root (which in certain varieties is all the plant is grown for, at which point it gets called celeriac) takes absolutely wonderful!
So although the blanched stems are yellower and softer than the unblanched ones, they still haven’t produced the kind of celery you’d happily munch on with a slab of double Gloucester. On the other hand, they do make a great braised celery …
BRAISED CELERY RECIPE
Chop some onions and carrots into a pan and add enough vegetable stock to half-cover the vegetables. Bring to the boil and transfer to a slow cooker. Wash the celery and cut into manageable lengths (assume the person eating it will want to cut each piece in half to get it onto their mouth!) and place the celery on top of the veggies. Baste some of the stock over the celery. Cook on low for between 3 and 5 hours or until the celery is very tender, basting with the stock from time to time. Remove the celery from the pan with a perforated spoon and place in a serving dish. Drain the cooking liquid into a small pan and add 1 teaspoon of cooking wine then boil until it is reduced to a thin glaze and pour over the celery
There’s a debate that is held over allotment fences and in sheds, usually amiable but sometimes rather heated – it’s about what it’s ‘worth’ growing. Is it worth growing potatoes? Is it worth growing carrots? Is it worth growing onions?
The argument on the one hand is that these staple crops can be so cheap to buy that once you factor in all your costs, it may be more expensive to grow them. Those costs aren’t just the seed you buy and the allotment rental, but also the hours you put into cultivating the crop, any fertilizer or pesticide you have to buy to keep your crop safe from predators and pests, any tools or supplies you need to purchase to tend and harvest your crop, the cost of transport, the cost of cleaning your crop and the cost of storing it.
On the other hand, the argument that most of us would make is that flavour and provenance are all important. Not only does home-grown food taste so much better, the grower has confidence that no unpleasant pesticides or herbicides have been applied and that the crop hasn’t been in cold storage for months, or washed in chlorine solution, or treated with a retardant to stop it ripening …
And home-grown carrots are lovely, because you can lift them when the are small and sweet and dense with flavour, and they are as sweet as a fruit. No need to cook them, just wash and eat!
What’s your favourite value-added crop?
This is what everything at our allotment looked like, and felt like, today – covered in fat drops of rain that make fruit slip from your fingers as you tried to pick it, dropped on your head and neck at unexpected moments when you were digging, or made the grass slippery underfoot so that as you carried tools and pallets and posts to and fro. Not a great deal of fun, to be honest.
But it had to be done, because next Sunday – come hell or high water (and high water looks considerably more likely!) we are going to put up El Shed! Yes, the partly-painted shed is to be in place by the end of next weekend, and that’s that.
So today we had to get a couple of things done, to whit: clearing out some slimy old lettuce to make room for the overwintering onions (so far we have the onion seeds but not the sets or the two kinds of garlic - hard neck and soft neck) and banging in some pallets along the side of the allotment where the prevailing wind whistles across with Siberian bitterness. Duncan busied himself with digging over the ground where the shed will stand, and I did a soil pH test which confirmed what we already knew – our soil is neutral!
As I said many months ago, Maurice was kind enough to give us some celery seedlings when we first got our plot, but he didn’t know if they were self-blanching or not. As a result, after I planted them, I didn’t know if I needed to blanch them or not!
I only lost one of the nine, to slugs, so I was left with eight quite vigorous celery plants and a decision to make. To blanch or not to blanch? I decided to hedge my bets and blanch three. Unblanched celery has a deeper green colour and a stronger flavour than blanched celery, and it's higher in vitamins and minerals, but a lot of people prefer the taste of blanched celery which is softer and sweeter. There are a number of ways to blanch – you can rest boards along each side of the row to block the light: which is easy but can lead to slug infestation and we have far too many slugs to take the risk. Or you can raise up soil or mulch around the plant to block out the sun: I didn’t fancy this, as I was sure it would make the stalks difficult to clean – I remember my mum complaining about having to scrub celery when I was a kiddie - and also there’s a risk of rotting when plants are blanched with soil.
So I went with the easiest option: cutting the tops and bottoms off plastic bottles and cartons and using them as collars. I cover three plants about a week ago and apparently after a week to 10 days the stalks will lighten because the compression of the collar has excluded the sun from all the inner layers, and their flavour will become milder. So I shall go up before the weekend and do a comparison …
Three days, two pairs of hands, one strawberry bed!
On Friday we had a day off and went to the allotment. Sue of the glorious tomatoes gave us a tray of strawberry runners and the idea was born – build a strawberry bed. First we chose a place in full sun, then we made the frame from decking.
On Saturday we dug out the turf under it. Then we filled it with a mixture of soil and well rotted compost.
On Sunday we planted our strawberries!
It's amazing what you can achieve in a weekend ... if you don't mind a few blisters!
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- Allotment horror story
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