National Trust Allotment anyone?

Well the news this weekend is that the great and the good are being asked to turn over some ‘spare’ land to help families grow fruit and veg. Tim Smit, founder of the Eden project, has thrown his support behind the scheme which has a twofold focus of improving health and cutting carbon emissions from food imports.

Forgive me if I sound just a bit jaundiced about this. The National Trust is ‘donating’ 1,000 plots of its own land. 1,000 plots. Right.

We’ve got over 300 plots on our allotment site alone. Our waiting list is about four years long, even with us dividing standard plots in two. 1,000 plots. That’s not even a drop in the ocean – it’s paltry. Nice word, paltry. I should use it more often.

Those nice folks at British Waterways, who manage the UK canal network, are also giving some land (funnily enough they are also giving allotment land to the 2012 allotment creation initiative being run by London Mayor, Boris Johnson, hope it’s not the same plots being counted twice) and even turning some barges into floating gardens apparently, and Tesco, B&Q and Suttons are giving free plants and seeds.

But back to the National Trust – it’s created plots at 40 of its sites, which will become available over the next three years via the campaign’s website, Eat Seasonably

Now I've got the hang of this - 40 plots over three years is 13 plots a year, so we should have all 1,000 by ...2085. Hurrah!

The website will also have “veg doctors” drawn from the 390,000 members of the Royal Horticultural Society and Garden Organic who will give advice to the plot holders: that should be fun, giving 39 experts per NT plot – nobody should be short of advice then, even if they’re a bit short of places to put it into action. And for folk unable to obtain proper allotments (ie most of the population) those experts will be able to help you turn window sills, terraces or urns into vegetable patches. Urns. Sounds like we’re expected to invade the local funeral director’s office and fill his memorial pots with sunflower seeds.

In other news, our kale is off to a roaring start and it is just possible I got out of bed in a bad mood this morning – normal sunny service will be resumed as soon as I’ve had some toast and honey.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, March 31, 2009 5 Comments

Allotment frosts and fears

So, after we spent the weekend planting out peas (Meteor) and second early potatoes (Charlotte), we had a heavy frost on Sunday night.

The peas on 201, which is fully fenced, are planted against a bit of old wire mesh with metal posts to hold it steady and Himself pegged some horticultural fleece over them in a sort of makeshift tent. I have every confidence that they will be fine. But on 235, where there is no fence to provide even limited frost protection, the peas are being supported by twiggy branches and they don’t have any fleece over them. I have every expectation that they will have been blighted by air frost, but I’m hoping I might just be able to nip out the blackened tips and they’ll get back on course.

The broad beans on 235 have been overwintered – they were protected by old double-glazing panels supported on bricks until about a week ago when they got too tall and were pressing their heads against the glass. I know that if they’ve been frost-blighted, they should come back if I take out the tops, which we’d probably do anyway, given that broad bean tops attract blackfly like nobody’s business. The second sowing of broad beans is still in the cold frame at 201, so they should be fine.

The good news, as far as I am concerned, is that I prevented Himself watering the onion sets on 201 on Sunday afternoon – onions don’t need a vast amount of water, and had they been given a good soak, they would probably have lifted from the ground on the frost and could have been wiped out. Of course, all this is speculation until I get up there, this afternoon, to see what the actual damage is.

Our latest frost date is, as far as I can discover, 18 April, so there are plenty more frightening nights ahead. Some plants, like the Japanese quince hedge in the photograph, have a special enzyme that protects them from frost damage: snowdrops have it too, which is why they don't blacken when they are blanketed in snow. I could wish that some clever boffin would hybridise it into spring vegetables ...

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, March 30, 2009 0 Comments

Growing brassicas from seed

It seems utterly ridiculous to be sowing brassicas now, but they are crops that need a very long growing season so getting them off to a start now is important. We’ve got seeds of red Brussels sprouts, green Brussels sprouts, Ragged Jack kale, standard kale and winter cabbage so we hope that next winter we'll have a harvest like this one…

All brassicas give of their best in a partially-shaded spot with fertile, free-draining soil – but we also find they need extremely firm roots – especially Brussels sprouts, because if they start to rock in the winter winds, they don’t do at all well!

1. Brassica seedlings germinate in eight to ten days but won’t be ready for transplanting for six to eight weeks so there’s still time to get the ground ready by raking over the surface and adding a general-purpose fertiliser. We then walk all over the soil to trample out air pockets and really firm the surface. For the last seven to ten days you need to harden off greenhouse raised seedlings and get them used to the ‘real’ weather conditions.
2. Transplanting is a bit of a bugger because you need to water the seedlings and then lift them very carefully, keeping as much soil as possible around the roots – that’s why a lot of people try to sow single seeds in modules so they can be removed easily.
3. All brassicas need to be water again after planting and kept well watered while they get established. Hand weeding is best as hoeing can disturb the roots and lead to the wind rock that makes the plants less productive.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, March 25, 2009 5 Comments

Allotment Problems

Well, maybe they are problems and maybe they aren’t – one is already solved anyway and the others may just be dilemmas.

1 – the case of the leaking kettle

"There once was a fine Kelly kettle
Whose owners would boast of its mettle
When a leak it appeared
Their joy disappeared
For their kettle no longer had fettle."

But the Kelly kettle company are wonderful people and they sent me a new storm kettle to replace the old one. How’s that for problem solving! It's nice to have a proper cup of tea up on the site again.

2 – the bees, the bees!

We were due a visit by a beekeeper next Sunday, to talk about setting up a hive on one of the plots. Since I put the article in the newsletter, half a dozen people have asked to have their plots considered for bee-housing. However the beekeeper turned up a week early and said he couldn’t undertake to put a hive on the allotment for a variety of sensible reasons including the fact that he’s going to be away for a lot of the summer. So we have two alternatives:

A – set up a bee cooperative amongst ourselves
B – find another beekeeper

In the midst of all this it turns out that an allotment holder has bee allergy and could go into anaphylactic shock and die if stung. Now that could happen as easily with a bumble bee as a hive bee, and he carries adrenaline, and now that we know at least … well, we know, because before yesterday, we wouldn’t have had a clue that the problem might be allergy rather than say a heart attack.

But what should we do now? Should the risk to him outweigh the benefit to over 300 allotment holders who should get better pollination of crops via the bees? If not, should we set up a cooperative and take on the responsibility of apiculture ourselves or find another beekeeper who might at least start us off? I admit to mixed feelings. I know that I already have enough to do as secretary, but if anything goes wrong and I’m part of the cooperative I shall be the one person that everybody knows how to get hold of, which means that I’ll be the one out all hours if there are panics and problems. Also I worry about the idea of having a hive when one person, at least, will be made unhappy and apprehensive about it. Suppose we drove him to give up his allotment – that would be horrible, irresponsible and against the ethos of everything we’re doing. Ugh. Any advice anyone?

3 – The water, the water!

Our mains water won’t be turned back on until April. The storage tanks along each row are virtually dry. Our water butt is less than a third full. The seedlings need water! What are folk to do if it doesn’t rain?

A – transport water to the site – which is expensive, hard work and environmentally damaging.
B – let their crops die as seedling plants – which is expensive, heart-breaking and silly.
C – badger the council to turn on the water – which could backfire because the council don’t like to be badgered and the rules say Easter. We ask them to stick to other rules so it seems odd to now start demanding that they break some, and it makes us seem inconsistent.
D – pray or dance or whatever (depending on belief system) for rain.

Ideas welcomed on this one too.

And we've made, painted and installed the last of our raised beds - this picture is pre-installation because by the time we'd finished I was too exhausted to go and find the camera again.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, March 23, 2009 2 Comments

Allotment Seedlings

Planting and growing has begun! We have three trays of Meteor pea seedlings waiting to go in, but they’ll need some kind of cover or they will simply rot in the ground and the greenhouse is burgeoning (isn’t that a great word?) with leeks, both Babbington and annual, broad beans, alpine strawberries and sweet peas.

We’ve put out our first early potatoes – some went into tyre stacks three weeks ago, but the rest of the first earlies went out last weekend. The first early carrot is showing in the raised bed that is covered with horticultural fleece, and the currants are all budding beautifully. At least two of the transplanted raspberries have started to bud too – mind you, that means that at least twelve haven’t budded yet. I gave them some potash, to try and encourage them.

I put potash around the strawberries too and dug out some more free-ranging raspberries – I don’t know why I bother mentioning it, I’m going to be saying ‘I dug out some more raspberries’ for the next five years at least. These were in the spot where I want to plant sweetcorn.

But still I’m panicking about getting seeds started – why does everything have to start off at once? Himself has been busy thinking about runner bean supports and also a brassica cage, because the horrible, awful, nasty pigeons are dead keen on picking purple sprouting, calabrese and even kale, and strewing the remnants on the ground. So a cage to keep them off seems like a good investment.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, March 18, 2009 0 Comments

Spring Cleaning the Allotment

Well, not really spring cleaning, but trying to get it looking organised and tidy – if you take photos from just the right angle, so that you miss out the huge top area of rough scrub, thistles and dock, it almost looks as if our plot is going great guns.

Stand in the wrong place, of course, and you can see the heap of rubbish still waiting to be collected by the council, the mouldering heap of compost, threaded with bindweed and nettles, that we’re trying to level, and the mound of holly branches, old pallets and general tat that isn’t going to be collected by the council, or be of any use to us, but is too green or wet to be burnt in the incinerator. Oh well!

So we put up some bunting around the raspberry canes, just because we could, and set a couple more raised beds in place, so that even though there’s nothing in most of them, it looks as if we’re productive - six beds down so far (does that make me sound like Henry VIII or something?). Then, hurrah! The council lorry turned up without warning (as it always does) and dropped off a huge load of wood mulch made from Christmas trees. So now, between our raised beds, we have a lovely fragrant carpet of pine chippings. And because John and Anita on the plot next to hours wanted some chippings too, I was busy with my barrow, wheeling heaps of chippings around the site. Quite the little paragon.

It was committee meeting weekend too, so I’ve been busy typing minutes and drafting letters – it’s a funny thing, but when I took on an allotment I had this mad idea that it would involve LESS sitting at the computer, not more …

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Saturday, March 14, 2009 4 Comments

Allotment Asparagus – first make your asparagus bed …

So we’ve got some asparagus and now it needs a home. It’s a long term business, is asparagus. Forget your cut and come again crops, your sow and forget ‘em beans and carrots, asparagus are prima donna types, but to be fair, they produce for 10-20 years once established and are a wonderfully healthy crop, high in B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, and iron as well as being as tasty as it is possible for anything to be and still be legal.

Asparagus thrives in full sun and prefers a light, well-drained soil. It will not tolerate competition; so prepare the planting area carefully and keep it mulched after planting. Asparagus is a heavy feeder so stonking great applications of compost will provide the necessary nutrients. A garden bed should be at least four feet wide and as long as necessary and you should dig the soil down for at least a foot. We’re planting up a three foot by four foot raised bed, which is not a huge space for asparagus, but I’m going to make a mini trench alongside the west facing fence to take the ‘overflow’ crowns, so they won’t be wasted, they just won’t get such perfect conditions.

We dug the surface last weekend, so this weekend I shall be forking in around three inches of a mixture of mushroom compost and well-rotted horse manure. The hope is that by the time we’re ready to plant out the seedlings – say around late April, the ‘ingredients’ will have blended nicely. Then, usually, you dig trenches of at least ten inches deep and ten wide, about two and a half feet apart. We shall be staggering our seedlings in the bed, rather than trenching them, as we’d only get about three plants if we used the traditional method!

Anyway, the whole trenching thing is just designed to help the plants grow, so we can do that in a raised bed by adding soil to the bed as a whole. The classic style is to add two inches compost to the bottom of the trench, then an inch of soil to stop the organic material scorching the asparagus.

Then you put the asparagus on this mound of goodness, and if you’re trench planting, you set them 15 to 18 inches apart. Put a couple of inches of soil over the plants, and water. When the first spears appear, fill in around them until the trench is level with the soil surface, without covering the asparagus foliage. Once you reach that level, you should mulch the plants with a good layer of compost or some other organic material and make sure you weed well, you don't want the kind of weed undergrowth you can see in this picture, for example!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, March 12, 2009 1 Comments

Celeriac, cold frames and peas

I’m very worried about our celeriac seedlings – they are, not to be too polite about it – scrawny. Soilman said on his blog that these were difficult creatures to grow, but really I think all ours are going to give up the ghost. The only thing to do is try and give them enough light (without too much heat) and see if they pull through, but I shall be starting off another tray of seeds this weekend, to see if we can’t get a later germinating bunch to still produce tubers by harvest time.

On the other hand, the peas are great – they’ve got to go in the ground this weekend because the second crop we set to germinate last week are already appearing. We can put peas on both 235 and 201 so we stand a good chance of getting a big harvest and as we and Dunk all like peas, I don’t think there will be complaints about overstocking! They freeze well too.

The cold frame on 201 looked ridiculously big when we took over the plot in October last year, this week it’s half full and starting to look worringly small …

You can see rhubarb potted up to share with other allotment holders, wallflowers, those sturdy peas I mentioned earlier, blackcurrant and redcurrant cuttings taking root, the asparagus seedlings I came back with last week and a globe artichoke that seems to be deceased but might still surprise us by putting out some growth. A good haul, I think.

And today's task, after committee meeting, will have to be planting out our first early potatoes - watch this space!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Saturday, March 7, 2009 1 Comments

Rhubarb facts, myths and a recipe

Rhubarb is the monster in the garden. It grows as fast as Jack’s beanstalk and is supposedly poisonous. Served as part of school dinners it occasioned grimaces and fake spewing up in the lunch-line when the whisper went back ‘It’s rhubarb and custard for afters’ and it’s the name of a cartoon dog remembered fondly by people of a certain age.

Rhubarb is delicious, but the leaves are poisonous so you shouldn’t be eating them or feeding them to livestock. It is safe to compost them, but if you’re canny, you’ll tear them up a bit to ensure they biodegrade thoroughly. Rhubarb poisoning symptoms include: burning mouth and throat, breathing difficulties, eye pain, stomach ache and nausea, vomiting, coma and seizures – scary or what?

And don’t eat raw rhubarb stalks (as if you would) because although it won’t kill you, it will make you feel wretched.

But rhubarb is also delicious, easy to grow and keeps rabbits out of the plot if you plant it around the edge. And if you make it into a meringue, your family will love you to bits.

Rhubarb Cloud

1 kilo rhubarb
4 tablespoons light brown sugar
3 egg whites
180 grams castor sugar
A small piece of grated fresh ginger, or half a teaspoon of powdered ginger

Preheat oven to 220°c. Cut the rhubarb into thumb-length chunks and then mix it with the brown sugar. Put the mixture in a lightly buttered ovenproof dish and cook for around thirty minutes until it has softened and is giving up its juices.

Put the rhubarb aside while you let the oven cool to 180°c. Beat the egg whites until stiff and as they reach the peaking stage, add the castor sugar in a couple of stages and ginger. Now spread this over the rhubarb and bake for twenty minutes until it has a golden tinge. Serve at once.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, March 4, 2009 7 Comments

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