Allotments don’t stop in winter

Forcing its way through snow, this broad bean seems determined to prove it’s winter hardy (I certainly hope so, as there’s not much we can do to help it now) which is more than I was, with water leaking through my boots which had unexpectedly sprung a leak, harvesting Brussels sprouts with frozen fingers, and trying to dig up leeks from a perma-frost of definite Siberian proportions.

Okay, I exaggerate a little. But it was a very long cold snap for Sussex, which has little or no dealings with snow that lays – usually it melts within a couple of hours. One thing it did reveal, for all the things it hid, was that our fox, or foxes, are very much creatures of habit.

We walked quite a bit of the site, making sure there weren’t any burst pipes which were waiting to spew out water as soon as the thaw arrived and one the 60 plots we passed, we found the same story – one set of fox prints, going straight down the main path, veering off to investigate any items of interest (usually compost bins!) and then returning the same way. It was a fascinating insight into the life of the allotments after dark, and the regular patrols that the foxes must make of their territory.

Sunday’s harvest: two parsnips, two leeks (planted in open ground, very hard to dig, compared to those planted in the raised bed which hadn’t frozen below the surface of the snow) Brussels sprouts and a Brussels top from a denuded stem (I shall stir fry the top leaves, they’re delicious and shouldn’t be wasted), one celeriac.

And with that sackful of provisions, I wish you all a happy Christmas and a productive and profoundly germinating New Year!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, December 21, 2009 2 Comments

Allotment work indoors

One of the things about allotment life that amazes me is how much ‘stuff’ goes on behind the scenes and is known to only a few. I’m not talking about arcane practices with comfrey or potting compost, but the vast amount of hard work done by allotment committees up and down the land.

I had a taste of it myself this week, spending a couple of hours ‘bagging up’ in our allotment shop. We take orders from our allotment-holders for a wide range of potatoes, onions and shallots, and when the orders arrive in HUGE bags and sacks, we then weigh out the orders we’ve received and pack them individually in (environmentally friendly) paper bags. People can then come in and collect their orders from the shop and get on with chitting their potatoes and planting their shallots, confident that they’ve only had to order what they can use, and that we’ve cast our eyes over each 25 kilo sack and rejected any that didn’t come up to the mark.

If you’ve ever had a seed or plant order arrive rotten, or dried up, or damaged, then you know how annoying it can be, not least because a lot of the time the company has sold out of your preferred variety and you have to take a substitute or a refund – neither of which is palatable when you’d hoped to have your first choice of veggies. And with spuds in particular, people have strong preferences and it can be very difficult to find new supplies of chitting potatoes if you’re let down, so you end up with something you don’t like nearly as much, just to get potatoes into the ground for the summer. So we safeguard our allotment-holders by ordering in bulk to get the best quality at the best price.

If you’re an allotment-holder with an allotment shop, spare a thought for the people who try and make sure you’ve got everything you need to make your plot productive: it’s a real labour of love!

PS in case you were wondering, that's Len, not me, I haven't been misleading you about my gender, I promise!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Friday, December 18, 2009 3 Comments

Allotment structures

It’s too wet to dig, and almost (but not quite) too wet to have a bonfire. So what did we spend Sunday doing? Apart from nursing the bonfire that we’ve been ‘saving’ up rubbish for all year (and by rubbish I mean brambles, old wood, bits of rotten fence etc, not plastics or green waste) we decided to put up the ‘rustic’ arch that has been kicking around the site all year. And I use the term kicking advisedly – I don’t think there’s been a single week where one or the other of us hasn’t tripped over the thing or kicked it on our way around the plot.

It’s a pair of old shop fittings that we rescued from a skip, which we’ve now sunk on either side of the path. The intention is to put some wire netting over the top to form the arch shape – as it took us a year to get the side supports into the ground, maybe, by Christmas 2010, we’ll have the top bit in place too!

And as we stood around, poking bits of old wood into the fire, I pondered a recent discovery, announced in the Linnean Society’s Botanical Journal, which suggests that petunias and potatoes may actually be carnivorous plants.

Yes, that’s right. Petunias and potatoes, it seems, have sticky hairs that trap insects, and they, along with several other commonly grown plants may turn out to be crypto-carnivores, by absorbing through their roots the breakdown products of the animals that they ensnare. We haven’t classified them as carnivores in the past, because unlike the Venus Flytrap, for example, they don’t actively demonstrate their ability to digest their prey. But roots easily absorb nutrients released from decaying animal matter, such as bodies, nearly all plants are capable of carnivorous behaviour by accident, if not by design. Hmm. The humble spud a carnivore … doesn’t seem that likely, but if you told me that pumpkins were man-eaters, I’d believe you, they grow fast enough to catch a slow-moving target!

This week's haul: Brussels Sprouts, kale, parsnips, celeriac, swede and the very first purple sprouting broccoli!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, December 15, 2009 3 Comments

Crops in focus: brassicas

Which are what most people are harvesting now. I still have exactly one floret of purple sprouting broccoli, so I hope the rest hurries up a bit. First to clarify a confusion: broccoli is an over-wintered crop but calabrese produces its crop the same year, before the winter. Both are brassicas as are cabbage, kale and cauliflower - and they are all part of the mustard family, oddly enough.

The ideal brassica bed needs both nitrogen and humus so the addition of manure in autumn will accomplish both. Dig over the soil and then add a barrow load of manure per square metre to the land. Leave the manure over the winter to give the worms a chance to take some down into the soil. But because adding the manure will have had the effect of making the soil more acid and because brassicas don’t like acidity, it’s best to test pH to measure the acidity and add the appropriate amount of lime to take the level up to 7.0.

Seeds are usually sown in spring, planted out in early summer to give a crop the following February/March through to May. There are early, mid-season and late varieties if you want a long harvest. Wind rock can damage the plants, especially through the winter, so try to find a sheltered site, earthing up around the stems for several inches keeps the plant stable and you may want to stake the tallest varieties – we certainly do!

You’ll also want to keep them netted, pigeons will go for the young plants especially in winter when other food is scarce. Broccoli is a slow-growing crop and it may benefit from a liquid feed, high in nitrogen, in the spring as the heads begin to form.

All brassicas are at risk of clubroot, caused by a soil borne organism which produces cysts which lurk in the soil until a suitable host is available to infect, starting the cycle again. The cysts can live for 8 or 9 years. Even worse, it is easily spread. The first sign is a wilting of plants, especially in dry weather. The roots have swellings and look knobbly. If you have a clubroot problem - start your brassicas off in modules using sterile compost to which you’ve added a small amount of lime – keep potting on until they reach 5 inch pots. Clubroot thrives best in acid wet soils so ensure your brassica bed is well dug with grit or other material to allow free drainage and take the pH up to 7.5 or even as high as 8.5 by adding lime Before planting, dig a hole at least 30cm deep and wide which you dust with lime to whiten the soil in the hole. Fill the hole with bought in multi-purpose compost and then plant your brassica in this. And burn your brassica plants when you’ve harvested, so you don’t return any clubroot to the soil.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, December 8, 2009 3 Comments

December allotment tasks

Okay, in lieu of what we are doing, shall I tell you about what we should be doing?

• Scrubbing out the cold frame which had our cucumbers in it. Okay, honesty is called for. The cold frame that still has our (deceased) cucumber plants in it! The glass needs washing down with hot soapy water and then all the gremlins like moss and algae need to be scraped off with a palette knife.
Fence repairs – we’ve never actually got around to replacing the fence at the front of the plot, where it joins the ‘road’ and I suspect we never will now, but the fence panel (half pallet) nearest the gate has rotted through its support and needs replacing. We should really give it all another coat of wood preservative too, as I suspect the preservative is the only thing holding most of the fence together!
• I ought to be earthing up my kale and Brussels sprouts too.
• I’ve already mulched my rhubarb and globe artichokes but I notice that the Guardian allotment blog also advises putting straw or bracken around globe artichoke crowns, so I am relaxed about my own plant-to-plant mulching system and actually think I might be able to teach their blogger a trick!

And why am I not doing any of this? Because it’s still raining …

PS - isn't this the BEST scarecrow ever?

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Friday, December 4, 2009 0 Comments

Allotment – first frost

We had our first frost last night, and it had to happen after a full day of rain, didn’t it?

So I zoomed up to the plot today, to see what, if any, damage had been done. All our broad bean seedlings seem to have survived, but just to be on the safe side, I’ve covered as many as possible with bottle cloches. These are the same clear plastic bottles that we use in summer, narrow end down, as watering funnels to the roots of thirsty plants (so we don’t have to water the soil, meaning the weeds get no benefit) and are then inverted to cover tender plants, wide end down.

Rather wonderfully, several of the beans were too big to fit inside even a BIG bottle, so I just have to hope they will cope on their own. And un-wonderfully, I discovered that our brilliant broad bean supports have one major problem – we’ve put side supports in to strengthen the whole six row system and that means you can’t actually walk between the rows … so those side supports are going to have to come down when we harvest, if not before!

I’m glad that at the weekend I found time to cut down and mulch my globe artichokes, I know that not everybody does this and somebody asked for pictures last year, so here’s one.

Why do I do it? Well, partly because somebody who was a great gardener taught me to, years ago, and I’ve always carried on, and partly because there are two reasons that I think it could be useful – the first is that rain does fill up the gaps between the stems on globe artichoke leaves and that can cause them to rot in the winter, and the second is that their fleshy leaves do easily get damaged by frost, so cutting the outer leaves off and using them to cover the inner leaves and base of the plant, to keep out both rain and frost, seems sensible.

Now I’m worrying is that nobody else does this at all – although perhaps I shouldn’t worry as I do know that my artichokes are the envy of my neighbours.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, December 1, 2009 3 Comments

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