New tools for the allotment

Himself has a back problem, as do most tall people, especially those who do a lot of digging! Which is why we’ve invested quite a lot of money in this …

It’s a fork with a spring on it. And if you’re wondering what difference that makes, Himself tells me it makes all the difference in the world. It does have its limitations: you can’t use it to break new ground, for example, it can only be used in already turned soil, and you do have to have a trench dug to start the rest of your digging off, but that apart, Himself is managing to dig large areas of allotment without damaging his back, and all I have to do is dig the first trench that he then sets this special fork into. It’s also a lot faster once you get used to the technique – it’s just about halved his digging time. However, I haven’t mastered the technique necessary to use the clever fork, because somebody still has to dig that initial trench and because 201 is a couple of years away from being classed as an allotment comprised entirely of ‘already turned soil’. If you look away for more than a few minutes our earth compacts itself back into solid clay that needs a pickaxe to break through the crust.

And if you’re wondering how far back this puts us from breaking even on our fruit and veg, let’s just say I could probably have spent six months buying fresh produce in a supermarket for the same price as this clever implement!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, April 29, 2010 2 Comments

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, April 28, 2010 0 Comments

April allotment watering and germinating

Yes, we’re watering already! I can’t believe, given how wet it was in March, how dry it’s been in April.

At home, in the greenhouse, we have peppers (courtesy of Len who germinated the seed and gave us the seedlings) and tomatoes.

Things that have come good in the past couple of days on the allotment:

• the shallots have decided to sprout, after I’d given up on them entirely
• the first earlies are popping out of their earthy mounds like mad things (or possibly like zombie vegetables resurrecting themselves, a scary image I really wish I hadn’t thought of, but it’s too late now, it’s in my head!)
radishes – ready to harvest already!
Parsnips – germinating in their own good time, but appearing (very slowly) on either side of the radishes.

What’s not so great …

• the beetroot seedlings, which are looking a bit spindly to be honest
• the carrots – doing nothing at all, we really struggle to get carrot seed to germinate on 201.

And our purple-sprouting broccoli has started to flower – a bit sad, as it makes the plant bitter and tough and inedible, but it looks pretty!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, April 26, 2010 3 Comments

Allotment - creating our own compost Dalek

The 'old' bin, then the pit dug for the new bin with gravel etc in the bottom (and a layer of wood ash from our bonfires as we didn't have charcoal) and then the new bin in place with its holes drilled in the lid but without its bubble-wrap insulation.

Now we'll see what happens with the kitchen waste we put in it ...

Thanks Andy for all the tips.

Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, April 22, 2010 3 Comments

How to Compost Your Kitchen Waste All Year Round (Part Two)

In my previous post last week I explained how to modify a Dalek compost bin so that it can be used to make compost quickly and all year round. In my final post this week I will be revealing how to use the modified Dalek and how to get the best results from it. I am delighted to hear that allotment 201 is giving it a try.

Having filled the Dalek with soil or old compost up to the start of the insulated portion, kitchen waste materials can now be added. It is ok to include all types of fruit and veg waste including veg peelings, apple cores, banana skins, orange peel, tea bags, coffee grinds, egg shells etc. But because the bin is not rat proof, I wouldn’t put any meat, fish or cooked food in there. The other thing to avoid is paper or cardboard which can matt together forming a heavy mush which will clog up the bin and end up in a smelly mess.

The next thing to do is to prepare the waste materials. I usually wait until there is at least 2 Kg of waste before adding it to the Dalek. There are 4 things to consider – moisture, texture, nitrogen content and size. The fruit and veg waste has a very high moisture and relatively high nitrogen content so it will need to be balanced with a dryer material with a relatively high carbon content – I often use straw or hay since I can get them cheaply and they also have a hollow structure which will help trap beneficial air. Sawdust can also be used and I have even experimented with wood based cat litter (unused of course!). If you have pets such as chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs etc, then the nest clearings and droppings are excellent for this too. The veg waste is also soft and mushy so the open texture and coarse nature of the straw, hay or sawdust will help to keep the material open and allow in air. Usually a few large handfuls of the dry material are sufficient to soak up the moisture when added to a couple of Kg of waste. The kitchen waste will also need chopping up so I put it in one of those floppy builders tubs, add the dry material then use a spade to mix and chop the whole lot up in one go. A spade full of soil or old compost will help introduce beneficial composting organisms into the mixture. A light sprinkling of the QR activator solution can also be added to the tub but you can add it into the bin before adding the waste (as per the usual QR method) if you wish. I should also mention that the occasional sprinkling of lime should be added to the tub – this reduces the acidity and worms also use it to help them digest their food

The waste mixture can now be added to the Dalek making sure that it sits in a fairly even layer on the top of the material in the bin. To retain the heat put a layer or two of Hessian sacking over the compost or some straw stuffed inside an old onion sack makes an ideal duvet. Finally put the lid on the Dalek and the rainproof cover on as explained in last weeks post (part one). Adding the waste to the bin usually takes no longer than 10 minutes and is time well spent.

The first addition of material, depending on the outside air temperature, will usually take a few days to get going and heat up. Subsequent regular additions will heat up more quickly. The heat will die down after another few days so weekly additions will keep the ball rolling. At this time of year the temperature in the bin can get up to about 40C without a problem, in midsummer expect temperature up to 65C and in winter up to 30C. Of course there are many factors which will influence the temperature including thickness and type of insulation, amount of material, nitrogen content, outside temperature and weather conditions. To get more heat you can apply thicker insulation, more waste or increase the nitrogen content (the bacteria thrive on this and produce the heat through their high metabolic activity) by adding urine, nettles or manure (chicken poo is excellent!). Wind-chill and rain are worst enemies for cooling the heap down so positioning the bin in a sheltered position can be beneficial.

'The resulting compost will be like vermicompost from a worm bin'

Keep adding the waste on a regular basis and you will notice that it does not fill up - the material sinks down leaving an air gap around the edge allowing natural ventilation by convection to the compost. I think this is one of the clever things about the Dalek and my main reason for liking them.

After about 6 weeks or so, begin removing the soil or old compost from the bottom of the bin. You will probably be able to tunnel your way in which will improve ventilation to the compost. It is important to remove material from the whole of the base area if possible to avoid compaction which can lead to airless conditions. (This is the drawback of the Dalek in that they don’t have sufficient access to the compost around the full perimeter of the base) Over the next month or two, with regular additions of waste and regular removal of material from the base the finished compost will start to emerge.

Over a few months the populations of organisms will increase. In particular, brandling or tiger worms will thrive and form large writhing masses! The resulting compost will be like vermicompost from a worm bin and will be a bit sticky and jelly-like, but excellent stuff nonetheless and ideal for top dressing plants, giving them a real boost. Mice will probably find a home in the bin too, they also help by tunnelling through the compost making useful airways to aerate the compost.

Leaving the bin for a few weeks while you go on holiday is not a problem and I have often had a pleasant surprise when returning to find gorgeous dark compost! Once you start to harvest the compost you should be able to continue doing so on a regular basis.

Over the last 2.5 years, I have been developing a compost bin that has all the advantages of the modified Dalek with some further improvements including rat proofing, full access to the compost around its base and a flat pack design. Details and availability will be posted on my website ( soon.

I have thoroughly enjoyed writing my posts and answering questions/comments from readers. I do hope that I get invited again to do some more posts in the future but in the meantime please feel free to leave any questions/comments at this post or on my website and I will answer them as soon as possible.

Happy Composting!


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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, April 21, 2010 5 Comments

Planting potatoes and brassicas

And here it is – the brassica cage in its new location!

We’ve been given some wonder-stuff, a special secret recipe concocted by one of our allotment stalwarts, which we sprinkle on the ground and rake in about a fortnight before planting our brassicas, so we’re looking forward to bumper crops this year. We also saw the first cabbage whites of the season as we were moving the cage, so it’s not a moment too soon to get the cage to its new home. And we managed it without a single curse or argument.

We’ve also started work on a compost bin Dalek, according to Andy’s instructions, so I shall be posting the first photos of that in a few day’s time, but before any of that …

Our maincrop potatoes have been planted! We managed to get them all in the ground over the weekend, with a layer of comfrey under them to give them a good start, and so we’re very pleased with ourselves about that – although I bet you our comfrey roots and we end up digging that out of the allotment for years too – we definitely didn’t wilt it enough before putting it in the bottom of the trenches.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, April 19, 2010 3 Comments

Plotting and planning on the plot

Hurrah! 201 has new bunting!

And what are we celebrating? Nothing, yet, although the tops of the first earlies have just peeked through the soil so we certainly hope to be celebrating potatoes soon. What we intend to celebrate is the moving of the brassica cage, seen at the bottom left of this photo. Hopefully, when I next post, it will magically appear at top left! We need to move it for crop rotation purposes, so that we don't end up with club root in our brassicas.

However, for that magic to happen, not a little blood, sweat and tears has to happen first. We have to dig it out where it’s bedded in, and then one of us stands one side of the fence, one the other, and we ‘walk’ it up the allotment to its new home. Why do we have to walk it over the fence, which is obviously a complicating factor?

Um, because my wonderful new triumphal arch means we can’t carry it up the path … and we've got crops on both sides of the path that can't be walked on so we can't take it either side of the arch either.


Bit of a planning failure there, eh?

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Sunday, April 18, 2010 3 Comments

How to Compost Your Kitchen Waste All Year Round (Part One)

We have talked about making compost with the plant waste materials that come from our gardens – but what about the continuous stream of waste that comes from our kitchens all year round? In the warmer months of the year we can compost this waste with the grass clippings, hedge clippings and other garden debris that is available but during the colder months this type of heap will not heat up and it will just sit there and pile up. If not dealt with properly it can end up as a putrefying slimy mass and will probably attract rats.

The easiest solution is to use one of those plastic conical shaped compost bins, otherwise known as Daleks, which are very common place these days and are available at a discounted price from most councils. They can be easily adapted to convert kitchen waste to compost all year round.

If your soil is not free draining, it is best to dig a small pit about 4” (10cm) deep, slightly larger than the base area of the Dalek and fill it with gravel or hardcore. This will provide excellent drainage and allow excess moisture to seep away. Next, place a circle of housebricks on top of the gravel or ground ensuring that they form a level surface on which the Dalek can be safely rested. Make sure there are air gaps of at least 1” (2.5cm) between the bricks to allow air to get to the bottom of the heap. Drill some 8mm diameter holes around the rim of the lid – this will allow air to vent up through the bin and out of the lid.

Miss Bruce always used to build her compost heaps with a thin layer of charcoal in the bottom of her compost heaps. I think this is an excellent idea and one that I always follow because charcoal can absorb bad smells (charcoal is used in odoreaters!). It has also been proven that ‘biochar’ can aid soil fertility.

For all year round composting, the heat needs to be retained within the Dalek by adding a thick layer of insulation material around the upper part of the bin. This is a case of what you can get your hands on but it needs to be light, water proof and a good insulator. Several layers of old bubblewrap wrapped around the bin (above the hatch so access can be maintained to remove finished compost) to a depth of at least 4” is ideal. Secure the bubblewrap in place with some cloth ‘Gaffa’ tape (Duck tape) and/or stretch a couple of bungee cords around it. It took about 20 minutes to convert my Dalek and I admit it doesn’t look very pretty but the most important thing is that it will work and make good compost.

Add some old compost or soil into the bottom of the Dalek bringing the level up to a height which is above the top of the hatch so that when you add your kitchen waste materials they are within the insulated portion of the bin.

Make sure that rainwater can’t run down between the insulation and the bin by placing a large rainproof cover on top of the Dalek lid. Corrugated sheeting held down with bricks is good for the job.

In next weeks post I will explain the how and why of preparing the kitchen waste materials and adding them to the modified Dalek.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, April 14, 2010 4 Comments

Allotment Raised beds in April

How's this for productivity?

Okay, I'll be honest. There are two beds with strawberries in, and one that's a permanent asparagus bed. So only two of these beds are planted up with seeds - the rest have just been covered to warm the soil. Looks good though, doesn't it?


Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, April 13, 2010 5 Comments

Allotment Triumphal Arch

Isn’t it lovely?

As to why it’s triumphal – the two bits of arch that aren’t arching (if you see what I mean) were just about the first things we took to 201 seventeen months ago! And today, while I was minuting an allotment committee meeting, Himself installed the arch and made the archy bits that go over the top. So possibly it should be a triumphant arch rather than a triumphal one ...

On one side I’m going to plant purple/black Ipomeas and on the other, Achocha: a sort of climbing vine from South America that produces small, spiky cucumber-like fruits!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Sunday, April 11, 2010 3 Comments

Allotment plots, pots and publicity

A lot of our plots are being divided in two, so that we can double the number of people getting to grow their own. It’s very exciting and involves lots of red and white striped tape being put up where the plots are halved – which makes me think of crime scenes … And we are getting a lot of younger allotment-holders, as you can see!

A question about pots? Has anybody tried these devices that make plant pots out of old newspapers? We have a problem every year with not having enough pots for our spring germination programme, but then for the rest of the year we have towers of empty pots that fall on us whenever we open the shed door. Degradable pots are a nice idea but pretty damn expensive if you use several hundred every year, as we do … so what do you do when you’re germinating vegetable seeds?

And publicity – we are very excited to have been mentioned in Kitchen Garden magazine this month!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, April 8, 2010 5 Comments

Looking After Your Compost Heap

Composting takes place all around us, not just in a compost heap. From the moment a piece of fruit or veg is cut open and subjected to the air, bacteria and fungi will begin their work of colonising and digesting it.

In the soil there are many different types of organisms each with their own role to play in turning animal and vegetative waste into humus. Humus is the debris, consisting of the bodily remains of the organisms and bodily waste materials, that is left after the organisms have had a field day digesting the food, the excrement created and each other. Humus is wonderful food for plants, containing minerals and nutrients they need for healthy life and growth. Certain organisms that live in the soil, such as slugs, woodlice and millipedes, will eat and shred materials making it easier and accessible for smaller organisms such as bacteria and fungi to enter. Larger organisms such as worms, nematodes and protozoa, eat the bacteria and fungi digesting and releasing the nutrients tied up within them. Larger animals such as arthropods like centipedes and spiders will prey on the smaller organisms and so the vicious circle of life within the soil processes biodegradable waste into plant food.

The compost heap is really a refined version of what goes on in the soil. By creating the correct environmental and dietary conditions in the compost heap we can speed up the decomposition process and make the heap work efficiently for us. There are four main requirements for the QR heap to work successfully:

Air is required by the beneficial aerobic organisms such as bacteria which need to breathe. Aerobic bacteria can produce antibiotics which kill off bad bacteria. Make sure your bin has good ventilation around the base and sides to allow air to reach the heap.
Moisture is required by bacteria and protozoa to take up food and release waste materials - it also allows them to move around in search of food. Worms love moist conditions, if it is too dry they move away. Most ‘green’ materials, such as grass clippings or waste from the kitchen, usually have sufficient moisture in them. ‘Brown’ materials such as hay or straw will require soaking overnight, as explained in my previous post. Allowing too much moisture into the heap can halt the hot composting process so good rainproof shelter, such as corrugated sheeting over the top of the heap is essential. The shelter will also prevent the heap drying out through evaporation.
Good drainage is necessary to allow excess moisture to drain away otherwise this will build up in the base of the heap and cause airless conditions leading to bad smells and putrefaction. If at all possible, build your heap on well drained soil. If not then incorporate at least a 3” (7.5cm) layer of rubble or rough material under the base.
Retaining the moist warm heat created in the heap will allow the QR activator to permeate through the pile and will also create the right condition for the types of bacteria that work at higher temperatures which can rapidly break down waste materials. A layer of hessian sacking is ideal because it retains the heat but also allows the heap to breathe.

A layer of hessian sacking helps retain the moist warm heat

If you look after your compost heap it will seldom go wrong and you will learn how to make good compost. Failure is usually the result of overlooking one of the four essential requirements listed above. Understanding what goes on in the heap is the key to success and it will all come naturally after building a few heaps.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, April 7, 2010 2 Comments

April Allotment planting

The Easter weekend was all about peas. First, the sweet peas went in around their bean-wam. These are a mixture of saved seed, F1 hybrids (some kind of charity seed that helps fund support for returning soldiers that I got talked into buying in the allotment shop) and the last of the year before’s cottage garden highly-scented pastel seed. Should at least make for an interesting display.

The bean-wam is in the middle of the herb bed - last year it ended up being used for borlotti beans because we simply ran out of usable soil on 201. We had nearly a quarter of the allotment unused but as it hadn't been dug for years, there was little point trying to plant it until we'd dug and fed it. This year the borlottis are going where we had potatoes last year, the potatoes are breaking up the ground that wasn't used at all in 2009, and the bean-wam will host the sweet peas this year and next year maybe I'll have a proper herb planting in there. Maybe.

Then it was real peas. 320 of them. There are both Meteor and Feltham First but in this picture you can only seethe back lot (Meteor) and the front row, still to be planted, are entirely are Feltham First. They are also the result of successional sowings – the ones you can see at the left-hand end of the picture went in two weeks before the ones that you can't see, at the far right. We still have all our maincrop peas to sow yet, but they go directly into the ground.

Our early peas get sown in toilet roll inners because of mice, but the maincrops don’t seem to suffer so much – probably because there is so much else for them to be nibbling on that a few peas aren’t as enticing as they are earlier in the year when there’s no variety to the rodent diet.

The radishes are up (the parsnips aren’t, not worried yet though) and the first of the beetroot are up too. All in all it’s looking properly springlike on 201 at last!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, April 6, 2010 3 Comments

Dodging weather on the allotment

This week we've had:

Torrential rain leading to localised flooding - mainly where my beans should be going
Brilliant sunshine.

I've tried to get up to the plot whenever the weather has been 'clement' whatever that means, and I've been rewarded with some gorgeous moments when the sun has emerged and the wallflowers have delivered a small amount of fragrance on the still chilly air.

I'm picking bushels (or at least bagfulls) of purple-sprouting broccoli and looking enviously at neighbours who still have leeks and cabbages. This week we had the last of our kale too and I made it into Stamppot a Dutch recipe that is hearty and easy

Kale Stamppot

500 grams potatoes
200 grams kale, washed and de-stemmed, then chopped
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper
milk and butter

Wash and peel the potatoes, quarter them and put them in a really big saucepan, then lay the chopped kale and bay leaf on top. Put water in the pan until it just reaches the top of the potatoes and add a little salt.

Bring to the boil and then simmer gently for twenty minutes or so until the potatoes are just tender. Drain into a colander and let sit for about five minutes. Remove bay leaf.

Mash with some milk and butter and lots of pepper and serve with strongly flavoured sausages and onion gravy.


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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Friday, April 2, 2010 6 Comments

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