Plot 201 harvest

The last of the peas coincided with the first of the blackberries – now it might just be me, but I seem to remember these two events were widely separated in time when I was a child!

Anyway, travelling between 103 and 201 is a lesson in productivity. On 103, which hasn’t been worked for years, we have harvested some gooseberries and some redcurrants. On 201, which also hadn’t been worked for years, but has been intensively dug, manured, composted, fertilised, dug again, planted, watered, weeded and harvested for two years, by us, we harvested:

• Second early potatoes (not very good ones, as we have eelworm in this part of the plot, we now know)
• Blackberries
• Raspberries
• Alpine strawberries
• Yellow and green courgettes
• Spring cabbage (hearting up nicely this year)
• Salad onions
• Beetroot.

Not all our crops are of the quality we would like – our potatoes have been tragic this year, and it just goes to show that soil can be highly variable. Our harvest was better in the first year than the second, even though in the second year we were planting into an area that had beans and peas in year one, but it turns out that the former plot owner had left a crop of potatoes in the ground there, and for several years those potatoes went volunteer and that brought the eelworms and depleted the soil, so a year of legumes wasn’t going to be enough to restore it to health and vitality. And that’s a bit of a worry, because it means that we have two more areas of plot to explore for potato potential, and they could turn out to be awful as well, which we might have some potato-free years ahead until we get the soil right …

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

And the answer is ...

I know I’ve been teasing people recently, but I’m finally ready to explain.

Please meet … plot 103 - my own allotment at last!

Well, sort of. As in:

1. We’ll be working 201 for at least another year before we hand it back to the committee, hopefully we’ll have got some people from the allotment waiting list to work with us by then, so that plot 201 can be a training plot run by the committee, but giving people who want to grow their own but aren’t at the top of the list, some opportunity to gain skills and raise crops while they wait.

2. 103 won’t be productive this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after, as we work with the existing eco-system which is robust, and the problems, which are immense. As you can see, even clearing the grass is a demanding task, if we aren't to destroy birds nests (we have fledgling blackbirds for a certainty, there are ancient dormouse nests in several hedges and we think we may even have a wren!) or the homes of slow worms or beetles. Believe it or not, the photo below is the result of hours of work with hand shears and scythe!

We have two huge elder trees, two small oaks and one unknown. In the front hedge there’s a leaning tree which I believe is a smooth leaved elm – it’s already been hugely pruned back in one direction – away from the neighbour’s plot, leaving it growing at 45 degrees in the other, back along the boundary of our plot. It is, to be blunt, a death trap.

We’ve found two full sized bathtubs, one tin bath and a shower tray. One bathtub is a good pond with frogs and newts, the other is a stinking, fetid, mud-slimed holder of iris (no idea what kind, they’d all gone over by the time we got the plot) and the tin bath appears to be a nettle retirement home. The shower tray was so buried under ivy that it took me 45 minutes work to release it.

We do have three fruiting gooseberries, a redcurrant, two espalieried apples, a pear, two cobnuts and two bay trees, one of which will need to come out as its grown out into the main path.

It’s exciting and daunting in equal measure, but at least it’s mine, all mine!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, July 26, 2010 2 Comments

Allotment update

So … we’re finally harvesting our first greenhouse tomatoes, which are a bit thick-skinned – possibly due to the extremely hot weather we’ve had. We’ve eaten the first of the peppers too, not very sweet but nice and juicy. We have only two courgettes but we’re getting close to glut proportions just from two plants, and we have plenty of excellent beetroot this year, of the Chioggia variety – haven’t tried lifting any of the long-rooted beetroot yet.

The sweetcorn are all fattening up nicely and our second early potatoes are much better than our first earlies were (they were a disaster) so we’re hoping against hope that our maincrops will surprise us.

Our maincrop peas were shortlived and sweet – as soon as the temperature went up, they just stopped flowering so we had only a couple of meals from them, but those meals were delicious.

The heat and dry weather has caused one of our Brussels Sprout plants to blow already which is utterly bizarre, and our purple sprouting broccoli is looking very good in the brassica cage as is the kale outside it.

I emptied two of our compost bins, the one that has been established for a year and ‘dalek’ that we adapted from the Quick Compost method and filled up in the early spring, and mulched the raspberries and currants when we’d finished picking from them. I also put a couple of barrowloads in where we’d taken the first earlies out, but I think it’s going to take a lot more than a bit of compost to improve our soil after so many years of neglect and overuse.

How was everybody else’s garlic this year? Ours was very mediocre I’m afraid. Going to try a softneck variety this autumn I think.

Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, July 22, 2010 4 Comments

Allotment-holders: thrifty, resourceful ...

... and as fed up with the vuvuzela noise as the rest of us!

Excellent re-use of an unwanted object here, I thought. Stops anybody poking their eye out on the canes and makes a nice change from wellies planted with nasturtiums.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, July 21, 2010 6 Comments

Windy nights, sick days and sweetcorn

I've had some kind of summer virus - I'm not sure it was a cold ... the main symptom seemed to be an intensely sore throat and swollen glands that made it painful to talk or even to swallow. And tiredness - I think that was a symptom too, although tiredness is just my natural condition at this time of year, as I go from picking to washing and either jam-making, pudding making or freezing what seems to be an unending supply of soft fruit. Not to mention the issue of what to do with all those courgettes, the maincrop peas that need to be podded and blanched and so on and so on ...

So we had a real gale on Tuesday/Wednesday and I managed to drag myself to the plot to see how things were. To my amazement, all the sunflowers were still standing. I'd expected at least one to have pulled free of its stake. On the other hand, while the corn in the mesh boxes was doing well, the overstocks - which we'd stuck in a patch of ground that had nothing growing in it - were reclining on the ground as if the whole idea of standing up had suddenly become too much for them.

I hope to be back to normal posting/picking/plot-visits by Tuesday - it's a real pain to be ill at the height of the summer!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Sunday, July 18, 2010 8 Comments

Other people’s allotments

This wonder-harvest didn’t come from 201, and I can’t pretend it did. This bumper crop of blackcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries comes from Eddie’s allotment. Eddie has had his allotment for over 25 years and every other year he invites somebody in to pick currants because his harvest is so massive that the jam his lovely wife makes from the fruit in the intervening year lasts for two years (two years worth of jam!) so he’s generous enough to hand over his produce to somebody else.

How does he do it? Well at the bottom of each of his fruit bushes is a wooden frame, like a raised bed about six inches tall, and each year, after picking, he fills that base with well-rotted manure. He gets the manure himself from stables and rots it down to be sure that it’s not too young and hot, which can damage fruit production.

He grew his fruit bushes himself, from cuttings taken from local bushes, so they are ideally suited to the environment in which they find themselves.

He has a good ecosystem going: there are birds that help themselves to fruit (yes, it’s un-netted) but they also remove insect predators. He’s visited by a fox who keeps down rodents and his bushes are generally allowed to ramble around where they please.

• Ideally blackcurrant cuttings should be taken in October in the north, right through to the end of November in the south. You choose some of the same year’s growth and you’re looking for a good, regularly shaped, well-formed shoot. The top end should be cut back to just above a bud and the bottom end to just below a bud – in other words, there should be a bud at each extremity at this point and the cutting should be between 25 and 35 centimetres long.
• So then you gently knock off all the buds except the top four. I know, sounds silly after all that effort, but trust me!
• Now you can either use the old school way: take a spade and made a V-shaped trench about 14-18 centimetres deep. Put in the cuttings and you should find that the top few cm, with the buds, are showing above the soil. Fill back in with soil, water, weed when necessary. Lift the following September and you’ll have fantastic rooted cuttings.
• The new school way is to pot them up – put them in solid soil mixed with some compost, not just potting medium, because they need something firm to give them ‘security’ to create roots and a potting compost will be too friable to give them that firmness. Lift in September and replant to their flowering site.
• When you put them in their new home, cut blackcurrants back hard so that they shoot well in the spring – you want to make them work for their keep by producing shoots, buds and fruit!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, July 13, 2010 3 Comments

You must be able to guess now!

Before, during and after pictures this time of just one area of mystery.

What is it? We don't know. The only way to find out is to attack it with shears and pruners, brute force and ignorance and see what (if anything) emerges. As a project for the hottest day of the year, it was quite obviously an insane idea, but insane ideas tend to be my forte.

Right in the middle there's a nest - fortunately a very old one. We think it's probably a dormouse nest as it had no obvious entrance, unlike a wren's nest which would be about the same size. Dormice do like to nest in honeysuckle, by all accounts.

At this point in the discovery process I was quite glad to take a break and some photos, as the other two components of this mystery mound were an extremely vicious bramble and some six foot nettles, both of which had got the better of me several times.

Now we know a little more - there's nothing in there except a rusted metal post! What had I been hoping for? Anything from a radio mast through to a yeti's hammock or a lost rhododendron. And I still haven't finished clearing the honeysuckle away, but after two hours I'd had enough - the rest can wait until next time.

Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Saturday, July 10, 2010 1 Comments

Harvests and gluts - here we go again!

So, on the basis that you can't have too many sweet peas, I'm happy, even if I am picking twice a day.

Too many raspberries? Impossible. And funnily enough, there's never as many in the tub as I expect, when I let somebody else do the picking. I wonder why that is?

Too many currants? Well surely not: they can always go in the freezer if I get sick making redcurrant jelly and we actually go off the glories of summer pudding (like that's going to happen!)

But too many courgettes? Oh yes, we have that already ...

What is your least favourite glut and how do you deal with it?

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Friday, July 9, 2010 4 Comments

Allotment crops, surprises and recipes

To my great delight, this is what I saw when I went up to water plot 201 yesterday. It’s the mother fox, looking quite tired and thin, but happy and healthy. She sat around on the path for about ten minutes, obviously waiting to see if I was going to feed her (I don’t although Himself does) and then mooched off. Of course it’s still sad about the young one, but the underlying fear that we had a few days ago was that the entire family might have been poisoned. It’s illegal to poison foxes but that doesn’t stop people doing it, and it’s a particularly horrible death. At least we now know that she’s fine and that we are probably right in guessing that her poor cub met up with a dog fox.

We’re not the only ones to have been finding things on our allotment. In Northamptonshire, a plot-holder at the Billing Road East Allotments found most of a gravestone for ‘Edward, passed away February 11, 1942’. I think I’d be pretty surprised if my fork turned that up too! However, it’s not quite as creepy as it sounds. Apparently there is a graveyard at the other end of the road that was bombed during World War II and that the rubble was used as landfill on what came to be the allotment site.

We have been picking currants, planting broccoli and trying to identify beetles! The currants this year are fantastic, and as we love summer pudding it’s a fifty-fifty split between stringing and open freezing berries to eat in winter and chucking them straight into a dessert!

Summer Pudding

Around 850 grams raspberries and currants – you want around twice as many raspberries as currants, and you can use red, white or blackcurrants. I also tend to chuck in alpine strawberries and tayberries too.
8 slices white bread
Around 3 tablespoons white sugar (vanilla or lemon verbena sugar are best)

Sort the fruit – taking out any unripe or mouldy berries before stringing the currants. Put them and the rest of the fruit in a thick-bottomed pan over a low heat. Warm through and add sugar to taste – it depends on the ripeness of the berries and the blend you have in the pan, but don’t oversweeten. I usually find 3 tablespoons about right. If you taste the berries before they warm, you’ll tend to add too much sugar. Add a tablespoon or so of water and the bring to the boil and then simmer for just a couple of minutes. Remove from heat.

Remove crusts from bread and butter a pudding dish. Leaving one piece of bread aside, slide the rest into long fingers and use them to line the basin, making sure every tiny corner is covered.

Pour the warm fruit into the basin and use the remaining bread to make a lid, patching it with any remaining bits of bread so that no juice can escape.

Set the basin in a shallow dish so any spilled juice is caught, then put a flat plate on top of the pudding with a heavy weight on it – I use two cans of kidney beans!

Leave overnight in the fridge.

To serve, slide a palette knife around the edge of the pudding to separate bread and basin – put a pretty plate on top, and invert the dish, shaking neatly to ‘plop’ the pudding into the middle of the plate.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, July 8, 2010 2 Comments

Allotment downsides

There are things that those jolly allotment books never tell you – look away now if you don’t want to learn about one of the saddest downsides of allotment life.

Remember those lovely cubs playing with their mother, the vixen, on an allotment near ours a few weeks ago? Well we know what’s happened to one of them: he or she is dead.

The reason we know this is that the little one chose to crawl under our shed to die – and in the hottest week for many a year, it didn’t take us long to realise that we had a problem. To be blunt, it stank.

By the time Himself had managed to locate a torch, gloves, and bin bags, the smell was extreme and he receives my most heartfelt thanks for taking on a task I simply couldn’t have attempted – retrieving the poor little corpse and bagging it up, before liming the area to reduce the horrible odour and the activity of flies.

We can’t tell what caused the cub’s untimely end: maybe he or she was hit by a car and crawled away to a safe place, or more likely the youngster came face to face with an adult fox and was fatally injured during a territorial fight. We always knew that the chances of four cubs making it to maturity were remote but we didn’t expect such a concrete example of nature being red in tooth and claw.

These things happen. It’s quite common for rats and mice to die under sheds, particularly in winter (when it can be attributed to old age) and then for that vile whiff of aged rodent corpse to arrive with the spring, but that odour, nasty as it is, tends to be bearable and fairly short-lived. This was something of another order of magnitude and it’s just one more reminder that while allotment life is generally wonderful, it has its downsides, it really does.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, July 5, 2010 3 Comments

Can you name this beetroot?

I've grown them, baked them and eaten them and they are delicious! This is yesterday's harvest, baked today, eaten for lunch and thoroughly appreciated.

But ... I've also lost the seed packet! So can you name this sunny striped beetroot variety? The colour might darken as they get bigger, but I'm pretty convinced it's not the classic Chioggia (called Candystripe in the USA I think) as they are usually pinker than this.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Friday, July 2, 2010 3 Comments

Greenhouse pepper pollination

We grow peppers in a greenhouse, as I suspect many people do, to provide a long enough growing season to get them to ripen. This means we can start them off several weeks earlier than if we were growing them outside, and protect them from autumn chills while the fruits mature and change colour on the plant.

Peppers are greedy, so you need to give them a good growing medium once the seeds germinate and we feed ours with tomato feed on a daily basis too. Indoor grown peppers can be tricky sometimes – they don’t necessarily pollinate without insects so here’s what I do:

Take a small paintbrush and moisten the tip (you can dip it in water, but I just lick the thing!). Find an open flower like the one in the first photograph and gently dab at the pollen – if it’s ready, it will tend to shower out of the flower, but some will stick to the brush.

Move the brush to another flower - same plant, different plant, doesn’t seem to matter – and dabble away, moving some of the pollen off the brush and picking up some other pollen along the way. As the flower petals dry and fall away, you can see that each individual pepper is forming

Continue this process with all the open flowers every day and you’ll end up with a bumper crop of peppers. If you do, you’ll need to stake or tie up the peppers as they soon get too heavy for the plant – we tend to cradle ours, using canes and padded wire around the stem just back from where the pepper joins the plant to give each pepper maximum support.

You may also need to mist plants to discourage red spider mites. We cut our ripe fruits with pruners to avoid damage to the plant which can have a very soft and sappy stem when greenhouse grown.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, July 1, 2010 2 Comments

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