What to do when the allotment is frozen

Well I suppose sensible people stay home. You can’t dig, you can’t plant, there’s nothing to water (and the water’s frozen anyway) and almost nothing to pick.

We decided that as the pile of wood on plot 103 is higher than my head and only just below OH’s six foot three, we needed to have a bonfire. You’d have thought it was quite easy to take a photograph of a bonfire, wouldn’t you? Well it was so grey yesterday that a photograph without the flash just came out as a dim blur.

Before we lit the fire we found another pot of voodoo - sometimes I wonder about the person who had this plot before me, particularly as a passing neighbour made the situation even more mysterious: I'd assumed these odd little collections of childhood memorabilia and associated tat were the work of a young person growing up, or a rather nasty little boy annoying his sister, but it turns out that the former plot-holder didn't have children, or if he did, they didn't visit the plot, which makes this kind of thing truly bizarre.

On the other hand, there was quite a bit to harvest on plot 201: Brussels sprouts, kale, the first of the early purple sprouting broccoli and a winter radish. There wasn’t a hope of getting a parsnip out of the ground, much as I wanted some for spicy parsnip soup. And we were the last people to leave the site, in horrible proper darkness, with only the little circles of our torches to guide us to the van.

At least we don’t have snow … yet.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, November 29, 2010 4 Comments

Allotment Book Review: Soil Mates

Every so often somebody (actually, usually it’s somebody’s PR company) gets in touch to ask me to review a book. I always say that I will, but that the review will be honest and unbiased and that I won’t pull any punches and the person (or the PR company) always says yes, that’s great, that’s just what they want.

Is it though? Well, I suppose I’m about to find out. This month I’ve been browsing Soil Mates by Sara Alway, a book that aims to teach companion planting for vegetable gardens. I did learn some fascinating things: thyme and Brussels sprouts, for example, are a love match. As are peas and turnips. The illustrations are lovely, the recipes look very good and the whole concept of love-matches, rivals and aphrodisiacs and turn-offs is a fun way to approach the concept of companion gardening. It’s beautifully bound, and nice and sturdy, so it will take a bit of wear and tear on the plot. But (you knew there was a but, didn’t you?) it is an American book and the information about insects: both pests and valued predators, simply doesn’t have any relevance for UK growers and that really lessens the value for growers here, whether they are beginners or experienced folk, because companion planting is largely about encouraging beneficial insect life and discouraging or distracting damaging species.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, November 25, 2010 4 Comments

Allotment bonfires and broad beans

You know how people boast about the awful state of their allotments when they took them over? Well indulge me for a second, please, because it’s not an exaggeration to say that plot 103 has brambles as thick as my thumb, and here’s a photo to prove it. The thickness of the bramble really doesn’t matter, anyway, it’s the viciousness of the thorns that you have to worry about, and as you can see, this particular monster is well equipped with sharp, curved and extremely penetrating defences.

So, we’ve been clearing bits of the plot that we’ve never seen before, and just as I was congratulating myself on hacking back the Sleeping Beauty vegetation I found what it’s been hiding, and it wasn’t a princess – it was another elder tree. That makes three on our plot (all now removed) and three on the boundary where we can’t cut them down. There are very few trees less amenable to cultivation – an established yew or a sycamore will both stop anything growing underneath their canopy, but an elder has roots that snake and spider in all directions, rendering the soil undiggable.

All of which made the fact that we are burning the previously cut down elders rather satisfying. A bonfire is always fun, and a bonfire that destroys the pernicious elder is cathartic.

And when we weren’t indulging in slash or burn, we did actually get on with some agriculture – planting the first two rows of broad beans, using some of the old walking sticks from the voodoo shed as markers for the rows, and then strewing the rows with holly clippings to try and deter mice. We also moved a rhubarb crown down from plot 201, and I planted some flower bulbs in and around the roots of the boundary elders in the hope of getting something, if only colour, out of the soil there.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, November 22, 2010 1 Comments

Last of the allotment fruit but not the last of the allotment pests

I was on radio Sussex on Sunday, talking about Weald allotments, as the rain fell, gently but firmly, all around me and even the birds were under cover, watching me with complete scorn as I wandered around in the downpour, waiting for my mobile phone to ring, with not another soul in sight. Even for me it was a surreal experience.

Then, as I was gazing at the extremely damp landscape I saw a perfect alpine strawberry. And another. And another. By the time I’d finished searching I was utterly soaking from head to foot and I’d found seventeen strawberries, which we ate for pudding.

I asked the Radio Sussex expert about the persistent whitefly, which doesn’t seem to be felled by frost (our frosts are light, as we’re within a mile of the sea) and he suggested we try soapy water in a pressure hose and removing all the yellowed leaves. It’s the second year in a row that we’ve had a hellish infestation of whitefly on our kale, which is a favourite winter crop of mine, second only to purple sprouting broccoli, so I’m hoping that the relocation to plot 103 will leave the little buggers behind, and that if we practise intense whitefly hygiene there, we’ll manage to avoid this winter plague in future.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, November 15, 2010 1 Comments

Allotment Achocha

Well, we’re getting there with the seed saving. The house is full of bowls and saucers of seed and stacks of seed envelopes overprinted with the book details. I can’t believe that it will be published in March! The first packets of seed (French Marigolds and Royal Black Chillis) have already been distributed to some lovely people I met at the weekend – I’m not sure what they made of the idea, but I’ve never met a gardener yet who’d turn down free seeds.

Because some people emailed me to ask, this is what the achocha vine (known also as the Lady’s Slipper vine apparently) looks like. The fruits are small, spiny, cucumber-like objects that have to be picked young or the seeds become woody very fast and you have to cut the pods open to remove them. The flavour is somewhere between a cucumber and a green pepper – we’ve used them in curries, on top of pizzas and in ratatouille and you can pickle them, I gather, although I haven’t tried.

While it’s not an unusual or exceptional contribution to our diet (unlike say globe artichokes, a real premium food) the achocha has one major advantage: its rampant green growth covers an eyesore really quickly and it still counts as a crop so it’s a contribution to your cultivation percentage if your allotment site is one of those that has taken to setting a percentage for all tenants. It is destroyed by the first air frost, being absolutely not winter-hardy and has odd black seeds like dragon’s teeth. All in all, it’s worth trying if you like the odd unusual vegetable and have something hideous like an old coal bin or a hideous chain link fence, to hide for the summer at least.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, November 10, 2010 5 Comments

Digging, digging and more digging

Every so often, when I look up from my labours, I see how much growth still continues, even in November. These cardoons were cut to the ground in June and again in August: all it’s doing is encouraging them! I’ve dug out six slips, given four away, and thrown out some really woody bits of root, but still the things come thrusting out of the ground as soon as I turn my back.

The comfrey is supposed to die back in a frost, but plot 103, in its more sheltered position in the middle of an allotment row, with high hedges all around, obviously didn’t feel the same chill air that wiped out our achocha as the comfrey, also cut back in June and August and dug into the ground to enrich the soil, is going for it for the third time in six months!

The achocha fruits on plot 201 have all been harvested from the blighted vine – the seed doesn’t seem that easy to harvest, as it’s large and prone to flake and hidden inside a very moist fruit that prefers rotting to curing, but I have hope that I shall obtain a few viable seed, not least because I have promotional seed packets featuring the details of the allotment book to give away, and I want to put some seed, saved from the allotments, in each packet.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, November 4, 2010 1 Comments

Allotment Halloween

Well we didn’t do anything very spectacular, although I did see some really good pumpkins being carried home on Sunday morning, presumably for carving. The green man/woman became a green witch for the weekend, and I started to dig in the green manure, although as my main task on Saturday was to take two barrows of manure down to plot 103 to be dug into the broad bean bed, I didn’t do too much digging on 201 – moving manure is quite a tiring business.

You might wonder why I have to move manure at all. It’s complicated. Plot 201, which we shall be leaving when our winter crops are over, doesn’t have a bottom fence, so we were able to get the muck-man to drop us a load of manure right on the plot. Plot 103, aka the voodoo plot, has a fairly substantial and pretty hedge (it might be said that the hedge is the best part of the plot, right now) which means that there’s nowhere for a load of muck to be dropped without blocking the path. Blocking the path is a termination offence on our allotments, so we are careful not to do it for more than a short time, such as that necessary to unload a shed from the back of a lorry.

The result is that I have to barrow the lovely manure down from plot 201, along two rows of plots, until I reach 103. And OH, lovely as he is in many ways, is also very tall with a back that ‘goes out’ at the slightest excuse (I can remember when I used to go out at the slightest excuse too, but that was a long time ago!) so he’s not keen to be barrowing heavy loads of wet horse-dung around.

And what do we have to show for it?

Our first seed planting on plot 103 – radicchio de Treviso in the inner ring of the amazing circular planter that I shall be describing in depth next spring, when it comes into full operation.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, November 1, 2010 3 Comments

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