Greenhouse growing for allotments
We’re lucky enough to have a greenhouse at home as well as having relocated one to the allotment. This means that we can grow very delicate and tender seedlings at home where the conditions are more controlled, and only move them to the allotment once they are properly hardened off and able to cope with less constant care.
As an example, we have our royal black chilli seedlings at home. Because they need so many days of light (not necessarily heat, but definitely light) I start them off on the east facing kitchen windowsill in little pots on a mirror tile which reflects back light to the seedlings – this gives them an early growth burst.
Then, when they have their first true leaves and are ready to be potted on, most of them will be moved to the greenhouse in the garden (which is not totally unheated, it has a frost heater that kicks in when the temperature drops to 1 degree so that it just keeps the interior above freezing) which gets even more light. A couple stay on the kitchen windowsill just in case something goes horribly wrong.
Once they are ready to go into their final 25 cm pots, I put two in each greenhouse and two outside on the allotment. The rest I give away. Because the chillies they produce are very small, and the plants themselves are quite small and very pretty, I bring a couple inside for the winter so that they can continue to produce chillies right through the winter.
We usually plant our broad beans in October so that they can overwinter, but this year, because plot 103 was such a mess, we couldn’t get them into the ground until January. That worked out really well for us because lots of people on our site lost their overwintering beans in the snow, so we actually gained ground on some people who waited to see if the plants would survive their chilly blanket. We sowed the seeds in open ground, covered in holly clippings to deter the rodents from digging them up and the birds from pulling them up as soon as they germinated, and then covered them with glass as soon as the first broad beans showed. It was quite difficult to get this photo, but as you can see, the beans are doing fine!
Greenhouse relocation (stage 1)
Some fabulous allotment neighbours gave us a greenhouse!
Okay, the whole story is a little more complicated than that – being a saga of two family plots on one site and one plot being given up because people were moving out of the area, and then which plot to keep and which to let go … it was actually quite a difficult process and it reminded me that while I often think allotments are all about crops and growing things, they are actually about communities and that is both the strength and the weakness of allotment life. When you have a good community spirit and strong administrative structures (as I believe we do on our site) it works well, but if either of those are missing, it becomes a less pleasant experience to be an allotment-holder.
Anyway, back to the generous offer – the plot being given up was just a couple of plots away from #103, where we have spent the past couple of weeks taking down odd, ramshackle structures like the ‘woodshed’ and the ‘leaning thing’, leaving us just the ‘voodoo shed’ and the ‘door shed’ (the door shed is largely made out of doors) and so we had space to take on a greenhouse.
It did mean doing some swift research on the best way to disassemble and reassemble such a structure and we were advised to:
1. Number all the glass panels in situ
2. Take lots of photos
3. Keep the frame intact if possible.
And that’s what we did. As you can see, we spent a bit of time anointing each pane of glass or polycarbonate with a number or letter before OH removed them from the frame. I was busy cleaning out the voodoo shed (at last) to store the glass panes in, for later reinsertion. Ray helped us ‘walk’ the aluminium frame down the path, to the main ‘road’ and back up the path on #103 were we dumped it unceremoniously in the middle of nowhere.
By this time we were pretty tired, but we still had to move all the glass and stack it vertically on the staging in the voodoo shed. It was dark by the time we finished and that meant we forgot to pick up the staging which we’d meant to break up and burn (it was quite rotten around the footings) but when I emailed our generous donors to apologise for the oversight they said it didn’t matter, they’d take care of it.
So we have a frame and some glass and when we get time we shall make a proper base and set up our new greenhouse! Meantime the voodoo shed has finally been exorcised (and thoroughly attacked with a broom) and seems like a much nicer environment.
Aren’t we lucky?
Getting crafty on the allotment
I’ve set the date for my book launch. 22 March, 2010 at West Blatchington Windmill, Hove (actually). I’m half-excited, half-scared and insanely busy with preparations. The peas are out in the garden all day, just going into the greenhouse at night in case of frost. And I’ve been busy making ‘things’ which is what I tend to do when I can’t work the plot properly. More of that further down the post!
If you’ve got seed potatoes and you’re wondering why one chits, the answer is simple. It’s too early to plant them outside in almost all of the UK (that’s why Jersey potatoes are at a premium price, their soil warms up faster than ours so they can plant up to a month earlier) but if you leave them in the bag they will grow long pale sprouts that break at planting time which slows or even stops the growth of the plant.
And it’s really simple – find a frost free place that’s airy and has north light or indirect light (the spare room windowsill is nearly always the right location!) and put the spuds there on a tray or in egg boxes, to grow nice dark, short and stubby sprouts. Remember to label them so you don’t get your first earlies mixed up with your maincrops.
If you live near the coast and have winter storms, you might want to forage some seaweed to lay over them when you do plant out – it’s what our great, great, grandparents did and probably has two purposes: acting as a mulch to protect against a late frost and providing nutrients to the growing tuber.
The pea markers have worked out really well, OH prefers the plastic ones because they are easier to get into compacted soil, having a point on the bottom, but I’m all for appearance and I think the wooden ones look nicer!
Greenhouse report mid-February 2011
It’s rained almost without cease since Sunday, so I’ve not been able to do anything on the allotment, because even walking on the soil would compact it horribly and I can’t dig it (because you can’t dig a pond, which is essentially what our allotment has turned into!)
So my only activity has been in sowing. The chilli seedlings are away like greyhounds – their slender pointed leaves even look zippy, as if they are sprinting out of the seed. With any luck they will have been given enough of a start to produce good chillies this year. The ones in the house, which were sown at this time last year, have today one flower on each plant, five black chillies and one red one on one plant (too many ‘o’s in that phrase) and three black chillies and two reds on the other one.
I’ve also sown lavender to make a lavender hedge either side of my path (which is currently an underwater path), two kinds of poppy seed for which I swapped vegetable seeds at Seedy Sunday, drumstick primulas– they can be a little unpredictable to get from seed but worth trying, and my sweet peas. Every year I say I will get my sweet peas in over the winter and I never do …
The pea seedlings are racing away too – we have a very site specific system for growing peas, because I like to have fresh peas as early in the season as possible. Other women may favour orchids or early roses flown in from Africa as their luxury items – I like to have early peas! Our allotment site does have a lot of rodent life, and we’ve lost peas to mice before, so what we do now is grow our peas in these biodegradable pots, in a big tray. If the weather is really inclement, we simply put more compost between the pots and the pea roots break through the pots and find the fresh food in the compost, but if the weather is relatively favourable, we plant out our peas when they are four inches tall, under fleece, and I reckon we get our first peas about 10-14 days before most other people. And for me, that’s worth all the effort!
It was Seedy Sunday here in Sussex and hundreds of people converged on Hove Town Hall to swap their unwanted seeds. It might sound a bit frugal and mean, but actually the reasoning behind Seedy Sunday is nothing to do with saving a few pennies and everything to do with saving seed varieties that the commercial seed companies don’t think are worth selling. Most gardeners just don’t realise that current EU legislation actually makes it illegal to sell or buy seeds from varieties which are not ‘listed'. Listing costs a lot of money, and takes a lot of time, and isn’t in the best interests of the seed companies who want to sell us fewer varieties of more expensive seeds: especially F1 hybrids from which the home grower can’t save seed to get a reliable offspring which has the same characteristics as the parent. This means that new seed must be bought every year, which is a pain in the bum for us, but a real drain on the financial resources of farmers in poorer parts of the world who are increasingly held hostage by the seed companies.
It’s not in our best interests to move to an F1 hybrid world, because many seed varieties are location specific: what grows brilliantly for me in Sussex could produce a rubbish crop in Hertfordshire or Humberside. That’s not really what seed companies are about, they want varieties that perform reliably across large areas of geography. If we lose those local varieties we don’t just lose their location specific performance, we also throw away their unique genetic make-up, which could be just what we need in ten or a hundred years time to combat a new disease or to improve a variety that’s unable to cope with global warming.
I swapped about forty packets of seed, ate cake, talked to loads of lovely growers, and spent exactly my entrance fee of £2. Total bargain!
Allotment peas and progress
Believe it or not, this is what I call progress! This huge, ugly charred space is (probably) going to be the home of the peas, when we’ve had a chance to dig it. It might not be where the peas go, they might go into a slightly smaller but better dug area on the other side of that mass of rubble we are laughably calling a path, in which case this will become the area in which I grow lettuce, fennel, leeks and kale as a kind of edible lawn, all jumbled in together.
There are only two ways to work an allotment as overgrown and neglected as #103: rotavate or slash and burn. We’ve opted for slash and burn, after experiencing the downside of rotavation on our former plot, which left us with endless hours of hand-digging couch grass and horribly invasive horseradish which, once the roots are chopped up, can be as difficult to get rid of as dandelions. Slash and burn is only possible if you have an allotment site where bonfires are allowed, and as we can only have open bonfires in the winter, we have to work fast whilst still trying to preserve as much of the wildlife that might be overwintering in the long grass and brambles as we can, so it’s important to slash a couple of days beforehand, and to leave an undisturbed area nearby that won’t be burnt or walked over, so that anything that does migrate from the slashed area can resettle itself quickly.
The peas are waiting, germinating beautifully in their biodegradable pots in the unheated greenhouse at home. It’s just a question of getting the ground ready with peasticks and some fleece to cover them, because we get our worst frosts in February in East Sussex, so this mild spell is simply a ruse to try and trap the unwary into thinking that the weather is on the up. It’s not.
Allotment haul and risotto recipe 1 February 2011
So it was dig day on plot #201 on Monday! The first task on my list was to lift some soup parsnips.
Soup parsnips are what I call these roots which are often forked and twisted or too skinny to roast. They exist because OH panics every year and thinks the first parsnips, which go into beautiful, not too rich, not stony soil, aren’t going to germinate. I insist that we won’t replant as the first sowing is just being slow. He then re-insists that we sow more parsnip somewhere else or ‘we won’t get any’. I point out that if parsnips grow in stony soil they fork and if they grow in overly rich soil they contort, but he says that’s better than nothing …
And always, by February, we have eaten all the first parsnips, which come up straight and huge and gorgeous, and we’re onto the second parsnips which look like mutants but still taste good, so we’re both right in a way!
Also harvested from plot #201: purple sprouting broccoli, kale and leeks. The psb is not nearly as good this year as last, when we had a glut, the kale has whitefly and the leeks are fully recovered from their tussle with the leek moth. All in all, a happy harvesting day.
Soup leeks can be used for soup, obviously, but are also great if you scrub them thoroughly, slice to thinnish coins or chop, and use in a hearty risotto made with wholegrain basmati, leeks, carrots and winter radish – in the last ten minutes stir in some psb and serve with grated cheddar rather than Parmesan.
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