High summer allotment harvests

I know that the end of June isn’t really high summer, at least not in climate terms and at least not usually, in the UK, but this year seems different. The garlic has been suggesting it’s ready for several weeks and the shallots are definitely ready (in fact most of them are already curing in the shed at home, lightly covered with a net curtain to stop them getting too hot) while almost all the oriental salads and leaf greens are bolting within a day or so of germinating!

So we’re fighting something of a rearguard action at present – harvesting at a time when we’d usually expect to be putting most of our efforts into weeding around newly sown crops. Lots of seeds just aren’t making it this year: maybe it’s too hot for them to germinate without the seedling getting scorched by the next day’s sun, so we’re at a bit of a loss to find the rhythm of allotment life right now. The container-grown carrots are fantastic, and as they use up the soil that's already been used to grow our early potatoes in containers, we get double the harvest from our intensive labour.

I had a sowing of scorzonera that didn’t germinate at all, so I’ve grubbed up the row and given that space over to beetroot. I’m resowing scorzonera this week, but it won’t be ready to harvest until autumn next year, which is a bit annoying. The greenhouse is so hot I keep expecting to find the tomatoes have pre-cooked themselves! I’m watering the floor daily, as well as the plants, but it’s impossible to keep a greenhouse on plot at a reasonable temperature in all this heat.

The broad beans are over, so we’ve taken out the row which finished earliest and planted some mini-cauliflowers under fleece. We harvest them when they are fist-sized (OH’s fists are the measure, being that much bigger than mine!) and they are a bit of a luxury as they require a high level of input (raising in pots, transplanting, fleece, slug pellets, regular watering) but they make a delicious Thai curry or cauliflower cheese flan!

As we take out beans and peas, a row at a time, we try to put something else in their place, but in the first year on a new plot and with such unusual weather, we've really been caught out this year by not having crops ready to take the place of those that are gone.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, June 30, 2011 5 Comments

Allotment heat!

The heat is on in all kinds of ways for us. The heatwave is refusing to bring its promised storms and we’ve decided to enter the ‘Most Creative Allotment’ competition. Judging is early in July so we have a lot of work on hand to try and get this very new (to us) plot looking presentable. We’re not doing it because we expect to win, we don’t, but to try and encourage other people to enter allotment competitions and/or to look at innovative ways of growing crops that:
1. Improve health and wellbeing
2. Conserve planetary resources
3. Re-use and recycle existing materials that would otherwise go to waste.

Some of our ‘creative’ ideas will get good marks, we hope: we conserve water in butts and don’t use a hose-pipe, we mulch many crops and we try to use our small ecosystem effectively so that plants are in the best location for them to do well without intensive inputs of water, shading, external nutrients etc. An example is our basket herbs on the greenhouse deck – they are all sunlovers, but they are mulched with gravel to keep in the root moisture that they get from their water bottles and the containers were all rescued from bins and skips (with the owners’ permission) to be re-used.

Other ideas may raise eyebrows. The edible landscaping might be considered a bit ‘weird’ and the summer zigzag is bound to cause comment (and maybe consternation). It’s a zigzag of coriander, dividing up compartments of radish, salad onions, beetroot, oriental lettuce and spinach. In other words, it’s a complete meal in a bed. I’m about to sow the casserole zigzag, which contains parsnips, radicchio, winter radish and swede – much the same idea but for winter harvesting. Well, we’ll see how we get on. Even if we come last, I promise to be honest about the results!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, June 28, 2011 4 Comments

Allotment mulches

This week we’ve mulched the borlotti beans. They get grass clippings to keep the moisture in and the weeds down. In the middle of the rows are large bottles that we water with watering cans (or if we are desperately short of time, with the hose) and usually six big bottles of water twice a week, with mulch, is enough to keep borlotti beans alive. One reason for this is that they are beans you only harvest at the end of the summer, not pick daily beans like French, runner or snap beans, so they take much less water as they aren’t constantly producing bean pods to replace the ones that have been harvested.

As you can see, we’ve moved the outward-leaning bean poles to plot 103. The bean frame is designed to ensure all the beans hang away from the plant and can easily be seen. Bean wigwams, pretty as they are, tend to hide vast amounts of beans on the inside of the wigwam, so you have to poke around to find them, and risk damaging smaller beans that aren’t ready to be picked. It takes two minutes to pick our bean frame, compared to ten minutes to pick a wigwam.

The pumpkins and squashes get cardboard over which we lay some wood chippings which are given away free by our local council. This helps keep the fruit off the damp soil and conserves moisture too. In the corner of each pumpkin bed is a little plant like a leek or a marigold that can take a bit of bullying from a cucurbit and still offers added value in terms of pollination, harvest or just prettiness.

We also mulch the strawberries with barley straw while they are fruiting, and grass once they stop and the net has been off for a couple of weeks. That gives the birds time to get in and harvest any lurking insects that interest them, and then the grass rots down over the autumn and winter to provide nutrients in the soil for the following year’s strawberry crop.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, June 22, 2011 2 Comments

Recycled allotment containers

I’m teaching a series of classes (details below) and in advance of the first one, I’ve been looking at the planters on plot 103 and sprucing them up. Half the galvanised ones have been given an accent of pink paint to harmonise with the rocking chair and the new repurposed cart.

Our neighbours threw the cart away, presumably as their youngest child had outgrown it. We (with their permission – do NOT skip-dive without permission, it’s theft!) took it home and OH covered up the pastel paint and pictures of ducks and frogs with the new hot pink vibe, drilled holes in the bottom and then took it to the plot. It now contains a mixture of sand and old compost (that means compost that’s been used once, such as for our first early potato containers) over a thin base of gravel to ensure drainage.

When the sowing medium has settled, in about 48 hours, we will sow carrots in it. This serves several purposes: it re-uses the potting medium to produce a second crop (carrots will fang if the soil is too rich or has stones in); it re-uses a container that would otherwise have been burned or ended up in landfill; it stops carrot-fly finding the carrots and riddling them with slimy, horrible bore-holes; and it makes people smile when they walk past.

The carrots we’re going to grow are Kuttiger, white carrots that we’re actually putting in a little late but I have planted them later than this in previous years and they’ve done fine. They are wonderful plants that get sweeter as they age in storage, which means that by the end of the winter, you can make a carrot cake with them that needs only half the sugar of a summer made carrot cake!

Grow and Tell

2 hour workshops combining horticulture and literature, £3.00 per person for upkeep of Weald Site. Meet at 11:00 at Weald Avenue Allotment Gate, Hove, East Sussex. Each session includes time to explore a little of the allotment site and finishes at the shop so people can buy seeds and supplies.

24 July 2011, 11:00–14:00 People, Places and Plants. How to create a container garden and writing about the relationship between people and plants. A longer session to allow time to enjoy the Weald Allotment Open Day and all its attractions!

18 September 2011, 11:00–13:00 Reaping what you Sow. How to harvest and store crops and writing stories with appropriate pace and detail.

13 November 2011, 11:00–13:00 Digging deeper. Preparing a growing bed and exploring motivation and character in stories.

15 January 2012, 2011, 11:00–13:00 Planning for Spring. Looking at the plot and seeing how it can be improved!

Prior booking is essential as each session is limited to eight people. Please email growandtell@hotmail.com to reserve a place on a session.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, June 15, 2011 0 Comments

Allotment rain at last

And quite a lot of it too! It seems like it hasn’t rained all year, although that’s not true, we had some pretty good downpours in April, but since then the allotment has really suffered. It’s worse for plot 103 than for many of its neighbours because they are mature plots, while the longest established plants on 103, apart from the trees and the currants, are the raspberries that we moved up in November. This means that nothing on our plot has much of a root system, and that more than 80% of what we’re growing is annual or newly planted, with small roots, a tender stem and lots of new green growth: all of which adds up to being totally at the mercy of the sun and wind, of which we’ve had plenty!

So to have rain, solidly, for 24 hours was wonderful, although we could have done without the strong winds that blew up at around 3pm on Sunday and made the last hour of allotment work a chilly, gusty, torment.

While OH finished off the greenhouse and worked on setting up water conservation systems on that and the celestial greenhouse (formerly known as the voodoo shed), I repotted three of the four mint that live under the apple trees: spearmint (for cooking); ginger mint (for deterring insects) and chocolate mint (for the sheer glorious fragrance) – we also have eau de cologne mint but we don’t have a planter ready for it yet. I put some mint offshoots into smaller pots to sell for Practical Action, the charity we support with plant sales at the classes I teach.

Then we had to brave the rain to divide and plant the tub of golden raspberries that I ‘found’ at a garden centre on Saturday. They are the autumn fruiting Allgold variety which has the best flavour (in my opinion) of the golden ones, and from the one pot we managed to make four good canes, meaning that they cost £2.50 each – you get around a kilo of fruit for each 30 cm of cane, and in the shops you pay £2.00 for 250 grams of British grown golden raspberries in October, so we should more than earn back our expenditure in the first year! Except we’d never sell our raspberries of course, but it’s interesting to think about what we spend and what we gain: I describe our allotment growing as ensuring we are ‘self-sufficient in the luxuries’ because I couldn’t afford, on a regular basis to buy the top-of-the-range soft fruit, early vegetables and exotics that I grow and consume with a greed bordering on gluttony. I do give produce away too though!

And by then we were so soaked it really didn’t matter, so we picked peas and beans and went home to hot showers, podding and freezing!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, June 13, 2011 4 Comments

Allotment Book review: Grow your food for free, well almost!

There is a plethora of allotment books in the world right now, one could almost say a glut! And of course I’ve added my own book to the heap, so I have no right to complain, but some of the books out there are really not much use to the serious grower, and misleading to the novice one.

Not so Dave Hamilton’s Grow Your Food for Free, well almost. It’s a book that fills a niche (which is the whole point of a specialist subject book, there are far too many coffee table style allotment books out there, full of lovely pictures and devoid of useful information) and that niche is upskilling and informing the environmentally conscious (and conscientious) frugal food-grower. I can’t recommend it too highly because, apart from anything else, I am horrified at the amount of money I see new allotment-holders spending on their plots, only to vanish after a couple of months: all their expensive kit gets thrown away, or ruined by the weather and then the next person to take on the plot, all too often repeats the same process.

Dave shows people how to create paths, make wicking beds, build a compost heap (although if you are a novice composter, think twice before using the fence corner as he suggests: you may rot out your fence if you don’t get your compost mix right!) and even how to build a shed. He also focuses on rarely discussed areas of allotment life such as foraging. As I am about to make rose petal jelly from foraged rose blooms I really do applaud this approach: once you get used to growing your own, it’s a simple change of focus that reveals food everywhere, going to waste, and allows you to harvest and consume it without damaging the environment.

The illustrations may not suit those more used to stylish allotment books but they have the virtue of being accurate and detailed. The tips, hints and ideas are all superb – if you are a seasoned grower you will still learn something from this book.

I recommend it, even if you don’t have a plot of your own yet, because you can get on with foraging, cooking and storing food even before you reach the top of the allotment list. It’s the best book on allotments (apart from my own, of course) that I’ve read for many a year!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, June 8, 2011 5 Comments

Allotment rain at last

And it may just be enough, with the drop in temperature, and the cloud cover, to save the peas! Peas are a cool season crop, which means that when the temperature rises above a certain point they put on a mad thrust to reproduce, and that means creating the biggest fattest peas possible before the roots of the plant become too dry to feed the seed growth. This fantastic surge to pass on their pea genes to the next generation means that even little pea pods begin to swell and it’s a sign that the pea season may be about to end.

Hot dry winds just speed up the process. Usually peas tend to fill their pods from the ground up, which means the biggest peas are always lurking in the leafy undergrowth and difficult to find, but when the weather is hot and dry, the pods also start to mature at the top of the plant, even though they haven’t attained full size, as the stressed plant tries to maximise survival opportunities for its seeds.

As an example, look at these three pea pods. On the far left, a normal sized pod. On the far right, an immature top-of-the-plant pod. In between a pea pod from the top of a stressed pea plant – still small but fully filled (as far as it ever will be) and with the colour change that indicates that the peas have already started to dry inside the pod, which is what peas do to get them through the summer until they germinate next year. Once you see the pods become opaque you need to take them off the plant, even if they are small, as they contain a chemical compound that then instructs other pods on the same plant to start to dry out … that’s why when you miss a filled pea pod, that plant really slows down its pea production factory!

So with any luck the peas will revert to growing more pods and leaves, not putting all their energy into filling existing pods.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, June 6, 2011 3 Comments

Allotment whitefly

My list of hates is endless, at least when it comes to allotments: slugs, snails, tomato blight, potato blight, carrot fly, wireworms, eel worms, greenfly, blackfly and whitefly. The one at the top of the list is usually the most recent one I’ve come across. Last week it was slugs after discovering that camouflaged monster lurking on plot 103 and today it’s whitefly.

When we were on plot 201 we have problems with whitefly on our brassicas – they were almost at epidemic proportions on the kale there.

I started our brassica growing on plot 103 with high hopes and high hygiene: I decided to grow Redbor, which is a red kale with a high degree of resistance to most kinds of attack, I didn’t plant them out until they were six inches tall and therefore pretty robust (ie not tender) and I hoped that using the edible landscape technique would reduce predator attack. In that respect at least, edible landscaping hasn’t worked! Every single one of the 13 kale in the ground has got whitefly. Some just had one or two, some were infested to the point where a cloud of off-white speckles rose into the sky as soon as I touched the plant. Under the leaves, where they prefer to lurk, I found the white blotches that show were the eggs have been laid and the larvae have emerged.

A female can lay around 200 eggs on a plant, and their lifecycle is short, so they reproduce rapidly and become a massive problem. The larvae eat the sap from the plant but then leave a sticky deposit on the plant which can allow a mould, called sooty mould, to develop and that kills off the plant very quickly.

I tend to use soapy water in a spray to deal with whitefly – it’s not organically approved (but then we’re not an organic allotment) and you can’t use it if there is any hope of getting other insect life in the way as soap sprays have an ill effect on everything. So, for example, I’d never use soapy water on blackfly on my broad beans because I know that once the blackfly appear, the ladybird larvae will follow soon after and enjoy feasting on the flies. The problem with kale plants is that they don’t seem to have much appeal for ladybirds and I checked for the larvae very carefully before I sprayed.

I’ll have to spray every two or three days to keep the whitefly at bay. From now on I’ll try to encourage more insectivorous birds through the winter by putting out feeders for them but I fear that our allotments are simply going to be full of whitefly forever. So despite the lovely haul of peas, strawberries, sweet peas and the first courgette, I am a bit fed up.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, June 2, 2011 10 Comments

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