Allotmenteering

Wheelbarrow

Never one to let a bandwagon pass by without hitching a lift, I decided to get myself an allotment. My little veg patch at home was quite successful, and I found the whole process of ‘growing your own’ so addictive we might as well have been cultivating opium.
We weren’t because we don’t have the space in our garden. Well we do, but it would mean ploughing up the lawn and I don’t fancy telling the kids that they can’t play football outside anymore because mummy’s growing crack.
So I put myself down on the waiting list for an allotment, thinking that it’ll be a couple of years before one becomes free, by which time the baby will be at nursery and I’ll have more free time to spend on it.
Three months later I was offered the pick of several half plots available at the local site.
With hindsight I probably should have stuck to the original plan and put it off for a couple of years. But if I was the kind of girl who sticks to the original plan I wouldn’t be on an allotment waiting list in suburbia growing vegetables for my young family in the first place, I’d be sipping champagne in my Manhattan penthouse and using my Pulitzer as a paperweight for all my wads of cash.
So I took the allotment and here I am.
I’m almost a total novice. I’ve been growing a few salads and container crops over the past couple of years, but I do have a potting shed, which whilst not quite making me Alan Tichmarsh, I feel must count for something.
I do have lots of enthusiasm and loads of books so I’m hoping everything will be ok.
By the way, the posts are in chronological order, so if you’re new to this blog and want to read about my progress (or otherwise) in order then you’ll have to start from the bottom. Like I did.

Leeks

 

August 2012

As I approach the beginning of my fourth year on the allotment I take a moment to reflect what I’ve achieved so far. I’ve gone from being a total novice whose only gardening experience was growing herb pots on the window sill, to feeling confident enough to start studying for a horticultural qualification. However you’d never guess this from the sorry appearance of the allotment, which currently looks almost as run down and weed infested as when I inherited it.

My problem has always been finding the time to keep up the day-to-day maintenance on the site and with family ill health, childcare and trying to keep up with other pressing work and home commitments the plot has suffered over the past couple of years. Even at the best of circumstances I have never been able to spare more than a couple of hours a week, most of the time, even less.

Plants which couldn’t take the double whammy of terrible weather and gardener’s absence, have suffered so none of my onions survived only a few of my potatoes yielded a crop and what pathetic broad beans I brought to the table was tough and bland. However proving the principle that even the minimum effort can produce rewards, I’m still bringing home food.  Those plants more forgiving of neglect such as rhubarb, raspberries and garlic, have been plentiful, and so far so good with my French beans, brassicas and root veg.

Still when I see the much more orderly, tidy and productive plots of neighbours I look forward to next year, and the very real opportunity to lick the place into shape. With all the kids at school full-time my plan is to spend several full days putting in the groundwork which had been overlooked in favour of more the pressing priorities of sowing, watering, weeding and harvesting.

Of course, I’ll never get to the point where I’m ‘finished’- that’s not how gardening works- but I’d like to feel I’m in control of the situation.  I’m also not going to provide much competition to the retired allotment holders who spend far more time and money on their beloved plots that I could or would want to. We are allotmenteers with very different motivations and priorities.

My own motivations and priorities have changed since year one when I simply wanted an inexpensive hobby which would provide occasional refuge from looking after the kids. Somewhere I could be alone and follow my own interests. Four years on and I’m more interested in getting down to some proper gardening so it’s time for a complete over-haul and redesign.

When I drew my initial layout with various sized beds divided by grass pathways, my ideal was for a pretty, low-maintenance, moderate yield plot. If I’m honest I only really achieved one of those goals and so now I’ll take what I’ve learned and start over with more pragmatic targets.

This year my guiding principles will be growing as much as possible with as little time/money invested as possible in the day-to-day up keep. Which means bigger and fewer beds, getting rid of much of the unproductive grass (which demands so much of my time in mowing), and improving the neglected soil.

I’ll have to spend several boring, physically demanding days clearing piles of dried out turf, rubble and weeds which have accumulated around the plot over the years, many more, digging weeding and sieving the earth before I can begin to start improving the soil. I’ll be motivated by looking forward to the day when once again, thinking about my allotment makes me feel exited instead of guilty. In fact I can’t wait to get started.

 

 

May 2012

I’m beginning to get a bit obsessed with herbs, possibly inspired by the fact that my garlic is doing so well on the allotment.  I find myself daydreaming about owning my own herb farm.

I’m busy in the ‘workshop’ producing gorgeous soaps from my organic lavender and made with beeswax from my own hives, while my husband is in the kitchen creating delicious culinary rubs and preserves. “Oh is that another TV crew at the door? Tell them we’re busy”.

Herbs appeal to me because they are as useful as veg crops, but as decorative/fragrant as flowers. So I’m making  Jekka McVicar my new best mate as I’ve decided not to buy any plants for the garden for the next year unless they are herbs and to experiment with taking cuttings from my own plants in the summer.

 

April 2012

I am a bit worried that I’ve been neglecting the allotment in favour of getting on with the garden at home. This is because I’ve been neglecting the allotment in favour of getting on with the garden at home so I’m not just being paranoid.

The weather has been oddly fantastic for early spring, and it’s proving difficult to hold off on planting stuff out. I keep reminding myself that we can still get frosts in May, but I’m pretty sure I’ll weaken and plant too early like I do every year. Meanwhile the insane amount of seed potatoes I have had cluttering up the place have now been planted, as usual I haven’t really labelled them properly so I’ll probably learn nothing from this year’s experimenting with different varieties.

I’ve really gone all out with Solanaceae this year as I also have around 50 tomato seedings. Even cramming as many as possible in the green house, I’ll still have dozens to give away. Still, people seem to like receiving them, unlike all my surplus brassicas which will and up on the compost. They’re just not the sort of plants you pop into a couple in pots on the patio really. Shame really, much easier to grow than toms and provide a more substantial crop, but I suppose with gardening, as with life, it’s all comes down to looks, and people who like picking a warm tomato on a sunny day aren’t going to find cabbages quite as romantic.

 

March 2012

This week I’ve had the joy of seeing a shoot emerge from a seed I have collected myself rather than bought. I realise sunflowers don’t present a massive challenge, but still, I feel like I’m becoming a proper gardener and that in twenty or thirty years’ time, I might just about get the hang of this stuff.

Having my own greenhouse also makes me feel like I’m really committed to growing stuff as more than a casual hobby, or an annual trip to B&Q to get some annuals.

Although I’m making some physical headway in the garden and on the allotment, I’m still pretty useless at the knowledge. I’m incapable of identifying all but the most obvious genus of plants and I lack the confidence to try anything more taxing than collecting the odd bit of seed when it comes to propagating.

I must resolve to work on that this year and maybe I’ll be shortly celebrating the first roots from my own cuttings, even if I have no idea what type of plant it is.

 

February 2012

This month has been a frustrating rush to get things done despite unexpected events eating into the time available.

I promised myself that I’d get the second hand greenhouse we bought in November put up before March. It didn’t seem too ambitious at the time, but that was before heavy snow and a cold which took me out of action for several weeks.

However with a couple of clear days and my husband looking after the  kids and buying replacement glass/ spare parts as I went along, I was able to get the frame put up over a weekend and the glazing went in with a day to spare before the end of February.

I’d been prioritising the greenhouse over the allotment which, in winter, isn’t too big a deal, but in early spring there are suddenly hundreds of urgent jobs to be getting on with. I now have a slightly sickening sense of panic whenever I think about it.

The compost needs turning and adding to the beds. New beds need digging and the turf given space to rot down. Beds need preparing for beans and potatoes. The rhubarb patch needs digging up and transplanting, but I fear I may be too late to do that this season.

Just as I’m about to get stuck into the growing To Do list, my son comes down with chicken pox. Assuming it spreads to his brothers this means I’ll be housebound with them for the next few weeks.

Panic rising.

January 2012

I’m not predisposed to depression. That’s not to say that I’m a generally cheery person either. I’d class myself as a bit of a moody bitch, but lacking the commitment for long term mental illness.

But there have been dark times. After taking the children to school following the Christmas holidays this week, I went off to the allotment to do some non-specific, but much needed digging around the plot.

Thing with digging is that it requires so little mental involvement that your mind can’t help going deep into a reverie of its own. Not like ironing or cooking which requires some attention just to make sure nothing sets alight, or sitting in a meeting where you have to focus your entire being on staying awake.

“Where shall I dig? How about here?” is just about all that’s required of the head, right up to, “I reckon I’ll stop now”. Leaving you free to deconstruct your last awkward conversation, pretend that you’re in a real life documentary about Amazing Women Who Do Incredible Things And Are Generally Fucking Brilliant- or in my case on this particular morning, wallow about really shitty stuff.

My usual gripes revolve around not having a job; how no one gets how creative and talented I am just because I’ve never shown any talent or creativity; about other kids being mean to my kids; about not having any money; about not living in Yorkshire and so on.. I still think about all that crap, but now it has been somewhat overshadowed by my dad’s brain tumour, what I like to think of- in my own little self-obsessed way- as the worst thing I have ever had to deal with.

It’s not good, I won’t go into details, but it’s not good.

Suddenly I don’t have three small boys around to distract me. I have free will to choose what I do with my time, and apparently I’m choosing to do nothing. I don’t want to stand here digging. I want to go to bed.

On my way home I begin to realise that I’ve never felt so empty. Not sad, not angry, just tired and hollow. I begin to wonder if this is how it starts. One minute you’re going to bed at ten in the morning, the next you’re stashing bottles of gin under the sink.

So instead when I get home I go into the garden, pick up a spade and start digging.

After a while I start to make plans. I measure out the area where I’ll put up a greenhouse and start digging up the turf, while I imagine what I’ll grow and in the allotment this year and try to figure out if I have space for chickens in the garden. After a couple of hours, I break for lunch feeling a hell of a lot better. Not cheerful exactly, but not hopeless anymore.

I probably needed to do something constructive, something positive to drag myself out of the slump of self-pity. Sadly shopping, drugs or gambling aren’t an option; housework would only make things worse. Digging and shouting at the kids. That’s what I’m good at and that’s what works for me.

I’m glad I invested in a decent spade as I think the poor thing’s going to see a lot of action in the following months.

August 2011

Everything seems to be going fairly smoothly on the plot, despite the tiny snatches of time I can actually spend down there being further eroded by holidays. However I’ve had a great harvest of potatoes (good old Charlottes), broad beans and runners, and now my pumpkins, courgettes and sweet corn are becoming equally successful.

Now I’m starting to clear beds as the crops finish and cover them with weed-suppressing material until I can work in some manure later in autumn. I know I should sow green manure, but the weeds still dominate the plot and I think it’ll be a couple of years before I can start direct sowing in earnest. At the moment everything needs a bit of a head start to prevent getting over run. It looks a bit odd with half the plot thriving and the other half tucked up under black sheeting. It makes me start to think about next year and what I’ve learnt from the past season.

-I won’t bother with much overwintering stuff this year. I faithfully put in garlic, onions and broad beans last autumn with the hope of a strong early crop, but it was all quickly over taken by early spring planting so I fail to see the benefit of overwintering. Certainly it takes up too much precious time for no tangible return.

– I’ll also resist the temptation to grow things we don’t really eat. I’m afraid I can’t see the point of the time and effort of growing peas when bags of frozen are inexpensive and far superior. Apologies if I’m undermining the whole grow your own ethos here, but I need to be realistic and I tried it, but I won’t be growing them again. Similarly I’ll pop in a few runner bean plants next year, because it really doesn’t take many to make a glut.

July 2011

What was I thinking, a flowerbed in an allotment?  Fine if you’ve got the time, but since my mother-in-law has been in hospital for the past few months the minimum weekly two hours I usually have at the allotment while my husband takes to kids to visit his parents has all but vanished and the school holidays means I don’t even get the short snatches of time while my youngest is at nursery. There is absolutely no way when faced with the ravages of neglect reaped on my lovingly grown veg that I’m going to take the time to weed around my sunflowers or pick a few sweetpeas. Needless to say the ambitious flower bed looks awful. Mostly weeds drown out what few flowers I got round to planted. The sweetpeas hds a short period of glory and I did manage to pick a couple of generous bunches, but without daily picking they quickly ran to seed. The Sunflowers and Helianthus also had their day, but they really needed a bit more support in such an exposed site. I’ll use the bed a bit more practically next year and maybe just dot a whatever extra flowers I have left over from the garden around the place where they can sink or swim without causing too much of an eyesore. Oh well, at least I aspire to beauty, which is the important thing.

June 2011

Apparently I do not know my onions.

The first year I grew shallots in my garden, they were amazing. Lots of beautiful, big delicious bulbs we were eating for months. Since I’ve moved on to the allotment, I’ve had no luck at all. OK last year, I didn’t really keep on top of the weeding, and every book on the subject will tell you that onions don’t like competition. I’m with them on that, so this year I was much more diligent with my hoe, but they still refused to swell or worse, they just rotted away. I’m no quitter and I’ll try again next year. Maybe I’ll have more success if I start them off in modules first. I’ve had some luck with leeks and garlic so it can’t be under some allium curse.

I rarely let repeated and humiliating failure put me off. I keep trying to grow tomatoes without the aid of a greenhouse, after many literally fruitless years it looks like I’ve finally cracked it as I have numerous sets of shy green tomatoes peeking out between the leaves of my battered looking Gardener’s Delight plants. Also I’ve just sent off an order for a potato growing kit as many failed attempts to grow spuds in a bag won’t distract me from my blinkered ambition to provide home grown pots for Christmas dinner. The worst thing with patio pots is that you have no idea of the crushing disappointment which awaits you as you go to open up the sack, after all the plants look great, lush and healthy, there must be loads of fat potatoes in there right?

Ah well, you win some, you lose some, and you can always try again next year.

March 2011
When it comes to growing from seed I make myself sick with worry about if I have provided the right conditions. I pour through specialist books to find out what I should be doing next, and every spare moment is spent checking for latest developments. I can’t quite work out which is more consuming, gestating babies or seeds.
All my seeds are being started off on window sills, which means the conservatory has become little more than an over-priced greenhouse and by next month every window in the house will be lined with pots and trays.
As I anxiously wait for the brown compost to become speckled with green buds of hope every book, magazine and seed packet tells me I’m doing everything wrong. In order to enable every single seed to succeed (does that qualify as a pun?) the gardening experts resort to the old trick of chucking resources at the problem. Firstly you simply must use special seed compost, otherwise there’s little point. Then you must ensure that you chose the right container, and here the advice varies from simple seed trays or 9cm pots to the more complicated multi-trays right through to the effective but expensive root trainers and jiffy 7s. Finally they must be given the correct environment to tease them into life. This means the right light, right humidity and crucially the right temperature. Obviously this means heated propagators and the like, and it is at this point it occurs to me that the seeds are in danger of getting better accommodation than the family, so lines begin to be drawn.
My seed have to rough it in whatever containers and compost I happen to have around and the attention I lavish on them has to make up for the lack of hi-tech equipment. I accept that not every seed will survive the rough environment, but those that do are made of sterner stuff and their innate thirst for life should serve them well for the future of neglect in store for them.
So every morning I ignore the hungry cries of my small children in order to check on the seedlings which are beginning to defy the odds and reluctantly emerge one by one from their compost beds like truculent teenagers on a Saturday morning. Why would anyone ever buy plants? Seeds are so cool.
February 2011
One of the things I love the most about being on the plot on a sunny Saturday morning is the social element of having others around for a quick catch up chat. I am particularly blessed with my two immediate neighbours and I’m always glad to have them around so I can pick their brains, about when to sow potatoes, or share glut-busting recipes. But on an allotment site a particular etiquette is observed regarding socialising. Baring in mind that many people don’t have much time to spare to tend their plot, it is very bad form to take up too much of their time telling them in detail about your political ideas or deriding the decline of education/NHS/spam-based meals, and if you get to calling for the return of national service, then it’s definitely time to move on and let your fellow allotmenteer, get on with a bit of weeding. So far I’ve been pleased to say I’ve rarely found myself nodding politely while burning with resentment as some well-meaning chatterbox eats into my precious digging time. That was until recently when a chap, after saying “I see you’ve had some luck with your leeks, none of mine came through.” then proceeded to spend the next ten minutes telling me how to successfully grow leeks, apparently unaware of the irony. As I politely nodded and smiled, noticing everyone around us desperately trying to avoid eye contact, I found myself thinking “I could really do without this.” Eventually the fellow moved on insisting that he really must get on with some work, vaguely implying that I had been holding him back. At last I was free to pester my neighbour for advice on the condition of my soil.
One of the great things about having an allotment is that there are so many experienced gardeners on hand to give you the benefit of their advice. However one of the worst things about having an allotment is that there are so many experienced gardeners on hand to give you the benefit of their advice.

January 2011

There’s not very much I can do at the moment. I can understand why most people steer clear of their allotment in the winter, but I’m still using my couple of hours a week to get on the plot and do as much as possible to prepare for the next year. If I don’t use the time I lose it, I can’t take it slow now and invest more time when it warms up. So I’m moving the compost bins in the midst of cold sleet, every step gets heavier as mud clings to my boots, but it’s very satisfying when, after a couple of hours, a job I’ve been meaning to get round to all year is done.
I’m also pleased to find that the pile of turf that I made last year when I was digging out my first few beds has indeed broken down into some fine loamy soil, without too many weeds. Levelling out this bit of ground has given me space for another bed, which I’ve nervously earmarked for flowers.
I say nervously because despite my best intentions and keen enthusiasm, I don’t really do pretty. I’m just not good at decorative touches or in fact anything requiring delicacy or attention to detail. My cack-handedness ruins all my dreams of beautifully iced cakes, pretty flower arrangements or attractively wrapped gifts. Whatever project I embark on with plans of delicate touches and a professional finish, always ends up smudged, ripped and bodged. But I stubbornly refuse to learn and so I’m harbouring fantasies of giving home grown cut flower arrangements tied up in brown paper and ribbon to friends who’ve invited us to dinner. They’ll insist it’s the most tasteful gift they’ve ever received. The reality will of course be a few muddy sweet peas shoved at them as I walk through the door and start drinking their wine. I aim for Nigella, but only ever achieve Waynetta.

December 2010

The allotment being covered in several inches of snow has stopped even me from getting my spade out. I’ve given up all hope of providing anything from the plot for Christmas dinner. As it is the best I can provide is a few frozen beans from the summer and a cabbage. I could have rustled up some leeks if I’d have thought to cover them before the snow, but now it would be impossible to get them out of the ground. Both the sprouts and broccoli I had been hoping for have failed, and I didn’t get round to planting any potatoes especially for Christmas day. I’m a bit annoyed with myself, but we have been busy so I endeavour to do better next year.
Starved of actual allotment time, I console myself with planning for next year by drawing up crop rotation diagrams, sowing charts and a diary to remind me of sowing and planting times. This is way more work than I did for my GCSE’s, or A Levels, or come to think of it my degree. I ponder for a moment how my life may have turned out if I had at some point put in a small amount of effort when it was actually required rather than only when I felt like it. But I get bored of this self-analysis before it manages to make an impact on my personality, and I get back to drawing little pictures of pumpkins.
Having been disappointed by plug plants last year and also not wanting to spend any more money than absolutely necessary, I’ve ordered lots more seeds than last year. I’m also hoping that with my youngest son starting pre-school for a couple of hours a week in the spring, I’ll also have a bit more time to spend on the allotment so I’ve expanded my ambitions a little from last year. Added to this is the fact that my husband’s pleas that I don’t neglect our own garden have finally begun to make their way through my inbuilt ‘ignore the husband’ filter. All these factors culminate in lots of seeds; loads of seeds; two boxes of seeds in fact.
We’ve not got a greenhouse yet so it means another year of packing the windowsills with DIY propagators and begging the kids not to use my trays of emerging seedlings as sets for their latest toy soldiers’ adventure.

September 2010

A busy time at home means I’m not getting to the site much at the moment. Instead I contemplate how far I’ve come and what my future plans are. Just over a year as an allotmenteer and I am, on the whole, glad that I took it on. Time and money have been a bit scarce, but I’ve still managed to get most of the plot divided into established beds, with plans for more within the next few months. Given that I had started out with little hope of harvesting anything at all in the first year, I’m fairly pleased with the results. For every total failure (broccoli, Brussels) there has been a surprising success, (potatoes, cabbages) and lessons have been learnt and experiments conducted which I’ll benefit from next year.
My golden rules for next season are:
Don’t get a rush of blood to the head as soon as the sun comes out in April and plant all my tender crops too early.
Do pop over and water regularly, and don’t leave it until I’m next due on the allotment.
Do keep up with the lawn mowing regardless of how much I hate it.
Do remember to weed the onion bed, they really don’t like to share.
This year the allotment has been more about me getting away for a couple of hours on my own for a bit of a break from work and the kids than it has been about gardening. Next year though I hope to get a bit more serious and maybe even start contemplating ideas such as successional planting, crop rotation and extending the season. If we’re not eating home grown Brussels for Christmas dinner, I will never forgive myself.

October 2010

Marking my territory

The ‘Titchmarsh’ bed
As I have a terrible memory and I don’t really know what I’m doing, I’ve been keeping an allotment book in which I write down what I’ve been upto, bed layouts, future plans and so on. Pretty early on I found that I have difficulty in remembering which bed is which and so I began to mentally christen each new bed I dug with a name to tell it apart from its neighbours. It didn’t take long for this ‘just in my head’ convention to make it onto paper as I draw up layouts of the plot.
Initially I had stuck to what I know and named them after characters from Thomas The Tank Engine, but this quickly began to irk me. The fact that I wasn’t giving much thought to the whole thing seemed a bit creatively lazy of me (might as well have numbered them) and was also beginning to resent my habit of defining myself by the kids.
Why was I naming MY beds after my sons’ favourite story characters? I don’t see them turning compost in the rain very often.
So in for a penny, in for a pound: I decided to sit down and do this thing properly by coming up with some proper names which would reflect me and be sufficiently memorable to serve their practical purpose.
At first literary characters seemed like an impressively worthy idea. But I quickly realised that if they were to be an actual reflection of me then John Yossarian, Holden Caulfield and Emma Woodhouse may end up being replaced for Bridgett Jones, Lucky Santangelo and Noddy.
I went through a few more ideas: Famous authors? (see above);Countries I’ve visited? (sadly too few); People I know? (who do you leave out?). Until I eventually hit on the topic which would be sufficiently relevent to me, yet still be interesting enough to be memorable.
Great Yorkshiremen (and, of course, women).
Once I had the subject, it was then just a question of narrowing down a potentially exhaustive list.
In the end I came up with a top 10 for the beds I already have, and a decent reserves list for those I have yet to dig.

My beds (so far and in no particular order)
Boycott
Bennett
Palin
Titchmarsh
Charlotte & Emily
Paxman
Dench
Close
Cook
Wilberforce

Once I had attributed names to each bed I was able to really use the system to make clear and distinct plans for the whole allotment, and I must say, I honestly don’t understand why more people don’t to it. Everything is so much clearer when your bed has its own unchanging handle, instead of being the ‘spud bed’ one year, ‘brassicas’ next, ‘beans and lettuce’ the following year and so on.
Maybe other people do do it and just don’t advertise the fact.

I however have decided to take things one step further. I was recently surveying my site when I realised things would be even simpler and clearer if I were to transfer my named bed system from the page to the plot.
So I set about making little blue signs for my beds with each of their names scrawled on so that I can immediately see which of the beds I’m going to be working on without having to consult my notebook.
I’m aware that my plot will look a little odd with all these random little signs looking not unlike a series of bodged graves, but I’m hoping they will be looked on sympathetically and with humour , or just ignored entirely, although I do fear they may invite vandalism. I hammered in the first posts last week, tryng to make them as unobtrusive as possible (painting them blue didn’t help). Hopefully all will be well. Who knows, maybe I’ll even start off a trend?

September 2010

I don’t know why I continue to be filled with surprise and delight to be able to bring crops home at the end of my allotment sessions. It seems I was a bit too proficient at not raising my hopes about what I’d be able to achieve in the first year, but now I find I’m carting wheelbarrows full of produce back with me. Including the last of the potatoes and beans, first of the cabbages, broccoli some misshapen carrots and yet more courgettes. This is not to say I have been entirely successful, there have been as many failures as successes, but I hadn’t really thought I’d be bringing anything back at all. As a result, we’re a bit unprepared. It’s not too much work to include a handful of home grown beans into your daily diet. The real effort there is making sure that everyone knows about it and is suitably impressed. However when your cupboard is bulging with produce which must be eaten (don’t even suggest composting it) things get a bit trickier. This may be why my husband is beginning to lose the twinkle in his eye when I say to him, ‘look at all the stuff I’ve got from the allotment’. It’s the end of summer and as head cook of the household he has had enough of making courgette-themed dinners and squeezing a few sliced beans into every meal. Whereas I see a wheelbarrow full of reward for all my hard work and enthusiasm, he sees an hour spent cleaning and peeling, a sink full of mud and Tetris-style fridge packing to put everything away.
Next year I intend to be much more prepared to deal with gluts. Whatever I can’t whip up into an original tasty meal will be pickled or frozen. Next autumn I will be mostly chutneying. Otherwise I will have to accept the possibility of throwing home grown organic vegetables onto the compost heap. NEVER.

August 2010

Leek collars
In the name of experimentation I’m trying out a tip I read in one of the many gardening books I pour over in the hope that reading about growing veg will make me an expert in the absence of practical experience, while I can’t get to the plot very often.
I remember being very proud of my bed full of hardy looking leeks last year. The first and only thing I managed to produce in those first few months. However, I was quite disappointed to find after the strenuous effort of uprooting the beasts that they were almost entirely made up of tough green leaves, with very little of the desired white.
So I’m following advice to blanche my leeks by tying cardboard tubes (from kitchen or toilet rolls) around them as they grow.
It looks pretty weird, but I think quite cute, but we’ll see if it’s worth the fairly minor effort of putting them in place, and the fairly major inconvenience of hoarding cardboard tubes around the place of the last few months.July 2010As the rain gets rarer, my hope of managing the allotment with just one weekly visit has hit a bit of a stumbling block. Now I have to get down there more regularly or else all the work I’ve put in so far will be pointless as the plants will simply die of thirst. It’s not that I can’t get there; it’s just that it means I have to bring at least one small child with me. This means trying to water as much as possible before said child becomes bored with attempting to drown himself in the water butt and decides to take a wander around all the other plots.
Many of my instructional allotmenteering books actually highlight the benefits of having a plot with children. They illustrate their point with pictures of golden-haired toddlers in delightfully garish wellies carefully watering a plant, or harvesting some perfectly formed carrots. Apparently children gain knowledge of where food comes from by helping to tend an allotment, many books even suggest giving youngsters their little garden so they can grow quickly rewarding crops such as courgettes, sunflowers and of course, carrots.
Maybe this world of smug blonde families happily living the good life does exist outside of gardening books, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall programmes and cynically targeted MacDonald’s ads, but that’s just not how my kids roll.
The eldest will take the occasional fleeting interest, going from ‘Can I help,?’ via ‘I thought it was a weed’ to ‘I’m bored, can we go home now?’ in less time than it takes me to unwind the hosepipe. The younger kids don’t even bother to feign interest in the wonder of agriculture and instead go straight to chucking stones in the communal water butt and playing chace through other people’s plots.
Or at least they would if I let them. After a couple of attempts to encourage the children to get involved, I’ve accepted that they are just too young at the moment and it’s not fair to other gardeners to have my brats running around.
I’d like to think that the kids at the allotment would be looked on in a favourable light as fostering an interest in gardening from an early age. This is blatantly not the case. The presence of children is clamped down on pretty quickly at our allotments. I only dared take the kids there a couple of times when I first started, and I have never seen any other children anywhere near the site. Nevertheless there is a stern warning in every annual renewal letter that if you insist on bringing children to the allotment they MUST BE SUPERVISED AT ALL TIMES.
What the gardening books forget is that in most areas the majority of allotment holders are still retired, older people who think that there is a time and a place for children and the garden is not it. Nor is the aeroplane, restaurant, theatre, shop, cinema, or wherever else they happen to be.June 2010This gardening lark has really begun to change my view of the seasons. I’ve previously divided up the year in a much more school-term kind of way. In these terms September and January feel much more like beginnings and May is right in the middle of the summer term. But when you’re growing food, September is in the middle of the harvest season, January’s in the middle of winter and May is only the end of spring. It’s all a bit confusing and much more changeable than I’m used to. A spell of warm weather, and something clicks mentally and as far as I am concerned it’s summer. However a proper gardener isn’t so easily carried away and knows that a bit of sun means nothing in April as you can still get a frost.
Anyway, I’ve decided to bring a bit of summer into the allotment by planting a few flowers, as much to distract from the weeds as anything else, just a few nasturtiums and some little bedding plants here and there. As little as I know about growing veg, I’m even less acquainted with flowers, especially the annual types. It’s always seemed to be a lot of effort for not much return, but I’ve loved the sweet peas I’ve grown for the past few years, so I reckon there’s no harm in trying to make the plot a little prettier.May 2010Carol Kline says she defies anyone not to be enchanted by the wonder of raising plants from seeds. Defying seems a bit strong, but you know what a psycho nutcase Kline is, but on this one, I’m in agreement with her. It never fails to amaze me how seeds burst into life and go on to become such amazingly big, beautiful, or tasty plants, all from a tiny seed and over such a short amount of time. You may think I’m being a bit fey and fanciful, but may I remind you that I have been known to describe the miracle of birth as ‘not all that’ and’ a bit boring and ow-ie’.
However despite my love of seeds, I’ve decided to buy a fair proportion of crops as plug plants, all my brassicas in fact. The reason for this mainly is space, as I don’t have a greenhouse and my husband gets a bit twitchy when every windowsill in the house is covered in mud. It’s also a bit quicker than doing it all myself, and this year time is of the essence. I’m also relying on the guarantee of decent plants thereby increasing my chances of actually having something to harvest.
When my delivery comes, it’s very exciting, if a little overwhelming. I suddenly have to pot on a huge collection of plants and for the time being my little kit-greenhouse is packed to bursting.
I try to stagger planting out into the allotment in the hope that this may avoid a glut, but I’m not sure that it’ll make that much difference.
I have high hopes for my plug plants. Gardeners’ World magazine raves about them, if they do fail, it’ll be a costly experiment. You can write off a packet of seeds and a bit of compost if things go wrong, but the much higher expense of plug plants will be harder to swallow.Update Jan 2011.
-Actually the bought plug plants did turn out to be a bit of a disappointment. Although, I’m not sure if I can really blame the plants. I did have lots of success with the cabbages, but all my broccoli collection either bolted, or failed to crop at all. And my sprouts have become ironically named given that the plants are only a foot high and the buds of would-be sprouts are about the size of raisins.
It’s probably my fault for not watering the broccoli enough (no idea what I did wrong with the sprouts though), but it’s still put me off buying plants because it just costs too much.April 2010In my enthusiasm, I’ve committed a basic error. Fooled by a spell of sunny weather, blood rushed to my head and I decided to plant up my French beans with the naïve hope that there probably wouldn’t be a frost. Even as I was planting them, I noticed that no-one else was doing the same, except for one other bold soul whose tender little plants were shivering away at the bottom of their bamboo poles. I should have known better, but I couldn’t face taking all the plants back home again and returning them to a cramped windowsill. After months of digging and preparing beds, I desperately wanted to have some sign of progress. I wanted the allotment to look like it was growing things instead of being just patches of turned over earth.
Needless to say, the frost came and my plants were killed. The first foreboding sign I spotted as I approached the plot was seeing that my fellow early-planter had wrapped several layers of fleece around his little bean plants. I cursed his lily-livered soul for crumbling in the face of the chilly weather. At least my plants died with honour trying to tough it out, not like his pathetic beans, hiding in their protective blanket.
My neighbour offered his condolences and sympathised with my haste to get planting. He’s also got an overstuffed greenhouse filled with plants waiting to go out. Even John (top allotmenteer, retired professional gardener) had been caught out a little with some of his potatoes being hit by the frost. I pointed out my own spud plants, now blackened by the cold. “Oh don’t worry” my neighbour reassured me, “they’ll come back”. It’s times like this I thank my luck of being surrounded by helpful more experienced gardeners. I’d have assumed they were dead and dug them up.
Replacing the beans has turned out to be a bit of a trial. Actually, it’s an impossibility. I’ve planted my left over seeds direct, but really I want to put plants in to give them a decent start-off. My preference is for climbing French beans, but I can’t find them in any of my local garden centres. Plenty of runners, peas, mange tout even kidney beans, but no climbing French beans. I know all the books say dwarf plants are much better, but I’ve tried them a couple of times and I’ve found that they don’t crop as well and the beans are more vulnerable to being eaten by animals. So I want the climbing sort. It’s a bit weird, I have no idea why they are so elusive and unfortunately after a lengthy search I have to give up and put runner beans in instead. Never mind, at least I’ve learnt a lesson. I’ll not be so keen to ignore the weather next year.

March 2010

After a spot of reasonable weather and a slight absence from the allotment I return to face quite a shock as a sea of yellow almost carpets the plot. Did I accidentally broadcast sow rape seed? Sadly not, it’s dandilions raising their not-so pretty heads. Armed with a dandilion weeder, but faced with what seems to be an infinate task, I look to lovely neighbour Steve in despair. ‘Do you dig them all out?’  I ask.
‘I try to,’ he sighs, clearly wishing he could give me a more satisfying answer, ‘but the only thing you can really do is keep mowing to stay on top of them’.
And that’s the stark fact I’ve been avoiding. We own a petrol mower, but I’ve been reluctant to spend so much of my precious allotment time luging the beast back and forth, just to keep the uncultivated parts of the plot under control. It feels like I’d be wasting half my time on non-vegatable growing activites. Also my husband isn’t keen on the idea. He’s not convinced the mover will take kindly to being jostled about and so he keeps repeating the increasingly fantasical insistance that the allotment looks fine.
Eventually I give in, and the improvement to the allotment is radical and immediate, so I’ve committed myself to giving the plot a minimum monthly haircut, stepping up to fortnightly when neccesary.

February 2010

Sowing madness is well underway. I’ve got lines of little pots and trays filled with potential lined allong the shelves in the conservatory. For me this is one of the most enjoyable aspects to gardening as you eagerly anticipate the arrival of the first green shoots. My husband however finds it all rather irritating and keeps muttering about the new conservatory becoming a very expensive greenhouse, while the kids drive me to nervous exaustion by loitering with intent around my burgeoning seedlings and causing the occational bit of devastation.
Nevertheless nothing can stem my entusiasm, and whenever I get the chance I’m digging away in the allotment, clearing all the beds I established in autumn.
The frost has done a marvelous job at breaking down the heavy clods, but there’s nothing to help me out with the ardous task of pulling out all the weed and grass roots.
I try to be as thorough as possible, but there are still so many tiny peices of root lurking within the soil, I know it’ll take years to get them under control.
Nevermind, at least I’m having success growing something.

January 2010

With so little to do this month, I’m concentrating on cataloguing my seed order which arrived before Christmas. Membership of the local gardening club proves once again to be an excellent investment with the £2 annual membership fees getting me 50% off seeds from Dobies.
As I don’t have a greenhouse and my plot is still in a very rough state, I’ve decided to order a fair amount of veg, all my brassicas in fact, as plug plants rather than seeds. It’s expensive, but I’m hoping that it’ll provide slightly higher chances of producing something I can harvest, than if I was relying entirely on my own resources. I’ll let you know how I get on.
Ordering seeds is so exciting. Looking through the catalogue, a bit like porn for gardeners. Of course the images in the glossy pamphlet is pure fantasy. Home grown tomatoes just don’t look like that, and don’t get me started on the almost phallic carrots and geometrically perfect parsnips.
Still, I dream of a plot green with abundant crops instead of weeds, and maybe even tastling that superior flavour which I  am assured only home-grown organic food can possess.
However I’m resigned to mostly failure for the first few years, until I can spend more time actually working on it, instead of just dreamily flicking through seed packets.

December 2009

Green with envy.

I don’t get to the allotment as often as I’d like, so I visit for about an hour a week. It’s not much time to get stuff done, so you’d think the last thing I’d be doing is wasting valuable time staring in envy at someone else’s plot.
I have half a plot, the back half was a jungle of weeds and nettles until the council reclaimed it for cultivation by ploughing up the whole patch. It has now been taken on by some keen allotmenteer, who has set about marking out and planting up beds.Curse them.
Their progress mirrors my own, but in fast-forward. Without the crouch grass to contend with they’ve been able to get on with actually growing stuff.
Incapable of just being pleased for another human being and fellow gardener, I found I was consoling myself by imagining their impending doom. ‘Of course that council rotorvator will cause them no end of problems when the weeds come up again’ I grumpily told myself.
But it made no difference to the slight dip in my spirits every time I got to the allotment only to see yet another strip of turned earth neatly established, while I’m still working on clearing a path around my plot.
However I have been cheered by discovering that my new neighbour is a woman. Maybe she’s like me. Maybe she’s a working mum, grabbing what moments she has to get on the site. Suddenly I’m on her side cheering her on. Now when I spot her seedings popping up, I think, ‘good for her’.
Another reason to be cheerful. The leeks I bunged in because they were surplus to requirements in my veg patch are thriving; much better than the ones I have at home. This is a good sign.

November 2009

Plotting.

Digging has become considerably easier now that the ground is wetter. Clearly bored when faced with an achievable task, I’ve decided to put down the fork for a bit and focus on establishing borders.
My “dig a bit here and it’ll be fine” approach has left me with a few slightly wonky beds. So far I’ve managed to convince my skeptical husband that this is an intended method to aimed at creating an informal arty plot, without regimented beds and formal layout. I’ve even managed to imply that his suggestion that I create a plan is dull and faintly bourgeois.
However looking at the site with an objective eye, it would seem that I’ve shot past the amusingly unstructured layout that I was aiming for and moved on to rubbish and messy. So I’m going to suppress my artistic/lazy tendencies and get back to the drawing board.
Another imperative for establishing a bit of structure is that my Dad is coming to give me a hand whipping the allotment into shape in a few weeks and I don’t want to waste the valuable resource of a temporary slave. I want to be able to have a design we can follow.
Who knows, if Dad’s back holds out, we may even be able to have to whole plot established in the first year. Something I’ve never contemplated as possible before. If he keels over in crippling agony after the first day, then somebody’s going to be rather disappointed next Father’s Day.
Anyway, marking out the external boundary has made me realise that my plot has colonised most of the path between one of my neighbours so I’ll have to spend some valuable time reverting uneven wasteland into maintained pathway. It’s especially essential now that the plots at the back have been taken and so the access is needed more than ever. That doesn’t stop me resenting every shovel full as I toil on ground I’ll never be able to cultivate.
I cheered myself up by planting some garlic. So next year, I’ll not only have a lovely striaght path, but also bad breath, well, worse breath.

October 2009

Principles at stake

I was a bit shocked with how difficult the plot has been to dig over. The first couple of bits I did had been done before only last year so it was mostly a case of clearing weeds. An arduous, but not impossible, task. However the areas I’ve been working on recently haven’t been touched for a long time. The entire top few inches are matted grass and roots, and underneath that is compacted thick clay soil. It’s tough stuff and made me think seriously about an alternative plan to clear the site.

I’d always intended to dig it over by hand. I don’t really know why, maybe it’s my Catholic heritage which means I like to suffer. I’m not keen on the idea of using chemicals, but I think that above all part of me considers anything other than pure graft as cheating a bit. I really think I’ll get more out of the whole experience if I at least try to do as much of it myself.
Fair enough if you’re a seasoned gardener and you’ve created loads of plots from scratch, you might not find the idea of tedious manual labour quite as enticing as I do. But for me this is all a first and I’m aspiring to do everything the hard way.
Besides, I (generally) like digging and the sense of achievement it gives you. My only ememy in this endeavour is, as always, time. I don’t have much kiddie-free time to get stuck in. But as long as I make the most of the time I have and don’t harbour any hopes of getting the whole plot done this year, then I reckon it’s achievable.
That is to say, I thought it was, before I hit the hard ground.
My husband suggested we hire a rotorvator.
“I know everyone says it cuts up and propagates the weeds,” he said, “but at least we’d be underway and we can tackle the weeds later on.”
“If we’re going to get a rotorvator in, then maybe we should use gypsophate (weedkiller) first.” I suggested. My husband looks at me for a moment, “Even Alan Titchmarsh recommends using it to clear ground and gardening organically from then on” I hastily added.
The stakes were high, we are a middle class suburban liberal couple discussing the possible use of chemicals on ground we would eventually grow veg for the family. I felt guilty even entertaining the idea. It felt akin to plotting against the monarch. My husband kept glancing nervously towards his River Cottage cook books and I noticed that both of us had lowered our voices.
However in the end I decide to stick to my original plan. Afterall, the hassle, money, time and guilt which would be involved in the gypsophate/rotorvator method wouldn’t be worth it. They’ll be no using chemicals on this plot. Unless it’s for my personal recreational use of course.

September 2009

My blue bed

Somehow I manage to clear a sufficient space to plant some leeks I had left over from my small plot at home. I am so pleased with my acheivement I decide to frame it. Not satisfied with run-of-the-mill wooden planks, I decide to make a style-statement and paint my planks bright blue (cornflower blue according to Ronseal).

      My bed – T. Emin

Having raised beds in itself isn’t particularly controversial. But It could be said that given that one of my stated aims is to make the most of my most limited resource -time- and to be as sparing as possible with my other pescious resource – money – hand painting planks of wood could be seen as a waste of both. However I feel an exception has to be made in the name of artistic expression and individuality.

Also, as I see it, I’m trying to prevent my plot getting the inevitable moniker “the one with all the weeds” by ensuring that it becomes known as “the one with the blue beds”. Obviously there’s just the one at the moment, but I’m hoping to get another three in shortly, and then I think I’ll focus on turning over some ground ahead of winter, and leave the rest of the  landscaping stuff until next year.

Another advantage of the blue beds, is they look like I’m making the effort, and provide a sense of progress in a way that bare earth doesn’t.  Besides, I think they looks pretty. You like?

August 2009

Breaking new ground.

A bullet will penetrate 40” through loose stone free earth before stopping. That’s less than through soft wood or clay.
I ponder this little statistic as I attempt to dig over my compacted, stony, heavy soil on my new allotment.
Slamming my spade into the ground with some force, I then take a little run up and jump with both feet on to the top of the blade, adding my, not inconsiderable, 130 lbs to the task. Still the blade barely breaks the surface.
Oh dear. I’ve been here for an hour- a precious child-free hour, and I’ve only been able to clear an area the size of a Lilliputian postage stamp.
It’s possible my vision of a beautiful productive plot, looking like a Victorian cottage garden but with the agricultural output of a small African country, may not be happening any time soon.
My neighbours did warn me. Several of them emphasised the need to do ‘a bit at a time’ (as if I had an alternative).
A few of them have been suprised that I’m attempting to do it myself by hand.
I’m not sure what else they think I’d do. They could mean employing weed killer or a rotavator, but I suspect they mean instead of getting my husband to do it.
If they think they could get my husband to do it they’re welcome to try. The problem with my husband is, he doesn’t let enthusiasm and ambition blind him to the realities of disappointment and crippling back injury.
My very lovely next-door neighbour has advised me just to turn over the top couple of inches of matted grass, roots and weeds, and cover them up with black porus material to rot down over winter. So that’s going to be my plan. However I do have to clear one bed for the raspberries I have coming in autumn. The top turf from this bed I’ve just been piling up in a big heap nearby as I don’t have a wheelbarrow to cart the stuff to the compost bin.
I try to use the lovely neighbour’s plan as a way to turn my laziness into something resembling a premeditated decision.
“I was thinking of covering up that pile over there, so when it rots down I’ll have my own little raised bed type thingy” I confidently suggest.
He looks at for a moment, I suspect he thinks this is a terrible idea, doomed to failure, but he smiles and nods,
“You can always give it a try”.

Free stuff I have inherited (not weeds)

  Compost Bins           Cold frame

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