Category Archives: General

The Social Side

In the last year and a bit, we’ve had a few visitors to our allotment. Visiting family and friends, who would come by to “see what it’s all about.” Kind compliments have always been given and they’ve even assisted with some weeding. Given that we don’t have a garden, only three little window boxes on our Juliet balcony, we’ve always wanted the allotment act as leisure space, as well as a “working garden.”

Lindsey enjoying the sun.

Lindsey enjoying the sun.

When we started re-organising the plot back in November 2011, we marked out a small lawn area next to the herb beds. Scott did the Man Thing; levelling, adding top dress and seeding the area. Over a year on, it’s now a great patch to stretch out on after a hard morning of weeding. A lovely charcoal BBQ was donated to us earlier this year and last weekend we finally got it fired up.

FIRE.

FIRE.

We gathered with our friends; Lindsey, Dan and Jen for a slap up meal in 30C weather. We stayed for several hours and were all lovely and pink by the end of the day. Our next allotment purchase will likely be one of those cheap pop-up marquees from Argos.  Still not quite prepared for this proper summer weather!

Jen & Dan say hi!

Jen & Dan say hi!

Still, despite the heat, we managed to pack two bottles of chilled Prosecco with us. Made even more delicious by the addition of strawberries and raspberries picked right there and then. Here’s hoping the weather keeps up and we can do it again this weekend. It’s a whole other aspect of the allotment to enjoy, the joy of sharing it with people.

Prosecco and Strawberries anyone?

Prosecco and Strawberries anyone?

Looking Ahead

Now, I’m not much of a New Years resolution person. I never vow to lose x amount of weight or to completely stop eating sweets. I usually think of something I’d like to improve on, rather than anything absolute. Last year I decided I need to make more effort in keeping in touch with friends and family. Now, I’m not perfect, but I have been much better about it in the last year. Also, following my resolution of ’05 I certainly eat fish far more often now.

As we cleared out the plot, packing away the pea frames, cleaning out the shed and such; I got thinking about what could I improve with at the plot.

I could certainly improve my timings with crops, there were (and are) far too many beds sitting empty when they should have been producing something. Keeping up with the weeding is another, our fruit bushes virtually disappeared under a blanket of grass and bindweed this summer.

However, it was our carrot crop that inspired my ultimate “resolution” in the end. This summer we grew two different varieties of carrot. One standard orange variety and (for pure whimsy) a purple variety. The summer crop did so well that I did a second autumn crop. The first crop was untouched by pests, so it was a little disappointing when the second crop was a bit damaged by carrot fly. Now, I do need to be more vigilant about protecting crops, which could be yet another potential resolution, but it’s not what I’m getting at.

My new variety of Trouser Carrot

My new variety of Trouser Carrot

When we lifted the two varieties of carrot, both grown side by side, there was a marked difference in the amount of damage each had suffered. The hybrid orange variety had come out far worse. The non-hybrid purple variety had minimal damage. Now, this is purely observational and by no means a proper scientific experiment with statistical significance, proper reproduction or control groups. Still, it made me think more about the pros and cons of hybrid crops. Hybrids are generally considered high yielding  but do have their limitations. I certainly grew F1 hybrid vegetables last year and many did just fine. Modern varieties certainly have their own value, heritage varieties were “modern” at some point in history after all. Hybrids more often than not, gain us highly valued yields  even if they have the draw back of producing seed that carries little to no value*.

As I said, I don’t believe in absolute rules, so I will continue to grow some hybrids, but really want to try out more uncommon non-hybrid varieties in the allotment this year. I’ve got my copy of The Real Seed Catalogue. I have always had an interest in heritage/ non-hybrid varieties, in part of their cultural and natural history, but also for their genetic value. As a biologist at heart, I like to think with this resolution, I can add my own small support to continuing and preserving something that may have an immense value to us and our environment.

Non-hybrids galore!

Non-hybrids galore!

* For those that have been lucky enough to have avoided several years of university genetics courses; F1 hybrid plants are the offspring of two parent varieties of plants that have been carefully cross-pollinated. These parent plants or “inbred lines” each show a very desirable trait such as profuse flowering, growth vigour or uniformity, for example. Individually, they don’t tend to do that well. However the first generation, the F1 generation, show “hybrid vigour” and display the very best traits of their respective parents. However, this doesn’t last beyond the second generation as the poor traits tend to start showing up in the F2 generation and  beyond. Thus the seed you collect from an F1, won’t necessarily produce offspring anything like it.

Mangled and Mutant

In the course of harvesting over the last few months, we’ve had plenty of comedic carrots, curious courgettes and one very peculiar pumpkin. I like to think of our not-so-perfect  veg as being rather like X-Men. They’re simply mutant individuals with super powers.

Double courgette

Odd cucumbers

We certainly had a good laugh at our odd-shaped cucumbers. The mangled carrots, such as the one that placed second in the Ugly Veg class, were great, even if they were a bit of a faff to wash/peel/chop. I was hoping the tomato crop would have provided us with at least a couple Little Bottom fruits. I’ll have to settle for the multitude of Willy Carrots we got instead. The super powers clearly not just tasting great, but making us laugh until we were could hardly breath. Dangerous indeed…

I’ll leave you with a story in pictures of our Mutant Pumpkin.

Funny pumpkin

Bigger than your average supermarket pumpkin.

 

Silly face for a funny pumpkin.

Bit weird, as is the pumpkin.

From mutant to mangled and straight into the freezer.

 

The Pest Philosophy

It’s the peak of September and we’ve been enjoying the full flush of harvesting this month. While we’ve been enjoying the fruits and veg of our labours, we’re certainly not the only ones. While our rather brave Allotment Fox got relocated a little while back, there are new residents about. Mainly the two young fox cubs I’ve spotted several times dashing between plots.

Spot the fox!

Usually the magpies start making the most horrific racket when they’re about. I haven’t thought much about it until I arrived at the plot one morning and found our corn crop nearly gone. My parents are visiting from Canada at the moment and I was really looking forward to serving them some lovely fresh sweetcorn.

Smooshed corn stalks

As I surveyed the damage, a plot neighbour came over and commiserated at our loss. She told me she had long given up on growing corn and it always happened each year. The foxes seemed to have an uncanny knack for knowing when you were just about to pick the corn, nabbing it before you could get it. She also told me that the Old Boys at the allotment would insist that it was badgers that did it, but the delightful gift of fox poo in the corn bed told me otherwise. I still did have one Old Boy insist that it was badgers nonetheless.

Munched!

Between netting and the odd handful of slug pellets, that was one of the few major losses we’d suffered. The slugs only really started to get an upper hand on us when we fell behind on the weeding. However, keeping the beds clean and a bit of sunshine was a fantastic means of slug control, I kept finding lots of “cooked” slugs in the midst of the clear beds. Something to remember for next year.

Crispy slug

It may seem strange, but I wasn’t really that bothered about the loss of the corn and a few other things that have been eaten. I feel we’ve gotten off fairly lightly when it comes to animal pilfering. The netting over the brassicas and fruit has been doing wonders at keeping the birds off. Of course, other than the Blue Tit that somehow managed to get itself trapped inside the fruit cage the other day.

Generally, I don’t blame the various pests for eating the odd thing, I can’t really blame them for just trying to survive. I just try to take in stride and learn how to best to minimise any loss next year. I’m a bit of a softie when it comes to wildlife, which is why I’m so chuffed the sunflowers I planted have been such a hit with the bird life. Maybe next year, I’ll grow a special patch of corn just for the foxes…the rest will be protected by a ten foot high electric fence.

Happy birds

 

Life on the Allotment

While we do get our fair share of human visitors, it’s the non-human visitors I get really excited about. Whenever I’m there enjoying some peace and quiet on my own, I’m never really alone.

I often lose time watching the bees, following the beetles scuttling across the beds or trying to identify all the different birds I see. Even yesterday, I had to pause with the watering to scoop out a frog that had gotten trapped in the water cistern. As it hopped off into the tall grass, I realised I should have re-homed it under the comfrey patch, where there’s millions of slugs hiding.

Speaking of slugs, fifteen minutes of hand picking though the ornamental beds yielded nearly a half bucket of slugs…yum. Also, I never realised how much noise is emitted from a bucket of slugs. Lots of popping, slopping and the occasional plop.

Bucket O’Slugs

So far my favourite visitor has been our own Allotment Fox. Obviously very young, a year at most, it was often spotted trotting though the plots, following along as I pushed my wheelbarrow up to the  green waste bins. Recently, I was working away when I saw it standing only a few meters away from me. I then noticed that most of its tail was missing and it looked like it was a very recent injury. I could tell it was in pain and worried that it had/could become severely infected. Yesterday, I found out the RSPCA had managed to trap it and I hope it got some basic veterinary care before being released. I was sorry to hear they had been asked to relocate it, I do miss the foxy company, even if it did pee on my fleece tunnels…

Allotment Fox

There are things other than slugs and foxes of course, even rumours of badgers, but in the meantime here’s a sampling of all the life that can be found on the allotment.

(Another fantastic video from Scott)

Hampton Court Flower Show Shopping

I always swear to myself that I will never purchase things at flower shows. I know that it’s almost always possible to get the same stuff; whether it’s plants, tools or decorative doo-dads, at much cheaper prices elsewhere. I did first break this rule at Chelsea Flower Show this year by buying a couple of hand tools from Burgon and Ball. Okay fine, it was several hand tools, but they’re sooo nice.

Scott and I had a lovely time at Hampton Court Flower Show today and utterly abandonded my “no buying things at flower shows” rule. Well, we certainly spent far too much money. I have managed to justify all of it, of course. I love the Hampton Court show, it has a great variety of things there, isn’t wall-to-wall with people like the Chelsea show and has lots of Grow Your Own stuff (hence the purchases). I also have a special love of the Palace, as I spent a year there doing my landscape design diploma, and wish I was still going there twice a week now.

Hampton Court goodies.

I bought some seeds, two of carrots to fill in the bed when the early potatoes come out and some more French Beans to fill in where the cucumbers were going to be. The peas are struggling terribly and may need filling in as well. Also, I love French beans and welcome any possible “glut” I may create with planting these.

I also got four cucumber plants and two Jalapeño plants to replace those lost in The Great Plant Die Off of June 2012. I easily justified the purchase of these, as I’ve been hunting for a supplier of veggie plants with absolutely no luck. So many suppliers are completely sold out, I guess I wasn’t the only one to suffer big losses this year…

We have been having great success with the Lautrec Wight garlic we planted in January, so the display from The Garlic Farm was irresistible. I got four seed garlic bulbs, their Softneck Pack which includes Solent Wight, Iberian Wight, Early Purple Wight and Albignesian. I’m looking forward to planting them up later this summer for a vampire-free year next year.

Don’t be fooled by its small size, that garlic will blow your head off.

I also loved the display from Eagle Sweet Peas, I’ve bookmarked their website and plan to order some seeds from them for next year. Our own sweet peas have been growing like crazy, despite the wet weather, and I’ve been picking them as often as I can to prolong the flowering. This has lead to virtually every room in our flat smelling of sweet peas, which is utterly divine.

Eagle Sweet Peas

Masses of sweet peas!

I’ve come home with lots of excitement and enthusiasm for what to do next year. Even though the weather has been rubbish so far, I’m hoping next year will be better and I can crack on with all the things I want to do. Even if my wallet won’t thank me for it.

 

Hey Good Lookin’

One of the perks of being a professional gardener is that I often come home with leftover plants, or “strays” as I like to call them. In the flat we have a Kentia Palm, a massive Peace Lily and a six foot Ficus tree (nicknamed Benji for Ficus benjamina), all rescued from a one way trip to the tip.

We often over buy plants for clients’ gardens, which keeps me with a steady supply of bedding plants, bulbs and perennials. Other than the few pots outside the front door and the kitchen window boxes, we don’t have any garden space at home. The space at the plot has become a fantastic home for many of my strays and other garden finds.

I’ve already mentioned my terracotta bust Matilda, but clearing old gardens has also yielded a couple of other ornaments which I’ve added to our bright blue shed.

Decorated shed

We don’t have a cut flower bed per se, but we do have ornamental beds at the top of the plot next to the access road. There used to be raspberries in one part, but they have since been moved into the fruit cage. I planted leftover daffodil and tulip bulbs there, but with those over, I’ve let it go a bit more wild.  I’ve sprinkled in some wildflower seeds I got from Landlife Wildflowers,  so we’ll see what comes of that.

The other half has lots of lavender in it, along with some fennel and a rather massive comfrey plant. At one point, I think our resident allotment fox decided to make it into a bed and squashed the whole thing flat. I gave it a good chop and added it to the compost of course. It’s had the bonus of keeping the comfrey compact and leaving some space for more leftovers. I planted some stunning blue Allium azureum and firework-like Allium schubertii. Also a few Stipa arundinacea (aka ‘Pheasant’s Tail Grass’)  under the bee house. It’s a bit of a mish-mash, quite unlike my professional plantings, but I like them so much individually that they work just fine as a group.

Having the best of both worlds, in this case things that are both edible and beautiful, I also have a bed of sweet peas under planted with nasturtiums. I love the smell of sweet peas more than I can express and also the wonderful peppery taste of the nasturtium flowers in salads.

First sweet pea flower of the summer.

We also planted lots of sunflower seeds, sadly only a few have grown so far. I love the red ones best, but would happy for any to do well, as I’d like to leave them for the birds to eat.

I also have a good wander around the site regularily and see what’s blooming in other plots. There’s an empty plot near the front gates that is full of poppy blooms right now. We have a few that have shown up in our plot, but I’m not sure what colour they are yet. I love the purple ones best and noticed some growing wild by an old industrial building across the road from our house. I’ll collect some seeds when they ripen and add them to our patch.  If the veg growing goes bust, I may just convert the whole plot into an ornamental garden.

Just kidding…but only just.

Wild Poppies

Ladybird Lovin’

Just a quick post today, been very busy recently and this weekend is no exception. It was the Chelsea Flower Show yesterday and company BBQ today (food all being done by yours truly). Then Scott is doing the London to Brighton Night Ride for the British Heart Foundation. Along with my gardening van, I’m part of the team’s support crew, which basically means driving down to Brighton in the very early morning to collect bikes and sleepy riders.

The weather has been El Scorchio this last week, so I’ve been popping by the plot most days just to try and keep up with the watering. Tomatoes are ready to go out, but I think they’re going to have to wait a few more days…

The future looks aphid free for them though, as I have been seeing an incredible number of ladybird beetles on the plot (aka Ladybugs if you’re North American like me). As I’ve been weeding, I’ve been carefully moving them out of the way. Unlike me, the hot weather isn’t slowing them down at all and they’ve been very frisky. When I see lots of ladybird nymphs soon, I’ll be a very proud auntie.

(Another fantastic video by Scott)

Gifts That Keep On Giving

Before we launched onto this enterprise, I did a lot of reading in an attempt to understand, or at least begin to understand, just what we were getting into. One factor that was often discussed was money. In many respects you save money by not having to buy produce, through recycling materials in the most creative ways and, definitely in my case, saving money by not needing a gym membership. You also spend money on things like too many seeds, materials you just can’t find no matter how many skips you look in, and, if you’re anything like me, books.

However, there’s one financial aspect that was never discussed in any books; gift giving. I suppose it can’t be counted on or predicted in any way, as it depends so much on the kind of people we are surrounded by and by our own personalities. There may well be allotments out there where no one speaks to each other, everyone stuck in their own isolated world. I highly doubt it though, it just isn’t The Allotment Way.

One recent gift I recieved was through the Royal Horticultural Society’s Grow Your Own Campaign. As one of the first 10,000 supporters, I received a lovely parcel of seeds donated by Mr. Fothergill’s Seeds.  Very pleased with my gift of  sweetcorn ‘Swift’, spring onion ‘Ishikura’, summer squash ‘Sunburst’ and my favourite tomato ‘Sweet Million’.

Seeds from the RHS

A couple weeks ago our onion sets arrived in the post and I diligently headed to the plot to get them in the ground while the weather was still dry. I had allotted a full bed for them, but it quickly became apparent that I had far too many for the space I had. Every other square inch has already been reserved, so I faced the dilemma of what to do with them. It was about then our plot neighbour, Tom arrived. I offered them to him, as I couldn’t bear to see them go to waste. He was very pleased with them and naturally asked me how he should plant them.

This morning Scott and I got an early start at the plot. We were soon joined by Simon and his partner Alice. Poor Simon did his back in during the week, so wasn’t able to do much other than take Alice, who hadn’t seen the plot for a few months, on a tour of our work so far. Alice also arrived bearing a gift of some asparagus crowns from her mum. Leaving us with this to plant, I had to then work out where on earth to put them.

When I opened the box, I was amazed to find three different varieties and five crowns of each! I had thought of reducing the rhubarb patch down to half and planting asparagus. However, I had been thinking this would be something to do next year, after we had a chance to see how the rhubarb performed this year.  After much waffling, I ended up digging up two of the smallest rhubarb plants and dumping them into some plastic pots. I’ve rather haphazardly planted the asparagus, far too close together I’m sure, in an odd ‘L’ shape around the remaining rhubarb.

The new asparagus, erm, bed.

Once again Tom arrived on site just in time and my waste-not-want-not philosophy was allowed to remain intact. I admitted it wasn’t the best time to transplant them, but Tom was very happy to take them. He wanted to return these recent favours and offered some cauliflowers seedlings from his cold frame. As it’s been quite chilly lately, he said to just take them whenever I like. He also promised to bring some more seedlings from home for us to have. As someone who has really no space at home to start things, this was a most welcome gift.

Herbs Within Easy Reach

Things are certainly ‘hotting up’ at the allotment, still plenty of planting to do and seeds to be started. Slightly ironic to say that as the recent hot weather seems to have abandoned us, it’s now cool and cloudy again. Maybe this the respite we need to finally be able to water things without it all evaporating as soon as it hits the soil…

It’s Saturday, so we headed to the Wimbledon Farmers’ Market as they had their Spring Plant Fair on. Along with our usual free range eggs and seasonal veg, we also picked up some lovely herbs for our window boxes. We bought most of our plants from Herbal Haven, who also do online orders. They had a great selection of herbs and friendly, chatty stall attendants.

Lovely herby things.

Although I am planning to have a herb bed on the allotment, it’ll will mainly be used for larger things such as dill, sage and rosemary. I’m also hoping to get larger crops of favorites, like basil, that the window boxes are just a bit too small to provide. For the last couple of years the only growing space I had available to me was the three window boxes I put up on our Juliet balcony. I am slightly rubbish at remembering to water the window boxes regularily, thus lining them with cut up bin liners and water retaining gel powder have been my absolute saviours. However, it’s all worth while as I find it very handy to have stuff close at hand when I’m cooking. A few snips of chives or parsley in many dishes does absolute wonders.

Lots of lovely herby things.