Making a start for 2018

I haven’t updated in a really long time, basically just because not much has been happening on the allotment and lots has been happening outside the allotment. But today I sort of made a start on everything. This year I’ve got a bit of a challenge because there’s always a lot to do but even less time in which to do it. Under normal circumstances I’d take snow as a sign that I’m supposed to be inside and very much not gardening, but friends, we’ve had a LOT of snow.

I was sharing these pictures as much as possible earlier in the month in an effort to gain sympathy because the snow really ruined my week. Anyway, Northumberland’s been hit slightly less badly by snow this particular weekend, but that’s not to say it’s not there:


The reason it’s getting to the point where I’ve got to either plant things or just say ‘Right, I’m not allotmenting this year’ is because in just a couple of weeks, I’m off to Connemara for the spring to a) Improve my Irish and b) Do some gardening. This is really exciting because I’m a big believer in combining hobbies. I’m yet to work in paintballing and climbing, but maybe I’ll have thought of a way by 2019. Anyway, I’m very nervous/excited about it and hope that I actually manage to use my Irish instead of wimping out and speaking English the whole time.

What this means for my allotment here in Northumberland is that I have to prioritise. The artichokes did really well last year so they’re staying where they were, and then today I put in potatoes, peas, and wildflowers. All while wondering vaguely about the symptoms of frostbite.


Me, questioning the wisdom of spending a Sunday outside

Potato-wise I’ve gone for four types this year: Anya, Ratte, Golden Wonder and Kestrel. I’ve grown all but Golden Wonder before, and I kind of see them as a good, solid choice. Ratte’s the best-tasting variety I’ve ever grown so I was keen to try that again.


And then the peas are our good friends the Lord Leicesters, which I’ve grown for the last three years and which always seem to do pretty well. The weird support structure I created for the peas last year actually survived the winter, so I’m growing them in the same place, which I’m hoping is fine for peas even though it very much is not fine for potatoes (working on the idea that you’ve got to rotate where you plant potatoes every 4 years, I’ll possibly have run out of places entirely by next year, although that could be a good excuse to make use of the non-cultivated bits of the allotment that I’ve been ignoring the whole time).

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So that’s it for the time being, really. I’m hoping I’ll have time to plant some things by the time I return in May. It’s tricky because I’m very much an ‘all or nothing’ type of person and there’s a real temptation to try and grow EVERYTHING, but I’m just not going to have the time, so it’s about working out a way of still enjoying the process of growing my own food but at the same time, not overstretching myself so that it becomes a chore.


Time to learn some useful vocab


That time of year…

…when I carefully photograph individual vegetables I’ve successfully grown and blithely neglect to take photos showing all the weeds on the allotment. And I regret with some force any accusations that this is what I normally do.

My best achievement (in this context, probably not ever, although come to think of it I’m struggling to remember what my overall best achievement is) was this little aubergine:


The plant was another of the Wilkos rescue plants, priced at around 50p, and it had looked like it was dying for a while, but I was away for a week and suddenly it’s done the thing it’s meant to. I’m not sure how much bigger it’ll grow or when it’d be wise to harvest it – probably in the next week, since you can’t really rely on Northumberland staying warm for any extended period of time.


Luckily my carrots aren’t subject to EU regulations (actually I can’t joke about Brexit because it’s too serious and we shouldn’t be leaving the EU, but I’ll try and once again steer this away from politics and BACK to the calming gardening that I engage in as a way of distracting myself from all the stupid stuff my government do), but this is the most success I’ve ever had with carrots. I managed maybe 10 in total, all very small, all very misshapen, but all very edible, so I’m counting that as a success.

My kitchen has slightly over-dramatic lighting and it sometimes looks like the artichokes are having a secret meeting. I’ve had lots of guests recently and I keep happily presenting them with artichokes, regardless of whether this is something they want or not. I also managed a couple of cauliflowers this year (which I greedily hoarded and kept to myself).


And here’s an example of one thing I managed to produce with partly home-grown veg, it’s incredibly ‘hipster’ (I gather that’s the term the young people use) but luckily, I’m so out-of-date that it doesn’t even matter if I’m a hipster because it’d only ever be accidental. I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that emos evolved from goths and I was too old even to be an emo and maybe it means I can never go back to being a goth because they’re all evolved now. But enough of my neuroses. Almost time for the weeds to start dying back (one day, one glorious day) and I can start my planning for next year, wherever I’ll be. I’ve become obsessed with a programme called Garraí Glas on TG4 (I’m so short of time these days that I like to combine my hobbies so if anyone knows of any way of combining climbing, paintballing, speaking Irish, going on political demos, AND gardening, please get in touch) and it’s giving me LOADS of ideas for new things to try.

The wonders of social media

Being a modern young* woman of class** and distinction***, I occasionally indulge in the odd Tweet, and imagine my happiness when I saw that Thomas Etty Seeds had some spare to give away to the first fast-fingered twitterers to respond. I wasted no time and was overcome with delight when this came through my door:


SO MANY! There are some very hot chillis there (which I might have to donate to people of less delicate constitutions than my own) and also the odd turnip and heirloom tomato. If I didn’t have so much to do between now and spring, I’d be wishing it was here already so I could start planting all this. It’s sometimes overwhelming selecting seeds and planning everything out before the year begins so in many ways it’s nice to just have enough there.


These are the things I’m most excited about now though, Icelandic poppies! I hadn’t even heard of them but I’m hoping they’ll do really well, at least they’ll probably not find the Northumbrian climate too chilly.

Got to spend plenty of time on the old allotment this weekend for a change. I’m still really proud of the artichokes, I know I keep talking about them like they’re my own children, but look how beautiful they are:

My last post linked to a comparison of how quickly these creatures have grown and I was just about to apologise for concentrating solely on the artichokes again before realising I unashamedly love them and before the season’s out, plan to take a selfie next to them so it’s clear how big they are. I don’t know if they’re just easy to grow or if I somehow have the right soil, but either way, I’m hereby crowning them the main success of 2017 (failures including the usual carrots, and even potatoes this year for some reason).

Some other things did grow, though – I did a bit of blackberry picking before realising that the ones on my allotment were even better. I have a thornless variety and I’d expected there to be some kind of catch involving compromising the quality or yield but actually, they’re delicious and plentiful. This is the first year I’ve had blackberries from it and I’m pleasantly surprised. In the interest of regional diversity I should also point out that up here, they’re called brambles rather than blackberries and while I don’t have strong personal feelings either way, I wanted to point this out for the sake of regional dialect preservation.

Pictured are also my fearsome carrot crop, which succeeds only in looking weird although these are the biggest I’ve ever actually grown.


So finally coming to the end of the summer, I’m a bit relieved because soon I won’t be having to do battle with weeds and feeling guilty that I never win this battle. Time to watch them die back naturally and have a bit of a rest myself.


**petty bourgeoisie

***very little

Homegrown meal

I failed to do a July allotment update, partly because not a lot happened but mostly because I wasn’t here, I was on Inis Meáin learning Irish, as is my custom.


Can’t think of many nicer holiday destinations tbf

That only took up 95% of my mental capacity, so I used the remaining 5% not for normal things like ‘remembering to sleep and to feed myself’, but instead for ‘noticing the plant life on the island’. I was quite taken with how the potatoes are grown, for example, with seaweed being used as compost (and I can attest to the fact that this makes them taste especially good). My own potatoes aren’t doing fantastically well this year, but they were fairly low down the priority list.

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I had a great time despite the neglect of my own allotment, and I’ll be going back to the Aran Islands later in the year. Not sure if there’ll be anything notable in terms of plant life but I will, as ever, remain vigilant.

Back to my own allotment, then, and the best thing that’s happened is this:


I had no idea artichokes grew that quickly – compared to just a couple of months ago, or even back in May, they’re huge, and I’ve now got to look up interesting artichoke recipes because I think I’ll have a few to eat before long.


The asparagus is still doing OK – it’s less obviously successful than the artichokes but it’s survived (I thought a lack of water had killed it off totally while I was away).

Of course, the most important bit of harvesting all this food is eating it. This is the first year I’ve successfully grown garlic, and I even had ‘kind-of’ carrot success (full disclosure: I bought a Rainbow Carrot set designed for children from Homebase) after growing them in containers.

I managed to make a stew that was maybe 90% home-grown (I bought the dill because mine all perished while I wasn’t paying attention, and I also added fennel because I had some to use up):


(I’ve made more colourful meals, it’s true, but it’s the taste that counts). So despite my ongoing occasional neglect of the allotment, it’s still worth having since it gets me the odd free meal. Tune in next time when I’ll exclusively be eating home-grown potato wedges.

The ridiculous but practical hat

In my last post I said I’d never expected to use the Factor 50 again this year, and I was surprised once again today by the need to bring out what I’d call my ‘ridiculous but practical Cuba hat’:


Humble author may look foolish but is protected from the sun

It’s been an absolutely roasting weekend, so I made a deal with myself whereby I’d get as much done as possible before late afternoon, to justify an evening in my pyjamas, eating sorbet. Life goals.

Headed along to the Roots and Shoots garden in the morning to buy extra onions (space having been created on the allotment by the fact that something ate half my cauliflowers) and saw some nice flowers on the way:


An idea for Allotment 2018 maybe. On to the current allotment, and as always it’s a bit of a mixed bag, or not so much bag as ‘weedy field’. Artichokes and strawberry patch are both doing really well:

It’ll be the last year of the strawberry patch being there, as it’s about time I moved it to improve the yield. On the advice of Wise Allotment Friend Chris, I’ve started growing strawberries from the runners in a container, ready for the next patch (I haven’t worked out where it’ll be because allotment planning is an activity for the winter when there’s nothing else to do).

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I’m not really sure what’s going on with the asparagus – I mean, it seems to still be alive, which is a good start, but I’m still not optimistic because it’s the wrong soil type, see ‘the constant failure of my carrots’ for more details). Meanwhile the rocket patch has really taken off (hahahaha I might have mild heatstroke), and is home to the odd bit of stray borage that I’m leaving because borage is basically my favourite thing to grow and I forgot to plant any extra this year.


Also on the advice of Wise Allotment Friend Chris, I pruned the fruit trees recently and am HOPING that I’ve done it properly because I’d somehow feel more guilty for being responsible for the death of a tree than I would for accidentally pulling up a pea seedling. So far so good though – might have the first cherries this year.

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I’m also fairly optimistic about the tummelberries, which might also produce fruit for the first time this year. Not sure if I’ve actually eaten a tummelberry before but I have an extremely geekish fascination with hybrid berries, what do you mean, all my interests are extremely niche. I’ve also happy enough with the sprouts and cauliflowers that HAVEN’T been eaten (their survival being down to polytunnels) and of course, the peas haven’t let me down once over the three years of this allotment being mine.


Not pictured: the author, in a small and muddy heap

So as always it’s been busy, with the feeling that I’m kind of keeping on top of it but ‘only just’. I’m planning a couple of other slightly mad but not totally mad allotment projects, on which more later.

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And finally, I know I’d said before I was trying to cut down on the amount of plants on the terrace because, y’know, I need to have hobbies other than growing plants in order to be a well-rounded and adjusted individual, but I’ve got a few things on the terrace I’m happy with at the moment (and it gets so warm that it’d almost be a pity to not use it). I’ve got tomatoes, some happy grow-bag strawberries, various types of mint (I thought the ginger mint had had it, but it’s come back to life. Obviously I’m keeping the different types quite far apart so I don’t end up with mint that doesn’t just taste of mint). And the rescue aubergine, I couldn’t just leave it in Wilkos. I guess if I’m going to have psychological quirks, they might as well centre around having a need to rescue sad-looking plants.

Row by row

I was thinking that after Cuba, I’d be putting the Factor 50 into the Cupboard of Useless Things until…well, my NEXT trip to Cuba, maybe? It’s not like I go warm places all that often. But lo, this weekend the sun made an almost inaugural visit to Northumberland, so the sunscreen was put both on me and into the Allotment Kit, and off I went.


Like all those of my kind (gingers), I have to be obsessive when it comes to avoiding sunburn

As always, I don’t mind cheerfully admitting that there’s a lot of work to do; as one of the passers-by said to me today, “It’ll be lovely once it’s sorted”. I didn’t have to heart to tell her it’s been THREE YEARS. But my attitude towards the allotment has always been to do as much as I can in the time I have. There’s only one of me and there’s a lot of allotment, so it’s probably never going to be sorted in the sense of being ‘weed-free’, but if it’s providing me with food, and most importantly, if I’m enjoying it, then I’m happy enough.


Allotment + weeds

I’ve been making great use of the watering spikes at this time of year, and noticed that nearly all the bottles I’ve used are tonic bottles of some kind or another. Could not speculate as to why this is.


I really like the watering spikes though (and I really like gin, as it goes), I think they were a reasonably wise investment and although they obviously don’t fully replace watering the allotment, it’s good to have them as a kind of back-up option if I’m away.

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The peas and the artichokes seem to be getting more established, at least, four out of the five artichokes are fine (there’s a little runty one I’m concerned about, but having just four isn’t the end of the world). Two of the three potato patches are doing fine but the last one – the biggest – is just overgrown with weeds because the place I chose to plant them has been a wildflower patch for two years running. Which isn’t ridiculous in itself, because I’m a firm believer in rotating potato patches to avoid taking all the nutrients out of the soil, but of course it’s my fault that I let it get so overgrown anyway, so during my next allotment visit, I’ll mostly be tackling that.


Rare Northumbrian pigeon baskets

So I’ve not ended up growing everything on the plan this year (the carrots failed, of course they did, the carrots always fail and I never learn), but I’ve made a few changes (I’m growing sprouts and broccoli instead) and feel like I’ve made more progress this weekend, so it’s time to sit back and get on with some translation.


Happy to report that not only did I survive Cuba, I really enjoyed it. I was over there with Unite and the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and it was one of those experiences that was so good that you don’t quite believe it’s happened in the first place. It’s a bit weird being back to everyday life, but I’m now thinking of decorating my allotment so it looks a bit like a Cuban farm:

We got to help out a bit with the agricultural work; no planting in my case but some excellent rock piling. I struggled with the heat (people with my complexion just aren’t really built for the weather outside Northern Europe. E.g. I once got sunburn IN DONEGAL) but got some sense of achievement after helping to pile the stones. From what I understood with my terrible Spanish, the farmers are planning to plant an orchard once the field’s been ploughed.


Overall just a really nice experience, and I’d really like to come back some day. The whole thing was some way out of my comfort zone and I thought I’d be really relieved to come back to normality, but other than taking a few days to actively appreciate having good hair (Cuba made my hair go WILD), I’ve been missing it.


BUT today it was time to return to my allotment, which had become considerably more rich in weeds during my absence. Victoriana Nursery had delivered my young onion, artichoke and asparagus plants, so I had to make a start on planting – quite late in the year but then again, I’m usually far too early and over-eager, so it’s a nice change.

I’m glad to have got the artichokes planted as they’re taking up a nice big area of the allotment, and as we know, one of the issues I’m NOT facing with this allotment is lack of space.

The asparagus is going to be interesting to grow, and it’s another ‘established’ plant that I won’t be able to do anything with for a couple of years. Feels like quite a commitment. I’ve been reading up on how to make sure they don’t all die and I’m hoping it works out.


For today that’s all I’m doing on the allotment (I’m technically meant to be working this weekend, by which I mean working at my actual job rather than on the lovely allotment) but I’m hoping to get the weedburner out tomorrow and tackle two week’s worth of growth.