Sunflowers

I’m a very simple woman in a lot of ways, which is why I was delighted to see this finally happen on the allotment:

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The daft thing is I don’t even like sunflowers that much as flowers go, I think they’ve got notions, give me the more subtle sweetpeas any day (or some nice Goth lillies). But the important thing is that bees like sunflowers, and any friend of my bee comrades is a friend of mine.

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Me and my new friend

Went to dig the second round of potatoes today, the Vales Sovereign. I wasn’t that delighted with the yield, if I’m honest – it wasn’t the sunniest spot on the allotment but I’ve had no issues growing salad there in past years. I’m yet to form a judgement on the taste (I need to get far better at getting round to eating the stuff I grow, I tend to forget).

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NB – some of the potatoes pictured here might actually be Accord, come to think of it, as your heroic allotmenteer is bad at planning what she puts where, meaning that Accord and Vales Sovereign had a share a bit of space. Which isn’t the end of the world in the great scheme of things. Also yes, mother, I know I need new gloves, I get through them at a shocking rate and haven’t got round to getting new ones yet OK.

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I did have a nice view of the flowers as I dug the potatoes, though. The wildflower patch, which I forgot to get a picture of because I had to head back inside for urgent coffee, is doing pretty well too, lots of poppies and cornflowers although the borage isn’t too happy this year. This is a pity because I use the flowers to add to salads, which has almost no practical impact on the salad itself but makes it look very Instagrammable, and as a millennial that’s literally all I care about.

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My approach to soil has incredibly become less scientific over the time I’ve had the allotment – I’ve long since stopped bothering about soil pH and I like to think it’s because I now have a better idea of what grows well and what doesn’t and less to do with the fact that I’m lazy. However, I do understand that potatoes take a lot of nutrients out, so I’m growing green manure over the former potato patches during the winter, and then for the non-potato patches, I’m trying to grow as much garlic as possible. It’s not really a radical plan for the winter, but I’m OK with that – garlic’s something I’ll use, green manure’s easy enough and beneficial, and I’m apparently starting a diploma in Modern Irish in addition to doing my Actual Job, Whatever That Is, so perhaps I’m actually being realistic about how I manage my time for a change. I found last year that clover worked badly as green manure because the roots all got clumped together and it was tricky to dig back in, so I’ve stuck with mustard and a mix for the time being, and might go with broad beans for the potato patch I’m yet to dig.

I also got a load of the green lawn edging you can see in one of the pictures above for 50p each from Wilkos. I’ve been taking multiple trips to bring it all over, it’s exactly what I need, especially now that a lot of the wood from the old raised beds has rotted away. Over winter (but before the ground’s hardened) I’m planning on digging the edging in properly, it should be easier once the weeds have died back. Plus I’ve have fewer jobs overall to do by then.

I still have a couple more tasks ahead of me before the frost sets in – the third and final batch of potatoes (I think it’s Pink Fir Apple and yes believe it or not, I do use plant labels, it’s just that they usually go missing, I imagine the rabbits steal them) needs to be dug and if I actually have sense this year, I’ll start eating the ones I’ve already taken up so I don’t end up with a socially unacceptable amount of potatoes stored in my house. I’m happy I’ve managed to save an adequate amount of the Lord Leicester peas – I only ever needed to buy the original lot (back in 2014, incredibly, when I was a different person entirely) and I’ve had more than enough ever since.

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Just like last year, I got to a stage where I was sick of eating artichokes, so I’ve left several of them to flower and not only does it look pretty, the bees really love it. I’ll cut them right back after the frost but for now, I’m pleased to have them as they are.

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And that’s about it as far as this month’s update goes! Over the last couple of years, certainly, stuff on the allotment’s been more maintenance-focused than experimental – in a kinder, gentler and slower world, I’d love to be figuring out ways of growing sweet potatoes and grapes up here in Northumerland and building sheds and finally sorting out more permanent pathways. But lads, there’s paid work to be done and fascists to fight, and I suppose the important thing is, although I can’t do even a fraction of what I want to do on the allotment, I’m still growing things and most of all, I still love it.

The ravages of time

One struggle with the allotment (and with life, tbh) is the limitations of my personality, i.e. overcoming my laziness. Life threw another challenge at me last month, though, when I decided to develop sciatica. 0/10, would not recommend. I thought it was only elderly people and sportspeople who got sciatica, and I’ll be honest, I never placed myself in either category, but there we go. It was horrible, anyway. When you’re used to being fairly active and travelling the whole time, and suddenly, you can’t even walk to the shops without a lot of pain. I’m very impatient and hate being confined to the house, and my coping mechanisms involve ‘talking to llamas and otters about politics’. Which isn’t healthy or normal behaviour.

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Graeme and Gaoth Dobarchú understand that political neutrality is not an acceptable stance in 2019

Anyway, the point of this wasn’t to give you all an update on my declining health (which is now actually improving), but to provide an elaborate excuse as to why the allotment’s more neglected than usual. I finally came off the powerful painkillers today and celebrated by attacking some nettles. This was therapeutic, because the painkillers had softened me and made me partially blind to current political realities in the UK, so I used my sudden anger for something good.

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(listening to angry music while attacking the nettles also helped a lot)

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My period of ill health was really badly timed because of course, there’s always loads to do on the allotment at this time of year. It’s not all hopeless, though. I’ve given the shallots up as lost, but the onions are looking promising. Although my allotment neighbours are doing much better with their onions, compare and contrast:

I’m probably going to start taking the potatoes up next week, since the foilage has started dying back on one of the patches (I can’t remember if it’s the Pink Fir Apple, Vales Sovereign or Accord that I’ll be digging up first, but I imagine I was wise and labelled them properly back in spring). And the peas (Lord Leicester, my go-to favourite) have been doing well this year too, even if I wasn’t able to give them much support:

So basically, it’s not the end of the world – towards the end of every growing season, I always wish I’d been able to do a bit more and in an ideal world, I’d have a more manageable allotment that make far better use of the space I have. But in an ideal world, I’d have a lot more free time, boundless energy, a communist partner and a horde of small communist children to help me out, and most of all, a shed. Plus, the flowers are at least looking really nice:

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I’ve said it before, but I’m really lucky that our chronically underfunded rural council doesn’t care at all about these allotments, because if they did, I’m sure I’d have been kicked off long ago for neglecting mine. But like every year, you can only do what you can do, and even if I’m not totally self-sufficient and thus able to withstand the inevitable and imminent collapse of our neo-capitalist society, I am at least happy to be eating food I grew myself on a semi-regular basis. OH and sunflowers might be in my future too:

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In your face, capitalism

Northumberland is extremely hectic at this time of year.

Luckily I’m coping well. I was absolutely delighted to find grow tunnels reduced from £12 to £3 at Wilkos. A VICTORY FOR SOCIALISM.

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I’ve got three of them now (I even took on extra work over the week to afford them, assuming they’d be full price, and now the exact things I wanted are reduced. I know this simple fact shouldn’t make me so happy but it does) and I’ve found they’re pretty good – you just take them out of the packaging, lay them flat and then pull on the ropes inside to made them tunnel-shaped, and secure them with pins. They haven’t blown away yet. And if you’re lucky enough to be a fairly small human…

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They’re big enough to crawl all the way in! If you’re careful and don’t casually kneel on your seedlings. They’re much better quality than the plastic-covered ones I got a few years back which tore easily and just stored condensation. I’m using them for an ‘experimental’ patch. I took the garlic I’d overwintered out a bit early:

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And added in seedlings I’d been growing thanks to various gifts from family members, including tomatillos, tomatoes, cumin, jalapeños and (outside the tunnels), the odd sunflower. So it’ll be fun to see how it all does, I hadn’t been planning on growing any of these things but I have a bit of space, given that most of the parsnips aren’t growing from the very elderly seeds I planted back in March. Which is OK as well, because I didn’t want hundreds of parsnips, not after the Incident*.

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The peas, sweetpeas, artichokes and radishes seem to be doing well, and the potatoes got off to a slow start but seem alright now. I’m growing some kind of blue squash in one of the tunnels and so far, it’s not even germinated but we live in hope. Until then, I’m spending a lot of time walking back from the allotment covered in mud, thinking about my upcoming reunion with the family hound:

Normally gardening (and computer games) are the hobbies I use to get away from people and collect and store introvert energy, ready to be converted for my hobbies that require some extrovert energy (namely minority languages, politics and climbing, I have no hobbies beyond these five). However, it’s sometimes nice to give other stuff a go too and I headed down to the Star and Shadow Cinema in Newcastle last month to do a bit of community gardening. It was lots of fun and if I can justify abandoning the allotment (which I usually can), I’m totally going to come back again. Most of what I’ve ever learnt about gardening hasn’t been through books, but from having conversations with people more knowledgeable than me.

*The first time I tried to grow parsnips, I didn’t thin them out and ended up with hundreds of monster parsnips and lived almost entirely on parsnip soup for several weeks. At least they’ve thinned themselves out this time, that was polite of them.

 

All work and no play

I’m finding that basically all I’m doing on the allotment at the moment is weeding, which is a lot better than not doing weeding on the allotment, because as we know, that’s not something I have a shortage of.

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Observe my torment

I don’t hate weeding as much as I say I do, to be fair. I normally just listen to music and get on with it, but at the same time, I feel that taking periodic breaks from weeding by hand to use my weedburner is more for my own emotional wellbeing rather than to get rid of any weeds. And today I nearly set my foot on fire because I got distracted, that’s very much how my life currently is.

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I guess the issue is that weeding: a) just needs to be done and b) is quite boring, especially when you have a huge allotment. Normally I try and switch between the multitude of tasks I’ve got ahead of me just for the sake of variety, but today it was hours and hours plus the feeling that I hadn’t really achieved much. I’m thinking of bribing people to come and do weeding for me, maybe using a trail of biscuits or something.

I picked this up at Lidl and had a moment of thinking ‘How have they combined cucumber and dill to make a hybrid’, before realising I’m an idiot and it’s just cucumber and dill seeds in the same packet. I’ve never used seed tape before, though, so it was interesting to give it a go. One thing I’m useless at (along with ‘not setting my feet on fire’) is planting anything in a straight line, so I’m keen to see whether this’ll help with that issue of mine. I’ve also never planted cucumbers straight into the ground and I’m hoping it’s late enough in the year to get away with it. I put the lettuce in last month when it was sunny, then we had snow two weeks later which killed most of it off, it’s weird, it’s almost like there’s a climate emergency and urgent action needs to be taken or something.

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The peas and garlic are surviving, anyway, even if our planet won’t and we’re all doomed. I’m still using the watering spikes I’ve been using for the last couple of years. If I’m honest, I don’t know if they make a huge difference – because it’s so far under the surface of the soil, you can’t immediately see what’s been watered and how far one bottle can go – but I think it’s a simple back-up solution for drier periods.

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I’m also hoping that the cherry tree will produce fruit this year. Last year it produced exactly one cherry. Well, it might’ve been more and it might be that the birds got there before I did, come to think of it. I’m just pleased that my attempts to prune it haven’t yet killed the tree, although I’m not 100% pleased with the shape.

So that’s it really, I now have everything planted except the squash, which I might leave out completely this year, although it leaves one bed unplanted. April’s quite boring from a ‘taking pictures of produce’ point for view because there is no produce except weeds and my resulting declining grip on reality, neither of which is photogenic, but I’m hoping that by June, I’ll have more interesting stuff to report.

Spring, enttäusch mich nicht

I’m starting this year on the allotment with exactly the same problem as I had last year – I’m kind of in between countries at the minute because I don’t know about the extent to which our self-serving, morally bankrupt failure of a government is going to further mess up the country I started off in, come March 29th. So once again I’m going for a kind of compromise – I’m growing the basics, but avoiding time-consuming experiments like the asparagus and sweet potatoes of years gone by.

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Smashing the patriarchy while gardening because I can MULTI-TASK

I was going to report on the abject failure of my no-dig latecrop potatoes after I’d had the idea and then didn’t sleep for about a week because I was so excited to try it out. The experiment resulted in 0 potatoes, but like all my failures, it wasn’t absolute. It kept the weeds down beautifully, and once I’d moved the layers of straw away, there was some of the most lovely-looking soil I’d ever seen:

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I’m pleased with this because I’ve never managed to grow anything on this part of the allotment before. I’d had potatoes there a few years back but I’d struggled to get it dug over because of millions of roots (including dock leaves). I really want to try no-dig again, it still required roughly the same amount of effort at the start, but I’m happy with the way it turned out after winter, and moving the mulch and everything away was a nice break from digging in the green manure.

At the risk of coming out with the least cool thing I’ve ever said, I discovered a REALLY GOOD potato website. I’m only growing three types this year, and I knew I wanted first earlies, a maincrop and a salad type but wasn’t sure where to start. This website lets you search for what you want AND compare varieties:

I’m going with Pink Fir Apple (which I’ve grown before), plus Vales Sovereign and Accord (both new to me). I really wanted to grow Ratte again, as it’s still my all-time favourite, but I’ve had a word with myself and I know I’d run out of time, space or both.

allotThis display of artistic might is my rough plan for the year, and it’s more or less based on the seeds and plants I already have. I think the globe artichokes have been the main success on the allotment over the last 2-3 years (now I’ve said it, I’ve jinxed it). They’re really easy to maintain, take up a lot of space, and I actually use them, and they’re not something I’d normally eat if I didn’t have an allotment. I’m also trying to minimise the amount of seedlings I have to transplant because I don’t really have anywhere to start them off, and besides, constantly walking from my flat to the allotment bearing seedlings, cultivators and forks is giving me a reputation around town.

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Basically the only thing I’ve bought this year in terms of equipment are these half-length boots, and they are a total game-changer in my book. One thing I struggled with when wearing full, adult-sized boots is my failure to remember that I’m in fact a three-quarter length human, and trying to waddle about in them was not helping at all. Now I don’t have to struggle with boots going over my knees and I’m able to actually walk around.

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So that’s it, really, for the time being. Plenty of work still to do, and I’m really not sure how much I’ll get done this year, but it feels good to have a plan of some kind. I feel a lot more ‘grounded’ (hahaha, pun very much intended if unlikely to be appreciated, like all my puns) when I’m gardening and I’m glad spring’s on the way.

Winter prep

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There’s nothing the allotment’s much good for round about now other than using it as a handy and subtle political billboard and doing the odd bit of weeding, especially as the only things growing at the minute are garlic and green manure.

It would have been good to grow some onions over the winter but my house is full of shallots and I think there’s an upper limit to the amount it’s acceptable to store. In an ideal world, I’d have a shed for drying onions, garlic and shallots, but I feel at the moment that having a shed would be creating problems for myself as I’m 90% certain somebody would break in and take everything, rendering all my efforts in buying, constructing and securing the shed useless. I know I live in rural Northumberland as opposed to the Bronx, right, but I’ve not forgotten when I was young and innocent, when I first got the allotment, and somebody took my rake and SET IT ON FIRE.

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A calming picture of a bee and some borage

BURNT TO ASHES I mean stealing is one thing, if you want a rake, then take my £5 from Wilkos after you’ve scaled the 6ft fence, maybe you’ve earned it, but WHY GO TO THE TROUBLE OF SETTING IT ON FIRE.

I know it was around three years ago but time passes more quickly when you get to my age and allotment-based rage only increases. Anyway the marigolds are doing annoyingly well. Annoying because the whole point of planting them was so they’d be eaten by insects, distracting them from eating all my vegetables, but no, they’ve decided to ignore the marigolds. It’s my first time growing them successfully from seed and I don’t really know why they did so well this time, or why peas, sweet peas and beans did so badly this year, but maybe that’s another of life’s mysteries, friends.

I’d moved the strawberry patch a few months back but forgot that strawberries, y’know, go everywhere and that I’d forgotten to contain them in some way, so I got a handy pre-made border from Wilkos. I’ve got lots of spare wooden fencing on the allotment and if some of it’s usable, it’d be good to use it to improve the raised beds. I might see if hiring an axe is a socially appropriate thing to do over the winter.

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For now though, it’s time to start planning what I’m doing (or what it’s worth doing) on the allotment next year, given my slightly chaotic and semi-nomadic lifestyle right now, which isn’t showing many signs of changing. I think I’d like to try butternut squashes again, and maybe be a bit more restrained in terms of the sheer quantity of potatoes, but besides that, the future’s a blank slate.

Getting ready for winter

I hadn’t really been planning on working on the allotment today, my plan was more to do the actual work that I get paid to do (‘my job’, as people insist on calling it), but not much work came in and society has something against me sitting around playing computer games all day, so off I went. Getting the garlic planted as soon as I could was one of the main things on my mind, along with the ascendency of the patriarchy and the tribulations of late-stage capitalism.

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I’ve been trying to not put the garlic in the potato patches – I think it’d take too many nutrients out of the soil. This is veering dangerously close to science for me, a subject I repeatedly failed in school, but that’s the general idea I’ve got, so I’m putting green manure in the potato patches over the winter and growing the garlic elsewhere. I wanted to grow more this year as I got through this year’s batch at an alarming rate.

There were also a couple of loose ends to tie up:

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Dug up the rest of the Golden Wonder potatoes. They’re not as big as I’d expected and maybe that was just lack of care on my part – I definitely had more success with the Carolus a year or two back. The spring onions (Apache, I think, and I think the seeds were a present from my sister Niamh, so if you’re reading this Niamh, THANKS!) did fairly well but again, they’re a bit small. I’m having them in a salad tonight with the last of the rainbow chard, so it’s not going to waste.

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It’s hard to summarise what worked well this year and what didn’t, because I’ve not been keeping track very well, like in previous years. I’ve had a slightly more ad hoc approach to the allotment. Overall, I think onions and their general ilk did the best. I have enough shallots to get me through the inevitable uprising against our right-wing government.

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I wove that basket, with some assistance, and I’m delighted that it’s actually come in handy for drying onions – it’s perfect for the job, actually. And to think I was just going to donate the basket to some unfortunate relative like my mother, who’d hoped she’d passed the age where she was being presented with badly-made gifts from her offspring.

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Finally, I was indulgent and got myself some cut-price Crocosmia Lucifer. I’m not sure exactly where I’m putting it yet though. I don’t know much about flowers, as a rule – I tend to just think of them in terms of the effect they’ll have on vegetables. Like I planted marigolds but not because they’re pretty, it was to tempt pests away from the runner beans (which were eaten. Marigolds are thriving though). But I’ve got a soft spot for crocosmias, they remind me of exploring Inis Meáin. I hope they grow well here too.