The Lady of Shallot

Predictably I didn’t spend the whole of the rest of the summer on my allotment, like I probably should’ve done, I went to Belfast instead and stared happily at bilingual signs.

That’s not to say nothing’s happening on the allotment. To my surprise, both the courgettes and the beetroots have survived my rampant neglect, and the borage is taking over but in a good way.

Growing both the courgette and the beetroot broke my rule of ‘if you don’t tend to eat it, don’t grow it’, but I’ve got a plan for the beetroot (my nan likes them so I was thinking of just posting them to her, one by one, anonymously). I also had a visit from my brother, so like a good host, I gave him a party bag.

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I’m managing to incorporate stuff from the allotment into most meals at the moment and have been trying to avoid gluts/having everything harvested at once. I’m heading down to the allotment whenever I can, after work. After work, when I get sick of my work, same difference.

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Nobody knows how somebody with such a childlike face can be so old, but that’s just one of life’s mysteries

But of course, that’s not always possible, and I’m probably spending half my time NOT in Northumberland these days for various reasons, and technology hasn’t advanced to the point where allotments are portable, so that’s why things like this happen:

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I hadn’t been planning on growing shallots this year, although I guess to be honest, I hadn’t planned on growing anything specific at all, I just did what I could, when I could. But I’ve now got more shallots than I’d ever dreamed possible, along with plenty of onions too.

I was reading about quite a good idea for people in a similar position, i.e. with allotments producing more food than they can always deal with. A lot of food banks can’t take fresh food – the one I occasionally volunteer for can’t at any rate, but I saw a fellow allotmenteer advertising on Facebook for people to come and pick their own raspberries in exchange for a donation to a local charity. That’s a neat solution, I think. Like a lot of allotment-holders, I’m not allowed to make a profit from anything I grow, but I really liked this lady’s idea and I might give it a go next year. Of course, ensuring that residents of this country are able to do basic things like feed themselves and have a roof over their heads should be the job of the government, but they’re not doing it, and I’d better stop there because there’s plenty of other media on which I criticise the Conservative Party.

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How many shallots is it socially acceptable to have on your washing line?

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Prosecco and potatoes

I was away from the allotment at a fairly crucial time again, this time during a heatwave that’s been plaguing the country for seemingly years now. Weirdly, things didn’t seem to be too badly affected by the lack of water. My only theory is that the soil’s less dry than it looks on the surface because the allotment’s at the bottom of a slope, but I’m a long way off being a soil expert so it could be witchcraft for all I know.

I was in a jubilant mood this weekend because I found out I’d passed an Irish exam I took a couple of months back, and not only that, but when I told people about it they seemed really happy for me, even though I didn’t take the exam for a particular reason other than wanting to see where I was at. It was still really important to me, and it was nice that people saw that and shared in the general jubilation. I’d find that quite touching if I still had emotions.

I was also happy because there’s a lot going on at the allotment, lots of it with familiar veg.

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Artichokes and radishes have always done pretty well. I’m still amazed at how quickly the artichokes grew last year, when I planted these tiny plantlings right after coming back from Cuba and was surprised by an overabundance of artichokes just a couple of months later. The mixed radishes are doing well, and I’m experimenting with the Chinese Rose variety too, although it seems to be taking quite a bit longer. Peas and beans have done really badly this year, but I think it’s a result of my neglect. Kalelettes never even germinated. On the other hand, shallots are looking promising and might be the subject of my next post, if things go as planned. I’ve never tried to grow shallots before.

Here’s a couple more things I’ve never properly tried growing before, tummelberries and chard. The tummelberry’s been around for years (since January 2015, this very blog tells me) but never actually produced anything until now. The berries are delicious although not hugely abundant right now. Possibly because I keep eating them. The chard’s not in a great position – very close to the artichoke and so in quite a bit of shade – but it seems to be doing OK.

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Took up some potatoes today, specifically Golden Wonders (too early but I was hungry) and my all-time fave, Ratte. It meant that I was able to enjoy my first mostly allotment-based meal of the year. The only thing I didn’t grow was the garlic mayonnaise (although I did grow the garlic). I’m not intending to start keeping chickens for the mayonnaise any time soon, that’d be too stressful. Before last year I had no idea how to even eat an artichoke, and I like to see that as a skill I’ve developed because of the allotment. That, and an ability to worry a lot about the weather forecast and when it’ll next rain.

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Borage is one of my Top Ten favourite things

Plagued by rabbits

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I’m being bullied by rabbits, which out of all the creatures to have bullied me, is probably the cutest. Except for the time when a baby ganged up on me. I don’t know why they’re eating my onions when the traditional rabbit snack, lettuce, remains basically untouched:

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I think it’s going into the category of ‘problems I’m choosing not to deal with’ (along with my generalised uncertainty on what I’m doing for the whole of the rest of my life), because I can’t do much with the fencing and I’m not going to trap them. If the family dog comes to visit me this summer, his mere presence might scare them off, I suppose.

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Note: he’s scared of squirrels and large insects

Apart from that, things are ticking over despite a late start.

I’ve been trying to get better at using the seeds I’ve got rather than buying stuff I never use, so I’ve ended up growing beetroot for the first time this year (Natoora Golden, for beetroot fans). This breaks my rule of never growing things I personally don’t eat, because I never wanted to turn into That Person who’s always offering her long-suffering friends vegetables they don’t really want, but I think that ship has sailed anyway, and I can maybe trade the beetroot for veg I like more. Although I might be thinking of popular computer game Banished rather than real life there. I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about some of the Spanish onions, and I’m wondering whether they’ll grow as huge as they did in 2015.

The town council installed a new tap at the near end of the allotment – yay! It’s handy having two taps, one at each end, when your allotment’s the size of Essex.

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Except it doesn’t work. And to make this improvement, they turned off the water supply to ALL taps for a couple of weeks without giving us any notice, which would’ve been OK in February but less ideal now when everything needs watering. I know I should probably save griping about the local council’s allotment policy until I’m literally a pensioner but friends, I’m probably not going to get much of a pension at this rate, so allow me to sound much more elderly than I actually am.

I am at least starting to get food from the allotment and I’m already predicting a lot of globe artichokes in my near future. I’m not sure why globe artichokes do so well in the allotment but I’m really glad they do – they take up a nice bit of space, I like eating them, they’re fairly low-maintenance and they’re expensive to buy in shops, so I’m winning there as far as I’m concerned.

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Finally, I found a better place to dry my garlic than the washing line – from a basket I wove on Inis Oírr, next to a placard I made for a protest months ago that I now don’t really know what to do with, and I think if any of these photos sums up my life at the moment, it’s this one.

Back to it

It’s fair to say I’ve NOT been giving allotmenting much of a priority for the last six months or so. Unlike my actual proper job, whatever that is, gardening isn’t really something you can do remotely and my priorities lately have involved travelling lots. And I kind of think that’s OK, if you’re doing this as a hobby and your local council has an incredibly laid-back approach towards overgrown allotments. I never wanted to make this into a job or a chore, because I think that’s when you start to lose your enjoyment of it. My approach has always been ‘I’ll do what I can, when I can’.

But I’ve not been lazy, friends. As I mentioned in my last post, I was in Connemara, volunteering and learning a lot about gardening (I’ve been doing around 50% of the basics totally wrong, by my estimation). I absolutely loved it, met some great people, and in some ways feel I’ve come back to the UK a bit too soon.

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But in terms of what awaited me on the allotment, I couldn’t have come back soon enough. I always knew that leaving it for 5 weeks wasn’t going to be popular with my vegetables, and I don’t really have any regrets there, but there was a lot of work to be done, as I reflected when I had to cut a path through the weeds to even access the allotment. Luckily, my enthusiasm’s been reignited a bit, plus I like to believe I’ve become physically stronger recently, so I took the opportunity to get started.

I usually spend December planning out next year’s allotment, but life kind of caught up with me this year, so I’m basically planning as I go and taking a look at the various seeds I have (I’m terrible for buying in bulk when they’re on sale in September and then never using them). As you’ll be able to see immediately because of my artistic skills, there are two fairly big changes: one is that I moved the ‘wildflower patch‘. It had become a bit too wild, to be honest, and was instead an awful mess of roots.

I’m less than optimistic about the survival chances of the lettuce (in my head I’m calling it ‘goth lettuce’ because it’s a cool colour but it probably has a proper name) but the important thing is that it’s now a usable bed, and I’ve moved the wildflower patch up a bit, closer to the peas and potatoes (where it’ll hopefully be more useful), and fingers crossed, there’ll be actual flowers in it rather than weeds I was pretending were wildflowers because I was too lazy to do anything about them.

According to my grandmother’s wisdom, you should move a strawberry patch every four years, and this is the fourth year I’ve been attempting to grow stuff, so off it went. Also, it had to move because it looked awful and was more weeds than strawberries. They’re in a much sunnier part of the allotment now and I’m thinking of planting herbs that can tolerate shade where they were, near the fence.

And that’s basically it really – watering, weeding, and explaining to guests why I’ve got garlic on the washing line (I keep meaning to bring it in a dry it in a more normal location, I think my brain just goes ‘This line is meant for drying stuff, whether it’s clothes or garlic’). The only experimental thing I’m growing this year is kalettes, which I’ve only eaten once before. Both kale and sprouts have grown well in previous years so I’m cautiously optimistic about their weird offspring.

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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).

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

*-ish

**petty bourgeoisie

***very little