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.

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.

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.

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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:

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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.

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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):

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(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’:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.