Start of a harvest

I’m not really sure where August got to – it seems like I looked up from doing one translation or another at some point and realised a month has gone by. I’ve kept up with growing vegetables though, although I find myself looking forward slightly to winter when the potatoes will be safely stored and I can work on instead growing a(nother) protective layer of fat to keep the cold at bay.

I’ve been fascinated by the revelation that mint comes in more types than spearmint and peppermint for a while, so I went shopping.

These new friends all came from Manor Farm Herbs (based, incidentally, in the town I used to live in between the ages of 3 and 8, small world etc). The two varieties of mint have to be kept fairly far apart, as (so my reading tells me), they’ll cancel out the flavour of the other variety. I’ll see how they do in containers for a bit, and may re-pot into a larger pot which I’ll then place in the allotment. We’ll see. It’s quite handy have them close by because they taste really good with certain types of alcohol (gin, it’s mostly been gin). The cinnamon basil has a very strong, noticeable flavour, and I’m yet to try the rocket (it’s only a baby, plus I have loads more on the allotment).

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I hadn’t been on the allotment for a good few days, and suddenly, THINGS have appeared. The most alarming being a few actual potential pumpkins. I’ve since placed things under them so they don’t rot into the soil (a lesson learned from experience). There was a lot of work to do, but I was happy to be harvesting things other than endless peas and beans. Not that I’m complaining about the endless peas and beans, you understand, it’s just I’m running out of recipes.

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The climbing beans took so long to do anything but climb, and now it looks like they’re finally forming into something edible. Tomatoes haven’t done badly at all, although I should have built them better support – another lesson for next year! I’m happiest of all with the thornless blackberry, though. I bought it during a visit to my parents quite a while ago and carried it with me during the 6-hour train journey like the Crazy Plant Lady I am, so while I know normally it’s not much of an achievement that a blackberry plant has survived because they are EVERYWHERE, I was pleased that it’s emigrated north successfully. Incidentally, the wineberry plant I mentioned I was thinking of getting in that previous post – I got it, but it subsequently went insane and grew huge, so I’m unsure of what to do with it.

A busy few months still ahead of me – lots of travelling and things to remember to do. However, for the moment, I’ll be settling down and having an evening meal of what I like to call ‘everything salad’:

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Happiness is a warm allotment

On a day as warm as this, how could I not go to the allotment?

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I’m using a combination of FIRE and my new edging tool to keep the weeds at bay, it’s more or less working so far. There’s a promising crop of radishes growing too, and most of the sweet peas, climbing beans and peas by the obelisks seem to be fine still. I’m visiting several times a week now to make sure everything’s reasonably watered, and I have my beloved watering spikes too.

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I’m happy this weekend because a) I survived my first tax return without my brain exploding and b) my holiday to the north of Ireland is finally taking shape, so after spending most of yesterday shouting at my computer and calculator, I was happy to get outside today.

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The happy face of your humble author

My carrots seem to have mostly died, as I’d thought. I think it’s just the wrong soil for them, or I’m cursed, or I did something else wrong I’ve not worked out yet. The parsnips, touch wood, still look more or less fine:

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And yes, I do need to repair the raised beds at some stage. Having an allotment has more than doubled by ‘to do’ list, but the priority at the moment is Fight the Weeds, followed by Water the Plants, then Remember to Work and Eat.

The balcony garden is also doing reasonably well, and is also providing pretty fantastic lunch breaks as I stumble out of the house after a hard morning at the translation mill. I bought a drainpipe plant holder thing from Wilkos. I can be a bit sceptical about some of the things you can buy – I mean, surely many of these things you can just make out of bits of wire – but it was on special offer and I couldn’t quite resist:

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The ‘greenhouse’ was also a Wilkos purchase and is currently steaming up the whole time when closed, which isn’t ideal. I’m planning, one day, far into the future, on buying one or two similar ones that’d live on the allotment – I’ve certainly got the space for them and it would mean I wouldn’t have to cart baby plants all the way there the whole time. I think I’d invest in one of their slightly more expensive greenhouses with better ventilation, though:

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Swedish flag present because of my general fondness for Sweden rather than any nationalist sentiments

I’m now resting after my labours and booking a Game of thrones tour, possibly the geekiest thing I’ve done to date, but I bet it’ll be fantastic.

Burn them all

I derive arguably unhealthy levels of enjoyment from using my weed burner. Mine’s only a little one from Wilkos, but it more or less does the job. I returned to the allotment last week after two weeks away and as I’d predicted, there were weeds everywhere, but I strode up and down in the style of Aerys Targaryen, muttering ‘Burn them all’. It’s good being able to simply burn away your problems. Insert legal disclaimer here.

Sadly it’s mostly been too wet to burn things properly, but there’s plenty of time. Surely it can’t rain all summer, even here in Northumberland. I’ve been using the time to compensate for all the seeds which failed to germinate (most of the tomatoes, around half the sweet peas, some of the cucumbers):

Also got a couple of butternut squashes, which failed last year after a promising start. Annoyingly it’s a really beautiful evening, perfect for weed burning, but work’s really busy at the moment and I won’t have the time today.

Also pictured: the olive bush that I adopted from the Wilkos reduced section when it was just a couple of sticks, and the owl planter given to me by beloved former colleagues as a leaving present, back in the days when I had a proper job. The owl is sporting quite a stylish sorrel hairstyle, which suits it. I was also toying with the idea of dill, but the sorrel’s good too.

On a note only linked loosely to gardening, tomorrow I’ll have been freelancing for a year! Time flies! I’ve really been enjoying it, truth be told. It’s the happiest I’ve been. I’m not sure it’s allowed me to spend significantly more time on the allotment, because it turns out I still have to actually do translations in order to get paid, but I’m enjoying the flexibility of being able to extend lunch breaks and have a bit of a dig on the allotment. Plus, I managed to get all the potatoes in the ground, so if all else fails, I’ll have them to eat.

First sun of the year

From snow on the allotment just a couple of weeks ago to something that almost looked a bit like spring today. Although if you say that, spring disappears for another month, that’s how weather works in Northumberland.

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I’ve made some progress overall and am at the point where I’m not actively ashamed of pictures of the entire allotment and the collection of weeds to which it is home. There are still weeds, obviously, they are everywhere, but I’m starting to win.

I keep freaking out a bit about not getting everything done in time. I’ve once again chosen to be away from the allotment during probably the most important allotment time of the year, in late March/early April (I’m going to various poncey translator conferences because apparently that’s what real people do, and I’m self-employed now and I have insurance and a pension and everything, which I suppose means I’m a real person), but I don’t think it’ll be as stressful as last year when I had to plant five types of potatoes, move house and change career in the space of about a week.

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I’ve even started work on the balcony garden after neglecting it slightly for six months. I’m surprised by the progress of the olive bush, which I bought a couple of years ago as a £1.50 rescue from Wilkos. I’d assumed it’d get homesick (and maybe die of jealousy when I went to Sicily), but who knows, another year and I might get an actual olive.

I’ve started off the sweet peas in the greenhouse and I’m still debating what to put in the rather excellent owl planter my friend Camille got me to celebrate me passing my driving test (a skill I’ve expertly utilised to never drive again). I have plenty of flower seeds to choose from, I’ve just been unable to decide so far to decide what kind of flower looks best emerging from an owl.

Above the waste allotments the dawn halts

My Sunday allotmenteering was a bit less merry last week, as I discovered that my rake had been nicked. I was quite sad. I’d weighed up the risks and considered it unlikely, due to the difficulty of getting over the fences and the fact that it only cost a fiver (and very much looked like it did too). I suppose it was good that I’d not invested a lot of money in it, or become emotionally attached.

I have taken defensive measures, though:

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I was far too stubborn to admit I couldn’t carry the box that this box arrived in. I got a lift with it from work to my house, which was excellent, but then walked from my house to my allotment, as I’d evidently imagined I’d grown to twice my actual height and become three times stronger. But it’s assembled now, having nearly taken my thumb off. I’m still a little bit worried. A determined thief could break in, obviously – but then, a determined thief could also break into a lot of things if they think there’s something worth taking. In this case, all that’s takeable is a bent fork, a hoe and a spade. You wouldn’t think it’d be worth it. Fingers crossed.

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I unearthed an old hammer during my digging today, and tomorrow I’m thinking of buying a load of nails in the morning and making a start on that massive pile of wood you’ll see at the back of the allotment, to the left. I was thinking of using some of it to build up the raised beds, and some of it to construct a better compost pile than my current ‘coffee grounds on planks of wood’ effort, that’s more like an art installation than actual composting.

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The very first thing I planted on the allotment, the strawberries I was kindly donated by a lady on Freecycle, have been doing pretty well. I’m not sure if it’s because I planted mustard between them, which is supposed to be a good idea, but after a shaky start, they’ve perked up.

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There’s not a huge amount happening on the balcony garden, other than some things that look a BIT like squashes have started to grow. I’m worried they’ll suffer in the frost and might have to put blankets round them, or something. Besides the potatoes, I don’t think I’ll have much else edible growing over the winter. I’ve picked almost all the tomatoes now – very few went red, so I’ve been wrapping them up in newspaper with a banana, which seems to have worked. Ate some of them in a pad thai for my tea, which was excellent. I think next year, I’ll have fewer edible things up on the balcony – I wouldn’t try radishes or cauliflower or carrots again. I probably will try cucumbers, as they were a success, but I think it’ll mostly be flowers.

My friend Rhian, who may be partly to blame with my allotment obsession, suggested that to deter thieves, I use exploding cucumbers. I didn’t realise there’s such a thing as exploding cucumbers! There’s a lot I want to try (most of it on that website), and once the allotment’s in a state where it can handle polytunnels, I’m going to experiment.

Going batty

I was lucky enough to be able to enlist the help of another kind colleague on the allotment this week. She was most helpful, because there’s a corner I’ve been ignoring because it contains the remains of a pigeon, and when it comes to ex-animals, I’m useless in every way, so went firmly into denial (I guess that’s what a lifetime of vegetarianism does to you). She kindly removed this problem AND did some toiling, and as it grew dark, we saw BATS! I’m thinking of putting up a bat box or two, if I can find some cheap enough. I’m not sure what kind of effect bats will have on the allotment (possibly a good one, as they’ll devour a lot of the pests?), but I absolutely love bats, so that’s something to look out for.

I did a bit of toiling myself today. I concentrated mainly on the raised beds.

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It seems sensible, as at least once they’re sorted, I can plant things straightaway. I’ve got one with garlic, one with leeks, and the other three are unoccupied for the moment. I’ve planned a vague rotational system, but I’m already straying from the original plan as it is. Which is fine, I suppose, as long as I don’t just plant things at random. I’ve planted a provisional melon by the strawberry patch, for example, which doesn’t make much logical sense, but it’s one of very few ‘plantable’ areas of the allotment, currently, and I have no more strawberry plants, but I do have a melon plant that has no hope of thriving on my balcony.

I dug to music today, which was slightly controversial as I’m always about concerned about having music on in case it disturbs other gardeners. I suppose if you come to the allotments to get a bit of piece and quiet, having somebody constantly playing music that might not be to your taste (although I can’t see why not everyone loves sea shanties) might be an irritation. There was nobody else around today, though, so I made the most of it.

I’ve had a couple of allotment ideas. The first one I saw online, and it’s basically this:

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A herb wagon wheel planter! It seems like a pretty good idea – all I’d need to do would be to dig over the area, put down the wheel, and plant herbs. It’d prevent, hopefully, the problem of certain herbs taking over (not mentioning any MINT), and would allow me to go reasonably small quantities of a reasonably large number of herbs, which is what I’d like to do. And I wouldn’t have to use one of the raised beds for herbs either, and could use it for sea kale*, for example. All I’d need is a wheel, of course, which is harder than you might think to find. I can find some, it’s just that they’re not cheap, so the search continues.

Of course, I’d also need herbs, but this is where the nice people at vegetableseeds.net come in. I’d ordered quite a few seeds from them last month and saw that they offer a £10 voucher to people who link their gardening blogs to them. Well, I shall do just that, and spend the voucher on herb seeds, lots of them. I think things like this are nice. I think the combination of gardening and internet is a pretty good one, because if it wasn’t for all the information on how to grow stuff online, I wouldn’t have a clue.

My second idea is one so good, and so mad, that it’s actually kept me awake at night. I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to pull it off, because it’ll require a lot of work (as if the allotment wasn’t enough as it was!). I’m not going to say what it is, either, partly for dramatic effect, partly because it’s so mad that I think people might try to discourage me, and partly because I’ll need to source a few things that might not be easy to get. All I’ll say is, it’s nothing to do with animals/getting livestock/anything along those lines (I think taking on ducks or chickens would just be too much at this point). More might be revealed, if my plotting progresses.

*baby sea kale plants are currently languishing a bit in the balcony greenhouse

Making progress

One of the many passers-by commented, as I toiled on the allotment today, that I was a ‘brave lass’. I said I thought I was either brave or stupid, at which point he conceded it was probably stupidity. There’s a lot to do, and it shows. That said, I only got the allotment two weeks ago, and already you can see some stuff happening:

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OK, it’s not the best before and after shot because a) The ‘after’ part is not yet ready and b) The way I angled the last photo misses out the nice bit I spend a lot of the weekend creating, which is the fruit corner:

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It also misses out the strawberry patch, so you’ll just have to take my word for it: it’s looking awesome. Or at least acceptable. The fruit patch looks quite nice and civilised, anyway. I planted the loganberry plant (third from left, towards the middle) today, and I hope it’ll be happier there than in a container on my balcony.

The upside of having so much to do is that it makes things a bit more interesting, in a way. I suppose if all I had to do was dig, I’d get bored of it after about an hour, but with so many tasks ahead of me, I can dig for an hour, then sort out a raised bed, rack over the strawberry patch, venture into the Forbidden Half of the allotment and speculate on what’s lying beneath all the weeds (I strongly suspect there’s an entire shed there), etc. Or, in this case, make friends with yet another allotment neighbour. This one was kind enough to give me potatoes and radishes, and says he may have leeks for me at some point. It’s so nice how friendly people are. Nobody thinks that I can’t do it, which is good. People acknowledge that it’s a lot of work ahead, but I seem to get a lot of points just for trying.

This allotment neighbour told me that many years ago, the entire allotment site used to be a pig farm, and that when they abandoned it, they set fire to it, meaning that while all the wood burned, the glass, of which there was a lot, simply smashed. This would explain why there’s so very much glass all over everybody’s allotment. I was thinking it seemed like far too much, even if the previous owner of my allotment had smashed up his entire greenhouse.

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My meals are becoming a BIT more home-grown. I made a pie with some of the potatoes I unearthed on the allotment, added home-grown mustard and cress to the salad, and made a mojito with a cucumber from the balcony garden. OK, it’s not quite self-sufficiency, but as I reflected as I was digging today, that’s never really been my goal. Obviously I love eating stuff I’ve grown, but the main driving force behind these weekends getting covered in dirt, along with my complete insanity, is just the process of doing some hard work, then looking back on what you’ve done and feeling happy about it.

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I’ve been neglecting the balcony garden SLIGHTLY – it’s times like this when I do wonder if I’ve taken too much on, especially as I’ve been fortunate for the last couple of weekends in that I’ve had nothing to do but garden, but in the future, I might have to, y’know, do stuff other than garden. But I did a couple of hours in it today. A main task is deciding what should stay on the balcony, and what should be moved over. I’m thinking of moving the melon over, because it’s got no hope of growing on the balcony. I’m not sure there’s much point in moving the tomatoes or aubergines over at this stage.

One thing I’ve got to make a start on is composting. I’ve marked out an area on the Forbidden Half of the allotment that I think would be a decent place to put said heap (there’s nothing else there, it’s a fairly shaded area, it’s far from where I envisage the seating area will be, etc). I now just don’t know how to prepare said heap. Do compost heaps even need preparing? Do I just start dumping my coffee grounds and other assorted kitchen waste there? I feel that I should do something to the base of where the heap will be before adding to it – dig it over and put down wooden planks, maybe? I can find plenty of composting advice online, but nothing that actually matches up with what I want to know.

Another of my priorities is to sort out a shed, or at least some kind of storage system for the tools. I’m not sure whether to cave in and buy a large plastic storage chest, or hold out on the off-chance that an allotment neighbour has a shed going spare, which could happen. I did briefly consider buying and building a Nissen hut, but I think that was an idle fantasy. Either way, I think I’ll have to wait till next month before actually paying money to do anything. It’s easy to fall into the trap of buying ALL the allotment things at once when you’re starting out, but I don’t think my bank account would be happy about it. Mind you, if I run out of money entirely, I’ve got enough potatoes to last the rest of the month.