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.

Snowday

I was just getting into spending my weekends cheerily digging up varying amounts of my allotment (and unearthing all manner of weird things, from chicken bones to old t-shirts and a small collection of toy soldiers). I could feel muscles in my arms and everything. And it all looked so ready and pretty:

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Then today, as I woke up late and rolled almost automatically towards the allotment, I was confronted with this:

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I still headed off to my little allotment just to say hello and drop off some compost, but there wasn’t a huge amount to do given the amount of snow.

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Still, though, the makeshift obelisks (or spiders from Mars, as I’ve named them in my head) are holding up reasonably well. I was worried the wind would blow them away, but they’ve been standing for a week now. They look a bit fragile and spindly at the moment, but once I get round to putting netting etc. on them, it’ll be better. I’ve still got four to put up because apparently the previous version of me thought that it would be wise to have EIGHT of the things. Well, I’ve got the space, and they’re useful for peas, beans and sweetpeas. Hoping to grow lettuce and radish between them, and maybe onions, as last year’s onions proved surprisingly successful and massive. I was given one metal obelisk for Christmas but I have to confess, I spent much of yesterday afternoon trying to put the thing together, and it’s now sitting half-constructed outside my house, because I got angry with it after realising I couldn’t do DIY, even the most basic kind. I’ve since worked out how to put it together, but I’m going to have to wait for a day when it’s not snowing heavily.

I’ve still managed to use my snowday wisely. Starting to think about putting mini propagators all around my house, and I actually made some kind of progress with the neglected balcony garden yesterday. I’m excited about digging potato trenches next month already. I think out of all the things I’ve grown, potatoes are still my favourite.

 

A wintry allotment

And a happy New Year to BOTH my readers! Not too convinced by 2016 so far,  but it’s early days yet. I spent about three weeks over Christmas away from Northumberland and my allotment. I think this enforced separation was good for us both, really. I never wanted allotmenteering to feel like a chore – that would defeat the whole point – but in autumn, things started to get a bit overwhelming, even though I was visiting every weekend plus the occasional lunchtime. It feels good to be able to start everything again. Even if I am struggling to reaccustom myself to the weather up here.

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I took my family the rest of the oka, and sent my grandparents the sprouts I was too afraid to eat. I was afraid because they’d had a caterpillar infestation (sprouts not grandparents), and had no idea what this would do to the sprouts, but they looked fine. I am probably a bad granddaughter for offloading dubious sprouts on my grandparents, but they said they enjoyed them.

I got a few nice gardening-related presents for Christmas:

I get through gardening gloves ridiculously quickly, so these ones are especially welcome as they look a little more durable than most, but still flexible enough to do weeding etc. Grow your own sloe gin is more of a kit containing blackthorn plant seeds, and I’m not under the delusion that I’ll be tucking into sloe gin from them any time within the next decade, but it’ll be nice to extend the small hedge I’ve been planning.

I’m enjoying this ‘plan everything’ time. I’m trying to be less ambitious because I have so many seeds left over from last year that I just didn’t have time (or space, unbelievably) to plant. My resolutions for 2016 include making jam for the first time (I’m trying to become even more of a middle class stereotype, after this all I have to do is work out how quinoa is pronounced and join the WI). That’s the only one strictly gardening-related. I went to Liverpool for the first time since I was very small over Christmas and have resolved to return, for example, but it’s the jam-making I’ll concentrate on for the purposes of this blog. I’ve bought most of the stuff I need for this next growing season and will now wait patiently until the ground is less frozen before planting everything.

Sinterklaas on the allotment

I’m not Dutch – this is something I’ve come to accept over the years. But I do have a degree (partly) in Dutch, and a good part of that involved celebrating Sinterklaas, and that happy day is today. Imagine my delight, then, when this morning I got this parcel:

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Although I’ve never been a small Dutch child, more of a small wannabe-Dutch adult, my heart started racing. Partly due to thyroid problems, partly due to excitement. HAD THE SINT REMEMBERED ME?

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No, no he hadn’t. A while ago I was doing a translation that involved basil cress. What is basil cress, you ask? No idea, I would have answered, until I looked it up. Turns out you can get LOADS of different kinds of cress. And because you can plant cress at this generally unplantworthy time of year, I had to go shopping:

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So we have (and my skills as a translator are being put to the test here): rocket cress, broccoli cress, leek cress, peashoot cress (I think) and underneath that, the aforementioned basil cress. Not sure what any of them will taste like – cress, I imagine, but hopefully interesting cress. I think I’ll grow them in the flat or maybe just outside it if it ever stops raining.

I had to work today as I was busy being a young trade union activist yesterday (I’m now on a committee and everything!), but I toddled down to the allotment for a bit anyway. It was kind of like manning a ship in a storm, so I couldn’t stay for very long as I would literally have been blown away, literally and actually and genuinely. Neighbouring allotments can look a BIT forbidding, but maybe that’s why they’re less plagued by thieves:

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Not a huge amount on the allotment right now, as you might except. Celery and leeks are doing well, I’ve got the last of the oka to take up (I’m not sure for how long you can keep taking them up before they’re affected by frost, but if you start in November I’m sure December must also be fine. Mind you, this is Northumberland). My strawberry tree has finally started to do something:

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So pretty! I wasn’t sure if it would ever do anything, but if it produces fruit, I can make alcohol from it. I’ve been really bad at homemade alcohol this year. I say this like I’ve achieved nothing this year, which isn’t true at all – I became self-employed AND passed my driving test for a start, so I’ve been a bit busy, but one of my aspirations is certainly to made a wider variety of alcoholic beverages once I get the time.

Top of the potatoes

I have to say I’m enjoying being able to harvest stuff as part of the general allotment toiling. I’d been growing bored of exclusively weeding, but now I can say ‘I’ll just get rid of the acres of weeds on this patch, then I’ll see how the strawberries are doing’. It acts as a kind of motivation, I suppose. As does the fact that the wildflower patches are looking especially nice at the moment:

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(complete with bonus plastic cup)

I know in some allotments, you’re meant to give over a certain percentage of it exclusively to vegetable growing, and excessive wildflower patches would be frowned upon. As I’ve said before, rules only apply loosely to our allotment site. I’d estimate 30% of my allotment is totally untouched (future plans for this land involve possibly putting a shed on it if I ever get my act together), 10% is wildflowers I’ve planted from seed, 30% is potatoes and the rest is everything else I’m trying to grow, with varying degrees of success. I picked up some bargains at Wilkos today too:

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They’re clearly trying to get rid of all their seed packets so bagged them up more or less at random and sold the bags for 25p each. I was quite restrained and only bought two, and even then held off buying vegetable seeds. I haven’t properly planned what I’m growing next year yet.

One of the main things I’m doing in my life at the moment, aside from my slightly manic interest in the Labour leadership election, is digging and eating potatoes. This year I’ve tried out five different varieties, and due to my fondness for potatoes in all their forms, I think it’s time I assessed and evaluated them.

Shetland Black

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I grew these mostly for the novelty value, because who doesn’t find purple potatoes fantastic? The colour does make them a pain to harvest because they blend in so well with the soil (I’d scrubbed the potatoes pictured above with some enthusiasm, but they look a lot like stones when in the ground). The flavour wasn’t bad but was perhaps a bit on the floury side, and of course the colour’s lost when you cook the potatoes.

The main drawback, alas, was BLIGHT. This is my first experience with potato blight and it’s been the opposite of fun. I know blight sometimes happens to all varieties and it’s nobody’s fault (unless you’ve created an economic system whereby as a colonial power, you’ve made one of your sovereign territories dependent on a sole crop and exported everything else, of course. Oops, don’t know what came over me there), but I fear all my Shetland Blacks are ruined as of about a week ago.

Potato rating (potating): 3/10. Not planning to grow this again next year but don’t regret giving it a go.

Ratte

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These are posh potatoes that I decided to grow after googling ‘best-tasting potatoes’. And indeed, while they’re a bit weird and knobbly-looking, they taste fantastic, and slightly different from any potato I’ve had before. Slightly nutty and quite distinctive.

Potating: 9/10. Plan to grow again without a doubt.

Cara

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I grew these as my ‘standard, go-to potatoes’. I didn’t have especially high expectations of them in terms of flavour or quantity, but I’ve found them very pleasant. I wouldn’t rave about them (any more than I tend to rave about potatoes, which is probably more than I should, to be fair), but they were more than acceptable and very suitable for chips.

Potating: 7/10. Would probably grow again.

Pink Fir Apple

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I have a soft spot for these as their colour and shape amuses me. The taste is nice and light, and very good for salads. One drawback seems to be that the quantity so far hasn’t been massive compared with, say, the Cara potatoes, but I think the taste more than makes up for it.

Potating: 8/10. Plan to grow again, maybe as soon as next year if time and space allow.

Carolus

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I bought the Carolus tubers on Facebook after having been out for cocktails, because that’s sometimes what happens. Unfortunately the parcel company lost the tubers for several weeks, meaning I’d given up hope of actually getting potatoes from them. But a couple of smallish plants have grown, and I gingerly dug one up today and was very happy with the results. These are the biggest potatoes I’ve ever grown – almost as big as jacket potatoes you’d buy in supermarkets. The flavour, as far as I can tell, is virtually identical to Cara potatoes, which is to say slightly floury but still pleasantly light. I have a feeling they’re related to Cara potatoes – Carolus potatoes are quite a new variety and I wonder if they’ve been crossed with them somewhere along the way. My research is so far inconclusive.

Potating: 8/10. Would be my first choice for making jacket potatoes.

That concludes ‘Top of the Potatoes’ for this season. I still have about 70% of my potato crop in the ground, meaning I’m hoping quite fervently that I don’t get sick of potatoes over the next couple of months. I’m not really sure what I’ll attempt next year, potato-wise. I think between 4-5 varieties was a vaguely sensible number given the (stupidly large) proportions of my allotment. I’ve been toying with the idea of attempting sweet potatoes, but that seems like a different art entirely (plus I’m not sure how well they’d do in Northumberland). I will probably try it, though, as one thing I’ve learnt about allotmenteering is that trial and error is the best way of learning. And finally, allow me to brag about my tea, like a true product of my generation:

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I’m not responsible for the ginger beer/whiskey combo, the tomatoes, the halloumi or the bread, but I grew all the rest! Such triumph! The meal even features the very first onion I’ve ever grown (huge with a very mild flavour). I feel content.