Row by row

I was thinking that after Cuba, I’d be putting the Factor 50 into the Cupboard of Useless Things until…well, my NEXT trip to Cuba, maybe? It’s not like I go warm places all that often. But lo, this weekend the sun made an almost inaugural visit to Northumberland, so the sunscreen was put both on me and into the Allotment Kit, and off I went.

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Like all those of my kind (gingers), I have to be obsessive when it comes to avoiding sunburn

As always, I don’t mind cheerfully admitting that there’s a lot of work to do; as one of the passers-by said to me today, “It’ll be lovely once it’s sorted”. I didn’t have to heart to tell her it’s been THREE YEARS. But my attitude towards the allotment has always been to do as much as I can in the time I have. There’s only one of me and there’s a lot of allotment, so it’s probably never going to be sorted in the sense of being ‘weed-free’, but if it’s providing me with food, and most importantly, if I’m enjoying it, then I’m happy enough.

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Allotment + weeds

I’ve been making great use of the watering spikes at this time of year, and noticed that nearly all the bottles I’ve used are tonic bottles of some kind or another. Could not speculate as to why this is.

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I really like the watering spikes though (and I really like gin, as it goes), I think they were a reasonably wise investment and although they obviously don’t fully replace watering the allotment, it’s good to have them as a kind of back-up option if I’m away.

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The peas and the artichokes seem to be getting more established, at least, four out of the five artichokes are fine (there’s a little runty one I’m concerned about, but having just four isn’t the end of the world). Two of the three potato patches are doing fine but the last one – the biggest – is just overgrown with weeds because the place I chose to plant them has been a wildflower patch for two years running. Which isn’t ridiculous in itself, because I’m a firm believer in rotating potato patches to avoid taking all the nutrients out of the soil, but of course it’s my fault that I let it get so overgrown anyway, so during my next allotment visit, I’ll mostly be tackling that.

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Rare Northumbrian pigeon baskets

So I’ve not ended up growing everything on the plan this year (the carrots failed, of course they did, the carrots always fail and I never learn), but I’ve made a few changes (I’m growing sprouts and broccoli instead) and feel like I’ve made more progress this weekend, so it’s time to sit back and get on with some translation.

Taking root

I always seem to pick planting and harvest time as my two busiest times of year in terms of the world outside the allotment, but I THINK I’m getting on top of it. Even if I wasn’t, I’ve never been the type of gardener to worry about the odd weed, or even the odd field of weeds. Or even the odd bit of debris left by the neighbours.

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It’s quite good that they left a pram really, because it means instant wheelbarrow! There’s so much I don’t bother buying – a shed, a wheelbarrow, a proper greenhouse, etc., because I know it’d only get damaged or broken by people with nothing better to do, but I think it’s good they’re at least dumping useful stuff on the allotment. I’m worried one day it’ll be a lost-looking abandoned goat.

Yes, I’m getting there according to the allotment map.I’ve got all the potatoes in and planted the peas today. I’ve gone with Lord Leicester peas again – partly just because they grow really well in the allotment compared with other varieties I’ve tried, and partly just because I have hundreds of the things left over from last year. Lettuce, garlic and cauliflower are all in too.

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Built quite a strong bamboo structure for the peas because this variety grows REALLY tall and every single year, I’ve regretted not sorting it so that the weight of the peas doesn’t cause everything else to collapse. I also managed to get the carrots planted under the fleece. I spent yesterday trying to locate bags of sand to mix in with the soil in an effort to make it more suitable for carrots, but the best option would’ve been a builders merchant outside of town, and I’ve got no car and am extremely weak and besides it was raining heavily and I just needed to get stuff done, so the carrot seeds are in my highly unsuitable, damp, clay soil. I’ve put garlic chives and spring onions in between the rows so at least they might grow.

Overall I’ve been trying to avoid growing anything using the greenhouse this year, partly due to the fact that if you refer for the first picture, you’ll see the crumpled remains of my greenhouse. It didn’t survive the storms over Christmas. I think if I ever rebuilt it, I’d do it in the position it’s currently in, because it wouldn’t be on a hill and it gets more sunlight, but this year I’m concentrating on just managing what I can, so no greenhouse for the time being. Also I’m going to CUBA next month so can’t be worrying about watering seedlings while I’m there. I’ll hopefully be helping to grow crops over in Cuba – I’ve been asked to bring gardening gloves – so it’ll be interesting to see how it all works in an environment that’s completely different to what I’m used to. I’ve arranged for the asparagus, onions and artichokes to be delivered either before I leave or after I get back, to avoid that miserable experience of returning to your house to discover a parcel of dead plants (not an experience that’s new to me).

So it’s all go on the allotment at the moment, but it’s an exciting time – not least because it’s weedburner season. TIME TO BURN THOSE WEEDS AWAY.

The Good Life

I recently decided to cement my status as a leftie middle-class allotmenting luvvie politically correct easily-offended snowflake* by trying out veganism, specifically by taking part in Veganuary. It was easier than I’d expected, maybe because I’m a life vegetarian and I’m used to checking the ingredients in supermarkets occasionally, and maybe because I overestimated the extent to which I’d miss cheese. I definitely want to cut down on my consumption of animal products overall (and I have a theory that a vegan diet has made my hair look extremely fabulous but I don’t know if there’s any scientific evidence to back this up. Other than what I see when I look in a mirror).

Having an allotment fits in quite well with all of this, especially when you have an allotment the size of a small country.

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I’ve always felt a bit sceptical about the ‘good life’ attitude towards having an allotment. I know people who have an ‘all or nothing approach’ towards having an allotment – they get their allotment and aim to be self-sufficient within a year or two. And then, quite often, it just won’t work out – maybe real life will get in the way and they don’t have the same amount of time to put in by the second year, or they’ll be more successful with some crops than others**, so their plans just don’t work out and they feel like they’ve failed.

I’ve got a more relaxed approach to my allotment (and indeed to veganism). I think first and foremost you’ve got to enjoy doing it. I’m pretty sure my allotment isn’t saving me any money – I bought all my seeds and seed potatoes for the season the other day, and I think if anything it’s costing me money, especially if you take into account the time I spend working on it. But I don’t see this as a bad thing – it’s not a huge amount of money throughout the year (renting the land only costs me £30 p.a., and seeds, equipment and so on is around £50 at this point, less than in my first couple of years), and as it’s essentially an enjoyable hobby like any other, it makes sense that it costs some money. I pay the gym whenever I use the bouldering wall. I keep going to Donegal to learn Irish. Etc., etc.

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A rare Shadow Selfie

The thing with self-sufficiency, and with veganism, is that I see it as something to work towards, but which I don’t have to fully achieve, necessarily. It’s more about the journey than actually reaching the goal (I couldn’t figure out a neat way of saying that which wasn’t also extremely sappy, so I apologise). I use a lot of homegrown food in my diet, but obviously it’s heavily season-dependent and if I only ate what I grew, I’d eat almost exclusively kale from November until April. Which would not be very good for me.

I’m anxiously awaiting the arrival of the seeds and seed potatoes. After several stern words with myself, I’m just growing three types of potatoes this year, one set of first earlies and two maincrops, these being Duke of York, Maris Piper and Desiree. Can’t believe I grew five types when I first got the allotment. I’m also going to give artichokes and asparagus a go, on which subject, more later.

 

*terms all used with sarcasm and affection. I sometimes feel like the only one left who thinks that political correctness is actually quite a good thing overall, but this isn’t a political blog so I won’t go on too much.

**e.g. if I was self-sufficient I’d be absolutely fine with potatoes and raspberries but would never see a single carrot. I’m hoping this will be the year I finally grow carrots.

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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Revenge on the nettles

Yesterday was the PERFECT day for the allotment. Since I got back from Brilliant Holiday, I feel like I haven’t taken much time out, away from the steady stream of obligations associated with being a Strong Independent Woman (for that is what I am) and the high amount of work I must do in order to ensure my continued survival, so with the weather being so fantastic, I bid my responsibilities farewell once again and headed to my little rented patch of land.

I’d come across a recipe for nettle rarebit online. Now, one thing the allotment is not short of is nettles. I’d say if somebody came along and harvested everything edible from my allotment, it’d be around 40% nettles. It’s a sign of fertile soil, but had hitherto been an occupational hazard as I worked on the more cultivable parts.

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Nettles exist only to cause misery. Like the Tory party. OOPS.

It was time for revenge. I harvested the nettles in a way I could only describe as ‘gingerly’.

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It’s funny because I’m ginger. Albeit dyed-ginger.

After washing them, equally gingerly, I fried them until they wilted – it’s at this point that the internet assures me they lose their sting. I also read that if you stroke the leaves the right way, they don’t sting, but I wasn’t willing to try this. I’ve had nettle soup before, but never eaten the leaves more or less as they are. All my instincts were saying “NO, do not eat stinging rarebit. It will hurt”.

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Turns out it was absolutely delicious. I still have some leftover nettles and am assured they’ll keep for a few days, so I will try this again without a doubt.

A few other promising things are happening – I’m continuing the potato digging, and anyone who knows me well will know that this is my absolute favourite thing to do on the allotment. Fork goes into ground, fork comes up and these beautiful golden potential chips are looking at you, waiting to be picked up. A few things that look like they’ll be pumpkins are also starting to appear.

I cleared out the greenhouse (how I’ve managed to get it cluttered when it’s only existed for a couple of month is another question entirely) and repotted a few aubergines. Some of them (those on the sunnier side) are doing far better, so to make room on that side, I took some of the weaker-looking aubergines and moved them to the ‘terrace greenhouse’, where I can keep a close eye on them. I’d love it if I successfully managed to grow an aubergine that’s bigger than my ear, which was the rough size of my record-holder so far. Excited to see how these ones do!

Grow your own soup

I was asked a question on my previous post about growing sweet potatoes. I love it when that happens, because it makes it look like I have some idea of what I’m doing. It’s far nicer to be asked ‘How do you grow sweet potatoes?’ than ‘Would you please stop staring at my garden and leave my property before I call the police?’

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I only stare to get inspiration

I spoke a bit about how I started off with them in this post. Growing them from rooted plants as opposed to slips was an attempt to give them a head start in a climate that’s chillier than they’d prefer, and I made sure to give them plenty of water for the first month. I’ve stopped watering them now because the Northumbrian summer’s providing more than enough rain for them, but they’re still in the fleece tunnel, and there they shall remain.

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Nothing significant happened with them for several weeks after I planted them – in fact, I assumed that everything had failed because the leaves were turning black, rarely if ever a good sign. But when I returned from my holiday, I discovered that the plants had grown vines like they were supposed to, so I removed the grass cuttings I’d added around them to warm the soil, which might encourage the vines to grow even more.

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Sweet potatoes today – maybe this is right?

No idea if this is right, I have to admit – there are plenty of videos online about how to grow them, but all the ones I’ve found are from Australia or the American South, so I’m just playing it by ear. If I’ve understood correctly, the vines will continue to grow, and below each new set of vines will be a small number of sweet potatoes. This may not be a very helpful answer because sweet potatoes were a bit of an experiment,  but it’s at least a lengthy answer.

It’s that time of year when the allotment decides what I’m having for my tea, so I was delighted to discover a recipe for pea and potato soup. For I am short of neither vegetable. I’ve also grown a few onions, although not to the dimensions of last year’s freakishly large crop.

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This year’s onions, with inferiority complex

And also I grew some mint, so this might mark the first meal where I’ve grown all the main ingredients.

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I hadn’t planned to, but I segregated the two types of potatoes I’d dug today (Anya and Mayan Gold) and made separate batches, one with Mayan Gold and rocket, the other with Anya and mint. Not sure why I wanted to separate out the different types, maybe I’m being influenced by right-wing rhetoric in British society OOPS there I go again.

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And now I’m happily eating this batch of soup (the Mayan Gold version. Don’t worry, I’ll talk a LOT more about the different types of potatoes I’ve grown this year in a later post). Not too bad at all, and a rarity in that I’ve actually saved money this week because of the allotment. Quite the feeling of contentment.

To Donegal

My excuses for abandoning my allotment for a few days are generally reasonably good excuses, in fairness. It’s rarely because I’m just too lazy – I did abandon it last year briefly because of the hospitalisation etc., which is a great excuse, and this time I was on holiday to indulge one of my main hobbies besides gardening: I went off to Donegal to learn Irish.

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Not a bad place at all, really. I had a fantastic time, met some great people and improved my level of Irish so I can understand maybe one word in 20 as opposed to my previous one in 50. I examined various gardens on my way and concluded that it’d be really difficult to grow much there at all, so maybe I won’t be able to emigrate once Britain goes under post-Brexit (sorry, I’m almost over it after a month. Actually, no I’m not at all, it’s terrible). I will certainly be going back though, it was brilliant.

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But what of the allotment, you cry? Worry not. I was lucky enough to get the help of a very kind friend while I was away, and she kindly watered the plants in the greenhouse. I only took a quick look today during my allotment reunion because it gets so hot in there that it’s really uncomfortable if you can’t be bothered to zip the door up, but I have some very healthy aubergine and pumpkin plants. Who knows, I might get actual fruit!

I was amazed by how quickly the beans and parsnips have shot up in the 10 days I was gone. It’s like the allotment’s waiting for me to have my back turned before it does the interesting stuff, after months of me waiting for things to finally bloom.

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This is the bit I’m happiest with. I mean, look at it. This is exactly what I had planned, with the eight ‘obelisks’, four in each of the two areas, each area containing two sweetpea obelisks and either peas or beans diagonally opposite. I had no trouble with the Lord Leicester peas (pictured to the right), but everything on the seven other obelisks struggled at one stage or another. Most of the beans failed to germinate, the first batch of the other peas died off, and the sweetpeas seemed to take ages to actually get going, but now they all have and I’ve got this massive supply of my favourite flowers. Possibly my favourite, I’ve never really thought about that before. I like snowdrops too.

And best of all, the bit I was most nervous about – the survival of the sweet potatoes – seems to be all fine. They’ve grown and developed vines as they’re supposed to, possibly aided by the good weather Britain apparently had while I was getting rained on in Donegal. But more on the happy survival of the sweet potatoes later on.