Off gallivanting

I chose a reasonably good time of year to be busy, at least from an allotment point of view. The only useful-looking thing there right now is kale, and it’s looking a bit like it might not survive the frosts, although I think I’m worrying unnecessarily. I’ve never grown it before, but it’s meant to be strong, isn’t it?

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You can do it, kale!

My visits to the allotment throughout the week are quite short over the winter, partly because of my laziness and reduced tolerance to the cold At My Age, and partly due to a general lack of things to do other than pace around. I do like the fact that it’s so quiet on the allotments now, though:

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This has been my first free weekend in a long time (I’ve been to Donegal, Derry, Edinburgh and Glasgow in the past three weeks and while it was all fantastic, I’m deeply grateful to finally have a day with no obligations at all), and I’ve been using this time to get an idea of what I want to grow next year. It’s always subject to change, but my first rough draft looks like this (prepare yourself for some great artistic skill):

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I had to have quite a stern word with myself about potatoes – I grew five different varieties in Year 1, four in Year 2, and this year it’s going to have to be three as an absolute maximum. I’m thinking of one first early (Kerr’s Pink, for storageability) and two maincrops (Maris Piper, which I’ve never actually grown before, and Desiree), and all in smallish quantities.

Two ‘challenges’ I’m setting myself are the asparagus and the globe artichokes. I’ve never tried growing either and I’ve been hesitant because both require some long-term commitment, but I feel that they’re reasonably sensible challenges. More sensible than sweet potatoes were in Year 2, at any rate.

I’m also not giving up on growing carrots – surely I’m due for some luck there. If they fail this year, I might just give up, but I was heartened by the unexpected success of my parsnips this year, and my thinking is that if parsnips are possible, so are carrots.

If anyone has any particular growing tips for anything I’ve mentioned above, that’d be very welcome. I’m most uncertain about the asparagus and carrots, I think. But as I said, this plan is subject to change until February or maybe even beyond. Until then, I’ll keep planning out this little corner of Northumberland I’ve claimed!

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A window of no rain

It’s been so rainy here over the last couple of weeks. I tried allotmenteering in the rain mid-week but it was a terrible plan because I came back covered in mud, so I was glad to see that today was a window of opportunity for me to come and tackle the weeds, which had been gaining a tactical advantage. If there is a sudden downpour, I’ve now got a shelter in the form of the greenhouse, which is still standing thanks to the additional tent pegs I bought to secure it.

I casually bought a pumpkin, he’s called Peadar (I’m learning Irish at the moment so everything has to have an Irish name so I remember pronunciation). Decided the pumpkin needed friends, so they’ve been growing quite happily too. I’ll think about where to actually put them once they’re a bit bigger. Lack of space has never been an issue on the allotment, and I suspect that when I start taking the potatoes up, I’ll be glad to have something to keep the weeds at bay. I hadn’t planned on pumpkins, but all the cucumbers met their maker after the greenhouse fell one night, (prompting me to invest in the aforementioned tent pegs) and I needed something to take the pain away.

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The Mayan Gold potatoes have grown some quite attractive purple flowers, even though it’s too early to even think about taking them up yet. I’m concerned about the sweet potatoes. The leaves of the original plants are turning black, which can never be a good sign, and while some of them are growing additional leaves to form the vine they’re supposed to, something’s been nibbling on them, quite possibly slugs. Not much I can do other than monitor then and try and keep the ground warm.

There are a couple of successes, although I think the beans are growing quite slowly. Not as slowly as the climbing beans, which I might just give up on, but I keep seeing pictures from other blogs with bean plants ready to harvest! And strawberries already harvestable! The ones on my allotment and on the terrace haven’t even formed properly yet, they’re just flowers at the moment. I suppose this far north in England, things work differently. I’m happy with the progress of the peas, to the right, as well. I’d wanted all eight obelisks to look like that, but the Homebase peas got eaten (main suspect is a rabbit) and the sweet peas look healthy, but just haven’t grown very much.

Finally, are you ready for some artwork? Are you sure?

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It’s a wonder my artistic talents have laid undiscovered for so long, but there we go. I had a quiet day work-wise a couple of weeks ago, in the dim and distant past before I took on a lot of work and grumpily worked into the night for several days in a row, and used my spare time to update the plan to reflect more or less what’s in the allotment at the moment. I’m not sure why I’ve labelled one bit as ‘weeds’, when that could apply to a lot of bits. It helps me figure out how on earth I’m going to plan things for next year – issues include:

  • Where am I going to grow potatoes, having giving over a lot of the allotment to potatoes previously? Will I just have to grow fewer potatoes? But I love potatoes.
  • I want to grow asparagus, but it takes three years to get established and I can’t make that kind of commitment. What should I do, other than ‘not grow asparagus’?

And so on. But there’s plenty of time to figure this out, and at the moment, the real battle’s against the weeds.

Allotment 2016

Ladies and gentlegardeners, I ended up with a more exciting weekend than usual. My typical weekend is possibly similar to that of an 80 year old man, as it usually involves allotment on Saturday and a trip to the beach on Sunday if the weather’s good and I’m feeling up to it, or staying in and watching war films if not. On Saturday morning, I went along to the allotment, tried to photograph some Japanese wineberries, and noticed my hand was shaking, more than it usually does due to caffeine.

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It took several attempts to get a photo that wasn’t just a blur. After I cut my allotmenteering short due to tiredness, and after a bit of a collapse while doing my supermarket shopping, I trotted over to my local medical professionals, who referred me to a hospital, in which I stayed overnight. I just have a thyroid that’s gone a bit mad, and after a bit of a scary night (I’ve never been a hospital patient before) I was released back into the wild with a lot of medication. It explains why I’ve been tired for quite a while, and I’m glad it’s a) diagnosed and b) very treatable. Might also explain me having a little nap on the allotment last week rather than doing any work.

Anyway, during my ‘recuperation’ (of which not much is needed really), I’ve been planning next year’s allotment. I’ve been meaning to get round to this for ages, but after I was a bit overenthusiastic with picking up bargain seeds at Wilkos, I thought I’d better work out what to do with them. As I’ve harped on about a lot before, I visit a local vegetable garden, the Roots and Shoots garden here in Alnwick, quite a bit to get inspiration. The other week they were selling grapes from the garden, which was a bit of a novelty – I doubt many people have eaten Northumbrian grapes before.

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11904703_10101269821879182_7343373171037689439_nI really admired their sweet peas growing on obelisks. And one potential issue with my allotment is that I used roughly one-third of it to grow potatoes, which I don’t regret (heaven forbid), but it’s meant I’ve got a lot of space next year on which I can’t grow potatoes. So I thought I’d put these problems together and come up with something:

allotplanThe plan involves EIGHT obelisks (the circles front left, if you can’t understand my artistic skills), which sounds like a lot, but I have the space. They might not be obelisks so much as ‘big bamboo sticks tied together at the top’, as proper garden obelisks seem a bit expensive, although I’m keeping an eye out to see if anyone’s giving any away. Four will be for sweet peas, and others for peas and beans. I already had three packets of sweet peas, two mixed and one blue, and bought some from a specialist website, Mattewman’s Sweet Peas (after some deliberation, I THINK I went for Mollie Rilstone). The peas will be more of the Lord Leicester from last year, provided I get very tall obelisks. I’m still deciding what kind of climbing beans to get.

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The dug over allotment from last year

I do have a couple of backup plans in case anything fails. I’ve never attempted sweet potatoes before and I don’t know if they’ll like Northumberland. And growing proper parsnips and carrots has always eluded me. I’m quite looking forward to the tomatoes, though. They’re the one thing I wish I’d grown this year too, since I eat a fair old amount of them.

So it’s going to be a busy winter, I hope, especially as I’ve got to make the paths a bit more path-like. In the meantime, I’m trying to work out how to make blackberry-infused gin.

The onions are scared. They don’t know why they’re so massive.

It’s September already, meaning it’s a year since I a) came off antidepressants and b) started work on my allotment. I’ll always maintain the two are related. Look at the beautiful view I get walking back from the allotment, for a start:

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I headed off to the allotment on Saturday but am currently battling some kind of cold and found myself taking a short nap on the allotment instead of all the work I’d planned to do. At least I flattened some weeds. My allotment’s made a lot of progress, although it doesn’t really look like it at the moment. Gone are the days when I needed to drag friends by their ears to my allotment to make it suitable for growing stuff in.

It being my allotment’s first birthday under my care, I’ve decided to list my successes and failures:

SUCCESS

Potatoes

Much have I posted of potatoes. I suppose they’re not hard to grow if you’ve got space, so I don’t know if I can bathe entirely in glory, but I’ll dip my toe in. I have a lot of potatoes. I hope they’ll store properly over winter.

Onions

This was more of a surprise as I’d never grown them before. I bought the sets from the Roots and Shoots garden locally, planted them, and left them alone for a bit. Then my family came to visit me and I took them on a forced march to the allotment, during which they commented on the size of the onions:

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My head to the left, third-largest onion to the right. I don’t know what I did to make them grow so much.

Courgettes

Young Camille asked me if I’d like to adopt an ill-looking baby courgette plant. I don’t like courgettes but I feel sorry for scrawny looking plants, and after a few months, it became one of the 25% of scrawny plants I’ve adopted that’s actually thriving.

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I’m trying to get rid of all the courgettes. If anyone’s local and reading this, TAKE MY COURGETTES.

FAILURES

Carrots

I love carrots, so was hoping for more success, but no. I have a couple of hopefuls still planted but nothing major.

Parsnips

Even more of a bitter disappointment. The seeds all died.

Leeks

My older batch of leeks got leek rust and are just sitting there looking sad. Luckily I have a new batch that I’ve planted far, far away.

WHO KNOWS?

Celery

Plants are alive but doing very little. I didn’t know plants could grow this slowly.

Sprouts

Most of the sprout plants got eaten by rabbits, but there’s a couple left and who knows? Maybe the rabbits got sick of them.

I’m starting to think about what I’m going to do next year on the allotment. I think it’s too early to figure out what to plant (although I’m going to have another crack at carrots, and will reduce my potato crop by 25%. Oo and aubergines. And cucumbers). Over the winter I want to improve the raised beds, which I didn’t really have time (or the skill) to do last year. Some of the wood’s old and rotting and not ideal. I’m also hoping to make more permanent paths, as some of those that I made last year became overgrown. I have purchased a weed burner (a cheap one, rather than the more powerful-looking ones I keep looking at on eBay) and I think that’s going to create a LOT of fun in future.

A raspberry patch appears

I keep heading off to the allotment and thinking ‘Naah, not much to be done here’, but of course, there’s plenty to do, just not very much digging thanks to the frozen ground. I carried out my plan of creating a raspberry patch last week. I’d ordered fourteen canes in total – 7 each of Glen Moy and Autumn Bliss. It took me an unreasonably long time to decide exactly what I wanted in terms of raspberry varieties, but I thought I’d at least get an even mix of autumn and summer fruiting varieties, and these have quite good reviews and seem to be high-yielding. I really wanted to get Glen Coe too, because they’re beautiful, like goth raspberries. Look!

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Well, there’s still hope. I’m toying with the idea of planting yet more raspberry canes to form a barrier on the only ‘open’ side of the allotment, but they’ll take a while to grow and I’m thinking it might be more sensible to invest in a fence. Or I could have both, I suppose.

Anyway, the ground is almost totally frozen at the moment, except the patch that was under the carpet. I know there are very mixed feelings among gardeners as to the use of carpets. I myself found them useful for suppressing weeds over the winter – it was extremely easy to dig, and I hadn’t done anything to that patch previously, so I saved myself some work there. That said, I wouldn’t use it for the WHOLE allotment, and I don’t think I’d use it as a ‘permanent’ fixture, as part of paths for example. This is what it looks like now:

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Not much to look at really, but give it 9 months (maybe longer). I’ve also had a go at marking out paths, partly with some paving stones I found elsewhere on the allotment, and partly – less conventionally – with pinecones that are currently scattered all round the area. At least it’ll help me remember where I meant the paths to be so I know more or less where to walk.

I’ve also written out Allotment Plan No. 300 (approx), this time to reflect exactly what seeds I own. I bought oca from the Real Seed Catalogue a couple of weeks ago – a variety called ‘Scarlet with White Eyes’. It’s quite pretty. I’m planning on planting it in a separate bit from my potato patch. I’m in two minds about whether to go to a Potato Day in Durham next weekend. I know exactly which varieties of potatoes I plan to grow this year (Shetland Black, Pink Fir Apple and Cara, since you asked, and perhaps Ratte if I have enough space but I mustn’t get too carried away), and there’s no guarantee that all these will be available on the day. Also, it’s quite a long way to go by public transport when you have the internet option. That said, I’d quite to experience the ‘social’ aspect of it – asking people advice on potato growing and so on. I don’t know, it’d be nice if there was one closer by. If anyone reading this knows of any in a radius between Edinburgh and Newcastle, please let me know.

I took a stroll through the allotments today and was greeted by lots of ducks!

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I’m quite tempted by the idea of getting some kind of livestock of my allotment, but realistically speaking it won’t happen any time soon. From a responsibility point of view, it’s far more to take on (I’d feel bad if all my plants died because I’d been distracted by playing computer games for weeks, but if all my ducks died, I’d feel considerably worse). But it’s something to think about for the distant future. For now, I’ll just say hello to the neighbouring ducks.

When life gives you lemons, dig potatoes

I’ve not been to the allotment since Sunday! I’ve started getting paranoid that the whole thing’s been vandalised or something, but I suppose there’s a limited to the extent you can vandalise a patch of mud. I’m going tomorrow, I hope. November must be the worst month for allotmenteers. There’s so much I want to do, and yet so much rain and so little sunlight.

All sorts of difficult things have happened in the last couple of weeks, and in an effort to distract myself, I decided to dig up the potatoes in one of my three growbags I have outside the house. These are the Carlingford potatoes I planted back in August and composted with beer and the Sun newspaper. I know the first time I grew potatoes in growbags, I was too impatient and harvested the lot a little too early, so I confined myself to just one bag today:

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It’s not a huge amount of potatoes, but I’m still happy – they required a very minimal amount of effort to grow, and the watering system was ‘move the bags out from under the balcony whenever it rains’. I poured the bag out onto some newspaper and scrabbled round in the dirt in my pyjamas, forgetting that my garden’s overlooked by shops. Oh well, they are used to it.

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Cooked my one of my favourite potato meals, with things added, including a mixture of home-grown and shop-bought tomatoes. I’ll always insist that potatoes are probably the best vegetables to grow yourself. Part of me wants to turn the whole of the allotment into a giant potato patch, but then, I wouldn’t get to plan it out in quite as much obsessive detail:

IMG_20141115_224621The black ink denotes anything that’s there right now, while the blue ink is part of my planning for the future, and as we’ve seen from all my many other plans, such plans are subject to change. Some of the stuff in black will be moved by the time their blue-inked counterparts are to be planted – for example, the fava beans should be harvested in March, in time to plant maincrop potatoes.

I’ve left large areas for the (potentially rotable) potato patch and a raspberry patch. Thought the potato patch could rotate with the spaces reserved for spring onions, oka/yam, cabbage and polytunnels in 2016, but for the MOMENT, this is what I’m hoping things will look like, more or less, in 2015. I think crop rotation is something I’ve been worrying about too much, really – in all honesty, I don’t know if I’ll still have the allotment in 2016/7/8/9 etc., what with future planning and moving and whatever else goes on in the world outside gardening. I live quite some way from my family, and it might not be that I’m in Northumberland forever, although maybe I will be – one just cannot be certain at this stage. But plan for 2015 I can, and have. I’ve kept an eye out on Freecycle for sheds and maybe even an old set of weatherproof chairs and a table – it’d be nice, maybe once it all looks less like a patch of mud, to have people over – there’s considerably more space on the allotment than in my house. I don’t think I’ve gone totally mad with flower ideas, but I’ve set out a few wildflower patches, which will hopefully make it look nice.

I’ve been thinking more about fruit trees, too – it wasn’t initially a priority, but given that it could be roughly 24 months before I get fruit from them, I might as well plant some in spring in the hope that perhaps I can enjoy some of the fruit from them personally. I’m not allowed to plant what I’d call in pseudo-Northumbrian ‘muckle big’ trees (I wish my allotment contract actually called them that), but smaller fruit trees are allowed, so I was thinking cherry, apple, and maybe plum, and for some fun, the strawberry tree I’ve been fascinated by. I’ve dropped a few Christmas present hints – all of them various unusual plants – to my increasingly bewildered family. If I only got plants as presents, I think I’d still be a happy woman.

Getting and planning an allotment

I’ve been provisionally allocated (or ‘allotted’ if you will, hohoho) an allotment about 15 minutes walk from where I live, in an area that’s quite far from houses. The allotment itself is ‘brand new’, in that the area’s not been used for growing in several years. I paid a visit to the allotments last February, while they were clearing them, and things looked a bit like this:

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Things have moved on slightly since then, but really only slightly. The area I’ve picked out (being able to pick was a nice and unexpected luxury!) is basically weeds up to my waist. So about knee-height on a normal-sized person.

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Here’s kind of an illustration of how everything’s been set up. I could have chosen a slightly more prepared allotment – one of those big strips nearer the top, but I like a challenge (or maybe I just like the underdog) and developed an attachment to this overgrown area at the end. It’s already got fences on three sides and  its own gate. The council are going to remove some of the weeds over the next two weeks, after which, I’ll hopefully have the papers signed and can finally start growing. It will be a lot of work before anything can actually grow, but for me, that’s part of the fun. I love the actual process of gardening about as much as I love eating the proceeds. I’m not expecting to have things up and running within a day. Plus, I have to factor in things like having a full time job and occasionally leaving my town to do other things, as is my custom, occasionally. If things are underway within a month, I’ll be pleased.

I’ve been thinking a bit about planning the allotment today, once all the digging’s out of the way.  Here’s what’s more or less the first draft.

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So starting from the top – I thought a little strawberry patch, as strawberries are my second favourite thing to grow after potatoes. The allotment regulations seem to be quite generous and I’m allowed to plant trees, so if space allows, I thought a couple of fruit trees (I’m eyeing up strawberry trees because I’ve only just found out they existed, and they sound awesome). The storage could be a shed, but as this is actually only half a plot, and space (and indeed, cash) is an issue, it’s likely to be just a box for the immediate future. Then there’s a compost heap, and then raised beds A, B, C and D.

Raised beds seem better in this case because I think the soil is going to be tough to dig, as the allotment’s been out of use for so long. Happily for me, the last person to use this allotment also used raised beds, so it’s possible I could use them if they’re roughly where I want them. These four beds will then merrily rotate crops on a four year basis (fruit/leaf/legume/root). IF there’s space, I’m hoping to add two further, maybe smaller beds at the end for perennial vegetables, herbs and suchlike. Finally, there’ll be a water butt at the end, and I’ll hopefully put up some kind of fairly low trellis and plant raspberry canes/blueberry/blackberry bushes. Some of which I already have on my balcony. I have yet to sort out exactly what I’m going to migrate over to the allotment, and what will stay. It depends mainly on when the allotment’s ready for growing, I suppose. This may be the subject of a new post.

That’s the basic plan anyway, based loosely on various things I found online. The plan will probably change, especially once I see the allotment de-weeded and accept it officially, because there might be things under all the growth that will prove ‘an extra challenge’. I spotted some wild strawberries growing there among all the weeds, it’s a shame that they’ll have to go. I’m impatient to start. I’m heading off on holiday on Sunday, to stay with some kind and wise friends in Sweden who ALSO have an allotment, because it’s clearly what all the cool young people are doing these days. Once I’m back after two weeks, it’ll be time to start digging.