An allotment for 2017

Getting back into allotmenting again this year after a bit of a winter hiatus. The allotment just doesn’t look great at this time of year, even though things are underway, I promise:

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I suppose no allotment really looks fantastic in January, it’s one of the least interesting allotmenteering months. With September maybe being my favourite. The main focus over the winter was on mapping out the allotment so it looks like a plan, avoiding the spring panic where I just plant things more or less at random. I also need to use up some of the seeds I actually have rather than buying more without needing too.

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And of course, tending to whatever other hobbies I have outside of the allotment. I still haven’t given up on growing carrots after three years of failure. This time I’m going to try one of two methods: I’ll either grow them in rows, underneath fleece, or in raised, large containers like I saw at the allotments around Friend Chris’s allotment. I might do both, actually, and if there’s an abundance of carrots it’ll make up for the three years of disappointment.

So I’ll keep working on it even if there’s not much to show for it at the moment, and hopefully produce more interesting-looking photos as the year goes on.

 

 

 

 

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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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.

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.

What to do with oka

I realise I mentioned in my last post that I’d been in hospital, and then didn’t update in a long time, which I hope hasn’t caused undue alarm. Fear not, bold centurions, the doctors worked out it was Graves’ disease on Wednesday, and there are far worse things to have. And the reason for my absence has actually been a happy one, because (and there’s no way of saying this without sounded poncy) I’ve been on holiday to Sicily. From an allotmenteering perspective (and many others) this was fascinating. I’m not used to warm climates, really, so it was a novelty to see limes, olives and oranges growing. And then Etna, near where I was staying, has a kind of micro-climate. We passed loads of allotments or gardens on the way up, and I was struck by the thought that I would have no clue about how to make anything grow there if I became a Sicilian Allotmenteer. I’d have to forget everything I’d learned (which isn’t all that much) and start again.
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The land around Etna is really fertile, and you can follow the lines of trees to see where various eruptions took place. Yes, it was a happy little holiday.
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Back to Northumberland then, and I’ve been readjusting to rain, of which there’s been a lot. But all is not lost, because there are still things I can do on the allotment. November is when I can start harvesting the mysterious oka, which is so mysterious I don’t know how to spell it (oka or oca?) or even pronounce it, but friends, I grew it.

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It’s a shame they lose their colour when roasted, because they’re quite pretty. I went for the Strawberry Cream variety from the Real Seeds catalogue. One very positive thing about growing oka was that it takes up SO much space, which in my case, with an allotment the size of Essex, as my grandfather put it, is a bonus.
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I decided to roast mine in a recipe I adapted from this website. Left out the peppers, use oka rather than okra, as they are very different things, and added feta, because that was what was in my fridge (I’m middle class so this is normal). IT WAS DELICIOUS. I even managed to add some greenstuffs from the allotment like nasturtiums and rocket and garlic chives.

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The flavour of oka is hard to describe exactly but it’s got the consistency of a fairly fluffy potato with a slightly lemony taste. I might see what happens if I create some kind of oka mash – I’ll certainly have spare ones, as I planted eight tubers and have only taken up three to date. And it grew really, really well up here in Northumberland, which surprised me. I’m sure it’s been one of the most successful allotment experiments, and yet all my carrots fail (although I know why, it’s because I have totally the wrong kind of soil). Just goes to show you can’t always predict these things.

Apart from that, my white raspberries have been doing quite well this autumn:

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I’m freezing all the ones I collect with a view to making a mixed berry pie at some stage. To be brutally and viciously honest, I don’t like these novelty white berries as much as your standard raspberries. The flavour just isn’t quite as strong, as I see it. But I have normal red spring raspberry canes too, so all is not lost. I think it’s always a fine line to tread between novelty vegetables and being able to grow something actually useful, especially during the first year of allotmenteering. I know I have a tendency to want to try all the weird and wonderful vegetables, but I’m going to try and focus a bit more on standard fruit and veg next year. Well, maybe.

I don’t have a good picture of them, but I’m also getting regular visits from the chickens living in the neighbouring allotment. They’re always there when I open the gate and will guiltily waddle away when I approach, and then return when my back’s turned. My hope is that they’ll eat only the weeds, but I’m not sure if chickens have that level of wisdom to be able to only eat stuff that won’t annoy me.

Soon time to start ordering seeds for next year! How time has flown. I’m looking forward to planting sweet peas!

Defeating my laziness

I’ve been getting a bit lazy with allotmenteering lately, having chosen easily the worst time of year to do so. IN MY DEFENCE, I’ve been ill, on and off, and busy with work and a few other things. Plus, another dispiriting thing happened, worse even than the Great Rake Theft. I keep tools and other various bits and bobs in a padlocked plastic storage box, and discovered a couple of weeks ago that the lid had been smashed to allow access to said box. They hadn’t taken anything, which paradoxically only increased my rage. Anyway, as a counter-measure, I had a look at my stuff and determined what I really wouldn’t want to lose, and moved it to my flat. It’s such a pain, because I don’t really know what to do now. In some ways I could do with a shed, but that could easily be broken into by a determined thief. If I replace the lid of this box, I could simply be wasting my money if it’s broken again. My best idea so far is to put barbed wire all round the fence, as my neighbours have done. We shall see.

I had a bit of a word with myself, though, and decided I wasn’t going to let that ruin my allotmenteering experience. I was thinking what a pain it was to schlep tools from my flat to the allotment whenever I go there now, but then the other week, something good happened (and I’ve rattled on about this on all other forms of social media, so might as well say it here too): I passed my driving test! After a year and a half of learning to drive (probably felt like quite a bit longer to my long-suffering instructor). So if I ever actually get some kind of vehicle, I can simply drive to the allotment in style.

I also bought something to cheer myself up:

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I decided I needed to get over the psychological block of the weeds that are taller than I am. I mean, the weeds are generally where they’re meant to be – I deliberately haven’t cultivated the whole allotment, because there’s only so much I can do, and I’ve been hoeing away on the raised beds. But it’s sometimes a bit daunting when unlocking the gate and seeing the various huge plants, even the ones that are supposed to be there:

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So I’ve had a few hours of chopping today, which has been extremely therapeutic, even though I’ve kept in mind that it’s not really a long-term solution against the weeds. And despite the fact that my cauliflower, cabbage and sprouts have all been eaten by rabbits (main suspects), some things are growing as they should be:

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I’d bought the tayberry to celebrate the Scottish referendum (I didn’t have hugely strong feelings either way, but it seemed fitting) and hadn’t really expected actual berries to appear for a while. The borage is thriving – it’s been attracting so many bees that you can hear them humming from the other end of the allotment. It’s a bit nerve-wracking to pick the flowers, but I survived. The Lord Leicester peas have, as predicted, out-grown me (as have all my siblings and most adult humans), and the potatoes seem to be fine.

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I picked a random assortment of things today – a few flowers to have in the flat, lots of borage flowers to eat, and the delicious garlic chives. It’s not like I’m dragging back massive sacks of vegetables, but I didn’t really expect to be at this stage. One thing that’s surprised me, after the failure of my carrots and parsnips and other, more conventional things I’ve tried to grow, is that the oka seems to be doing very well. It took a while to emerge, and I’m still not sure if it’s even worth eating – I don’t know what it will taste like, but it’s encouraging to see that some things are working out well.

No more lovage

The lovage I bought a couple of months back has entirely disappeared now, which is a bit sad. I think lovage hates large quantities of rain, and November has basically consisted of nothing but rain, so I suppose that’s why. It’s a shame, I was hoping to put it in a broth. Nevermind, it was probably a bit daft to plant a fairly young plant in September and then hope it survives a Northumbrian winter.

My Douce Povence peas have also not been doing so well. The ones I planted in the balcony garden seem to be thriving, but the ones on the allotment have hardly even made an appearance. Not to worry. Again, I think trying to ‘overwinter’ anything is always a bit risky. I went shopping online a couple of weeks ago:

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These are Chinese (garlic) chives, ‘Lord Leicester’ tall peas and sorrel, all from the Real Seed Catalogue. I have an extreme soft spot for rarer vegetables and herbs that you can’t really find in shops – for me, that’s one of the main joys of having an allotment. I mean, I’m planning on growing oca at some point, and I’ve never even eaten that before, and if it wasn’t for allotmenteering, I’d never have heard of it. The Lord Leicester peas, for example, are extinct, more or less, it’s just that this particular company has some that are commercially available. I think they’ll be a lot taller than me once they’re grown. I can’t wait.

There’s something a bit shrug-worthy about going to the allotment at this time of year. There’s a bit you can do, but not a huge amount. Observe:

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Now, I know that by March, those fava beans will be ready to harvest and plough back into the soil to pave the way for my huge potato patch. And I know that round that herb wheel, I’ll have a load of wildflowers, and maybe a row of lettuce to the left, why not? But currently, it’s just mud and some very spindly leeks. One of the older allotmenteers on the plots who I see round quite a bit was asking about the beans and I was telling him all about green manure and soil nutrients, but he looked a bit disgusted and said ‘You’re not into that, are you?’ It’s funny how gardeners differ quite strongly on a lot of things. I’ve been reading more about the no-dig method, for example, and I can kind of see the logic behind it while not being ready to try it myself. In the same way, when everyone was suggesting I get a Rotavator, I had a strong anti-Rotavator feeling that I didn’t quite overcome – I just wanted to dig instead. But that’s the fun of it all, you can still have your own preferences and not necessarily be doing things wrong. Unless you’re planting potatoes in November like a lunatic.

I have joined a gardening forum to try and learn stuff while I’m not busy on the allotment. They are a friendly lot. I’ve also drawn up a plan for the next few months, because while I’ve listed all the seeds I have, it wouldn’t be beyond me to twiddle my thumbs for the next few months and forget about the passage of time and wake up in May unless I write down a plan. So here it is so far:

December 2014:

Plant wormwood (in two minds about this because while it’d repel cats and perhaps stop them from leaving horrible ‘gifts’ in the form of dead voles on the allotment as they have done before, it can easily get out of control).

January 2015:

Plant lobelia (perhaps along one side of the main path).

February 2015:

Start digging in green manure

Plant parsnip and marigolds

Top up spinach in raised bed if necessary

Start chitting maincrop potatoes

March 2015:

Harvest fava beans and garlic (providing garlic has not all died as I suspect it has)

Plant carrot, spring onions, garlic chives, wildflowers, and ALL POTATOES

April 2015:

Plant other flowers (subject to space being available)

Start planting herbs and peas

Plant oca in pots (subject to having previously bought tubers)

May 2015:

Keep planting herbs

Plant out oca

Plant poppies

So as you can see, a busy start to the year. I’ve been thinking of taking myself off on holiday, but I might have to time that so that I don’t neglect the allotment too much (come to think of it, around now would probably be a good time). I’m also planning on going to a Potato Day in Durham – on which, more later. Potatoes deserve their own post.