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.

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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Harvest in full swing

A lack of updates this month has been due partly to the fact that I’ve been busy digging up and storing (and eating) industrial quantities of vegetables, but mostly because my state-of-the-art photographic apparatus is being repaired after some idiot (me) broke it.

I’ve been able to soldier on against this self-made misery though and take the odd picture. Observe a couple of the harvests:

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I’ve not been overly convinced by this year’s tomatoes, I have to say. At least they grew, but so many got blight and more just never ripened, and I think if I try again next year I’ll really have to research what I’m doing wrong. The blackberries though – the ones that survived the frequent visits from next door’s stray chickens – are delicious. I’ve had broad and climbing beans coming out of my ears, resulting in me making large quantities of sweet potato and broad bean soup. The sweet potatoes, alas, did not come from my allotment, although there’s still time for mine to grow.

The soup was delicious, even if I did get a LITTLE sick of it the third day running. This week’s been very quiet work-wise, so keen to control what I can of my finances and ensure I at least don’t starve, I headed to the allotment to see what’s happened to the parsnips.

As we know, I was concerned that when I harvested the parsnips there’d be nothing below the ample greenery, and my first tester attempts proved more or less correct – there was enough for the odd small batch of parsnip chips but not much more. Turned out that the parsnip patch was hiding the hardcore members of its community in the centre of the patch.

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The one on the right in particular terrified me as it resembled Cthulhu rather than a vegetable:

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But it’s currently making yet another batch of soup, this time using this recipe. I still have half the parsnip patch left to dig and I’m a little bit concerned about what I’ll unearth. But excited too.

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.

Attempting sweet potatoes

This year I’ve been trying to focus less on ‘novelty’ vegetables and more on things that’ll actually grow and that I’ll eat. I think I came to this conclusion after running out of recipes for the hundreds of kilos of oka I dug from the ground*. That said, I like a challenge, so decided on sweet potatoes. They’re being grown commercially in the UK now, although that’s in the ‘south’ of England, a strange and mysterious region** very different from Northumberland. I want these sweet potatoes to live. I’m going to try almost everything I can.

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They arrived in the post as rooted plants rather than slips, which makes them a little more hardy. They looked quite healthy, Marshalls Seeds was quite reliable there. These are the Beauregard variety, meant to be suitable for growing in the UK.

I used the fleece tunnel, which used to house the carrots which have since gone to Seedling Heaven (why are carrots so horribly difficult to grow? I’m blaming the soil, it’s always the soil’s fault), and I put various cuttings from the paths in the allotment around the five plants to try and keep them warm. I watched videos on YouTube that told me to do this, I didn’t have the idea myself.

So fingers crossed. If things go well I should get 2-3 potatoes per plant, and if they live, they should grow a LOT.

The beans, peas and sweet peas around the obelisks still seem to be doing well. I tried out some peas I’d bought from Homebase, but they died soon after I’d planted them, and proved considerably less healthy than the Lord Leicester peas towards the top of the right-hand picture. I’m sometimes a bit sceptical about heritage veg because I sometimes think there’s a reason it’s not grown so much these days, but that’s not the case here, I really like them. I’m hoping to save some of them to plant next year too.

Wildflowers are slowly starting to make an appearance – I planted a lot of wildflower seeds this year but I think the weeds might have defeated a fair proportion of them. I’m still pleasantly surprised that the celery is all looking healthy. I planted celery as an afterthought last year and didn’t expect it to survive the frost, but it’s looking better than ever.

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Potatoes and parsnips continue to look promising and alliterative. I’ve never successfully grown parsnips before and am worried that when I come to harvest them, there’ll just be nothing under the leaves, but so far, so good.

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And finally a view of the allotment from the corner I’ve ‘set aside for wildflowers’, aka ‘just left for the weeds this year’. The green tunnel’s home to some tomatoes at the moment, and I’ve planted broad beans in that patch to the left of the potatoes, by the Lucozade bottles***. Sweet potatoes underneath the white fleece tunnel yonder. Your humble allotmenteer lies exhausted in a small heap, having successfully avoided all other chores today.

*It wasn’t hundreds to be fair, and I quite liked the oka because it was easy to grow, covered a lot of ground and tasted good.

**In which I was actually born, but we don’t talk about that.

***Bottles contain water rather than Lucozade, I’ve not been feeding my plants energy drinks in a desperate attempt to get them to live.

A challenge on the allotment

I’ve often believed there are many different kinds of intelligence, and it follows that there are also many different kinds of stupidity. One kind of stupidity that I exhibit is a complete inability to build things. For example, the obelisk I got for Christmas is still in a half-built state because after an evening of shouting at the poor inanimate object, I gave up and drank wine instead. And I’ve been doing so ever since.

I said in my last post I’d be getting a greenhouse ‘far into the future’. I’m a great big liar. I decided to get a modest greenhouse on the allotment on Thursday and had many challenges to overcome in addition to this personal impairment of being terrible at building things. I had to carry the box to the allotment for one thing, because I’m afraid of modern technology (including weedkillers and electric tools, but that’s a story for another day) and don’t own a car. I’d read the box weighed 8kg, which is about as much as a 4 month-old baby. No problem, I thought. I’ve carried plenty of babies before, I’m the eldest of six children. I didn’t really factor in the principle that babies don’t tend to be shaped like huge boxes, so I was tired after reaching the allotment.

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The idea was to use part of the ‘ignored’ section of the allotment that I’m allowing to do more or less what it wants. When you’ve got an allotment of this size and you’re only one small person, I think this is wise. So my first job was flattening out all the nettles and grass, which I did using quite a sophisticated ‘put an old cardboard box on it and jump up and down’ method.

I felt intimidated by the instructions, obviously. Yet another challenge was that my allotment’s on a hill, so I was always going to have a bit of a Leaning Tower of Greenhouse situation going on. But the base is secured to the ground with pegs at least.

Things were going well until I came up against my final challenge: my height. The greenhouse is a lot taller than me, and I don’t own a ladder because I’m too stubborn to admit how short I am. I managed by jumping around a bit. I was glad my new allotment neighbours weren’t around today to see this. I think I scared them off with my enthusiasm for burning weeds.

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And in a relatively short space of time – under an hour, anyway, I had a greenhouse! It hasn’t fallen over yet. If that proves to be a problem, I’ll secure it to the fence or maybe to the ground. This particular greenhouse is quite good value for money at £25. I ordered it from Argos on Thursday afternoon, it arrived the next day, and delivery was FREE. I’m fairly pleased with that.

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Testing out the heat inside the greenhouse

So yes, although the greenhouse might not be mega-useful this growing season, my aim is cut down on transporting young plants from the greenhouse outside my flat all the way to the allotment by starting things off on the allotment itself. I’m nervous that the greenhouse will be attacked and destroyed after previous incidents on the allotment, but the neighbours have a polytunnel and chickens that have remained undisturbed, and it’s fairly obvious that I’ve not got anything valuable in there.

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The rest of today’s allotmenteering was just the usual weekend and watering. Might get the weedburner out again tomorrow. I felt very content on the allotment today, with only the Best of Bowie and the occasional visiting free range chicken for company. If anyone made a ‘best bits’ of my life so far, I think a good 60% of it would just be me working away on this maddeningly difficult but very rewarding patch of land in Northumberland.

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