In your face, capitalism

Northumberland is extremely hectic at this time of year.

Luckily I’m coping well. I was absolutely delighted to find grow tunnels reduced from £12 to £3 at Wilkos. A VICTORY FOR SOCIALISM.

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I’ve got three of them now (I even took on extra work over the week to afford them, assuming they’d be full price, and now the exact things I wanted are reduced. I know this simple fact shouldn’t make me so happy but it does) and I’ve found they’re pretty good – you just take them out of the packaging, lay them flat and then pull on the ropes inside to made them tunnel-shaped, and secure them with pins. They haven’t blown away yet. And if you’re lucky enough to be a fairly small human…

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They’re big enough to crawl all the way in! If you’re careful and don’t casually kneel on your seedlings. They’re much better quality than the plastic-covered ones I got a few years back which tore easily and just stored condensation. I’m using them for an ‘experimental’ patch. I took the garlic I’d overwintered out a bit early:

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And added in seedlings I’d been growing thanks to various gifts from family members, including tomatillos, tomatoes, cumin, jalapeños and (outside the tunnels), the odd sunflower. So it’ll be fun to see how it all does, I hadn’t been planning on growing any of these things but I have a bit of space, given that most of the parsnips aren’t growing from the very elderly seeds I planted back in March. Which is OK as well, because I didn’t want hundreds of parsnips, not after the Incident*.

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The peas, sweetpeas, artichokes and radishes seem to be doing well, and the potatoes got off to a slow start but seem alright now. I’m growing some kind of blue squash in one of the tunnels and so far, it’s not even germinated but we live in hope. Until then, I’m spending a lot of time walking back from the allotment covered in mud, thinking about my upcoming reunion with the family hound:

Normally gardening (and computer games) are the hobbies I use to get away from people and collect and store introvert energy, ready to be converted for my hobbies that require some extrovert energy (namely minority languages, politics and climbing, I have no hobbies beyond these five). However, it’s sometimes nice to give other stuff a go too and I headed down to the Star and Shadow Cinema in Newcastle last month to do a bit of community gardening. It was lots of fun and if I can justify abandoning the allotment (which I usually can), I’m totally going to come back again. Most of what I’ve ever learnt about gardening hasn’t been through books, but from having conversations with people more knowledgeable than me.

*The first time I tried to grow parsnips, I didn’t thin them out and ended up with hundreds of monster parsnips and lived almost entirely on parsnip soup for several weeks. At least they’ve thinned themselves out this time, that was polite of them.

 

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The wonders of social media

Being a modern young* woman of class** and distinction***, I occasionally indulge in the odd Tweet, and imagine my happiness when I saw that Thomas Etty Seeds had some spare to give away to the first fast-fingered twitterers to respond. I wasted no time and was overcome with delight when this came through my door:

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SO MANY! There are some very hot chillis there (which I might have to donate to people of less delicate constitutions than my own) and also the odd turnip and heirloom tomato. If I didn’t have so much to do between now and spring, I’d be wishing it was here already so I could start planting all this. It’s sometimes overwhelming selecting seeds and planning everything out before the year begins so in many ways it’s nice to just have enough there.

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These are the things I’m most excited about now though, Icelandic poppies! I hadn’t even heard of them but I’m hoping they’ll do really well, at least they’ll probably not find the Northumbrian climate too chilly.

Got to spend plenty of time on the old allotment this weekend for a change. I’m still really proud of the artichokes, I know I keep talking about them like they’re my own children, but look how beautiful they are:

My last post linked to a comparison of how quickly these creatures have grown and I was just about to apologise for concentrating solely on the artichokes again before realising I unashamedly love them and before the season’s out, plan to take a selfie next to them so it’s clear how big they are. I don’t know if they’re just easy to grow or if I somehow have the right soil, but either way, I’m hereby crowning them the main success of 2017 (failures including the usual carrots, and even potatoes this year for some reason).

Some other things did grow, though – I did a bit of blackberry picking before realising that the ones on my allotment were even better. I have a thornless variety and I’d expected there to be some kind of catch involving compromising the quality or yield but actually, they’re delicious and plentiful. This is the first year I’ve had blackberries from it and I’m pleasantly surprised. In the interest of regional diversity I should also point out that up here, they’re called brambles rather than blackberries and while I don’t have strong personal feelings either way, I wanted to point this out for the sake of regional dialect preservation.

Pictured are also my fearsome carrot crop, which succeeds only in looking weird although these are the biggest I’ve ever actually grown.

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So finally coming to the end of the summer, I’m a bit relieved because soon I won’t be having to do battle with weeds and feeling guilty that I never win this battle. Time to watch them die back naturally and have a bit of a rest myself.

*-ish

**petty bourgeoisie

***very little

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.