Getting ready for winter

I hadn’t really been planning on working on the allotment today, my plan was more to do the actual work that I get paid to do (‘my job’, as people insist on calling it), but not much work came in and society has something against me sitting around playing computer games all day, so off I went. Getting the garlic planted as soon as I could was one of the main things on my mind, along with the ascendency of the patriarchy and the tribulations of late-stage capitalism.

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I’ve been trying to not put the garlic in the potato patches – I think it’d take too many nutrients out of the soil. This is veering dangerously close to science for me, a subject I repeatedly failed in school, but that’s the general idea I’ve got, so I’m putting green manure in the potato patches over the winter and growing the garlic elsewhere. I wanted to grow more this year as I got through this year’s batch at an alarming rate.

There were also a couple of loose ends to tie up:

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Dug up the rest of the Golden Wonder potatoes. They’re not as big as I’d expected and maybe that was just lack of care on my part – I definitely had more success with the Carolus a year or two back. The spring onions (Apache, I think, and I think the seeds were a present from my sister Niamh, so if you’re reading this Niamh, THANKS!) did fairly well but again, they’re a bit small. I’m having them in a salad tonight with the last of the rainbow chard, so it’s not going to waste.

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It’s hard to summarise what worked well this year and what didn’t, because I’ve not been keeping track very well, like in previous years. I’ve had a slightly more ad hoc approach to the allotment. Overall, I think onions and their general ilk did the best. I have enough shallots to get me through the inevitable uprising against our right-wing government.

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I wove that basket, with some assistance, and I’m delighted that it’s actually come in handy for drying onions – it’s perfect for the job, actually. And to think I was just going to donate the basket to some unfortunate relative like my mother, who’d hoped she’d passed the age where she was being presented with badly-made gifts from her offspring.

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Finally, I was indulgent and got myself some cut-price Crocosmia Lucifer. I’m not sure exactly where I’m putting it yet though. I don’t know much about flowers, as a rule – I tend to just think of them in terms of the effect they’ll have on vegetables. Like I planted marigolds but not because they’re pretty, it was to tempt pests away from the runner beans (which were eaten. Marigolds are thriving though). But I’ve got a soft spot for crocosmias, they remind me of exploring Inis Meáin. I hope they grow well here too.

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Prosecco and potatoes

I was away from the allotment at a fairly crucial time again, this time during a heatwave that’s been plaguing the country for seemingly years now. Weirdly, things didn’t seem to be too badly affected by the lack of water. My only theory is that the soil’s less dry than it looks on the surface because the allotment’s at the bottom of a slope, but I’m a long way off being a soil expert so it could be witchcraft for all I know.

I was in a jubilant mood this weekend because I found out I’d passed an Irish exam I took a couple of months back, and not only that, but when I told people about it they seemed really happy for me, even though I didn’t take the exam for a particular reason other than wanting to see where I was at. It was still really important to me, and it was nice that people saw that and shared in the general jubilation. I’d find that quite touching if I still had emotions.

I was also happy because there’s a lot going on at the allotment, lots of it with familiar veg.

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Artichokes and radishes have always done pretty well. I’m still amazed at how quickly the artichokes grew last year, when I planted these tiny plantlings right after coming back from Cuba and was surprised by an overabundance of artichokes just a couple of months later. The mixed radishes are doing well, and I’m experimenting with the Chinese Rose variety too, although it seems to be taking quite a bit longer. Peas and beans have done really badly this year, but I think it’s a result of my neglect. Kalelettes never even germinated. On the other hand, shallots are looking promising and might be the subject of my next post, if things go as planned. I’ve never tried to grow shallots before.

Here’s a couple more things I’ve never properly tried growing before, tummelberries and chard. The tummelberry’s been around for years (since January 2015, this very blog tells me) but never actually produced anything until now. The berries are delicious although not hugely abundant right now. Possibly because I keep eating them. The chard’s not in a great position – very close to the artichoke and so in quite a bit of shade – but it seems to be doing OK.

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Took up some potatoes today, specifically Golden Wonders (too early but I was hungry) and my all-time fave, Ratte. It meant that I was able to enjoy my first mostly allotment-based meal of the year. The only thing I didn’t grow was the garlic mayonnaise (although I did grow the garlic). I’m not intending to start keeping chickens for the mayonnaise any time soon, that’d be too stressful. Before last year I had no idea how to even eat an artichoke, and I like to see that as a skill I’ve developed because of the allotment. That, and an ability to worry a lot about the weather forecast and when it’ll next rain.

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Borage is one of my Top Ten favourite things

Homegrown meal

I failed to do a July allotment update, partly because not a lot happened but mostly because I wasn’t here, I was on Inis Meáin learning Irish, as is my custom.

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Can’t think of many nicer holiday destinations tbf

That only took up 95% of my mental capacity, so I used the remaining 5% not for normal things like ‘remembering to sleep and to feed myself’, but instead for ‘noticing the plant life on the island’. I was quite taken with how the potatoes are grown, for example, with seaweed being used as compost (and I can attest to the fact that this makes them taste especially good). My own potatoes aren’t doing fantastically well this year, but they were fairly low down the priority list.

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I had a great time despite the neglect of my own allotment, and I’ll be going back to the Aran Islands later in the year. Not sure if there’ll be anything notable in terms of plant life but I will, as ever, remain vigilant.

Back to my own allotment, then, and the best thing that’s happened is this:

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I had no idea artichokes grew that quickly – compared to just a couple of months ago, or even back in May, they’re huge, and I’ve now got to look up interesting artichoke recipes because I think I’ll have a few to eat before long.

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The asparagus is still doing OK – it’s less obviously successful than the artichokes but it’s survived (I thought a lack of water had killed it off totally while I was away).

Of course, the most important bit of harvesting all this food is eating it. This is the first year I’ve successfully grown garlic, and I even had ‘kind-of’ carrot success (full disclosure: I bought a Rainbow Carrot set designed for children from Homebase) after growing them in containers.

I managed to make a stew that was maybe 90% home-grown (I bought the dill because mine all perished while I wasn’t paying attention, and I also added fennel because I had some to use up):

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(I’ve made more colourful meals, it’s true, but it’s the taste that counts). So despite my ongoing occasional neglect of the allotment, it’s still worth having since it gets me the odd free meal. Tune in next time when I’ll exclusively be eating home-grown potato wedges.

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.

Roots

I’ve been banishing myself to the allotment quite a bit recently to try and clear my head after the political turmoil in the UK at the moment. Obviously this blog’s about growing potatoes and the like, not about my political opinions, and I’ve been making good use of the many other channels I have to express exactly why I think we’re better off in the EU, but as somebody who’s never believed it possible to feel proud of something as abstract as your nationality, I’d never considered that logically, I’d be able to feel ashamed of it. And yet here I am, over week after the referendum results came in, wondering whether staying in the UK is the best option for me.

I’ve said I don’t believe in patriotism, but I think you can really love individual places that you’ve visited, and obviously I love my little (!) allotment and even derive some pride from that, since I helped things to grow there. It’d break my heart to have to leave it. I know people do leave their allotments and maybe get new ones, but when you’ve spent so long working on one, people don’t always understand the attachment you can have to a piece of land. After I’d been working on mine for maybe three months, I was offered a different plot, one with a shed and paved paths and raised beds and everything, and I stubbornly refused because I’d already grown attached to my huge pile of nettles that I refer to as ‘my allotment’. This might not be proof of my sanity.

I’ve been making more use of the greenhouse I cleverly and elegantly constructed. I have some very late aubergines, some less late aubergines, a couple of pumpkins and some tomatoes all happily gathered there. So far, it’s not collapsed since I added tent pegs, and we’ve had quite windy weather. Fingers crossed.

I grew about eight healthy pumpkin plants in the greenhouse by accident – I just had some seeds I needed to use up and that was what seemed to survive best. So I’ve split them up to have two in the greenhouse, three outside and three outside but under cover (not in the sense of being spies, obviously. Pumpkins make awful spies). The outside ones were looking dangerously wilty yesterday but as of today, they’ve picked up a bit. I’ve also added extra support for the Lord Leicester peas on one of the eight obelisks (top right picture), because they’ve been going mad lately.

I’ve been less than impressed by the wildflowers this year, but maybe they’re just a bit delayed – there’s still time. Last year they didn’t bloom until mid-July, but lasted until November, so it might be that I’m not used to the Northumbrian climate. Broad beans and potatoes are looking promising, though.

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Pictured here we can see the big wildflower patch to the left (the plan is that next year, it’ll be potatoes) and the covered pumpkin patch to the right (cover is only temporary, obviously, as I’m hoping the pumpkins will expand like they’re supposed to).

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And finally something to celebrate; I was impatient and took a few potatoes from the ground early (not that stupid given the amount I’m growing, actually – best to stagger my harvesting). These are both Anya and Mayan Gold.Tasted pretty delicious, I was pleased. My plan for next year’s allotment, depending slightly on whether I’ve emigrated, will involve fewer potatoes because I think I really grow too many, but still, they’re my favourite thing to grow and I love them and I eat a LOT.

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.

Seed inventory

I had a stroke of luck after the Great Rake Theft of 2014. During a trip to Wilkos, I discovered the selfsame kinds of rake reduced down to 50p each, from the already reasonable price of £5! So I’ve replaced what I lost and have managed to store it in the plastic box (with much of the handle sticking out of a hole, but at least it’s secure). I was quite happy with my progress yesterday:IMG_20141102_142830

You can see on the left where the fava beans have started to appear (and winter tares to the right).

My feet and some fava beans

My feet and some fava beans

Strangely – and it feels most odd saying this – I’ve nearly run out of places to dig. There are strips to the far left and right of the allotment that I’m planning on leaving more or less undug (I’m thinking if I get a shed, it’d make no sense to dig over that area, really), and many of the dug bits need going over again, but aside from that – well, people used to walk past the allotment and humorously offer me the use of their diggers. I grew sick of the phrase ‘You’ve got your work cut out’ because I heard it so many times. But today, someone went past and noted ‘Aye, you’re getting there!’ It’s not the neatest-looking allotment, but at least I can call it an allotment rather than ‘troublesome piece of land I’ve foolishly become responsible for’.

Today I’m being plagued by my wisdom tooth, and although I put in a couple of hours, I became increasingly aware of my need to take painkillers and other medication:

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It works wonders

I used the extra time to put together a seed inventory. It took longer than I expected because of my habit of just buying discounted seeds and working out exactly what I’ll do with them later:

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I concluded that I have a LOT of flower seeds. Which isn’t a bad state of affairs really. I’m quite fond of the idea of having multiple wildflower patches on the allotment. I’ve got a smallish patch at the moment with borage, burnet and snapdragons, but because wildflowers are awesome, I could have them going up all along the path, even. I’m going to have marigolds along the raised beds, I think. Maybe the occasional sunflower.

Herb-wise I’ve not got as much as I’d thought, and I have the more obscure varieties, like wormwood and rue, that would perhaps present me as someone looking to rival a certain local Poison Garden. I’d quite like some more normal varieties to plant in my herb wheel. The chives are still fine but the hyssop, after thriving on my balcony for a couple of months, is beginning to look unhappy. I got some garlic chives from the nice lady on Freecycle who gave me the strawberry plants, and I’ve really enjoyed putting them in salads, so I’d like a few more of them. I think I’m picking them faster than they’ll grow, at the moment.

And in terms of vegetables, I’ve got a bit less than I thought, but in a confusing, ‘I don’t know if I should buy more’ kind of way. I’ve got carrots and parsnips, and a lot of radishes, but no cauliflowers or onions or lettuce. I’ve changed my original allotment plans an infinite number of times but might change them again. If we refer to my first picture – I plan to use the ‘fava bean area’, aka the left-hand strip of the picture, for maincrop potatoes (ideally heritage varieties, possibly Pink Fir, maybe Shetland Black although I’ve heard the taste isn’t great). Then there’s the right-hand strip between the path and the raised beds, and I was thinking I could leave a space near the fire area, but beyond that, grow squashes or cauliflowers – things that need a bit more space than the raised beds – and then rotate that with the potato area, although I know you’re meant to allow potato patches to lie fallow for more than a year. Although I understand there’s debate on that matter. And then beyond the potato patch – roughly level with the high-security storage system aka plastic box – I was thinking I’ve got enough space for a decent raspberry patch.

All plans subject to change, of course. I suppose ‘ending up with more space than you’d planned for’ is an example of a GOOD allotment problem to have.