Ticking over

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Today’s the PERFECT day for going on the allotment. The kale’s flowered which isn’t ideal but not the end of the world as it’s proving popular with the bees.

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I’ve had a LOT going on generally so I’m trying to take any opportunity I can to sort the allotment out and grow at least the basics, even if the weeds are taking over as always. Today was especially important in terms of getting stuff sorted because, excitingly, my trade union is sending me to CUBA soon. It’s been a dream of mine to go since I was about 13, and even though there’s a lot to prepare and I’m a BIT apprehensive, I’m really looking forward to it. On a more relevant note for this blog, I’ll be helping out with agricultural work, which I’m also really looking forward to because I’ll get to see crops that I’ve never even seen before, let alone tried to grow. I hope to update next month with plenty of photos.

Here we have the tummelberry on the left – I’m hoping it’ll produce fruit this year, it’s been hanging around, sponging off me, for two years now. I have a vague plan that it’ll help to form a hedge at the open end of the allotment. To the right, we have our old friends the Lord Leicester peas from the Real Seed catalogue. Or to put it more accurately, from peas I stored and dried last year. Normally I quite like changing varieties of whatever I grow (approx. 20 different types of potatoes over the last three years and I regret NOTHING), but I’m sticking with these peas. They suit the soil, they’ve never let me down yet, and the only thing I have to worry about is making sure I build adequate support for them.

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The fruit trees are also looking quite lovely at this time of year, although possibly need pruning (if anyone is an expert pruner, would they mind advising me? There’s a branch I’m thinking of chopping but I’d rather know what I’m doing isn’t going to harm the tree. More pictures can of course be provided next month).

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So that’s it from the allotment for April – here’s to a productive May!

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.

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.

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.