To Donegal

My excuses for abandoning my allotment for a few days are generally reasonably good excuses, in fairness. It’s rarely because I’m just too lazy – I did abandon it last year briefly because of the hospitalisation etc., which is a great excuse, and this time I was on holiday to indulge one of my main hobbies besides gardening: I went off to Donegal to learn Irish.


Not a bad place at all, really. I had a fantastic time, met some great people and improved my level of Irish so I can understand maybe one word in 20 as opposed to my previous one in 50. I examined various gardens on my way and concluded that it’d be really difficult to grow much there at all, so maybe I won’t be able to emigrate once Britain goes under post-Brexit (sorry, I’m almost over it after a month. Actually, no I’m not at all, it’s terrible). I will certainly be going back though, it was brilliant.


But what of the allotment, you cry? Worry not. I was lucky enough to get the help of a very kind friend while I was away, and she kindly watered the plants in the greenhouse. I only took a quick look today during my allotment reunion because it gets so hot in there that it’s really uncomfortable if you can’t be bothered to zip the door up, but I have some very healthy aubergine and pumpkin plants. Who knows, I might get actual fruit!

I was amazed by how quickly the beans and parsnips have shot up in the 10 days I was gone. It’s like the allotment’s waiting for me to have my back turned before it does the interesting stuff, after months of me waiting for things to finally bloom.


This is the bit I’m happiest with. I mean, look at it. This is exactly what I had planned, with the eight ‘obelisks’, four in each of the two areas, each area containing two sweetpea obelisks and either peas or beans diagonally opposite. I had no trouble with the Lord Leicester peas (pictured to the right), but everything on the seven other obelisks struggled at one stage or another. Most of the beans failed to germinate, the first batch of the other peas died off, and the sweetpeas seemed to take ages to actually get going, but now they all have and I’ve got this massive supply of my favourite flowers. Possibly my favourite, I’ve never really thought about that before. I like snowdrops too.

And best of all, the bit I was most nervous about – the survival of the sweet potatoes – seems to be all fine. They’ve grown and developed vines as they’re supposed to, possibly aided by the good weather Britain apparently had while I was getting rained on in Donegal. But more on the happy survival of the sweet potatoes later on.


Flowers and berries

I’m always surprised by how quickly things start growing once summer’s finally underway, even if I do complain about how late flowers bloom up here. This is how quickly things have grown in the last eight weeks:


ZOOM. I did away with the remaining leeks and planted pumpkins there instead. This picture doesn’t show the happy state of the eight obelisks, just visible in the left-hand picture, because the raspberry patch has gone crazy as usual. Thankfully, I have photographed certain elements thereof:

My original plan was to grow one particular type of sweet pea per obelisk, resulting in a kind of monocolour scheme. That’s not going to happen because I didn’t grow enough surviving seedlings and had to supplement the ones that did survive with seedlings from Homebase. I bought some successful seeds of the Mollie Rilstone variety from Matthewman’s Sweetpeas, and I’m hoping they’ll bloom soon too. All in all it’ll probably be nicer to have a variety of colours, nice to have a bit of diversity on the old allotment.


This week also saw the reappearance of an old friend, the borage! It’s not growing entirely where I predicted, but I don’t mind because it’s great and useful. I’d never even heard of it before getting an allotment and I think it’s a bit of a typical flower among allotmenteers, but honestly it’s one of my favourite things to grow. Not just because bees love it, but also because I like casually nibbling on flowers.

The tayberries have started to appear too. There have never been enough to do more than eat then individually, but one day I’ve decided I’m having tayberry pie.

On Leek

I had the kind of weekend where you think “Right, I’ll just pop along to the allotment for a bit today, then get on with everything else I’ve got to get done”. I think I’ve spent 8-9 hours on the allotment this weekend. Worth it from an allotmenteering point of view, at least. I noticed my leeks were looking especially ‘on fleek’. I like to use youth slang occasionally to prove that I’m still ‘hip’ despite being 28. On fleek means ‘good’, I think. Like this:


Leeks on fleek

Readers who know me personally will be aware that I’ve got a bit of a manic ambition to win the local leek-growing competition (this is normal in north-east England). You get your name put up on a board in the pub, and since the 1960s, nobody with a foreign surname like mine has won. It’s my ambition to be the first. I’ll concede that I’ve had limited success with growing leeks thus far, and I might be grateful if these actually survive, let alone win competitions, but I’m trying. I’ve been earthing them up, bit by bit.

Other things that are going well include the red onions, which I’d totally been neglecting in favour of the army of sweet pea seedlings I’ve been planting around the obelisks, and celery, weirdly enough. I hadn’t expected the celery to survive the winter, but I harvested a modest amount today and the flavour’s really nice.


Red onions planted in bendy rows because I fail at planting things neatly, plus sweet peas to the left

I’ve been using the watering spikes I got ages ago, especially since it’s been really sunny here for the past couple of weeks. I might get some more, as my aubergines and tomatoes are looking threateningly wilty.I haven’t tried growing any more from seed, and I’m hoping they’ll thrive in the raised beds.

Regrettably, the butternut squashes and cucumbers I bought recently have gone to meet their maker, although they were looking unhappy before I even got them to the allotment. There weren’t any more available at Homebase, so maybe it was a bad batch to start off with. It’s a shame, but I’ll try again with other seedlings when they’re in stock again. I did buy a couple of mini cucumber seedlings today and plan to keep them in the greenhouse outside my house (making watering them easier). I was surprised at how successful my very first attempt at growing cucumbers was, and I’m anxious for it to work out this year too.


Taken while I was refilling the watering can


Celery just beyond the daffodils.

Finally, and because I fail at identifying flowers, does anyone know what the below is? I keep seeing them beside the path on the way to the allotment, and bees absolutely love them, to the extent that it felt a bit risky just taking a picture. I suspect they might be counted as weeds, but a useful one (and therefore not a weed, if my understanding of weeds is correct).



Burn them all

I derive arguably unhealthy levels of enjoyment from using my weed burner. Mine’s only a little one from Wilkos, but it more or less does the job. I returned to the allotment last week after two weeks away and as I’d predicted, there were weeds everywhere, but I strode up and down in the style of Aerys Targaryen, muttering ‘Burn them all’. It’s good being able to simply burn away your problems. Insert legal disclaimer here.

Sadly it’s mostly been too wet to burn things properly, but there’s plenty of time. Surely it can’t rain all summer, even here in Northumberland. I’ve been using the time to compensate for all the seeds which failed to germinate (most of the tomatoes, around half the sweet peas, some of the cucumbers):

Also got a couple of butternut squashes, which failed last year after a promising start. Annoyingly it’s a really beautiful evening, perfect for weed burning, but work’s really busy at the moment and I won’t have the time today.

Also pictured: the olive bush that I adopted from the Wilkos reduced section when it was just a couple of sticks, and the owl planter given to me by beloved former colleagues as a leaving present, back in the days when I had a proper job. The owl is sporting quite a stylish sorrel hairstyle, which suits it. I was also toying with the idea of dill, but the sorrel’s good too.

On a note only linked loosely to gardening, tomorrow I’ll have been freelancing for a year! Time flies! I’ve really been enjoying it, truth be told. It’s the happiest I’ve been. I’m not sure it’s allowed me to spend significantly more time on the allotment, because it turns out I still have to actually do translations in order to get paid, but I’m enjoying the flexibility of being able to extend lunch breaks and have a bit of a dig on the allotment. Plus, I managed to get all the potatoes in the ground, so if all else fails, I’ll have them to eat.

First sun of the year

From snow on the allotment just a couple of weeks ago to something that almost looked a bit like spring today. Although if you say that, spring disappears for another month, that’s how weather works in Northumberland.


I’ve made some progress overall and am at the point where I’m not actively ashamed of pictures of the entire allotment and the collection of weeds to which it is home. There are still weeds, obviously, they are everywhere, but I’m starting to win.

I keep freaking out a bit about not getting everything done in time. I’ve once again chosen to be away from the allotment during probably the most important allotment time of the year, in late March/early April (I’m going to various poncey translator conferences because apparently that’s what real people do, and I’m self-employed now and I have insurance and a pension and everything, which I suppose means I’m a real person), but I don’t think it’ll be as stressful as last year when I had to plant five types of potatoes, move house and change career in the space of about a week.


I’ve even started work on the balcony garden after neglecting it slightly for six months. I’m surprised by the progress of the olive bush, which I bought a couple of years ago as a £1.50 rescue from Wilkos. I’d assumed it’d get homesick (and maybe die of jealousy when I went to Sicily), but who knows, another year and I might get an actual olive.

I’ve started off the sweet peas in the greenhouse and I’m still debating what to put in the rather excellent owl planter my friend Camille got me to celebrate me passing my driving test (a skill I’ve expertly utilised to never drive again). I have plenty of flower seeds to choose from, I’ve just been unable to decide so far to decide what kind of flower looks best emerging from an owl.

Allotment 2016

Ladies and gentlegardeners, I ended up with a more exciting weekend than usual. My typical weekend is possibly similar to that of an 80 year old man, as it usually involves allotment on Saturday and a trip to the beach on Sunday if the weather’s good and I’m feeling up to it, or staying in and watching war films if not. On Saturday morning, I went along to the allotment, tried to photograph some Japanese wineberries, and noticed my hand was shaking, more than it usually does due to caffeine.


It took several attempts to get a photo that wasn’t just a blur. After I cut my allotmenteering short due to tiredness, and after a bit of a collapse while doing my supermarket shopping, I trotted over to my local medical professionals, who referred me to a hospital, in which I stayed overnight. I just have a thyroid that’s gone a bit mad, and after a bit of a scary night (I’ve never been a hospital patient before) I was released back into the wild with a lot of medication. It explains why I’ve been tired for quite a while, and I’m glad it’s a) diagnosed and b) very treatable. Might also explain me having a little nap on the allotment last week rather than doing any work.

Anyway, during my ‘recuperation’ (of which not much is needed really), I’ve been planning next year’s allotment. I’ve been meaning to get round to this for ages, but after I was a bit overenthusiastic with picking up bargain seeds at Wilkos, I thought I’d better work out what to do with them. As I’ve harped on about a lot before, I visit a local vegetable garden, the Roots and Shoots garden here in Alnwick, quite a bit to get inspiration. The other week they were selling grapes from the garden, which was a bit of a novelty – I doubt many people have eaten Northumbrian grapes before.


11904703_10101269821879182_7343373171037689439_nI really admired their sweet peas growing on obelisks. And one potential issue with my allotment is that I used roughly one-third of it to grow potatoes, which I don’t regret (heaven forbid), but it’s meant I’ve got a lot of space next year on which I can’t grow potatoes. So I thought I’d put these problems together and come up with something:

allotplanThe plan involves EIGHT obelisks (the circles front left, if you can’t understand my artistic skills), which sounds like a lot, but I have the space. They might not be obelisks so much as ‘big bamboo sticks tied together at the top’, as proper garden obelisks seem a bit expensive, although I’m keeping an eye out to see if anyone’s giving any away. Four will be for sweet peas, and others for peas and beans. I already had three packets of sweet peas, two mixed and one blue, and bought some from a specialist website, Mattewman’s Sweet Peas (after some deliberation, I THINK I went for Mollie Rilstone). The peas will be more of the Lord Leicester from last year, provided I get very tall obelisks. I’m still deciding what kind of climbing beans to get.


The dug over allotment from last year

I do have a couple of backup plans in case anything fails. I’ve never attempted sweet potatoes before and I don’t know if they’ll like Northumberland. And growing proper parsnips and carrots has always eluded me. I’m quite looking forward to the tomatoes, though. They’re the one thing I wish I’d grown this year too, since I eat a fair old amount of them.

So it’s going to be a busy winter, I hope, especially as I’ve got to make the paths a bit more path-like. In the meantime, I’m trying to work out how to make blackberry-infused gin.

Evening on the balcony garden

I’m currently scoffing the rest of my growbag potatoes. I didn’t do anything too fancy with them this time round, I just roasted them and am eating them with a Yorkshire pud and some veg. Still delicious though. It was worth investing in all that soil and spending all that time fretting that the potatoes would never grow.

I went to take a look at the allotment on Sunday and was a bit sad, because they hadn’t done as much with it as I’d expected in the two weeks I was away. The nettles had been trimmed but other than that, not much else had happened, and I was thinking I’d have to turn it down if it was offered to me like that, because I’m only one small person, and I can only dedicate a couple of hours an evening to an allotment during the week, oh woe, etc. But then I rationalised slightly and thought that in fact, they’re probably just running behind schedule, especially as they’ve not been in touch to actually offer it to me yet. I’ll take another look this weekend and try not to obsess too much. It’d be silly to turn it down at this point anyway, and even if it does turn out to be in a state, I can get assistance.

So, more rational, I’ve been spending some evenings on t’balcony. The sweet peas are smelling lovely:


They’re completely insane, though, bless them. When they were growing, I constructed some kind of random weak trellis out of sticks and bits for them, and then they were all like ‘Yes! We’ll grow on that, no problem!’ And they don’t ever seem to stop growing. Or have any roots. There’s no order to them. I like them.

The tomatoes in my vertical planter are doing pretty well:


The planter itself is something similar to this, actually designed for peppers, but works well enough for tomatoes. I’ve suspended it from the balcony railings using an old belt, which is also useful for easily repositioning the planter/taking it down to add more plants, etc. The only drawback is that it’s a right pain trying to get new plants through those holes in the planter without breaking the stalks, especially for younger plants. Maybe it’s just that I’m clumsy, but I’m lucky that tomato plants are pretty resilient. I sometimes hang the planter the other side of the railings so the plants get a bit more sun throughout the day, but I became paranoid that it’d fall down while I was on holiday, and the plants wouldn’t enjoy that.

My aubergine population is becoming, quite frankly, a bit threatening, and I might have to look into giving a few more of them away to long-suffering colleagues. At least they’d be young plants rather than seedlings (the aubergine plants, I mean, not my colleagues), so I feel more confident in not accidentally confusing them with other plants, and less bad if I give away something that later dies. I need to examine the link between gardening and guilt in greater detail.