My allotment chum Phoebe had pushed this pile of windfalls under the field hedge so the wildlife could tuck in and be sheltered. I spotted them other day, spilling through the undergrowth into the field, and instantly thought of the Andrew Wyeth water colour ‘Frosted Apples’. I didn’t have a camera with me that day, and anyway the light was poor, but I caught them instead a couple of days ago, the afternoon sunshine tumbling after them.
I took these photos on Sunday afternoon in a fit of late-day sunshine. These are the allotment apple trees, their produce free for anyone to pick. The only problem this year was the crops were so plentiful, and the October winds so fierce, that most of the apples were blown off their stems and into bruising piles. And then there are only so many apple crumbles and pies you can eat if you do not wish to expand to fill one’s particular lockdown premises and so be inextricable by the time we, along with our personal resident viral-bacterial populations, are liberated to the wide world. In the meantime the wildlife of the creeping, pecking sort has a plentiful store to graze on, which in turn serves as a timely reminder that there usually is a positive side to most situations; someone benefits.
Passing thought: the chair in real life is a weathered sage green plastic effort, one of a pair that sat outside my polytunnel for years before I donated them to the communal apple-tree-tea-break-zone. It’s strange it looks so white and also unfocused in these photos; something oddly reflective going on here.
As a Halloween ‘babe’ (I use the term retrospectively) one might expect a new broomstick for one’s birthday (and actually a good old fashioned witches’ besom would be quite useful) but this year I received a very smart leaf rake – pale ash handle topped by the most elegant splay of shiny stainless steel tines. In fact the new rake is so artily attractive, I was rather reluctant to take it up to the allotment.
But then yesterday, it being sunnily fine after recent gales and deluges, and with signs of copious leaf fall everywhere, the need to gather the makings for next year’s leaf mould overcame me. Armed with two big bags and rake I set off across the field, intent on making a start on clearing the lane beside the allotment where, the day before, I had swished through a sea of field maple leaves.
And then just as I was leaving the house I grabbed the camera too, switched it to monochrome mode. I remembered that Jude at Travel Words had set us a photo assignment to look for patterns in black and white. So here are the results of killing two birds with one stone. I also have two very full leaf ‘silos’ on my allotment plot.
2020 Photo Challenge #44 Jude gives us lots of pointers and some striking examples of black and white composition.
A Novel Perspective?
Well it is rather spectacular, isn’t it – for a potato. The variety is Blue Danube and the spuds when I dig them up will be a deep purply-mauvy colour. I’ve not grown them for a few years, but I seem to remember the skins are quite robust (hopefully resistant to slugs) and that inside, the flesh is very white and dry and so they are great for roasting. Which also makes me think they will be just right for the Greek treatment: the addition of water, olive oil (3 parts water to 1 part oil), lots of lemon juice, seasoning and oregano to the roasting tin and a good hour’s cooking.
Usually the potatoes are ready to harvest when the flowers have died down. I’m thinking I might not be able to wait that long.
This morning I took my grumpiness to the allotment in hopes of leaving it there. This plan did not altogether work, though I did have a very lively chat with Phoebe, the allotment’s star maker-and-mender of abandoned plots. At the time she was hauling a grass mower over a rough bank that she’s been busy clearing, and going at it with all the vigour that supposed a new career in all-in wrestling might be appropriate.
She turned off the mower and we talked of how the world used to be, and no longer was. And I said how nice the green chairs were, placed by her under two reclaimed old apple trees; chairs I had donated to the cause last week because I’d inherited them with my polytunnel and never sat on them there, not in four-plus years. They are only plastic, but pleasingly weathered, and now, re-sited, offer new possibilities for sitting in a quiet and shady spot. Phoebe said she’d been eating her sandwiches there.
I told her I was feeling very cross, and had spent a couple of hours simply faffing about. This included scrumping gooseberries on an overgrown plot. I never used to care for them but the fruit on these abandoned bushes is now claret coloured, almost black when fully ripe; sweet enough to eat straight from the stem. I’m thinking of a luscious gooseberry fool or a wine infused jelly.
I also spent some time with the bees and butterflies. All annoyances are forgotten while one watches them. It’s akin to meditation. The bumble bees were literally bathing head-to-toe in the pollen of the musk mallow. This is a wild plant that insists on growing in front of my shed door. I’ve cut it down to the roots once, and transplanted a residual shred of it to a less annoying location where it is now also thriving; but the mother plant has come back with a vengeance. And since it’s such a hit with the bees, it had better stay for now.
A focused perspective – making a bee-line
This strawberry was yesterday’s first breakfast, eaten at around 5.45 a.m. when the early morning sun was already flooding the allotment with the beginnings of a heat wave. I don’t usually go gardening at this extraordinary hour; nor certainly feel like eating breakfast, but the weather people divined the day would be hot, so I left the house at 5.15, set on opening the polytunnel doors in hopes of creating some through ventilation. I also wanted to do a spot of emergency watering and mulching – the young sweet corn especially, but before that could happen the strawberry plot beckoned, and who was I to refuse this sunny mouthful of deliciousness. Or indeed the next several.
Then I was distracted by the climbing peas. The day before, Lord Leicester had not been ready to pick, but suddenly he was. (It’s always problematical working out if a pod is actually full of grown-up peas: much gentle squeezing along the row). Of course it was necessary to test the contents, so a pea course followed the fruit course (and I can report that they too were very juicy). Then I spent the next twenty minutes picking peas. There was quite a haul for a first picking. Good show, milord!
After that it was time for some proper work, the intended watering and mulching, the chopping of garden refuse for the compost bins. Next came an interlude of enviromesh wrestling, this with the aim of ensuring that the red cabbages and Tuscan kale were well protected from Cabbage White butterflies – their cohorts now conspicuously abroad from a recent hatching. This job is always an enormous faff (finding enough tent pegs, checking the hoops are tall enough to give the crops room, and the mesh wide enough in both dimensions to cover them while leaving sufficient all-round margin for a complete brassica lock-down). I always have to put myself on notice to get this done, even though I know it’s utterly worth doing.
A reward for objective accomplished was to check if there were any new potatoes ready. I have to say this is ever one of the most exciting activities of the gardening year – rootling under a potato plant to see what’s what. Given our rainless spring I wasn’t expecting much of a crop from the first earlies, but here they are: Pentland Javelin and just enough of them for two:
As the morning grew ever warmer, the church clock struck the hours, and sounds of domestic awakening along nearby Southfield Road drifted over the allotment hedge. Now and then I would look up to see that another gardener had arrived quietly on their plot. Somehow people move about differently in the early morning: something slightly mesmeric as they go about their tasks; almost as if they are treading quietly on the grass paths: not wanting to disturb or be disturbed.
I chatted briefly with my plot neighbour when he arrived to fill his water butts, and we talked of the sample results from the soil test he had arranged on our mutual plots: very alkaline; very high in organic matter; but soil verging on the ‘very (as in too) heavy’. Action needed: lots of sand and potash to be added. He said how pleased he was discover that potential fertility was high. And I remembered that we should have known this, despite our often paltry crop results. This quarter of Much Wenlock where the allotment lies has been known as the Wheatlands for centuries, and still the crop is grown here, despite the heavy ground.
And soon five hours had passed, by which time I was very hungry for something other than peas and strawberries, and desperate for a mug of tea. Home then across Townsend Meadow where at 9.15 the present-day wheat already had a dreamy, heat-hazy air. As I go, I think not only of a second breakfast, but how very pleased Graham will be when I show him the spuds.
Hurrah! We’ve had rain after weeks without a drop, and at last the nightly allotment watering duty is on hold. It’s a big relief. Throughout May and early June I was spending at least an hour each evening pounding the plot paths, a watering can in each hand, making trip after trip to the water tank, this in a bid to keep newly planted beans, beetroot and greens going strong.
And it’s not only that the effort of hand watering is hard work and bothersome. Somehow it’s also an activity fraught with dilemmas. Because you know very well you can never can give plants what they actually need. It’s all too hit and miss. And then once you start, you need to keep on, and so there’s the problem that plants won’t get their roots down and establish themselves strongly, and in fact this year I’ve been trying not to water too much, relying on mulching wherever I can. Also watering in dry weather tends to compact the soil, which can be a problem around lettuce and carrot seedlings. And so yes, there are many moments when you think aren’t there better ways to spend one’s time.
But then the cropping starts, and when you can devour fresh picked artichokes, the leaf ends well doused in hot garlic butter, or tuck into lightly steamed broad beans served with salsa verde made from garden herbs, or gobble sun-warmed strawberries straight from the plant, or munch on a freshly pulled baby carrot, it’s obvious. It is not only worth it; there IS nothing better.
And so I can report that all on the plot is presently going (roughly) to plan. With the advent of rain last week came the planting out of leeks, sweet corn and assorted caulis and cabbages, Cherokee climbing beans, dwarf French beans, courgettes and squashes. Potatoes have been earthed up, and compost bins emptied and replenished with scavenged vegetation. Butter and runner beans that had been planted out earlier but then had to be sheltered from gale force winds have had their protective covers removed and the climbing pea and seedling asparagus beds have been mulched.
So now for some photos:
Climbing peas Lord Leicester and Alderman bringing up the rear; Belle de Fontenay potatoes centre; in the raised beds: seedling clumps of perennial leeks (Russian variety), kohlrabi and cabbage left foreground, and a rather poor showing of parsnips to the right.
As pretty as a pea flower? This one is called Champion, another old variety of climbing pea.
Verbascum and the butter bean canes. I have quite a few flowering plants dotted about my two plots. They attract pollinators for one thing, but also make up for some of the unsightly bins and pest protection devices. Pot marigolds grow themselves where they please; likewise the Nigella, and now it seems the wild moon daisies are intent on taking over the place. Behind them are the onion beds netted with enviromesh against allium beetle.
The header poppies are not mine though. They have just appeared in a new wild flower plot in the allotment orchard. Fellow allotmenteers, Phoebe, Siegfried and Ian have been working hard for over a year to reclaim this area of neglected fruit trees for everyone to enjoy, this on top of working their own plots. They are an all round horticultural tour de force, and I think myself very lucky that our lockdown regime has allowed allotment going. Over the past weeks I have been able to see them there and so, more or less social-distanced of course, tap into their positive gardening energies. It would be churlish not to pass some of them on.
So here are more views of the poppies and the reclaimed orchard.
It’s that time of year and the gardener’s gold must be gathered in. And so whenever I go up to the allotment, taking stuff for the compost bins, I then head up the lane to the woods behind the plots. Until recently the fallen leaves have been rain-sodden, but with a few rainless days they’ve dried off a bit and a bag full no longer weighs a tonne. Ideally too, the leaves should have the mower run over them before storing. This speeds up decomposition. You can also add grass mowings and comfrey leaves.
But whatever you do with them, they do take a long time to make proper leaf mould for seed sowing purposes – 2- 3 years probably. On the other hand if you only want compost for mulching winter beds, then they are good to go in less than 12 months. I stored mine in rolls of fence wire, pegged to the ground to make small silos. This year I’ve also bought some jute leaf sacks. The jute will eventually rot and be composted, but in the meantime the leaf sacks can be stored in shed and polytunnel.
No one else at the allotment gathers leaves, although when I mention the subject they all agree it’s a good idea. Then after a pause they usually say ‘ah, but they take so long to rot down.’ To which my first and last riposte is, well the sooner you start collecting them, the sooner this ceases to be an issue. And yes, I can see it might seem a touch eccentric to go scrabbling round in the woods but hey, last year’s leaf compost has now made a nice thick mulch for the strawberries, raspberries and young asparagus plants. So thank you trees – oak, beech, field maple, sycamore and bird cherry – and never fear, this year I’m still leaving you plenty of leaves for your own personal use.
Lately, between showers, I’ve been enjoying the company of birds on my allotment plots. First there’s been the pheasant family – Mr and Mrs and a single puff-ball chick. The adults make soft puck-pucking calls to each other as they wander up and down the weedier areas beyond my borders. I suspect they may also have been nibbling the celeriac seedlings which I’m not so pleased about. More recently I’ve been pursued by robins and hungry blackbirds. They have been most excited by my turning of several compost heaps. One blackbird in particular is adept at filling her beak, five worms at a go, dangling down like a mouth full of ribbons. The robins just nag, moving in at ever closer quarters, and piping up whenever I look like flagging on the heap turning front.
And talking of heap turning, in my last update on plot doings I was feeling a bit despondent over plans to adopt no-dig gardening methods. I realised I would need a phenomenal amount of compost. I think I’m talking tonnes here. (The main principle of no-dig being that you cover all the growing areas with several inches of compost every autumn so you don’t need to dig in spring and thereby upset the balance of soil micro-organisms which create fertility. It also cuts down on weeding and watering). Anyway, I can now report some success, at least in a small way.
Back in March I was inspired by TV gardener Monty Don to try growing new potatoes in a raised bed. I had one ready, with its autumn compost topcoat well applied, so I thought, why not? In went my twelve Pentland Javelin earlies, set out in a grid formation. I simply popped them into the compost layers, placing them around 40 cms/15 inches apart. I then buried the lot in several inches of compost, and covered the bed with horticultural fleece. Later, once they’d started sprouting, I earthed them up with more compost (which accounts for why I found myself short of the stuff later). A fortnight ago, once flowering was over, I pulled up the first plant to see what was going on. And here’s the result (cue fanfare):
And coming up next is the raised bed where the rest of the plants are still going strong. I used 2 plastic raised beds (2 x 1 metres) bought from a departing neighbour a couple of seasons ago, each a hand’s span tall, and placed one on top of the other to create enough depth to contain the earthing up compost. The end result of this is: no weeds and no need for digging up. When it comes to harvesting I simply pull up the plants and have a quick scrabble around in the compost like a lucky dip. Also, I’d fully expected slug damage after all the wet weather, but so far there’s none to be seen. In fact these are the best first early spuds I’ve ever grown – in looks, taste, ease of extraction and quantity per plant. And, I repeat: no weeds!
And so, with all this vegetable encouragement, and a break in the rainy season, it’s back to the compost bins and bays and my demanding avian companions. More waste gathering and turning are definitely required. I’m thinking now that no-dig can work, even on my claggy Silurian soil – albeit one raised bed at time and with mega quantities of compost. In the meantime, here’s Mrs Pheasant, a view of a scarcely visible chick, and a bee in the nigella:
This year it’s been a case of less blogging and more digging. And yes – to those of you who follow my gardening pursuits – I have not forgotten that for ages I have been trying to follow the tenets of ‘no dig’ gardening. I really do want to, and in spirit at least I hang on to Charles ‘no dig’ Dowding’s every soily crumb of wisdom. But the big thing is he gardens in Somerset in the mild south west; he does not garden on the side of Wenlock Edge where the land comprises 400 million-year-old Silurian clag that sets like cement at the slightest opportunity and does so even when you’ve piled on the compost.
In fact all the usual things that gardeners add to heavy soil to improve drainage – sand, grit, well rotted manure, lime – are grist to its mill. It seems to suck them up and then sets harder still. Clearly those decomposing residues of fossil tropical sea bed – crinoids, trilobites, giant scorpions, volcanic ash and all – must contain something very, very sticky – some geologically ancient equivalent of super glue I should think.
In other words, the chances of my making enough compost to apply each autumn across both my half-plots and to the appropriate depth that might make an actual difference to the soil are extremely unlikely. Instead, and by way of cutting coat to suit cloth, I eke out the compost I do have, putting it only in the spots where I intend to plant, and rarely attempting to cover an entire bed. Also, given the challenging nature of the soil (and its slowness to warm up), I rarely sow directly in the ground, but germinate most things in individual pots or trays.
The first photo shows the result. On the left are climbing peas (currently half grown height-wise). This is a heritage variety called Ne Plus Ultra – sown three or four seeds to a 4” pot in February and planted out around the end of March. I’ve not grown it before (it was recommended, if not rediscovered during the making of the 1980s Victorian Kitchen Garden TV series), and I’m looking forward to the results given its show-off ‘cannot be bettered’ claim.
I’m also thinking that my head gardener grandfather, Charles Ashford, who as a boy underwent the full Victorian stately pile/hierarchical gardening apprenticeship, would have been very familiar with this variety and also with Alderman, the other main crop climbing pea I’m growing this year. One of the advantages of these old varieties is that they produce pods gently over the whole summer season, whereas the modern short cultivars crop at one go and need to be sown in succession if you want to extend their season.
Pea growing tip: peas germinate really well in compost filled lengths of plastic guttering (no need to add drainage holes but water in just enough to keep the sowing medium moist). When it’s time to plant out, and the seedlings are a couple of inches tall, slide the lot (wheesh!) into a shallow trench, draw soil round, firm in and water; protect from birds and provide small sticks for them to climb up. This sowing method of course foils seed-plundering mice and pigeons, and gives the plants a head start. And if you are growing modern pea cultivars, it makes successional planting easier to sort out – e.g. you can sow, say, a metre length or two of guttering at two-weekly intervals.
But back to the top photo. On the right you can just see the runner bean bed. These plants were germinated in small pots and a couple of weeks ago planted into the remains of an overwintered compost heap. (The other half of the heap had been spread along the Ne Plus Ultra bed prior to planting). Runner bean plants always struggle to begin with, no matter how healthy the seedlings. The allotment harbours some leaf-chewing pest that is not a mollusc. So far, and most annoyingly, the culprit has not been identified by he who is a plant pathologist and lives in my house – but every year it has a good go at everyone’s freshly planted out runners. You just have to hope they’ll grow through the setback. They usually do. Again I’m trying a new-to-me heritage variety. It’s called Liberty and has a reputation for producing large and succulent pods. Its seeds when I came to sow them were surprisingly enormous, and I’m secretly expecting multiple versions of Jack’s beanstalk. So if I suddenly disappear from this blog, you’ll know where I’ve gone. Or at least how I’ve gone.
Elsewhere on the plot the broad beans, strawberries and three different sorts of globe artichoke are beginning to crop and are proving delicious; beetroot seeds of many varieties are sprouting, including an old Gallic sort called Crapaudine which is French for Madame Toad. Parsnips, sugar pod peas, mixed lettuce, young cabbage plants and potatoes are looking sturdy though the cauliflower plantlets are definitely struggling and I have no idea why, nor what is causing some of the onions to start going to seed. Another unidentified pest is nibbling the tough leaves of the celeriac seedlings but not enough (so far) to kill them. Bought-in leek and sweet corn plugs are settling down, as are the ridge cucumbers and squashes. In the polytunnel the tomatoes, aubergines and peppers are growing well – so far.
Meanwhile in our corner of Shropshire we now have a week and more of April-Showers-In-June to look forward to. Gardening is on hold, though in anticipation of resuming same I’m most grateful to the volunteer footpath people. On Thursday evening they brush-cut the field path, thereby providing me with a large quantity of unexpected compost makings – or they will be when I can get out there to rake them up. This kindness also means that when it is fine enough to next visit the allotment, I won’t arrive with rising damp and knees soaked through by overgrown vegetation. So thank you Strimmer Man. You did a good job.
Here’s the freshly cut path before the rains moved in. You can just see the polytunnel tops over the far hedge:
And here are more Thursday evening shots of Farrell half-plots one and two which are in separate places due to my wanting one with a polytunnel on it:
copyright 2019 Tish Farrell