World Soil Day & December at the allotment

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Here is my path to the allotment. I’m a bit fixated on it, and have been snapping it at different seasons. I like the way colour has leached from the grasses.

The allotment looks bleak at this time of year, not improved by the fact that many of us are untidy allotmenteers. There’s all sorts of unsightly takataka lying about – things that might come in handy for something, sometime. I’m guilty of it myself, and of course when you take on a plot, you inherit your predecessor’s junk. I’m gradually whittling mine down.

There are also jobs I haven’t done – edging the beds, giving the paths a final mow while I had the chance. But I did sow my mustard at just the right time and now have an impressive crop.

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I’m growing it both as a cover crop and a green manure. If we have a hard winter it will probably be frosted and die down by itself. For now it’s still growing, and if it survives till spring I’ll cut it down and probably just let it rot on the  soil surface. With green manures it is usual to dig them in before they flower. But I’m beginning to have second thoughts about digging, much as I enjoy wielding my grandfather’s sharp bladed spade.

For years I’ve known (vaguely) about No Dig Organic Gardening, just as I’ve long known that mulching crops produces sturdier, tastier produce that needs little watering. But it has taken a while for the penny to completely drop.

No dig cultivation is not simply about saving labour. It’s about protecting and nourishing the soil. And since today is World Soil Day, there can be no better moment to think about this totally essential, life protecting, life enhancing substance. If our soil is degraded and low in nutrients, then our food is not giving us the nutrition we need to stay strong and healthy. M.S. Swaminathan, India’s ‘Father of Green Revolution’ calls this ‘hidden hunger’.  Paradoxically, we suffer from it even in rich countries where we eat all day, and it contributes to (and some would say lies at the root of) much chronic disease.

Soil anaemia also breeds human anaemia. Micronutrient deficiency in the soil results in micronutrient malnutrition in people, since crops grown on such soils tend to be deficient in the nutrients needed to fight hidden hunger…Managing our soil and water resources in a sustainable and equitable manner needs a new political vision.

M.S. Swaminathan

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All my gardening life I have tended towards the traditional notion that digging the soil well, weeding, and adding plentiful compost is a ‘good thing’. Yet after 8 years of digging, weeding and forking in compost on my allotment plot, I’m seeing only marginal improvements in the soil: i.e. it’s a little better than it was.

In dry weather the soil surface still turns brick-hard,  which in turn constricts plant growth, (and in some cases  ‘bonsais’ the plants) making then weak and susceptible to pests. I then have to do a massive amount of watering which is not ideal either; it discourages the plants from rooting deeply.

Also every time you slice through the soil with a spade you disturb the complex community of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes that support vibrant plant growth.

Better, then, to thickly pile shredded garden waste over the entire soil surface, and allow a microenvironment to establish underneath. The mulch gradually breaks down as all the matter is digested and re-digested, creating a nutrient rich, moisture retaining medium.

I now realize I need to cultivate a cohort of  jobbing domestic gardeners who will let me have their shredded garden waste rather than taking it to the recycling centre. In the meantime I decided on a little experiment.

Lacking the necessary quantities of gardeners and their shreddings, I spent three hours hours yesterday digging out my partially rotted compost bin, and spreading it several inches deep over four square metres of exposed soil. It was a messy process after days of downpours. But it’s amazing what lengths this writer will go to to avoid writing the novel.

The trouble is, rooting around in one’s compost heaps, turning stuff over, redistributing it, tends to be rather more satisfying than staring at the computer screen and straining one’s brain to dig out the right words.

I’ve also been making simple ‘silos’ out of chicken wire, to collect the leaves and so make leaf mould. This will take a year or two, but I might try and speed the process up next year by adding in some grass mowings. The resulting dark compost is just the stuff for seed sowing, so hopefully there will be some in  spring 2017.

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And I’ve been busy in the polytunnel. The summer’s ludicrous tomato forest is long gone and the last of the fruit turned into soup, sauce and chilli tomato jam. Now all has been raked over and planted with winter salad stuff – Chinese mustard, chard, pak choi, purslane, perennial rocket, lamb’s lettuce, Russian kale. I also have some parsley in there, onions, garlic, leeks and a bucket each of carrots and Florence fennel. The fennel probably won’t grow much, but we can eat the feathery leaves.

And just in case we do have the promised hard winter, I already have the fleece ready to lay over the young plants. Last year was pretty mild, and I found that once I put fleece over everything, the plants continued to grow, if only a little. I also have two small water butts filled to the brim and stationed inside. Their presence is supposed to provide a slight increase in temperature within the polytunnel. They are also handy when the allotment water supply is switched off for the winter.

Meanwhile, out on the plot, there are still lots of crops to harvest – carrots, leeks, kale, small amounts of  perennial spinach, and cauliflowers. The Brussels sprouts, cabbages, purple sprouting and Romanesco broccoli are all coming along. The field beans have sprouted, likewise the overwintering Radar onions.

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I know I am very lucky to have my allotment. But everyone can do some gardening, even if you only have a bucket. In fact a bucket is great for growing carrots. Lack of space need not be an obstacle. A single raised bed of one square metre, topped with layers of mulch can be intensively cultivated with leafy crops. And remember, there’s no need to dig it. Also mucking around close to soil is good for lifting the spirits. Scientists have discovered it gives off some kind of anti-depressant molecules.

All of which is to say:

SOIL – WE CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT IT. HEAL IT, AND WE HEAL OURSELVES AND THE GENERATIONS TO COME.

HAPPY WORLD SOIL DAY!

 

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Climate change before my eyes? Sweet Peas on 28 October

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Up at the allotment my teepee of sweet peas has been flowering since June. Twice I have thought they were over, and thought of pulling them up. But here they are (photographed yesterday) still budding and blooming, and it’s nearly November. The sky is pretty impressive too.

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In fact there’s a lot going on on my plot. My cabbages and Brussels sprouts have grown another six inches in the last few days, and are fighting their way out of their protective enviromesh. The leeks are fat and juicy, and the courgettes are still (just) producing a few fruits. The new strawberry bed is finished, the asparagus mulched, and the over-wintering onions and field beans are in, and sprouting. And, most exciting – to me at least – I have created two huge new compost heaps. Next up, is leaf collection to make leaf mould. It’s a slow process, but worth doing for seed compost. This week on BBC Gardeners World, Monty Don, told me to gather every single leaf because they are so precious. So I shall.

Because if ever I heard a mega-tactic to avoid writing, then this is it. Sorry, can’t write the novel. Must pick up leaves – one at a time.

Actually, I have been writing, though not the novel. Two short stories completed in the last few weeks. In fact today it’s far too wet to go out leaf collecting. So maybe, just maybe, I’ll take a leaf from the sweet peas’ book, and go and grow the masterwork.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

#Cee’sFlowerOfTheDay

Life, the universe and everything: all is (extra)ordinary

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I whinged a lot during the year about this and that at the allotment – too much wind, too much rain, not enough rain, not enough sun, too many slugs, an invasion of dandelions and buttercups, too little compost, but even so – yes, even so – I have had a magnificent harvest, and it has made us, along with a few friends and relatives, and many of Graham’s workmates very happy.

Excess runner beans have been recycled into a surprisingly delicious piccalilli-type chutney; cherry tomatoes have become tomato chilli jam, or Chillied Out Tom, as Graham named it when making the labels. I’ve made only a few pots of ordinary jam since we do try not to eat much sugar – raspberry, strawberry, damson, and we have a freezer full of field (fava) beans that I’ve discovered convert into the most delicious bean hummus if, after cooking, you relieve them of their skins, and add lemon juice and garlic.

Today, over half way through October, and I am still picking peas, carrots, beetroot and courgettes, and the last of the summer lettuce. Then there are the winter crops coming on: various kales, leeks, caulis, cabbages and Brussels sprouts. This week, too, I’ve been making a new strawberry bed, planting out Elsanta, and Alice varieties, and ordering a few Flamenco which are ever-bearers – fruiting from spring to the first frosts. Then there were overwintering onions to put in, Radar, being a reliable variety, and also garlic beds to make.

I have routed the tomato jungle from the polytunnel apart from a few plants, and it’s a relief to see some space. While I was doing this I came nose to nose with a large toad, which was very pleasing, once we’d got over being scared of each other. Eat more slugs, please toad. I’ve planted out the tunnel’s raised beds with winter salad stuff including purslane, winter lettuce, bunching onions, chard and lamb’s lettuce. I’ve sown a few seeds in there too, just to see what will happen – some herbs, rocket, and various Chinese leaves and mustards. As it gets cooler I will cover those that emerge with fleece.

Otherwise, it’s been all systems go, tidying the plot. This afternoon I was taking down the runner beans and their canes, and digging over the bed, but I was doing it to the heady scent of sweet peas that are lingering on. I also have some jewel coloured nasturtiums growing in the corner of the polytunnel. They smell delicious whenever I open the door, and of course you can eat every part of them – flowers, leaves and seeds, so I’m hoping they’ll keep going into the winter.

There’s just so much to be grateful for in this extraordinary world of ours, though we’d do well to nurture it a bit more so it can continue to nurture us.

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(Extra)ordinary

Love and voyeurism among the thistles, and then some freshly dug potatoes

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This snapping of bugs is all Ark’s fault at A Tale Unfolds. For some time now he’s been showing us insect life in his South African garden. Then on Friday he set me a challenge to beat his dandelion with four bugs. So here I give you a ménage à trois with some longhorn beetles, caught on my way to the allotment, and as I was actually trying to capture some bee shots. I reckon it trumps Ark’s dandelion, and indeed his jackal flies, on grounds of raciness.

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But now here is the close up shot I really wanted to show you, and the reason why I was headed  for the allotment: my first main crop potatoes just released from the earth. These are Desirée, organically grown and most desirable, not only for looks and flavour, but for general resistance to drought, bugs and slugs:

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Close Up

Dandelion Globe: It’s A Small World

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Things are often small, up-close and entomological over at Ark’s place in South Africa. He’s always leading me up his garden path to take a look  at crab spiders and such like. At least that is his story, and I’m sticking to it. Now he’s led me to Kenneth McMillan’s blog where there are more close-up bugs, this time of the Canadian variety. That is to say in his latest post, Kenneth has a very fine shot of a Bald-faced Hornet heading for the cotoneaster.

I gather that fennel has been featuring in Ark’s and Kenneth’s recent photographic exchanges, but I have no bugs in my fennel, or even bats. Instead, as I was traipsing up the bean field to the allotment,  I caught these very tiny beetles in a dandelion clock. And since Ark said we could join in with the bug shoot, this is my effort. I hope I am not expected to know what these tiny insects are. They are rather cute though.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Bouquet of Barbed Wire

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I keep going back to photograph this  well crowned fence post. It is on the boundary between the allotments and the bean field. I first caught sight of it back in the spring when I was out using my Lumix on ‘dramatic  monochrome’ setting. Then it was surrounded by drifts of Queen Ann’s Lace. Now the dying grasses have a nostalgic end-of-season look, and all before summer has hit its stride. But either way, spring or summer, colour or black and white, I find myself captivated by the image. I cannot say why.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

This post was inspired by Jithin at PhoTrablogger and his challenge: Mundane Monday #16 in which he urges to go out and find beauty in the ordinary things around us.

Storm Poppies

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Last Saturday I somehow lost track of five whole hours. There is so much to do up at the allotment – weeding, picking peas, strawberries and raspberries, digging up the new potatoes, tying up the tomatoes in the polytunnel, watering, feeding, turning the compost heap, sowing more peas, constructing pigeon defence systems, wandering about neighbours’ plots, taking a few snaps.

But one of the nice things about having the polytunnel is that when a storm strikes, I can potter around in there until the downpour  passes.  As you can see from the sky, we were in for a deluge, and I caught these poppies just as it was arriving. There was something malignant, I thought, about their stance. Something a little predatory about those seed capsules. Perhaps I’ve been spending too much time in the garden.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Strawberry vodka and the benefits of using a tripod

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This story doesn’t begin here, although this is my first ever photograph shot using a tripod (plus a Kodak EasyShare M380 on macro setting). You do not, however, need the tripod for the recipe coming up below, although it could come in handy for balance if you’ve sampled too much of the end product some months hence.

So: the story actually begins at the allotment, and a case of TOO MANY strawberries. Gilly at Lucid Gypsy has also been suffering from the same dilemma. In fact as I was picking all these juicy fruits under a very hot sun, I was wondering if this was indeed a subject for some serious philosophical debate. I mean, can you have too many strawberries?

(N.B. These next two photos did not involve a tripod, only a hot and bothered biped in ‘pick ‘n shoot’ mode.)

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So can you have too many strawberries?

It is the sort of question that inevitably leads me to Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book (the companion to her Vegetable Book). She is just the cookery writer you need when you have any excess produce. And it is thanks to her that I will pass on this morning’s activity at the kitchen table in Sheinton Street.

 

Strawberry Vodka

  • You will need strawberries, fair trade unbleached caster sugar, a  bottle of vodka (or gin if you prefer), and a big jar with a lid that seals.
  • Select DRY strawberries that do not need to be washed, and fill your chosen clean, dry vessel. I used a 2 litre kilner jar (4 pints).
  • Then sprinkle in fair trade caster sugar so it comes a third the way up the jar (I used about 150 gms, 2/3 cup).
  • Fill the jar with vodka so that all the fruit is covered and seal.

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Jane Grigson’s instructions then are that you place the jar in a cool, dark place, and turn it over from time to time. After a month the strawberries will look wan and floppy, and you can then strain the lot into a new jar, using a double layer of muslin. Or you can leave the fruit as it is for several months more.

The resulting cordial can then be drunk as a liqueur, and used to pep up sorbets, fools and mousses. My mind is tending (albeit perversely so on this steamy July day)  towards thoughts of Christmas trifle.

I should add that I have never tried this before, but so far it is looking good, and that’s where the tripod came in. I shall definitely be using it again. As to the strawberry vodka, only time will tell.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Obsessive Compulsive Compost Disorder and why you should have it, or at least help someone who does (and that would be me)

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I truly cannot help it. I gather anything and everything that will go into my allotment compost bins. This includes not only our vegetable waste, but other people’s. My neighbours along Sheinton Street may indeed wonder how it is that the garden mowings and clippings that they throw over their back hedges can disappear so fast. I don’t really want to go round to their front doors and discuss it with them on the basis that my perceived eccentricity quotient in the town is already quite high enough. But they clearly don’t want the stuff, and they leave it in such handy piles beside the field path. I simply scoop them up on my way to the vegetable plot.

Compost foraging, however, does have its small hazards. It can, for instance, involve a close encounter with a slow worm – a copper and black snakish looking reptile that is actually a limbless lizard. They are quite harmless, but I still leap back in alarm when I touch one unexpectedly. I ought to know by now. They love warm piles of things to bask in during the day. They are to be treasured too, since they eat slugs. And yes I know that in the cycle of things slugs have their good points, and probably are useful in compost heaps, but I am utterly prejudiced against them, and admire anything that disposes of them. Toads are thus also heroes, though sadly in rather short supply.

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The manner of composting as formerly done by me, and displayed in the first photo is not to be emulated. A dedicated composter, and I am now trying to do this, chops big stems and stalks into short lengths to speed up the rotting down process.  It is also good have mixed layers e.g. brown, dry matter such as scrunched up pieces of brown corrugated cardboard, paper, wood shavings, leaves and small twigs. The aim is about 50:50 brown to green matter. This allows air into the mix, and so prevents a sour and smelly squidge.

Grass  mowings and animal manure will heat things up, and also aid decomposition. The heat kills any weed seedlings.  Other additives in my compost include tea bags, egg shells, vegetable parings, allotment weeds, turves from ground clearing, wood ash, hoover contents, and brown paper carriers. Every now and then I also add a layer of comfrey since it also a good compost activator.

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Comfrey is a good compost activator. It also makes an excellent plant food, keeps the bees happy, and helps mend human bones and inflamed tissues. The leaves can be made into tea or added to soup. The flowering tops contain vitamin B12 (source: Herbal Therapy for Women by Elisabeth Brooke MNIMH). Can you spot the bumble bee in the top photo? (Just testing).

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Ideally, the contents of the compost bin should be turned over during the growing season to aerate them, but if this is too daunting a task, and if there’s space, then three or four bins are the answer. The rotting down process will be slower, but when full, the first one is  simply left for a couple of years while the others are being filled. It’s also common practice to put a piece of old carpet over the top to help things along. My largest bin is made of four wooden pallets tied together.  It is easy to open once full, and the contents can be tipped out and turned over.

And why am I so keen on compost? Well, apart from the obvious that it feeds and improves the soil, it is also useful as a mulch, and MULCHING is my current theory on how to deal with  our increasingly ERRATIC WEATHER systems. The only problem is you need masses of it.

But applying a good deep layer around plants and between rows of crops, not only nurtures the plants, it gives them some protection in heavy rain, and stops the soil drying out in times of drought. To retain moisture it should thus be applied after watering/rain, and it will then reduce the amount of watering needed in the future. Strong, healthy, UNSTRESSED plants mean less pests and diseases. A sturdy cabbage will even withstand some slug damage.  For added protection, cover the lot with enviromesh.

My objectives for composting, however, are small potatoes compared with the goals of The Global Compost Project. Scientists involved with this brilliant initiative believe composting can mend the mess we’ve made of the planet, AND help reduce climate change. Here’s what they have to say:

“It also turns out that one easy, natural human invention is very important to boosting photosynthesis and cleaning up the mess we created.  It is Composting!

Fertilizer feeds plants nitrogen and compost feeds soil carbon.

According to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Marin Carbon Project, by spreading just 1/2 inch (1 cm) of compost on grazed rangelands, soil naturally starts to sequester more carbon out of the air via renewed photosynthesis at the rate of 1 ton per acre per year for up to 30 years.  This study was performed jointly by both organizations over a 7-year period, which clearly demonstrated proof of concept.

The results are delighting water conservationists, microbiologists, and climate change scientists around the world.  Compost replenishes the soil carbon  to balanced levels.  It is as if the eco-systems are rebooted, and within one year native grasses and wildlife rebound.  The carbon intake,  forage capacity, and water retention all fall into normal rhythms.”

For more about The Global Compost Project go HERE. And HERE for info on domestic composting from the Royal Horticultural Society.

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And now excuse me while I go off to do some more compost foraging. Perhaps, after all, I should be enlisting my neighbours’ help. They might chuck me more stuff over their hedges instead of putting it in their recycling bins. But either way, recycling is good. So: Obsessive Compulsive Composting anyone? Just to encourage you, and to show off, here’s some of my last year’s summer and winter produce:

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

To And From the Allotment: Seeing Things In Black & White

Last week Cee at Cee’s Photography challenged us to go out and take some new black & white photos. This happened to coincide with my notion of doing a series of  ‘to and from the allotment’ posts, since at some point in the day you will see me trailing through the field on the back route path to my vegetable plot. And then the Daily Post’s ‘on the way’ prompt seemed to fit as well.

Given that everywhere is now bursting with sap-filled greenness, and we’ve waited a long time to see it, it is perhaps perverse to snap it in black & white. On the other hand, doesn’t it make you see things with a fresh eye? These photos were all taken in the early evening, when the sky over Wenlock Edge is always interesting, and the allotment gardens take on an abandoned and mysterious air. Even the plant life looks other-worldly. See what you think.

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The bean field…

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My old shed under the greengage tree with sunbeams and artichoke…

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Dandelion clock by the shed…

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Wreath of barbed wire and Queen Anne’s Lace…

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Phoebe’s insect motel for overwintering bees and bugs…

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Shed with a view…

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Welsh onion flowers and globe artichokes…

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Sheds and allotments go together…

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The path home by a sea of Queen Anne’s Lace…

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Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge

On the Way