Sky Energy up at the Allotment

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This climate change business is most perplexing. There was a time when winter was a time to get the digging done. Not so the last few years. With the autumn comes rain and more rain. By November the ground is sodden, the soil claggy. My wellies become giant boots in seconds if I am unkind enough to the soil to walk upon it. This year the situation looks set to last until March.

Certainly we have intervals of splendid skies like this, but these periods of unrain never last long enough for the soil to dry out. All I can do on my plot is pick a few overwintered vegetables (leeks and greens), add fresh supplies of pony manure to my compost bins (a nice man who keeps horses dumps regular supplies out in the lane), and well, take photographs.

The light was just going when I took this first photo, but the burst of clouds above the bare ash trees made me think of Ailsa’s energy challenge over at Where’s My Backpack. Simply to see them filled me with energy, and made me think that the generally dreary look of allotment gardens in February had its scenic qualities too. And of course there are signs of spring. Lurking inside this nest of purple and green is an emergent winter cauliflower, in real life, little more than an inch across.

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And the marigolds that grow themselves all over my plot, are coming into flower, although they proved a little hard to capture in the biting wind. Perhaps these hopeful signs mean that I will soon be out digging.

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Where’s My Backpack – go here for more responses to Ailsa’s ‘energy’ photo challenge

Still Life: Winter’s Harvest

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I confess I’ve been bogged down in the post-viral doldrums for the past two weeks – feeling very sorry for myself. This is definitely a bad place for anyone to be. I did not want to do ANYTHING. And everything I attempted to do I judged hopeless, and pointless, and badly executed. My writing came in for a very large amount of stick, which gross assault was especially demoralizing and depressing.

But wallowing in bouts of self-castigation has to have some limits. In fact wilful incapacity finally led to something distinctly nourishing and wonderful. I lay down all day for several days and read Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, followed by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. I let myself be psychically transported, and I cannot say how grateful I am to the spirits of those two fine women writers. They knew how to create unforgettable characters. They knew how to conjure an under-your-skin sense of place. And the tales they told, although very much of their time, also possess many timeless qualities, as well as addressing themes (the position of women, for instance) that are still very much with us today.

So this is my first winter’s harvest – a darn good read. In fact I finished Jane Eyre late last night. When I woke this morning the dark mood that had weighed me down for a fortnight had miraculously lifted. On the skylight above the bed were large snow flakes frosted on the pane, a blue sky and everywhere lit up by an other-worldly, early morning sun. My inner eyes were open again too. Finally I could see how lucky I was. The mild depression I had been feeling was absolutely nothing compared with the perpetual darkness that so many have to contend with.

When I got up I found that it had not snowed much – just enough to cover the field behind the house in a thin white dusting. By the time I set off across it, the thaw had already set in, but it was good to be walking out in a white world. I realised, too, it was high time to venture out in pursuit of another kind of harvest. What had been going on at the allotment during my absence?

As you can see, the answer is: quite a lot. I’m amazed how much there was still to pick in the middle of winter: broccoli, purple and romanesco cauliflowers, leeks and parsnips. The brassicas are growing under enviromesh, and seem lush and healthy. In the polytunnel frilly lettuce, rocket, mizuna, bok choy and two kinds of parsley are quietly growing under fleece. Elsewhere on the plot the overwintering onions look well sprouted, and the field beans (mini broad beans) have germinated quite strongly. There will be crops of purple sprouting broccoli in the early spring, and the Swiss chard is still hanging on in sheltered corners. In fact all seems to be thriving on the additions of Biochar organic fertilizer that I added to every vegetable’s planting hole last year. It is supposed to be magic stuff – a form of charcoal that not only improves soil and feeds plants, but also possibly helps to reduce the effects of carbon emission by means of carbon sequestration.

And so, finally, to all of you who might be suffering the January blues, here is my third harvest: the blackbird caught this afternoon on my frosty crab apples. May this image transform any darkling tendencies, and the colours kindle sparks of elemental joy. There is life still…

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© 2015 Tish Farrell

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Polytunnel Vision

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Oh all right, I know. As ambitions go, wanting to own a polytunnel might seem pretty odd. Also it’s not as if I don’t have enough housework in the house without having additional premises to tend elsewhere. But then sometimes in life you get precisely what you wish for, and most unexpectedly at that.

Ever since I took over my plot from Much Wenlock Allotment Society some seven years ago I have increasingly thought that a polytunnel was the very thing I needed. Gardening on the edge of Wenlock Edge can be challenging. The site is exposed, sloping, and often very windy. Much Wenlock is also in a frost pocket, and thus is a degree or so cooler than anywhere else in Shropshire.

Worse still, the soil comprises a decaying fossil volcanic ash that is like wet cement when it rains, and hard baked cement when it doesn’t rain. It has thus taken seven years of digging, mulching, composting, green manuring, horse manuring, hacking and weeding to get the soil looking like something that vegetable plants might want to grow in. The dandelions, however, grow most verdantly, along with the creeping buttercups, sow thistles, docks, bindweed and couch grass. And so despite improvements, small vegetable seeds still find the soil heavy going. If they germinate at all, they struggle, the soil creating a bonsai effect on the roots, and then the slugs quickly finish them off. Most seeds thus need to be germinated under cover, and grown on before they can stand a chance after being planted out.

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And then, of course, there are the pigeons. They sit on the telegraph wires and watch what I’m doing. They especially like to eat cabbages and newly sprouted pea plants down to the roots. The rotters. In consequence I spend a lot of time making defensive systems out of environmesh and bits of wire fencing. This kind of protection also has to be applied to beds of leeks, garlic and onions due to the arrival in our part of the world of the allium beetle that likes to lay its eggs in the fleshy roots. The effect of these assaults on the leeks is especially dramatic: they unfurl in spiral fashion and develop rust-coloured stripes.

So you can see that to be an allotment gardener in Wenlock requires the same kind of pig-headed (idiot) tenacity it takes to be a writer. I have visions of deep, humus-laden beds bursting with lush, green spinach and broccoli, in much the same way I have visions of producing beautiful books that everyone wants to devour, and feel nourished by.

And that’s where the polytunnel comes in. I’m hoping I can crack both objectives in one fell swoop, this on the basis that if I can raise and eat more broccoli and spinach, my brain might produce writing with the requisite added enrichment. We can but hope. I might also say, as I probably have before, the contents of my writer’s brain have much in common with the contents of my compost bin, although at least they don’t smell. (Please note pallet structure installed by the Team Leader aka Graham who endlessly tries to bring order to my chaos).

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Anyway, back in the early spring when I was clearing my plot I noted, with a severe pang of envy, that my neighbours, Bob and Sally, were making preparations to erect a fourteen foot long polytunnel. I could see it was hard work, with foundation trenches to dig (in the aforementioned concrete soil) and the frame to erect. I watched them toil, hanging doors, and making beds. Next, I watched as my other neighbours, Pete and Kate, followed suit. Their installation was even more hard work, being on a slope. It took them weeks to complete. In the meantime I kept the Team Leader posted as to these events, from time to time mooting the possibility of us having a tunnel; perhaps something smaller, I hazarded.

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I have to say the response wasn’t altogether encouraging, even though we were by then falling out at home over whether the small conservatory on the back of the house was my potting shed and greenhouse, or his workshop. Increasingly my bean and sweet corn seedlings were having to compete with saws and wrenches and other man-things whose function I cannot identify. Nor was there the possibility of building either a man-shed to contain his stuff or a woman-greenhouse to contain my stuff since the garden at  home is too narrow.

Back at the allotment I watched the new polytunnels fill with tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers…I thought longingly of gazpacho that simply cannot be made from flavourless supermarket produce. Ho hum.

Then out of the blue in mid-summer, a little bird, otherwise known as ace fellow allotmenteer, Phoebe, told me that Bob and Sally were moving and were looking to sell their tunnel. She thought I should discuss terms with them.  Not long after this I received a small inheritance from my once passionately gardening Aunt Evelyn of whom I have written elsewhere.

And so to cut a long story short, a week last Sunday I became the proud owner of the Auntie Evelyn Memorial Polytunnel, complete with potting bench, garden chairs and an automatic watering system. My aunt would have loved it. Bob and Sally even left me the last of their tomatoes and cucumbers. Not only that, the plot comes with a new shed that does not lean, nor provide roosting space for snails as my old one does. Already the Team Leader has added a shelf and guttering. In short, my water butt runneth over…Or will do very shortly.

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I have started clearing the tunnel’s beds and planted out lettuce and oriental vegetables to extend the salad season. But from now on, it is all new territory on the gardening front. There’s a lot to learn about tunnel cultivation and management. Planning and forethought are required. Better get cracking with that spinach and broccoli then.

Related stories about my aunt:

The Many Faces of Evelyn Mary Ashford

Grand Girl: Great Prospects

The Birds; Who, Where, When?

      copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

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Still Life at the Allotment

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Mid October and the marigolds are still blooming up at the allotment. I love the way they simply grow themselves amongst my vegetables. In a mild winter they may flower into December.  It was also good to see this bee out and gathering pollen. These days, every bee is precious. Once we have killed them all with agri-chemicals, we can expect to starve. It’s as simple as that. My allotment empire has recently expanded – more of which in the next post – so I’m intending to grow more varieties of late and early flowering plants on my plot. Or maybe I should simply stick to marigolds, and let them grow EVERYWHERE. The flower petals are lovely in salads, and a herbal tea of marigold flowers is good for warding off flu. Simply looking at them makes you feel better. All that orange straight into the brain, lighting up the little grey cells as the days darken.

‘Happy Autumn’ northern dwellers.

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