Farewell to the allotment

I knew that managing the allotment with a newborn this year would be a bit of a struggle. The plan was to mulch all the annual beds with cardboard, plant potatoes (fairly low-maintenance crop) through it, and hope for more time next year. Unfortunately, the dreadful weather was better suited to weeds than to potatoes, and we didn’t mulch quite thoroughly enough*. What with that, and the fact that I had even less time than I’d anticipated, when I finally made it back there a month ago it was a jungle.

That left me two options (given that my co-proprietor has no more time available than I do):
1. Put in a really big effort to get it under control again.
2. Give up, hand the keys over, and let it pass on to someone else.

On the way home, stressed and guilty, I began to plan for option one. Rip all the brambles out yet again, put a thicker layer of cardboard down over everything, paths and all. It seemed like the ‘correct’ thing to do. We’ve put a lot of effort into the allotment over the seven years that we’ve had it, and I didn’t want to let all of that down by failing to keep on trying.

And yet, and yet. The reality is that much though I have loved the allotment, in my current circumstances it has become more of a dread chore than a joy. Nor could I work out where the time would come from even to rescue it, still less to manage it properly for the next couple of years. And I do now have a garden (easier to find time for due to being right outside the back door rather than a 5 min bike ride away). When I asked myself which option would leave me feeling happier in a global sense, it wasn’t the one that involved a herculean effort just to stand still.

So last month, I harvested the last box of raspberries, left a map of the permanent crops for the new proprietor, and handed the keys back. I’m sad, of course. But it’s also a weight off my conscience and a relief to my already overloaded schedule to accept that at this time in my life, the allotment just doesn’t fit. I’m proud of myself for managing to make that decision without too much guilt.

I’ll miss it.

* What I learnt: mulch works best if you minimise the gaps (we had gaps around the edges of the beds) and mulch deeply. If I were doing it again, I’d mulch over the whole thing, paths and all, and with more layers of cardboard.


Allotment weeding with a baby

We already solved the problem of taking the baby to the allotment (and to lots of other places). This weekend for the first time I managed to get something done while I was there, too, rather than just telling doop what to do.

After a false start when Leon insisted that this was NO GOOD and he wanted MILK instead, I got him snugly up on my back & started clearing dead asparagus. Shortly after that I had sleepy baby breathing in my ear.


With Leon in the allotment 1

All the potatoes are at last in, only a month late (although half of them did go in last month, and are already poking above the cardboard mulch). We have, from north to south (1.5kg of seed potatoes each set):

  • Orla (1st early, planted mid-April, to lift early July)
  • Lady Balfour (west of the apple tree) (maincrop, planted mid-April, to lift late August/early Sept)
  • Amorosa (1st early, planted mid-May, to lift early August)
  • Arran Victory (late maincrop, planted mid-May, to lift mid-Sept)

Not sure how well the Amorosa will do, given their late start, but if all goes well then we’ll have a nice spread of potatoes to harvest over the summer/autumn.

The final bed, in the south, will have butternut squash planted in it when the seedlings currently on the window-sill are a bit bigger. I should also think about a late summer catch-crop for the Orla bed.

activism, permaculture

Potatoes, babies, and tricycles

I decided to plan for a very low maintenance allotment this year, given that I also have a new garden and (rather more time-consumingly) a new baby to deal with. Over the winter, the main beds have almost all been mulched with a double layer of cardboard to reduce weeding. The next stage was to plant potatoes (low-maintenance but tasty!) through the mulch. So, only a couple of weeks late, we headed down to the allotment last weekend to get planting.

The mulch is doing its weed-reducing job where it’s been put down, but around the paths and edges the dandelions are in glorious but weedy profusion. I ignored them in favour of getting 50% of the potatoes in the ground before the baby got too grouchy. (I should note that I did not actually plant anything but was instead acting in more of a supervisory/baby-feeding capacity. Many thanks to my glamorous assistant doop.)

The trip also provided the opportunity for the first test of our baby-transporting device, chosen after researching seats and trailers/cargo bikes: a Christiania trike with a car seat strapped in. Glorious success! Leon slept peacefully all the way there, and observed thoughtfully most of the way back, until a cobbly patch near our front door upset his equilibrium.

The Christiania in action

Baby in a trike!


Keeping track

This year, for the first time, I actually bothered to harden off my tomatoes before migrating them full-time from the windowsill into their final home on the balcony[0]. In theory, this should mean that they don’t get a nasty shock from their first night outside, and therefore that they fruit a little earlier. In practice, the fact that I forgot to take any notes on the timing and performance of last year’s tomatoes means that I won’t know either way. (I suppose I could have left one or two un-hardened to compare, but I was far too proud of myself for remembering to do it at all this year to risk one of them.)

In a similar manner, I found myself having to water the incredibly dry allotment from the last couple of weeks in April. It seemed ridiculously early to be doing that; but whilst I think I remember similarly hot Aprils and Mays in the last couple of years, I haven’t actually got anything written down on how the allotment was doing.

The obvious solution is an allotment/balcony journal. In fact, I have one of these already; I just never remember to write in it. And I have no idea how to fix this problem.

I could just put more effort into telling myself to remember, but the evidence to date is that as a strategy, that’s a failure. Apparently, something about the “allotment journal” structure doesn’t lend itself to my remembering it. So instead of trying to fix my brain, I want to fix the structure, and create something that does support my remembering.

So far, I have no ideas, other than a vague belief that if it were more fun and less of a chore, it might be more likely to happen. Do any of you have any suggestions as to a method of keeping track that might work better?

[0] ‘Hardening off’ is when you move your baby plants from inside to outside gradually, leaving them outside for a couple of hours longer each day before you leave them out overnight for the first time.


The allotment waking up

It’s still pretty cold around here – though it reached 14deg on Wednesday – but the signs of spring are already upon us. The crocuses are out in the local park, and the chives on my balcony have started growing again. The annual allotment-holder turn-over has also arrived (February is fees month at my allotment, which is when people who don’t want their allotments any more bow out, and the newbies arrive), and I’ve met several new and enthusiastic allotment-holders.

Our allotment is also showing signs of spring. The broad beans and early peas (planted in November) are clambering upwards, and the onion sets I also planted in November are doing well. I finally dug up the last of last year’s parsnips, and got a couple of real whoppers.

The ‘winter’ tidying-up is also gaining a new urgency. On Sunday I finally got rid of the big pile of bramble cuttings taking up the end of one of the beds. The hope was that it would rot down in place, but it was way too woody. The wood definitely is rotting – it was very easy to break up to put into the council green waste bags[0] – but not fast enough for my purposes.

I’ve seen it suggested recently that one can use wood cuttings as a swale, to soak up water. You dig a big trench — several feet deep — and chuck the wood in, then cover it back up again and plant as normal on top. I decided against doing that on this occasion, as I didn’t want to disturb the soil structure that much, but I’ll bear it in mind for the future — it might be an idea to use when digging out the potatoes next season since I’ll be disturbing the soil then anyway.

It’s also nearly time to start the spring planting; which is always exciting; although would be more so if I didn’t have a fair amount of weeding to do first. But mostly I’m just enjoying the signs that spring is on its way.

[0] It will then be taken away and composted in huge industrial-type composters; then in a year or so I can buy it back at £3.50 for 40 litres.

food, growing things

Vegan chickweed pesto

There’s not that much growing at this time of year; but you will find fresh chickweed in UK gardens and allotments, even in the middle of the snow. It’s usually considered a weed, but in fact it’s edible, nutritious, and even quite tasty.

You can eat it raw, but I’m not very enthusiastic about it like that. Alternatively, you can treat it like spinach leaves and wilt it before eating. Or you can make chickweed pesto, which is what I did.

When harvesting chickweed, take only the tops of the plant. The lower leaves are tougher, and also by taking the top, you just encourage it to branch and produce more tops for future harvesting.

Chickweed pesto recipe

  • A few good handfuls of chickweed tops (I had maybe a couple of packed mugs’ worth).
  • Handful of pine nuts or sunflower seeds.
  • 1–2 cloves raw garlic (if you can leave the pesto overnight to mellow), or 2 tsp minced garlic / garlic paste (if you want to eat it immediately).
  • Tbsp nutritional yeast (use parmesan for a non-vegan pesto).
  • Generous pinch of salt.
  • 2-3 tbsp olive oil (add as you need it while blending).

Throw all the ingredients into a blender and keep blending until it looks like pesto. Add the olive oil as needed to help the blender out (you can also add a very little water), and as needed for texture.

It worked well on pasta, but I also enjoyed it on crackers for the next few days as a mid-morning snack. And since chickweed will, apparently, grow on my allotment regardless of what I do, I might as well make the most of it, especially at this time of year.

growing things

Autumn growth

Down the allotment this week (at sunset in only a T-shirt — in October!), I noticed that the raspberries are cropping again. Admittedly they are autumn raspberries, but ‘autumn’ in raspberry parlance usually means August/September, not October/November. They’re not as sweet as the earlier ones, possibly because less sun means less sugar developing, but they’re big and juicy and still quite tasty. I reckon I’ll get at least another pot-full, and maybe two.I also harvested what I think will be the last couple of smallish courgettes. There are still some more setting on the plant, but it’s late enough in the season that the insects aren’t really doing the pollination job any more; one of the harvested ones obviously hadn’t been pollinated properly. I’ll leave the plants for a bit longer, but I think that’s it. The end of October is very late to be harvesting courgettes, though!The chard is doing nicely, as are my late planting of broad beans (not a huge crop, but worth the effort of chucking a few seeds in the soil in August, I think). It’s also time to cut back the asparagus and shovel a good helping of compost over it; to dig up the last of the potatoes; and to finally tackle the Horseradish Horror (planted several years ago, and never dug up since digging up one of the four took so much effort).

growing things

Autumn and winter planting

The season is definitely turning, and it’s time to think about planting on the allotment for autumn and winter.

For me, autumn planting falls into two categories: things which you can plant now to harvest in the spring; and things which you can plant now to harvest over the autumn and winter, possibly with the help of a cold frame or two.

Planting for next spring

In the first category, this year I’m intending to plant broad beans and early peas in November, as usual; onions, after reading something suggesting that you can get an early spring crop with certain varieties planted in October; and purple sprouting broccoli.

I’m intending to plant lots of broad beans this year; previous years have seen only a few, and they don’t crop all that heavily. They finish very early, so something else can use the same ground afterwards. I also have a catch crop of broad beans in currently (planted in August) which may yet produce the odd bean if it stays mild and the sun comes out.

Planting for this autumn

In the second category, there’s kale, broccoli raab (which will probably do better in a cold frame), mustard greens, and pak choi. All of which I’ve tried before with varying levels of success.

More experimentally, I’m going to try an October sowing of carrots and turnips, to see how they do. They’re unlikely to get very big, but apparently a late sowing of carrots can yield a few small but tasty roots, so we’ll see what happens.

Tidying up

And there is, of course, all the usual tidying-up to do: dig up the potatoes and other roots, cut back the asparagus, mulch various things with compost, pick the rhubarb (and make jam!), dig up the horseradish that has now been there for 2 years due to being enormous and very difficult to extract, cut back blackberries and raspberries and dig out any rogue interlopers, prune the blackcurrant bush and perhaps the apple tree… Still busy despite the end of the main growing season!


Small luxuries

Yesterday evening, whilst picking raspberries and blackcurrants at the allotment, I was thinking about small luxuries.

One of the things I appreciate most about the summer, these days, is the ability to eat raspberries by the handful. I’ve always loved raspberries — we had them in the garden when I was a kid — and for years I could get only the tiny, expensive, and often tasteless punnets that the supermarkets sell. Now there are twenty canes of them in the allotment (ten summer, ten autumn), and more raspberries than I can eat from June till September. A glorious luxury, with the only outlay (I think we’ve long since earnt back the £20 spent on the canes four years ago) the time it takes me to pick them, which is a pleasure in itself.

When I was cycle touring, eighteen months ago, my self-indulgence was that after the sun went down, I would light up the stove again to make a mug of tea, then crawl into my sleeping bag and lie there snugly in my tent with tea, a couple of chocolate biscuits, and an episode of Stargate (I have a fondness for dodgy SF TV) on the netbook. I remember thinking at the time that the only thing that could make the experience better would have been the ability to knit at the same time (the tent, sadly, was too small to sit up in, and knitting whilst lying on my stomach gave me cramp in my hands).

Since I’ve been home, one of my favourite small luxuries is to go to the library, then take my lovely new library books across the Blue to Adam’s Café, and read over a plate of chips and beans with a coffee. Costs around £3, feels fabulous.

It makes me immoderately happy, just to appreciating these little things.

growing things

Dealing with ants

We have ants on the balcony. We also have ants on the allotment (farming the aphids, mostly, which is both impressive and really, really annoying, leading as it does to the death of the broad beans). I have, therefore, been seeking ways to get rid of ants.

The executive summary seems to be: you can’t; learn to live with them. I have been trying this for some time, but the depredations are getting to be just a bit much. (Especially as they seem to have killed off the worms in the wormery as well.) So I’ve tried a few things.

I’m not prepared to do boiling water; plus it would take ages to boil enough with the storm kettle on the allotment, and on the balcony, it would kill whatever plant was in the relevant pot as well.

On the allotment, the best solution without a doubt has been ant nematodes. The compost heap was absolutely swarming with the damn things before I applied these, as was the paving by the pear tree; both are now clear. I also tried it on the balcony, but with less conclusive effect; the satsuma tree (which seemed to be the worst affected pot) looks to be mostly clear now, but they’ve just moved to the potato box.

Flooding out is one option (if they’ve built their nest in a pot where the plant won’t mind that). After emptying most of a watering-can into the potato box, I very soon saw lots of frantic ants carrying away eggs. But where to? I fear I may need to excavate the Area Under The Herb Table. I’ll repeat the treatment on the potatoes again shortly (and the potatoes should do well for it, as well).

Another suggestion I’ve seen a lot is cinnamon. So last night I went out and sprinkled cinnamon in copious quantities all over the balcony. Curiously, I couldn’t actually see as many ants anyway as I had before, so maybe the drenching has sent them off to find a nest somewhere that isn’t my balcony. I’ll report back on the cinnamon in a couple of weeks.