Slow but steady…

I don’t think I have quite got the hang of this blogging lark… I see it’s been several weeks since my last post (and I’ve been writing this one for two weeks!). Although in my defence, I seem to have mostly been digging out weeds. Couch grass, (night)marestail and bindweed by the bucket load. Not a scintillating subject to write or indeed read about.

But, after weeks and weeks of being down on my hands and knees, enduring strange looks from fellow plot holders (who would probably have just used weed killer rather than take my labour intensive but organic approach) I have made huge progress and am pleased to report that I now have an area approximately 6m x 4m ready to plant! Before and after shots:

Actually, I fib very slightly. I have already planted some potatoes. Despite my suspicions that the entire plot had been used to grow potatoes, I did find a small area which appeared to be relatively tuber free. (When vegetable gardening, it’s important to rotate the crops from one area to another in order to avoid the build up of pests and diseases in the soil, and also so that the soil does not become depleted in nutrients – different veg use different things and leave different things behind.) So although I was about two weeks behind everyone else, I managed to plant my first earlies at the end of March, and my second earlies a week or two later when I’d cleared a bit more ground. I have also planted the autumn fruiting raspberries I was gifted (although I fear that I’ve killed the ones which I took home).

It was so dry though, that I wasn’t sure they would actually grow. But sure enough. the first earlies are definitely growing, as a few leaves popped up after about 2-3 weeks, only to be blackened by the late frosts we had I didn’t have time to buy some fleece and protect them, as my neighbour did, but as hers (which are much more advanced than mine) were also nipped by frost, I am not sure that it would have made much difference. They seem be recovering though. And I still have some main crop potatoes to plant, which are extremely late going in. Better late than never though! The variety of the earlies is a bit of a mystery – I think they are Pentland Javelin. My local garden centre lets you fill a bag – but there aren’t any labels available to attach to the bag so you know what you’ve got… and I couldn’t remember by the time I’d got them home. I had a “the bag with the knot in it is…” aide memoire on my phone for the second earlies (Nadine) and the main crop (Valour). I am debating whether to grow potatoes next year though – they do take up a lot of space, and are relatively cheap and easy to buy. Although I may just go for a few earlies, as the flavour and freshness will be so much better than any I can buy in a shop.

Much to my surprise DH wasn’t that fussed when I suggested not growing potatoes, despite viewing them as a major food group. I sometimes think he would eat nothing else, if given the chance. I was asked for recipe recommendations since we had a glut – however, I have to confess that we mostly just ate them boiled, mashed or roasted. DH did do his speciality once, which is gnocchi. It’s lovely, but rather messy to make – basically very smoothly mashed potato, rolled in flour and then lightly cooked and served with the sort of sauce you might use with pasta. It also freezes well. Good comfort food.

Talking of DH, he has been down the plot to help occasionally. Although when I asked what he thought of the bed I’d prepared, I don’t think he had quite the right idea…

DH in bed blurred

 I have mentioned the no dig method of gardening previously, and that I planned to cover part of the plot in fresh manure and cardboard. Well that plan has been amended, thanks to my lovely neighbour who told me about the holy grail of mulches – free well-rotted manure! So one Friday I took a drive out to where he’d told me I could find it – but clearly I didn’t listen properly, as I ended up in the wrong place. A week or two later I saw him again, and this time I managed to find the farm/livery stables (and have also realised that there are several all within a short distance of each other – clearly I live in an area big on riding). I never thought I’d say this – but heaven!

Fresh manure is acidic, so has to be left for a year or two to rot down. This stuff has been sitting there for a year or two already, so is ready for immediate use. Some things could be planted straight into it, or I could use it as a mulch for the potatoes and other plants. There is a small problem though – I only have a little Fiesta! I made two trips, and managed to bring back about 8 or 9 sacks of it (enough to do about one eighth of the front of the plot). Fortunately, my aging father has a sizeable car and doesn’t mind his daughter dragooning him into filling it with rotted horse poo. So we had a family trip there on Saturday (and probably any other that he visits unless it’s very wet), and now I have one third of the end of the plot covered. Another three or four trips should finish that area, and then I can start on the other areas…

Do you ever get stuck doing something and are not sure how to start doing something else? I’ve spent so long digging out weeds, it seems to be automatic to do more weeding every time I go to the plot. Although I now have a fair sized area to start growing in, I seem to be hesitant. Admittedly, working out the layout is giving me quite a headache. How many plants per centimetre, how tall will they grow, how far apart do the rows need to be? I am probably overthinking it all.

I do have plenty to plant though. I’ve also been busy at home sowing seeds, potting them up and hardening them off. Many seeds need a bit of warmth to germinate, and then like to be coddled for a bit longer whilst they start to grow – although too much warmth and insufficient light can make them “leggy” (tall and spindly looking). I have plenty of brassicas (cabbage, kale, kalettes – which are cross between sprouts and kale – and two types of broccoli), which are almost ready to plant out. However, I need to get them some protection first, as otherwise they will be attacked by pigeons and cabbage white butterflies. I also have lettuces and tomatoes, both of which will be grown at home (they need lots of watering and tlc, plus they are best picked and eaten immediately). I have flowers too – cosmos and sweet peas mainly. Although I don’t have a greenhouse, I am lucky that we have a very sheltered area in the back garden which has a roof and is mostly enclosed on three sides. This has protected my seedlings from the late frosts we’ve been getting. Some things need to be planted later, so about 10 days ago I started off some courgettes, squashes, pumpkins, peas, runner beans, sunflowers and sweetcorn. All are popping up nicely as you can see below. Some are ready to be moved to bigger pot, some need a bit longer in their nursery pots, although some are already getting a bit “leggy”. (These pictures were actually taken a couple of weeks ago – everything is a lot bigger now!)

I am still busy weeding though – the runner beans have put on a sprint so I am hoping to get them planted this bank holiday weekend, the space is almost cleared. Then I need to get something to protect those brassicas, and I will have a proper allotment with things actually growing in it. Till next time!

Advertisements

To Dig or Not to Dig, that is the Question

Have you been wondering why I keep putting cardboard all over my allotment? It isn’t the most conventional of gardening techniques I’ll admit. But there is method in my madness…

Would you rather spend hours digging out weeds and double digging the soil (and then repeating the exercise every three years or so), or would you rather not bother at all and let the worms do all the work? When I decided to take on an allotment, I started doing some research, and came across a method of cultivation called “no dig”. The main proponent of this method in the UK is Charles Dowding, and I am currently reading his book “Organic Gardening the Natural No Dig Way” and following him on social media.

The theory is that the soil has a natural population of bacteria and fungi which form an important element of the health of the soil, and assist the plants in growing. Digging not only disturbs and may destroy this, but you also expose weed seeds which may then germinate (but otherwise would have remained dormant). The worms also get cross (well wouldn’t you, if someone kept digging you up and disturbing your bed/dinner?), and they are vital for soil health. The digging also destroys the soil structure, and can lead to impaction of the soil (whereas what you really need is a nice fine tilth).

With the no dig method all you do, basically, is mulch with organic matter. This can be garden compost, well-rotted manure or bought in compost.  The worms, to whom you have served their dinner, will then help to break the mulch down and pull it into the soil. This improves both its structure and its fertility, all the while saving your back and your energy. Because you need to mulch quite thickly, any weeds are starved of light and so die, or don’t germinate in the first place. Even couch grass will, eventually, give up the ghost.

This sounds like a wonderful gardening method to me, and I am keen to have the entire plot (125sqm) run with the no dig method. But… there is always a but isn’t there? I need lots of compost, or well-rotted manure, which I don’t have (without spending lots of money). And I want to grow stuff, this year. I am impatient. So I am doing a combination – digging out the couch grass and mares tail on a slightly less weedy area, whilst trying to get going with the no dig on the rest of it. Hence the cardboard, to cut out the light.

Obviously, cardboard isn’t sufficient, and I still need mulch. I discovered that we have a supply of fresh horse manure on site. I have bought a great big shovel, and now a wheelbarrow (oh so good for lugging tools etc. from the “mobile shed” parked outside, to the plot) so guess what I’m going to be doing next weekend! I am also collecting more cardboard from a local bike shop who have kindly offered me as much as I can use. The fresh manure will be too acidic to grow anything in for now, but it will rot down, as will the cardboard, and then hopefully next year we will have wonderful soil.

If I was scientifically minded enough, I could try and do a comparison in soil quality and productivity between the area I am weeding now, and the areas I am mulching. I suspect that I’m not going to be accurate enough in my gardening to manage that, but I shall attempt some comparisons.

The advantage of digging out all those weeds though has been that I am getting to know my soil. The surface has clearly had lots of organic matter dug in, it’s lovely and dark with a crumbly texture. There seems to be a thin layer of clay almost a foot down, and under that it’s orange sand (apparently there is a ribbon of it running through the area). This means that the plot is well drained – when I visited the other day after lots of rain, I was expecting lots of mud, but the soil was fine. This seems good now of course, but in warmer weather may mean lots of water. And mulching too – which helps to retain moisture. We also have lots and lots of worms (slightly grumpy worms due to having their home disturbed, but they will love me when it’s all done and I give them lots of dinner).

At the weekend I uncovered the area I had previously dug over, only to discover that grass was growing again! Not very much admittedly, but I had already realised that I’d not weeded this area as thoroughly as I’d done the other side, so I did it all over again, and removed a few more buckets of weed roots – and went over an area not previously done. I very nearly finished digging over the area for planting this year, but my arms and back gave out at 5pm on Sunday (after about 12 hours digging and weeding over the weekend). A couple more hours and I will have an area 6m x2.5m ready! As it’s still far too cold to plant anything out, I will mulch this with some bought-in compost (and some organic fertiliser pellets), then cover it with my weed-proof membrane to ensure that the weeds don’t come through again, and to warm the soil ready for planting out in April.

Now, on with more digging, and trying to get the potatoes planted – fingers crossed for some sunshine this weekend!

IMG_20170321_173638

My 6m x 2.5m area, half mulched, with just a little bit more weeding to do! It might not look like much, but it’s quite an achievement, particularly without chemicals…

Couchy, couchy cou…

I’ve been a bit quiet of late on this blog, which is probably not a great thing for a new blog. However, how much can you really read about my progress in digging out couch grass?! That is still the main activity on the allotment, although as I’m there, bent double, head in a hole, I do find myself wondering “which idiot decided to be as organic as possible?” and pondering the pros and cons of glyphosate. And then I tell myself that it will be worth in the end…

Even the digging out of couch grass has been slow. I have a feeling that I didn’t dig deep enough when I first started, so may have to do some more work on the first patch. I’ve started digging on the other side of the plot, and because I’m being more thorough, the soil is forming a mound where I’ve dug deeper and aerated the soil. Some of the roots are going down to beyond arm’s length, so I am just having to get as much out as possible, hoping that I am weakening the plant as much as possible so that it will give up the ghost.

IMG_20170218_163633On the plus side, we have our first glut – lots and lots of potatoes! This is just one batch I have dug up – I currently have a drawer in the fridge at home filled with them. DH is happy at least.

Talking of DH, he has been busy too. Our new pallet compost bin is more or less constructed. We had a few teething problems. The structure worked perfectly on the nice level garage floor… but would not come together on the extremely uneven ground of our plot (I have no idea what the previous tenant was growing, as there are so many trenches and holes). Sadly I also missed DH doing some acrobatics with a pallet when he missed his footing and apparently summersaulted, ending up embracing said pallet flat on his back. I was too busy trying to reverse the car out of the site without accidentally running over one of my new neighbour’s plots – not easy when one of your wing mirrors on your ancient automobile doesn’t move anymore, and you can’t see what’s happening on the passenger side properly…

IMG_20170228_141844

When I was away for the weekend, DH went back up and (mostly) finished the job, as you can see.

He also had to recover some cardboard and return the compost bins which storm Doris had decided to redistribute around the site. I was quite thankful that we don’t have a shed or greenhouse to worry about, as one of my neighbours experienced some damage, although mostly reparable. DH has, however, been shed planning. I think I might have created a monster though – as all he seems to talk about, read about and even dream about now is building sheds! Initially we thought about trying to build one out of reclaimed materials, something nice and quirky. That, however, is presenting too much of a challenge, so then he looked at how to build one from scratch to his own design. But the cost seemed to be escalating, and although he built me a fantastic set of shelves for the garden shelter last year (referred to as “the Brobdingnagian shelves” as their size got a little, well, out of hand), there is a big difference between spending £40 on wood for a project and not being sure if it will work, and £200-300. Particularly when you can buy a shed for that. So we’ve gone full circle. In the meantime, my mobile shed passed its MOT the other day, so the urgency is reduced.

It’s nearly two weeks since I’ve been up to the plot. I was away dancing one weekend, and then I was on the “Save the NHS March” on the Saturday (although a post-march nip into an Oxfam bookshop yielded a couple of good books – “The Creative Vegetable Garden” by Joy Larkcom, all about potager style vegetable gardening which I am very interested in – after all, why not have the allotment looking beautiful?  – and “The Half Hour Allotment” – sadly I don’t think the two are going to be particularly compatible!) Sunday I had intended to go, but the forecast was for heavy rain, so instead I gave the garden at home some attention. We still have kale growing (although it is now attempting to go to seed) and perpetual spinach to harvest. My rainbow chard is somewhat miniature (probably as a result insufficient thinning). But my shallots and garlic, planted in November, are coming along very well. The garden is also filled with tete-a-tete daffodils, and three cornered leek, which is a form of wild garlic tasting a bit like a cross between garlic and a mild spring onion, but is very invasive. I also need to get on with some seed sowing. So far all I have going are sweet peas, four types of chilli (although the “Black Zimbabwean” hasn’t yet germinated, and I think it’s unlikely to now) and some lobelia (which are absolutely miniscule at the moment, but did quite well last year despite being sown quite late – I’ve started them much earlier). So I potted up the sweet peas and some of the chillis (the de Cayenne’s are doing really well – I suspect I shall be giving some away later) and prepped a couple of seed trays ready for sowing. But then the heavens opened, the temperature plummeted, and I retreated indoors…

However, Monday and Tuesday we had much better weather, and I was able to spend a couple of hours each day, back at the plot, shoulder deep in my beautiful soil, hoiking out couch grass and what is probably mare’s tail roots. And just in time too, as some of them seem to be sprouting. Here is the progress so far:

and shot of my immediate neighbour’s plot (one day, mine might be this neat and tidy!), and another neighbour’s lovely cat who thought she would keep me company as the sun went down.

IMG_20170307_174343

Timing is all

Allotment life is very weather dependent. A couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t do anything as everything was frozen. On Friday the temperatures suggested April rather than February, but Sunday we were back into the depths of winter with my enthusiasm following similar patterns.

I have joined a couple of Facebook groups relating to allotments, and have been asking about the “no-dig” method of gardening and soil improvement (and digging just sounds like too much hard work when you look at what we’ve got to deal with). After much consideration, I’ve decided to combine some weed clearance by hand, with a go at no-dig. Much as I would like to cover the whole plot in cardboard and compost or manure, it would take a year before I could grow anything! So two parts of the plot are going under cover, whilst the mid-section is going to be laboriously weeded by hand so that we can get cultivating.

Our local cycle shop had offered me some free cardboard for my weed suppression regime. What a good place to go to get it from – the boxes are enormous! And quite heavy to lug around, particularly when the lovely, 6ft tall DH is sick at home in bed, and you are only able carry two at a time as your arms aren’t long enough… However, the rear part of the plot is also nicely tucked up now.

Weed removal should be tedious. Am I strange in that I actually quite enjoyed it? It’s quite a meditative process (probably “mindful” in today’s jargon). You can see in the picture below how much ground I cleared in approximately two hours. This is almost the size of the entire veg patch we have at home! Thanks, I suspect, to the previous frosts, a little rain and some warm sun, the ground yielded its weeds with little difficulty. I seem to have lots of grass, quite a few morning primrose plants with the most enormous roots (shame they’re not edible – they look like small parsnips) and quite a few potatoes, which look to be perfectly edible. I also found some beans (I wish they were magic, but sadly I think they’re just runner) which I intend to plant and see what happens. However, look what this work did to my poor hand – as a massage therapist, I really have to take care of my hands!


The little patch I cleared on Friday yielded half a rubble bag of couch grass and other weeds. Sadly, without a good degree of heat or sun to dry them out, these are not domestically compostable, and it’s too damp to burn them at the moment. So I decided to contribute them to the green waste at the local reuse and recycling centre (although my desire to get some “soil improver” in return was thwarted by the rain – I’m not sure I’d have managed to lift any out of the container it was so sodden). I met another of the neighbours, who saw me hauling my rubble bag up the path, stopped to ask me where I was taking it, then without asking anything further lifted it into his wheelbarrow and delivered it into the boot of my car. I think I’m going to like my neighbours. I met the lady on the next plot, who gave me two enormous, delicious parsnips, I had two offers of the loan of a wheel barrow to collect the free manure at the other gate and met J and her little dog Ollie, who is friends with everyone apparently. S showed me around her collection of 4 plots – with numerous green houses, hens, ponds and sheds. It would be easy to get lost in there…

It would also appear that I’ve turned the car into a mobile shed…

img_20170205_142154

By the end of the weekend I’d cleared almost three times the amount of earth shown in the picture above (which is a good start) and have a good deal of the plot tucked up under cardboard and weed-proof membrane (which will weaken the weeds for when I can next tackle them). If I achieve my aims, I will have an area 6m x 4.6m approximately to grow on this year.

Unfortunately, this coming weekend we are in the grips of a cold snap, so I doubt that much is going to get done. Although I suspect that the cold won’t stop me entirely… Roll on the lighter evenings and warmer weather – spring I am waiting impatiently for you!

 

The Scavenger Hunt

Although I’ve been a believer in recycling for many years, this is the first time I’ve really turned into a scavenger. Apparently, weed removal is best done by stifling their growth through lack of light – even couch grass will eventually turn up its little roots and die. So I need cardboard, lots and lots of cardboard! I snaffled the first lot from a local Facebook group (which got me started on this journey in the first place). DH and I carted this to the allotment on Saturday morning and spread it out, covering it with a tarpaulin we already had and weighted it down with various broken bits of stone. We also cleared out some of the taller, very dead, weeds (evening primrose, apparently – judging by the number of seeds they shed, we will probably get another good crop this year!). Suddenly, I could see earth… lots and lots of crumbly, brown earth. And I realised that my plan to cultivate the front of the plot (neatly tucked up under its cardboard and tarpaulin duvet set) was probably naïve, as this area behind the metal fence) was actually not too badly infested with couch grass. Whereas the duvet-ed section is a broken ankle or muddy bottom waiting to happen, as it’s full of hidden dips and lumps, as well as being on a very odd slope – some of the plot appears to have slid into one corner.

Next trip: the dump. I am resisting DH’s attempts to make me answer to the name Stig (which really gives away our ages)… Our neighbour works at the “Recycling and reuse centre” and had been tempting us with offers of free wood for our wood burning stove. I don’t think he expected me to start skip-diving for cardboard or bricks and rocks! Additional requests have gone out via Freecycle and the Facebook page, and offers have been received and will be collected shortly. Weed proof membrane has also been ordered, along with another portable green house for use at home.

In the meantime, DH has been busy planning solar panels for the roof of the shed… which we don’t actually have yet! And I continue my obsession with the weather forecast, hoping that it will be dry enough on Friday morning for me to go and do some weeding. How long will this enthusiasm last I wonder?

Decisions, decisions

I have an allotment. A roughly delineated patch of land, covered in couch grass and other assorted, unidentified, weeds. In my mind though, it is a lush cornucopia full of delicious edibles, buzzing with bees, somewhere I can sit out on a summer’s evening as the sun sets, calling a cheery hello to other allotmenteers as they tend their fertile plots. My little Eden.

This blog is, I hope, about turning that dream into a reality.

I am a relatively novice gardener. Gardening has been absent for my life for well over 30 years, since I moved to London as a student, although I remember cultivating cornflowers as a child, and have fond memories of accompanying my Dad to his allotment in the 1970’s (along with watching “The Good Life” on TV). However I have a reputation for cultivating monstrously large houseplants, and some botanical knowledge was acquired when training as an aromatherapist a dozen years or so ago. Three years ago my dear husband (DH) and I traded in our lovely little first floor flat in East Dulwich and bought a nice house in suburban Wallington – with a garden! We moved in in January 2014, and I itched to get started in the garden, but of course there were too many other things to do. We inherited some veg beds, an apple tree, two pear trees and what we were told was a plum (but turned out to be a crab apple). I tinkered – tomatoes in troughs did very well, runner beans were devastated by blackfly, the tiny garlic I grew packed a huge amount of flavour. But there was never enough space to grow as much as I wanted to, and I realised that the tree in the garden next door was sucking all the water (and life) out of the veg beds – but there isn’t really anywhere else to put them, at least without sacrificing the established fruit trees. And I also want flowers and a pretty, fragrant, place to sit outside. I felt frustrated.

Then I learnt that Sutton, the borough in which I lived, had lots of allotments available, and no waiting lists! I never thought I would have an allotment – I had heard of 7 year long waiting lists. But I applied in October, and in December received a letter saying that there was a plot available on one of the sites I had selected – so with great excitement, off I toddled to see what it was like. The site was very small – probably a dozen plots. There were two available, both covered in brambles and other weeds. One had an abandoned greenhouse at the edge (which DH said should be re-glazeable). Initially I was daunted, then I was excited. I decided over Christmas that I would take it on and do battle with the brambles, make it my own. Then I went back to look again. This time I noticed the tall trees surrounding it, which would demand all the water and realised that my crops would be second in the queue. I looked at the size of the site – with one entrance, and thought about the sign on the gate warning about indecent exposure… I anticipated being there alone much of the time – did I really want to be on a site where there was nowhere to go if I felt threatened? Where there would be no passers-by because of where the gate was? I wobbled. And asked what was available elsewhere. Lots as it turned out – and despite there being short waiting lists on other sites, I had a look around one large site with a list of 45 vacant plots, found one I liked, and a few days later it was mine!

This is the point at which I need to keep the vision going. It is mid-January, and although the first visit to the plot was on a gorgeous, sunny day, the ground was frozen. We made a few attempts to clear any odd bits of rubbish, but I realised that my hope of coming back the next day to inaugurate the digging was foolish. I spotted a couple of abandoned onions which I tried to harvest – but which were frozen into the ground and refused to budge! Instead, I spent the rest of the day reading a book about kitchen gardening and being laughed at by DH as I set up a gant chart to plan what I could grow, when seeds needed to be sown and then planted out and when we could harvest things (all he cares about is potatoes!). He is muttering about bees though. Although first I want a compost bin constructed, and a shed, maybe some coldframes, ooh, a greenhouse would be nice…

Here is the virgin plot:

img_20170121_113741

The front of the plot, nice and frosty, showing the metal fence for growing things like runner beans up.

img_20170121_113801

From the rear of the plot – including abandoned crops (which on closer inspection proved to be slightly slimy cabbages)

img_20170121_113919

Another from the rear, with the inherited incinerator