It’s been a funny old year. The weather in May and June was so atrocious -preventing any serious attempt at weed clearing and/or cultivating down at Plot #59 – it threw all my planting and sowing plans out of whack. Which is why I only just got round to planting out this year’s leeks a fortnight ago.
I tried a different growing method this year. In the past I’ve sown into seed trays, then potted up individual seedlings into larger pots, before planting those out in the summer.
This year, I sowed straight into 8″ deep troughs, thinned the seedlings a couple of times (which meant leek thinnings for pasta sauces and soups: bonus) and then the plan was to plant them out in June, when the seedlings reached approximately pencil-thickness.
Instead, they haven’t gone into the ground until mid-August (planting out the cabbages was even more urgent) at slightly below ideal size (too long in the troughs).
The usual method: separate the plants, mark a line with string, dib a deep hole, drop the leek in, water in to back-fill, repeat. About 280 times, as it turned out, and that was after I’d discarded anything too small or twisty to be worth bothering with.
I’ve planted them quite close; the plan is to thin out every other as a baby leek (and there’s to be the odd failed or damaged specimen) then leave the rest to grow on to full size. Three varieties: ‘Herfstuezen 3 – Porvite’, ‘Elefant’ and ‘Walton Mammoth’, the latter one of my Heritage Seed Library picks this year.
I’m very happy to report that a couple of weeks later, after a few days of sunshine and a few of rain, they seem to be doing fine. Here’s hoping they can put on enough growth between now and the end of Autumn to be hardy enough to survive whatever the winter throws at them, and thicken up nicely in the Spring.
I spent a happy couple of hours this weekend lifting the last of our second early potatoes down on Plot #59 . They’re a variety called ‘Saxon’, which is fast becoming a firm favourite. They have a lovely, creamy texture when boiled or steamed as new potatoes, store really well and make great mash, roasties and even jackets, if they get large enough. A true all-rounder.
This year’s crop was hit by the potato blight that has swept through our site this damp and dreary summer, and I took the haulms off at the beginning of July. Luckily a decent number of tubers had been able to form before I took drastic measures, and although we’re well down on last year’s epic crop, we should have enough to last us through to the end of the year at least.
They’re currently drying in the greenhouse before cleaning up a bit and sorting for either immediate use or storage, depending on the degree of slug damage.
(There’s a third shelf full as well, but honestly, it just looks an awful lot like the first two…)
Jo and I also picked several kilos worth of assorted beans – runner, French and broad – which I spent my Sunday evening trimming, chopping, blanching and freezing for our winter stores. We picked another few tubs of mixed berries, too: raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and Japanese wineberries (see last week’s post for pics).
And we’ve picked the last of the peas, most of which are too dry for eating fresh, but we’ll try storing them for soaking and adding to winter stews, see what happens. Oh, and more courgettes (which rather goes without saying) and a bit more purple calabrese.
Still to come: sweetcorn (forming up nicely, let’s hope they get enough warmth to ripen), winter squashes, chillis, cabbages (not long gone in, let’s hope they establish before winter), kale (likewise) and hopefully more turnips. Hardly any carrots though. The carrot-fly have ripped through them and destroyed around 95% of the crop. More on that set-back in another post.
What’s that? You’ve just taken on an allotment for the very first time? Hey, congratulations! You’re about to start on something that could be truly wonderful; great for your health (physical and mental alike), your diet, your shopping bill, your social life, you name it. Just wait until you lift your first potatoes, or start picking your first raspberries, or see your first sunflowers unfurl, or… well, the possibilities are endless.
Jo and I started out on Plot #59 down at Langley Allotments back in January 2014. Here are a few things we’re either very glad someone mentioned, or wish someone had sat us down and properly told us, before we launched ourselves at the plot and got stuck in.
1. Slow and Steady Wins the Race
On the Facebook allotment groups people sometimes post before & after pics of the scrubby patch of ground that they’ve transformed into a ready-to-go allotment in, oh, around a week or so. If you’ve got the time, the energy and maybe a small enough plot, then that’s great. The feeling of achievement after that week of intense toil will be incredible. (As will be the back pain, most likely, unless you take suitable precautions.)
On the other hand, if like us you’re not really keen on (or suited to) the ‘going at it hammer and tongs’ approach, then remember: it’s fine to eat the proverbial elephant in nice, small bites. Pick a manageable section to work on and sort it out properly. And then pick the next section, and repeat until you’re done. Because…
2. There are Very Few Short-cuts to Long-term Success
Yes, a quick strim and a once-over with a rotavator might seem like a great way to quickly make your new plot look lived in (and of course you get to play with power tools, which is always fun).
But once you realise that you’ve just chopped up a huge patch of calystegia sepium (better known as bindweed) – which re-grows into a whole new plant from even the tiniest fragment of root – and liberally distributed it across a large section of your allotment, you really will wish you’d taken a bit more time and been a bit more thorough with your hand-weeding.
Luckily, Jo’s folks told us this before we started a so we’ve dug and cleared thoroughly and diligently from the beginning, but lots of other plot-holders on our site don’t seem to have been given the same advice.
Likewise, Glyphosate-based weedkiller might seem like a handy solution to a problem patch, but, well, it’s been banned in several countries for being probably carcinogenic, and although its license has been temporarily extended by the EU, the debate is raging across the rest of the World.
Your health, your risk, your decision, of course. Personally though, I’ll only ever use the stuff on path areas that I know won’t be used to grow any food crops, ever. And then only on a still, dry day, to avoid the stuff blowing into areas I might actually want to grow on.
So what to do about those tricky, problem areas..?
3. Dig, Cover, Repeat
On a year-one (or -two, or -three) allotment, your very best friend might just turn out to be a large, dark-coloured tarpaulin or a long, wide roll of heavy-duty weed membrane. Beg, borrow and, er, acquire as many as you can, and then cover over as much of the plot as you’re able to.
All plants – including weeds – need light to thrive. Block the light and you prevent photosynthesis. No photosynthesis means not enough energy for the plant to grow, whilst respiration continues to consume its internally-stored resources. Net result: dead plant.
Black is best, blue and green let a bit too much light through to be totally effective, white and/or clear are next-to useless, but putting down a layer of cardboard under a lighter-coloured tarp is a good combination; the cardboard blocks the light and a well-weighted tarp on top prevents the cardboard ripping up and blowing around in the wind.
Leave those covers down until you’re ready to tackle a section – a year or more, if you can – and when you lift them, you’ll find the job of clearing whatever might have survived is much, much easier.
Two-and-a-half years on, our patch is looking a whole lot better than when we started. We still have a section in the middle that needs properly clearing, plus the central and border paths to sort out, and some sort of seating area to set up at the back, and… well, it’s still very much a work-in-progress is what I’m saying. But we’re getting there. We were lucky in that our allotment secretary told us to think of it as a three year project just to get the basics sorted out. Which took a lot of the pressure off, so we’re grateful for that.
But along the way, we’ve tried very hard not to lose site of the need to…
4. Love Thy Neighbour
I don’t just mean that in a ‘have a chat, make friends, share a flask of tea, swap surplus produce’ kinda way, although all of that is important (and great fun) too. I’m talking about the responsibility that you have to your neighbouring plot-holders not to let your patch get out of hand.
In my previous advice to would-be allotmenteers post, I mentioned that weeds have no respect for boundaries and borders. None whatsoever. If you ignore those persistent dandelions, or that rapidly-spreading clump of creeping buttercup, or the gnarly mess of bindweed clambering up your apple tree, or the forests of dock leaves that are sheltering a thriving population of slugs, then before too long the stuff will be making a bid for freedom and heading for pastures new and plots next-door. And that’s not going to make you a popular plot-holder.
You’ll be given a bit of leeway to start with, especially if you’ve bravely taken on a plot that’s been an absolute nightmare for a while (as we did). But if all you do is turn up at the beginning, dig a bit, weed a bit, promise yourself you’ll be along again shortly, then disappear off for a nice long holiday abroad during weed-growing season (which is any time from March through to October) then you might come back to a few less-than-friendly mutterings about your spreading weed problem, or maybe even a pointed chat with the allotment Secretary about the need to improve standards or move on.
Keep things under control with the aforementioned covers. Dig, clear and plant when you need the space and then make an effort to keep that planted space as weed-free (or at least, as low-weed) as you can, and everyone will get on just fine.
Speaking of planting, here’s something I’m only just getting to grips with after two-and-a-half years:
5. Don’t Get Greedy!
When you first start growing your own, there’s an awfully strong temptation to assume that more means… well, more. Cramming an extra fruit bush into a gap, or planting up eight kale seedlings in the row instead of six or generally ignoring the spacing instructions on the seed packet and assuming that it’ll probably be okay.
Fooling yourself you are, Padawan. Those spacing guides are there for a reason: namely that the experienced plantspeople who come up with them know how big those plants will get in time. Plants need enough space to ensure an adequate supply of light (see photosynthesis note, above), water, nutrients and root-room if they’re to grow and expand to their full, adult, food-producing potential. Healthy plants are also better able to fight off the almost inevitable pests and diseases that will afflict and attack them during the course of the growing season. Deny them the essentials and there’s a good chance that the plants will suffer, maybe even die, and overall yields will be reduced.
Also: you need to remember to leave room for you. Jo is constantly telling me off – and quite rightly – for forgetting to leave adequate walking and working space between rows of crops. How is she supposed to get in to weed the brassica patch – she quite reasonably wants to know – if there are so many brassicas in the patch that there’s nowhere left to step, stand, crouch, or perform any of the other necessary weeding manoeuvres? Good point, well made.
One job we’ll need to do this winter is re-spacing the fruit bush section. When I planted out a few blackcurrants, gooseberries, redcurrants etc. a couple of years back, I didn’t take eventual sizes into account. We now have a patch of highly vigorous gooseberries right in the middle of our blackcurrants and redcurrants, making it extremely difficult to harvest either of the latter without risking severe puncture wounds from the spines of the former. Note to self: when Carol Klein says, in her Grow Your Own Fruit book, “space blackcurrant bushes six feet apart”, she doesn’t mean “ah, go on, three feet will probably do”.
There are exceptions, of course. A lot of the spacing recommendations have been handed down from Victorian kitchen gardens, when maximum yield was the absolute goal. James Wong, in his book Grow For Flavour points out that not all the Victorian guidelines will produce food crops with the best flavour and that sometimes, treating them mean badly make them produce better-tasting results. And in last year’s series of Beechgrove Garden, Jim demonstrated that cabbages will grow to fill the space you assign to them, so if you want smaller, two-person plants rather than leafy beach-balls, then planting them closer is the way to go.
So, yes, your mileage may vary. But generally speaking, my advice would be to go by what they tell you on the seed packet, plant larger specimens with enough room around them to prune, harvest, water and weed under them, and bear in mind that anything else you do is an experiment and that results may not be guaranteed.
Above all, though, the most important piece of advice I can offer to any new allotmenteer is:
6. Stick At It!
Because once you’ve put the hours in, covered over, dug and cleared the weeds, planted out your seedlings, done your very best to guard them from pests and diseases, nurtured them through droughts, floods, tornadoes and hailstorms (if the average British summer is anything to go by)… you’ll finally get to the really, really good part: harvesting the fruits of your labours.
If your fingers are even vaguely green, or you have any sap in your blood whatsoever, then the feeling of picking, cooking and eating your own is a truly great one. Whether you get your buzz from doing your bit to eliminate food miles, putting good food on your family’s plates, a renewed connection to the Earth, or just a tiny bit of (understandably slightly smug) self-satisfaction at a job well done, then it’s a really great feeling to have. You can and should be justifiably proud of yourself, because whichever way you look at it, you will have achieved something good, wholesome and genuinely beneficial to you and those around you.
Appreciate it for as long as it lasts – pretty much all year, if you get your crop planning right. Then, once the harvest has slowed to a winter-trickle, sit yourself down with a pad of paper and a pencil, and start planning for next year’s growing season. As you steadily move from novice to experienced allotmenteer, you’ll find that there’s always more work to do, more mini-projects to dream up, more lists of new must-grow crops to jot down, and so much more to learn. It all starts again in the Spring and, with your first season under your belt, you’ll be desperate to get on with the next one.
Don’t forget to make good use of the off-season as well. Work out what jobs you can usefully do – remember: you shouldn’t dig when the soil is wet, because you’ll destroy the structure and limit its potential – and set yourself up with an action list. There are tools and pots to clean, equipment inventories to check, maybe a greenhouse to scrub in February or early March. Plenty to keep you occupied.
You can develop your allotmenteering skills and knowledge during the winter break, too, by reading and researching. There’s a huge amount of information out there, in books and magazines, on websites and blogs, to be had by picking the brains of the old boys from your allotment site over a pint or a cuppa, and if you avail yourself of that you’ll be in a much better position long-term.
Please n.b. As per the comment by Anton from Garden Organic at the end of this post, we’re actually trialling crimson clover, rather than red clover. Please feel free to mentally substitute the correct variety throughout the following… 🙂
This year I’ve joined in with a trial of two varieties of clover organised by Garden Organic. The aim is to see whether Persian clover (Trifolium resupinatum) is an effective green manure, in direct comparison with red crimson clover (Trifolium pratense incarnatum).
As instructed, I first sowed two patches of clover seed – one red, one Persian – back in March. The weather was so poor that the seed failed to germinate, apart from a few tiny stragglers, so I dropped Garden Organic a line and offered to re-sow. They sent me some more seed in May, I sowed when the weather had improved a bit, and I’m glad to say that this time the seed germinated nicely and I’ve been tracking progress in photos since then.
I’m afraid that although I read the trial notes thoroughly when they arrived, I’ve forgotten to take measurements, or including measuring marks in the photos. Easily done when you’ve got 1,001 other things to be remembering and thinking about during an allotment session, and hopefully my observations will still be useful.
June 9th 2016
Both varieties have germinated, but already the red clover is much more vigorous and robust-looking than the thinner, patchier Persian.
June 18th 2016
Nine days later and whilst the red clover has expanded to fill most of the metre-square patch, the Persian is now lagging badly behind, leaving lots of gaps for weed seeds to colonise.
July 3rd 2016
The Persian has finally started to thicken up a little and is already flowering, producing delicate, daisy-like, flat-faced white flowers edged in pink, nothing like the tufted flower heads that you usually expect to see on native clover.
July 10th 2016
A week later and the red is now showing the classic clover flower spikes, and the Persian has thickened a little more. I’ve had to do quite a bit more weeding on the latter though, due to the comparative sparseness of the foliage.
July 19th 2016
Both varieties are now at full strength. The bees are loving the flowers and the foliage is rich and lush. The photo shows that the red is still out-performing the Persian in terms of size and vigour.
Assessing growth rate and coverage are only part of the trial though. Another element is to see what happens once the plants die back in winter. The theory is that the Persian clover will decompose much more quickly than the red, leaving a lot less ‘straw’ to be manually dug in to the soil. Based on my previous experience with red clover, I’d imagine that both will set seed and we’ll be looking at another batch of clover coming up in the same place once the weather warms up next Spring.
It’s fast-approaching changeover time at our allotment site. September is when the next year’s rent falls due, so anyone who’s thinking of giving up their plot is most likely to do so before they have to fork out another year’s subs. This means a steady trickle of potential new allotmenteers being shown around our site – and I’m sure a fair few others – by the Secretary, and a series of bright-eyed, enthusiastic newbies taking up their tools and getting to grips with growing their own.
If you’re one of those would-be good-life seekers, then congratulations! It’s a wonderful way to tick all sorts of healthy lifestyle boxes: fresh air, exercise, mental wellbeing, community spirit and of course all that lovely produce that you’ll be picking and plucking from your plants in due course. You’ll even save a bit of money on your shopping bills when harvest season rolls around (although it’s really not about turning a profit).
But before you rush off to sign up to your nearest waiting list, here are a few things to ponder. (Disclaimer: the following is intended as a dollop of tough love. Some of it may sound as though I’m trying to put you off the idea of allotmenteering completely. I’m not. Unless, of course, I do manage to put you off the idea, in which case, maybe allotmenteering isn’t quite right for you. At least, not right now. If so: you’re welcome.)
1. Forget What You’ve Seen on The Big Allotment Challenge
So, yeah, you remember that two-season BBC show (now cancelled, it seems) in which a bunch of folks turned up on day one to be given the metaphorical keys to a perfectly turned, absolutely weed-free patch with a sparkling clean greenhouse? Odds are that won’t happen to you.
Unless you’re extremely lucky and end up inheriting a plot that’s been lovingly tended right up until the moment before you signed the paperwork – which can happen; sometimes folks move house, or switch plots, or sadly pass away with spade in hand – then it’s far more likely you’ll be shown around something a lot closer to the state of ours when we took it over back in January 2014:
As you can see: a grass-covered, weed-choked patch of little more than scrub-land. And that was in winter. Once the weeds started growing again in Spring… well, it would certainly explain why in the early days our plot neighbours and several passers-by shot us the occasional pitying look when they thought we weren’t paying attention.
Are you ready for that sort of challenge? Are you sure? If so…
2. Be Prepared to Put the Hours In
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but an hour or so every other weekend (but, hey, only if the weather is nice, but not going-to-the-beach-nice) really isn’t going to get the job done.
If you’re thinking of allotmenteering as a part-time hobby that you can fit in around your salsa classes, triathlon training, guitar lessons, weekly shop, Munroe bashing, Sunday morning lie-in, or whatever else you already have to cram into your too-busy schedule, then perhaps you should think again. The chap who had our plot two tenants before us was dubbed “the half hour gardener” by one neighbour for his habit of turning up once a week, poking around for 30 minutes, then declaring he’d had enough and disappearing off again (and they’re still muttering about him four years after he left).
Here’s the thing: nature won’t wait for your timetable. Weeds will grow, water will evaporate, blight spores will spread themselves around and slugs will munch their way through anything that looks tasty, whether you have time to do anything about it or not. And those weeds, pests and diseases definitely won’t just stay within the boundaries of your plot; they’ll rapidly spread to your neighbours’ meticulously tended patches. Your overgrown, cough grass stuffed and dandelion-choked disaster area won’t endear you to anyone close by and could earn you a few pointed words from the Secretary at Inspection time.
For everyone’s sake, if you’re going to take the job on, you must be prepared to do it regularly and do it properly.
Oh, and speaking of time-sinks…
3. “Kids and Allotments Don’t Mix”
…is what someone told us in passing when we started out. And, based on observation since then, I have to say that it’s generally all too true.
Now, before any doting parents take extreme umbrage and yell at me for horrendously slighting their own precociously green-fingered offspring, I will admit that there are always exceptions that prove the rule. Every so often, you will see a plot taken on by an adult (or two) with a kid (or more) in tow and yes, the nippers will quite happily help mummy and/or daddy out with a spot of weeding, or wander around wetting things with their little plastic watering cans. Which is adorable, and great to see, and offers hope for the future of humanity, etc.
But it usually doesn’t last. There’s a reason that most allotment holders are either retired folks, or (like us) child-free types with enough free time to dedicate to the calling. That’s free time that doesn’t involve football practice, dance class, birthday parties, swimming lessons, school parents’ evenings, karate club, band practice, drama school, or any of the many, many other demands on parental time that always seem to be just a tad more important than getting down to the allotment for a session.
Empirical evidence: in our two and a half years to-date, we’ve seen a number of plots taken on, poked around on a bit, then abandoned again after a few weeks or months, and the majority of those have been the ones leased to families with young kids. And no, I don’t remember seeing a teenager helping out with anything on any allotment on our site, ever.
If you want to get your kids into growing their own food, connecting with nature and eating healthily, that’s great. My advice: start with a couple of raised beds in your back garden, or just some large plastic tubs if you don’t have much space, and take it from there. If they’re really, truly fascinated and stick with it, then you might want to think about moving up to an allotment in due course.
Still With Me? Good.
If you’ve just read, digested and – most importantly – nodded along to all of the above; if your determination to be an allotmenteer now burns more fiercely than ever, then that’s fantastic. I do believe you might me made of the Right Stuff.
Next step: get in touch with your nearest (or rather: most highly recommended local) allotment site and ask to be put on the waiting list, if you haven’t done so already. If it’s anything like ours then you might be on said list for the next 2-3 years, but once your name rises to the top and you’re shown around your potential plot of weed-choked, grass-smothered, barely-cultivatable land (that’s nevertheless full of so much potential), you’ll know your time has come.
In a future post I’ll suggest a few top tips for novice allotmenteers, based on the experience that Jo and I have gathered in our first three years on Plot #59.
So much produce harvested since our last Harvest Monday post. Let the parade of deliciousness begin!
We planted a lot of beans this year – broad, French and runner – and all but one variety are in full productive flood. We’ve been eating them, freezing them, and I made a batch of runner bean, tomato and courgette chutney as well.
The courgettes are still producing like crazy (no surprises there) and there’s a good selection of other veggies to accompany them:
The purple cauliflower we sowed turned out not to be cauliflower after all; it’s definitely calabrese broccoli. It loses its colour on cooking, even when gently steamed. Which is a bit of a shame, but par for the course for most purple veg. (The anthocyanin pigments are water soluble, y’see, and probably break down even faster under heat.)
We also picked the last of the mangetout-turned-podded peas yesterday, so we’ll be shelling those and finishing them off before too long.
Last week we lifted the last of the onions, before the white rot set in. I was pleasantly surprised to find that only a dozen or so had taken rot, leaving us with this many for drying and storing:
Unfortunately I can’t say the same about the potatoes, which took blight a bit too early this year. This is all the tubers we got from an entire three metre row of first earlies:
Not good. The second earlies are a bit more promising, but yields are definitely way down on last year. We might not have as many to store as we hoped, but so it goes.
So far this year – a load of grey mould infected strawberries aside – the soft fruit and berry harvests have been very good indeed:
Clockwise from the top, we have: blackcurrants, redcurrants, Japanese wineberries, blackberries and raspberries.
The Japanse wineberries are definitely winners in our book. The plant is a spiky old so-and-so, but the berries are incredibly easy to pick; they just slide right off their stems once they’re ripe and they taste delicious, sweeter than raspberries but still nicely sharp.
And we’re glad to see that our twin blueberry bushes in the back garden have produced a decent crop this year, despite being re-potted back in the Spring.
And this is one of the dishes I’ve been cooking up recently. Allotment bubble and squeak, with goat’s cheese and homemade courgette and tomato chutney. Simple, incredibly tasty and highly recommended!
July was a hugely busy month on our allotment plot, with regular picking and harvesting added to the usual rounds of planting out, cutting back, dead-heading and weeding. The weather wasn’t too bad on the whole – mostly overcast with sunny spells, a few hot, dry days and some rain here and there – so we were able to get on with a fair bit of work.
We were away for a few days though – which of course gave the weeds a head-start – so we’ve not had much time to clear and prepare the last few sections of rough ground as we would have liked. That might be a job for the Autumn, along with laying the long-awaited flag path up the centre of the plot, but we’ll see how the rest of the summer goes. August isn’t too promising so far.
Here’s what else we got up to in July:
I was able to dig over one new section to plant out cabbages. They’re netted against pigeons and (hopefully) cabbage white and seem to be doing okay last I checked.
Our turnips have been thinned and are coming along nicely, but I think I’ll need to re-sow the swedes. The Brussels sprouts and walking stick kale that I planted out in June are growing strongly, to the point where I had to take the enviromesh cover off a couple of rows. The sweetcorn seems to be doing well again this year: each of the twelve plants I put in have both tasseled anthers (male) and silky stigmas (female) on display, so I’m hoping for two or three decent cobs per plant. And we have squashes:
I actually have no idea how big either of those needs to be before they’re ready to be picked, or how long they need to ripen and cure before they can be stored. More research needed, clearly.
Our fruit section is also doing very well. Although the strawberries have finished and are sending out runners, and the last few gooseberries have gone over, the Autumn raspberries are just getting into their stride, we have bushes full of blackcurrants that need picking, and we had enough ripe redcurrants to make jelly.
So much good stuff! (Deep breath…) potatoes, courgettes (so many courgettes), carrots, peas, beans (runners, broad and French), onions, garlic, elephant garlic, gooseberries, raspberries, Japanese wineberries (just one or two so far, more to come), redcurrants, a small squash, a small head of purple cauliflower (that actually turned out to be calabrese), and handfuls of sweet peas.
We’ve been busy in the kitchen as well, making batches mixed fruit jam (raspberry, blackcurrant, strawberry and gooseberry) and chutney (courgette and tomato, then courgette, runner bean and tomato). And we’ve discovered three bean and courgette ratatouille, which is a great way to cook up a surplus.
Jo’s sunflowers are looking particularly good this year, despite the general lack of sunshine. We’ve also got rampant nasturtiums running through the beans (and across the side path, into the neighbour’s manure bay), towers of sweet peas, mounds of dahlias and plenty more besides. All of which thoroughly deserve their own post, which I’ll get around to before too long.
That’s it for last month’s update. Hopefully this month we’ll get on top of the summer weeding and make a start on sowing some more winter veg, oh, and get the leeks into the ground. They’re definitely ready for planting out.
Well, that’s nature for you. Just as you think you’re developing a potential Sutton’s Cup prize-winning specimen, you take your eye off it for a minute and along comes a cold snap, or a dry spell, or something else entirely (maybe not quite enough food at quite the right time?) and this sort of thing happens:
Yep, that’s a gonner and no mistake. Not even enough left on it to salvage something worth eating.
Luckily, I have a spare:
Any dreams I might be harbouring of #SuttonsCup glory are all resting on tromboncini #2 now. No pressure…
With the weather holding reasonably dry at long last, I was (finally!) able to make a start on some rough measuring out and actual digging in our new back garden.
Having lifted and disposed of the old crazy paving patio we’d revealed an expanse of builders’ sand, and I was eager to get a spade in and see what state the soil was in underneath. The answer, based on an initial test-hole, was: what soil?
Well, I reasoned to myself, maybe that’s because it’s the area near to the solid concrete base that the old garage was build on. Undeterred, I began excavations for our fig pit. This will house the Brown Turkey that we’ve ordered from Grow at Brogdale (along with three apples and a morello cherry) in what is the sunniest spot of the garden for the longest part of the day, and the tree will hopefully be trained espalier-style up and along the outside of the shed in years to come.
A fig pit – roughly two-feet deep, lined with concrete slabs (and old roof tiles by the time I’m done) and part-filled with rounded stones (to aid drainage without damaging the roots) – will restrain the roots of the fig, encourage fruiting and prevent the tree from becoming far too large for the space. The finished result looks okay, despite my stacking the far end and left-hand side slabs a bit wonky (but who’ll ever know once it’s back-filled, eh?)
The next section I decided to tackle was the top end of the planting bed that’s planned to extend out from the corner of the shed towards the house. Again, I was hoping to find soil under a top layer of sand and again I was disappointed. A couple of inches of builders’ sand, then between four and six of compacted silt (caused by years of run-off from the back of the house, I reckon), then more builders’ sand, down to a depth of about twelve inches or so. Then it’s hard-panned, compacted silt and clay all the way down, as far as I can tell. I found a few small traces of actual soil in and around the masses of tree roots from next door’s Prunus, but otherwise: nothing worth the name. Joy.
This poses a number of problems, the main one being – as I learned on the RHS Level 2 course earlier this year – that although sand is good for drainage (until the water hits a solid sub-surface pan and starts backing up, of course), that’s about all you can say for it. It’s inert, so doesn’t hold on to mineral ions, and for that reason is pretty much infertile. And of course, excellent drainage means drastically reduced water holding capacity, which isn’t great either. There’s really not much you can do with it, except add an awful lot of organic matter in an attempt to bring both the nutrient levels and useful water levels back up again, so that’s what we’re going to have to do.
I’ve started the process with a spot of ‘bastard trenching’. This is a technique for recycling turf that I learned about at Ordsall Hall, during the RHS course. It involves digging a trench, putting the soil aside, then taking the top layer of turf from the next section to be dug and laying it upside-down in the bottom of the previous section of trench, before back-filling with the soil below. Repeat until you’ve dug over the entire target area, using the soil from the first section to fill in the last.
My version is a variation on the above: I started by digging out the rough shape of the planting area, piling the sand up to the side, picking out tree roots and stones (rounded ones into the fig pit, sharp ones set aside for a sump that I’ll be digging at the far end of the shed). Then I used the fork to break up the hard-pan underneath, to about a spit-depth, in an effort to sort out those potential drainage issues and give whatever we plant a fighting chance of getting its roots down deep enough to do some good:
Then I started slicing off the turf from the grassy patch (I can’t in all conscience call it a lawn) and inverting it into the dug area, and back-filling on top. I was hoping for a bit of decent soil underneath the turf, but close to the shed there’s not much at all; it’s pretty much sand all the way. (Although I did dig a 6′ trench where I’ll be siting a trellis over by the boundary fence furthest from the shed, and it seems there’s a decent amount of soil in that section – where the neighbours’ apple tree and Fuchsia have been contributing leaves over the years – so that’s a lot more promising.)
Generally though, bastard trenching is a process I’m going to have to repeat for pretty much the whole garden. Except for the path sections, which I can just de-turf, coat with a layer of sand and level off before putting down weed membrane and gravel. It’s going to be a long, hard slog, and we’re going to have to invest in a lot of compost and composted bark to help the process along, but it will be worth it in the end.
I’ve probably left cabbage-planting a bit late this year. The plan was to plant them out in June, but the weather was so atrociously wet, the section of the plot I’d ear-marked just wasn’t diggable. The young plants were starting to get very leggy in the greenhouse, to the point where they were in danger of going over before I could get them in the ground. So last weekend, I rolled up my sleeves, dug out a decent-sized section of soil, and got on with the job:
A couple of seasons back, on Beechgrove Garden, presenter Jim ran an experiment to see how the spacing of cabbage plants affected their size. He concluded that you could plant them fairly close together, as long as what you wanted were smallish heads of cabbage suitable for a couple of portions, rather than a football-sized mega-cabbage that could feed a family of six for a week. As we’re planting four different hispi / sweetheart (pointy) cabbages – ‘Jersey Wakefield’, ‘golden acre’, ‘red cap F1’ and ‘greyhound’ – they’ve been spaces at around 6-8 inches, which will hopefully keep them nice and compact.
Some sort of netting protection is an absolute must: pigeon attacks are inevitable, so you have to keep the beggars at bay, and it’s always a good idea to at least try to keep the cabbage whites and diamondback moths off your crop if you can.
We’ve got a batch of ‘Siberia F1’ Autumn-harvesting cabbage plants to go in at some point, and I’ll be making a late sowing of ‘January King 3’ before too long, as well. That should keep us in fresh greens for a while, all being well.