Tag: weeding

Plot #59 Update: November 2016

December 2016 Plot #59 Update
Not a lot of greenery left by now, as the clearing away continues.

November was a mixed month, weather-wise. A soggy start gave way to a dry, cold, bright last couple of weeks; perfect for all those cutting back and clearing up jobs that are so necessary at this time of year.

Here’s what we’ve been up to:

Harvesting

We’re well into our late Autumn veg now, with cabbages, kale, turnips, swede, leeks, giant black radishes, the last of the manky carrots and a few other roots about all that’s left in the ground. It’s all extremely welcome and means that, alongside our cured squashes, dried beans and stored garlic, we’re never short of veggies for the sort of stews and casseroles that we’re eating a couple of times a week.

November 2016 - Manky Carrots
Never going to win any beauty contests, are they? But tasty enough once they’re cleaned up a bit.

Next year we’ll be making sure that there are even more winter crops available, with a bit of better planning and succession-sowing. All being well.

Planting Out

It might seem odd to be putting crops in the ground at this time of year, but we took advantage of the warm gap between the rainy week and the freezing week to get a crop of greenhouse-raised (and hardened-off) Vicia faba (broad bean) ‘aquadulce’ planted out under fleece tunnels.

November 2016 broad beans planted
Two rows of nine; should make for a decent harvest in late May / early June.

I’ve not over-wintered broad beans before now, but I saw some on another plot that were around six feet tall and cropping prolifically in late Spring, so I’m hoping for similar results.

Mulching

I’ve been a man on a mulching mission the past couple of weeks. Having missed the mid-November window to get the asparagus section weeded, cleaned and covered, I went at it with a will as soon as the heaviest frosts had passed (hopefully not damaging the precious asparagus crowns too much).

All three rows have now been cut back, cleaned up – a lot of annual weed and moss had moved in, as the section became shaded out by a row of sunflowers – and liberally mulched over.

November 2016 asparagus mulching
Leaves for the crowns, woodchip for the walking-on-areas.

I did the research before I began and various methods were generally recommended. Bob Flowerdew suggests using sand, but I didn’t have anywhere near enough, so went with what was available: a thick covering of leaves for the planting rows themselves, and a good couple of inches of chipped wood on the paths in-between. Asparagus roots are said to reach around 12′ deep, so I don’t think there should be too many concerns with nitrogen depletion as the woodchips decompose. But I’ll keep an eye on the strength of the spears when they re-grow in the Spring and feed if necessary.

Once I had the bit between my teeth I was hard to rein in, and ended up spending the rest of the same afternoon carting trug-loads of leaves and woodchip around to mulch over the cur-back raspberry crowns and beneath our freshly-pruned soft fruit bushes. It all looks rather good, if I do say so myself:

November 2016 soft fruit section
Blackcurrants, gooseberries and redcurrant bushes, spaced out, freshly mulched and ready for winter.

I also took the opportunity to re-space the bushes, which had become rather over-crowded since we first planted them out a couple of years ago. A couple of gooseberries were moved and re-planted, and three blackcurrants likewise. The result will hopefully be a lot more space for the plants to grow, and for us to get in amongst them and pick their berries come harvest-time next year. The mulch will hopefully keep the surface weeds down a bit better as well.

Floral Department

A couple of Erysimum (wallflower) ‘Bowles’s Mauve continue to defiantly bloom, and probably will do all winter, but those aside there’s very little colour on the plot at the moment. Even last month’s Tagetes, Rudbeckia and Verbena bonarienses have given up the ghost and gone over. Never mind, they’ll be back next year, in a joyful riot of colour.

That’s it for this month. We’ll continue to work the plot as much as we can, weather allowing – we were down there at the weekend, and the soil was the perfect consistency for weeding out the Ranunculus repens (creeping buttercup) that had invaded the cut-back kale patch – and when it’s inclement, sit inside with a mug of something warming and make our plans for 2017.

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Plot #59 Update: August 2016

Plot #59 Update: August 2016
Lush foliage everywhere, plenty of rich pickings to be had.

Ah, the long lazy days of high Summer! (What’s that? Summer? Has it arrived yet? Are we due one? Answers on a postcard to the usual address…) Definitely long, but not so lazy if you’re an allotment holder, with early crops finishing and going over that need clearing away, and later crops just starting to come into their own, with plenty of picking, preparing and preserving to do as well. And of course, that’s before you start on the weeding…

Down on Plot #59 we’re in full Summer-to-Autumn transition phase. All the onions and garlic have been lifted and dried. The broad beans have finished producing and have been cleared away. The peas will follow shortly. The strawberries, gooseberries and blackcurrants are long-finished, but the Autumn-fruiting raspberries are starting to fruit on a regular basis. Likewise the Japanese wineberry: from a single plant we’ve had a regular supply of sweet, tart, raspberry-like fruits with just a hing of wine-gum about them.

The beans are in full flow: runners and French varieties alike. We’ve been eating them and giving them away for weeks now, and our freezer is packed to the gunnels with packets of beans for winter. It’s getting to the stage now where we’re deliberately leaving the larger pods on the plants to ripen up: we should have plenty of dried beans for winter soups and stews.

August 2016 bean plants
Beans, beans and yet more beans… yum!

Our courgettes are marching on as well. The three ‘Tondo di Piacenza’ plants each produced a full-sized fruit, so we have three large squashes maturing for use later in the year. Speaking of squashes, this is the first year we’ve grwon ‘Turk’s Turban’ and the results have been impressive: we’ve got a good dozen maturing on their vines in the ‘three sisters’ section at the front of the plot, alongside some nicely-ripening sweetcorn cobs (and yet more beans).

This year’s leeks have been planted out and the area nearby cleared, ready for the seed garlic which will be arriving before too long from the Garlic Farm.

I’ve made a start on lifting the last of the blight hit second early potatoes – ‘pink fir apple’, which a couple of folks have told me is particularly blight-susceptible – and I’m happy to say that the crop has been reasonable, if not as impressive as last year. The tubers are smallish, but perfectly usable and tasty. Thankfully, taking swift action to remove the haulms seems to have kept the blight from infecting them, so they should store quite nicely.

None of the cabbages are ready yet – they’ve only been in the ground since late July so there’s a chance they went in a bit too late, but we’ll see – apart from a bit of calabrese-style broccoli. Hopefully we’ll start to get some kale in September. The sprouts seem to be coming along nicely though, and we have lifted a few decent-sized turnips, and some very tasty black radishes that I sowed on a whim.

August 2016 brassica nets
Got to keep those pesky cabbage whites and diamond-back moths at bay.
August 2016 - Black radish and turnips
Golden and trad turnips and a couple of peppery black radish.

And of course, the floral department continues to put on a good display. The sunflowers are starting to look a little ragged around the edges, but the Dahlias, Lavender, sweet peas, Tagetes, wallflowers, evening primrose and Verbena are still going strong and the Nasturtiums are everywhere. Jo has planted out a few rudbeckia, black-eyed Susan, and Zinnia as well. We’ll have a lot more flowers on show next year, when we sort out the central path and dig out flower beds either side.

Apart from all of the above, the main work on Plot #59 has been the aforementioned weed-clearing. Unfortunately our plot-neighbour to the back moved to a new plot and his old one has been left to go to wrack and ruin, rather than taken on by new tenants. So that’s now weed-choked and is spreading seed, spores and rhizomes through to the back of ours. And another plot-neighbour hasn’t been around as much as usual (for entirely valid personal reasons), so his plot is starting to go the same way. I’d love to spend a bit of time helping him out, but to be perfectly honest there’s more than enough to do to keep our own plot in reasonable shape at the moment. I’m spending a lot of time at home digging out the first bed for our cottage garden project, so that’s keeping me from putting in the hours that I’d like to.

Well, nowt for it but to do what I can, when I can: roll up my sleeves, reach for the fork and dig out the worst of the weeds, then get the covers down and try to keep the beggars at bay until we next need the ground for planting. That’s the allotmenteers way: grin and get on with it.

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Welcome to Your New Plot. The Hard Work Starts… Now.

July 2016 main onion harvest
How d’you like them onions?

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.)

Plot #59, January 2014, middle section
Here’s what we were looking at on day one…

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.

Know Your Enemy! This is Bindweed. Looks pretty, chokes other plants to death...
Know Your Enemy! This is Bindweed. Looks pretty, chokes other plants to death…

Luckily, Jo’s folks warned us about this sort of thing before we started, so we’ve made it our practice to weed and clear thoroughly and diligently from the beginning. A few other plot-holders on our site don’t seem to have been given the same advice though, and they’ve tended to be the ones who haven’t lasted the distance.

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.

May 2014 - tarpaulins
Get those covers down!

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.

January 2014 - weeds!
More Weeds – Bramble and Bindweed and Buttercup (oh, my!)

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.

May 2016 courgette patch
12 courgette plants, plus companion chard and tagetes. Looked sparse when planted. Now a jungle…

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.

Delicious sweetcorn
That’s what I’m talking about! And so much more…

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.

Go for it! And enjoy!

It’s National Allotments Week this week, and the National Allotments Society website is a great place to go for all sorts of allotment-related info.

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Plot #59 Update: July 2016

Plot #59 Update: July 2016
Masses of lush green foliage and summer colour this month.

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:

Planting

July 2016 - Cabbages under cover
Netting any brassicas is essential to keep the ravenous pigeons at bay.

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.

Growing On

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:

July 2016 spaghetti squash
Still young but developing nicely.
July 2016 - 'Turk's Turban' squash
I love the two-tone effect on these 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.

Harvesting

July 2016 - three beans
The first (of very many) beans have been picked.

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.

July 2016 - redcurrants
A big bowl of juicy fruit destined for the jelly pan.

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.

Floral Department

July 2016 giant sunflower
Thoughtful sunflower is thoughtful…

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.

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Working on the Compost

I spent a couple of sessions earlier this month clearing out an old compost heap that we inherited when we took on the plot. After a couple of years of neglect by us it was rife with bindweed and cleavers, plus the occasional deep-rooted dock, but I was sure there must be something worth salvaging in there, too.

April 2016 Old Compost Heap
All sorts of unwelcome weeds lurking in here…

Nothing for it but to fork it all loose and dig it all out. I went at it methodically, rough-sieving each spadeful through an old bread crate into the wheelbarrow:

May 2016 wheelbarrow-sieve
A rough finish, but good enough to get out the worst of the perennial weed.

The compost was quite dry and broke up easily, so this sort of rough sieving was fine for picking out the larger lengths of bindweed root. A quick fingertip-search through the contents of the wheelbarrow then turned up any smaller bits and pieces that had made the grade.

You can see what I was up against:

May 2016 Bindweed root mass
This lot is probably enough to give any gardener nightmares.

Whichever previous tenant built the heap had done their best, putting down polythene sheeting and a couple of old flags at the bottom. But they hadn’t quite reckoned on the amazing (and frankly terrifying) power of bindweed to go over, around, under or (if all else fails) through whatever barrier you try to put in its way.

Once I’d finished rough-sieving I dug over the area of the heap to get at as much more of the bindweed root as I could find, then levelled it off. I moved in the black plastic compost bins that I’ll be using as the final stage of my own compost rotation (more on that in another post) and set up what an old bath that will eventually become a worm farm (all being well).

May 2016 New Compost Area
Looking much better after some hard work and t.l.c.

After all that sieving and sorting, I was left also with a large pile of good soil improver. Most of it went on the courgette patch and the rest was used to earth up the potato rows.

I knew it was a job that was going to be worth the effort.

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My Top Ten Bits of (not the usual) Allotment Kit

A good array of essential, basic garden tools
Not my actual tool shed. You can tell – this one’s a lot more organised than mine ever is…

For the purposes of this post I’m going to assume that even if you’re a novice allotmenteer or gardener you’ve already identified and invested in some essential equipment. We’re talking spade, fork, hoe, rake, shears, secateurs, hand trowel, that sort of thing. If you can pick it up in your local supermarket at this time of year, then it’s classifiable as ‘basic kit’ in my book.

Once you’ve tended an allotment, or a large enough garden plot, for a couple of years, you’ll realise that there are some extra bits and pieces of less-obvious kit that, once you’ve identified a need for them, quickly become essentials in their own right. Some might be right under your nose, others you won’t find unless you got looking for them, either online or at your friendly, neighbourhood garden centre or nursery. But once you do discover them, you’ll wonder how you managed without.

Here are my top ten (that I’ve discovered so far…)

1. Long-handled shovel

Long-handled shovelMade by: All the usual suspects
Price: Around £20 – £30
Sold by: Amazon.co.uk, various, any good garden centre

A couple of the old boys down the plots strongly advised me to get myself one of these, and by heck I’m glad I did: it’s quite possibly the best £20 I’ve spent for a long while. The extra length in the handle – I went for the Spear & Jackson 54″ model (pictured) as I’m 6’2″, but you might want to get a shorter one if you’re not as lanky as me – allows you to adopt a completely different digging position. Instead of stooping and lifting primarily with your knees and lower back (danger! danger!), you can take a much more upright stance and spread the effort across your shoulders and thighs, as well as your whole back. Short version: much quicker to dig large volumes of soil, longer reach, less back pain. What’s not to like?

2. Japanese Razor Hoe

Japanese Razor HoeMade by: Burgon and Ball
Price: Around £10 – £15
Sold by: Burgon and Ball, Amazon.co.uk, various

I first read about this little beauty a couple of years back, in a ringing endorsement by Alys Fowler. It’s the best form of hand-weeder I’ve used to-date. The hook-shaped blade and extended neck enables you to skim along beneath a surface weed like creeping buttercup, slicing through the roots as you go. Or you can use the point for even more delicate, tricky work, such as furtling out hairy bittercress from between the roots of fruit bushes.

Looking at the manufacturer’s website, it seems they also do both left- and right-handed versions as well as a long-handled one (and a new device they’re calling a weed slice, which looks rather interesting for larger areas…)

3. Two-Pronged Weeding Fork

Two-pronged weederMade by: Burgon and Ball
Price: Around £10 – £15
Sold by: Burgon and Ball, Amazon.co.uk, various

This one is very handy indeed for getting at those hard-to-extract perennials: dandelion, dock, bindweed comfrey and the like. The narrow, two-prong shape means you can focus on a single weed without too much disturbance to nearby plants (not always do-able with a border spade or even a standard hand-fork). You can then dig around the tap root, loosening soil until the thing can be levered out or, in conjunction with the aforementioned razor hoe, sliced off deep enough down that it won’t bother you again for a good while yet and will hopefully die for lack of stored carbs before it breaks surface. Also great for chasing down long runs of bindweed rhizome.

4. Vacuum Flask (large)

The Legendary Stanley vacuum flaskMade by: Stanley PMI
Price: Around £25 – £35
Sold by: Amazon.co.uk, various

Unless your allotment site is blessed with a brew room (which ours will be soon, as it happens) then chances are you’re going to need to supply your own hot beverage of choice. We started out with a Thermos flask, which turned out to be a bad idea. Four months into ownership, I was giving it a clean out and the inner glass container shattered, explosively. According to various product reviews that I subsequently read, this is quite a common problem. So to replace the self-destructing model, we opted for a stainless steel Stanley Classic Vacuum Flask instead of another Thermos. It’s shiny, tough, cleans up nicely and, most importantly, keeps a brew – four or five good-sized cuppas in our 1L version – nice and warm for a good three or four hours at least (we’ve not needed to test it for longer just yet). I’d say it’s worth spending a bit extra for something a lot more robust.

5. Swiss Army Knife

The Hiker Swiss Army KnifeMade by: Victorinox
Price: £15 – £20, up to £250+
Sold by: Victorinox, Amazon.co.uk, various

There are knives for all occasions, if you want to get really specialist about it. But when it comes to a general-purpose knife-plus-multi-tool setup, there’s still nothing to beat the good ol’ Swiss Army Knife. I have a Hiker model (pictured) which when I bought it had seemed to have the best selection of bits for allotment use: two knife blades, two screwdrivers, small saw, bottle opener, can opener, stabby thing (for punching holes in plastic pots, etc.) and a toothpick (er…) as well. If you want to go mad, check out the SwissChamp XAVT, but a Hiker has been fine for my use and never leaves my pocket, whatever trousers I’m wearing. Speaking of which…

6. Cargo Trousers

Lee Cooper work trousersMade by: Various
Price: £15 – £40
Sold by: Amazon.co.uk, pretty much anywhere else that sells clothes

I’m no allotment work clothing purist: I firmly believe you should feel free to garden in whatever you find most comfortable and/or useful. But for me, you can’t beat a good pair of what they’re now calling ‘cargo’ trousers (they used to be ‘combat’ trousers when I was a lad because you had to go to the army surplus store for a pair, but times have changed). It’s all about the pockets for me, and the range of easy-access leg pockets on a good pair of cargoes will beat the limited options on a pair of jeans any day, particularly at seed-sowing time. The ones I’m currently wearing are cheapish pairs from ASDA but I’m sure higher quality alternatives are available (like the Lee Cooper bad boys pictured and now on my Wishlist) if you want something a little longer-lasting (and with even more pockets!).

7. Builders’ line

AmTech Builders LineMade by: Various
Price: £3 – £4
Sold by: Amazon.co.uk, any DIY or hardware store

“What’s wrong with a bit of garden twine, or good old string?” I hear you cry. Well, nothing whatsoever, but builders’ line has a couple of small-but-significant advantages when it comes to edging, marking out etc. For one: it’s bright yellow, which aids visibility a tad. And for two: it comes on a handy spool, which makes winding it back up and then storing it – without it magically transforming into a tangles rats’ nest of knots overnight – a breeze. For a few quid, it’s worth grabbing a couple of spools’ worth and keeping them in your shed, greenhouse or allotment bag.

9. Large metal sieve / riddle

Metal sieveMade by: Various
Price: Around £10
Sold by: Amazon.co.uk, any good garden centre or nursery

You’ll often see the smaller, potting-sized sieves, or larger plastic models, in supermarket selections. But what you really want – if there’s a particularly stony or weed-debris choked patch on your plot that you need to break down to a lovely fine tilth for direct-sowing – is a more robust, metal-and-wire job. Far less likely to break if you accidentally step on it (although much more likely to whack you in the shin and leave a hell of a bruise if you tread on the rim, so do watch your feet, folks) and tough enough for you to really smush those clods of earth through the mesh.

9. Demolition / Lifting Bar

Roughneck lifting barMade by: Roughneck
Price: £20 – £25
Sold by: Amazon.co.uk, builders merchants, DIY stores

A tweet from Rob of @RobsAllotment switched me on to this one. It’s a recent purchase, but I already know it’s a good one. I’m not lifting or demolishing anything with it, but I am breaking up a fair few pallets. As any allotmenteer knows, a good bit of pallet timber comes in handy in so many situations: for bed-edging, path-edging, compost-bin making, and anything else you choose to do with it. Previously I tried breaking them up with a hammer and pry-bar, but it was a pain in the neck (and back, shoulders, legs) and I ended up taking a saw to the damn things to chop out various bits here and there… a right dog’s dinner. With a lifting bar, it’s a case of position, tilt, wrench free and you’re done. A couple of minutes per pallet, with a lot less wastage.

10. Cold frame

Made by: Various, or build your own
Price: Varies, depending on materials, size &c.
Sold by: www.greenhousepeople.co.uk, various

Tanalised cold frameHardening off your precious seedlings can be a bit hit-and-miss at the best of times, but you can take a lot of the guesswork out of the process with a decent cold frame. Open the lid when the weather’s toasty to make sure your young plants get plenty of air, and close it again when inclement weather threatens and you’ll be helping them acclimatise properly without (hopefully) running the risk of encountering the sort of heavy, seedling-shredding hail showers we had yesterday. We invested in a tanalised timber model from The Greenhouse People a couple of years back and yes, it did cost around £200, but we’re thinking of it as a long-term investment. With any luck it will still be providing essential protection for our seedlings for a decade or more. Cheaper versions are available (but sometimes you get what you pay for – our previous, plastic cold frame lasted about two seasons) or if you’re the handy type, then of course you could reclaim some timber and glass and make your own.

That’s my selection of non-standard allotment gear that’s well worth investing in. Do you have anything to add to the list? Questions about any of the above? Something you’d take issue with, or a counter-suggestion to make? Let me know via the comments, below.

Image Credits

Garden Tools: Spitfire at en.wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 / GFDL), via Wikimedia Commons

Product Images: via Amazon.co.uk or other retailer / manufacturers’ websites.

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Plot #59 Update: February 2016

Plot #59, February 2016
Still a bit sparse and scruffy-looking, but a dose of sunshine really makes a difference.

After a slow start to February – mainly due to repeat bursts of very wet weather – the past week has been dry and fine enough to finally get down to Plot #59 and get on with some of the season’s prep work.

Mainly that has involved basic prep work and digging in horse muck for the asparagus bed to-be. I’ve still got some more work to do there before the crowns arrive at the end of March, but it’s definitely on schedule.

Jo and I also spent some time this last weekend weeding and clearing last year’s growing areas, around the permanent fruit bushes and along the rows of over-wintering leeks, onions and garlic. And I started in on rough-clearing the back section that hasn’t really been touched at all for at least two years. Getting on top of the weeds now will mean less to do over the next couple of months, when it will be all hands to the seed trays to get this year’s crops sown, germinated and potted on as needed.

Meanwhile, back at base, I’ve been sowing leeks and broad beans. It’s always good to get started on some of the main edible staples and these are two of my (admittedly many) favourites.

All in all, I think things are looking pretty good. There are some landscaping, organising and infrastructure jobs on the to-do list that I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in to. March and April should be busy and then May, June and July even more so. Bring it on.

(There won’t be a Cottage Garden Project update this month as we’ve not done much at all to the garden since the last update. Although Jo has sown some sweet pea and other flower seeds… but more on those once they’ve germinated).

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