Plot Notes

A personal journal, open for the world to read, recording the progress of a novice allotmenteer on his allotment.

Weed it and reap.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Beetroot - Best Root

I had a go at growing beetroot this year for the first time. It was a very simple crop to grow and has been one of my success stories for this year. I set aside a 6ft x 4ft corner of the plot and sowed a few rows of Boltardy Beetroot seeds, about 6 inches apart, directly into the ground in about late April or early May. I had pre-prepared the ground by digging it over and lining each row with an inch or two of home made fine brown crumbly compost. I then left the beetroot patch undisturbed for about four months.

I had pretty much forgotten about the beetroot until the end of August when I was scratching around on the plot to see if there was any reasonably attractive produce which would fit into any of the classifications at our local agricultural society show on the August bank holiday Monday. Through the weeds which had invaded the beetroot bed I could see that there were a few decent sized roots protruding slightly above the surface of the soil and so I picked three of them, trimmed them, washed them and gave them a gentle scrub with a vegetable brush. They looked ok to my untrained eye. I have no idea what a show judge looks for in a beetroot but I entered them into the show anyway. 

I was surprised at the high number of entries in the beetroot class. My heart dropped when I noticed that everyone else had left long trailing roots on their beets. I had tidied mine up by snipping the roots off with a pair of scissors. Being an absolute novice I assumed that I had made a fatal mistake and that my castrated entries would be laughed out of the show tent. I left my docked efforts on the display table and went off to enjoy the rest of the show and to have a couple of consolatory beers in the beer tent.

I returned to the show tent about four hours later. I hoped that the hilarity caused by my eunuch beetroots would have died down by then. As I approached the display table I could see that one of my beetroots had been sliced in half. The judge must have liked what he found inside the beetroot because, to my total amazement, he had awarded second place to me.

During September and October Mrs PlotNotes boiled up a few beetroots every now and then and I enjoyed them sliced onto a cheese sandwich. Three or four weeks ago I realised that there were a lot of beetroots still in the ground. There were more than I could consume in cheese sandwiches alone and so I decided to do something else with them. After a bit of research I decided to make beetroot chutney.

I had never attempted to make chutney before. I don't really do very much cooking at all. It's not that I can't cook or won't cook it is just that Mrs PlotNotes has always arrived home from work before me and it makes sense for her to get cracking with the evening meal before I get home. When I do get creative in the kitchen, for example when making my patented chilli dumplings, it infuriates Mrs PlotNotes because I invariably use every utensil in the kitchen and it takes me twice as long to prepare any given dish than she would spend on it.

For the beetroot chutney I didn't follow a set recipe but pretty much made it up as I went along using ingredients which I had to hand. I boiled up 18 good sized beetroots. Whilst they were simmering I prepared an assortment of mis-shapen and misfit vegetables which had been lingering on the plot for far too long. These included three very large fat carrots which were too big to have as part of a meal but which were ideal for grating. I also finely chopped five large onions. In a blender I chopped up ten chilli peppers along with a load of tomatoes at various stages of ripeness ranging from green to red and slightly mushy. They were, I thought at the time, the last tomatoes of the year. In fact, there is now another crop of tomatoes ready for picking. I also chopped up a full garlic bulb.

I then peeled and diced the beetroots and put them into a very large deep cooking pot. By this stage the kitchen was starting to resemble a blood spattered murder scene. I then added the carrots, onions, garlic, chillis and tomatoes. Next I added about a pound and a half of granulated sugar to the mix and poured a pint and a half of Sarsons spiced pickling vinegar over the whole lot and brought it up to the boil whilst stirring. I also added a bit of salt, and the odd spoonful or sprinkling of various herbs and spices which I could find in the kitchen cupboards including, black pepper, cumin, turmeric, curry powder, and paprika. I then let the whole lot boil and boil and boil into the early hours of the morning. I think I had added too much vinegar and it took me hours of boiling until the mix reduced into something which had a nice looking chutney consistency to it.

In the meantime I had cleaned and sterilised my glass jars and warmed them up in the oven. I then scooped the chutney, whilst still hot, into the jars and sealed the lids tightly straight away. I stored the jars in a cupboard for almost a week before opening the first one for tasting. I am very pleased with the result. To me it tastes delicious but I think the best indication of quality comes from the fact that Mrs PlotNotes has been devouring it by the heaped spoonful putting large dollops of it on the side of her plate with virtually every meal.
Beetroot will definitely be on my seed order and menu for next year.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Late Crop.

I spent this afternoon on the plot working on routine traditional November tasks such as dismantling the pea frames and the bean frame and generally tidying up the plot ready for Winter, oh and picking strawberries! I thought I'd picked the last of the strawberries for this year way back in July but the warm and sunny October weather has produced a surprise small crop of strawberries which were very tasty.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Copper's Surprise.

Throughout the course of the year our village pub does a great job in raising funds for the local air ambulance. One of their fund-raising activities this year has been a contest to see who can grow the longest carrot. Last year they had a pumpkin growing competition. It was leeks the year before last and next year they are having an onion challenge.

I didn't enter the carrot contest but my neighbour, Tony, from Plot 24 has taken part. Tony is one of the keenest gardeners in our allotment association. You might catch glimpses of his immaculately maintained plot in some of my photos. His is the plot to the left of my weed patch. Tony has put some real hard graft into his plot. There isn't a single weed to be found anywhere on his allotment and I'm sure that it is not possible to keep an area of over 200 square metres of fine Lincolnshire soil weed-free without regular dedicated hard work. He has deservedly been rewarded with the Parish Council's trophy for the best kept plot this year.

You might recall that earlier this year I posted a photograph on this blog which showed a seven foot length of drainpipe standing in a bucket. That was where Tony was growing his competition carrot. I think the pipe was filled with his own secret formula of sand, soil and compost. A couple of carrot seeds were sprinkled into the top of the upright pipe and the other end was placed in a bucket of water. The theory was that a monster carrot would grow inside the full length of the drainpipe.

The week before last it was busier than usual in our village pub. Thieves had stolen the copper cables which ran to the village from the telephone exchange which is in the neighbouring village. Apparently there is a lot of this going on at the moment. The thieves park up in a van at a secluded spot on a country lane between villages. They then dig up the copper telephone cable and tie it to the back of their van before driving off with the cable still attached. In doing so they will strip hundreds of metres of cable out of the system. The following night they took the lines connecting another local village. This left over half of the homes in our village without telephone lines or internet connections for about a week.

With only the usual rubbish on television and no access to the internet or telephone lines it was not surprising that people went to the pub for entertainment. The pub had an added attraction in that it had not lost its internet connection and the landlord allowed open access to his wireless network. It was on one of these nights that the judging of the carrot contest was held. Tony had forgotten all about it and was sitting in the back bar minding his own business while his carrot was still growing in the drainpipe on the allotment about a mile away down one of the quiet lanes leading out of the village.

The bar manager offered to drive Tony to the allotments in her transit van to fetch his carrot. So, off they went into the dark night in the van. On arriving at the allotment gates Tony realised that he had not got his key with him and so they parked the van in the verge and then took a couple of torches out of the back of the van before scrambling over the perimeter fence into the allotment site. It was too dark to extract the carrot from the drainpipe on the plot and so they carried the carrot, drainpipe and all, over the fence and into the back of the van.

Not much happens in the village without someone noticing. Naturally the combination of a van in a secluded spot, torch lights, and a long pipe being loaded into the back of the van had made someone suspect that the cable thieves were back. Before the van made it back to the pub they were stopped by a police patrol car.

The police officer, thinking he had nicked the cable thieves, asked what was in the back of the van. I would have loved to have been there to hear Tony tell them that there was nothing there but a five foot long carrot and to see the policeman's face when this turned out to be true.

Tony went on to win the carrot growing contest.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Be careful what you wish for.

I sat in the office meeting room with my head in my hands. Worrying thoughts rushed through my brain at an alarming rate and I had the sensation that I was hurtling downwards, rapidly, uncontrollably, through thin air towards jagged rocks below. I felt sick and cold. I took a deep breath and glanced up. My eye was drawn to a splash of red paint daubed across the large modern-art splatter painting on the wall opposite. "Blood on the walls", I thought, "how appropriate. My blood!" I had just been told that I was to lose my job.

My mind was spinning as I weighed up the enormity of what I had been told. I was thinking, "how can I survive this? How will I pay the mortgage? I'll lose the house. How will I feed the children? Plans for the Summer holidays are in tatters. No one is recruiting at the moment; how will I find another job. I will never survive this? This is so unfair? Don't these head-office suits understand how much work I have been doing for them? I feel Helpless. Hopeless. Falling. Doomed".

An involuntary consolatory thought then popped into my head, "At least I'll now have more time to spend on the allotment". I then remembered that only a few days previously I had been complaining about being short of time and wishing that I had more time to devote to the allotment. I made a mental note that in future I should be more careful about what I wished for because my wishes might just come true.

As things have turned out that wish has not come true. I have not had any extra time on my hands hence the lack of updates to this Blog during the last couple of months. Before losing my full-time job I had been earning some extra income from a self-employed sideline. That sideline has now, by necessity, become my full-time self-employed job. I have thrown everything into building it up and it seems to be taking off. The hours can be long, irregular and unpredictable but at least I have the comfort of knowing that the more work I do the more I will get paid and I am not lining the pockets of a bunch of inconsiderate absentee masters. The downside is, as ever, that I have not really freed up any extra time for the allotment. Also, whereas, as an employee there was a clear demarcation between my time and their time, I am currently struggling to set aside time to work on the allotment without having nagging thoughts that I should really be concentrating on the business. I am going to have to make a conscious effort to set aside time away from the business.

All this is not to say that the allotment has been totally neglected. I have still been harvesting plenty of veg and I have found some time (but not enough) for a bit of weeding. Some crops have exceeded my expectations and one or two others have disappointed or have run to seed. In my next post, which hopefully won't be too far away in the future, I'll give a review of the season and I will also let you know how I got on with my entries in the local horticultural show at the August bank holiday but until then here's a picture of some of my grapes which are one of my success stories for this year.


Saturday, 30 July 2011

Weeding weeding weeding!

To the untrained eye it might appear that I have not done much work on the plot recently.

However, this mountain of composting weeds, which has formed behind the pumpkin patch over the last week or so, gives an indication of what I have been busy doing.

There is still plenty of weeding to be done too.

We are having an open day on the allotment site tomorrow. I'll spend the day weeding weeding weeding.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Hot Stuff

Happy days! Home grown chillies are back on the menu. My serving suggestion? Best served with anything and everything.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Pumpkin Surprise!

A few months ago I made an early start in preparing a special bed for pumpkins. I dug a load of horse manure and home made compost into the bed and then I excavated a short trench down the centre of the bed which, over the course of a few weeks, I filled with kitchen waste from home. 

We keep a small plastic bucket with a screw-top lid in the kitchen into which we put various bio-degradable fruit & veg off-cuts, peelings, scrapings etc for composting. Each week I would tip the contents of the bucket into the trench and cover with a layer of soil until I was left with a nice mound of rich rotting waste covered in soil down the middle of the bed. Since then I have left the bed, undisturbed, to rot down whilst I have grown the pumpkin plants from seed in the greenhouse.

I had almost forgotten about the pumpkins until this weekend when I noticed them looking slightly pale and pot-bound fighting for light under a canopy of 5ft high tomato plants. Meanwhile the pumpkin bed had become a mass of weeds which were clearly thriving in the nutrient enriched soil.
A few weeks ago I had noticed that amongst the weeds there were two or three bushy growths which looked very much like potato plants. I assumed that there must have been some potato peelings in the kitchen waste from which potato plants had sprouted. I paid no attention to them; as far as I was concerned they were weeds. In April and May when I tenderly wrapped my first earlies and main crop potatoes in fleece I ignored these pumpkin plot invaders. In May and June when I have given an almost daily drenching of water to my official potato bed the pumpkin bed has been left parched. Any weeds which have dared to raise their heads above neat rows of potatoes in the regulation potato plot have been quickly yanked out and thrown onto the compost heap whereas the weeds in the pumpkin bed have just been left to get on with it.

This weekend I removed all the weeds from the pumpkin bed in readiness for planting out the pumpkins and was surprised to find that I have accidentally grown a lovely crop of new potatoes some of which were consumed with my Fathers' Day Sunday dinner today.
It does make me wonder if all the careful preparation of the main potato plot is really necessary. Why bother with the double digging, marking out, trench digging, spacing out, mounding up, wrapping in fleece, watering and weeding when you can get such delicious results by simply chucking a bucket full of kitchen slops into a hole.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

These are the blogs that weren't

I have got myself a little part-time self-employed sideline of evening work which has been taking up quite a lot of my time lately. The extra income is coming in useful. If nothing else it is helping to finance the horrific fuel costs for my long commute to my day job. The downside is that opportunities to spend mid-week evenings pottering about on the plot have become few and far between.

Lack of spare time is also the reason why it has been a few weeks since I updated this blog. There are quite a few things that I would have liked to have blogged about but I just haven't found the time to sit down and type up my thoughts.

I was going to tell you about the pesky rabbits that I chase off the plot at 7 o'clock every morning when I stop by to open up the greenhouse.

I was going to tell the tale of how the supermarket grade broccoli, which you may recall the local organic farmer gave to me, has turned out to be cabbage. I was going to talk about the black kale which I have been given and the miraculous health benefits which it is reputed to provide. I was going to weave joyous prose on the subject of my beloved vines which have come back from the brink of death.

I wanted to go off on a journey of speculation as to what my neighbour might be cooking-up with this pipe and bucket arrangement which has appeared on his plot.

I wanted to speak in defence of cucumbers; they are not killers. I wanted to tell you about my potatoes, sprouts, asparagus, strawberries, rhubarb, onions, shallots, spring onions, carrots, garlic, leeks, garden peas, sugar-snap peas, beetroot, cauliflowers, courgettes, pumpkins, tomatoes, lettuce, french beans, runner beans, raddishes and chillies, all of which are thriving. I was hoping to share with you the recent glorious allotment sunsets.

But unfortunately I have not found the time to do any of this. However, if my suspicions are correct, I will soon be able to afford to retire from work so that I can spend long lazy days on the plot because I have good reason to believe that there is a pot of gold hidden in my compost box.

Monday, 9 May 2011

String Theory

The bargain water-butt which I bought last year turned out not to be such a good deal. At some stage during the Winter, when it was full of ice, a couple of hairline cracks appeared in the base of the butt with the result that all the water escaped from it as soon as the thaw arrived. I mentioned this to Penny who is my next-door-but-one neighbour on the allotment site. A couple of days later a replacement butt appeared behind my greenhouse courtesy of Penny.

Since taking on her allotment plot Penny has become something of an amateur hydraulic engineer.  Behind her shed she has an array of water-butts, some of which have water pumps inside them which are powered by a car battery which she keeps in her shed. The butts catch rain from the shed roof and they are connected to each other like a series of reservoirs descending down a valley. From the butts she has plumbed in a network of pierced hosing which criss-crosses her entire plot. The system is very sophisticated and with a flick of a switch she can water all her crops from the comfort of her shed. I wouldn't be surprised if, by the time she has completed her water engineering project, she has a remote control handset which will turn on fountains, coloured lights and fireworks to perform a spectacular water and light display to a backing track of the 1812 Overture.

I am very grateful to Penny for letting me have one of her surplus water-butts.

My greenhouse has gutters running along its length but I have not got any downpipes for delivering water from the gutters into the collection tank. I have overcome this problem with the application of "String Theory". I have run three pieces of string along the gutter. I have tied the string to a lump of broken brick which I have then placed in the bottom of the water-butt. The idea is that the rain water will run along the gutter and then follow the lines of string into the water-butt rather than gushing out onto the ground at the back of the greenhouse. In the video below you can see me testing the theory.

Last night we had a heavy downpour. Today my water-butt is half full and so I am happy to report that String Theory seems to work in more than just theory.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Queen of Mean

I received a newsletter from a seed company this week which described May as "The Queen of Months". I disagree. She might sometimes be warm and pleasant during daylight hours but don't be fooled by her false friendliness because she is fickle and after the sun has gone down she can quickly turn into a vicious and spiteful old witch. Last year she cold-heartedly murdered my beans. This year she has blown her icy deathly breath over my beloved vines. Just look at the mess she has made of them.

I was so proud of the progress of my plucky little vines last weekend. Did you see the photos I posted? Their perky shiny green leaves were soaking up the Spring sunshine and they looked bright, alert and full of promise for a fruitful Summer. Now, after the frost of Tuesday night, they are nothing more than grey, listless shadows of their former selves.

I had heard the forecast which warned of a chance of frost in rural areas on Tuesday night but I made the mistake of thinking that after surviving the harshest of Winters these vines were indestructible. I have now learned the lesson that there is a great deal of difference in cold tolerance between a vine which is in a dormant Winter state and one which is bursting with new Spring shoots which are full of fresh rising sap.

I don't think the May Witch has killed the vines. She has certainly nipped in the bud all the early season growth but I am optimistic that there will be more growth to come from new buds which are yet to burst. Although I am disappointed by this frost damage I must remind myself that these vines are still only just over one year old and I never expected to take much of a crop off them until year three and so, hopefully, in the long run this frost attack will be of no consequence.

In any event, next year I will be sure to be prepared for the capricious and vengeful May Queen and I will have fleece blankets on standby ready to wrap up the vines and tuck them in for the night if there is ever a hint of frost in the air.

On a brighter note, whilst staring out of the kitchen window, lamenting the damage to the vines, I noticed that the first chilli pepper of the year has formed. The first of many I hope.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Super Panther Strikes Again

The vines all seem to have been enjoying the recent sunshine and they are thriving. There are even some very small grapes forming.

The weeds on the paths between the rows of vines have also been doing well...

and so today, seeing that the weeds were ankle deep, I decided to do something about them.

Last year I had kept the paths reasonably clear with use of the hoe every now and then. I left just enough vegetation in place to hold the paths together. I had considered laying chippings on the paths between the vines when I laid out the rest of the paths on the plot last Summer but I decided against it. I had some worries about drainage and so I thought that by leaving some growth on the paths there would be something there to help soak up any excess rainfall which would reduce the risk of the vines drowning in standing water. 

This year the weeds have grown so quickly and densely that it would have been a back-breaking and futile task trying to clear them away with the hoe alone. There is no power supply at the allotment site and I don't have a petrol mower but I knew that buried away somewhere in my garage there was just the right machine for the job.

In 1990 my Father-in-Law gave me his old manual lawnmower, an ancient Qualcast Super Panther. A year or so later I bought an electric mower and my wife suggested that the old Panther should be taken to the tip. I didn't dump it but managed to keep it tucked away in a corner of the garden shed. It was old and battered but it was still in perfect working order and so I couldn't see the point of throwing it away.

We moved house a couple of years later and the Panther was again threatened with a one way trip to the tip but again I managed to hang on to it and stow it away in the shed sure that one day it would come in useful for something. We moved again eight years ago and the mower came with us. I kept it in the back corner of the garage where, over time, it became buried under a stack of old paint tins, bricks, golf equipment, camping gear, garden furniture, tools, bicycles, scooters, plant-pots and assorted bits of wood which one day might come in useful. This morning, like a suburban archaeologist, I excavated the back of the garage and extracted the mower, a 1960s artefact, from the c2003 strata.

I cut a practice stripe across the back lawn just to check that the trusty old Super Panther still worked. It worked really well and so I took it up to the allotment plot where it made easy work of paths. The result is not exactly centre court at Wimbledon but considering I used a 40-50 year old mower which hasn't seen a blade of grass for twenty years I am very pleased with the way the paths look now. I knew the Super Panther would come in useful one day.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Lucky Tubers

I planted my main-crop potatoes today. I have gone for Maris Piper. My first earlies, Arran Pilot, were planted about two or three weeks ago. These are perhaps dull choices of potato varieties, given that they are widely available in the shops, but after the disappointing potato harvest last year I am playing it safe this time around and hoping for a reliable crop of decent sized spuds and, of course, I now know to ignore the advice of Alan Titchmarsh and I will make sure that all my potatoes get plenty of water.

When digging a trench for the Maris Pipers I unearthed a rusty old horseshoe. I am not superstitious but it has been suggested that this must be a sign of good luck for me and the plot. Now, if the rest of the horse is rotting away under my potato bed that really would have been a stroke of luck and I could expect to produce some truly spectacular potatoes, but I cannot see that unearthing a single horseshoe, which is no longer attached to a horse, will make any difference at all. I'm off to check my lottery ticket now, just in case.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Ugly Bug

I found this ugly looking thing on the plot today when I was weeding the beetroot bed. I have no idea what it is. It looked like a small prawn but I certainly didn't fancy having it in a sandwich with a blob of mayo.
I find all kinds of insects, caterpillars, grubs and maggoty type things on the plot. I never know which are good ones and which are not. At the moment I give all unidentified bugs the benefit of any doubt and I tend to just leave them alone and let them scurry away to do whatever they do. Today I found some big black beetles and some others which shimmered blue and gold like a two-tone suit from the late seventies.

When I uncovered my compost box the other day a cloud of whitefly billowed out. I was surprised that the winter hadn't killed them all off. Reasoning that ladybirds enjoy a hearty whitefly feast and that ladybirds are from the beetle family I decided to drop the assorted beetles, which I found today, into the compost box to see if they will finish off what the Winter has failed to do.

For all I know I could just be fattening up some lethal allotment pests which, once full of whitefly, will produce a plague of root munching, crop killing, offspring. This makes me wonder if it would be better for the plot if I were to adopt a policy of crushing all the bugs I find; squish first and ask questions later. I am reluctant to do this. I really ought to read up on some basic entomology so that I can have a better chance of distiguishing friend from foe.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Hi-ho, hi-ho.

I brought this little bundle home from the plot yesterday. I can't wait to see what Mrs. Plotnotes cooks-up with it. I'm hoping for something special after my tea tonight at round about crumble o'clock.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Bud Burst!

A bit of sunshine over the last two or three days and the slightly warmer temperatures have worked wonders for the grapevines; the sap is rising and buds are bursting out all over the place now. When I get a moment I'll celebrate with a bottle of home-made wine.

I still don't expect to get much of a crop of grapes this year but next year, year three, with a bit of luck and with nine three year old vines on the plot and a spare vine at home, I should be able to start wine-making on an industrial scale. I can't wait.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

A gift, a flower and a pea-leaf tea-leaf.

I sowed a row of peas two or three weeks ago. I made them pigeon-proof by first covering the seeds with a layer of fleece and then putting a row of prickly pea-sticks on each side of the row. Next, I hung some shiny dangly metal things from a string suspended above the sticks.

Today I lifted the fleece to see whether or not any shoots had emerged. I'm pleased to say that I have had a pretty good germination rate and I now have a row of pea shoots which looks very promising. I took a close-up photo of one of them. I didn't notice at the time but now that I've downloaded the photo I can see that a cheeky uninvited visitor, probably a mouse, has breached my anti-pigeon defences and has taken a bite out of the leaf. So now it looks like the pigeons are not the only pests to contend with.

Other news from the plot today is that one of the rhubarb plants has produced a flower. Guided by the consensus of opinion from an array of gardening books I have removed the flower so that, in theory, growth will now be concentrated on the stalks and not on the flower. The smell from the fresh cut rhubarb, as I removed the flower, was deliciously mouth-watering. It was so good that I could not resist taking a bite out of the flower stalk. To say it was bitter is something of an understatement. It caused a reflex reaction in my mouth which stretched and tightened my lips and forced my tongue to curl and arch and stick out while I ran to the nearest tap for a mouthful of water to sloosh away the bitterness.

Also today I happened to be in the right place at the right time when a local farmer called at the allotment site. He farms a few thousand acres of organic vegetables and he had a very large seed tray containing a couple of hundred broccoli plugs which were surplus to his requirements and free to a good home. I helped myself to two dozen of the little plants and I am now looking forward to harvesting supermarket grade organic broccoli in the coming months. This was quite fortuitous because the calabrese seeds which I have sown at home have failed to germinate.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Bud Life.

I dare not go as far as to declare "bud burst!" but unless it is just wishful thinking or my eyes deceive me I think I can see a bit of colour and some fullness in the buds on the vines.
For weeks now, or even months, the first question I have been asked when greeted by fellow allotment holders is, "how are your vines?"

I have lost count of the number of times that I've given my pessimistic stock reply of  "I won't know until April but I'll be surprised if they have survived". Even now I cannot safely assume that a late frost won't kill them off but I must admit that I am now feeling more confident about the chances of getting some grapes this year than I have been at any time since early December when we had temperatures of minus 11c one week and minus 18c a few days later.

The other good news from the plot today is that the first asparagus shoots (purple jacmar) have started to push through.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Pigeons Beware!

Our local woodpigeons have been having a tasty feast all Winter at the expense of plot-holders on our allotments. These fat feathered pests sit in the tall trees over-looking the allotment site eyeing-up Winter greens on the plots below and planning their next banquet. As soon as your back is turned they flap their barely adequate wings and carry their enormous bloated guts down to ground level where they peck away, gorging themselves, on anything green that they come across as they waddle from one plot to the next. When disturbed they somehow manage to defy gravity and haul their huge stuffed undercarriages into the air and away to the trees. Artist and blogger Greg Becker of Plot 52 Blog sums up my feelings about pigeons on the allotment with his excellent sketches here:  Purple Sprouting  and here:  Winter Blues.

This weekend we had a treat of a meal at a very swanky posh restaurant. For my starter I had woodpigeon served with chorizo, spring onions and wild mushrooms. It was delicious. It tasted all the better for me knowing that there is now one less woodpigeon in the world. The restaurant was over 100 miles from the allotments so I very much doubt that my starter had been fattened up on my own purple sprouting broccoli but I would like to think that I have made a start and delivered a blow for allotment holders nationwide against the pest that is the woodpigeon.

So, woodpigeons beware, I have tasted your flesh and I liked it. If I catch you on my plot I'll have you in the pan before you can say "coo"!

Trespassers will be eaten.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Shaping up for year two.

I would have liked to have dug the plot over in February ready for sowing and planting over the next few months. I did try but really it was too wet. I prepared a bean bed which consisted of a couple of trenches lined with horse manure and then back filled with soil and home-made compost. I also created a small bed on part of last years potato patch into which I have put onion sets. Then it rained and in no time the bean bed had become a bean swamp and a moat had formed around the onion bed.

The area behind the greenhouse has been under water for a couple of months and is unusable for anything other than as a muddy allurement to my youngest daughter and her friends. My long term plan is to put a shed behind the greenhouse. This will need to go on a raised platform. A South-East Asian style shed on stilts might be more appropriate.  February was really a bit of a wash out. For much of the time digging was counter productive. I couldn't walk on the soil without sinking into it and compacting it. Wherever I walked I left a trail of muddy puddles rather than footprints.

March, however, has been much better. The bottom end of the plot is still quite soggy but over the last two weekends the plot has been transformed. It has been weeded and dug-over and the beds for this years crops have been marked out. At times this has meant cordoning-off the beds and then, so as to avoid walking on them and compacting the soil, working on hands and knees from outside the beds, reaching in to the beds to extract weeds and dig over the soil with a trowel before scattering a layer of well rotted horse manure on to the surface.

I have also tidied-up, weeded and manured the strawberry and asparagus beds, weeded the rhubarb bed and I have dug-over the pumpkin bed and buried a layer of rotting kitchen waste under it. I have sown a row of carrot seeds in a raised bed and put onion sets and garlic in one of the other raised beds. I think the whole plot is starting to take on a "ready for Spring" look rather than a "tired of Winter" appearance.

At the end of last year I asked my daughters if there was anything that I had not grown which they would like me to have a go at this year. Unanimously they suggested peas. I think they like the idea of being able to pick them and eat them straight from the pods when they visit the plot. So, new for this year, I have put in a row of Kelvedon Wonder peas and I will sow some more over the coming weeks. I have protected them from frost with a layer of fleece and I have used prunings from garden shrubs, which did not survive the winter frosts, as pea-sticks which will hopefully deter the local fat feral pigeon population from feasting on the peas before my daughters can get to them.

The rhubarb continues to push through and is starting to provide some welcome colour on the plot. All of last years crowns have survived the winter and I'm looking forward to my first rhubarb crumble of the year. I have not forced the rhubarb this year. I think the crowns are probably still too young to be forced but next year I will see if I can force an early crop.

My leeks, which have never looked anything other than pale, thin and pathetic, now suddenly seem to be greening up and thickening up. A few times I have been close to pulling them up and chucking them onto the compost heap but now they are more likely to end up on the dinner table in the next few weeks.

Out of 24 purple sprouting brocolli plants which were looking big strong and healthy in November only two of them have survived the arctic winter conditions and the daily banqueting of the pigeons. One of them has a few florets which I think will soon be ready for picking. I have transplanted the two survivors into a raised bed. I hope that after all they've been through this doesn't kill them off but I needed to move them so that I could prepare my potato bed ready for planting in early April.

I have found that one way to get the plot dug over without ruining the structure of the soil with my size 12 wellies is to make use of an eager light-weight volunteer.

I even managed to sit in the greenhouse, put my feet up and have a nice cuppa whilst my young apprentice got on with the digging. It was very relaxing....until she spotted me.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Year One on the Plot in 30 Seconds

Here's a little looping animation showing how Plot 25 has developed over the course of the first year or so. If I had set off with the intention of making this animation I'd have made a better job of it by taking the photographs from the exact same spot and at more regular intervals and I would have used a tripod but you should get the idea from these photos I have managed to cobble together.


Monday, 31 January 2011

Potatoes, Poo, Pond and Rhubarb

After what seems like a long Winter break from any real work on the allotment I have eased myself back into the routine over the last couple of weekends by doing some preparatory work ready for the fast approaching growing season.

Last weekend I dug up the last few remaining potatoes on the plot. I had intended lifting them in November but didn't get round to it. And then when I found the time the potatoes were locked in the frozen ground. As expected, following December temperatures which had been as low as minus 18C, some of the spuds had turned to a milky mush and others were black and none were salvageable. This was disappointing because they had grown to a reasonable size and would have made good chippers and jackets spuds. If I had harvested them in time they would have been better than any of the others I had grown last year, all of which were on the small side (due, I think, to having followed Titmarsh's cock-eyed advice not to water them).

To add insult to injury, whilst I was breaking my back digging up these inedible and uncompostable potatoes and thinking of all the wasted effort and futility of having prepared the soil, dug the trenches, raked the mounds, weeded the beds and tended the plants all for nothing, one of my neighbours came over to show me his magnificent specimens which he had just dug up. He had planted them very deep in  a double depth raised bed, given them plenty of water all Summer and then covered the bed with polythene in the Autumn. This had protected them against the Arctic conditions which we have experienced this Winter and he had a full bag of very large white beauties of which he was justifiably very proud.

Having removed my useless rotting potatoes I then relieved my frustrations by attacking the plot with my fork and spade. I really got stuck in to it and to my surprise managed to dig over the whole of last years potato patch, an area of about 5.5m x 7m, in what seemed like no time at all. I found this digging to be quite theraputic and by the time I had finished my thoughts had turned from futility to optimism for the coming season.
Fired up with enthusiasm for my coming second year on the plot I cleared out all the rubbish and remains of last years plants from the greenhouse along with the soil and gro-bag contents from the greenhouse beds. I then turned over the contents of compost box number one and was very pleased to see how well all the weeds and kitchen waste have broken down into lovely brown crumbly compost which will be ready to use this year.

I have also made a trip to Wilkinson and to the local garden centre, Silica Lodge (which offers a 10% discount to our allotment assosiation), this week and I have bought some veg seeds, seed potatoes (Arran Pilot and Maris Piper), onion sets (red and yellow) and some bags of multi-purpose compost.

Today I have stocked up on horse manure courtesy of my farmer friend Richard from the neighbouring village, or more accurately courtesy of his daughters' ponies Joey and Poppy. It took 3 trips to the farm and 3 full dust-bins and 18 assorted buckets and tubs to fill compost box number 3. As you can see from the photo below It doesn't look much but my back will tell you it is plenty.

So, everything is starting to take shape ready for year two on the plot and soon I'll be thinking of sowing my first seeds of the year, probably starting with chillis and tomatoes, but I also need to report my first set-back of the year. Today I discovered that my water butt, which has been full of ice for much of the last 8 weeks, was empty. On inspection I found two small hairline cracks in the base of the butt through which 220 litres of water must have escaped when the thaw came. This probably explains the pond behind the greenhouse which I referred to in my previous blog post. I will see if I can repair the cracks by melting a plastic patch onto them. If this fails the water butt will be recycled to become compost box number 4 or perhaps a cover for forcing rhubarb.

Speaking of rhubarb, I have seen the first pink shoots emerging today. Is this a sign that this harshest of Winters is coming to an end? I think not, it is still only January after all.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Mud, wet and beers.

Now that the snow has gone and we have had a couple of frost free nights the allotment site has become very soggy. I have got standing water on the paths between my raised beds and a pond has formed behind the greenhouse. This was not unexpected and, fortunately, towards the end of the Summer, I took the precaution of digging some drainage channels between the rows of vines. So far these seem to be working well and the vines are not currently in immediate danger of drowning.

The water table on the plot is quite high. This should not be surprising when you look at the local history. 400 years ago the whole site was under water. In fact, I live on an island, the Isle of Axholme. Today you don't really notice that you are crossing any body of water when you come to this part of North Lincolnshire but before the land was drained by the Dutch engineer Vermuyden in the early 17th century there was a regular boat service which sailed from a point close to the allotment site to Hatfield Woodhouse, about 6 miles away, on the outskirts of Doncaster. The Isle was formed by the areas of higher ground which were cut off by the flow of the rivers Trent, Don, Idle and Torne and their floodplains.

Vermuyden installed a system of dykes and pumps to drain the land. Much of his drainage system remains in place today and part of our allotment annual rent is paid to the local Drainage Board as a levy towards the cost of maintaining the dykes and pumps which still save the land on the Isle from inundation today. Prior to Vermuyden's works, at the times when the land was not entirely flooded, the Isle was surrounded by marshes which could only be safely navigated with the help of a local guide.

In Roman times the area around The Isle was a thickly wooded impenetrable swamp from which raiding parties of locals emerged and helped themselves to the provisions and livestock, which had been destined for the Roman legionaires stationed at the fort in Doncaster, before melting back into the swamp with their booty. They became such a thorn in the side of the Roman army that the Romans set about removing all the trees from the area in an effort to deny hiding places and make it easier to pursue the raiding Islonians. This deforestation is thought to have hastened the flooding of the land around The Isle.

It is possibly because of this history of centuries of isolation that our local annual mad mid-winter tradition of the Ancient Game of the Haxey Hood has survived. That may be one reason why it has survived but I'm sure the main reason is because it is such fantastic fun.

So, what is the Haxey Hood? The simplest explanation is that it is a medieval rugby type of game played between our village of Westwoodside and our rivals in the neighbouring village of Haxey. The true origins of the game are surely lost in the mist of time but the legend is that 808 years ago (I'm sure it was 808 years ago because when I moved into the village 8 years ago they told me that it was an 800 year old tradition) the Lady Mowbray, wife of the local landowner, was riding over the hill between the two villages when her hood was blown off by the wind. She was so amused by the attempts of the ploughmen in the fields to catch her hood that she granted the 13 men an acre of land each in perpetuity on condition that they recreated the event on Twelth Night each year.

The Hood itself is a yard long leather cylinder which is about 2 or 3 inches in diameter bearing no resemblance whatsoever to a 13th century riding hat. The modern objective of the game is to get The Hood to either the pub in Westwoodside or to one of the three pubs in Haxey. The winning pub then serves free beer. There is a lot more to it than this but I won't bore you with all the details. If you are interested in learning about the Boggins, the Lord, the Fool, the smoking of the Fool, the sway, the folk songs and the myth and legend try Googling the Haxey Hood and also have a look at some of the clips on YouTube.

The day of the Haxey Hood is the best day of the year for me. It is like my birthday, Christmas and New Year all rolled into one great day. On top of the 808 year old traditions I have my own more recent traditions to follow. My day starts with a group of friends and fellow allotmenteers for a stomach lining port and Jaffa Cake breakfast. We then move on to the Carpenters Arms for the first beers of the day and to witness the "painting of the Fool". Following this we call in at Rick's Mum's house for a pie and rioja brunch in honour of Rick's birthday. Beer drinking then resumes in Haxey before we assemble in the street outside the church at about 3pm to hear the Fool's speech and watch the "smoking of the Fool". There is then maybe time for another pint or a dram from a hip-flask before removing all sharp objects from pockets and joining the mass scrum in an effort to push the Hood through the muddy fields and narrow streets to Westwoodside.

This time last week my head was pounding, my ribs were aching, my ankles were bruised and swollen and every joint and muscle in my body was throbbing with pain, but it was worth it. We pushed the Hood home to the Carpenters Arms against all the odds and it now hangs in place of honour behind the bar until next year.

Here are some links to local TV coverage