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.

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