Mr Neat & Mr Tidy’s Allotment

June 28, 2011

With hot weather forecast, we were up at our Chipping Norton allotment at 8am on Saturday.  Our uncertain weather conditions meant we were hoping the fog and drizzle would pass, and it certainly did.  By 10am it was sweltering!

David was on strimming duty this week.  The edges of the plot were in dire need of a hair cut.  My mission, as usual for this time of the year, involved the ongoing battle of the weeds.  By the time we went home, our allotment was pristine and did indeed look like an example from a Mr Men storybook.

mange tout

First mange tout of the season

I love this time of year on the allotment.  On the other hand, I don’t enjoy this time of year in the kitchen.  When we’re almost ready to start reaping the benefits, I begrudge having to buy vegetables.  However, soon we will soon be in full production, and this week saw the first of the mange tout arrive on the table.

We are more measured with mange tout sowings than we were before.  Having discovered they are pretty horrible frozen and getting heartily sick of them for breakfast, dinner and tea, we now have successive sowings throughout the season.  Reuzensuiker mange tout are prolific croppers!

Young calabrese

Baby calabrese

Our biggest highlight this weekend was the discovery of baby calabrese heads.  We are not good at calabrese!  They generally get to the size of ping-pong balls and start to go to seed.  Of course we’ve experienced this excitement before (several times), but never fail to be filled with optimism at this time of year.  If you are a calabrese guru, please leave a comment if you have any idea what we might be doing wrong!

The first Bunyard Exhibition broad beans and Onward peas are expected to deliver next weekend, and our Greyhound cabbage are forming hearts.  The perpetual spinach is growing like mad, and we have more lettuce than two people and dog can manage.  And of course, the dog of course isn’t big on salad anyway!  So in a couple of weeks I’m expecting to be allotment and kitchen happy.

Don’t forget the calabrese advice – we badly need it.


Just what we wanted our allotment to BEE

June 21, 2011
bees entering nest

Bee burrow entrance!

We’ve tried to make our allotment bee-friendly.  I will admit to not knowing my bumble bees from my honey bees, bit I do know how critical they are.  My excuse for being ignorant about bees is simple – they move too quickly and I never have my glasses on outside!  I just can’t spot the difference!

But excuses apart, we try to make our garden and the allotment as bee friendly as possible.  In fact we have flowers in the garden which would not be my choice, but are there because the bees love them!

We have plenty of bee bait on the allotment: borage galore, comfrey, sage, lavender, honeysuckle and other plants cloned from the garden.  We had a bee nest on our first year on the allotment.  Mistakenly, we thought it would be a permanent residence, not realising they live in temporary housing and build new nests each year.

But this year, the bees are back.  We have a nest under the slabs on our ‘patio’, in front of the shed.  We didn’t realise it was there until last week when I dug up some parsley which had gone to seed.   There was suddenly a frenzy of bee activity, as I had inadvertently covered their burrow with soil.  All was  restored when … David … in a moment of madness this weekend, decided to rake over the patch of soil!

Fortunately they are quick to burrow their way in (or possibly out) again and harmony was restored to our bee colony.  They are now suitably protected by a plastic ringo (an excerpt from our prospective book: a million uses for pop bottles on the allotment).  This means the bee burrow is safe from unwitting people attack, and I can go ahead and plant my lettuces around the entrance to their des res!

Promise of things to come

I love this time of year on the allotment.  The beds seem to go from empty to burgeoning with life, almost overnight.  We are probably a week away from having our first mangetout, the broad beans are starting to fill out and the peas are covered in pods and blossom.

The brassicas on the allotment are looking better than ever before.  So far the cabbage white butterflies haven’t attacked and the infernal pigeons have been kept at bay with plenty of netting.

But home at allotment central, our kale and purple sprouting haven’t fared as well.  They have, as usual, been grown in modules.  But for some reason they haven’t prospered. Some of the purple sprouting seedlings have damped off and the rest are in a state of limbo.  Having nurtured them for weeks, they were stubbornly refusing to grow.  Drastic measures time – they are now in the ground and it’s down to them.  Perhaps I’ll just sow a few extra – just in case.  I’d hate to be kale-free this winter.

Plants on the allotment

Promise of things to come?

A well-rotted weekend!

June 13, 2011

We have a system for compost!  Actually we have a system for a lot of things, but that’s what happens when you have a David.

Compost, or ‘compo’ as our 2 year old granddaughter calls it (she is an aficionado of Mr Bloom’s Nursery on CBeebies), is vital to our allotment.  I don’t actually know if Mr Bloom refers to it as ‘compo’, never having watched his programme, but if it gets her interested in growing her own veggies, I’m not going to split hairs.

So to the compost system … our allotment started life with 2 compost bins.  One evolved into the shed four years ago.  One compost bin was never going to be enough, so the single compost bin was divided in two.  Are you with me so far?

But two compost bins were still not enough.  We needed a third to allow the compost to rot down properly.  Of course we could have speeded the process up by turning it or using an accelerator, but turning it was difficult in the limited space, and we wanted it to ‘bake’ naturally.

Compost bin using tote bag

Tote bag recycling for compost

Compost bin 3 or the ‘compote bin’, was created from one of those handy tote bags used by builders merchants for ballast and sand etc.  David made a wooden frame (took him about ½ hour) from some old pallets and secured the tote bag to it.  Viola!  Compost bin 3.  That little invention actually got us the ‘letter of the month’ in a Grow It magazine!  The prize of some dome-shaped cloches was appreciated by the local primary school’s gardening club.

Turning the compost in a tote bag is challenging, so the system was born.  Each year we fill up bin number 3 – the tote bag.  The following summer, the contents of bin 2 are moved to bin 1.  And the contents of bin 3 are moved to bin 2.

These Herculean efforts ensure well rotted compost to enrich the soil each year.  We never have enough compost, despite collecting compostables from the neighbours in return for our glut veg, but there isn’t much we can do about that.  We produce a lot of vegetable waste from the kitchen, grass cuttings from the lawn, and copious amounts of shredded paper from the copywriting office.  Combined with the allotment waste, we fill the bin to the top each year (before it rots, that is).

Home made compost bin

The compost bin and shed evolution

It’s not that complicated really, but it does take effort.  Last Saturday was ‘compo’ moving day, and we weren’t relishing the thought! The reality is of course, it doesn’t take a lot of time.  The sun was shining and we couldn’t have had a better day for it!

We had a shopping trip to fit in on Saturday, so our time up on the allotment was limited.  But the rest of the leeks are now in the ground, some weeds were removed and we returned home pleased with our efforts – just before it rained!

The highlight of the week, ‘compo’ apart, was the first harvest of our perpetual spinach.  It is faring much better this year, having been planted straight in the ground.  The first picking yielded two big bags of luscious greens.  The drought, and our subsequent watering, means our brassica plants are looking better than ever before.  We’re looking forward to some even bigger and better harvests.

Flowers and frog-lets

June 5, 2011

There was much excitement on the allotment this morning when we saw our baby taddies had grown into proper little frog-lets.  Although our ‘pond’ is nothing more than a small water tank recycled from the old central heating system, it’s playing its part in the allotment’s eco-system.

Honeysuckle in bloom

The first ever honeysuckle flowers

As well as frog frolics, our peas are in flower and the long-awaited honeysuckle is in full bloom.  It too is doing its job and it was a-buzz with bees … doing what bees do.  We are rather fond of honeysuckle and about three years ago had what could be called a honeysuckle ‘windfall’.  I had noticed a cluster of seedlings in one of our plant tubs in the garden.  Clearly something had seeded itself, so we decided to wait and see what they grew into.  Much to our surprise they were tiny honeysuckle seedlings!

Clearly honeysuckles can self-seed, but it was something I had never experienced.  So very carefully, I potted them up and eventually we had about 40 honeysuckle plants.  We’ve now got honeysuckle plants galore in the garden, the allotment, and the rest found new homes with friends, family and through freecycle.  Although the ones in the garden have flowered in previous years, this is the first time on the allotment.

Red raspberry

The first raspberry of 2011

Fortunately, I am rather fond of weeding.  There is something very satisfying about neat tidy weed-free beds.  Of course the darn things can grow faster than I can weed, but it’s good while it lasts.

Of course you can see so much more on your knees at ground level and that’s when I spotted our first almost red raspberry.  I thought rasps were meant to come later in the year, but these might be an early variety.  Apart from the Autumn Gold, the majority of our raspberries have come courtesy of Freecycle, where names and varieties don’t seem to matter.

Because our allotment is arranged in beds, they are planted quite

Beetroot catch crop

Not so much a catch crop as a crush crop

intensively.  This means hoeing is difficult, so hand-weeding is a must.  This year I wanted to grow more beetroot.  David loves it pickled and insists the bought stuff isn’t a patch on mine.  I’m told beetroot is a good catch crop, so I’ve planted them in every available space.  One of my less than clever ideas was to plant some between the rows of peas.  I thought we’d left plenty room and a row or two of beetroot would be ideal.  Hmmmm … now the peas have taken over and have had to be tied back, and the beetroot are struggling for light.  We either need a bigger allotment or less beetroot.

Next week is going to be a full-on allotment weekend. The paths will need strimming and it’s time … to move the compost!  Oh joy!

A very cold allotment experience!

May 30, 2011

Our spell on the allotment this weekend wasn’t exactly pleasurable.   It was a typical bank holiday weekend … damp, very cold and blowing a gale!  However, the adverse conditions meant we got on with the jobs in hand and there was no dawdling.  We were very grateful for a hot drink and the central heating when we got home.


One of last year's leeks

The downpour last Thursday has made life a lot easier.  On our schedule was leek planting.  Luckily the rain had softened the ground and the soil was just right for dibbing the holes.  There is something very satisfying about nice straight rows of newly planted leeks.  It appeals to my sense of order.  We’ve grown two varieties this year: Musselburgh and Autumn Mammoth.  The Musselburgh leeks are now in, but the Autumn Mammoth were not quite big enough, so they’ve been returned to Allotment Central for another couple of weeks.

I’ve read conflicting advice about growing leeks.  Some say trim the leaves and roots, while others say there is no benefit.  I’ve never trimmed them before, so this year we’ve decided to try it.  Half  the leeks planted this weekend have been trimmed and the others planted as they were.  I’ll keep you posted about the results.

I’m going to mention the C-word again.  You know … those long pointed orange things which have been such a trial and tribulation in the past couple of years. My daughter, who is a whiz at container gardening, offered me some carrot seeds.  It turns out she bought the same Chantenay variety as us. They were even the same brand.  Just a couple of weeks after sowing, she has carrots – while as you know – all we had was an empty bed. In a word … Harrumph!

Onion plants

Onion plants in modules

My other mission this weekend was to plant the remainder of the onions grown from seed.  The first lot were planted out in early April and we’ve lost about 50% of them.  However, they are finally looking a bit more enthusiastic.  The second lot have been growing on in modules and so far, we’ve had a much higher success rate.  Getting them out of the module trays was a real challenge though.  I’m not convinced about them, as I mentioned last week.  They are going to have to do a lot of growing before they  resemble anything more than a spring onion.  Unless they do something dramatic … I’m going to stick to onion sets from now on!

A belt and braces sort of day

May 23, 2011

We were the first up on the allotments on Saturday.  This deliberate move meant we could be first in line for the water tap before the hoards arrived.  Strangely, they didn’t … arrive that is, and we had the tap to ourselves for the 5 hours it took to fill our 1,000ltr tank.  Needless to say the water pressure isn’t great on the William Fowler allotments in Chipping Norton!

Parsnip seedlings

Few & far betwen parsnips

We learned a lot from last year’s drought.  Having spent weeks gazing at empty beds hoping seedlings would magically appear, we decided to hedge our bets this year.  Once the weedlings were separated from the seedlings, we found very little evidence of our parsnip crop.  While I can live with a lack of carrots, a parsnip famine is a major catastrophe.

So … belt and braces it was!  I set to and planted new rows of parsnip seeds between the existing rows.  Of course, if they all germinate it will be the root vegetable equivalent of the Black Hole of Calcutta, but you can never have  too many parsnips.

And the Chantenay carrots’ time was up!  After weeks of waiting there was not a carrot to be seen.  So in line with our new ruthless attitude … it was off with their heads!  The carrot pen has gone, the bed hoed, and the carrot seeds replaced with beetroot.  Well … they can’t say they weren’t warned!  Of course having gone to such an extreme, I fully expect to find a tangle of carrot and beets as they pop up merrily in tandem.

You might recall our 2011 onion experiment.  Back in April we planted onion seedlings, which resembled little more than blades of grass.  Two months on only half have survived, and they still look like little blades of grass!  Meanwhile back at the ranch, the remaining onions are still in the modules.  Even though they have reached a reasonable size and are soon destined for the ground, I can’t believe they will ever reach onion-proportions!  The onion sets, on the other hand, are the best we’ve ever grown.

Growing onions

Left to right: onion sets, onion seedlings planted early April, growing onions in modules

This weekend was a rare treat … two whole days spent either on the allotment or in the garden.  The allotment is looking good, the garden is looking splendid … just a shame we never got round to doing any housework!

Sad sweet corn and a beetroot crisis

May 17, 2011

You might be pleased to hear the carrot bed got a reprieve this weekend.  With still none of the Chantenay Red Cored showing, the bed was destined to be given over to beetroot.  But whoops … someone only ordered one packet of beetroot seeds!  Wonder who that was?  So, they’ll live to fight another week, giving me time for a spot of seed shopping.

The bean pole construction Mark IV

Bean poles

Bean poles under construction

David’s weekend mission was to put up the bean poles ready for the runners and French Beans, which are almost big enough to be planted.  We’ll have to hope we have no more frosts and Mother Nature behaves herself.  The bean poles are, of course, a true work of art.  David has refined his technique year on year.  I swear he spends the winter months planning the forthcoming year’s construction!

You might remember our upside down bean poles from last year.  They still provoke comment from the more ‘seasoned’ allotmenteers, who think their design is down to ignorance, rather than intention.  We were very flattered to see Max Akroyd, who lives on a smallholding in Finistère, has adopted our rather novel design.

As you will see from the pictures, the canes cross at the bottom rather than at the top.  This allows the plants to grow outwards, rather than forming a jungle at the top. The beans themselves hang down, making them easier to see and of course, pick.  The construction means the poles need more support than the traditional style, but it is a small price to pay for the convenience.

Sad and sorry sweet corn

Sweet corn plants

Sickly sweet corn plants

Our sweet corn plants, which were planted early back here at allotment central, were looking rather sorry for themselves and the leaves were yellowing.  We weren’t sure if they’d suffered in the plant house. The nights have been a bit chilly recently.  Perhaps they weren’t getting enough light or the compost wasn’t rich enough.  Who knows?  So we decided they needed to go in the ground to at least have a fighting chance of survival.  So sweet corn planting it was, but as a precaution, they are tucked up under the cloches for a week or so, just to be on the safe side.  I’ll keep you posted.

Off with their heads!

Swede plants for  thinning

They gave their all!

One of my top jobs this weekend was thinning out the swedes.  It is my least favourite task, but I know it has to be done.  There seems to be something very ungrateful about ripping out tender young plants which have given their all, and consigning them to the compost.  But with the ongoing lack of rain, thinning was essential and there is no room for sentimentality on the allotment.  After all … plants don’t have feelings … do they?  Mind you, I know someone who had to give away a basil plant because she was traumatised by the thought of hurting it when she cut off its leaves …

Thinned out swede plants

The favoured few!

Finally … I’m pleased to say things (so far) are looking better than they did last year on the plot.  The seeds are doing what seeds are meant to do (apart from those infernal carrots!) and everything is growing nicely with the promise of greater things to come.

Rain stopped allotment play

May 9, 2011

Yes – rain!  At long last we’ve had some significant wet weather. Typically of course it was over the weekend and not during the week when we really wanted it.

It’s a bit hard updating a blog when there is nothing to report, but I’ll do my best.  After all, I am meant to be a writer and I did promise to post weekly.  While it was too wet to do anything on the plot, we did of course pop up between showers to take a look see.

Carrot enclosure

The carrot enclosure

Now while I promised not to be obsessed with carrots this year, we have still spent more time than I care to mention peering optimistically into the carrot enclosure.  With what results?  I know you’re dying to know what’s happened!  OK, I won’t keep you in suspense … in carrot bed A, planted with Chantenay Red Cored … a big fat zilch!  Not a single thing to be seen, apart from the odd weed that is.  So the clock is ticking … if they haven’t put in an appearance by the weekend, their time is up and the bed is being given  over to beetroots.

But … in carrot bed B … success! The Early Nantes are up and quite prolific they are too!  I can’t begin to describe the excitement and a sense of relief.  I don’t actually like cooked carrots, but love them raw, and carrot juice mixed with freshly squeezed orange juice is out of this world.  But none of that compares to the heady perfume of home grown carrots when they are pulled from the ground!

Autumn Gold raspberries in bud

Autumn Gold raspberries - covered in buds

Our Autumn Gold raspberries are worthy of a mention too. They clearly don’t understand the seasons as they fruit throughout the summer and well into the autumn.  While we can count the number of red raspberries we’ve had on one hand, the Autumn Gold ones are quite amazing.  If you’re looking for a high yield raspberry … look no further!

While rain stopped play at the allotment, a few dry spells allowed me to plant a few more modules of sweet corn.  We have never had much luck germinating corn, only having around a 30% success rate.  We’ve tried them in the plant house, on the window ledges, and straight in the ground.  The germination rate has been consistent, if nothing else.  So if anyone has any green-fingered tips for growing sweet corn, they would be very welcome.

Finally, our window ledges are being taken over by

Cosse Violette French Beans

French beans gone mad!

rampaging French Beans.  They have gone quite mad and are going to need to be planted very soon.  Let’s just hope the weather permits.  Last year I made some weather notes in our online diary.  I can say with authority … on the 13th May 2010 … Chipping Norton had a heavy frost.  Best leave the beans where they are for now then.

I seem to have written quite a lot for someone who started this post with nothing to say …

Peas, paraffin and planting

May 3, 2011
peas eaten by mice

What's left of the peas!

The pea attack culprits are definitely rodents!  No pigeon could possible get through our Fort Knox netting and we’ve lost about 60% of the 2nd lot of peas planted a fortnight ago.  They seem to take them when the sprouting pea is about an inch high and eat the pea seed from the bottom, discarding the rest.

So it was time to dig out the paraffin, give the replacement pea seeds a soak and get them in the ground.  This is meant to stop the mice (or bank voles possibly) eating the seeds, as they are not too partial to the taste of the paraffin.  I’ll let you know if it’s a success.  And if this doesn’t work, we’ll be back to growing them at home and transplanting.  So much for my labour and time saving plans!

Did I mention we had … RAIN?  Late in the afternoon of the Royal Wedding Day, the skies grew dark and we heard the rumble of thunder approaching.  Although heavy, it only lasted for an hour or so, but it clearly refreshed the allotment and we swear some of the plants had grown overnight!

Most of this weekend’s activity was given over to planting.  More beetroot and perpetual spinach were sown and the first wave of lettuce and brassicas are in the ground.

Back here at allotment central, more seeds were sown in modules and the tomato plants potted on.   The tomatoes  have now been promoted from the window ledges to the plant house.  With a frost expected this evening, we’ll have to remember to bed them down for the night.

Cosse Violette French Beans

Cosse Violette Purple French Beans

Having cleared the windows sills of the tomatoes, they are once again full up with plant pots!  This time it’s the Cosse Violette French beans which are being cosseted.

I’d never thought about growing French Beans until we had our allotment.  Even then, they were an impulse buy.  I was wandering round Lidl (great place to buy ground coffee for espresso!) and happened to spot them on a seed display.

The seeds were obviously not of British origin. The instructions on the packet clearly stated … not to be planted before May 10th!  Four years on  this still amuses us.  Is May 10th a significant day in the bean calendar?  What happens if we get a frost on May 11th?  Anything’s possible here in Chipping Norton.

Another water crisis averted

April 26, 2011

For all the glorious weather, we didn’t do a lot at the allotment over Easter.  Our mission was to spruce up our back garden which always plays 2nd fiddle to the lotty.  While the garden … allotment central … plays a vital role in our veggie production, it has been somewhat lacking as place of recreation in recent years.

Onward peas

Peas recovering from attack - note the gap!

We did have a couple of short trips up to the plot though to complete the onsite seed planting.  While I sprinkled and sowed, David was charged with strimming the paths for the first time this year.

Watering has been high on our agenda this year, having suffered so badly in last year’s drought.  I was sure the water level in our 1,000ltr tank was very low, but David assured me there was plenty.  Hmmm!  In case you’re wondering why we can’t tell by looking at it, I need to explain the tank is black and raised up about a metre off the ground.  The only way to measure the water involves mountaineering and a long stick.  However, I digress … before we had finished watering on Sunday the tank was as dry as the proverbial …

If you remember our performance from last year, you’ll know filling our 1000ltr tank takes time and a performance involving 3 hose pipes measuring nearly 150mtr in length.  If anyone else is using the water, anywhere on the allotments, the pressure drops to little more than a dribble.  David’s Easter Monday mission was to pop up to the allotment early, accompanied by a good book and a flask of coffee, and relax in the sun while the tank topped up.  I didn’t expect him to rush off at 6am though leaving me to slumber on.

So in the meantime an update … the infernal C-things still have not made an appearance.  But I am NOT going to stress about them this year!  The Onward peas seem to have recovered from their attack, but the more recently planted ones appear to have suffered the same fate.  Obviously then it’s rodents at work – all the netting has ensured the pigeons can’t get a look in.  Back to the paraffin next year!

Honeysuckle on the allotment

Honeysuckle with buds

I was delighted to see our honeysuckle plant has finally got buds.  Three years ago a honeysuckle in our garden self-seeded and we had plants galore.  Many were given away, but a couple found their way up to the allotment.  This will be its first year in flower so we’re looking forward to enjoying the sight and the perfume.

The onions grown from seed, which I planted last week, are not looking happy.  They are still resembling blades of grass and definitely the worse for wear.  On the plus side, the ones in the plant house at home are looking considerably better, but I am quite confused as to how these tiny little plants are ever going to grow into anything more sizeable than a spring onion … but time alone will tell.

Next week, brassica planting is on the agenda.  Last season’s kale and purple sprouting is finished and the perpetual spinach is rapidly going to seed … just as well the new season is underway.

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