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Now, with the start of British summertime and longer hours of daylight, it is time to shift into a higher gardening gear. The potatoes are chitting and a few rows of broad bean seeds went into the ground a couple of weeks ago. After months of rain, the raised beds are surrounded by water-filled ditches and my wellies sink deep into muddy patches on the surrounding paths. It’s easier in winter, when the ground is bare, to see how my plot lies in a dip with the two parallel plots on either side being that much higher.
Purple sprouting broccoli has become a favourite vegetable of mine and I relish all its fresh goodness at this time of year, not just the spears but also the larger leaves that I am eating too. There are four plants that I have nurtured since last spring and it has been a job to keep the tall stems upright and the netting in place throughout the winter storms.
The other day, I was taken aback by the sound of much louder birdsong than I am used to at the allotment. I am very familiar with the chirruping calls of a pair of robins that position themselves on various perches throughout the day, and the occasional screech of a parakeet overhead. This singing was coming from a small wren. Apparently, wrens are known for having a surprisingly loud voice for such a small bird and I am hoping it has made a home next to my shed.

Summer Storms


I hadn’t checked the weather forecast before going to the allotment last weekend. When I arrived, another plot-holder asked if I had seen the storm and I thought he was joking. A while later I heard rumbles of thunder as another storm blew over followed by yet another early in the evening. It felt good to stop and do nothing while sheltering inside my shed, except to take in the sounds, sights and smells of the torrential downpours.
It has been a bonus this year not to have to water the plot, although I have been giving the plants some liquid feed of nettles and comfrey. I am not sure how it has come about that my seven tomato plants have managed to escape blight (so far!) while it has spread to all other areas of the site. Last autumn, I put a slice of tomato in a small pot, covered it with tin foil and kept it in a dark cupboard until spring. Numerous seedlings sprouted, far more than I would have imagined, and I shall do the same process this year.
Sadly, my Dahlia Café au Lait didn’t survive the very cold weather in early December last year. I had dug up the plant as usual, cut off the stems and put the roots upside-down in my shed. I would have then moved them to a bucket of compost for the winter but I didn’t do it in time and they must have become frozen. Instead, I have three smaller dahlias of different varieties grown from seed. I also have Zinnia, a relative of the dahlia, and the two make for a vibrant and fiery combination of summer colours.

Rhubarb & Light


It’s that time of year again when we are on the cusp of rapid change in the garden. It begins with the lengthening days but the temperatures are still on the low side, especially at night, and I am yet to begin harvesting the purple sprouting broccoli.
I watched a lone bumblebee on my plot valiantly make its way over to the tiniest of flowers on a currant bush as the sun briefly emerged from behind the clouds last weekend. It was already laden with pollen from goodness knows where, although most likely from the catkins of several nearby willow trees that are now full of golden flecks of dust. I love to see the pussy willow at this time of year and I take some home to put in a vase.
The rhubarb is always first to burst onto the scene and the fiery coloured stalks are a welcome sight after the cool shades and bare branches of winter. I put a bucket over one of the plants to ‘force’ the rhubarb only to find when I arrived at the allotment one week that it had been pushed off by the plant itself. The stems had been a beautiful pink colour with pastel yellow leaves but they quickly turned to the heavier, darker colours once exposed to the light.

Snowy Scene


I wasn’t expecting to find such a covering of snow at the allotment a couple of weeks ago. The sun was shining and the light reflecting off the snow together with the clear, cold air gave a special kind of serenity to the place.
There wasn’t a lot of work that I could do, as the ground was frozen, other than to re-arrange the netting on my purple sprouting broccoli and tie up the tall, thick stems. These are now very top heavy with large, drooping leaves that give way to smaller ones sprouting in a mass of upwardly increasing density. It shows promise of what I hope will produce a good crop of edible shoots in the spring.
That same week, I hung out my bird feeder. It is made from an old tin can and having attached it to a vine branch, the robin appeared almost immediately. Later, I heard an unfamiliar bird call from above and looked up to see a pair of swans flying overhead.
As I went about my work, I was aware of being watched by two foxes a little distance away on either side of my plot. They are not afraid to make their presence known and judging by the amount of paw prints in the snow over almost every inch of my plot, I imagine they feel that I am encroaching on their territory rather than the other way around.

Flowers by the Bucket Load


As I arrived at the allotment the other day, a moving shadow caught my eye on the muck heap that lies in a strip between the fence and the outside lane by the gate. It turned out to be a fox, its coat perfectly blending with the autumn colours of its surroundings. As evening approaches, I hear the familiar but somewhat eerie sound that the foxes make. They play-fight and scrabble through the undergrowth in what I call ‘no man’s land’, beyond a fence at the back of my shed. It adds to a growing sense of wildness about the place as winter approaches and the days become shorter.
The plot, however, is still looking unusually green for the time of year. As ever, nasturtiums have become rampant and I am awaiting their dramatic collapse as soon as the first frost arrives. In the meantime, they make a good crop to eat when most of the summer vegetables have come to an end. The warm autumn weather has meant that there are still a few French beans to harvest and a courgette continues to flower, albeit producing little fruit.
On each visit to the plot, I take away a handful of kale and chard, sorrel and nettles for making soup, herbs, a parsnip or two and Jerusalem artichokes. At home, I have the remainder of my potatoes, onions and garlic, plus redcurrants, cooked beetroot and blanched beans in the freezer. There is also one very large pumpkin.
It’s the flowers though that are stealing the show. The two dahlia Café au Lait plants are continuing to produce one great bloom after another and the cosmos too, grown from seed in the spring, are flowering prolifically. A swathe of delicate, white petals gleam brilliantly in the autumn sunlight against a backdrop of gold and orange nasturtiums, while bees carry on collecting pollen for as long as the weather allows.

Heat & Drought - A Mixed Blessing


It’s very hard to imagine the allotment being flooded this time last year after a particularly heavy and localised downpour. Friends were coming for lunch a few days later on my plot and I recommended that they wore wellies or galoshes. Even the frogs deserted my small pond for larger pools. I saw one swimming freely in a water-filled ditch next to my potato patch.
This summer, the opposite is the case; the frogs have fairly deserted my pond, I imagine to find a cooler, wetter place elsewhere although I have seen one in there lately. Also, the dry conditions do not favour slugs and possibly other creatures that the frogs feed on. I created a new pond at the start of the summer, using a slightly shallower container, and bought my first water lily to go in it. I would love to find a frog sitting on top of a lily pad!
The heat and lack of rain has been a mixed blessing for my plot. I have spent years raising the beds to keep everything above the water table, so that the nutrients are not being continuously washed away from the soil. A few crops have done well including the garlic, onions, beetroot, potatoes, turnip and squash. I had a very good crop of broad beans earlier in the season and enjoy eating the leaves from the tops of the plants as much as the beans themselves. The cabbages have grown larger than ever without the usual attacks from slugs and snails that make the leaves end up looking like lace.

Sprouting Broccoli vs Romanesco


Each week another spring flower comes into bloom on the plot. Last week it was the turn of the forget-me-nots and before that the primroses. The latter form a pretty waving line at the base of my vine. In the same patch, I spotted an anemone beginning to flower. It was a red one and I was expecting to see it fully open when I returned to the allotment the following week only to find a broken stem near the top of the plant. A fellow plot-holder suggested that it may have been a magpie and I can imagine a bird spying the jewel-like bud and taking it.
The recent sunny weather has spurred things on and several broad bean shoots are now beginning to show. I have also sown a few rows of carrots, radishes, peas and mustard leaf. In the hope of having more success getting parsnips to germinate, I have scattered seed from some dried flower heads that I kept from last year over newly turned soil.
My work in cultivating the sprouting broccoli has paid off again and half a dozen plants are nicely filling the hungry gap at this time of year. I find keeping them netted the greatest challenge, especially when it’s stormy, but I also saw a young fox tugging at a net one day and playing with it. I was expecting one of the plants, with more upright leaves, to produce a Romanesco cauliflower rather than purple sprouting broccoli only to find something that looked like a cross between the two.

Winter Visitor


Last week I used up the final segment of the one and only pumpkin that I grew over the summer. Fortunately, it was a good sized pumpkin, but the plants didn’t do very well on my plot this year. I have kept some of the seeds and shall try again next year.
The nasturtiums came to their usual dramatic demise with the first frosts and it was then that I could properly begin to clear the beds, having let them run rampant. I have several large and leafy purple-sprouting-broccoli and these, along with the kale and a couple of honeysuckle, are keeping the plot looking green in places.
Every so often, I check to make sure the foxglove plants that I grew from seed are still in good shape and that I haven’t pulled them up by accident. It’s easy to confuse the leaves with those of the borage plants. They look fairly similar but with not so serrated edges.
Recently, I was joined by a very bold, young fox. It was playing with one of my gardening gloves that it had picked up off the ground and then ran off with it. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised not to be able to find it again, as foxes have a habit of burying things, although I wouldn’t have imagined something made of blue rubber and nylon would be so attractive.

Sunshine & Harvest


What a fabulous month September has been for us gardeners. The warmth and sunshine made up for some earlier gloomy summer weather. There has not been too much to do other than harvest crops of fruit and vegetables, so I could sit down more often while bees moved tirelessly in and out of my nasturtium flowers – these plants always flourish and spread around the plot towards the end of the summer. Recently, I read that watching bees go about their business of collecting pollen was once considered a form of meditation. I can certainly feel the calming effect and I am sure the same goes for the gentle, meandering flight of butterflies too.
I now have a good crop of French beans, a little later in the season than expected. The first lot of seedlings were eaten by slugs and then the low temperatures and wet weather in August no doubt slowed things down. There have been plenty of courgettes, cucumbers, apples and several cabbages to harvest. I have also grown chili peppers this year, along with coriander, and the water parsley sown last autumn has kept going nicely.
The most striking thing about the plot this year has been my dahlia Café au Lait. It has grown to greater proportions than I could have imagined, both upwards and outwards. I like the plant’s original Mexican name ‘cocoxochitl’ that I learned from my book on the Heritage of Flowers. It was then renamed after a Swedish botanist called Dr Anders Dahl, when the plants were introduced to Europe in the late 18th century.
One day I saw a rose chafer beetle snuggled deep inside one of the cone shaped petals. I then cut some of the flowers to take home. A few days later I heard a helicopter-like sound and realised it was the beetle that had emerged and made its way straight across the room to the open window.

Rainy August


I arrived at the plot last week to find the place partially flooded. It can be rainy in August but I have never known it to be like this before. Even the frogs had deserted my small ponds as there was plenty of water to immerse themselves in elsewhere, especially the ditches where I disturbed one large frog as I trimmed the edge of a grass path.
The allotment site is certainly looking very green and bushy at the moment and a patch of Jerusalem artichokes must be standing at least ten feet tall. They will need to be curtailed at some point, so as not to spread too far, but I shall eat the tubers in the autumn.
A row of mangetout that began flowering several weeks ago are keeping going with a steady supply of beautifully green pods. The climate this summer clearly suits them and a couple of cucumbers have climbed up the same wire mesh among the more delicate fronds of the pea plants, their fruits well hidden in the foliage.
The best thing about this time of year is that there is time to sit occasionally and take in the scenery. The birds are around less while they replenish their feathers during the summer moult and the plants grow at a slower rate. All is calm and peaceful save for the bees and butterflies that still go about their daily business.
Recently, I have had several sightings of a Jersey Tiger Moth. It has striking black and white patterned upper wings and bright orange coloured hindwings that show when it’s in flight. These moths apparently frequent the south coastal regions of the UK, some having come across the English Channel, but they are now becoming more common and forming colonies in parts of London.

Beans, Shoots and Currants


The allotment is already reaching the peak of its growing season during these long hours of daylight and the plants are loving the mix of sunshine and rain. I spend quite bit of time cutting back overgrown stems, especially on the vine, and then use the smaller leaves as an ingredient in soup.
The broad beans are now ready to harvest but it’s the tender shoots at the top of the plants that I really like to eat. This year I copied something I heard on BBC’s Gardener’s World about leaving one of last year’s parsnips in the ground to go to seed, as it will attract blackfly away from the beans. This seems to have somehow worked, although there have been greenfly and ladybirds but not many blackfly on either. I haven’t had any success at getting parsnip seeds to germinate this spring, but I shall try again one more time.
After the weather became warmer at the end of a very long, cold spring, the plot was teaming with insect life. I have never seen so many bees at once on the comfrey flowers, but things have quietened down again. As I transplanted a small squash from the greenhouse, I found myself digging into an ants’ nest. Undeterred, I finished planting before carefully adding sheep wool pellets and crushed eggshell around the base of the stem to protect it against slugs, only to find that each little piece had been carried away by an industrious army of ants in no time at all.
The red currant bushes have been the star of this early summer season. Picking the berries can be a little arduous, but the crop of fruit was enough to make seven jars of red currant jelly.

Cool Spring


The plot is beginning to look colourful again, with a succession of spring flowers, and the shoots of other perennial plants are also coming to vivid life. I find myself marvelling at the delicate little primroses, clustered beneath my vine, and every so often I bend down to take in the scent of white hyacinths that are dotted around the plot.
On Easter Sunday, I was surprised to see a Peacock butterfly out in the sunshine, perched on the Victoria plum blossom where it was presumably feeding on nectar. Since then, with the temperatures plummeting due to a direct northerly wind, I have only seen one very large bumblebee braving the cold air. Recently, I joined the RSPB and their Handbook of Garden Wildlife tells me that the butterfly caterpillars feed on stinging nettles. There are plenty of those around, including a patch on my plot as they are a valuable edible crop, especially the fresh tops at this time of year.
It has been a laborious job getting the raised beds into good shape before any major planting and sowing begins. Much of the wood had become rotten. Every year I build everything a little higher and the broad beans, sown about a month ago, are now showing atop a layered mound of earth, woodchip and compost. The onion sets are also in the ground and I shall begin planting potatoes with the hope that they will not be affected by any late frosts.
I am often joined by a very friendly robin as I go about my work, waiting to pick up worms or it hops on and off a feeder I made from a tin can, which I hope it shares with other birds.

Spring Greens


It was wonderful to have blue sky and sunshine this last weekend and there is now the heartening sight of flowering spring bulb shoots beginning to appear around the plot. The daffodils are in the lead and I am hoping that the slugs will leave them alone this year.
With the ground being a little dryer than it has been over many weeks, it was easier to go about my job of fixing the raised beds where the wood has become wet and rotten.
A couple of weeks ago I arrived at the allotment to find there had been a delivery of compost next to the muck and woodchip. The compost came via the Council and is made out of green material and leaves collected from the parks. Other than the quantity of litter it contains, it is a welcome bonus and makes a good planting layer atop the woodchip and muck that I have already added to the beds.
It’s time to harvest the purple sprouting broccoli and I relish the fresh greenness of this vegetable that fills the hungry gap during the early part of the growing year. I have several broccoli plants divided between three beds.
Recently I was lamenting that I hadn’t seen any rose chafer beetles last summer. I then found one on the ground outside my shed. Usually, they emerge in late spring and this one was still sleepy, so I put it next to some logs that encircle the base of my apple tree, where it can burrow down until the weather becomes warmer.

Bumper Potato Crop


A few wintry frosts have added sparkle at the allotment lately. My job there has been to mulch the beds, this time with woodchip while waiting for a delivery of horse manure and I shall see how the plants and seedlings respond to a different topping. Once broken down, the chippings can produce rich and fertile soil.
A robin flits about but this one is more shy than previous feathered friends. Recently, I made a bird feeder from a tin can, hoping to attract other garden birds, including a flock of sparrows that fly among the higher branches around the site. I have an idea they are ‘tree’ rather than ‘house’ sparrows, but will need my binoculars to get a proper look.
A couple of celeriac and some Cavalo Nero remain on the winter menu and I still have half a bag of Sarpo Mira potatoes. In the autumn I was surprised to receive a copy of a quarterly magazine from Cultural Survival - a group supporting indigenous communities around the world since 1972. The magazine is entitled ‘Back to Our Roots; Indigenous Food Solutions’ and from it I learned of an area in Peru called The Potato Park where an astonishing 1,300 varieties of potato are conserved.
This year I plan to grow Elfe again, another heavy cropping potato that keeps well in winter. It is time to start looking through the seed catalogues, but I have also saved a few seeds from last year and this is something I would like to do more from now on.
With that in mind, I shall finish with a quote from Cultural Survival’s magazine –
“Seed is not a commodity. It is the source of life. Gardens and forests are seed sanctuaries. When you respect the seed, you are connected to the sacred thread that connects us all.” Te Tui Shortland (Maori).

Winter Greens


The plot is looking greener than I would expect for the time of year and if the ground wasn’t so water-logged, I would mow the grass paths.
There are three beds containing brassicas, mainly purple sprouting broccoli from two sowings that I made in the spring. These plants are now tall and bushy with large curly-edged leaves. It was a crop that I relied on for weeks during the first lockdown and the delicious florets nicely fill a hungry gap before others come to fruition.
This week I harvested celeriac and parsnips, the former always looking monstrous when I pull them up out of the soil, until I have removed most of the tangled mass of hairy roots. I shall leave a couple of the parsnips to go to seed after hearing on Gardener’s World that they attract blackfly away from other plants.
The ground will harden now that the temperatures are dropping more consistently, but I have managed to get most of the weeding and clearing done.
It was quiet as I went about my work, save for the cries of parakeets perched on trees in the distance, and I was lamenting not having seen the robin. Later in the day I was horrified to find it caught in a net that has been covering the Cavolo Nero for several weeks now. With scissors already in hand, I gently held its weightless little body in the other and managed to cut it free. It flew off before I had a chance to check that all the netting was gone and I have now removed the trap from the plants to replace with an older, larger mesh net.

Gathering and Waiting


Autumn, I find, is often a time of waiting as well as harvesting. Waiting for pumpkins that are a dark green colour to become orange. This always seems so unlikely until the transformation actually happens, in a similar way to the spectacular range of golden to deep russet colours of the leaves on the trees.
It is not until the first frosts arrive that the biggest change takes place. This is most noticeable by the sudden downfall of masses of nasturtiums that run rampant every year over areas of my plot from late summer. As an edible, self-seeded crop, I welcome them every year.
I held off taking down the runner beans from the canes. There are no longer any that are edible, but I would like to gather seeds from several remaining pods. The dahlias too will need to be dug up and safely stored in my shed for the winter. I shall miss their fabulously formed flowers, which I have enjoyed taking home with me for many weeks now.
Some time in August, I sowed a second crop of carrots in a tub filled with compost and sand. These germinated well but there was no room for the roots to properly grow, so I have transplanted them into a double raised bed. It’s an experiment and they may not thrive at all, but one advantage is that there is no longer the threat of carrotfly at this time of year.
A job that I am very pleased to have achieved this autumn is re-painting and repairing the outside of my shed. The next major task for the winter is to re-build the compost area, which inevitably will be a very muddy affair.

Insects & Other Beasties


On one of the wettest days since early spring, my visit to the allotment happened to coincide with a break in the clouds and the sun shone through for a short time bringing unexpected warmth and autumnal glow. The ditches surrounding the raised beds were filled to the brim and I watched a large frog swim freely along in the clear water. I also had a rare sighting of an adult fox in what I call ‘no man’s land’, beyond the perimeter fence.
It is the insects nowadays that I am keen to see as there has been such a noticeable decline in their numbers. As I picked runner beans I spotted a strikingly patterned shield bug; in past years there have been many. After it had determinedly marched along the whole length of a bean, I carefully manoeuvred it back onto the main plant.
I still have a couple of cucumbers that should be ready to harvest in a week’s time and the courgettes are continuing to flower, albeit at a slower rate than during the summer. Hidden beneath the foliage are several squash that I shall leave in situ as I read that the skins need to be fully hardened in order for them to store well until they are eaten.
My best new crop is the water parsley, grown from seeds I bought at Chelsea Physic Garden. Of all the plants, these should be most happy with the recent deluge.

Thundery Downpours


It was a relief to discover on my last visit to the allotment that there had been one or more localised thundery downpours following the incredible high temperatures last week. The plants, perked up by the rain, held droplets in upturned leaves and the sky remained overcast with the occasional shower. I spotted a large bumblebee hanging motionless from a cluster of borage flowers, so I lightly stroked its wings to check it was still alive. It moved very slightly as if to say that it wasn’t to be disturbed under such conditions.
As always, some crops have done better than others. I am happily harvesting courgettes after experiencing a deficit last year, and many of the Charlotte potatoes look larger than ever before, with skins so fresh and clean that they hardly need to be washed.
Three cucumber plants tied to a frame made from willow branches are producing a steady supply of fruit, but it’s not only the harvest I am enjoying. Alongside are nasturtiums, squash and several Zinnia plants, displaying an aesthetic combination of shapes from tendril, fruit to leaf, in addition to the brightly coloured flowers.
The family of frogs in my bucket pond has diminished to two at the last count, which I imagine is due to the very hot weather. One appeared from behind the outside rim, indicating they may have retreated to holes in the clay that form a sort of network of caves lower down, between the bucket and the earth. It is here that I think they also spend the winter months.

Summer Evenings


It has been a luxury to again enjoy daylight late into the summer evenings and to be able to work at a more leisurely pace. I have had a bumper crop of red currants and gooseberries, the latter taking time to pick as I try to avoid becoming covered in scratches from the sharp thorns, although I think this is almost impossible.
One evening, I caught sight of a pair of wood pigeons walking stealthily towards the fruit area of my plot, which I had netted extra carefully. These birds were likely the same pair that managed to steal almost my entire crop of gooseberries last year. I crept up along the main path and heard a frantic flapping of wings as they made their escape under the net on the other side.
The globe artichokes have also done well and I have been making soup with young vine leaves, sorrel and fat-hen, which is growing prolifically among my pea plants. Fat-hen is considered a weed but was cultivated in the past as a vegetable. The triangular shaped leaves can be cooked and used like spinach, or added raw to salads, as can the flowers.
Recently I was sent an online link to an article on the health and therapeutic benefits of walking barefoot. These benefits include strengthening the immune system and helping to restore the body’s circadian rhythms, leading to better sleep. Whilst my hands connect with the earth as I garden, I wear flip=flops on my feet, so I am now spending more time joining the shoeless revolution….at the allotment at least.

Strawberry Season


The allotment has been looking ever bushier on each visit, although the change this spring has been somewhat less dramatic than usual without the rain to spur things on. It felt more like mid-summer during the weeks of endless sunshine. I watched bees move busily in and out of the little bell-shaped flowers of the comfrey, their legs laden with pollen, and a damsel fly caught my eye as it flew past and landed to rest with its wings together on a nearby branch.
There is, as always, masses to do at this time of year and having completed my least favourite job of netting the currants and gooseberries, just in time before the birds are onto them, I shall now get to work on clearing a bed for runner and French beans.
The broad beans, sown in early spring, are ready to begin harvesting and I shall eat the tops of the plants too – I discovered how delicious these were last year. The star crop of the season so far, however, is the strawberries. These have been prolific, so much so that I have now baked three strawberry caramel cakes.
It would be hard to feel alone with the presence of a robin as I go about my work. It practices little social distancing while landing close by to pick up worms and before I left one evening, I also counted six frogs in my very small pond.