What a difference a week makes
What a difference a week makes in the great outdoors at this time of year. The sudden prolific growth of perennial plants at the allotment is, as always, something wondrous, not least the Russian Comfrey. Already I am cutting back any tall stems that are spilling out over the grass paths, but not before the bees have collected their bounty of nectar. The small purple, bell-shaped blooms are a winning lure for these insects, creating a zone of activity at one end of the plot.
At last we have had a substantial amount of rain to wet the dry surface layers of the soil, where the seedlings have been struggling to get off to a good start and take root. Unusually my sowings on the windowsill at home have not come to much fruition either. Many of the seeds failed to sprout and even second sowings at the recommended time of planting by the moon are making slow progress, no doubt partly due to the cool weather conditions this last week. There has also been another notorious and persistently disruptive obstacle to my gardening, and that is the fox. Undeterred by chicken-wire and hard wire mesh, this animal makes great holes in the soft, freshly dug earth after I have sown seeds in it. Another plot-holder recounted that he sometimes finds whole eggs buried by a fox in the ground. Who knows where it might be stealing them from?
Like the comfrey, the artichokes have grown immensely tall in a short space of time and several of the globes are now almost ready to eat. The broad beans and potatoes too are looking promising for a plentiful harvest and crops of strawberries and radishes are providing early pickings for the summer menu.
Final Chapter of Spring
At a glance the plot continues to look a brownish colour over much of the space, save for the herb and fruit areas, which are now bursting to life and there is clear evidence that things are on the brink of rapid change. In the past few weeks it has been the turn of the beautiful apple blossom to unveil a final chapter of spring. For some, however, summer does not begin until the solstice around June 21st, although traditionally May 1st was the start of summer, hence the Maypole celebrations. This is a time when the soil has warmed up and sowing and planting can begin again.
My own preparations for the growing season have been made somewhat easier this year by the fact that we have not had a lot of rain. In previous years it has been necessary to minimise the amount of work to avoid creating a mud bath, as the site can become extremely waterlogged during the winter months.
The relative dryness of the soil is most likely the reason why a number of Oriental poppy seedlings have appeared once again around the plot. These have sprung from seeds lying dormant in the ground and I leave the plants in situ, since from past experience I know that they do not like to be moved. There are also several California poppies, with their brilliant orange flowers and fine, feathery foliage, which is apparently edible. The flowers close when the sun goes down, as do daisy and dandelion flowers, the latter being one of our most persistent weeds, but also another edible plant with a variety of medicinal properties that I can now harvest again to add to salads.
Preparations for the Growing Season
As the days become longer and variably warmer the allotment is beginning to look prettier and more verdant again. Hyacinths, violets and primroses are in full bloom and I have been harvesting a good crop of purple sprouting broccoli over the last few weeks.
Preparations for the growing season have been more arduous than usual this winter, as I set myself the task of digging out the fruit patch, prickly gooseberry bushes and all. This is an area that had never been properly cleared since I acquired the plot in 2001. Couch grass roots had woven their way through layers of woodchip and old plastic compost bags laid down as mulch to help suppress the weeds. The grass, known to be cursed by gardeners and blessed by herbalists, has been used for thousands of years due to its antibiotic health benefits and high mucilage content. I clean the roots, cut them into smaller pieces before boiling them in water to make into a tea. The plant’s medicinal properties also explain why dogs often eat couch grass when they are feeling unwell.
The gooseberry bushes appear to be none the worse for having been uprooted and re-planted and the remainder of the bed has been given to three new raspberries of the variety ‘Erika’. These fruit twice, once in early summer and a second time in the autumn. The berries apparently grow large and juicy but hold their firmness. They will, however, need to be netted, along with the gooseberries and redcurrants, to avoid the fruit being robbed by birds, which may otherwise only be deterred by a passing cat or fox when we humans are not around.
One of a few suggestions for winter gardening chores in a newspaper article I read at the beginning of January was to get the mower mended. I have a petrol mower that I use to cut the grass on the paths surrounding my plot and whilst being a very efficient machine once it gets going, it often has trouble starting. Having arranged for the mower to be collected one morning I arrived early enough to see the place covered in a sparkling frost. By mid morning this had almost all melted away under a clear blue sky, with gulls and pigeons flying up high overhead and a pair of robins singing from tree branches close by.
With little to do when the ground is frozen other than pile up more muck as mulch on the beds and pick kale leaves and cabbage, I headed off again after a couple of hours.
The mower repair man gave me advice to leave the mower running at the start of winter to use up the remaining petrol, as this apparently does not keep well and so the water/condensation sinks to the bottom causing problems with the engine starting.
As with most green spaces at this time of year, the allotment is at its least attractive but a garden that has caught my attention on one of my cycle journeys to work is Meanwhile Gardens in North Kensington, close to Trellick Tower. An area facing the road opened last summer in celebration of the garden’s fortieth anniversary and still looks striking during winter with evergreen plants and flowers in borders outlined with brick paths and areas of grass. The gardens were created out of four acres of wasteland to be used as a community garden by a sculptor called James McCullough in 1976, with temporary permission from Westminster Council, hence the name Meanwhile. In the summer I may explore the gardens further along meandering paths away from the road. On the far side is the canal on which I regularly see a family of swans and even a large heron was there one morning.
Back to Work
It is now time to get on with more rigorous work again on the allotment but, until the first heavy frosts arrive, I try to temper my eagerness to clear much of the beds whilst there are still plants growing.
A couple of rows of mange tout peas are doing very nicely, grown from seed planted in late August, having failed to sprout at all from a sowing in the spring. The pattypan squash too has several new fruit which I hope will have time to mature before the rest of the plant dies off.
This year I shall protect the rainbow chard from hungry birds before their food supplies begin to run short and the brightly coloured stalks can add a bit of warmth whilst all around is looking dull and bare.
Next to the chard are several parsley plants, which I would say have been my best and favourite new crop this year, mainly for the taste but also for the health benefits as parsley is rich in minerals, including calcium and iron. I have found it to be especially tasty cooked in a white sauce and served with home-cooked ham in cider.
If I had a wish for the allotment for next summer it would be to see the small, friendly bugs and flies that I have marvelled at in the past including shield bugs (these were around in great numbers one year), damselflies and dragonflies, comma and red-admiral butterflies as well as rarities like a hawk moth caterpillar and bombylius major. Even the frogs have deserted my small pond but the robins are certainly living up to their reputation of being the friendliest of birds with one chatty, young redbreast following me particularly closely as I begin to dig up the beds before winter arrives.
At last it is possible to spend some time enjoying the allotment after months of hard labour. The place is quiet following all the bustle of spring and even the bees appear to move about the place in a lazy fashion.
There was, however, some excitement last week to interrupt the tranquillity. An upturned ceramic pot on another part of the site was discovered to have become a hive containing two cones of honey inside, so a nearby bee expert was summoned to assess the situation and he placed a wooden box on the ground into which he put the honey. Apparently, if the queen bee moves to a new location, the worker bees will follow and with this successfully done, the beekeeper returned later in the evening to remove the whole thing, bees and all, wrapped up in an old sheet.
This year I have raised the sides of the some of the existing beds a little higher and added compost and manure to help improve the soil, which seems to have paid off as most of the crops have done well so far this summer and the plot reached third place in the allotment competition out of the whole Borough. I wasn’t expecting such a high score from the judge and another surprise win was a silver cup and certificate for ‘best newcomer’ after I joined Chelsea Gardens Guild and entered my window boxes for the summer competition. The prize-giving was held at the much feted Chelsea Physic Garden at the beginning of August. Of course, it poured with rain throughout the whole evening, which meant that people merrily gathered around tables beneath an awning with a small band playing in one corner and the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Kensington and Chelsea were there to hand over the prizes.
Went to Mow
Just before Christmas a headline in the newspaper caught my eye that read, ‘Tis the season...to mow the lawn.’ I would not have imagined doing such a thing just before the winter solstice, nor picking a lettuce, but with such mild weather in December, which has not apparently broken any records here in the UK, the grass paths were looking untidy and overgrown and I had one lettuce left from a batch planted out in late September. I am glad that I took the chance to mow when I did, as now the place is water-logged and it would not be possible to run a heavy petrol mower around the plot without sinking in mud.
My efforts during last spring to provide a well-nourished bed for the brassicas has paid off and I shall be harvesting kale and sprouts throughout the rest of the winter followed by purple sprouting broccoli, which is already beginning to appear at the very tops of the plants.
Naturally the allotment site is not so attractive when laid bare in the coldest months but it remains a peaceful as well as intriguing place since I wonder about how the non-hibernating creatures go about their business when we humans are not around. The fox has been elusive for some time but there is evidence of its presence through holes I find dug in the beds every now and again.
Two robins are never far away and one appears so swiftly after my arrival at the allotment that I barely have time to leave the shed before it is chirruping in front of me. I imagine it is communicating something about worms, since it feeds well on them as I shovel manure onto the beds and compost heap.
The other evening I managed to reach the allotment after work with little more than half an hour left before dusk fell. There is a special quality about the place at that time of day. All was quiet and what I noticed most was a lovely fresh smell from the plants on the cooling air as I went about gathering vegetables.
I lit a candle lamp which hangs from the roof of my shed and the warm light from this, plus the green gingham curtains on one of the windows made the place look quite cosy, especially after a recent tidy and clean.
It is the end of the season and I am now harvesting the last of my beetroot and potatoes, although I planted a late crop of pink fir apple potatoes that still have healthy and bushy plants, so I shall leave these a little longer before digging them up. The lettuces have done well this year and have somehow managed to survive damage from slugs. A new row planted out about three weeks ago is growing very nicely and it is good to be picking a salad crop for eating at this stage in the autumn to which I then add nasturtium flowers that grow in abundance in my compost every year, until their sudden demise with the first hard frost.
The cucumbers, however, have not done so well and having only harvested one fruit this summer from two plants, I shall take advice from my plot neighbour who built a hotbed using about a metre of manure and a layer of compost on top in which to grow tomatoes and cucumbers.
September has been a magnificent month and on sunny days I have noticed a variety of small creatures going about their business that I would have expected to see in greater numbers throughout the summer season. It is when the weather is settled and warm enough for the place to come to life that I am most happy on the plot, accompanied by two robins waiting to pick up worms as well as bees and butterflies dipping in and out of flowers collecting pollen.
Brown shield bugs have been the most prolific insect this year and I have rescued one or two from my car and kitchen having carried them home among the vegetables. It is the frogs living in my very small pond (a purple flexi bucket filled with water) that I find most entertaining, as they disappear beneath the surface and then re-appear again, their heads barely visible under the weed. I had thought that there were two in there but at the weekend I counted four!
The Victoria plum tree produced another bountiful crop again this summer and so I made several jars of jam and also a caramel cake from a recipe in One Year at Books for Cooks No.1 (1995, Prior Publications) that I would recommend. It can be made with different types of fruit, which are layered at the bottom of the tin, so it looks very pretty once it has been turned out.
My work on building extra beds and raising the sides of existing ones has given me more growing space and I took particular care in preparing the bed for the brassicas, adding garden lime and manure. These vegetables have done especially well and I should be able to carry on cropping kale and borecole throughout the winter.
On a few occasions, as I cycle to one of my places of work, I catch a very small glimpse of what must be London’s largest and most secret garden when a back entrance gate to Buckingham Palace is open and I can only imagine what kind of landscape lies beyond. This weekend there are many other hidden gems to explore as it is Open Garden Squares Weekend, organised by the National Trust. I visited a few gardens a couple of years ago and the roof garden at the Ismaili Centre was one of my favourites, a beautiful place of serenity in the midst of our bustling urban life.
My own garden at the allotment is somewhat hidden this summer as it sits between two untended plots that are now overgrown with tall grasses, buttercups and other wild flowers intermingled with brassicas that have gone to seed. It is an effort at this time of year to keep my own plot in good order and on each visit I am astonished at how much taller many of the plants have grown. Generally the weeds have not been too bad since I turned over the soil in the raised beds in the winter, adding manure and extending two, the largest and deepest of which is now filled with potatoes.
Elsewhere, most of the vegetables are coming along nicely and I have managed to grow lettuces to their full size, free of damage by slugs for the first time. My favourite additions to the plot this year are about half a dozen foxgloves, which are growing tall and gracefully among the herbs and I should hope may be admired by the fox itself, which remains elusive but for leaving holes in freshly dug earth, most likely in search of worms and grubs.
This young fox (pictured) was one of a litter of cubs born in the summer of 2009. The cubs used to play in a ‘no man’s land’ area between the allotment site and the wholesale plant producer next door, which is full of brambles and all kinds of rubbish. The vixen was the least timid fox I have ever met and I suspected it was her that took away one of a pair of leather shoes I had changed out of whilst I was gardening, never to be seen again. One winter’s day, a longstanding plot-holder had fallen asleep in his shed and was awoken by the fox pulling at his sleeve, which I thought may likely have had something to do with a familiar jar of biscuits. The fox that is there nowadays is much more elusive, as well as destructive, since it frequently digs large holes in the soft soil, often just after seeds have been sown.
I have made good progress so far this winter on the plot and shall aim to finish building the new areas of raised beds before spring arrives. Today was a murky day but I shifted a large heap of old weeds and tangled stems to the compost pile and then added a layer of muck on top, watched by a robin at either end. I am looking forward to seeing the snowdrops when they appear next month and I spotted the tip of one hyacinth beneath the protective leaves of a strawberry plant.
As we approach the winter solstice and the temperatures are now dipping below freezing, I look forward to seeing a covering of frost at the allotment to bring some sparkle to the otherwise almost barren and messy looking landscape, when all manner of non-organic artefacts lie exposed on the site.
Although the frost remained on the ground in the shady patches last weekend, the day was bright and the air fairly warm so it was very pleasant for getting on with my work. The plot is undergoing something of a transformation as I dig up three of the small side paths to create extra growing space between the already established raised beds. I also transplanted a few sections of a globe artichoke plant, which appears to have thrived since the start of the autumn having only produced a single artichoke over the summer. There is one more celeriac left to harvest from the best crop of this vegetable I have ever managed to grow and then I shall move on to the swede, which have not done so well as in previous years.
By mid-afternoon I can’t help but notice the loud chatter of birds as they prepare to settle down for the night in the trees that cover the boundary areas of the allotments and sports pitches beyond. One idea is that the birds become more vocal in winter as they call fellow birds to roost, which they do together to keep warm in these cold months. Last month I took a detour via the pond as I visited another plot and spotted a grey wagtail coming up from the water before it settled in the branches of a small chestnut tree nearby and did what its name suggests. Their tails are apparently longer than those of their relatives, the pied and yellow wagtails, and its distinctive, brilliant yellow breast turns a duller, more buffish colour in winter.
Overall it has been a very fruitful year on the plot and I was happy to have a good harvest of plums for the first time from a Victoria plum tree I bought a few years ago at a well-known supermarket here in London. Beside it is my Charles Ross apple tree which came from a grower up in Scotland and it produces such large, rosy apples that they receive many compliments each season. I spend much of September turning the apples into jelly and tarts as they don’t keep well and the birds (most likely parakeets, I think) devour any ripe ones left on the branches.
Already the ditches around the plot are filled with water and keeping the ground above flood level has been much of my focus since last winter’s downpours. I decided to dig a ditch all the way around and have shored up the sides of the beds with planks of wood so that I can pile more compost on top. There is still work to be done but my efforts have mainly paid off and I managed to gain second place in the best plot competition in July.
Typically for this time of year I am keen to begin clearing the beds but the nasturtiums are at their best now, having become rampant across any spaces on the plot until they undergo a dramatic demise when the first frosts arrive. The nasturtium flowers are a great attraction for bees and I marvel at the varieties of bees that come to collect pollen, each often being a different size and colour.
Best summer since 2006
My plot was looking even greener and bushier than ever on my visit at the weekend, after heavy rainfall the previous week followed by more sunshine.
It has been a good summer - apparently the warmest, driest and sunniest since 2006 - and I am very happy to have a crop of tomatoes for the first time since that same year. There are also a few pumpkins and squash hidden among the canopy of leaves and nasturtium plants, which are already quite a startling size, and the beetroot have been bigger than usual even though they were planted from old seed.
My special efforts to grow sweet peas with longer stems have paid off. I was given a book by a friend called Gardening for Pleasure by George E. Whitehead, published in 1947, and followed his instructions by pinching off the tip of the seedling plant, keeping one strong shoot and continuing to remove any side shoots. Some are a New Zealand variety called Erehwon after a novel of the same title (the word reads ‘nowhere’ backwards) and are still blooming nicely.
Our resident flock of parakeets, most noticeable by their loud squawking cries, have been curiously absent all summer and I would be interested to know what has happened to them. An advantage of them not being around is that the sunflowers have been left alone, since they will feed on the seeds as soon as they are mature, so the sunflowers have been the domain of dozens of bees this summer and I am told they sleep in the flower heads at night.
Sunday was something of a surreal day at the allotment. The strains of karaoke singing played out relentlessly from the rugby club next to the pitch at the far side of the site and I am hoping that this will not be a recurring theme.
As I trundled my wheelbarrow towards the gate to collect manure I almost ran over a fledgling blue tit, which was making a remarkable amount of noise considering its size. I have never seen such a tiny bird. It was almost round, about 3cm in diameter, and certainly still too young to fly. I hoped that its mother would appear, but when it was still there a while later a neighbouring plot-holder suggested putting it in a bird box on the oak tree in case the cat was on the prowl. A ladder was fetched and it was my job to place the little bird in the nest box along with some bird food.
Shortly afterwards I heard a loud squeaking sound and turned to see Arthur the cat hurrying past with either a large mouse or a vole in its mouth.
Last week I removed a wasps’ nest from the cupboard in my shed and saw for the first time a female black-tailed skimmer dragonfly which, contrary to its name, was a magnificently striking, golden colour with dark brown markings.
As for the vegetables, I have been enjoying harvesting and eating my asparagus, the potatoes and brassicas seem to be doing very nicely and an assortment of bean varieties are just emerging from the ground. Apparently it should be a good year for apples, following our long winter, and I am encouraged by the number of small fruit I can see growing on the tree now that the blossom has disappeared.
Top 100 Gardening Blogs
A few weeks ago I was contacted by someone called Neil Cruz who said that he would like to include my gardening blog in an infographic he was creating called ‘Top 100 Gardening Blogs to Follow in 2013’, which can be found at http://www.couponaudit.com/blog/top-100-gardening-blogs-to-follow-in-2013/.
Only for the past week or so has it been possible to work on the allotment to avoid squelching around in mud and I try to be careful not to cause too much disruption to my grass paths which I now consider to be a feature of the plot. Poor drainage has always been a problem on the allotment but this year the far side of the site has become a quagmire. This has led to a trail of new ditches being dug around the edges of plots, shored up on the sides with heaps of woodchip so that they now resemble little islands.
My best option has been to build raised beds, the deepest of which contains most of this year’s crops of potatoes, having last year lost most of the heritage varieties planted below ground level just before the downpours in spring.
After a long winter I find myself marvelling more than usual at the sudden transformation at this time of year. Forget-me-nots cover a fair portion of a bed at one end of the plot. I shall probably clear some of them away to make room for more vegetables, but for the moment they are creating a swathe of blue beneath the blossom laden branches of my apple and plum trees. Whilst working on this bed the other day a small creature caught my eye which at first I thought was a bee but I then noticed a menacing looking spike on the front of its head. When I looked it up I discovered that this insect has the rather splendid name of Bombylius major, the spike is its proboscis for sucking nectar from flowers as it is harmless and does not sting or bite.
Chips & Sprouts
Needless to say after all the rain we have had this winter the allotment is even more waterlogged than usual, so I paddle up the path towards my shed and then try not to walk around too much on the plot in the squelching mud. There are still some parsnips to harvest, a few swede and what is leftover of the rainbow chard now that the birds have been having a go at it.
I have been reading about the health benefits of Brussels sprouts and will try to remember to plant some next year. Sprouts are not my favourite vegetable, but somehow I missed them this Christmas and prefer to grow my own, although the weekend farmer’s market is also a good source of vegetables to fill in the hungry gap during these winter months.
My two hellebore plants are flowering nicely on the windowsill and would cheer up any dismal winter’s day. The flowers turn from pure white to soft green and pink hues as they age and already I have seen a bumblebee braving the cold to collect pollen from them.
Recently I discovered a neat pile of chips in the corner of one of my window boxes, perhaps left by a crow, so I removed these before they attracted a whiskered variety of pest in search of a meal.
The other day I remembered that it is now ten years since I took on the plot in June 2002. This might have been good reason for a celebration, but there has been so much going on this summer what with the Jubilee events and the Olympics here in London. Bunting has even reached a couple of the plots, to help scare away the birds, and back at home what I was most happy about was that the pansies and geraniums in my window boxes matched the colours of the Olympic bunting when it went up along the street.
Weather-wise it has been a strange summer, with so much rain earlier in the season causing a lot of standing water all around the beds in July. Nevertheless, I have had good crops of beetroot, chard, beans and carrots. My winter crops of swede, celeriac and parsnips are not looking too bad either. Fending off slugs and snails has been quite a challenge, even with a large frog living on the plot. She (I think it’s a ‘she’ because female frogs are larger than males) has been enjoying the cool water of my new pond lately, during the final sunny days of summer.
The allotment is probably looking prettier than ever this year. My new flower bed is brimming with plants that are coming into flower, the roses are in full bloom and elsewhere the plot is green and lush, but I am wondering just how much vegetable produce I shall be harvesting this season. The summers when I have wondered what to do with a glut of tomatoes are now a distant memory and the soggy, humid conditions are perfect for blight to appear again this year.
Without the sunshine there has been a distinct absence of butterflies and, although I haven’t been missing the squawking cries of the parakeets, they have been uncharacteristically silent so far this summer. Keeping down the slug and snail population has been an ongoing battle and they have munched their way completely through a couple of young courgette and pumpkin plants.
Another creature that seems to favour the conditions is the chafer beetle which has been increasing in numbers at the allotment site over the past couple of years. Recently I discovered quite an astounding number crawling on the flowers of some parsnip plants left to go to seed on another plot. The ones I had seen in previous years were a magnificent emerald green all over, but these were even more colourful, with a reddish bronze area at the front of the abdomen.