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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.

Allotment life


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

Bombylius Major


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.

Wet 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.



At this time of year there is a nearby street I especially like to cycle down as it is lined with cherry trees laden with big bunches of pink blossom. But what I most look forward to is seeing a couple trees on the opposite side of the road where I live in full bloom. After three weeks, the petals are now floating about in the wind and beginning to lie in white drifts along the edges of the pavements. For this brief spell the spring blossom must be the most uplifting transformation to our urban landscape.
A couple of weeks ago, just as the flowers were reaching their full spectacle, tree surgeons came to lop off quite a number of branches. Whilst voicing my objections to the man in charge about the timing of the pruning, there lay a rapidly increasing pile of branches in front of the shredding machine, filled with beautiful white flowers and buds preparing to open. I was given a few minutes to collect some of the blossom for myself before it was fed into a machine, munched into a green mass and driven away.
Down on the allotment the buds on my apple tree are beginning to open and I have trailed some branches from a wild rose bush through the middle, which will keep producing white flowers for most of the summer.

Bumblebees in Winter


Back in January, whilst we were experiencing somewhat milder weather than usual for the time of year, I was working down at the allotment and heard a buzzing sound. I could hardly believe that a bumble bee would be out and about in the middle of winter, but there it was collecting pollen from the multitude of flowers on my two hellebore plants.
Only the queen bee survives the coldest months, usually in hibernation, but lately bees have been more commonly seen in winter, apparently due to the availability of pollen from winter flowering plants in people’s gardens rather than as a result of any changes in temperature.
For a few months my large windowsill (half a metre deep) was devoid of plants due to re-decoration works to the building taking place together with protracted negotiations over health and safety issues. So far, a pot or plant has not fallen off my windowsill, but following the instalment of wrought iron sill guards and insurance against damage from a falling pot, the plants are back there once again. These include the two hellebore plants that I hope the bumblebee at the allotment can do without until the spring flowers arrive. I have to say that the sill guards look very smart, but I am most happy to be looking out onto my window boxes and a bit of colour once again.

Christmas Rose


For the past two years the allotment has had a good covering of snow in the run up to Christmas. This year, even after a few hard frosts, I have been amazed to find that some of my stocks and scabious are still flowering and the plot is generally looking somewhat greener, and less brown and muddy than usual.
One plant that comes into its own in these darkest and coldest months of the year is the hellebore and a couple of Helleborus niger, that are growing in pots on the plot, have produced more clusters of their white flowers than in previous years. Being an alpine plant, which grows wild in the mountains at high altitudes, they are happy with the cold. Helleborus niger is also known as the Christmas Rose and a book that I have on the heritage of flowers tells the tale of a peasant girl who came to Bethlehem wishing to give flowers to the baby Jesus, but could find none, so an angel touched the snowy ground creating this beautiful flower.



After opening the cupboard in my shed the other day, I saw the two sunhats sitting there and realised that neither has been worn all summer. Apparently it has been the coldest summer since 1993 and I also spent quite of bit of time on my visits to the plot sheltering from heavy downpours.
All the same, it has been an excellent year for fruit and the apples on my seven year old Charles Ross tree have never before grown to be so plump and rosy. The three varieties of potatoes that I planted back in April have also done extremely well and I managed to dig up almost a whole barrowful a couple of weeks ago when I decided to lift the remaining plants.
This year there is no allotments prize-giving ceremony due to cutbacks in the borough, but I gained a few more points on the last time and received my Certificate of Excellence in the post together with the judge’s scores.
The compost was one area for improvement, perhaps partly due to it being so well hidden by a mass of nasturtiums and the expansive leaves of a pumpkin plant trailing over the top. Last week I re-painted the wooden compost bin and in it I have started to create what I call my ‘deluxe compost’ by adding layers of muck, kitchen waste and a bagful of seaweed which I brought down from Scotland in my car earlier in the summer. Next to it is a large pile of composting garden waste and manure that I shall leave undisturbed for a while as I found that a toad had made a home in it and will most likely remain there throughout the winter.

Frogs & Newts


One creature that I imagine might be taking some pleasure in this soggy July weather is the frog. I have met a couple on my plot recently; one was a large adult (that didn't mind having its picture taken) and the other a tiny little frog, which must have been only a couple of weeks old, clambering amongst some tall grass stems. Frogs are useful to have around the place as they can help to keep down the slug population, but my concern this year was that the frogspawn had been consumed by newts, which have appeared in greater numbers in the pond this season.
I can’t help being a little fascinated by newts, which are smaller and more delicate looking than I imagined them to be, although I have never seen a great crested newt. They are the largest of our native newt species and can grow to about 15cm long.
I am not too averse to the damp weather conditions myself, as it saves on watering, but I was enjoying working on the plot during the warm twilit evenings last month, when the place takes on a magical quality and other life forms begin to emerge from their daytime resting places.

Roses & currant bushes


Quite of lot of my gardening takes place on my windowsill at this time of year and it is now packed full of pots sitting behind the window boxes as I wait for the seedlings to become large enough to transplant.
All the roses are already blooming and I can now try to identify a bush which self-seeded last year and has produced a profusion of small, white flowers. I was expecting a dog rose with pale pink flowers, but the one that I have got has pretty white roses with heart-shaped petals and a gentle scent.
Earlier in the year I built a wooden frame around my currant bushes and one of my jobs over the weekend was to put a net over this before the fruit fully ripened. When I looked for the currants, which I had seen only the week before, I realised that I was already too late! Every single one had been eaten by birds, leaving only bare stems and absolutely no trace of the fruit at all.



At the start of the month I read a couple of newspaper articles on snowdrops which gave some insight into the nationwide activities of galanthophiles (snowdrop enthusiasts) at this time of year. I am not surprised by the popularity of these pretty and delicate little flowers, which seem to appear as if by magic from the cold ground as harbingers of a change in the season as we move towards spring.
On the allotment the snowdrops were flowering in time for Candlemas Day, a Christian festival on the 2nd February, from which they take their old English name of Candlemas Bells. This date is the midpoint of winter, halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox later in March.
Another plant to brave the winter weather is the hellebore, with its beautifully subtle shades of flowers. I have two Helleborus Niger that are currently blooming magnificently in pots at either end of my windowsill.
On the allotment the roses have been pruned and I recently turned a large pile of composting manure which I will use to fill a new raised bed. I am more wary of removing the compost from a wooden bin containing kitchen and garden waste after seeing a nose and whiskers appear from a gap in the frame and suspect that a rat may have nested there for the winter.



At this time of year my visits to the plot are brief, not only due to the cold weather but also to avoid treading on the waterlogged earth and creating even more of a muddy mire when the ground is no longer frozen. The site looks untidy and bleak throughout the winter months, other than when there is a covering of snow or frost and the chandelier suspended from a branch on my neighbour’s plot resembles icicles glistening in the cool winter light.
Whilst all appeared tranquil at the allotment site, tracks in the snow revealed just how much activity goes on whilst us humans are not around. Foxes have a free run of the place but there are also two large cats, which most likely prey on birds feeding on unprotected winter crops.
Now that the snow has melted, the grass on the paths is looking fresh and green. There is little to do other than adding muck to the compost heap, which gets delivered from local stables and lies with steam gently rising from it throughout the winter, waiting for plot holders to come along with their barrows. I have already collected a good amount of muck for my compost heap and have used it as mulch on some of the beds.

Autumn Frost


There was plenty of evidence of an autumn frost on my last visit to the plot. I had been anticipating the demise of the nasturtium plants, which have been growing prolifically on the compost heap over the last few summers and have now spread to other areas of the plot. The leaves were draped in an appropriately ghoulish fashion for this time of year, over the compost bins and an upturned wheelbarrow, and clearing the vast tangle of stems was made all the more difficult by the appearance of a large frog, which was reluctant to move and had perhaps chosen that spot for its winter hibernation.
This autumn I have made apple jelly from a supply of apples that I was given from another plotholder. My own apple tree is a Charles Ross which I bought from a grower up in Scotland and planted out about five years ago. It produces lovely, large and colourful apples and has fruited well over the last couple of seasons, but I barely had a chance to taste the apples this year as the birds feasted on a number of them whilst others succumbed to a tendency to quickly begin to rot. Charles Ross is a late Victorian apple that is a cross between a Cox’s Orange Pippin and an old English cooking apple called Peasgood Nonsuch, so the fruit can be used for either eating or cooking.

Awards Ceremony


Last month I received an invitation to the Council’s 2010 Awards Ceremony which was held one evening in the Herb Garden in Battersea Park, at the end of a warm autumn day. Our allotment site picked up a silver cup for the Best Community Gardens Project and I received a Certificate of Merit for my plot, which was something of a surprise but very satisfying to have this specially designed piece of paper as recognition for my ongoing efforts. The charm of sitting outside in the garden intensified as darkness fell with the aroma of the plants all around and candlelit hanging lanterns illuminating the way along the main intersection of paths. Food was provided and there was a mellow and friendly atmosphere brought by the organisers and fellow gardeners gathered together.
The Herb Garden is run by Thrive, a national charity that uses gardening to help change the lives of disabled people, and this year they won a ‘gold’ for their garden at Chelsea.
Recently I visited another charity garden when I was up in the West End of London. I had a memory of small semi-neglected area of green close to the Charing Cross Road that I used to sometimes visit to eat my lunch when I was at art school there many years ago. I thought that I would take a look, fully expecting the space to have become drastically transformed by a large modern building, but I was amazed to find a thriving community garden in this dense area of urban jungle. The Phoenix Garden, as it is named, is managed by volunteers and provides a small haven for people and urban wildlife alike and is open all year round from morning til dusk.

Shield Bugs


This summer I have regularly come across shield bugs climbing amongst the foliage of plants on my plot and I enjoy watching them and am happy for them to be there since they do little damage. Often I will find one amongst the food that I have gathered as I make my journey home and feel a pang of guilt about transporting the little fellow even deeper into the urban jungle.
I have only ever seen green shield bugs before, so I was surprised to find one that was a pale purple colour, with a little green and some black and white edging. I thought that it looked exquisite and it matched the purple stock flower on which I found it. It turns out that it is a Sloe Shield Bug that can be found throughout August on shrubs including the Sloe bush, hence its name.



Sunday was one of those blissful early autumn days at the allotment. The sun was shining and whilst weeding I was accompanied by a pair of fledgling robins, hopeful of picking up a few worms. The young birds didn’t have to venture far from the nest as I have seen the parent birds darting in and out from beneath a small apple tree on my neighbour’s plot all throughout the summer.
A less likely bird to find in the area is what looks to be a kestrel that has appeared recently, circling above a line of trees and open ground adjacent to the plot or sitting perched on the top of a telegraph pole.
When I first took on my plot I was fascinated to see the parakeets and how they survive our climate far from their native homeland in India, but they do very well and at this time of year I find the ground littered with sunflower seeds where the birds have been feeding from the sunflower heads.
As I was preparing to leave the allotment in the early evening about a dozen parakeets flew past, making a louder squawking sound than usual, and I looked up to see the unmistakable shape of a heron flying overhead. I have only seen a heron there once before and this one was probably attracted by the pond which at the moment is newly filled with clear water, so there is little opportunity for amphibians and other small creatures to hide from such predators.

Plot Number 5


Recently I came across a list of things that I planned to do or achieve in the year 2002 and one of them was to get an allotment. At the end of May that year I received a letter from the Council offering me plot number 5 at New Malden Allotment Site. I don’t know what first put the idea into my head, as I had never known anyone who had an allotment, but I somehow managed to squeeze in before the onset of increasing demand for gardening space, particularly amongst us urban dwellers.
What I imagined was an area the size of a large room with plants and perhaps the odd weed growing in-between. What I found on my first visit with a friend was a space three times the size, partially covered with old carpet and thick with weeds growing up through it, a couple of rusty old locker cabinets at one end and a huge pampas grass at the other.
As an amateur gardener, taking on an allotment has been a steep learning curve but a thoroughly enjoyable one and the plot has come a long way since the early stages. A turning point was adding raised beds, the first being made from the wooden frame of a bed that I found outside in the street.
The site lies at a point where the streams of two rivers meet and a recently renovated pumping system drains away some of the water. Nevertheless, the heavy clay soil is extremely prone to becoming waterlogged and flooding in the winter months.
As summer comes to an end I am torn, as always, as to when to clear the slowly fading plants. A hard frost will bring its finishing touch but we are not there yet and in the meantime a handful of late blooming sunflowers beam down from their lofty stems, the roses and sweet peas are still in full flower and inevitably I will continue to find healthy beans dangling amongst a tangle of dying leaves and stems.
I shall miss the scent of sweet peas as I go about my work but there is a feeling of satisfaction in clearing the beds and starting afresh for the coming year.