Friday, 30 March 2007

Rainy days

It was cold and rainy today but it gave me an opportunity I'd been looking forward to - to prove to myself that I could still be bothered even when the sun wasn't shining! Jess joined me for some exercise too, and though we didn't get a great deal cleared it was still worthwhile - a bit easier even with the soil damp.
Of course, the wildlife didn't mind the wet weather, and I looked up at one point to see several robins watching us from the plot next door and playing in the newly dug dirt.

I have been enquiring about the mysterious trees at the bottom of our plot and it seems the lady who used to rent it (now our neighbour) planted them last year. If she wants them she'll have to come and dig them up before we reach the end of the plot! Or I suppose I could put them in pots and leave them somewhere for her.
We took some soil samples as well today, and home pH tests revealed a miraculously healthy 6.5-7 (6.5 is just about right for any vegetable, and higher than that will help protect brassicas against the dreaded clubroot). This is a real weight off my mind considering you have to wait a month or two between adding lime to the soil and planting anything!
So all is well and we've made a good start on the third strip, which can be planted with carrots, onions and the like as soon as we've finished. Not bad for a rainy day!

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Feeling good!

Hurrah! I have finally done some more digging! I was afraid that it might set back my flu-recovery, but I actually feel much better for it, and the next section of the lot (and one quarter of the whole lot) is clear.

See beyond our compost bin, where the ground is covered in green plastic? Looks like our neighbours (who used to rent our plot as well and who let the whole lot get so overgrown for so long) have been spurred into action at last! I'm ashamed to say I feel a bit miffed; they've neglected it all this time and now with one burst of activity they've planted their potatoes before me! I'm trying not to feel too smug about the fact their soil is just rotovated and will probably be covered in weeds again in a few weeks...
Talking of getting crops in the ground; I've discovered a flaw in my plans. It's time to be planting my potatoes but the area I want to plant them in is still three strips away! I think I'll have to skip ahead; the plan is too fixed in my mind to start shuffling things around now. I finally bought some seed potatoes from Homebase today, having called Suttons to discover that mine were lost in the post; they were very apologetic and gave me a refund. I also discovered that Suttons are all out of the asparagus crowns I wanted (I thought I'd already ordered them, but apparently not!), which was enough to cause me a mild tantrum, but after a fairly short search I found some at Blackmoor Nurseries which are almost half the price! Hurrah again!
My digging method continues to develop; I've been trying to do it more quickly and less thoroughly, telling myself I'm never going to rid of every single weed root anyway. If I go faster and leave some behind it'll make weeding a little bit harder for the next couple of years (any weed'll give up in the end if you keep hoeing it up every time it rears its head) but at least I'll have some crops in the ground before July! However, it's more difficult than I expected not to be thorough, and unfortunately my tools haven't been able to keep up...
Eddie broke the head clean off the edger yesterday (although he found it made a far more effective tool without it; a snapped metal stump being much sharper!) and today the head snapped off my fork too. It was Eddie that insisted we buy cheap to start with, but now I shall have my Spear and Jackson ten-year-guaranteed tools! And I shall be emailing the company I got these ones from...
Hopefully he'll let me buy this storage bench soon too. I can't wait to have somewhere other than the ground to put my things; I picked up my handbag today to go home and a huge shiny beetle ran out of it! And I've been known to inadvertently bring home snails...
Finally, I found something strange on the plot today. At the far end, opposite from where we are digging, someone has weeded and put stones around three little plants - baby trees I think, or maybe raspberry canes.
It's very mysterious... I've noticed one of the plants before but they definitely didn't have stones round them then, so who's trying to lay claim to them? Or is someone just pointing out something useful? Next time I see our neighbour Terry I'll ask him if he knows anything. Until then, the mind boggles....

Saturday, 24 March 2007

my kingdom for a greenhouse...

I sowed my first seeds today! Far later than most gardeners I'm sure, but I keep telling myself the plants will do better for being started a little later, and anyway I don't have a greenhouse which makes things a bit difficult...
Not only that but I have begun a notebook to systematically record growings-on (haha! sorry...) and entered how many sowings I will make of each crop and when, when they should be planted out and when they're ready for harvesting (one page for each variety for easy reference, to record when I actually do things and any problems - or solutions - I come across). Then I entered all that into a Google Calendar, so that I can see what needs doing each week at a glance! (I've put it on the right hand column of this page so you can see too. There's a calendar for sowing seeds indoors, one for outdoor sowing, and one for planting out - if anyone knows how I can display them all as one please do tell!) It took hours, and I stopped a few times to wonder if it was really worth it, but now all the hard work's done (almost all of it anyway) I think it's going to be really useful.
SO, having figured out what needed sowing urgently, I have done most of the list for this week and will finish off tomorrow. I also popped into Wilkinsons for a few gardening bits and spotted a six-variety pack of tomatoes I couldn't resist... Suddenly I find I'm growing not two different kinds but eight! There are yellow ones, cherry ones, plum ones, pear-shaped ones, giant ones, stripey ones - why not have some fun!?
Unfortunately, there's a lot more organising going on than actual labour; I'm afraid I'm still too fluey to go and dig in the cold so we haven't got any further with actually clearing the plot, but hopefully in the next few days I'll get down there again and carry on. Clocks go back tonight too so an extra hour of daylight in the evening should help! Eddie has promised to have a go tomorrow (hung over or not!) so I might wrap up warm and potter around and mark things out while he does the hard work. I'm sure it'll get done soon enough; if nothing else, 150 odd seedlings popping up in the kitchen should give us a sense of urgency!

Friday, 23 March 2007

Companions... and a cold

Unfortunately illness (and a very cold spell) has kept me away from the allotment this week and it stands neglected (I expect the weeds are creeping across that lovely newly-prepared soil as I type). The weekend looms and I have vowed, even if I can't face the hard work of digging, to start sowing some seeds.
My seeds have been arriving all week and sit jumbled in a box under the kitchen sink. I really did order quite a lot... I think the only thing that hasn't arrived yet (not including plants which will come later in the season) is my seed potatoes, which is annoying as they really need to get started soon (not that there's weed-free space for them just yet I suppose!). They could do with a bit of organising and planning before I start planting anything so I will try to do that today, in between nose-blowing and drugging myself up on paracetamol and sudafed...

In the meantime I thought I'd tell you about the other plants I intend to grow around the place to benefit the real crops.
Companion (or combination) planting works on a few different principles. There are plants which attract pollinating insects (bees, hoverflies, butterflies) or insects which prey on pests (ladybirds, lacewings, hoverflies, parasitic wasps), there are plants which distract pests from the important crops (rather the marigolds get eaten than your precious lettuces), and there are plants which actually put pests off (coriander repels aphids, for example). There are also plants which affect the soil in ways which benefit other plants (carrot roots exude a chemical which helps the growth of peas), and finally, crops which are grown together simply because it's more efficient to do so (like growing radishes with parsnips; they mark the row during the parsnips' long germination period and are ready to harvest before the parsnips need the space).
There are hundreds of good (and bad) combinations, but I only have a small plot so I have tried to choose just a small selection of herbs and flowers that will bring the greatest benefit to my crops. And here they are:
Comfrey not only improves the soil in which it grows, but makes excellent compost and liquid fertiliser. Its incredibly deep roots bring up nutrients from the subsoil which wouldn't otherwise be available to the plot. All that goodness is transferred to the leaves, which contain 2-3 times more potassium than farmyard manure as well as lots of calcium and phosphorous, and can be cut four or five times a year for composting, mulching or fertiliser. Apparently slugs and snails love it too so it may help to lure them away from other crops.
Lavender attracts bees, butterflies and hoverflies but puts off many flies, fleas and moths, and is said to benefit the soil with its antiseptic properties. Many Victorian gardens were bordered with lavender for these reasons.
Tansy concentrates potassium in the soil and attracts ladybirds to the area, but repels lots of nasties like cabbage worms, squash bugs, borers, ants, flies and moths. It is also good to compost, like comfrey.
Yarrow is another good all-rounder, attracting good insects like ladybirds but deterring almost everything else. It is very hardy and doesn't mind being walked on, so I'm thinking of growing it on my paths.
Creeping Thyme may be another good one for paths; its flowers attract lots of pollinating insects and its strong scent deters cabbage worms.
Rosemary deters cabbage butterflies, bean beetles and carrot flies. Slugs and snails won't touch it, but this may only protect plants if used as a border.
Sage also protects against cabbage and carrot pests. Although cucumbers apparently have a particular loathing for it, which might make me reconsider.
Mint repels ants and aphids, cabbage worms and black flea beetles. It is also supposed to improve the health and flavour of cabbages and tomatoes when grown nearby.
Hyssop is a favourite of bees, and protects against cabbage butterflies. I'm not sure if it repels them or acts as a sacrificial plant and just distracts them, but they did such damage in my garden last year that anything is worth a try to avoid the dreaded cabbage caterpillars!
Bee balm, as the name suggests, attracts bees. It's also said to improve the growth and flavour of tomatoes and it's beautiful!
Wormwood is one I haven't quite made up my mind about yet. It's supposed to be repellent to slugs and snails, but some things I've read have suggested negative effects too, like suppressing the growth of other plants nearby. Maybe I could grow it away from other plants and just use cut pieces as a repellent. I'll have to think about it some more...
Horseradish has a beneficial effect on potatoes and fruit trees, and repels eelworms. It can also be made into an effective insect spray, I'm told...

All the above are perennials, some of them known to be invasive and even considered weeds. For this reason I'll have to keep a close check on them to prevent them taking over the plot (or anyone else's!), and maybe take steps to contain the roots in bottomless pots or similar. These perennials will be grown in permanent borders and pathways.
The plants that follow now are annuals and can be planted in different places each year, with the crops they are expected to benefit the most.

Radishes protect squashes from borers and beetles, so I'll grow them even though I don't like to eat them, and magazines seem to always be giving away free radish seeds so I'd better do something with them!
Sunflowers attract pollinating insects (hopefully from miles around!) and are something I'd really like to grow anyway, not least for the seeds and the stems, which are useful dried and kept for bean supports etc. next year.
Marigolds are good to grow with anything; they deter all kinds of pests and distract the ones they don't put off altogether, they attract pollinators to the area, they suppress harmful nematodes in the soil, they aid tomato growth and they're even edible!
Nasturtiums have similar effects, particularly deterring aphids and squash bugs and providing a tasty alternative to lettuce for the slugs and snails. Like Marigolds too, they are edible; the leaves are apparently great in sandwiches and the seeds provide a good home-grown alternative to black pepper!
Celery is not something I'd grow to eat, but it deters those pesky cabbage butterflies so it's in with my brassicas and I'll give the crop away!
Coriander puts aphids and spider mites off, so I'll plant it near squashes, beans and lettuces, which all suffered in the garden last year.
Basil is said to aid tomatoes, and vice versa, and also deters aphids.
Borage is apparently the best plant for attracting bees, and deters tomato horn worm and japanese beetles. It aids strawberries and is good for the compost heap. It's also supposed to be a pleasant culinary herb which I may experiment with...
Parsley attracts hoverflies and parasitic wasps, deters asparagus beetles, and encourages tomatoes and asparagus.
Petunias also deter asparagus beetle, tomato pests and many more, and can be made into an insect spray.

Wow, that was a lot of information in one go! Of course, all these combinations of plants are recommended by the experiences of others only and may not work in every environment; I suspect this is the beginning of a long learning process before I get it right. But bring on experimentation!

For more about companion planting, follow these links:
Golden Harvest Organics
Down Garden Services
Self Sufficient'ish'
(All these sites have plenty more useful information too; have a look around.)

Friday, 16 March 2007


I hate them! I was approaching this calmly until now but yesterday I spent four hours digging and pulling out weed roots and we only cleared another 2ft of the plot! And we've still got this much to go!
I shouldn't complain too much I suppose; my allotment-neighbour Terry had shoulder-high nettles to deal with when he took over his plot! So I'll count my blessings...
Jess (my lil sis) helped out yesterday too, which was fun, but the slowness of progress is just depressing right now, and my seeds still haven't arrived so I can't even start planting seedlings, which would feel a bit more productive!

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Rakes and Hoes

We've had three whole days off and only managed to spend around six hours on the allotment, which is disappointing. Trouble is, I've mail-ordered my seeds (along with a few tools, a John Yeoman book and several other goodies) and I can't afford to go out too early in the day and miss delivery!
However, we have managed to finish digging the first 8ft section of our plot, clear a load of rubbish from the site, and build a beautiful bin round our compost heap out of pallets. Eddie also found a frog, which was very exciting. A chase ensued and the lady three plots away looked at us in a very strange way...

The weather continues to be beautiful; today was the best of all and it hurt being stuck indoors at work until after dark. I've even got a tan from these last few days (a little worrying considering it's only March I suppose)!
The 8ft strip we've cleared is to house the compost bin (soon to be compost bins), our asparagus bed, fruit bushes and raspberries in the autumn (though looking at it now I'm not convinced there's really room) and some comfrey plants, which should arrive in May.
It's also to be for storage, though we haven't quite figured out how. We have two options really; either a small upright shed, or a horizontal plastic trunk, both costing around £60 we don't really have. I'm reluctant to get a shed for several reasons; (a) it must look more inviting to theives and vandals, (b) you have to get planning permission, (c) it's tall, so it'll block off some of next door's sunlight, and (d) what an effort to build and treat it! (I know; I'm lazy.) The trunk would take up more groundspace than a shed, I can't find one long enough to put rakes and hoes in, and isn't lockable (I'm not really sure if it needs to be round here). We'll probably go for the trunk option in the end; there's a good one in B&Q that doubles as a bench (and we really need somewhere to sit down!) But that means the rakes and hoes will have to stay out in the rain... A decision must be made soon; at the moment our tools are living in a cardboard box in the communal shed (and our gloves, nails, tape measure and other bits and pieces in and upturned bucket on our plot!) but they cannot stay there!
Tomorrow I have another day off and I hope to dig the next 8ft strip. I marked it out yesterday and made a start but didn't get very far; it's painfully slow work picking out all the pieces of root left behind. When we move on again I won't try to remove any of the grass before digging and hopefully the soil won't be full of broken roots. You see; already we're learning from our mistakes and refining our methods. (And I expect there will be plenty more mistakes along the way to learn from!)

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Grand Designs...

I've been busy planning...
My plot is approximately 60x20ft; a strip orientated roughly north-south, with winds coming mostly from the west. The site is fairly exposed so there are no great problems with shade except from my own tall crops or those that might pop up in neighbouring allotments. (I'm not sure yet what the etiquette is on casting shadows on other people's crops, but I don't think much could be done about it so I'll ignore the possibility for now.) It's not practical to bunch all the taller crops up one end to expose shorter crops to the south, so I'll put the tall crops on the west instead - at least that way everything will get the morning sun, which we seem to have more of anyway. Of course, it'll leave the tall crops at the mercy of the westerly winds, so I'll have to make sure they are well anchored!

I have divided the plot into 14 8x9ft miniplots, as shown, with three 1ft paths for access and a 1ft herb border running lengthways between the two rows of plots. This covers 59x19ft, so there should be room for borders round the outside edges as well.
These borders are key to my design; I want to give companion planting the best shot I can - it seems like the most sensible and natural method of pest control there is! So the borders will be filled with plants to attract beneficial wildlife and distract or deter pests.
The two northernmost miniplots will be become one and accomodate compost bins, storage, a comfrey bed (to feed the compost and make liquid fertiliser), plus a permanent asparagus bed, a nursery bed for seedlings and, if there's enough space, a blackcurrant bush and some raspberries! I hope this is enough room for the asparagus; one author wrote that he had nine plants in a 4x4ft bed and it produced more than enough for him and his wife, but I have read elsewhere that asparagus needs up to a metre per plant! Guess I'll have to suck it and see (like so many things!)
I am keen to have a pond, to encourage slug-eating frogs and toads, so this will go in plot 4, in the middle, along with some permanent wildlife-attracting plants and some piles of rocks and/or logs to house said wildlife over winter. It would be nice to have somewhere to sit in this wildlife area, if there's room, and I might plant some dwarf fruit trees there too (upright 'minarette' cordons). Originally I was going to scatter the plot with fruit trees so they didn't cast too much shade clumped together, but apparently potatoes don't like to grow near them (or is it vice versa?), so if I keep them grouped together it'll be easier to keep the potatoes separate as crop rotation progresses. It'll also be easier to protect them if I have a problem with birds.
That leaves eleven miniplots for my annual crops:
POTATOES. I've never grown potatoes before and don't know really what kind of yield to expect or how much space they will need, but we don't eat many potatoes anyway so this year they get only plot 3. I'll grow horseradish in the corners of the plot as it is supposed to deter potato-pests and even make the potatoes more resistant to disease.
SWEETCORN is another new one for me. 35 seeds in a pack at 1ft spacings take up just 5x7ft, so in the remaining space I'll try to grow some sweet potatoes; they'll be well sheltered from the wind by the sweetcorn, although the sweetcorn itself may need some support but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. These two will go in plot 2 and preced potatoes in my rotation (the deep roots should help to break up the soil in preparation for the spuds). I'm not too sure about following sweet potatoes with 'normal' potatoes, but I don't believe they're in the same family; I read something recently that implied that sweet potatoes were actually artichokes. Does anybody know? I can but try...
LEGUMES traditionally follow potatoes so this is what I'll do, planting them in plot 5 along with coriander to deter aphids, marigolds to distract the slugs and snails, and borage to attract pollinating bees. I'll have to support my beans and peas well as they'll get a lot of wind.
BRASSICAS follow beans in plot 6 - they love the nitrogen-rich soil legumes leave behind. We love broccoli so there will be plenty of that, but brassicas are probably the best thing for winter-hardy greens, so we should grow cauliflowers, winter kale, spring cabbage and brussels sprouts for when all the broccoli, tomatoes, courgettes and french beans are just a distant memory. Add turnips (which I'm dying to try) and swedes (which I love) and that's a lot of space needed, so I've allocated plot 10 to brassicas as well. In my garden last year I had great trouble with cabbage butterflies on my sprouts, so I will scatter celery plants throughout the brassica plots to deter them, and marigolds to help deal with the slugs.
TOMATOES will go in plot 12 next to the asparagus, as they're said to encourage each other (though rotation means they can't stay there every year!). Peppers, aubergines and chillies can grow here too as they're all in the same family, and I'll line the rows with beneficial basil, parsley, marigolds and garlic.
CARROTS AND ONIONS like to grow together; carrots repel onion fly and onions repel carrot fly, so it's the perfect combination. Plot 11 will hold rows of white and red onions, carrits, leeks and parsnips.
STRAWBERRIES will fill plot 9; I've ordered a bargain 'long season' pack; 18 plants of three different varieties to last the whole summer long. This gives me room to spread the rows out a bit more than in other plots, so marigolds and lettuces can fill in the gaps. Strawberries last two or three years, so other crops will have to rotate around them until it's time for new plants.
LEAFY VEG such as spinach, swiss chard, lettuce and other salad leaves can grow together in rows in plot 8, with marigolds (again) to distract slugs and snails, and coriander to put aphids off. I'll include spring onions here too, but I must remember if I plant rocket that it is a brassica, and should go with the cabbages.
CURCUBITS will fill the remaining two plots - 1 and 7 - as they need so much room. I'll put tall climbing plants (cucumbers and trained squashes and melons) in westerly plot 1, and low-growing courgettes and pumpkins in plot 7 to avoid their shade for as much of the day as possible. I'll underplant the whole lot with nasturtiums, which are supposed to protect them from squash bugs and also distract slugs and snails, and radishes which also protect against squash borers. Annoyingly, I've read cucumbers don't like to grow close to aromatic herbs, so here my herb borders could be a bit of a problem. I'm not doing away with them just for the sake of one crop, so I'll see if it helps to surround the cucumbers with other squashes to distance them a bit. Who knows...?

So that's the plan. A little ambitious perhaps, but there's no harm in trying. I get the feeling once everything's in it'll look a bit crowded compared to most allotments but that's how I want it; a busy garden rather than a highly organised farm! I just hope the soil is up to it; I'll have to take good care of it. Starting by clearing the rest of those weeds...

The morning after

I hurt. A lot.
Forget the jarred arm; every single muscle is complaining. Perhaps I've been a little too enthusiastic. I don't think I've worked that hard all year, not even at work! I have to go to work later today and my job is a physical one, but even moving from one chair to another is taxing me right now!
But at least I'll get fit, and plenty of sun and fresh air, and there's no work more rewarding or more valid than growing your own food. And there's so much more to do...
It's a lovely day and I'm itching to get back to my beautiful little patch of land, but I physically can't. So this morning will be spent at the computer; ordering and planning.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Day One

I have my allotment key.
I went there first thing to measure up and start planning. That was honestly all I intended to do, but the itch to get started was too great and I ended up walking to Homebase, buying a spade, a rake and some gardening gloves, and starting to clear the weeds!
It was weird to start with, being there all by myself with a few retired allotmenteers pottering about on their plots all around me. I felt a bit like I was being watched, or judged... But with the sun shining, new shiny tools waiting to get dirty and 20x60 precious feet of neglected soil to cultivate I wasn't going to be put off.
I won't pretend to know the names of the weeds blanketing my little plot; there's a lot of grass - some of it, I suspect, the infamous 'couch grass' - goosegrass, docks and nettles, something that looks like really tough shiny cabbage, millions of salad onions scattered randomly about, and lots of fine feathery stuff with blue and purple flowers. Oh, and a bramble which I tried my hardest to dig up but ended up hacking through the root about two feet down. The feathery stuff rakes up quite easily and the docks and cabbagey things dig up without any problem. The grass is more troublesome; some clumps pull out easily but where it is thick I have to take the whole turf up with my spade, which is hard work, and the couch grass leaves thick white roots behind which all have to be removed. It's going to take a long time!
The soil seems quite good; black and loose and crumbly, and kept moist by its thick mulch of weeds! I'm disappointed by the number of stones in it (not to mention slugs, snails and fat green caterpillars!) but that can be remedied, and I have started a rock-pile to use in and around the pond I plan to dig...
After around five hours of raking and digging (in sweltering heat for early March) I have semi-cleared about a third of the plot, built an impressive first compost heap, started a rockery and made a new friend (Alan, who has had the huge corner plot for three years and is very enthusiastic about potatoes), not to mention badly jarring my right arm, nearly passing out from dehydration (luckily there's a newsagent just around the corner!) and getting unduly muddy. I had planned to come home and spend the evening designing my veg patch, deciding what would go where, and ordering seeds, but frankly I'm exhausted! Instead I have fallen asleep on the sofa, spent far too long in the shower and moped around complaining about the pain in my arm.
But it doesn't matter; I can't wait to go back!
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