Saturday, 31 July 2010

Squash Harvest

These were my spoils today. All these squash will make lovely soup, or will roast well, and the beauty of them is that they will store well through the winter at room temperature and be decorative into the bargain.

I place this green plastic on the ground beneath the trailing plants to raise them above any puddles when it rains (not that we have had much of that this summer!) and it also gives some measure of protection from slugs.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Bee on Eryngium

Bees love Eryngiums - as do wasps and other flying insect pollinators. The flowers come in most attractive hues of blue, and the stems are the same colour. They make very good dried flowers in flower arrangements (minus the bees!).

Images copyright Eleanor Stoneham 2010

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Blueberries and blackbirds

I would have found it all comical were it not for the fact that the blackbirds had already eaten most of my plump ripe blueberries.

When I went downstairs for breakfast I glanced out of the kitchen window and immediately noticed something amiss with the blueberry bush. Where yesterday there had been a good crop ready for picking, I could not see any fruit! So I padded out in my nightie hoping no one was watching, to survey the damage.

Sure enough, the birds had managed to find a way in through the plastic screening I had erected around the bush. I thought the mesh size was too small for the birds - but clearly not - or they have just become smarter at squeezing through the holes. It worked last year. Anyway, they had eaten all the ripe berries, leaving only a handful of those still to ripen. I must at least salvage those, I thought, so I straightaway replaced the screening mesh, using some with smaller holes! And went back indoors for breakfast.

Within less than a minute two blackbirds came down, a male and his mate. They strutted around the new guard, tried to cling to its sides, perched on top, walked around it again, and so on .... They just could not believe what had happened or understand why they could no longer get in to eat the fruit! It took quite a while before they gave up and went away! I wish I could have filmed their antics. They were very funny.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

More Harvest

Yesterday was dry and warm; in fact it was almost unbearably muggy and humid. But in spite of that I spent several hours at the allotment doing lots of tidying up, harvesting, getting more barrow loads of manure to spread on bare patches, trimming the grass edges and keeping any stray weeds at bay.

I dug the shallots up and rather than leaving them to dry on the surface of the soil I have brought them home and spread them in the garage to dry - I am tempted to make ropes of them in the same way as garlic, (right) to hang in my kitchen for use throughout the winter.

I also took home all the remaining cauliflowers. They are slightly damaged by caterpillars and I soaked them in a bowl of water to flush the caterpillars out. This also brought forth several earwigs. All the creatures were given a new home in the compost heap!

With so many cauliflowers to deal with, I made some soup, using home grown shallots and garlic, with vegetable stock, and blitzing the softened mixture with cheddar cheese in the liquidizer. It tastes delicious and has been frozen for the winter. Those cauliflowers not used for soup will store in the bottom of the fridge for a week or so quite happily.

Also coming up ready for harvest are several of the squashes. Many of these store well through the winter or make delicious soup for freezing. Otherwise they roast well with a mixture of other vegetables for a hearty winter meal. More about those another day.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Be your own gardening expert

Here is another gem of a book from my childhood of the 1950's. I remember buying this, in a garden shop in the middle of Ashford in Kent on my way home from school. It cost me the princely sum of One shilling and Sixpence old money, or 7.5 new pence!

Look at the conventional 1950's family on the cover; the man in charge, smoking his pipe, the lady doing the more genteel garden chores, and the two children, a boy and a girl, being brought up to help in the garden!

I remember rushing home with the book, with its "Free soil tester inside!" and testing my own soil. I can't recall the result, but the small piece of litmus paper is still in its little envelope stuck within the inside cover, with my neat handwritten note telling me to mix one teaspoon of tap water with one teaspoon of soil in a saucer!

Most interesting now, in addition to the quaint presentation of ideas, is the prominent use of DDT amongst the remedies for pests. It seems that spraying DDT freely on fruit and vegetables was a widely recommended practice. Fortunately I could not afford such chemicals so my gardening was by necessity fairly organic. I have often felt that the free use of such chemicals has been the cause of many cancers since.

Rachel Carson also saw the dangers of using so many chemicals without understanding their longer term effects, and following her book, Silent Spring, and the public outcries which followed, DDT was banned in the USA in 1972. It later became the subject of a world wide ban in agricultural following the Stockholm Convention. This ban is credited with bringing the Bald Eagle, the national bird of the USA, from the brink of extinction.

I used to read avidly any gardening books I could get hold of which must explain my wide general knowledge on all matters horticultural to this day!

Monday, 26 July 2010

Middleton's Gardening Guide

It cost two shillings and sixpence in "old" money - that's 12.5 new pence post decimalization! Still quite a lot of money when I was a child. But I managed to buy it and it was my gardening "bible" for all my horticultural endeavors on my vegetable plot at home.

I well recall the frustrations of not being able to afford many of the aids recommended by Mr Middleton. How could I possibly afford cloches, for instance? Or seed potatoes? Or all the pots and seed trays he assumed we had unlimited access to? Or the peat, chalk, sand, loam, sulphate of potash, to make the recommended John Innes composts?

All I had access to in abundance was free cow manure from our covered yard, where our dairy herd over wintered, and I lugged vast quantities of the stuff over to the vegetable garden, spreading it widely as well as building a huge heap on which I grew amazingly enormous marrows!

But I poured over the "Gardening guide for every week - all the year round," marking items for me to act on at the appropriate times, whilst dreaming of all the many things beyond my grasp. I used to send off for all the seed catalogues and save pocket money to buy seeds. I wish now that I had kept those old catalogues.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Manure and compost

We are very lucky on our allotments to have an unlimited supply of horse and cow manure brought to the site by local farmers. This may be either straw or wood shavings based, and may be supplied in various stages of decomposition. We have just had the latest load delivered and as I gradually clear the crops, I am busy stockpiling barrow loads onto the bare earth ready to be spread and dug or forked in over the autumn and winter. A thick layer over the soil at this stage will keep any weeds at bay, and once dug in it also really helps to break up the heavy clay soil, improving its texture and drainage, as well as supplying plenty of nitrogen for healthy crops next year.

I also compost all plant waste on the site. Here you can see my two green plastic bins, and the two wooden compost containers, that are filled in rotation. By the time the fourth container is filled to the brim the first container will have produced beautiful sweet smelling, fully rotted compost, that will be fine and friable to the touch and can be spread across the allotment.

The plastic "dalek" bins are OK, but the very best compost is being made in the two square wooden bins. I bought them from The Recycle Works, they are very easy to construct from the flat packed wood, and I am delighted with the first compost from them.

Like many other "plotters" I started with a compost bin made from old wooden pallets, tied together with string at the corners - very rough and ready! These seem to be very popular - presumably because they are cheap - but they do not make good compost; there is too much ventilation, the material dries out too readily and does not heat up sufficiently to complete the decomposition process.

Saturday, 24 July 2010


The plot is probably at its most productive at this time of year. The runner beans are offering their first picking, there is plenty of lettuce, perfect beetroot, courgettes and marrows, the butternut squash are swelling nicely, the broad beans were splendid and the surplus frozen, new potatoes are in full swing and the main crop ones look good. In addition we are eating cauliflower and asparagus peas, and the rhubarb is still going strong.

Not everything has been successful. My carrots have been a disaster this year and I'm not sure why. Perhaps I shall do a pH test and see if that throws any light on their stunted growth. Could I have over limed for the brassicas last year?

But just look at these shallots.

I've never grown them before and this could be beginner's luck! Hard to believe that one tiny "seed" shallot planted only 3 months ago could produce 10 more! Not a bad investment return.
As soon as we have the prospect of a few dry warm days I shall lift them all and leave them for those few days on the soil surface to dry before taking them home to finish off and to store like onions for the winter. I could pickle some. Apparently if the summer has been wet (which this one hasn't!!) then shallots do not overwinter well and have to be pickled to preserve them for any length of time.

Friday, 23 July 2010

A Heron at the allotment

When I cycle around our country lanes I have more than once been deceived by a field covered in horticultural plastic, shimmering in the sunlight, that from a distance I have mistaken for a sheet of water.

I was up at the allotment early today. It felt like one of those autumnal mornings with a slight crispness in the air and the promise of a fine day ahead. There was a commotion in the sky above me and I looked up to see a crow apparently chasing a much bigger bird away. But the big bird soon returned, and as I watched it circled above me, coming closer and closer to me. Surely I wasn't about to be attacked, I thought. Then I saw that it was in fact a heron. And suddenly it turned around and flew away to the woods beyond the plot. What was this about?

Then I noticed I was standing close to the fleece covering part of the plot next to mine. Could it be that the heron had mistaken this for water, a pond in which it could go fishing, perhaps?

I'm inclined to think so.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Hosepipe ban

Today the North West of Britain has a hosepipe ban introduced. This means the inhabitants can fill their swimming pools and ponds with a hose, but cannot water the garden with sprinklers and the like.

Here in the South East of England we have no ban as yet, but all my garden water butts, and I have quite a few, are all empty or nearly so. I have resorted to lugging my bath water downstairs to water the flower gardens. I wonder if my flowers appreciate the "stress reliever" bubble bath, the "pamper and nourish your skin" bubble bath or the "aching muscle relief" bubble bath - the last named has been used rather a lot lately! I only use these on flower beds and my home made compost only goes back on those beds, so I do not worry about the possible tainting with chemicals that may ensue.

I have always resisted watering on the allotment, apart from when plants are establishing themselves. I have been of the view that there is plenty of water deep in the soil and that the plants should be left to their own devices to find it and not encouraged to be lazy! But clearly this cannot apply to shallow rooted plants, such as radish, and other roots, including particularly celeriac, which is notoriously difficult to grow well in a dry summer.

This year all my best principles have gone out of the window. The strawberry plants have wilted, the potato crop is threatened, the lettuces are slow getting going, the celeriac are standing still and not growing at all, in short most of the crops desperately need more water. So every other day or so I give them all a jolly good soak. This is far more satisfactory than giving everything a dribble every day. And after watering, the straw in the farmyard and stable manure, spread around the plants, is acting as a jolly good mulch, helping to conserve the water for the plants rather than letting it evaporate and go to waste.

PS Note the organic slug pellets. I will never use non organic pellets on the allotment.

Monday, 5 July 2010

planning the plot

This photo shows my plot in early spring 2008 when I had marked it out and made the first few sowings and plantings.

My plot measures 25 metres x 6 metres and is here photographed from east to west. North is therefore to the right hand side of the photo. I chose to divide it into 3 rough squares, with 2 wide paths running NS between those squares.

I then divided the square nearest to the camera into 4 raised beds which you can see here, with narrow paths between, which I regularly cover with wood chippings etc from home. The advantage of this is that I never have to walk on those beds - this virtually eliminates the need for digging - After the initial work to deep dig the manure into the soil, the beds need only a light fork over as crops are removed - and again a light forking to incorporate any new manuring.

These 4 beds were designed for a crop rotation over 4 years, the groups being: Roots, Tomatoes/marrows, Legumes and onions/brassicas. Rows of seeds should preferably run from N to S to take full advantage of sun through the day and this I did.

I intended the westernmost square to take strawberries and perhaps redcurrants/blackcurrants, and the middle square for permanent crops such as Jerusalem Artichoke, Rhubarb, Horseradish - and the compost bins.

In fact over the 3 years so far I have had to be more flexible but I still adhere as far as possible to that sort of rotation - important for the health of the soil and to keep pests and diseases at bay in an organic setting.

I had also failed to make provision for potatoes which use a lot of space but really improve the land by virtue of the work required in growing them.

This photo is from the SW corner looking towards the NE in the summer of 2008. The flower in the corner is a Sedum, and the south side of the plot is bordered with wild strawberries that I brought from a patch I was weeding out at home. They have made a pretty border each year since, can be ruthlessly kept under control with sharp spade and shears, and produce an abundant crop of the tiny sweet berries each year, but patience is required to pick them!

But just look how much progress has been made from such an unpromising start!

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Spring 2008 on the allotment

Some "plotters" as we are often now called were quick off the mark that first year and not only managed to get sheds up but also had the foresight to plant daffodil bulbs to give a show of colour that first spring. This photo was taken April 2008. It is not my plot!

There was plenty of construction going on all around the site. As well as the many sheds going up there were also plenty of strange goings on with posts and stakes as plotters planned mini orchards and fruit cages. And many were constructing raised beds with planks of wood and imported top soil.

I chose not to grow any fruit trees as I was concerned at the space they would take up. And I had no timber to make raised beds but I made my own improvisations as we shall see later.

For now just look at the difference another 3 months has made!! This was taken July of that first year! No one could really believe just how much progress was made and what superb produce we took home to eat that summer.

Look at those runner beans in the background, and the broad beans, broccoli and spinach in the foreground. The broccoli are totally caged to keep pigeons and butterflies away.
Pigeons found the allotment in no time and would strip brassica leaves down to the midrib given half a chance.
And the only sure way to keep caterpillars away from brassicas is to keep the butterflies out with suitably small netting!

Saturday, 3 July 2010

In the beginning...

Here begins the story of my vegetable plot.
Three years ago, in winter 2007/2008, I became the proud lessee of a patch of ground in the middle of a grassy and oh so stony field. I had walked over the field earlier in 2007, when negotiations were progressing between the potential landlord and our allotment association, and it felt like I was walking over a kind of gloopy sinking mud, and that any moment this awful stuff was going to part me from my wellington boots.

There were no worms to be seen in the soil, and no birds in the air above us. It seemed a pretty barren field. But most of us were undaunted by such an unpromising start!

Our wonderful committee not only marked out our plots but gave them all a very rough dig with a rotavator. We were also lucky to have an unlimited supply of cow manure from a local dairy farmer. So that first winter the wise amongst us put that manure to good use and covered our plots with it - barrow load after barrow load of this stuff was carted across the field to our plots, and spread thickly, to be left to rot down over the winter months.

....and what a difference this thick winter manure dressing made! Those few who for whatever reason had not heeded the advice of our chairman and had not taken advantage of the freely available mulch found that, come the spring of 2008, their plot resembled a badly overgrown lawn - thick matted weeds and grass - well let's face it, an arable field. Not so much of a surprise there, but some budding gardeners never really caught up after that, and appear to still struggle to keep their weeds at bay.

As the old saying goes, one year's seeding is seven years' weeding. How very true.

Whereas those of us who had worked so hard in the winter cold that first year were handsomely rewarded. Sorry if I sound smug:

I even planted a few flowers - primulas - in the muddy cold clay - as a harbinger of that first spring that held so much promise for us all.

And the all important compost bin had high priority - seen in the distance. I made mine rather inexpertly from wooden pallets and string (!), but later we shall see, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it did not survive for very long.

I cannot remember why I covered part of the ground with fleece at that stage. Obviously I wanted to warm the ground for something, but goodness knows what!

My allotment had got off to a promising start.

In later posts I shall chart progress - how I marked out the plot, and why, the mistakes I made and the triumphs, the tears and the fun of it all, the camaraderie and the bleaker moments when thieves broke in. There is so much to tell.

And the rewards are huge. This last few weeks I have picked 50 or 60 pounds or more of the most delicious strawberries - they have been frozen, made into crumble with rhubarb, consumed fresh in vast quantities at every possible opportunity, and given away to all and sundry. And they have seen no nasty chemical pesticides to taint them. They are pure and as far as possible organic. And that is a huge bonus!