allotment

Life talk

I’ve been spending time lately with someone who is dying. The day I thought I might see him for the last time I went for a run beside the stream near our house. I was trying to work out what to say. Is it better to plan, or to wait and see what comes in the moment?

I was running past a bridge and the sun was falling through the trees and splashing on the path. You should talk to him about life, I thought. Tell him how grateful you are for his gift, the one that made it possible for you to live here. Tell him about the tomatoes slowly ripening in the allotment polytunnel, and the way the light is lying in a shaft across that millstone.

millefleur

I ran beside a stretch of water that is kept for wildfowl. The moorhens’ nest had gone, and the mallards dozing in the early morning sun didn’t even twitch as I went by. You should talk much more about life, I thought. You should talk about the heron flying across the reddening sky last night, and the earthworms that show that the allotment soil is getting healthier, and the fox that appeared out of nowhere after you had put manure around the raspberries and stared you straight in the eyes, as if daring you to try and scare it away.

chocolate cherry

I’m picking up the blog again because I’ve realised that the most important things in life only become visible when you pay proper attention. I’ve been trying to develop that habit of paying attention, especially on the allotment where there is so much to learn, not just about how to grow food but also about the myriad life forms that share the plot with us. It’s a hard habit to embed when so many things clamour for an instant response, when so much seems urgent, pressing, demanding of haste. I hope that  regular blogging will help.

When I saw my dying friend after the run last week, he asked me the usual things born of a lifetime of good manners. How are you, how are the children, did you have a good journey? I told him we were well, that the journey was long but OK. I told him about the red kite hovering over the M1. His eyes lit up.

Advertisements

On the allotment: July 17

teaselsWhen we took on the allotment we promised ourselves one thing: we would not allow it to become a source of stress.

Easier said than done.

Last week we needed to propagate the strawberries, there was sowing to do for autumn planting and a third of the plot still consisted of nose-high grass.

overgrown

I had a brief moment of head-clenching tension and then thought: enough.

We are privileged enough not to depend on this land for food. The crops will become an increasingly important part of our diet but one of the main reasons we love this plot is that as well as helping us learn to grow vegetables, it is enriching our lives and refreshing our spirits, forcing us to move away from the computer screens that dominate the rest of our time.

So we took the decision to focus only on clearing the rest of the ground and digging out new beds. That will allow us to have a proper planting plan next year.

There is still plenty to do.

brambles

weed heap

I’m a bit sad that this means we might not have our own strawberries next year, but that’s another thing about growing food: it forces you to take a longer perspective. We might have to buy them from the greengrocer for a season, but we can hope for a crop in 2016.

It’s a difficult mental adjustment when you are used to daily, even hourly, deadlines. But it feels like a healthy kind of discipline.

This has been a good fortnight for flowers …

courgette flower

Courgette

French bean

French bean

Tomato

Tomato

… and a very bad one for rhubarb.

rhubarb

Things are even worse now than in this picture: almost all the leaves have dropped off and the stems have turned a nasty shade of brown. I’ve been Googling away to try and identify the problem and was a bit ashamed to turn up site after site proclaiming that rhubarb is a very easy crop to grow and poses virtually no problems.

But I fear we may have crown rot. Does anyone else have experience of this, or suggestions for a different diagnosis? I’m tempted to spread a thick layer of manure all around and hope for the best, but I don’t want to waste the stuff if the rhubarb is really a lost cause.

Linking up with Soulemama, who is doing interesting things with a bumper bean crop.

on the allotment :: July 3

Crafty shot that does not show the nose-high grass which still covers about half the plot.

Crafty shot that does not show the nose-high grass which still covers about half the plot.

 harvest

shallots

shallots1

There are two types of harvest on our allotment: ones we have worked for and ones that are an astonishing free gift. The shallots fall in to the former category – they were the first things we planted here when we only had two workable beds in the autumn. Right now they are hanging in the greenhouse to dry out, and I am frantically Googling recipes. Knowing how much of something to plant seems to be one of the hardest things for an allotment newbie to grasp.

All the fruit was here when we took over the plot and apart from a bit of weeding I have done virtually nothing to care for the plants. It feels like cheating.

The gooseberries have become jam, a crumble, and, most deliciously, some gooseberry and elderflower sorbet using a recipe from Sarah Raven’s excellent Garden Cookbook. Possibly my favourite frozen dessert ever.

digging

roots

There has been digging this past fortnight, too. It’s a bit like marking out territory for me: every time we move, and now on this allotment, I heft out the soil in a trench one spit* deep, shovel in a layer of manure, cover with soil by digging a parallel trench, and so on to the end of the bed.

Along the way you get the satisfaction of extracting weeds right down to their roots, even the most tenacious customers like bindweed and dandelions.

I never disrupt the soil again. Every spring and autumn I cover the beds with manure or home-made compost that the worms can draw down to enrich the earth. Tip: I have recently discovered that our city farm sells fantastic manure for a smallish sum of money that goes straight back into their educational programmes.

slates

The latest bed is edged with slates from our neighbours who were having a new roof installed. I’m enjoying using only found materials for the allotment: we have a tiny budget so it’s a necessity, but I actually prefer the effect to something more uniform.

blackcurrants

redcurrantsFinally our son, helpfully just back from university, has been hacking away some of the comfrey, bindweed and thistles that were rampaging through the currant bushes. I don’t think the harvest will be huge this year, but surely something good must result from berries as magical as these.

Joining with Soulemama and others around the world to share news about growing.

*spit: a layer of earth whose depth is equal to the length of the blade of a spade

on the allotment: June 19

slugs

snail

cucumber seedlings

This week I could complain about the slugs and snails or boast about the cucumber seedlings, but what I would really like to do is celebrate the humble broad bean.

broad beans

Ours were sown in March, so are well behind our neighbour’s crop, which they put in last winter. I think I will try overwintering for next year, as it would be lovely to have some fresh beans right now to smash into crostini toppings or whizz into hummus to go with the plates of salad leaves we are harvesting.

bean flower

However, I love this stage of the broad bean. I have always been fascinated by the idea of a flower that is black and white: so elegant and striking, and so unlikely somehow. But it wasn’t until earlier this year, when I was reading John Clare as part of my degree, that I realised these flowers also have a heavenly scent. Clare (1793-1864) has been one of the great discoveries of my course so far: he’s astonishingly relevant today in his attitude to the environment, and his beautifully observed writing about the natural world around his Northamptonshire village of Helpstone makes me want to rush out into the woods and start looking for birds and flowers.

Here’s the poem that taught me to lean over to smell the broad beans:

The Bean Field

A bean field full in blossom smells as sweet
As Araby, or groves of orange flowers;
Black-eyed and white, and feathered to one’s feet,
How sweet they smell in morning’s dewy hours!
When seething night is left upon the flowers,
And when morn’s bright sun shines o’er the field,
The bean-bloom glitters in the gems o’ showers,
And sweet the fragrance which the union yields
To battered footpaths crossing o’er the fields.

John Clare

I was tying some of the taller plants to canes the other day and realised the leaves are also perfumed: they smell almost the same as the beans and to brush against one is to experience the delicious anticipation of the day when the pods will be ripe enough to open. My mother always froze some and served them up on Christmas Eve, smothered in parsley sauce, the perfect accompaniment to boiled ham. And I shall do the same.

I’m linking up with Soulemama today, and other people around the world who post notes about how their gardens are growing.

How does your garden grow?

Hmm, well in our garden the answer to that question all depends on where you stand. I could place you in front of the bog garden and pond, for example.

pond and bog garden

iris
That might give the impression of a relatively well-tended space. But you would only have to turn through 90 degrees to see this.

hedge clippings
And this.

DSC_0011

Hedge clippings waiting to be disposed of, a flowerbed so full it is amazing everything doesn’t collapse from strangulation.

It’s a similar story, but multiplied to the power of ten, down on the allotment. On the one hand I am ridiculously excited about the number of beans we have been able to plant, and I particularly like having enough room for a ridge support, which makes me feel like a proper veg grower.

beans
On the other hand – this confusion of fruit bushes, comfrey and waist-high grass is more typical of the plot as a whole.

DSC_0003
There have been times this month when I have wondered whether we will ever get on top of everything. Slugs ate all our beetroot and Brussels sprout seedlings. Birds took the first strawberries.

As an allotment newbie I’m learning the importance of perseverance. I’ve put nets on the strawberries and bought some new Brussels sprouts plants – which will also be netted. I’ve taken an old strimmer to be overhauled. It feels like a long slog, getting this plot under control, but every day there are encouragements to spur us on.

gooseberries

DSC_0034

green strawberries

I’m linking up with Soulemama today: I love the idea of gardeners all over the world sharing their plots. What’s more, sometimes Amanda posts a garden cocktail recipe. I’m not normally a great cocktail fan, but she had me at the Rhubarb Collins – another great incentive to persevere with growing.

Allotment secrets

The days are getting longer and I am itching to start our first full growing season on the new allotment. But there’s nothing I can do there yet. Sheffield has escaped flooding this year, thank goodness, but still the ground is waterlogged.

Our allotment: very much a work in progress

Our allotment: very much a work in progress

This week we had some pale sunshine and I wandered down to the site to see what I would find. There’s a strange tension on a warm day in February: I welcome the break in wintry grey and the sudden loudness of birdsong in the woods but I also fear that plants will start to push through too soon. The weather is fickle at this time year and a week of mild temperatures can be followed by iron frosts: last year we had thick snow at the end of March.

DSC_0019

DSC_0022

On the allotments there is an air of expectancy. Most of the plots that I first saw bursting with produce back in August are empty now. Here and there I spot a few leeks, some overblown brassicas, but on the whole the beds are a uniform brown, naked beneath the watery sky.

A few are covered in thick layers of manure: it looks as though nothing is happening but I am obsessed with soil these days and I know billions of organisms are active below the surface, pulling down goodness, working fertility, preparing the way for sowing and harvest.

DSC_0006

Every so often the earth offers a glimpse of spring. Crimson rhubarb tips, startling in their brightness; a clump of snowdrops.

DSC_0032Nobody needs a snowdrop on an allotment and it makes me smile to think of someone defiantly planting them on this very practical prospect of rickety sheds, raised beds and upturned wheelbarrows.

DSC_0034

I think there has been some secret revelry while most of us gardeners were curled up in our warm houses. The scarecrows that won a prize in last year’s allotment competition are looking decidedly the worse for wear.

Before ...
Before …
After
After

I’m about to move on when I see something strange is also happening on the scarecrow-plot’s shed. They’ve put a green roof on it, these enterprising allotment neighbours of ours.

DSC_0002

Back in the summer it was thick with grass and wild flowers but now the vegetation has died back a bit to reveal a whole new world, a jumbled-up jungle, a scrambled safari park.

DSC_0023DSC_0024DSC_0025DSC_0026It’s compelling, the liminality of this place, this time of year. The allotments are in the city but barely of it, full of bustle and busyness but keeping their activity silent and hidden. The season is mostly winter but also teetering on the threshold of spring. No wonder there is magic on the shed roof.

What else am I missing, I wonder as I turn for home.