Guilty Allotmenteers

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The last few weeks have been so busy that our rookie allotment has been left to its own devices, leaving us with two emotions – frustration and guilt.  The sound of the weeds growing and the courgettes swelling has almost been audible from our house, where we have been, preoccupied with other things.

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Aside from snatching the occasional half hour to water the plants in the greenhouse (Peppers, Aubergines & Cucumbers) and pick bunches of Sweetpeas to ensure their succession later in the year, we have been notably absent.

During the swift snatches of time watering and picking, it has become evident that we have missed the allotment more than it has missed us.  Yes, the grass is long and covered in clover, there’s an obscene amount of weeding to be done and recently emptied beds to tidy and re-use, but the veggies and the flowers are flourishing all by themselves.

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The Raspberries and Blackberries are beginning to fruit and the Gooseberries – which were picked young and green last year – have enjoyed being left alone and have swollen into giant purple beauties.  The Sweetcorn, Jerusalem Artichokes and Runner Beans have grown high and the Lettuce, Radishes (at last !) and Onions are ready to be picked.  The Parsnip and Beetroot tops are green and healthy and Pumpkin Corner has merged with the Gherkin bed to produce a mass of huge alien looking stems which are sprawling all over the plot.

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Best of all, are the amount of flowers which are starting to bloom.  Sweetpeas, Dahlias, Zinnia, Cosmos, Marigolds, Calendula, Love in a Mist, Poppies, Nasturtiums and Geraniums are adding colour and attracting lots of beneficial insects to the plot.  The four tractor tyres that we used in the Spring to create four new raised flower beds are now full of plants and the first flowers are starting to come out.  I love it when a plan comes together !

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After our work and other commitments came to an end this week and we were finally free to venture back onto the plot, we as the rest of the country have seen some crazy weather – a heatwave, and then storms – rain, thunder, lightening, hail  – and now the heat again.  The crazy weather will soon abate, and then we’ll go back down to the plot and give it some TLC.  Whether it needs us or not.  I promise.

🙂

 

Plot Gratitude

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Now that we are well into our second year as allotmenteers, I can’t help but notice a smidgen of complacency has crept onto our plot.  Last year – our first growing year – was filled with an almost childlike and perhaps slightly over enthusiastic sense of awe and wonder at our aptitude as growing, well, anything.  Everything was new, and almost like new parents celebrating their offspring’s unparalleled accomplishments, the first of everything was a triumph – the first Strawberry delicious, the first Carrots so ‘carroty’, the first Apple blossom more beautiful than any, ever before, anywhere.

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This year we are greedily wanting more.  Comparisons are being made to before – ruminating over things that grew better then, that weren’t eaten by mice or pigeons, or that didn’t fail to thrive – expectations and disappointments are higher.  Looking at the plot – and in the garden too – I’m ashamed to say I’ve been seeing a list of things to do, and overlooking the things that have been done, that have grown, that have become spectacularly lovely right under our noses.  The heaps of Strawberries ripening in the newly extended bed, the Courgettes miraculously growing plump and ready to eat, the towers of purple Sweetpeas – even more than last year – starting to open, begging to be picked and fill the house with a heady scent.

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As with everything in life, once the first ‘flush of love’ has gone, we can become complacent and stop truly seeing what is before our eyes.  We can never regain the feeling of our ‘first’ times, but we can purposely try and be mindful on the plot and continue to experience it’s gifts with a sense of wonder and gratitude.  We can stop, just for a moment, and use all of our senses to really look at things, rather than through things, and recapture the feeling of awe again.

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In this spirit, we took home our first harvest of the year this week.  It felt so good to return from the allotment with something other than the aforementioned dirty fingernails !  The Strawberries tasted deliciously sweet, and the solitary Courgette will be ceremoniously eaten over the next few days.  As for the Sweetpeas, they are arranged in a jam jar on the windowsill.  Mr O and I smell them every time we pass by.  And you know, when I look at them – really stop and look at them – I do think they may be the most beautiful ones, ever before, anywhere.

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Sown direct in June – Dwarf French Beans, Peas, Globe Artichokes, Carrots, Broccoli, Kale, Cauliflower, Swede, Beetroot, Radish, Mange Tout, Lettuce

Planted out in June – Dahlias, Geraniums, Marigolds, Cosmos, Dianthus, Zinnia, Tomatoes, Aubergine, Gherkins, Peppers, Courgettes, New Zealand Yams, Cucumber, Runner Beans

Harvested in June – Strawberries, Broad Beans, Courgette, Sweetpeas, Radish tops (for rabbits !)

🙂

Sowing, Potting, Planting, Weeding !

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The first week of June brings with it a rhythmic list of never ending jobs to do on the allotment – sowing, potting, planting, weeding (and repeat).  On our windowsills and in our greenhouses, the sowing continues (Padron Chilli Peppers, Sweet Peppers, Geranium Psilostemon, Cucamelon, Gherkin) and we are still checking (what seems like) hourly for signs of germination.

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In the garden, survivors are ‘potted on’ into roomier accommodation, and those who grow – and are not eaten by mice – are planted out into new terrain on the allotment (this week Courgettes, New Zealand Yams, Corn and Salvia into the big bed, Pumpkin into a new Pumpkin patch, Dahilas, Geraniums and Sunflowers elsewhere).  And as for the weeding, the weeding, the weeding – sore backs and unrespectable finger nails are the order of the day.

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But the sweetener on the plot this week is the sight of these beautiful bright red and orange Poppies, planted last year and now coming into bloom.  The never ending jobs continue – the sowing, the potting, the planting, the weeding – but the first flowers are a reminder of the beauty that is to come.

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🙂

Into the Unknown

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Sometimes on the allotment – for us rookies especially – it’s difficult to tell who is friend and what is foe.  This was true this week, when giving the plot a thorough weeding, mowing and trimming, we came across several visitors we weren’t sure if to admire or to send packing !

The first two were flowers – or should that be weeds ?  Tiny delicate blue flowers have appeared all around the plot, and have become a lovely companion to our Poached Egg Plant in the flower border.

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Secondly, these gorgeously fragile looking purple flowers have sown themselves along the edges of our space, and seem far too beautiful to be weeds – what are they ?

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And lastly, whilst digging in one of the ‘raised baths’ this fellow reared it’s alien looking head.  A shiny, hard coated brown pellet with a disconcerting rotating head, it’s apparently a brown moth pupa, which is commonly found in soil.  Whether it’s a friend to allotmenteers we don’t know !

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On safer ground, we were also able to admire more familiar favourites coming into their own this week.  The lush dark green foliage and deep purple flowers of Comfrey, Strawberry flowers in the bed we extended last year, and our first Rose of the year in bloom.

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Out of our unexpected visitors, only the moth pupa got the heave-ho – out of fear that he may be a crop destroying baddie – and he was only moved to the edge of the plot !  The blue and purple flowers remain.  They may be ‘weeds’ but they’re so pretty, who are we to judge ?

What unexpected visitors have you had on your plot this year ?

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Crocuses

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The Crocuses in the garden have been poking through the soil since mid January, and now they’re already beginning to bloom.

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Although this seems rather early, the sunny yellow flowers are a such a welcome sight and make us think (perhaps prematurely) of the next season.

Elsewhere in the garden, the daffodils are also getting ready to make an appearance.  Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but is Spring really around the corner ?

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10 Lessons Learnt

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As our first year on the allotment comes to an end, here at Rookie Towers we’ve been contemplating the lessons we’ve learnt during 2013, and what we might do differently (and better !) next year.  Here are our top 10 Do’s and Don’t for novice allotmenteers – if only we’d known this stuff 12 months ago !

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1) DON’T be too eager to sow / plant out – By early Spring last year we already had our new seed trays (filled with empty loo rolls) at the ready and expectantly awaiting seedlings.  Despite the unseasonal weather last Spring, we planted tray after tray of seeds and spent several months with them growing on window sills around the house, the weather being too cold to plant out.  When we did risk planting out, it was invariably too early and too cold, and we had to repeat sow many of our crops.  The advice is – ignore the seed packet instructions on when to sow and use common sense when it comes to planting those first seeds.  Yes, it’s exciting and you want to get started – but it becomes less exciting when the earth finally starts warming up and you are planting those seeds for a third time !

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2) DON’T plant Nasturtiums in small beds – It was with a large degree of naivety that we planted several Nasturtium seeds in each of our small beds, in our first attempt at companion planting.  Little did we realise they would grow so prolifically and take over the whole bed, and need to be dug up and moved elsewhere.  Nasturtiums are beautiful, and fantastic for an allotment as they attract plot friendly bugs, but only plant them in places you don’t mind if they grow huge and steal the show.

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3) DO plant more flowers – Despite our Rookie Nasturtium error, we were so pleased with the rest of our companion planting, and the decision to have a flower border on the plot.  We even got some comments from neighbouring allotmenteers – along the lines of ‘Wow, you’ve got flowers and everything !!’ which can’t be bad.  This year we plan to increase the amount of flowers we sow on the allotment and really go for a beautiful display.

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4) DON’T plant in tyres – Last year we merrily used old tractor tyres as raised beds, which is something that has traditionally been done for many years and seems to be a great way to upcycle.  This has recently become controversial however, due to the potential risk of toxic pollution into the soil when the tyres degrade.  In the coming months we’ll be moving our tractors tyres to a different spot in the allotment and plan to grow Dahlias in them !

5) DO use a horticultural fleece over Peas – It was so disappointing to pop open the first of our Peas last year only to find grubs had got there first. This year we’ll be using a fine horticultural fleece over our Peas when the flowers begin to show, to avoid the crop devastating Pea Moth.

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6) DO use protection – Last year we had inadequate protection against bugs and critters, particularly in our Big Bed of Brassicas.  Although we used netting over each line we planted, this just wasn’t sufficient, and for slugs, butterflies, caterpillars and mice breaking in was a walk in the park.  The mesh was simply not fine enough and tens of butterflies laid their eggs on our Cabbages on any given day.  It was also not secure enough around the edges – an inch gap for us is a wide open door with a Welcome sign for a slug or mouse.  Our Cabbages and Broccoli took the brunt of the decimation.  In the coming year we need to address the Bug War and secure our defense lines to prevent another easy victory.  Bugs – 1, Rookies 0.

7) DON’T use fresh manure on your crops – If you take a look at our blog post ‘Dung Dilemma’ you’ll see how last year we learnt more about horse poo than we ever wanted to.  In the coming months we’ll be avoiding the steaming pile of manure delivered to the allotments, no matter how inviting it looks !  Maybe when we’re over ‘manure-gate’ we can learn how to use manure to our advantage.

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8) DON’T use a chicken wire cage over Peas – As our Peas happily grew in their raised bed, we surrounded the bed with a chicken wire cage to protect them against small critters. On return from holiday, the Peas had put out hundreds of tendrils, latching onto every side of the wire cage in an attempt to climb higher.  My heart sank and I had to pull the cage off and snap every one of the tendrils.  Yes, they grew again – but it was so sad to have to rip off so much optimistic new growth !  Our subsequent Pea beds were covered with netting secured safely out of harms way.

9) DO collect as much rain water as possible – Last summer we were blessed with a long period of fantastic hot and sunny weather, for which we Rookies were totally unprepared.  Mr O had set up two lovely water butts next to our shed, with a system of guttering and pipes for rain water to run into – but after weeks of no rain, they soon ran dry.  As much as I am embarrassed to say it, our lack of preparation meant we had no choice but to fill vessels from home and transport them in wheelbarrows to water the thirsty crops. When you’re on a water meter this makes no absolutely no economical sense, and I also have a feeling it may be vaguely illegal.  Water is also surprisingly heavy on a hot summers evening.  The advice – for allotmenteers, big butts are no bad thing – the more the better.  This year we won’t get caught out !

And finally …

10) DO pick fast – During the months of allotment ‘glut’, some of our produce went to waste as we simply weren’t picking it fast enough.  This was particularly true of our Sweetcorn, which moved from delicious to inedible very quickly, as did our Peas, Runner Beans and Raspberries.  Some crops (such as Courgettes and Gherkins) simply grew faster than we could eat them.  Next year we’ll try and start picking crops when they are young and sweet, do (even more) preserving and pickling and donate more excess veggies to friends and family.

10 Lessons Learnt and many more yet to learn.  The challenges of 2014 await us …

Seed Saving

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I love Autumn – golden leaves on the trees, foraging for berries, preserving and pickling and cozying up to watch ‘Downton Abbey’.  I have to admit though, I have found our first Autumn on the allotment rather sad.  After a summer of sunshine, beauty and abundance on the plot, things are now, well, dying !

Mr O has a rather more pragmatic approach and chuckles at my melancholy at the sudden decline – it’s nature (he says), it’s Autumn, it’s the cycle of life.  I feel like a child to say – but can’t the beautiful colours and skies and produce stay just a little bit longer ?  But of course, they can’t.  This week I have tried to look past the shriveled flowers, drooping leaves and browning landscape, and embrace the ‘reason for the season’.  And what I have found, is seeds.

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Unlike me (mourning the end of the productive summer), plants happily accept the end is nigh and are already planning for the future and how they will reproduce next year.  A closer look at the flower bed and our last few peas and beans reveals a beautifully intricate system of seeds, being prepared in the dependable knowledge that life does and will go on.  And this is where seed saving comes in.

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Saving flower and vegetable seeds is beneficial to the gardener for several reasons.  In the current economic climate, the first is that it can save you money – you will pay less for seeds next year, and you’re safe in the knowledge that your seeds have not been chemically treated (as many shop bought ones are).  Secondly, it means you can choose to reproduce plants which have particular characteristics or which you particularly love – you can also grow less popular or ‘heritage’ plants which otherwise many face extinction.  Thirdly, seed saving helps plants to naturally ‘evolve’ to your particular growing conditions – hopefully leading to healthier and stronger plants in the future.

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Reading about seed saving, the basics sounded easy enough –

1)      Leave seeds to dry on the plant (as far as is possible)

2)      Harvest when the seeds are brittle, on a dry day

3)      Dry for a further couple of weeks on a ceramic plate, turning every few days

4)      Store labeled in brown paper bags in a cool dark place

But then words, rules and questions started falling out of books and into my rookie brain.  Contrary to just collecting any seed and popping it into a bag there was more to it than I imagined.  My main concern was that there are some seeds that shouldn’t be collected.  What would happen if we collected the ‘wrong’seed ?  What did F1, hybrid, open, cross and self-pollinated mean ?  How did we know which of our plants was which ?  Should some of our plants be in isolation ?  Would we create a monster ?!

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Far from an apocalypse, it turns out that saving the wrong seed may just result in poor performing plants or plants that may not be the same as their parents.  I’m willing to take that chance if it means I don’t have to spend Autumn with my head in an encyclopedia.  We’ve started with flowers and we’ll go from there …

What seeds have you saved this year ?

🙂

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August Flowers

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One of the best decisions we made on the allotment this year was to create a flower border, and to include flowers in some of our raised beds too.  Not only has it gone some way to deter unwanted pests, it’s brightened up the plot so much, and next year I think we’ll be adding flowers with gusto !

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One particular success was our Sweetpeas, which despite a slow start have really flourished.  We’re mindful that the more Sweetpeas you pick the more the plant produces, and have been picking every couple of days.  This seems to have worked as they are still going strong.  Sweetpeas are notorious for housing greenfly and bugs and usually need a good shake before bringing into the house.  Instead of doing this we pop the freshly cut flowers into a pot in the garden – they don’t mind living outside and look lovely and cheerful on the patio.

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In the garden, the August flowers continue but it’s clear that the end is nigh !  The Sunflowers and Morning Glory (if you can catch it at that elusive moment between opening and dying) have done well this year, but it’ll soon be time for a tidy up as we move into Autumn.  Autumn – my favourite season – reminiscent of new pencil cases and books, to me always seems like the start of the year and new beginnings, not winding down.  Already Mr O is getting excited about the prospect of Autumn foraging …

Elsewhere on the plot the glut continues, with some new arrivals – Tomatoes, Chillies and Autumn Raspberries.  There’s that word again – Autumn – so it really must be true !

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Allotment Flowers

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The allotment has suddenly come to life with flowers in the last few weeks, along our flower border, intermingled in the beds, and of course on the plants themselves.  We’ve also left some pretty ‘weeds’ and allium which have gone to seed, as they seem to be attracting lots of insects.

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We’ve already started planning what we’ll grow next year, and have bought Bluebell and Harebell seeds for a start.

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Having never grown flowers from seeds before, it feels like such an achievement to have such lovely bursts of colour throughout the plot.  And not only are we appreciating them, but they are also attracting a fantastic variety of butterflies, bugs and bees.

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