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 !)

🙂

We’ve Grown a Greenhouse !

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Over the last few weeks we’ve been experiencing a growth spurt on the allotment – aside from tray upon tray of burgeoning seedlings, we’ve also been growing some less edible, more practical, features on the plot.

First to appear was our kindly donated and much awaited greenhouse, which was slow to take root, but which is now standing proudly next to our shed.

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After starting to clear the so-far-neglected half of our plot, four tractor tyres have sprung up ready for growing flowers, and Mr O has cleverly planted a new fence and gate, recycled from old wood.

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On the other side of the plot, a new long bed has been sown and a cane structure has been cultivated in readiness for Sweetpeas.

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And the dividing fence in the centre of our plot has been removed, making way for a new bed to sprout up.

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In the realm of actual fruit and veg, we harvested the first of our Leeks last week. Better late than never, there’s a fine line between them being big enough to eat, and bolting.

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During the hungry gap of May it feels odd to go home from the allotment empty handed, but during this ‘meantime’ we can get stuck into expanding and developing our growing space.

Have you grown any new structures on your plot this year ?

🙂

Borage Bother

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The Borage on our plot has been a Rookie success so far, but this week we noticed a spot of Borage bother.  While the characteristically brilliant blue flowers are in bloom, the leaves of the plant have gone a decidedly unhealthy looking dusty white.  A bit of research has shown that this is likely to be ‘powdery mildew’ which often strikes Borage grown in shady and damp conditions (as ours is).

The question is – what’s the best way to treat this unwelcome visitor ?  Google suggests a drink of milk, a compost tea or even a sprinkle of fresh urine might do the job !  With Mr O poised at the flower border ready to do his duty, do you know of a better treatment for powdery mildew ?  Answers (gratefully received) on a postcard please !

🙂

All Change

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The last couple of weeks have been all about change on the allotment, as we start the planned expansion of our plot onto new ground.  Around a third of our plot has previously been covered in black plastic, and filled with Mr O’s ‘finds’ to put put to good future use.  Now however, a greenhouse is on it’s way up, a new gate and fence installed (upcycled from pallets and an old door of course !) and tractor tyres have been rolled in, ready for some aggressive flower planting.  On the ‘old’ side of the plot, two new wooden beds have replaced the old tractors tyres, and we’ve dusted off the lawnmower for the first time this season to give the plot a Spring haircut.

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Aside from the structural work, the business of planting goes on.  Our first wave of seedlings are out into the mini greenhouse in the garden (having been potted on), and the second wave – Runner Beans, Aubergine, Sweetcorn, Gherkin, Cucumbers, Courgette and Pumpkins, Zinnia and Dianthus – are planted indoors and are happily germinating as we speak.

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As well as the old favourites, we’re making sure we’re growing plenty of fruit, veg and flowers which we haven’t grown before, to keep things fresh.  It was exciting to see beautiful flowers on our Cherry tree and Blackcurrant bushes for the first time this week – although Mr O assures me we won’t be making our own Ribena just yet !  Our Asparagus is at last shooting up through the soil, the Broad Beans are on their way and the newly expanded Strawberry bed seems to have been a success (fingers and toes crossed).

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The busiest month of the year for allotmenteers, there’s no time to get bored in April !

🙂

Simple April Blessings

A short post this week, but just enough time to count our blessings.

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The sight of purple Crocuses, opening in the sunshine.

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The touch of the first butterflies, dancing through the air.

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The smell of freshly picked Rhubarb, destined for a crumble.

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The taste of Purple Sprouting Broccoli, a surprise and a treat !

What have you been blessed with this week ?

🙂

 

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 …

New Year, New Life

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This weekend we had our first trip to the allotment of 2014.  A combination of high days and holidays, work and weather had kept us away for several weeks, but it felt good to spend time in each others company again.

The purpose of our visit (as well as the harvesting of some Carrots, Parsnips, Kale and Brussel sprouts !) was to get to grips with our fruit trees and bushes, having been told that January and February is the optimum time to do so.  Armed with a little newly acquired knowledge, two pairs of secateurs and some optimistic artistic flair, we tackled the Raspberries first.  This was one of the easier fruits to prune, as ours is an Autumn fruiting variety which should be cut to just above ground level (not too tricky) and given a good mulch (we used our own compost followed by a layer of wood chippings).  So far so good.

Second up for the chop were the Gooseberries, which need to have their main branches cut back by around a third and pruned into an ‘open goblet’ shape.  This is where the artistic flair bit comes in.  Next the Blackberries, whose old canes should be cut off, and new canes should be tied horizontally along wires or a fence.

And finally the apple tree got a quick prune – mainly of branches which were hanging too close to the ground or raised beds – and the Strawberry bed got a good mulch too.

On our visit we also discovered the first new growth of the year – our Rhubarb is already beginning to peek above the frosty soil and looked beautifully fresh faced and golden in the winter sunlight.  If we wanted to, we could now ‘force’ the Rhubarb to produce early light pink stems – by covering the crown with a large pot filled with straw.  This would bring forward the Rhubarb harvest and make it ready to pick six to eight weeks after covering.  The same Rhubarb shouldn’t be forced again for two years.

A few hours on the plot was all it took for our toes to begin to lack feeling (despite Mr O’s new thermal welly socks !) and for us to retreat back home, happy that our first pruning session had gone without a hitch.  The end of our first rookie allotment year is almost upon us, but new life in the Rhubarb patch reminds us that Spring is around the corner, and so the cycle of life begins again.

Late Autumn Harvest

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Despite being slightly neglected of late, our plot continues to provide us with a great harvest – currently making it to the plate are Kale, Cabbage, Carrots, Parsnips, Spinach Beet and New Zealand Yams.  We grew New Zealand Yams for the first time this year, and digging them up and seeing the multi coloured gems for the first time was so exciting.  Once lifted, New Yealand Yams benefit from being left on a sunny windowsill for a couple of days before eating, as this makes them taste sweeter.  We’ll be keeping the smaller ones to replant next year, and can’t wait to start cooking with the others !

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Elsewhere on the allotment, we’ve just about finished emptying out the raised beds and covering them over snugly for the winter.  The Rhubarb, Asparagus and Globe Artichokes have also been cut back, mulched and protected with straw chippings.  Still happily growing for the later winter months are Sprouts, Leeks, Purple Spouting Broccoli and Jerusalem Artichokes.

This week Mr O has also planted two new Blackcurrant bushes, to add to our fruit crop, which has been so bountiful this year.  Later in the winter we’ll need to prune our Raspberry, Gooseberry, Blackberry bushes and Apple tree so that we hopefully get another good fruit crop next year.  Our newly expanded Strawberry bed will get a good mulch too.

One vegetable that won’t be making it into the kitchen this winter is our Pak Choi, which bolted this week.  Having these lovely surprise yellow ‘flowers’ in the bed made up for the loss though ! 🙂

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Seeds Glorious Seeds

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With less to do on the plot this Autumn, and a small hiatus in between harvesting the summer and winter crops, Mr O and I have been salivating over a different kind of comforting annual feast – the seed catalogue !  In these suddenly shorter, darker, wetter days it’s hard not to think of think of brighter days to come, and (though not wanting to wish time away) we have made some tentative plans for how the plot may look next year.

A multitude of tempting seed catalogues have landed on our doormat (some even with free seeds) and we really need to sensibly take stock of what we actually need and what we’ve already got.  With a flurry of buying and seed saving last year, we won’t need to buy too much, but will certainly be trying out some new varieties and unusual plants to keep up our interest amongst the old favourites.

So far on our shopping list for next year we’re going to try Peppers, Tweed, Cucamelon, Pompon Dahlia, Zinnia and Forget Me Nots for the first time.  Which veggies or flowers will you try and grow for the first time next spring ?