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 ?

🙂

 

The Rookies Return

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‘It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold : when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.’  (Charles Dickens)

Like hibernating Dormice, we Rookie Allotmenteers awoke from our slumber this month, and made tentative steps back onto the allotment (albeit a little sleepy and bleary eyed) for the start of a new growing season.

A couple of sunny weekends at the beginning of the month meant we could get back onto the plot, make a start at preparing our raised beds and begin to sow the first vegetable and flower seeds directly into the ground.  Most of our beds have spent the winter cosily under carpet covers, so only needed some fresh soil from the compost heap and some chicken manure pellets adding to the mix.

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The overgrown flower border was another matter however, and took hours of back-breaking weeding to get back into shape !  Our direct sowing has so far included – Shallots, Onions, Carrots and Broad Beans (all into our raised baths), with Nigella, Night Phlox, Poppies, Cornflower, Larkspur and Nemophila planted into the flower bed.

This being March, we were not blessed with sunshine for long and the rain gave us the opportunity to spend some time planting our indoor seeds.  This year, we’ve found some fantastic seed trays in Aldi (£3.99 for 3 complete trays with lids), which are now adorning our windowsills, brimming with expectation.

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Wilko also do a good affordable range of seed trays, and for the ultimate in cheap seed sowing, we’ve also adopted the ‘loo roll’ technique again this year (i.e – trays filled with compost-filled loo rolls, which can be planted directly into the soil, allowing the loo roll to biodegrade naturally over time).  This is especially good for those plants (such as Sweetpeas) which don’t like their roots disturbing too much.  Our first flowers to be planted indoors are Sweetpeas, Salvia, Dahlias and Geraniums, with Broccoli, Pepper and Tomato seeds being started off too.

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In our absence from the plot, the Rhubarb has grown into almost edible lengths.  In the garden, our Daffodils, Grape Hyacinth, Pansies and Crocuses are in bloom and beautiful pink blossom is on the trees.  Spring at last !  But for allotmenteers, so much to do !

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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 …

Blue Sky Digging

Digging for Victory

For the last month, we’ve been working hard at giving our allotment a rookie spring make over, and we’ve expanded the actual growing area of our plot by around 75% by weeding, tidying and pulling back the masses of black plastic floor covering laid down for the winter, to reveal quite a sizable plot.

We’ve decided to opt for raised beds throughout the plot (apart from one bed), and this is because raised beds theoretically have less weeds, better drainage and warmer soil. Not only this, but they have aesthetic appeal and hopefully will be easier to tend. Mr O has constructed the raised beds out of re-cycled wood, old tractor tyres and – wait for it – old baths – half a dozen or more of which now line the top of the allotment ! The plot is far from regimented, but hopefully will look good and be productive without getting out the measuring tape and spirit level.

This week, we’ve actually started getting some of our seeds and seedlings into the soil. Because of the unseasonably cold weather, we resorted to growing trays of seedlings on windowsills around the house during March and April, before gingerly ‘hardening them off’ in our mini garden greenhouse. Now the risk of frost has hopefully passed, we’re braving it and hoping that at least some will be strong enough to survive. We’ve decided to grow the vast majority of our crops from seed – there’s just something so addictively exciting about watching them germinate and come to life in their little pots (I definitely need to get out more !) Growing from seed also has the benefit of being cheaper and also allowing successional planting – i.e starting off a few plants at a time to ensure a constant supply of veg through the season.

I read or heard recently that allotmenteers should aim for around a dozen crops in their plot. We’ve been rather gung-ho to say the least, and unable to resist the temptation of trying out everything, we recently totted up a grand total of 40 planned crops – ooops ! Juggling so many plants I’m beginning to wonder if this plan is genius or insanity …

So far, we’ve got Leeks, Spring Onions, Carrots, Broccoli, Calabrese, Brussels Sprouts, Beetroot, Parsnips, Cabbage, Pumpkins, Cucumber, Courgette, Sweetcorn, Shallots, Garlic, Potatoes and Jerusalem Artichokes in the ground. We’re lucky enough to have inherited an Apple tree and Blackberries (from Mother Nature) on the plot, we have Strawberries, Raspberries, Gooseberries and Rhubarb and have recently bought miniature Fig and Cherry trees too. We’ve made a tentative start but there’s still so much to do.

Wish us luck !

First Post

I’m not a fan of this technological age. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, and I don’t own any gadgets which have the prefix ‘i’. You might wonder then, why I’ve started my very own blog ! The answer is simple. Last year, Mr O got himself an allotment. It was to be his project, and in my imagination I saw hazy summer days where he would come home red-faced with arms full of fresh vegetables, and I would whip up nutritious organic meals*. We dibbled, we dabbled – I have to admit I was dubious – and a simple lack of time (due to our impending nuptials) meant only a few crops were grown (although immensely enjoyed !)

Come this Spring, however, something has happened. Something I didn’t expect. I don’t know what got me first – whether it was the rustle of Mr O’s seed packets, the sight of the first daffodils (which grew quite happily behind a pile of pots until we discovered them in their glory), or the smell of the pages in our pile of brand new gardening books – but I too have been bitten by the bug.

At first it started slowly – the casual browsing of the seed catalogue, the thrill of the choice between the seemingly endless array of potential fruit and veg, the glimpse of James Wong at the ‘Edible Garden Show’ at Stoneleigh Park … but all of a sudden – like falling in love – the allotment bug has bitten me and I’m scared, excited, and wide-eyed at this new world. And more than that, I want to share it ! I want to share the triumphs and disasters of our impending first proper allotment year in this – my first ever blog.

You poor lot.

* In this fantasy, I could also cook !