I came down here to pick spinach, or chard, or even some Portuguese Cabbage. It doesn't really matter which. It’s 4.30pm and the darkness is beginning to creep in from the west. The clocks fell back an hour yesterday – giving in one way and taking in another. After a minute or two I realise I’ve become still, just watching the sky darken. I’m reflecting. Not on anything specific you understand; just me reflecting in this time, and in this place.
I think reflecting is something we don't do enough of. We're always moving from one event to another, from one requirement to another, from one job to another, always on the move and always running towards the next thing that needs to be done. So today, now, I'm just taking a few minutes out.
Sitting on our little pale blue wooden bench, which definitely needs renovation and certainly a new lick of paint, I'm now reflecting on our top growing space. Our first growing space here. Our first real allotment space in fact. And through this growing space to the space that has become our own just recently. There's so much work to do here, though it's not a challenge that I'm letting get me down. It’s actually rather exciting in its challenges.
Glancing across to the bench I notice the Calendulas I rescued a few weeks ago from the tomato bed are still giving us their happy orange blooms. The violas are doing the same with their own shade of positive purple. Then I notice the parsnips, which with a mild though distinct frost last night will have begun to sweeten. Then in front of me... Yes, those two beds are still empty. The broad beans haven't been sown yet, and that's yet another week that's gone by without them being in their cool dark beds. And our Messidrome garlic is still to go in. As is our elephant garlic, which I now think will be planted at our Community Gardens plot. However, these three will have to wait for another day. As I’m just sitting here, reflecting on nothing and everything at the same time.
A plane that took off from Heathrow half a minute ago comes into view above the treeline, and dissects the darkening sky. I don’t think it’s going to be a sunset that Richard will be able to make anything of this evening. The clouds are forming a grey blanket. Of course, this will mean that the skies will be less open than last night and the outside temperature will be a few degrees warmer. No frost tonight... maybe. Even though it's fabulous to see a clear night-time sky that is full of stars and wonders, as gardeners we need to remember that this brings with it cooler temperatures - as the cloud blanket is not there to hold the warmth in.
There really is so much to do down here. The old apple tree that bears hardly any edible fruit will need a pruning, but that can wait till January. Our tree honeysuckle needs a definite shaping, and even though we're not going to be cutting back the Buddleia in full now, as we will be doing that in February, it does need a distinct trim to let as much of the low morning light on to this plot as possible.
Everything is still… I hear a train in the distance, rattling over the viaduct. A fellow plot holder hoeing his soil... back and forth... back and forth. The side door of the local pub clunks shut. And then I notice the street lights have all come on; silently.
As another plane, smaller this time, crosses the tree boundary from its take off at Heathrow I know that it's now dark enough to see the plane’s headlights spearing the way. Are they called headlights? I wonder this often, and should really look it up. When there's time...
I better get on and do what I came here to do. Harvest spinach. Or chard. Or…
This evening we're having Rocket & Walnut Pesto with Wholemeal Pasta and Greens. Richard has particularly requested this tonight. I did wonder why, though it's not really important to know. If it gets any darker I won't be able to determine which of the spinach plants’ leaves are the best to harvest, so I better get on.
It really is well worth taking some minutes out of the day and reflecting on the stillness of things. Without time out from the hubble and bustle, and the noise and the lights of everyday life, we simply don't have clear headspace or energy to push forward on all else that we'd like to get done.
The weeding of our new plot can wait for another day. And the sowing of the broad beans and the planting of the garlics can also wait. The morning after next looks as though it will be fine, and won't hold the chilliness that this morning did. The ground will also be just that little bit softer, before the rains begin again.
So all of this can wait a few days, and I'll just sit here for five more minutes more before I harvest some spinach and chard. Decision made. Spinach AND chard.
It is in these moments that I realise how lucky we are to be wardens of the allotment spaces and growing spaces we all hold dear. Long may these times last.
A Guernsey Gardener in London - Day 9
Even though I love travelling by train, sometimes it can be a bit of a pain to get to one of our local stations. The journey can to often feel far longer than it actually is, especially during rush hour.
Yesterday, as I started my journey to visit my client For Earth's Sake in Cranleigh, the traffic in which my bus was travelling seemed a bit endless. It seemed we were literally inching closer and closer rather than happily trundling along in our charabanc.
However, once I got off the bus and started walking down to the station I passed this lovely area of community gardening. It really is something that lifts me each time I'm nearing the real start of my journey. There are areas on either side that are simply grass verges and weeds, and in their own way they would be lovely - if the detritus and plastic was regularly removed! However, it is this block of community gardening that always lift my heart. To see the Calendulas happily blooming away and a few other perennial plants now in place alongside explanations of how and why this community managed space is here, it literally put a spring back in my step.
So, as I mentally skipped down to the platform and my train came trundled in, I already had a smile on my face. It really is amazing how just these little happinesses can lift our day.
A Guernsey Gardener in London - Day 8
Yes, it's true. We have elephants in the car. Though they actually spent the afternoon in the kitchen. With an egg.
I'd expected them a few weeks ago, though they chose to arrive yesterday. Just before lunch. 24 of them in fact. I wasn't expecting so many. And they don't half take up some space!
We've never had them before, and I'm not quite sure whether they'll feel at home. Will they be too cramped, need more space, get too cold, need extra water, or leave a whole mess behind them... And even though I knew they were coming, their arrival took me somewhat by surprise and (to be honest) I've not prepared for them and there is not a single bed ready.
With a very busy few days ahead, I've popped them all in the car till I've got up to speed and their beds are ready. I don't think they'll mind too much... and I'm sure we'll smell it if they do!!
A Guernsey Gardener in London - Day 7
This afternoon I had a little bit of luxury, well at least it felt like a little bit of luxury.
It feels as though I've been at my desk for an eternity. The last fortnight I've had only fleeting visits to the allotment to check on a few things and harvest. This afternoon though, I was able to take out a couple of hours and set to on preparing beds for the sowing of broad beans and also of our garlic. The garlic is going in where our tomatoes were on the top plot, and even though I took the blight-ridden plants out a few weeks back there was plenty of weeding and rescuing of flowers to do. I potted up some cheery Calendula, some absolutely gorgeous self-seeded Violas and a fabulous Feverfew which was dancing in the wind. Hopefully these will all over winter and be able to be used either in pots or in beds in the spring.
So, the long bed for the Messidrome garlic is ready (below). There's still a flower left in the far end though I'm sure it only has as a few days of glory left in it. The bed I've sorted for our broad beans (above) still has a nasturtium in situ. I'm leaving it here for a few more days as Vivi has been making Poor Man's Capers from these seeds so I need to check on her video and try and make those before I pull the plant out, which is destined for the compost heap. In the other end of the bed is a small Morning Glory which has been trailing along the ground as it had nothing to climb. It will definitely be bitten by frosts and come out though I'm leaving it for the bees for the moment.
One of the jobs that I also sorted this afternoon was the weeding of the autumn harvesting broad bean plants, the Luz De Otono. As I was weeding, two big fat bumble bees came down and nestled into the unctuous flowers. They seemed happy with their lot as they buzzed from flower to flower. I've already noticed that some broad bean pods are forming so maybe we will get more beans in November. Time will tell.
So, though some may not see these two hours I've had as a luxury, the hours certainly were for me. I came away feeling uplifted and refreshed, and with three types of carrots and some Portuguese Cabbage in my hands. Along with the Desiree potatoes we were given a few weeks back and some Linda McCartney burgers, that is this evening's meal sorted.
I write this whilst taking a few minutes rest before making supper, and unusually I'm having a nice glass of red wine. Another little bit of luxury.
A Guernsey Gardener in London - Day 6
As I looked across the Community Gardens this morning, before our rather wet and curtailed Saturday Social, I was overwhelmed with emotions for the journey this place set me off on almost five years ago.
A week before Christmas in 2014, I received the keys to a very local community gardens and the tenancy of the 3m by 3m growing space below. It was weedy yet had a pretty prolific perpetual spinach, a fabulous thyme and a fragrant fennel in situ. A few hours later, using our communal tools, I'd cleared all the weeds, dug the rich soil over and begun thinking about the growing year ahead.
It's from this quiet, contented few hours that my love of growing vegetables and fruits really began to return, and I started to benefit from working with my hands in the earth once more.
Over the next 10 months some things grew really well whilst others did the bare minimum of what I had hoped for; though to be frank everything was a success in my rose-tinted eyes!
At our Association AGM the following October, I put up my hand when they called for new committee members. At my first committee meeting a week or so later the Chair stood down, and I found myself the only person in the room with a little time on my hands. I thought it would be a fun and worthwhile project, and anyway I had an hour or two a month to spare. It's fair to say that I totally underestimated the amount of time and commitment this decision would eventually entail, and I also totally underestimated the amount of fun, value, friendship and fabulous community engagement I'd encounter along the way.
Having now been active in guiding the running of the Community Gardens for the past four years, alongside a fabulous and supportive committee, I'll be standing down as Chair at our AGM in early November. It seems the right time for myself AND the Community Gardens. With any organisation, the time comes for some to move on and for others take the reins; new energy and guidance reinvigorates to take things further and continue the success.
At our AGM we'll also be celebrating ten years from breaking ground on the Community Gardens - ten years of growing food, flowers, enhancing the ecology and environment and doing our bit in community development and enhancement. It seems the perfect time for another to take up the baton.
I'll keep my plot at the Community Gardens for another year, and remain on the committee. I'll be taking a back seat, though supporting whenever I'm needed and able. Our new Chair is already a very active member of the committee so the Community Gardens will be in solid and safe hands.
Little did I know when I took on my small growing space five years ago that it would lead to me being the Chair of trustees of Social Farms & Gardens today; an organisation that at the time I didn't even know. As a national charity, with members and offices in all four countries of the UK, we support and are a voice for over 1,300 community gardens, city farms, care farms, forest schools, school farms, orchard projects and lots of other community managed green spaces. My small role in this organisation is something I'm proud off and derive both benefit and satisfaction from.
There is no doubt that sometimes I find my time challenged. Though I work largely from my home office, and am regularly able to take an hour out of my day to attend the plots, my clients obviously need my time and energy too. Though I'm lucky to now love much of my work, the satisfaction I get from my voluntary work really grounds me, as do the benefits that I get from taking time to grow at my Community Gardens plot and our allotment plots.
So, as I stood this morning amidst a tangle of weeds and mud, with a tinge of cold in the air and rain tumbling down, I appreciated that though ours is by no means a perfect life, it is a good life.
A Guernsey Gardener in London - Day 5
Dad never really liked pasta. If it was in a lasagne then that was a bit different as the pasta was all hidden. As dad got older he enjoyed penne with a nice rich tomato sauce... and cheese. But in my early years dad was not a fan of pasta... and especially spaghetti...
When I suggested to dad around the age of eight that there was a vegetable that I'd like to grow called Spaghetti Squash, the seeds never arrived. I'm sure I continued to ask to grow this same vegetable over a good number of years, though the seeds again never seemed to arrive. Lots of other seeds arrived: parsnips, runner beans, carrots, beetroot, French beans, lettuce, tomatoes, aubergine, peppers, sweetcorn, courgette, marrow, spinach, radish, celery and many more. To be frank, I sort of forgot each year about the Spaghetti Squash because of the abundance of other exciting seeds that were arriving and being sown. I got so caught up in the joy of what we had that I forgot and therefore didn't worry about what I didn't. It was only when I saw it in the annual catalogue from Thompson & Morgan that I would say again "Dad, can we grow some Spaghetti Squash this year?"
It was in this first decade or so of my life, filled with the joys a productive garden brings - veggies, flowers, soft fruits, and apples and pears in our orchard - that my desire to want to grow fruit, vegetables and some flowers really flourished.
Some four decades later, in January this year, we received a little parcel from Erica of Erica's Little Welsh Garden. As an extra Erica had also included a whole host of different seeds. There were loads of packets of her own saved seeds from last year's harvests, including a good number of different squash and pumpkin varieties. However, it was one little plain white packet that really caught my eye... it held six of Erica's saved Spaghetti Squash seeds. There were also other packets with some giant pumpkin seeds and some other exotic squash seeds, though my heart just leapt at the thought of these six little dried, papery and weightless Spaghetti Squash seeds.
Obviously, I sowed them as soon as I could. The seeds germinated well and grew strong. When they reached a healthy size I put them in at the Community Gardens; I wanted them to be away from our Cheeky Prince at the allotment plots. I admit to watering them, though apart from that I sort of left them to their own devices. And boy did they grow... not massive and spreading, though rather productive. In fact these Spaghetti Squash have proven to be our most prolific of any squash this year. There seems to be two distinct varieties. One is a mottled green (below) and the other is the yellow one (above).
Yesterday, with some excitement and trepidation, I went down to the Community Gardens to harvest the first Spaghetti Squash. It was quite a moment and did somewhat pull at my heartstrings. It's quite incredible that I have been waiting to sow, grow, harvest, cook and taste a Spaghetti Squash for almost 46 years!
I brought it home and found that the mellow yellow skin was actually extremely tough. Maybe I had just left it in situ ripening too long? I tried to prick it all over as it says on the cooking instructions that I had read online, though the fork hardly made a dent. I decided the best thing to do would be to cut it in half and then bake it in the oven with the cut sides down. After 45 minutes I turned the bronzed shells over so that the flesh was showing and popped a knob of butter and some cracked black pepper into the hollow where the seeds had been. Back in it went for another 15 minutes...
When I took it out of the oven it smelled nice, though nothing special. I used a fork to tease out the flesh, and sure enough the yellow lusciousness came apart and turned into little threads of buttery squash. Awesome!! I have to admit it was all a little bit wetter than I had imagined it would be, though with a little bit of salt added it was absolutely divine!
Finally, I had sown, grown, harvested, cooked and eaten a Spaghetti Squash!! A lifetime goal achieved, and a desire fully quashed (not squashed!!)!
Will I be doing them again? Most probably. I still have three seeds remaining from the six Erica sent, and will be saving some seeds from the mesh of threads and seeds I removed prior to baking.
All I need now is more space to have a huge squash and pumpkin patch, and to harvest the rest of these little beauties of Spaghetti Squash at the Community Gardens.
I think even dad would have been happy with the outcome; he loved marrow with butter, salt and pepper and I'm sure this would have been one 'spaghetti' he would have happily devoured.
A Guernsey Gardener in London - Day 4
As I was shopping in Morrisons this morning it was with a bit of a heavy heart I had to plunge my hands into the loose onions and bag up a kilo or two. As you may remember, our onion harvest for the past growing year was pretty disastrous, and our garlic harvest wasn't much better. It had rained so much just prior to harvesting that our onions and many of our garlic were pretty damp. Some of the onions had succumbed to white rot and others just weren't up to scratch. None of them had bulked out in the way our previous onions had. With our garlic the Allium Leaf Miner had taken quite a toll and we will certainly not be growing garlic nor onions in that bed for some time to come. Leeks is another of the edible allium family that I don't think we will be planting this growing year; the last two years have been pretty poor totally due to Allium Leaf Miner.
Now we are in a new growing year, at least for us, and I had the joy on returning from shopping of opening up the Messidrome garlic that we had purchased from Suttons. Apart from the plastic netting bag packaging I am absolutely delighted with this order. The cloves themselves are big and chunky, and the bulbs from which the cloves have been split are absolutely full; happily almost filling the palm of my cupped hand. We haven't grown this variety of garlic before though one of our YouTube subscribers suggested that we do. Normally we have grown Germidour, both new from Wilko and as saved cloves from the previous harvest, and we have also planted cloves from a bulb of garlic bought from Lidl.
Last year the onions and garlic went in deeper than I normally do, very much in the the way that dad used to do it. However, I'm going to be planting them this year as we have done in previous years. I don't think it's the fact that the way dad used to do it was wrong, I think rather it is more that the soil in Guernsey is far lighter and more sandy and therefore drains extremely well. Our allotment soil is good, don't get me wrong, though it certainly doesn't drain like much of the soil in Guernsey. Given this, these Messidrome cloves will be planted about an inch or so deep and then we will top dress with some chicken manure pellets in the spring. After planting we will cover them loosely with scaff netting for a few weeks, until they have started rooting and the green tips have begun to lift above the surface.
Messidrome garlic is a soft neck variety and hopefully is going to store well for us. Though I have not yet checked its origin I am thinking it must be from the Drôme region in southeast France, and be that region's famed harvest. The blurb says it has 'excellent flavour for all culinary uses' (what else would a grower or allotmenteer use it for?) and 'stores for longer and has more numerous but smaller cloves'. Time will tell...
Unlike in all our previous years of growing alliums, we are not going to be overwintering our onions this year. Last year we overwintered sets of Red Baron and also Shakespeare. In the years that we have grown Red Baron they have always bolted, and then have to be used first as they won't store well. In contrast, for the last few years the Shakespeare variety of white onions had done superbly for us, and stored well through to about January when we ran out.
Richard and I were at the RHS Malvern Autumn Show last Sunday and met up with a load of YouTubers, including Vivi Gregory, Jane Kelly, Huw Richards and Liz Zorab who were taking part in a Q&A in The Potting Shed. During the Q&A Huw mentioned that he is not going to grow Red Baron again as his had also tended to bolt. I must admit there was a little bit of me that was pleased that someone who grows organically as well as Huw does had also had challenges with their Red Baron. I felt a little less inadequate in the onion department!
So, as I mentioned we are not overwintering onions this year. We will have our garlic growing over winter, and we will have two types of broad beans too; maybe some peas also. Hopefully the growing tips of all these will keep me smiling through the winter months.
I am going to be following the advice of Vivi this year and buying onion sets for planting in the spring. In fact I will be copying the Queen of the Gardens entirely this year in our choice of white onions and will be growing Jet Set, and they will be going in around March / April I think [note to self, check What Vivi Did Next's video of her planting sets in 2019]. We are still going to be growing some red onions, even though Richard is not a great fan of them. I have ordered a variety called Rosanna - again a French variety which is apparently pink rather than a deep red. I have never grown this variety before so it will be interesting to see how it does for us, especially compared to the experiences that we have had with Red Baron.
This afternoon I got down to the plots, got the rest of our tomatoes out on the top plot, and tomorrow I will start preparing that bed for the Messidrome. Oh, and at Morrisons I also bought myself a mini flask. A little treat that will keep me warm for the work ahead at the allotment over the coming dark months.
A Guernsey Gardener in London - Day 3
Butternuts, it appears, are a little like buses. You wait ages for one to come along, and then three appear at the same time!
It hasn't been a great year for our squash, or at least not at the allotment. There are a few Cheeky Prince growing amidst the toppled Gigantes and buckled rose arches; some of these squash royalty are green and some distinctly turning a bright orange. However, on the whole squash on our allotment plots this year have been few and far between... literally!!
When I meandered down earlier to check on our plots and read the site water meter, I thought whilst I was there I would just pop over to where we are tending to a 2m by 1m patch on a fellow allotmenteers plot. The two Achocha that Vivi gave us in early July are both about seven or eight foot high now, and covered in little fruits (note to self - make Vivi's Achocha & Chickpea Curry!!), and the sight of them did brighten my day.
One of them did look a little off though... Odd colour... Odd shape... Had it not been pollinated correctly? Had it been distorted somehow by rubbing against the willow pole structure? Or was it in fact not an Achocha at all?!?!
So you can imagine the flush of warmth inside and the big smile that came to my face when I saw the little wee Butternut Waltham above. Finally... FINALLY we had a butternut. And then I spotted another! And yet another!!!!!
So, after all that slightly pained forlornment of the past few months, we finally have three baby Butternut Walthams, though as Hamlet said, 'there's the rub'! It is now the third of October, the nights are chilly, rain is always round the corner, sun shines brightly and then is quickly scurried away by storm clouds, and therefore the chances of any of these three beauties ripening to maturity is slim to none.
However, it is now true that we do have butternuts. They may not lift to the heights, maturity and fruitfulness of Hugh & Mama and their plump family of last year, but they are Butternut Walthams none the less. And that, in itself, is worth smiling about.
A Guernsey Gardener in London - Day 2
For me, the growing year has always begun on the 1st October and run through until 30 September. Like much in my life, it's a mum and dad thing. It worked for them, so... I will be regularly posting the journey of our allotment year, which for us includes a move from a fully productive plot which we've had for two years now. It is about 100m from our main plot, which was the first plot we took on, and we're hoping the move will save us time and energy... eventually! The new plot, which is directly next to our main plot, is rather unmaintained at the moment, so there's much preparation ahead. The new plot is also a bit bigger than the plot we're leaving - five poles as opposed to 3.3. We're hoping the extra space will allow us to have more soft fruit than the few we have in pots at the moment, plus lots of other bonuses too! P
A Guernsey Gardener in London - Day 1
...long term partners.