To date, I've always planted out onion sets in the autumn for harvesting the following summer. Most years we've been lucky with our white onions and had really good results; the variety of late has been Shakespeare. However, with our red onions, which have always been Red Baron, it's been a different story. They have always bolted, which obviously is not the intention and is no good for long-term storage.
However, over the past few days I've been getting that little itch again of needing to sow some seeds... as us allotmenteers often do! I had a hunt in my seedbox and came across some Ailsa Craig onion seeds which had been free and enclosed with a magazine some months back. So yesterday, as I was popping down to the allotment to do our Christmas Day harvest, I decided to sow these whilst I was there and see how they do... though in fairness even if I had had nothing to do at the allotment I would have still gone... that itch being itchy and needing a scratch!
It's become somewhat of a tradition in the UK to sow onion seed on Boxing Day. I think it springs from those wanting to grow exhibition onions, like Kelsae, though may do me well too (even if I was a day early!). I guess this tradition really aligns more to sowing on the shortest day and harvesting on the longest; though nowadays after an extended family ridden Christmas Day I am sure many will want to escape for an hour or so on Boxing Day to potter at the allotment!
I've never done onions from seed before, though have over the last few years had a hankering to have a go. It'll be interesting to see how they compare to how we've grown our onions previously... as sets... planted in the autumn... as I have already said...
Apart from White Lisbon Spring Onions which I sowed a month or so ago - growing along with what Kelly from Kelly's Kitchen Garden is doing - I currently have no onions growing. You see, I'd already decided that this year we'd plant out sets in the spring, just like Vivi does. Hers always seem to do well and not bolt, so we'll follow the way of the Queen of the Gardens this growing year.
You may remember last year we tried planting our onion sets deeper, as dad used to do. Sadly, the result was pretty poor. All of the red onions bolted yet again; fourth year growing and fourth year bolting. With our white Shakespeare, which had done really well in previous years, they didn't seem to like being planted deeper than we normally do. Largely, the harvest had onions that had either rust or allium leaf miner. Of course one reason could have been the deeper than usual planting, especially as I now remember that the soil that dad had in Guernsey is much sandier than we have, which will have certainly helped with drainage. Additionally, I think the white rot took hold as the onion sets seemed to stay quite damp around the growing onion. I know I didn't weed them enough and let Mizuna germinate and grow to full-size plants; this itself will have kept moisture in the soil at the level that the onions were forming... not ideal growing conditions for a crop that likes its own space. A note to self to hand weed more often AND remove volunteer plants if I even think they may at some point do harm!
So, I think a combination of things rather than just one had resulted in last year's poor onion harvest, and I've taken responsibility for these errors, and learned from them; as all us allotmenteers must. We get to know our soil, our light, our weather, our watering regime, our composting techniques, our fertilisers and our ways of doing things, and learn more and adapt again each growing year.
So, the sowing of these Ailsa Craig is done. They've already had a night tucked up in the poly, and we'll see how these little hard balls of onion seeds get on over the next few months. How quickly, or slowly, will they germinate? Shall I thin to one strong seedling per module or allow them to clump? When will they need planting out? Should I buy Enviromesh and cover to reduce the risk of allium leaf miner? Do I need special fertiliser for them or will a top-dressing of chicken manure pellets suffice?
We will see how they do, and find these answers as we go along. Learning and adapting as we allotmenteers always do.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 20
I have always grown Guernsey Half Long parsnips... partly out of nostalgia, and partly because they've always done well for us. For the first time, this year they didn't want to germinate. The first sowing did absolutely nothing, and the second sowing chose to do similar. As I'd sent some seeds off to Liz Zorab of Byther Farm so that she could have a go at them, and also shared some with the fabulous Vivi, after my second sowing I'd none left for a third sowing. A quick search online showed none in stock, which wasn't a huge surprise as it was well into the sowing season! However, there was no way we could be without parsnips so I decided I'd use the Tender & True seeds that had come free with a Kitchen Garden magazine.
Nine months from sowing, I've just pulled the first parsnip, which we're going to have for supper this evening (Christmas Day). You always wonder what lies beneath, and I have to say I'm really happy with what came out. It's grown true and strong and long and I hope is going to be tender as well and fully live up to its name. We've another full few rows of these parsnips so I hope that they'll all come out as good. Fingers crossed!!
I do love the Guernsey Half Long variety; they have big, broad shoulders and don't grow too long though you still get a really good amount of parsnip per seed. I've saved seed from one that we grew, did not harvest last year and left to go to seed... a flourish of flowery umbells followed by fennel-like seeds. If you're thinking of growing parsnips this year do remember that the seed does not stay vibrant for too long. It's said that it's best to get fresh seed each year, so if you do have seeds from last year or even the year before give them a go though be prepared to re-sow with fresh seed as germination may be poor.
I think I'll also be sowing some other parsnip varieties too this growing year. I've a Finnish one from Old Gardener Guy, and will definitely be giving those a go, and if I get some free seed of these Tender & True again I'll also sow them once more.
We sow our carrots and parsnips sparsely in a raised bed which is 3 decking boards deep, and do not thin them and do not cover them. As the carrot root fly flies only up to a certain height we generally get away without too much damage to our root veg. It's been the same this year and in the move to our new plot we'll be shifting the carrot bed from our lower plot up to our new one.
One thing that always surprises me is that parsnips in many countries are considered food just for livestock. They're certainly considered more than this in our house, and I think in many others. The wonderful starchy sweetness of parsnips makes them an essential with any decent roast, and therefore one of the true Kings of the Allotment Crop.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 19
When we were in Guernsey the other day, mum started chatting about the houses that we have lived in over the years. She began with their first home, the one she and dad lived in when they were first married. Then the house that they built together with a States of Guernsey loan and where we grew up as a young family. The middle stages of our family life together came next at our house near the centre of the island; more convenient for dad to get to and from work and giving him more time at home. From there the move was to a brand new build on a small Clos, and from that home there was the one to where mum now lives, overlooking Belle Grève Bay, the islands and the White Rock where dad was a docker for much of his working life.
We then went back over the list, and the times that we spent at each. I noticed that these next memories were significantly around the gardens of each home.
The small garden in their first home, surrounded by vibrant farmland and in an area where and at a time when many still grew their own potatoes, some root veg and brassicas. Then at our next home, where I first came into being, was the beautiful lawn and vegetable garden that mum and dad created; a peaceful garden nourished by seaweed and which has formed the backdrop of photos of so many guests that stayed at mum and dad's B&B. From here was a move closer to dad's work, and for me my favourite garden of the homes in which we lived; one which was bordered on two sides by a growing bamboo fence line that seemed to stretch to the heavens and was as deep as any deep hedge can be. The dozen chickens would roam under the arching laburnum in their own vast chicken-wired homestead. We would grow in the greenhouse - tomatoes, melons and cucumbers - and Freddy the tortoise would hibernate in here overwinter, under the bench in a hay-stuffed box. My older brother kept pigeons in his pigeon hut; all fanciful feathers and courteous cooing. And then there was the seemingly vast area of orchard with eating apples, cooking apples, pears and a plum tree; trees ripe for climbing, pruning, fruiting and harvesting. Across the path was the ever so productive vegetable garden that dad would find his spare time in, and I would go and help him and learn and feel love. The leisure area of the garden was another large space sandwiched between here and the back of the house. A small-scale formal garden of canna lilies, fuchsia, hydrangea and strawberries sat alongside the vast patio where people would smile and parties would happen and the sun would forever shine. I guess these were very happy years; a family of five in full swing.
Moving on and downsizing, with the family with heartache doing the same, the gardens that mum and dad created around our Grande Rocque home were truly amazing, particularly considering there was nothing there to start with and that the base soil was significantly sand. There were wonderful borders edged with pink and blue granite and the bowling green lawns that dad created. These bowling green lawns were truly bare feet worthy; springy and soft, and lush and life-enhancing. I remember dad always having a little pocket knife with him; walking across the vibrant green lawn he would dip down and dig out a dandelion or daisy and they would get thrown on the compost heap. You see, dad wanted a pristine lawn, and that's exactly what his groundsmanship delivered. Then the palm trees went in, Cordeline Australis and a very spiky yucca that we smuggled back from Ibiza... sshhhh, don't tell! Mum would tend her roses and all the colour of the garden and the two of them would spend hours just being; the two of them in sync.
When it got to the stage where the garden and the painting of the house was really getting too much for them both, they decided to move to where mum lives now. A garden, of course, was essential, and if it be in many pots then that would do quite well.
Mum and dad chose an apartment on the ground floor where they have spent many countless hours sitting on the patio taking in the sun and the sea and the salty air. At one point there were 84 pots of varying shapes and sizes containing flowers of various sorts, though the ones that have always taken mum's fancy are Arum lilies, hydrangeas, and geraniums and pelargoniums. On any drive around the island we would pass a house that used to sell these colourful scented plants on the roadside, it was just around from Port Soif. Whatever variety they had, whether crinkle leaf or flat or variegated, and whatever colour, whether white or pink or crimson or purple, these were always called Port Soif plants - mum's Port Soif plants. Many of them still flourish now and are topped up with other plants each year, all from cuttings mum so studiously loves taking. As it's now winter, and all in the pots is pretty sparse apart from a few geraniums still holding on to a scrambling of flowers, we left mum with 200 blue LED lights rambling through the dead and dying branches of the plants in the pots. Many of these plants will be back out next year, including the geraniums, and particularly the hydrangeas with their resplendent vibrant mop heads replacing the dancing feathery dried pom pom heads which are on view today. In the meantime, it will be the bright blue gems of LED that will dance in the breeze and please the eye.
It was in this 15 or 20 minutes of chatter, whilst Richard had a shower, that it brought me back to the fact that I know so well... Gardens in all their many guises are a haven for the body and a haven for the soul.
We are beginning to learn of and understand the benefits of gardening and gardens, and how the act of gardening and the time of spending time in green open spaces and gardens, alone and with others, is so beneficial to our mental and physical health. What dawned on me as mum and I sat chatting about the plants, the layout, the weather, and the times of fun that had been had in all these homes was that the memories of gardens, outdoor spaces and wonderful places nourishes and can live with us forever. It is through these moments of memory that we roll back in time and space. It is in these moments of memory that we literally do travel in time.
I guess these times and these memories are where the seeds for The Guernsey Gardener in London were sown. And now I can share these moments with others, if they so wish.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 18
Richard and I are fortunate to live in the picturesque area that we do. We're on the outskirts of London, with lots of green open spaces nearby, and the enchanting towpath of the Grand Union Canal just at the bottom of our road. A long established cast iron canal marker informs us each time we pass that it's 92 miles to Braunston. I often wonder the importance of Braunston, and one day I'll do a Google...
Downstream, four locks or a few miles away depending upon whether you're travelling by canal boat or legs or wheels, is the entrance to the tidal River Thames. At this point a turn right and upstream will take you to Hampton Court Palace, Maidenhead, Windsor and onwards into Gloucestershire. Heading left and seawards takes you past the Houses of Parliament, Tower of London, Greenwich Old Naval College and eventually into the North Sea. From here the water that has flowed along the banks of England's longest river, including some that has travelled by the side of the Community Gardens and allotments, starts a very different and saltier journey.
The Community Gardens sit alongside the Grand Union Canal, whilst our allotments, a short distance away, cuddle the banks of the River Brent. Over decades, centuries even, the river has flowed and flooded, leaving rich and nutritious detritus in its wake. It is this sediment and soil which makes up the earth on which the allotments sit. For years nature has been enriching this fertile growing land, and with a shifting of the riverbend several years ago, it is now down to plot holders to maintain and encourage the richness of the soil that we tend. It is very, very rare now that the allotments flood, and even when this does happen it's usually just an area that is now set aside as conservation woodlands on our site.
Many people have said that we're lucky to live in such an area. I like to think that we're fortunate, rather than lucky. It is down to the choices that we have made, both individually and as a couple, that we live where we do. However, these choices have largely been ours to make, rather than a necessity thrust upon us under life's duress.
We both still do have an itch to move on, though it is no longer as itchy as it was a few years back. At the moment, I think we are generally content. When an opportunity arises that we think is right, we will then make the choice that we do. Until that time comes, there are many seeds to sow and plants to tend.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 17
It's not exactly the colour of the shed that we want, though it is the colour of the shed that will do for now.
As you may remember, we've inherited this shed on our new plot; the plot next to our first plot at the allotments. We've been growing on a second plot further down, about 100m away, though moving to this rather untidy plot will save time in the long run with watering and in numerous other ways.
This plot wasn't going to come with a shed, as the then incumbent of the tenancy was going to dismantle it and move it to a new plot that he has moved to. Then, after a number of delays and setbacks in us taking over the tenancy, the previous tenant suggested he leave the shed in-situ; a suggestion that was gladly agreed to! To be honest that was a great relief as I'm not sure we'd have got around to getting a shed this side of the busy spring sowing season.
So, as you may have seen in our November plot tour (which came right at the end of the month!) the shed is in pretty good nick. It's dry inside, especially given we've had lots of rain recently, though the outside did look a bit worn and forlorn. It's certainly had a lot of wear and tear over the years from the ravages of the great British weather.
Another of the useful items left by the previous tenant was half a large pot of green shed paint. On opening it it was all good to use, so on Friday I set to, halfway through the afternoon as the sun was going down and the temperature was dropping! Now, painting is not something that Richard normally allows me to do. I'm more of a 'splosh it on' type of person and not one that gets the edges straight and creates no visible brushmarks. However, on this occasion, with winter really beginning to set in now and our nights touching 0°, it was best to get some paint on the shed to protect the wood over winter than just leave it for another for 5 months. And before anyone says it, I know this isn't the perfect weather to paint a shed, though it was the perfect time to paint it so paint it I did!
Richard hasn't seen it yet, and I know he's looking for a much lighter sage green than this rather murky green, so this will do as an undercoat until Richard can sort out all the design styles and features of this (his?) new shed.
He did suggest in the November tour video that maybe we could raise the roof... I thought he meant opening a bottle of champagne which I thought a terrific idea... then I realised he did actually mean raising the roof of the shed, as he couldn't stand up straight! Now, I'm not a great one for hammers and nails either, so in my head raising a shed roof is akin to the challenges of raising the Titanic!
However, as in all things, time will tell...
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 16
...long term partners.