Saturday... A Bank Holiday weekend... Blue skies. Grey skies. Billowing white clouds. Blankets of grey. Sun. Brief showers... very brief showers... and lots of chat.
Being the first Saturday in May it was Naked Gardening Day, though no one I know of... including myself... was brazen enough to go the whole hog; I did go barefaced apart from suncream and wearing a T-shirt... so my arms were definitely taking part in the day of the year that elicits a huge amount of social media interest with very little full-on nudity... which is both fair enough and a good thing in my view!! Much more Monty Don and Carry On rather than red-light district... thankfully!
Being Spring Bank Holiday weekend in the UK I guess it was always going to be a busy three days at our site, as I'm sure it was across most sites in the four countries of the UK... and possibly allotment sites, Victory Gardens, community gardens and such other community-driven green spaces around the northern hemisphere too. Down Under, the busyness is of a different time; gathering harvests, relishing bounties and seed-saving for next year's hopes and dreams... polar opposites, literally!
As I chatted with plot neighbours there was much talk of how this year is behind last year; the sunniest April on record still turned out to be the frostiest since the great depression. Early potatoes still not showing, carrot and parsnip sowings delayed, direct sowing of French beans postponed, tomato plants still being coddled at home, fleeces readily at hand, greenhouse venting largely closed, warmth whilst in sunshine, chills in the shade, flasks still filled with warming liquids rather than cooling cordials, and no rain... or too little to give any real benefit. The forecast was for the Bank Holiday weekend to end with a downpour, or two, or three... and no one was complaining... and no one is now as for once that forecast was right!
With so many wanting both to chat and just crack on with their tasks a quiet job I'd planned for Saturday was moved to the day after, and a job for the day after was done instead. Beds were topdressed with Soil Improver and Peat-free Compost, and their bags dried out and readied for re-use. The forecast rain would mellow the topdressing onto the beds, and the nutrients will start working their way down.
Shortly after my job was done I was told by a passing fellow allotmenteer that my beds were so neat that they looked like they were on parade... and I sort of got the drift, and hoped for once the forecast would be right so that we WOULD have rain on my parade... which we did. I'm still deciding which beds will hold brassicas, and which beans and salads and direct-sown beetroot and turnips, and more; one thing for sure is none will hold radish which remains a bête noir...
We're now well into our growing year, which for us runs October to September, just as it did for my dad; I know I think differently to others, and I guess in terms of this I always will. To me the planting of garlic and sowing of broad beans in October is always a good start for the year.
And on broad beans, will I do Bunyard's Exhibition again? This year they were bitten so hard by snows and rugged chill winds I think we'll be back to the seemingly sturdier Aquadulce Claudia come October. And that's where part of my head is now... October... and next year. I'm already making notes, as it's never too soon... varieties I want to grow... and ones I don't... seed-saving of what and how and when. I'm doubting onions will be in our beds next year. In fact, I doubt we'll do onions here again... unless, of course, we do...
So the weekend wore on and work got done... hoeing, weeding, raking, topdressing, watering, tidying and importantly the art of quietly observing; a simple yet complex skill that often many forget.
Of all that got done on our May Day at the plot, and during the rest of the weekend, the most important was chatting... chatting is so important, and such an intrinsic part of allotment life; remaining socially-distanced didn't mean we had to remain distant. Catching-up... who's doing what, feeling well, needing an uplift, a gifting of smiles, a sharing of laughter, a listening ear for someone's sorrows, and an uplifted heart from sharing someone's joys... simply spending time in the company of others whether friends, colleagues, acquaintances or simply frequently passing nods and smiles. This is allotment life... as important as communing with the soil, sowings, seedlings, plantings, harvests, Planet Earth and Mother Nature is communing with each other.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, 4 May 2021
When we drove into the entrance of the riding school a few weeks back, this great hulk of aged compost was really a sight for poor eyes. Now, I don't mean that my eyesight is bad... as it's not...
Let me explain...
This year I decided to do my best to cut down further on my participation as a consumer in this crazy world we now live in; I'm simply thinking more about what I need rather than what I want. So... my choice is that I want to buy less, so to be able to pick up compost for free from not too far away was a definite joy to grab hold of!
This compost is well rotted, soft, pliable, and already comes with worms included! It's a really well-turned mix of stable clear-out, woodchips, goat dung, those stone chippings you get to keep horses' hooves keen, and the rake out from the arena base. The management of it has been good too, as it's clearly been turned with a mechanical digger, and heaved up high, and the result is rather sublime.
This morning we did another two journeys... another two tonnes. So, in nine journeys and across three days, an allotment friend and myself... AND her reliant Citroen Berlingo, have moved nine tonnes of compost. We've shared it... 50/50... though I will be baking a loaf or two of bread as a little thank you. Our journies to the riding school are not quite over yet though, as we agreed another morning of shovelling later in the week.
Recently, I'd been wondering how I was going to even topdress the cardboard of our edged beds with an inch of compost. You see, I didn't really want to take compost from our old plot; maybe a few shovels full as an activator though certainly no more. The compost that we have in our pallet compost bin needs more time to break down, with a good turn or two to come, though the one in our Hotbin needs to be emptied so can be used. However, I'd really no idea how I was going to cover even thinly the three layers of cardboard of our repositioned edged beds... without spending money... and pretty serious money too!
So, being now able to put down not only an inch of compost on each edged bed but rather three or four inches is really a joy to behold, and a sight for my poor eyes and, by my own decision, my shallow pockets.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 26
As we stepped into mum's apartment the other day, my senses were immediately struck by a smell that I knew so well yet also could not quite place. I'd been caught by a scent that was both heavy and heady, yet full of light and shade at the same time. Each pace I took along the hallway the stronger the scent became... until, as I passed the kitchen doorway, I saw some narcissus in a small glass vase and was instantly transported to another time and place; to a time some four decades ago and a place some 3 miles from where I stood...
When we lived as a family at Le Pignon, a home near the centre of the island in the parish of Castel, I would walk with friends to school; Castel Infant School. I guess I was around ten or eleven, with no cares in the world and a host of unknown hopes and dreams ahead.
Our journey to school would be along Rue des Varendes, which lead onto Le Villocq, up Le Neuve Rue, right into Rue des Cauvains (avoiding the electric shock treatments of the Castel Hospital!!), then passed the King Edward VII Hospital, and then, as we got to the T-junction with Les Vieux Beauchamps there they were, directly in front of us.... a field of golden daffodils dancing in all their sunshiney glory. Yet for me it was not the yellow beauties that caught my eye, it was the yellow-eyed white narcissus that did, and they caught my nose too... and my imagination. These cherished mutli-headed floral gems were called Avalanche, and dad told me that they were from the Scilly Isles, which I always thought a wonderful name for an amazing multi-headed cascading fall of blooms... yet a silly name for a group of islands.
As we'd walk home from another joy filled day of school - and I do mean that as my schooldays were full of the joys of learning, of numbers, of letters, of nature, of play, and of friends - we would pick a bunch or two of flowers on our way. Diving into the field, we would gently pick a handful with the billy-goat-gruff farmer looking on... "Don't take too many... I gots to make my livin'".
As we walked to the back doors of our homes, where comfort and love abounded, the hands of each of my friends was the glory of a bunch of golden daffodils for their mum; in mine a multi-headed magisterial mystery of name and of place enveloped in gold and white petalled flows for my mum, Mary.
Those few steps into mum's apartment a few days ago really took me back... more than four decades... to a heady scent of the past.
A Guernsey Gardener in London - Day 25
So much of our lives for the next year, and beyond, is held within this simple, unassuming cardboard box.
It's name is Bertie.
Bertie originally started its travels on the Isle of Arran, coming to London then spending some time in France, before returning to London. A quick visit to Wales then ensued, though for much of last year Bertie was just happy to sit at home... quiet... unpretentious... still. And we're delighted that this was the case, as Bertie holds so many of our growing hopes and dreams.
It is within the packets... within the monthly sections... within Bertie that much of our growing year is held. The seeds in each packet, and each monthly section, will barely ever see the light of day. As they sit in the darkness of their packaging they're really just waiting for the dappled darkness of soil... or compost... and moisture... and sunlight. You see, it's these seeds that will germinate and grow and produce food for our table. Some will need to burst into flower before giving up their taste-filled offerings; others will just be resplendent in their luscious, leafy green goodness; the rest we'll know little about until they're pulled from the ground and their lengthy tap root or bulbous tubers are revealed to the sun or rain drenched world.
Bertie is a spit of a thing and doesn't really weigh much, though this meek little box carries the full weight of bountiful growing seasons and harvests... harvests that we hope will sustain and nourish.
We certainly have much to thank Bertie for, and can only hope that our growing hopes and dreams for this year are fulfilled... weather and pests permitting!
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 24
Even though these planters look a bit ragged and rugged at the moment, they still bring me that little uplift that one needs when starting a long day of work.
Yesterday was a day at For Earth's Sake, and it was longer than usual. We had an additional meeting in the early evening - a Business Improvement District meeting - so my train back would be late. It's rarely a chore to travel down and visit Vanessa and the team, however multi-sequenced my trek... They're all working so hard to try and do good for the planet, its wildlife, flora and fauna and its people. Nothing to not enjoy being part of, though it is a trek; albeit giving one time to think, as public transport often does.... though more on this another time...
... going back to these planters!
It's early morning and the middle of winter and they're looking a little forlorn. In a few months' time some of this grouping will be flowering and giving up their yellow buds to commuters already weary and worn on their morning commute... I'm sure they are even more of a blessing during their evening trudge back to home! These planters, or rather the plants, are also adding a little fresh air, doing their carbon dioxide and oxygen thing that they do so well. These little green growing places, these oases that we often walk past without a care do lift the spirit, if you let them. I'm forever grateful that there are those willing to care for them; as part of their job or on a voluntary basis of one sort or another.
We had some planters at the top of our road which had "seen better days", sullen palms in them. Not really the ideal plant for this place at the outskirts of London, in my humble opinion... I suppose the council thought "plant a palm and you won't have to worry about it", though the rest of the human detritus that gathers in these planters is the main problem. You see, the issue isn't the palms... it's the people. At one time I thought about taking up the cudgel with these top-of-the-road travesties and doing some guerrilla gardening, though there's already a lot going on in our life and maybe that would've just been a step too far... Anyhow, now they are gone, and the space is more barren... ...
... going back to these planters!!
As I continued my journey to Cranleigh, I had a little outward smile and inward warmth at this little oasis of greenery; positioned awkwardly amidst the rolled steel tracks of railway lines, harsh steelwork hoardings, softening wooden fences, vibrant caution stickers, and the hard concrete, tarmac and slabs of the platforms.
Returning late last night, and passing through the station at a little past 11pm, I glanced over my shoulder at these planters again; through the cinematic little lit pods of travellers of the train as it trundled out of the station.
There they were... unsurprisingly... across on the other platform, in darkness yet lit up by the neon glow on the station. All quiet, and gentle, and resting...
One bus ride home and I would be doing the same.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 23
The natural world. Forever amazing and inspirational.
For us, at this time of year, a trough of our strawberry plants is hardly a thing of beauty, though like all real beauty the truth is never just skin deep. At the moment the silent joy is in a few green leaves, protected by their waxy cuticle layer. The plants are keeping themselves tucked up under a blanket of last season's dead leaves; the ones that worked hard photosynthesising to ensure the plant grew, fruited and gave berries of paradise. They do need tidying up; but not at this moment.
At this moment this crispy brown veil is a blanket, a home and a refuge for tiny insects hibernating and microbial life; life that we don't fully understand and that we can't even see with the naked eye. It is often when our world's in winter's embrace that we take stock and think of what's to come. With some tender care, judicious pruning, and a little liquid fertiliser from reconstituted organic chicken manure pellets, these now quiet strawberry plants will soon start shouting and give us an abundance of fat red berries... only about five months to wait! Of course, the flowers will come first, then bees, butterlies and insects will pay a visit... or two... or three. They'll leave some magic dust, and then fruit will start growing... and swelling... and ripening.
I look forward to the days of strawberries, and now know our summer is not too distant... bringing the bliss of heated rays of sunshine... and seemingly endless watering!
But first... now... at this very moment.. we are in winter's embrace.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 22
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
...long term partners.