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
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
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
It may not seem like much of an auspicious start... but it's a start!!
Almost three months ago now I first noticed that a whole load of bricks had been stacked up against a wall at the bottom of our road. Who had put them there? Was someone going to use them for something? Was there a carefully concealed camera looking on to catch a thief?
All fair questions maybe, though knowing folk in our area often 'freecycle' by popping unwanted items on the pavement or their front wall, my immediate thoughts were "Can I take them?", "These could be very useful at the allotment", and "I need to get a wheelbarrow to trundle them across to our plots."
And the next time I passed them I had exactly the same thoughts... and the next time I passed... and the next time... and the next...
On Monday, I took the bull by the horns, or maybe it's better to say I took the bricks by a wheelbarrow.
It might seem like a relatively simple job, and it certainly was, though the time it has taken me to get round to doing this is symptomatic of the last few months. I'm really hoping that now, as we get in to the real darker days of winter, I will have more time at the plots, allowing me (and Richard!) to get them sorted for spring sowings and the happy onslaught of growing all that is green.
So this simple job was really our first task to getting the new plot into some sort of shape; albeit only by moving bricks from one place to another! The bricks, which are a hodgepodge of different colours, shapes and sizes, will be used to put on top of cardboard to weight it down so that the winds don't blow this ground cover away over winter. When we can get compost, from our bin or elsewhere, we will place this on top of the cardboard, and the weight of that compost will replace these bricks, though these bricks will do well in the meantime.
So it was from here (above left), at the bottom of our road, that I wheeled the bricks to here (above right), at the side of the shed on our new plot. We also acquired some tiles (though I'm not really sure what we can do with them!), and a few pieces of wood which I'm sure will come in handy at some point.
The scavenging of bits and pieces that one finds on one's daily jaunts certainly help keep the cost of an allotment down, and sometimes you get an unexpected and truly treasureable find.
Happy days. 😊
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 13
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 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
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
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
...long term partners.