In winter's embrace (AGGIL 22)
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
As I've been pottering at the allotment today, two well-known sayings have come to mind. The first is "It's never too late to do some good" and the second is "Don't put off until tomorrow what can be done today".
It's the 1st of January and obviously the start of a brand new calendar year. Our growing year is gently moving forward and getting in to gear, and this morning it's been about tidying the beds on our top plot.
Where we had our completely unproductive Butternut Waltham squash and quite productive climbing beans I've set to and weeded the bed; taking out any perennial weeds that were starting to take hold and covering all with a single layer of cardboard. A single layer here will do for the moment, and if it needs another that will have to wait for a few weeks as the rest of our cardboard hoard is needed for sorting out our newly acquired half plot next door.
Another bed, where our autumn harvesting broad beans were - the Luz de Otono that I vainly had much hope for - has been weeded thoroughly: some couch grass was coming through and it had to come out. I made sure I followed the root back as far as I could and pulled it from as deep as possible. We'll try the Luz de Otono again next year, this time sowing from seed. With such an unusually wet autumn this year the plug plants grew well but got black spot quickly and needed to come out. So today was just about tidying that bed. The soil is quite high in this edged bed, as we had added compost to hill the potatoes, so some of it will soo go onto a new bed at the plot next door.
Mr Robin - I'm sure not the one from home - is keeping me company and fluttering nearby; taking in the view of what's been done. Sitting next to me on the left arm of our blue bench, every now and again he flits off to the ground, digs around, rustles something out and has another nibble of lunch. Now he's off in the buddleja, which I'm glad I haven't yet cut back; clearly he doesn't like it all too neat.
It's completely silent down here today... almost. Even though the sky may be grey, the stillness is quite golden. There are a few people at the pub so occasionally there's a background murmur from the beer garden. Others are walking along the canal path and the river path, so every so often the shouting of a child screeches across the allotment. Barring this though it's mainly birds twittering, an occasional car door being slammed shut, and a very slight rumble of planes at Heathrow as their occupants jet off to who knows where.
Earlier I left Richard with his Shark vacuum cleaner. It arrived yesterday. He immediately unpacked it, checked it all over and gave it a quick try out. This morning he's been doing the two upstairs floors... and complaining that I was getting in the way in the bedroom when I wanted to get changed to come down here. After a brief break for us both and a soya milk coffee, I left him to his hoovering and came down here to do some tidying. All of that is now done and three beds are tucked away under cardboard, and another bed is thoroughly weeded. I could have done this weeks ago, and it's only taken me a couple of hours. Though for whatever reason I didn't get round to it then. And I have now. Which is good. That is how life is after all.
So, coming back to those two sayings. Sometimes you do need to put something off because you know you just don't have the energy to do it today. And sometimes things are too late as you missed a deadline, and whatever you do after missing that deadline will never take you back to it. For what I needed to get done here for some illogical reason these two sayings sprang to mind, though I have no idea really why they did. I guess somewhere in my mind they just wanted to. Certainly it's not been too late, and certainly I haven't put off until tomorrow what I could do today. Clearly, the time was just right.
For some it may seem like an odd thing to be spending a few hours on New Year's Day down at an allotment, though for me it seems the perfect way to start another calendar year. And a great way to start my third month of my blog, 'A Guernsey Gardener in London'.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 21
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
From here to here (AGGIL 13)
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
It has to be said, the last few weeks have found me with little impetus to get on and do the things that really needed to be sorted. Unlike other years, the recent time change of falling back an hour seems to have also let me fall into an “Oh, I will sort it tomorrow…” state of mind, and we all know where that can lead!!
So, I needed a bit of a kick up the arse, or at least a nudge in the right direction.
Thankfully, the lovely Kelly Bramill of Kelly’s Kitchen Garden gave me a right, royal kick up the arse… at least metaphorically! And, to be fair, it was less of a kick and more of a warming nudge of “Go on… you know you will like it”. And like it I did!!
A few days back Kelly uploaded her latest video where she sows White Lisbon Spring Onions and three types of lettuce. Early sowings of a lettuce that Kelly did at this time last year have provided her family with over 2.5kg of salad leaves this year!! A monumental harvest of salad leaves in anyone’s book.
So today, following Sunday Chat, it was time to get some sowing of my own done. Admittedly, I could have stayed in front of the TV watching Vivi’s first Sunday on the Sofa - and believe you me I was quite comfy watching it on our sofa in our warm front room with a cuppa in hand. However, as I watched my fingers were growing increasingly itchy, and I knew a spell of seed sowing was going to be the only thing to quell them. So, about 10 minutes in and with Vivi’s washing machine seemingly nearing the end of its spin cycle I said to Richard “Nope, I'm going to have to watch Vivi later. I'm going down to the plot to sow some seeds.” And after a rummage in my seed box, where I found gifted and ‘magazine’ seeds, that's exactly what I've done!
Following Kelly's advice, which you can watch fully in her video, I've now multi-sown White Lisbon Spring Onions in modules, and I've separated one of our half-size seed trays into three using seed labels and sown All The Year Round lettuce, Southern Giant mustard and Arctic King lettuce. The compost was already moist and the seed trays have now had a light watering and will stay in the polytunnel under their little plastic hat for some months, or at least until we move the poly to lower down on our new plot. I've never sown salad leaves or spring onions at this time of year before, though clearly it did very well for Kelly who lives much further north and in a colder environment, so fingers crossed!
If your fingers are getting itchy too, and you know that only a bout of seed sowing will sort it, then why not grow along with Kelly also? It will be interesting to see how we all do.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 12
An 'after seed sowing' darkening sky at our allotment.
It was a job that I'd been putting off for quite some time. Mainly because I'd never done this with seed so small and light, though in reality time had just slipped by in October to who knows where!
I'd harvested our Portuguese Cabbage seeds at least six weeks ago, and they had been in our polytunnel since. With the days drawing in, and nights getting colder and damper, our polytunnel wasn't the best place for these seeds now. If we'd left them here they would surely have germinated; several months too soon and at completely the wrong time of year! Brassica seeds are a pretty hardy bunch and a little cold is easily shrugged off!!
It was time to bring home all the brittle, sharp edged seed pods and their many thousands of seeds in a single brown paper bag. I left the bag and its contents to dry out for a further day in the warm utility room, and then it was time to do some winnowing.
It's an ancient craft, and having tried it myself with these gloriously dark brown and minuscule seeds I think the word craft is used wisely! Winnowing is basically separating husks from seeds, using an air current to literally 'separate the wheat from the chaff'... or in my case the seeds from the seeds' pods using some judicious pouted blowing.
It took some time, and then a little more time, and then a little bit more time again. The seeds chose to take flight like tiny cannonballs as I blew, speckling the kitchen surfaces with their minute grains of destruction... Richard would not be a happy bunny!! I decided it was time to give in and get the tweezers out; removing the remnants of virtually invisible stalks and broken seed pods by hand.
Admittedly I wasn't winnowing the whole day through, though it took much longer than I'd imagined when I started!
As I now drink my nicely brewed English Breakfast tea and look down on the smile in the seeds traced out by a finger, I too have a smile on my own face... and a new found respect for this winnowing craft. Yes, it was a bit of a chore though it also brought a semblance of purpose, fun and calm.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 10
Moments of reflection (AGGIL 9)
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
Know your alliums... (AGGIL 3)
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
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.