Archive for allotment problems

Allotment currants and seedlings again

currant bushesThe first workshop of 2014 will take place next Saturday, 29 March – we’re going to be looking at propagating perennial crops and plot #103 was not looking as I would wish it to look!

To add to the problem, OH has done something to his back. It happened last night, and so he wasn’t available to help with the heavy work today. On my plan was to cover the broad beans and new strawberry plants against tonight’s predicted heavy frost, to weed and mulch the currants in advance of putting up their fruit net in the next fortnight and to repot some of the greenhouse seedlings.

What wasn’t on my plan was to dig up and move the lovage. But when I thought about it, I remembered that one of the problems we had last year was the lovage growing too tall for the fruit cage. It can easily make six feet in a single year!

LovageSo out came the fork and up it came … it sounds so easy, but it was half an hour of back aching work just to dig the whole plant out, then another twenty minutes to dig a new hole to relocate it in the medicinal garden, to divide it into three; one main plant to go back in the ground and two smaller ones (which I had to separate from the parent by wedging a trowel into the root system and hammering it with a mallet) to give away. It had huge roots and I’m really glad I got it out of the ground now, as it must have been competing with the currants for nutrients and they’ll almost certainly do better now it’s not hogging all the goodness in the soil. I’ll bet I’ll be pulling out baby lovage plants for a few years though, as I’m certain I didn’t manage to lift all the roots and although I went back and dug out the broken ones, I’m bound to have missed a few.

Lovage is not much grown now, although it’s an attractive sculptural plant, because not everybody likes the strong ‘celery with a hint of liquorice’ fragrance. Also it’s very rarely eaten these days although it is still used to make a liqueur that was once recommended as being good for the digestion. We grow it to eat with lentils and other pulses in summer as it’s said to have a flatulence reducing effect. We enjoy the flavour too though, so it’s not just medicinal (or social acceptability) in our case! It definitely counts as a crop and if you have space for it on your allotment, can be a useful way to fill an otherwise unused corner as long as you don’t mind dividing it every few years.

mulched currantOur local council turns Christmas trees into chippings and deposits them on allotment sites so once I’d hand weeded out all the goose-grass, baby thistles and brambles that had just emerged, I planned to put down a couple of barrowloads to mulch the currants.

Then the hail came down in stinging torrents so I took cover in the greenhouse and repotted the kohlrabi while I waited for it to pass. It hailed for long enough for me to do the kohlrabi, and some lettuce and both the lovage!

Two barrows of wet chippings did a good job of mulching the currants, although I might go and get a third barrow in the week. It’s important not to let mulch touch the stem of a plant, as this can soften the bark and weaken the plant, allowing bacteria and viruses to enter, so there’s a clear circle around each plant, then a layer of mulch to trap moisture, limit weed germination and provide some insulation against this March weather which is definitely a case of ‘in like a lamb, out like a lion!’

So we’re ready for next week and although the plot still doesn’t look as I would wish, it’s a lot tidier than it was ….


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Root-trainers and broad beans

broad bean planting

I started by digging out holes for the broad beans

broad beans root-trainers

The beans looked sturdy enough, but what would the root development be like?

broad bean root development

Once opened the root-trainers revealed strong root development

broad bean cloches

The only problem? The first set of cloches were too small to cover all the broad beans!

broad bean seedlings being planted

Larger cloches were the answer. Of 36 bean seeds sown, only two failed to germinate

broad beans in cloche

The broad beans covered with fleece for a week to allow them to fully harden off.

This is the first year we’ve used root-trainers rather than biodegradable pots and I’m impressed with the results so far. After ten days of leaving the beans out during the day and putting them in the shed overnight to avoid potential frosts, I was ready to plant them out…

Today’s harvest was red kale for dinner and some rhubarb which I’m experimenting with – I have a new Paleo rhubarb custard recipe to cook, and if it’s any good the Grow and Tell workshop attendees will get to try it on 29 March.

If you live around Brighton and Hove you’d like to learn to grow your own food (whether you have an allotment or just containers) and particularly if you’re interested in growing your own food to eat Paleo, why not come along to this year’s workshops? On 29 March we’ll be looking at propagating perennial crops like rhubarb and growing exotics like lemongrass. £5.00 per session. Email to reserve a place.

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Overwintering onions and garlic

103 planting onions 17 nov 13It’s been a difficult autumn to get the overwintering onions in. Whenever we’ve planned to get to the plot and do the job, it’s rained!

Finally, last week, we got the job done. This year we’re growing one lot of red onions, one lot of white and two different varieties of garlic: Solent Wight and Provence Wight. Overwintering onion are purchased as sets, not seeds, which get planted with the point at the top and the (miniscule and difficult to spot) roots at the bottom. Every year I say this, but I’ll say it again – don’t just push them into the ground; they easily get damaged by stones or even grit in the soil and that causes them to rot. Dib a hole and drop them in.

Remember that smaller sets can be more productive than bigger ones as the larger they are the more prone they are to bolt.

103 allotment haul 17 nov 13We have to cover our onions and garlic, as the birds always pull them up. It’s a backbreaking task but it’s great to have it all done at last!

A fairly meagre haul – a red cabbage and a head of Chinese leaves …

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Allotment rules – the law of diminishing returns

103 tayberry handfulFunnily enough, as I type this, Rebus has just learnt this law. You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks but you can certainly introduce them to immutable laws.

We used to own another Cairn Terrier, whom Rebus cordially detested, by the name of Falco. Falco loved to eat … well, anything, to be honest: cardboard, vegetables, gravel, cat poo, flowers, socks, fruit … especially fruit. He used to eat any kind of fruit, but especially windfall fruit because he was a little dog and that was what it was easiest for him to scavenge. He would get terrible bellyache from eating little green windfall apples but it never stopped him. So we learned to reward him with better food – if he brought in a rock-hard windfall apple, usually brown and bruised and rotten on one side and as bitter as sour grapes, we took it from him and gave him a little dog treat.

Rebus never ate, or brought in, a single windfall. He was contemptuous of the process and scornful of Falco. However, since Falco died, several years ago, Rebus had decided it’s his job – after all, somebody needs to do it, right?

rebus camouflagueNow Falco was greedy and probably ate three or four apples for every one that he brought in. Rebus is conscientious and brings in every apple he finds. That could be a lot of treats!

So the law of diminishing returns has to apply – he gets a big treat for the first one, a small treat for the second one, half a treat for the third one and a pat on the head for the fourth. He never brings in a fifth apple.

It hasn’t rained here for weeks and weeks and weeks – there was a dribble of drizzle on Wednesday night but it was really insignificant in the face of parched earth and empty water butts! It’s going to rain tomorrow (all day apparently – hurrah!) and I am utterly sick of watering. We can use hoses at the allotment but it’s really a waste of effort for all kinds of reasons – plants need water at their roots, the soil doesn’t need water (unless you’re germinating seeds) and every time you water it you (a) encourage weeds to germinate, (b) stop the roots heading down to find water and encourage them to grow more shallowly.

103 harvest 9 sept 10So dig down and see where your soil is still damp. Usually it’s still wet four to six inches (9-12 cm) below the surface and most roots reach that far. Some plants need a lot of water like winter squashes and tomatoes – water them by all means. Others don’t need that much and watering them to the same level is a waste of time, effort, water and may even damage their productivity. So a lot of what I’ve been doing in the past three weeks is hand watering into plastic bottles sunk in the ground. It’s exhausting. It’s necessary but exhausting.

The law of diminishing returns applies here too. I don’t water courgettes or radishes in this weather – they can die for all I care! They’re low value crops and they usually recover from quite drastic ill-treatment if it doesn’t continue too long. Peas and beans lose out next because while they are great crops, the amount of effort I put into watering them doesn’t get a great return. Perennials get watered with love and care: our new fruit trees and bushes and our asparagus will still be feeding us in five to twenty years time – the return on the investment this year is four to twenty years of harvest – the opposite of diminishment.

So apologies for absence, but the watering can has been calling me …

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Potato blight – treatment and a recipe!

roasted newIt’s a high blight risk period, and sure enough, when we were at the plot on Sunday for the Open Gardens, we saw some tell-tale signs in our first earlies. Now it’s been an unusual year already, with first earlies still in the ground for many of us, and the arrival of a Smith period was almost a guarantee of blight.

Smith periods are warm and wet, or, in our case on Sunday, not that warm (everybody else was having temperatures in the twenties and brilliant sunshine and we were having mid teens) and very humid (because there was a sea fog) and then, as we watched, potato leaves began to yellow, then fold, then brown patches appeared. There’s an outside chance it could have been something other than blight, but we’ve learned our lesson well.

There are two scenarios around potato blight on our site. 1 – Cut your haulms and cut your losses. 2 – Don’t cut your haulms and count your losses. The fungal spores can spread on the wind, and travely from foliage to foliage, and they multiply rapidly in warm, damp weather.

This is the first year for five years we’ve tried growing maincrops and it looks like we’re going to struggle to keep them blight free. I got ruthless. We dug the first row – lots of small but perfect tubers – cut all the greenery of all the rest of the first earlies (three rows) and bagged it to remove. The cutting away of all green growth stops the fungal spores being washed down into the tubers and infecting them. We’ll dig up all the rest of the first earlies over the next ten days, once their skins have hardened a little.

roasted new 2Now we just have to hope for less Smith periods so that our second earlies and maincrops might make it through. Hope, but not expect. On a site of our size, with the preponderance of blight that we have in both potatoes and outdoor tomatoes, we were pushing our luck and we knew it.

In less populous sites, where blight is less prevalent, you might get lucky with spraying, although the sprays available to allotment holders are weak compared to those used by commercial growers. Good planting hygiene is vital with excellent spacing between rows and lots of air circulation – and once again we packed in a few more spuds than we should have done. I don’t think that cost us our crop, I think we’d have got blight anyway, but it’s a lesson we regularly fail to learn, and perhaps it’s time to go back to not growing so many potatoes, focusing on blight resistant varieties and giving up on maincrops once again.

So if you get a lot of small first early potatoes, how do you cook them?

roasted new 3One of our favourite ways to use up tiny (smaller than walnut sized) new potatoes is smashed potatoes.


1. 500 grams very small new potatoes, washed
2. 2 tablespoon of capers or pickled nasturtium seeds if you have them
3. 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
4. 3-4 stems of rosemary, with leaves stripped from stems
5. 4 tablespoons olive oil
6. 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (if you made chive vinegar last month, you can use that as a good replacement)


• Boil your potatoes in lots of water so they can circulate freely – say around 10 minutes.
• Preheat over to around 220C or gas 9
• Drain well and tip into a bowl with the nasturtium seeds or capers and half the olive oil. Mash very lightly, so around half the potatoes are broken, then add the herbs and seasoning to taste, stirring well to combine.
• Tip into a tinfoil lined baking tray or silicone baking dish and pour the rest of the olive oil on top, pressing down well with a wooden spoon or spatula, then drizzle the vinegar over and bake for 30-40 minutes.

The potatoes end up with a crispy brown top and a creamy under layer which is utterly delicious hot or cold. It’s almost worth having blight!

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