Spring Cleaning

Sunday afternoon, the clouds cleared and it felt like the first truly sunny day of the year, warm on the hillside but still cool at the bottom of the allotment.

Over the weekend we’ve been clearing the allotment, planting out new hedging, pruning and thinning existing hedges that have been neglected; our foray into fruit tree pruning has given us courage and a bit more knowledge about the process. We ended up with an enormous amount of wood, so we lit a rare bonfire to burn the diseased applewood that John pruned out last week. We also burnt the hawthorn, blackthorn and bramble – all the vicious stuff – and added the smaller branches to the compost heap to open it up, encourage more oxygen to circulate.

Our hedges badly needed pruning into shape, particularly where they’re growing out into the boundary paths. We’ve also allowed the flowering currant to grow too large. The bushes make a brilliant shady area in the summer but they’ve grown over a path making it impossible to use. Now that the sun’s shifted we also need to thin and lower the hedge at the bottom of the allotment so that the beds get more sun later in the day. We planted a hazel six years ago and it now has some very useful straight trunks ready for use as beanpoles; we’ll coppice it to the ground to encourage new growth for harvesting as native-grown beanpoles, instead of buying imported bamboo. Unfortunately, not all the growth will be useable; the local council send in contractors once a year who mutilate all the hedges without prior notice and the hazel became a victim of this ‘management’ practice two years ago. A case of ‘managing’ rather than understanding or caring about growing practices. Tick the box, job done, contract fulfilled, doesn’t matter that they’ve just ruined a hedge.

garlic growing on the hillside

The garlic has spent winter putting down a strong root system ready for a burst of spring growth. You can see the shoots coming through, noticeably taller each week. However, the special garlic cloves from @Gwenfar’sLottie aren’t showing much signs of growth, and we’re wondering if they might not be happy on chalk, but still time for them to emerge. The garlic was a bit experimental this year: we covered the garlic beds with lots of seaweed in November, then covered with our own compost just before planting out the cloves – the garlic was planted into holes dibbed through the compost and still decomposing seaweed. A risk, but seaweed usually rots down fast over winter, and covering with compost probably speeds up the process. The shallots, also planted through compost on top of seaweed, are starting to show green shoots – we didn’t buy any shallot sets this year but planted our own, saved from our 2012 crop. They hardly multiplied or increased in size, & were so pathetic we just kept them in net bags in a cold conservatory to plant, rather than cook with them. Planting into seaweed is our attempt to improve on last year’s results. We will report later in the year.

Next task will be to finish the new potato beds on the hillside ready for planting over Easter weekend, and move the asparagus to its new bed. We’ve worked on the flatter part of our site up to now, but found it difficult to get anything to grow successfully on the hillside. Unsurprising, given the soil is hardly more than a few inches deep over a chalk ridge running down the valley. In order to grow anything we have to make narrow beds across the contours and make our own soil. That’s what we’re tackling now and why we’re experimenting with seaweed over our thin soil topped with our own compost.

Allotment sites around Brighton have generally been moved over the years further and further out towards the edges of the city, onto the chalk hillsides where the soil is thin and poor. The current council policy of only letting 1/2 plots (5 rods) and refusing to let full plots, has meant that, on our site, each newly vacant plot is split into a flattish plot at the bottom where all the reasonable soil is, and a hilly plot at the top. We have most of our storage and compost bins on the thin chalky hillside so as not to waste what little decent soil we have at the bottom. Pity those who only have a chalk ridge to grow on; an analysis of which plots are abandoned quickly might be interesting.

Our burst of clearing and tidying will culminate with potato planting, after the 1st full moon of Spring; if we’ve pruned and mulched effectively we’re hopeful of better crops this year, of eating more of our own produce than we were able to in 2012.

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