After the Storm

The Met Office issue a weather warning: YELLOW WARNING of RAIN and WIND for much of southern and south-eastern England.

Issued at: 08:58 on Sun 20 Nov.
Valid from: 09:00 on Sun 20 Nov.
Valid to: 13:00 on Sun 20 Nov.

The strongest of the winds and heavy rain associated with Storm Angus are now confined to parts of southeast England (strongest winds in the Amber warning area) and will clear to the east through the rest of this morning, although some gusts of 50 mph may still affect eastern parts of East Anglia and Kent into the early afternoon.

Battered by the storm last night, we decided, before checking for any damage on the allotment, to visit the beach in the hope of collecting seaweed. The sea was still turbulent but the wind had eased slightly, and there wasn’t as much seaweed as we thought there’d be, but enough; and anyway being on the beach on such a windy day was exhilarating.
We often need to separate seaweed from the flotsam that litters the shoreline, and today was no different, just more than usual, thrown up by last night’s storm. So much rubbish, ghost tackle, battered and broken but still recognisable; what we throw away, returned with the incoming tide.
Collecting seaweed attracts attention, people curious to know what we’re doing and why? We explain composting; covering beds on the allotment; adding trace elements to chalky soil. We managed three bags today, enough to cover a bed.

Fortunately there was no damage on our plot, but one of the allotments, across the valley from us, had lost their polytunnel. Picked up and rolled across several plots, it lay upended; nothing but twisted wreckage.



Bumblebee larders

Despite the bitter winds and rain showers, the recent sunshine has awoken the bumblebees. They’re everywhere, zipping around our plot, searching out pollen and nectar. Narratives about declining bee populations focus almost exclusively on honey bees, while Bumblebees seem quite neglected. Perhaps the development of bee keeping on an industrial scale and the potential for industrial-scale financial losses when colonies collapse is at the root of this preoccupation. Bumblebees are the most significant pollinators in the Northern hemisphere for field beans, fruit and tomatoes; however, according to research by Dave Goulson, there has been a serious decline in Bumblebeess and 13 species became extinct between 1950 and 2000.

Frequent Bumblebee nesting sites include holes in the ground, tussocky grass, bird boxes and under garden sheds. Their nests are quite small and don’t create a store of honey, hence are more sensitive to the availability of pollen and nectar-rich flowers. We can provide early flowers on our plots to help bumblebee Queens survive when they emerge in the early spring weather, when sources of pollen and nectar are often scarce. Without that early source of food, they can die.

The key is to have a succession of accessible bee-friendly plants that are rich in pollen and nectar flowering from early spring through to late summer. The greater the number of suitable flowering plants the better, with at least two bee-friendly plants for each flowering period, while the next wave of flowers are in bud, ready to take over. Highly bred cultivars with double flowers are not ideal as many have had the nectar and pollen content bred out, the plants are often sterile and therefore useless to pollinators; when they do produce pollen or nectar, the complicated petal structures are also difficult for insects to negotiate. Stick to flowers with simple structures, local wild flower selections often being the best choice, while annuals such as Nigella, Calendula and Limanthes douglassii (poached egg plant) are prolific self-seeders, ensuring there will be flowers next year without your labour.

Crucial times in the Bumblebee lifecycle:

  • When queens emerge from hibernation in early spring, having spent the whole winter underground where they will have survived, for up to six months, on stored body fat. They need access to nectar to quickly rebuild their energy reserves, before they fly off in search of a suitable nest site.
  • When establishing their nests in early spring, the queens collect pollen, which they mix with wax they secrete to form a mound in which to lay their 1st brood of eggs.
  • While they incubate the eggs for several days, the queens survive on nectar stored in a pot-like structure they create in front of their nest mound.
  • When the eggs hatch into larvae, they are fed on pollen and nectar; after 2 weeks of feeding the larvae spin cocoons before they develop into adults.
  • In late summer, when the queens fatten up ready for hibernation.

With few other flowers available, hedgerow trees and shrubs, such as willows, wild cherry, hawthorn and blackthorn, are important food sources for emerging bumblebee queens in spring. Beneath the tree and shrub layer, key plant species include dead-nettles, knapweed and foxglove, phacelia and crimson clover. Winter flowering honeysuckle, early hellebores, pulmonaria and native primroses are good early food plants with alliums and English bluebells following on. Plants such as red clover, yellow rattle and bird’s-foot-trefoil are good pollen sources for queen and new worker bumblebees, while knapweed and scabious provide nectar.

In planning your bee-friendly garden or plot, about now (mid-spring) is a good time to plant out winter aconites and snowdrops for next year as they establish more strongly when planted ‘in the green ’, meaning in full leaf, after flowering. But, do ensure your plants are not wild gathered but from reputable cultivated stock. I’ve just planted out clumps of snowdrops ‘in the green’ to establish for next spring, and am mapping out what’s flowering where and when across our plot so I can ensure we’re providing successional pollen and nectar sources.

We have clumps of white and purple comfrey in the hedges, which began flowering in late February, along with primroses, daffodils and crocus. Daffodils are not a favourite with Bumblebees, which only seem to visit them as a last resort. Cuttings of winter flowering honeysuckle from our last garden are now scattered around the plot and in the hedges, and we noticed early bees visiting the flowers during warm late winter and early spring days. The Hellebores are still all in flower, along with the primroses beneath the hedges, while the flowering currants (Ribes sanguineum) are covered in flowerbuds opening into pink cascades, and wreaths of blackthorn blossom ripple up the hillside where the young hedging whips were planted last autumn.

We should give as much thought to the flowers we plant as we do to our food crops, planning successional flowering to sustain a healthy population of pollinating insects. Our plots and food crops will benefit from the resulting increase in beneficial insects.

Some useful websites:

wild primroses_1

On a Wintry Day


Wintry showers spreading south during the morning…

There’s never a moment of inactivity on this allotment site, even on the bleakest of days. Yesterday was sunshine, wind and rain, sleet too, but still there were people working their plots; our neighbours across the valley stacking boards to replace rotten ones they’re using as terracing. We’ve continued to use felled sycamore to repair our beds through the winter; the results, a softening of outlines, an irregularity after the severe regimentation of scaffolding boards. The beds meander rather than sit grid-like across our plot, but then again we were never ones for squaring off, so the felled logs continue an arrangement that has evolved over time.

We often find the seaweed mulch scattered across the paths bordering the fruit beds. Sitting quietly by the shed drinking tea, we watch a blackbird root through, then select a strand of seaweed from a pile ringing a gooseberry bush. The seaweed is pulled away and the blackbird methodically picks at the strand. A Robin scratches and pecks at the wood chip on the path.
Then the rain sets in again & we decide to take shelter in our ‘new’ greenhouse. The frame was given by a neighbour on our site, the glazing we acquired through Freecycle, and where it didn’t fit we cut and patched with scavenged polycarbonate, securing it in place with gaffer tape where necessary. It withstood the wind yesterday, which is a good sign. Now it just needs plants.

Between showers we managed to weed and began to prune the sage bushes, but then we were engulfed by a hail storm and decided that we’d done enough for the day.

hail storm_allotment

Discordant seasons

In winter, we inhabit the allotment at a different pace to other seasons. It’s a good time to look at shape and structure, reflect on how the plot functions, repair and replace where necessary, and sort out any maintenance we’ve neglected during the summer months when our attention is focused elsewhere. The site will have regular supplies of wood chip between now and March, as trees and hedges are pruned and chipped, so the paths on our plot will have a good thick layer that should last through to autumn. Moving worm bins; a recycled wheelie bin with a tap fitted is one of our current tasks to replace the smaller bins that are scattered across the plot.

Between the rain and the gales, this winter feels like an extended autumn that will turn into spring before we’ve experienced cold. We’re at the beginning of February, and it’s definitely not been a cold enough winter. We need a cold winter; the apple trees need 1000-1400 hours at 7oC or lower to enable them to overcome bud dormancy; so with garlic, which needs at least 30 days at temperatures at 10oC or lower to persuade the cloves to split, then swell. The lack of cold has also made timing winter pruning difficult; apples need pruning while they’re dormant, but the higher temperatures have reduced the usual seasonal routines to emergency guesswork.

The allotment hasn’t reverted to its usual winter monochrome; the small red rambler by the shed has held tenaciously onto its leaves, refusing to revert to winter leaflessness; the strawberry plants have sat in a state of permanent anxiety, sickly blossom intermittently emerging in response to a rise in temperature or a dose of weak sunshine.  The Kales are also looking sickly, due to mild temperatures that haven’t allowed them to rest, while their resident bugs have just continued bothering them. The white fly momentarily succumbed to the hard frosts that descended in mid January; we all breathed a momentary sigh of relief: real winter, the pests would at last be frozen out! No – this didn’t last long enough. The Irises we re-planted had their flags pruned against the wind and now new shoots are beginning to show. The elephant garlic is growing vigorously and there are signs of the other garlic beginning to sprout. We planted crocuses late, three weeks ago, and already they’re starting to push through. The poached egg plants are thriving, yet, being annuals, the cold should have killed them off.

With this intermingling of seasons, the plants we welcome for their flowers in winter: jasmine, cyclamens, hellebores, are reminders of what ‘should’ be happening, but also disturbing harbingers of a spring about to emerge from an interminable autumn restlessness. The seasonal rhythms are out of synch and everything feels discordant. This coming year is going to see exhausted perennials in need of extra care, feeding and vigilance.


allotment view_towards Brighton



Pleaching a Hedge

This weekend’s work left me with bleeding hands despite my leather gauntlets  – hawthorn and blackthorn inevitably find your weak points.

I lopped the branches growing straight upwards that are too thick and difficult to bend and weave without breaking. The remainder I weave in turn, using them like the binders on the top of a laid hedge. I discovered this anchors the branches & results in a stable framework.

Pleached hedge_in process

Above, the hedge, before I’d lopped or woven any branches this year. Below, the same section when I’d completed it. The uprights arre last year’s growth – mainly Hazel, with some Hawthorn and Beech.

pleached hedge

Once the hedge has been pleached I can see where new hedging is needed – this is the 1st section I ever planted out and where I 1st experiemented with pleaching – you can see the gaps where I’ve not planted close enough. I’m developing the knack of knowing where to prune to encourage new growth to fill these gaps and to weave in next year.

hedge weave[1]

You get a better sense of the rhythm created during pleaching as the hedge undulates up the hillside.

hedge waeve[2]

Now Ive finished it, I want to see how it leafs up, and if the cuttings I’ve planted root well to fill the gaps.

Pleaching or Plashing a Hedge

Walking in a thick pleached alley in mine orchard
William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act 1 scene 2

I’ve started belated work on pruning the hedges around our allotment; the boundary has been planted out, over time, with a mix of Hazel, Beech, Hornbeam, Hawthorn and Blackthorn. During the last 4 years I’ve collected hedging seeds while out walking in autumn, stratifying them over winter, then planting in seed beds before lining the seedlings out to grow on. This way I’ve grown seedlings of Field Maple (Acer campestre), Spindle Bush (Euonymus europaeus) and Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus), alongside Dog Rose (Rosa canina), Wild Cherry (Prunus avium) and a range of crab apples, all of which are beginning to find their way into sections as I prune and identify gaps during the bare winter months. The oldest of the sections is 10 years old and looks quite substantial, if a bit haphazard, while the lower hedge is dominated by Hornbeam due to damp ground at the bottom of our plot, a reminder of the stream flowing beneath the haulage way.

I began experimenting with pleaching when the hedges needed some serious pruning, yet their growth had not created a sufficiently dense barrier. Pleaching or plashing [ Middle English plechen from Norman French plechier, Old French plessier, French plessier, plaissier, to weave] is to interweave, twist or plait growing branches of hedging and tree species, along with dead branches, to create a stock proof barrier and field boundary marker. As a hedge-making technique, pleaching was common from the medieval period; however, hedges are considered to have existed across most of Britain during the Anglo Saxon period, with the oldest living hedge, Judith’s Hedge in Cambridgeshire, which marks both a parish and a Hundred boundary, thought to date from a period of field creation in the 11th century. Given the evidence for Anglo-Saxon hedges, and the need for stock proof barriers and boundary markers as agricultural enclosure proceeded, pleaching as a hedge-making technique is likely to have been an evolving practice.

As an horticultural technique it is more usually associated with formal gardens, with our contemporary perceptions of its use shaped by Le Notre’s use of pleached lime and hormbeam as living architecture in his designs for Versailles. It is important to recall that Le Notre, from a family of gardeners, grew up in a house within the Tuileries gardens, where he would have acquired practical horticultural knowledge. The historical appropriation and re-making of a technique has resulted in its original informal and agricultural use becoming submerged beneath later cultural forms.

Informal pleaching doesn’t require the supports needed to create the geometric lines of more formal hedges, as the aim is to create a densely intertwined ‘fence’ that supports itself and acts as a barrier. All outward branches or breast wood are either pruned out if too woody to bend and twist successfully, or woven together with neighbouring branches to fill a gap. I’ve learnt to be ruthless in pruning overcrowded sections; the pruning process stimulates dormant buds to break so I now prune new sections quite hard to produce strong branches to weave in next year. The Hazel is particularly productive and yields an ample supply of pea supports each spring. Where the hedge is more established and has reached the height we need, I’ve cut out the leaders to encourage bottom and side growth. We end up with a series of arches, one hedging plant curving into the next, as the hedge gently undulates up the hillside.


While researching the origins of pleaching I discovered another method associated with it, for producing hedges from cuttings. A Quickset Hedge is created by planting live Hazel and Hawthorn cuttings directly into the ground to root, thus establishing a dense boundary inexpensively and rapidly. The term, 1st recorded in 1484, doesn’t imply quickness as in fast, but quick as in live cuttings, from the earlier meaning of quick as alive [the quick and the dead]. This method can be used successfully with a range of shrubs and trees that root freely. When I prune the boundary hedge in late winter, I always take hardwood cuttings to root them for future use; this year I’m trying out the Quickset method on sections that need more substantial planting, using Hawthorn, Blackthorn and Hazel. As Hornbeam and Beech grow more slowly and will be in danger of becoming overwhelmed before they establish properly, I will take hardwood cuttings and line them out in my cuttings bed to grow on before using them in the hedge.

So, our plot boundary hedge represents my experiments with propagating hedge species alongside developing informal pleaching techniques, interspersed with a bit of quickset hedge creation; a process that quite probably mirrors the ways hedge making has evolved over time.