A Fragile Existence

Across the track, directly opposite our plot, there’s a hole where a hedge should be, the charred remnants of a shed visible. The lower gate to our plot is shattered, the locks on both sheds have been forced and the contents ransacked. We don’t leave expensive tools, don’t own expensive tools to leave. It’s the arbitrary nature of the act that’s unsettling; one shed damaged, another on an adjacent plot untouched, why? What remains of the shed opposite might be the most obvious and dramatic evidence, but sheds have been broken into all the way up the valley.

Thankfully this doesn’t happen often, it’s been five or six years since a similar incident on the site, our sheds not targeted that time. Looking at the chaos in the top shed, we’re not so fortunate this week. That said, two trays of elephant garlic remained untouched, apart from one bulb, the cloves separated and thrown onto the veranda, and nothing taken apart from a small lump hammer.

We’ve been on this site for over twenty years, arbitrary acts of vandalism happen; years ago, a caravan on the plot next to ours was set alight destroying our neighbour’s occasional workshop, but fortunately they weren’t at home. Allotments are havens of tranquility, but vulnerable too; all too easily disrupted.

The damage done, we replace boxes on shelves, repair the locks and get on with life on this plot; the early potatoes have been harvested, the beds refreshed and our leeks are in the ground now. We’ve picked our first beetroot; Madhur Jaffrey has a wonderful recipe for beetroot purée that we never grow tired of, and we’re growing Golden Burpee courgettes this year. They have a lovely flavour, are much firmer than our other varieties and planted into manure and compost which is a mixture of tea, egg shells, and banana skins. We garden on chalk which can be poor, so the nutrients in the tea mix are valuable for greedy crops like courgettes and pumpkins.

We’ve been making lots of courgette frittatas:
Courgettes seared dry on a skillet
Potatoes, cooked & sliced
Onions & garlic, sautéed
Mixed Herbs + seasoning
12 eggs

 

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

 

 

Resilience through Seed Saving

You might wonder why I’m writing about seed saving in the middle of winter when we’re recommended to buy our seed from seed catalogues. My winter reading has included ‘The Seed Savers’ Handbook’, with a key section headed “Planning a Seed Garden’. I’ve never really understood this other than as a ‘A good idea’. However, I decided during autumn 2013 to save seed from an Heritage Seed Library Leek variety and this meant re-thinking what I did with the Leek bed. So, back to the seed garden idea.

I generally save seed each year from the easier vegetables, such as lettuce, peas and French Beans, all are self pollinated and don’t cross (easily); I attempted to save broad bean seed about 4 years ago as I had some Heritage crimson flowered seeds, which were quite expensive; I discovered it was possible to save the seed even though all the gardening guides on growing vegetables told me I shouldn’t. What the guidance should have added was, not that I shouldn’t but that I could and should, but also I would need to isolate the variety I intended saving seed from. Unlike French Beans, Broad Beans are similar to Runner Beans and cross-pollinate with plants of the same species. Only after germinating and growing my saved seed did I appreciate what the result might be – I had crimson flowered, pale pink flowered and white-flowered broad bean plants – they’d crossed with the Express Broad Bean variety grown alongside. The way to get back to crimson flowered plants was to rogue out pink & white flowered plants before they cross-pollinated yet again, save seed from the red flowering plants, isolate them and keep saving seed from red flowering plants until I’d selected out the white crosses.  Because cross-pollinating species [out breeders] require a minimum number of plants in order to retain genetic diversity of a variety, this is a time-consuming, although not impossible, task. Again, time reverts to an older framing, seasons and years rather than days or months.

bean seeds

Growing conditions in 2013 made growing food to eat difficult; growing plants to save seed from was equally challenging. The broad beans I intended saving seed from and had isolated with netting (lesson learnt) had all the ripening pods eaten by slugs/snails/squirrels – most likely the squirrels. I didn’t pick those that survived soon enough to dry and ripen off indoors so they rotted in the wet conditions. The same happened to our pea crop marked for seed rather than eating. I did manage to collect the Mooli Radish seed pods from the late sowing I did in early autumn – the pods were almost ready but rain was forecast for several days – I cut the stems and hung them in a warm corner of the kitchen to dry off properly. The good thing about radish seed pods is their hardness so they do survive quite well. However, those left on the allotment provided food for rodents, neat little piles of seed pods at the corners of the beds. However, the lettuce variety I had left to go to seed produced very little viable seed, mainly because they flowered as the weather worsened and it was difficult for pollinators to fly in the wet and wind, so flowers but little pollination and poor seed so I didn’t keep the little that was produced. Therefore, in 2014 I had very little new saved seed and had to rely on what was left from the previous year – I always save more than I’ll ever need, to share, swap, keep some back ‘in case’ I’ve nothing new next year.

Back to my leeks: I left an HSL variety of leek I planted spring 2013 to grow and flower last summer, but I had to plan my beds to accommodate the additional year this group of leek plants were in the ground. I also only saved seed from 1 variety of leek, as these, too, cross-pollinate. Leeks that have flowered sometimes produce bulbils on the flower heads, similar to those I saved from an elephant garlic plant I left to flower just to see what it looked like. These bulbils, according to Cherfas and Fanton in their Seed Savers’ Handbook, can grow faster than seed, so worth saving them if you do see any. Sue Stickland does caution against this in Back Garden Seed Saving, however, since they can carry over leek rust disease which tends to be endemic on allotment sites. However, it was so wet and cold in 2013 that our leek crop avoided rust almost entirely – rust is a fungal disease that develops in hot conditions, so 2013’s cold damp summer meant a healthy leek crop for seed saving.

Knowing more about seed saving and how difficult it can be even with ‘easy’ plants has led me to plan ahead more carefully which varieties I intend to grow for seed and which for food. One thing I’ve learnt about plants I want to save seed from is their categorisation into out breeders and in breeders; Leeks apparently are strong out breeders and should ideally have at least 16 plants for seed to maintain genetic diversity. However, I didn’t realise this when I sowed them, but a way to deal with this, and how to manage seed saving in poor years, is to grow and save seed from the same variety over subsequent years and combine the seed to broaden genetic diversity, over time. The seed remains viable for about 3 years.

The main problem with seeds from the major seed companies is the choice available, usually F1 hybrids that are advertised as ‘reliable croppers’ which usually mean the plants crop at the same time, usual give away: ‘good for the freezer’! These varieties are generally the byproducts of industrial agriculture and are bred for uniformity, cropping at the same time for harvesting by machine, not bred for the allotment grower. The most resilient seed is open pollinated, available from good local seed savers and from local and regional seed companies. Look for information that tells you how the seeds perform in specific conditions. Hybrid seed doesn’t breed true so we go back to the seed companies next year to buy the seed again. I will return to this issue another time, as I’ve discovered its complicated!

Now I understand more about seed saving I’m rather more critical about seed quality, origins, and harvests of anything I’m planning to sow. Consequently I rarely swap my seed at big seed swaps such as Seedy Sunday as the quality and provenance is rarely clear and I’ve picked up some terrible seed in the past. I now swap with other growers on a seasonal basis; Whitehawk Food Project has revived its seed library with their seed and plant swaps; their plan is to share some of their core food crop seeds with a few experienced growers to spread the seed across the city to ensure its survival in case of another terrible growing year like 2013. This makes for a more resilient seed supply, communally grown and shared. It’s also the genesis of a local communal seed bank and the development of seed saving expertise across important food staples, building knowledge about local conditions and seed/crop variability. It’s back to local seed production that reflects local conditions.

 

 

 

Spring Tasks

We planted our potato tubers over the Easter weekend – traditionally, potatoes are planted out on Good Friday. Easter is the last Christian festival to be governed by the moon – Easter Sunday takes place on the 1st Sunday after the 1st full moon to occur after the Spring Equinox – hence why it moves each year. So, planting root crops on a waning moon fits with the tradition of planting potatoes on Good Friday. We were taking a bit of a risk, with the freezing weather right through Easter, so we’ve covered all the beds with builders’ bags to protect from frost and to warm the soil when the sun eventually shines.

covered potato beds

We’ve also been spring cleaning, tidying beds, covering paths with wood chip, terracing and creating new beds up the hillside, space neglected up to now. The back of the allotment is almost ready to begin laying foundations for another shed – we have old fencing ready and are on the look out for sheds on Freecycle. Better to find a shed that needs work doing to it than buy an expensive and flimsy shed from a DIY chain.

Our fruit cages all collapsed under heavy snow about 4 years ago and we were not able to rebuild them. We’ve now cleared most of that area and reorganised our fruit bushes, but tackling these neglected areas has uncovered some invasive and persistent weeds that we’ve not seen before. Over the past couple of years we’ve been invaded by a variety of Hogweed, and now find that we have a major task to dig out their large fleshy root systems.

hogweed [2]

We’ve done some searching to find out about this plant and discovered it’s a biennial:  apparently, Hogweed likes chalky soil, and we garden on chalk, in some places it’s only inches from the surface. Hogweed also seems to prefer perennial fruit crops, perhaps why we found it predominately amongst our neglected fruit bushes. ‘Based on the seed characters, Hogweed seed should persist for less than 5 years and does not form a persistent seedbank’: this tells us about the seeds, but it doesn’t tell us how long the plant is likely to last on our allotment. However, there is some indication that regularly cutting back should  ‘decrease its frequency’, which suggests it becomes weakened, over time.  But, we’re getting there, and will keep looking for seedlings and getting them out of the ground before they get too big. Although we should be grateful it isn’t Gaint Hogweed, only Common Hogweed.  Weeds, after all, are our own creations, plants out of place, obstructions in our cultivation plans.

 

Seasonal seaweed: harvest of the seasons, gift of the winds.

We recently went on one of our intermittent winter seaweed scavenges, in order to re-build our compost and manure piles ready for spring. Our supply of seaweed is important during spring for our potato beds; we cover them in winter (Nov/Dec) and leave the seaweed to rot down, then plant through any remaining, which then gets covered with compost or soil as we earth up the growing plants. It’s also important for our rhubarb and our asparagus beds, as well as valuable addition to our compost piles, and liquid fertiliser for our courgettes and pumpkins. We use seaweed in place of horse or cow manure to avoid the possibility of amino/clopyralid contamination and potential devastation for our allotment, something that has happened to many allotment holders on our site and across the city.

Winter along the south coast can be surprisingly stormy, and generally we’re assured of good supplies of seaweed during these months. Several days after stormy seas the seaweed harvest usually starts arriving on the shore. This year there’s been very little evidence of this. There are large seaweed beds off the coast at Bognor Regis, which provide the supply of Laminaria during the winter, one of the best seaweeds for mineral content. The Seaweed beds off Bognor are to the SW of Brighton, and the seaborne seaweed is moved along the coast through the process of longshore drift. The prevailing winds are from the SW, and the line of travel for longshore drift is also W-E. Hence, stormy seas tear seaweed from the seabed to the West of us, longshore drift transports the seaweed W-E along the coast then deposits it on the beaches, nearby. This year, the lack of seaweed suggests something else is happening.

Our current cold weather across the UK is caused by a weather system over the near continent. High pressure between Iceland and Norway has led to winds blowing East-West, from the high pressure to the north of us towards the low pressure to the west of the British Isles out in the Atlantic – remember ‘Winds blow from high to low’. So, I reckon, the winds have been blowing in the opposite direction to usual during winter, while longshore drift continues its movement West-East. This, I think has led to storm-torn seaweed clusters not moving inshore, but remaining suspended off-shore; the winds blowing from the East and longshore drift acting from the West has created an equilibrium. Hence, the distinct absence of seaweed this winter.

Such a small shift in our weather patterns, yet it could have a significant effect on our crops and harvests this year; I reckon we need to do some research.

collecting seaweed [2]

Rat, O Rat…

We’ve been tidying up on our allotment, repairing beds, mulching and covering to warm the soil for planting, and identifying where the rats have their nests, ready for some serious clearance work next month. I suspect rats have nests on most plots, so clearing them from our allotment probably just makes space for a different group of rats to move in, and prompts a Spring Progress across the site.

The other day I came across this piece  by that wonderful poet, Christopher Logue, a rather one-sided plea to a rat to leave and ‘visit’ the neighbours’ house:

Rat, O Rat…

never in all my life have I seen
as handsome a rat as you.
Thank you for noticing my potatoes.

O Rat, I am not rich.
I left you a note concerning potatoes,
but I see that I placed it too high
and you could not read it.

O Rat, my wife and I are cursed
with the possession of a large and hungry dog;
it worries us that he might learn your name –
which is forever on our lips.

O Rat, consider my neighbour:
he has eight children (all of them older
and more intelligent than mine)
and if you lived in his house, Rat,

ten good Christians
(if we include his wife)
would sing your praises nightly,
whereas in my house there are only five.

Christopher Logue

I would add sweetcorn, courgettes & peas to the potatoes mentioned – actually everything we might grow to eat.

allotment [winter light]1

In: Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times, edited by Jo Shapcott & Matthew Sweeney, 1996/2004, Faber & Faber; London. [pp 13-14]

2012: growing food in difficult circumstances

I’ve been leafing through my allotment diary, reflecting on how difficult growing food has been, thinking about the key issues of the year, some about battles with weather, others more overtly political:

January
In January we experimented with potato recipes, mainly pastry because Denis has a gluten allergy, & we discovered a delicious potato pastry using non-wheat flour. We also had an excellent supply of main crop potatoes from 2011 stored in our shed for use during winter. So, plenty of tubers to experiment with.

February
February was raw with cold, along with much discussion over access to seed & to land for growing.

This month tested the cold hardiness of our over wintering crops. Snow & frost rendered the soil hard & impenetrable. Yet, the kales were remarkable; I used to leave them to get very large because that’s what I thought you did with them, but learnt the hard way during winter 2010 that large leaves also disintegrate into smelly mush when there’s a freeze. Now I crop the plants as soon as they produce large enough leaves to eat, plant them closer together, so have more for cropping more regularly. I added pictures of the various varieties, with commentary, to my post on kales, useful now I’m planning the varieties to sow in 2013.

February also marks the Celtic festival of Imbolc, the time chosen for Brighton’s Seedy Sunday, an opportunity to share local knowledge about the plants & foods we grow & eat. This gathering was marked by anger & concern over a threatened allotment rent rise that broke apart the superficially apolitical world of allotment gardening. A petition circulated, with much lobbying & planning in the background. The failure of the Allotment Federation to do anything to either inform or protect allotment holders from what was judged a predatory raid by the council on allotment rents as easy revenue, was also seen as a double betrayal by the 1st Green council in England. Continue reading