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



A very cold spring: how I nearly lost next year’s Leek crop

I do rather like leeks. That’s why I grow lots of them; they’re the vegetable I most remember growing on our family allotment on Tyneside, the crop that regularly won Dad prizes in the Allotment Federation’s annual competition – tenderly nurtured by collective family effort, but credited to the (male) allotment holder! They also make scrumptious leek puddings and are essential ingredients in bacon broth. I also appreciate the outdoor larder a well-stocked bed of flagged leeks represents in winter.

winter leeks

I’m beginning to plant out the leek seedlings I germinated during late winter and early spring, but have had to review my insistence on germinating leek seed so early. I made elaborate arrangements for germination in early January using hot water bottles and bubble wrap; I then planted the resulting seedlings in a nursery bed in early February, just as the coldest of winter weather swept across the South Downs. The poor seedlings just sat there and sulked – at least they didn’t die on me, but they certainly didn’t prosper. I had assumed they were as hardy as the fully-grown ones we were harvesting, and made the mistake of leaving them uncovered and unprotected until March, when I eventually covered them with old windows, something I’ve never had to do during the last 15 years of growing. They perked up a bit, but only just. I sowed a 2nd lot of seeds in March and popped them into the seed bed, undercover, alongside the earlier ones, at the beginning of April. The cold had clearly set the early seedlings back and they were actually smaller than the March germinated seeds; as the weather warmed, the seedlings grew faster, and they all eventually caught up by May.

early leek seedlings-February '13

One thing I did learn about germinating Leek seed so early and subjecting them to cold at the wrong time in their growth cycle, is that it can confuse the plants into thinking they’re going through winter, which makes them produce flower spikes during their 1st summer or early autumn (they are biennial and normally flower during their 2nd summer). That happened to one variety of Leek I sowed early a couple of years ago, during the 1st of our recent cold winters. I couldn’t transplant the seedlings until mid July and they almost immediately started producing flower spikes during August, something I had attributed to the delay in planting out and the large size of the seedlings. I had sown Carentan, Musselborough, Pandora and Bleu De Solaise, but only the Carentan went to seed that summer, possibly indicating their susceptibility to bolt in unfavourable conditions.

It’s valuable understanding the germination and growth patterns for the crops you want to grow so you can work with them to get good crops as early and late in the year as is practical. But it’s also important to know when messing with sowing and planting dates can confuse the plant’s own seasonal growing cycle – this could be linked to temperature or day length sensitivity.  Work with the patterns, not against them. There was no advantage in rushing to sow early and I nearly lost those early seedlings during our intensely cold spring. The other lesson is the danger of repeating the same approaches to sowing and planting crops that worked in the past during different and milder winters and springs – that was my folly. I won’t even think to sow my leeks until March next year, then I’ll keep them covered until spring ‘properly’ arrives.

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]