New Year’s Day

Today we’ve been cutting sycamore for posts, and hazel for binders, to tie in the new hedging whips; clearing dead vegetation and filling the compost bins at the back of the plot; collecting woodchip to lay on paths, then sitting in the shed drinking tea, watching rain sweep up the valley.
It’s been a good day, if a bit damp and grey, and we made time for one more cup of tea, and watched the light fade.

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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. Continue reading

Meeting Fox

I’d been clearing the compost bins at the back of the allotment, stopped for a while, and was sitting quietly watching the birds feed: Robins, Tits, Sparrows, landing on the Lilac, circling round the feeders, pecking at the seeds, flying off again. Not so the squirrel: straight across the shed roof onto the apple tree, and then balancing on a branch it swung the feeder, scattering seeds. Still, the ground feeders would benefit. I sat watching three Robins perched on different branches of the Lilac on the border of our allotment. They didn’t appear too concerned about each other’s presence. Curious, but I thought Robins were fiercely territorial?  Maybe cold, snow, and hunger temper territorial behaviour?

And then a fox wandered past, looked at me, seemed about to carry on, stopped, sat down, yawned, stared at me, while keeping just the necessary distance to move if need be. Teresa was further down the hill repairing a salad bed; the fleece had collapsed under the weight of snow, and I didn’t want to call out in case I frightened the fox. So we sat together, me drinking tea, the fox watching. It didn’t seem in too much of a hurry to be going anywhere, then simply turned and left, wandering away across the next allotment. I remembered a story a friend told me; how he was sat, half asleep, on a bench in the centre of Brighton one night, nibbling sweets, when he felt a rough tongue licking his fingers. It was a fox. They sat watching each other, the fox in no particular hurry to go anywhere.

It seems the fox, successfully adapting to the margins between urban and rural environments, has an ambivalent status, reflecting our own contradictory and destructive natures, so that, as Wallen has argued, in relation to colonialism, even as a wild animal the red fox reminds us of what we would like to forget-that humans entering nature tend to change it irrevocably […] (Wallen, 2006: 33)

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I’m fascinated by fox’s mythic and folkloric aspects; its fluid nature allows for the possibility to dissolve those borders and boundaries that are established around the visible, material world. It’s interesting to note that Wallen sees, [m]oral condemnation of Vulpine intelligence achiev[ing] its fullest development in the Christian tradition (Wallen, 2006: 45).

For the Christian tradition, the fact that fox inhabits the margins, that fox’s knowledge lies underground, beyond human understanding, […] identical with the living power of the earth (Wallen, 2006: 57), is an indication of its inherently evil nature, whereas, for other cultures, this placement allows for a richer, more complex relationship, and Wallen argues that its fluid nature locates fox amongst most primordial chthonic forces of fertility (Wallen, 2006: 60). He suggests that fox’s power has been explored to a greater extent in Asia than anywhere else. Inhabiting the margins introduces uncertainty about the true nature of fox, complicates fox’s position, as Ji Yun observes:
Human beings and physical objects belong to two different categories; fox-spirits stand somewhere between the two. The paths of light and darkness never converge; fox-spirits stand somewhere between the two. Immortals and demons go different ways; fox-spirits stand somewhere between the two (Chan, 1998: 28 quoted in Wallen, 2006: 63).

Fox disrupts our desire for order and logic, challenging our simplistic division of the world into good and evil.

A fascination with Garlick

I love growing garlic. When we started this blog, garlic was granted a starring role; I also discovered the joys and disappointments of searching for information about a crop on the web – unsourced and unattributed ‘factoids’ that tell you little! My research training swept into action and the results were HortusLudi’s 1st series of posts drawing upon both historical and botanical sources.

My next obsession is testing growing conditions and trailing new crops and ways of growing things. I’ve just planted out a series of special garlic varieties I received from Julieanne @GwenfarsLottie. Julianne also sent cloves to growers in other parts of the UK and we’re intendng to compare results in the autumn. I’ve therefore set myself a record keeping task, checking & photographing, sharing success & failure. As if last year wasn’t hard work!

A beginning
I’ve begun rather late due to weather and work. I do normally plant out garlic in December and shallots in January/February, so not really late, but certainly not the late autumn/early winter that’s recommended. The main crop went in on Boxing Day, using cloves from last year’s crop. I always select the best & largest & hang those bulbs I intend to plant separately to the bunches for cooking. Despite the rain, we only had a small amount of white rot on the crop in 2012 (endemic across the allotment site) and managed to get it lifted at the beginning of July before the rot spread – it’s only ever present in small intermittent pockets. I planted out a special section with 7 varieties, 2/3 cloves each – the rest of the bed has been planted up with shallots saved from last year’s crop – the sets only expanded slightly rather than multiplied. All 3 garlic beds had seaweed on them through autumn before a top-dressing of our own compost mixed with leaf mould. Some seaweed is still evident but will disappear by spring. This is the 1st time I’ve used seaweed directly on garlic beds, even though it went on in November and has been covered with compost. Risky? I’d say its worth a try: the beds are at the top of our allotment, made of old scaffolding boards, set along a chalk ridge, so are free draining but needed compost to enrich a very chalky soil. I’m hopeful the experiment will work. The planting site gets more sun than the rest of the allotment, from early to late, so this might help the cloves grow and ripen, even if we have similar weather to 2012.

The 7 sets of cloves I’ve planted out – I know, they all look the same, but they are quite different, really :
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You can still see the seaweed we put on the bed, but it disappears surprisingly quickly: 30th December 2012. The bed was covered in netting to stop cats, foxes & birds digging in the soil – there was a distinctly foxy smell around the top of the allotment, so probably along a fox route through the site.

So, an experiment started; while the garlic is putting down roots I’ve several new crops to attempt – I’ll tell you about them later.

Nearly forgot practicalities: garlic cloves planted at 7″ intervals in staggered rows, with at least 1″ of soil above the cloves.

Seaweed weaves its magic

During the winter months we’ve been regularly collecting seaweed & putting it directly on our raised beds; one of the beds had been used for sweetcorn & dwarf french beans, & undersown with trefoil & clover. I spot weeded perennial weeds & spread seaweed on top of less persistent weeds & the green manure to a depth of approximately 4″/10cm. The seaweed will rot down over the winter & prevent weed seeds from germinating. However, not all the beds have been covered, just those we’re planning to use for this year’s potato crop. We aren’t adding seaweed to the beds that had a layer last year.

This year we’re extending the hedge up both sides of the plot to form a much-needed windbreak & need to dig trenches before planting out; the soil thins & becomes more chalky as you move up the hill so the soil needs some encouragement to hold water – seaweed is ideal as the alginates help develop soil crumb by glueing the particles together. Continue reading

Does it smell? Collecting & using seaweed.

Seaweed as compost and mulch

Despite considerable research into their use over time as effective fertilisers, the mechanisms through which seaweed provides beneficial effects are still uncertain.

Seaweeds have very high potassium concentrations in comparison to other plants; nitrogen levels are similar, and phosphate levels are lower. This obviously makes them suitable for use as fertilisers in low potassium areas such as the South Downs where the (alkaline) chalk soils can lead to potassium deficiency in plants e.g. Lime-induced chlorosis in strawberry plants. They also contain important trace elements of iron, manganese, zinc, copper and boron. Seaweed improves the structure of clay soils, because the alginates in the seaweed help break up the clay and prevents it from clumping.

It’s not against the law to collect seaweed that has been washed up with the tide onto the beach, but it is against the law to harvest it from the rocks where it grows: you should NEVER cut seaweed from rocks.  The best time to collect seaweed is after a storm as the newly washed up seaweed has less salt in it than the stuff that has been floating around in a harbour, or lying at the high tide mark for weeks.

Washing seaweed before use is a criminal waste of water and completely unnecessary. Despite received opinion, there is not a great amount of salt in seaweed if it’s freshly washed up on the beach; it’s the dried stuff that has been around for a while which contains extra salt as a result of exposure to sea spray from the waves.

How to use Seaweed:

You can apply it fresh directly to the soil, as a 2 to 4-inch mulch layer. You don’t introduce weed seeds with seaweed mulch. However, some members of the Chenopodiaceae (such as Chenopodium album, ‘Fat Hen’) are coastal plants and their seeds could be transferred to your allotment in the seaweed, if they’re growing near your collection site. I’d argue that this was a minor problem compared to the benefits to the soil. Don’t use on rootcrop beds as it could result in forked roots (carrots especially).

If you have ridged beds, cover them with a good layer of seaweed. This will prevent nutrients and soil being washed away by rain, and act as a weed suppressant because a thick layer of seaweed prevents light from reaching the soil and so prevents seed germination.

In your brassica beds use seaweed to mulch around the plants – apparently, as the seaweed rots it gives off boron, which can help to produce good heads on brassica crops.

Use fresh seaweed on rhubarb crowns and around fruit bushes as a mulch; this acts as both a weed suppressant and nutrient. We use it on our potato beds as both fertiliser and mulch. You could also use it on your asparagus bed, adding it in the winter, along with leaf mould; this will protect the crowns through a cold winter & feed the crowns as the spears emerge in the spring.

Seaweed is an excellent compost activator, so adding it to your compost heap will add nutrients and more organic matter. It decays quickly because it contains little cellulose – this winter, I have added a large amount to our leaf mould bin, which has rotted down faster than it normally would, and is now teaming with worms, illustrating how fresh seaweed does NOT kill your worm population.

Some gardeners use dilute seaweed solution to soak their seeds before sowing and report better germination rates.

In the summer dry some seaweed by spreading it out in the sun in a thin layer. When it’s dry, put in a large plastic bag or old baby bath and stamp on it a few times to make seaweed meal and store in an old potato bag for use later.