Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Yummy raspberries

I'm lucky enough to have access to the produce from one of my client's fruit cages, so I've been spending a happy hour or so picking summer raspberries. This is no ordinary fruit cage: it has 10 blackcurrant bushes, 5 whitecurrant bushes, and about the same number of redcurrants and gooseberries too. And all around the edge is a thicket of suckering summer raspberries - to say nothing of the autumn raspberries next door...

The whole thing is horribly neglected, so you have to wade through the cleavers and nettles to get to the raspberry plants - but that doesn't seem to have stopped them pouring their hearts into producing as much fruit as possible. I've frozen a lot from the last couple of pickings, but I'm now turning my thoughts to summer puddings and raspberry jam...

The idea is that I take over maintaining the top fruit from autumn, doing it in my own time as a kind of "second allotment" in exchange for the harvest. I'm not sure at the moment a) if I have quite enough time (there's a small vineyard involved too), and b) if the client is going to actually stay in her house for long enough for me to see my investment bear fruit (sorry, couldn't resist that...). We'll see: for now, I'm just enjoying all that bounty!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Bombing at the local show

I had a go at showing a few of my veg at the local Horticultural Society's summer show at the weekend. I have, to put it politely, a long way to go before I pose any kind of threat to the regulars.

I tried potatoes and broad beans, since they're my best crops at the moment, and since my pea crop isn't much this year I didn't have much of an option. Off I trotted on Saturday morning to pick the best of my Green Windsor - the second planting, which is just hitting maturity now as the Aquadulce Claudia have finished. The timing of this successional planting couldn't have been better this year - definitely one to repeat again.

Anyway; then I dug up some lovely egg-sized Red Duke of Yorks and lovingly wiped the mud off them to bring up that ruby sheen. It all looked pretty good until I got to the hall and started "staging" (putting it on plates to show it off to best advantage).

The summer show - unlike the spring and autumn shows - is fiercely competitive, a fact I only appreciated once I was elbowing plates of perfect beans to one side in order to squeeze in my little offering. And oh dear - those broad bean pods which looked so perfect on the allotment; how tragic they looked next to those platefuls of perfectly straight, perfectly uniform, perfectly enormous models of What a Broad Bean Should Be. Mine suddenly turned out to be wonky, not the same length at all, and all stubbornly twisting in different directions.

It wasn't much better with the potatoes: I thought they were all roughly the same size, but roughly isn't good enough. Everyone else's were exactly the same size, to the millimetre, and mine stuck out like a sore thumb with three chicken's egg-sized and one big turkey's egg-sized in the corner like an uninvited guest.

All very hopeless, and I had to suffer the ignominy of being one of those who didn't even get a "highly commended". Instead of doing the sensible thing, though, and retreating with my tail between my legs never to darken the doors of the village hall again, it's actually got my blood up. You just wait till the Autumn Show. They won't know what's hit 'em.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Getting into a routine

I thought it might be useful to write down the routine I've established this year - everything changes so much over winter and spring that I forget from one year to the next what I was doing this time last year.

So... I'm trying out the half-hour allotment idea at the moment, from Lia Leendertz's book of the same name. I don't have the book myself, but have leafed through someone else's copy: I'm intrigued by the idea of giving the allotment regular but relatively short bouts of time, but disagree with her on a few points - she says, for example, that you shouldn't try to feed your family on this small amount of time, yet at the same time advocates not going up to the allotment at the weekend. So I've kind of adapted it: my mission is indeed to feed my family, and I do go up at the weekends (actually that's my longest chunk of time each week).

Monday-Friday: half-an-hour in the mornings between the end of the school run and starting work. This covers general planting out, earthing up, tending, troubleshooting, clearing beds, mulching, sowing new seeds.. whatever needs doing really. Except...

Wednesday: this is harvest day, when I go through and pick anything that needs picking. If we don't need to eat it, I freeze it that same day. This makes sure nothing goes to waste. I do pick things other times in the week - strawberries, for example, need picking over at least every other day when they're at full steam - but having a definite day makes it easier to keep on top of it.

Weekend session (usually 2-3 hours): watering, every week that we haven't had much rain; and either weeding or mowing. I do each every other week, so one week I'll weed through, the next I'll mow & strim the grass down. Other weekly tasks are picking over the crops again (as for Wednesdays), trimming off strawberry runners and pinching out tomato sideshoots. And I give the tomatoes an extra water with liquid feed added.

In addition to this, I fill the water-butt Wednesday and at the weekend to operate my wonderful automatic watering system, which is keeping the toms going beautifully!

So far it's working really well, on what I think is a minimal amount of time (good thing too given I'm juggling small kids, work, and my garden at home). It'll probably all have to change next summer, but hopefully I can build on this rather than starting all over like I usually do!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Letting everyone in

The allotment site opened to the public yesterday as part of the village Open Day - there were about 16 gardens and two allotment sites in the scheme and it was a huge success.

I was up there most of the day - it was great chatting to people. Most people wanted to pass the time of day rather than talking veg; several told me they'd lived in our area for years but hadn't ever known there was an allotment site there. It is quite tucked away - that's part of its charm, of course. We also had quite a few people signing up for plots - we now have an official Waiting List (like so many allotment sites). What a change from when I first came, three years ago, and just walked onto my plot. Then, I was about halfway down on the left-hand side, there was nothing oppposite me, and I was the last on the row and had a virgin patch of grazing field to deal with. Now there are allotments all around me, and another four or five down the hill from me. It's such a testament to how much it's all caught on. Long may it continue, I say!

I did my stint on the front desk (not that it was any hardship - mainly drinking tea and gossiping!) and then we all pulled up our chairs, brought our families and had a barbecue. There was a "best scarecrow" competition and much fresh salad and potatoes straight from people's plots. It was allotment holding at its best - a great community spirit, with people of all ages from very young to very old mucking in together. Fantastic.

Friday, June 15, 2007

What happens when you don't pay attention...

I made one of those really silly mistakes today. I've been desperate to get the last tray of Calabrese out onto the allotment - they were getting pot-bound and a bit miserable, but I was waiting for my Build-a-Balls to arrive to make sure I could net them as soon as they were in.

So there I was merrily popping in a tray of Calabrese Chevalier (a late-maturing variety I hope will follow on from the Pacifica).... and then happened to notice there were two labels in the tray. One half was indeed calabrese... but the other half was the purple-sprouting broccoli I had planned to pot on so they could follow my summer cabbage (or maybe the early calabrese, depending on which came out first).

Now if you've ever tried to tell the difference between calabrese seedlings and PSB seedlings - forget it. I would have thought the PSB would be gratifyingly purple, and one or two were, but not enough to be sure. It's infuriating and almost certainly means the massive PSB plants will overshadow my poor beleaguered calabrese later in the season.

Moral of the tale: never, ever sow more than one brassica in the same tray. They all look the same. And it's bound to end in tears.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Strawberries and pheasants

Get a load of this! My first proper strawberry harvest last week - and it's a whopper!

I had been expecting a bit of a poor showing this year - not because the plants weren't producing, but because I failed to net the crop early enough and when I got back from holiday there was a hen pheasant nesting in the middle of the strawberry patch. Being a hopeless softy, I couldn't possibly have shooed her off, so she sat there for weeks, taking a peck out of whatever strawberry was more-or-less ripe and within reach. I also assumed that her little babies would gobble up whatever she left over for them.

As it turned out, though, she left last week, leaving only a single cracked eggshell behind her: I'm not sure if her babies were caught by something horrible, like the rats, or if she managed to hatch a few. Certainly there's been no sign of her or babies since.

The good news, though, is that now she's gone I've got the strawbs all to myself - and as you can see they're cropping fit to bust! All the above are Cambridge Favourite, which are now in their second season and definitely in their prime: it's so noticeable how much better they're doing than last year. They must have produced a pound or so every couple of days for a fortnight now.

The Honeoye in the next-door bed have hardly produced anything - but then, they're in their first year. Having seen the difference a year makes in the Cambridge Favourites, I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt - but will expect big things next year.

Now, where's that strawberry jam recipe....!

Monday, June 11, 2007

The allotment in June

Here's what's happening on the allotment this month!

The broad beans (Aquadulce Claudia) I had so much trouble with back in March are doing amazingly well and have caught up brilliantly. Pods are swelling and soon to be harvested. The only trouble I'm having is that they aren't supporting each other as well as usual - so are sprawling all over the peas next door. I'll be bracing up this variety next year.

Another crop that's just about to start harvesting (well, I've dug up one or two plants already in fact) - Red Duke of York first early potatoes. So far, so good: lovely coloured tubers, some large, though some really tiny (could be I'm harvesting a bit too early yet though). My only little niggle is they're really tricky to spot in the soil!

Another surprise success after a bad start: this is one of my calabrese plants. Not the Tiara - yes, there is just one plant remaining - but the Pacifica, which have bounced back from being allowed to get too leggy as seedlings and are making great growth under their netting cloche.

And this is the biggest success story of all this season - the Cambridge First strawberries, now in their prime second year and fruiting fit to bust. More on these at a later date as they're fantastic enough to deserve their own entry - but they get my medal for Best Crop So Far!

You'll notice I haven't taken any wide views so you won't have to see the knee-high grass (now mown, thank goodness) and the piles of rubbish :D - maybe I'll include those next time!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Salad days

One little innovation this year has actually been in my back garden, and not on the allotment at all.

I've got two little awkward squares, in between some fencing panels, which I had been trying to make a herb garden from (they're about 5ft x 2ft and you couldn't do much else with them). Unfortunately they've turned out a bit too shady for the herbs - I managed to get some nice low rosemary hedges going as edging, but that's about it.

So I've converted them into salad gardens, since lettuce and salad leaves tend to like it shady, and it's conveniently close to the kitchen so you get your salad stuff as fresh as it's possible to have it. This niftily solves the other problem I had with growing lettuce - that by the time you'd picked it on the allotment, finished whatever else you were doing and brought it home, it had started to go limp. And by the time suppertime came round, it was really pretty sad!

So now I've evicted the remaining herbs (though I've kept the rosemary hedges) and have some fairly tight-packed rows of lettuces growing happily. Varieties so far have been Lollo Rosso and Salad Bowl for cut-and-come-again, and the compact variety Tom Thumb for whole lettuces. We've been tucking in - and it's been a great success, really delicious lettuce and as much as we can eat. The idea is that once we eat through one row, I'll replace it with other varieties - next to go in is a salad mixture from Thompson & Morgan. Not sure quite what's in it but it'll be interesting to find out!

Salad is one of the few crops I should be able to keep going all year round, so I'm expecting big things of this little patch. Cue yet more planning and seed-buying as we move through the summer into autumn...!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The greenhouse is go!!

At last... I've sorted out the watering system for the greenhouse, and now have a dripper hose connected to the water butt up at the allotment. I'll be very interested to see how it keeps everything going.

So it's all systems go for transferring my poor overgrown tomato plants from the home greenhouse, where they've been getting increasingly drought-stricken and pot-bound, to the luxurious quarters of the allotment greenhouse. Because I've got a whole greenhouse devoted to toms this year, I've been able to go to town on the varieties: I'm growing good old Gardeners' Delight for general use, then San Marzano, the "only" cooking tomato according to some - it's a plum variety and very reliable; and then Brandywine for massive beefsteak tomatoes for salads.

Brandywine can be quite tricky as you need to get the watering just right to avoid blossom end rot and all sorts of other difficulties: last year I only got a couple of edible ones, and the rest split and went to waste. But this year I've got my watering system, and anything is possible...!!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Off we went to mow...

Been away for a couple of weeks and came back to knee-high grass. It took me a whole hour to strim the edges alone - and I still haven't got around to mowing the main drag!

Our allotment site is going to open to the public in a few weeks' time, as part of a scheme run by the local parish council. Everyone's getting very excited about it: there are notices galore and we've all got to clear up our plots a bit. That's no mean feat when you realise that shed which blew down a month or three ago is still in a heap in a corner, and you have about 10 compost bags full of rubbish to take off to the tip. My days of comfortable messiness are soon to come to an end, I fear...!