Dig for Virus-Victory

Hi Folks! It’s spring! And a glorious one at that. As the country, and indeed the world, locks down, thank goodness we are still permitted to tend our allotments! I have been spending more time at the plot than ever in the last couple of months, along with my fiancé, having finally re-found our motivation with the site after the dismal winter and previous busy summer.

Spurred on by the storm damage which resulting in the destruction of our poly tunnel, we have thrown our efforts into the top half of the plot. I don’t think this section of the plot has seen so much cultivation in over 5 years, but it is looking fantastic! (If I do say so myself!).

Elevenses of course!

Note: It would be insensitive to avoid mentioning the current Covid Crisis, which of course in increasingly and unavoidably on everyone’s minds. What does it mean for us folk who enjoy gardening and allotmenting? Well, in some cases it means getting inventive, as supplies of seed, plants, compost and sundries items prove a little more difficult to source. It also has inspired many new gardeners including families, which is a fantastic thing – they say every tragic circumstance has a silver lining and if from this awful scenario we end up with a whole new generation of horticultural enthusiasts… well that’s a bright shining hopeful silver-lining in my opinion!
A further, potentially more serious, point is about food supply chains. Despite reassurances from the government, the panic buying and empty supermarket shelves has certainly made many people think. It is unclear as yet, how this global pandemic will affect agricultural labour, passage of imports, and subsequently, food supply and costs over the coming year and beyond. A strong ‘Dig for Victory’ vibe has encouraged many to start or to increase growing their own veg. Having tended an allotment now for 4 years, and grown on a small scale at home before that and throughout my childhood, I can testify that home grown produce is one of the tastiest and most satisfying types of food out there. Whether we see shortages of some products this summer or not, undoubtably it is fair to say that any veg we can grow ourselves at home or on our allotments, will not only do us good, but take a small amount of pressure off hard-stretched farmers and retailers, which can only be a positive thing.
But enough Covid Crisis talk – let’s get back to the plot!

I thought I would start with a summary of the things we are growing this year. The lower/original plot remains largely unchanged; the roses and dahlias (I noticed on Friday that Dahlia Linda’s Baby is shooting – always the first to appear above ground!) are still in place, along with two raised beds.

Raised-bed-one was planted with garlic, onion sets and shallots in late winter. It rained continuously this winter and I was concerned for the bulbs, but the well drained bed did its job and the plants are now growing strongly. Raised-bed-two has seen its first sowing of kale, a cavalo nero type called Black Magic. Four tomatoes will be planted out here too, once they have completed a week or two of hardening off. The tomato varieties I have chosen this year are Ailsa Craig and Sweet Olive.

Prep work for garlic planting, back in the autumn

The old apple trees are due a hard summer prune this year to reshape and encourage future fruiting, as they have been neglected and growing leggy. The young trees are all looking well, in good leaf now. The pear had lots of blossom and it looks like the fruit will set, so we may be expecting our first harvest from that in late summer.

The newest addition to the original Cutty Garden this year will be 10 chrysanthemum plants which I will be growing for late season cut flowers (which may or may not be used at our ‘Big Day’ in late October!). These are temporarily living at home, where I potted them on as mail order plug plants, until I have the bed prepared for planting.
There are also some Jerusalem artichokes, grown primarily for their 8 foot high sunflower-like bright yellow flowers. I mean, why not?! At least the bees and I will be happy!

So whilst things are more or less business as usual on the lower half of the allotment, the upper plot is unrecognisable compared to a few short months ago!

First of all, one of the storms, Ciara or Dennis, sent our polytunnel to an early demise. I arrived at the plot for a post-storm inspection to find the frame bent and buckled and the cover torn, stranded like a crashed air-ship on the neighbouring plot. It turned out that, although the cover was a hopeless cause, half the frame was salvageable. The loss of the tunnel also uncovered a whole new area ripe for planting. And so, two new features were born – ‘Potato Patch 2020’, and ‘The Spectacular Climbing Frame’!

Thankfully our plot neighbours are understanding!

Potato Patch 2020.
We had lined the underbelly of the tunnel with weed suppressant membrane, and repeated walking over the area meant the soil beneath had become somewhat compacted. We wanted to make good use of this newly uncovered area and there was really only one prime candidate – potatoes. The humble spud has had a firm foothold on the British allotment (and dinner plate) for centuries, and is a classic crop for breaking up compacted soil or newly reclaimed soil. We cut the membrane down the length of the middle and folded the halves back, handy to fold back over the patch if we need to recover post-harvest. I dug roughly to a fork-or-twos depth, to make the soil workable and mulched with bags of compost (I work at a local nursery and we had a number of split bags which weren’t able to be sold, which I was lucky enough to be able to ‘rescue’ and make the most of.) Then it was time to settle on potato varieties. With ‘dig for victory’ fever beginning to grip the nation, this was partly influenced on availability of seed potatoes at my nearby garden centres. In the end we settled on 10 tubers of 3 varieties: Carlingford, Desiree, and King Edward. Each row/variety was planted at stages through late March/early April.

My much loved wartime era spade, admittedly in need of some tlc – tips and advice welcome!

I dug a trench a small spades depth, scattered along some well rotted farmyard manure, covered this a little with soil so potatoes not in direct contact, and spaced the seed spuds evenly along the trench. They had been chitting at home, and had some nice firm compact shoots, which I positioned uppermost. Covered over and watered, the first green growth appeared earlier this week, and there has been rapid surge since. Today Andy earthed them up… just look at those ridges!

Left to right: King Edward, Desiree, Carlingford

The Spectacular Climbing Frame
I cant go through the year without gorgeously scented sweet peas (they were my biggest failure last year and I really missed them!), and then of course there are beans, peas, cucumbers…

A handful of magic beans – childhood wonder encased in a shining shell

What I needed was a strong structure, up and over which my climbing crops could wind, tendril, and scramble. The remains of the polytunnel frame provided the perfect opportunity. We covered some of the structure in chicken wire, and fixed in some further uprights in the remaining space. Today much of my work on the plot was focused here: planting sweet pea plants (wonderful strong seedlings purchased from the nursery where I work), sowing runner beans and french beans with marigolds as companion plants, and watering the recently germinated peas. Once the plants grow up, the sweet peas should provide cut flowers and fragranced dappled shade, the beans and peas should be easy to harvest where the dangle down inside the frame. A cucumber plant or two will join them later in the spring.

Work in progress

As spectacular as the climbing frame may promise to be, it is the raised bed we have placed centrally beneath it that is my current pride and joy – my salad bed! A metal raised bed, identical to raised beds 1 and 2 on the lower plot, filled with topsoil and peat free compost. The bottom of the bed is stacked with waste plastic (pots and trays from the nursery, topped by a layer of weed fabric and cardboard, to reduce the depth of soil needed to fill it. I started sowing salad crops such as radish, pea-shoots and spinach, in March and have already had a tasty harvest. A basket of strawberry plants hangs above, from the centre of the frame, flowering and developing fruit already.

First harvest of many I hope!

Love them or hate them?
Todays allotment activities were a multi-pronged affair – a couple of handfuls of magic beans, three neat potato ridges, half a dozen pots of sweet pea seedlings… and nine Brussel sprouts! Alongside the climbing frame, bordered by some old timber that forms walkways across this area of the plot, is a new bed approximately 2x4m. It was my original intention to sow a patch of pollinator flowers here, but plans changed and the nectar rich seed sowing has been redirected elsewhere to other corners throughout the allotment. One half of the bed is planted with our primary batch of onion sets, (to supplement the few early sown ones in raised-bed-one of the lower plot) which went in the ground over the last few weeks and includes both red and white varieties.
The other half of this bed houses this year’s newly discovered brassica love – nine young Brussel sprout plants. I planted these out today, firmed in well and tucked cabbage collars around their stems to help conserve a little moisture and protect from pests. As the sprout plants will take several months to grow and mature, I have interplanted them with red and green lettuces in the theory that I will be able to harvest these before the sprouts grow up to crowd them out. The wool-pellet-slug-barrier has been employed and a covering of enviromesh should keep the butterflies off too. I will plant some nasturtiums nearby to give the butterflies somewhere to lay their eggs in compensation. After all, it wouldn’t be a complete summer without a few caterpillars about the place!

They look small and innocent now but sprout plants can reach 1m tall!
Sprout (centre) and red and green lettuces

Phew! I’m feeling worn out now, realising how much hard work we have put into the plot already this season. I can’t wait to taste more of our produce and fill our home with flowers as the year goes on. Any spare produce will be shared out amongst family, and if there’s any left then, that we can’t preserve and store for next winter, it’ll make its way fresh and healthily to our local community foodbank.

Virus or no virus – it’s going to be a great flavoursome, scented, colourful, summer!

There’s much more to tell you about – plenty of wildlife happenings at the plot and beyond, plus a new allotment wildlife pond in the making… but that’ll have to wait for another blog post!
Stay safe, stay home where you have to, and stay well. Love, SML x

Happy growing!

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