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Lessons on our allotment

I cannot believe we have had our allotment just over a year. During this time we have advertised for free or cheap unwanted items and, especially after a few visits to our local second-hand showroom, Bishop’s in Swanage we now find ourselves with a jam-packed shed. There are boots and shoes caked in hard dry mud – amazing when you consider that for about three months of the year in early 2012 we couldn’t set any seed or plants as the soil was rock hard. That was when they were telling us we would have a hosepipe ban well before the Jubilee and …. well ….. no-one dared to think about what might happen during the Olympics.

So do I have anything new to add. Well perhaps you need a little catchup. The blog below was left in drafts – obviously when I was new to WordPress. My main allotment posts have been on BlogSpot and now I have a faint recall of an idea to transfer all the allotment blogs to WordPress. Anyway I can save myself the trouble as I see that further down this post is the link. Read on and you will find where we are in December 2012 …………..

It started something like this ………….’Are you still interested in having an allotment?’ asked the lady from the Council.  Yes, of course I was.  Only a few months before I had received a questionnaire designed to weed out those ‘not so keen’ gardeners from the dedicated on the waiting list. I ticked boxes, circled answers a,b or c, as appropriate, signed the form and sent it straight back to the council.  Now I was being asked if I still wanted one. What did they think I’d answered the questionnaire for?

It was November 2011 and within twenty-four hours I’d agreed on plot 48D(i).  My friend, Pat, who was allocated a large plot the same week told me I could set broad beans and garlic in November.  Pat is up-to-date and ahead in all aspects of her allotment – there is an absence of weeds and she nurtures seeds indoors until they’re well-formed and ready for planting.  Well she does have a conservatory and a garden – I have neither.  Also she doesn’t have grandchildren.  I have six, living in three different geographical areas, five of whom are at school so there is an abundance of concerts, shows and pantomimes especially during December and January.  Needless to say my broad beans didn’t get shoved underground until the end of January.  My allotment neighbour, Mr A, shook his head and tutted.  They would all perish from mice, frost or the deer, he said in a pessimistic tone I was to find far too familiar for comfort over the coming year.  Deer?  What deer?  Yes we have deer. Well, we said, we’ll put up a fence.  Oh no, said Mr A with great glee, the deer can jump this high.  Mr A comes in the shorter variety of men but he raised his hand to convince us there was NO way we would be able to keep the deer at bay.  He was right.  But, as our first season progresses we have encountered more than a few deer.  There have been hares and rabbits eating lettuce, pigeons eating my cabbage plants and slugs eating everything else, usually before I have taken a step back from planting.

On my blog www.dicastle32.blogspot.com I cover all the crops we have grown and detail our varying degrees of failure and success.  But what no-one told me was that our life and, in particular, my kitchen and cooking methods were all about to suffer a massive culture shock.

So where are we now with Christmas Day only three days away? November and December 2012 have been two very cold months. After enjoying a week in the Lake District, IMG_3402IMG_3404IMG_3409at the end of October when the weather was sunny and generally favourable from early morning until about 2pm, and if we were lucky, til 3pm, we returned home and I became unwell with a few ailments which needed further investigation. No-one wants to hear any bad news but I don’t have any so now I can update you on progress so far this autumn. Not a lot …..

In early October we did lift the potatoes and onions – rather late I think as most people had done this in September. But we had been smitten with potato blight and I was warned that the potatoes, if they became infected, would not keep. An elderly allotment holder – you get the best advice from these sages – told us to chop the foliage down where they had turned black and leave just six inches of stalks. We did spray initially – I shall update with the correct name after my next visit – and we were pleased to see that some of our plants had stayed green so we left a few and just kept our eyes peeled each time we visited. When we lifted them the potatoes from these healthy plants were fairly big but even those which had been halted by our cutting back, had plenty of potatoes. We only eat potatoes about three times a week so we still have some good sized spuds in the vegetable rack.

The other veg/salad that we harvested was beetroot but I didn’t dig all of them as we had quite a lot – spread over two rows. We used some for salads before and after our holiday and then about a week after we returned I felt well enough to walk to the allotment – driving wasn’t really an option – and bring back some produce. I returned with a white cabbage, a large red cabbage, three fair sized leeks which had been bought at East Holme nursery in August/September in two trays. My friend, Pat, bought one tray but I asked for two and now, two days before Christmas, I can see that they are getting larger – amazing really as I was late putting them in.

I digress – October was busy with going away to look after grandchildren whose mother was in Vietnam, seeing friends and having one longstanding friend come to stay for three nights. On the first day, we walked back from the Sandbanks Toll Ferry and lunched in the Bankes Arms and then on the second day we visited Westbourne with its fantastic selection of charity shops and ate in Café Rouge using a Taster Card. My friend, Eilish has paid for a subscription, which, if you live nearer to London and eat out fairly often, might allow it to be worth it but after my free period I have let it lapse. We tend to eat in Swanage – there are ample good eating places – in fact, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to eating out with groups for the usual round of Christmas Dinners. We did venture last week to the Springfield Hotel for their special offer of vegetable soup and turkey dinner for £9.95 each. Not sure it will still be running this offer. I should have told you before.

So in early November I dug up the remaining beetroot and found The Allotment Cook Book through the year by Editor in Chief Caroline Bretherton which my daughter bought me for Christmas last year. Well in this book I found a recipe for soup – beetroot and apple. I have to recommend this book to anyone who is looking to be creative with their produce. That same day I also dug up my parsnips. Now these had been slow to grow but by the end of November they were massive. I left some heaped in a mound of soil and brought back some for our Sunday roast. Another recipe I have used is Spicy carrot and orange soup which was totally delicious but then I became rather blasé about my soupmaking skills and, as parsnips are so cheap in the shops, GRRRR – why is everything so cheap when we have it on the allotment. I will get it right eventually. The last two occasions I have made soup I have thought myself clever enough to make it without referring to Caroline. I used half a bag of Co-op …… oops ….. parsnips and added the same spices and orange and, guess what? Yes, he didn’t realise the mistake either, so I now can recommend alternating the carrots with parsnips.

Last week I did bring back some rather paltry cabbages which have not been covered satisfactorily and have suffered from being eaten by caterpillars. But I cut the best off, washed it and used half on one day and the other half on another day. Hopefully, as I nicked the stalks where I cut – as I was shown to do by my father – when I return after Christmas I should have some sort of ‘sproutings’. Sadly, I don’t have anything much to take to Brighton for our Christmas Dinner but as our host is as good if not better than your winner on Master Chef, I really do not have to worry about this. I may offer up some parsnips though.

I was about to cut some of the Chard, thinking that this will not last as we are already getting frosts up at Prospect Allotments. No frost here as we are too near the sea but up there, it blows an icy blast. I found that in the protected area deep in the heart of the plants there is some good veg forming. I was unlucky with spinach earlier in the year so hopefully we will have some Chard soon. However, I did dig up two more leeks and … whoopee ….. they are nearly as big as the Co-op’s.

In my down time from the allotment when hospital, GP and blood test appointments ruled my weeks, I had begun to throw peelings and tea bags in the kitchen bin despite having a lovely compost bin which cost £20 from John Lewis. My visit a week or more ago has motivated me and this is now overflowing so – goodness knows where I’ll get the time – I shall have to make a visit to Prospect. However, I am back to driving now.

There are some rather fruity smells up at the allotments and we seem to be the only people who haven’t brought or had delivered a large mound of compost. That’s novices for you I’m afraid. Apparently we can go to a local riding stables and barter carrots for manure we clean out ourselves but somehow, Other Half doesn’t seem too enamoured with the idea. So guess who will be off to Studland after Christmas. Yes you got it in 1.

We are having chicken tomorrow – oops it is today already – rather than cook a roast on Sunday when we are trying to pack. I still have in the freezer some cooked potatoes which I salvaged from the worst of the blighted potatoes and, following the advice of another female allotment holder, I peeled them immediately, boiled them and cooled them fast and froze them. They have been making very good roast potatoes so if you are affected by potato blight next year you could follow my example. I shall be cooking the two leeks I brought back a few days ago and a parsnip and making carrot and orange soup, with, unfortunately, a bag from the Co-op. We have been told that carrots do not do well in our part of the allotments although my friend, Pat, did well in her position.

As for broad beans, I have sent away for THREE PACKS of AQUADULCE from Seed Parade once more. We were thrilled with the broad beans and, as we didn’t want to eat them day after day, I froze a good many which we still have with one of our meals in the week. I think we have one pack left and we shall enjoy that as a treat after Christmas. But …… the broad beans are still in the envelope they arrived in and the ground is far too boggy and muddy for planting. A week ago I did try to turn over a row in preparation – only two mini pieces of cooch grass HURRAY – but there was no way I could plant them so, once again, I will be ‘shoving them in the ground in January and placing a polytunnel over them.

Our very expensive first year is at an end so we can look forward to investing in some specially designed cages for our cabbages and, who knows, we may be reporting on more success this time next year.

Well have a very Happy Christmas gardeners everywhere and I hope your home grown veg are as successful as ours have been.

Until next time – A very Happy New Year.

Meanwhile, do please take a look at the blog I follow called ‘blogaboutwriting’

The compost maker

The first year on our allotment has brought a major cultural shift in our house, especially vegetable consumption. But, the major change and my partner’s prime annoyance is ….. my compost.   No sooner had I signed my tenancy agreement than I diligently saved tea bags, egg shells, discarded lettuce, mouldy bread, outer cabbage and brussel sprout leaves, potato peelings and more.  My first receptacle, a pot by the sink quickly overflowed so I graduated to a carrier bag hanging on a door handle.  Two days later a strange smell and a brown smudgy mark revealed a hole where a treacly brown substance now dripped down my jeans. Not to be deterred and spurred on by discussing compost and the bonuses of adding urine with neighbouring allotment holders and admiring their gungy substances, I found a new container.

Marital relations then deteriorated according to a new Sod’s Law proposing the dimensions of indoor compost pots are always smaller than the amounts deposited.  Once I brought home prize vegetables to prepare in my kitchen the compost expanded with marrow peelings, slug-ridden cabbage sections, runner bean tops and sides, muddy potato peelings and rhubarb leaves.  A carrier bag held the large plastic container plus overflow while further freezer bags were added to this array of decaying humus alongside which we ate our platefuls of veg each evening.   I then add in varying stages of decay small amounts of forgotten lettuce from the fridge, rotting onion accidentally spiked during weeding with a fork.  As my compost grew so did my partner’s overt disgust.

Occasionally, when struggling with muddy potatoes, dirty lettuce and slug-ridden cabbage, I admit to a hankering for days of washed shop-bought vegetables and fast food preparation.  Take beetroot, my most successful crop.  Previously I bought ready-cooked beetroot.  However, now I boil newly-dug beetroot, peel off the dark red skins leaving my hands and kitchen walls resembling a murder scene.

On my allotment visits I transfer this stinking mass to my fair-sized compost bag but requests to do the same are ignored, Other Half pleading deafness with an unco-operative grunt.

But, ever the optimist, this autumn I hope to win over Other Half to the value of compost making.  If next year’s crops improve …… perhaps  I will.   Meanwhile I’m off to chase Mr Caterpillar and Mrs Slug’s family running amok in my kitchen.

I blog an allotment diary at www.di.castle32.blogspot.com  and would welcome a link