Reap What You Sow

When we took on the allotment we decided we were in it for the long haul. Over several seasons we have worked truly countless hours to mould the land to our will, at least if you squint your eyes. At times it has felt like a leap of faith during fallow periods in which there has been nothing to show for the effort. You become so accustomed to hard slog for future benefit that when the future arrives it’s an almost unexpected joy. Harvest time is the season of repayment.

In our first year the sensation of shovelling through the soil for potatoes was akin to panning for gold. Each spud was an exciting find tempered only by the realisation that burrowing insects and disease had damaged some of the crop.

Where there’s muck there’s spuds

The sensation of anticipation is still there in year 3 but there is also the realisation that the spuds have to be lifted dried and stored. This is a messy ritual that takes the dining table out of action for a few weeks, but we know what to expect now. A move to disease resistant varieties has increased the yield but extended the dining room moratorium.

An unbalanced diet

The real “growth area” on our plot is the deluge of soft fruit that arrives starting in early summer. This shouldn’t be a surprise – we did plant it after all – but when it is thriving like this you have to keep right on top of things in order to preserve the produce and encourage future growth.

Another fruitful day

I have found that blackberries and raspberries need to be picked at least every 2 days during peak season or the fruit goes too soft. Then it’s not just the over-ripened fruit you are losing out on – the next round of fruit takes a hit as growing power is diverted from them. There can be no greater pleasure than picking the ripest fruit on a balmy evening after a day in the office.

Wash, dry, freeze, repeat

The thing is – there’s a lot to do when you get home with your kilos of soft fruit. Of course you consume what you need but blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and redcurrants all need to be washed, dried, frozen on a tray and then transferred to a freezer bag. When you preserving a kilo of fruit like this every 2 days it feels like the kitchen is home to a production line.

Maybe you can have too much of a good thing

Redcurrants can be picked much less regularly but when you do harvest the volumes are incredible. I extracted over 10kg of fruit in three pickings and each time it took over a week to wash, dry, freeze and bag. Gluts of produce are a way of life for allotment holders. The art of custodianship is, wherever possible, to plant for successive cropping and to have an inkling of what you will do with the produce when it arrives.

Don’t freeze, just eat

Some produce can’t easily be preserved. You can make jam out of strawberries but unless you have a large volume in one go it’s less hassle to simply enjoy them fresh. Cavalo Nero, the in-vogue king of kale needs to be consumed fresh before it gets tough or succumbs to minute white insects. One can only devour so much kale, without strange things happening, I would imagine.

Every year some crops struggle while others go mad. This year the peas have remained pretty dormant but the peppers can’t stop producing. We have meaty varieties that put mass produced varieties to shame. What doesn’t get used in salads can be pickled. Respective gluts of cucumbers (tasty and wholesome next to their bland, watery supermarket cousins) and jalapenos are great candidates for pickling, although that also takes some time.

So many peppers from one plant
Chillies – great for preserving

Also this year the French beans and runner beans have been prolific, as they often are. I can wash, trim, blanch and freeze these in my sleep now, which is useful because that’s the only free time I have during this period.

As we have developed the plot and built on our experiences our main focus has moved away from simply trying to grow things. Now we aim to control what arrives when. A polytunnel opens up great possibilities here by extending the growing season. As I write this in later October a few strawberries are still coming through in this protected environment!

Strawberries before ripening in the polytunnel

Also, with main crops established, thoughts turn to widening our repertoire. Edible nasturtiums make an attractive salad garnish and spread like weeds across the plot.

That classic combination of Nasturtiams and Beetroot

Harvest time isn’t all about gluts of produce. These globe artichokes and rhubarb sticks are rarer treats that must be enjoyed in moderation. Globes in particular take up too much space to grow in volume.

Barbs and chokes

Crops like these take back seat during the busy harvest period and if you aren’t careful they are past their best before you remember they are there.

Summer has passed now and the light evenings spent filling a wicker basket to the brim with goodies is over for another year. There is still plenty going on but things are less frenetic now. Our first foray into carrots has gone well and we are crossing our fingers for the sweetcorn which is almost but not quite ready to harvest. The darker months will be good for brassicas and whatever we can persuade to grow in the polytunnel.

With the onset of autumn I miss those light evenings spent picking, if not the work that follows, but there will be no regrets. Especially in darkest February when there are frozen fruits, vegetables pickles to enjoy. There are times when all of this makes sense.

Hacking The Allotment

How it's going to be...

How times have changed. There has been no travel, scarce cooking and few nights out. My normal summer rituals have taken a back seat. This is what custodianship of an allotment does to you.

In the three months since I took on a local plot my weekends and evenings have been almost entirely devoted to gaining a foothold in the fast-receding growing season – from a standing start.

At first I took an odd satisfaction from weeding and turning soil in preparation for planting.

Preparing soil the hard way
Preparing soil the hard way

That wore off as the sheer intensity of effort resulted in a strained back and a broken fork.

Breaking under the strain
Breaking under the strain

Short of time and manpower it became apparent I was going to have to throw aside the New Gardener’s Handbook# and take some shortcuts – or Hacks as we IT people call them.

# there isn’t really a New Gardeners Handbook – I made that up as a narrative device. In fact I make a lot of things up. Look – just read, don’t question

Hack #1: Buy A Rotavator

This is essentially a 125cc moped with blades instead of a rear wheel…

Mr Rotavator
Mr Rotavator

Now I can prepare an area in 20 minutes that would have taken three hours using a fork. Despite this half of my plot remains unprepared. A seasoned plot holder told me that in his first year he focussed entirely on clearing and preparing the ground. He didn’t plant anything.

From small acorns...
From small acorns…

On that basis I should be pleased to have my potatoes in the ground, peas climbing a frame and a selection of brassicas growing under netting.

...grow mighty potatoes
…grow mighty potatoes

I guess it depends on whether you are a plot half empty kind of person

Hack #2: Erect A Polytunnel

Think of a polytunnel as a plastic greenhouse. You can maintain a higher temperature and add a couple of months to the summer growing season for plants that need a warmer, more stable growing environment

Not tall enough yet
Not tall enough yet

After much research I invested in a 3m x 6m beast from Grow-Ur-Own on the basis that it looked a lot larger and sturdier than the average unit.

Meccano for adults
Meccano for adults

Unfortunately it came with almost entirely useless assembly instructions and took a weekend to erect, although I secretly enjoyed the challenge.

Digging for victory
Digging for victory

The most painstaking part turned out to be fitting the cover over the frame. In the end it took 4 of us to get the job done after which I was able to bury the edges in a trench designed to stabilise and protect the plastic cover.

Space to grow!
Space to grow!

The polytunnel has provided a superb growing environment for tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers as well as a preparatory environment for plants destined for life outside.

A young pepper
A young pepper

The cucumbers in particular grow at a prodigious rate in this environment and a first batch has already made it into pickling jars.

Early polytunnel crop
Early polytunnel crop

Of course none of this growth can happen without a lot of watering. With polytunnel pots requiring 40L of water every day how are you supposed to have an evening off, let alone a week away?

Hack #3: Automate The Irrigation

Once plants are in the ground they can generally look after themselves – especially with all the rain we have had this summer. It’s different for the pots under cover so I investigated the options and came up with a solution for a timer controlled irrigation system.

No more watering
No more watering

Now this isn’t as simple of you might think. With no mains supply I had to create a gravity fed water supply with sufficient pressure to keep 50 pots irrigated for up to a week. I managed to (literally) unearth 48 bricks from my plot to create a raised base for a 230L water butt which fed into a tubing system via a Claber battery operated timer.

40m of irrigation tubing
40m of irrigation tubing

As I write this blog from a sunlit cottage room in Padstow I can only hope the solution is operating as designed. If it is working then I will simply have to top up the water butt once a week when I return from holiday. If hasn’t worked then everything will have died – either way my evening watering duties will be a thing of the past.

Hack #4: Inherit Stock

OK, this isn’t something I can take any credit for but the fact is that the previous plot-holder left some goodies behind and I’m not one to let things go to waste.

A thriving fruit bed has already yielded several weeks worth of succulent raspberries plus a smattering of strawberries.

Sweet pickings
Sweet pickings

Before I left for Cornwall I picked and froze over a kilo of redcurrants and there is much more to come.

Approx 5kg of redcurrants. Recipes needed!
Approx 5kg of redcurrants. Recipes ideas appreciated!

Factor in three established heads of rhubarb and I am getting quite a decent return without expending any effort.

I can barely believe how much has been achieved in the last 3 months. Sure, it has been LOT of hard work but also very satisfying. I’m saving £30 per month on gym membership alone and getting much better exercise so there really isn’t anything to complain about on that front.

Allotment or building site?
Allotment or gym?

Work on the allotment is as energising as it is tiring. Every day something has grown or flowered. I become engrossed watching bees flit amongst the comfrey.

My caretaker Jeremy
My caretaker Jeremy

A frog (called Jeremy) pops up sporadically in the polytunnel where I commission him to keep on top of any insects. Blackbirds sing so beautifully that I almost feel guilty for netting off the redcurrants they love so much.

How it's going to be...
How it’s going to be…

One day, maybe soon, I might visit and not actually do anything. Just relax and take it all in…