Welcome to our plot!

I'm Hazel, and in Nov 2006 my friend Jane and I took on a half plot at Hill Allotments, Sutton Coldfield - we want the satisfaction of growing and eating our own fruit and veg, and to improve our diet (and fitness!).

This is the story of what happened next...........

Monday, February 26, 2007

A Pause for Thought...

A number of things are beginning to come to light with regard to how we are progressing at the Hill – & having flicked back through the photos in an idle moment, one or two things have struck me:

First thought – paths:

Paths are important if we don’t want to b*gger up our soil structure – or have to wear Stout Boots every time we want to wander on to the plot.

I’ve bought 2 Weed Prevention Sheets from Tesco (1.5m by 10m of black plastic, in essence) for £2 each & I can cut the sheets into path sized strips (0.5m by 10m) and place them between each of the 4 plots, and have enough to split each plot lengthways again so that you can always reach the middle of a bed from a path.

The only disadvantage is that with north/south sowings, the centre path in each bed will bisect the row. Perhaps that’s ok though.

Second thought – plot A:

Approx one third of plot A (beans and peas) is taken up with the bear pit bean trench & if we grow runner beans on the whole lot, both us, our families, friends and anyone who knows us will all die of runner bean overload.

As the trench runs east-west, there will be a sunny side & a shady side – so I thought that we could grow runners, climbing French beans up a quarter of each side each & put the rest over to peas (which I prefer!). It will be interesting to see if there is a disadvantage for the shady side.

Next year I’d like to try an inverted wigwam of cans for the beans – you tie the opposing poles together so they pull on each other, and as the plants climb up the poles, the beans hang down for ease of picking – another Grapevine special!

Third thought – progress so far:

We’ve had charge of the plot for a quarter of the year! And to date we have:

  • Got rid of a whole heap of annual weeds – main culprits are chickweed & nettles – & prepared for sowing.
  • Got rid of half our grotty gooseberry bushes & half a row of huge beetroot & planted some fruit buses
  • Sown a load of seeds which haven’t done anything yet – & at home those that have, are really leggy, except the pea sprouts which are looking FAB
  • Made some Heath Robinson soil protectors because we (all right, I) have no patience to wait until spring to sow.
  • Successfully transplanted garlic which seems to be growing nicely
  • Learnt a whole heap from some really nice people – on line & at the Hill

That all sounds bit mixed – but, you know what? I wouldn't swap a minute of it!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

At last! Something to see!

Drizzle this morning giving way to smashing spring sunshine, & a rainbow – which I wasn’t quick enough with the camera to photograph.

Our fellow allotmenteers are starting to come out of their hibernation, I think, although I haven’t seen Reg-next-plot for a couple of weeks. Barry could be heard a couple of plots away helping last week’s hardworking young man with advice, and nosing at all the other plots, all the old hands are turning in their well rotted compost.

This is (yet another!) area which really does need addressing – feeding the soil/crops on the plot is clearly a Good Thing – but do you just bung on a handful of Growmore type stuff every now and again – or water in a feed? Do you incorporate your own well rotted compost in the autumn to next years spud patch, or give that area a good old blanket of horse muck from the skip (like we’ve done)? Or all of the above?

Whatever the answer to that lot is, I can see the benefits of having a compost heap (or preferably two – so I think that I’m going to have to liberate some pallets, tie them together and fill the resulting ‘bin’ with a load from the horse muck skip to get us going.

Today’s Big Seed News is that some of the radish seeds are actually sprouting in the seed bed! Not many, but DEFINITELY there! Nothing else showing, but I put in a row of PEAS (kelvedon wonder), BEETROOT (woden F1) & PARSNIP (white gem) marking this row with a sowing of RADISH (marabelle). Actually it’s a particulary stingy marking of the parsnip row with radish as there were only about 10 seeds left in the packet.

Half way through sowing the fiddly little parsnip seed, I remembered that I had thought about germinating the seed on damp kitchen paper to give the seed a head start, so it’ll serve me right if they don’t come up at.

I was also going to sow some spinach, but couldn’t remember where it went in the rotation, so I’ve had to go back to the drawing board with that.

Finally, I planted a couple of north/south rows of POTATO (rocket) – 15 in each row – then off to Hiron’s to buy 20 cara main crop potatoes which will be enough for two rows, then I’ll buy another main crop (possibly international kidney, or rooster which seems to be raved about on the Grapevine...)

Lots to learn, lots to do!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Seeds success...and otherwise!

This seed swapping business is so much fun! I had a pack through in the post from a lady in Scotland yesterday with about 8 half packets of seed – including a dozen F1 sweetcorn seeds which will form the basis of our ‘3 sisters’ bed along with some (as yet undecided) climbing beans, and our carnival squash.

The 3 sisters bed is a planting scheme that I picked up from the Grow Your Own Veg TV programme whereby you grow a block of sweetcorn along with climbing beans & squash growing underneath.

It’s from the native American Indians and is all very symbiotic – the beans feed the ground, the squash smothers the weeds & the sweetcorn provides the support for the beans. Although it’s a lovely idea, it does b*gger up the rotation, so I’ll use the land by the seedbed for this, I think.

I’m having mixed success with my indoor seed sowings – the cauliflower seeds which I sowed in jiffys in January are about 8” tall with just two tiny little seed leaves perched at the top end, and are – predictably – falling over as they are far too leggy. I’ve sowed some more seed in the jiffys & tried to increase the light levels by stacking all my furniture up under the Velux & perching the seed tray on top of the heap.

I’ve put the salad leaves trough up there too – funny, it seems really bright in the room, & not too hot – but although they look better than the cauliflower, they are quite tall too. Perhaps they just went in far too early - we shall see.

However, I’m having TREMENDOUS success with the pea shoots on the kitchen windowsill! After 10 days they are all sturdy little soldiers about 3” tall – & given my lack of anything going on seed-wise at the Hill, it’s quite tempting to plant them out rather than eat them!

It’s warm again this week – about 10 degrees – but wet today, but the days are getting appreciably longer – it’s dusk at about 6pm now, so not too long before I can nip to the Hill for a while after work!

It’s March when the less impatient of us get going, I’m told – but I am itching to get the first lot of potatoes in, as well as the onions & all these lovely seeds to be sown......

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Getting fruity!

An even nicer day today – real Spring sunshine – & my first job before going to the Hill was to mend the cold frame.

The weight of the snow last weekend had collapsed the bubble wrap, pulling it away from its duck-taped mooring. On closer inspection, where the bubble wrap is stuck to itself on the corners, it has stayed in place – the problem is the duck tape has pulled away from the wood along two of the sides

I made a quick trip to Wilko’s for some garden wire which I drilled and pulled through side-to-side to form supports for the bubble wrap, so that if it does sag again it will rest on the wires which would form gutters which would channel the water away – especially with the cold frame resting on a brick at the one end to give it an angle. That’s the theory, anyway.

Although there is still no sign of ANY of my seeds sprouting at the Hill, I’m delighted that the peas have started to sprout in the kitchen this morning (that’s 5 days!) and the little trough is full of little 2-leaf seedlings. Not that I know which is which as I mixed up all the seeds when I sowed them, but no matter.

Along with the mended cold frame, I took the fruit bushes to plant. I’d followed the instructions (‘soak the root ball in a bucket of water overnight’) the upshot being a bucket full of mud and bare rooted plants, which doesn’t sound right to me.

We’d had advice from Barry yesterday about planting the fruit bushes with a handful of bone meal in each planting hole – it is organic, looking at the box bought from Wilko – so I did that & firmed them in with my feet (again – does that sound right, or have I just squashed all the roots?). To finish off, I gave all the fruit bushes a whiz round with some manure from the skip (just because that’s what the next plot across the boundary has done).

Despite all my uncertainties, at least the bushes have buds on at the moment, so they stand a chance.

Actually, the other way of looking at that, is that if they die, it’s definitely my fault!

I’ve given the row orientation thing a bit more thought – actually, not everyone at the Hill sows east-west – next door's fab sprout plants (about 5’ tall and have obviously been rammed full of sprouts – that’ll be US next year!) are planted north-south, so it won't be too radical to do the same – the potatoes in plot D can be a start, but it might be a bit complicated with the other beds where I’ve already got some seeds in…

Any which way...?

True to form, Friday’s persistent rain gave way to a fine, if cloudy day, for a visit to the Hill on Saturday, although it’s pretty wet underfoot.

Reg-next-plot, a young man about next door but two & an older chap called Barry were there in various stages of work – Reg watering some secret ingredient on to the soil to combat clubroot, young man clearing the plot & Barry dispensing advice.

I checked all the seeds – NOTHING – but not to be put off I put in another row of BROAD BEANS (aguadulce), CARROTS (Adelaide) under fleece & LETTUCE (little gem) under the polycarb.

I took 5 Jerusalem Artichokes down to plant – but forgot to consult Hessayon so had to make a guess as to the planting distances. Everyone on the Grapevine seems to think that they’re jolly easy & you can’t go wrong, so we’ll see!

I’ve planted them front to back on the plot at the border, because they are supposed to grow tall and act as screening, so I thought that I may not be hugely popular with the chap at the back end of the plot if they shaded his bit.

I started to give this a bit of thought, actually – the plot faces south with the road & plot D at the south & the rhubarb & the seedbed at the north, & beyond that is my neighbour’s half plot. Everyone at the Hill seems to have rows east/west which I would have thought would mean that tall rows would shade the rows beyond. If you plant north/south, surely this would seem to make better use of the light for the entire plot?

I’ll give this some further thought – but I’d better get a move on and make my mind up as while I’m thinking, I’m also sowing east/west, and changing my mind halfway through is not going to be easy!

Jane joined me and besides doing our bit emptying all the bags of horse manure into the skip, we grubbed up alternate gooseberry plants down the boundary in order to plant our BARGAIN fruit bushes (pack of blackcurrant, redcurrant & raspberry for £1.99 from Aldi – oh yes! So I bought 2 packs). Unfortunately when we read the planting instructions it said to soak them in a bucket overnight before planting. Damn – could have easily done that last night.

We dug the holes, though, and took advice from Barry who stopped by to see how we are getting on. He dispensed an awful lot of advice, half of which I have now forgotten, but this included

  • put a handful of bone meal into each planting hole
  • sprinkle some growmore on the garlic for it to wash into the soil
  • water spare soil with fungicide to kill any nasties
  • plant red/blackcurrant a month ago (this one not massively helpful, obviously)

Not sure how ‘green’ all of these are, & must investigate fertiliser further as this is YET ANOTHER area that I’m not too hot on, but that’s for another day!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Not to be thwarted

It was the first Saturday since starting at the Hill that I haven’t been able to do anything because of the weather – the SNOW from Thursday still hanging around. However, it was also the first Saturday that I was otherwise engaged – travelling to the south coast for a family ‘do’.

Could have taken the seed potatoes with me, as it happens, because I was talking to a very nice lady who has an allotment & I’m sure that I could have passed them on. Possibly not appropriate in the middle of the champagne-and-cake-cutting though.

I did find time on Saturday morning to pop over to show mum how we are getting on – she made a load of ‘I’m very impressed’ noises, even though you couldn’t actually see anything at all under the blanket of snow – and she even pushed the car when I got it stuck in the snow!

I had to liberate the polycarb & my poor cold frame from a layer of snow which has boshed in all the bubblewrap, so it’s a repair job next weekend with the duck tape.

Not to be deterred by the weather, & spurred on by the happy band at the Grow Your Own magazine forum, Grapevine, I did sow a little trough with turnip, radish, beetroot, beet leaf and lettuce in the expectation of eating my own salad in no time at all – & 5 days later I have seedlings! Hurrah!

I also bought a packet of pea seeds & sowed some in a big pot on the kitchen windowsill in the hope of cutting the seedlings when about 6” high for salads. I’ve covered the pot with a plastic bag which I’m hoping will act as both a mini greenhouse to aid seed germination, and as an anti-cat device to aid seed survival.

I’ve been musing on what to sow in the jiffy peat plugs (bought some more at the weekend, well they were cheap!) – I thought that parsnips would be a good move, as they are tricky to get going, & then I could stick the plugs directly in the ground, but the Grapevine suggests sowing these on damp kitchen roll squares to germinate, then sowing on from there. Sounds a fiddle, but I’m happy to try it.

Perhaps broccoli or Brussels sprouts would be good in the jiffy’s – both of which you only want a few plants of, so seems daft to sow a whole row in a seedbed.

The list of things to do for the end of Feb and into March is growing by the day – & the priorities for the weekend seem to be:
  • Planting the 5 Jerusalem Artichokes which I’ve saved and are going quietly soft in the fridge
  • Put in a row (or two?) of the Rocket first early potatoes
  • Mend cold frame
  • If broad beans still not showing (it’ll be 4 weeks since they went in) give up and put another lot in.

All we need is the weather – it’s forecast for heavy rain on Saturday, but I have every faith that the Good Weather Fairy will wave her magic wand again!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Even when it snows...

Well I've found a fab new hobby - seed swapping! I've met up with some terribly nice people on the Grow Your Own magazine forum & we will now be growing some asparagus peas and some squash (carnival).

I can add to the party by offering out some of our extensive tomato seed collection - I'm sure that we can spare a pinch or so! Either that or our entire plot will comprise of tomato plants and nothing else. We also seem to have various lettuce and carrot seeds packets - will have to check the viability, though - some of the packets are a bit elderly.

I picked up a GREAT idea also - to grow a tubful of peas on the windowsill to cut at about 6" to add to salads. Impatient as ever, I wish that I'd kept back that extra dozen or so peas that I just bunged in with the rest when I sowed them at the weekend - I'll have to wait till I get a new packet now.

In fact, why stop there - I can put in a pinch of all sorts of things in a trough on the kitchen windowsill - I think that I can sow beetroot, lettuce, turnips & spinach....

Just as well I am picking all this up on line, due to the SNOW that we have had today and heavy frosts for the preceeding few nights.

I suspect that I have been somewhat over enthusiastic with my seed sowing and going in too early - but we'll see what happens when the snow melts!
I wonder if my mini-salad-leaves trough will survive the cats? I suppose that there's only one way to find out.......

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Construction and Cover-ups!

DIY not being my greatest forte, I do feel very proud of a COLD FRAME that I have made with my very own hands. It comprises wide sturdy planks (liberated from the tip last week) screwed together with brackets & braced with a length of wood (found in the garage), & covered with the polythene backed bubble wrap (that the polycarb came in) secured with duck tape.

It should really be angled so that rain runs off, but I haven’t thought of a solution for that, unless I prop it up on a brick at one end.

I also should have thought a bit more about the overall dimensions of the finished article (i.e. 1m x 1.5m x 100mm) compared to the available space in the back of my car. It sent me utterly bananas trying to wrestle the one into the other, but I eventually succeeded – although getting it out again at the Hill also required some ingenuity.

There have been one or two frosts this week, with bright quite warm days, so I had high expectations for my seeds – especially as they have been cuddled up under cover. Apparently January has been the warmest since 1916, & the weather does seem to have fooled some plants into early action, although – regrettably – it turns out that this does not include ANY of my sowings from the last couple of weeks.

The garlic is looking good, though – it seems to have survived the transplanting and all the little plants look quite chipper.

Not put off, I sowed some more seeds including a row of RADISHES (marabelle) in the seed bed, PEAS (early onwards) next to the broad beans (covered by the new cold frame) and BEETROOT (woden F1) next to the carrots under fleece.

It’s probably loads too early still for sowing, but with all the preparation done, it’s very tempting as it is so easy – especially as I have discovered a really good way of making drills for the seeds to go into. By using the edge of a plank of wood shoved gently into prepared soil you get a ‘v’ shape as deep as you want, and (obviously) in a straight line.

The trick is to line the next one up so that you don’t get zigzags along the plot, but it’s easier than doing the whole drill by eye.

That done, I forked over plot B (the chickweed thinks it’s spring), checked that the polycarb, cold frame and fleece was all secure before paying my subs at the social club (had an impressively tasty half of Banks’s Original whilst I was there) and home.
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