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...........

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Woolly hats and no knickers!

It really has not been a great week weather wise – cold at nights with some frost, & Saturday was not much better with a sharp wind. That didn’t stop Reg-next-plot who was busy with the loppers tidying up the hedge & saplings at the back of his plot, but I'm not surprised that we had the Hill to ourselves.

It was cold enough for Reg to be wearing a loose fitting woolly hat which seemed to spend just about as much time clinging to the side or back of his head as it did actually keeping his head warm.

My own hat was rather less mobile, & I kept warm by taking up the sunflowers at the front of the plot – the soil underneath the plants was surprisingly dry considering the exposed areas of the plot are rather cloggy.

Although I want to get the odd raspberry suckers into some semblance of order, it didn’t feel like the day to do that job, so I did some harvesting instead. I cut a CABBAGE (primo II) & CAULIFLOWER (all the year round), dug a PARSNIP (white ace), a couple of SWEDE (best of all), & I thought that I’d see what the SALSIFY was looking like, & so dug up a couple of them too (bit like a thin white carrot, really).

After bleating on about not being very keen on BEETROOT, the kind people on the GYO grapevine have come up with some very tasty sounding recipes which I will be trying, so I had half a dozen of those out too.

The KALE (alice) is looking fabulous – but I'm keeping that for when all the cabbages are eaten, so instead I pulled a couple of LEEKS (mrs D). The leeks do seem to have a sort of burrowing bug or worm in them – brown & just a couple of mm long, they seem to munch their way vertically down a layer in the leek – & there are maybe 2 or 3 per leek. They don’t seem to do a lot of damage, but it would be nice to know what they are & I can’t find them in any of my books.

Poor Belinda Scarecrow is in a bad way – her arms appear to have dropped & her head is in danger of totally losing contact with the rest of her, so before she entirely loses her head, I’ve brought her home for some maintenance.

I hear that there is speculation at the Hill as to the absence of any garments around her nether regions, so I’d better preserve her modesty with a skirt too – before her reputation slips even further than her arms have…

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Report - Plot D (Potatoes)

Although this should have been the easiest bed to plant – i.e. cover with manure, plant POTATOES, 3 months later dig up lots of potatoes – it wasn’t quite that simple for a couple of reasons.

The first is that I had no concept of how much space to allow for each row of potatoes despite being told this very piece of information by Reg-next-plot, & even, in fact, recording that information here in the blog. So I planted too close together.

I compounded the planting error with a lack-of-labelling error, so that when the plants all came bombing up out of the ground, there was just a sea of plants. Impossible to earth up properly & digging them up took forever & I kept spearing the tubers with the fork. Brilliant crop though – 4 half sacks full, & all delicious except the rocket first earlies which are just bland.

Once the earlies were out, I could put in some LEEKS (mrs D) – I grew a whole tray full at home, but – with hindsight – should have planted out another couple of rows of the seedlings. They all went to good homes though – just not MY good home!

I’ve also had put the spring cabbage seedlings – courtesy of Jody – in this bed as I was so short of space up in plot A, but it’ll all come out more or less in the wash, I expect.

So for next year? There as so many different potato varieties available – the Maris Piper was good though, & definitely want to try a waxy salad one.

Here ends the potato report!

Report - Plot C (Roots)

Here we find one of the biggest successes, the biggest white elephants & the biggest failures! There’s no getting away from it, growing carrots has been a real problem.

First the success – PARSNIPS (white gem). These are absolutely brill – good germination, masses of green growth, enormous tasty roots. Just need to remember next year that there is no point at all in successional sowing as they all store well in the ground until you want them.

The white elephants are the BEETROOT. They grow well, they are strong & healthy, but the snag is that however I cook them – roast, boil or pickle – I really don’t actually like the taste very much, which is a bit of a shame. Pretty leaves on the plants, though.

The failure is the CARROTS. There is no getting away from this – virtually every single carrot has been ‘got at’ by the carrot fly – & not just a bit, but tip to top, & all sides. Now I love carrots very much indeed, so this is very poor form. I already have ideas for next year for ME to actually eat some of them, rather than the dreaded fly – including barriers/netting round the rows, a resistant variety & much more careful sowing so that I don’t have to thin the rows out.

The SPRING ONIONS have been a bit on the patchy side – infuriatingly easy to grow to look like chives, but they don’t seem to go the extra mile to get to anything any bigger. The CELERY is also looking good, not big, but good.

Bit of bad organisation in the world of salad crops – it seems that whereas a bit of frost is supposed to give celery a bit of zing, anything cooler than ‘well, I’ll take a cardy out with me’ kills the rest of the salad tribe stone dead, & yet they are all supposed to end up on the same plate at the same time. Hmm.

The SALSIFY in this bed is looking good – I’ll be doing a taste test soon to see if this unusual root veg has won a place for next year!

So for next year? Carrots are the biggest challenge & fingers crossed for the same parsnip success

Here ends the root report!

Report - Plot B (Misc.)

This is the plot which had the short season, salad & less hardy crops in. A few anomalies did sneak in here, however – the GARLIC for instance, a row of CARROT (early nantes) & some SPRING ONIONS (white lisbon). The garlic was great, but the bulbs were small as we’d only planted small cloves. Wish I’d know that particular fact before planting this year’s cloves, & I would have only put the large ones in. Hey ho.

A row of DILL also sneaked in, which – frankly – I wasn’t sure when to pick, or what to do with it then. I think as a herb, I’ll grow it at home next year if I feel the need.

The LANDCRESS was an absolute unqualified out & out success. Shame really, then, that I found after a nibble of one leaf of one plant that I really, really don’t like it at all – it is so peppery & hot, it’s untrue. Damn stuff stands for months without bolting, is drought & flood hardy & is near indestructible. If Jane wants it in her salads next year, she can grow it at her house!

I did learn a valuable lesson with LETTUCE sowing – little & not-quite-so-often next year, I think! Lovely as they have been, they win the second prize – after the runner beans – for profligacy! The RADISH has been brilliant – out of the various varieties that we tried, I think that the little round saxa 3, or the mirabeau have been the nicest. The white icicle variety has rivalled the landcress for heat, although keeping them in the fridge for a day or two seems to take the ‘bite’ out of them.

The Prize Pumpkin was also in this bed – growing our pumpkin has been fabulous fun, along with the Tallest Sunflower competition – we may not have won either, but it’s brought out my competitive streak at least – so watch out next year, novice-neighbour-Jody – I’m a year ahead of you!

The TOMATOES were such a disappointment – a combination of being a bit leggy to start with, late planting out & a great wave of blight sweeping all before it meant that there were no ripe tomatoes at all, although the small crop of 4-5lbs green tomatoes has made some great chutney.

The BUTTERNUT SQUASH & the COURGETTES (black beauty) were hardly prolific either – again late sowings did for these, I think – with one squash between three plants (impressive spreading leafy growth, though!) & just four courgettes in total.

Finally, for this bed, an unexpected success – the SWEETCORN (conqueror f1) plants gave two or three cobs each from each plant all of a decent size – & I learnt that scoffing raw corn straight off the cob is an absolute delicacy unknown to non-veg growers!

So for next year? Earlier sowing of tomatoes & squash, I think – & I’d like to try cucumbers & sweet peppers too.

Here ends the misc. report!

Report - Plot A (Legumes followed by brassicas)

A wigwam of BARLOTTI BEANS was just about the prettiest crop – not enormously prolific, but each plant yielded fat red streaked pods which contain cream & red speckled beans. A slight gripe would be that there aren’t that many beans, given the ground taken up. Neighbour Ted, however, grow & ate Barlotti beans fresh as an alternative to runner beans – Mrs Neighbour Ted said they were delicious

A bean I would not grow again, I’m afraid, is the DWARF RUNNER BEAN (pickwick). Although the plants really were quite prolific for their size, & there was nothing dwarf about the beans themselves, which meant that they tended to trail on the ground & tended to be nibbled at the ends. Why would you not grow a normal climbing bean?

The BROAD BEANS (aguadulce) were an absolute hit – of course it does help that they were early cropping & were the first real veg from the plot, but even taking this into account, they were so versatile – picking from 4” pods & eating whole to mature pods boiling & peeling the beans. They cropped for over a month at a time when there’s not much else going on! I’m thinking of pot sowing them over Christmas & planting out at the beginning of Feb this time to try & get an even earlier crop. There was very little in the way of blackfly damage – it was either a blackfly-free year in general, or the trick of sowing early to avoid them worked!

In contrast, I really was not sold at all on the FRENCH BEANS (sungold) – the pods are a weedy yellowy colour & just look unappetising. They didn’t flourish either, so I won’t be looking to sow these again.

The BLACK TURTLE BEANS were fabulous, though – virtually a whole jar of black beans for eating over the winter. I’d be happy to do twice as many – & would hope that if I sowed them earlier, I could get them cropped & find it easier to squeeze the brassicas in afterwards.

Of course the RUNNER BEANS (reg-next-plot) & the CLIMBING FRENCH BEANS (blue lake) have both been super – although a runner bean overload in the summer means that perhaps we’ll cut back on these & concentrate more on the PEAS (early onward) which were fabulous, & we could have done twice as many.

Running the brassicas in with the legumes really could have been better organised – I had to squeeze in pot grown CAULIFLOWER (all the year round), CABBAGE (primo II) & KALE (from Alice) in under netting where I could, & I’ve had no room for the BRUSSELS SPROUTS (Bedford filbasket) still in pots at home.

The SWEDES (best of all) are shaping up impressively – & taste wonderful, but not all of the TURNIPS been up to scratch. Some have been woody or had slug damage.

So for next year? Possibly wigwams for the climbing beans, definitely more bean varities for podding, more peas, & with better planting, I’d hope that I can group the brassicas for netting more easily.

Here ends the bean report!

End of Year Reports!

It really doesn’t seem like anything like a year since we took on plot 16a at the Hill – but our first anniversary is upon us - so this is a time for reflection on this year as well as planning for the next.

With due credit to John Seymour’s Self Sufficiency, our 20’ by 55’ half allotment has been split into 4 plots & the reports for each of the four beds follow.

Our overall conclusions – in no particular order – must be:
  • This has been the most tremendous fun – any hobby which involves eating delicious things has to be good, & add to that exercise-that-you-don’t-realise-you’re-getting & lots of fresh air. It’s challenging & extremely rewarding.
  • Most prolific crop: runner beans – remember to grow a few less next year
    Most disappointing crop 1: carrots – I think we’ve been very fortunate with our lack of serious pests this year, but the carrot fly has definitely won here
    Most disappointing crop 2: tomatoes – I was so looking forward to these, but we were not alone in have terrible problems with blight – we were lucky not to lose the whole plants, really
    Most delicious crop: tricky, this one – perhaps it was the very first broad beans, or the cauliflower, or possibly the taste of roast parsnip.

  • We need to turn our attention to the more ‘permanent’ features – the compost bin is in (though I’d like to build a second one) & there’s a few strawberries planted. Next in line is to move the raspberry suckers, & put a structure in place, then perhaps another go at asparagus as I suspect that our two plants from earlier this year have not prevailed.

  • I don’t think that a greenhouse is practical for the Hill – the plot’s not big enough, & I think it needs to have a better eye kept on the plants in it, so that’s an aim for me here at home.
  • Although we’ve made a start at devoting the front of the plot to flowers – with bulbs & bedding – I think we need to aim for bee attracting flowering plants next year.
  • I would love to expand my ‘preserving’ horizons next year – perhaps wine making, too?
This has been a marvellous year – I’ve had so much fun! I’ve met lots of new people (& made some very good friends) both at the Hill, & on the GYO grapevine – in particular Shelley from the Forest of Dean & her chap Paulie, & latterly, Clare who lives in the beautiful French countryside & husband Keith.

I wouldn’t change a minute of this year, & can’t wait for next season! Here’s to veg growers all round the world – may your fingers be forever green!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bin there - or bean there...?

The weather forecast for the weekend implied that if I wanted to keep dry at the Hill, I’d better get on with it on Saturday morning.

I had the Hill virtually to myself, & got busy with clearing the late sown French beans, & constructing a compost bin using pallets & strong green garden wire. It looks fantastic, & if I ‘liberate’ another couple of pallets, I think that I’ll put another one up besides it. That way we can have one bin full & ‘working’ with another being filled.

Once the bin was completed, I started to dismantle the bean tent. It took quite a long time as the beans tangled themselves round the poles & each other, & I wanted the bean plants in the bin, any pods still on the plants to take back for podding, & the poles lined up for storing over winter in the garage.

Jane & E arrived & pitched in & we finished the job in short order. Reg-next-plot stopped by & we chatted about the school visit last week, & he gave a few tips on the compost bin – I’d empted a couple of bags of ‘neat’ horse manure into the bin, & Reg suggested some strawy stuff too, to make a better mix, so out with the fork & bucket & into the manure skip to collect the right stuff to add into the bin & redress the balance. The bin’s about two thirds full now – it’ll be interested to see how it rots down.

Jane & E whipped up the land cress (thank goodness for that!) & after a quick hoe, E split the final garlic bulb (which I rediscovered languishing on the back seat of the car) into 16 & we made two short rows & squeezed them in.

I rough dug plot A which will be next years ‘miscellaneous’ (it should be full to bursting with brassicas – better planning for next year, I think!). It only took about quarter of an hour – last year the first dig over of the plot took weeks!

Jane & E left with a parsnip, & once I’d had a final look round & tidy up, I left too with some SPRING ONIONS (white Lisbon), CARROTS (mixed) which although are a reasonable size, look to be chock a block with carrot fly, a couple of LEEKS (mrs D) & a CABBAGE (primo II).

The sunflower head from the tallest sunflower competition has spent a few weeks on the head of billy scarecrow, so when I give him his sex change (!), I bought the head home for further drying, & this has yielded a couple of hundred seeds – so I’ve plenty for next year! Perhaps the school could use some for the children to sow up & take home next year.

I also spent a happy hour in front of the fire podding beans, & now realise that I need to work out the best way to cook runner bean seeds, otherwise I will be in a position to supply not only the school, but about half the county with seed for next year…

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Back to school!

We’ve done something a little bit different this week – we had some of the Year 3 (6 & 7 year olds) children from Jane’s school come for a class visit to the Hill.

The visit was two classes with four teachers & Jane, & we had four members of the committee & me to escort the groups & answer any questions the children would have – which turned out to be a lot!

I took Belinda Scarecrow back to the Hill & planted her facing the gate for when they arrived, which went down very well, but was not as popular with the teacher, as the crocodile of children were all too busy looking at the scarecrow to listen to the DOs & DON’Ts. I was asked, ‘Miss, why does your scarecrow look like ET?’

All the children were issued clipboards with a form with column headings ‘VEGETABLE’, ‘PICTURE’ & ‘WHAT PLOT?’ like those I SPY books, so they were all looking out for the different veg in the plots.

At the very bottom of the Hill our group met John Badger on plot 1, who used to teach & was frankly BRILLIANT, showing all the children the worms under the leaves, which went down very well with the boys, & he let the class pick the heads off some lavender to take with them, which went down very well with the girls!

We had some fabulous questions! I’m not sure if the answers were all up to scratch, though…

‘Miss, why is that sunflower dead?’ To attract the lovely birds who feed on the seeds.
‘Who can tell me why those tyres are there?’, ‘Is it to stop the plants escaping, Miss?’
‘EEWW, that’s POO!!!!!!!’ Much excitement at this.
‘Can you eat all those flowers too, Miss?’ They are dahlias. No.
‘Miss, why are there DVD’s on string over there?’ To stop the lovely birds etc etc. Ah - inconsistency alert.
‘Where are the rabbit holes, Miss? You said we’d fall down & get lost in the rabbit holes?’ Mmm, yes, I did, didn’t I.
‘Why aren’t there any strawberries?’ This is the Sainsbury generation!
‘Why is that lettuce so tall? Is it so you can pick it up more easily?’
‘Oh, WOW - I’ve seen another worm, Miss!!’

I’m sure that all primary school teachers see a bunch of curious 7 year olds all the time – & I’m equally sure that I saw this particular lot on absolute best behaviour – but I did find that showing these eager youngsters round, imparting just a bit about growing your own – something which I’m obviously very keen on, & I think is pretty vital to their health & future, well, it’s been an absolute privilege.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hello Belinda Scarecrow!

Things really are looking ‘year end’ now – which is rather appropriate as we will have had custody of our half plot for exactly a year tomorrow. I’ll do an ‘end of year report’ at the weekend, as we’ll need to do some planning for next year…

There’s still plenty to do, though, so on Saturday I went to the Hill in the sunshine & raked over the rest of plot B (misc as was) & sowed the rest of the green manure.

Once that bed was ‘put to bed’ – ha ha – I turned my attention to plot C where there are still a lot of the ‘roots’ in situ – mainly parsnips, but also celery, a few odd spring onions & quite a few rows of late sown carrots, the success of which I do not – frankly – hold out a great deal of hope for.

The parsnips are an absolute success – although they are in the ground a long time (sown in Feb, & likely to be there for more or less the whole year) they more than earn their keep. They have had a good germination rate (they are reputed to be a bit ‘tricky’), strong growth & huge roots – & whether I’ve roasted them or mashed with swede & potato, they have tasted fantastic!

This bed will be the potatoes next year, & I need to have the ground clear in order to stick a load of manure on, which given a bit of a lack of logic when it came to sowing rows of seed, this is not proving that easy – I’m just having to sneak the manure on as the parsnips are eaten.

The bean poles are driving me crackers with the plants getting tattier by the day, but I’ve wanted to leave the pods on the plants for as long as possible to mature. I think I’ll have the rest down this weekend though. I did take down the barlotti bean wigwam, & dug that small patch over. I took the green mesh tent down too which the late sowing of peas climbed up. The peas suffered with an extreme case of mildew – but the peas once podded look fine & are all drying out for sowing next year.

I’ve left the late sowing of black turtle beans in situ for the time being – again I want to give the pods the best chance to mature. I soaked, boiled & ate some of the beans in the week & I must put aside more room for growing pulses to dry next year – they’ll be a great winter food, & of course as they are dried they can stay jars & be stored in the garage if necessary.

Once I’ve cleared the ground there I will construct a couple of compost bins – I’ve now got the necessary pallets, & as we’ve had notice that we are going to shortly lose the green waste skip there is a pressing need to have somewhere to put biodegradable waste. Something else to learn all about!

I spotted about half a delivery of manure sacks which needed emptying into the skip, so I did my community duty there before harvesting a small CAULIFLOWER (all the year round), CABBAGE (primo II), the first couple of LEEKS (mrs D) & a magnificent PARSNIP (white gem) & took that little lot home with me along with Billy Scarecrow who was in great need of a makeover. He got more than he bargained for - he's ended up with a sex change….!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Of Roots and Roasts...

Autumn is in full swing now – it’s been quite a job sweeping the leaves up at home, & there’s plenty of clearing up to be done at the Hill too.

But firstly, some planting – we bought some JAPANESE ONION SETS from Malvern, & not having room to put them in the plot at the time, Jane’s planted them all up in modules where they’ve really got a head start & are all sprouting up very nicely. Jane’s also planted dozens of bulbs at the front of the plot for spring colour, so I’m looking forward to that.

I’ve planted the onions out in plot B (misc. as was) and the rest of the bed will be sown up with green manure next the weekend, & then that’s that plot ‘put to bed’ for the winter.

The chickweed has not cottoned on that it’s now November & continues to grow, so I hoed it all out of plot D (potatoes as was) which was an easy peasy job what with the Hungarian rye all being sown in rows. Ha!

About a third of the bean pods looked dry enough to pick off, so I podded those later at home – plump, shiny runner beans, & pale green French beans – I’m hoping that they’ll have dried out properly so that they can be planted next year.

I’m looking forward to saving a lot more seed next year – it’s ecologically sound, & of course it’s cheaper than buying packets! Also it would be lovely to be able to swap seeds that I’ve saved – with confidence that they will grow – with other members of the GYO Grapevine so that I can grow some more unusual varieties. Today I’ve also joined the Heritage Seed Library which will give me access to unusual varieties too.

Although the sunflowers are past their prime, I’ve been delighted with half a dozen which I cut & brought home – they’re lasting much better than I expected them to, & cut flowers are another ‘first’!

I had a very good haul to bring home – the last of the late sown LETTUCE (little gem) & RADISH (saxa 3) along with some SPRING ONION (white Lisbon) for salad, so that’s that for a few months, & I also came home with a lovely CABBAGE (primo II), a respectable sized SWEDE (best of all), a TURNIP (snowball) & a huge & very lovely PARSNIP (white gem).

Needless to say, I had a fabulous Sunday roast beef dinner with that little lot – now all I’ve got to do is work out how to raise my own cattle…
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