Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Been a long time........

Haven't posted a blog since October. Keep meaning to, but time has been short of late.

I started working at a specialist hospital at the end of October. I kind of forgot how a full working week eats into your time. Breaking even is great, but all the little tasks I did when they needed doing now have to be fitted into any spare time I have. Weekends are a mad rush but for the precious respite of the allotment.

And much of the break has been spent there. We're finally putting the old shed back up, and pretty soon I'll be able to brew a pot of tea under cover again. Having the tree canopy has been great, but now all the leaves have fallen (many into my leaf mould bin), there is nowhere to retreat from the rain.

It's been a pretty quiet time at the plot aside of that. We lifted a few Jerusalem Artichokes, but they were so small they could pass as the Chinese version, so I think we'll leave the rest until February.

It has to be said that the instructions in the Wartime Weekend Gardener for the last few weeks are fairly sparse. Just keep digging and clearing the plot, keep checking the crops in storage, order seeds and potatoes for the next year, cover rhubarb for forcing and the traditional Boxing Day task of sowing onions. With the weather we've had over the past few weeks, anyone would be hard pressed to have achieved anything from that list bar browsing the catalogues. The hard frosts this week will have helped anyone who managed to find a dry day to get some digging done, if such a person exists.

Still, on the gardening weather front at least, maybe next year will be better.

My last post was just before the US election, and fortunately sanity won through. Hopefully the Obama 8 years (please?) won't be sabotaged. Though I've always maintained Bill Clinton would never have needed to lie if he could have said fuck on US tv.

December saw the passing of one of my heroes - Oliver Postgate. Most celebrated for Bagpuss and The Clangers, he also co-created The Pogles, featuring my favourite character, Tog. The Pogles may well be a family for our current times - living in a low impact, sustainable house, foraging for wild food in the woods and meadows. Who amongst us wouldn't want to live that way?

This week sees the final branches of Woolworths close all over the UK. I last went in our local store in early November, to get the few things I relied on them to supply - bin bags and washing up sponges. Aside of the kitchenware, it had become a glorified pound shop. It had ceased to be the shop we mourned the passing of many years ago.

Many more shops will go to the wall before the hysteria ceases, and with almost all of these the blame will lie with management and their lack of awareness of the real financial situation. How anyone is supposed to help the country spend its way out of a recession when they expect to lose their job beggars belief.

And if we're all supposed to accept a wage freeze or cut, why can't a freeze or cut be enforced of transport fares?

There may be some good to come out of this. Who's to say we won't see the demise of DFS and their ghastly adverts?

Maybe 2009 will be the year that the difference between want and need finally are learnt.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Cheese, free speech, snowballs and other essentials for a happy life

Well, had a lovely time out west. Didn't mamage more than a fleeting glimpse of the Hairy Bikers - on Saturday the queues to see them went on for miles, and they ran out of books for their signing sessions.

We arrived in Hereford early Friday evening. We were staying in a new hotel just south of town, on the main A49, so everything was clean, if a little barren.

We arrived at the Festival just after opening time, and had a look round all the stalls before buying anything. We then had an early lunch and started stocking up - Pixley Berries blackcurrant cordials, several cheeses, Ralph's Perry, a couple of other beers, and sausages. Also bought a serrated kitchen knife with a cover that will be useful over the allotment, a book on celtic recipes, a sourdough loaf, a few packets of Tyrells crisps (also tried their vodka), a pack of chopped mixed game, assorted tartlets, mini quiches, mini nut roast and fancy Scotch eggs.

The main marquee was crowded and the easiest way to move round was to shuffle round sideways, once facing inwards, then outwards. By 2pm, some of the stands had run out of stock. The woman from the Elan Valley Mutton stand looked stunned. She wasn't sure if she had enough back at the farm to stock the stall for Sunday.

Finished our visit with some lovely ice cream, and decided to see what else we could fit in. We headed off to Hay, via the toll bridge. As we only had a small amount of cash left, and we needed fuel for Sunday, we avoided most of the bookshops, but bought something I'd planned on getting for some time - an enamel teapot and a couple of cups for the allotment shed. Had a quick look in the yarn shop, and greatly admired the Rowan angora kid and silk range. Just don't think the time is quite right for me to start to try and learn to knit again. My childhood efforts didn't extend far beyond scarves for teddy bears, and my sights these days would be set far higher than my current ability.

Had a picnic back in the hotel room with some of our purchases, then had another early night. The weather when we woke on Sunday was as forecasted - foul, but had cleared slightly by the time we set off. However, I didn't think the conditions underfoot at the Wernlas Collection would be good, so our original plan for the day was scrapped. Being on a north facing slope, I suspected it would be boggy at best, and I did wonder if the hens may have been moved to drier ground and out of view.

Instead we went on a mystery drive home, taking as many country tracks as possible. We saw classic car graveyards, white Rheas, new born alpacas, buzzards, and lots of wonderful views. We had a lunch of the last of the Scotch eggs in a car park near the peak of the Malverns, drove over the top of the Cotswolds on a road that could have been mistaken for a farm track and managed to put in a flying visit to Burford Garden Centre just before sunset. We were already heading toward the Oxford Ring Road when the "earthquake" hit the western side of the Malverns, so I can't tell you how it felt.

As we'd made allowances for a late arrival home, Monday was another day off, and with the weather being dry and sunny (if chilly), where better to spend it than the allotment.

We dug up the courgette plant as the frost had finally taken its toll. That part of the bed could now be dug over with the rest and put to bed for the Winter. Having moved last year's haul from the leaf mould bin to store for the Spring, we were ready for a new batch. We'd managed to gather a few bags of leaves locally, and our bin is now full of fresh leaves. If they rot down as well as last year's haul, we will have some great mulch for the spring after next.

Tuesday was by comparison quiet and uneventful, until around 9 in the evening, when it suddenly started snowing, and much to everyone's surprise, settled overnight. This of course gave the local train company a perfect excuse not to run trains long after the snow had melted.

My usual reaction when it snows is to head out to the allotment and look for animal tracks. Unfortunately, Wednesday morning was when I was due to start a new job, so I had to struggle into town and missed out on this treat. I'm working at hospital, doing clerical admin for at least the next few weeks. Nye Bevan created the National Health Service to provide universal health care free at the point of delivery. It may have its problems, but I'm happy to be able to defend the principles of the NHS from within.

The Wartime Weekend Gardener has one entry which covers the next three weeks - digging the plot. Which is all well and good unless you have to deal with the amount of rain that fell on Saturday. By Sunday afternoon we still had a few patches of standing water on our plot, which is why we're working on making raised beds.

The proper news this week was overshadowed by a minor story exploited by a right wing newspaper and elevated by disgruntled work colleagues. Whatever you think of what was said by Ross & Brand and how cone it was broadcast, take into account how much any tabloid would have relished breaking the story that "Manuel's" grand-daughter is a sex worker, and how they would have claimed the moral high ground in doing so. Notwithstanding the manner in which it may have precipitated the credit panic, BBC news should be ashamed at the way it has exploited this story due to reputed jealousy felt by journalists towards Ross in particular. Does this spell the end for adventurous comedy? Will we be left with Saga TV - The Vicar of Dibley and Antiques Roadshow and little else?

The reality is that free speech has been sacrificed to appease one of the most damaging forces in the media. It may not have been in my lifetime, but keep in mind that the Daily Mail supported Oswald Mosley.

Which kind of neatly brings me on to the great news the Lewis Hamilton has won the World Motor Racing championship. He's had to put up with being made to feel an outsider, not the least by Mosley's grandson, who may have tried to explain and back track on comments, but the first interpretation sticks. Much as we may complain about them, the long anonymous expanses of the A1M and the confusing M25/M1 intersections have given Hertfordshire another sporting hero.

So some bright news to end with. Let's hope Wednesday brings more good news. Bring on Obama and let's put an end to the Evangelical Inquisition and right wing suffocation.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Frugality vs. cheapness

Getting ready to head to the borders tomorrow, to the Herefordshire Food Festival (and possibly the Cowbridge one as well). So I thought I had better make some room in the freezer. Dug out a pack of mince I'd added chopped onion to before freezing, some sweetcorn and green beans and the remains of a butternut squash that had served as a doorstop for a couple of weeks. Added seasoning and spices, including a more generous than usual dash of chilli and set it on a low heat. Once this was cooking away I chucked in a can of own brand baked beans and some tomato puree. Once ready garnish with grated cheese (what else?)

A decent chilli in next to no time and fairly low cost. Could have stretched it with rice, but the point was to use up some stray bits and bobs.

Last week I spotted a chunk of perfectly good Stilton cheese in the reduced aisle. Like Brie, when Stilton is reaching its Use By date in the eyes of the supermarket, it is in fact just coming into its prime. That small block of cheese turned into three good dishes - Stilton & walnut pasta, Stilton and bacon risotto and a Stilton and bacon toasted sarnie on black rye bread. There was enough of the pasta and risotto to do lunch the next day. Five meals from one wedge of cheese. Not bad at all.

The point is, being frugal does not mean always buying the cheapest option. I remember years ago, when I was jobless and living alone, I could do a weekly shop for a tenner. My cupboards were mostly full of lentils, pot barley, pasta, rice and tinned tomatoes, but some things I would never downgrade on, then or now. And of course these days I'm able to grow a good proportion of the fruit and veg ration.

A good quality artisan loaf of bread will taste better, be more satisfying and probably more nutritious than the average commercial loaf. If you've never tried any, have a slice of sourdough bread spread with a little butter. After that, the standard Chorleywood method shop bought loaf with have the taste and texture of a washing up sponge.

And while we're on it - butter is a far better option than margarine. Ignore the saturated fats argument - how much can you really get through in a day? Even without going into the industrial process required, the ingredient list on a tub of margarine should alarm you.

Eggs have to be free range - just use wisely.

If you eat meat, supermarkets are not the best place to shop. All you get is the most profitable cuts, pre-packed and flabby. I'm lucky enough to have a good butcher nearby, and I'm able to get the cheaper cuts over the counter, in whatever size portion I need. They are often able to tell me the farm, and sometimes even the field the animal came from. Many of the cheapest cuts of meat are at their best cooked slowly, with loads of vegetables - ideal for Winter.

Above all, never scrimp on cheese. A small amount of well flavoured top quality cheese will go much further than a cheap slab of non-tasty mild "cheddar".

Damn sight more fun than chicken nuggets and oven chips.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

The cold wind doth blow......

Hopefully no snow for a while though.

But there's definitely a chill in the air. I've even switched the heater on for an hour or so this past week, but I'm determined to hold off on switching on the central heating for a few weeks yet. Dig out my jumpers, switch to the thicker duvet and add more pot barley and lentils to the diet before that happens!

Made the most of two days of dry weather this weekend and knuckled down to some hard work at the allotment. As the days shorten, the work that needs doing seems to get harder and more physical. The time has come for digging and clearing - we're clearing couch grass and preparing the areas that were too sodden to work on last Autumn and Winter. Hopefully we will be able to improve the soil and in particular the drainage to maximise the space available to grow fruit around the edges of the plot. First things first, have to bring the brambles back under control now they've stopped fruiting.

Just as we were packing up to leave yesterday, there was a commotion in the trees and a Mallard duck landed in the nettle patch on the next plot. I went to check she wasn't injured and she looked fine, but she waddled off deeper into the woods. We followed her and "herded" back out to the more open plots. After a rest and a chance to regain her bearings she flew over the fence and onto the brook, which was a relief as with dusk falling the foxes were starting to do their rounds.

Today we turned out last year's leaf mould ready to start gathering this year's in the bin. We managed to decant enough rich crumbly well rotted stuff to fill two compost daleks. Not bad for a year doing nothing to it. We also turned out the regular compost bin, and carefully layered the grass we'd cut down on Saturday with the more fully rotted stuff and some strawy manure so it rotted down nicely through the Winter.

Howard made a bumble bee shelter out of bricks and roof tiles, and stuffed it with wood chippings and dry leaves, as a few bumble bees had started hibernating in our wood chip bin. They were safely transferred to the new shelter, which was then covered in more leaves and branches.

So two days of useful work. With most of the overwintering crops sown and planted, we are on track in case the weather turns. We're also going to be away next weekend, so the extra hours compensate for that.

We're off to the Herefordshire Food Festival next weekend. We went last year and thoroughly enjoyed it, so decided to go this year as well. It's a part of the country we love - there seems to be an extra intensity to the colour green once you cross the county boundary. And how many cities as small as Hereford can boast three well stocked cook shops?

Anyway, the tasks noted in the Wartime Weekend Gardener for this weekend and next are:

Lift and store root crops ahead of the frost. Some roots, parsnip in particular, benefit from some cold, but that's no good if the ground is frozen solid and you can't lift them. As the weather should be mild enough in the South for a few more weeks, lift some and freeze them ready prepped, but be ready to keep some in store once the frosts hit.

Prune fruit trees and bushes. Leaves are starting to fall, but so far nothing is fully bare and dormant on our plot just yet. Once they are, I'll be ready to knock them into shape ready for their new permanent home.

Plant Jerusalem Artichoke tubers. If you haven't grown them before, it may be a good time to think about planting up a new patch. But as I've been growing them for several years, I usually wait until February when I lift the last batch of the year's crop.

Dig and manure bare ground. Well, that's what we started doing this weekend, and will be doing every dry weekend until March.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

You can always rely on the Government to let the people down

It seems that the soundtrack to the past week has been a constant thwack thwack thwack of the shit hitting the fan - with alarming frequency. And the global meltdown has finally impinged on my life. I was due to start a long term temp booking this week, but late on Friday afternoon I was told that due to the financial situation, my prospective employer was going to have to cancel any new temp bookings.

So I'm still on the scrapheap. Never mind, keep plugging away, and in my spare time plan my entry into the black economy. I suspect I won't seen much of the pension money from my last job, so I better find ways of earning money till I drop.

I have to confess, I did purchase a few investments this week. On Tuesday I went to the RHS Autumn Show at their HQ in Westminster, and bought seeds - plenty of them. A few frivolous thins like a yellow Echinacea and some dye plant seeds, but the majority of purchases will go towards feeding us next year.

At least the weather has been good this weekend. We spent a wonderfully productive day over the allotment, and we now have the first of the peas and broad beans sown for next year. We swapped some of my lovely yellow courgettes for a beast of a marrow from our neighbouring plotholder. A few of us picked windfall apples on an abandoned plot. I think there may be a chutney making session in the next couple of days.

We ended up staying until dusk again, and were rewarded by the sight of foxes frolicking in the
long grass, woodpeckers flitting from tree to tree, and as the full moon rose over the woods, a bat looping the loop over the site, just like us making the most of possibly the last good weather until Spring.

Looking in the Wartime Weekend Gardener, tasks for this week include cutting down the dying haulms of Jerusalem Artichokes. Well, mine are still fully green and alive, and some are in flower. I hold off cutting them back until after the first frost, and leave some of the cut down stalks stacked somewhere sheltered so insects can hibernate in them.

Also mentioned is making a last sowing of Winter hardy lettuce. All the varieties mentioned in the book - Hardy Hammersmith, Arctic, Imperial and Stansted Park - are long ago lost. There are however, still a few good traditional cultivars around, mostly originating on the continent. I bought some from the Seeds of Italy stand on Tuesday for this reason. There are a few endives and radiccios that you can try sowing in the next week or so, plus some of the hardier oriental brassicas. They may not put on much growth before Spring, but a few fresh leaf crops surviving under cloches through the Winter will be very welcome.

It may be another Winter of Discontent for many, but for me it's a chance to prepare. A lot of people are starting to realise that the easy times are over. Letting go of your dependence on supermarkets for your food may be difficult for some, but those who started on the path of un-dependence a while are reaping the benefits already (literally!)

Saturday, 4 October 2008

The Start of My Autumn Almanac

As I write, the wind is howling and rushing through the trees. The flock of geese gathering at the lake have given up flying round in larger and larger flocks for the night, and are honking to each other on the island in the middle of the water. The planes that pass over en route to and from the three airports nearby are flying lower because of the cloud and sound like they're barely clearing the roof.

Right now, Summer feels long gone and I doubt I'll see the sun for a few months.

So much for an Indian Summer. The season has changed in a matter of days. At the start of the week the Maple tree I can see from the window was still green. By Thursday it had turned a deep crimson. Several of the other trees nearby have taken on hues ranging from yellow to bronze. Pretty soon I'll be raking up leaves and refilling my leaf mould bin at the allotment.

Apologies for missing last week. On Saturday we went to the Malvern Autumn Show with a couple of friends we've made over the new allotment. We set out early in the thick fog, which meant that many of the most scenic parts of the journey were barely visible. Even the great gap in the chalk hills as we left the Chilterns at Stokenchurch was missed because of the weather. In fact, when we arrived at the show, it was still foggy enough for the backdrop of the ridge of the Malvern Hills to be lost in the murk. Our friends had never visited the area before, so when we emerged from the exhibition and monster vegetable show tent to find the sun had finally burnt through, they were enchanted by the view. We all had a great day, comparing the prize winning veg with those we'd grown or had won at our allotment show, looking at the chicken houses and poultry show, then the old cider making machines and taking notes. I was remarkably sensible. Apart from a couple of Alpine plants to go in a trough, everything I bought from the gardening section of the show was "productive". Ok, I suspect that the Samphire plants may not grow as well as they could in the correct habitat, but we should be able to get a few leaves off them. Somehow or other, we managed to prevent the "boys" from spending the whole day in the classic and vintage vehicle section of the show, and managed to make it to the food hall. As we were getting a lift home, I was careful not to buy any ripe cheese, but stocked up on a few goodies all the same.

We broke our return journey for dinner, having realised that apart from some Water Buffalo milk ice cream and half a pint of artisan single variety cider, all I'd had to eat and drink all day had been samples from the various stalls. In spite of the break in the long journey, we arrived home well before midnight.

The following day, once our legs had recovered from all the walking, we headed over the allotment to start planting our purchases - red onions, garlic, elephant garlic and shallots. We also started preparing the ground for sowing the broad beans and peas we had bought. Those will go in over the next couple of weeks, and the century old varieties of sweet peas will be sown to overwinter in pots in the greenhouse before the month is out too.

Although I missed a week's entry, I didn't miss an entry in the Wartime Weekend Gardener, as it was one of the "spare" weekends. The instructions for the first weekend of October are:

Plant some extra Spring Cabbage seedlings, to allow for the inevitable losses from pigeons etc. over the next few months. We put a fleece cage over our kale seedlings, and something - squirrel I suspect - has been using the top as a trampoline.

Also, sow some Winter Radish. Although still a less popular crop, some varieties, such as Black Spanish, grow large enough to substitute for turnip, but with a little extra kick.

Anyway, wrap up warm, and those who need it - get your flu jab. I suspect that even if it isn't a hard Winter, it's going to be a miserable one.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Life is diamond shaped (possibly)

Well, the Autumn Equinox is nearly here, and the the other traditional herald of the new gardening year happened this week - the first 2009 seed catalogues belly flopped onto the doormat. Strange how the weather has finally become Summery for more than two days in a row now that we're packing hot weather things away. Never mind. Maybe the weather is working a three year rota, and 2009 will be as sunny as 2003 and 2006 - hopefully not quite as hot as 2006 though. There's no point in the weather being too hot to move about in.

As hinted in the title, I've been wondering if the year as circle analogy is entirely right. I seems to me the peak of Summer and trough of Midwinter Solstice time, plus the way work seems to be hinged by the Equinoxes, seem to hint at more of a diamond shape. Nothing to do with jewellery, so don't worry about me. I'd still rather a pebble from a favourite beach than something sparkly and over girly.

Spent part of the day planting bulbs. A decorative pot of tulips and narcissi to brighten the front of the house when most of the herbs are dormant, and LOADS of Saffron crocus. The Saffron I planted last year yielded a few threads, which I carefully saved and used sparingly. When the plants died down I carefully lifted and stored the bulbs. On coming to replant, I realised that those bulbs had multiplied about five fold last Spring, and instead of two sparsely planted troughs, this year I have two large pots and one trough, much more closely planted, plus a seed tray of bulbs ready to transplant to a raised bed at the allotment as soon as it's ready.

Saffron is one of those plants it's easy to obsess over - sparse cropping, but made worthwhile by being expensive to buy and good to look at. At least I can get a decent amount of bulbs to replant - maybe I should keep that in mind when looking for potential cash crops.

Events of the past week have brought the need for a level of independence from the conventional commercial world to the fore again. At least action has been taken on both sides of the Atlantic to prevent total meltdown, even if it meant some of the most guilty escaped reprimand. One other positive thing to take from this is the willingness of the Bush administration to take such a huge chunk of government funds to plug that gap. Does that mean that they have accepted that Obama will will the presidency and have to clear up their mess? The last thing the world needs is any more of the evangelical inquisition. Much has been made of Sarah Palin's unsound views on women's rights, but McCain's views are just as neanderthal and damaging. I could go into more detail, but the prospect is horrifying for the whole world. Just have to think positively.

Plan to spend as much of tomorrow at the allotment. Taken some sausages out of the freezer and splashed out on a couple of tins of baked beans with ring pull tops so we don't have to break our day for lunch. Much of the day will be spent breaking ground for raised beds and levelling a spot under the trees to put the shed up, but tasks suggested by the Wartime Weekend Gardener for this week include:

Tidy the Rhubarb bed, removing any dead leaves and adding a new layer of manure mulch.

Lift any of this year's onions still in the ground. Take advantage of any remaining dry weather to harden the skins outside before storing them. If not, store them on wire racks indoors for a few days.

If you have any spare ground, start thinking about ordering some fruit bushes or trees to plant late Autumn or early Winter. Having lost a couple of apple trees in the move, this is pretty high up my list. I'd suggest looking at the Common Ground website to see if there are any Apple Day events near you in the next few weeks. I know Berrington Hall in Herefordshire are holding their Apple Day event next weekend. We went to that last year and it was excellent - a lovely walled garden packed full of apple trees and a gorgeous setting, looking out towards the Black Mountains.

Yes, I urge one and all to have fruity thoughts, this and every weekend!

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Belonging - a forgotten art?

Among her multitude of acts against this country in the 1980's, one phrase uttered by Margaret Thatcher probably goes to the core of the the way life seems to have changed for the worst:

"There's no such thing as Society"

This gave permission to those who wanted to get ahead at the expense of others, and paved the way for many of the problems we are experiencing today. Houses became little more than a commodity, to be traded for the most profit to the detriment of those who most needed them. Education became a status symbol, as parents decided their precious darlings were too good to mix with the locals and either drove them for miles or removed them from the secular state system entirely. We now have children who can't cross the road on their own, are unwilling or unable to make friends at home, or join gangs in an attempt to feel wanted or part of something.

Another major crime of those years was what MacMillan called "selling the family silver" - the privatisation of the many nationalised industries and utilities. The short term benefits are long gone and we are now reaping the whirlwind - especially with the energy companies. It is difficult to go off grid or use solid fuels such as wood if you live in town, so most of the country, and in particular the poorest sectors, are being held to ransom by energy companies who claim they have to raise prices because of the cost of oil. In reality a) they stockpiled oil before the price rocketed, b) the oil price has gone down substantially and above all c) they don't want to drop the price as it would mean lower profits and less money in dividends for their shareholders.

Over the years, many sections have been targetted for abuse - single parents, asylum seekers, disaffected youth, the unemployed. All have been the scapegoat of a given moment, blamed for any given problem. One section of society that has never been singled out in this way, but truly are Parasites are those who gain money by holding shares in companies they have never worked for. The dividends they earn are taken from money that should either have been used to pay better wages to the workers, or to reduce prices. If the great lie on the early 20th century was (as written by Wilfred Owen) Dulce decorum est pro patria more, then the lie of the past theiry years or so is that the Captains of Industry are the wealth creators, as opposed to the shop or office floor workers, or consumers in general.

It is often, and probably accurately said, that the British don't have the stomach for protest, but we do have the ability to ask awkward questions. Ask you energy provider what proportion of your bill went to shareholders and directors' salaries. Ask them when you will get a refund to take into account the drop in the oil price. If you have a pension fund, ask your provider if it is an ethical fund which excludes shares from former national assets.

Coming from Gordon Brown, suggestions to cut down on energy use are patronising, bordering on Marie Antoinette land. This government, as any other, is beholden to, if not controlled by big industry, and afraid if not actually unable to act i a way that will benefit the majority of voters. However, using less energy will be to the detriment of the energy companies, and where your health allows it, there are many enjoyable ways to stay warm without turning up or maybe even switching on, the heating. Cosy socks, snuggly jumpers, hot drinks, home made casseroles, porridge in the morning, a brisk walk to the next stop rather than waiting for the bus, an early night under the covers. All save money and keep it from the corporations.

I was lucky this weekend to mix with people who in spite of this every man for himself ethos, are happy to do something for other for no return:

Yesterday morning I pottered about, deadheading and tidying my herb bed at the front of the house, and chatted to the man next door. He was adding a few thyme plants to his front garden, and I gave him some pot marigold seeds. He has taken it upon himself to start planting up an untidy grassy patch at the end of the close, by a block of garages, so we were discussing what else could be planted there. It's a patch of ground that could be really lovely, south facing and sheltered in the main, about 5 foot deep and the width of the three houses it backs on to. I have offered a couple of my hollyhocks from the front bed, as they have romped away and smothered my bay bush. Everything planted so far has been cuttings, divisions and spare seedlings, including Acanthus, Rowans and Kerria, so that would fit in. I'm tempted to lift the Bird Cherry saplings at the allotment to plant there and provide colour from blossoms early in the year.

Later in the afternoon, we went to our allotment society's show. We didn't enter anything, but it was a chance for everyone to get together and chat. We were walking to the bus stop and a couple who live in the next street and have a plot near ours offered us a lift, which was really nice. Even the prizegiving was fun. There's one man who's really serious about show vegetables, and wins almost everything he enters. Thanks to him, our society is in line for the best club prize from the town show. Anyway, they read out a list of all his wins at the start, so he collected all his to get them out of the way. There was someone who won almost as many in the fruit and cut flower categories, but for amusement value they called him up for each prize individually. Everyone, whether they had an allotment or nor, whether they had produce entered or not, was made to feel welcome and part of the event.

This is in a suburb of Greater London. Not everyone has surrendered to the every man for himself ethos, and they're not all of an older generation. Our neighbour of the same age, if not younger than us, and the winners of the main allotment prizes (not including the children's competitions) spanned several decades.

After that we went down to the allotment to plant our first batch of Autumn onions. Seemed appropriate - the show signalling the end of one growing season, and the onions the first crop planted for next year. One of the women on the plot came down with a couple of friends after the show and had tea on her plot, with one of the near tame foxes (she treated them for mange last year) hanging round on the offchance of leftover cake.

Our new little allotment pal, the ginger near kitten, popped by when we were filling the watering cans and came to investigate. He was most upset that the dip tanks didn't contain fish Laughing

As we left the site, the moon was rising over the woods, all big and butter yellow. A lovely end to the day.

Was up early today as Sheba has taken to sneaking onto the pillows and I was woken by fishy breath in my face. I can hear wrens and woodpeckers and have just watched a squadron of geese circle and land on the lake. We'll be heading over the allotment later (hope to catch Countryfile first as they may be footage of the Rare Breeds Show we went to a couple of weeks ago) and hopefully it will be as productive as our last visit.

The Wartime Weekend Gardener also reflects that the year is turning. The only task given for this week is to thin the winter roots, such as turnips and swedes, plus a quick run over with the hoe to keep on top of any weed seedlings are they emerge. It may have been a bad year for many crops, but the weeds always thrive!

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Wild Things

Dotted around the housing estate where we live are hedgerow plants. Those of us in the know make use of that. Directly opposite the house is a little thicket that includes a Cherry Plum tree. Earlier this "Summer" I picked a couple of ripe fruits from it. Very nice - sweet and juicy. On the path that leads down to the brook and the lake there is a blackthorn (sloe) bush. It seems that this year has been a bed one for Sloe berries, and the shrub on the path only has a couple of berries on it. Barely enough for a miniature sized bottle of sloe gin. Still, better than nothing.

The garden maintenance guys have done for the brambles in the visible parts of the estate, but thankfully we have an unmanicured area near the house and I've gathered a few snack sized portions in the past couple of weeks. I've also spotted some good clumps of elderberries destined for the preserving pan.

But my favourite wild fruit is only just starting to ripen - the rose hip. There are only a couple of Dog Roses nearby, but much of the estate is hedged with the more luscious Rosa rugosa. If I can bag enough before the maintenance men hack things down for the winter, I hope to make a few jars of Rose Hip jelly.

The estate roads are also lined with hazel bushes. But the squirrels always beat us to the nuts. Earlier today, however, I was able to take advantage of the hazel. Someone was cutting back the shrubbery near their house, and I spoke to them and bagged some decent hazel poles for the allotment. There were some smaller branches too, some destined to be pea sticks, other to make a rustic trellis.

Hope no-one has been hit by the floods. Some of the roads in Enfield have been hit by flash floods this past week, but so far we've bee unaffected. My little rainfall gauge in the garden has recorded well over 2 inches of rain in the past week. I'm starting to worry that the weather will turn the soil at the allotment against us and we'll struggle to complete the raised beds in time for next spring.

Providing you're not under water, The Wartime Weekend Gardener this week instructs you to:

Thin tomato trusses to give the fruits the best chance of ripening. I seriously doubt any of mine will ripen now. I forsee a green tomato chutney making session of the horizon.

Oh well, I bought some tulip bulbs and the first batch of over wintering onion sets today. I can get started on planting for next year's harvest.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west........

....and at around 7pm on Saturday it was a mixture of exhilaration and vertigo.

I was standing on the top of Painswick beacon, an Iron Age hill fort just south of Gloucester. The expected orientation diagram at the peak was missing (presumably stolen for scrap metal value), so I couldn't say for certain how many counties were visible, but to the north I could see the hills far beyond Gloucester and Cheltenham, definitely to the the Malverns in Worcestershire and Herefordshire, and to the west I could see far beyond the Severn estuary into Wales - to Gwent and Monmouth. I've visited hill forts before, but this one was at the very peak of a very steep hill, with deep valleys all around, and looking down towards the Severn, I was struck by the fact that it felt like I was looking down on the Black Mountains and the distant Brecon Beacons. The idea was dizzying.

All around in the fields below machines were out cutting and bringing in the wheat and barley. In fact, even as night fell and we drove home through the Cotswolds and the Chilterns, little beams of light were dotted around the fields, as the combines worked to get as much of the harvest safely in before the storms broke.

At least we managed to squeeze in another reasonably sunny day in August. Today were we held back from working at the allotment by the rain, which at times afforded a description beyond torrential. In fact, some of the roads at the top of the hill in Enfield were flooded and practically impassable. I saw drains overflowing and gushing towards houses. Granted - far worse in happening in the Carribbean and heading for New Orleans, and I've been caught up in a flood in the Wye Valley before, but we're talking about 200 feet above sea level on the edge of London - it seemed unreal.

Anyway, September is here, and the Wartime Weekend Gardener sets out the following tasks for this week:

Start lifting maincrop potatoes. We'll be starting this next week with some trepidation after the blight hit the foliage. I have no way of knowing if the disease reached the tubers until I see them. Doesn't help my mood that some of the tomato plants in the back garden have now been lost to blight. The high humidity of the past week did for them.

Also sow aomw onions to overwinter, I'll probably leave this, and wait for onion, garlic and shallot sets to hit the shops at the end of the month, which will signal the start of another year of growing.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Oops! Missed a week

It wasn't until the middle of this week that I realised I hadn't posted a blog last weekend. A few things conspired to reduce my internet access.

I WASN'T watching the Olympics. Well, not all the time. Blight appeared at the allotment so we had to cut down all the potato foliage, lay sheets of newspaper over the surface and then cover with an extra layer of mulch (in a feeble attempt to reduce the likelihood of blight spores washing down to the actual spuds).

And the cat took to sleeping on the desk. Specifically on the mouse mat (and mouse).

Hopefully the Bank Holiday will allow me enough time to get back on track before the real world gets in the way again.

Anyway, things the book says you should have done last week:

Lift Second Early potatoes. For reasons mentioned this has to wait a couple of weeks. If there are enough unblemished tubers, I may try entering some at the allotment association show.

Sow some more lettuces (and salad leaves) for late Summer.

Feed tomato plants (seaweed mixture is probably the best for this)

And this week:

Pinch out any new growth on Runner Bean plants so they can concentrate on setting pods.

Sow turnips for late Winter and early Spring use.

Sow Spring Cabbages

Now that instructions are turning to preparation for next year's crops, you know the year is on the turn. The schools will be back the week after next, and then it will be the Equinox and time to look for onion sets and the whole cycle starts again.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Remind me what date it is.......

Here we are, the height of the British Summer. Chucking it down again - the view out of my window is slightly different. The church spire and chimney of the hospital incinerator that usually dominate the horizon are hidden by the murk. The trees in the woods the other side of the lake are starting to become less distinct, melding into a deep grey green mist.

As often happens, the middle of the first week of August was punctuated by thunderstorms. But being slap bang in the middle of approach routes for Heathrow, Stansted and Luton airports, round here you have to stop and listen carefully to differentiate rumbles of thunder from another bloody plane.

Much as I would like to blame the unseasonal weather on a disruption of precipitation patterns caused by the fires of war, or industrial pollution, I fear that a theory I've touched on previously is to blame. Whenever there is an astronomical phenomena visible in the UK, the weather is guaranteed to be lousy. The Perseid meteor showers should be peaking right now, and I bet that behind that blanket of soggy grey cloud, they're putting on a show that looks like a cross between the opening sequence of Day of the Triffids and the firework display at yesterday's opening ceremony at the Olympics.

Not that I sat down to watch the whole spectacle - caught the tale end once I'd had my Murder She Wrote induced afternoon nap. I predicted how the flame would be lit - so much for the big secret. When I saw the highlights, I found it overwhelming. We have to accept that most of the work has been done by effective slave labour, so a vast swathe of the expense of anyone else trying to equal or outdo the event can be disregarded. Maybe London should accept this and downgrade - have the teams preceded into th arena by Chad & Dave on a Reliant Robin pickup. (Not having Damon Albarn or Keith Allen and his decendents involved would go some way to proving the existence of at least one god).

Of course, the Ancient Greek games also called for the cessation of all wars for the duration. Are you listening Mr Putin? (Or your puppet Medvedev for that matter).

In spite of the erratic weather, we had a great time last weekend. On Sunday we travelled up to the Norfolk coast, to the Norfolk Smallholders Show, held in the grounds of Sheringham Hall. We were fortunate to miss the worst of the storms in the morning, and the weather was dry for the duration of the show. It was a small, communal rather than commercial event. All the exhibitors were local, and most were smallholders. We sampled great ice creams, jams, chutneys and cakes, buying some to take home or picnic on. There was a fun dog show, including three generations of one of my favourite breeds of dog - the Spinone. At the stall where we sampled and purchased some fine chutneys, we also bought some more fruit bushes. These included a blackcurrant bush that was so laden with fruit that I picked enough to fill one of my plastic lunch tubs when we got it home.

After the show, we drove to the beach just west of the town of Sheringham. But within minutes of arriving, the wind changed direction and the storm clouds ripped open and chucked down on us. So rather than the planned beach walk, we sat in the van, drinking hot chocolate and eating (fantastic) pork pies and chips. Eventually the rain eased enough for us to continue our journey, so we drove on as far as Wells next the Sea, stopping along the way at a seafood stall to buy some Cromer crab, before heading inland and returning to London.

The following day we set off to the Cotswolds, to the Wildlife Park near Burford. They have just
opened a new enclosure - "Walking with Lemurs". This is a large netted and gated area which you walk along a path, and lemurs - not just Ruffed and Ring Tailed, but Black, Bamboo and Gentle lemurs and even Sifakas - roam at will around you. Food and drink is strictly forbidden. On the day we visited, the lemurs had managed to steal a child's ice cream, and I saw one make a grab for a carrier bag in which a packet of crisps were visible. I also saw little hands trying to dip into bags and pockets. The Ring Tails were fairly shy, though that may be because they had month old young, and the pack were staying close. The most sociable and inquisitive were the Black lemurs, who held court on the hand rails along the path, welcoming attention from all but the most boisterous children. It was a delightful experience, and once you've come close to these gentle and confident creatures, you'll realise how vital it is to save them and their habitat.

After our visit to the wildlife park, we paid a flying visit to the Burford Garden centre. A lovely place, granted very posh as befits the area, and chock full of what Edina in Ab Fab used refer to as "gorgeous" things (Emma Bridgewater china etc.). But it's also full of great plants and functional and useful things as well. I exercised self control I thought was beyond me and didn't buy any plants. I did stock up on Nutscene garden twine in several colours, and tree ties to use in the Forest Garden part of the allotment when we finish planting it this Autumn.

After a fortifying snack in a tea room in the village, we headed home, taking the back roads towards Blenheim. We stopped to admire the allotments in the village of Charlbury, and watch the sun set as we drove long the escarpment before hitting the A roads, dual carriageways and even more reluctantly the M25 before getting home.

Our arrival home was brightened by the sighting of a hedgehog making its was towards the hedgerow in the next street. A couple of days later I saw one in front of our house, probably checking the herb bed for slugs and caterpillars. Hopefully some of this year's young will claim our back garden (made more hedgehog safe) as their territory next Spring.

One downside of the wet and humid weather has been the first sign of blight. So far most of our plants seem fine, and with the drop in temperature today I still stand a chance of harvesting a few tomatoes this year in spite of everything (IF they set fruit that it).

I'm sure if I sat through enough of the documentaries on UKTV history I'd be able to compare the weather this year with the summers of the early 1940's. Whatever, the tasks outlined for this week in the Wartime Weekend Gardener are:

Once the tomato plants have formed enough trusses of fruit, pinch out the top of the plants to stop further grown and concentrate on fruit development. With the lousy weather this year, mine are still at the flower stage. All I can do is hope for warm and dry weather through to October to get anything decent.

Check on the onions as they will be almost ready to harvest. The book suggests bending over the onion foliage to encourage bulb ripening. These days there is a school of thought that discourages bending over foliage, as it may shorten storage length.

Whatever, the growing season only has a few weeks to run. One of my local garden centre has just taken delivery of this year's Christmas stock.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Simple weather forecasting - slight return

Anyone get to see the Lunar and Solar eclipses this past week? Or was it too cloudy to see anything?

Didn't see any of the Lunar eclipse, and I don't know if the reason it got so dark yesterday morning was the 12% blockage of the sun, or just the clouds getting thicker. It has become almost a cast iron certainty that any astronomical event in Britain will coincide with cloudy skies. And with the Perseids meteor showers due shortly, expect a few murky nights.

Hoping the weather does improve slightly from this morning's murk, as we're heading off to the north Norfolk coast. It's a place I've been wanting to go for years as I like my sea shores wild. Hopefully I'll be able to get a couple of Cromer crabs for a picnic as well.

I spent my birthday in Norfolk forty years ago - at Great Yarmouth. I went to the races with my grandfather. He gave me my own race card and told me to pick a horse in each race. I came out with a profit for the day, so as a pair we more or less broke even.

Much like children are brought down to earth by the "Back to School" promotions in shops as soon as the holidays start, gardeners heartened by the start of the Summer harvests are reminded how short time is by the seed companies' Autumn catalogues arriving. But at least it gives you a chance to start planning for next year. There's still time to sow plenty for this year, and it's coming close to time to sow the pleasant sounding but ultimately dull workhorse of the "Hungry Gap" - Spring Cabbage. Throw caution to the wind and sow another row of Cavalo Nero instead.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Suddenly it’s Summer It's days like these when my Welsh genes remind me I'm in the wrong place. Sitting here in the sticky early evening heat, you can feel the air throb. The blue skies that accompanied the dry heat of the afternoon have given way to a total covering of sickly grey cloud. I have to stop and listen to every distant rumble to check if it's a plane or thunder. At least the Swifts are still flying fairly high. feasting on flying ants and hopefully cutting a decent swathe through the mosquito population. Every now and then, the thickness of the air is cut through by the high pitched squawks of the local squadron of Ring Necked Parakeets. Earlier this week, the air was so still at night that I could hear the horses whinnying in the fields on the other side of the valley.

I keep promising to sit out at dusk and look for bats. I haven't seen one since the unseasonal hot spell we had in April. I fear that the erratic weather we've had since may have done for much of the local population. But I must do this soon, maybe even brave a full on assault by mossies and midges and organise a two person bat walk by the lake at dusk. If the weather holds, Tuesday may be a good day to try, with a lunar eclipse from 9pm onwards. But astronomical phenomena are a pretty good way of guaranteeing cloudy skies. so just leaving it to chance may be a better option.

The recent hot weather has brought my rather sluggish tomato plants almost up to speed. They are starting to flower at last, so there my yet be some home made tomato sauce and chutney to go on the shelves of the larder we made last weekend. There have been rumblings of more action by disgruntled hauliers over the Winter, when fuel prices are expected to climb again. In case of temporary breakdowns in the food supply chain, we decided to convert the downstairs coat cupboard into a long term food storage area - a small larder where we can keep tins, dry goods and my home made preserves.

I am old enough to remember the bread strikes in the early 1970's, and my mum baking a loaf every other day. I remember the warm yeasty smell as she left it to rise by the fire when I got home from school. I don't know if I have the patience to make yeast based loaves that often, but if the need arises (sorry - I've just realised what a bad pun that is) Howard or myself could make a loaf of soda bread within an hour. I guess we could go down the breadmaker route, but to me that feels like one electric gadget too far.

In spite of the financial constraints, having an allotment makes the idea of a three day week not such a bad idea. Whether the amount of food you could harvest instead of buying at the supermarket would be enough to make up for the shortfall in wages is questionable, but you'd have the time to at least try.

The notes for the last weekend of July pertain equally to the first weekend of August in the Wartime Weekend Gardener -

Sow more Spring Onions

Thin carrots. Some of the thinnings should by now be large enough to be cooked as "baby" vegetables and served with butter and black pepper. Another reason why it's better to buy butter than margarine

Thin parsnips. Same as for carrots. My mum sometimes used to fry leftover boiled parsnip in butter, then top with demerara sugar. Mashed and formed into curved sausages, these were the wartime delicacy "Mock Bananas"

Now for a bit of fun - keep and eye on turnips, rocket and swedes for flea beetle damage. In the WWG, various banned chemicals and methods, such as chimney soot, are mentioned. But a modern method of control is to wrap your hand in sticky tape, glue side outwards. Gently brush your hand over the plants, and the beetles will jump up and get stuck on the tape. Hours of fun for gardeners of any age.

Oh yeah - it's my birthday this Sunday. I guess if my mum had pushed a bit harder I could have shared my birthday with Mick Jagger instead of the likes of Jo Durie, Christopher Dean and Mystic Meg. Someone else is the footballer Kevin Friday, the subject matter of the song "The Man Don't Give A Fuck". He was born exactly ten years before me, and laid to rest in the same place as all my grandparents and several other relatives. But I also share the day with Kim Fowley, and somehow an eccentric, borderline psychotic musical maverick is more "me" than a middle class social climber.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

However hard you try, the corporate world still stuffs you

It's happened again.

We switched electricity supplier because the previous lot were reluctant to send us a bill as our use was lower than the previous occupants. The new suppliers have sent us an estimate and refuse to accept the actual reading as it "does not match projected use". Great. You act responsibly, reducing power usage, putting in low energy bulbs, nothing on standby, lights off when leaving rooms, and they accuse you of clocking the meter. If I thought we'd get a refund plus interest I'd stump up for the current bill, but I so doubt that will happen I'm going to stand my ground and only pay for the power we've used. Pretty certain there's enough of a difference between the estimated bill and the actual amount to buy a little wind turbine.

It's at times like these that heading for the hills (preferably the Brecons or the Black Mountains) and living somewhere off grid moves from fantasy to logical option.

However hard you try to free yourself from the stranglehold of the corporate world, it finds a way to bite back. The past couple of weeks has seen a story emerge that proves that yet again. Hundreds of gardeners grow their own vegetables have found that their crops, most notably potatoes and tomatoes, have become distorted and died. It turns out that an agricultural herbicide, Aminopyralid, is responsible. The weedkiller is used to kill specific broad-leaved plants in pasture without killing the grass. Livestock then feeds on the grass, either in the field, or as hay or silage. However, the chemical passes through the animals' digestive systems intact and continues to be in its active form in their manure for 18 months or more. This is not a problem if it is used on pasture, but if used on broad leaved crops (and most vegetables, barring sweetcorn and the onion family, are) the weedkiller is still active.

There has been much discussion as to whether it is safe to eat contaminated crops, but as the manufacturer states in the small (ish) print that it should not enter the food chain, intuition says no. But the main issue is that people who have taken the responsible move to grow at least some of their own food are suffering, losing crops and having ground put out of use for at least another growing season, plus all the related costs. It has now emerged that commercial potato growers are suffering too. Maybe that will be enough to prompt an end to the use of this product (or at least a moratorium).

There is now an online petition, calling for an end to the use of this weed killer:

Sign it, whether you grow your own food or are just worried about the price of chips.

Anyway, this week in the Wartime Weekend Gardener, only one task is pinpointed, and it happens to be one of the few non broad leaved crops - harvest Shallots. I love shallots, especially the ultra strong elongated type - especially Jermor. They're great used as you would onions but their finest use is roasted whole until sweet and sticky. Shallots are valuable also because you can save part of the crop to use as sets and replant either in Autumn or Spring.

One less thing to have to buy - always useful.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

St Swithin and all that....

Woke up this morning to discover yet another mosquito bite. Quickly rubbed in a drop of Tea Tree oil and hopefully that should keep it under control. Like bruises, it's the insect bites you don't realise you've got that cause the worst problems. Still, I'd rather a few mozzie bites - I can cope with that. I wake up much more comfortable after a night with a window open to allow at least some airflow.

This year doesn't seem quite as bad as last year for mosquitos. We're coming up to the anniversary of the floods of last year and so far, even taking into account some extreme weather in the past week, things seem better than last year so far. However, as with last year, the first flash floods happened in South Wales this past week. But being in Wales, and a working class area, the media gave only cursory coverage.

Even if the weather patterns of the past 18 months or so are a blip, more needs to be done to stop floods. The government have delicately tiptoed in with a small measure - as from September, anyone wanting to hard landscape their front garden will need to get planning permission and ensure that the surface they lay down so they can park their three cars in place of lawn and flowers will have to be porous enough to allow water to drain through. This is nowhere near enough. Contractors have been given far too much of a warning, and as many paving firms are not entirely above board, they're scaring people into getting shoddy work done ahead of time.

First of all, the move should have been immediate, and the planning permission should have been retrospective - say covering work done in the past 15 years. In some suburban streets, the prevalence of the car park front garden is such that it is no longer safe to be a pedestrian, for fear of being run down by some wannabe desparate housewive type, driving their 4x4 over the pavement at an angle over the pavement whilst talking on the phone.

Aside of the flooding risk by forcing all water run-off into drains and causing drought by preventing rain from reaching the water table, there's the security issue of making fronts of houses immediately accessible from the street. Very useful that, as many fly by night paving firms supplement their income with burglary. They often send someone round to other nearby houses seemingly to drum up business, but really to seem who's in and when, and if they have anything worth taking. As well as looking better than a flash car and tumbleweeds of crisp packets, a proper garden served the purpose by slowing entry - thorny hedges and rose bushes are functional as well as decorative.

Then there's the fact that hard standing affects the ambient temperature of the street colder in Winter and substantially hotter in Summer. Street trees are often deemed to be "in the way" of paved gardens, so they have to go, removing welcome shade, wildlife habitat and character in one fell swoop.

So from September, if you have the slightest inkling that yet another garden is in danger, tell your local council that you don't want to live in a desert where it's unsafe to walk the streets. Demand they review areas paved before September. And plant a tree. If you have nowhere to plant a tree, buy one for someone who has the space. Preferably a fruiting tree, and best of all, a native variety.

Rant over. For now.

Hopefully there will be enough of a break in the showers to get plenty of work done at the allotment. All our good intentions of getting to the plot during the week were lost due to heavy rain and work demands. But instead we got started on another "future-proofing" project at home. More of that another time.

Tasks set out for this week in The Wartime Weekend Gardener include:

Lift some more First Early potatoes. We're about a third of the way through ours, and have eaten most of them just boiled with butter and mint. A few left from the night before have been turned into potato salad, and some have been sliced and baked in layers of goats cheese and smoked salmon, a luxurious adaptation of the Swedish dish Janssen's Temptation (usually made with anchovies). In a month or so it will be time for Second Earlies, and the first home grown jacket potatoes and mash. Bliss.

Check over the herb bed and give it a nitrogen rich feed to encourage leafy growth. A compost tea made with nettles would be ideal for this. We've started harvesting from the herb bed at the front of the house. The nasturtiums are starting to flower and the local kids who have taken an interest were amazed when they found out that the leaves and flowers were edible.

Gently tie up Cos type lettuces to ensure they"heart" properly. Not a task that's as necessary these days. The most commonly grown variety, Little Gem, is small and compact. But if you do try this, check for slugs first.

Finally, sow some swede to crop this coming Winter. Great, as we still wait for a proper Summer, another reminder that Winter is just around the corner.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

A Lovely Summer’s Day

In between the rain showers and near gale force winds, it's finally starting to feel like Summer.

We spent today at the Smallholders Show at Ardingly, Sussex. No rain by the time we arrived, it was dry and sunny, if a little breezy. Only a couple of goats due to BT restrictions, but there were plenty of other attractions. Best of all was the Working Horses Trust, which promotes the keeping of Heavy Horse breeds, and encourages owners to use them for the purposes they were bred for. They had three working pairs at the show - Ardennes who were pulling a carriage giving rides round the show, Suffolks who took part in an arena display, along with a pair of Comtois horses - never seen them before - stunning animals. Bought a few essentials, like a sharpening stone and cheeses, and found on wonderful old book on horse racing, with photos of some of the great horses of the late 1800's.

At the end of the show, we sat in the van and ate the picnic we'd packed. As we sat quietly, we heard the thunder of hooves, and looked out to see the girls from WHT riding the Suffolks and Comtois round the perimeter of the showground. Magnificent horses, and at the gallop, manes and tails flying in the wind, amazing

We had orignally intended to drive down to Ashdown Forest and hang around until dusk in the hope of hearing or seeing Nightjars, but changed our mind. Instead we took the back roads from Ardingly to Box Hill, before reluctantly joining the M25 for home. We found some amazing places in that drive - Ardingly reservoir is hidden away among the Beech woods, and at the western end there are cottages round the shoreline - more like something you'd expect to see on the continent than at the far reaches of the commuter belt. Brockham is a village that sits below Box Hill, with chocolate box cottages around a vast village green. All that it lacks to make it the perfect English village is John Nettles and a series of eccentric murders. Take away the modern cars and the scene could have been from any time since the 1920's - right down to vegetable plots in the front gardens. There's something about the sight of runner bean wigwams and cabbages rubbing shoulders with Hollyhocks by the front door that to me indicate someone free of the stresses of modern life.

Which is this week's convoluted method of bring me to the instructions in the Wartime Weekend Gardener for the second week of July - sow more turnips and carrots. I guess that by now the general maintenance - weeding, watering and starting to harvest - are taking up plenty of time.

But with the erratic weather we've had until now, there's still a little time to catch up and sow some thing, notably beans. Hopefully, now that Wimbledon, Glastonbury and all the other events that invite the rain are over, we should have fair weather from now until at least mid-September.

Real gardeners don't have Summer holidays - there's just too much to do.

Friday, 27 June 2008

About a photo......

It's a picture of my grandfather, nicknamed Yanto, defending his garden against anything shorter than himself (which wasn't much). Not sure of the exact date of the photo, but it was taken in the late 1940's, shortly after he was demobbed from the army. It would have been his 99th birthday this coming Tuesday.

He grew up on a farm in the Welsh valleys, and often told stories of his times there - tickling for trout in the streams, rabbitting, and his favourite horse, Nansi. In the 1920's, the landowners reclaimed the land to extend a mine, so the family was forced to move to London.

I seem to have inherited a personality from my maternal grandparents to the exclusion of anyone else - feistiness and a sense of mischief from my Nan, and a love of nature, farming and gardening and horseracing (and a tendency to bet horses each way at small amounts), plus an ability to daydream from Yanto.

When my Nan cleared the house before moving out, my brother asked if there was anything I wanted to remember Yanto by. This photo immediately came to mind.

It's ironic that the person who got me interested in vegetable growing was on active service throughout the 1939-45 war, and as such didn't take part in the Dig for Victory campaign. Much as he was proud to take part, losing his leg hair in pursuit of Rommel across the Sahara and timing his arrival in East Africa to avoid transfer to Malaysia before it fell to Japan, I think he was jealous of those who stayed behind and dug up lawns, parks and golf courses to grow fruit and vegetables to feed the nation. (He never did give a proper explanation for how his part in the Monte Casino campaign resulted in him having a roll of dentist's instruments and a load of peacock feathers.)

Which brings me as neatly as could be expected to this week's extract from the Wartime Weekend Gardener:

Plant a few more cabbages and cauliflower. This is where old open pollinated varieties come to the fore. So many of the modern hybrids have such a set growing period that even a staggered sowing will end up with them all cropping at the same time (as preferred by commercial growers).

Keep earthing up maincrop potatoes. Also, start being on the lookout for signs of blight. Althoug it's a branch of an agricultural chemical company, I find Blightwatch a useful tool. I've signed up, and get emails and even text alerts if blight conditions occur.

So more salad leaves, lettuces and radishes.

Onion sets planted in the Autumn should be starting to mature now. Keep hoeing and as they reach a harvestable size, reduce watering.

Right that's it for another week. I'm off to shout at the BBC's coverage of Glastonbury, and throw old tea bags at the screen every time The Ting Tings are on.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

All Downhill From Now

Although June doesn't end for another week or so, the Summer Solstice marks the real mid point of the year. It's hard to couple the idea of the start of Summer with the shortening of daylight, but at least we have three months or more of warm (ish) and hopefully sunny days to look forward to.

Must confess - I didn't really see in the solstice. I woke around half past four, (a) felt sickly and (b) noticed it was raining. So I acknowledged the solstice from the comfort of my bed and went back to sleep.

This week has seen the first meaningful harvests of the year. We've been cutting salad leaves from the troughs in the back garden, and I started picking herbs within days of the bed being finished. But this past week has seen us lift the first new potatoes, pick and shell peas, and best of all, pick the first raspberries of the year! Most of these were yellow Fall Gold raspberries, which you may gather from the name are really an Autumn fruiting variety. But I didn't cut them back when they should have been as they were on the old allotment and I wanted to be able to find them when I was able to lift them. So they were lifted, old shoots and new, plonked in a container in the back garden and left to get on with things until the space at the new allotment was ready. As a consequence, during the week we each had a small bowl of chocolate ice cream, garnished with a handful of golden raspberries. The summer raspberries, Glen Ample, are now starting to ripen (according to the books, about a month early), but at the moment just one or two at a time, so more of a treat than a meal as yet.

I've noticed my wild and alpine strawberries are starting to ripen. Hopefully there will be some sunny mornings soon to make the most of that treat.

I've spent a few idle afternoons this week watching coverage of Royal Ascot. I'm not as convinced as some observers that it was a vintage renewal of all the races, but it was great to see Yeats win the Gold Cup for the third time. Whilst he could never take the place in our hearts that Persian Punch holds, it was an admirable feat, and great to feel part of history just by watching it. It's a shame to think that, by the mere fact that he has won races at a distance further than a mile and a quarter, it is highly unlikely that any of Yeats' sons will have the opportunity to pass on his genes to a third generation. Maybe if he (and Scorpion, another wonderful horse who had been categorised as a National Hunt stallion because he won the Leger) was thought of as a Sports Horse sire, a few of his sons would be retained for stud duties. My rant about the narrowing of the UK and Irish thoroughbred gene pool and making stamina a dirty word can continue another time.

This weekend, if it stops raining, the Wartime Weekend Gardener suggests that crops are given a generous mulch. This may come as a surprise to those who think mulching is a new fangled obsession. It is in fact just another long established method that was thrown out of the window in the chemical and science obsessed post war years.

It is also suggested that a final batch of broad beans are sown. I like broad beans, but for me they're a crop of early Summer, with some saved for the freezer. I'd leave that and concentrate on sowing French and Runner beans for late Summer cropping.

Finally, plant out celery. The ideal place to plant celery is in deeply cultivated soil which has had manure earlier in the year. Therefore, they are the perfect crop to follow on in soil where new potatoes have just been lifted.

There's logic to this vegetable gardening lark.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Ups and downs of nature

This has been a good week and a sad week.

The discovery that our little hedgehog visitor had died has overshadowed the week. It's hard to really explain the delight that was felt by a little wild creature trundling up to our doorstep almost every night, loudly expressing his pleasure at the tasty treats we left out for him. Hopefully another will come along to fill the gap, though I think it's a little late for that to happen this year. In the mean time, Howard will be cutting away the bottom of the chain link fence to avoid any repeat of that tragedy.

The garden has its fair share of frogs, lurking in damp shady patches. Hopefully they will be able to keep the slug population under control - my seedlings have really suffered since Russell's demise.

I had planned to put a pond in the garden at some point, and this week found the perfect design - a small round plant tub, which fitted the spot perfectly and was deep enough for frogs to hide under the plants. We sunk it into the ground, and have surrounded it with marginal and shade tolerant plants. So now there are plants in place from just after the back door to the honeysuckle bush where Russell is buried.

We also finally completed the planting of the herb bed in the front garden. Well almost complete. Today I found a Bronze Fennel and a Sage plant that I need to find space for out there. Well at the least it looks much better than a scrappy patch of grass full of plantain and thistle, which is how we found it. And obviously it's supremely functional. I can look out of the kitchen window and decide what herbs I need to add to my cooking, then just step out the door and pick them.

The pavement and path sides have been planted with aromatic herbs. Not just lavender, but also Southernwood and Balm of Gilead. Dotted between plants for some instant colour are Pot marigolds and Nasturtiums. To add to the "cottage garden" feel, I've planted a few Hollyhocks near the back wall.

Today we visited Audley End Kitchen Garden, a place we always find inspirational. We visited it for the first time in the Summer of 2001, shortly after taking on the first allotment. It made me think carefully about the crops and fruit I grew, and I resolved to try to grow as many heirloom and heritage varieties as possible. Shortly after that first visit I joined the HDRA, now known as Garden Organic, and we try to visit Audley End 2 or 3 times through the season.

Anyway, talk of traditional gardening style prompts me to look at what taksk The Wartime Weekend Gardener recommends for this week:

Start lifting First Early Potatoes. In spite of the erratic weather we've had this Spring, there seems to have been the right combination of rain and sun for the early potatoes to start coming into flower. I know I plan to lift a batch for tomorrow's dinner.

Sow another batch of Runner Beans. As the rain at the end of May brought out enough slugs and snails to lay waste to the first generation of beans, this is a very good idea.

Get busy with the hoe to keep the weeds down. Weeds - the plants that seem to be growing happily without undue attention for the slugs. It's a dull job, but it needs to be done for there to be anything to harvest!

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Trying to take control

This past week has mainly revolved around trying to deal with what nature has thrown at me. Or more accurately, crawled up on me.

Having a resident hedgehog (and a small population of frogs) in the garden seems to keep the slug and snail numbers down. But the Bank Holiday rain brought them out in numbers beyond even Russell Grunt's capabilities.

My cut & come again lettuces have been pre-chomped, and half of my Amish Paste tomato seedlings have been decapitated. I could hardly pluck up the courage to examine the damage to my Sweet Wrinkled Old Man (chilli pepper). Fortunately, the few seedlings to germinate were fine, but all my cucumber seedlings were chomped. At least the crops that have suffered the most damage are ones that I still have time to re-sow.

And now things have dried out, another plague. This time ants getting into the kitchen via a ventilation grill above the window, marching two by two down the frame, then peeling off in different directions. I have visions of a minature version of the elephant march in Disney's Jungle Book, morphing into Fantasia's Pink Elephants. I've been taking them out with a washing up sponge or a spray made from white vinegar and bicarb. The window sill is littered with ant bodies, and there are dozens floating in the washing up bowl.

This morning I realised they had started to nest in the Crassula plant on the kitchen windowsill, so we had to move that outside, soak the pot in a bucket so the plant can be cleaned up and repotted.

I'm dreading Flying Ant day. The main nest is somewhere near the house in the front garden by the front door, and I have visions of giant ants headbutting the windows to get to me to take revenge for massacring their babies.

Also found a Rosemary Beetle on by plant in the front garden. They're a recent arrival in the UK, but the Rosemary Beetle is a long established and destructive pest on the continent. Shame they're so unwelcome as they're very pretty - metallic purple and bronze stripes.

This afternoon, whilst reading the wildlife spotting guide, I read something that female hedgehogs attract mates by moving through the undergrowth, making loud snorting and grunting sounds and that the young are born in June. The early weeks of Russell's visits to our garden were notable for how noisy the little blighter was, and we were amazed at the rate of growth over the past couple of months. We haven't seen him for a few days, and the food hasn't been taken every night lately. So I'm now wondering if our visitor is a female and is at present tucked up somewhere with a litter of baby hedgehogs. So I will probably have to boost my feeding efforts, maybe even holding a few slugs & snails "captive" for a night time forage.

It's easy to think up names for a male hedgehog - any ideas for Mrs R?

Much of the remaining weekend will be taken up by me sowing another batch of the crops that suffered the most slug damage.

The majority of tasks set out by the Wartime Weekend Gardener are planting out crops, such as tomatoes (include in that peppers & aubergines), savoy cabbages, kale and broccoli. Also recommended
is sowing another batch of French Beans. It's a good idea to plant a variety that can be used dried as well as fresh. Good varieties to try are Canadian Wonder, a dwarf variety which has red kidney type beans, a cannellini bean and a borlotto.

Goes without saying to put out some slug traps. But I now have a dilemma. Should I use beer in the slug traps if I'm possibly feeding a nursing mum?

Friday, 30 May 2008

Drinking the sound of nature

This is the earliest I've posted my weekly blog. I've been awake for about two hours. Woke up due to hayfever again - felt like there were tiny hob nailed boots tap dancing in my sinuses again. Dragged myself out of bed to take my tablet, and sat by the window for a while.

When I was at school, I used to work with my dad at weekends, helping out on his milk round. This meant a very early start - before dawn, around 4 am. In my now distant clubbing days, I often found myself arriving home at a similar time.

There's something magical, almost forbidden, about being awake at this time. It's like you've stumbled upon a secret. The more solitary the experience, the better. And if it's rural, or sylvan, even more so.

Anyway, I sat by the window, waiting for the meds to kick in and provide some ease. I noticed a moth, and opened the window to encourage it out. I did so as the dawn chorus started. At first, a solitary blackbird sang from deep in the woods. A crow called from the more distant fields. Pretty soon, other blackbirds joined in, then robins, wrens, thrushes, goldfinches, dunnocks, chaffinches added layer upon layer to the mix. The sound gave the air an almost liquid quality, and built as the light crept in. Finally, as the sun rose, the geese on the lake joined in, and by full light, the birdsong dropped away, replaced by the sounds of modern suburban life - car alarms, trains, and the first planes approaching Heathrow of the morning.

I've heard the dawn chorus many times, but most times I was intent on getting somewhere. This time I was able to stop and concentrate on the even, from start to finish. If you get the chance, set your alarm for half an hour or so before sunrise, open a window and just listen.

This hasn't been a great week for gardening. After the downpours over the Bank Holiday weekend, my rainfall gauge filled to the brim - that's over two inches in two days. I emptied it and now it's getting on for half full again. Hopefully this is not going to be the pattern for the summer.

My main project for this weekend is to plant a herb garden in the raised bed we've made in the front garden. As the kitchen is at the front of the house, this corresponds with zone 1 in permaculture terms, as do my troughs of salad leaves, which are now edging the deck by the back door. I do plan to have a herb bed at the allotment, but there I'll concentrate on less delicate plants, which don't need immediate use after picking, plus some tea and medicinal herbs. If space allows, I may slot in a few dye plants to experiment with in time.

I must admit I'm dreading going over the allotment after the rain we've had. I have visions of all the mulch I laid on the beds having been washed away.

Anyway, the tasks set out in the Wartime Weekend Gardener for the first weekend of June include:

Sow outdoor cucumbers. Mine are already sown, and are start to emerge in the mini greenhouse. Hopefully, the frog and hedgehog population in the garden will make enough inroads into the slug and snail population to allow a couple of seedlings to survive long enough to be planted out.

Check over fruit trees for developing fruitlets. Fruit trees naturally shed some excess fruitlets at this time of year - hence the term "June drop" However, the ferocity of the rain last weekend may have pre-empted this, so I'll be checking to see if any fruit is left.

Also, net soft fruit to prevent bird damage. I confess to being a little lax with this. The one year I was diligent in netting my strawberries to prevent birds pecking at them, a family of voles burrowed in and gnawed the ripening areas, leaving me with green or rotten fruits. I removed the net and placed a small bowl of catfood next to the bed to encourage freelance pest control operatives (as Beth Chatto calls them)

Sow turnips. Although thought of as a winter vegetable, baby turnips are lovely with a summer roast or even barbecue, especially with butter and mustard.

Sow a row or two spinach. In the days of the WWG, spinach was just used as mature leaves, boiled, like most vegetables at the time, "into submission". These days, as much spinach is used as young leaves in salads and boiled. Even so, only a small amount needs to be planted, as at least one plant is bound to bolt and set seed, leaving you with limitless greenery for all time.

If you don't fancy the idea of spinach as a weed, or if the oxalic acid content makes it taste too metallic, try growing chard instead. Chard is a close relation of beetroot, so is best grown in the root part of the rotation. There are several varieties, some being selected for stalk colour, ranging from white, through yellows and orange right through to crimson red. It too can be picked young for salads, or allowed to mature for use as greens. The mature stalks can be served separately, and are particularly good braised and served with a cheese sauce.

But then for me, many things are improved by the addition of cheese.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Good Neighbours

One of the frequently cited principles of garden design is to take advantage of the "borrowed" landscape - in other words, take advantage of good plants and structure in the neighbouring gardens.

We have a fine backdrop of mature trees at the end of our garden, and we more or less share some of the plants along next door's fence. At the moment that means we have a wonderful wisteria flowering halfway up the garden, giving off a glorious scent, especially in the evening. Earlier in the year, the bright yellow flowers of forsythia and kerria were a perfect foil to our dark blue shed, and through the summer we can look forward to sharing passion flower, clematis and jasmine.

Somehow this blurring of planting boundaries is indicative of the friendliness of this area. Because it's a cul de sac with kitchens looking out onto the street, it's safe for children to play together outside, including riding their bikes and playing football on the little green at the top of the street. Earlier today, I was talking to some of them about the plants that will be going in the herb garden planned for the front of the house, and they took a great interest in Southerwood, and its cola like scent. Another neighbour was walking the family's dog, who had retired to the country but was paying a visit and relishing the attention.

Best of all, last week our next door neighbour gave me samples of the soap they had just started making. I'm going to be making some goats milk soap tonight, and giving them a sample in return.

This weekend is crucial in predicting the weather for the rest of the summer. The Enfield Classic Car Show is taking place from now until Monday. If the weather is bad for the show, we should expect a hot dry Summer. Last year, the show passed off without incident or trauma. In 2006 there was torrential rain, the show was cancelled halfway through and most of the exhibits had to be sucked out of the mud by tractor. Storms are predicted from tonight onwards, so I have high hopes for getting a crop from my okra seedlings this year.

Two tasks are highlighted in the Wartime Weekend Gardener for this weekend - sow maincrop peas (Onward, Hurst Green Shaft or similar) and start lifting early carrots.

If I find any carrots with roots on, I may just do that.

Friday, 16 May 2008

I’m Still Here (in London)

Circumstances prevent me from being able to go to my favourite event of the year, which starts tomorrow. The Smallholders and Garden Festival at the Royal Welsh Showground near Builth Wells is the most comprehensive and friendliest event of its kind. It's been going for a good twenty years or so, and I've been to the past three. The more times I go, the more people I get to know. And the more people I know to stop and talk to, I get to see less of the show. Mind you, I do spend most of my free time there wandering through the goat showing area, as the goat kids are just old enough to be allowed out, and it's so easy to lose a few hours playing with the little sweethearts - especially the Golden Guernsey kids.

As with most other years, further attractions include a dog show, green building / living exhibition and talks on smallholding related topics. Sadly, Wonderwool, the show for all forms of wool craft, has grown too big and has its own date at the showground. I wouldn't have minded seeing the butter making competition planned for this Sunday. Never mind, there's always next year. And there are a few good shows closer to home over the next few months.

Next week also sees the Chelsea Flower Show. I hope this year good sense prevails, and the judges award medals to gardens with plants in, not glorified patios and barbecue areas. I doubt it will, but it would be good if the Daylesford Organics garden won best in show.

Haven't been the the Chelsea show for a couple of years now. Aside of the obvious downsides - crowds, no plants on sale, high catering prices and getting shoved around to allow for TV filming, coming immediately after the Smallholders show, I was able to compare and contrast the two events. Despite living in London, only having an allotment and not yet able to speak Welsh, I felt far more at home in Builth.

Last weekend, we took advantage of the good weather and put a small area of decking up in the back garden. A bit too urban and not at all frugal you may think, but the area we decked had little topsoil (just builders waste) and sloped down in two directions. It is also and area that gets direct sun only until around 9am at the best of times - little use for growing plants. The deck itself was almost entirely reclaimed from skips - even the breeze blocks used to level the worst of the slope were second hand. The only new items involved were part of a roll of weed blocking membrane and the screw and nails to fasten the planks - all this amounted to about 75p in cost.

We put the deck to use during the hot weather, eating breakfast and dinner there from Sunday until Wednesday. I put some plants in containers in front of the table, including strawberries and Lemon Balm (made tea from the leaves Sunday afternoon). Hopefully we'll have some more warm weather soon and we can sit out there again.

Hopefully the rains toward the end of this week will have penetrated the soil enough for some more serious allotment work to take place this weekend. I hope to put the old shed in place at the new allotment soon, but getting plants in the ground has to take prioriry.

The instructions for this weekend in The Wartime Weekend Gardener signal that Summer is just around the corner - it's time to sow the Runner Beans. I usually sow two varieties - old stalwarts Scarlet Emperor and Czar, and white flowered and seeded variety. When dried, seeds from Czar beans are a fair substitute for butter beans.

Other tasks include sowing another batch of Savoy Cabbage, and another sowing of lettuce (& other salad leaves) and radishes.

Next week is another Bank Holiday, and a local event which often serves as a pointer to the rest of the Summer. But more of that later.

Friday, 9 May 2008

The Sizzling of Hot Summer Prawns

The continuing hot sunny weather has brought most of the street out of doors - gardening during the day and barbecues at night. Being a cul de sac, you can stop and talk without fear of being run down, and children can play outside. I often think that the slope down from the green at the top of the street makes it an ideal training ground for goalkeepers - you soon learn to catch a ball if the other option is chasing it down a hill, and I've seen that happen a fair few times this past week.

I've spoken to more neighbours since moving here than I did the whole time at the old place. There, the people who stopped to talk were either pensioners or pet owners - here everyone speaks to each other - even the "quiet" family say hello to us now - mostly down to seeing us working on the front garden.

We've yet to drag the barbecue out, mainly because the cat that has adopted us would probably run off with the food before we had a chance. Every time she smalls barbecue smoke, she sits on top of the fence, surveying the area. A few nights ago, she sneaked into a neighbour's garden, and got away with a chicken wing!

I guess barbecue smoke has one bonus - it keeps the mosquitos away. Once again, I have not so much been bitten but chewed. Forget fake tan orange, the colour de jour round these parts is Calamine lotion pink. Well, my lavender and Southernwood plants are beginning to bush up for the year, hopefully soon they'll be big enough for me to brush past them and the scent will keep the mozzies and other biting beasties away.

Another interesting thing about here. In this and the adjoining small street, I have met three other households with allotments, all of which are couples or families around our age. Maybe it's another facet of the positive feeling that you get round here. I spotted a few houses have work done, and skips outside, so I asked at all of them if I could reuse anything in the skips at the allotment - I got an enthusiastic yes each time. Have to keep a note of those addresses for later so I can drop a bag of beans or courgettes on their doorstep.

With any luck, we'll have another busy weekend at the allotment, hopefully getting there early enough to get a decent amount of work done before heatstroke beckons. We moved the shelter last week so it's now close to the shade of the trees, next to the point in the fence where there's a gap that wildlife use as an entry point. Discovering that gap has meant that my fruit / forest garden plans will have to be re-drawn, but it's a small sacrifice and I can find the space elsewhere.

It was a great weekend for watching wildlife - especially butterflies. Peacocks and Tortoiseshells have been flying for a while, but over the Bank Holiday I saw the first Orange Tips of the year, and a butterfly I later provisionally identified as a Glanville Fritillary, which is usually only found on the Isle of Wight!

The only instruction for this weekend in the Wartime Weekend Gardener is to plant out Autumn and the remaining Summer brassicas, such as cabbage and Brussels Sprouts. I'm not sure if our brassicas bed will be ready yet, but I found a couple of unused bags of spent mushroom compost on our final visit to the old allotment, so I can use them to help things along.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Get on with it!

Well - that was a let down. Got home last night to the news that Boris Johnson had beaten Ken Livingstone to be London Mayor. Now, many of Ken's policies and alliances were questionable, but quite frankly the imperfect politician is far better than an untrustworthy buffoon. Let's just hope the one gaffe too far happens early and he's forced to resign.

So from here on in it's heads down get on with ensuring some economy free stability - growing stuff down the allotment, preserving that produce, making cheese and baking. And getting the back garden laid out in such a way that we can start keeping a few hens. The shade bed at the bottom of the garden is filling out and looking gorgeous - I really must try to post some photos. The Wood Anemome corms I planted in pots last year have grown well, but so far have only yielded one flower. At least they're the right plant. Annoyingly, the extra English Bluebell bulbs I bought last year have come up Spanish and will have to go.

Apologies for the late arrival of the blog this week. Spent yesterday preparing for a busy Bank Holiday weekend, and most of today starting the tasks we had planned. All this in spite of the scourge of Spring - hayfever. Being surrounded by beautiful mature trees is great, but for the weeks when they shed their pollen. I tried to fight the exploding sinus syndrome using natural remedies, but nothing seemed to do the job adequately, so I'm back of prescription meds. It's only a couple of weeks anyway.

In a matter of a few days I have seen the first ducklings on the lake, the first elder flowers and today I heard Swifts overhead. It had bothered me that I hadn't seen Swallows or House Martins, but now I know that this area is predominately Swift habitat I understand why. Last year's weather wasn't good for Swifts, which explains why I don't recall seeing any when we moved in.

As I said, Spring gathers apace and there are plenty of tasks to be getting on with in the garden. Even though May Day is a recent Bank Holiday, the Wartime Weekend Gardener's agenda for the first weekend on May could easily take three days:

Plant out Maincrop Potatoes. As mentioned previously, I'm way behind this year, but Desiree, Golden Wonder and Pink Fir Apple, should be in the ground very soon.

Sow Maincrop Peas. Well, I plan to sow another batch of peas this week, and I'll be going with Hurst Green Shaft, more an Early Maincrop variety, but that should be enough to provide us with peas for the freezer.

Plant out Mint and sow other herbs. The mint I planted in a pot to keep outside the front door didn't die back in the Winter, so I had a few tough leaves to use while I was waiting for fresh new growth. I'll probably divide that plant and transfer some to the herb bed at the allotment, but it will stay in a pot, sunk in the soil, or else the herb bed will become a mint bed. Time to sow more tender herbs, such as Basil, as well.

Sow more French Beans. Yes - the weather is mild enough now to sow some of my precious Cherokee Trail of Tears beans, plus a few more varieties to provide fresh and dried beans - Borlotto, some yellow beans and some pencil thin green beans for hot salads.

Sow Beetroot. Cheese and Beetroot sarnies - so bad they're good. I also like whole (unpickled) baby beetroot in casseroles. I've already got a couple of varieties - Boltardy and the wonderfuly stripey Barbietola di Chioggia - on the go, but an extra row every few weeks is a good idea.

Sow marrows in pots. Add to that courgettes, pumpkins and squashes. And sweetcorn. I've been using the Three Sisters planting scheme - beans, sweetcorn and squashes - as part of my rotation system for a few years now. I couldn't tell you if the plants do better grown together, but it uses the allocated space well, takes the right amount of time for these crops and it looks good.

There's something very inspiring about a well planted wig wam.

Friday, 25 April 2008

May Day approaches - already?

Spring is certainly upon us at last. The trees that I can see from the house were skeletal a week ago, now their form is filled in with fresh green leaves. The Ceonothus bushes that are dotted around the main road on the estate are starting to flower, and are masses of deep violet blue. Best of all, Bluebells are at last coming into bloom. As I pass by gardens, I look to see whether they have the big, blowsy but scentless Spanish Bluebells, or the delicate perfumed native true Bluebell. I silently rejoice when I spot the latter. I rescued some from the old house. I guess that was one upside of the garden having been neglected for so long - a clump of bluebells had been allowed to self-seed, so I lifted some every year and grew them on in pots. By making sure there are no Spanish ones to cross pollinate nearby, I hope to build up a good clump here and at the new allotment.

Progress is being made at the allotment. Some more raised beds have been marked out, and hopefully posts and sides will be in place at the weekend. With any luck, the council will be delivering another load of compost soon as well. The soil is still pretty claggy and hard to dig, but if we don't get a move on it will dry out and be unworkably dry for the year. At least it's not full of stones like the old place. We have found a few pieces of china, including some fairly old looking stuff - Willow Pattern mostly, including part of a little jar. No coins so far. One of the best finds on the old plot was an early William III halfpenny I dug up when I was planting Jerusalem Artichokes. Still, looking on the map, there is the remains of a Motte & Bailey castle at the top of the hill, not far from the golf club house. Maybe something interesting was dropped when the woods that are next to the new plot were part of the royal hunting grounds (Enfield Chace).

As I mentioned last week, the instructions in the Wartime Weekend Gardener for the fourth weekend of April could refer to last week or this. That is - sow celery, plant out Summer cauliflower, sow Autumn cauliflower and sow some hardy annual flowers for cutting and for use in companion planting.

It's good that this weekend can be used to catch up. Next weekend we have another Bank Holiday and thus three day weekend, and things get even busier.

Have a good week, and for those of you in areas where there are local elections, remember to vote for someone who you won't feel embarrassed about in years to come. I don't honestly expect Sian Berry to be elected London mayor, but at least I'll know I'm stating that I want the right kind of change.