Thursday, 17 February 2011

The Joy of Spuds - & Stationery

Of late, there have been several days with a definite spring-like feel to them.  And much like Mole in Wind In The Willows, I do feel a sudden need to "get things done".  Though not so much housework, more likely busying myself with garden tasks.
This post is partly inspired by a post on the Down to Earth blog- “Are You Growing Food This Year?”.  Obviously the situation in Australia is far more extreme than anyone would wish to face, but worth taking into account, as the main market garden areas were hit by the flooding, and the impact will be long term.  We may have only a few days of icy weather, but road transport was sufficiently disrupted to leave shop supplies running low.  With recent fuel price rises, my mind goes back to the fuel blockades of 2000.  Best to stock up now and be prepared ahead of any shortages.
Now that the garden is showing signs of life again, I’m gearing up for my mad marathon seed sowing sessions in the potting shed.  This also means I’m having to retrieve the bog roll inners from the recycling bag and hide them away before Howard notices and puts them back.  He doesn’t mind me using them, it’s just that we haven’t decided on an appropriate storage place for them.
I’m also scavenging the blue plastic trays that restaurants and sandwich bars get their salad leaves delivered in.  I carry a spare shopping bag with me on the off chance of more of these very useful items that are needlessly chucked out by the unknowing.  They make great stacking trays for transporting module trays of seedlings to the allotment later in the year, in the autumn for storing onions and apples, but right now I’m after them to chit my seed potatoes in.
Five weeks from now, I’m taking my traditional mid-March holiday, and the frenzy really starts.  I started getting into the habit of taking time off for the Cheltenham Festival years ago, when I worked somewhere that everyone booked leave in the summer, forcing me to take my holidays at less popular times of year.  The way it goes now is that I’ll spend the morning in the garden seed sowing , then in the afternoon sit in front of the TV watching the racing and writing up my sowing records.  Even now, I’m looking at the calendar, working out how many allotment days we have available before I need to plant the First Early potatoes.
For the past 10 years I’ve aimed to have the first batch of potatoes in the ground on the Sunday after the Cheltenham Gold Cup.  I have vivid memories of 2003, when that weekend coincided with the anti-Iraq War protests in London .  I fully expected the rest of the world to place trade sanctions on the UK , so planted extra batches to see us through.  Last year we missed the usual target date, but the weather being so grim at the time, it wasn’t such a bad idea, especially as the ground became so sodden that the water table rose above ground level in certain patches.  One of those patches being where the spud bed was being prepared.  

This year, the last weekend of March will see the mass rally against public service cuts.  These cuts will plunge the most vulnerable into even more dire circumstances, many others will lose jobs and essential services, and the gap between rich and poor with become unbreachable for a generation.   This country was at its strongest and healthiest in the wake of WWII, in the wake of universal free secondary education, building of decent social housing, widening of welfare provisions and the creation of the National Health Service.  These served as a shining example of how a government should serve its electorate, by putting the country on a sound footing to build a new economy.  This latest shower are hell bent on selling what they can, and ensuring any dissenters are weakened, with avenues for redress closed.

Let's hope that the backpedalling over Natures Reserves and Forests can provide hope that a good fight by the majority can save the national asset that set an example worldwide.
Anyway, back to spuddage.  Eventually, all the seed potatoes were planted in sequence, and with near enough the usual gaps in time between varieties.  As the old gardeners’ reassurance goes, they all did catch up, and we had a decent crop, only losing a few Second Earlies to blight.
For several years, I grew the same varieties – Rocket, then Kestrel, Desiree and finally Pink Fir Apple.  But recently, I’ve experimented with First and Second Earlies.  On the whole I prefer waxy textured potatoes, but when I can locate them, I love Shetland Black.  One of the tastiest, but also so floury that they are best cooked whole.  For the past couple of years I’ve favoured Red Duke of York over Rocket, and after an unexpected blight wipeout, I now grow Yukon Gold instead of Kestrel.
So that’s the planting plan for the first phase of my rotation planting plan sorted.  I use a six year rotation, on account of the way our first allotment was laid out.  When we started with the current allotment, I kept to the same plan.  Funnily enough, when I was doing my Organic Horticulture course at Capel Manor college, one of the first assignments our tutor set us was to devise a 6 year rotation and planting plan.  As I already had one worked out, I tweaked and expanded what I already used.
It goes like this:
Year 1 – Potatoes, followed by celery and overwintering onions, garlic & shallots
Year 2 – Root vegetables, plus spinach and / or chard
Year 3 – Three Sisters crop – legumes (peas & beans), squash family & corn
Year 4 – Brassicas
Year 5 – The rest of the Nightshade family – outdoor hardy tomatoes, peppers, aubergines etc.  Grown distant from the potatoes to lessen the chance of spreading blight to each other.
Year 6 – Anything else – mostly salad leaves, but also takes in sweet potatoes, okra and artichokes if grown as an annual.
With two extra beds for fruit and perennials, this system has worked for us for nearly 10 years. 
The new plot is an awkward shape – a lopped off triangle, so planning the layout has not been as straightforward as with a conventional shaped allotment.  Once I had taken as accurate two dimensional measurements as possible on a plot that slopes diagonally and dips in the middle, I marked these out on my special tool – squared paper, and worked out a rough layout.  I think I've said before that to be honest, I'm no good at art.  I have professed an inability to draw a straight line with a ruler.  Howard is the artist, but leaves garden planning to me, offering words of praise and encouragement, as I labour with graph paper, propelling pencils and erasers.
When I’m happy with the layout, I start colour coding the beds to show at a glance what will be planted there.  I may be no good at art, but I can draw up a decent plan or sketch map.  And I have an almighty stash of pens, paper and allsorts with which to do so!
Once beds have been prepared and planted, I draw up a plan of each bed on squared paper, so I know what plant is where year by year.  It also allows me to have a fair idea of what should appear in the rows that the local Magpies have stolen the labels for.
I have to confess to being a tad nerdy when it comes to plant labels.  I have a huge stash in various colours, each colour to be used for one type of plant.  I have a set layout when writing up labels – plant and variety on the front and date on the back so the date can be crossed out and the label reused.  Also serves as a good way of comparing from year to year.  And woe betide anyone who misplaces or damages my ultra-fine permanent markers!
All that remains is for us to translate those plans into plants!

Monday, 7 February 2011

A Weekend Less Ordinary (Flocks of starlings and a Band of Horses)

"A Holiday, A Holiday, the first one of the year"

Well, the first long weekend since New Year anyway.

Friday started like most days, with me shouting at a computer for being slow.  But instead of the usual info loading onto a database, it was me trying to book Fleet Foxes tickets.  Just my luck that the only UK show announced so far sold out in seven minutes.  Fortunately, a second show was added and we have tickets for that.

Now I don't get out as much as in the days of wild old Camden Town, so dragging myself out to see a band now is a Big Deal.  Friday was the biggest deal possible - the exquisite Band of Horses playing the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill-on-Sea.  I could have gone to see them in Brixton the night before, but getting south of the River and back on a work night was logistically draining.  Anyway, the prospect of a drive out to see a band I love at a building I admire was way too tempting.

The journey down was far better than it could have been.  The weather was unpromising - showers and high winds, and the prospect of getting caught in roadworks on the M25 was ever present.  But we got lucky.  There was in fact an accident on the M25 near a junction in the section where widening work is taking place, but we had driven down the through traffic lane and sailed past several miles of stationary traffic, mostly made up of lorry drivers on tight schedules to meet up with ferries, a few families starting their picnics early, and what looked like a troupe of acrobats, dressed in yellow blond wigs and sequins.

Left the motorway and continued down the A21, a regular route for us.  Stopped for lunch at Merriments, though weather prevented a stroll round the garden.  Instead concentrated on tea & cakes and the contents of the garden centre.  Stocked up on onion & shallot sets, purple asparagus crowns (for which I have a plan involving an Ikea carrier bag and the rakings from the hens' runs), a Mahonia and some dahlia tubers.  Maybe this year the slugs won't beat me.

Drove on through the Sussex woodlands, with Fleet Foxes as our soundtrack - a perfect combination.  We reached Bexhill around 5pm, just as everything was closing up.  High winds and construction work prevented a walk along the sea front, so we walked up the high street in search of life and a place for dinner.  As it was now dusk, a huge flock a starlings was wheeling around, forming breathtaking shapes and patterns - imploding ovals and rollercoasters above the charity shops.  When I was a child, this was a commonplace sight in every town.  They used to wheel around above the railway arches before roosting on South Harrow gas holder.  But now it's so scarce it is treated as something on a par with the herds of the Serengeti or the like.  In truth, it probably is, but to most people they're just screechy scruffy Starlings, not wild formation flying acrobats with sequinned feathers.

Scoured the street for suitable dinner venues.  Tonight wasn't the weather for fish & chips on the sea front, and there were several other "possibles" that didn't fit the bill.  The we happened upon a clean, unpretentious Italian restaurant, which seemed just right.  As we settled down to our meal, it was apparent we weren't the only people with the same idea - the place rapidly filled up, mostly with slightly unconventional fortysomethings starting a night out.  My suspicions were confirmed when we entered the venue, and I noticed quite a few fellow diners. We got chatting to one couple, who were in fact fairly local, and proud that the De La Warr was once again fulfilling its purpose as a quality leisure venue for all the people of Bexhill.

Support act, Goldheart Assembly, were pretty good.   Extra marks for using an autoharp on a song or two, though the singer played it flat like a keyboard rather than haring around the stage clasping it, Zal Yanovsky style.  Not so sure about the oil can as drum set up though.

I'd been wanting to see Band of Horses for a few years, but never quite managed to.  This was in fact the first time we'd been to see a band for a couple of years.  I was diagnosed with a mild form of epilepsy some years ago, and flashing lights can cause me to lose my balance at inopportune moments.  But I've resolved to stop dwelling on that and make the most of my remaining middle youth.  From the look of the audience, that was true of much of the crowd, plus the more discerning youth of the Bexhill and Hastings hinterland.  I managed to get fairly near the front, and with this not being a crowd for wild dancing (more like swaying gently and singing along), I got to keep a decent spot the whole night.

The band were excellent, as would be expected.  There's a warmth to them that is often a stranger to band dynamics, and it spills out to the audience.  You get the impression that they're sharing as much as performing their music.

It's hard to single out anything in the main set - all was wonderful, but the encore started with a very special moment - Evening Kitchen.  Just singer Ben Bridwell and guitarist Tyler Ramsey and an acoustic guitar.  Tyler Ramsey is tall & lanky, Ben Bridwell small & wiry - singing into the same mike must be something they've done countless times over the years, but still can't be easy.  At one point Ben stepped away from the mike but continued singing.  The hall was so quiet that he could still be heard perfectly.  It was as if time had stopped for the duration of the song - a moment that summed up a special night.

We drove home, the same route we'd taken down, now near deserted.  We kept and eye out for deer and badgers, but no sightings and we were home before 1am.

Saturday and Sunday were back to the usual routine - getting chicken and garden supplies, then to the allotment, but I felt more positive about things.  All helped by the news that Howard's mum seems to have made a slight improvement - he was able to talk to her on the phone.  Still a long way to go, but a start.

Also, my Welsummer hen has started laying, and in a matter of a week or two has gone from a nervous bird who picked at her food to a fine healthy bird, hell bent on tunnelling out of her run!

Sunday was the first chance I'd had to get over the allotment since the New Year.  That day we'd been confronted by the disappointment of a stray act of vandalism - our shed window broken, and the cloches over my winter crops flattened.  This Sunday, whilst not the most industrious, made up for it.

The sheer abundance of life at the allotment showed that the wheel was turning towards Spring.  I saw most of the usual birds that populate the site, including countless woodpeckers, both Green and Great Spotted.  I even saw ladybirds and a honey bee.  A heron flew over, diverted from its planned course by the high winds, and I even saw a Little Egret fly low overhead.  When you consider this was a species that not long ago was a twitcher's dream on the south coast in the Summer, and this was one which must have spent the winter near London, it shows how the climate must be changing.

Well, it's Monday and I've been at work all day, so back to normal.  But I 'm already counting the hours until this weekend, counting the days until our next trip out of town, and counting the weeks until the start of the many events of this spring and summer.