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!

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