Friday, 30 August 2013

Lessons learned - one year on the allotment

Going from this (July 2012)



to this (January 2013)


then this (July and August 2013)



has meant quite a few lessons learned.  And it's also made me realise how much I still need to learn and no doubt how much I will learn every single year that I keep the plot.

The lesson at the forefront of my mind right now involves courgettes.  It's probably not the most important thing to know, but right now in the midst of a mad courgette glut, it's all I am thinking about.  No need to grow so many!  In fact, no real need to grow any at all.  This is a typical day at the "Free Stuff" place on the allotment site.


Homeless, unwanted, unloved courgettes.  I probably will still grow some next year, maybe yellow ones.  This year's glut has come almost exclusively from one plant of Romanesco.  Three or four courgettes every time I visit.  Courgettes lined up in the fridge.  Courgettes in every meal.  Main course and pudding.  Courgettes in the freezer.  You get the picture.


I also learned from the courgette adventure that spacing is quite important.  At home the soil is appalling and usually things don't grow much at all.  At the allotment the soil is amazing and everything grows like the fairy tale beanstalk - on and on and on.  So putting seven cucumber plants, three courgettes and about eight squashes into a space about 3m square was, as it turns out, utter madness.  It's impossible to see anything or to access anything.  Under the leaves there are dozens of lumpen shapes lurking in the darkness quietly growing to the size of zeppelins.


And I've discovered that there are two categories of squash.  Those that are quite dense and delicious and that store well so that there is food throughout the lean winter months, and those that are watery and must be eaten pretty much immediately.  It turns out I have mostly the must-be-eaten-immediately ones.  Next year I will be trying things like Queensland Blue and acorn squashes.

One good thing about such insanely dense planting is that the weeds have been kept down.  In fact it is the only part of the plot that doesn't disappear under a green carpet on an almost weekly basis.  When I took over the plot it was overgrown with tall seeding weeds (and short seeding weeds) so clearly this year was going to be full of weed seedlings.  I have tried very hard to make sure nothing seeds this year, so I am really hoping that next year things will be better.  Weeds are definitely the bete noire of most allotmenteers.  I found that during the try spells hoeing was the answer.  Quick and easy and very satisfying to see them all wilting in the sun.  I left them on the surface a la Bob Flowerdew.  He says they are like a little mulch, and will ultimately break down.

But hoeing isn't so effective when it's damp, and it doesn't work at all for those deep-rooted pernicious things.  They require hand weeding, and lots of it.  There is no substitute.  It's just a question of putting aside the time and getting on with it.  When it's done it's wonderful to stand up and look at the bare earth.  Assuming you can still stand up.  It's fair to say there's been some backache this year.

I've also discovered that carrots are one of the trickiest things to grow.  Even if they germinate (not a given, sometimes they don't bother), whole rows can disappear overnight.  And those that remain are fair game for rabbits and carrot root fly.  They may well be one of those things that I just don't grow.  Which is a shame as we eat mountains of them.  But I am thinking that it's best to grow the things that aren't too difficult and that either taste better fresh or that are out of my budget, such as asparagus, which was great and for minimal effort.

Which brings me to fruit.  I inherited some enormous gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes and for no work at all I've had enormous harvests.  Fruit is definitely the way to go.  I'm planning a big strawberry bed for next year.  Bob is in agreement with this.  And to keep the weeds down I'm going to try and plant them through weedproof membrane.  He does that too.  I've said it before, I'll say it again, Mr Flowerdew and Sarah Raven are informing most of my decisions when it comes to growing to eat.  They have tried it all themselves and have an absolute wealth of knowledge.

A lesson learned from all of that fruit is that the most important thing to do at the allotment is harvesting.  In mid and late summer it can take quite a while.  I like to save it until the end of my visits, as a treat for all the hard work.  But sometimes it can take pretty much the whole of a short visit.

I am quite often at the allotment for about an hour in the evening while other half goes to the putting green at the golf club next door.  I have assorted children with me, and it is easy to potter around doing little jobs and not get to the harvesting in time.  But really, harvesting is the raison d'etre of the plot.  If I don't pick everything at its maximum freshness it's a waste.  And similarly once it's home it must be dealt with in one way or another fairly quickly, even if this just means freezing the excess.


Finally, I have worked out that the soil is key to absolutely everything.  To grow a plant that is strong enough to withstand a few pests, the soil must be good.  The soil at home needs work - I'm not really sure what at the moment, as I've added manure in the past which really hasn't made much difference.  But the wonderful soil at the allotment will also need care to keep it so productive.  At the moment all of the different organic additions and fertilisers are a bit of a mystery - what to add, when and why.  It's something I will have to learn.  With a very limited budget I am hoping that the allotment site will get a pile of free manure in next year as they have in the past.

So it's been a year of learning and a year of hard work.  But right now, as I take home a trug full of produce on every visit, I have to say, it's worth it.

20 comments:

  1. Looks like you're having a great year for harvest. I'm always surprised by how long it takes to pick things, I have in my head that its "just some beans" and then 10 mins later I'm still finding more on the plant!

    the-urban-cottage.blogspot.co.uk

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    1. I know exactly what you mean, time just disappears.

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  2. I agree with all you say about fruit.

    New plots are often very fertile. Each of our plots grew things to an enormous size in the first year of growing.

    As for courgettes - round one are good for stuffing too but do try sticking with the carrots - you can't beat the taste. How we grow them is here http://ossettweather.com/glallotments.co.uk/carrotfly.html which may be of some interest. Didn't put the direct link in case you thought I was spamming :)

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    1. Thanks for the tips Sue. I pulled four of my carrots (I only have about twelve!) today and they were surprisingly good, so I think you are right, I should keep trying.

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  3. It is a lot of work, but it is worth it. Even though I sometimes do wonder. Especially as a rabbit appeared on the lawn this morning..
    I have also learned the lesson of spacing. Last year the beans put on very little growth. This year they have exploded. But I planted them too close and it's very difficult to get at them to pick. Next year I will grow less but hopefully expend my energy on better crops.

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    1. This morning was a good one. Boys helping, the sun on my back, lots of produce to pick. It was indeed worth it. I shall have to give some thought to what to grow next year.

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  4. A good post which shows how well you've done, and what to think about for next year. You've made a good start and you'll notice how it all changes and improves year on year.
    I have little luck with carrots but always sow a packet or two in the hope that they'll be good.
    I agree with what you say about the soil. In your garden add compost to just those areas where you're growing things rather than all over. I presume that you have a compost heap on the go there as well as at the allotment.
    I agree with Rusty Duck about spacing, and perhaps growing a bit less but better. Flighty xx

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    1. Thank you Flighty, that makes me feel more positive. I do have a compost heap at home, as well as a wormery, so I shall add what I can from there.

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  5. I think learning as you go is something which continues year on year. I got so fed up of Carrot Root Fly attacking my crop that I've grown them in an old bath which was left on the plot when I took it on for the past couple of years. They haven't been attacked at all. I will have another go at growing them in the ground at some point though. I don't know about being overrun with courgettes, it looks like your beans are doing very well too.

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    1. The old bath idea sounds wonderful. I have heard of one being used for a wormery too. The beans were great, but most of the crop was ready at once. Next year I think I need to stagger it more.

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  6. I understand how you feel about courgettes. I don't grow them any more!
    You have obviously learned a lot (e.g. about soil) from taking on the allotment.

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    1. Four more today! I have learned quite a bit already I think. But lots more still to know.

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  7. It does look like a fabulous plot. When we thought we were getting an allotment I did a couple of really cheap classes at a local agricultural college that were aimed at allotmenteers. I learnt so much ... I wonder if there's anything like that near you?

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    1. Thank you Annie. The classes sound like a great idea, I will definitely have a look and see if I can find something similar.

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  8. Just thought, do you know Tim Curry's 'Zucchini Song'?

    http://www.rockymusic.org/showvideo/08a0e86c4b5fb231114e995a60b7fe9f.php

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    1. Wonderful! Nobody does it better.

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  9. Hi CJ, Fabulously interesting post and congratulations on really making it work in your first year! So many unused allotments tell a tale of the holders being overwhelmed by the hard work involved - even here in London where there is a mammoth waiting list! Amazed that you had asparagus in the first year, I'm growing this for the first time (6 years into the veg patch timeline) and looking forward to a proper harvest next year. I've had little spindly growth this year, as expected. I've been through the glut experience but have many neighbours to share with (except my raspberries, they're all for me!!) Fruit trees will be rewarding if you can wait (apples within 2-3 years, other fruit longer). With your garden soil, you should find out what's underneath if it hasn't improved with well-rotted manure (although you do need to dig in lots of this in the autumn and let it overwinter). Try growing carrots between rows of onions or garlic and fence off to keep rabbits out. Carrot seed is best used fresh (within a year of buying) regardless of what it says on the packet!
    Sorry, been banging on for ages! Hope this is useful and I suspect that you'll have a lovely time reading the veg catalogues this winter!!

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    1. Thank you Caro for your lovely comment. The asparagus was on the plot when we took it over, so we were very lucky. I do have a couple of fruit trees to put in - a dwarf Cox apple and a Morello cherry that lost its top half, which should help with the height restriction! They are in pots at the moment, so it would be nice to release them. Thanks for the manure tip, I will try and get hold of some and put it down soon. I have a small fenced area at the allotment which would be perfect for carrots, so I'll put them in there next year. I think that reading veg catalogues in winter is one of gardening's great pleasures! The anticipation, the possibilities, the triumph of hope over experience...

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  10. I think you need to come and give lessons to some of the new starters on our site. They obviously don't think allotmenting should involve any hard work at all.

    If you don't watch Beechgrove Garden check out this link http://www.thebeechgrovegarden.com/images/factsheets/FS_18_final_version_PDF.pdf
    of how they grow their strawberries using weed control fabric. I think it could be adapted to any size bed. Might try it on the plot when we redo our strawberry bed

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    1. Thank you for that, I shall definitely use weed control fabric for the strawberries. You are right about some new allotmenteers. Apparently there was someone at our site who only came once! Such a shame when so many people are desperate for plots.

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