Archive for October, 2016

Fall back, Spring Forward ?

As back to speed as I ever was (having been lazily absent from blogging for a while – so idle I can’t actually remember how long I’ve been away). I am now intending to write and publish more or less at the same time.

October has been a gentle and kind month, some super, warm and dry days. Whether this is something to do with climate change – long term or short term – is irrelevant when you’re in a growing season: something for the academics to debate and, maybe, something to consider when buying seeds for next year.

But now, with daylight flexing and – literally overnight the clocks changing (Daylight Saving Time) – it is time to crack on with end of season plot clearing, planning for next year, planting a few things and the task of autumn/winter digging.

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It is normal, at every stage to be thinking ahead, so while I was planting the taters I was thinking, rotation wise, shouldn’t put spuds in here next year … but, once the crops are dug up I’ve always kind-of forgotten those things. We planned to put over wintering onion sets in (below the autumn fruiting raspberries where the early potatoes were this year. The ground, having been turned over to root out every Arran Pilot tuber we could find (surely; all of them?) is easy to dig so I used a fork. Ergonomic handle said to make the digging less stressful on the back. Maybe it is now I am used to the slightly different technique needed to lift it (who would have thought a slight modification would make such a difference?).

And the soil is absolutely gorgeous (in a strictly horticultural sense of course): light, friable and dark. Making turning it an absolute pleasure as well as a work out. “nothing to prove to anybody,” as my very good friend reminded me when I spent a happy day driving a dump truck for him … so I took my time, barrowing annual weeds to the compost heap, now sweating away nicely near the path, cutting a cabbage and chatting to other plot holders.

Gaffer: about football, Alan and Mrs Alan about crops, families and pets, Sailor Dee about daylight saving Time and missing pears.

Over three days we purchase Aquadulce broad bean seeds, fifty red onion sets and, the soil having been raked and firmed, with a sprinkling of chicken manure pellets for the onions and a half trench of compost for the broad beans they are duly planted and the rows marked.  Broad beans and onions, I discover, were two of the staples of Medieval life, along with cabbages (this has me wondering about parsnips).

Meanwhile I have read three of henry Williamson’s animal sagas; namely Tarka the Otter, Brock the Badger and Chak-Chek the Peregrine (thanks to my brother in law Geoff). As I expected I find each of the tales different from when I last read them. Firstly, of course they represent a way of life that simply no longer exists: a time of otter hunting and rural isolation. Secondly I noticed the absolute richness in detail and description. But, most noticeably they are just not sentimental, anthropomorphic tales but well-constructed and very credible. So glad to have originally read them (with affectionate support from my maternal grandmother and a wonderful teacher (Mrs Clarke) … but also pleased to have read them again. Only Salar the Salmon to go now.

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“Fall back, spring forward,” we remind each other in a state about which way to dial the controls of the central heating. Thinking about it “fall” is such a more resonant name for this season, is it true that this was the accepted name back in the day here in England?

My mother, while not looking forward to darker nights is somewhat stoical about it:

“Sooner we start,” she said, “sooner it’s Christmas and it starts getting lighter again.”

But, as I rise this morning, 30th October, the heating is on-time, the day is reasonable (we spend time clearing out an old brick path in the back garden. We laid it when our daughters were  so much smaller and it has been overtaken by “benign neglect”, but looks better for our efforts. The stove is in use again – boys with toys (and why not?).

And, ready for Halloween there is a muted display in the front porch: my idea of coating sprouts in melted chocolate for any trick or treaters was not taken seriously, so there is a small basket of sweets by the front door.

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Assuming we can get it unlocked; it seems to be malfunctioning – a great idea for a Halloween episode of Twilight Zone or what?

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Surprise Present.

Wasn’t at home for my birthday …

Was making a speech-ette at a ceremony down in Devon where my sister in law and her husband were renewing their vows. Managed a few fine walks and visited Cleeve Abbey and Arlington Court: the first was the greatest exposition I have come across so far of how pre-English Reformation abbeys worked as communities and within their communities, the second had an impressive Victorian ornamental garden, backed by a walled kitchen garden. With this stunning “minibeasts hotel” in an alcove:

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But during various walks on the edges of autumnal Exmoor and, particularly scrambling over damp, seaweed slapped, tide-rounded rocks the width of low-water Lynmouth beach to reach the sea on a very pleasant morning I felt the urge to re-read Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter. (My brother-in-law has since loaned me one; one he originally borrowed from Wolverhampton library a hundred and some years ago.)

Meanwhile our daughters had been getting together and buying a most unexpected present. Visiting the oldest on Sunday I was able to unwrap it and assemble it. Wonderful. Cannot remember exactly what I was thinking when I took the wrapper off the first present: a wrought iron fire poker …

Monday was a fine warm day, with a cooling wind. The deciduous trees are shedding their leaves, the lawn has been mown for what we hope is the final time and I wanted, like a small kid, to play with the fire-stove. No chance, we had washing outside drying – so did the neighbours.

Tuesday was our other daughter’s birthday and we met her and her partner at Twycross Zoo and had an evening meal at their house (thanks kids!)

But this morning I was up and in the back garden a little after nine. Nobody had any washing out and I fired up the fuel, using just three of the chimney pipes. It lit up well enough and I put some water in the also-birthday present, cast iron kettle and set it on the top to boil.

Meanwhile I was nearby, using the plywood a kind neighbour let us have, trying to build a box to keep all of the pots/seed trays and greenhouse swaggage in. Because there is a lot of stuff from around the garden that needs to over-winter in the greenhouse – and we need to make the space. Now I think I’m a scrounger, but our neighbour (let’s call him Mr Plummer) actually takes a white van and collects stuff from local building companies. It saves them paying the tipping costs – and he gets the material. He has a couple of houses with wood burners, but is more than generous with his caches.

So, rather than make the job fit the material I am in the unique position of, my own lack of skills notwithstanding, making a suitable container. Three feet by two so it can sit on a concrete slab found when we cleaned out behind the long timber garage sized garden shed. And, measuring up the plywood I opted for two layers of the flooring off-cuts. Mr Plummer had also selflessly suggested and supplied timber battens. I’ll use a couple of the half rounds from the one time compost heap to lift it off the ground and the black timber preservative I bought for the wormery insulating box (the beasts inside this multiplying in Biblical proportions and the “worm tea” has filled every available container we have!)

Meanwhile, beneath the laburnum by the side of the shed the wood is burning, smoke issuing from the “spark arrester” and the kettle beginning to boil. It all looks very rustic and in need of a grazing horse, a shallow stream and a primrose yellow varda. Back to reality, we decide to tip the boiling water from the first kettle away (it has taken about fifteen minutes to go from room temperature to boiling) away and set it to go again. To cleanse any residual taste from the cast iron pot.

A mere ten minutes later we are settling down to sample the first tea brewed on the new stove.

To put it politely it has a very unusual taste. We are, admittedly not used to drinking water that has been boiled over a fire in an iron pot and may need to wash the kettle a few times before we can actually drink a whole mug.

This feels something like a betrayal and I feel a little guilty… though still extremely pleased with the present. It works a treat.

Theft! The Plot, Sometimes, Sickens!

Our pears have been stolen!

There; it has been written!

A shameful, cowardly act by person or persons unknown.

A Doyenne du Comice tree we bought from Lidl five years ago that has been producing reasonable crops of sweet tasting, melt-in-the-mouth dessert pears ever since was absolutely loaded …

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… and we were looking forward to gathering them in and sharing them with family and friends. Near enough sixty pears hanging there like decorations – taken!

Brutal, ugly act! Thieves!

I hesitate to use the more rural, rascally terms “scrumped” and “scrumpers” which in my mind refer to small scale, prankish taking of a few fruit – by schoolboys, typically or cheeky drunks.

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But, the true damage done by such an act goes far beyond the actual loss. For it makes the victim immediately suspicious. The allotment, in this case is private property, accessed through locked gates (members atre the only ones with keys). Does this make it an inside job? Could it have been So-and-So, up the middle road? Or what about … ?

What about the noisy lads from the house next-door, whose father is attempting to annexe the allotment hedgerow, even though it is beyond an eight foot fence he had erected some years ago – and nearly destroyed said hedge into the bargain. They have been hanging over the top of the fence a lot recently, and their football came over once (“never heard that one before,”).

Or … ?

I reported the missing pears to the Chairman. His reaction, while sympathetic, was to say that others had had fruit go missing too. In fact, he told me, by his (Conference) pear tree there was a indeed pear on the ground with a bite mark in it: suggesting that somebody had checked to see whether his fruit were ripe.

Now I don’t expect a lot, but I would have thought that, at the very least there would be notices put up on the site notice boards warning people to be on their guard; maybe suggesting getting fruit in as soon as ripe.

This committee? Not a sausage! I mean it’s not like I was expecting CSI Allotment teams to descend, measure the bite mark, take statements and measure jaws is it?

My first – and extremely paranoid – reaction was to load up and take home the pumpkins. They looked just too damned tempting. And Hallowe’en is creeping up on us, right? Pumpkins stolen to order: OK, maybe my imagination was getting ahead of me. But anyway, with foliage dying off they were ready to bring home: the autumn ritual, waiting for delivery to our daughters for carving and on their way to what is usually a starring role both on October 31st and at the November 5th family bonfire.

Next obvious target the loaded apple trees: Bramley Seedling, Cox’s Orange Pippin, James Grieve and an anonymous tree that came, anonymously from a supermarket.

Then off to the local Sainsbury’s to get some of those custom made, extra-stiff cardboard boxes and fillers they have their apples delivered in. What could be better for storing apples after all?

I am sure that in the past I have seen such boxes by the check-out tills available for customers to use to carry their shopping in. Alas, alack; not today; only sadly ripped, still- colourful boxes that once held bottles of wine.

The Plantation Owner’s Wife, unlike me however, is determined. She asks one of the members of staff that she knows. A decent guy usually, on this occasion he cannot help, saying that the boxes are taken out to the back and baled up for recycling. Company policy. He says it flatly, (like it’s some kind of Animal Farm regulation). Re-cycling: while this is good and commendable practice it is not what we want to hear. And me? Feeling downcast as if faced by Mighty Corporation Will I am prepared to accept it (though no doubt I’ll mutter darkly about it later). However, not to be put off by this small setback the Plantation owner’s Wife glides off to the fruit aisles and asks another member of staff. A lady who is, as we approach – me very definitely in the discreet background, and looking somewhere else – rearranging the tangerines in the displays.

Once the whole idea has been explained this lady could not have been more helpful. Expertly she empties layers of apples into new boxes and lifts out three deeper apple boxes for us, complete with fillers while I am grabbing an orange box. This is real service – and I am cheered and refreshed by it: my thanks to this lady (who should remain anonymous, not least because we didn’t get her name).

Back at home the apples are sorted, efficiently packed and, once they are made-to-measure built, stacked on the shelves.

The Marvellous Insanity

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There are jobs to be done.

That’s the marvellous insanity of the human race, but especially so if you are an allotmenteer.

We are in some desperate haste to get the potato crop in: there is blight on the site (is it not inevitable, given that crops have been grown there – and intensively for over a hundred years?), the weather is getting wetter, and we have insidious keel slugs that, given time damage every tuber without appearing above ground (like Satan’s unterseebooten waging a campaign to deny us Picassos and Arran Pilots).

But, before we can, realistically get the spuds in, we have to have somewhere to store ‘em.

The garage is proving a great storehouse (of anything other than a car, of course) but needs tidying out. Especially since we are expecting a bumper crop. Not all down to our potato-green-fingered skills but to the fact that the site shop seemed to have provided more seed potatoes than we think we had ordered – and we promptly planted the whole lot: a total of twenty one rows with at least eight seed potatoes in each row: you do the computations if you can. For me ‘tis fairly simple;

Twenty one times eight = stacks!

There’s gonna be a lot of space needed. Of course we have been digging and eating the earlies – and every root has been gorgeously loaded: quantity of tubers and size! All from ground that has had home-made compost incorporated over the years, a hand full of chicken-muck pellets and some proprietary potato fertiliser in each hole with a seed spud.

We also need to tidy out said garage in order to move anything through it; our access to the rear garden is via the garage you see. Oh and to find the paper bags (Malvern Wheat Flour, Acme Horse Nuts and Niger Seeds for Birds) to ultimately put the potatoes in.

But I also decide that, to rationalise things, we probably need a two decker assembly to stack up the filled bags: using half of the floor space and allowing air to circulate.

So, after literally dumping masses of no-longer needed text books and papers into the recycling bin, sweeping the concrete floor and sending photos to our daughters* I am out the back, figuring out how to convert pallets into the shelving needed.

It needs bracing, a number of nuts and bolts and is impressive when finished. Though I do have to take it to pieces to get it inside the garage. Note to self:

“Consider working where you are going to need the product in future.”

Meanwhile I am dropping some potato peelings into the wormery when another thought strikes me. The wormery has been a successful digression but, by rights should go back into the garage over winter. Low temperatures slow down the processes and might even kill off the very productive worms. We could do with keeping it outside the back door. So perhaps I could construct a box to insulate it?

Not unusually I begin looking for suitable sizes of wood as I am bolting the pallet decking together.

It takes three half day sessions to get the potatoes dug up and transported back home. I have a new car and am discouraged from carrying “dirty stuff” – though I am not sure how long this can be kept up. Sadly, inevitably perhaps some of the tubers are indeed blighted. That dreadful, ironically unearthly stink that comes with the decay.

Alan said up on site that we were making a big mistake putting them straight into bags. So, once home we reconsider and tip the bags out onto the garage floor to dry out: Alan’s advice, grimly given at times is always worth listening to.

And we definitely needed that extra space in the garage.

 

 

*prompting the inevitable responses: “Whose garage is that then?” and “you’ve been busy!”

 

Spot the Difference ?

It’s true to say I have been away from WordPress for a while – a rest is as good as a change – but this is the first of a couple of pieces, published now some six weeks after it was drafted (so out of synch with the seasons).

Still wonderfully, hectically busy at the allotment. And at home.

Where, earlier in the year there didn’t seem to be enough time to dig the ground, get the seeds in (trays or soil), pricked out, potted on, planted out, netted …

… and definitely not enough space in the greenhouse to keep all of the grow bags, pots, seed trays … You get the picture don’t you?

Now, at the opposite end of the year, there doesn’t seem to be enough time to keep up with the harvesting. And distributing the surplus.

What a wonderful year it has been; the successes, the experiments and the could-do-betters. But it is a full time pastime just dealing with everything that is ripe and ready to be picked. Lettuces bolting, potatoes dying back, apples and pears bending branches to the ground as they swell.

And courgettes? Don’t get me started on these little blighters: camouflaged from sight, silently doubling in size by the hour: yellows and greens. The neighbours have started diving under their tables when we ring their doorbells to ask if they’d like a(nother) couple of courgettes.

And in the greenhouse peppers that refuse to flower, cucumbers that do nothing but and tomatoes having foliage taken off to increase the rate of ripening.

But, weirdly one of the cucumbers has taken it upon itself to banana up. The remainder of the crop are steadfastly green. This one, like the ugly duckling (that was actually a swan) is definitely banana-yellow. But, sorry and all that but still a cucumber. Plantation Owner’s Wife, is at her wit’s end, finding recipes that’ll use up courgettes (we have them in cakes, roast, fried, baked and grated) but reckons the cuke is firm and useable (it’s not like there aren’t plenty more, green-standard, recognisable ones where it came from) so we will see. How different, after all can it be?

Up on the plot when I explain this to Alan, he suggests keeping seed to see what happens to the next generation. I am tempted: would the vine be cluttered with all-yellow cucumbers?

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As I once told a schoolboy who refused to eat “Bulgarian food” (literally an undressed salad) in Bulgaria;

“You like water don’t you?”

“That’s a cucumber: it’s only water shaped like a cucumber. Try it.”

He did, He’d never eaten cucumber – or lettuce – at home (hard to imagine I know, but there you go …). Bless ‘im; for try it he did … and enjoyed it. The same argument worked with lettuce (again, the same result) but fell flat when it came to radish: mostly water, but with an unexpected bite!

From downstairs, as I type in my clumsy, two-fingered style wafts the rich smell of baking: plums rival courgettes this year: and cakes use up some of each; marvellous!

…and that has me hungry, see you later?

 

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