Posts Tagged ‘potatoes’

Work Hard or Starve*





The things we do as allotmenteers must have the local residents** wondering.


The Plantation Owner’s Wife and I recently took reams of newspapers and old supermarket apple boxes up to the plot and painstakingly pegged them out over our growing potatoes: Arran Pilot, Desiree and Roosters. We also used ripped fleece but didn’t have anywhere near enough to do the whole job.

It was an emergency measure to keep off a predicted late frost as we simply don’t have enough fleece (which is, if anything a redeeming sign of some sanity perhaps). The rows have already been earthed up and the haulms looked really healthy.

On the way out, stopping to introduce ourselves to some newbies we spotted a stack “stuff” piled against the “dungeon”. The dungeon is our name for a concrete sectional garage that was initially used as shop, store, rent-collection office and general “dumping ground” by the committee when we first took on a plot.

Since then, go-ahead, community minded committees (and, yes I was a part of these committees, so forgive a certain lack of modesty) acquired a couple of freight containers, expanded the site shop and community involvement so that the dungeon is becoming “surplus to requirements”. The current committee, it appears had cleaned out this old kit and what was leaning against the wall was free of charge (ask anybody who knows me: my favourite price!)

The newbies were, in the finest of allotment traditions, grabbing tools that they didn’t already have: reminding me of a time when we only had a spade with a wonky handle, a shovel (with no handle) and a digging fork with a bent tine. We encouraged them to take whatever they thought they needed: they could repair or cannibalise it, couldn’t they?

And the application of a wire brush and a lick of paint can, after all, make such a difference … and next time you come to dig there’s maybe a spade each; and the work gets done so much faster!

We pick up a spade (for our daughter who, even as we swoop, is setting up raised beds at her house), two Dutch hoes (which will find their way to both of our daughters), a stiff-bristled broom and an unusually shaped tool that, held onto a stave that looks too spindly with two bent nails and a Posi-drive screw, looks something like a draw hoe with a cast iron blade that comes to a point. Ideal, I am thinking, for making furrows to plant peas.

Back at home the spade takes very little effort: some earnest hammering to remove lumps of concrete, a wire brush, some emery cloth, some left-over Hammerite (gold of all colours!) and hey presto!


I am more circumspect with the “hoe”, removing the nails and screw first (easy enough), then wedging the blade securely before beginning to remove the rust, which is more advanced than on the spade: years of it rather than months. Looking closely I can see letters (?) appearing. My default metal cleaner comes into use, half a cupful of gone-flat Coca-Cola brings a sharpness tot he metal (goodness only knows what it does to your insides then!).

Yes, definitely!


I recognise the  “broad arrow” symbol as that of the War Department. The numbers then, presumably, a date. The penultimate year of World War Two. Why on earth does a horticultural implement have this stamped on it. And Brades? Somebody’s name?

I fire up the computer and simply type the whole thing into a search engine. Following one or two diversions to selling sites I come across the following information:

BRADES is a brand name of implements cast by a Birmingham company William Hunt and Sons (WHS is another of their brand names (not the bookshops, by the way)). The following from Wikipedia:

“The founder of the company, William Hunt, was an edge tool maker at Rowley Regis, near DudleyWorcestershire, in the late 18th century. In 1782 he purchased the Brades Estate at Oldbury, near Birmingham, and established a new works there known as Brades Forge, or simply as The Brades. By 1805 they were also manufacturing steel on the site, which was now known as the Brades Steel Works. Around 1793, Hunt took W. Cliffe into partnership, and for a short period the firm was known as Hunt and Cliffe: this name appears in the company’s first ledger, dated 9 May 1794. This partnership dissolved around 1803, and Hunt continued trading on his own account until 1809, when he took his sons into partnership and the firm became known as William Hunt & Sons.”

While on the internet I also find this striking, if somewhat chilling, image:


Vintage Military Tools & Equipment Gallery

The Implement, Intrenching, pattern 1908 – Head, Mark II replaced the Mark I issue with List of Changes entry §15905, dated 4th August 1911

Note that this is similar to the Mark 1

Stores Ref. J1/JA 6022 Implement, entrenching, Patt. ’37, helve, Mark II, complete with bayonet adaptor. This version had an adapter fitting on the end, so that a “spike” Bayonet from the Lee-Enfield No. 4 Rifle could be fitted to it, for use as a mine probe.

This picture (one of many), I found particularly fascinating. Looking closely at the rear of the “business end” of the blade I have been renovating it is clear a piece has been, accidentally or deliberately removed. Perhaps the stave it is now fastened to is not it’s original either. And, clearly, given this most peremptory of research, this is a military entrenching tool; for digging in, latrine digging, sandbag filling. Once I know this I view the thing in a far different light. The pattern is from 1908, so similar tools would have dug trenches in the Great War.

How would they have been carried: one per soldier? Strapped to the turrets of tanks? By certain troops only?

Was the one I have involved in the D-Day invasions? What, if any campaigns did it witness?

Was it still in military use beyond the end of the Second World War? My own father-in-law (God bless him, no longer with us) was a post-war conscript stationed in Egypt (where he learned to dislike tinned pineapples because they were served ad nauseum) and, ironically, one of his tasks was the routine clearance of minefields.

And the sixty-four thousand dollar question: how did it get to our allotments site?

A real shame that the current committee didn’t look more closely at what they wre about to discard. The “entrenching tool” would have made an excellent addition (a “shed prop” maybe) in what was conceived as a “World war One Legacy Garden, meant to commemorate those from the parish whose lives were changed by service in the ’14 – ’18 war and any subsequent conflicts. In fact a couple of wooden D-handled forks that were also part of the clear out would have helped to set the scene, just stood in the plot.

I am sure the local historians*** would like to have a gleg at this, so take it along to their regular open morning. I – unfairly – permit myself a smug smile as they, speaking too soon, identify it as a potato hoe. They are, however, intrigued by the little research I have done and I leave it with them for a while. They may be able to add more to the knowledge …

… and, hopefully, it still has years of functional work left in it. They knew how to make things back in those days.


* WHS was also a brand mark: the piece-workers there referred to it, perhaps only jokingly  as “Work hard or Starve” (Trust me this’ll make more sense when you’ve read the whole piece!)

**especially the house directly next door where they have fake, plastic flowered globes suspended from a wall as hanging baskets and impossibly green artificial grass around their outbuildings.

**Cheslyn Hay and District Local Historical Society




Plans, Planes and Plasterboard Pallets

I first met Cornelia (see Cornelia’s blog at ) some years ago in Brasov.

She seemed intelligent, curious, sociable … and spoke incredible English (with intuitive understanding of both idiom and my – some would say peculiar – sense of humour). Our friendship developed in the few days together and we remain connected in a way that social media is so good at allowing us to do.

What then was more natural than inviting her to come and stay with us when she found herself in London as part of an international project?

She capably managed the train journey to Birmingham International and we spent some fine times together as she learned, for sure, that England is about more than London.

She visited the allotment and was absolutely captivated by the sense of growing and community on the site. So much so that she volunteered to go back and hoe potatoes: above and beyond the call or what?


Watching BBC Countryfile (an item on Jersey potatoes, famous here as the first new potatoes we get from within the U.K.) she is nonplussed. The tubers are tiny, there are so few of them. In Romania it seems they plant the potatoes in autumn, snow stops them sprouting and they are harvested in prodigious amounts in June. You live and learn eh?

Image result for jersey potatoes harvest

It is fantastic to compare gardening and agricultural notes with someone from another national background.

In a leisurely fashion we walked over Cannock Chase (Brocton Coppice down to the stepping stones with an obligatory tea and cake at the Springslade Tea Rooms). We visited Lichfield Cathedral where I lit a candle for Cristina ( a mutual friend) and looked at the historical buildings around about.

Image result for brocton coppice cannock chase   Image result for stepping stones cannock chase  Image result for lichfield cathedral

Too soon, of course she had to leave and both the Plantation Owner’s Wife and I were sad to see her go. Real friendship is a marvellous thing, but the penalty of international ones is the inevitable time you must spend apart.

I drove her to Manchester Airport, dropped her off at the wrong terminal and joined a traffic jam for several hours on the way home.

Then my mother visits. She is flying from Birmingham to Valencia via Amsterdam on Thursday. Can I take her to the airport? No problem I reply. It means I have to be up in time to get her there for oh-seven-thirty but it is manageable.

Image result for birmingham airport

After all she did use my internet to check in for the flight: change the seats, ask me to leave my mobile ‘phone number instead of using her own (for flight up-dates and latest info) and give my e-mail address too.

I don’t sleep very well; get up before the alarm goes off, turn it off and mooch about until the appointed time. We make good time, I pay the one-pound minimum charge at the car park and, once again – you’ve guessed it – join lengthy queues to get home.

Plantation Owner’s Wife meanwhile was unable to sleep because a scaffolding team arrived very early to dismantle the equipment from the house next door but one. I try and sleep for an hour, but eventually give up, get up and set about that bench-from –pallets project.

So, it’s out of the garden shed with my trusty, ancient Black and Decker Workmate, two seen-better-days saws and a dyspraxic’s-dream tool box.

Then my ‘phone goes; the train-entering-a-station ring tone that annoys me, but that I, lazily, cannot be bothered to alter.

It’s KLM. My mother’s flight has been cancelled. She can fly tomorrow, they will book her on to the flight … can they speak to her about these changes?

Of course not!

She’s at the bluddy airport!

If only she had given them her ‘phone number instead of …

So I ring my brother. He is ferrying his daughter and we smile about the confusion and potential chaos.

He will ring her, let her know, fetch her or ring me.

Fine: back to my tantric bench building.

For ten minutes. I hear the house ‘phone, nearly kill myself running through the house to answer it (I really should tie my laces when I am working and racing about!)

This time it’s mom. She has persuaded KLM to pay for her to stay overnight at the Airport Hotel. All is fine. To save her paying for a text could I please ring my sister to explain all?

Before she can give me further taskettes to do my brother calls on the mobile ‘phone. I put the ‘phone down to mom. My mother is not answering her ‘phone, he tells me. Either she has switched it off. Or cannot hear it.

I explain the story-so-far.

Phew! We can both go back to our normal lives – as normal as is possible in twenty first century Britain anyway.

Back to planning that bench: now where was I?


Parsnips for Canada ?

Just back from a second day of actual work up on the plot.

Yeah, yeah, yeah we’ve been delivering kitchen scraps and some fortuitously collected horse muck to the compost heap on a fairly regular basis, but work …?

So, at long last, days off and a warm, dry spell coincide and we can get to setting things up.

And the first job is to prune the autumn fruiting raspberries, dig them out wholesale and untangle the nets of bindweed roots that are invading the patch. This is a truly pernicious weed, and amazingly tenacious and alien-like tricksy. If the smallest portion of root survives a whole new plant is created.

Image result for bindweed roots Image result for bindweed roots

The soil is still heavy, a little waterlogged and frosted and my fingers get cold.

But the work is satisfying. There are others up there too. Hard at work, preparing ground that has been too wet and heavy to work. It has not been a cold winter, but unusually heavy rains have dogged traditional winter digging.

People are taking up the last sprouts, cabbage, leeks and. Of course parsnips, which always taste better, traditional wisdom says after those roots have been frosted.

Parsnips there remind me of a discussion on the train to Crewe on Saturday. A farmer somewhere couldn’t make enough money from his potato crops, so he diversified into using the potatoes for crisps: he set up the equipment at home and started. It was extremely successful: the birth of Tyrrel’s crisps based in Leominster, Herefordshire. Their web-site – – is unashamedly nostalgic, but fiercely designer-label and, no doubt based on the latest psychology.

Image result for tyrrells chips

But … he was still growing more potatoes than he could actually use for crisps, so wondered what else he could do; that involved growing potatoes (at which he was clearly very successful).

Some Polish workers, apparently mentioned vodka, and that was that.

Product duly completed he set about marketing it: going to the best of London hotels, to local independent shops, to other prestige outlets, telling the buyers that this was the finest English vodka; that it would sell at £30 per bottle.

A fine, self-assured style of marketing:  it worked. After Tyrell’s Crisps came Chase vodka.

Love a success story!

But then in the local paper (Express and Star) was the story of Little Hay (near Lichfield) farmers, the Bartletts, who are shipping parsnips to the U.S. of A. to be made into crisps as there is the paper says a shortage of parsnips in North America this year.

“The business,” the paper details, “was established in the 1950s … when, at that time, it was on a site of just 50 acres. Today the father and son partnership … own 600 acres of Staffordshire and rent several hundred more …”

They also have a web-site – – and, brilliantly the parsnips they grow are Staffordshire Gold.

marketing  packing

Getting this little “creative county” of mine on the maps eh?

But, speaking of crisps: there is a brief discussion in my house – the night before the bins go out or collection: can Walker’s Crisp bags be recycled. me? I am absolutely sure that they can be – until I check. The silver inside them is not actual metal foil (of course it isn’t, how could it be, I realise now) and the bags have to be put into household waste. There is, however a charity that’ll ship ’em out from Southampton to the Philippines where they will be made into household items. However unlikely this sounds it was definitely on the internet, er somewhere.

Hedges and Wedding Parties.

As well as severely cutting back the escallonia hedge in our front garden I have massacred the four Leylandii shrubs, which for some years I have pretended to use as topiary (while actually just cutting them back as much as I could get away with). Eventually these plants will have to go, but I currently wait for instructions from the Chief. In the meantime an endearing and extremely industrious par of blue tits are using the nearest stump as a stop off and look point for the nest they have constructed in a nest box on the wall made by our daughters and I many years past.

Image result for blue tit nest box

Also, because I was having trouble getting out of my car door I have taken liberties with (a.k.a. butchered) the “twisted hazel” in the garden itself. Finely twisted shapes in autumn and winter, and elegant tassel-catkins in spring. But a significant portion of it is sliced out, stems with a diameter of two and a bit inches is serious trimming in my book.  Offered to a flower arranging club, we piled the contorted stems into the back of the Vectra and set off to deliver them. The Wesleyan Chapel on the Walsall Road? No, but the car park was crowded with people celebrating Maundy Thursday as part of Christian Easter. The actual flower club meets in Cheslyn Hay, so we duly went on our way. They were, of course, delighted. The armfuls of material had eyes popping and jaws dropping. We were glad to be rid of it – and that somebody could make use of it. However (sneaky note) I have saved enough to have a bash at making a walking stick (the bush is sometimes nicknamed Harry Lauder’s walking Stick after the Scots comedian).

Image result for contorted hazel

Good Friday we were lucky enough to have been invited to a wedding, held on the outskirts of Wolverhampton. A delightful civil ceremony attended by both families and numerous friends, and including banghra drumming,  a somewhat eccentric toastmaster, Indian menu, dry ice, fine speeches, humour and friends I have not bumped into for … well, shall we diplomatically say a couple of years ? A damp day fizzed into life with a splendid social occasion. Best wishes to the bride and groom for the future.

Back to the allotment and preparing the ground for potatoes, planting some early radish and lettuce under a cloche (which blew away during strong winds during the week) and clearing newly sprung weeds. Some work will be needed to repair the compost bins, but, originally made from the “upcycled” sawn-to- measure walls of a former shed, they have already lasted longer than I could have imagined.

There has been frogspawn in one of the two ponds up at the allotment for many weeks now. It was not until, quite literally today, that any appeared in the pond in our back garden. Aubretia, crocus, dandelions, ribes and daffodils offer nectar to early insects, but we have some spectacularly large bumble bees, active and flying even in the showers, visiting the stately pieris in our shrubbery. Now that we are past the equinox and have weathered some strong end-of-March winds it feels as if the earth is getting warmer. Primroses and cowslips crouch ready to burst out and our later flowering rhododendron has massive, promising flower buds.

DSC02835 DSC02836

Any ideas about how to turn “green wood” into a decent walking stick?

Patience Is Key.

Image result for keys

It started off as one of those days; the sort I guess we all have – and would happily manage without. I am no longer a member of our allotments committee, which met earlier this week. But was certainly surprised to have an e-mail from them that, I believed (and still believe) suggested that the path running from the central roadway to my two plots (as far away from any water as it is possible to get without being in a desert) was unsafe.

Perhaps I was feeling a little paranoid anyway, but the un-necessarily officious tone and words had me sending a reply, seeking some clarification and suggesting a meeting on site this morning. 9.30 !

Quietly getting ready this morning we then discovered we could not find either set of our keys. How was that possible? I had been up to the allotment on Wednesday evening, having collected some stable sweepings on the way home from Tamworth – and via the monthly Reading Group meeting at the local library (this month’s book: The Little Book Thief). It had been dark as I opened the gates, but the yellow friendly light of the “street lights in the yard of the neighbouring house made it possible to see so easily what I was doing. I must have had the keys or I could not have got through the always-locked gates. The following day I had cleared out the car to visit our daughter. A fine day out, lunching on a decently sized burger in a tea-shop with broken down central heating.

This morning? Searched high and low. Several times. Then decided to take a chance, hope there was someone there to let us in (and out) to resolve the issue.

To find out that the lock on the gates had been smashed and – at least four – people have had rotavators stolen from locked sheds on site. Process demands that each plot holder reports the crime to the police separately, presumably each being given a crime number.

Chairman agreed our paths were no threat to life and limb, the secretary explaining that it would be helpful if, with the guy next door (where the slabs are actually like see-saw planks … and worse still if wet or frosted) get together to “sort it out” between us. I am not sure if that is actually practicable: we rarely bump into each other and I should not “trespass” on his plot … that may be the basis of another post (watch this space).

But we were let out and returned home to search – once again – for the keys. At the back of my mind a nagging worry that I may have left the keys in the padlock, some blackguard had found them, used them to let themselves in with a flatbed truck and help themselves to property. I was sure it hadn’t happened that way, but I was once sure that female robins did not have redbreasts.

Searched. Clothes, cars, garage, garden shed, bedrooms, magazine rack. Looked. Under furniture, beneath cushions on the three piece suite, behind the bookcase in the hall.

Image result for search

Eventually they were found. Both pairs of keys. In my car. In the “ash tray”.

I breathed again. First we do not need to pay for new keys. Secondly we do not have to dismantle the shed and fit a new padlock. Thirdly, most importantly I was not responsible for the theft of equipment.

I returned to the plot this afternoon. A bit more over-digging, weeding; had the camera in case that robin that had done the traditional sit-on-the-spade-handle and take worms from the soil appeared again. No. Noticed even more frogspawn in the ponds and popped a couple of teasels into the “wildlife patch”. And hazel catkins swinging crazily in the spring breezes. Dogwood prunings are on site ready to serve as pea sticks and the soil is beginning to dry out from the saturated state it has been in.

Image result for robin on a spade handle

It was the first truly warm day of the year; we have had sunny days before but none so extravagantly hot! The birds are collecting nesting materials; magpies have built two nests, one in an ash and the second in a silver birch at the back of our house and two robins regularly feed together at our bird table. Crocuses are flaunting their beautiful colours and nectar and a few lucky honeybees are getting the benefits.

Image result for field of crocuses

Potatoes are chitting in the downstairs loo. So many of them the room is out of order for “usual business”.

All in all maybe Saturday did not end so badly.




by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
This one came to light at a poetry group I attend at Great Wyrley Library (last Wednesday of each month). The theme was “Work and Leisure”.
Something about this one struck me: something indefinable. Work versus leisure? The roles then and now?

Taking The Pea?


My fault – of course.
Been part of a working party up at the site this morning: clearing rubble from the place we are going to build raised beds (for people with some disabilities and, perhaps school/community groups).
The weather forecast had not been good, but it stayed fine; large blue skies, little wind and no rain. With nine turning up to lend a hand we made good time. Moved pallets, black plastic sheeting* that has kept the ground beneath marvellously weed free, bricks, slabs, timber and a shed (the roof in one go, the door next and with “sedan-chair” handles nailed to the sides of it the four walls and floor in the third lift). Clever thinking and the people to do it, that’s cooperation.
We were also able to cut a long length of the inside of the hedges. The parish council are responsible for the outsides and tops of the hedge, plot holders for the insides.


Then a quick inspection of our own plot: Lots of small apples on the trees now that the blossom stage is past. The newly raised, raised bed is looking established. It is much higher and that feels a little strange at the moment. The potatoes I spent most of yesterday earthing up still look a little battered, but they usually do – and soon recover.
Peas seem to be recovering from the pesky little beetles (?) that take bits out of the young leaves, turnips, pumpkins, squashes, lettuce all looking settled and flowers on the broad beans … before coming home for a lamb dinner. Dessert? Rhubarb from the plot and custard.
I then started to talk about going back up to plant a second row of peas … if it didn’t rain. Less than thirty minutes later, a sharp wind moved in, bending the buddleia and escallonia hedges and shaking the small-leaved lime tree in our back garden.
Three flashes of lightning and fistfight punches of rolling thunder!
Then heavy-artillery rain, flooding the gutters on the house as it fell so fiercely. The sky so greyly overcast.
So … no planting peas then**.
But, on the bright side: the space is cleared and that feels very positive. We have plans for Finning Caterpillar to send a machine and driver up tomorrow to do some earthworks, moving soil, levelling and setting out the site. It will be good to get the work done as it has been in the planning/talking stage for a long time already.
Now, just hoping that, if I keep quiet the weather will be OK for our organised trip to Gardener’s World Live on Saturday.
*Builders sheeting: I would now recommend this for use as a ground clearing method: it clearly worked on this site.
** Actually, just back from shopping, the weather looks good – just saying – maybe I’ll go and throw a row of peas in.


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