All the things I’ve messed up

Every so often I bump into someone who’s seen my allotment pictures on Instagram (@helenstallard) and they’ll say something along the lines of ‘wow, your veg is so much better than ours’! And of course I nod and smile but really it’s a big fat lie. Like everyone else I’m guilty of accentuating the positive and forgetting to record all the times that I cock up. So in the spirit of fairness, and as a learning exercise for future allotmenting, here are the Allotment Issues of 2018. There are many.

 

  1. The thicket of brambles and nettles

The area at the back of the plot has always been a bit of a wasteland but this year it has reached new (literal) heights. There are stinging nettles in there that are taller than me, brambles as thick as my arm. Well that is maybe a slight exaggeration….but this is not a good situation. The compost bin is pretty much inaccessible now, and bindweed is strangling the rosemary. It needs a day or two of determined effort to sort it out, but I have neither days nor determination.

The dilapidated greenhouse and compost bin is overrun with grasses, bramble, nettles and bindweed

but at least we’ll get some bonus blackberries this year

2. Tomato rot

I get blossom end rot every year and am resigned to it, but this year we have a new tomato-based calamity. The tiny fruits are shrivelling and turning black whilst still the size of a large pea: rot has set in. I don’t know what’s caused it but suspect it’s the difference between soaring 40c daytime temperatures and overnight chills (I don’t close the greenhouse door at night, don’t have the opportunity). I’ve lost about 50% of the crop to this. Very irritating.

50% of the baby tomatoes have turned shrivelled and black

3. Blackfly infestation

The runner beans have grown, which is in itself a miracle, but are now covered in black fly. These little critters are sucking the plants dry and seriously reducing the crop. There’s too many for predators to keep at bay and I won’t spray a crop that we’re going to eat, so I don’t think much can be done.

Infestation of blackfly on the runner beans

4. Errors of propagation

In fairness this isn’t entirely my fault, but the cosmos and other cut flowers aren’t thriving in this dry hot summer. I’m giving them a weekly water but it’s not enough; in previous years we’d have 5-foot bushes of cosmos by now, humming with butterflies and bees. These were all grown from seed but the first lot were thinned carefully and planted out as sturdy individual plants (my Mum did this, obvs) whilst the second ones – mine – were planted two seeds to a pot, didn’t get thinned (I forgot) and got planted out when still a bit too small. They are beyond crap. Next year I need to try harder.

These cosmos are taking ages and ages to flower…

…but at least they’re healthy, unlike these ones

I also tried some Bells of Ireland this year. Once again they were planted out waaaay too early, and then nearly got hoed as I mistook the seedlings for weeds. So survival is in itself an achievement – but they should be loads taller than this.

The Bells of Ireland should be calf-height, but they’re about the size of my little hand

The cornflowers are also stunted, and the chrysanthemums don’t look especially healthy. I’m not sure what the problem is/was. Maybe all the chi chi English cut flower growers that I follow have these issues too but also choose not to share them on Instagram?

5. Poor fruit harvest

In previous years I’ve filled massive cake-tins with blackcurrants, redcurrants, raspberries and strawberries but this summer the harvest is poor. In particular, I’ve got a mere few hundred grams of blackcurrants. I’m wondering if these old grand dame bushes are nearing the end of their life – they must be at least a decade old. Must look it up. On the plus side, we do have gooseberries for the first time this year.

This year’s blackcurrant harvest is pitiful!

This is by no means the end of the cock-ups. I’ve not even mentioned the back garden that looked good during May and June, and then – paradoxically – seems to shrivel and become a jungle at the same time. But I have come to understand though that it’s in the mistakes that you can actually learn. Planting errors are an opportunity to find creative solutions and new planting schemes. Bug infestations are an opportunity to get a closer look at nature. They all teach you to let go, little by little. Life lessons on the allotment.

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After the flood

What a stonker of a May it’s been. A May of sundresses, chilled rose wine on the terrace, abundant blossom and verdant green leaf. It was a long time coming of course – only 10 or so weeks ago we were still in deep snow – and now we pay the price with thunder storms and torrential rain. On Sunday Harborne experienced 58mm of rain in 1 hour – that apparently is what would normally be expected in a month – so you could say that it got a little soggy. I should not be glib about this as parts of the city have experienced genuinely devastating floods, and a man had to be rescued from his car on the Hagley Road, about half a mile from our house. The lightening above Birmingham was epic, from a Hammer horror film. But the worst damage I can claim is that five of my (leggy) sunflowers got snapped clean off from their pots.

Sunflowers snapped off by the torrents of rain

Down on the allotment I think we’ve been incredibly lucky. The Chad Brook runs down the bottom end of our plot: normally a babbling stream it turned into a raging river for a few hours, destroying entire beds and leaving metres of debris. We got off incredibly lightly but plots on the other side of the brook to us have been devastated. Harborne Road remains closed as the tarmac was smashed up by the flash flooding.

The plots feel as wet as sand on the Mawgan Porth shoreline but the plants actually seem to be thriving in the warm humid weather. Most remarkable is that the sweet william, which were planted a full two years ago but failed to flower last year, then got practically destroyed by the Beast from the East, are now on the brink of coming into bloom – and what a mass of flowers there will be when that day finally comes.

The cut flower patch is as wet as shoreline sand

But the sweet william are heading towards flower

Planted out: Sunflowers, dahlia, cleome, heartsease viola, spinach, cavolo nero, rocket, lettuce. Also this week I’ll get the cosmos, cornflower, dill, salvia and cornflower out.

Cooking & eating: A very disappointing brick-like cornbread, redcurrant & peach cobbler, Patrick’s stew chicken, Dad’s roast beef (though Mum actually did all the work). After years and years of not touching the stuff, have got back into coffee….my liver must be improving. Got the first of the season’s cherries from the markets.

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We plough the fields

I inhabit a few different worlds. My professional – and quite a bit of my personal – life is spent with energetic creative types who do fun and inspiring things amidst the urban din of Birmingham. People like this lot, who will be leading Birmingham’s Handover ceremony for the Commonwealth Games this weekend. There’s a rapper, a choreographer, a principal ballerina, a spoken word artist and a film-maker. We spent yesterday morning telling the press about plans for the ceremony, with time for a photoshoot amidst Digbeth graffiti. They will perform this Sunday to a worldwide television audience of around 1 billion people, so no pressure then (you can watch the Handover as part of the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games on Sunday from 11am on BBC2).

The artists taking part in this Sunday’s Commonwealth Games handover…watch it on BBC2 from 11am

Then there’s the country/foodie life, which made me take a two hour round trip at the weekend as I had a hunch that new season asparagus would be on sale at Hillers, near Evesham. I was right.

Meanwhile – asparagus is here!

And then there’s the parent life, which involves a lot of nappies, washing-up, more nappies, cuddles, early nights and giggling.

Harry is 7 months old and has discovered the shelf of baking equipment

It’s a good mix of things. When the arty stuff gets too irritating I can head to the hills, and when the shire is too stifling I can retreat back to Brum. Or indeed retreat to the allotment. Last week I was blessed with four hours childcare – FOUR HOURS! – and headed down for some grafting with Gary, Matt’s Dad. The snow seems to have finally gone, and whilst it’s not warm, it is definitely now spring and there was mulching and manuring and soil-prep to be done.

Gary gets to work on the allotment

Whilst I cracked on with putting a thick bark mulch on the raspberries, blueberries and currants, Gary stripped back the black plastic sheeting from the main vegetable plot. It was a relief to see that the soil was not in too bad a state: instead of forking and weeding it over in the autumn as normal, last October I merely pulled out the last of the sunflowers and covered the plot over with plastic (there was only so much I could achieve with a 1 month old baby). It survived this mistreatment well and only needed a light weed and fork before being mulched with rotted manure. Gary is incredibly neat and methodical, I discover – must be where Matt gets it from. I, on the other hand, take a ‘that will do’ approach and dig/manure half of the other plot in about an hour. I know whose approach is better (clue: not mine).

A few hours later, the main plot is forked over and manured. He did an amazing job.

I focused on putting a think mulch of bark on the soft fruit

My efforts at manuring are significantly less tidy than Gary’s…but it will do. The broad beans take up their new home.

After just a few hours the plot is transformed from winter weeds to clean edged plots ready for planting out. The soil is still cold – daffodils only just coming out now, a month later than I would expect – but there is a tiny harvest to be had: I take the opportunity to pick a handful of new sorrel leaves, to toss with new potatoes and butter.

One and a half plots, ready for planting

First picking of sorrel, for tossing with new potatoes and lashings of melted salted butter

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: A vat of bolognese, first season asparagus with salmon tart and new potatoes (phenomenally expensive but worth it), chicken marinated with yoghurt and ras al hanout, last of the simnel cake
Reading: Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler, a love letter to Birmingham’s urban waterways

The November allotment

Growing, like cooking, is such a grounding activity. The newsfeeds this week filled our laptops and phones with constant information about the dire state of the world, and it’s easy amidst this barrage to lose one’s steadiness. As the days suddenly grow shorter, so the world seems to grow darker (metaphorically and literally: sunset at 4.08pm now). But there is always the promise of longer days and of light to come. There is a lovely quote attributed to Mother Teresa that reads, ‘In this world we can not always do great things, but we can do small things with great love’. As individuals we might feel powerless but we can at least do our best, according to our own means, to spread a little kindness in our world. Ten years of yoga practice has taught me the importance of at least attempting to keep my equilibrium.

And so, when the sun shone this afternoon for what must be the first time in weeks, I seized the opportunity to get out and top up my Vitamin D levels. The skies have slid into a washed out, wintery blue.

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Winter skies are upon us

Oh allotment, I have abandoned ye! The grass that I meant to strim a month ago is now shaggy and long, but still too wet to get near. There are darned weeds growing everywhere (three trug-fulls today), we’ve yet to actually have that bonfire, and everywhere there is the sense that life has slooooooowed right dooooooown, ready for the cold months.

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The allotment is a soggy, grassy state

Unusually energised, I dug over the old raspberry patch – this is the one that’s been under black matting since early spring. I think this ground has not been broken for the best part of 15 years and consequently was full of stones, roots and twigs. Some of the raspberry roots eluded me; someone with greater upper body strength than I will need to get rid of them (Matt, please take the hint). With this ground reclaimed I have a good few extra metres of space to grow pretty flowers in the spring. Hurray!

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The old raspberry patch has been forked over, finally

The bean poles finally got taken up and the worst of the grassy weeds taken out of the beds. All the ground needs manuring now before settling down for a winter kip.

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The beanpoles, corn and sunflowers are a distant memory

The blackcurrant may be dormant but it’s gone down fighting: its buds are clear to see, showing the intent to resurrect itself come April. And those greens – amazingly, the chard, spinach and sorrel are still crisp, croppable, thriving.

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The blackcurrant has set its buds ready for next spring

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The sorrel, spinach and chard deserve medals for long service

The allotments have all faded into subdued shades of brown, with the occasional shot of colour. A neighbour’s apple tree has lost all its leaves but the golden fruit remain, bobbing in the breeze like baubles on a Christmas tree. By the stream, a spray of rosehips are enticingly out of reach, gorgeous and plump.

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Final shot of autumnal floral colour

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Apples on a neighbour’s tree resemble golden baubles in the low afternoon sun

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I love this spray of red rosehips by the stream

Will we ever get around to visiting Chappers to collect her horse manure? Will the bonfire have to wait until next year? Only time will tell.

Harvesting: Winter lettuce, mustard spinach, chard, spinach, sorrel, chicory, leeks, carrots, parsnips, crysanths. Also forked over old raspberry patch, weeded, took out bean and sweetpea canes.