Allotmenting for wildlife

Well what a difference a fortnight can make. Two weeks ago I was lamenting the cold, wet, windy spring, and then – overnight – we switched to summer. Warm dry days are followed by warm dry nights, the cold a distant memory. I fall into this warm weather in the same way that one might sink into a hot bath. How easy it is to succumb! What is a coat again? What are socks again? I can not remember ever having had a need or a use for them.

The plants of course are tumbling over themselves in joy. In my garden, the beds are an eruption of pinks, purples and whites as the roses, aquilegia and allium vie for attention. The warmth has brought into life a massive population of aphids; they cover the roses with thousands of tiny green bumps, leaving their sticky mess everywhere. I’m fascinated by them and wander out each morning and evening to take a closer look, conscious that my garden isn’t mine at all, but a shared space for hundreds of species. The air literally hums with insects. The fledgling magpies hop around the trees and chimney tops, testing their wings.

On the allotment, it’s not full steam ahead just yet, but there are signs of things preparing for proper action. The peas, which two weeks ago I had written off as dead, are fighting back and have grown at least a foot in the last ten days. The broad beans too are reviving, and whilst I won’t be winning any prizes for best beans anytime soon, I think we’ll still get a crop.

Finally, finally, the peas have taken off in the warmer weather

Last weekend we planted out the climbing and dwarf beans – several varieties are jumbled up together – and once again, whilst they’re not quite thriving, they’re hanging on which I take as a victory. The same goes for baby chard, beet spinach, cavolo nero and flower sprouts. Everything is netted against the pigeons of course.

Meanwhile the climbing and dwarf beans are bedding themselves in
Chard and beet spinach sits undercover to protect from pigeons

I’ve not mentioned the hops yet this year. Two of our old plants are zipping up the hop twine, but Matt has replaced the others with new baby plants that will take a year or two to get going.

We will have two substantial hop plants this year, plus two babies

We also have fruit set. The green swelling of baby strawberries, blueberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and gooseberries can all be seen, though I think it will be a small crop this year as a result of the April cold affecting the blossom.

A surviving strawberry finally bears fruit

As for the cut flowers, I took a tiny first cut of foxgloves and sweet william today. The latter all self-seeded last year and I made the effort to move them to their own block in the autumn, for which I will be richly rewarded over the next month as all 30 or so plants are thriving. The sweet william I had actually given up on but this few weeks of warm has revived them, their sweet scent a welcome reminder of summer.

I had given up on the Sweet William but they too look ready to put on a show
About 30 foxgloves are waiting in the wings for their moment

Back to wildlife. For the first five years or so I didn’t give much thought to the wildlife on our allotment, other than to be irritated by slugs and birds. (Lately the slugs seem to have moved elsewhere and I’ve learnt to net everything, which has solved the bird problem.) I certainly didn’t hate the insects and invertebrates but I had a sure sense of ‘This is my dance space, that is your dance space, let’s not get too close’. But over time my view has completely changed and I’ve come to relish being in close quarters with wild creatures going about their business – hence wandering out to look at what the greenfly are up to on the roses.

This has influenced how I keep the plot. There are plenty of weeds around the perimeter of our allotment which I purposefully keep in, as they are great food source for winged insects. An entire strip is dense with pollinator-friendly plants, some of which I have put in (alliums, lavender, sorrel) but others that have self-seeded (buttercup, foxglove, oregano, tansy) and I have either let them be or I’ve moved them to a slightly more convenient location. Take the mullein, for example, that seems to love our patch of ground and seeds itself everywhere. I have let four stay, and each is now home to the mullein caterpillar, a pretty little thing that will absolutely decimate the plant before it becomes a moth in a few weeks time, but is also a useful food source for birds.

The insect-friendly strip with sorrel, foxglove, mullein, buttercups, tansy, allium and lavender
Common mullein plant – my foot is there for an idea of size
The mullein moth has been busy: caterpillars can decimate the mullein plant

Elsewhere a few minor interventions can make for interesting rewards. Last spring I planted a few teasels, thinking they would be a lovely dried flower, but I hadn’t realised what an incredibly majestic plant this is when allowed to thrive. (I’ll share pictures when it flowers in a few weeks.) And this parsnip was left in the ground over the winter and is now ready to flower, so another food source for insects plus I’ll get to save the seeds. But what a whopper of a plant! It’s already reaching my chin and will be covered with pretty yellow umbellifers.

I left two of last year’s parsnips in the ground, and they are now preparing to flower
Parsnips are an umbellifer and part of the carrot family

Elsewhere by the brook there are nettles, cow parsley and brambles and no, it’s not tidy, but what a relief it is to let go of all those old ideas as to what constitutes beauty and worth, and instead think of oneself as inhibitor of a shared natural space. As long the allotment is productive – not just in veg, fruit and flowers but also in wildlife and yes in providing joy – that is how I measure success these days.

Also this week:
Planting out: Dahlias, chrysanthemums, sweet peas, ammi, peas, red kale, chard, spinach, cavolo nero, flower sprouts, echinacea, climbing beans, dwarf beans, courgette, fennel, tomatoes.
In the garden: Roses are at their best, plus aquilegia, allium, fennel all looking good. Planted out sunflowers. Cut back forsythia.
Harvesting: Start of the foxgloves and sweet william, ammi, cow parsley.
Cooking and eating: Strawberries, first cherries, first barbecue of the year. Inspired by Rick Stein’s Venice to Istanbul book (which I borrowed from the library via a Covid-safe appointment system straight from a Victoria Wood sketch) made Kisir, a bulgur wheat salad from Turkey, and now want to cook the entire book.
Also: Visited Chatsworth, our first proper family day out since September. We could really do with a holiday.

June on the allotment

I made it to the allotment yesterday, mid-migraine, for the first time in 10 days. What with the house-moving and a (currently) insane work schedule, there’s been no time for the veg patch. In my absence we’ve had warm weather plus a monsoon rain of biblical proportions – and the baby plants have LOVED it.

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First of my mum’s broad beans

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Mine will take a few weeks yet before they’re ready. The rain has made the leaves filthy and they’ve had insect damage, but we’ll get a good crop.

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Three attempts later, we have carrot seedlings!

The tulips have all gone now, their black and orange tones replaced with the delicate purples and pinks of the alliums and foxgloves. The bees are lapping up the nectar greedily.

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The monster alliums

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Foxgloves are gloriously weird

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Pretty pale apricot foxglove

The heat has brought along the soft fruit; we have fat strawberries, redcurrants and blueberries just waiting to ripen. And as for the hops – they are heading to the heavens.

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First strawberries are ripening

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The hops on an early June evening

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Glorious sweetpeas

As I left my allotment neighbour Alex turned up, looking cool-as-you-like with her powder blue vespa and leathers.

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My allotment neighbour Alex turned up with her very cool blue vespa

This weekend is marked in the diary as MOVING HOUSE. So hopefully, when the boxes are moved and the wardrobes are dismantled and re-mantled (is that a word?), normal service will resume on Veg Patch.

Planted Out: Sweetcorn, leeks, zinnia, verbena, grand green beans

Risotto primavera

Finding the time to really outdoors-it is hard. I’m darting from meeting to meeting, phone call to phone call, and of course email to email, organising designers, photographers, artists, advertisers, journalists. So at 7.30pm when I finally make it to the allotment, it’s a pleasant sight to see the foxgloves reach full glory. Their’s is the palest of delicate pink, and already seem a welcome source of nectar for the bumblebees.

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Delicate flowers of the foxglove

Sadly the bean apocalypse continues. What on earth is going on with these? Is it wind damage? I’ve put in an SOS request to my mother to see if she can shed any light. The prospect of a summer with no beans is too much to bear!

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Bean apocalypse

On the other side of the plot though the broad beans have come up trumps. Yesterday I made the first harvest of the season, and they popped out of their spongy cacoons tiny and emerald green, the size of my little fingernail (nb, I have very small fingernails).

First crop of broad beans

These, plus the baby sorrel, spinach, chard, a fistful of rocket, basil and oregano, make for a seasonal risotto primavera. This classic Italian dish uses the first spring vegetables; over there it probably gets made in February but in Birmingham it’s made in June. C’est la vie! I added a few asparagus spears to the mix – and also two precious baby sugarsnap peas from the patio.

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All prepped and good to go: asparagus, herbs, greens and beans

Risotto Primavera 

The quantities for this can very depending on what you have…it’s just a Tuesday night supper. Feeds two with leftovers.

Small mug-full of risotto rice

Butter and olive oil

1 shallot, finely diced

3 cloves of garlic, finely diced

Large glass of white wine

About 1 litre of really good chicken (or veg) stock, home-made and kept warm on the hob

Asparagus, sliced into 2cm lengths

Baby broad beans

Handful of freshest spinach, chard, sorrel, rocket or nettles, washed and sliced

Handful of herbs – basil, oregano, hyssop, tarragon – roughly chopped or  torn

Lemon, to taste

Parmesan, to taste

Butter, extra herbs, salt and pepper, to finish

In a large heavy-based saucepan, melt a knob of butter and splash of oil on a low heat. Sweat the shallot until soft, around 5 minutes, then add the garlic and cook for a few seconds until the scent rises. Season with salt and pepper at this stage. Turn up the heat, add the rice and toast for a minute or two until it starts to quietly crackle and pop. Add the wine and stir stir stir until it is nicely reduced and the rice shows the start of creaminess. Now add the stock a ladleful at a time, stirring until each addition is absorbed. It takes ages to cook risotto and this bit may take at least 30+ minutes; the rice must reach the stage of being nearly done but with the tiniest level of firmness remaining, suspended in a creamy buttery ‘sauce’.

When you’re nearly there, say 5 minutes before the end, toss in the asparagus and cook for a few minutes. Then add the beans and greens, cook for one minute, then stir in the herbs, parmesan, another knob of butter, salt and pepper and lemon to taste. The veg doesn’t need or get much cooking. Turn the heat off, pop the lid on, then leave it all to settle for five minutes. Give it a final stir then serve, with more parmesan and herbs.