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

A big pile of poo

I am not a very scientific allotmenter. Old-school gardening books talk about soil structure, phosphorous, lime, pH levels and so on, and I’ve never got to grips with any of it (though never say never). But I do know that – just as you can’t expect a human to perform well on a diet of Big Macs and Coke – our soil needs a little help every now and then. Poor soil = poor veg. And so this weekend my Dad brought a lorryload of manure to Birmingham and we spend a few hours carting (or wheelbarrowing) bags and bags of the stuff from the lorry to the allotment.

It’s not been spread yet – a job for another day. And actually, given that most of my days are spent on the floor/sofa/bed singing If You’re Happy and You Know It, it was good to be outside, stretching my limbs. I just need the weather to warm up. Spring, come soon!

Matt gets his hands dirty

Dad wears his blindingly yellow coat

A pallet of poo successfully moved

Now just got to spread the stuff…

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Frostbite and reclaimed land

I found time to get to the allotment last weekend, curious to see what effect the frost has had on the last of the summer greens. Predictably enough, they haven’t fared so well: chard, spinach and chicory had turned into a slimy mess, coating my gloves with brown goo. But that’s OK: planted in April and lasting until January, they had a good innings.

In the meantime, the winter brassicas have overcome all the odds (for we do not garden brassicas at all effectively) and there is purple sprouting broccoli (PSB) and sprout tops to harvest. No sprouts, mind, but I think sprout tops are more 2016 anyway.

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The greens have finally been zapped by the frost

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PSB waiting to be picked

Before Christmas I foolishly removed the netting from my cavolo nero, thinking that the last of the caterpillar threat must surely have passed. What nonsense, for now they are shredded to the stem. What do you get if you feed the caterpillars? Fat caterpillars. I spotted one, lime green and bloated with kale.

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Shouldn’t have uncovered the cavolo nero

The leeks look perkier from the frost, the grubs that were eating them alive having been zapped in the sub-zero temperatures.

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Leeks break up the expertly-laid poo

In the greenhouse, a tray of winter lettuce has germinated, the tiny green seedlings pushing north against the cold. It isn’t the best time to sow these seeds, light levels being so low, but they’re giving it a good go regardless.

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Winter lettuce seedlings

Finally, I removed the black matting that has been covering the last bit of overgrown, weedy plot. It’s been in place since last spring, so about 10 months, and look what beauty was uncovered! Weed free soil, perfect for a crop of potatoes.

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Reclaimed land waiting for a potato planting

Allotment: Dug up last of the chard, spinach, chicory. Removed mustard spinach. Uncovered ‘potato patch’ land.

Review of the year: 2015

The Christmas holidays provide time for reflection, rest – and finally doing those jobs that didn’t get done in the autumn. Top amongst them is the important matter of manuring the allotment, which requires a trip to Chappers’ field in Castlemorton (where the horse poo lives), a strong man to shovel and carry said manure, an empty van to transport it all in, and plenty of time for unloading at the other end. My Dad’s old coal bags came in useful this year, much better than potato sacks (last year these soaked up water from the soggy poo and promptly split, leaving their smelly contents across the pavement. In Harborne! Whatever next!).

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Dad’s old coal bags come in useful…

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…for a good morning’s muck collecting

A morning’s manure shovelling gave enough sacks to fill Matt’s van, but that’s only sufficient for half of our vast vegetable beds. So either we’ll have to make a return visit, or come up with a Plan B come spring-time.

In the meantime, on this, the last day of 2015, I’ll indulge in a brief review of the year’s horticultural (and culinary) highs and lows.

January-March

The plan for 2015 was simple: more greens, more flowers. I started a few things in February, indoors for protection, with spinach, lettuce, chard, kale, sweetpeas and sunflowers at the top of the wishlist.

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I gave sweet peas a try for the first time. These seeds were planted 26 January

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15 February, the year’s planning begins

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25 February: the tomatoes and other plug veg began life

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A memorable chocolate-hazelnut couronne

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February saw the first rhubarb bellini of the year

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By the end of March, the soft fruit had been mulched and grass tidied

 

April-June

Spring was cool, giving way to a cold summer, so whilst some things thrived, others took a little bit longer to get going. Chief amongst the disappointments were the climbing beans, desecrated by the slugs.

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April marked my tenth year in business. To celebrate, a chocolate dacquoise (and fizz) with friends

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April 5 and the hops began to shoot: the promise of things to come

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The Malvern bluebells, glorious by the start of May

A trip to Cornwall had to include mussels, straight off the boat at Newlyn

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19 May and the greens were coming along. Some were planted from plugs (lettuce, sorrel) and others direct (chard, spinach, beets)

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25 May and it’s the great allotment plant out! Tomatoes went into grow bags, and everything else took its final spot on the allotment

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By the start of June, the hops were exploding up the hopolisk

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But the slugs and newly cold weather conspired against my borlotti and climbing beans

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We had to wait until June of the first real trugfuls of loot

July-September

It was a long wait, but finally the work came good. The greens, oh the greens! So much green! And so many flowers, enough for weekly posies right through the summer and autumn.

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5 July and the redcurrants were ready to pick a bumper crop

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We had posies from the end of June right through to the start of November

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The ammi and calendula bordered the veg patch with lacy colour

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End of July and the gourds had taken over, though it was too cold a summer for most squash

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I succeeded in my goal of growing more greens, in production from July and still going strong in December

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However the goal of kale and chard for winter failed: these, planted out in July, did not survive the slug onslaught

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Sunflowers were the stars of 2015, bold and brash and amazingly long-lasting

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The tomato harvest began at the end of August, alas they were all poor in flavour – too cold for them to ripen properly

October-December

September finally brought heat and then, almost imperceptibly, summer changed to autumn, autumn drifted to winter. The slug issue continued and I started a love story, an unexpected one, with the humble crysanthemum.

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Finally, we succeeded in growing a carrot!

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The onions were pulled in September, to last through the winter

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The unexpected love story: jewel crysanthemums, which lasted into December

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Oops: 4 October and once again we missed the hop harvest

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September was a humdinger but by the end of October, summer was undeniably over

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The October clear out: artichoke had outlived its welcome so out it came

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In the kitchen, sloes made their way into a beautiful jelly

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Happily some of the winter greens did make it through: mizuna and mustard spinach (just) survived the slugs, cropping from November

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My favourite variegated chicory, at its best in December but pickable all through the year

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The mild start to winter was manna to the sorrel, chard and spinach

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The year ends with Grampy’s crysanths, wrapped and ready for spring

Thoughts for 2016

The flowers made the allotment this year, the act of gathering a fist-full of blooms a joy. There must be more of this next year and more colour too, away from the white cosmos to brasher shades.

The slug issue needs to be addressed if we are ever to eat spring lettuce again.

The brassicas should be wearing a fat sign of Could Do Better. We really could, and should, do better.

Oh, and I now have a cold-frame (thanks Mum and Dad), which should make the plug plants that little bit sturdier. Could it lead to the promised land of an earlier harvest? We’ll see.

Happy new year!

Poo and beans

We finally got on with the muck spreading. I say ‘we’…in truth it was all Matt. I occupied myself with cutting down the chard and other similarly essential tasks.

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Me doing essential things (AKA getting out of poo spreading)

Turns out that we wildly underestimated how much muck we’d need. The 6 sacks from Chappers has covered the tiniest amount of just one of our four plots. A few more trips to the Shire will be needed to stock up.

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An error of mathematics

But in truth there were more pressing jobs at hand. My mother had started some foxgloves and broad beans for me, seedlings that were threatening to break out of their pots and take over if something wasn’t done about them. So in go the foxgloves, in the area where a few months ago I had love-in-a-mist. I’m hoping this patch will eventually turn into a lovely whimsical wash of colour.

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10 foxgloves planted out

Then there’s the broad beans. I don’t even know if it’s correct to put them in so early, but my Mum does it, so that is what I do. Last year’s got a battering from wind and rain, but still survived. I’ve planted this lot much closer together, which hopefully will provide a bit of shelter. Grow you buggers!

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Baby broad beans

I took up some of the old wooden boards too. Over the summer they’ve served as walkways over the plot but now they are harbouring all kinds of interesting creepy crawlies…woodlice, worms, tiny brown slugs, bigger black slugs. It’s all good to me. And the fungi! I love looking at the fungi. I have no idea what this one is, but it’s beautiful.

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Unidentified fungi

It was freezing though, this hour on the allotment. I don’t envisage much more work will be done over the winter, fair-weather gardener that I am.

It’s dirty work but…

It’s time to feed the allotment. I spent much of the spring thinking that we must have the most rubbish soil imaginable, given that nothing was growing. Then the weather got warm and suddenly the plot exploded into action – so maybe the ground isn’t as lacking in nutrition as I thought. But now a good feed is in order. Luckily for us, I have a friend who keeps horses. Horses make poo. Lots of poo. And horse poo is just what we need.

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A pile of glorious rotting poo

So last weekend we trundled down the M5 to go and visit Chappers and her horses. She’s spent the last year or so piling their doings into a rotting mountain of dung, now covered in stinging nettles and full of worms. That’s what your oldest friends are for you see, free fertiliser. It’s not as disgusting as it sounds.

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Chappers and Matt investigate the manure pile

Whilst I ‘supervised’, Matt bagged up five bags of the good stuff. That’s about as much as we could carry – manure weights a TON. And then we went to say thank you to Tegan for her offerings. She is a young cob, described by Chappers as “lively”, which I translate as “terrifying” (I am most definitely not a horse-woman).

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Me, Chappers, Tegan

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Sun setting over Castlemorten

The following day Matt was left in charge of moving sacks of manure from van to allotment. The plastic sacks were fine….the papers ones fared, hmmm, less well. I hope the good people of Harborne don’t mind a bit of poo on their doorsteps.

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Oops

So all that’s left to do is actually spread the stuff. I’m still working up the energy.