In the past two weeks, now there’s some heat, I can see noticeable acceleration in growth – and about bloody time, I might add. The third week of July is late to be seeing the change. Without wishing to be too melodramatic, the allotment this year has driven me to the point of despair. Grass proliferates, and when even courgettes will not grow, what hope is there? So I’ve been looking, properly paying attention, to work out what The Problem is. And in an effort at balance, also take stock of what’s doing alright, actually.
A number of plants appear to thrive in our free-draining, exposed plot. Some are the self-seeders; others are the perennials or shrubs that I put in and leave to it. Of the first lot, the nasturtiums, poppies, marjoram and buttercup are rampant. Foxgloves, lavender, achillea, tansy and mullein have all become whoppers with no assistance from me. The connecting factor with all these is that they like the sun, they like to be free-draining, and they can cope with low nutrient soil. Not that our allotment soil is poor quality (years of manure put paid to that) but these particular plants get no assistance from me.
The lesson: plants that like sun, can tolerate drought and are low-maintenance will do well. Conversely, those that needs tons of water and molly-coddling (sweet peas, squash, beans) struggle.
The chief disappointment, as has been the case for a few years now, is the stick beans. I recall that last year I sowed at least three times (at home and directly) before getting a crop, and even then it was small. This year is no different. The variety does not seem to matter – I have tried runner, three types of French and borlotti. They germinate well enough, but the plants started at home suffer from lack of sun, and those planted directly usually get knobbled by the pigeons. This year they’re having to fend off the self-seeded nasturtiums too, a plant so prolific that I may have to start culling it. Sweet peas similarly are frustrating, though I think lack of regular watering did for them this year. In an effort to out-fox the pigeons, I have put a final desperate new sowing of beans into the sweet pea netting – the triumph of hope over experience. My ever-sensible mother-in-law Jean suggests that I try growing stick beans at home instead of the allotment, where I can care for the them properly – a suggestion so obvious I wonder why I didn’t think of it earlier.
The cold spring has led to inevitable lateness. I would expect the cornflowers to be cropping a month earlier than they actually did, but now they are here, what a joy they are. Coming at the same time as the early cosmos and ammi they are, to me, the epitome of the early English summer. Just a bit later than normal.
The strange spring impacted the early broad beans of course. The ones I started in February are now scourged in black-fly, whilst the ones direct sown at the end of May are thriving and healthy. The early ones, interestingly, also have patchy pollination – the cold snap in April and May causing havoc to the wildlife.
Over on the new biennial and perennial patch, the dahlias are thriving. Both the over-wintered and the newly planted tubers are healthy, making me think that next year I should add to the collection. The biennials, on the other hand, were poor – but have potential. I started off new sweet william, sweet rocket and honesty at the end of June, and will plant them out in the autumn to give them chance to bulk up – rather than, as I did this year, in the spring when the weather was too cold.
A word about teasels. I put these in as tiny plug plants in spring 2020, just as lockdown was coming in, thinking they would be a fun addition to my dried flower collection for the winter. Had I known they would become ten-foot whoppers I might have hesitated – though I can not deny that these green cone-shaped flower heads are a lovely addition to the vase. My chief concern is that they will self-sow all over the place, so I’m started to crop them now (before they fully flower and set seed) and dry them in readiness for winter arrangements.
I have not pictured the grass, that this year seems worse than ever and has infiltrated the raspberries, blueberries and blackcurrants. The only hope is to strim for now, then in the colder months dig it out as best I can. Well either that or buy myself a gigantic house with a kitchen garden on-site that has no grass attached to it (I can dream).
I also believe a major issue is one of anticipation versus reality. What I want is abundance – and yet of course, too much abundance is stressful, for no-one wants gluts of vegetables and fruit that will go over before they can be eaten. I would like more early veg (broad beans, French beans, small courgettes) but the growing conditions will not allow it; we actually do much better in the late summer and early autumn, when the soft fruit, squash and brassicas come into their own.
Of course much of the allotment is now given up to flowers, and the trick here is to have a regular crop of modest proportions – anything bigger is overwhelming. I’m now getting about 4 or 5 small vases a week, perfect for the mantlepiece and kitchen table, and I can go for either a cool or warm colour palette. The cosmos, cornflower and ammi are the current queen plants, and they will give way in due course to sunflowers, dahlias and chrysanthemums.
Lessons to learn, then, are as follows:
- Only sow at the allotment what can be realistically watered; keep the fussy beans for home.
- Rethink the spring sowing plan, for the seedlings need to have more light and be tougher before they are planted out. Maybe it is time to bring back the greenhouse or, better yet, cobble together a polytunnel.
- Brassicas do well, so maybe try a few more of those, in different varieties.
- Flowers for nine months of the year are a possibility, but veg isn’t. Within current resources, do not expect much of a veg harvest before late July. Extend the flower season with spring bulbs and biennials, and think about a wider variety of dahlias. Perennials seem to excel, so consider a few more, for cutting.
- Over the winter, do something about the grass.
Also this week:
Harvesting: At home, lettuce, thyme, oregano. From allotment, broad beans (scant), dwarf beans (scant), chard, beet spinach, cornflower, ammi, cosmos, lavender, teasel, nasturtium, first dahlias, achillea. Sweet william, foxglove, strawberries are now finished. Gift of stick beans, potatoes, fennel, carrots, raspberries and blueberries from my parents.
Garden: The garden is moving from the cool shades of early summer to the hot tones of high-to-late summer. Roses and bronze fennel at their zenith, with helenium and dahlias coming through. Potted on sweet williams that were started in June. Cut back aquilegia and allium heads for drying. Planted out new dahlias, salvia amistad and other orange/yellow palette plants for late summer – incidentally I thought that most of the garden dahlias had not made it over the winter but on digging around discovered that the slugs had been nibbling the emerging shoots whilst still underground. Serious note taking and thinking about next spring and early summer – spent a good £200 on spring bulbs for home and allotment, inspired by the trip to Perch Hill.
Cooking and eating: Whole lamb shoulder butterflied and barbecued, flavoured with cumin and harissa. Potato salad using Dad’s potatoes. Chapel Down sparkling bacchus, a joy.
Also: Visited Puzzle Wood. Reading The Mitford Girls biography and Sarah Raven’s A Year Full of Flowers. No time or interest for telly. Am getting up early to be on the allotment at 8am before the heat is unbearable and the working day begins; life feels very full and busy again.