forward thinking: garlic & gooseberries

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Gooseberry ripening.  (30 May 2020)

There are two impending harvests that loom on the horizon: our Germidor soft-necked and Giant Garlic, and also the gooseberries.

The garlic bed is sorely needed as a growing space, and we stopped watering that patch a week ago.  Even if the bulbs are small, they will have had a good growing season having been planted in the autumn.  Small and mighty’s just fine with us.

And the gooseberries are slowing turning from green and hard looking to a more welcoming rosy tone.  Hhhhmmnn…

Gooseberries beckon crumbles, tart pies, and jams.  As for the garlic, maybe we should do some herbed oils…

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Garlic patch, late May 2020.

Peter Lawrence’s The Allotment Cookbook recommends making herbed oils to extend the harvest of early summer herbs, including rosemary and thyme – both favourites in our kitchen.

Each of the two oils (rosemary and thyme) also calls for fresh garlic – so no better time than just after our garlic harvest to make some flavoured oils.

We can make extras to share with Michelob and the rest of the gang – maybe to gift as Christmas presents or somesuch?  Anyway, must add two large tins of olive oil to the list for our next big shop.

Lawrence’s recipe for two bottles of herbed oil: take “a few sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme, washed; 2 cloves garlic, peeled; a few strands of unwaxed orange zest; 1 litre extra-virgin olive oil; a few strands of unwaxed lemon zest.” … [Use sprigs that have been air dried for a few days]  “Poke a few sprigs of rosemary, a garlic clove and the strands of orange zest into a sterlised bottled, then fill with half the olive oil” [eg fill this bottle with 500 ml of the 1 litre of olive oil called for in his recipe].  “In the other bottle pack the thyme sprigs, a garlic clove and a few strands of lemon zest and fill with the remaining oil.  Seal tightly.  Store in a cool place.  After a week the oils will be ready to use.  (Peter Lawrence’s The Allotment Cookbook, p.32)

We could also do some pre-prepared garlic butter, and add other herbs into this such as finely chopped chives, garlic chives, parsley etc.  That way we’d be half-way there to making fresh and super-tasty garlic bread whenever the whim takes us.  And we could also add the savory garlic butter to a base of onions when preparing soups and other sauces – or fish!

And then, of course, there’s the classic spaghetti aglio e olio, which essentially is pan fried garlic (taking care not to burn it!), over cooked spaghetti, sprinkled with bread crumbs to help adherence, then liberally sprinkled with finely grated parmesan.  You can add sprinkles of hot chili pepper (not to my tastes), or chopped flat leafed parsley (to which I can only say yes, yes, yes!). Having my beloved late Uncle John make this – a proud Canadian paisano – was always a very special treat and a delicious memory. 

Yum, yum and Yum!

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Potted winter savory on the strawberry stairs. (30 May 2020)

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Milan Purple Top Turnip in growing trough (beside potted lemon tree). (30 May 2020)

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Pea bed doing perfectly. (30 May 2020)

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Thai Basil re-potted to top terrace (30 May 2020)

 

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ready… steady…. Jam!

It’s ‘On Your Marks!’ season in the gardens, that much is for sure.  Everything’s exploding and the growing shed is near enough empty…  The sole survivors in there are the seeded Thai basil, now ready to be potted-up-and-out, a tray of parsley seed (still mainly bare earth, with one tiny shoot showing), and the cuttings from the tomatoes.  There are a few potted-up squashes too, and the pumpkin – which will have to go down to M’s plot.  That’s our objective today: start more seeds in our shack and also get on with turning over the ground and preparing to plant-up M’s growing spaces.

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Felicity Fiacre, through the rose arbour. (29 May 2020)

Yesterday I planted into the new thin bottom bed two of the zucchino squashes – think white flying saucers of deliciousness! – interspersing them with the seeded Tuscan Kale (Calvero Nero).

The squash grow low and the calvero nero will one day tower tall as a sprouting broccoli, which is to say up to a height of four feet or more and take two square feet of space in all directions.  The squash will be short-growing seasonal crops, whereas the calvero nero is a commitment plant – one that will be with you in your garden for about 18 months or so, and really come into their best for harvesting after their first year.

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The new growing bed with calvero nero and zucchinos.  Corn plants with sunflowers, in front. (30 May 2020) 

I’m hoping it will be a good marriage of plants.

This is a totally new growing space that I’m excited about.  The new bed was created when I got fed up with the poor performance of the two plastic troughs that were tucked in between the raised planter and the wooden lattice guard that marks the line where the earth disappears and there’s a bathtub pond full of frogs and papyrus about three feet down.

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Red lettuce patch at the top of the garlic bed.  These delicious lettuce have provided us with two dinners in a row.  A huge success!  Have to experiment in future with cut & come-again types of lettuce. (30 May 2020)

Making the mistake of stepping over this line could be fatal, so we put in the lattice, and in the gap between the two I’d placed two long plastic trough planters.  It seemed, when we first got started on our plot two years ago, a good use of space for an awkward spot.  I had laid some plastic (re-used from bags of soil and manure) under the pots to discourage weeds, but the trays were always drying out, the plants no more than weeds and the odd straggly calendula or self-seeded blue-flowering forget-me-not, and the weeds both under and within the troughs were persistent and hard to control.  Awkward, unsightly and totally unproductive, in other words.

So I got the idea of using a bit of wood left over from the new gooseberry raised bed made from reclaimed bed boards, and the big guy got to work and made it in a flash.  Magic!

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Bees busy on the blackberry bloom.  (29 May 2020)

Now this space will be super-productive and much easier to use.  We filled it with a half bag of manure and also fresh garden compost.  The plants had been sunk into the new plot for a few days to harden off (and also to test whether the whole area would be deluged with slugs and snails), but it all looked good so yesterday we took the final plunge and put the plants in.  I can’t believe how large it is compared to the measly amount of growing space provided by the plastic planters.  I think it’s going to work out great!

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Zucchino, potted (30 May 2020)

An added bonus is that the plastic trough planters will be useful for starter plants in the growing shed.

When not in use I can tuck them under the platform, out of sight and under our feet without being under our feet so to speak.

And so again, we have the marvels of the moveable feast.

It all turns ’round in most wonderful ways.

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Making jam (29 May 2020)

As we were winding down we harvested one of the curly-leafed red lettuces, along with winter savory, thyme, creeping marjoram.

There were six small radish too, and the first very tiny but perfectly formed green zucchini.  Oh yes, and more strawberries, along with a handful of yellow raspberries and loganberries.  Raspberries and loganberries are just starting to become ripe, whereas it’s been strawberry season for a month and we’ve got a glut of various harvests in tubs in the fridge.  Which leads to only one thing to do: make jam.

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Strawberry jam (with raspberry & loganberries). (29 May 2020)

And so the labours of the allotment truck home with us and set-up camp in the kitchen.  The work’s never done, but geesh, it’s a real delight when you reap the rewards.  Garden grown strawberry jam.  Oh my!  I left one jar open to be eaten tout suite and another I covered in melted paraffin wax, so we can enjoy the flavour of early summer much later into the year.

All told we had just under 1 kilo of strawberries, to which I added the juice of two lemons, and about 700 grams of white caster sugar.  That’s all it takes, plus time and heat.  Having a jam thermometer is a big help, but my experience is it’s best to go by instinct, as previous jams cooked to the rule of the thermometer ended up being just a bit too thick.

And while I made jam, the big guy constructed a lovely garden-fresh salad from our harvested lettuce and herbs, with radish, tiny zucchini and some store-bought tomatoes, into which he added sections of grilled sausage.  Yum!

Lovely day, from start to end.  Hurrah!

 

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triple duty day

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Our fairy tale clock tower against blue summer skies. (28 May 2020)

Yesterday was one of those gorgeous sunny days.  The morning sky was clear blue with not a cloud in sight.  Full sun, hot but not too hot as there was a lovely gentle summer breeze.  By the afternoon there was  a light cloud cover to stop the sun from being too incinerating.

The day started gently – I went down to the back back to carry on with weeding and watering the perennial flower beds.

The beautiful blue bearded iris are almost done flowering, but I removed spent flowerheads to extend what flowers remain.   Roses were deadheaded, and I gave the corner by the railway path a thorough watering and weeding.  The two daisies in the shady bed under the cherry were well watered – I will have to dig these out and plant them in a sunnier position, as they are not doing as well as they did last year and probably do need a sunnier, hotter site.

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Poppies in flower near the developing Asiatic Lily.  Feverfew in background. (28 May 2020)

Other plants were doing better in the dappled shad, including some self-seeded poppies have come into flower – delightful additions that arrived without any work from us.

Not sure how they arrived to our patch – possibly in bird droppings?  But never mind their provenance – they are welcome newcomers to our flower beds.

Poppy flowers are papery thin and very delicate.  They don’t last long, but are lovely and wonderful and, like California poppy, will freely self-seed, so in time there will be more and more poppies.  Yippee!

In fact, at the allotment the friendly chap in the plot below us has a patch of large papery poppies, and he’s given us free reign to collect seed heads from once they’ve matured.

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Patch of poppies at our neighbour’s allotment.  (28 May 2020)

So more poppies to come….  These ones are like the poppies we had in my childhood gardens, so powerfully stoked with fond memories and nostalgia. Can’t wait to get some of these beauties going in our back patch flower beds!

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Heuchera bed in flower under the cherry tree, with cane crane guarding. (28 May 2020)

While I puttered, watering, weeding, pruning, trimming, tending… the big dude went to the woods area and took care of the new flower bed under the “new” oak tree.  Our neighbourhood pal and his little dog Millicent dropped by for a visit – keeping 2 metre distances – and provided some seedlings he’d started on his balcony: some hot chili seedlings and parsley.  I have to repot the seedlings and return to him some of the plants.  In return we gifted him with a jar of our homemade rhubarb & strawberry jam; he’s not normally a jam guy, but said he’d enjoy using the jam to top up his morning yoghurt.

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Nigella with bees on the plot (28 May 2020)

After our morning back patch/woods session we broke for a quick lunch break, then went back out to the allotment after visiting Michelob & D to hand over gifts and collect the bagged soil that they had kindly added to a larger order he made at a garden centre.  Yesterday was D’s birthday, so she and Michelob received a bigger jar of the jam, and also two garden-grown globe artichokes.

And so, with two large bags of soil on the big guy’s bike rack, and with my back rack full of bricks, we headed up to our plots for a second work session.

After watering and fussing on our patch I decided to head down the path and look in on M’s patch, which we’d made a start on weeding and tending in her absence, but where much more work remains to be done.  So three plots tended in one day.  Epic.

Ms M’s been in touch to say her squash are ready to be collected, and we will probably go over to pick up her starter plants at the beginning of next week.  She also has some sweet potato started, and we’ll experiment with those as well.  I’ve never grown sweet potato so it will be a learning experience that I look forward to.

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Felicity Fiacre guards our plot – which is now pretty much full up with plants and no spare growing spaces. (28 May 2020)

Much as I love it, I have to admit it’s hard work – with the clay beds baked solid in the sun and the weeds well and truly established in strength – but we’re making slow, steady progress.  The urgency for getting more done is reinforced by the fact that we’ve almost completely run out of growing space on our own patch.  The only open space is the middle patch which presently is planted with garlic.  We stopped watering the garlic plants last week, and will be able to harvest this crop (along with the two giant garlic plants) by the end of next week.

On it goes!

 

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overnight magic

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Loganberries coming to maturity. (27 May 2020)

Another hot, dry day in London.  The drought continues and no rain in sight for days.  CNN reported it was 26°C in London today, but when we arrived it felt more like 34°C ; I had trickles of sweat running down my back simply standing still.  But the combination of heat and sun (in conjunction with our ministrations and daily watering) has done wonders for the plants.

Sometime between yesterday late afternoon, when we left the plot, and this morning, when we arrived back, something truly magical happened.

Almost immediately upon arrival I espied ripe and ripening yellow raspberries – already there and ready to eat!  I’d hardly expected to see unripe berries, let alone ripe and ready-to-eat raspberries!  Wow!  We harvested a small handful and had a snack right there and then.

The loganberries at the front of the rose arbour are swelling to perfection and turning rosy – one or two looked almost ripe enough to eat!  But we left them for another day.

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Zucchini (with ripening gooseberry behind). (27 May 2020)

The zucchini have exploded into flower, with real little zucchinis already formed – will pick them soon for an early harvest.  This will also encourage further flowering, which in turn means more fruiting and more frequent harvests.

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Green tomatoes seem to have appeared overnight.  (27 May 2020)

And then, as all this change and growth and coming to maturity was not enough, to my astonishment I noticed a new overnight development on the tomatoes!  Small (but not that small) green tomatoes hanging from the plant.  And it’s not even June yet!  Incroyable!

I regret that we didn’t get to M’s plot today.  I thought we might get to it, but I got lost in time up at ours, and also had to shoot back to the flat for the online weekly work briefing.  (Best to keep up to date with things, even though I’ve been furloughed during these quiet apocalypse coronavirus days, weeks and months.)

In some sense, lately time has felt static.  But then – like last night – huge changes happen all of a sudden.  In a blink of an eye.  Change.  Development.  Growth.  Irretrievable time – no going back.

Hope Jahren makes this point when she writes about seeds in her book Lab Girl .  Jahren makes the totally logical but all the same starkly startling statement that each seed has one and only one chance.  Every individual seed must choose well their moment of germination.  That moment is a moment and it counts a lot: they only have one chance.

And so too with all the stages of a plant’s life – these bushes, vines, branches bear flowers first, each in their own form, shape, colour and scent, which in turn, at a precise click of time moving forward, transforms to a fruit – again as various as fruits can be.

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Ladybird on an out-of-this-world looking Nigella blossom. (27 May 2020)

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European Hoverfly (Eupeodes corollae) on Nigella blossom with holly. (27 May 2020)

Anyway, despite sticky-static time up at the plot, we still manage to accomplish quite a bit on every visit.

Today on top of the usual watering and weeding (and nature photography), we planted-in the last of the large tomato plants.  Its pot had been sunk straight into the tomato plot, with a temporary stake, so we had to untie the stake and then transplant into a prepared hole that was enriched with a good few scoops of the rotted manure.  We re-installed the stake and then tied it back in and watered well.

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Hoverfly on Love-in-a-Mist. (27 May 2020)

A wood panel that we retrieved a few weeks ago from the rubbish was staked and secured in front of a large squash planted in a large growing tub, to help ensure it doesn’t get jostled and tumble down the hill into the allotment plot below us.  The panel looks quite cute – like a little gate – and had been the head/foot board of a small child’s crib someone had dissembled and thrown to the sidewalk.

With luck the squash vine will grow and be supported on this small wooden panel, which also helps keep the fruits off the ground and therefore less likely to be damaged by slugs and other creepy crawlies.

We enjoyed the present bloom, including the love-in-a-mist which truly is loved by all pollinators – bees, hoverflies, butterflies – the lot!  (We’re brought a pot of nigella seed we’d collected from last year’s flowers from the allotment and are planning to scatter these into the new mid-lawn meadow/ wildflower patch.)

I also planted two seeded sunflowers into individual terracotta pots.  This way I can move them around if they outgrow their location.  I seeded many different types of sunflowers – some taller than others.  So on verra.

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Hanging baskets over the compost heap.

We’d also brought up the hanging baskets I’d had squirrelled away for years – more stuff saved from landfill.  I think I got them from Michelob years ago – someone else in the village was wanting to get rid of them.  Brand new, mind you.  So I tucked them away with all the rest of my useful hoarding like the old mirrors and glass shelving that’s become essential equipment in the growing shed.

I confess I’m not naturally a fan of hanging baskets – partly because they are simply not suitable to a publicly accessible woods garden, and also because I prefer to sink my pots into the earth by an inch or more to ensure they don’t totally dry out.  But we had them on hand and the Malink was keen to get them up and hanging.

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Sea holly  making a steady come-back (27 May 2020)

So he cut some of the black horticultural fabric to line the pots, and filled with the new bagged potting soil.  He prepared two pots.  After watering well I planted into each pot a started white zucchino plant.

These produce small white coloured squashes which look a little like flying saucers. I just know that the big guy’s going to love them!

Squash grow like a vine so should be good with hanging down (or growing up along the chain hanging supports).

I had thought to add nasturtium seeds to the hanging baskets, but after rummaging around found that I have run out of nasturtium seeds.  So into one of the pots I added some old sweet pea seeds – you just never know whether an old seed is still a good seed until you sink it in soil and water and tend it for a fortnight or more…

An added bonus to the new hanging baskets is their location: we’ve got them hanging off branches of the holly tree and hanging over the compost heap.  This means that all the dripping overflow of water from watering the pots will drip down into the otherwise bone dry compost pile.

In truth, I’m not sure these little white flying saucer squashes will get sufficient sunshine hanging as they do in the shade of the holly tree, but we’ll wait, watch and see how it goes.

Like the potted sunflowers, at least hanging baskets can be moved if we need to.  Or, alternatively, we can take them down, transplant the squashes into proper growing beds, and replant the baskets with something else.  And besides, the strawberries, once they finish fruiting, will start to set out runners, and so in time we can cut the new runners and sink these into the side panels of the hanging baskets to create hanging strawberry baskets!  Oh my, ain’t it grand!  Everything’s a moveable feast – plants, bricks, equipment, you name it!

Speaking of strawberries and feasts… we made strawberry & rhubarb jam last night.  Simple and delicious.  Just weigh your cleaned and chopped fruit (in more or less equal measures), then top with an equivalent combined weight with granulated sugar (which I reduced marginally) and add the juice of two squeezed lemons.  Tie up the lemon pips in cooking muslin and suspend this into the jam for pectin.  Bring to a rolling boil and cook until it reaches jam consistency.  And voilà!  You have jam!

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Prepping to make Strawberry & Rhubarb Jam. (26 May 2020)

Anyway, jam-making was yesterday.  Back to today’s activities, in addition to all the other little things we accomplished, the big dude also managed to re-lay the stairs at the top near where the remedial water repairs had taken place.  The wooden ‘bridge’ was removed and he relaid two large paving stones with bricks below.  The whole thing is now solid and secure – no more wobbly or tipping paving slabs.  It’s all solid and firm now.

And in the growing shed, the Thai basil that we seeded is doing well and soon will be ready to pot-up – maybe into a terracotta planter.  (We have two short terracotta window planters which will soon be empty when we harvest the remaining radish.)

The tray of sunflower seeds are all coming up and need to be planted tomorrow or the next day – all the more reason to get going on M’s!

No sign of the flat leafed parsley seeds that I seeded mid-May, but I’m trying to be patient and I keep watering the flat of soil.  I recall from the three rather weakly seedlings that I do have from an earlier seeding that parsley took a really long time to shown any signs of life.

Patience is worth it.  And it’s a lesson I’m still learning.  I’d given up on some earlier pots and then dumped all the trays back into a bucket to re-use when I did the rose cuttings.  Now there are squashes growing in the rose cuttings!  They might be pumpkins, so I’m going to repot and separate the rose from the squash seedling very soon.

I’ve also got more seeds to have a go with, including some small mild peppers, broccoli, more calvero nero, Brussel sprouts, and cucumbers.  And packets of seeds for direct seeding too – but that must wait until either we get a grip on the beds at M’s plot, or harvest and turn over and re-sow the garlic plot.

And more brick paths to lay… more river stones to collect for the newt pond…

Oh my!  I love it!  Can’t wait to get started on the next little projects tomorrow.

Especially as the harvest season is well and truly started – we’ll harvest strawberries, raspberries, the first zucchini, a curly red lettuce…

Yum!

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Harvesting Globe Artichokes this weekend.

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Globe Artichokes in garlic butter.  What an exquisite feast!

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back patch veg beds – a progress report

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A lovely listed Grade II Church Tower stands guard overlooking our back patch gardens.

At the end of last week I slipped out of the flat early in the morning to get a head start on a general tidy and overall assessment of the state of play in the back patch vegetable patch.

This was hugely overdue, and the area has been left to fend for itself, except for the occasional spot watering and frantic weeding session.

This is partly because this garden, though behind a locked gate, is fully overlooked by the public railway footpath, and partly because we’re pulled mainly to the oasis paradise of the allotment.

Due to this area’s very public aspect, I’ve always been a little shy about doing as much as I would otherwise like in the gardens, and as a result have planted appropriately in this space with plots such as the ever-expanding rhubarb patch, and the awesomely magnificent globe artichoke plants – both of which take care of themselves once established and happy.

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View of the back patch that shows the newly cut lawn with ‘wild area’ in the centre of the lawn, where we plan to extend a wildflower bed full of hollyhock, wild grasses and other cottage garden plants – to make more room in the perennial flower beds!!

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Red currants ripen up (23 May 2020)

The other plant in the patch which thrives without too much preening and care is the red currant bush.  And besides – we’ve pretty much run out of growing space at the allotment, so I wanted to assess and find areas where we could have some overflow growing spaces in the back patch.

But even a garden that can take care of itself through the seasons should be looked in on every once in a while.

On this occasion I was rewarded with visions of jewel-like red currants ripening on the branch.  We will be harvesting these tart ruby fruits very soon!

The rhubarb patch we transplanted from the allotment to the back patch has recently been ravaged by the neighbourhood cats, who took it upon themselves to use the freshly dug soil as their private luxury garden litter.  Not good.  In fact, totally disgusting!

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The established rhubarb bed in back patch.  Newly transplanted chive clumps look a little ragged but will recover quickly.  In far distance is the artichoke patch. (23 May 2020)

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Summer fruiting Raspberry patch, farther along from the rhubarb. (23 May 2020)

We have plans to cat-proof that patch with some metal mesh – cats won’t like catching the nails in their paws on the mesh when they scratch and dig to prepare to toilet – or that’s the hope.

But we’ve not quite managed to get that all sorted out – though we have finally cut an appropriately sized section to use.  When I get it into place I will add a final behaviourist deterrent: finely ground black pepper.  Between the metal and the ground pepper hopefully the cats condition themselves to avoid our rhubarb beds.  Thank goddesses that the older established rhubarb bed is left undisturbed by these pesky felines.

Just down from the rhubarb is the summer-fruiting red raspberry patch.  These are spreading well from the single canes we bought at Morrisons on a whim.

I transplanted a large clump of chive from beside the raspberry, and moved them to the side of the established rhubarb.

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Rocket bed going to seed, with flowering calendula. (23 May 2020)

Another innovation was to remove the rotting wood boards that previously divided the growing plots and used the perforated building bricks to create permanent walking areas on the beds so as to more easily harvest, tend, and weed the beds without having to step on the growing ground and avoid compacting the soil.  All these bricks were reclaimed from a building site and otherwise would have gone into a building skip and then straight to landfill.

Down from the raspberry patch is really where the beds go a bit wild.  This photograph shows the final stretch of the growing bed, heading towards the corner point, which marks the start of the flower and shade beds under the cherry tree.  The really tall growth in this photograph is a bed of wild rocket that I left to go to seed.

Rocket is low-growing as a salad crop, but boy-oh-boy do they shoot for the stars when they start to set seeds.  The seedheads on these plants are not yet ripe, but I’m planning to leave them there as an experiment to see if the rocket self-seeds into a self-perpetuating patch.  (It’s taking longer than I thought and may re-think these plans as it would be much more straightforward to rip them out and simply reseed with purchased rocket seed.  But we’ve gone this far and an experiment – albeit a loosely conceived and controlled one such as in this case – so won’t give up quite yet).

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Globe artichoke starter plugs planted in and protected from birds. (23 May 2020)

The front of these final growing spaces are fronted with calendula, but these can be dug out and moved if we need the space for other more useful edible crops.  It’s here that I’m hoping to dig over and start beds of pak choi and spinach.  At present there are onions growing, but as these onion beds haven’t been watered as frequently as a veg bed should be, are all rather skimpy and small in growth.

At the corner of the long growing bed there is a shorter growing patch on the return beds which run under the cherry tree and end at the railway path.  It is into this newly created growing bed that I planted the little globe artichoke plants.

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Malink with the mature globe artichokes at the other end of the growing patch.

These little artichoke are so tiny and delicate right now, but in time will tower to be taller than the tall slender Malink.  I’m glad that I placed metal mesh guards on them, as when we were down there we both watched in fascination as a male and female blackbird worked hard to try to get in under the mesh cages to pick at the plants.  The cheek!

Artichoke start tiny, but in a couple of years time they will stand seven or eight feet tall, with delicious globe artichokes that can be harvested and enjoyed.  Speaking of which, last night we had a delicious harvest meal of steamed artichoke with garlic butter, complemented with a courgette, onion and garden-grown asparagus risotto.  (R had gifted us a second small harvest of his beloved asparagus as a thank you for our sharing of the strawberries at the allotment.). Super-delicious and so very satisfying to create a meal from the fruits of one’s labours.  We’ve had two meals from the artichoke so far, and there are at least two or three more meals busy growing into size as I type.  Yum!

So that’s the growing beds in the back patch.  The rest of the beds are pretty much dedicated to perennial flower beds, which is just as well because the big guy is a flower guy – he absolutely loves his flowers and blooms, and spends quite a bit of time making sure the flower plants are watered and staked properly.  Under the far pergola is a pink blooming rose (with white flowering climbing rose above), with a massive patch of mint that grows happily in the semi shade under the pergola.  Mint can go rampant, and as we’re running out of space in the flower beds, we will probably move some of the mint out of here and make it fully flowers – moving the mint into the newly created wildflower area in the middle of the lawn.  That runs the risk of the whole lawn becoming mint, but hey-ho – we’re going to do it anyway!

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Foxgloves in glory in the railway path flower beds (23 May 2020)

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The big guy’s favourite spiky plant in railway path flower beds. It gets tiny white flowers later in the summer. (23 May 2020)

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Foxglove blossom (23 May 2020)

 

 

 

 

 

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meditations of a wild woods & allotment gardener: one year on, the story of our shack

It’s two years exactly to the day when we first took on our plot nestled along the railway tracks edging to Hampstead Heath.  The end of end-of-May Bank Holiday 2018.  We’ve come a long way since then.

Here’s a story by the big guy, laying out the design process of our growing shed.  Enjoy!

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We started with a jungle of brambles & tall grass, May 2018

The Building of a Building: Shed How-To’s

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Everything was built around the location of our chairs!   The lattice panels were found in the garbage & rescued.

The first decision that was undertaken was where a shed could be placed on the plot and if so, how would it be orientated to maximise storage and yet minimise the impact on otherwise good growing areas.

You do need some form of storage on an allotment to secure gear and keep things from the weather, animal nosiness and just to be organised.  The allotment land itself is secure on the whole with a locking gate, so factoring in security and anti-theft measures was not really an issue, more it was just about having reliable shelter for possessions.  (And somewhere to shelter in sudden rainstorms).
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The start of the second set of stairs in the heavy sloping clay.

The biggest challenge was how to erect a shed on such uneven and frankly destabilised land. The gradient at the rear of the plot steeps up quite sharply in the last 6 feet of space and excavating the land to level it was not a great idea due to the upper private property’s lawn and garden at the rear sloping downward somewhat precariously, with their retaining wall showing evidence of repairs and shoring-up at some time in the distant past, as do many of the upper plots along the strip of railway easement that make up the site.

We also had to consider height restrictions due to guidelines and not to have to remove any larger limbs or branches of the trees at our rear as they provide both shade and privacy.

At the end of deliberations we settled on a construction that would be 6 feet deep by 5 feet wide and offering an internal stand height suitable for anyone under 6′ 5” tall. Entrance was to be from the centre of the upper terrace of the plot.  So we drew up the plans roughly and submitted it to the allotment committee for approval.

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Rough plan of our plot, with shed dimensions, submitted early 2019.

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Side panels up & stairs are complete.

The first task was to remove the years of heavy undergrowth, and somewhat archaeologically removing debris and waste material like metal bars, broken pottery and even an old tire!

The second task was to create a second set of stairs on the left side of the upper terrace so as to be able to work safely and to get up to the rear of the plot with materials without slipping dangerously.

Once that was done the ideas had begun to flow on how to make a shed on uneven ground that cannot be excavated.

We settled on a somewhat ingenious technique which is to say, we would build a shanty-type structure on a raised platform that could “cope with the slope” so to speak.

Using recovered scaffold poles as pilings, we drove the tubes down to a depth of about 3 feet and then, once levelled reasonably well for height, used scaffold flanges as fixing points, which could also be used to fine-tune the levelling by raising or lowering any one flange within its 1.5 inch range of pipe surround. This method can also be used in the future should the shed settle unevenly on the ground.

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Preparing the platform for the shed base.

We used an 18″ x 1/2″ drill bit in a rechargeable drill to make inroads into the hard clay below the surface. The drilled holes would allow the displaced material a place to go once the driving of the pilings began.

Once the pilings were sledge-hammered in and levelled using straight scaffold lengths, strings and a long spirit level, we filled the poles with sharp building sand which we reckoned would help firm them in the ground and provide internal friction to stop any subsidence of the shed once weighted on its supports.

We also elected to have a sloped roof to catch rainfall and steer it into a water butt via guttering and a downpipe.

The platform was probably the most expensive part of the unit, requiring two sheets of marine-quality plywood which was coated with green fence preserver a number of times to ensure longevity. That ran about £75 for the sheets and £10 for the pail of green-coat. The framing was normal lumber from Homebase, what we refer to as “two by fours” at about £2.65 per piece, selected carefully for straightness and absence of knots.

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Base installed & level, spring 2019; daffodils coming into bloom in pots at the top of the stairs.

The walls were to be of cladding, bought at 50% off, in packages of ten 8-foot long pieces per pack for something like £7.50 each, requiring 8 packs. They were meant to be used indoors specifically, but we figured if they were pre-coated with preserver and then done over again seasonally, they should do the job nicely to create attractive walls and should hold up to the elements with a little care and maintenance.

We see other sheds on the plots which have not fared so well to the burn of sun and lashing of rain, but they probably would have survived if they had been offered a little preventative TLC over time. Some are looking like they should be redone completely and actually, some have been torn down by newcomers since we arrived two years ago…  We didn’t want to end up going down that route, so pre-emptive efforts were made as we carried on construction.

 

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Shed floored & framed.  Painted green on St Patrick’s Day, 2019.

Now, here’s the tough part. There is no electricity on site. So, this shed was built using nothing more than a level, a tenon saw, some clamps, vise-grips, a silicone-seal gun, and a cordless drill and drillbit kit… the latter two items from Argos.  (The green Guild branded tools are actually really decent quality and excellent value!)

The cladding was quite fragile, so every mounting screw had to have a pilot hole drilled first to avoid it splitting the piece.

The rear of the shed, which would be well hidden from view, was cased in using 3/4″ plywood recovered from various locations and this added much needed rigidity to the build, as the framing itself was not as sturdy as one would have hoped, but still good enough for us, no “up-to-code” requirements on this project!

 

The design of the shed itself was intended to have two functions: to store items neatly, but also to serve as a potting shed and a greenhouse, not as a glasshouse per se, but as a sun-trap and a warm container for seeding and keeping more delicate plants like our beloved lemon tree over the winter.

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Side elevations get covered, leaving spaces for side and back windows

And so, we installed a large (and expensive) sheet of found-in-the-rubbish Perspex clear acrylic plastic ‘window’ facing south into the sun, and also created two skylights in the roof much like the sunroof of a car, which would allow maximum light to filter through.

The skylights were purchased acrylic sheet that was pre-drilled, screwed and siliconed into place.  The final roof covering was of a heavy-duty clear tarpaulin to allow light to pass while giving a good waterproof membrane up top, stapled under the eaves with heavy gauge staples.

Two doors were fitted, one normal width, one half width, the half-door not to be used often but could be opened up if needed for access.

 

Inside the shed, we chose mirrored glass for the large shelf and clear glass shelves mounted on shelf brackets covered with cut bicycle innertubes to provide anti-slip grip.  Most of these materials were retrieved from the garbage!

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All done – roof complete, doors on.

The clear shelves allow light to pass down onto plants and seedlings below and the mirrored shelf bounces the light back up.

We also hung old mirrors on the walls to maximise incoming light by bouncing it back onto any foliage happily growing inside our shed.

Without the use of power tools and with trundling in of supplies and building materials by hand when possible, and working on the project in the evenings and weekends, the shed took about 5 months to complete.
Once it was up and done we came up with the idea to incorporate a growing box off the front of the design, using pre-installed scaffold T-junctions, which when faced forward allowed two more pilings to join the substructure, providing more lateral stability and a good strong container for the soil in the box.
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Pea box installed on front-facing side.  Navajo totem arrows above.

The new front-facing growing box was to be for growing peas, functional and also a nice camouflage for the shed to blend into its surroundings, which it has done nicely since it has settled into the space.

So, to sum up, we made a shanty on a platform with double doors, 4-wall windows, skylights, and mirrored interior walls.
We have discovered though that it can reach the temperature of a sauna inside in midday London temperatures!
Good thing we decided to have a window that opens on the front wall to allow a breeze through when desired!
All in all, a success that has drawn quite a few admirers among our fellow allotmenteers!
Love our shed!
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Successfully completed garden shed & growing space.  (Summer 2019)

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Pea bed in front of shed, with pea seedlings.  (22 May 2020)

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meditations of a wild woods & allotment gardener: getting buggy

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Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly. (17 May 2020)

I’m in the dog house – behind on the big guy’s photographs.

These are a few of the recent shots taken on the various plots.  This one is a Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly on Oregon’s plot, taken mid-week.

Apparently the butterflies go wild for these purple wallflowers.

We’ve taken three cuttings, snipped off the plants and quickly put into moist soil and grit pots, with a small dusting of rooting hormone powder.

So far so good with the purple wallflower cuttings: two of the three still look ok in our little green growing shack.

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Tortoiseshell on Purple Wallflower.  (17 May 2020)

Small Tortoiseshell butterflies are pretty beautiful and eye-catching, especially when espied on a vibrant flower such as these nice purple wallflower blossoms.

So is the Peacock butterfly, but you would never know it when it’s wings are closed, and it looks dusty, brown and dull.

Super-dude spied a Peacock butterfly in flight and was able to track it and photograph it resting on a plank of wood on our plot.

I love the way this photograph catches the antennae of the butterfly in shadow silhouette.  With the wings closed you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a humdrum moth.

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Peacock Butterfly underwing (mid-May 2020)

 

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Peacock Butterfly (underwing). (May 2020)

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Large House Spider.

There were creepy crawlies – the usual woodlice and centipedes – as well as a few spectacular spiders.

We thought this spider might be something more exotic than a common house spider, but that’s what our researches to identify it suggest that it is.

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House Spider and web, beside faded white borage blossom. (May 2020)

The pond is also full of life.  Tadpoles are now showing tiny but perfectly formed back legs, sprouted from the back of their slick tadpole bodies.  There are less mosquito larvae – so that’s good.

 

We spotted two kinds of frog, and have seen the newts – Percival and Penelope – swimming about in the pond.

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Penelope, the Palmate Newt. (May 2020)

I’m constantly aesthetically distressed by the visibility of the green pond liner. Last year to redress this issue I lined the outer areas with bricks.  This had a double effect as it helped to camouflage the plastic and also created a safer standing space at the pond’s edge.

Recently I’ve taken to collecting rounded river tumbled rocks from our paths, and have added some of these round stones to the pond’s shallow edge.

After I added the stones, the big guy said they were immediately being enjoyed by the tadpoles, who were nestling in and being explored.  I guess the stones will also radiate heat in the daytime, adding a new little microclimate to our tiny little pond.  Sadly there’s not much I’ve figured out to cover the sides of the pond, which still reveal the plastic liner.  (Shame when it was created the plastic used wasn’t black, and so more easily hidden from view.)

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Frog & Snail at the pond’s edge. (May 2020)

Yup.  It’s all going on with the wildlife at the plot.

And I’ve not even touched on the birds!

Can you believe it!??  A magpie tried to land on Malink’s back this afternoon.  He was bent over, peering into the pond (camera in hand, yes…), and in a swoosh a magpie tried to land on him – as if he was as stationary as a piece of bent wood.  Go figure!

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Peacock butterfly, wings open (April 2020)

 

 

 

 

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the plot thickens…

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M’s plot (17 May 2020)

It seemed a good thing to do – to offer to do some weeding and tending at a friend’s allotment plot, given that she’s locked in during coronavirus.  But wow!  What a lot of extra work. Given a chance weeds do run riot – and as this patch has been left to itself all winter, it’s really rather overgrown.

M’s plot faces directly onto the railway path.  The bed closest to the main path has a selection of fragrant roses in all colours – white, yellow, peach, pink…  The side of the patch also has magnificent old roses, as shown in the photo to the side.

Her shed is rather rickety and the big guy may have a go at shoring it up and reinforcing once we’ve got a handle on the growing areas.  She also has a small pond immediately in front of the shed which is overgrown and needs some tending – but we’ve not got that far yet!  Two of the plots will be reserved for M’s beloved squashes, which she is starting from seed on her balcony.

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Two beds prepared for M’s squashes.

The other plots can be used by us.  We got started and dug over, weeded and mulched with rotted manure two plots.

There are two or three other open plots (half covered in plastic at the moment) which we will have to likewise weed, dig, turn over and add manure to in order for us to grow a bit this summer.

Given the state of the ground I’m inclined to add more squashes of our own.

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M’s plot, with Overground Train going by. (May 2020)

I had thought I could grow pak choi and other greens in the beds, but perhaps not.  It may be that the vegetable growing beds in the back patch would be better suited to those kind of crops (though if I do that I’ll have to get into the habit of watering in the back patch way more regularly than at present!)

Oh my!  We’re stretched in all directions these days – always catching up somewhere.  It’s been a busy few days in which a highlight was completing my at-home coronavirus test, which required me sitting in for most of the day on Friday awaiting collection of my swab sample.

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M’s yellow roses (May 2020)

That imposed on a us a mandatory rest from all the outdoor work, but once the sample was collected we were full on stir-crazy and went out late afternoon, with drinks, to our own plot, for a light session of watering, tending and simply enjoying the space.

Our allotment goes from wonderful to exquisite in daily increments, and we tend, preen, weed, prune….  Constantly improving and tweaking everything – plots, growing spaces, garden beds, shed seedlings, shed organisation – the lot!

But everywhere else we’re running behind – the back patch vegetable bed has been left to run riot for most of the spring, with our efforts limited to watering and the occasional tug of a weed.

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Feet up post-corona testing, chilling out with the Clash on Friday 22 May 2020.

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For an intoxicatingly aromatic G&T simply add sun-warmed lemon verbena directly to your glass.

The back patch flower beds suffer the same fate – though I did spend a full morning a week or so ago doing a basic weed (with garden fork to tease out roots!), and pulled out the finished forget-me-not which self-seeds almost as a weed but creates wonderful drifts of soft blue flowers in early spring.  Forget-me-not – like lungwort – is susceptible to mildew after the first flush of flowering.

And in the woods, we’re playing catch-up on trimming and tending given that the group had to cancel all group work parties for a month and a half during the worst of the coronavirus lockdown in London.

Lately the woods group has started to go back out and work together (or at least those of us not fully locked-down and sheltering indoors), and have done 3 sessions – usually now on a weekday morning as opposed to Sundays as previously, because the weekends are higher-risk with more children and young families out and about in the woods and circus area.

The local community continues to donate plants to the woods which they dug out or divided from their own gardens.  Yesterday the Malink and I planted into the back patch a donated rhododendron into the ericaceous area under the cherry tree, along with an interesting looking variegated white and dark green coloured euphorbia.  (We have too much euphorbia which self-seeds wildly, but don’t have a variegated one, so I thought I’d stick it in).  We were also gifted a magnificent wild grass, which still awaits a final decision on location.

Earlier this week the council’s lawn cutting team re-introduced the ‘wildflower’ wild patch in the middle of the expanse of lawn in the back patch, so we may start to cultivate in there.  It had been mowed fully earlier this spring, so I’d given up that it would re-appear, but maybe last year’s groundsman is back on the scene and remembered the big wild patch in the middle of the lawn.

So there you go – we have yet again more expanded growing space opening up.  Expansion just seems natural and inevitable.

 

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hard graft & some progress

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Mating beetles on Swiss Chard (16 May 2020)

It’s been a surprisingly busy few days.  I reached out to a fellow allotment holder and neighbour to see if she was ok.  Hadn’t seen sign of her for a while…  She’s a former colleague in the fight to save our local neighbourhood from the perils of ‘regeneration’ — as if local councils are ‘Time Lords’ like out of Dr Who and can supposedly regenerate whole neighbourhoods and communities with the wave of a wand and final swoosh of a wrecking ball!

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Bugs ‘doing it’ (16 May 2020)

Anyway, yes, she’s been shielding at home and not able to come up to her plot.  We agreed to give it a bit of a weed, turn over some empty beds, and prepare them for her beloved squash seeds, nurtured on her balcony.  In return we can use the other empty beds.  It had been left since mid-winter, so was in a bit of a state to be honest, but together, yesterday, we worked at it for a couple of hours.

I managed to turn over and weed two plots for her squashes.  And weeded a bit here and there, pulling at grass and tidying up.

The big guy snipped all the grass and then bagged it up – we’ve added it to the local community green waste collection by the council (thanks to a few willing neighbours with spare capacity for their own paid collections).

CIMG7769copyAn added bonus was that it seemed that that day was bug sex day.  A camera was on hand to capture their strange goings-on.

There were a few skirmishes… Was it a fight to the death? Or sexual mating? We’re not even sure if these beetles are friends or foes – but didn’t have the heart to interrupt!

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New brick path (16 May 2020)

Enough was enough and there were still things to do in on our own patch.  I finished by tidying the roses, selecting an exemplar of each to bring home and try in a vase.  The most fragrant and beautiful wins!  (One day in and I’d say the white rose is a clear winner – it’s opening up exquisitely and has a heady rose scent.  Gorgeous!

Back at our patch, I’d started a new brick path.  Every time we go up I try to carry up at least six of the blonde garden bricks that the woods group were gifted by the local builder who constructed the new housing units at the end of our road.

The bricks have been piled up in the woods, and we’ve used some about the wood gardens as well, but plenty have been shifted up to ours.

The new path leads down, directly to the very bottom boundary of our plot, where the tomato and sweet corn are planted.

The left curve ends at the end of our plot.

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Tomatoes (with sweet corn planted behind). (15 May 2020)

I managed to use all the bricks I had shifted up to the allotment, and need many more to complete the path, but it’s looking good so far!  Not a big deal to have a brick path in high summer conditions, but it will be a huge boon in winter, when otherwise the clay would stick in clumps to your boots.

I also took two cuttings of the pink rose in front of the newt pond, and brought up to the allotment some cuttings in wet paper towel and a plastic bag of fuschia.  So a pot of fuschia cuttings and a pot of the pink rose cuttings are both on the back shelf of the shed.

Today I added to that a new cutting from the damask rose – I did a trim and tidy, deadheading roses already!  And in the structural trim of the damask discovered a good growing branch with no flower bud on it – which is perfect for rose cuttings, or so I’m told.  Fingers crossed!

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Calendula to the side of the cauliflower patch.

None of the runner bean or dwarf french bean seeds I started have come up.  Likewise with peas!  Supposedly easy to grow, but not for me!  I’m not giving up and may have been using old seed, so tomorrow will start some new seeds, making sure I’m using the most up to date seeds.

It might be time to dump the bad ones – though saying that, I did just that but planted them in over on H’s side, thinking that nothing would come up, and lo and behold the broad beans that have come up in that bare patch look healthier than the ones I planted over on our patch!

But we need more peas, so I’ll have to keep trying.  The dream of the pea bed in front of the shed only has two pea plants growing – along with two squash seedlings.

It has been fairly cold at night these past few weeks, so maybe with warmer nights the pea seeds I plant might have a chance to germinate.  I may pre-soak them too…

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But all our labours were rewarded in an amazing strawberry harvest – the second of the year.  (We harvested tonight as well, but gifted that small crop to R – in recompense for his gift to us of his homegrown asparagus – yum!)

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future fruits..

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Wheels at the plot: bicycles & trains.

Everything abounds at the allotment, though yesterday we were puzzled by the absence of the robin, who we suspect was off on some other plot searching worms on overturned ground.

The main water connection has been fixed for all the other water tanks – but ours does not fill and we still await a time to get busy with fixing it.  It’s been a super drag, but we soldier on and the big guy tirelessly carries up from the bottom path jugs of water.  It’s heavy work.

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Loganberry – from blossom to fruit. (15 May 2020)

Despite the virtual drought we’ve been doing our best to water all the fruiting shrubs and vines.

We’ve already harvested from the first cropping strawberries – yum!

Future fruits include the gooseberries, loganberries, raspberries – red & golden – and also blueberries and blackberries.  Loganberry are swelling on their canes – this picture shows the pollinated spent flowers, which in time, with water and more sun, will swell to create a dark, sweet, soft-fleshed fruit.

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Blueberries (15 May 2020)

Our ‘Jersey Blue’ blueberries swell in clusters on their stalks.  The fruits vary in sizes and are mainly pale, but in time will grow, swell, and darken into sweet fresh fruity treats.

The little self-seeded blueberry has not set flower this year.  Maybe next year? Gardening’s a patience game, and in the meantime it’s a nice looking tidy little plant.

Of our two gooseberry bushes, one has a nice amount of fruit and the other is rather bare.  I’m thinking of planting them both directly into the box planter and getting rid of the plastic pots.  But I’ll wait until they’ve finished fruiting for this year before I disturb the bushes yet again this growing year.  (We moved the gooseberry into their new planter in March, with one already in a pot and the other had been planted directly into the raspberry bed and was transplanted into a pot at that time.)

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Bee on a raspberry flower. (15 May 2020)

The raspberries are doing very well now that they are all tied into cane supports and standing fairly straight.

The patch of golden raspberry grow lower than the taller red raspberries, but are also doing very well and have many brackets of flower heads – promising lots of future fruit harvesting to come!

The blackberry bushes are rampant this year as usual – though this year I’ve not put any manure on them.  They’re in rich enough ground as they need.

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Honeybee on Loganberry blossom, with fruit setting below. (15 May 2020)

Although the nights are still cool, I left both zucchini plants uncovered, along with most of the purple king french beans and all of the tomatoes.  One of the taller yellow cherry tomato plant that was inside the shed was dug in (with its pot), to the tomato bed yesterday.  I’ll transplant it properly in due course, adding lots of extra manure.  The corn patch is now also left without protection cloches.  Only the very small broadbean seedlings were left covered yesterday.

I took a few tomato stem cuttings yesterday – so now have 4 stem cuttings in the shed on a trial basis.  I also took two cuttings from the pink Gertrude Jeckyl rose that grows along the top ridge in front of the newt pond on H’s side.  And had a bag of cuttings from fuschia in the back patch, which I also prepared and left in the allotment shed.  Here’s to green fingers (and rooting hormone) working their magic!

Yesterday I didn’t start any seeds at all, except to sprinkle a few more coriander seeds into the ground at the top, and to transplant a handful of nasturtium from the ground and into the top of the faded tulip pot at the top of our stairs.  Also did some good shed sorting.  Must get back at it!

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