Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Blackcurrant Harvest

I could have left them a little longer...(there's a few in the picture here that might have benefited from a few more days in the sun) - but there seemed to be lots of ripe berries on our three blackcurrant bushes - and you sometimes have to do things when you can - so I went for it.

The variety shown here is called 'Ben Connan' and these are from a Welsh Fruit Farm organic stock. They were planted in October 2007 (nearly two years ago) so this is our first crop - they cost £5.50 each and will hopefully crop well for about ten years. That's an investment then.

As for preparation and cooking...if you cut them off the branches in bunches, you can sit down in and watch a film and use a fork to take the fruit off.

We must have bagged about twenty small punnets full in total. If you bought twenty punnets of organic blackcurrants it would cost you how much?...£40 perhaps?

So, here's an overview of this week's harvest: Onions to store, onions to eat - a huge bowl of blackcurrants, new potatoes (variety - Lady Christl - only picked a few of them) shallots, fresh sage and a few lovely sugar snap peas gifted by a fellow plot-holder.

Monday, 22 June 2009

First ever open day on our allotment site

I'd been so busy with work, family and getting the plot ready for our first Allotment Open Day, I didn't even notice our allotment committee had put an advert in the paper about it.

I was late turning up on Saturday - rushed out to the plot, anticipating rain but instead met with a constant stream of well-wishing visitors - all interested in what we were growing, how we were growing it, and why - visiting dignitaries included a trained herbalist and a local government representative. (I'd been talking to the poor chap about rabbit manure and related topics for about twenty minutes before I realised who he was...)

All afternoon I waxed (happily) lyrical about the challenges of converting a derelict plot (ORGANICALLY of course) - the advantages of mulching, the dangers of frost, foxes, mice, pigeons, slugs and what to do about them. It was great to stop for a coffee and chat for a little while, instead of labouring...

Even if I do say so myself - everything looked pretty good on the plot. There were even a few concrete illustrations of our allotment plotting skills. I was just about to showcase the mini-pond when a shining new froglet had the foresight to climb out of the washing up bowl onto a stone - as if to demonstrate the point!

I made a pretty good pitch for Garden Organic too - handing out some leaflets, listing the many benefits of being a member and sharing fond memories of the chocolate bread and butter pudding I consumed at their first class restaurant at Ryton where I did my training to become a mentor for the Garden Organic Food for All programme (the training took place at the training centre, I mean - not in the restaurant....)

During the course of the day I realised how proud we should be - after all we're one of the largest sites in Britain. About half the visitors were allotment holders from other sites comparing notes - or people who wanted a plot.

Whilst mulling over the best time to prune cherry plums we talked hard politics too...everyone noticed we've still got lots of derelict plots on site, and no-one (including me) can come up with a good enough excuse as to why the council hasn't done anything about this situation.

The derelict plot next door (the one I photographed for this blog back in March) STILL doesn't have an owner - and there are more of these - around twenty I would guess. It's crazy - I don't understand it - we have a huge waiting list. And judging by all the visitors to our site there are loads of people who are desperate for a plot, bless them.

Still, there's talk of progress in other directions. A composting toilet! That would be an improvement - as we have around 200 plots and no 'facilities'. I tried to explain how difficult this is for all kinds of visitors (families with toddlers, those with disabilities in the family to name just a few). Yup. Composting toilet(s)? are the way to go!

The day was rounded off by a lovely barbecue - so thanks to the committee. Met a lovely lady from a local housing trust who talked a lot of sense and has a wonderful vision of where we might go from here...

Looking back - it is less than ten years since our site was under threat from being sold off and turned into a tennis court. This was documented in local newspapers.

I had the good fortune to meet one of the people who played a substantial part in saving our skins. Our friend told me how 'the powers-that-be' had tried to keep the sell off plan hush, hush. But this 'local hero' saved the day. He used his rights under the Freedom of Information Act to secure documentation of a secret council meeting. When the news came out - and with the spade-work-support of plot holders and nearby residents - the political 'tide' was turned.

So thanks to 'Mr. Hero' and all the other people who took part in the struggle. Without you - we wouldn't have fresh new potatoes for tea today...and I for one don't know what I'd do without the plot...

For those who'd like to know more about the current status of allotment waiting lists in England - check out the survey 'Allotment Waiting lists in England' on the NSLAG (National Society of Leisure and Allotment Gardeners) website, written by Margaret Campbell and Ian Campbell and supported by Transition Town West Kirby in conjunction with the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Garlic Harvest

Do you sometimes have moments when you wonder why on earth you're doing what you're doing?

I've had plenty of those times in the last three years - converting our allotment from derelict. I must have removed at least a hundred bags of broken glass, old pots and other rubbish from the site. Not much fun.

But this weekend has been one of those times when, although it's still hard work, activities on the plot seem to be getting easier and more pleasurable. I've taken up all the garlic and brought it home in my Pashley tricycle. It's a whole year since I bought the tricycle and there's very little maintenance. I asked the bicycle shop to put that green gunge in the tyres and I haven't had a puncture once. That's pretty good going on our allotment site. And as you can see, it is perfect for transporting vegetables.

The bulbs are a really good size and (I think) they smell really good - in fact our whole house smells of fresh garlic. Not a stale and unpleasant smell, but vibrant. That's enough garlic to last us for the whole year and we've given some to neighbours too. Once the bulbs have dried, I sort them through, store the good ones in baskets and use the others as soon as I can.

I like the sound of this garlic soup - especially since we also grow fresh sage on the allotment - but the possibilities are endless really.

Garlic is particularly useful when someone in the family has a cough or cold. I make a simple, instant soup sometimes too - using Marigold organic stock, which comes in a vegan and low-salt version. I just chop one fresh clove of garlic - then put a teaspoon of Marigold into a cup and drop the garlic into it. With a piece of bread it's a great pick-me-up. Then there's garlic bread for barbecues...

This weekend was a big weekend on the plot work-wise. It's Open Day next Saturday and I've agreed to show people round our plot so I'll need to cut the grass too and planted out some clumps of Marigolds which had self-seeded to smarten up the bush tomato beds.

Emptied the old compost heaps and created new ones - our pro-wildlife policy is really kicking in now - lots of different ground beetles which had been breeding in piles of logs I had left around - and in the wood mulch I used for some of the paths (there are a huge number of different ground beetles and many eat slugs, I believe). I've stopped using organic slug pellets altogether now - which is good news on cost grounds too as they're fairly expensive and there are large areas to cover. Our plot has settled down - and with all these wildlife friends we don't seem to need them so much now.

Everywhere you look there are now hundreds of worms - I'm pleased to say the character of our soil has completely changed due to these guys. When I first started tilling the plot, the soil came in huge lumps and it was really difficult if not impossible to get a fine tilth. We've added a huge amount of organic matter now and the soil is much easier to work. I listened to my alter ego 'Gardener's Question Time' yesterday on the radio and Anne Swithenbank seemed to confirm the view that on a heavy clay soil, if you've added lots of organic matter, the soil improves by Year Four.

I emptied out one compost barrel which contained well-rotted rabbit manure. I put half of this on the asparagus bed and used half to create a new strawberry bed using six plants that someone had given us. The well rotted manure was teaming with worms too - I covered it with some porous fabric and cut holes to plant the strawberries through.

Carried on harvesting the new potatoes (Lady Christl) - and planted leeks in those beds. Planted out a couple of Lovage plants (which are good to use for chicken soup, I understand). The Globe Artichoke plants I'd raised at home were ready to go out too.

On the wildlife front, the mini-pond is fine and the big news - next-door-but-one a fellow plot holder has set up his very own honey-bee hive. I went over to say 'hello' to our stripey, furry friends on their very first day. It's all very exciting. I'll post some pictures as soon as I can.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

New potatoes with butter - home grown gooseberries for dessert

I'm finally beginning to understand why farmers always seem to be talking about the weather.

If we're going to get serious about producing enough fruit and vegetables to sustain a small household - weather, sunshine, daylight hours, watering and timing are important factors.

Most gardeners I know have already planted out their courgettes, squash, tomatoes, aubergines, cucumbers and melons. These are all heat-loving plants. And here in the North West of England we've hit a chilly patch - with lots and lots of rain. When this happens growth seems to slow down or stop...and you start wondering if it will ever start again...

Lettuces and salad plants are alright for a few days in these cooler temperatures as they don't like things too hot. Of course if it rains a lot you don't need to water so often. Wielding a watering can is quite a chore when you have a largish space. I'll have to find a more workable solution for this one. Mulching helps enormously - and I've ordered a long hosepipe today(50 metres).

We started to harvest the new potatoes last week. This variety is a first early potato called 'Lady Christl' and they're really delicious. It is such a simple meal too. Last night we had new potatoes with butter and one organic beefburger each (they were on special offer). A small bag of organically grown new potatoes costs around £2.50.

Our home grown harvest will probably give us about fifty meals for two adults and a toddler. So if we'd bought potatoes at the shops this would have set us back £125. Here is what my order from the Organic Gardening Catalogue looked like:

1 x seed potatoes LADY CHRISTL 3 kg (cost: £6.25)
2 x potato GOLDEN WONDER
1.5kg1 x CARROT Chanteney
1 x PARSNIP Cobham Improved Marrow
1 x LETTUCE Little Gem
1 x CUCUMBER Long White Paris
1 x LEEK Monstruso de Carentan
1 x MELON Sweetheart F11 x Rocket Wild

Total: £25.22 with a ten per cent 'Garden Organic' membership discount delivered to my door:

http://www.organicgardeningcatalogue.co.uk/ (postage free for orders over £25)

Home-grown gooseberries for dessert. It was the first time we'd been able to harvest gooseberries from the allotment. The variety we chose was 'Greenfinch' and they were grown in the partial shade of our large Newton Wonder apple tree. I didn't think they would do so well in partial shade, but they are fine now.

I could have staked the bushes, but I just didn't get around to it in time, so when the rains came I decided to harvest all the fruit, small and large - so the slugs wouldn't get them. I gathered a decent bowlful. If we'd bought the equivalent amount of organic gooseberries (which are difficult to get hold of round here anyway) - this would have probably cost us around £20.00. So that's more or less how much I paid for the two bushes. It's taken two years to get fruit from these. They weren't difficult to maintain - and if anything I neglected them as there was so much else going on around the plot.

So the past three years of sometimes heavy (unpleasant) and often dirty work converting our derelict allotment is finally starting to pay off. But there are some things you just can't buy with money: my daughter's squeals of delight as she unearths her little potatoes and places them carefully in a pot - watching her 'wolf' them down at tea time - no questions asked - her face buttered and smiling...

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

U.N. World Environment Day (this Friday)

Organic gardeners have a carbon footprint a third smaller than regular gardeners. That's one reason why Garden Organic is urging more of us to go organic in the garden. And if you follow the link on their site which tells you about UN World Environment Day (this Friday) you'll find more tips.
We've done lots of these things already on our plot - including creating a mini pond. And here's the best news - three froglets emerged from our washing up bowl pond yesterday!
This picture qualifies as the WORST photograph on the planet - I've got the best excuse though. My daughter was so excited about the frogs she was jumping up and down on my back at the time. Sigh. Maybe I'll get another chance to do a better one. That's 'reality' blogging for you...
To see the posts with pictures and descriptions of how we constructed the pond - scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on the 'mini-pond' section of the archive...
Our tiny, tiny froglet has just emerged from the water and is resting on a stone. Note the subtle ambience created by the curve of our recycled washing up bowl in the background...