Clearing ground

Vervactor surveys the task at hand.

Now that we’ve had our allotment for five years or so you might think that we are past the difficult early stages of digging compacted and perennial weed-infested ground. Well, we should be, but we aren’t. And therein lies a cautionary tale.

Back when we first took on the new section, we laid carpet remnants over much of the area (what were we thinking!). The plan was to smother the weeds in preparation for working the virgin ground. Well, time went by. Periodically we rolled up pieces to get at sections of earth, leaving these cylinders on top of other carpets as we didn’t know what to do with the heavy, dirt-encrusted things. The rest, however, remained in place as the seasons came and went.

Thus the carpet, which was originally introduced to clear the ground, became the biggest obstacle to doing so. Soon you couldn’t see it at all, as this layer was camouflaged by the growth of vigorous brambles, bindweed, and couch grasses. A tree sapling and a rambling rose pushed their way up through the seams. The area became a wilderness taking up almost a third of the new allotment. The carpets began to degrade as matted roots entwined themselves in their layers, but they would never decompose. The task became more insurmountable each year, as did my longing to have it done.

And then, one day last weekend, in a still not fully understood moment of manic determination, the two of us just did it. We dug out that carpet, inch by inch. The work was back-breaking (and wheelbarrow-breaking, as ours deflated under the strain of hauling the piles away). The photos can’t convey how tough it was. But just think – after the newly-exposed, compacted, root-infested soil is dug over (more back-breaking work), we will have cleared our ground at last. More land! I feel like we’ve just taken on another allotment…

Wrestling carpet

Carpet matted with roots does not come up easily.

Clear – for now.

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Late afternoon sun

Here’s a snapshot of how a section of our allotment looked this weekend. Cilantro left to flower appear in the foreground with garlic, onions, carrots, and parsnips in rows behind. Across the grassed area lies the legume bed, where sweet peas are beginning to climb up their wigwams and the peas and broad beans are flowering. In the distance, the two sheds and the old apple tree bask in the momentary sunlight.

Photo of the week!

The British “summers” are becoming less ‘summery’ it appears. So from about April till now, at the dawning of July, I have had a substantial amount of hot chocolate. I am warning you now, when you see me in the US, you may not recognise me – I will be so obese that I will roll myself everywhere like Violet Beauregard in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

My summer refreshment

Fortifying the defenses

During a brief foray to the plot this week, I startled a blackbird that had slipped under the netting I’d settled over the strawberry bed. Luckily, he managed to escape untangled, as we both fluttered about in surprise. I gathered more sticks and canes, topped them with old plastic pots to raise the height, added another piece of netting to drape over this extended structure, and tried to preclude entry along the edges with anchoring bricks. I don’t want any birds getting caught in the net (or eating up any more of my strawberries!).

The Fort Knox of strawberry beds? (Not as far as the slugs are concerned.)

No sooner had I finished that construction project, I noticed that the new growth on the red currant bush (also under netting) had been broken off and flattened. More sabotage! The culprits this time: hefty pigeons. Once again my attempts at protecting my ripening fruit had not been up to scratch. Since the netting was basically draped over the bushes, the pigeons were landing on the currant and wrecking it as they attempted to reach the tasty morsels below the barrier. I set to work again, creating a new freeform structure that stretched higher and wider. It looks rather zany and haphazard, but hopefully will be a more impenetrable barricade. Time to build a proper fruit cage one of these days.

All wrapped up

Ideally I want my garden to be lovely – a joyful mix of vegetables and flowers, order and natural chaos, tranquility and exuberance…

But I also want to eat what I grow.

A garden covered in netting and fleece? Less aesthetically pleasing, but definitely more productive.

Ripening currants and gooseberries – a beautiful sight even when imprisoned under mesh

Taking stock

Looking on the bright side, we came home with some allotment produce this weekend: radishes, artichokes, lettuce, the last of the rhubarb, the first of the strawberries. A few things seem to be coming along nicely: the broad beans are flowering vigorously and the long row of parsnips also seem undeterred by the gloom. Both are hardy plants that can withstand the chill in the air.

However this cold and rainy weather has led to a fair amount of disappointments. Germination has been poor in general, and seedlings (esp. my brassicas sown in a seedbed under fleece) have been decimated by legions – legions! – of slugs and snails. The onions are growing poorly and are beset by a newly arrived pest, the allium leaf miner. The courgettes, squashes, and beans are wan from lack of sunlight and warmth, and a number have had their leaves shredded and stems hollowed out by happy slugs. Not content with these predations, these marauders have been assiduously “tasting” every strawberry that blushes red. I am holding on to my principles and not waging chemical warfare via slug pellets, but am now arming myself with other defense strategies, namely: plastic bottles cut up to create protective cloches, crushed egg shells and coffee grounds to deter trespassers, and perhaps even thick sprinklings of wheat bran (which, when consumed by bandit slugs, expands in their gut, causing them to come to an explosive end). Nice.

“There’s always next year,” remarked the wise old allotmenteer who runs the weekend allotment “shop” out of a shed on a nearby site. He said it with a wry smile. It was reassuring to hear how tough a season he and the other old-timers have been having (it’s not just me!), but I can’t give up on the whole season yet. Not when the peas are blossoming in earnest now, and if I can just keep the pigeons from ripping them up, we will soon be picking a nice green pod or two…

Tomatoes tucked in

Tomato plants mulched with grass clippings.

Brrr, it’s so cold out! The rain let up just enough this weekend to allow me to plant out the tomato plants I’ve raised from seed. They include some old favorites: Marmande and Gardener’s Delight, as well as some exotic unknowns, courtesy of my friend Karen: Long Red Bulgarian and Rali. At least I hardened them off for a couple of weeks before exiling them to cold and wet ground. (It was quite a rigorous hardening off as the wind blew their pots over on several occasions…) As the lawn had recently been mowed I tucked an insulating duvet of grass around each, though that won’t compensate for lack of heat and sunshine!

Elsewhere – artichokes have appeared:

Spires of artichokes foreground Vervactor and the little red shed.

A nice supper of young artichokes, braised in olive oil, white wine, thyme, and slivers of garlic, anyone?