Last Friday I took a day off work for a combined allotment/Christmas shopping blitz. It was a day of freezing fog, and not surprisingly I was the only person mad enough to be working my plot that day. While I was working - hard - I was warm enough, but as soon as I stopped the damp chill seeped into my bones. I drank my thermos of tea sitting on a deckchair inside the shed, looking out at the foggy view, and felt very...British and eccentric.
More skies from around the world, including some with sun, are at Skywatch Friday.
Does anyone else remember the old-style Woman and Home magazine, that our mothers and their friends used to get? Before its makeover into empowered womanhood and a 'brand new attitude'? It was a 1950's time capsule of household hints, knitting patterns, soft-focus short stories, and flower arranging. Even in my childhood I knew this magazine was seriously out of date, but there was a certain comfort about it. Most of all, it has left me with a love of Forsythia, that brave winter flower that seemed to feature in all the 'arrangements' between November and March.
I long to have Forsythia in my garden or at the allotment. Not that I am into flower arranging, but a few sprays of it in an IKEA vase would brighten up the gloomiest December day. And hurtle me right back to my childhood.
For the moment I have to make do with this sunny patch at the entrance to the allotment site.
It may not seem like it from this blog, but things are still moving slowly at the allotment. A bit like this worm, disturbed as I cleared out the dahlias that seemed like a good idea at the time. I did have a slight pang of regret as I dug them out. They were strongly established, with huge tubers. But they need staking, and they don't attract bees, and they get so heavy and sodden in the rains of September and October. And they're full of forky-tails (Scots for earwigs). So it was out with them the other week while the soil was still workable.
In digging them out I disturbed not only worms, which of course I was glad to see, but several ladybirds hiding under fallen leaves. The work went all the more slowly because I kept gently relocating the ladybirds under a different pile of leaves, and they kept stolidly heading back to where I was digging so I stopped again and... I see other garden bloggers are still busy, but I've had no time to visit. I hope to have a big catch-up treat once this last crazy week of work and school end of term finishes.
The green manure is still green. And downy. It was only when I was up close to it yesterday, with the low sun slanting across the leaves, that I noticed the fine hairs on the leaves of the red clover.
Lots of lovely nitrogen fixing going on. I will definitely sow clover again. The other green manure I tried this year - field beans - not so sure, since they didn't give the blanket effect I was after, and were a pain to dig in. Mind you, I haven't tried digging in the clover yet.
It could have been worse. The frame supporting the netting was still standing firm, and our shed was untouched. The plot next door wasn't so fortunate. They have a classic allotment shed put together from offcuts and old doors, and the recent gales tore away one whole side. I didn't take a photo. It seemed a touch voyeuristic.
I found a stout stake to replace the cane that this plant had been tied to, and tied the stake to the metal frame to make doubly sure. Although the ground was still sodden from all the recent rain, I couldn't push the stake in very far even with leaning all my body weight on it. I would have needed a man with a mallet (as opposed to a woman with a chainsaw - anyone else know that campfire song? 'I need a woman with a chainsaw...to keep me warm at night').
As these things do, the date has embedded itself in photos I've taken over the past couple of days. It must have happened when I fumbled with my camera in the dark while considering whether to try to take a photo of the 'lighting of the Christmas tree fireworks' yesterday. I've spent a frustrating hour this afternoon reading the camera manual and discovering how to embed the date, but not how to reverse the steps to un-embed it. Eventually, by dint of my favourite technique when dealing with anything mechanical - random prodding of buttons (which drives my family crazy), I seem to have got rid of it. Until the next time.
Poor neglected allotment. Bad weather, extreme activity in schlepping daughter and harp and violin around the place in the run-up to Christmas, and general November lethargy mean that it's further down the priority list at the moment.
Sunday's blue skies began to change as I worked at the allotment. To the south, all was cloudless and calm, but to the north mares' tails appeared. I felt a sense of foreboding, and checked the netting over the broccoli in the face of what I was sure would be wild weather overnight. The broccoli is coming along well, protected from the pigeons this year.
On my walk home the eastern sky was full of portents too. I was even more certain that we were in for a stormy night.
But Monday morning came with the first white frost of the year, and my first thought on seeing it was that I didn't have my frost-loving winter planting garlic in yet. My second thought was relief - at last some seasonable weather.
Unlike last week when all was dark and sodden, this Sunday was blue skies, sunshine and glowing colours. I'd resolved not to do any work at the allotment, because I'd been working all morning in the garden. With a ferocious pace at work just now I knew I needed a few hours on Sunday afternoon just to read, rather than to be in perpetual motion all weekend.
But it was impossible not to do just a little bit of tidying up. I thought the dill should come out, and then I could tackle the field beans, and before I knew it I'd been working for an hour. Just before I pulled out the dill I took this last shot of its autumn glory. After that I broke off the stems of the field beans and left the roots in the soil. Next week, if it's fair, I'll dig over that part of the plot and let the roots rot down and keep their nitrogen in the soil.
At home I finally managed to plant out the wallflowers I'd been bringing on from tiny plug plants. In the spring they'll be a fragrant lemon and orange splash of colour alongside scarlet and yellow tulips. The copper tape round the pots had successfully repelled snails and slugs, so I'll definitely use that again. I just love that extra touch of the sharp points along the bottom edge!
But oh dear, look at what I found poking through the soil.
After taking these shots I put my camera in my pocket and forgot to take it out again as we worked at the plot this afternoon. The grass just keeps growing, so there was a major strimming session. I weeded the strawberry bed, which was being invaded by couch grass. All around, leaves were falling from the ash trees that border the site. When we're next back - which will be in a couple of weeks now - I'll rake them up and bag them for leaf-mould.
We agreed that we needed to use the winter to get the borders of the plot under control, and to reclaim more ground from grass. That depends on having a relatively snow and frost-free winter. The Winter Olympics might be crossing fingers for snow, but we're not.
For a while I've been searching for something else to do with rainbow chard than steaming or sauteing with chilli flakes. I like it this way, but the rest of the family is lukewarm about it. Now, at last, I've found THE receipe, which everyone likes, which makes chard into a meal, which is as good cold as it is hot, which can be taken to work for a packed lunch...
It's by Thomasina Miers, from the 'Soul food' section in The Times newspaper.
"Swiss chard pastilla pie
6 sheetsfilo pastry 50g currants 50g raisins 1 bundle of chard, about 600-800g 1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped 1 clove of garlic, crushed 3 tbsp olive oil 3 tbsp pine nuts 100g Parmesan 2 lightly beaten eggs 75g feta, crumbled zest of a lemon 70g melted butter
Pre-heat oven to 180C/Gas 4. cover the currants and raisins in boiling water. Brown th epine nuts in the oven until golden brown. Run a knife along the chard stalks to remove the leaves. Wash and slice the stalks into strips (you may need to use only half), then wash and cut the leaves into large strips.
In a pan heat the oil and soften the onion and garlic, seasoning with salt and pepper. Meanwhile blanch first the stalks and then the leaves in boiling salted water until tender and drain well. Add this to the onion mixture and heat through to evaporate any excess liquit. drain the currants and raisins and add to the chard along with the pine nuts. Remove from the heat and add the Parmesan, feta, eggs and lemon zest and allow to cool.
Grease a frying pan with an ovenproof handle or shallow round baking dish (about 20-25cm wide) with melted butter. Lay five sheets of filo pastry in the pan at angles, brushing them with butter as you go, making sure that some of the sheets hang over the sides. Now fill the pastry with the chard mixture.
Place the last piece of filo on top of the filling and fold the overhanging pieces of pastry over the filling. Brush again with the melted butter and bake for 15-20 minutes or until the pastry is golden. If you like, transfer to the hob and heat for a few minutes to ensure that the bottom is crisp.
Serve either from the pan or slide out onto a large plate, dusted lightly with cinnamon. Good with a mixed leaf salad." I didn't use currants and raisins, as we don't like sweet/savoury dishes. I didn't use feta, as we had Wenslydale cheese in the fridge which is a bit like a British feta.It still tasted good!
Things are busy just now, and while I'm keeping up with other blogs I'm not managing to leave comments very much. There's so much out there to enjoy, and so little time!
On Sunday afternoon I took the house compost pail along to the plot, and intended to do some work while I was there. But I saw nothing that wouldn't wait another week, the sun was warm, and I was tired. I'd left husband sawing up large IKEA shelves (Ivar, for those on first name terms with the IKEA range) to make smaller IKEA shelves, daughter practising her clarsach, and son away at university in Glasgow. For a brief spell there was no obligation on me to do anything at all.
I looked out across our plot and our neighbour's, listened to the wind in the trees, and soaked up the sunlight that is beginning to slip away now. Sunrise today was 6.47 a.m., sunset will be 7.28 p.m. Almost at the equinox. It felt good just to sit, at this turning point of the year, and look.
From my deckchair I took these shots of what was around me.
The door plank splintered in the last break-in attempt on our shed:
A bee on a marigold:
And for once I felt no Calvinist guilt about doing nothing.
Seeds sown on 23 August, and so far only three carrot seedlings have come through. I sowed more lettuce a week earlier, and there's no trace of that either. Too warm for the lettuce to germinate? Too late for the Autumn King carrots, probably, despite their name. I had a rosy picture of lettuces going on into the autumn under cloches. It's been a funny old year for germination.
We do have more than one onion. In fact they've been our most successful crop this year, to the extent that we're running out of space to dry and store them. We haven't had two dry days/nights together for a very long time, so leaving them on the soil to dry off, as the books optimistically advise, isn't an option.
After removing (with no loss of life) the snail nursery:
parts of our old fridge/freezer come in handy, as drying racks in the shed:
But the shed's full, and now we have overspill into the garage at home, where because it's so rainy the washing drying on the Victorian pulley is deliciously permeated by the smell of onion. We don't own a tumble drier, so when it's wet this is the alternative. Teenage noses are beginning to wrinkle.
Another item on the list for the forthcoming shed interior makeover: drying lines on the walls.
If we'd wanted to harvest a crop from the green manure field beans we'd have been in luck. As it was I racing to cut off the seeding heads before they scattered their largesse onto the soil. It hardly seems any time since I was opening the packet and pouring the brown triangular seeds into my hand.
After the chop, the stems went in the compost, leaving the roots and short stalks behind to keep doing green-manure-ish things for a while longer.
For the first time I was organised enough to sow a green manure. Organisation didn't extend to some crops that I meant to sow, but life's been busy. The shot above is of the two rows of field beans that have been the most vigorous crop on the plot this summer. Taken on 2 August, compare it with the shot below, taken on 19 July.
The bean flowers have been hugely attractive to bees and flying insects in general.
The thing now of course is that I need to cut them down before the flowers set seed, and we're about to go away shortly for a few days. There may be some vigorous hoeing in store for me next year, but at least I've done something to start enriching the soil. We seem to have been making compost forever, and have only used half a bin full so far. But because this summer has been so wet the soil has remained rich, warm and soft, like coffee grounds rather than dried out to a lumpy hardness.
With several rows of new potatoes now lifted, I decided to sow another green manure, this time crimson clover. I've been looking for manures that will please the bees as well as doing my soil good. Here's the area I sowed with clover on 3 August, broadcasting it in what I fondly imagined was a competent medieval peasant style. We'll see what happens!
At the left of the shot you can just catch a glimpse of the utter failure of the green pea crop. I think I sowed too late, or kept the young plants hanging on in their cardboard tubes too long, or... it was just one of these things. Pity, because I was looking forward to fresh green peas. I would never buy them fresh in pods from a supermarket, because they're less fresh than the frozen variety, for an exorbitant price. But green peas eaten straight from the plant are better than any sweets.
Confessions - at 12:34:56 I was actually asleep in the sun in the back garden, but this is the scene minus the sun-soaking bodies of my daughter and me. We have had a week without significant rain, and it has been blissful.
Cultural features to note: the indestructible tartan "travelling rug", a traditional ingredient of Scottish picnics. I have a photo of me as a toddler sitting between my grandparents on such a rug spread out over the heather somewhere in the Braes of Glenlivet. Early 1960's. Grandmother wearing best Sunday cardigan buttoned up tight. Grandfather, a trawler fisherman, looking disconcerted by this landlubbers' custom. White bread tomato sandwiches, the juice from the tomatoes bleeding into the bread. A tartan Thermos flask of strong tea.
Moving to more recent times, two France '98 World Cup (football) cushions, bought for a snip in a supermarket in Brittany a few weeks after the final. And a waterproof-backed polar fleece rug, bought in a general store in a little village on the edge of Dartmoor, down in Devon. Just the thing for those many summer days when the sun shines but the grass may be a tad damp.
Veg Plotting is hosting a gathering of photos of what other gardeners were doing at 12:34:56 on 07/08/09, using UK date notation.
The raspberry situation has been going from bad to worse. Plentiful berries, but malformed, scabby fruit, fruit withering before it can ripen, dry and brittle canes, wilting top-growth, yellow-mottled leaves, this season's green canes snapping, and the biggest yuck factor, pale wriggly larvae in the berries. Any unaffected berries we've been able to find have been delicious and sweet, so it took us a while to accept that the canes had to come out.
Researching the cause has thrown up a nexus of ghastly possibilities. Ken Muir's 'Grow Your Own Fruit' has a lurid 20 page section on pests and diseases, with the sort of photos of bugs and beasties that when I was young made me try to turn the page of National Geographic magazine without touching the technicolour specimens displayed for my education.
By the time I'd finished with Ken's pests and diseases, I'd turned into a raspberry hypochondriac. It seems that our canes have not just one, but several afflictions, each more horrible than the last. Raspberry beetle: that's obvious because of the larvae, which as Ken says more graphically than is perhaps necessary, "can often be seen crawling around the punnet after the fruits have been picked." "Ultimately, there will be many small malformed fruits and heavy crop losses...Attacked drupelets turn brown and hard...The presence of the grub inside the fruit renders (for most people) the fruit inedible." We're definitely in the 'most people' category here, and we've got all these symptoms.
But wait! There's also raspberry leaf and bud mite. "The feeding on the leaves gives rise to distortion and irregular yellow blotching on the upper surface of leaves which to the inexperienced observer can be confused with virus infection. Apical buds of young canes are sometimes killed, leading to the development of weak lateral shoots. Attacks on fruits cause irregular drupelet development, uneven ripening and malformation." Yes, yes and yes.
Here's raspberry cane midge: "The failure of canes to break into leaf at the end of the winter and the wilting of the fruiting canes at any time between bud burst and picking are the obvious signs that has been an infestation by cane midge during the previous summer."
We've got the lot - larvae, blotching, wilting, distortion, the failure of the other row to break into leaf at all. Ken notes again and again, with some regret, "There are no label approved chemicals available to the amateur gardener for this pest." So we followed one of his solutions, which was to cut off all growth at ground level, to be followed by cultivation of the ground around the stools over the winter to expose overwintering bugs to the birds.
Taking a chance because they've outgrown their temporary pot, I put in the six new canes of Tulameen into the row we'd dug out earlier. I realise now that I left them with too much top growth, but I'll cut them back next visit, so that they're encouraged to throw out more growth from the root.
Beyond the new row of rasps the strawberry bed is all vigorous green leaf. Time for that to come off, now that fruiting is over. The season is turning.