For years, it seems, we've been tipping kitchen waste into our two compost bins, but very little compost has emerged. This has mostly been because of lack of time to empty them out. I have wondered if the bins have Tardis-like properties.
At last on Sunday we got round to emptying one of the bins and relocating it round to the shady side of the shed. The spot where we plonked the bins when we took on the plot turns out to be the corner which gets the last of the afternoon sun once the rest of the plot is in shade. Far too valuable to waste on compost!
The contents have composted down nicely, except for the supposedly compostable bin liners. These resembled nothing more than supermarket carrier bags, even after several years. I've resolved not to waste any more money on them, but to line the kitchen waste bin with newspaper instead.
When it came to spreading the compost over freshly dug beds, I discovered that a lot of compost goes a little way. Still, it feels good to have fed the soil more than we've been able to do so far.
How can it have been more difficult to get to the allotment in a summer where one 'child' has spent 2 months in Nepal, and the other has divided her time between France, Greece and working? And now that they're both away at university (although only very recently), we still don't seem to have found the time. Work, visitors, time spent as a family and time spent preparing for departures - all have taken priority over working at the plot.
We've made some small gains, despite our hectic summer. Onions and shallots have been harvested, such as they were. The hay (our pseudo straw) has been cleared from the strawberry bed and the old growth cut off. Leeks have been planted, and are coming along oh so slowly. The blackcurrant crop has been appreciated by the birds, and the fallen berries are creating a rich mulch beneath the bushes.
For the moment, the kale, broccoli and spring cabbage are holding their own beneath the bird netting. Some signs of snail attack, and a healthy underplanting of grass which I'm gradually and painstakingly clearing by hand. The soil has been too wet to use the hoe, so hand-weeding is the only option.
The old strawberry bed has become completely overgrown with grass, so to give ourselves an easier time we've covered some of it in light-stop membrane which I unearthed from the shed - ordered in 2004 and never used.
At our last visit a couple of weeks ago we came to a decision: we're going to give the plot two more years, during which time we'll aim to have it productive and in order. If at the end of that time we're still struggling for time, we'll give it up. Longer term plans are beginning to take shape now that the children have finished school, and we want to have time to work towards these.
I heard on a TV weather forecast this week that Edinburgh has only had 1.5 hours of sunshine so far this July. It certainly feels like it. We have almost given up expecting anything of this summer. Getting any work done at the allotment has been a struggle: June is always a busy month for us, and this year with the end of our daughter's schooldays it's been especially hectic. But constant rain, particularly at weekends, has held us back even more.
The arrival of an order of brassica plants this week from Delfland Nurseries meant that rain or not we had to get to the plot at the weekend. I expected that the soil would be waterlogged, but wasn't prepared for the depth to which my foot sank into the soil when I stepped on to the strawberry bed. Actually it wasn't so much soil as liquid mud.
Still, a few strawberries had ripened despite the lack of sun.
A very kind work colleague who keeps horses supplied me with several leaves of hay to spread around my strawberries. It was fun getting the hay home on the bus. Of course I now realise after reading Monty Don's 'Ivington Diaries' that it would have been smart to put organic slug pellets down before I spread the hay. So I may have created a snug home for slugs and snails, but at least the berries are raised off the soilmud.
Ideally we would have moved the netting cage that is over the broad beans, peas and French beans, but the chances of being able to fix the poles in the liquid mud made us abandon that idea. A floating fleece protection against pigeon attach was the best we could do, but we'll have to loosen it as soon as we can. We're away from Edinburgh at the moment, so the plants will have to survive until next weekend. Two types of sprouting broccoli, calabrese, two types of kale, spring cabbage and winter cauliflower. Planting into liquid mud was a horrendous experience. I'm not sure what the plants will make of it. All instructions to 'firm the plants well into the soil, drawing it up round the stem' had to go by the board as I inserted them into the mud as best I could.
Otherwise, not a lot is happening. One of the garlic varieties has rust. The shallots, seen behind it, are rather thin and weedy and I can only hope for some sun to plump them up.
The broad beans, alas, are what we call 'couped' (pronounced 'cow'pd') in Scots, i.e. fallen over. They were supported by twine, but since I only had metal poles to hand (ex-children's climbing frame) the twine has slid down the metal with the pressure of the bean stalks. We had no time on Sunday to put things to rights, so this may be another casualty of weather and lack of time. The beans on the lower part of the stalks are forming well, but higher up the pods have all shrivelled away into little black remnants. Advice please, from any experienced broad bean growers!
For the moment we are up on Speyside, where conditions are pretty much the same as in Edinburgh. Perhaps slightly drier, as there hasn't been the absolutely constant rain we've had, but everything in the garden is very backward and shrunk in on itself. I have the left overs from my brassica order up with me to plant out in my Dad's garden. The soil here is lighter, since it's on a river plain and was once good arable land rather than inner city goodness-knows-what. It will be interesting to compare the fortunes of the two brassica plantings.
And a very soggy Bloom Day it was too. It has rained steadily here since Friday morning - the rain is still coming down as I write on Sunday morning. Yesterday I squelched out into the garden to take these photos. The camera makes it look brighter than it was. It really has been a case of Darkness at Noon.
Above and below, a sadly nameless foxglove. I only bought it a few weeks ago at Decora in Elgin, but such is the pace of life at the moment that my good intentions to write the variety in my garden book came to nothing.
Below, everything that is green is lush and vibrant. A bit too lush for Scottish tastes. The growth is sappy, and that's a problem in high winds. The fern on the left is self-seeded from a now defunct fern I had in a pot. It's relishing its freedom, but is getting a bit out of hand. The alchemilla in the foreground loves the wet weather and is putting on a show of rain-drop diamonds. At the right, the spears of crocosmia are the forerunners of its red flowers in late July.
My oriental poppies are monstrous this year. They have responded to my attempts to dig them out in the autumn by putting out huge growth and massive flowers. And I thought I'd cleared every last scrap of root...
Below, a Swedish flag-themed pairing of geranium Johnson's Blue and a yellow potentilla.
Beaten down by the rain:
This was meant to be a homage to my Albertine rose, which is rambling far and wide this year. The blooms are not getting a chance to flourish in the wet conditions. In trying to capture this bloom sheltering under my dwarf plum tree I seem to have concentrated more on the wonderful fact of a decent-sized plum. We have had a total of 2 plums from the tree, but this year it has put on a spurt.
Last year we took out a scruffy conifer hedge, put up a windbreak fence, and widened the suburban strip of a border slightly. (The garden is city-centre tiny, so there's not much room to play with.)I ordered plants from Crocus - they're happily establishing in the rain, but there are very few blooms yet. A delicate exception is this Aquilegia stellata 'Ruby Port'. I know the name because I can look up my Crocus order online...
To finish, the frothy exuberance of my Hydrangea petiolaris. The bees love this, but it's been so wet that they haven't been flying. The powerful upward shoot to the left is a Clematis Jackmanii, which I leave to its own devices apart from a chop back in February each year.
Benign neglect, of this blog and the allotment, sums up my approach at the moment. It's been a busy family time, including university student son leaving today to spend the summer volunteering in Nepal. The weather hasn't helped either. The cold and rain of May have continued into June. Temperatures are grim - a maximum of 13 degrees C(55 F) tomorrow, before falling to 9 degrees (50 F) for the rest of the week. The shots above and below were taken on a rare sunny afternoon a couple of weeks ago. The onions and shallots are continuing to do well, if a bit weedier between the rows when we had a quick foray to the plot recently. The potatoes are coming along strongly, and we've now earthed them up.
Below, my first attempt at transplanted lettuce rather than sowing direct into the soil. Last year my direct sowings failed completely, but these cos are coming along nicely.
I caught Gardeners' World on Friday for the first time in ages. At the end of the programme Monty Don spoke about his shooting onions, caused by the weather veering from hot and dry in May to cold and wet in June. The thought did pass through my mind, 'at least we won't have that problem, since we've only had the cold and wet sort'. But no - my garlic is starting to shoot. Perhaps it's been a case of the weather veering from very cold and wet to cold and wet. Anyway, I followed Monty's advice and lopped off the flower bud, so we'll see what it ends up like.
The first time too for broad beans. I have a particular fondness for broad beans - not so much for the beans themselves, which are not top of my list, but for their flowers. They have such a beautiful perfume - if it was bottled I would buy it in preference to any major perfume brand.
I realise now that my affinity for broad beans came from of all things a description in a book by Rosemary Sutcliff, 'The Lantern Bearers', which was a great childhood favourite of mine and which I continue to reread. Set in the time when the Roman legions abandoned Britain, there's a passage where the Roman hero has escaped from thralldom in a Saxon camp and is fleeing from the part of England occupied by the Saxon invaders. He finds sanctuary with a monk who has also fled the Saxons.
"Yesterday's rain was gone, and the still-wet forest was full of a crystal green light. In the cleared plot before the huts, the man in the brown tunic was peacefully hoeing between his bean-rows...the beans were just coming into flower, black and white among the grey-green leaves, and the scent of them was like honey and almonds, strong and sweet after the rain."
I had always thought that bees pushed their way inside the flower trumpets, and in fact this is what Rosemary Sutcliff described: " The little amber bees were droning among the bean-blossom, and at that moment one fell out of a flower, the pollen baskets on her legs full and yellow. She landed sizzling on her back on a flat leaf, righted herself, and made for another flower."
But down among the beans while weeding between the rows I noticed the the bees making for a tiny hole on the top of the flower, near where it joins the stalk. A momentary lapse in Rosemary Sutcliff's usual attention to detail!
Below, evidence of some dasterdly deed among the beans. My heart sank when I saw the feathers inside the cage - my fear is that a bird will find its way inside and be unable to get out again. But in this case there was no corpse, so I assume there had been an arial fight of some sort above the cage.
A watched potato, like a kettle, never seems to boil (or in this case, chit). I was late buying seed potatoes this year. The seed catalogues had all sold out, and I was resigning myself to a year without potatoes. But I came across boxes of them, several desirable varieties, in that wonderful emporium A&I Supplies in Elgin. The A must stand for 'agricultural', and the I 'industrial'. Chicken coops, gigantic rakes and hay forks, protective clothing of every sort, steel toe-capped boots, mucking out boots, vast bags of dog food, bird seed....
My goodness they took a long time to sprout. But here they are just before planting, spread out on the sports pages of the newspaper, which are the section no-one in our household reads unless it's a report of a Scotland rugby match (husband) or rowing or cross-country skiing during the Olympics (me). The cricket report above is written in a strange foreign language of trajectories and spin and bounce. I haven't a clue who the footballer below is.
However the potatoes are now safely in the ground - Duke of York and Charlotte. No growth showing yet, and I don't blame them. Temperatures here are bumping along at 8 or 9 degrees. The ground is cold. Trees are struggling to come into leaf. I'm not even thinking of sowing seeds outside. I go to work wearing my down-filled winter coat and gloves, so the thought of pushing seeds into stone-cold earth is not attractive, either for them or me.
The 'Beauty' was very lovely, if short-lived. Is there anything more evocative of the fleeting joy of Spring than plum blossom?
The 'Beast' is the tree bearing this blossom. I had such good intentions when I planted a dwarf rootstock plum several years ago, but the whole pruning and training regime has been too much for the limited time I have to spend on it. On the positive side I do manage to prune in summer, which I gather avoids the tree bleeding to death. The training regime however has been feeble. What we should have done was to fix wires into the wall before planting the tree. The mish-mash of bamboo canes which we used instead was no match for the will power of this dwarf.
Now it goes its own sweet way. I'm waiting to see where it goes next. This year's blossom has been the most profuse yet, which is encouraging. A few more plums would be welcome - last year a total of 2 made it through to ripening, and the wasps got those before we did.
At last - some growth. I have B&Q to thank for the kick-start. They had healthy looking packs of vegetable seedlings. I've never grown broad beans, but had a hankering to try. (and yes, those are unorganic slug pellets. Has anyone used the wool pellets that swell up when wet and are meant to deter slugs and snails? I'm looking for alternatives.)
We're still clearing up from the winter, in minimal time. Could someone please give me an extra day a week?
Below, the 'before' bed where the fork and bucket are. The mist, by the way, is actual mist rather than camera error. A good thick 'haar' (sea fog).
The following day, broad beans in place with anti pigeon netting.
Look at the warm Spring light in the shot above. We planted the beans at the start of the recent warm spell, when temperatures shot up to 21 degrees. Since then we've been away, and won't get back to the plot until this weekend. Meantime temperatures have returned to a more normal 3 degrees, complete with gales, snow and hail.
And just to continue with my green manure fixation, here's the current state of the one patch of grazing rye that came through. It's getting on for 3 feet high now. All I need is something to graze it.
A very gentle start to the Spring dig last week. I went to the plot with the week's kitchen waste, and to pull a couple of leeks for a cheese and onion bread pudding (Cranks recipe). I loved it - the rest of the family was lukewarm about it. All the more for me!
Because we've been so tight for time the thought of the backlog of tidying up at the plot has been nagging at me, and so I thought I'd dip a toe in the water, or fork in the soil, and at least make a start. You can see the paltry results above. The plan for this winter was to have a no-dig, or minimum dig start to Spring, by sowing all bare ground with green manure. It's been a very mixed experience.
Below, the wilted-down phacelia. This has been a success again after a trial last year. For most of the winter it's stood green and robust, only recently giving way to frost. But it still covers the ground and inhibits most of the weeds.
Grazing rye, of which I had high hopes, has been literally patchy. This is the patch. Another whole bed sown twice with rye failed to come through at all. Interestingly, although the rye hasn't come through, neither has much in the way of weeds.
At the front of the photo below you'll see the first shoots of garlic. Although we've had hardly any snow, there have been some good frosts, so hopefully the garlic will have got the cold it needs to form bulbs.
The lighter straggly stuff below is what remains of the white mustard. It was useful to mask weeds in the most difficult bit of the plot - under sycamore trees, with shade from mid afternoon onwards in summer, a buffer zone between the blackcurrant bushes and the main access road, and prone to infestation by creeping buttercup. I've tried daffodils, dahlias as a summer display, a wildflower mix, and am thinking of putting spinach here this summer. The soil is in good heart, rich in leafmould. Some escapee daffodils meantime are cheering up the rather desolate remains of the mustard.
As for this bed - this is the site of the complete failure of the alfalfa. Unlike the rye, the alfalfa's failure to germinate seems to have encouraged a mat of lawn-like grass. This is going to make for painstaking digging.
In the event I didn't dig long. The ground was very heavy - 'clarty' is the Scots word that springs to mind. A sticky, heavy consistency. Not to be confused with 'glaur' (wet, squelchy mud), or 'dubs' (drier, forming clods, and often marking the passage of a tractor along a tarmac road).
The plot isn't very beautiful just now. It's either frosty, with friable, crusted earth, or frost-burnt, wet, sticky and weedy.
But occasionally there's an unexpected glimpse of beauty.
These chinese lanterns and polyanthus are part of a little flower bed tended by a group of plotholders who try to counteract the gloom of the site in the fallow months. During the winter it can seem nothing more than a sea of huts, black plastic, sagging netting and tatty cabbages.But here's a reminder that allotments needn't always be dour and functional.
The fourth break-in at the shed. This is really getting tiresome. A notice at the entrance to the site alerted me that there had been break-ins on the night of 12 January. As before, metal cutters had been used to break the hasp. The still-locked padlock was lying on the grass in front of the door. You can see in the photo how the cut ends have rusted since 12 January.
Nothing seemed to have been stolen, however. We had taken the strimmer motor back to the house before Christmas, making the strimmer head alone a much less attractive prospect. Our forks and spades were grimy with dried mud, which I had fretted about slightly but which turned out to be a blessing.
Time seems to be passing strangely during January. I could have sworn that I had been to the plot since the 12th. It seems like months rather than weeks since Christmas. Perhaps it's the short, dark, busy days that create this effect. But just in the past few days it's been noticeably lighter by the end of the afternoon. With the growing light has come frost, which is often the case in Scotland, so no digging just yet. Still, I feel the first stirrings of Spring interest in the plot. It's been a long, fallow winter with many other preoccupations.
Healthy new raspberry canes, with a sprinkling of sulphate of potash lightly forked in around them. How I wish they were mine, but following our persistent raspberry failure syndrome we're not rushing to try again. For the moment I can practise on my Dad's raspberries.
Perhaps it's our soil. Although the soil in these photos looks dark, that's only because of recent rain. Forking in the potash, I was struck by the difference. Here, it's light, slightly sandy, former farmland, river plain soil. At our Edinburgh allotment the soil is black, heavy, shot through with clay.
You can see my usual hit or miss approach when it comes to quantities. How much IS 25g per square metre, anyway? Perhaps this shot will be interesting to look back on in the summer. Will the third cane from the right turn out to be a poor, weak specimen? Will the one at the right with the generous application be a super-cane? Or will I have killed it with kindness?