Tuesday, 30 June 2020

A Glass of Shiraz Mangetout Anyone?

‘Why are your peas looking sick?’ asks Robin whilst he watches me water the plot. He sits there perched on top of the brassica netted frame as if he is directing all operations whilst secretly watching and listening for grubs.

‘I don’t know. It must be the hot weather, but I haven’t planted them down there before and Freddie Fox used that area as his private toilet last year.

‘But what has grown is a funny colour’ Robin says eyeing up the odd purple pod.

‘They are mangetout, not peas, and supposed to be purple. They are called Shiraz’ I reply.

“Trust you to pick an alcoholic veg’ Robin says as he pops down to wrestle with a small worm. The tug of war is short, and Robin soon flies off with his wriggling prize.

I look at the miserable plants clinging on for their last rights against the twigs they were supposed cover. I give them some water but there is no reaction.

Everything else is blooming and although some vegetables have come early, others are quickly catching up and if the slugs and snails can keep themselves to themselves everything should be ok.

I turn my attention to the two grape vines on the top section. There were a gift along with two others from Caroline, a good friend of Annie’s who live in deepest Kent. She still has six vines and I wondered if she had a drinking problem or secretly ran a pub.

The vines on the top took straight away, were cut back and everything looked well. They flowered and have little bunches of grapes but are still subdued and probably wondering where their mates are and what the are doing in London. Their mates I planted in my reclaimed bank and they didn’t take kindly to the move but now are in their element with shoots all over and big developing bunches of grapes. Perhaps the others need to live on the bank too?

The challenge is that until the grapes develop, I don’t know which is white, which is red, and that will teach me for losing the labels on transfer. I wonder if the mangetout Shiraz up top is jealous and it is a Shiraz below on the bank that is stealing the show?

The sunflowers turn their heads, watching and waiting to be given a drink. Now they don’t need any help and pop up in spring, get moved into position and only require a tall cane to stand proud and shine all summer. Mind you Sidney and his gang of squirrels fight the bees and birds for the seed heads as soon as they start to turn. It’s amusing to watch them scurrying up the stork and biting off the heads of the flowers, watching them drop to the ground. They start back down, pick up the flower head, and then they are off the hide it somewhere they will probably soon forget. They sow seeds on their journey and it’s rather funny to see them running away down the path with a flower head bigger than them and often still with a bee after the last drink.

Lottie hates squirrels so she is very annoyed I haven’t put trip wires around the sunflowers and mined the area under them. She just barks at them which probably encourages them to come back, knowing she is tied up and can’t chase them.

Back to today’s watering.

The other new plant this year is the kiwi vine. It’s not mine but my neighbour’s whose plot I am looking after whilst she is self-isolating with her shielded husband. The vine looks great as it straggles the arbor but has done little until this year. Happily, it’s  it had masses of little delicate buttercup style flowers all over. Apparently it has never flowered before and maybe it is going to give me a special reward of fruit this year.

Alas there doesn’t appear to be any fruit setting and not being a kiwi expert or having grown it before, I don’t know what the baby fruit should look like at this stage. I’ve searched the internet and got lots of advice on everything except what I should be looking for. Robin even told me off, thinking I was looking at a bird’s nest. I bet birds around here have never seen a kiwi fruit, let alone flower.

Back to the more traditional watering, the Patti pans and courgettes. Now if this was wine not water, they would be permanently drunk with the amount they consume. I wonder if they’d like some Shiraz?

Monday, 29 June 2020

The Changing of all the Locks

It was great this weekend seeing all the plot holders. Well almost all the plot holders. We had to allocate new keys out to all in preparation for the changing of the locks today.

‘Can I have two keys please?’ I was asked.

'No sorry, but you are a single plot and as such you only get one key’ I reply.

'But I may lose it,’ came the response.

‘Look after it as the deposit is against the one key and if a second one is needed due to loss we will have to charge for it.’ I finish.

There were keys coming out of the woodwork all over. 'I lost it got a new one and then i found it so can I get my money back?'

'You only ever had one key from us and if we replaced and found it you should have given us one back.'

It can only be expected that after many years it is easy to see how how keys get passed on, not handed back, extras privately cut. ‘I got an extra cut it cost me fifteen-pounds do I get my money back if I hand it in?’ Was one request.

‘If you paid for the key at a locksmith then that’s your cost. Nothing to do with us.’ I had to respond.

The old 'security' keys on the upper plots had little security and their code restriction ran out years ago and they could and where cut anywhere. In fact, it is probable that half the problems we have today are down to copied keys and worn locks. The lower plots only had a Yale key access which could be cut anywhere.

Today we have drawn a line under the sand and the new keys are fully secured and only should be cut with the registered code and card. We even etched unique numbers on the shaft of every key to help identify ownership on the register.

One great thing about the process was meeting every plot holder and reminding myself who was who, also listening to what some had to say about their plots and the site. The vast majority was positive with just a few issues surfacing which will need to be looked at. I only wish we could get the same turnout at the AGM or be able to see everyone on a regular basis.

Yes there were some language challenges often lost in translation, but Google Translate is pretty good at converting English to Mandarin.

We are very fortunate to have a large allotment pavilion with two doors and plenty of chairs to create a social distancing snake to aid queuing. However there was the one plot holder who said that they  were now safe having had the virus and I watched as all in the room quickly take two steps backwards. Interesting times we live in and the real dangers we continue to have to be alert to.

The second achievement this weekend was that we finally went cashless. No more hours counting the pennies and trying to reconcile a mountain of cash. We only took money deposit on second keys which were only available to duo plots were two folk worked a plot. This was a twenty-pound deposit and wasn’t taken up by all but itself help contribute against the overall cost. Many paid in advance by agreed bank transfers into our account, others paid on the day via our new SUMUP mobile card reader. It was so easy to take the deposits over the card reader and issue receipts via their email account or via text to their phone. Payments are going to be so simple going forward. No more cash and all seemed to welcome it.

Yesterday I got home and was just relaxing with a cuppa when the mobile pinged saying ‘you got mail.’

There on my mobile was a picture of a bust lock in someone’s hand and a message saying the old lock was bust. I looked at Annie who rolled her eyes. The life of an allotment Chair's other half is often tested.

Annie, Lottie and I donned our coats and set off together to the allotments.

‘Do we have to go?’ asked my faithful whippet Lottie.'I might rain.'

‘Yes,’ answered Annie. ‘We haven’t seen much of him all weekend as it is.’

I kept quiet and my head down as this was obviously not the time to defend the trip out.

We arrived and I soon sorted the issue out and restored the lock to be fully working. It is somewhat amazing that the lock knew it was his last day and decided to eject its bolt in some sort of last minute protest.

Today is the big lock changeover. I can almost predict the phone calls I will get this week from the few folk who didn’t collect their keys or took the wrong key to the plot. It can be a thankless task looking after the allotments and can’t wait to get our Secretary and our Site Manger back from self-isolation.

'One more day and then we'll be back to the plot.' I tell Lottie as we set out to the allotments once more. 

Friday, 26 June 2020

The mystery of the cherry tree raiders is finally solved.

This year the cherry tree has given buckets of red juicy cherries which I was able to climb up to harvest. It was a race against time as I was aware that there were many pairs of avian eyes burning into my back and watching my every move. Some wanted me to drop fruit to the ground and make it easy for them whilst others were carefully mapping the tree and where I couldn’t reach.

At first it was visited by some small birds who played with the fruit, pecked holes in it but made little impact.

Then the pigeon squadron was alerted and scrambled for a dawn raid. However something else must have caught their beady eyes and the dawn raid was cancelled and forgotten. Well they only have small memory banks and probably not much longer than the average fish.

The fruit on the upper branches appeared to be being left.

Suddenly, branch by branch, limb by limb, it was being cleared of all fruit and memory of all fruit. But who was doing it and when?

Yesterday I watched with interest as two magpies landed on the top of the fruit cage. I thought the net would deter them so wasn’t too bothered. Then one flew straight up into the cherry tree whilst the other bounced around on the fruit cage as if it were a trampoline and he was getting his daily exercise.

Now Farmer Tom next door on the Farm had told me about the damage crows and magpies can do around the farm, how they can bully and push the songbirds off the site and how intelligent they can be. Apparently, they sit and watch the ducks being let out in the morning and like a flash they are in, stealing eggs. The farmhands tried to stop them from eating all the chicken and duck food by covering it in water. The birds didn’t mind fishing it out and the carrion sat watching and before you know it, had got swimming goggles on, held their breath, and ducked their heads under the water to get the food!

I then started to hear the singing of ‘Fog on the Tyne’ out of the tree. The magpie now looked like a Newcastle United supporter swaying in the wind on a branch and guzzling up cherries like pints of Newcastle Brown Ale between verses. His voice got louder as he guzzled more cherries.

The lookout magpie caught the fever and now joined in with the chorus and pecked at the fruit being dropped down by his mate in the tree.

It was if Paul Gascoigne had turned into a magpie, donned his black and white strip and was joined by that other old Georgie, Chris Waddle.

It was as if the FA Cup was coming home to Newcastle and they started to sing it out loud forgetting the three lions and replacing those with three magpies.

They were so drunk on cherry ale they paid no attention to either me or Lottie who was putting her paws over her ears and making comments about their poor singing. I was merely watching the tree being stripped now to a chorus of ‘Steve Bruce’s Barmy Army.’

Robin popped his head up from pecking around the squash plants and tutted disapprovingly, saying something about hooligans and national service and went back to his breakfast.

Suddenly, as if the full-time whistle had blown, the Newcastle team departed the field of play, wings around each other and still singing with red juice dripping out of their beaks in their wake. One carried a cherry in his mouth and I turned to Lottie to explain, ‘Probably scored a hat-trick.’

There was no reaction so I added, ‘They get to keep the ball.’ Still no reaction and I promised to tell her about the rules and gamesmanship of soccer.

‘Glad they’ve gone’ commented Lottie removing her paws and now clearly relaxing ready for a nap.

‘So is the cherry tree!’ I replied. ‘If this is playing to empty stadiums, what’s it going to be like when the season starts?’

Thursday, 25 June 2020

The benefits of Early Morning Watering at the Plot

‘Why are we going out so early?’ Lottie asks.

‘Got to water the allotments, it’s going to be very hot today’ I reply as I unlock the gate to the upper plots.

‘Why are so many people here when they should be in bed?’ my faithful whippet Lottie asks as she starts to count the people already there, watering their plots.

‘It may be only 7am but some have already been and gone’ I say looking around and counting the plot holders dotted all around busy, watering in the cool morning air.

We stop and chat to my Vice Chair who is off later on to attend to the Canary Wharf allotment at the Crossrail station. Yesterday I got my diary all mixed up went to Canary Wharf to help out and rang her to ask where she was to be told, ’It’s tomorrow not today.’

I can’t make today so I’ll leave it to her and the volunteers.

As I leave the plots, more folk are turning up and I speak with Alan who is one of our oldest plot holders and well into his 80s. ‘Shouldn’t you be home and in bed?’ I ask.

‘I will be when I’ve watered my plot’ he replies.

Lottie and I walk down to the lower plots passing the farm which is just wakening up. In the field with the goats are three foxes lying smack in the middle of the field sunbathing whilst the goats occupy the edges watching them. It may look dangerous for the goats but I am sure they can deal with Freddie and his pack, and anyway they are only there to catch the early sun and will soon be off.
When we get to the lower allotments, we find we have it to ourselves.

‘Are we staying long?’ asks Lottie.

‘Just long enough to water and get tonight’s salad and some flowers’ I reply tying her to her bench and fetching her pillows from the shed.

I turn to see another of Freddie’s scrawny thin furred foxes quickly wake from his slumbers at the back of the plot and scurry off away from us.

Watering this time of day is different to watering last thing at night or during the day. You can hear the plants suck in the water, slash it all over and ready themselves for another baking day. They say a good breakfast sets one up for the day, and perhaps the same applies to plants too.

As soon as the salad is watered the snails climb to the top to see what is going on. It’s strange they only live in the one lettuce row although these are surrounded by rocket, basil, salad bowl and lorra rosso lettuce. It’s great, as they surface with their little houses on their backs I can pick them out and send them on a sky diving expedition over to the rough patch behind number nine. It’s only fair to move them on as they probably have a large mortgage on that house. The removal follows the 20 metre safe distance rules for snails and slugs and I doubt that they will be able traverse the terrain back here.

The patti pans and yellow courgettes and some tomatoes are picked, and lettuce cut and all put into there respective yogurt tubs for taking home and surprise my wife Annie.

I cut some sweet peas and tie them into a small bouquet. Sweet peas just love to be cut and every day the same number are ready waiting to be taken home. Finally, I cut some sunflowers.

‘We off now?’ asks Lottie jumping down off her pillows and looking impatiently at me.

A few minutes later we are leaving just as some other plot holders are starting to arrive to do their watering.

‘I wondered where you were?’ greets us as we arrive home to Annie my wife, who has obviously just got up and was trying hard to focus on us and the daylight surrounding us. Lottie gives her a warm lick and looks towards her bowl to try and kid her that she hasn’t had any breakfast. I present a huge bag of goodies and a large bouquet of sunflowers.

‘They for me?’ asks Annie smiling and giving me a kiss on the cheek and a hug.

‘I knew there was a good reason for watering early in the morning,’ I say to Lottie quietly over Annie’s shoulder. She turns, realising there is no second breakfast, and goes to find somewhere among her many beds to have a morning nap.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

A Refreshing Way to Use all that Fruit

If you grow fruit you know that it always comes at once and once started different fruit come in waves one after another.

The first is the rhubarb and the obvious crumble, pies and stews all with a few chucks of fresh ginger.

The soft fruit the currants white, black and red hanging in clusters waiting to be picked and smell with childhood memories as they are collected, usually accompanied by gooseberries which have softened, and if you dare to put your hands in, give generously. The comes the raspberries in waves up to autumn.

The cherries are a short season which is often shortened further by the birds who sit there picking at them and then dropping the half-eaten fruit to the floor just to remind you that they were there first.
We are now into serious baking and stewing. A bowl at breakfast with Greek yogurt and some granola and fresh orange juice. We get the fresh oranges from Soller in Mallorca and we could be back in the Mediterranean sitting here on a sunny morning in London.

After dinner more fresh fruit, this time with custard and sometimes warmed up.

However, the fruit keeps coming and now the strawberries are competing for attention.

The blackberries on the path to the allotments are getting ready to offer themselves up and large yogurt tubs will be frozen for winter pies.

You can juice some but then what is the point unless you want to bake cakes and use the rinds and pulp in the cake and the juice for drizzle? I do like making Polenta cakes with fruit but in winter. However, I will freeze some for baking cakes later.

All this without the plums, pears and apples!

Some will be wanting to make pressee and cordials or even wine, but we have never been into the exercise nor following recipes to the letter or, in the case of wine, waiting. Mind you when the vine give up their grapes this year we are probably going to have to change our thinking on wine.

Now my wife Annie has found the perfect solution - ice lollies. No more Magnum and Solera lollies we make our own. Yesterday the moulds arrived. Today we are eating red and black currant, gooseberry and rhubarb ice lolly. Wow, and it tastes good and so clean on the palette on this hot day.

We had tried an ice cream maker but found it too much faff and too much cream and frankly gave up as it took too much space in the freezer.

We spent some time discussing the next batches and also what we could experiment with. Sweetened yogurt twirled in with stewed or juiced fruit sounded divine. Yogurt sweetened with honey and added to stewed gooseberries. The list went on and we realised that we had found another way to use and enjoy the harvest.

Tutti Frutti!!!!

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Securing the Allotment

Security of the allotments can be a niggling issue.

When my daughter had a plot in Leytonstone het shed was broken into on a regular basis. The solution was to leave it unlocked and after that they left it alone. There was nothing valuable in there and frankly finding things might have challenged the thief more than breaking into the shed.

Sheds can be attractive to some at any time of the year whilst fresh produce is only attractive and taken during the high season when its clearly visible and inviting.

The security question has to be about the value of the goods and although they add up, even at the car boot sale, the resale value of the tools is often negligible. However, the effect of being robbed, strangers in the shed and property taken is often far greater than its value.

We are fortunate on our allotments to be surrounded by two-metre-high industrial metal fencing with barbed wire on top. There is also a dense hedge and growth on some stretches where we pollard the trees to create a mixed living and dry thicket and extra fence for intruders to negotiate. The gates are also two-metre-high, metal and have commercial locks. The only animals to get in and out are Freddie fox and his pack who either dig under or climb over and dealing with their entry points can be like painting the Forth Road Bridge – a never ending task.

Do we have problems?

Yes, but fortunately they are few and far between. If someone wants to get in they obviously can, but they would have to do so probably in the dark of night and would you seriously climb fences and wander around an allotment in the dark knowing the only way out was the way you came in?

We have had no serious shed break-ins that I can remember. We have had a shed fire but that was not down to a malicious break-in. However, we have several reports every season of a fruit tree being stripped of fruit, or a plant going missing, or some vegetables being taken, but working out whether it was internal or external is impossible and the value again is negligible.

Can you imagine manned watchtowers at each corner of the site with searchlights scanning the plots and sirens ready to sound off at the sight of a trespasser? Freddie fox and all his night-time chums would be furious and getting volunteers to man the towers would be impossible. Some have suggested cctv and an animal camera but it’s an allotment not a High Street unit or high-end housing area.

We must act in accordance to the risk, value and impact and let common sense prevail.

Our best deterrent is our industrial gate locks. However, after many years of service these have become a pain to maintain and every few months stick. We must oil them and hope WD40 does the trick. If we take them to the locksmith then padlocks and chains must be deployed on a temporary basis and as both sites have two gates access is restricted to the other gate. The annoyance is that the locks always fail just as you are sitting down for a cuppa and a read. You get the call that the lock is stuck, and the gate is open, and the person ringing you is always just about to go home. Bes5t of all there is often no one else around. Even my whippet Lottie object to have to go out and watch me fiddle with locks to secure the site.

‘I’ve only just got in from zooming in the park’ Lottie says still panting from chasing her ball.

‘We won’t be log,’ I reply.

‘That’s what you said last time! You need new lock.’ She says obviously now intent on managing me.
‘Come on, the quicker we sort it, the quicker we can get back.’

Off we go, me with a small tool bag and Lottie reluctantly following on her lead.

The other wee one of the locks finally gave up the ghost during lockdown and we finally had to bite the bullet and decide that a new lock was needed. As all keys on each site fit the two locks on each site a replacement was not straight forward. The locks and keys we needed to address were security ones and replacing the barrel whilst retaining the existing keys was not an option. Therefore, two double barrels and 100 keys were needed.

I researched the options and there were now a lot. As a significant number of plot holders don’t have email and a code numbered lock’s code can be easily passed onto anyone, they we ruled out.

As the site does not have electricity, the fob and electric gate systems had to also be ruled out. We did look at wind generators and solar powered panels, but when you added up all the costs these were prohibitive and it’s only an allotment. It was however surprising what was available in respect to solar and wind power but the sight of these would probably attract some unwanted guests. The electric fob systems would be ideal with everyone having a unique fob which could be dynamically activated or disarmed and a full access record of all movements available via an administration App.

We have also suffered over the years with folk cutting extra keys and despite having a key deposit, leavers often never return their keys when they leave, and previously we failed to retain appropriate key records. To top it all, what we thought and were told were security keys and only able to be cut with a code was incorrect and the code restriction ran out years ago.

So we decided to replace the double barrels and get a 100 keys cut. We opted for new security keys and locks which had a higher level of restrictions and codes and which are not time limited. We even got an extra unique security number engraved on the shaft of each key for free. This code would now be recorded in our new key register.

Now it’s a case of issuing all the keys and enjoying a quiet undisturbed life.

Then the call came. ‘Do you know the lock’s broken on the gate next to the pavilion and it’s been left unlocked?’

‘Ok, I’ll be there when I’ve finished my dinner.’ I replied getting a discerning look from over the table.

‘I’ve got to go and there is no one else here’ came a quiet voice from the plots.

‘Ok I’m coming over.’

Unfortunately, one of the other site’s locks has now decided to come out in sympathy and is unworkable. Yes, we must replace that as well.

Security can often be an unrewarding task on the allotments.

Monday, 22 June 2020

Aphids, Aphids Everywhere!

Have you ever grown broad beans and found the minute you turn your back in Spring the flowers and plants are covered in blackfly? Just when the runner beans are starting to shoot and twist their way to the sky, the same little bugs take up residence.

Where do they come from and why is it my plants they attack?

Out comes the spray and washing up liquid and so starts a battle of wits and survival between these little beasts and me that is repeated all spring and summer.

Aphids can be every colour imaginable. We may be used to the green and black varieties but there some 4,400 species in the world; yellow, orange, red, blue, purple, brown varieties, all designed to suck the sap out of whatever they fancy and eat at your or others’ plots.

Aphids have a soft body, small eyes, large antennas, three pairs of legs and a mouth designed for sucking. Most species are wingless and they eat both during the day and night. 

‘Why are you spraying your beans? Shouldn’t you be watering them so we can go home?’ my faithful allotment whippet Lottie asks from her pillows on the bench.

‘Killing the blackfly.’ I respond.

‘But even I know the ladybirds and others do that for you. Even the ants are often busy scurrying up and down your beans and coming down dribbling their food and with fat bellies.’

‘The ants don’t eat the bugs, they eat their poo’ I reply watching Lottie give an expression of disgust.

‘They eat their poo?’

I can see this is going to be a long discussion and one of those where she either gets bored or I simply run out of answers to her endless questions.

‘Ants extract sap out of the plant which is very high in sugar. The bugs get little from the sugar so poo it out as droplets we call honeydew and ants love sugar feed on that.’ I look at a smiling Lottie who can’t wait to respond.

‘So, they are like vacuum cleaners or dustmen cleaning up after the bugs?’

‘Yes, and the ants even protect the aphids from some predators and some aphid-herding ants will adopt the aphids and take them back to their nest during winter. They even carry them from plant to plant so they can ‘milk’ them and feed off their honeydew.’ I think that will give Lottie something to think about and allow me to get back to my work.

A short while later Lottie pipes up, ‘You should find their nests and spray their eggs.’

‘They don’t lay eggs as such. They reproduce without mating and the females give birth to live young and at a phenomenal rate,’ I tell Lottie who is now clearly interested to know more.

‘So how do they move so quickly from plant to plant?’   
‘They can produce a generation of alates, or winged adults, capable of flight and scouting out the next best plant on which to deposit the females and they simply take up residence, start to feed and multiply.’

‘Then go after the flyers’ suggests Lottie.

‘I would if I could’ I reply, swatting a green flyer who was foolish enough to land on my arm.

‘You never see Monty Don spraying his bugs’ Lottie offers changing the subject.

‘Ah well that might not be good TV and very PC. He probably has a small army of helpers off camera doing it for him. After all, no garden is bug free’ I reply.

‘Robin doesn’t eat them?’


Then Lottie flops back down onto her pillow clearly bored with aphids. ‘I bet they are not an endangered species and it certainly is a Bug’s Life.’

Friday, 19 June 2020

The Day After the Rain

‘What are we doing here?’ asks my faithful whippet Lottie as I open the gate to the allotment. 

‘Got to water the tomatoes’ I respond locking the gate and turning to walk to the plot.

‘But it rained all night!’ Lottie mutters, head down and obviously think she would rather be zooming around the park or chasing squirrels.

‘It’ll only take a second and its only the greenhouse.’ I say tying her to her lead to the rope on the bench.

She sits and watches as I trudge back and forth to the tank and water the plants in the greenhouse.
‘Can we go now?’ she asks when she sees me finally put down the can.

It is frustrating guessing the British weather and making plans around it. For weeks we have dry sunny weather and the plot needs constant attention then suddenly we get what rain we missed all in a day. When it's dry and sunny we pray for rain, when it rains we pray for sun. The only thing we don't pray for is wind.

You can almost hear the army of slugs and snails all celebrating under the lettuce. Like a football crowd they sway back and forth as if they have won the cup with their teeth ready to eat tomorrow’s salad for you. I find myself asking, what will be left tomorrow?

Robin is out pecking at all the little grubs and worms that have surfaced and ventured out for a drink and wash and brush up. He is so busy, he is ignoring us and not even singing hello.

The heavy rain has brough down the last of the cherries. At the base of the tree the littered red fruit have obviously been pecked over, probably by the pigeons first thing this morning.

Everything is proudly showing off new grown, and the sunshine is accentuating the myriad of green shades which are all glinting in the afternoon sun. Small flies are drinking up the remaining pools of rain water of the leaves of the lettuce and under the leave the slimy singing army of slugs and breaking into a chorus of ‘We are the champions.’ All happy with the wet damp and humid conditions.

‘Will I have anything left tomorrow?’ I ask a Lottie who is now busy tapping her wrist and imaginary watch.

‘You can always grow some more’ she retorts looking at the gate then me.

I quickly pick some sweat pea flowers to take home with two eyes burning a hole in my back.

‘Ok let’s go.’ I pick up my bag, unfasten Lottie and together we walk down the path to the gate.

‘I could…’ I start to say thinking about tying up the sunflowers which have grown at least two feet overnight.

‘Don’t even think about it!’ snaps Lottie.

As we leave i start to plan out tomorrow’s list of jobs realising that weeding will be high on that list followed by picking fruit, salad and tying up those sunflowers. Do all gardeners plan out the chores this way or merely turn up and decide?

‘Come on the squirrels are waiting to play.’ says Lottie, her nose twitching and her eyes going into hunting mode.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Should Allotments be Excluded?

The Royal Borough of Greenwich’s annual gardening competition caught my eye and I read on with great interest. It is open to resident amateur gardeners in the Borough and I looked at the clips of those selected last year and there were some impressive entries.

They state, ‘You don't need to have a garden to enter - there’s a category for hanging baskets, window boxes or pots - you just need to be passionate about planting!’ This year they have included an exciting new category, ‘Which is just for our young gardeners out there! The children’s category is to showcase the talents of our younger residents and there’s even a £15 voucher for the winner! Every child that enters will also get a packet of seeds.’

I read on past the prizes to the categories: Front garden, Back garden, Containers (Hanging baskets, window boxes or pots), Communal garden (Please ensure that if you’re gardening in a communal space that you are observing the two metre distancing guidelines), and finally Children’s (Entrants must be under 18).

Where were the allotments?

Last year our small allotment plot within the new Crossrail Rooftop gardens at Canary Wharf was part of the garden which won an award in ‘Britain in Bloom’. The judges took a great interest in the allotment and one even made a special visit to our site.

Greenwich is not alone in holding an annual ‘In Bloom ‘competition and many boroughs in London and councils up and down the country hold them. The startling thing is that they all have similar but often quite different categories. Some may perhaps suggest that this reflects the Parks and council’s views on gardens, gardening and gardeners.

I discovered our own Borough of Tower Hamlets has a ‘In Bloom’ annual competition which includes allotments. There are only x sites in the Borough so its somewhat surprising that we knew nothing about it and it’s been going for several years. So, it is not just about having a competition but promoting it into the community.

Some local authorities include school gardens which obviously recognises the importance of introducing and educating children into horticulture. Some include ‘wildlife friendly’ and encourage biodiversity and environmental concerns and awareness. Some breakdown the categories recognising the size of garden, commercial gardens, community, and Care Home gardens. I liked Wigan’s ‘Best Edible Garden/Allotment’ and Guildford's ‘Wonky Veg’ but I was left stumped by Islington’s ‘Tree Pit’ category. The most comprehensive was Reading which broke down allotments to the; most eco-friendly, attractive and best maintained.

You would expect some conformity across neighbouring Boroughs and the country but it would appear not. Is it sheer density of colour, variety of plants and visual impact that dominates the judging or the educational outreach, social integration, and environmental and bio-diverse impact that wins the day?  Maybe Parks departments are not the best judges today and gardening has far wider implications in our changing environment. Like the old ‘best in show’ vegetable competitions perhaps its time to evolve the competitions onto today’s and tomorrow’s agenda.

Greenwich Borough has some 18 allotment sites, 15 under direct Borough management the rest self-managed and a total of 810 plots. So why are these excluded? Every Borough bar one in London has allotments and there are some 40,000 plots in some 750 sites. Not only do they bloom but they make and enormous contribution to the Borough’s conservation of nature, biodiversity, environment, health and well-being and education. Across the country there are some 300,000 plots reflecting every diverse background and culture and many are excluded from ‘in bloom’ competitions, why?

Some 70 years ago the Royal Borough of Greenwich had allotments right across the Royal Park behind the Naval college during the war. The Greenwich skyline like many Boroughs in London and along the river is seeing significant development of sky scrapers and flats. This reduces the opportunity for many to engage in gardening.

The competition is to be judged by Cabinet Member for Culture and Communities, Adel Khaireh, the Mayor Linda Bird and the Deputy Mayor Denise Hyland. Some would suggest that at a time when we are trying to join the dots across local government departments on allotment benefits, they are excluded by the very top of local government in Greenwich. The fact that a Cabinet Member for Culture and Communities is also a judge is heart-breaking and again shows that the recognition of allotments may be lacking by the very Department that is there to protect them.

Perhaps its time to recognise that a plant’s bloom is not the start nor the end of the cycle but merely one stage within it.  Gardeners of all ages, backgrounds and skills should be encouraged, stimulated and helped to cultivate and educated on how to do it in a eco-friendly way. Joining the dots and redefining the awards to be inclusive of all and to reflect today’s world would be a great start.

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Plot Inspections

Why do we have plot inspections?

Some plots are always in immaculate condition with neat rows of vegetables and not a weed to be seen and a shed you would be proud to show royalty around. You can imagine them going round like an old army sergeant inspecting kit ensuring everything is perfect and you can see your face in the flowers. Others may be less regimented in their style with an abundance of stuff growing in every available space and no room for a weed to even surface let alone survive. They have a shed which may be ‘practical’, but often only its owner can find the simplest of things.

We now have different cultures, with our Chinese and Vietnamese plot holders growing vegetables one may not know but often on a market garden scale, planting and harvesting on an endless succession basis with probably only January for a rest.

There are the ‘Mary Celeste’ plots where the plot remains, but the plot holders are never to be seen unless it’s rent day and if they were to appear in normal times they would be lost from view in a sea of weeds. Their shed, like their plot, is often suspended in time and needing some attention if it is to remain standing.

My favourite, the patchwork quilt gardeners. These work on one square at a time often forgetting that they have lots of other patches to tend and all of which are in different degrees of neglect.

One other group is the chancers which constantly push the envelope and are less prevalent but do exist and thrive in an uncontrolled environment. Here we may see sheds turning overnight into house extensions with curtains and doorbells. Seating or patio areas crawl slowly until they surprisingly take up half the plot and were always that size. Lawned areas big enough for tennis which are clearly not paths but lawns and require their own mower. Plants live mainly in containers ready made in garden centres and the shed has the obligatory hanging basket. The cost of the plot as a private garden in inner city and dense urban areas is a little price to pay, but is it an allotment?  

Against this diverse background of growing techniques and levels of skills there is a need to ensure that all plots are being worked. Not only must we all be aware of those looking through the fence or on the waiting list but the need to ensure that all allotment land is for ‘the production of produce for the immediate family and friends.’ Commercial gain and cheap leisure garden should not be allowed. The challenge if you lose that view is that someone may question if the use is within the allotment framework enshrined within statute.

We then have 2020 and the virus and lockdown. We, like many others, cancelled our planned Spring plot inspection. It was not correct to put any pressure on plot holders and we set out a programme with volunteers to look after the plots of fellow members who were shielded, in isolation or just wished to stay home. We also had Ramadan in the middle of lockdown. Today many have returned and there are probably only a few plots where we could contact the owner, or they didn’t want help and whose plots now need attention. However, we wait to see just how the exit from lockdown evolves. Our neighbouring farm is a good barometer and we expect we will return to plot inspections later this year.

We perform two inspections a year, one in Spring to ensure the plots are ready and prepared for the main season, and one late in the year to ensure plots have been cleared and in the main bedded down for winter. The inspections aim to ensure the vast majority of the plot, some 80%, is worked, that paths are tidy, safe, conform to standards, that sheds and other erections have not sprung up unauthorised and that rubbish is being managed and the back of the plot doesn’t resemble Steptoe’s scrap yard. It’s surprising what plot holders can and do collect for that rainy day.

The inspection process involves a notice for all to see and quickly react to before the day. On some plots there is sudden high level of activity and before the day what would have failed suddenly is turned into a prize winning plot. All plots are inspected on the same day by the same team. If the consensus of the inspectors is a failure, then this is handed over to the Site Manager who through the Secretary issues a 14-day notice itemising why the plot has failed and the date of the next inspection. The plot is then inspected once again and if it fails again is referred to the committee. There may be mitigating circumstances such as illness which have to be considered and the Site Manager then takes instruction from the committee on actions and timelines. If there are no mitigating circumstances and no satisfactory action taken by the plot holder the committee may issue a 14-day notice of eviction, which is final and binding.

The process may appear hard but the reality is we recently have rarely evicted and find that gentle persuasion and a large stick does the trick. People either give up their plot or rise to the occasion.  
I know of one site in North London which operates a perpetual plot inspection process and another which does three a year and there are no hard and fast rules, but sites should decide their own frequency, criteria and process.

Plot inspections must increasingly acknowledge the ethnic and cultural divergence that exist on many sites. Many do not grow the traditional ‘BBC’ way and we must respect the plants and techniques they follow. I was surprised when I first saw a plot of full of little nettles ready to be harvested. The sowing of seeds, not in neat rows but literally by scattering them over the ground. The watering can be indiscriminate and by the bucketful poured over the plants and momentarily creating a paddy field. The harvesting of produce between weeds, or with them in some cases. We must no longer judge a plot by the neatest rows, the vegetables produced, or the pursuit of the largest pumpkin, but by the use made of the land to feed the family.

Plot inspections help also focus all on plot sizes. Some may be happy with half a plot, some only with a full plot. We now start all new starters on half plots. After a season they can have the opportunity to step up to a full plot when one becomes available or stay on a half plot. This gives them chance to find their feet. It also gives those on a full plot who are finding it difficult the opportunity to consider downsizing to a more manageable plot.

Plot inspections are part of the process of helping folk along and yes some may need a gentle push, but it is also about reminding why we all have allotments and ensuring we have sites we can all be proud to be members of.       

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Waiting Lists and Demand for Allotments

Russian dachas

There is a significant increase in demand for allotments today and this is especially visible in urban sites where the scarcity of land is often forcing plots to be split. Is demand now outstripping supply and is this a temporary blip or a more lasting issue that needs to be addressed in a different way?

The allotment is not unique to the UK and they exist all over Europe, Russia and North America. How they are run can differ significantly between countries and many were first established in the 19th century to offer an escape for the poor from the industrial environment and associated squalor they were living in. They evolved alongside civic libraries and parks all aimed at enriching the quality of life for all. The plots of land were made available for individual, non-commercial gardening or growing of food.
Anna Lindhagen, a Swedish social-democratic leader, visited allotment gardens in Copenhagen in the 19th century and wrote about the benefits of allotment gardens:
‘For the family, the plot of land is a uniting bond, where all family members can meet in shared work and leisure. The family father, tired with the cramped space at home, may rejoice in taking care of his family in the open air, and feel responsible if the little plot of earth bestows a very special interest upon life.’
Since 1926 some three million European allotment gardeners have been represented by the Luxembourg based ‘Office International du Coin de Terre et des Jardins Familiaux’. They describe allotments as offering:
‘An improved quality of life, an enjoyable and profitable hobby, relaxation, and contact with nature. For children, gardens offer places to play and to learn about nature, while for the unemployed, they offer a feeling of doing something useful as well as low-cost food. For the elderly and disabled, gardens offer an opportunity to meet people, to share in activity with like-minded people, and to experience activities like planting and harvesting.
Norwegian allotments
Both quotes really some up the value allotments can give their users and the community.
Many European allotments differ significantly to the model adopted in the UK. Many became out of town retreats and allowed for a temporary residence during the summer period.  Russia developed Dachas which means something given in the time of Peter the Great and some would suggest that some of these retreats became elitist during the 20th century. Many Russian villages now have dachniki as temporary residents. Some villages have been fully transformed into dacha settlements, while some older dacha settlements often look like more permanent lodgings. In North America allotments are referred to as community gardens and can be quite small with starter plots being only 1.5 mt square.
Allotments in the UK have often have swung in and out of demand. As the population prospered and the quality of life rose their popularity waned but in times of hardship and war and general recession their popularity rose. In 1873 there were some 244,268 plots in the UK but by 1918 just after the First World War this had risen to 1,117,000.In the 1940s there were 1,400,000 but by the late 60s this had shrunk to 600.000 and by 2009 shrunk further to 300,000. The Thorpe report in 1969 stated that the declines was down to the country being, ’more affluent, decline in land, and the growth in other leisure activities.’
There is always the question of latent demand which is not consistent across all allotments and can vary significantly even within a region and between urban and rural areas. In March 2008 The Guardian published an article, ‘Coming up roses? Not any more as UK gardeners turn to vegetables.’ In the article they claimed in 2007, ‘Sales of vegetable seeds rose 7% last year and Britain, with a population of more than 60.5 million people, may now be growing as much at home as it did during the second world war’. It went on to quote Geoff Stokes, the then Secretary of the National Society for Allotments, ‘There are roughly 330,000 allotment holders in the UK but waiting lists are growing fast,’ he said. ‘Demand has increased considerably in the last few months alone. It seems there is a complete lifestyle change taking place. 

‘As many as 100,000 people are on allotment waiting lists,’ said Neil Dixon, the chairman of the National Allotments Trust. This figure is not substantiated within the article. Attempts to establish the size of the lists using FOI (Freedom of Information Requests) in London boroughs met with mixed responses. ‘In Scotland and some towns in northern England, the waiting list is nearly as long as the number of people holding allotments,’ Dixon claimed. ‘Almost every council is now under pressure to provide more. Many are now trying to cut plots in half or less.’

Demand for a plot on our allotments has risen sharply over the last couple of years. The current pandemic has seen this rise again sharply to a point where we have over 200 waiting for one of our 100 plots and we currently have an annual turnover of less than 10%. It’s not hard to do the maths.

Authorities have failed miserably to provide the ‘15 allotments for every 1,000 households’ recommended within the Thorpe report. That was 50 years ago and times have changed, populations have changed, and the demand for land and to provide commercial buildings and residential housing continued unabated. It is pointless to quote the Thorpe report today as it will fall on deaf ears. Today is more about civic and community planning, welfare strategy, environmental planning and joining up those dots in local government that some would suggest exist in different rooms.

Allotment demand will increase as residential housing in urban areas continues to shift to garden-less skyscrapers and awareness in ecological issues and climate change rises. Finding answers may not be about providing more allotments but about developing growing and community strategies which include allotments and even nutritional knowledge as part of the answer and not the answer itself.

Monday, 15 June 2020

Climate Chaos at the Plot

‘I think this is my last season on the plot’ says Robin.

He looks genuinely concerned. He sits perched opposite my bench and is looking at me and ignoring Lottie who is fast asleep next to me.

‘Have we upset you? Done something to offend you? Has someone promised you more grubs and feeding sessions?’ I ask not wishing to lose my red breasted feathered companion.

‘No, it’s not you or Lottie, but I have been reading what the ‘Birdman’ wrote about Climate change on the allotments’ replies Robin.

‘Climate change? Why will that affect you?’ I ask wondering what our friend and committee member Chris has written that has filled Robin’s tiny head with concern. Chris is referred to affectionately by our feathered friends as the ‘Birdman’ because he religiously feeds half the birds in Docklands. The ring-necked parakeets even fly North over the river just to eat at his bird table! I think they have awarded him a 5-star rating.

I look at Lottie, but she is either pretending to be asleep and guilty or just unconcerned and dreaming of chasing squirrels.

“Where will you go?’ I ask.

‘West, away from London and the South East. He says here it’s going to be like Barcelona and the swifts and swallows have told me all about the heat and dry conditions there and frankly it’s not for me. It’s bad enough not knowing from one month to the next what the weather is going to be like, but Barcelona I don’t want.’ Robin’s concerned face has turned to one which looks firm and determined. ‘You know I am known all over as the Christmas bird and have my photo taken in the snow for those cards and calendars.’

‘What snow?’ I reply with my tongue firmly against my cheek.

‘Exactly!’ Robin says with a firm nod of the head.  

I remind myself about Chris’s article and the genuine concerns he expressed about what he called Climate Chaos, human induced change, where the seasons and weather had become less predictable and increasing extremes of weather often depended on where you live. London and the South East was becoming progressively hotter and drier than the rest of the UK and the impact that has on what, when and how you grow produce on the plot. Did we now have all year-round growing seasons where the milder ‘winter’ enables us to still produce much of what we would have not thought possible a few decades ago albeit more slowly?

Your gardening calendar is often established where and when you start to garden. Mine was in Sheffield and in an area that experienced clear seasons and conformed with those sowing and growing charts. I then moved to Aberdeen which was very different and had one very short but productive season but a weird summer phenomena called the ‘har’ where sea mist would often envelop the coastal area for much of the day but the nights were very short. Then in Hampshire a more normal garden calendar but with mild winters. London is very different again and because the allotments are in the heart of the City where the winters are very mild and I rarely get a frost and you could describe the seasons as Early Spring, Late Spring , Summer, Late summer, Autumn and a very short Winter.  

Succession sowing, growing, and harvesting is possible, but it has to be thought through a lot more than in the wetter West, the colder North or even the more exposed rural areas. When folk say, ‘Is it too late to sow, or too early to put out?’ I find myself wishing it was that simple and just the same as those gardening calendars and bibles we want to follow. When the magazines tell you what jobs need doing this month or Monty Don tells you jobs to do this weekend, are they seriously saying we are all the same? I often sow later and harvest sooner and any mistakes can soon be rectified whereas some areas have one shot. I can sow some vegetables late and they will grow slowly all winter and can be picked throughout the winter. I find that plants which would require protection or bringing indoors over the cold, damp and frosty winter can survive outdoors. 

Mediterranean plants like Geraniums happily survive winter as they do in the natural habitat. The only killer is snow and that is so rare in London and when it does, it’s a few flakes and gone as fast as it came. This again changes what and how you grow. My neighbours’ Kiwi plant has been laden with flowers this year and hopefully fruit later and sits on top of a bank and over an arbour and has no protection over winter.

Chris says he has a new second spring in September when he is busy planting all his winter veg: onions, garlic, spinach, chard, winter lettuce, rocket, lambs lettuce, winter radish, land cress, pak choi and other oriental winter veg. And this is also the beginning of the season for him to start picking the earlier planted leeks, beetroot, turnip, daikon, kale, chard etc. In late winter and early Spring, he has wonderful crops of early veg at a time when most gardeners are barely sowing seeds, let alone picking harvests.

At our allotment we have a large local Chinese and Vietnamese community who grow crops all year round, covering their rows of vegetables in rows of small ‘tunnels’. This market garden style is very productive, and the produce grown can be very exotic but demonstrates how they have adapted their skills and knowledge to the new environment.

Our site is also surrounded semi wild urban farmland which itself supports a huge biodiversity often missing in urban areas. However, ensuring the land keeps giving and can produce for longer and variable seasons is both an educational and practical challenge. Soil must be enriched, and the nutrients taken out put back. Its balance of life it supports must be maintained and maybe we must live with some foes to do this. You cannot work the same piece of land year after year, season after season without replenishing what has been taken out. It was the Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century which introduced the move in crop rotation, the principles of which we all follow today on our plots. But perhaps the current Climate Chaos is making us rethink and adapt this to the new environment we find ourselves growing in.
‘So when are you leaving did you say?’ I ask Robin.
‘Not sure, maybe I’ll stay a bit longer but I will need a supply of sun cream and sunglasses and some new photos without the snow’ Robin replies as he hops down to examine a patch of soil for his lunch.
We all must learn, adapt and adopt to what is clearly a changing growing ecosystem.  

I am indebted to Chris Parrish for his article ‘Urban Gardening in the Anthropocene’