Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Autumnal Days on the Plot


The nights draw in, the weather changes and is most noticeably colder and we start to harvest in many cases the last of the season’s crops.

‘It’s cold. Can we go home?’ asks Lottie as she snuggles down further into her pillows on the bench. She already has her winter coat on and as whippets have little fur, she needs it.

‘We won’t be long,’ I reply digging up yet another weed whose root seems to go on forever.

Apart from the spinach, kale and last of beetroot the season’s crops are all up. The Spring crops of Romanesco Cauliflower and Purple Sprouting Broccoli have snugged up under their netting and finally resigned themselves to the approaching winter. Mind you half the cauliflowers did think it was Spring last week and I now have some incredibly early ones to harvest in the coming weeks.

‘That squirrel is up the sunflowers again,’ remarks Lottie, too cold to stir and warn it off.

I turn forgetting that I still have some sunflowers to pick and dig up.

The Squirrels take it in turns to ascend the sunflowers, chew off the seed heads and scurry down to collect their prize. Then you see a sunflower head with four legs and a bushy tail disappear to some secret hiding place they will probably forget about tomorrow. One goes down and suddenly from nowhere another pops up and clocks on for their shift.

‘You can leave them to it,’ remarks Lottie. ‘They’ll have those stripped by the end of the day.’

‘I better pick what they haven’t taken,’

‘Not much then,’ laughs Lottie.

As I approach the sunflowers the squirrels retreat to watch me from a distance and I find some flowers still have bees taking in their last orders or perhaps they too have a new closing time imposed on them with their own virus.

‘You are right. I’ll leave these for the bees and squirrels,’ I tell Lottie who is not interested and has buried herself further into her pillows and left no sign of her presence exposed.

Just as if he had heard me say i would leave them on of the green parakeet lands on the sunflowers. Looks at me and says in somewhat of tropical accent, ‘Thank you, now do you mind, its parakeet time!’

They are like pigeons who have been dipped in green paint only twice as noisy told them red beaks don’t go with green.

I have just a couple of square metres to dig over and job’s done for today. Robin appears as if to usher me along and sits perched on the climbing rose overlooking the final piece of undug earth.

‘Come on, it’s cold out here and I want a nice juicy worm,’ says Robin now hopping onto a lower branch.

As I start to dig he is almost examining the soil as I turn it over it is literally only inches away from his anxious beak. Suddenly a worm wriggles free of the surface and before it has time to adjust to the bright daylight and don its sunglasses, Robin has him and is off for lunch.

The soil is so dry, turning it over and removing the weeds takes no time at all and before I know it, I am putting away the tools and putting the debris into the compost bin.

‘That thing is like a Tardis,’ exclaims Lottie who is now fully alert and sensing it’s time to go home.

‘It’ll soon compost down,’ I reply.

‘But it was full and overflowing only a couple of days ago.’

I reply, ‘that’s composting for you, those little critters in there just munch it up and spit it out.’

‘I don’t think it’s spit,’ says Lottie with a broad grin.

As we leave Lottie, suddenly stops and points her paw over to the passionflower, ‘I think you had better tell that moth over there that summer has gone.’

I look to see a beautiful orange moth spreading its wings and taking in the last rays of sunshine. ‘You certainly don’t miss much and are a real sighthound,’ I tell Lottie who smiles up at me over the compliment.

We lock up and Lottie eagerly awaits her run home down squirrel alley. It’s amazing, one-minute cold and wanting to go home next alive and wanting to chase squirrels up trees.   

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Managing an Allotment During Covid 19


We now face a further six months of restrictions and running an allotment during this pandemic can be a thankless and complex business. Decisions must be taken that are not always popular and the allotment business has to continue. The situation will be different for Council direct managed sites to those who are self-managed and to others whose management is with third parties or less well defined. However, at the end of the day, the same changes must be met, the same decisions thought through and the same community protected.

The first challenge we all faced in March was whether we were open, closed and the rules surrounding attendance. Micheal Gove made it clear allotments were exercise and all stayed open. However, there is still the question of site management and maintenance. Whatever the position water provision needs to be maintained, gates and locks need to work and to maintain security, and the various issues that require direction and decision needed just that.

We were lucky and unlucky. Lucky in that we did not need to consult others outside and were in control of our own site, but unlucky in that the main role needed, that of Site Manager, went into self-isolation where he remains today. This means others had to step in who may not have had the experience of sometimes stopping minor issues being blow out of all proportion or the practical knowledge to maintain that which needed to keep all working and secure. The biggest issue we faced was that several our gate locks decided to give up around the same time. We had to learn how to fix and fiddle with a box of spare parts to effect security. When finally, they gave up, a quick decision had to be made to replace not just the locks but some 100 plus keys and ensure the keys and locks were secure and obviate unauthorised copies being made. Then we had to reissue keys to all under social distancing.

The most emotive issue was the decision to ban fires and BBQs. After all it was a respiratory virus and smoke could affect others on neighbouring plots who may well be asthma or have other breathing issues. We stood firm, but as time went on this decision came under increasing pressure. The situation wasn’t helped by the farm who could and did have fires under their DEFRA licence.

Decisions had to be made without committee meetings. We could have zoom meetings but not everyone on the committee was internet savvy or internet connected. Officers took the decisions needed acting under a consensus reached by email, phone and controlled by a Secretary who was herself self-isolating some two hundred miles away.

One of the early initiatives we took was to find out who was unable to maintain their plot for whatever reason; shielding, self-isolation etc . We found buddies either from the community or waiting lists to help maintain these plots such that when the plot holder returned, they would not be faced with a jungle. We also abandoned planned plot inspections and that still stands, but it was surprising and encouraging to find that the on the whole plots were attended more and maintained better than some would say they were previously.

I think I have had moore emails and calls than ever and our waiting list has exploded from being 150% oversubscribed to now being some 250% oversubscribed.

We also had to set up a visitor authorisation process. We effectively said no visitors other than children and according to the government guidelines had to ensure and social mixing and distancing was observed. Visitors were allowed but we need details and issued them with a letter accordingly. To some this may seem overkill but it was about ensure we knew who had visited and if someone had a problem knowing we could track and trace attendees.

Then comes the AGM and rent collections. We had already decided to move to cashless so that decision was a given and we also had to collect payment and distributed shares in our new cooperative company. We combined the activities and reduced the process time window and are confident that like the key distribution we shall achieve this with social distancing and good humour. 

The AGM is a bit more of a challenge. We took note of the FCA guidelines and postponed our AGM.  We have written to the FCA with some suggested options and asked for their help and guidance, but it looks increasingly unlikely that any AGM can take place before early Spring and we need to address the constitutional issues of account sign off and officer and committee elections etc. With 30% of our membership not being internet connected, many not being internet savvy, a number do not have good English skills we await FCA guidance. You may say, ‘we just got on with it,’ or ‘we did it all electronically’ but we are adamant we should not exclude members based on their lack of internet connection, unfamiliarity with conferencing tools or their ethnic background and command of English language.

So the last six months have not been easy. In many cases it has brought plot holders closer together and given all common purpose but it has given us a lot of issues and decisions to make but fortunately we have had no one catch the virus and long may that continue.

Monday, 28 September 2020

Allotment Sustainability - Too much or too little produce


In today’s environmentally conscious world we have to ask how sustainable is the site? With over 40,000 plots and some 741 sites in London and some 300,000 plots across the UK the ability for allotments to raise the bar on environment is very real. This is one of a series of opportunities to be covered over the coming days and hope that in doing so we stimulate discussion and maybe even action.

6.    Too much or too little?

What do you do with the excess produce?

The highlights of the paper,Feeding a city – Leicester as a case study of the importance of allotments for horticultural production in the UK’, published by Elsevier in their Science Direct Journal in 2019, highlighted among other findings that:

  •         Urban agriculture provides important ecosystem services to people living in cities.
  •          Allotment gardening in 1.5% land within a city provides fresh produce for 3% of population.
  •          Crop yields achieved by own-growers were similar to commercial crop yields.

Today we have food banks and soup kitchens in many towns and cities and the pandemic has heightened the need for all of us to share with those in need and provide food and meals in the community. 

Many allotments are giving their extra produce to these community initiatives, but it’s not easy. Fresh food does not come out of a tap you merely turn and out it pops. It often comes in waves and can be unpredictable, with one-week famine the next feast. Also, fresh food  can quickly deteriorate if not use at the right time and Lacks that magic ingredient that extends supermarket shelf life. Finally, what is grown on allotments today is not always what those in need want or in some case know what to do with it.

Against this social need we all see pictures daily, rightly boasting of the size of the vegetables and amount of produce harvested on the allotments. Daily we hear requests asking what to do with too many plums, courgettes, squash, beans, tomatoes etc. Do you store, or do you share?

Is the size of some plots more than today's smaller sized families can consume?

When the allotment sizes were enshrined in statute families were larger, family groups lived in closer proximity and the distance commute and work relocation as we know it today was significantly smaller. Should the rural size be reduced as it has in many urban and inner cities and would this itself reduce the volumes of produce grown to feed a single family?

Is the glut merely the result of issues further up the chain?

This time of year, seed catalogues drop through the letterbox at an alarming rate. All are brimming over with promotional offers and stuffed with pages and pages of seeds. Comparing one catalogue to another can be like comparing margarine to butter, you may spot the difference, but does it really matter? This mass marketing of seeds and plug plants wets the appetite and before you know it you are in receipt of a jiffy bag full of packets of seeds. Hands up who only buy what they need and rarely have any hidden stashes of unused seeds, which may get used, but are often replaced with new ones?

In essence we buy more than we sow, we sow more than we nurture and develop, and we harvest in some cases more than we need. So can we change this wasteful process or are we destined to grow too much in our own little bubbles?

Group purchasing of seeds makes sense both in the scale and economics and can also in help share experiments of produce one may not normally grow. One problem is that many have their favourite suppliers, and some may like Dobies, whilst others like Kings, or Thompson and Morgan and the other plots likes Browns etc. Seed swaps help and every site could hold a swap and encourage excess seeds to be swapped. It is amazing to see just how many seeds surface at a seed swap and we must remember, these were all bought with the intent to grow. If planned, excess seeds can not only be shared with other plot holders but also be donated to community projects, schools, care homes etc. This reduces their costs to all and encourages all to grow.

Do you swap your seeds?

Do you buy as individuals or collectively?

Does your site have a collective seed swap?

Seedlings come next and we all have excess plants. We must often sow two to ensure we have one plant that is the nature of growing. However, what do we do with the excess, those seedlings, or young plants we don’t need?

Again, about a month after our seed swap we have a plant swap and its amazing to watch plants get a second chance, get adopted and literally walk out the door. This exercise is not just one weekend but continues with plant boxes by the gates where excess plants can be donated and pick up by others.       Some of my best plants have come from others this way and again it reduces waste and plants that would have merely ended up in the compost bins.

This year our site grew some 400 plants to give away. Some went to our community allotment at Canary Wharf Rooftop garden, some to plot holders some to the community. Many folk who had sowings had failed or who were unable to sow or due to the pandemic or to get compost to sow, found our plant swap and giveaway a saviour.

Excess produce donations are a challenge. Collecting them, getting it to the right group in time and ensuring it was what they wanted is not easy. As individuals we can all do something, as allotments we can do a lot more and as communities of allotments we can make a huge difference to ensure the consistency of availability and quantity of excess produce.

So what advice do give someone who asks what they can do with their glut?

Friday, 25 September 2020

Allotment Sustainability - Chemicals


In today’s environmentally conscious world we have to ask how sustainable is the site? With over 40,000 plots and some 741 sites in London and some 300,000 plots across the UK the ability for allotments to raise the bar on environment is very real. This is of a series of opportunities to be covered over the coming days and hope that in doing so we stimulate discussion and maybe even action.

5. Chemicals

I am always amazed at the shelves of garden centres and the vast array of containers of potions to treat this, enrich that and stop that. Pictures of slugs, ants, aphids adorn the containers in technicolour on containers all claiming to kill better than their rivals. Containers of undiluted feed, powders or granules address, enrich all from making your grass greener to making you tomatoes taste sweeter and more productive. What did we do before these chemical companies targeted the consumer market with fear of failure?

Gardeners have always had their special brews and bags of Epsom salts, lime, bone meal. I remember my grandad had his tub of stinky comfrey soup he swore by and used to make me hold the can as he stained some off, not a good experience to inspire a young gardener. He also had brown paper bags and tins of stuff with handwritten signage and an array of spoons for measuring it out. I do remember he did buy Growmore when it came out and went around like a farmer sowing seeds as he scattered the granules on his beds. He mixed his own concoctions and had a brass pump spray to deal with aphids and other undesirables and his knife dealt with any slugs brave enough to venture into his eyesight.   

Today we also can buy nematodes, living soldiers, to fight slugs and practically all other undesirables. Mix in water and apply to the soil and the creatures come to life and go on the rampage killing your enemy for you. The challenge is that these warriors only have a short shelf life and after a few weeks you have to buy more and probably end up spending more on nematodes than the value of the produce you are trying to protect.

Organic is the way forward comes the cry but what is urban myth and what is effective? Take slugs. Do you use used coffee grounds, a beer trap, broken egg shells, nutshells, seaweed, a grapefruit trap, petroleum jelly, sheep wool fibre pellets, copper tape or filings or slug repellent plants?

Those old blue slug pellets containing metaldehyde have been banned from sale from 1st April 2021 and outdoor use from 2022. How many sites have proactively banned or decided on a animosity period to hand them in and ban their use today? The pellets not only kill slugs but also poison birds and hedgehogs and others who eat them. You can now only buy pellets containing ferric phosphate. This may be less harmful and any uneaten pellets will eventually break down into phosphate and iron which will then be taken up as nutrients by surrounding plants. However, there remains the problem of the other ingredients in the tablets - known as chelators. These chemicals help bond the iron molecules and make them more toxic to the molluscs. Unfortunately, these chemicals also affect earthworms. 

Then the other problem we all face is weeds and we have products such as Roundup and Weedol which contains glyphosate. These herbicides may also contain a toxic mix and other chemicals such as arsenic, chromium, cobalt, lead and nickel. However, glyphosate is the most widely and heavily used agrichemical worldwide, in agriculture, parks and amenities as well as in gardens and allotments. The European Food Safety Independent research indicates that glyphosate is safe. But this is highly contested and many others point to the long term impact on humans (over 60% of wholemeal bread contains traces of glyphosate, according to the Soil Association). The actual verdict may be out on glyphosate but do you take action now or wait till there is a definite answer?

There are many alternative options to chemical herbicides but these may involve a lot of hard work so to many it is a question of convenience over work, to others it is chemical uncertainty versus the spade.

Today we have to turn the container over and read its components but unlike food it is not easy to spot those which may be harmful to others who live on the plot and long term ourselves. Should individuals, sites or authorities take the lead on what should be used and what should be banned and will sites enforce it?

There is a massive difference in size and scope between farms and agricultural usage and the allotment but should farming economics lead the way on the use of chemicals or should allotments opt for a safe and sustainable plot?

Is it about waiting for certain products and ingredients to be banned or about proactively saying no?

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Allotment Sustainability - Compost and Soil


In today’s environmentally conscious world we have to ask how sustainable is the site? With over 40,000 plots and some 741 sites in London and some 300,000 plots across the UK the ability for allotments to raise the bar on environment is very real. This is one of series of opportunities to be covered over the coming days and hope that in doing so we stimulate discussion and maybe even action.

4.       Compost and Soil

Do you and the rest of your site compost all green waste?

Do you create leaf mould?

Do you mulch crops?

Does every plot have compost bins on each plot, and are holfers trained on how to use them?

Do you buy compost which includes peat?

Do you have a wormery?

Soil and compost are the basic ingredient to any allotment from sowing crops to achieving a bountiful harvest. We may have heavy clay soil, chalk soil, sandy soil, but we all want to grow successfully and often the key is down to soil improvement. Some create raised beds where they in effect create the ideal mix, others add material to compensate for what they have. Achieving the right soil mix is not luck and takes constant work. Also, we take nutrients out when we grow and harvest and these need to be replaced. Fertilizers alone do not make a good soil, they are just one aspect of the equation.

Why do some plot holders not compost green waste and create their own compost and nutrient rich additive? This is a question only they can answer.  Some may say it’s too much trouble and easier to burn or bag and dump and effectively send to landfill. Others may say seed heads and weeds prevent it being composted. The reality is that almost all green matter can be composted and some household material too. It is a matter of knowing how long and creating a living environment for the underworld of creatures to transform and break down waste and create compost.

Basic compost bins don’t cost much and can also be easily be made with old pallets and are even often available from the local authority at a very reasonable cost. There are more expensive bins that turn the compost with little effort and hot bins that ensure the living environment is right for alchemy.

Compost can be used all over the plot and mixed to provide the right nutrients, fibre and living matter to support and enrich all soils. It can make light sandy soil bulkier and help breakdown heavy clay soil. But many will still rush to their local DIY store to buy multi-use compost by the bag load instead. Maybe they need the extra quantity or something more constant in the mix but it comes at a huge price.

Those sacks of compost which offer a good deal (3 x 60 ltr bags for £10) often have high percentage of peat in them. Yes, peat is being gradually reduced and sometimes they can be misleading in their claims but peat extraction and its removal from the wetlands, bogs etc has a major impact on the environment. Even some of the more expensive compost contains peat and it’s time to say, ‘no thank you.’

Coir is heralded as the next best thing to peat but is this true and if we all suddenly went coir would the impact be similar to palm oil and soya?

The question is whether our grandparents had access to coir or peat or did they merely compost and make their own?

I always remember my grandad kept a bucket and shovel handy and at the sight of a horse and cart was out shovelling up the muck he called ‘gardener’s gold’. Today we don’t have the same traffic and even collecting from a stable has changed. Yesterday’s straw has been replaced by wood chippings which break down into a kind of sand. The nutrients are still there but the mix consistency has changed. Also you need to be sure what chemicals have been administered to the livestock and ensure it is well rotted before use.

Our Chinese and Vietnamese plot holders buy chicken manure collectively in bulk. it must work given their crops, but frankly it stinks when applied.

Today we are trying to negotiate with the local Council to supply every plot with a compost bin and wormery which we will assign as part of the plot’s inventory. Sounds simple and an easy model to adopt and support, but even this takes time to achieve.

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Allotment Sustainability - Wildlife


In today’s environmentally conscious world we have to ask how sustainable is the site? With over 40,000 plots and some 741 sites in London and some 300,000 plots across the UK the ability for allotments to raise the bar on environment is very real. This is one of a series of opportunities to be covered over the coming days and hope that in doing so we stimulate discussion and maybe even action.

3.    Wildlife

Do you and the rest of your site proactively encourage wildlife on the plots?

We often take those creatures that may share our land for granted. We expect bees, butterflies, moths, hoverflies, ladybirds always to be there. We may expect squirrels and other not so welcome guests such as rats and mice and not realise that they are around until they strike. Many other wanted guests such as, hedgehogs, frogs, toads, newts may visit or reside alongside us but are rarely seen. We may have foxes and even badgers and all this without the numerous varieties of birds and even bats. The varieties of wildlife that could visit or reside on site are significant.

The wildlife on the plots will vary by location and surrounding natural habitat and even if the conditions are ideal that doesn’t mean their presence is. Urban and inner city sites could expect to have a different wildlife profile to rural sites, but it is surprising how adaptable our little friends are and how far they will travel to find a home and feast out on the allotments.

Bees are threatened by many factors; reduction of habitat and fauna, chemicals and pollution and today Honey Bees and Social bees are under a real threat from their own deadly virus called Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus (CBPV).  There are some 250 bee varieties in the UK of which only some 10% are social bees and of that not all are ‘farmed’ and managed directly by humans. The remaining 90% are solitary bees which in the main don’t sting and are greater pollinators. So can we do a lot to encourage more bees? We can obviously have hives, but also install bee houses to encourage solitary bees. Many bees live in the banks, undergrowth, old tree stumps and even underground. Of course having their favourite plants on site helps and I grow lots of sun flowers, I leave rocket other plants such as broccoli to go to  seed and again the bees love the flowers and as for borage and comfrey the plants are a magnet for all bees.

I love to be picking some spinach or dense leaved plant and find a frog or toad staring up at me like a rabbit caught in the headlights before they hop off. I have no pond on the plot and the water tanks are too high to offer a home to them unless they have learnt the art of pole vaulting. I do remember when I cleared part of the plot that I discovered that there had once been a concrete pond. Maybe it was their ancestral home. Perhaps we should all designate a communal pond area and encourage these friends.

Hedgehogs are in decline especially in urban areas but are a godsend if you are fortunate to have them. Their nocturnal scavenging can be messy. i always remember finding one with a small yogurt pot stuck on its head and it was very relieved when it was released. Hedgehog sanctuaries can help establish them and they love to live in a good compost pile. however. how many sites have already banned the use of metaldehyde (the blue slug pellets) which will be banned from sale from April next year and from outdoor use the following year? These pellets kill hedgehogs.

There is then the natural battle between man and aphids, be they white, green red or black. Where tg hey appear from is a mystery but their ability to colonise broad beans, or most beans, is a given. Ants may eat them but they also entrap them into being their sugar slaves positioning them, and when they have become full of sugar, devour them. Ladybirds just devour aphids, but the numbers of ladybirds have dropped and what was a common sight is becoming rarer. We must encourage them.

There are many more friends and probably the favourite is the worm. There are so many different varieties some common some rare, some friends others harmful but the friends we find on the plots  convert organic matter into much richer humus than it would be otherwise by pulling leaves and other plant materials down into the soil. Once in its larder, the worm will shred the material, eating some and leaving the rest to rot under the surface. Look in a healthy compost bin and you’ll find worms. Better still, create a wormery.

What about the birds you may ask? We need to encourage these too. Some are digging buddies like the faithful Robin who watches over the soil being turned. The other songbirds who make up the dawn chorus can be happy with a bird bath and a few seeds. The occasional small nest box helps too.

Then there are the voles, moles, foxes, rats, squirrels, crows, magpies and pigeons you may often have to accept that sometimes others share the plot too. After all, you can’t pick your neighbours. We leave slugs and snails as an exception we can live without.

So what are you and your site doing to encourage the wildlife and the balance of its biodiversity? 

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Allotment Sustainability - Recycling


In today’s environmentally conscious world we have to ask how sustainable is the site? With over 40,000 plots and some 741 sites in London and some 300,000 plots across the UK the ability for allotments to raise the bar on environment is very real. This is one of a series of opportunities to be covered over the coming days and hope that in doing so we stimulate discussion and maybe even action.

2.            Recycling

Present a plot holder with a stack of pallets and you may well return to find a shed, raised beds and even a bench all crafted out of them. Barry Bucknell would be proud of the DIY craze he started some 60 years ago.

Allotments have always encouraged and stimulated the inner salvage hunter and builder in plot holders. Many would rather have a hand-crafted greenhouse or shed than spend hundreds on a fancy new one. Others will search the adverts for unwanted greenhouses, sheds and boards. This recycling isn’t restricted to timber but includes pots, netting, cable and water pipes and conduit, scaffold planks and many things throw into nearby skips find their way to the allotments. Some near allotments simply put out their unwanted stuff, and before the binmen arrive, it’s gone. You can often look inside or behind some sheds and wonder if Steptoe and Son has a plot on the site, minus Hercules the horse of course.

Recycling does not stop there. We have bags of used coffee grounds and eight-foot bamboo canes delivered from our sponsors at Canary Wharf. A neighbour often seeks me out to give me his latest used big water vending machine bottles. I have not the heart to tell him I have enough, so my neighbours are now starting their own collections and I pass them along.

Our trading shed was an old shipping container and rusting and leaking and unusable, unable to be moved or scraped without a crane to lift it over the fence. It would cost more to get rid of than reclaim. So, we reclaimed it, relined it, re roofed it insulated it, gave it new external wall, even installed a new floor and made new doors. Today it is weatherproof, soundproof and a brand-new trading shed. A tribute to recycling. It typifies the allotment attitude to make things work and to reuse what others would dispose of.

When my greenhouse was decimated by the gales, I rebuilt it with timbers from the farm, what could be salvaged from the old one and an end section someone kindly gave me as surplus. Today it stands more robust than ever and ready for any gale.

The site used to have a skip twice a year, which was filled as quickly as it was dropped. What was dumped in it was often more green waste than bulk un-compostable material waste. So, we stopped hiring the skips, and yes some have complained, but the rubbish still disappears, and household rubbish goes home and old timbers can be added to the farm’s burning. Why should all plot holders subsidise the throwaway nature or bad housekeeping of a few?

What is interesting is when someone leaves. Previously, the shed was picked over by plotholders even before anyone was formally told. Now as soon as notice is given an inventory is taken and anything worthy goes to the trading shed. The amount of old stuff in some sheds is more than in a garden store. Why folk need multiple containers of the same stuff and more trowels and tools than an army would need beggar’s belief.

The challenge on recycling is not the collecting of stuff to recycle but the using of it to avoid building a collection of rotting timbers and associated junk. After all there are only so many rainy days you can collect for.

I think all allotments must pass the recycle sustainability test.

Monday, 21 September 2020

Allotment Sustainability - Water

In today’s environmentally conscious world we have to ask how sustainable is the site? With over 40,000 plots and some 741 sites in London and some 300,000 plots across the UK, the ability for allotments to raise the bar on environment is very real. This is the first of a series of opportunities we aim to cover over the coming days and hope that in doing so we stimulate discussion and maybe even action.

1.       Water

On your site, how many sheds collect rainwater?

Does your site ban use of hosepipes?

Does your site even have access to mains water?

It is somewhat embarrassing to admit that less than 50% of our site collect rainwater off the sheds. There are many reasons given for this, from the cost of guttering and butts to the point that they simply don’t collect enough. However, if each shed could collect rainwater it may not negate mains wate,r but it would go a long way to reduce the demand on the mains. Some even argue pointing to others, ‘if they don’t collect their water, why should I?’

At our site hosepipes are banned on the basis that they promote high water usage and it’s too easy to sit back and sprinkle everything or quietly leave them turned on to water or flood a patch. We have limited taps to which hoses can be attached and those are only available for those who need fresh water to take pills etc and the majority of folk would require long hosepipes to connect to these.

Irrigation systems attached to hoses and butts make sense and drip feed at the place the plants need it. However, the water butts need to be rain water fed and not mains fed. These systems are expensive and need to be managed.

We also have a strong and diverse ethnic mix of plot holders and some simply don’t water their plots our traditional way with watering cans but their traditional way with large 10 litre used paint buckets which results in the water tank quickly emptying, and the plot can soon resemble a paddy field. This practice is not uncommon, and I have seen on other sites, but it can be very inefficient and wasteful.

So just how much water is required to maintain a plot and produce the expected crop?

This is dependant on location, soil, crop and of course weather and the one thing that is certain is the unpredictability of the weather and the demands made by some crops. Is mulching a common practice? Is the soil moisture retentive? Is the location on a slope? Do raised beds demand more water?

Those who don’t have mains water and have to bring their water in containers to their plots will respect that water used more and say that the plot absorbs a lot of water and appreciate every bit has to be taken there. However, those with easy access to mains water may take water for granted and even think about pouring some 15 watering cans on their plot every day in summer.

The cost of water is often universally applied so irrespective of plot size, or whether you collect rainwater, or how much you use the cost is shared by all. Water is itemised separately within our site’s rent invoices and this allows us to vary it if costs or usage rises without it affecting our other income. Each plot pays £10 per year for water or just under 20p a week.

So how do we promote, educate and get plot holders to use less or at least less mains water?

Some would suggest varying the costs by size of plot, others in giving a discount to those who collect rainwater. Some suggest reducing the pressure sufficient to impact the speed the tanks refill but those at the end of the run might then never get any but pay the same as those at the beginning of the run. Some say raise the cost, so it becomes clearer but even doubling today’s cost still is relatively cheap.

The allotment water solution is not down to one silver bullet but in understanding the site and usage, education and getting all sheds to collect rainwater efficiently. Perhaps we should consider finding a sponsor to help pay for butts and guttering throughout the site and in our case reducing the number of tanks.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Garden Competition Winner 1938

We all have someone who influenced and inspired us to grow, garden and enjoy working the soil. My granddad was mine and I spent many hours watching him lose himself in both his and my mum’s gardens. When I first got my own garden, he was there with plants and support.

Recently I looked closely at the clock he always had on the mantelpiece and I now have, and I read the plaque on the front.

‘The City of Birmingham Estate Dept, Garden Competition 1938, E Knight.’

I was always told he won a big competition in Birmingham but was the clock his or his father’s, who also was a big gardener? Why was he down just as ‘E Knight’ when I knew him as Albert Edward Knight?

A telephone conversation with my brother didn’t give me the answers I sought and my daughter told me that there was a line of professional gardeners in the family I didn’t know about and so again adding to my confusion.

This weekend I received an envelope from my brother and inside there was a card, short note and a photograph. He had found the picture in the old photo albums. On the back of the photo in my mum’s handwriting it said, ‘Pops by his pond 1938.’ It did not confirm the clock and award was both his and linked but the evidence clearly pointed to it.

In the photograph he stands with his constant cigarette in hand on an immaculate lawn, surrounded by flowering borders and over what could best be described as a little pond. The pond looks odd and out of place but then it was probably a big novelty in a back garden in Birmingham.

The picture above also has my painting of him as I knew him dis-budding his chrysanthemums with that constant cigarette in his mouth.

The clock may not be worth a lot financially, but it is priceless to me as my link to him and my gardening genes.

I now need to try and find out more about the competition and his award. How big was the competition as Birmingham was a big city even then? What was deemed special about the garden? Many questions I wish I had asked him or my mum, but alas I never did, and at the time to me it was just a clock on the mantelpiece. I am so pleased I kept it.

I'd love it if anyone can tell me more and connect me to that bygone garden competition and the clock.
The clock strikes the quarter past the hour and some 82 years after being presented is still working perfectly well.