Thursday 27 December 2012

Google for Plants

As I start to think seriously about the various seeds I'll need to get for the allotment, the idea of a "Google for Plants" popped into my head.

A proper "Google for Plants" would be simple unified search tool for plants, that included the ability to search by, and a designed form for results for:

* a full description
* a full range of images of different growth stages, from seed to old plant
* where to buy seeds, and/or the plants themselves
* recipes for the plant
* cultural and medicinal use
* economic uses
* folklore and stories
* history (heritage and extinct varieties)
* interactive maps of geographic distribution
* pop-out boxes for related pests, with images
* links to recent news that names the plant
* links to academic papers about the plant

All in a single handy Google Search -like interface. As far as I can tell that doesn't currently exist. There are of course conventional encyclopedias of plants, such as the Gardenonology wikipedia. While usefully free, Gardenonology does seem to be limited to mimicking an old-fashioned paper encyclopedia.

Monday 24 December 2012

Rain, rain...

I was planning to go up to the allotment today, to get the digging finished before Christmas. But "the wall of rain" that is the weather forecast seems to have put paid to that plan. Oh well, the new plan is have it "done by New Year's Day".

Tuesday 18 December 2012

23rd day on the plot

Weather: 5 degrees, a light NW breeze stiffening after 12 noon. Cloud, with glimpses blue sky trying to break through.

More digging and weeding, to the point where I should have the middle section finished by Christmas...

Also hoed everywhere. The few remaining weeds obviously didn't die of frost, even after several days of brick-hard soil at -4. The hoe also usefully served to break up any rain-compacting soil.

I also pruned the small oak sapling, trying for a nicer shape than the distorted shape which it was forced into when being swamped by brambles.

Sunday 16 December 2012

22nd day on the plot

Weather: A pleasant sunny day, with the valley's heavy fog burning off by 11.30am. 6 degrees.

Two hours at the plot in the sunny weather, and I'm starting to make progress on the middle section. Another couple of days of digging and it should be basically cleared of weeds. I took the main grass clumps out, then started in on the lower part. The frost had done half my work for me and the weeds came out very nicely...

My occasional pigeon visitor is deceased. I found a scattering of feathers across the middle plot...

The allotments committee president actually saw one of three local hawks rocket over the roofs and swoop down on the hapless pigeon a few days ago. Whatever it was that was so mysteriously attractive about the middle bit of my plot has proved fatal.

I was also kindly shown the site's bubbling spring, which comes up in a little nook that's crying out for a "spring dressing" — like the May-time well dressings that still happen in profusion every year in the nearby Staffordshire Moorlands and the Peak District.

Another six sacks of bark chippings on the path and around the shed, to prevent things getting too weedy/muddy.

Saturday 15 December 2012

December 2012 newsletter

The December newsletter is here. Thanks to Ben for his hard work on this and on the website!

Tuesday 11 December 2012

21st day on the plot

Weather: sunny with clear skies, no wind. But iron-hard frosty soil. Likely to be another hard frost tonight under the clear skies.

A quick walk up to the plot this afternoon, as an adjunct to a trip into Stoke town. I thought the sun might have been softened off the frost enough for a little digging and weeding, but found the ground frozen rock-hard with frost. Obviously the sun had had no effect at all...

Looks like we're in for a solid -2 and -3 degrees, right through Wednesday and into Thursday evening. Die weeds, die...! :)

Still, I was able to have a mooch and a sit, noticing various things that I wouldn't normally amid a session of digging. There's a seed propagator at the side of the shed that needs cleaning out at some point. Also a small hanging basket, which I might be able to put on the north side of the shed + rig up with a drip feed — so that it doesn't need to be watered every day.

I also took a better look at the shed roof. It doesn't need a complete re-roofing, just a few 3ft offcut strips of roofing felt to cover the cracks.

Saturday 8 December 2012

20th day on the plot

Weather: a cold bright sunny day with a light wind. Warming from zero to 2 to 3 degrees.

A chilly early morning start, with the sun only really coming onto lower half of the plot and softening the ground at about 10:00am. Lots of birds were around in the early part of the day: several blackbirds, a curious robin, and some swoops of green-finches, all flitting about the sheds and poles. Similar weather to a few days ago, when I tried a quick visit for an hour, but without the ferocious North wind.

I've now managed to get to the half-way point on weeding the middle plot, so hopefully by Christmas I might have the two main plots weeded out and dug over.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

18th day on the plot

Weather: 2 degrees and a very cold north wind. Bright clear sun after a cold night frost. Ice on the lower parts of the plot by the shed.

A quick visit to the plot today, for an hour in between the various icy stormfronts. I'd anticipated the cold with layers and thermals, but it was still a bit nippy. But I hoed, dug out a few more weeds, and battened down a plastic ground sheet that was threatening to start blowing around.

It seems that the new giant compost hopper isn't likely now to go on the site of my shed (there was a possibility of that), although that needs to be confirmed.

I also found I was digging out a few more potatoes. Not many, but enough to pad out a pan of curry.

Monday 3 December 2012

London Road Bakehouse on TV

Just down the hill in Stoke town, an independent local bakery, the London Rd. Bakehouse, is set to star in a new ITV show...

Love the cap!

Sunday 25 November 2012

17th day on the plot

Weather: a fine sunny day. 7 degrees, light south wind, but almost no wind on the plot due to the wind-shadow of the buildings to the south.

I went up to the plot for 90 minutes this afternoon, in the fine clear weather.

Hoed the bottom plot again. The light frosts don't appear to have had any effect on the remaining weeds and the scattering of tiny seedlings, so it seems worth keeping on hoeing. There may well be a week of heavy -10 frosts ahead, but that's not certain. It could be another mild winter. So it seems worth trying to keep disrupting the remaining weeds on a weekly basis, rather than banking on a hypothetical frost to do it for me in the future.

I dug over another section of the middle plot, getting a good heavy half-bag of weeds and weed-roots out. These weeds may have to stay in the green bags for a year or two, but I'm hoping that after a winter and a baking summer they might even be compostable in a separate quarantined compost pile. Or perhaps they could be buried at the bottom of a deep bean trench at some point in Spring 2014.

The new boots work a treat, and their height means that my trouser ends get less muddy.

I even found another small bagful of potatoes, at the other end of the rows! :)

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Artisanal food in the Midlands

ITV has a new three-part online video report on serious artisan food production in the Midlands (bread, cheese, and wine).

New allotment boots, freebies

Walking home via the canal towpath, I found a pair of Arco Safety Boots in my size, thrown over the fence from a recently closed down flint-grinding mill. Obviously someone on the site intended someone to pick them up and use them, rather than have to put them in a skip. Rather worn and a tad damp, but they're fine otherwise. They'll make excellent winter allotment boots, and will save the wear on my old cycling boots...

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Metal basher

Just read in the paper that...

"New rules coming into effect in December [2012] mean it will soon be illegal for dealers to pay cash for scrap metal"

This will hopefully reduce the more organised allotment break-ins, the ones that pillage a site's sheds in search of spades and other metal tools. The report says that metal to the value of £770 million was stolen last year in the UK, costing the nation perhaps £25-£30m or more to replace.

Monday 19 November 2012

BBC Radio Stoke Gardening Show

BBC Radio Stoke's Sunday Gardening Show, added to this blog's sidebar. Available to 'listen again' online for 7 days.

16th day on the plot

Weather: heavy rain cleared away, leaving a stiff southerly wind. About 10 degrees.

Up to the plot for an hour, after the belt of rain had cleared away. The stiff wind was in the south, so for most of the time I was in the wind-shadow of the flats and the houses.

* Hoed the bottom plot, and around the gooseberries.

* Finished off pulling out the weeds from the first cleared square of the middle plot...

Still no real frost yet. Although judging by what was said on BBC Radio Stoke's Sunday Gardening Show, there was a frost Saturday night in the rural parts around Stoke.

Centipedes and Millipedes

A new radio progamme today, on Centipedes and Millipedes.

Centipedes are night-hunters of creepy-crawly insects, so they're good for the gardener...


Millipedes on the other hand, will have your young seedlings and soft bits of things like carrots, given half a chance. So it pays to be able to tell them apart.

Small millipede. Not a good idea to pick them up, as they exude a nasty cyanide-based defense chemical.

Sunday 18 November 2012

A Growing Trade

The expanding Big Dig organisation has a new 80-page report, A Growing Trade: a guide for community groups growing food to sell in our towns and cities (sort-of free: a £10 donation is expected).

I'd like nothing more than to visit a quarterly allotment holder's market in Stoke's town square, or to read of a profitable local cider-press in Hartshill getting an award for its beautifully bottled micro-brew cider. But looking twice at the report's table-of-contents, there seems to be something missing. Like a section containing a basic economic analysis of the profit and loss of such growing.

Because if the aim of the A Growing Trade report is indeed to show how to... "add economic vitality to your neighbourhood", then perhaps talented people should think more rationally about that. About exactly where they can and should best put their time and talents into, to actually achieve that goal. The case for growing and selling veg as a major contribution to the hyper-local economy could perhaps be made, based on data and proper calculations, together with a sharp-eyed appraisal of intangibles such as well-being / local pride / inter-generational contacts — but I'd want to see the sort of robust calculations which would nail the case for it to a government minister's desk.

If the eco-worriers are just doing it as a hobby business, fine. Most of the 1980s hippies and punks actually turned out to be closet entrepreneurs of one sort or another, after all — even as they ranted impotently against Thatcher. The historical example of those groups suggests that the renewal of capitalism may come from precisely those who consider themselves in such over-heated opposition to it (such as the current middle-class eco-worriers and Make-reading hackers, etc), rather than those who consider themselves in so fervently in favour of it (the Tea Party in the USA springs to mind).

And Lord Heseltine's 1980s quote about (I paraphrase from memory): "we'll never have big exports again if all we do is sell our hand-made nick-knacks to each other" is rapidly being proven false by the amazing boom in Internet crafts and 'designer' virtual goods. Which shows that you never know if some new innovation will suddenly make an 'impossible' method of economic production suddenly become viable. We may, for instance, yet see some amazing universal gene-splicing breakthrough which makes garden food plants twice as disease and drought resistant as before. Such a breakthrough may well happen. Science has already done it for us many times before.

Growing Birmingham

I just found the Growing Birmingham blog, a news blog about allotments and suchlike in Birmingham.

Saturday 17 November 2012

A friend visits the plot

A visit to the allotment today, but a non-digging one in the company of my friend Pete. He came up to Stoke on the train, to see what I've taken on. We were kindly given a look at the shop area in the community hut, learned some old and recent history about the site, and saw some old photos of the site. One of the old photos seemed to be from perhaps the 1970s(?), since the YMCA tower wasn't visible in it.

I also discovered that the site has a working pigeon-loft at the north end, and noticed a pond at the bottom of the semi-cleared bee hives slope.

Seeing that pond spurred the thought of having my own little pond on the 'wild' bit at the top of my plot. I don't have a car, so I'd ideally need to find someone from Freecycle to deliver an unwanted pond casing (or maybe some unwanted strong pond-liner) to the site gates early next Summer.

I've also found out that the Royal Horticultural Society says that couch grass can be killed off by weedkillers, contrary to the popular belief that it's impossible to eradicate. Obviously they've done tests and research on the matter. Their clear advice suggests that you have to time the spraying just right, and do it with the right type of glycophosphate. They say it needs to be sprayed during a dry mild period in early Spring, when the couch is starting to send out new leaves — leaves which will take the chemicals down to kill the roots...

"In Spring, spray [Glyphosate] when the new [couch grass] growth has reached a minimum 10-15cm (4-6in) high with each shoot having not less than four or five new leaves. Spraying at this stage of growth, in mild conditions when growth is active, will usually be very effective" [Royal Horticultural Society, on the best couch grass treatment]

So that's now my new plan for dealing with the couch grass. I'll leave the top section (that's full of couch) until the Spring, then spray. Then I'll clear it off and fork it over after three weeks, bagging the dead roots up 'just in case'. That'll mean the top section of the plot won't really be plant-able until maybe the end of April or later, but it seems the best option for permanent eradication.

Down in Stoke town, Pete and I noted a cool (but rather expensive at £69.99) proper weather station in the windows of the big Maplins electronics shop...

Thursday 15 November 2012

15th day on the allotment

Weather: surprisingly sunny, whereas the forecast has said cloudy. Light south winds. 10 degrees, dipping to 9 degrees as the mist started to gather in the valley at 3.45pm.

I went out to vote, and then spent a couple of hours on the allotment.

* Got another pallet, this time a very heavy "weighted" one. Suitable for a compost bin base.

* Quickly hoed the lower plot.

* Divided and planted some chive clumps that I'd been given, before the frost gets them, and set them against the brick wall on the lower plot.

* Started a proper digging out of the weeds from the middle plot...

The weather and the consistency/dampness of soil were perfect for weed-pulling. Sadly, though, I found the telltale "long white roots" of couch grass in parts of the middle plot.

The penny has finally dropped about the top plot (of the three). There's a lot of couch grass in it. In a few dribs-and-drabs that couch grass has obviously been trying to get a first foothold in the top part of the middle plot. Thankfully there's a very solid two-brick barrier between it and the middle plot, which has prevented most of its "creep down". But there's a gap in the wall, at the end. So it looks like I'm going to have to wedge in some bricks along there, so as to make a basic continuation of the wall up to the path.

Once the lower and middle plots are fully weeded, it might then be worth having a go at some of the top part of the allotment. Couch grass, and all. I'll at least try a basic forking out of the bulk of the couch grass there, up to the metal "H" frame. Then I'll perhaps unfold the carpet (which is currently acting as a "rain hat" for the bonfire) over it, and wait until the heat of the summer really bakes it. Then I'll peel it back and try another digging out of the roots, leaving them to wither in the heat. Finally I might put in some sort of late summer-starting crop that would smother any remaining grass growth.

I don't plan to try runner beans in my first year on the metal "H" frame I have, so I'm thinking that a "wall" of some tall close-planted blue cornflowers might do well there. I've grown them before and they're fantastic in good soil, and get really tall. Strings could be run across the "H" frame at various heights, to support them.

Monday 12 November 2012

14th day on the allotment

Weather: a long period of rain, just cleared. A strange sort of 10 degrees cold-but-mild weather, possibly something to so with the humidity.

A quick hour at the allotment today, combined with some shopping at Sainsbury's.

The remaining few buried weeds on the lower plot are obviously loving this mild damp weather, and the lower plot needed a good quick hoe-ing. Hopefully the first good frost will see them off.

I also started a rough digging-out of another strip of the middle plot, alongside the path, in the hope of finding more potatoes there. I did find a few, but only at the sides. As I dug more into the four ridges, sadly there were no potatoes to be found there :( Oh well. It seems that those I found were the escapees, and that the rest had been lifted back in the spring.

Still, I also managed to get my seed potatoes order in just in time for 12th Nov deadline for the allotment's bulk-buy scheme. I've ordered £10 worth (3 bags) of Red Duke of York Seed Potatoes (First Earlies). I'm not sure if that's enough, or maybe too many, but that's all I can afford at the moment. They're a 'heritage' potato bred during the war (1942) as part of the "Dig for Britain" movement. They're also listed as the "best seller" for seed potatoes in the latest Suttons catalogue, so they seem like a good bet. They apparently go into the soil after the last frosts, about April, and then can be harvested July/August — but apparently you can also leave them in to mature and bulk up, so as to have September/October baking potatoes...

"as an early potato they have a fine flavour, but if you leave them to mature, the tubers will grow big enough to turn into baking potatoes"

Monday 5 November 2012

National Gardening Leave

One of the UK's most creative independent think-tanks, The New Economics Foundation has a new pamphlet out. National Gardening Leave makes the case...

"...for a new, voluntary scheme to introduce a shorter working week, and for the rapid expansion of productive and pleasurable gardening in Britain's towns and cities." [my emphasis]

"Giving people entering new jobs (and, where possible, those in existing jobs) the option of working a four day week — something which is standard practice in the Netherlands, for example — brings potential multiple benefits to individuals, workplaces, communities, the environment and the economy."

The pamphlet's 'old hippie'-isms aside, it's an interesting read. Although a Kindle version would have made it far more pleasant to contemplate than a PDF. It's obviously partly based on Google's 20% time practice. As the most efficient and advanced parts of the capitalist world become much more of a 'free-time society' in the coming Great Abundance, a great many citizens will need to find productive and useful things to do. Possibly unpaid. As the report says, we seem to be heading to a future where we will very likely need...

"a radical redistribution of paid and unpaid time"

It's to be hoped that such a redistribution of time can be robustly tested first in the private sector, in an employee-led manner. Because if it isn't then the clop-hopping state may try to do it in some crisis-induced rush, and plunge us into an unwieldy "one size fits all" solution stuffed with middle managers and dubious IT contractors.

The NEF's National Gardening Leave proposal runs alongside the recent policy proposal from Lord Bichard (that active pensioners should be asked to be socially useful in return for their pension money). Nice idea. But how to police it?

A "gardening day" off has similar 'policing' problems. How is the employer to know that the employee isn't spending their "gardening" Fridays on clothes shopping and then stuffing themselves with cakes at Marks & Spencers? While paying young Kevin £5 an hour to tend the garden?

One solution could be to open up the idea to all productive/useful 'fun' hobbies, on a social per-project basis. And I mean real hobbies, not gap-filling jobs for the state. Want to restore a windmill? You should be able to do that instead of pottering around the garden. By opening the idea up in this way, both the 'pensioner' and the 'lazy employee' activity-policing problems could be solved without the state. How?

Via an autonomous Kickstarter-like service, in which people in a travel-region could pledge their skilled time (rather than money). Pledge your time to an independent openly-advertised project that has specific stepped goals. Useless project managers and no-show cake munchers would be shamed via a robust social ratings system and by video documentation. At the end of each year, the service (let's call it TimeSpring) would let you securely print a "social tax return" — this document would have official weight and would justify your Fridays off, or your pension top-up. The open social and video elements would: i) satisfy your employer that you've not been spending your Fridays off on retail-and-cakes therapy at the local Marks & Spencers; and ii) satisfy the taxpayer that you deserve your enhanced 'active and useful' old-age pension payments.

13th day on the allotment.

Weather: bright sunny day with high sparse cloud. N/NW wind. Temperature dipping to 7 degrees at 3.30pm and starting to feel cold in the stiffening north wind.

I arrived at the allotment today at 12 noon, and stayed until 3.30pm. That's a bit too long for a single session (with digging and heavy weeding), perhaps. I'm finding the plot's best dug in 90 minute bursts (two hours if you include resting and the final palaver of boot scraping etc to get ready to leave). Still, it was a lovely day for it. Sunny with a light cold NW wind, and a few light bonfires nearby gave a pleasant woodsmoke smell.

Through the good services of the site-maintenance man I've managed to acquire a long wooden pallet. It's suitable for being sawn into three parts to make a small compost bay. I'll have to take a proper woodsaw along, the next time I go.

I also learned where the "unwanted plants" drop-off point is, and acquired a superb unwanted gooseberry bush, in magnificent condition...

There are good reasons why no-one wants gooseberries (sawfly, the nasty thorns, sparse crops). But it's a sentimental thing for me to grow them, as my Nan had them and had a sort of "Battle of Britain" never-say-die attitude to her struggle with them, which I'd like to carry on. Plus, I love them to eat.

So I dug over a corner for the new bush, took half a bag of weeds out, then put in the new gooseberry. Also pruned it back a little (something you're really only supposed to do with gooseberries in the dead of winter, but this one looks healthy enough to survive that).

I ran the hoe over the lower plot, to keep the weeds down.

Then I started to define the path edge more, digging out a strip of the weeds and finding along the way a half-bag's worth of potatoes (there must be more in the ridges, further in) and a few tiny almost triangular-shaped red onions (shallots?).

Finally I put six half-bags of wood chips down on the newly-defined path-edge...

Along the way I found a bit of old smoking-pipe stem...

I'm told these pipe stems can be as early as Roman times, but I'm guessing this one is more likely to be 17th to 18th century.

I also found out that the wife of a near-neighbor on the allotment is the Potteries artist Sue Law-Webb...

Above: Sue Law-Webb, "Life Cycle: Crossing the River of Oblivion".

Sunday 4 November 2012

Friday 2 November 2012


Eeek! A spittering of snow forecast, for this coming Sunday...

Thursday 1 November 2012


Ugh, I've had a strange feverish cold for the last week. Minus any sneezing or coughs, which I suppose is a blessing.

I had thought I was going to get up to the allotment tomorrow — after a week away from the plot — but now it seems not. This afternoon I had to sit through a two-hour meeting in a freezing unheated room (no coffee, either), which seems to have brought the cold back, just as it was going away :-(

Sunday 28 October 2012

Of Pigeons and Sheds

A couple of sort-of allotment-related items coming up in Stoke-on-Trent's Conjunction contemporary arts festival. One on pigeons, another focusing on a shed...

"Fiona Long: 'Pigeon Scare' (Fat Cat Cafe Bar, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent)...

Fiona Long humorously examines our ambivalent relationship with pigeons. Do we want to scare them away from our crops and our buildings, or are the pigeons actually scaring us?"

Andrew Holmes: 'Lych Gate' (Hanley Park, 18th Nov - 21st Dec)...

"Working with the staff, friends and visitors of Hanley Park, Andrew Holmes will be creating a hand-built meeting place / shelter / sculpture using materials reclaimed from the demolition sites and waste grounds of Stoke-on-Trent"

Too many bees?

The Independent has a news story today, claiming that there are now "too many" new beehives, at least in London. In the capital a beehive has become the oh-so-fashionable thing for the upper middle-class garden, and also for the office roof at some large businesses. Yet there simply isn't enough pollen and nectar in the urban metropolis to support them all.

Thankfully that's not a problem that should affect bees in Stoke-on-Trent, since the city is nestled amid a vast patchwork of green spaces.

On a more national level, the news report also worryingly mentions a...

"survey by Mori [UK] last week showed that nine out of 10 people could not identify honey bees next to other insects."

I guess that's partly an inevitable result of that fact that 49% of UK children are simply not allowed to play outside. But it suggests that those with new beehives might want to have an actual picture of a bee on the initial publicity banners and leaflets, when the hives arrive.

Above: Honey Bee by Tie Guy II. Creative Commons.

Of course, in future we may have robo-bees...

"Engineers from the universities of Sheffield and Sussex are planning on scanning the brains of bees and uploading them into autonomous flying robots that will then fly and act like the real thing."

Friday 26 October 2012

12th day on the plot

Weather: a stiff North wind, the first frost on its way.

I popped up to the allotment for a quickie hour, in a bitterly cold wind which heralded tonight's first frost. I got the remaining end of the first row on the middle-plot dug over and weeded, so I could put the remaining two little gooseberries in. They're a bit small, and the roots are not good — but it's to be hoped they'll be putting down some decent roots by next Spring.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Lives in a Landscape documentary on allotments

Available online now, the brilliant new Lives in a Landscape radio documentary about the people of an allotment in Hastings.

Sutton Seeds

I just registered with Sutton Seeds and ordered the paper editions of the new 2013 (released Oct 2012) main catalogue, for some Winter window-shopping and ideas. Good to see that they take PayPal.

Although I suspect that this book may be of more use to me, come Spring... ;)

If Bach had been a beekeeper

I found another poem by the poet Charles Tomlinson (1927-, Hartshill born and raised). The poem is again relevant to the allotments here (and to the site's coming beehives)...


If Bach had been a beekeeper

If Bach had been a beekeeper
he would have heard
all those notes
suspended above one another
in the air of his ear
as the differentiated swarm returning
to the exact hive
and place in the hive,
topping up the cells
with the honey of C major,
food for the listening generations,
key to their comfort
and solace of their distress
as they return and return
to those counterpointed levels
of hovering wings where
movement is dance
and the air itself
a scented garden


Tuesday 23 October 2012

11th day at the plot

Weather at the plot: autumnal, mild and still. 98% humidity. 15 degrees at 3:00pm, 14 degrees at 5:30pm.

At the allotment for a few hours this afternoon. I walked the hoe up there, through Hartshill Park.

* Hoed the remaining weeds off the lower plot.

* Put ten half-sacks of bark chippings onto the path edges, to help suppress weeds.

* Pruned and then dug out a big unwanted gooseberry bush from my immediate neighbour's plot (with permission).

* Dug over a strip of the middle plot, in order to plant my row of gooseberry bushes. I'm hoping these can be trained into a 'hedge' that will divide the lower from the middle plot. One of them had just been left in a pot, and stuffed in with the mint. There are still two more small ones elsewhere, that will have to be transplanted into the row on another day...

The first light night-frost is due for this coming Friday night, according to the Stoke forecast.

Monday 22 October 2012

Got a hoe

I now have a hoe. No, I haven't been scampering around the back-streets of Cobridge with scantily-clad ladies. It's the other kind of hoe :) A B&Q Carbon Steel Dutch Hoe, for £6.50. It looks pretty sturdy, and I hope it'll enable me to skim weeds off the plot this winter, without trampling all over the wet soil and compacting it.

I had a look at the seeds while I was in there, and also spotted some of the Royal Society's beneficial root fungi 'Rootgrow', which I've heard great things about and which I shall probably get in the Spring. The ungainly B&Q website doesn't seem to know Rootgrow exists, but I found it's actually £2 cheaper than their shelf-price on the Daily Telegraph's gardening site.

Sunday 21 October 2012

Up The Garden Path

One of the oddest gardening-related publications ever to come out of Stoke was a Dungeons and Dragons role-playing adventure booklet called "Up The Garden Path". Issued in a tiny print-run for the 1986 Stoke-on-Trent National Garden Festival, it was only sold at the Festival and at the Royal Horticultural Society Hall in London. Which means it's incredibly rare, and now sells to collectors for about $2,500.

RPG travellers journeyed to the Festival site on a salamander-driven steam train run by gnomes, and then used the real site-map as a game map. In an Alice-like world they encountered monsters including an IffanbutT, Shadow Wolves, the Arborinexorabilaneous treants (living trees, or ents), and the Snap Dragon.

A scan of the booklet is currently available to read on Scribd.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Urban Wildlife

A fab edition of BBC Radio 4's "Open Country" documentary programme, on Urban Wildlife. Available to listen online.

Apparently the fleas that often infest hedgehogs don't and can't live on humans, dogs or cats — only on hedgehogs. Photo: Will Burton.

The tenth day: 'dug for victory'

Weather at the plot: 15 degrees at 3.30pm, 14 degrees and chilling rapidly at 5.30pm. Very light wind, and high mostly clear skies.

Walked up to the plot this afternoon through Hartshill Park, for a go at digging out the weeds and weed roots from the final section of the lower plot. As you can see, victory...

And an apple as a reward...

Although the lower plot is going to need a hoe in a week to so, to keep down a few of the straggler weeds that are already showing a leaf.

I finally met Mr. Next Door the landscape gardener, named Stuart, who kindly agreed to let me take his unwanted large gooseberry bush out and replant it on my plot.

I also had a tour of Ben's (site newsletter and communications) plot, which is a fabulous patchwork of micro-climates and types of veg. I had the useful tip from him of "only water once a week" in warmer weather, since if you do it every day the plants don't put down deep roots.

More path bark-mulch has arrived in the big hoppers by the main gate, so I shall get some more of that down on my path next week.

To do next: transplant the rhubarb, take the gooseberry out. Start digging out a strip of the weeds on the next section up of the plot - so that I can get a line of the various gooseberries in before the first frosts.

Thursday 18 October 2012

Lanky Fred

The Stoke-on-Trent artist and writer Arthur Berry (1925-1994) has one poem about allotments in his out-of-print (and now nearly unobtainable) collection Dandelions (1993):


He always said "you're a long time dead"
Did lanky Fred
When he was alive, in his life
After he had buried his wife
And the air was thick
With summer dust and cobwebs
And the heavy bodied bees
Staggered from the dahlias
To the sweet peas
When the dog rose grew in
The hawthorn hedge
And there were
Wild fox gloves
At the back of the well.
When the pig styes
In the next allotment
Began to smell
And thick stems of dandelions
Grew between the sunken bricks
Of his garden path
Lanky Fred would sit in his little shed
And spit outside on the path
His mouth black from chewing twist
His dry skinned hands had
Blue birds tattooed on the wrists
And his cord trousers were held up
By braces and a brass buckled belt
If Fred spoke honest
About what he felt
He’d never been better off in his life
Since he'd buried
His clean hard working wife
And now he was free as you might say
To do as he pleased
And have his own way
To spend all his pension on twist and drink
And be damned to what
The neighbours think
When his poor wife was alive
They had to make ends meet
By selling tomatoes,
Rhubarb and mint
And Fred was very often skint
Him and his little stiff tailed dog
Were often as dry
As a lime-burner's clog.


* "styes" is the old spelling, used in the 19th century.

* "fox gloves" is the old way of presenting the word 'foxgloves'.

* "twist" was a chewing tobacco made from leaves that were flavored and then twisted to resemble a rope.

* "Lime Burner's Clog" was a northern English nickname given to those Victorians who advocated total abstinence from alcohol. Victorian limeburners were freelancers who voluntarily worked with intense heat and their clothes were often scorched and charred. It apparently used to be common practice in the British Isles for all allotment holders to regularly 'lime' their plots in the Spring, if the plot needed it or not.

Berry's autobiography Three and Sevenpence Halfpenny Man is currently easier to get hold of than Dandelions. The book takes the reader from his working class childhood at the north end of the Potteries amid the Great Depression of the 1930s; through his discovery of art and life at the Burslem School of Art and the many seedy grotesqueries of pub life in Burslem during the Second World War; down south to London's bohemian scene where Berry was an art student amid the social changes of the 1950s; then back up to Stoke-on-Trent as an art teacher - increasingly appalled and depressed by the new socialist hatred for figurative art (one of his poems opens with: "I'm no radical, no lefty") and by the yobbishness unleashed by Labour's 'permissive society'.

Burslem Park needs Gardening Volunteers

Gardening Volunteers are wanted at the newly Lottery-refurbished Burslem Park, in the north of Stoke-on-Trent...

"Our gardening volunteers group meets 10am on Fridays at the park pavilion, and the session runs to 12.30. All welcome - drop in to meet the group and find out more."

The Garden

More contemporary art, this time from Stoke-on-Trent's Rachel Grant...

It's a mugs game

Classic enamel Utility-style "Dig for Victory" mug, for your allotment shed.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Sunday Afternoon

More allotment art from Stoke. Vicky Mount's "Sunday Afternoon", a view of allotment life in Stoke-on-Trent (you can see the distinctive bottle kilns of the ceramics factories, in the distance).

Although no allotment holder has bricks that clean...

Dolly Lane

More contemporary allotment art from Stoke-on-Trent — the Dolly Lane site at the north end of Burslem, with the Port Vale F.C. stadium in the background. Painted by Stoke-on-Trent artist Rob Pointon, who sells at Burslem's Barewall...

And Rob's original pencil sketch, without his trademark dynamic distortion...

Pottering about

Lovely bit of local allotment art from Stoke-on-Trent, "Pottering About" by Chris Cypus. Available from Barewall in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent. The picture is of a real allotments site and view, with the Middleport Pottery (the last working Victorian pottery, now being refurbished by the Prince's Trust) in the background.

BBC Lives in a Landscape: allotments

Next Wednesday on BBC Radio 4's excellent Lives in a Landscape documentary series, a 30-minute programme on a Hastings allotments site.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Ninth day on the allotment

Weather at the plot today: 11 degrees at 2.50pm, 11 degrees at 5.30pm. Very pleasant in the sun as the storm finally passed away north, and the wind dropped, but then feeling colder as the wind picked up about 4.30pm. Ground damp, from the rain of the previous 24 hours.

Another afternoon at the plot. I've now dug and weeded nearly all of the lower section of the plot...

One more afternoon, and the lower section should be done... and six green garden sacks of weeds and weed roots will have been taken out of it.

I met "Mr. Euro" for the first time, and he kindly gave me three nice-looking Bramley cooking-apples. He's an Oxbridge-voiced bloke situated two plots north of me, where he flies a very tattered little European EU flag. I also met a nice couple who took over a disused plot next to the Park, back in July, cleaned it up, and who are now enjoying taking their bags of Autumn produce off it.

Worrying report in today's paper. A woman's smallholding at Sneyd Green (a long way from my allotment, at the back-end of Burslem) was broken into and all her geese and chickens were killed and taken, seemingly with intent to sell them on a market (the birds were found cached in a nearby field). Thankfully, my site has just changed all the gate padlock combinations, but such things are still worrying.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Friday 12 October 2012

A good boot scraper

An excellent cheap boot-scraper / cleaner for firm mud is a child's junior hacksaw, with the blade taken out. The end bit can get into the treads on the boot, and generally act as a precision mud-picker...

I discovered this by accident. I took the little saw up to the plot for lopping small branches on the back hedge, but the blade sprang off and vanished into hyperspace. Left with the shaped handle, I found an even better use for it.

And on the eighth day...

Weather at the plot today: 12 degrees and cold. Sunny day after a rainstorm. Very breezy with a cold south-west wind. One sharp shower, but otherwise a fine afternoon.

I walked up to the plot. All the sweet chestnuts on the tree in Hartshill Park are down, and the squirrels have scampered away with every seed they can lay their little paws on.

It was the first "under t-shirt and thick waistcoat day" on the allotment plot, today. Up until now a simple top has sufficed to keep me warm. I dug more of the lower plot, and plucked out another bag of weeds and weed roots. About two-thirds of my lower plot has now been cleared and cleaned...

The pile of rotting apples in the wild bit at the top of my plot seems to be attracting the occasional late butterfly, presumably to feed on the sugars in the fructation.

I also made a panorama picture of the tree-felling area, which is set to be a new bee-keeping glade...

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Seventh day on the plot

Weather at the plot today: 12 degrees, feeling quite cold in a blowy south-easterly breeze.

I went up to the allotments for only an hour today. The wind was turning cold, preparing to bring in the heavy rainstorm tomorrow morning. I just dug out a small L-shaped section, including one of the awkward "raised beds" corners, and yet still took half a sack of weeds and weed-roots out of it.

Discovered a nice crop of fungi growing from the roots at the side of the shed...

Also discovered that Mr. Next Door seems to have installed an alarm in his shed. But the battery seems to be running down. Hence it very loudly "chirrups" every two minutes to give warning, to the delight of some local caged birds who loudly reciprocate. Either that, or he's keeping a Really Big Bird in there.

I've decided to take a sketchbook up to the plot next time I go — not to sketch, but rather to macro photograph small objects isolated against white. When a page gets too muddy it can just be flipped.

Pot sunk in water bucket. Click for full-size.


Some photos of the tree-clearing that happened this last weekend, elsewhere on the allotment...

Photo by Ben

I could use one of those mini-diggers!

Plot No. 235

This sounds like an interesting sci-art project:

"As her graduation project Anne Geene decided to execute a systematic, almost scientific, study of her allotment in Rotterdam [Holland]. The book contains three parts. It starts with the geographical demarcation, the lay-out of the allotment and some facts and figures, like the most common weed (goutweed) and most common species (the woodlouse). Part two is the main part of the book and provides a detailed account of all her observations. She not only documented and photographed all the vegetation and species that occupy the allotment, but she also included different shapes, colors, patterns, animal behavior, animal traces, skies and water. The third and final part presents the results of various measurements like the transparency of leaves, the speed of swimming ducks or to what extent the camouflage of a frog resembles its surroundings."

The work has now been published as a book (in Dutch only), Plot No. 235. Encyclopedia of an Allotment...

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Sixth day on the allotment

Weather at the plot today: 15 degrees at 3.30pm, 14 degrees at 5.30pm. Very light but cold Easterly breeze.

I've broken the back of the lower section of the plot, without (as yet) breaking my own back. Three bags of weeds and weed roots have come out so far, and I reckon there's another three to come. Another half to go, but I can see progress...

The work is a little easier now, as I'm getting better at the fork-craft and at taking out the weeds.

At some point, before the worst of the Autumn gales, I need to unfold the plastic sheeting, remove slugs and mud from the sheets, and either fold or roll it into a state where it's easily layable without it flapping in the wind.

"The Pigeon" made a low-flying reconnaissance mission, but didn't stop. I'm guessing the best time to sow peas and beans (which the birds apparently love and will dig up) will be the edge of dusk, when birds are roosting for the night.

Mr. Next Door (a landscape gardener who has only recently taken his plot over) has put up a useful little boundary fence at the bottom, which also means a big new plastic water-butt is indeed on my plot and is mine. Useful.