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 :-(