Allotment Diary -New Year’s Resolutions

As well as tracking the progress of the flower patch (and I am determined there will be some), this year I want to record what progress I am making at the allotment – my other plot. This is just a short walk from my home and is a piece of land I  have alternatively loved and despaired over for more than ten years and, even so, it is still a work in progress. Still a developing plot. And not developing in the sense that everything needs to change and be adapted, but instead in the sense of being out of hand, unruly. Still weed tangled in some places despite those sections being tackled again and again. This year, though, I have set my own deadline: sort it out or give it (some or all) over to someone who can.


A wintry view of the top of the allotment – artichoke mulching in progrss

Last year, the allotment (and the developing flower plot) both lost my attention at just the wrong time – mid Spring – when the weeds were appearing in seconds and growing strong while I had to give time to work. Then, as often happens, it was hard to ever properly catch up again and at the allotment the dark looks and comments became more frequent  from the member of the allotment committee  who is my neighbour. There was worry about my poppies which I thought were wild and wonderful with their crimson petals, but she saw as chaotic self seeders doomed to infest her patch. She even threatened to cut off their heads. Yes, last year became a battle, or many different battles against different kinds of opposition. I had to call in reinforcements not to lose ground. I spent long days digging and working the soil and my partner came and blitzed the weeds. We even got to deal with the plot’s edges – something, like dusting, I was innocently unaware mattered until someone pointed it out. The hard work paid off and the allotment was licked into temporary shape – passing the Committee’s unannounced inspection, but only getting a fair on the list which went up on the gate…

Now it is a new year and above all I  want to enjoy my plot again and to make it truly productive in a planned and organised way. Yes. I want to do it differently: without guilt, stress and the looking over my shoulder in case someone is approaching to tell me off. It also seems important not to deny someone else this lovely space if I can’t use it better.

So there needs to be a plan and a timetable, I think. No more growing of a hundred seedlings with no proper weed free space in which to plant them. No dig and raised beds were the saviour of my sanity in the early days and the six I have continue to be easy to manage. It is the rest of the plot (and there is a lot left) that is more problematic.


Some spinach and rocket clinging on in one of the old raised beds

So today and tomorrow I am sorting out the bottom section of my plot – piling it up with compost and picking out the weeds left after the cardboard covering has done some of the work. As a reward I will be ordering the seed for the courgettes, peas and beans which I hope will grow in that spot next summer.


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Hopeful Bulbs

Perhaps the most unpredictable growing I do is the nurturing of bulbs for Christmas and early Spring sales. Last year we had one successful and cheery  market at Wolvercote just before Christmas where we sold Paperwhites in vases as well as various iris reticulata and crocus in small, vintage terracotta pots. For this Christmas, the aim was to build on this by growing more and offering more choice.

The gentle, and almost continuous coaxing and moving of bulbs in and out of the house and greenhouse to encourage them to bloom at the right time was a long slow marathon which began in October. Too late perhaps for some of the smaller bulbs such as Scilla siberica and Muscari which need a longer time as well as a sustained period of cold. Too early for some of the Paperwhites which shot into growth, but were held back by a move to the cold shed.


The pretty, sweet scented Paperwhite Ziva

Erlicheer, Avalanche & Grand Soleil D’Or, were all slower to take off than Ziva and some didn’t make it for Christmas and are still at various stages of growth. Some look as if they may not bloom at all.


The green shoots of Soleil D’Or still stubbornly refusing to bloom

A few  Paperwhite vases planted in mid October bloomed in late November/early December- too early for the stall, but lovely for presents and to enjoy ourselves.  The perpetual dance and re-positioning of pots went on until mid December when the Homesown stall was back at the markets.

Iris and crocus were planted again this year in small pots along with the Scilla siberica and Muscari. When their roots showed at the bottom of their pots, some were brought in and forced for  Christmas, while the rest are growing more slowly in the cool of the greenhouse and hopefully will be ready for early Spring when very little else is flowering.

So what have we learned? Paperwhites, particularly Ziva are the easiest to grow for Christmas. The other varieties are pretty and delicious smelling too, but have a much longer (as well as unpredictable) growing period. Perhaps not worth the extra effort. The smaller bulbs were popular, particularly in the terracotta pots, and their green shoots were hopeful in the depths of Winter. These will definitely be on the list for next year along with hyacinths for something new. After a couple of months break, meeting regular customers at a cheery market before Christmas is definitely something we want to do again next year.

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Catching Up

After filling up the greenhouse, all the windowsills in the house as well as the cold frames in front of it with small plants and emerging seedlings, I went on holiday leaving it all (and the dog) in the care of my daughter who can take good care of herself (and the dog), but knows nothing at all about plants. Impossible to tell her everything she needed to know about watering and basic plant care in the time she had available to listen – almost not enough time to tell her where they all were.

So it was with some nervousness and trepidation that I returned home after a week, reasoning with myself that a few casualties (or even fatalities – though not the dog…) would be worth it for the Mallorcan walks in the sun. However, she did a fine job and everything was still living and had grown more than I would expect in a week, though she did bemoan the  two hours (surely an exaggeration) spent tending to them every day.


Fast growing cornflowers have doubled in size

So yesterday, my first day back was spent in a focused marathon of pricking out seedlings, potting on and eventually planting more seeds. So the pelargoniums species, regal and others are nearly all in bigger pots. Viola, Bowles Black and others are in individual pots. The cosmos, Dazzler and Purity have been given more room in 9cm pots and are looking perky. Not enough time before dark to pot up the module grown cornflowers or plant out the larkspur at the plot, but if the rain stops that will be this week.


Repotted cosmos purity

Had a few restful moments to enjoy the different,( but all  completely lovely) daffodils which had opened over the week.


Bright and cheering daffodils


Sweet scented Minnow

Going away has made me realise how just how much growing there can be in a week in Spring as seeds germinated  vigorously and plants outgrow their pots. It is going to be a sprint to catch up.

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Blue and Grey Days

It has been an odd Spring as beautiful piercing blue skies one day are replaced by gloomy, drizzly grey the next. Have found it hard to get into a gardening rhythm and the sowing of seeds and preparations for this year have been uneven with frenetic busy days of seed sowing marathons being followed by strangely dithery indecisive ones when I have worried that I have sown too much too early.

Wondering how to manage the new greenhouse has been puzzling as it gets very cold in there at night. Impossibly cold in the last few weeks for tomatoes and other tender plants, so these have been gathered back onto warm windowsills. Am keen not to heat the greenhouse, but have had to accept that a small paraffin heater to take off the bitter chill is needed on exceptionally frosty nights.

Small tomato plants enjoying warm windowsill

Small tomato plants enjoying warm windowsill

But when I am willing to look, there are optimistic signs of growth everywhere – inside the house (to my family’s frustration); around the house, as well as inside and around the greenhouse. Some plants like the Autumn planted cornflowers and sweet peas are being given tough treatment and have been planted out (to make room for more small pots). Hopefully, they will survive the wind and rain.


Cosmos Dazzler coping with the cold frame

So what is growing? Cornflowers, blue and black, in modules; lovely deep blue Larkspur; antirrhinum Night and Day are at the tiny seedling stage; regal and species pelargonium grown from seed are healthy looking small plants and the cosmos, the deep pink Dazzler and the white, are looking healthy. Most of these are destined for the plot and cutting, but the extras will go to the Farmers Markets and hopefully some might even end up in the garden.

Night and Day seedlings which will soon need potting up

Night and Day seedlings which will soon need potting up

Species pelargonium sown from seed growing well

Species pelargonium sown from seed growing well


And another

Plenty still left to sow and today scabious, salvias and hollyhocks will be sown for the next hopeful wave.

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Early Sowings

The sowing of seeds has started and some have startled me by germinating almost immediately – Cosmos Dazzler and Purity were already showing after two days and now the challenge is to find enough light to stop them getting too leggy. The new window in the sunny front bay window is draught-free which is good as pretty much everywhere else in the house there are eddies of cold air coming in from outside. Seed trays are starting to gather here and don’t think it will be long before they spread out to the other window sills around the house, draughty or not.


Cosmos chancing it in cold frame

Only the toughest seedlings can cope with the unheated greenhouse; so in there are: sweetpeas, broad beans and autumn sown hardy annuals in pots like Amni Visgna and larkspur –  even for them it has been a challenge over the last very frosty weeks.


Newly pricked out sweetpea seedlings

Tomato seeds (Stupice, Gardener’s Delight and Sungold), were sprinkled in small pots a week ago  and have all germinated. Likewise the tomatillo seeds have all come up and now I am genuinely challenged about how to accommodate all their tender, frost-free needs as the greenhouse seems to be colder inside than out at night and certainly won’t protect the hundreds of seedlings I will soon need to pot up. Some chillies (Hungarian Hot Wax) have germinated abundantly while others have stubbornly refused to emerge after several weeks. The aubergine seedlings (Ophelia) look perky and it will be good to experiment with growing these under cover in the greenhouse in the summer. Meanwhile the patience of all my family is going to be fiercely tested as the whole house overflows with plants.


Lots and lots of healthy tomato seedlings

This year I have tried to be more organised with labeling and am including supplier name on labels well as name, date of sowing. So far have been able to notice reliable seed germination from Kings Seeds, Sarah Raven, Roger Parsons sweetpeas and Higgledy Garden. Trying not to order new seed until  have mostly sown what I have, but am very, very tempted by the range and descriptions on the lovely Seedaholic website. Not sure how long I am going to be able to hold back.



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Plotting the Progress of No Dig

Yesterday, when the sun came out unexpectedly (at least for me and the BBC forecast), I made a short visit to see the plot. Last time it had been frozen solid and it was difficult to tell what it was like under the icy glitter. In the warmer sunlight, it definitely looked encouraging and the cardboard, no dig mulch seems to have been more successful than I had hoped.

Last Spring and Summer when I was working full time and couldn’t see a way to set out and dig all the remaining beds, I made a decision to lay out narrow paths with weed suppressing membrane and cover the future beds in layers of cardboard. I based this on my reading of Charles Dowding’s No Dig method from his books and articles, but as I realised soon afterwards I had misremembered the approach a little so wasn’t totally optimistic about it working. Instead of making lasagne type layers with compost and cardboard I mostly just used cardboard. This felt satisfying in terms of positive recycling, but wasn’t quite the right recipe.


A good use for cardboard packaging


Even though the plot is quite small, the soil on the plot is quite different in different parts and the beds I covered in cardboard had grass, dandelions and the longest orange rooted docks I have ever seen. Throughout the Summer and into the Winter the cardboard looked quite ugly and squelchy and seemed to be breeding slugs.


A squelchy cardboard mess

Where I had compost to cover it and the cardboard was hidden was fine – at least in appearance as I wasn’t sure what was going on underneath.


My version of no dig

It was surprising and positive to see when inspecting the beds yesterday, that the surface of the soil was pretty clear and the cardboard had disappeared leaving ribbons of plastic packaging to be gathered up. Yes, there were still some docks and small clumps of grass, but these could be hand weeded from the paths very easily. The soil was also  noticeably packed with worms which suggests its good health.

The plan with these no dig beds is to use them mostly for dahlias and see how it goes. This will mean that I can weed them and stick to no dig, just making planting holes for the plants. Lets hope this works as I have bags and bags of dahlia tubers arriving soon.

And today I joined the WFGA which organises a fantastic range of courses at good prices; so come early May, I will be going to Somerset to learn about No Dig gardening from Charles Dowding  the expert himself. Can’t wait for that – I’ll be the one taking diligent notes …


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Bags of Beans

Another wet and wildly windy week has just gone, so going out to mulch beds at the plot was not at all appealing. Tempting to carry on planting sweetpeas as they are germinating so obligingly, but even I can see I have enough for now. Will wait until March before sowing the next batch of Mollie Rilestone, April in Paris and others.


Sweetpeas germinating reliably

Last week remembered the technique that I used last year of using a small plastic bag with damp compost to sprout my broad beans before sowing. So tipped an old packet of crimson flowered broad bean seeds in  a small freezer bag of compost and shook them around before tying the bag closed. Then kept this inside in warmth and within a week all but 3 had sprouted which meant I could pot them up for planting out next month. This seems a time, space and compost efficient way of testing what is going to germinate, and I am going to try it with my other  slightly aging pea and broad bean seeds this week.


A bag of damp compost with Hurst Green Shaft peas 

For the plot, I have made an early sowing of consolida larkspur ( dark blue) and am going to follow this up with white and mixed as they are truly lovely and I have never grown enough. Despite the advice, I have never tried putting a packet in the freezer for a week before sowing and this time I will experiment and see if it makes a difference. Think these seeds probably prefer to be direct sown, but will see if modules work. Despite today’s gentle sunshine,  Spring  still feels far off, but I will hold some larkspur seeds back to direct sow when there is some warmth in the soil.

Have spent quite a time keenly examining my seed packets to see what can be planted inside in February and Violas can, so these and cowslips and anything else that can be planted early will be sown over the next week, before I get going with the tomatoes the week after – this is always an exciting marker of Spring getting closer.

Little pots of chillies – from the yellow ferociously hot to milder Hungarian Wax- have been sown to be planted in the greenhouse this Summer; also tomatillo, chocolate peppers and two different types of aubergine. This summer will be the first time ever that I will have the chance to plant tender crops under glass and I think I might be going a little bit mad. If all the seeds germinate, the pots will be spilling back into all the windowsills in the house which was definitely not the plan. It is spirit raising to see signs of Spring starting to gather around me from the pelargoniums which are wanting to get going again to the newly germinated sweet peas.


Pelargoniun waking up from Winter and showing a cheerful red 

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