Allotmenteering: The Burning Times

Saturday

Saturday was the start of the burning season on the Allotment.  This Saturday, and every Tuesday hereafter, it’s permitted to have fires on allotment plots providing that certain conditions are met.  Even better, her Jessicaness drove down for a flying visit to see me and the new kitten whilst Significant Other was away.

See Kitten

See Kitten!

After a round of bacon sandwiches, we headed over to the allotment in time to pick up some onion and garlic sets for the patch of bare ground I mentioned last week.  Then we headed over to my plot armed with newspaper and lighters.  At exactly 12pm (the moment fires were allowed) the paper was lit and the fire was started.

I'm a firestarter...

I’m a firestarter…

Once the fire was well under way, we threw every piece of burnable material I had on it, singing our hair in the process.  The it was a case of sitting down and watching, occasionally forking material from the edges onto the main body of the fire.

Bored, I started forking over the bare patch of ground, pausing every now and then to pick out the bindweed roots.  Her Jessicaness came over to help and while she forked up the dirt, I borrowed a spade from 100 and used it to further break up the clods of earth.  We tossed the bindweed roots on the fire 🙂

Twisted Firestarter!

Twisted Firestarter!

Remembering that there was a bunch of twigs and branches in the would-be compost bin I’d uncovered, I started tossing them into the fire. It paid off when I finally discovered rich black compost under the thick layer of wood.

As the fire started to die down, so did our energy levels.  The patch was dug and I didn’t even have the energy to plant the onion sets.  After almost five hours on site, we doused what remained of the fire and headed home for food and a bath.

Her Jessicaness was called home due to an emergency that night, leaving me home alone with just the Tigger-Dog and two cats for company.  Exhausted and still dealing with a grumbling appendix, I got an early night.

Yesterday I had a nice long lie in and then watched the Grand Prix whilst doing laundry loads.  Afterwards I pottered around the house for a bit and then got bored and decided to go plant some onions while the weather was still good.

Once there I deconstructed and excavated the compost bin, using a spade borrowed from 100 to move it onto some canvas so I could drag it over to the onion bed.  Doing so disturbed a toad who’d apparently dug his way in to hibernate for the winter.  Feeling bad about taking away his winter home, I spread the compost on the bed we’d dug over, picking out the bindweed roots as I went.

Once done, I used the rake to create three furrows and then planted winter lettuce at the corners and the onion sets 30cm apart.  I still have an awful lot of onions left.  Anyone know how to store them?

Here be onions

Here be onions

100 gave me some thin fleecy material to spread over the bed to prevent birds from picking out the onions before they have a chance to take root.  I weighed it down, tidied up the remains of the fire, packed up and went home to play with the kitten.

See Kitten

See Kitten

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Allotmenteering: Rent Day!

It’s official.  I have a grumbling appendix.  Oh, deep and unending joy.

I wondered what was causing the stabbing abdominal pains and queasiness.  Now I know.

Significant Other (despite not being well himself) is being very protective and wasn’t keen on the idea of me going down to the allotment this weekend.  Fortunately, it’s rent day this weekend, so I had to go down to pay the year’s rent for the plot.  £31.50 is a darn good price, even if I do say so myself.

We missed the allotment shop (Open 10am-12pm Wednesday and Weekends) which disappointed me as, according the other allotmenteers in the queue, the autumn onion sets are in. Since the ants have either moved on or died, I have a bare patch of ground that’s rapidly being taken over by grass and bindweed.  It’d be nice to try and get something in there before it’s too late to plant anything more this year.

I managed to convince Significant Other to at least let me spend some time strimming the grass back, and snuck in a bit of work with a sickle as well.  At last, some of my raspberry canes can breathe!

Raspberry Canes

I could have spent hours down there, but I had to go an have a flu jab instead. 😦  Not fun.

This year my arm really doesn’t like the flu jab, to the point where it hurts to even move it, so I didn’t get a chance to go back down.

But next weekend… oh, next weekend 🙂

I get to burn things next Saturday.  This makes me very happy for many reasons.  Firstly, I get to set fire to things; second, I get rid of a lot of the wood and dried grass on the plot; third, I get to watch the pretty fire; fourth, I can roast potatoes and toast marshmallows; lastly, Fire!

I’m not a pyromanic, honest.

I just like fire.

Significant Other is away next weekend as well so I can stay down as long as my appendix will let me without worrying him.  Roll on next weekend!

Allotmenteering: The Clearing Continues

I officially have pumpkin envy.

Fit for Cinderella!

Fit for Cinderella!

After a weekend away, I found myself pining for the allotment.  Significant Other is Not Well however, and the weather was decidedly unpleasant on Saturday so I spent most of the day catching up on housework and looking after SO.  Sunday dawned bright and early though, with clear blue skies.  As the Tigger-Dog decided to get me up at the ungodly hour of 8am (unheard of on a Sunday!!) I decided to make the most of it and got myself down to the local car boot sale in search of second-hand tools.

We’d discovered some extra pennies lurking in the bills account so despite the fact that pay day isn’t until next week, I could afford to spend a little on some much needed equipment.  I managed to pick up a sickle, gardening shears, a telescopic lopper and a sharpening stone and still have change from a fiver!  What can I say… I like to haggle.

Nipped back home for lunch and to check in with Significant Other and then headed down to the allotment.  After missing a weekend, the grass was starting to shoot up and there’s still a fair amount that needs doing, so I got stuck in.

First order of business was sorting out the willow and hawthorn trees that had kindly been taken down for us by the site manager.  He’d also kindly left them where they’d fallen so I started on the willow branches, using my new pair of loppers to cut the smaller branches away from the three main trunks.  As I worked, I separated them into three different piles.  There’s the trunk pile, which consists of the three main trunks, completely denuded.  Then there’s the burn pile, consisting of little twiggy and curly bits that are no good to me.  Finally, there’s the useful pile, which is where all of the long straight branches ended up, ready to be used as stakes and canes next year.

Just as I was finishing up, the next door neighbour arrived, He Who Keeps the Bees.  It’s the first time I’ve seen him and we share a shed on my allotment that opens onto his, so I introduced myself and enquired after The Bees.  After a brief chat, he offered me some apples from his Cox tree which I gratefully accepted.  Cox’s Orange are probably my favourite type of apple and I was delighted to know that Bee Man’s growing them.  Even more so to be offered some!

After picking a half a dozen apples (yum!) I took a break to have a drink and a cigarette (naughty!).  So that I didn’t waste any time down on the allotment, I also used my new sharpening stone on the tools I’d picked up at the Car Boot Sale. Typically, I’d just honed everything as much as I could and was looking around to see what else I could get on with when 100 stopped by to say hi.

After chatting for a while and borrowing a rake, I set to work clearing some of the back end of the allotment, where Significant Other had made a start the first time we came down.  In amongst all of the overgrown grass, I discovered a patch of discarded dead wood, and a slow-worm living there.  I left him in peace and moved over a little to start work on rescuing the peach tree, which has been pulled down by bindweed.  There are an awful lot of brambles and nettles back there!

Finally, after about 5 hours of solid work and feeling like there wasn’t much to show for it, I fired up the strimmer and blasted the grass before I left.  Home, bath, dinner and Downton Abbey before bed… is there a better way to spend the day?

 

Allotmenteering: Clearing Part Two

Well I managed to infect Significant Other.  Poor thing is rotten ill, and I still haven’t shaken the hacking cough I picked up last week.  In fact, it’s getting to the point where I’m starting to wonder if Significant Other has re-infected me as my temperature is climbing again while I type this.

I had the chance to earn a little extra money on Saturday when a shift opened up at my second job.  Consequently my day looked a lot like this:

It's actually a lot darker and damper than it looks

It’s actually a lot darker and damper than it looks

I did manage to get down to the allotment on Sunday though.  I left Significant Other tucked up in bed, killing things on his laptop and headed down there with a fully charged strimmer and a scythe we’ve kindly been given by a coworker of mine.  Upon arriving I promptly dropped everything and stared open-mouthed at the scene in front of me whilst scrabbling for my phone.

In our absence, someone’s chopped down the Hawthorn and Willow trees.  I have a good idea who it was done by, and we were told they would need to come out due to issues with a particularly nasty species of caterpillar (I just can’t remember what it was called!) I just wasn’t expecting to see tree remains scattered across the allotment.

This is an ex-tree

This is an ex-tree

Once I got over my shock, and had phoned Significant Other to update him on the situation, I scratched my head for a bit.  I had intended to keep clearing around the compost bin of twigs I’d discovered last week, but the remains of the hawthorn tree had been dumped on top of it.

Dying hawthorn atop compost bin and Mount Carpet

Dying hawthorn atop compost bin and Mount Carpet

I fired up the strimmer while I thought about my options…
Without Significant Other, I really didn’t feel up to trying to move the trees into a more convenient place so I approached the problem from another angle.  Literally.  Instead of clearing around the sides of the compost bin, I came at the problem from the back, where it was most overgrown.  Several thick blackberry stems were severed thanks to 104’s tools, and I used the scythe to trim down the long grass before taking it to ground level with the strimmer.  Once the hawthorn’s moved to a more convenient place, it should be easy to access the compost bin.

Several frogs raised objections to my work by jumping back into the pond, which is looking rather low.  I topped it up with some watering cans filled from the communal water supply but it barely seemed to make a dent.  Oddly, for the sake of the frogs, I find myself praying for rain.

I continued using the dual combo of scythe & strimmer until the strimmer battery died.  Then I got down on my hands and knees to pay some close attention to the gooseberry bush currently being strangled by grass.  Hopefully it’s got room to breath now.

All of the blackberry stems and grass wound up on the heap growing near the pond.  While we can probably compost a lot of the heap, we’re planning on just setting fire to it once we’re allowed to burn on site (roll on October!!).  We will of course be moving the contents of the heap to a separate fireplace in order to avoid accidentally setting fire to any wildlife that might be using the heap as a refuge.  To say the heap is getting rather large would be an understatement.  It’s over my waist and heading for my shoulders!

Burn Baby, burn!

Burn Baby, burn!

Finally, as I was putting the tools away, I checked on the ants nests I’d sprayed last week.  It looks like biological warfare succeeded where incitement to riot failed.  Both nests remained entirely quiescent when rigorously prodded with a rake.  Either they’re dead or they’ve moved on.  Yay!

I’m away next week so there will probably be no further allotment updates for a couple of weeks but Significant Other’s going to try and get down there on the bus  to do some work while I’m off dungeon & dragoning in a field (or LARPing if you prefer).  Hopefully when I get back it’ll look a little less like dead trees have taken over the plot.

Willow, Willow everywhere...

Willow, Willow everywhere…

Allotmenteering: The Clearing Begins

It’s week two of the Allotment and I’ve been doing my research.  I’ve trawled the web, joined forums, combed charity shops for books and even shelled out for brand new ones from Amazon.  Not that the Amazon books have arrived yet, but it’s only a matter of time.  I’ve stuffed my head so full of allotments and gardening that I’m actually dreaming about the place.  Oh, and I’m ill.

Trust me, the grass is much worse than it looks!

Trust me, the grass is much worse than it looks!

Significant Other wanted me to stay home and in bed but as he doesn’t drive and the allotment is across the city (there’s a 10-year waiting list in our area, but it took us just months to get one on the other side of the river) staying in bed would have meant that nothing got done this week.  We made a good start last Sunday and I felt that losing momentum now would only incentivise us to put in less effort later.   All the information I’ve read this week has said doing a little very often is the best way to go.  Hence why we’re not trying to clear the whole site in one fell swoop, unlike our fellow new guys in plot 100, who had six people working the site on Saturday and no-one there on Sunday.

So, armed with weed-proof membrane, a brand new pair of long-handled loppers from Poundstretcher, the strimmer and a reluctant Significant Other, I headed down to the allotment.  We were still walking to the plot when one of our neighbours handed me fistfuls of fresh figs from their tree.

First order of the day was for Significant Other to put together two wooden sandpits we’d bought on sale from B&Q for £7 each.  One day these will be a strawberry bed and herb garden near the pond; for now, they’re good at holding down the weed-proof membrane.  While he put them together, I helped myself to some raspberries and wandered over to say hello to the frogs.

104 (he of the tools) moseyed over to say hi and see how we were getting on.  Finding both of us sat on the overgrown grass (Significant Other industriously assembling, me scoffing raspberries and cooing at frogs) he immediately offered us a plastic table and chairs.  After a bit of “are you sure”ing, we collected our brand new allotment furniture and headed back to put them on our plot.

While Significant Other wrestled with the sandpits (the screws were chewing up the screwdriver!) I pondered a small hump of carpet in the front corner of the allotment.  Hoping to strike pure compost, I fetched my gloves and started to excavate…. and excavate…. and excavate.  That small hump of carpet yielded a large pile of carpet and a lot of bindweed roots.  The best part is that the site has a No Carpet policy and no skip.  For now, the soggy rotten carpet infested with bindweed has been moved so that it is right next to where it was.  I did manage to bag up some of the smaller pieces and the bin bags came in very handy while I was taking a break by laying down the weed-proof membrane at the far end.

One day, all this will be vegetables

One day, all this will be vegetables

In the meantime, Significant Other had finished the sandboxes and was making a start on clearing the back of the allotment, starting at the end we can actually get to.  Whilst I concentrated on carpet, he was braving brambles, briars and branches.  They all ended up on the pile we’re accumulating ready for when we can burn things in October.  We also learnt why buying garden tools from Poundstretcher is a bad idea… the blades of our brand new lopper are bent completely our of shape!

After a couple of hours, I’d discovered an actual compost bin buried in bindweed behind the carpet, and Significant Other had acquired a large heap of burnables and moved on to draining the strimmer battery.   By the time that was dead, so were we.  We packed up and went home.

I left the figs behind.

Believe it or not, there's a peach tree in there!

Believe it or not, there’s a peach tree in there!

So, the following day I set off for the allotment again.  This time I left Significant Other home to do some of the housework we were neglecting.  My aim was not only to collect the figs, but also to do a few more bits and pieces around the site.

The ants had not engaged in all out war despite our best efforts to encourage one last week, so I borrowed a fork from 104’s shed, hoicked up the nests and applied a liberal helping of ant-killing spray to each of them.  I’m not sure how much effect it had as they were still moving when I removed the fork and let the nests settle back down, but when I tested them later, a whole lot less ants came out of the nests when disturbed.  I’m hoping that at the very least I’ve encouraged them to move on.

I also borrowed 104’s sickle and taught myself how to use it by clearing a path behind the compost bin I’d discovered.  Removing the tarpaulin that was covering it, I realised that the good news was that it wasn’t completely infested with bindweed.  The bad news was that it was full of branches.  No ready-made compost for us but at least I didn’t chop my own leg off using the sickle.

While clearing behind the compost bin I discovered the source of the blackberries right at the front of the plot.  I had been thinking about turning them into a screen between the compost bin and the pond by putting up a trellis fence, but it’s growing in completely the wrong place for that so it’s going to have to come out instead.  If  I really want blackberries, I can always take the dog for a walk in a nearby field instead.

Finally, I freed the rose from it’s grass prison, realised just how sick the poor thing looks, and (since I had a fully charged strimmer with me) tackled some of the grass.

Then I went home and went to bed.

The Great Pickling Experiment, or How to Pickle Your Gherkins

I dearly love a pickled gherkin, but I’ve never managed to grow them.  A few days ago however, Neighbour 106 up at the new allotment handed me a stack of freshly picked gherkins.  So, thinks I, time to learn how to pickle gherkins.  How hard can it be?

A very little research taught me that the world of pickles is a large one and everyone has a guaranteed method that will deliver scrumptious gherkins.  Shame that every recipe is different.  Apparently there’s even a method called brining which involves absolutely no vinegar, just a salty solution that allows the gherkins to ferment.

Ick.

I will not be brining my gherkins.  Instead I’m combining a couple of different recipes I’ve found online and in my stack of cookery books to create a (hopefully) simple recipe to pickle gherkins.

You will need:
Gherkins
Salt
Pickling vinegar (white or malt, spiced or unspiced, it’s up to you)
Pickling Spices (optional)
Dill (optional)
Bay leaves (optional)
Garlic (optional)
Glass Jars

Step 1 – Prepare your gherkins.
Decide what kind of shape you want your pickles to be and cut the gherkins accordingly.  I’ve opted for some different styles and shapes – slices for sandwiches and burgers, spears for treats and (as I had two that were smaller than all the others) whole gherkins for when I’m feeling greedy.  Once prepared, cover your gherkins with either salt or a saline solution and refrigerate overnight.
From what I can tell, the salt is used to draw out excess water from the gherkins so that the water can be replaced by lovely, lovely vinegar.  Using a saline (salt water) solution will have the same effect but leave your gherkins softer.  I like my gherkins crunchy, so I used ordinary salt.

Prepare to Pickle!

Prepare to Pickle!

Step 2 – Prepare your vinegar
If you’re not using spiced vinegar, you’ll need to make your own.  I couldn’t find spiced vinegar so I bought vinegar and pickling spices and made my own.  Place the spices and vinegar into a saucepan and bring to a rolling boil.  As well as the pickling spices, I raided my spice cupboard and added Dill and two Bay leaves.  I also chucked in a couple of whole garlic cloves because we had some that needed using.  Once boiling, cool immediately.  I floated the saucepan in cold water to hasten the process along.

Step 3 – Sterilise your jars
This is an important step because you don’t want any existing bacteria in your jars making your precious home pickles mouldy.  I soaked my jars in a Milton solution and hot water and then rinsed them in almost boiling water to wash off the Milton.  Leave your jars to dry/cool down.

Step 4 – Add all the elements together
Rinse your salty gherkins thoroughly, dry and pack into the jars.  Pour over your spiced vinegar, making sure that some of the spices end up in each jar to further flavour the pickles.  Seal the jars and place in a dark cupboard.

Step 5 – Open all doors and windows
Now that your gherkins are done, your house will reek of boiling vinegar.  Open all windows and doors to encourage this smell to leave immediately like the unwanted houseguest it is.

You mean I have to wait to eat them??

What do you mean, I have to wait to eat them?

The gherkins have to stay in their jars for at least 6 weeks before I can eat them.  Sad times.

Once the six weeks is up, I’ll update on whether or not the great pickling experiment has been a success!

 

Update: 28/02/2015
6 weeks isn’t enough time to leave them.  The vinegar taste was still very raw.  After six months they are much more mellow in flavour but the gherkin itself is softer.

Gardening vs Allotmenteering

Over the years I’ve slowly learnt how not to kill plants, to the point where pots of herbs on my windowsill don’t (usually) die.  My Grandmother had a large garden filled with fruit and vegetables and I’ve always wanted the same.  Only thing is, my garden is mostly concrete, triangular, and very small, so there’s no hope of a vegetable patch, never mind fruit trees.

After careful consideration of the problem, I applied for an allotment. A two year waiting list isn’t so bad, I thought.  It’ll give me time to firm up ideas and maybe start The Blog with something a little less gruelling like sewing or maybe brewing…

After a wait of only a couple of months, Significant Other and I were offered an allotment on Saturday.  It’s across the other end of town but it’s a really good site with water, toilets, a community polytunnel, shop, tea shed and the ability to burn onsite after October (something I’m told is quite rare).  Plus, with permission, we can keep chickens.

Maybe we’ll get some chickens next year.

So, we have a 5 rod (82.5 foot) rectangular allotment.  It’s got a pond, peach tree (yum!), raspberry canes, a blackberry bush (okay, more than one blackberry but only one we’re keeping) a gooseberry bush and two currant bushes (type unknown).  These are the plus points…  On the flip side, the grass would be waist high if it wasn’t bowed down under it’s own weight, the pond is choked with weeds and needs netting off so that people don’t fall in it (again!), there’s a self-seeded apple tree growing through the branches of the peach tree, the back quarter of the allotment is completely choked with nettles, brambles, bind weed and who knows what else, and there’s a large willow tree that the site manager informs us needs to come down due to problems with some kind of caterpillar.

Significant Other and I have no idea to start.

Fortunately our new allotment neighbours do. 104 introduced himself whilst we were scratching out heads yesterday and offered us the loan of tools.  He’s hidden his shed key on his plot so that we can access his shed when he’s not there.  And he gave us plums.

Work started yesterday.  I borrowed a rake from 104’s shed (no sign of 104 himself) and started clearing the pond, while Significant Other fired up a battery powered strimmer and set to work.  The pond was bigger than it looked, and it turns out that strimmers are fine on upright grass but struggle with grass that’s growing horizontally.  Significant other took over pond clearing while I used secateurs to cut through the roots of the grass that had grown into the pond.  We met several frogs.

Once the pond was cleared, 106 wandered over with a sickle and lent it to us.  Sickles are much better than strimmers at tackling horizontal grass and Significant Other even managed not to cut himself! 106 also gave us a bag of tomatoes, courgettes, cucumbers, beetroot and gherkins.  I dearly love pickled gherkins but I’ve never tried to pickle my own.  Yet another of my Grandmother’s skills I never learned.

I found a patch of weed-proof membrane the previous owner had left behind and ripped it up, discovering a black ants nest and a red ants nest in the process.  Significant Other took time out from scything to destroy each nest in turn.  Hopefully we’ve started an ant war that will turn into ant genocide, leaving us with only one type of ant to deal with.

Leaving the ants to duke it out, I started raking up the grass Significant other had mown.  Just a small patch and the pond clearing has left us with a hip-high mound of grass and weeds.  We’re going to need a compost bin!

After two hours of non-stop work, Significant Other and I were knackered.  We tidied up, packed up and returned the sickle to 106, who promptly treated us to a masterclass in how to use it.  As we got into the car to go home, the heaven opened and rain poured down.

On the whole, despite my various aches and pains today, I think I prefer an allotment.  If we’d had a decent sized garden then we’d still be scratching our heads, wondering where to start.  Our allotment has come with some established plants and trees and, best of all, friendly neighbours who are willing to share their knowledge, tools and the fruits of their labours with us whilst we hack our allotment into submission.

Significant Other totally wants a full-sized scythe of his very own though!