Tuesday, March 28, 2017

So What I've Learned About Figs & How to Grow Them

Above how one of my 2 trays of figs looked in November. Below, how the same tray looks now, after a winter on the windowsill.

Heigh bloomin' ho is all I can say. Lots of casualties, and nothing has grown any bigger than it was 5 months ago. I read somewhere recently that you think you're going to give plants a head start by growing them on the windowsill over winter, but it doesn't work like that, and by jingo that's right so far as these figs go.

So what I've learned is: a single dried fig produces many hundreds of viable seeds. They will germinate in a self-contained environment with a seed tray in a cat litter tray. Leave them in a glass of warm water over night, and then sow them in vermiculite only, on the surface, putting a sheet of cling film over the cat litter tray.

This will mean water doesn't evaporate away, and you only need to check on them occasionally. Which is just as well because they take up to 5 months to germinate.  This part of the process is done on a windowsill at home, because you want temperatures around 20C.

This year I will start this process around November, because then I will have a large number of seedlings to prick out of their vermiculite tray in late April next year, in the potting shed or poly tunnel, gradually hardening them off, and potting them on at some point later in the year.

I don't know yet how they will fare in the first winter at the allotment. The advice I've read is to keep them in pots for that, and give them some protection, maybe in the poly-tunnel, or under fleece. The following May, they can go into their place in the hedgerow.

Mind, this is unlikely to produce edible figs. The seeds in dried figs are probably from a type of plant which is only pollinated by a particular wasp, which we don't have in the UK. But the stubby wee flowers are still extremely attractive to all kinds of insects, and it should work great in a mixed hedgerow as an antidote to the jaggy gorse and brambles.

Allotment Arbor

The arrival of the Hut tomorrow means the construction of the temporary tool store could be seen as a waste of time and effort, but I'd disagree. I managed to build it in 2 or 3 hours, so no great loss of time. And I'm regarding it as a rehearsal for the construction of the Hut and eventually the Shed.

I won't demolish it either. I'm thinking it might work as an arbor-with-allotment-chic. I can train ivy and brambles around the outside and over the top, maybe other plants too. Inside and to the front, which don't get a lot of light, I could grown ferns. Apart from the fact that they are usually grown in shade, I know almost nothing about them, so there's a whole new thing.

Couple of plastic chairs in there, it'll be a nice spot to sit and watch whatever's going on in No.1 bed, surrounded by ferns, enclosed by brambles and ivy, at peace with nature. Cool. I can put bird attractors in No.1 bed, maybe angelica or teasel.


It's a law of nature: if you work on an allotment without any kind of hut or shed for long enough, someone will eventually say, "Do you want a shed?" I got an email from The Secretary last night, got put in touch with the man whose hut it is, and we've arranged transfer of the hut for Wednesday morning. He's even sorting out the van hire, and going halfs with the cost thereof because he has other stuff he wants moving.

The bottom line of all of this is, I get a hut with one careful owner for £25, tomorrow. I'll have to reassemble it myself, but I'll want to give it a bloody good going over with wood preserver before that - I've actually got a tin of it at the plot, it was going cheap in Tesco, ages ago.

I'm planning to locate it in the SE corner, near the gate, near where the old shed was. Doesn't get much sun there, especially in winter, so it will stay cool enough to store spuds and neeps there. I might line the inside with bubble wrap so that it doesn't get too cold in winter, nor too warm in summer. I'll keep the tools there too.

Which means the potting shed, when it gets built will be much less crowded, plenty of room for bringing seedlings away. And a stove, to keep the frost out. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Farewell, Old Greenhouse Foundations!



It's remarkable - to me, anyway, - to see a slight depression in the ground where once stood something resembling an island fortress, complete with several levels of ramparts, both wooden and brick. The low walls of the defunct greenhouse held what had become a raised bed, the earth inside infested with rubble and glass. Slowly, slowly, I breached the outer ramparts, cleared the inside and riddled-out the contents, and this weekend I've demolished the wall, and cleared what was once the greenhouse's central path.

Bloody hard work, which I finished this afternoon. What made it hard was the fact that it had been well built: 3 courses of bricks for the walls on concrete and hard core, a real pro job that would have sufficed as a house wall. And the path was also laid properly on concrete and hardcore. I got out as much of the heavy stuff as I could, you can see it in the foreground of the photo. The rest will have to wait until this area gets riddled.

The earth is going to need a great deal of TLC. There's a lot of clay. I turned it over and left it to dry. This soil has not felt anything growing in it for decades, being perhaps a foot below the level of the "raised bed" era, (where I sowed phacelia, comfrey and borage when I first arrived, just for the sake of planting something).

The comfrey is still there, and making a comeback, and the next job is to find a home for it. I learned this about comfrey: if you dig it out, it will leave viable root fragments a foot or more below ground, because I shovelled off almost that much from the area where I planted it, but volunteers keep on appearing way below the level of their parent plants.  I'm thinking of planting it on the boundary near the temp shed, a region badly infested with weeds. They will have to deal with the comfrey, then I'll riddle it all, and then brambles will come  along next year to deliver the knock out punch. Of course, I won't mind comfrey volunteers appearing in the bramble hedge.

Temporary Shed-Like Structure

Where the pile of sticks used to be, there's now a structure to keep the tools and me out of the rain. I used bits and pieces I'd salvaged from the old shed, (2 doors for the back, corrugated tin for one side, and a sheet of soft, malleable tin for the roof), together with the two pallets I'd got from the disused railway's embankment. The rain should run off into the grey plastic barrel there. The 50 gallon oil drum is performing the office of an occasional table.

Managed to put it together in 2-3 hours, and I'm extremely proud of it. Mind you, it won't do too well in a storm, but let's hope we don't get one before the shed-proper is built. I remember summer 2015, hacking my way through the 6ft tall nettles and thistles which made a jungle of this SW corner, finding one of the wheelbarrows quite hidden here, and it felt as if I'd reached the source of the Nile. And now it's the home of a wee kind of settlement.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Those Old Paths Must Go

I blogged about raising the two old, rediscovered paths a week or so ago. The reason for that was to finally get the levels right. You can see in the photo there's a drop running right to left. The whole plot slopes down from South to North, so on that side from the gate to the pond.

I was for keeping those paths out of respect for whoever laid them, sometime between 1917 and the 1970s or 80s. But the fact is, the plot has naturally raised its level over the decades by both incidental, (during its abandoned weed filled fallow years), and intended introduction of organic matter, and the paths are too low. If I've got to lift them brick-by-brick, fill their foundations, and then re-lay them... Well, do I really need to keep them?

It's not as if they're great paths, though they do have a certain old allotment charm. They're very uneven, making it difficult to keep them clean. And if I do away with them, here's the thing, there'll be one big bed running from the gate to the pond on a gentle slope. I'll have the polytunnel to separate beds 4 and 5. But without these fixed paths, I can move it along the beds, making it possible to plant directly into the ground in the polytunnel. I could actually move it all over the plot, maybe as part of the potato bed, as tomatoes and spuds are in the same family for crop rotation. Whatever, it would give me more flexibility.

The last straw was the heavy rain at the weekend. I've been watching all the beds, and the shed foundation, for water collecting. And here we have it, in the old greenhouse foundations, (on the right of the photo) the only puddles in the entire plot. The topsoil is thin there, but I've a great heap of riddled topsoil looking for a home. Without those paths, and a spit of topsoil, water will run down the length of beds 5 and 4 straight into the pond.

This fits into the bigger scheme I'm devising: a central path with 3 beds each side, (one of which is a pond), all divided up, separated and encircled by a skinny brick path. I'm actually running out of bricks for that, and therefore need to bricks from the redisovered paths to redeploy in the skinny paths.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Hedgerow Update: S and SW boundaries

Looking from the gate to the SW corner, which still had its pile of sticks when I took this a few days ago. As far as the central path, there's a path made of some crumbly kind of concrete. Not being one to look a gift path in the mouth, I was inclined to keep it, but no, it's got to go.

The boundary here is double pallet height, about 8ft. Long story short, I do not enjoy cordial relations with the users of the plot on the other side of the boundary. They've been piling up heavy metal trestles against the pallet fence, and whilst it still seems solid, in no imminent danger of collapse, it's leaning inwards to my plot.

It would also be an easy task to climb over this fence, its height notwithstanding, there being plenty of hand and foot holds on upright pallets. I'm pretty sure that's the route taken on at least one of the occasions the plot's been burgled

I've put some scraps of barbed wire along the top for now. But the answer is: brambles. I need to grub out the silly concrete path, and plant good old R fructicosus along that line. The path from the gate to the middle will need to be a yard or so to the right, with a clear area for the gate to open. I'll train the brambles up the pallet fence. Once it gets ahold, it will be unstoppable, and a thing of glory, 10ft high, full of fruit and birds' nests.

Ivy also. I've planted some hardwood cuttings along the pallet fence, you can see them just by the yellow at-work cone in the photo. It will have a head start this year whilst I'm propagating the brambles. So the whole project of the S boundary is going to take a couple of years, but heigh ho, I'll be blocking out the irksome neighbours with a vertical nature reserve.

The SW fence, just out of sight beyond the orange plastic covered heap of oomska in the photo, is a rotten fence. Brambles will be trained there too, and, fingers crossed, will cover the fence before it falls down. That whole area is badly infested with ground elder and bindweed which the brambles will deal with.

Hedgerow update: Rubus fruticosus - encouraging a thug

When I took on the plot, there were already several brambles growing. They were quite out of control: mostly growing around the boundary, and giving fruit, but I regarded them as more of a nuisance than anything else. A few of them I dug up completely and consigned to bonfire piles.

As the allotment's edges began to be tamed I started to merely cut them back, relocating some of them. This year, they can come into their own.

I've made a blunder with the gorse. I was over-keen to get it into the ground. The dogs, when they were still permitted at the allotment, would run around the fringes of the plot were the gorse was planted, and a lot of them got uprooted.

Over winter, grass has been growing on those that remained, and I'm going to have to do a lot of weeding. It's preying on my mind, every day makes the weeds worse, but and old injury to my knee cartilage has flared up, which makes getting down to the plants' level for a good weeding problematical, so I'll just have to do what I can with the hoe, and let nature take its course. It'll be interesting to see who wins a fight between grass and gorse at this early stage.

I still have 40 or so gorse plants in modules. They are much bigger than their siblings in the ground. So, the lesson learned is: keep your gorse in modules for their first year. I'm going to put those plants into pots and wait until they are definitely big and ugly enough to outgrow most weeds before putting them into the ground.

But back to the brambles. The dozen or so around the boundaries will put out their massive runners soon. I'll train them along the hedgerow line, pinning them down, either with stones, or these artificial grass pegs. Plants propagated therefrom I'll either leave in situ, (especially where they are supplementing gaps in the gorse), or replant, especially along the Southern boundary. Which is worthy of another blogpost.

SW Corner: Reclaimed

This is how the SW corner has looked for more than a year now, a refuge for frogs, but also perhaps for rats.

But, below is how it looked this afternoon:

And the pile of twigs and branches has now been broken and sawed up into small lengths, which will do nicely as kindling and fuel for the future stove in the future potting shed. Whilst sawing away I gave myself a glimpse into the late winter, 2018, when I can go to the plot with the dogs, light the stove and leave it burning slowly overnight to keep any seedlings from perishing whilst I'm snugly sleeping back at home. It's a very comforting thought.

Things I learned from this wee job:

  • ash stays very springy, and is difficult to snap with your hands so that even 1/2in twigs need the saw
  • Auricularia auricula-judae will grow on dead Ribes negrum wood that has been piled up next to a living Sambucus nigra stump. (See photo below). 

I have placed a twig with several jelly-ears growing on it, (plus several more budding growths) about 12 ins down in the new woodpile, in the hope that its spores will spread to the rest of the pile.