Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Somewhere, I have a huge pair of rubber gloves...

Arrived last night to find the riddling trench waterlogged. Which was not surprising after Monday's rain. The pond is half full - the deepest it's been since last winter. A serious bout of riddling being out of the question, I turned two of the compost heaps, (there are three now: the old one in the NE corner, un-turnable due to its proximity to a wasps' nest; the main compost heap nearby, and a new one on a still-to-be riddled stretch of the long bed, (formerly the 5th bed). Then I trimmed the tops of all plants in the hedgerow along the N and W sides.

This was the first time in a while that I've had a look at the hedgerow. It made my heart glad to see how well it's doing. The gorse are at least 1ft high, some of them nearly 2ft. Other plants such as elder are belly-high. Overall, median height I'd guess is 2ft - about twice as high as I expected. At this rate, it could have its first bird nests next spring. One question now is, do I weed and mulch it this winter? Or leave it to its own devices now that it's big enough and ugly enough to take care of itself?

Before I left I took off the old Dr Marten's and donned the wellies, and had a go at riddling. The soil to be riddled was lying in the bottom of the trench, and was very sodden. Pushing it through the riddle quickly soaked the heavy duty riddling gloves. But it did go through. I did about 3 shovel-fulls, half a barrow-full, and called it a day.

This is really significant in the plan for completing the navvying and starting to garden. It's become clear that the riddling won't be finished before... well, some time before next spring. But I was concerned that work would have to stop over the winter when the ground naturally gets wetter. It won't. I just need to big old pair of rubber gloves to put over the leather gardening gloves, and I can work right through.

Voila. I'm on course to get to a fully functional allotment by next April or May. Here's what needs doing:

  1. carry on riddling until the spoil of stones and glass raises and levels the shed base;
  2. build the shed;
  3. finish riddling "5th bed";
  4. during 1-3, harvest WFBs, and sow with oomska when possible and wherever's cleared, (up to end November);
  5. set up polytunnel; 
  6. plant hedgerow on rest of long bed and SW bed boundaries using these plants;
  7. make bird proof frames.
Items 1-7 are essential. What follows are things I'd like to do, time permitting:

  • weed and mulch hedgerow;
  • raise and re-lay path;
  • lay brick hard standing-area to north of shed;
  • weed and re-sow pond and its margins. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Hedgerow Update: Gorse, brambles, a few holly, figs...

Eighty-something gorse, and a dozen or so brambles. Three of the figs - abandoned in their module tray - turned out to have survived. When I was working at Greenwich University last summer, I uprooted several tiny holly volunteers, and brought them home in coffee cups and some SW London earth. I potted them on earlier this year. Three of them have taken root. They, and the figs, will go in the ground a year or so from now, maybe winter 2018/19. The gorse and brambles will be planted some time this coming winter.

They'll be joined by a row of white forsythia, referred to here. I put them across the west bed when I was still bothered about dividing the plot into five beds of equal size. AND to help there with drainage, but between the rubble and french drains, and the hedgerow, I don't think they're required for that now. So they will join the hedgerow, too.

All of which means, the hedgerow is a done deal, and 100% decommodified. I will probably grow another hundred or so figs this summer, largely because I annoyed myself at losing so many last year, (need to take more care hardening off next year; and I've noticed they love small root-space, so keep them in their modules, maybe pot them on to 2in pots?) They will do for any gaps which show up.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

If this was work, I'd talk about "some ideas, going forward..."

Skinny brick paths were a mistake. They get weed infested, and weeding them involves lifting bricks, much more difficult than going at them by hand or with the hoe. I'll lift them all this autumn, and use them to make a hard standing area in front of the shed. Earth paths thereafter - organic in a metaphorical sense, much easier to weed.

The classification of five beds, I don't know if that's not somewhat style-cramping. I could rather have just one big long bed down East side, from the gate to the pond. A little bed to the SW, between the SW boundary and the shed. A medium sized bed from the shed down to the NW corner, interrupted by the brick path which covers the rubble drain.  See, I want flexibility because I want to include the polytunnel and eventually the chickens in the crop rotation. 

The polytunnel I'm going to build myself with scaffold tubes, 50mm MDPE pipe, polythene, duct tape and cable ties. It's part of decommodifying the process of allotment holding.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Billhook Therapy and then Revisiting the Hedgerow

Weeds have grown on the unriddled section of the 5th bed. There's a patch of borage and poppy which I'm happy to leave for now, but the rest were real weeds, which needed dealt with before they went to seed. So I set about them with the billhook. More satisfying than a punchbag in a gym, by far.

Then to a more peaceful pursuit. When I potted on the gorse plants from modules, I put a dozen or so into the heavy plastic fish basket, and the rest near the edge of the 4th bed, where they've since been overwhelmed by the comfrey on one side, the field beans on the other. The comfrey I want for compost, and the seed pods on the field beans are at last beginning to dry-out and blacken, ready to harvest. So the gorse needs moved out of the way.

I weeded each pot, and chopped the tips off each gorse plant. The tips are new and soft, which made me wonder, are they food for deer?  If that's so, trimming the tips would be part and parcel of how they grow in nature. I got a dozen or so pots dealt with, as well as four buckets each with a few brambles growing.

Here they are sitting along the Southern edge of the 5th bed, the riddled part - I might as well be using it for something. The gorse will be planted out in a staggered row along the Eastern edge of the 5th bed. The brambles on the other side of the plot, the Western edge of Bed No. 1; that's because there are already brambles growing there, (which I will dig out and move as part of the riddling process), and I'm aware of the possibility of replant disorder.

That's been two short visits to the plot this week, and I might get another tonight. Cheered me up no end. With summer just past its peak, I've just about managed the weeds. The riddling is taking much longer than expected, but it progresses. I can begin to see things shaping up: the line of the hedge, the base for the shed; the bulrushes drawing the eye up out of the weedy pond.

It will be done this winter. And next year, I'll just be gardening: sowing, planting out, weeding, harvesting. A piece of cake after nearly three years of hard graft. See, the chances of anyone getting to the top of a waiting list and then walking onto a fully functional allotment are remote in the extreme, lottery-win odds.

That's because most plots will have been in slow decline as their holder aged, (as mine was), or they will have been through the hands of a series of easily discouraged plotholders who've given up after a few months, but left the plot to its own devices for the best part of the year, as it's usual to rent them for a year in advance.

I bear in mind that this plot has been in existence 100 years, and I've been thinking about getting a plot of my own for more than 20 years. Now, here we are, five good beds of free-draining but moisture retentive soil; a pond; a shed; a polytunnel; a hedgerow; space to grow what I want, and to one day have chickens and bees. All of this a matter of months away.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Anticipating a shift from future simple to present perfect


I get a bit narked, sometimes, - well, jealous really, - when I read my fellow allotmenteers' tweets about the lovely things they've harvested this day, often with a photo of washed vegetables in a nice wee trug. They rarely mention the bloody weeding. Two years in, and I still feel like a Roman General, subduing the local population so that he can tax the buggers, and make their descendants learn Latin and take regular baths.

It's not that I'm not winning. Look at how it was 20 months ago, most of the northern end of the plot under water; I'm still very proud of the drainage works I undertook back then, which have been a great success. But there are still serious flaws. Apart from the glass and riddling situation, which is holding everything else back, there's the constant threat of weeds getting the upper hand. And what planting I do manage to do is frequently destroyed by wood-pigeons, because I haven't yet got a good system of bird-proof netting in frames.

Unlike the Roman General, I won't be retreating to the fort for the winter. I'm actually looking forward to it: hoeing down everything which isn't a cover crop plant, or part of the hedgerow. Getting the shed and polytunnel up. Visiting our old allotment with Dad last weekend underlined just how important allotment infrastructure is: somewhere to propagate and start plants; bird netting; chickens to help with the weeding. That's an allotment.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Ranunculus repens: oh blimey...

Was kept away from the plot through work and weather for a week, but got there yesterday evening to find three bags of guinea pig bedding, (mostly straw and saw dust) and a bag of florist's off-cuts waiting for me. I put these with the compost, and buried them as I turned them, so the new stuff is on the bottom.  Assuming that the guinea pigs and the florist continue as they have been, I'm going to have plenty of compost in due course, though I'll need to keep it turned to speed it up, else I'll have more compost heaps than I'll have room for.

Also noticed a lot of creeping buttercups, Ranunculus repens. Briefly, I hoped they might be beneficial weeds like comfrey or plantain. Alas, no, as this paper explains, (links to a pdf download), it really is a weed, with no discernible benefits except to pollinators, is a bugger to get rid of, and an invader of damp ground. I really need to get on top of this weed situation, and plan to get busy with the hoe and the burning cage over winter, and then hoeing little-often in the spring. Lots of mulching with the wood chips we get from the council, too.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

As I riddle my way north through the 5th bed, far more slowly than a snail or a glacier, I keep wondering if I've yet gotten past what was the floor of the old shed. My reasoning is, the Predecessor probably sited the shed on a place where the earth was inhospitable to cultivation - that is, where it was filled with old clinkers. Maybe, just maybe, beyond that is soil which was once cultivated, and will therefore be less stony, and easier to riddle.

Above we have a satellite image of the plot taken just before I started to work it, back in spring 2015. And the technology tells me that the (now defunct) shed's north edge was 3.6m from the boundary fence.

So I'll check the distances when I next get to plot, in respect of which the weather, work, and family commitments all congregating to keep me away. Riddling 5th bed now looks likely to last up to Christmas or even beyond. But I'm still on course to have fully functional allotment next year: all beds cultivated, shed, and polytunnel; hedgerow planted.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A fine example of Plantago major

I was fretting somewhat back in March about this genus, and worried that its absence meant my allotment mycorrhizae were not thriving. Which was of course baloney, as you can see, I have this fine plant, and several other specimens around the place. It's a weed to be tolerated, given its hyphal nutrient bridging abilities.

The fact is with plants, if they're common and have unspectacular flowers, they just don't get noticed per se, beyond a vague notion of "I need to hoe these weeds". But this one's been noticed, now, and I'm going to gather seeds from it and deploy it as a companion plant next year.

Trocheta subviridis: informal literature review

There isn't a vast body of literature on my foolishly stamped on but new best friend, T. subviridis. Gray (1922) caught my eye for several reasons. It refers to the finding of the leech in an allotment, in South Shields, of all places. This would appear to be the most northerly example at that time. The allotment exhibits similarities to mine: "As there is no drainage system, the land has been trenched to the depth of one and a half spits, and a well sunk in the clay in one corner, into which an endeavour is made to collect water in winter", though my endeavours at drainage have been more successful with the Council's drain operating as an overflow to my pond, also "sunk in the clay".  

A population was studied in a stream in Bristol by Hartley (1962). The stream was subject to sewage contamination, and this chimed with the allotment in Gray, which was treated with "night soil". (I can say that in 1922 most houses in south Tyneside did not have flush lavatories, and that a household's excrement was removed at night through a door beneath the lavatory in the house's back yard, in a terraced row of houses' back lane. It was then distributed for agricultural and allotment use). Hartley suggests the leeches have a lifespan of 4-5 years, and that the adults spend most of their time away from the stream. Reynolds (1996) also notes the leech's residence in drains and sewers. 

Warwick (1960) refers tantalizingly to an "unpublished occurence" of T. subviridis in Glasgow

There is nothing else, so far as my limited searches go. If and when I find and photograph any more specimens, I have to hope that any researchers interested in T. subviridis find their way here...

Gray, R. H. (1922). The occurrence of a Leech (Trocheta subviridis) in an Allotment. Parasitology, 14(3-4), 320-321.

Hartley, J. C. (1962). The life history of Trocheta subviridis Dutrochet. The Journal of Animal Ecology, 519-524.
Reynolds, J. D., & Tenison, M. (1996). Trocheta subviridis Dutrochet, a Leech New to Eastern Ireland. The Irish Naturalists' Journal, 25(8), 302-302.
Warwick, T. and Mann, K. H. 1960 The freshwater leeches of Scotland. Ann. Mag. nat. Hist. Ser. (13) 3, 25-34.