Monday, 23 September 2013

7 reasons why you shouldn't bother with raised beds on the allotment

My first raised bed - looked great and easy to net
If you've just got an allotment you might be weighing up whether to dig the whole thing over like a ploughed field or start with cultivating manageable chunks and using raised beds.

There are some great reasons for raised beds - they're quick to dig over, easier to net plus they're great if you need extra drainage. A raised bed covered in winter will probably get warmer quicker in the spring, giving you a head start with the growing season.

However, I recently went to Switzerland and saw how they managed their vegetable gardens - not raised beds, just well cultivated, big patches of earth, with vegetables and fruit divided up by different flowers including echinacea, rudbeckia and sunflowers.

Swiss vegetable garden in - neat a no need for raised beds

Compact, easy to maintain and pretty.

Having been a fan of raised beds since I got an allotment four years ago it made me rethink how I go about planning the plot in autumn ready for the next year. Here are some of the downsides I've discovered using raised beds.

1. They're expensive - yep, you may be a cost cutting pro cruising the local neighbourhood for skips filled with unwanted pallets in which to make your raised beds with, but I'm betting you're not. Purchasing wood for raised beds isn't cheap. When you're getting started it's a needless expense, wastes time too - save the cash and spend it on a shed. Now that you will need.

2. They're a pain to maintain - A plot full of neat raised beds looks lovely doesn't it? Until summer comes and the weeds and grass go mad and you're strimming round half a dozen 4-8 ft beds every weekend, when you could be doing something else, like planting seeds. You need to be a mathematical genius, too to ensure all your raised beds are neatly lined up. There's nothing worse than seeing a raised bed a foot higher at one end then the other,

3. They dry out really quickly - Like a giant window box they dry out faster than a large patch of cultivated earth. If you live 15 minutes walk from your plot like me, you'll want to cut down on the amount of watering you'll have to do.

4. They rot after a while - Even with some adequate protection a raised bed will start to deteriorate after a few years and you'll have to replace them.

5. Some veg is just better off planted straight in the ground - I had two 4x4 ft raised beds and planted potatoes tubers in them - big mistake. Have you ever tried harvesting potatoes from a raised bed using a fork? It's impossible to get into the corners without damaging the bed, or in this case, the potatoes.

Potatoes in a raised bed - really bad idea as it happens

6. You can't get that much in them - I can't count the amount of onion sets I've wasted because I'd filled up my raised bed and ran out of space. And take this year for example - I planted runners beans and marigolds in a 4x8 ft bed in the hope the latter would keep the blackfly at bay. However the marigolds were competing with the beans for space and winning.

7. They waste space - Turns out that most of my plot is pathways surrounding raised beds - there's a lot of unused soil which could be cultivated. Or used by someone else.

Lots of raised beds - lots of wasted space too
Still want raised beds? Go for it, but try doing a patch without them and comparing the results.

Now let's finish off on some swiss sunflowers... just because.

Sunflowers in switzerland - why not?

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Where is everybody?

Ok, so where is everybody, huh? Two big, beautiful blue sky days and it's just me and a couple of allotment elders getting on with it.

I fell out of love with allotment this year and am assuming others have too (rain, slugs, blight, sweetcorn thieving foxes etc). I walked past plots en route to my own and I counted the amount who have given up judging by the over grown mess - it's about 50/50 I'd say or maybe 40 per cent have downed tools.

If you're prone to melancholy (and occasionally I can be persuaded) this time of year on the allotment is... if not sad, then poignant - the gardening year is coming to a close, most things are dead, or dying. The scraps of carpet and tarpaulin are rolled out and the whole business is put to bed. It's left to the pages of seed catalogues to inspire and by mid November vegetable growing becomes an imaginative pursuit rather than a physical one. (Sure you can plant broad beans in the winter, but why would you? For something tastier, maybe.)

I heard from a fellow allotmenteer that there is no longer a waiting list for plots and they admitted they've given half of their own patch away too. This saddens me because it seems the Grow Your Own revival, kick started four five years ago, is spluttering to a halt.

It felt quieter today. More than it should for this time of year. No bustle of getting last things planted, like garlic and onions (or am I too early?) or tidying up before the cold kicks in. Those over enthusiastic allotment types, once so passionate they wanted to advise you on what to grow where and when and how, now can't summon the enthusiasm to visit even their own plot, let alone advise on mine.

I hope by spring the enthusiasm grows back or perhaps it was just an off weekend, it was certainly an off year.

Meantime garlic ordered, onions too. Flirted with the idea of forcing hyacinths again. Amazing what a couple of sunshine filled days can do.  


Tuesday, 24 July 2012

A little love for mellow yellow

Well, the sun is shining finally and having already written about purple on the plot I thought it was time to give yellow some credit - and I have just discovered Hisptamatic.

1. Nasturtium petals - Alaska Mixed? Whiskey and Ice? I forget, but it's lovely, no?
2. Bright Lights Radishes - Yep, you know I love this type of radish - it's always nice to colour-coordinate your salad vegetables with the main dish. These are the yellow ones.
3. Cavalli Courgette flower - a male flower from one of two plants. I have never had enough courgette flowers to stuff and eat. Who does?
4. Allgold raspberries - these have done well so far this year but only a small handful at a time - certainly not enough for dessert. Just straight from cane to mouth as nature intended.
5. Cucumber flowers - snappy, bright yellow star shaped flower. The rampant cucumber vine is studded with them. I reckon the cucumber plant is an under rated looker of the plot.
6. Dahlia - the very first on my patch this year - a peach rather than yellow, really but I'm amazed it's survived given the onslaught of slugs. No idea what name this is as I was given a bunch of tubers destined for the compost heap by a grower and I didn't think to ask for an identity parade.
7. Nasturtium leaf - added here for working a two-tone lemon and lime look.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The giant pumpkin #1

I had big plans this year. I have always wanted to grow a Dill's Atlantic Giant Pumpkin. I love everything about pumpkins, from their lurid traffic cone colour to their partnership with my favourite festival, Halloween. When it comes to holiday rituals carving pumpkins is up there with decorating the Christmas tree. Turning the lights off and watching each glow or twinkle is the seasonal thrill of autumn and winter respectively.

I even like pumpkin pie (made with a can of Libby's not a pumpkin - and certainly not a giant pumpkin) and I really, really like pumpkin and chocolate chip loaf from Baked's New Frontiers in Baking and occasionally throw some chunks of pumpkin into an apple crumble from an early Nigella recipe.  So growing a giant pumpkin (however tasteless and therefore useless in the kitchen) is really a fan's monument to his favourite vegetable.

But big, has got off to a slow start this year thanks to the weather. I planted the seeds on a windowsill indoors in March (about three) with no problems germinating. Then I planted one plant out in early May, but a slug with an atlantic-sized appetite ate it. So a second one was planted in its place. This time said slug would have encountered a strange alien terrain of blue rubble - a £6 ring-fence of organic slug pellets - enjoy! But from then on things have been slow to get going.

Only now is the vine making a sprint forward and a golf ball size fruit has appeared (above). I've read the fruit needs to be pollinated before the end of July, so it 'sets' and grows large enough before the end of the season. Apparently there needs to be at least 100 leaves on the vine in which to support its rapid growth, but hey, who's counting -- not me?

I'm told I have to pollinate the female flower (attached to the golf ball fruit) with a little bit of magic dust/pollen from a male flower (here's a video tutorial). But I can't work out whether this pumpkin (rumpy) pumpy has already occurred naturally. I'll keep an eye on it and report back with another post.

Friday, 20 July 2012

In praise of purple on the plot

I like purple a lot and there's a surprising amount on the allotment at the moment - so I thought I'd share some of it.

1. Chocolate Mint - I haven't found a satisfactory use for it in the kitchen but it smells exactly as it should - mint combined with chocolate. It's the lovely dark purple stem that makes it a hit with me.
2. Bright Lights Radishes - You know the chard of the same name? Well these are the radishes (two purple ones - they also come in yellow, white and red). I'm just waiting for Bright Lights pumpkins now.
3. Empress of India Nasturtium - the flowers are a scarlet Mae West might paint on her lips, the leaves however (above) a dark green with an equally deep purple trim.
4. Boltardy Beetroot - just thinnings to give a bit of colour to a bog standard Kermit green salad.
5. Mexican Tree Spinach - check this Otter Farm blog post for some super pictures of the monster plant. It just keeps reseeding itself on my plot, year after year. The middle leaves are such a bold fuchsia they look like they've been spray painted.
6. Bonnie Dundee - first early potato. If you scrub off the dull outer skin you discover a burgundy-purple that shines.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The first (and last) early potatoes

My partner revealed my mother-in-law had already dug up her first batch of new potatoes last week. I was incensed because all her potatoes this year are from tubers I'd chitted and then donated to her. There's nothing that makes you feel greener quicker than someone else having more success with your own stuff. I've been on the other end of this when a neighbour gave me several butternut squash plants last year. While hers withered and died mine remained in rude health the entire summer. It felt great. But being on the other side is not so good.

So I went down the allotment and set to work on claiming my share of the first early glory.

In April I planted two first earlies - Bonnie Dundee and Homeguard. I forget why I chose Bonnie Dundee. It might have been to do with it's beautiful, rose marble pattern visible when sliced in half (above right). Homeguard, I chose because it's a vintage potato, established in 1942. I planted six tubers each, and I dug the trench deep, mounding up the earth in advance.

All of which means the potato bed is now the bog of eternal stench after a summer of eternal rain. The soil parped and belched making low, wet sounding raspberries as I dug - the sludgy consistency of an over dunked digestive at the bottom of tea cup. But I found what I was looking for... just. A muddy handful of Homeguard and three solitary Bonnie Dundees (above left). (The latter a laughable yield of one single potato per tuber planted).

Ah, well. Allotment suppers will be a pot luck affair this year. My partner found one single ripe tomato (variety: Gardeners Delight, likes: full sun - ha!). Smaller than a ten pence piece we halved and shared - thinking it better than an entire punnet having never seen the inside a fridge. Apart from that it was back to the broad beans and reliable radishes for sustenance (below). But, I can't recommend Homeguard highly enough, a super buttery first early and a fetching shade of palest cream. It's a dead cert for next year.


Sunday, 15 July 2012

Colour on the allotment

Yesterday I complained about the amount of rain and slugs torturing the allotment. It's been a grey summer, I moaned: Autumn Bliss raspberries are surrounded by a moat of brackish water; multicoloured tomatoes including Purple Calabash and Golden Sunshine look seasick in eau de nil. But there are spots of colour which I thought I'd present here as an antidote and also because I've revamped the look of this blog too. So, a hummus of broad beans (above left) is taken from a recipe by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall (with the addition of a handful of lonely peas - the entirety of this year's harvest) and served with slices of Bright Lights radishes (above left and below right). A salad of nasturtiums contained varieties including Empress of India and Gleaming Gold. I will definitely be growing more varieties of these next year, their names including Tip Top Gold, Apricot Trifle, Milkmaid and Ice Creamsicle are enough to raise a smile - my favourite is Jewel Cherry Rose (at the bottom of this blog in a fabulous Barbie pink).

And then there were the Allgold raspberries (above) and the tiniest amount of loganberries that promised much but mostly withered on the vine into tiny, dark droplets. But it's only looking at the photos of this miserable year so far, from lupins (below) to the nasturtiums, that I realise how much colour there has actually been. And there's still more to come from purple Vitellote and Pink Fir Apple potatoes to the dahlias given to me by a prize winning grower... for free! Incidentally the new colourful banner for this blog is a bunch of giant knitted veg - I didn't knit them myself but snapped them last year in Paris. But if the potatoes get blight and the slugs get the dahlias I will be getting my knitting needles out and giving it a go.