Allotmenting pt. II – A quick update

Since our last allotment post we’ve obtained and reclaimed the second part our allotment plot. This adjoins to the north of the bit we already had. We’ve managed to grow a few things and eat them. Here is a little update on our efforts and some of what we’ve learnt so far…

The empire expands! – taking over the 1/4 plot next-door

So, we got the second part (1/4) of our allotment, making us up to a 1/2 plot, or 5 poles. For reasons of demand, allotments are split typically into 1/4s and 1/2s these days with only veterans really having whole 10 pole or multiple 5 pole plots. Annoyingly if we’d known we’d expand I wouldn’t have wasted 1/2 a day re-building the beds that slightly went over the half way mark. Regardless actually wrestling the site to a state where things could grow took several cumulative days of effort. From speaking to others, this is pretty much always the case…

Allotment friends!

As well as a really interesting and lively group of local people who have allotment plots, we got a few critter friends too! We have numerous slow worms, birds, frogs, pretty insects (inc. dragonflies), and even a cat. We are particularly fond of our frogs, who seem to be very happy with our pond (made from an up-cycled bath as discussed in our last post). I was less positive about the allotment cat (as they are responsible for a vast amount of bird deaths – see CSE’s graph comparing to death’s from buildings/wind turbines), but after noting how many mice it caught (who might eat our mange-tout!) I might be slowly coming around.

Cooking from the allotment

We are amazed about how much we’ve got off the allotment so far. We are well on track to beat the money we’ve spent on the allotment with worth of crops off. A lot of it has been fortuitous, we’ve cashed in on what was grown in the soil previously and that amazingly survived our rebuilding of plots and re-taming the space. The highlight of this was a surprise asparagus, that provided many happy additions to dishes over a month period.

We’ve grown a ridiculous amout of courgettes and marrows.  As you may have seen, we even posted the favourite three of the marrow recipes we cooked (blog post: “Don’t feel Marrow-se about your courgettes!”).

 

Pestos & salads…

We tend to prefer lightly cooked vegetables anyway, but particularly from the allotment we’re finding the tastes and textures of them raw a real delight. Our first red cabbage went into a huge coleslaw, and we’ve already had an experiment with making a herb pesto using marjoram, oregano and garlic from the herb bed crushed up with bulk-bought pine nuts (from the lovely guys at Suma) and olive oil. Major plus point; you can make it dairy free, if you are lactose intolerant, as long as you put in some salt – we discovered the cheese is counterbalancing a lot of sweetness from the pine nuts. We’re now working on a little basil factory on our windowsill at the flat where it’s warmer in order to do version 2.

A spiraliser proved to be useful and we did a huge salad of courgette, onion, cabbage (all from allotment) with carrot, cashew, and sweet chilli sauce (not from allotment).

Finally, sorrel is a bizarre, intense and lovely lemon-tasting leaf which has really thrived and we’ve enjoyed flavour-bombing salads with.

The kindness/glut of others

In addition to our own growing, we’ve been kindly given a variety of things from other allotmenteer’s gluts. This has included parsnips, beans, and raspberries; all have at become the foucus of a meal. We’ve enjoyed returning the favour ocasssionally, but the the largest glut we’ve had was courgettes/marrows (there are still >10 marrows in our kitchen) and nearly everyone had enough this year (but we did manage to give a few to friends and family). Foraging bushes near the allotment has yeilded many kilos of blackberries, which hopefully will remain a nice addition to breakfasts and smoothies for many months.

Lessons learned

My wife and I have a rather low opinion of our gardening knowledge and general green fingered-ness, but as we keep up our ~2hrs each per week we are pleasantly surprised at how much we seem to be able to grow. Slowly we seem to be making progress and working out how to get more out of our space. A few things we’ve realised:

  1. Things grow. Particularly potatoes. Often the things you didn’t intend to grow do the best and you just have to work with that.
  2. Research is good. Getting allotment was a surprise and we decided to just take the chance and run with it, rather than our normal approach of hitting the books/internet beforehand.
  3. The more setup your site is the easier it is to look after and therefore the less time per week you need to spend on it.

So we went with the flow with (1) and are working on some plans for (3). For (2): We’ve slowly doing more research, but a lot of the big lessons learned have been experiential and on our plot.

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Expanding our growing allot(ment) – pt. I

A few months back, we got a call out of the blue asking if we wanted an allotment. We suddenly remembered we’d put ourselves on the allotment waiting list about a year and a half prior to this, thinking (rather optimistically!) by the time we got to the top of the list we’d have finished up our flat renovations and read a bit on growing things. However, as we knew it’d probably be ages before we’d be asked again we decided we’d give it a go with a fixed amount of time each week (2hrs each) and muddle our way through.

The overarching thought was for Ele and I to get some experience trying to grow our own food. We’ve been doing lots of daydreaming and some planning about a hypothetical self build (at least partially…) “eco-home” in the future for a while now. As part of these ideas there’d be an element of growing our own food, so here is a little summary of the first few months of our experiment…

What do you get?

For our £37.50/year we got a “plot” of land of area similar to that of many of the 1-bed flats we looked at when we moved to west London (~25 sq. metres). The plot was rather over-grown, but obviously had been loved at one point. There was lots of wood, which we could re-purpose to build our things.

Pulling a plan together

We started putting together an plan of what to grow where and how to use the space before “breaking ground”. We got lots of useful info from the Royal Horticultural society (RHS)’s guide for newbie allotmenteers, and pulled together a little map our plot (below)…

Planning out the space…

We then started trying to work to our plan. The first thing was a lot of tidying up, collecting up wood on site, and seeing how good the raised beds were…

The raised beds were mostly OK, but had a lot of rotten bits and needed a fair few screws to get them to hold earth again. We built a couple of sturdy new compost heaps so we could start being able to enrich the soil back to state for growing and make new beds from the areas of the plot that were mostly just London clay instead of top soil.

Whilst moving the beds we saw a few toads! So this led to the acceleration of one of our biggest additions to the plot, the pond. Someone kindly fly-tipped this near our house, prematurely cutting short its noble life, so we thought a new lease could help! We thought the toads might help with slugs eating up our crops…

With the site closer to our ideas, we then put in some crops. As it was early in the year at this point, we mostly just got in onion sets and garlic. We also got some plants kindly given to us by other allotments and family, which made our rather barren plot really start to feel more alive. A highlight was strawberries which had grown in someones path and were free to use if we dug them up and re-planted them…

…and from here?

We started the with the idea that ~£40 to give growing a go in London was reasonable and we would be happy if we just managed to grow a few edible things. After a few months slowly preparing the site and starting to plant more things we’re cautiously optimistic. We seem to be very good at digging things. We’re starting to get edibles off the plot, and see what works and doesn’t. We still have a great deal to learn, and we don’t know yet what to do when things go wrong with our baby plants.

That said, we also got the second (north) part of the allotment, so our empire has doubled and now includes the skeleton of a shed (below, which I am re-building)! I’ll do a blog in the near future (pt. II) about the second plot and what we’re actually growing now in main season…

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Skyrocket salad! Attempts at growing high-rise food

After looking at our carbon footprints via a nice (and relatively quick ) tool called REAP-Petite a while back, we realised that food was an area we needed to really work on. When life moved us to be based in west London, getting a home with a garden was off the cards, as it is for most. However, we’ve found that we can get a remarkable crop just from some window boxes (even through the winter once!).

We’ve also been looking at a load of other things to bring down our food carbon footprints, including setting up a local Suma wholefoods buying group, exploring new veggie/vegan recipes, and trying to take our growing a bit further. So here’s a little post on seeing our first attempts at food production skyrocket…

The setup

We just have a “Juliet Balcony”, so there isn’t somewhere outside for us to put plots. If you do have somewhere for boxes, then many people have shown that you can really produce a lot! (e.g. @VerticalVeg, who grew £900 of veg in six foot of space in London) We started with four boxes. There were a lot of options (including much cheaper ones), but we ended up choosing ones in zinc to fit with balcony for ~£15 a pop (links at end of blog).

Since this was our first attempt we just jumped in and got supplies from shops near us, hopefully with time we’ll get a better idea of what works well. We also choose to focus on the more expensive and “easy to grow” crops of cut-and-come-again lettuce, rocket etc. After getting the boxes, next on the list were seeds and compost.

  • Seeds – we’ve tried a mixture of sources, e.g. IKEA (Vaxer), Wilkinsons (Wilko), and the organic gardening catalogue. The ones from IKEA and the organic gardening catalogue grew well, but we didn’t rate those from Wilko.  We even tried buying the reduced cut and come-again salads from supermarkets, but although cheap, they never lasted that long.
  • Compost  – we just got a load delivered cheaply from a local chain hardware store, Wickes (avoiding peat compost for carbon reasons).

We started with four boxes, then expanded to five to use the whole top balcony rail. I’m still deciding whether to put up the second row, which would double the amount we could grow. The really essential addition, post buying off-the-shelf boxes, was drilling a line drainage holes about an inch up on each side of the boxes to make sure the soil didn’t get too wet (photo below).

The results

First we planted up baby spinach, rocket, cut-and-come-again salad leaves and some herbs. These grew well and even through the winter in the first year (2015 was mild). We’re still amazed with how much grew and the sheer amount of salad that we had. Considering the kind of salad we were growing  would cost around a £1 or more a bag in the shops (e.g. rocket and mixed leaves), the savings/worth per week could probably be ~£3 or more.

We did have a time when we got a lot of coriander, more than could be used at once.  However, we found that any extra is easily preserved and led to some interesting recipes (e.g. see this guide on 5 ways to preserve ‘Cilantro’).

However, after our thoughts of giddy success our vigilance dropped and we failed to notice the drainage holes were slowly blocking up. We then re-seeded the plots with only an little extra compost, but the seeds didn’t even really germinate. This was in all likelihood due to the soil just being used up and we started looking into how to improve the soil choose to add some fertilizer (100% Vegetable ingredients), which improved things. Window boxes are a very different eco-system to growing in soil and we probably had naively not though about this enough… We were kindly given some small herb plants too which got us going again. However the streak did not continue through the winter as it was harder that 1st year we have done this and the drainage still wan’t good enough so we lost our herbs and our salad stopped growing.

So we’ve had some highs and lows, but are learning slowly how to keep the window boxes growing well.  We’ve upped our game a bit now and are growing with the aim of having a constant supply of the special salads (e.g. radicchio, mustard leaves etc) as-well as cut-and-come-again lettuce/rocket. It may seem obvious, but keeping an eye on the plants is the main thing and most of the issues we’ve had could have been avoided if we’d been better with this all along…

Overall the money in (seeds, compost etc) vs. money out (cost savings/worth) is very good once the initial outlay the for the window boxes is paid off. Buying the seeds and seeing them grow is definitely a lot cheaper and more rewarding that just buying from a shop. The fresh salad also taste a lot better, there is less packaging and the carbon emissions will be lower.

Where next?

We’ve been cycling the soil and looking into how to improve it/make it more appropriate for what we want to grow. We now always germinate the seeds inside after sowing inside (just by a window).  This seems to really help give them a head start.

Although I recently bought enough boxes for a second row and started hatching a plan of how to attach them, we just got a call saying we were being offered a local allotment! (if allotments aren’t something you have heard or know much about, here is a nice explainer.) We put ourselves on the list about a year and half before we were called, which is notably fast as often the waiting list is several years or more. Getting an allotment has really upped the magnitude of what we can grow and meant that our window boxes are now transitioning to be full of delicate leaves and a few herbs for salads as we can now plant anything more hardy on the allotment.

A downside of all this is if we keep on getting better at growing I might need to remove “non-green-fingered … gardener” from my twitter handle

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