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.

Links

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

Links

 

 

Pining for a warm floor; Installing parquet in 70s flat

So this is the first blog on “LittleEcoFlat” our 2nd renovation project we’re trying to make as “Eco” as possible. The background is that my partner got a job in the “Big smoke”, which allowed her to bring together her professional life (mechanical design engineering) and love of sustainability to work in bike design in London. Following 1 year of renting a sofa to crash on (from a rather lovely lady), we sought something a little more permanent. Searching for a flat was fun but as I was working in the US for my PhD the time, it was a pretty challenging time. Regardless we managed to find a little place needing some love and slowly started turning it into a home by the only way we know how, flooring 1st! (Although this might be a floored approach… )

The Carpet

The walls and carpets all had a brown tinge only really describable as “nicotine coloured”  (My partner actually came in in rashes from touching the carpet!). The carpets had to go. It would be great to have found a way to re-use them, but unfortunate the only option (I’m very interested in anyone has found alternate options) was to take them to to tip. As they rested directly on concrete they weren’t warm either and we were determined to have a warm floor so we started looking at alternatives and how to add some warmth. Interestingly, in a lot of houses there are often pretty floorboards unearth the carpets. If the house has been insulated to stay warm they can be rather pleasant underfoot, and just need sanding back (as is the case in “LittleEcoTerrace”). As this wasn’t the case in “LittleEcoFlat” we had to look for alternatives…

The Floor

To prepare the flat to get a new floor we got right in by pulling up the old carpet. After the carpet the vinyl tiles underneath had to come up, as many were broken/missing, to give a flat starting surface. This required a lot more effort than we expected, but did allow for a time playing with some of the more destructive DIY kit… We both have a favourite crow bar now.

Local trades

We were never going to do lay the parquet ourselves. We had already learned (from mistakes) that there are certain tasks best left to professionals and have nothing against support local trades. So after finding somewhere local to buy reclaimed floor boards (and settling on Pitch Pine) and someone who do the skilful part, work got started!

 Joseph's incredible sanding machine...
Joseph’s incredible sanding machine…

Seeing Joseph lay the parquet was impressive, like a huge game of herringbone Tetris. Then the oily and burnt reclamed boards were sanded. Once the sanding started the transformation was incredible…

The final floor was then given a protective coat which brought the red of the Pitch Pine out, and hopefully will give it a more hard wearing surface.

This project had opened our eyes to huge options available from reclamation yards and second hand shops, and the sheer number of these. There has been a lot of coverage of re-use and upcycling recent on the TV (e.g. Kevin McCloud’s Man made shed where he made a hottub out of a old aircraft turbine) and i’m always interested new uses of materials that for no good reason now classed as waste (e.g. this old radiator turned into a seat by the BareFootWelder… we have 3 of these and are seriously considering it)

 

We acknowledge that “off-the-shelf” engineered boards would have essentially done the job too. However I find the idea very appealing that for decades and decades to come the floor could just be re-sanded to restore it, then there is the “eco” side of re-use of wood.  They were many sustainable options ( e.g. FSC Cork, Bamboo, upcycled cutlet glass etc ), but for indoor air-quality reasons the choice for us could not be “standard” carpet that is ubiquitous everywhere.

 

After sorting the floor we have been on the search for second hand furniture and found where is good in west London, which I’ll blog about another time. It did take a lot more effort to prepare the floor than we anticipated (which you could say, wasn’t a walk in the parquet),  but we are very happy the end result and how warm the floor feels underfoot.

 

Links

  • Joesph Dohf – The guy who did all the hard work on laying the parquet and deserves the vast majority of the credit
  • Heritage reclamation – Where we bought the parquet from