I heart my allotment…

10 June 2013

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From my allotment…

You can see the sea. Or, at least the Bristol Channel.

On a clear day, Exmoor is visible to the east. Pop your head over the hedge and there’s a view of Dartmoor.

It’s a peaceful place. Many days, I’m a lone allotmenteer. My accompaniment is singing blackbirds, swooping swallows, the odd pheasant and occasional high flying buzzard.

Sometimes, there is the interruption of tractors, motorcycles or cars. But, we’re without the constant drone of traffic.

More disruptive are strimmers and other lazy people’s tools.

Me? I’m hardcore. All done by hand. Digging, weeding and cutting: all back, shoulders and ibuprofen.

And, when I have company it’s great to down tools for ten minutes or so to discuss your uncooperative onions, composting tips or whatever’s going on in the village.

For a couple of months, frozen ground or Atlantic storms mean Sunday is spent on the sofa rather then hacking away at clay. Come spring, whenever Mother Nature decides that might be, my crooked wheelbarrow can be heard rumbling through the village up to my plot.

The fresh veg is nice. But, the time to think, the fresh air, the gossip. In equal measure these mean I heart my allotment.


Peas and beans and peat free

1 June 2013

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Thanks to the late Spring and general lethargy, I’ve been a bit behind on sowing seeds this year. There are potatoes and broad beans up at the allotment about which I’ll blog soon.

Back at the greenhouse, peas and beans have made a slow start. The runner beans are left over White Emperor which last year succumbed to rain, slugs and 2012’s overall rubbishness. Given that the season is “two weeks behind” according to something I heard on the radio, it’s not too late for the runners. At least, they have a home to go to: dug, and fed last weekend.

Keeping the beans company both in the greenhouse and in the legume trench are Ambassador peas. These are another left over from the 2012 apocalypse. I found another variety in my seed stash – Karina – but opted to go with Ambassador which, given the vote of confidence, have kicked off nicely.

(Note the toilet roll approach to sowing though I’m still getting used to the narrower diameter tubes.

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Together with another run of peas, today was brassica sowing day: broccoli, cabbage and Brussels. Though brassicas tend to do well up at the allotment, this is all a bit of a punt. Most of the seeds are near the “use by” date and I’ve planted a bit late in the season.

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Of the three, I’m holding out for broccoli. That’s handy as it’s one of my favourite vegetables even though I swear my mum put it in front of us for 100 days in a row one summer.

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This the first year of using coir as my general planting out compost. I do try to stay with peat free though I’m not too fussed about organic or otherwise. Coir was the only type on offer at my last garden centre trip. As far as I remember, it’s ground up coconut husks or something like that. It seems to hold moisture quite well. Let’s see if it’s providing decent nutrients.

Playing shops – an update

3 May 2012

Much of my “spare” time, a dozen days off and (look away, boss) countless hours at work have been devoted to starting a community enterprise, a community owned and operated village shop operating within our local Methodist Church.

To get to where we are, I’ve turned my hand to cash flow forecasts, radio interviews, lobbying, writing grant bids, costing EPOS systems, cajoling villagers, negotiating with church bureaucracy, learning bookkeeping and Sage accounts, fund raising, fleeing farm dogs and other hazards.

There’s been frustration and elation in equal measure. At the end of March, I let out a loud whoop as we got the fantastic news of a grant offer from Village SOS, a Big Lottery Fund. That seems so long ago as we face challenges on a daily basis.

It’s nice then to get the odd day away from the village. What better way to spend it: a day of “retail therapy” at Dillington Hall, Somerset with the Plunkett Foundation. Do shopkeepers have busman’s holidays?

Like most of the other conferences I go to, the day was as much about networking as it was about learning new things. But, I did learn much about the thought process of turning people into profits. I know that sounds a bit calculating. But, what we’re trying to create is not only a community resources; it is an enterprise. For all the fluffy, middle-class-ishness of the project, the volunteerism and grant-aid, our venture has to turn a profit. Our neighbours are our customers. (They are also our owners as this is a true community owned project.)

This is serious business. Collectively, we have to act responsibly on behalf of the community. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m sure I will at one stage have to don a suit to pitch our case for that last bit of funding.

Plunkett, as I think I’ve said in a previous post, is at the forefront of the community shop movement. There are nearly 300 such ventures up and running in the UK, where a commercial shop has succumbed to rural decline, the Post Office’s slash-and-burn strategy, shopkeeper retirement and/or the power of out-of-town big boxes. Who in their right mind would want to work 24/7 over a village shop with squeezed income? Without such devoted business people, it’s left to communities to fend for themselves.

Last Friday was another great opportunity to meet many others who’ve trod the path, opened shops and successfully kept them running. My notebook is stuffed with advice and contacts. My colleague also picked up a list of local suppliers from another shop.

We’ve still got much to do: raise more funds, get our lease in place, recruit a part-time paid manager and volunteers and umpteen boring tasks.

It’s daunting, exciting. I’d like my life back, but I’m sure I’d do this all over again.

I hope you can make a trip to North Devon sometime to buy locally produced cakes, cheese from the next village, the best strawberries in the world or greeting cards from our village photographer.




22 March 2012

Once upon a time this was a blog about a transplanted townie tending an allotment. Not quite the “good life” (whatever that is), but the odd belthering about weeds, polytunnels and broccoli.

All of a sudden, the calendar said 21 March. Vernal equinox. Or, as we know it in the northern hemisphere, spring.

And, allotment 5 1/2 is looking a sorry state.

That’s a poor show considering it’s been a mild and dry winter, suitable for clearing weeds and putting goodness back in the soil. There’s been too many distractions. Community life aside, Jeff Stelling, the Saturday Soccer crew and a comfy sofa have proved too much, too easy.

There’s no promise that I’ll get out this weekend. Rarely, the southwest forecast is the best of the regions: dry, bright and 16 C. But, there’s some stirrings in the loins.

In a week filled otherwise with telephone calls, meetings, internet searches, re-writing business plans and share offers (and this was supposedly a holiday), I did fit in a little bit of yard work (I love that phrase) before returning to the day job on Monday.

The raised bed has been cleared and primed with cat deterrent. I’ve even got some baby greens thriving under a cloche, a remnant of autumn planting. I spent a couple of back breaking days pulling weeds, hacking down redundant shrubs and stumps of trees that should never have been planted. The garden waste bin overflowed with green detritus.

Meanwhile, up at the allotment, my Brussels have finished. Three types of garlic have wintered well. There’s but a few stunted bulbs. So, if I can avoid rot, we should have a good crop come June.

The spring cabbages are looking slightly sorry for themselves. All bar one should perk up. But, that renegade has bolted, sprouted a seed head. I’ve never seen a cabbage do that. My thinking is it’s a function of the dry, mild weather.

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Next door to the cabbages, I have or had a good bed of broad beans that I planted out in early October.

Look at them now. Those that I covered under a netted cloche are straggly, but alive. In contrast, those left to the elements have expired.

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Check out Mr F's forearms - wow! It's Popeye!

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Always read the instructions - yeah, right.

So, off to our local budget garden centre last week to fill a big shopping trolley. With a small packet of discount seeds. And, three large bags of peat-free compost. And, cat repellent. Naturally slug repellent too. All organic, mind you.

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The toilet roll method

Using the expired toilet roll method, I’ve started off another batch of broad beans, which hungry mice permitting should be ready to plant out by the end of April.

The rationale for autumn planting of broad beans is to avoid black fly which can devastate your crop. Late planting means you run the risk though by pinching out the tops once the fruits start to form also discourages the flies.

But, in three years of trying I’ve now lost well over 50% of my crops. Conclusion, next season I’ll start off beans under cover in January for March planting out.

For many gardeners in my division (Conference South) broad beans are one of the first crops to be ready, a bit of a treat in April or May.

The beans are quite versatile. You can eat them as young ‘uns, in their skins and quite sweet. As a mature bean, pop off the skin after a quick blanch: great in a salad with spring onions, kidney beans, couscous, lemon and oil. As old boots, add broad beans to casseroles and soups.

From indifference, I’ve become a great fan.

For the weekend, the lazy to do list consists of tomato seed sowing. The active, active, not sitting in front of screen list includes additional digging, weeding and shooting the breeze with fellow allotment growers.

Ctrl+F5.5=Allotment 5 1/2 refreshing.

Sending out an SOS

1 March 2012

To Birmingham city centre, to talk about … villages.

Village SOS you may know from the BBC tv series. Ten communities received Big Lottery funding of £300,000 or more each to help deliver community projects to rejuvenate villages across the country.

Big Lottery has now rolled out Village SOS into a larger project with a budget of £5.3 million, granting between £10,000 and £30,000 to fund community enterprises.

My village has bid for a grant to kick start our community shop project. I went to Birmingham for the national conference, to pick up advice, network with other activists and hear about how Village SOS and other projects can help us. There was an entire village full: 350 delegates. Peter Ainsworth, Big Lottery chairman, was an excellent chair throughout the day.

It was a day of inspiring stories, not all of them grant funded. Peter Maher is a true hero, leading a campaign to save the Fox and Hounds pub at Ennerdale Bridge in the lake district. Faced with closure of a significant community asset, the village needed to raise £77,000 to secure the lease. In ten days. The missed the target: instead hitting that figure in seven days.

From Northern Ireland, Niall McFerran spoke about the Ballygally where the village lost its shop, but took over a car park and built a wonderful new shop and community centre. The project has brought together people from all faiths and walks of life.

One of the better episodes of the TV series involved the old mill at Talgarth in mid-Wales. Rescued from dereliction, the mill is now a tourist attraction, money spinner and employer in what was a sleepy, lethargic, nearly dying village. Bruce Gray, from the project, spoke passionately about three Vs that underpin successful community enterprises. The vision is important: get people to buy into the vision. Then tap that enthusiasm (or vivacity). Volunteers are crucial and every effort must be invested in them to keep them enthused and happy.

During the middle part of the day, I took part in one-to-one sessions with experts from Cooperatives Futures, Support 4 Community Projects and the Plunkett Foundation. These were a little bit like speed dating, but with a more lasting future. I got some useful advice on some of the trickier aspects of our share offer, business planning and outreach to our potential owners.

Plunkett has proved to be an invaluable source of help and support in our project. The foundation has become the leader in helping communities deliver community owned and operated shops throughout England and Wales. There are now 273 shops of which Plunkett knows. Only 11 such shops have failed in the 20 years of Plunkett’s work. That’s a staggeringly low business failure rate. Shop openings in recent years have outstripped Tesco.

Peter Couchman, Plunkett chief executive, was one of the main speakers. His message: the time is now for rural community enterprises. There is no cavalry coming to the rescue of village services. We have to do it ourselves. Failure is not an option: the price is too high and there is too much social and community capital invested. Volunteering is the key. In the UK there are over 1 million hours volunteered every year.

There were many breakout sessions. Of course, I chose the shop masterclass, hearing about two highly successful projects: Kirdford and Brockweir & Hewelsfield. Both shops have had major challenges, not least of which is keeping volunteers going day after day, week after week and so on. some great ips on marketing, fund raising and retailing: thanks!

I’ll skip over the session on the Localism Act. Brain hurt!

As a bit if light relief, Matt Baker from Countryfile, Blue Peter and other programmes I don’t watch, spoke for 15 minutes about his village life. Matt’s three positives of village life are: community, tradition and ownership.

All in all, a fulfilling day though I was somewhat disappointed that I seemed to network with not volunteers but agencies.

At least I was vox popped: twice! I’ve only scratched the surface of all the issues raised, but then I guess that’s the sign of a good conference. I could have done with these event 12 months ago when we needed inspiration and advice to relieve our perspiration and strife.

The message I took away? As one village shop activists said: “It’s not just a shop, it’s about what this community wants to be.”

contribution for the Weekly Blog Club


3 January 2012

As tradition demands, I sat down with a seed catalogue just after Christmas to choose and order this year’s crops. In fact, although I do get old school paper catalogues, you won’t be surprised to hear that the catalouge I used was online.

The selection was based upon a short list of vegetables I’m comfortable growing and plant varieties which have either been successful in past years or which present a challenge for the coming year.

A quick run through:

Potatoes, Robinta: for the first time since moving to Devon I’ve dropped Desiree from my list. Whilst we love the big red tubers, I opted for a variety coming in a smaller quantity. We’ve had a lot of wastage due to mice helping themselves during colder days. Robinta is another main crop red with fleshy tubers. It remains to be seen if I can reduce worm and slug damage.

Pea, Ambassador: not being able to find a true petit pois, I chose what looks to be a near equivalent. There are left over seeds from previous years though given an iffy strike rate in 2011 I’m not sure I’ll get much out of the old petit pois. “Tolerant of bad weather” it says in the catalogue. Ideal for north Devon, then!

Runner bean, White Emergo: an excellent cropper in 2011 despite wind damage to my canes. We were feasting on beans through October.

Broccoli/calabrese, Fiesta: a slight punt on an F1 hybrid. I can’t remember what I’ve sown before, but I’ve had great success the last two years. The trick in 2012 will be to stagger the plants so I’m not stuck with several kilos of head all at once.

Cabbage, Drago: a winter variety with a pointed head. This should be interesting. I’ve only grown summer cabbages before so not used to harvesting in the dark, wet days of December.

Brussels sprouts, Doric: success in 2011/12!

Tomato, Zuckertraube: a small, sweet, salad tomato that has been supremely pants in terms of cropping. But, the taste is a tease.

Tomato, Mirabelle Blanche: a yellow version of Gardeners’ Delight. If it crops like GD, then should be good. But, does it taste good?

Cucumber, Tanja: I didn’t have much luck with Marketmore in 2011 so decided to try a difference variety. I usually transplant the fruits to an outside plot though under a cloche. The cloche is knackered so I may have to keep the plants in a crowded greenhouse.

That’s it apart from the usual selection of mixed leaves and sprouting seeds. I may have to get some red onions to join my yellow onions, ordered several months ago. Not yet decided whether to buy some chilli plants as I’ve repeatedly failed to get all but a handful of fruits from seed grown specimens.

Finally, what’s the betting my 4 year old Gardeners’ Delight germinate yet again?

I can’t wait to get sowing!

Muscles from Brussels

26 December 2011
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Boxing Day: Brussel sprouts

First attempt at Brussel sprouts harvested this afternoon: some mighty big sprouts for tea!