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.

Storifying the Torch Relay

24 May 2012

Until last week I had a healthy cynical view of the Olympic Torch Relay which passed through these parts on Monday 21 May. That cynicism diminished as the day got nearer and preparations in our office became more frantic.

Of course, there’s a lot of baggage with the whole Olympic movement, from the crass commercialisation to the bogus legacy to the dodgy sponsors to the undemocratic actions of the IOC and Locog.

I was at Trafalgar Square on 6 July 2005 secretly wishing Paris would get the games. But, I am truly excited about having the spectacle in our own backyard. I’ve even spent way too much money on tickets for the penultimate day of the athletics.

Back to 2012…

My role on 21 May was to handle the social media side of things. That basically meant tweeting the Torch’s progress through the district, responding to tweets and being available in case some loon decided to take a fire extinguisher to the flame. We’d also prepared to use Facebook and aggregate photos through a Flickr group.

A few nights before, I suddenly had a brain wave and thought about using Storify. For the uninitiated, this is a tool that allows you to create a story of an event using social media contributions. Effectly, Storify allows you to pull in posts from various sources using tags, users and other metadata.

To be honest, this was a last minute thought. I didn’t discuss it with the rest of the team and I’d never used Storify. My limited experience was reading a few stories previously created for conferences and other events.

I gave myself s short tutorial over the weekend and got the feel of it. I added a couple of items just to set the scene and then hoped for the best!

(Unfortunately, it’s not yet possible to embed Storify in WordPress, so you’ll have to settle for a link to our Story and a few embedded tweets.)

Monday dawned and I could feel the adrenaline pumping. It brought back good memories of other jobs where I had to arrange lobbying events and visits by senior bods. I generally got a buzz out of that as well as lack of sleep, blinding headaches and an empty feeling at the end.

We had our team scattered across the district as well as a professional photographer plonked on the Locog horsebox.

NDevon council Torch control room

I booted up my PC and logged in to the live BBC stream just as the convoy left Exeter. I also had my notebook as a backup, but mostly to get the streaming commentary which helped when the convoy was out of 3G range. As you can see, I’ve got two screens so I had Firefox open to run Storify, Echofon and Flickr. As I can’t add the Flash plugin on Firefox, I had to run IE to get the live stream.

And, I started tweeting like a mad thing and picking up content through the Storify media search.

We had about two and a half hours before the convoy hit Barnstaple. But, we also needed to be ready to help our colleagues in Torridge who are much thinner on the ground than us.

As my colleagues went off in various directions, the boss and I were left to run our coverage and provide emergency backup. I had several phone calls from Ilfracombe – highlight of our day as an emotional Jonathan Edwards carried the flame past his old house and into the rugby club for the lunch break. Poor guy probably posed for 500 photos, including our lot from Comms, Sports and all our volunteer stewards.

Meanwhile, I set up my camera and Flip video on the window ledge to catch the convoy as it passed by us, albeit 9.1 seconds away (if you’re Usain Bolt). You can see some of my pathetic attempts on the Storify stream.

For the best part of 8 hours I tweeted as the Torch moved from community to community, tweeted to others on the route and hoovered up content to add to Storify. All told we put out 120 tweets and were retweeted, metioned or favourited about 50 times.

As the Relay went to convoy mode (flame in the Davey lamp), I tidied up Storify. I did more editing overnight as I was able to pick up photos our team loaded to Flickr.

That’s a quick dash through how I put together our social media coverage. We’re still digesting the day, but a few quick thoughts:

  • probably tweeted a bit too much, but we did get a good footprint and lots of engagement from people on the route including press contacts
  • Storify-ing the day was a good experience and the end result is a nice story of the Torch going through our patch
  • what we did wasn’t a replacement for the coverage by the mainstream media, but we did add value, kept people informed and provided a backstop in case things went wrong

I’m thinking of presenting this as a short case study at LocalGovCamp in July. I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts now or, if you’re going to be there, at the event.

In the meantime, I’d like to add that there were so many lovely moments throughout the day. For all the torchbearers it must have been unbelievable. Some of what they achieved – such as the Parkinson’s sufferer who took a few steps out of his wheelchair in Braunton – was fantastic. I hope you all get the chance to share in this unique event. And, if your heart is still hard, well I don’t know what might melt it.




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.


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!