Friday, June 30, 2006

They've done it

Ben and Charlotte Hollins have raised the £800,000 needed to save Fordhall Farm, the organic farm their family have worked for generations. After the death of their father last year it looked like they would lose the Shropshire farm. They began fundraising, including selling £50 shares in the land to members of the public. They even recruited celebrity supporters such as Sting, and David Bellamy. I've been following the story here after spotting it first on the BBC news website

I love this kind of thing, when people get together to save something small but important. When I lived in Liverpool I was peripherally involved in saving the Plaza Cinema a 1930's cinema which was under threat because out-of-town multiplexes were squeezing its business. Now it is a charitable trust, fully restored, and a central part of the reinvention of Waterloo as the place to go for a night out in North Liverpool.

There's a quote on the Fordhall Farm website: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has" Margaret Mead, Anthropologist

Thursday, June 29, 2006


Finished off the final bed today and put in some carrots, beetroot, turnips and kohlrabi. I also sowed a little more of the quick salad crops lettuce, radishes, spring onions and so on. So no more digging this year. From now on my main tasks will be watering, weeding and hopefully harvesting. At least, after I have constructed two compost bins, and got rid of all the rubble I removed whilst digging. But then I shall be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labours.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


The allotments were attacked by vandals at the weekend. They pushed over a toilet and set fire to a tool shed, destroying it and all the tools inside and blowing out the windows of a nearby building. Fortunately they didn't steal anything or do much damage to crops. Probably just young kids.

On our plot they pushed over an empty water butt and some bean canes and dismembered Pippa. It's OK though, I've put her back together now. In case you're wondering, the photo for todays entry doesn't show one of the vandals, that's my lovely God-daughter Rebecca.

I spent most of today fixing the damage, hoeing and digging. I've finally finished digging, although I now need to shovel the earth back into the hole and rake it all over to make a nice seed bed. The best news is one of my courgette plants has tiny tiny courgettes on it!

Monday, June 26, 2006

Sacred Day

Tom made his First Holy Communion on Saturday, which was why Stephanie visited (she's his Godmother). I was trying to get him excited about it all by promising that there would be a party and he'd get presents. He just looked at me and asked "Will they be good presents, or holy presents?" He was super all day and made me very proud. He looked so smart in his black trousers and white shirt, although he flatly refused to wear a tie and I didn't press the matter. In the church he was marvellously well behaved and read his bidding prayer beautifully.

Afterwards there was a party at school, but I had to leave early to get to Manchester Cathedral My choir were performing the Duke Ellington Sacred Concert with soloist Jacqui Dankworth and the Big Buzzard Boogie Band It was a fabulous gig and I got home high as a kite. On Sunday I was far too shattered to do any digging so I haven't visited the allotment all weekend.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Meet Pippa

My sister, Stephanie, is visiting for a few days. She and her children made me a scarecrow for the allotment and named her Pippa. We've set her in position and told her to keep the birds off the seedbeds and crops. Steph's eldest, TJ, helped with watering and digging. Her youngest, Rebecca, mostly made a nuisance of herself and got very muddy but that's what happens when you're 2. There will be more pictures of them on the blog over the next few days.

I've found out that a friend has just got a horse, so of course I asked her if I could have the manure for the allotment. She thinks I'm mad, but she's known me for a few years now so I think she suspected that already. We'll have to pile it up so it can rot down over the winter and by next spring it will add a lot of fertility to the soil.

I've also had a nice email from Brigid at "It's Not Easy Being Green" giving me permission to link to their site, so that's been added to the permanent links section now. Go and have a look at it. They're nice people and it's an interesting website. She wished me luck with the chickens. Yes, chickens. Coming soon.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Repelling tigers

Here's another fairy tale: a man saw his neighbour scattering pepper on his garden and asked why. "To repel tigers", "But there are no tigers around here", "That proves it works then".
It's an important issue - how to proceed when you are fairly ignorant but the experts contradict each other? The further we go along the route to self-sufficiency the more important it is to have a good answer to that question. Do we chain ourselves to an ideology - organic, permaculture, biodynamic or anything else - so we are always certain what to do? Or do we pick one expert and follow their advice (if my granddad was still alive I might be very tempted by this option)? Or do I decide that I know best and go stubbornly my own way?

Then I realised I already had an answer to this conundrum. It's an approach I used when planning my homebirths, and then continued to use it for raising the children (which is quite similar to gardening - everyone has an opinion and every opinion is different). This is what I do:
  1. listen to all the available advice - from people, books, the internet, the instructions printed on seed packets . . .
  2. weigh up all the different options, giving more serious consideration to some and dismissing others quite quickly
  3. choose a course of action which seems best to me, but I remember all the options I discarded
  4. if it works, I stick with it. If it doesn't work, next time I try something different.
It means I will make some avoidable mistakes. But hopefully I'll only make each one once. I've been accused of pig-headedness (usually by people whose advice I didn't take) , and of thinking I know best. But I start from the assumption that I don't know best, and nor do I know who does know best. So all I can do is take responsibility for my own decisions, and try to learn from my mistakes.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The joint of beef

I once heard a story about a young woman who asked her mother how to roast a joint of beef. Her mother said "Well first you take the joint of beef and you cut about 2 inches off the end, then you put it in the roasting tin, and . . ."
"Hang on," said the young woman, "Why cut off the end?"
"Er, I don't really know," said her mother, "But that was the way my mother showed me and that's how I've always done it".
So the young woman went to her grandmother and asked her the reason, and she said "I don't know either, but that was the way my mother taught me to do it, and everybody always said my roast beef was the best they'd ever had, so I taught your mother the same thing".
The great-grandmother was still alive, so the young woman asked her why she must cut off the end of the joint of beef. This made the old woman laugh so much she couldn't speak for five minutes, and when she finally caught her breath she said "When I was just married we only had a small roasting pan and you couldn't fit a whole beef joint in it, so that's why I always cut the end off it!"

I've been getting a lot of advice off other allotment holders lately. One warned me ominously to net my pea seedlings to protect them from the pigeons, another expressed concern about the lack of slug pellets on my plot. Someone advised me not to even think of growing carrots because of the terrible carrot root fly infestation, although other plots seem to have crops of carrots. One chap gave me all kinds of wisdom for what felt like an hour - his rows of crops are at an oblique angle to everyone else's because he aligns them with the 12 o'clock sun (everyone else's seem to be aligned with the local drainage).

What am I to do? If I follow all of these suggestions it will cost me a fortune, put paid to any ideas of organic practices, and in fact be plainly impossible because many of the hints I've been given are flatly contradictory. If I do none of them I am quite sure that some disaster will befall at least some of my crops, and James on plot 23 will tell everyone "I did warn her to cut off the dock plants and pour salt on the ends but she thought she knew best!", unless it was Tony on plot 18 who was right all along about not overwatering but making the plants find their own water. I want to benefit from the advice of knowledgeable people, but I don't want to spend the rest of my life cutting the end off the joint of beef.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Thinning out

The title of this entry does not refer to my shrinking waistline (although a daily dose of digging certainly helps). No, todays task was thinning the pea seedlings. The kids helped sow them and they were rather haphazard, so some areas had lots of seedlings all coming up in a huddle whilst other stretches had none at all.

I carefully thinned them out until they were spaced every 4-6 inches. It feels like infanticide. The same little seedlings we celebrated when they first appeared are now selected for death based on quite arbitrary factors.

So I saved some of them. I transplanted them into some pots and brought them home, rationalising that if any of the allotment plants die (by slug or pigeon attack for example) I can replace them from the stock at home.

Yes, I'm aware that if I can't even kill a pea seedling I'm going to really struggle to kill a chicken. I'm working on it.

Monday, June 19, 2006

What's growing

Steph asked what is growing on the allotment:

  • * Rhubarb, which was already there
  • * Pea and bean seedlings which we planted
  • * 2 French beans Eleanor sprouted at school and are now growing up canes
  • * A grass path we laid between our plot and the one next door

And several young plants we've been kindly given:

  • * 4 courgettes
  • * 1 butternut squash
  • * 1 red cabbage
  • * 2 green cabbages
  • * 5 Brussels sprouts (at least I think that's what they are)

I've also planted some radishes and spring onions, various kinds of lettuce, some pumpkins, cabbages, romanesco and calabrese which haven't come up yet.

It's starting to look like a proper allotment.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


My pea seedlings have come up! It's less than a week since we put them in. The grass seeds are starting to come up too.

The long-awaited skip arrived. My only previous experience of skips is when I've hired them because I was moving house or renovating the kitchen, and I always got the guy to put it somewhere handy just outside the front door. But this skip was all the way at the other end of the allotments. Uphill. So I spent most of the day pushing a rickety wheelbarrow full of rubble up a hill. Then on the way back down the hill, the kids always wanted a ride.

Ed did have to finish the digging as I predicted. We shifted all the rubble between us (we'll dig up more next week but we'll have to get rid of it ourselves). No less than two other allotment holders gave us punnets of strawberries, and one told us to take any strawberry runners we wanted to overwinter, and another gave us a courgette plant. At the end of the day I nipped out to the supermarket and we had a barbecue on the site with allotment strawberries and cream for dessert. The Good Life? You bet.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Rosemary Conley eat your heart out

Introducing the amazing new weight-loss regime taking the country by storm. Forget the GI diet, forget Atkins, now there's the Allotment Regime.
Scientific studies prove that a combination of fresh air, two hours of digging a day and all the rhubarb you can eat can cause weight loss of up to 4 lbs a week. You'll have hands like a navvy, but what a body!

Actually I only managed one and a half hours of digging today, and in that time I increased the length of the bed by a pathetic two feet. After I finally cleared all the glass out I made pretty fast progress until I hit a large buried object. At first I thought it was a chimney pot but when I finally extracted it (which took some doing) it weighed a ton and is clearly made of iron.

Together with a neighbouring gardener we've come up with a plan. We're going to steal a Bronze Age brooch from a museum and post it to Tony Robinson saying we found it on the allotment. Then Phil and Mick and Carenza will come and dig it all over for us.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

What a pane

Life on the allotment is settling into a routine. I turn up after dropping the kids off at school. Connect a hose to the site tap and leave it filling the water butt whilst I water the seedbed with a can. Check the water butt is still only half full so leave it filling whilst I get on with a bit of digging. Other allotment holders pass by and make encouraging comments,
"You're doing really well"
"Thanks, it's not exactly digging weather is it?"
"Do you need any cabbage seedlings? I have some left over"
"That would be brilliant, thanks!"
"Do you know your butt's overflowing?"
"Yes, it's these shorts"
Oh, I see what you mean.
I've got double digging down to a fine art. Working along one strip at a time - dig to a double spade depth then dig the next strip, heaving the earth into the hole left by the last lot, like this Until I hit several panes of glass stacked one on top of the other about 18" down. So I spent the last hour scrobbling around in the muck like one of the Time Team picking out millions of shards of glass and trying not to catch tetanus. I think I may need Ed to do some digging at the weekend after all.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Dig for victory

Went to the allotment after the school drop again and spent a few hours digging. Now I've done half the new bed, so by the weekend I think it will be practically finished. That means Ed and the kids can do fun stuff like plant seeds (and help me throw rubble in the skip) rather than endless digging again.

I also planted a couple of well-established bean plants. Eleanor brought them home from school in a jamjar with a bit of damp paper towel, you know the kind of thing. We grew them on at home and now they're the only bona fide green thing on the plot (not counting the rhubarb, which we didn't plant. Or the weeds). No idea what variety they are, so you can bet they'll be the most productive and delicious thing ever but we won't be able to repeat it.

I met the people with the plot next to ours. I'd been told our plot used to belong to a home for people with learning disabilities but they never tended it. It turns out they have an extensive plot, admittedly a bit overgrown but not absolutely neglected, and they came to give it a bit of TLC today. We chatted for a while and they all shouted "Bye Mel!" and waved when I left. I've got to know quite a few people on the allotments and they all seem very friendly. Our plot is right next to the path and close to one of the gates so people pass by all the time, and they often stop to say hello and compliment us on how much we've got done. Which is nice to hear when you've been digging for an hour and the hole looks no bigger than when you began.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Digging it

I did it. After I dropped the kids at school today I went to the allotment and did some digging. I double-dug an area about 5' square, and tomorrow I reckon I'll be able to do the same again because Sam (pictured) is at pre-school all day.

The first spade-depth of digging is OK, but when you get down to two spade-depths you hit a layer of pure rubble. Whole house bricks, roof tiles and slates, cobbles and lots of broken glass. At the weekend we pulled out one rock which must have weighed five stone. We've also dug up a couple of bakelite light switches, one of those decorative plaster corbals with feathers and scrolls, the bottom of a tin with "Eat Baxters Nourishing Game Soup" printed on. It's more like archaeology than gardening.

A skip is coming to the allotments on Friday. Everybody is very excited. It seems this is about a biannual event. It has come at the perfect time for us because we'll have about half a ton of rubble to chuck in it. It's the only thing which is well-timed - I keep seeing people leave the allotments with punnets of strawberries, gooseberries, peas, onions and other things. It's harvest time and we've only just started putting seeds in the ground. I'm very conscious that we're racing against the clock.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Tempus fugit

Went down to the allotment today intending to start digging the next bed. If I can do an hour or even two every day this week it will be almost done by next weekend and I might be able to persuade Ed to help me finish it off. If I ask him every weekend to put in an effort like he just did I think I'll be a single mum before Christmas.

The trouble is I thought "Hmm, the seed bed looks a bit dry, I'll just water it a bit". And I took some grass seed to lay a grass path between our allotment and the one next door, because that can't take long. And I may as well rearrange the plastic sheets so they smother the weedy bits. And before I knew it an hour had gone and I had to get home and shower in time to give a guitar lesson.

Still, all those things were worth doing. Tomorrow straight after I've dropped the kids at school I'll get over to the allotment and do an hour or two of digging, I swear.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Hot diggity!

It has been blazing hot all week so naturally we decided to double dig a bed of the new allotment. The whole family trooped down at 8:30 am in the hope of getting most of the work done before the heat really kicked in. The kids made themselves at home whilst Ed and I got stuck into the digging. Well, it was hot at half eight and it just got hotter and hotter, but we kept at it.

The kids were heroes. They helped quite a bit, they got in the way quite a bit as well, and when they were bored they played and made friends with the other gardeners. I traipsed around after and made sure they weren't making a nuisance of themselves, but without exception the allotment holders seemed to welcome their interest, especially 8-year-old Tom who was soliciting advice on growing carrots and blackcurrants. Allotment holders are generous with their advice, and almost as generous with loaning tools, hosepipes and other equipment.

At about 5pm we finally had a reasonable-looking bed and we put in 4 rows of beans and peas and watered them before coming home. It felt fantastic. We really had worked like dogs and it was so satisfying to put those seeds in the clear tilled ground, carefully cover them over and water them in from our new water butt. The feeling of achievement was only enhanced by being able to look across to the weedy bombsite we still haven't tackled and reflect that just this morning the whole lot had looked like that.

I'd say we've cultivated about 1/3 of the area which was under the plastic sheeting. I'm hoping to cultivate the rest in the next few weeks and get some crops in before it's too late. Root veg is next on the list - Tom's carrots, as well as swede and beetroot and kohl rabi perhaps. Unless that's a brassica. I need to read up. We're putting the sheeting over the rest of the plot and by next spring with luck we'll be able to cultivate that, too.

It was a very good day. I even remembered to apply the after-sun lotion before the Deep Heat.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Ooh - presents!

This week I've had a house guest, a friend from Scotland. She brought loads of gifts with her, including home-made jams and fruit butter, yards and yards of quilting fabrics of my favourite kinds, hand-made toys for the children and lots of other things including some packets of seeds. We had a great time but I'm not going to post a full report here, as I've already done that on the Usenet newsgroup where we met, rec.crafts.textiles.quilting

I also got a parcel containing lots and lots of packets of seeds from a friend I met on a completely unrelated Usenet newsgroup, uk.rec.sheds

And at our favourite farm shop, Norbury Farm the greengrocer gave us a packet of seeds.

So now I have lots of seeds, I haven't had the time to get to the allotment and rotavate it. That's planned for this weekend, as well as making a dent in the growing pile of essays waiting to be marked, giving a tutorial in Liverpool, knocking down a wall in the kitchen and boxing up everything from the kitchen and bedroom in preparation for builders coming on Monday. Oh and there's a football match on the telly.

Monday, June 05, 2006

New allotment

"Melanie has recently been going through the same thing I went through in my mid-30s. She's been reassessing her life, what she's done so far, what she'd like to do and who she wants to be. And she's decided she wants to be Felicity Kendall" (my dad, Bill, in conversation)

Fair enough.

You could look at the last few weeks as a kind of premature mid-life crisis, precipitated by the TV series "It's Not Easy Being Green" The show led to some serious envy on my part, which led to a discussion with my partner, Ed, which led to some serious research about the feasibility of buying a smallholding and becoming self-sufficient.

Or you could see it as a logical and gradual progression for a couple who 20 years ago dreamed together about having a goat farm, and who have lived a hippy green (albeit fairly conventional) life ever since, recycling our sandals and knitting our own muesli etc. The only major changes we've made in the last few weeks have been that we've bought a book called "New Complete Self-sufficiency: The Classic Guide for Realists and Dreamers" by John Seymour, and got an allotment.

Oh, and started a blog.

I'll be adding pictures of the allotment, us planting seeds, things growing, being eaten by snails, that sort of stuff. The picture I've added to this post is a sunflower we grew last year. And I'll be posting about developments in our unashamedly beardy eco tie-dyed good life. Like, if Ed starts turing into Richard Briers.