Our Allotment: Winter Plot Update

Oh February…

This time last year was wet, our plot was flooded in places, but generally only where we still needed to build raised beds. The temperature was largely quite mild, and there was no snow to speak of in London. Oh how times have changed as we’re granted yet more – ahem – learning opportunities. We’ve seen higher water levels than even our plot neighbours can remember, small patches of algae have taken up residence in our flooded paths, and the standing water has frozen over more than once. All we can really do is wait until the water level drops and the weather warms up, but it can be difficult not to get impatient. It’s this time of year when there’s little planting and harvesting to do that we’d love to get on with construction jobs, but any sort of digging of waterlogged soil is generally considered a bad idea, and digging frozen soil – well that’s just impossible.

On the bright side, there are buds and shoots quietly standing by until the conditions are right for them to burst into life. The crocuses and narcissi we planted last year have peeped out from underground, and the blackcurrant has formed its gorgeous tiny pink buds. They don’t seem to be in any rush and I suppose I can take inspiration and comfort from them. If they aren’t feeling the hurry, perhaps I can feel a little more patient too?

On the harvest front, we pulled up last of the fennel at the end of autumn, and the sprouts and parsnips just before Christmas which turned out to be absolutely huge, but still really delicious. I was worried that not many had germinated in the little space we had set aside for them, but I needn’t have been concerned as one parsnip ended up being the equivalent of about four from the market! I can tell you that it felt pretty good eating our own sprouts and parsnips with our Christmas dinner and I’m learning so much about keeping the plot productive throughout the winter. Our kale and perpetual spinach are still going strong and we’re waiting on our cabbages to get a little bigger and our purple sprouting broccoli to flower. It’s an early sprouting variety so I’m a tiny bit worried that it hasn’t already, but I’m determined not to give up on it yet as we took last year’s out far too early. I’ve got no reason to believe it won’t flower at all, but if it doesn’t do anything by the time I’m planting out the new season’s seedlings then I don’t think I’ll be trying it again. They are mightily big plants so that space would be much better off dedicated to something else. That said – I’m not making any rash decisions!

Now is about the time of year where we should be splitting our rhubarb which we didn’t manage to do last winter. I’m a bit worried that it’s looking like we might get our timing wrong again this year. We certainly can’t do it while the ground is frozen as it’s really huge and will be a beast to dig up, and if we were to dig it up now we don’t actually have the area prepped for the separated new plants to be transferred to. I think we’re going to have to split it as soon as the ground warms enough and plant the new plants out into large pots that we’ll keep in the polytunnel until the new bed is ready. Our poor rhubarb has definitely survived through its fair share of neglect and hardship before we got our plot! I honestly can’t wait to give it a birthday and let it flourish again into a much healthier plant. It seems harsh, but splitting out all the hard, tough woody parts is the best thing for it!

While I might not be able to get much done outdoors, I’m making up for it by ordering this year’s seeds and organising my now arguably quite excessive collection. We were caught out last year when lockdown hit and we found it really difficult to source seeds, leaving us with limited options and basically taking whatever we could get. Over the last year I’ve collated a list of varieties that people have recommended on Instagram or elsewhere (in a spreadsheet no less) and got my orders in during January, giving plenty of time for them to be delivered.

This year I’m particularly excited about growing some new tomato varieties such as the beef tomato “Costoluto Fiorentino” which I’ve heard has a lovely flavour, as well as cucumber “Crystal Lemon” which is a small, round variety with a very satisfying crisp texture. I’m planning to grow more container-friendly varieties such as “Tumbling Tom” tomatoes, dwarf beans and some wild strawberries. Using more pots will allow us to maximise our space, especially if we can install a number of hanging baskets which I think would give a lovely visual interest too. I also have a few winter kale and cabbage varieties planned given that our kale as really kept us going through the colder months, and I’m especially excited to try the “Red Russian” variety.

It’s still far too early to be planting much, but I’ve started off some chillies, peppers and aubergines under grow lights to try and give them the longest growing season I can as they are notorious for needing a really long time to fruit and ripen (a mistake I most certainly made last year). I can’t wait for March and April so I can start sowing seeds in earnest!

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