Our Allotment: Summer 2022 Update

Reflecting on the couple of years since we first got our allotment plot it feels like we’ve really had everything thrown at us so far. From cold snaps and late harsh frosts to the recent record-breaking heat waves, and from periods of drought to the pretty disastrous flooding our plot suffered last year, each have provided us with lessons about how to manage the land and the different plants we’re growing within it. The sheer range of challenges and the tangible taste of a climate crisis playing out in front of our eyes has also reinforced why spending our time growing vegetables and connecting to the land in this way is so important to us. It’s not going to solve the problem, but we see it as one part of how we can be contributing to a solution. Plus it’s hard to keep the blinkers on when the effects are directly influencing the success or failure of our harvests.

I last posted this allotment update an entire year ago! Looking back at what I wrote, it was a positive post filled with hope and potential for the season that was unfolding. However, not longer after publishing, the UK weather was so consistently wet that the plot’s natural drainage just couldn’t keep up as the water table kept rising. We knew this was an issue in the more typically wet months during the winter and we had been gradually raising the level across the whole plot, but for this to happen in the height of summer wasn’t something we had expected and our efforts to raise the plot proved to be too slow. Many of our plants, including our row of fruit bushes and our runner beans, just couldn’t cope with the lack of drainage, quickly turned yellow and perished, while most of our potato harvest rotted in the ground. We had also already had big problems with what we’re sure was a mouse living in a neighbouring untended plot that had obliterated our strawberry, corn, parsnip and carrot harvests. As much as I always want to give an honest account and not a rose-tinted one, after all that I didn’t quite have the motivation to share an update as I was truly demoralised and upset. Thankfully there were some plants that managed to keep going and we did our best to salvage what we could of the season with “Blauhilde” French beans, some lovely spaghetti squashes, kabocha pumpkin, tomatoes and cucumbers which had been in pots or growbags, and some very cute “Patio Baby” aubergines.

Once the harvest season was largely finished (there are usually some brassicas and alliums to see us through the winter) our focus shifted to finishing the last of the construction of the plot. We made the decision to remove the polytunnel which although holding up pretty well against a number of storms, was starting to show signs of tearing. We also weren’t convinced we were making the most of it and now that we have a greenhouse in the garden which is much easier to manage in terms of heat and watering, it just made more sense to us to use the space differently. Thankfully we had taken it down before Storm Eunice otherwise it would have been a much messier process! We’ve kept the frame in place for now as we can use it for training plants over or hanging baskets. We also finally split our poor ancient rhubarb crown which gave at least 6 new plants, three of which are now thriving in our allotment and the others have gone to new homes. Rhubarb crowns benefit from being split roughly every 5 years so that they don’t become overcrowded which can weaken their growth. Since splitting ours, we haven’t been harvesting any rhubarb this season in order to give the plants a good rest so that they can be even stronger and more bountiful next year. Now we have three healthy plants we might start experimenting with forcing one each year to get a bit of an earlier, sweeter crop, and rotating through so the plants get a couple of years rest after the stress of being forced.

Young rhubarb thriving after splitting our ancient crown

I have to mention that Mark has been an absolute hero this year. I found out in January that I was expecting our first baby which was wonderful news and we were both absolutely thrilled, however I really struggled with severe nausea & sickness in the first trimester which left me pretty incapacitated. Thankfully all the construction of raised beds and structures had finished ahead of the spring so he was going to be more involved in the planting and planning anyway – it just ended up being a bit more of a baptism of fire for him! I have to say he has fully embraced everything about sowing seeds and growing and is absolutely loving it – I might have to fight my way back into the relationship! Jokes aside, it’s wonderful to have a partner in this sort of project that feels the benefits as viscerally as I do for our physical and mental health as well as for the planet, and at no point has he complained at having to do so much more of the work.

I am writing this post just as our harvest is reaching its peak and it’s such a joy after last year’s washout. So far this season we’ve enjoyed the biggest strawberry and pea harvests we’ve had so far as well as plenty of beetroot (my favourite is the bright pink and white striped “Chioggia” variety), and we’ve actually had more than a just a smattering of carrots so the mouse seems to have gone. This is most likely thanks to the neighbouring plot having a new owner and no longer providing the wild meadow of long mouse-friendly grasses for it to hide in! The strawberries in particular have been exquisitely sweet and we’ve been able to stock our freezer with those we couldn’t manage to eat fresh. Frozen strawberries are great for adding directly to smoothies, slowly softening with some sugar into a lovely coulis (which would go nicely with this Dutch Baby Pancake recipe), or eating straight from the freezer (a hot tip for anyone pregnant and looking for survival strategies during the hottest heatwave on record!).

A perfect pod
Beetroot “Chioggia”

We’re now entering into glut season for our Blauhilde French beans, runner beans, cucumbers and of course courgettes which always give us plenty to keep us busy in the kitchen. We’ll also be up to our ears in potatoes soon after Mark couldn’t bear seeing so many being left unsold in our local garden centre who had reduced bags of seed potatoes to 50p each! Our plot paths are full of compost bags, potato bags, well really any bag or receptacle that we could potentially throw a few seed potatoes in with the view that even if they don’t do very well we won’t have spent much. They all seem to be thriving though so I’ll be searching for all the potato recipes I can find – do share in the comments if you have a great potato recipe! While we wade through potatoes, our corn and winter squashes are coming on vigorously too so hopefully the late summer harvest will be just as bountiful. I certainly can’t complain – too many of any vegetable is a wonderful problem to have!

Courgette glut incoming!
Potatoes in compost bags wherever we have any spare space
These gorgeous red flowers have now been replaced with delicious runner beans

We have a number of flowers on our allotment so that we can cut them for arrangements in the house without cutting anything from our garden. Our dahlias have been going for two years now and with careful overwintering and splitting we’re managing to keep them going year after year meaning we can have beautiful cut flowers to brighten up the house without spending a penny or contributing to unsustainable flower-growing and importing. Plus we never manage to get all of them at their best so plenty of the flowers on each plant are left solely for pollinators. We’ve also got some lovely sunflowers which are also intended for cut flower arrangements. So far we’ve had two blooms appear in the heatwave, but I’ve only collected one as there was a bumble bee having a sleep in one of them – that definitely took priority over having it in a vase!

Dahlia “Molly Raven”
Fresh cut flowers without spending a penny (Sunflower print by silvaprints.com)

Although not technically on our allotment, our garden greenhouse is still an important part of the picture being home to seedlings earlier in the year and now to a lot of our cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and aubergines. I must admit it’s a bit of a jungle in there so we’re always keeping an eye on blight risk factors in case we need to move things around to increase the airflow. So far we’re getting a bumper cucumber harvest and they’re beautifully crisp and sweet. The chillies and tomatoes are gradually emerging after their naturally slower start, and I’m amazed that we have some bell peppers ripening too. The aubergines have plenty of flowers as well so I’ve got everything crossed for a few good fruits this time around.

Our garden greenhouse jungle
Tomato “Sungold”

It’s fascinating to me how life can really fall into a seasonal rhythm when you’re working with the land whether that’s growing your own food or foraging regularly. Doing both of these things is allowing my life to take on its own special rhythm where each of these activities naturally become the focus at different times. Right now the foraging landscape is in a lull phase where the spring and early summer greens and flowers have now finished and there’s a pause before the late summer fruits and autumn bounty begins. That’s not to say there’s nothing to gather – this time of year is great for collecting a number of seeds and I mustn’t forget the early blackberries, and it might be that these contrasts feel more stark this year with the intensely dry and hot weather we’ve had. It just struck me at some point that this slightly more fallow period is coinciding with the glut of vegetables we’re enjoying from our plot. While earlier in the year I was out foraging for wild greens and flowers, now I’m harvesting homegrown vegetables to use fresh or to try and preserve in various ways. Before I know it the glut will be over and it’ll be the winter squashes and brassicas left, but these can be enjoyed with wild mushrooms and the balance and focus will shift again. I don’t think I have a point to make here other than that it has been interesting to reflect on how the seasonal rhythm is taking shape and everything seems to have its special place within it, and it could look different for everyone depending on how you observe seasonality.

I think I’ll leave you with that thought…

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