Where Did The Summer Go?!

Well.  It’s been ages since I wrote a post and I do feel bad about it, honestly I do.  I’ve kept thinking about it and meaning to do it but somehow … you know how it is.  Sometimes life just takes over and before you know where you are, despite all your good intentions, you simply fall behind with the things you really want to do.  My intention with this post is to bring you up to date with what I’ve been doing over the summer – just an outline or I’d be here all day and you’d lose the will to live.  Future posts can go into it all in much more detail.  Here we go:

At Hartington Wakes with Mr P. A great day out.
This year’s apple crop – absolutely delicious!

The Allotment

It’s been a funny old year, hasn’t it, at least weather wise?  I don’t know what the hell’s going on but we had the most god-awful winter which went on forever, had no spring at all but skipped straight to summer and, no sooner had I started to think that was endless too, we then launched straight into full on autumn.  One minute we’d got 30 degrees C, and the next I was getting out my scarves and gloves, while some bloody no-life-numpty started bleating on about Christmas and isn’t it great that it’s only 20 weeks away or some such bollocks.  Well, no.  Frankly, it isn’t and it’s way too soon to be thinking about that.  And I’m getting sidetracked already!  The prolonged dry spell, with no mains water on site, affected the broad beans particularly badly; growth was stunted, resulting in a poor crop.  The new potatoes, likewise, were ‘all tops and no bottoms’ – the potatoes themselves were a reasonable size but there were too few of them.  I had better luck with the runner beans until a recent high wind ripped them out of the ground, leaving a right old mess.  The high points were the perpetual spinach – the plant that keeps on giving – the apples which are so much better than last year, and the plums which have been absolutely amazing; plentiful, juicy, sweet, and delicious.

Some of this year’s fabulous plums – I scoffed them shamelessly!
Supper!
Canes just make your allotment look so much better!

Preserves

I had to do something with all those plums, so we’ve got plum and cinnamon jam (sounds strange but delicious), and a plum and apple chutney which could well be Blow-Your-Bum-Off chutney, as I went a bit mad with the spices – we’ll see in about another four weeks’ time when it’s ready to eat.  Runner beans, gooseberries, and raspberries are in the freezer, along with stewed apple in various guises.

More Chickens!

Just over a month ago, I became the proud and slightly frightened owner of four rescue hens.  Liberated from a commercial barn environment, these girls had never seen grass or daylight, looked rather scruffy,   and were surprisingly (and rather alarmingly) feisty.  After being quarantined for two weeks, they were released to be with my existing flock who didn’t stand a chance.  Poor Hilda, Evadne, Ada, and Cissy were jumped on, pecked at and generally bullied into submission but this only lasted two days, after I threatened the new girls with the soup pot or being taken back where they’d come from.  In a bizarre display of chicken-ness, they are now all happily sharing a coop – I hadn’t intended this, and had spent ages renovating the wooden chicken coop for the new girls.  There’s gratitude for you!

Poor Hilda – fancy having that stuck up your no-no!

Chicken Nursing

Damn.  My first poorly chicken, poor old Hilda had the remains of a soft-shelled egg poking out of her bottom, with a soft-shelled egg stuck behind that.  Much TLC was required but she recovered really well and is now fine and dandy, and laying again.  I’m happy to talk more about this in another post if you think it’s of interest and don’t mind me talking about chickens’ bums and poo.

Work-Life Balance

Aha, now this is a definite positive!  As of the 1st October, I became a part-timer.  This is something I’d been considering for some time, talking to my (very supportive) boss, working out finances, worrying about the effect on my pension, blah blah blah.  In the end, I decided to just do it.  I had what turned out to be a relatively minor health scare earlier this year and, at the end of the day, it’s no use having a pension if I drop dead before I get to collect it.  I need to be happy now, instead of putting it off and saying ‘Oh well, I’ll do such and such, and be happy when I retire’ – I could be dead next week so I’ll take the gamble that I’ll have something better than cold baked beans to live on when I retire.  Tomorrow will be my first day off, and the first day of my new life.  I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

Cake competition at Hartington Wakes. I could eat this and die happy.

What Next?

That’s sort of up to you!  I’ve decided to let you choose what I write about next.  Do you want to hear more about the allotment, the chickens or is there something else I’ve not covered which you think would be interesting or useful to read about? Please let me know – I love hearing from you!

Allotment: Weather & Wildlife Woes

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my allotment, I really do but just at the minute it feels like I might as well be banging my head against a brick wall.  It’d certainly be less frustrating!  I’ve been working hard on my plot for the last year, battling against waist-high weeds to try to carve out something even vaguely resembling a productive patch of ground.  Until relatively recently, I had felt as if I was getting somewhere; I’d had much of my patch under thick black plastic for months on end, I’d manured a couple of areas last winter ready for planting in spring.  Over winter, when anyone possessed of their sanity was keeping warm indoors, I was trogging up to the plot and digging over as much of the ground as possible, removing the roots of perennial weeds feet long, and picking out what seemed like a quarry-full of stones, setting them aside for use around the shed.  I ordered seeds, three blueberry bushes which overwintered in the shed, and dreamed and waited for spring.  And waited.  And waited …

Spring never really arrived.  It seemed that one of the worst winters I can remember surrendered abruptly to the advent of summer.  And what a summer – it looks set to rival 1976!  Our allotments, you may recall, have no running water and we are entirely reliant on what we collect from our shed rooves into water butts.  My water butts were full but, with no rain to speak of in over two months, they’ve run almost dry.  In desperation I ordered four 10-litre jerry cans.  Now I wish I’d ordered twice that.  Today I made two trips to the allotment, each with the jerry cans and half a dozen 2-litre milk containers saved for the purpose – 104 litres in total – in an effort to top up at least one of the five water butts.

Jerry cans at the ready!
Everything’s stunted, including these broadbeans.

At this point I’d like to stress that I’m not filling these straight from the tap but have pressganged Mr P into joining me in putting the plug in the bath when we have showers, and saving the washing up water.  Doing this makes you acutely aware of how much water you use in the space of just one day, and much more careful not to waste any – I’ve found I can wash my hands perfectly well with just a trickle!  However, as regards the allotment, with the best will in the world all this dry, hot weather is taking its toll.  Basically, things are refusing to grow, and any produce I might have expected or hoped for is puny to say the least.

Hope the voles don’t notice these swedes coming though!

Raspberries are tiny but very raspberry-ish.  Broadbeans are stunted so are producing very little though, again, what they are giving me is very tasty.

Voles leave these tell-tale signs – the little buggers!

On top of all this, I’m having a god-awful time with voles.  The sodding things are tunnelling their way through every  bed, chomping on seeds and seedlings as they go, leaving holes everywhere.  Moles are burrowing underneath and disturbing my planting, and my broadbeans are afflicted with blackfly.  Like I said, banging my head against a brick wall!  The old chap on the allotment in front of mine says he’s been doing this allotment lark for fifty years and can’t remember a worse year for growing produce.  God only knows how farmers are managing.  Mr P and I ran into one of the village farmers the other evening in the pub and got a bit of the lowdown.  Grass isn’t growing and is so dry there’s little nutrition in it so livestock are having fodder taken out to them.  Water pressure is lower than usual and troughs located uphill from the farms aren’t filling so farmers are having to take water out to them.  What’s happening on arable farms and with vegetable producers I can’t imagine; apparently lettuce stops growing above 30-degrees centigrade.  I think we should all prepare for having to cough up more for fruit and veg over the coming months.

Blackfly have destroyed this broadbean plant.
Slim pickings but better than nothing!

Basically, I’m feeling frustrated, and a bit pissed off to be frank.  I’m caught in a gardening Bermuda Triangle of worries relating to weather and wildlife.  It would be easy to give up and hand over the allotment to someone on the waiting list.

But it’s still a beautiful place to be, it’s still the place that keeps me sane, and besides, I’m not a quitter.  To paraphrase Scarlett O’Hara, 2019 is another year!

Allotment Worries And Woes: A Sense of Inadequacy

My website is connected to Twitter and Facebook.  These days I don’t use Facebook as much as I once did, not necessarily because of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal (though that is a concern), but because Twitter has suddenly grabbed my attention.  In part this is because it’s awash with shepherds, farmers, gardeners, and allotmenteers all tweeting away with useful hints and tips, not to mention cute pictures of lambs.  It’s also because I’m somewhat obsessed with anything to do with rural life and am somehow living vicariously through other people’s seemingly wonderful lives – even though I know that it’s all bloody hard work.  Yes, rural life is more about feeding the soul than the bank account, this I know.

Lambs having fun getting into the hay feeder.

There’s a fly in the Twitter firmament though.  All these gardeners and allotmenteers, whose tweets and blogs I read, enjoy, and inwardly digest, are annoyingly good at it, far more organized than I am, much more experienced, and, quite frankly, I’m getting just a little bit pissed off.  Everyone’s wonderfully supportive and helpful but, even so, I’m starting to feel just a little bit inadequate! Don’t they ever have seeds which fail to germinate?  Don’t they ever buy completely the wrong tool for the job?  Or suffer attacks of the heebie-jeebies worrying if they’ll ever produce anything at all that’s even vaguely edible once they’ve cut out the manky bits?  Don’t they ever feel like, well, like a fake?  I definitely do.

All this is putting me very much in touch with a sense of my own inadequacy; what if I’m not up to the job and actually don’t produce any edible crops?  I don’t want to fail, who does?  However, to date my successes are few and far between.  When I took over my allotment, about a year ago, it was a beautiful, tangled mess of wildflowers and weeds.  There was no shed, no water; you couldn’t even really see where beds had been.

I do like an organized shed.

Now, there’s a brand spanking new shed, on a site I levelled myself, complete with shelves I put up myself (do yourself a favour – don’t buy metal shelving units from B&Q), hooks to hold my tools, and a kitchen unit/butchers’ block bought from a charity shop to act as storage/potting bench.  There’re blue plastic barrels bought for £2.50 from the local brickworks which act as water butts.

Blue plastic barrels. Cheap and cheerful.

I’ll admit I was grateful to Mr P for carrying them up the sloping site but I could’ve done the guttering and downpipe myself if he’d let me.  I connected the barrels together with a bit of plastic pipe … basically, I did pretty much everything myself.  I don’t want to eat chemicals so I’m clearing the site the hard way … by hand, digging out the most enormous perennial weeds – nettle, dock, couch grass, and dandelion.  It’s back-breaking work but strangely satisfying and it has a practical purpose – to feed us.  I’m proud of what I’ve achieved on my own.  But oh, it is taking time to get going.

Apparently it can take up to 21 days for broad beans to show their faces.  I planted some at the allotment and about 10 days later, as a sort of experiment, planted some in loo roll innards (I wish someone would come up with a one-word name for them) and put them on the window sill in the sitting room.  A couple of days ago I came home and was beyond excited to find that a broad bean had finally germinated.  I was so excited I couldn’t do anything except point and say “broad bean, broad bean, broad bean!!!”  The trouble is, nothing’s happened since.  And I do mean Nothing.  Nada.  Ne rien.  What am I doing wrong?!

A lone broad bean …
Leeks are germinating!

It’s not that everything’s refusing to grow.  I’m having some success with anything floral; the nasturtiums are going great guns, the sunflowers are coming up trumps, and the French marigolds are doing well too.  But the tomatoes were looking very leggy and weedy so I’ve planted them deep in their 3″ pots, and the squash aren’t looking as if they’re going to do anything at all at the minute.  Ok, so the leeks are doing really well and I’m happy to plant more but Mr P and I can’t just live on nasturtiums, sunflower seeds, and leeks (if anyone’s got a recipe which requires all three, please let me know).

The question is, what can I do?  I can only keep going I suppose, try to be patient, refuse to be browbeaten by vegetables, and resort to alcohol.  I’ll have a ‘Pissed as Arseholes’ cocktail, thank you very much.  Well, it is a bank holiday weekend.  Chin chin!! 

‘Pissed as Arseholes’ – a subtle blend of champagne, raspberry & blackcurrant vodka, and fresh raspberries.

 

Please feel completely free to contact me about anything at all.  All gardening advice gratefully received or we can just talk about cocktails we have known and loved.

The Allotment: In the Beginning …

I can recommend this book!

In the beginning, there was a woman who had always wanted an allotment but was thwarted at every turn in her attempt to get one.  Great word, ‘thwarted’, don’t you think?  Anyway, this woman had tried council run allotments, privately run allotments, had literally knocked on doors and asked “Please, can I have an allotment?” but all to no avail.  Eventually, discouraged by this and by frightening stories of waiting lists years long, she gave up and told herself it just wasn’t to be.  Then, one day, just as things seemed hopeless, she moved to a Peak District village and, almost overnight, everything changed …

Ok, this isn’t really a fairy story though things really did change in what sometimes seems like a miraculous way.  Basically, about 15 months ago I moved to Youlgreave, which is a really lovely village of about 1000 people.  It has a thriving community, there’s lots going on, there’s a Post Office, a vegetarian bakery ( https://www.peakfeast.co.uk/ ) a village shop with a cafe, and best of all so far as Mr P is concerned THREE pubs!  Yes, that’s right, a village of 1000 people with three pubs – fabulous!  Of these, The Farmyard ( http://www.farmyardinn.co.uk/ ) was our favourite as it does really good food (I can recommend the beef shortrib) and has a great atmosphere.  But I digress.  I moved there because Mr P and I wanted to see more of each other but weren’t ready to live together yet.  A few months later we did move in together but at the time I really thought I’d be in Youlgreave for at least a year to 18 months and I wanted to feel settled there.

Youlgreave (or Youlgrave) in the spring sunshine. Last year obviously!

Mr P may have been impressed by the pubs but, for me, the exciting thing was that there were allotments.  More than one lot of allotments in fact!  I immediately put my name down for one in what I thought was vain hope rather than in anticipation of success.  Anyone who has ever tried to get an allotment knows that it can be a terrible waiting game and is often a case of ‘dead man’s shoes’.  To say I was amazed to get a letter offering me a plot just a few weeks later would be an understatement.  I got back straight away to say I was interested, and arranged to meet the Parish Clerk at the allotment site.

At this point, for anyone reading this who doesn’t know anything about allotments, I’ll give you a potted history.  An allotment is a small plot of land, traditionally measured in ‘poles’.  Most plots are 10 poles in size which equates to around 2,700 sq.ft, and generally laid out as a rectangle of 33 x 82 ft.  This is pretty generous and can be a bit much for a lot of us so many are divided up into half or even quarter plots which means people can stay on top of them and more of us get to enjoy them.  These plots of land can be used to grow fruit, vegetables, and sometimes flowers, depending on the rules of each particular allotment site.  During the 18th century people were increasingly prevented from accessing what had been common land by the Enclosure Acts, thereby being denied the ability to grow their own food and graze their animals.  More and more land was closed off from ordinary people who became understandably peeved about this.  Eventually, the unrest made posh people nervous so councils began allotting pieces of land to those in need.  In 1906 this was enacted into a law which decreed that ‘allotments’ must be set aside for the poor in both the countryside and the towns.  Things really took off during the two world wars.  People had to be fed and the WWII ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign had people digging up their gardens, while allotments numbered a staggering 1.5 million – that’s a lot of veg!

Image result for dig for victory Things tailed off somewhat once things picked up in the 1960s when people had more money and food was cheaper but, more recently, allotments have experienced something of a renaissance, hence the waiting lists which, in some areas, can be years long.  However, that doesn’t mean things are looking rosy;  allotments are under the ever-present threat of development, and there are fewer sites than previously.  But there is a clause in the law which states that if enough people (understood to be six or more) submit a written request for an allotment, the council must provide them.  Whether this actually happens I don’t know – it might help if people wanting allotments could band together and keep track of how many people have asked for them so that they can pursue the matter with the council if they don’t get a satisfactory outcome.

Anyway, to get back to the matter in hand, I trogged up to the allotment site to view what I understood was a half-plot. It’s actually 58 x 38 ft.  I hoped to find a patch of land in relatively reasonable shape, perhaps even with a shed.  What I was faced with was, to say the least, rather daunting.  A shed had stood there once but had been dismantled and been left to the weather, while annual and perennial weeds stood almost waist high in places so that it was nigh on impossible to see where the beds were.  But oh my … that view!

The view from my allotment shed. Beat that if you can!

Situated on a south-facing slope, these allotments have a 360 degree view; behind us are fields of sheep and lambs, ahead is the view across the dale, while in the far left distance are the moors, with wooded areas to the right.  On a gloomy day it’s lovely and relaxing, but on a sunny day it’s near-tear inducingly beautiful.

 

 

Where the hell do you start?!

Also in its favour was the fact that, buried under the weeds, were things I would have planted myself; a handful of immature fruit trees which might produce in future, blackcurrant and gooseberry bushes, and both summer and autumn fruiting raspberries.  So I said yes, paid the princely sum of £12 for a year’s rent and the plot was mine!  All I had to do now was clear the plot of weeds, get the soil in shape, buy a shed, organize a rainwater collection system, plan the plot, learn how to grow things …!

The main bed covered with black plastic held down by pallets begged from a building site.

Unsure where to start with all this, I decided the best plan of attack was to just start by strimming down the weeds so that I could see where the beds were and stand a chance of being able to clear them.  Right from the beginning I knew I didn’t want to use chemicals, so there were no weedkillers, and I resisted advice from some quarters to rotavate the beds; if you’ve got perennial weeds, a rotavator just chops the roots into little bits, each of which can become a new plant – yikes!  In the end, I dug up as many of the weeds as I could and covered the beds with thick black plastic.  I bought this from B&Q and it’s the stuff builders use as a damp-proof membrane under concrete floors so it’s really thick.  This is important for blocking the light out so the weeds can’t grow.  At this point, I then left most of the beds covered like this for months while I concentrated on finding a shed.

In my next post about the allotment I’ll be talking about the shed, how important it is to me, and dealing with the difficulties of a site with no running water or electricity.

I’d love to hear to hear from you with feedback, comments, and will do my best to answer any questions.  If you have experience of growing your own produce, I’d really like to hear about it – I have so much to learn!  So please do use the form below to get in touch.

Chasing the dream: Keeping it real

Like a lot of people who love the country, I dream of running a smallholding.  Nothing fancy or too big – just an acre or two would do it; just enough space for a couple of pigs, a handful of sheep, more chickens, and a vegetable plot and fruit trees.

You might wonder why I’m not already doing this and I’m afraid the answer is boringly predictable … money or, rather, the lack of it.  When I divorced, I had sufficient cash to buy a flat and not doing so is one of my biggest regrets.  I didn’t do it because it would have taken all I had, I was a student at the time (very mature, of course!), and any income from renting it out wouldn’t have been enough to live on.  Now, with hindsight, I think perhaps I could have found a way to make it work.  If I’d done that, I might have made some sort of profit which could go into a new place with Mr P.  But I didn’t, so that’s that.  I just wasn’t brave enough I suppose. Anyway, after that, I took the money I had and invested it in an education, studying for a PhD full-time.  I was self-funded and I did take on teaching work when it was available but it’s amazing how fast your nest-egg gets depleted, not to mention depressing and slightly scary.

Today, of course, I’m happily living with Mr P in our rented cottage which is fine for the time being but can’t be a permanent solution.  You’d think two divorcees might be able to afford something rather nice but our means, as well as our aspirations, are modest.  Though I’m a full-time academic earning relatively good money (but probably not as good as you think) and Mr P is something important sounding, prices round here (and our respective ages of 52 and 53) mean we can’t look beyond a terraced cottage with a couple of bedrooms and a back garden.  For instance, a small terraced cottage in the village, which is in need of everything doing, is up for sale for £260k.  A one and a half acre parcel of grazing land is for sale just a mile up the road for £17k.  As for getting a house which comes with land actually attached to it?  Well, they’re not easy to find and I doubt we’d find anything for much less than £500k.  Certainly we won’t be in a position to buy the house and couple of acres we’d really like, unless one of us has a long-lost relative who’s somehow made  a million without us knowing!

So, in the absence of miracles, I’m doing what I can, to get as close as I can, to The Dream.  There is ‘The Plan’ for a start.  This is essentially a notebook dedicated to The Dream, divided into sections such as and trying to come up with ideas and schemes for making it work in the event of The Miracle.  Importantly though, breaking down The Dream into smaller chunks means I can see which parts of it I might be able to achieve without divine intervention.

A section of The Plan – you know what they say? Failure to plan is planning to fail!

 

Just having The Plan makes me feel better and I add to it now and again as things develop.  For example, I have the allotment and the girls – both of which will be covered extensively on my blog as time goes on.  For the time being, I’m spending time on both of those projects and, to be honest, I have my hands pretty full with them!  The allotment was very overgrown when I took it on last May and hadn’t really been productive for some time so, as a complete beginner, it’s a steep learning curve.  As a novice chicken-keeper, I had a lot to learn when the girls arrived last July.  Saying I’m a beginner, and a novice, is really code for “I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing”.  On the other hand, my chickens are thriving and producing an egg a day each, despite the Arctic-like conditions we’re currently experiencing.  Plus, the allotment is getting clearer all the time and I’ve even managed to put some manure on some of the beds!  Nevertheless, my lack of knowledge IS an issue and has led to something of a crisis of confidence when it comes to actually planting anything.  It’s one thing to draw up allotment plans on graph paper, dig up weeds, and chuck a load of shit about, and another thing entirely to start planting things.  I mean, people will be able to see what I’m doing and my mistakes will be on public display.  In front of experienced allotmenteers.  Bloody hell!

So, what does an academic do when faced with a lack of knowledge? Books, books and more sodding books!  I could single-handedly stock a library section on allotments, vegetable growing, and poultry-keeping.  Here are some of my favourites:

This is the first book I bought and I’ve read it cover to cover many times. Incredibly useful and highly recommended.
Bought in a charity shop, this is great for a beginner.
Completely inspiring and very, very, down to earth! It even shows you how to butcher your meat.
The classic, updated. The go-to book for losing yourself in a good daydream.

 

Of course, I also need practical, hands-on experience.  With that in mind, I’ve booked myself on a lambing course in just over a week’s time, and have thereafter volunteered my services to a local farmer whose lambs are due in April.  I can’t say yet whether all this research and planning will pay off but if I ever do achieve The Dream, I’ll perhaps be less likely to make a complete cods-up of it, and it certainly makes me feel better.  Plus, being the geek that I am, I really enjoy it!  It gives me the sense that I’m doing something, moving towards the kind of future I want, taking control of it, rather than just sitting and wishing and waiting.