Tuesday, 26 May 2009

The green revolution!!

Since getting the allotment we've become more and more aware of our carbon footprint and the amount of waste that we generate. We've made a concerted effort to stop being so lazy and recycle as much material as we possibly can. At home, its easy as our apartment waste company provides us with recycling bins in the development. But rather than just recycle all of our recyclables we've been looking at how we can reuse them aswell. We pilfered some wood that was lying around our development and have also made arrangements to liberate a friend of their left over decking to edge our beds. I managed to 'aquire' some 18L water cooler bottles from work to use as giant DIY cloches, and Jemma and Eoin, and Cillian and I are considering getting a 'can o worms' composter for our balconies. During our last visit to the allotment we found that the slugs have been having a field day with our rhubarb which now looks like its had an encounter with Elmer Fudd and his shotgun!! I've been keeping all empty jars and plastic bottles to make into beer traps as our lettuce is planted near the rhubarb and is coming up so well they are going to require some protection from the slug patrols. We tried two types of beer as we are interested in finding out what our slimy friends favourite tipple would be, good old reliable miller or perhaps they have a more exotic palate and would prefer Tsing Tsao. We were all ready to set the traps and we realised we hadn't brought a bottle opener!! clever!! But Jemma came to the rescue and somehow managed to get the bottles open with a garden fork!! ah garden forks, theres no limit to what they can do!!
We sank the jam jars in the ground and began to distribute the beer, one for me, one for the slugs, one for me, one for the slugs, which quickly became one for me, and one for me,....hic! So our experiment is set and we'll find out next week if our slugs prefer miller genuine draft or Tsing Tsao,..I only hope they don't prefer carlsberg!!

The weather was beautiful over the weekend up in the Wicklow hills and everyone was out on the allotment with full summer fever. We dug the last of our beds and Cillian and Eoin now have their thoughts on fishing since all of their work is pretty much done. We planted up some broccoli seedlings into one bed and some brussells sprouts in the other. Our final bed is dug and we'll be hopefully putting in a few seed potatoes next week and thats it, we've finally run out of space!!! nearly all of plot 103 is either allocated or growing something. If theres anything else we need to plant we'll have to do it through catch cropping or intercropping under widely spaced plants such as the sprouts which use up a lot of space and don't need it until later on.

There was a nice surprise in the pea and bean bed as we found a lone survivor from the marauding bands of squirrels...one bean had managed to germinate and stood proudly in the middle of the bed...first leaves aloft...
The peas and beans we resowed have germinated and should be ready to join this survivor in a couple of weeks. Sweetcorn, Pumpkins and courgette plants have also germinated on the balcony and should be ready in a few weeks to go out onto the plot.
After all our work, we had to have what would hopefully be the first of many barbeques on plot 103 and threw a few burgers on to keep us going. I also took myself on a little walk to see what local flora and fauna we have around the site...Robbie our allotment neighbour a couple of plots up managed to get a fantastic photograph of a deer and her fawn on sunday morning standing in the sunshine among the trees staring right at him. I wandered around along the river at the back of plot 103 to survey the bluebells which are past their best at the moment but still looking stunning ..........and thats when it happened!!!!!... I came to the startling realisation that all was not the pretty beautiful idyllic landscape I thought it was,....something was lurking in the bluebells...something hideous!..something horrid..and crawly... .something that could ruin all my plans for a beautiful summer in the coutryside.....an abomination!!!!! It was an enourmous...gigantic...hairy.....fluttering...leggy.....GIANT PEACOCK BUTTERFLY!!!!!!!!

Go on, laugh.. you may well find this hilarious, but I on the other hand am absolutely terrified of these creatures, and I don't mean 'oh its really gross!' disliking them, I am gripped by pure terror upon the very sight of these things and tend to run squeeling like a small pig running from the butchers blade. I don't understand where the fear came from, and I can see why people find them beautiful, they truly are, and have magnificant colours,...just keep them away from me!! The earliest realisation of this purely irrational fear I have was when I was 11 and in the girl guides. We went on a trip to the butterfly farm in Co. Kildare and in the butterfly house I entered with enthusiasm, everyone else was amazed at the beauty of these rare creatures...over a period of 10 minutes I felt the apprehension turn to fear and then to pure terror and ran screaming out of the building, which was covered in net and made it even more difficult to get out. On my way I squashed a dozen rare and endangered species of butterfly and never looked back. I screamed and screamed until they brought me into the lizard house where they let me hold a very cool lizard who's head you could see right through and I finally calmed down. Since then I've known I am truly afraid of these things. But I refuse to let these creatures ruin my allotment experience. I mentioned before that my other hobby is photography and decided this allotment lark is going to have to be my rehabilitation plan, and I couldn't let a photo of a peacock butterfly sitting on some bluebells in the sunshine escape me. So I crept up to the creature with my heart pounding in my chest, as close as I dared ...clicked.....and ran squeeling like a pig from the butchers blade....but I got a nice shot so here it is. Step one of the rehabilitation plan...I will reduce my fear of this monster by the end of the summmer and let you know how I get on.

Monday, 18 May 2009

It's life Jim!!...................

It poured rain all weekend so we didn't get much done on plot 103 but we did brave the elements to check on things on Sunday. Obviously we were the only ones silly enough to go out to the plot in the pouring rain and there was no sign of any of our allotment neighbours. We were greeted with a lovely sight as signs of life are poking through in all corners after the week of rain we've had.
The onions are doing really well with bright green tops getting longer by the minute!
The salads we sowed last week have all germinated as have all of our carrots and parsnips, and were poking through. You can see em if you look really close! I aplogise for the poor quality of the photos this week, but it was pouring rain and as photography is my other hobby, I love my camera too much to risk getting it too wet. (plug: you can see my online photography gallery of arty farty pics on www.pix.ie/sharonl) Last week we sowed lollo rossa, ice queen, butterhead and rocket, and three varieties of carrot, Autumn king, yellowstone and chantennay on the bank holiday.

We planted out some cabbage and cauliflower plants and protected them from the cabbage white butterfly by covering with the cheap netting I got from Lidl which turned out to be a great buy! The butterfly will lay its eggs on brassicas if it can get at them and before you know it, the catterpillars that hatch will have stripped your plants bare. With seedlings in, at least the allotment is starting to actually look like its doing something rather than just some empty dug out beds.
On the pest front we took a trip into town to Mr. Middletons garden shop on Mary street, Dublin. I could have stayed there all day!! the place is better than any garden centre and is obviously geared more towards the allotment grower. They were selling bunches of 25 cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and sprout seedlings for 3.99euro!!! Now thats what I'm talking about! I always found it strange in regular garden centres that they could charge 4 or 5 euro for maybe 4 or 6 seedlings! Thats nearly more expensive than the supermarket! You see I have a problem when it comes to garden centres, and its not necessarily just garden centres...well... any shop really that stock plants or seeds. I can't resist them, its gotten so bad that even when we go to the supermarket, Cillian has taken to shielding my eyes if there is a stand of seeds or some new plants on display and he has, on occasion had to physically drag me out of garden centres! Yes, I'm ashamed to admit it but I have a problem!! However, Mr. Middletons shop is one I'll certainly be returning to. I picked up some Nema-Sys vine weevil killer. As far as I know they are the only stockists in the country of this product which is completely organic and consists of around 12million little living nematodes per pack. The nematodes are microscopic worm-like parasites that infect and kill the vine weevil grubs but are harmless to anything else. They already live in the soil but not in sufficient quantities to control a vine weevil problem. So you're really just giving nature a helping hand which suits us perfectly as we are going to take the organic approach and not use chemicals. We applied some on Sunday to the onion bed, where I first saw the grubs a number of weeks back, the carrot bed and the pea and bean bed both of which are close by. Hopefully this will sort out any potential vine weevil problems before they start.
Mr. Middletons is a handy place to visit also if you loose your seedlings for whatever reason and are too late in the season to start again from scratch. You can buy seedlings in fairly large numbers for a very reasonable price to replace your losses. I hope we won't be in that position this year but its nice to know its not the end if things don't quite work out.

Monday, 11 May 2009

A Midnight Raid!!

On Saturday it became very clear that somebody doesn't like us digging on plot103!! We arrived to see some fine beans that we had sown last weekend in places they really shouldn't have been! One or 2 on our 'sort of' paths, one or two in the carrot bed, and the more we looked, the more we found! Upon further inspection we could see little footprints running the length of the drills where the beans and peas had been direct sown! and at the corner of the bed, the culprit even had the cheek to place every fine bean we had sown in a neat little pile as a statement. This was pure mockery of our hard work...'dig in my field will ye!!' While we have chosen to give shop bought veg the two fingers, the local wildlife has clearly decided to give us the two fingers!!!
William the allotment guru reckons it was squirrels as there are a lot of them in the trees surrounding plot 103. And somehow I can't see birds leaving the beans in such a neat pile. Yes, this certainly has the hallmarks of a particularly bitter and vengefull rodent! and of course squirrels are known to carry a grudge! So our new plan of attack is to put our balconies back into a rediculous state temporarily, grow them up to seedling stage and then transplant them into the bed. I've sown new bean and pea plants in newspaper pots, and since they dug up the beans and peas, the squirrels would certainly have dug up sweetcorn so I've sown some sweetcorn on the balcony which will also be transplanted later.
Jemma and Eoin arrived down to plot 103 on Saturday in a unique form of transport! Its become very obvious that we really need a wheelbarrow, I don't know how we've survived without so far. They also brought 2 nice new shiny buckets so we will no longer be borrowing those belonging to William the allotment guru. Jemma has declared a personal war on weeds and we spent a large part of Saturday clearing sods from our 'sort of' paths and pulling some weeds. We also prepared the salad bed and sowed some rocket, lollo rossa, ice queen and butterhead lettuces, aswell as some spinach. The onions are doing very well and now all have lovely bright green tops showing.
Unfortunately, the gale force winds we had during the week proved just too much for my carrot fly barrier, we arrived to see it in a disheveled state after someone kindly tried to tie it back onto the stakes, (and did a pretty good job too) after it made a break for freedom. So we've decided we're just going to have to take our chances with the carrot fly and hope that the smell of the onion bed on one side, and leeks on the other will prove too much for them. We've also edged the bed with chives and sown spring onions between the rows, so we'll hope for the best. Cillian and Eoin got two of the Brassica beds dug and prepared and knowing now that we have acidic soil, we applied some lime to soak in before we sow seeds or transplant seedlings.
I made it down to Lidl on Saturday and managed to pick up one of the cheap fishing rods going, which turned out to be pretty good! It came with little tweezers/pliers type things for pulling the hook out of the fishes mouth, and a little box of tackle full of spinners hooks and lures. Not bad for 25 euros! We gave it a go and Cillian caught the first fish of the season...a small trout. As he was a bit small we threw him back but it was a promising start. I, on the other hand caught a tree, a bush, some weeds, a rock, a tree root and even my own sleeve! but alas no fish! but by Sunday my casting had improved and I wasn't catching my hook on the weeds or anything else quite as much, so we'll get there.
On the pest side, we found adult vine weevil, the war is on!! These ugly beetles lay up to a thousand eggs over the season and these hatch into vine weevil grubs, one of which we found a couple of weeks ago while digging the beds. The grubs eat away at the roots of plants and the adults will nibble U shaped notches in any vegetative leaves. He was duly squished and the search is now on for an organic solution for the launch of a full scale attack! This is WAR!!

Friday, 8 May 2009

And now for the science bit!!

Jemma and I are both scientists by profession, I am a microbiologist and Jemma is a biochemist, so of course we couldn't turn down the opportunity for some field science....CSI style!!! Complete with soil pH test kit we set out to check if our soil was acid, alkaline or a neutral pH. For the uninitiated the pH scale runs from 1 to 14 and measures how acid or alkaline a material is with 1 being extremely acid, such as battery acid, and 14 being extremely alkaline, such as lye. Both extremes of pH will cause burns. A pH of around 6.5 -7 is neutral and would be the ideal for growing most vegetables and fruit with the exception of a few acid lovers such as blueberries. On our soil pH kit very acid was indicated by dark orange colour, acid by dark yellow/light orange, neutral by green and alkaline by very dark green/blue
So with expert precision, a bottle of water, soil sample and test kit we shook it all up and waited patiently for the sediment to separate and show us what way our soil was......please be green...please be green...

.........it was yellow/orange...indicating we had acidic soil. So our plan of action began. We will have to get some garden lime to spread on the soil and hopefully bring our acid soil to a more neutral level. This is particularly important for brassicas such as cabbages, cauliflower, sprouts and broccoli, all of which have yet to go in. Brassicas don't like acid soil and it can harbour the clubroot fungus which will damage your crop, and cabbage can develop a condition known as whiptail where the leaves fail to develop properly around the stalks. So we will dig over the brassica beds before sowing/planting out and dust with some garden lime and see how we go. This however leaves us with quite a predicament. As we got the allotment late in the season, we haven't manured the beds and were planning on using manure as a top dressing during the growing season and supplementing with a feed. Problem is when you mix lime with fertilizer or manure you get urea formed as a by-product which really smells and isn't very good for your crops. The lime and fertilizer also cancel each other out so you don't get the effect of reducing the acidity as well. So, we'll try liming before we sow and plant out the brassicas and hold off feeding for a month or 2 to give the lime some time to soak in and hope for the best when we do apply a feed. I only hope we won't get complaints from neighbours about 'smelly' plot 103.

Late on Sunday evening Cillian and Eoin quit digging for the day and just had to try out their new fishing rods in the river at the back of plot 103. After an hour or so their catch came to a grand total of....a rather damp stick!
However, we did get some inside information from one of our allotment neighbours that another allotment holder had gone a little further up river and caught a total of 16 lovely brown trout in one day!! and another 12 the day after!! I 'kind of' learned how to cast fish and will therefore be heading down to Lidl this Saturday to try and pick up one of the cheapo trout fishing rods for 25 euro and try the new spot at the weekend. Keep the BBQ warm I plan on bringing home a whopper!!!

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

A pre-emptive strike!!

Things really came along nicely over the bank holiday weekend up at plot 103. Friday and Saturday were a wash out due to a friends wedding and a nasty hangover which prevented anything being done. But Sunday and Monday the gloves came off as we prepared a pre-emptive strike on the dreaded carrot fly and other pests we anticipate may be a problem in the future. We've already confirmed that vine weevil grubs are present on the site and on Monday I found a nasty little cutworm which was duly squished, so we'll be looking at obtaining some organic treatment like nematodes for use on these guys.

A nasty cutworm. (This picture is not my own, but this is the guy I found)

Our primary tactic against pests, where possible, will be physical barriers and we're trying some companion planting, which should, in theory reduce pests. Companion planting works by interplanting your crops with a particular plant know to repel a certain pest, for example, carrot root fly apparently doesn't like the smell of onions and gets confused. So planting onions or other smelly alliums with your carrots is known to reduce the incidents of carrot fly larvae eating your roots before you do, as the fly can't find the carrots to lay its eggs on because of those smelly onions! So our first line of defence went up as we erected a carrot fly barrier, approx. 1 meter high around the carrot bed. Carrot fly doesn't fly higher than approx 2.5 feet, he's a little lazy, so 1 meter should be more than high enough to send the little guys crashing into a barrier of horticultural fleece, and hence unable to get at our carrots. We sowed 3 varieties of carrots on sunday, a row each of autumn king, yellowstone, and chantennay, along with a row of parsnips, and we'll sow a second lot in about 3 or 4 weeks time to keep us going. As for our second line of defence against the carrot fly, we sowed rows of spring onions between the carrots and edged the whole bed with some chive seeds, both garlic and regular.

Cillian and Eoin got ahead of themeselves and got not one but 2 beds dug, one for our peas and beans and one for the salads and sweetcorn. We sowed 2 rows of dwarf type french beans, and one row each of kelvedon wonder peas and onward peas. Again there will be a second sowing in around 3 or 4 weeks. One of the main pests we will encounter with peas and beans is aphids and blackfly, so, companion planting table in hand we found that apparently aphids and blackfly don't like the smell of marigolds. So our pre-emptive strike was to sow 3 types of french marigold all around the pea and bean bed, which also has the advantage of making the place look pretty with some well needed colour when they germinate and flower. We hope to sow salads and sweetcorn next week. We also got the leek bed raked and 3 rows of leek seeds were sown. We found through our companion planting table, that onion fly doesn't like parsley, so we also sowed some parsley seed throughout the onion beds. The onions are happily showing tiny green tops and so we're starting to see small signs of things to come.
I managed to acquire a rosemary plant and a thyme plant in Dunnes stores at 2 for a fiver! due in part to a mistake by the checkout girl, I said nothing! These were duly planted out on Monday near our future brassica beds as yet again, according to our companion planting table, cabbage root fly doesn't like thyme or rosemary, or any type of smelly herb for that matter so hopefully these two guardians will see them off.
The allotment was full over the weekend, with all of our new neighbours out at some stage and community spirit was in full swing. Our neighbour, Val, a few plots up, generously offered us a handful of red onion sets and a couple of seed potatoes to try as he had them left over. His plot looks impeccably neat, with nice small neat, perfectly flat beds all strung up to protect from birds, and paths perfectly level courtesy of having his daughters tread up and down all day a couple of weeks ago, I'm sure the girls will regain their enthusiasm again soon. This got us thinking how messy ours looks with all the sods we've dug out strewn all over our 'sort of' paths blindly hoping that we'll eventually walk on them so much they will magically flatten into perfect paths as opposed to the small mountain range we have now. Cillian managed to dig the remainder of the fruit bed which runs the 20m length of our allotment and I took the opportunity to sow some pumpkin seeds. They are called 'invincible' and have grey/purple skin with bright orange flesh and will look fantastic at halloween if successful. I also sowed a few rows of chard called 'bright lights' (I think!) which grows brightly coloured stems of red, pink, and yellow and should add a splash of colour at the front of our plot.
We sowed so much over the weekend it really drove home that next on our shopping list is plant labels, or we'll soon be playing guess the vegetable. At the moment we have rows marked out with sticks and have taken a note in the allotment notebook where we've sown everything but before long we could end up 'weeding' our leeks and feeding our weeds!