Thursday 21 February 2019

Work starts in earnest with acts of generosity

It's been a week of digging. The first days of the allotment have involved a lot of real old-fashioned spadework, the kind that makes underused muscles ache.

We are lucky in that these allotments are made up of recently added top soil. Others who have started an allotment on a bare patch of field with heavy clods to dig would consider this to be gardening for wimps.

My 45 square metres started as a slightly intimidating blank canvas. The first step was to tame it into sections with some sticks in the ground and blue mohair wool tied around them. I plotted a path down the middle and now I see the sense of digging out smaller branch paths.

After all this digging I will have 12 growing areas that can be worked from either side without having to step on them.

Around me others have built raised beds, or shuttered banks of earth in with timber. Already these allotments are starting to look impressive. One has rows of plants and some ornamental flowers that look like Philip Treacy hats.

Over the Bank Holiday weekend, as 90,000 people flocked to Bloom, work started in earnest in our inner city allotments. The latest neighbour to arrive has set a new standard the rest of us are watching closely. Dee has been growing salad leaves in newspaper-lined crates at home for weeks. She has so much that she insisted we take some for our patch.

She has put bamboo pyramids for her pea and bean plants to scramble up, and she has dug a neatly planned garden to take all this green bounty. She has also set the perfect allotment tone by putting a sign on her tools saying everyone is welcome to use them.

Generosity is a feature of gardeners, especially good ones, whose green fingers produce more than they need. A friend got free tomato plants last week from a woman who set up a table on the footpath in north Dublin giving away her extra plants.

I drove to Templeogue to collect a bag of free sprouting Jerusalem artichokes that their owner had advertised on the Dublinwaste website. "Miss Artichoke?" he said with a grin when he opened the front door.

Advice is also given generously. Jo Newton, seed bank co-ordinator with Irish Seed Savers in Clare, gave me a long telephone consultation on what to plant now. She reassures me that the sense of missing the spring deadline for planting is no big problem.

Plants such as runner beans, peas and French beans can all be sown now for later harvesting. The soil is much warmer now, she explains, so they will grow more quickly.

Succession sowing of cut-and-come lettuces is also a good idea. And green manure (a ground-cover seed crop such as Phacelia) can be sown to grow a crop that will retain nutrients in the soil, attract bees and keep weeds down. It can be dug in when the area is ready for planting.

Compost is essential, not only to feed the plants, but also to improve the soil's water retention. My soft fruits will really be next year's ambition, although there are some varieties of late-fruiting strawberries we could plant now.

"One of the lessons is that you can't have everything instantly," Jo says. We can also sow turnips and swedes, winter cabbage and broccoli. And with a bit more sunshine and a mild autumn, courgette plants started on a windowsill now could be giving us food in a few months.

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