Gardening record books – a [p]review

My gardening notes, plans, plant lists and to-do lists have traditionally lived on various scraps of paper and writing pads. Which is fine…until Mr MBaF uses the other end of the same pad to design a shed. Then I lose track of all the scraps and pages.

But then Father Christmas brought me the RHS record book I’d requested, and shortly afterwards I doubled my library of gardening diaries with the Three-Year Allotment Notebook.

I’ve written a few lines in the latter, and not a jot so far in the former, so consider this more of a preview than review.

The first word I’d use to describe Joanna Cruddas’ allotment notebook is delightful. It’s full of gorgeous photos (by Edwina Sassoon) of some lovely plots, and the layout feels relaxed and helpful. Each month is bookended by three richly colourful photo-led spreads with hints and ideas (planning, watering, tools etc) and lists of seasonal jobs. Then there are three blank spreads of lined pages for notes Year 1, 2 and 3.

Plenty of space for notes in the Three Year Allotment Notebook

Plenty of space for notes in the Three Year Allotment Notebook

Lovely imagery and useful lists

Lovely imagery and useful lists

There is graph paper at the back for plot planning, and the inside of the back cover has a useful pocket for plant labels or other ‘stuff’.

You could argue that for near-enough £15 I don’t have that much more than the A4 lined pad I used to use, plus a few pictures. But I disagree because this book is gorgeous and lovely. I’ve tried really hard to write neatly in it so far, but actually I’m looking forward to taking this companion with me to the lotty and getting it a bit grubby!

The photos have also inspired me to make the plot a bit more characterful this year. I’m trying to think of how to involve Miss MBaF in making some flags or other spangles.

Now onto the serious business of the RHS gardener’s record book. And in contrast to the ‘delightful’ allotment book, this one is definitely more businesslike. It has antique fine art illustrations of plant specimens throughout, and the notes pages are divided into five columns for each year with space for notes on the weather, plants in bloom, tasks and notes. Towards the back there’s space for listing plants to buy, plant suppliers and gardens to visit. The paper stock is thick and shiny, and I don’t really want to get this one muddy.

More formal notes pages in the RHS Gardener's Five Year Record Book.

More formal notes pages in the RHS Gardener’s Five Year Record Book.

Although I originally envisaged I’d use it for both allotmentry and gardening, the RHS book is clearly and obviously designed for logging observations about ornamental planting. It’s probably more suited to much more experienced/skilled flower-growers than me, but I’ll give it a shot anyway, and try to write neatly for five whole years!

Maybe I should buy myself a new pen especially…

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Gardening with toddler

Toddler-friendly allotment jobs

Miss MBaF announced this morning she wanted to go to the allotment.

With the UK in the midst of storms bringing high winds and heavy rain, this isn’t the ideal day for messing about on the earth. But I’m keen to instil in her a love of gardening, not least so she’ll be willing to join me on the plot when there are lots of jobs to be done later in the year.

So I thought of an easy job she could help me with: mulching the dahlias with bark chips.

NB. I planned to do this weeks ago, hey ho, it’s not been very cold yet so hopefully they’ve survived up til now.

We got suited and booted, filled a bucket with the mulch, she hopped on her trike and we set off merrily. She/we got the job done (see pic above) and I showed her the raspberries I planted yesterday, explaining that she could help me pick/eat them in the summer. As we toddled off the plot, she said “We’ve had great fun at the ‘llotment!”. Mission accomplished.

Other toddler-friendly jobs we’ve found in the allotment and garden:

harvesting potatoes. Miss MBaF loved finding spuds in the earth as I lifted the plants.
– picking strawberries. Who wouldn’t?!
filling pots with compost. She spent ages happily trowelling potting compost into plastic pots. I would keep her occupied with that in the back garden while I did my own jobs.
– sowing seeds. Choose large ones that are easier for little fingers to handle, like sweet peas, beans, radishes, sweetcorn etc.
– transplanting seedlings. Miss MBaF is a particularly careful child, so she did a surprisingly good job gently lowering seedlings into planting holes for me. Make sure you’ve got plenty of extras if your toddler is boisterous.
planting bulbs. I made the holes and she dropped them in, proudly instructing “pointy bit up, tickly bit down” as she worked. Now the daffs are poking through, it’s nice for her to start seeing the results of her work.
going to the garden centre. Not a ‘job’ as such, but larger/more commercial garden centres generally have animal-shaped garden ornaments – and a cafe – to keep little ones happy in between waiting for you to browse the seed packets. One near us even has a playground and small petting zoo!

NB. there are some health risks to be aware of with handling compost, so make sure your toddler wears gloves, do it in the fresh air, and wash their hands afterwards. The RHS has all the info and great advice.

Muddy tools and marigolds

Muddy by name… Digging for berries.

We invested a Christmas gift of £20 garden vouchers at the garden centre today.

I say ‘invest’, because it was on raspberry plants. If they give a good harvest, it will save us a fortune over the years. A punnet of raspberries bought at the supermarket commonly costs £2, and we can buy two or more a week during the summer. We all love them.

In a previous post I mentioned that the raspberries inherited with our plot were in a sorry state, suffocated by couch grass. I ripped them up and cleared the weeds, covering the area with weed-proof membrane. So, the plot was ready…

We agonised over whether to get summer or autumn fruiting raspberries. Summer ones fruit on the previous year’s growth. Autumn ones on the current year’s growth (pruning them down to the ground each winter). Summer ones are supposed to be more prolific…but with Autumn ones WE’LL GET FRUIT THIS YEAR!

Trench for raspberry canes

Heavy work, digging the raspberry trench

That was the clincher.

So, with our vouchers and an extra £1.99 we got five canes of Mallings Admiral and three big bags of manure. And off I trot to the ‘lot’.

It was a fantastic sunny afternoon to be up there, all alone, planting something in mid-winter. But it was muddy. The kind that sticks fast.

Trying to keep off the ground and on the weed membrane as much as I could, I dug a trench – a foot-ish deep. Backfilled it with several inches of manure and mixed with the excavated soil. Then in went the canes, about 50cm apart. And a thick mulch of manure on top.

So that’s the softfruit patch complete. We might add summer fruiting raspberries later to extend the season, but for now we excitedly anticipate strawberries, blackcurrants, raspberries and blackberries in 2015. If only Mr MBaF liked summer pudding!

Raspberry canes manure mulch

Raspberry canes mulched with manure

NB. There were several summer raspberry varieties to choose from today. We chose Mallings Admiral partly because they’re ‘spine-free’ and therefore toddler friendly for picking. The canes, however, were spiny….so we’ll see!

Mallings Admiral

Supposedly ‘spine-free’ variety of raspberry canes.

And a final PS. I’m typing this is mild discomfort after the hard work of lugging manure about and digging a trench. BUT, I’m not crippled, and I’m sure that’s because I took a break halfway and did something less physical (measuring the plot for crop planning). I only did that because I publicly stated I would, in a recent post. So, thank you blog, you’ve saved me some pain.

Best veg for small gardens?

Some good friends are moving to a bigger home with a smaller garden, and are looking for tips on good veg to grow in small spaces.

My new blogger status seems to have given me expert status amongst said friends, and I’ve always been happy to blag it (wine-waitressing as a teenager honed my skills), so here’s my tips:

[However, I’m sure they would really appreciate advice from experienced growers too, so if my blogging friends could add their hints and tips in the comments that’d be ace. They’re in London, so it should be a fairly friendly growing environment – I don’t know what the soil’s like or the garden aspect.]

– Think about what you actually really like eating. If you’re not going to grow a lot of variety, make sure you’ll absolutely love eating what you do grow. We had stacks of runner beans this year, but none of us are that keen. Bean fatigue set in very early.

– if you do love climbing and runner beans, they can be really heavy croppers and you’ll get more than you can eat from a wigwam of bamboos and 4-6 plants. They freeze well too. However, they do like lots of richness in the soil and plenty of water. I prepared the soil by digging a hole (1ft deep x 2ft width) and over-filling it with farmyard manure. Then I staked the bamboos (and grew a plant up each) in a circle around the edge to make my wigwam. That way the roots have nice rich and moisture-retaining muck to grow into. NB. plants grown up wigwams do tend to get a bit tangled at the top, making them difficult to harvest. This year I’ll go with a straight ridge support, but that takes up a bit more space I guess.

tomatoes could work well. Lots of people grow them in pots or gro-bags, but Monty ‘The Don’ reckons you get a much better taste when they’re grown in the earth. A single sturdy post (not a bamboo) should be used to support each plant, and you’ll need a sunny spot. Little trailing tomato plants could work well in a sunny pot.

– I’m a big fan of courgettes. Neither Mr MBaF nor Miss MBaF like them so I just grew one plant, but while I kept picking them they were prolific. They might do OK in a big pot, but they’ll need lots of watering and nice rich compost.

salad crops and herbs are a must. Lettuce, radishes and spring onions can all work well in pots and grow quickly. Bought lettuce goes limp in the fridge so quickly that having fresh on your doorstep is ideal.

– I’m not the most successful herb grower when it comes to tender parsley and basil. But I know that you’ve got to treat thyme, rosemary and sage mean to keep them keen. Give them poor soil that drains really freely, so put loads of stones in the bottom of your pot (or hole) and cover them with a shallow layer of soil or compost mixed with plenty of grit.

I’ll add anything else I think of later! Good luck!

Complacency is a slug’s best friend

Up to the ‘lotty in the freezing murk this afternoon, anticipating the harvest of the final winter cabbage (January King).

I knew it was GIGANTIC, and our last holiday supper before returning to work seemed the perfect occasion for its sacrifice.

Then…Gah! The magnificent dark green leafy globe had turned into a pathetic slimy brown mass.

It had drooped over, touched the ground, rotted off a bit and the slugs had a field day.

I could’ve cut it a month ago, but I was waiting for the right occasion; a special dinner, or a run of days when I could use it all up in different ways.

Turns out my complacency that it would wait – in peak condition – until I stopped dithering, was my downfall.

After stripping off all the manky leaves, the final score was Slugs 2/3: Family 1/3.

Hey ho, lesson learned, and our third was very crisp and delicious. My 2-year-old even ate it before her roast potatoes!

I hope the slugs enjoyed their portion as much.

Garlic shoots in December

Green shoots

It’s heartening to see the tiny plump green spikes emerging from the claggy soil along my row of garlic.

Not least because I trod on the row several times. Forgetting the cloves were bursting into life below ground, and ignoring the insignificant markers I placed at either end.

There are some boot-sized gaps in the row, but the untrodden shoots are doing great and giving me a glimpse of the season to come.

Paracetamol packet

Resolving to stop breaking myself

Last night, as I stepped out of the house to walk the dog, the popper on my trousers burst open.

Of course I knew that the festive weeks of unhealthy food and daily (sometimes day-long) drinking would be taking their toll. The audible ‘pop’ simply confirmed it.

I’m not worried. The biscuit selection box will be empty soon, the chocolates will be finished or stored at the back of the cupboard, and Mr MBaF and I will have a dry January as usual. And as soon as I start working in the allotment again, everything – mind, body and blog – will get back on track.

It wasn’t until this break from gardening – caused by winter wet and Christmas build-up – that I realised quite how active it’s been keeping me. I’ve been steadily shedding weight all year, even though I’m really greedy and love cake, and it must be down to the weekly hours spent digging and weeding.

But it’s not all good. My back is painful, and my right knee has a bursitis, which makes kneeling uncomfortable (and unadvisable).

So I’m resolving to garden more sustainably for my body this year. That means, not spending hours and hours doing the same task, but to break up the physical work so it doesn’t break me.

Too many times in 2014 I got tunnel-vision about a task. Planning to do a bit of couch grass clearance, standing up to go home, and then “…maybe I’ll just do that patch before I go…”. Over and over, until actually it’s easier to keep scrabbling about in the dirt than to unfold my painful scrunched-up body and drag it home.

So Happy New Year, let’s raise an unbuttered wholemeal toast to health and happy gardening in 2015.