Cleve West: Winter of discontent

Urban Gardener
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The Independent Online

If anyone's wondering why I haven't mentioned the allotment of late, there's a simple reason. It's been a bit of a duff year. A "difficult" year is probably a better description, but for those who haven't had the time or wherewithal to deal with our erratic climate, "duff" seems more appropriate. Being involved with the Chelsea Flower Show, which kept me away from the plot for the best part of spring, wasn't a good start. Couple that with one heck of a lot of rain and very little by way of sunshine, and you can see why the year's harvest was so meagre.

My partner, Christine (whose cup is always half-full rather than half-empty), will tell you that we have garlic and leeks a-plenty, enough parsnips, onions and sprouts for Christmas dinner, and half a sack of spuds to get through before we have to start buying from the grocer. She says I should stop whingeing about the fact that we only had four squash this season and get busy eating them before they go bad as there wasn't enough sun to ripen their skins.

She's right. I should also take heart from the onions and garlic already making their mark for next year's crop, some spring greens that survived a late bout of opportunistic slug-grazing, and carrots I'd forgotten about in a raised container that successfully outwitted the vertiginous fly. Apart from the less-than-bumper harvest, another frustration was being unable to pursue the art of "no-digging", a technique championed by the vegetable expert Charles Dowding (see charlesdowding.co.uk), and one that makes so much sense. Our plot is so infested with bindweed and couch grass that, without digging or using chemicals, there really isn't any hope of gaining the upper hand unless I retire.

The Gardeners' World presenter Joe Swift knows one or two things about weeds and a recent programme saw him thanking all the people that have helped him on his north London plot during his first year. Various experts and plotholders braved a bitterly cold day to join Joe for soup and cake and presents. For my small efforts – helping him erect a shed and poking fun at his decision to rotovate his plot full of couch grass and mare's tail – I received The Shed Book (by Gordon Thorburn and Gareth Jones) and some Jerusalem artichokes.

I was only winding him up about the weeds but the flak he received on the BBC message boards from vehement viewers outraged that he should be going against one of horticultures basic commandments – "Thou shalt not chop pernicious weeds into bits ... especially not on TV" – left me wondering whether some of us take our gardening far too seriously. Having seen just how hard the soil was when he first took on his neglected plot I'm certain I would have done the same. In fact I would go further and say that I would have been tempted to use weedkiller for the first time in 20 years, an option that wasn't available to Joe as it would contravene Gardeners' World's organic ethic. Rotovating the soil may well have dramatically increased the weed population, but at least the weeds can now be pulled and the programme's viewers didn't have to endure weeks of hand-digging by a grumpy presenter.

The Jerusalem artichokes turned out to be a small dig on Joe's part as none of the ones I gave him, when he started his plot a year ago, showed so much as a leaf. I, too, suffered the same problem, which is odd as normally they are the most difficult vegetable to get rid of. Slugs were to blame on our plot, but Joe's heavier conditions wouldn't have helped either, as Jerusalem artichokes don't like damp soil. Of course, no two years are alike on an allotment and this year's failures may well be next year's successes, although blight aside, most of our setbacks were down to not paying enough attention to crop protection. Joe might also have to buck his ideas up in this department if he wants to keep his sanity. Covering brassicas with loose netting isn't enough to ward off pigeons clever enough to use their weight to gain access to cabbages, and turn them into intricate doilies in just one sitting. I was going to mention it to Mr Swift, but I think he has had enough of a kicking for one season.

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