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Revamping our Strawberry Bed

We have now had our allotment for 5 years and this means our strawberries and raspberries are getting weaker and producing poorer crops. After this period of time the threat of virus hangs over them.

We renewed our raspberry canes last autumn and so it is time to renew our strawberry plants. A bright warm early spring day found us digging up and composting our old plants which had become woody. We got rid of the old weed suppressing membrane and dug over the flattened soil below. We then added lots of organic matter in the form of old growbags, our own chicken manure and composted chicken bedding. A quick rotovate and the soil looked good, full of organic matter and a great texture.

We made the wooden surround from recycled scaffold boards which fits our 3-Rs policy which we follow on our plot. Reduce – Reuse – Recycle.

To protect our strawberry plants from pests and to help effective pollination we have sown a wildflower strip close by.

Soon we had new membrane down and we spread out our new little plants spaced out to give the best yields.

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We planted the little plantlets very carefully as they felt so delicate. When we had finished they looked tiny in their new raised bed. We now have 12 Honeoye and 12 Cambridge Scarlet which will hopefully keep us in strawberries for the next five years.

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The little plants looked so vulnerable when we had finished but just a week later we checked on them and they were showing signs of strong bright green growth.

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A Garden Bouquet for September

September is the month when the first signs of autumn creep in and there is something special happening to the light. Misty mornings give the garden a fresh atmosphere. Darkness comes too early each day. Fruit picking is the order of the day and we get out our pruning kit, secateurs, pruning saws and loppers large and small to tackle the trees and shrubs.

Grasses begin to change colour, some flowers and seed heads are turning redder and more purple others towards the pale tints of biscuit.

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The Blackberry vine is so heavy with fruit that it blocks the pathway and apples hang in thick bunches but seem slow to ripen. At last colour is creeping into the greenness of the grapes. Fingers crossed that the weather is kind to them and therefore kind to us.

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This Buddleja is a special one with purple flowers at the tip of each arching branch. The out side of each individual flower is dusty purple-grey but the rich bright purple inside provides a beautiful contrast. Buddleys lindleyana is a very special shrub. A real favourite! And it looks even better alongside a bright orange neighbour in the guise of a Crocosmia. While we are on the subject of bright flowered Crocosmia the yellow one nearby is gentler but still a true bright beauty.

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Shrubs and trees are thinking ahead to the winter and painting their leaves in reds, oranges and yellows. The first two photos are of a special Ribes which will give us yellow flowers in the winter. These are followed by deciduous varieties of Euonymus and Cercis “Forest Pansy”.

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On the gravel garden, our Beth Chatto Garden, grasses are starring alongside the autumn stars, Michaelmas Daisies.

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Bulbs usually mean late winter or early spring but these cyclamen and tulbaghia are showstoppers right now.

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So off we go into autumn!

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A town riverside walk

Although we live close to our county town of Shrewsbury we go for months between visits to the banks of the River Severn, in whose loops the town sits snuggly. In the summer the council garnish the river banks with bright coloured plants in all sorts of containers and hanging baskets.

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I am not that keen on these brightly coloured bedding annuals but they seem to fit in with their setting so well here. Mother nature herself adds a little subtle planting herself with wild flowers growing close to the water and wonderful waterfalls of reflections.

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Our footbridge an old Victorian suspension bridge has recently been completely refurbished and it is looking smart in its new green suit. The builders greatest challenge was to make sure that after the make-over the old bridge retained her sway. As you walk across her she sways from side to side!

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This weekend is time for the famous Shrewsbury Flower Show so when we reached the open parkland spaces alongside the river we found signs of the village of tents and rows of arena seats appearing at a great rate of knots. It seemed to be growing up around us as we walked towards the little sunken garden called The Dingle.We now anticipate our day out at the show on Saturday most eagerly. We hope to go in the afternoon and stay until closing time with the magnificent firework display over the river.

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And so to the Dingle herself, which is not my cup of tea at all, but it is enjoyed by thousands every year. It is all a bit garish for my taste, but I do admit that it takes a great deal of skill to create and maintain it. It certainly gives pride to the town. Come on a tour with us and see what you think.

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We wandered back into the town centre to have a look at how the town council had decorated the Square as part of their “Britain in Bloom” campaign. All the allotment sites in and around the town had planted up mini-allotments small enough to fit on a pallet and these were collected up and put in the square. Local artists crafted two scarecrows from metal to give an extra dimension.

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Each post marking loading bays along the High Street had been given a topknot of Ipomaea in two foliage colours. Very subtle and very effective.

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Clumber Park – The Walled Garden

We have watched over the last few years how the walled garden at Clumber Park has been brought back to life. Although it is a few hours from home we visit at least once a year.

Now it is a peaceful place to wander around admiring the vegetable growing techniques, the orchards and the meadows beneath, the long flower borders, the trained fruit on the walls themselves and the national collection of rhubarb.

We were very lucky on this recent visit as we had our own personal guide who came around with us. He was grey haired and didn’t say a lot but he didn’t mind when I took his portrait.

We like to approach it along the dramatic avenue of cedars where the enticing view of the distant old gates within the warm red of the tall brick walls draws us in. The cedars themselves have such sculptural qualities and an air of mystery pervades the shadows under their glaucous sweeping branches some scooping down to touch the grass below.

The tall warm bricked walls are now protecting skilfully trained apples, pears, peaches, cherries and figs. In the open a collection local varieties of fruit are being established and in the borders below the walls herbaceous plants, herbs and the National Collection of Rhubarb varieties flourish.

The wide central gravel path that bisects the walled garden runs from the main gates to the greenhouse. It runs between a colourful  double herbaceous border.

Old fruit trees remain to give a sense of continuity and sit comfortably amongst gently swaying meadows. We were delighted to see a Medlar in flower.

We enjoyed discovering ideas to take home with us as we moved within the vegetable growing areas, such these rustic supports for peas and sweetpeas made from birch prunings. Much of the productive planting was done in neat, long and impressively straight lines.

Being run along totally organic lines the walled garden was well-provided with bird nesting boxes and insect shelters to attract beneficial insects.

As we wandered around we noticed amongst the productive rows of veggies, this beautiful Victorian glass and metal cloche still in regular use.  It performed as well now as it always has done just like the walled garden itself.

As we prepared for our journey back to Shropshire, our helpful little cheery guide waved a small wave and wandered off.

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New Plots to Come at Bowbrook Community Allotments

We have 68 plots at our allotment site, Bowbrook Allotment Community, and after just three seasons of being open we have a waiting list of about 50. Phase two was on the cards from the word go but with budget constraints we didn’t really think it would ever come to fruition. The plan was to open up the field next to us and create about 50 extra plots.

Meetings with town council representatives and reports in the local newspaper over the last year or so indicated that this might still happen. Then recently the allotment management committee were asked if a few members could meet with representatives from the town and the county councils to look at plans. It seemed that things would be moving ahead in the autumn of 2012.

Budget constraints had effected the plans as the draft map for the new extension showed just 25 plots covering half the field. Still we couldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth! Ideas were exchanged and the proposals will go in for planning permission and hopefully work will be done by the autumn.

So we can halve our waiting list. The plots will be so tightly packed that little space will be available to develop our community gardens but we should gain the pond, a spring and a few yards of stream and a triangle of land beneath a group of mature trees. We shall endeavour to make these exciting places!!

The strip of pastureland that will become our new allotments.
The poor neglected pond that will become part of our site.
The old Ash tree that will overlook the new allotments.
The spring emerging from its old collapsed brickwork. The water table is so low it is currently dry.
The mature trees in the corner of land to be developed as part of our community gardens.

So, opportunities are coming our way. The  council will tidy out the pond, removing old fences, and other rubbish and hopefully the barbed wire surrounding it. A fence will be built around it with gated access, all conforming with the latest health and safety requirements. The old Ash tree will be attended to by tree surgeons to make it safe and ensure its future health. The 25 plots will be prepared for cultivation.

And then it will be up to new plot holders to cultivate them and the committee to develop the green spaces. the area around the spring could become a bog garden and the area under the mature trees could become a mini-arboretum. We shall see!

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A Wander around the Allotments in February

My blog reporting on “A January Wander around the Allotments” was all about the cold, as my wander then was on a bright, sunny but cold day with the thermometer registering minus five. Today my wander was a real treat, with temperatures of plus seven, it felt so mild. The sky however was grey and produced the occasional bout of drizzle. The bird life definitely appreciated the improvement, with so many to see and hear.

My walk over to our plot was halted by the whoosh of wings and the sight of a Kestrel in full hunting mode, its grey and rufus back curling low through the plots in search of its favourite prey, Field Voles. In a matter of a few minutes it had covered half the site, stopping occasionally to peer from a post or shed roof. The birdsong didn’t diminish with its presence but later when a Sparrow Hawk appeared, in threatening mode over the plots, silence reigned.

As I went to open up the shed I noticed how the recent freezing weather had shattered the little orange glazed dish I keep shells in on our coffee table, exposing the white china below its glaze.

The feeders on our plot needed topping up before I set to work. My first task was to prune the Autumn fruiting raspberries, so pulled back their hay mulch and cut each stem down to just a few inches above the ground. Then their warm mulch blanket was replaced ready for the next cold spell.

After tidying the edge of the plot where Calendulas had died down messily, I cut down perennials in the “Bug Border” alongside our central path, Sedum spectabile “Autumn Joy”, Linaria and several different Marjoram, all grown for the butterflies and hoverflies. As I pruned down the Sedum a few “slips” came away which I popped into my trug to be potted up at home.

A coffee break was called for to rest an aching back. A chance to do some bird spotting and listening out for their calls and songs. It was noticeable how some had moved on from calls to songs with the changing light of February. The Great Tit was giving a good performance repeatedly calling out “Teacher Teacher” just as it says in the books, but I often think it sounds more like the squeak of a tyre foot pump in need of lubrication. Its smaller cousin the Blue Tit sang gently from all around the site.

The peace was shattered as soon as the Rooks from the rookery on the northern boundary lifted as one and poured overhead, a cacophony of “cawing” and “rarking”. They are busy now restructuring last year’s nests. When one returned to the tree tops with twig in beak all its neighbours objected vocally craning their necks threatening and warning others to keep their distance. They live together in huge nesting groups but argue all the time! Their little corvid cousins, the Jackdaw, are quieter and more social. They pass overhead without any argument.

Signs of things to come! New growth is appearing at the base of perennials and the Globe Artichoke plants. Disappointingly the green manures have grown very little but just manage to cover the bare soil.

Buds are fattening on the Black Currants and the Blackberries. Promises of autumn bounty.


So once the work on our Plot 37 was completed I wandered off around the site, with wheelbarrow loaded – secateurs for pruning the roses in the Summer Garden, camera to take shots, surgical gloves  and step-ladder to clear out nest boxes. As I walked along the established hedgerows flocks of chattering finches moved away, keeping close top the hedge and to each other – Goldfinches, Linnets and Greenfinches. A surprise sighting was a flock of about 15 Yellow Hammers, the first time they have been seen here. Unfortunately one of the loudest noises was the dry screech of my wheelbarrow’s wheel! A quick detour to the shed for a squirt of penetrating oil cured it.

Where the hedge has been left uncut for several years (where the council flailing machines can’t reach) the bushes are tall and busy with finches and tits. A Song Thrush was throwing leaves and under-hedge debris out onto the path searching for its lunch. The calls of Nuthatches and Great Spotted Woodpeckers echoed around the allotments all the time I was on site, but one call was unexpected. It stopped me in my tracks. I had never heard the piping call of a Bullfinch up here before. It wasn’t hard to find – a male with its pink, almost cerise breast glowing from a tall Hawthorn.

Nestbox cleaning can be a painful business if the nests have been colonised by nest fleas, hence the surgical gloves. Luckily none in residence today! Four of the five tit boxes had been used last year. The open-fronted Robin boxes were ignored by our population of redbreasts.

This photo shows how the Great Tits who nested here used their tails for added balance when feeding their young through the hole. The wood stain has been worn away.

The box in the photo below was used three times in 2011, but the third attempt was thwarted by cold wet weather in the early autumn, so the clutch of eggs remains. When I emptied out the nesting materials I could see the three layers of nesting material. When I had emptied all the boxes the old nests were put in the compost heap.

In the meadow areas seedlings cover the ground, so our plan for self seeding meadows seems to be working out. In one meadow area a lone cornflower continues to throw up an odd bloom of the most beautiful blue.

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Lottie Leaves

What a crazy day to be on the lottie with gale force icy cold winds howling across and freezing fingers, toes and cheeks. But when the sun burst through the clouds – very short but bright bursts – it acted as a spotlight that featured wonderful coloured leaves. Salad leaves provide the real stars of the show like these ruby leaved radicchio. They enjoy being in the spotlight, being the centre of attraction, glowing with pride.

The brassica  family are not to be outdone with their contribution coming from kales. The final shot is of a bunch of chard leaves that I plucked for the chickens. The light shows the glossiness and rich red-purple colouring of the leaves and stems.

The wonderful thing about these dark colourful leaves especially those with red and purple featured in their make-up is that in addition to being good to look and tasty to eat they are also better for us than their green-leaved relatives.

After putting away our tools and closing up our shed we took a few moments to wander around the site and see what was happening. we found surprise bonus flashes of colour. Flowers blooming out of seasons calendula and violas in the Winter Garden and a catanache the last bloom in the wildflower meadow.

In the small orchard the yellow of the crab apple, Malus “Evereste”, glowed like beacons hanging on defying the sharp cold and strong winds. In the turf spiral maze clumps of fungi take advantage of the protection form the turves  They emerge from the bark chips we use as the walkway through the maze. They begin their life a colouful yellow but as they age their edges turn chocolate brown and they look like burnt buns until they begin to go over and dry. Then their caps split and let yellow cracks appear giving them the appearance of flowers.

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Bubble Wrap Duvet

Today we woke to the first frost of the year. My phone tells me its minus one. It’s only a thin weak frost but a useful reminder of how lucky we are to have gone this far into the year without one. Last year we had our first in September and that was not unusual. It also made us feel a little smug that we had got round to giving the greenhouse its duvet of bubble wrap at the weekend. It takes 100 metres of the large bubbled wrap to get the inside safely wrapped for winter – it is the only time I regret owning such a big greenhouse!

Bubble wrap is always so hard to fix up and always looks a mess but it does the job. We used a combination of black gaffer tape and the little plastic fiddly fixings specially designed for the job.

We moved under cover the peppers, chillies and sweet, growing in bags to hopefully get a few more fruits from them as well as the potatoes in their bags planned for cropping in December. We then had the time-consuming task of bringing in any half-hardy plants in pots such as aeoniums, begonias, echeverias, Euphorbia mellifera, salvias and summer flowering bulbs.

As a belt and braces procedure we take cuttings of some of the salvias, as well as bringing the parent plants in, as they often fail to survive through the winter even under the protection of the greenhouse.

This Salvia with its stunning red flowers which have an added cerise hue in sunlight only started flowering in late October so we could only appreciate its glorious flowers for a few weeks before bringing it into the greenhouse. If the first frost had come at the more usual time in late September or early October presumably it would have failed to flower this year. fingers crossed now that we can keep it through to warmer times.

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Scrumptious Scrumping

What a harvest! Today we harvested the “Scrumptious” apples from the tree trained over a garden arch and these two baskets of deep rosy apples weighing in at just over 11lb are the result. The taste is sweet and juicy and the flesh white with red blushing close to the skin.

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Fruity Welcome

Today we harvested our two Red Windsor apple trees. They are miniature trees called “coronets” and we chose them to flank our front door, where they live in big, heavy, 24inch terracotta pots mulched with a layer of pebbles. One of the trees was a thank you gift so we bought another to make a matching pair. They seemed a far better option to the more formal possibilities – standard hollies, conifers or lavenders.

They are ideal for this position as they give lots of blossom early in the year which is much loved by bees and hoverflies and colouful fruit throughout the summer. Then today they yielded a 6 lb harvest of tasty looking fruit. The fruit is described as cox-like but we shall wait and see. The only problem with growing apples by your front door is that the postman thinks they are for him!