Harvest Festival; Our first allotment year

This morning we will be busy at a school church service celebrating Harvest Festival. Traditionally, a time of year to give a little thanks for the produce of the summer as the fruits of ‘someones’ labour come to an end and we reap what they sowed.

This year, it feels a little closer to home than usual, as we cut back the last of our own summer vegetation and see the end of our first summer having a family allotment.

Expectations vs reality

I had my doubts that we would grow anything. Back in early May we spent a weekend breaking our backs, prepping the soil, and chucking in a couple of dozen or so packets of veggie seeds.

We knew nothing. But we were keen to learn. After all, we can read the back of a pack of seeds? So, as our neighbours looked on offering tit bits of advice and encouragement, we ploughed on.

As the days grew warmer and our crops sprouted the first sprigs of green, it spurred us on and we lovingly tended those baby veg like one of our own (screaming ‘Don’t walk on the soil!’ to the actual kids we had in tow).

We tended, he watered (whilst enjoying an evening beer), we tittivated. We actually grew vegetables, and we ate a LOT of vegetables.

What thrived?

We had some huge successes, and proved our dubious allotment neighbours (fifty years our senior) wrong. They told us we must be green fingered, and they commended us on a crop some would have taken years to achieve. So the stuff that was an epic success?…

Radishes – These guys hold a special place in my heart as our first veg we picked! So easy and quick to grow and a flavour that will blow your socks off. Just eat ’em quick because they turn into wooden spinning tops all too soon.

Courgettes – If I ever see another courgette it’ll be too soon. Well, until next summer.

Mind you, that courgette cake was something else…

Beans – Dwarf, green, french, runner…we all loved picking and munching through the fresh crunchy beans we were inundated with. Handy since our daughter decided 2017 was the year she’d become a vegetarian.

Salad – Seriously impressed by how easy it was to grow lettuce, spring onions, cucumbers and tomatoes. Wandering round the corner to pick a side salad for tea was a brilliant experience.

Sweetcorn – from one little grain of corn amazing things grew! Our little veggie loves a corn on the cob and next year we will definitely increase the size of the corn area. A great one with kids as they can really appreciate the mega growth!

Sunflowers – we were given a few sunflower plants and these looked just stunning on our little patch. They flowered for ages and encouraged loads of wildlife too.

Pumpkins – When we chucked in a dozen pumpkin seeds (in the equivalent space we had planted our courgettes) we had no idea how invasive a pumpkin vine is! In future, we will absolutely plant them again, but perhaps in the excess quarter or so remaining – instead of constantly fighting the weeds on a blank patch. We honestly could have opened up the gates and put up a ‘Pick Your Own Pumpkin’ sign. Send pumpkin recipes please!

Cucumber – We were given a couple of young plants which got chucked in a bit of space, and they must have generated 100 cucumbers between them. Incredible! I had no idea we could grow cucumbers in the UK?!

What flopped?

Beetroot – Apparently it pays to soak the seeds overnight before sowing. Noted for next year as we didn’t get a single shoot.

Strawberries – We relocated some plants that were two years old from a planter at home. Not one single strawberry. Dissappointing!

Raspberries – well we had loads, but they were kind of small, dark and mushy. Think we need to look into how to cut them back for better harvest next year.

Our runner bean frame – It seems the bean shoot was too damn ‘growy’ and pulled the tripod of canes out of the ground every single day. Next year we’ll have to seriously up the stakes. So to speak.

Gooseberries – One of the two gooseberry bushes we inherited became covered in a white and grey mould (?) so in our wisdom we hacked it down. Given it was instantly taken over by loads of bindweed, we quickly regretted it and think perhaps treatment rather than brutality may have been a better option?

Wildflowers – Our idea to use the quarter or so of the allotment for wildflowers didn’t exactly go to plan. Well, there were some stunning wild flowers – you could just about see them amidst the weeds. We figured the seeds blowing all over the rest of the allotment might upset our proud neighbours, so they had to go.

Cabbages – We probably should have thinned them out, covered them in cloche, prevented the pests. We did get cabbage, but they kind of looked like they’d already provided something with a good meal, and the snails were right in there between each leaf. Not too appetizing!

Carrots – Perhaps not a total disaster, but we didn’t get as many carrots as I expected. I thought this would be th easiest thing to grow but we probably got 30% crop on the seeds we planted.


Other lessons learnt

Share share share – Although most people we know were gifted a courgette or two this summer, we probably should have given away way more lettuces, radishes, spring onions, potatoes as we were inundated with them and contrary to what we thought, even the tortoise couldn’t get through that much in one summer before they all bolted. A heartbreaking waste!

Pick as you need – A surprising discovery about home grown stuff is that it just doesn’t keep in the same way shop bought veg does. Brocoli, carrots, radishes, spring onions don’t stay crunchy in the fridge for more than a day or so so there isn’t really any point in picking en mass, unless you’re doing the rounds delivering veg boxes to your neighbours that is.

Think outside the box – We could have done so much more with our crops this year. I made one batch of raspberry gin which was to die for and went down a storm on a weekend away. Why then I didn’t use the remaining late crop to create more is a damn shame. Freeze, pickle, jam, dry, steep in booze…just make hay while the sun shines or the only place your crops are going to end up is the composter.

Where’s the key? – Given that we have one sole tiny allotment key, and it gets carried with us to spend hours in pockets digging in mud a enormous / glow in the dark / musical / lanyard keyring was a must. I can’t tell you how many times we lost that sodding key!

All weather sport – One of the issues with the time you pan to spend cultivating, is that the British weather doesn’t always play ball. We have been caught in huge rain showers, had to rain off all planned work (on your only few free hours that week grrr) and possibly worst still, spent days up there in blistering heat with the sun scorching down on your back. But, that’s part of the fun, right?

Embrace the mud – The kids came a long way this summer. From the early days of them freaking out over mud getting in their Crocs, to the late summer with them on their hands and knees helping pick out potatoes. It’s been a gorgeous thing to behold, and watching them run in between the flowers among butterflies and green space, just around the corner of our house has been pure magic.

Allotment guilt – Believe me that’s the last thing I need, another ‘chore’ I feel is nagging in the back of my mind, and if I’m honest the addition of this new ‘hobby’ did at times bring that. When you’re a bit of a perfectionist, it can be a little soul destroying seeing your patch covered in new weeds when you spent hours clearing it just a few weeks back. No, going to the allotment is not always what we feel like doing, and yes, that does come with a little allotment guilt!

Time – An allotment takes time. Time we probably don’t really have, but time we have had to find – in the evenings, at weekends, during the week, nursery mornings and naptimes. I’m ready for a little rest from the peak season input to be honest, and perhaps come back with a new energy next spring.

Will there be a next year?

Given the pro’s and con’s of the commitment an allotment brings, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about jacking it in at the end of this year. But, when I really think back to the experiences we have shared as a family – getting away from the TV, the housework, going for our little wander round the corner in our wellies, that’s when I realise all the hard work paid off. The fact that my two year old knows where a spring onion and a corn on the cob comes from, and the fact that my vegetarian five year old has been fuelled by our home grown veg all summer makes it worth every muddy, sweaty, back breaking, blackberry picking, snail rescuing, champion pumpkin growing moment.

We’ll definitely give it another bash next year.


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