And so(w) we’re off: with the sowing of some 40 pots of sweet pea seed, and a tray of Redbor Kale seed the new allotment year is well and truly begun on monsterinthecorner. Over 30 different varieties of seed has been purchased, timber for the replacement raised beds is ordered, and the fencing lats are being measured and shaped. Fish,blood and bone meal together with potash and lime have all been sourced, and with the soil drying out a little at last we’ve even managed to turn some sod.
Slowly, but ever so surely it has turned. February is here; the milk moves in the belly of the ewes, and though still late in one season it is most definitely early in t’other.
Snowdrops and early daffodils, and winter irises and daylight till 6pm.ish.
A whole 8 days without rain, and days of bright sunlight; cold sunlight, but bright.
It is still early in the gardening year, very early; but it’s good to have made a start, and once you’ve gotten the hands grubby the whole gardening concept seems just a little more tangible. We’ve only just begun again, what we wonder will this year hold in store?
Sometimes, when there’s nothing to do, it’s best to do nothing. Despite mantras of celebrity B list lifestyle gurus, wannabe life coaches and media influencers who advocate filling every wakeful minute with developmental (?) activity, there are times when you just have to chill, if for no other reason than for the sake of chilling. This is especially true if you are an allotmenteer or gardener despite the misconception amongst gardeners themselves that there must always be something to be pottering on with around the garden. Sometimes you just need to let the garden be. Come March and April there won’t be enough hours in any given day to finish the sowing and propagation “to do list”; the summer months will be filled with constant watering and weeding duties and the autumn months will be heavy with harvest concerns as you try to beat the fast deteriorating weather in the rush to gather in the year’s bounty. Winter, however, is different. Winter is when the allotment and garden rests, and most of what needs to be done on the winter allotment is best left to winter itself. Little if anything grows, and there is little to do besides the basic tool repair and equipment maintenance. The days are short, the nights are cold and the beds and pastures are sodden as winter wipes the slate clean, washes everything down and puts everything into deep freeze and hibernation. Millions of years of systemic cosmic activity have determined this role in the planet’s annual cycle, and as learned as any gardener believes themselves to be sometimes it is best not to interfere with cosmic processes. It is not always necessary to be gadding about and doing something in the garden, especially in the winter garden, where you run the risk of doing more harm than good by your very presence. Tramping across wet and sodden growing beds will only compact them; working in cold, wet and slippery conditions increases the risk of injury to the gardener and most activities carried out in the depths of winter will probably have to be revisited once the weather improves. January has more than its fair measure of short cold days where conditions are not conducive to gardening, so, when things are bleak, too bleak to consider doing anything, it’s ok to do nothing. You must respect the winter season as it works its own peculiar magic, and sometimes gardeners have to content themselves with just letting winter get on with what it does best. On those cold, dark, miserable January days when it seems there’s nothing to do, perhaps it’s best to do nothing. Those who visit here are no doubt acquainted with the variety of fruit and vegetables we here at Monster in the Corner endeavour to sow and grow each year. The monster is partial to red Hinnonmaki gooseberries, and also to Victoria rhubarb and Ben Lomond blackcurrants. There is a fondness too for Italian Black and Scotch Curly kale just as there is an appreciation for green Butterhead and Lollo Lollo Rossa lettuces. We set red and white onions annually, and most years we’ll also pop some banana shallots into a drill, and whilst we like garlic, we’d not consider it one of the Monster’s staples and perhaps this is why we only sow cloves every second or third year. Mrs Dirtdigger is quite fond of a new spud or two, and so before this year’s chitting and sowing gets underway we’ve already determined which variety we will be sowing and when we need to sow them. We treasure our home-grown tomatoes, cucumbers and courgettes, just as we delight in peas fresh from the pod, and beans, be they broad or french at either end of the growing season. There is- in our experience- little to compare with the taste of the first fresh beets and radishes pulled from the warm earth in late spring, and nothing can hold a candle to the earthy sweetness of late winter parsnips lifted from frozen terra firma and roasted with butter and parmesan or added to soups and broths with a spoonful of crushed cumin or curry paste. We jam our fruits and we jar our beets. We make our own store of pasta sauces from the late season tomato gluts, just as we’ll pickle the extra cucumbers; we make Harissa rub and onion jam, and at harvest time we freeze the late season french beans saying that they should see us through the winter, but, they never quite last that long. We are headed into late January and though last autumn was one of the wettest on record, this winter has (for the most part) been relatively benign, with last week’s Atlantic storm Brendan being only the second named storm of the season thus far. We are still using some of the onions, shallots and garlic harvested last July and August and we still have jars of jam and jarred pickles. There are a few parsnips in the ground still but these in all probability will not be fit for much having been sitting in totally saturated and waterlogged soil as a result of the prolonged very wet weather. We are heading into late January and the weather has turned wintry cold, at last. The constant rain has also relented. In the last 7-10 days we’ve had no rain, and given the short term forecast says no appreciable rainfall this week, it means we are looking at the driest extended period since early last September and that has to be a bonus. And given that we’ve just had a week of fairly severe night frosts, well then, things are certainly looking up for at least we will have had a certain period of vernalization before the slowly extending daylight creeps back into the early evenings, and conscious of just how long a winter can last if Mother Nature puts her mind to it, we must be mindful of what we wish for, eh! We still enjoy the monster’s bounty this mid January, and it is intriguing that just as we roll up our sleeves to complete the process of clearing-out, cleaning-off and disinfecting in preparation for the coming season we are still benefiting from last year’s efforts, and as good as we believe our chutney and pickles to be, the fact that this late in the winter we are still enjoying last year’s harvest is what we truly relish. We produce more than enough for our own needs, and the gluts and excesses are always shared. The Monster’s measure is not so big as to make it unmanageable; it is its own self-determining self-governing non-aligned republic of muck and dirty effort; it sows with the weather and grows whatever suits the weather, and while not yet 100% self-supporting, in the realms of hopes and dreams for a greener, tastier and sustainable future monsterinthecorner is wholly self-sufficient. We’ve been badly hampered since Halloween with pop-up ponds and saturated soil. Each dirt-digging and muck-raking plotter on the allotment site has bemoaned not being able to tread their own plotted con-acreage for fear of causing more problems in the long run, but, things are looking up, and thankfully drying up. The tools are cleaned and oiled and the poly-tunnel and potting tables have been disinfected. The apple trees and roses bushes have been winter pruned, and some necessary attention has been paid to the rhubarb stools which we’ll further mulch this weekend. It is still too soft under foot to contemplate turning any of the beds, but they’re not too bad at all with little greening since last September’s sod up. We’ll purchase all this year’s seed requirement at the end of the month and we’ll be good to go for Lá Fheile Bríd. The month of January is often filled with post Christmas blues and New Year’s frenetic activity, new found resolve and unrealistic resolutions. The year kicks-off with quick-fix crash diets and a surge in annual gym memberships, but just as there is no quick fix to personal fitness, neither are there any shortcuts to the gardening and allotment year. Oh there are tips and tricks aplenty and more helpful hints than there are seeds in a poppy seed head, but there are no shortcuts. January is as quiet as the gardening year gets; plans are hatched and plots designed; seeds and bulbs are bought; new varieties are considered and trusted performers ordered once more. There are no shortcuts to the gardening year, it happens one day at a time and the more time the gardener spends in the garden the more it happens. The best you can to do is to work with nature and to do so in nature’s own time. The best you can hope for is a reasonably colourful show or some home-grown goodness by way of compensation for time and effort expended. The recent frosts prettified the dark damp leaf litter adding some seasonal sparkle to the withered Strawflower stems and decayed fennel seed heads and in doing so briefly rejuvenated an otherwise desolate winter scene, but on being hit with each new days sun rays the crystal magic dissipates and the familiar winter dank returns. Winter alas, is winter, and the end of January is as Winter as it gets. January is as quiet as the gardening year gets, and on those days when it is too wintry to do anything in the garden, well then, put the feet up, and plan what you will do once you’re back in the garden. Sometimes when there’s nothing to do, it’s ok to do nothing…
Sometimes Mother Nature does not gift us with what we expect but that is not to say she does not gift us at all; sometimes we just need to look elsewhere. This past year has been a challenging year for most small fruit growers with constant rain and grey skies through the spring and early summer which had a detrimental effect on the bursting fruit blossom, which, in turn, resulted in a very meagre harvest. However Mrs Dirtdigger did what she does exceptionally well and managed to forage many kilos of nature’s wonderful freebies from the hedgerows that border the allotment site, and so much so that by mid September she had harvested well over 5 kilos of blackberries which more than compensated for the gooseberry wipe-out earlier in the summer. Blackberries are not as pectin heavy as blackcurrants, but the use of an apple to boost the pectin level in the jamming process means there should be no need to use pectin added sugar. This year we put one of the large April Queen apples into the mix; the addition of the apple not only lifts the flavour but helps the final set. A pinch of ground clove adds an autumnal wow! factor, but too much will be overpowering, so no more than a fingers pinch. Alternatively place 3-4 cloves into a little muslin sachet and put into the boiling mix for the duration of the boil and remove before jarring.
Ingredients: 1 kg of fresh picked blackberries, thoroughly washed 1 kg of granulated sugar 1 large Dessert or Bramley apple, peeled, cored and chopped 150mls of water pinch of ground cloves knob of butter, salted/unsalted You will need a large stainless steel saucepan in which to boil the jam; 5-6 sterilized jars with clean lid and wax discs, a couple of saucers for the freezer, a tongs, a ladle, and a spoon or stirrer.
How to Jam it Up… Prepare all the ingredients and utensils you’ll need before hand; use a stainless steel pot and stainless steel or wooden spoon; have your jam jars washed and pop into the oven at 100 degrees for duration of the jamming process; wash and drain the blackberries; peel, core and chop the apple; pop two saucers into the freezer to have them chilled… 1. Put the blackberries, chopped apple and water into a large pot over a medium heat for 12-15 minutes bringing to a slow boil. 2. Once the fruit in the pot has softened and noticeably reduced turn the heat up full and begin adding the sugar, stirring constantly till the sugar is dissolved; this is where the benefit of a wooden spoon allows you fell what is between the wooden spoon and end of the pot. Once the sugar is dissolved bring the jam to a rapid rolling boil. At this stage add the knob of butter and the pinch of ground cloves, and leave it to boil for at least 7-8 minutes (boil time can vary depending on the actual fruit itself). 3. Remove pot from heat, and using a clean teaspoon pour a little of the jam onto one of the chilled saucers. Leave for 1 minute before running a finger through the blob of jam. If the surface of the blob crinkles your jam has reached setting point and is ready for jarring, if however the jam on the saucer is still too thin, return the pot to the heat and continue to boil for another 5 minutes before repeating the saucer test, and if necessary repeat once more till jam has reached setting point. 4. Once satisfied jam has hit setting point remove from heat. At this point take the jars out of the oven. Leave both jam and jars sit for 5 -8 minutes before carefully ladling the jam into the sterile jars. Fill jars almost to top, leaving 2-3mm at rim. Place a wax disc on top of jar, and screw on clean lid. The hot jam going into reasonably hot sterile jars should be enough to seal completely, but at times we then place the filled jar into a preserving pot of boiling water, completely covering the jars and boiling for 10 minutes to be sure to be sure! Using a tongs lift jars from the water and set aside to cool. 5. If your prep has been thorough and fresh fruit has been used and poured into sterile jars your blackberry jam should store for 6-7 months, of course, it probably won’t last that long at all once you start to dollop it onto fresh Devon scones, with a scoop of double cream perhaps………
“It rained on August 1st, and it rained again on the 2nd. It rained on the 3rd 4th and 5th; it rained the first Tuesday and again on Wednesday 7th and the next day also. Thus it rained the whole first week of August. It also rained each day of the second week, with another full encore the following week. In fact it rained every day the first twenty two days of August,,,”
That is how we opened the monster’s previous posting at the end of September. We’ve not been able to do much in the meantime; hence we’ve not had much to record. We had hoped (and rather naively it must be said) that if things were not to improve that at least they could not get much worse than our end of summer experience. We had had a typically Irish summer i.e. one of sunshine and showers in equal measure with a couple of good weeks in July, but Augusts’ arrival seemed to herald an earlier than usual autumn and one which precipitated a necessary change in plans and harvest outcome. And so, just as with all other allotmenteers on our site and farmers and smallholders right across the country we proceeded to harvest and lift what we could so as not to have them totally ruined should prevailing gut feelings come to pass. Well, come to pass it has. Autumn was rightly drowned: no bright days with golds and oranges and ochres; no piles of dried leaves to kick-up on walks through the woods and parks; no snapping twigs underfoot, and no fabulous transitional autumnal show from the branches before winter’s set-in. No, everything is sodden, soaked and flooded. Whatever crops we’d not lifted before October arrived have had an aquatic existence, and having been submerged for too long thus, are most probably beyond use now, but, we cannot even check this status until the standing water subsides.
It hasn’t stopped raining yet, and as such we’ve still not been able to do much with the monster’s measure. In recent weeks we have not been able to negotiate further than the full allotment site entrance as even the parking bays are under a foot of standing water. It rained most of August, and though early September brought a little respite from the deluge, October and November simply saw the situation deteriorate to a heavens opening down-pouring of almost biblical proportions. Large swathes of the country have already experienced flooding events; rivers have been in full spate for weeks on end, and in most low lying areas livestock has had to be housed already and that is a good 6-8 weeks earlier than usual and something not normally done till near winter’s end. A lot of the potato harvest could not be lifted, and a lot of the winter barley could not be sown, and to add a seasonal twist this last week has seen the mercury drop back significantly to what would be typically late December readings with daytime temperatures 3 degrees below average for early November. And to top it all off a forecast this evening of possible sleet and/or wet snow on a brisk north easterly and a forecast low tomorrow night of minus 4 degrees! Oh yes, come to pass it has: it was only a few short weeks ago we were mulling-over the potential of an early autumn, and suddenly we find ourselves in the grip of winter. Year after year, decade after decade, perhaps century after century even Ireland’s weather was always viewed as dependable. It was dependable in the sense that it was always quite unremarkable. You knew what to expect with weather in Ireland: never too hot, never too cold; an odd few days or perhaps a couple of weeks in July of fabulous summer sunshine, and once every couple of years a blanket of late seasonal snow which, if you were lucky enough, might just coincide with the late 19th and 20th centuries media-driven Christmassy sentimentality that somehow lulled generations into a false belief in the possibility of snow flurries between the 21st and 31st December every year, when records have always shown that we would have been most prone to snowfall, if indeed we were to have snowfall at all, from late January to late February each year.
For as long as anyone could remember Ireland’s weather was remarkably unremarkable in this sense: drizzle and sunshine, breezy, and blustery; soft spring days and soft summer days aplenty; frosty mornings, though not so many as to write home about and unnamed winter storms which blew in half-unexpectedly and without warning and invariably blew themselves out by Patrick’s Day. But, that was then, and now is the new weather reality. The pattern of weather in Ireland now is most definitely changed, and what was once by-and-large considered dependable and unremarkable is now most definitely become remarkably remarkable. As children of the twentieth century’s great and good technological developments and advancements, we here on monsterinthecorner have always valued the evidence and researched based conclusions which helped greatly improve the living standards, healthcare and education for many, many billions of people on this tiny blue spinning rock ninety-odd million miles from our nearest star; there is just no arguing with science when that science is done scientifically. And now almost all of The Science on climate change says…well, it says “we ain’t seen nothing’ yet!” We here on the monster’s emerald isle stomping ground now experience a pattern of weather with noteworthy extremes: we now have higher than average seasonal temperatures in both summer and winter; we now experience twice the historical mean number of Atlantic winter storms each season and ones which make landfall with greater and more sustained force than had been the case heretofore; we are now become acquainted with extra tropical storms and downgraded bona-fide hurricanes not to mention highly destructive and erosive tidal surges, and how can we ignore that steadily increasing number of days when rainfall amount surpasses former monthly equivalents. Most certainly, and for all the wrong reasons, our weather must now be regarded as remarkable, if not remarkably remarkable. Long before it was considered worthy of mainstream sound-biting we, here on monsterinthecorner, espoused an awareness of the fragility of the environment on which we all ultimately depend, and Mrs Dirtdigger has been a lifelong soft-shoed advocate and practiser of low-carbon footprint activity and sustainable living. So we’ll not attempt to outline the science here, we are just glad the giants in those particular fields have hoisted us onto their shoulders and, if truth be told, the whole world is (or at least should be by now) so well acquainted with the factual reality of climate change as to reduce quoted iterations here to little more than line and blog filler. So fact, the climate of the planet on which we live is in massive flux, and most of the dynamic drive behind that recent flux is undisputedly due to human abuse of the planet’s resources. Another fact is that even if every single plane, train and automobile stopped dead right now, and we mean right now; and if every single coal, oil and gas fired station on the face of the planet ceased production immediately, and if all the gigantic herds of intensively farmed livestock were culled overnight, and if not one more tree was to be felled anywhere across the globe from today, and even if production of all plastics and herbicides, pesticides and fungicides was ceased right here and now, well, it would all amount to nothing! Don’t get us wrong, this all needs to be achieved and it needs to be done YESTERDAY, but in the short term it will amount to absolutely nothing. Even if all this was somehow magically possible overnight it would not change one single iota of the unimaginable damage already done, and more importantly, neither would it slow nor suspend the disturbing effects we are now witnessing. This in no way is to sound sensational, nor defeatist, but this is the hard reality. We’ve tipped the climate into a reactive state and unfortunately we cannot tip it back again. We are going to have to ride this out, and that ride that is going to last for decades, perhaps centuries. Yet when you listening very carefully you hear we are developing our survival and mitigation discourse whilst seriously considering continuing to mine and burn, and pump and burn, and frack and burn, and cut and burn, and expand and grow economies, and maintain political viabilities, and talk the greatest talk that’s ever been talked, while we all hoodwinkingly walk somebody else’s walk to a mutually assured state of global chaos. It’s not The End of the F…ing World, oh no people, it’s much more serious than that, and if you/we/us/them are waiting for someone else to tell you what needs to be done and what you need to do, well then, you probably still haven’t got it.