When The Weather Clears

The days are dull, dark and damp. It is most definitely mid January and unmistakably deep winter. The Christmas decorations are once again consigned to attic or shed for the next 11 months, and the New Year’s celebration bubbly bottles have been emptied and recycled through the local bottle banks. Something which only a few short days before still held a certain charm and relevance can suddenly find itself out of place and out of time once its sell by date is reached, and once Christmas’ celebrate by date is passed, it is definitely passed. That which was full of bright promise in the latter days of December can seem abruptly garish and jarring just these few short January days later.
I suppose when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

The same of course must be said of things here on monster in the corner. No longer can we say that we are working our way through the first year on a new plot. Everything we said we had planned to relocate in the moving to our new plot was relocated, and everything we said we had hoped to sow and grow on that new plot was actually sown, and thankfully most of it grew as expected. This time last year we set ourselves some new year’s tasks and we experienced quite some pleasant success when late last August monsterinthecorner was awarded the prize of Best Overall Allotment 2018 at the annual awards. So no longer can we say that we are only in our first year for we are not, and in all truthfulness the monster is now well and truly established at its current location. When it’s time to go it’s time to go, and last year was last year; and that was then and this is… well, now.
The monster’s new year begins midst squally, sleety, stormy weather (in stark contrast to its beginning at this time last year) and where the last three years saw us experience relatively mild and generally uneventful winters, this year the winter season is providing us with plenty of weather.
In a posting from a frosty November morning just as this season was setting in we wrote that perhaps, if we were lucky, we would get just such a winter; noting that a little sharp vernilization in general, is a good thing for the kitchen garden.

So, reminder to self…be mindful of what you wish for!
It has been a very wet and notably cold winter to date, and once more this week we are subject to influences of large polar maritime air masses which seem set to dominate things again for the next seven to ten days. Regardless of how mild -or otherwise- any given winter can be, according to Long Term Average analysis the coldest period of Ireland’s winter season is from mid January to mid February, and it would seem all is right on cue.
With winter truly bearing its teeth this year, there is little that can be done on the allotment. Any attempt to turn or cultivate growing areas will backfire spectacularly, and any pruning which needs to be done and hasn’t yet been done is best long-fingered till things at least dry up a little. There is still ample time to shape and coax next year’s fruiting spurs and blooms from the present dormancy, and where cold weather pruning is par for the course, it’s best done during a dry period to minimize damage to newly exposed wound wood by extended exposure to wet conditions.
Other jobs for the allotment at this time of year are the standard housekeeping requirements for all gardens and plots and are, and have been, well documented over the decades. There are however one or two activities that can be undertaken now which are not so weather dependant and these are some of the gardening year’s gentler activities. While waiting for the weather to clear you can busy yourself perusing the gardening supplements and seed catalogues which suddenly seem to be arriving two-a-penny with every weekend newspaper, offering hints and tips together with design and advice to amateur and professional alike on everything from soil nutrition and pond depth, the latest must have celebrity endorsed tools, to current developments in Hydroponics and what it is that you simply must do now to ensure bigger, better blooms and harvests later in the year. All standard commercial fair mind you, aimed at planting that persuasive seed of need into your plans in the hope it will germinate in your pocket or purse. Or you may, if you wish, undertake something that we here do annually before the gardening season gets under way in earnest. About this time every year we at monsterinthecorner take out our seed storage box to examine and inspect the contents. It is a curious exercise sifting through the packets and envelopes and recalling what it was we had originally plotted to do the previous year. There are always a number of wallets and pouches that will have remained unopened and as such unused, and it is often puzzling trying to remember why we never followed through with the plan that made us buy them to begin with. But, we suspect most gardeners have such a box of curious perplexities. Of course, having opened the box it then becomes necessary to assess the viability of its contents, and this is where you need to be ruthless. Fresh seed looses its viability over time and the process of degradation is speeded-on once the original storage packet has been opened. How long seeds are likely to retain their viability largely depends on two things: the seeds own inherent shelf life, and secondly how they are stored once packaged. Moisture and unnecessary heat are two of the main conditioners contributing to seed deterioration, and seeds last longer if stored in a cool, dry environment. Nonetheless, regardless of how you store them some seeds naturally last longer than others: parsnips, celeriac and parsley will not last much longer than one year; whereas peas, tomato seed and some beans can remain viable for over a decade. Most leafy vegetable seed should last for at least 5-6 years; beetroot and radish for 3-4 years while carrot, turnip and swede seed will last for 2 years if you’re lucky. By and large this is in line with our own experiences over the years of sowing and growing, and though we’ve only outlined vegetable seed here, much the same storage guidelines apply to bloom and meadow seed as well, although with that said, it is generally accepted that a lot of flower seed has a much longer shelf life than most kitchen garden seed.
And so once again we’ll pop the lid on our seed treasury chest and we’ll scrutinize. We will examine the remaining basil seed purchased in Malcesine 4 years ago, the beans and sunflower seed sourced by the Dirt-Digging missus herself in Toulouse 3 years ago together with the beans and pumpkin seed brought home from Toronto in August 2016. It’s something we do while on our travels, a potential living memento of our foreign excursions should we be lucky enough to get them to germinate and grow in our home clime: some warm sun-filled reminiscences to help buffer January’s dreary days. We’ll also need to check the condition of the foraged poppy, sunflower, pumpkin and cosmos seed collected from the monster’s own beds and borders last autumn.

And then we’ll wait; wait for the weather to clear; wait till there is not so much weather about; wait till we can get out and about once more and the monster’s ways are trafficable enough to allow us empty some of those packet contents into pots and trays and beds and get the whole process under way once again; but, only when the weather clears.

Keeping Cold: a view to a chill…

Crisp, clean and crystal clear, and conjured from unobstructed air the first frost of this winter season greeted all worm catchers yesterday morning. Cool and bright and star-shiny sheer the winter’s first offering of season’s secret ministry glossed most low lying grassy areas and hardened exposed shallow pools. Though our met service had forecast frost, this was no sharp event and certainly no f# affair with much of the crystalline magic dissipating with the first rays of early sun. The cool air exposed all al fresco breaths in bamboozled bewilderment, and as though having seen it all before car windscreens glared with vague subfusc opalescence, awaiting intervention with kettle or pot to clear their view to the chill.

Tweed swede and Tender & True all on a bed of fast fading rocket

Last winter’s first frost did not occur till quite late in the season; with November and December both recording above LTA (Long Term Average) temperatures the first frost of last winter did not settle till 5th January this year.  So,  we’ve had the first frost of last winter and the first frost of this winter ten months apart and in the same calendar year. This year it seems winter is settling in early: we’ve covered and cleared what we needed to, and we’ve started to harvest and use the autumn and winter stocks of swedes, parsnips and kale. We’ve greased the bolts and oiled the latches, and we’ve stacked and stored the planters and pots. And while still trafficable and feasible to do so we turned sod on that area where we had scattered wildflower seed last spring and summer in the hope that exposure to the harsher elements of the coming season may just tame its unwieldy clumped lumpiness. The constancy of Mrs Dirtdigger’s deadheading drill together with the relatively mild October weather meant we still had some blooms to brighten the monster’s visage on our recent visits, but, we thinks the creeping crystal carpet may have put an end to this.
Still, it’s good to feel this early seasonal chill, and ideally our wish would be that this first frost is but a precursor to a winter of some sustained wintry weather; maybe not too much though (mindful to be careful of what one wishes for), but, as most gardeners should have learned, the earthen canvas in which we cultivate our dream performs best after a period of vernalization: rhubarb stools and gooseberry bushes; blackcurrant, apples and pears all benefit from a measured stretch in Mother Nature’s chilling cabinet, and much the same can be said of the early spring bulbs and flowering perennials.

So, just as we here at monsterinthecorner prepare to cover and muffle and wrap our bodies up against the elements of the coming season, our hope would be that the monster itself stays quite cold. And safe in the knowledge that most gardens invariably survive the wintriest of storms, our wish is that our little plot keeps cold, and does not get too warm, for once tender shoots have been top-dressed and strawed, spring’s cheery show creeps best from chilled sod…
So, stay chilled, keep cold.

All 2lb 2ozs of winter parsnip root
Another pair of swell parsnips

Lock, Stock & Two Wonky Barrows…

Lock Stock & Two Wonky Barrows
Lock Stock & Two Wonky Barrows The Monster’s Face on Census Day

Today being April 24th 2016 it is National Census Day in Ireland.
Exactly 100 years ago today at the General Post Office in Dublin city centre some of our patriots and heroes publicly declared their desire to run our national affairs in our own way.  Of course, such a declaration was also a succinct declaration of war on that once great empire which had governed this small western European island for almost a millennium, and in the ensuing rebellion and subsequent civil war just a few years later, over 800 years of national records were totally destroyed.

So, it is fitting  in this great year of commemoration and celebration that we also take stock of our greatest national asset, i.e. the people of the state.
Today is the day when every man, woman and child currently residing in or passing through the state on this particular day is asked to give an account of themselves.  The lines of enquiry are quite simple and are concerned with finding out who you are, where you are, what you do on a daily basis, with whom you do it, and the when, why, and how of doing it. In short the Who What Where When Why and How of your life on this particular day in time.  The information gathered will not only provide a picture of The Nation precisely100 years on from that momentous historical event, but it will also provide a valuable blueprint for future local, regional and national  planning…
And so I thought ( as I often do with little else to think about) that it may be a good exercise for us to do likewise and complete a census of The Monster in the Corner: to record exactly what we have planted on our allotment plot. A inventory of what we planted and when we planted it and of why we planted it in the first place, and how well it has performed since; this will allow us to see how our plot plans have changed over the years, and perhaps spur us to make other changes on the basis of the collated information… right, that’s the waffle well and truly prepared.

The Monster in the Corner is a 120sq metre clay based and stone strewn suburban allotment.
We are working this plot the last 3 years having moved from another much smaller plot within the walled garden. The plot has 3 clearly defined areas:

Our fruit patch consists of 4 stools of Victoria rhubarb planted 5 years ago; 2 Ben Lomand blackcurrant bushes and 5 gooseberry bushes, 2 each of Invicta and Hinnonmaki, and 1 Captivator all set out 5 years ago; 2 blueberry bushes, Bluecrop and Reva planted last winter; 2 heritage Irish apple trees, Summer John and an April Queen both only planted 2 years ago; a clump of Autumn Gold raspberry; a climbing scramble of Tayberry brambles from winter 2014; and this year after foregoing such the last 3 years we’ve once again planted up a strawberry bed with 20 runners of Malling Centenary.
In the front aspect of our plot we have 9 vegetable beds, 3 of which are raised “14 high. As our soil is a dense claggy clay, we grow our deep rooters in the raised beds; parsnips,carrots, celeriac etc. and to help with a semblance of crop rotation we use one of the raised beds for summer catch crops, this allows us to move -especially the parsnips – along the raised beds year on year.
So this year we have a bed of Gladiator parsnips; a bed of Longue shallots; a bed of summer scallions,bunching onion, lettuce plants and rocket; and in Terra firma we have large beds of Stuttgarter,Centurion and Karmen onions (in as sets) also Ailsa Craig and Bedfordshire Champions in as seed; a bed of Sutton Broad Beans; a bed with Solo Beetroot and radishes; and 2 beds awaiting Velour beans and Kelvedon Wonder peas.
The Monster in the Corner is a most awkward shape; like a giant wedge of badly cut birthday cake that we’ve come to love. There is a markedly curved run along the plot perimeter that was never going to be easy to cultivate as it skirts the original pathway of the walled garden and as such became little more than a holding area for the hardcore and foundation fill of the path, which over 160 years with little or no maintenance decided to migrate eastwards and has, by dint of being gently sloped, crept into the adjacent garden border that is now a large part of our plot. However, we use this area as a herb border, and over the years this is one of the Monster’s aspects which seems to catch the gaze of all strollers and passers-by.
There are established upright and prostrate Rosemary bushes; Munstead and platinum blonde lavenders; Cambridge Monarda Bergamot; Oregano; Faustini, Common and Lemon Thymes; Broad sage; Marjoram; Red Orach; Fever-few; Chamomile and clumps of Chives with plenty of chocolate Mint. There are 6 rose bushes here also: A Rosa Port Sunlight; Rhapsody in Blue; Tequila Sunrise; Lily Marlene and 2 Korresia. Currently we have trays and pots of Sunflowers, Cosmos, Zinnias and Catanache ready to spot plant all over the plot, but not just yet.
In our tool shed we have 3 garden forks and a pitch-fork; a shovel, a spade, a pick and a coal shift; a grass rake and a soil rake; 4 hand trowels, I large sweeping brush, 2 Dutch hoes and an onion hoe; a hose, 2 watering cans, 3 buckets, a shears, a loppers, a pressure sprayer, whilst back on the Monster there is a large poly cloche; 200-300 pots of varying sizes; 2 wheelbarrows, one a makeshift summer planter, and the other the work horse. There are 2 compost bins and a leaf-mould cage; 40-50 Bamboo stakes with various lengths of netting and fleece. We have a stainless steel potting table, access to a communal poly-tunnel with propagating table, 2 locks and a bunch of keys. And that, by and large, is that: the lock, stock and 2 wonky barrows, The Monster’s itinerary…
Of course there are other things we have garnered compliments of the Monster In The Corner, but these are not so easy to enumerate and take stock of. These are not things you’ll see growing in the soil, or find tucked away and buried in the end of a locker or shed. And yet they are there every time we walk onto our allotment. But then just like tonight’s census, there are some lines of enquiry best left unanswered at present, providing fruit to some other occasion…Census 2016 complete. Roll on this year’s harvest.

The Barrow Bug & The Work Horse
The Barrow Bug & The Work Horse…