Why we dig life on our York allotment

11 Jan 2013 @ 1.39 pm
| Food & drink
“We’re heading off to the allotment, spade in hand…” Photograph: Sue Jewitt
Sue Jewitt and Vicky Swift from Apples for Eggs are stunned to discover that they have 14 years of allotment holding experience between them. “We’re not experts,” they say, “far from it! But that in a way is what Apples for Eggs is all about – just having a go, be that at growing, preserving, home-making or baking.” With this in mind, their From The Allotment posts will give an update on the goings-on at their allotments, and the seasonal festivals and events that inspire them to keep on growing.

As we gradually emerge from the Christmas holiday haze and January kindly adds a little more light to our days, it’s time to start thinking about what home produce to grow on the allotment. But after the soggy year that was 2012 and the resulting spartan allotment harvest, we’re finding it difficult to gather pace, let alone enthusiasm, for our 2013 planting plans and chores.

So before lurching into action we’ve taken a little detour into the past to see what traditions and customs were enlisted in days gone by to gear up for the agricultural year ahead and to ensure success!

plough-mondayTraditionally, Plough Monday is the first Monday after twelfth night and marks the beginning of the period that leads up to the next harvest. To mark this new beginning the plough boys would pull a plough round the street, dancing and performing for households in return for money and food (in East Yorkshire cheese curd tart was common currency!). In medieval times it was also common for the church to bless the plough on Plough Sunday.

Another tradition still upheld in some parts of the country is wassailing, which takes place on January 16th. This lively ceremony consists of presenting offerings to the spirits of the apple trees to guarantee a fruitful harvest the following year. Much noise-making accompanies the offerings in order to scare away any evil spirits that may be harmful to the coming crop. The farmer’s family and workers then gather around the best fruit bearing trees and sing songs.

If nothing else, these merry traditions remind us that the hopes and fears of all growers throughout the ages are unchanging. We are in good company! So without a plough to bless or an apple tree to wassail we’re heading off to the allotment, spade in hand, to tackle weeds that should have been tackled a few months ago, in an attempt to assist our own good harvest!

Five jobs for January

Preparing the ground
One of the first jobs we need to get on top of is the digging and weed clearing! This is a job that often gets squeezed in as family/work commitments supersede visiting the allotment. So any dry days ahead will be spent preparing the beds on our plot and digging in compost.

Chitting early potatoes
chitting-potatoesJanuary’s the time for buying in seed potatoes ready for chitting at the end of the month/beginning of February. Seed potatoes can be sprouted inside before planting in the allotment, this is known as chitting. Growth is started indoors and planted in the soil as the earth warms up (around Easter time) and lifted for eating late June. For more information see the post on rhs.org.uk.

Forcing rhubarb
rhubarbOne of our favourite early colourful crops is rhubarb. Delicious stewed with ginger and served with yoghurt or porridge, as a jam, rhubarb muffins or tart! Simply cover with a large pot, dustbin or rhubarb forcer to keep out the light and wait around 8 weeks or until the rhubarb is about 20 cm high. For a lovely and super-easy jam recipe visit the Apples for Eggs Facebook page. Rhubarb (and rhubarb jam) has always gone down well at our Spring Food Swaps too.

Planting garlic
If you haven’t already, throw in a few cloves of garlic. Buy a proper planting variety, not just one from the supermarket, break it into cloves and plant them individually, tips just peeping through the soil. Another easy win, and we’re certainly all for those!

Choosing seeds
salsifyWe’ve been on our allotment for nearly ten years and are lucky enough to have some established plants and bushes, thanks, in part, to the previous owner who had the plot for 30 years. Amongst them are autumn fruiting raspberries, strawberries, horseradish, rhubarb, redcurrant & blackcurrant bushes and an ailing gooseberry bush. However, it’s always exciting to gather new seeds for the coming season and this year these are amongst our stash: kale, radish, runner bean “Tenderstar” and courgette, all from Thompson And Morgan, and baby beets from Thompson & Morgan’s Kew Urban Gardens Collection.

We’ve yet to choose our tomato crop and order some pak choi from London herb garden. Lastly, with an eye to 2012’s appalling weather, we’re going to try the apparently reliable old English root salsify (pictured above). A rainfall-loving relation to the common dandelion, Hugh FW reckons they’re “a doddle”, and based on last year’s prolific, rain-boosted dandelion crop, we’re feeling cautiously confident.

Other jobs for January
Pruning currant and gooseberry bushes, cutting back autumn fruiting raspberries, repairing and caring for tools.

Grow-your-own events in York

Saturday, January 19 Community composting for local food growing at St Nicholas Fields

Friday, February 15 and Saturday, February 16 Pruning fruit trees, Bishopthorpe. See here for more details www.tcv.org.uk

Check EdibleYork.org.uk for training courses

Look out for seed swaps!