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I normally enjoy writing about the allotments and all that goes on through the year, and why not?  After all, we’re all up there growing healthy vegetables, communing with nature and doing our best to help the environment, so what’s not to like?

Answer above.

And below.

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And again.

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That first photo was taken on the 31st of March.

Fingal CC provide one of these skips twice a year, once in Spring;once in Autumn.  Up until now this has been sufficient, albeit barely.  But this year’s early skip was nowhere near up to the sheer volume of rubbish accumulated.

Photos 2 and 3 were taken a couple of days ago, and you’d never know that a skip had been filled and taken away barely three weeks since.

Actually, the skip didn’t get taken at all to start off with.  In an effort to get rid of as much waste as possible the volunteers overfilled it to a ridiculous extent.  Ever seen “Level load only” stencilled on the side of a skip?  As such that must be the most optimistic and ineffectual signage of all time, but this was taking it to the extreme.

This still didn’t stop latecomers turning up with even more rubbish, their only problem was trying to work out how to possibly get it up there.  Still they tried, and if it slipped off and onto the ground, so what?  They could at least walk away knowing that they’d done their bit.

So when the Fingal driver turned up to collect the next day he took one look, turned around and drove straight back out the gate.

There was nothing else he could have done.  If he’d have hitched up to that he’d have been pulled by the guards before he got a mile down the road.

So the next day the same volunteers had to take half the load off again and throw it to the ground.  The skip was taken.

That rubbish is still on the ground and is being added to daily.  We are back to pictures 2 and 3.

So what’s going on?  Where’s all this waste coming from all of a sudden?

I think I know the answer.

The allotments are nine years old.  They support an increasing number of polytunnels.  Polytunnel plastic has an average life expectancy of 10 years.  Up until now very few have needed replacing; now an ever increasing number each year must be recovered.  Recovering a polytunnel creates an awful amount of plastic waste.  Trust me, I know.

Look again at the photos.  How much of that is polytunnel plastic?

When a polytunnel cover is replaced it is not only the old plastic that has to be thrown out, there are a lot of offcuts from the new cover also and a large amount of waste to be disposed of..  This cannot be avoided.  What can be avoided is throwing out all the bulky doorframes still wrapped in said plastic; these should be stripped and segregated.  We’ll come back to that.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against polytunnels; I have one myself.  I re-covered ours 18 months ago so it should be good, and I should be safe, for another eight years or so; but, yes, it produced a lot of waste at the time.  What I’m getting round to saying is that we have to rethink our attitudes to waste and start acting responsibly.

By now some of you have taken offence.

Good, you’re my kind of people.  You’re offended because you do care, you do try, and I’m lumping you in with the idiots (there is no other word) who don’t.  When I say “we” I mean the collective “we”, the collective “we” who are responsible for the godammed awful mess in the bottom car park.

The allotment committee have always dictated that only green waste be allowed to be left there.  They have steadfastly refused to segregate an area for non-green waste because they’re afraid that this would encourage some to bring rubbish from home.

They have a point.

Look again at photo 3.  What clown threw a plastic commode onto the pile?  I hope you’re reading this, whoever you are.  Ditto the person who disposed of their kid’s blue plastic paddling pool perched on top of the skip in photo 1.

(Actually, the thought occurs that I’ve just found a replacement word for “idiot”; in truth I’ve plenty more but unfortunately cannot print any of them here).

I feel strongly that if nothing else wood should be segregated.  My best estimate is that 40% by volume of that skip was wood.  Waste wood has a value; or at least a small value that can partially defray the cost of getting rid of it.  Some thrifty types pick through the pile for bits and pieces that they can reuse; one or two others take the best of the rest home for firewood.

And couldn’t we use it for the annual pig roast instead of importing yet more waste wood in the form of pallets.  All the while it is laced through the rest of the crap in the heap the answer is no.  But if it were put to one side?

Of course, allotment holders would have to comply and act sensibly.  A heap of old fence wire with a stake on the end of it does not constitute wood waste any more than aforementioned polytunnel doors covered in plastic do.  But if one can make the effort to assemble such things in the first place surely one can take the trouble to disassemble them when finished with?

The committee have also always said that everyone should take all their non green waste home with them.  I’m sorry, but I think this is a totally unrealistic expectation and is never going to happen.

How many people are going to bundle swathes of muddy old polytunnel plastic into their cars?  Ditto old fencing, rotting scaffold boards and wooden shed panels.  I’ll tell you the answer: as near to none as makes no difference.

Even if we segregate properly, and we should, we will need more than two skips a year.  The problem is that they cost money, and quite a bit of it.  Apparently a skip of the size in question is something in the order of €800 to €900.  Fingal won’t keep throwing us more skips just because we ask for them and the association simply doesn’t have the money.

Any income to the association is already allocated to grass cutting and maintaining the water supply etc.  there is nothing to spare.  But if the (paltry) annual membership fee of €10 was doubled to €20 an extra €1,900 would be generated.  And guess what?  It could pay for two more skips a year.

I’d be more than happy to fork out the extra cost of two pints of porter or three cappuccinos.  Would you?

Whatever the whatevers of it all, the present situation cannot continue, I think we are all agreed on that.  the electrification of the gate to restrict unwanted access will help.  There are various ideas being bandied about by the committee and it would be premature of me to talk about them here and now.  But in the meantime we can all do our bit.

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Firstly, the idiot who dumped this green waste on top of the (admittedly only semi segregated) plastic and wood waste should be shot, as should the people who don’t bother picking the plastic, bits of string etc out of their green waste.

I recently constructed a raised bed and filled it with soil/compost from the car park.  It was surprisingly nice looking stuff and I bet it makes an excellent growing medium without the need of anything else, but…

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…every spadeful contained string, plastic, plant labels, you name it, which had to be picked out.  Plastics and microplastics are invading every part of our lives, food supply and environment.  Here at Skerries allotments we seem to be doing our level best to make matters worse.

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Happy gardening everyone!

April 2019

April can in many ways be a frustrating month; it’s supposed to be all about sunshine, sparkling showers and blossom bursting out on fruit trees.

And sometimes it is.

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Hard to believe this was only a couple of days ago.

But right now the sun has disappeared, temperatures have plummeted, the early foraging bees are nowhere to be seen and even the dandelions have shut down by folding their flowers tight.  A bitter easterly wind makes it feel twice as cold and we may as well be back in the depths of winter.  This sort of weather is allowed in March, we expect it; but mid April?  Come on!

In truth there is nothing unusual about any of this, it happens pretty much every year and we all have a jolly good moan as if it can’t possibly have happened ever before.  When the sun returns in a few days we’ll have forgotten all about it.  Meanwhile it’s too damned cold to be outside so I’m finally getting around to updating my blog.

So what’s happening?

Well, the rhubarb is looking pretty verdant and we’ve had a few feeds off it already with many more to come.

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There are two things I love about rhubarb.  The first is the taste, good old traditional rhubarb and custard is hard to beat.  (We must have forgotten to plant custard last year; we had to go out and buy that part).

The second thing I like about it is that it is so easy to grow; in fact it grows itself.  Just throw on some compost once a year, pick away all summer and tidy up the dead leaves in late autumn.  That’s it, nothing else to do.  It even smothers its own weeds as it grows.

Sown direct into the ground last October, the broad beans are in full flower accompanied by a row of early peas.  The latter grown in modules in the polytunnel and planted out a week ago.

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Winter broad beans behind; first sowing of peas in front. Plenty of netting involved, not only for the peas to climb up but also to keep off pesky pigeons.

Winter garlic and onions are making good progress and Marion’s weeds, sorry, flowers, dotted around the pathways and encroaching on my vegetable beds brighten the place up.

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Things are busy in the polytunnel too, with seedlings in modules all growing ready to be planted out in their allotted positions with military timing and position on the appropriate calendar day.  (Which is probably the most ludicrous statement I or anyone else ever made on a gardening blog).

This year the whole of the allotments has gone tomato mad, with everyone rushing about swapping Heritage and other unusual varieties.  But Hey!  That’s what polytunnels are all about.  We have that many already that we’d need ten polytunnels to grow them all in, some serious culling will have to be done.

My favourite so far is called Mrs Ruckston’s Bush, or something like that.  Definitely have to make room for that one.

Rain forecast for tomorrow but it’s been mostly dry lately so everyone has been up turning the soil.

That’s another nice thing about this time of year, only the diehards are to be occasionally seen in the winter but once March and April come everyone else comes out of hibernation and old acquaintances are renewed and new friends made.

We ourselves have done very little digging this year and intend to do very little more.  We’re trying ‘No Dig’.

The principle behind this is that soil does not need to be dug for vegetables, indeed it can be all the better off for being left alone.  All the living organisms, including saprophytic fungi, which make it work are better undisturbed.  At the same time plants are quite happy to grow in firm soil (there is a difference between firm and compacted).  Also, every time you dig you stir up weed seeds; if you don’t dig you, er, don’t.

The idea is entirely new to us but it seems to make sense so we’re giving it a go.

The broad beans and peas mentioned above were planted in this way and I put in our spuds a couple of weeks ago.  All that was required was to pull up the sprouts that had overwintered there, rake the bed level again, and drop in the potatoes at the correct spacing to the depth of a trowel.  The bed was then covered with two inches of our own compost and that was that.  If necessary as the tubers form and if they’re likely to go green on exposure to sunlight, they get another inch of compost.

We’ll see how it turns out.

If it does go all pear shaped we’ll be blaming a certain Charles Dowding.  He has a small market garden in Somerset and an excellent series of tutorials on YouTube.  Have a look at this one for starters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVY4SJt4mzg   or this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXO_j0vriwk

 

So that’s us halfway through April.  We’re really looking forward to the rest of the year and hope you are too.

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January 2019

January is perhaps the month when growth is slowest in the allotment, and it may seem like there is nothing to be done.  This is not true: there is always something to get on with. Even now the buds on fruit trees and bushes are swelling in readiness for Spring and the wise gardener will be making his or her preparations also.

If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to think about constructing compost bins.

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Homemade compost; black gold

 

Homemade compost is both natural and free from contaminants (insofar as that is possible in this day and age) and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  One assumes that anyone who has taken an allotment has done so because they want natural healthy produce, and this is the way to go.  If on the other hand you are the sort who doesn’t mind spray and insecticide residues in their food you don’t have to bother with any of this, such produce is readily available in any supermarket for considerably less time and trouble.

Even farmyard manure can be problematical; herbicides and similar can pass straight through the animals in question and be imported into your patch.  One might assume that the quantities would be so small as to be not worth worrying about, as I always did, but last Spring we suffered a severe setback when we applied a batch of cow manure which killed almost everything it touched including potatoes, tomatoes, peas and beans.

We can’t prove it, I wish we’d sent a sample away at the time for analysis, but subsequent internet research showed that the symptoms were typical of  aminopyralid sprays, a widely used broadleaf herbicide used in agriculture.  Apparently it has been a recurring problem for allotment holders in the UK for the past decade or so.

This had never happened to us before and might never happen again, but we’re not prepared to take the chance.  From now on it’s homemade or nothing.

Gathering together enough materials can be a problem for many organic gardeners, but here in Skerries we are lucky.  For one thing the sea is only a few rooftops away and seaweed abounds, particularly after a gale of easterly wind.  And it’s free!

Seaweed is not a complete fertilizer in itself.  For reasons I don’t fully understand it is, apparently, low in both carbon and nitrogen.  But it is high in phosphorous and trace minerals and makes a fine tonic for the soil.  We don’t so much compost it as spread it as a mulch in the Autumn, this both feeds the soil for next Spring and suppresses the weeds.

A bed mulched with seaweed ready for spring.

We are also lucky because many of our neighbours don’t bother composting at all.  They are actively encouraged to throw their green waste into my bins rather than the heap in the carpark.  In this way we get more than enough for our needs; (perhaps I am shooting myself in the foot by writing this and encouraging them to use it themselves.

A compost bin does not need to be an elaborate affair; four pallets nailed together will do the trick, but if you have one you really need two.  This is because once the first is full you need a second to carry on filling while the first breaks down.  Small allotment?  No problem.  Smaller bins.

We have a fairly big allotment and we have three bins, and there is a gate on each.  This means I can get in, fork all the contents out, and then throw it all back in giving it a good mix in so doing.

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3 Bin ‘conveyor’. Far right is a newly emptied bin ready for the next batch; middle, freshly turned and half way there; left, ready to use.

Compost will break down on its own eventually, but turning speeds the process considerably.  There are those who claim they can achieve a twelve week turnaround, fair play to them, six months does me.

So what goes in, and how?

In my case all green matter.  I don’t worry unduly about weed seeds or roots because the heating process kills both.  With the correct balance of materials and an occasional turning (maybe once a month) the bacteria can heat the pile to 60 degrees C, more than enough to do so.

It’s a very good idea to smash, chop or otherwise break up large woody lumps like cabbage stalks.  They are incredibly tough and slow to break down left to their own accord.  In fact if you don’t administer justice at this stage they’ll still be there, pretty much intact, when the compost is ready; in which case throw them back into the next batch that you have coming along.

Brown material is also needed. ‘Brown’ means stuff like woody stalks, shredded cardboard or, in my case, woodchip (as conveniently delivered to the allotments by various tree surgeon type companies).  Green material is high in nitrogen; brown in carbon.  The bacteria need both in order to thrive and do the job.  Get the balance right, mix well, and you’re off to a flying start.

Two more things are needed: oxygen and water.

It’s impossible to have too much oxygen, my bins have slatted sides to facilitate aeration and regular turning does the rest.  Water is slightly different; in this case you can have too much of a good thing, and if the pile is wet you’ll end up with a soggy, stinky mess.  A good guide is to take a handful and squeeze as hard as you can, if you manage to squeeze out one or two drops you’re good.  Even if you can’t, but feel you nearly managed it, you’re still good.

Moist is the thing to aim for.  Bins should be covered to prevent them drying out in summer or getting waterlogged in winter.  If the pile seems a little dry when you’re turning it, get the watering can out.

You now have a pile full of worms, woodlice, fungi and creepy crawlies all munching away and turning your garden waste into the best possible fertilizer for your fruit and veg.  While I have absolutely nothing against companies such as Enrich who supply tonne bags, you have also done your bit by cutting down on plastic use (the bags) and polluting road transport.

One last thing: proprietary compost accelerators.  Don’t bother.

If you have money in your pocket that you don’t want by all means spend it, but it’s not necessary.  There are plenty enough bacteria occurring naturally to get things going, and if you really want to be sure, throw in some seaweed.

Happy growing!

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Sustainable Skerries are delighted to introduce a new regular feature on our website, “The Skerries Allotment Blog” from Charlie Heasman. We hope to publish this blog monthly, or more if there’s more to say!. Enjoy the read, and please comment, positively, constructively and in good humour.

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December 2018

“First, a few words of introduction, my name is Charlie Heasman. My wife, Marion, and myself have an allotment in Skerries, an allotment which over time we have become passionate about.  When Sustainable Skerries heard that not only can I string a half intelligible sentence together when pushed, but also have Microsoft spell check, they invited me to write a monthly blog.  Okay, here goes.

So here we are in December, a time when very little is growing and not a lot is happening, which would seem a mildly surprising time to start. But actually this is not the case.

It’s difficult to think of any enterprise where a bit of forward planning does not go amiss and there is no better example than an allotment.  Here at the tail end of 2018 we have time to plan ahead for 2019, and the better we plan now the better our chances of getting it right then.  Hopefully!

Marion and myself will have been in Skerries allotments four years this coming March.  We had the advantage of not starting off as complete beginners and I will flatter us both by saying that we’ve added considerably more to our knowledge since then.  My intention here is to humbly offer to share what we know with others who may find it of benefit.

Of course, there are some who have been there far longer than us and indubitably know far more than us and I’m sure that collectively they’ll be able to disagree with just about every point I make.  That’s fine, dialogue is good; there’s a comment box below folks, use it. Let’s get a discussion going.

In the meantime I’m the blogger, I get first say..

…and I say we’ve only been here four years and in that time we’ve seen so many people come, give up, and go.

Why?

The short answer, always given, is that they didn’t know how much time and work it would be.  This is true in so far as it goes but, let’s face it, if someone’s looking for both a hobby and a release then tending a mere 50 square meters of land should be a pleasure, not a problem.  What is a problem is turning up in April with a trowel and a packet of seeds, scratching with the former and throwing about the latter, and expecting a miraculous crop of vegetables.  It’s never, ever, going to happen.

Why?  Answer: no planning, no groundwork.

Before even thinking about planting (and we’re all impatient for results, we wouldn’t be human if we weren’t) it is necessary to look after the soil.  Get the soil right and the rest will follow; you’d be amazed how true this is.  You’ll also be amazed how much easier life becomes and how much more successful you are.

So what’s involved?

Three things: weeds, structure and nutrition.

Take weeds first (as indeed you should).  Get rid of them, get rid of them all.  If you

don’t, the ones that remain will come straight back in.  I’m talking perennial weeds here like couch grass, nettles and buttercups.  When we took over our 100 sq m plot it was wall to wall couch grass.  We resolved to start digging in one corner and work our way out..

So we did…

 

 

 

 

 

There was a certain amount of backache involved…

 

 

 

 

 

 

But fun for all the family nonetheless…

 

 

But three months later it looked like this. Okay, I’m boasting.

Forgive me.The point is that if we hadn’t gone at it full bore we’d still be battling the stuff now. By contrast, we’ve seen others in a similar situation meticulously clear a small bed in the middle of such a wilderness, plant in it, and then find to their dismay that the weeds have come straight back in and that they are pretty much right back where they started.  So they clear it again, and again, and again, and then give up.

Cleaning that allotment was the first and hardest thing we ever did but boy, aren’t we glad now.  While there may be the odd spear of couch grass that still creeps in even now it is easily and quickly dealt with and we can relax.

Sitting here and writing this, a thought has just occurred.  We both like to think that with our allotment we are working with, not against, nature.  Yes, I think it is so.  And yet at this point we were battling against nature: nature wanted the weeds there; we didn’t.

But I can say that we’ve never used, nor will ever use herbicides.  It’s all down to the fork and the hoe.  I’m both mystified and saddened when I see allotment holders use weedkillers.  Why?  What’s the point of having an allotment at all?  Beats me.

Happily the remaining two factors, soil structure and nutrition, can both fall firmly into the ‘working with’ category.

When we first dug and weeded our patch we thought the soil looked pretty good, a quick application of compost and it would be good to go.  In fact it was, as per photo above; but we now know it could have been so much better.

To start off with the clods we dug were hard and heavy, requiring a good few smacks with the back of the fork to break them up, but as we’ve progressively added more organic matter -anything we can get our hands on, cow and horse manure, compost, seaweed – things have improved.  Now the soil is so much lighter and actually crumbles off the fork of its own accord, so even digging is so much easier.  And if I can get a fork through it with ease then I’m sure the plants can now do the same with their roots.  Not only that but it drains quicker in winter and retains moisture longer in summer.

 

We still occasionally come across an untouched lump in an odd corner of a bed; the sight of it reminds us of the difference between now and then.  Today I nipped up with my trusty iphone and after a bit of exploratory digging, recorded the masterpiece here.

Apologies for the poor quality, but hopefully it shows a hard grey lump dug out of softer, darker soil.  It too took several smacks to break it up.

One last anecdote:

Back in our early days we heard that carrots require deep, fine soil in order to do well (they do), so Marion set to work preparing a patch.  It was an area of about one and a half square metres at the end of a bed.  Determined to do the job properly, she dug down 18 inches and put everything through a fine sieve.  It took her all day but the resultant tilth looked impressive, talcum powder came to mind.  We threw in the seeds and stood well back, ready for the imminent explosion of growth.

Which didn’t happen.

In fact very little grew, and what did was woefully scrawny.  When we came to pull up what little was there and dig the bed we found that it had set like concrete.  By contrast, and coincidence, that same bed again contains carrots as I write.  This time they did explode into a mass of verdant green.  The difference?  Organic matter.

So that’s my view: with an allotment the more you can put in at the beginning the easier it becomes eventually, and the greater the rewards.  To anyone contemplating starting: be warned.  To anyone about to give up: don’t.

If you’ve to any extent enjoyed reading this, I thank you and invite you to pitch in with a comment below; as said at the start, it would be great to get a discussion going.  If, however, you’re thoroughly bored and feel you’ve been robbed of ten minutes of your life, there are some very good videos on Youtube.

Until next month”…

Charlie.

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Hi

I was talking to you a few minutes ago about getting involved in the allotment scheme/grow your own. I was wondering if you could forward this mail to you colleague Mary as per our conversation and ask her to forward me an application form so that I can get this back to you by the end of the week.

Many thanks

Regards

Emer O’Kelly

    Hi Emer,
    I have forwarded the message to our Allotments point of contact.
    Many thanks for your intrest in the allotments.
    Frank


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