The Day of the Tomato Triffids

Yellow tomatoes, just as it says on the packet. And the green haze of tomato plants in the greenhouse

Year two as an allotmenteer and year one as a greenhouser, and we’re one step nearer to organic self-sufficiency in a niche area of cabbage, onion and tomato-related cuisine. The healthiness of our respective constitutions will know no bounds and I foresee a future when the cats will take the blame for any gaseous expulsions.

The greenhouse was a great hit with the cats, who loved the warmth and jungle-like qualities. I imagine it brings out all their big cat hunting instincts, that would explain them trotting into the house with assorted rodents and chasing them around the lounge for their own amusement. Bless.

With not much room available to grow our bumper tomato crop, I had a cunning plan. If I doubled the number of growbags so the roots would delve deeper, I could double the number of tomato plants. Simple. Cunning. Foolproof. Couldn’t see any problems with that at all.

Tomato planting started in earnest, I chose three varieties, red, yellow and stripey. I’d visions of gliding into the greenhouse, my floaty dress billowing behind me, straw hat nodding in the breeze, wicker basket primed and ready to be loaded with plump, ripe fruit, looking like a page in the Sarah Raven catalogue.

Instead, there was a green haze as the plants grew together, competing  for space. At times, I’d to fight my way through with a machete just to water them, I wasn’t wearing anything floaty, there was no straw hat.The cats abandoned the greenhouse all together and the tomatoes just kept on pushing, triffid-like, yellow triffids.

The picture on the seed packet, showing shiny red tomatoes bore no resemblance to the yellow plums ripening on the vines, someone in the tomato factory must have thought they’d have a jolly jape and swapped the seeds, oh how I laughed. So I had double yellow and stripey tomatoes, a lot of foliage and bulging grow-bags full of roots. Yes, definitely triffids.

Meanwhile down on the allotment, there was a serious case of over-planting of cabbage. Not that I don’t like cabbage, but you can have too much of a good thing, especially when they are all ready at once. Cabbage soup anyone? Thank goodness onions store well, we’ve more strings of them than a Francophile fancy dress shop.

So looking ahead to next year, them theme will be ‘less is more’, though in the case of cabbage, nil. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll make the Sarah Raven catalogue.

Tomatoes of great stripeyness

It’s starting to look something like

Be gone, couch grass and creeping buttercup!

Two years ago and I was seriously thinking of applying for PhD funding to research the complex root system of couch grass and creeping buttercup. I considered I was well on my way to becoming a leading expert in the two, particularly in methods of extracting them from the ground intact. I could see a future of lecture tours, stop-overs in luxurious hotels in countries where couch grass and buttercups are unknown. Maybe a book, possibly a movie, certainly an interactive game with dancing roots and nodding flower heads.

My then new allotment was central to field research. When I say ‘new’, I mean new to me, it had a previous owner who must have planted the offending weeds, how else could they have proliferated? And more importantly, why? Apart from a couple of blighted potatoes and one weedy raspberry cane, the couch grass and buttercup flourished, so clearly they planned to do something with them, I just couldn’t figure out what – maybe something else for my research bid.

But as with all research, after a while, you begin to question why you’re doing it. Day after day of pulling and tugging those tenacious roots and I changed my mind about the damned things, in fact, I never wanted to see them again. Clearly, that was never going to happen, I just had to make sure there was no room for weeds by planting lots of lovely vegetables.

Ooo this allotmenteering, it’s not something that can be rushed. Two years. Two years of forking, digging, pulling and tugging those weeds. But now, it’s starting to look something like.

The start of the research – two years ago


Lessons learned as a first-year allotmenteer

Borlotti beans, ready to dry in the airing cupboard.
Borlotti beans, ready to dry in the airing cupboard.

I’ve looked everywhere, but no-one has a cakey recipe for runner beans. Carrots, beetroot, courgette, potato, yes, yes, yes, yes, they bake up well with sugar, eggs, flour and spices until they’re unrecognisable as vegetables, making sure that children everywhere can say they’ve had at least one of their five a day.

But runner beans stay firmly in savoury section, there’s not even a runner bean roulade, let alone a beany cupcake. Let’s be honest, they’re not really that exciting as vegetables, unless they’re served with chorizo or chilli. And now I have hundreds of the damned things left over, enough to feed the entire village, but no-one wants them, I can’t give them away. The wall of the allotment is piled high with them as other allotmenteers try to pass on their excess beans to passers-by, without much success. Thank goodness for compost heaps, because that’s where most of them have ended up, but it is a very good compost heap.

I’ve now chalked up my first year down at t’allotment and have enjoyed the fruits and vegetables of my labour. When I say my labour, I mean our labour, Noel has been on digging and weeding duty. The vast swathe of couch grass and creeping buttercup I took over has been transformed to produce crop after crop, it’s a miracle and a tasty one at that, unless we’re talking about runner beans.

Lessons have been learned, especially at how prolific runner beans are when you plant them. Here’s my top five that will take me forward to a second year of partial self-sufficiency.

  1. If you sow all your seeds at once, they all grow together. There’s just two of us, we can’t eat the ten red cabbage that hearted up at the same time as the three different types of kale I grew. Kale chips, anyone?
  2. Nothing in the entire world is as satisfying as digging up potatoes. You plant a tatty old thing, it throws up leaves, stalks and tomato-like fruit, which is a bit weird, then when the time’s right, in goes the garden fork, out come dozens and dozens of potatoes. I mean, how does that work? It’s brilliant!
  3. Slugs materialise without warning, eat everything, leave slime and are immortal. I think they are transported from some kind of sluggy Enterprise-type spaceship where they live on slug pellets to build up their immunity. As far as I can see, they don’t like runner beans, so they’re not as daft as they look.
  4. Weeds materialise without warning, spread everywhere and are indestructible. I think they are mates with the slugs. There were, however, none near the runner beans.
  5. Home-grown fruit and vegetables taste better than anything you can buy anywhere, they are sweeter, juicier, crunchier and lovelier. And yes, that even applies to runner beans.

The seed catalogue has arrived, I’ve perused and salivated over its contents and made my order. Roll on spring!

Learning from the learners

Mix all the colours together and you get....brown!
Mix all the colours together and you get….brown!

Everyone should spend an afternoon with a class of six-year-olds, especially when they are making African masks. It’s an education, it’s fun and it’s gloriously messy. As Chair of Governors at Calverley Parkside School, I get to chair serious meetings making serious decisions and read lots of reports and policies, it’s important work, but it’s not what I’d call fun.

So when I got an invitation from Year 1 to join them for the afternoon, I jumped at the chance. Each governor sponsors a year group, then follows them through the school, by gum how they grow!

As I entered the classroom to be greeted by my Sunday name, I had to look around to see who this Mrs Akers was. It was me of course, I felt very grown up.

Six-year-olds are interesting and interested, full of new things and generally enjoying life, no cares or worries (except the sticky question of what had happened to someone’s Show and Tell, but that was soon forgotten after they all went and played out together). They can also be quite serious, so when I asked if they knew what a governor did, I got the logical reply. Governors govern, you can’t beat them, so I joined them.

The first thing I did was break a paintbrush. which immediately caused great hilarity. I don’t think many grown-ups break things in the classroom, ah well, there’s always a first time.

Soon I was surrounded by chatty children painting papier mache masks. Somehow I got covered in paint, though my white tee-shirt stayed white until I got home and dropped chocolate on it.

Of course things have changed a lot from when I was at school all those years ago, but reading time stays the same. I don’t know what the children made of my rendition of Farmer Fred and his wacky tractor, complete with sound effects, but I had fun!

Best of all was one-to-one reading with two children. It took me back to when I sat with my teacher Mrs Elliott, as she followed each word with her pen and I pronounced it, what an achievement to read an entire page, especially when there were no pictures. These two children were opposites, one reading confidently, the other not as sure, but they both made a fantastic effort.

I learned a lot today about how the children learn and how they love to learn. I can’t wait to go back!

Dahlia rings and raspberry stalks

Should have left the stalks on!
Should have left the stalks on!

Presenting flowers and fruit for the village show is a serious matter, you can’t just turn up and turn them out. There’s rules and there’s measuring tools carried in a special kit by the judges.

I had my own judging to do at the Calverley Show in the photography and wine (yes wine) classes, but I am a mere amateur. I wanted to see the experts at work.

The room smelled delicious, fruit, flowers, foliage and vegetables, with the aroma of cakes, bread and starched linen sneaking in from the handicrafts next door. But the judge with the measuring kit was focused and unmoved by those heady scents. He was eyeing one particular dahlia and he wasn’t happy. No, he said. It wouldn’t do, it wouldn’t do at all, as he produced a ring the size of – err – a dahlia, for it was indeed a dahlia ring. Rules are rules and if the bloom is bigger than the ring, then it’s disqualified, maybe even taken outside and crushed underfoot. I imagined he had other specialist tools in his kit, which incidentally was emblazoned with a large ‘J’ and stickers from Chelsea, Blenheim Palace, Harrogate and Calverley. Maybe there was a special stalk tester to make sure no non-organic materials had been introduced, I’d heard talk of wires, glue and painted wooden stakes. There was certainly a note pad for disqualification purposes, in case anyone added false petals, or had the foliage pointing the wrong way.

I was scared, I’d entered my sunflower and Arthur Bell, Arthur Bell is a beautiful yellow rose, and plonked them in the green vases provided by the society. How would they measure up?  I’d also staged half a dozen of my golden raspberries, which looked magnificent on the house-shaped plate I’d brought, they were the door, I thought they looked pretty, I’d picked the that very morning and arranged them artily on the plate. Looking at the judge’s kit, I knew I’d made a faux pas and hurriedly transferred them to the regulation paper plate.  I could only head for the wine to drown my sorrows and hope.

As it turned out, my sunflower won (though it was the only entry), Arthur Bell was a creditable second (out of two) and the raspberries were third, beaten by blackberries and plums. Evidently I should have left the stalks on. Ah well, I’ll know next time!

My potatoes have tomatoes

It’s just over a year since we took over The Great Weedbed of Calverley. It was the most neglected, overgrown allotment in the village, but we took it on nevertheless. These prized pieces of land in what everyone but us calls a posh village, don’t come up very often.

You’ve heard the term ‘dead man’s wellies?’ The previous lot-holder hadn’t died, they just ran out of steam. Either that or they were creating a wildlife garden to cultivate couch grass, creeping buttercup and abstract sculptures from clods of clay. Whatever it was, the committee wasn’t impressed and the lotholder left before they were shown the shed door, throwing down a digging challenge to the person at the top of the long waiting list. That would be me, then.

My spade and fork have been working overtime and I’m on my third set of gardening gloves, but by gum, it’s now looking something like an allotment. Granted, the grand ideas for terraced raised beds and arches full of cascading flowers hasn’t come to pass this year, but as one of the Old Boys who leans over the fence dispensing wisdom laced with wry humour points out, it’s always work in progress.

Armed only with vague memories of what my grandad did in his garden, advice from my savvy in-laws, library books and You Tube, I set about sowing and planting. Looking at my plan, my mate Bev was scandalised to see I’d written ‘stuff’ on one of the beds, though I was more explicit with other beds, which were destined to grow ‘veg stuff’ and ‘fruit stuff’. Hey, my Myers Briggs profile says I do big picture….

Now, a year later, the old weeds are gone, they have been replaced with new ones, but they aren’t as prolific or tenacious. And in their place is so much veg stuff and fruit stuff I don’t think we’ll ever need to buy food again. At least neither broad beans nor potatoes, we can feed a small country with the harvest.

The learning curve has been as steep as the path down to the lot, but for what it’s worth, here are five key learning points for me this year, there were 100 times that many, but blog etiquette requires me to keep it brief.

  1. There are lots of creepy-crawlies, rats, mice and the odd badger sharing the lot with me. It’s not necessary to shriek every time I see one.
  2. The al fresco toilet comes with its own fierce genus of nettles which particularly like bottoms. It’s not necessary to shriek every time I’m stung
  3. Things grow very big, even though seedlings are very small, so they do need to be spaced some distance apart to allow room for weeding, picking, poking myself in the eye with the support canes. It’s not necessary to swear every time this happens.
  4. Weeds grow when you’re not watching. Swearing at them will only make them grow faster.
  5. Potatoes have fruit which look like green tomatoes, they are not edible, in fact they are poisonous. It is not necessary to swear when they drop off the plant onto your foot, they will haunt you in your dreams.

On becoming Brian. Or Peter.

The Shadow of Brian
The Shadow of Brian

“Now then, lass, how’s it going?”. Brian leaned on the fence and cast his eye over the expanse of freshly-dug soil, small, but insistent collection of weeds, immense pile of steaming poo and me holding my spade like a real professional….in my dreams.

Brian is one of the Elder Statesmen of the allotments. By some spooky coincidence, all the Elder Statesmen here are called Brian or Peter. I suspect for some, it’s an honorary title as they are women, but I can definitely positively probably confirm that I’ve heard everyone who is anyone in the allotment hierarchy referred to as Brian or Peter. There was a Dennis, but he died, or moved to Bramley, one or the other.

Progress to Elder Statesmanship is a lengthy process. Our allotments are on a slope, so new allotmenteers start at the bottom, literally and have to work their way up, literally. On one of his previous inspections, after telling my my leeks were going to seed, he said it was OK because they’d cook up nicely with a bit of butter and grind of black pepper. At that point the leeks were the only edibles growing in the wilderness of couch grass, creeping buttercups and stocky willy, otherwise known as goose grass.

Brian, as an Elder Statesman, knew the full history of everyone who handled a hoe on the lots. He told me the previous incumbent of 31b was rather partial to a drop of ale as she planted her potatoes. I did uncover the evidence as I reclaimed the lot from the weeds, quite a collection of cans there was too, along with an assortment of tab ends and empty packets of Seabrooks cheese and onion crisps. Still, they’d doubled up as slug traps. And quite a collection of the slimy little buggers there was too.

Brian eyed up the piles of poo I was digging in. “I hear someone down this end paid more than £100 for manure,” he said it as if it was inconceivable that money should change hands for something that came out of a horse’s bottom for free. He had a special arrangement with the owner of the stables behind the lots, he got all the poo he could fit in his wheelbarrow. I, on the other hand, had to  engage the services of a certain Mr Muck who lived up to his name though I have to say that for someone who must spend all day every day up to his ears in poo, he was the cleanest man I ever met, even after unloading 40 bags of the finest well-rotted manure.

Of course Brian knew I was the payer-for-the-poo. He knows everything, he is an Elder Statesman. I look forward to become a Brian, or maybe a Peter, when I can get my poo for free. But I think it could be some time.