All posts by lesleyrwillis

Growing vegetables needn’t be expensive

Some hobbies cost a lot. Growing vegetables needn’t be at all expensive, and the benefits are many.

ALFI’s Westbrooke plot is a small roadside verge which a group of us have been cultivating for the last 11 years. From the beginning we have done this without spending much time or money on it.

At our first working party of 2020, 5 of us spent 1½ hours preparing the raised beds for cultivation. We forked them over with some good compost and soil improver, and planted broad bean seedlings which had been raised from seed. We hoed and weeded around other areas and pruned and mulched gooseberries. The flourishing herb garden must wait another month for a spring tidy up.

First working party of 2020: getting stuck in, lots to do!

Almost all the seeds for this year’s planting came from ALFI’s Seedy Saturday in February, when people bring spare seeds to swap, or make a small donation to take some away. We have a variety of salad crops, peas and beans, beetroot, carrots and spinach – all waiting for the soil to warm up. At the Seedling Swap in May we shall be looking out for any extra plants to squeeze into spare corners.

Our narrow strip by the path was planted last autumn with insect-friendly flowering plants almost all of which were transplanted from other gardens. A few crocus corms and daffodil bulbs were all that needed to be bought to start the season early.

We collected some well-rotted horse manure from a kind horse-owner last October, and together with the soil-improver which ATC lets us have for free, we hope the ground is well fertilised. Paths between the beds are covered with bark chippings, again collected free from a donor in Selborne – no shortage of shredded bark after the gales we have had.

And tools? Well, yes, there is an initial outlay, but my husband and I bought some tools at least 50 years ago when we first had a garden. We bought good quality, and are still using them – hoe and rake, spade and fork, and our solid metal wheel barrow are all middle-aged and well-loved. But if you are starting from scratch, at ACAN’s Eco-Fair in the Public Gardens on Sunday July 12th, we hope to have second-hand tools no longer wanted by their owners, and also someone who can sharpen your tools which gives them a new lease of life. (If you have unwanted tools let ALFI know and we will collect them for this event.)

And the benefits? Working in the sunshine (I know, we were lucky!), chatting to the other volunteers, sharing our experience – none of us pretends to be ‘an expert’ – looking forward to seeing the beds fill up, and flowers coming out, exchanging a few words with appreciative passers-by, greeting our friendly robin… I know that I always come away from the monthly ‘Westbrooke working party’ feeling encouraged and energised. And if things go well, there are some lovely fresh vegetables to enjoy as a reward. If you would like to volunteer to help with any of ALFI’s gardening or other activities, you will always be welcome.

Weeding done, broad beans sown, mulched and manured, until the next time!

The last working party of 2019 at the Westbrooke plot

It had been raining for most of the week, and the forecast for the first day of November wasn’t encouraging, but 6 of us met at the plot at the corner of Lenten Street and Westbrooke Road and we were lucky. The rain held off until we were leaving.

Our main task was a change of direction for cultivating a narrow bed along the side of the path. Originally we grew potatoes there – but they were disappointingly small and scarce. Then we tried dwarf beans, with lots of manure to encourage them – too dry. Lettuces and other salad crops didn’t thrive either. One problem is the number of fibrous roots which grow into our plot from a nearby sycamore tree, which probably impoverishes the soil and dries it out.

So now we have planted it with a collection of little plants all of which are insect-friendly, gathered as seedlings from our gardens. They are tough, semi-wild in some cases, and we hope they will cope with this challenging habitat. With crocus,  grape hyacinths, primroses and the native small yellow wallflower flowering from March onwards, and sedum, scabious, perennial geranium and purple toadflax in flower in the autumn there should be something to attract insects for much of the year. I am calling it our insect corridor; I’ll report back on its success.

Meanwhile, the other urgent job was to repair the leaking tap at the bottom of the water butt. And that involved disappearing into it!

Some foxgloves planted on the shady bank at the top of the plot, and the herbs given a tidy up and a haircut, completed our afternoon. And I think we all felt better for the time spent there.

Community gardening is satisfying and fun. Let us know if you’d like to join us.

Orchard in a heat wave

After 6 weeks without rain, it was with some trepidation that I went to check on the fruit trees on Jubilee field (by the Sports Centre.) We had pruned the trees in the spring and I had thinned the fruit quite a lot in June as most of the trees had set a lot of apples or pears. At that stage it looked as if it would be an excellent crop.

Now though, the lack of water was having an effect. At least three of the apple trees have many leaves with brown edges, and the apples are very small. I watered every tree thoroughly, and also gave them a dose of Tomorite to encourage the fruit to grow. But, basically, we are dependent on some really heavy and prolonged rain to have any real effect. On a more optimistic note, several apple trees, the pears and the quince are doing well, and the plum tree we planted in the spring seems to be surviving the drought.

Fingers crossed…

Distressed apple "Katy"
Apple “Katy” looking distressed

Pinova, looking much happier
Apple “Pinova”, looking much happier

Late Spring 2018 – what is happening on the ALFI plots and planters?

After a cold, wet spring, I was feeling frustrated at how difficult it was to get started on the vegetable-growing season. We had sown beans and parsnip seeds, and almost none had germinated, and planted out carrot, beetroot and spinach seedlings in April only to find wind and cold temperatures almost killed them. Although there was plenty of apple blossom on the trees at Jubilee Field, it was hard to believe there were many flying insects to pollinate them.

But a few weeks later, after some gloriously warm, sunny days, with intermittent rain showers, things are looking much more encouraging.

At the Westbrooke plot, the runner beans have started running (up the bean poles) and the sweet peas are suddenly following their example. The broad beans are forming  pods, a row of peas and a row of parsnips have germinated quickly now the soil is warm, and carrot, spinach and beetroot seedlings have recovered from the cold shock and are doing well. Lettuces and rocket are coming on too. And a row of tiny leeks are getting established.

The Allen Gallery raised beds have filled out, with their interesting variety of herbs and perennial vegetables enjoying more light and sunshine after some of the overhanging trees have been cut back. And other planters around the town are all looking good, with their herbs and insect-friendly flowers.

On the Jubilee Field most of the trees have set lot of little apples or pears and we can hope for a good crop of fruit in a few months.

The Vicarage plot, full of soft fruit bushes and strawberries, is flourishing and we shall soon be planning a rota of people to pick the berries to put out on the wall at the front of the garden.

The Station plot is full of promise too; come and see it on Monday July 2nd, at 7.00pm, before our short and sociable AGM at the Railway Arms at 7.30pm.

A plum job at Jubilee fields

On a cold, sunny afternoon we replaced the Victoria plum in the community orchard at Jubilee field with a Marjorie seedling plum.

Lesley & Ann with ‘Marjorie’ the new plum tree

The Victoria plum has not fruited well for us, and we’ve put this down to the exposed position of the orchard, which means the blossom is exposed to frost and harsh winds, adversely affecting pollination. The Majorie plum flowers three weeks later than the Victoria which we hope will suit the position better.

As the Victoria seemed to have good roots, Ann has taken it to plant in the Vicarage plot, which is very sheltered in comparison.
We gave all the trees a winter wash, to kill any dormant pests on the branches, and gave them a top dressing of fertiliser. In a few weeks we shall be enjoying the blossom on the trees – do look out for them if you are near the Sports Centre.
You can find a map of all our plots and planters on our Plots and Planters page.

Westbrooke plot –productivity problems – and solutions

ALFI first started to cultivate the Westbrooke plot (a roadside verge at the junction of Lenten St and Westbrooke Rd) as a small vegetable and herb garden in 2009. For the first two or three years it was pleasingly productive; presumably the soil was fertile after growing only mown grass for many years.

But gradually the productivity decreased. One problem was the lack of a water supply. At first kind neighbours let us get water in cans from their taps but we were grateful when ATC agreed to fill our water butts on a weekly basis through the summer. We now have two butts, and organise a watering rota through the summer months. The site is also quite shaded and on a slight north-facing slope so crops only get sunshine from mid-day onwards.

However, the biggest problem was that whenever we dug over the plot, we found that masses of tangled fibrous roots had grown in from a large sycamore tree in a nearby garden. These, presumably, were taking water and nutrients from our crops. We had two lovely raised beds constructed and filled them with good soil and organic material over a permeable plastic sheet at ground level. I was sure this would prevent the roots from growing up. I was wrong.

The more we fed the plants, the more the roots grew in! So last year we decided to dig out the smaller raised bed and laid an impermeable plastic sheet before refilling with a lovely mix of fertile soil. And this year that bed has been most rewarding. Broad beans, peas, salad crops, beetroot and carrots have all done well through the summer, and in late September we planted seedlings of spinach, rocket, radish and Chinese cabbage – all of which have flourished and are now ready to pick.

So we have just had a working party to dig out the bigger raised bed to lay an impermeable membrane in that one too. Hard work; it is amazing how much soil comes out of a modest raised bed. But a good team of volunteers completed the task and the bed now has a few months to settle before we start planting again, beginning with broad beans in February.

Finding solutions to such problems is what makes gardening so satisfying. Unfortunately the rest of the plot still has to compete with the tree roots so we have to grow hardier, less hungry plants there-like herbs-unless we can find another solution!

Soft fruit at the Vicarage plot

The front garden of St Lawrence Vicarage is now a flourishing soft fruit plot, and volunteers have been kept busy harvesting the produce. The first to ripen were the strawberries – and they have been prolific and delicious. Then red currants and raspberries were ready, followed by both red and green gooseberries. Still to come are black currants and blueberries. The bags of fruit have been put out in front of the Vicarage for passers by to take – which they have been delighted to do! They can make a donation to ALFI at the Allen Gallery next door.

IMG_20170627_104903
July in the Vicarage plot

The other ALFI plots are also starting to look productive. At the Westbrooke plot the narrow border is now a ‘salad bar’ with lettuces, radish, spring onions and salad leaves all coming on. The station plot is planted with beans, onions, leeks, courgettes, potatoes etc, as well as some soft fruit and an espaliered pear and a new apple tree. Up at the Jubilee field most of the trees have fruit starting to swell, promising a crop later in the year.

Thanks to all the volunteers who help maintain these lovely plots.

Project Wild Thing

Calling parents, grandparents and all those who want to help children enjoy the outdoors.

ALFI and Energy Alton bring you the film

PROJECT WILD THING.

On Monday April 3, at the Wesley Room, Alton Maltings Centre, Maltings Close, Alton GU34 1DT, 7.00 for 7.30pm. 

FREE event. Refreshments. 

David Bond is a worried man. His kids’ waking hours are dominated by a cacophany of marketing, and a screen dependence threatening to turn them in glassy-eyed zombies… His engaging film is helping to lead a movement to encourage children to get outside and enjoy nature, improving their health and wellbeing. ‘It’s not the kids who don’t want to put their hands in the mud.. it’s the adults who have said no.’ Chris Packham

See the trailer here: http://www.thewildnetwork.com/film

After the film, join us for a discussion about how we can help children enjoy Alton’s wonderful open spaces.

See How It Grows:Gardening, Cooking and Eating with Children

This year ALFI is setting out to interest children in the joys of gardening, cooking with fresh vegetables, herbs and fruit  – and eating the results.

We are already supporting local schools gardening clubs and this year we are  giving each primary school an apple tree.

We will have recipes, and articles in our newsletters to encourage children, parents and grandparents to find new ways of enjoying fresh seasonal and local food. Children love getting dirty hands, planting seeds and seeing the seedlings grow. and they love cooking so this can be a good way to get them to try some foods which they might otherwise reject. We also plan to have some children’s activities at our regular events – ideas and recipes gratefully received!