Category Archives: Editorial

High Summer Heat

After a sunny but dry and cold April, followed a very wet May and June, the sun has finally returned, and July is looking to get hot, so it’s time to think about watering.

However, this is also the time when precious water can be wasted, and it’s also a heavy and time-consuming job, so how can we be frugal, whilst still maintaining the health of our plants?

Here’s our top watering tips for summer:

Containers and hanging baskets

  • Water first thing in the morning, or early evening, to avoid evaporation robbing most of the water you apply.
  • Put saucers/trays under pots to catch flow-through.
  • Lift a container, or one end of a trough, and the weight will tell you if it has dried out; get used to how heavy it normally feels.
  • Don’t water if the surface is still wet from before, or there’s still water in the saucer.
  • Get an inexpensive soil moisture meter, and test containers before watering; for most plants, aim for moist, rather than wet or dry!
  • If it’s breezy containers and hanging baskets dry out much quicker, even when it’s not particularly warm; keep a look out for sad-looking plants.
  • Take down and soak hanging baskets in a bucket or bowl for a few minutes rather than watering in situ, as most of the water will drain through otherwise. Be careful, they will be much heavier when you put them back.
  • On very hot days, move any struggling plants, even sun-loving ones, into the shade, or provide shade for them; also do this if you are going away and expecting it to be hot.
  • Use ceramic cones on soda bottles to provide constant moisture to thirsty plants, or if you are going away; these work much better than the similar dripper kind. Think about putting water-retaining gel or discs into the pots next year if you’ve not previously done so.
  • A mains-connected dripper system with a programmable timer is good too, just be sure the connections are sound and not leaking, and check you are not over watering. Set them to run early in the day.

In the ground

  • Don’t water established perennials, or trees, unless they look like they are in peril. Healthy established perennials have good root systems and should be able to find water in normal soil. If you do need to water them, they will need several buckets worth to make any difference. It’s better to mulch them when the soil is still wet.
  • Don’t water grass. It’s such a waste. The grass will look brown, that’s natural. Protect it by leaving it longer in the summer, rather than using the sprinkler.
  • It’s not a great time of year for establishing new plants; if you do need to plant something, dig in lots of organic material first, and really soak the planting hole before planting, and let the roots follow it down. Covering up with drier soil or mulch will help keep that moisture where it helps.
  • As the soil is still moist just under the surface, get some mulch on! Any organic material will work (e.g. grass clippings, partially degraded compost, manure or straw), and this will also add water-retaining humus to your soil for next year.
  • When you do water, water well, don’t just dribble! A good soaking will last a few days and do much more good than a light sprinkling every day. If the soil dries out, it’s really surprising quite how much water is needed to get anything other than the surface wet.


If you didn’t connect that (extra?) water butt this year, or apply compost to your soil, make a note to do for the next growing season.

And if you used a peat-based compost in your pots this year, please make it the last year; peat-free alternatives are so much better now, retain moisture longer, and are easier to wet when they do dry out; keep peat in the precious habitats where it belongs!


The New Growing Season begins

Although the temperature is still low, the number of daylight hours is increasing quickly. The birds recognise this as their territorial bird song, courting behaviour and nest-building demonstrates. And most plants respond to day length too. Even in the cold weather the buds start to fatten, bulbs appear through snow and frost, and tree blossom starts to come out.

So ALFI gardeners are checking up on their plots and planters. At the orchard at the Jubilee Field, the apple trees have been pruned while they are still dormant. At the Westbrooke plot the daffodils, crocuses and primroses are a splash of colour alongside Lenten Street, and hopefully provide some nectar for the early bumble bees. Soon seeds will be sown indoors in seed trays, and once working parties of up to 6 are allowed again the outdoor beds and planters will be prepared and seeds sown.

On Saturday May 15th, the annual ALFI Seedling Swap will be in the Market Square as part of ATC’s Plants and Gardening market – bring your spare seedlings along to swap, or take some plants for a small donation. Spring is on its way!

Seedling Swap 2020

The ALFI Seedling Swap is a popular part of our calendar, and usually takes place in early May as part of the Alton Craft Market, which, along with everything else, has been cancelled.

We’ve thought hard, and adapted to the current circumstances: we will be putting out our spare seedlings and plants starting Saturday May 9th, and continuing all week, at the Station and Vicarage plots, where you may also leave your spare plants for collection by others. We’ll be looking after the plants as best we can, and keeping them watered etc. so hopefully there’ll be maximum opportunity for people to take advantage of the swap during their permitted exercise or shopping activities.

Please observe social distancing rules, and stay at least two metres apart when you are browsing or dropping off, waiting your turn if necessary. You may also wish to leave collections for 72 hours before further handling to allow nature to remove any possibility of Covid-19 virus contamination, and… wash your hands!

It’s even more important to label your seedlings if you can, since you won’t be able to tell us what it is, and we won’t be on hand to help people identify what’s what!

We still have a donation box in the Station Office if you are going that way and want to leave a donation.

Yes, it’s a bit of an experiment, but we hope it proves useful!

Grow Alton

On a warm sunny Saturday in late March we came together with the Alton Horticultural Society and the Alton Allotments Association for the first time to run a joint event to inspire Altonians to ‘Grow Alton’.

The first sight to grab visitors’ attention was an impressive array of second hand tools ranged against the Assembly Rooms garden wall, most of which had found new homes by the end of the afternoon. Some people took their new possession over to the stall opposite to be sharpened. Gardeners had also brought their own from home – keeping Hilary busy all day.

Tool sharpening

People got their hands into the dirt sowing some sunflower seeds, or making a grass seed head. In the hall the smell of baking wafted through the air as children made cheese and herb scones – pronounced delicious and incredibly easy.

Scone making

At our stand we talked to people about getting involved in our plots and planters around the town, and even starting new ones in their own neighbourhoods, continuing conversations over a cup of tea or coffee.

Barbara shared her knowledge on all things composting and Ellis shared tips on ways to cut down on watering in the garden.  More information and advice was on offer in the wide variety of second hand books and magazines to be picked up. Gardeners selected new seed varieties to try from the mini ‘Seed Swap’.

Visitors left inspired for the new growing season and with new, or renewed, knowledge of the many growing and gardening activities and groups in their community.

Visitors at one of the stands

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

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!

The Joys of Seed Saving

ALFI’s annual “Seedy Saturday” is next Saturday (4th February, 10am-12pm, Alton Methodist Hall). Please bring your seeds to swap; if you have none to share, you can still participate and collect seeds for a small donation to ALFI. Tea, coffee, biscuits and advice will be available.

“Seedy Saturday” is with us again, and so I’ve been busy reviewing my saved and purchased seeds, and sorting out which to share, which to keep, and which need to go to the “big stale seed-bed in the sky” [see our seed-saving guide].

Looking through my records (actually, just the hand-written labels on the little plastic bags I’ve re-used for many years), I’ve been saving seeds since at least 2007, probably a little longer, starting only a couple of years after taking on my first garden.

One of the first things I remember saving on a regular basis was French marigolds (Tagetes), picking the faded heads and drying them indoors, before pulling the weird little match-stick like seeds from their papery casing, and putting them away for the next season. Over the years it was fascinating to see them gradually change from their original bright yellow to a mix of orange and deep red, presumably reverting to an earlier, more natural form. I saved the seeds like this for several years, somewhat uselessly naming each packet after their parent plant things like “mostly red, with orange” or “red with lots of orange”, despite the fact that their progeny could be coloured pretty much as they chose!

But then one year, perhaps due to the weather, or maybe daunted by the prospect of the many nights of torchlit slug-hunting it would take to keep them safe, I missed sowing them, and my little packets of seed sat forlorn. When I returned to them in a subsequent season, no plants emerged: their fragile life had faded. It turns out that Tagetes seeds only really last a year, and that their increasingly unique DNA, surviving for so many years in my seeds, was only one careless (or busy) gardener away from dying out for ever.

French marigolds are ten-a-penny, and my failure to save mine is no great loss to the gene pool, but there are many varieties of edible and non-edible plants that are much more special, and have survived only by being handed down in an unbroken line from gardener to gardener for many, many seasons, in pretty much the same way that humans have selected and persisted crops for thousands of years.

These ‘heirloom’ varieties might not attract the commercial grower, being perhaps too difficult to harvest with a machine, or having too short a “shelf life” once picked, but they have been preserved by gardeners because they have something special: perhaps they crop a little earlier, or later; tolerate a sticky local soil or tricky climatic conditions; have a uniquely coloured flower or fruit shape; taste that little bit different, or just because they are a sentimental, yet tangible link to the past.

While few of us in this country lack the money necessary to buy seeds (though there are sadly those who do), and we’re always tempted by the offer of new varieties from the seed producers, with their reassuring silver-lined packets, bright photographs and bizarrely accurate instructions (“sow 7mm deep”!) , there’s also something quite satisfying about collecting those little capsules of life yourself, and popping them safely away in labelled packets through winter, to be rediscovered, remembered, and tended back to life come spring.

Sharing with your friends (and strangers) not only enhances the enjoyment, but also adds a bit of insurance, a little bit of protection, from bad weather, and bad gardeners!

Come along to our “Seedy Saturday” on Saturday 4th February, 10am-12pm at the Alton Methodist Hall, and bring your swaps. Don’t worry if you have nothing to swap yourself, you can still pick something up in exchange for a small donation to ALFI.

As well as locally saved seeds, we’ll also have some commercial offerings that we will divide up and share, making better use of our resources. Remember also that our “Seedling Swap” is in early May, so if you end up growing too many, or too few, you can also swap there.

Happy New Year!

A Happy New Year to all!

We officially sum-up at our AGM in July, but here’s a quick synopsis of our calendar year:

seedy-saturday-2016Our Seedy Saturday (seed swap) in February was a great success, with a great many seeds on offer, and our subsequent Seedling Swap in May went well too, although the cold start to the Spring nobbled our most tender plants and we were practically bean and squash-less, with the notable exception of Runner Beans!

The plot at the Vicarage received a number of new fruit bushes and trees, and produced a flush of wonderful fruit, so much in fact, our pickers could hardly keep up with it.

unusual-planter-2016Other plots continued to be wonderful, with the Station Plot getting a new growing barrel and a bird table, and sporting a very unusual container in the form of an old Spanish guitar; the Westbrook plot absorbed a great deal of hard-work fighting invasive tree roots, before hopefully finding a solution which will vastly improve its yield, and our little orchard at Jubilee Fields produced its very first apples. We got some great new ALFI signs for all the plots and planters, and a Alton Men’s Shed made us a couple of fantastic notice boards.

O20160208_122514ur planters got shifted around quite a bit due to the council’s new flower arrangements, and ongoing works around the Station, with our rings and hops opposite The Railway pub sadly loosing out to a storage area, but some new ground was gained next to the refurbished building next to the Taxi office, and we gained a brand new planter outside the library.


westbrooke-plot-working-party-nov-4-2016Also shifted around a bit was the committee, with long-serving members taking a bit of a breather, or swapping roles, and long-lost members returning to the fold.

Our annual schools competition was another winner, with some super drawings we’ve put on display at the Station Plot, celebrating our theme of “Greening the Grey”; we really loved the work that was put into these.

harvest-feast-2016Rounding up the season, our annual Harvest Feast in October was so incredibly popular, we ran out of room, nearly ran out of soup, and chided ourselves for not baking more cakes!


Last, but not least, our entry for the Christmas Tree Festival at St. Lawrence was literally the hottest thing there, decorated as it was with chilli peppers!

Thanks to all our plot-keepers and other volunteers, to everyone who’s supported us or contributed to funds, and to the people who’ve passed on their admiration and thanks for our work: there’s really nothing better than a compliment delivered in person.

Cheers! Have a great year!