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!

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.

Courgette and Garlic Soup


  • 60ml/2fl oz extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tbsp chopped garlic
  • Handful basil leaves (preferably Italian), chopped
  • Sea salt and ground white pepper, to taste
  • 1kg/2¼lb green courgettes, cut lengthways, into quarters, then into 1cm/½in slices
  • 750ml/1¼ pint stock
  • 60ml/2fl oz single cream
  • Handful flatleaf parsley, chopped
  • 50g/2oz freshly grated parmesan, plus extra to serve

To serve:

  • Crusty bread
  • Green salad
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper


Heat the oil in a heavy-based pan over a medium heat.

Cook the garlic, basil, salt and courgette slowly for 10 minutes, or until the courgettes are lightly browned and softened.

Add white pepper to taste, then pour in the stock and simmer for 8 minutes, uncovered. Remove from the heat.

Put three-quarters of the soup mixture into a food processor and blend until smooth.

Return the mixture to the pan and stir in the cream, parsley and parmesan.

To serve, ladle the soup into a bowl and season to taste, with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Sprinkle over more parmesan to taste. Serve with crusty bread and a green salad.

Seedling Swap 2019

Saturday 11 May saw the annual seedling swap at the craft market in Cross and Pillory. We run this event each year and rely very much on locals and regulars to supply a wide variety of interesting  vegetable, herbs and flower seedlings to fill the stall. We had a busy time with both customers coming to swap seedlings with those on the stall, or to take away small plants for a donation.  We did make slightly more on donations than the last two years so thank you for your generosity if you participated.  If not please visit us next year. See our posters around the town or check out our newsletter for event timings.

Seedling swap stall with a good selection of lovely plants

The weather was kind on the day and we had plenty of interest in our stall. We always have plenty of runner bean plants, tomatoes plants and a selection of peppers and courgettes, and herbs including parsley, thyme, rosemary and many others. We had plenty of flowering plants too including geraniums and sweet peas. The stall changes in content as customers come and go. Some people come with the surplus seedlings they’ve grown, having attended the seed swap earlier in the year. The system is the same and there were some seed packets available at the seedling swap too.  Donations are used to help with plants, compost raised beds and the like for the plots and planters.

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