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!

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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!

ALFI

Rooting for the Westbrooke Plot

The Westbrooke plot volunteers have been busy digging matted fibrous roots out of the small raised bed – they have grown through the fine porous membrane at the bottom of the bed from a nearby sycamore tree – and removed most of the impoverished soil. The bed now has an impermeable strong membrane to deter the roots, and been refilled with a mixture of new top soil, soil improver and some very well rotted horse manure. By the spring we hope to have a very fertile mix ready for planting for the new season.

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ALFI volunteers pose after their hard work

Next working party Friday December 9th, 1.30 -3.30pm

Allen Gallery Charities Fete

ALFI joined a number of charities in the lovely Allen Gallery garden, with a table with a tombola, and a cress-growing activity for children as well as our display boards and newsletters to publicise our events and activities.

It was a hot, sunny day as a number of people came to see what we do and to support our efforts. The profits from the tombola, which sported a number of gardening related prizes, will go towards expenses for our plots and planters, and educational schemes such as our annual schools competition.

ALFI maintains a herb bed in the Allen gallery garden, and next door is our fabulous Vicarage plot, which has yielded a staggering amount of fruit this year, regularly picked and put out for public collection by our volunteers.

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Elsewhere, two of our apple trees down at Jubilee Fields (between the Sports Centre and the playing fields) are bearing fruit that should be ready to pick in September or October. The trees in our orchard are only young, and their yield will pick up over the next few years, and, with a little care and attention, they will fruit for decades to come. Did you know that the original “Bramley’s Seedling” apple tree, from which the famous cooking apple originates, is now more than 200 years old? Orchards, as well as being wonderful for us, are also great for wild-life, supporting many invertebrates, pollinators and  birds. We’ll enjoy watching it grow!

 

Our next event will be our annual Harvest Feast on October 9th in the Methodist Church Hall in Alton, from 11.00am.

Lots of Lettuce

May has turned chilly and wet, so today I’ve been looking for excuses not to do all the gardening I need to do, hence this article!

One of the things that does love cool weather is lettuce: it won’t even germinate above 21°C (70F), so it’s best to start it off whilst it’s still cool.

When I first started gardening, I tried growing lettuce in the ground, in traditional neat rows like I saw in books. It was a bit of a disaster: all the green leaves (Cos) got eaten by slugs, whilst the slugs avoided the red leaves (Batavia), but then so did we, since they were really quite bitter!

Subsequently, I’ve discovered the secret to growing enough lettuce to keep you in interesting leaves all year is to plant a mix of varieties in containers.

Containers

Planting in containers means you can put them out of the reach of slugs, perhaps applying a bit of copper tape to the sides, or placing on a window-sill, door-step, or just paying them more attention and picking off slugs and snails at night, to avoid too much damage. You can also move containers around the garden with the season, seeking the shade during hot periods, and you can also efficiently water and harvest them. If you haven’t got much outside space, then of course, containers are your go-to solution.

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Mixed leaves

For your container, you want something that’s going to be big enough to supply you with enough leaves to make it worth while, and to not dry out too easily: the sort of ‘live lettuce’ trays you buy in a supermarket is about a tenth of the surface area and a quarter of the depth you want! I usually grow in a trough about 30cm wide and deep, and 60cm long.

You can, of course, grow in containers less deep, such as seed trays or re-used trays from packaging, but be aware that you will need to water much more often, as salad leaves soon go to seed and stop growing nice leaves if they are stressed by drying out. Equally, ensure that your container has sufficient drain-holes in the bottom, since otherwise the roots will rot if the British summer delivers its normal quantity of rain, or you accidentally over-water.

Varieties

Sowing a mix of varieties, as a ‘cut and come again’ crop means that you never get bored of a single variety, and gives a chance to try out some interesting leaves, without ending up with a crop nobody wants to eat. Retailers sell traditional ready-mixed ‘salad bowl’ leaves, and themed mixes such as Italian (usually with Salad Rocket) or Oriental (usually with Pak Choi and Mizuna), or you can buy a couple of varieties you know you like, and mix them yourself.

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Mizuna dominating an ‘Oriental’ mix

Be aware that some varieties are more vigorous than others, and this will affect the productivity of the less vigorous varieties: for instance, I’ve found it’s best to grow Mizuna (Brassica rapa var. nipposinica) on it’s own, since it will out-compete anything else (it also crops longer than anything else, and resists slugs, though is a bit too coarse on its own).

Sowing

For sowing, choose a good, reasonably fine compost (I prefer a peat-free composts), fill your container to about an inch off the top, and gently firm the surface before watering with a fine spray.

Scatter your seeds reasonably densely: you are looking for something like two or three seeds per square inch; then cover with just enough compost that you can’t see any seeds – don’t bury them too deep.

For best germination, put the container outside, in a shaded spot, and make sure it never dries out, without making it soggy. You should see germination in about a week.

Harvesting

Once the seedlings have grown several leaves each, and are starting to jostle for space, you can start harvesting. To maximise your crop, try not to damage the centre ‘growing tip’ of the plant – the bit where the baby leaves grow from, as the plant will stop growing without it. Cut individual leaves, or carefully trim a block with scissors if you’re in a hurry. Aim to thin-out the leaves and allow more to grow in their place.

With careful harvesting, and regular watering, you should be able to have fresh leaves for up to three weeks. Once the plants start getting weak, or if they start flowering, it’s time to move on: for a continual supply, try sowing another container about three weeks after the first.

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Now that’s what I call a salad!

If the plants do start flowering, remember that you can eat the buds, flowers, or indeed the whole plant, so make the most of it!

Season

You should be able to sow lettuce all through Spring and into Summer, and then again once mid-summer has passed. Lettuce is one of the earliest, and the latest, crops you can grow, and you can even over-winter some the oriental ones in a cold-frame, unheated green house or conservatory.

Swap Shop

We had a very successful day at the Craft Market on Saturday, where we held our annual Seedling Swap.

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A boot full of plants for the swap!

Starting with plants grown by our committee members, many from seed obtained at February’s Seed Swap, our stock soon rose and fell as ALFI supporters and friends arrived with new donations, and took away other people’s excess seedlings. Members of the public also browsed and took plants in exchange for a donation: just the way things are supposed to work.

 

Talk of the Town

What’s particularly nice about these events is the opportunity it gives to chat with fellow gardeners, whether hardened veterans or curious starters.

This year it was notable that many people were complaining about the generally cool Spring and the late frosts, with parts of Alton experiencing a degree of frost in the first week of May. Not unheard of perhaps, but what’s quite ironic, of course, is the complete lack of any frost this winter until well into the New Year, resulting in daffodils blooming at Christmas!

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Set up and swapping

As a result of the cool weather, there was a complete lack of French beans, and notably fewer other less-hardy plants such cucumbers & courgettes. If it hadn’t been for a very generous donation of Runner beans early in the day, we’d have been completely bean-less! Tomatoes were in plentiful supply though, with several varieties on offer, since only a fool would ever try to germinate them in outside this time of year (Er, I did, which is why mine are still tiny!).

 

Stock take

What we lacked in legumes, we made up for in other species: we had strawberries, rhubarb, chard, celery, artichokes, peas, beetroot, chillies & peppers, and a wide variety of herbs; plus a number of companion plants, flowers, and plants for wild gardens, to keep the wild-life happy!

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Thanks for everyone who contributed, it was lovely to chat to you; good luck growing your fresh acquisitions! See you at the AGM*?

*Our AGM is on July 11th, meeting at 19:00 to admire the Vicarage Gardens, then from 19:30 at the back room in the Railway Arms.

New noticeboards for ALFI

ALFI needed several new noticeboards to use for ALFI activities and events.  The most pressing was to replace that at the Station Plot, but we also needed one for the new Vicarage Plot, adjacent to the Allen Gallery. Ian Scott of Mens Sheds  made them for us and with a volunteer from the Alton Mens Sheds  put up the two smart purpose-built noticeboards in suitable positions at these two sites on Friday 18 March.  Sally, who leads on the Station Plot and Ann, who leads on the Vicarage Plot, were there to advise on the sitings. The noticeboards were immediately put to good use to advertise the Seedling Swap and our theme for this year, Greening Grey Britain as part of the RHS initiative.

First Working Party of the Year

On Sunday February 28, on a cold but sunny morning, a team of volunteers joined Ann at the Vicarage Plot and spent a most satisfying two hours planting and putting up supports. We soon warmed up as we dug holes to plant 6 stepover apple trees along the edges of the raised beds, and blueberry plants along the front. These all came from Southern Fruit Trees nursery in Blackmoor where Mike is always ready to advise on the most suitable trees and varieties.

Sheila had donated three healthy-looking apple trees in large pots which  were planted behind the beds. And at the west side of the plot James put up a trellis for 2 fan-trained red currants to be tied up. Liz brought some welcome coffee over from St Lawrence Parish Hall, and Councillor Robert Saunders joined us for a photograph. ALFI is most grateful to him for a grant which has enabled us to buy the plants and materials for this additional planting.

On the following day, we also pruned the apple and pear trees at the Jubilee Field, where we hope to get a good crop of fruit this year – weather permitting!

On Monday July 11th we will start our AGM at 7.00pm at the Vicarage Plot to see how it is progressing, (and maybe to sample some produce?) before going on to the Railway Arms for our meeting, refreshments and socialising.

 

 

Seedy Saturday

Lovely to see so many people taking seeds away on Seedy Saturday. We hope everyone will get satisfaction from sowing and growing these. Don’t forget that any spare seedlings will be welcome at our Seedling Swap on Saturday May 7th, (10.00am -3.00pm) as part of the Craft Market in Cross and Pillory Lane. You can bring seedlings to swap and take others away. A good way to try new varieties!

New branding signs

Today we’ve added three more branding posts to those ALFI have already, to identify their plots and planters. These were added to the smaller plot at the station beside the taxi office, the barrel outside Out and About on Southview Rise and the newly acquired library planter. James, of Graphitec, who produced the signs for us, kindly came round with me today to hammer them into position …

and very smart they look too.