JUNE is the month where everything in our gardens, growing spaces and allotments begins to come together; picking up the pace with putting on fresh growth and building up the wherewithal to bring about resplendent flowers or delicious, home-grown harvests in the months ahead.
It is often also the month where we start looking earnestly at how the year is going, how different varieties are growing, and making notes of what worked well, whether we’d do the same again, and how we might do things entirely differently next year.
Being a versatile lot, growers and gardeners have many ways to keep track of what we do. To aid me along the way, I’ve become a big note-taker. I’ve my own process, which takes me from a pencil and notebook in the shed through to a rather elaborate Excel spreadsheet at my desk at home.
My notebook’s kept in the second drawer down of the cupboard in our shed. Black and nondescript, it does the job. Kept secure within by using a plain elastic band is my pencil. Beneath is an old metal pencil sharpener. Not surprisingly, I mark down things I want to remember, or thoughts that I think might be useful. What I sow when, how long the first seed of a variety takes to germinate, what the weather is like, a new heirloom variety I’ve been told about, when I’ve pricked out seedlings into modules or pots, and so on. I follow the growth through to harvest, making notes again of how well it’s done, whether it’s tasted good, and if I should grow that variety again. Weekly, back home at my desk, I transpose these scribbled, often scrambled, notes into my spreadsheet and add comments, if necessary, with a single press of my right middle finger on my mouse.
I’d love to be old school and make and keep handwritten journals, with the year stamped on the spine and loads of well-thumbed pages in each, though this is wishful thinking and simply not me. A spreadsheet does me well. It keeps me on track and with linked-up technology I can easily check something when I’m at the plot by entering the cloud on my mobile phone. I’ve five years covered off on my spreadsheet and a quick scroll down can refresh my memory of whether a particular variety did well, where I’ve grown alliums and brassicas before, or how long it took for a certain seed to germinate. Not quite rocket science, though still rather modern and high tech for some.
My dad used to make notes too, though not as thoroughly as I now do. Dad’s notes were on scraps of paper that he kept in one of his seed boxes, or on actual seed packets (in the days when seed packets could be written on in pencil). His notes would always start, not surprisingly, with when he sowed a seed or planted a tuber or root. Then the notes, if they continued, would be more in the mode of ‘Did well’, ‘Tasty’, ‘Good cropping’ and the like. I distinctly remember ‘Waste of time’ written on a pea packet of a variety long forgotten by me – I’m sure a variety that was never sown again. In all ways Dad’s notes were brief and to the point, and now I appreciate that this was because year-on-year, Dad would always grow his favourites.
I’ve said here before that Dad very much grew what he liked, and liked what he grew, though I’ve realised of late that this could simply be that the varieties available five decades ago were far more limited. Nowadays, there’s a much wider choice of varieties of each individual vegetable, and it’s similar with flowers. In fact, with some there really is a plethora, such as with tomatoes where the number of varieties globally is around 10,000. Of course, many varieties are acclimatised to the region or country from which they are native, though today, with the correct plant passport and paperwork, most are readily accessible.
One other reason that Dad and many growers of his generation might have chosen to grow the same varieties year-on-year could be attributed to these being tried and tested, sometimes over a generation or more. It seems odd to think now that in the 1970s when I was growing with Dad, the Second World War was only a few decades away. Rationing too was a not-too-distant memory for many, and the need for surety of food on the table still paramount. When I mull this, I understand why Dad might have grown the same varieties of crops year in, year out, and I can see why he wasn’t keen to give valuable growing space to the spaghetti squash I clamoured annually to grow. If a particular crop did well one year and not the next, it wouldn’t necessarily stop Dad growing it again – he’d just put it down to ‘A bad year for peas’ or whatever vegetable it was. What worked, worked and anything else could wait for next year.
Today, as hobby gardeners and allotmenteers we have a gamut of choice when it comes to growing a single type of vegetable. It’s also easier to swap seeds with others within the same allotment, local area and wider afield, though let’s remember to not send any seed matter or plants abroad without the requisite paperwork.
The past decade has seen a growing movement to cultivate heritage and heirloom varieties, which to me is right and proper, and we grow quite a few at our allotment. Beans, peas, tomatoes, carrots, squash, onions and garlic are regular changers in terms of the varieties we grow – no F1 varieties with us as we always want to try and save seeds for the future. Each year, when we complete a harvest of an individual variety, we assess whether it will be grown again or put on the metaphorical backburner; any seed we have left will be kept in a dry, airtight plastic container in our fridge where most will happily lay dormant and viable for five years or more. Occasionally, something will be ditched completely and if we still have seed it will be donated to a community garden or a seed-sharing initiative.
As usual, over the winter months we grew three types of garlic. We plant out cloves in October and harvest early June, though this year due to a forecast of several days of very heavy rainfall we harvested the bulbs in late May. Our bountiful crop of about 100 proved to be a little hit and miss. Old favourite Thermidrome, a softneck variety, suffered from an unhappy amount of white rot, which I put down to a mild winter with several bouts of heavy rain through spring; similar with Messidor, which was a new variety for us this year, again softneck. However, with Primor, a new hardneck variety we tried, it grew well, to a good size, had little white rot, tastes great and if it stores well will be one for growing in future years alongside Porcelain Music, another hardneck variety.
As we progress through this growing year at our west London allotment, I know it’s fair to say it’s been challenging. Looking back at my notes and trawling my memory I can put my finger on several reasons why this might be, though I can’t quite fathom how these fit together to give me a full and valid explanation. As gardeners and growers, we’re used to swapping things around, changing the way we do some things by a little, or a lot, and being flexible in how we garden and grow. It’s what we do – we accommodate.
One thing I can be sure of is that with the summer solstice behind us and midsummer day passed, there will still be loads of notes to take and changes to make in the months ahead.
Paul Savident and his partner Richard Leighton-Hammond live in Hanwell in west London. As YouTubers they produce two weekly shows, Sunday Chat and A Week at the Plot.