Guernsey Press

Overcoming obstacles

The growing year is under way for our ‘Guernsey Gardener in London’, Paul Savident – but where’s all the cardboard?

Cardboard to go under membrane. (Picture by Paul Savident) (31505059)

AS LAST month was all about the planning of winter jobs to be done, this one’s been about beginning to get them sorted… or at least trying to, as one way or another obstacles have been the name of the game for me throughout November.

Of course, weather’s always one of those factors that can’t be relied upon when planning anything outside. In Guernsey, as my mum attests to regularly, if the weather’s grim early on it’s likely to clear up later in the afternoon. London’s different, and checking out sundry weather apps is largely of little help – one moment the forecast is for rain at 11am and clear by two, and then a few hours later it’s all changed and the job you’d planned to do this afternoon should have been done this morning as it was dry, and this afternoon it’s going to rain full pelt so nothing will get done today. However, in all fairness to November, the weather has been favourable when it’s not been miserable.

Early in the month I had quite a few days at the plot where short sleeves sufficed, albeit a double layer. Now, several weeks later the sun’s shining bright and bringing that sparkle of autumn light to everything it touches, though it’s a chilling 6C and there’ll be no bare arms at the plot today. Inside and at my desk it’s barely double digits, as we’re being sparse on heating due to the cost having rocketed three times in just over a year.

Being a young lad in Guernsey in the 1970s, I knew little about what was happening on the mainland then, though I’m certainly getting a flavour of that downturn today, and it’s not just about feeling the tell-tale signs in our home.

Just as dad used to do, I’d planned to cover all the beds that weren’t going to be grown in over the winter – I call it ‘the Big Cover-up’. We’ve a good few beds with brassicas in, and these won’t be getting a blanket of cardboard. Sadly, we’ve no Brussels sprouts this year. Certainly, we had them, and I was growing Groninger just like dad used to, though a late infestation of aphids and mealy bugs did for them, and they had to be ripped out. Unusually, a good number of our Portuguese cabbage also succumbed, and they came out too and made their way to one of our compost bins. I’m glad to say that all our surviving brassicas are now doing really well… and the Dazzling Blue kale is looking particularly stunning. I’m sure it’s going to feel really odd buying Brussels sprouts from a farmers’ market this year instead of heading down on Christmas morning to harvest them straight from their frosty stalks, though a trip to the local market pre-Christmas is always a joy in itself, so not too much of a hardship.

Anyway, back to The Big Cover-up…

Every fortnight on a Monday we have the collection by the council of our recycling. This is the perfect morning for me to get out early and roam the streets, picking up any large swathes of cardboard put out. However, this month cardboard has been little seen, particularly the larger pieces that I want for the beds – I’m sure this is down to people tightening their belts and not buying the big-ticket items. The boxes of large flat-packed sofas and wardrobes from Ikea are ideal as a few can cover one of our 2.4m x 1.2m beds with ease, blocking out the light and reducing the chance of weeds germinating and taking hold, which they have a penchant for. This year, though, little has been seen of the type and size of cardboard that I’m on the hunt for. In fact, even smaller boxes, such as wine boxes seem to be pretty scarce.

Thankfully, a client came to the rescue – with an offer of weed membrane twinned with a good verbal kick up the backside. She’d seen I was getting anxious about weeds growing and knew of the lack of cardboard and that I didn’t have spare tarpaulin to cover the soil, so she sent me 25m x 2m of weed membrane, with direction to get it down before our trip to Wales… which was then just two days away. The membrane arrived the next morning, as she’d promised, and that afternoon I set to and covered most of the beds that needed sorting, as she’d instructed. I was very grateful and obviously let her know – and promised her a signed copy of my first book, of which two are on the go at the mo.

I’m still looking out for cardboard as I go to and from the plot, though currently it remains elusive. As and when I find it, I’m lifting the weed membrane, placing the flattened cardboard underneath, then replacing the membrane and securing it down so it doesn’t blow away. I’m hoping the build-up to Christmas won’t just be a bumper time for festivities and joy – I’m also hoping it’ll turn out to be a bumper time for my cardboard hunts too.

Just as with weeds, the sunlight and days of warm weather have been hugely beneficial to grass growing, and our grass paths have been no exception. They’ve been strimmed twice in the last month, and where I’d usually be putting our strimmer away for the winter now it’s out and ready for action. With our edged beds and the two raised ones for the rotation of early potatoes and roots of carrots and parsnips, there’s no need for an edging tool like dad used to use to keep edges tight, and sharp and neat. Dad’s skill with this ingenious implement was beyond the reach of most people, including myself. This, twinned with the bowling green lawns he and mum created at our home in Clos du Coin at Grandes Rocques, made for many, many admiring looks and conversations. Looking back, my admiration for this skill remains high. I’ve only seen such sharp edges in the rose garden at Kew Botanical Gardens, and also at the allotment of our friend and fellow YouTuber Vivi Gregory of ‘What Vivi did next’. I know I’ll never master this level of skill of my dad, Kew Gardens and Vivi in edging grass paths, though I like to think I have other skills… like admiring someone else’s.

And, of course, I’ve been planting and sowing too… and began our growing year with the planting of garlic, this year using our own cloves from the harvest of Porcelain Music we pulled back in May. If anyone’s new to allotmenteering or growing, whether at a full-size plot like ours or in a few terracotta pots on a balcony, garlic is what I suggest they give a go. A single fat bulb will give at least six to eight decent-sized cloves to plant. Simply make a hole in loose soil, plant the clove pointy end up so that the tip is just about an inch below the soil level, cover it up and gently firm. Within a few weeks the shoots will begin to appear – pale initially, before taking on colour as they photosynthesise to a vibrant shade of green. I planted ours on 12 November and they were showing themselves just eight days later. One thing to remember, though, if you don’t have your own saved cloves to plant it’s best to buy from a garden centre or horticultural website as you know they’ll be disease free.

After the garlic, in went the broad bean. Favourite old varieties are Sutton, and Bunyard’s Exhibition which has done us well in the past, as has the hardy Aquadulce Claudia and its sister seed by name, Super Aquadulche. This year though, our variety is unknown… as seeds in a glass jar were gifted to me by a fellow allotmenteer when my last lot bit the dust. I’ve no idea what variety they are, and a year later I’ve still no idea who gifted the jar of joy to me, as they were just left in our shed. Sown vertically so that rainwater doesn’t puddle in any crevices of the seed making it rot away, I’ve popped them a couple of inches deep and hope they do well. They’ve not shown their heads above the soil quite yet, though that’s no worry as they can take their time, especially when the weather is cold, and in the last few days it’s become very cold, and wet.

And with our first planting and sowing of our growing year, I’m wondering what the winter will bring… cold and wet or dry and mild? Either way, our growing year is under way, and I’ll keep on watching out for those broad beans each time I’m at the plot… just like every gardener, grower and allotmenteer does when they sow those first seeds.

  • 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.