THE first of December is also the first day of meteorological winter, and this year winter’s already shown itself through a period of really, really cold weather.
While the weather forecasts in our local area have shown lows of -6C the thermometer inside our allotment shed has hit a low of -7.9C, which is the coldest I’ve ever seen it read. Thankfully, the cold is a dry cold, with little wind, so at least we don’t have high humidity and wind chill to deal with.
While it’s been cold outside, it’s also been pretty chilly in the house. We’re using our central heating extremely frugally due to the high cost of gas and are thankful each day that we have the original hearth in our front room from when the house was built in 1854. The hearth is large and holds a magnificent grate from which heat warms the room and the house of an evening, plus of course the smell and sight of a real fire is something beyond compare. Again, trying to conserve on the cost of energy, instead of using the microwave or oven we’ve used this fire for cooking baked potatoes which we’ll usually have with homemade veggie chilli and salad or red cabbage slaw. So far we’ve had great success and only one failure, and now know we need to remember that double-foiling the potatoes and turning every 20 minutes works best for us, otherwise they end up a tad too charred with the inside edible and what should be delicious, crispy skin burnt to a cinder and only good for the compost bin.
Anyway, back to the plot.
A day or so before the cold snap began to hit, I was talking to another YouTuber, Vivi of ‘What Vivi did next’, and though the lowering temperature had been on my mind it was her suggestion of covering our broad beans that made me check out what was to come. The forecasters were saying we were in for four or five really cold days, even in London. Now, protecting broad beans is not something I’d usually do, certainly not from the cold, though I decided that with them just having germinated and only now breaking ground I’d get down to the plot to sort them out.
Covering with tight-knit netting, old lace curtains or sheets was not something that we ever really had to do in Guernsey, as frosts were rarer than hen’s teeth. Netting or covering in the back garden of our home in St Pierre du Bois and then Castel was more about protection from ravaging pigeons and collared doves than any cold. Occasionally, we’d get really biting winds which would heighten the chill factor, though even these were rare, and having now lived in London for over three decades, and with a partner from Macclesfield, I’ve learnt just how cold cold can be, even in the milder parts of the UK.
So, with Vivi’s advice in mind, I popped down to the plot and hunted out a fleece tunnel that we’d used last year to overwinter lettuce. For some reason, I didn’t sow the right lettuce at the right time to overwinter any this year, which in a way is good as the broad beans will be happy – or at least some of them – and there are two reasons why I say some of them.
When we initially planned out our edged beds for a second plot on the same allotment site, I made life easy by doing the beds a standard 2.4m decking board long, with the width being half this as I could just saw a single decking board in half for both ends. The thing is, many growing and gardening fleece or netting tunnels are 3m long, and only 45cm wide, and as we have three rows of broad beans the width of the tunnel will only cover two rows, though the length will cover some of the turnips on the adjacent bed. So, we’ve two rows of broad beans covered, and one row exposed to the elements and all that winter can throw at it. Though, this isn’t a worry, in fact I’m seeing it as an opportunity. You see, we do tests and trials through the year, and I like to call these our Highly Scientific Experiments – and this opportunity is now a new one of those. Of course, I’m no scientist, so doing anything highly scientific is beyond me, though I can try.
The Highly Scientific Experiment this time round is seeing how the two rows of fleeced broad beans develop compared to the ones in the un-fleeced row. Common sense would say that the fleeced broad beans will be protected from wind, whilst the ones open to the elements will get no where near the protection of the covered ones – this of course could mean that the uncovered ones have to work harder and potentially grow stronger, while the cossetted ones can take a breather in the strengthening stakes. With more protection, the covered ones could grow more quickly, as they will also have the benefit of a slightly higher temperature of a degree or so, possibly even two or three degrees when the sun is shining brightly. Of course, only time will tell and though there’s nothing really scientific about what I’m doing, I still look forward to the spring when I can share the results of this Highly Scientific Experiment.
The day after the fleece went on, sheltering two rows from the cold, we had snow. Not a huge amount, only an inch or so, though with the cold temperatures it seemed pretty certain much of the snow would hang around for a few days. Once I got down to the plot which was a few days after the first snow of winter had fallen in our area, I made a beeline for the broad bean bed. Sure enough, the exposed broad beans had a blanket of snow, so none were visible without needing to have a rummage, and as the snow also gives some insulation (due to air pockets I believe) I let them be. Under the fleece, the two rows of broad beans seemed to be enjoying their little bit of luxury; only three days before they were just breaking the surface and now a few are a couple of inches tall – fresh, bright green shards of new growth, which is always a joy in the winter months.
Even though it’s cold and the days are shortening until we reach the winter solstice on the 21st, there’s still work to be done at the plot. Of course, there’s lots of harvesting and at the moment we’re pulling a really good amount of beetroot; Golden and di Chioggia for stews and some standard red ones which will do nicely for a beet bourguignon that I’ll be making at the weekend. We’ve plenty of brassicas too, though sadly no Brussels sprouts for Christmas as they succumbed to aphid damage a good few months ago. The Dazzling Blue kale, which is an absolute favourite of ours, really brings a smile to my face each time I see it – dark green with a purply pink spine in the leaf it tastes excellent and loves the cold weather. We’ve also our Portuguese cabbage which is an ever-favourite of ours; big, expansive leaves which can be shredded and steamed, or stuffed with a mix of ground nuts and sauteed onion, carrot, and celery then the whole baked in a tomato sauce until bubbling – simply delicious. Another winter bed has our Purple Top Milan turnips; some are more advanced than others and we’ve a good deal ready for harvest. Again, these are great in stews, simply steamed or just grated into a root slaw, in fact maybe the next lot of baked potatoes will be accompanied by a simple root slaw of carrots, multi-coloured beetroot and turnips.
And with that thought in mind it’s time to get the fire going downstairs, as those jacket potatoes won’t cook themselves. Though maybe before that I need to brave the cold, crisp sunshine and pop down to the plot. The temperature gauge is saying it’s -1C outside, though I do want to harvest some Dazzling Blue kale leaves to add a cruciferous element to our supper tonight – baked potato, vegetable stew, steamed leaves, and a lentil sauce – thoroughly lovely and warming, just like our fire will be in the front room.
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.