WITH a somewhat milder month forecast in west London than we had in January, I was looking at the work that needed doing to knock the plot into shape for this year’s growing. I thought I’d be following my usual plans of slowly sorting beds, feeding the soil, thinking about the months ahead, what I’d sow again, anew, or not at all, and enthusiastically dreaming of how this year would fair in terms of rain, heat, and harvests. Then, out of the blue I received an email from Sue in Guernsey, an avid reader of this monthly column. She and her husband were to be in London visiting their son and his family, and it turns out that they’d be only a mile or so from where we live, and a short walk along the River Brent from our allotment site. Of course, we arranged to meet.
As I approached our allotment site that Saturday morning, I noticed two people who I was sure must be Sue and Nigel. We greeted each other as people who’ve not met before do, and then soon the conversation was flowing and we were discussing our lives, gardens, our own plans for moving on, what A Guernsey Gardener In London might be called if Richard and I end up living in Wales, where their family lived in Hanwell, and how recent ancestors of Nigel’s had lived in the local area too. Then a car pulled up and we were joined by their son and daughter-in-law, with further chat of exactly where they lived, local events, flooding, schools and the local ukelele group which is a big thing in Hanwell. So much chatter… and we hadn’t even opened the gate of the allotment site yet.
As we went through the main gate the talk changed to plants and wildlife, and how one grows this and why we don’t grow that. We almost immediately met a friend of Sue and Nigel’s locally resident family – just showing how small a community can be. I love when this happens, and it reminds of just how intertwined lives are, and how six degrees of separation can often just be one or two degrees, as hobbies, green spaces, school gates and our local Lidl mean we are forever bumping into friends and friends-to-be – I guess that’s how a close-knit community gets to be.
Chattering and meandering, we toured the site checking out tenant’s plots, bee areas, discussing plans for the cider orchard, reminiscing about swans, peregrine falcons and a kingfisher that fly across the site, how the river bends around the regimented growing areas, and then we arrived at my plot, which is right up at the top of our site.
Our chat changed again, very much back to growing of individual plants and varieties, and how winter makes things look less tidy than the spring and summer will. It was while giving this tour that my mind began to bring into view the work to be done, setting in motion my plans for this year, particularly in terms of cutting things back.
I’ve mentioned before that it’s very likely that my partner and I will be leaving London this year, most likely within six months. We’ve plans to move to Wales, maybe touching on the boundaries of the Snowdonia National Park; we’ve not given up looking as far east into England as Macclesfield, though know Wales feels right. As those of us who’ve moved home know, it can be very time-consuming and very stressful, and I’ve no reason to think that ours won’t follow this pattern, particularly as we won’t be moving within our local area or even county – we’re likely to be moving to a different country.
With this in mind, and as I walked the plot with these new-found friends, I started plotting that some beds where vegetables would normally grow would be sown with flowers seeds instead, and potentially one or two beds might even lay dormant and covered through the growing season.
Cutting back my commitment of work at the plot in our moving year seems totally the right thing to do, as does growing some vegetables and varieties over others due to how quickly they’ll deliver a harvest. I’d normally be sowing brassicas now, though they’re slow growers and we’re unlikely to see a harvest from them before we leave. We’ve a good many kale still growing which will give us harvests through to May or even June, so there’s no necessity for more as sowings of lettuce and salad leaves will keep us going with greenery through the summer months.
My plans then began to shift to a further sowing of broad beans and early peas and mangetout, solely planting early potato seed so we get harvests in June and July, sowing ‘Amsterdam Forcing’ and ‘London Market’ carrots in a raised bed filled with soft soil as by their very nature they mature quickly and have great taste. Beetroot and turnips are quick growing too with decent harvests within a few months, so I’ll definitely sow enough modules for a full bed or two, and more bush beans than we usually grow as they crop more swiftly than their climbing cousins, albeit usually with a smaller harvest per plant.
Tomatoes will be the one anomaly, with harvests largely benefiting the person who gets the plot once we vacate. As a Guernseyman, I really can’t see myself not growing tomatoes, even though they usually give a first harvest at the end of July or the beginning of August – just at the time we’re likely to be on the move. Maybe a few plants in the poly this year, just to get some decent fruits before we leave.
As well as cutting back on what I’ll be growing at the plot this year I’ve also been cutting back in other ways – pruning roses, buddleia, gooseberries, blackcurrants, blueberries, and the trees in the cider orchard.
Of all the jobs at the allotment, pruning has to be one of my favourites. It’s one that needs a good amount of concentration, though also has a peace that other gardening and growing jobs rarely do, other than weeding which I see as a delightful chore. There are always many choices to make when pruning; thinking about the shape of bush or tree, how it’s growing compared to how you might like it to grow, and visualising how a dormant shoot or stem or branch will look when in full leaf or fruiting in four or six months’ time. My first step each time is checking for dead and dying wood, removing it always as it’ll only hinder the health of the tree and could bring about disease if left. Then it’s crossing growth and branches, as if one stem or branch is crossing or rubbing on another then damage is likely to occur. I check the direction of crossing branches, determining not only which is the strongest though also which is growing in the direction I’m happiest for it to do – sometimes the strongest is growing in the wrong direction so that will come out allowing the weaker one to grow and strengthen.
Once these first steps are done, it’s time to look at the overall shape of the soft fruit bush, ornamental shrub, or fruit tree. Good airflow is vital for the health of any plant, and fruit trees and bushes are no exception, so cutting away weaker or poor-directional growth that will hinder a good flow of air is essential, and with fruit bushes and trees their harvests need light to ripen so by doing this more light will get through to the leaf growth and better ripen fruit. A total win-win situation.
At all stages I’ll take a few steps back, looking from different angles at the work I’m doing or the plant I’m working on, determining how I want the bush or tree to grow, and pruning to get what I think is the best direction of growth all round. It takes time, though it’s peaceful time.
When I was doing a video for our YouTube channel the other day, a segment for my series A Week At The Plot, I realised just how much I’d moved forward on the plot in the last four weeks. In fact, I think I’m more prepared for the growing season ahead than any other year before, which is slightly ironic being the last growing year I’ll have here. And really, I have to thank Sue and Nigel for their visit, as it was that that got me up and at it and getting so many jobs done at the plot.
We’re hoping to get over to Guernsey in March as we haven’t been for too many months and it would be good to see Mum again, and family and friends. Of course, we’ll also be visiting Sue and Nigel and having a tour of their Guernsey garden, and checking on their own growing plans for this year.
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. www. richardandpaul.com