Thursday, March 29, 2012

Loving willow

 "Sproing" was the word that came to mind when cycling around town today. All at once there is an incredible display of colour on the trees. I saw milky white magnolia flowers pouring over a camellia dotted with strawberry red blooms, tiny tissue like pink blossoms decorating a tree in someone's front garden and my favourite at the moment, dainty little furry catkins on the willow trees. The bees love them too as they are a good source of early pollen. 
There are so many things to love about willow. The fact that it can be used dried as a craft and sculptural material and in the green as living willow hedges, domes and tunnels. Artist's charcoal is made from willow. Willow wood is used to make furniture, toys, cricket bats, baskets and wreaths. A broken willow branch left in water will grow roots and they successfully root in the ground from very thick pieces of stem.
Willow bark contains natural plant growth hormones; indolebutyric acid and salicylic acid. You may have heard of salicylic acid because it is a chemical similar to the headache medicine aspirin. In fact thousands of years ago patients were advised to chew on the bark to reduce fever and inflammation. Before you start gnawing on any branches, aspirin is a synthetically altered version of the chemical which causes less digestive upset. These chemicals also help plants fight off infection which is why willow water is a very useful, natural (and free) hormone rooting aid for cuttings.
 I found this recipe on the Deep Green Permaculture website:

How to Make “Willow Water”

  1. Collect young first-year twigs and stems of any of willow (Salix spp.) species, these have green or yellow bark. Don’t use the older growth that has brown or gray bark.
  2. Remove all the leaves, these are not used. Don’t waste good green material though, compost the leaves or throw them in the garden as mulch.
  3. Take the twigs and cut them up into short pieces around 1" (2.5cm) long.
  4. The next step is to add the water. there are several techniques to extract the natural plant rooting hormones: a) Place the chopped willow twigs in a container and cover with boiling water, just like making tea, and allow the “tea” to stand overnight.
    b) Place the chopped willow twigs in a container and cover with tap water (unheated), and let it soak for several days.
  5. When finished, separate the liquid from the twigs by carefully pouring out the liquid, or pouring it through a strainer or sieve. The liquid is now ready to use for rooting cuttings. You can keep the liquid for up to two months if you put it in a jar with a tight fitting lid and keep the liquid in the refrigerator. Remember to label the jar so you remember what it is, and write down the date you brewed it up, and to aid the memory, write down the date that it should be used by, which is two months from the date it was made!  
  6. To use, just pour some willow water into a small jar, and place the cuttings in there like flowers in a vase, and leave them there to soak overnight for several hours so that they take up the plant rooting hormone. Then prepare them as you would when propagating any other cuttings. The second way to use willow water is to use it to water the propagating medium in which you have placed cuttings. Watering your cuttings twice with willow water should be enough to help them root.

    I will be sharing some more fun projects using willow soon.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Polka-dot potatoes

potato ready for planting and tiny cherry tree with hover fly.

purple sprouting and artichokes to the left, potatoes and sown salad to the right. Empty plot behind the logs.
There was plenty of grumbling at the allotment this week about the new Tenancy Agreement's and Allotment Rules. The punk had heard we won't be allowed ponds. He has a good sized one that is home to newts. It was already on the site when he took it on and he has renovated and carefully maintained it. He was going to start another pond to put his frog spawn in because the newts eat it. He pointed out that they are protected and he's ready to squat his shed if he is forced to remove his pond. There was also a rumour of carpets being banned as ground cover. Many people use them to kill the dense and sinewy couch grass which makes cultivation a lot easier. They are easy to come by and are free, often thrown away in skips (or on the street in Hastings).

While I was planting out primroses on my plot one of the old guys came down to speak to me. 
"Have you just taken this on?" he asked.
"What do you mean? It's me. I've been here for years!" 
"Oh it's you," he said. 
"Yes it's definitely me".
He was expecting me to be a new tenant because he had heard my plot had been split up into three parts, that a new tenant had come along to have a look and my neighbour had advised him to plant potatoes.
"Why would I want to do that?" the new tenant had said. "I own a chippy". 
If you're reading this with your mouth hanging open that is exactly the reaction that I had. I wondered if the old guy was stirring it up to cause a bit of drama on site. 

I got on the phone to the Council. There is a new lady in the council managing the allotments. She informed me my plot is 8a, the one below me (beyond the logs in the photo) is plot 8b. This one is split into two and has had new tenants since last year (hasn't had a soul on it in two years actually); the one below that is plot c and also has a tenant (hasn't been a soul on it for a number of years). She assured me that my plot hasn't been divided or given to anyone. I asked if my name could go on the waiting list for the one below me because nothing had been done on it for 2 years. She said, "no". Because the waiting lists were too long and this plot already had a tenant. Feeling like I was having difficulty being understood I repeated that it's not been worked for 2 years. She replied with a sigh that they don't have the resources to monitor the plots. My mouth was hanging open again. Two years ago a lovely lady with a young down's syndrome child was working the plot. I was looking forward to our children being playmates. It was a lot for her to take on since, like many plots, it hadn't been worked for a long time. She was cultivating it a bit at a time. She received a warning letter that she wasn't doing enough and she left.

I spent the rest of the day transplanting strawberries (I find it hard to get rid of anything and always try and find a space), planting out primroses and cherry trees. My potatoes are in my new raised bed which is accessible from all sides. Everyone else has planted their tatties in rows of ridged up earth. Mine are planted in a polka-dot cluster with a dollop of compost on top. In between these I sowed lettuce, radish and spring onions. The whole bed is now covered with fleece.

When I got home a letter was waiting for me from the Council. I opened it and read, "NOTICE TO TERMINATE YOUR CURRENT ALLOTMENT.." I felt sick. I wondered if the Council lady was turfing me off for taking up her valuable time with a ridiculous phone conversation. How did she get the letter to me so quickly?! Was it hand-delivered?!? Or is it the carpet, the fruit trees, the pond, the wildlife area, the bug house, the slow worm sanctuary??? I looked again: "NOTICE TO TERMINATE YOUR CURRENT ALLOTMENT TENANCY AGREEMENT AND REPLACE WITH A NEW REVISED AGREEMENT". 


The rumours weren't accurate though I'm sure the rules will still cause plenty of grumbling. Amongst the ten pages of ALLOTMENT RULES:
5.12 Any ponds on the allotment garden must be made safe by being netted or suitably covered.
6.6 Underlay and asbestos must not be used on any site. If carpet is used, it must be removed on termination of tenancy. The Council supports the use of propriety weed suppressants and bio degradable materials such as cardboard to suppress weeds.

The carpet I have used doesn't have an underlay. I intended to move it around the plot as I created new beds. I left it over winter 2 years ago and when I looked underneath in spring the couch grass had died back to reveal a bumpy landscape of nooks and crannies and a whole colony of slow worms living in there. I was pleased to see a big pile of snails shells beside them. I have a cherry plum tree, a greengage and a pear that I rescued from the Community Centre. They had been heeled in at the base of  a bank as they were left over from a project and had grown far too close together. I wasn't even sure if they'd survive the transplant. They all have buds on them now. I intend to keep them small and have planted them in areas that won't cast shade on anyone else. However, if the Council decides they have to go they have the right to remove them. I have also just planted some cherry trees whips. I rescued these from the school who had been sent them by the Woodland Trust and had nowhere to put them. I plan to train them as espaliers and have them no bigger than waist height.

I find all the mathematical rules make my head hurt. Sheds must have 48 square feet (4.45m sq) of floor area. Height should not exceed 7'6" (2.28m). Greenhouses or polytunnels must have a maximum floor area of 80 sq feet (7.43m sq). Toolbox must have maximum capacity of 2 cu metres. No more than 25% of allotment should be used for keeping hens or rabbits. A fruit trees crown must not exceed 33% of total plot area. 25% of the plot must be cultivated within 6 months, 50% in 12 months, and 75% in 24 months. Only 25% is allowed for recreational purposes. I think my plot is less than 5 rods which means I'm not allowed a shed at all.

On top of all this the Council came and chopped down a lot of trees at the back of my Polish friend's plot without her permission. The trees are on a bank that has a busy road at the bottom. As well as being an established environment for birds they were a very good screen from the noise of the cars, buses and lorries. The children had recently made a den there and were very upset to find it destroyed. We live in a world with very few safe places for children to play unaccompanied by adults outdoors. It was a place for them to play while we worked our plots.

All this made me feel for a moment this week like giving up. I can't imagine how people must feel being confronted with these contracts who have never owned an allotment before. I've been doing it for 15 years now. I have a very small garden at home, I want my son to know where his food comes from, I want to garden in harmony with nature, I love the social side of the allotment and the mavericks it attracts, I want to grow food that is fresh and free from poison. But there is nothing worse than feeling that an authority that doesn't function very well has the power to control you and to impose their will on you especially when this often causes so much distress.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Making the most of what we are given

 Does anyone else get really excited about manure? Just me then? I learned to garden from my gran who would take me for walks in the country around the mining town of Twechar in Scotland. She lived in a beautiful council house with my grandpa and my great grandpa who was unable to bend one of his legs due to a mining accident. A little lady dressed in pretty floral sundresses, she thought nothing of scooping up a fresh cowpat and popping into a plastic bag to take home for her compost heap. At the bottom of a triangular garden that ended in a point, the compost heap was built by my grandpa and was filled with kitchen peelings and garden waste, as well as the regular cowpats. She had been raised on a farm in Lithuania, a very simple, self-sufficient life close to nature. Much of her father's land was confiscated by the Communists before she came to Britain. In Scotland she made the most of her new surroundings and married life, while carrying on the traditions she had grown up with as much as possible.
Some women relish a trip to the shops for a spending spree, give me a shovel and a field full of manure and I'm in heaven. Before I put you off your tea completely I should mention that when manure is well rotted it becomes rich, dark humus suitable for sowing into directly and sweet smelling. Last month I discovered a heap of three year old manure on an bitterly cold day. Thick fog made the world seem less solid. I had a wee chat with the horses before getting to work filling all the bags we had brought. It's polite to thank them! I don't have a car so whenever I hear of someone suggesting a manure run I always jump at the chance. Ideally I would use it to cover all my beds at the allotment but I would never get enough for that. So I tend to use it just where the plants are growing. When planting potatoes I will mix some into the planting hole then leave a mound of a couple of inches on top.  If you use manure that is not quite so well rotted it is still fine to use around plants, just make sure it is a little distance away from the base of the stems.

As we were leaving the stables I noticed a lovely Bamfords Rapid Grinding Mill from about 1910. It would have been used for crushing whole grain before feeding it to the animals. I love the hand painted signage which is in pretty good condition considering the age. I'm hoping to get back out to the stable next week with my Italian friend Corrina. Making the most of my surroundings while carrying on the traditions I grew up with.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

International Women's Day

I made a quick banner for our cocktail and crafting night tonight using some of the lovely fabric I won in Serendipity Patch's giveaway, some fabric my sister-in-law gave me as a gift as well as scraps I've saved over the years. Each one with a good thought or memory. Hope you're having a lovely sunny day like we're having in Hastings x
 And look what popped up to say hello!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Plastic Basket

Stuck in on a rainy day yesterday I made this basket by crocheting plastic bags. On Thursday night at the Craft and Cocktails fundraiser for Oxfam we will be demonstrating how to make plarn (plastic yarn) from your old plastic bags and we'll get you started on a simple circle. I used a 4mm crochet hook and the plastic was cut into half inch strips.

The base is made by increasing the number of stitches in alternate rounds and is done in trebles. Small coasters can be made in this way, or larger place mats. Keep going and you will have a plarn crochet rug! To form the sides I did one treble into the space between each treble in the previous round. Basically, if you add stitches you will have a flat circle if you don't you will create a cylinder. Plarn can be a bit more awkward to use than normal yarn and it can be quite a workout for the fingers and neck muscles. 

It's a good idea to do your crafting in short sessions and change to another activity regularly to avoid repetitive strain. Though this is easier said that done as you will know if you are already a bit of a crochet junky. We are thinking of setting up a support group for the neglected children of mother's who are addicted to doing just one more line...

If you can't make the night please consider donating to Oxfam they're really doing amazing work that is transforming the lives of women around the world. And if you want to bring your own craft project to our event please do; knitting, crochet, embroidery, sewing; I'd love to see what you're up to.
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