Monday, April 22, 2013

A Spud Scheme For An Unsprung Spring

A recent life change has seen me building a new business as a media consultant. It's meant a lot of ten and twelve hour days over the last twelve months - mostly for very little return. But the business is moving out of its establishment phase and into growth mode.

Unlike my allotment.

The career change has meant that, for the first time in a decade, I haven't been gardening for almost a year - at least not on my allotment. This is just as well, as I've mentioned in recent posts, the soil was getting a bit tired.

And my old muckers up at the allotment complex -  my "comrades in farms" - tell me I happened to pick the very best year in living memory to stay away. The yields last year were abysmal thanks to unpredictable weather patterns, which have continued right into this year.

Here in Ireland we haven't had a proper spring so far this year. The first properly warm sunny days have only arrived in late April. Through all of my years with an allotment, it's been common to have a warm sunny period of four weeks or so around Easter which follows some weeks of growth before that - usually from around St Patrick's Day - March 17. It means the plants are usually well underway by now. But even the strawberries in my back garden are only just showing new leaves at the moment.

Alaskan March in Ireland this year ....whose is the fat and pale kid with the dodgy teeth?
Having visited my allotment yesterday (April 21) for the first time in a year, it was quite a surprise. The place looked and felt more like late February or early March. The ground was wet, cold and mucky and apart from a lush cluster of rhubarb, there was very little growth in evidence. To add to the problem, it's on high ground and therefore is normally a few weeks behind anyhow.

We've just had the coldest March on record. Weather experts say that the melting arctic ice caps are changing the behavior of the Jet Stream which separates cold arctic weather streams from warmer westerly weather for Ireland. This year the line did not shift until much later, leaving us with the colder conditions for longer. We're told this will be more frequent going forward.

There was an item on the news last night about Irish farmers importing hay from the UK because they didn't have enough silage left to feed their cattle. I don't remember this happening before in a country where we have to get up once a year to clear grass out of our gutters. If it weren't for a few clusters of grape hyacinths in the garden and the longer days, we wouldn't think winter had finished at all.
Cold, mucky and damp, no growth....spring is unsprung
And of course, it's at times like these that the council creates bother with its "special rules" for their leased allotments. Since the beginning we haven't been permitted to have sheds of any sort for tool storage and shelter in the rain. So I got soaked yesterday. One guy tried to get around this by installing a children's plastic "wendy" house, but they made him take it away. The trouble is that they keep adding to their list of "special rules." Their latest one is  - no more ground sheets permitted. This strikes me as being pretty ridiculous given that the use of sheeting or cardboard is an environmentally friendly way of keeping the weeds down and also for keeping the soil a little bit warmer to give us that little head start.

Many years over I've returned to my allotment in March and simply rolled back the ground sheets to find friable and ready to use soil which didn't require any digging. Now I'll have to dig the whole lot over every year.

Another council rule is that every allotment must be more than two thirds dug over by the end of April. Yesterday my soil was mucky and sticking to the fork in big clodden, tacky lumps. It's in no way friable and digging it in its current condition will probably damage it. But if I want to avoid a clatter of a clipboard, I'd better get underway at pace.

The other problem I have is that the whole place is covered in a thick carpet of scutch grass - great big six-foot long fronds of the stuff. This is known elsewhere as Couch Grass or Bermuda Grass and expands by throwing out long runners across the ground. On the good news front, the fruit bushes are looking to be in good shape, there was a big pile of rhubarb to harvest and a lone surviving cauliflower that was absolutely delicious for dinner that night.

Grape Hyacinths provide the only signals that winter is gone
So I have a plan. 

I'm going to cover most of the allotment ground with potatoes this year. First off, this amounts to some good old fashioned financial sense. Last year was so bad for potato farmers that the price of spuds has more than doubled here in twelve months. Potatoes produce more food per square metre (even in a bad year) than any other crop I can think of. So planting up with spuds will save me a decent chunk of change as well as providing plenty of food for the table.

The second reason for planting potatoes is that my ground has settled and become compacted after more than a year without digging. Potatoes have an effect of breaking up the ground and making it friable again. This is one of the reasons seasoned allotmenteers will often plant virgin ground up entirely with potatoes. It breaks the soil up for easier use the following year.

Then there's practicality. With less time on my hands I won't be able to afford constant weeding attention for peas and brassicas and onions. Once spuds get established, they pretty much smother out most other weeds. With the soil still cold and mucky, spuds offer a reasonably hardy solution to the makings of another bad year for growers.

Sprouty spuds to cover lost ground
Finally, when the potato plants wither back, the spuds stay cosily in the ground waiting for you to come along and harvest them when it's convenient.

Stupidly I paid E5 each for three bags of seed potatoes. I should have remembered my previous success with bags of plain old supermarket potatoes which went sprouty. I'd have gotten four or five times more seed spuds for my money. The pink red supermarket Roosters did especially well for us in 2011

Leaving spuds in a bright spot in your kitchen gets the shoots growing - what's called "chitting." I tend to cut them up into chunks with an "eye" root sprouting from each one. This means that each sprouty potato gives you four or five new potato plants. I plant them about a foot apart and then leave them alone to do their thing.

So that's what's what for the price of potatoes.

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