Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Historically thinking, Sissinghurst 2013 - All change!

As 2012 came to a close i heard that i had got the position of Senior Vegetable Gardener, this was such a relief, delight, honour for me. Once again though the veg garden was to go through some massive changes, on the plot we had introduced a No Dig system, which was to benefit us greatly. On the staff side we were to sadly lose our Seasonals, this would mean a great deal more work for every member of the team. We also had to fill the position of assistant i had previously occupied, this was due to take place in March.
So 2013 began!
Sissinghurst Sunrise
Once again we began the year under a blanket of snow but we were treated to some spectacular sunrises. Our intrepid volunteers still made it in to assist with clearing snow from the polytunnels, glasshouse and paths. Their assistance as always invaluable as was their company. We also had some Duke of Edinburgh students who started with us on a weekend to gain their awards. Wonderfully enthusiastic in those first few weeks i tried to give them mainly inside jobs as quite frankly there was little that could be done outside.
In early January i was treated to a late Xmas present too, the seeds id spent ages picking out in December arrived in wonderful shiny gold packets, sowing could begin! This year i had been challenged by the kitchens to produce Tomatoes and Chilies by June, my answer "of course we can!"
We also had a second lot of friendly pigs on site, clearing ground for us and having a high time in the snow.
February brought a huge change in the weather though, still cold it was bright and clear. I was starting to get quite lonely and was really looking forward to our new assistant starting. We had a lovely day out in the woods coppicing hazel, the hardcore vols bringing laughter and joy with them.
Our Toms and chillies making good progress in our heated glasshouse but something odd was happening at the bottom of our lovely well presented plot? There was a section of the bed that just wasn't drying out? and worse the chickens lovely run was becoming flooded from the run off? 
If you go down to the woods today...

March saw full on production returning to the plot in the shape of tons of Rhubarb, purple sprouting, winter salads and gorgeous spinach. We also had an unusual visitor, the Easter bunny made an appearance to pose beside Fred, our friendly scarecrow. Fred was always a popular addition to the plot, greeting guests whatever the weather. 

April, brought our new assistant, Helen, and bless her she hit the ground running! From sowing seeds to harvesting, planting a new small orchard in freezing conditions to building structures for our beans and peas, finishing off mulching the last few beds on our No dig system to Asparagus watching! The plot was a hive of activity!

Matt planting out the final tree

Also in our main Orchard something very exciting was happening, in this its 4th spring buds were erupting into life creating a spectacular display and the promise of a bumper crop. 
By May 1st everything was romping away in the polytunnels, giving us an incredible crop of Chives and spinach, all that manure and a warm spring creating perfect conditions. No matter how much we harvested we couldn't keep up! The leaves of spinach although bigger than my head were still beautifully tender.
Our first farmers market of the year was on us before we could blink and Rhubarb crowns of 'Timperly early' we had split and potted up the previous autumn were selling like hot cakes, a great addition to the Herbs and veg we were providing them with.

We were also joined by an amazing group of people one weekend, the Kent Volunteers group travels round NT properties throwing themselves int various tasks and doing a frightening amount of work in a very short time! In one day they finished preparing the last of our beds and woodchipping the paths, they also finished off building the Chooks new dry, safe run.

 Before! Dry ground making weeding and preparing a hard task but these guys made light work of it. Below the finished product ready to be planted up with our Allium crops.

June was amazing, our Herb garden, with careful planning was becoming a great attraction, not only for all the beneficial insects on this Organic site but also for the visitors. The sweet williams, Salvia turkistanica and wallflowers sown the previous year were flowering like mad. Creating a fabulous welcoming display. 
The dry weather meant we were having to water a lot but our borehole was keeping up with demand. In the polytunnels our tomatoes were producing fruit as were our chilies and cucumbers.
There was one odd thing happening though, in the polytunnels we were seeing some disturbing signs on some of the crops, particularly the beans and peas. Leaves were becoming distorted and plants were dying! 

After consulting with the farmer who provided the manure, i was satisfied it was not being caused by systemic weedkiller, which can cause problems for people adding manure to their plot. After questioning people in the trade i came to the conclusion what we were seeing was actually damage by overly high levels of Nitrogen. Exacerbated by the dry weather it was acting like a weedkiller! The only thing we could do was write off the crop and keep watering to hopefully give the plants a chance to recover. It was a hard moment.
By July though we were producing more than we ever had before and the plot looked amazing, our volunteers really leading the way on presentation and upkeep of all of the beds. Our visitor engagement and feedback went sky high. I really felt the hard work of the previous years was paying off, all the planning and changes we had put in place had made such a difference.

Our Herb Garden looked amazing!

And the harvests, oh my, the harvests.... words escape me...

Once again Smallholders was upon us and not only did we have a stall but this year i would be giving a talk. Now this wasn't a new thing, id done it before in previous jobs and also to various groups in this incarnation but this was my first talk at Smallholders and i was following the great Charles Dowding! Given that we had instated the No Dig system on site that year it was very appropriate but it also made me talking about it slightly redundant. This was slightly nerve wracking if I'm honest. On the Saturday the weather had chased a lot of the visitors away and my audience was made up of staff members and volunteers (thank you so much guys! you have no idea how much i appreciated your support that day) but on the Sunday there was a group of 30 plus all seated patiently on straw bales. Day 2 restored my confidence with an engaged, questioning group of people.

Our Apple harvest, which had showed so much promise in the spring started to trickle in and on the suggestion of a few vols i made enquiries into getting some of the crop juiced locally to be sold in our on site shop.
I was going through some things in my personal life at this point and sustained an injury which severely curtailed my activity. I was unable to walk great distances or at any pace which was quite frankly a bit distressing but the apple harvest must go on and ably led by my assistant, the rangers and volunteers we arranged a day for the pick up!

It was beyond imagining, the Orchard everyone had said wouldn't work had outstripped itself, the trees dripping with fruit. A few days later we received delivery of our apple juice, a proud moment.
Apple juice! Higher than my head!
Things didn't stop there though, even by late September the harvest was still going on flat out, our plan for the year was working beautifully.

With one or two unusual additions like the two cucumbers below...

Honestly, i have no idea what this beautiful mutant was about! It tasted incredibly sweet and looked for all intents and purposes like a melon but came from a plant that was definitely a cucumber that had produced normal fruit throughout the season.

Winter was coming once more though and as things slowed down, we reverted to winter salads from the tunnels, Brussel sprouts, leeks, savoy and red cabbages. Preparing the beds became a priority and i felt that we'd finally cracked a rhythm on the plot.

So what would 2014 bring?
To be continued.....

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