Our Skills Exchange gardener tells us all about growing courgettes in his allotment in Cork
Being In-Door-Barbeque season again, the unusually cold spell seems to be slowing growth particularly with my courgettes. Courgette is the French name for immature marrows also known as zucchini in Italian – I’m glad I’ve finally teased that out. Of the species Cucurbita Pepo, it is the same family as pumpkin and squashes and prone to the cucumber mosaic virus (a mildew) but resistant varieties can be bought such as the ‘Defender’ (courgette with attitude) and the ‘Supremo’ (arrogant courgette). They’re a good source of folate, potassium, the all-important fibre and vitamin C. They take up considerable space and must be planted ninety centimetres apart each way. But two or three plants are all that is required to supply the average post Celtic Tiger household in Ireland. They also come in yellow, my favourite colour.
I was discussing their slow start in an over-the-fence-chat with Jim my allotment neighbour, and if truth be told and I’m not ashamed to admit it, myself and Jim have what would be known in e-dating terms as ‘an affinity’ but as with domestic arrangements, in allotments, good fences make good neighbours. Although ours is only two strands of wire it does the job, sets the all-important boundaries that child psychologists are forever banging on about.
Jim’s allotment is quite a success and he has avoided the scourge of the pigeons by netting everything, initially I scoffed at this but maybe he’s right. He has wonderful luscious red strawberries growing along our boundary, so well netted no pest, well except maybe Homo sapiens sapiens, could get at them.
Besides being a fine gardener Jim is also a whiz on music, a connoisseur of classic cartoons from the fifties and anything that came out on a box-set in the last ten years, Jim has courgettes growing in his garden at home (he’s a serious head) and since it is in-door-barby time he invited me around on Saturday to share vittels and look at his courgettes and meet his good wife Alanis and their friends. I was delighted with this invite. Besides the fact that the CoS (Chief of Staff) and Lucy May were in Spain I really I felt I had arrived, in allotment terms I mean. After all that’s what allotments are all about isn’t it; community spirit, that sense of bon-homie, your house is my house type of thing.
But before the barby on Saturday afternoon I had to replant space in my onion patch that had recently become available due to pigeons.
I decided to replant with White spring onions, ‘Lisbon’s’, ‘Snowball’ turnips and organic beetroot ‘Detroit 2’ don’t laugh it’s a source of folate, fibre and manganese. How, you may ask, can I plant so late? Well, I say, all the above can be planted as late as July. How, you may ask, am I so knowledgeable about such matters? Well, I say, I just went into Tesco and looked at all the packets until I found ones I could plant at this time of year. Of course I was in Tesco procuring the weekly rations I don’t think the surge in allotments will put them out of business any time soon. If anything there will be a spike in profits in the seed department – another six euros. This brings the total cost of this allotment to approximately €350 plus diesel and with no return to date – well except for some rocket lettuce leaves that the CoS brought home. How much is a head of lettuce in Tesco I wonder. Of course I was writing it off against the health benefits of being out in the fresh air blahdy, blahdy, blah; physical activity blahdy, blahdy, blah but I nearly had a coronary as a result of those pigeons, at least 350 euros worth, so it better be plain sailing from now on or we’re in the red. It’s good money after bad. I might as well buy a bad racehorse or a yacht and a pair of those short blue Wellingtons with white soles. It’s also important to note that after initial planting the allotment requires a minimum of 2-3 hours per week to watch the weeds. Which isn’t a lot. And that wouldn’t include watering if necessary.
Watering can be a problem on our allotment. If there are others using it the pressure drops and it can take forever – as was the case on Saturday when I was trying to get away to Jim’s barby. The water was to a trickle when I realised I had bought nothing to bring. The standard bottle of wine would have sent me on a seven mile round trip and it just wasn’t worth it. I was contemplating this and goading the water from the tap with expletives when a covetous eye fell upon Jim’s strawberries.
Fragaria Vesca or Alpine Strawberry is one plant ideal for the Irish climate. Planted in spring, in moist but not wet soil, it will bare a large fragrant fruit all through the summer so I thought Jim mightn’t notice if I took just a few. Germination from seed can be tricky but plants can be bought and planted in rows. Partial shade is good.
When I had finished watering I pretended to weed on my side of the fence beside a weak spot I had previously detected in Jim’s netting. It wasn’t hard to pick a dozen. Jim had membrane down to ensure that the fruit doesn’t touch the soil; one could also use straw for this – it keeps them clean and dry. Those Alpine strawberries really produce and I must say Jim had done a good job. I tried two and they were juicy and as good as they looked. I knew Jim would be delighted to get good quality strawberries.
By the time I found Jim’s house I was beginning to have second thoughts – lets face it Jims suspicions might be raised. Why would you give strawberries to somebody that you know has loads of them and he knew you knew he had loads of them. I hadn’t been thinking straight. So I decided to slip them to his wife in a brown paper bag, the all-important handover would be seen by the other guests and the strawberries forgotten or eaten by morning.
On arrival, I looked around for Jim but couldn’t see him anywhere so I helped myself to the wine and tore into the small pizzas. I was thinking the food was a bit scant but I just thought everybody had eaten. I noticed a few adults looking at me as I tucked into my third and the last mini pizza. Just then one of the kids rushed in and started screaming that I had eaten all the pizzas and making a right hoo-hah when a pearl-clad woman, whom I felt had returned one of my covetous glances earlier, approached. She looked at the plate and looked at me and with a look that said you’ve just lost your sit-beside-a-friend-for-a-day voucher told me that I had eaten the kiddies’ food, and that there were sausages and chicken on the barby for the adults. She then introduced herself as Alanis. I explained myself and handed her the brown paper bag which was becoming sodden from the juicy strawberries. She accepted them graciously and said, “James will love them”. I said, “Tip – sprinkle with pepper, it really brings out the taste” and she looked at me as if I was the Medusa so I said, “They’ll go great with fresh organic double cream” and she told me I could find James in the Barna shed where he had moved the barbeque in out of the rain and wind. I watched her dash the last few feet to the sink with her hand clutching the underside of the bag before I made a quick exit to the shed.
There I found an apron-clad Jim, tongs in hand, looking at the smoke coming out the shed door. We stood in the drizzle chatting and between incursions into the shed to prod the sausages he showed me around his garden. I refrained from letting him know that puncturing sausages was no longer best practice. Ways of doing things change over time Jim, I felt like saying. Just like the Docs changed their minds on whipping out tonsils it was now no longer deemed appropriate to puncture sausages – rather let them cook in their own juices.
The garden was as I’d suspected – not a weed, straight rows and everything labelled. He also went in for the raised beds. Using 9’’ planks he made frames and filled them with soil with nice gravel paths in between. The slugs hate gravel. I found two of them in my peas and threw them as far away as I could. If one wished these could be raised up to waist height to reduce bending but even as they were on the ground, it made it easier to defend against slugs.
Well, needless to say I went o.t.t. complimenting his courgettes, and it paid off and when they wanted bods over next day to polish off the left overs they looked no further than yours truly.
I arrived on time, this time, at two with a bottle of never-heard-of-before-brand of cheap whiskey from Lidl just in case I was rumbled re the strawberries. I made my way round the side entrance. It was a beautiful day and Alanis and Jim were sitting outside. I handed Jim the bottle and he was delighted and Alanis just said, I don’t like whiskey, thanks. Oh man. I was taking my seat across from them when I realised there was nobody else there and there was a bowl of chopped strawberries drizzled lightly with icing sugar in the middle of the table. I thought they’d have been in the bin by now. Beads of sweat popped on my forehead. I smelt a rat, I was being framed, she had set me up for eating the kiddies’ food. I didn’t think she liked James, as she called him, consorting with my type. Oh man. Not only that but the luscious red of the strawberries was bringing out the luscious red of Alanis’ lips which I hadn’t noticed at all the previous evening. I knew this was no place to start contemplating Alanis’ lips with Jim sitting just across the table and me in line for a possible inquisition re the strawberries. I had to keep my focus but my eyes kept flitting from the strawberries to Alanis’ lips and back to the strawberries again and back to Alanis’ lips again. Jim must have spotted it and asked me did I want some strawberries, “Help yourself”, he said, “They’re yours”. I’d have gagged if I had something to gag on. I had no choice but to go with the flow, he’d seen the way I was looking at them. I was expecting a couple of sausages and a couple of chicken pieces, even cold would have done – I wouldn’t have expected him to fire up the barby again or anything like that.
“Don’t mind if I do” I said, and cutting to the chase, I said, “They’re my first crop I haven’t even tried them myself, I wanted to see what you thought of them first Jim”.
“I didn’t think you had strawberries”, Jim said. I knew he
knew what I had on the allotment.
“Oh yeah, oh I grew these at home” and I glanced at
Alanis’ lips by way of including her in the conversation, by-the-way and diverting my eyes from Jim’s. I felt this was the end, my allotment days were over, I had plumbed the depths, and had stolen the fruit and now would be expelled from the garden. I had to think fast.
“I have a micro garden”. I blurted. I remembered reading
a small article once in one of those free-bee newspapers that gets stuffed in the letter box.
“A micro garden, that sounds interesting”, Jim said.
“Yes, very”, Alanis said.
I was thinking I might pull this off on a one-to-one, man-to-man thing, with Jim but she could see through me. Yeah, I was slipping, the wheels were spinning.
“It’s where you have a small city garden and you maximise the space and grow food in pots and baskets around the house, in the porch, on the balcony, on the flat roof, window sills. Use shaded areas for plants that like shade and maximise the sun-traps for plants that need sun – that type of thing”. I was talking Jim’s language now. “You can use anything like old buckets, tyres, small one metre square raised beds just like you got there Jim, they’re great. Even recycled bean tins and the like are ideal for growing herbs”.
“That’s a great idea”, Jim said, “Simple, never would
have thought of it”.
I was motoring. “You just gotta make sure everything has holes for drainage. You know a couple of drill holes nothing major. I was waiting on a curve ball to be lobbed in from left field but it never came. I moved into top gear and gave her gas. And you can go upwards of course. Have you ever seen the vegetable walls Jim?”
I didn’t know where that came out of. “Yes you can go up, particularly if you have a south-facing wall. Fix trellis to walls for creepers such as beans and peas; hang tins, there’s your recycled tin again Jim, and troughs from it; you could even use those hangy shoe holder thingies with all the pockets, fill them with soil and bobs your uncle. I’m sure there’s a few of those around the house Jim, you could use”, I said winking at him and smiling at Alanis.
“Don’t go giving him ideas”, she smiled and I took a speed wobble. Continuing, after I managed to straighten up and get back on my side of the road, I said, “You’d be surprised how much you could produce in a small area, without the back breaking work, minimum water, your own compost of course and a little TLC” and I glanced at Alanis. She was smiling now. Oh man. I really didn’t know much about this but I knew I had to keep talking.
“A friend of mine from Kazakhstan put me onto it”, I said. “Yeah a very interesting guy, his grandfather had been sent to Siberia, his mother knew Solsinitzyn, he was in the Russian army and went to Afghanistan and after that he shoed horses for five years and bought cars in the Emirates and drove them five thousand kilometres back to Kazakhstan eating oranges in the desert because it was cheaper than water. Out there the corn grows as high as an elephants eye and the potato fields go on for hundreds of Kilometres”. I dragged this out as long as I could.
“So what do I do with the strawberries?”, I finally said rhetorically.
“I got a large bag of compost and cut it in half to make two ‘pots’ and planted the strawberries in them. They’re up off the ground and they produce all year round”.
“I’d like to see that”, Jim said and Alanis moved her lips and I lost concentration for a moment and responded automatically, “Sure thing Jim, anytime”.
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