Mangelwurzels, harvests and growing at my No Dig Allotment

We have been experiencing some horrible weather here in Bruton, due to Storm Angus: high winds and torrential rain causing damage and flooding . I spent Monday positioning buckets to catch the water being forced into my house thanks to the wind pushing rain against the rear wall. The kitchen roof leaked and the whole length of my study windows and door transformed into an indoor waterfall. This doesn’t usually happen when it rains! Fortunately nothing was damaged.

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I was glad that on Sunday I had spent the afternoon at the allotment, harvesting some vegetables and tidying the brassicas. In the past we were taught to tidy the garden and put it to bed for the winter, which unfortunately stripped domestic gardens of overwintering habitat for wild creatures and insects as well as reducing the possibilities for year round food production. However my task was not to create some pristine artificial environment. Tidying the brassicas is beneficial for the plants. Fallen autumn leaves provide a natural cover for the soil, as we see in nature, so why don’t I leave them for the soil life to incorporate? In the wilder areas of my garden I do leave them, where they also provide winter accommodation for wildlife. Clearing away dead and decaying leaves which the plant no longer needs reduces habitat for pests (slugs, snails, woodlice) and increases ventillation, decreasing the likelihood of disease, rotting or other problems. Using well rotted compost as a surface mulch protects the soil, feels the soil flora and fauna and provides nutrition for a year’s harvest of vegetable – some of the beds yield three different harvests in a year. These beds are not left exposed or uncovered thanks to the surface mulch.

 

Brussels sprouts before 'tidying'
Brussels sprouts before ‘tidying’

Of course at this time of year the slugs and woodlice were mostly feeding on this decaying matter, doing their job as part of the natural ecosystem, but I don’t want them feeling that my vegetable beds are a lovely place to set up home and raise their families in the spring (!) so they went into the compost bin with the decaying leaves.

First of all I hoed and weeded the whole allotment. This doesn’t take long, around 15 minutes for the whole plot. Most of the weeds are annuals which have blown on from weedy neighbouring plots. There are a few perennial weeds on the edges which come in from adjacent weedy areas – mostly bindweed and tormentil with a little couch at the top. Removing with a trowel whilst still small discourages them and prevents them from becoming a problem. Until I went no dig, the whole allotment had perennial weeds but they have now been eradicated except where they creep in from the edges. Then I sowed the last of the garlic and some broadbeans: three rows which should be about right for my family (there are some in the polytunnel for an earlier crop and I also sow spring varieties). This bed will be mulched with some of the cow manure during the next few weeks.

The polythene on the left is a sheet mulch to kill off unwanted invasive horseradish. My plot ends where the borage plant is – the bottle edging is a neighbours allotment. The tiny weeds have been hoed and should die off during the frosty nights.

Bed with garlic, elephant garlic and broadbeans Aquadulce Claudia
Bed with garlic, elephant garlic and broadbeans Aquadulce Claudia

There are six different varieties of Brussels sprouts in my allotment, some about ready to pick yet others are tiny, so small I am not sure whether they will ever produce good sized sprouts. If they are not good croppers, I won’t grow them next year.

Some plants had been completely flattened, as if something had jumped on them so I staked and tied them upright. I also cleared any plants which had been harvested, which will make mulching easier this winter.

Running out of short stakes for the flowersprouts, long bean poles were used as temporary supports. This made covering them rather tricky! Looking around for something to ‘make me taller’, I used a  rake to manoevure the net over. You can see my huge pile of well rotted manure in the background.

Damage to other plants – kale and mangelwurzels – suggest the possibility of deer visiting as the large leaves were snapped or bitten off, not stripped like the pigeons do. They have been netted now with enviromesh (I had run out of the butterfly netting I use for most brassicas) and should grow back.

Time to harvest the six mangelwurzels! They grow delicious edible leaves (use like chard or spinach).Something removed many of the leaves and left them on the ground. The roots themselves were fortunately undamaged. Mangelwurzel is an old English name for the mangold Beta vulgaris (also known as field beet, usually grown as animal fodder). The root is eaten as one would a beetroot or swede – pickled, mashed, roasted,  raw in salads. It is said to make a strong beer. I use the root to make Mangelwurzel wine, a honey coloured potent brew which makes a person feel ‘mangelwurzeled’!

One of Wurzel Gummidge’s interchangeable heads is a mangelwurzel! We went to the theatre production of Wurzel Gummidge: the Musical in 1981 when I was around 15. I was mortified with embarrassment, hoping no one from school would ever find out. It was really a treat for my younger brother who was then 6 (I was one of the oldest children there). Despite my teenage reservations, it was brilliant entertainment and now I am glad I saw Jon Pertwee and Una Stubbs perform live. Perhaps it is the reason why I was drawn to grow mangelwurzels?!

In South Somerset where we live, mangelwurzels were hollowed out on the last Thursday of October and made into lanterns known as ‘Punkies’ a tradition which still continues today. Children would walk the streets after dark, singing the Punkie Song:

It’s Punkie Night tonight!

It’s Punkie Night tonight!

Adam and Eve would not believe

It’s Punkie Night tonight!

Give me a candle

Give me a light

If you haven’t got a candle

A penny’s all right

An alternative more spooky ending is: Give me a candle, give me a light If you don’t, you’ll get a fright! Another tradition is a game hurling the large roots.

I am from Yorkshire where swedes were traditionally hollowed out to use as lanterns around the end of October. This ancient ritual of scary lanterns made from seasonal vegetables was taken with settlers over the Atlantic to America, where native pumpkins were used instead of root. Pumpkins are much easier to carve!

My beautiful mangelwurzels weigh around 4kg each (over 9lb), I needed the car to bring them home. They will keep well in a cool frost free place until I use them.

More harvests: I ran out of compost last winter one bed was partly un-mulched. The difference in the size of the swede is noticeable.

And some parsnip and celeriac. I’m pleased with the size of the veg, everything was only watered once on the day they were planted. This shows the moisture retaining benefits of mulched soil.

 

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