Welcome to the allotment of GERRY PARKER, probably the best site in all Durham for chickweed. His hen canaries love it and his mates are starting to place regular orders!
THROUGHOUT my birdkeeping life, from Lizards, to British birds and now Norwich canaries, I’ve been a fan of wild seeds. Most of the seeds come from my allotment just a few hundred yards up a bank from my house on the outskirts of Durham City, which, like Rome, is built on the proverbial seven hills. (Important to know as it means that allotments round here are rarely on flat land.)
From the allotment I collect a range of seeds, including dock seeds, from plants that I deliberately cultivate in odd corners of my plot. Happily, another plot nearby has been neglected so I can get large amounts of dock from there. Fat hen (Chenopodium album) begins to form seed heads in early August, and I collect this from my own plot and those neighbours’ plots where I know chemical sprays aren’t used. But the bulk of this piece is about that old mainstay of the birdman, chickweed (Stellaria media).
I took over my present allotment about eight years ago, and in theory it is a Rolls Royce of a plot. It is terraced (those pesky hills) and south-facing (hot for Durham) and each bed is contained by corrugated iron sheets (reduced maintenance). The terraces also mean less bending as I get older and stiffer.
A view of the plot
Seen from the bottom, the plot looks a bit like a North Eastern paddyfield. In its 75ft (23m) length there are 11 beds, with the soil getting heavier as you go down: the grade changes from very sandy at the top to middling heavy loam at the bottom, so varied growing conditions apply.
All of this means different weeds at different times of year. And little of this will come as news to many birdkeepers who are active gardeners.
My polytunnel was erected seven years ago and measures 20ft by 10ft (6m x 3m) with raised beds either side of the path. Temperatures inside are routinely up to 90°F (33°C) with the door open, and in high summer it’s closely planted with the usual tomatoes, in addition to sweet corn, squashes of various types, chillies and a fig tree.
In autumn 2018 the tunnel’s wooden framework imploded in a high wind. The result was that I removed the tunnel’s wooden frame and trenched the beds. About a cubic yard of compost from one of my five composts heaps was dug in and left to weather over the winter. By March last year, the site was two hundred square feet of chickweed!
Now this crop was a bit of a revelation, given the site. Chickweed grows on my allotment, but not in any quantity or over any predicable period.
But back to my derelict tunnel. I knew it was no good trying to put a new plastic cover on the tunnel till late April at the earliest. By happy coincidence, the bottom half of a nearby tunnel became available and I rented this as a holding area. At 32ft long by about 15ft wide (9.7m x 4.6m) this is the biggest polytunnel on the site. I trenched it with another load of compost. We’ll call this the Monster Tunnel for ease.
I decided to use the new Monster Tunnel for two distinct groups of vegetables, the first and most useful being small quick-maturing stuff: spring onions, spinach, early beetroot, carrots, rocket, etc. The second group was what I call big stuff: squashes, pumpkins, sweet potatoes and, with a bit of luck, a melon.
All were duly planted and required pretty much daily watering once the sun started to produce a little heat.
This régime proved to be ideal for the chickweed, which grew rapidly round every row and had to be weeded out. Being naturally lazy, I let it get a decent size before I weeded. The result was a constant and significant supply of chickweed from late April onward.
Now keep in mind that in the past I’ve struggled for decent amounts of chickweed outside in cool, sandy Durham, and even that was best picked from netted areas where wild birds couldn’t get at it. My old tunnel produced small amounts of chickweed when the cover was on but this tailed off swiftly once the big stuff took over.
The main benefit of all this clean chickweed has been for feeding hens, which seized it readily. My use of greenfood in the past was restricted to broccoli and some hens got fixated on that, which sometimes produced stomach upsets if they fed it to the chicks too often.
So, all those birdkeepers with a plot of land to grow vegetables and (increasingly) who use polytunnels, how about rethinking your cultivation to suit your diet and that of your birds? Growing a few less tomatoes and peppers, and more spinach and other small stuff, produces an ideal site for continuous chickweed from early spring onwards, and it’s guaranteed clean. In fact, I’ve grown so much that my mate Ron has a standing order for a bag of chickweed for his Fifes. What’s not to like?
Gerry Parker is the publicity officer of Trimdon CBS and the North East British Bird, Mule & Hybrid Club.