We've moved! Please come and catch up with progress on plot #103, our new shed (called Smilla!) and the award we won ... find us at: http://www.gardenworld247.co.uk/?page_id=2

Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, September 18, 2012 0 Comments

Extreme weather allotment growing

This is not a post I ever expected to be writing in July! But I’ve spoken to several allotment holders this week who are battling floods or who have, like us, lost trees to the gale force winds we’re experiencing.

It’s unusual, in our area, to have 40mph winds in the supposed height of summer. Trees are in full leaf and that turns them into vast leafy sails – a wind that would blow through them in November blows them over in July. It’s not just the wind that’s caused the problem on plot #103: the erstwhile allotment holder who planted our apple and pear trees ringed them around with thick plastic barriers. While they have managed to get some roots past this wall, they still have a much smaller root system than they should. This root truncation, plus the winds, plus the rain that has washed soil away from roots and stopped the compacting that usually happens in high summer have all added up to serious root rock in both our apple trees – we’ve had to prune them drastically to stop them rocking into our shed! They may not survive the pruning but the shed certainly wasn’t going to survive playing Newton’s cradle with fruit trees, and it’s a sad fact that these trees are at the end of their lives anyway: poorly rooted and badly pruned fruit trees are prone to many diseases and our apples have quite a few of them!

Heavy rain also washes soil out of containers so today I’ve gone round and checked the second early potatoes that we have in planters and sure enough, some of the Carlingfords are above soil level. This is not good, as potatoes that go green are toxic to the human system, but it’s also easily rectifiable. Once they are covered again, and the light is excluded for between 10-14 days, these spuds will revert to healthy white flesh. You don’t have to cover potatoes with soil: you can use grass clippings, rhubarb leaves, wood chippings or any other kind of mulch that is fully light-excluding.

Frogs seem to be loving the horrible cold and damp weather though, and everywhere I went today I had to persuade young froglets to vacate their location so that I could weed and harvest.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, July 10, 2012 2 Comments

Allotment potatoes

We’re having mixed results with our spuds. One of the big problems with taking over an allotment is that you never know what’s been done with the soil before you get it, and if it’s been overgrown for a while, there’s a natural tendency to assume the soil will be compacted, neglected and full of weed seeds – and that’s usually true.

The surprises, in other words, are rarely good ones. And this proved true on plot #103. Our first lifting of Rocket potatoes produced a harvest that was just pathetic, while our container grown Estima were brilliant. Quite what is wrong with a broad swathe of our soil is unclear: we know where the firepit was and that there had been a wholesale burning of plastics there are some point in the past, so we weren’t expecting any spuds of that section of the plot (nor would we eat them if we got them, they were planted purely to try and break up the baked soil and start to bring life back to it) but that didn’t turn out to be the problem section … which is weird. Remediation will begin with digging over, planting a green manure and digging it in, and then planning next year's crop rotation to try and get some kind of safe harvest off both problem areas.

On the other hand, the rest of the planting looks fantastic whatever’s going on underneath. One of the reasons I committed to edible landscaping is the sheer beauty it delivers: borders that look as good as anything you see at Chelsea (in my humble opinion) but that you can cut or dig up and eat – what can be better than that?

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, July 5, 2012 0 Comments

Greenhouse pollinating

This tomato flower is double. That’s odd. The pollination will be interesting although I wanted to nip it off, I was overruled by OH who wants to see what happens. Once again I’m reminded that a little botany is a useful thing. Every year I end up posting something about how to pollinate greenhouse crops and every year, I try to remember that there were two years in a row when we had no (repeat no, zero, zilch and nada) aubergines because I didn’t understand that they needed to be hand pollinated.

So … everything botanical wants to reproduce. Most plants need a partner to do this, but the dating agency (as it were) varies – some plants use the air, some use insects, some prefer birds … all that kind of biological stuff. Some plants do both sides of the deal themselves – male and female flowers that self pollinate: corn and cucumbers, for example.

There are plants that are difficult to pollinate – I’ve always had an issue with aubergines except when living in the South of France, and I assume that its because when the pollen is ripe, there aren’t many North-ish European native pollinating insects around to do the job. Peppers do self pollinate, but benefit from some help. Use a paintbrush and moisten the tip before finding an open flower and brushing the stamens – if the pollen is ripe it will stick to the brush. Just move the brush to another flower on the same plant and keep doing that for every open flower – it can double or treble the amount of peppers you get from each plant, if you are diligent about it.

This tomato flower is a single, which is what one would expect – it’s on the same plant as the double, which is not what one would expect. Nature is odd, sometimes!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, July 2, 2012 2 Comments

End of month recipe: Caramelised Onions

So, you’ve got your overwintered onions, all big and juicy and you want to be able to use them for months – but they don’t keep like summer onions, so how can you ensure you’ve got that wonderful mild sweet flavour on hand?

If you have a slow cooker (and if you grow your own food, a slow cooker is just about the most useful thing you’ll ever invest in) then you can caramelise kilos of onions overnight, freeze them, and use them in handy portion controlled ways, right through the year.
The greatest thing is that these onions are sweet. Something weird happens to the sulphur compounds in onions when you cook them very slowly – they turn to sugar. There’s no added sugar or salt in this recipe but when you taste the results, you won’t believe it: the onions are tangy and sweet just from the cooking process.

Ingredients

Enough onions to fill a 6 litre slow cooker (in our case, that’s two kilos of onions, peeled and sliced)
100 grams butter or 45 ml olive oil (I’ve tried both, they taste equally great).

Method

Put the slow cooker onto low and rub the base and sides with a little olive oil. If you’re using butter, just rub the sides and base of the cooker with a teaspoon of olive oil anyway.

Chuck in the onions. Drizzle the oil over the top or dice the butter and throw it in. Stir well. Put lid on. Set a timer for thirty minutes.

When the timer goes, stir well and replace lid. Set timer for a further 30 minutes. Stir, replace lid, leave for up to 12 hours. You have to experiment with your own cooker. My small one did this recipe in eight hours but with only half the onions, so find out what works best for you.

Usually I set this up overnight and sort it out in the morning. I’m left with a layer of delicious onions in a thick, sweet liquid. I turn off the heat, allow the cooker to cool, then drain the onions in a colander, over a bowl, saving the liquid. The onions I freeze in small containers, about a tablespoon is enough to serve as the base for a savoury dish. The liquid I use as the base for a mushroom risotto or a rich soup.

You can also use the onions to make caramelised onion flan – very tasty!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Friday, June 29, 2012 0 Comments

Fingering onions

We’ve had a great haul from the plot this week, and the Grow and Tell workshoppers got to take home some broad beans, peas and overwintered onions. One of the things we looked at this week was a bit of folklore that actually works. It’s about fingering your onins.

Obscene as that sounds, it’s a really good idea. Onions shouldn’t be planted too deeply as they don’t expand and are more prone to white rot. There’s also a weird relationship between loosening the roots and the size of the onions you get to harvest – having experimented with this over a couple of years, we’ve discovered that if you finger overwintered onions about ten days before you harvest them, they get to be up to a third larger in that short period of time.

So how do you finger an onion? Well, if you have sandy soil you can use your hands, but if your soil is heavy, like ours, a dibber or two pronged weeder is a better idea. Working close to the roots, but not actually in them, you loosen the soil by wiggling your implement to and fro about half an inch to an inch into the soil. It’s really difficult to see the difference, although the weight usually makes clear the good effect of fingering, but the two pictures show the expansion in girth of our bed of red onions which were fingered on 13 June, and then photographed again on 24 June.

And thanks to everybody who shared their wood wasp expertise - it's nice to know that the scary monster is neither scary nor a monster!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, June 25, 2012 0 Comments

Allotment windbreaks

Today we have 28 mph winds on the allotment. The actual temperature (16 degrees) feels like 11 degrees. Plants exposed to such strong winds with low temperatures are likely to desiccate even if they don’t snap.

Our site is windy. There’s no way around that fact. Three of the allotments we’ve worked on over the years have had differing levels of wind exposure and we’ve learned a lot from that range of experience. The first plot was in the middle of the site but had no shielding or windbreaks at all. We found that our Brussels sprouts ended up horizontal and in summer the outdoor tomatoes fruited only on the side of the stem that was in the lee of the wind – while fruits formed on the other side, they never swelled properly, largely, we think, due to stress and desiccation.

The second plot had a brick wall to its west side and low pallet fences. Most of the time the wind issues were manageable, but when the wind came from the west, as it did but rarely, the brick wall created a wind funnel that hit the middle of our plot with devastating effects.

Now, on the voodoo plot, we started by planting as much as possible in north/south rows, so that there is no wind-funnelling by one crop onto another. We’ve put in raised beds so that ground level stems and root systems aren’t whacked by our strong south-easterlies. Broken screening, such as the hedge at the front, disturbs the wind pattern so that it has much less effect on crops: a rough rule of thumb is that a hedge works for approximately 5 times its height so a metre tall hedge reduces windspeed by about 50% for a distance behind it of about 5 metres. Clearly then, one hedge can’t protect a whole plot! Screening works to perturb wind patterns so that wind speed is constantly broken and we have a range of screening from trellis, to fleece, to bamboo sculptures up which we grow nasturtiums, to arches and benches, all of which, laid east to west, provide protection for our plants.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Friday, June 22, 2012 1 Comments

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