Allotment marvels

Just a quickie today, as I’m about to leave home to do something very interesting, ie interview my local allotment officer, but I’ve been pondering the wonderful – and sometimes weird – things that people grow on allotments. Up and down the country I’ve seen fields of dahlias, fiery horseradish, tobacco, orchids, living stones. I know one allotment holder who is hybridising a green tulip on his plot and another who has an informal tortoise sanctuary. But I had to share this. It’s Andrew’s echium, and it’s the most astonishing flower I’ve ever seen. It’s Echium pininana, which is usually found in sheltered south-facing borders and it’s a two year process to grow one, because in the first year echium simply grows into a rosette of silvery leaves – only about a foot tall - but in year two it rockets off and becomes a flower spike festooned with blue, funnel-shaped flowers, which may be as much as fifteen feet tall. After this impressive flowering it dies, but not before scattering its seeds like somebody throwing balloons off the top of a tall tower.

I think it’s gorgeous. But I'm sure there are even more impressive allotment marvels out there ... let us know if you have one!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Sunday, July 29, 2007 0 Comments


Oh sigh. Sigh and moan. Not only is it raining (again) but for some incomprehensible reason, blogger won’t let me upload the photograph I wanted to share with you today. So instead – in the blog equivalent of the music that TV stations used to play when the signal went off the air – marrows.

Whatever the weather does, there are marrows in summertime. Sometimes they are real marrows, and sometimes they are courgettes that got away from their owner and turned into a lurking monster. In either case, they’re not my favourite vegetable. I try, I really try, but I just can’t get enthused about marrows. I do have one recipe, two versions, that makes the marrow into a good meal, and I am about to share it with you.

The meaty version

Pre-heat the oven to 200C, 400F, Gas Mark 6.

Wash the marrow and wipe dry. Cut into eight slices, and scoop out the seeds from the centres of each slice to leave a ring and sprinkle with salt – leave for half an hour to draw out the bitterness. Wash and pat dry and then place in a large greased baking tin.

Fry some mince, a chopped onion and a grated carrot until the meat browns and the vegetables soften. Drain off excess fat and stir in a tablespoon of flour, a good squirt of Worcestershire sauce, garlic and your favourite herbs - simmer for 15 minutes. Fill the marrow rings with the mince mixture, place a tomato slice on top of each and cook, uncovered, for about half an hour.

The veggie version

Pre-heat the oven to 200C, 400F, Gas Mark 6.

Wash the marrow and wipe dry. Cut into eight slices, and scoop out the seeds from the centres of each slice to leave a ring and sprinkle with salt – leave for half an hour to draw out the bitterness. Wash and pat dry and then place in a large greased baking tin.

Cook some small green lentils in vegetarian stock until they are tender, drain and place in a bowl. Add a chopped fried onion, or several spring onions that have been thinly sliced, two slices of bread turned into crumbs, and lots of nice fresh chopped herbs. You can add some strong grated cheese for vegetarians, or chopped nuts for vegans and a squirt of soy sauce for both. Cook, covered with a loose layer of foil, for half an hour.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, July 26, 2007 0 Comments

Allotment Open Days

Helen tells me that Brighton and Hove Organic Garden Group’s allotment open day was a tremendous success with over two hundred people turning up! They were very happy that many of those visitors were younger ones, who took part in a Bug Hunt with Dave Bangs and who were able to use the recently planted "wigloo" – see picture - as shelter from the sun. They raised around £270.00 from sales of plants, tea and cakes and bric a brac, which will be donated to Moulsecoomb Forest Garden and Wildlife Project.

I asked her why they’d had an open day and she replied that the allotment project was set up about two years ago to provide the group with a space to meet, work together and demonstrate organic methods of cultivation. The open day allowed them to invite the wider community to see what they’ve been doing and for the allotment volunteers to put their feet up and enjoy the space with their friends and family. BHOGG was set up about six years ago to promote organic gardening and provide a support network for local growers. Monthly meetings and a quarterly newsletter provide spaces for people to share ideas and information. There’s also a gardening advice "hotline" for members and email for enquiries (details below). The group tries to offer a wide range of activities and to make them accessible to as many people as possible. This is important to try and demystify organic gardening which is really just gardening with nature in mind. An organic gardener strives to look after all the creatures that inhabit their gardens and allotments to deliver a harmonious balance. A major focus is the soil - because a healthy soil will produce healthy plants better equipped to fend off predators or disease - so no chemical fertilisers or weedkillers are allowed as these deplete the soil.

There is plenty of information available for would be organic gardeners today. The Garden Organic website is a good place to start or go to the local library and find a good organic gardening book.

More about BHOGG: To join BHOGG please go to the website at where you can download a joining form. For the gardening advice or enquiries email

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, July 23, 2007 0 Comments

Gluts and recipes

It’s that time of year (if you’re lucky) when the allotment is producing more foodstuffs than you can eat, and you start to get sick of certain things – too much lettuce, an overdose of courgettes etc. This is a rather elegant recipe which uses up little bits and pieces of those glut crops, but doesn’t taste as if it’s a catch-all: in fact, it tastes like you spent half the day in the kitchen cooking it! It is actually a very simple dish though – it works well with fish like tuna or salmon where it really turns up the posh quotient to suggest that you’ve recently taken a cordon bleu course …

Summer glut supreme

The sauce

4 cloves
8 peppercorns
8 coriander seeds
100 ml single cream
2 inch cinnamon stick
Coriander chopped
Mint chopped
Basil chopped
1 pepper seeded and chopped

The vegetables

1 onion thinly sliced
1 1/4 pounds patty pan squash cut in pieces about 1/2 inch big – or one overgrown courgette or half-grown marrow
Small can corn – or two ears of corn that have been shelled from the cob
1 large tomato peeled, seeded, chopped in 1/2in pieces (can be a semi-green one!)
1 tablespoon oil
coriander leaves for garnish

THE SAUCE: Bruise the hard spices with a pestle and add them to the cream with the cinnamon, herbs and half the chopped pepper. Slowly bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and let steep for an hour.

THE VEGETABLES: Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the onion. Fry briskly for a minute or so; add squash, corn, remaining pepper. Continue to sauté over fairly high heat for about 5 minutes. Pour the steeped cream directly into the pan through a strainer. Add the tomato and simmer for several minutes. Simmer until the sauce has reduced and thickened a little and the squash is tender. Season to taste with salt and serve garnished with coriander.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Friday, July 20, 2007 0 Comments

Allotment holders up close

This is Ron Buckman, local allotment site representative and Grand Old Man of allotmenteering. Normally, when we use the term Grand Old Man we’re talking about a star of the stage and screen, a theatre impresario or a literary lion, but it fits Ron extremely well. Not only has he had an allotment on our site for over twenty five years, but prior to that he had allotments at two other sites as well – it’s a lifetime of experience and it shows when you see his plot, which is workmanlike, thriving and productive. He’s a Grand Old Man for another reason too – have a guess how old he is?

Ron is also very modest about his achievements, which are not just about being able to produce good crops from his land – as you can see, he’s been recognised for his contribution to the world of allotments generally. He’s a stalwart of the shop, where we buy our various supplies and provisions, he’s a fount of information about what to grow, where, when and how, and he is the repository of local history about our site and its characters and development over many years. Walking round the site with him is an education – he seems to know almost everybody we pass, and he can sum up the history of nearly every plot, tell you its soil conditions and what its been used for in the past, and what has succeeded and failed on it, drawing on his in depth knowledge of the land and its users.

I’ll be describing in detail how Ron grows his unbelievably large and highly-scented sweet peas a bit later in the year, so that we can all have a go at emulating his methods, but in the meantime he has one piece of wisdom for all new allotment holders which is worth bearing in mind. “To keep a plot going,” Ron says, “you need to put in about ten hours a week. A lot of people come here, clear their plot, plant a crop and expect to come back in a couple of weeks and find something growing – they won’t. You need to put in the time at the beginning, and then you get something out at the end.”

It’s a statement that’s true about most things in life, but you don’t often get such a detailed prescription for success, so when it comes to an allotment, ten hours a week is what you need, and Ron should know.

As to how old he is, I still don’t quite believe it myself, especially since I visited his plot and saw how much of it he’d dug over ready for planting, but Ron is actually eighty seven – and if that’s not evidence for how good allotments can be for your health and fitness, I don’t know what is!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, July 17, 2007 0 Comments

What’s happening on the allotments this week ...

Today was the BHOGG open day. BHOGG is Brighton and Hove Organic Gardening Group and they were showing off their excellent achievements between midday and five. Sadly, I had to be somewhere else by twelve, so I sneaked along at ten for a preview and, as you can see from the photograph, they’d laid out tables and chairs and the visitors’ book, all ready for the hordes that I hope turned up. I’m going to get a full report from Helen, later in the week, on how it went.

I also managed to sneak along to Andy, and pick up the beautiful striped geranium that I paid for weeks ago, but failed to collect from the Hurstpierpoint Allotments open day. So now the gorgeous thing is finally mine. Andy tells me that I can take a photograph of him (he’s been resisting the idea for quite some time) but only if it’s one of him feeding his seagull, Henry, from a fork. Hmmm. A couple of years ago I wrote a story, based on fact, about a man who eats a seagull’s egg and gets attacked my the mother bird. Then, last month, eating doughnuts on Brighton pier, I was dive-bombed by one of the damned birds and it scratched my face quite badly – the friend I was with noted with some admiration that I didn’t let go of the doughnut though! So my encounters with seagulls have been generally of the negative persuasion, so I shall be preparing carefully for my encounter with Henry who is, let me tell you, a large bird!

In other news, Ron gave me a superb bunch of sweet peas from his allotment and described in detail the methods he uses to raise such wonderful blooms, so look out for that in the weeks ahead, and Andrew’s tobacco is nearly ready to harvest.

Where did I have to be at twelve that could possibly be more important than an allotment open day? I’m glad you asked. My other half is a wizard with wood and cement and paint and glue, and I’ve asked him to make me a very special container for my geraniums: the stripy wonder already mentioned, and the lovely variegated scented one called Madame Salleron which I did buy at Hurstpierpoint. One nursery in the USA says, ‘We like to be honest - this plant does not flower!! We keep it in our collection because it is always in demand for bedding, particularly edging a border. It grows very bushy and is quite beautiful as a plant - the only one in our whole collection of over 1,000 varieties that doesn’t flower!’ – well I’ve got news for them … mine is! So as he had to go to the Bird of Prey centre today and build a door, I went along to hold bits of wood and nails and try to be useful, so that he could come home early and work on the geranium container.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Sunday, July 15, 2007 0 Comments

How's your allotment growing?

Usually, in July, we are busier watering the plants than anything else, but this year it’s been the reverse, we are busy trying to keep the plants out of the water as much as possible!

This is a time to keep on top the weeds – it’s easier to attack them with a hoe when they are tiny seedlings than to have to dig them up or pull them out as fully grown plants. Remember that hoeing bare soil is still a good idea because it will kill off any tiny seedlings that your eyes haven’t spotted.

Despite the awful weather, your vegetable harvest should be in full swing now and most people are picking or harvesting the following:

Broad Beans – if yours haven’t got rust yet, you’re a lucky allotmenteer. If they have, harvest the entire crop now and destroy the plants, don’t compost them because your heap almost certainly won’t get hot enough to destroy the rust spores, especially in this damp weather.
French Beans
Runner Beans
Courgettes – harvest now, or wait a few weeks and let them turn into soft-skinned marrows to be stuffed
Onions – the onions are struggling this year, its almost impossible for them to dry properly and you may have to lift early and put them on wire mesh indoors to finish off properly.
Spring Onions
Peas – harvest peas every day, it takes less than 24 hours for the sugar in peas to convert to cellulose, changing from sweetness to a kind of flouriness that is not nearly so tasty.
Early Potatoes - When you harvest your potatoes take care to remove all the tubers because any left behind will sprout next year and become a weed and may also act as a repository for disease and potato blight spores. It's often worth forking over a few days after harvesting potatoes because more seem to miraculously appear. When you have harvested your potatoes you might like to consider sowing a green manure crop - mustard is fast growing and is supposed to confuse the potato eel worm into breeding at the wrong time. However, mustard is actually a brassica so don't use it if you suffer from club root.
Tomatoes – if you buy bananas, put the skins under your tomato plants, the ethylene that is given off by mature bananas helps ripen the fruit.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, July 12, 2007 0 Comments

Does allotmenteering make you a better person?

In my case, the answer is no. Sadly, not.

This week’s sins are pretty substantial I’m afraid. To begin with, look at that picture – couldn’t it feature on the cover of Country Life? Those are Louise’s stained glass cane-toppers, which I’ve mentioned before. And the sins of greed and covetousness are the result of me getting my hands on them for long enough to take a photograph. Now I really want that kind of pretty thing for my sweet pea canes!

I’d only just started talking to Louise about her allotment, which she’s had for three years, and her garlic harvest, which she lifted early this year because the last two years she’s encountered onion blight, when my phone rang. One of my nearest and dearest had managed to get himself stranded in the wilds of Sussex, where he’d been volunteering, so I had to abandon the interview and head off to find him. That added impatience to covetousness and greed, and then when I couldn’t actually find him (my sense of direction is feeble at best) I did a bit of taking the Lord’s name in vain too! And what made it even more annoying was that Louise and I had just begun a fascinating conversation about some glass sculptures she’d had in the Chelsea Flower Show – which is a pretty big deal, as we all know – and how she wants to develop her glass sculptures by accepting commissions from gardeners. It feels like a real cliff-hanger not to have finished our talk, and now I’ll have to wait until we find ourselves up at the allotments together again.

So that’s four sins, resulting from one single allotment visit. Add to that the frustration that I’m feeling because I still don’t have the beautiful striped geranium that I’ve been after for weeks (so that’s double covetousness and double greed, actually) because Andy and I keep passing like ships in the night. Each time I get to the allotment he’s just leaving, or I’m just leaving (in a rush usually) as he arrives, so we haven’t coordinated the collection of my desired plant yet.

And to round out the sin collection, my broad beans have developed rust as a result of all the rainy weather we’ve had recently, so I’m envious of all those folk who still have smooth green bean pods now mine are speckled and scabbed with red/brown spots. So, let’s add it all up: two lots of greed, two lots of covetousness, one impatience, one bad language, one frustration and one envy. Eight allotment related sins.

I’ve got to admit that at present, allotments seem to be bad for my moral health!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, July 10, 2007 0 Comments

The Sweet Pea man of Hurstpierpoint

I haven’t managed to interview my own resident sweet pea expert, Ron, yet, but my recent visit to the Hurstpierpoint allowed me to meet another sweet pea man – another genius with these gorgeous, highly-scented flowers. As you can see, his sweet peas are second to none (except, maybe, Ron’s!) and he agreed to share some of his secrets. The key to producing huge blooms like this is cordon growing. And it is quite a lot of work – but the evidence suggests that if you like sweet peas as much as I do, it’s well worth it.

Here’s what you do:

  1. Choose a sunny spot and hammer two stakes into the ground to make a row.

  2. Attach parallel wires between the posts, one at the bottom and one further up. Push canes into the soil every nine inches or so and secure them to the wires.

  3. Plant one sweet pea in front of each cane – the Sweet Pea man of Hurstpierpoint has actually colour-coordinated his along the rows, but you might choose to mix the really highly scented varieties like the grandifloras amongst the others (the Spencer varieties usually have bigger flowers but less scent) to encourage the pollinators who will be drawn by the fragrance and then travel around the rest of your plot.

  4. Let the plants grow to a foot tall and then select the strongest shoot and remove the rest – painful, but necessary if you want really strong flowers.

  5. Tie this shoot to the cane and regularly pinch off side shoots and tendrils – this step means the plant gives all its strength to the flowers rather than dissipating it in side shoots and climbing growth. You will need pea rings or horticultural tape to keep tying the primary shoot to the cane.

  6. When the plants have reached the top of the canes, untie them and lay the stems on the ground, parallel to the row.

  7. Now re-tie stems to a cane further along the row, so the tip of the plant reaches about a foot up its new cane.

This is why so many people grow sweet peas on the allotment rather than in the garden at home - it's just too much to be expected give up so much garden space for a single plant, but on your plot you can extend the cane row as far as you like without losing much in terms of space.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Saturday, July 7, 2007 0 Comments

Allotment Aesthetics - Sheds

Well, what’s yours like? The shed is something that really gives away the personality, and purposes, of an allotment holder. There are severely practical sheds, weirdly personal sheds, artistic sheds, sheds that you suspect are actually more comfortable (and more lived in!) than the allotment holder’s home, and collapsing sheds.

My own shed is nothing special, mainly because I spend most of my time haunting other people’s sheds, poking in their corners and cupboards and making a nuisance of myself under the claim that ‘I’m going to write about this!’

Some sheds are well insulated, so that even through the winter, the resident can be cosy inside – does that mean they have an unhappy home life or are just sensibly comfort loving? Lots of sheds have solar panels now and most sheds have a kettle and some mugs, but one that I know of contains a bread maker. The allotment holder sets his bread off overnight and wanders down to the allotment the next morning to treat himself to a slice of still-warm bread and butter for breakfast – and yes, we do all hang around his door waiting to see if we’re going to be the lucky ones who get to share the loaf! I’ve been to a shed that contains a potter’s wheel and another that held a loom (and to be honest, not much else, a loom takes up a lot of room!) and I can think of at least a dozen sheds that have bunches of herbs hanging from the ceiling so that each time you enter them the fragrances of the garden overwhelm you.

Some of my recent favourites include a corrugated iron shed at Hurstpierpoint allotments that reminded me of the tool sheds that one finds everywhere in Trinidad, a ‘boat’ shed, that was just a fibreglass boat turned on end with a door fitted, and Louise’s shed, which has been painted a glorious pea green and contains, as well as tools and other allotment stuff, bits of her artwork and – always – a lovely bunch of flowers.

But this one, you’ve got to admit, beats them all hollow – half Tardis, half 1960s style icon, there is something ineffably cool and groovy about the red telephone box, and using it to store your rakes, hoes and spades is rather cool and groovy too.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, July 5, 2007 2 Comments

Allotment Recipes – Globe Artichokes

There can't be an allotment in the UK that isn't waterlogged. On Sunday we gathered in the allotment office, moaning about wet plots, rust of biblical proportions on both plants and metalwork and the promised gales to come. A couple of novice allotment holders were retying their peas to canes, but the old hands shook their heads 'No point,' they said. 'With an offshore wind here, it'll be worse by nightfall, might as well wait till morning and put things right then.'

I stored up this bit of local horticultural wisdom and headed off home, thinking, when you can't grow, cook!

This is a great recipe that will please both vegetarians and meat eaters – the former will be happy it’s meat free and the latter won’t even notices as the rich flavours will fool them into thinking there’s an animal in there somewhere!

Artichoke Mushroom Richness


Four artichoke hearts
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium finely chopped onion
2 finely chopped cloves garlic
8 oz sliced mushrooms
1 teaspoon dried basil – or a good bunch of fresh leaves, torn rather than cut
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon dry white wine – or white martini which gives a richer flavour
1 tablespoon bread crumbs with mixed herbs, 1 teaspoon grated Parmesan cheese and freshly ground black pepper mixed in


Lightly oil a baking dish, then blanch the artichoke hearts before slicing them in half, draining them and laying them in the bottom of the dish, cut side down.
Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat and add onion and garlic, cook, stirring for 3 minutes then add mushrooms and spices.
Add lemon juice and wine.
Cook, stirring frequently, for 3 – 5 minutes more.
Remove from heat and stir in bread crumbs.
Spoon mushroom mixture evenly over artichokes.
Bake uncovered in a medium oven for 30 minutes.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, July 2, 2007 1 Comments

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