The end of the season ...
Tiny little peppers like these, that turn up at the end of the season when the parent plant is about to head into death or dormancy, don’t seem to be good for a lot – in fact I see gardeners and allotment holders tear up pepper plants at this time of year and throw them away, baby peppers and all, and it’s such a waste! My favourite recipe for using up miniature peppers is this hearty Italian soup.
500 g minced beef
1 clove fresh garlic
2 tins of chopped tomatoes
2 large or a good handful of little green peppers, chopped
1 large chopped red onion
A good handful of green beans, cut into short lengths
1 really good stock beef stock cube in 600 ml water or home-made stock
200 g cooked rice (preferably wholegrain)
Freshly ground pepper, fresh basil leaves if you’ve got them, dried mixed Mediterranean herbs if not, a bay leaf and whatever other fresh herbs particularly appeal to you …
Brown the beef in a frying pan with the (minced) garlic and onion. Now simply add the remaining ingredients, except the rice. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer for around minutes, or until peppers and onions are tender - you might feel you need to add some more water towards the end of the cooking time. Add rice. Heat thoroughly and serve.
Shed aesthetics – the name’s the thing
Have you named your allotment shed? This is one of those issues that seems to divide allotment owners pretty evenly in two, with half thinking that not naming a shed would be like not naming a dog, and the other half thinking that such behaviour is twee and rather suspect.
It’s odd, one of those cultural behaviours that is entirely British and eccentric. I can’t imagine people in France ever stopping to consider if they should give their shed a moniker, can you? I haven’t ever named a shed, but if I did, this would be the name I’d choose. And it’s a bit like the issue of plot numbers; another cultural practice that varies from place to place and yet has quite clear conventions.
A lot of the plots on my allotment site have number-plate numbers. That is, they’ve gone down to the local number-plate maker and had their plot number stuck to a yellow car number-plate in black numerals. Just a mile away, all the plot numbers are painted on bits of wood and over in the next county, plot numbers are displayed vertically on the gate-post – they might be plastic numbers nailed on, or painted numbers, but they are on the post, not put up as a separate sign.
In Dorset I know of an allotment site where most of the numbers are done in pokerwork on slices of tree trunk – presumably there’s a resident poker-worker and tree-feller who does great business, and in Yorkshire there’s at least one local council that provides plastic laminated plot numbers (for a fee, presumably).
All fascinating stuff – perhaps I should write a thesis …
Allotment holders march and protest
Upset former allotment owners were threatened with removal from a Test Valley Borough Council planning meeting after their protests and sign-waving interrupted proceedings. The protesters were making a stand against the council's actions in persuading them to give up their plots near King George Road claiming they were given no choice in the matter. Councillors at the meeting approved the decision to build 14 houses on the site which was described as no longer suitable to provide allotment plots' in a report, a claim which was strongly denied by former allotment owners. Marie Dyke, speaking before the meeting, said that she and her husband Brian were ‘gobsmacked' at the council's actions towards them and other plot owners. She said: "It's absolute rubbish that the ground's not good enough. We were told by the local authority that we had to move, there was no choice. The only choice we were given was that we could move last year and get £500 compensation or this year and there would be nothing."
Council leader, Cllr Ian Carr told the meeting that although there was a waiting list of 119 for allotments in Andover there were also a lot of uncultivated plots dotted around the town which the council was looking to bring back into use. It was also pointed that some of the proceeds from the King George Road site would go towards funding other allotments in the town.
Elsewhere, allotment holders who are being evicted to make way for the Olympic Park in east London have staged a final protest against the development. Gardeners from the Manor Garden allotments marched from Hackney Town Hall to the Olympic Park gates after packing up their tools on Sunday. The workers said they were demonstrating their “disquiet and distrust of the promised benefits the Olympics are claimed to bring.” The plot holders are being moved to a temporary site, but have been told they can return to Hackney Wick when the Games are over.
When did you last see your winter cabbages?
Sown outdoors in a seed bed from late April to mid May, these look like the difference between famine and feast to the winter allotment gardener, and what a fine crop my allotment neighbour has (I’d love to pretend they are mine, but everybody knows they’re not!)
Pick an areas where the adult plants will be unshaded or in some sun, and where the ground is rich and moisture retentive but not freshly manured. Cabbages require well-consolidated soil, so leave several months between digging and planting and always, always, always avoid planting in an area where the previous crop was of the brassica family.
Sow seeds very thinly in drills half an inch deep with rows five to six inches apart. As they grow, thin seedling to about three inches apart, keeping the strongest.
Once they have five or six leaves, in July, transplant them to the final growing position, setting them slightly deeper than they were in the seed bed in rows about twelve inches apart and with about the same distance between plants.
Protect the seedlings from sparrows!
Hoe carefully until the crop is large enough to suppress weeds so you don’t loosen the root system
During winter firm down any plants loosened by wind or frost
You may need to cover plants overnight if they remain in the ground after November
Time from sowing to harvest is anything from twenty to thirty-five weeks.
September plots – what’s going on?
Well, if you had the kind of night we had last night, frost is going on! Autumn has come in with a vengeance, hasn’t it?
Assuming you’ve got your winter greens into the ground already (we’ve got ruby chard coming up nicely, although it had to be covered with bubble wrap last night) then you can still be thinking about sowing winter lettuces such as Arctic King and winter hardy spring onions (also called winter hardy salad onions) and, of course, thinking about broadcasting a green manure to enrich your soil and prevent weed growth over the winter. Come early spring, you simply dig in your green manure and let it rot into the ground for a couple of weeks before spring vegetable sowing.
Some people are setting out spring cabbage plants now and even garlic in suitably sheltered areas.
It’s hardly worth feeding most of the veg now, as everything will be heading for dormancy, although liquid feeds are still important for tomatoes, peppers, chilis and cucumbers. Squashes and pumpkins will be slowing their growth now – they respond to frost (even if it doesn’t touch them) by becoming dormant, so watch the stems and as they start to slim down (meaning the plant is no longer feeding the fruit) cut through and move your squashes and pumpkins to a cool airy and above all dry place to store.
Compost bins can be emptied out now, spreading the stuff that’s ready onto your plot and piling the partially rotted stuff back into the bin.
More allotment news
Just to show that I'm not partisan, good news from the other end of the country.
The Wintles is one of Britain's newest housing schemes - in Shropshire. It has put allotments and a village green at the core of its design, to try and encourage neighbourliness and an environmentally-friendly lifestyle.
The green hosts a midsummer's night picnic, a petanque contest in July, and a Christmas morning drinks party around a communal Christmas tree. Because there are no cars around the green, children can play there safely, people take out their babies and the adults chat encouraging cross-generation relationships.
The Wintles are a development of around forty homes, built with local materials and positioned so they face each other around the green. The houses are all fitted with solar panels, have triple-glazing, wood-burning stoves, under-floor heating and LPG gas boilers. But Bob Tomlinson, who runs the Living Villages company behind the development, says the village green might be the best eco-friendly feature of the lot.
"A substantial amount of the green is given over to allotment space so people grow their own food. That means they don't travel for their food but end up with high-quality, low-cost produce. That does more for the environment than many of the high-tech gadgets we're concerned about these days," he says.
It's a similar story at many new developments these days, where eco-minded developers are creating village greens, allotments and even woodlands in the heart of their housing schemes. More than a hundred have been created in England alone in the past decade, says the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Whoo and hoo – this is great news!
It’s trumpet blowing time in Brighton and Hove where The Moulsecoomb Forest Garden and Wildlife Project has been voted the best community allotment project in the UK.
The award was given by the Kitchen Garden Magazine in conjunction with the National Allotment Gardens Trust.
Moulsecoomb Forest Garden and Wildlife Project is a community food project based on 8 allotment plots in Brighton. The project offers horticultural, educational and social opportunities. But these aren’t your run of the mill allotments.
Along with plots growing organic fruit and vegetables there are wildlife areas with a pond full of newts and frogs, a treehouse/outdoor classroom being built by youth offenders and pupils from the Alternative Centre for Education; a polytunnel, compost loo, firepit and a children’s space including a wattle and daub wendy house. There’s also a forest garden, which recreates the different layers of a forest from tall fruit trees to fruit bushes and herbs.
Kitchen Gardener editor Steve Ott said: “This is a wonderful project, working with some of the areas most disadvantaged and troubled youngsters to give them the chance to get their hands into the soil, grow and taste their own fresh vegetables, and just to have a positive environment in which to interact.”
Warren Carter of MFG said “For many pupils and youth offenders school has failed them. We just try and find the skills they are good at and give them confidence and self belief. We offer an alternative curriculum, teaching not just gardening but building and carpentry skills, woodland management and cooking skills. The allotments are also a great place for a wide range of people who would never usually mix to socialise around a fire and cup of tea, becoming part of the social glue that binds communities together.”
To find out more about the work of the garden go to www.seedybusiness.org
MFG photograph by Simon Tobbit used under a creative commons attribution licence
Having grown your cauliflower - what do you do with it?
Cauliflower cheese of course, and cauliflower as a side vegetable, but if you’re running out of ideas by now, and having a bit of a cauli glut, here’s a recipe I can highly recommend. Cauliflower soup.
Okay, it doesn’t thrill on first reading and – to be perfectly honest – most cauliflower soup recipes smell like something dreamt up by the worst school dinner lady ever, and taste quite revolting. This one though, is a real winter warmer; it’s filling and luxurious and while it can smell pretty horrible while cooking, the answer to this is to grab a handful of parsley and throw it in a little pan of water, bringing it to a fast boil for three or four minutes after the soup has finished cooking – just as parsley purifies the breath, so it purifies the air …
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 large cauliflower
900ml water or low salt vegetable stock
50g mature Cheddar or Wensleydale cheese grated
50ml double cream
Rosemary oil for decoration
1 - Heat the butter in a large pan. Add the bay leaf onion and garlic and leave to cook on a medium heat until translucent.
2 - Whilst they are cooking, chop the cauliflower as finely as possible – I slice it with a knife and then use a curved herb blade - then add it to the onions and pour in the water or stock Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat and simmer for about thirty minutes.
3 - When the cauliflower is tender, stir the mixture, then taste the soup and sprinkle in your cheese, giving it a few moments to combine before tasting and adjusting the seasoning if necessary.
4 - Now pour the soup and the cream into a liquidiser and process it until it is velvety smooth – a food processor will leave it grainy so if a food processor is all you have, just process and then put the soup through a large sieve to remove all the bits – it’s not quite as good but nearly. Reheat gently if required and serve with a splash of rosemary oil in the middle (if you don’t infuse your own herb oils you can buy them in posh cookshops!)
Not a lot of people know this, but there are actually two sorts of cauli – Winter cauliflowers used to be called ‘heading broccoli’ which explains the difference, they weren’t developed from summer cauliflower but from hardy sprouting broccoli. There are many crosses between the two which give curds (or heads) like summer broccoli but will survive a moderate British winter. The way to tell the difference by eye (and it takes practice) is that they hybrids and winter cauli will probably rise to more of a point, while the true or summer cauliflower is a perfect hemisphere or half-ball shape.
To grow winter cauliflower you need to either protect them or live in a mild climate in the UK. There are advantages to growing them in winter, notably that the don’t get the caterpillar and slug infestations that happens with the summer varieties unless you’re very lucky. The bad news is that cauliflower can be bloody difficult beasts – they will only form heads in a deep rich soil, they need regular feeding and definitely watering and if they get a frost that slows their growth then they may not set heads at all.
Sow seeds in drills, six inches apart, and if there is any risk of a frost, protect by covering them.
When the seedlings have five or six leaves you can transplant them to their permanent homes, giving them a good watering the night before so they lift easily. Set them thirty inches apart and protect them from autumn birds which are more of a pest than you’d believe on seedling cauliflower (at least they are round here!). Use canes and string or a bit of mesh to foil their evil ways.
Cover the plants if there is a frost risk. When you have harvested a curd, lift the stem and dispose of it, do not compost because brassica diseases do not get destroyed in composting.
Allotments in the News
So it was National Allotments week 13 to 19 August. Did you notice? I’ve got to say, I didn’t. Didn’t hear a thing about it, until it was all over and somebody emailed me to ask why I hadn’t mentioned it on the blog, and the answer is simple – I didn’t know! I think there’s a communication gap somewhere …
In other news:
Gardeners who want to grow their own vegetables are being forced to accept allotments a quarter of the normal size because of a surge in popularity. Rising interest has led councils to divide land set aside for plots into patches measuring 75 sq yards in an attempt to reduce spiralling waiting lists.
Local authorities are under growing pressure to ensure they meet statutory obligations to provide 15 allotments per 1,000 households. Strict rules also mean that no more than six people are allowed to be waiting for a plot at any one time. But there are fears that smaller allotments could create tension because growers will be crammed together.
I can see both sides - on the one hand, a whole allotment is a big commitment unless you are already an avid vegetable gardener or retired. On the other hand, tiny plots soon become restrictive and frustrating, and not being able to rotate crops properly will lead to more diseased soil and transfer of disease and pests. Whichever way a council jumps, the growing desire for allotments is surely a healthy sign?
And in Edinburgh, residents hoping for plots at some of the city's allotments face a wait of up to seven years. Local gardeners are calling for the city council to provide more sites after a new study revealed the waiting list has topped 1000 – in a city which has only 1400 plots!
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