I spoke too soon when I told anonymous that we didn't have tomato blight. When we saw Duncan yesterday, he said he thought the tomatoes had got blight – sure enough when we got to the plot today, every tomato plant was dark, with blotches on the leaves and the stems, and the fruit had light brown bruise-type marks too. When I got into the tomato bed itself, I saw that many of the fruit had fallen and were greenish-brown. Now I knew they were probably planted too close together and I knew that we hadn't been taking out side-shoots as often as we should have done because we've been busy - so guilt hit me like a large shovel landing in my midriff.
So most of today was spent cutting through the stems of tomato plants and folding deep brown wilted leaves into bin bags. Then I had to gather up all the fallen fruit and bag them too, and finally dig up the stumps. I felt like a failure, a tomato murderer, an allotment monster.
Then I saw Sue – with a punnet of the most glorious tomatoes of all shapes and sizes and colours and she told me that her allotment had got tomato blight too. And that was terrible news and I was very sorry for her, but there was a tiny ray of happiness deep in my heart, because if as good a tomato gardener as Sue could get blight, then perhaps it wasn’t entirely my fault and I wasn’t a tomato murderer or allotment monster after all!
French allotments encore!
Okay, so what do the French think of British allotments? They think we are very poor gardeners! Seriously, my afternoon talking to the veg growers of the Aude region produced the information that the British not only can’t cook, they can’t grow either. The elderly ladies and gents who told me this had three pieces of evidence for their beliefs:
• The British who live in France buy their seeds in supermarkets instead of saving them from the previous year’s crop
• They dig up small family vineyards and lay grass for their children and dogs to play on
• They turn root cellars into games rooms, under-house garages or bathrooms.
I found it very difficult to argue with any of this! I’ve no doubt that most Brits in France don’t buy ALL their seeds in supermarkets but do a lot of purchasing by mail order (as I had a packet of pepper seeds from the Carrefour supermarket in my bag at that very moment I felt rather guilty, but hey, they were half the price of the same seed in England!), and I’m absolutely certain that most of us, presented with a vineyard the size of a tablecloth and a complex set of rules for cooperative wine production, would prefer a bit of lawn. Equally, unless you know what a root cellar is, you probably do think it’s a dark bit of wasted space in your newly purchased home.
But I don’t think we’re as bad as we’re painted. I argued that everybody I could see in the jardins ouvriers was at least seventy, while on my allotment site we had vegetable growers in their early twenties, their thirties, forties and fifties too, not just retired folk. I explained that perhaps French allotment holders would find our system complicated to understand and opt for growing what they were used to at home, rather than parsnips and other British favourites. I don’t think I convinced anyone, but it was a fascinating discussion, the outcome of which was to persuade me that this year, to keep faith with the French, I must harvest my own seed for next year …
Allotment plans for winter
What happens when you have great ideas and very little information? You guess. Duncan mentioned that he wants to grown onions and garlic over the winter. Sounds good to me! But …
Have you ever tried to find out the real nitty-gritty on overwintering onions? No, I didn’t think so. Because nitty-gritty there is not much of!
Here’s what I’ve found out:
• You can plant onion seed in the autumn for overwintering
• There is a risk of bolting
• You need to protect it with fleece through the winter
• There’s a Blue Peter style way of sowing onion seed with strips of newspaper and glue that looks like so much fun it should be legislated against
• Garlic needs cold to germinate (really? I planted mine late in May and it’s germinated just fine – perhaps I’m lucky?)
The Royal Horticultural Society came up trumps with facts, but not with details – to whit: Onions are biennial, grown from seed they produce foliage in their first season, overwinter as a bulb, and then flower and die the following year. It is the cold winter temperatures that initiate flowering, and problems can occur when fluctuating temperatures trick the plant into thinking that it has experienced a winter chill when this is not the case. Onions only become receptive to winter chilling once they are a certain size. Consequently careful manipulation of sowing and planting dates lessens bolting. For example, by sowing seeds of overwintering onions in August resulting plants are large enough to survive winter cold, but small enough to be insensitive to chilling.
Ah ha – but …
• Which varieties?
• Will simple fleece cloches work as protection?
• How close can the rows be?
• Do they need winter watering?
Well, I think we’re going to find out – I’m ordering the seeds this week … watch this space (or rather, peer under this cloche) for future developments!
Curry, National Allotment Week, August sowings
Well the curry was good – not superb but definitely good. Since then I’ve tried the Green & Black’s courgette cake, which IS superb and been introduced to the sneaky world of ‘extending’ meat.
Sounds very dubious doesn’t it? But our grandmothers knew that meat was the most expensive part of any meal, so they worked out many sneaky ways of stretching the meat to make it seem like more to the hungry mouths around their tables. One way was to grate vegetables and mix them with minced meat … and I have discovered that if you grate some peeled overgrown courgette into beef mince, it makes a very nice moist cottage pie and nobody is any the wiser!
But back to allotmenteering – did you notice National Allotment Week? No, nor did I. It’s a shame not more is done to celebrate allotments on a national scale, I think. Perhaps next year we could have a blogfest for National Allotment Week, with each of us showcasing our allotment site – what do you think? We celebrated in style, if very locally, because Duncan’s shed arrived! It’s got to be wood-preserved before it goes up to the allotment (my job, as I love painting wood) and we’ve also got to clear the ground and put down some kind of hardstanding but it feels great to know that we’re about to set up our very own (well, Duncan’s very own) shed.
Seeds I’m planning to plant this month:
• Mustard greens – because they are hardy and keep producing new leaves, assuming you harvest them regularly, even in terrible weather
• Kale - to overwinter in a polytunnel because that way we’ll get for delicious green stuff through until next spring
• Winter radish - for soups, stews and stir-fries
Okay, I’m showing off a bit. The last of the sweetpeas were needing to be picked and having picked them, I couldn’t resist harvesting a twilight purple kohlrabi to set alongside them and then the green table begged to be a setting … very arty, I hope you agree.
So, back to the adventures with kohlrabi – I wasn’t thrilled by the flavour in a casserole, so I tried it in a coleslaw, as suggested by plot-holder Duncan. That was better but still not exactly thrilling, so finally I cut this kohlrabi into chunks, sprinkled it with garlic, herbes de provence and salt and roasted it in olive oil with carrots, potatoes and peppers: superb! Since then we’ve also tried kohlrabi oven chips (like potato chips but oven roasted, well sprinkled with black pepper and chili flakes) which were just as good.
As I’m spending most of my weekends digging over the bottom of the allotment so that we can use it for root crops this year (we have no idea when it was last planted, it has turned into a impressive jungle of weeds and even a weekly digging only reduces it to a wasteland, rather than an outright jungle) I’ve got a healthy appetite for the vegetables we harvest. This weekend I’ve got to deal with two giant courgettes – very nearly marrow sized – and they are not my favourite vegetable but I’m determined to find a similarly superb recipe to make them a family favourite. Tonight I’m trying the first one in a coconut milk curry with chickpeas … I wonder if that is going to be the answer?
Allotments – a la francais
As promised, French allotments! I was lucky enough to meet a group while I was in Castelnaudary who are more or less what you could call an allotment association, although they are nothing like what we call one.
To understand French vegetable growing for the kitchen, you have to understand something about French inheritance laws. It was once the case that any land owned by a father was divided equally between his children. This meant that farms were constantly subdivided, and sold back and forth between siblings if they wanted to keep the land together. In towns, something different happened. Where land surrounded a house (which often also had outbuildings and stables) it also was divided between children. As the land was built on and new houses encroached on the divided garden, many people ended up with a separate garden, sometimes on the other side of the road! These small gardens in isolated areas between houses are often mistaken for allotments by English visitors. The true French allotment or jardin ouvrier (workers garden) dates from 1896 when they were set up to give factory workers ‘a taste of nature’ – isn’t that nice? Anyway, like our own allotments they fell in number. There were around 800,000 at the end of the second world war but by the 1970s only 150,000 were still in existence. Now they are on the rise again.
This photo is of a jardin non-attenant – or detached garden, of the first kind, which is owned partly by the houses that back onto it, and partly by the houses on the other side of the road. As you can see, it fronts a river, and there are some ingenious systems in use to raise river water by pump siphons to irrigate the land. Other than that, it looks just like an allotment to me!
Never trust an allotment
If you turn your back on an allotment for ten minutes, this is what happens – weeds! It’s actually a little bit more than ten minutes, but not more than a week, since we were up weeding and digging, but I have to be honest, there’s been so much else to do, that we’ve sort of ‘ignored’ the bed down the bottom of the allotment that hasn’t been used this year. ‘It’s lying fallow,’ we told ourselves.
Well not any more it’s not! It was obvious when we got up there on Sunday that is was a potent source of vile annual and perennial weeds and just about ready to cast its ripe cargo of seeds in all directions, which wouldn’t make us popular with the neighbours. I also knew that letters had been sent out in the past couple of weeks to allotment holders who weren’t ‘keeping their plots in cultivation’ and while there was no threat of us being told we weren’t a busy and productive plot, I felt a sudden and terrible guilt that we weren’t pulling our weight after Duncan was good enough to take us on as co-workers. So we went and we dug!
I was reminded, while I dug, that in France, allotment holders in some areas are allowed to ‘rent’ a young person doing community service for a certain number of hours heavy digging. Wish we could do that here!
The alien on the allotment
Well actually, it’s Duncan’s kohlrabi!
It’s a fast-maturing brassica that (apparently) can be sown as a catch-crop or inter-crop. The white and green varieties can be sown between March and June and for a late autumn or winter crop the purple variety can be sown during July or August – we didn’t know this, so we sowed white and purple together and they’ve both matured at once – go figure!
They need plenty of water in dry weather to prevent woody roots but because they are fast growing they don’t suffer from disease as much as slower relatives.
Kohlrabi taste best when the swollen bulbs are about tennis-ball sized because they get woody if left any longer. But with successional sowing plants can be harvested until mid-December.
Kohlrabi leaves are popular with rabbits and guinea pigs and have a similar nutritional value to cabbage leaves.
We didn’t plant any corn this year, and I’ve got to be honest, I have a real sense that this is some kind of grown-up specialist crop that relative allotment novices like us shouldn’t be growing – does that make any sense?
Anyway, I’ve been peering and peeking around the site, to see how other people are growing sweetcorn and it’s obvious that it’s not a crop that really loves the strong Sussex winds (locals call them breezes, I call them gales, but we can compromise on winds) that buffet the allotment site. But it’s also obvious that some people have got the sweetcorn growing gene, and produce oodles of the stuff, even using sucessional sowing to get early and late crops. I love sweetcorn and think the supermarket prices are just daft, I’m definitely going to have to give it a go next year. But that means we really, really, really have to get some fences up so that we can shelter this tall crop.
The couple of allotmenteers that were using the Three Sisters method don’t seem to have had much success, but I can’t work out why – it seems that their squashes probably got away faster than their corn and smothered the growth: that’s how it looks, anyway. I shall have to think long and hard about this … anybody care to share sweetcorn raising tips?
Birds are a nuisance. Lovely, but a nuisance, a bit like toddlers and puppies that haven’t been house-trained. And the birds have suddenly discovered that our allotment, which had been fallow for a couple of years, is full of goodies. So I started looking around for bird-friendly but effective bird prevention devices (we can’t afford a fruit cage this year, and anyway, we’d also need a broccoli cage and a cabbage cage and … etc).
And out of the blue, Santa web arrives! Actually, it’s called Scaraweb, and it’s been donated to us by a kind neighbour who ‘didn’t get on with it’ (her words). I can sort of see why she might not. While it is a lovely Santa’s beard kind of article in the packet, when you tease out the strands and spread it over the plants in question (as shown on the packet illustration) it does look rather as if your vegetable plot has been invaded by a giant spider or maybe a mutant silkworm. Anyway, it’s free and I’m keen to see how it works. I’m expecting snide comments and head-shaking from some other plotholders who aren’t in favour of these modern developments. I’m also nervous about the wind … we do get something close to gale force winds in spring and autumn and I’m rather worried that I’m going to go up to the allotment one morning to find it denuded of silky white webbing, and the allotment fence looking as if a giant Santa has collided with it!
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