Today it has rained and rained and rained. As a result, I have spent the day potting (and pottering) and repotting and sowing and organising … I am much inspired by Alex Mitchell’s blog (and hoping to get her fabulous book, very soon) as it speaks to me clearly about the muddle that is my garden and my messy, complicated, neglected new allotment - and what it says is that I need to think differently. A lot of my ground at the allotment just isn’t fit for growing fruit and vegetables and the garden is being completely revamped to become more of an edible landscape, because there were just too many times last year that an ingredient I wanted for a particular recipe was on the plot and I didn’t have time to go and get it.
Sooooo … my windowsills are packed with seed pots that will germinate soon I hope, then the seedlings get potted on and either go into the greenhouse (tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, peppers) or go straight into the ground (kale, lettuce, peas) and I love to look at them as I wander into the kitchen for a cup of tea, and see their progress over the hours, let alone the days. Makes it all worthwhile, somehow.
Sunday was pea planting day. OH had already been up to the plot on the Saturday and put up the posts for the first four lines of peas with one of his awesome roll-up paths in between.
The paths are made of old wood, cut to length, painted and then stapled to some weed-suppressing membrane to make a kind of wooden carpet runner. This path is painted sage green, it’s a bit ‘luck of the draw’ what colour they end up, it’s the first tin out of the cupboard that gets used.
So while OH dug another area of grassland to turn it (eventually) into productive soil, it was my job to plant the pea seedlings. We sow three peas per pot and we make the pots out of old newspaper, as anybody who’s read my book will know. This row took over 225 peas and I didn’t have quite enough to finish the fourth row, so I need to go back up in the week and plant some more.
They look pretty good though – we’re hoping for a record harvest this year!
We don’t sow our peas directly in the soil as we have an issue with mice eating them before they can germinate. Once they start to grow, the mice don’t bother with them, because the seed uses up all the tasty sugars very quickly in growing its stem and first leaves, so they become much less attractive to dig up and consume.
Allotment duties: from author to labourer in 24 hours
I spent the whole of Tuesday in a pair of cotton gloves, pointing at things, so that my beautiful manicure (nail colour was called Black Cherry Chutney, how apt!) wouldn’t get ruined. By the evening, when I got into my vintage dress and green flowery shoes, I was a nervous wreck.
I needn’t have worried – 72 wonderful people turned up, ate chutney, drank wine, wrote limericks, created vegetable portraits and laughed at the funny bit I read aloud. Then they enjoyed my mother’s fabulous apple cake, cleaned up after themselves and went home, allowing me to collapse in a heap.
On Wednesday, fortified by the idea that I really am an author now, and with the photos from West Dean’s kitchen garden in my camera for reference purposes, I decided to tackle the gnarly old fuchsia on plot #103. It’s a beautiful tree, but it should be a shrub. It’s also old and has crossing branches and generally needs to be given a chance to grow again.
West Dean has a marvellous kitchen garden, where there are many examples of tree pruning (mainly fruit trees, of course) to whet the appetite of a secateur-wielding novice. I particularly liked the pyramidal form, but our fuchsia has already been shaped to be a bit more like a cordon so that was the direction I had to take.
I was worried about doing it now, but my choice is now or wait a whole summer, so I decided that the tree had to be more serviceable as it shades nearly a third of the allotment in its current state and that can’t be allowed. My confidence was also boosted by having seen the 150 year old fig at West Dean which had also been neglected and has now been brought back into a productive and attractive form by clever pruning. I took out some height and width and several of the crossing branches to open the centre of the plant out and prevent further congestion – I also removed three dead branches that were covered in lichen, and took out some base shoots that had obviously emerged last year but hadn’t been seen because the undergrowth around them was so jungly.
So with my manicure in tatters, my face and arms scratched by branches and my legs torn to shreds by brambles, I stood back and reflected on my somewhat improved fuchsia … only to see somebody who had been at the launch walk past and totally fail to recognise this scarecrow of a woman as the well-groomed author they’d spoken to the day before!
Growing veg when it rains ...
... and rains, and rains.
Today it has been too wet to get outside, even to the greenhouse, but fortunately I'd brought in some potting compost so that I could pot up really tender seeds in the house.
You can see the labels for my chillies, aubergines and tomatoes (there are actually three different tomato seedling pots, so I stuck it in one at random) and in ten days or so I shall start another lot of the same seeds off so that we have a fall back if anything happens to these. We want two of each plant, at most, so I sow about four seed and transplant the second strongest from each sowing after thinning out the two weakest. This means that we have one seedling growing in the original pot and one transplanted to another biodegradable pot meaning four seedlings from the two sowings, so I give away the overstocks when they are about 15cm tall.
I've had quite a bit of interest in the plant labels, so I'm giving away a set at the launch for Minding My Peas and Cucumbers, which, just to remind you, is 18:30 to 12:30, 22 March, West Blatchington Windmill, Hove, Sussex. There will be a chutney tasting from my homemade pots and Smy Chutney's superb relishes and delicious wine from Barefoot Wines as well as the chance to win a strawberry planter like the one on plot #103!
Allotment paths, raised beds and broad bean update
We’ve moved three raised beds from plot # 201 to plot #103 in preparation for giving up our old plot once our purple sprouting broccoli is over. Two have been resettled in their new (temporary) locations – one will be for parsnips and the other will be for leeks, and the third, which is still standing on end on a patch of undug ground at the top of the plot, will be for summer squash once we’ve dug and levelled and manured the soil where it is to be laid down. These are the beds that OH made from old decking which somebody was throwing out. There’s a long pointed stake in each corner of each bed, so that we can hammer them into the ground and be sure they will be stable. On plot #201 they were all different colours because we used up all the pots of paint that we had kicking around the garage, but on plot #103 I think they’re going to be green, green, green and green, as all we seem to have left is green paint.
The reason we didn’t get round to putting down the third bed is that the council had dropped off a huge pile of chippings and we wanted to grab as many as we could to make a path. The chippings are made from old Christmas trees and have a glorious pine fragrance but this batch, at least are pretty rough and you wouldn’t want to use them as mulch, because there are six to eight inch chunks of pine stem in amongst the finer litter. It’s an ideal material for paths though, as you can see.
We have a lovely circular path now, around our fleece-covered circular strawberry bed. It looks great!
And I had to run back up to the plot today, to correct something we’d left undone on Sunday. We lifted the glass from our broad beans, because the leaves were actually starting to push against their glass lids, and then I remembered (at ten o’clock at night) that last year, on plot #201, the birds took the tops out of all our late germinating broad beans and they could do the same this year! Admittedly, plot #201 is surrounded by trees in which the pigeons sit and watch us work, while plot #103 isn’t, and has instead a resident blackbird pair and a robin and possibly a wren. Anyway, when I got back up there at ten o’clock in the morning on Monday no beans had been pecked to bits, but to be on the safe side, I used some of the holly and a lot of the horrible overhanging elder that we’ve been trimming back, to make it impossible for the birds to fly in and land between the beans which is what they need to do to then be able to peck off the tender green growth.
All in all, plot #103 is actually starting to look like an allotment at last and that’s exciting.
Chilli update and raspberry joy
On the last day of February I took a photograph of my overwintering Royal Black chillies, just to show how they are getting on. As you can see, they are producing beautiful mauve flowers, while the unripe black chillies are nice and fat and the fully ripe fire-engine red ones are harvestable and fiery. Not bad for a single stem, eh?
Of course the chillies are very small – about as big as the top joint of my little finger - so you need quite a few. They look beautiful in the house too, so you’ve got beauty, taste and productivity all in one.
In the greenhouse I have eight Royal Black chilli seedlings, most of which I will give away over the course of the year, and on the kitchen windowsill there are two more, which are insurance in case the greenhouse blows away or something. Two of these seedlings will come into the house again in October, to replace the ones that are currently there, so that they can be overwintered and produce chillies all through the cold winter months.
And when I got to the plot on Sunday, I was equally delighted to see that the raspberry canes we transplanted in November are putting out starfish-like leaves at ground level, which suggests they are happy with their new home, although we don’t expect them to be very productive this year.
Also, after being interviewed by 15 local radio stations about the publication of "Minding My Peas and Cucumbers", yesterday, I have entirely lost my voice!
Purple Sprouting Broccoli haul and recipe
There was just enough light for me to grab a few photos of my trip to the allotment at around dusk yesterday.
The purple sprouting broccoli that OH was panicking about a fortnight ago has just come good – it looks and tastes splendid and even the overstock psb that we planted outside the brassica cage has managed to survive the attacks of the pigeons and produce a few florets. The best of the crop is inside the cage though.
We also dug up the very last of the parsnips, some of them rather frostbitten, lifted several leeks and cut some kale.
There are quite a few recipes for purple sprouting broccoli, but one of our favourites is to make a version of cauliflower cheese that takes just a few minutes and is utterly delicious when the psb is fresh and tender.
Ingredients (for two)
• A little butter
• 200 grams taleggio cheese, chopped
• 50 grams cream cheese
• 50 grams grated parmesan
• 1 ball mozzarella, diced
• 40 ml milk
• A good handful of purple sprouting broccoli each
• Fresh winter herbs (a little sage, some thyme and a sprig of rosemary, finely chopped together)
Preheat your oven to 200ºC/400ºF/gas 6.
Steam the psb over some boiling water for 5 minutes and drain in a colander with the saucepan lid over the top to keep the heat in.
Heat the butter in the drained pan and when it starts to fizz, throw in the herbs and swirl until they are fragrant. Lower the heat to the minimum and pour in the milk, along with the cream cheese, the taleggio and half the parmesan. Stir until the cheeses start to melt and blend and then raise the heat to medium and add the psb, continuing to stir gently to make a fantastic sauce. Add a little more milk if necessary.
Season with black pepper and then pour into a lightly greased casserole. Lay the mozzarella over the top, mix the remaining Parmesan with the breadcrumbs and sprinkle over the top.
Bake in the oven for around ten minutes and serve with pork or pour into a big baked potato to make a delicious molten filling.
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