Autumn Allotments

It’s definitely autumn now – the thornless blackberry is always the earliest precursor of the change of weather, so despite the fact that the weather is tropical, the day length is what triggers plants into leaf change. It’s actually still a debate of high scientific interest especially as to why some ‘bred’ trees have a different colour change pattern to their ‘wild’ relatives.

Autumn is also pumpkin weather. This week I made a pumpkin curry with one of our unnamed seed swap pumpkins grown from seed, plus a baby cauliflower, some frozen broad beans instead of green beans, loads of glut tomatoes and one of our onions. The result … pretty meh, to be honest. We were not thrilled with it, even though I got the recipe from the Good Food Channel.

I love it when I can cook a meal entirely from home-grown vegetables but if it doesn’t taste fantastic it seems like a waste of our efforts. The pumpkin may not have been fully cured: it was orange but maybe it needed longer (the closest I can come to a variety is the American Long Pie Pumpkin which is most closely resembles) although we’d hacked open our first Turk’s Turban a week earlier and it was utterly delicious.

So I am happy to say that this recipe—quite average tasting as a curry—turned out to be utterly fantastic the next day when whizzed in the blender with water and a tablespoon of mushroom ketchup, and turned into a curried pumpkin soup!

We have two more of the elongated pumpkins to use up, so I may put them in a warm place for a month or so to see if their flavour develops further, but if the next one is equally uninspiring, I can at least look forward to some very good spicy soups this winter!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, September 29, 2011 1 Comments

Overwintering onions

It sometimes seems as if allotment life is relentless.

No sooner have we cleared an area so that we can see some bare soil, than it’s time to plant again. The peas and beans are out, the overwintering onions are ready to go in. We are delaying planting our Japanese overwintering onions (Senshyu Yellow) and our Electric red overwintering onions until mid October, in an attempt to stop them getting too lush to early and then having their growth nipped back by a heavy frost. I think this is what caused some of our onions to develop a little rot this year.

We also have Kelsae onion seeds to sow in December. These are the exhibition onions that are supposed to grow to mammoth sizes – people on our site certainly had some big onions with this seed this year, so we’re hoping we’ll do well too.

Whether it’s seed or sets, onions need a well-drained soil with a fine tilth. We’re putting most of our sets into raised beds this year, so that we can keep the birds off them. First we’ll rake the surface and then sprinkle some granular fertiliser to improve the soil fertility. The sets are sown around 15cm apart and the rows around 30cm apart. When they’re in place we cover the beds with this year’s sweet pea netting which is a little bit holey but works fine to keep birds off the sets until they have put down roots and sprouted a bit, which seems to immediately make them less interesting to the pigeons, at which point we can remove the net and peg it over the open ground where we’ll be sowing the Kelsae seed around the winter solstice.

The only thing that onions really need, apart from protection from birds, is weeding. They usually do fine without even watering, but onions are easily swamped by weeds.

It's all a step up from last year's onions, bought in a 99p shop and with instructions written in an unknown language (maybe Russian) but which produced large, juicy white onions even so ...

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Tuesday, September 27, 2011 2 Comments

Grow You Own Food book review

Richard Gianfrancesco is a writer for Which? Gardening so he knows his stuff. I tend to test allotment type books by what they don’t include and Richard really covers the ground (in every sense of the word, and I promise that’s the last pun I’ll use today) which is refreshing in a period where most books seem to suggest that growing food is a bit like shopping for food – a clean and tidy consumer experience that involves little more than picking things out of the ground. Not so, or at least not in my experience!

I absolutely fell in love with this book for three key reasons: the section on nuts, which are rarely mentioned in any book and yet which were once a key feature of our landscape, and our diet; the section on soft fruit which has good and simple pruning instructions as well as excellent information on where to site all kinds of fruit; the herb section includes some of those herbs that I grow that I’ve hardly ever seen mentioned in the average book, such as lovage and chervil, which are really valuable in addition to our native foods but which have fallen out favour. For those three areas alone, this book is worth the purchase price.

My concern about Grow Your Own Food is one that I’m having increasingly with gardening books generally – the size and structure of this book makes it almost impossible to have to hand when you’re actually working: it’s just a bit too big to carry around and it has one of those spines that stops it lying flat when opened, so the pages tend to flip around a bit. This is a great shame because for new growers, the pages that show how to undertake unusual tasks (planting out asparagus crowns, staking raspberries etc) are very useful, except for the fact that the photographs run across a double page and the book is big so you need a big area to lay it down. I can imagine the scenario of hanging onto a whippy raspberry with one hand and a stake with the other and then the page flipping over and the poor novice cursing and letting go of the plants to flip it back …

And yet this is no coffee table tome. It’s an intensely practical book that is grounded in experience of growing. Richard’s advice on growing sweet potatoes is entirely honest and sensible, his enthusiasm for tender fruit is inspiring and his guidance on how to store foods is detailed and valuable. So as usual I’m trying to work out exactly how the publishers expect the book to be used, if it’s not a ‘take to the plot book’ but as a reference work it’s definitely a good investment.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, September 22, 2011 0 Comments

Allotment soft fruit

We’ve been glorying in the golden raspberries (variety Allgold) which really have lived up to my memory of them. Okay, they aren’t as sweet as summer fruiting raspberries, but they are equally succulent and they came through the tail of Hurricane Katia in better shape than their red-fruited cousins, so that counts as fruit to keep in my book!

Fruit is an issue for us. I love it. OH likes to grow it but isn’t so keen to eat it unless it’s been converted into a pudding over which he can pour much cream. It rather negates the value of fruit, to my mind! Anyway, I want to have highly prolific and easy to harvest fruit, while OH just likes to have a relatively easy life. As a result, I want to cut down an apple tree (I’m pretty sure it’s self-seeded) and he’s happy to keep it. I have insisted on removing all the elderly redcurrants and he has dutifully grubbed them all up. Now we have to replace them and I haven’t decided what to put in their place yet.

In the meantime I have moved two thornless blackberries from the old bathtub that has been their temporary home. Thornless blackberries do lack the tangy flavour of wild brambles but they are much easier to pick and have fruit which is between two and three times the size of their wild relatives, so they are well worth growing if you like blackberry and apple pies, crumbles and tarts. They are also fabulous with breakfast cereal and yoghurts. One of the two bushes has taken up its planned location by the mesh frame that supports our (mandatory) plot numbers. The other has ousted the borlotti beans that were hogging the rocking chair planter. Neither will be particularly prolific but both are making use of a bit of growing space that really has no other value.

The most we could grow up the mesh frame (which serves as a windbreak) is something like sweet peas, so every berry we get off it will be a bonus.

The same is true of the rocking chair: it sits under the pear trees in what will be a wildflower area because the soil is very poor – given that wildflowers help to provide pollination, the best we can do for ourselves and our neighbours, as well as for the environment, is to provide a space where native flowers, soft fruit and tree fruit coexist.

During the whole of the replanting process it rained buckets. As soon as we’d moved both plants it stopped. Isn’t September wonderful?

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, September 19, 2011 0 Comments

Allotment brassica update

The raspberries survived the winds and I am glad to report that the first mini-cauliflower was excellent and had not been attacked in any way by cabbage whites.

When I met OH, many years ago, he told me a horror story about how he’d grown a whole row of beautiful, glowing white-curded cauliflowers (have you ever looked at your caulis at full moon? They actually reflect the colour of the moon, so with a harvest moon they are cream, and with a cold moon, they are pure white, anyway, enough lunacy) only to harvest one and find it was almost completely hollow – eaten away from the inside by green caterpillars. One after another he cut those caulis, getting more disgusted and heart-sick each time, and each one was riddled and wriggling with cabbage white offspring.

So we bonded over the loss of brassicas, and it has been a feature of our life that brassicas have been as stressful as any firstborn child. This year I decided to try late mini-cauliflowers, as plot #103 seemed to have good brassica soil. The reason for lates was to avoid the worst of the cabbage whites, and the reason for mini-cauliflowers was that they require much less of the soil than a full-sized cauli, so if it turned out that the soil wasn’t as ideal as we thought, we might still get a harvest. Mini-cauliflowers (igloo and idol are both good) are planted closer together and grow about the size of a fist, if the fist belongs to a middleweight boxer. They are planted only about 15 cm apart and curd up quickly, so you can harvest them quickly. If you leave them, they become full-sized, but when you plant them close and harvest early, you get a reliable crop even from soil that’s less than perfect.

Our purple-sprouting broccoli appears to have survived the gales, although we did have to stake two plants in the brassica cage. Netting brassicas is essential, on our site, if you want to have anything to harvest, because even when the butterflies are gone, the pigeons will take every bit of broccoli that sprouts, and when they’ve had all that, they are inclined to start in on the cauliflowers too!

But let’s be honest here – we do get things wrong, and here is one of them: the white carrots we grew this year have been attacked by carrot fly even though they were planted in a tall container. They are utterly impossible to eat and so they’ve gone to be burned – a whole crop destroyed by a pest. It’s very annoying!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, September 14, 2011 3 Comments

Preparing allotments for bad weather

Hurricane Katia is doing her worst with coastal Sussex. The last two days have been peculiar, meteorologically speaking: brilliant hot sunshine, followed by heavy rain accompanied by gales, followed by just the gales, then some more sunshine that swiftly dries up the surface water and makes the day seem like late June again. Last night though, the tip-over into proper hurricane fringe weather began – low temperatures, high winds and driving rain that really harms crops. I'm not sure any of our baby butternut squash will make it, but there's nothing we can do to protect them.

We’d spent a lot of the day at the plot, in two different stages, early morning and early evening. We went up in the morning and decided what we needed to do to stop the approaching bad weather from damaging our plot and then went back later to do the necessary work.

I harvested all the borlotti beans that were ripe or nearly ripe, while OH put up posts around the raspberry bed and then together we fed the wire through the posts to support the raspberries, which were already whipping around in quite a lively fashion. That made it an interesting task – there’s nothing like being menaced by a lively young raspberry cane to make you value a good pair of gloves and sensible jacket. I did fail to avoid all the lunges though, and took a glancing blow across the back of my neck as I was kneeling to tighten the lowest wire. I now have half a dozen little puncture marks that look like I’ve been tackled by a particularly inept baby vampire! Then it was the faffy job of tying the raspberry canes into the wires – and by the time we’d finished, it was too dark to get a decent photo!

We grabbed as many pears as we could, and I cut down any low-growing herbs that might be flattened by the wind: it’s better to crop a perennial herb before a storm and dry the leaves, than to let them get plastered to the ground by wind and rain because then the leaves are worthless. Also it stops them being pushed open by the weather so that the tender inner stems get chilled and blown around – that can cause clump forming herbs to die out from the middle in the following year. So I sheared our golden oregano, French tarragon and chives and then staked and tied up the lovage which is tall and stately, but also brittle stemmed and will cope better by being trussed to a good post than it will without that kind of support. I hung most of the herbs to dry in the celestial potting shed because I didn't need them at home but the tarragon came back with us for dinner!

I took down nearly all the sweetcorn, removing most of the roots and getting them into the compost, but cutting back any stems that I didn’t have time to dig up. We didn’t want sweetcorn ‘lances’ taking off and hurling themselves into the brassica cage – it’s unlikely they’d do any harm at all, but for the sake of ten minutes work, that worry was removed from our minds. This year’s sweetcorn beds will host onions next year, so it’s none too soon to start digging them over anyway.

And then we rested from our labours. Although I am itching to get up to the plot and see how things are, there’s no point until tomorrow. By the time OH gets home this evening, I shall have gone out, and anything that needs tackling requires daylight and probably two of us, so in this case, ignorance is bliss and I shall curb my impatience until tomorrow morning and then go and find out the best … or worst!

Today's allotment haul: the first mini-cauliflower, borlotti beans to dry, golden raspberries, tomatoes, half-blind corn cobs (to make relish) and chillies that are about to drop seed and needed to be lifted or the seed would be lost.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Monday, September 12, 2011 2 Comments

Best summer allotment crops

This year we’ve done amazingly well with sweetcorn. It’s been great to grow a tall crop on a less windy plot – a revelation and a pleasure not to have to wrestle with stakes and canes and windbreaks … and the crop has been utterly delicious!

Our worst crop has been aubergines – three plants, two flowers (so far) and not a single fruit! This is the third time in five years that I’ve tried growing aubergines and never succeeded. I am depressed beyond belief that the walled garden at Wakehurst Place has outdoor aubergines in full fruit, but I have not a single greenhouse aubergine to harvest. I think I have to face defeat here: I’m not an aubergine grower and that’s that.

Learning the ins and outs of a new plot is always fun, but also very demanding. I keep a simple journal that lists what we plant and what the harvest is, plus significant weather details. This allows us to do a quick and dirty economic assessment of each crop, each year. For pumpkins, this year, for example, the journal to date reads:

• Sown – 12 (no cost)
• Germinated - 8
• Planted out – 4 (compost/mulch cost)
• Grown – 7

Doesn’t sound much, does it? But the 12 came from seed swaps so they were free seed. I gave away 2 of the 8 that germinated and the 4 planted out have produced: 3 small pumpkins on the ‘small fruit’ vine (currently looking like they will be around 2 kilos each in weight), 2 Turk’s Turban of around a kilo each but very pretty and 2 massive pumpkins, one on each of the other two plants (currently looking like 5 kilos each in weight and still with up to a month of growth in them). That’s around 18 kilos of crop for the price of the seed compost, digging in some home-made compost and mulching their growing space with cardboard and chippings … not a bad return on investment!

What were your best crops this summer and what are you looking forward to in the autumn harvest?

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Friday, September 9, 2011 4 Comments

Allotment weather – gale force crops!

The recent extreme weather has wreaked some havoc on plot #103. To be honest, I think we had got a little complacent: after plot #201 with its more exposed position and little shielding from sun, wind and rain, we’ve taken the calm sheltered location of #103 for granted.

No longer.

After the storm, we ploughed through the mud to the plot and discovered that every one of our Redbor kale had decided to take a little lie down! Every one of them was salvageable, as long as they got a swift staking into their formerly upright position … the only problem was, the storm might be over but the rain wasn’t.

By the time we’d staked all but three, we were coated in mud from ankle to knee and from finger to elbow. It was also starting to get dark and my hair was so plastered to my face that I was staring at a rapidly fading world through a pattern of soggy black stripes. OH had taken off and lost his gloves so his hands, what I could see of them, were rapidly taking on the colour of a recently boiled lobster. In all, we were unlovely to look at, unhappy with ourselves and unable to continue staking kale for fear of impaling each other’s feet or hammering each other’s hands.

Today I went back up to the plot and it’s not as bad as it looked last night. The still reclining kale looked quite relaxed and I managed to stake two of them, plus the nicotiana, re-clip the golden raspberries to their canes, and harvest this little haul to take home, without succumbing to the gloom of autumn again.

But the lesson is learned. Next year our taller kale plants get staked from the day they are planted out. The raspberries will be moved to their new home in February, so they will be protected by the frame OH is building for them this month (currently known as The Annex, it will fit on the end of the summer raspberry bed and may be renamed once it’s in place) and we will continue our endeavours to thicken up the base of the straggly hedge that fronts plot #103, so that it can provide an effective windbreak through the winters ahead.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Wednesday, September 7, 2011 0 Comments

New allotment – one year on!

A year ago this week I said this:

Discovery #1 - The huge white grape vine that fills the voodoo shed and covers about an eighth of our new plot on an arbour of wires is not even ours. It has been ‘borrowed’ from our eastern neighbour who has planted the parent by their boundary fence. So that’s gone now. If I want a vine I’ll plant my own, not make a large part of my allotment hostage to a neighbour’s whims.

And in fact, we’ve planted a Hamburg vine on the other side of the allotment. Helen and Jake are lovely neighbours but having my own vine ensures that we all stay friends!

Discovery #2 - The huge corrugated iron ‘thing’ on our western boundary belongs to the neighbour on that side (phew, what a relief!) as do the two elderberry trees (damn, I wanted to get rid of one of them) – so some good and some bad here: we’ll let that neighbour harvest all the elderberries this year but from spring, we’ll be cutting back the tree canopy on our side so that we can use the ground underneath.

And what we’ve got, under that tree, is a giant pumpkin growing in the weed heap around the roots of the elder, and a wildflower area that will remain just that: it will be full of plants attractive to insect pollinators and it’s a great way to use up an area of dry, low-nutrient soil. I am shoving the old allium bulb in there too, because I can never get enough flowers onto the allotment!

Discovery #3 - Two more posts that were supporting honeysuckle. We’ve taken out the honeysuckle and where it had been planted, we will site our new raspberry bed.

At present I admit that it looks like we’ve been digging a grave, but trust me, it’s a summer raspberry bed. I’m thinking of an autumn bed too, further up the plot, so that we can have a long lovely season of raspberries, but for now we spent a hot and horrible day ripping out brambles and nettle roots and digging halfway to the Jurassic fossil layer to get those damn posts out!

So … we found another post this week, a whole year after discovering those two! OH spent most of Monday digging it out, and now, apart from the post in the middle of the hedge which we’ll really have to live with, we do believe we’ve got them all. We’ve also got a raspberry bed that’s about to be extended, having a ‘porch’ built onto the back for my autumn ripening golden strawberries, so this is one plan that’s definitely reached fruition.

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Friday, September 2, 2011 2 Comments

Allotment sweetcorn

I lost Sunday to sweetcorn, but it’s a loss I was more than willing to incur.

When I set out on the allotment journey, many years ago, self-sufficiency was a bit of a grail. I soon realised that I could indeed be self-sufficient, but that to do so, and to maintain any of the rest of my lifestyle, I’d have to commit to living on potatoes, pumpkins, apples and kale for quite a lot of the year. I’ve got to say that it wasn’t a palatable prospect.

Instead, OH and I now aim to be ‘self-sufficient in the luxuries’, a vaguely paradoxical statement that sounds Zen but is actually very practical. Our luxuries are, in no particular order:

• Asparagus
• Strawberries and raspberries
• Sweetcorn
• Early new potatoes
• Fresh herbs
• Premium salad greens and salad flowers
• Shallots
• Tomatoes
• Purple sprouting broccoli

And to those I add my personal luxury: fresh flowers.

These are the things that cost a fortune in the shops, aren’t around for long, and make life worthwhile! We aim to produce all of them from the allotment or the garden.

Sweetcorn, home grown, is nothing like the stuff from supermarkets. Okay, their sweetcorn is astonishingly regular and symmetrical but it lacks the superb flavour you obtain by picking and eating sweetcorn when it’s totally fresh. I know this to be true because OH spent a summer working as a sweetcorn stripper on the Isle of Wight and even when he brought the rejected sweetcorn home at the end of the day, it wasn’t as sweet as it is when we pick it and cook it within the hour.

There’s a reason for this: the sugars in sweetcorn begin to convert to starch as soon as the cob leaves the plant. If your corn is three days old, the sugar will have become around 80% starch and it just doesn’t taste as good.

We grow our sweetcorn in beds that we’ve composted the year before. Our favourite varieties are Lark and Swift, both of which are classed as ‘super sweet’ and we grow them from seed every year. Getting corn to germinate is tricky: it has a very tight temperature/humidity tolerance and we’ve often lost a crop because it’s got too cold/damp at several inches tall. Now we start later in the year, use a bottom heating propagator, and ensure lots of air around and between the pots.

They really need a long careful hardening off, so we use that time to get the beds ready. We dig over and rake, then spread a little granulised fertiliser and water in, around mid April, ready for planting out in May. We set our plants about 30cm apart, in a grid to ensure that the male flowers at the top get to shake their pollen over as many female flowers as possible, and we give them a windbreak.

For us wind shelter is necessary, as Sussex is not kind to sweetcorn plants: strong winds can bend or snap the tall plants and we use trellis ‘corners’ with horticultural fleece stretched around them to about 24 inches high just to protect the plants until they are tall enough to stand firm.

When they’ve been in the ground a fortnight, we hoe between the plants to remove weeds and then mulch them with sheets of newspaper, tearing holes for each seedling, and set large plastic drinks bottles to half their depth into each grid of 4 plants, so that we can water the bottle, not the paper. This helps keep the soil damp, stops annual weeds germinating, and ensures that the roots drive down to find the water which arrives quite a bit below the surface so that the plants are less prone to being rocked by the wind.

In late June I spread barley straw over the paper – this reflects light back into the plants and so that the cobs ripen more quickly. When the tassels turn brown, the cobs can be harvested. And then you end up blanching and freezing 20 of them on Sunday, while munching your way through a couple more 'just to keep your strength up'. It's a hard life, this self-sufficiency lark!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, September 1, 2011 3 Comments

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