End of month recipe
I think it would be fun to have an allotment recipe to finish each month, don’t you?
This month it’s time to use up stored squashes and pumpkins, at least in our house. The reasons are threefold:
1. the longer you store squashes, the tougher the outer skin gets, so cutting into an overwintered pumpkin can seem to require power tools - or at least an axe!
2. once we get into the madness of spring planting, and transplanting, and watering and so on, we forget to check our stored foods so well, and we’ve often lost a squash or two because they started to rot and we haven’t noticed the soft spot until the whole thing was unsalvageable (squashes go bad really quickly!)
3. we’re using up stuff that we’ve overwintered: the last of the kale, the purple sprouting broccoli, the last of the overwintered (rather bendy) parsnips and carrots, so it’s a good time to clear out the squashes too, to make way soon for fresh broad beans etc.
This recipe always work for me because it’s random looking and delicious tasting - you don't have to be able to cook pretty to make this, and people will always ask you to cook it again!
Freeform roasted squash parcel
• Around 750 grams butternut or Turk’s turban squash, peeled and chunked
• 2 cloves unpeeled garlic
• 1 large onion
• 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
• 1 tablespoon brown sugar
• 100 grams strong cheddar
• 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary
• 1 packet shortcrust pastry or home made pastry (around 400 grams)
Roast the pumpkin and the garlic cloves in olive oil for about 30 minutes until the pumpkin is tender when tested. Tip the pumpkin into a colander to cool and squeeze the garlic cloves with a fork to extract the pulp.
Heat some oil in a frying pan and fry the sliced onion for about ten minutes before reducing the heat slightly and stirring in the sugar and vinegar and cook for a further ten minutes stirring so it caramelises. Remove from the heat and stir in the pumpkin and garlic and leave to one side to cool a little.
Roll out the pastry between two sheets of greaseproof paper so it forms a large square. Lift the top sheet away and then put the pastry, on the bottom sheet, on a baking tray. Pour the pumpkin and onion mixture into the middle and chop the rosemary, strewing it over vegetables and then sprinkle the grated or crumbled cheddar on top. Pull up on the paper to fold the edges of the pastry in and then pinch them to form corner joins.
Put in the oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until crisp. It's delicious!
This is the time of year when birds peck the tender flowering buds of currants. Nobody seems to be entirely sure why they do this: some say it’s the moisture content of the buds they are going for and others say it’s an astringency in much the same way as dogs and cats tend to eat grass in spring. What I do know is that it can be annoying and even stop there being any harvest at all, come summer!
So we net or cover our currants now, and keep the birds off. But before we net them, we weed underneath and then mulch them.
Mulching is important for fruit, as it keeps in the moisture that allows berries to swell. It also keeps down weeds and can feed the soil under hungry plants. This year, with the hosepipe ban, and the current temperatures, it’s vital to young bushes like ours, or they won’t get off to a good start.
We mulched with grass clippings from the lawn, and if the weather continues hot, after a couple of weeks I will lift them, water underneath, replace them and then put a circle of cardboard over the top to hold down any transpiration of water. If it starts to rain buckets, I won’t bother with the cardboard.
Over our baby plants for spring we’ve put old mesh baskets. By summer they will be tall enough to need nets, but we find these baskets in skips and they are brilliant for protecting plants from birds when the plants are still small.
Chillies on the allotment (or not as the case may be)
These are the chillies I am growing from seed this year – I will keep two plants (one of each) and the others will be distributed to students and through various plant swaps and so on. These darker leaved seedlings are Royal Black Chillies I also have some lighter leaved ones are an unnamed variety that has mauve thumb-sized fruit, and which have been grown from such a fruit that I found on the ground, under the plant, at a very famous garden that I would prefer not to identify by name! I don't know how they will taste, but as they came from the kitchen garden, I am keen to see if they are as tasty as they were pretty.
So, these two chilli plants will be greenhouse grown throughout the year and then brought into the house in late October and kept there until April. Then they will be planted out on the allotment when I confidently predict they will double the yield they gave in year one. This happens for two reasons. The first is that second year plants are fully grown, so they put more energy into fruit production than one year plants which are still trying to attain growth. The second is that once they are planted outside, they get insect pollinated which is highly effective. If you grow chilli or pepper plants in a greenhouse, you really need to hand-pollinate to get a good harvest, and insect pollination still seems to work better than me with my little paintbrush, moving the pollen around!
Once the plants are outdoors, I harvest all the chillies apart from a few that I leave on the plant to ‘cure’ so that they can be used for seed sowing and let the two-year-old plants die in the first frost. This way I always have a mature and highly productive chilli plant in the ground, and a vigorous but less productive one in the greenhouse or in the house, waiting to take its parent’s place.
As you can see, a mature chilli really is productive. This Royal Black has about twenty mature fruits, about a dozen immature ones (that’s the black fruit you can see forming) and about a dozen flowers, waiting to be pollinated – all in mid-March!
While I was teaching on Sunday, OH was busy building, rebuilding and refining structures. He’s created an amazing new water conservation system based on an airy-fairy idea I had about the compost bins, which is going to be very useful now that the hosepipe bans have been introduced. We now have three water butts, plus the compost bin water tanks, so I think we’ve probably got as much water conservation as we can have.
The idea is simple and while it may get refined as he gets more time and we see how it works, it’s within the range of most people who have compost bins made of pallets. It’s simply some clear corrugated plastic laid over the bins, with guttering fixed to the back of the bins and a nice bit of 2x4 laid across the front on which the plastic rests so that rain and even dew can run down the plastic, into the gutter, down a pipe and into an old header tank from somebody’s loo, which has been covered with a bit of wood to keep insects and potential drowners (cats and hedgehogs, mainly) out.
He’d also been to the plot in the week and put up the pea supports. This year, based on another airy-fairy idea I’d had about repurposing one crop to support another, we’ve got prunings from the apple trees interwoven with twine, and fastened to really solid metal posts. It looks really beautiful – definitely the most aesthetically pleasing pea frames, we’ve ever had, and very much in line with the idea that plot #103 should be an edible landscape.
Getting ready for potato planting
I've been digging the trenches for next Sunday's workshop when we will be planting first early potatoes. The sprouts on the spuds are lovely. Sprouts should be dark: green, purple or brown, not white which is caused by too little light.
If they oversprout (sprouts get too long, maybe due to not being able to plant through bad weather) just rub off the sprouts with your thumb and a fortnight later they will be ready to plant again!
Planting dates and distances
First earlies - mid March. About 30cm apart, in rows which are 60cm apart. Ready in 10 weeks
Second earlies – mid March. About 45cm apart , and in rows which are 75cm apart. Ready in 13 weeks.
Maincrops - early to mid April. About 60cm apart and with 75cm between rows. Ready in 15 weeks. Heaviest croppers but also at risk of blight.
Put spuds in a trench with some food at the base, I use shredded comfrey, others use manure or compost. Pop in the potatoes, sprouts up (not down, the sprouts grow the leaves, not the spuds!) and handfill (don’t shovel, you’ll either hit a spud or bruise them with pebbles in the soil both of which lead to damage and can then infect nearby tubers) to a depth of about 10cm. You will still have soil to spare. That gets piled over the top as the leaves grow.
Where you are planting more than one row, the rows should (ideally) run from North to South to allow each plant its full share of sun.
If you prepare your plot in advance, it does tend to look like a makeshift graveyard ... and it teaches you that most films are rubbish - digging a grave in a few minutes is impossible as anybody who's dug potato trenches can concur - even great soil requires a lot of work and getting more than a foot down is back-breaking - shallow graves would be possible but they'd have to be very shallow indeed!
By the way, I'm signing copies of Minding My Peas and Cucumbers at Mayberry Garden Centre, Old Shoreham Road, Hove on Saturday 17th March, from 12:00 to 16:00 so if you're in the area, do come along and say hello!
Greenhouse growing and container gardening
These are mooli (winter radish) – and what they are growing in is an old shoe rack: the kind that fastens around a rail with some Velcro and hangs down. It’s one of the ways that we make maximum use of space in small spaces by showing people how containers can be collapsible, flexible and adaptable. Of course root vegetables grown in little pockets like this don’t get as big as those grown in the ground, but they are much better than not having any at all, and this system has worked well for celery, parsnips and pak choi as well as mooli and is a great way of growing cut and come again salad heads alternating with root crops too. Just sow salad and root crops alternately and the heads of the salads can spill out into the next ‘box’ and not compete for space with other salady neighbours.
In the greenhouse, things are getting busy: the peas are planted in their biodegradable pots – if you worry about such things, check with your chosen local or national paper what inks and dyes they use and whether their paper is chlorine bleached, before using it to make pots. Most publishers have a clear environmental policy that will help you to decide if this is something you want to have rotting around the roots of your peas.
When all risk of frost is over, we plant the pots, each containing three pea seedlings, along the prepared pea supports and let them climb up. It’s a very simple way of planting peas which seems, in our experience, to work better than planting in gutters, which we have found to be prone to drying out or to being difficult to plant out. If you’ve ever tried to carry a row of gutter-planted pea seedlings and tripped, spilling them all over the ground, you’ll know exactly what I mean!
March allotment tasks
We’re getting ready for the first of the spring workshops on 18th March and I’m watching the long range weather forecast in the hope that we will be able to get some first early potatoes planted. It’s been hit and miss the past couple of years, getting spuds in the ground in mid-March. One year we had snow, another belting rain for nine days. Maybe this year we’ll be lucky! We’ve also got shallots to go in the ground during the workshop, if ground is what we have, rather than a gently moving sheet of surface water.
If we are rained or snowed off from the spuds, we can cram ourselves into the greenhouse and look at the peas and broad beans, and maybe do some sowing of peppers (the chillies are already in their seed trays: one lot of Royal Blacks and another of a similar small chilli that has lilac coloured fruits – can’t say where I obtained them as they were poached … by which I mean the little chilli had fallen to the ground, so I didn’t take it from the plant, but even so, I did take it …), tomatoes and leeks although they’d all need to be in the heated greenhouse, not the unheated one, which can take sowings of outdoor cucumbers, celery and celeriac and salads.
We can try showing people how to hoe weeds and how to hoe for soil aeration, some different approaches to soil warming and a few hints on how to plan for successional sowing.
I love this time of year, when everything is on its way, but I also find it very frustrating to have to try and guess when to sow or plant out crops. If I was in charge of the weather, it would be a lot more predictable, I can tell you!
The photo shows potatoes from 2008 - a year when the ground was under several inches of snow at the normal March planting date: the bucket of spuds was harvested in July.
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- End of month recipe: Caramelised Onions
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- Allotment horror story
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