Sunday, 16 October 2016

The joy of allotment flowers

Flowers are a joyful addition to the allotment, not just because they are easy on the eye, but also for the sheer pleasure of watching  bees and hoverflies dig deep for their nectar. The satisfaction of seeing bees heavy with pollen. The cosmos I plant in and around the globe artichokes and then forget about until I see them standing tall and colourful and dancing manically in the breeze. The sweet peas I plant everywhere because their colour and fragrance makes weeding nearby a pleasure. The poppies that burst through the wilderness at the top of the plot that I vow every year I will clear. The daffodils and the bluebells that need no care, no fussing over, but come up year after year under the plum tree and tell everyone who passes by that spring is here.

Once this year’s shallots were harvested in early July, I had an entire raised bed left vacant without a plan for filling it. And since nature abhors a vacuum, you can be sure the weeds were queueing up for the chance to settle in there. In something like desperation, I planted out a few spare chilli seedlings and, to fill the gaps, transplanted some nasturtium seedlings that didn’t make it into the vertical garden, and then flung in some eschscholzia which I sowed – way out of date, but hey, if they come up, they come up – in June and never really expected to come through.

Thanks to some lovely warm days in the last month, this bed is now in full bloom in mid-October – and as a bonus the chillies are fruiting like mad – which is hugely comforting as many of the other beds are coming to an end and waiting to be dug over. The bed has also sprung a self-sown buddleja, which I will transplant to somewhere more suitable, and the aubergine seedling is struggling out in the exposed open ground, but everything else is loving the warmed soil, autumn sunshine and increased rainfall.

I think there’s always a place on the allotment for flowers. Not least because so many are edible and can count as produce: chives, nasturtiums, violas, bergamot, for example. Then there are those we grow as companion plants: I have chives – way more than I would ever snip into a potato salad – and Calendula, to keep away a number of pests. I’ve also raised Tagetes in the polytunnel (Homebase was selling those polystyrene boxes at £1.50 for nine plants in mid-season for some reason) and we’ve had no white fly at all, although it’s possible we might not have had them this year in any case.

I have an area of about 3-4 poles to clear this winter and I’ve already decided that flowers will be a central part of this bit of the plot. There will be a buddleja hedge of many colours: deep blue, crimson, cerise, and white – everything except railway-embankment mauve, really. It’s a sunny spot so there will be sunflowers and more poppies and achillea and cornflowers, all designed to bring in the beneficial insects. Without the pollinators, the fruit and vegetables will be left high and dry and so really the flowers should come first.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

No space? Try a quick pallet garden

This vertical garden has given me so much pleasure over the summer months and it took all of 15 minutes to put together.

It requires a pallet in good condition, some woven plastic membrane and a staple gun. After that, just add soil and plants.

This pallet was donated to the allotment site by the builders next door. And it’s an ideal shape and size: 1) it will stand up on its own, 2) the horizontal struts at the base make good plant containers with minimal reconstruction, 3) it’s aesthetically pleasing: rustic without looking too decrepit. If you are going to re-purpose pallets, it really does pay to be very fussy. After all, they’re free.

I cut some strips of membrane to fit, and stapled pieces to the underside of each strut, as shown. This made the planting pockets. Next, I filled the pockets with multi-purpose compost and found a good place to site it. Finally I planted up the seedlings and watered them in. Without irrigation, it’s important to put the plants that are most drought resistant at the top and those that need most water at the bottom: plants on the top tier of a vertical garden are very exposed and will lose water very quickly. At the bottom, however, all the water gathers and the plants here are also often in a certain amount of shade.

I had calendula, cornflowers and eschscholzia Jelly Beans in the top two rows, and nasturtiums along the bottom as well as tumbling over the upper tiers.

This kind of shallow-pocketed, non-irrigated vertical garden works best for a single season. After that you can decide whether to redo the planting for another year or to re-purpose the pallet again. As I said, they’re free.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Tomatillo chutney

As well as the quince (see below), my other great glut this year was tomatillos, with hundreds of fruit bursting out of their papery husks and dragging the spindly stems to the ground.

This Mexican fruit, second cousin to a green tomato but actually more closely related to the physalis, or cape gooseberry, grows exceptionally well in a sunny spot in the UK, so long as you don't plant the seedlings outside until after the last frosts. The fruits swell to the size of cherry tomatoes inside their papery husks, although they remain green. They're ready to pick once the husks are full and firm and beginning to split.

The following is inspired by a recipe at Allrecipes, although I've added a few extra ingredients I had to hand. I wanted to combine the tomatillos with the equally Mexican jalapeno chillies ripening in the garden to give the chutney a spicy kick without overpowering it.

I can also never resist adding fresh dates to a chutney. They start appearing in the middle eastern greengrocers around here at chutney-making time: they add bulk, texture and sweetness to the final chutney. Dried packaged dates will do just as well although you could use fewer of them to keep the sweetness levels manageable.

Tomatillo, date and jalapeno chutney
900g tomatillos, or you can mix tomatillos with green tomatoes, or even sneak some red tomatoes in there.
15-20 fresh dates, stoned
15-20 dried dates
2 large persimmons (kaku)
2 jalapeno chillies, or more to taste
2 medium yellow onions
125g (about 8 knobs) crystallised ginger
60g brown sugar
1 teasp salt
450ml cider vinegar
1½ tbsp. pickling spice
1 tbsp brown mustard seed

Makes five medium jars

Chop the tomatillos, dates, persimmons, chillies, onions and ginger. Put all the ingredients into a large non-reactive pan and heat slowly to start with until the sugar dissolves and the juices are released. Then bring to the boil and simmer for 1-2 hours, until the chutney has thickened and darkened in colour. Check every so often to make sure it does not burn.
Remove from the heat and spoon into sterilised jars. Seal and leave to cool before storing in a cool dark place.
Tomatillo plant showing both flower and fruit forming.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Things to do with quinces when you have an almighty glut

This year the quince tree lived up to its name of Meech's Prolific and produced over 300 fruit. After distributing just over half of them to friends and neighbours, I started reducing 150 quinces into goodies for the preserves and drinks cupboard. Over the next couple of months, it became something of a challenge to see how many different ways I could use the fruits.

You cannot eat a quince raw: it's as hard as a cricket ball and probably about as tasty. But cooked, gently in syrup, or wine, or roasted long and slow in the oven, it quickly softens. With the addition of sugar becomes meltingly sweet, with a flavour something like a floral apple with a hint of apricot. Cooking with sugar also transforms the colour of the flesh from creamy ivory to warm pink, then amber, and finally, if cooked for long enough, russet red.

In the picture above, the quincely foodstuffs are as follows, from left to right:

  • Quince jelly, an old favourite, made by boiling up chopped quinces with water and little lemon juice and zest, then adding the resulting strained juice to sugar, and boiling until the setting point is reached.  
  • Spiced quince chutney. This was a my second attempt at making a quince chutney. The first, made with lemon juice and cardamom, tasted light and citrus-y (unseasonally summery rather than autumnal), but once jarred, had the unfortunate look (and texture) of Pedigree Chum. This new and much more successful version was made using a recipe from Radio New Zealand. Worked just as well this side of the world.
  • Quince cheese, or membrillo, which uses the pulp left behind from making quince jelly, above, pureed and boiled up with industrial amounts of sugar for a couple of hours or until the fruit is almost mahogany in colour. Delicious with cheese, or, if you're my son, cut into cubes and eaten like sweets.
  • Quince liqueur, in the tall jars at the back, or at least it will be once the fruit has steeped in the vodka for about six months.
  • Whole quinces in brandy, also at the back, with quinces in white wine and vanilla syrup at the front.
  • Quince vinegar, on the far right, a slightly sweetened vinegar which makes a light and frsh salad dressing. 

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Sack the spuds

I have had a kind of epiphany. I experimented with a new way of growing potatoes this year and it was so successful that I am converted. From now on, I will be growing potatoes like this every single season.

Potatoes grow quite well for me but I have always felt a bit grudging about them. They take up so much space. They are labour-intensive: digging trenches for them; earthing them up, ideally several times; digging them out once ready. And unless you hunt down the unusual heritage varieties, they're a bit mundane. Yes, the first new potatoes, taken home and cooked as soon as possible after being dug out of the ground, taste fantastic, but by the time you're using up stored maincrops, there isn't much to choose between your homegrown and potatoes bought in the shops.

The tipping point for me came last summer when for the nth year in succession I found myself digging potato plants out of the previous year's bed. No matter how thoroughly I harvest the spuds, or how many times I dig the bed over, I never find them all, and the following season, up come the plants in the middle of the beetroot, or peas, or parsnips.

I've given talks in the past about growing potatoes in bin liners, mostly to people without a garden at all. Three chitted spuds in the bottom of a black-lined bag, covered with compost, will grow quite happily to give a small but healthy yield. The chances of them developing diseases or being attacked by pests is much reduced, so if you have problems with slugs, or eelworms, or conditions like scab, growing in a bin liner can give you a much greater chance of success. It's much less labour-intensive as well: chucking some multi-purpose compost over the plants to keep much of the stems covered is much less hard work than full-scale earthing up out in the field.

The drawback is that confined to a bin-bag, you don't get very many spuds in your harvest. So what would happen, I wondered, if you kept to the container principle, but used one that was much, much larger? Around a cubic metre in size, in fact.

Anyone who gardens regularly or who has an allotment will have a dumpy bag or two knocking around. Normally used to deliver manure, or aggregate or sand, the dumpy bag ends up in the shed, or quite often stuffed underneath it, occasionally being used to carry leaves or trimmings to the green waste bin. Would they be big enough to grow a decent crop of potatoes?
One standard dumpy bag filled with organic matter, topped with compost and straw. Nine
seed potatoes were planted six inches below the surface of the compost.

The short answer is yes, plenty big enough. The crop wasn't just decent but impressive. The potatoes themselves were unblemished, a good size (actually the Rosevals were on the small side, but the Lady Christls, Salad Blues and Pink Fir Apples were much the same size as their open ground equivalents) and full of flavour. Each dumpy bag took nine seed potatoes at the beginning of the season and we harvested around 9-10 spuds for each seed potato once mature. Any potatoes I have missed in the bags (and it's entirely possible) will come to light when the bags are emptied and the compost inside them used to mulch and enrich other vegetable beds.

Lifting Lady Christl plants to reveal the potatoes underneath.

There are three drawbacks - well, not quite 'drawbacks', more things to take into consideration when growing in the dumpy bag:
1. Filling the dumpy bag with the requisite 0.8 cubic metres of compost. What I did was to start filling by adding lots of shredded cardboard and paper to the bottom of a bag, lots of old coffee grounds, leaf mould, free Council 'soil improver', all the usual types of organic matter, until the bag was around two-thirds full. The top third was filled with a couple of bags of multi-purpose compost; perhaps a third bag if I'd misjudged the amount of 'ballast' at the bottom. The potato plants still needed earthing up: I used lots of grass cuttings, straight from the mower, spread all around and over the haulms.
The growing plants still needed earthing up, ie, covering the exposed haulms
with soil and grass cuttings to keep out the light and help the potatoes
grow under the surface.

2. The potatoes grown in the dumpy bags definitely needed more water than those in the open ground. The bags themselves are water-permeable so don;' need drainage holes drilling in them, but in any dry spell, they needed copious watering, not something I'm used to with potatoes.
3. A dumpy bag, even one with plants spilling over the top, sitting on your plot or terrace is not a particularly visually appealing way to go about growing potatoes. You could, if you cared enough about this, screen with fencing, or even put them behind a low hedge. At the allotment, I used pallets stacked vertically and lashed together to frame and stabilise the bags, which did nothing for the aesthetics but did keep the bags held upright with no slumping.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The plot thickens - more space, new greenhouse

For the first time in my gardening life, I have a proper greenhouse. It's in reasonably good condition: a few panes need replacing and the beds inside need digging over and fresh soil. It's in a sunny position, aligned north-to-south as recommended for summer crops and I'm looking forward to raising aubergines, physalis, and I hope this year's pepinos dulces (Solanum muricatum, or melon pear).

The catch is that the greenhouse comes with 10 poles of abandoned allotment attached. Overrun with couch grass, bramble, bindweed and creeping trefoil, a preliminary recce has revealed that there are the remnants of raised beds underneath all this. It's a bit like I imagine archaeology to be: peeling away layers of cultivation. I think we have dug down to the 1980s so far.

Renovating the greenhouse and clearing the plot will have to be done in tandem. There are brambles and creeping trefoil roots rubbing up against the greenhouse frame and these will need to be taken out or else they will engulf the structure over the course of the summer.

After cutting down a bramble thicket out in the main area of the plot, I have abandoned plan A, which was to strim the plot then dig it over. I reckon it would break the strimmer. Instead, we (that's me and my son, who insists on being paid extra pocket money for this manual labour) have cut down the brambles, pulled up as much grass as will easily come away, and piled them all on to a bonfire, along with any rotting wooden raised-bed edgers we've found along the way.

We are building up a mighty pile of posts, stakes and even an old discarded radiator for the scrap metal merchant and an even taller pile of plastic for the skip. And starting one area at a time, we will cover the plot with woven black plastic. I've reserved one old bed that looks as though it was cultivated more recently than others to dig out and use this year, and I will almost certainly build a keyhole garden (full-sized, this time!) as a quick and efficient raised bed. Those and the greenhouse will do for this year. Everything else can wait.

By autumn, we can lift the plastic and get a much better idea of what we're dealing with, ready to hack out the perennial roots and hopefully start a no-dig system.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Salt-baked sweet potatoes

I'm mulling over whether to grow sweet potatoes again this year. On the plus side, they were less trouble than I'd anticipated, growing happily under a fleece cloche for most of the summer, even when I forgot to water them quite as regularly as they might have liked. On the minus side, the fleece cloche proved not very durable and were I to grow enough sweet potatoes for more than a few portions, they would take up a lot of space. I'm also wary that they grew well because we had a decent summer; in a more normal, cooler growing season, would it all be worth it?

I think I've decided to give it a go again thanks to a startlingly good salt-baked sweet potato I enjoyed the other day. I first encountered baking in salt with Anna Colquhoun and Mia Christiansen and their salt-baked celeriac.

That celeriac was a revelation: baked whole in a salt paste, the flesh was soft enough to be eaten with a spoon, with an intensely sweet celeriac flavour, salt-spiked at the edges near the skin. It's a bit of show-stopper of a dish: brought to the table still in its salt case and cracked open in front of the diners.

I wondered what other root vegetables might also taste good baked this way and after a bit of trial and error, found that sweet potato is exquisite when cooked in salt: the inherent sweetness of the potato is concentrated and the texture, after three hours in a low oven, is pillowy soft and fluffy.

I had good results with beetroot, too, especially the golden beetroot which are a staple of my allotment, but to get really soft and yielding flesh, it really needs to spend up to four hours in the 
oven. Sweet potato gives you a quicker return for your effort.

The trick is to ensure that the salt paste covers the potato completely: no gaps or holes. The paste needs to be made thick enough to hold its shape so that it doesn't all slump to the bottom of the dish as soon as you put it into the oven, but not so hard as to be un-malleable. As the sweet potato cooks, so the paste will harden into a rigid casing.

1 large sweet potato, or 2 medium ones

300g cooking salt
280g plain flour
4 egg whites (this is a great way to use up spare egg whites)
Up to 200ml water

Scrub the sweet potato and dry the skin. Place it on a baking tray and pre-heat the oven to 150 degrees C.

Mix the salt and flour in a bowl and add the egg whites in the middle. Begin to beat together, adding the water a little at a time - you may not need it all. Stop when it's like wet Play-Doh - not thin enough to pour and not too thick to spread with a spatula.

Spread the salt mixture over the sweet potato, making sure the whole of the root is covered. Ensure there is salt paste around the base of the potato, so there are no gaps between the potato and the baking tray.

Put into the middle of the oven and bake for 3 hours. The salt paste will harden and turn brown as it bakes. When you remove it after 3 hours, it should be hard to the touch. Cut the top open with a knife, peel back the skin of the sweet potato and spoon out the flesh to eat.