Saturday, 6 November 2010

Raised Beds - To Dig or not to Dig

So many people are up at the allotment whenever the weather allows in this mild and wet autumn, digging and digging and no doubt suffering many bad backs along the way. I never have to seriously dig my plot! And neither do any plotters who have made raised beds for all their cultivation needs.

It seems to have taken the gardening fraternity a hugely long time to realise that the main reason for digging is to break up the soil compacted by continually walking over it in the first place. Classic books of my childhood such as Middleton's Gardening Guide (2/6d in old money or 12.5 pence in new - paid for out of hard earned pocket money!!) and Arthur Hellyer's The Illustrated Gardening Encyclopedia have no mention whatsoever of the technique of raised beds and both devote quite some space to telling the reader exactly how to dig, and double dig!

OK when we took over the plots originally they did need digging - to clear the area of the rough grass that was the initial field. I have described before in this blog how I laid out my plot in the first place, and this includes several raised beds - simply cut out of the plot by creating sunken paths in between. No need to buy wooden boarding at all. The beds are of a width that enables me to work them by reaching across from each side, never therefore having to tread on the soil itself. And along the paths I spread wood chippings that I have made myself from all my wood prunings saved throughout the year (having inherited a very useful chipping machine). This means I can walk along the paths and reach the beds in all weathers when other plotters cannot get on to their allotment for the mud! And weeds on the pathways are totally suppressed.

And this week I have been up there smartening the paths again, spreading more chippings and generally tidying up. Adding my own compost, fresh manure or rotted manure on top of the soil according to the planned use of the area next year helps to maintain the height of the raised beds above the paths and only needs a light forking in when I am ready to sew or plant or whatever. And harvesting roots etc loosens and works the soil with minimum effort. So - NO DIGGING!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

A Toad in the Netting

This warm November weather is quite amazing. Yesterday I spent several hours up at the plot generally tidying, weeding and harvesting, with just a thin tee shirt and summer weight trousers. I'm very glad I went up there because I found a toad caught in the netting around the brussel sprouts. He seemed exhausted from struggling to get free. I carefully disentangled him, gently put him amongst the strawberries where I knew I would not be working, and he seemed to recover well and crawl away beneath the leaves.
This summer I ran out of space for the courgettes, marrows and squashes, so I covered one of the paths across the plot with black cloth (the sort used to smother weeds) and piled manure onto it before covering the resulting heap with soil into which I planted the cucurbits. They thrive on this treatment - the heap becomes warm as it rots beneath the plants, and they are provided with a rich growing medium, which they love, and it doesn't dry out in the driest of summers. The benefit now at the end of the year is that I have a plentiful supply of well rotted manure which I am using to top dress all around the plot where needed - for example on the asparagus bed, around the flowers in the flower bed, and around the cabbages, sprouts, spinach, etc. which i am still harvesting.

I am well pleased with my handiwork. The plot is beginning to look very neat and tidy, ready for the quieter winter months ahead, and there is still an amazing amount of produce to see us through the next few dreary winter months.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

a plate of vegetarian home grown food

How satisfying it was to sit down tonight to a plate of home grown vegetables, all gathered earlier today straight from my allotment, apart from the small spuds that were out of storage! (oh and the cheese on the cauliflower was actually from Sainsburys but everything else I grew myself).

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Self sufficiency

These photos show just how busy my allotment plot still is even at this time of year, when many around me have cleared their plots and started digging in manure before leaving fallow for the winter.
What a waste of space!
The brussel sprouts are swelling up well and we had our first meal off them last week, with many more pickings to come over the next month or so. By that time those spring cabbages will be ready for eating, and I have plenty of red cabbages to last all through the winter as well. We have already cooked plenty of red cabbage and frozen it for use later when other fresh vegetables may be scarce.
The lettuce is also growing well and providing some welcome winter salad.
And those carrots I sowed only 4-5 weeks ago are producing the first edible thinnings - with the promise of some lovely roots to follow soon.

But these are just a few of the vegetables I am harvesting at the moment. To add to the list are spinach, swiss chard, parsnips, beetroots, leeks, celeriac, jerusalem artichoke, and a little late fennel that the frost didn't catch! Not bad for a stony field that 3 years ago no one imagined would come to anything at all!

Monday, 27 September 2010

That Chelsea Chop - and Red Hot Pokers

I visited a beautiful garden yesterday and saw these wonderful Red Hot Pokers.

And this is what happens to Sedum plants when they are not given the Chelsea chop!!

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Flowers Fruit and Herbs of the Bible No 3 The Bay Tree

Growing up as a little girl on a farm in Kent, we had a simply enormous Bay tree in our back garden. I was told that this protected us from lightning strike. But I can personally attest to the fact that this is simply not always true!
Nonetheless, Culpeper did write in the 17th century, although on what authority I know not, that:"neither witch nor devil, thunder nor lightening, will hurt a man in the place where a bay-tree is." OK, so we weren't hurt, so perhaps it is true. And we certainly never saw any witches, harmful or otherwise, in our garden!

This picture is of one of two bay trees I bought several years ago and as a pair they stand at the top of the steps leading up to the lawn. Soon, (but then I have been saying this for two long and doing nothing!) I shall start pruning and training them into those spherical blobs on spindly main trunks that you see in posher gardens than mine - ones no doubt where they have a gardener or bought them "ready made" at astronomical cost from a nursery. But i must do my own. I shall start by cutting off their top growing points at the desired height, and trimming all the side shoots to a requisite number of leaves ... and so on ... but that's a story for another day. I hope one day to be able to show you some success with this project.
For now we turn again to my biblical theme.
My tea towel tells me that the Bay Tree is mentioned in Psalm 37 at v. 35. But when I looked this up it refers simply to "a native green tree:"
"I have seen the wicked in great power,
And spreading himself like a native green tree..."
And the trusted commentary in the side margins that I have come to rely on tells me nothing more. So I have had to search further afield. How did the tea towel designer know this verse referred to a bay tree?
I have not yet found the answer, but I have found lots more fascinating facts about the Bay Tree, and will continue these in another post.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Flowers Fruit and Herbs of the Bible No 2 Rue and hypocrisy

"But woe to you Pharisees! (said Jesus to the Pharisees and lawyers as he dined with them) For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done without leaving the others undone."
Luke ch. 11 v. 42

This is my rue in the garden - gone to seed and heavily cut back for the winter.

In Matthew Jesus is reported as saying something very similar to the multitudes and to his disciples:
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law; justice and mercy and faith."
Matthew ch. 23, v. 23 - Jesus is saying that they have lost a sense of proportion in their spirituality, tithing small seeds but forgetting the major principles of morality.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Flowers Fruit and Herbs of the Bible No 1 Figs

Work at the allotment this month is now all about continuing to tidy up, composting all plant waste, and harvesting as necessary. So I thought I would start talking about the flowers, fruit and herbs of the Bible, prompted by a very old and fading tea towel we still have from many years ago.
So let us start, I thought, with that oldest story of all, the reason why the snake crawls on its belly, the reason why women travail in childbirth, and why we all toil in the dust to which we shall all in due course return.
Who hasn't at some stage heard the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? When the serpent tempted Eve to eat of the forbidden tree, and in her turn she tempted Adam to eat that same fruit, "the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves covering." (Genesis ch. 3 v. 7) And they incurred God's wrath.
I have a fig tree. I only bought it as a young plant a few years ago but in its favoured position against a South facing wall it has more than flourished - it is nearly taking over the whole area. And the crops each year are amazing. I love them just as they are, straight from the tree, but it is not advisable to eat too many in one day (!) and they do not keep well for long, so last year I ended up making loads of fig jam.
The picture here shows immature fruit. I will be taking all these off the plant soon, so as not to weaken the tree, as they have no hope of ripening and will otherwise rot overwinter anyway.

Friday, 17 September 2010


Today was dry and windy with some sunshine - an ideal day for harvesting potatoes. Here is one row; I need to dig up 3 more over the next few days, weather permitting.
I left these on top of the soil to dry a little whilst I did other work on the plot, and now they are spread out on the garage floor to finish off before I store them over winter in special hessian potato sacks, in a cool dry and frost free place (garden shed or garage).
Whilst other plotters have suffered blight on their crops, mine are, so far, blight free, but it can hit overnight and spread very rapidly - I have used blight resistant varieties though and this seems to be effective so far.

The Swiss Chard (Bright Lights) is doing extremely well.
This is lovely chopped up, leaves and stalks, and steamed for a short while. The leaves are pulled off the plants from the base, from the outside inwards.The biggest surprise is the way the carrots and spring cabbages that I sowed recently are thriving. I hope we have enough autumn left for the carrots to produce some sort of crop for me. It's looking promising for now!
I finished off my work up there by picking some more runner beans and carting two more loads of manure on to the plot.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

old garden artefacts

It's been far too cold, wet and windy the last couple of days to do anything serious in the garden or at the allotment, so I thought I would reminisce on some things that caught my eye in other people's gardens this summer.
I particularly like the cold-frame on wheels!

Sunday, 12 September 2010

squash and marrows

I spent a happy afternoon visiting a garden today in the lee of the South Downs in Sussex under the National Gardens Scheme. It was a beautiful setting in lovely autumnal sunshine. But what really caught my attention were the marrow and squash plants!
I have never ever before seen any squash, marrow or any other cucurbit plants for that matter grow to the size of these, photographed below. These are trailing out of a huge compost bin, and the distance from the nearest point to the furthest in this photo I measured as 15 of my strides, pretty much 15 yards!! And the crop was abundant.
I have tried myself to grow these plants on my own compost heaps but without such success. Perhaps the abundant supply of horse manure from the neighbouring stables was giving a helping hand to those in the photo!
Anyway if mine grew to that size they'd take over my allotment!!

Saturday, 11 September 2010


These are two of my compost bins. One is closed off with an insulated cover, held down with wooden strips and bricks. The cover enables the composting material to warm up and decompose into compost very quickly. It is basically made of bubble wrap within a black breathable type plastic material. The nearer of the two boxes is nearly full. I put grass clippings on it, as you can see, and this is OK to do as long as there is also plenty of other materials to mix with it. Otherwise it tends to go slimy.

Both bins will be ready to "harvest" sometime over the winter and the compost will be spread across the allotment, returning lots of humus and goodness to the soil.

I like these particular bins because the sides are slatted, and this makes the compost easy to get to when it is ready. Plastic bins are much more awkward to deal with. Although they usually have a "door" at the base, I have never been able to satisfactorily get the compost out through that. I usually end up tipping the whole bin over to get at its contents - a messy business. Does any one know a better way?

Friday, 10 September 2010


Every year at this time we have an epidemic of fungi on our front lawn, underneath the big oak tree. These are a variety of Boletus, identified by the tubes opening into pores on the underneath of the cap, where the spores develop. These are in contrast to the gills with which most people are familiar - as seen in the common field mushroom.

This particular Boletus is distinguished by the way the flesh turns a shade of bluish purple almost as soon as it is broken

Many of the Boletus are edible, most famously the Cep, Boletus Edulis, but some are poisonous or are simply unpalatable. Accurate identification is essential before cooking!

Thursday, 9 September 2010

A Mutated Brussel Sprout!

I know I didn't plant any cabbage seedlings alongside the brussel sprouts when I put them out on the allotment this spring. But gradually over the summer I have watched this perfect cabbage shaping up amongst the sprout plants. The other day it looked ready enough for harvesting so I cut it to bring home.

And I was right. It wasn't a cabbage! It is a brussel sprout that has mutated! In all the leaf nodes there are baby sprouts! Any one else ever seen anything like this?

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness"

... so begins John Keats' poem, To Autumn 1820.

I was up at the allotment early today, by 7 o'clock, and spent a couple of hours generally tidying before torrential rain brought me home again.

At this time of year this is often the best part of the day. There is a feel of autumn, a gentle nip in the air without being too cold, and it is often misty, before the sun finds enough strength in its rising to burn the moisture away. Today was no exception, and it was very pleasant up on the plot before that rain came.

First I picked all the runner beans that I could find. It was a good haul; I had not been up there for a couple of days. They will store for quite a while in the bottom of the fridge and it is important to keep picking them to encourage more flowers to set. I also picked the yellow courgettes. These make a wonderful soup, with a beautiful flavour, a lovely colour (as long as white onions are used, definitely not red ones!) and it has an extremely pleasant "gloopy" consistency to it. It also freezes well for winter use, when a hot soup is most welcome, with "tear and share" type breads.
There is also plenty of fresh green spinach and I brought an armful of that back with me which I have cooked and again frozen for my winter store.

Then I checked all the protective netting around the brassicas to make sure the pigeons couldn't get at the leaves - otherwise the pesky birds are quite capable of stripping the leaves down to bare midribs given half a chance. Whilst doing this something caught my eye and looking up I saw a beautiful heron gliding overhead, slowly and elegantly.

and Keats' poem?:

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells"

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Sunflowers in the Dordogne

Driving through the Dordogne in South West France on holiday recently we saw field after field of sunflowers. Of course in June they are beautiful - bright yellow in the sunshine, all turned towards its warmth and light. But now the flowers have gone and instead the seed heads are dry and ready for harvesting. I assume that these are for food, whether for human or animal I am not sure. This was about the biggest sunflower head we saw.

Whilst in the region we went to the Monbazillac vineyards. The views from the terrace of the chateaux were wonderful and the wine was pretty good too!

Most fascinating of all were the fields of wildflowers - we saw these in several places as we toured around. It looked for all the world as if the landowners had all bought the same wildflower seed mix!

The effect was certainly very pretty.

Tomorrow I shall be back on the allotment after the well earned break and shall get this blog back on track!

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Fuschias and Sedum

I love Fuschias. To me they always appear to be perfect wax models, and they come I so many shapes, sizes, colours. And many are hardy. My really tough ones (the red ones below) even survived last winter and this year's drought. I have several bushes that are just in front of my kitchen window so they make a magnificent display at this time of year. And the bees also love them.

And they are really so easy to look after. Every spring I simply cut them down quite hard, as the flowers all appear on the year's new branches, so it is very easy to keep them as compact and shapely as you want.

There are also many varieties available now that are superb in hanging baskets.

Yesterday I spoke of the Chelsea Chop on my Sedums, and feared I had been a little too over enthusiastic this year with the secateurs. Their flowering has certainly been delayed perhaps longer than I intended, but you can see here that the flowers are now beginning to open, and they will make a super display very soon. Because of the "chop" they will not splay out from the middle as Sedum plants otherwise have a tendency to do, keeping them neat and compact in the border. do And again, the bees love them, so a bonus for biodiversity.

Friday, 3 September 2010

The Chelsea Chop revisited

Up at the allotment today after 10 days away from it I managed to cut the grass around the plot and trimmed the edges to make it look neat and tidy. I know that doesn't add to the productivity of the plot but I do like it to look manicured (a shame, I can hear my husband muttering, that I do not direct as much effort to house work!)

One thing I noticed is that the Sedum I Chelsea Chopped, (see May posting - named after the Chelsea Flower Show held in London every May, when the chop should be done) is still not in flower. I think I must have chopped them back a little too enthusiastically - but they will surely be brilliant when they do finally flower.

Here are the photos before and after the chop in May. I meant to take a photo of how they look now, but forgot! I will post one up soon.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Time Out from the Allotment

Look at these strawberries! They are being grown in containers raised three or so feet off the ground, and beneath plastic tunnels. Obviously these fruit are well protected from slugs, mice, birds, are at a decent height for picking without breaking the back, and will ripen happily in all weathers in the warmth of the tunnel. I assume that irrigation and feeding is laid on through tubes running along the rows.

I spotted these whilst driving in the Dordogne, where I have been on holiday for 10 days.

One of the problems with going away is that plants continue to grow in your absence. Even though I spent some time making sure all work on my plot was completely up to date before I went on holiday, when I went back to it today it was, to put it mildly, overgrown.

We obviously had rain here during the last ten days. Whilst I was enjoying temperatures in the top thirties for much of the holiday in the Dordogne, with absolutely no rain, it is apparent that they were not so lucky back here at home. The grass in the strips around my plot is really tall. Tomorrow I shall take my lawn mower up there and cut it all. And also, of course, the weeds have grown in my absence, but I mostly cleared those today and added them to the compost, which seems to be rotting away nicely.

But the most rewarding part of my trip there to the allotment today was that I came back home laden with marrows, courgettes, runner beans, swiss chard, spinach, beetroot, and broccoli. Enough vegetables to feed us well for a week!

Saturday, 21 August 2010

autumn tidy up at the allotment

Today I spent several hours at the allotment, mostly in fine misty rain or mizzle as someone called it in the local community stores this morning when I went in for my paper.

I wanted to have a really good tidy up and harvesting of crops before I go away for a few more days - as otherwise I would surely return to a wilderness of weeds. The late summer rain on warm soil has made everything spring to life, weeds included.

Most importantly the grass between the plots has suddenly grown apace, and needed its first cut since the beginning of this dry summer. So this I did. I leave the blades quite high, as this maintains a green sward of grass even in drought. Others cut their grass very short, and all through the summer their grass paths have been brown and unattractive. The cuttings went on my compost heap. Too much lawn cuttings can make for slimy compost but it is fine to add them to the heap along with plenty of other material from the weeding

The beetroot is mostly mature and ready to harvest and store, but the leaves have all developed a rusty coloured mould on them. I am sure it is not harmful - the leaves are beyond the stage of eating in salads anyway - but clearly the leaves are so affected that there will be no further root growth. When i get back I shall pull them all up and hopefully store in a box of sand. It is not good to leave them in the ground for too long - they go woody.

I have found a website (Very edible gardens) that gives lots of information on the beetroot - including growing, storing, cooking - it is excellent - worth following the link for.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Summer holiday time

One of the problems of holidays is that the garden and the allotment grow apace and there is much catching up to be done on the return home.

Luckily it seems that whilst I was away there was an adequate supply of rain, and no searing temperatures to desiccate the crops.

The rain of course means that the weeds grow, but it was exciting to come home and see that the cabbages, lettuces and carrots I sowed before I went away have all shown a healthy germination. I am hopeful that the lettuces and carrots will mature before winter sets in. The cabbages are winter and spring varieties so there should be no problem there.

What is most exciting is the sight of two tiny melons on the plants I grew in the greenhouse. Melons are difficult to grow in England outside. Last year they came to nothing on the allotment. But they respond, apparently, to warm soil, and the greenhouse soil, under a black fabric, should provide the right conditions. I really hope I can grow at least one to an edible size. Watch this space!

Note on the photo of sweetcorn - not my favourite vegetable; it is after all used for fattening cattle in other countries, but we seem to be obsessed with eating it ourselves. One trick to make it more palatable is to ensure it is eaten really fresh, as close to picking as possible. Otherwise store in the fridge until use, to slow down the conversion of the sugar to starch and to maintain their sweetness. But it's all those bits between the teeth that I really object to!!

Monday, 9 August 2010

Year of Biodiversity - Bug Hotels

I took these photos earlier this year at Chartwell, the former home of Winston Churchill, in Kent, and at Pensthorpe in Norfolk.

These bug hotels are being built all over the country, in response to the appeal for us to protect the natural habitats of our bugs, amphibians, creepy crawlies. Encouraging and protecting this natural biodiversity is good for us all - good for crops - good to encourage natural predators - to keep pests and diseases under control naturally, without recourse to harmful chemicals.
In my own garden I have had a "stumpery" for a few years now. This is simply a pile of old logs and twigs left in a sheltered corner with absolutely no disturbance from one year to the next.
But "stumperies" are not for those who love everything in the garden to be neat and tidy (my husband, for instance!) This is where the bug hotels like those at Chartwell come in to their own.
I am hoping to build my own bug hotel at the allotment over the winter and will let you know how I get on over the next few months.

Saturday, 7 August 2010


I think I have mentioned before how we struggle up at the allotments to keep birds off the crops. Pigeons are the worst problem and nothing short of overall netting seems to have any long term effectiveness.
But some plotters are inspired to make scarecrows. The children love them, and I really do think they may work, at least a little.

Certainly when this one first appeared on the plot next to mine, it would regularly make me "jump out of my skin" as I caught sight of it out of the corner of my eye whilst I was working. I would imagine that loose clothing which blows in the breeze is most effective, and even better if the scarecrow has metal pots and pans or similar attached, which make a noise in the wind.
They're fun anyway, and a good talking point! Perhaps one year we should have a scarecrow competition!

Friday, 6 August 2010


I have plenty of these on my allotment and they are a very pretty sight. Now of course they are over, and there are plenty of dried seed heads full of the tiny seeds. These seeds can be sprinkled on bread, cakes and biscuits to give a wonderful nutty flavour.

They can also, it is said, be added to curry powder for texture, flavour and as a thickener, although I have not as yet tried this.

The ancient Egyptians valued poppy seeds in their baking and the Romans looked on the poppy as sacred to Ceres, the corn goddess, who taught men to sow and reap.