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.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

A wonderful miniature lettuce

This lettuce is simply wonderful! It is a perfectly formed Iceberg type but in miniature!
Measuring only 2 or 3 inches across, tennis ball sized, it is perfectly formed, with a tightly packed crispy heart, and the perfect mouthful for a single helping; useful for the person living alone, or where only one in a household likes lettuce!

What is more, it is showing exceptional drought tolerance in this extremely dry summer, and is showing no sign of wanting to bolt. I can leave them all in the soil and cut them one at a time as needed.

Note the dry and stony soil.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Evening Primrose

This Evening Primrose self seeds itself in my garden and at the allotment and I love it. In the evening the flowers have an almost luminescent quality about them. Botanists introduced it to Europe in 1614, when they brought it across from North America, where it is regarded as a weed.

But I never tire of watching the flowers unfold. On a warm summer evening, with a little patience, you can watch the flower slowly open. The first hint of something happening is when the outer green sepals start to open out, and they suddenly "ping" back against the stem. Then the petals themselves unfurl. The whole process takes only a minute or two and is well worth the wait. The flowers have a scent that is attractive to night flying moths who pollinate them. By the morning the flower has shrivelled, and in the evening more flowers open ready for the night ahead.

The American Indians have used this plant for medicinal and culinary purposes for hundreds of years, using infusions of the plant for skin complaints. The whole plant, roots, stems, leaves and even the flower buds, may be eaten. The boiled roots apparently taste like sweet parsnips, but I have not tried them.

Medicinally, the oil extract from the plant is attracting increasing attention and although not fully tested, may be useful for the treatment, for example, of pre menstrual tension, ectopic eczema, alcohol poisoning and the relief of hangovers, acne, brittle nails, and even guarding against arterial disease. This has been put down to the omega-6 essential fatty acid, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which it contains.

It seems that the Evening Primrose has not yet yielded up all its secrets and who knows, we may see fields being grown commercially in years to come.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010


It still amazes me to think that in one season we converted this, above, to this, below:

This is our third summer on the allotments, and we have all experienced bumper crops right from the start. This year has probably been the most challenging. It started off cold and wet, and it seemed to take a long time for the soil to warm up for optimum seed germination. Now we have the driest summer for goodness knows how many years, even decades.

I have always felt that plants should not be watered too often; that plants once established, should be encouraged to grow their roots down to the water deeper in the soil, and that watering should be restricted to establishing plants after transplanting for example. "Little and often" watering is definitely not a good idea as this encourages rooting close to the surface.

But this year I have broken my own rules. Most plants have required frequent watering simply to survive - many have shown signs of distress and I have had to cave in to their demand!

Some crops always require plenty of watering. One such is celeriac. it can be quite a challenging crop to grow for that reason, but is worth the trouble as it makes fabulous soup for freezing for the winter. Another crop that needs plenty of water at the right time is the marrow - too little water and the skins are very tough, and the flesh very stringy. That has been the case this year, although the courgettes seem to be pretty much OK, albeit not as plentiful as in previous years.

Monday, 2 August 2010

More harvesting and seed sowing

Driving home from the allotment the distinct aroma in the car was of beef casserole. This came from the red onions I have just lifted - the leaves are well dried and died down and the bulbs look nicely formed and fat. I have therefore brought them home to finish drying off on the back patio and then I will make the smaller ones into ropes, in the same way as garlic. The larger heavier ones will be spread out in the frost free and dry garden shed for use throughout the winter.

The white onions need a little longer to mature for harvest.

The soil now released by the red onions is dry but nicely friable and I have lightly forked it over and raked it to as fine a tilth as can be managed bearing in mind the stones. The larger stones have been picked off and put on the paths within the plot.

My gardening book tells me that in a 4 year crop rotation plan carrots and other root crops can follow on from the onions. This is rather convenient. I think I have mentioned that my carrot crops have really failed this year - the plants look miserable and tiny and definitely not showing much sign of forming any half decent carrots for the kitchen. I am therefore going to sow the rest of the carrot seeds I have in my collection. The packets say sow until the end of July, so given the warm soil, then as long as I give the seeds plenty of water I hope I can grow a late crop. Let's see. I'll report back later!

The red cabbages are really looking good. I have never grown these before and am perhaps having beginners' luck. Some have a little caterpillar damage, but most of them look as near perfect as they can. The wire netting has kept the pigeons off, and in any event they seem to prefer the green brassicas, given the choice. Even pigeons can apparently have dietary preferences!

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Wibbly wobbly parsnip

I think it was HRH Prince Charles who once said that we should not spurn "wibbly wobbly carrots." He was I believe thinking of the supermarket carrots that must all conform to rigid size and shape criteria, or apparently we, the public, will not buy them.

I may have mentioned that our allotments are very stony. Root crops don't like stony soil - it tends to make them fork!! And how about these for forked and wibbly wobbly parsnips!

The trick of course is to either sift the soil (and I use the stones to make the paths across the plot) or to dig a trench where the root seeds are to be sown and fill it with compost. This I now do and I can now grow super straight parsnips!

I did cook and eat these strange creatures and they tasted jolly good anyway. But I doubt if any one would have bought them in a supermarket somehow!