Tuesday 30 December 2008

Digging in feathery company

Crop updates, winter maintenance

Before today's frost I managed to go to the allotment twice over the holidays. Not much to report, really, apart from a small act of vandalism in which someone went into the greenhouse to smoke and drink, displaced the vent and threw a few things around. Luckily they did not damage anything, otherwise I would be furious. Instead, I am only baffled by how can people be so lightly irrespectful of someone else's property and work. Anyway...

In the greenhouse, the salad has sprouted: in a month or so it should be ready to transplant outside. No sign of mushrooms, though.

Outside, I have been digging here and there - I am currently clearing the wild flower meadow around the pond - in preparation for planting. The weather has been really pleasant, with a very pale sun but mild temperature. And at this time of the year there is often a curious robin around, keeping an anxious eye on what is happening and in search of an easy catch of surfaced earthworms.

Today I transferred all my potatoes and onions - which I had previously stored in cardboard boxes - to the appropriate sacks (hessian and plastic net respectively). I must say they had kept reasonably well, although a couple of potatoes have chitted and a few onions have rotted: I have learned that I should not leave the hard neck in the onion, it seemed to be the source of the rotting. I seem to have tons of tiny potatoes from last year to plant next year: where will I find room for them?

Which reminds me that I still have to complete and publish my plan for next year...

Sunday 21 December 2008

The season for planting soft fruits

Crop updates, planting soft fruis.

Yesterday was a great morning at the allotment!

I had been there last week but the weather was not too good, so I barely enjoyed planting the raspberries in thick heavy mud that made work ten times as hard as it should, with florid weeds coming out at every spadeful. As you will have noticed, I did not even feel like writing about it. If I have to look at the bright side, though, I must say that I found very rewarding to dig out all the abandoned berry plants on the left boundary path. Soft fruits are quite invasive, and these plants (which I should not complain too much about as they fed me through the summer) were definitely overgrowing, but my neighbours were not bothered as they do not use the path so I offered to do it myself. I divided up the uprooted plants between my neighbour and me, and I have to find a less obnoxious place for them to thrive next year.

Yesterday morning the weather was just fine and warm: it has been so mild of late that there were buttercups flowering (not that that makes me particularly happy, as creeping buttercups are one of the worst weeds in the allotment, so I welcomed their efforts by weeding out a wheelbarrow-full)!

A dozen of new strawberries (Florence, the ones the last year produced more) had arrived during the week, so I planted them and managed to find room for a couple of the raspberries I digged out last week.

One of the gooseberries cuttings I planted a couple of weeks ago has pushed out a tiny leaf, and salad is also sprouting in the greenhouse, although there is no sign whatsoever of mushroom. Phacelia is doing terribly well, next year I will plant more to keep the soil from being washed of nutrients over the winter. Parsley is doing well also, although in a less vigorous way. Rhubarb's fat buds are emerging, a rich pink in colour: I must remember to feed with manure later on. The blueberry I planted earlier this autumn has a lots of buds, despite the soil not being acidic at all in the allotment: this is something to be monitored.

Potatoes for the new year have arrived during the week as well: they are now stored in my shed, where they should chit (although for some reason they seem to chit better in my kitchen larder).

I was tempted to go back again in the afternoon, but I have my garden at home to fix as well, so I decided to to stay and take care of that: how could I dare say I am a keen gardener when my garden at home looks like a wasteland...

Thursday 11 December 2008

Another beautiful winter day

Crop updates

On Saturday I went to the allotment again... as my work is getting busier and busier, and the weekdays are so full, I have almost forgotten what I did!!! But I remember having a very good time.

I heard that I would not get my autumn onions after all, because the supplier made a mistake in the ordering process so they were lined up for autumn 2009 instead of autumn 2008 (funny mistake...) but I was too tired to get angry.

There was no sign of any mushrooms, I planted some Winter Gem lettuce in the greenhouse: when the seedlings are strong enough I plan to move them to my fleece tent outside - no major damage for the wind, so it should be fine.
I also got cuttings from redcurrant and gooseberry to transplant (branches actually root if they touch the ground), which made me feel as I had actually achieved something. :)

Today I received some more raspberries, red (Autumn Bliss) and yellow (Allgold) varieties, which means I have my weekend work laid out for me!!! It feels good as soft fruit have been a satisfactory crop, so I am quite excited about getting more. Weather is going to be awful, though...

Saturday 6 December 2008

Winter growing arrangements

Crop updates, doubts on mushrooms, protecting winter crops

Last weekend I had a quick go at planting some Meteor peas: I seem to be late again on the planting schedule. Last year I had a few free weekdays so I am now realising that having only weekends is making it very difficult to keep a steady pace. Anyway, we will see what happens with the peas and I have also put in last year's leftover onions.

The layer of newspaper over the mushrooms spawn in the greenhouse had dried out over the week, so I made sure to give it a proper soak, and today I will check if anything has happened beneath it at all. I was so excited about growing mushrooms, but last night an expert gardener told me that they are a nuisance because once they grow they spread all over the place: this has somewhat shaken my enthusiasm, and I am not sure how I feel about them now. Being in the greenhouse, the spread should be limited but I would not want my greenhouse to be taken over either. Still, I quite like mushrooms...

I am feeling slightly drained today, emotionally drained I mean, last week being quite an exciting one workwise, so gardening is a must this weekend and I am so happy that today is a sunny day!
Besides, I have to plant winter lettuce before the winter is over: I am quite keen to get some decent crops despite the season.

As I thought a covered bed might help in achieving this, last Sunday I tested my engineering skills on building a fleece tent on a small bed. Ready-made fleece tunnels looked a bit difficult to work under, so my idea was to have fixed walls and be able to access the bed easily from the top.

The result is a bit clunky - I wanted to finish as soon as possible while the ground was still relatively warm (temperatures dropped in the last few days), so as to create a microclimate conducive to growth. I will have to refine my tent as I go along, but I still hope it will work out in the end and for now I look forward to seeing if it has resisted the wind so far!

P.S. By the way both the gratin and the pumpkin pie were delicious in the end! I did follow the recipe only loosely, though, as is my style... In the gratin I only used cheese, strong cheddar: no cream and no potatoes and in the pie I used cream instead of evaporated milk (was not quite sure what that was anyway).

Sunday 23 November 2008

A good Saturday morning

Crop updates, pumpkin recipes

Sunny day: hooray! Chilly morning, still a very pleasant couple of hours I spent at the allotment.

Duly planted the mushrooms beneath the glasshouse bench, working the granules in the manure and covering with damp newspaper. In ten day or so the spawn should start to form.
The broad beans have also found their way into their winter bed and I have tidied up the asparagus patch, whose containing wall had bent to 45 degrees with weight (much less difficult than expected!).

Weeds were cleared out of my "fancy" patch in front of the greenhouse door, where I planted lavender and bulbs around an existing gooseberry bush. While clearing, I was pleasantly surprised to find 3 oregano plants, which I cannot quite explain (Is oregano a UK wild plant? I doubt it... Did my predecessor scatter any seeds? Maybe... Did my plants - which are in a totally different place - spread seeds that far? Mhhhh) . Anyway, I transplanted one in the greenhouse and mulched around the other two: let's see if they live through the winter!

Found some onion sets left from last year: most had wilted but some seem fine, so I will have a go at them next week. I also bought more raspberries and strawberries (last years' 15 plants, the runners I have transplanted and the new plants should ensure enough supply for next year!).

Tonight I need to cook pumpkin, as the three I got from the allotment are starting to go off around the slugs' holes. I have found two recipes.

Sam's Pumpkin Pie (from the HSL Catalogue 2008)

Short crust pastry in a flan dish (1.5 cups of flours, 0.3 cups of cold water, I cup fat)
1 cup sugar
1.5 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp allspice
0.5 tsp ginger powder
4 eggs
500 gr evaporated milk
3 cups of pumpkin puree (from roasted pumpkin, details to your imagination)

Bake at 210C for 1/4 hour then turn down to 175C for another 3/4 to 1 hour until an inserted knife comes out cleanly.

This pie should take me through the week at lunchtime.
The other recipe, my auntie from Italy dictated on the phone (not sure where she found it, possibly the Silver Spoon).

Pumpkin Gratin

800 g pumpkin
2 potatoes
2 eggs
1 cup cream (in Italy cream does not translate exactly on the types available here, I generally use double cream though)
1 spoon flour (in Italy 00 is the default)
Parmesan cheese, grated
salt, pepper

Steam or boil the pumpkin and potatoes and then mix with the rest. Cook for 20 minutes until golden (does not specify temperature, auntie's guess is 175C).

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Lazily, tiredly browsing the web after work and before dinner

Erratic thoughts while chilling out, allotment beds map

Not so long ago Thompson & Morgan updated their website, and although this is a purely commercial site and not specifically dealing with organic, they have included a little interesting content - on the other hand they have ended up messing up the online order form considerably, and you never seem to know exactly what you will pay.

Anyway, I find useful the "What to plant this month" page, which gives me ideas for last-minute planting (being a compulsive buyer of greenery). Also, I find that you often get extra information on the plant from the website cards that is not on the seed packet, and keep telling myself that I should go back and read it before planting - but that is too time consuming so I never do. Having the information grouped by month has slightly increased my chance to read it , i.e. when I receive the newsletter - beware: they do send quite a lot of paper and email, which is quite annoying, but obviously it does them good because they keep sending more.

The Seeds of Italy newsletter, which I received as well, has also a little bit of suggestions on what to plant in the coming month (and they are more sparing with information): I did not realise you could plant some peas at this time of the year, so much to learn for me yet!

Back to the T&M newsletter, I followed it through tonight and had a lazy look around so I noticed a "Gardening Hints and Tips" section. Some areas were fairly easy to read - such as the 'Germination guide' and the 'Growing potatoes' page - I will print it out for taking to the allotment.

There are also pages on geraniums but I did not find any information on overwintering them, which I am quite keen to do as last year I managed to grow only 1 of 5 seeds of my Summer Shower Mix and the plant was really beautiful (unlike most of the varieties that are sold as plants). I still hope to save my lonely plant, despite the fact that it got frostbite when it snowed last month.

More allotment-wise, I have almost done preparing my beds map to plan next year's planting. I will post it when it is ready.

Sunday 16 November 2008

I do best on the allotment when not under time pressure

Crop updates, autumn cleanup, cooking

Unlike my student and business life, I seem to do better when I am not pressured for time on the allotment. Yesterday I had a great time preparing the mushroom bed in the greenhouse (apparently mushrooms do best on horse manure under the greenhouse bench, so I have prepared them a nice pile of it), planting garlic and covering up the herbs.

I did not feel as I was firefighting and I have done quite a lot, clearing up a nettle patch that I will need to use up and throwing away rubbish that had been there for one year. Herbs were trimmed and covered with fleece so they are ready for any frost that may be coming.

Planted garlic even though the soil was not at its best, while broadbeans are still waiting - hoped to do it today, I actually digged in the green manure in the bed in preparation, but it is b****y raining again! It is very hard this year with such weather: is it just me or was last year actually much better?

Did you know that mint's roots smell of mint? :) They have outsmarted my containing plastic sheets and have anchored fast in the ground. I managed to take some out to plant in the greenhouse just in case the plant outside does not make it, and had enough to share some with the neighbours.

I ended up making another Torta Pasqualina with 650gr of beet that was still growing! And, following up from last week: I had the borlotti beans cooked in tomato sauce and served with polenta: I was not overexcited about them but my husband did seem appreciative.

I am curious to see what will come of the mushrooms when I finally manage to plant them - I have stocked up on newspapers, as you need to cover the spawn with wet ones. If it does not rain too much I may pop in later today and have a go at it.

Sunday 9 November 2008

Finally back!

Allotments abroad, clearing up, crop updates, encouraging wildlife.

This week I have been travelling to Switzerland and I must say my allotment holder soul was struck by a view from the train just outside Zuerich. Not considering the numerous chicken pens which made me think of the mountain village I used to spend my holidays and - more recently - weekends in in Italy (which I am sort of missing), I was surprised to see an allotment site over which, flapping in the wind, were flags from several countries. What a curious idea - I was thinking - when the train went past another one exactly the same. Obviously it is a tradition, and it felt good to see different nationalities so openly celebrated together in the close community of the allotments.

Anyway, back to England, this weekend I finally managed a visit to my allotment after more than two weeks.

To start with, everything looked horrible and I felt so disheartened. The snow had damaged the Borlotti beans and the sweetcorn, and most plants were either dead or dying, with the exception of the green manure Phacelia which is doing pretty well. It is really annoying to find out that the only thing than one would hope to be exterminated by snow - slugs - have instead survived pretty well, indeed so well that it would not be inappropriate to think of the plot as Slug Central.

Although the weather was not particularly exciting, it did not rain, and I managed to clear everything up and dig the half bed that I will need to plant the garlic as soon as the ground is not waterlogged, hopefully next weekend.

I guess I cannot complain. I have picked four pumpkins in the end, three of which should be ripe according to the rule that a pumpkin is ripe if it resists puncturing by fingernail.
Also, I got 15 corn cobs, which are eatable albeit a bit starchy from staying so long on the plant. And 300gr of Borlotti beans - very little considering how many pods were on the plants before the freeze, but it is better than nothing, isn't it? I will try them tomorrow.

Despite the overnight rain I managed to go again this afternoon, when it felt much better compared with yesterday, probably because it looked cleaner. As it started drizzling, I decided to clear up the greenhouse so that I can plant something inside: salad and mushrooms for example. It was a proficuous time: I managed to make everything neat and tidy, which was needed as there were signs of mice. Finding some chitted potatoes in a paper bag, which I must have brought over some time ago, I planted them inside, just to see what happens. It is not the wisest of ideas, as I had to plant them in compost that had previously hosted my blighted tomatoes, but I decided to give it a try anyway. I also planted some tulip bulbs and erected a trellis to protect and train my fig tree on.

In terms of socialising, it was good to meet the angel neighbour who felled the obnoxious tree at the top of the plot. While we were on the topic, and since he did not need his logs and wanted to burn them, I asked if I could have some myself.
I will use them to start building my little "nature reserve" housing block. I have seen a great picture of one in "The Organic Way", the magazine that comes with the Garden Organic subscription. It consists of 6 pallets in a pile, filled in between with logs, hollow pipes, bricks, straw and rolled cloth: I want one!

Sunday 2 November 2008

Another weekend without allotment

I have not been away from the allotment so long since I got it last year, but yesterday I felt pretty awful and today I have had to catch up on housework.

Really counting on next weekend: garlic and broadbeans are waiting to be planted before the ground is too hard. I have found a leaflet on crop rotation and - between that and the instructions on my (very useful) book - I figured out that both my garlic and the broadbeans are going to go where the tomatoes were this year.

Time to go now, I have to prepare for the week ahead...

Friday 31 October 2008

It snowed this week

I did not go to the allotment last weekend (same reason as ever, the weekend has become essential to my weekly rest and housework needs since I changed jobs) and, because of British summer time coming to an end there is no chance for me to go after work...

... so when it snowed copiously on Tuesday I was worried for the herbs - which I have not covered yet - and of all the other crops, in particular my Borlotti beans. It seems on our side of London it had not snowed in October since 1974.

Tuesday 21 October 2008

If I did housework...

... all the time I spend at the allotment, I would be Anthea Turner's Perfect Housewife, and my husband would shower me with gratitude.

However, we cannot all be perfect, so I must content myself with being the allotment's "whirlwind" and take pleasure in the extremely limited domestic glory that the title provides...

Quick visit to the allotment, community feeling.

It was such a good day today that I could not resist going out of the office dot on the hour and pop in to the allotment, where I met my new neighbour: Keith, who is a newbie but will have his green-fingered wife's contribution. Actually, I discovered that I have two new neighbours: Keith in the bottom half and another guy (the angel out of my dreams who felled the tree) at the top.

And I realised that my nickname of "whirlwind" has stuck, and fellow holders are still talking about me in those terms. I must say it is flattering, I pride myself in being "a doer", although I would not know about actually being a "whirlwind". The nickname originated when in a matter of a month or so I built both the greenhouse and the shed. Well, I needed them, I hoped to set everything up before the planting season (but I ended up running late anyway).

It is nice that people bother to stick nicknames onto you, it creates a community feeling. I bet it's Nikki and Tom that spread the word, they are so nice and friendly and have spent a lot of time chatting with me, advising, helping me identify plants, sharing cuttings etc. They themselves are nicknamed something like "the farmers" as they are very organised, very meticolous and have a very professionally-looking greenhouse.

Other characters are Geoff (who has three plots, considerable experience and I dare say a very respectable age besides a generous attitude) and the lawyer (I do not know his name, but he is there most evenings and has even gone some lenghts to greet me in Italian!).

Those are the people that I meet more often, then there are some that I meet occasionally, as my other neighbour Tony, Jean the allotment manager, the guy who looks a bit like Robert Redford and whose accent I do not understand, Claire (who got the allotment this summer, after some hankering), the Scottish lady whose orderly plot I really admire...

A lot of us are newbies, and it seems that there are more and more people in their late thirties to early forties. Sometimes there are kids playing on the path, or helping out and some dogs as well (very controversial topic, that of the dogs, as it can be argued that they are not overly hygienic besides devastating seed beds and seedlings, albeit occasionally and unwittingly).

Monday 20 October 2008

We ate it!

Corn odyssey: the end.

Tired to wait for the tassels to turn brown I picked some cobs and we finally tried it!

It was good, the grains are biggers than commercial varieties and a bit stickier when chewed, with thicker skin and softer centre, but I liked it, it was tasty! And there are plenty more on the plants... I have kept a couple of smaller cobs and will try to dry them for popcorn.

Today the garlic has arrived, so next weekend it will be autumn planting: I have to figure out where they belong according to my rotation plan. I will do it some time this week, when I find a little bit of time. Or if I can keep my eyes open I might do it now, while I wait for the last torta pasqualina with my spinach beet to cook.

Sunday 19 October 2008

So pleased!

Wish come true unexpectedly, mice and potatoes

I popped into the allotment to take home some garlic and noticed that my new neighbour has felled an elder tree that was at the bottom of his/her plot and that was making an awful lot of shade in a place that is already shady and wet: I am so pleased, it is one of those small things that make a difference!

I had been thinking of asking the allotment manager if she could get the tree pruned shorter, but it is much easier now that the problem has solved of its own accord, and better than expected.

Although with a tiny pang of guilt for being so happy for a felled tree - pang which I am trying to silence thinking that the birds should not suffer too much as there are plenty of trees around anyway - I am rejoycing at the opportunity to grow a bit further up the plot, now that it is lighter and airy.

This piece of good news compensated the discovery that mice had got to the potatoes I was storing temporarily in the greenhouse...

Saturday 18 October 2008

Autumn tidying up

Autumn tidy-up, crop updates, what I will be planting next.

This afternoon I have been to the allotment after more than 10 days. Everybody is tidying up and digging in manure. It is really nice to see everything neat and tidy after the summer wilderness. The plot to my right - which had been overgrowing for a while - is also looking much better: there are obvious signs of activity, so I guess I've got a new neighbour.

I myself have sorted the polythene sheets and pallets that were lying around, pruned another little bit of the plants behind the shed (it feels much airier now!) and mowed the lawn. Also, I moved one of the waterbutts behind the greenhouse where it is shadier, and therefore less suitable for growing anything. Later on, I will have to arrange for my fig - which is planted in the sunny spot in front of the greenhouse - to grow around it somehow.

Another task that I started was clearing up a spent crop bed: while doing that i was thinking that the battle against weeds is really endless and extenuating, made me wonder whether we got it all wrong and instead of working against nature we should work with it. A while ago I read "Threading Lightly" by E. Sveiby about the Australian aboriginals' way of living and learning, and I must say that their farming and fishing methods as described in the book - although sounding too good and effortless to be true - I find really appealing.

Anyway, back to my allotment, I picked another handful of French beans, the last tomatoes and courgettes and some corn cobs (not sure yet they are ready, but will try them anyway). Borlotti beans and pumpkins are doing fine, and so are leeks and green manure.

In a couple of weeks I will be planting broad beans for next spring. Because of the good results I had this year, I have chosen again Aquadulce Claudia (I changed supplier though). I could have done with a longer season, though, so I will be trying a spring planting type as well, which is called Express.

I am still waiting for my garlic and onion sets to arrive: I have gone for garlic Albigesian Wight (I was not very pleased with last year's Lautrec Wight), and onions Shakespeare and Corrado. Plus I have some left from last year, I will try and plant those as well.

Sunday 12 October 2008

Summing up the season

Crop updates, summing up the season and crop yields

This weekend - despite the very pleasant weather - I did not manage to go to the allotment. Again. However, I went there quickly on Thursday evening and everything looked allright. Spinach is coming out, corn seems fine although a bit battered, pumpkins not developing much but healthy, borlotti beans on their way. And some of the leeks are seemingly ready already!

Suddenly I find myself in a very quiet period for the allotment, after six months firefighting to plant everything in time, keep weeds at bay and pick crops. It feels a bit weird, but I have plenty of other things to do that I put on hold before, so this provides a balance for my overall life!

Background work goes on all the time, though. This week I have received my top-up green manure seeds (Green Chronicle has a good choice, and it is organic), I keep collecting seeds from my vegbox where possible and I have done a bit of calculations on my first year yield.

Although I am surely not even, having invested a fair amount in the startup (shed, greenhouse, waterbutts, pond, mower, tools, plants and seeds), I must say that I could have done worse.

I had three bumper crops:

- potatoes (various) 43kg which seems a lot, but I have weighted and noted every weighting, so it should be correct
- onions (red and yellow) some 12 kg
- broad beans 8.45 kg

I also had an unexpected crop of spinach beet of 4.4 kg and some 2kg of courgettes, 1.7kg of shallots and 1.3 kg of French beans.

With regards to soft fruit, I got 64 strawberries of 12 plants and 50 rasperries of 8 plants.

On the negative side, worst crops were brassicas (only tiny turnips survived, 7 of them) followed by tomatoes (out of the tens of seeds that germinated, only some 5 plants survived and I got a mere 15 fruits).

Next year is bound to be much better with the experience I have accumulated, though.
For a start I will be using more pots and plant in the ground bigger plants, which have a bigger chance to survive slugs.

Then I should get some additional vegs from those plants that do not crop in the first year: asparagus, artichokes and rhubarb. And more from the raspberries and strawberries (particularly if all the runners' plantelets survive).
And, now that I can figure out how plants grow and develop a bit more, I will be able to plan my sowing and planting more carefully.

More about this in the next few weeks!

Monday 6 October 2008

A quick visit to the allotment

Crop updates, corn odyssey

It turns out that the corn is not gone bad: it is actually not ripe yet.

I re-opened the cob leaves and the tiny pale yellow grains I noticed last time seem to be turning greyish. From that I derive there is a problem with the method of checking the tassels: it does not seem to be very reliable as the said tassels are probably very tasteful to all sorts of creatures from slugs to woodlice (I find one at the top of the cob) so they might go brown for other reasons than ripeness. I am feeling a bit better about it: I have obviously planted the corn too late... hopefully if we get warm weather this month it will still ripen.

Tonight I did not have much time and the drizzle was really sad and discouraging, but I managed to quickly gather vegetables for the whole of the week. You should smell it, it is as fantastic as it looks!

By the way, spinach seems to be coming out, but I am afraid that slugs might have been too much for both corn salad and lettuce...

Now back to the kitchen to cook dinner: tonight I am on a very a tight schedule!

Sunday 5 October 2008

Thoughts triggered by reading...

Reading instead of practising because of other commitments and the weather, corn odyssey

The tomatoes were quite tasty, look forward to pick the others - this weekend I did not manage to go to the allotment: too much to do at home and miserable weather. Not a day goes by - however - that I do not at least think of the allotment: yesterday while I was out shopping I got some ericaceous compost for the blueberry bush I planted before going back to work.

I am quite happy that we had some proper rain, this week: I will be on the lookout for seedlings of spinach and corn salad when I drop in after work one of these coming evenings, time and weather permitting.

Too much to do, time permitting... this year I have spent most of the time "fire-fighting" as they say, trying to catch up on things I had to do. Even taking some time off work, I did not manage to do everything I planned!

So I am still catching up, on pretty much everything, including reading my favourite "Magazine" (The Time's). Yesterday I was browsing last week's issue, and - unlike the usual - I read the gardening article. "Vegging out" by Alice Miles, it was.

On the one hand, it was good to read that I am not the only newbie with problems labelling in a decent way. I mentioned my labels at the foot of the French beans that have been lost in the intricacy of the growth on wobbly sticks. Also, my potatoes are officially unnamed. I did label them. However, I used the labels that came on the net bag: with sun, rain and slimy creatures sliding over them, the writing got wiped out completely, so I was left with white tags!

On the other hand, it was not that good to read that corn might go bad: that possibility had not really occurred to me - the plants being so beautiful and the cobs seemingly not ready. A couple of weeks ago I had unfolded the layers of skin on a cob whose tassel had gone brown, as per instructions I found somewhere. I should have tried and squeezed a grain with my nail to see if any whitish juice came out of it. But my corn is supposed to be black (Black Aztec corn, Zea Mais), and what I saw were very tiny, light yellow grains, so I folded it back. I will be feeling a bit restless now until I manage to pick a couple of cobs and try them.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Acting on sudden impulse...

Crop updates

I was sitting half-asleep on the train tonight when my stop came: I almost jumped up and looked out, it was still relatively light. My watch said it was ten to seven so I suddenly decided I would just drop in at the allotment. With my laptop on my shoulders, the city suit and all, I almost run there. And it was fifteen great minutes before it got too dark.

It rained quite a lot today in central London, so I was sure the ground would be wet, but I was disappointed: not a lot of rain seems to have reached here, certainly not the allotment.

The wind (that does not make a good companion to the dry weather) has damaged the corn; on the positive side, though, it seems that the cobs are swelling a bit, which I take as a good sign.

Five tomatoes have ripened and I picked them: they look really appealing and smell delicious, even though the photo (with the light of this time of the day) does them but limited justice.

The yellow fruit that is with them is the pumpkin I photographed a while ago: she did not make it, so I picked her to avoid any more waste of energy by the plant. Several leaves on the runners have also wilted, which might seem a bit depressing if you do not consider that - underneath - I found the biggest pumpkin so far: some 30 cm in diameter. I had not realised it was there, it grew bottom up! Looks healthy, so the count has gone up to four.

The courgette plants are producing several little flowers but no real courgette: it looks like they are wearing out.

Florence fennel is also growing, for the rest, no news. But what a nice wind-down I had tonight!

Monday 29 September 2008

Back to work...

Crop updates, Garden Organic and Heritage Seed Library

Another gorgeous weekend and I have digged the last 5 pounds of potatoes and planted green manure in most empty beds. And had to water seedlings, curiously enough after this summer's weather.

Unlike the corn, tomatoes in the greenhouse are almost ripe, I have cooked a second torta pasqualina for ourselves and the neighbours, and put dried herbs in jars, which - with a bit of decoration - will make nice Christmas presents.

I am back to work and with the shorter days I cannot be at the allotment during the week... to compensate for the "loss" and at the same time to celebrate my being back on the payroll, I have invested a little bit in memberships to Gardening Organic and the Heritage Seed Library.

A bit like open-source software, some varieties of seeds can only survive if geeks - enthusiasts - provide some TLC. Otherwise - not having made it through the market screening - they are destined to die out, and their biodiverse genes do not get a future chance.

I will be sent some six species or non-commercial seeds with my subscription, and - very appreciated - I got another couple as a welcome present! My collector's ego is all aglow...
And if I ever have any questions on how to grow the natural way, Garden Organic provides an advice service, in addition to the available information resources (last week I linked their comprehensive information on weeds).

If I make it through the next couple of business-busy weeks, I will read through the material they sent with the subscription, including how to compost with worms.

Friday 26 September 2008

Making the most of allotment produce

Spinach beet and torta pasqualina.

After breaking your back on the allotment all your spare time, the last thing you would want is to throw away any green stuff. Usually, though, when something is in season you get far too much of it, albeit for a very short period of time, as family and friends of allotment holders surely know.

Well, the spinach beet that has grown from self-seeding is doing very well, so that I cannot keep up with it (why do slugs not exterminate it as they do with the rest, I wonder?). Anyway, each time I do a round of leaves I come home with some two pounds (they are so big I can hardly carry them home on my bike!) so now I have to figure out ways of using them that are not too boring (not another two pounds of boiled beet, no!!!).

So I have at times resorted to the Pizzoccheri della Valtellina recipe, a very hearty meal that I cook with cabbage, chard/beet, potatoes AND French beans... always one of my favourites and you almost get your 5-a-day with it! However I have run out of pizzoccheri and forgot to have some sent from Italy, so I thought of the next best recipe I know: torta pasqualina.

I had never actually made one myself before, and I had not been cooking anything serious (apart from pizza) since we came to the UK more than three years ago - for personal reasons of incompatibility with the oven, more than anything else, really!

But, you see, that's what your allottment makes you do! I decided to have a go, resuscitated my tools and... it was easier than expected and the result outstanding! Proof of the pudding: the two of us got rid of it in just two meals! If you read Italian, this is the recipe I loosely followed.

Tuesday 23 September 2008


Hand-weeding and roots

Today I have finished digging my last bed. Finally - exactly one year since I got it - the allotment is mostly clean! Which of course does not mean that I do not have to keep weeding (as indeed I have done with the rhubarb and artichoke beds today) or clearing spent crops in order to plant green manure, but the worst is over!

Talking of clearing and weeding, I have not yet learnt how to use a hoe, probably because I do not feel particularly comfortable with it. I prefer digging altogether or using a daisy grabber for the smaller hand-weeding work. And since my way of hand-weeding made me pretty much familiar with roots, I have decided I am going to make this post about weeds and particularly their roots.

First thing to say: from what I can see most roots love to be chopped, so that they can multiply endlessly; this is especially true of bindweed, but also of dandelion and dock (someone says that only the upper 9cm are able to reproduce).

I have taken pictures to show the most common weeds' roots in my allotment, below more details.

weeds' roots

A. Dandelion has very long roots of a brownish color, they tend to snap easily at all lenghts so you need to dig deep to take them out.

B. Dock is quite similar to dandelion in having very long roots, but these tend to be quite large or with multiple taproots; they tend to snap at the base of the leaves, and the colour of the stump is bright pink. You need a bit of work and deep digging to pull them, especially when the plant is biggish.

C. Creeping buttercup spreads by runners above and below the ground from what I can see, and they tend to snap at the base of the leaves, so you need something to help you pull the whole root out from below.

D. Nettles are a good weed in that they are attacked by aphids that ladybirds are particularly fond of and they also attract carrot fly so I guess they can be used as sacrificial crops. They make a good liquid feed, accelerate composting and young leaves are also edible. The roots are yellow and ramified.

E. Couch grass has long, white, wiry roots, quite superficial, so they are easy to pull out.

F. Bindweed has long, deep, soft white roots that break so easily and even the tiniest fragment regrows scaringly well. It is the weed I hate the most!

Sunday 21 September 2008

Finally a sunny weekend!

Good weather and crop updates

Amazing weather these last three days, it was a pleasure to be outside and I took advantage of it to finish digging my last but one bed, and to plant spinach, some more cime, turnips, salad and barbe di frate. Hopefully tomorrow there will be a good shower and then sun again.

I am so happy to say that that tomato leaf mould seems to be receding, and the tomatoes in the greenhouse have a visible reddish tinge to them: how exciting! Finger crossed...

Talking of solanacee, I have experimented with plastic bells to cover the chillies, afraid that it might be too cold for them at night. I have a feeling that the stagnating air inside the bells might not be too healthy, but will check them in the next couple of days and see.

French beans still doing well, with another 500gr picked, and the Borlotti beans are on their way. However, I have made a mistake fixing the labels in the ground which - together with my wobbly staking - makes it impossible to tell which plant is which (apart from the Borlotti that stand out quite conspicuously with their red and green pods).

Pumpkins also growing, but the sweetcorn's inspection was a little bit of a disappointment: cobs do not seem ripe yet in spite of the tassels at the top turning brown a while ago (I would say one month in some cases).

I have finished transplanting all the strawberry's runners that I had kept in water to root, and it felt like an achievement. From the initial 12 plants, I have filled a bed and started a second one: if they live, next year there should be a good supply. It seems that Honeoye has been putting out runners for some three months and Alice has started one month or so ago, but Florence has none, maybe because it was the best cropper and all its energies were spent fruiting.

Good news, there are also two tiny aubergines emerging from the spent flowers' crowns.

Bad news, my war on slugs looks nowhere nearer the end...

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Ordinary maintenance and stocktaking

Wildlife pond, slugs, crop updates, self-sufficiency and stocktaking.

I have finished working on the pond: now it has a toad cavern, a sunbathing platform for frogs, and waterplants in it.

For the rest, nothing very exciting: the herb bed needed weeding before I cover it up for the winter - it seems it won't be long before night temperatures plummet.

News from the animal kingdom: all cabbage white caterpillars either pupating or drowned, the slugs are taking over as insect of the month. I have been killing them in dozens, and I was also "lucky" to uncover a handful of eggs under a stone, which I squashed one by one with manic patience. Small slugs I cut in two with scissors because they have this habit of propelling themselves away when I try my favoured method: jumping on (disgusting as it might be, I favour the method as they die straight away, without apparent suffering).

Thinking of it better, though, there is something quite exciting: this week for the first time I have been as self-sufficient with my vegetable supply as I will ever be this year. Potatoes, onions, shallots and garlic already harvested and stored, courgettes and flowers picked almost every day, French beans, perpetual spinach (a bonus, as it grew from self-seeding rather than me planting it!), green tomatoes, salad, basil, mint, sage, oregano, fennel, parsley. In case of emergency, I even have some frozen broad beans left. And - shortly - Florence fennel, sweetcorn and leek will be ready.
Following from that thought, I have decided that - if I plan properly and time it carefully - next year I might well be self-sufficient on vegetables most of the time. To achieve that result, I think I will need:
  • a plan of what to plant each month of the year, including companion planting and catch crops,
  • a space ready for planting (now I am a bit stuck as I could plant things but the beds are not ready yet).
So, yesterday, I started my "professional" stock-taking.

I have a spreadsheed where I am trying to keep track of expenses, yield, stock of seeds and plants. Quite a sizeable stock (179 species for next year, to be precise - I am a collector by character, no doubt of that!). Which stock, taking advantage of a cooler, gray day, I have catalogued and sorted by month of planting.
During the winter, I will need to assess the family of belonging of the plants, and find a suitable place for them in my 4-year crop rotation. I think the most difficult thing will be keeping in mind all the relative lifespans of the plants so as to introduce catch crops and plan timely succession.
I do not know if I will manage to be that precise anyway, though, gardening is after all my hobby , I should allow myself to leave some spontaneous enjoyment in it!

Sunday 14 September 2008


Male or female asparagus, slugs, wildlife pond, crop updates.

I was all set on pulling the female asparagus plants today: my plan was to create a separate bed only for them. However, when I got there no sign of either berries or yellow flowers (that yellowy thing in the picture should be one). Now I am not sure which plants I have to pull, so I suspect I'll leave it for this year. It must have been birds, as slugs would leave traces on the plants as well, but there was none.

Talking of slugs, they are really the major pest in my allotment and I will have to come up with some serious plan for next year - the cime have all gone, most of the new round of turnip's seedlings disappeared, the salad patch is a wasteland and several of my potatoes have been tunnelled into by as many as 10 slimy creatures together.
Today I have bought collars woven with copper fibres and I think I will have to resort to nematodes as beer traps have not worked: more ground beetles than slugs drowned, which is no good as ground beetles feed on slugs and knocking them off is not a good move.

I have planted Marsh Marigold and Purple Loosestrife in and around the pond respectively, and had a go at creating a toad cavern with flint and a spare tile I found abandoned around, let's see if it stands the weather this winter. As soon as the pond gets clear again of the mud I have stirred today I will create an island for the frogs to sunbathe on, by placing bricks on the bottom of the pond and a concrete slab on top, as suggested by VeggieGlobal.

The pumpkins are growing quickly and so are the French beans. The transplanted Florence fennel is putting out new feathery fronds, which I decide to interpret as a good sign, hoping that the bulb will follow after the leaves. I managed to pick one ripe tomato Tigerella from the greenhouse, while a handful I had to throw because they were diseased. Finger crossed for the rest.

And the only surviving chili plant has one single flower on. I am wondering whether I should cover it now before it gets too cold. After all the hassle to grow chilies, I hope this "Hot Mexican" is a perennial species, I may still find the seed packet and be able to check.

Monday 8 September 2008

I'll never do a raindance again

On watering and rain, pumpkin or squash, male or female asparagus.

I hate watering, and last summer I had to do quite a bit of it, hence my raindance, which incidentally seems to have worked far too well! It is incredible the amount of rain that has poured in the last few weeks, and it doesn't look as if it is over yet either... However, over the weekend I have sneaked briefly to the allotment in the breaks between showers.

The French beans are doing well, despite the wobbly staking; I picked my first 150gr and had them simply boiled with olive oil - they tasted amazing, so fresh!

Pumpkins have decided they will take over the plot and are doing their best: I spent most of my time today pulling strings for them to run on. I was not aware that the flowers smelled so strong and sweet, and it is lovely to see the fruit forming.

I have called them pumpkins but they might well be squashes: I do not know exactly what they are as I saved some seeds from my organic vegbox last year (when I was still a newbie gardener ;)) and did not think of writing down the name.

I am happy they are doing well also because I shared some of the seedlings with Claire, who only got her allotment in July and was starting from scratch. Although I warned her I was not sure what would come of the plants, it would have been horrible if they turned out to be worthless!

Pull out or not? Pull out or not? The best of my asparagus fern has berries on it, and the second best has yellow flowers... apparently female asparagus (the one with the yellow flowers and berries) is lower quality, so the instructions that came with the crowns suggested to pull out any plants that ended up with berries on them. I have done some research tonight and it is confirmed that the yield is lower on female plants; moreover, seedlings from the berries lead to overcrowding of the bed. Will I manage to pull a plant that looks healthy and beautiful? This is the time for me to think of the bigger picture and sacrifice a couple of plants for the greater good...

Tuesday 2 September 2008

Autumn's marching on

Autumnal mood, wildlife pond and gardening, wind and staking.

My visits to the allotments in the last couple of grayish days have thrown me in a blue mood: the lush green - both vegetable and weeds - is receding, bed by bed, and quite surprisingly it is affecting me! I do not know why, it's not that there are fewer interesting things, or less to do.

Certainly not less to do, there is enough to keep me busy for the whole winter, such as building shelving in the shed, experiment with mushrooms in the greenhouse, dig the last beds, plan for next year, improve the pond...

And talking of interesting things, the pond has surprised me. As the rose bushes and the wildflower lawn are less thick, and the water is quite clear, I could observe the new life that has developed over the year: there are plenty of water boatmen of all sizes - which worried me a little because some eat tadpoles, but then I was reassured - and several other tiny swimming and wiggling thingies that I could not identify (despite this pretty clear table). I was surprised by such a lively swarm of insects, maybe the two ducks that came for a while in early summer helped somehow. Even if they didn't, they were an amusing view, standing on their legs in the shallow water!

The strong wind these days has put to serious test my staking skills, so I had to fix the beans, adding more bamboo sticks to carry the weight. Luckily I had bought some over the weekend.

As autumn's is definitely marching on, I have finally decided to place the hedgehog hideaway. I am a bit worried that this might attract rats instead, they would never say on the instructions, would they? The last thing I would wish is to help shelter those beautifully furred but nasty creatures.

I wish I had the camera with me as a cute curious robin came down to observe the proceedings and feed on some insects that must have surfaced in the process. Other pictures worth taking:
- sweetcorn at sunset under a showery rain,
- the pupa of my 'insect of the month': the cabbage white butterfly. This is the first time I have seen one.

Monday 1 September 2008

Never say never

Tomato diseases, millipedes v centipedes, crop updates, cabbage white caterpillars.

The other day I was browsing the BBC's gardening site and my eye was caught by the problem solving homepage on Tomato leaf mould... doubts tormented me about some yellow spots I had seen on the tomatoes in the greenhouse. Confirmed today: leaves wilted, and a couple of brownish tomatoes: I had been so happy that the greenhouse was doing well... :(

Although pretty dejected, I have cleared everything suspicious, including the brownish tomatoes, and we will see. In clearing, I spotted a black millipede: I got rid of it, remembering that my book says millipedes bad (two pairs of legs per segment), centipedes good (one pair of legs per segment). How comes I find it so difficult to kill most insects?!?

After that, thought it better to dig my sorrows in, so I finally dealt with the strawberries' runners. Now some are planted and the others are in a pot with water to stimulate roots' growth (it has worked before).

The transplanted fennel was doing ok, so I thinned out another row.

No sign of barbe di frate yet, but phacelia is already germinating and so is cime di rapa - finger crossed, as brassicas have not been one of my most successful crops so far. That said, the turnips (Rapa bianca lodigiana) - which I had dispared of given their genus's destiny - are finally forming underneath the hole-riddled leaves.

Creature-wise, this is most definitely the season of cabbage white caterpillars: alive or dead they are everywhere (they seem to have a masochistic tendency to drowning in water butts and tanks, when they are not eaten from the inside by the parasite Apanteles glomeratus).

There was something swimming in the rainwater in one of my pots, looked like minuscule tadpoles, so I poured them in the pond: maybe the other day's frog has left a legacy after all!

Friday 29 August 2008

Growing organic

Crop updates, flea beetles, wildlife in the allotment.

Planted cime, barbe di frate, and phacelia on the onion bed. The fennel has not recovered from transplant yet and is pretty wilted, but I am optimistic.

There are three more crops now on, which I did not mention yesterday.

First of all, the black sweetcorn (the only organic seed for sweetcorn I could find): it is doing pretty well.

Then my salad. Salad was very exciting in the beginning as it is such a quick crop and I must say it is not doing bad even now, although it has had its ups and downs. I planted lettuce, radicchio and rocket plus some mixed salad seed.

A dry spell saw all the brassicas including rocket shrivelled with tiny holes. I was wondering about the mistery pest when a visit to Riverford farm provided the answer: flea beetles. These creatures apparently thrive in crumbly soil so my compost base to the bed was a bad idea. After that, a wet spell meant that most of my beautiful lettuce and a whole row of radicchio went sacrificed to the slugs, and now it is the turn of cabbage white butterfly caterpillars on the brassicas again!

Finally, tomato. I planted them late and the wet spell (two weeks' raining) left the ones outside in a pitiful state as they developed white mould and then died. I have managed to pick only two (but delicious!) of tomato tomarvellous. Luckily I have a greenhouse, and the tigerella tomatoes inside seem to be doing well. Unlike the other Solanacee: chillies, peppers and aubergines have proved a little disaster.

On a totally different note, yesterday I found an amazing caterpillar (Vapourer Orgyia antiqua) and a frog. Hope the frog takes residence in my pond!

Thursday 28 August 2008

Almost one year

Crop updates, misterious finding.

It is almost one year since I got my allotment, but before I can sit and reflect on progress, there are some crops that I can still plant: barbe di frate and cima di rapa quarantina so I have to hurry digging the beds before it's too late (one year and I still have not finished digging the allottment through).

Besides, I have to clear the onion bed and plant green manure before it gets all weedy again.

Last time looked like fish skin but without scales, white and grayish, wettish... I could not disentangle it but I guess it might be some sort of snake skin - although I had never seen a so-to-speak 'fresh' one - or maybe it is leftovers from a rat's burrow; neither option is too exciting though!

Anyway, today the sun has come out - albeit timidly - so I am going now to try and do all I can and to check on the Florence fennel I have transplanted. It was too thick and I never have the heart to thin out seedlings and throw the weak ones away.

Crops now on: leeks (some of it just transplanted), potatoes (what is left of my summer crop), beans (flowering now), fennel and parsley, herbs (I have quite a big patch), courgettes (although the slugs are feisting on them) and pumpkin/courgette flowers (delicious and nutritious in an omelette, or deep fried in batter).