Friday, 23 January 2015

Year of Flowers!

Allotmenteering wouldn't be much fun if you did all the same things every year, and this year, with things on the plot really starting to settle into a pattern, part of me has obviously felt the need for a new challenge. Two, actually.

Cut flowers, and cauliflowers.

I know that I've sown cauliflower seeds before, but I don't remember what happened. I expect they met an untimely end at the beaks of pigeons or the jaws of slugs (okay, not really jaws...), or drowned in couchgrass and nettles. I've tried those perennial cauliflowers too, but never had much luck.

Cauliflowers are tricky to grow; they're fussy about their soil, they have a lot of potential pests, and they sulk if anything at all goes wrong. But we eat loads of them at home and it only makes sense to start trying to grow them, even if it takes me a while to master the art... They also take up a huge amount of room; just six or eight cauliflowers on the plot will use the same amount of space as four rows of parsnips, beetroots or carrots, which hardly seems economical... but I've just got to give it a try.

They can be grown all year round, so I've picked an autumn variety to sow this spring, and a spring variety to sow later on in the summer for next year.

Wish me luck, because I'm going to need it...

Now to cut flowers... Cut flowers! I never, ever thought I'd find myself growing cut flowers. I've grown edible flowers, and medicinal flowers, and flowers to attract predatory insects, and flowers to help pollinators, and flowers to deter soil pests - marigolds, borage, nasturtiums and sunflowers are all regulars on my plot - but never flowers for fun and frivolity. But there's a movement going on... British florists are popping up all over the place, The Big Allotment Challenge has got bouquets on my brain, more allotment-holders and home-growers seem to be embracing the benefits of growing flowers, and it's swept me right up. And as I spend more and more time out there growing and being with plants, the more all kinds of plants appeal to me. And I had to buy flowers a couple of times last year, and they were expensive, and it kind of hurt to know that they were flown in from Columbia or wherever and drenched with pesticides and treated with chemicals to keep them 'alive'. And I bet they'd bring looooads more insects to the plot. And I'm always impressed and a bit envious of the few vases of flowers on display at the allotment association summer show. And anyway, wouldn't it be really nice to have flowers in the house more and some to give away whenever the occasion arose, or just to put a few smiles on faces?

I'd sown a few foxglove and echinacea plants last year anyway, for the bees and just because I think foxgloves would love the shady spot behind my neighbours' shed. I also picked up some little wallflower plants in the autumn. For one reason and another I wasn't able to plant them out before winter came, but I'm hoping to get them in early enough this spring for them to still do okay. I also sowed some scabiosa last spring which got planted out late and are yet to flower, but overwintering well... I was obviously leaning slightly flowerwards even last spring!

I got some early seed-sowing done in October too, and now have healthy calendula, corncockle, clary sage and sweet pea seedlings safe in the plastic greenhouse at home until the weather's good enough to plant them out.

And I've bought a load more seeds to sow this spring and summer, mostly from the lovely Higgledy Garden, whose fabulous blog and website (and twitter feed) is enough to tempt anyone to take up flower-growing!

The full list is vipers bugloss, cosmos, cerinthe, rudbeckia, calendula, corncockle, ammi majus, achillea, bupleurum, cornflower, clary sage, snapdragons, scabiosa, sweet pea, sunflower, and to summer-sow for early next year, more wallflowers, sweet Williams, and hesperis or sweet rocket. I don't think I have room for them all... The old strawberry patch is set aside for them but it's only about three metres square. The sunflowers will go among the perennials as usual, calendula will be dotted about, and I'm sure there's room for a strip of something next to where we'll put the greenhouse - and I haven't exactly decided what to do with the old asparagus patch yet, either, though I really shouldn't give up too much of the plot to non-edibles... We'll see what happens!

Sunday, 18 January 2015

A Tale of Three Raised Beds

When we first moved into the 'granny annex' at Mum and Dad's house I could only grow vegetables in pots and grow bags on and around the patio - their shrubby, woodlandy garden didn't have any space for vegetables and most of it was too shady anyway. That was okay by me - we had the allotment too, after all. But plant pots have a funny way of multiplying, don't they...? And with Mum and Dad moving toward organic food more and more (100% now I believe!), last year they gave me some more space to grow food for the whole family.

We planned three new veg-growing areas; one garden bed in a rare sunny spot where the shrubs weren't thriving any more, a large raised bed just in front of the patio which was occupied by a multitude of pots and tubs, and two smaller raised beds at the shadier end of the garden, where a small lawn was becoming overrun with moss and weeds and I had already put some moveable growbeds and containers for leafy crops (pic below). We decided against growing straight into the ground mostly because the garden soil is extremely heavy clay - not much fun to work with, but it'll make an excellent nutritious subsoil!

The timing was perfect; early spring when it warm enough to work outside but I'd still be able to sow everything in time. I cleared the garden bed, re-edged it to a slightly higher level and topped it off with the previous year's growbags and tubs. I hacked back the honeysuckle and snowberry that keep moving in from under the fence and planted strawberries round the edge, and it became a nursery bed for young plants for a while, while I worked on the other areas...

The big raised bed was to go on a slated area, so my first task was to scrape back all the slate chips.

We drew up some plans and ordered half sleepers (from UK Sleepers) cut from oak - a naturally long-lasting hardwood that doesn't need treating with chemicals to protect it.

I enlisted the help of my friend Dave (and his power tools!) to cut the wood to size and build the beds, using long outdoor-use 'green organic coated' timber drive screws from Wickes...

And a day and a half later all three were done and ready for filling!


I ordered the four tonnes of  'Veggie Gold' compost to fill them; a "ready-to-use" peat-free mix of compost, topsoil and manure, recommended for raised veg beds, which promised to be from sustainable sources with no added chemicals. I had to wait a while for it to arrive, which was a tad frustrating, but eventually it did...

...and the next two days were spent wheelbarrowing compost from the front of the house to the back (by myself, I'd like to add!). The larger bed has a weed membrane beneath it anyway, but in the two smaller beds I laid cardboard at the bottom to provide a barrier against weeds (until it rots, by which time they should have died from lack of light anyway).


Not a bad job, I think, and certainly a lot tidier than a jumble of containers. Hurrah! I got sowing right away, planning a row of peppers and chillies along the back of the big bed, some dwarf beans in front of them, and square-foot patches of different salad veg and small root crops along the front, with a few herbs and flowers dotted around as well. The two shady beds would take leafy greens - mostly kale and chard.

A few weeks in, I realised that all was not well... Things were growing rather strangely and inconsistently. Along a row of mustard seeds, the seedlings had grown large in patches and stalled at a tiny size in others. Some had bolted. A poached egg plant and some tiny spring onions I'd transplanted had yellowed very badly and become stunted. Spinach plants and radishes had bolted extremely prematurely, before reaching anything like a usable size.

A few weeks later still, little had changed. Those things that were growing were growing painfully slowly, or running straight to seed, while my crops on the allotment and in the garden bed in the corner were doing just fine. I began an experiment which confirmed my worst suspicions...

The two pots on the left contain the same 'Veggie Gold' compost that I filled the raised beds with; the two on the right contain old multipurpose compost out of one of the previous year's containers. The bottom two also have Complete Organic Fertiliser added. I sowed spinach seeds in all four pots at the same time, and thinned to three seedlings per pot after germination. The results are pretty clear I'd say - wouldn't you?

The company I had bought the stuff from - Compost Direct - didn't want to know. After three emails to them they finally replied to say that they only ever had good feedback about this compost and I should just add some more nitrogen or general-purpose fertiliser. I did, in the forms of chicken manure, chicken manure 'tea', and a commercial liquid feed. Nothing helped. I sent them the picture above. They didn't care. Just keep adding extra feed, they said. My blood boiled... All that sweat and hard work and money and anticipation and I couldn't even grow anything in my raised beds!

Luckily there were a few things that did seem to grow okay in the soil; little gem lettuces were slow but getting bigger, the carrots and beetroots didn't seem to mind, and the kale and chard down the garden was not too bad.

After giving it some thought, I suspected perhaps the problem was an excess of potassium; that would explain why adding more nitrogen hadn't helped leaf growth, as potassium blocks it. Potassium also encourages fruiting (perhaps hence the early bolting), and is prevalent in woody matter and straw - there had been loads of partially-composted woody stuff and strawy manure in the compost mix. I try not to consider myself a soil mineral expert after reading just one book but I still feel this is pretty likely the problem! And how do you get too much potassium out of soil? You wait for the rain to leach it out...

Growth improved very gradually throughout the year. I did get a couple of handfuls of beans even though the plants were more dwarf than ever, and the perpetual spinach got going after a while. I took to planting lots of spare plants and more lettuces in the bed - the more plants grow in it, the more potassium they use up, right? Nothing really thrived. I even let the weeds grow! I got a few nice peppers, though again the plants were small. The lettuces, it turned out, tasted starchy and bitter. My cucumbers, which I'd planted in a large container filled with the same compost, yellowed and died.

Happily, however, my bed in the corner of the garden was doing wonderfully! Two huge courgette plants gave us more than six of us could eat from June to September, and from all around them we had strawberries, lovage, tarragon, parsley, mangetout and drying beans. Calendula filled in all the gaps and brought bees buzzing to that corner of the garden. What a delight! I haven't grown courgettes at the allotment for years since we don't go there often enough to pick them, so I've made do with small courgette plants confined to pots and sulking. To see them going crazy like this - like they're meant to - was great!

The growth in the oak beds has continued to improve slowly and I am feeling quietly confident that I'll get better results this year. At the moment the large one has that same perpetual spinach (though it's rather slug-eaten just now!), some new and healthy garlic shoots, a tangle of old carrots and beetroots and a few sorry-looking herbs. The compost level has sunk a lot - nearly 25% - which will give me an opportunity to top it up with something better (though I still have nearly a half-ton of the 'Veggie Gold' sitting around...). I also plan to get the soil lab-tested at the same time as I get the allotment soil done - that'll be interesting... The kale in the bottom bed never really got very big - though caterpillars can be blamed for some of that - but it's okay, and I'm looking forward to a bit more growing success in the months ahead...

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Dining in the Dark

At the weekend I got to tick off an experience that has been on my foodie 'to-do' list for some time – 'dining in the dark'. There are a few restaurants all around the world now that offer this unique experience, and I went to 'Dans le Noir' in London with a party of ten for a friend's birthday.

On arrival our orders were checked – everyone is served a fixed surprise menu but we had pre-ordered our choice of fish, meat, vegetarian or 'special' mixed menu – and we were instructed to leave all our belongings in secure lockers in the bar area – no phones or cameras allowed in the dining room! The ten of us were lined up with our hands on the shoulders of the person in front of us, led into the dining room, and 'shown' our seats one by one.

Our waiter was blind; in fact all the waiters were – a no-brainer when you consider the implications of training waiting staff to do everything in pitch dark, but it added an unexpected poignancy too. And it really was pitch dark, even after two hours at the table when some of us thought our eyes might have adjusted enough to see just a little!

It's obviously extremely disorientating sitting in an unfamiliar room in complete darkness with the hubbub (din!) of a dozen other dining tables filling your ears, and without visual cues it was not at all easy to communicate with anyone except those closest to me, but it didn't take too long to get sort of orientated; there was Eddie on my left, the end of the table on my right, my glass of wine, cutlery, glass of water. (Pouring glasses of water from the jug provided was a challenge!) And then the food arrived...

We all very quickly realised it was virtually impossible, without seeing, to approach a plate of mystery food with a knife and fork, and most of us ate with our fingers most of the time – a common choice, apparently. Again and again, conversation turned to the challenges blind people must face.

My expectations of eating in the dark had been split: on one hand, they say that when one of your senses is taken away you experience the others more acutely, but on the other they say you eat largely with your eyes...

I certainly experienced the textures of the food more acutely. As a child I was very squeamish about strange food textures, and without any visuals to anchor my idea of what I was eating I felt perhaps even more so. There was some sort of cold pastey stuff, firm on the plate but squidgy and melt-in-the-mouth, and salty to taste. Paté, it must be, but is paté always this slimy? What does it taste of? Is it really paté? What if it's something else? I found some toast on the plate, and manoeuvred the slice of paté-or-whatever-it-was onto it. Ah, that was better. There was some salady stuff on the side too. A few leaves of rocket and a cherry tomato... an onion, roasted just enough to mellow the flavour, but what a strange feeling when the layers all slipped apart between my teeth... a baby carrot... and something else I couldn't identify at all! It was round... firm... with the texture of a cooked radish perhaps, but the flavour...? I couldn't tell. And what was this left over in the corner of my plate? Oh. There I was eating chutney, on its own, with my fingers.

The main course followed, as main courses do, and in the spirit of a taster menu we were each served three different dishes – three small piles on each plate – and a little taster of each told me one was fish and two were meat. (This was the 'special' menu.) I tackled the fish first, and texture-wise it was a real struggle, with a few lumps of firm fishy stuff – I thought perhaps squid – in some kind of sauce or dressing, and then underneath a big squidgy lump of something I couldn't identify at all. I told myself it was a big piece of cooked tomato and it went down... The two meat dishes were much more enjoyable; on the right, tender chunks of stewed meat and veg, full of flavour. It tasted like beef, but richer... Venison perhaps. On the left, a meat I couldn't identify, on a pile of vegetable shreddings that I also couldn't identify. I thought at first the meat might be very well-flavoured chicken or pork, but no, the texture wasn't right for either (though it was very tender and soft) and it seemed rare in places. I enjoyed it though!

Dessert was easier to identify; something creamy in a ramekin – passionfruit pannacotta, I thought – and a side of mixed berries topped with a blob of chocolate moussey stuff. Thankfully it was much easier to use a spoon when the food was contained in a ramekin, with no chance of inadvertently pushing it off the plate!

Throughout the meal I was constantly shocked that I couldn't identify more flavours. I usually consider myself to have a pretty sensitive sense of taste, and I can often pick out subtle flavours that others can't. In the dark, the most prominent flavours by far were simply salt, sweet and umami, with a few notable aromatics (carrot, rocket, some of the fruits), and there seemed little complexity to any of the flavours at all. Was it just bad food? Are my tastebuds way less sensitive than I think? I think it was down to a sort of stress and overwhelm; the room felt extremely noisy (whether or not I was merely more aware of the noise), sensations of texture definitely overrode sensations of taste – arguably touch is the more important sense, I suppose – and the primary challenge was just getting the food eaten at all! Forced to eat clumsily, without being able to distinguish the different components on the plate (and many of the ingredients, it turned out, unfamiliar or less familiar) I was virtually unable to analyse what was in my mouth properly. I was interested (and relieved) to read in another blogger's account of dining in the dark (by Helen Barnard at Bomboloni) that this was her experience too; she wrote "This far out of my comfort zone, my sense of taste was not heightened, as expected, but rather went into a kind of emergency mode whereby only basic senses such as sweet, salty, bitter and savoury were registered, along with vague temperature differentials." A confusing and unsettling experience!

Back in the lit bar area we retrieved our bags and coats and were shown the menus, with photographs of what we'd just eaten. My starter – that slimy, salty paté – had been foie gras, and apparently there had been a fig on my plate. How had I missed a fig?? The fishy main was lobster and oyster – both a big surprise (I love lobster, but didn't think I'd ever find myself eating slippery, gooey oysters – ugh!) – the stewed chunks had indeed been venison, and the mystery meat was delicious bison! The shredded vegetable I hadn't recognised was celeriac – something I'm not very familiar with at all. The 'passionfruit pannacotta' had actually been mango and cardamom pannacotta (Cardamom? I hadn't detected that at all!) and the chocolate mousse had been white chocolate – I'd never have guessed!

I felt cheated! I'd eaten foie gras and not been able to savour it properly?! I never thought I'd find myself eating foie gras at all – I certainly wouldn't have chosen it (though I was relieved and encouraged to find, in this fascinating article, that foie gras production may not be nearly as bad as we think these days) – and I certainly hadn't thought it as wonderful as people say it is. I'd eaten lobster and not enjoyed it because I hadn't been able to identify the texture? Those who chose the meat menu, incidentally, had unknowingly sampled wagyu beef – supposedly some of the finest beef in the world! I realised I probably paid more attention to the bison than anything else, because both the texture and taste were very pleasing and because I couldn't recognise it and wanted to figure out what it was.

I think I can safely say that food is more enjoyable when you can see it!

For £52 I'd actually eaten surprisingly little food, though £13 is for 'access to the experience' and they do obviously use some premium ingredients in the dishes! I felt the experience could have been greatly improved by reducing the sound level in the dining room, with more space between tables and perhaps booths or something to deaden the noise.

But despite my reservations, it was a thoroughly fascinating, unique and powerful experience, and something I would recommend as I'm really glad I've done it. As I left the restaurant I said I wouldn't want to do it again, but after mulling it over I think it would probably be less stressful a second time and I might be able to relax and enjoy it more.

You'll have to pardon the pictureless post, for obvious reasons, but there are lots of pictures of past menus on Dans le Noir's website here if you'd like to take a look!

Now, this wouldn't be a complete or honest review if I didn't tell you that 30-40 hours after our meal in the dark (and just after I'd drafted the above), four out of the five of us who chose the 'special' menu developed food poisoning. I try not to judge a place - or anyone or anything - on a single incident, and accidents will always happen occasionally, but I can't quite get over the irony that this is the one dining experience in which we had to put complete trust in the chefs and staff to serve us food that was acceptable in every way, and food poisoning is pretty much the ultimate betrayal of that trust. A great shame, which has dampened my recommendation for the restaurant somewhat. But let the recommendation for the experience still stand. It will remain a memorable and fascinating one.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Allotment Tour

We finally made it to the allotment this week, after having not managed to go at all during December, and did some much-needed catching up.

Here it is:

Of course, it doesn't look like much at the moment, but there's plenty going on, and considering what a battle we've always had with couchgrass and other perennial weeds we're pretty pleased with it. But it's been a long time since I took or shared any pictures of it, so let me give you the tour...

It's split roughly into seven sections, more by accident than design, with woodchip paths in between them, lined with bricks and some cheap weedproof fabric that isn't quite doing the job any more.

Section one, above, is where our compost bins are. We built them last spring to replace our old ones, in another spot, which were falling apart, and we relocated them here because it's under the shade of an elder tree and the soil is full of roots - everything we've grown here in the past has struggled a bit, so it's a good spot to use for something other than plants! The area covered in weedproof fabric over there has also been problematic, but we're determined to get it under control this year and plant a new fruit patch here, mulching heavily between the plants to try to beat the couchgrass!

Section two is the first of our three rotation beds. Last year we grew potatoes here - now the near half is covered in a phacelia green manure (and quite a few annual weeds) and the far half has rows of spinach and chard (again with the weeds...) There's also a row of scabiosa I planted out too late to flower, but it seems to be coming through the winter a treat! After we clear this patch in late spring we'll grow squashes and pumpkins here.

Section three (our second rotation bed) is where our root crops were grown, though it's beginning to look a little sparse now. The spring cabbages in the foreground are at a variety of stages - we picked our first this week but others are not ready yet, and one has rotted! :-( Beyond that is a small row of calabrese which should produce in the spring, some carrots, parsnips, swedes, celery and leeks. We've just finished the beetroots. When this patch is clear in early to mid spring, we'll plant our potatoes here.

Section four (our third rotation bed) was pumpkins and squashes last year, but now it's bare, which is pretty disappointing because I sowed most of it with field beans (a green manure) and broad beans in November. (The cardboard is there to protect a patch I left unsown, intending to make a second sowing in March.) I guess I left it just a little too late; they say early November is the latest you should sow but we did it near the end of the month. Still, never mind, there's plenty of time to sow more broad beans, and our root veg and leeks will go here from March onwards.

Section five is what we call our perennials bed, though it's not the only one! We planted it last year with asparagus (along the left hand side) strawberries (in the raised beds) and globe artichokes (far end, under little mounds of woodchip mulch and black plastic to protect the crowns from frost), as well as some parsley, sage, lavender and lemon balm. It's done okay so far but the plants are still getting established - hopefully they will be even better this year. I'd also like to plant some perennial kale among the sage - supposedly sage keeps cabbage white butterflies away, but we will see!

Section six is home to our pond (far end), two columnar 'spur' fruit trees, and our old strawberry patch (this end) which is now under a mulch of thick cardboard until we can dig it over. There used to be a really nice herb garden planted around the pond and the trees, but over the years it's become swamped with couchgrass and very few plants are left, so this area is up for redevelopment this year... We will replant the herb garden - perhaps through a membrane to keep the grass down - and the old strawberry bed will become a flower patch! We'll also be giving away the pear tree - we don't like the fruit! - and we need to right the very wonky apple tree before it goes over! We'll have to do this soon while the trees are still dormant - they won't like having their roots messed with.

Finally, section seven is where we keep our tools in our storage bench, and it's where our old compost bins were (on the right). That spot is now a lovely fertile patch where we'll put a plastic greenhouse this year for a few tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. We've also got a little comfrey patch here which we use to feed the compost and make plant feed, and at the far end is a little bed which used to grow asparagus, though it's almost all been choked out by grass - another redevelopment project for this year. I think it's just big enough for a couple of bean teepees... or I might decide to grow the beans at home and grow sweet peas here instead, or some more fruit! I'd also like to narrow this path a bit to maximise the growing space in section six on the left.

You'll notice there's not much space here for summer fruiting crops like French beans, courgettes and tomatoes, nor salads or brassicas. A few years ago we decided we were better off only growing reasonably low-maintenance veg at the allotment, since we struggle to get here enough to look after them. It's working out really well, and we can still grow those things at home where we can keep an eye on them and pick them regularly! We don't grow many brassicas simply because we find them so problematic (what with flea beetles, whitefly, rootfly, slugs, three kinds of caterpillars and pigeons all wanting a share!) but we are adding them to our repertoire gradually. And we don't grow onions or shallots because we have dreadful white rot in the soil which destroys the crop, but we manage a bit of garlic and plenty of spring onions at home, and I'm sure we'll return to onion-growing at some point...

During our trip on Monday we pruned the apple and pear trees and made a good job of weeding and tidying the perennials bed, cutting down last year's asparagus ferns, herb flower spikes and sunflower stems. Here's a 'before' picture!

There's much more weeding to be done before things start growing again in spring, and we need to make a start on that digging very soon too. We're all crossing our fingers for no flooding this year, so we can keep at it!

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Celeriac fail!

Last year we tried to grow celeriac for the first time. I raised some lovely healthy little 'Prague Giant' seedlings at home, planted them out in a row on the plot around the end of May, they produced some really healthy and vibrant plants with a delicious celery-like aroma and classy purple stems and... nothing. I watched those roots, I waited, I watered, I waited some more, and they never swelled. I'm pretty sure they can't have wanted for water (especially with mycorrhizal fungi applied) and they should have had plenty of nutrients too (and everything else in the same bed certainly did well).

I cleared the row in disgust in mid-November, and there was nothing but a tangle of roots beneath those lovely thick stems. I've read since that they do all their swelling in the late summer and autumn, so maybe, just maybe, they were about to surprise me just as I gave up on them, but c'mon... mid-November? Surely they should have shown signs of growth by then?

I'd like to try again but it seems sort of futile unless I do something differently - but I really don't know where I went wrong, and it's a popular variety that plenty of other folk succeed with. This year I will make sure to sow them early and plant out as soon as possible, and make sure they always get plenty of water, but if you have any other ideas or suggestions for better success, please do tell!
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