Friday 30 April 2010

Wasp Trouble

I got a bit of a shock today at the plot, when I opened up our storage bench to get some tools out and a gigantic wasp buzzed out at me. Looks like she fancies our bench as her new home!

And I'm glad Matron posted something very similar a couple of weeks back, or I'm not sure I would have had the courage to remove the nest. This one is not so advanced as the one she found, but a remarkable piece of architecture nonetheless, with its own little raincap and an entrance at the bottom of the little pod - and inside, perfect hexagonal cells ready for egg-laying...

Unfortunately I could not discourage the wasp, and a few hours later she had made a pretty decent start on a new nest. I removed it again, but I have a feeling this could become a problem...

Got a few bits done today between rain showers. I planted out the broad beans I've been raising at home, and I challenge any pigeons to get at them now!

Aww, don't laugh. I hate buying that expensive plastic netting stuff that just gets all tangled up in everything and is virtually impossible to use again. Good old fashioned string is good enough for me. I hope...

And I planted out the Golden Marjoram and Tricolour Sage I got in the post a few weeks back, and eight sunflowers as a border alongside the asparagus. The idea is that the sunflowers give the asparagus ferns a little wind-protection - we shall see if it works! Of course, it's still a teeny bit early and I may live to regret planting them out now, but the temperature here hasn't dipped below 5 degrees for a few weeks now and I'm fairly confident...

I also dug over one of the flowerbeds down the middle of the plot, and planted out two Monarda Didyma (Bergamot or Bee Balm) that I bought, plus a few borage volunteers from around the plot, and some poppy and poached-egg plant seeds. As well as looking great, all these should help attract beneficial insects to the plot.
This picture shows my flower border down the centre, with swede seedlings under the netting just to the right of it, and potatoes just coming up to the left (along with a lot of tiny weedlings). The next pair of beds along are more spuds on the left and onions/shallots/carrots/parsnips on the right (extremely weedy and needing a lot of attention!) then after that, on the right, you can see what will be the courgette bed (half-dug) and then the raised salad beds (I seem to have reached a compromise with whatever's digging my lettuces up: I won't fill the hole in, and he won't dig it again) and finally the raspberries.

Thursday 29 April 2010

A Spot of Bother

This is our asparagus bed. You can only sort-of see from this little picture, but out of ten plants, only five are doing well. Three more are just about showing their first shoots, and the other two are showing no signs of life yet whatsoever. I wonder what the problem is. I have noticed a lot of ants in the area and there must be a nest about - I wonder if they're doing damage somehow...

This isn't the only problem that has been worrying my little head this week. There has been a random act of destruction on our patio; all ungerminated seeds were dug up and soil scattered everywhere. It can't have been birds, as the broad beans were untouched, and the cat would not have been so discriminate. I can only think that it must be mice, but... in broad daylight? And they didn't try this when the peas and broad beans were germinating. Weird.

There's a similar story on the allotment: something has been repeatedly digging holes in the lettuce bed. I have raked the soil back into place three times now (Cover it up?? But that would be sensible!) and sadly lost a lot of tiny lettuce seedlings, but finally have given up and sown a trayful of lettuce seeds at home to transplant later - the few I can raise here are better than none! I don't know what's doing this - it's a big hole, not like a cat would dig, surely too big for a mouse or a rat, and if we had rabbits about I would have seen the droppings. We have had it before; the last two years something burrowed holes under our pumpkins! I can only think that it might be a dog, which is annoying because one would hope people wouldn't let their dogs run amuck on an allotment site! There's actually a 'no dogs allowed' rule, but I know a few people ignore it...

Finally, eight days on, there's still no sign of life from my second sowings of Waltham Butternut Squash and King of the North Peppers, which have been kept indoors and had their moisture levels monitored carefully. I got in touch with Real Seeds last week to ask whether I was doing something wrong or whether anyone else had been having problems, and was assured that I had simply sown too early and seeds kept at a higher temperature would germinate fine. So I wait with bated breath...

Monday 26 April 2010

Asparagus Cream Pasta

Dinner yesterday was a favourite asparagus recipe I got from Ready Steady Cook. The slightly mustardy sauce really sets off the flavour of the asparagus - I love it!

  • Cut 8-12 asparagus spears into lengths about 4cm and boil until tender (3-4 minutes).
  • Chop 4 spring onions and saute them in a little butter for a minute.
  • Add 1 tbsp white wine and around 150ml double cream. Season and bring to the boil. Simmer for 2 or 3 minutes until the cream slightly reduces and thickens.
  • Stir in 2 tsps wholegrain mustard, a generous handful of chopped chives and the asparagus, and heat through.
  • Stir into cooked, drained pasta (tagliatelle recommended), check seasoning, and serve with grated parmesan. (I sometimes like to serve this with grilled chicken too.)

Sunday 25 April 2010

A Quiet Week...

Progress has been slow on the plot this week, and we haven't achieved much except for regular watering trips. I was beginning to think the warm sunny weather had spelled the end for my direct-sown seeds, and that the compost I sowed my salads in was perhaps too coarse despite all the sieving, and that maybe I'd have to sow everything again, and I was getting pretty depressed...

But today, in a general maintenance visit between rain showers, I was overjoyed to find a few radish seedlings and some tiny lettuce seedlings popping up! Hurrah! (They didn't photograph well, sadly, so you'll just have to believe me.) I also found a row of carrots coming up...

And some swede seedlings, under their little protective net tunnel...

The first strawberry flowers...

And the first potatoes appearing...

The onions are doing nicely, as are the shallots...
And the apple tree is about to burst into bloom. I didn't expect the buds to be this colour!

Hastings, our 'allotment cat', has been back for a couple of weeks after a long absence, and enjoyed lying about in the sun close to wherever I was watering and weeding.

And I picked these chives and asparagus spears for dinner.

I guess the plot has been busier than I have!

Thursday 22 April 2010

Breakfast (and some more sowing)


I'm quite impressed by the speed it's grown, considering the cold spring! The compost and blood, fish and bone I smothered over the bed back in early March must have done it some good.

As usual, Samson had to get in on the excitement. Poser.

We gave the home garden a good tidy and sweep yesterday, did a bit of all-round seedling maintenance, and sowed a few more seeds. The pumpkins and things are getting to a pretty good size now...

...all except for these ones; the Waltham Butternut Squash.

After weeks of struggling, they've withered and died, despite being apparently specially suited to the British climate, and getting the same treatment as all the other squashes I'm growing. I've sown some more - plenty of extra seeds this time too - and will keep my fingers crossed.

I'm having a similar problem with the 'King of the North' peppers - not a single one has germinated, even though the Jalapeno peppers and tomatoes right next to them are doing well! Again, I've sown some more and will hope for the best.

My new herb seeds arrived yesterday, and I promptly sowed a trayful of purslane and a trayful of chervil. I will try to find somewhere on the plot to transplant them when they get started. The wild garlic and sweet cicely must be autumn-sown - doh!

The new broad beans I sowed to replace the ones at the plot are coming up good and fast, and hopefully will be ready to plant out in a week or two.

And one super-enthusiastic french bean (Delinel - my favourite!) has popped up in this trough in the garden (where they will stay), which reminded me to get round to sowing some runner beans for the plot as well.

Sunday 18 April 2010

Salad Beds Sown

A gorgeous afternoon at the allotment today, and the raised beds are finally built, filled, and sown.

We filled them with compost from our own pile and topsoil from the plot, and topped them off with 100 litres each of Homebase's organic compost (4 x 50l bags for £15 at the moment - not bad!) so we know it will be weed-free. The right-hand bed is filled with spinach (Medania) and lettuce (I always love Little Gem - it grows so easily and can be harvested early or left in the ground for ages, as long as you keep it well-watered). The left-hand bed has rows of red and white spring onions, beetroot (Boltardy), radish (Scarlet Globe), Lollo Rossa, and a couple of 'head' lettuces (Balmoral and Webb's Wonderful). No mustardy leaves or oriental veg here - the flea-beetle problem is far too great - but I may try them in the autumn after the lettuces have bolted and the flea-beetles have gone dormant, or whatever it is they do. With the radishes I'm just hoping for the best - after all, it's not the leaves I want...

The two patches at the ends of the beds, in the foreground of the photo, are sown with coriander as I find it tends to keep aphids away, and there's also a double row of Swiss chard (Bright Lights) at the far end, between the beds and the paving stones.

I know it's a bit of a risk direct-sowing all these, especially in such fabulous weather, but I just don't have space for the seedlings at home. I'll have to keep them well-watered over the next week or so to make sure they get a good start.

Friday 16 April 2010

Even More Herbs...

On a "must...grow...saffron" reverie this evening, I've stumbled across a new favourite website! The Green Chronicle Shop sells all kinds of garden products, but what really caught my attention was its selection of seeds. Organic veg and herb seeds are mostly around £1 a packet, and they have loads of unusual varieties I haven't seen elsewhere. And sensible P&P costs too! I bought myself some purslane, chervil, sweet cicely and wild garlic! Exciting!

The Green Chronicle main website has loads of great gardening info and news too, as well as big sections on food, recipes and health. Well worth a look.

Then I got carried away and went to Victoriana Nursery for some samphire and chamomile, since the ones I bought last year didn't survive the winter, some winter savory, and an 'Eau de Cologne' plant, just for fun. Sounds fascinating...

Still didn't get any saffron - it's out of season. Will try again in the summer...

(Photograph from Wikimedia Commons, taken by KENPEI)

Thursday 15 April 2010

A Pleasant Surprise

I had forgotten I'd ordered this herb collection way back in February, until it arrived today!

It was on special offer from Mr Fothergill's when I ordered my strawberry plants and some seeds, and I really got it for the French Tarragon, but the Gold Marjoram and Tricolour Sage will look fab in the herb garden (as long as I can find space), and the rosemary and coriander will certainly not go to waste either. They are all happily potted up now on the kitchen windowsill.

My seedlings seem to be progressing rather slowly. My kingdom for a nice warm greenhouse! They spend their nights on the kitchen floor and their days on the patio, and I wonder if it's still a bit too cold outside for some of them. It's been more than three weeks and still no sign of the chillis or peppers, and the sweet peas are only just coming up. I dunno, maybe I'm just too impatient. The curcubits are doing better, although only two out of three of each variety germinated (except the pumpkins, which all germinated and seem to be growing three times as fast as anything else!) and the Waltham Butternuts (second from the left in the pic) don't look too healthy to me... I will have to pop a few more seeds in, I think.

Mixed results on the salad front too: not a single lettuce seed has germinated in the big planter in my back garden. Bad seeds perhaps? Will have to start again, methinks. But my mustard, garden cress and cultivated rocket seem to be doing fabulously. Just don't ask me which is which - I really must learn to label EVERYTHING...

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Spicy Squash Stew

We're down to our very last few squashes from last year now. We grew 'Jack O'Lantern' pumpkins, some F1 butternut whose name I have no record of (and which didn't get very big, as you can see!) and these 'Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato Squash' (try getting all that on a plant label!) - an acorn type from Real Seeds with a meatier texture and earthier flavour than pumpkin or butternut.

Some of the pumpkins suffered from lack of watering over the summer and were dried up inside, and like I say, the butternuts were not very impressive, and a few of the squashes didn't do too well in storage, but boy have we still managed to eat a lot of squash over the autumn and winter! And this is how we've been eating many of them - in a spicy pumpkin, potato and bean stew.

And here's the recipe (serves 2):

  • Roughly chop an onion and fry in a little oil with 1 tsp mustard seeds and 1 tsp cumin seeds, until they start to pop.
  • Add chopped chilli and garlic, and cook for a minute or two to soften.
  • Add 300g bitesize chunks of potato, stir in and cook for 3 minutes.
  • Add roughly two-thirds of a pint of stock, plus a tablespoon of lemon juice, a squirt of tomato puree, 1 tsp each of sugar and garam masala, 1/2 tsp each of ginger and mustard, and 1/4 tsp each of turmeric, black pepper, cumin, paprika and coriander (alternatively skip all these and add a tablespoon or two of curry paste, but I find that stuff FAR too salty). Simmer for 5 minutes.
  • Add 300g bitesize chunks of any winter squash, and simmer another 20 mins or so, until all the veg are cooked.
  • Add a can of black-eyed beans (okay, it's kidney beans in the photo, but black-eyed beans suit this better) and two tomatoes cut into wedges, then heat through, stir in another tablespoon of lemon juice and check seasoning.
  • Serve with bread to mop up the juices!
(This makes a great soup too; just add canned tomatoes instead of the wedges, earlier in the cooking process, more stock, and blend until smooth.)


Sunday 11 April 2010

Real Raised Beds!

I hope everyone's been enjoying the sunshine! We had a great afternoon at the plot today, despite me feeling sorry for myself after a very long week: Eddie persuaded me to get out of the house, and I'm really glad we did. Some friends came along again, and we even had some entertainment...

The main task of the day was putting up our new raised beds (well, one of them,) from Harrod Horticultural.

Not a masterpiece of carpentry, but a great deal better than the shallow and flimsy ones we threw together a couple of years back, which are virtually in pieces now. We filled the bed with some topsoil from around the place and the end of last year's compost, and we'll top it off with a couple of inches of shop-bought compost, so that it will be weed-seed free and hopefully the salad veg will actually stand a chance! We bought two of these, 180cm by 60cm and 30cm high, for £85 including delivery (and with the discount code they put on all their catalogues and adverts). I haven't convinced myself it'll be worth the money yet, but when I looked at buying the raw materials and making them myself I was pretty shocked at the cost. Hopefully time will tell...

While clearing the ground for the raised beds, Eddie and Brian found this hazelnut tree coming up amongst the docks and nettles - self-seeded from the tree next-allotment! Waste not want not - we decided we'd replant it in a corner near the raspberries. I backfilled the planting hole with some of our compost and a handful of the special fertiliser we bought for the fruit trees, and trod and watered it in well.

And speaking of raspberries, we were pleased to see they're putting up new growth already.

The asparagus is coming along slowly and steadily, although we found one spear felled in the same way our broad beans had been - just chewed off at the bottom and left lying there. What does this?? I must do something about those mice...

Monday 5 April 2010

Spuds in, first shoots, and a mystery herb

Potatoes planted! Hooray! 30 Kestrel, which always perform fabulously for me, and 30 Maris Piper, which I haven't tried before. I won't bore you with a picture of the bare earth under which they lie...

Instead, look at this!

I was very jealous when I read yesterday that Soilman's asparagus was shooting up already, so I had an extra careful look today and found this little spear just showing its tip.

So spring springs on. The tadpoles have hatched, the fruit trees look fantastic covered in buds, the herbs are coming back to life, and yes, the weeds are starting to grow. And so are the pests...

Something has mown down or pulled up ALL the broad beans, which is a major bummer. Slugs or birds? We strung a loose cage of strings around the plants which I thought would keep the birds off, and considering the number of empty snail shells lying around everywhere, I thought the rodent problem (they keep making nests in our compost heap) was doing a pretty good job of combatting the slug problem. I always put organic slug pellets down too! No fair... I will plant another trayful just as soon as I've written this.

I have a mystery herb growing in my herb patch! I didn't plant it - at least I'm pretty sure I didn't - and I just don't recognise it. It's really aromatic; quite similar to lemon balm but without the lemon, if that makes any kind of sense... Quite like feverfew, but the leaves are fleshier. Anyone got any ideas?

Thursday 1 April 2010


Here is some of our horseradish haul from last week. And our cat, Samson, who seemed fascinated by the stuff:
I'm no big horseradish fan, but I like a touch on my roast beef now and then, so I whipped up a fresh horseradish cream sauce the other day for a big roast dinner.

First I peeled and grated the horseradish root. Open the window if you ever do this - WOW it's pungent stuff! I was surprised how dry the horseradish seemed - no juice at all. It looked more like dessicated coconut then a fresh vegetable.

Then I mixed about 2 tablespoons grated horseradish with half a teaspoon each of salt, sugar and mustard, a big pinch of black pepper, a generous dash of lemon juice (most recipes use white wine vinegar but I only had a strong cheap malt vinegar, which I wasn't too sure about) and 3 or 4 tablespoons double cream. Obviously, all the quantities could be adjusted to taste.

It was delicious! My only complaint might be the texture; the horseradish gave plenty of flavour to the cream, but I didn't think much of the tough strandy bits which remained. I saw one recipe which recommended soaking the horseradish in hot water first - I wonder if this improves it - or perhaps I'll have to find a way of mincing it smaller next time...

Next task is to find a way to preserve the rest of it! Seems to me that with such a low water content, it might freeze well. Anyone have any experience of this? Otherwise it's going to end up in vinegar in jars in the fridge, I think, but I'm not sure how long it'll last there.

The roast dinner also gave us a chance to eat some more of last year's parsnips, which I keep forgetting about and really mustn't - they taste soooo good!
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