Archive for July, 2013

Crown Prince Squash bulking up!

103 crown prince july 13Gosh – first Crown Prince squash … that’s looking very good indeed!

It’s rained a lot of today, so I’m mainly tying things up and pinning things down, and putting these big squashes (that seem to have almost appeared overnight) on tiles and flat, smooth pebbles so that they don’t sit on the damp ground (how lovely to be able to feel moisture in the soil) and develop rot or get attacked by slugs, snails or woodlice.

Its our first year of growing Crown Prince, and I’m thrilled at the way they are racing ahead of both the Turk’s Turban and the Butternut squash.


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RHS Garden Magazine, giant courgettes etc

Garden MagazineJust retrieved the latest copy of The Garden from the post box – very exciting, as always, and doubly so as the cover promises ‘The Best of Hampton Court Palace Flower Show’. Yes, that is a giant courgette above the magazine. There are three of them – the result of me not getting to the plot as often as I would have wished last week.

If anybody remembers the story in “Minding My Peas and Cucumbers” about the woman who built a play fort out of her overgrown courgettes … I’m at about the ‘toddler teepee’ stage of glut courgette construction!

Anyway, I’m terribly disappointed to report that ‘the best’ does not include any photographs of Adam Hewson, Kate Bradbury and myself rocking the RHS book pavilion with our wit and horticultural erudition (okay, Kate did that, I provided a reading from “The Allotment Diaries” and tastings of pickled nasturtiums and chive vinegar, plus discussion of the tyranny of some allotment committees).

adam kate meSo just to redress the balance, here is a picture to prove that not everything exciting at RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show was green and rooted in peat-free compost.*

*Photograph courtesy of Brie Burkeman.

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Allotment rules – the law of diminishing returns

103 tayberry handfulFunnily enough, as I type this, Rebus has just learnt this law. You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks but you can certainly introduce them to immutable laws.

We used to own another Cairn Terrier, whom Rebus cordially detested, by the name of Falco. Falco loved to eat … well, anything, to be honest: cardboard, vegetables, gravel, cat poo, flowers, socks, fruit … especially fruit. He used to eat any kind of fruit, but especially windfall fruit because he was a little dog and that was what it was easiest for him to scavenge. He would get terrible bellyache from eating little green windfall apples but it never stopped him. So we learned to reward him with better food – if he brought in a rock-hard windfall apple, usually brown and bruised and rotten on one side and as bitter as sour grapes, we took it from him and gave him a little dog treat.

Rebus never ate, or brought in, a single windfall. He was contemptuous of the process and scornful of Falco. However, since Falco died, several years ago, Rebus had decided it’s his job – after all, somebody needs to do it, right?

rebus camouflagueNow Falco was greedy and probably ate three or four apples for every one that he brought in. Rebus is conscientious and brings in every apple he finds. That could be a lot of treats!

So the law of diminishing returns has to apply – he gets a big treat for the first one, a small treat for the second one, half a treat for the third one and a pat on the head for the fourth. He never brings in a fifth apple.

It hasn’t rained here for weeks and weeks and weeks – there was a dribble of drizzle on Wednesday night but it was really insignificant in the face of parched earth and empty water butts! It’s going to rain tomorrow (all day apparently – hurrah!) and I am utterly sick of watering. We can use hoses at the allotment but it’s really a waste of effort for all kinds of reasons – plants need water at their roots, the soil doesn’t need water (unless you’re germinating seeds) and every time you water it you (a) encourage weeds to germinate, (b) stop the roots heading down to find water and encourage them to grow more shallowly.

103 harvest 9 sept 10So dig down and see where your soil is still damp. Usually it’s still wet four to six inches (9-12 cm) below the surface and most roots reach that far. Some plants need a lot of water like winter squashes and tomatoes – water them by all means. Others don’t need that much and watering them to the same level is a waste of time, effort, water and may even damage their productivity. So a lot of what I’ve been doing in the past three weeks is hand watering into plastic bottles sunk in the ground. It’s exhausting. It’s necessary but exhausting.

The law of diminishing returns applies here too. I don’t water courgettes or radishes in this weather – they can die for all I care! They’re low value crops and they usually recover from quite drastic ill-treatment if it doesn’t continue too long. Peas and beans lose out next because while they are great crops, the amount of effort I put into watering them doesn’t get a great return. Perennials get watered with love and care: our new fruit trees and bushes and our asparagus will still be feeding us in five to twenty years time – the return on the investment this year is four to twenty years of harvest – the opposite of diminishment.

So apologies for absence, but the watering can has been calling me …

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Interview time …

radio sussexRadio Sussex rang me today to ask if I was on my plot – I think they already knew the answer as ‘the interview van was on its way’ and so I got to spend half an hour with the lovely Simon Jenkins, who is always so enthusiastic about allotments and gardening generally that it’s a joy to be interviewed by him (was it wrong to announce, “gardening is like sex, if it’s not fun you’re doing it wrong?” I think I heard a bit of an intake of breath at the Radio Sussex end of the line, when I said that).

polenta bakeWe talked about the five ways gardening, specifically growing food, is good for you: physically, mentally, emotionally, environmentally and nutritionally.

I introduced Simon to tayberries and I think he’s a convert. He liked the raspberries too, both golden and traditional. And of course, by the time I’d demonstrated all of those, I had a reasonable handful of fruit. Back at home I had a bowl of blackcurrants that I’ve been waiting to use up, so I knocked up (gosh, I’m really in the sexual metaphor mode today, aren’t I?) this gluten free cake with the berries – it’s utterly delicious and really simple to put together. Sadly, the recipe didn’t make it into The Allotment Diaries, because I hadn’t perfected it, but maybe the next book …

A good day all round!

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Allotment recipe: rose and summer fruit jellies

rosepetal jelly 1These pretty little jellies can be made in moulds and turned out, but I never do that as our jellies usually end up being transported around in their ramekins. We had jelly for breakfast at the plot this morning and OH will take another with him to work for his after-lunch dessert. They are pretty simple to make and look utterly stunning, especially if you make them in clear glass tumblers so the suspension of the fruit can be fully appreciated. It is possible to make a version of this with agar agar for vegetarians, but I haven’t found it to be so successful in suspending fruit. I’ll try to dig out an alternative recipe that involves infused sugars and post that tomorrow.

rosepetal jelly 2Ingredients

    4 leaves of gelatine
    400ml water
    200g white caster sugar (golden/unrefined sugars don’t work for this recipe)
    40ml rosewater
    100 grams fresh fruit (I had a mixture of red and golden raspberries, white and red alpine strawberries, ordinary strawberries and tayberries)
    Rose petals – these are rosa gallica, because I love the effect of the stripes, although if I had Ferdinand Pichard that would be my rose of choice as it’s even more dramatically stripey!

rosepetal jelly 3Method

1. Chose your containers and put enough fruit in to cover about half the bottom – you want to be able to see each individual fruit, not pile them on top of each other. Hopefully this uses up about half your fruit.Chill these containers for about half an hour.
2. Put the gelatine in a shallow bowl and cover with cold water for a minute. Squeeze out the water and set aside while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
3. As soon as the water boils, tip in the sugar, stir to fully dissolve and remove from heat. Add the gelatine to the hot liquid and stir until dissolved.
4. Add the rosewater and then tip into a large jug and set aside. Don’t chill the mixture, leave it at room temperature.
rosepetal jelly 45. Take the containers from the fridge and pour the cooled but not yet setting jelly over the fruit, to about half way. Replace the containers in the fridge until the jelly is just firm, then repeat with the rest of the fruit and the jelly which should still be liquid if you’ve left it at room temperature. Chose your prettiest rose petals and with the handle of a teaspoon, just sink each petal under the surface of the jelly.
6. Replace in the fridge for about an hour – they should set nicely.
7. Apparently you can turn out these jellies by filling a bowl with not-quite boiling water, dipping the containers in it, then inverting them over a plate. I’ve never bothered and the truth is, most of our jellies get eaten with the fridge door still open, and us standing in front of it to nosh them – they are so tasty in this hot weather!

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Hampton Court Palace Flower Show

A quick update – here the album of photos from Hampton Court – it was a great place to do some book signings and read from The Allotment Diaries!

We’re spending all our free time watering the plot – hence no time to blog!

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Potato blight – treatment and a recipe!

roasted newIt’s a high blight risk period, and sure enough, when we were at the plot on Sunday for the Open Gardens, we saw some tell-tale signs in our first earlies. Now it’s been an unusual year already, with first earlies still in the ground for many of us, and the arrival of a Smith period was almost a guarantee of blight.

Smith periods are warm and wet, or, in our case on Sunday, not that warm (everybody else was having temperatures in the twenties and brilliant sunshine and we were having mid teens) and very humid (because there was a sea fog) and then, as we watched, potato leaves began to yellow, then fold, then brown patches appeared. There’s an outside chance it could have been something other than blight, but we’ve learned our lesson well.

There are two scenarios around potato blight on our site. 1 – Cut your haulms and cut your losses. 2 – Don’t cut your haulms and count your losses. The fungal spores can spread on the wind, and travely from foliage to foliage, and they multiply rapidly in warm, damp weather.

This is the first year for five years we’ve tried growing maincrops and it looks like we’re going to struggle to keep them blight free. I got ruthless. We dug the first row – lots of small but perfect tubers – cut all the greenery of all the rest of the first earlies (three rows) and bagged it to remove. The cutting away of all green growth stops the fungal spores being washed down into the tubers and infecting them. We’ll dig up all the rest of the first earlies over the next ten days, once their skins have hardened a little.

roasted new 2Now we just have to hope for less Smith periods so that our second earlies and maincrops might make it through. Hope, but not expect. On a site of our size, with the preponderance of blight that we have in both potatoes and outdoor tomatoes, we were pushing our luck and we knew it.

In less populous sites, where blight is less prevalent, you might get lucky with spraying, although the sprays available to allotment holders are weak compared to those used by commercial growers. Good planting hygiene is vital with excellent spacing between rows and lots of air circulation – and once again we packed in a few more spuds than we should have done. I don’t think that cost us our crop, I think we’d have got blight anyway, but it’s a lesson we regularly fail to learn, and perhaps it’s time to go back to not growing so many potatoes, focusing on blight resistant varieties and giving up on maincrops once again.

So if you get a lot of small first early potatoes, how do you cook them?

roasted new 3One of our favourite ways to use up tiny (smaller than walnut sized) new potatoes is smashed potatoes.


1. 500 grams very small new potatoes, washed
2. 2 tablespoon of capers or pickled nasturtium seeds if you have them
3. 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
4. 3-4 stems of rosemary, with leaves stripped from stems
5. 4 tablespoons olive oil
6. 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (if you made chive vinegar last month, you can use that as a good replacement)


• Boil your potatoes in lots of water so they can circulate freely – say around 10 minutes.
• Preheat over to around 220C or gas 9
• Drain well and tip into a bowl with the nasturtium seeds or capers and half the olive oil. Mash very lightly, so around half the potatoes are broken, then add the herbs and seasoning to taste, stirring well to combine.
• Tip into a tinfoil lined baking tray or silicone baking dish and pour the rest of the olive oil on top, pressing down well with a wooden spoon or spatula, then drizzle the vinegar over and bake for 30-40 minutes.

The potatoes end up with a crispy brown top and a creamy under layer which is utterly delicious hot or cold. It’s almost worth having blight!

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