Getting our house (well, plot) in order

Well, it’s thanks to this hot weather and the change in the clocks that we’ve been able to spend more time on the allotment catching up with all those jobs that somehow never seem to get done. So, armed with power tools and hammer I have finally finished the lovely gate – marvellous! No rabbit will dare to burrow through this. Himself has been collecting horse poo like it’s going out of fashion (a strange hobby – not sure if it comes under the same category as trainspotting or stamp collecting, but hey ho), so trenches have been dug ready for all the planting to be done.

The lovely rabbit-proof gate

I have also completed the back-breaking task of putting weed control sheeting under the two strawberry beds. This involved spending the whole of Saturday afternoon on my hands and knees, backside in the air, cutting out holes to feed the strawberries through – not a joyous sight for other allotment holders to witness but a job well done I feel.

Strawberry beds with fresh sheets

The cloches have all been put together and onions and broad beans have been rehomed whilst I’m waiting for Mr Tiller to finish getting the soil ready so that things can be planted out. The parsnips have finally found their way out of the loo rolls so they can soon be planted in their final resting place – hopefully we’ll get straight ones this time.

Parsnips peeking out of the loo rolls

The greenhouse is filling up nicely and I’m trying to keep one step ahead of everything so that we don’t run out of space. All the plants have been purchased for the hanging baskets so it will be a challenge in the next couple of weeks when they all need potting on. It’s a real Jubilee collection – well, sometimes you just have to join in with the rest of them – so everything is red, white and blue…allegedly.

The cut flower beds are coming along and some of the perennials have been repositioned. The herb section has also had a bit of a make-over so will be ready for some new additions at some point.

The good news is that with all this walking uphill everyday to check on everything, we are getting fitter by the minute. The muffin tops are slowly shrinking – we’ll be positively size zeros by the summer!!


Unearthing our roots

Well, it’s been a quiet couple of weeks on the blog but it’s been all go on the plot. Suddenly spring has sprung and there are a thousand and one jobs to do. Thankfully the Mantis tiller arrived in time. It was a bit of a shock to realise that we had to practically build it ourselves (mechanics isn’t our strong point) but after much swearing and cursing over the instruction manual, the pieces seemed to all fall into the correct place and now man and machine are working together in perfect harmony.

Man and Mantis in action

Man and Mantis in action

 Since man and tiller have been united there has been no stopping them – every piece of earth has been churned up. So, whilst the two of them have been eagerly working their way through the plot, I have been trying to keep one step ahead by clearing everything that was either due to be pulled up for composting or salvaged for eating. This is what I unearthed.

The final harvest

Yes, it looks a bit like a line up for a Dr Who audition. For some reason most of the parsnips seem to have developed pairs of crossed legs. Some can even sit on a fence by themselves. Are parsnips supposed to do this? This year we’ve planted them in toilet rolls to try to solve the problem. Gnarled up shapes are one thing but it makes preparing them for the Sunday roast a very slow process.

Parsnips keeping their legs crossed

Sitting on the fence

Whitchetty grub or parsnip?

As for the celeriac – well, that’s all roots, shoots and no body. This is the second year we have attempted growing these and still aren’t very successful at it. We like celeriac but are we just wasting our time trying to grow them? Anyway, I’ve planted a few more seeds again this year but if they don’t produce anything, they’re out.

All roots, no body

Still, the greenhouse is filling up nicely now and in about a month’s time I think we’ll be struggling for space in there. This weekend I’ll be spending plenty of time in it transplanting all the onions so plenty of coffee and chocolate will be required. Since it’s going to be a wet weekend, it’s probably going to be the best place to be!

Off to Stoneleigh tomorrow to the ‘Grow your own’ show and then back to watch Monty in the evening – it’s good to have Monty back.

Ailsa Craig & the Red Baron have finally come to the party

Finally, after weeks of waiting, Ailsa Craig and the Red Baron have stuck their heads above the parapet. Just when we thought they had given up the ghost, they finally appear – hurrah!

Ailsa Craig & Red Baron have finally made it

The sad news is that yesterday we discover we are living in an area of severe drought and could be heading for a ’76 water crisis. Will we now have enough water to stop these lovely onions from shrivelling to their death? I do hope so…or do we have to start making stem cell onions to go with our stem cell burgers? Now, DON’T get me started on that one! The Dutch should stick to what they’re good at – growing tulips – not trying to grow a cow that “feels like and hopefully tastes like meat” (as quoted by Dr Mark Post).

Anyway, on a lighter, less controversial note you’ll be pleased to hear that the sweet peas and peppers have also decided to pop their heads up above the soil – things are starting to happen, spring is on its way at last. I think I will take a walk up to the allotment today and check on the greenhouse. Have a look at all that natural produce growing while it still has water and perhaps ponder over the possibility of having to become a vegetarian! Enjoy your pancakes whatever you choose to put on or in them.

A few onion thoughts for the day…

Life is like an onion and one cries while peeling it ~ French Proverb

An onion will not produce a rose ~ Latin Proverb

He who walks through a field of onions, will smell like an onion ~ Arabian Proverb

Onions, smoke and women bring tears to your eyes ~ Danish Proverb

Life is like an onion. Why is life like an onion? Because you peel away layer after layer and when you come to the end you have nothing ~ Yiddish Proverb

Different men have different opinions; some like apples, some onions ~ Indonesian Proverb

A Tiller for Hun

For the past two years we’ve been hiring a big old rotavator to break up our new pieces of allotted earth. Although this is a costly exercise, at the time, it seemed the cheapest option as we couldn’t afford to buy a rotavator, let alone know where to store one. However, over the past few months we have talked ourselves into believing that a tiller would be a good investment – especially now that the plot is established.

Hun rotavating in 2011

So, the discussions started along the lines of ,”We’ll look for something cheap and second-hand”, “We don’t need a new one – that’s just a waste of money when it will spend most of the year sat in the shed”, “We just need to have a look around and see what we can find for £150-£200. There’s no point in spending any more than that.” – absolutely right!

Then, thanks to the powers of marketing, all those sensible theories went completely out of the window – all thanks to DT Brown for putting that shiny Mantis tiller flyer in with my seed order.

Since then one of us has become completely obsessed (as he does) with the need for a tiller. The discussions then started to go along the lines of “We really need a tiller and this one does everything”, “It’s no good buying second-hand – it’s bound to keep breaking down”, “We really need the Deluxe model – and we need that plough attachement, it’s essential”, “I know it’s more than we planned to spend but…” “…and…the handles fold down!” Short of making coffee, this thing does everything, and so it should seen as it’s already completely churned the budget upside down.

The Mantis

So, after watching numerous videos about how good this thing is, all that praying for a Mantis has finally paid off. We’ve ordered it – the complete all-singing, all-dancing deluxe model with plough attachment, planter attachment and border edger (It would have been almost as cheap to buy a Massey Ferguson!) It arrives at the end of the month.

A Tiller in 2012 – love those safety specs Hun!

Tilly and her Tiller - look at her go! She'll soon have those 20 acres flattened and dug in ready for replanting

Now all I have to worry about is, that once I’ve brought obsessed man and machine together, how do I stop ‘Tiller the Hun’ from ploughing straight through my strawberry beds, the raspberry canes, the artichokes…? Nothing will be safe. Suddenly I feel the border edger attachment will be a wasted expense – the borders will have disappeared after the first outing!

In the meantime, to stop my precious fruit section from quaking in its roots, I’ll give everything a good prune and a good dose of potash at the weekend and pray that this Mantis comes with a foolproof set of driving instructions!

Beans, berries and bloomin’ snow

Not to be deterred by a little bit of snow (well, quite a lot of snow actually), we pulled on those wellies, filled the flask with coffee and wobbled our way up the hill with the wheelbarrow to the plot. The snow was not going to deter us – especially after having spent £45 in Wilko (oh, how we love Wilko) the day before – we had stuff to do!

Snowy views from the strawberry bed

The snowy allotments

White earth

Some of us were a little optimistic (as always) in thinking they would be able to dig up parsnips for the Sunday roast dinner. Not sure what part of frozen earth and four inches of white stuff on top he was not comprehending, but that’s men for you! (Let’s face it, it was only last Sunday when, after 4 hours of trying to drill drainage holes in a barrel and getting nowhere, he realised that the drill was in reverse!! Sometimes he can be quite…challenging.) So, once realisation had filtered through to those little grey cells he finally saw the sense of shutting the door of the greenhouse from the inside, pouring a hot coffee and setting to with planting the broad beans. All quite simple you would think until reality hit again and we remembered that the bags of compost we needed to plant the beans were outside – and yes, they were frozen solid! With many cups of coffee and a lot of positive thinking (even from me), we managed to thaw enough of the compost to plant them – 96 Aquadulce are now shivering in seed trays. Which seems to be what the onions are still doing as, 4 weeks later, there’s still no sign of anything happening. They need heat.

Not letting the snow stop planting

There is, however, good news. I have now transplanted 18 chillies which are looking strong and healthy, and I’ve also planted some sweet red peppers. These are all happily sitting on a nice warm windowsill. The other good news is that, thanks to My Tiny Plot, I now have four white strawberry plants (courtesy of Wilko, £2.28 for 2 – we love Wilko – have I mentioned that already?). When I first saw these in Wilko I wasn’t that impressed – they just looked like anaemic strawberries to me. It wasn’t until I read My Tiny Plot‘s post that I realised that they had a pineapple taste. Suddenly they became more attractive and an absolute must-have. So, now they are nicely potted up waiting for the weather to improve before going into the strawberry beds.

White strawberries

All we need now is a big thaw so that the compost might actually be ready for the next planting session and those blasted onions might actually start to sprout!

Chilli Monday – from shoots to toes

It was a bit of a chilly start this morning and according to the weatherman it’s set for the rest of the week. Not good news for our onions seeds which are still showing no signs whatsoever of sprouting – they need to get a move on. However, the chillis are romping away, so much so that they are in grave danger of going leggy very early on.

Chillis are up!

We’ve planted two types this year: Cayenne and Numex Twilight.  The Numex are a new variety on us – I was attracted to their colour. We did the Cayenne last year along with Ring of Fire and Apache – all were good and ended up producing a bumper harvest. Not good news for the recipients of our Christmas presents who all ended up with a variety of things made from chillis whether they liked chilli or not – chilli oil, chilli flakes, chilli jam, chilli jelly, chilli chocolate bark, chilli and lime chocolates, chilli vodka…the list went on. The rest were tied into ristras and left to dry so that they can be used throughout the year.

Chilli Ristras from the 2011 harvest

The chilli jam was a huge success and is the perfect thing with baked camembert and a chunk of bread – just what you need to warm you up on these chilly days. Have a look on the recipe pages (on the right) for the Chilli Jam and Chilli Jelly – well worth a go.

Chilli Jam & Chilli Jelly

Another thing that’s also worth a go, and is also along the chilli theme, are these:

Chilli feet

These are excellent if you’re the sort of people, like us, who are forever wandering off down the garden in your slippers and then paddling mud back through the kitchen (or worse still, leaving big clods of mud right through the house – yes, you have been caught in those wellies!). They’re called Backdoorshoes – simples. You stick them by the back door and slip them on every time you go outside. They’re brilliant, and come in all patterns – garlic, nuts and bolts, roses…to name but a few. I think they’ll made excellent allotment shoes come the summer.

Not convinced…have a look at this other pair.

Sprouting vegetable feet

Seville Sunday – the madness of marmalade

So, what do you do on a grimey Sunday in January? Well, you could go to church and confess your sins, you could go for a long walk to burn off some of that excess Christmas celebrating, you could put your feet up and read the papers … or, you could spent five hours slaving over a bubbling preserving pan making marmalade.

Now, the success of any recipe is to read the quantities correctly. So, when it says 1.5kg of Seville oranges, it’s a bit silly to tell the person doing the shopping that you need 2.5kg – because Sod’s Law says that on this occasion, for once, he will actually do exactly what he is told! So, three big bags of Sevilles later, here we are mashing the innards through a sieve and cutting a mountain of peel into even strips (well, to be honest, after orange number eleven we had given up worrying whether this was thick or thin cut marmalade – it was just a mish-mash of strips). This was never going to meet Robertson’s standards!

Seville oranges cooking

Realising we had in fact doubled the recipe from that originally planned, we now had to split the lot in two so that the preserving pan was big enough to cope with the volume. This obviously doubled the cooking time, so all the other jobs for the day (planting the two jasmine that we got yesterday in the reduced section for a £1 each – what a bargain) went out of the window.

Now, at this point it is worth pointing out that last year was the first year I had ever attempted making marmalade. Very naively I thought it would be the same as making jam – shove it all in the pan, boil it up till it reaches setting point, then whack it in the jars, job done – but oh no, this requires a lot more effort…or did I just pick the wrong recipe? I made three batches last year: the first batch I left too long before I bottled so it set in the pan; the second lot I burnt to the pan; and the third lot, once I had scraped the black sticky mess off the base of the pan, turned out perfect.

Anyway, after many hours of watching over a hot bubbling pan, too afraid to leave it in case it burnt to the bottom, we have nine jars and six Kilners of any-old-how-cut dark marmalade. It’s at this point I realise that this year I have followed the recipe to the letter (apart from reading out the quantities incorrectly, of course) and have used dark muscovado sugar. This would explain why it looks something like the sludge you would dredge out of the bottom of a canal. It’s now that I realise it really didn’t matter how the peel was cut – there is absolutely no chance of ever detecting it through this thick, dark sludge even after holding the jars up to a strong light. It’s then that I remember I used a light brown sugar last year. But don’t despair, the taste is yummy. It has a treacly taste and is not too sweet – it sort of grows on you, which is just as well seeing as we have so much to get through.

Seville Orange Marmalade - the finished result

If you fancy making the most of the Seville orange season then take a look at the recipe on the ‘recipe’ page.

After all that mediterranean orange growing I feel it could be a chilly Monday tomorrow – watch this space…