All the things I’ve messed up

Every so often I bump into someone who’s seen my allotment pictures on Instagram (@helenstallard) and they’ll say something along the lines of ‘wow, your veg is so much better than ours’! And of course I nod and smile but really it’s a big fat lie. Like everyone else I’m guilty of accentuating the positive and forgetting to record all the times that I cock up. So in the spirit of fairness, and as a learning exercise for future allotmenting, here are the Allotment Issues of 2018. There are many.

 

  1. The thicket of brambles and nettles

The area at the back of the plot has always been a bit of a wasteland but this year it has reached new (literal) heights. There are stinging nettles in there that are taller than me, brambles as thick as my arm. Well that is maybe a slight exaggeration….but this is not a good situation. The compost bin is pretty much inaccessible now, and bindweed is strangling the rosemary. It needs a day or two of determined effort to sort it out, but I have neither days nor determination.

The dilapidated greenhouse and compost bin is overrun with grasses, bramble, nettles and bindweed

but at least we’ll get some bonus blackberries this year

2. Tomato rot

I get blossom end rot every year and am resigned to it, but this year we have a new tomato-based calamity. The tiny fruits are shrivelling and turning black whilst still the size of a large pea: rot has set in. I don’t know what’s caused it but suspect it’s the difference between soaring 40c daytime temperatures and overnight chills (I don’t close the greenhouse door at night, don’t have the opportunity). I’ve lost about 50% of the crop to this. Very irritating.

50% of the baby tomatoes have turned shrivelled and black

3. Blackfly infestation

The runner beans have grown, which is in itself a miracle, but are now covered in black fly. These little critters are sucking the plants dry and seriously reducing the crop. There’s too many for predators to keep at bay and I won’t spray a crop that we’re going to eat, so I don’t think much can be done.

Infestation of blackfly on the runner beans

4. Errors of propagation

In fairness this isn’t entirely my fault, but the cosmos and other cut flowers aren’t thriving in this dry hot summer. I’m giving them a weekly water but it’s not enough; in previous years we’d have 5-foot bushes of cosmos by now, humming with butterflies and bees. These were all grown from seed but the first lot were thinned carefully and planted out as sturdy individual plants (my Mum did this, obvs) whilst the second ones – mine – were planted two seeds to a pot, didn’t get thinned (I forgot) and got planted out when still a bit too small. They are beyond crap. Next year I need to try harder.

These cosmos are taking ages and ages to flower…

…but at least they’re healthy, unlike these ones

I also tried some Bells of Ireland this year. Once again they were planted out waaaay too early, and then nearly got hoed as I mistook the seedlings for weeds. So survival is in itself an achievement – but they should be loads taller than this.

The Bells of Ireland should be calf-height, but they’re about the size of my little hand

The cornflowers are also stunted, and the chrysanthemums don’t look especially healthy. I’m not sure what the problem is/was. Maybe all the chi chi English cut flower growers that I follow have these issues too but also choose not to share them on Instagram?

5. Poor fruit harvest

In previous years I’ve filled massive cake-tins with blackcurrants, redcurrants, raspberries and strawberries but this summer the harvest is poor. In particular, I’ve got a mere few hundred grams of blackcurrants. I’m wondering if these old grand dame bushes are nearing the end of their life – they must be at least a decade old. Must look it up. On the plus side, we do have gooseberries for the first time this year.

This year’s blackcurrant harvest is pitiful!

This is by no means the end of the cock-ups. I’ve not even mentioned the back garden that looked good during May and June, and then – paradoxically – seems to shrivel and become a jungle at the same time. But I have come to understand though that it’s in the mistakes that you can actually learn. Planting errors are an opportunity to find creative solutions and new planting schemes. Bug infestations are an opportunity to get a closer look at nature. They all teach you to let go, little by little. Life lessons on the allotment.

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Summer inspiration

An unforeseen pleasure of breeding, currently, is that this is the first summer since 2014 where I’ve not had a festival to organise. Except as I write this I remember that I am actually working on a festival as I speak. So let’s rephrase: it’s the first summer since 2014 where I’ve not been living, eating, sleeping and dreaming brochure deadlines, budget overspends, overwrought colleagues and where to put the sodding feather flags (this year’s Festival works at a gentler pace….so far….).

In about March, when that vile, dark, cold winter ended and 6-month-old Harry became more of an actual human (tiny babies still terrify me), I decided that I was going to really try and make the most of this summer. There would be barbecues! Days out! Allotmenting! Paddling pools! Ice-cream! And reader, I am keeping to that pledge.

In the last ten days I’ve taken my ever-patient child around two world-class gardens for some veg-patch and herbaceous-border inspiration. Last weekend it was Kew, and last week was Hidcote. Veg-patch visiting with a baby in tow does complicate matters slightly – Hidcote in particular is not very accessible, though they are doing their best. Of course Victorian (male) gardeners did not design with 4×4 buggies in mind. And at Kew, we were able to get into the newly-restored Temperate House but obviously did not explore the upper balconies, especially not in 30c heat.

The newly restored Temperate House at Kew Gardens

Inside…I should say something profound and academic but our main experience was that it was flipping hot

Aside from the Temperate House, I was keen to see the Hive installation. Earlier in the year I worked with a producer who had planned the opening of this artwork-come-engineering project, for which I have a streak of professional envy. I have no idea how the science works, but the structure hums and lights up in sync with an actual bee hive.

The Hive Installation at Kew

But actually the star of the day was the Marianne North gallery. I had heard of this Victorian artist as a woman who succeeded in her chosen field despite the (patriarchal) odds being against her, but actually it’s the impact of the hang that takes the breath away. You can not help but say ‘wow’ when walking into this space, packed close with hundreds of finely worked botanical paintings, created in the field in Java, South Africa, the Americas, you name it. She painted all these whilst wearing ridiculous skirts and a corset. She told the men where she wanted her gallery to be built and how they were to display her paintings. What a woman.

The Marianne North Gallery

Obviously there was still time for veg patch gongoozling, particularly of the trend for adding cut-flowers to the beans and tomatoes. My cornflowers never look as good as this.

Matt admires the brassica netting

Get ready for veg patch envy…

Excellent veg patching, in particular this bush of 4 foot-tall cornflowers

Inspiration at Hidcote was of a more sedate order, not least because I was unable to get close to the planting with the buggy. The roses are over now, with border gaps filled with plenty of grasses and…..lots of other things that I can’t identify. Next time I need to take my Mother to tell me what everything is.

Herbaceous border at Hidcote, alas not pushchair friendly so this is the closest I could get

Parched fields of Gloucestershire

Back home, once I’d finished daydreaming about having a Cotswolds cottage with an arts-and-crafts garden attached, or giving it all up to do a three year course at Kew and indulging in writing a dissertation about veg-patching, I got busy. I’ve replanted the back garden with plants for late summer – dahlia, helenium, scabious, aster, salvia, rudbeckia. On the veg patch we’re harvesting beans and courgettes, dahlia and sweet peas. The land is parched with this never-ending summer heat.

My humble efforts

Harvesting: French beans, runner beans, courgette, summer squash, blueberries, blackcurrants, chard, lettuce, spinach, oregano, basil, sweet peas, sunflowers, borage, dill, dahlia, zinnia, cleome. Cosmos are thinking about flowering but are stunted by this dry weather.

Cooking: Spanakopita with chard and courgette, blueberry and nectarine cobbler, blueberry and cinnamon buns, roast chicken with oregano, focaccia

Reading: One woman’s truth about speaking the truth by Jess Philips MP (LOVE HER); A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson; a biography of Marianne North bought from Amazon for about £3

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Heading to drought?

When did it last rain? A month ago? We’re into a second week of hot weather – too hot for me, I’m desperate for some drizzle and a cagoule – and the ground is rock hard. Well, the bit that I manured is; the non-manured bit resembles sand. But actually, given the searing temperatures and dry wind, things are holding up pretty well.

We had a reasonable crop of strawberries and loads of redcurrants, enough to make a good few pots of my favourite jam. Both fruits have finished now and attention will soon turn to the blackcurrants and blueberries, and thence to the masses of raspberries (we’re on a glut warning).

Redcurrants and strawberries for jamming

There’s fruit set on the tomatoes although a few of these tiny green swellings have already succumbed to rot, turning black and shrivelled. I’m hoping that it’s normal blossom end rot rather than blight and have trimmed back a few dodgy looking leaves to be on the safe side.

Fruit set on the tomatoes

Meanwhile the beans are at the top of the poles – success for the first time in YEARS! – and there’s tons of lettuce, chard and spinach to be had. We’ve got the first of the courgettes and loads of edible flowers: borage, nasturtium, violas. Beautiful fresh, healthy, goodness-giving food.

Beautiful blooms on the beans

The chard, lettuce and cavolo nero are abundant

Sweet williams and borage

An arch of hops

The long view

Also this week:

Harvesting: First courgette, chard, lettuce, spinach, rocket, borage, nasturtium, viola, last broad beans, last strawberries, sweet william, first dahlia

Cooking: Redcurrant & strawberry jam

Reading: Good Good Food by Sarah Raven. Inspired, I popped to Holland & Barratt to stock up on whole nuts, buckwheat flour and flax seeds and left with…..some normal bulgar wheat. It’s fascinating to read some of the science behind healthy eating but the price of her recommended super-foods is madness. £5 for a tiny pack of coconut oil?  It’s a serious issue: healthy eating can not just be for the super elite. For now I’m going to stick to my allotment veg and Malvern water.

Days out: Too damn hot to do much at all but headed to Alexander Stadium yesterday for the British Athletics Champions. A great family friendly day-out which, paradoxically and pleasingly, involves a lot of sitting.

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Perking up

The year has disappeared by stealth. We’re nearly half-way through August – my due date is now only a month away – and I have no idea where the summer has gone. Or the spring, for that matter. Most of January and February were spent in bed / with head over a sink, and April to July I was heads-down with Birmingham Weekender and other projects. Now, suddenly, it’s late summer and the entire world is on holiday, which is marvellous for me as my daily incoming email quota has shrunk significantly. Work still needs attention of course but I’m trying to regain a bit of balance ahead of the new arrival. Matt and I are putting days out into the diary (in the last week there’s been a wedding, a farm visit and more!) and – amazingly – I’m now finding the space for a few hours here and there on the allotment.

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At Rebecca and Ben’s wedding

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Bindi and glitter

Both on the allotment and in the back garden, the pinks-and-pastels of early summer have given way to brighter jewelled shades. On the allotment this is definitely by design; in the back garden it is a happy accident.

It’s a bit of a free-for-all on the allotment this year. The plants are responding to the last few weeks of cooler, soggy weather – I’ve learnt that my allotment issues this year can be 99% blamed on the lack of water between May and July. Matt never got around to raising the hopolisk and so the hops, greedy for vertical lines, have jumped to any likely-looking pole: they’ve commandeered the fruit cage, the sweetpea netting, the bean poles. At their feet is a carpet of self-seeded nasturtium – (why is it that the self-seeding stuff always does so much better than the seedlings that I’ve carefully nurtured for months?) – and, alas, brambles and thistles are threatening to encroach into the veg patches. I’m doing my best to keep them clear but, with a rock-hard basketball stomach and an increasingly unstable pelvis, this is easier said than done.

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A bit of a free-for-all, but all things considered, not bad going

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Jewel-flowers join the regular harvest

It’s the time when the delicate pale sweetpeas give way to the brighter sunflowers, zinnia, cosmos and marigold, and I’m enjoying the glass jars of blooms that now adorn our windowsills. And the courgettes, the sodding courgettes, they keep coming. I’m contemplating grilling up a load and bottling them with olive oil and garlic; summery food for cooler weather. It’s a relief to finally be getting several harvests a week…the freezer is now so full of soft-fruit that there is barely any space for anything else. Come the dark of January, I will be so grateful for these throwbacks to summer.

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It’s been a long-time coming but finally getting sink-fuls of harvest

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Windowsills are adorned with a few orange, blue, white and pink posies a week, plus the first sunflowers

Harvesting: Raspberries, last blueberries, courgette, pattypan, runner beans, chard, spinach, rocket, frills of hex, baby chicory, nasturtium, sunflowers, zinnia, cornflower, cosmos, marigolds, last sweetpeas
Taken out: The rubbish beans that I planted back in the spring, though the emergency plugs that I put in a few weeks back are doing well. Weeding.
Cooking & eating: Courgette with everything. Cinnamon buns. Mum and Dad’s parmigiana with home-grown aubergine and tomato. Citrus chicken.
Reading: Behind the Mask, the biography of Vita Sackville West.

Summer rain

After the months of dry, we’re now blessed with days of gentle summer rain. The greens have responded with gusto – we now have lettuce! And kale! And chard! The little patch of salad and brassicas finally looks how I would have hoped it would look back in May – brimming with growth. Even the new climbing beans that I planted a few weeks back are doing well. The lesson is that my skills in propagation have this year been lacking, and that water is everything.

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The August allotment finally has greens…three months late!

Finally, and as predicted, the sunflowers have perked up and many reach to my head height. They’ve timed themselves well, for they’ll be ready to pick just as the July cornflowers and sweetpeas fade away.

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Sunflowers are now about my height and I’ll be picking within the next fortnight

It’s the vine fruits that are really romping away. We have autumn squash the size of basketballs, daily courgette and spaceship squash, and – another type of spreading vine – the nasturtiums are epic this year.

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The nasturtium are epic this year, with zinnia just beginning to bloom

Each year I discover that something has grown to a massive size utterly unnoticed – usually it’s a weed but this year the surprise is rather more pleasant. Hidden in the back of the greenhouse I have discovered two plump aubergine, rather battered in appearance (the caterpillar discovered them before I did) but nonetheless elegant with their purple sheen.

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Two surprise aubergine, though the caterpillars have got there first

More more excitingly, the stars of the greenhouse show are the ugly, fat, fiorentino tomatoes. They are a mess of crevices and cracks, lumps and bumps, and I love them for it. The temperatures over the last fortnight have not been great for tomatoes – too great a dip between highs and lows – and blossom end rot has made its usual and unwelcome appearance. One must be philosophical: the rain makes the flowers grow, and the tomatoes pay the price. Yin and yang.

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The ugly fiorentino tomatoes – if they ripen – will be epic!

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The last few weeks of chilly temperatures mean we have blossom end rot again

Harvesting: Tiny numbers of runner beans, courgette, summer squash, first raspberries, blueberries, chard, spinach, lettuce, nasturtium, cosmos, sweetpeas, first zinnia, cornflower
Cooking: Summer fruit crumble, courgette with everything

 

Courgette humble-pie

My life has been consumed with creating the brochure for Birmingham Weekender. At this point in time I genuinely ask myself which is harder: delivering a major festival, or delivering a baby. I suspect the baby will win but at least labour is over within a day or two…. Brochure creation for festivals goes on for WEEKS, requires significant skills in diplomacy and organisation (there’s A LOT of people involved with festivals), and a level of attention to detail that provokes 3am wakefulness and a several-day-long headache (though this might all be good practice for the life-changes ahead). Every summer, without fail, I ask myself why on earth I work on festivals…and then the event happens, everyone has a great time, and the pain is forgotten. Incidentally, anyone spotting the typo on this sample page gets a proofing high-five from me.

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This has taken over my life but the end is in sight

Brochure is booked onto the presses Monday morning, after which I fully intend to get a bit more balance in my life. In the last week or two there’s been some rain (hurray!) and the allotment is actually perking up! The cornflowers and borage are beautiful, attracting a hum of bees, and we have the first zinnia and sunflowers.

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The cornflowers and borage attract a constant hum of bees

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Sunflowers are finally perking up

It’s the start of the courgette glut season so there’s several of these every visit, plus tubs of blueberries and enough greens now to keep us going.

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Despite my winging there are pickings!

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This is what happens when you plant courgettes too close together

I do need to eat some humble pie however. Every year my parents manage to grow some insane courgettes, at least a foot long, and every year I mock: “How do you let this happen?!”. Well. Work is preventing me from doing a daily courgette check and the result is this: veg as long as my foot, and pattypan bigger than my hand. This is not ideal: courgettes need to be small, in my view, about the length of my palm (and I have small hands). The big ones quickly turn mushy and are nowhere near as good.

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Courgettes on the left are a perfect size; courgettes in the middle are what happens when you ignore them for 48 hours! Plus a few patty-pan with the same issue

Thankfully the Greeks have a solution to the insane-courgette-glut: PIE. When I mentioned to Matt that I planned to make a courgette-based pastry he screwed up his nose and winged that he didn’t want to eat anything vegan. Fear not. This pie involves eggs, cream, cheese, butter…all the greats. It’s a bit like spanakopita, but made with slow-cooked courgettes rather than spinach, and it manages to be fresh and rich all at the same time. Eat is warm for dinner with a tomato salad and then have the leftovers cold during the week. They’re clever, the Greeks.

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Greek courgette pie

Greek Courgette Pie

From Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook

First, take a kilo of courgettes, grate them into a big bowl, add a good pinch of salt and leave them to sit for an hour or so. This helps get rid of excess moisture. Tip the courgettes into a colander and give them a good squeeze until they’re as dry as you can get them.

Meanwhile, chop an onion and fry gently in a little olive oil until soft. Tip the courgettes into a pan and cook for about 15 minutes until soft and the excess liquid has evaporated. Tip the veg into a bowl and leave to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, chop a small bunch of parsley, a small bunch of dill, a small handful of mint leaves and 3 spring onions, and add to the courgettes. In a separate bowl, whisk 3 eggs with 100ml double cream, and add to the courgettes. Crumble in 200g feta cheese. Season with pepper and a little salt, and stir gently to combine.

Now it’s time to make the pie! Melt about 100g butter and have ready a pack of filo pastry. Preheat the oven to 190c, and line a small roasting tray with foil and baking parchment, to make the pie easy to remove when it’s cooked.

To assemble the pie, lay a sheet of filo into the lined roasting tray, brush with butter, then top with another sheet of filo. Keep going until you have 4 layers of filo.

Gently tip the courgette mixture into the middle of the pastry and spread out slightly, leaving a good margin of pastry around the edges. Fold the edges of the pastry up over the courgettes.

Now top the courgettes with another 3 or 4 layers of filo, brushing each layer with butter as you go. Top the pie with another layer of butter and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake for about 25 minutes – it may need longer. It’s done with the pie feels firm and is golden brown. Leave to cool for about 30 minutes before eating.

Also:

Harvesting: Courgettes, pattypan, lettuce, chard, oregano, sweetpeas, cornflowers, lavender, borage, blackcurrants, blueberries

Also cooking: Nectarine & blueberry muffins

Last resorts

Bridget Jones is not known for her great wisdom, but she did point out the truism that as one part of your life goes spectacularly well (in her case it was bagging Hugh Grant) another falls spectacularly apart (her mother has an affair with an orange-skinned buffoon from the shopping channel).

My issues are not quite as extreme, but it can not be denied that whilst I’ve been distracted with professionally important projects, and a growing baby in my tummy, the allotment has not been thriving. This is a classic piece of English understatement.

The veg patch – which in previous July days has overwhelmed us with lettuce, spinach, chard, kale and other goodies – still looks like it did when I planted things out in early May. Nothing seems to be growing!

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The allotment is awash with abundance…or not

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The poor climbing beans are cropping at a few centimetres high

The cut-flower patch is doing slightly better but is hardly a picture of abundance. Take as an example this picture from July last year, when the sunflowers were as tall as me and I was picking several posies of colourful stems a week.

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This year’s cut flower patch is struggling to get going

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This time last year the sunflowers were as tall as me! Image from July 2016

So I’ve taken to last resorts and bought what I think must be the last vegetable seedlings left on the internet. This week a box packed with Russian red kale, sweet corn and French beans arrived at my door, and the little plugs have been planted out with a sense of hope rather than expectation.

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Last resort…bought seedlings of Russian kale, French beans and corn

I’m uncertain as to why the allotment’s not doing so well this year. The long-established plants – the blackcurrants, redcurrants, blueberries, lavender – are all fine, despite being ignored year-in year-out. The courgette and squash are also romping away, and they are meant to be hungry, thirsty plants (note: I never water or feed mine).

It’s the greens, legumes and flowers that are struggling, and yet the only major difference in how they’ve been treated is that I started everything off a few weeks later than normal. Could it be the dry spring? The lack of Chappers’ manure? The June heat? Perhaps this winter we need to organise a lorryload of poo to get some goodness back into the soil…though how I’ll do that with a tiny baby in tow is anyone’s guess.

In the meantime, I make do with a few weekly fistfuls of sweetpeas and cornflowers, and the first few (wonderful) thumb-sized courgettes.

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Planted out: Plugs of Russian kale, Corn, French beans
Harvesting: Sweetpeas, cornflowers, lavender, first courgettes (hurray!), blueberries, blackcurrants, a scant handful of French beans, scant amounts of lettuce, beet spinach, Frills of Hex
Cooked: Redcurrant muffins. Broth of summer allotment veg (courgette, beet spinach, green beans, tomato, spring onion, garlic, veg stock) finished with pesto, with fillet of hake.

Gooseberry, strawberry & almond crumble

The oppressive heat, horrible things in the news, and long, intense work hours have got the better of me this week. I received a work email on Friday lunchtime that, in ordinary circumstances, would have made me raise an eyebrow and swear. Except on this occasion I read it, took an in-breath, and burst into tears. Note: I very rarely do this. I’ve studied yoga for twelve years in an effort to NOT do this! (I am willing to grant that pregnancy hormone might also be at play.) So I decided to be my own HR department, slapped the laptop shut, then headed to the allotment for an hour of pottering and seed sowing. I’ve learned that a very important part of being your own boss is learning the art of self-care: I can’t hope to work effectively if I am working to exhaustion. Plus I don’t get paid enough to put up with excess levels of BS.

At the start of the week, the greenhouse thermometer was reading a whopping 50c – now that is HOT. I thought that would spell disaster for all things green but actually, the tomatoes and squash are thriving and the sweetpeas are doing well. It’s a different story for the beans, greens and cosmos, which remain stunted. I’ve decided to cut my losses so pulled up the bolted summer rocket, forked over the ground and started again: Friday’s melt-down resulted in a productive and satisfying hour sowing neat lines of lettuce, chard, parsnips, rocket, kale (for salads) and green beans. A positive outcome….if they grow!

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Scorchio!

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The courgettes and squash are thriving, and in a week we’ll be inundated

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But beans are a different story – the plants are just a few inches tall, my hand here for scale

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The ‘wild’ flowers I started from seed have come true, great for bees, but the cosmos plants are small and unpromising. I’m really saddened by this, it seems that cosmos are a vital part of my allotment happiness.

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Getting several posies of sweetpeas a week, though only one single cosmos bloom so far!

It’s soft-fruit-glut-stress season. We were in Tamworth yesterday and Matt’s mum passed us a few bags of rhubarb and gooseberries from their allotment – she’d texted earlier to ask if I wanted any and I of course said yes but, and I quote, ‘not lots’. There are only two of us after all. But soft-fruit-glut-stress is a universal experience and so I quite understood when we were handed a few kilos of goosegogs and more rhubarb than I’d get through in a year. No-one likes waste. I’ve been plotting to alleviate my own soft-fruit-glut-stress by inviting my friend’s kids over to pick blackcurrants as an after-school activity (hopefully Helen won’t swear too much when she realises that this activity could lead to hours topping and tailing fruit before sweating over boiling vats of jam).

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Tamworth goosegogs and rhubarb

The Tamworth gooseberries are fab: plump and fat and firm. I also had a few strawberries kicking around from the allotment that needed using up and, inspired by last weekend’s forays into redcurrant and strawberry jam, wondered if the sweet strawbs would be a good foil to the sharp green gooseberries. Only one way to find out: gooseberry & strawberry crumble it is.

I don’t have any quantities for this, just a method that can be adapted according to whatever fruit is in season. It’s how my Mum makes crumble, and it’s probably what her Mum did before her. First, get enough berries to fill your crumble dish to the brim (they’ll cook down lots). Make sure the berries are hulled / topped-and-tailed, and pop them into a mixing bowl.

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For a summer crumble, prep the fruit and place in a mixing bowl

Add cornflour (to thicken the juices) and sugar to the fruit. For this quantity (feeds 4) I added 5 dessertspoons of caster sugar and two of cornflour, but if you like it sweeter then just add more sugar; I like my crumble on the sharp side. If I’d had any oranges lying around then I would have scrapped in some zest here too.

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Toss in sugar and cornflour, and perhaps orange zest if you’ve got some lying around

Pile the fruit into your oven-proof crumble dish, then make the crumble. Rub 150g unsalted butter into 300g plain flour until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs, then add 150g caster sugar and a handful of flaked almonds for crunch. Cover the fruit with a thick layer of crumble, pressing the topping down fairly firmly. There will likely be leftover crumble mix, in which case it can go into the freezer for another day. Bake the crumble at 170c for about an hour, or until the fruit is bubbling up the sides and the crumble is browned. The cooking time depends on the surface area of your crumble dish – the wider the dish, the quicker the crumble will cook.

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Top the fruit with almondy crumble mix and bake for about an hour

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Pink and bubbling!

I think this is better at room temperature than boiling hot, but each to their own. Cold runny cream is definitely a must. Gooseberries and strawberries…the essence of mid-summer.

Gooseberry, strawberry & almond crumble

Enough strawberries and gooseberries to fill your crumble dish

Caster sugar

Cornflour

Orange zest

for the crumble:

300g plain flour

150g cold unsalted butter

150g caster sugar

Handful flaked almonds

Prep the fruit: top and tail the gooseberries, and hull the strawberries. Put them in a mixing bowl and mix with cornflour and caster sugar. Quantities will depend on how much fruit you’ve got but for four people, I’d use 2 heaped dessertspoons of cornflour and 5 dessertspoons sugar.

Make the crumble: rub the butter into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs, then stir in the sugar and almonds. Top the fruit with the crumble and press down fairly firmly. Any leftover crumble mixture can be frozen for another day.

Bake at 170c for about an hour until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden. Cool slightly before eating.

Also this week:

Sowed: Chard, lettuce, Tuscan kale, Frills of Hex kale, parsnips, summer rocket, green beans, sweetcorn, basil, parsley
Harvesting: Sweetpeas, strawberries, winter rocket, baby spinach, last broadbeans (Note to self: grow at least 30 broadbean plants next year, we’ve had far too few this year)
Reading: A little history of British gardening by Jenny Uglow; The first forty days: The essential art of nourishing the new mother by Heng Ou – a book which draws on traditional wisdom to nourish the new family (physically and emotionally) in the first days postpartum. I love this book, which was a birthday present from my friend Claire, but Heng’s recipe for placenta-cacao smoothie is not one that I’ll be making anytime soon.
Also: A lot of work (brochure writing, budgets, print jobs etc etc). Birthday gathering at Claire’s complete with Colin the Caterpillar and beauty tips from Joan Collins. Tentative foray into researching baby equipment (am totally shocked at how expensive buggies are). Matt’s been working 15 hour+ days for several weeks.

The tip of season’s change

Summer keeps threatening to take a leave of absence – and then changes its mind, coming back with gusto. One day it’s cloudy, rainy, muggy (thoughts turn to pies and crumble), but then the hot sun returns and it’s ice-lollies and barbecues. The social media feeds are still full of holidays, glamping and festivals – no-one seems to be fully at work. And I know that I should be dealing with the back garden in the new house but really, it’s all I can do to manage a spot of allotment weeding. This late summer heaviness is preventing anything getting done. More than once this week I’ve heard people yearn for autumn, for the kids to get back to school and life to get back to normal.

Well, it’s nearly here folks. For every hot pink zinnia and bright sunflower that I’m picking, there’s a bunch of burnished crysanthemums, punnet of deep crimson autumn raspberries and bags of mustardy wintery leaves. I came home on Tuesday with an actual armful of flowers (and yes, I did feel more than a little smug).

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Summer pink zinnia…

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and the dahlias keep getting better and better

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One view says summer…

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…but this beauty suggests autumn, in my favourite pumpkin shade

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More burnished shades of crysanthemum

The hops have been quietly coming along, and the cones are nearly ready to harvest. One of the plants totally failed to grow this year and the other has shed half its leaves, but the crop itself is larger than ever.

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The hops are nearly ready for harvesting

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Cones of the hop, ripening daily

The sweetcorn aren’t quite ready to pick but are nearly there – this late summer sun will do them good, boosting the sugar levels. Planted in their geometric grids they add a rare touch of order to the plot, which I enjoy.

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The corns are near ready, the silks browning at their ends

I’m so pleased with the winter chicory, which is really starting to establish themselves. Last year we had leaves from September through to March – brilliant – so I’ve planted two varieties this year: red Treviso and a variegated Castelfranco. The slug got a few but they seem to be growing back vigorously, the mark of a true cut-and-come-again plant.

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Chicories are doing brilliantly! Treviso on the left, and Variegato di Castelfranco on the right

Along with pumpkins, plums and apples, aubergines say autumn to me. Look at this gorgeous specimen – skinny but dark, with a mottled shine finish.

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Beautiful, shiny, dark, mysterious and LONG aubergines

The long view gives us that late August, early September quandary: summer or autumn?

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Long view on 1st September

Harvesting: Last courgettes (thank God), autumn-winter lettuce, rocket, reine du glace lettuce, green beans (but hardly any of these), cavolo nero, frills of hex kale, chillies, tomatoes, raspberries (loads), cosmos, sunflowers, crysanthemums, zinnia

A summer of mixed fortune

It’s been a summer of mixed allotmenting fortune – good sunflowers, cosmos and courgette; fair-to-middling salads and sweetpeas; rubbish beans and tomatoes. This is the time of year when, although humans are deep into their summer holidays, the natural world is turning towards autumn: the sun falls lower in the evening sky, leaves are crisping, blackberries are ripening.

Time, then, for a spot of reflection on how things are going.

Well, the sunflowers are going great guns! The Sunflower Club seeds are well over 2m tall, but they’re actually overshadowed by the cutting sunflowers, which must be closer to 3m. We’re getting a few jolly bunches a week. At their feet, the cosmos are forming a wall of dazzling pink colour.

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The Sunflower Club seeds went to 2m 22cm!

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The wall of cosmos ‘dazzler’ with ‘purity’

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You can see just how tall those sunflowers have become!

Puzzlingly, the crysanths – taken from cuttings from 6 different plants – have turned out to be uniformly pink or orange. Even more mysteriously, they’ve been in flower for a month already, which is about 8 weeks earlier than last year. I think they’ve suffered from some wind or rain damage though as the blooms all look slightly mottled, slightly bashed.

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The crysanths have been out for a few weeks already – a good two months earlier than last year

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Up close (and weather-battered)

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A few asters survived the slugs, now out in flower

The calendula and ammi are a disaster. Least said about these the better.

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But the ammi and calendula this year are a no-show. I have no idea what went wrong.

In happier news, the brassicas have bounced back convincingly after the slug wars of May and June. The unusual frills of hex kale is now a small, rounded bush of frothy leaves, resembling some kind of sea vegetable.

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The ‘frills of hex’ kale has completely rejuvenated itself

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It really is frilly – it reminds me of some kind of maritime plant

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The less exotic PSB and sprout flower plants are coming along

After three failed sowings, I had one last go with the parsnips back in July and lo and behold, we now have seedlings!

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Miracle of miracles: parsnip seedlings, at last

The courgette are still cropping well but the ornamental squash have essentially taken over the plot with their bulbous green fruit. Come September I’ll crop these and use them with the crysanthemums for an autumnal display.

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The ornamental squash are now as big as my feet

The beans have finally grown back after the slug wars, but it’s been a disappointing year. We may still get a good crop of borlotti – essential in a chilli con carne in my view – but the green beans have caused far more pain than pleasure. In a triumph of hope over experience, however, I will sow some runner beans next year for the first time; I grew up with those towering plants and their quirky red flowers, and now feel them to be an essential element of the veg patch.

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It is not a great year for beans, but they are regrowing after the slug wars

One of the hops didn’t grow at all this year and one other has shed half of its leaves, but the other two are now massive compared to previous years. The cones are now forming… Will Matt actually get around to making any beer this year? Who knows.

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Hop flowers!

The autumn raspberries are just about coming into ripeness and we look set for a bumper crop. The patch is humming with bees taking their fill of nectar.

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It’s looking like a bumper year for the autumn raspberries, the plants humming with bees

In the greenhouse, the combined efforts of a cold spring, hungry slugs and pesky caterpillars has decimated the tomatoes harvest. The chillies, on the other hand, are rampant. I don’t even eat that many chillies – what to do with all these?!

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Chillies, chillies, chillies. I don’t even use that many chillies in my cooking.

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The black krim tomatoes have not been particularly abundant, but they are now thinking of turning black

In a new first, we also have two aubergine plants this year and, joy of joys, there are two baby black fruit ripening daily.

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And for the first time – aubergine!

Taking the long view, it’s not been an outstanding year – but perhaps our expectations are too high. We need more manure, more organic matter, more water, fewer weeds, fewer grasses and more time!

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Taking the long view on an August evening

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As I leave, I spy blackberries coming into ripeness

Most importantly, there is a daily harvest. Have I bought any fruit, flowers or veg lately? No, not really…and that is the most important point of all.

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A standard mid-August harvest – flowers, tomatoes, berries

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The last of the summer sweetpeas with zinnia…

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…as the vases now fill with sunflowers and crysanths

Harvesting: Sunflowers, crysanths, cosmos, chard, spinach, courgette, tomatoes, green and purple beans, rocket, oregano parsley, basil, blueberries, raspberries