Autumn is here

Thank God, the season has turned. Our new house has turned out to be a Victorian ice-box and I’m having to wear cashmere jumpers in my office to keep the chill off (no hardship there). The bright October mornings start with a bite, the windows are covered in condensation until about 2pm in the afternoon and I’m spotting several local squirrels in the back garden as they build their winter nut store.

But what a glorious September; bright and warm but fresh. The apple harvest is in full swing and last weekend I filled two carrier bags at Clive’s Fruit Farm – one with cookers, one with eaters – and the fruits are now making a still-life display of voluptuousness alongside the last of the greenhouse tomatoes.

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Apples, pears and the final greenhouse tomatoes

More excitingly, the first of the spring bulbs arrived this morning! I was perhaps a little, erm, exuberant in my ordering: there’s 240 bulbs here with more on the way. I’ve a combination of tulips, narcissi and allium with a mixture of jewel-bright and neutral, calm shade. Most are destined for the allotment, some for the back garden, and some for pots. I’ll keep you posted how I get on.

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Spring bulbs arrived this morning!

On the allotment, life is slowing down but is definitely not yet finished for the year. The greenhouse is empty now, other than the final chilli plants, but the gourds are providing never-ending club-shaped green fruit. I actually planted a gourd mix but only one type seems to have thrived, and to my mind it is the least attractive, so next year I’ll go back to the drawing board with some properly orange, gnarled and suitably witch-y varieties.

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A pile of gourds are seasoning on the drying rack

The sunflowers are elegantly dying back but they will stay in the ground for a few weeks for their seeds to ripen. Why pay tuppence a bag to feed the birds when you can grown your own seed-heads for free? I love the statuesque height of these browning heads, swaying in the early autumn wind. There’s still plenty of smaller blooms to pick, and they’re going in the vase with the pumpkin, bronze and lemon-coloured chrysanthemums.

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Sunflowers are ageing gracefully

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I am leaving the heads on so that the seeds ripen: free food for the birds

The dahlias are the gift that keeps on giving. In the last few weeks this yellow bloom has popped up: left in the ground last summer to over-winter, it has taken its own sweet time to grow but now that it has, what a shade it is! Dahlias Labyrinth (the fat one) and Totally Tangerine (the daisy shaped one) evoke the shades of sunset but Labyrinth, I discover, is an anomaly: it should be a compacted anenome-shape but ours has turned out with a curious mis-shaped centre. There is, of course, great beauty in the ‘fault’.

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Bright brash colour from the dahlias

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Labyrinth is meant to be far more compact than this

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The sea of zinnia and cosmos

But what is there to eat? Well, the chicory, spinach and winter leaves are going great and I pulled the last of the sweetcorn to freeze for another day. The borlotti are fattening nicely and, believe it or not, I’m STILL pulling the sodding courgettes. As for the raspberries: I am now so sick of them I’m afraid they are rotting on the canes.

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Borlotti beans approaching harvest time

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Raspberries are now rotting on the vine, they are so prolific

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The trombocino (aka Sea Monster) squash

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Season’s eatings

It’s not all great news. The brassicas, once the plat-du-jour of our foe the slug, has now become a des-res for billions of whitefly. That is not an exaggeration. The leaves are covered in egg sacks and sticky black sooty mould, essentially rendering them inedible. The RHS says to spray them with a weak washing-up liquid solution, which I did, but it has made not the slightest difference.

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Billions of white fly have taken up residence in the brassicas, leaving sooty mould on the leaves

And then there’s the rosemary, which had grown far too great for its station in life and received a well-deserved hack. The compost bin is now even more of a disaster then before.

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Will someone help sort out the compost heap please?!

Apparently this is the time to slow down, but the jobs are piling up in my head: get the grass edges tidied up, pull out the summer planting, sort out the back garden at the house (a MASSIVE JOB), get the bulbs planted, remember to actually cook some stuff, try and think creatively for next year (a contradiction in terms of course).

The new terms begins.

 

Planted out: Seedlings of winter lettuce and greens gifted by Natalie Schwarz
Sowed: Autumn sowings of hardy annuals (ammi, cornflower, sweetpeas, calendula, nigella); greenhouse sowing of winter leaves (Tuscan mix, SR Winter mix, spinach Mediana)
Harvesting: Final stick beans, all the sweetcorn, first borlotti beans, final tomatoes, final aubergines, final courgettes (but I’ve been saying that for a month), gourds, trombocino, raspberries, chicory, chard, spinach, winter salad mix, salad rocket, wild rocket, beets, dahlias, sunflowers, zinnia, chrysanthemums. Would be picking cavolo nero if it weren’t covered in whitefly.
Cleaned out: Tomatoes, sweetpea sticks, trimmed the massive rosemary and oregano bushes

The November allotment

Growing, like cooking, is such a grounding activity. The newsfeeds this week filled our laptops and phones with constant information about the dire state of the world, and it’s easy amidst this barrage to lose one’s steadiness. As the days suddenly grow shorter, so the world seems to grow darker (metaphorically and literally: sunset at 4.08pm now). But there is always the promise of longer days and of light to come. There is a lovely quote attributed to Mother Teresa that reads, ‘In this world we can not always do great things, but we can do small things with great love’. As individuals we might feel powerless but we can at least do our best, according to our own means, to spread a little kindness in our world. Ten years of yoga practice has taught me the importance of at least attempting to keep my equilibrium.

And so, when the sun shone this afternoon for what must be the first time in weeks, I seized the opportunity to get out and top up my Vitamin D levels. The skies have slid into a washed out, wintery blue.

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Winter skies are upon us

Oh allotment, I have abandoned ye! The grass that I meant to strim a month ago is now shaggy and long, but still too wet to get near. There are darned weeds growing everywhere (three trug-fulls today), we’ve yet to actually have that bonfire, and everywhere there is the sense that life has slooooooowed right dooooooown, ready for the cold months.

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The allotment is a soggy, grassy state

Unusually energised, I dug over the old raspberry patch – this is the one that’s been under black matting since early spring. I think this ground has not been broken for the best part of 15 years and consequently was full of stones, roots and twigs. Some of the raspberry roots eluded me; someone with greater upper body strength than I will need to get rid of them (Matt, please take the hint). With this ground reclaimed I have a good few extra metres of space to grow pretty flowers in the spring. Hurray!

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The old raspberry patch has been forked over, finally

The bean poles finally got taken up and the worst of the grassy weeds taken out of the beds. All the ground needs manuring now before settling down for a winter kip.

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The beanpoles, corn and sunflowers are a distant memory

The blackcurrant may be dormant but it’s gone down fighting: its buds are clear to see, showing the intent to resurrect itself come April. And those greens – amazingly, the chard, spinach and sorrel are still crisp, croppable, thriving.

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The blackcurrant has set its buds ready for next spring

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The sorrel, spinach and chard deserve medals for long service

The allotments have all faded into subdued shades of brown, with the occasional shot of colour. A neighbour’s apple tree has lost all its leaves but the golden fruit remain, bobbing in the breeze like baubles on a Christmas tree. By the stream, a spray of rosehips are enticingly out of reach, gorgeous and plump.

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Final shot of autumnal floral colour

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Apples on a neighbour’s tree resemble golden baubles in the low afternoon sun

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I love this spray of red rosehips by the stream

Will we ever get around to visiting Chappers to collect her horse manure? Will the bonfire have to wait until next year? Only time will tell.

Harvesting: Winter lettuce, mustard spinach, chard, spinach, sorrel, chicory, leeks, carrots, parsnips, crysanths. Also forked over old raspberry patch, weeded, took out bean and sweetpea canes.

 

October pickings

The proper autumn harvest has begun. I was in Stratford upon Avon last week for work and popped to Charlecote Plants on the way back, which is essentially a wooden shack next to a National Trust property. Don’t be fooled though, for the shack is home to treasure. Charlecote are known for their October display of  squash and visitors are welcomed by mountains of knobbly, gnarly, stripy, weird, wonderful veggies.

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The squash display at Charlecote, Warwickshire

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Custard squash!

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If I’d have known, I’d have flogged my gourds for £6 a basket

Squash aside, the produce here is brilliantly good. I picked up golden beets, local red cabbage, russet spring onions and admired the baskets of princely quince and cobnuts. The carrots, which are the same variety as we “grow”, made me sick with envy.

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Exquisite rainbow carrots at Charlecote…

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…and the less-than-exquisite ones from our allotment

Yesterday marked a momentous day at Veg Patch: the pulling of the first parsnip! What’s more, it actually looked like a parsnip! Nothing can beat that spicy earthy scent of a freshly dug ‘snip, though in truth they need a bit more time in the soil to bulk out.

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First parsnip of the year with all it’s gnarly perfumed glory

The leeks are ready now but they’ve been affected by a rot of some kind, and the outer leaves are beginning to disintegrate. Can leeks be frozen? Something to look up. The onions, meanwhile, have been drying out for the past fortnight, making the most of the unseasonably warm September.

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Onions are drying beautifully

We missed the optimal moment for the hop harvest; they’re no good for beer now. But they are pretty enough so perhaps will have a second life as a decoration somewhere, though preferably not in my kitchen as the papery petals shed everywhere and generally make a right mess.

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Hops: too far gone for beer now, but still pretty enough

The sunflowers are now fading, though the bees are still drinking their fill of nectar.  The prize for October colour goes to the crysanths, now blooming with incredibly long-lived stems. I love the clash of orange, purple and pink: it seems the essence of autumn in a vase.

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Can’t get enough of these fiery shades

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The cosmos is still holding firm

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This beauty has come up out of nowhere

So we have an autumn harvest. No brassicas (yet, but I live in hope), so I’ve taken to stealing cavalo nero from my mother’s veg patch. Blanched then tossed in olive oil and garlic, it lifts a plate of roasted roots to new dimensions. Autumn is definitely here.

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A car boot of booty

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Elegant stems of cavalo nero

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Harvest of season’s change

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Gourds, squash, dahlia, crysanths: autumnal table display

Harvest: Dahlia, cosmos, crysanths, leeks, carrots, parsnip, courgette, chard, spinach, last tomatoes, last chillies

September pickings

Summer comes late to a Birmingham allotment, the first flowers not really blooming until June. They are white, pale and gentle: cosmos, foxglove, sweet-pea, forget-me-not. Then the season slips to autumn and WHAM BAM! Colour is everywhere! The sunflowers blaze and the blueberries turn a majestic russet; there are golden tomatoes, green peppers, red raspberries and purple beans. Not to be outdone, the artichoke still lures drunk bees to its violet spikes.

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There are still drunk bees on the artichoke flowers

The colours of the autumn flowers work together incredibly well, but it’s due to luck rather than judgment. The yellow, red and orange dahlias contrast against the peach calendula, in turn providing foil for the sunflowers.

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Sunshine yellow dahlias

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One of the last calendula

Speaking of sunflowers…they’re proving themselves to be showy madams. I think there are six different varieties – can’t quite remember – and the more I pick, the more they keep coming. The issue now is height: the best blooms are a foot taller than I can reach.

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The sunflowers, frankly, are showing off

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And they’re beyond reach. This is as tall as I go!

Truth be told, I’m getting a little bored of these late summer flowers (I know, it’s a terrible thing to say). Eyes now are on the crysanthemums, which hint at blooming daily but then never quite get around to it.

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The crysanths are thinking about putting on a show

The beans are starting to fade now, or at least the purple ones are. I’ve purposefully left a load of pods on the vine to fatten up, the beans inside perfect for winter soups and stews. Meanwhile, I discovered yesterday that one borlotti plant made it through the slug assault! We have pods, slim and mottled with pink, which in a month or so will be full of marbled borlottis.

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Swelling bean pods amidst autumnal leaves

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Joy! One borlotti plant made it through and now there are pods

Next to the beans I’ve allowed the bishop’s flower (or ammi) to fade, its seed heads just as pretty as the white fluff of flower.

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Flower head and seed head coexist on the ammi

Speaking of fading: the berries are long gone, but the blueberry delivers again with a show-stopping storm of autumn colour.

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Blazing blueberry bush

I’ve been forgetting that the allotment is meant to be about harvesting, and harvesting things to eat at that. The hops are nearly ready to come down (Matt’s in charge of that bit), and that favourite autumn delight – corn – has come up trumps. 18 ears are ready to cut!

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The hops are ready to harvest

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So too the corn, 18 ears and counting

The fennel started life with promise but has now had a hissy fit and bolted. I’ll pull it nonetheless, it’s anise flavour will come in useful somewhere in the kitchen.

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The fennel is deeply unimpressed with the weather and has bolted

The chicory I thinned the other week has relaxed into itself and started to hearten up. I love the flicks of purple, as if a paintbrush has been splattered over the leaves.

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Chicory is heartening up

The chard deserves a special medal for longevity. I planted this row back in March and it’s a bit hole-y now – that’s the slugs for you – but it’s still cropping and tender. The spinach will make it through to winter and, under cover, the mustard leaves and cavalo nero are relatively intact.

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The chard is still going strong, despite slug damage

The raspberries keep coming and, weather permitting, will do so for a few more weeks I expect.

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Luscious autumn raspberries

Amidst the loot, there are the interlopers. I couldn’t bring myself to shift this weed, which has seeded itself under a brick – no soil required.

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This brave plant has rooted itself under a brick on top of plastic. No soil here. It gets marks for perseverance.

I harvest carrots (wonky but tasty), leeks, beans, tomatoes, chillies, courgettes, sunflowers and dahlias, a trug which brightens a grey September day.

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Straight leeks, wonky carrots

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Colourful pickings

Harvesting: Beans, chillies, courgettes, raspberries, tomatoes, chard, corns, carrots, leeks, dahlias, sunflowers, cosmos, last calendula

Planted under cover: chard, kale, mustard spinach, winter lettuce

Thinking ahead

My time and attention has been sucked into a brochure-shaped vortex. It’s like that when you work on festivals. Rather like the pain of childbirth (so I’m told), you forget the intensity of concentration and negotiation and emails and headaches (both literal and metaphorical), start work on a new one, then fall into the rabbit hole once more until it’s all over and you emerge back into the light blinking. To organise an arts festival requires at least eight hands spinning 80 plates. There are perks to brochure creation though: I get to be pernickety about the placing of commas and apostrophes, and designers feed me fish-finger sandwiches and key lime pie.

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Key lime pie whilst brochure editing

It’s at these times when the allotment is a god-send: after a full-on day, the knowledge that I have to go and water the tomatoes gives a bit of structure, makes me step away from the computer. Fresh air blows a hole through the most hideous of bad heads. In these late afternoon wanderings, I’ve been spotting season’s changing: Autumn is rearing its head.

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Plumping blackberries

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Swelling hips

At the weekend, the fruit farm had the first plums and apples of the season. The plums gave off that particularly plummy-smell, at once sweet and spicy and vaguely rotting, but in a good way. The wasps buzzed around hoping for their next meal.

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The first plums are ready

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So too the first apples

On the allotment, our dahlias are out and that pesky artichoke has come good with particularly brilliant flowers. The bees dive into the purple spikes and get drunk on pollen, sloping around-and-around on their bellies in a satisfied stupor.

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Our first zingy lemon meringue dahlia

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Artichoke shows its punk credentials

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First tomato from the greenhouse

I’ve been thinking about my winter culinary wardrobe. The cavalo nero seedlings are plump and healthy, the thinnings great when wilted into chunky courgettes.

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Cavalo nero thinnings, lovely wilted with hot salty courgettes

Those rubbish corns were ripped out to make space for the cavalo nero, which I’ll plant out in a couple of weeks. Next to them I’ve put in more chard and spring onions, and in seed-trays I’ve sowed winter lettuce, mustard mix, mustard-spinach and red Russian kale. Fingers crossed for a decent crop to take us through the cold months.

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Winter lettuce, mustard, mustard-spinach & red Russian kale

Sowed: Winter lettuce, mustard mix, mustard-spinach, Red Russian kale, white stemmed chard, spring onion

Harvesting: Sunflowers, sweetpeas, calendula, green and purple beans, spinach, chard, red Russian kale, courgettes, blueberries, raspberries, first tomato