First frosts and whiskey cake

Our house needs a big red cross on the front door: once again we are diseased. Well actually it’s not that dramatic – potentially a bit of hand, foot and mouth, except Harry’s spots are on his bum, knees and mouth. I haven’t googled “bum, knees and mouth childhood illness” as I’m pretty certain it’s new to science. Whilst Harry’s potentially infectious and therefore off nursery, I’ve been mentally bouncing off the walls at being nearly-housebound. The worst is over so today we even went to Ikea out of desperation.

In the meantime, autumn has taken hold and Birmingham is bathed in golden colour. It’s good to pay attention to these things…the changing light roots me into the passing of the seasons. We’ve had a few frosts now which have finally meant the end of the cosmos – the Cosmos Purity and Dazzler gave me blooms from June to November, which is pretty impressive.

My allotment visits look like this now, meaning it’s almost impossible to get anything done

Cosmos have finally been zapped by the frosts

A week or so back I managed to take out the remaining plants from the one veg bed and get some black plastic down, to protect the soil from the worst of the winter weather and limit the weeds. Keeping the plastic in place is always a feat of “that’ll do” – pegs and staples are useless here, so I use any bits of heavy material I can find including, this year, the hopolisk, some discarded fencing and (my favourite) a marrow.

The one veg plot has been covered in plastic, though the brassicas are still going strong

Without really meaning to, I have become the proud owner of a gazillion dahlias – none of which are in the right place. The ones at home have now been dug up so that I can over-winter them indoors and replant in the spring. The allotment ones also need to come up (just need to find the time) and they will get the same treatment.

First crate of dahlia tubers for over-wintering

All this is diversion from what Harry and I spend most of our poorly time doing, which is cooking. Every morning I plonk him in the high chair so he can watch me concoct something – today it was a lentil and vegetable stew, which he later scoffed very happily, and yesterday it was a parsnip and cheddar soda bread. I know that he’s very young to be indoctrinated into Stallard cookery but I like to think that he will learn by osmosis.

One of his favourite treats of recent weeks has been an Irish Whiskey Cake that was leftover from the cake table at our wedding. He (and I) liked it so much that I pumped my friend Felicity for the recipe, which she in turn had to get from Mrs Audrey Flint from Smethwick Old Church. Audrey very kindly came up with the goods, and I discovered that my naive assumption that the whiskey would have been baked into the cake was wrong wrong wrong. It’s actually a tea bread, and the key ingredient is drizzled on after cooking to increase the moisture content…which means that my son has started his boozy life extremely young.

Here is Audrey’s fine typed-up version, which I see no reason to re-type as I can not improve on this excellent piece of food culture. Thank you Mrs Flint for carrying on the fine tradition of simple yet richly fruited, boozy loaves that keep forever.

Irish Whiskey Cake courtesy of Mrs Audrey Flint of Smethwick Old Church

Also this week:

On the allotment: Covered one vegetable bed with plastic. All the cut flowers are now finished, but still harvesting chard, beet spinach and cavolo nero.

Cooking and eating: Chocolate Eve’s pudding, parsnip & cheddar soda bread, banana muffins, lentil and vegetable stew.

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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A question of life and death

I witnessed a murder yesterday. One of the allotment cats, a rangy black-and-white thing that’s about three times the size of Gertie, was lurking around the compost bin. She/he (I think he) was clearly up to no good, a fact given away by the resoluteness of his stare – that and the fact that he totally ignored me wittering away to him when normally this results in a speedy sprinted getaway.

Said feline ambled up the side of the pallets, hopped onto the rotting corn silks, and two seconds later emerged with a brown rodent chomped between his jaws. The whole things was languid and effortless, and the mouse (rat?) population lost another one of its own. For wildlife, life is lived wild; the end is always nigh.

Autumn is about death of course, the letting go of what is no longer needed in order to regroup for the following season. The air now smells of sweet decay, the grass is carpeted in soggy auburn leaves. Amongst the carpet lie conkers and their discarded cases. No matter how old you are, seeing the first conker of the season, freshly sprung from its velveteen womb, is an excitement.

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Horse chestnut leaves

But there is life amidst the decay. The squash are coming along and the borlottis are now finally setting their beans. I harvested a load more cima di rapa this morning, the tiny green heads already turning to flower. It needs to be harvested before it bolts or the whole lot becomes tough and inedible.

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If you ignore the insect holes, this is pretty much perfect cima di rapa

I mentioned that the leeks aren’t doing so well. They’ve been got by a fungal bug, causing them to droop and brown off. I think the lot will need to be pulled and we’ll have to live off leek and potato soup for a month.

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Leeks with rust

But the hyssop is in flower, possibly the most beautiful thing on the allotment currently. For a tiny plant, the herb produces the most vibrant acid purple flower. These were planted in mid-June.

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Beautiful delicate hyssop

And those cosmos: the cosmos seem to be – if you’ll excuse me – the talk of the allotment. Whenever I see any of our neighbours I get SERIOUSLY complimented on the cosmos. I will happily take the praise but really, I have done nothing – I didn’t even plant them, my mother did. They’ve been a glorious mass of pure white for about 6 weeks now, probably more, and are only just beginning to fade. I spent an hour this morning dead-heading, the early sun warming my back.

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The mass of cosmos

At all times, but particularly at this time, the greatest wisdom must be to notice and enjoy the moment whilst you can.

He knows his onions

My Dad is of a particular generation. Brought up in post-war countryside austerity, all rationing and hard graft, but with lots of space at his disposal (at the last count: four garages, one caravan port, two sheds, two lofts) he is of the ‘It’ll come in useful one day’ school of thinking. Nothing gets chucked out. I have told him that he needs to sort out all his stuff before he pops his clogs, as like buggery am I going to do it.

However. It is onion pulling time and Monty Don tells us that we need to dry them on some kind of rack. I don’t own an onion drying rack, oddly enough. So my Dad spies an opportunity to get out his woodworking kit and before you know it, we have a piece of garden apparatus that is so large the only means of transportation is in Mother’s Berlingo (aka the Pope Mobile).

The chicken wire was last used when my brother was learning to play cricket as a boy; it stopped the windows from being smashed. My brother is now 41. And so the chicken wire has indeed come in useful one day.

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The onion rack in full glory

About these onions. They were planted in sets over the May bank holiday, which apparently is quite late (we bought them on sale). I think they’ve done a good job.

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Matt’s onions

I’ve been asking Matt nicely for the last few days to pull them up, as I want the space. My current thinking is about a year-round-harvest. It’s all well and good harvesting every day of the week from July to September, but what of the rest of the year? Autumn is covered(ish) with cavalo nero, corn, squash, leeks and parsnip. But a girl needs greens, and so in goes more spinach, chard, cima di rapa and spring onions.

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All clean!

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and pigeon protected.

The fennel that I put in two (?) weeks ago has – I think – germinated. It’s not always easy to work out what is seedling and what is weedling.

The dahlias and cosmos look amazing.

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Pulled: Onions and shallots

Harvest: More raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, chard, spinach, pattypan

Planted: Chard, spinach, cima di rapa, spring onions