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

The floral dance

The late summer flowers are doing their thing. The sunflowers in particular are a joy of colour and cheerful faces. I grow mine for cutting and pick 5 or so at a time, clipping the small ones to sit in a short mug, and keeping the large ones for tall vases. No need for words, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

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This one is 6 foot tall, a pale apricot dusted with cocoa

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More of a classic sunflower colour but with a more dainty flower the size of my palm (left), plus another cocoa dusted pretty (right)

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The bees love these; I have to check before every cutting that I’m not disturbing some nectar-sucking-action

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Going over now, but two plants are the darkest burnt caramel

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These ones are diddy, smaller than the round of a tea-cup

Elsewhere there’s dashes of strongest colour. The lilies have been a VERY long time coming but yesterday this one reluctantly decided to wake from slumber.

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Star-gazer lily

The dahlias are flouncy and camp and marvellous. I want to pick them all to sit on the kitchen table, but the blooms are limited so I’m resisting temptation.

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Bright red with laced-edge petals, as if they’ve been trimmed by shearing scissors

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This one’s more prim and proper

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A delicate buttercup yellow with flouncy interior

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The show-stopper: the size of a dinner plate, marbled and lion-headed, and far too showy to be stuck next to the parsnips. The Shirley Bassey of the dahlia world.

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

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