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

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.