Sunflower Club

We awoke to a light dusting of snow this morning. I think it’s a mark of age that my first thought on seeing the white stuff was to wonder how my seedlings in the greenhouse are doing (the answer is that they seem fine).

This is typical April weather, by turns cold, hot, wet, dry, blowy and still. I always think that spring-time seed sowing is a gesture of defiance in the face of wintery weather; since becoming an allotmenter I’ve realised that there’s a heck of a lot more winter in this country than there is summer. But the days are undeniably warmer now than they were a month ago – digging the veg patch today I had to strip off to shirt sleeves – and the sun stays up until well after 8pm. The greenhouse has been reading temperatures in the 30s. So I have brazenly decided to ignore the snow and try a little direct sowing of seed – in go carrots, parsnip, chard, spinach and lettuce into freshly prepared beds, covered with fleece to keep them cosy. If they germinate, wonderful, and if not, I’ll try again in a few weeks.

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The lettuce seedlings have perked up and I’ve direct sown more lettuce, chard and spinach alongside

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The other veg plot has been dug, first seeds sown and the soil – seeded or not – covered with fleece to encourage warmth

Meanwhile the greenhouse is so chocka that I’m having to keep seed trays on the floor. Today the tomato and flower seedlings were joined by two trays of sunflowers, 24 pots in total. My friend Annabel has challenged a group of her chums to join Sunflower Club (sorry – I think the official name is #sunflowerclub) where we have been given the same seeds to be planted on the same day, then the person with the tallest flower come summer wins. If the last two summers of sunflower success are anything to go by, we’ll do OK.

Sunflower seeds all ready to go

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24 sunflowers potted up and colour-coded

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The greenhouse is now so full that I’m having to leave trays on the floor

It’s the time for tidying up. I finally got around to mulching the raspberries and the grass is crying out to be strimmed before it takes over the world.

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Raspberries have been mulched

The next jobs – sort out the hopolisk, get the bean and sweetpea sticks up and plant the potatoes. Don’t know about #sunflowerclub, it’s more like #knackered.

Sowed indoors: sunflowers
Sowed direct: carrot ‘nantes’, ‘harlequin’ and ‘paris’, parsnip ‘tender and true’, lettuce ‘salad bowl’, chard ‘silver’, beetroot ‘chioggia’ and ‘bolt hardy’, spinach ‘perpetual’ and ‘medania’, kale ‘rouge di russie’, broad beans ‘stereo’
Hardening off: autumn-planted sweet peas
Also: Prepared right-hand vegetable bed, fleeced the brassica bed to warm the soil, mulched raspberries

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


Remember those seedlings that I planted out last Saturday? Every last one of them has been nobbled by the slug. Every. Last. One. The ones under gauze are clinging on for survival but the lettuces are decimated. We’ve never had slug issues before; I take it as a personal affront.

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Every single last seedling GONE.

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The kale has been nibbled too

So I need to rethink the brassica protection, which is dull and irritating.  Meanwhile the sunflowers are still going strong, shouty and bright and attention seeking.

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Sunflowers still going strong

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We’re cutting a couple of bunches a week

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The autumn raspberries are now bearing fruit, a punnet or so a week. Their taste is different to the summer ones, more mellow, less acidic.

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Autumn raspberries now fruiting

I didn’t blog a single recipe for the whole of august; bowls of lettuce and courgette pasta are perhaps not the most interesting things in the world. But now the weather’s changed, the autumnal produce is coming in, and back to the kitchen I go.

The tomatoes are finally ripening and so the annual passata-making begins. I’ve made three litres this week, all destined for the freezer. It’s so simple: half the tomatoes, drizzle with oil, sprinkle with salt and bake in a low oven for 45 minutes or so, then rub through a sieve. The fiorento tomatoes from my greenhouse make the best passata, they’re the ridged ones you can see in the picture.

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Passata making has begun. Greenhouse tomatoes ready for baking.

There’s plums too. It’s not chilly enough yet for full-on winter food, so I lightened this plummy crumble up with a few nectarines and blackberries and lots of lemon zest. Sweetened with brown sugar and topped with cinnamon oat crumble, this is possibly the best autumn pud ever, highly recommended.

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Plum, nectarine and blackberry crumble flavoured with lots of lemon zest and brown sugar

The peppers and chillies are kings of the autumn greenhouse. This lot are from my Mum in Worcestershire, as long as a hand (well, my little girl paw anyway) and gloriously scented. Peppers in the shops don’t have a smell, but a proper fresh pepper is so fragrant that you just HAVE to cook with it.

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Mother’s peppers

The South Americans have a dish called succotash, which is based on the principle that things that grow together should be cooked together. There, beans are grown up sweetcorn, the length of the cane providing support for the bean vine. It’s all very clever.

Succotash is a mixture of sweetcorn and beans, usually flavoured with chillies and peppers. Sometimes it’s got potatoes in it too, or a bit of pumpkin or squash. Well, I didn’t have any beans, but I did have my own corn and chilli, and Mother’s peppers. Plus my courgettes and Dad’s potatoes, both of which originally hail from South America. I also had some bacon grease leftover from breakfast, which is the pinnacle fat for a hash.

So here is succot-hash, a Thursday-night Birmingham-allotment take on a Mexican classic. Who doesn’t love a hash? You simply fry up spuds, corns, peppers, chilli and courgette in a hot frying pan so they all take on a bit of colour, then season with basil and lime. Easy, seasonal, inexpensive and tasty.

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For two

Four potatoes, scrubbed and chopped into large chunks, no need to peel

1 green pepper, sliced

1 ear of corn, kernels removed with a sharp knife

Two baby courgettes, thinly diced

1 red chilli, or to taste, thinly sliced

bacon grease, for frying (or olive oil or butter)

Salt and pepper

Basil, to finish

Lime juice, to finish

Boil up the potatoes until cooked, drain, then leave to steam and cool. In a heavy-based pan, warm the bacon grease, butter or oil until sizzling, then tip in the potatoes. Fry for five minutes or so until starting to brown. Add the peppers and corns, fry for another five minutes over a mid- to-high heat. You want little caramelised bits on the corn, so don’t be scared to use a bit of heat. Add the chilli and finally add the courgettes. Cook until the courgettes are softened, tossing the pan several times to get an even colour. Season. Finish with torn basil for fragrance and colour and a squeeze of lime, if liked.

I served this with Mexican-style chicken, green salad leaves and a dollop of sour cream.

The early August allotment

The allotment’s been a little neglected of late, partly due to work, partly due to holidays, partly due to the rainy dully weather. But a visit to Kent at the weekend (of which more in a further post) has shamed me into action: I’ve seen beautifully tended veg patches, weed-free and neat, and return with a few ideas that I will pinch for next year. In our absence, the weeds have grown tall and errant raspberries and blackberries are attempting to set up home where they shouldn’t. I spent two hours in the drizzle yesterday yanking them up, both mystified and impressed with their persistence.

This year’s crop feels less bounteous than last year. Perhaps we had beginner’s luck, or perhaps it’s just not as warm. The cutting garden (which I will now pretentiously call it) is, however, a persistent delight. I’ve been picking sweet peas, bishop’s flower and lavender for several weeks, now joined by love-in-a-mist, cosmos, marigolds, the early dahlias and the most exquisite sunflowers. They leave their pollen over the kitchen table and give Gertie plenty of entertainment as she spots escaping earwigs.

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The sunflowers are out and proud

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I’ve been picking these jewel coloured posies for the last month or so

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The marigolds and bishops flower give colour to the veg patch

The ornamental gourds have given great ground cover but now threaten to take over. I’ve mercilessly ripped out the two least-pretty gourds – productive but pointless. In their place go a few butternut squash seeds just to see if they will grow this late in the season. If they don’t, no matter.

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The gourds threaten to take over

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Bi-colour gourd

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Yesterday’s gourd haul. I’ll leave these to season and then they’ll turn into an early autumn table decoration.

The hops have grown so bushy and weighty that they broke their wooden support last week; the entire hopolisk had to be taken down, repaired and re-assembled. The smallest of flowers are now starting to set so I think we’ll be looking to harvest in mid- to late- September. I discover daily that hop leaves are abrasive, leaving cuts and grazes on any exposed flesh they touch.

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The hops are outgrowing the hopolisk

Down in the greens patch, the Red Russian kale and salad bowl lettuce are starting to fade but the chard, sorrel and beets are still green and luscious. And actually, the winter lettuce (not pictured) is still croppable, though I’m now using it to support netting for the cima di rapa. Some of these will have to come up over the next few weeks to make room for winter greens.

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The kale and lettuce is starting to fade (background) but chard and beet tops are still cropping well (foreground)

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The beets and our first teeny tiny wonky carrot

The sweetcorn are proof that the gardener cannot control everything: the Seeds of Italy corn are tall and strong, whilst the Thompson and Morgan corn are weedy and struggling. The two varieties are right next to each other and were planted out at the same time.

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The disappointing corns…

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…and the good corns

Speaking of struggling, it’s not a great year for beans. I don’t think any of the borlotti have made it, but the purple French beans are now cropping and we’ll also get a few green French beans.

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Purple beans

The tomatoes got a long overdue haircut yesterday. They have been getting a daily water and weekly feed, but really they needed weekly thinning and trimming. Instead of being tall and lean, the plants are squat and fat – but there is still good fruit set. Not much sign of ripening yet, with the weather being so cool.

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In the greenhouse, good fruit set but it’s all still green

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First hint of red on the tomatoes

The three chilli plants are creating so much fruit I could set up stall in the Birmingham markets. These are cayenne but they look like those terrifying chillies you see in Indian supermarkets; I think the cool weather has prevented them from plumping up.

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One of the terrifying chillies

Over the next week I’m going to give the spring onions another go, seeing if planting at this time will make any difference to their persistent failure. The last blackcurrants need harvesting and the first blueberries and autumn raspberries are shouting for attention. Then it’s time to think ahead to autumn and winter, sowing spicy mustard salad and chard, and planting out the cavalo nero seedlings. For now – I’m off to make beetroot humous.

Ripped out: gourds, lots of weeds, lots of stray raspberry and blackberry shoots, dead-heading the flowers

Harvesting: lettuce, sorrel, rocket, red russian kale, chard, courgette, gourd, beets, first carrot, sunflowers, cosmos, sweet peas, love-in-a-mist, dahlia, bishop’s flower, marigold, last blackcurrants, first raspberries, first blueberries

Sowed: late butternut squash