You Will Believe What Happens To This Plot After It Was Neglected In 2013

I have been silent.  Work at the plot has mostly been a hard work and many disappointments.

Grow your own books and magazines offer lots of advice on dealing with weeds, disease and pest.  What they don’t prepare you for is how you feel as you slog through the problems, that each of us will have a unique experience of common troubles.  My beautiful, healthy garlic patch destroyed by rust.  Every single bean, courgette and sunflower seedling devoured by slugs and snails.  Horse tail thriving everywhere, I pulled out four bin bags of the stuff on Friday (no surprise here – it was allowed spread with glee last year.)

All I remember from watching the BBC’s Big Allotment Challenge were the beautiful, weed free, turned plots handed to the contestants.  Imagine. That’s. What. You. Got. When. You. Got. An. Allotment.

I got this:



and now I have this:

Still weedy

The National Allotment and Gardeners Society say that most people give up their site within the first year because they didn’t realise how much work was involved.  That on average allotmenteers spend 203 hours per year on their plot (or four hours a week).  But it’s not the tending of crops or preparing the soil that wears us down.  I think it’s the effort and toil in winning the war of attrition against what already lurks on the plot.

The beautiful weed free neighbouring plots have 25 years of cultivation and experience in their history.  There is great beauty to be found amongst my weeds.  I love the towering teasel plants and the pretty red clover.  I know with time I will win the right balance between wild and food.





Election day gem squash

Today South Africans return to the polls for the fifth time as a democracy.  Like many elections and democracies in the world, there is the usual media frenzy, controversy and political bad mouthing.   On election day, however, you can expect a vibe that shows how far South Africa has come.  We queue in high spirits for hours to make our mark.

I will miss it this time.  Voting in the European Elections in two weeks time will hardly be exciting – dashing into the local school hall, outnumbered by election officials, making my mark in less than two minutes, back home for a cup of tea five minutes later.

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So today seemed a good day to sow my gem squash seeds.  Gem squash are widely grown and sold in South Africa, but rare and hard to find in the UK.  Like biltong and mielie pap, ex-pats seek it out.  I had a number of analogies between gem squash and South Africans drafted, but they were a little contrived.  So let me just tell you a litte more…

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The gem squash is round with a dark green skin and can grow to about the size of a grapefruit.  It can be eaten at baby golf-ball sized, as a just matured large squash with soft, edible skin and as a matured squash, where the flesh is eaten scooped out of the shell.  While the skin is soft, it can be steamed, cooked like courgette or added to curries, especially Thai curries.



2013-07-23 15.00.19I have been growing gem squash for the past four years.  Last year was my most successful crop, my first on the allotment.  Gem squash are spreaders and happily ramble over an open space.  Mine was choked with horse tail, couch grass, creeping buttercup, chickweed, dandelion…need I go on?  The four gem squash plants just clambered over this, in many ways, ideal carpet for a spreader.  I was rewarded with around forty squashes, from July through to October.

This year, I have a few experiments in mind along with just letting them go where they please.  The weeds will hopefully be less rampant, but this might be one crop that would have enjoyed the company.

Garden Pesto (WARNING: contains pea shoots)

We use pesto quite a lot in our house, beyond dressing pasta for a quick meal.  Spread on bread it lifts an ordinary sandwich.  It is also a great match for grilled salmon and roasted new potato wedges.

Basil pesto is a classic and remains my favourite – when homemade from fresh basil.  When we lived in a warmer climate, the basil grew wild in our veg garden.  Seeds would travel with rain to other parts of the garden and seedlings would grow in surprising little corners.  The pesto from this hardy, sundrenched basil was divinely intense.

Our new UK locale is less welcoming to basil – to be honest, I have not yet been brave/cruel enough to attempt it.  Going on what other gardeners tell me, it is not easy to grow when sunshine is an unreliable variable.  I confess we have used many supermarket jars.

This year, I have been making my own, using some seasonal alternatives to basil.  Kale and walnut pesto was a delicious, deeply earthy version (and a great way to use up the large quantities of kale you typically have to buy).  The children and I had great fun foraging for wild garlic at a nearby brook, to produce wild garlic pesto.  A truly seasonal delight, replacing basil and garlic with ransoms produces a spicy alternative.

Tonight, the foraging was in the garden to create this more delicate pesto:

Garden Pesto

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  • 2 cups of pea shoots and herbs, stalks removed (I had two thirds shoots, one third herbs, using oreganum, mint, chives and parsley)
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, lightly toasted
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Lime or lemon
  • salt and pepper

Make it

  1. Place shoots, herbs, walnuts, garlic and parmesan in a food processor.  Pulse until finely chopped.
  2. With the food processor still chopping, slowly drizzle in the olive oil until the pesto reaches your preferred consistency (I used half a cup, which gives the pesto an almost sauce like consistency)
  3. Taste, then add a squeeze of lime or lemon along with salt and pepper, before blitzing one last time.
  4. Have a spoonful then spoon the rest into a small jar (150ml should be enough) and keep in the fridge.  I find pesto usually needs a day to mature and allow the garlic flavour to mellow.


A little jar of garden pesto

Sprouts & Shoots

Pea sprouts and shoots

If I was only to grow three crops, it would be gem squash, cut-and-come-again lettuce and peas.  The rewards are more than taste or freshness – seeing children quietly stripping pea pods off plants, a salad bowl filled from the garden, sharing a vegetable from our heritage.  The gem squash deserve a post of their own and I have not yet won the battle with the beasties to grow lettuce in our new garden.  So this is a post about peas.

For the last few years, I have had great success in growing peas in pots around the garden.  Main crop, mangetout, purple podded, some spilling over pots, others climbing up trellises.  Most often, they would not make it from the garden into the kitchen – like a grow-your-own sweet shop where no-one says “no!”.

Last year I also attempted to grow them at the allotment, but the weeds and birds overwhelmed the seedlings.  Seeing how pretty and prolific they looked on other plots, I am determined to make it work this year.  My plot neighbour has given me a great tip on protection, where you place canes or poles at the corners of the pea drill and wrap them in netting.  As the peas grow, they will poke through and scramble up the net.  That is the plan at least.

I will still be growing peas in the garden, for the children to snack on, not for the plate.  The pea munchers and I have recently discovered some early ways to enjoy peas while we wait for the mange tout and sugar snaps.

As keen sprouters of other seeds, we wondered one day whether pea sprouts would be just as delicious.  With only commercial seeds on hand, I soaked a handful overnight, placed them in my sprouter and two days later we were snacking on delicious pea sprouts.  Tasty but expensive – a quick search online lead me to a cheaper alternative using supermarket marrowfat peas (the kind used to make mushy peas).

A 500g bag of marrowfat peas cost just 68p.  Overenthusiastic, I measured out a cupful.  They all sprouted little roots.  After a few lunchboxes and meals, a solution for the remaining majority was needed.  Having seen Alys Fowler grow pea shoots from a box of out of date peas in her Edible Garden program, I thought my peas with roots had a good shot at developing into shoots.  I had enough to plant up four pots.  Should keep us in salad leaves until I beat the salad leaf eating beasties.

Tonight we had our first pickings – and another reason to love peas.

My allotment challenge – progress

This is a busy time for plotholders.  There is always another seed to get ready or crop to plant out.  The pleasure of growing food is that you are never done.  The possibilities for pottering, and procrastination, abound.

My plot and home garden have kept me occupied and provided plenty opportunity for distraction from other tasks (including updating this blog).  Lately, however, a course in programming and a freelance job opportunity have introduced some time tension.  This has been a good test for my challenge – to develop an allotment plot that can cope with the competing priorities of work, home, family and growing.

And I am feeling quite pleased with my2014-04-17 15.16.25self.  I have implemented my plan for a strong framework of perennial plantings.  The fruit trees are in bloom, the fruit bushes greening up nicely, bulbs and flowers popping up in succcession, artichokes setting up shop for next year.  That’s more than one third of the land in production.  Three rows of potatoes, all planted on schedule (i.e. a week after my more experienced neighbours).  April’s sowings are largely done.

The plot is not problem free, but I am pragmatic as ever.  Horsetail is poking up everywhere.  At this stage, , I can’t press the panic button and start digging it up.  I shall just need to add in an extra hour of control in a week, put more robust seedlings in the ground and use the raised beds for the more delicate crops.  Slugs devoured the lettuce seedlings in the garden – start again in different spot. A bird took an interest in my radish seedlings, but left for a few days, they seem to have recovered from the attack.  The bird has not returned.

A list of what I am hoping to grow:

Priorities:  Peas, beans, gem squash, potatoes, lettuce, kale, courgettes, beetroot, garlic, spinach

and for fun: butternut squash, parsnips, sunflowers, celeriac, tomatoes (upside down!), pak choi,  sweetcorn

Here’s to a good season of pottering and produce!



Why am I growing tomatoes?

Nine strong tomato seedlings have emerged on my windowsill.  I followed advice on this Horticultural Channel video, filling my trays with compost in February and bringing them in to warm up.  Last Monday, I read the instructions on the packet, getting ready to sow in the now well warmed soil.  The pack instructions recommended covering with polythene so, after scratching around the house, I found some film covering some shirts.  With some lolly sticks stuck in the soil, I crafted a makeshift indoor polytunnel over the newly sown tomato trays.

Five days later, the seedlings emerged and, again following advice on the pack, I removed the polytunnel.  Then I had an ‘..and now what?’ moment.  At some point, these little guys will get too big for the window.

Home made indoor polytunnel for germination

Home made indoor polytunnel for germination

You see, we recently moved into our house which has a west facing garden and most gardening advice centres around growing in south facing spots.  I don’t have a greenhouse and don’t have space at home or on the allotment to install one.  In our old house, we had a south east facing house wall that was perfect for growing veg, including reasonably successful tomatoes.

I turn to Google for advice …’grow tomatoes on west facing wall’…(not expecting much) … and it responds encouragingly.  Turns out west facing walls have advantages for tomatoes.  Tomato plants like the shade of the morning, cope well with the intense heat of the afternoon (a bit hopeful in these parts 🙂 ) and need the warmer wall during the night.

There is not enough wall space for 9 plants (maybe four) but again Google has a suggestion – upside down growing.  Never done that before, could be fun (or messy!)

Rain, at last

No, really, it rained today and I needed it!  It has been unusually dry and sunny this side of the Pennines for more than a week.  We have the freckles to prove it.  But this is not ideal for an allotmenteer who is eager to get sowing and has no onsite water sources.

New no-dig raised bedsPart of my allotment challenge has been to prepare some weed free beds for the new season sowings.  I have adopted a no-dig-ish approach.  This involves placing a layer of compost and manure on top of my weedy plot.  For some beds I have removed large weeds and grass before applying the mulch directly.  For others, I have laid down a cardboard layer first (using boxes from our house move a few months ago).  Then there is the large patch that was covered in plastic for close on 18 months, now dressed in a deep rich layer of compost.

No-dig appeals for obvious reasons and I hope this experiment works out.  One of my goals is to create a site that I can easily maintain and hold down a possibly full time job.  There are some drawbacks to the method.

Bringing in sterile compost and topsoil has cost quite a lot, but has less risk than homemade compost.  Late last year I emptied out the the existing compost bin onto one bed.  A carpet of weedlings erupted just a few weeks later.  I need to crack making compost for no-dig to be affordable.

Piling compost on top of sodden soil has, well, created a nice dry layer of compost.  Wouldn’t have been a problem if I had done the job just a few weeks earlier.  A day or two of rain should get the sowing calendar back on track.

Meanwhile, I keep my green fingers busy in the garden at home.  A nettle patch was encroaching the space where we have installed the climbing frame.  Having read how useful nettles are, I have relocated a few clumps.  Then the rest of the nettles were dug out to be turned into liquid feed.  I made soup with the tips, just out of curiosity, tasty but there must be more interesting ways to use this first spring crop?



Watching seedlings emerge and grow becomes a preoccupation of mine during spring. I find their daily unfolding more rewarding than their final harvest.  Tips of pea shoots poking through the soil.  Cotyledons of bean plants unfurling. A rash of little lettuces springing up overnight. Worthy of many little trips to inspect during the day.

So with daffodils blooming on every verge and street corner, I am finding it hard to resist the urge to sow.  The potatoes chitting don’t hold the same wonder. Continue reading

Like a blank canvas, only muddy…

I was offered my allotment plot at about the same time as receiving an offer for a full time job.  An unexpected clash of good fortune.  I had been on the allotment waiting list for more than two years and didn’t want to turn down the plot.  (There was no question about turning down the job – after 5 years at home with my children, my career needed the reboot.)  So I became the newest tenant of a very weedy plot. Continue reading