Saturday 31 August 2013

Summer's lease

Fallen petals.

Football boots.  Apples and blackberries.  I know what it all means.  The last day of summer has come all too soon.

Just for a moment we paused.  To play in the sun, to swim, to climb, to explore, to laugh, to scrape knees and bruise legs, to scratch arms and to turn brown, to walk, to see - big things and tiny things, to make, to draw, to be inspired, to be a bit bored, in a good way, to be sweaty, to be tired, to live, to feel joy, to love life.

In the woods today it was cool.  I used my cardigan to make a teepee for the littlest boy, which he loved.  We had a seat for him, a table and guest seating.  Then we made a cooking station, which I forgot to photograph, and we hung up a pretty dingly dangly thing made out of string and pine cones.  The biggest boy made his own den, helped by his second-in-command.  We wondered what we would eat if we had to stay in the woods.  Pigeon and blackberries we thought.  With some nice leaves.  Maybe just leaves and blackberries for the vegetarians.  It wasn't made clear exactly how the non-vegetarians would convince the pigeons to fly down and be eaten.  We went home for tea in the end.  Other half heated up some fish fingers and oven chips.  We're not quite Bear Grylls yet.

Friday 30 August 2013

Lessons learned - one year on the allotment

Going from this (July 2012)

to this (January 2013)

then this (July and August 2013)

has meant quite a few lessons learned.  And it's also made me realise how much I still need to learn and no doubt how much I will learn every single year that I keep the plot.

The lesson at the forefront of my mind right now involves courgettes.  It's probably not the most important thing to know, but right now in the midst of a mad courgette glut, it's all I am thinking about.  No need to grow so many!  In fact, no real need to grow any at all.  This is a typical day at the "Free Stuff" place on the allotment site.

Homeless, unwanted, unloved courgettes.  I probably will still grow some next year, maybe yellow ones.  This year's glut has come almost exclusively from one plant of Romanesco.  Three or four courgettes every time I visit.  Courgettes lined up in the fridge.  Courgettes in every meal.  Main course and pudding.  Courgettes in the freezer.  You get the picture.

I also learned from the courgette adventure that spacing is quite important.  At home the soil is appalling and usually things don't grow much at all.  At the allotment the soil is amazing and everything grows like the fairy tale beanstalk - on and on and on.  So putting seven cucumber plants, three courgettes and about eight squashes into a space about 3m square was, as it turns out, utter madness.  It's impossible to see anything or to access anything.  Under the leaves there are dozens of lumpen shapes lurking in the darkness quietly growing to the size of zeppelins.

And I've discovered that there are two categories of squash.  Those that are quite dense and delicious and that store well so that there is food throughout the lean winter months, and those that are watery and must be eaten pretty much immediately.  It turns out I have mostly the must-be-eaten-immediately ones.  Next year I will be trying things like Queensland Blue and acorn squashes.

One good thing about such insanely dense planting is that the weeds have been kept down.  In fact it is the only part of the plot that doesn't disappear under a green carpet on an almost weekly basis.  When I took over the plot it was overgrown with tall seeding weeds (and short seeding weeds) so clearly this year was going to be full of weed seedlings.  I have tried very hard to make sure nothing seeds this year, so I am really hoping that next year things will be better.  Weeds are definitely the bete noire of most allotmenteers.  I found that during the try spells hoeing was the answer.  Quick and easy and very satisfying to see them all wilting in the sun.  I left them on the surface a la Bob Flowerdew.  He says they are like a little mulch, and will ultimately break down.

But hoeing isn't so effective when it's damp, and it doesn't work at all for those deep-rooted pernicious things.  They require hand weeding, and lots of it.  There is no substitute.  It's just a question of putting aside the time and getting on with it.  When it's done it's wonderful to stand up and look at the bare earth.  Assuming you can still stand up.  It's fair to say there's been some backache this year.

I've also discovered that carrots are one of the trickiest things to grow.  Even if they germinate (not a given, sometimes they don't bother), whole rows can disappear overnight.  And those that remain are fair game for rabbits and carrot root fly.  They may well be one of those things that I just don't grow.  Which is a shame as we eat mountains of them.  But I am thinking that it's best to grow the things that aren't too difficult and that either taste better fresh or that are out of my budget, such as asparagus, which was great and for minimal effort.

Which brings me to fruit.  I inherited some enormous gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes and for no work at all I've had enormous harvests.  Fruit is definitely the way to go.  I'm planning a big strawberry bed for next year.  Bob is in agreement with this.  And to keep the weeds down I'm going to try and plant them through weedproof membrane.  He does that too.  I've said it before, I'll say it again, Mr Flowerdew and Sarah Raven are informing most of my decisions when it comes to growing to eat.  They have tried it all themselves and have an absolute wealth of knowledge.

A lesson learned from all of that fruit is that the most important thing to do at the allotment is harvesting.  In mid and late summer it can take quite a while.  I like to save it until the end of my visits, as a treat for all the hard work.  But sometimes it can take pretty much the whole of a short visit.

I am quite often at the allotment for about an hour in the evening while other half goes to the putting green at the golf club next door.  I have assorted children with me, and it is easy to potter around doing little jobs and not get to the harvesting in time.  But really, harvesting is the raison d'etre of the plot.  If I don't pick everything at its maximum freshness it's a waste.  And similarly once it's home it must be dealt with in one way or another fairly quickly, even if this just means freezing the excess.

Finally, I have worked out that the soil is key to absolutely everything.  To grow a plant that is strong enough to withstand a few pests, the soil must be good.  The soil at home needs work - I'm not really sure what at the moment, as I've added manure in the past which really hasn't made much difference.  But the wonderful soil at the allotment will also need care to keep it so productive.  At the moment all of the different organic additions and fertilisers are a bit of a mystery - what to add, when and why.  It's something I will have to learn.  With a very limited budget I am hoping that the allotment site will get a pile of free manure in next year as they have in the past.

So it's been a year of learning and a year of hard work.  But right now, as I take home a trug full of produce on every visit, I have to say, it's worth it.

Monday 26 August 2013

"Is there courgette in it?"

I made this.

They asked me that.  Really, would I?  Actually, I would, but on this occasion I didn't.  The night before we had mint choc chip cakes and they had courgette in them.  And the night before that we had blackcurrant and elderflower muffins and they had courgette in them.  But the brownie?  No, no, no.  It did have beetroot in it though.  Other half and I thought it was utterly delicious, the best brownie ever tasted.  It had quite a bit of cocoa in it and wasn't as sweet as the ones I usually make, so although the littles ate them, they did say they preferred the milder sweeter ones.

I've got this cookery book on loan from the library and it is wonderful.

The cakes have grated vegetables in them instead of butter.  Sounds slightly suspect, but honestly you can't tell and they really are divine, especially the chocolate brownies and the cherry cake.  I hadn't used it for a while, but given the current courgette glut I thought I'd have a look for some recipes.  And there are loads.  I'm on a roll.   I cannot be stopped.

On the subject of courgettes, I have discovered what the little rack in the fridge is for - it's a courgette rack.  Genius.

We've had a nice weekend of wandering, bookshops, scooting and making things with cardboard.  This is the Book Barn at Hallatrow.

There is row after row after row of books.  Hundreds of thousands.  Maybe a million.  And a lovely little children's area so that mummy and daddy can browse in peace for a moment.  The littlest found an old album called "Battle" and now plans to join the SAS.

We made another little trip to Clevedon.  The boys like to scoot along the front and in the skate park.  Two of my favourite trees are in Clevedon.  This is a yew which is a few metres from the sea front and which has been beautifully shaped by the weather screaming up the Bristol Channel.

The other one is a lovely fig tree in the back garden of a cafe.

This year it's full of figs.  I'm coming back when they're ripe.  And I'm thinking of planting one in my front garden, which doesn't get much sun - almost none in fact - but I do love fig trees so much I can't seem to stop myself.

Hope everyone had a good bank holiday today.  It was deliciously warm and sunny here.  Long may it last.

Sunday 25 August 2013

The oldest complete street

We took a little trip to Wells yesterday.  It's one of my favourite places to visit, but since moving a little north of Bristol it's not somewhere I go regularly any more.  It's the smallest city in England, and above is a glimpse of the cathedral from beside the moat that surrounds the Bishop's Palace.

Above you can see a little of the Bishop's Palace beyond the wall.  It was built in the early 1200's.  The gatehouse, on the left below, was built in the early 1300's.

The Cathedral itself was mostly constructed between 1175 and 1490, and is quite stunning.  To get there you must walk through this porch.

And there it is.

But what I really wanted to show you is a little further on, hidden away.  You need to go through the arch in the above photo.  Then under another porch.

And you find yourself in Vicars' Close, the the oldest complete residential street in Europe.  I love this little street so much.  I like to try and imagine all those who have walked along it over the years since it was built for choral vicars to live in, in 1363.  Their job was to chant divine service some eight times each day.

The width of the street is tapered, so that from this end it looks further to the end than it actually is.  From the other end, it looks shorter.

The building you can see at the end was built in the early 1400s and was a chapel downstairs and library upstairs.

We turned around at the end and wandered back.  It was quite hard to suppress the normal exuberance of the little people, but you do feel like you should be hushed here.  The houses are still residential and occupied.  The residents are no doubt used to visitors with cameras, but we did try to be quiet and respectful.

The other end is the oldest bit - a common hall, storeroom, kitchen and bakeroom, completed in 1348.

We walked back past the Cathedral and the beautiful and historic green.  As is often the case with cathedral closes, the houses are wonderful.  It must be an immense privilege to live there.

And that was Wells.  Today we went to the coast where there was more scope for running,jumping, climbing and beachcombing.  Boys spontaneously combust if you expose them to too much quiet history.  There must be regular noise, dirt and sweating or things turn ugly.  And more boy-friendly things are planned for this final precious week of the school holidays.  But Saturday, that was for the grown-ups.  Just occasionally it has to be.

Thursday 22 August 2013

August in the garden

I had some time at home today, so I took a little wander around the garden with my camera.

Fruit is ripening nicely.

The tomatoes are Sungold and they rarely let me down, despite being grown outside.  They're quite sweet, but lovely in salads and great for children.  I like that there are a few ripe ones every day.  If I could only grow one tomato, this would be it, purely because it's so reliable.

Not everything is doing wonderfully though.  The figs won't come to anything, although that doesn't bother me particularly, I love them just for the foliage.

The aubergines are small.  They were an experiment, but I don't think I'll grow them again as they're not something I cook with much.

And the olives!  I shan't order an olive press quite yet.

Chillies are something else I might not grow many of next year.  We don't eat that many of them, and they take a huge amount of care.  Some of them were sown in February.  That's half a year of nurturing, and it's not over yet.  But I've tried some varieties that are supposed to be mild, so I shall see what they're like before making a final decision.  Whole stuffed mild chillies are a wonderful thing, if the heat level is just right.  It's probably all down to the exact right moment of picking.  I've tried the Anaheim ones when they're green and there's no heat at all.  This is a Hungarian Hot Wax Yellow.  Sounds hot, but Sarah Raven says it's a milder one.  We shall see.

The borlotti beans have been very sparse.  I like the beans from inside cooked while fresh in minestrone soup.  But the ones at home and at the allotment have been disappointing.  I was extra disappointed when the ones at the allotment turned out not to be climbing beans at all, especially after I spent a chunk of time making a nice frame of canes for them to clamber up.

The runner beans aren't producing masses yet either, although there are lots of flowers so I'm hoping there will be loads soon.

I've let the oregano flower, and even though it's not a big plant the bees love it.

Some of the other herbs are flowering too.  Not sure if this is oregano or marjoram, but the paler one is a golden version and I always love seeing the colour contrast.

The grape vines are doing their usual thing of disguising the fence, which is great.  But I would really love to see at least part of this area covered in figs.  I'm not sure what to do about it.  The figs will take quite a long time to establish, and the vines are very rampant so if I grow both at the same time the vines might stop the figs from doing well.  I only have a very narrow strip of soil between the little wall and the fence, so digging things up here is tricky.   I'm mulling it over.  For some reason the vine on the left, which always grows incredibly vigorously, is not producing fruit at the moment.  A real shame as it's the best one - small seedless green grapes which are delicious.

If you look closely above the bench you will see a string of onions.  I plaited three strings this morning.  Not very expertly, but it did make me happy to see them all hung up ready for cooking throughout the coming months.

There aren't many flowers in the garden, but this rose, Rose de Rescht, is still flowering weeks after it started.  It's nice and compact and sits in a pot next to the bench.  When I pick off the spent flowers I'm always tempted to throw them up in the air like confetti, they have so many petals.

Dahlias, pretty but rather full of living things.  Blackfly, ants, earwigs.  Best left in the garden this year I think.  I'm not good with earwigs.  Especially when they're in the house.

The pond is still full of froggies, and the little people spend hours watching them.  You will note the wrinkliness of the littlest boy's hands from a happy half hour spent fishing around for things.  He does love his little froglings.  And don't worry, he is carefully policed to make sure there is no squeezing or dropping.

So that's it.  An August afternoon in the garden.  When I get the camera out and wander round I'm always surprised at how much stuff there is and how much is going on.  I do love how it all grows and changes while I'm out and about doing other things.  It's a perpetual surprise.