Friday, 11 November 2011

Probably the Last Norfolk Kitchen Post.

But first, have a look at my freaky November tomatoes. I left one gro-bag in the mini greenhouse to keep the frame weighted down so it wouldn't blow away and, much to my surprise, the tomatoes started growing again during the mild October weather and are now ripening! How very odd.

Anyway, you've probably noticed my post rate has slowed dramatically recently. With the arrival of the Community Farm Pigs I've got much busier, sadly mostly with organising people and things rather than the pigs themselves though. I've also started volunteer work with the Citizen's Advice Bureau which is hugely rewarding but eats up my time too.

All this extra work has coincided with what is probably a natural decline in the blog anyway. I read somewhere that most blogs have about 2 years in them before you run out of new ways to keep saying the same thing! That sounds about right from my point of view and winter is always quiet on the Norfolk Kitchen front.

Hopefully I'll find something new to write about and start up a new blog as I enjoy the writing and photography and have thoroughly enjoyed meeting new people with similar interests both here and on Twitter.

So it's with a suddenly heavy heart that I say Goodbye and thanks to everyone who's commented and chatted with me along the way, I hope to re-connect soon.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

So we're one chicken less ......

Sadly, one of our ex-batt chickens died last week. In the past she'd had a few episodes of feeling ill, standing around and looking miserable for a day or two before recovering and getting back to her usual self. But this time was different. I don't know what it was exactly that killed her but she had escaped from our front garden while free ranging and I found her a little way down the road surrounded by poisonous laurel berries. I can't be sure if she'd eaten some or if she had some other underlying condition.

But the upshot is that I'm left with 4 chickens spread across 2 coops so my plan is to buy one bigger plastic coop, to combat the horrible red mite problem in the ex-batts coop, and merge both flocks into one. I'm rather apprehensive as Crispy, the thoroughbred chicken, is something of a bruiser and jealously guards her position as alpha hen. The ex-ex-batt was the alpha in the other coop and if ever they saw each other there would be blood. Literally.

The remaining ex-batts seem a bit lost without their leader, egg production has slowed dramatically although this could be co-incidence with the colder weather and shorter days but I think they'll be happier once they're under the thumb again. And Crispy is already twirling her moustache in anticipation.

Friday, 7 October 2011

A wizened husk can be a beautiful thing.

I have to admit I was relieved when the hot weather broke. There was something downright spooky about winter sun of that temperature, even the quality of the light wasn't right. I was resentful about digging the suncream out again (parents required to slather wriggly offspring in Factor 50 as thick as marj will know where I'm coming from) my hayfever kicked off again and the sloes were shriveled like raisins by the time we got around to picking them.

On the plus side though, it's been utterly fabulous for the walnut crop. Normally when they fall they're still wearing their fat, wet green jackets which stain the hands mercilessly and can be difficult to pick off. Then they need to be dried out in order to remove the bitter 'wet walnut' taste and to preserve them. This year though, they're falling in a remarkably dessicated state. The green covering is dry and brittle which means it rubs off easily and cleanly, even better, the nuts are sun dried to perfection. The few I broke open have just the right crisp texture and that funny membrane that divides the two halves of the nut (can't remember the correct name) snaps cleanly in two which is a sign they've dried correctly.

It's hugely labour saving, walnuts are normally a bit of a pain to dry out and we end up with sacks of them all round the house, spread out in front of the radiators to try and speed the process up. This time it's just taken an hour or so to rub the skins off and that's it. As a result we're being ruthlessly efficient, going out early in the morning after every windy night to fill another bag. Knowing the pigs will be eating the excess assauges my guilt twinges. I wonder how a diet of windfall apples and walnuts will affect the taste of our pork?

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

When foraging and pig keeping collide.

I do apologise if this sounds like a smug-fest, it's not what I intend, but sometimes I'm amazed at how lucky I am.

This morning I packed Willow off to school with a bag full of home grown patty pan and crooked neck squash for the harvest festival (I think she would have preferred a packet of Jaffa cakes but there you go) then I stopped by the pigs to feed them and scritch their ears (they recognise me now and come galloping over, grunting excitedly when they see me) and finally, back at home, I fed our chickens and collected the warm eggs.

It all feels a very long way from my urban background and a concrete planter full of nasturtiums.

I'm also discovering that foraging goes hand in glove with pig keeping. We've still got a sack full of walnuts from last year so Adam has been dispatched to collect a new bag full (the nuts have begun to fall but there are more to come I think, fingers crossed for gales at the weekend) and the old ones will be used to supplement the hard pig food over the winter and hopefully save us a bit of money. In the mean time I'm now adding acorns and beech nuts to my foraging wish list.

They're also getting left over veg from the veg growing arm of Diss Community Farm, but in the manner of wayward toddlers, they're not massively keen on the Cavolo Nero and are holding out for fermenting apples instead. The Livestock project overall is running well, the feeding rota is going smoothly. It's working out that most of us have about 2 feeds during the week and are taking 2 weekends each over the next few months so the time commitment isn't too heavy, a very civilised way to keep pigs!

I've ordered my sausage making kit from Amazon so it's just a matter of waiting now - come on piggies, eat up!

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

At last!

We have our pigs! It's taken 7 months but at last they're here. They haven't had far to come as they're staying on the small holding site where they were born but were transferred from their home with their Mum into the Diss Community Farm paddock.

Unfortunately they don't seem too keen on their new home, the squeals of protest they made at being picked up had to be heard to be believed. Then, within minutes of arriving, they calmly pushed their way through the squares in the stock fencing and strolled back to Mum! We played porcine hokey cokey all weekend and then decided to leave them where they were until we could order an electric fence. Fortunately it shouldn't be too long til they grow a bit bigger and won't be able to fit through the fence any more.

Willow and Xanthe are in their element, Xanthe in particular has no fear of the pigs but I don't think it'll last when they get big, ugly and slobbery. Their cuteness (the pigs, not the children) is the main weakness in our plan at the moment, I worry that they'll become too pet like and we'll have tears when sausage time rolls around. We've deliberately not named them and I'm banking on the big, ugly, slobbery factor to make the goodbyes a bit more bearable.

I've found myself leading the DCF Livestock project almost by accident, our illustrious leader is having a baby soon so pig wrangling with an advanced bump is not the best idea. I offered to help out over her maternity leave, not realising that I was the only volunteer. So here I am, zero pig husbandry experience, no diy skills, no van, no truck, no trailer, an electric fence kit propped by the back door which is too heavy for me to lift and an 8' pig ark on it's way with no clue how I'm going to get it to the pigs.

Fun and games ahead I think!

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Runner Bean where is thy string?

Last year I grew quite a lot of runner beans, which would've been nice if they had been edible. They were shot through with the weird, remarkably tough, plasticy fibers. This year I made a conscious decision to remember that I hate runners and not grow them again .....

but .....

I went to visit the vegetable project part of Diss Community Farm where Gabbi the Grower waxed lyrical about the variety of runner beans she was growing. Her description of them when slow cooked in a spicy tomato sauce was beguiling. I think she was growing Enorma which I couldn't find but she also recommended Hunter. After my broad beans failed I found myself with a spare bed on the allotment so I planted some Hunter.

And, yes, this tale does end in the manner I think you're expecting. The Hunters are divine with an amazing and unexpected silky texture. I even enjoy the feel of them in my hand as I pick them. I think I'll stop there before I embarrass myself further with the gushing.

In other Diss Community Farm news, we are finally taking delivery of our pigs on Saturday. Many things have been happening on the livestock front so I'll save all the news for dedicated piggy post with pictures of our tasty new friends over the weekend.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011


Nasturtiums have a special place in my affections. My food growing odyssey started with a packet of Nasturtium seeds in the back yard of a northern terraced house.

The house had an extension which occupied 80% of the original yard, leaving us with a tiny paved square bordered on all sides by walls at least 6 feet high. On sunny days we'd dash out with our plastic chairs to sit in the single shaft of sunlight which managed to peer over the walls for 15 mins at mid-day. At least the brevity of the sunbathing meant we didn't have long enough to be over powered by the stench of the bins stored out there.

In 1999 I watched Escape to River Cottage. Somehow or other, the disparity between Hugh's reality and my own didn't sink in. Instead, I eyed the small concrete planter built at the base of the wall by a previous tenant and thought I could get me a piece of the rural idyll. I planted Nasturtiums and wild rocket.

I can't say it was a roaring success. As I'd planted the only greenery for miles around, every single creature, winged and 4 footed was magnetically attracted to it. The Nasturtiums were rapidly covered in blackfly so I planted marigolds to attract the lacewings and therefore the ladybirds. Literally overnight half a dozen marigold plants were reduced to stalks by the monstrous turd-slugs, still the biggest slugs I've ever seen and big enough to make me fear for my limbs if I stayed still for too long out there. On the plus side, the neighbourhood cats seemed to appreciate the thoughtful toilet facilities I'd laid on for them. I really should have added cologne and a gilt dish for tips.

It didn't take much to distract me from the disastrous concrete planter. Life moved on and I moved out, the grow my own dream was neglected for almost a decade until I moved to Norfolk and acquired a small garden. When we got our first allotment last year, one of the first things I planted was the Nasturtiums. Just 'cos I can.

This year I've tried Nasturtium Seed Capers for the first time. I used Pam Corbain's recipe but the basic method is to soak the green (not yellowed or pinky) seed pods in brine for 24 hours then pack into a sterilised jar and cover with vinegar. Leave to mature for a few weeks before using. No idea what they taste like - I'll let you know when I find out!

Friday, 26 August 2011

Recipe Roundup

Needless to say, after my last post I've been busy in the kitchen trying to wrangle a few gluts.

First up were the courgettes, the best use for them so far must surely be the Courgette Brownie recipe I picked up from Mumsnet. I used 100% courgettes instead of half courgettes and half carrots and chocolate chips instead of nuts (This is a bit like Theseus' paradox, if you change the ingredients is it still the same recipe?). There was a cloak and dagger element to the preparation as I couldn't let the children know there were (gasp!) vegetables in them. My deception paid off and the girls adored the dark, moist, indulgent tasting brownies and I could polish my good mum halo as they chomped down the courgettes.

Next were my bounteous crop of tomatoes. My whole reason for growing lots of toms this year was to repeat the Ketchup I made last year. Incidentally, I was out attempting to pick some wild apples for the recipe and, to my horror, discovered many local trees completely bare. Is anyone else finding the same? I'm wondering if the dry spring had something to do with it. I may even be driven to the extremes of paying for cooking apples for goodness sake.

Finally, I used my plums to make Plum and Lavender jam after being inspired to try the maceration technique by drroothair's comment on my Yellow Bullace Jam post. It took ages to stone the fruit but once that drudgery was out of the way it's a lovely way to make jam although I have to admit I went for the 'just boil it all up' method rather than fiddling about removing bits and then re-adding them. I couldn't taste the lavender in the final product at all but luckily, it didn't set first time so I re-boiled it and added some mixed spice which produced a lovely, tangy jam I was very pleased with. Hmmm, Theseus raises his head again, if you change the spices and the technique .....

Now, breakfast time, I'm off to pick some tomatoes for fresh tomatoes on toast - it's a hard life!

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Glorious Gluts

I'm starting to panic a bit if I'm honest, I think I've got to admit defeat with the patty pan mountain (maybe one more batch of piccalililili though) the tomatoes are coming on stream so I need to start making ketchup and the wild fruit is just ripening up too. Damsons looking readyish, the pear tree is groaning, we visited our old chum the wild plum tree yesterday and came home with 5kilos of plums, oh yes, and we still have about 5 kilos of Mirabelle plums in the freezer waiting to be processed.

I have a soft spot for this tree as it was one of our first big foraging finds, back in the day when we were still amazed at all the free fruit hanging around being ignored by the general populace. I don't know what sort of plum it is, it's not a damson because the fruit is sweeter and not so dark purple, they're smaller than Victoria plums but a similar colour.

Each year it's a battle to outwit the grubs (wasps?) as when the plums are fully ripe it can be virtually guaranteed that a small wiggly worm is in there, pooing for all it's worth, leaving a tell tale droplet of crystalised plum juice sitting on the softly bloomed surface. My solution is two-fold, early in the season I pick the plums slightly under-ripe (I'm so well acquainted with this tree by now I can tell the exact ripeness by the colour of the skin) The plums which are still green now will ripen later in the season and will usually escape the attentions of the wasps who have done whatever it is that wasps do in the winter (sleep/die/emigrate - who knows) by the time they're ripe, although whether they have escaped the attention of other foragers is another thing, there was already the familiar trampled ring of disappointment around the tree yesterday.

So what to do with them? Jam maybe, for the increased pectin in the under-ripe plums, or a plum cheese, nice and sharp or maybe bottled with red wine and spices. Whatever I end up doing I'd better get on with it quick as there's more fruit coming down the conveyor belt!

By the way - Many apologies for the blog silence over the past week, I've had my Mum to stay and we've been busy either taking the children out on day trips or Adam and I have been making the most of having a babysitter in the house and having a social life for once. All back to normal now though.

Thursday, 11 August 2011


I never know when to stop with Piccalilli, it's a bit like banananana.

I remember being a funky 18 year old (yes I was one once!) and visiting an older relative in the middle of her making Piccalilli. I was aghast, make Piccililli? I mean make it? Why? Is that even possible? And if it is why would you bother?

I think at that point if you'd told me that not only would I made my own Piccalilli one day but that I'd be photographing it as I went along to show the world what I'd done I think I would have thrown myself under the nearest bus.

Hooray for not being 18 any more, that's what I say.

I've finally got a few bona fide gluts from our allotments. Last year I was rather disappointed that our only true gluts came from the wild larder. Although we had plenty from the allotment I was never in danger of being overwhelmed. This year, however, is shaping up to be different!

Yesterday I could only bring home the fruits from 2 of our 5 Patty Pan squash plants because my flexi bucket was full and I was staggering under the weight of it so I currently have 16 patty pans at home with probably another 24 still on the allotment.

I'm wrangling this particular glut by pickling like mad, including today's Piccalilli. (That's why you bother, my 18 year old self, to use up the sodding summer squash!) I used Pam Corbin's recipe from the River Cottage Preserve book. My version had patty pan squash, courgettes, onion, carrots and broccoli. I wasn't sure if the broccoli was a bit bonkers or not but Pam says green crunchy veg is the secret to a good Piccalilli so hopefully it'll work. It needs a few weeks to mature but I nibbled some while I was potting it up and it was lovely if a tad vinegary but that's what maturation is for.

So, 1 patty pan down, 31 to go .....

Monday, 8 August 2011

Sunshine Pickle

Just a short post to record this morning's irony. I made a batch of courgette pickle using yellow courgettes and orange peppers which I thought would make a lovely sunshiney pickle redolent of summer. The very moment I got the preserve pan out of the cupboard the heavens cracked and rain commenced bouncing down in stair-rods together with a mighty wind that rattled the fences in a manner which made me fear for the rotting fence posts.

I have to admit it gave me pause, just in case it was a divine opinion on my pickle vision or something. Hopefully, the almighty is a bit too busy to take an interest in the minutiae of my preserve recipes and I haven't damaged my immortal soul by pressing on and making it anyway.

It's very pretty by the way.

(and yes, we did have a good time on holiday. Thanks for asking)

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Summer Holiday

We're off on the annual Norfolk Kitchen summer holiday. Willow and Xanthe are making their first ever foreign trip to Eindhoven and are very excited about visiting De Efteling.

We'll see you back here next weekend.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Mirabelle and Ginger Cordial

It's only 3pm and I'm sipping a whiskey with Mirabelle and Ginger Cordial. All in the name of research you understand. Pity we didn't have any limes because a twist would've made it perfect.

Mirabelle and Ginger Cordial.
I'm calling the yellow bullace Mirabelles for this recipe as it sounds posher. I took about 2 or 3 kilos (didn't weigh them first) and simmered them in about half a pint of water til they were soft, bashing them up with a wooden spoon and a potato masher along the way to help the juice come out. Once they were cooked I strained them through a muslin lined sieve until the juice had dripped through. For every litre of juice I added 700g light brown sugar plus a tablespoon of ground ginger. I then warmed it through til the sugar dissolved.

And here the ginger problem began. It was the devil's own job to get rid of little clumps of ground ginger which dispersed grittily through the cordial, giving an unpleasantly strong gingery hit if you got one in your mouth. I whisked it which helped with the bigger lumps but made no difference to the smaller ones, in the end I strained it through a tea strainer while bottling up. Next time I may try fresh ginger juice instead although any tips on dealing with ground ginger would be gratefully received.

The children aren't madly impressed with this one but I remember hating ginger beer when I was Willow's age and this cordial leaves a definite lingering warmth on the tongue. It's not got the impressive glowing colour of it's companion, cherry plum cordial, having a rather more sludgy appearance (am I selling it?!) instead. Personally I really like it's sweet/sharp toffee edged flavour which makes me think of Christmas.

As aforementioned, I decided to mix up some cordial with whiskey, just for research to see if it worked and enable me to report accurately on the blog. Honest. As I say, a twist of lime seems to be missing but other than that it's a lovely drink. Feels like it should cure ailments at 10 paces. I'm sure other dark spirits would work well too, or as a syrup over vanilla ice cream.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Cherry Plum Ketchup

Here's the recipe from my plum ketchup experiment the other day. It's not quite got the HP sauce taste I was aiming for, maybe due to the lack of dried fruit compared to the Cherry Plum Chutney recipe, but it is a lovely, tangy, tingly on the tongue sauce and such a beautiful colour too.

Norfolk Kitchen Cherry Plum Ketchup.
2 kilos cherry plums
2 onions chopped
440ml vinegar (any kind except malt)
320g sugar
30g ground ginger
1tsp cayenne pepper
2oz salt
Generous pinch mixed spice

Stone the plums, add them to a pan with all the other ingredients. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 40 minutes until the mixture is thick and jammy. Briefly blend everything together (I used a stick blender) then push through a sieve into a clean pan. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Makes approx 2 litres.

I'm not sure how long this will keep though I suspect it's not long as it's fairly light on the vinegar and sugar. To get around this I've got one bottle in the fridge and have put the excess into plastic bottles and stored them in the freezer.

The main advantage of home made ketchups versus shop bought, in my opinion, is their natural non-plasticy taste which gives them greater versatility. They're perfectly acceptable poured over most things I would never introduce to Heinz, like Pizza, omlettes or cheese on toast.

Right then, next on the experiment list: Yellow Bullace and ginger cordial.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The 2011 Foraging Season kicks off.

One advantage of the children getting a little older is that they can be put to work in the foraging season - here's Xanthe hard at it in the kitchen.

On Saturday we went out on our annual cherry plum harvest, I know everyone else seems to have been picking them for weeks already, but our usual spot is in the shady side of a very tall hedge and they seem to ripen later. For a change it was a gloriously sunny day (most previous trips to this location have involved wellies and pack a macs), the children decided to scamper off into the 'hedge' which is actually a narrow strip of woodland running along the back of the Diss Rugby club ground, but Adam summoned them back to pull their weight in the fruit harvest.

We've refined our technique after last year's marathon bullace harvest and went for a 'shake the tree' method rather than the 'selective use of the apple picker' method. Adam extended the apple picker to it's full length, wedged it onto a branch and shook like mad. The resulting monsoon of cherry plums and yellow bullace sent the girls into shrieking paroxms of delight - at least until Xanthe was hit squarely in the eye by a large cherry plum. After that we stood well back while the fruit bounced down on Adam's head.

Once the road was carpeted with fruit, the children were required to help, we all rushed around around frantically picking them up before any cars came along. It's a teeny tiny single track country road so cars aren't frequent, I think we only saw 3, but they do seem to come along just at the wrong moment and squash the maximum number of plums. We also had our annual "yes you can eat them" conversation with passing walkers who never seem quite convinced and refuse our offers to try one.

Yesterday I made our household favourite, Cherry Plum Cordial (made 4 bottles, one half used already) and today I'm going to try and amalgamate my Cherry Plum Chutney recipe with myPlum Ketchup recipe which should be an interesting experiment. I'm hoping it turns out a bit like HP sauce.

We picked 3 kilos of cherry plums and 4 of yellow bullace but I don't think it's enough! We're on holiday next week but I'm hoping to pick some more at the weekend and stash them in the freezer for processing when we get home.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Is next year always the perfect year?

Because this year never is never quite up to scratch. There's always that little tweak which will make next year the best one ever.

2008: I started small scale veg growing in my teeny tiny back garden. The mistakes were many and varied. I didn't even realise that broad beans aren't climbers and optimistically planted 3 plants inside a bamboo wigwam and was surprised when I only grew enough for one tiny meal. Next year, I thought, I'll know better.

2009: Had a more realistic idea about yields. Didn't do too badly, learned my mosaic virus lesson, started this blog. Refined my plans and felt confident of next year being the best back yard year ever.

2010: Acquired an allotment! Great news but scuppered best back yard plans as focussed on the allotment instead. Scaling up was a shock to the system and we struggled to keep the weeds under control. But I had ideas, made plans, changed tack slightly. Next year will best growing year ever.

2011: Acquired a second allotment! Great news but totally changed the face of my plans for my original allotment due to the need to incorporate a 'split site' strategy. Plans for re-arranging the original allotment severely curtailed by the dry spring locking my fruit beds into the concrete like clay soil. Come Autumn, I'll catch up with the re-arranging then next year I'll be able to instigate my plans properly. The manure is rotted and ready to go, my weed control strategies are in place, I know the difference between vine and bush tomatoes - it'll be the best growing year ever! (Won't it?)

Sunday, 17 July 2011

It's a Potato!

I defy anyone who was a child in the '80's to dig up a potato and not say "It's a potato!" softly to themselves every time they find one. (Here' the explanation for those who weren't) And while I'm on the subject, can I add to my list of life's small disappointments: thinking you've found a potato but it turns out to be a smooth stone. Bitter disappointment of this nature can crush your soul.

I've now sampled 2 kinds of new potatoes, my much sought after Ulster Sceptre and the more common place Aron Pilot. My Ulster Sceptre did give me a few childhood memory flashbacks. The taste, if I'm honest, is just potatoy, but the texture, smell and colour of the skin took my right back to those sweaty little 5lb bags we used to get from the shops.

What I did really appreciate was the floury texture. The Aron Pilot are far more waxy and not really very good for roasting or mashing but the Ulster Sceptre are a much more dual purpose potato - which explains why they were so popular in the chippies back home. The only downside is the yield, it was OK but the Aron Pilot are much more abundant.

I've not tried my Nadine yet but they're next.

In the meantime, if anyone would care to share their recommendations for floury tasting early potatoes with a high yield, I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Good Life gets closer!

Our goal of expanding the Norfolk Kitchen empire into livestock by raising our own rare breed piggies in a local woodland is moving closer to reality.

You may remember back in April I talked about my involvement with Diss Community Farm. It's a community project a group of us have put together, initially in the hope of opening a community run farm next year. Things moved quicker than we anticipated though as we were offered 2 small plots of land, one for a vegetable growing pilot project and one for a pork raising pilot. I'm not personally involved with the vegetable project as I'm pretty much set up for my veggie needs with my allotments but I'm throwing my full enthusiasm behind the livestock project.

We've now formally launched the piggy project, we have about 16 people signed up to pay for the meat and to help look after the pigs. The big news is that we've secured a grant from a local company which will pay for our set up costs of things like fencing, pig arcs, feed bins etc This means that it's all systems go on the shopping front and we have a few days of hard work in front of us to get materials on site and to build the fences. (the photo is one of our members carrying one of about 60 pallets to the woods to be re-cycled as fencing)

It's really exciting to be actually moving forward at last. The land we're using is a small woodland of about 2.5 acres bordered by the River Waveney on one side, so it's a fantastic natural environment for the pigs and for small children too! The girls love playing in the woods, climbing trees and splashing in the river. I have to admit that buying into this kind of lifestyle for the children has been a major factor in my motivation for being involved in this project (that and making my own sausages and bacon) I'm really looking forward to a long, hot summer of visiting the pigs and playing in the woods.

By the way, if you're interested in what we're doing, we're having an open day at the vegetable growing pilot on Sunday.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

"The time has come" the gardener said,

"to talk of many things, of sheds and hoes and summer squash, of cabbages in spring" (with apologies to Lewis Carol)

I got a phone call last night from the secretary of the allotment association at our new Diss plot. We're not allowed our own sheds down there but instead have to rent one of the block of Council built sheds for the princely sum of £2 per year. The only trouble is that since the plots were divided in half there are half as many sheds as plots so there's a waiting list to get a shed. I've been waiting since I took on the plot in October and the phone call last night let me know I'd finally got to the top of the list so the upshot is - I have a shed!

This morning I went to investigate and transfer numerous things from our garage to the shed - including my treasured wheel hoe. It's much more convenient to keep it on site but I am a bit nervous about security, I'd be very upset if it was stolen. Not so much for the monetary value but the difficulty of getting hold of a replacement.

Now, I may not be cabbage looking but the purple sprouting broccoli certainly is. I bought a tray of seedlings from a car boot sale a couple of months ago, planted 5 of them, 4 have come up as broccoli but one has turned into a cabbage! Quite what my fellow allotmenteers make of me growing a single cabbage I don't know. Probably not as much as me growing enough summer squash to feed an army.

Talking of which - one of my growing goals this year was a basket of mixed summer squash and today I achieved it. I picked my first Patty Pan squash, aren't they amazing? I've not grown them before and I think I may have let these ones grow too big. I was waiting for them to turn snowy white like the picture on the seed packet but they're stayed vaguely green tinged, I'll probably pick them smaller in future. But look, Patty Pan squash, yellow courgettes and stripy courgettes, crook neck squash to come in the near future. This is why I have an allotment, you can't buy a basket like that in Tesco - I've got mixed tomatoes in my sights for next year.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Drink your own Garden!

Just a brief post to admire the colour of the Yellow Bullace wine Adam made last year, although it's not as beautiful as I remember thinking it was after drinking half a glass last night. It's really not bad for home brew especially considering Adam's 'chuck it in the bucket and see what happens' approach to winemaking.

I'm consulting the splendidly named charity shop find 'Drink your own Garden' for further wine making ideas although it talks about stuff like Camden tablets (for attracting Goths?) and wine nutrient. We've only ever bought sugar and yeast to add to the wild fruit/nettles/elderflowers we use and haven't died yet, although I am a bit reluctant to drink last year's batch of cider as it's a bit too sweet.

I'm not sure I'd want to drink our garden anyway what with all the chicken poo, I'm thinking I may drink the hedgerow though. Elderberry and blackberry wine for Autumn evenings 2012 I think.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The Wheeled Push Hoe

A few weeks ago I went on a Diss Community Farm visit to Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm in Ipswich and there I made the discovery which could change the course of my allotment career!

Joanne at Oak Tree showed us her wheeled push hoe. This is basically a wheel on a stick which pulls a loop of sharpened metal just under the surface of the soil, thereby chopping the green tops off the weeds and aerating the soil in the process. (The photo at the bottom gives a back view of the blade.)

Once the rains started back home and our Diss plot filled up with tiny annual weed seedlings I realised that we had the ideal conditions for this bit of kit. The downside is that they're expensive, the one Joanne had was about £400 so I was delighted to find an Ebay shop selling them for £65 delivered.

It arrived yesterday and today I took it for a test drive. I love the look of it, like it's come virtually unchanged from the 19th Century. I had been a bit concerned that it might be too cheap and a bit flimsy but it's certainly sturdy enough for keeping on top of an allotment sized piece of land. The conditions at Diss are perfect for the wheel hoe, the soil is light and free flowing and there aren't any large perennial weeds with thick stems. It was really easy to use, the blade slipped through the soil like butter, decimating the weed population in it's path.

It comes with blades in 3 widths, I used the narrowest to enable me to get between rows of plants without disturbing them. It also has a pointy attachment which I assume is a tiller for making seed drills or earthing up potatoes etc this should be great for turning the soil over at the end of the season in preparation for over winter manuring.

I think the nature of the soil is probably key to the success of this hoe. I'm not sure how good it would be on heavy, clay soil like Bressingham. Certainly there's no way it could've smashed through during the dry spell but I may take it after some rain when the soil's soft and see how we get on. Likewise, even the light Diss soil may be too much after the rain when it's stickier.

But all in all, this is a fabulous tool for the allotmenteer and I'm mystified as to why they're not on the shelves of every garden centre in the land. Particularly at this price, they bridge the gap between a hand hoe and a rotavator nicely. I think this and the push mower at Bressingham are going to be the items that make my 2 allotments manageable.

This year's tomatoes.

2011 is the year I actually pay attention to my tomatoes. For the last 3 years or so I've bought a few garden centre plants, put the Gardener's Delight in the mini greenhouse and the Tumbling Toms in hanging baskets, watered them but little else.

A friend of mine called round last summer and expressed loud dismay at the state of my greenhouse whose plastic seams were creaking with the effort of containing plants of Little Shop of Horrors proportions. I did have a decent yield of tomatoes, enough to use fresh plus home made ketchup and green tomato chutney, but the tomatoes were all tiny and I'm greedy so if I can get more bang for my buck then so be it.

This year I have decided to pinch out in the approved way in the hope of getting bigger tomatoes. I'm finding all the greenhouse fiddling a bit tedious to be honest and the blasted things insist on growing every 5 minutes, it's housework outdoors really. I'm starting to wonder if it's worth it considering I had enough last year but we'll see. Maybe next year I should stick to bushy varieties and leave them to their own devices.

I'm also a bit worried about a couple of plants who seem to be yellowing excessively. I know it's usual to yellow around the bottom but it's usually later in the season and this time only a couple of plants are affected. As far as I can tell they're adequately watered and fed. One of the plants in question is pictured below so any opinions on the cause will be gratefully received.

My tomato Holy Grail is a tomato salad like the one Jamie Oliver made in his 'At Home' series which featured loads of different types of tomatoes, yellow, green, stripy, purple etc etc. I've hopefully gone some way towards it this year, I've got Gardener's Delight (seeds free from Mumsnet!), Mr Stripy (bought seeds), Tumbling Toms (bought seeds), Roma (plants donated by a friend) and hopefully some yellow ones (plants donated by another friend who thinks she may have got her seedlings mixed up)

Ideally, if I had, say, 9 plants, I'd like them to be 9 different varieties. The problem with this is that I'd have to buy 9 packs of seed as I wouldn't get 9 varieties of plants in my local garden centres. From the 9 packs of seeds I'd only use a few then what would happen to the rest? Would they keep long enough to use the next year? Or would they go to waste? This is all starting to look a bit expensive too ....

But look what I found yesterday! Packets of mixed seeds! With a picture looking like Jamie's salad! Now if only I could find courgettes packed in the same way, I'd be a happy bunny!

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Normal for Norfolk is ....

.... being held up on the nursery run by a tractor convoy (pictured)

.... going to the pub and coming home with a courgette in your pocket

.... attempting to drive around a man in a bee keeping outfit on a tricycle towing a trailer loaded with 3 bee hives

.... popping to the shop and there's a tractor with two wheels on the pavement outside

.... waking up to find a gypsy horse on the front lawn

..... carefully avoiding driving over a turkey strolling across the road

This is the point where someone normally comments along the lines of "That's nothing, in Devon the chickens actually run the Post Office" or somesuch (if that's not the sound of a gauntlet hitting the ground I don't know what is!)

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

On the Value of Neighbours.

Life with 5 chickens agrees with us. Currently we're getting 5 eggs per day which is a nice amount, enough for all our egg eating/cake baking needs with some left over for random gifts for friends and neighbours - which is just as well given the latest developments.

The hens live in 2 coops in the back garden and they free range in the front garden. We do have a persistent escape problem though. Our Omlet chicken proof fence is anything but, not only can the chooks stroll through the squares in the fence at will but they can hop over it in one leap. Next door's large shrubs are a magnetic draw for them providing the ideal foraging/perching/dust bathing environment. Once they get bored in our garden, they vault the fence into next door's chicken paradise.

To date, we've been able to bring them back with a shake of the sunflower seed jar, as soon as they hear that they come thundering back down the path in anticipation of a tasty snack.

Until yesterday that is ......

One ex-batt stubbornly fixed me with a beady stare and hunkered down into the dust in a defiant fashion. Have you ever tried to out-wit a chicken inside a thick hedge? It's depressingly difficult but after some scratches and swearing I managed to bring her home.

We have lovely, lovely neighbours who claim to be charmed by the persistent dust bath holes under the shrubs and scratched up flower beds ("They do a good job of raking the weeds out!"). They say they appreciate the softly clucking company as they weed and mow their garden. Personally I think they're taking 'polite' to a whole new level but nonetheless, I'm very grateful for their relaxed attitude. I'm giving them our excess eggs as a thank you, if they're having the disadvantages of chicken ownership they may as well share in the benefits too.

Now listen up chooks - if you want to keep your free ranging rights you really are going to have to consider the neighbours and come back when you're called, I think you've pushed them far enough!

Monday, 27 June 2011

What's this I've found?

My word but it's sweltery today. I gave myself the day off from mowing at Bressingham as it's a tough job with an old push lawn mower at the best of times, let alone when it's 30 degrees. While I was inspecting the raspberries I found this plant hidden among the canes. I'd love to identify it so if anyone could help, that would be fantastic.

A bit of back ground about the plot which may help with identification; the land began to be used as an allotment site about 100 years ago but had fallen out of use since the 1990's and been left uncultivated since then. Last year was the first year it has been re-used as allotments although we were delayed in getting on the land as some possibly rare wild flowers were discovered, although I don't know what type. They were inspected and declared not rare and we were subsequently allowed on site.

Personally, I think it looks a bit orchid like but I know next to nothing about flowers so am unlikely to be right I think! Failing that, I'd like it to be some sort of historic meadow plant with an exotic name. Toadflax (suggested by Cheeky Spouse on Twitter) is heading in the right direction. I'm rather disappointed that I don't have 'Creeping Ladies Tresses' which I found on an orchid site. Not sure if it's the ladies or their tresses that do the creeping though.

*Update* I've been Googling and I now don't think it is an orchid, the leaves are wrong. Am bitterly disappointed that it's not sneezwort either.

On a massively un-related note, I discovered cooked radishes at the weekend and they're unexpectedly delicious. I used this Riverford recipe, amazing, it gives radishes a whole new lease of life away from the salad bowl. It's inspired me to go and plant not only more radishes but some small turnips too.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

First harvest from Diss

Just call me Gypsy Rose Lee. My prophecy on 24th May in my 'bizarre weather' post came true, the rains well and truly came down on Proms in the Park on 18th June as it does every single year. Bad news for the party goers but fabulous news for allotmenteers.

The newly damp weather is a mixed blessing, it lessens the workload in that I don't have to diligently visit the allotments for watering duty every day but, on the other hand, THE WEEDS!! I hadn't visited the Diss allotment for about 4 days so when I went today I was stunned at how many had sprung up in my absence - better watch my back for the committee!

Fortunately the crops have sprung up too and today I brought home my first harvest from the new plot, lettuce, radishes, rainbow chard and stripy courgettes. Cavolo Nero is also ready but I didn't pick any. Seeing as I finished the last portion of frozen 2010 courgette soup today, it seems fitting that the 2011 supply have kicked off too.

Sometimes prophetic ability spills over into tempting fate. After yesterday's post in praise of weeds at Bressingham my fellow Allotment committee member (there's only 2 of us!) phoned to tell me she thinks we need to clamp down on the weeds - why can't I keep my big mouth shut .....

Monday, 20 June 2011

A Tale of Two Allotments

One unexpected benefit of having allotments on 2 different sites is that it's given me an insight into how disparate allotment culture can be from site to site.

My old allotment site at Bressingham certainly has it's fair share of disadvantages. The heavy, clay soil, the complete lack of water, the well established weeds which have had a decade to run rampant, not to mention the local residents and their anti-allotment campaign plus the fact that it's a 5 minute drive away from home. It was enough to make me run into the arms of my newly acquired Diss based allotment.

The advantages of the new plot are legion, running water - yes - actual taps for goodness sake, a mere 10 paces away! The soil has been tended for years and has a lovely fine texture, diligent previous tenants have kept on top of the nasty weeds, I don't have so much as a single dandelion to contend with and, the major advantage, it is a 3 minute walk from home.

But I've recently come to realise that the Bressingham site has hidden talents. Yes, it's a bit weedy and we've still got vacant plots aplenty but that gives the whole place a fairly relaxed, shambolic air which I'm worryingly at home in. I love the riot of poppies and cammomile which spring up around the sheds and carpet the vacant plots, they're beautiful against the backdrop of the open countryside that surrounds the site. No-one here is going to purse their lips if I leave a clump of poppies on the footpath just because I think they're pretty, or let the clover grow to help the bees.

Almost every plot holder has children of varying ages which means that if a few of us are down there, the children can roam as a pack enjoying an approximation of a 1950's childhood. They go to the see horses in the next field, roam the vacant plots digging up worms, search the ditches for frogs or chase the pheasants (not peasants) in the hedges. Tractors trundle the lanes and geese from the smallholding over the road honk overhead. (Keep this bucolic rural idyll in your mind and ignore the stinking, monsterous crop spraying tractor in the field next door which made me flee for home the other week.) Anti-rabbit fences around each plot not only keep the rabbits out but make sure the kids don't trample indiscriminately over neighbouring plots, what do they say about strong fences making good neighbours?

By contrast, Diss may have significant practical advantages but, goodness me, the pressure of being next to the old boys and their straight rows, fecund plots and zero tolerance policy on weeds! There aren't any lovely, safe fences so I have to be ever vigilant about trampling and nag the girls to stay on our plot continually. To be fair, the old boys seem to be quite taken with small girls and we've had the odd gift of newly picked carrots for them to munch on but I can't imagine they'd be quite so indulgent if small feet destroyed their rows of hard work.

And dear Lord, the weeding, if the slightest stalk of shepherd's purse shows it's face I get palpitations. Most evenings see me shouldering my hoe to go and toil once more at the weedface, I may not be digging up dandelion roots but the annuals are hard work too.

So what about you? What the allotment culture on your site? Do families and the old guard peacefully co-exist? Or has civil war broken out?

Sunday, 5 June 2011

The disadvantage of being a Blogger's daughter ....

.... is pausing with your strawberry in the air, tantilisingly close to plunging your teeth into it, for a photo opportunity without even being asked. Xanthe saw me approach with strawberries and camera in hand, she silently took the strawberry and posed obligingly with it. Even photophobic Willow, while snipping elderflowers for the 'bizarre weather' post, shot me a look mid-snip and asked the lens "have you finished? Can I put the scissors down?". I thought she was behaving in a marvelously natural and unselfconscious manner, turns out every move was carefully calculated.

The allotment strawberries have been fabulous this year, I'm coming away with tubs full every few days. I guess those news reports about jubilant strawberry farmers were true after all. It's a good job really as there's not much else ready to pick. We've got lettuce but last year's chard has finally run to seed and nothing else is ready, the radishes have only just gone in, tomatoes only just flowering, courgettes only just forming.

I assume everyone else is having an awful year for fruit trees and it's not just me? We had lots of flowers on the plum, apple and pear trees and lots of tiny fruit formed but the lack of rain seems to be stunting their growth. They've remained tiny, have withered and are dropping off the tree. Other wild trees (cherry and yellow bullace) seem to be doing the same thing too although sloes in the hedgerows seem to be OK so far.

I'm now at a stage where I should be able to see if my '2 plot' strategy pays off. Bressingham (the further away plot) is now more or less established, all the plants are watered in and shouldn't need much attention from hereon in. The high maintenance crops are all watered in at Louie's Lane (3 mins walk away) so survival watering and caterpillar patrol is all that's required - hopefully. So this is the moment of truth, will I be able to maintain 2 plots split between 2 sites? I certainly hope so as I'd hate to have to decide which plot to give up.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Tasted our First Frost Sloe Gin

Last year we picked some sloes after the first frosts for the first time I think I've covered the theory behind this before, but I'll precis it for newer readers anyway.

Popular wisdom says that frost make the sloes sweeter or it breaks down their skin a little, allowing the juices to flow out more easily, either way, the upshot is supposed to be sloe gin with a rather more mellow and complex flavour.

When we first started making sloe gin I had trouble picking post frost sloes as, by the time the frosts came, the sloes had withered on the vine (so to speak) I put this down to global warming and the frosts getting later. But, as we all know, the last couple of winters have seen an altered gulf stream and a preponderance of ice and snow. As a result, 2010 presented us with our first opportunity to grab some frosted sloes before they shrivelled.

It's spent 3 months macerating in the demi-jon and a further 4 months maturing in the bottle so it was with a flourish that we finally opened it.

I don't know what other sloe gin aficionados find, but I think the taste of sloe gin can vary batch to batch anyway, the amount of ginny tang and tannins can change considerably and there are so many variables (how long the gin is left to macerate/mature, how the sloes were pricked, differences between locations of the trees they grew on, whether bullaces have crept in etc etc) it hard to pinpoint which one is responsible.

However, this batch is definitely one of the best we've produced, noticeably thicker and mellower than the non frost batch. Whether that's down to the frosting alone is impossible to tell but I think we'll carry on making it when we get the opportunity, just to be sure!

Talking of bullace - has anyone heard of Essex Bullace? A friend of Adam's reckons he's picked some but when we Googled it we only found references to them on American sites along with Royal Bullace and White Bullace, none of which I've ever heard of, can anyone shed any light?

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The weather gets even more bizarre.

What is it with this weather? I get the impression that I'm imprisoned in the last dry and dusty corner of the county, bleating into the ether about the lack of rain while the rest of the country bends under the weight of torrential rain. My Facebook page is full of far flung people exclaiming at thunderstorms/hailstones/floods etc. (No locusts or frogs yet but surely it's only a matter of time) while I gaze mournfully at the dustbowl I call an allotment.

On the plus side though, the elderflowers are early. Willow has been eagerly anticipating her first taste of summer and has been monitoring the progress of the flowers in the hedgerow and telling me to get my finger out re cordial so yesterday I obliged. I say 'I', Willow did most of the work as you can see.

Anyway, I'm as confident as confident can be that the dry spell will break by 18th June as that's when Proms in the Park is held in Diss. Every year, without fail, there is torrential rain and revellers end up forgetting the words to Jerusalem and sipping warm wine out of plastic cups while huddling under golf umbrellas in an attempt to keep dry.

I was actually offended by the frost in April, how can it be fair that we're battling mid summer conditions and yet have to contend with extreme night time cold at the same time? Interestingly though, I read a couple of old garden diary type books, The Urban Gardener by Elspeth Thompson, (published in the mid '90s) and one whose name I can't remember as I was reading it in the Oxfam bookshop but was published in the 1930's (didn't buy it as it was about growing flowers rather than veg) both complained of 'freak' frost and snow in April. So I guess it's not that unusual after all, next year I promise I won't cast any clouts til May is out.

Yesterday though, things took another turn for the unexpected with the gale force winds. Luckily our, as yet empty, cold frame on the allotment stayed put but my plastic greenhouse at home has suffered. It didn't move as it's lashed securely to various down pipes on the side of the house and the frame is weighted down with gro bags. However, it did rock violently enough to tip up the tomatoes on the top shelves so they came crashing down on the tomatoes below. Plus the outer cover has ripped where the ropes tying it down are attached. Now the winds have died down I have a morning of duct tape repairs and surveying the damage to my Mr Stripeys in front of me. My leftover tumbling tom seedlings, who were destined for the allotment, flew around the garden alarmingly, the pots have been left behind but the plants have simply disappeared.

I have to admit I'm genuinely quite worried and can't help feeling that global warming is genuinely upon us. Some people may claim it doesn't exist and I hope they're right, but I doubt it.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Surviving the drought.

Here in the East we've had an exceptionally dry spring with only something like 10% of the usual rainfall. I haven't found it too difficult to cope with although that's not to say I haven't had disasters. My broad beans and asparagus crowns have definitely failed and my carrots are worryingly slow to germinate but I've not giving up hope just yet. On the other hand my strawberries, fruit trees, borlotti beans, chard, cavolo nero, lettuce, leeks, sweetcorn and calabrese seem to be not just surviving but flourishing. This is down, in no small measure, to all the help I got in this post last year.

So, a year down the line, I thought it would be useful to review how I got on with the drought measures over the season, which tips worked and which am I carrying on with this year.

Last year I planted as many seeds as possible direct in the ground. I reasoned this would be less work than handling dozens of seedlings with all potting on and hardening off, but I was wrong. Hard work is trying to keep a 10m line of seeds wet enough to germinate (hence the fate of my carrots this year as I've sown them direct) It's much, much easier to keep a tray in a coldframe at home well watered plus this gives the seeds a head start as they germinate much more quickly. Once hardened off all the plants could all be watered simultaneously with 10 minutes under the sprinkler.

One of the best suggestions I got last year was from Craftygeek (see the comments on the old post) which was to plant bean seeds in cardboard tubes or rolls of newspaper full of compost. I packed mine together in an orange crate from the supermarket which I moved in and out of the coldframe en masse to harden them off. Once they were ready to go out I planted the whole tube/roll in the ground. This encourages deep roots and the compost and cardboard hold onto water, preventing it seeping away through the horribly cracked clay soil. Plus it improves the texture of the soil long term. Last year, once the beans were established I didn't water them at all but they continued to thrive and crop well.

Planting in a depression (just think of all the Lib Dem broken election promises ..... ) is probably the simplest and most effective thing I do. I put the seedlings in a dish shaped depression in the ground about 3cm deep and also build up a little 'wall' of soil around the plant. This holds the water, preventing it running off and giving it time to properly soak into the soil. As the plant grows bigger it tends to overrun the depression making it redundant but by this time the roots are deep enough to cope anyway.

As a proper double whammy, with large water hungry plants such as squash, cucumbers and tomatoes as well as the depression I use the bottom-chopped-off-plastic-bottle technique. I find this hugely effective, 48hrs after watering the soil is usually still damp around the plant, even on a hot, dry day.

These techniques are time saving too as I can quickly dump the water where it's needed and walk away, I don't have to stand at each plant for 20 seconds or so til the water has soaked in. Also as the water is getting directly to where it's needed, I don't need as much which means fewer trips to the tap/water butt. It takes me about 20 minutes to water each allotment, although I plan on stopping watering at all on the old allotment once the plants are established.

Have a look at Allotments4you's comment on the old post, I took this one to heart, last year I didn't water my borlotti beans, sweetcorn, brocolli, chard or cavolo nero once they were established and all did well. I didn't water the carrots either, apparently this encourages root veg to grow down further in search of water, making them bigger. Which they were. The wireworm seemed to approve anyway ....

PS - Just thought of another one. If you've got any spare seedlings with no room, pot them on and keep them alive as backups just in case your planted out ones fail, or die of frost, or get eaten by a chicken or something.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Blogger Curse strikes this time!

A big "waaaaaaaah!" to Blogger for the technical confusion over the last few days, apologies to those who have left comments which have gone astray. I guess I should be thankful that my courgette post came back to life eventually!

Is that Wordpress I see on the horizon????

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Courgette Curse strikes again

Regular readers will know that courgettes are unfeasibly popular here in the Kitchen. Back in the day when I was struggling to grow what I could in my tiny garden they were a blessing as they give a generous crop in return for the smallest corner of ground. Having a glut was a novelty and I embraced the challenge with gusto - courgette cake, roasted courgette, courgette soup, courgette pickle, courgette jam, I love them all.

Therefore the great courgette tragedy of 2009, when I lost my slender green friends to mosaic virus, was a bitter blow. It's not just the loss of a popular vegetable but the ignominy of being unable to grow something universally acknowledged as a 'beginners' plant which is derided rather than celebrated for it's fecundity. Truth be told, I think it's the latter point that drives me on in my quest to conquer the courgette more than anything else.

2010 got off to a shaky start. I finally got my long awaited allotment (hoorah!) so the problem of being unable to use my mosaic virus infested garden was solved. I planted 4 courgette plants (2 green and 2 stripy) but I underestimated how exposed the allotment site was and all 4 plants went into shock after the cosiness of my back garden. I bit my nails for a week or two before they got a grip and started to actually grow.

It's true we had a glut after our holiday when the courgettes had been left to their own devices and a handful grew to monster proportions but the actual number of fruit was surprisingly low. The stripy variety in particular seemed to have quite a low yield, although I do wonder if this had something to do with their early shock.

Which brings us up to date. This year I have 2 allotments so space is far from an issue and I went to town! I sowed yellow courgettes, round courgettes and patty pan squash plus a friend kindly gave me a couple of crook neck squash seedlings. So courgettes all round then?

Hmmm, not so sure. I planted 2 yellow and 2 round on the allotment, only for us to have a frost a mere 2 days later, 1 of each type (plus a cucumber) was felled and the remaining plants have that familiar stunned look about them. Luckily my crook neck and patty pan squash were still at home and my sheltered garden escaped the frost so I'll plant a few more of those to step into the beach.

However, note to self for 2012 - don't plant the courgettes out til mid-May, it's just not worth the heartache!

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Sweet(corn) Nothings

Let's talk sweetcorn. Am I just rubbish at growing it or is it a somewhat testy diva of a vegetable that swoons when the conditions are anything less than perfect?

Last year I started the seeds off at home, outside in small pots. I reasoned that they'd grow already accustomed to the ambient conditions and I wouldn't have to bother hardening them off. This meant that they were outside during the late frost we had at the end of April last year, still tucked up under the potting compost in my sheltered, relatively frost free garden though, so not catastrophic. However, I do wonder whether this may have stunted them in later life.

I found that, at every stage of the growing process, I seemed to lose a proportion of the plants/ears of corn. About half of the seeds actually germinated and their progress was slooooooow, about 3 weeks from sowing to green shoots. Of the germinated seeds probably one third failed to thrive and didn't produce any corn. Of the plants that actually grew, about half produced decent corn and the other half produced weird nearly naked cobs. I think in the end we only had 6 or 8 decent decent cobs of corn from 20 plants.

This year I decided to buy a bigger cold frame so that I had the room to start off all my seeds under cover and get a head start. The sweetcorn has germinated within days but still, half the seeds have failed (in stark contrast to everything else which, other than the disappointing Mr Stripy tomatoes, has a success rate of almost 100%). I can also see huge disparities in size between the plants, a few are large, vigorous and obviously healthy (as seen in the photo, mid sprinkler session this afternoon) but a handful are rather runty. The pattern of last year seems to be repeating itself already.

So - what's your experience? Is my allotment fundamentally unsuited to sweetcorn, or is this fairly typical? I'd love to hear your stories and tips.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Please let it rain soon!

The current dry weather conditions are playing havoc with our plans at Bressingham (the old allotment) In February I couldn't dig because the soil is so clay-y I couldn't stand up straight on it, pushing on a spade merely propelled me backwards through the slip. I missed the nanosecond when the weather dried up and the soil was in peak digging condition and, minutes later, it had dried out and set so rock hard that even jumping two footed onto the spade won't drive it into the ground.

My plan was to dig up the grassed area where the kids play, give them horsetail corner for playing instead, and transfer the strawberries to the rather more fecund original play area. Adam complained that digging up the turf in the compacted, played on soil, was heavy going so we put Roundup down thinking dead grass would be easier to grub up than living. By the time the Roundup had worked, the soil had set rock hard so we decided to wait for rain before we continued digging.

We waited, and waited and waited .......

8 weeks later we've only had one small shower of rain. The play area is still only half dug, the strawberries are snug in their original home and are now flowering determinedly, the broad bean seeds have died and the purple sprouting broccoli is running to seed and needs digging up but everything is locked into the concrete soil.

By contrast, the soil at the new allotment on Louie's Lane is a joy. It's like fine sand, free draining and easily heaped over the potatoes (the Ulster Sceptre are doing fine), seed drills are drawn in the blink of an eye (rather than seeds slipping down between huge cobbles) but walking over it is hard on the calves (my legs, there are no baby cows there) but other than that it's allotmenteering heaven.

The 2011 season is beginning in earnest now as my seedlings are slowly emerging from their coldframe home and being planted out in the big wide world of the allotment. The next few weeks will be hard work as I mollycoddle them into life but once they've got a toehold I should find out if my split site strategy will work and I actually have the resources to manage 2 allotments - oh and not forgetting the Diss Community Farm pig rearing project!

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

AB Seedy

Had to get that pun in somewhere as I'm so proud of it! It's my suggestion for the name of the seed growing 'club' that a couple of friends and I have formed. The idea being we would co-ordinate our planting (eg, I do courgettes, Anna does lettuce), grow a few extra seedlings and then do a vegetal runaround, swapping excess plants. Of course this makes my germination rates uncomfortably public. In the past I would be quite sanguine about failures and just buy garden centre plants to fill any gaps. I really should have remembered that I did that with tomatoes for a couple of years on the run, last year was the first year I gave up and just went straight to the garden centre.

I think you've probably guessed where this is going already .....

Most of the seedlings are going well. I have a germination rate of over 50% for the sweetcorn which isn't too shabby. Borlotti beans more or less 100%, ditto courgettes, various squashes, chard, Cavelo Nero, calabrese etc etc

And my tomatoes? The ones which are supposed to be bounteous? Enough to share with friends? The value adding obscure varieties? Nada. Zip. Absolutely nothing. A handful of Tumbling Toms are struggling up but Mr Stripy are stubbornly staying soil bound.

In the meantime, I've taken my first delivery of leek seedlings from David. I had to share his seed tray idea in the photo above, I thought the cut off milk bottle was genius. Of course the size of the donation (the bottle in the photo, plus one more, plus a full conventional seed tray) causes me even more embaressment in having no tomatoes to give in return, let's just hope he likes courgettes ......

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Purple Sprouting to Piggies.

Wow, I finally have an hour to myself (just mistyped that as 'my elf', but I've paid him no attention either) Life has suddenly become overwhelmingly busy as the Norfolk Kitchen empire expands. As you probably know I have 2 allotments for the first time this season. I keep telling myself it's not as daunting as it sounds as both plots are half the traditional size so, really, it's just one plot. That's not too bad is it? Really? It'll be all right won't it??

I took advantage of the glorious weather and visited the Bressingham allotment (the old one) yesterday. Sadly, I forgot my camera which means I couldn't capture the blossom on the fruit trees or the glorious, glowing, shimmering purple of the sprouting broccoli. I photographed it at home but it's just not the same as when it's bathed in sunlight. I'm uncommon pleased with the purple sprouting, I bought a few spare plants from a fellow allotmenteer for 20p, stuck them in the soil and ignored them til now and suddenly, unexpectedly, I have this gourmet treat (stir fried in olive oil with anchovies by the way)

When I'd finished swinging a matock while sweat dripped off my nose in an attempt to dig over the sun hardened clay of the ex-Cavolo Nero bed, I called at the new allotment to check out the rotavating a friend did for me. The soil is beautiful, as fine a tilth as sand. I surveyed my blistered hands and could've wept!

Added to the extra land I've taken on 3 extra chickens making a total of 5, plus I'm getting quite heavily involved in the Diss Community Farm Livestock project. The Community Farm is basically a co-operative of local people, we're hoping to rent some land, work on it ourselves, share the produce and have a few laughs along the way. It's a huge project to get off the ground and lots of people are working very hard on it. The hope is that the Farm will become a reality next year and in the meantime we're running a couple of small pilot projects to test our plans and procedures. The vegetable growing project I'm leaving alone (see above) but the Project Piggy is a different matter ....

A local landowner has agreed to lease us an area of woodland of about 2 acres for a peppercorn rent and a side of pork, our plan is to keep a few pigs and some nice fierce geese to keep them safe from marauding teenagers. If all goes well we can scale up for the farm proper.

We're holding a Family Cream Tea this Sunday, 10th April, at Roydon Village Hall at 3pm. Please come along if you'd like to find out a bit more about our project or get involved. And if you're very lucky, you may even get to sample a little Norfolk Kitchen jam (but not the courgette and ginger which was very firmly rejected!)

Friday, 18 March 2011

Xanthe's Mud Pie Kitchen

Ta-daaa! So here it is, Xanthe's Mud Pie kitchen. At the grand old age of 4, Xanthe is already an allotment veteran. We've reached the stage where miniature tool sets and packets of seeds have waned in the excitement stakes and every announcement of an allotment visit is met with loud howls of protest.

I've been avoiding this flashpoint by only visiting the allotment when Xanthe is at nursery but as demands on my precious child free time grow this is becoming impractical. The issue of keeping Xanthe amused and engaged feels even more important at the new allotment where our plots aren't fenced and the neighbours are the neat and tidy straight lines types who wouldn't fancy small feet tramping over the border.

I appealed for ideas on Twitter and Facebook and got some great suggestions including making scarecrows, flower pot mud castles (like sandcastles only muddier), flower pot stilts and cardboard tractors. All of which are fab ideas I have squirreled away for future use. The lovely Rachel, she of the transplaneted courgette, came up with the Rolls Royce solution: A Mud Pie Kitchen.

An hour in the charity shops of Diss produced a wooden wine rack which a dab of glue, 2 cheap hob covers and 2 big red buttons turned into a cooker. We added in a variety of charity shop utensils and the job was done. So far, it's proving to be a huge success. It's spent the last 48 hrs sitting in the living room, waiting for today's allotment trip, where it has already facilitated Xanthe's hamster stew ("pretend we're cats cooking hamsters!")

We took it to the plot today where Xanthe put it through it's muddy paces. For the first time in this family's allotment career, Xanthe was so absorbed in her mud and weeds cookery it took all my powers of persuasion to get her to leave and Willow's in a sulk because she hasn't seen the kitchen in situ yet. My ears are ringing to a new and unfamiliar refrain "But Muuuuum, when are we going to the allotment? I haven't been for aaaaages!"

Monday, 7 March 2011


Wow, what a chickeny weekend we have had. We decided to buy a bigger new coop so that we could put non-laying Feathers out to retirement and replace her with 3 new point of lay hens. The coop was ordered when I received a call asking if we had space for a few ex-batts someone was collecting. I immediately agreed to take 3, now that we'd had a bit of chicken keeping experience I felt more confident about taking on chickens who potentially could have some problems, plus there's the fuzzy glow of doing something good, plus, well, umm, they're free so I've saved the best part of £60.

Once the new coop was assembled we realised that we had room to keep the old coop too so our plans expanded, we would go from owning 1 coop stocked with 2 hens so 2 coops with a combined total of 5 hens. The pre-existing Crispy plus 3 ex-batts meant we only had to buy 1 extra hen.

Sunday dawned cold and sunny and our day of avian runaround began.

Feathers was taken to her retirement home, namely a work mate of Adam's who adopts waif and stray birds from bantams to barn owls. He agreed to make a chicken sized space for Feathers who will no doubt thinks she's suddenly grown a foot overnight after being introduced to the bantams.

Next we sped off to collect the ex-batts. I've never seen one before so was a bit shocked, not at the lack of feathers so much, but their wilty combs and anaemic appearance. The lady who'd rescued them told me they actually had more feathers than most ex-batts so I think I'd expected them to be a bit more conventional looking.

Back home, we had a minor escapage during our complicated re-cooping schedule which resulted in Crispy and the ex-batts coming beak to beak a bit sooner than planned and, completely unexpectedly, Crispy turned into Rambo Hen. Making a growling noise I've never heard before, she launched herself ruthlessly at a hapless ex-batt, stamping on her neck and pecking viciously at her head. Naturally, we quickly separated them so we now have the 3 ex-batts in the new coop and Crispy the Bully is on her own in the old coop. She won't be alone for long as I'm getting her a brand new point of lay playmate tomorrow, I'm hoping that if we follow conventional rules, introduce the new hen after Crispy has gone to bed and get a newby that bears a passing resemblance to Feathers, Crispy will accept her a bit more readily.

Meanwhile, the ex-batts have been named. They're Spark, Katie (after the singer in the Ting Tings) and Lady Gaga (believe me, not my choice, but I suppose she's wearing about as many feathers as Lady Gaga wears clothes) and they seem really happy. They've made themselves at home and are really curious about us, coming out to line up and stare out at us from the run every time we come out of the house. And the icing on the cake (not literally) this morning, less than 24hrs after arriving, all 3 had laid an egg!

So hurrah for the Bash Street Hens, although they do have really long claws, does anyone have any experience of trimming chicken claws? Is it easy to do?