Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Can you help - what is this plant?

A plea for help. This thing grew on our plot. To our knowledge it is nothing we planted, although it did spring up like a bulb in early spring. It has only just "flowered" and produced this thing. I have no idea what it is, so if anyone has any ideas I would be thrilled to hear from them.

It's just so weird. It also had a spirally looking leaf. The head has got what look like tiny bulblets all over it. We were intrigued and then I cut it for the vase because I thought it looked quite nice with my bolted leek flowers (seen also in the background). As Jamie rightly pointed out, we now don't know what it would have turned into (cringe). I should have thought really.

I'm sure it is an allium of some sort....

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Homemade Cure for Sunburn?

Allotment June 15 017

Well, just in time for hottest weekend in about 3 years, the smallest member of the Costello family (Fern, 3 years old) has contracted chickenpox. The poor thing is covered from literally head to toe in sore itchy spots. None of us have had any sleep for days.

Anyway, a bit of research on the internet revealed that oatmeal baths are good for irritated skin, including chickenpox and sunburn. I also know from experience that lavender is great for skin disorders, and honey and tea tree oil have anti-bacterial properties, so I made my own recipe for a bath bomb. On such a long hot weekend, I thought it was worth sharing the bath formula that we are using on her, in case any fellow gardeners get caught out in the sun too long.

Oatmeal and lavender bath bomb

  • 3 handfuls of oatmeal (can be any type - mine is a cheap bag from Lidl)
  • dried or fresh lavender flowers
  • few drops of lavender essential oil
  • 2 tsp honey (runny or set)
  • about 8 inch square muslin, organza, or other porous fabric
  • String for tying
  • tea tree oil (optional)

Allotment June 27 006


Put the oatmeal in the blender and whizz until powdery (optional - I couldn't be bothered with this bit). Spread out the muslin square and pour on the oats with the lavender flowers and the essential oils. Put the honey in the middle and cover with the dry mixture, tying with string at the top.

Allotment June 27 001

Put the bag into the bath as it is running and leave to soak during bath. Squeezing it makes more of the white liquid come out.

Allotment June 27 007

Having tested the recipe, it really seems to have soothed the itching, so I feel entitled to recommend it. In fact I can't wait to try it myself.

Finally, the peas are finally coming through in numbers, so I picked some for dinner tonight.

Allotment June 15 184

I expect many more where these came from:

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Monday, 22 June 2009

Fathers Day 2009 - Blackcurrants and Garden Visits

What a weekend! We managed to fit in both allotments, twice, and go to Petersham Nurseries for some inspiration. The activities culminated in making a batch of blackcurrant cupcakes.

First I must show you the photos I took at Petersham Nurseries. It is one of my favourite places for inspiration - whoever runs it has got such a good eye for colour, and puts things together beautifully. I noticed they had a job going and boy am I tempted.....

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The displays really make you want to buy something, but the price tags are breathtaking. It makes me wonder whether it would be fun if money really was no object. I think it is more satisfying to get ideas, then try to recreate your own version in a thifty way.

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If you look at the objects, there is nothing inherently special about any of them, but the arrangement together just works somehow. Having said that, they just seem to have a knack of picking objects that work together.

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There is also a fabulous restaurant there, run by Skye Gyngell and a tea room for those like us on a more limited budget.

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There is usually something interesting there in the way of plants too. This time of year, they have gigantic dahlias.

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We bought one for Jamie for Father's Day, and brought it back to the plot. I have to say it looks a lot more modest than the one in the shop, but they do flower continuously from June to October, so there is plenty of time!

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Last year we made redcurrant cupcakes, and they were a great success, so we decided to use some of our bumper crop of blackcurrants to make some more. The secret was not to add them to the mix, but to press them onto the top just before they go in the oven.
Blackcurrant cupcakes
375g Self raising flour
115g butter
200g caster sugar
2 very large eggs (or 3 medium)
1/4 vanilla pod
1 tsp vanilla extract
175ml milk
Some blackcurrants - a few handfuls

Beat together butter and sugar till fluffy. Add eggs one at a time. Split vanilla pod, scrape out seeds and add to mixture. Fold in the flour, then when mixed, add and mix in the milk. Spoon the mixture into muffin cases, then add blackcurrants to the top as shown below. Then pressed in the blackcurrants into the mixture, but so they were still on top.
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Put into a preheated oven at 180degrees C, and leave for 20 mins or until golden on top.
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I know it is a cliche, and one I use very often, but the tartness of the blackcurrants against the fluffy sweetness of the vanilla cakes turns a childlike treat into something more interesting for adults.

Finally, one more photo from 8pm this evening - the peas flowering. I picked a handful of yellow podded peas, just in case I can't get back to them for a couple of days. It looks as though there will be a lot more where they came from!

Allotment June 15 024

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Sweetcorn sown direct!

This is the third year of having an allotment, and I have to say that the initial burst of energy has eased to a slower pace. So it is really nice when something genuinely captures new enthusiasm. One of these was the sweetcorn that I sowed direct in the soil a couple of weeks ago. Horrendously late, it needed a soil temperature of 18 degrees C according to the packet. I wasn't sure whether UK soil ever reaches this temperature, but it really was my last chance to get them in before June began.

Here is the patch on the 29th May:
Sweetcorn seeds went in just before the warm spell

And again on the 12th June:

18 degrees and counting......
18 degrees and counting......

Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw them! They will even need thinning at some point because I was so pessimistic about their chances of success that I have crammed them in, expecting the odd seed to germinate. I have got two varieties - Ashworth Early and Hopi Blue. Another way of looking at 'early' crops is 'faster growing', so I am hoping this means I will still have time to get sweetcorn cobs before Autumn.

The other surprise this week was that the dark blue lavender bush is ready to crop:

Lavender ready to pick
Lavender ready to pick

It is a darker blue than the Carshalton Lavender plants which we inherited. I thought it would be good to dry out the heads for decoration rather than scent:

Lavender heads drying on the patio
Lavender heads drying on the patio

The later crop will be in July, when we will pick some of the silvery heads for lavender bags etc.

Finally, we got our first crop from the blackcurrant bushes given to us by Jamie's Gramps and Mum. The recipe of this week is a glorious blackcurrant frangipane tart, from Sarah Raven's Garden Cookbook. A bit like bakewell tart studded with blackcurrants, it is one of those recipes where the tartness of the fruits is perfect with the rich pudding. Lovely with an afternoon coffee on the patio after work:

Frangipane and blackcurrant tart
Frangipane and blackcurrant tart

I will put the recipe on to follow:

Following the loss of almost all our Dahlias in the frosts this year, I bought a two at 70p at Chipstead fete this weekend. Not even knowing what colour or type they are will add a frisson of excitement later this summer.

Open Farm Day 2009

It was Open Farm Day 2009 today, and we popped over to Shabden Park Farm in Chipstead where they had a variety of animals on display for the children to see. Eden has started getting a bit distressed about the idea that animals have to be killed for meat, and I don't think the sight of the incredibly cute baby animals, most of them a few days old, did much to dispel her reservations. There were baby goslings, little lambs and tiny baby pigs, which put the sausage we had eaten into perspective. The day really reinforced for me the value of buying properly reared meat, that has been treated well. The small farm shop sells only their own meat and that of other selected local farmers.

After a lovely sunny day, we went back to the Warren to see what was going on. The brassicas have grown amazingly in only a week.


The gooseberries have come through and are looking extremely good, even though the leaves are getting eaten by something.

Red gooseberries
Red gooseberries

Dinner tonight was roast duck with vegetables roasted with thyme and bay leaf.

Roasted vegetables
Roasted vegetables

The final crop of rhubarb came from the plot this afternoon which we roasted in the oven for about 30 minutes with sugar and vanilla.

This afternoon
This afternoon


Saturday is baking day

These days, although we would all love to eat fresh, fully prepared, home cooked meals every day, it is sometimes hard to do much more than re-heat a ready meal in the evenings after work. Especially, ironically if you have been at the allotment till 7pm (!).

But Saturday is our foodie day. We love to think about what we can incorporate from the plot on the menu that night, and we have the time and energy to try something new, rather than a tried and tested recipe.

This weekend we had little else to do, so we worked in four new dishes with our own home grown stuff.

First on the menu was Chicken in Marsala sauce. This is cheating a bit, because the only ingredients from the allotment were bay leaves and thyme, but it is worth noting nonetheless.

Chicken quarters or thighs, skin & bone on.
1/2 bottle of Marsala wine
A few sprigs of Thyme
2 Bay leaves
1/2 head of garlic
Splash 0f olive oil
Splash of balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to season
Fresh parsley
(optional) mushrooms

The basic recipe follows the standard chicken one pot meal, like chicken and tarragon. You fry off the seasoned chicken in olive oil till it goes brown, then add the other ingredients, leave it bubbling away for a while, keep an eye on it, then reduce down the stock that's left.

Reducing the stock is particularly important in this case, as you end up with a really nice sweet, sticky sauce, which coats the chicken really nicely. The final step is to chop the parsley and add just before serving. We followed this with:

Strawberry and Vanilla Custard Tarts.

Strawberry tarts
Strawberry tarts

These were made with Colin and Gail's eggs which we think explains why they have an amazingly yellow colour.

Ready made sweet pastry
Vanilla pod
300ml Double Cream
5 egg yolks
75g granulated sugar (or vanilla sugar)

Line small tart tins with sweet pastry. Bake blind for 10 minutes then allow to cool.

Make the vanilla custard, by heating up cream in a saucepan with the vanilla pod. Beat together the egg yolks and the sugar in a separate bowl. Carefully drip in slowly some of the warmed milk, and beat until smooth. Continue doing this with about 1/3 of the milk then return the mixture to the saucepan with the rest of the milk. Heat carefully. When the custard begins to cool it will set, and then you can add the strawberries and custard to the tart cases.

One day like this a year

Days like these are what allotmenting is all about. A horrible first day back at the office, with everything as usual in complete crisis and over schedule, blah, blah, blah. I finally got out at 7pm, and went straight to the allotment, carrying the cares of the world.

A balmy evening and we arrived to the sight of fellow gardeners happily tilling the land. In our case an explosion of strawberries and flowers meant there was a bumper crop in store for us.

Little hands collecting the crop
Little hands collecting the crop

The girls were squealing with excitement as they picked the ripe strawberries. We ate some off the plants, but had enough to bring a whole bucketful home.

Allotment June 1 004

Allotment June 1 004

Eden noticed that her rose had flowered, and was thrilled to find it has an amazing fragrance. The rest of the roses have bloomed, along with the peony.

Sarah Raven eat your heart out!
Sarah Raven eat your heart out!

As we packed up and headed for home, there was contentment mixed with excitement about having ice cream and strawberries for supper, and the prospects of a great summer ahead.

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First strawberries of the season

Finally, look at these little lovelies that were picked at Stanley Road yesterday.

First few red strawberries
First few red strawberries

They tasted wonderful, and the girls enjoyed them straight from the plants, with no added sugar. Amazing how they will eat things straight from the plant that they would never try on their own in the house.

There are lots more to come, as we have dedicated two full strawberry patches at Stanley Road to them. My favourite crop by far...

Flittons to the rescue...

Despite my efforts to grow everything from seed, we don't have a greenhouse, or a decent windowsill to propagate seeds. Sometimes garden centres can produce such great value that it seems a waste not to take advantage.

Flittons were selling a whole tray of brassica seedlings for a pound today, so I had to go for 8 plants of each of:

* Savoy cabbage
* Cauliflower
* Broccoli
* Brussels sprouts

They have gone into the Warren plot alongside the sweetcorn and squashes. Roll on Autumn!

Netted to keep pigeons away
Netted to keep pigeons away

The Savoy cabbage will have to wait until we have dug out some space, but the others have gone in.

Chicken and tarragon

Well, following the cultivation notice (that apparently we shouldn't have got because we have had it less than 3 months) Jamie has worked incredibly hard on digging and planting the plot.

The new plot
The new plot

The plan is to have mainly perennial fruit on this site, so that it is lower maintenance. Also, fruit takes up a lot of space and you want to give it plenty of room. There were already three small plum trees on the plot (seen at the back of the photo below), and some Rhubarb (also at the back). Jamie has added raspberry canes with a frame, and gooseberry.

Fruit patch
Fruit patch

Once the asparagus seedlings are well established, they will go in and already have a dedicated row. The yew trees were in pots in the garden, but have been transplanted in as have a number of box plants (of course!).

This year I am going to get some space for annuals (the bare patch at the front). I already have some Charlotte potatoes chitting on a windowsill. I don't think there's any danger of putting the potatoes in too late. The girls have planted a lot of different flower seeds this year, so we will see if any of those are successful.

Finally, there is going to be a very small vineyard in the space shown below.

Space ready for the Vineyard

You never know, Costello home-made wine might be coming your way in years to come? Jamie has taken some cuttings of the vine that currently runs over the canopy at the flat.

Grapevine cuttings
Grapevine cuttings
Grapevine cuttings
We met a local grower/winemaker at a Farmer's Market from the Old Railway Vineyard in Merstham. When we described our variety, he identified it as a good one for wine. It has a good pedigree, having successfully grown on the patio for what looks like the last century.

Finally, the first French tarragon of the year is coming through, so we picked some for our favourite dinner, recipe below.

Tarragon Chicken

For this recipe you can use either quarters, legs, thighs, breasts on the bone, whatever you have in.
Chicken pieces (see above)
Butter or olive oil for frying (depending on cholesterol count)
1/2 chopped Onion
1/4 bottle of white wine
4 or 5 sprigs of French Tarragon (chopped)
2 cloves of garlic
3 tablespoons Creme fraiche (this can be low fat or full fat)
small amount of chicken stock (optional)
lemon rind and juice (optional)

Tips: This recipe has many variations, depending on what you have in the cupboard. Stock can be added for flavour, but you can use a chicken Oxo cube, gravy granules etc., or leave it out altogether. I find if you use chicken pieces on the bone, you don't need to add stock, but if you use chicken breast fillets, it might need the extra flavour. Lemon isn't essential, but goes very well. The basics are chicken, white wine, creme fraiche and tarragon.

Fry the chicken pieces in the butter/oil in a heavy bottomed pan or casserole, until nicely browned on the outside. Take them out and reserve on a plate. Then use the same oil to fry the onion and mushrooms if using, followed by the garlic (chopped or crushed as preference).

Once the onion has gone slightly brown, add the chicken pieces back to the plan and add the white wine and half the tarragon, stirring to get the brown glaze off the pan into the sauce. Add water or chicken stock to cover the pieces. Add the lemon juice and rind (you may need to add a tiny bit of sugar if using a very dry wine and lemon juice).

Simmer for about 30 - 45 mins on the stove, or put the casserole into the over, checking occasionally. Strain excess oil if needed. Add salt and pepper and more stock to taste.

When you are sure it is cooked through and ready to serve, add the creme fraiche along with the rest of the tarragon.

Serve with rice and mange tout or french beans.

Spring and the good weather makes a difference

Jamie has worked so hard since we got the improvement notices, and I think the results will speak for themselves. I didn't think the plot was particuarly untidy anyway, but I feel as if we are entering some sort of gardening competition within the next 28 days.

Apple blossom in the girls' plot
Apple blossom in the girls' plot


Potatoes have already gone into Stanley Road (Picasso). We chose this type because Paul gave us some of his crop last year and they really did roast well as described. He had got the tip from Doug, and so we guessed they would work well on our soil as well. They were a nice balance between a floury and waxy potato - not too extreme in either direction.

The Perry and George system in action
The Perry and George system in action

Jamie has put them in using the 'Perry and George' tried and tested potato planting system. They dig a trench and a mound, ready for earthing up the potatoes. Once the initial plants show through, you just heap the soil over the plants. Apparently this leads to a better crop, and it keeps the frost off the small plants.


The second annual planting of the year went in - the pea and bean beds. This year is going to be a rainbow of colour, as I have saved last year's seed and have bought some new ones to try. There are purple-podded peas and French beans, a rare yellow-podded pea from the Real Seed Company, as well as the green Sugar Snap Pea 'Cascadia'. As well as the purple peas, I have acquired some interesting French beans, again recommended by the Real Seed Company. These have the rather fascinating name of 'Cherokee Trail of Tears' and are an old Native American heritage variety.

Not much to see yet really....
Not much to see yet really....

Sweet Pea 'Fragrantissima, grown for flowers, finishes off my legume beds. I just can't wait the month or so till they start to flower. Although I am leaving it quite late this year, I can't say I am sorry after the spring we have had. I am sure any plants that had gone in earlier would have died or been stunted with the combination of cold and rainy weather we have had.

All that remains tomorrow is to put in some catch crops of salad and beetroot to make the most of the bare soil. Jamie's tomatoes and peppers are doing brilliantly under cloches. The only worry is whether they will outgrow the cloches before the frosts are over....

Tender plants under cover - is this too early for them to be outside?????
Tender plants under cover - is this too early for them to be outside?????

Planting plan 2009:spring-20091

Easter in Somerset

So that's why it is so green
So that's why it is so green

We went to Somerset to get away from it all after Easter. The green, misty views were refreshing (for which read 'unbroken rain'!) and a bright spot of the trip was going to the "Rainbow's End" cafe in Glastonbury, a fantastic vegetarian cafe. It gave me lots of inspiration to cook fantastic recipes with our vegetables this year.

Rainbow's End
Rainbow's End

Now we are back, it feels as if all the allotment tasks have hit at once.

Both our allotments have cultivation notices. The main problem seems to stem from the bleak midwinter timing of the inspection, plus our lack of concern about size of yield. Although we are cultivating all our space, it is combining a grass lawn with flowers, a herb patch with lavender, a strawberry patch with a wendy house. Really it is a productive garden to us, not a farm.

It seems this is not really enough for the inspectors, so we had better dig up some more of the space I suppose. We are keeping the place tidy to our eyes, but maybe others have higher standards?

It is so depressing to have looked forward to crops that take a couple of years to establish, only to be told that is not enough. The council's own guide says we should be toleratnt of people's own use of the land, be it a garden or a children's play area, but times seem to be a changing....

Asparagus shoots

Asparagus is one of those plants that it is worth having an allotment for. It is very expensive to buy, and better as fresh as possible. There are two ways to start yourself off with a row. Firstly you can plant the crowns, or it is a little known fact that you can plant the seed as well. I read a tip somewhere that said seed will produce as quickly as crowns, because they are the more vigorous F1 hybrid varieties. Always eager to put a theory to the test, we bought some asparagus seeds.

Two weeks later, hey presto:


I have also created a list of all my seeds, and when they need sowing etc.



Herb and salad sowing plan

Fruit planting 2009

Jamie has been at the allotments all weekend. A pattern is emerging where I tend to look after the girls while he does the hard graft in the cold/rain/wind, but he is keeping me up to date on progress - photos to follow.

Stanley Road - he has uprooted most of the raspberry canes, which were too close together through overenthusiastic planting last year. These have been transplanted to the Warren which will have most of the perennial fruit. This leaves blackcurrants and the Christmas tree in the back bed at Stanley Road. Stanley Road will have the crops that need more maintenance, and strawberries are the main fruit on the patch.

The Warren - the row of raspberry canes has been planted in much more space, and in honour of this, our first fruit support structure - I will have to wait and see this next weekend. There are already three or four well established damson/plum trees on the plot (we will wait and see exactly what they are), along with a gooseberry.

Seed planting: We need to get going on the seed planting. The coldframe at the Warren will be really helpful to get things started. I am waiting for this latest cold snap to pass, just in case we get a repeat of the severe frosts that have been commonplace this year.

Coming soon: A plan of the whole two plots, with crop rotation diagram.

Rhubarb - First crop of the Year

Jamie checked the rhubarb that he had been forcing, and decided to pick it. "Forcing" is achieved by putting a cover over the plant, which keeps light out. This convinces the plant that it is still underground, so it doesn't make chlorophyll - which results in the characteristic blanched pink colour and delicate texture. But only once a year. Forcing puts a strain on the plant, so each one can only be cropped once a year. Knowing this just makes the whole experience even more exciting.

Fresh pink stalks from the allotment
Fresh pink stalks from the allotment

Jamie makes a lot of recipes, but the best one has to be rhubarb creme brulee, below:

The best creme brulee in the world
The best creme brulee in the world

There is nothing quite like the taste of forced rhubarb in early spring, and it goes really well with the creamy, custardy taste of creme brulee.

I will try to get him to put the recipe in later on.

And look what we found on the new allotment! So there should be many more where that came from.
Imagine how thrilled Jamie was to uncover this?

Imagine how thrilled Jamie was to uncover this?

The Warren

Not much going on yet, but here is the plot

Shed, water butt, compost bins...
Shed, water butt, compost bins...

Not to mention...
A wheelbarrow!

A wheelbarrow!