Welcome to our plot!

I'm Hazel, and in Nov 2006 my friend Jane and I took on a half plot at Hill Allotments, Sutton Coldfield - we want the satisfaction of growing and eating our own fruit and veg, and to improve our diet (and fitness!).

This is the story of what happened next...........

Thursday, December 31, 2009

When a Plan Doesn't Quite Come Together!

The day finally being dry & with some weak winter sunshine, I packed the car with wood, tools & a flask (a most welcome Christmas present from Jane) of piping hot coffee & headed off to the Hill with the aim of completing two more fruit beds.

I had the sensible idea of setting out the middle fruit bed centrally first, then to put the second bed between that & the front bed already built.

It's a jolly good job that I did, as something has gone very awry with regard to the measuring & my spreadsheet plan of the plot - five beds of 8' by 4' with a 20" walkway between each one fit nicely on the plan, but there is no way that they will fit on the plot. How odd.

I'm still not entirely sure why, but no matter - a bit of rethinking on the hoof means that I will have four beds of 8' by 4' & a central 4' square bed, all with nice even 20" wide paths. Brilliant.

I pegged, levelled & fixed the second bed, & then roughly laid out the other three beds - all I need to finish these is some more wood for fixing stakes & I'm one length of 8' short too. To see it laid out is great though - very satisfying.

I drank coffee & walked round the plot admiring my handiwork, then packed the tools away & did a bit of community duty by emptying the delivery of manure bags from the stables into the manure skip.

It was an enormous pile of bags & I was only going to do about half, but once you get into the swing of it you might as well carry on - it was dusk once I'd finished sweeping up & neatly packing the fifty-one empty bags away ready to be collected & refilled.

Reeking from wallowing in a skip full of manure, I headed home feeling virtuous - had to strip at the back door & head straight up to the bath!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Snow Melt & Seeds

It has stopped being so perishing cold - hurrah - however, now it is raining & raining, & the '6" heavy snow' forecast by the Met Office for Monday night did not materialise bar a bit of sleet.

This 'crying wolf' by the forecasters is extremely annoying - I know people will complain if they are caught out by bad weather, BUT when weather warnings of 'only travel if absolutely necessary' turn out to be red herrings, it does devalue the entire system.

Of course, I still can't do anything useful at the Hill - it's too wet - today I ventured outo Wickes to buy a pack of wood for the fruit beds. I also started to sort out a sowing plan, sorting the seed packets into months in which to sow.

I thought that I'd sorted excess seed packets out quite recently, & put any spares into the GYO Grapevine seed swap parcel, but I still found twenty-six packets of flower seeds and six of vegetables & herbs to offer out to anyone who wants them - & I haven't started on the peas and beans yet...

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Christmas!

We've had a little snow in the last few days - but mostly very heavy frosts giving a white coating on the trees and garage roof each morning with temperatures not getting above freezing for many days.

Christmas lunch waits for no man though - whatever the weather - so there were parsnips & leeks to be dug out of the frozen earth, so a trip to the Hill couldn't be delayed indefinitely.

Once I'd found the parsnips under the snow, they weren't actually that difficult to dig out despite the first couple inches of soil frozen, & the leeks were easy, as they were the ones that I'd relocated a couple of weeks ago.

They both tasted wonderful along with homegrown roasties with the Christmas dinner - shop carrots & Brussels sprouts this year, though.

Aim for next year - full Christmas fare from the plot.

Aside from the turkey & pigs in blankets, perhaps...

Sunday, December 20, 2009


It has been very cold indeed this week.

The weather has gone from 'quite bracing, but then it is December' straight to the Siberian ice fields in a blink, & has stopped there for the duration.

Clearly this has been no weather to be outside messing about constructing wooden fruit beds at the Hill - in fact it was all I could do to venture out to choose a Christmas tree from the garden centre.

I chose a 'Norway spruce' as being a pleasing shape, a nice height, within the budget & - as a bonus - it was the same sort of the tree that I remember having when I was little.

When it was delivered the next day in its net & left a tiny trail of needles through the hall, I also remembered that it is these trees that we had in my childhood which are all bare branches by Boxing day.

What we know now, though, is that Christmas trees are thirsty & as long as you put them in a natty tree stand - such as the one I have - which incorporates a reservoir of water, they will keep their needles that much longer.

Until I was ready to put it up this weekend, it's been sitting in a bucket of water in the courtyard garden. I didn't account for the severity of the cold weather, however, and when I lifted it out the bucket to bring in the house, I ended up holding a very, very big ice lolly with the tree as the stick.

If I had left it to thaw by itself, I'd not have had a Christmas tree up until about March, so I gave it a big series of whacks on the flags which cracked the ice & released the trunk - & apart from having to vacuum up the trail of needles from the courtyard through the kitchen & hall into the lounge after I'd finished decorating the tree I am very pleased with the result.

It's Christmas day on Friday - I'd rather planned to have leeks, parsnips & maybe a few Brussels sprouts from the Hill as part of lunch, so I'm hoping that they are not frozen solid...

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Turning Green...?

I went to the Hill yesterday once it had warmed up a bit (i.e. the frost had melted) in the hope of at least finishing the first fruit bed.

Only Reg-next-plot was there braving the cold, doing some digging. He came over as I started screwing the bed sides to the batons & asked “what’s going in there?”

“Fruit bushes,” I replied, “I might move that blueberry bush across, or dig up the red & blackcurrant bushes for this bed.”

He nodded encouragingly, “that’ll give you a good run in the main beds for your vegetables then.” It’s always good to get the approval of an experienced hand – I don’t always agree with his growing methods, but he does grow cracking veg.

Talk turned to whitefly, caterpillars, other pests & netting, & Reg said “I’ve been reading an old book from the 1800’s when they didn’t have all these insecticides & sprays, & I’m going to give some of them a go this year – like boiling up rhubarb leaves & the like.”

Well, knock me down with a feather! I’ve always had Reg down as the allotment equivalent of Chemical Ali in terms of his robust approach to crop husbandry – typical advice from Reg starts with ‘first sterilise your soil to get rid of all the bugs’.

I pondered on this new green leaf being turned as I finished fixing the batons & levelled & firmed the path by the new bed to my satisfaction. I can't start on the next fruit bed until I get another pack of 8' lengths of wood, so that's the first job for next weedend.

Then I dug a couple of SWEDE (virtue) & came home to warm up.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Wine Matters...

The Grape wine seems to be going well - the fermentation stopped after about two weeks so I put in some stabiliser & a couple of campden tablets as directed, & now it is upstairs starting to clear in the cool attic room.

Meanwhile, I've started a batch of wine with the last of the apples from the garage. I had to chuck out about half of them as they were distinctly brown looking, but still had enough to make up a batch of Apple & Redcurrant wine with a couple of pounds of redcurrants from the freezer, & it's now bubbling away like mad, which you can see if you look closely at this rather shaky video clip.

Although the second & third batches of Apple wine are gradually clearing after their pectin haze troubles, the first batch of Apple wine has not done anything besides look murky despite sitting upstairs supposedly clearing for the past couple of months - something had to be done.

So I siphoned off a little sediment from the bottom, returned it to the cleaned demijohn & degassed it by shaking the demijohn vigorously. Then I added wine finings, gave it a stir, and we'll see what happens now.

I also tasted it (very sweet indeed), & measured the SG - I think my notes must be up the creek, as I've surely not made 21% strength wine...

Sunday, December 06, 2009

A Guided Tour

With the ground being so soft, it is exactly the wrong time to be tramping all over the soil to make the fruit beds, but if I am to get them built and the red & blackcurrants/ strawberries/ blueberry bush/ globe artichoke/ comfrey transplanted before Spring, I'm going to have to get on with it anyway.

The weather was nice enough today, so I moved the remaining leeks from the end of bed b2 along a bit, then shortened this final bed now leaving a 6' wide strip all the way up the side of the plot ready for digging & fruit bed construction.

I'm reluctant to try to dig & level the total area with the ground so soft, so I settled for roughly pegging out the first of the beds to see how the layout will be. Then I wrestled with the first of the final two spikey gooseberry bushes, dragged it out & shoved it up on to the top of the compost bin.

Mum & big sister Helen arrived - it's been lovely to have Helen visiting this weekend - at this time of year, the traditional Grand Tour of the plot doesn't take very long! At least the weather today was kind - & the paths between the beds saves it from being too wet underfoot.

I pointed out the frost-ravaged remnants of the the physalis at the front of the plot, the shoots on the autumn onions (& lack of shoots on the garlic) & swiss chard.

I showed her the blueberry bush from rhubarb Brian, & the brassicas under the netting, including the tiny pea-size sprouts forming (I'm not sure that these will be gracing the Christmas table!) & she pointed out two cauliflowers that I hadn't seen, ready for picking.

We looked at the leeks, the bean trench for next year & the swedes & parsnips, & Helen couldn't help but see the overflowing compost bins, saying, "shouldn't that heap be turned, or something?"

Well, this sounds exactly like something that you should do, and if you were a better and more organised person, you certainly would do, but for the rest of us, it is a hateful job which is to be put off as long as possible.
Bit like deciding what can be turned out of your wardrobe, or cleaning the garage out or doing little sewing repair jobs or defrosting the freezer or something.

She was duly impressed later with some mock lemon curd, though, & a jar of spiced pickled runner beans (I don't think that she is allowed back home without bearing a jar - an absolute hit in their household).

In return I have a jar of their home grown preserved pears (I have already forgotten what they are preserved in - must pay more attention!), & a jar of grape jelly, made from the vine in their garden - brill!

We had a walk round some of the other plots, & went up to the club house for a cup of tea. Reg-next-plot joined us, & eventually cottoned on that my flattery with regard to his wonderful Brussels Sprouts had an ulterior motive...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Side of Plot Progress

Winter is certainly upon us in that it has been cold & damp all week - yesterday was too horrible with freezing drizzle to contemplate a trip to the Hill, but towards lunchtime today it was rather more promising, so off I went.

I was just admiring the ONIONS (electic) sprouting in bed d2, & unloading half a dozen tomato pots from the car in order to empty the compost into the bean trench, when John Badger from the bottom came up complete with festive holly spring on the front of his woolly hat.

"Have you seen your present?" he asked, & pointed over to the side of the shed where three clear demijohns nestled. "They need a bit of a clean up, but I think that they should be ok."

I thanked him profusely, & off he went to the club house. And if he'd stopped there rather longer than he did, I would have gone up & bought him a drink, but by the time I was ready to head up there, he was on his way home. Next time!

I popped the demijohns away in the car, & then the plan was to move the swiss chard from the end of bed d2 across a bit then shorten the bed by 4', & if I had time, to dig up the leeks from the end of bed b2 & heel them in further along so that I could shorten that bed too.

Once this is done it will leave a strip about 6' wide all the way from the front to the back of the plot at neighbour Ted's side.

I want to dig the whole of the strip over before started to put in the 4' wide, 8' long beds (which will be for the fruit & permanent crops) as it's all a bit wonky at the moment and I can take the opportunity to level it all.

The soil is very wet indeed in the beds, & it was the work of a few minutes to relocate the swiss chard, & once I'd shortened the bed, I started to fork the side strip over from the front of the plot back past beds d2, d1 and c2.

It then started to drizzle, so I called it a day, cutting a CABBAGE (kilaxy), some spears of CALABRESE (waltham) & digging half a dozen LEEKS (mrs d) for eating in the week, then back home for a hot bath & the rest of the afternoon spent in front of the fire with a good book.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fair Weather Gardening!

The weather has been pretty 'orrible this weekend, although our extremely squally showers have been nothing compared to the unprecedented rainfall that Bilbo's area of Cumbria has experienced with floods & collapsed bridges. Awful.

The weather has put me off going to the Hill - I'm firmly tucked up in front of the fire at home, & only ventured out briefly yesterday to mum's church's Christmas Fayre. I didn't win the 'guess the number of sweets in a jar', or a prize on the tombola, but I did spy this little book on the bookstall, & snapped it up for 10p.

It's called Adam the Gardener and dates from 1974 - it's the collected weekly newspaper gardening columns from the Sunday Express.

I'm not keen on some suggestions (November jobs include 'treat soil with a fumigant such as naphthalene'), but there are some interesting ideas in there, such as digging up the roots (or tubers) from runner beans & keeping them overwinter for replanting.

Although they are still just as frost tender, they will apparently romp away quicker than seeds sown next year. Now I wish I'd kept a few back as an experiment rather than sticking the whole lot on the compost...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hill Allotments AGM

It was the AGM on Tuesday night, & what a well run, informative & entertaining evening it was too! Quite why only 26 out of 70 plot holders were present I do not know – even if you are not a 'joiner-in' you should attend, I think, if only for the useful information given out.

The main – & most welcome – difference this year was that the meeting was not held in the small back run of the clubhouse, but it the main bar.

This was an enormous improvement on last year as the number of plot holders, family, committee members & others crammed into the little room last year was extremely claustrophobic.

The meeting clipped along at a fair pace with entertaining & informative reports from neighbour Ted (in his role as deputy chairman), secretary Hayden, Scottish George as show secretary & treasurer Mike then committee members were elected or re-elected as appropriate.

Pride of place of the cups & awards was the cup awarded the Hill for the best allotment in Birmingham – so a collective pat on the back there. I was delighted that I was singled out for a mention in the show report, & Jane & I were proud to collect our ‘most improved plot’ cup.

We left after the buffet, reflecting how odd it was to see my fellow plot holders in ‘mufti’!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Solving Wine Problems & a Revelation...

I noticed a funny thing with the apple wine a couple of weeks ago - both apple mk II & mk III were looking decidedly cloudy. That's not 'cloudy' as in 'not clear, a bit foggy looking', but 'cloudy' as in 'fluffy cotton wool, spring lambs' cloudy.

Consulting CJJ Berry, I found that 'tiny jelly blobs which look rather like frogspawn' are the result of a pectin haze - the solution of which seems to involve a lot of complicated laboratory type chemical preparations & procedures, so I bunged a teaspoon of pectolase in each demijohn instead & gave them both a good shake.

I should have added the pectolase at the start of fermentation, it would seem, which would have destroyed the pectin & avoided this problem. Live & learn, eh?

After a couple of weeks, the effect is quite astonishing - both starting to become crystal clear from the top, the clouds sinking to the bottom - brilliant!

I racked the elderberry & apple off tonight - a taste reveals that it's lovely & fruity, although no where near clear yet so I bunged in a teaspoon of pectolase whilst I was at it for good measure.

Having tasted the apple III the other day, the elderberry & apple this evening and having a bottle of this year's parsnip on the go at the weekend, I'm coming to the - admittedly intuitive - conclusion that fruit wines are actually better tasting than vegetable wines...

P.S. I found out where the worst storm of the year went to this weekend - it was busy at my big sister Helen's house on the south coast making a nuisance of itself, so the weather forecasters redeem themselves a little...

Sunday, November 15, 2009


We were promised 'the worst storm of the year' by the weather forecasters earlier this week, & on Friday, yes, it was very rainy & on Saturday it was squally, but today has been lovely.

An example of weather warnings from the Met Office being rather over the top. Yes, it wasn't very nice weather, but as it is the middle of November, I wouldn't have expected to be able to have a picnic either.

The way the forecasters had it earlier in the week, we should all have been cowering under the bed praying that the roof didn't fall in.

In the event, although it was damp underfoot, & not the nicest of days, I did get to the Hill for an hour or so yesterday without any other mishap that to get caught in a shower as I was loading the car to come home.

I dug myself up a PARSNIP (guernsey), which was full of canker; a few LEEKS (mrs d), which were full of the little brown leek moth grubs; & a perfect SWEDE (virtue) before moving on to bed-shortening duties.

In order to bring bed d1 into line, I needed to move the blueberry bush across a few foot - rhubarb Brian had very kindly planted it out in the plot for me whilst I was away & he certainly earned himself a pot of mock lemon curd for that kindness, & next year a pot of blueberry jam too.

I made short work of whipping out the screws from the bed sides & end, then took the 4' lengths of 'side' & stakes away & refixed the 4' end to reduce the overall bed length from 20' to 16'.

I moved on to bed d2, hoofed up the COURGETTE (golden yellow) which has given up the ghost & tidied up the swiss chard. I'm going to have to move this - it's really in the way of shortening this bed, but I'm not sure how it will react to being moved. I guess it has two choices.

The final bed for shortening will be bed b2, which currently has about 30 leeks growing in it at the end I want to work on. I'll try moving these too, I think, by digging them up & heeling them into a trench.

Then I can get stuck into constructing the beds for the permanent crops. It looks like there is room for 5 beds which will be 8' by 4' (for strawberries, raspberries, redcurrant/blackcurrant, asparagus and A N Other which I haven't decided on yet) but I want to level the whole area before I start to put these in, as the ground is all over the place at the moment.

So plenty to be getting on with next weekend - if we don't have storms...

Monday, November 09, 2009

Grape Wine Making

By the time that I mashed the grapes (to which I'd added a crushed campden tablet & a tsp of pectolase per instructions on a homebrew web site), then squeezed them through an old stocking, I had 2.2l of wine juice - I made this up 4.75l & an SG of 1088 with water & 1lb 12oz of sugar.

Whilst I had the wine gubbins out, I racked the apple mk III into a spare demijohn.

Actually, I racked into the same demijohn once it was cleaned out due to the fact that when I was cleaning the spare one, I foolishly did the final rinse with water boiling from the kettle which resulted in a bloody great PING & it shattering.

On the plus side, once the apple wine was safely in an intact demijohn (SG 988), I had a taste & it is extremely promising...

Sunday, November 08, 2009

First Take Your Squash...

...and work out how the devil to get into the damn thing in order to make the planned batch of Mock Lemon Curd.

This was very difficult indeed.

The good news is that I do still have the requisite number of fingers & the operation did give me a comprehensive upper body workout, although the air was turned quite blue.

Once the squash was chopped & steamed, I thinly peeled the lemon rind from 10 lemons (careful use of the potato peeler here), juiced the lemons & blitzed all this up in the food processor.

I put this into the maslin pan with the butter & sugar, simmered for half an hour & potting it up.

I ran out of pots when I got to 19 & the last bit had to go in a soup bowl to be eaten up first. That's a lot of mock lemon curd.

In fact, more than enough to eat at every single meal for the next twelve months, I think - even allowing for giving away as Christmas gifts to virtually everyone I know.

And that's not all.

As this was the smallest of the three olive squash, lovely as it is, I can't possibly make more - so what on earth shall I do with the others...?

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Kind Deeds & Designs...

A sunny but cold day today, so I had to keep moving in order to keep the blood flowing - this not as easy as it sounds with Reg-next-plot & teacher Barry both at the plot to chat to when I arrived & John Badger from the bottom on the way past soon after.

By the shed, JB had very kindly left me a 5 gallon brew barrel containing a demijohn (fab - I have none spare at the moment), bungs, corks, filters & a number of other brewing bits & bobs - brilliant!

I set about taking down the bean poles - the bean structure has worked well, & I'll do this design again.

It was a right fiddle taking it down though - because the thin horizontal wires I used to help keep the canes in line were not robust enough, they snapped in a number of places & had to be repaired during the late summer, which made the whole thing a bit of a jumble. Lessons for next year, I think.

I persevered, & stacked the canes to bring home to store, unfastened the end supports, put the dead stems in the bean trench, rough dug the bed, then shortened the bed by 4' in line with the other beds, which will enable me to build permanent crop beds in the space left towards neighbour Ted.

This side still has three beds to be shortened - I need to eat the leeks in bed b2, the swiss chard in bed d2 before I can finish this job, & then level the ground and decide whether the new permanent beds will be 4' or 8' by 4'.

There's no rush - it's this year's Winter Job, and I enjoy the planning of it too.

Home to get 6lb of grapes out the freezer ready for wine making, now I have a demijohn to ferment it in...

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Mock Lemon Curd Prep

Here's the smallest of my three olive squash which I'm going to cook up into mock lemon curd at the weekend.

I'm trying to work out just how many jars I'm going to need to pot it up, and thought that if I put the quantities down with the method, then some bright spark might be able to advise.

My squash weighs 11lb as it is, and according to Xanthe Clay's 'It's Raining Plums' (which my big sister Helen bought me for Christmas and is excellent) a squash yields two thirds of it's weight in usable flesh, so we'll call that 7½ lb, and to that I'll need just less than that weight of sugar, half as many again lemons as squash, and an eighth of the weight of squash in butter.

So with a bit of rounding up and down for convenience - and also adjusting after consulting Nic's blog, here's what I'll be making.

Mock Lemon Curd

7 lb 8oz peeled, seeded and cubed squash
6 lb sugar
1 lb butter
10 lemons - grated rind and juice

Steam the squash till tender (about an hour) then leave to drain overnight
Mash (or liquidise) the squash with rind grated from the lemons & lemon juice
Simmer squash, lemon rind & juice, sugar & butter for 20mins, stirring constantly
Pot up

All I've got to work out is how to chop the damn thing up!

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Lovely News!

The weather forecast for the weekend proved spot on, in that Saturday was a better day for being outside than Sunday. Too right - if I'd gone to the Hill today instead I would have been blown all the way home again!

So it was T-shirt weather yesterday - especially after a bit of light forking of the two miscellaneous beds (d1 & d2) at the front of the plot. I dug up the CUCUMBER plants but left the COURGETTE in place as it still seems to be producing the odd fruit.

The squash plants that were also in these beds didn't leave much room for weeds to grow, so it didn't take long to prepare the soil & plant out some overwintering ONIONS (electric & yellow senshuyi) & the bigger cloves from a couple of bulbs of GARLIC.

I saw that novice neighbour Jody had been busy on his plot, and he arrived soon after me with news that Mrs J had a little girl last Friday, mother and baby both doing well. Congratulations all round!

He has dug a shallow trench across his plot, and when I asked him what it was for he said, "it's for my elephant garlic - Reg-next-plot told me to plant them in a trench, and if Reg says that's the way to do it, that's good enough for me."

That seems sensible - Reg grows cracking veg. Jody then spread lime, saying "Reg's told me to add a load of lime too."

When I asked if the trench was so he could earth up the garlic (although I've never heard of this before), he said, "I have no idea - Reg hasn't said yet." Fair enough.

John Badger passed by on his way home - we chatted about the grapes & have decided that I should make grape wine, & not mix it with other fruit, & he even asked if I wanted a 5 gallon fermenting bucket, a demijohn & a couple of other bits & pieces - I'll say so! Hurrah!

I dug up the first of the SWEDE (virtue) which looks very respectable, a couple of disappointingly forked PARSNIP (hsl guernsey) & a couple of LEEKS (mrs d).

Potager Chrissie came down for a chat & we discussed the pilot project the site has undertaken whereby a couple of the full allotments have been split into quarter plots.

There are pros & cons here - personally, I think that a quarter plot is neither here nor there - you wouldn't have much room to grow, or room for a shed or greenhouse - however, I suppose that people will be able to see if they like having an allotment, and can maybe more to a bigger plot if they do.

Mind you, it's also a jolly convenient way for the Council to reduce the number of people on the waiting lists without the expense & bother of setting up new allotment sites...

I thought about this whilst I dug a bean trench for next year - the compost bins are way beyond full, so the plan is to take the excess off the top of the heap, putting it and any other weeds and other compostable stuff in the trench which will rot down & be covered over in Spring to form a good water retaining layer for the beans next year.

I finished up by roughly forking over the next section between the beds & the boundary with Neighbour Ted - I'll make beds in this area for fruit this winter, but in the mean time, the weeds are hell bent on making it their own...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wine Combo?

I'm in a bit of a conundrum with regard to the grape wine that I've planned to make with JB's green grapes.

Of course, country wines are generally made by extracting the juice of about 3lb of fruit (or veg), adding water & sugar to make a gallon or so, then fermenting from there, but if you were in a vineyard, you would be extracting the juice from grapes (think feet here), adding yeast, & off you go.

The problem is that I only have about 6lb of grapes when you need 12lb to 14lb grapes to get a gallon of grape juice.

But I do have apples in the garage & redcurrants in the freezer.

So - I'm really not sure whether to treat the grapes as any other fruit, adding water & sugar to the juice OR to say that I have enough grapes for half a batch, so a couple of pounds of the other fruit (with water & sugar) would make up the other half to make - say - grape & apple wine.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Communication Breakdown!

When I went to the Hill on Sunday, John Badger again asked me to pick the grapes on the vine in his greenhouse so I can turn them into wine. I again said that I'd be glad to when they are ripe.

"But they've been ripe for ages - if you don't get a move on they'll be over!" he insisted.

"But they're still bright green - not a hint of purple - nowhere near ripe," I puzzled.

"What are you talking about? They are really ripe & sweet - they are GREEN GRAPES, you daft beggar!"


So I cut all the bunches of grapes into a big bag & then back home I picked & sorted all the grapes & have put them in the freezer for the moment, a wine session pending.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

All Change!

To find out what’s been happening at the Hill in my absence, I headed straight to the bottom of the site this morning where I found John Badger, returning allotmenteer Christine & rhubarb Brian all enjoying a cup of tea in the autumn sunshine.

It’s the end of the allotment year at the Hill with renewals due & some new faces, & - it would appear - a game of musical allotments going on whilst I’ve been away.

Ian at the bottom who was behind JB has now moved up to somewhere near the clubhouse; Butterfly Bula has moved from the tree-shaded front of plot 10 to Ian’s old plot, & then there are new people in at her old plot – & all of this just on our bottom half of the site.

And then there are the proposed committee changes which will be voted on come the AGM in November.

All that chit chat wasn’t getting anything else done & my time was limited, so I went up to the top & collected my prize pumpkin from the polytunnel where Jason (behind retired Maureen) had kindly taken it up for the weigh-in the other weekend. At 31lb 12oz in weight it didn’t come anywhere near Treasurer Mike’s winning 77lb monster, but not a bad effort. Anyway, it was bloody heavy to carry back down to the car.

A couple of frosty nights have done for all the squash foliage, leaving all the fruits like beached whales, so I cleared the vines from the bed & put them on the overfull compost bin, & collected up all the squash & put them back in the back of the car too. Much more Mock Lemon Curd in the offing, I think.

Before I headed off, I picked some CALABRESE (Waltham), a CABBAGE (kilaxy f1) & a huge LEEK (mrs d).

With the clocks having changed this weekend putting paid to any after-work trips to the Hill for the next few months, weekend pickings will have to provide enough fresh veg for the week – but with swede, leek, sprouts, parsnip, cabbage & kale all in the ground, that shouldn’t be a problem, I hope.

Friday, October 09, 2009

If You Can't Beat 'Em...

...join 'em!

So tonight I gave in and had fish & chips from the chippy - yum yum!

I'm taking a break from the blog for a little while, but I'm sure that I'll be back before you know it!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

...And Some You Don't

Bouyed up by last night's fabulous curried pumpkin risotto, I thought that I'd enjoy it again for dinner tonight.

No such luck - the basmati rice I used (as I'd run out of risotto rice) was gloopy & startchy, I forgot to add a little salt to the pan, & the peas that I added to were undercooked and mealy.

In fact, the best bit was the added spoonful of Duchy Original's onion marmalade ...

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Some You Win!

Sometimes you cook a nice meal, sometimes you cook a great meal, & every now & again you cook an absolute corker - & all the better if it is unexpected and made from all your own home grown ingredients - and tonight was such a night!

So, I took a portion of curried pumpkin soup out of the freezer - which was made by chopping & roasting pumpkin, then adding it to a pan of gently fried onion & garlic with a spoon of rogan josh, adding some stock & gently simmering for ages.

Then I added this to a some risotto rice & a little more stock & put it into a buttered dish & cooked it in a slow oven for an hour.


Monday, October 05, 2009


I nipped to the Hill this evening in the dusk to see if there were any grapes to pick from John Badger at the bottom's vine - I've promised him I'll make wine from his grapes if he wants me to - but there were none ripe, so hopefully he's been picking & freezing them (or eating them!).

I have about 3 good size bunches to add from my vine here in the courtyard garden - red grapes, pippy, but sweet.

I picked all of the FRENCH BEAN (contender) whilst I was there, & the pods are now drying with the myriad of others up in the spare room - I'm podding them as they dry and soon will have jars of black, red, speckled, indigo, creamy white & mauve beans, some to swap and grow next year, more to eat over winter.

I think that I've picked the last of the courgette - they have been brilliant - I must have had 20 off each plant, & they've cropped from the middle of July until now.

I came home & picked all the red tomatoes from the six plants in buckets - there are maybe two dozen more green ones which I will pick soon to ripen on the windowsills - & knocked them up into a ratatouille with the courgette, homegrown red & white onion, garlic & basil.

That's destined for the freezer for a taste of summer in the cold winter months...

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Complicated Wine Workings...

CJJ Berry's First Steps in Winemaking has been a most useful reference & recipe book - if at times a bit hard going with the theory.

For example, I've always thought that he spends forever banging on about whys & wherefores of testing the specific gravity (SG) of a wine - & I equally always thought that it was easy peasy just to test a sample of wine at whatever stage, & read the number off the hydrometer, which in turn allows you to measure the alcohol content of the wine.

Then I had a bit of a lightbulb moment as to why what I'm doing isn't exactly accurate...

When you start off with your 'must' in a bucket, it comprises fruit (which contains some natural sugar), extra sugar (&/or grape concentrate) to bump the sugar level up to give the yeast something to feed on & water making a total of about a gallon (or so), & then you measure a sample of this which gives you the starting SG.

What you are measuring is how sugary the 'must' is - the more syrupy/sugary/gloopy the 'must', the higher the SG reading will be. Water measures 1.ooo - a nice sugary must will be somewhere in the region of 1.100.

As the yeast scoffs the sugar it converts it into lighter-than-water alcohol meaning that the wine because less heavy & sweet, & more light & alcoholy, & the SG falls. The yeast eats sugar until it runs out & starves, or it has produced so much alcohol that it poisons itself, & dies (a lesson to us all, I think!).

At this point the fermentation has stopped, & the alcohol level in the resultant wine is the difference between the start & finish SG divided by 7.36.

But - & here's the rub - the volume of liquid that you measure the SG of must be the same at the first & last readings or else you have changed the goalposts & the final reading will not be accurate. I always have less wine at the end than I had 'must' at the beginning because every time the wine is racked you leave some behind (with the settled out 'yuk'), so the overall volume falls.

So where does that leave me? I have settled on making each batch of wine = 4.75litres - I've measured and marked the demijohn with the level. When I siphon it off each time & lose a bit, I'll make the bit I've lost back up to this volume with water, then measure the SG (you should keep some of the original must to one side to make up any shortfall, but life's a bit short).

The wine should taste the same - slightly diluted will just mean it's less lethal - & this way I'll always be able to produce six bottles per batch - with a bit left over as 'perks' - but the label on the front showing the strength will be rather more accurate...

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Yep - Definitely Autumn

Another surprisingly efficient morning at the Hill today - I had a plan & stuck to it - brill!

Of course, part of my efficacy was due to the fact that it was extremely cool & blustery - I forgot my woolly hat - & it was not a great day to be outdoors, which did encourage me to get on with it.

I picked all of the FRENCH BEANS (cherokee trail of tears, blauhilde, birds egg/barlotti, emperor of russia, delinel, talisman, triomphe de farcy & fortel) - all in separate bags with clear labels.

Then I picked a CUCUMBER (tasty burpless) & the remaining SWEETCORN (tender & true f1) & dug up the plants.

Then I came home.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Changing Seasons

Although still very dry, it is starting to feel quite autumnal, with the leaves changing colour, the conkers from the tree at home rattling down meaning every trip to the garage is made under fire, & the nights becoming noticeably cooler.

I nipped to the Hill with mum tonight, who hasn't been to the Hill for some weeks - I picked a few FRENCH BEANS (bird's egg/barlotti) whilst mum commented on the sparseness of the pansies at the front of the plot, & the size of the squash (olive) & the prize pumpkins.

I dropped her off home & took the opportunity to raid the dry pods from the salmon flowered peas that she's had growing in her little patch. I did well there - it's only because she's been away that the plants were left to die back - she's a tidy gardener & had she been home, they'd be long gone!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Wine Wisdom...

I do like the fact that wine making is such a relaxed occupation. If you are too busy & don't have time to attend to your wines, then no worries - they will look after themselves, bubbling away, clearing or maturing until you have time to see what they are up to.

Admittedly, they won't thank you for sitting forever in their own dead yeast, but a week or two either way isn't going to be critical.

Alternatively, if you see sediment on the bottom of the demijohn & you have a spare half hour, then you can siphon the good stuff into a bucket (leaving the 'yuck' behind), see what the SG is currently at, have a taste, then bung it though back via a funnel into the cleaned demijohn.

Pop the airlock back in & nod in the satisfaction of a job well done.

This I did with apple mk II last night - it's still fizzing very slightly, but I thought I'd rack it off so I could measure the SG. I found it to be an astonishingly desiccated 984 - so I added 4oz of sugar which raised it to a more drinkable SG of 994, & will let it get on with it for a few days...

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Charity Begins ... At The Shops!

I had a stroke of luck at lunchtime. Although charity shops don't often keep demijohns as they are big & fragile, it's worth asking when you go by, & today one of our local shops had three - two brown & a clear.

"I wish you'd take them all off my hands, blooming big wotsits," grumbled the assistant, but I only wanted the clear one really. I was glad of my decision when she charged me £1.99 for the one - well over the going rate in my view! That made me feel a bit mean - perhaps you shouldn't begrudge the money going to such a good cause. But the last ones were only 50p each.

Anyway, with that prize in my grasp, it does mean that I can get another batch of wine underway - I'm rushing though as many batches of apple wine as I can, as there's still quite a boxful in the garage & it would be such a shame for them to go off.

I set about Apple mkIII, chopping 6lb of apples & simmering in water for 15 mins then straining onto 2 1/2 lbs of sugar & the rind of a lemon. It's cooling now, & I'll add concentrate, lemon juice, yeast nutrient & yeast when it has cooled tomorrow.

There's about 4lb of apples left in the box, so maybe apple & redcurrant wine for the next experiment - then I think that is quite enough for the time being!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bean Planting Plan...

I made a quick trip to the Hill this evening to pick drying bean pods - blauhilde, triomphe de farcy & bird's egg (or were they climbing barlotti...?)

Although I was quite sensible in planting total different varieties side by side down each side of the bean frame, so I could easily tell which variety is which, I wasn't quite so clever in making sure that totally different varieties were grown opposite each other.

Some of the beans sneaked up their opposite counterpart's poles - which is fine when you have two sets of beans like 'polish' (heavy black streaked pods) and 'pea bean' (greeny-yellow pod), as they are easy to tell apart when picking.

But if they are very similar varieties - like 'bird's egg' & 'climbing barlotti', well they are pretty indistinguishable inside and out. I can't be sure I've kept them separate so I've bunged them all in together.

They'll still taste as good, I'm sure, & if I do want 'proper' seed for next year I'll worry about it nearer the time - it's not like I'm short of varieties to try...

Monday, September 28, 2009

What's In A Name?

I sent an email to John-the-accountant the other day asking him if he liked lemon curd. "You bet!" he replied, so I've looked out a jar of the marrow cream to take with me next time I see him.

Then it struck me that it me that although he said that he loved lemon curd - & the marrow cream tastes like lemon curd - I can't see him & his family tucking into marrow cream with quite the same gusto.

Given the amount of squash I plan to use for this purpose, & given it tastes great but has an unattactive name - I think I need to give it a re-brand. All suggestions as to what as, are most welcome...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Notes & Queries

I put the elderberry & apple wine into one demijohn this afternoon & measured the SG whilst I was at it. It's down to 994, & still fermenting, so this is set to be another dry one unless I do something.

I added a couple of ounces of sugar (which has raised the SG to 998), & I might add a bit more in a few days as I think that I should probably be aiming for a finished SG of just under 1.000.

Twinsane has asked me about the baked beans that I made yesterday - it was nominally taken from 1000 classic recipes p172 (a cookery book that has had much use over the years despite no pictures and a rubbish index), but I did tweak it a little - and I made half of these quantities. Here it is in full:

Home-Made Baked Beans

450g haricot beans, soaked overnight & drained (I used bird's egg & barlotti)
(actually the recipe says 450 haricot beans, but I presume that I wasn't supposed to count them and the 'g' had been left off by mistake)
2 bay leaves
4 cloves
2tbsp black treacle or molasses (I used treacle)
1/2 pt water
1 tbsp plain flour
1 tbsp milk
pinch basil, salt & pepper
225g tomatoes skinned & chopped.
I added in a 225g pack of smoked lardons, & a generous squeeze of tomato puree.
  • Simmer beans, bay leaves & cloves for an hour & a half, drain & discard bay leaves & cloves
  • Dilute treacle with water & mix in flour made into a paste with the milk
  • Add basil & seasoning
  • Put beans in greased casserole dish cover with tomatoes & the sauce & bake on gas 4 for an hour.
Lovely! It freezes well, too.

Finally, Veg Heaven commented the other day that the 'polish' french beans looked similar to the 'bird's egg' variety.
They are about the same size, with the same markings, but as the photo here (just about!) shows, they have different background colours - mauve for the polish on the left, creamy for the bird's egg on the right.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bean Feast!

I wanted to get a load more of the beans picked today - it's still dry & sunny - & then I thought I might tackle the next gooseberry bush & continue tidying that side of the plot ready for putting the permanent crop beds in at some point over the winter.

In the event I didn't do any of the latter items, but I did get more than I bargained for bean-wise.

I picked a carrier bag each of FRENCH BEANS (birds egg, cherokee trail of tears & black turtle beans) & as I finished this, indomitable Fran, cup in hand, called over. "Here's a cup of tea for you, & would you like to help yourself to as many as you like of the seed from our climbing beans?"

Fabulous on both counts, obviously.

"The beans are a flat yellow bean - not sure what they are now, might have been 'hunter'." All of the beans were very dry & the pods rattled - I picked a good carrier bag full, & found that the seeds are quite small - but I was thrilled when I started to pod them later to find that they are a beautiful pure white haricot - can't wait to start cooking with those.

I then took the netting off the brassicas and picked about a million caterpillars which are intent on scoffing the cabbage, sprouts & calabrese - one of which had a small head forming with I cut for tea tonight.

I took a couple of SQUASH (red kuri), SWEETCORN (tender & sweet) & a CUCUMBER (tasty burpless) down to John Badger at the bottom for his hamper that he will be raffling at the club house tomorrow, along with a pot each of runner bean & beetroot & jerusalem artichoke chutney, then came home.

I shelled the driest of the various french beans, then set about turning the beans which had been soaking overnight into baked beans. They need ages to cook, but it's an easy recipe & taste is cracking - bring on the beans!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Beanz Meanz...Well, Not Heinz, Anyway!

Now that I have a serious quantity of beans, I thought I'd better look for a serious number of bean recipes. Baked beans seems a pretty good choice to start with so I've found a recipe which includes treacle & tomatoes & half a pound of climbing barlotti beans which are soaking overnight ready to cook tomorrow.

Of course I've always looked at beans as being a bit of padding with not a lot of taste, but vegetarians have to eat something & they're OK if you like that sort of thing, but give me a steak any day.

I do give them their place with sausages, or in a stew or to make mince go a bit further, but it's only now that I come to look at some recipes, that I have rather more enthusiasm.

By chance, I caught the end of a Jamie Oliver programme C4 this evening & - damn me - if he wasn't cooking barlotti beans too in a delicious looking dish which I must have a go at too.

Wonder if I've grown enough beans...?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Autumn Harvest!

It's been so dry in September that I know that I'll have to keep an eye on the beans drying on the plants - I don't want to find that all the pods have split open & the beans have re-sown themselves!

So I popped to the Hill this evening - just for half an hour, it's pretty much dusk at 7pm now. I was right to be concerned about the beans - although some stalwarts still have tender pods for eating (notably the FRENCH BEAN (purple giant) so I picked a few of these for tea), others are dry & rattly & more that ready for harvesting.

So I started to strip some of the varieties of FRENCH BEANS (polish, early warwick & pea bean), then picked some sweetcorn cobs (which I've frozen), COURGETTE (golden yellow & all green bush) & a CUCUMBER (tasty burpless)

The beans are spread out upstairs on newspaper for the pods to dry further (these are some of the drier ones podded - polish on the left, pea bean on the right), then they can be podded & stored in jars ready for all those wonderful winter casseroles.

Pretty, ain't they?
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