Friday, 15 February 2019

OUR ALLOTMENT - Life on the Weald February 2019

OUR ALLOTMENT - Life on the Weald Early February 2019

February started with a mixture of sub-zero temperatures and torrential rain so there was little prospect of early progress outdoors so we concentrated on what we could do indoors.

I started chitting some First Early potatoes - Duke of York - in a cold room indoors

Duke of York First Earlies - 3 February
In January, I had sown some broad beans in covered trays outdoors but they became waterlogged and then froze solid without any chance of germinating or recovery.

Demise of the broad beans
 It was comparatively warm in the conservatory as the ripening Habaneros show

Chill peppers - Habaneros
I thought I would make up for lost time and sow some Aquadulce broad beans indoors.
I used seeds that we had saved from last year's crop and, having discarded any that were damaged or attacked by pests, most seem to have germinated.

Between showers we managed to get up to the plot to feed the worms and drain the blueberries, whose pots had become waterlogged, and review progress.

We picked some cavolo nero but it is beginning to go to seed so our supply is coming to an end.  But the good news is that the Early Purple Sprouting Broccoli is sprouting! 

Purple sprouting broccoli - 9 February
 And we have a plentiful supply of leeks which, thankfully, are disease free and have not succumbed to the virus which seems to have infected several other sites in Brighton and Hove.

Leeks - 9 February
I had put the seed trays with the broad beans in the coldest room in the loft with an overhead window.  The result was that the beans grew very tall and straight - or a bit leggy!
I hardened them off outside in anticipation of a warm day for planting out.

Broad beans hardening off 12 February
Fortunately, the weather changed for the better on 12 February and it was almost spring-like. The following day was also dry and sunny, so we took the opportunity of planting them out .
Broad beans 13 February
With more than a little help from Sylvi, we cleared the area around the blueberries and began to clear a patch for planting the First Early Potatoes.

Getting prepared for first potatoes
We had begun to pick purple sprouting broccoli earlier in the month and I am very thankful that I remembered to net the plants to keep off the pigeons.  A week or so after our first picking, more strong healthy sprouts had grown which will provide us with a good haul for the weekend.

Purple sprouting broccoli, netted - 13 February
The onions, garlic and shallots are looking good - especially the shallots

Shallots - 13 February
We have also been busy weeding around the blackcurrant bushes but some were so choked with couch grass that I actually lifted them, cleared the couch grass and replanted them with a dressing of blood, fish and bone and pruned them.

Blackcurrants fruit on newer wood so it is OK to cut back some of the branches fairly hard to encourage new growth and new shoots. It is advisable to cut down about a quarter of the old stems to just above the soil and remove any weak or diseased stems and any that cross over the centre of the bush. Redcurrants, on the other hand fruit on the older wood so need to be pruned differently.  Obviously it is advisable to remove any dead, diseased or damaged stems to keep an open bush. Redcurrant bushes can grow very large so to keep them at a manageable size I removed about 10cms from the growing stems and cut out some of the older ones to keep an open bush.  I have acquired a small fruit cage (having lost the entire crop to the birds last year) and it is just over 1m high so this determined how far back I needed to prune the branches.  Similar pruning is needed for gooseberries - remove the 3-Ds - damaged, diseased or dead branches; cut out cross branches and then lightly prune the remaining ones. It is advisable to wear gloves when pruning gooseberries!

I am also busy indoors this month. Outdoor cucumbers would normally be sown outdoors in May but some varieties can be sown indoors in February or March and planted out in May producing early fruits in July.  I'm trying Mr Fothergill's Marketmore this year but am also sowing some Spanish Pepino Marketer seeds for a later crop.  Leeks can also be sown indoors in February for planting out in May or June.  I'm sowing some Musselburgh which is a tried and tested, reliable variety.   I am also starting off some early peas indoors and some Habanero chilli peppers from seeds harvested from last year's crop.

Once we have cleared and prepared enough space for the potatoes the next task will be to dismantle the frames which were used for growing runner beans and cucumbers last year and clear that space for the brassicas.  The runner bean frames need some tlc and I need to dig a couple of trenches where the beans will be planted and fill them with kitchen waste and old newspapers - this will help provide nutrients but also help with water retention which is particularly important if you don't want tough, stringy beans.  I recall that in the 70s we buried an old flock mattress under the beans on the Cherry Orchard allotment in Charlton. I haven't seen a flock mattress in years, soit will just be newspapers and kitchen waste this year.

I don't have any pictures of the Charlton beans but I have found a photo of one of the cabbages.

Charlton cabbage 1970s
To avoid any confusion, the cabbage is in the foreground, the others are two of my children!

Absolutely nothing to do with the allotment but we had a night out for St Valentine's for the Labour Party down at Fat Boy Slim's Big Beach Cafe where I drank a toast to the Queen in Chocolate

The Queen was in chocolate - my drink was a little more alcoholic. There's always a raffle at a Labour Party social and we were able to offload some of our jam and marmalade as prizes - and we won someone else's picalilli!

It has been a busy couple of weeks so I'll close this blog and start a fresh one for the second half of the month.

John Austin

Hove 15 February 2019

Monday, 11 February 2019

OUR ALLOTMENT - Life on the Weald January 2019

OUR ALLOTMENT - Life on the Weald January 2019

The weather in January has not been helpful!  Apart from heavy rain, we also experienced one of the coldest spells on record.

We have ventured to the plot a few times - mostly to feed the worms and pick some cavolo nero and kale which is still producing.  The cavolo nero is about to flower, so we are on our last pickings but it has been a useful and very productive crop - cut and come again!

We have also been lifting leeks as and when we need them and they should last us well into February.

There is a large hole to be filled where we removed the Cardoon and then we need to clear that area for the potatoes.

The Cardoon is no more!

 I have continued the crop rotation plan and will be planting potatoes where the brassicas were last year; courgettes, cucumbers and beans where the potatoes were; and leeks and brassicas where the beans and courgettes were.

Some of the raised beds have already been planted with broad beans, onions, shallots and garlic and the others will be used for more broad beans, peas and beetroot.

The worms had been very active over Christmas and New Year and have produced some wonderful nitrogen rich compost which we have begun to add to the empty raised beds.

Contents of wormery spread on raised bed
We will leave the worms to continue their good work ready for planting out from March onwards.

Towards the end of last year we added a layer of bark and tree prunings where the rhubarb is and by early January it was showing through.  I will add another mulch of well rotted compost.

Despite the adverse weather, there are other signs of life - the onions are doing well but the weeds are also beginning to grow, so some hand-weeding will be needed next month.

Onions - 9 January
 The broad beans sown in November are looking healthy and I just need to sow a few more to fill the odd gap and prepare a bed to sow some more.

Broad beans - January

John Austin

Hove, January 2019

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

OUR ALLOTMENT - Life on the Weald December 2018

OUR ALLOTMENT - Life on the Weald December 2018

As expected, little time was spent on the allotment in December.  A combination of pre-Christmas activity and very wet weather conspired to keep us away.

We did make a few visits, however, to harvest the results of our labours and to feed the worms.  We have three wormeries on the go and feed them most of our kitchen waste.  I expect we will have lots of worm compost to add to the raised beds in January.

Most crops have not fared so well this year because of the mixture of summer drought and heavy rains at other times, but we have a plentiful supply of green crops for the winter - kale, chard and spinach and the purple sprouting broccoli should be sprouting soon.

The Broad Beans planted in October/November are just showing through and I will think about covering them with a layer of straw or fleece if a cold snap is predicted.

Broad beans (Aquadulce) 2 December
We have also been lifting leeks as and when we need them.  We are fortunate that we have not seen an infestation of alium worm which appears to be prevalent on other allotments in the Brighton and Hove area.

Leeks 2 December with purple kale in foreground

The onion sets, garlic and shallots planted last month are looking good and I must ensure we keep them as weed-free as possible this year

Onions 15 December

Shallots 11 December 

We managed to harvest some sprouts for Christmas Day.......

.... and also some new potatoes which we had grown in tubs, planted in the summer

New potatoes on Christmas Day

In addition to the sprouts, which we cooked with smoked bacon and chestnuts, we served a mixture of steamed greens, all from the allotment; chard, cavolo nero, purple kale, Brussels tops and leaves from the purple sprouting broccoli.  We had bought a cauliflower, a Swede (or as my northern wife calls it, turnip) and some King Edwards for the roast potatoes - yes Jamie Oliver, King Edwards and not Maris Piper - sorry we have to disagree on this one - save your Maris for the mash!  And we had lifted our own parsnips - not as large as last year but beautifully sweet, as well as leeks and some carrots we had also grown in a tub.  So not counting the spuds, I think we had eleven vegetables for Christmas dinner.

It might be a while before we get back to the plot but we have started planning our crop rotation - just trying to remember what was where in 2018:

Happy New Year and good gardening.

John Austin

Hove , December 2019

Thursday, 29 November 2018

OUR ALLOTMENT - Life on the Weald November 2018

OUR ALLOTMENT - Life on the Weald November 2018

The first few days of November saw the demise of our Halloween pumpkin which we had hoped might dry out and be kept but alas it collapsed

We had taken out as much of the flesh as we could and had several meals of pumpkin curry and spicy pumpkin soup but had loads left over.  We pureed and froze some....

.... we made pumpkin bread...

and we saved the seeds....

...which we coated in cumin, coriander and paprika and roasted

Surprisingly, at the beginning of the month we were also able to harvest the last of the outdoor ridge cucumbers, which were excellent

We have a plentiful supply of cavolo nero, purple kale and spinach which will keep going through the winter months and the purple sprouting broccoli is looking fine.  We have covered the broccoli with netting which we hope will keep the pigeons off and stop them pecking off the flowering heads when they come.

There was much work to be done in November.  In September, I had started to get the beds ready for the onions, garlic and shallots as I intended to use autumn/winter planting sets. I had spread a mixture of compost from the wormeries and grass cuttings in the raised beds and added some top soil.  In October, I had forked this in with some top soil and now have raked it finely, lightly dressed with bonemeal and this month I have planted the sets - two varieties of onion, one yellow (Autumn Champion), one red (Electric); two varieties of garlic (Eden Rose and Printanour); and two varieties of shallot  (Griselle and Longor). It is necessary to keep an eye on the bulbs after planting as birds and other animals tend to lift them before they have rooted and if so they need to be re-planted.  

The middle of November has seen quite a lot of rain and most of the sets planted seem to have rooted.

With Luke's help we have removed the cardoon, although we may not have been able to get all the roots out as they went so deep but we now have a large hole to fill and an area to weed and dig ready for next year's brassicas.

The hole where once the cardoon grew

One of our neighbours has given us a few medlars, an old English fruit not seen much these days, and we need to find something to do with them.  They are a bit like apples but are very hard and acidic and not very pleasant when picked from the tree.  They need to be "bletted"  i.e. stored until they begin to rot and then they become soft an sweet.  I think we will try making medlar jam or jelly for which you need mostly bletted fruit but also some hard unripe ones for the pectin to get the jam/jelly to set.


Dog's arse

Given the laborious process of bletting to make them edible and their appearance and nick-name - Chaucer and Shakespeare refer to medlars as "open-arse" fruits; their name in French is cul du chien (dog's arse) - is it any wonder that they have fallen out of fashion!

Whilst waiting for the medlars to ripen, there is much to be done on the plot.  The leeks are faring well but need frequent hand weeding, and although they were planted out  quite deeply, I am earthing them up a little to increase the white proportion.

I have also experienced some problems with the black currants that I planted when we first got the allotment two years ago.  In a hurry to transplant them we didn't clear the area of weeds as well as we should so they have faced a problem of being choked by couch grass and bindweed.  Also in the rush to get things started two years ago, the raised beds are in odd positions and look untidy.  So this month I have lifted two of the currant bushes and moved one of the raised beds to where they were and have replanted the fruit bushes where the raised bed was.  We removed all the annual weeds, thoroughly dug the area and removed as much of the bindweed and couch grass as possible.  We added some good compost to the holes where we planted the currants and gave a top dressing of blood,fish and bone.

Where we relocated the raised bed, there is a Brussels sprout plant so we put a layer of cardboard down around it and covered the whole area where the frame would go with cardboard (and a little beyond) and lifted the frame over it.  The cardboard will help to retain moisture in the raised bed, will prevent perennial weeds such as bindweed from coming through and will eventually rot down.  On top of the cardboard we added a layer of compost from the wormery plus some of the soil from where the raised bed had previously been and also dug in some fresh lawn clippings.

We laid more cardboard around the raised bed and covered this with a dense mulch of woodchips and hedge trimmings which we use on all our pathways and between beds. If you are using wood chippings, make sure they are from a reliable source and disease free - we get ours through the allotment society and they come from a reputable local tree surgeon.

November is a good time to plant blackcurrants and unlike other fruit trees/bushes, they can be planted deeply with some of the stem below the surface as this will encourage the growth of new stems from the base.

Having transplanted the currants, I will apply a mulch, give them a chance to re-establish themselves and hard prune them in January. 

The second half of November has seen torrential rain and little opportunity to do much more work on the plot and our infrequent visits have been to feed the worms and harvest the greens.

But we haven't been idle as the medlars have ripened well (bletted

bletted medlars
and we have spent time in the kitchen making medlar jelly.

I suspect we will get little done in December due to the weather and the usual pre-Xmas panic, but hopefully we will be almost self-sufficient in veg.

John Austin

Hove, November 2018

Tuesday, 27 November 2018



Something new to meddle with - 

"A fruit, vulgarly called an open arse; of which it is more truly than delicately said, that it is never ripe till it is as rotten as a turd, and then it is not worth a fart." 18Century Anon

Welcome to the world of Medlars!

European Medlars

A friend has provided us with some medlars from a local tree

Medlar tree, Hove 
 The Common or European Medlar has been around for centuries and appears to have been popular in England before sugar was available.  The fruits are hard and sour and do not ripen on the tree and cannot be eaten straight from picking.  

Freshly picked medlars
They need to be “bletted” i.e. stored in a cool dark place until they begin to go soft and brown or just beginning to decay when the flesh becomes sweet and can be spooned out.  They are suitable for making making jam or jelly – but still require bletting first.

Although called the European Medlar (its botanical name being Mespilus germanica i.e. German Medlar), it appears to have come originally from Persia and according to the Royal Horticultural Society there are several varieties available in the UK.

The French call the medlar cul du chien (translation: dog’s arse)

Shakespeare called the fruits “open-arse”  which, I am informed*, could have referred not to an arse but rather female genitalia - which makes more sense when reading Mercutio's misogynistic remarks in Romeo and Juliet regarding Rosaline's "quivering thigh
And the demesnes that there adjacent lie"

Mercutio goes on to say:

If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
Now will he sit under a medlar tree
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.— 
O Romeo, that she were, O, that she were
An open-arse, thou a pop'rin pear.

I don't recall any of that from my English Literature O Level notes! (for younger readers O Levels were what is now known as GCSE - but harder!!!!).

D H Lawrence described medlars as "autumnal excrementa"

I posted the D H Lawrence poem ("Medlars and Sorb-Apples) on Facebook – it goes on for several stanzas - and it drew this response from my daughter, Zoë, 

Blimey! Bit deep for a fruit” –

Here’s an excerpt

"Delicious rottenness.
I love to suck you out from your skins So brown and soft and coming suave....."

- So here’s this fruit which the French thinks looks like a dog’s arse, Shakespeare likens to  a vagina, Lawrence calls excrement and which can’t be eaten until it’s rotting – little wonder that it has fallen out of fashion!  

But, nevertheless, D H Lawrence loved them and others say they’re delicious, so as mine were bletting nicely....

bletted medlars

 ...we tried one - 

It didn't look too appetising -

It was soft and squishy and could be spooned out.  It was quite good, however, with a taste of apple and date, sweetish but also with a tart aftertaste. I had some spread on toast - quite nice actually.

I have decided to try making medlar jelly which is particularly recommended by Nigel Slater to have with your roast pheasant or other meat. You will have to look out for a subsequent recipe blog!

In Spain we have discovered a different sort of medlar......

Japanese medlar

Japanese Medlars

In May 2012, whilst driving to visit the waterfalls north of Alicante at Las Fuentes de l'Algar   (Les Fonts de l'Algar in the local Valencian language), we drove past fields of cultivated fruit trees laden with yellowish orange coloured fruits which from a distance looked like apricots but it was rather early for apricots and the leaves on the trees didn't look quite right for apricots, as this library picture shows.


On arrival at the waterfall we soon learned what they were called because they were present in large numbers in every food shop. They were on sale fresh as well as in cans and bottles and on the menu in every restaurant - they were Nisperos!

Although we now knew the Spanish name we were none the wiser until we were served them for dessert and tasted them.  They had a curious sweet and sour taste, a mixture of apple, citrus and peach, someone thought mango.

We bought some to take home

Subsequent Googling revealed that the Nispero is known in English as the Asian or Japanese Medlar (although it probably originates from eastern China from where it spread to Japan). 

Apparently it was introduced to Spain by sailors arriving in Valencia around two thousand years ago but was not much cultivated until the 19th century when it became popular around the Mediterranean. It is known in some countries as the loquat . It is suited to the same climate as orange and other citrus trees, so Spain seems an obvious place for it to grow and Spain is now the main producer of nisperos in Europe. The nispero is in the same family as the common European medlar, but a distant relative.

It is yellow or apricot coloured on the outside with soft, creamy yellow flesh with two to four large seeds in the centre. The skin is edible, although in Spain many people peel off the skin; but the seeds, like the apricot kernel, are poisonous as they contain quantities of cyanide compounds.

Unlike the European common medlar, it ripens on the tree and does not keep well so needs to be eaten soon after picking.  It is at its sweetest when fully ripe.

Because the seeds have cyanide compounds they cannot be eaten and most recipes that I have seen say they should be removed before using the fruits in cooking, although I have seen a few recipes which say the seeds can be tied in muslin and boiled with the flesh for jam and jelly making.  In Italy the seeds are used for making nespolino liqueur . There appear to be many varieties, with some containing less cyanide compounds than others. The fruit itself has a high pectin content which makes it suitable for jam or jelly making without using the seeds.  If I do get round to any jam making in Spain, I think I will err on the side of caution and remove the seeds!

Apart from helping jam to set, the pectin in medlars is also a rich source of dietary fibre, and very good for gut health. 

The Basque co-operative supermarket, Eroski, has a food website which says the Nispero fruit is very beneficial for health because of its high pectin content as the fibre retains water and 
“swells in the stomach forming a gel, which reduces the speed of gastric emptying and produces a satiety sensation, very useful for people who follow slimming diets. A pectin is attributed beneficial effects in case of diarrhoea because it slows down the intestinal transit, by retaining water. To this is added the richness in medlar tannins (more abundant in its juice), substances with astringent and anti-inflammatory properties. Tannins dry and deflate the intestinal mucosa (layer that lines the inside of the digestive tract)
“On the other hand, the pectin increases the pH (decreases the acidity) when the acid is well mixed and neutralized with food and the fibre itself, so the consumption of ripe medlars is indicated in case of gastrointestinal disorders (delicate stomach, gastritis , gastroduodenal ulcer, etc.) To the richness in pectin, citric, tartaric and malic acids are abundant in their pulp, which exert regulating and toning actions on the mucous membranes. Also, fibre helps reduce blood cholesterol levels and good control of blood glucose (blood sugar levels), so the consumption of medlars is beneficial in case of hypercholesterolemia and diabetes.”
According to Eroski, the Nispero is also a source of beta-carotene, an antioxidant which may help reduce the risk of degenerative diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases and, given its high content of potassium and organic acids, is a good diuretic, increasing the production of urine facilitating the removal of grit and uric acid from the kidneys. It is recommended in case of gout, excess of uric acid, uric acid stones, and hypertension. 
So apart from the cyanide, it seems a good fruit to eat!
Despite Fonts de l’Algar being a major tourist attraction, and only 15km inland from Benidorm (that most British of Spanish seaside resorts), we heard very few English voices, most of the visitors being Spanish.  The nearest town is Callosa d'en Sarrià, which gives its name to the surrounding area renowned for the quality of its Nisperos, such that, like wines, they have their own protected DO (Denominacion de Origine)  “Nisperos Callosa d’En Sarrià’’ and regulatory body
But you don't have to go to Spain to taste them as Nisperos are now available in England for a short period in the season.  Waitrose sell them. In Spain they are sold by the kilo; Waitrose sell nisperos in packs of 6, describing them as having asweet flavour which is like a mixture of apricots, apples and plums”. Waitrose advise that they can be eaten raw but warns that the hard brown seeds and the membrane surrounding them should be discarded. They add that “They are particularly good for making into jams, jellies and relishes; if the seeds are included during cooking they will impart an almond-like flavour”Well that will be the cyanide!  I think I can do without the almond flavour.  Watch this space for a future recipe!

John Austin

Hove, November 2018

*Shmoop Editorial Team. (2008, November 11). Romeo and Juliet Sex Quotes from