Friday, 5 June 2020

Life on The Weald - May 2020

Life on The Weald  (and in isolation) - May 2020 

Rainbow chard - 1 May

Silver leaf chard - 1 May

May Day on the allotment was a time for gathering chard and the following day, to amuse myself in isolation, attempting to create a collage and, with a pack of puff pastry and some cheese, some mini chard pies, roughly using the recipe for Spanokopita

Rainbow chard - a collage

Chard and cheese puffs

The first early Duke of York potatoes were beginning to show signs of flowering.

First early Duke of York potatoes - 4 May

Duke of York, beginning to flower - 4 May

May Day (Friday) had been cloudy with a maximum temperature around 14C falling to 12C over the weekend but feeling much colder due to the wind. The first full week was sunny, however, with the temperature rising to 17C and a high of 22C on Saturday 9 May. But it was not to last as rain came on Sunday 10 May with temperatures falling dramatically by 10 degrees with strong winds.

I had grown some butternut squash plants indoors and had put them out in the garden to harden off but, even in the warm temperatures, they had taken a battering from the wind although they had been covered with a cloche overnight. On Sunday 10 May I decided it was time to bring them back indoors - I doubt whether they would have survived outside and it remains to be seen whether they will recover indoors. 

I acquired a yellow courgette and a Crown Prince squash from a neighbour on the allotment and although they looked OK in the sunshine on Saturday, I also brought them indoors on Sunday.

It was a bit breezy on Monday 11 with a high temperature of only 11C but it felt much colder, so I spent time indoors potting up seedlings that had been sown in seed trays in March and April.  These included a number of chillies which had been sown from seed acquired at Seedy Sunday in February.  Some of them are extremely powerful on the Scoville Scale (see my blog February 2020)

We had our first picking of broad beans on 4 May - I picked about a kilo which yielded about 250g of beans.  They were beautiful but the pods had not filled out as well as I had hoped.  I put that down to a lack of water at the crucial time in April, but there are many more to come both from the November sowings and the later January/March sown crop.

Broad beans picked 6 May

Around the pond the irises were coming into flower and not far behind were the water or pond irises (yellow flags) so it was time for yet another tidy up around the pond and to clear yet more of the ubiquitous bind-weed.  I don't think it will ever be possible to remove it completely since the root runners seem to go around and under the pond itself, but at least it looks tidy for a time.  We have also removed the papyrus from the pond as it was in danger of taking over.  The roots had completely filled the pots they were in and broken through and although submerged had also been taken over by couch grass! I will split the plants, re-pot and return a little.

Irises by the pond

Water irises about to flower

Another plant that had become pot-bound at home was our Moroccan Mint, perhaps the best of the culinary varieties.  I had promised to pot one up for a friend but could not pull out any with a root.  In the end, with brute force we removed the entire plant which was completely root-bound as the roots had grown round and round the inside of the pot.

Roots of pot-bound Moroccan mint

On 7 May, whilst riddling the mound of couch grass to recover the soil, Sylvi found a friendly slow worm.  That's a good sign that the soil should be in good condition and their presence is very beneficial as they feed on slugs and snails.

a friendly slow worm

By 11 May the irises were in full flower


...and there appeared to be a good supply of gooseberries.

Early showing of gooseberries

Gooseberries - 11 May

I planted out a second row of celery and continued clearing an area for the brassicas.

Celery 11 May

There was a good showing of plums that had set on the trees at the back of the plot but very little sign of fruit on the other ones.

Plums - 13 May

Whilst clearing weeds from the potential brassica patch, I acquired a new friend!

My new friend

Looking for worms?

Having cleared a suitable area, I took a risk and planted out some kale, cavolo nero and kalettes

Kalettes 13 May

In the middle of the month I was in panic mode sowing more seeds and potting up various seedlings that I had sown earlier plus some that I had acquired from other plot-holders. At the beginning of the month, I had sown some Borlotti (climbing beans) directly in the ground but as there was no sign of them a fortnight later, I sowed some more in pots indoors - the seeds were from an old packet from last year and perhaps they haven't kept well.  I also sowed some runner beans and French beans in pots and trays and some more peas.

I have potted on the tomatoes which I had been given but the writing on the labels had partly worn off or was indecipherable and as a result I'm not sure which ones are which; but I believe I have some red, black and yellow cherry varieties, a beef tomato and a regular salad tomato.  In addition I had bought 3 plugs on the internet; an Alicante, a Marmande and a Sweet Million (cherry tomato).  I also potted on some yellow cherry tomatoes that I had grown from seed that my brother had given me and which had done so well in pots last year.  I think I may have gone a bit over the top and will have difficulty finding room for them all on the patio!   I am also waiting for the daffodils and tulips to die back to free up some of the larger pots.  Earlier in the year I had rescued a pot-bound English Mace and have begun splitting this and now have dozens of plants to give away.

The bush mulberry at home has flowered and the fruit just beginning to set so I have given this a feed with the liquid feed I use for the tomatoes.  On the allotment the blueberries have finished flowering and the fruit is setting and I have given them another ericaceous feed.

With the weather forecast predicting temperatures approaching 20C for Sunday 17 May, I planted out some butternut squashes but hope it was not a mistake as the temperature didn't get above 15C and there was a cool wind.  I did provide a bit of protection with improvised cloches made from plastic bottles for both the squashes and the kalettes and kale so hope they will survive.

improvised cloches for kale and kalettes

At home in mid-May the front and back gardens were looking more colourful with the summer flowering shrubs and bulbs coming into flower.

The week beginning 18 May saw continuing sunshine and no rain, so watering the newly planted vegetables was important.  The kalettes, cavolo nero and kale planted the previous week were doing well so this prompted me to plant out the first of the runner beans which I had grown in pots at home.

First Prizewinner runner beans planted

And the good last the Borlotto climbing beans sown some weeks ago have not been eaten by rodents, and they have germinated and are beginning to break the surface.

19 May The first sign of Borlotto beans - Firetongue (Lingua di Fuoco)

Having planted out some home-grown runner beans, I had completely forgotten that I had ordered some plugs earlier in the year on-line and my recently constructed bean frame was full.  This necessitated the rapid clearing of one of the raised beds and construction of a wigwam before planting out the plugs.

Rapidly constructed wigwam for runner beans -22 May

Having cleared the area around the pond, it was time to plant something.  I had sown some wild flower seeds earlier and hopefully some will germinate, but I have added some aromatic mints - pineapple and grapefruit - and planted out some English Mace (sweet yarrow or sweet-nancy)

planting out around the pond

At Christmas, my son Toby and his wife Jane had given me some bean seeds that they had harvested from their crop last year - they were black and white, Ying-Yang - I checked with them that they were not a climbing variety, as I had run out of space for any more frames, and reassured that they were a dwarf variety I sowed some in pots at home. 

Ying-Yang beans

I now need to ask if you can eat them like flagelots when young or need to dry them and use like haricot beans or black-eye peas.

The raspberries have gone rampant and are beginning to send out suckers which are coming up all over the place, including in the raised beds.  It is a struggle to keep them in check but the fruit has set and we look to be in for a bumper crop.


The latter part of the month saw lots of sunshine and temperatures soaring to the mid-twenties - and no rain! So watering became a daily necessity.

30 May - grapes setting on the vine

30 May - plums and blue skies

30 May - plums and blue skies

And at home (with the Salvia hot lips flowering behind) the Nicola 2nd early potatoes were in full flower.

30 May - Nicola 2nd early potatoes

A glorious end to a very sunny month.

John Austin
Hove, May 2020

Monday, 25 May 2020

RECIPES - Baking bread in a cast iron pot (Dutch Oven) 2. 50/50 White/Brown

Baking bread in a cast iron pot - 

a 50/50 White and Wholemeal Loaf 

I made this loaf using the cast-iron pot method as shown in my earlier post for a basic white loaf

I used a bread machine to make the basic dough, but you can use any recipe up to an including the first rise.  As I didn't have a recipe for a 50/50 loaf, I made my own by combining and adapting two recipes designed for my machine, one for a Basic White Loaf and the other for a Wholemeal loaf.


¾ cup water
1 ¾  tbsp skimmed milk powder
1 ¾ tbsp butter
¾  tbsp granulated sugar
1 ¼ tbsp soft brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1 cup Strong white bread flour
1 cup Strong Wholemeal flour
1 tsp dry yeast

Adding a vitamin C tablet (crushed and added before the flour) is often recommended when using wholemeal flour, to aid the rise.  I didn't on this occasion as I didn't have one and as it was 50% strong white flour felt it wouldn't need it anyway. 

I followed the machine instructions and added the ingredients, in the above order, to the pan and set the machine to the dough setting which is 6 minutes mixing, 34 minutes kneading and 1 hour rising at 32C.

(if you don't have a bread machine, follow any recipe either for making by hand or food mixer with a dough hook then leave to rise until doubled in size then follow the rest of this method).

I then removed the dough from the machine.....

end of the first rise
.... kneaded gently for a few minutes on a floured board and then shaped into a ball

dough shaped in a ball, ready for baking
... then made one deep slash across the top with a sharp knife

the uncooked loaf

....placed the shaped dough in my cast iron casserole pot, which I had lined with baking paper

the pot
....placed the lid on top and put the dish in a cold conventional oven.  I set the oven to 240C and switched on.  After 30 minutes I took a peek to see how it was doing 

loaf after 30 minutes baking in oven with lid on
I put it back in the oven for a further 5 minutes with the lid on, then removed the lid and cooked for a further 10 minutes - total cooking time 45 minutes (35 minutes lid on, final 10 minutes lid removed).

This was the final result

loaf removed from oven
I left the loaf for 5 minutes in the pot, then removed and placed on a rack

the final result
Whilst it was still warm, but cool enough to handle, I could not resist trying a slice

the proof of the pudding is in the eating
I am pleased to say it was a successful result.  Now I have done a basic white loaf and a 50/50, it's time to try this method with a 100% wholemeal !

John Austin

Hove 25 May 2020

Sunday, 24 May 2020

RECIPES - Baking bread in a cast iron pot (Dutch Oven) 1. Basic White

Baking bread in a cast iron casserole dish - a basic White loaf

My first loaf using this method

This unusual method of baking bread was given to me by my nephew, Lyndon, who works in the catering, restaurant and hospitality industry in France.  He sent me a photo of a loaf he had made in his Staub cast-iron stew pot and some basic instructions regarding the method.

Lyndon's loaf
Lyndon advised that this method works well as it keeps the moisture inside as the bread is cooked with the lid on (except for the final 10 minutes).

Another advantage of this method is that it doesn't require a second raise.  Lyndon suggested an initial kneading of 20 minutes, then leaving the dough to rise, "knocking back" - a brief 5 minute kneading - shaping into a ball then placing in the pot which had been lined with non-stick baking paper, putting on the lid, placing in a cold oven, turning the oven to 240C, cooking for 35 minutes, then removing the lid and continuing to cook for a further 10 minutes.  All that is then needed is to remove from the oven and place the loaf on a rack to cool.

For my first venture I decided to make a basic white loaf using my bread machine recipe.  In the past, I have tried using the bread machine for the whole process but have never found the results satisfactory (and you get a strange shaped loaf!).  But where the bread machine really comes into its own is using the dough setting which takes away all the hard work up to and including the first rise and then you continue as for a normal loaf and bake in the oven.

On the dough setting, my bread machine mixes the ingredients for 6 minutes then kneads for 34 minutes and then leaves the dough to rise at 32C for an hour.

For my basic white bread the ingredients for a 1lb loaf are:


¾ cup water
2 tbsp skimmed milk powder
2 tbsp butter
1¼ tbsp
1 tsp salt
2 cups Strong white bread flour
1 tsp dry yeast

I followed the instructions that came with the bread machine, using the measure provided, and this basically means putting all the ingredients in the baking pan in the order listed above.

If you are using a bread machine, follow the manufacturer's instructions and use the "dough" setting.  Alternatively, find a recipe for a traditional white loaf and follow to the end of the first rise.

Lyndon has a Staub cast-iron pot, I used my Chasseur cast-iron casserole dish. Basically the pot serves as a Dutch Oven.

My cooking pot

When the raise cycle had finished, I took the dough from the machine, knocked back the dough for a couple of minutes, but did not really knead it, shaped it into a ball and placed inside the casserole dish which I had lined with baking paper.

I have a fan oven and a smaller conventional oven and decided to use the latter.  I thought the temperature in the fan oven might rise too quickly and interfere with the rising of the dough whereas the conventional oven would heat up more slowly enabling the dough to rise.  I placed the dish in the oven with the lid on as instructed, set the temperature to 240C, set my alarm for half an hour, poured myself a glass of wine and relaxed.

After 30 minutes I took a sneaky peek to check that all was well - and as it looked OK,  replaced the lid and let it cook a further 5 minutes (ie completing the full 35 minutes advised by Lyndon) and then removed the lid leaving it to cook for a further 10 minutes.  I then took the dish from the oven, tapped the loaf to see if it sounded hollow - which it did - and left it to cool slightly for a further 5 minutes.

My loaf straight from the oven
After 5 minutes, I lifted the loaf from the dish and placed on a rack to cool.

My first attempt
It was a great success. My wife, Sylvi and her son, Luke, have both seen recipes using this cooking method but which follow a recipe needing no kneading at all.  We will give that a try soon.

In the meantime Luke has followed Lyndon's method and baked a loaf using two thirds white flour and one third light rye flour.  I fear this may have precipitated a loaf war on twitter!

Luke's loaf as seen on Twitter @Luke1972

Tonight I will have a go making a 50/50 loaf using strong white bread flour and strong wholemeal.  Watch this space.

John Austin

Hove, 23 May 2020

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Life on the Weald - April 2020

Life on the Weald (Month 2 in isolation) April 2020

A view across The Weald from our plot - April 2020
Generally it was feeling more like Spring during April.

The garden at home provided a colourful start to the month.

Anemones, front garden 1 April 2020

Tulips, front garden 1 April 2020

Tulips, back garden 2 April 2020

Tulips, back garden 2 April 2020

The garden is more important than ever to us as we begin our second month in isolation due to the Covid19 epidemic and frighteningly, as the death toll in UK rises, we head towards possibly the worst outcome of any European nation.  Fortunately, during the period of isolation, visits to the allotment are permitted (or even encouraged), provided social distancing is maintained, as they provide both exercise and food and are positively beneficial for our mental health.

There has been a great community response at The Weald with plot holders donating surplus produce, supplemented by gifts of groceries which have then been distributed by volunteers to vulnerable people in the community who are unable to leave their homes during the Covid-19 crisis.

With garden centres closed, a number of gardeners have found themselves without seeds and other necessary supplies but, thanks to the internet and the site's website and Facebook page, there has been a great co-operative community spirit with plot holders swapping and donating seeds and plants. I've managed to swap chillies, English mace and celery seedlings for a yellow courgette, Crown Prince squash and some tomato plants.

Apart from lockdown we have had the weather to contend with which has been varied. February was the wettest on record followed by very changeable weather in March with some sunny spells and a high of 14C but interspersed with cold days almost down to freezing at night ( -2C in the countryside) and periods of chilly winds.  April by contrast has been the sunniest since 1929 with a top temperature locally around 22C but the intermittent cool winds have continued and the end of the month has seen top temperatures falling to 11-13C and heavy rain.

In the garden at home the beautiful showing of tulips which had begun to flower in March continued throughout the whole of April.

Tulips in flower throughout April

Not quite as colourful as the tulips but the rainbow chard, "bright lights" has certainly brightened up the allotment.

Rainbow Chard (Bright Lights) 3 April
And the grape vine is coming into leaf........

Grape vine - 5 April

........and the plum tree beginning to blossom

Plum blossom - 5 April

Early April and the broad beans sown in November have set and those sown in January are beginning to flower.

Broad beans in flower - 7 April
At home the chilli peppers sown in pots in February/March are coming on, some slower than others, but the Purple cayenne and Trinidad Scorpion are looking good.  The purple cayenne are said to be hot at 50,000 SHUs (Scoville Heat Units) but the Trinidad Scorpion is among the hottest in the world at 1,500,000 SHUs so care has to be taken in handling as it can cause skin irritation - you certainly don't want to rub your eyes if you have been touching it!

Purple Cayenne - 10 April

Trinidad Scorpion - 10 April
Back on the allotment we are still harvesting purple sprouting broccoli but the kalettes are coming to an end. We have had masses of chard and rhubarb and will be picking this for some time to come.
Purple sprouting broccoli picked 11 April
The camellias have brought additional colour to our front garden - they don't like our soil - but when we panted them we dug large holes and filled them with Ericaceous compost and we mulch the plants each year with more as well as giving them an occasional feed with a liquid plant food for azaleas and rhododendrons and other lime-hating, acid-loving plants - it's what we use to feed the blueberries on the allotment.  Sadly, after an initial burst of flowers, the edges turn brown.  A friend tells me its a common fungus that affects camellias and cannot be treated - she advises to pull off the dying flowers and not let them fall to the ground as the fungus can last up to 5 years in the soil - so looking forward to 2025!

Camellias - 14 April

Back at The Weald, the first early Duke of York potatoes were growing well and it was time to earth them up a little.  This helps more tubers to develop and maintain moisture. Hoeing between the rows will also keep the weeds at bay.  It is worth doing this weekly as weeds can soon take hold and engulf the potatoes. 

Duke of York, First Early potatoes 15 April

The broad beans sown in November were filling out nicely, so I thought it was time to finish off the remaining ones in the freezer from last year.

The last of the 2019 broad beans, straight from the freezer
broad beans 20 April 2020
broad beans 20 April 2020

The 2020 crop of Aquadulce Broad Beans, sown in November 2019 are almost ready to harvest

Peas that I had sown in the open ground in March were beginning to show and so too were 4 of the 6 asparagus plants.

Lincoln Peas, 20 April
Asparagus, 20 April 2020

Asparagus 20 April 2020
We had planted 6 asparagus crowns, 2 each of Gijnlim, Connover's Colossal and Pacific Purple. Sadly there was no sign at all of the two purple ones and the other four which did show were very thin and spindly, nothing colossal about any of them.  You should not cut the spears in the first season (not that there was much worth picking) but hopefully they will establish themselves for cropping in 2021.

Our two vines - growing in containers - were also beginning to flower and the tubs needed weeding and top dressing with some new compost. This is how they looked on St George's Day

Grape vine 23 April
Grape vine 23 April

The arrival of the warm weather had encouraged me to remove the covers from seedlings  growing in the garden which included celery, cavolo nero and kalettes and and indoor grown squashes and some of the chillies which I had put outside to harden off - something I would later regret as several suffered a setback from windburn.

Home grown seedlings 27 April
 At home, where the small lawn had once been, the second early Nicola potatoes were just beginning to show.  I had also planted a few in a growing sack and also a few Charlotte that were left over from the ones planted at The Weald.

Nicola 2nd early potatoes
Charlotte 2nd early potatoes

Nicola 2nd early potatoes 26 April in the garden at home
And on the allotment there were still jobs to be done.  The "A" frame which supports the runner beans was in need of repair but we have managed to clear an area and get it erected.  We also dug a trench about 25-30 cms deep, where the beans will be planted, which I lined with shredded cardboard and vegetable matter and then filled in - this will add nutrient to the soil as it breaks down but will aid water retention.

The bean frame under construction 27 April
The broad beans planted in January and early February are now in full flower and looking healthy with no sign (yet) of blackfly.

January sown broad beans - 27 April

January sown broad beans, in flower  - 27 April
Back at home, the Nicola potatoes had come on a long way since earlier in the month and had put on quite a bit of growth in the last week.

Nicola potatoes in the garden at home - 30 April
As I said at the beginning of this month's blog, April has been one of the sunniest on record with hours of sunshine 60% above average and temperatures also above average for this time of the year and it has been very dry so a lot of watering has been necessary.  The last few days of April, however, have seen a change. Tuesday 28 April was cloudy and wet across most of England, although dry and sunny in the north, and the last two days saw temperatures falling to average as low pressure moved across bringing unsettled weather.
With the cooler weather, I brought some of the plants, which I had put outside to harden off, back indoors as they were suffering from the wind and lower temperatures.  We are hoping for a return to warmer weather in May.

John Austin

Hove, April 2020