The crops keep coming!

Sue Bradley

The crops keep coming on Sue Bradley’s wildlife-friendly allotment but she’s got one or two tricks up her sleeve for preserving fruit and vegetable gluts.

August is the month when the fruits of our labours become apparent, whether it’s the crops we’ve carefully cultivated, or the weeds that haven’t been kept in check.

There are potatoes to dig, courgettes and lettuces to cut and carrots to pull, not to mention the vast array of berries waiting to be picked.

Strawberrries have given way to raspberries and blackcurrants and soon enough I’ll be seeing some juicy blackberries on the trellis attached to the shed. Any berries that aren’t eaten straight away are turned into jams and jellies or popped in the freezer for those months when there’s not so much about.

Fresh sowings

This summer I’ve already cleared one of the dustbins I use for growing carrots and have topped up its peat-free vegetable-growing compost and sown another crop, which I hope will last well into the autumn. Growing carrots in a tall container makes them less susceptible to carrot fly, which tends to stay close to the ground, and young seedlings are less prone to slug attacks. My favourite compost is made from bracken and sheep’s wool and holds moisture really well. In the past I’ve experimented with homemade compost, but found the carrots struggled to compete with emerging weed seedlings.

Other new additions to the allotment include a heritage variety of spinach called ‘Monstrueux de Viroflay’ and an Italian sprouting broccoli called ‘Spigariello’, both of which I’m looking forward to trying as I’m told they’re delicious. It’s worth looking out for less common cultivars, many of which are no longer grown commercially due to their inability to travel well or unsuitability when it comes to modern harvesting machinery.

Over on the manure heap the courgettes are romping away, sending their roots deep into the muck to extract moisture and nutrients. Picking them is a daily necessity to make sure they don’t turn into torpedoes.

Not far behind are the runner beans, which are taking a more leisurely approach to scaling their bamboo frame; the dry weather has meant they’ve been a bit slower than some years, but there are still plenty of broad beans to tide me over.

Aug blog 1

Sue Bradley

Let the Sunshine In

One of my favourite parts of the allotment has to be the sunflower patch, with its cheerful blooms providing a warm welcome every time I visit, and it turns out that I’m not the only one to love them, with a multitude of bees and butterflies paying a visit, especially now that the phacelia and poppies have gone to seed.

While harvesting vegetables and fruit takes up a lot of time on the allotment, I’ve tried to reserve half an hour here and there for dealing with the worst excesses of any weeds that managed to outfox my attentions earlier in the year.

I’m trying to halt the vigour of bindweed by cutting it at ground level so that it is unable to continue photosynthesising and feeding its big white roots. This year it’s been a particular problem around the raspberry canes, despite my efforts to detect and destroy its roots during the spring, and I think the time has come to move this fruit bed to another spot on the allotment so that I can deal with the perennial weeds that have built up there over the years.

This year’s crop of poppies have made the plot particularly colourful, but they’ve gone on to produce enough seed to cover the allotment  - something I’m keen to avoid as it’s possible to have too much of a good thing! – so I’ve been chopping off the seed heads on plants that have found their way into the vegetable growing parts of the plot and have placed them in a paper bag ready to share around friends who fancy growing some next year.

Green manure

There are some seeds that I am happy to spread around, however, such as phacelia, which I’m scattering over cleared areas of the allotment to act as a green manure. These will soon be poking up through the layer of homemade compost that I’ve spread over parcels of bare soil.

The idea is to allow these plants to overwinter, during which time they’ll suppress seeds and protect the surface of the soil, and then dig them back into the soil to beef up its structure and nutrient content in the spring. Often I allow strips of phacelia to flower for the benefit of honey and bumblebees, which brings a real buzz to the place at the start of summer.

Nasturtiums are another plant that attracts pollinating insects and there are plenty growing on the allotment. In the past I’ve picked the flowers to add to salads, and occasionally pickled the seeds in brine to provide a home-grown alternative to capers, but during a day at River Cottage HQ with the Garden Media Guild I learned that the peppery-tasting foliage can be used to make a delicious pesto.

Aug blog 2

Sue Bradley

Clever ways with crops

Chef Richard King finely sliced the leaves before placing them in a pestle with some toasted sunflower seeds, salt and a little garlic and giving them a good pounding with a mortar. To this he added some grated cold-smoked ‘Old Winchester’ from Lyburn Cheese in the New Forest and a little oil.

Richard explained that the chefs at River Cottage don’t produce set menus but use their skills to make the most of the produce picked fresh by head gardener Helen Musgrave and her team every morning. The pesto was added to thinly sliced kohlrabi to create a flavoursome carpaccio.

At River Cottage HQ the kitchen team has a variety of ways of making use of vegetable gluts, with Richard showing us a great way to use surplus cucumbers: his ‘bread and butter pickles’ are based on a practice dating back to the Great Depression, when slices of preserved cucumber were substituted for bread.

The cucumber was preserved in a sweet and tangy pickling liquid made from equal quantities of cider vinegar and water, to which he added some sugar, turmeric, celery seeds, a few sprigs of fresh thyme and some wholegrain mustard. This liquor was heated to boiling point and then allowed to simmer, before being poured over a mix of cucumber, sliced onion and crushed garlic, to which he also added a little salt. Subsequently the pickles were put into jars, where they will stay for at least one and a half to two weeks to allow the flavours to develop.

Stand and Stare

There’s always lots to do on the allotment but I try and find a little time to stand back and look at the wildlife going about their business as I work. The cheeky berry-loving blackbird is back, helping itself to the ripe fruit whenever it gets the chance, and on the compost heap I often find slow worms basking under a sheet of metal.

I’ve also noticed an abundance of butterflies, which has prompted me to print of a chart from ‘Big Butterfly Count’ to record what I see. This insect census, details of which can be found on www.bigbutterflycount.org, is encouraging gardeners to spend 15 minutes in a sunny spot and note everything they see. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the perfect excuse to down tools and simply watch and enjoy everything that’s going on around me!