Tag Archives: Raised beds

Return to gardening: long awaited start to a new season

White and yellow flag tulips

Last weekend saw my long-awaited return to gardening proper after my ACL operation at Christmas. I’ve done the odd bit of harvesting and snipping back of leaves in recent weeks, but two trips to Austria and family gatherings have precluded me doing anything more extensive. Probably just as well: I’d intended to spend both days in the garden last weekend, but the weather and circumstances conspired against me and my knee was still quite sore after just one day’s concentrated gardening! Still, the ice pack I applied yesterday seems to have done its stuff, and I feel very virtuous (and relieved!) that I’ve finally taken the plunge.

I finished off the winter cutting-down of any remaining perennials such as asters and penstemons, and dead-headed my hydrangeas now the new growth is well underway; always looks so much better once you’ve done that. I even managed to tackle, or at least make a start on tackling, the spreading of the compost heap. Last year, I sought paid help to do this particular job, as I’d only just had my accident and was definitely in no fit state to do any heavy gardening work. This time, though, I was very good and paced myself: one barrowload on Sunday, and then I left the rest (another two barrowloads in all – isn’t it incredible how much a whole year of lawn clippings, garden and kitchen waste rots down to over time?!) until Friday, when I finished spreading it around greedy shrubs like roses, clematis and hydrangeas.

Front garden April

Over the winter, I’d persuaded the management committee that manages the communal land around our local close to take out two ugly privet bushes that have always stuck out like sore thumbs on the bank opposite my house. We’d paid our usual ongoing maintenance gardener to cut the shrubs down last autumn, but he seemed rather reluctant to finish the job and remove the stumps. When pressed, he and his sidekick came out, messed around in a desultory fashion (the benefits of an office overlooking the front garden!), then disappeared, apparently reporting that they were too deeply entrenched and a stump grinder would be necessary at vast expense. I duly got a couple of quotes, from the reasonable to the sublimely ridiculous – from said gardener, what a surprise! -, went with the cheapest (and most competent, I hasten to add!) and lo and behold, he managed to move the stumps with a bit of elbow grease and no stump grinder in the space of an hour or so. Sigh. Anyway, mission accomplished – which meant that I was able to plant some roses I had in pots and can now look forward to an even better and more colourful display this summer, without the depressing and boring privets.

Island bed new planting

Sowing seeds for the propagator in the conservatory was another priority: one week later than last year, but still in the right timeframe as they soon catch up once they’re up and running: tomatoes (my favourite Sungold and stripey Tigerella, Sunchocola from last year and new Black Cherry from Chiltern Seeds), sweet pepper Corno di Toro and chillis (Anaheim and Padron – here’s hoping for better germination than last year!), aubergine Long Purple, leeks Bandit, Tornado and Musselburgh, basil, parsley and celeriac.

I also planted lots of flower seeds with a view to making a bigger cutting garden at the allotment. I’ve reclaimed the top part of my plot this year as the current tenants have moved out of the parish to a house with a bigger garden and it seemed a shame to waste the beds they’d prepared now they’ve done the hard work of clearing all the brambles the previous tenant had left! Sadly, they dismantled the wooden beds themselves, but I’m going to see if I can manage without edgings initially. The middle bit has all been lined and covered with wood chippings, so it looks a far more manageable proposition than the bramble and couch grass-infested jungle it was before… Good excuse for more dahlias, duly ordered from Sarah Raven as usual: Penhill Dark Monarch, Emory Paul (I saw these two at a Perch Hill open day last September and they were simply fabulous, huge blowsy blooms, so definitely had to go on the list), Perch Hill, Rip City and Café au Lait Royal. I also sowed seeds of Echinacea Pallida, Cosomos Versailles Tetra, Callistephus chinensis King Size Apricot (Chinese asters!), Achillea Cassis, Antirrhinum Royal Bride and finally Lobelia Crystal palace for my containers at home. All in all, rather a tight squeeze in the propagator!

My parents have given me an apothecary’s peony (Paeonia officinalis) with deep red double flowers, so that’s gone in the new beds, where, in time, it will hopefully give me enough peonies to pick – such decadence! Also three sturdy delphinium plants that a fellow plotholder kindly gave me last year and I really didn’t have room for; they were heeled in at the end of the asparagus bed, but would undoubtedly have been swamped by the asparagus in season. I’ve lots more annual seeds to sow in situ in the next few weeks, plus some deep burgundy gladioli bulbs (Black Star). Very exciting to have a new project – although I may not have quite as much time as usual at the allotment this year, as my son and daughter-in-law have just given birth to a beautiful baby girl and grandmotherly duties may take precedence over gardening….

Purple rain tulips

 

 

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Spring Rush

Green roof_cropped

It’s at this time of year, after the clocks have gone forward, the sun finally shows its face and the soil gradually starts to warm up, that the rush is on to get everything going in the garden. It’s often a case of dodging the showers and making use of the limited time you have available to sow seeds here, prepare ground there and generally tick off all those spring jobs.

I sowed my first seeds two weeks ago, but most are now up and can be removed from the propagator to make room for the next batch: tomatoes (two old favourites, Sungold and Gardener’s Delight, and a new variety to me, Black Russian, a medium beefsteak heritage tomato, supposedly with an outstanding, rich flavour – we shall see!) and cucumber. I’m reverting back to Marketmore this year, a variety I used to grow with great success in my big greenhouse in Scotland, but I’m hoping it will like the conditions on the open allotment too, as I haven’t had a lot of success with other varieties I’ve tried outside to date.

Other jobs include planting up my new dahlias. I leave my existing dahlia tubers in the ground over the winter, well-mulched, and they seem to thrive, but as I’m cutting down on potatoes and adding another cutting flower bed at the allotment this year, it seemed an ideal opportunity to treat myself to a couple more! I ordered Café au Lait (from Crocus) plus Labyrinth and Wizard of Oz (from Sarah Raven), all in pastel shades that will extend my existing range of colours beautifully – and with half an eye to my son’s wedding next year, I must admit! These are started off in pots in my grow frame at home, then will go into the open ground when they are established and better able to cope with slug attacks. I’ve also started off my tuberous begonias, now huge tubers after two seasons’ worth of growing. I may have to ask friends for the loan of some space in their large glasshouse when I run out of room in the grow frame/conservatory windowsill for these monsters!

I also like to use fibrous-rooted begonias in my summer tubs as they don’t mind rain or shine and are also pretty slug-resistant. I buy the tiny plug plants from my local garden centre, sold in 24s for pricking out at home. In actual fact, each plug often contains two tiny plants and I invariably manage to get at least 60 plantlets once I’ve prised them apart. A very economical way of buying bedding plants, especially as these are notoriously tricky to grow from seed without specialist conditions.

Other jobs included dead-heading last year’s hydrangea flowers, another way of instantly tidying up the garden. These crispy flowerheads have done a great job of protecting the new foliage from late frosts, but we should be safe now to snip them off – although I once did this in late March when we lived in Scotland, only to have a very severe frost a couple of nights later, ending up with frosted new shoots and far fewer flowers than usual – you have been warned!

New rasp bed 2

Down at the allotment, I finally managed to finish digging over my new raspberry bed and have planted up the new autumn canes, Polka, ordered from Thompson & Morgan. Having lost all my autumn raspberries last year due to some unknown virus, I thought I’d try a different variety: Polka is bred from the classic Autumn Bliss, but it supposed to have double the yield. I’ll report back in due course! I also dug up some summer raspberry suckers from where they are thriving underneath the Bramley apple tree and made a new row of summer fruit too – you can never have enough raspberries! I’ve finally found a taker for the top part of my allotment, so won’t have my original fruit bed any more – but I don’t think I’m going to go short any time soon….

Raspberry Polka

All in all, a very satisfying weekend’s gardening.

After a meat-filled few days over Easter, with family and guests, I fancied something simple and vegetarian this weekend. There’s very little left on the allotment at this time of year (a few remaining leeks, parsnips, purple-sprouting broccoli and spinach), so I opted for an old favourite, based on spinach, originally from my friend Bridget up in Cheshire. This is so quick and easy, but delicious – life’s definitely NOT too short to stuff a mushroom!

Garlicky Stuffed Mushrooms – serves 2

Garlicky mushroom

4 large flat mushrooms (Portobello), wiped and stalks removed

Knob of butter

1 medium onion, chopped

1 clove garlic

2 generous handfuls of young spinach, washed, large stems removed and chopped

Seasoning

1 Boursin cheese

 Melt the butter in a frying pan and add the chopped onions and garlic. Cook until translucent, then add the chopped spinach and continue cooking for 5 mins or so until nicely wilted, then season to taste.

Divide the spinach and onion mixture between the flat mushrooms in a roasting tin and add 3-4 tbsp water to the base of the tin. Top each mushroom with a generous slice of Boursin (blue cheese or even goat’s cheese also work well). Cover the tin with foil.

Cook in a hot oven (180°C, Gas 5) for about 20 minutes, then remove the foil and cook for a further couple of minutes to brown the cheese slightly.

You can serve these with crusty bread to mop up the garlicky juices, but I like them just as they are – who needs meat with flavours as good as these?!

Midsummer Madness

Allotment June 2015 looking down towards gateYou can tell the holiday season is almost upon us when you’re rushing frantically to get everything done before you go away. Gardeners should really probably take their holiday out of season, as spring/summer is such a busy time of year in the garden!

Ho, hum! Needs must. And I am getting there, honest! The allotment is now fully planted, despite complete germination failure of my beans, both runner and French. I’ve taken to planting them directly in the ground at the end of May/beginning of June in recent years, rather than in pots inside (due to lack of greenhouse/conservatory space!). Unfortunately, we had a sharp frost and very heavy hailstorms a week or so after I planted the seeds and the few brown and frazzled stems I can see suggest they germinated, but were frosted almost immediately. Never mind, I’ve planted more, albeit rather late, and I’ll have to hope they germinate without any issues. Late plantings usually catch up anyway and at least they won’t overlap with the peas.

Last weekend I also planted out my leeks, which were approaching pencil thickness in their seed trays. It’s a fiddly, but satisfying job, and I can now look forward to leeks from September right through to next Spring.

Allotment June 2015 leeks plantedStrawberries, gooseberries and broad beans are now in full flow, as is the basil back home in the conservatory, leading to the natural conclusion: broad bean pesto! This is one of my favourite combinations and one I try to make every year in season. Beware, as podding broad beans always makes your fingernails black – the gardener’s curse, I’m afraid!

Broad Bean Pesto

Broad beans June 20156oz broad beans (after podding – you’ll probably need at least 1lb unpodded weight!)

2oz Parmesan cheese, finely grated

3 cloves garlic, crushed

3-4oz fresh basil

4fl.oz virgin olive oil

Seasoning

Steam or microwave the broad beans for 2-3 minutes then blanch under cold water.

Place all remaining ingredients apart from olive oil in a food processor and whizz until smooth, pushing down the sides as required.

Add the olive oil in a slow and steady stream until you have a thickish consistency.

Will keep for a couple of weeks, covered, in the fridge, or you can freeze.

Serve with pasta – I added it to softly fried onions, pancetta and a cream sauce tonight, with a handful of fresh broad beans thrown in to cook with the pasta for the last few minutes – sublime!

Basil for pesto Broad bean pesto

Perpetual allotment (and Popeye’s) favourites

Raised beds April 2015May is always the busiest month in the year in the garden and this year is no exception – busier if anything as I was away the last weekend of April, so have been catching up ever since! After two sunny weekends, however, I at last feel as though I’m getting on top of things. My new raised beds finally went in over the Easter break and I’m now feeling the benefit of planting them up.

It’s been a pretty cold start to the year down in this South-Eastern corner of the UK, despite some sunny days, and our heavy clay soil has taken an age to warm up. At last, though, I’ve been able to plant my potatoes, both first and second earlies (Rocket and Charlotte), spaced three weeks apart, both much later than I’d normally expect. The one benefit of planting so late was that last year’s salad bed, where the Charlottes were due to go, still had a flourishing crop of spinach, Swiss chard, rocket and parsley, all having overwintered beautifully. Eventually I had to take the plunge and remove them all to free up the bed: such a shame to pull out strong plants with many more meals left on them, but I brought home several bags full and distributed more amongst friends too. I know they would have gone to seed soon enough, but it still seems harsh. The last remaining leeks also had to be lifted to make room for my mangetout and sugarsnap peas, although they had started to develop flowering shoots in their centre so were on borrowed time in any event.

Both spinach and leeks are key players in my allotment plans. Leeks in particular take up space for a good part of the year, but are invaluable for winter cropping and so much nicer than bought offerings. I tend to sow the seeds in my propagator in the conservatory in March, prick them out six weeks later into seed trays and then plant them out in the allotment when they are pencil-sized, usually in mid-June. I grow three varieties, an early autumn crop (Nipper) from September onwards, for baby leeks, than a mid-season variety (Pandora) and finally a late winter crop, the blue-green Bandit.

Having lifted the spinach, I’m going to be without my allotment stalwart for a few weeks as I only sowed the new season’s crop a week or so ago. I usually grow Perpetual Spinach as it’s much less prone to bolting than the other types of spinach and tastes just as good in my opinion. I grow a couple of crops a year, one now and one in late summer and usually have spinach leaves most of the year, even in hard winters – such great value from a tiny packet of seeds!

Faced with an abundance of both recently, I’ve had to revert to tried-and-trusted recipes for converting the produce for use now and later. One of my favourite spring soups is a Spinach & Pea Soup, an oh-so-easy adaptation of a Nigel Slater recipe that tastes as fresh as it looks. I tend to use both spinach and chard interchangeably, so any of the chard recipes here will work perfectly, but I also experimented this weekend with a homespun version of the delicious Greek Spanakopita, a spinach & feta pie encased in light filo pastry.

Spinach & Pea Soup

Spinach & pea soup in pan

350g frozen peas

500g spinach, washed and chunky stems removed (or whatever you have – not an exact science!)

2 tbsp olive oil

1 leek, chopped (or 1 onion if you prefer)

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2 sticks celery (or fennel), chopped

1 medium potato, diced small

Bunch of fresh mint, chopped

1.5 litres fresh vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to season

Cook the leek or onion, garlic, potato and celery in a large soup pan (I always use my trusted Le Creuset casserole dishes for soup) until soft for 10-15 minutes or so. Tip the frozen peas into the leek mix, then add the stock and bring to the boil. Season to taste. As the mixture starts to bubble, add the chopped spinach and mint, pushing down below the surface of the liquid. Continue cooking until the leaves have wilted, but are still a bright emerald green colour (about 10 minutes).

Allow to cool slightly, then liquidize until smooth. Reheat to serve.  The beauty of using frozen peas is that this soup doesn’t need sieving: one of my favourite summer soups in the height of pea season is a deliciously delicate Mangetout Soup, but that invariably has to be sieved due to all the fine fibres. Not a problem, just more washing up!

This is quite a light soup, but perfect for springtime, or as a dinner party starter – and it freezes beautifully too.

I only realised too late that I’d run out of bread on cooking this, so whizzed up some parsnip & carrot scones based on the cheese & apple scone recipe from March, but with a small grated parsnip and carrot instead of the apple and rosemary instead of thyme. Pretty good if I say so myself!

Spanakopita

Spankopita1 pack filo pastry sheets

Plenty of butter – at least 50-100g

500g spinach (I don’t actually weigh it, I must admit, but a large colanderful!)

2 tbsp olive oil

1 leek, chopped (or I onion)

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

Grated lemon zest

Generous handful of chopped fresh mint, fennel and parsley

100g feta cheese, chopped

100g ricotta cheese

Grated fresh nutmeg

Salt and pepper

Sesame seeds

Prepare the filling by cooking the leek and garlic gently in the olive oil until soft (about 10 minutes). Add the chopped spinach, after washing and removing any tough stems. (I actually used a mixture of Swiss chard and spinach as that’s what I had, but either or both will be fine.) Allow to wilt gently, adding the chopped herbs, lemon zest, nutmeg and seasoning as you go. When it has reduced and is just tender, remove from the heat and stir in the chopped feta and ricotta. Allow to cool while preparing the pastry.

Open the pack of filo pastry carefully, placing on a damp tea towel as you work to stop it drying out. It often tears as you lift it since it’s extremely delicate, but it really doesn’t matter – just patch it in position! Place the first sheet on a piece of greaseproof paper and brush with melted butter. I usually melt 50g or so in the microwave and see how I go, but I can guarantee you’ll need more than you think! Place the next sheet on top and continue layering and buttering until you have a large oblong of pastry. Spread the spinach mix onto the pastry, leaving a good inch or so around the edges and fold these over to contain the mixture. Then, using the paper as a support, gently roll the pastry into a long roll from one of the long edges. Transfer very carefully to a greased baking sheet, either as one long roll (if your baking sheet is big enough!), or, as in my case in a horseshoe, or even a spiral, depending on the initial shape of your filo pastry. As you can probably see, mine split during the transfer operation – it’s quite heavy and fragile! Again, it didn’t seem to be a problem though; the mixture is firm enough not to leak out. Brush with more butter to finish and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Cook at 200°C, Gas 6 for at 30-35 minutes, then serve warm, cut into generous slices.

I served mine with a tossed green salad, using overwintered lettuce and rocket, plus some divine asparagus, picked fresh from the plot only hours earlier and simply roasted for 10-15 minutes with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Heaven….

Shed with Clematis May 2015Allotment shed in all its clematis-festooned glory…

 

 

 

 

 

Soup, glorious soup…

My first full weekend at home of the New Year and a lovely cold, yet sunny couple of days to boot – perfect for getting the allotment back in shape after a prolonged absence due to bad weather, pre-Christmas activities and a magical New Year trip to Austria.

It’s been ages since I went down to the plot for anything other than to harvest: brief visits to snatch up leeks or parsnips and only time for an apologetic glance at the general desolation. To be fair, most people’s plots are looking fairly sad at this time of year, and at least there is still plenty to pick on mine! The fact that my new neighbour’s plot has had a makeover and is pristine with shiny new raised beds and a beautiful wooden fruit cage, plus sturdy supports for espaliered fruit trees and a sandpit puts the rest of us to shame, however. Replacing my decaying (but 7/8-year-old) scaffolding board beds is definitely a priority this year…

Sad January allotment 2015

In the meantime, I spent a couple of hours finally getting round to a number of long overdue jobs: cutting down the spent asparagus stems – a job I should have done back in autumn in a bid to stop the dreaded asparagus beetle from overwintering, although it’s been pretty mild so far, so maybe a few sharp frosts between now and spring will still reap rewards; cutting down the dahlia foliage, another job I should have done in November, but it’s never done any harm leaving it in the past and my tubers are so huge now that they seem pretty resilient; taking down the runner/French bean tripods (I know, shameful to still have them standing in January and even more amazing that the wind hasn’t blown them down!) and general weeding – where does all that chickweed come from?! Two and a half hours of highly enjoyable pottering later, my plot looks radically improved, more or less weed-free (barring the paths, which need topping up with bark chippings) and ready to call in some help to reinstate the beds!

Today’s haul was a creditable trug full of calabrese (so much better than last year, thanks to the Enviromesh which kept out the pigeons AND the caterpillars), leeks, parsley, rocket, Swiss chard, parsnips, swede and carrots. Not bad for a January day!

There was plenty of calabrese for my stir-fried rice last night, as a vegetable accompaniment for tonight’s Shetland lamb chop in red wine & redcurrant sauce and for the majority to go in a delicious broccoli and stilton soup. I wasn’t sure about this recipe before I tried it, thinking the heavy dose of brassicas might make it sulphurous, but the combination of the broccoli (or calabrese) and blue Stilton is inspired. Delicious for lunch with crusty bread, or as a dinner party starter if you feel so inclined.

Broccoli and Stilton Soup

Broccoli and stilton soup

2 tbsp olive oil

1 knob butter

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 leek, chopped,

2 sticks celery, chopped

1 medium potato, diced (or use a large potato if you prefer your soup thicker)

1 head broccoli or calabrese, chopped (or a selection of smaller side stems if that’s what you have)

150 g Blue Stilton (or other blue cheese), roughly crumbled

1 litre homemade chicken or vegetable stock

Chopped parsley

Salt and pepper

Cook the onions in the olive oil and butter until soft – about 10 minutes. Add the chopped celery, leek, and potato and cook for a further 5 minutes. Pour in the stock and add the chopped broccoli. Bring to the boil, cover and allow to simmer for 20-25 minutes. Add the crumbled Stilton and parsley, stir for a couple of minutes, then season and allow to cool before blending in a liquidizer. Serve hot and enjoy the very distinctive and delicious taste!

Soup maker Amazon

Having received an electric soup maker for Christmas (Morphy Richards Sauté and Soup), I thought I’d experiment with this recipe. I’ve made it before using the above method, but adapted it today for the soup maker as the liquid volume was the same as the recipes in the book supplied. On the whole it worked well, and should in theory cut down on washing-up and avoid the need to wait for the soup to cool before transferring to the liquidizer (often a messy operation!) as the entire process takes place in the soup maker. My problem was that the volume of vegetables meant that adding the stock would have brought the level to beyond the maximum marker, so I ended up just adding the broccoli stalks initially, then transferring the blended soup to a pan and adding the broccoli florets and Stilton, then returning most of the liquid and solid chunks to the soup maker and doing a final blend – which probably defeats the object…..! I’m undoubtedly far too set in my ways and used to making huge volumes of soup without thinking about restricting quantities – especially with my usual allotment-scale gluts of produce! However, if you aren’t dealing with such large amounts and are prepared to stick fairly closely to the recipes, the resulting soup was certainly just as nice as when I’ve made it in the past using the old-fashioned method! If anything, I missed the alchemy of stirring, tasting and adjusting as I went; the fact that it’s all contained admittedly rules out any chance of the kitchen steaming up or the pan boiling over, but it also means you can’t adapt as you go. What was that about old dogs and new tricks…..?

Anyway, Happy New Year and happy soup-making!

Quest for the perfect tiffin – and allotment update!

Tulips at Perch Hill April 2014

I seem to be chasing my tail in the garden this year: despite the fact that the weather has been heaps better this year than last year, I still feel I’m way behind where I’d like to be and the allotment, half of it at least, is developing very jungly overtones! A combination of weekends away, guests at home and lots of work have taken their toll on my planting/tidying programme, so I’m having to concentrate on what’s really essential, like planting my pea seeds (mangetout Norli and sugar snap Sugar Ann). Also up there is erecting the crucial pea netting frame to stop the plumpest pigeons in the South East from decimating the crop – as has happened in previous years. I splashed out last year on one of those frames with balls at the corners in which you insert metal poles – surprisingly easy to erect, even for someone as technically challenged as me, and it withstood the worst of the wind and weather to remain standing all season – with a bumper crop! Try the Organic Gardening Catalogue if you fancy giving it a go: here.

Last weekend, despite having a full house over Easter, I managed to plant my salad and herb seeds: lettuce Little Gem, Swiss chard Bright Lights, perpetual spinach, coriander, dill, spring onions, rocket and parsley. I also sowed my root crops – carrot, beetroot, parsnips and swede under their protective layer of enviromesh – which has been in situ for a few weeks now to warm up the soil. I then leave it in place to protect the carrots from the dreaded root fly – seems to have been pretty effective the last few years.

This year I’ve had dreadful germination of the sweet peas I sowed at the beginning of March in the propagator in my conservatory at home: Fragrantissima from Thompson & Morgan– I’ve had this variety for years, but never had such poor germination before! I decided to sow the replacement packet straight into the ground, but I’ve planted the 9 healthy little plants I did get to germinate round the tripod too. I’m sure the later sowing will soon catch up as the weather gets warmer.

Still on the to-do list are mowing the paths around and through the allotment – I like to leave the grass long to encourage insect life and wild flowers under my apple and plum trees, but cut a grid pattern of paths between the trees. Unfortunately, I haven’t had any time to mow yet, so am hoping the forthcoming Bank holiday weekend will give me chance to catch up! Compost distribution and reconstruction of the pallet compost bins are also still on the list, as is weeding the knee-high weed patch that was supposed to be home to my main crop potatoes before I relinquish that part of the plot at the end of the year. I’ve a sneaking suspicion I won’t get round to it at all – it certainly looks a very daunting prospect: scary how soon the weeds take over if you don’t keep on top of them, and all the more reason to opt for raised beds as they are so much easier to maintain!

Oh well, baby steps….

Apart from visiting Sarah Raven’s beautiful garden at Perch Hill, just up the road from us in Burwash – those are her gorgeous tulips above – one thing I did manage to do this weekend was continue the quest for the perfect tiffin. My younger son is home in the final push of essays and revision before his finals in a few weeks’ time, so emergency sustenance was the order of the day. I’d almost forgotten about this recipe, but I think you’ll agree it’s definitely a firm contender for the best tiffin award! I think it was a Jamie Oliver recipe originally, now tweaked slightly: see what you think:

Chocolate fruit tiffin

100g butter

200g each of plain and milk chocolate

3 tbsp golden syrup

175g digestives, crushed roughly

350g mixed dried fruit (I have used apricots, sultanas, cranberries, dried blueberries and sour cherries; crystallised ginger is also good)

handful of sunflower seeds (or pumpkin, etc.)

handful of shelled pistachios (or coconut, cashews, unsalted peanuts, etc.)

Melt the butter, chocolate and syrup in a large bowl over a pan of simmering water, stirring occasionally until combined. Remove from the heat and mix in the crushed digestive biscuits, fruit (chopped if large like apricots), seeds and nuts. Stir, then tip into a foil-lined tin. The original recipe uses a loaf tin, but I prefer to use a flat 7” by 11” baking tin. Pack down well (it will be extremely thick!) and smooth the top down. Cover with clingfilm and refrigerate overnight until set. Turn out and cut into squares.

Could also add mini marshmallows or crumbled meringue instead of some of the fruit and nuts for a rocky road variation.

Early season progress – slow and steady…

Image

Managed another three hours up at the allotment this afternoon – thought I might not do when I saw the rain this morning, but it eased off, and was mostly dry. Thank goodness – still lots to do after missing a weekend last week, so good to tick off more start-of-season tasks.

I planted my onion sets – I don’t grow many as they’re cheap enough in the shops all year round and onions aren’t that different when they’re home-grown in terms of taste, but I do like to have some late summer just so I can claim to be completely self-sufficient for at least part of the year! I like the mixed bags of red, white and brown onion sets from Thompson & Morgan – they seem to do well in my raised beds. I plant them as an edging around my leeks so I can rotate them with other alliums and hopefully avoid onion rot.

My first potatoes went in too – I’m growing Maris Peer this year, again from Thompson & Morgan, supposedly for its delicious taste and waxy flesh. We shall see! I’ve been disappointed with the new potatoes in recent years: last year I grew Casablanca which was nothing special and the year before International Kidney, the so-called Jersey variety, but it didn’t live up to its reputation on my soil. The nicest I’ve grown in recent years was Ulster Sceptre, which I thought had been discontinued but have just checked only to see that it is still available as a special collection on the T&M site – rats! It certainly wasn’t listed in the catalogue – that will teach me not to double-check online!

Another job was to water in the nematodes I thought I’d try for slug control this year. I ordered a pack of the Nemaslug with my seed order from The Organic Gardening Catalogue (I think it brought my order in for the free postage if you spent a certain amount!), and it arrived a week or so ago. The soil has to be warm enough before you apply it as the nematodes are living organisms and will die if the soil is too cold. This morning’s rain was ideal to moisten the soil first and you just have to dissolve the pack contents, looking for all the world like sawdust, split into 4 equal amounts in four 2-gallon watering cans and water over those beds you want to protect. I chose my hostas at home – fed up with the lace curtain effect after the slugs have chomped their way through my beautiful plants on our heavy clay soil. Strangely enough, the hostas were never touched when we lived in Scotland – though they certainly had other targets up there! Up at the allotments, I watered it around my dahlia bed, the strawberries, the potatoes I’d just planted, and my asparagus bed, which also has dahlias at each corner. Watch this space – it will be interesting to see whether I notice a difference.

Other jobs included putting supports – posts and wires – in for the raspberries I moved two weeks ago, general weeding and spraying Roundup over the invading hordes of buttercups and couch grass on my bark paths between the raised beds. I do try to be organic, but I reckon it’s acceptable to be a little less green on the paths….

I had hoped to plant some salad seeds – ideal time for leafy crops with a waxing moon, if you believe in lunar planting! – but with the inevitable chit-chat with fellow plotholders, ran out of time – hopefully I’ll have time to do that as part of an evening dog walk during the week. I’d planted my tomato seeds – Sungold, Gardener’s Delight and Tigerella – in the propagator at home yesterday, along with some cucumber seeds, and some basil and more parsley. I daren’t do them any earlier as with no greenhouse, they can’t go outside too soon anyway.

A thoroughly enjoyable few hours’ work – and a satisfying basket of golden chard, spinach, rhubarb, purple-sprouting broccoli, leeks, swede and parsnips to bring home – who said anything about the hungry gap?! Oh and a lovely bunch of deep orange wallflowers too, which now look stunning in a turquoise glass vase on my kitchen windowsill.

This weekend’s recipe is for some cookies I conjured up this morning whilst waiting for the rain to stop. Delicious, if I say so myself!

Chocolate orange cookies

4oz butter

4oz self-raising flour

4oz light muscovado sugar

4oz porridge oats

½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tbsp golden syrup

Grated rind of two oranges

4oz plain chocolate

 

Mix the sifted flour, sugar, oats and bicarbonate of soda in a large bowl.

Melt the butter and syrup in a pan, then stir into oat mix and add half the orange rind.

Divide into small truffle-sized balls (I got 19) and place well apart on two greased baking trays, flattening slightly with the heel of your hand.

Cook for 15 minutes at 160°C fan (Gas 4) until golden brown.

Cool slightly on the trays, then transfer onto cooling rack to cool completely.

When cool, melt the chocolate and the remaining orange rind in the microwave (short bursts and stirring help prevent burning). The orange rind leaves the chocolate slightly bitty in appearance, which doesn’t bother me, but if you’d rather have it smooth, you could try orange oil (extract) instead. Spread chocolate onto the bottom half of each biscuit with a small spatula and leave to set before serving.

Delicious with a cup of tea when you come in from your exertions in the garden…

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