Tag Archives: sowing seeds

Easter Glory

Easter tree 2019

The beauty of the Easter weekend is that we have four whole days to relax, see family and friends, go out and about AND catch up on the garden/allotment. Bliss. With a new granddaughter in the family, no surprise that Sunday was spent with family, on Saturday I visited the Standen Tulip Festival near East Grinstead with my parents, and on Monday I had a long lunch out with friends. However, that still left me time to get on in the garden at home and at the allotment too – perfect! The fabulous weather really was the icing on the cake – most unusual for a bank holiday weekend in the UK!

Standen technicolour tulips 2019

 

Standen tulips

I made a start on the allotment last weekend, but am having to be very strict and pace myself so as not to overdo it with my slowly recovering knee. Three hours up there the previous Sunday felt quite strenuous, so I’ve been trying to go down in the evenings as part of my late dog walk and just do half an hour’s weeding: the joys of raised beds is that it’s quite possible to weed and prepare a whole bed in half an hour, instantly making a huge difference. The upshot of this week’s half-hours here and there was that, when I went up yesterday, I was already in a position to sow seeds in my salad and root crop beds: carrot St Valéry, parsnip Countess and beetroot Cylindra, and turnip Oasis (a new extra-sweet variety I’m trialling for the first time this year. On the salad front, I planted perpetual spinach, rhubarb chard, rocket, oak-leaved lettuce, dill, coriander, agretti (let’s see if I can manage to grow it without the slugs devouring every last fibre this time!), Watermelon radish, Florence fennel, and Welsh onions. I also dug my potato trenches and planted out two rows of potatoes: Arran Pilot and salad variety Nicola. Flower seeds also went in for my new extended cutting garden: Cosmos Purity, sunflower Autumn Beauty, Achillea Summer Berries, Poppy Ladybird and Calendula Pink Surprise. I’d already lifted some strawberry runners from my existing (and couch grass-infested) strawberry patch last Sunday to start a new bed at the reclaimed end of the plot: very satisfying.

The tulips have been fabulous this year, both the cutting specimens at the allotment and the container-grown specimens at home. I reverted to planting mixtures of tulips this year, rather than single varieties in each container, and by and large they have all flowered together and looked stunning, set off beautifully by the seed-grown wallflowers (Giant Pink and Sunset Purple). The container below has red Escape and red-and-white striped Rio de Janeiro: beautiful with the dappled sunlight in the back garden.

Red and white tulips

This container has Lemon and White Flag tulips with Sunset Purple wallflowers – just exquisite and a long season of interest to boot.

White tulips amd wallflower

The blossom is heavenly this year too, presumably having benefited from last year’s summer heat. It remains to be seen whether the fruit crops will be equally good. Anyway, back to the grindstone – still heaps to do! I had intended to plant out my autumn-sown sweet peas and sow some mange-touts and sugarsnap peas, but ran out of time. There’s always next weekend… In the meantime, I think I’ll seek some help to mow the allotment grass and do some of the heavier weeding – there’s only so much you can (or should!) do with a recovering knee 🙂

 

 

 

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

 

 

Another weekend, more progress…

Allotment evening sun

Another weekend comes around, very different from the soaring temperatures of last weekend, but dry at least today, so I’ve finally ventured out into the allotment to do something other than harvesting. My gardening helper came in again on Thursday and did the heavy weeding and lawn mowing, which meant it was a much easier proposition to go up today and get started with the interesting bits! As it was, I still spent over two hours up there, preparing beds and soil – all very enjoyable, but I can certainly feel it in my knee now…

Carrots, parsnips and beetroot are duly sown, along with salad crops: spinach, Swiss chard, rocket, lettuce, oriental mustard, parsley, coriander, dill and chives. I also planted red onion sets around the outside of the bed where the leeks are due to go: currently still containing healthy-looking parsley and chard/spinach that’s about to go to flower, but should be good for a few more pickings. I had intended to plant my peas too, sweet and mangetout, but common sense prevailed and I’ll save that until tomorrow – weather permitting!

I returned home with vast amounts of rhubarb – clearly loving the typical April weather of sunshine and showers – and yet more purple-sprouting broccoli. Most of my meals this week have featured broccoli one way or another, not that I’m complaining. It’s a real delight to have something so fresh and tasty at this time of year, before the asparagus and the broad beans come into their own in a few weeks’ time.

Tonight I simply had it steamed served with salmon fillet, a cream and herb sauce, paprika-dusted chunky chips and a garlic mushroom. So good. Other uses during the week were my standby broccoli and anchovy pasta, a tuna, leek and broccoli pasta bake, and a broccoli and feta frittata. Nothing very taxing, but nice to ring the changes by cooking the broccoli in different ways. And just think of all those vitamins! A and C for starters, but it also contains calcium, iron and folic acid, to name but a few of its nutritional goodies. Let’s hope it goes straight to the knee….

Broccoli & Feta Frittata – serves 2

Broccoli frittata with sorrel mint salad

1 onion, chopped
1 medium potato, diced and parboiled for 5 minutes
1 handful of purple-sprouting broccoli, steamed or microwaved for 2-3 minutes
8-10 cherry tomatoes, halved
a glug of olive oil
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
100g feta cheese, cubed
4 eggs
Salt and pepper

Cook the chopped onion gently in the oil for 10 minutes until starting to soften. Stir in the cooked potato, cherry tomatoes and thyme, and cook for a few more minutes.

Meanwhile beat the eggs, add salt and pepper, then stir in the cubed feta. Tip in the onion, potato and tomato mixture and finally add the drained, cooked broccoli. Pour the mixture into a greased 7″ square roasting dish and make sure everything is evenly distributed. Cook for 12-15 minutes in a pre-heated oven (200°C / Gas 6) until just set to the touch.

Leave to cool for a few minutes and then cut into quarters to serve, preferably with a fresh green salad: mine was fresh red sorrel and mint, as they are both plentiful in the garden at home at the moment, with a handful of red grapes. The frittata re-heats beautifully the next day for lunch if you have any left over.

This next recipe isn’t a looker (are pasta bakes ever?), but it is a really tasty and comforting way of serving broccoli when you have it coming out of your ears… It also contains leeks, another vegetable I’m trying to use up at this time of year, before they flower, and to free up the beds for next month’s courgette and sweetcorn plants. You can still eat them when they go to flower, but they start to develop a hard central tube, so best to use them before if at all possible.

Broccoli & Pasta Bake – serves 2

1 x 160g tin tuna, drained
60g pasta (I used penne, but use whatever you have)
1 generous handful purple-sprouting broccoli
1 large or 2 small leeks, sliced into rings
25g butter
1 heaped tbsp plain flour
250ml milk
1 tbsp parsley, chopped
Freshly grated nutmeg
100g Cheddar cheese, grated
2 tbsp breadcrumbs (I keep a bag in the freezer and use from frozen)
Salt and pepper

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside. Steam the broccoli over the pasta for the last 3-4 minutes.

Meanwhile, gently cook the leeks in the butter until starting to soften. Stir in the flour and cook for a few minutes, then gradually add the milk. You may need to add more milk if the consistency is too thick – this is a matter of personal taste, so use your discretion! Grate in some fresh nutmeg, and stir in the chopped parsley and half of the grated cheese. Then stir in the flaked tuna and season to taste.

When the pasta is cooked, stir the pasta through the sauce, add the cooked broccoli, and turn into a greased ovenproof dish. I use a 20 cm round Pyrex dish. Mix the reserved grated cheese with the breadcrumbs and sprinkle on top. Bake at 200°C / Gas 6 for 25 – 30 minutes until golden brown. Serve with peas or a green salad.

Finally, to use up the feta left over from the frittata, I turned to yet another pasta dish, featuring one of my favourite pasta sauces and one my boys took away to university as easy student fare. I find it’s only too easy to forget about half a packet of feta in the fridge once you’ve opened it, so this is a delicious way of using it up before it goes off. I think the original recipe came from renowned Italian food writer Anna del Conte, but I’ve tweaked it over the years as usual. You can add sweet peppers, or omit the onion: it’s always good.

Spicy Sausage Pasta – serves 2-3

Sausage pasta_rotated

1 x 400g pack good sausages (I like to use Sainsbury’s Sicilian sausages, but any will do)
200g pasta (penne or rigatoni)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tin chopped tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato purée
2 tbsp capers, drained
12 black olives
120ml white wine
2 tbsp parsley, chopped (or basil in season)
100g feta cheese, crumbled
salt & pepper

Cook the chopped onion gently in the oil in a frying pan. Use scissors to cut the skin off the sausages and discard. Chop the sausage meat into chunks and add to the frying pan after 5-10 minutes, then add the chopped garlic and chilli. Cook until the sausage is no longer pink, then add the tomato purée and the wine. Let it sizzle and die down, then add the tinned tomatoes, capers and olives. Season to taste. Simmer uncovered for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile cook the pasta in boiling salted water for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside, reserving a few tbsp of cooking water to add to the tomato mixture if it looks to be getting dry. Alternatively add more wine!

After 15 minutes, add the pasta to the sauce, toss thoroughly and serve topped with the crumbled feta cheese and the chopped parsley.

Poppy in bluebells 2018

Getting stronger…

Cherry blossom front garden

Me, and growth in the garden, that is! An unexpectedly warm and sunny week in mid-April is just what the doctor ordered, encouraging me out to ever longer dog walks (dry and less treacherous underfoot, thank goodness) and also spurring the gardens into heavenly spring growth: tulips, daffodils, camellias, magnolias, epimediums, bluebells – all flowering at once…. Stunning!

I took the opportunity of a trip over to my son’s near Sevenoaks at the weekend to visit a garden I’ve always meant to visit: Riverhill Himalayan Gardens, perched on a fabulous vantage point above the A21, overlooking the Kent and Sussex Weald. It didn’t disappoint with intoxicating bluebell walks, stately rhododendrons, magnificent magnolias and fantastic views everywhere you looked. Dogs were allowed (on leads), a rare treat in these days where dogs seemed to be banned outright in many of the classic National Trust gardens. A sorry tale of the few cavalier dog owners spoiling it for the many who do pick up after their dogs and keep them under control in public places. For the odd child who veered away from our three (on their leads, good as gold). there were lots of others who were keen to come and coo and stroke them, especially my daughter-in-law’s working cocker spaniel, Ollie, who basks in all the attention, true therapy dog that he is.

Ollie in coat

Part of the reason I was able to have such a relaxed weekend was that I’d taken the plunge to get a cleaner back in to clean my house, partly because of my accident, but also to free up precious leisure time. I’d also, for the first time ever, paid for help in the garden, to do the heavy jobs I’d struggle to do with a weak, though recovering knee. A very good move: my overgrown lawn is now neatly mown, hard-to-access areas under trees and shrubs weeded, garden compost distributed around the hungry beds and my potatoes (Ulster Sceptre, Colleen and Bonnie) duly planted at the allotment. Such a relief!

On a side note, Ulster Sceptre is a variety I trialled from T&M some years ago and absolutely loved. I haven’t been able to find them since, but tracked them down to a grower in Yorkshire this year, only to see them described as the variety often grown as early Cheshires – no wonder I loved them, if they are the new potato taste of my childhood!

This left me free to spend a lovely afternoon just pottering on Sunday. I sowed more seeds in the propagator as others germinate and are moved out onto the conservatory windowsill: sweetcorn Ambrosia, courgette Defender and squash Crown Prince (from my own seeds saved from last year) and Early Butternut. Oh, and I’ve tried more celeriac this year (Monarch), having enjoyed it so much in cooking last year: so good with venison. It’s always been a martyr to slug damage whenever I’ve tried it before, but we’ll see…

I also got around to potting up my dahlia tubers, to get them going in the protected environment of my growframe before they go out in the open. Somehow or other I must have gone crazy at dahlia ordering time and have ended up with 10 new varieties! Six from Sarah Raven: purple Ripples, Shooting Star (cream tinged with mauve), Genova (mauve), Snowstorm (white of  course), Wizard of Oz (baby pink) and Daisy Duke (copper). The cream and purple shades are admittedly geared to my younger son’s July wedding, when it would be nice to have at least some blooms to accompany their lavender theme – weather permitting! I have bought a new raised bed kit to be dedicated to cutting flowers, but need help to install it: one for my gardener’s list, I think.

I had also succumbed to a Gardener’s World/Thompson & Morgan dahlia offer: four tubers for the cost of postage; who could resist?! These included Arabian Night, a deep red black cactus variety I’ve had before and loved – and since my favourite dark dahlia Rip City finally disappeared last year, this was an ideal chance to re-introduce that burgundy shade. The others were My Love (cream), Orfeo (another deep red) and Mingus Toni (speckled rose). I’m sure I’ll manage to shoehorn them all in somewhere… It may even be that some of last year’s, all left in the ground to overwinter as usual, haven’t survived the very cold temperatures we had earlier this year. Time will tell.

TM dahlia offer

Most of the tuberous begonias I’d overwintered in the shed had perished in the extremely cold temperatures, but two of my monster tubers still feel quite solid and have been duly potted up. I’ve had them all for a good couple of years, so they owe me nothing; we’ll see if they shoot, and if not, I’ll start again with fresh plants and new varieties. Such is the joy of gardening 🙂

My final task of the weekend, still from a gentle sitting position with my potting tray moved to my garden table, involved pricking out the fibrous begonia seedlings my parents had brought over the previous weekend from Dove’s Barn, a nursery near them in East Grinstead, always very reasonably-priced for a wide range of seedlings and young plants. These are very tricky to grow from seed yourself unless you have a heated greenhouse, so I usually buy them at the tiny seedling stage and prick them out myself. These were one stage further on as mini plug plants, but it’s still a lot cheaper to buy them like this than to buy trays of garden-ready plants in a month or so’s time. And while it may seem unadventurous to always have begonias in my garden tubs, I know from experience that these are such good doers: come sun or rain, slug epidemic or drought, these do well whatever the season throws at them.

Bluebells at Tapsells April 2018

 

 

Spring highs and lows

Hyacinths

Well, Easter has been and gone, and with it some lovely springlike weather last week. Unfortunately, I’m not quite as excited about the fact that spring has finally arrived as I would usually be. I managed to rupture my anterior cruciate ligament on a recent skiing trip in the French Alps and heavy gardening is going to be off the agenda for some while, I suspect. Not a good time of year for a gardener to be out of action!

Fortunately, two and a half weeks in, I now have my leg brace off and have started intensive physiotherapy to strengthen the muscles around my damaged knee. Gentle walking is also allowed, but I’m pretty sure this doesn’t cover long dog walks or heavy-duty gardening jobs like digging the allotment beds, creating new beds or spreading the compost around the garden at home. This last job was something I’d intended to do before going away, but the snow and constant wet prevailed against me, and it just didn’t get done. I’m definitely going to have to bring someone in to do all of that.

On the bright side, I did manage to sow some seeds in the propagator the night before we left (!): aubergines, leeks, chillis, sweet peppers and parsley, so at least they’ve had a head start. All bar the sweet peppers are showing already, and I’ve now sown some tomatoes (my favourite Sungold, Ailsa Craig and a new dark bronze cherry variety called Sunchocola from Mr Fothergill’s seeds), basil, delphiniums and hollyhocks. No problem putting my potting tray on the garden table so I can work sitting down!

I’ve also pottered around the garden dead-heading the hydrangeas now that the risk of frost should be less. I did have to restrain myself from leaping up to the back of the raised beds to the more inaccessible stems, but otherwise all quite doable – and the garden looks so much tidier as a result, plus I can now see the beautiful camellia blooms much better. Next job, also feasible as long as I’m careful, is to cut back my huge lavatera in the bed next to the garage. They need to go down to a foot or so at this time of year to encourage strong new growth and an abundance of flowers in the summer. Another job I should be able to do with a dodgy knee is potting up the dahlia tubers I ordered earlier this spring. I usually start them off in pots in the growframe, then plant them out at the allotment when they are showing strong growth and are less susceptible to slug attack. On the list for the weekend, weather permitting.

I persuaded my sons to take me down to the allotment on Sunday, not to do any work, I hasten to add – and actually things don’t look too bad due to the cold start to the year. Thursday and Friday last week had been particularly sunny, so I was thrilled to find a bumper crop of purple-sprouting broccoli ready for picking – and the first rhubarb of the year too, always a notable event! Parsley and leeks were still growing strong and completed my spring harvest, shared with my son due to the huge quantities! I’ll turn a blind eye to the rest for now, but may need to seek some help planting my potatoes in the not-too-distant future.

Spring harvest

In the meantime, a good old rhubarb crumble was just what the doctor ordered with the first crop of the season – heaven! I’ve given a recipe for a rhubarb & almond crumble elsewhere, but this is just my straightforward, basic crumble recipe, courtesy of my mum and her mum before her. I find it doesn’t work with gluten-free flour, as you lose the crispness. I usually make double the amount of crumble mix and freeze half, uncooked, for a quick pudding when I’m short of time. It can be added straight from the freezer to cooked or uncooked fruit – perfect for busy days.

Rhubarb Crumble – serves 4-6

Rhubarb

500g rhubarb, trimmed and sliced – no need to peel if fresh
3 tbsp Demerara sugar
125g self-raising flour
25g caster sugar
60g butter
1 tbsp Demerara sugar to sprinkle

Place the sliced rhubarb in a covered glass dish in the microwave with the sugar and cook for 4 minutes until starting to soften and produce juice.
Rub the butter into the SR flour and sugar until it resembles fine breadcrumbs and sprinkle over the just-cooked rhubarb to cover completely. Sprinkle over the remaining tbsp sugar and cook in a pre-heated oven at 180-200°C (Gas 5/6) for 30 minutes. Serve warm with custard or a mixture of lightly whipped cream and yogurt. Bliss….

Rhubarb crumble

In the meantime, patience is required in spades – and I’m enjoying the camellias, hellebores and spring bulbs from the window. My garden will have to wait this year…

Tete a tete daffs

Germination Blues

Alliums

It’s been a funny start to the growing season – but then don’t we gardeners say that every year, no matter what the conditions?! This year feels to have been trickier than most, however, not helped by my having been away or otherwise engaged (son’s wedding plans gathering pace…) for the last three weekends. The second half of May is always the busiest in a gardener’s calendar, so things down at the plot had really run away with me.

Then there was the unseasonably warm weather over Easter, followed by an unexpectedly sharp frost at the end of April which decimated all my shooting dahlias at the allotment and seems to have had a disastrous effect on germination, both on the ground and in the propagator at home. No sign of carrots or parsnips, sown under fleece at the end of April, and those beetroot that did germinate have been chomped by slugs – unprecedented as beetroot are normally impervious to mollusc attack! In the conservatory, aubergines and tomatoes germinated as usual, as did my sweet peppers, but chillis have been a disaster, with one weedy looking plant, despite a second sowing. Peas and sweet peas too have been very poor, although I suspect the mangetouts sown in the open ground have been the target of mice, rather than solely germination problems. Courgettes and squash have fared little better, resulting in a meagre three courgette plants and four squashes in total, again despite a second sowing. I’m beginning to wonder whether there was something wrong with the seed compost!

Ah well, having returned from my various travels this week, I’ve managed to spend a couple of sessions down at the allotment on the balmy evenings we’ve been having and am finally feeling that order has nearly been restored. I’ve sown more root crops and peas, planted out the sweet peas I bought on offer in Homebase to make up for my poor showing and sown more mangetouts. I’ve weeded the salad crops which were being taken over by chick weed, horrible stuff that it is, and taken out the spent brassicas, flowering spinach and overblown winter rocket to make space for the courgettes, sweetcorn and French beans – this weekend’s job. Oh, and I’ve planted the new dahlias bought from Sarah Raven as tubers earlier in the season and all now making sturdy plants, alongside last year’s in the ground which have recovered, albeit slowly, from their premature frosting. Looking good…. I’m hoping to have some ready for the wedding flowers at the end of July, so fingers crossed.

Basil

On the plus side, the asparagus has been excellent this year and the broad beans are as good as ever. Tonight’s dinner saw me making the first broad bean pesto of the season, but with half mint, half basil, as the basil in the conservatory hasn’t quite reached jungle proportions yet. Delicious in a simple pasta dish with onions, bacon and a few extra broad beans. If you’ve never eaten freshly picked broad beans, there’s just no comparison with the shop-bought or frozen variety – I urge you to give them a go!

This weekend’s first task will be to sow my French beans straight into the ground (no runners this year; now there’s just me, I really prefer the finer taste of the French variety and I certainly don’t need the gluts that invariably accompany runner beans!). I also need to plant up my summer containers at home and mow the allotment grass, always last on my agenda, although it makes such a difference when it’s all neat and tidy. Here’s hoping the weather holds up – happy gardening!

Poppy in the wheat field

Sowing crazy

Primrose pot

I’m so grateful for four-day weekends at this time of year, especially when they happen to coincide with good weather for once! Despite having family and friends around for Easter, with the associated cooking and entertaining – any excuse! – it’s good to still have time to get out in the garden/allotment and feel you’ve made progress at this busy time in the growing calendar.

A fellow plotholder had a huge delivery of spent mushroom compost a few weeks ago, and when she’d taken what she needed, offered it to other allotmenteers for the princely sum of £1.80 a barrowload. I hadn’t intended to get any this year, having added lots of stable manure last year, but this was too good an opportunity to miss. Plus it’s so dry at the moment that moving it was far less effort than it has been some years. I duly shifted 6 barrowfuls on Good Friday, focussing on mulching round my fruit bushes and dahlias, but the beds looked so good afterwards that I ended up doing another 6 barrowloads today, ready to plant peas, courgettes and beans – all heavy feeders that will definitely appreciate the extra goodness. No wonder my FitBit tells me I’ve done 21,000 steps today – who needs a gym when you have a garden?!

Mushroom compost in barrow

To put the mushroom compost where I wanted it entailed taking out some overwintered plants like the calabrese, which has done amazingly well to keep shooting for so long, but is starting to flower now. The spinach and chard in last year’s salad bed are also putting up flowering stems, which means they’ll go bitter if not used soon. A good excuse for a spinach, pea & mint soup when my parents came over for Easter Sunday lunch. Followed, of course, by a broccoli, caramelised onion & goat’s cheese tart – divine! I also discovered a row of rocket and winter salad I’d planted under cloches last autumn and forgotten all about – wonderful to pick your own salad at this time of year.

The first asparagus was ready on Good Friday too – incredibly early thanks to all this early sunshine. No hardship to pick that and serve it simply roasted with a sublime, oaky, buttery white rioja from the Wine Sociey (Navajas Blanco Crianza 2014) – a match made in heaven.

Broccoli quiche with asparagus and salad_cropped

Soil prepared, it was a relatively simple matter to sow the first peas of the year: purple mangetout Shiraz and old-favourite sugar snap Sugar Bon, along with my first sowing of root crops: parsnips Tender & True, carrot Torchon and beetroot Cylindra and Renova. I’ve covered these with fleece to keep the soil warm as they germinate and to prevent carrot root fly in the early stages of growth. I also mixed horticultural sand with the soil where the carrots are to go thanks to a tip-off from my experienced allotment neighbour and former farmer. He always manages to get fabulous long rows of carrots, whereas I’m lucky to get half-a-dozen to survive the inevitable slug grazing. Watch this space 🙂

Asparagus bed with tulips

I returned from the allotment late this afternoon, tired but happy, with a basket of purple-sprouting broccoli, parsley, leeks, more asparagus and a bunch of gorgeous tulips from my cutting bed – so pleased that they’ve done well enough to pick for the house this year. These particular ones are Bruine Wimpel and Ronaldo – a gorgeous mix.

Tulips Bruine Wimpel and Ronaldo April 2017_cropped

All in all, a very satisfying few days’ work – if only every weekend was four days long!

Broccoli, Caramelised Onion & Goat’s Cheese Tart – serves 6-8

Broccoli and goats cheese tart

20cm shortcrust pastry case, baked blind
3 eggs
300ml double cream (or single if you prefer)
3 large onions, sliced
25g butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp granulated sugar
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
4-5 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed
Handful purple-sprouting broccoli
100g mild goat’s cheese, crumbled
Fresh nutmeg, grated
Seasoning

Melt the oil and butter over a low hat in a large frying pan, add the sliced onions and garlic and cook on low for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and caramelised. Stir in the sugar 5 minutes or so before the end, then add the balsamic vinegar and remove from the heat.

Cook the broccoli in the microwave in a little water for 2-3 minutes until just tender, then drain. Whisk the eggs with the cream, and add the thyme leaves, seasoning and crumbled goat’s cheese. Gently stir in the caramelised onions and cooked broccoli, then turn into the baked tart case. Cook at 180°C fan, Gas 5 for 25-30 minutes until golden brown. Serve warm with salad.

To finish, I have to share one of our favourite family desserts for special gatherings, tiramisu. This is one of my younger son’s signature desserts; I’ve forgotten now how it was that he came to make this, but he did such a good job that the task usually falls to him! He was away this Easter though, so I had to dig out the recipe and make it myself – I’m pleased to report it still worked.

Tiramisu – serves 8-10

Tiramisu

450ml strong black coffee (I make mine in a cafetière)
1 vanilla pod (optional – you could also use 1 tsp vanilla extract or paste)
200g tub mascarpone
4 egg yolks
75g caster sugar (or vanilla sugar if you have it)
300ml double cream, whipped
100ml brandy (or grappa)
1-2 packets sponge fingers (one packet is never enough, but I suppose it depends on the size of your dish!)
1 level tbsp cocoa powder to dust

Pour the coffee into a shallow bowl, add the brandy (or grappa if you want to be authentic!) and vanilla pod if using. Leave to infuse while you prepare the custard mix.

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar until pale and thick, then whisk in the mascarpone until smooth. Add the vanilla extract or paste if you’re not using a vanilla pod. Fold the softly whipped cream into the mascarpone mix.

Remove the vanilla pod from the coffee (wash, dry and add to sugar to make vanilla sugar if you like). Dip the sponge fingers into the coffee mixture, then place in rows on the base of a rectangular serving dish – mine measures 20cm x 30cm. Don’t leave them in the coffee too long as they are liable to disintegrate! Spread half the mascarpone mixture gently over the soaked sponge fingers, then dip the remaining sponge fingers in the coffee and place on top. Finish with a final layer of mascarpone mixture, spreading right to the edges to cover the fingers completely.

Chill in the fridge for at least 6 hours before serving; tastes even better the next day! Dust with the sifted cocoa powder to serve.

globe artichoke
Globe artichokes have survived the winter at last!