May 2009

Very talented.

Allow me to introduce the Attenboroughs. Three very gifted siblings, all in the same family. (Bear with me on this, it is a gardening blog entry…) There’s Richard, the Oscar-winning actor and director, David, the naturalist who surely needs no further introduction and then there’s John.

I don’t know much about John but by all accounts he’s a big cheese in his chosen world, the motor industry, and for him to be a comparative failure would really screw up my analogy, so who am I to argue?

Three super-talented individuals, all slightly different but all with fundamentally the same genes and the  same family name.

Which brings us nicely to the Allium family, the Attenboroughs of the plant world. (See! Got there in the end!)

All of these heroes have a starring role in my garden and allotment. The onions, leeks and shallots are my absolute bankers in the eating stakes: dead easy to grow, practically impervious to bugs and slugs, staggeringly low maintenance and incredibly long lasting. In my book that makes for perfection, and I’ve got healthy looking crops of white and red onions, Musselburgh leeks and Shallots (Longue de Bretagne) doing very nicely thank you very much.

And happily now that the daffodils and the tulips have faded away, my alliums are taking pride of place in the flower bed. Purple Sensation and Globe Master are thriving right now, to be followed by my favourite, Sphaerocephalum, in a month or two.

Lastly there’s the littel chives in the pic at the top. They’ve sat there happily for years,dying down in the winter and then flowering and pushing up fat chives all year long. I don’t use them for much – pretty much just chopping them up and sprinkling over a potato salad – but they’re still a great thing to have to hand.

Masters of the herb, vegetable and flower worlds. Could you find another family whose members have so effortlessless dominated in their chosen careers? Apart from the Attenboroughs, of course…

On the ipod while…ahem…watching Britain’s Got Talent: The Beautiful South / Prettiest Eyes. Not you, Boyle.


A pleasant surprise

I’ve had the allotment for almost four months now – long enough to get to know some of the faces and something of the rhythmn of life in this corner of Beckenham. And all in all I have to say it’s very pleasant.

First, the people. They come in all shapes and sizes. As you’d expect, there are the allotment cliches, the old boys who’ve been working their plots for decades. Ron, who has a towering apple tree that he planted from seed, is a fine and friendly example of the breed. These guys are proving to be a source of wisdom and knowledge, and are rapidly accelerating my gardening education.

There are also plenty of families, signalled by the plots with slides and swings dotting their edges, and by their children who pass the time by chasing each other around screaming and squealing. And then there are the individuals whom I see regularly but haven’t yet got to know – the Caribbean bloke who always drives his car up to the end of his plot, skittering along the edge of the beds on his way, or the chap in the suit who pops in to weed and water most evenings before driving off in his Jaguar.

They’re a sociable lot, as you’d imagine, and friendly. One of the joys I’ve discovered is stopping on the way or from my plot to chew the cud about fruit and veg and life in general. For all her undoubted qualities, Mrs Drooling can’t really hold her own when it comes to discussing the comparative merits of bush versus cordon tomatoes, but now I have a whole world of people where the only thing we have in common is precisely that!

And their kindness and helpfulness extends beyond the dishing out of sage advice. Chatting to Will the other day, he gave me a little tour of his plot, pointing out everything growing and the stories behind them. We got to talking about squashes and the different varieties we were planning on growing. He mentioned the banana squashes he’d had such luck with the previous year. I expressed admiration and thought no more of it.

A couple of days later, when I dropped in one evening to water, I found a little plastic bag taped to the side of my compost heap – a present courtesy of Will. I think I’m going to enjoy life down the allotment.

On the ipod while ruminating on the joys of allotment life: Cavalleria Rusticana / Mascagni. Nothing wrong with a bit of culture every now and then.

Don't worry mate, we've got your back

“It’s a jungle out there. A dangerous place. Get my drift? If you’re going to survive out there then you’re going to need some help. You’re not going to make it on your own, babes.

” A sweet little plant like you, before you know it you’ll be compost.  No, you need protection, dollface. Stick with us and we’ll take care of you.”

Life is hard at the best of times. But if you’re as wussy and pathetic as most of the things that I grow then it’s a nightmare. An aphid just has to look at my tomatoes and they’re wilting. An aphid! I ask you! Whiteflies, blackflies, anycolouryoucanthinkof flies, you name it, my vegetables invariably have a bizarre and all-too-often fatal attraction to things that will do them no good.

Like a foolish girl who always falls for the bad guy – the one who treats her mean, roughs her up and leaves her in bits – my veggies practically hang their bloomers out at any passing bug, whoring themselves for the attention no matter how much they know it’s going to hurt them in the end. “I know the’yre bad for me, but they want me! I just love the attention!”

Clearly if my vegetables are going to be this stupid then they’re going to need all the protection I can provide. Like an overbearing sugar daddy I’m going to have to pull out the stops.

That’s where these tough guys in the pic above come in. Sure they don’t look hard to you or me, but trust me, if you’re a whitefly then you’re soiling your buggy pants at the sight of them. That bad boy at the front? That’s a French Marigold, goes by the name of Red Safari. And the big lad next to him? Practically bulging out of his pot? Another Marigold. His mates call him…um…Dainty Marietta.

Between them they’ll deter blackfly and whitefly, so if I pop a few of them in the greenhouse then even my uber-hopeless tomatoes will be in with a chance of making it through to fruitfulness. And last but by no means least, those floppy-looking fellas with the droopy leaves are the daddies of them all: Pot Marigolds, they’ll attract all sorts of things that eat aphids for breakfast. And you can eat the petals! And they look pretty!

What more could you want? Good looking, well hard and very very tasty. Surely the Drooling Vegetables of the plant world…?

On the ipod while protecting my tomatoes: The Stone Roses / Going Down. Yes, I’m talking to you Mr Aphid. You, my friend, are indeed going down.

Coming on nicely

When I inherited the allotment a few months ago there were signs of various plants having been grown in past seasons. Most of them looked fairly unpromising, or happened to be growing in the wrong place for my carefully-designed masterpiece, and I dug ’em up.

In a part of the plot that I hadn’t planned to do a great deal with there was a spiky-looking bush. It didn’t have any leaves on then, but although it was a bit scraggy it did show signs of having been pruned and tended.

Largely through a combination of chance and lethargy I left it alone and vaguely noticed as leaves and then tiddly little flowers popped out. Then the other day – perhaps in a plaintive cry for attention – it snagged my leg as I walked past and I finally managed to identify it.

And so I found out that I am the proud owner of a gooseberry bush! It’s about 1m tall and wide, and seems to be happily producing a decent crop of the green and hairy berries without any help or input from me. I can’t help but feel there’s a lesson there (see previous post on pumpkins).

Nevertheless, what a bonus: in a few weeks I should be able to harvest a bumper crop, which gives me plenty of time to find a recipe for them. Gooseberry jam feels a bit boring, and everyone suggests Gooseberry Fool (even though no-one seems entirely sure what it is),  so the contrarion in me rules that one out.

I have some elderflowers growing in the back garden, and they are meant to go well with gooseberries, so perhaps there’s any option there. Any thoughts?!?

On the ipod while admiring my berries: Franz Ferdinand / Ulysses.

I wonder how I’d feel if no song I ever wrote was as good as the first hit I had.

What have I done?!?

What have I done? My poor darling lies splayed on the soil, mortally wounded. Clinging on to the last vestiges of life as the light fades, it drifts off to the great compost heap in the sky. No! This wasn’t meant to happen!

Let me rewind a few weeks and explain.

One of the first things I did on getting my allotment was invest heavily in squash and pumpkin seeds. Almost immediately afterwards I challenged my mate and fellow allotmenteer Richard to a pumpkin growing contest: a few seeds of Hundredweight each, kudos to the man with the biggest cucurbit on Halloween.

Now as you will know, despite their enormous size, garish colour and thick skin, pumpkins are actually sensitive little souls, and every gardening book I’ve ever read, along with most websites, stress that they shouldn’t venture outside if there is even the slightest chance of a cloud, let alone cold weather. In fact, look at them a bit funny or forget to compliment them on their foliage and their leaves will start to curl.

But what about the competition? If I’m going to get the jump on Richard then I need to get cracking. So I planted the seeds about a month ago. Germination in the dining room was rapid, and they sat on the bathroom windowsill getting bigger and bigger.  They started to look pretty tough, and what with the recent sunny weather, well, I mean, how cold is cold, you know? Surely they could survive a little brief chill? They’re big, after all, well established.

All those gardening books are probably just being over-cautious. I’ve grown enough veggies to know you can play fast and loose with planting dates without any great difficulty. So into the allotment went a couple of the pumpkins, and onto the patio back home went a couple more.

Hubris (hyoo-bryss): overbearing pride or presumption of arrogance. Belief that one knows best or better than others.

You can see what happened next. Day two, and the pumpkins were not looking happy. A bit droopy. Day four and things were looking pretty grim. I might as well have been sloshing Agent Orange on them for all the good the watering was doing. The photo above was taken on day seven.  That little plant marker is starting to look more like a tombstone.

Curiously, the pumpkins that were put out on the patio are doing just fine. Not sure why this is; they’ve had the same weather as the allotment, they’re not particularly sheltered, nor is the allotment especially exposed. I have, however, taken the precaution of moving them into the greenhouse for a few weeks more.

So I have learned my lesson. A myriad gardening books and every (other) website on the subject are right, while I – who’d have thought it – am wrong.

Pumkpins don’t like being planted out too early. Round one goes to Mother Nature.

On the ipod while grieving: Coldplay / Fix You.

I tried my best. I didn’t succeeed.

Tastes better than it looks

Maybe it’s the recent sun, maybe it’s my earlier attempts to force it, but the rhubarb at the bottom of the garden has gone into overdrive in recent weeks.

This causes slight problems, as I’m the only member of the family who has an unambiguous liking for the pink and green stuff. Most other members of the Drooling clan turn up their noses and jam their fingers down their throat at the mere mention of the glorious vegetable (yup, it’s veg, not fruit, gardening nerds).

One child did somewhat undermine his vehement opposition by inhaling a large bowl of rhubarb crumble the other day, but by and large I face an uphill struggle trying to get the tribe to eat the stuff.

This calls for imagination, hence my visit to this site, possibly the best rhubarb-recipe-related site on the net. Thinking I’d go for some sort of cookie-related recipe, I baked a tray-load of Rhubard Custard Bars.

Unfortunately this revealed the only problem with the encyclopaedic website: no photos. Had I seen a pic of the finished product I’d have known that – as you can see from the above – it doesn’t look fantastically appetising, and more importantly it looks very much like it contains rhubarb. This is a problem when seeking to outwit small children with a hatred of the stuff.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the bars were unanimously rejected. Even my youngest, who was screaming “Cake! Cake! Cake!” when I opened the oven, threw his slice on the floor when he saw what it looked like.

For the record, it tastes delicious. More specifically, it tastes just like rhubarb that has been baked in a sweet custard and popped on top of a base that is somewhere between cake and crumble. If that gets you interested then read on for the recipe below.

Rhubard custard bars


150g self-raising flour

120g sugar

60g soft butter


225g sugar

1/4 tsp. salt

2 tbsp flour

4 eggs beaten

1 tsp. vanilla

500g rhubarb

Heat the oven to 180 degrees. Blend the flour, butter and sugar together. Press into a 9×13 inch baking pan that has been lined with baking parchment. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until lightly browned.

Prepare the filling while the crust is baking: blend the sugar and flour, then add eggs, vanilla and diced rhubarb and blend well. Pour the mixture over the partially baked crust and continue baking for 30-35 minutes. Serve warm or cooled.

Meanwhile the search goes on for a way to make rhubarb palatable for the rest of the family…

On the ipod while cooking: Scouting for Gilrs / I wish I was James Bond.  It’s probably never going to happen for me and the Strachan either.