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.


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.


Look! I paid £10 for a bunch of sticks! Aren’t they pretty?

Hard to believe loooking at them now I know, but I have high hopes for these little lovelies. They may be nothing more than grubby little twigs at the moment, but come the autumn I shall be picking juicy raspberries off these canes.

They arrived in the post this morning, and they’ll be going into the ground in the allotment as soon as I can dig a bed for them. 10 Autumn Bliss raspberries for the princely sum of £10.50 from Keeper’s Nursery: what a bargain!

They’re cheaper in part because they come – and you might just have noticed this – bare-rooted, possible because they’re in the middle of their winter hibernation. But whatever way you look at it, £10 is a bargain.

Because I got the allotment only a couple of weeks ago I wasn’t spoiled for choice when it came to buying some canes (and even these have now sold out) but this variety comes with all the usual positive descriptors: “heavy cropper”, “outstanding sweet flavour” blah blah blah.

(Before we get too excited by this mouth-watering image let’s consider: have you ever seen a fruit or vegetable variety described as “fairly bland tasting” or “pretty temperamental and only a few fruits”?)

I’ve also managed to get autumn fruiting raspberries and that’s what I wanted.  Raspberries are either autumn or summer fruiting, and if you go for the latter then it’s simple to look after them. The fruit grows on this year’s growth, with means that at the end of the year just cut all the canes down to a few inches off the ground and that’s it. Job done.

Summer raspberries, on the other hand, fruit on two-year-old canes. That sounds far more complicated to me; remembering which canes are two years old, cutting them down after fruiting and then letting them grow another year before they do anything useful? I only have a small brain and that’s far too difficult to get my head round.

Nope, autumn raspberries every time. They grow, they give you lots of fruit and then you cut them down. And then you do it all over again the next year. And the next. And the…

So, plants here. I just need to pull my finger out and dig a bed to put them in…

On the ipod while drooling over the twigs: Common People. The William Shatner version, of course. What do you mean, “there’s another one”?

Use the force. But not too much or you'll get manky-looking black leaves on your rhubarb.

It’s bloody freezing in the garden and not a lot is happening.

I’m starting to think that February might not be the best time of the year to begin a gardening blog: nothing is going to go into the soil for a while yet and there are few signs that anything interesting is going on out there.

Luckily there is some action at the bottom of the garden. Underneath a large terracotta forcer my rhubarb is heroically pushing itself upwards towards the sky.

Acutally, “heroic” might be a little generous. I slapped the forcer over the rhubarb a month ago and in that time the shoots have grown a couple of inches at best.  Not particularly inspiring.I read somewhere that forced rhubarb can grow so fast you can hear it crack and pop.

I have not heard these noises coming from inside the forcer.

Still, the rhubarb is much pinker-looking than last year’s (unforced) crop, so it’s a promising start.

The rhubarb crown has been hyper-productive for three years now, generously supplying me and several neighbours (the rest of the family can’t stand the stuff) with regular croppings. This is the first year that I’ve tried forcing it, and clearly we have something of a stand-off, me and the rhubarb.

A previous attempt to force its rhubarb neighbour ended badly: it pushed up a pair of flaccid stalks before giving up the fight for light and slowly dying. Apparently I should have waited a couple of years until the plant was stronger.

This time round things will be different. To say that the remaining rhubarb has been vigorous over the last few years is a bit like saying my children have a working knowledge of the Nintendo Wii.

Having said that the leaves look pretty sorry for themselves, and they have some unhealthy-looking black edges to them. I shall investigate further; to lose one rhubarb through cack-handed forcing would be unfortunate. To lose two would be a touch careless.

Still, I have faith that my plant will pull through. The force is strong in this one.

On the ipod while forcing: The Ting Tings / Great DJ

The drums, the drums, the drums, the….oh never mind.