Monday, 31 March 2014

More allotment bushcraft cooking

It's shop duty time again. But it was really quiet for the first hour. Nobody came by. Not even my partner for the stint. But at 11am she rolled up. Chalk up another victim of the clock change. Yes we are now on British Summer Time. This, in theory, gives us "more time" in the evenings. Actually we don't have "more time" since we cannot create time. It just makes people get up earlier and use their time more wisely. I fail to see why this is necessary.

I've mentioned before about the kind of cooking I do down at the allotment. So I thought today I would try out another trick. Take a can of tuna in oil. Or any fish in oil for that matter. Simply remove the lid...

Place a piece of toilet paper or kitchen towel over it and push down well into the oil. In my case I have a roll of kitchen towel. I took one sheet, folded it into quarters and firmly pressed it down. Place in a safe area and light the corner.

This burned for nearly 10 minutes. The wicking of the oil meant that the whole tin cooked. It was so hot I had to use my garden gloves to pick it up afterwards. Although it looks burnt, it isn't. It tasted really good.

So to date, I've cooked bannock, eggs, now tuna. I guess later in the year I'll have to rig a barbecue of some sort to go for the full effect.

Meanwhile, whilst breakfast was cooking, I had a lot of water to shift. The tank that is located between myself and the plot behind has a job to do. It will be moved into a new area of the allotment site where there is quite a gap between the watering taps and tanks. Later in the year we will be installing additional piping so that this portion of the site is well watered.
But I don't want to lose all the water that is there. So I need to transfer as much water as possible into my water butts to save for later. Cue endless rounds of bucketing to fill up the butts. Finally when it was empty it could be dragged (with the help of an additional allotmenteer) round to the far corner of the site.

My potatoes have been chitting in the greenhouse. I'm a little confused about this chitting business because I cannot really see any changes in the spuds. Though there are little shoots on them, those shoots do not have appeared to change in any way. So either I suck big time at chitting, or they are already ready for the ground. Cue the digging. Two lines of spuds ready to go. You can't really see it, but there are two stakes closest to the camera and two bamboo canes at the far end marking the lines of the spuds.

It was after this digging when I heard a crash. Remember the leaning tower of water I fixed a couple of weeks back? Well the water that I emptied from the tank was placed into it, filling it up. Guess I hadn't fixed it as well as I thought, because the leaning tower leaned a little too far and fell over. Fortunately away from the greenhouse, but all that lovely water I had transferred was now leaking into the ground. Time to re-build the water butt, yet again.

So now is the time to get the carrot bags sorted out. Despite the foxes taking up residence again, I have a need for all that lovely composted weeds and topsoil. So out with the shovel and sieve to fill the bags. Shovelling all this in the hot sun is hard work.

I have also sown some new sets of beans, following on from the frost damaged ones before. Hopefully, these ones will survive. If they don't come up within the new few weeks, I'll drop some peas in the cane wigwam and leave it at that.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Has beans

I guess I might have been a bit too early putting my beans out last week. It suddenly went rather cold this week and the beans didn't like it.

There are a couple of other seedlings in the greenhouse which may have also suffered. These were the ones closest to the side windows so they may have just caught the edge of the cold. Their leaves have turned brown(ish) and curled up. Still, plenty more available.

Although the seedlings are coming along nicely, I really need to start getting some beds available for them to be planted into. I'm on shop duty tomorrow so I have to be there nice and early. Well earlier than usual because tonight we lose an hour of sleep as the clocks change. I really hate this "daylight saving" thing. We don't actually save any daylight. the amount of light is still the same. Just we choose to view more of it because people get up earlier. If people got up earlier anyway then there wouldn't be this problem. There is nothing wrong with getting up at 6am anyway. I do it on a regular basis.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Bean poles

So I spent most of today dodging ice cold rain showers. And I do mean ice. As in hail stones. They made a nice "dink" sound as they bounced off the green house whilst I was nice and warm inside drinking my coffee.

It's kind of my tradition now that I always have a coffee when I get to the allotment. My old penny stove heats up a full kettle in about 5 minutes. So it gives me a) time to wake up, b) time to plan what needs doing and c) a chance to reflect on the overall plan of the allotment.

It was during this morning's coffee and the listening to the sound of the hail stones when I realised I had made a mistake. The herb bed I made last week is in the wrong place. The spot where I built it can be flooded. That is not a good option for a long term herb bed. So instead I decided to put a short term crop in there. In this case it will be French beans.

So I raided my stock of bamboo canes to build a little wigwam of canes. Since it is square in shape, then 8 canes is the ideal option. Thats 8 plants to go in there.

Those little dimples you see in the bed are actually little fox paw prints. Guess they like taking the short cut across the bed rather than round it. Hopefully the canes will put them off this option.

But I have 5 spare. So I quickly cleared a small space to put a smaller wigwam for the final 5 along side the artichoke.

Meanwhile inside the nice warm greenhouse. The seeds have taken off like a shot. Yesterday the wife spent a while re-potting on the marrows into separate pots. These will eventually find their way into the new mound. Or on top of the old mound. Or even into the plant sale. I don't know what I'm going to do with 15 marrow plants. If they go like last years courgettes then it's going to be marrow in one found or another for the rest of the year. But there is a lot of action from the other seeds too.

On the subject of marrow, I still have last year's Giant George hanging around. I think I'm going to have to lookup how to prepare the seeds for planting. But maybe I'll be swamped with a little too much courgettes (again).

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Blueberry bushes

Last week the final part of my order from Suttons was delivered. 3 Blueberry bushes. Now these plants like an acid soil. The so-called ericaceous soil. We do not have any such compost in the allotment shop so I had to head down to the Lower Morden Garden Centre to get some. Now this soil is lime free and appears to be made from, what I can only describe as ferns. It seems to be a strange sort of thing. But now being back home and a few helpful google searches later I understand why this is. It seems that in times gone past, ericaceous soil was made from peat. Well peat technically is a renewable resource, except the rate it renews at gets into the hundreds of years so it's not really a viable option. This Levington stuff is made from heather and tree bark. Anyhow, three new little bushes get a big pot of acid soil. I probably won't get any berries off them this year, but there is always next...

Also whilst we were there we bought a 6-pack. No not of beer. of Lavender. This fills the gap between the small rhubarb and the apple trees. Hopefully they will bush out a bit. In fact they need to bush out a lot to fill the gap.

Meanwhile, I have reset the leaning tower of water.
and planted my small yellow buddleja in between the tubs.
I'll have to keep it from getting swamped with all the stinging nettles. But thats no great hardship. It should soon grow a few long stems and take over that section. Careful origami of the stems should ensure that it doesn't spread and is self supporting.

Last week the foxes moved back in. Seems they have well and truly made themselves at home now. They have dug a back door to their mansion. Oh, and a side entrance. And a tradesman's entrance. And a sally port. And a small escape hatch on the top. I count no less than 6 entrances now. At least I can start sieving the soil they dug out to start filling my carrot and spud bags.

Meanwhile in the greenhouse there has been much sprouting of the seeds. But more of that after tomorrows session.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Foxes are back

Poor foxes got flooded out of their home under the mound during the early part of the year. But last night they seem to have moved back in. They have dug themselves a new entrance tunnel.

Unfortunately for them, I now need to start using the soil from the mound to replace the soil which has had all the nutrients leached out by the rain. However I can start at the other end of the mound.

The mound was first formed because the plot was seriously over grown. A little "light digging" and the top couple of inches, including all the weeds grasses and various other debris was piled up and covered with weedproof membrane. This was the home for last years courgettes. And boy did they really thrive. Meanwhile underground all that organic material was composting down and now the soil quality under there is absolutely superb. So much so that I am now sieving it out and using it in my potato bags and eventually my carrot bags as well.

Today saw the construction of the herb bed, as well as the extension of the new wood chip path. And finally the main beds were finally dug over. Well I say beds, they're not truly beds as they are still liable to flooding and really need to be raised beds to be safe. But that only comes with the wood.. which has yet to arrive at Wickes. So in the meantime the ground is dry enough to dig over and at least get the main layout prepared. I may use this space for the cabbages, cauliflowers, and sprouts.

All-in-all an excellent day down the allotment. Arrived at 9am this morning after a short diversion past Wimbledon Theatre where once again they are throwing away another Euro Pallet. (It's amazing how my collection of handy sized Euro Pallets has grown over the months). And finally left just before 4pm.

I hope there will be many more days like this.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

New shoots already

Lovely sunny day so it's straight down the plot again today. I think the wife has caught the bug as she is joining me again. First thing we notice is the Pak Choi is already sprouting.

One of the reasons the wife is probably a little more interested is that we have got a few more seeds. The recent Suttons order also had some colourful pots. But these weren't included in the original delivery. They came during the week. I only ordered plant pots, but Suttons obviously have spare seeds they want to get rid of because they stuffed the package with more goodies.

There are a number of bee friendly flowers here. As well as stuff we already have... such as the spinach. Bee friendly is certainly good as last year there was a major issue with the bees of site. Last year we only had three hives coming out of the winter. This year the mildness of the winter has meant that all of the hives have survived. So that's 9 hives of busy bees. During today's visit to the allotment we took a walk up to the separate section in the wilderness area where we have the hives. It was rather gratifying to see all of them busy with the bees out of this nice sunny day.

Back on the plot, there is much to be done. I wanted to start building raised beds, but a quick trip to Wickes this morning showed that they won't have the wood delivered until Tuesday. So other things need to be sorted out. The pathway between plot 29 next door and myself is rather overgrown. It has a carpet put down to repress the weeds but obviously this is not a good option as the grass has grown through it as well as rooted off the carpet. So the grass tussocks need digging out and the carpet reset. But most notably a big helping of wood chips are needed too.

Meanwhile the wife has planted up the flowers into new seed trays and then started picking the damaged leaves and weeds out of the perpetual spinach bed. I must say, it certainly looks a lot better. But she still needs to learn to squidge the slugs.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Cravendale Milk is useless for making cheese

Yeah, nice big headline on that one please.

Yesterday I mentioned that I was making cheese and things had not gone to plan. Well I have some follow up news on that front.

We use Cravendale Milk. Mostly because of it's longevity. We buy the two litre packs and that usually lasts us a whole week. Good for cornflakes and tea throughout. We buy the semi-skimmed version (green top) simply because it has less fat and a decent taste. The skimmed one (red) tastes too watery.

I bought the Big Cheese Making Kit as part of my seeds order from Suttons.

They state quite clearly on their instructions and on the FAQ page on the Big Cheese's website..
... so naturally we bought the massive big whole milk (blue top) Cravendale Milk. I mean after all that is exactly what they said to use.

I was making the Ricotta Cheese so, being a first timer, I followed the instructions to the letter, carefully measuring out the 50ml of water for the 1.5 teaspoons of citric acid, taking careful consideration to times and temperatures etc. And what do I end up with? Barely 2oz of cheese as opposed to the 2lbs they say I should get.

The results, to say the least were very disappointing.

I was very annoyed as you can imagine. A waste of time and money. So I immediately filled in their "contact us" page. This morning I received the following email...

Hi there, 
Thanks for getting in touch and I'm sorry that your first attempt wasn't much of a success but it turns out that there is a really simple explanation.
Actually, we're really glad that you contacted us because you've highlighted an issue that we weren't really aware of. It turns out that the brand of milk that you used is the reason your ricotta didn't turn out, I've quoted what Cravendale say about their product below:
'We don't just pasteurise our milk, we also use ceramic filters to remove even more of the bacteria that turns milk sour. This keeps our milk deliciously pure and fresh for twice as long as standard fresh milk without the need for additives or preservatives. It's that simple.'
If you use normal full fat blue top milk (not processed or filtered) then you'll be fine. If you want an even higher yield then add in some gold top jersey milk or a touch of cream. 
You are right that a tsp is a teaspoon, make sure it's a full teaspoon that you use. It turns out that he citric acid wasn't your problem here though, the milk was.
Thanks very much for getting in touch, we hadn't come across this before!
Good luck with your next batch, which I'm sure will be a huge success.
Do let us know how you get on.
Kind regards, 

So, there you have it. Cravendale milk may be good for longevity, but the manufacturing process it goes through makes it useless for making cheese, even if you do use the Whole Milk version.

(Oh, incidentally it seems that Big Cheese are also breaking the law when it comes to their information. Statutory Instruments 1994 No 2866 and No 2867. Big Cheese only ever use Imperial measurements with no other options. Another reason I was annoyed with them. Use of old measurements should not be tolerated in this day and age. What is this? The 60's?)

Somebody somewhere owes me for 4.5 litres of milk.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Spring has arrived

After yesterday's post, I had a look back at my blog. Last year we started the main seeds off on the 7th of April, this year it's the 8th of March, a whole month earlier. Well last year was incredibly cold at the start. This year was incredibly wet. But on the whole, I don't think a couple of weeks here or there really matters.

Sunday was probably the sunniest day of the year so far. Seems like everybody was crawling out of the woodwork to be down the allotment. I was down there bright and early, but even I wasn't the first. Today was mostly spent digging the still wet soil, piling up the couch grass in the new mound, and carting barrow loads of manure to be used liberally on the plot. We get our manure from Dean City Farm which is just a few miles away. But we are not the only allotment site in Merton to benefit from their manure. It seems like their manure is quite widely wanted. We've had our main delivery for a few weeks now, and it has ripened nicely. Whilst digging into it, the bottom part was totally saturated with water. Hardly surprising. But what was surprising was the moist level just under the crust. I have never seen so many worms. There were thousands of them. Must be good stuff if the worms love it.

Both Rhubarbs (the small and the large) got liberal doses of the mucky stuff. As did the beds. Well I say beds, but they're not really. It's just a big dug patch. One thing I really need to do is sort out proper beds. Preferably raised ones, which won't be susceptible to flooding so easily.

Elsewhere, the Perpetual Spinach seems to have got through the "winter" relatively unscathed. There are a few browned leaves, but there are lots of young leaves coming up. Good for a few wiltings for dinner at least.

Anyhow, after all the digging and the heat of the day, I just went home, grabbed a cool cider from the fridge and collapsed in front of the TV. Which is why I'm writing this up on Monday night as opposed to Sunday night.

I've just spent an hour trying to make some Ricotta cheese from the Big Cheese Making Kit that I bought when I ordered my seeds. I don't think it has worked properly. I followed the recipe to the letter (I alway do when trying new things) but all I have are few small curds floating on the top of what looks like normal milk. I think I've just wasted 8 pints of milk.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Starting Seeds

Nice sunny day today. So I nagged the wife into coming down to the allotment. She's not normally involved so much. Especially if it involves heavy digging and hard work. But starting seeds off is nice and simple and she quite enjoys it. So it was with great enthusiasm (on my part) and much reluctance (on her part) that we started the day down the allotment. For there is much to do.
Couch grass must be dug out.

I have a lot of work to do in the actual layout of the plot. The growing last year pointed out some of the deficiencies in how the plot is structured and the floods earlier in the year has showed where the ground needs to be built up. And there is the dreaded couch grass everywhere. So This years plan is to build a new courgette mound made up of the couch grass which I am digging out of the beds. Or where the beds are going to be placed in the future.
New courgette mound start to take shape.

The ground is very soft. Though it is easy to dig, the clods that are dug are extremely heavy with water. In fact as I dig through, in some areas, there is a very bad smell of rotten material. Something anaerobic has been going on down there and the ground needs to get some air into it. But no sooner do I dig out an area than it gets in filled with water. It's still way to wet to consider planting anything. But if I can get the beds laid out and raised then things should be better for later in the year.
Dig a hole, it just fills with water.

The new seeds have arrived and the wife is busy in the green house putting some of them into seed trays and getting everything labelled.
Other half filling seed trays.

She went through the 2014 Suttons catalogue and pointed out what varieties of veg she really wanted this year. So we will be trying Aubergines, Okra and White Strawberries this year. She wants, so who am I to argue? We will also be doing the usual veg, Tomatoes, herbs (Basil, Coriander, Thyme etc.), Courgettes etc. So all-in-all we're off to a good start. Tomorrow I'll be down here on my own as it will involve shifting large amounts of rotten manure and that is not something the delicate flower is really interested in.
The first of this years seeds off to a good start.

Sunday, 2 March 2014


I've always been unsure about whether growing potatoes is actually worth it. To my mind, growing the common varieties doesn't really make much sense as they are cheap and easily available in the shops for next to nothing. Why risk the dreaded blight when it's far easier to buy?

But then there is the sense of growing your own. Being able to do it and eat your own goodies. Yes I can certainly see the benefits of growing heritage varieties but general purpose spuds? Well hopefully I am going to eat my own words because I am going to attempt to grow spuds.
Chitting spuds. Charlotte, rear. Maris Piper, fore.

Now supposedly it's not difficult. Simply throw them in the ground and forget about them is the common method. But my ground is infested with couch grass and floods. But a while back I was after some light fittings in B&Q and had a quick hunt through their bargain section. They had some standalone grow bags as damaged goods. £1.50 for three slightly different sized bags. Some had water damage (rust marks) others were packet damaged in some way. One only had two bags in. But £6 for 11 large sized containers didn't seem too bad to my mind. Especially as they are re-usable.

They are ideally suited to grow spuds in there. Easy to harvest too... just tip 'em out. So that's what's going to go in these bags. Spuds. And maybe some purple carrots too.

Compared to yesterday, today is a blustery overcast day. Pretty windy and not nice outside. So I spent most of my time nice and warm in the greenhouse sorting out the seeds from last year and getting things laid out ready to start them off in trays. Some I've put aside for starting later in the month, but in the meantime there is a lot to sort out. I also need to get my delayed orders in at Real Seeds and Suttons. Maybe the plot itself will dry out enough for me to dig it over by the time the seeds arrive.

In the meantime, kettle's boiled for coffee and the breakfast eggs are nearly done.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Working in the shop (Again)

Back on shop duty again today. This time I was paired with Chris, who was last seen having creative differences with Alison on the barbecue. Very quiet in the shop today, despite it being a nice bright sunny day. The only thing that sold were bags of compost and potatoes.

So sunny that it is time to sort out the greenhouse. If you remember it's been a bit flooded in there so it needs a good clean out and reset of the floor and layout. The first problem is getting everything out. The shelves that are in there are too big to fit through the door. So I first have to remove the diagonal bracing and loosen the corner joints so that it can tip up at an angle to get out of the door. Took a while to do, but I eventually managed it.
Mucky floor

So now with all the buckets, plant pots, pallets and of course the shelves out I can sort out the floor itself. Dragging the weed proof membrane out is not hard to do. Nor is cleaning it off (with helpful buckets of water from the water tank). The rake was removed from it's duty as a window brace and used to re-level the floor and by thickening the main walkway. I dragged in an old piece of carpet to help stabilise the floor before bringing the now clean membrane back in.
I re-arranged the shelves to solve a problem when I first built them last year. Now I have the 'L' shape I wanted, which gives me slightly more working space in the greenhouse.

Everything back inside

Now I feel ready to start planting seeds and such. Actually, I feel ready for a stiff drink, so seeds can wait until tomorrow.