The freedom to challenge yourself and grow something new!
Having my allotment gives me the freedom to grow varieties I’d never even heard of and never found in my local store. After mastering the basics of growing my own produce, I thought why not grow the weird, the wonderful and the difficult! Every year I grow my staple potatoes, carrots, strawberries, but I also challenge myself to grow new crops. Of course there’s ups and downs but it’s the unknown that’s exciting.
In the spring I brought a second hand greenhouse for £20 (bargain) with a free potting bench thrown in. The bargain greenhouse wasn’t such a great idea when taking it apart and back together again (lots of swear words involved) but it was all worth it. I’d never grown greenhouse crops before but the obvious decision was tomatoes, chillies, sweet peppers and aubergines. When I say I challenge myself, it doesn’t have to be a variety only found in the amazon rainforest, I mean I enjoy growing anything I haven’t grown before.
After making a three sided raised bed in the greenhouse I filled it with soil from the allotment (heavy clay) and mixed in lots of manure. I’d been growing my seedlings indoors up until this point so I transplanted them in the greenhouse after the risk of cold weather had gone. I had a back row of tomatoes spaced at about 30cm apart and then a front row of the chillies, peppers and aubergines.
I grew four different varieties of tomatoes, principe borghese, tigerella, pear and cherry. I got the seeds free with a magazine so I didn’t spend hours researching a heirloom variety, my one goal was to get some tomatoes, regardless of the variety! Saying that, I did research the seed varieties I had and found out which were cordon and which were bush types.
As the plants grew I somehow managed to lose some of the plant markers! At that point I had no idea which plants I should be pruning and which I should be leaving. I did become clear which ones were the bush variety as there were so many stems coming from the base, where as the cordon varieties seemed to have one obvious main stem that was thicker than the rest. I gave them a hard prune taking off any side shoots. I also staked the plants as they were getting tall and unruly!
When the first flowers appeared I tried to spray them with a mist of water whenever I could remember, apparently this is suppose to help the fruit set. Every week I’d cut back more foliage, it surprised me how quick the little devils wanted to grow! I didn’t realise they would be so demanding!
Research told me I should wait until each plant had 4/5 trusses of tomatoes. The greenhouse had turned into a jungle and I had no idea which truss belonged to each plant. It got a bit ridiculous! I decided there were a fair amount of flowers so I dived in with my Secateurs, I felt like a crazied hairdresser when a client asks for a inch off and you give them a bob. I literally cut off 90% of the foliage in the hope that the plant would drive all of its energy into the developing fruits.
Weeks passed and the plants got their regular haircut. The fruits started to develop and began their traffic light colour change. I decreased my watering and gave them regular feeds of seaweed fertiliser. A kind instagrammer also suggested sprinkling a teaspoon of sugar around the base of the plant and watering it in.
The result was an abundance of sweet juicy tomatoes far better than the shops! I’ve been picking huge bowls piled high every week and I still have more to come. Even in September I’m still pruning off most of the foliage as they are determined to get leafy!
Although I grew a bog standard crop, I really felt proud at my first attempt. I put my success down to the hard pruning and decreasing the watering. My favourite variety was the pear tomatoes and next year I plan to move on to some more unusual varieties.
My cayenne chillies have also done well and are ridiculously hot, I put a quarter of one into a curry the other night and that was enough! The peppers again did well and I’ve already brought some more varieties for next year. My aubergines on the other hand were a complete disaster, not one single fruit just lots of flowers! I’ll be doing some research over the winter to find out where I went wrong and give them a go next year.
As I said, growing your own is full of ups and downs, the ups are delicious and the downs just make me more determined to try again. Here’s a chilli chutney recipe I’ve made over the weekend to use up some of my tomato and chilli glut. It’s perfect with cheese and crackers and a cheeky glass of port on a winters night!
I scaled this recipe up for the amount of tomatoes I had which made 5 medium sized jars! Perfect for Christmas presents too!
1350g of chopped tomatoes, I used principe Borghese as these are a variety for cooking sauces but whatever you have grown!
12 cloves of garlic
Big piece of ginger
6 teaspoons of bullion powder
450ml cider vinegar
Finely chop the garlic, ginger and chillies, then place in a heavy saucepan with the remaining ingredients. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for around a hour until thick and sticky. Sterilise your jars and keep stored in a cupboard.
My all time favourite – Butternut Squash
Butternuts are one of the first veggies I grew, getting me completely hooked! The first year I grew them in pots (it is possible) with them dotted around my parents garden. It was at that point I realised my hobby needed its own space so I went on the allotment waiting list…and the rest is history.
Sowing seeds in 9cm pots indoors is the simplest method, the germination ratio is pretty good with the majority coming up. Some say to pre soak the seeds which is all well and good if you have time, but I don’t!
The most common stumbling block for growers is getting the fruits to set. Some years I’ve had loads of early female flowers but frustratingly no males. I’ve even sneaked onto my neighbours plot with a paintbrush to steal some of their male pollen (sorry Anne). Other years I’ve had lots of flowers of both but the pollinating insects must have taken a holiday!
To ensure the fruit sets, use a paintbrush or cut off the whole male flower and rub it on the female stigma. Its quite easy to identify the male and female flowers, females will have the fruit starting to develop behind the flower. Also they have different “bits”, much like us humans!
Each plant will produce around 4 fruits, any more and the plant won’t be able to put its energy into ripening them all, cutting of vines and flowers will help redirect its energy. By the end of summer, the squashes will be at full size and have begun the process of changing colour. I prune any leaves that shadow the fruits, allowing the sun in, hardening the skins giving you a longer storage life.
Last year before the first frost, I harvested 40 kilos of butternuts from 12 plants which kept us going all the way through to April. After harvest I left them on a window sill for a week to cure, then I individually wrapped each butternut in a few sheets of newspaper and layered them in crates. The crates were placed in the cool garage but a shed or even a cool spare room would work. Checking them every month for signs of mould meant I had a continuous supply!
Butternuts are really versatile in cooking, having them as the main event roasted and stuffed, soup for lunch or my favourite, butternut squash curry, perfect for a chilly winter evening! The seeds are normally scooped out and chucked away but I’ve come up with the simplest, yummiest solution!
Seeds taken from 1 butternut, stringy flesh removed
1tbs cayenne pepper
1tsp curry powder
1tbs olive oil
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Place all of the ingredients in a baking tray, with your hands or spoon (you may get yellow hands from the turmeric) mix and coat all the seeds spreading them out so they are one layer. Place in the oven and cook for 15 minutes or until crispy.
These are perfect as an alternative to snack treats or a crunchy topping for soup or salads. Enjoy!
Beetroot, from seed to plate!
In recent years beetroot has been labeled THE “super food” and has even been proven to reduce high blood pressure. I’ve found beetroot to be one of the simplest crops to grow and doesn’t take up a lot of space, it’s also a quick crop ready to harvest in just 90 days from sowing.
This year I’m growing three varieties, Detroit 2 which are a deep maroon, Chioggia with pretty stripy flesh perfect for salads and finally Boltardy. I’m trying to grow successionally, the first batch was sown in early spring on the window sill, and the second will be sown straight in the raised bed.
The seeds germinate quickly and produce multiple seedlings. Beetroot ‘seeds’ are actually seed clusters, with between 1 and 6 viable plants. I didn’t like thinning them out as it seems like a waste but it will help the strongest grow!
Beetroot is ready to be harvested from a golf ball up to a cricket ball size. Simply lift the roots from the soil and cut off the leaves, leaving at least an inch of foliage. That little bit of foliage will mean that the colour from the beetroot wont bleed out too much when cooking.
Traditionally we think of jars of pickled beetroot but there are lots of other uses for it. Beetroot Keftedes is the perfect summer snack or addition to a bbq feast. Think of these as a vegetarian meatball! I’ve experimented with freezing the mixture before and after cooking, both work a treat!
200g fresh beetroot, cooked, peeled and grated
2 spring onions, finely chopped
3tbsp grated parmesan
240g feta cheese, crumbled
60g plain flour
olive oil for frying
salt and pepper
1 Mix the beetroot, spring onions, cheese, egg and chopped herbs together. Season, then mix in enough breadcrumbs to bind the mixture. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
2 Shape the mixture into golfball-size balls, adding a little flour if the mixture is too wet.
3 Season the flour and coat the balls in it. Heat the oil until hot, but not smoking, and fry the balls in batches for 2-3 minutes until golden all over. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
These can be served hot accompanying a salad and steamed fish, any left overs can be kept cold for packed lunches the next day!