Tuesday, 25 November 2008

What's up with the parsnips?

I sat at breakfast in a hotel in London once with a European plant disease specialist. It was really entertaining (told you I was geeky).

This guy takes no chances on his own allotment: 'Let me tell you - all sorts of things spread easily on your wellingtons, you know'.

Instead of one central compost heap, our friend has dozens of them - all dotted about on the plot - carefully arranged so that he doesn't need to make unnecessary journeys and carry vegetation across his patch - instead it goes straight into the nearest hot compost heap.

After this encounter I got quite paranoid for a while and spent a lot of time thinking about plant diseases. Every time I came home from the lottie my boots went straight in the hot wash. I'm better now...

Here is a problem parsnip. As you can see

a) It is a funny mangled shape and
b) It has some small orange specks on it

The troubled vegetable in question is lying on the carrot family page of Pauline Pears' excellent and useful publication: 'The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening' - for more about this book click the link:


It turns out that back in February when I planted the blighter I should have avoided a spot which had been recently manured. That explains the forking.

According to the parsnips, pests and diseases section in the back of the book, the small orange spots are canker (a fungal disease). There are three different colours of this. Bet you didn't know that.

The good news is that apart from fine tuning my crop rotation (I'll come back to that one too) - it won't affect my kitchen gardener plans for crispy little parsnip chips. They take a little bit longer to peel but the orange bits come off and don't affect the quality of the dish.

Hot tip: if you feel inspired and want to see the orange canker close up - just enlarge the photo

Monday, 24 November 2008

Work Smart Not Hard - Succession Sowing

Atrocious weather over the weekend. Still, it prompted me to re-think my planning and come up with ideas on how to do things more efficiently and productively in the next growing season. Work smart not hard, I say.

I've only recently realised how important timing really is in gardening. You can extend the season to a certain extent with cloches or greenhouses but if you miss your window to sow something, you sometimes end up missing out on it completely. Either that or growing it becomes more difficult, because the right conditions are not there: daylight hours, light, warmth from the sun...

I'm making a big effort to cut down on wasting seed and produce too, (because I've bought the same thing twice, say and I can't use it all), or because I've grown too much all at once and the glut of lettuces ends up in the compost.

So here is my new garden seed organiser. It set me back about twenty quid. You could make one yourself along the same lines, though. So far I like the principle of this one:

1. First you put your seeds into the different slots January, February and so on

2. As soon as you have sown your batch of seeds you move the packets on to the next month.

That way, you stop wasting so many seeds and avoid the glut and famine scenario, if you get my gist.

The technical term for all this is: succession sowing. I'd been trying to do it for a while now, but sometimes got distracted, so I hope this nifty device is going to help. I've resolved to sow certain things (like lettuces) once a fortnight (on the 1st and the 15th. of every month) next year. I'll let you know how I get on with it. Of course life sometimes gets in the way...

I spent quite some time putting my dog-eared packets of seeds into the organiser. The process was useful though, as it made me look at the packets again, and reminded me of what I liked last year, what didn't work very well and what I didn't get round to sowing at all because I wasn't organised enough!

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Good Book Gifts for Gardeners

Looking for Christmas presents for gardeners?
I've got just NINE books on my good books list, and here are titles TWO AND THREE.
As you can see from the picture, my copies are very well thumbed!
Both of these books are entertaining and informative and I've read each of them more than once. You can order them via the Amazon links on this site.

On the right we have 'Allotments' by Twigs Way. This is quite a thin and reasonably priced paperback full of the most amazing and rarely seen pictures. I particularly like the images of women tilling plots during the Second World War. Plenty of vegetables and historically speaking there is a lot of 'meat' in it too, if you'll pardon the pun.

The sections on 'Politics and Allotments' and 'Allotments Across the Globe' provide insights into the struggles some plot holders have had through the decades to hold on to their plots.
I can imagine this book would make a great hospitality gift together with some organic chocolates or a bottle of wine, for anyone with an allotment, (or someone who is on the waiting list?) or anyone who loves allotment heritage.

The book on the left is 'Diggers Diary - Tales from the allotment' by Victor Osborne, journalist and former allotment columnist for the Telegraph.

This is entertaining too. It was one of the first allotment diary books to be published and some say it is still the best.

I always wondered why some people said it took them an hour to get from the allotment site gate to their plot and after reading Victor's book it finally dawned on me. In the main people want to stop and chat to you. And you want to chat to them.

Allotment sites are not simply soil and vegetable matter. They're also communities and Victor shows us lots of reasons to cherish them. The word pictures of characters on his site are really well crafted. This book is funny and sometimes scary too. His recipes are good. They're very simple. I've tried many of them and they work.

As I said if you want to buy any of the books on my list, visit this link. You'll be taken through to my list of recommendations at the Amazon online book shop:


Monday, 17 November 2008

Converting a derelict allotment plot (1)

Some readers tell me they're faced with the prospect of a piece of land or garden which is hugely overgrown.

I've been there too. It is possible and I'd like to make it easier for you than it was for me. If more gardens or derelict allotments are reclaimed it benefits us all, doesn't it? More site security, more gardens instead of paved over driveways, less pollution, better quality of life... you know the score.

So let me wind back my allotment scenario to June 2006. My two plots (I took on one whole plot and later on another half plot) were amongst twenty or so which had been derelict for ten years or more.

For some reason (probably because I was too busy cracking on with several other jobs - new baby, house maintenance, plot, other family challenges, paid work..?) I didn't stop to take a photograph then, but here's one of the next door plot which was in slightly better condition than mine when I started in 2006.

Yup. Looks pretty bad doesn't it? It was. I had everything next door had and more. Brambles with roots as thick as your thigh. Carpets of couch grass, nettles, thistles. All sorts of rubbish. (The only thing I didn't have was Japanese Knotweed - and I'd like to come back to this one in a future post too eventually, as it did plague a neighbour of mine).

All in all, over a year or more I must have filled and removed at least one hundred sackfuls of broken glass, plastic, broken pots, wire...It was hard, there were plenty of times I felt like giving up. Lots of other people who tried found it overwhelming and called it a day.

But slowly and surely the plot came together. Organically. I wouldn't have it any other way. Describing all of the techniques I used in two and a half years of work would be too much for one blog post so I will be coming back to this topic again - (look out for the heading - Converting a Derelict Allotment). To whet your appetite though here's another picture I took in early Spring of 2007.

Not a very picturesque image, but it shows some of the nifty techniques I used. Here are just some of them:

When I took the plot on, I cleared the heavy undergrowth and brambles by hand with a scythe. This sounds like heavy going, but actually it was much easier than using a petrol powered cutter which would have constantly broken down because the undergrowth was so dense. I'd never used one before and - taught myself. It did mean I could pace myself and hear the birds sing while I worked. Even though it's an urban site, when you're out on the plot you could mistake it for the heart of the countryside.

As soon as I had mowed down and cleared a small area,
I covered it with 'black plastic'. There are various types of weed suppressing materials out there. It is really important to emphasise this bit. It is so disheartening when you clear an area, only to discover that the weeds grow back really quickly and you are back where you started.

So my advice with a plot or garden is this: if you've cleared it, cover it straight away. You can always go back to it later. Then of course when you do get around to going back over it, (which may be a season or so later) many weeds will have been weakened and patiently forking out perennial weeds and bramble roots e.t.c. becomes a lot easier.

I knew it would be a long time before I could clear the whole area ready for planting so first of all I simply cut squares in the black plastic slightly bigger than the size of the self-assembly raised beds I wanted to use. I then cleared roots and weeds from inside the squares and cut a small trench around the inside of the square to stop the couch grass encroaching on the growing areas. (In the picture, you can see the black plastic covering underneath the wood chip - together with the raised beds)

Then I put the raised beds up, and filled them with some good top soil from an area I had already cleared, together with a few bags of compost to get me up and running. That way I had something growing to motivate me and could alternate more boring clearing jobs with producing useful crops. The advantage of this sort of raised beds is that you can move them around thus improving the soil square metre by square metre.

So, there's plenty to look forward to in 2008/2009 - as the last bit of black plastic has been peeled back and cleared - this particular process comes to an end - weeding becomes much easier and right now the plot is relatively weed-free - prepped for Spring. Good gardening...

Wednesday, 12 November 2008


There are times when a simple surprise blows you away.

On a cold, November day I venture out to the allotment. Cycling through some very large puddles I arrive there. Soaked to the skin.

Decide to pull up some raddichio. Wet, wet, wet clay soil clinging to the leaves - awful. Tatty and awful. Set off home again. It gets dark early - 4. o'clock in the afternoon. Geesh. More rain. Is it all worth it? At home I put the fire on and examine the sad specimens on our kitchen table...
Wait. The roots look long and strong. It doesn't seem to mind our heavy soil..

Peeling off the outside leaves unearths a slug-free gloriously crisp sea of crimson. I'm so glad I bothered. Lovely to see such colour now.

(I found raddichio very easy to grow and I guess the heads cost us in total about 5p each. I've eaten it before in upmarket Italian restaurants but never so fresh, and never organically grown. So far we've eaten it with goats cheese, olive oil, bacon... - I understand the heads can be stored until Christmas - though I haven't tried this yet. My thinking is - it might make a lovely Christmas day starter...All in all it is a really useful crop to grow and harvest in November. We will definitely grow it again next year).

For more information about raddicchio click this link:


Tuesday, 11 November 2008

The No Work Garden

There are thousands of (expensive) books out there about gardening - and quite a few about organic fruit and vegetable growing. Confusing isn't it?

During the weeks up to Christmas, I'm going to tell you what I think about just NINE of them. That means only the ones I've found:

  1. Really useful during the last two and half years OR
  2. Hugely entertaining (and suitable for Christmas gifts?)and/or
  3. Good enough to spend my own money on!

CLICK HERE TO SEE THE COMPLETE LIST : http://astore.amazon.co.uk/quesgardtime-21

(BOOK NUMBER ONE) is Bob Flowerdew's 'The No Work Garden':

Bob has a few books out there. This one does exactly what it says on the tin, he tells us 'how to get the most out of our garden with the least amount of work'.

I most valued the way he dismantles some of the conventional myths you hear about gardening, in particular about autumn digging. Alright we know that some people like it. We also know that you need to get your perennial weeds out and compost them carefully. But once that is done, you can really start the transition to a no dig approach, save your back and work more efficiently.

'Keep your eye on the ball' Bob says. 'If you want tasty veg, but your neighbour grows prize winning specimens, don't be distracted.'

There's more information and reviews on the Amazon store link. Yes, you're right - it is advertising and I do earn a small commission if you buy there.

I'm working for free right now - most bloggers know how long it takes to get a successful blog up and running. So if you like 'Questioners Garden Time' and plan to buy one of these books, support me and buy it via the link!

Alternatively, drop a heavy gift hint with your loved ones or ask for it at your local library:


Monday, 10 November 2008

Fun. With 'Grocery Store Wars'.

To brighten dark November days, I promised you all some fun and here it is:

'GROCERY STORE WARS' by Free Range Studios: ('the freshest socially conscious entertainment on the web').

To see it, click on this link:

or click around the Free Range site:

http://www.freerangestudios.com/ - you'll find lots more good stuff there. Honest.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

The Plug Planter

Here's a picture of the plug planter I use as part of my growing system.

(See also the previous post)

Developing a Growing System that works for you

How often do you hear people say they haven't got time to grow their own fruit and vegetables?

For the past two and half years (since we took on our then derelict allotment) - I've been on a very fast learning curve. Experimented quite a bit. Made some expensive mistakes. Read quite a few books. Talked to lots of people.

Some of the information I came across was brilliant. I wish I'd found it before - it might have saved me time and money.

Much of the stuff I had to wade through though was confusing and not very practical. Some of it was misleading - and some of the views held by a few people I talked to were too dogmatic and it put me off.

What I'd like to do here is share what I've learned and hopefully make things easier.

I feel November is a great time to start. Not necessarily getting out there in the wind and rain, but with the dark days we have the perfect chance to think, plan and gather information. When January comes, Spring is not far away - I'd like to 'hold your hand' (or at least your gardening glove then) with your planning and action and take you through the whole of the fruit and vegetable year, organically. I hope you enjoy it.

Developing a Growing (and Propagation) System that works for you

I've now developed a system of raising seeds(propagation), hardening them off and planting them out successfully which doesn't take me a lot of time, and which suits our lifestyle right now.

Your situation will be different from mine, of course, you'll have a different work pattern, different flat, tent, house, the budget available will vary. Your challenges will be different.

Here are some of the hurdles we were facing(two and half years ago):

1. No sunny, wide windowsills to raise seeds on
2. Not much experience of growing vegetables or fruit
3. A derelict allotment, twenty minutes away. Problems with germinating seeds there due to mice, pigeons, a fox, slugs. Occasional vandalism. Not being able to get there more than twice or three times a week to start with.
4. No garden at home - plenty of slugs in the yard - no car - two cats.
5. A limited budget
6. Disabilities in the family.

And the advantages:
1. Our courtyard is small, but it is frost and wind free and the greenhouse doesn't blow away.
2. Long distance support from Garden Organic's membership helpline, and a weekend training course (see useful links and future posts). Membership at that time was around £28 a year and well worth it considering everything I've learned from them. But there is a lot of free information on the website to start with. Plenty to be going on with, in fact, if you're just starting up.
3. Green Gym experience with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers - so I was fairly confident about using basic tools.
4. No television. (be honest - how many hours are taken up watching nonsense?)
5. The plot was overgrown, but we had the gift of two beautiful apple trees from a previous tenant.

So here's the bare bones of my growing system as it stands. This is my work routine for raising almost everything:

1. I raise seeds in square plug planters at home in a small plastic greenhouse (see the picture in the next post)...
Since they are just outside my back door, it isn't much work to keep an eye on them. The plug planters are quite expensive, (about £20 each) and the greenhouses sell for about £30. I feel both of these items save time and produce strong plants if you use them carefully.

But you could just start out with one or try other containers/pots that you have. As I said, this is my refined work routine to date. I like the plug planters and they work for me, given our circumstances. If I find something else works better, I'll use that instead. The planters come in three nifty parts they hold water and drain very well, so that means you don't need to worry so much about them drying out.
2. I harden the seedlings off on little shelves in the yard.
3. When the seedlings are big enough, I fix the planter tops on with sellotape, so the seedlings don't get damaged, load them into my tricycle and plant out on the allotment in a prepared (and usually raised bed) more detail about all that in later posts.
4. I bring the empty trays back, put them in my small dishwasher to clean them, and start again with the next batch.
So take heart! If you don't have some of the challenges I had, if you do have sunny windowsills, or a garden for example and no mice which eat the seeds you've planted you can set up a seed bed, plant directly and don't have the transport issues.
It will be even easier for you..

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Allotment Plot Party Pie

You may be forgiven for thinking this is simply a pie. For an allotment geek like me - it is nothing less than a way of life. Leeks are wonderful, relatively easy and useful things to grow in your garden or allotment. I can understand why the Celts thought they were sacred plants.

It doesn't matter if they don't look pristine. It doesn't make any difference to the taste (see yesterday's comments). Anyway - don't worry - I'm coming back to the subject of growing veg in general and leeks in particular in future posts.

It's a passion of mine now- the challenge of growing and storing food easily especially in the cold seasons of the year. That inner Anglo-Saxon peasant?

Leeks are incredibly nutritious. And 'Allotment Party Pie' beats the credit crunch too. One of my favourite occupations these days - (she really doesn't get out much, you're thinking ) - is walking past the fruit and vegetable aisle in the supermarket - not buying anything anymore - but noticing how expensive everything is - and feeling smug. It's one of the best reasons to get growing.

I worked out that if I had made this huge 9 inch pie with organic leeks from the shop it would have blown our budget. Home made, with organic flour on special offer it cost me no more than £3.50. It serves twelve adults with baked potatoes and/or a salad. That's less than 25p a portion isn't it? And you could make a budget version if you wanted which would be even cheaper than that.

What else might be important for you, the person reading this blog? The recipe has undergone tough consumer testing which includes:


I took it to a 'bring-and-share' bonfire party this week. Put it on the table. Went out to look at the bonfire. Returned five minutes later and it was GONE. I mean, the people at the party ATE IT ALL STRAIGHT AWAY. Plainly quite rude some might say. I was just happy they enjoyed it - but I did feel I had to make another one the next day for our own household.


My little girl (aged 3) will eat it in her lunch box (only if it is freshly made) and this isn't a problem as the pie doesn't usually hang about in the fridge that long.

See what I mean by tough? So here's what you need to make it:

Allotment Party Pie - Ingredients:

1. Enough shortcrust pastry for your pie tin. (I make this one with a organic self-raising four and a pie tin that is large, metal and sturdy enough to crisp the pastry nicely) but you could make it with gluten free flour if you wanted to.

2. One packet of organic mature cheddar. (That's for the party version as it tastes fantastic) - but you could try mild, vegetarian, non-organic...whatever you have or what needs using up)

3. Five or six largish leeks, sliced fairly thinly and washed well.

4. Two fresh eggs if you like - I've made it without and tastes lovely without them too it just means more of a sauce for your baked spuds.

5. Some organic butter to fry the leeks in (lightly, you don't need to cook them much as it is going in the oven anyway).

6. Pepper. (I don't put any salt in as the cheese is so flavoursome)

7. You can add a little yoghurt if you like, or use more yoghurt and less cheese if you want to cut calories.


Make the pastry and place in pie/flan dish. Cut the cheese into very rough slices. Wash the leeks. Sautee them (fry them lightly until they are softening but NOT brown, stirring them round with wooden spoon. Take pan off the heat, add eggs/yoghurt and layer this mixture with the cheese in the pie dish, ending up with a layer of cheese on the top. Place in oven - medium heat until cooked through and lightly browned on top.

Finally, and back to my mission with this blog, making life (and food) easier - here is a time saving tip for the pastry:


Make a large batch of home made pastry mix and freeze it in bags or lunch boxes. That way, whenever you want to make a flan or pie you can take a few cups out of the bag - add the liquid and away you go...

Don't forget to let me know what YOU think of all this....a blog isn't a blog without a community, now is it?

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Election Prediction

'Rather than worship at the altar of celebrity chefs, (kitchen gardeners) look for practical ways of bringing their own day-to-day cuisine into the realms of the divine by using the best ingredients their land, climate, and skills will allow...' (KGI)

I love Kitchen Gardeners International.
They make me laugh.
I predict this organisation - and their charity 'auction' of the White House lawn - (they want to dig it up to make a vegetable garden) - will carry on winning friends way beyond the U.S. election...

A tenuous thematic link perhaps...why the picture? That's me laying bare some of my (rather scruffy looking but organically grown and just picked) leeks for the first time to a global audience. You may not be immediately impressed - especially not by the slight touch of leek rust (we'll come back to that one)...
Just you wait for the makeover. (In my next post).

Monday, 3 November 2008

Making life more beautiful

Cut flowers don't work for us. They wilt, get knocked over - but without something pretty to look at - from our front window at eye level all we can see is parked cars.

So last May I planted Petunias in a window box. They cost £1 each from the local green grocer. They flowered continuously from Spring to early Autumn with very little maintenance (watering and deadheading) and they brightened our lives for months on end.

So there's my mission. I'm posting once a week at least by Wednesday. Stay tuned.