Tattie Troubles And Other Allotment Affairs

One potato, two potato, three potato, four, five potato, six potato, seven potato, more…

Looking out at the allotment this afternoon, the childhood ditty running through my head takes on a wry mocking tone and I wonder what possessed me to plant over half the beds with potatoes in the spring. I know the answer – the exhilaration brought on by having access to more growing space mixed with a fear of empty beds; two issues that need to be addressed if we’re to have a more balanced diet next summer.

Filling Space

Until last year, our growing spaces had been modest – a range of pots and three fairly small raised beds. I’ve planted potatoes in the ground and in containers over the years, but found that in the ground they took up nearly half the available space, even for a few plants and when I moved to containers, the yield, more often than not, was rather disappointing. So I swapped to growing salad leaves, cut flowers, soft fruit and chillies in the garden, alongside more unusual fruit and vegetables, and was rewarded with greater variety and better cropping. Potatoes – it seemed – were a crop better bought than grown.

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Potato paradise or monocultural monotony?

But I never quite forgot the joy of growing the versatile, humble potato. This year’s empty spring allotment beds offered the opportunity to grow potatoes on a larger scale, maybe even to  try more than one variety at a time (oh, the vegetable excitement!), so I began with my namesake ‘Nicola’, kindly supplied by Kings Seeds, and then added ‘Swift’ and ‘Jazzy’ in an impulsive seed potato buying frenzy that transformed the spare room into a chitting plant.

One advantage of an excess of potatoes is their ability to suppress an excess of weeds, and we have used the potato’s ground cover potential to its maximum this year. In one bed, potatoes helped to subdue overly-enthusiastic Jerusalem artichokes, whilst elsewhere they tamed annual weeds with ease. Only one bed, heavily entangled with bindweed roots, was outside the potato’s capable powers. Once we’d dug this area as best we could, we laid black polythene and planted potatoes through holes in the membrane. In any other year, I think this would have yielded good results, but unfortunately the scorching weather earlier in the growing season proved too much for the potato foliage, which was quickly scorched from beneath. The plants have still provided us with potatoes, but certainly in smaller quantities than if the foliage had had longer to develop, although this could be seen as a blessing under the circumstances…

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Potatoes through membrane – before they were sun-fried

The other beds have been more productive and last month we started harvesting, sharing our mammoth crop with family and friends. But my ambitious plans to harvest early and add late crops like courgettes and beans have been less successful. Submerged beneath design projects and writing work, I harvested later than planned and realised there are only so many potatoes a family can consume over a matter of a few weeks. Digging up the crop and storing seemed counter-productive as I find first and second early potatoes store better in the ground. So there they stayed and the late crops had to be squeezed into hasty gaps.

In early April, the flourishing potato foliage filled the allotment with its satisfying presence, but by early August this had become a stifling monocultural insipidity.

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Turns out you can have too much of a good thing…

Growing Resolutions

Unfilled ground: unfulfilled potential – looking at the empty beds in early spring, ten times as much space as we’d ever had before, I had an overriding desire to fill it all, urgently, in case the opportunity was lost. As potatoes fill large areas relatively quickly, early in the season, they seemed an ideal choice. In retrospect, it would have been better to have left more empty ground, employed my usual methods of crop rotation and waited until later crops were ready – perhaps sowing quick to mature vegetables like salad leaves and radishes in the interim. So my resolutions for the new growing year are as follows:

  • to temper my potato impulses with a dash of common sense
  • to plan realistically – taking account of work load/time pressures and their impact on my time on the allotment in the summer season
  • to co-exist calmly with empty ground, or at least plan to use green manures and quick crops to avoid panic leading to an unintentional monocultural regime

In Other News…

The cutting patch is now producing an abundance of floral delights for the house and for drawing and watercolouring – dahlias, gladioli, rudbeckia, cosmos, salvia, cerinthe, didiscus and more. After an extremely prolific spring season with daffodils and tulips in every room for a few magical weeks, the success of the summer flowers means the cutting patch has earned a permanent place in the allotment.

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Gentle posy from the cutting patch

The perennial bed is also thriving. Yacon, Daubenton’s kale, marsh mallow and sea kale have been added to the rhubarb, raspberries, currants, gooseberries and oca (not strictly perennial, but living happily alongside its hardier neighbours). In the garden I’ve planted Causasian spinach, hardy ginger, earth chestnut, perennial onions and spring onions to observe them and decide where they’ll thrive in the allotment in later years.

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Iridescent marsh mallow flowers

If flowers, fruit and perennial vegetables seem like an afterthought, lagging far behind potatoes in my allotment tales, it’s because this year they were. It’s an inequality I didn’t plan and don’t intend to repeat. Next year’s plans will include potatoes – for homemade chips, boiling with mint, thickening chowders, frying with spices and adding to Spanish tortilla, but I’ll be curbing any impetuous impulses and filling the allotment with timely crops, manifold crops, rotated crops – celebrating the return to biodiversity and learning when to fill and when to leave space.

I’d love to hear about how you go about planning your allotment/garden planting and how you use space to maximum effect. Do leave me a comment below – any suggestions and advice gratefully received 🙂

If you’d like to follow the blog and read more my allotment and garden, including more detail in upcoming posts on flowers for cutting and more unusual vegetables, you can subscribe below – thanks very much and happy gardening…

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12 Practical Ways To Create A Modern Kitchen Garden

The RHS Kitchen Garden

What a great sign that the flagship garden at RHS Hampton Court this year is a kitchen garden. I’m excited by edible gardens of all shapes and sizes and like nothing better than to spend an afternoon pottering round an extensive walled kitchen garden in the sunshine, reading the labels and dreaming about having my own walled garden and team of gardeners to maintain it. However I, like most people, have a much more modest garden which also has to accommodate a shed, bins, BBQ, children’s toys and a washing line. And what if your garden is a small patio or even just a windowsill? What if you have no area upon which the sun smiles for six hours of the day? Will kitchen gardening remain a beautiful dream?

In the RHS Kitchen Garden, Juliet Sargeant explores different ways to grow fresh food in small spaces and in cost-efficient ways. This is a garden bursting with ideas, designed to inspire with simple labels throughout explaining the thinking behind the planting. Whether it’s reusing an old fish tank, building a simple compost bin or munching on your shrubs, there are ideas here for everyone to take home…

1. Plant a Living Wall

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This is the edible cooking bench which is the setting of The Hairy Bikers’ Kitchen Garden Live on BBC1 each morning this week

Vertical space is used in different ways in the garden. I loved this edible bench with its mix of viola, sage, curry plant, parsley and oregano. In reality, few of us are likely to have an entire outside bench covered in edibles. More achievable are the inexpensive hanging pockets which can be attached to the wall and filled with edible plants. I liked the way a variety of greens are used here with the silvery curry plant (Helicrysum italicum), dark sage and bright green parsley. The white and blue violas add a sprinkle of colour and their petals can also be used in ice cubes, on salads or crystallised in cakes.

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A simple wall storage unit filled with strawberry pots

This storage unit looks great and something similar (possibly smaller) should be fairly easy to buy or construct and then treat with weatherproof paint, although a piece constructed specifically for outdoor use would no doubt have a longer life. In fact, I’m tempted to throw the children’s toys out of our similar unit and relocate it on the patio as a way of gaining more planting space in the garden!

DSC_0156This runner bean wall is another way to capitalise on the vertical space against a sunny wall. With wires between the top and bottom frames, the beans can very quickly cover the wall and could be planted in pots or the ground. A simple cane structure could also be used, although this metal frame would be strong and durable, and could be removed in the winter months. For added variety, the beans could be interspersed with morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea), black-eyed Susan (Thunbergia alata) or sweet peas to add (non-edible) annual colour to the display. This method of growing could also be used with peas or even courgettes, cucumbers and squashes, which love to climb and welcome the extra sunshine accessible in an elevated position. In this way, crops can be grown which otherwise might struggle for space in a small garden.

 2. Grow Meals in Pots

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Container edibles are so accessible for small gardens and community spaces, with the only drawback that they require more watering than crops in the ground. I love growing herbs for teas – lemon verbena, a range of mint, lemon/lime balm (which can cope with some shade), scented-leaved pelargoniums and bergamot. These meal pots are fun for children to grow and provide a delicious small space solution to growing edibles. It could be taken even further with a small tray of pots growing chillies, lemon grass, mint, chives, salad leaves or basil, for simple summer meals and hot drinks or iced infusions.

3. Make a Simple Brick Compost Bin

This compost bin is stylish and easy – designed to grow over time

If there’s no room for a traditional compost bin or the idea of a plastic bin is unpalatable, Juliet offers an alternative in this brick circular compost bin. If you have spare bricks lying around or can get some through a recycling site like Freecycle, this could be a cost effective way to start composting. Best of all, its temporary nature means it can be relocated easily once the compost is ready to use.

4. Colour Your Veggies

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I’ve always been fascinated by colour in edible planting. This kitchen garden uses both colourful vegetables like the blue cabbages, chocolate millet, rainbow chard, purple kale, kohl rabi and pak choi interplanted with vibrant flowers  – edible calendula flowers and dahlias (whose roots are the edible part – although not all varieties are said to taste good). In particular I loved the combination of dark Redbor kale with Dahlia ‘Bishop of Leicester’ with its deep purple foliage and soft pink blooms – no flowerbed could be more beautiful to my eyes.

5. Use Aquaponics

The aquaponics crops looked delicious

I knew very little about aquaponics, so it was interesting to talk to Emerald from Aquaponic Life, a Community Interest Nonprofit Company, who had set up this section of the garden. She told me that aquaponics are a viable option for small gardens or even indoor fishtanks. The closed-loop system involves using the nitrogenous waste excreted by the fish to provide nutrients for the plants which are grown hydroponically (in water without using soil). The plants, in turn, filter the water, which is returned clean for the fish. This continuous cycle uses 90-98% less water than conventional methods. Aquaponic Life run courses in their home town of Brighton to train people about how these systems can be used in homes and gardens. The company is currently crowdfunding to develop their home aquaponics system so that more people can use this sustainable method of food production. They also hope to develop their work in school and universities, and create an urban farm in or near the centre of Brighton as a teaching resource to help put food security back into the hands of families and communities. I will be watching and supporting their progress with interest and if we acquiesce on the pet front with the children next year, maybe Tilapia will be our pet of choice.

6. Munch on Petals

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If you’re going to interplant flowers and vegetables/fruit in a kitchen garden bed, why not use edible flowers to extend the range of crops? Alternatively, your existing garden flowers can provide decorations and salad ingredients throughout the year. In the RHS Kitchen Garden, Juliet has included a colourful flowerbed to attractive pollinators, with the added advantage of using edible flowers. Dianthus, agastache, lavender, calendula, hollyhocks, and campanula are amongst the edible flowers in the garden. We also grow borage and nasturtiums in the vegetable beds to bring in the insects and provide edible flowers for the kitchen.

7. Use Straw Bales

This is an idea I’d like to try out on my allotment next year

This is a new one on me, although I have heard of straw bales being used at the allotment to create hotbeds. Juliet has planted strawberries and melons in compost within the straw bales. I particularly liked the melon ‘Ogen’ which is grafted onto courgette root stock so that it can tolerate the UK climate better. Seeds can even be sown onto bales if a 5cm layer of compost is added first and with the extra heat created, crops like melons are more likely to be successful on straw than in the ground. The only concern I’d have about using straw bales is the possibility of herbicides or in the straw. One solution would be to use organic straw or to investigate the provenance of your material before you use it.

8. Eat your trees and shrubs

With well over 2,500 edible plants across the world, the UK relies on perhaps twenty main crops, ignoring thousands of others which would grow in our climate. Trees and shrubs are a good example, with many common indigenous and non-native species offering food which we choose not to use. Elderflowers and berries, young lime (Tillia cordata), silver birch (Betula pendula) and beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaves, mahonia berries, fuchsia berries and rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) berries (cooked in jams) are all examples used in the garden, although if you have found a fuchsia berry which tastes delicious on cereals without the astringent aftertaste which I so dislike, please do let me know.

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9. Try more unusual plants

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Daylilies create drama in the garden and provide food

I love trying out new edibles – both to see how they grow and to experiment in the kitchen. Some of my new acquisitions this year include hardy ginger (Zingiber mioga with edible young shoots and flowerbuds) and Caucasian spinach (Hablizia tamnoides with spinach-like leaves). Juliet has included bamboo, hostas, daylilies and ferns in her garden with useful tips on growing and cooking with them on the labels.

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If you already have bamboo in the garden, this snack should be easy to come by

10. Use herbs as ground cover

Make thyme for herbs

Herbs have so many different uses in the garden – I use them as hedges, in my green roof and for scented ground cover. In this garden both thyme and rosemary are used to cover the ground beneath the trees. As well as looking good, they bring in pollinating insects and provide leaves for stews, soups and marinades. My favourite ground cover herbs are the woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) and chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) in my gravel path, as they seem pretty indestructible, drought tolerant (once the chamomile is established) and soften the hard edges of the stepping stones with their delicate leaves.

11. Grow dwarf fruit varieties

If it’s too big don’t despair – just choose a dwarf variety

Kitchen gardens have been using dwarf varieties for centuries, but their are still new crops being developed to increase the range of plants available to the small scale gardener. Mulberry Charlotte Russe is the latest example, offering a dwarf shrub (growing to about 1.5m) where other Mulberries would be well beyond the scope of most small gardens. It won the 2017 RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year award and is capable of fruiting in its first year. I have heard reports that the fruit taste is disappointing, but can’t comment as mine was devoured by the slugs in its first few weeks. It is now recovering in the greenhouse, but I’ll need to wait until next year to join the taste testing.

12. Celebrate the shade

Most traditional vegetable benefit from at least six hours of sunshine during the growing season. However, there are exceptions and some more unusual crops which will cope with shady areas. Hostas and ferns are good examples, alongside the more conventional salad greens, Swiss chard, beetroot, kale and pak choi. If the shady area is under an established tree, try creating a raised bed to give added soil depth or planting in seasonal containers.

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Do you have any other top tips for creating a practical, modern kitchen garden? Have you found any of these ideas successful? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment and happy edible gardening.

If you’d like to read more about edible and sustainable planting at Hampton Court, check out my post on London Glades: Forest Garden Solutions For Urban Spaces at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show and follow my blog as I experiment with all manner of fruit, vegetables and herbs…

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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Not everyone reacts positively to all edible plants or other plant uses. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

Windowsill Crops: Sprouted Seeds

Sometimes, when the ground is sodden or frozen, it’s lovely to be able to harvest your own food from the windowsill, quickly and easily. Sprouted seeds are one way to achieve a speedy crop, plus they cost very little and require almost no space to grow. I usually grow mine in a three tier seed sprouter which I’ve had for years, but you can also grow them with little more than an old jam jar, a piece of muslin or tights and a rubber band, so there’s no excuse not to give it a go.

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A range of tasty seeds

This year Kings Seeds sent me four of their Suffolk Herbs sprouted seed range to trial – mung beans, fenugreek, alfalfa and radish. I’ve grown mung beans and alfalfa before, but radish has been a surprise newcomer and we’ve enjoyed its spicy kick. Fenugreek intrigued me as I love using it in apple and medlar chutney to add a smoky, curried flavour. As a sprouted seed it’s milder, with a fresh, beansprout taste. Mung beans add a lovely crunch to a homemade coleslaw and are good added to stir-fry, and of course, all four work well as a mixed raw snack.

Sprouted seeds as a raw snack and to top my chicken satay

I was delighted when the suggestion that my eldest have sprouted seeds for his morning snack was greeted with real enthusiasm. I’m pretty certain I didn’t respond so positively when my mum used to give me sprouted seeds, but I think he was intrigued by the process (having spent quite a bit of time this week watering the seeds and watching the drips move from level to level).

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Sprouting seeds is a spectator sport!

If you have a windowsill or table near the window, a clean jar, a small piece of muslin or clean old tights, a rubber band and some seeds, you are ready to grow a snack in three days. Wash and soak the seeds overnight in lukewarm water, then drain and add to the jar. Fill with water, put the cover over and secure with the rubber band. Then pour the water out, leaving the jar on its side to drain any excess liquid.

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The mung beans have just been watered for the first time

Alternatively, use a seed sprouter and soak, water and drain the seeds in the same way. We find the top layer needs to be filled with water almost to the brim in order for there to be enough water to drip through the spout once it reaches the bottom layer. Repeat this process twice a day until the beans have sprouted.

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Day 2 and the seeds are almost ready

Sprouted seeds are really nutritious and versatile. Once sprouted, they can be kept in a bag in the fridge for a couple of days, just remember to follow the normal sensible food hygiene rules as laid out by the NHS here. Sprouted seeds are easy, cheap, fun and tasty, so why not give it a go and you’ll be harvesting your own food in a few days, despite the wet winter weather.

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The radish sprouted seeds are a fabulous pink colour

Does anyone have any more recipes with sprouted seeds? Do leave me a comment as I’d love to develop the ways I use them in my cooking. Thanks  🙂

If you’d like more ‘grow your own’ ideas, you can check out my articles here or follow the blog to hear about the crops I’m growing in 2017…

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Allotment Soup Challenge: Celeriac and Blue Cheese

When we inherited our allotment last March, the only crop which had overwintered was a collection of celeriac – clearly beloved of the previous occupants if the quantity, amount and size of the plants was anything to go by. I’ve long been a fan of the nobbly, bald vegetable after having it in soups in Austria years ago and being regularly faced with it in veggie boxes since.

Last year I followed in the previous allotment holder’s footsteps and grew celeriac from seed. I suspect I didn’t lavish as much attention on it as the previous year’s incumbents had. We got a crop –  the celeriac were not as rotund as those I pulled up last March – but we managed to grow enough to harvest several for winter meals. Celeriac has a milder taste than celery and is lovely grated raw in salads or boiled and mashed. But as I’m endeavouring to produce as many soups as possible from the allotment this year, here’s one I experimented with recently which was particularly tasty…

Celeriac and Blue Cheese Soup

Ingredients

1 medium celeriac (or you could use a head of celery)

75g blue cheese, eg. Saint Agur

700 ml stock

50g butter

1 large potato or 2 smaller ones

300ml milk or cream

Black pepper

Few pieces of leftover chopped up cooked ham, fried chorizo or croutons

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The main ingredients

 

Method

Peel and chop the celeriac and potato. Melt the butter in a pan and add the celeriac and potato. Soften in the butter for a few minutes, then add the stock.

Boil in stock for 20 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Blend the vegetables and stock. Add the cheese, milk and black pepper to taste. Reheat the soup to melt the cheese.

Serve the soup sprinkled with black pepper and chopped ham to add a salty twist, accompanied with crusty bread and butter.

This soup is warming, rich and delicious, especially if you’ve spent the morning digging, weeding or planting out in the cold at the allotment!! ☺

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If you are after more warming soups, try my Roasted Jerusalem Artichoke and Sweet Chestnut Soup. You can check out more recipes here or follow the blog to get new recipe ideas as I add them to the blog…

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Planting Garlic in Containers and Oyster Mushroom Update

I have a confession to make… well two really. The first is that I never manage to get my garlic in before Christmas and yet still usually get a decent crop, although I’m sure yields would be higher if I planted earlier. The second that we have a bad case of white rot in our garden (and, I suspect, in the allotment) so for the last 3 years I’ve planted in old potato sacks. I’ve been surprised at the success of container growing – it’s a great way to grow garlic in a small garden or on a patio. I’m not even sure I’d go back to growing in the ground, even after the requisite 15 years or so when the soil might be white rot free.

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Some of this year’s garlic crop

This year I am determined to plant whilst the old year is still waning, so I’ve been hunting out the paper bags filled with old bulbs from this year’s harvest. I’ve been growing ‘Early Purple Wight’ and ‘Red Czech’ for several years – bought from Isle of Wight based The Garlic Farm at Hampton Court Flower Show. We are pretty much self-sufficient in garlic throughout the year and saving bulbs makes this crop a cost effective one too. Last year I swapped some produce for a few elephant garlic cloves and they work really well in meals for the kids, who are yet to develop a taste for really spicy cuisine. Most produced healthy bulbs, but a few clearly took offence at being planted late and only produced round cloves. I’m going to plant the biggest of these again this year and see what happens.

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One of this year’s Elephant Garlic bulbs

In 2017, I’m adding to my collection with the new varieties ‘Persian Star’ and ‘Susan Delafield’, kindly given to me by Julieanne Porter, who grows a range of different varieties  in her own garden. Julieanne’s interesting accounts of garlic growing and trialling container/ground cultivated garlic can be found on her blog – Gwenfar’s Garden and other musings. I’m looking forward to getting to know these new varieties and seeing how they perform in the pots and in the kitchen.

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5 varieties of garlic ready for planting

I’m planting into a mixture of peat-free multi-purpose compost and my own garden compost, with around 6-10 cloves per pot. The pots spend the year next to the greenhouse in a sunny spot. They do have a tendency to dry out in the summer, so need regular watering, but apart from that are relatively maintenance free. This year the elephant garlic produced scapes which needed to be removed to encourage the plants to focus their energies on creating large bulbs. The discarded scapes were an added bonus, making a zingy pesto and delicious garlic bread.

Garlic scapes are a delicious spring treat

So, armed with old and new containers (some of my old ones have now entirely disintegrated after 6 valiant years of service), I’m off out into a dreary looking garden to bury treasure for next spring. The new containers are Haxnicks Vigoroot Potato/Tomato Planters, available through Suttons Seeds and kindly given to me to trial with my garlic. They stand 45cm high and hold 40 litres of compost. The planters are made of strong, stiff felt with sturdy webbed canvas handles.

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Vigoroot Planters to trial

The fabric planters should last for 3-6 years and work by ‘air-pruning’ plant roots, encouraging more vigorous rooting and therefore better absorption of nutrients. This will hopefully lead to bigger bulbs in the summer. Once filled the containers seem stable and although they will need careful watering due to the porous nature of the material, the sharp drainage will be good for the garlic. I’m planning to mulch the pots to help conserve moisture and to add plenty of homemade compost to give the cloves a good start.

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‘Persian Star’

So with all 5 varieties in situ, I’ll be waiting for more cold weather; a couple of cool months at temperatures of 0-10°C (32-50°F) should be sufficient for good bulb development. Once the milder spring weather returns the garlic should begin to sprout and I’ll be able to assess its vigour. Until growth begins, I’m intending to observe the garlic planters very closely from inside the warm kitchen with a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie (or two).

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Garlic planted – now to wait for spring

Hot Press Mushroom News…

The Oyster Mushrooms started to show on Day 9 of the Advent-ure and are now coming on swiftly. I’ll leave you with pictures of the babies, with more growth to come over the rest of Advent and then, hopefully, good eating.

Baby Oyster Mushrooms appearing on Days 9 and 10

If you want to grow your own Oyster Mushrooms, you can buy kits from The Espresso Mushroom Company. If you’d like to see how it all starts, take a look at my vlogs on the kits, on soaking the coffee grounds and on setting up the soaked growing kit.

If you’d like to follow my garlic and mushroom growing, I’ll be posting more details of both on the blog and day by day mushroom images over December on my Facebook page. You can follow my blog by clicking below. Thanks  🙂

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Allotment Soup Challenge: Roasted Jerusalem Artichoke and Sweet Chestnut

I love making soup. Homemade soup was a big part of family lunchtime when I was a child and I’ve carried on the tradition, making soups out of everything I can get my hands on. My favourite soup cookbook is a faded copy of ‘Soup and Beyond’ which I’ve had since I was a student. I really like the way it broadens traditional soup horizons, with combinations such as ‘Potato, Leek and Lavender Soup’ and ‘Prince and Pedlar Soup’ (quince and medlar). This recipe book, alongside a keen interest in more unusual crops, has led me to play with all sorts of soupy concoctions – most of which have tickled enough taste buds that they’ve been reprised multiple times, for example, our family favourite cream of kohl rabi soup (which alas has not been possible from the allotment this year for molluscular reasons – see Taking Stock: The Three Worst Crops of 2016).

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Love this book

Allotment Soup Challenge

So I decided I’d set myself challenge for the next few months – to make as many different soups with produce from allotment 96B as I can – to trial new flavour combinations and to make the most of our homegrown produce. There’s nothing better than soup to use up leftover vegetables and to warm your cockles when your heart is feeling rather chilly, for whatever reason. So here goes… the first soup is with the leftover Jerusalem artichokes, harvested last week, mostly used in stir-fries, but with some sorry specimens (not a problem in soup) hiding at the back of the veggie drawer. It’s a good job the soup is nourishing and tasty as there’s an awful lot more artichokes where these came from – whoever had our allotment before us really liked the knobbly tubers and we could currently supply the majority of Hertfordshire until Christmas and beyond…

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Our first plant produced this sizeable pile – only 20 more plants to go!

Roasted Jerusalem artichoke and sweet chestnut soup 🌰

Ingredients

500g Jerusalem artichokes

150g sweet chestnuts

250g potato

1 onion

200ml stock

200ml milk

100ml single cream

1 tsp winter savoury (could use thyme but it might have a less protective effect on your digestive system – see below!)

Salt/black pepper to taste

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We’ve been happily adding these seasonal treats to gravy, soups and casseroles for the past couple of weeks

Method

Roast the chestnuts (with a cross slit in their shells) and the scrubbed artichokes in the oven at 180ºc for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are soft (don’t need to add oil). Meanwhile, boil the peeled, chopped potatoes, winter savoury leaves and halved onion in the stock and milk until the vegetables are soft. When cooled, combine the stock, milk, onion, winter savoury and potatoes with the artichokes (which can be skinned at this point, or as I did, squeezed out of their skins – messy but fun!)

Blend the soup and when it is smooth add the chopped chestnuts and salt and pepper to taste. The soup can then be blended again until there are only small nuggets of chestnut to add a bit of bite to the soft soup. Heat in a pan and serve with crusty bread. It really is pretty simple… and delicious.

You might want to eat fairly sparingly to begin with as the effects of Jerusalem artichokes can be rather potent on the unwary digestive system, but the winter savoury should help take the wind out of the Jerusalem artichokes’ sails, so to speak.  😉

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Fresh, nutty and delicious soup

Please leave me a comment – especially if you have any suggestions about other ways of cooking with Jerusalem artichokes – or producing power with them, or any other ideas as I’m not convinced our collective digestion systems will cope with eating all of them over winter, so we need to dream up some alternative uses!!  🙂

Overwintering Tea, Coffee and Other Tender Edible Perennials

I bought a tea plant (Camellia sinensis) and a coffee plant (Coffea arabica) earlier this year. I’m hoping, in time, to be able to produce infinitesimally small amounts of low quality hot beverages with which to underwhelm my friends and family. In the meantime, the coffee needs to come in for the winter and I’ll probably bring the camellia in too, although in time it should become large enough to overwinter successfully outside in its pot. Planting it in the ground here isn’t feasible as our soil is alkaline (pH 7.5) and camellias need acid soil. But potted in ericaceous compost, it should exist quite happily and produce leaves for green tea and salads for many years to come.

The list of plants needing winter attention is growing as my plant collection becomes more extensive and unusual, so this year I’m not convinced it’s all going to fit. Time to clear greenhouse benches and indoor windowsills, squeeze plants onto trays and cross my fingers as chillies, tea, coffee, lemongrass, lemon verbena, Vietnamese coriander, yacon, cucamelons and inca berries all come in for the winter…

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Scrubbing away a year’s grime

Fungus Gnats

My overwintering regime comes from a mixture of experience, good advice from fellow growers and intuition (aka. guesswork). Once the pots are in I’ll be treating them with nematodes as I had real problems with fungus gnats in the house last year (the annoying little black flies which buzz around the compost and can multiply disturbingly in just a few days) and using nematodes completely cleared them up. I’ve been sent a free trial pack of nematodes from the Green Gardener which can be stored in the fridge in their sealed packet for a few weeks until needed and then simply watered in the specified concentrations onto moist compost. I’ll be using them in the next few days and will report back on how successful they are this year. Here’s to a fly-free winter and lots of happy hibernating plants ready to burst into life early next spring  🙂

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My nematodes – currently residing in the fridge

Chillies

My 39 chilli plants will not, alas, all fit in the house, so the challenge has been to decide which are keepers and which will be feeding Compo (the compost heap). I’ve saved lots of seed that I will be able to sow next January and I’ve been sent an amazing array of exciting varieties by a reader of my blog who grows an extensive range and has been very generous in our seed swap. There is now no hope for me – I’m a confirmed chilli addict. Thirteen varieties this year and I suspect it will only get worse in 2017…

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The crazy chilli collection 2016!

As well as saving seeds, the kitchen has turned into a pickling factory with shallots, red onions and chillies disappearing into jars, to reappear in a few weeks to jazz up pizzas, sandwiches and salads.

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Pickled chillies to heat up cold winter suppers

Cucamelons and Yacon

I’ve tried to overwinter cucamelon (Melothria scabra) tubers a couple of times and never been successful. They’ve been left them in pots in the unheated greenhouse and brought in as dried tubers, but each winter rot has set in. This time I’m going to attempt to keep them in their pots, dry on a windowsill alongside the yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) and see what happens…

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I’m hoping for an early harvest next year – if I can only manage to overwinter the tubers…

 

Lemongrass

The lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) overwintered well last year and then I lost nearly all my plants by putting them out in the unheated greenhouse too early. Second year plants definitely grow more strongly (providing they’re kept warm), whereas first year plants don’t really have long enough to develop and multiply. So I’m intending to learn from my mistake and keep them indoors next spring until the frosts have well and truly finished.

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These little guys never really developed into mature plants

Lemon Verbena

I’ve had the same lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) plant for 5 years. It dies back in winter in the unheated greenhouse and reappears in spring, usually just after I’ve given up hope – I should know better by now. This year I repotted it and put it outside during the summer. It rewarded me by producing more leaves than we could use. It is such a lovely plant. Unlike lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), which has a similarly enticing scent, I find lemon verbena transfers its sherberty aroma more successfully to hot and cold drinks, cakes and spicy curries.

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The lemongrass stirring from its winter slumbers

This year I’ve dried the remaining leaves for tea over winter and I’m going to have another go at propagating from cuttings next year (something at which I have an embarrassingly bad track record).

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Makes the best tea mixed with Moroccan mint

Vietnamese Coriander

A new herb for us this year, I’ve been impressed with the easy of use and clean taste of our Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata). I love the more traditional coriander (Coriandrum sativum), but the necessity of repeated sowings to cater for the speed at which it bolts is an extra job in a busy summer schedule. If the Vietnamese coriander overwinters successfully, it will allow a continuous supply of tasty leaves for cooking throughout the summer and autumn months and will have earned its place in the herb container garden.

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Vietnamese coriander – so far, so good

Inca Berries

A couple of weeks ago I was lamenting the three worst crops of 2016 – inca berries (Physalis peruviana) being one. I had an extremely helpful comment about the perennial nature of the plant and therefore the possibility of overwintering it. I have tried growing physalis for 4 years now, with very minimal harvests, so had already discounted new plants in 2017. However, I’m going to try bringing a couple of plants indoors to see if they produce higher yields in their second year. If not, they’re history – at least until I move on to warmer climes.

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My inca berry harvest

I’d love to know if anyone else is growing tea or coffee, and what the verdict is. And does anyone else contemplate paying their friends and relatives to overwinter plants on their windowsills due to a mismatch between plant collection ambitions and house size? Or is that just me?! Do leave me a comment below to let me know what other overwintering activities are going on this autumn…

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Assembled plants for overwintering – maybe we should move out?

 

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Pumpkin and Apple Season: Two Warming Autumn Soups

Facebook has just reminded me that five years ago I spent the day at the Luton Hoo Pumpkin and Apple Day, retreating from the crowds from time to time to sit on the haystacks and feed my 6 month old daughter. Today I have been in the town square enjoying our community garden Apple Day. We’ve been selling apples, pears, quinces and our juice (made with windfalls and unwanted apples collected from local gardens and orchards), running craft workshops for the children and chatting to Hitchin shoppers about all things apple related.

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Some of the varieties that have been available for shoppers to try and buy today

Within a couple of hours many of the apple varieties had sold out

Throughout October our house has had an underlying scent of apples – cooking apples stewing, crab apples boiling for jelly and cupboards full of apple boxes stored for eating or cooking later in the year. Our recently harvested quinces have added to the aroma and at the Stotfold Steam Fair last weekend we bought a mammoth pumpkin from a local grower. This has pleased the kids no end as last year I was late to the shops and we ended up celebrating Hallowe’en with a carved watermelon (on the grounds that any cucurbit was better than no cucurbit!)

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You’d never have known that our Hallowe’en cat (designed by my son) was carved out of a watermelon!

There’s no doubt that October brings the excitement of the autumn harvest and related festivities, but it also brings wastage on a grand scale as much of the pumpkin flesh removed prior to carving goes straight in the bin. Sara Venn, co-founder of Incredible Edible Bristol, highlighted this waste at the beginning of the week in her article ‘Please don’t play with your food…’ with the appalling figure that 80,000 tonnes of pumpkin flesh went to landfill in 2014. She has been blogging with pumpkin recipes all week and has asked readers and fellow bloggers to add their recipes and ideas to the mix. So here are some pumpkin soup recipes with a bit of apple thrown in for good measure. The spices in the first soup and sweetness of the apple in the second help to add flavour to commercial Hallowe’en pumpkins bred for size and colour, not for taste. The soups are based on recipes in the Luton Hoo ‘Pumpkin and Apple Gala Cookbook’, bought from the Apple and Pumpkin Day five years ago and much used since…

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Savoury and sweet – this cookbook has recipes for the whole family to enjoy…

 

Pumpkin, Prawn and Coconut Soup

Ingredients

400ml can coconut milk

1 lemongrass stalk or several leaves, bruised

2 tsps Thai green curry paste

4 Kaffir lime leaves

500ml hot chicken stock

1 tbsp nam pla fish sauce

About 500g peeled pumpkin flesh, chopped

250g pack MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) prawns

Juice of 1 lime

1 chilli, deseeded and chopped

A bunch of shredded spring onions or chopped chives

Method

Add the coconut milk, Kaffri lime leaves and lemon grass to a pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the Thai green curry paste and hot stock. Stir gently until the paste has dissolved.

Add the pumpkin and simmer until tender (10-12 minutes). Add the prawns and cook for a further 5 minutes. Remove the lemon grass and Kaffir lime leaves. Add lime juice and fish sauce to taste.

Serve topped with shredded spring onions/chives and chilli.

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Regular readers will know I am a Thai food lover. I love growing Thai veg and herbs and this soup used our lemongrass and Thai lime leaves as well as the pumpkin

 

 

Roast Pumpkin and Bramley Apple Soup

Ingredients

1 large pumpkin

2 tbsp olive oil

25g butter

1 small onion, chopped

1 small Bramley ( or other cooking) apple, peeled and chopped

700ml vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Method

Cut pumpkin into quarters, scoop out seeds (rinse and save), brush flesh with olive oil and roast for 25 minutes at 180ºc or until flesh is soft. Once cool, scoop flesh out of skin.

Melt the butter in a pan and add the onion. Soften for 10 minutes without browning. Add stock and pumpkin flesh. Simmer gently for 15 minutes. Add the apple and simmer for a further 5 minutes until tender.

Blend the soup, add salt and pepper to taste and serve with natural yoghurt and ground black pepper.

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A wholesome warming soup for cold autumn evenings

 

As a tasty extra treat, the discarded pumpkin seeds can be toasted for 20-25 minutes at 180ºc spread out on an oiled baking tray. Remove from oven when toasted. Toss in seasoning and herbs or spices to taste (we used salt, pepper, cumin and paprika) and scoff as a pre-dinner snack.

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Toasted pumpkin seeds – no waste – great taste

The pumpkin and apple harvest adds a sparkle to October meals – there are so many delicious ways to make the most of these hearty ingredients

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My two little helpers enjoying the apple tunnel in a local orchard

For more apple recipes, try some tasty Apple and Cinnamon Butter, Spiced Crab Apple Jelly and Crab Apple Fruit Leathers or our family favourite Rhubarb and Apple Sponge.

If you have other cucurbits to use up, try Stuffed Summer Squash, Courgette and Chilli Cornbread or Courgette Tea Bread.

I’d love to hear about other favourite pumpkin and apple recipes – with all that pumpkin flesh going spare in the next few weeks, every delicious recipe counts. And if you’d like to explore more recipes with me, you can follow the blog below:

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Taking Stock: The Three Worst Crops of 2016

Ups and downs are part of every growing year and 2016 has seen some exciting highs interspersed with a few depressing failures. We’ve had our first quince crop from Cydonia oblonga ‘Meeches Prolific’ with ten glorious downy fruits from our three year old tree. (Actually nine now as a passing individual delivering leaflets pulled one off the tree, presumably thinking it was an apple, bit into it, discovered it was unpleasant – being actually a quince and unripe – and discarded it in our front garden.)

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Early on the fruits are covered in a downy fur which has now nearly disappeared

 

Sweet Success 🙂

The dwarf plum tree ‘Opal’ has given us a bumper harvest and we had a basket of greengages ‘Cambridge Gage’ for the first time which were utterly sublime – easily the sweetest, most aromatic fruit I’ve ever tasted. Three of our four apples trees have produced fruit, which is actually the best we’ve ever managed as the espaliers are planted in shallow ground where we had to use a pickaxe to remove as much concrete as possible, so they have a tendency to sulk and become biennial at times. But better to have beautiful espaliers for flowers, fruit and habitat for wildlife than bare concrete fence bases.

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One of our many baskets of plums which are now filling the freezer

Allotment 96B has yielded many baskets of potatoes, trombocinos and round courgettes aplenty, runner and broad beans, celeriac, rhubarb, currants, strawberries, raspberries, beetroot, carrots, achocha, shallots and onions, all within its first six months. There’s oca and Jerusalem artichokes still to harvest and the cucumbers, tomatoes and chillies are still racing to ripen their fruit in the greenhouse before the frosts descend. Throughout spring, summer and autumn, a most satisfying harvest has been making its way onto our plates and into our cupboards in the form of jam, jellies, chutneys and pickles. But a few crops have not managed to keep up – in most cases because I’ve not paid enough attention to them – and herein lie the lessons for next year…

Pear Crop 😦

We bought a patio pear tree several years ago which grows in a pot at the sunniest end of the garden. It faces a patio cherry, also in a pot, which has started to yield a small harvest of tasty cherries each year which we protect from the birds with netting just before the cherries begin to ripen. The pear gave us five fruit in each of the last couple of years which was not too bad, considering its age and size, but this year it plumbed new depths by managing one ugly, round blob of a fruit.

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The blob

I think it has finally outgrown its pot and needs to be potted on. I bought a lovely black pot for this purpose a few years ago, but didn’t pot it on when we got it as I did with the larger cherry, as I was concerned about overpotting. If the small rootball had been placed above wet compost, it could well fail to thrive in the anaerobic root conditions this would create. So I’ll be repotting the pear after leaf-fall this autumn and feeding it well next spring to help it develop the required energy to fruit successfully in future years.

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The bigger pot at the back should help this tree thrive next year

 

Kohl Rabi 😦

Many years ago I visited Zell am See in Austria and stayed for a week in the lovely Grand Hotel where we’d managed to get a discounted room. The scenery was stunning and the wildlife breathtaking. We swam in the lake, listened to live piano music with afternoon tea on the waterfront and cycled in the countryside seeking (and finding) red-backed shrikes. Every evening we had a 5 course meal – one course was always soup – delicate, creamy soups which introduced us to celeriac and kohl rabi. Since that holiday we’ve regularly made soup with these two underrated vegetables and we’ve tried growing both at various times. Celeriac has been unsuccessful in the garden, probably because it needs fertile, moisture retentive soil in full sun and our raised beds do have a tendency to dry out. But Allotment 96B already had celeriac growing in it when we took over in April – rather old and tired, but I managed to salvage some for soup. We’ve planted more this year and I’m hopeful we might get a modest crop in a few weeks.

Kohl rabi, on the other hand, hasn’t had such an easy time of it. I’ve grown it successfully in the garden before and love the smooth white or purple UFOs – the swollen stems of the plants. This year I tried growing it on the allotment. Early on the slugs decided they deserved kohl rabi more than me and they attacked it in earnest. They ate into the developing stems, hollowing the circles and eventually killing the plants. I had a spare bit of copper tape with which I encircled the base of one plant, buying it a little time. But eventually, it too succumbed to the relentless ninja slug patrol.

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There are beets and courgettes, but no kohl rabi this year – this photo is from 2014

I’m sad there will be no kohl rabi this year, as much for the beautiful form of the vegetable, as for its taste. But next year I’m sowing both the purple and white varieties. I’m planning a special area in the raised beds in the garden where I can raise a kohl rabi army and defeat the slugs through increased vigilance and special vegetable training sessions.

Inca Berries (Physalis/Cape Gooseberry) 😦

I’m a sucker for the weird and wonderful (as you probably know if you’ve been following the blog) and I first grew inca berries four years ago. Prior to this year I’ve always grown them from seed and they’ve developed late and produced a poor crop. This year I decided to treat myself to plug plants in order to get bigger specimens sooner. I potted on the six plugs when they arrived and continued to repot and feed them throughout the spring. I pinched out the tops of three and left the others to see if encouraging them to branch would help crop production. Now, five months later, I have six lanky, healthy looking plants (some branching, some not) with about 25 fruits between them. Not enough to make the Mrs Beeton jelly recipe I’ve been hankering after unfortunately. Don’t know why mine always grow so tall and produce so few fruit. Maybe the greenhouse doesn’t suit them due to reduced light levels, although I’ve tried them outside in previous years and had no fruit at all. Maybe I need to pinch them out more during the season? I’d be grateful for any ideas here please – the jury’s still out on whether I’ll bother again next year.

Inca berries have attractive flowers and fruits

I guess I’m not alone in feeling fed up when I’ve nurtured a plant for months and planned what I might do with the harvest, only to get little or nothing at the end of it. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s worth it and whether it might just be easier to stick to more conventional crops or buy all my fruit and vegetables from the shops. Then I watch the kids picking Chilean guavas from the front hedge on their way home from school and suddenly it’s all worth it.

Chilean guavas ripe for the picking

If you have grown any of these edibles with more success than me (not difficult), do leave me a comment or some advice below. Or maybe you’d like to share some of the successes or crop disasters of 2016. It’s always great to read about what other gardeners are up to. Thanks  🙂

If you’ve enjoyed reading about my growing experiences this year, you can follow the blog to get updates on the rest of my harvest and my plans for 2017 which will include my new allotment cutting flower bed and a revamp of the border in the back garden…

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Plot to Plate: Courgette Tea Bread

Last week the courgettes were destined for savoury fare in my courgette and chilli cornbread. This week’s courgette production shows no let up, so I’ve been experimenting with sweet uses of courgettes. First I tried a courgette chocolate cake using a recipe from the Delemere Farm Goat’s Milk carton. It was meant to be avocado and chocolate, but ended up with grated courgettes in too (as with so many things in our house…) It tasted good, but I need to work on the moisture levels as it was a little dry – probably due to my substitution of gluten-free flour for ordinary flour.

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First attempt at a sweet courgette recipe – the homemade blackcurrant jam between the layers of the cake worked particularly well

So then I embarked on an old favourite – tea bread, but substituting some of the dried fruits for grated courgette. This worked a treat – the loaf was moist with no distinct taste of courgette – just a general fruity deliciousness.

Courgette Tea Bread

Ingredients

300g mixed dried fruit

150g grated courgette

200ml cold tea

250g gluten free self-raising flour (or could use ordinary wholemeal self-raising flour)

170g soft brown sugar

30g melted butter

1 egg

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Dried fruit and grated courgette soaking in the tea

 

Method

Soak the dried fruit and grated courgette in the tea for several hours or overnight. Add the flour, sugar, butter and egg to the soaked mixture and combine thoroughly.

Line a long loaf tin with greaseproof paper and pour cake mixture into the tin. Bake at 170ºc for 1-1.5 hours until the tea bread is firm to the touch.

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Hard to leave it to cool before slicing as it smelled so good…

Enjoy with a cup of tea, preferably in the sunshine.

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And relax…