Autumn time begins in the allotment

My allotment is a disgrace. You can’t really tell from these photos because I’ve been very selective. You may note the lack of wide angle shots…IMG_1885

However, parts of it are thriving. The courgettes continue to grow at a fantastic pace. I can’t make them into cakes fast enough, even though I quadruple the recipe and make four loaves at a time. I’m on the lookout for the perfect chocolate courgette cake so if you’ve got any ideas about where I can find it, let me know.

sunny pumpkin patch and sunflowers

We’ve been really successful with pumpkins over the last two years. They are the ideal plant for me because they suddenly put on a lot of growth in late July and August, just at a time when I don’t get much opportunity for gardening. They are so big and prolific that their leaves seem to suppress a lot of weeds. Except for the ever present nasturtiums, of course.

IMG_1847 In my opinion, we have a nasturtium problem in our patch. Just like the pumpkins, they also have a tendency to take over in July and August when I take my eye off the ball. At this time of year, before any frosts, they are at their height. The Husband insists that there are worse weeds we could have and I suppose he is right. They are not particularly difficult to rip out, unlike the creeping buttercup and bindweed I’m currently wrestling with as I clear the onion patch. They are just very, very good at self seeding.

But, they are pretty. The bees love them and we can harvest them too.pale yellow nasturtiumnasturtium pesto

The leeks are one area that I have managed to weed. Don’t look at the edges of the picture though. In hindsight, I wish I’d grown more leeks to see us through winter. Maybe next year. So far they seem to be pretty low maintenance plants, which is a priority for me.

IMG_2148This is the chard patch. Another easy to grow, low maintenance vegetable that I have been adding to curries instead of spinach. I think I am more in love with how it looks than how it tastes, to be honest, but, I just keep thinking about how healthy it must be. It should stand all winter, being resistant to frost. A perfect cut and come again crop.

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climbing french beans I have managed a few meals from my climbing french beans. I think I will need to start these off earlier next year. It seems that they are just beginning to grow well. This is the most success I’ve ever had with climbing french beans so I’m pretty happy.

plug plants I succumbed to buying some plug plants from the local garden centre a week or two ago. I never got around to raising any purple sprouting broccoli or kale earlier in the summer but I really want to eat some in spring. I don’t normally like buying these kind of plants, it feels like cheating. However, I’ve got clear ground and I want it to be filled. I’ll just have to do better next time.

IMG_2142 Some of the cabbages I sowed in the spring have survived my lack of attention and the surplus of attention from the slugs and cabbage white butterflies. They are now growing well. I’d better start planning how I’m going to encourage the children to eat them. I’m hoping my mulch works. It is made up of dead grass that I pulled up from elsewhere in the plot. Using waste as a mulch? Will it work? Time will tell.

IMG_1891 The autumn raspberries are starting to ripen up but they are few and far between. I think they are still getting established in their new position and they are also a bit swamped by a vast carpet of nasturtiums. There are usually just enough for a little treat after a hard afternoon of weeding.

The start of September was very sunny, as it often is just as the summer holidays come to an end. As the children returned to school and nursery I returned to my routine of trying to get to the allotment more regularly. Having that little bit of space to dig and weed and plant and just sit in the sun is a real pleasure.

One day as I sat I was aware of lots of buzzing. The enormous flowering weed plant next to me was full of hoverflies busy sucking up all the nectar it had to offer. If I was a real gardener I wouldn’t have let this plant get so big, never mind flower. But, after spending time watching and trying to photograph all the insects I didn’t have the heart to chop it down.

IMG_1859IMG_1914Our sunflowers seem to be reaching their peak now, the tallest one is over 7ft.

IMG_2262These too attract the insects. There is something very appealing about watching a big, fluffy, bumble bee work it’s way across a sunflower head, probing each tiny flower for nectar.

IMG_2190I’m so glad I managed to plant some sunflowers. They are such happy plants. When the bees have had all the food they can get and the flowers have faded, the birds can take over and enjoy the seeds.

Autumn is slowly starting to make it’s presence felt. The autumn equinox was a day or two ago and my last few visits to the allotment have been in cooler weather. The mornings I have visited have been still and slightly misty with the damp air highlighting numerous, silky spiders webs.

The elderberries I could reach have been harvested and the birds are stripping the rest of the tree. Rose hips and other berries are brightening up the hedges as the leaves slowly begin to change and fall.

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IMG_1792The garden is fading from green to brown.

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Sweet, sweet chestnuts

Have you ever foraged for sweet chestnuts? For me they are deeply associated with memories of my Dad. My Grandparents lived in a house on the Broadmoor estate (they were both nurses in the secure hospital) and right behind it was a little area of woodland where lots of sweet chestnut trees grew amongst the pines. I loved going into the woods with my Dad. It seems to me that it was something that we did together, without my Mum, a bit like sledging. Dad loved to tell me all about his boyhood, playing in those woods. I envied him that freedom even thirty years ago. I thought it must have been so exciting to escape into your own woodland playground with your friends to build dens and play hide and seek.

I always felt a frisson of fear in those woods too. They were not far from the forbidding walls of the Victorian hospital which housed some of the most notorious criminals of the last few decades. I knew very well that Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper was in there and, despite my youth, I had a fair idea of what he had done. Occasional thoughts used to flit through my brain along the lines of “What if someone escapes while we are out in these woods”? I must have voiced these concerns to my Dad because I remember him reassuring me that if anyone escaped, they would want to get as far away as possible. I wasn’t so sure. After all, weren’t the inmates locked up because they were mad?

We visited my Grandparents in the October holidays of 1982. I would have been seven years old. I know this because we gathered and ate a lot of sweet chestnuts that year. The following spring, my baby brother arrived with a head of dark brown hair. Clearly (according to my Grandparents) the result of all the chestnuts my Mum ate. I seem to remember Grandad having a sack full of them and every evening some more would be cooked. In fact, I think that sack of chestnuts was still in evidence when we returned at Christmas.

I can’t remember exactly how Grandad cooked them but I think they might have been done in the oven. Actually, it’s probably much more likely that my Grandma cooked them. I seem to remember that they eventually took to doing them in the microwave, piercing the tough shells and putting them in a covered bowl with a small amount of water. I loved them. There’s nothing nicer than fresh, hot  chestnuts, especially if you don’t have to peel them.

However, the best way to enjoy them is with your Dad, in the woods, over an open fire. Dad and I shared a slight pyromaniac tendency over the years and I think my first taste of it was during that October holiday. Dad must have built a little fireplace from stones and found an old upturned paint tin lid (there was a bit of a tendency to dump rubbish around the woods from time to time). He had no problem lighting the fire because in those days he was still a smoker so he had matches to hand. I felt like I had escaped into some sort of adventure story and we were surviving on our foraging skills. I also knew that Dad trusted me around the fire and that made me feel extremely grown up.

We never found any sweet chestnut trees in Teesside. I have a theory about this and it is all to do with Romans. They were the ones who introduced the sweet chestnut to Britain. A Romans road existed through the area that is now near Crowthorne, where Dad grew up, so perhaps that explains why they were so common there. Dad did start to grow a sapling from a nut he brought home once. Mum tells me she’s still got it in a pot in the garden but I haven’t spotted it for a while. The nearest Dad and I got to chestnuts in later years was peeling them for Christmas stuffing.

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Fast forward thirty-one years and my children are visiting their paternal grandparents during October half-term. My eldest is just a little bit older than I was when I went chestnut foraging with my Dad. We decided to have a walk up Penrith Beacon, a hill on the edge of town.

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We hadn’t been on the path long before I spotted the distinctive leaves and spiky cases of sweet chestnuts littering the ground. I immediately sent The Husband back to the car for a bag so I could gather some.

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IMG_3790I was so excited to have found chestnuts. It wasn’t really about wanting to eat them (because I still haven’t – oops) it was purely about me recreating memories. Dad would have been as excited as me about finding them. We didn’t actually gather any until we were on our way back. It seemed silly to carry them up the Beacon and back again. The rest of our walk was lovely. The weather was mild and bright. The sun shone through the leaves and there were lots of other things to spot along the way.

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The view from the top wasn’t as fabulous as we might have hoped. Trees obscured the view in most directions making the beautiful guide to the fells and landmarks pretty much obsolete.

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We could see Penrith, and a few of the fells beyond, through one little gap in the trees.

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When we got to the bottom of the path everyone else went ahead while I gathered chestnuts. I made a few mistakes in my foraging. The best, ripest nuts are the ones in the cases that have just split open. I picked up quite a few cases that were still intact and the nuts inside them were disappointingly pale. Obviously it’s been too long since I foraged for chestnuts.

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Once I got them home I wasted no time in ‘de-shelling’ them. You really need a tough pair of gloves for this job if you don’t want to get spiked. Most of them had one decent sized nut and a couple of ‘runts’ that weren’t worth keeping.

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I took far too many photos. The variety in their ripeness and the fact that they popped out so easily when they were ready got me thinking about babies and due dates. But that is a whole other rant blog post. I’ll let you ponder on that one.

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IMG_3804So beautiful. I really must get around to actually eating them.

And what about my theory? It is well known that Romans lived around Penrith. There was a Roman road in the area that connected Penrith to Carlisle and Manchester. Teesside was also subject to Roman rule and there is plenty of evidence for Roman occupation but according to this:

‘The people living in the Teesside area during the Roman occupation were native Britons or ‘Celts’. Teesside probably saw no large-scale movements of population following the Roman invasion or any great influx of new immigrants. Indeed in many parts of Britain there is little evidence for the adoption of Roman culture or beliefs among the majority of the population.’

Is that why we don’t have chestnut trees in abundance here? Or is it just that we don’t have the right kind of soil? I don’t know but if anyone has an answer, I’d be pleased to hear it.

Autumn Outings: Part One – Durham

The weather has been reasonably kind over the last few weeks, allowing us some autumn outings.

In the first week of the month, Son Number One went on a school trip to Durham Botanical Gardens. The following weekend we decided to have a family trip there as he was keen to show us around. It was a perfect day to appreciate a garden in autumn.

I bet every visitor to the garden photographed this tree

Bright blue skies and golden leaves, warm enough to leave your coat behind but cool enough to be autumnal.

There were still lots of lovely bedding plants around and I couldn’t help taking lots of pictures of the dahlias.

Although it was hard at times not to imagine the pleasure of a child free visit to these gardens, the real joy of this trip was watching Son Number One. He helped his sister do all the clues on the ‘quiz trail’ and guided us around the garden in a very confident fashion.

By a complete coincidence we met some of our best friends there, though they were almost ready for leaving when we arrived. It didn’t stop the children exploring the greenhouses together. One houses a small collection of ‘minibeasts’ (well, the spiders weren’t so mini, they were big and hairy) and a fish pond, one houses the cactus collection, one houses a ‘tropical rainforest’ complete with spray and one houses a large tank containing giant lily pads (somehow I managed to miss this). The boys had a great time trying to photograph the minibeasts. I won’t scare you with the results but I will give you Son Number One’s fish photo’s because I think they are quite pretty.

I should probably mention that a large part of the garden is accessible with a push chair. We took our Phil and Ted’s 3 wheeler and managed to go ‘off road’ quite a bit. All in all, we had a lovely afternoon out. We should visit Durham more often as it really is on our doorstep. It was funny to be there on one of the first afternoons of the new university term. The Husband and I felt quite old as we watched swathe after swathe of students go to and from the playing fields. They all looked so young and full of vim and vigour. It seems incredible that is is almost 20 years since we began our university careers. Son Number One is closer to University age than we are. Scary thought.