The Fair Maids of February 

Yesterday Little Pea’s Grandma and her fiancé Simon joined us for a trip to Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire. It was a Snowdrop Day and we were lucky enough to catch the start of a great snowdrop talk from one of the excellent Waterperry Gardeners before having a lovely stroll in the sunshine around the gardens. There was lots of early Spring interest to be seen including primulas, beautiful purple hellebores and, of course, carpets of snowdrops of many varieties.

Hellebores at Waterperry

One of my favourite facts that we learned was that the name snowdrop comes from the German Schneeglöckchen which was only given to the plant in the Middle Ages as their shape emulated the popular pearl earring style of the time – a fact that appeals to both the historian and German teacher in me!
Galanthus Atkinsii

Reflections of silver birch

What surprised us all was the amazing scent of the snowdrops, especially that of Galanthus S. Arnott which was almost like honey. Another way to love an already much loved plant.


If you too are a fan of the Fair Maids of February and are in Oxfordshire then pop on over to Waterperry for some great information on how to grow your own and myriad varieties on offer. I’ll be taking the following tips when planting my snowdrops this year:

  • Plant them soon – ‘in the green’. This allows for the plant to draw the energy from the stem when reproducing. 
  • Plant them 8cm deep and 8cm apart.
  • Add some bonemeal and sharp sand to get them going.

If the swathes of snowdrops at Waterperry were anything to go by then this is top advice!


I’ve been wanting to go to the gardens for a long time but am now strong enough for a pleasantly long walk out and about and the weather was very kind to us. Lots of extra pairs of hands made for an easy trip but I’m sure Little Pea will be back for a few more trips this Spring and Summer and the accessibility and facilities make it suitable for all. 

There was lots to do for little ones, good baby changing facilities and the ginger cake in the café was delicious!

Three generations enjoying the Truth Trail at Waterperry

We had such a beautiful day and we enjoyed being outdoors immensely. Being by plants and streams gives me a sense of peace and calm that cannot be replicated. 
Ever hopeful for Spring,
Allotment Virgins
 

19th Hampshire Potato Day – A Derry’s Field Guest Post

Little Pea’s Granda and Nana visited the 19th Hampshire Potato Day on Saturday 28th January at Whitchurch in Hampshire. Located in the Testbourne Centre this event is supported by, amongst others, the Hampshire branch of the National Vegetable Society (NVS), Hampshire Organic Gardening Group and of course the good people of Whitchurch. 

This visit came about following a recommendation from Peter Thatcher (greenhouse erector par excellence and another Derry’s Field allotment holder) who erected our new greenhouse in April last year. We certainly weren’t disappointed! With around 120+ varieties of potato on display it was very difficult to decide which ones we were taking home with us. In the end, we settled for some Red Duke of York and Salad Blue – Organic tubers. 

Despite the number of tubers on display calling this event a potato day is a little bit of a misnomer. Also available, were many varieties of onion, shallot, garlic, peas and beans etc. There was something for everybody. We couldn’t resist the Longfellow Broad Beans supplied by the Hampshire NVS and look forward to the promised bumper flavoursome crop this summer, or the Percy Pepper fun pot – with added snowdrop – that we brought home for Little Pea. 


Other exhibits included; a seed swap run by the Hampshire Organic Growing Group, grow your own cards – each greeting card contains a small packet of seeds, Heritage Seeds from Thomas Etty, local honey and our favourite – bobble hats. These were displayed on top of toilet rolls with faces painted on them!! 


All in all this was a great day out, not least because the people in attendance were as varied as the potatoes on display.

Derry’s Field 

Nonna’s Marvellous Marmalade 

A couple of weeks ago, Little Pea and I were joined by Nonna to make some marvellous marmalade!


I usually make a batch of marmalade every year but this was Nonna’s first batch and it was a triumph!

We had a lovely afternoon chatting and slicing Seville orange peel before Nonna set off for home to let the peel soak in the perfumed juices overnight and to boil up the batch the next day. 


The result was a gorgeous golden marmalade with a bittersweet tang thanks to a great recipe from the Mistress of the Marmalade – Pam ‘The Jam’ Corbin.


The first preserve of the year, marmalade is relaxing to make, delicious to eat and keeps for up to two years (it usually gets devoured long before however!) I’m really pleased I got to help to make some this year and that Little Pea was happy chatting away to us in her bouncer as we shredded the orange peel. 

I’m now looking forward to the first clicks of rhubarb to make jam for ice cream but I’m getting ahead of myself…

Keep it sweet,

Allotment Virgins

The plot thickens…

…slightly less figuratively than one might like as there are a lot of winter weeds and matted grass that needs tackling as the weather warms up! 
This week a burgeoning sense of Spring has come over us. The days are getting ever so slightly longer and with every vitamin D supplement I pop I feel that we’re one step closer to vanquishing the winter darkness. 

The first daffodil of the year poking its head out of the soil.

Today is one of those days where you can almost feel Spring waiting around the corner. Many moons ago I had a rather dark period of depression and anxiety and a turning point came when (along with a truckload of CBT) I saw the first snowdrops of Spring – a sort of Patronus if you will (Potter fans?) and each year since when I see them I am filled with that same hope. 

This year’s first snowdrop in a neighbour’s garden – look closely, he’s in there!

Hope is something that we need in the world at the moment so instead of sitting around writing about it and not doing anything now is the time for action to make our own corner of the world a little lovelier. Such actions as joining the Green Party, changing to renewable energy, growing our own food and keeping the pressure on our MPs to fight against the cuts to our local children’s services are on my list – good luck with whatever is on yours 😊

Looking forward to Spring,

Allotment Virgins

Coming soon on Growing Together:

  • Marvellous Marmalade 
  • Tales from the Potato Fayre – Derry’s Field guest post.

If you plant it…

…it will grow – Wally, OMMLAA, 2010

Sorry to go all Field of Dreams/Wayne’s World on you there but this is a story of optimism. Optimism and garlic.

As the nights are drawing in, there are even less chances to get up to the allotment so we’re taking our chances where we can.

A couple of weeks ago, Chris and Little P hung out whilst I dashed up to lottie for my first dig since she arrived.

Not a massive patch, I’ll grant you. And there are some pretty mean looking weeds looking eager to encroach but it’s my little patch and I’m proud of it! 

Last Friday we took advantage of a beautiful sunny morning to head up to the allotment to plant our overwintering garlics. Perhaps a tad late, but my Dad’s allotment buddies, Romeo and Francesca reckon that mid November is (thankfully!) the right time to plant them and what they don’t know about growing garlic ain’t worth knowing! 

Our lovely neighbour Ronnie came up to help us and showed Little P round the plot whilst we planted the garlic. It was a real joy to open up the papery bulbs and plant each clove in the soil with a wish of what it might become (garlic bread, chicken and garlic soup, aioli…) 


This year we’ve gone for a couple of bulbs of ‘Early Purple Wight’. Personally I love the purple garlic, especially picked early in spring and used in lieu of an onion in a tomatoey pasta sauce. 

For all you need to know about growing your own garlic head on over to our Twitter buddy Richard Chivers’ blog Sharpen Your Spades for the low-down!

Each time we head up to OMMLAA we’ll do a little patch more, adding next year’s veg as we go. It’s great to think that what we’re planting now will become food for all three of us in the new year! 

Just as last year, our planting of bulbs in autumn brought us joy in spring, so too does the thought of the little cloves of garlic taking root on our plot tonight. And as Wally said on our first visit to OMMLAA, ‘Don’t worry too much about it, plant it, it’ll grow.’

Ever the optimists,

Allotment Virgins

A light in the darkness.

This morning, we, like many parents, were awoken at an ungodly hour by a baby who doesn’t understand the concept of the clocks going back (who does?!) and as we were up we thought we’d all get a head start on making the soup for Little P’s christening next week. We’re having a christening/fireworks party and this soup is the perfect accompaniment as things turn chilly.

Squash is my all time favourite thing to grow, cook with and eat. I love everything about them, the seeds, the myriad varieties, everything. Nothing brings as much joy on a cold winter’s day as opening a slate blue Crown Prince Squash to see the colour of sunshine inside. That, and eating them with loads of roasted garlic and sage!

And so we come to this morning’s recipe:

Ingredients 

1 large ‘Blue Banana’ squash or similar.

1 bulb garlic

Small bunch fresh sage leaves 

Olive oil

Sea Salt 

Freshly ground black pepper

Organic gluten free chicken stock 700ml approx.

Method – Oven 180• 

1. Prepare the squash. Wash the skin but leave unpeeled. Cut into large wedges and remove the seeds.


2. Place the wedges in a roasting tray. Season with the salt and pepper. Dress in olive oil and scatter with unpeeled garlic cloves.

3. Roast at 180• for 45 minutes or until the squash is soft all the way through.

4. Leave to cool, then scoop out the squash flesh straight into a blender. Peel and add five of the roasted garlic cloves.

5. Add finely chopped sage leaves, to taste and as much stock as you need to cover the squash and blend, adding a little stock as required to reach your desired thickness. 

6. Reheat when ready to eat. Freezes v. well too. Great with a grate of gruyère. Enjoy on a cold autumn day, preferably at a fireworks christening party! 

Squash soup, packed and ready for Saturday.

This a simple recipe but one of the great joys of the growing year. Autumn is my favourite season. Of course, we have the bounty of the year’s harvest, but what I like best is that as things turn darker and colder, we do whatever we can to bring in the warmth and light.


Keep it cosy,

Allotment Virgins

It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas…

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys Christmas strictly on 24-25 December then perhaps this is not the blog post for you! 

In our house, Christmas preparations come with the harvest and this year, the harvests of others. We’ve been fortunate enough to share in some great veg, including squash from our neighbours and allotment buddies Chris and Ronnie, and the last of the year’s courgettes from Dad and Sue. And so to get the scent of Christmas wafting up the street, Little P and I set out to make some Glutney – a River Cottage harvest chutney with cloves and mace and lots of other festive spices. 

Apples and cyder vinegar give a lovely fruity tang to this chutney.

Once upon a time before I began teaching I had a little market stall and sold jams and chutneys around Oxfordshire, (I’m even designated as a Market Trader on our marriage certificate 😊) and ever since I’ve tried to keep making preserves with the produce of the season. It was great to get the Maslin pan back out for this chutney as I love the ceremony of preparing all of the ingredients (1cm dice for this chutney) measuring the liquids, working with sugar which is at times the cruellest of mistresses, and to be rewarded after a few hours of bubbling and brewing with a rich chutney which allows you to drag a spoon across the bottom of the pan and creates a path for a few seconds. 

Despite the house smelling like ‘the inside of a Christmas pickled onion’ for a couple of days, the chutney was a success. It’s rich and chunky and is crying out for a tangy cheddar, some German rye bread and a half of West Berkshire Breweries ‘Dr Hexter’s Wedding Ale’ or similar – Christmas Eve supper anyone?
Keep it festive,

Allotment Virgins

Mother’s ruin 

Yesterday we did one of our favourite preserving tasks of the year – making the damson gin! As usual we were very grateful to @jamesmallan for the fruit and lots of the top tips you’ll find in this post. This year he very kindly gave us some bullaces (tiny damsons) from the tree in his garden. James truly is the King of the Damson and no party is complete without some of his booze fruits and damson cheese!

Down to business: the booze fruits, or infusions as they’re more commonly known, that we’re making this year are 2x batches of damson gin and 1x batch of damson vodka. We used the River Cottage Booze book for the recipe however we may have broken foremost forager and author John Wright’s golden rule about using cheap booze. We went for Tanqueray (as it was on special offer and we thought we’d have some left over – we didn’t!) and some Gordon’s and Stoli that were kicking around at the back of the cupboard, however cheaper options are advised as the fruit and sugar transform the taste. This is not a lesson in delicate botanicals, rather a rich and warming fruity flavour.

booze fruits
Prepping the booze fruits

James’ advice for us novice foragers is to make a note of the source of the fruit as they all give a different tasting drink. We’ve also found that the same source can give a different outcome year on year so it all depends on the growing season. 

We would be able to have a booze fruits tasting if we followed James’ advice to be patient however we must confess that the booze doesn’t last long after bottling. It has to be said though that after a year the flavour is much smoother and more mature.

There are two ways of prepping the fruit, you can either prick them with a needle or you can follow our preferred method of freezing them as soon as you pick them and defrosting them. This breaks down the fruit just enough to allow the flavours to infuse and the damsons are small enough that the fruit stays preserved until bottling. Try and choose a recipe that has a lower sugar content – too much can be cloying and you run the risk of losing the luscious damson flavour. More info on infusion making can be found here – it really can be as simple as popping the fruit, sugar and liquor in a jar and shaking occasionally and it is a very speedy and satisfying preserving project for an autumn evening.

Make more than you need or as much as your fruit supply will allow – it makes a great Christmas present but you won’t want to give it away! I couldn’t partake of the last batch as I was carrying Little P, so I’m especially looking forward to coming back from a chilly winter walk and having a wee dram!

For a change, keep it purple!

Allotment Virgins

Vicarious veg

This summer as I grew bigger we started to live through the veg experiences of others. Our lovely neighbours Chris & Ronnie kindly adopted the various seedlings I’d grown but couldn’t plant (by May my digging days were truly over!) and they have been sharing the produce from their excellent plot and polytunnel.

potatoes
Red Dukes and Charlottes
polytunnel
Ronnie at the polytunnel
 

My Dad & Sue have kept us (and half of Woking) in veg throughout the summer. Having retired in January, they decided to turn their garden into a veg patch for one season before landscaping it whilst they waited for an allotment plot. Only a few months later and they have a plot at the Derry’s Field site in Woking and it’s been a bumper year all round! Derry’s is a great site with a fab community spirit. If you too are a Woking dweller, check them out here! Derry’s Field Allotments

peppers
Peppers in the greenhouse
Dad
Dad in the blue – made the papers already!
allotment
Dad and Sue’s plot at Derry’s Field
parsnips
Sue harvesting some proper parsnips!
 

Chris’ family also helped us out with a working party earlier in the year to help us get some seedlings in, thanks guys!

All was not lost for us though as earlier in the season we had some great successes including a great bulb patch with some great tulips from Sarah Raven and our very first successful crop of PSB!


Thank you to everyone who has kept us in the growing loop this summer – from Dad & Sue and Chris & Ronnie popping round with bags of veg to the lovely Murray and Laura posting us some herbs in with a pressie for Francesca. As I sit here looking through the seed box I can see a great growing season ahead and we hope to pay you back with a few weird and wonderful squash next autumn!

Keep it green,

Allotment Virgins

Sowing the seed…

Hello and welcome to the first post of the new Allotment Virgins blog, Growing Together. We have been blogging and tweeting as Allotment Virgins for over five years now but we thought the time had come for a fresh start.

This growing season has been in turn our least and most productive season ever, as our plot produced mostly weeds and we welcomed Francesca, our first born in July.

This is a blog about starting an allotment from scratch – something we haven’t done for a very long while and also something we’re looking forward to doing as a family and as a community.

Our header picture is of OMMLA – Old Marston Mill Lane Allotment Association. It’s a great site with a lock up and running water but it also has it’s fair share of allotmenteer characters. The plot in the picture sadly does not belong to us, it is the plot of Wally, a fine gent of later years who used to be a farmer and still produces enough veg on an immaculate plot to feed his entire family. That’s the dream!

We are also very fortunate that the allotment association has been very kind to us this year in allowing us to keep our plot as it is not looking the tidiest at the moment! Our plan is to strim it back and get some black plastic on the top so it’ll be ready for planting in spring. We also hope to get some of the tidier beds turned round and transformed into over-winter allium beds – photographic evidence will arrive as and when.

Also, if anyone in Oxford is looking for an allotment plot on a cool site, give us a tweet @allotmentvs and we’ll put you in touch with the secretary. Ours is a cool and quirky band of veg growers that you’d be very welcome to join.

I’m getting stronger every day and as a family we’re getting used to our new arrival. Looking forward to starting again at the plot.

As always, keep it green,

Allotment Virgins