Re-skinning The Polytunnel

Open All Hours

It’s March and the allotment continues to slumber, with only the perennial daffodils poking their heads above the damp soil. With nothing much here to prune, water or harvest it’s the ideal time of year to work on all things structural, which is great for somebody like me who is much more proficient with a screwdriver than a trowel.

So far this year I have re-laid paths, installed guttering on the shed and started preparations for a fruit cage but this blog is about my refurbishment of the polytunnel this time around 2 years ago, which begs the question – why did our 18 month old polytunnel need refurbishing?


A polytunnel is a frame covered by a plastic film. Unfortunately my tunnel consisted of a good sturdy 32mm frame wrapped up in an exceptionally poor quality cover which disintegrated after just 1 season. If that wasn’t bad enough the allotment treasurer on a neighbouring plot followed our lead and bought the same tunnel, which deteriorated at the just same rate. So much for my recommendations.

Sieve
Sieve

The only available off-the-shelf cover would have been identical to the one that had failed so I threw myself into weeks of research involving supplier YouTube videos and amateur allotment blogs before arriving at my preferred design. This was going to entail not only a new high quality cover but the construction of a bespoke new base frame that would hold the cover in place. Perhaps most excitingly for me was the opportunity to develop a multi-facetted spreadsheet capturing all of the build requirements, components and project sequencing!

Poor abused car
Poor abused car

Over the period of a couple of weeks I became quite intimate with the local builders merchant, conducting numerous trips to collect unfeasible quantities of timber. It’s surprising how much you can fit into a Ford Focus if you don’t mind not being able to see out of the passenger side window. It might also help if you are relaxed about your car’s resale value.

No left turns
No left turns

A polytunnel performs best when it is wrapped in a tight membrane, both in terms of thermal characteristics and structural longevity. The original cover had simply been buried into a trench around the frame and the new cover was instead going to be held tightly down by a wooden base rail. I marked the beginning of construction by levelling off the soil around the perimeter of the frame to provide unhindered access to the bottom of the tunnel.

Digging, it's always digging
Digging, it’s always digging

The next step was in many ways the hardest. Despite the fact that the once impervious cover was now just a very large sieve it still felt unintuitive to take a knife to it. I sheared it off 3 inches from the soil since this represented a much simpler task than digging the sides out of the ground. No going back now.

Cuts have to be made
Cuts have to be made

Since the new film had to be tensioned and secured around the tunnel extremities this entailed not only the installation of a timber base rail but the replacement of the tubular metal door frame with wooden posts and a lintel. You can see below an original metal post on the right and a new timber post on the left.

Early doors
Early doors

The whole refit, while simple in essence, demanded a great many subtle design features that needed to be identified and catered for. I had spent many hours visualising and sketching joins and fixing types and yet more hours still evolving the sequence in which it would be best to construct the various elements.

For example, the single door post in the photo above required the existing diagonal support to be rotated through 90 degrees, using a special clip while the post itself was secured by 2 special P-Clips and over-sized bolts. Listen, if you think this is dull imagine having to live with me during the design process.

You've Been Framed
You’ve Been Framed

I cut up sections of hose pipe and wrapped these between the clips and the metal frame like over-sized washers to create tension in the fitting. Then I cut a wooden lintel to complete the frame, ensuring enough height to avoid banging my head every time I entered.

One thing that no amount or reading or virtual design could have prepared me for was the dawning realisation that my plot had a mild slope to it, which in turn meant that the tunnel frame was in fact slightly elongated to one side – something you wouldn’t observe from a casual glance. Bizarrely this required the left door post to be about 5cm shorter than the right post. It also meant I could never assume any dimensions but had to measure and cut each piece of timber independently while putting all of my faith into a spirit level.

DIY SOS
DIY SOS

With the door frames in place attention turned to the base rails. These substantial beams were plated together and u-bolted to the metal frame an inch or so above ground level.

I’ve always enjoyed working with wood but never with anything on this scale. Handling timber of these dimensions was bringing out the builder in me. I started to keep a pencil behind my ear. I found myself drinking twice as much tea. I even loosened my belt a notch to experience that extra inch of “tail breeze” when bending over.

World's Strongest Man
World’s Strongest Man

My trips to the allotment were frequent and lengthy for a period of 3 weeks while the entire build continued. I didn’t want to rush a job that was supposed to pay me back for many years to come. Each trip involved the packing and unpacking of a great many tools such as saws, drills, planes, chisels, clamps, spare batteries for my drill/screwdriver, not to mention fittings like screws and bolts. Lego used to be so much more spontaneous.

Homes Under The Hammer
Homes Under The Hammer

With the door frames and base rails in place the next step was to fit a continuous length of baton to the top of each rail section, for reasons that will hopefully make sense later. Any sharp corner was cut off to avoid potentially splitting the plastic cover when it was stretched over the frame.

Great Rail Journeys
Great Rail Journeys

I had sourced pressure treated timber suitable for outdoor use but as a precaution I dabbed wood preservation over all of my saw cuts. I bet nobody else does that. I also bet nobody else would have dragged this all out for so long.

Finally, with the growing season standing behind me impatiently tapping me on the shoulder, the time came to fit the new plastic sheeting. This was going to be the moment when all of my plans either came together or ended up in a skip.

Cash In The Attic
Cash In The Attic

Research had led me to a highly evolved polymer film designed in partnership with a university and the agriculture industry for use by professional growers. It cost 50% more than typical polytunnel film yet was a no brainer for the enhanced thermal and structural characteristics. So long as I didn’t cock up the fitting.

You simply can’t do this next bit on your own so I roped my parents in. First we dragged the cover over the frame. On a film of this quality there is an inside and an outside so I was super careful to ensure the sheet was the right side up.

Celebrity Masterchef
Celebrity Masterchef

There now followed a series of precise steps that I had to follow with surgical detail. I fitted more thin batons to the timber base rail on one side of the tunnel, tightly sandwiching the polymer film all the way along. Then I repeated the operation on the other side of the tunnel, keeping the film tight over the top of the frame. With the plastic secured on both sides we moved inside the tunnel, loosened the u-bolts that were clamping the base rail to the frame and my parents stood on the base rail to tension the plastic while I re-tightened the clamp.

Supermarket Sweep
Supermarket Sweep

At least that’s what should have happened. When your parents collectively weigh as much as a moderate Sunday lunch there’s only so much tension you can get into the plastic. Most of the tension was mine as I worried about the plastic splitting, although these fears were groundless.

With the film tensioned widthways the next task was to grip the plastic under each door frame and suspend my entire body weight while my dad rapidly hammered in more battens. Again, that’s what should have happened. Instead I dislocated my fingers hanging off the film for 5 minutes while my dad pillocked around doing – I’m not sure what. I was really grateful for his help a week later once the agony in my joints had subsided.

Tipping Point
Tipping Point

And with that final act of self harm the tunnel was reborn! Just the doors to fit. In retrospect I will never again use the word “just” in any sentence related to fitting doors. It turns out that fitting doors is not something you “just” do, at least not when you are custom making a door to fit a custom made frame.

Quincy ME
Quincy ME

One of the challenges with a larger polytunnel (and at 6m x 3m this tunnel is edging towards the fringes of largeness) is providing adequate air circulation and temperature control. Polytunnels maintain a higher internal temperature by design but in the hotter months you need to get air movement inside to avoid incinerating your plants. Leave the door open for any extended time and you invite cats, foxes, birds and butterflies (hence caterpillars) inside. My solution was to attach a permanent netting mesh to the door to prevent unwanted guests and make removable film panels to keep the heat in during the colder months.

Open All Hours
Open All Hours

Two years later and we are so pleased with the quality of our refit. The build quality has proven its worth in the face of storms and settling snow. The door panels have enabled us to regulate the environment whatever the season.

A Place In The Sun
A Place In The Sun

The professional film has resulted in an astonishing improvement in growing conditions versus the old cover. I would hope to get a minimum of 5-7 years out of the cover before it needs replacing, although it’s not uncommon for this particular covering to last for 10+ years when fitted well. I deliberately used screws for (almost) every timber join in order to massively simplify such a future operation.


Job done? Well not quite. The current gravity fed irrigation system still needs further improvement or replacement with a solar pump. Also I would love to be able to harvest rainwater but that’s complicated by the fact that I’ve nowhere to mount a gutter.

These are hopefully projects for this year. There are always more projects. You never finish everything. In an allotment infrastructure is like planting. You always want to do more or do better. It’s what keeps bringing you back.

Closer To The Earth

A rude awakening for these office hands

Winter is a dormant time at the allotment. The vibrant hues of summer are long forgotten, seemingly lost forever to wet beds of mud. Even the weeds are sleeping.

I visited today in the aftermath of this week’s gale to check for damage. The newly reskinned polytunnel emerged unscathed but, as expected, the netting protecting our winter greens had to be re-anchored to stave off the attentions of pigeons that can decimate an unprotected crop in hours.

There was nothing to keep me any longer. That’s how it is at this time of year.

A damp sun
A damp sun

With this lull in proceedings it’s a good time to look back at my photos from the past year and remember that nature is going to do it all again this year, however unlikely that might feel right now…


The season starts with seeding. I have learnt that plants really want to grow. You just have to provide favourable conditions to help them along.

Small beginnings
Small beginnings

Planting means groundwork, which inevitably means digging and weeding in the cold. Frequent visits from our friendly robin genuinely make the work easier.

A symbiotic relationship
A symbiotic relationship

New shoots soon emerge, just in case we doubted they would

Return of the rhubarb
Return of the rhubarb

And as the plants wake up do does the wildlife

Pollinators hold the key to everything
Pollinators hold the key to everything

There comes a growth spurt during which everything shoots up and the brown turns into green turns into vivid colours

Sunflowers love the sun
Sunflowers love the sun

This rewarding time in the allotment demands a lot of effort in return. Beds have to be tended, plants regularly watered and pests tackled.

Cheap unbranded lager is perfect for slug traps
Cheap unbranded lager is perfect for slug traps

As the sun grows in strength the polytunnel becomes a delightful hot house of growth. It’s around this time that our seasonal “housekeeper” Jeremy takes up residence. He is tasked with keeping down the slug and caterpillar population, although I suspect he just drinks the lager.

Jeremy
Jeremy

Everything flowers. The bees are in paradise and the even the most unlikely plant puts on a show. I never knew how attractive a flowering potato could be.

Exotic beauty of the globe artichoke
Exotic beauty of the globe artichoke

Amidst the regular plot maintenance there are always construction projects to tackle. The long awaited garden shed edges closer to fruition. Perhaps by next year…

Hiding from other jobs
Hiding from other jobs

Forgotten muscles ache to remind you they are still there. Marathon weekend sessions leave their mark upon you.

A rude awakening for these office hands
A rude awakening for these office hands

But there are no regrets. You reap what you sow and harvest time brings rich rewards.

Payback
Payback

At the start of every year I convince myself that this year will be less hectic – there will be time to slow down and take everything in. Instead we find ourselves hurriedly throwing late crops into a bed as natures cycle threatens to run away from us.

The things you miss if you don’t take time out
The things you miss if you don’t take time out

Before we know it the days are beginning to shrink. Autumn brings with it a different selection of crops.

Fractal food
Fractal food

As the leaves begin to fall and the sun sits lower in the sky the allotment takes on a different feel. This a great time to get the camera out and capture the autumn light.

A change of season
A change of season

The plants you want to grow lose their impetus, yet it seems that the weeds always have one more spurt left in them.

Hanging on in there
Hanging on in there

The sun sets on a season of plenty and those colours fade away.

A final splash of colour
A final splash of colour

Autumn heads towards winter and like the morning after a party there is a lot of clearing up to do. Spent crops are cut down and composted. Cane structures are dismantled. Beds are covered for protection over winter.

Bonfires dispose of the debris
If you can’t compost it you burn it

Winter crops have been netted off and need minimal maintenance. The polytunnel may have extended the season for a modest range of salad leaves, radishes and carrots but it too eventually succumbs to the gloom and cold.

And here I am in January wading through mud with no bees, shoots or humans in sight. It might not seem like it right now but it’s all going to start again soon.

 

Reap What You Sow

When we took on the allotment we decided we were in it for the long haul. Over several seasons we have worked truly countless hours to mould the land to our will, at least if you squint your eyes. At times it has felt like a leap of faith during fallow periods in which there has been nothing to show for the effort. You become so accustomed to hard slog for future benefit that when the future arrives it’s an almost unexpected joy. Harvest time is the season of repayment.


In our first year the sensation of shovelling through the soil for potatoes was akin to panning for gold. Each spud was an exciting find tempered only by the realisation that burrowing insects and disease had damaged some of the crop.

20170826_131810
Where there’s muck there’s spuds

The sensation of anticipation is still there in year 3 but there is also the realisation that the spuds have to be lifted dried and stored. This is a messy ritual that takes the dining table out of action for a few weeks, but we know what to expect now. A move to disease resistant varieties has increased the yield but extended the dining room moratorium.

20170905_204042
An unbalanced diet

The real “growth area” on our plot is the deluge of soft fruit that arrives starting in early summer. This shouldn’t be a surprise – we did plant it after all – but when it is thriving like this you have to keep right on top of things in order to preserve the produce and encourage future growth.

20170804_184809
Another fruitful day

I have found that blackberries and raspberries need to be picked at least every 2 days during peak season or the fruit goes too soft. Then it’s not just the over-ripened fruit you are losing out on – the next round of fruit takes a hit as growing power is diverted from them. There can be no greater pleasure than picking the ripest fruit on a balmy evening after a day in the office.

20170820_105145
Wash, dry, freeze, repeat

The thing is – there’s a lot to do when you get home with your kilos of soft fruit. Of course you consume what you need but blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and redcurrants all need to be washed, dried, frozen on a tray and then transferred to a freezer bag. When you preserving a kilo of fruit like this every 2 days it feels like the kitchen is home to a production line.

20170820_193903
Maybe you can have too much of a good thing

Redcurrants can be picked much less regularly but when you do harvest the volumes are incredible. I extracted over 10kg of fruit in three pickings and each time it took over a week to wash, dry, freeze and bag. Gluts of produce are a way of life for allotment holders. The art of custodianship is, wherever possible, to plant for successive cropping and to have an inkling of what you will do with the produce when it arrives.

20170625_185308
Don’t freeze, just eat

Some produce can’t easily be preserved. You can make jam out of strawberries but unless you have a large volume in one go it’s less hassle to simply enjoy them fresh. Cavalo Nero, the in-vogue king of kale needs to be consumed fresh before it gets tough or succumbs to minute white insects. One can only devour so much kale, without strange things happening, I would imagine.

Every year some crops struggle while others go mad. This year the peas have remained pretty dormant but the peppers can’t stop producing. We have meaty varieties that put mass produced varieties to shame. What doesn’t get used in salads can be pickled. Respective gluts of cucumbers (tasty and wholesome next to their bland, watery supermarket cousins) and jalapenos are great candidates for pickling, although that also takes some time.

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So many peppers from one plant
thumbnail
Chillies – great for preserving

Also this year the French beans and runner beans have been prolific, as they often are. I can wash, trim, blanch and freeze these in my sleep now, which is useful because that’s the only free time I have during this period.

As we have developed the plot and built on our experiences our main focus has moved away from simply trying to grow things. Now we aim to control what arrives when. A polytunnel opens up great possibilities here by extending the growing season. As I write this in later October a few strawberries are still coming through in this protected environment!

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Strawberries before ripening in the polytunnel

Also, with main crops established, thoughts turn to widening our repertoire. Edible nasturtiums make an attractive salad garnish and spread like weeds across the plot.

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That classic combination of Nasturtiams and Beetroot

Harvest time isn’t all about gluts of produce. These globe artichokes and rhubarb sticks are rarer treats that must be enjoyed in moderation. Globes in particular take up too much space to grow in volume.

20170617_182102
Barbs and chokes

Crops like these take back seat during the busy harvest period and if you aren’t careful they are past their best before you remember they are there.


Summer has passed now and the light evenings spent filling a wicker basket to the brim with goodies is over for another year. There is still plenty going on but things are less frenetic now. Our first foray into carrots has gone well and we are crossing our fingers for the sweetcorn which is almost but not quite ready to harvest. The darker months will be good for brassicas and whatever we can persuade to grow in the polytunnel.

With the onset of autumn I miss those light evenings spent picking, if not the work that follows, but there will be no regrets. Especially in darkest February when there are frozen fruits, vegetables pickles to enjoy. There are times when all of this makes sense.

The Fruits Of Labour

Last years goodies

Regular readers of my blog (humour me on this) may think I have fallen out of love with writing, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Having published on average a blog every fortnight for the past 6 years this is only my 4th in 12 months. There are reasons…

For one thing I have been moonlighting as blogger for TEDxDerby which has been a time consuming albeit richly rewarding diversion. No doubt I’ll write about this on my own blog after the event takes place on 21st May.

The true reason however for my lack of writing has been a relentlessly busy lifestyle and, in particular, the bottomless pit of resource demand that is my allotment.


We took on an allotment around May last year and with such a late handover it was obvious that 2015 would be about basic groundwork and whatever minimal growing we could achieve in the remaining window. As it happens we enjoyed a prodigious crop of potatoes (only just exhausted) and soft fruits not to mention a decent return of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and courgettes – all from perhaps a third of the available growing area.

Last years goodies
Last years goodies

It was clear that 2016 was going to be a different proposition with time to plan properly and design a 4 section crop rotation layout for the plot. We would prepare the ground, install a series of raised beds, improve our facilities and do the kind of unfrenzied succession planting that seasoned growers do at a smug canter. That was our plan and it started well.

Who knew gardening could be this much fun
Who knew gardening could be this much fun

At the turn of the year with few opportunities to meaningful outdoor work I subscribed to an online allotment planning tool. We measured every section of the plot and dragged & dropped plants into a virtual plan. So far so good – and all without back-ache! The first priority would be to clear away the debris of last year’s labours and start with a blank canvas.

It all starts here
It all starts here

Allotments – like gardens – look a wreck after the winter and ours was no exception. It didn’t take long to pull up last year’s spent crops and dismantle the netting tunnels that had been erected to shut out undesirable pests. In reality the slugs and caterpillars had somehow found a way in and the netting had merely prevented any birds from getting at them. We will have to work on that one.

The first priority was going to be a re-organisation of the chaotically planted soft fruit we had inherited from the previous plot holder – a consolation for all the rubble and carpet he buried in our plot that we now have to deal with.

Rhubarb not looking at its best
Rhubarb not looking at its best

This wasn’t going to be straightforward. Three redcurrant bushes would need to be uprooted and planted alongside three others to form an orderly line but that would require a rhubarb head to be relocated into a space currently occupied by a manically invasive comfrey. I love rhubarb but my knowledge of them extends only so far as the custard jug. It turns out that they are fed by lengthy tentacles of root that will snap off if you so much as think of crumble.

We shall not be moved
We shall not be moved

Eventually with rhubarb relocated the real work was to start. If you have ever tried to move a bush you will have an inkling of the labour intensive faff entailed in sensitively prizing the root system from the soil. If this wasn’t demanding enough I was having to carefully extricate numerous raspberry stems that had randomly seeded themselves amidst the bushes. These would be re-planted at the other end of the plot.

Finally getting somewhere
Finally getting somewhere

Several hours of intensive graft later the various fruits were unearthed and we set about re-planting the redcurrant bushes in a freshly dug trench after I had rotavated the area. Finally it felt like we were making progress.

An attempt to prevent weeds
An attempt to prevent weeds

With the plants re-homed I salvaged some old liner fabric and shaped it around the stems as a weed suppressant. Due to a shortage of liner we decided to experiment with newspaper for half of the crops. Our last act was to scatter a layer of strulch (a “miraculous” variant of mulch based on straw).

Straw + Mulch = Strulch
Straw + Mulch = Strulch

We were very pleased with the transformation and took great satisfaction in creating order out of the random weed-ridden mess but at this point I would like to return to the opening theme of the blog.

This first of countless tasks on the allotment had been to prepare an area of 20 square metres (the plot is approx 270 sqm) , relocate three redcurrant bushes and salvage a dozen raspberries. In the end it took around 10 hours to do all of this, left me a physical wreck (admittedly I hardly started in great shape) and tied up the entire weekend.

And that’s the point. Taking an allotment can suck up as much time as you have in the first couple of years until you have undertaken all of the initial planning, groundwork and structural development. In theory the workload diminishes sharply thereafter but until then I’m going to be short of time to write and short of time to do anything interesting to write about!


It is undeniably rewarding work. We have so many plans for planting, structures and re-organisation. Today I spent 5 back-breaking hours preparing a relatively small area for a future raised bed, but the sun was out, the birds competing for the best song and I saw my first frog of the year. Instinctively impatient I’m learning to work and think to a different pace. Next weekend I want to spend a day walking. Foreign travel beckons. TEDxDerby is around the corner. The allotment will have to grow at a human pace.

Hacking The Allotment

How it's going to be...

How times have changed. There has been no travel, scarce cooking and few nights out. My normal summer rituals have taken a back seat. This is what custodianship of an allotment does to you.

In the three months since I took on a local plot my weekends and evenings have been almost entirely devoted to gaining a foothold in the fast-receding growing season – from a standing start.


At first I took an odd satisfaction from weeding and turning soil in preparation for planting.

Preparing soil the hard way
Preparing soil the hard way

That wore off as the sheer intensity of effort resulted in a strained back and a broken fork.

Breaking under the strain
Breaking under the strain

Short of time and manpower it became apparent I was going to have to throw aside the New Gardener’s Handbook# and take some shortcuts – or Hacks as we IT people call them.

# there isn’t really a New Gardeners Handbook – I made that up as a narrative device. In fact I make a lot of things up. Look – just read, don’t question

Hack #1: Buy A Rotavator

This is essentially a 125cc moped with blades instead of a rear wheel…

Mr Rotavator
Mr Rotavator

Now I can prepare an area in 20 minutes that would have taken three hours using a fork. Despite this half of my plot remains unprepared. A seasoned plot holder told me that in his first year he focussed entirely on clearing and preparing the ground. He didn’t plant anything.

From small acorns...
From small acorns…

On that basis I should be pleased to have my potatoes in the ground, peas climbing a frame and a selection of brassicas growing under netting.

...grow mighty potatoes
…grow mighty potatoes

I guess it depends on whether you are a plot half empty kind of person

Hack #2: Erect A Polytunnel

Think of a polytunnel as a plastic greenhouse. You can maintain a higher temperature and add a couple of months to the summer growing season for plants that need a warmer, more stable growing environment

Not tall enough yet
Not tall enough yet

After much research I invested in a 3m x 6m beast from Grow-Ur-Own on the basis that it looked a lot larger and sturdier than the average unit.

Meccano for adults
Meccano for adults

Unfortunately it came with almost entirely useless assembly instructions and took a weekend to erect, although I secretly enjoyed the challenge.

Digging for victory
Digging for victory

The most painstaking part turned out to be fitting the cover over the frame. In the end it took 4 of us to get the job done after which I was able to bury the edges in a trench designed to stabilise and protect the plastic cover.

Space to grow!
Space to grow!

The polytunnel has provided a superb growing environment for tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers as well as a preparatory environment for plants destined for life outside.

A young pepper
A young pepper

The cucumbers in particular grow at a prodigious rate in this environment and a first batch has already made it into pickling jars.

Early polytunnel crop
Early polytunnel crop

Of course none of this growth can happen without a lot of watering. With polytunnel pots requiring 40L of water every day how are you supposed to have an evening off, let alone a week away?

Hack #3: Automate The Irrigation

Once plants are in the ground they can generally look after themselves – especially with all the rain we have had this summer. It’s different for the pots under cover so I investigated the options and came up with a solution for a timer controlled irrigation system.

No more watering
No more watering

Now this isn’t as simple of you might think. With no mains supply I had to create a gravity fed water supply with sufficient pressure to keep 50 pots irrigated for up to a week. I managed to (literally) unearth 48 bricks from my plot to create a raised base for a 230L water butt which fed into a tubing system via a Claber battery operated timer.

40m of irrigation tubing
40m of irrigation tubing

As I write this blog from a sunlit cottage room in Padstow I can only hope the solution is operating as designed. If it is working then I will simply have to top up the water butt once a week when I return from holiday. If hasn’t worked then everything will have died – either way my evening watering duties will be a thing of the past.

Hack #4: Inherit Stock

OK, this isn’t something I can take any credit for but the fact is that the previous plot-holder left some goodies behind and I’m not one to let things go to waste.

A thriving fruit bed has already yielded several weeks worth of succulent raspberries plus a smattering of strawberries.

Sweet pickings
Sweet pickings

Before I left for Cornwall I picked and froze over a kilo of redcurrants and there is much more to come.

Approx 5kg of redcurrants. Recipes needed!
Approx 5kg of redcurrants. Recipes ideas appreciated!

Factor in three established heads of rhubarb and I am getting quite a decent return without expending any effort.


I can barely believe how much has been achieved in the last 3 months. Sure, it has been LOT of hard work but also very satisfying. I’m saving £30 per month on gym membership alone and getting much better exercise so there really isn’t anything to complain about on that front.

Allotment or building site?
Allotment or gym?

Work on the allotment is as energising as it is tiring. Every day something has grown or flowered. I become engrossed watching bees flit amongst the comfrey.

My caretaker Jeremy
My caretaker Jeremy

A frog (called Jeremy) pops up sporadically in the polytunnel where I commission him to keep on top of any insects. Blackbirds sing so beautifully that I almost feel guilty for netting off the redcurrants they love so much.

How it's going to be...
How it’s going to be…

One day, maybe soon, I might visit and not actually do anything. Just relax and take it all in…

From Humble Origins

One of the many advantages of having parents with an allotment is coming home to find that lovely fresh veg has appeared in my kitchen as if by magic. Another is the diversity of produce that I might not otherwise partake of. With the festive season upon us it seemed appropriate to find Jerusalam Artichokes amongst the haul. These are root vegetables and not to be confused with those flashy Globe Artichokes one often sees.

The Jerusalem Artichoke is an almost entirely unheralded treasure and yet it has this wonderful, unique flavour. I don’t recall seeing them on sale in the supermarkets or on any restaurant menu. Why is there no room at the inn for this shining star?

I think I might have an answer. This is what I cooked with them…

Ingredients
500g Jerusalem artichokes
150ml créme fraiche
1 Lemon
1 Garlic clove
Breadcrumbs
Thyme
Parmesan

Fresh from the soil
Fresh from the soil

Instructions

1) The fun starts here. All the cook book advice I have read says you should peel artichokes. Can you see the problem with this?

All shapes and sizes
All shapes and sizes

I tried peeling one with a small sharp knife and it took ages. Then I tried cutting off the nodules but soon realised there was nothing much left. In the end I settled for scraping the skins off.

...much later!
…much later!

This is still an effort but entirely worth while. In all probability you could simply scrub them and leave the skins on as they are reasonably thin.

And I wonder if this is why you don’t see them in the shops. They grow very happily in British conditions so supply can’t be the problem but maybe supermarkets think the odd shapes will deter people from buying them.

2) Slice the artichokes to pound coin width and layer into a baking dish.

No crib for a bed
No crib for a bed

3) Now make a sauce. Grate some parmesan and finely chop the garlic.

In the mix
In the mix

Take the créme fraiche stir in the garlic, the parmesan and the juice of half a lemon. Finally chop a little thyme and stir that in too

Its all coming together
Its all coming together

Pour the sauce over the sliced artichokes.

4) Now grate some more parmesan and mix it up with the breadcrumbs. Optionally mix in some more chopped thyme and a little grated lemon zest. Sprinkle this over the dish and drizzle some olive oil.

Keep the faith...
Keep the faith…

5) Whack it in the oven at 220 degrees for 30 minutes. Keep an eye on the surface and if the breadcrumbs are golden after 20 minutes cover with tin foil to prevent burning.

Behold, a miracle!
Behold, a miracle!

And there we are – an immaculate conception. I can testify that this tastes heavenly. A star is born!