What to do with oka

I realise I mentioned in my last post that I’d been in hospital, and then didn’t update in a long time, which I hope hasn’t caused undue alarm. Fear not, bold centurions, the doctors worked out it was Graves’ disease on Wednesday, and there are far worse things to have. And the reason for my absence has actually been a happy one, because (and there’s no way of saying this without sounded poncy) I’ve been on holiday to Sicily. From an allotmenteering perspective (and many others) this was fascinating. I’m not used to warm climates, really, so it was a novelty to see limes, olives and oranges growing. And then Etna, near where I was staying, has a kind of micro-climate. We passed loads of allotments or gardens on the way up, and I was struck by the thought that I would have no clue about how to make anything grow there if I became a Sicilian Allotmenteer. I’d have to forget everything I’d learned (which isn’t all that much) and start again.
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The land around Etna is really fertile, and you can follow the lines of trees to see where various eruptions took place. Yes, it was a happy little holiday.
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Back to Northumberland then, and I’ve been readjusting to rain, of which there’s been a lot. But all is not lost, because there are still things I can do on the allotment. November is when I can start harvesting the mysterious oka, which is so mysterious I don’t know how to spell it (oka or oca?) or even pronounce it, but friends, I grew it.

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It’s a shame they lose their colour when roasted, because they’re quite pretty. I went for the Strawberry Cream variety from the Real Seeds catalogue. One very positive thing about growing oka was that it takes up SO much space, which in my case, with an allotment the size of Essex, as my grandfather put it, is a bonus.
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I decided to roast mine in a recipe I adapted from this website. Left out the peppers, use oka rather than okra, as they are very different things, and added feta, because that was what was in my fridge (I’m middle class so this is normal). IT WAS DELICIOUS. I even managed to add some greenstuffs from the allotment like nasturtiums and rocket and garlic chives.

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The flavour of oka is hard to describe exactly but it’s got the consistency of a fairly fluffy potato with a slightly lemony taste. I might see what happens if I create some kind of oka mash – I’ll certainly have spare ones, as I planted eight tubers and have only taken up three to date. And it grew really, really well up here in Northumberland, which surprised me. I’m sure it’s been one of the most successful allotment experiments, and yet all my carrots fail (although I know why, it’s because I have totally the wrong kind of soil). Just goes to show you can’t always predict these things.

Apart from that, my white raspberries have been doing quite well this autumn:

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I’m freezing all the ones I collect with a view to making a mixed berry pie at some stage. To be brutally and viciously honest, I don’t like these novelty white berries as much as your standard raspberries. The flavour just isn’t quite as strong, as I see it. But I have normal red spring raspberry canes too, so all is not lost. I think it’s always a fine line to tread between novelty vegetables and being able to grow something actually useful, especially during the first year of allotmenteering. I know I have a tendency to want to try all the weird and wonderful vegetables, but I’m going to try and focus a bit more on standard fruit and veg next year. Well, maybe.

I don’t have a good picture of them, but I’m also getting regular visits from the chickens living in the neighbouring allotment. They’re always there when I open the gate and will guiltily waddle away when I approach, and then return when my back’s turned. My hope is that they’ll eat only the weeds, but I’m not sure if chickens have that level of wisdom to be able to only eat stuff that won’t annoy me.

Soon time to start ordering seeds for next year! How time has flown. I’m looking forward to planting sweet peas!

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Defeating my laziness

I’ve been getting a bit lazy with allotmenteering lately, having chosen easily the worst time of year to do so. IN MY DEFENCE, I’ve been ill, on and off, and busy with work and a few other things. Plus, another dispiriting thing happened, worse even than the Great Rake Theft. I keep tools and other various bits and bobs in a padlocked plastic storage box, and discovered a couple of weeks ago that the lid had been smashed to allow access to said box. They hadn’t taken anything, which paradoxically only increased my rage. Anyway, as a counter-measure, I had a look at my stuff and determined what I really wouldn’t want to lose, and moved it to my flat. It’s such a pain, because I don’t really know what to do now. In some ways I could do with a shed, but that could easily be broken into by a determined thief. If I replace the lid of this box, I could simply be wasting my money if it’s broken again. My best idea so far is to put barbed wire all round the fence, as my neighbours have done. We shall see.

I had a bit of a word with myself, though, and decided I wasn’t going to let that ruin my allotmenteering experience. I was thinking what a pain it was to schlep tools from my flat to the allotment whenever I go there now, but then the other week, something good happened (and I’ve rattled on about this on all other forms of social media, so might as well say it here too): I passed my driving test! After a year and a half of learning to drive (probably felt like quite a bit longer to my long-suffering instructor). So if I ever actually get some kind of vehicle, I can simply drive to the allotment in style.

I also bought something to cheer myself up:

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I decided I needed to get over the psychological block of the weeds that are taller than I am. I mean, the weeds are generally where they’re meant to be – I deliberately haven’t cultivated the whole allotment, because there’s only so much I can do, and I’ve been hoeing away on the raised beds. But it’s sometimes a bit daunting when unlocking the gate and seeing the various huge plants, even the ones that are supposed to be there:

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So I’ve had a few hours of chopping today, which has been extremely therapeutic, even though I’ve kept in mind that it’s not really a long-term solution against the weeds. And despite the fact that my cauliflower, cabbage and sprouts have all been eaten by rabbits (main suspects), some things are growing as they should be:

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I’d bought the tayberry to celebrate the Scottish referendum (I didn’t have hugely strong feelings either way, but it seemed fitting) and hadn’t really expected actual berries to appear for a while. The borage is thriving – it’s been attracting so many bees that you can hear them humming from the other end of the allotment. It’s a bit nerve-wracking to pick the flowers, but I survived. The Lord Leicester peas have, as predicted, out-grown me (as have all my siblings and most adult humans), and the potatoes seem to be fine.

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I picked a random assortment of things today – a few flowers to have in the flat, lots of borage flowers to eat, and the delicious garlic chives. It’s not like I’m dragging back massive sacks of vegetables, but I didn’t really expect to be at this stage. One thing that’s surprised me, after the failure of my carrots and parsnips and other, more conventional things I’ve tried to grow, is that the oka seems to be doing very well. It took a while to emerge, and I’m still not sure if it’s even worth eating – I don’t know what it will taste like, but it’s encouraging to see that some things are working out well.

Making paths

I’ve had a busy month or so. One fairly big thing going on in my life now is that I decided to work as a freelance translator from April onwards. I’ve been joking that I’m actually retiring to spend more time with the allotment, although that is not STRICTLY true. I’m 26, and apparently society frowns on a retirement at such an early age, and also I’ve somehow not managed to quite get the finances together to fund a retirement at this stage. So I’ve decided to work instead. I think it’ll actually mean less time with the allotment, at least for the first few months, which is a bit sad. I’m anticipating having to work really hard to get established. But then, I’ll be able to choose my hours, so maybe if I start work earlier, I can have a long break in the middle of the day, digging merrily. I’m a bit apprehensive about the whole thing, but positive overall. Apprepositive.

I’ve started chitting potatoes:

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I didn’t get to a Potato Day in the end, to my slight disappointment. It would have been expensive to go all the way to Durham or Edinburgh just for potatoes, I suppose. I got these from DT Brown seeds, and as I’d planned in my last post, got the following:

Pink Fir Apple: (first from left). I’ve read these are excellent salad potatoes. They look hilariously knobbly. The flavour’s meant to be really good.

Ratte: (middle picture, towards the top of the photo) These are supposed to have an interesting nutty flavour.

Cara: (middle picture, towards the bottom) I’ve chosen these as my ‘go-to’ potatoes. They’re meant to be especially good for baking, and I think they’ve got reasonably good blight resistance.

Shetland Black: (to the right) Couldn’t resist giving these a go. After I wasn’t able to grow goth raspberries this year, I thought at least I could grow goth potatoes. I’ve heard mixed things about the flavour – some people have written that they found it really floury, but I’m interested to find out what they’re like. I could have purple mash!

One other thing I’ve started to do is mark off ‘paths’:

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I mean, they look a bit daft because they’re just made of scrap wood and/or stones I’ve found, but at least from a psychological point of view, it’s helpful to mark off which bits I can walk all over and which bits I need to try and keep weed-free. The eagle-eyed among you will have spied a yellow fork in the top picture, but no corresponding fork in the bottom one. The two pictures were taken a week apart. I noticed the fork was missing today. Why did I leave it lying around, especially after the rake theft, you might reasonably ask? Well, it’s so bent that it’s more or less totally useless as a fork, so I use it to hold onto for balance as I’m walking along the path next to it. Slightly better than throwing it away, I suppose. Anyway, the thieves obviously realised it was useless too, as I found it dumped several feet away from the allotment. I can laugh about it, because it’s such a ridiculous thing to steal, but I’m a bit disturbed by the idea of people walking around the allotment when I’m not there. I don’t really have anything worth stealing, but I put so much work into this little patch of land that when people come along and try to mess it up, I feel quite protective. I’m thinking of investing in barbed wire, once I can afford it. I’m having to limit spending money (in general, but more specifically on plants) at the moment, which makes me quite grateful I bought most of my seeds last year when they were on sale.

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Started to prepare a couple of beds, although they don’t look quite prepared enough to be called beds – maybe ‘patches of root-ridden earth’ would cover it. The left-hand patch will contain parsnips, all being well. The right-hand one will contain oca. I’m hoping I’ve left enough room there. Although I don’t have that many tubers, so it should be fine. I’m a bit scared of them. You’re supposed to start them off in pots in mid-April, and I’m wondering if I could get away with starting them off in the potato grow-bags, which are currently sat doing nothing outside my front door. You then plant them out in mid-May and harvest in November/December. I’m very curious to find out what they actually taste like.

A couple of very busy months still to come – both on the allotment, and off! I’ll take one thing at a time.

When life gives you lemons, dig potatoes

I’ve not been to the allotment since Sunday! I’ve started getting paranoid that the whole thing’s been vandalised or something, but I suppose there’s a limited to the extent you can vandalise a patch of mud. I’m going tomorrow, I hope. November must be the worst month for allotmenteers. There’s so much I want to do, and yet so much rain and so little sunlight.

All sorts of difficult things have happened in the last couple of weeks, and in an effort to distract myself, I decided to dig up the potatoes in one of my three growbags I have outside the house. These are the Carlingford potatoes I planted back in August and composted with beer and the Sun newspaper. I know the first time I grew potatoes in growbags, I was too impatient and harvested the lot a little too early, so I confined myself to just one bag today:

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It’s not a huge amount of potatoes, but I’m still happy – they required a very minimal amount of effort to grow, and the watering system was ‘move the bags out from under the balcony whenever it rains’. I poured the bag out onto some newspaper and scrabbled round in the dirt in my pyjamas, forgetting that my garden’s overlooked by shops. Oh well, they are used to it.

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Cooked my one of my favourite potato meals, with things added, including a mixture of home-grown and shop-bought tomatoes. I’ll always insist that potatoes are probably the best vegetables to grow yourself. Part of me wants to turn the whole of the allotment into a giant potato patch, but then, I wouldn’t get to plan it out in quite as much obsessive detail:

IMG_20141115_224621The black ink denotes anything that’s there right now, while the blue ink is part of my planning for the future, and as we’ve seen from all my many other plans, such plans are subject to change. Some of the stuff in black will be moved by the time their blue-inked counterparts are to be planted – for example, the fava beans should be harvested in March, in time to plant maincrop potatoes.

I’ve left large areas for the (potentially rotable) potato patch and a raspberry patch. Thought the potato patch could rotate with the spaces reserved for spring onions, oka/yam, cabbage and polytunnels in 2016, but for the MOMENT, this is what I’m hoping things will look like, more or less, in 2015. I think crop rotation is something I’ve been worrying about too much, really – in all honesty, I don’t know if I’ll still have the allotment in 2016/7/8/9 etc., what with future planning and moving and whatever else goes on in the world outside gardening. I live quite some way from my family, and it might not be that I’m in Northumberland forever, although maybe I will be – one just cannot be certain at this stage. But plan for 2015 I can, and have. I’ve kept an eye out on Freecycle for sheds and maybe even an old set of weatherproof chairs and a table – it’d be nice, maybe once it all looks less like a patch of mud, to have people over – there’s considerably more space on the allotment than in my house. I don’t think I’ve gone totally mad with flower ideas, but I’ve set out a few wildflower patches, which will hopefully make it look nice.

I’ve been thinking more about fruit trees, too – it wasn’t initially a priority, but given that it could be roughly 24 months before I get fruit from them, I might as well plant some in spring in the hope that perhaps I can enjoy some of the fruit from them personally. I’m not allowed to plant what I’d call in pseudo-Northumbrian ‘muckle big’ trees (I wish my allotment contract actually called them that), but smaller fruit trees are allowed, so I was thinking cherry, apple, and maybe plum, and for some fun, the strawberry tree I’ve been fascinated by. I’ve dropped a few Christmas present hints – all of them various unusual plants – to my increasingly bewildered family. If I only got plants as presents, I think I’d still be a happy woman.