Plot 51: Bath Time and Bruising

March. The weather has been clement and this has meant digging, so was time to tackle what I call bed 2. The bed is divided into three parts, the first has a portable compost bin on it, so I decided to move this to the side and use the insides to spread over the ground and claim its now a no-dig bed for future potato sowing. The second part is home to a large peony and two rhubarb crowns that look old but still (hopefully) productive. The final part had some ropey old kale growing among the couch grass and so it’s this bed that I decide will be tackled today. The iPod is connected and today as the fork is wielded it’s George Michael that shuffles to the front to commence the digging with Hard Day from his 1987 album, Faith. I hope this isn’t an omen.

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As the digging concludes it’s also time to clear away the wooden planks and bits of old plant supports. This results in expletives being uttered as the wet wood slides from my grip and makes contact with my shins. Once complete the bed starts to look much better.

April (1)

After a coffee break it’s time to tackle that bathtub and buried bins, in fact the more I look at the top of the plot, the more depressed it makes me feel. I’ll be much happier once it’s all cleaned up and in order – OCD?

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First job was to dig out the strawberries that had seen better days and then remove the soil filling the bathtub – this proves to be difficult as the tub is lined with house bricks meaning every plunge of the spade is met with resistance and a painful vibration up the arm. So it’s down to scooping the soil out by hand until the bath is able to be pulled free from the earth. This also proves painful as it hits my shins several times as it’s moved and in its place is planted a white currant, kindly donated by a friend.

April (11)

Once it’s free and the dustbins dug out, the ground is forked over and raked. Now the space looks 100% better and ready for some fertiliser and planting up. I’m now off home to put some ointment on my bruised shins.

Plot 51

I enjoyed growing flowers in Italy however over the past two years I’d fallen behind on my veg growing. So in February as it became evident that hospital appointment forecasts meant that we’d be here for a longer time than first anticipated I decided to check out allotment availability in the area to kick start my gardening activities. First I viewed a few council run plots, most completely unsuitable; one so overgrown I’d need a JCB to get it in order, one that was little more than builders’ rubble and another that had what can only be described as an unsuitable neighbour. On the 10th of the month I viewed several available plots at, The Limes. They all looked suitable for my requirements and eventually I settled upon plot 51, (the double greenhouse swayed my decision making somewhat).

It’s a long plot with a shed at the top and the greenhouse at the bottom, it’s cluttered, apparently the previous plot owner didn’t throw anything away, this is evident by the many bags of rubbish, tucked into spaces between compost bins and behind the greenhouse.

Feb (3)

I took over the plot at the beginning of March and my first job was to decide on what will go and what will stay, the submerged bath filled with old strawberry plants will be going soon but the greenhouse will be emptied and cleaned first.

So with my iPod plugged in to its new portable speaker I set the dial to shuffle and as Stargard set the tone for the day with Which Way Is Up? The 1978 disco/funk theme from the movie of the same name I set to ripping out desiccated tomato plants and some nettles. The shelf unit at the end of the greenhouse was cleared of the endless supply of plastic pots and bits of electrical wire that had previously been used as plant ties. After copious amounts of disinfectant and glass cleaner the first job was completed and as I packed up for the day another disco classic shuffled, meaning the session ended with another, boogie-on-the-job track: cleaning is much more pleasant if you can swing your ass as you sweep,mop and polish.

March  (22)

Suddenly the world went mad and we had lockdown and the Coronavirus, I wondered if that meant I’d paid my yearly fees for nothing, not to mention the new gardening tools that had been purchased.

The government came through and said it was okay to still work on allotments as long as you practice social distancing and so I was back to my planning and it was time to organise the removal of the rubbish – or so I thought. All local recycling centres were closed and so the bags of old wood and plastic would have to wait, but that bathtub and submerged dustbins had to go.

March  (1)

Suffice to say, the first few trips to plot 51 were taken up with clearing out old plants, filling compost bins with ancient kale and making a small mountain beside the shed with enough plastic waste to shame the gardening industry.

March progressed into April and slowly my design for the plot was becoming fixed in my head. Garden suppliers; the ones still able to trade had received seed orders and between plot visits I was at home sowing and pricking out in readiness.

As the month kicked off with weather that was welcomed I was starting to feel that things were taking shape, the spot beside the shed was designated for a new sitting area and the biggest proportion of digging over had already been done.

May (5)

Plans And Plants

I love this time of year, there’s so much to look forward to, sunshine, days at the beach and a riot of colour in the garden. Being in Italy means I can start off my seed sowing earlier than if I was in the UK, but first I like to be organised and have a plan: some would say it’s OCD, but whatever, it works for me.

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The best time is when I have sorted the seeds and decided what I’ll be growing and at the end of January out of storage comes the electric propagator. Seeds trays are washed and disinfected and two trays of compost are popped in to warm overnight.

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Not everything works here in Italy though, some plants just don’t thrive in the summer heat, but it’s fun trying different ones. Despite being native to Sicily, Sweet Peas have failed every year for me and this year is my last attempt, so I started them off in November so they’ll be bigger and stronger when they go outside: I have some outside already in a pot which I can bring in if we get a forecast of snow.

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Space is limited in the propagator and with marble windowsills that can be too cold for seeds once they’ve been removed. I had to come up with a way to keep the seeds insulated. So I started to save polystyrene food trays and I drop the young seedling into these to keep them warmer. I’ve found it works really well and promotes good root growth.

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I also enjoy the preparation that seed sowing and gardening brings, above is one of my sunflower trays. I scrounged the polystyrene trays from the local butcher and the growing pods are toilet rolls cut in half. This system keeps the roots contained and can be planted direct into the ground once the plants are large enough. It helps when you’re planning on sowing 70+ sunflowers.

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Finally, the joy of pricking out. Above is a tray of 15 Coreopsis, I only want six plants for the garden so this means there’ll be nine left over to donate to friends. I’ll no doubt during the summer be sharing photographs of the garden with my readers here. Until then, happy gardening everyone.

Courgette and Lemon Cake

Yesterday at the supermarket we ran into a friend who had been working in her orto and she kindly gave us some of her surplus round courgettes. So when I got home I looked at these lovely sunshine coloured globes and wondered what to do with them. Then the word, cake popped into my head and I thought: I know, I’ll make a carrot cake but without carrots I’ll use courgettes.

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So I adapted my carrot cake recipe and here’s the ingredients: I used:

350g grated courgettes. 200g soft brown sugar.  300g plain flour. 2 tsp baking powder.      3 eggs.125ml sunflower oil. 1 tsp butterscotch essence. Zest of a lemon. Juice of half a lemon.DSCF2250

First squeeze as much water out of the grated courgettes then add them to a bowl alongside the oil, eggs, sugar and lemon juice and zest. I added the butterscotch essence as I had no vanilla, but to be honest it didn’t add anything to final cake flavour. Mix together then fold in the flour and baking powder, but don’t over mix it.

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    Make sure you have the oven pre-heated to 180C (160C fan) gas mark 4. Grease and line the base of your chosen cake tin and fill with the cake mixture.

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Bake in the middle of the oven for 40-45 minutes until it’s golden coloured and the kitchen smells all nice and cakey. (that’s a correct technical term – Mary Berry told me)*

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Similar to carrot cake it’s a dense crumbed cake but unlike carrot cake I decided not to do a cheese frosting and opted for Mary Berry’s recipe for lemon drizzle, which is 50g of granulated sugar and juice of a lemon. Mix together and pour over the warm cake. Let it cool and then scoff at will.

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* blatant lie

Zuppa di Zucchine e Parmigiano

OH NO!!! Not another courgette recipe.

I was in the orto this morning and the harvest included some ripe tomatoes, several cucumbers and another load of courgettes. So after sending friends messages on Facebook asking them to collect a cucumber and courgette when passing to save them going to waste, I decided to make something else for the freezer for the winter months.

I had given an Italian friend of mine my recipe for courgette and mint soup and she told me she often makes zuppa di zucchine e parmigiano. (courgette and parmesan soup). So I recalled the ingredients she told me she used and thought I’d have a bash at it.

The ingredients are:

1 kg courgette, 1 small onion, bunch of fresh basil, 2 litres of water, 200 ml cooking cream, 50g grated parmesan, 200 ml chicken stock, salt and pepper to season.

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Add the chicken stock to the water; I use it straight from the freezer. Vegetable stock can be used if you are a vegetarian/vegan, and bring it to the boil, Meanwhile, chop the courgette and fry it with the onion and basil until it starts to soften but not brown, then add to the pot of water and simmer until the pieces of courgette are soft.

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Once the courgette is soft remove from the heat and let it cool down. Once cool blend until the soup is smooth and transfer back into the pot.

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Add the cream and parmesan and stir as you reheat it slowly. Pour into bowls and eat straight away and enjoy. I expected it to be a much more robust flavour but it’s actually a very light soup, ideal for summer lunches.

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As this is the first time I’ve made this soup I’m guessing it’ll keep for a week in the refrigerator and if frozen last for 2-3 months.

The Parsnip Project Finale

I’ve rather neglected my blog for a while due to my work commitments, I’ve actually been working 7 days a week, as I’m now not only writing for the magazine, but also working with a law firm and estate agent as an interpreter and also looking after their English speaking clients. Now don’t get me wrong I’m not complaining, I’m loving life at the moment.

I do however keep to my 20 minutes a day routine in the orto and have had a brilliant first year following the house restoration. We made 42 litres of passata from our tomatoes, endless pots of soups, ranging from courgette and mint (lush) to Malaysian hot broth. We froze over a hundred olive oil and garlic cubes and so many people received the glut of Dutch cucumbers that everyone was convinced would never grow here, not to mention the many friends and neighbours who thanked me for the excess pumpkins we gave away.

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For those who have followed the parsnip project, here’s the finale. After being told they won’t grow in Italy, and many other reasons why they’ll fail here, I decided to have a go. The first trial followed a French grower’s technique and that failed miserably, so y new technique was fill barrel with compost, let it warm up and chuck in seeds willy and nilly.

So how did it go?

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I harvested this batch this morning, they may not be as big as those in UK supermarkets, but they’ll hopefully be sweet when roasted with a little honey and some chilli flakes. Next year I’ll grow them in a formal row behind the summer veggies ion a plot that I’ve dug out and removed the vast majority of stones from.

Oh those doubters will no doubt now be ordering their parsnip seeds online now.

Click this link to see my Facebook album of 2014 in the orto.

Colourful Radishes and Pigs in the Post

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I had an allotment back in the UK and as you all know I have my orto here in Italy. Well everything is going really well, I have my potatoes peering over the top of the half barrel, that Seppe risked his family jewels to cut in half for me. My Romaine lettuce are filling out, my broad beans have some good sized pods and my peppers have fruits eagerly awaiting the sun to make them fat and juicy.

So far my parsnips have only two small green shoots above the potting compost, but everything else is on track, even my Dutch cucumber is loving it’s time outside in the Italian soil.

So I decided when we were having a salad to harvest the first of my radishes. I had a mixed packet of seeds and added some French breakfast ones to the packet and sowed them a few weeks ago. I was more than happy with the first picking, the multi-coloured peppery bulbs looked far too nice to eat, but let me tell you, they tasted as good as they looked. There’s nothing better than freshly picked food.

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I mixed my beetroot varieties prior to sowing a couple of short rows and noticed that the yellow cylindrical ones germinated first and these seemed to suppress the traditional red ones, so I thinned out the rows to give the little red ones a fighting chance this morning, and then did another sowing of just the Bolthardy variety, as they are superb for harvesting early for pickling or roasting whole with rosemary.

So with all the orto activity and fresh produce you’d think nothing could be better, but wait today the post lady arrived with a surprise package for me. I eagerly opened it and discovered my parents had sent me some English pig in the post.

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Actually it was four rounds of sliced black pudding, possibly the one thing from England that I miss most: A friend told me the other day the whereabouts of a butcher here that sells salsiccia di sangue, (blood sausage) so I’ll be giving them a try in the near future. The package came with wine gums and Malt Easter bunnies for OH, but I’m now the happy bunny, with four slices of black pudding residing in my freezer, ready for a special occasion.

The Parsnip Project (3)

Whenever I mention I’m attempting to grow parsnips here in Abruzzo, it seems the professionals come out of the woodwork. So far I’ve been advised:

1. The reason they don’t grow here is because the earth is too stony and the roots split. I find this difficult to believe considering they grow beetroot and carrots without too many problems.

2. The Italian’s don’t grow parsnips because they take such a long time to mature and they’d rather use the land for faster more productive crops. This I can half-believe, but the orto’s around here are filled with maturing fennel for such a long time that it negates this argument.

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3. Parsnips don’t grow in Italy and this is apparent by there being no traditional recipes that contain them. I agree with the lack of parsnip related recipes, I can honestly say that I have never come across a Piemontese parsnip pesto or a Calabrian chilli and parsnip sugo, but that doesn’t mean the vegetable wont grow here. The growing conditions in middle and northern Italy are ideal for parsnip growing; I do wonder if further south it may be too dry and hot. This said though, I can hardly see the seed sitting below ground and vehemently denying to germinate just because the soil surrounding it is Italian.

So I now have my two newly painted black, half oil drums in situ on the orto in readiness for filling and eventually planting up should my parsnips germinate. The other barrel has three potato plants I have chitted from a Alfred Bartlett potato I smuggled into the country from the UK during my recent trip over.

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Should the toilet roll method fail, I have enough seeds to do a second sowing direct into the barrel at a later stage.

The Parsnip Project (2)

For the regular readers here’s an update on my Italian parsnip project.

I received a parcel in the post last week from England, my good friends from Cheshire had sent me three Suffolk latches for my interior doors as we have been unable to source anything similar here. I opened the box and found inside a couple of packets of parsnip seeds.

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In fact we’ve had so many packages just lately that it’s felt like Christmas, and as you know, no Christmas dinner is complete without roasted parsnips.

I was recently chatting to someone down by the shops and the mention of my parsnip project arose, and I explained my experiment. The lady I was talking to told me two-years ago here in Abruzzo, she had sown the said vegetable and when they came to harvest them they were a thin and multi-rooted disappointment.

Undeterred, I took out my trusty seeds and after making sure my toilet roll experimental parsnip sheaths (my new name for them) I dropped one seed onto the top of each one and then covered over with the required 1 cm of potting compost.

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I then closed the lid of my makeshift plastic box cold frame and left them in the sunshine to hopefully stay moist and germinate.

I’ll keep you updated as to their progress in the coming weeks.

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Toilet Roll Parsnips

I’ve just sent messages to friends who live local, asking them to save me their empty toilet roll tubes: No I’m not collecting for a Blue Peter appeal or going on a recycling drive, I want them for parsnips.

I was reading a blog the other day that is written by a lady in France, in it she mentioned that she had never seen parsnips for sale so she grew her own. This prompted me to look into why you never see them in Italian markets. Turns out the story I’d been told previously about them needing a good hard frost to germinate is wrong. Parsnips are fussy germinators apparently and like the soil to be warm when they are sown, and once they’ve popped their heads above the ground they don’t like being disturbed until harvesting time. So I’ve decided to follow the advice of the French lady and have a go at growing my own using the toilet roll method.

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I’ve read that sowing directly into the ground can be an ineffective way of growing parsnips: the moody little rooters can be quite erratic flourishers. The toilet roll method aids the grower and generates more success. Some people first germinate the seed upon damp kitchen paper before planting, but this can be problematic as leads to possible root damage during potting on into the toilet rolls. Literally all you need to do is fill your empty toilet roll tubes with potting compost and sow a solitary seed inside it and keep it warm. Once growing water the seedling from inside the cardboard tube, don’t let the outside of the tube become soaked and when big enough plant the whole thing in the ground. This method is said to ensure all seeds germinate and there is very little root disturbance.

Parsnips need a long growing season so should be ready around mid-November, but the beauty is they can be harvested from ground to plate in minutes, as there’s no need to harvest what you don’t use, the cold earth will keep them fresh. My only word of advice is, if you have chinghiale nearby, keep them protected as the wild pigs love anything sweet.

I’ll keep you posted to how it goes throughout the year.