Crazy about compost

Turning your compost is a bit like flossing your teeth: you know it's the right thing to do and the results will be a healthy improvement, but somehow you just never get round to doing it as regularly as you should. So it was with some intrepidation that I began tackling the compost pile this morning, fully aware that it was going to be a big, tiring job but at least it would keep me warm in the south westerly wind.

However, I didn't bank on Alan turning up half way through and he was surprisingly easy to bribe with a cup of coffee and a biscuit, making short work of the rest of the pile. It's now all in the other bin, looking really lovely and crumbly, and we're ready to start all over again with the Spring pile. The chickens (above) thought it was Christmas all over again, with a wealth of slugs, worms and other creepy crawlies to choose from at the bottom of the bin.

Whenever I think that I'll just 'pop onto the garden for an hour or so' I end up spending half the day there, as was the case today. It was supposed to be appalling weather, with heavy rain and strong winds, so I had been prepared to just feed the chickens and then get on with some neglected housework, but it wasn't to be. The weather was mild, sunny and the winds not so bad, so I felt it would be a shame to waste it.

Alan and I planted another native hedge (we're busy hedging the planet, bit by bit) up the back end of the allotment - hawthorn and blackthorn - which will make a good barrier onto the field and is ideal for the pretty spiky blackthorn as it won't attack any passers by, but is still accessible enough to gather sloes for making sloe gin!

We also gave the compost area a good tidy, moving piles of sticks and rubbish, and created another chicken wire leaf mould bin. The first bin (which was started Autumn 2007) is perfect and will be ideal on the seed beds.


Gorgeous gates

Rustic orchard gate

The orchard has been waiting a while for this moment: its very own, natural gate. This is David's first attempt at making a gate from branches rather than the usual planed, straight wood, and I think (although obviously I'm a little bias) that he's done a superb job.

The curves blend in perfectly with its surroundings and the rather rustic look is just right to complement the bark chippings path and willow weave fence. I think I'd better stop harping on about the gate as it's starting to sound a little like I'm trying to sell a house....

While David and Alan were busy hanging and re-hanging the gate I tidied up the hawthorn hedge, as our previous attempts to lay it had not been entirely successful due to the fact that it had been neglected for so long before we took on the plot. Still, I've managed to weave in some brambles, remove some of the dead goose grass and weave in a few more odd bits of willow to help make it a bit more secure.

More of David's handiwork: raised beds in the meadow

I made a lovely Jerusalem artichoke lasagne last night as a bit of an experiment, which I would definitely recommend. It's often difficult to think of new things to do with this often under-rated vegetable, so I thought I'd share it. Simply roast about six scrubbed and halved (not peeled, too fiddly) artichokes, along with about half of a butternut squash, cut into slices, for about 45 minutes in a medium/hot oven in vegetable or groundnut oil.

Make a basic tomato sauce: lightly fry a chopped medium onion in oil, then add a tin of chopped tomatoes, a few fresh basil leaves, seasoning and two cloves of finely chopped garlic and leave to simmer down for about 25 minutes on a low heat.

You can do all sorts of things to make the topping, and I was going to try something fancy with creme fraiche and parmesan but as I had neither in the fridge, I just opted for a simple bechamel sauce instead. Most recipe books will tell you to add each ingredient bit by bit but I had neither the patience nor the time, so instead I put about 1pt milk (you can use oat or soya milk instead if need be) along with about 1oz butter, 2oz grated cheese, seasoning, a bay leaf and 1oz plain flour (sifted to avoid lumps) in a saucepan and stirred over a low/medium heat until it thickened.

I also added a secret ingredient, which is about to become less so: a few drops of Trees Can't Dance's Smoky Chipotle Chilli Sauce, which is made here in the North East and is simply gorgeous.

Once everything is ready, put a layer of tomato sauce in the bottom of a dish and then add a layer of lasagne sheets, followed by the artichokes and squash. Keep repeating until you don't have any more left then cover with the cheese sauce, adding a little cheese on top to brown nicely. Pop in the oven for about 25 minutes at about 180/200 degrees and then enjoy!

A word of warning though: Jerusalem artichokes can give baked beans a run for their money, so best only to eat this dish with people you know very well or those who have no sense of smell....


Peace, goodwill and parsnips

Foot-long parsnip

I was rather proud of this parsnip, which reached an impressive foot long. It had been quietly growing away in a large bin filled with sandy soil since about March. I had just four (parsnip seeds are notoriously slow and difficult to germinate) but this was just enough for Christmas dinner; drizzled with maple syrup, oil and roasted they were truly divine

Despite all the festivities, there has been some work done on the garden and orchard, with plenty of bark chippings being laid as a mulch around the base of the native hedge, as well as in the woodland area around the hazel tree. A few of the trees needed replacing, and I've filled in a few gaps where there is slow growing holly in an attempt to deter dogs a little (I won't go into the state of the orchard in detail in case those with weak constitutions may be reading, but suffice to say there was a full carrier bag of glad tidings from those four-legged friends by the time I'd finished clearing it).

As an experiment, I raked off some of the path around the rhubarb beds with a view to putting down grass seed and stepping stones, which is really an 'if you can't beat them, join them' approach to tackling the weed problem. It was a little too energetic late in the day and resulted in a sore back and shoulders, but I think I might be onto something (couldn't imagine doing the whole allotment with a rake though, as that really would be asking for trouble). Alan kindly humoured me for my mad half hour or so, and moved all the stones I'd raked up.

I've finally potted on some of the winter salads; hopefully they won't be too checked by my tardiness, and also put some garlic cloves into modules in the coldframe, as last time I put them in the ground in autumn, the chickens kindly pulled most of them out again.

All three of the new hens are now laying, which is great, as I'm now getting at least one egg a day, despite the cold weather.

Happy New Year and I hope this year brings you lots of lovely vegetables!

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