A novice's guide to producing his own food

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What a weekend!

The quail -- well five of them -- safety at home in our garden

The quail — well five of them — safety at home in our garden

It’s Sunday evening, and I’m reflecting on a weekend that was a bit hectic, but nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable. The rewards are starting to reveal themselves after all the hard work I’ve put in over the last few months.

Saturday began with an 8am start. Janek and I were driving to the village of Dollar (almost 55 miles away) to collect six Japanese quail. My three boys had decided to get them for me as a Father’s Day gift. Janek had seen an allotment holder with quail, and reckoned I’d like some too. A nice thought.

The sun broke cover by the time we left Dundee, and most of the day was gloriously hot. The drive to Dollar was quick as Janek and I chatted quite a bit (I rarely see him). We found the farm easily enough, and collected the quail in a pet carrier. Lovely little birds, and they make a soothing cooing noise. Although they are ground-dwellers, you look after them in the same way as chickens.

Back home, I transferred my new wee pals into an ark I had bought for the chickens (but never used). After cowering in the shade for a bit, they soon ventured out.

In the afternoon, I visited the pet shop in Monifieth, and bought the quail two little houses (which are meant for small rabbits). They seemed to like them, as they provided more cover. I think I’m right in saying that quail traditionally live on forest floors, so they like being out of the sun.

On Sunday, Janek accompanied me again. This time to check the bees. It was his first-ever visit , and he was (naturally) quite wary. But he did OK, remained calm and didn’t get stung.

My main hive is absolutely chock-full of bees. I’ve never seen so many. And they’re bringing in more honey. The super is getting heavy for a second time — something that has never happened to me before. I’ll keep this honey for the bees, and let them use it over the winter.

The nucleus hive at the apiary (the other is at the allotment) is also doing well. Plenty of bees about to hatch. I’ll have to “upgrade” the nuc to a full brood box soon.

On our way home Janek and I decided to drop in on the allotment. All of a sudden everything seems to be becoming ready at the plot. The two of us spent the next two hours harvesting, and between us gathered the first potatoes (purple majesty), red and white onions, two types of garlic, courgettes, broad beans, two types of peas, a few raspberries, even fewer Tayberries, but a massive 5lbs of strawberries. Oh, and an absolutely huge bunch of sweet peas for Sue.

The strawberries have been stunning this year (they’re even good from the shops), and I think I have harvested about 7lbs so far. There will be more to come, but I suspect today was the peak.

Back at the house, I spread the onions out to dry, and gave Sue a hand as she shelled the beans and peas.

After tea (and an amazing snooze), I zipped back to the allotment to check on the nucleus hive there. It’s also doing great. Although it has not grown as strong as the other nuc, it does have sealed brood. That’s a sign that I can move it back to the apiary. Mission accomplished!

This evening has been spent preparing the strawberries to make jam, making potato and courgette soup, and using a couple of bulbs (yes, bulbs) of garlic to make guacamole.

That’s the end to a perfect weekend. Time to put my feet up and pour myself a whisky.

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2011: The rise and fall and rise and eventual collapse of the greenhouse

The greenhouse didn't survive the December storm

Looking back over the 2011, it’s clear events have been dominated by one thing – the greenhouse. Money, and even more importantly, time have been wasted on it.

My “big project” of the year was to grow my first veg in a greenhouse, and yet here I am at the beginning of 2011 without one, despite having built one twice and moved it three times. As you’ve probably guessed my year-old greenhouse blew down in the December 8 storm, and is completely unrepairable.

This is the second time it has blown over since I bought it in January 2011. The first time was when it was on the allotment. Then I thought I had lost it for good, along with the £459 I paid for it. However, it was salvageable and so I  brought up to the garden at home.

But, come December, it blew down again. Although it was in a much more sheltered spot, the winds were the strongest in 10 years, and the greenhouse was completely wrecked. However, as it was on my own property, I was able to claim insurance, and got most of the cash back. Good news.

I am still determined to have a greenhouse, and will put the cash towards a proper wooden Victorian lookalikey. This will cost thousands, rather than hundreds, but I am confident it will last. After all, we have two wooden summerhouses and a shed which weren’t at all fazed by the storms.

The fault with my greenhouse was a common one — it used polycarbonate sheeting. This is supposed to better than glass for the plants,  but the downside is it makes greenhouses so light they can’t withstand even moderate winds. After the last storms, it was suckers like me with polycarbonate greenhouses who lost everything, while glass greenhouses stood.

The lesson here is: don’t ever buy polycarbonate. I will never touch them again

But I must’ve be too negative, there was plenty to be excited about in 2011. The harvest (although not large) was at least consistent. Just about everything produced a crop which ended up on the table.

Let’s take a look at each bed  in turn.

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Glut, my arse

Toby Buckland

Toby Buckland


Gardener’s World, eh? Quite a show. Whenever I see presenter Toby Buckland stroll into view brimming with fake enthusiasm and waving his arms, I want to puke. Still, you got to respect what the man says. He knows his stuff.  

A couple of Fridays ago he opened with something which pulled me up so sharply, I swallowed the little bit of vomit which had just welled up into my mouth. “Isn’t September great?” he gushed, insincerely, “It’s this time of year when your veg patch has really come together, and you suddenly find yourself with a glut of food.”  

What? A glut? Not in my allotment there ain’t. We had a few good meals, but everything was eaten as it ripened. No way could you use the word “glut” to describe any of my harvests.  

Mind you, there was one notable exception – courgettes. There were lots and lots of courgettes. And I mean so many it was becoming a little bit of a problem. From only six plants we’d made ratatouille so often some of the kids were sick of it, and, as an experiment, Sue and I had frozen some completely raw, and some which had been blanched for a minute (the jury is out on which is the best way.)  

But there was still loads left over. What to do? It isn’t the moste versatile of veg. Fortunately, in the genuinely good magazine to accompany Gardener’s World, I found a recipe for a courgette chutney. Problem solved. Time to try my hand a spot of serious cooking.  

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Going to ground

Having dug over some of the soil, I was desperate to actually get something into the ground. I needed to get planting. 

I had been seeking advice from a colleague of mine called Gordon over what to do next, and he said, “I’ll bring in some potatoes and onion sets.” Sets, I thought, what are these? But I was too ashamed to ask. So a quick Google later, I learned they were baby onions, as opposed to seeds. Of course, I then wondered why gardeners didn’t just call them baby onions. I would have. 

I’d also invested in one of those cheap books you find in odd places in large stores, and that are always reduced by about 70%. This one was called Practical Allotment Gardening, by Caroline Foley, and was reduced from £12.99 to £2.99, and it is was a godsend. Perfect for an idiot like me. Plenty of pictures, but more importantly, few words. Simple and straightforward. 

The first thing I learned was “crop rotation”. Of course, I’d heard of it before in history at school. Crops are rotated each year to maintain the soil, and stop an explosion of pests. I hadn’t planned for this. So, grabbing Gordon’s potatoes and onion sets (and a packet of lettuce and radish seeds from Dobbies), I headed off to the allotment, buzzing with new ideas. 

 Crop rotation meant I should have four roughly-equal beds. One for potatoes, one for legumes (peas, to you and me), one for brassicas (sprouts, cabbage), and one for root veg (carrots). Of the four, I only had potatoes, so, ignoring my kids’ hard work from the previous week (shame on me!), I reorganised the allotment into roughly four equal rectangles, with a spare bit at the top for lettuces, and other odds and sods. 

Then I dug a trench roughly five inches deep, sprinkled it with organic compost, and popped in my first potato. Here it is: 

The very first thing I planted. Ain't she a beauty?

The very first thing I planted. Ain't she a beauty?


I should have been as proud as shit (and part of me was), but I was also riddled with questions? Is the trench too deep? Is it too shallow? Have I damaged the roots? Is anyone watching me make a fool of myself? 

But the biggest question was: do I earth up the potatoes now or later. All the books say you should pile up earth over the potatoes when the first shoots appear to stop frost damage. However, everyone else in the allotment seemed to have done it when they planted their spuds. They didn’t wait.  And, as was pointed out, farmers don’t return to a field to earth up either. They just do it at the same time a s planting. I was confused, but decided to follow the books, and just rake the spuds over. I’ll make the earthing-up decision at another date. 

I had fewer doubts about planting the onion sets. This seemed lemon squeezy – make a wee hole with you finger and pop then in. Nae bother. Distance between onions dictate how big they grow, so I decided to keep them fairly close, as they should be smaller and have more flavour. This was far more satisfying that the potatoes, because when I’d finished you could actually see the results of your work.. 


Two happy little onions


Now, I felt like I was getting somewhere. 

Finally, it was time for the lettuces and radishes. This proved to be easier still. Simply sprinkle in a straight line,  cover lightly with soil, and water gently. Done, and done. 

Mind you, again anxieties did creep in. Did I cover them too deeply? Did they become scattered from their perfectly straight lines? Did the water wash away the seeds? 

Anxieties aside, I’d finally finished. I’d planted one bed full of potatoes, four rows of onions, some lettuces, and some radishes. Not bad for an hour’s work. Now, to sneak off home for a lie down, and hopefully the next time I return I’ll see some growth.