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We’ve talked before on the site about the different ways to make compost and covered the basics of how to compost properly.

Over the last few months we’ve received a few emails from readers asking whether plastic ‘dalek’ compost bins are any good. Well after a few failures, over the last couple of years I’ve been perfecting the art of making compost with plastic dalek compost bins. Below I’ll share the key things I did that enabled me to make perfect compost with a dalek.

Tips to Compost with Daleks-2

Shred It

Size does matter. If you want to give your compost a big headstart then you’ll need to ensure the material you add to your bin is as small as possible. While fruit peelings, soft prunings and other ‘wet’ ingredients tend to break down very quickly meaning size is less important, slightly woody cuttings can take many years. The smaller you can get your ingredients at the start the quicker your compost will take to make.

A couple of years ago I was given an electric garden shredder ( like this) and it has transformed the speed with which my dalek churns out great compost. I now put all prunings/cuttings through the shredder before adding it to the compost bins. It only take a few minutes to do but as well as being incredibly satisfying it also shaves months off the composting time.

Similarly any paper or card I add goes through the old paper shredder in our office first and any vegetable scraps/peelings are chopped into small pieces before they’re added to the compost caddy in the kitchen.

To Much Green

One of the most common problems people have with their compost heaps is the addition of too much ‘green’ material. If your heap is made primarily of green plant cuttings, grass clippings and vegetable scraps then you’ll almost certainly struggle to make good compost.

The simple solution is to add more ‘brown’ material which is rich in carbon and is essential to speeding up the decomposition process. ‘Browns’ might take the form of shredded woody prunings, cardboard, dried leaves or shredded paper.

The ratio of brown to green doesn’t need to be complicated, as a rough guide I aim for a 50:50 ratio but usually end up with slightly more green. Of course browns tend to be dry so weigh much less than the wet greens. Don’t worry about it all too much.

In order to help get the balance right, whenever I take out the vegetable peelings/scraps from the kitchen I grab a few handfuls of shredded paper from our office. Likewise if I add some grass clippings from the lawn. I’ll be sure to throw in some brown leaves form the mulch pile to keep the balance.

Lack of Moisture

Another common problem with dalek composters is not enough moisture. The organisms that break down your waste need moisture in order to thrive. While the snugly fitting plastic lids do a great job at keeping the heat in you heap they tend not to let any rain water in to the pile which can lead to a lack of moisture.

The way I diagnosed the problem was the discovery of a colony of ants living in the middle of one of our daleks. Ants avoid moisture and will only take up residence in a sheltered dry environment. If you reach into the middle of the heap, the compost should be ever so slightly damp to touch. Not sopping wet and heavy but not dry and crumbly.

As a general rule if you think your heap is too dry throw in a bucket of rain water (which is chlorine free) before replacing the lid. Going forward whenever you add more material (especially dry matter like shredded paper, dry leaves etc) give the heap a good soak with a watering can.

Of course when you do get the moisture levels right in a dalek, the fact that they are plastic and have airtight lids means they do a great job of keeping the moisture in and at the right level.

More Oxygen Required

When using a dalek, getting enough oxygen to the compost can be a challenge. Where a traditional compost pile isn’t airtight and can simply be forked over, a darlek typically requires emptying and reloading…or so I thought.

After some research I discovered compost turners. It’s like a giant corkscrew that you simply turn into the center of the pile and lift up which stirs the pile and introduces lots of air to the center of the pile. I try to give each dalek a turn once a week to ensure both an even mix of material as well as a good supply of oxygen throughout.

Compost aerator

Conclusion

So there you have it. Using the above tips my darleks typically turn out quality compost in less than 6 months, often much less. While some gardeners dismiss the effectiveness of daleks for composting, from my experience that’s usually the conclusion when you’re not doing it right.

If you make a few changes like those outlined above there’s no reason your daleks shouldn’t be producing great quality compost. If space is limited their small footprint and portability gives them many advantages of a tradition open compost heap. There’s no reason why you can’t use great home made compost when putting together your potting medium.

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DIY Fruit Cages

About three years ago we planted a small redcurrant bush in the garden. It had been given to us by a family member as a small cutting. For the last two years we’ve been teased by a huge crop of juicy redcurrants that we’ve been about to pick only to be beaten to the fruit by the local wildlife. The main suspects in this currant crime are the over weight pigeons that tend to pilfer half of the bird feed we leave out.

This year I’m determined to outwit the pigeons and ensure we get to enjoy the glut of red currants we should have every summer. I don’t really have the space or inclination for a large, expensive fruit cage with aluminum frame so instead started researching cheaper, more DIY approaches.

After much searching I found these excellent Figo Cane connectors. They are soft rubber connectors that allow you to easily connect standard bamboo canes together. Their real advantage compared to other similar products I found is that they allow you to easily connect canes with quite differing thicknesses.

Fruit Cage-2 Fruit Cage

Once the connectors arrived the cage was quickly built  by forming a square roughly a bit larger than the foot print of the bush. Next I simply cut the four vertical canes to size, pushed them into the ground and connected the square ‘top’. Next I simply wrapped the cage in netting and made some improvised pegs from metal wire in order to stop the birds from creeping under the net.

Finally I secured the netting to the canes with some cable ties. Time will tell but the cage looks very secure, has a slim profile so it should survive strong wind and most importantly I see no reason how any pesky pigeons will be able to get at our precious red currants.

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For an authentic taste of Mexican food you need look no further than the humble quesadilla. This delicious black bean quesadilla recipe is incredibly quick to make and at a push can be made out of purely store cupboard ingredients.

Black Bean Quesadillas

Bean Paste Ingredients

  • 1 tin of black beans
  • 1 teaspoon of roasted/ground cumin seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground coriander seeds
  • Juice from 1/2 a lemon
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 handful of chopped fresh coriander

Salsa Ingredients

  • 2 chopped fresh tomatoes
  • 1/2 finely sliced onion
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 red chillie
  • 1 handful of fresh coriander
  • Juice form 1/2 lime

Other ingredients

  • Corn tortillas
  • Sour cream for garnish
  • Grated cheddar cheese

Method

1. Place all of the ingredients for the past into a food mixer and blend to a rough paste.

2. Roughly chop the salsa ingredients and mix in a bowl

3. Add 2 spoonfuls of the paste and a handful of cheddar to the centre of a tortilla then spread evenly to within 3cm of the edges.

4. Fold the tortilla in half, press down and cook on a hot griddle pan (no oil needed) until slightly charred. Turn over and cook the other side.

5. Serve with the salsa either on the side or placed inside each tortilla.

For an extra touch serve with a bowl of our famous habanero salsa on the side for that authentic Mexican flavour.

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Dhaba Style Mung Dal Recipe

The purpose of this recipe is to make a simple, healthy dal dish with the least possible effort involved. No oil, no ghee just a simple tasty dish that would happily grace the table of any Indian family.

As with all dal recipes the longer and slower you cook them the better the end result. As a result I now tend to make most of my dal recipes, including this one using a slow cooker. A slow cooker perfectly replicates the traditional way of cooking dal overnight on the dying embers of a tandoor clay oven.

Mung Dal

Mung Dal Ingredients

  • 1 x cup of green mung dal
  • 1 x teaspoon of ground cumin seeds
  • 1 x teaspoon of turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 2 x chopped tomatoes
  • 1 x green chilli sliced in half

 Directions

1. Wash and soak the dal overnight before placing in the slow cooker with the rest of the ingredients.

2. Cook for 24 hours in the slow cooker on ‘medium’ or until the dal is tender and is very soft to bite.

3. Serve with fresh naan, chapati or rice and yogurt.

With so few ingredients this recipe takes only 2-3 minutes actual preparation. All of the heavy lifting is done by the slow cooker so you just need to make sure you plan ahead a day or two beforehand.

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Aloo Paratha Recipe

When it comes to Indian food you’re usually either a rice or a bread person, personally bread wins every time for me. The paratha I’ve had in India or restaurants here in the UK tend to be delicious but incredibly unhealthy. More often than not they’re brushed with Ghee (clarified Butter) which in my opinion makes them too greasy.

The following recipe uses no oil or ghee so they are much healthier. They’re pretty quick to prepare and well worth the effort.

To Make the Dough

  • 1 cup of flour (i use 1/2 wholemeal, 1/2 strong white flour)
  • 1/2 cup of water
  • 1 pinch of salt

1. Simply place the flour into a large mixing bowl (use a stand mixer if you have one), add the salt then slowly add the water until a nice dough forms.

2. Continue to knead for 5 minutes.

3. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with cling film and leave to rest for 30 minutes.

To Make the Filling

  • 6 floury potatoes
  • 2 teaspoons of ground cumin seeds
  • 2 chopped fresh green chillies
  • 1 handful of chopped coriander

4. Boil the potatoes, drain and place in a large bowl.

5. Mash together with the ground cumin, coriander leaves and chopped chillies.

6. Allow to cool.

To Make the Paratha!

7. Simply take a golf ball sized piece of dough and roll flat to about 3mm thick.

8. Place a desert spoon amount of the potato mix into the centre and fold in the excess dough all around to form a parcel.

9. Flip over and gently roll out the parcel until about  4mm thick.

10. Cook for 2-3 minutes on each side in a medium hot non stick frying pan

Aloo Paratha RecipeAloo Paratha RecipeAloo Paratha

Paratha are best served fresh so be sure to start serving them to your guests as soon as the first one is done. Traditionally they are just served with some fresh natural yogurt (check out our recipe for home made yogurt), maybe some matter paneer or chilli and coriander chutney.

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Spicy Egg Curry Recipe

Egg curry (or Anda Masala as it is known in India) is one of those dishes that sounds a little bit wrong to a western palette but is in fact a great dish. Quick to prepare, cheap and incredibly healthy, what’s not to like?  This dish is based on a North Indian recipe a friend showed me.

While the masala sauce is onion and tomato based (no coconut oil like many South Indian egg curry recipes) the eggs seem to bring an almost creamy taste to the dish. This works equally well as a vegetarian main dish as it does a side.

Spicy Egg Curry Recipe

The following recipe will serve 2 people if served as a main or 4-6 as a side dish.

Egg Curry Ingredients

  • 4 hard boiled eggs
  • 1 and a half finely chopped onions
  • 1 piece of cinnamon bark (2 inches long)
  • 2 teaspoons of cumin seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
  • 2 teaspoons of ground coriander seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon of red chilli powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 2 cloves of chopped garlic
  • 1 fresh green chilli (cut diagonally in half)
  • 2 large tomatoes (skinned, peeled and pureed)
  • 1 cup of water
  • Fresh coriander to garnish

To hard boil the eggs place them in a saucepan of cold water over a high heat. As soon as the water comes to a rolling boil switch off the heat and place the lid on the pan. Leave to stand for 9 minutes before rinsing the eggs under lots of cold water in order to stop the cooking process. Once cooled fully peel the eggs and leave them to soak in cold water while preparing the gravy.

An easy way of de-skinning and pureeing the tomatoes is to cut them in half and grate them over a bowl. Do this in advance while the eggs are boiling.

Next up, the masala sauce.

Add the cumin seeds to a pan with 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil over a medium heat.

As soon as the seeds start to brown slightly add the chopped onions and cinnamon bark. Stir regularly over a medium heat, cooking down the onions until they start to brown. Don’t rush cooking the onions as this is the key part in any Indian curry and imparts amazing flavour in to the final sauce.

Once the onions are just starting to brown, add the chilli powder, ground coriander seeds, turmeric, garlic, green chilli and salt. Fry this off for a minute or two – it will likely go very dry in the pan.

Add the pureed tomato and cook for a further minute stirring regularly before adding the water. Turn the heat down, place the lid on the pan and simmer for 5-10 minutes.

Finally remove the lid, slice the eggs in half and carefully place them in the pan, sliced side up. Carefully spoon some masala over the eggs and simmer gently for another 5 minutes before serving with some fresh coriander.

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Macaroni Cheese Recipe

Macaroni cheese is a classic and surprisingly easy to make. Forget the packet stuff, once you realise how easy this recipe is and how much better it tastes you’ll never look back. Mac cheese has got a bit of a bad reputation for being a bland ready meal but it needn’t be the case. The mustard, white pepper, stock and thyme are what makes this recipe so good so make sure you don’t leave these out.

Macaroni Cheese Recipe

Macaroni Cheese Ingredients

  • 500g of dried macaroni
  • 1 teaspoon of english mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon of white pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon of Bouillon (vegetable stock granules)
  • 3 bay leaves
  • bunch of fresh thyme
  • 100g of mature cheddar cheese
  • 35g of fresh parmesan cheese
  • 1 fresh chilli
  • 1 handful of breadcrumbs

Basic White Sauce Ingredients

  • 40g of butter
  •  3 tablespoons of plain flour
  • 750ml of milk

Cook the macaroni in a large pan of salted water as per the instructions on the packet (typically about 11 minutes). Aim to cook the macaroni a little less than al dente as the pasta will continue to cook a little when in the oven with the cheese sauce.

Meanwhile make the basic white sauce by melting the butter over a medium heat in a saucepan. Next add the plain flour and immediately start whisking. The butter/flour mixture will form a dry paste. Continue to cook this off for 2-3 minutes while continuing to whisk.

Next start adding the milk a little at a time, whisking throughout. After about 10 minutes the sauce should be a nice pouring consistency. Add in the bay leaves, thyme leaves, cheddar, chopped chilli, mustard, pepper and vegetable stock powder and continue to stir with the whisk for a few minutes.

Once the pasta is cooked drain it over a colander. If you sauce is a little thick you can use some of the pasta water to thin it a little. Don’t forget that your sauce will continue to thicken when in the oven so aim to have it slightly too thin when you combine it in the tray/dish with the pasta.

Add the pasta to the saucepan with the sauce and stir to combine the two. Finally pour it into an oven proof dish before sprinkling the grated parmesan and breadcrumbs on top and bake for about 20 minute at 180°c until the top looks golden brown. If you really can’t wait brown off the top under the grill.

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Baked Falafel Recipe

One of the side effects of being married to a vegetarian is that I eat a lot less meat than I used to. Given the health benefits that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Being veggies at home means that to avoid eating pasta everyday you need to get a little bit creative with your cooking. Falafel is a great way to do that.

Falafel are a great source of protein, incredibly versatile as well as being very easy to prepare. Traditionally falafels are deep fried which gives them a nice crispy outside. However this recipe keeps things healthy and bakes them instead. If you get the consistency right you’ll find it very hard to tell  the difference between the fried variety.

Baked Falafel RecipeFalafel Recipe

Baked Falafel Ingredients

  • 1 x tin of chickpeas
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1/2 an onion
  • 2 teaspoons of ground cumin seeds
  • 3/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 large handful of parsley or coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
  • 2 tablespoon of olive oil
  • 2 chopped fresh chillies
  • 5 tablespoons of plain or gram (chickpea) flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper
  • juice from 1 lemon

1. This really is a very simple recipe. Add all of the ingredients to a food processor and blitz until roughly chopped. Be careful not to grind the mixture too fine.

2. Roll the mixture into small balls, a little larger than golf balls. If the mixture is too wet try adding a little gram flour or simply spooning the mixture out rather than rolling.

3. Place on a lightly oiled baking tray and squish the balls down slightly to form patties.

4. Bake in a fan assisted oven at 180°C (350°F) for 30 minutes. I usually flip the patties over halfway through cooking to ensure an even bake and a nice golden colour on each side.

There many different ways to serve falafel. My favourite is the traditional way pictured above, served in a warm pita bread with salad, a yoghurt and tahini  sauce and a sprinkling of sumac. However they work equally well in a couscous salad, as a side dish with some dip or spicy tomato sauce. You can even make them a little larger and serve them a veggie burgers.

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Why are my Chillies Black?

Around this time every year I always get a handful of emails from readers asking me about black chillies. Why are my chillies black? What have I done wrong? Can I eat black chillies? Are my chilli plants mutant?!

As part of the natural ripening process it is quite common for chilli peppers to be black in appearance or have black/dark streaks on them.

Most chillies such as the common Birds Eye or Cayenne will start off life green and ripen through to orange or red. However as the pods start to ripen, the sugar content in the fruit increases and the skin will often turn a dark brown or black colour temporarily.

As the ripening process continues the blackness will eventually give way to red. These changes in colour can seem like they are taking an age to happen, especially when you’re waiting for pods to ripen at the start of the summer!

Why are my chillies black

How long this ripening process takes depends on a number of different factors such as weather, feeding regime and watering levels. There are no hard or fast rules how long the ripening process takes and the only thing that tends to speed up the process is the amount of sun your plants are getting.

Usually however these changes happen so slowly that you begin to think there is something wrong with your plants. Then inevitably you’ll turn away for a second and your plant will suddenly be full of wonderfully ripe red pods.

The lesson here is to be patient!

Of course there are some varieties of chilli that naturally are black or brown in colour when ripe. The most popular such variety is the Chocolate Habanero (pictured below, these are great for making chutney by the way) that ripens from green through to a deep chocolatey brown colour.

Chocolate Habanero Chilli

Chillies can be eaten at any stage in the ripening process, including when they are black or brown in appearance. However the flavours can change significantly throughout. The best way to work out what is best for your tastes is to try some pods at different stages of ripeness!

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Every year spent growing chillies seems to throw up a different problem. Too cold, too changeable, not enough sun, too much rain….there’s always something getting in the way of the perfect growing season. I suppose that’s the attraction of gardening…pitting your horticultural skills against the unpredictability of nature.

This year the main problem I’m facing with my pepper plants is whitefly. We’ve talked before a few times about aphid infestations and how to deal with them but to date we’ve not really covered whitefly in much detail.

Having got back from a short holiday I discovered a big whitefly infestation in the chilli house. As with all garden pests it’s usually so much easier to deal with the problem if you catch it early.

Whitefly feed on the plants sap which is why they tend to attack the fresh young growth on plants. Left unchecked they will multiply rapidly and cause lasting damage to the host plants, often stunting their development.

The whitely also secrete a sticky residue on the plants which then attracts dust and muck and usually causes problems with fungal growths on the leaves.


White Fly Infestation on Chilli Plants

Plant Marigolds In With Chillies

In the past I’ve planted French Marigold into pots and kept them in the chilli house. Marigolds are a natural deterrent to aphids and whitefly and I’ve had some success with this method in the past.

Having a full time job with long hours means that I try to avoid pots as much as possible as I spend all of my evenings watering if I’m not careful. In addition planting marigolds in small pots means they tend to dry out very quickly on hot days which isn’t ideal.

I grow most of my chilli plants in Quadgrows or my DIY self watering pots which saves massive amounts of time watering. I don’t know why I’ve never done it but next year I’ll try planting one French Marigold in each self watering pot. This way there’ll be no extra watering involved or extra space taken up by the marigolds.

Lady Birds

If you’ve got kids around the house then they help is at hand. Send them out lady bird hunting – they usually don’t need much encouragement. Ladybirds are phenomenal for their ability to eat their way through a whitefly infestation so if you can catch a few and release them onto your infested plants they will make a material difference.

Fresh Air

If the infestation is really bad I find the best/easiest method is to move all of your plants outside. By doing so you’ll let the natural predators in the garden go to work on the whitefly. This typically clears the problem up in 2-3 days. While the plants are outside be sure to give the greenhouse a thorough clean to ensure any larvae are removed.

Once the plants go back in to the greenhouse always try to ensure you have as many windows/doors open as possible (temperatures allowing). This will ensure natural predators can get in and keep your plants clean.

Traps

According to the Colorado State University whitefly are attracted to yellow things. This means that using sticky fly traps n the greenhouse is a great method to catch mature whitefly. Personally I’m not a big fan of using these traps as they tend top trap ‘good’ insects too (hover fly, lady birds etc). That said if you have a bed infestation and moving the plants outside (see above) isn’t an option then using sticky traps to get it under control can be a good option.

Cleanliness

One key method to prevent pests and disease in the greenhouse (including whitefly) is to keep things clean. By regularly removing any dead plant matter, spilt compost or other organic matter you’ll be removing habitat that pests like. I also try to regularly wipe down shelves, windows and tables with warm soapy water to improve sanitation.

Insecticides

If you have to use insecticides then make sure they are based on pyrethrins (permethrin being the most common). Neem oil sprays are also highly affected.

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