17 May 2015

In search of elders

It's that time of year again when the race is on to see who can get to the elderflowers first. I spotted promising looking buds three days ago so, waking up ridiculously early yesterday, I instantly put foraging at the top of the day's agenda. I suspected there would only be a few flower heads but I was on the Heath by 7.00 a.m., just me and a few lone runners jogging past.

I knew where I needed to go but couldn't resist the opportunity to dawdle in magical green glades, creep under branches in secret copses to get close to banks of bluebells, be thankful for logs laid to pinpoint the muddy ditch beyond and listen to the early morning birdsong of a little coal tit, no doubt alerting his pals to the approaching human! I saw lichen on ancient trees, wild forget-me-nots and red campion, buttercups and ferns. I even found a good thick stick shaped like a slingshot. That went into my bag and got passed to a friend's young son on the way home. He was thrilled. So was I. He's such a boy.

Wandering back in the direction of home, my sylvan idyll was gradually dispelled by the massed puffing of running clubs, ladies chatting while jogging together (men seem to be lone huffers and puffers) and lots of people out with their dogs. I'd gathered over 20 large elderflower heads and was now hungry for breakfast. Thoughts of freshly baked bread and the Heath Farmer's Market crept into my head. And - as luck would have it! - the Harrington Scheme (a local project providing gardening training for disabled youth) were selling lovely organic plants on the neighbouring stall to the bread. All in a good cause, 6 sweetcorn, some purple sage and some lime Nicotiana came home with me. All in all, a bit of a top-hole morning.

So, how to identify elderflowers?  Here are some pics.

Paired mid-green leaves with serrated edges. Umbels of green buds open to tiny white flowers. Distinct scent from open flowers.

Back at home I quickly got on with making my first batch of elderflower cordial. I've had a tiny delicious taste this morning but I'll leave it until tomorrow evening as I have garden planting to do today and Chelsea Flower Show tomorrow.  Life is sweet.

The recipe I use is an adaption from Sarah Raven's recipe (link under name) in that I use less sugar and then substitute slightly healthier alternatives. I really like the addition of oranges and lime rather than using just lemons. I don't use citric acid because, in my neck of the woods, no-one sells it. There's a story that it's used to cut cocaine but that's not something this innocent lass is ever likely to prove.

Here's my version:

1.5 litres water
1 kg sugar (I used 500g organic granulated, 250g coconut palm sugar, 250g Xylitol)
2 lemons
1 large orange (or 2 smaller ones)
1 lime

Put water and sugar in a saucepan.  Heat very gently until sugar completely dissolved, stirring occasionally to check. Once dissolved, bring to the boil and take off the heat.

Zest and thinly slice the citrus fruit. Put into a large bowl. Add the elderflowers. I usually check the flowers by turning them upside down, giving a gentle shake, check for insects, then cut most of the stems off leaving a half inch behind the flowers. Don't wash the flowers, the fragrance will disappear.

Pour the hot syrup over the fruit and flowers. Give it a stir round, lightly cover (a tea towel or pot lid will do) and leave to infuse for 24 to 48 hours.  When time's up, strain through muslin or a jelly strainer into a jug and pour through a funnel into clean sterilised bottles.  Store it in the fridge or decant into plastic bottles and put in the freezer where it will keep for several months.

16 May 2015

The rainbow after the rain

Pulmonaria and Galium odoratum (Lungwort and Sweet Woodruff to give them their country names!)

Last Monday, my neighbour and I (the gardening team) were standing having a chat about the garden and agreeing about how much we loved interplanting veg with flowers.  Another gardening neighbour (he who is responsible for growing swathes of cabbages around the flats and uprooting shrubs to do so) stopped to tell us, "Why are you growing all these flowers? You can't eat them; you should rip them out and plant vegetables." I smiled at him and briefly explained the need for biodiversity, pollination and beneficial insects. To which he replied: "All you need for pollination is wind."  **sigh**  On which point, we had to amicably agree to disagree.

Those same flowers and pops of colour made going down to the garden yesterday morning a real pleasure. Warm sun on my back, raindrops on the leaves, bees buzzing and birds singing. (There's a little coal tit that has taken to visiting the garden as well as the starlings and blue tits).  Wasn't Thursday's rain just fabulous?!  Although I did feel sorry for all those garden teams over at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea frantically planting in the pouring rain to finish gardens for Sunday's Flower Show judging.

So the garden here has had a really good soaking; that should perk up the plants for quite a few days and give a boost to the veg and  help to settle in newly planted perennials and herbs. I've got strawberries and the lovage to move this evening, hopefully the damp soil will help them to settle in. There are some wonderfully vivid colours in the garden at the moment so today I'm just going to celebrate my rainbow of flowers.

Oh, and by the way ….  I rest my case m'lud. Bzzz, bzzzzz.

12 May 2015

The Fruit-full Garden

Morello cherry fruitlets. So pretty still with their little pink skirts! 

I was away for the whole of the last bank holiday weekend and returned to go straight back to work so, after five days away from the garden, I could really see a difference in the fruit. There's definitely signs of fruitlets forming on all the plum and pear trees.  The apple and quince calyces are reliably plump and fuzzy and the cherries look like being a bumper crop too.

Warm sunshine has really brought the strawberry plants on (loads of flowers!) and, thrilling times, I have tiny gooseberries forming for the first time! So far, I've counted only 4 strings of fruitlets on the redcurrant bush - I may need to buy another - and the Physalis (Cape Gooseberry) grown a couple of years ago is fully in leaf. This shrub is in an old potato sack and doing well; I wonder how it would do if I planted it in the soil - hopefully this will give it a boost resulting in bigger harvests!

My plan to reduce the number of Autumn Bliss raspberries in favour of the new Polka raspberries is a major fail.  Once they started growing, I hadn't the heart to dig them up, even though they're occupying the part of the space allocated to my new cut flower patch.  As the Polka canes have sent out a good amount of runners, I've left the sturdy ones and dug up only the spindly runners (inspired by my visit to the trial beds at Wisley). A few have been potted up for friends.  I think it's safe to say that the veg patch will be raspberry central again this summer. (heh, heh.)

Last year the pear fruitlets all fell off so I have fingers and toes crossed (metaphorically speaking) for this year - what else can I do? There are problems afoot though - the plum tree leaves are curling in on themselves again, as they did last year, and I was horrified to see blisters on the pear leaves.

By happy chance I discovered a pristine copy of the RHS Garden Problem Solver in my local library; it's a really informative and well illustrated book although a bit like those medical dictionaries that make you worry about contracting diseases that you're never likely to encounter. Or is that just me? (I worked as a medical secretary in my youth; it became quite nerve wracking.)  I was able to swiftly identify my pear leaf pest as 'pear leaf blister mite'. (So obvious when you know.) Apparently it doesn't harm the tree and it's best to remove infested leaves to minimise spread, as long as the affected leaves are just a few - remove more than a few and the tree won't be able to photosynthesise and will become very unhappy indeed.

The curling plum leaves are being attacked by - you guessed it - 'plum leaf curling aphid'. (I'm glad someone has given these pests practical names, so much easier than trying to remember Latin.)  The solution is to spray the leaves as they open which is all very well but not if you're an organic gardener as I am. As usual, I will resort to squishing and spraying with water, perhaps with a drop of (plant based) Ecover washing up liquid in it.

A bit of good news: As I pottered around the garden weeding yesterday I noticed a few ladybirds gathering at the base of the plum tree … those aphids could find their days are numbered.

Skimming through this again, I realise I forgot to mention the Honeyberry bushes. They're also doing nicely and will hopefully hold onto their blossom in the teeth of ferocious winds once more ripping through the garden today.

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