25 Nov 2016

Let's hear it for ugly fruit!

Windfall apples

Given that the meagre fruit from my veg patch apple trees has long gone, I could hardly believe my eyes when I walked into my niece's garden the weekend before last; at the far far end of the garden, the branches of the two eating apple trees were still weighed down with fruit. Not only that but the grass all around was littered with windfalls so the fruit was definitely ready for picking.

I was curious; my niece shares my interests in harvesting and preserving. Surely this abundant fruit should have been transformed into purée, jam or chutney before now?  I was told that the fruit was "no good".  On closer inspection about 80% of the fruit was marked with brown blotches, like a russetting across the skin.  I found an unmarked apple and ate it as I wandered around.  The apple was crisp, juicy and sweet and I resolved to try and rescue the best of the rest.

I gathered up a bagful of the apples and took them home to cook. They were delicious and I survived the week with no ill after effects. (I probably should have checked before eating but, hey, I'm a spontaneous kind of gal.)

Thanks to the RHS website, the blotches were identified as apple scab. This is an airborne fungus that doesn't affect the flesh of the fruit so, once the fruit is washed and peeled, it's perfectly okay to eat. The fungus spores overwinter on fallen leaves and then the cycle starts again with new leaves and fruit being affected from mid-spring.  Part of the solution is to rake up any affected leaves as soon as they fall and, in the spring, prune out any blistered young shoots.  Needless to say, it's best to burn affected material and not to put the affected fruit, leaves, shoots and peelings in the compost bin!

Closer inspection shows the marks of apple scab

The thought of all those other apples left behind played on my mind during the week.  I hate wasted food and even more so if I then have to go and buy more of the same! I'd arranged to take my niece's children to the cinema this past Sunday so went armed with a large tote bag for a second harvest to bring home. After a very windy Saturday, there were plenty of good windfall apples and I also picked some blotched fruit from the branches. If I had more freezer space, I could easily have doubled or trebled the amount of apples brought home but, even so, gathered nearly 10 kilos of fruit.

I'm gradually working my way through the bowl, peeling, chopping, cooking and juicing or freezing. With that amount of apples I've found it's best to get in the swing of it - peel, chop, core, repeat.  I set out a large bowl of water with lemon juice next to the chopping board; the lemon water is to stop the fruit oxidising and going brown. For speed, I use a potato peeler to take the skin off, a knife to halve the apples and a melon baller to remove the core. The peelings are dropped straight into another box next to the chopping board. The prepared fruit is dropped into the bowl of lemon water and, once that's full, lifted into a large pot for cooking.  I like using up eating apples in this way as they hold their shape and don't need any added sugar. What I do add though is a full vanilla pod and three or four whole star anise; this really lifts the flavour of the fruit. The cooked fruit is frozen to use at a later date in pancakes and pies or eaten with yogurt; I might also make some fruit leathers.

I wasn't surprised to learn that growers can't sell scabbed fruit, even though the flesh is okay. The fruit spoils more quickly and is no good for the high visual standards demanded by consumers. This issue is addressed by spraying trees with a variety of chemicals throughout the year.  That's an unpleasant thought isn't it? Personally, I'd rather eat fruit prepared from scabbed apples than fruit soaked in chemicals to make it visually appealing. For the home grower, it's best to buy trees that have been bred to resist scab and a lot of commercial growers are doing the same. (Google scab resistant apples.)

In finding out about all this, I read of an American farmer who let his squad of 120 pigs roam through his orchards to eat up all the fallen apples in the hope of eradicating any disease spores.  The pigs' health was unaffected and the experiment successful in time.  Happy pigs, happy farmer. Sometimes the old ways really are best.

21 Nov 2016

A glimpse of the Chiltern Hills

To the barrows

What would make your perfect weekend?  There's always something calling for my attention so the ideal weekend for me is when I make time to step away from normal life and enjoy something different.  It's not often that a few days come together as faultlessly as they did on the weekend before last. For a start I had a free Friday - always a good start! I planned three days of bliss with one day gardening, one day at an RHS show and Sunday walking in the Oxfordshire countryside with family. With sun:rain:sun weather, I couldn't have wished for better.

Ignoring the garden tidying that was needed close to home, I headed up to the allotment on Friday with a large bag of anemone corms and tulip bulbs for some spring cut flowers. It was a glorious day; warm sunshine had me shedding my coat within minutes. Amazing for November but it was like early summer! I cleared weeds and trimmed grass to the accompanying sounds of a lawnmower droning in the distance, the smell of woodsmoke from a nearby bonfire, parakeets squawking in the nearby trees (there are colonies of them on Hampstead Heath) and little birds gently cheeping in the apple tree as they watched while I hand hoed and planted. Disney moment or utopian dream? Whatever, it really was a day to put a smile on my face. I almost whistled. I stopped several times to savour the moment - even the tidying up and weeding - as I'm not sure there will too many days like that left this year, especially with the more traditional November weather of rain, wind and cold forecast for the week ahead.

I'll skip past rain-sodden but rewarding Saturday (the RHS show, last post) to Sunday, when I headed out of London. It was another clear sunny day and autumn leaves the colour of fire on the road out to the Chilterns in Oxfordshire almost distracted my driving. What with autumn colour and red Kite birds of prey hovering overhead, the drive out is spectacular, even for a motorway! I particularly love the view when the trees and chalk hills open up to reveal the English countryside stretching out into the far distance.

The original plan was to visit Waterperry Gardens; I've heard great things about this garden and it's only ten minutes from family base camp. But it was not to be. I was firmly frogmarched up into the Chiltern Hills by my niece, who told me that the colours were glorious and that I'd be glad of the walk.  She was right. For urban-esque eyes, these views were an exhilarating sight. I'm glad I packed my camera.

Autumn woodland
Walking in sunshine

Countryside view
Through the hedgerow - to Oxfordshire and beyond

Copper leaved pathway
Copper carpet (This photo hardly does the colours justice)

Peaceful sheep
Yeah, sheep, I know ... anyone else hearing the opening bars of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony?

Gold and green should never be seen without a tree inbetween

Fallen leaves
Light at the end of the tunnel 

And at the end of the day, we returned home to tea and cake which is when I saw this in the garden.

So many apples!
An apple a day ... the doctor won't be calling here for while. 

Apples for the taking! But that story will be in my next post... :o)

17 Nov 2016

RHS London Urban Garden Show 2016

Cactus light

Hoping that the weather forecast was accurate for the weekend, on my agenda for a very wet Saturday was the new Urban Garden show from RHS London.  What's that? A gardener hoping for a wet Saturday? I had my reasons; I wanted to get along to the show without having to choose between indoors or outside. The pull to be outside on a sunny day is strong.

As you all know, I do love a gardening show, especially when it's new. It's good news to see the London shows being extended again with this new addition for small space gardeners. (The early summer Rose Show was added in 2015.) We've recently had the Harvest Festival and Shades of Autumn shows at either end of October, the Christmas Show is still to come (17th/18th December) and now the Urban Garden Show has been sandwiched into November. The RHS Westminster shows that I've been to in the past have allocated a lot of space for the usual retailers and plant displays, with (I'm sorry to say) an uninspiring small café area squeezed into the gallery. Would this one be any different?  Happily, yes, I believe so; indications are good. The plant displays were still much in evidence - amazing cactus and tropical plant installations by Cityscapes (see top photo), styled by garden designers Jarman Murphy - and a new host of retailers too.  Entrance to the show was by navigating a path through a tropical jungle of potted plants, creating a contemporary ambience which matched the theme of urban and indoor gardens.

Cakes with fruit, veg, flowers and herbs ...
Seedlip bunny
Surprisingly delicious non alcoholic spirits from Seedlip.  The bunny approves.

Reluctantly leaving the cake and delicious eats to one side for the moment, the show was all about encouraging and inspiring people to garden, even if space allows for just the one tiny plant. Preferably stylish and in a funky pot or glass bauble. That might sound a tad cynical but actually the show was visually rather exciting. Smaller, nicely understated and with lots of really good artisan eats (vegan or otherwise) and drinks on offer and, crucially, the space to comfortably take a seat and enjoy your food. We gardeners like to linger over a cup of tea and a good slice of cake.

A cactus retailer named Prick seemed very popular!
Naturally, there was plenty of retail therapy with the focus on indoor gardening: terrariums, air-plants, cactuses and succulents in abundance, books, apps, bulbs, wooden planters and seeds.  It was good to reconnect with Joy Michaud from Sea Spring Seeds; I've been perplexed as to how best to use the tiny Fairy Lights chillies that are still growing on my balcony. Joy makes a delicious freezable sauce with hers; she cuts off the stalk, leaving the rest of the chilli intact (seeds as well), combines with other veg (courgettes, onions, tomatoes, etc) and cooks the mixture to a pulp before cooling and freezing for winter use.  I was told that my other round chillies, Tangerine Dream, are best hollowed out and the firm pods stuffed with a savoury filling such as seasoned mince.  I was getting hungry just listening. Joy had a beautiful chilli plant on show called Apricot; the fruits are perfect for eating raw in salads as they're mild and perfumed. I was sold on the idea and came away with seeds for next year, plus a small bag of fruits for my kitchen and a big smile on my face.  Lovely people, lovely produce.

The show would have been sadly lacking if it was only about shopping but there was also an excellent programme of talks and workshops - and advice from the RHS On The Road campervan. There was a very tempting sounding 'behind the scenes' tour of the Lindley Library exhibition 'The City Gardener' but, silly me, I stupidly didn't realise that it had to be booked in advance; disappointment levels were high and lessons learned. This time all went to plan as I got to the show in time for 'Green is the new Black', an illustrated talk on the relationship between fashion, culture and gardening. The talk was by Tom Loxley, the editor of Rakes Progress, a new contemporary gardening magazine. His take on the upsurge of interest from a younger generation of would-be gardeners was interesting and I was able, like many at the show, to have a further chat to him afterwards. His words had put thoughts into my head and afterwards I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of twenty-somethings wandering the hall, engrossed in plants. It seemed everyone wanted to take home a cactus or Hippeastrum.

I didn't have time to attend any of the craft workshops but serendipitously bumped into a friend who was proudly showing the two macramé holders that she'd just made at Grace + Thorn's workshop. Apparently, they're the latest trend for household plants. I might have to rescue the ones I made in the 80s from my mother's house!

I would have liked to return to the show on Sunday to take a look at workshops on making flower crowns and botanical jewellery, kokedama and succulent frames plus talks on the benefits of a plant based diet, maximising space for food growing and successfully growing indoor plants.  I've heard this show is a trial run but I also overheard people remarking on the success of the event - I hope the RHS feels the same way and will be back with this show again next year.  It could just inspire a whole new generation of urban and small space gardeners  - and it was great that the show tapped into the trend for healthy plant based food and drinks.

RHS bus
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