16 Mar 2019

Lessons learned from last year and what you can do in March

Having resolved not to be overly hasty in seed sowing, I sat outside on a bench on Thursday with my eyes closed, my face lifted to the warm sun and pondered the big question at this time of year, 'Is it warm enough to start sowing?'.

Sometimes I think it could be but, on the other hand, I had my hot water bottle out two nights ago and this morning the wind is battering my windows. Typically for March, the weather is completely unpredictable and makes me long for a sturdy greenhouse where I could raise hardy seedlings. (And shelter from the weather!)

Realistically, I know it's best to keep to my plan to sow direct next month but I've been re-reading Charles Dowding's 'Veg Journal' - the man is such an inspiration - in which he suggests sowing spinach indoors, 2 or 3 seeds to a module or small pot, and then planting out in 5 weeks time, ie mid-April when the weather will hopefully be less turbulent. Ditto for beetroot and leeks, which is a good reminder for me as I always forget to sow leeks in time and then worry as their skinny little stems look so fragile if the weather gets too hot ... or cold ... or windy.

But, before this season of veg growing starts in earnest ...

What have I learned from last year?


Baby Boo squash: A lovely creamy white on the vine but have yellowed over the winter months indoors. 

Every year is different and there's always something new to learn. What works one year may not work the next so it's good to look back and take stock before starting off again on your gardening journey.
  • Write it down! I always start off well, recording seed sowing dates in a notebook or cheap diary but often forget to record transplanting or harvest dates. This year I'm inspired by The Green Conspiracy's garden planner where each vegetable is recorded on it's own page so its progress can be easily tracked. The planner is being produced in Germany after a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the first printing and looks to be amazing for new growers. A printed planner is too expensive for me at around £30 (it needs to be replaced every year) so I'm buying the cheaper (£6) pdf version to see what it's all about.
  • Last year I was super excited to grow Baby Boo squashes - seven of the cutest 4 inch wide white pumpkins from one plant. They were beautiful for natural autumn decorations but I was disappointed to find there was very little flesh inside. Last summer's heat (and lack of water) may be to blame but I'd rather play it safe with a different squash this year. (Possibly spaghetti squash which is delicious with butter.)
  • What did work well was letting Baby Boo ramble through sweetcorn - a very symbiotic planting and worth repeating again this year. The squash leaves minimised moisture loss around the sweetcorn roots while the corn stalks gave the squash something to grab onto as the vines grew. Two sisters, rather than three. (This would also work with courgettes.)
  • Will I bother with peas this year? No. Nor mange tout. I've thought long and hard about this but, if I'm honest, I'm happy with frozen peas and the mange tout weren't plentiful enough to bother with in my small space patch. But I will be keeping my eyes open for varieties that claim to produce prolific crops and might grow a few in large pots.  When you've not much space, it pays to be practical as well as considering alternatives like container growing to expand on available space.
  • Always grow kale.  In 2017, I let a Cavolo Nero plant go to seed (the bees love the flowers); one tiny seed dropped and grew through the 2017/18 winter and produced leaves from early summer onwards. It's now taller than me and still growing (just starting to flower but the flower stalks are edible) - must have saved me a fortune in the shops!
  • Always grow Purple Sprouting Broccoli (PSB). Not only is it expensive to buy but gathering home grown vegetables from the garden in the depths of winter (even a mild one) feels like a real treat. The same is true of kale, leeks, parsnips and sprouts. And I get to feel very smug that I have fresh psb growing and looking so much perkier than the ageing produce in the shops.
  • I experimented with turning my metre square asparagus bed into a square foot planter - I divided the space into a grid of nine square foot spaces and put one plant in each of the squares not already occupied with an asparagus crown. I planted tomatoes in between the asparagus fronds as they make good companions; it nearly worked except that a neighbouring redcurrant bush partly shaded the tomatoes. The small plum tomatoes did well, the beefsteak toms were still trying to ripen at the first frosts! A stupid mistake on my part. This year I'll put the tomatoes next to a sunny wall and plant calendula and spinach around the asparagus.
  • Don't forget the verticals.  Every year I regret the lack of a sturdy arch. My cheap metal arches lasted two seasons before toppling in gusting winds but oh how I loved seeing beans climbing up and over the top. This year I want to try again with growing luffas and Malabar climbing spinach. The search for how to build a sturdy structure is on.
  • Say yes to salad onions. I used a lot in cooking last year and they take up very little room. I'm thinking of lining a section of the veg patch path with them. I'll also sow some around the edge of my carrots as I find this helps to keep carrot root fly away. Or maybe I just don't get carrot root fly. Works for me, anyway.
  • Don't panic if you haven't mulched. Recent research suggests that if a thick mulch (minimum 5cm) is applied one year, it can be skipped the next. The same research also advised mixing the mulch 50:50 with garden soil or compost as too rich a soil can make plants sappy and weak. Personally, I never have enough mulch for a thick layer so tickle a thin layer into the top layer of soil in the veg beds and put a thicker layer around perennials (like rhubarb and raspberries) and fruit trees.

Here’s what you can do in March: 


There are no hard and fast rules for when to sow - what matters is warmth and light. Waking early yesterday, I noticed that in south-east UK we're now getting a good twelve hours of daylight but the weather is still chilly at night and wet/windy during the day. In his book, Charles Dowding suggests that vegetable seeds fall into three categories - cool, medium and warm temperature veg. Cool-type seeds can be sown outside once temperatures are consistently above 5°C/41°F (roughly now in the UK) but will rot if the weather turns wet and cold before they successfully germinate. Anything sown direct in the last couple of days here would have got washed away. The warm seed category (tomatoes, chillies, etc) need to be germinated and raised with heat above 64°F/18°C so tend to be raised under cover.

Outdoors: 
  • Plant garlic cloves, onion sets, and potatoes. I'll also be replanting some oca saved from last year's harvest. 
  • Sow broad beans, radish, spinach, sorrel, peas for shoots, parsnips, brassicas (broccoli, calabrese, cauliflower).  
  • Edible flowers - try sowing nasturtiums and calendula now. Self seeded borage is about to flower in my veg patch which tells me that the soil is warm enough to grow things. And I have so many violets in flower that I might try moving a small clump.
  • If the daytime weather forecast for my area comes true (58°F/15°C), a first sowing of medium temp veg seeds might be possible - carrots, spring onions, winter lettuce - but would need fleecing against wind and lower nighttime temps. Probably best to wait a while longer. 
  • Weeds - take them out while they're tiny otherwise they'll be soon be hogging light, water and nutrients intended for the plants you do want. 
Indoors/under glass: 

I haven't sown anything yet but will get going over the next few weeks with germinating the following on warm windowsills in seed trays.
  • chillies, 
  • tomatoes, 
  • peppers 
  • aubergines 
I'll be sowing pea shoots and micro leaves indoors and beetroot can also be sown into modules - I use this lovely paper pot maker * as I can plant the whole module when the time is right with less root disturbance.

And while I wait for the right time to start sowing, I'm going to be enjoying all the gorgeous spring flowers in the garden.


* Disclosure - the paper pot maker was gifted to me last year by Burgon and Ball but I genuinely love it, finding it easy to use, efficient, and perfectly suited to my as-plastic-free-as-possible lifestyle.







4 Mar 2019

Come into the garden! Spring thoughts about an urban veg patch

Hello again, I'm back. Did you miss me? Well I've only been outside in the garden. I've had a winter break from blogging to sort out both the veg patch and the second garden under my window - and read, amongst other things. It was a wonderfully relaxing time but now, with the weather getting warmer, it's time to get back to business.

Early purple sprouting broccoli shoots

Coming up in future posts are new products seen at last week's Garden Press Event (it was a good one!), my thoughts on how and why to spark joy in your garden, what to grow in containers, and a couple of book reviews. Busy, busy.

But, to welcome readers back into this space, let's see what's been happening here.  Spring is definitely underway, even if temperatures plummet to a March norm from now on (lashing rain and cold winds as I write); in the garden rhubarb stalks are appearing, purple sprouting broccoli is regularly on the menu, first pickings of chives and wild garlic are almost ready, quince major has its first spring leaves, rosemary is blooming, and flowerbeds are filled with colour from the usual spring fare of crocuses, hellebores, daffodils, primroses, violets, and honeywort. Okay, maybe that last one isn't usual but it shows how mild our winter has been.

You'd think that February's warm sunshine would have prompted some early sowing but, no, not for me. I read Allan Jenkins' book 'Plot 29, A Memoir' over Christmas; he sows all seeds direct into well mulched soil and believes that his plants are stronger for it (unless slugs get them first). That's how the first seeds were sown in the early Veg Patch years, and it's how I'm gardening this year, at the appropriate time, leaving my windowsills clear for tomato seedlings and micro leaves.

What will be growing in the balcony garden this year?

  • Bush tomatoes and chillies
  • Salad leaves 
  • Herbs - curly and flat leaf parsley, coriander, mint, chives, maybe some thyme
  • Spring onions (scallions)
  • Scented pelargoniums
Bush tomatoes container grown
~ Last summer, on the balcony ~

I'm lucky to have the use of a larger growing space as well as my balcony but, even though my balcony is tiny, I still make the most of that small space. I love that certain plants are to hand - tomatoes, salad leaves, herbs - so, as usual, I'll continue to grow as much of those as I can fit onto the balcony in planters and pots.  

Balcony growing is not without it's challenges; my balcony is closed off on the south side so is shaded in the morning and very windy but I've found that parsley, chives and mint all do well. Cross winds can damage plants and wick moisture away from the soil so regular watering and feeding is important; last summer I watered every day, sometimes twice a day, (but always checking first to see what was needed) and was reminded to feed the plants with the hashtag #feedonfriday. 

But the absolute best thing last year was having several cherry tomato plants in pots on my balcony to pick at from July through to December. Seeds were sown later than usual in April, due to an extreme winter, and I also bought a couple of small plants from the garden centre (just to make sure I didn't go without!). It worked so well that I'm going to do the same this year.

What will be growing in the veg garden this year?

  • Sweet corn and squash
  • Asparagus and spinach (possibly Malabar, a climbing spinach-like alternative)
  • Carrots and garlic
  • French climbing beans and leeks
  • Courgette and kales
  • Broad beans, PSB and Brussels sprouts
  • Strawberries, raspberries
  • Redcurrants and sweet red gooseberries
  • Sweet Peas
  • ... and there will be flowers!

Growing wild garlic in the garden
~ Wild Garlic at the end of February this year ~

All those seed catalogues are so tempting, aren't they? The descriptions conjure up visions of such deliciousness and beauty that my seed list can double after dipping into their pages. So far I've resisted the seed catalogues, preferring to think first about growing what I really enjoy - and only then dipping in to see which varieties I need to replace after checking my seed box.

I've made a list of the veg that makes home grown worthwhile for me: sweetcorn and asparagus that are at their finest freshly picked, carrots because they're fun, rocket because I never need a whole bagful, ditto spinach, garlic because last year's harvest has seen me through the winter, purple sprouting broccoli because seeing those purple sprouts make me happy that winter is nearly over, French beans and one courgette because I didn't grow any last year, tomatoes and chillies - the essence of summer! - and kale, the workhorse of the veg garden.  And perhaps some bulb fennel if there's space.

Having sorted that out, I found that I already had most of the seeds I need without any unnecessary additional spending, although I'm going to replace all of the strawberry plants this year as the old plants were unreliable and tasteless. I've read that renowned chef Raymond Blanc recommends Marshmello strawberries for flavour so I've put an order in to Marshall's who supply both bare root and plug plants.

Being sensible and seasonal!

Instagram is currently awash with images of seedlings growing fast on windowsills and greenhouse shelves, especially during the last few weeks of unseasonably warm sunshine. I can totally relate to the urge to start sowing seeds at the very first sign of warmer weather but would advise caution!  

The weather from February through to the end of April can be very unreliable, warm one day and snowing the next (I jest not), so early sowing is a gamble. Seedlings grow weak and leggy without good light and, if planted out too soon, may just become slug fodder. Better to have strong plants that have a greater chance of survival. Plus, it's not a race - do what feels right for your growing environment.

My post tomorrow is about what you can and should be doing in March. Tune in?

20 Dec 2018

My sweet, earthy vegetarian soup with all the festive colours of Christmas

My Christmas Soup (Beetroot and Parsnip) from 2009


I first made this vibrant Christmas Soup almost ten years ago when I had a glut of beetroot from the veg patch.  Now I recognise that it's a very nutritious balanced meal, a perfect foil for sweet Christmas indulgences, and a good time saver if made ahead and frozen.


My late mother was an amazing cook and Christmas was a time when she could give free reign to all her culinary talents. Not for our family shop-bought mince pies and fruit cake, plastic wrapped turkey, boxed stuffing mix, microwaved Christmas pud or store bought brandy sauce. No, my lovely mum would start in early November making the fruit cake, feeding Dad's best brandy into it to keep it moist over the weeks ahead, ordering the bird (always called 'the bird' in our house) from the butcher in early December and building up to the big day like a military operation. Everything was made from scratch, just as her parents had done before and as I try to today.  Among all this preparation, she would still find time for freshly made soup for lunch and homemade mince pies at teatime.

Lunchtime soup became a reassuring daily tradition so it's no surprise that, in the early veg patch days when I set myself the challenge of finding ways of liking beetroot, I turned to soup. Soup is so comforting, isn't it?

The veg patch community grew beetroot as one of our first crops only because someone had a free packet of seeds; roll on to harvest time and it turned out that no-one, me included, actually liked the stuff. (Staggering to think as now I love eating beetroot in all its many guises.) Rather than letting the entire crop go to waste, I challenged myself to find ways of using beetroot that would change my mind; this soup was one of them.  (Chocolate beetroot cake was another.)

The recipe that I drew inspiration from in 2009 called for more beetroot than other veg. I tweaked the proportions so my version has more carrots, more parsnips and less beetroot to make a sweeter, less earthy soup but with the same vibrant deep red colour. With the confidence of experimenting with home grown veg over the past decade, these days I'd add celery to the veg mix and top the soup with toasted and crushed hazelnuts and green pumpkin seeds.  I'd also stir some horseradish through the yogurt garnish. After all, I've got to do something with all the horseradish romping through the veg patch!

Why not try it and let me know what you think? And trust me on the toasted hazelnuts and pumpkin seeds - that crunchy topping is delicious!



Parsnip and Beetroot Soup


For 4 good sized bowls, you will need:
150g onion
250g carrots
a stick of celery
300g parsnip (approx 2 medium)
800ml stock (easy to make your own or use powdered stock)
200g cooked beetroot
1/2 tsp ground coriander (Garam Masala is a good substitute)
Olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper
Optional garnish of yogurt, chopped dill, pumpkin seeds, toasted and crushed hazelnuts
  1. Roast or boil beetroot until soft (about 40 minutes); leave to cool before peeling, discarding stems and roots. Chop into smaller chunks.  
  2. Peel and chunk carrots, parsnips, celery.  Slice onions.
  3. Heat a tablespoon of oil in heavy based pan.  Add onions, carrots, celery and parsnip. Stir to coat. Put on lid and sweat for 5 minutes until starting to soften.
  4. Add ground coriander spice.  Stir in and cook for 2 minutes more.
  5. Add stock and beetroot.  Bring to boil then simmer for 20 minutes, lid off.
  6. When cool, blend soup until smooth.  Season with salt and pepper as needed.
  7. Garnish with a swirl of yoghurt and/or other toppings.   
  8. Get creative with patterns in the yogurt! To make swirls, use a chopstick or skewer to pull the yogurt gently into the soup in small circles.

And here it is in pictures ...

Onion, Parsnip, Carrots about to be 'sweated'.

Stock and Beetroot added. Mmm, getting redder!

Simmering …

Cooled and ready to blend …

Checking the seasoning

A few thoughts:

  1. My first bowl didn't have Dill in it but was very nice.  I bought some dill for the second serving of soup and was amazed at the transformation. It added a whole new taste dimension, as did the yogurt - and both are quite important for the Christmas look!
  2. Fascinating fact: Did you know that Dill is traditionally an Ancient Sign of Fortune? And marketed by a certain UK supermarket as 'feathery fronds of fragrant flavour'.  Need I say more? 

Nutrition facts* that make this a very healthy soup:

Beetroot: A wonder food! A good source of soluble fibre, packed with Vitamins A, C and B6, and folic acid.  It is both an appetite stimulant, easily digested and contains an abundance of calcium, potassium, choline, organic sodium and natural sugars.  Helpful for anaemia, anxiety, fatigue, skin problems, liver problems, circulatory weakness, menstrual and menopausal problems, high and low blood pressure.

Parsnips: Another good source of fibre and packed with vitamins and minerals. The organic chlorine (not the sort used in swimming pools!) is a natural mineral and as such is used as a body cleanser. Parsnips are rich in sulphur and silicon which is very helpful for skin and hair health.  Parsnip juice is also very beneficial for anyone suffering from lung conditions, but small to medium sized parsnips are best for this.

Onion:  Rich in vitamin C, copper and iron, as well as sulphur, calcium and phosphorus.  The juice was used by the Romans for treating skin disease and healing wounds but is equally good for the immune system today!

* I firmly believe that being aware of what you eat is better than spending hours at the doctor's surgery.  I occasionally juice fruits and veg and the above facts are taken from a book called "Getting the Best out of your Juicer" by William H Lee.  Published in USA, it's not widely available in UK and  may be out of print.  I think I bought mine in a health shop about ten years ago.

11 Dec 2018

How to easily grow avocados with guaranteed success!

... or, how I managed to grow an avocado, kill it, and then restore it back to health.

Successfully grow an avocado plant.jpg

During the forthcoming holidays, I'd like people to stop and think before they toss out empty jars and avocado pits after making guacamole or whatever. With those two things, you have the means tp grow a free houseplant.


There are some people for whom the challenge of growing an avocado plant from the discarded stone/pit is easy.  Let me tell you now, I am not one of those people.

For years, I tried every method of sprouting an avocado stone without success. Feeling thoroughly defeated after so many failures, I gave up and started chucking the stones away. But this is not about my failures but about how to successfully grow an avocado.

I wasn't always challenged at growing avocados. In my first flat, a large soil filled pot in my living room stood ready to receive every avocado stone that I discarded. No special treatment required; I placed the stone fat end down, and left it. (With occasional watering.) The pot soon became a forest of leaves to challenge the Monstera at the other end of the room. But when I moved on, the avocado jungle stayed behind; I felt confident that I'd quickly grow another pot of avocados - after all, how hard could it be? But when I left, my green fingered houseplant magic stayed behind - and the years of avocado growing failure commenced.

Fast forward to autumn 2017 to a mini-workshop at the RHS Urban Garden Show; an RHS trained gardener promised to guide participants through a Guaranteed Method of growing avocados.

Here's what I learned that day.

How to grow an avocado

  1. Carefully cut the avocado pear in half, taking care not to score or damage the root end of the stone with your sharp knife.
  2. Ease the stone out of the flesh with a teaspoon, again being super careful not to damage it.
  3. Wash or wipe any flesh off the stone - you don't want it to get mouldy.
  4. Fill a 9cm wide plant pot with regular potting compost to a half-inch from the top.
  5. Tap the pot on a hard surface, eg table top, to settle the soil.
  6. Make a slight dip in the centre and place your avocado stone in it. The top of the stone should sit above the soil. Think Orca coming up for air. 
  7. Water the pot well until you see water draining from the bottom.Allow the pot to drain fully - no more water dribbling out from underneath.
  8. Label your plant with the date and name. (Latin naming not obligatory although 'Persea americana' if you so desire!)
  9. Cover your pot to give the stone its own little greenhouse. We were given small plastic sandwich bags for this, secured with string. Now I would try and use a clean upturned glass jar. 
  10. Place the pot away from a cold windowsill - mine sat on a shelf above my kitchen sink where I could keep an eye on it. (An airing cupboard would have been better, if I had one.)
  11. Check the moisture levels in the soil on a weekly basis - if dry, water sparingly.
  12. Don't overwater; the soil should be slightly damp, definitely not wet. 

    After the workshop, I carried my little pot home and then I waited. And watched. And waited some more. Four months later, convinced I'd got another non-starter, the pot and pit were destined for the dustbin when I saw a tiny crack in the stone! I swear I couldn't have been more excited if I'd had a hatching dinosaur egg in my hands.

    Avocado stone sprouting


    Over the next week, a shoot slowly appeared. In another month, I was the proud owner of a healthy, albeit spindly, little plant with several leaves. By summertime (just before its demise) most of the leaves were six inches long; I was so proud of it. And then, at the height of the summer heatwave, I reasoned that avocado trees natively grow in hot climates and put the little plant outside to enjoy some fresh air. (I can't now believe I was that stupid.)  I introduced it to the wider world of my balcony ... and the glaring sun. Game over.

    Successfully growing an avocado
    Successfully growing an avocado - 14th April, one month after sprouting.

    The mistake I made

    Plants really don't like drying heat - unless they're a cactus. And I hadn't checked the moisture in the soil before putting it outside. The leaves scorched, the plant withered. I was devastated as I watched the leaves drop, one by one, and shelved a triumphant post of avocado growing success.

    For some unknown reason, I kept the dead plant. A serendipitous move as it turned out.  Returning to the RHS Autumn Urban Show in late October this year, I learned of a little known hack that has enabled my avocado to rise Lazarus-like once more.

    And the resurrection secret is ... 

    decapitation; or, more correctly, trimming back.  By lopping off the top of the stem above a leaf node, I triggered the plant to produce more leaves. Not bad considering it had been 'dead' for over 8 weeks and mostly unwatered! I'd noticed a microscopic green bud forming at the top of the twig/stem so cut just above it - and it worked.

    ========================================

    A few more tips for successful growing:

    • Avocado stones can be sprouted over water as well as in soil - grower's choice.  The bottom of the stone must be in contact with the water until a root system has formed, then the stone should be transferred to a small pot, planted in well draining compost and left to grow on indoors in a warm environment - 20°-25°C (68°-77°F).
    • Toothpicks not your thing?  I'm sprouting a stone using a stylish ceramic disk bought from Studio Janneke - an independent ceramicist working from her studio in North London.  I think it looks lovely, and so much prettier than watching a brown pot for four months. 

    • Patience is key. The stone should germinate in four to six weeks but, as I've shown, can take considerably longer.
    • Once the plant has outgrown this first pot (roots can be seen at the bottom of the pot), repot in spring into a larger pot, at least 1ft in diameter.  Use a soil based compost for this.
    • Plants with fresh compost won't need feeding for several weeks but otherwise give established plants a liquid feed (seaweed fertiliser is good) every 2 to 3 weeks throughout spring and summer.
    • Established plants like to be kept on the cool side in winter 15°-18°C - definitely not above a hot radiator - but move to a slightly warmer spot in summer in bright light, but away from direct sun!  

    I hope you've found this post useful - it didn't occur to me that I could prune my plant back into life so I'm happy to pass on a helpful tip.  

    Growing any plant from a seed is fun for children but I think avocados are especially exciting (next to potatoes and tomatoes).  If you do think about giving it a go, I'd love to know how you get on!

    26 Nov 2018

    Seize the day! Rewarding times in the November garden

    You'd think by the end of autumn that all would be quiet in the garden with just a few tidying up jobs to be done, yes?  No. With the chill of winter in sight, there's plenty to do, see and eat in the garden...

    Café au Lait large dahlia bloom

    It's nearly winter and it's cold but, where I live, at least there's no snow or frost ... yet. So am I still working in the garden? Yes. As much as I'd love to be indoors, tucked up with a good book, a couple of Hobnobs and a mug of tea, these are the many jobs needing my attention outside.

    Weeding 

    The ground is soft after persistent drizzle - perfect for weeding before the soil freezes.  And yes, weeds are still growing as the temperatures are averaging 7°C (44°F). I'm holding my breath waiting for it all to change but temperatures in London are forecast to soar (haha) to 14°C (57°F) by midweek and stay mild into early December. But before I shout "woo-hoo!" and race outside to carry on the good work, a reality check will require a raincoat and wellies.

    Gather leaves and prune

    The tree branches are now mostly bare, apart from the silver birch below my windows. It's a daily job to clear the ground but I love the thought of the lovely leaf mould I'm making.  I've got some wire baskets to store the leaves in while they rot down but have used open topped garden waste bags from the local council in the past. I could use perforated plastic bin bags but would rather not as I'm trying to eliminate single use plastic.

    As the leaves began to fall from the cherry trees, I was concerned to see that next year's buds have appeared along the length of the branches; this won't be good if a hard winter lies ahead. Those yellow leaves have now fallen, revealing a couple of crossing branches. Stone fruit (cherries, plums, etc) should ideally be pruned in the summer but I've tidied up the trees in winter before without consequence. Luckily I'll be touching wood as I prune. Handy, that.



    Pruning Autumn fruiting raspberries

    I chopped down a few untidy autumn raspberry canes several weeks ago as they looked to be done for the year. The few canes that I left unpruned have gone on to produce lots more berries. I'm amazed, and thankful; a handful of delicious cold berries as I wander the garden is something to appreciate.

    I know autumn fruiting canes are traditionally left until spring for the big chop but I've cut mine in late autumn for several years now, confident of the advice given by plant biologist and author, Ken Thompson. He prunes back all his raspberry canes, both summer and autumn fruiting, before winter - and he lives in Sheffield, Yorkshire, where it's a bit chillier than London.



    Beware the yellow (or white) carrot!

    These are the last of my self-styled 'lucky dip' carrots, from a pack promising a rainbow of colours. The prospect of jewelled roots was a tantalising thought as they grew but by the time I'd pulled the umpteenth yellow carrot the novelty had worn off.  They're very pretty but looks aren't everything.


    The purple and orange carrots trumped the yellow ones for taste.  James Wong in his book 'How to Eat Better' writes that purple-to-the-core carrots have the highest levels of polyphenols, ten times that of yellow or white carrots.

    No, I didn't know what polyphenols were either but read that they're good for you. Lump them in with carotene, probiotics and antioxidants, and you've got chemicals collectively known as phytonutrients. Adding phytonutrients to our diets (choosing purple over yellow carrots for example) may promote better health and prevent degenerative diseases. (According to the research data quoted by James.)

    For now, that's good enough to sway me; I'm growing purple next year. Carrot seed is better when fresh so I can replace my seed without feeling guilty.

    Those Fat Babies just keep on growing

    A three metre hedge/windbreak, grown from just the one self-sown achocha seedling, borders one side of the veg patch. That's Fat Baby Achocha for you - 16 foot multi stemmed vines will grow sideways if they can't go up.  I hadn't intended growing achocha this year but when nature steps in, who am I to argue? Free food, minimal effort? Yes please.



    Achocha can be used in any recipe that calls for bell peppers; I eat the small ones whole (they taste of peppers and crunchy cucumber) and will make achocha jam with the larger fruits. The vine is slowing down now but will carry on until winter cold kills it; any large pods falling to the soil will germinate next spring and be put up for adoption; I want to give the bigger variety, known as Giant Bolivian Achocha, a go next year.

    Preparing the Asparagus/Square Foot bed

    I love having freshly picked asparagus each spring; despite having only three crowns left, they produced enough quality spears for me this year so I've left the ferns for as long as possible to re-energize the crowns. They've now yellowed so it's time to cut them back to base.  The yellowing ferns also provided a windbreak for the tomatoes planted into the 'square foot' bed; tomatoes which, to my amazement, are still slowly ripening. Wow. Hot summer equals no blight spores.


    In that same square foot bed, a cape gooseberry/Physalis plant has appeared. This is somewhat of a miracle in my book as no seeds were sown this year - could a dropped seed have lain dormant for three years in the soil to germinate in the heat of the summer? I haven't had much success with growing Physalis in recent years; even the plants that grew well at the allotment last year didn't fruit in time, unlike my first batch of veg patch plants that fruited prolifically and grew as short lived perennials through mild winters. This little miracle plant will be dug up and repotted into a sheltered spot so it has the best chance of surviving winter's chilly fingers.

    Winter Veg

    At the other end of the veg patch I have five enthusiastic purple sprouting broccoli plants.


    I chose seeds specifically so that plants would fruit in succession, from summer through to late winter - but the dry heat of summer put paid to that. The plants are now starting to form heads, all at once. I'm hoping that shorter days and cooler temperatures will check this growth as I need some of the plants on hold for a winter crop. Somehow, that seems like wishful thinking - thank goodness for Cavolo Nero kale!

    This kale grew from a dropped seed after the seedheads and flowers were left for pollinators to enjoy. I transplanted the 6" seedling in spring (it survived the harsh winter without any help) and I've enjoyed the leaves all summer.  Looks like it will keep going through winter as well!




    Jobs to do this month ... in fact asap!


    • Gather up leaves and store in a mesh bag for leaf mould. I collect leaves from the gardens here, not the street leaves which are more likely to be polluted. I have enough to fill a couple of big garden bags; these will take a couple of years to rot down but it will be worth it.
    • Cut back hellebore foliage. Hellebores, aka Lenten Rose, will be getting ready now to flower in spring. Cut the big old leaves off at the base of the plant to allow new leaves and flowers to develop.
    • Mulch! Put last year's leaf mould and compost to good use by mulching around hellebores and other perennials now and put a mulch over any beds or planting areas not in use over winter. 
    • Plant garlic cloves.  I had a crazy idea to edge the veg patch path with garlic and spring onions next year to free up a bed for other crops. 
    • Plant onion sets.  I just have to work out where to plant them, given all the other crops I'll need space for! 
    • But first I'm going to dig up and relocate self-seeded flowers. It's also a good time to move any dormant perennials - prepare the planting hole (or container) before moving them. 
    • Plant tulip bulbs.  It's the perfect time for this job - not too cold to be working outside but cool enough that the bulbs won't get the tulip fire blight virus. (Please tell me I'm not the only one who has yet to plant bulbs?)
    • Pot up and bring in any tender plants - dahlias, I'm looking at you. I also have chillies and pepper plants outside, and then there's the cape gooseberry to protect as well. 
    • Pop a protective layer of horticultural fleece over tender crops like winter lettuce, pak choi and spinach; chard, purple sprouting broccoli, cabbages and kale are very hardy so don't need protection.


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    21 Nov 2018

    Focus on: Celeriac. The benefits, the recipes, and how to grow

    Celeriac is a health giving root vegetable that can be easily put back on the menu. I've been diving into the cookbooks and have come up with several very tasty recipes to make the most of its health benefits.




    Autumn is definitely upon us (despite the occasional chill sunny day) and with it the desire for soups and heartier warming food. Science says that with less daylight hours, our brains direct us towards eating more substantially to produce the happiness hormone serotonin.

    I found celeriac for sale recently and was reminded of the delicious remoulade I'd eaten last summer at the Raymond Blanc Gardening School where all lunch ingredients are grown in the kitchen garden. At that time, I'd never tasted celeriac before but enjoyed the blended taste of celery, mustard, mayo and crème fraiche, the main ingredients in remoulade.  I didn't think to look for celeriac afterwards but, seeing a pile of these root vegetables in the shops, I bought one with the intention of exploring whether I should be growing this vegetable next year.

    Why grow your own

    Putting aside that this supermarket wraps its root vegetables in plastic - (why? when they have to be peeled anyway?) - any veg that's home grown is going to be fresher, organic (I never use pesticides), and seasonal.  I often conjure up meals inspired by what I can gather from the garden and anything freshly picked at this time of year is a welcome bonus.

    Having very little growing space, I have to make sure that whatever I plant will be a good return for my time investment, ie, be tasty, hard to source in the shops, and cheaper to grow myself. And packed with nutrients.

    The nutritional benefits:

    Celeriac is from the same plant family as celery so has a similar taste but is the bulbous root rather than the stem. I was amazed to discover that as well as being a good source of carbohydrate, the root has many health benefits to offer. So big tick in the box for that.
    • Useful minerals - phosphorus for healthy bones; potassium for detoxing cells, healthy nerve function (keep those stress levels down!), efficient muscle contraction and regulating the heartbeat; manganese for development and good metabolism.
    • Useful vitamins: Celeriac is known to be an excellent source of Vitamin C which means that it's also anti-oxidant and anti-cancerous.
    • Vitamin K; good for bone and brain health. Vitamin K improves the body's ability to absorb calcium and who wouldn't want good strong bones to counteract osteoporosis in later life? It's worth noting that 1 cup of celeriac contains 80% of recommended daily intake of vitamin K. More importantly, Vitamin K is fundamental in protecting the nerve endings in our brains which might limit the damage caused by Alzheimer's.  I find that a reassuring thought.
    • Low in calories; only 42 cals per 100 grams - useful as part of a weight loss regime. I found that Slimming World have a few recipes using celeriac, including a delicious sounding gratin.
    Whew! Not bad for a lumpy root vegetable. I'm beginning to like it a lot.

    In the kitchen:

    Life can be so crazy busy that it's important for me to know that I'm not giving my family empty calories when I serve up dinner.  Having a notebook of quick recipes gives me an alternative to microwave ready meals when time is short and ensures that meals are nutritious. Would celeriac be a good fit for my notebook? After a bit of research, it appears the answer is yes.

    Am I the only person to be unaware of this workhorse winter vegetable?  It's beginning to appear so. Celeriac is crisp when raw but is silky smooth when puréed. It can be roasted, sautéed, baked, grated, mashed, pickled or blitzed into soup. You can't do all that with a potato.

    Online I found that it seems to be a favourite with the celebrity chefs:
    Ultimately, I made a soup with my celeriac, following a recipe in Anna Jones' book 'A Modern Way to Eat'. One ingredient was butter beans to give the soup a creamy texture.  It was nice. But that's hardly the hearty recommendation, is it!  For me, the soup was too thick but the flavour was good, especially topped with chopped toasted hazelnuts, a trick that I've adopted with my favourite cauliflower soup. Next time, I'll add more milk to the recipe, or make Mark Hix's celeriac and apple soup.

    Growing celeriac:

    At the start of writing this post, I was sceptical of growing celeriac for myself.  As with leeks and onions, with one seed you get one root so it's not exactly a space saving veg for the small garden, especially if they can be found locally in the shops.  But now I'd say to give it a go; celeriac is obviously a versatile ingredient and will provide fresh vegetables at the onset of winter. 

    • The seeds need to be started around March, sown onto good seed compost and left uncovered as they need light to germinate. Keep at an even temperature between 15°-18°C (60°-65°F) as they don't like extreme cold.
    • Prick out the seedlings into modules as soon as they're big enough to handle to minimise root disturbance. By pricking out at an early stage, this should stop them bolting later on. Grow on under cover or indoors until they're about 10cm (4 inches) tall.   
    • Plant out after danger of frost has passed but grow under mesh or horticultural fleece to thwart celery leaf miner attacking the young plants. Some sort of slug prevention would also be useful; I use Strulch.  If planting in the square foot method, put only one plant into one square, or nine to a square metre bed.  Celeriac prefers humus rich, well manured soil - the no dig method is perfect for this.  Keep the soil moist in a dry summer by watering well as celeriac is shallow rooted and won't bulk up if it dries out.   
    • As the celeriac grows, remove the outer leaves to expose the crown of the bulb and encourage it to develop. Harvest is usually from October onwards; grower's choice whether to dig up when needed, leaving the remaining bulbs in the ground - or, if there's a slug problem, harvesting all at the same time and storing in boxes in a cool place.

    Adding to the planting plan:

    In conclusion, I'd say celeriac will be a useful addition to the autumn veg patch and I'll be sourcing seeds for next year but limit the amount I grow.

    If I close my eyes, I can picture that tray of roasted celeriac with coriander seeds (recipe above) being brought to the Christmas table alongside sprouts with bacon, maple glazed carrots and a fragrant herb stuffed bird. Sounds delicious? Particularly when most of that produce is home grown!



    This comment left via email from Christine Bryant, after reading this article:
    I have just read your blog about celeriac, one of my favourite vegetables.  It's also good raw.  Slice thinly and add to a crunchy winter slaw or cut into small batons.The seedlings are tiny when they germinate.  I work as a volunteer gardener in the kitchen garden at a large house and was asked one day to transplant celeriac seedlings.  I could hardly see them!  But they went on to produce the vegetable we all know and love. It needs plenty of water to grow to a good size.




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    16 Oct 2018

    A Harvest of Quince and The Best Recipe for Quince Jelly. Now where's my runcible spoon?

    I'm feeling rather pleased with myself and slightly uneasy at the same time. Why, you may ask. Let me tell you.



    Having wanted to grow proper quinces for several years, this year my tree has produced the goods. I counted 40 this year, a thrilling effort from this four year old tree. To have forty quinces gives plenty of scope for trying out new ways of cooking and preserving. But if there's this many this year, what of the future?  I've read of massive gluts and that's when I start to get jittery. Forty I can cope with; eighty or more might start to feel like overwhelm. Do we really know what we want to do with a wealth of quinces? It's one of those 'Be careful what you wish for' moments.

    My desire for a quince tree started in 2012 when I noticed the round fruits of Chaenomeles x superba growing in the gardens at Capel Manor where I was studying. I was told that they were edible, like quince. Seems reasonable as the plant's common name is Japanese Quince. I snaffled a few from the ground and made membrillo.  It was jolly good.

    I also used some to make a tea infusion.  I'd heard that Lithuanians traditionally steep slices of raw quince in hot water and honey to make a soothing winter drink. Apparently the fruit is a good source of vitamin C, as well as copper, magnesium and other very useful minerals. I made some with Japanese Quince and was singularly unimpressed; it didn't taste of much.  Obviously I needed proper quinces for this.  (Perhaps I should try again with one of this season's Cydonia quinces.)

    So why bother with Cydonia (real) quince when you can use Chaenomeles? Both have an aroma, although quince will perfume an entire room, and both have fruit that goes pink when cooked.  I remember Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles) being quite sharp flavoured, a bit like having lemon in tea so I'm going to guess that Cydonia quinces are slightly sweeter, possibly with more depth of flavour. (Or maybe it's the other way round? Foraging might be in order when the rain stops. If anyone reading this knows, please tell!)

    I'm having a bit of fun trying out various ways of using my quinces.  After a weekend of rain, several of the fruit had split so were quickly picked and turned into a quince crumble using a Nigel Slater recipe from his fruit book 'Tender, vol II'.  It was nice, in fact the topping was delicious, but it's not a patch on plum crumble!

    (The online link to the Slater recipe is here; make a note of the topping ingredients and enjoy Nigel's writing!)

    After that, I was rooted in indecision for a while - there's more choice than just membrillo - but rediscovered this recipe for Old Fashioned Quince Jelly in my National Trust Preserves book. I had more split quinces that needed to be used quickly before they went brown and this recipe is one you just get on with. No peeling, coring or boring stuff. Just chop the quinces up, chuck into a pan, cover with water, cook, strain overnight, add sugar to the juice and boil.

    The result is a beautiful clear jelly, sweet with a definite quince taste and scent. I had a enough left over for another half jar so have tried it out today on bread and butter; it's delicious. I like that its recommended uses are either for savoury (to go with lamb, cold meats, cheese, etc, like a redcurrant jelly) or topped with cream in a cake or, even better, spread on toasted muffins or scones! Now you're talking. Here's the finished result - four (and a half) little jars of deliciousness.  Now where's my runcible spoon?

    And I still have a bowl of quinces in the kitchen ... possibly for pickling.




    Old Fashioned Quince Jelly

    1.35kg (3lb) ripe quinces
    Water to cover
    Thinly pared rind and juice of 1 large lemon (unwaxed)
    Granulated sugar

    Wash the quinces, rub off any down. Don't peel or core them but chop roughly into a large pan and just cover with water. Add the lemon rind then simmer gently until the fruit is soft and pulpy (about an hour). Stir in the lemon juice and strain through a jelly bag overnight.

    Next day, measure the juice and pour into a clean pan. Add warmed sugar (I put mine in the oven at 140°C for 10 minutes) allowing 450g to each 600ml juice. (I had 900ml juice so used 675g sugar - and, yes, I did very gently squeeze the jelly bag to get the last of the juice from the pulp.)

    Heat gently, stirring to completely dissolve the sugar, then bring to boil and boil rapidly until setting point is reached. 104°C if you have a sugar thermometer, or wrinkly spoonful on a cold plate if not.

    Skim, then pot into hot/warm clean, sterilised jars, cover and seal.  (I washed my jars, rinsed well and dried them in the oven after the sugar was warmed.)




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