14 Oct 2018

Mid October: In the autumn veg patch

So often in the UK summer weather can disappear overnight and we're thrown straight into a precursor to winter. Not this year though. Mother Nature is letting us down so gently after an unbelievably hot and sultry summer. (Although today it's wet and windy so it would seem that the best of autumn might be behind us.)  The sun, when it shone, has been genuinely warm, perfect for letting the last of the summer crops ripen and very pleasant for working in the garden. I still have a few tomatoes slowly ripening in the veg patch and more in pots on my balcony, giving the occasional treat before I have to revert to buying them. It's the most perfect October  - so far! but I'm expecting a huge reality check in a couple of weeks when the clocks go back. Here's what I'm doing to make the most of autumn.

Winter salads:
With this late bout of warmth it's tempting to sow a few more seeds and I've got germinating trays of winter lettuces, coriander, chervil, spring onions and kale on the balcony. I bought coriander and basil from Johnson's new range of Micro Leaf seeds last week; the seeds are the same as in other herb packs but with double the quantities, or more. Both herbs have germinated impressively quickly. I'm growing the basil indoors as it's a tender herb and the coriander outside on the balcony as it doesn't mind cooler weather.  With shortening daylight hours, realistically these will mostly be eaten as micro leaves - and I'll keep sowing through the winter, bringing the trays indoors when it gets cold.

Sweet peas for summer:
Sweet peas have been sown - 2 to a cell - in deep root trainers; they're just starting to germinate a week later and the little plants will be perfectly fine on the balcony until they're planted out in spring. If/when they get leggy, just pinch the top back to 3 or 4 leaf pairs to create bushier plants. I've done this before and been picking the flowers at the beginning of June but that was during a mild winter, safe from the cruel winds and snow that we had last year. If the winter is harsh again, the seedlings will go into a friend's greenhouse under a layer of horticultural fleece.

Spring bulbs:
I bought all my bulbs a few weeks ago; they're currently stored in a big canvas tote bag under the table while I sort out where to plant them.  In the next fortnight, I want to plant out alliums, fritillaries, daffodils, anemones and ranunculus before the temperatures drop so that they have a chance to make some roots before winter. I'll probably put some in pots as well - some for the garden and some for the balcony.

Tulips are another matter. I'm replacing a lot of my bulbs this year as I last planted tulips under the fruit trees five years ago! I'm hoping for a sunny day when it's really cold at night, probably early to mid November, for this job in order to lessen the risk of tulip blight.  It's the same blight that will affect tomatoes and potatoes and can roll in on the wind after a humid summer. By planting later, frost will kill off blight spores although it's not as pleasant as planting on a warm autumnal day. And a good wash will sort out any blight spores lurking in pots.

In the veg patch ...
Baby Boo pumpkins have been harvested, the dried vines composted and tall purple sprouting broccoli staked against the wind. Asparagus fronds are so prolific that I've tied them together in a clump to control their swishiness.  The colour is just starting to fade in parts but I'll leave it another month before cutting the fronds down to allow the plants to harness as much energy as possible for next year.  The long nasturtium vines have been trimmed as they were becoming a tripping hazard, leaving a bank of the plants to climb up the surrounding fence. I even found several huge garlic bulbs growing under the leaves!  In past years my nasturtiums, all grown from dropped seed, have flowered in a range of colours from salmon, cream, striped yellow, deep orange and red. This year they're plain orange or plain yellow. Very odd. Maybe the seeds are gradually mutating! I've bought new seeds for next year and will try to remove as many dropped nasturtium seeds as possible this year.  Although that's probably a bit of wishful thinking on my part!

Herb flowers are now going to seed so I've cut them back; chive, salad burnet and sorrel will gradually disappear over winter but oregano and thyme will soldier on and be available all through the cold months to add flavour to casseroles and soup.

It's been a daily ritual to check the ripening quinces. Already a quince crumble has been made and eaten. I followed a Nigel Slater recipe; it was delicious but not as nice as plum or apricot crumble to be honest.  Perhaps some honey might have helped change my mind.  Some of the fruit had split so had to be used up quickly; the rest was left to ripen to gold on the tree.  Beautiful deep pink quince jelly has been made, recipe to follow.

Rosehips. While I had the jelly bag down off the high shelf for making quince jelly, it seemed a shame not to gather a few rosehips to make some syrup for winter. This rose, below, grows at one end of the veg patch gardens; I didn't plant it so can only guess at what it is, possibly a Rosa canina with white flowers. It's tucked in an awkward heavily shaded spot behind a large Viburnum so doesn't usually do much but seems to have responded to the glorious weather with hundreds of hips this year.  I had intended to leave the hips for birds but seeing the ground littered with so many fallen squashed fruits, decided to collect some for a more useful purpose.

So that just leaves the garlic and onion sets to plant out after I've moved all the self-seeded foxgloves, forget-me-nots, feverfew, honesty, verbena bonariensis, violets and strawberries. It never stops, does it?

26 Sep 2018

The artist's palette - An autumn garden of self seeders

Late September in the veg patch: Verbana hastata and Cerinthe 

Move aside neat and tidy - autumn's here! I love this time of year, not least because the garden looks so pretty, warmed up by the last of the summer sunshine; all the self seeded flowers reach peak autumn vigour and interwine in a riot of colour around the winter veg.  A couple of years ago, an artist friend gazed at the mix of geums, nasturtiums and calendula growing under the last of the sweet peas, a few stems of purple Verbena bonariensis and Honeywort poking through above white Feverfew and remarked that he wished he could sit and paint the scene. I had to agree; it looked beautiful.

I realised in the early veg patch days that sowing flowers attractive to pollinators would help to create a healthy balance in the plot. Back then I cleared the beds over winter; the only plants remaining were a few woody herbs and fennel stems into which ladybirds nestled for their cozy winter home.  (This year my winter beds are hosting kale, chard, broccoli and oca, as well as herbs.)

Purple honeywort growing through white flowers of Sweet Woodruff
Cerinthe growing up through Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) under the fruit trees

Those early winter beds weren't empty for long though! The next spring I bought a honeywort (Cerinthe major) seedling during a visit to Sarah Raven's Perch Hill garden and a packet of borage seeds; I didn't know it then but they were the first of my self seeding army.

Some, like foxglove, feverfew, snapdragons and verbena, start to scatter their seed at the slightest puff of wind. I watch borage, calendula, honeywort and poppies for the right moment to collect the seed.  (Dried poppy seed heads are beautiful for a wreath or tiny vase indoors.) Nasturtiums will drop so many seed clusters that it's impossible to collect them all, even when harvesting the smallest ones to make Poor Man's Capers - or collecting flowers and seeds for nasturtium vinegar.   Ditto for sunflower seeds but first leaves of unwanted seedlings make very tasty additions to spring salad! Try it!


I've learned to identify the plants that I want to keep by the shape of the seedling leaves, removing any that are inappropriately placed.  No such thing as a weed? Believe me, these plants can find a tiny crack between bricks or pavers and settle in for the long haul.  Feverfew blocking the path? No thanks. Calendula appearing in a sea of spring Forget-me-nots? Yes please! Nasturtiums twining through courgette leaves? Very cheerful!


At the moment I'm swamped with tiny Verbena bonariensis and V. hastata seedlings; calendula, Linaria, and all those Cerinthe seedlings are also putting in an appearance. A friend has the same with Euphorbia wulfenii seedlings. Another friend turned up with baby Hellebores. We're thinking a plant sale might be A Good Idea.

And another thing ...

If growing self seeders takes your fancy, this is a list of plants I've grown that will self seed freely (or, more likely, prolifically) around the garden.  For those averse to surprise flowers, take this list as a warning!

Aquilegia (Columbine, Granny's Bonnet)
Calendula (Marigold)
Verbena bonariensis
Verbena hastata
California poppies (Eschscholzia)
Poppies (Papaver somniferum)
Snapdragons (Antirrhinum)
Verbascum, aka Mullein
Linaria purpurea (Purple toadflax)
Honesty (Lunaria annua)
Teasels (big but great for wildlife)
Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea)
Forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica)
Cowslips (Primula veris)

Food self seeders:
Orache (Atriplex hortensis rubra)
Physalis, aka Cape Gooseberry
Achocha (Cyclanthera)
Fennel, green and bronze
Wild garlic (ransoms, Allium ursum)
Kale (I leave the flowers for bees to harvest the nectar, then don't always catch all the seed pods)
Tomatoes, if the fruit drops and is left in the soil
Strawberries, via the runners.

Good luck!

17 Sep 2018

Garden gathered soup: Raymond Blanc recipe

Bowl of chunky vegetable soup

My son was feeling a bit peaky at the weekend so I made soup.  Not that I don't make soup at other times, it's just that soup with nutritious ingredients freshly gathered from the veg patch seems to be the perfect cure for autumn chills. (Of course the minute I typed those two words, the sun came out and it was really hot outdoors!)  I'm a big believer in the preventative power of good fresh food. (Beetroot seems to knock back the first signs of a cold for me. Works every time.)

It's a nurturing instinct isn't it, to provide good food to boost the immune system against seasonal change. My mum thought so, as did the mother of chef Raymond Blanc.  The influence of his mother's cooking, based on ingredients grown in the family garden, is well documented.  I was lucky enough to sample the soup inspired by 'Maman Blanc' when I attended a workshop at the RB Gardening School a few weeks ago. Admittedly, on that occasion it was made in a two Michelin star kitchen but it was so delicious that to say it was clean and fresh yet with complex flavours doesn't do it justice. For me, it captures the connection between the garden and kitchen and proves the reason I grow fruit, veg and herbs.

6 Sep 2018

In September's sweet spot (End of month view)

apple tree with fruit

If there's a month of the year that food growers need to be ready for, it's September. (Or August if you grow courgettes!) It's a month of plenty so hopefully we're all enjoying eating some of what we've grown and working out how to make the most of the rest. It's a busy time in the kitchen so, over the next few weeks, I'll be writing a few posts on how I'm using and storing what's ripe in my veg patch.

3 Sep 2018

In among the asparagus ferns (square foot gardening)

I've had a bit of a square foot garden experiment going on in the asparagus bed this year.  Five years ago, when I decided I wanted to try growing fresh asparagus spears, I ordered just five little plug plants - it's all about tiny tastes here - and set them out in a five dice shape in a one metre square raised bed.  Two of my five crowns have died off in the years since(1) so allocating a whole bed to one small perennial crop has made me think a lot about the waste of good growing space.

14 Aug 2018

Autumn sowing for winter leaves and spring flowers

Sowing seeds; autumn winter salad leaves
Time to get organised with some lists!

Sow, Grow, Eat, Repeat is one of my favourite hashtags as it's a reminder that despite the changing seasons, it's possible to carry on growing food throughout the year.  Yes, really. (What? You thought it was all over as the weather turns autumnal?) There are plenty of hardy vegetables that provide me with a good excuse to get outside in the garden, even in the middle of winter.  And what could be better than freshly picked produce brought back into the kitchen with a clear head and rosy cheeks?

8 Aug 2018

Timely tips for a heatwave garden

This summer has not been without its challenges for gardeners but I confess I'm enjoying the novelty of having a proper English summer, it's so nice to sit outdoors in the shade.  Daily watering of balcony plants in pots (tomatoes, chillies, salad leaves) has become a nightly ritual but I have to admit that watering pots downstairs in the garden is a hit and miss affair depending on the time available. But I have a few tricks up my sleeve for holding moisture in the garden for longer.

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