25 Jul 2010

Saga and Onions


A couple of weeks ago the onions started to keel over and I received several complimentary comments to the effect that they looked lovely and ready, followed by: "Could I have one…? Only I can't be bothered to walk to the shop".  Harrumph.  In fairness, at that stage they weren't quite ready so I pinned up 'Do not pick' notices, feeling that the vultures were circling, and cast my gaze across the internet and a few books to see what I should do next.  Apparently once the leaves start to yellow and they're properly fall down drunk, they can be lifted - on a dry day (preferably) - which has been a bit hit and miss of late in North London.


With the threat (or promise?) of heavy rain at the start of the week (… and I'm still waiting), I decided to go for it and have them all up (I did the reds, Karen did the whites) - and the winter planted hard-neck garlic.  I slightly cheated last year by growing from sets, a bag each of 40 red and 40 white onions.  Bizarrely, we dug up 43 red onions and 36 whites!  When planting, I just managed 40 sets to each bed by following the spacing advice and there seemed to be ample space still between them when fully grown. The learning curve here is that, in future,  I'm going to flout the rules and try planting at least 60 in each bed in true cram 'em in style!  After all, the white onion bed had room for rows of carrots as well, which seems (so far) to have worked (at least until the onion tops flopped).


A York Rise tenant (and keen veg grower from Zimbabwe) suggested that I should plait them together straight away while the leaves were still green and hang them from the wigwam, come rain or shine. This is what works for him in his home country.  This would look great covered in strings of onions wouldn't it? (Not sure it would survive the rain though.)


Anyway, I took a basket of first liftings off to be plaited - after following clear instructions from Matron at Hillingdon, I was thrilled to have several of these:


I then bumped into a local woman whom I slightly know; she's an artist, experienced gardener, author of many craft books and leading light of the Highgate allotments.  When she said, "Lay your onions out to dry for at least a week", I listened and learned.  The plaits were undone, more baskets found, a space cleared in L's greenhouse and the wait begins…


This is a sight that finally makes me feel like a proper 'good-life' gardener - stocking the larder for the months ahead.

Several people were kind enough to comment after my last post on the extreme useful-ness of the book 'How to Store Your Garden Produce'.  Yet again, this book has provided very good advice on onions: "When dry, your best onions can be hung in nets or strung together.  They will store well in a cool, dry place until the end of spring.  Before you string onions, make sure that they have dried adequately." (my italics).  The author, Piers Warren, continues with a 'How To' on stringing and reminds us that onions can also be frozen by skinning, slicing and blanching for 2 minutes.

13 Jul 2010

Beetroot Bonanza: Store it!


A while back I was sent a book called "How to Store your Garden Produce" by Piers Warren.  I gave it only a quick skim through back in May as I had nothing edible to store at the time but I knew that the book would come into it's own later in the year.  That moment is now.

Last year, you may recall, despite loathing the taste of beetroot, I was determined to give it a try.  I'm now converted and happy to eat beetroot in a variety of guises.  (If you find yourself in a similar situation, you might like to be aware of this extensive list of beetroot recipes on the Abel & Cole website.)

As a result of my conversion, I have sowed plenty of beetroot seeds and I find myself in the same boat as other gardeners in that they all seem to be ready at the same time - in spite of successional sowing.

So, back to "How to Store …", look under the handy A-Z listing of veg, turn to B, yep, there it is … beetroot.  A little bit of background, some recommended varieties (take note for next year), some advice ('pull beetroots for storage before they get too large and woody', yep, got that one), ('twist the foliage off, cutting causes bleeding of the beets', hmm, knew about the cutting, good tip on the twisting), then the How To.  Seems to be two ways:  Freezing and Dry Storage.  So…

Freezing:  Pretty straightforward this.  Small beetroots should be washed and boiled whole - the book says for 1 or 2 hours in salted water.  (Last year, I cooked mine for about 45 minutes, depending on the size, and that seemed to do the trick.)  When cooked, rub the skins off, cool, slice and pack into containers ready for the freezer.

Dry Storage:  This one I want to try, sounds interesting.  Gently remove soil from undamaged beets and pack in sand in boxes, barrels, crates (see below).  (My tip, go to your supermarket fishmonger for boxes.  They're usually pleased to hand over their empty polystyrene boxes which are perfect for this and have a lid.)  Store in a cool, frost-free building where they should keep until Spring.

He also mentions Pickled Beetroot (keeps for 3 months), Beetroot Wine (not my thing, but if you're a winemaker …) and Borscht (Russian/Polish beetroot soup) which, of course, can be frozen.  Strangely,  chutney isn't listed - perhaps because other vegetables are needed or it comes under pickling?

In an earlier section called 'The Methods', storing in sand (or sawdust) is described thus:
  1. Use sand that is only just moist (but what sort? play sand, builder's sand, garden sand? and does it even matter? Does anyone know?)
  2. Make layers of sand and roots (unwashed but with excess soil gently brushed off) in containers - making sure the roots don't touch each other.
  3. Store the containers in a dry, frost-free place. Cellar = good; shed/garage = perfectly adequate except in truly freezing weather.  Consider filling them in situ - sand is heavy!
In the next couple of days, I'll post a proper review of the book.  Until then, trust me, if you're new to this, like me, this book is a mine of useful information and ideas - although, of course, to the more experienced among you, this post probably falls firmly in the category of 'Teaching your Grandmother to suck eggs'.

11 Jul 2010

Funding opportunity

Just thought I'd flag this one up as I know that many people passing by this way are involved in gardening with kids via schools or other community groups and/or are keen wildlife conservationists.  Unfortunately, this one's only for UK residents (apologies to any overseas readers).


Anyhoo…  The Big Lottery Fund are giving grants between £300 to £10,000 (!) for  "projects that bring local people together to discover, enjoy or protect the wildlife in their local area".  Projects must (and I quote) improve rural or urban environments for people to enjoy and/or get people more active and healthier. Two examples of this might be by encouraging people to take up gardening or go on nature walks, or providing opportunities for children to learn about nature through play.



Anyone who has put such an idea on hold through lack of cash to get started should have a look at the Big Lottery page, here, where there's more information.  There are three rounds, by the way: 21 July, 22 September, 24 November.  You could just get in for July, if you're quick!

~ Couldn't resist adding this last photo - taken on the Isle of Wight ~

P.S.  Many thanks to Harvest, the Brighton and Hove food partnership, for highlighting this valuable opportunity.

10 Jul 2010

Keep Calm and Carry on…

Last weekend someone crept onto the veg Patch just before dawn and helped themselves to the chicken wire which protected the crops from foxes and cats. We know when this happened because a friend recalls seeing it at 3 a.m., yet it had gone by 7 a.m.  Not to worry, I thought…  I'll just pop out and buy more.  Then I found out it's actually quite expensive: it will cost about £70 to replace all the wire that's been stolen.  (It's been disappearing over the past few weeks but somehow I didn't notice until the last but one piece had gone.)

~ "when we had wire" - the last 2 pieces ~

Without any security on the VP, I'd say the chances that the new lot would be stolen pretty swiftly are quite high - even if we had any cash left in the kitty for the purchase, which we don't.  So, nice one Mr. Burglar-person…  stealing from a community project,  must make you feel real good about yourself.  The Thief must have known he was doing wrong as he would have had to unravel the wire from around the onion bed - so it was hardly Not In Use at the time.  Unscrupulous villains like this rarely have a moment's guilt;  I can only hope that what goes around, comes around … and move on.

Because of this, I have felt disinclined over the past week to sow/plant any more stuff as the last lot got dug up overnight.  But, this morning, I was out on the VP at dawn (trying to beat the heat), weeding and digging and thinking that I should see what else I can grow this summer for the autumn.  Digging out my box of seed packets, this is what I came up with:

 ~ Carry On Sowing ~
Apparently there's still time to sow more broad beans, peas, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, runner beans, carrots, beetroot, spinach, squashes, salad stuff and herbs.  Gosh, I think I may just have talked myself into a little bit of busy-time. 

8 Jul 2010

Summer in a song:

Having lived in the tropics when I was very young, I'm a big fan of music that sounds like taking the lid off a bottle of sunshine.  As the sun is not shining today in London (despite the BBC weather watch predicting deliciously sunny skies all week), I make no apologies for offering this little slice of happy music: (This is what is sending me out to the VP in a good mood today, ready to inspect any overnight vandalism from the foxes and to consider what to plant after I've lifted my onions and beetroot.)



Wishing you all a happy day - and if we have to have cloudy skies, could we have a bit of rain to go with them? Please?

6 Jul 2010

Troublesome Teabags…



 Travelling to the day job by Underground last Friday, I picked up a copy of Metro, the free newspaper.  Tucked away inside, this tiny heading caught my eye:
'Plastic (tea)bags in your compost'

Apparently anyone chucking their spent teabags onto the compost in the belief that they're doing some good has been misled! No, no, let's not panic.  Tea is still good for the compost but the makers of the bags have been leading us up the garden path.  Gardening Which? has been investigating and reports that most teabags are only up to 80% biodegradable with the remainder being polypropylene (the stuff used to seal the bags).  The only bag which escapes this environmentally-unfriendly tag is Jackson's of Piccadilly which was found to be free of plastic.  

I happened to have a box of Twinings in the cupboard and, on further reading, they definitely claim that the box is recyclable and sustainably sourced, the 'foil' wrap around the bags is, in fact, wood pulp and that "the teabags themselves are  biodegradable".  (Harrumph. Liar liar, pants… etc)

Garden Organic have responded to the Gardening Which? report by saying that it's okay to carry on composting tea bags but they should be torn first (which I do anyway);  alternatively, we could always get out the teapots and use loose tea. Anyone for having their tea leaves read?

You can join the debate (and read the report) on tea bags here at the Guardian's environmental pages.

Oh … and one more thing:  I love the cheerful mini Gerberas and daisy-grass (Armeria Maritima) on my kitchen windowsill, background of photo above.  At a bargain £1.29 and £1 respectively from Morrisons last week, I bought several and they're about to be planted up into an Ikea wooden video rack found last week at the recycling centre.  And monkey? brought out of retirement on top of the wardrobe to star in another PG tips production shoot!

3 Jul 2010

Blooms, beans, bees, bugs… and fox cubs!


The annual event which truly heralds the arrival of summer for me is the glorious sight of a mass of unfurled mesembryanthemums.  I  have two of the Schiaparelli Shocking Pink variety in my balcony 'earth box', planted 7 years ago as tiny succulents and which now tumble in a riot of colour over the edge despite being cut back each year.   Sadly this magnificent display lasts for just a few short weeks before the flowers die back and the 'leaves' take on the appearance of samphire.   As the roots have taken over the balcony space to the detriment of any other plants which I try to grow alongside them, this year I vowed to remove them once flowering was over.  (Although I may just take lots of cuttings and then try to transplant them.)


I'm having a modicum of success in keeping the pigeons at bay - 45p wisely spent on bamboo skewers at the supermarket, fashioned into mini wigwams (pointy end up) seem to have done the trick. (Although I recently discovered that my balcony neighbour is encouraging them by letting them breed on his side of the balcony, 3 pigeon-ettes so far.  Eeuch.)

But with one pest semi-sorted, another has appeared: (and don't get me started on the human variety - the ones who didn't help us, but nevertheless help themselves. You know who you are. ) Anyway, back to foxes:


Just a cub (one of three), but part mole given the way he's been digging up the veg overnight!  Just a couple of days ago,  I sowed more salad leaves, spinach and coriander  as the last lot had bolted; I tied a string fence around the seeds, thinking this might form some kind of protective barrier but, no, all dug up again in the morning.  At this rate, the VP will quickly resemble a giant earthworks.


And the broad beans which survived last time?  In the ground with bees a-plenty buzzing around, pollinating those flowers.  They're dwarf beans (a fact only recently discovered when I read the packet) and should only reach a height of 18" but, even so, they're still more than slightly vertically challenged at the time of writing.  I'm doing regular checks for blackfly and wiping it off as soon as I can although this is a vile task which I'd cheerfully pay someone else to do for me - even the children won't do it which shows how high it is on the yuckyness scale.


We're finding lots of new ladybirds in the VP. I deliberately left the over-wintered-now-bolted spinach and kale as a Bug Stop for them until late May. Lots of tiny wiggly caterpillars on the kale meant they weren't munching elsewhere and regular sightings of blue/yellow larvae bugs shows the plan worked for the ladybirds as well.  Very satisfying as I seem to be swamped with black- and white-fly this year. So munch on my little heroes!

Elsewhere, one of us is a year older (heh, heh, not me this time around, thankfully) so a cake was baked, strawberries were picked and chocolate butterflies and flowers made:


Ah yes, looking back that was a very tasty (and simple) cake: vanilla sponge, whipped vanilla buttercream and organic strawberry jam filling, glacĂ© icing on top to hold the fresh strawberries in place, piped buttercream to hold the chocolate decoration.  Yep, yum, yummy, yum.  (BTW, chocolate decorations like these are very easy to make.  If you don't know how, let me know and I'll post a quick tutorial. )

Now back to digging - and fox-proofing - and re-sowing/planting ….

2 Jul 2010

Cool Soup for Hot Summer Days

Everyone enjoying the heat?  Yes?  … I 'm quite enjoying it -  but not necessarily when, as last week, I'm trying to sort out the architectural structure of the VP: digging holes, moving raised beds and laying brick paths. (I'd be a pathetic labourer, far too wussy.)  My forays into the Veg Patch are a little less impromptu than usual, planned so that I'm not toiling away in the heat (as I was last weekend when I felt distinctly peculiar by the afternoon) - the veg patch is between two blocks of flats so it gets very early morning shade and again in the evening.  My plans don't always work and I've managed to get both heat rash and sunburn on my feet this week by gardening in sandals (oops, forgot the suncream).  And it looks like it may continue, at least for another week in London, according to the BBC …


If this is true, I thought I'd have a go at this cooling summer soup, found in a vegetarian cookbook* from the library.  I'll have to let you know how it turns out as this will be my first attempt at it, but it looks good to me - probably tastes like a big bowl of runny Tzatziki.  (Of course, you could always put the cucumber, mint and ice into a jug of Pimm's and enjoy the Greek yogurt with a dish of strawberries and summer fruits … or do all three!)

Chilled Cucumber, Yogurt and Mint Soup

-- image © 'Meat Free Meals' 
For 6 bowls, you will need:
  • 1 cucumber
  • 500g (1lb 2oz) Greek Yogurt
  • a generous handful of mint leaves, chopped
  • 1 large garlic clove, crushed
  • 125ml (4 fl oz) cold water or light veg stock
  • salt and ground black pepper
  • 6 ice cubes and mint sprigs to serve
1.   Leave a chunk of cucumber to grate later for decoration. Coarsely grate the remainder and put in a large bowl with all the other ingredients for the soup and mix together.  Chill for up to 12 hours. (I imagine that means you can eat it sooner if your happy with the degree of chilled-out-ness.)

2.   Before serving, stir the soup, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Spoon the soup into six bowls.  Into each bowl add an ice cube, 1 Tbsp of the reserved cucumber and a few mint sprigs.

3.    Try eating as finger food, mopped up with rolled up tortilla.  Best enjoyed while sitting in the path of a cooling breeze!


(*Adapted from Good Housekeeping ‘Meat Free Meals’, pub. June 2009)
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