28 May 2011

The Saturday Snap

Recycling. Save the Planet, blah, blah. Everyone's getting the idea nowadays, aren't they?  But instead of just chucking your rubbish out into specific bags or bins, or throwing clutter out to the charity shops, how about a bit of genuine creative UP-cycling - or is it re-using?  Gardeners have been doing this for years, saving handy bits of wood, mesh, etc.  So when I saw this on a recent visit to the City Farm, I had a quiet chuckle to myself.  Today's (two for the price of one) Saturday Snap/s are ...

Raised Beds!

Raised bed
Timber framed with bedknob?
or, below, metal bedhead with knobs?
Raised bed

Have a jolly gardening weekend everyone!

27 May 2011

Berry berry rainy

We're having typical Wimbledon weather in London this week - a few weeks early!

strawberry harvest

Just two days ago, on a warm sunny evening, I was invited to raid my friend's abundant strawberry patch and returned home with the above tray and thoughts of Eton Mess, strawberries and cream, strawberries in basil sugar, strawberries drizzled with balsamic then dipped in crème fraiche ... choices, choices!  I stepped onto the balcony the following day in hot sunshine to prepare the culinary feast.

Yesterday was a somewhat different story: while stepping out over Hampstead Heath, I got caught in ... yes, at last! ... rain showers.  As I whizzed homewards, getting absolutely drenched, I kept repeating "think of the veg, think of the veg".  It made the soaking so much more comforting.

So much exciting watery goodness after weeks of drought prompted thoughts of an immediate post yesterday but I was thwarted as my son has the laptop for his GCSE revision these days. (I'm availing myself during his Chemistry exam.)  Having dried off, I stayed firmly indoors in the afternoon which was just as well because it monsooned non-stop for most of the afternoon:

I watched raindrops gathering on the windows


and as it eased off, I waded out on to the balcony to photograph the coriander:

Raindrops on coriander

Wonderful to have a real drenching for all the veg and flowers but, having put out my beans and sweet corn the night before, I wish it hadn't been quite so blustery!  

See you tomorrow for the Saturday Snap!

22 May 2011

The Sunday Saturday Snap

Oh dear, this is not getting off to a good start, is it?  The Saturday Snap appearing on Sunday ...  Not that I've been slacking off, no no. I have been completely distracted by the balcony pigeons breaking through the defences and sitting on my bean and sweet corn plants (supposed to be planted out this weekend). Heartbreaking.  I have therefore been up a ladder with my drill trying again to close the gaps and Keep.Them.Out!

Onto finer things...  The Saturday Snap this week is continuing with the herb theme:

Sage flower

Sages are flowering everywhere at the moment, on my balcony, on the allotment, in the Veg Patch.  The flowers are so beautiful, how could I resist a quick snap? There's a lot more to sage than meets the eye, it being both a culinary and medicinal herb and greatly attractive to bees. Most people will know of common Sage (salvia officinalis) but there are many interesting varieties, pineapple sage and blackcurrant sage (with beautiful red flowers) to name but two. And now, a few facts:

  • Sage is an evergreen herb which you can harvest throughout the year as needed. Leaves picked in the spring (before flowering) have a mild, warm flavour; after flowering the flavour is stronger and more tannin. 
  • Buy any pot of sage in the spring, dig a hole slightly larger than the pot (best in a sunny spot outdoors), firm in and water. Very easy to maintain, it will thrive in either ground or container.
  • Container grown sage should be planted in a free-draining loam-based soil in a pot with plenty of room, such as a tall 'long tom' pot.
  • Sage will need watering in very dry weather but does not like being too wet in the winter so don't stand on a saucer if container grown.
  • Sage grows quickly and will get big within one season (given enough root room) but can be pruned back in the Spring if it gets too straggly. Don't prune in the Autumn as it may not recover from frost damage.
  • Despite pruning, sage can get very woody so replace every five years.
  • Beware! over use of Sage can have potentially toxic effects.

And, for my sister, Using Sage:
  • Traditionally used with chicken (think sage and onion stuffing), this herb also works well when cooked with potatoes, onions or squashes, such as pumpkin. I've also read that it goes very well when cooked with liver but, as I don't like liver, I'll leave that for those that do!
  • Sage butter is made by frying the leaves until crisp in either melted butter or a blend of butter and olive oil and this sauce can be used over gnocchi or ravioli stuffed with squash.
  • Medicinally, sage has antiseptic properties and is used to relieve sore throats and colds. Make a sage tea by infusing one or two leaves in a flask of hot water, strain and add some honey or lemon juice (to make it more palatable!).
  • Jekka McVicar, in her New Book of Herbs, advises that sage is known to be astringent, antiseptic, antispasmodic and a systemic antibiotic.  As well as being used to treat sore throats, it is also used for poor digestion, hormonal problems and to stimulate the brain!  
  • Jekka McV also writes that Sage arrests the ageing process - but, NB the last point in sage facts, above! 

Credit where it's due: a lot of these facts have been gleaned from one of my favourite books Grow Your Own Herbs in Pots, written by Debbie Schneebeli Morrell, a friend from York Rise (the street, not the flats) and from a little book I've just reviewed: Grow Your Food: A Guide for Complete Beginners. My review is in the post before this, also quickly found here.

Perplexed by Potatoes? How to Grow Your Food

... A Guide for Complete Beginners by Jon Clift and Amanda Cuthbert.  This is a(nother) new book aimed at novice food-growing gardeners and, after reviewing it, I give this book 9½ out of 10.

I love surprise packages and this little book - just 16cm square - arrived during the week from Green Books, an independent publisher in Devon. Green Books say it will be published this week, on 26th May, although Amazon apparently have had it since 7th April this year!

First impressions:  Lovely size and feel. Clear layout, distinct headings, plenty of photos for each plant, drawings where needed, e.g pinching out tomato side-shoots. It's a soft-back book, about the thickness of a monthly magazine, so (and I apologise if this seems sacrilegious treatment of a new book) it's tempting to roll it up and stuff it in a back pocket where it will happily sit until needed. As a gardener who stuffs everything in my pockets, this is a plus. I also like the matt feel of the pages which are printed on recycled paper.

So far, so promising.  The main sections are The Basics, then Easy-to-Grow Veg, E2G Fruit and E2G Herbs, arranged alphabetically within their chapters.  Each plant has a symbol showing at a glance where/how it can be grown (useful for small space or container growers), excellent illustrative photos and clear information about what to do. Just 6 headings contain all you need to know answers:  Plant or seed? Planting/Sowing, How do *** grow? Looking after your ***, Harvesting, Now What?  For me, this is the winner. The information is straightforward, concise, to the point and very easy to understand. I've even picked up a tip or two myself and found myself wishing I'd had this book three years ago when I started the Veg Patch.

The downside:  There is no index, despite the pages being numbered. This is easily overcome with a few post-it type markers relating to the veg you're planting, although I couldn't find Spinach until I happened on Perpetual spinach! I'm also curious as to the choices of plants that were selected for the book;  parsnips and turnips but no pumpkins and squashes?  Broccoli but no cauliflower or brussels? The fruit section has nothing on strawberries which, in my view are easy to grow, a good investment (if you're shown how to peg out runners) and expensive to buy in the shops even at the height of the season.  Melon (from seed) would have been a nice addition, too. The herb section is very limited - no coriander, no chives, no oregano.  Sure, rosemary and sage are easy to grow but how often are they used by the average cook? (This is, after all, a book about growing food and I'd have thought that coriander and chives are frequently used by cooks, along with parsley and basil (featured). Any tips on the uses of various herbs would also have been a big plus point. And what about edible flowers?  Many people still want a pretty garden, albeit a useful one.  I think that was the appeal of Alys Fowler's garden, the randomness of finding lettuce among the marigolds and so forth.

And so, to summarise:  Bearing in mind this is a book for novice food growers, it should definitely take it's place as essential early reading.  (I wish I'd had the section on potatoes when I first grew them, as every gardener I asked had a different piece of advice about planting!) What I love about it is the accessibility; when I started growing veg, I wanted to get straight out into the garden, not be sitting indoors reading about it.  This book allows that possibility, even including three short chapters covering Before You Start, Useful Gardening Terms (so you don't feel like an idiot) and Common Problems.

Forget Dr Hessayon (for now), this book contains excellent clear advice, does not patronise the newbie gardener and I believe (and hope!) it will give beginners the confidence to get started (whether from seed or plant), to succeed and therefore keep going and to explore other varieties in the future.  I imagine the book will get scruffy pretty quickly, having a soft cover, but it's a reference book that belongs in the tool bag or greenhouse, as well as on a bookshelf.

I say again:   9½ out of 10
(And a bargain at only £6.95 cover price!)
Sold via Amazon or Green Books

And the tip I picked up?  I didn't know that basil will grow to 50 cm if you keep pinching off the growing tips ... or that outdoor grown basil (in a warm, sheltered spot) can be cut down to soil level before the first frosts, transplanted and brought indoors where it will throw up new shoots for winter eating.  Keep pinching off those growing tips though, else it will flower and become non-productive.

14 May 2011

The Saturday Snap...

I'm introducing this as a new feature on the blog - a regular weekend gallery for photos. I always have a camera of sorts to hand, whether indoors or out and can't resist pressing the shutter button! So, to start with, today's offering is...

Kitchen basil May

This is the basil that sits on my kitchen windowsill.  With the sun streaming through the window onto its leaves this morning, it inspired my Saturday shopping list towards salads and pasta dishes.  I happened to have a cup of tea in hand while I skimmed through the Waitrose Kitchen magazine for ideas (I love cooking but get bored eating the same tried and tested recipes) and, serendipitously, there was a small column about keeping potted basil at its best:

  • Keep in a well-lit, protected area away from cold draughts.
  • Water when the leaves start to wilt and the compost is dry - it only needs a little water, especially in winter.
  • Stress the plant by not giving it too much warmth and light - it will fight harder to survive and this strengthens the flavour. 
  • When using the leaves, tear them off with your hands as using scissors or a knife may blacken the stem and bruise the leaves.
  • To encourage bushy growth, occasionally cut back the stems to just above a pair of new side shoots.

Apparently too much water will dilute basil's flavour so it's best to try not to water it for a day before using - something I was previously unaware of.

By doing all of the above, I've managed to keep one basil plant (supermarket bought at the beginning of 2010) going right through the winter months! (Admittedly, it has just about had it now and, once they've flowered, the leaves turn bitter.)

I've most recently used basil in a make-it-up-as-you-go-along pasta dish which turned out surprisingly well and was a big hit with my teenager.  If you want to give it a go, I've typed up the recipe here.

10 May 2011


Actually, I rather wanted to title this post 'Pomiculture' but that word relates to the cultivating - as well as growing - of fruit which, here, is not strictly true.  Although I think I can make an exception where my lemon trees (now solitary tree) are concerned.

The lemon trees were a bit of an experiment;  the decision to purchase a couple of frost-hardy specimens was more out of curiosity for the exotic than any real belief of seeing lemons in London. Not that we're totally gullible but if it says 'Easy to Grow' on the label, we trust that's what we'll get.  Last summer the leaves were a real hit with the children - they give off a wonderful citrus odour when squeezed firmly.  (I love to do a squeeze'n'sniff, or taste, guessing game with the kids, especially in the herb patch.) Delicate white flowers almost bulked up into Lilliputian lemons but were annihilated by strong winds.  After my winter of discontent with the Veg Patch, one tree was definitely a goner with the other having some green-ish stems mixed in among the brown ones.  A bit of pruning supplemented by lots of recent sunshine and things are beginning to look up again - we have leaves!  By my standards, this is promising.

Lemon leaf

Other fruit has fared slightly better:  apple trees stripped of any potential fruit last year are now, quite definitely, plumping up for a summer showing:

apple buds

Ditto with the Morello cherry trees which are positively dripping with fruit - and raindrops!

Cherry ripening

Strawberries on Leigh's allotment (with all day sunshine) are ripening slightly ahead of the Veg Patch strawberries.

strawberry ripening

As the Veg Patch strawberries were transplanted in early April, this has probably set them back a little, although there are plenty of flowers so we'll see - perhaps giving us an extended, if inadvertent, strawberry season.

I have 10 raspberry canes that are new to the Veg Patch this year, as is the redcurrant, and so it's too early to tell if they're settling in nicely - new leaves but not much else. Two survivors from our first (2009) raspberry order have just started showing Proof of Life by way of tiny drupelets. The first year canes (primocanes) have been replaced with second year fruit bearing canes (floricanes):

Raspberry fruit

I noticed those two ants after I'd taken the photo! Has anyone else noticed large numbers of ants this year? I'm even seeing them on my balcony which is unusual, although probably lifted there by way of the sage plant I had to resuscitate.

Blueberries are into their second year and are definitely confused. They should be bushing up nicely but are like a row of debutantes that have come out in their pearls and underwear, i.e. hardly any leaves but masses of bijou berries. Bizarrely, the bushiest blueberry is the one that is sharing it's pot with two self-seeded foxgloves. Either it's roots are enjoying the shade or it just likes having company. All parts of a foxglove are poisonous and I wonder if close proximity will affect the blueberry fruit? Not sure I'll be eating from that particular tree, or letting the children sample the fruit!

blueberry hollyhock

A quick backward glance at last year's fruit list shows that my trip to Capital Growth's soft fruit growing workshop has influenced my choices this year as I've added a redcurrant to the Patch and also have melon seeds sprouting! I saw melon growing in the Regent's Park allotment last August so know that it is possible to grow it outdoors here, and have chosen 'Blacktail Mountain' early watermelon (very small red fruits) and also Minnesota Midget, a small canteloupe melon which has to be started off in a heated propagator. Hopefully there'll be more to tell about these in the End of May round up.

4 May 2011

April roundup... Update (2)

Several blogs that I like to read have posted an end of month review and I'm going to follow suit.  I can't think why I haven't done this before as it seems a really good way of keeping track of progress (or, in my case, lack of) month by month.

It pays me to remember that I mustn't compare the state of play in the veg patch with progress elsewhere; after all, it's not a competition but it is really useful to see what other, more experienced gardeners have already planted out or got on the go. It's interesting to see what's happening in different parts of the UK and, in Canada, the Urban Veggie Garden is just experiencing the first flush of Spring. Early sowing can depend on access to a greenhouse (which I don't have) or perhaps having wide windowsills to accommodate seed trays indoors (I'm deficient in that area as well).

I confess, there hasn't been as much sowing progress as I would have hoped (I've been spending a fair bit of time digging out weeds, moving raised beds forward to maximise space and putting a scaffolding plank alongside the path, on the right above). But with this unseasonably warm weather, I have to remind myself that it is only just May so there's still plenty a bit of time.  What I have got is lots of sweet peas in toilet rolls on the balcony (Cupani, Mixed Spice, Perfume Duet), which have recently been joined by Lazy Housewife (kindly sent from Matron) and Cosse de Violette beans started off in pots. Sweet corn (Lark and Sparrow - are those real varieties?) will be started off this weekend, as will courgettes (Striata D'Italia), pumpkins and squashes. I'm experimenting with growing melons this year (soon to be sown in a very warm spot) and have chosen Blacktail Mountain watermelon and Minnesota Midget canteloupe from The Real Seed Company. By the end of May, I hope also to have just a couple of bush cherry tomato plants and some peppers on the go.  It's said, "wishing's one thing, doing's another" so we'll see...

Back outside, Onions (Hyred and Snowball, above) have been growing in the veg patch for the past month, with Fiorentino Spinach planted in between the red onions (below). The first two rows of Spinach are ready to be picked as baby leaves and the next two rows of seeds were sown over the bank holiday weekend:

Potatoes (Blue Danube, Charlotte and Vivaldi) have sprung up from potatoes mistakenly left in the ground last year (gosh, I feel I'm really baring my soul here! - the veg patch has practically planted itself) but I have actually myself sown three varieties of beetroot (Perfect 3 and Cheltenham green tops for myself and Chioggia for my friend who runs our local deli and likes this variety, which I don't.) The fox chased a mouse over that bed last Friday night, scattering the soil, so it will be a test to see if I can tell the difference as (or if) they grow!

I'd like to have shown the progress in the garlic bed, with 3 rows of Amsterdam carrots companionably sown in between. Sadly, this is not be just yet as a fox (the same one?) dug deep into the bed last Monday and disturbed all the planting. It would seem he was (successfully) after a bird that had probably flown down to pull up my garlic! I guess that's nature for you and, judging by the wing feathers, I think it was a blue jay.  Very beautiful. (Sorry to be so macabre with the photo. I didn't know what it was and wanted to identify the bird, so please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.)

The disturbance has blown my garlic experiment out of the water: I'd planted a row of cloves saved from last year's home-grown garlic, a row of store-bought Porcelain Garlic (Music) and a couple of rows of T&M Sicilian Red garlic. I'd hoped to compare the success rate of the different sources. Now who knows what will pop up where? Fingers crossed it isn't as bad as it looks!

I have a couple of beds waiting to be planted up at the end of the month with the courgettes, etc, and buckets of rescued red orache (atriplex rubra) - self-seeded from one tiny garden sale plant. The seedlings were carefully transferred to recycled flower shop buckets before I dug over the bed. (I hate abandoning plants, and will do the same with my beetroot thinnings.) The intention is to replant these around the raised beds with plenty of other flowers to liven up the view.

I've previously written about the rampant growing going on in the herb bed and now the horseradish has flowered (above).  Oh my goodness, whatever next! I have no idea what this plant will do next but have read online of people mowing it down to keep it under control - which seems a bit drastic! Equally, I don't know if this is what should be happening with a second year plant and if the roots will still be edible.  (If anyone does know, I'd appreciate the advice.)

Elsewhere in the herb bed, evidence of last year's self-seeding is apparent:  parsley, coriander, fennel and sunflowers mingle happily together with a few strawberries (from runners).  Actually, I rather like this - at least for now!

That's probably enough for today.  I'll save news of the fruit and flowers for tomorrow but I'd like to leave you with this photo which fills me with hope:  if I'm right, those are ladybird eggs on my fennel so the greenfly on my red Orache had better watch out!

By the way, credit where credit is due:  I was inspired to write this End of Month View by Helen/The Patient Gardener, Janet/Plantalicious, Karen/The Garden Smallholding and Flighty/Flighty's Plot.

2 May 2011

Update (1) ...

Well, I went away and now I'm back and have been for a week but ... no blogging?  No. I'm currently sharing my laptop with my son who starts his GCSEs Very Soon and has realised that he really should start revising and apparently has lots of coursework that needs finishing.  I use the term 'share' very loosely here.  It translates as: if I get up early enough, or stay up late enough, I can get a few minutes on said bit of tech.  He does have a little jaunt outdoors during the day but, by that time, I'm stuck into other jobs that need doing.  I've booked a few minutes this morning to pop in and show you where I've been over Easter and I hope to be back later with a Veg Patch Roundup.  (The fox has dug up my carefully sown beetroot, more of which later.)

So, where in the world is this?

This is the bit of Wolverhampton that the public doesn't get to see.  Wolverhampton borders onto Staffordshire and this bit of common land is an easy (and very pleasant) walk from my sister's house.  (Although the city centre is only 15 minutes drive in the other direction.)  I've been rambling, dog walking, and chatting as we strolled in the sunshine across this public right of way.

As my more usual view is looking out across brick built flats, this view back across the fields and way, way into the distance made me reach for my little pocket camera.  Turning around, I was quickly walking into this bluebell wood:

Never come for a walk with me if you're in a rush.  I love to wander, and wonder.  As Tolkein said: "All who wander are not lost."  The others had to come back and find me as I kept stopping to look around and take photos.  Who knew that nettles had such pretty flowers? Certainly not me! 

The weather stayed true for us and a wonderfully relaxing break was enjoyed.  I returned  home to find that many lovely people in our community had been stopping by the Veg Patch and quietly watering the plants for me and keeping an eye on things.  Faith in humanity?  Totally restored!
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