31 Jul 2016

Bye Bye Cherry Pie

Not that I would have made pie but the post title sums up the mood here. This is a tale of frustration and regret which I write purely as a lesson learned for next year.

Cherries mid-July
~ Looking good but not quite dark enough for Morello cherries ~

I have abandoned any hope of cherries this year which is ironic if you've read anything that I've written about cherries in previous years.  I've banged on about how I've struggled to find a use for the Morello (sour) cherries that I grow here. Morello would not have been my first choice of cultivar but this is what I have from a group decision at the start of the veg patch. Because of the sour taste, the fruit is best used for jam making or cooking.  I have one neighbour who likes to eat them raw and she usually has her pick of the crop. Not this year.

This year was different; I was actually looking forward to a huge haul of cherries! :o)  I'd made cherry chutney last year, having singularly failed to make a decent jam that wasn't cloyingly sweet.  I recently opened a jar of said chutney ... and, to my amazement, the taste was extremely good. Unfortunately, I'd given most of it away.  No matter, I'd make some more - or would I? As it turns out, no.

Stupidly, I overlooked some crucial points.  I didn't net the fruit. This followed the pattern of previous years because I've had no problems with birds eating the fruit - until now. I also failed to monitor the fruit as it ripened.

Cherries mid-July
~ Slightly shaded tree, mid-July; still plenty of unripe yellow cherries ~

This year the rain ensured a bumper crop, almost completely negating the 'June drop' where about a third of the fruitlets turn brown and drop from the tree. The fruit started to go from gold to pink at the beginning of July and then, in the blink of an eye, had turned red and soft.  I'm used to the fruit turning a deep red before picking as it can be really tart otherwise. So I waited.  Two weekends back, I caught a neighbour chatting on his mobile phone while absentmindedly picking my cherries and eating them! A request to desist was uttered in no uncertain terms.

But the cherries continued to disappear as they ripened. The next day, all the fruit was stripped from the top branches leaving the tree looking more like a cactus than a fruit tree.  But I found the culprit - a huge wood pigeon flapped away from the tree as I approached.  Mystery solved, but too late.  A friend whose flat overlooks the garden tells me that she's seen other pigeons on the trees and ants are now enjoying the juice from any remaining fruit.  So I think I'll pass, thank you.

Fallen cherries
~ Bird damage; so many fruits fall as the birds peck ~

So what's the big lesson from this? I absolutely must net the cherries as soon as the fruit appears in future years!  The fruit ripened from yellow to ready in just 10 days. Take your eye off the ball and you/I've had it.

For anyone who has sensibly netted their cherries and therefore has some to cook with, here's  my cherry chutney recipe, taken from Beryl Wood's book 'Let's Preserve It'.

Plus a few notes on growing sour cherries for jam or a traditional American cherry pie:

  • Morello cherries are incredibly easy to grow as they're self-fertile and will grow in part shade in a north facing spot.  
  • If you choose the right rootstock, they're also ideal for a small garden; mine are now in their seventh year and are no more than six feet tall. 
  • They are practically maintenance free, maybe a bit of light pruning of crossing branches and that's it.
  • Watch out for baby trees from dropped stones - I pull out half a dozen tiny cherry trees every spring! 

24 Jul 2016

Summer Spinach

~ New Zealand Spinach ~

Just three short weeks ago, I wrote that the spinach that I'd sown was doing really well along with some chard.  I should have kept quiet because, of course, it has bolted. So, one cut of leaves and then flower spikes.  Not really what I had in mind.

Spinach really doesn't like a lot of heat.  Traditionally it's a leaf crop that can be sown in early spring and again in the autumn for a winter crop.  Depending on the variety and mildness of your winters, you can protect your autumn crop with cloches and harvest right through the colder months.

That doesn't really sort me out for now though, does it?  There are alternatives, of course.  Perennial spinach, mountain spinach (Atriplex rubra aka red orach) and the chenopodiums (Good King Henry and Magentaspreen) but, in my book, nothing beats a good old plate of real spinach - smooshed into a smoothie, wilted into pasta or dhal, stirred into a stew, tossed and dressed in a salad. I eat a lot of spinach.

So what's a gardener to do?  It looks like summer has finally arrived (for this week, at least) with heat and sun aplenty so the first thing is to look for a shady spot in the garden - or create one with cloches or plants.  I'm not growing sweet corn this year which would provide shade for spinach but I am growing my own beads in the form of Job's Tears (Croix lachryma-jobi), a plant with similar sword like leaves - exciting, huh? I'll tell more about that project later :o)  Spinach seeds can be sown in between those plants and the tall broad bean plants from my second spring sowing.

The next box to check is the soil - as always!  Spinach likes a good 30cm (12 inches) of fine nutrient rich soil that retains moisture. Regular watering (twice a day, roots only) is also key for summer spinach - don't let your spinach dry out, which is probably what I did when temperatures soared. My bad. So make sure your soil is lump free and add nitrogen with blood, fish and bone or chicken manure pellets.  The spot I've chosen won't need extra nitrogen as I'm cutting down the winter sown broad beans to make a space, leaving behind the roots with their nitrogen fixing nodules. I might also dig in a spade or two of Dalefoot's latest addition to their excellent range: peat free compost for Vegetables and Salads.  It's a wool and bracken compost that I've been trialling and is lovely to use and, so far, has given good results.

And last of all: seeds.  For this, I turned to Chiltern Seeds. Why? Because their brochures and range are excellent plus they're located near to where my niece lives ... which shouldn't matter, I know, but I like local and family. Their beautiful website provided several options so I rang them and asked for help in choosing seeds to sow now.  They've kindly sent me two options: 'Giant Winter' (a true spinach with large leaves for winter and spring use) and 'New Zealand Spinach' which is a spinach lookalike - Latin name Tetragonia tetragonioides.  Rather excitingly, it's a low growing spreading plant that originates from the stony beaches of the Antipodes and will tolerate some drought, although the taste is best when grown in moist soil. According to the PFAF database, it cannot be grown in the shade and is an evergreen perennial.  Chilterns sell the seed as a half-hardy annual so this is going to be a plant worth watching.  An edible beach plant - what's not to love!

Spinach lovers, I'll let you know how my trial goes.  Has anyone else had success with summer spinach?  And have any Antipodean readers grown New Zealand spinach - I'd love to know!

PS.  I've just been chatting to my plot neighbour at the allotments this morning - he always grows New Zealand spinach for his wife who is from NZ and tells me that this year two sowings of this spinach failed to germinate. It hasn't been a problem in previous years so I'm wondering whether the erratic temperatures this year have been to blame - spinach prefers a soil temperature of between 50F to 72F to germinate.

22 Jul 2016

Too hot for gardening

Garden cricket
Spotted in the garden: either a baby cricket or the aphids are now on steroids

I've been sheltering from the heat for the last few days.  Mmmm, wow.  Amazing, given this damp, gloomy and often barely warm summer we're having here in the UK.  Just three weeks ago it was chilly enough to want some heating on yet on Tuesday it was 35C (95F) in North London. Thirty-Five Degrees!!  Luckily I have lovely cool floors (terracotta tiles and wood) and windows that are designed to keep the heat out in summer. Even so, the temperature indoors rose to 27C which is still a bit on the sticky side for my liking and definitely too hot to be outside gardening. Yes, I know. Wimp.

Some plants are also finding this heat a bit much, especially when combined with a brisk breeze which is what we had yesterday. It's crucial to check the soil around plants for dryness morning and evening in this weather -  wind can be just as damaging as hot sunshine. If you forget and plants get a bit wilted, just move them into the shade and give them a good big drink of water.  I've just had to do this to one of my chilli plants that I'd moved to the edge of my balcony to grab a few rays - chillies like heat, right? - but noticed that it was looking rather sad and windswept within a couple of hours.  Shade and water perked it up in no time.

It's all a bit overwhelming and I'd much rather have some constant gentle sunshine (and rain!) rather than these extremes we're experiencing. How's everyone else doing in this heat?  Me, I'd quite like a nice cool night's sleep!

The past few weeks have been somewhat of a whirlwind for me, accustomed as I am to my simple life of home, work, garden, write.  I've been to shows, I've been to gardens - and, unexpectedly, I've been to Leeds.  My son and his stuff needed to be collected in my tiny car the weekend before last; I wasn't anticipating spending the weekend cleaning the little house he and two friends have just moved into but, on closer inspection, it was another necessity. You know how it is, student life doesn't stretch to much cleaning and the previous tenants appear to have been heavy smokers to boot.  The solution was to glove up and get on with  it - parents are gifts that just keep on giving!  While clearing rubbish from the flagstone back yard, I did note that it would look much better for a few pots and perennials in the tiny back border - one to think about for the return trip!

I'll be doing a few catch up posts about shows and garden visits but, for the past weekend and this, I'm really happy to be back in the garden here.  There's lots to be done. There's still time to sow a last round of carrots, some more beetroot, french beans, chard, kale and lettuce - not to mention the continuous deadheading to be done.  And a question: can anyone tell me if I can prolong flowering of Sweet Williams by deadheading?  I've absolutely loved having them in the garden this year but they're all starting to die back now, too soon for my liking!

Sweet Williams

3 Jul 2016

Brrrr - It must be the beginning of July

Karmazyn broad beans

I haven't written much about the veg patch for a while so I nipped down to the garden on Friday evening to take a few snaps and found that not only were strong winds whipping the plants to and fro but it was really really chilly outside.  I went home and turned the heating on ... in July!!  What is happening with our summer?

I persevered on Saturday morning (equally chilly out) and, using a fast shutter speed on my camera, focusing manually and checking the focus with a little button on my Canon that allows me to zoom in on the view screen, I managed to get snaps that show where I'm at in the veg patch.

Morello cherries

There's some good, some not-so-good and then some things that I've got behind with.  Cherries are going to be brilliant again this year. Even more so than last year because the rainfall has kept the 'June drop' to a minimum. (Good, because Morello cherry chutney is scrumptious. I hope I've written the recipe down.) Plus, all this extra water seems to have brought the autumn fruiting raspberries on a treat - I've already had a small handful!

Yet again, there are no signs of any plums (while the tiny Victoria plum tree at the allotment has lots of fruit), only a few pears (but at least that's better than none!) and only one of the apple trees has fruit. Hmm, wonder what's going on there?  The quince is looking good and has held on to 8 quinces so far and my Physalis bush, aka chinese gooseberry, (grown from a seed in 2013) is just starting to produce flowers. I love this plant; the leaves are so velvety and the fruit delicious. Well worth growing.

Cape Gooseberry aka Physalis

I'm having to start again with curly kale and cavolo nero as the whole lot has been mollusc munched into oblivion but the chard, spinach and broccoli are doing well and haven't been touched. Odd. My courgette plants were grown in pots on the balcony as a result of all this midnight munching and are now ready to go out. Late, I know. Still, you never know, it might be alright - the only race I'm running is the one against autumn!

Equally, only one of my climbing beans has been slugged.  The beans were sown late and are growing extremely well. I sowed two beans, slightly apart, in each position in case of slug attack so, with luck, I'll have plenty of beans this year.  I'm growing 'Cobra' and 'Barlotto Lingua di Fuoco' - both from Chiltern Seeds.  I think I'll try some of these up at the allotment as well; they seem to be from good, vigorous stock!

I've been snacking on broad beans for a few weeks now (like everyone else, I assume!). I like to munch on the raw baby beans as I wander round the garden.  The remaining pods are bulking up nicely (again, thank you rain) and the plants are still aphid free with no squishing or squirting. Amazing. I sowed a second crop of beans in mid-May, this time a heritage bean 'Crimson Flowered' from Pennards and 'Red Epicure' (right, above) which Marshalls Seeds sent me to try. I wanted to give Red Epicure a go as the beans are red skinned and stay red when lightly steamed, allegedly. So far, all I can report is that the plants are strong and healthy and have a lot more flowers than my Karmazyn beans. Watch this space for more about these as we go.

Red Orache (self seeded)

What can I say about red orache? It comes back every year from seeds blown across the garden, doing me proud and filling a few gaps - red orache (Atriplex rubra) is both edible (aka mountain spinach) and ornamental so I've moved a few seedlings over into the 'drought' border and left a few behind in the veg patch.  And remember the achocha that crashed to the ground at the end of last summer? A few of the seeds must have popped out of the pods because I've got 3 unexpected plants that need something to climb up - and soon!

The asparagus crowns are now only putting out narrow stems which I'll let grow into ferns so the crowns can re-energise for next year; I'll carefully move the crowns up to the allotment in the winter in the hope that they'll fare better up there.  This year I must have had only a dozen spears from five crowns over a six week period. Their very existence was in jeopardy until I got the allotment plot as the bed could be better used for salad leaves (slugs notwithstanding).

And, finally, because this is such a long post (sorry), I'm growing rainbow carrots and a radish called 'Caro' - how could I not grow that one! :oD

So, there we are - the not so quick round up.  And I didn't even mention the flowers and the herbs which are just amazing this year and giving me lots of joy.  I'm wondering how everyone else is faring - slugged out, coping or already harvesting masses of edibles?

The forecast is dry for this week and I have a few days off work so this could be a good week for gardening.  And, tomorrow, I'm off to Hampton Court flower show.  Have a good week, everyone!

1 Jul 2016

My new cool allotment

Hard to believe I'm still in London!

A few years ago, a local friend invited me up to see her allotment at Fitzroy Park up near Highgate. She's an artist so her plot was quirky, filled with colour and fabulous. Other plots around were similarly individual. I instantly fell in love with the place, a peaceful haven at the top of an old farm lane and next to Hampstead Heath. I was unlikely to ever achieve my dream of having a plot there because the waiting list was closed and plots rarely given up.

A few days ago, that same friend asked if I'd be interested in a plot share. The plot belongs to a local lady in her 80s.  She took on the plot after her husband died and together they've gardened the plot for 46 years.  That's something, right?  She can't manage the plot alone but likes to go up there to see old friends and potter about.  There must be a lot of memories attached to that piece of land.

My friend's daughter had been helping out but she found it too challenging once her baby was born; as a result, warm weather, rain and time started to wreak their effects on the plot.  And that was when my friend sent me a text to see if I was interested.

What do you reckon I said? A bit of a no-brainer, that one! Although I did pause momentarily to think whether I'd have time for it but, honestly, how could I refuse! An allotment share! At Fitzroy Park! Wowzer!

To put this excitement into context, I should explain that these allotments are highly desirable, being in a secure location on old farm land, high up, surrounded by the trees of Hampstead Heath yet with a lovely open aspect. The community is pretty great there too, from what I can see.

I went up on Saturday to meet Doreen, the plot holder, and take a bit of a gander round.  I was introduced to several other plotters who were all very welcoming, even letting me take shelter when the rain started.

Doreen has one of the smaller plots which has been well looked after but there were still brambles to be dug out, bindweed and nettles to clear, pruning to be done, blackcurrants to be netted and grass to strim.  A couple of beds were buried under a blanket of weeds and bolted vegetation so that was where I needed to start.

Doesn't look too bad, after strimming the paths and grass ...

On the other hand ... Don't look to the left! Still, nice bench. 

I was keen to get started so set off early on Sunday morning to walk up to the plots. Eventually I'll get a parking permit for my car but until then it's a half hour walk up a steep hill, past Arts and Crafts houses, verdant verges and glimpses of the Heath.  By the evening, I'd almost cleared and roughly dug over the beds and filled 8 bags of garden waste which I'm told I can take to plot holder Mick's "crusher" so he can turn it into compost. Several people who I'd met on Saturday said hello and I met my plot neighbour who offered me half of his beautiful red cabbage plantlets, a very auspicious start to my tenure.

There are drawbacks to balance out all the awesome beauty of this place; I'm told the pigeons are voracious and will strip any plants not netted and the slug problem seems to be much worse than in my home veg patch. (One of the other 'helpers' has been using non-organic slug pellets; that will have to stop.) On the plus side, a few days work will bring the plot up to scratch and there are artichokes, apple trees, blackcurrants, raspberries and the biggest strawberries I've ever seen. A giant patch of rosemary and purple sage, plus feverfew, mallow and a huge blue hydrangea shrub will give me some cut flowers ... and there's a shed (which needs tidying), a bench, a water butt and a nearby tap!  It's all very very joyful. Little old plot sharer me.  Fab.

Fruit and flowers on the plot.  The cherry tree is Sunburst; next year it will be netted and should provide more than just one cherry! 

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