30 Mar 2016

Lashings of tea, books and rain

As Bank Holiday Mondays go, this week's was fairly typical - lashing rain and lots of it.  Despite promises of a dry day, I woke up to the sound of wind whistling through the double glazing and rain being hurled against the window panes.  Just another stormy spring day in England.  Obviously the sensible course of action was to make a huge mug of tea, collect up my notebook and pencil, seed catalogues and gardening books and retire back to the sanctum of my bed to spend the morning in my pyjamas planning my seed order for this year.  Pretty much the perfect morning, actually.

For this pleasant interlude I pulled 'The Great Vegetable Plot', 'A Taste of the Unexpected' and 'Grow for Flavour' off the shelves and worked through them. I was particularly absorbed in reading The Great Veg Plot - a book I've had for many years but haven't read it for quite a while - shame on me because I found the author's reasoning for choosing what to grow quite illuminating. (Note: I would recommend this book for beginner growers; it's readable, inspirational and instructive.)

You'd think after growing food for quite a few years now that I'd pretty much have the seed list off pat, but I like to remain open to new possibilities.  I have limited space so it's essential to make sure that I'm using it well by growing the best tasting veg plus a few unusual new tastes. (And last year my tomatoes were a disaster so I'm grabbing the opportunity to try something different.)

By the end of my leisurely morning, I was well on the way to creating a (very long) list of seeds to buy. First, I considered the three categories of plants in The Great Veg Plot - Freshly Picked, Un-buyables and Desert Island picks. Interesting, huh?  The first two groups are surely the reason why anyone would want to grow their own, however small the available space. And the last group clarified my thinking quite effectively.

So what would you put into the freshly picked category?  I'd definitely put crunchy mange-tout, baby climbing beans, sun warmed tomatoes, salad leaves and young podded broad beans. These are all veg I love to snack on as I wander the garden in the summer.  Peas too when I remember to grow them. And Cape Gooseberries are so much nicer eaten straight from the bush - mine grows as a perennial.

With the storm still raging outside, I turned my thoughts to the 'Un-buyables'. What's interesting about these is that since the book's publication in 2005, a lot of the veg covered in this section are now available in selected supermarkets. So no longer un-buyable, but possibly hard to get. But shouldn't we also think about the days and miles between harvest and sale?  Veg such as globe artichokes, asparagus, edible flowers, pea tips and some of the more unusual squashes and beetroot are much nicer harvested at their freshest so perhaps these need moving to 'Better Grown than Bought' (I just made that up) rather than 'Un-Buyable'.

Un-buyables: Karmazyn beans sown earlier.
Superb flavour and seed readily available from Dobies, Chilterns, Suttons, Fothergills and More Veg
For my own un-buyables, my list would have to include rainbow chard, achocha, honeyberries (like blueberries), a rainbow of carrots, spaghetti squash, wild garlic and pink Karmazyn broad beans. (Incidentally, I came across a broad bean called 'Red Epicure' which stays red when steamed. Anyone tried these?)  I'm also growing Borlotti beans for the first time this year as my Cherokee Trail of Tears heritage beans of last summer were dismal. Each spring I hope for greater things!  I also checked into Mark Diacono's 'A Taste of the Unexpected' for inspiration here - and wished that my Chilean Guava of a couple of years ago had survived.

And lastly, Desert Island Plants - these are the must-haves, the plants that influence and enhance my cooking, that I take real pleasure in growing. Taking the name at face value, what would I absolutely have to have in my garden?  And if my choice was limited to just five plants, what would I choose?  Let's see - herbs, of course, such as parsley and thyme, raspberries, Cavolo kale and cape gooseberries. (That was hard - imagine life without chillies, pak choi, salad leaves and salad onions!)

But I still wasn't finished. Refreshing my mug of tea (and bringing a plate of toast back from the kitchen as well) I completed the indulgence by reading through my favourite seed catalogue, pen in hand, and circling all the seeds that appealed. Having noted these down in my book alongside the list of my perennial veg and the plan of the veg patch, I now have the onerous task of whittling down my list to fit the available space. Still, there's always pots and containers …

So, I'm intrigued - what would your top five Desert Island plants be - and do you grow any Un-Buyables that you'd recommend?  Tell all!  :o)

25 Mar 2016

A little chaos

March tulips

This year I'm being very relaxed about it all. Seed sowing, that is. Having successfully gambled on sowing sweet pea seeds into pots on my balcony in late November and a first flush of broad beans into trays in February, I've decided to mostly forego trays of seedlings on every windowsill in favour of sowing direct outdoors this year. Am I alone in becoming increasingly uncertain of when best to sow? One whiff of sunshine is enough to convince me that it would be okay to start a few seeds off, only to have my hopes dashed when that smidgeon of sun is replaced by days of bitingly cold winds - or worse, clear nights with frosty dawns.  For those who do succumb to a few trays of seeds on the windowsill, the jolly game of turn and turn again begins - unless you're fortunate in having light drenched living quarters or a greenhouse. (I don't.* see tip at end of post!)

It's hard to resist though, isn't it? All those seed catalogues seducing us with beautifully photographed packets of potential.  I restrain myself by knowing that there's never going to be enough space in the garden here for everything I want to grow so I'm making lists while biding my time before sowing. In previous years I've had windowsills stuffed with plants growing wildly etiolated weeks before the weather softened towards summer.  I've gone to the other extreme too and started my seed sowing as other bloggers wrote about how well their carefully nurtured plants were doing outside.  Undeniably, I have to acknowledge that spring is February to April; despite the appearance of daffodils and primroses, it's too cold at one end and possibly too wet and windy at the other - even with climate change.  A middle path is needed.

For me, that compromise has taken the form of sowing (yes, I succumbed) a few seeds indoors in early March to get slightly ahead of the game (tomatoes, chillies and a few grasses - all needing heat to get started) but for other spring sowings, I'm taking my cue from the tulips.  I know, bonkers. There is no scientific evidence to support this theory.  But while I've been raking, rebuilding and pruning, I've been keeping a close eye on what my bulbs and perennials are doing - and all the tulips have slowly produced buds with one or two ready to open. This is an early start for the tulips so I'm going to let nature lead the way. I've been in limbo since mid-March but once those bulbs are in bloom, that's my cue to start sowing, both outdoors and in.  The temperature could still drop but, I have to admit, this way holds more anticipation and excitement than checking the local weather forecast!

So, on this beautiful blue skies day (allegedly just the one for now), I'll be carrying on with a myriad of other garden jobs that need to be done - including transplanting self-sown seedlings and pondering how to prune the top of the pear trees which must be three times my height by now. There'll be time enough tomorrow (while it's raining) to go through my seed box and plan what to grow.

How's everyone else doing? Have you started off your annuals or will you, like me, wait a couple more weeks?

PS.  Frustrated gardeners might like to pay heed to the Higgledy Gardener in Cornwall who advises not to direct sow before mid-April, leaving a few mid-May sowings to extend the season even longer.  But even he will walk on the wild side occasionally - his commitment to provide borders in bloom at the Cornish Port Eliot festival at the end of July has necessitated an early sowing under cover (cloche, not greenhouse).

* In an attempt to even out the light source for my seedlings, I place a large sheet of white card between my windowsill seed trays and the darker room behind to reflect some of the window light back.  The lengths we go to, eh!

7 Mar 2016

Thrilling Times

… or should that be Telegraph?

I don't have an appropriate photo so here's a gratuitous image of
Erysimum 'Bowles' Mauve' about to flower in January

Thanks to the eagle eyes of Anna at Green Tapestry, I was alerted to a rather splendid bit of news yesterday. The Telegraph had published a piece called 'The gardening bloggers you should be following' and, to my amazement, the Urban Veg Patch got a mention!  Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

Of course, I was a bit player in a stellar cast - other blogs mentioned may be familiar: Rusty Duck blog written by Jessica, David Marsden aka The Anxious Gardener,  Jono Stevens writing at Real Men Sow and, to show we mere mortals are in excellent company, Tom Stuart-Smith, garden designer of renown.  I didn't know he even had a blog but will definitely be checking that out.  I met him last year and can tell you that he's a truly nice person.  And I mean that in the best possible sense of that rather overused adjective.

So.  I now find myself with new blogs to explore, including that of Compostwoman (what a great name!) and the Kitchen Garden blog of the article's author Francine Raymond.

Many thanks to Francine for her article and to everyone who has ever popped over to read my blog - your support is so much appreciated.  Cheers!

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