20 Jun 2020

Fifty Shades of Red

So this is it ... the start of summer proper as heralded by sixteen plus hours of daylight, a solar eclipse and the summer solstice - all happening today.  But in the Veg Patch, the lead up to this momentous day has been all about berries and cherries. Especially the cherries.




Regular readers might recall that the cherry variety chosen for our little veg garden is Morello, the sour cherry. In hindsight, I suspect we knew very little about the Morello except that the name was familiar.  I'm fairly certain we had little idea that the flavour would be similar to sucking lemons. Harsh but frequently true.

On the plus side, the fresh fruit is impossible to buy in the shops which puts it in the category of unattainable and, possibly, desirable. (It's this cherry that the well known American cherry pie is baked with.) But, here in the UK, it's unavailable for no other reason than that they are of limited commercial value, as they are definitely not a snacking cherry, something I regret every year.  But, let's face it, if they were sweet cherries, the birds would get there before me.

Last year I lost almost the entire crop thanks to waiting patiently for the fruit to ripen to a slightly more palatable deep dark red. Big mistake. By the time I picked them, they had been discovered by fruit flies for the purpose of laying an egg in each which swiftly becomes a tiny white maggot. Don't ask me how I know this;  it was a special moment.

Needless to say, this year I am vigilant. I will not be taken by surprise by the sudden ripening of said fruit and have been patrolling up and down, sampling and noting the various hues of red, ready to pounce and pick.  A small punnet has already been brought indoors.



I would have, and could have, picked a lot more but I haven't quite sorted out what to do with them yet. These trees have always fruited generously which means there's ample scope for being creative in the kitchen.

The cherries are best used fresh (compote? pie? clafoutie? I haven't tried that yet.) but will keep for a few days in the fridge, more in the freezer and probably forever pickled in alcohol. At the risk of being repetitive, I'll probably make some more cherry chutney - it stores well and I'm partial to a lump of cheese with a side of chutney, preferably on freshly baked bread. And as I'm trying to avoid using sugar, I'm sweetening the compote with strawberries and maybe just a little honey.


Continuing this week's red theme ...

Huge luscious strawberries - I would say bowl after tempting bowl but most got eaten fresh from the stalk.



Ditto radishes. A quick wash in the water butt and breakfast is ready!


The first raspberries. None have made it to the kitchen yet. (And, bizarrely, they are autumn fruiting Polka berries. I'm not complaining.)



Nasturtiums.  These are the same plants that flowered last year, came through the winter months intact and have been flowering again since early spring. Just lovely.



And poppies, The big poppies have dropped their petals but little wild poppies keep cropping up - and very welcome they are too.



Last but very definitely not least... the ladybirds are back! A big cheer for all the ladybirds in my garden, heroically munching their way through hordes of aphids. This year seems to have brought pests in plague proportions so I have been very careful to rescue any ladybird larvae when pruning and tidying and relocate them to safety.



Wishing everyone a very happy summer solstice; we're unlikely to see much of the sun through grey skies but it's still a good day for making flower crowns, lighting a candle, acknowledging the season's passing, and gathering (in a safe and socially distanced way, of course!)


12 Jun 2020

Core Blimey! It's apple thinning time

One job that I almost can't bear to do every year (and frequently neglect) is to thin out the small apple fruit. It always seems a shame to remove healthy applets when the tree has put effort into making them. But the wise gardener knows that doing this is a kindness to the tree.

June fruitlet on Core Blimey apple tree
After thinning, all on its own

I have three apple trees to look after - one Core Blimey and two Braeburns.  Part of the original veg patch fruit planting in late 2009, the Braeburns have been fruiting well for a number of years.

The Core Blimey tree (yes, that is its real name) came a couple of years later (January 2013), being one of the original 100 trees developed by the (then London, now Urban) Orchard Project in conjunction with the Scottish conservation charity Trees for Life and Frank P Matthews nursery.  It was 10 years in the making, being developed from a single seed which makes it a very special tree in my book.

The tree was the first new apple tree to be developed specifically for London in over sixty years and a competition was run to name it.  I tip my virtual hat to whoever thought up the name; it's apt, amusing and befitting of a tree bred for its resilience and ability to withstand the rigours of an urban life.

Most of the trees went into parks within London's boroughs but community groups could also apply for a trees, so I did.  And was thrilled to be allocated one.

Despite being bred to withstand harsh urban conditions, my little tree steadfastly refused to blossom or fruit for the next six years.  But in 2019, well, that was a different story.  Finally the tree was covered in blossom in springtime and went on to produce at least three (three!) huge and very delicious blushed red apples.

Large apple in palm of hand
Last year's Core Blimey fruit. I may have eaten the other straight from the tree.

This year I've watched the blossom being pollinated by bees in the warm and dry early spring weather and counted the fruitlets as they formed. It looks like being a good year; I lost track after counting fifty apples on this little tree. But some of this bounty has to be culled.  I've picked my way through the branches, pocketing a couple of handfuls of tiny apples.

Cluster of small apples on the tree
One of us must go ... 

By removing all but one of the baby apples from each cluster (leaving one apple every three to four inches along the branch), the tree can direct its energy towards the remaining fruit. And, bonus, will have enough va-va-voom leftover to be productive in future years.

Some fruitlets will inevitably be shed during the 'June drop'.  This used to worry me as I stared at hordes of tiny apples and cherries on the ground, but there's no cause for alarm. I've since learned that this is just the tree's moment of self-care. And very helpful it is too, as the Braeburns are now too tall for me to reach the top branches.

In theory, Core Blimey fruit will ripen in October and can be stored until January. I'll have to take their word for it as I've fat chance of finding out if this true - the Cox-like fruit will tempt many people I'm sure, which is right and proper in a community garden. I'll keep my fingers crossed that I get to taste at least one.


7 Jun 2020

Crisp and Dry - End of month review for May

What can I say about this year's marvellous month of May? It's been a throwback to that glorious summer of 2018, with blue skies most days, hot sun and the occasional crispy plant if I didn't water every day. I'm wondering whether this is a seasonal blip or a transition reflecting climate change. All I know is that it has been rather lovely to have some wonderful bright weather to coincide with the coronavirus lockdown, and gardens full of colour.

At the beginning of the month, most of my food growing efforts for this year were still being hardened off on the often windy cliff face of my balcony, in training for the rigours of the great outdoors.  But the veg garden wasn't quite ready for them - rotting wooden raised beds had to be removed, seedlings cleared, plants relocated.  But it really wasn't as bad as I make it sound.

To be honest, this warm weather has caught me slightly off guard.  I usually sow mid spring and plant out when safe rather than having to see my beans munched by slugs and my corn flattened by strong winds funnelling between the buildings.  Playing it safe will result in later harvests than expected, but the plants will soon catch up. And the hot, dry weather has meant slugs are less adventurous.


The Veg Patch In May

Wild garlic leaves and elderflowers in a wooden tray

Outside in the veg patch, over the course of the month, broad bean flowers turned into fat pods, black aphids moved in, chamomile bloomed, wild garlic was made into delicious pesto and elderflowers were made into cordial and ice cream. (Yes! Elderflower ice cream - who knew? Thanks Instagram!)


A couple of purple sprouting broccoli plants, sown in June last year, should have sprouted in March and April. The plants are as confused as I am by the changing weather. One is huge (as expected) but budless, the other barely a foot high and had just started to sprout in the month's final week.  The harvest will be minimal but appreciated.  That's if the caterpillars don't get there first; there have been sightings, it's time to be vigilant.


But the really exciting news is that I've seen not just one but two fat little plums on the plum trees. Truly, a thrilling moment as it looks like these may actually ripen as the tree enters its second decade. And (please, please) might there be more if I look hard enough?  Could this be the year that the tree realises its purpose?

Failing that, there's always apples.  Both Braeburns and the Core Blimey apple trees are laden with tiny fruitlets. I must remember to thin them this year. (After the June drop.)


The quince, on the other hand, is confused. I last mentioned the swirls of blossom at the end of March; at the end of May, there appears to be very little fruit forming ... and, bizarrely, the tree has blossom on it once again.  Ten out of ten for trying.


The Salad Garden

Reflected evening sunlight on elderflower

My work in this garden has been scented by the flowers of a very mature elder tree all month.  These flowers are particularly sweet smelling and many evenings there have been accompanied by the song of a wren sitting in the branches high above me. I recorded the song one sunny evening and played it back, leading to a duet between the bird and my phone - and several others in the trees across the railway tracks. Such a rare treat in an urban setting. (And if, like me, you're unsure of which birds you're listening to, I have found the Chirp-o-matic app very helpful in identifying the song!)


The Veg Trugs in the salad garden have proved to be an excellent addition and so useful in providing slug free, easily picked ‘rabbit food’. I've been eating a selection of richly vibrant lettuce and other leaves throughout the month; it's my lunchtime treat.

The rocket is now starting to bolt (I may leave a few plants for their peppery flowers) but I failed to scale up realistically from my balcony salad trays and definitely sowed seeds too thickly here. I’m thinning the plants out now that they’re well past the micro leaf stage and leaving a few lettuces to get to full size.

I sowed with a lighter hand in Veg Trug #2 so leaves there are more manageable.  I've had to remove the fleece covers (too hot) and ordered mesh covers to keep bugs off. Too late it seems. Frustratingly, the mesh still hasn't arrived but will be in place for successional sowings.  And it's surprising how many bugs come out in the wash.

The third Veg Trug has been set up and now houses a few of my very many tomato plants. I'm using the spaces in between the plants for basil and borage, both of which are helpful companion plants for tomatoes. And I might add another row of carrots because, really, is there such a thing as too many carrots? (And, again, the height of the Veg Trugs is handy for this because the carrot root fly can't zoom up high enough to invade my crop when thinning.)

The few potatoes I'm growing this year are really just to test the Root Pouch planter which I was given at the Garden Press Event pre-lockdown. All seems to be growing well but the proof will be in the unearthing.  The spuds aren't ready yet but the pouch is alleged to produce better roots - and therefore more spuds? We shall see.


The Lime Tree Garden


My aim with this garden was to create another haven for pollinators.  I'm not quite there yet but I'm beginning to see a greater variety of bees visiting the garden, especially on the yellow flowers of the bolted broccoli. This plant, in the seasonal way of things, has now been pulled out. It’s done its work.

I've left the Geranium phaeum to flower as long as possible as a food source for bees but, by the end of the month, I'd chopped it right down - more buzz cut than Chelsea chop - necessary for relocating it to a shadier spot.  Hollyhocks will replace it, growing next to white foxgloves and Verbena bonariensis.

Further down this same bed, the flowers of Iris Susan Bliss came and went.

My lovely ranunculus flowers were over in what seemed like days.  I certainly didn't have the weeks of display of last year; I blame the weather. Anyhow, their day is done and I'm going to start over next year so have pulled up all the corms. 

Dahlia pots have come out of storage - i.e. dragged out from under the hedge.  I must admit that I'm being lazy and not planting them into the soil this year. I'll probably get less flowers but I'm taking my cue from The Pottery Gardener who grows everything in tubs or pots. Watering and feeding will be key.


Although this garden was set up as a space for flowers, herbs and relaxing, inevitably some food growing has crept in with blueberries, gooseberries, strawberries and even Chilean Guava all doing well.  They’re making the most of the extra light  while the pollarded lime trees remain as leafless pillars.


And while there’s light, I've planted a squash, a butternut and a courgette into a large corner that in a couple of years will be, once again, in deep shade under the lime trees.  For now though, I just want to see how the plants perform.  And, as a precaution, those plants have been temporarily caged - this garden is a favourite haunt of night time fox cubs!

And, finally, there was tea ...



An Australian permaculture channel posted a video for what they call 'Immune-i-Tea' ... a delicious immune boosting drink made from garden herbs.  To my delight, I found that I had all of the necessaries in my herb garden.

Just five herbs needed in roughly equal quantities, a small handful of each of yarrow (achillea), calendula flowers, mint, thyme and lemon balm.  Put into a large teapot, cover with boiling water and put the lid on.  Leave for at least 10 minutes and then pour.  It was surprisingly thirst quenching, tasty and uplifting and, I imagine, would also be lovely chilled. I think I may never buy another herbal tea bag.



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