1 Oct 2010

Sunshine and soft fruits…

 ~ Carrots, leeks, courgettes, tagetes, cabbage, runner beans, tomatoes ~
:: The Regent's Park Allotment::

Being of a very curious nature, I do love a good nosey around other gardens and allotments. I find inspiration everywhere: the planting, the colours, the layout, clever use of discarded items… So, it was with a carefree heart that I pedalled off last Saturday to a half-day training in the Regent's Park allotment run by Capital Growth and Capel Manor College. The sun was shining as I cycled through the park, a highly enjoyable but somewhat rebellious act due to it being Not Allowed. (Why is that, I wonder? Children who won't walk any distance will often cycle happily, thereby allowing families to embrace the Great Outdoors together.)

But I digress…   my hopes and expectations for the day were fully met:  an excellent and comprehensive training in Growing and Preserving Soft Fruits was provided by Tom from City Leaf (with handouts, which was lucky as I would never have remembered it all).  In three short hours we covered the four Ps (Planting, Pruning, Propagation and Preserving) in relation to a range of soft fruits: gooseberries, red/white currants vs blackcurrants, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries.  Whew - feeling hungry yet?  As if that wasn't enough, we also briefly looked at ways of training fruit, veering off into the realms of cordoned and espaliered apples.

~ Garden of Eden? ~
I must admit my motivation for going was to get access to an Idiot's Guide to Growing Raspberries as our canes didn't do well this year.  Poor little things. I now know that this is due to a combination of not planting soon enough (nor heeling in), not preparing the site well beforehand (it was nearly Christmas and we were desperate), not giving them enough space and also the poor plants being choked by weeds from a neighbouring patch. We'd literally plonked them into the soil in a spare corner of Leigh's allotment as the Veg Patch was not ready for them.  See?  Loads of info.  I'm going to replace the canes and, this time, lavish care and attention on them. 

We also looked at successfully growing grapes in an urban environment (apparently London is now warm enough for this, which is great  news).  Their grapes looked luscious:


And in anticipation of the wonderful harvest we'll all have next  year, and in case any of it actually reaches our kitchens (mine will all be eaten as it ripens by the children), our group was introduced to preserving your soft fruit harvest by a local guest speaker; a wonderful woman who brought along some of her produce and made it sound so easy.  She scotched several myths:  no, she doesn't use special preserving sugar (juice of a lemon will serve instead, if needed), blackberries do not set well on their own (throw in a Bramley) and the original jam jar lids are just as good as the cellophane/rubber band option, if properly cleaned. Mantra: Cleanliness is all when preserving!


I spotted this wonderful 1970s cookbook (Readers Digest, I think) on the table at the end.  It caught my eye, set against the jars of chutney and melons grown in the allotment.  Yes! Melons are possible in the UK - we had some of these fruits during the break. (Delish.) The allotment has an open aspect, sheltered by fencing on the North and East sides, with the melon vines planted at the southern end.


Elsewhere, other vegetables were all still flourishing and ripening (the carrots! the rhubarb! the beans! giant tomatoes!). You'll recognise the asparagus in the above photo - a huge bed of it, with ripening berries.  The volunteer gardeners try to nip them off when they turn red and before they burst and scatter the seeds.  Bare patches in the beds were explained by the recent harvesting of the butternut squash which was set to one side in baskets - there was an open day 'Harvest Cook Off' the following day (at least I hope so as the weather had turned wet by then).


The entire allotment was full of inspiration, if excessively tidy (but then they are on permanent view to the public).  Companion planting abounded:  Basil and cabbages, crimson nasturtiums under the runner beans and around the rhubarb,  and bright orange tagetes were planted (and interplanted) everywhere - around tomatoes, apples, beans, herbs - and doing a fantastic job of bringing in the bees.


But I especially l-o-v-e-d the use of recycling:  peppers, tomatoes and herbs grew in large empty white Italian tomato cans, an old Royal Parks watering can had been planted with herbs, and … the best bit for me …  the fibreglass poles from a defunct tent used to hold up netting.  I'm SO pinching that idea!


There, I think I've rambled on long enough.  It's worth a visit if you find yourself near Regents Park and also very handy the Cow and Coffee Bean Café. (Here's the Google map link). I took far too many photographs and am now making a Flickr page so, once the link is up, pop over there if you want to see more!

20 Sept 2010

Gourdness! Giveaway and pumpkin carving

Last year I recall resisting the onset of Autumn and savouring the last days of summer but, this morning, I'm positively excited about the forthcoming Pumpkin Season for I have learned of an exciting competition looming… 

Some of the carved pumpkins featured in the book

A chance conversation yesterday revealed that Fortnum & Mason, renowned London-based purveyors of luxury food hampers and other delightful goodies, are holding their first Pumpkin Carving competition on October 29th.  It's a Friday so, presumably, you can take your pumpkin home to show off on All Hallows Eve. There are fabulous prizes (Fortnum's broomstick anyone? Even better: a £1000 hamper, which would nicely sort out Christmas) and themed food such as witch's hair (aka - of course - candyfloss).

I've just spoken to them and been told that places are limited due to pumpkin display space (as of today 50 spaces still up for grabs), booking is essential but it's free!  Not that I'm competitive or anything ~ahem~ but I'm definitely going!  (It is open to adults as well as 5-18 yrs…)

Pale carved squashes look like porcelain. Find out how in the book.

Now this may all sound jolly frustrating to anyone living out of reach but I know that you're a creative lot and hope you'll be inspired to rise to the spirit of the event in your own communities.  Personally, I'm going to be referring to a book which I bought last year:  Decorating Pumpkins and Gourds written by my York Rise neighbour and fellow gardener, Deborah Schneebeli-Morrell and photographed by her husband, Heini.

Debbie is a phenomenal artist and her ideas in this book veer right away from the usual fare of grinning face pumpkins; she not only shows us beginners (in my case) how to carve designs such as Birds in a Bush, Maids in a Row or the Hansel and Gretal house, but also tells us the correct tools to use.  I absolutely lOvE the lantern pumpkins shown in the above photos.  Her love of gardening shines through when we're taught how to make bird feeders out of squash (an easy project for children) and also which are the best - and easiest - varieties to grow. On a practical level, Debbie advises what to do with different squashes (acorn squashes, for example, are difficult to hollow out but can be carved and displayed before being roasted into a platter of patterned veg). Excellent illustrations and instructions throughout make this all very achievable and, although it's not mentioned, it's best to keep the children's involvement to scooping out the flesh rather than knife wielding!
 Giveaway!
Cico Books have very kindly offered to send me a copy of Decorating Pumpkins and Gourds as a !giveaway! for my readers.  I'll also ask the author to sign it. Just leave a comment before 15th October (should then give you enough time to get carving before Hallowe'en) and I'll randomly pick a winner.  (Please also say if you don't want the book.)

(All photos in this post are © Cico Books and taken by photographer Heini Schneebeli.)

19 Sept 2010

The Cheerfulness of Chard:


Isn't this fabulous?!  First year that I've grown chard - and I've yet to actually eat any of it - but those colours are a real show-stopper on the Veg Patch.  Love it!

(Note to self:  grow it in a higher bed next time to better display the stems!)

In case of interest: Bright Lights Chard, Johnsons seeds, sown into recycled council compost in raised beds, open aspect but shaded early pm onwards.  Well watered by the weather.

16 Sept 2010

From Soil to Sail:


Hello again, time's zipping by, we're nearly into Autumn and I'm still catching up with myself… There seems to be so much to pack into each day (not least of which is to get my potatoes dug up!).  As a result, I seem to have fallen out of the habit of popping in here to say hello which feels odd because, in my head, I've got lots to tell:  trips to the seaside, apple scrumping, a street fair, hedgerow-jam making, allotment-soup making, books to review (three!), autumn progress in the Veg Patch and new bedtime reading: seed catalogues for 2011…mmm, lovely!  So, whew. 

The thing that has taken a goodly chunk of time is the street fair which we had in our little corner of London.  I'd had a fancy to make fresh apple juice on the day (using a traditional press) and put my hand up to help in order to ensure that the event was actually going to happen. Doing the pressing was quite a learning curve so deserves a later post all to itself!   In among all of this frenzied activity, what with the end of the summer hols looming, I also decided to make a dash for the seaside to spend a few days on the south Hampshire coast with my parents. (Another reason for the silence here … I was beachcombing elsewhere!)


Lovely, isn't it?  I never tire of this view of the Solent (taken from the little cross-harbour ferry): Old Portsmouth on the left and, just out of view, sailing boats making their way in or out of harbour.  Look in the other direction and you see Portsmouth Harbour, ferries waiting to sail for the Isle of Wight and, in the historic dockyard, the masts of Nelson's HMS Victory and modern ships of the Royal Navy. All very busy and nautical.

For me, though, the highlights of a shore-side break-away are the long walks on the beach, picking up driftwood and shells (pebbly beaches are so interesting).


…and, at this time of year, collecting hedgerow blackberries (loads of them on the seafront common land). Turning the corner from my parents' house, a short walk leads to the common …


… with the Isle of  Wight clearly seen on a good day.  Wow, looks likes there's no sea at all between the mainland and island! (Although, I think there's probably a good couple of miles of Solent to swim before you get over to the Island, here reaching Ryde.)

Normally we walk along the shoreline towards the sailing club and the ice-cream café - yes, what bliss! New Forest ice-cream, yum yum, served with a sea breeze - or a cup of tea if the weather is chillier.  This time, we walked towards the scrubbier part of the common, for a change, where there were plentiful berries to be picked and, presumably from a discarded apple core, a heavily laden apple tree, ripe for the scrumping!  A big trugful of nature's harvest - and just in good time for my apple pressing venture!

1 Sept 2010

Catching up…


Well, here we are again… I hadn't realised that I'd been away so long, the weeks have just slipped by.  (Did anyone notice?)  I wish I could say that I'd been enjoying myself on holiday somewhere warm - but, no. Truth is that the deluge of rain … day after soggy day … coupled with very strong winds was wreaking havoc in my little vegetable garden and I had to devise various Heath Robinson structures to stop everything keeling over.

My poor beans had been happily climbing up a ridge-tent-shaped frame of bamboo poles - but I'd forgotten to pinch out the growing tip. Gradually it became a tad top heavy and started to lean ever-so-slightly.  The problem was made worse as continuous rain softened the soil and the wind pushed it over as if the frame was being pulled from one end.  I had to duck underneath to get by!  All very well until someone gets hurt and one stick was, by now, at eye-poking level.

While figuring out a solution to the bean problem, the wind kept blowing and then I found my beautiful super-tall sunflowers had succumbed and collapsed across my fruit trees and crash landed on the potatoes.  The roots were ripped up but because I found them not long after, I was able to firm them back into the soil and start hoping for recovery… but that ol' wind kept blowing.


Time for some urgent action.  A hazel wigwam was dismantled and the branches used to pin the sunnies against the wall.  Hmm, gooood thinking. 

The beans, though, were slightly more problematic: I'd tried tensioning the frame with some ties, like pitching a tent.  That worked for a while but the wind got stronger and stretched the ties.  It was Leigh who found the solution: a small team of us dragged a very heavy builder's bag over to the veg patch as ballast and anchored the bean frame to that.  Looks ugly as hell but - hey - it works!  Should get a few more beans before the end of the summer.  And what have I learned from all this?  Next year, I'm going to grow my beans up a very sturdy wigwam!  (and pinch out the growing tip)

Elsewhere everything is a bit wind-bashed but surviving:  I'm getting some lovely carrots with excellent flavour…  (all that rain must have done them good)


The beetroot is getting awesomely large…

The bees are still visiting the last of the lavender…


And what I thought were wonderfully chic black chilli peppers are, in fact, turning a vile colour I can only describe as blorange.  Fingers crossed for improvements on that front…

10 Aug 2010

How to store your garden produce…


I have a vivid memory at this time of year of my grandmother sitting, colander in lap, constantly trimming beans, shelling peas, bottling, pickling, preserving, wrapping and otherwise storing the tide of food from my grandfather's back garden-turned-allotment.  With the advent of freezers and supermarkets this has become something of a lost art.

When I wrote recently of my beetroot bounty and of the saga of my onions (now properly dried), several people remarked on the usefulness of the book I turned to.  Camillap, who writes about her veg growing at Seeds and the City commented, "Funny how storage is something veg books seem to gloss over a lot of the time."   Strange, but true - as a quick browse through my gardening bookshelf revealed.  The shelf offers plenty of advice about when to sow, when to reap, what to do in between and recipes - but nothing (apart from the occasional chutney) on storing. And even one of my most experienced gardening friends recently said "I haven't quite got the hang of successional sowing… " as we stared wistfully at her mounds of lettuce, etc.

The lettuce conundrum sent me delving back into my copy of How to Store Your Garden Produce: The Key to Self-sufficiency (no, you can't store lettuce) and I thought a post about the book (from a gardening viewpoint) might be of interest. (There are, of course, plenty of reader reviews to be found you-know-where…)

The first thing that I immediately appreciate is that the book is written and published in UK.  Not that I have anything against books published elsewhere in the world, it's just that, in this instance, I recognise the ingredients, the quantities and the terminology which is very reassuring because I am, after all, reading it as an idiot's guide to getting it right, with the added comfort that any recommended varieties are more likely to be successfully grown in the UK climate.

The author, Piers Warren, puts the argument for storing your produce very succinctly in his opening paragraph:  "… with less than an acre of garden, you can grow enough produce to feed a family of four for a year but, since much of the produce will become ready at the same time - in the summer and autumn - most of it will go to waste without proper storage, and you'll be off to the supermarket again."  Presumably having chucked a goodly portion of your (excess, bolted or woody) veg on the compost heap.

This is the revised and expanded edition of the book, the first being published in 2003 with much less practical information.  The book is very light on pictures - just a few in the middle of the book which are wholly unnecessary and (say it quietly) a bit boring.  (The same could be said of the design.)  But that's not what we're here for.

There are two sections: the first covers various methods of storing, some of which were already familiar (freezing, pickling, jam), some nice tips on drying, salting and bottling, the difference between fruit butter and cheese explained (new to me) and plenty of recipes for vegetable wine.  I'm not so fussed about that, but it shows the range of the book.  Part Two is an A to Z list of fruits and vegetables ranging over slightly more than 100 pages.  The list is not exhaustive but covers the basics and more.  I was impressed to find a section on Horseradish (my teeny, tiny horseradish plant is now over a metre tall) with 2 alternatives for storage and a recipe for H sauce - and I now know that I can put the young leaves into a salad. Bonus!

I love that the author is a gardener first and foremost, then a cook - or possibly then a winemaker?  Each vegetable section has a paragraph of advice and tips on when to harvest (e.g. cut lettuce in the morning for the crispest leaves), recommended varieties (onions, for example, best types for pickling, best for storage, even a Japanese onion for sowing now and harvesting early next summer), and then the most appropriate methods of storing.  Not everything can be stored and, when that's true, he says so and offers other appropriate advice.  (Short term storage and successional sowing for lettuce.)

Some people have criticised the book for not having enough recipes; I think they're missing the point.  It's a book targetted squarely at gardeners like me, jumping on the Grow Your Own bandwagon and not being experienced enough to plan ahead or quite know what to do with the glut when everything ripens at once.  With this book at my side, I'm able to work out what I should grow next year to see me through the winter and spring - and what I should grow more sparingly for eating in the summer.

It's not the ultimate reference book for storing produce (particularly if you're the leading light of your local Womens' Institute) but, for me, is an excellent starter book on the subject and definitely one of my gardening books that I have actually read!

And the recipes?  Haven't tried any yet but Mushroom Ketchup, Spinach Soup, Spitfire Sauce, Rhubarb Cheese (I'm guessing same texture as lemon curd - yum!), Pea Pod wine (didn't Alys Fowler do something alcoholic with her pea pods on TV?) and Baked Beans have all got my attention.

Now I just need to find a nice, dry, dark, cool but frost-free cubbyhole to put everything in…


My copy of the book was kindly sent to me by the publishers, Green Books, in Devon. As they say "Green by name, Green by nature." Where possible, books are printed on recycled paper, covering topics which may appeal to the environmentally, ecologically or conservationist minded. ("Soil, Soul and Society".) You can find more information about the publishers, including their latest publications and where to buy, on their website.

5 Aug 2010

Eating - and growing - seasonally

~ downpour imminent … look at that sky! ~

Yesterday's on-off downpours over North London (yes!! hooray!) had the added bonus of me being able to sit, guilt-free, in front of the computer for a while.  I was distracted by the Garden Organic newsletter - they now have a Facebook page in which the One Pot Pledge is mentioned so I had to check that out.  From there, I found a page in support of a UK company called Freshly Forked (take a look, it's quite a good page to bookmark) who highlighted a website called Eat Seasonably, which brings me to the purpose of today's keyboard tappings.  Am I the only person not to know about this?  Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that I have found it before one or two other veg growers - in which case let me introduce you to a jolly good website if, like me, a little advice or timely reminder is always welcome.  Have a look under the 'what to grow now' tab: there's pages of advice, offers, events, etc.  I sent myself an e-postcard to spread the word, which I was hoping to show you, but it hasn't arrived yet… 

For buyers, rather than growers, of fruit and veg there's a fun interactive calendar (find it here) which shows what's in season in which month (see below, plus you can download it as a poster).  You choose by month or by veg;  I'm thinking this could be fun in teaching kids what's in season (they could try guessing before pressing the button) and also perhaps tempt them to try new seasonal veg? (Okay, so I'm an optimist…)

Personally, I found it quite intriguing to see what I should have ready in the Veg Patch, or the possibilities for next year. 


Although, that said, I've been hauling in a good harvest of beans (runner and french), lettuces, radish, potatoes, garlic and beetroot all this past week.  Although I probably could save quite a lot of it (freezer, drying, soup making, etc), I really enjoy giving it away to the people who have been so encouraging over the past months.  It's such a simple gesture and yet it seems to build bridges.
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