28 Sept 2009

The Day the Earth wouldn't move…

Back at the beginning of our vegpatch adventure, after we'd cleared the tiny walled rose garden for planting, we laid down raised beds over the newly cleared earth to kick start the Veg Patch into some sort of growing season.  The area around the beds is (or was) earmarked for fruit trees surrounded by other herbs and vegetables but, frankly, the soil needs a lot of improving. Recently re-discovered lurking under the surface are back-breaking clumps of pure clay.  Why I thought they would somehow mysteriously disappear goes some way to illustrating what an optimist I am.  Still, there we are.  Now I have something else to obsess over.

 My intrepid camera lens goes under the skirts of our beetroot crop

Nevertheless we have enjoyed, dare I say it, a modicum of success in our first veg patch this summer, and we're now all abuzz with preparation for the next stage:  choosing seeds for winter planting and clearing Veg Patch 2.  In Veg Patch 1, our Johnny-Come-Lately beetroot continues to grow - at this stage it's more of an experiment than a crop - all show and no substance;  the salad leaves are still delicious and abundant and the radishes continue swelling into enormity but are, curiously, still exceptionally tasty.

 Now that's what I call…  Ugly

Having tidied our tools away after our Sunday afternoon dig, we agreed the promised hour had arrived for a reviving libation down at our local hostelry.  As luck would have it,  whilst there I was able to corner our local gardening guru about our soil problem.  I now have it confirmed (on the highest authority) that we have to treat the soil with horticultural sand and revive it with well-rotted manure or at the very least recycled compost.  Righty-ho, then.  Well that's my spare time this week sorted.

27 Sept 2009

The Last Hurrah of the English Summer…

I'm unashamedly going to do the Brit thing and chat about the weather because what an absolutely great weekend we've had here in London.  Beautiful clear cloudless deep blue skies, the sort that make you lift your face towards the sun with your eyes closed to better bask in it, losing where you are in the warmth of the moment (and, admittedly, looking as if your brain has been abducted by aliens as you stand there wobbling with an idiot grin on your face).

The photos above were snapped when I went for a stroll around the flats with my camera on Saturday.  Everything seemed to have it's best party clothes on as the sun was shining.  Looking at sunny images of our fruit and flowers makes me feel happy so this could well be my inspiration in the long months ahead.

And another plus is that when I'd done basking and snapping, the sun had recharged my batteries and Things Got Done.  A few of us ventured into the Veg Patch for weeding and digging and afterward produce from our various growing spaces was used to make batches of  soup*, oven roasted tomatoes* and fresh bread - leaving me with just enough energy to pop down to the Regent Street Festival in the West End where a huge stack of pink and purple cupcakes had been set up - happy birthday Regent Street! (Even though it seemed you could look but not touch - boo! hiss!)

* Some of our team have very kindly said they thought these recipes sounded good, so I'm going to share the love on these later in the week.  Watch this space …

24 Sept 2009

Bring on the tarts!

Best enjoyed warm and crisp from the oven …served with a jug of maple syrup and cream

Time to down tools!  Well it can't be all dig, dig, weed, water, prune, now can it?  If there's one thing I find as satisfying as watching seeds grow into food, it's cooking.  Usually that's of the necessary feed-the-family kind (soups, roasts, stews, stir-frys, the occasional pudding - salad doesn't count) which I'm not knocking - hey, if something has to be done, you may as well enjoy it.  But, every so often, I get a real urge to do some slow-down-cooking, the kind that you have to not rush, the cake-y non-essential, put some feelgood music on kind (current fave is Norah Jones), and pour the love into what you're creating. These custard tarts definitely tick that box – and luckily I don't have to eat them all by myself otherwise I might have a teensy problem squeezing back into the greenhouse.

I know you'll be tempted so I've added a printable recipe here  – assuming you won't want your laptop covered in flour.  

Here comes the confession:  This is not my original recipe! - can anyone lay claim to that? However, over time I have fine tuned it from a number of sources to finish up the way I like 'em.  Really good ingredients will add to the whole happiness factor:  organic flour and milk, fresh laid eggs, cream, natural unbleached sugar, high quality vanilla extract – but I'm guessing you've all got these already, huh?  Occasionally I cheat with this recipe and use Bird's Custard Powder instead of cornflour, but that's okay in my book because Mr Bird created his custard powder out of love for his wife who longed to eat custard but was allergic to eggs.  (Sigh! What a lovely man.  I guess making millions had nothing to do with it… )

Don't be put off by the length of the recipe - it's just making the custard and rolling out the pastry.  It takes a little over an hour, leaving plenty of time for a sit down with a good book or magazine and a cup of tea.  And the finished result looks (and tastes) just beautiful - even if it has nothing to do with gardening.

23 Sept 2009

Make your own Seed Packets…

 This is a little overdue, but I hope you'll forgive me.  Two months ago I knew nothing about blogging and, since then, I've had huge fun learning how to tweak and fine tune this site.  There's a wealth of helpful advice from other bloggers about how to do this but this week I've had a problem finding a way of getting a pdf template to you all.  Hopefully I've now managed this.

So… following on from last week's promise of creating seed packets, I've made an A4 template (the size of a sheet of printer paper) which can be printed and cut out to make a blank seed packet for the kids to draw on.  (The template includes instructions.)

Because I wouldn't let this loose on my lovely readers without trying it myself, I've done some experimenting.  Most of you will have glue to hand for sticking the sides and be using that rather than tape, so I've made a few packets using different glues.  I found that PVA (white glue) left the paper a bit damp and 'blobby'.  Next I tried stick glue (such as Pritt Stick) but I think this will dry out over time, leaving you with a muddle of spilled seeds.  Finally, (my favourite) I used a gel all-purpose glue (UHU glue in UK) and this worked perfectly, although I had to rub the residue off my fingers.  Also, it's best to smooth the glue out to a thin layer and keep it towards the fold - it's best if the inside of the packet doesn't stick together!

Before filling the envelope with your seeds, your children (or you ~ I like to think there's something here for everyone!) should write down on the back all you know about the plant seeds that will go in the envelope.   Information such as when to sow, when they'll flower, how big the plant is, whether the plant prefers sunshine or shade, etc.  If you still have the kids attention,  the activity can be extended by taking a stroll down to your local library and check what else you can find out about your seeds.

The front of the packet has been left blank for a lovely drawing - or a photo, if you prefer.  Seal the packet when filled with a little bit of sellotape for easy opening in the springtime. 

My seed packet template can be downloaded by clicking here.  (I hope this works, please let me know if it doesn't!)

P.S. If I have any readers who would like this in a size other than 8 inches by 11 inches, I'll be happy to oblige.

18 Sept 2009

Coming up…

As I won't be posting again until Tuesday, here's a little taster of what's in store for next week:
  • Seed packets to make yourself
  • Felted art inspired by seed pods and nature
  • A recipe for Portuguese Custard Tarts
  • Recycled watering
All this and photos!  Really, I spoil you.

In the meantime, here's a meditation of the garden variety to take with you into the weekend:

He who shares the joy in what he's grown,
Spreads joy abroad and doubles his own.
(Author unknown)

Off to the country…

I'm away to the countryside this weekend, to stay with my niece who is an aspiring Urban Farm Girl and who keeps chickens as pets.  So, in fair exchange for a few new laid eggs to bring home with me, I'm taking a medley of our freshly picked garden produce, notably some of our magnificent lettuce (pictured above), giant radishes and parsley - but not the beetroot this time because the radishes are currently winning in those size stakes.

But all the seed harvesting has sparked a few creative memories and I promise that when I get back, I'll make a little downloadable template for making your own seed packets to keep your seeds safe until next year.

17 Sept 2009

Found! Giant Mutant Radishes…

Oooh… look what we've got!  And I promise I haven't messed with this photo, nor is it one of those trick photos that alters perspective!  This really is the size of the radishes we're picking at the moment and I promise you they're very, very tasty indeed. 

Luckily quite a few neighbours have confessed to liking a quick munch of radishes - is that another collective noun, a munch of radishes, do you think? - because we still have rather a lot, having rushed to grow all our seeds at the end of the summer. 

I'll just withdraw a respectful distance while you quietly salivate, shall I?

16 Sept 2009

Gone to seed…

Sweet pea pods - look how they twist round on themselves once split! I'm trying to be creative about how to use the empty pods; any thoughts?

After my recent thoughts on collecting seed from various plants, a quick walk around reveals how bountiful the harvest could be:  sweet pea pods, poppy heads, sunflower seeds, aliums, hollyhocks, wallflowers and runner beans - with courgettes, cucumber, tomatoes, pumpkin and peppers waiting in the wings.

I'm absolutely stunned because free seeds is something I'd never really thought about until now.  But the success of our little patch is inspiring very exciting thoughts of what's possible for next year - and not just in the veg patch but throughout all the gardens here.

Gardens and allotments are still (just) really beautiful and it's worthwhile going to take some photos while they're still flowering, fruiting, or otherwise good to eat.  Or why not, on a sunny afternoon (or a rainy one… it  happens), give the kids some paper and crayons and get them to draw the plant that they've collected seeds from.  And treat yourself to a big mug of tea, and five minutes peace.

Wallflower seed pods, splitting on the plant. Take a bag to collect these - the tiny seeds will get lost in your pockets!

15 Sept 2009

Just a thought…

"Green fingers are the extension of a verdant heart."
~Russell Page, Landscape Architect and professional garden designer, 1906-1985

What do you think?  Do you enjoy gardening - or do you prefer just to eat the veg?

14 Sept 2009

Last of the Summer Vine…

These little greenhouse beauties are just coming to the end of their fruiting season and in the spirit of learning about running a proper Veg Patch, I've been reading up about gathering seeds.  Yes, I know I could just pop over to the garden centre next year and buy some more (in fact, lots more as the choice is so great) but then we'd miss a valuable opportunity to teach the children about that whole 'cycle-of-life' thing.

The British Broadcasting Corporation, purveyors of Gardener's World and the Chelsea Flower Show (bless 'em), have this to say about gathering seed:
  • Choose a dry, windless day. Select a healthy, pest- and disease-free plant, whose seedpods look as if they're about to split. Cut off the entire seedhead.
  • Invert entire seedhead upside-down into a paper bag. Close bag without crushing seedhead and label. Place bag in a dry place for the seeds to ripen. (ooh, I like this one -  nice and neat.)
  • Check the seeds' progress regularly. When most of the seedpods have opened, tip out the contents onto a dry surface and separate seeds from any bits of seedhead still attached.
  • Store the cleaned seed in a small dry envelope, seal and label carefully. Keep in a cool, dry, airy place until ready to be used.
I'm not sure how this method would work for, say, tomatoes.  I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm picturing bags of soggy tomatoes slowly rotting - not good.  The answer would appear to be found in this month's Garden Illustrated, in an article called Saving Seeds (pg 24).  (I hope they won't mind if I just let you in on their tips for tomatoes. Maybe you'll go and buy the magazine, like I did.)

They say that tomato seeds need to be fermented in their own juice because the seeds have a gelatinous coating.  What you have to do (apparently) is scoop out the seeds, pop them in a jar with a little water and leave to ferment. A mouldy layer appears on the top of the liquid; it will have fermented once it smells slightly (3 to 4 days later). (O-kaaay. Not tempting me so far.) At this point, clean the seeds in a fine sieve under running water and dry on a porcelain plate (it's a very posh gardening mag). And this they call fun.

On the other hand, the Edible Playground recommends laying tomato seeds out on a sheet of kitchen paper and leave to dry. Might not work, but at least there's no smell!

If you have the time, why not find out more on these links:
BBC - collecting seeds
RHS - collecting and storing seed
The Edible Playground - Autumn in the Garden 
and, since I have your attention, please vote for us at The Little Blog Awards!

11 Sept 2009

The Hanging Garden…

Periwinkle (aka Vinca Major); small but perfectly formed -  cheeky purple asterisks peeking through a curtain of green - and much desired by gardeners in search of good ground cover.  Especially our predecessors - or did it blow here on the wind?  Whatever the tale, we're now inundated with the stuff. 

Over the years it's swarmed over the raised borders, swamping the lilies, choking the honeysuckle and hydrangea and fighting with the ivy climbing up the back walls.  Tenacious, indeed.

The original plan was to try and preserve some of it - if only as individual plants to exchange for seeds and cuttings.  But a few weeks ago the ivy was toppled by heavy rainfall (the day it rained solely over York Rise, seemingly), leaving it dangling over the Vinca like a surfer's wave and exposing the brick wall for the first time in decades.  Which was lucky really, because a) the ivy is so heavy it could have brought the entire wall down and b) nobody was standing underneath it - which might have spoiled their day.  Naturally, this has doubled the work involved to prepare this bed, so I'm afraid it's hasta la vinca baby, because we need to clear this raised border for sowing spinach, potatoes, onion sets, garlic and broad beans (no, obviously not all in the same bed - that would be a stretch, even for novices like us).

So, take a good long look - soon all this wild, natural and abandoned greenery will become the South Section of the Urban Veg Patch. (But perhaps not quite by the end of this weekend.)

It will be missed, but I, for one, am so looking forward to lovely, yummy winter veg…

9 Sept 2009

Inside The White House Garden…

(Screen grab taken from 'Inside the White House Garden' video.)

Yep. Inside the White House garden - and not manicured lawns but the little Presidential Veg Patch which has been supplying salad to state dinners these past months.  First Lady Michelle Obama talks about her beliefs in the benefits of home grown food, the tangible effects of this in her own family, and re-educating our children about food and diet so that the message is passed on for generations to come.  I love the fact that she's getting behind this message as the First Lady of Fast Food Nation - and not just talking, but doing

The video is also worth watching if only to see how they prepared their patch for planting (covering the essentials of soil testing and re-fertilizing), and a brief history on the Victory Garden which Eleanore Roosevelt had there during WWII and Thomas Jefferson's heritage seeds.
If you've got a few minutes (actually, 7.44 minutes) to spare, take a look.  I hope you'll be glad you did.  And I hope you'll be inspired to go out to your garden/balcony/windowbox/planter and sow a few seeds yourself. You'll be in good company.

7 Sept 2009

I am humbled…

   Beautiful fig image found on Flickr here and used under Creative Commons Licence - thank you!

I don't usually run an entire gamut of emotions on a Monday morning - especially before 8 a.m. But this morning this is how it went:
  1. Check Little Blog Awards. (Anticipation) 
  2. Curiosity - Have I slipped further down the list? 
  3. Satisfaction - still holding at 4th place.  (No real glory there, it's only the 7th of the month, but please Keep Voting, people!  Motivated.)  
  4. Curiosity - Glance back at Dorset Cereals home page where they have a daily feature called 'Simple Pleasures' - and what is having an Urban Veg Patch all about if not to indulge in same?   
  5. Pleasure (see, it works) - today's feature is Figs!  I love figs.   
  6. Nostalgia - remember delightful figgy moment in South of France some years ago (it involves pie. And that's all I've got to say about that.)
  7. Inspired and Relieved - struggling a bit up to this point about what to write today, previous jottings for post not really wowzy enough. (wowzy? did I just make that up?)   Possible solution now found.
  8. But, as we're choosing fruit trees (anticipation) for November planting, decide to add this to the order. Optimism.  Check 'About Figs' link for research purposes…  
  9. Which took me through to BBC Food website.  This course of action is not recommended before eating breakfast, you are liable to eat more toast than you had planned. With extra marmalade. And butter.   (and leads to Hunger - not really an emotion, but I do get quite emotional around food, usually along the lines of love, goodwill, pleasure.)
  10. And this is what awaited me: (read slowly) "Figs… At their freshest, ripest best, they are lush mouthfuls of soft pink flesh, fragrant and undeniably sensual… "  … uh… more tea, Vicar?
  11. Determination - to find an apt photo for forthcoming posting (er, actually, this one.)  Not having grown any fig trees ourselves yet, and being reluctant (Sloth) to find a farmer's market (or even, super-market) at dawn (okay, so it was really 7.30 a.m. but I think that counts),  I turned to the internet for visual help.
  12. Which is when I found the beautiful photo at the top of this post (Gratitude) … 
  13. swiftly followed by finding this:  

the totally beautiful Flickr photos of Alessandro Guerani (Respect)  
  • So (Escapism) diverted through to his blog … 
  • And then… Greed & Gluttony! … found his recipe for Figs with Honey, Almonds and Spices (although it sounds so much sexier in Italian). 
    And there we have it.  Humbled.  (Not least because this man apparently has rose water in his armoire of kitchen goodness - and uses it! - but also has the most amazing eye for food photography, putting all my efforts to shame.)  I'll just stick to digging.  And eating.  It's what I do best.

    2 Sept 2009

    Mister Blue Sky… where did we go wrong?

    Image courtesy of Edible Playgrounds website (see below) - Aww, so sweet.

    Rainy days, colder nights and shorter evenings signal the death of another summer. Call me stupid (err… actually, no, don't) but, yes, I am taken by surprise. Surely, this is indecently early? The last week of the school summer holidays should be filled with tantalisingly warm sunshine to taunt the children with the thought of the glorious days they'll miss once back at school. (Cackles in evil, pantomime way.) And give us gardeners a chance to bimble about happily among the fruit, veg and flowers in that beautiful late summer glow. (Instead of dashing back in to the greenhouse for warming mugs of tea.)

    Thoughts of sowing for winter food seem a chilly prospect - especially as we have to prepare more raised beds before the truly wintry weather sets in (adding cold to the current lashings of wind and rain) and I'm therefore glad to have stumbled across the Gardening with Children website and their blog. (Although the blog is more up to date than the website!) The site has been created by Recycle Works to inspire food growing in schools but is also full of fact sheets and gardening tips for family or small plot growers to pull us through to next Spring. There's also an excellent and extensive page on funding options if you're inspired to start a little project of your own.

    However, my Top Banana goes to The Edible Playground, a great website well worth exploring and which is given to us by yummy Dorset Cereals*. Dominic Murphy, Guardian gardening guru, gives really good advice. (Go on, try saying that out loud… I did, and it gets worse each time.) There's steps on how to start and, for the inevitable rainy days (in the UK at least), there's a trug full of creative projects to keep teachers, and parents, sane. Oh yes, it's also linked in to the National Curriculum. I'm in awe - they've thought of everything. Gold Star, chaps.

    *Ahem. Your attention please while I indulge in a spot of blatant electioneering. We're nominated in the Dorset Cereals Little Blog Awards - and despite opposition from some truly great blogs (I lost half a day to reading and only got to page 5 of their list) we'd love your vote. Or click on the eggcup on the right. Mwah. Thanks lovely visitors. Have a great day!
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