21 Dec 2011

Book Review - The Fruit Tree Handbook

The veg patch has definitely embraced winter - I managed an hour of clearing and tidying in the garden at the weekend before my hands needed to warm up around a mug of hot chocolate.  I noticed that the branches of the fruit trees are now completely bare, in contrast to a couple of weeks ago when it was 'too soon to prune'.

(Taken on the day of Winter Solstice - so dark in the midday that I had to photograph in the bathroom!)
This year I feel much better equipped to deal with pruning as I've received a copy of The Fruit Tree Handbook by Ben Pike. What I needed was a book that properly explained the how, why and wherefore of pruning and, in this book, I've got it. There's an entire chapter devoted to the subject: read this and the brain fog surrounding pruning will magically disperse. Every pair of secateurs sold should be accompanied by a copy of this chapter.  For me, this is life-changing stuff and it's written in a really clear, logical way. No wonder I couldn't figure it out from a 2 page RHS handout - this one topic takes 22 pages to explain.

The author writes about the consequences of pruning lightly or hard, both immediate and long term, in producing both vegetative and fruiting growth.  Terminology is clearly explained, supported by very good diagrams - laterals, sub-laterals, fruiting spurs, growth rings, leaf buds, one year old growth, two year old growth: all of these are now easily identified.  Formative pruning, pruning techniques and a range of pruning tools are all comprehensively covered. And I now know the difference between tip bearing and spur bearing trees.  And that's just the general skinny on pruning; information specific to each fruit is contained in later chapters.

The book is presented in four sections plus a glossary, appendices, resources and index; pruning falls into the section on Fruit Tree Management and is followed by a chapter on identifying, and organically controlling, pests and problems associated with fruit trees. Detailed information in the chapter reads like a medical dictionary for fruit, complete with graphic pictures that drive the point home.  For me, this whole section would have been worth the cover price alone.

But there's so much more to this book.  Ben is a man who is passionate about orchards (indeed, he's the Head Gardener at Sharpham Estate in Devon where he manages two orchards containing 150 fruit trees).  So the third part of this book has separate chapters devoted to individual tree-grown fruits:  apples, pears, plums, cherries, peaches & nectarines, apricots - and other fruit (figs, quinces, medlars, mulberries). You won't find shrub or cane fruit in here - we're talking Orchards. Tables neatly set out the unique characteristics of each variety and are listed in order of their time of cropping: for example, I could pick Beauty of Bath in early August and, by growing a variety of apples, carry on picking fresh fruit through to late October with a Winston apple (sweet-sharp, aromatic and nutty). I had almost completed my preparations to buy more trees for the York Rise garden but this section had me tearing up my list after reading the recommendations for dessert and cooking apple varieties. Ben sensibly advocates taking some time to deliberate over the final choice to make sure that what you grow is right for your garden and your needs and for storage, if you so wish.  This is not something we did when the York Rise mini-orchard went in 3 winters ago as we opted for well known varieties: conference pears, braeburn apples, morello cherries and victoria plums.  I've realised that I now have an opportunity to broaden the scope of the 'orchard' here by growing some more interesting varieties such as Pitmaston Pineapple ("an old variety with crisp and nutty, small sweet yellow apples") or Lord Lambourne ("crisp, juicy flesh, sweet with balancing acidity").

Both the first and last sections (Planning and Planting an Orchard; Renovating an Orchard and Building a Community Orchard) are more probably targeted towards the professional fruit grower and of less interest to the amateur gardener who may only want to grow a few trees but that, in my opinion, does not detract from making this a useful reference book for both.

The book concentrates on growing fruit but doesn't tell you what to do with your fruit once picked; Ben Pike leaves that to other experts.  This is a handbook that reflects the author's love for the environment and for fruit trees. What you do get here is a wealth of knowledge that will benefit the trees in your care - written in an easy, flowing style that makes the information easily accessible and memorable, even for a novice like me. This is the author on the principles of pruning:
"Pruning fruit trees is a subject that seems to be shrouded in mystery. Many people, not really knowing where to start, are afraid of damaging their trees [...]; it is possible to harm fruit trees, either by pruning too hard, or pruning at the wrong time of year, but clear instructions and an understanding of the principles of pruning will allow you to make judicious cuts that will help your trees to prosper."
If, like me, you have any doubts about what to do when faced with any tree or shrub to prune, I recommend you give this book a try. You'll be in safe hands. And if you are yet to contemplate growing your own fruit, this book may just motivate you to find a space for a couple of trees in your garden. As the author says, by growing your own orchard, or just a few trees, you can grow the kind of apple that is perfect for you - with the added advantage of creating a habitat for all kinds of wildlife.

My (very grateful) thanks to Stacey Hodge at Green Books for sending the book.

19 Dec 2011


I've been giving the blog a gentle tweek - to my eye it still looks very cluttered - and part of that process is to succumb to joining Twitter.  I'm not sure that I 'get' what it's all about; it seems to me a bit like eavesdropping on someone's phone conversation and then being able butt in which seems a tad impolite.

On the other hand, it can be quite fascinating to read what random thoughts are floating around tweetland. Just this morning, for example, Emma Cooper has had the builders in, Mark Diacono has been drinking a foul tasting watermelon smoothie, Dawn Isaac is painting her children's bedroom and Alys Fowler is geeking out on scientific research. So, a sort of virtual chat over virtual coffee is taking place - or is it the internet version of Big Brother? Put that way, I'm so going off it already. Back to my books, methinks. (Although please feel free to Tweet me if you so wish.  The button is there, top right. I will join you over a cuppa.)

17 Dec 2011

An award, a prize and some parcels ...

I've had a really happy week. These last few days have brought unexpected and much appreciated surprises in the form of an award, a giveaway prize, a parcel of books and a winning entry in a photo competition. I'm not sure what I've done to deserve such abundance but it's certainly brought a smile to my face and given me a huge boost.

First, very warm thanks to Jo of The Good Life blog for including the Urban Veg Patch in her Liebster Award list. It's rather lovely to have this award as, even after a couple of years of blogging, I'm never sure if what I write is of sufficient interest beyond being a record for myself. Jo regularly takes the time to leave appropriate comments on my posts which is lovely to read and very reassuring.  I've been reading Jo's blog now for over a year - and very good it is too.

As other bloggers have said, it's really nice when readers leave comments;  it strengthens the online community and friendships are developed.  I've met some lovely people through blogging, this year has been especially rewarding in that respect and awards such as this are a lovely way of introducing the blogs I enjoy to a wider audience.  In order to accept the award, I have to follow a few simple rules:

Copy and paste the award on your blog - (check!)
Thank the giver and link back to them - (done with pleasure!)
Choose five blogs (with less than 200 followers) that you'd like to pass the award on to and leave a comment for them on their blog.

This last rule is where I thought I'd run into problems as many of the blogs I enjoy have already been chosen for the award by Jo's other blog nominees.  But after carefully checking that I wasn't duplicating anyone's choices, these are the five that I would recommend:

Suburban Veg Plot
A Life Less Simple
Lovely Greens
Erin's Urban Organic Gardening in Sidney
Charlotte's Plot

These are all new to me this year and I've really enjoyed reading them and getting to know their authors a little bit and hope that others will find the time to pop over and take a look.  (I would have added A Woman of the Soil, Wellywoman, Little Green Fingers and FlightPlot to this list but that would be flaunting the rules  and we wouldn't want that.)

And what about my other luck?  Well, it appears that one of my photos has earned me the first prize in the UK Veg Gardeners photo competition and I'm going to be the very lucky recipient of a pair of Felco No 7 secateurs! Obviously I'm over the moon at this but can't quite believe it as there were some stunning entries from other members. Congratulations to Mark at Mark's Veg Plot and Karen at The Garden Smallholder whose photos were also, very deservedly, chosen.

Unbelievably, shortly after the above news came my way, so did another email from Jo saying that I'd won the giveaway that she was hosting on her other blog, Through the Keyhole.  My two childhood obsessions were with reading and making things, whether by sewing, knitting, drawing or building, so I'm really looking forward to the arrival of Jo's very generous parcel as I've won a copy of Cath Kidston's book 'Make!' (as well as other lovely things such as a tin of fudge - mmm, yum! - and a book of Victorian niceties.) Perfect timing as, with a few days off over Christmas, I intend to indulge in a spot of sofa flying (as Flighty would say).

But I did say parcels, didn't I?  More than one?  Yes.  Because I've taught children's art clubs, gardened with children and our newly formed Transition Town will be hosting children's crafting workshops, CICO Books have sent me two rather lovely books to review.  These are Green Crafts for Children(35 projects using natural, recycled and found materials) and My First Sewing Book. Both are beautifully photographed with some very interesting projects to make - perfect for ages 7 and up and just in time for Christmas.  I have a weekend ahead of me and an enormous stash of crafting supplies so I'll be back with a review tomorrow.


The sun is shining here in London;  I hope that each of you has some sunshine in your day too!

Caro xx

9 Dec 2011

I've been eating Fat Babies (or everything you need to know about Achocha)

There's not many places you could put a statement like that out in the open and not get immediately arrested but, in this case, it's absolutely true. They've been plucked, washed, sliced, gutted and fried in butter. And then eaten.

Achocha softly spined fruit on vine

Fat Babies, the nickname for this particular type of Achocha, are my star experimental plant in the veg patch and balcony this year. Admittedly, I muddled my seed order and thought I was buying eXplOding Fat Babies so I was quite bemused to find that my babies were quite docile, if alarmingly vigorous in their growth.

I met gardener and author Alex Mitchell earlier this year and, over a mug of coffee in my sitting room, she spied the spiky Achocha fruits poking out of the vine growing across my balcony. Having just written an inspirational book about Edible Balconies, she was intrigued by this plant as I'd created a sort of mini Forest Garden on my tiny balcony. (It towered over herbs, tomatoes, chilli peppers, spinach, radishes, orache, beans, nasturtiums and violets.) But more of my balcony food growing later ...

Achocha fruit forming in leaf node

The seeds came from the Real Seed Company who describe the young fruits as tasting of sweet green peppers; personally, I find cooking them in butter reminds me of the taste of asparagus. (For me, this is good.) Other people have likened the taste to grass (less appealing), having taken to heart the advice that they can be chopped and eaten raw in salads. From my viewpoint, I'm just really pleased to be able to pick 'peppers' in December from the veg patch. 

Given the vagaries of the weather this autumn, I'm uncertain if this late harvest is usual but the plants grown on the balcony have just about finished while the plants in the veg garden are still fruiting - I counted nearly 20 fruits ready to be picked.  I'm guessing that this is because the balcony plants had only a small window box to grow in and only saw the sun in the afternoon whereas the veg patch achocha had lots more sun and open space. Nevertheless, the vines grew up and across the pigeon netting, easily reaching 10 feet long from one spindly, seemingly dead stem.They put out long tendrils, rather like peas, that reach out for anything to grab and wrap around.

Achocha tendrils

And, having found an anchor, form very strong spiral springs to keep their grip! An awesome protection system which has seen my Fat Babies sail through stormy weather this year.

Achocha tendrils clinging on

I had two of these plants growing on the balcony and the vines filtered the sun beautifully all summer. Down in the veg patch, one solitary plant clambered around a 9 foot high cane wigwam and then got all tangled up as the vines had nowhere else to go. The vines can reach over 16 feet long! Real Seeds recommend that these should not be grown in a polytunnel as they can apparently completely take over, which I can easily believe. I think the plants would look lovely growing over a big wooden arch, like a grapevine, but they're an annual so die back in winter.

Achocha hails from South America, its Latin name is Cyclanthera brachystacha and, although it likes a nice sunny spot to grow in, it will happily thrive in the UK as long as the soil is free draining  and kept moist. There are a few variants but Fat Baby have bright green flesh with soft spines and, if allowed to mature, large black jagged edged seeds which look like small flat beetles.

Achocha pods sliced to reveal black seeds

The fruits can be eaten at any size, small (about an inch) or large (up to 3 inches). The larger ones have to be split open and the seeds removed before being cooked. If the spines have started to go brown, I just rub them off. They tend to fall off anyway when the fruit is being sliced. 

I've added them to vegetable chillies and eaten them fried with mushrooms but they can be sliced into a salad or onto a pizza, particularly when small. I think they would also be very nice in a stir fry with noodles. In any recipe that calls for a green pepper, you can reach for several of these instead. The flesh is thinner than a supermarket green pepper (so less watery), the taste greener and less sweet. Because they're very small, you need quite a lot to cook with, probably at least 10 to replace one green bell pepper. But these are much more fun to look at. 

The original seeds supplied are non-hybrid (ie, will grow again true to the original plant) and the Real Seed Company encourage future seed saving of all their seeds. Achocha seeds are very easy to collect because of their size so, come next April when we're all starting over, if anyone would like to try Achocha, I think I might just have a few spare. 

Achocha fruits

6 Dec 2011

Beautiful brassicas

Earlier this year, Victoriana Nurseries sent me a parcel of veg seedlings for the garden.  I've already written of the much anticipated cut-and-come again cauliflowers.  I'm not entirely sure what to look out for to see signs of cauliflower heads forming but I assume that the lovely rich soil they're growing in will encourage them to carry on and do the right thing.  They're looking wonderfully strong and  healthy and must measure at least three feet across which seems like a very good thing to me.

Cut and come again cauliflower

Also in the parcel were Tozer brussels sprouts (and rambling strawberries but, for now, let's just talk brassicas). How exciting to grow your own christmas dinner sprouts - and purple ones at that! More by luck than judgement, they were planted into a patch of well-manured soil - which I now know is exactly the right thing for them.  I wish I'd known to plant them deep (up to the first leaves for stability) but they seem to be doing okay as I staked them young.  In fact, I think they're really rather beautiful.

Sprout tops

I would have photographed the tiny sprouts forming but they're in shadow as the plants are between a raised bed and a low wall.  The tops have been catching my eye for a while now - the colours are stunning as the leaves of Tozer are richly veined with bright purple.  I'm not sure my pic does them justice but the shot that I missed last month was when bright orange nasturtiums had worked their way next to the plants.  The orange/purple contrast was sublime but it was too dark at dusk for photography so that one has to stay in my head.  The tops can apparently be cooked and eaten like cabbage - Sue at Backlane Notebook has been experimenting with cutting off the tops for eating.  I'm not sure whether this will inhibit the sprouts' growth or whether this will divert energy back into the sprouts.  Does anyone have any experience of this? I'd love to know as I don't want to waste the delicious tops!

4 Dec 2011

Walking in a winter wonderland

The veg patch in early December.  As mentioned in yesterday's post, the slow onset of wintry weather has been kind to my veg garden (if not to me - I'm suffering with the beginnings of a winter cold today).

December strawberry
As seen on 2nd December - the last strawberry of the year?
Looking back to this time last year, it seems that I'd run out of things to say (!) and had suspended blogging activity. That probably means that all was quiet on the veg front and I remember that I didn't grow any veg through the winter - even my garlic and onion sets were planted out in the spring.  I recall heavy snowfall over south east England making it challenging to get to a family christening in Kent in early December.  I managed to drive there but was amazed at the sight of snow drifts in Central London and the Kent countryside under a blanket of thick snow!  This year is different.  My chilly, sunny, "winter" walk around the veg garden on Friday showed my echinacea (and primulas) flowering; if that wasn't crazy enough, I also found this just blushing strawberry (a one off feast for the slugs, I expect).

In the herb bed, fresh herbs are still available: sage, parsley, oregano, lemon thyme, fennel.  Nice to be able to put off buying fresh herbs in the shops, although most home-grown herbs can be dried, or frozen in ice cubes, for use in soups and stews throughout the winter. I should really make time to do this.

December Herb collage
Clockwise from top left: sage, fennel, rosemary, oregano with thyme at back
A few other edible treats are keeping the garden alive:  chioggia beetroot, just a couple of sweetcorn cobs (yes, still!), horseradish root (really must dig all this up this year - it's a spreader and will regrow from the smallest root; I want to grow it in very large pots next year as it's a magnificent sight, very structural, but the roots can go very, very deep!) and, hopefully, a few Vivaldi and Charlotte spuds. The potatoes seem to have resprouted after I thought I'd emptied the tub in the summer.  Apparently I overlooked a tuber or two.  I've left them to grow because, well, you never know ... !

December Ready to eat collage
Clockwise from top left: sweetcorn, beetroot, potatoes, horseradish
And that's not all - this year I have my winter veg to look forward to!  I'm hoping for a few Tozer (purple) brussels sprouts before christmas (they're tiny at the moment) then, providing the weather isn't too severe, I'm looking forward to cauliflowers, kale and more sprouts in the springtime.  On a whim in early October, I bought some brassica seedlings then didn't have time to plant them out (this coincided with visits to my mum in hospital).  Not to waste a perfectly good plant, I've popped them into raised beds that I'd previously topped up with well-rotted horse muck or compost and we'll just have to hope for the best. All being well, this will give me some spring cabbages and PSB next year - and I also have a big box of seeds to think about over the coming months.  The winter doesn't seem so long when you still have veg growing!

3 Dec 2011

On the First Days of December

Just popping in to show off what my true love (my garden) sent to me ... a coneflower with open pink petals!  (Tra-la-la, festive spirit in the garden and all that.)

So glad I had a finger-numbing wander round the veg patch yesterday morning. The sun was shining (but it was very cold), it was my day off and I had a couple of tubs of seaweed to drop off in the veg patch, not wanting to take them food shopping with me - and look! ...

December coneflower

As the Christmas rush started in the shops for a large percentage of the so-called civilised world, this little gal had been quietly unfurling her petals.  Cue flutter of excitement from yours truly!  Warm enough to tempt her to keep growing but too cold for this mere mortal's hands so I snapped this photo very quickly. There's quite a bit more still happening in the veg garden but, as I have to be at a workshop in an hour and I'm still in my pyjamas, the rest will have to wait until later today - if I can prise the laptop away from my teenager.

Gosh, looked out of the window at London's very leaden skies just now - quite glad I'm going to be indoors today! Hope it stays good enough to garden for everyone else,

Caro x

25 Nov 2011

Too Soon to Prune ...

I'd earmarked November as being my month for thinking about fruit. I need to move half of my 3 year old fruit trees to space them out more and I also want to order more: a couple of apple trees, a peach tree, some blueberry bushes and two sweet cherry trees. No problems there because the milder weather will make the work much easier than digging and planting in the biting cold.

I'd also thought pruning would be on the task list by now but no.  The cherries are the only fruit trees that are dropping their leaves. Plums, apples and pears are still fully clothed.  The raspberries that I've grown are late fruiting Autumn Bliss - they started fruiting in August and are still providing the odd handful. In any case, I've read that autumn raspberry canes should be left until 'late winter' when they can be cut to the ground. What does that mean? Does late winter mean calendar December or, more likely, when truly cold and frosty weather is upon us?  Do the canes drop their leaves so that I know for sure? Help! For me, late winter is the last cold month to get through before temperatures start to rise, possibly late January/early February. Could anyone shed any light on this for me?


Pruning is a subject I knew very little about until recently.  (I'm reviewing an excellent book with very good chapters on this subject, more very soon.) As luck would have it, last Sunday afternoon I was invited to join a fruit pruning workshop in a local community garden behind a block of council flats. Fruit trees planted there a couple of years back by the Carbon Army (BCTV volunteers) had never been pruned so the council had booked a mid-November tree pruning workshop for the tenants. Problem was, with weather still continuing to be mild (for this time of year), we weren't able to tackle much. The only bushes that were obviously ready were the gooseberry bushes which looked like bleached thorny twigs.

Pruning workshop
Tom shows a workshop participant how to prune gooseberries.

We wandered around looking hopefully at redcurrants, blackcurrants, peach trees and espaliered apple trees, all holding onto their autumn leaves, and were advised that it was best to put our secateurs away. Tom Moggach from City Leaf was our teacher for the workshop and, having explained about the best time to prune different fruit trees and bushes, the hows and whys of shaping an espaliered fruit tree and airborne fungal diseases, he then told us of the 3 D's of pruning (dead, dying, diseased, all should be pruned out) and demonstrated how to shape.  We were let loose on the gooseberry bushes, pruning out any of the 3 D's and crossing stems, cutting back the strong leader stems by one-third (to an outward facing bud) and then trimming back any other stems to two buds (again, looking for a bud that would enhance the open basket shape of the bush). Tenants said that these gooseberry bushes had fruited well in the summer and were loathe to chop them back too much but Tom explained that this would promote healthy growth for next season, allowing air to circulate through the centre of the bush and so reducing the risk of any problems from pest or fungal infection.  It was really satisfying to get hands on with the job and I think it all looked much tidier when we'd finished!

It was a very informative couple of hours but I'd really gone along to have a look at the gardening space (and available light) as one of the tenants has asked for a bit of help with growing vegetables next year.  I have to say, I think she's doing a pretty good job by herself (wonderful nasturtiums, made into pesto for the winter picnic) but the trade-off was being able to see pruning in action.  I'm much better off actually seeing something being done (and being able to ask questions, if needed, to confirm that I've got the idea). I've come away feeling that my book learning has been reinforced and, yes, have the confidence to know what I'm doing with my trees (once the leaves fall off!).

18 Nov 2011

Carrot characters

I may have spoken a bit too soon about the gloominess of the weather as we've had some lovely autumnal days over the past week. Fresh, breezy and crisply cold once you step away from the sunny spots. I'm always spurred into action by a bit of brightness in the day and last Sunday I found a few sunny spots in the veg patch that needed a tidy up so indulged in some warm lingering seed saving. Part of the tidy up involved removing some nasturtiums that were past their best; they were self-seeded from last year and had grown to cover the area previously occupied by onions and carrots. Once the nasturtiums (and baby snails and slugs) were removed, I found a good kilo of carrots still waiting to be harvested, although some presented a challenge to peel for the pot:

The good news is that none of them had any damage, whether from carrot fly or other beasties.  As they were grown in a raised bed, I'm uncertain whether this success (for the second year running) is due to the height of the beds or to companion planting them among onions.  Interestingly, I've also read that sage and rosemary make good companions for carrots. Worth a try for next year as both are very pretty herbs.

The main mistake was that I sort of forgot that the soil underneath the raised beds is not that great: quite heavy and given to clumping, if not obviously solid clay in parts.  These carrots are Amsterdam, a quick growing carrot that isn't supposed to get this big (but doesn't seem to suffer taste-wise for being allowed to grow on).  They've obviously encountered a few obstacles which have led to some very amusing results:

The self-plaiting carrot

The little walrus carrot

And my favourite:
Colin Carrott (by small child, aged 4)

Alas, they are no more.  They made a very delicious addition to a chicken and leek pie and a Root Veg Chilli.

12 Nov 2011

Saturday Snap: Mushroom magic

So here we are, getting on for mid-November: recent days have been damper and darker, with indoor lights needed by half four in the afternoon. Never mind, it's less than 6 weeks until the winter solstice when it all starts going in reverse and the days gradually lengthen. Looking at things that way, it doesn't seem too bad to my mind. Time to close the curtains and settle down with a good book and mug of tea.

At the moment, I'm reading a recent cookbook purchase of Veg Every Day, the latest from River Cottage. I've cooked up some wonderful meals from it, last night enjoying Mushroom Risoniotto, (riso being a tiny rice shaped pasta) a pasta affair with mushroom, fresh herbs and creme fraiche which was utterly delicious. Of course, I had to buy the mushroom ingredients but I did wonder, fleetingly, if I could have eaten any of these beauties found in the Veg Patch gardens - prompted by Hugh F-W recommending the use of "dark and flavoursome mushrooms ... include a few wild mushrooms if you have some to hand". (Nooo, I didn't; even I wouldn't be that silly! I haven't got a clue about mushrooms, unless they're store bought.)

Obviously the warm, damp weather conditions are just right for fungal growth in the grass. Apparently the presence of mushrooms means the grass is healthy; the fungi thrive by feeding off old plant debris under the surface and leave the soil in a better condition.  I was amazed at finding six different mushrooms in one patch of grass less than half the size of a cricket pitch.  Anyone know what these are?

Mushroom 3

There's something so magical about mushrooms (leaving aside references to Timothy Leary, any psychotropic happenings of the 60's and purported peddlings in good ol' Camden Market). For me, mushrooms springing up overnight will always remind me of misty dawn childhood expeditions with my siblings and my Dad, hunting for mushrooms on the airfields of Culdrose in Cornwall. The thrill of finding field mushrooms to take home for breakfast!

Mushroom 1
Mushroom 4   

Mushroom 2 Mushroom 6 Mushroom 5

And, seriously, if anyone can shed any light as to what sort of mushrooms these are, please let me know!

11 Nov 2011


On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month:
We will remember them.

(The British Legion is committed to teaching young people the importance of Remembrance, conflict and peace. Go here to find out more.) 

7 Nov 2011

From has-beans to stored beans

Looking out of the window yesterday morning at drab skies, I was happy to spend some time in the kitchen de-podding a stack of beans.  Having recently spent less time in the garden than I'd like, the last of my Cosse Violette beans were left to grow big and warty on the vine and, in truth, I'd had enough of eating beans, beans, beans.  The York Rise children grew beans up wigwams on their balconies and bags of beans were taken to elderly neighbours but, even so, I had plenty.  I've frozen a few but, having only the bottom half of my fridge/freezer for storage, there wasn't much space left after leaving a respectful amount of room for ice-cream (made in the New Forest, ultra-yummy, very essential).  Last year the elderly pods were chucked out with the vines when the beds were cleared;  this year, I'm thinking that there's food still there for the taking, a handful of beans will bulk up a soup or stew nicely. And, anyway, I haven't done this before so... why not?

So, before clearing away the vines and wigwams, I asked UK Veg Gardeners for advice and Elaine (truly a Woman of the Soil if ever there was) recommended cutting off the plant at ground level and, preferably, hanging the whole plant upside down in a garage until dry. As this method was impractical for me (small flat, no garage, dampish shed), I left the plants and pods in-situ which seemed to work quite well. (Probably due to mild weather.)  As the vines died back, the pods turned yellow and dry-ish which is what's needed.  I picked them before the drizzling weather started a few days ago and have had them finishing off indoors in my nice warm kitchen, laid out flat across those wire trays usually used for cooling cakes.

When the pods become dry and crispy, that's the time to shell the beans.  They reminded me of something mummified, perhaps to be found in the Ancient Egyptian section of the British Museum!

Yellowing bean fingers

But I digress. A twist of the pod will snap it open and inside the almost dry beans are waiting to be pushed out with a finger or thumb.

drying bean pods

(I think perhaps mine wouldn't have had that orange "belly button" if they'd been dried more swiftly indoors.)

The outer pods can be chucked onto the compost and the beautiful beans must be spread out on trays to further dry for a few days.  A warm airing cupboard is ideal but anywhere indoors will do.  Once that's done, and you're sure the beans are thoroughly dry, put them in an airtight container and store in a cool dry place until needed.  The beans will need soaking overnight before using, then drained, rinsed, topped up again with water and boiled vigorously for 10 minutes before simmering until tender  - or keep a few back to sow back into the veg patch or garden next year.  (If this whole thing doesn't work, the beans can be strung onto a long string and used as decoration;  it might look rather jolly strung around a christmas tree instead of loathsome plastic tinsel. Apologies to anyone who likes tinsel. )

Pebble beans
Hmm, just like pebbles on a beach...  
As I'm new to this drying lark, I turned to Piers Warren's 'How to Store Your Garden Produce' for clarification and followed his advice.  His article lists varieties of beans that are recommended for drying which could be useful next year;  these are: Marie Louise (pink/purple two toned beans), Czar (large butter beans), Pea Bean (the one that looks like tiny killer whales), Borlotto (we all know this one with its lovely red speckled pods) and Cannellini beans (good for making your own baked beans).  I also like the sound of Canadian Wonder, a dwarf French bean whose young pods can be eaten whole or can be left to mature for red kidney beans. I do love a nice chilli!

5 Nov 2011

Saturday Snap: Calendula Officinalis

All summer long I've been bowled over by the wonderful bright orange blooms of the calendula (aka Pot Marigold) in the veg patch.  The seeds were sown in late May and took a while to get going but have really been making up for it over the past three months and the plants are still flowering abundantly in early November!


The colour is such an intense orange that, despite taking numerous photos over the summer, I've never felt that they've done the flowers justice. This afternoon, just as the light was fading around 3.30 and rain threatened, I quickly tried once more and, this time, I'm quite pleased with the result.  You can just see the start of the raindrops on the petals!

Mine were grown to bring in the hoverflies and bees and did an excellent job but they also, apparently, reduce soil eelworm. They're a beautiful flower to look at, growing to about 18 inches high, but calendula is a herb and I really should have used it in cooking.  (There's still time.)

Fresh calendula petals can be sprinkled over salads and boiling the petals produces an edible yellow dye that will colour rice, hence the nickname "poor man's saffron". Dried petals can also be used to season and flavour soups and cakes. The petals should be picked early in the morning (preferably on a bright, sunny day but I think I may be a tad late for that) and dried quickly in the shade. As a bonus, the flowers are high in vitamins A and C which I didn't know before and is useful information to have at the onset of winter. Similarly, tea made from the petals will aid circulation (useful) or can be used as a hair rinse to add golden tones to auburn hair. (Not so useful, and unlikely to have me reaching for the secateurs.) Something worth noting for next year is that calendula is a good companion plant for tomatoes.  Wow, I love the idea of all those reds and oranges growing together!

Year on year I get a bit  more organised around planning in the veg patch so it's worth knowing that calendula seeds, like sweet peas and broad beans, can be sown in the autumn to give them a head start for the following year.  If they're happy where they are, they're highly likely to self-seed and I did have one or two from last year so, together with self-seeding sunflowers, nasturtiums, orache and cerinthe, it looks like the veg patch might slowly be turning into the flower garden!

2 Nov 2011

Small but perfectly formed

Sweet corn cobs

According to the BBC weather last night, there's a bank of mild but wet weather heading across the country so today's sunshine made it a day to be treasured.  Like many people, I'm slightly thrown when the clocks are altered, both Spring and Autumn.  I don't mind the darker evenings so much when we have days like today:  bright, breezy, dry and mild.  Perfect for a walk on the heath, perfect for watching the leaves fluttering down to the pathway (must take a large sack with me next time I go), perfect for getting the laundry done.  And, for the time being, the lighter mornings are very motivational which makes them perfect for a wander round the veg patch before work.

This morning, I was up at 6.30 (still light enough to make me jump out of bed with a determination to get on with the day), had two loads of washing flapping on the lines by 8 a.m, back upstairs for a spot of brekkie whilst making lunches and then down to the veg patch for a wander in the warm sunshine.

This mild autumn weather we're having may have got the plants confused but it's given my sweetcorn cobs the final shove they needed to ripen.  Frankly, after the disastrous start to growing them back in May, and having to start again in June, then a failed 'Three Sisters' experiment leading to replanting in July, I'd abandoned any thoughts of enjoying freshly picked cobs this year.  The plants were left where they were because I like the look of them in the veg patch!  This morning, though, I found that every plant has at least one plump-ish cob, the silks having turned brown and, peeling back the outer layers, golden kernels are to be found within. Yum.

Corn cob
This looks impressive but I have very small hands!

At this rate, I may even risk sowing a row or two of spinach ... !

1 Nov 2011

The Jewel in Mum's Garden

I just want to say thank you to everyone who wished my mum well after her recent accident.  Having spent three weeks in hospital (she suffered quite a blow to the head when she fell), she's now home and slowly making her way back to normal life, albeit finding that the spirit is willing whilst the flesh is still weak, to paraphrase.  My dad is with her and they're muddling along nicely together which is what they like. Next year will mark 60 years since they met! (And, very sweetly, they still hold hands as they sit next to each other.)

Cosmos Cloud

During recent visits to the parental domicile, one of my favourite things was to look out into the garden throughout the day and see this beautiful cloud of pink cosmos. My sister Julia grows lots of flowers every year for Mum and, while she swears she's not a gardener, I'd beg to differ as I've never had any luck with cosmos and these are truly uplifting.

Cosmos close up

They're planted against an east facing wall so get morning sunlight and warmth for several hours of the day.  The soil is very dry but, even so, the plants are still budding and flowering even at this very late stage.

An almost flower

I've just finished reading Monty Don's account of The Jewel Garden where he talks of his chocolate cosmos still presenting a striking display in October; is this usual, I wonder? If so, cosmos is definitely one for my garden next year.

Cosmos buds

16 Oct 2011

Well, colour me happy!

Excuse the gi-normous photo, but I couldn't resist! Everyone is relishing this lovely warm spell of weather and these are a few of the plants still brightening up the veg patch.  They're also causing me to carefully rethink my winter planting as I need the space but don't want to rip out plants (such as the nasturtiums) that are still flourishing! I've been told to be more ruthless but just can't. I'm happy to let nature take its course.

Another day of bright and breezy sunshine means my washing is flapping itself gently dry on the lines outside and I can hoof it down to the veg garden to sit on a warm wall and seed save over a coffee. Next up will be tidying and, perhaps, I might risk sowing a few spinach seeds, maybe some peas, pak choi and hardy carrots. I'm in an optimistic mood and looking forward to spending time in the garden. I won't post now until later next weekend; I'm away next week to look after my lovely dad while my beloved mum is in hospital. She's been very ill after a nasty fall which caused a bash to the head and she needs to be in hospital for a while;  I hope this lovely weather is putting a sparkle into her day as well and encouraging her to get better.

Happy gardening everyone, let's make the most of this warm autumn!
Caro x

Edited to add:  Ooops, I spoke too soon - it's just clouded over here!  (Still looking forward to gardening though!)

15 Oct 2011

Saturday Snap! Chilli re-growth

Here in London, we're experiencing what I can only describe as a glorious summer's day.  Although there was a distinct snap in the air at the beginning of the day, there's real warmth in the sunshine.  All this lovely warmth and mild weather is completely confusing my plants.  There's me trying to make ready for the winter (which I'm sure is due fairly soon!) and the plants are seemingly putting in one last effort before this year's growing season ends.  Look what I found this morning on my chilli plant:

Chilli regrowing
:: October Chilli plant, regrowing nicely ::
There's actually half a dozen pods like this on this plant (better than it did in the summer!) This is a plant which is not protected in any way but just sits on my balcony where it gets a few hours of sunshine, when available, and is buffeted by wind!  These new pods are a couple of inches long already and I suspect would pack quite a punch when cooked!  The pods should mature to about 3 inches long, changing through a banana yellow colour to deep red.  I wonder how far they'll get before the weather changes?

There's also a fair amount of colour lingering in the veg patch and it was interesting to watch Monty D on Gardeners World last night talking about how much colour there is in his garden at Long Meadow.  I'm intrigued that his sweet peas are still flowering energetically - obviously, next year, I should be picking mine more often.  And, although I've already ordered my sweet peas for next year, I really liked the one named after Monty, a glorious deep red.  Yumm!  (I suspect I could squeeze a few in!)

13 Oct 2011

The Constant Cauliflower

Constant cauli
How long before the pigeons spot this beauty, I wonder?

I've taken my time in writing about the wondrous cauliflowers that I'm growing as I wanted them to get really established first.  Earlier in the year, Stephen Shirley, who I met through UK Veg Gardeners, offered me a selection of veg from his family's business, Victoriana Nurseries in Kent.  The Victoriana website has an extensive range of tempting fruit and veggies and, as a result, choosing - always difficult for me - took some time; I wanted to grow veg that would capture the imaginations of the children here.  Eventually I ordered Tozer brussels sprouts (a beautiful red variety, hopefully gracing this years christmas dinner), Strawberry Popcorn, Rambling Cascade strawberries and Cut and Come Again Cauliflowers.  My order went in very late in the season so we all wondered if the plants would perform well, especially in the case of the Strawberry Popcorn, and Stephen's wife Serena kindly threw in some green brussels sprouts for good measure.  

I'm pleased to say that nearly 3 months on, by following the planting instructions and preparing the soil well, the caulis and brussels are doing really well.  The strawberries are also looking good, with recent warm weather they'll have developed really strong root systems ready for next summer and then we'll see them really flourish! The sweetcorn didn't survive but it's a plant that I'll go back to next summer, if only for the novelty - who doesn't love freshly made popcorn?

But it's the caulis that are going to be the magical, mystery plant of the veg garden - even I hadn't appreciated the full uniqueness of this plant.  In late summer, I was invited to a little evening celebration at the home of Mark "Vertical Veg" Ridsdill-Smith who had discovered he lived around the corner from me. He was celebrating a good year for his business including featuring in Alex Mitchell's recently published book The Edible Balcony. Standing in the kitchen, eating some delicious home-made focaccia, I uttered the phrase "perennial cauliflower" and the room of foodies and gardeners fell into an awed silence. "Perennial Cauliflower? What? Is it true? Does it work? Why have I never heard of this before?" Ooh, I created quite a stir, I can tell you! You'd think I'd revealed how to spin straw into gold.

So, for those who missed the ensuing conversation, this is what I'm told will happen: Each plant will produce up to 10 mini cauliflower heads on a branching system not dissimilar to broccoli. At the end of the season, where other caulis would be cleared from the garden, perennial cauliflowers are just tidied up and left. Not even cut down to resprout; no, no - just left. Come next winter, off they go again producing another crop of mini cauliflowers and so on, and so on, for up to another 5 years. I'm a little bit excited by this plant, I can tell you, and looking forward to seeing the first round of produce. 

cauli with apple

I've planted mine inbetween the fruit trees in the walled border where the strawberries will ramble between them in the summer.  They won't be in the way there because that's the border that I have to, rather inconveniently, climb into when there's work to be done so it makes the perfect spot for plants that can fend (for the most part) for themselves.

Edited to add: I'll be adding more photos of the caulis as the heads develop over the winter season. I'm told that the plants produce mini-heads of cauliflower; I assume this will be a bit like the baby veg found in the supermarket. Sounds perfect to me, a plant that gives cauliflower in one portion sizes!
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