29 Sept 2011

As luck would have it ...

I just wanted to say a big Thank you! to Tracey at igrowveg.com.  She recently ran a comments competition on her excellent website, asking which winter veg we were growing in our respective plots or gardens and I won one of her prizes.  How thrilling!  It was my comment about the cut and come again cauliflowers flourishing in my veg patch that caught her attention; this is a vegetable that I'll be writing about in my next post.

So, I now have no more excuses for being tardy with my veg patch next year because I've been sent a Veg Patch Planner, beautifully illustrated by Siobhan McCrudden of EarthedUp.

Veg Planner

I especially like the January illustration, seen above, as this suggests that I should be feet up, in a large comfy armchair, snoozing under my seed catalogues with a large mug of hot tea nearby.  Ooh, I can only hope!

I was unaware of this shop site before and I know nothing about it except that there are some nice hand-illustrated garden themed cards and posters available and I'm always happy to support the work of a fellow illustrator.

26 Sept 2011

Stringing out your onions

Ah, the synchronicity of blogging!  Several of my favourite bloggers are writing about the storage of their onion harvests and, at the risk of driving people away through subject repetition, I need to do the same.  A quick look back at last year's post on this subject highlights how I've done things differently this year.

Last year the onions were lifted earlier and left to dry in a wire basket in Leigh's greenhouse.  I've since read that hot weather can start to 'cook' or soften the onions on the inner layers whilst crisping up the outside.  Certainly, many of my red onions needed to be used quickly last year and didn't store well, although the same method seemed to work well for garlic as I'm still using those stored bulbs. (And let's not talk about this year's garlic.)

This year I lifted the reds at the beginning of August (quite late) and the whites soon after, although I'd been pulling them both as needed for the kitchen since late June.

Last onions drying on upturned basket
I constructed a small drying igloo out of reclaimed plastic piping, some chicken wire and a roll of plastic sheeting. (I was lucky to find the pipes; they were clean offcuts from a local redevelopment project.) The onions were laid out in a single layer on top of upturned wire baskets (salvaged from an abandoned Ikea wardrobe) - this keeps them above the soil so that air can circulate all around. The pipes were bent across the bed and pushed into the soil at the corners, chicken wire was wrapped round the pipes and held up the plastic cover, the cover was then tied firmly to the piping struts at the sides and the ends gathered and tied to form a nice airy tunnel.  Ventilation and a moisture free environment is key for proper drying.

Certainly not a thing of beauty, the igloo was very effective and it held together (just) even in the strong winds we've suffered.  The onions had air circulating all around them but stayed dry and there they stayed for a few weeks until the bulb skins were papery but the leaves still had some flexibility.  In hindsight, the whites should have been lifted earlier as they suffered in the heavy rain we had end of July;  I thought they would be okay if left in the ground, I was wrong. In my defense, the leaves had only just started to yellow but the bulbs were beginning to rot as I lifted them.  (The good bits were swiftly chopped, blanched and frozen for future stews and soups, making sure any soft layers were cut out.)

Initially I brought them home in a big old rice sack but I needed to get them out of the way (my flat's not big) so I've strung them up using a combination of Matron's method (link below) and finishing off with a nice plait. I prefer to tie a double length of string to one of the first onions and then weave that in as I go, I think it gives the string greater strength.  Matron's method is to take the stem of the second onion round the back of the first stem, then over and round it's own stem.  Here's an illustration but check out Matron's wonderfully clear instructions:

Start with 3 onions, string tied round one.

Loop stem and string of onion 2 under the back of stem of onion , coming round above stem of onion 2. Then take it over and round the stem of onion 2.

Add in a 3rd onion and repeat: over and round back of 1st two stems ...
... then over and round itself.

Keep repeating with added onions.

As the string of onions starts to get heavy, split the stems into three and start to plait. (Bring outside stem into middle of other two and so on.)

Split double lengths of string and wrap - going in opposite directions - around plait to secure. Tie off and join string lengths at the top for hanging up.

Ta dah! 
However tempting and visually pleasing, it's not a good idea to store onions in your kitchen as this room can get steamy and hot and your onions won't store well!  As I don't have a garage, and my shed is a step too far when cooking, I've hung mine high up in the hallway where it's cool and airy - as in top pic.

25 Sept 2011

Seed saving

As well as noticing more bugs and slugs in the veg garden as the season revolves round into autumn, I'm also watching out for seeds.  Some will be saved for sowing next year, others have food uses.

Cerinthe, orache, sunflower and nasturtium plants are the ones in my garden to look out for as they are all prolific self seeders.  If the seeds are not collected, they'll scatter into the soil and pop up goodness knows where. (As I found with my nasturtiums and sunflowers this year.) Earlier this year I had to relocate dozens of tiny red orache plants that had self-sown from one underdeveloped plant plonked into the soil last summer.  I also bought one cerinthe seedling from Perch Hill Farm in Easter 2010 and collected the seed at the end of the summer; this provided enough seed for another 2 dozen plants this year.

Cerinthe seeds are very easy to collect as they're so obvious. Two large black seeds sit in the leaf bracts where the flowers were.  Here's the flower:

Cerinthe purple

and here's the seeds:

Cerinthe seedhead

When they're ready, you can just pick them off. That will be a job for this week. I won't be able to collect them all, scars in some of the bracts show that a few have already been shaken off by recent windy weather!

I've also grown fennel in my herb bed for the last two years - the leaves are lovely in salads and sauces if you like the taste of aniseed but are best cut before the plant flowers. A couple of weeks ago, I needed fennel seeds for a sauce and there they were, practically on my doorstep. They worked perfectly so I'm now going to cut the rest of the seeds for use in the kitchen; the main plant can be propagated from side roots separated from the main tap root.  The way to collect fennel seed is to cut the whole head then suspend it upside down in a paper bag although if the seeds are already fairly dry, make a paper funnel and brush them into this.

Fennel seedhead

I've read that fennel can be quite invasive - a bit like bamboo - but apparently makes a poor companion plant for other herbs so perhaps I've been spared the invasion by growing it in the middle of my herb bed! It's also worth knowing that whilst aphids find fennel thoroughly unpleasant, ladybirds, hoverflies and other beneficial bugs love it.

Sunflower seedheads drying

The other seed that I'll be saving, although not for myself, is the sunflower seed.  Last year I left the heads for the birds but as that encouraged a bit of random propagation, I'm cutting the smaller flowers when they've gone brown and removing the heads for seed and drying the stems because I'm hoping these will make good pea sticks next year.  The bigger heads will be cut and suspended as a sunflower perch, as illustrated in Dave Hamilton's book 'Grow your food for free (well, almost)'.

Other seeds I may be able to collect are nigella (love in a mist), calendula (marigold), poppy, hollyhock, wallflowers and nicotiana.  I've passed a magnificent nicotiana plant on my walk over to the heath, I may have to find the courage to ask the owners for seedhead in due course!

I wonder what seeds other people are saving?

24 Sept 2011

Saturday Snap: Just a Perfect Day

Actually, yesterday was the perfect day especially since it was also my day off! I was at liberty to go and drift through the veg patch making lists of what needed to be done.  I'd walked past earlier on my way to the recycling corner and been completely bowled over by how beautiful the garden looked in the morning sunshine.  So pencil, notepad and camera in hand I strolled, paused, sat, pondered, touched, ate, plucked (the odd weed) and planned.  Being Friday, with all the kids at school, it was so quiet in the garden that as I approached the Cerinthe planted next to the purple beans, I could clearly hear several bees busy collecting nectar.  The usual determination to gather every last drop of nectar was evident as they buzzed between the flowers.  And there I sat, on the ground, crouching low, camera in hand in the warm sunshine.  I have no idea how long I sat there because it was just ... perfect.

And this is what I came home with:

Aaaand on to the next one!

Finally! A clear and detailed photo of a bee in action!(Click on the photo and you'll be taken through to Flickr where you can see the photo in BIG full screen size.) Can't begin to tell you how pleased I am with this photo but it was a hard choice as I also snapped a ladybird dozing on a drying sunflower head, which is sort of cute and summed up the moment nicely.

Summer's end

Hope the weather stays good for us all, happy weekend everyone! (Our street party takes place today so I'm hoping to fit that in as well as gardening.)

22 Sept 2011

Know thine Enemy ...

Rootling around among the nasturtiums yesterday evening, lifting the last of the gar-leeks, look what I found:

Know thine enemy ...

Eeeeuwwww!  (But not so much that I didn't stop to photograph it.)

I have a horrible fascination for these creatures of the damp.  Beyond ugly and a right royal pest in the garden, they make a tasty snack for hedgehogs and frogs. That doesn't make them welcome in my veg garden so I have relocated this guy to the railway hedgerow and hope that he doesn't slither back.

I'm also finding quite a few tiny black slugs lurking in the veg, I think these are Keel Slugs that mostly live underground and can do a fair amount of damage to roots and tubers. Best get those carrots out and stored. I pulled up a carrot a couple of nights ago with one clinging on to it - such information is best left unsaid, especially about the dinner table.

I'm a firm believer in organic gardening and you won't find anything stronger than tomato fertiliser in my veg patch so it has to be natural deterrents to save my winter veg. I've heard of using coffee grounds and egg-shells as a mulch around the plants (a bit scratchy for a midnight slither) and beer traps to drown them - an option I can't personally use as I wouldn't know what to do with the inebriated slugs in the morning.  Recently, though, I came across PKS copper tools. When using these to dig the soil, they allegedly disturb the "ley lines" that slugs follow and throw them off the scent into a different direction, thus avoiding yer prize caulis. They're pricey but apparently work.  I'm about to order one (for they are indeed a beautiful thing to behold) and I'll have to report back on their efficiency.

21 Sept 2011

The Gar-Leek question

:: Gar-leeks unearthed ::
First things first, thank you to everyone who commented on my gar-leek conundrum. I've since pulled up a few more - they are, as you can see, quite definitely leeks (which is handy as I didn't get round to sowing any earlier this year) - and, despite my questionable sanity, I quite definitely planted garlic cloves.  Trust me, if I'd sown leeks they wouldn't have been nearly so neatly spaced. When planting garlic cloves, I get my dibber out (aka wooden spoon handle); my seeds, however, are sprinkled enthusiastically and rarely (if ever) transplanted neatly.  Ah well.  They're going to be cooked as leeks, although I'm slightly miffed at having to actually buy garlic in the forthcoming months as I've almost finished my store of last year's crop.

One very plausible suggestion, provided by Alex, has struck a chord:  "are they elephant garlic?".  Considering that elephant garlic is not true garlic but, in fact, a relative of the leek family, it seems that my garlic reverted to its genetic roots.

Reading up on the subject (as always - isn't the internet wonderful?), I've learnt that garlic sets need very specific TLC to thrive. And there's me thinking you just bung them in the ground and wait.  Suitability for the growing location and climate is a good start, as is planting in late autumn (early October-ish) so that the roots establish well before soggy soil and frost become the norm. (I've always gone for spring planting which, although possible, should be my second and last-chance choice.) Plant in free-draining soil (to prevent bulb rot) and, if possible, prepare the soil with a good layer of well-rotted compost to really get them off to a flying start. Mulch if the winter is severe and then clear the mulch off when temperatures rise and days lengthen.  Often the bulbs are triggered to set cloves by the lengthening daylight.

So, where did it all go horribly wrong for me this year?  Well, for starters, I planted my sets in spring and then the weather was unseasonably hot. I've now read that some varieties just will not grow in hot areas or will only set one clove or no bulb at all. The other (big) mistake I made was to make the cardinal error of growing my garlic in the same bed as the year before - although I improved the soil with a top dressing of compost, the sets were still at the mercy of any diseases left in the soil from the previous year; this, apparently, can be another cause for no bulb. None of this, though, explains how the leaves grew looking like leek leaves - although the bulb also looks like a giant spring onion or green garlic.  Hmmm, it will have to remain as one of nature's mysteries.

Am I downhearted by all this?  Not At All. On the contrary, it's amazing the knowledge that a year's hands-on experience will give you.  And expect my sister's Leek and Potato Pie on the menu sometime soon.

This evening I've just been out to lift all the gar-leeks; I noticed that a few of the withering leaves seemed to have a light sprinkling of rust.  Again with the research, and I discovered that this is an airborne fungus which lurks in the soil, only affecting onions and leeks.  Triggered by certain levels of wetness and heat, it's advisable to lift the affected plants and destroy the leaves.  Absolutely do not add these to your compost. The bit of the leek that you'd normally eat is still edible.  I think this is nature reminding me to read the rules!

12 Sept 2011

It's not exactly garlic ...

I've got so much catching up to do, I hardly know where to begin.  I want to write about my successful plan to dry onions outdoors (no space inside), my beautiful cerinthe flowers still pulling in the bees, my bountiful harvests, my Tornado tomatoes that are not quite what I was expecting, winter planting, onion storing, a great tomato sauce with fennel seeds, my Fat Baby Exploding Cucumbers (can't wait!) and so on.  For now, though, I have limited access to my laptop due to my son's A levels so I'm lagging behind and will (hopefully) catch up during the week.

So, this is less of a post and more of a conundrum that has me flummoxed:

To the normal eye, I expect this looks like a pot of tomatoes and two leeks. Yes? Err, no. Well, it may be.  At least the tomatoes are a certainty but the leeks are a real puzzle because they're meant to be garlic.   I've waited and waited for the leaves to turn yellow but, as the onions are all out and bad weather has been forecast, I thought I'd get on with lifting my garlic yesterday and starting to dry it ... and this is what I dug up. Lovely leeks. I swear I planted garlic cloves; I know they're all vaguely related, but this is a stumper - and it's wrecked my experiment.

I had resolved this year to try a garlic test:  One bulb of Scottish porcelain garlic from the supermarket, 7 chunky cloves from garlic grown by me last year and 14 Sicilian Red cloves from T&M all went into one raised bed in neat rows.  I wanted to test various theories about growing supermarket cloves versus grower supplied and also to see how my home-grown would adapt (they're supposed to improve year on year as each successive plant adapts).

And the results of my very non-scientific experiment:  T & M cloves -  none at all grew (could be the weather), my home-grown garlic clove became the smaller spring onion sized leek and the Porcelain Garlic turned into the big leek.  I haven't dug the rest up yet because, frankly, I don't need leeks today.

I would absolutely love to know what everyone else thinks about this! There was a small disturbance in that raised bed about a month after planting (at the time, attributed to a fox/pigeon punch up) but that only accounts for the T&M sicilian garlic going awol - unless we have some very clever gardening wildlife who know how to plant in very orderly rows ... (I'm discounting the gnomes and fairies.)

P.S. The forecast hurricane is not quite happening in North London - yet.  It is a very blustery, but dry, day here though!

4 Sept 2011

I love Wight

I've been away again, saying goodbye to the end of the summer by way of a quick trip over the water to the Isle of Wight.  I planned it back in the winter months when I longed for blue skies with fresh salt sea air and, although it felt a bit rushed getting away, it was well worth it.

I've been many times before so I was well into my comfort zone: roads, shops, caf├ęs and campsite were all familiar.  I usually camp but, this time, I hired a small caravan in my favourite site - a place that's been planted with many apple trees and been the worthy recipient of a conservation award several years running.

apple tree

The caravan made a great base camp and had a gas fire for chilly evenings - bliss! We ate out, bought picnics, and started each day with a swim in the campsite (indoor) pool before heading out over the island in warm breezes and sunshine. 

Stones, sun, sea
Sunny day at Freshwater Bay
Four days with minimum domestic chores was the best decision I could have made, I came back feeling totally refreshed - only to pick up a particularly virulent cold that's stopped me in my tracks over the last three days. C'est la vie - but very annoying given the amount of work to do in the garden.

The timing of my island jaunt was planned to coincide with an annual vintage fair that I discovered, quite by accident, several years ago.  At that time, I had a car full of camping gear, not a square inch to spare, and, frustratingly, came across vintage suitcases and wonderful old gardening tools, all reasonably priced. I had my fingers crossed that the fair would still be happening this year and so we ventured down to Old Winkle Street (a suitably named venue, if ever there was) in Calbourne on the Bank Holiday Monday.  Hooray! the fair was there; sadly, it had become a glorified car boot sale. Undeterred, I whizzed round while my son waited in the car - with his ipod, naturally.

This year the gardening tools were there, over- oiled and overpriced: old fork, £30! It makes you think, doesn't it?  Not what I had in mind at all and, although they had some lovely old wooden dibbers, I came away without tools.

Vintage garden tools
Vintage gardening tools
It seemed that the fair's reputation had spread over the years and, accordingly, was priced for the tourists not the locals. It was less about vintage and more like a charity shop. Gone were the Victorian lace making cushions, vintage buttons and old postcards, replaced with masses of decluttered ceramic and glass ornaments - objects I found very easy to resist. Thankfully, my visit was saved by a wonderfully retro stall with 1950s linen, painted wicker furniture and other ephemera and, yes, I did succumb to a vintage linen tablecloth which reminded me of the one my grandmother had on her kitchen table - seen below with some of the kilo of Cosse Violette beans which needed picking on my return. (The plants had produced one or two flowers before I left; I suspected I might come back to an avalanche of beans and I was right!)

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