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
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...