18 Mar 2012

Impulse buying

Lime Mint in front with Broadleaf Thyme at the back
As part of my thoughtful gardening plan for this year, I went out shopping yesterday for some J Arthur Bower's seed compost.  It's the one that came out top for seeds and cuttings in recent Which? Gardening trials and, as I have to buy seed compost anyway, I want to get my plants off to a good start this year rather than sowing seed into any old multi-purpose compost and hoping for the best.

After checking various local sources, I found I could buy it in The Boma Garden Centre in Kentish Town, a small independently run company with friendly staff and interested customer service. I truly meant to just pop in for a bag of compost and come straight home...  but that wouldn't really be me though, would it?

Of course, having not been there for many years, I had to have a good look round, get a mental list of their stock tucked away in my head. Ooh yes, liquid seaweed:  I need some of that;  Bag of vermiculite? Oh yes please, excellent for topping small seeds, quickly past the seeds, whoops, no, back up, French Breakfast Radish? yep, add that to the basket.  Better have a check out back, it's not raining too heavily ... oh lawks, that's done it, I've found the herbs! Mmmm, hmm, hmm.... oh lovely, borage, better have some that just in case my self-collected seeds don't germinate; squeeze, pinch, sniff ... more thyme certainly but which variety?  Broadleaf looks good and excellent culinary usage, Lemon Balm? maybe later and ... ooh, what's this then?  Lime Mint?  I like a bit of the unusual and I hadn't come across this before.  Isn't it beautiful?  I had to have two.  One for the veg patch and one for my balcony.  There were many other lovely herbs that I regretfully left behind (I have masses of herb seeds in my seed box) but I may have to pop back for some violas from their extensive collection as I've just found a nice sounding recipe in Jekka's Herb Cookbook for Violet Apple Cake. (I have a few violets in the veg patch, planted there last summer but they're not quite big enough to start helping myself to the flowers yet.)

So, back to the new acquisition.  Lime Mint (Mentha x piperita f. citrata) will be a vigorous grower, up to 2ft/40cm, with purple flowers over red and green foliage. (Sounds heavenly.) Its leaves can be chopped up for cold drinks, fruit pies and fruit or green salads, yogurt and ice-cream; it has a strong flavour so a little goes a long way and it's best to use the young shoots.  It likes semi-shade in moist, rich soil and, like other members of the family, spread can be controlled by planting into a sunken terracotta pot. (Although, would I really want to restrict its growth?)

Now I just have to figure out where to put it and, preferably, in a slug free zone. (I'm finding lots of baby slugs and white catepillar-like larvae buried in the soil, this does not bode well for the veg patch this summer.)

17 Mar 2012

The Choicest of Beetroot

During the week I found time to get my red onion sets in and, in so doing, had to clear this last beetroot from the ground.  It was a tiny seedling that had not grown last summer through lack of space - most beetroot "seeds" are a cluster of tiny seeds and need to be thinned although, in this case, the overcrowding was entirely my fault in being rather enthusiastic when seed sowing. Monty Don recommends sowing beetroot in modules but I find it easier just to direct sow into the ground and have never had a problem with that method. This beet was not thinned but allowed to grow on as the surrounding beets were lifted and left in the ground over winter.  In a mild winter, providing you don't need the space, I've found that beets sown in the autumn will over winter very successfully and the small roots will be a welcome taste in early spring.

A couple of years ago I didn't even like beetroot.  Growing my own and experimenting with uses soon sorted that out. (Beetroot, parsnip and horseradish soup is a particular favourite.) Last year I experimented with growing different varieties of beetroot: Chioggia, Perfect 3 and this beauty which is Cheltenham Green Tops.  I first ate this as a starter course during lunch at Fortnums.  It was served with a goat's cheese and rocket salad, all beautifully dressed, of course, and so delicious that I sought out the seeds for growing last year.

I found that it was fairly slow to bulb up (compared to Perfect 3) but the young leaves are a delicious addition to any salad.  I tend to pull my beetroot when its bulbs are about 4 cm diameter, although slightly larger is still okay and smaller is even better!  Leaves pulled off the top will resprout, like a cut and come again salad.  Because I first saw Cheltenham beetroot in its cooked state, I hadn't realised that it was a cylindrical beetroot until I pulled up this one.  All the others were pulled young so were chubby ovals rather than long.

There are a number of ways of cooking beetroot; very young beets can be thinly sliced or grated and eaten raw; unpeeled beets can be washed and boiled, leaving the root intact and twisting the leaves off close to the root - this stops the root bleeding out; or, best of all, they can be roasted which brings out all the sweetness of the veg.  I've also grated beetroot into cake mix - chocolate beetroot cake is dark and moist although personally I'm not overfond of chocolate cake. This root will be chunked up and roasted, yum!

If you like beetroot, it's worth successional sowing to avoid having a glut.  In my opinion it's also worth experimenting with different varieties. This month I'm sowing a new choice, Merlin, and Cheltenham Green Tops; then, in April, will sow a row of Perfect 3 (still my favourite).  Chioggia is not going to feature this year - it doesn't cook well, losing all its colour, and I don't like the taste.  Bolthardy is another recommended variety which I've tried and dislike. I found the taste rather insipid and, as what I grow is all about getting the best flavour from my veg, you won't find Bolthardy in my veg patch either.

If you're interested in growing Cheltenham Green Tops, I bought my seeds from Garden by Mail although they're also now available from More Veg. My Merlin seeds came from More Veg and I pick up Perfect 3 in Morrisons. I think it's interesting that there are so many varieties available now; a few years ago the choice was a lot more limited.  Just shows how the upsurge of interest in food growing is driving the market - and not before time!

It's forecast to rain this weekend but I hope that I'll still be able to sow a few seeds. Happy weekend everyone!

14 Mar 2012

Tilth, we meet again

Having had an unintentionally extended break from the blog, I confess that it's been hard to put aside time to get back into the rhythm of writing. Weeks slip by with very little to report and no time to spare to research into meatier topics.  Although I haven't physically been active in the garden in February, mentally I've been visualising how it will be in the summer and trying to plan where I can fit everything in whilst also making the garden a visual treat. I've been reading Joy Larkcom's Grow your Veg, an excellent book to inspire and inform the laziest of gardeners and, as we head towards the spring equinox, I'm prompted into action.

Tozer sprout
Tozer sprouts from Victoriana Nursery:  a beautiful sight in the spring garden.
Last week my tiny balcony had a major tidy up, herbs repotted, seed beds prepared, pots cleaned and floors swept of winter leaves and spider webs. I have big plans for this space this year. Pigeons have found a tiny hole in my defences so a new net will have to be made and hung before prized seedlings are put out.  One big mistake was to site a bird feeder next to my aged (but still fleshy) mesembryanthemum. As the starlings and pigeons took command of the bird feeder, the tits and sparrows made do with eating the nearby plant and it's now just bare twiggy branches. I'm hoping for a Lazarus like come back in late spring and have moved the bird feeder.

Hellooo Ladybird!
Seven Spot Ladybird enjoying the warm rim of a glazed pot
And so onto the veg patch.  I was up early anyway on Sunday to collect a car load of Freecycled London stock bricks from a no parking area of Camden. Stacking them up in a corner of the garden afterwards, it seemed the perfect day to put aside chores and paperwork and have a little potter around, pulling up weeds.  Nine hours later, as dusk fell, I was still out there, having had the best of days. A whole day working in the garden without interruption, all beds were weeded and hoed to a fine tilth, straggling plants had been evicted, cat poo removed, tilting cauliflowers re-staked and anti-cat/fox netting put in place around one of the beds. I could see what was worth keeping (some little cabbages, psb and kale plus, of course, cauliflowers, sprouts, garlic) and what had to go (the last of last year's calendula, a few struggling sprouts and strawberries).

Looks promising - but has to go anyway, perhaps may be saved.

Strawberry runners from last summer have taken well; pity I need the space for this year's sweet corn, so digging them up is my next job. Some will be relocated elsewhere in the garden; most will be potted up for the Transition Town seed/plant swop or donated to the school gardening club.

My garlic is doing well at nearly 12 inches tall. Cloves were planted well before Christmas and netted against the birds; I'm hopeful that this year I'll get some good results. The perennial caulis are doing interesting things:  I think I can see shoots forming in the axis of the leaf branches - could this be the long awaited mini-cauli heads?  I can hardly wait.  

I pruned the raspberry canes a couple of weeks ago; the canes left at 50cm are showing buds or leaves, new canes are pushing up through the soil.  Some raspberry leaves were appearing quite a distance from the mother plant - is this usual?  I seem to have raspberry "runners" all over the place (or did, they've now been tidied as well).  

fruit buds
Morello cherry tree buds. Should be blossom very soon.

Fruit trees are all beginning to bud nicely so please pretty please let the pear and plum trees fruit this year. And I'm pleased to see that the 3 year old cherry tree which we dug up and moved before Christmas is covered in buds, ready to blossom.  

Now all I have to do is decide how best to use the space available.  This year, instead of random planting, I'm going to factor in growing times, companion planting, rotating the crops, the amount of sunlight and the direction that it comes from - and that's just for the veg.  I'm also hoping for wildflowers and a cut flower patch. No wonder I have no spare time! (But I'll try not to be away for so long next time!)

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