31 Oct 2013

There's a wallaby in our playground!

A bit of excitement and drama at York Rise this morning. When I opened the kitchen blinds this morning, I wondered why there were people standing around looking into our playground.  As I watched, a wallaby bounded into view! Naturally, I grabbed my camera and rushed downstairs for a closer look.


As far as I can gather, the story goes that it had somehow found its way onto the lower end of our flats very early in the morning, sat around quietly for a while in the gardens and then a group of tenants and workmen carefully herded it into our playground to save it from bolting into the nearby streets and traffic. Luckily the fencing had been replaced a couple of years ago so the area is like a huge secure cage - although at one point, the wallaby tried - and nearly succeeded - to get to freedom under the fence!

While we waited for the RSPCA to arrive, word quickly spread and families with children arrived to stare at this wonder - a wallaby in our playground!!  Better than going to the zoo!  The excitement! As the animal kept mostly to the perimeter fence, we were all able to get a really close up look, which felt like a rare privilege although the creature must have been quite alarmed!

So what was it doing here?  A recent story in our local paper reported a couple of wallabies having taken up residence in Highgate Cemetery, about 10 minutes stroll from where I live.  No-one quite knows how they got there - or even if there's one or two wallabies - but the cemetery managers refused an offer from London Zoo to tranquillize the wallaby and take it away, saying that it was a good tourist attraction and they were keeping it in a secure place.  Hmm, not that secure it would seem!

The editor of our local paper, Dan Carrier, lives just around the corner so he also hotfooted it around to get the scoop for his paper - and, in the process, got involved in helping to keep the wallaby in the playground and then helped the RSPCA to unload him safely into the van.

Leigh Summers (RSPCA) and Dan Carrier (CNJ)

Ever the newspaperman, one of the children remarked that Dan was still taking photos with one hand while helping to get the wallaby into the RSPCA van with the other! His full story was up on the CNJ website within the hour with those photos.  Great work, Dan!


Here's the captured wallaby inside the RSPCA van.  He'll be taken to an exotic animal centre near to Heathrow where his future will be decided.

PS. I've just had a visit from ITN who will be covering the story on London Tonight this evening ... and guess who took the video and photos they're going to use?  That'll be me.  *blush*

So much excitement and I still have the Fortnum and Mason Great Pumpkin Carving competition to attend today.  I'll need a lie down after this!

26 Oct 2013

A Capel Moment (2)

Maybe I'm more than a little in love with plants but every week during my college day, there comes a moment when I'm reaching for my camera.  These photos don't quite fit into my veg patch posts so I'm going to start a little regular Thursday or Friday post to show my Capel Moment.

This week, it was a hard choice between the crabapple tree at the top of the last post and this, the third year of the Miscanthus trial bed in the Which? gardens.  It has to be said that I'm a big fan of Piet Oudolf and his prairie style planting.

Miscanthus trial

Have a great weekend everyone!  There's a storm forecast for south of UK so I'll be spending time in the garden today, preparing beds for bulbs and beans and making sure all is secure. 

A Capel Moment

Crab apples
~ Malus x robusta 'Red Sentinel' in the Which? trial gardens ~

Thursday's glorious weather coincided with my day at college and provided the perfect opportunity for an extended walk through the Capel Manor gardens in my lunchbreak.  Access to the gardens is one of the great attractions of studying at the Enfield site; there are 35 acres to explore: gardens, trees, woodland, ponds and the walled manor garden as well as the Which? trial gardens. After studying there for over a year, I'm still finding new plants to look at or revisiting more familiar plants as they change with the seasons.

As a food grower at home, I've noticed a few edible plants tucked into the gardens. Some are replanted after a trial has finished, such as the excellent and delicious Brice raspberries I found two weeks ago when I sat to have lunch behind a bank of Gaura lindheimeri (helloooo pudding!), others are grown as ornamentals. There are some gorgeous plump (false) quinces on a Chaenomeles x superba 'Red and Gold' at the moment and I found medlars and a mulberry tree in another of the gardens a few weeks ago. I checked back and the medlars are still there, untouched.


And then we come to the spice and herb selection:  The conicle flowers of a large Rhus typhina tree could be dried and ground to make Sumac - but I'd need a ladder to reach them! The spice is commonly used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking, imparting a tart lemon flavour that also lends itself to salads. The flowers can also be used to make pink lemonade and beekeepers can use them to smoke their hives (or so I'm led to Wiki-believe).  There are herbs dotted throughout the gardens: low hedges of rosemary or lavender, bronze and green fennel in the borders and, in the 'kitchen garden' of the manor ruins (a concept garden to tell the history of the site), horseradish, thyme, mint, marjoram and more fennel. There are even edible berries on shrubs such as Cornus kousa and Cornus mas (Cornelian Cherry) although personally I think those are best left for the birds.

My route from the design studio to the restaurant takes me past many of the ornamental show gardens so I see those regularly; yesterday I fancied a wander further afield around the trial gardens. It's always interesting to see what the Which? gardeners are growing before reading about it in the magazine.

Fallen apples

I've never found the orchard before and I was appalled to see so many apples and pears lying on the ground just rotting.  What a waste! I know there's a lot to be done at this time of year but I couldn't help thinking that surely the time could have been found to gather the apples before they fell? There was a couple left on one tree, one of which became part of my lunch - an extremely crisp and juicy green apple, I can't name the variety as I couldn't find a tag by the tree but it was delicious!

Wandering on, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a glorious crab apple tree which I remember as Malus x robusta 'Red Sentinel' from last year's plant knowledge (photo at top).  I also remember fruit dangling off the bare stemmed tree in January, another harvest left to be, as with all the crab apples in the ground.

Even the walled manor house garden is not immune - there I saw Cavolo Nero kale popped in among the cosmos which I thought was an idea worth copying! There's certainly no shortage of inspiration or food on a Thursday college day!

Kale and cosmos

19 Oct 2013

Sea Spring seeds

Before I move on from the London Harvest Festival show, I just wanted to thank Joy at Sea Spring seeds for the time that she took to chat to me about selecting and growing chillies. One advantage of going to shows like this is that the trade stands, often small businesses, are usually very generous with advice and Joy was no exception.

chilli display
Sea Spring Seeds marvellous display of chilli plants.

Joy (and her husband) are very experienced chilli growers and I, sadly, am not. I have managed to coax a chilli or two out of a plant in the past but the results have certainly been nothing to boast about. This year I didn't grow chillis at all as my windowsills were full of tomato seedlings and I don't use chillies that often in cooking. However, I do like the look of a flourishing plant - and Joy's were certainly that!

Joy, Sea Spring Seeds
In between serving other customers, Joy took the time to talk to me about the chillies (and tomatoes) that would work for me, i.e. grow well outdoors, without a greenhouse. Her advice emphasised the importance of choosing wisely to suit the growing conditions - Sea Spring have 50 varieties of chilli to choose from!

I was very taken with one of the display plants, an Apricot chilli with a mild heat, but was navigated away by Joy from certain grower's frustration as I was warned these definitely need the warmth of a polytunnel or greenhouse to thrive.

Leaflets about the differing heat values of the chilli seeds available were a useful reminder as I like a fairly mild heat. All I knew before was that Scotch Bonnet chillis are very hot as, I think, are the little Birds Eye chillis. Look at the heat factor of 'Apricot' compared with the Dorset Naga chilli!!

Joy explained that chilli seeds should be sown in February, need a minimum and steady temperature (27°C) to germinate (a heated propagator is best for this) and, once they have two true leaves, they can be pricked out, grown on in a mini-greenhouse (in my case) and then transferred outside. They can be quite hardy plants and, as ever, choosing the right plant for the growing conditions that you have is of paramount importance.

After lots of good advice, I chose a packet of Thai Green Curry seeds, a spice chilli (Capsicum annuum) where the long green pods can be harvested green or allowed to turn a beautiful deep red, still without excess heat. Mmm, I'm seeing strings of dried chillis hanging round my kitchen already!

Thai Green Curry
'Thai Green Curry' plant on Sea Spring display.
And this is the one that got away - 'Apricot' chilli - mild of heat and beautiful to behold. One to bookmark if I ever get a greenhouse!

Apricot chilli

In addition to chilli seeds, I also took advantage of Joy's good advice about tomatoes and other seeds on sale and bought 'Sungold' and 'Maskotka' tomatoes, 'Toma Verde' physalis (a sort of Mexican green tomato) and Scarlet Kale to sow as a cut and come again crop; with 200 seeds in the packet, I might try sowing a few under cover now, just to see what happens.

16 Oct 2013

Behold the Giant Pumpkin

There are days when everything seems to fall into place nicely. Last Tuesday, for example, a window of opportunity opened up in my working schedule enabling me to get to the giant veg show that is the RHS London Harvest Festival in Westminster. Even better, the sun was shining and very warm which was welcome during the 10 minute walk from the underground to the RHS halls. I went via Pimlico, my old stomping ground so I know the streets well; it's always nice to stroll through quiet tree lined streets in good weather.

Giant pumpkins
Prize winning giant pumpkins - the red rosette denotes First Prize.

Despite being an avid grower of veg, I have to admit I've never been to a proper horticultural show before. I can only describe the sight of those first giant pumpkins as I entered as A Thrilling Moment. They were undoubtedly the show stoppers although a wide-eyed wander round had me amazed at leeks the size of my arm, onions as big as cauliflowers, cabbages like footballs and yard long carrots. You're going to need a very big bunny to eat those. I imagine judging must be done to very strict criteria and with a very keen eye as I could only see perfection on a grand scale all around. Entrants have to submit a minimum number of each vegetable so I guess the expertise is in raising several prize specimens.

Amazing giant veg

Giant show vegetables is not a level of horticulture that I'd aspire to, I'm quite content if I get a reasonable haul of edibles each season, but I did give the apple table a more than cursory glance. I'm not one to boast (ahem), but some of my Braeburn apples this year have been huge, beautiful and very crisp and juicy! More by nature than nurture, admittedly, but who knows, in future years perhaps? To be validated by RHS commendation must be quite something!

Harvest collage

I assume that giant vegetables are fairly inedible (please tell me if you know otherwise) but this kind of showmanship is something that the RHS does very well. In the veg growing world, this is the equivalent of London Fashion Week and is to the allotment grower what Vivienne Westwood is to Primark - inspiring to look at but not necessarily what we'd want for every day!

Nevertheless, it was a totally brilliant day out - something I'd recommend every veg grower to attend at least once - and it certainly impressed the toddler that I took with me ... although I suspect she was waiting for the pumpkins to turn into Cinderella's coach.

First prize pumpkin

There was a handful of traders at the show doing brisk business and I met the lovely Joy at Sea Spring Seeds who gave me some invaluable advice about growing chillis. More on that in another post.

6 Oct 2013

Autumn, officially

There's no denying the need for a cardigan or jacket outdoors in the last few weeks. The temperatures have dipped, skies are (mostly) grey - today being an exception -  and I'm back at college for the next year of Garden Design training. So that's it for another year.

I rather enjoy autumn, the chance to pack it all away (and make space for winter veg) while the weather is just nice enough to be outside, the trees being laden with berries, leaves turning the most glorious shades of burgundy, red, yellow and acorns (lots of them!) appearing on the ground.

Orach seed heads
Orach (aka Mountain Spinach); stems are great cut for a flower vase in the late summer.
Stems left on the plant into autumn quickly develop brown seedheads.
In order to embrace the year's end,  I started tidying up the food growing areas last week and set off with a roll of garden waste bags and my secateurs.  I didn't get far with this, the garden is a bit lush at the moment so there's plenty to do. I cut down tall sunflowers that were leaning at a 45˚ angle, saving the seed heads for the birds. I cut down most of the Orach plants covered in seed heads as every one of these pods has the potential to burst into life next year (and take over the plot). And I also cut back some of the fennel seedheads for the same reason! (A bit of a theme developing there!) Those three jobs just about took up my gardening session.

Sunflower seedheads

Although the weather's feeling autumnal, there's still plenty to eat. Tomatoes, sweet corn and apples are still slowly ripening in the veg patch. I had home-grown tomatoes on toast for a late supper last night, one of my favourite quick snacks. I didn't need many as the Sub-Arctic and First in Field toms are almost a meal in themselves, weighing in at around 100g apiece! (And frequently falling off the vine due to their weight and needing to be ripened in the banana bowl.)

Tomato collage

I've grown several varieties this year - Yellow Pear, Outdoor Girl, Sub-Arctic and First in Field, the last two being a larger variety.  All are supposed to do well if grown outdoors in the UK climate. I bought some compostable tomato buckets to plant them in; these are supposed to let the deeper roots search out water in the ground so only the uppermost roots need feeding and this is done by only watering into the bucket area.  Very neat.  Having a proper warm summer probably helped but there's no denying that I've enjoyed good harvests - not massive deluges of tomatoes but just a gentle daily trickle of ripening tomatoes, enough for a salad or gardening snack.  The self-seeded Cherriettes of Fire (bottom right, above), a tiny centimetre wide fruit, have been perfect for snacking and the children love them as well. I allow the end of season fruits to fall back into the compost and rot down there, knowing that that's next year's tomato sowing taken care of!

Tomato 'buckets'  - quite hard to see as they blend in with the soil! 

It's interesting to look back and think about what worked and what didn't at the end of each growing year, especially if you have limited space, like me.  The big issue this year has been having enough time to look after the garden so crops that look after themselves (bar a bit of feeding and staking) such as these tomatoes, beans and potatoes, are a boon.  There seems to be a lot of reward for very little effort!  The biggest issue this year, though, has been the cat/fox visitors and their calling cards.  Some serious thinking is needed to come up with a solution to keep them at bay while keeping the beds easily accessible to gardeners! 

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