28 May 2020

Digging up the daisies

A swathe of ox-eye daisies

Shall we just for a moment talk about flowers in the veg garden? Every day this week I’ve been working in the veg plot as plants raised in pots need to be planted out round about now.  As usual this task takes at least three times as long as anticipated  There’s always something to add to the list and this year it’s the removal of self seeded flowers.  I hope that doesn’t shock you. Of course I won’t be taking them all out, just the tiny ones that are in the wrong place.

It’s safe to say that I love that so many of my plants hurl their progeny across the plot - who doesn’t love a free plant! But there comes a time when it can be too much of a good thing.  I’m looking at you Feverfew and Linaria. (And, please, can we not mention forget-me-nots?)

Cerinthe flower, also known as honeywort
The honeywort has been particularly upstanding this year.

And then there’s Verbena bonariensis, foxgloves, honeywort... wonderful additions to any garden, especially as they provide a warm welcome for visiting pollinators. But why do the tall ones always seed into the side of the path? In a large garden the sight of tall flowers spilling over might have a certain je ne sais quoi appeal but in a small plot my experience has taught me otherwise.

I had already decided to give over a chunk of the plot to flowers, envisaging tall opium poppies, cosmos, rudbeckia and sunflowers. But, as we know, nature abhors a vacuum and the soil has now  been populated by calendula, antirrhinums and even a rather beautiful white campanula. None of them sown by me. When the wind blows ...

View of the veg garden and it's self sown wildflowers

But the star self seeder this year has been Leucanthemum vulgare, otherwise known as the Ox Eye daisy. Oh, how I wanted this plant when I saw it growing on the verges of country lanes! Imagine my delight at finding a tiny plant for sale locally!  Roll forward a couple of years and it has become yet another of those ‘be careful what you wish for’ plants in my garden.

This one tiny plant has seeded its way under the quince tree, over the asparagus bed, along the path, between the strawberries, under the redcurrant bush and even snuggled between the capping stones of the low wall.  Overkill? Certainly.

I’d already dug up the stragglers and several clumps before I read that this is an edible plant. Oops. Although, would I eat it? Probably not. Before flowering, the plant grows as a basal rosette of dark succulent leaves.  If picked young, they are alleged to be a worthy addition to a salad, albeit not exactly leaping into the ‘delicious’ or ‘essential’ categories of salad creation.

Carder bee sitting on ox eye daisy flower

I still have two large clumps under the quince tree.  One has flopped, I suspect helped on its horizontal trajectory by fox cubs; its fate is still in the balance. They’re quite easy to dig up, being relatively shallow rooted but for today it has a reprieve, helped by this common carder bee.  Until this sighting, I’d only seen garden flies on the flowers; in fact, I’d never noticed carder bees in the garden at all. I’ve since seen many more, easily recognisable by their stylish red fox fur jackets.

So will there still be Leucanthemum seedlings next year? Probably. And hopefully joined by those other self seeding daisies in the garden - Erigeron and chamomile.

a clump of tall while chamomile flowers over feathery foliage

18 May 2020

A delicious deluge to end the month

(Oops, this post should have been out at the end of April! What can I say?! I've been busy tending to my veg babies, amongst other stuff. Here it is to note what April was all about in the gardens.)

Purple asparagus spear waiting to be cut.
The appearance of the first asparagus in April. 

I feel slightly ungrateful saying this but wasn't April a bit too hot? April is known as a gentle month of moderate temperatures - frosts even - and certainly not known for the baking heat that chilli peppers enjoy. I, on the other hand, am not a chilli pepper so do not enjoy extreme heat and have had to limit my gardening to stay out of the midday sun.  Gratifyingly, April obliged by a return to form in the last week of the month with three whole days of solid rain, gently soaking into the parched and cracked earth. Such a treat for gardener and garden alike, I could almost hear the plants sighing with relief.

I had a wander round in a rare dry interlude; I love how perky seventy two hours of intermittent rain has made the garden. Like Jack’s beans, plants seem to have magically doubled in size overnight. Care to join me for a little garden tour?

The Balcony

April started with minnow daffodils flowering in pots and ended with overwintered cape gooseberries (physalis) starting to flower.

A collage of 3 pictures showing balcony plants in April.

Like every other gardener, trays of tomatoes, brassicas, courgettes and squash seedlings have been coaxed into surviving and thriving despite heat and wind. Unusually, by mid-month I was leaving all seedlings - including tomatoes, but not chillis - outside overnight in warm still air.  They’re not quite big enough to be planted out yet but it will be good to reclaim my balcony when the weather settles down.

The chilli pepper seedlings have been very slow this year.  Should I have sown in the chillier winter months? Probably. But, as the saying goes, I'll just keep calm and carry on.

The best thing though - and I highly recommend this - is having a tray of baby salad leaves nearby. Only three weeks after sowing (and with regular watering) I had baby leaves to eat. Earlier from this same tray, I snipped micro greens for salad toppings and to thin out the tray; then came the baby leaves; now I have cut and come again plants that I could plant out to grow on to full size. This supply of fresh salad leaves has been much appreciated while I wait for the salad garden to grow.

The Salad Garden

This secluded sheltered corner adjacent to the railway line is rapidly becoming my happy place; it would only be made more perfect by seeing one of the old steam trains puffing past while I’m there. (I once saw the Hogwarts Express on this line; I was waiting with my then 7 year old son for our regular train when the Harry Potter train puffed towards us. I almost spontaneously combusted with excitement.)

Raised bed filled with different types of lettuce and other salad ingredients

Anyway, one month in and No.1 Veg Trug is filling up nicely. I’m aiming for a mini salad bar where I can pick all the necessaries for a lunchtime salad - a choice of lettuce leaves plus chives, spring onions, radishes, mini carrots, rocket and lamb's lettuce. (Tomatoes will eventually go in a third Veg Trug, hopefully before the end of May.)

And, in case you're wondering, I'm not going to eat the marigolds but they make very good companion plants (supposedly deterring pests such as whitefly) plus they brighten things up. And they were cheap from the supermarket - as if I needed a reason to buy plants!

No 2 Veg Trug was sown three weeks after the first, roughly the third week of the month. Seed choices differ slightly from No 1 trug; this time I’ve sown endive, beetroot (for leaves. roots and colour), pink chard, purple carrots, and herbs - basil, flat leaf parsley and, I hope, chervil. Is chervil slow to germinate? It’s yet to put in an appearance, unlike the parsley seedlings which are known to be very slow off the mark but are shyly poking up above soil level.

Hotbin composter - yes, I have recently acquired one of those, having despaired of the wooden composter in the veg patch that was looking a little too rustic after ten years service. The Hotbin is supposed to make compost in just one or two months; I’ll do a full post once the first batch is done.

The Veg Patch garden

The month started with wild garlic, tulips, honeywort and blossom. Strong winds blew the pear blossom to the ground, cherry blossom clung on and apple blossom came after - in the heat.

Pink blossom on the Core Blimey apple tree

By mid month the nasturtiums, comfrey and sweet woodruff were flowering, peony stems popped up, and every branch of the Core Blimey apple was smothered in blossom. The garden soundtrack was of bees happily pollinating and birds singing. I'm quietly optimistic of a good year for this tree.

Flowering comfrey

The month closed with alliums, elderflowers, broad bean tops and sweet cicely flowers turning to delicious seeds.

Broad been tops

Plants for this year's veg garden are still in pots on my balcony until conditions are right for planting them out, but a walk around the veg patch gives thinking space for planning how to fit it all in - and what needs to come out. The wooden raised beds have done sterling work for ten years but are now falling apart. That’s the main reason they’re coming out but also because they provide a nice hiding place for snails; once they’ve gone, I can be more flexible with the space.

This year I've succumbed to growing Brussels sprouts having discovered how utterly delicious they are cooked with bacon. And what would I do in winter without broccoli, leeks and kales of various hues and textures? Late autumn will see butternuts, pumpkins, and squashes ripening. At a gardening event in February I was given seeds for two new squashes that will supposedly taste of potato when cooked - one mashed, the other baked.  I remain sceptical but I have to try, don't I?

Broad beans are still flowering and black aphid free (for now) so I’ve been taking the tops for steaming with butter - a useful side vegetable and delicious. The Russian kale has started to flower, bumble bees are having a feast and I’ve decided to leave one plant to grow on for seeds. This kale is not only beautiful but very good to eat, with sweet young leaves.

Yellow flower of Russian kale with purple stems

But what to do about the asparagus bed? The (few) purple spears are so delicious when freshly picked but, in such a tiny plot, is giving over the space justified? I plan to companion plant basil and tomatoes into the gaps (staying clear of the fragile asparagus crowns) but the debate rages on. Have any readers tried moving asparagus crowns? Please, let me know if you have and whether it was successful.

The Washing Line Border

Lavender about to bloom

This is my low maintenance drought area, bordering the circular drying lines. It’s low maintenance because it gets no attention beyond having horsetail and herb robert pulled out and 'drought garden' as the hosepipe won’t reach. And it gets full sun in the summer months.

So it changes, year on year, depending which plants can survive such harsh conditions. This year’s star plants for April are the lavender and erigeron. I swear they weren’t looking so lush a couple of days ago - all that rain must have given them the boost they need. I’m now thinking I should throw a bucket of water over this patch from time to time.

Erigeron (aka Fleabane) flowering between two clumps of Carex grass

The Lime Tree Garden

(aka the Car Park Garden)
So many lovely things happening here - what a month! This time last year I was still laying out the structure of the garden. Most plants were still in pots as I played with where to home them so this year I’m watching carefully to see what works and what might need moving.

Garden filled with shrubs and perennials.

This will take some thought as the garden is usually shaded, but there's more light this summer as a result of the three mature lime trees being pollarded into leafless pillars at the end of last year.

Evening view of herbaceous border in the garden

A few plants kept the borders green over winter but in April the border came alive with crocosmia leaves waving, and white campanula flowering very prettily next to an unknown brassica that I was given. The lychnis coronaria (rose campion) has trebled in size. I so loved this plant growing wild at the allotment plots that I bought one for the garden; I don't remember it being this big at the plots. This border is another area that needs adjusting; there's a new peony in there as well lavender, scabious and who knows what else that may have thrived or died over winter!

The next border along was earmarked for soft fruit, with maybe a few veg tucked in. I'm not rigid in my rules and sprinkled some old flowers seeds around last autumn. This was done with very little expectation but those seeds have produced a sea of white and blue nigella. Very pretty growing around the gooseberries.

White nigella flower against a background of green foliage

Ah, the aquilegia! This predates my custody of the garden has reliably bloomed mid-month. So pretty; I wish it would seed around a bit like they're supposed to.

pink aquilegia flowering in the garden

Blueberries - I have three plants but never get a heavy crop from these as they are, of necessity, kept in large pots. But that's the joy of gardening, you never know what to expect. Maybe this year I'll harvest more than a bowlful.

A clutch of flower buds on a blueberry shrub

Gooseberries, yum. I never liked gooseberries until I discovered the red ones. Now this is a crop to look forward to.  Don't be fooled by the green berries - these will soon turn a sweet, deep red to let me know I can start picking.

Gooseberry shrub with green fruit.

I won't mention the chilean guava or jostaberry this month as they're showing no signs of fruiting. Hmm. Hopefully more to report next month on those.

Likewise the ranunculus. Yes, they did bloom again from last year's corms but were over very quickly this year. I blame the heat. Again.

Let me finish with a quick look at the spring border. Gorgeous in February and March but now it has quite lost it's charm and become overrun with hellebores and honesty seedlings. I pulled out a lot of those seedlings but stopped before it all became too drastic.  The saving grace in April was the too brief appearance of the lily-of-the-valley that I brought back from my mother's garden and the bleeding heart plants. I need to give this a lot of thought; strong coffee might help.

1 May 2020

Bottling summer with homemade elderflower cordial

There's a massive elder tree next to the salad garden cul-de-sac, whose branches droop invitingly over the fence towards me.  Those branches are covered in umbels of flowers about to open so, naturally, I'm about to retrieve and wash my cordial bottles, ready to replenish my stocks of delicious home made elderflower cordial.

I've borrowed from my previous posts (2019 and 2015) about making elderflower cordial to keep things simple because, well, what more is there to say?  Except, maybe, elderflower fritters which I haven't tried but have heard are very good.

My recipe below is an easy one that I've found works well. I keep this to hand as I got very confused when I first tried to make elderflower cordial. Mine is an adaptation of several that I've used and tweaked year on year. (Originally I used limes, following Sarah Raven's recipe; it was not a happy outcome.)

Also, the sugar - it's a lot, but very necessary to extract the essence of the flowers and fruit. A couple of years ago I'd become concerned about the amount of sugar needed for the recipe so didn't make any cordial. It was a decision I came to regret during the extreme heat of the summer - a glass of iced water sweetened with a slug of citrus infused cordial hits the spot nicely on a hot day. So I now (try to) think of this cordial as a treat.  It's also very good added to an iced gin+tonic, and delicious in cake. (Note to me: I must look out those recipes.)

So, onto the recipe. It is, after all, why you're here.  But first, a few tips.

Tip one: Most recipes will include citric acid as a preservative - I don't bother. As I found it hard to get hold of at first, I now keep one bottle of cordial in the fridge and freeze the rest in small washed plastic bottles saved from the smoothies I buy when out. I think that the addition of citric acid may alter the flavour and the cordial might not taste as nice. Also, thanks to the sugar content, the cordial freezes really well; I've defrosted cordial after a year with perfect results.

Tip Two: Look carefully for aphids before you pick the flowers. I found some stems covered in the sort of black aphids usually found on broad beans and left those blooms well alone. Even so, when I got home, I made sure to gently shake the blooms over the sink to dislodge any other critters. (A few black aphids, greenfly and a couple of small spiders, thanks.) Having done that, I then held the blooms over a white tea towel for a second look; it was needed.

Tip Three: There may be some tempting plate sized blooms below knee level just begging to be picked. Don't. Wherever you live, there will be creatures that wee. In my case, dogs and foxes. (I hope that's all but let's not go there.) My advice is to pick the blooms that you have to stretch up high for, just to be on the safe side.

Tip Four: Make sure that you're picking the right flowers. Always important when foraging for any edibles but here the unmistakeable smell of elderflowers should ensure you pick wisely. If in doubt, here's some visual help.

Collage of 3 elderflowers and one that isn't!
Spot the difference! Bottom right is NOT elderflower - look at the leaves!

So now all we need is for the sunshine to return ... !

My simple but trusted recipe for Elderflower Cordial

Large bowl filled with elderflower heads and citrus fruit

3 unwaxed lemons
1 or 2 oranges
1 kg (2.2 lbs) granulated sugar (in the US: ordinary sugar not powdered sugar)
15-20 medium to large elderflower heads
1.5 litres tap water (50 US fluid ounces)

First stage:
In a large pot on the stove, make a sugar syrup by slowly dissolving the sugar in the water over a gently heat. Stir occasionally and once dissolved (no more sugar grains to be seen), bring the syrup to the boil for about 5 minutes.
While that's doing, peel the oranges and lemons. The white pith is bitter so try to leave that on the fruit. (Or just slice the fruit in ½ cm chunks.)
Cut the big stems off the cleaned/shaken elderflowers and put the flowers in a large pot or saucepan with the citrus peel.
Pour the hot syrup over when it's ready. Put a lid on the pan and leave to infuse for 24 - 36 hours. (The timing is very forgiving; life is unpredictable.)

Next day/stage:
Sterilise bottles or jars ready to decant the mixture into. Giving plastic bottles a good hot wash will suffice if they're going into the freezer. Glass bottles can be washed and then dried on a low temperature in the oven for 10 minutes. As a time saver before now, I've washed and then microwaved glass jars to sterilise (but not the metal lids - please!) Lids should be boiled in a pan of water for a few minutes.
Sieve the infused cordial through a muslin cloth or tea towel, placed in a sieve over a bowl or large jug. I now use a jelly bag held securely in it's frame, so much easier! (Here, for info.)
Pour the cordial into the bottles, and store as appropriate.

... Or drink straightaway!  And enjoy!

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