18 Aug 2023

Garden Watch: Mid August in the gardens

What's happening in the garden this month ? Weeds, weeds, weeds!  That's what. And spiders ... so many spiders. And because it feels like the wrong time of year for spiders to be stretching across every plant in the garden, I'm crashing through them on a daily basis.  How is it with everyone else?

Not surprisingly everything in my garden is responding to warm wet weather - not just the weeds. Everything tells me autumn is just around the corner but when did summer slide out of the picture? (Admittedly we are having a week of heat atm.) But I'm not ready to think about autumn until the equinox (23rd September) and already the days are getting shorter; fading light has me back indoors before 9pm.  

Has this cloud got a silver lining?  Yes. 

Core Blimey apples 

These are ready to be plucked from the tree (the Braeburns usually mature later) and blackberries are ripening by the bucketload.  There are wild blackberries throughout the gardens here thanks to untamed brambles and, in my kitchen, windfall apples are being peeled, chopped, stewed and eaten or frozen. I love how nature helpfully gives us these lovely ingredients at the same time.

I still have several jars of last year's apple and blackberry jam in the store cupboard so of course, my thoughts turned to pie - and who doesn't love pie! Apples, blackberries and a few elderberries (yes, those are ready for picking as well) went into a pie topped with sweet shortcrust pastry to which I added lemon zest and crushed pecan nuts.  Dare I say that the pastry is almost (but not quite) better than the filling? 


This week the Hotbin composter reached 140F! Now that was a very thrilling moment I can tell you - such is the stuff that a gardener’s dreams are made of.

My previous attempt at making quick compost was a failure. I'd been told by the Hotbin people that as I'd left it unattended for too long, the contents were likely to be anaerobic (without oxygen) and so the process had died. Learning curve: I thought the bin had to be topped up and fully composted before I could start to empty it. (I was wrong.)

So, a few weeks ago I finally emptied, cleaned and half-refilled my Hotbin composter - this time with grass clippings, chopped up comfrey leaves and lots of torn up cardboard to get it up to speed quickly. I'd read that the bin would need to be half filled before adding any kitchen waste (food, plate scrapings, etc) - that way the heat needed to effectively compost food waste had already been generated. Then, within 60 days, fresh compost should be ready to be taken out from the bottom hatch; so far, so good.

Calendula skin cream.  

I caught the @LovelyGreens reel on Insta which reminded me of Tanya's recipe for diy skin cream using garden plants.  I have loads of unintentional calendula in the veg patch so I like the idea of putting it to good use.  I need a soothing cream for my hands and arms which are getting very bashed and bloodied with all the chopping and pruning I'm doing!

Topping up the gaps. 

Ever hopeful, even after a disappointing growing season, I've been reading the back of my seed packets and am surprised at how many seeds can be sown in September and October. Always worth giving a late sowing a go so I've been making the most of late summer warmth ...

  • I've filled a few pots and planters on the balcony with fresh soil and sown seeds for salad leaves, herbs, radishes, micro leaves and pea shoots. 
  • Gaps in the Veg Trug garden have been sown with parsley, chervil, baby turnips and radishes. 
  • Beetroot sown in modules several weeks ago have all now been planted out - and I've only lost one to fox cub digging so far. (Yes, way late but let’s see what happens.)
  • Romanesco and ordinary cauliflowers grown to a good size on the balcony have been planted out and have (so far) resisted slug and caterpillar damage..  
  • Dark Cavalo Nero Kale will be next - I know it's all rather late in the year for this but if it works then the plants should grow away strongly as winter loosens its grip.
Ever optimistic, I'm now hoping for one of those glorious 'Indian summer' finishes to the year - I still have lots of tomatoes slowly ripening!

16 Aug 2023

Back in the kitchen with foraged Elderberries


Can it be that time of year again already? I'm just finishing off my summer batch of elderflower cordial and yesterday, as I walked home, I saw that my favourite spot for collecting the elder tree's bounty was positively dripping with ripe elder berries.  

I'm sure a lot of people would either not notice this beautiful spectacle or might think "lovely" and pass on by.  But not me.  I paused to 'see something of the beauty of nature' (to quote John Mortimer) then dashed home to fetch a bucket and secateurs.  

Of course I left plenty for birds and other wildlife and, believe me, they'll have those berries stripped to the stalk in days. 

So my berries are now washed clean of bugs and dirt and frozen ready for pies, jam and syrup.  Why freeze? The berries don't last long in the fridge so freezing is an excellent way of preserving them until needed.  Also, the berries pop off the stalks more easily when frozen, which is a better option than squishing them and getting purple fingers (and clothes!).  

I simply laid them out flat on several baking sheets and popped them in the freezer overnight. De-stemmed them in the morning then bagged them up, and returned the berries to the freezer. It can be a time consuming (or shall we say, meditative) process so quite a few went into the freezer still on the stem. That's okay as I'll discard the stems when I have more time.

It's worth noting that while the flowers are edible, the raw berries are toxic, as is the rest of the plant.  But the good news is that cooking the berries destroys the toxins making them a useful addition to all sorts of recipes.  

Me, I'm starting with Elderberry Syrup.  I've found a recipe on The Spruce Eats, an American site, which sounds rather like the warming winter tincture I usually buy to boost my immune system during the colder months.  In that recipe the berries are cooked, mashed, strained and then lightly spiced with honey, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and lemon. Sounds delicious.  (Find that recipe here if interested.)

9 Aug 2023

Perfecting the art of growing big gooseberries in a small space

This past week the last of the gooseberries have been picked (a bit later than usual, the weather has been so unhelpful this year) and now it's time to reshape the plants with a summer pruning.  

This was supposed to be done in early July but I'm banking on everything being a bit late this year.  And, flushed with the success of squeezing two more gooseberry plants into my overstuffed garden, I want to make sure they're trained properly.

In my gardens I have four red gooseberry bushes - one bush, two fans and one in a pot that's been ambushed by sawfly again this year. 

Gooseberries were never my favourite fruit; at school I couldn't stand the stewed (green) gooseberries served up under soggy pastry as pudding. Not any more though - these days I happily eat beautiful ripe Hinnonmaki Red gooseberries straight from the bush ... the jury is still out on the green ones though!

Having seen gooseberry bushes pruned into an open bowl shape during my garden design studies, I followed suit for my first gooseberry bush.  It enjoyed its spot in my veg patch but, confession time, I didn't prune regularly so it grew large and tangled albeit with abundant berries. So now I'll prune this week to start reshaping it and again at the usual time  in winter while it's dormant.  

I acquired a second tiny plant, and then a third and, finally, a fourth.  Where to put them all?  They languished happily in 5 litre pots for a good while. As ever, my impulse to buy plants had got the better of me.  

A good idea

And then I rescued lengths of slim bendy plastic pipe from a builder's skip. These were destined to be arches to support the fleece over my veg but it occurred to me that I could use them to train my gooseberry bushes into freestanding fans. (Fans are usually grown against a wall or fence.) The plants were moved from their pots and they're now in the car park garden, growing in semi-shade, regularly watered and fruiting prolifically thanks to the beautiful soil there.  The fruit is more visible, the thorns less threatening (more easily seen and thus avoided!). 

But in doing so, I had to learn to prune correctly... with sturdy leather gloves on!

Pruning ... aka shaping the beasts!

Gooseberries fruit on old wood; to grow in a fan shape any stems growing out, rather than up, should be pruned back to the framework - which in this case are the five tall stems tied in to the arch.  Gooseberries growing in an open bowl shape should have inward growing branches and any branches trailing on the ground removed, all being taken back to an outward growing bud and the main stem at ground level left clear of any growth - cut off stems below 10-15 cm.  (Imagine a goblet shape glass on a very short stem.)

Gooseberry bushes have vicious spiky thorns so keeping the centre open, or space between the fanned out branches, helps with easier access to the fruit in summer. And good airflow helps to prevent mildew.  

How I planted my fan gooseberries 

Having planted the 'bushes' and pushed the hoops deeply into the soil 2 feet (60cm) apart, I tied the long upright stems in a fan shape and pruned the rest back to two buds. This would have been quite traumatic for the plant so, after pruning, they were watered and mulched around (not up to) the base. 

How to get bigger berries

In early summer when the fruits have appeared it's time to direct the plant's energy into quality rather than quantity.  So, as with thinning out top fruit (apples, etc) to get bigger fruit, the same is true of gooseberries. Reduce the number of berries as they start to ripen so that the plant concentrates on developing those that remain.  The underripe berries needn't be wasted as, although still hard and quite tart, they can be used for savoury sauces, mixed berry jams (usefully high in pectin!) and chutneys. It's not essential to do this but if you want bigger gooseberries, take two pickings a month or so apart. 

Here's some I grew earlier ... 

And what of Hinnonmaki #4?  

The fate of this plant is undecided. Growing in a large pot, its leaves have been eaten two summers running by sawfly and now a Cape Gooseberry aka Inca Berry, Ground Cherry or Physalis peruviana is taking over the pot. I have no idea where this interloper came from but I like it! 

And, by the way, despite the similarity of nomenclature, Cape Gooseberries are related to tomatoes, peppers and potatoes (the Solanaceae family) and not ordinary gooseberries which fall into the Ribes (ie currant) family.  So now you know.

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