Showing posts with label Books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Books. Show all posts

28 Jul 2014

Kitchen Garden Experts - Inspiration from plot to plate!

I'm not one to rush into things but I have excelled myself this time by only just writing about a book I received a goodly while back, 'The Kitchen Garden Experts'. I'm aware it's been reviewed elsewhere but let's look again, shall we?

It's a rather nice book about the collaboration between twenty UK-based restaurant chefs and the chosen ones on whom they rely to grow their veg. It's hard to categorise this book; after an introduction to each restaurant, it's part biography, part garden inspiration, part cookbook. It explores those restaurants that have thrown their weight behind the idea of home-grown/local, sustainable and seasonal food for their kitchens and how they achieve that throughout the year. The author, Cinead McTiernan, has obviously had unparalleled access to both gardeners and chefs alike as each chapter is full of their expertise, with the balance tipping slightly towards where it all starts - in the garden.

It's beautifully written with more than a passing glance into the reality of life in a large kitchen garden. It has particular relevance now, in the summer, as the garden starts to produce plenty of food for the kitchen but I'd not be unhappy to get this book for a bit of autumn or winter reading, at a time when we're all deciding what to do with our various plots in the following year.

Propagating geraniums to ensure plenty of plants for making Rose Geranium Panna Cotta with Blackcurrant Sorbet

The concept of plot to plate food of the freshest quality is not new - my grandfather grew all the veg for the kitchen in his enormously long back garden - but it wasn't a trend then, it was how you fed your family.  Of real interest in this book, for me, is the way that the chefs and gardeners work together to put seasonal, no-to-low miles food on the menu of their various gaffs; they listen to each other's ideas, growing and creating food with a modern combination of flavours.

My typed extract from the book

Putting the end product aside for a moment, I was fascinated to read the methods that the gardeners use to get the best from their gardens and how to get the quantities right. That's real talent, keeping enough seasonal salad leaves on the go to provide for meal after meal. Sounds a nightmare to me but there are golden nuggets of information to be gleaned here.

For gardeners like me, always keen to experiment and get the most from the space I garden, it certainly provides a good read; by choosing restaurant gardens located throughout the UK, from Perthshire to Padstow, there's a range of climates and situations that will surely offer inspiration and insight to a wide range of growers. There's even a map if you want to explore the restaurants and their gardens for real. There are tips throughout from gardeners speaking of their experience, advice on growing specific ingredients and an additional page per chapter devoted to 'kitchen garden secrets'.  A good index at the back will take you straight to a featured plant - either gardening or recipe, although the range is limited. (This is not an allotment how-to book.)

By showcasing both the head gardeners and the chefs together, with the restaurant that they work for (or own!), there is a nice continuum from plot to plate. Not all the recipes appealed to me but then I don't cook dinner party fare, just hearty fill-your-boots food for teenagers.  That doesn't mean that I wouldn't like to try raspberry cranachan or rose geranium panna cotta. There's a delicious recipe for a classic summer stew of ratatouille (what to do with that courgette glut!) and I quite fancy the rainbow chard and bean soup as well.

On the flip side, I could leave recipes such as the plate of 'Beetroot textures'; undoubtedly eye-pleasing, it's firmly in the fancy restaurant dish category - a meal of style over substance.  But that's just me - someone else might need a menu to impress and find this perfect.

Although my training is taking me towards garden design, I'm plot to plate obsessed and will always be first and foremost a food grower. I'm fascinated by every aspect of it, from foraging to unusual edibles to the benefits of growing your own and hunt out and save recipes using food that I grow.  A garden visit is made so much more appealing if there's a kitchen garden included and I'm curious to know how such food growing spaces are managed for effective production.  For all of these reasons, I found 'Kitchen Garden Experts' an absorbing read; it's a definite bonus that the book is visually beautiful* and engagingly written. I'm more than pleased to add this to my gardening bookshelf.

Here's a little taster of the 40 recipes to be found within:

Yorkshire pudding with puréed parsnips and roasted vegetables
Scorched onion with crispy rocket and pesto (with details of growing wild rocket)
Baked gooseberries with lemon verbena ice cream and flapjack
Baby courgettes with a garden herb mayo
Poached rhubarb with buttermilk pudding, honeycomb and ginger wine
Rosehip syrup (to serve with cheese and salad leaves)
Plum and almond flan
Leeks vinaigrette
Two way runner beans
Fig Mozzarella and basil salad
Sorrell frittata

Hopefully, this black box below will work as a slideshow of a few recipe photos to whet your appetites!

There are many more recipes, of the type that you might find on Masterchef, eg Whitby lobster with quail's eggs and garden beans, and all the recipes have detailed instructions on how to prepare the food.  An opportunity to brush up on dinner party skills perhaps?

* photos by Jason Ingram who won the Garden Media Guild Photographer of the Year award last year.

Disclaimer: My thanks go to the publisher, Frances Lincoln, who sent me the book to review; it is available through their website or the usual online retailers.

23 Mar 2014

And the winner of The Cut Flower Patch book is ...

We had to redraw a winner for the book as Susiesae did not get in touch. I'm pleased to say that the book will now be sent to Anna from Green Tapestry blog.  Congratulations! Happy reading and flower growing!

Number 32!  Which, of course, means absolutely nothing yet.  Read on.

My recent review of Louise Curley's fabulous new book 'The Cut Flower Patch' had an amazing response - 74 comments from readers who would like to win their own copy.  I asked readers to tell me of their favourite cut flowers and there were some lovely suggestions with repeat mentions for sweet peas, roses, freesias, jasmine, lilies, sunflowers, gerberas, lupins and cosmos. It seems we're all in love with scented flowers and I absolutely agree with Christine Dodd that the Sweet Williams on the book cover are gorgeous - one to add to my own plot, I think!  My particular thanks go to Strepsy for Heliotropium arborescens; I had to look this one up and it sounds wonderful, being nicknamed the Cherry Pie plant as this is apparently what its scent is like. Yum!

I recognised a few of the names and decided, to be completely fair, that I would have to ask an unbiased committee to choose a name.  Step forward my five lovely great nieces, four friends, four dogs and a watering can.  Despite the urge to run off and play outdoors in the gorgeous Staffordshire countryside, they - and the dogs - restrained themselves long enough to pull a number out of the can.  (Hope you can see this video, I'm using the Blogger video platform.  That's my niece speaking, btw.)

Numbers rather than names were used and I matched the chosen number to my list of commenters.

And the winner is … Susiesae, the 32nd person to leave a comment.

Please could you contact me (use the Contact Me button under my blog header) or DM me on Twitter - your Blogger profile doesn't let me get in touch with you!

As contact details were required, I think it's fair to say that if I don't hear from the winner by mid-week (Wednesday), I'll have to redraw as I know some of you wanted this book for Mother's Day! So, come on, Susiesae, get in touch! :)

My thanks again to everyone who took the time to leave a comment and/or enter the giveaway and to Frances Lincoln for donating a copy of the book.

7 Mar 2014

Book review: The Cut Flower Patch by Louise Curley

It is a long held ambition of mine to create a little cottage garden with flowers that can be gathered for indoors.  I'm limited by the tiny veg patch which is for food growing but I've introduced a few flowers over recent years, either edible or to attract beneficial insects. I get so much pleasure from these few flowers that I want more - but which are the best to choose from the vast selection of seeds out there? With perfect timing for the seed sowing season, Louise Curley (aka Wellywoman) has provided the answers in her newly published book 'The Cut Flower Patch'.

Louise, a trained horticulturist, has spent the past two years putting together her first book about growing flowers on her allotment and in her garden in Monmouthshire, UK. (Read Louise's posts about writing the book here and here.) Louise writes a jolly good blog so I was confident that her book would be equally good. Having now read it, and actually used her advice, I'm pleased to say I was right.

First off, the book is beautiful to look at. The front cover is very striking; the rest is gob-smackingly gorgeous. Photos are by the very talented Jason Ingram and the layout is also very pleasing. Everything has a very fresh, natural feel so you want to keep rifling through the pages.

The text is accurate and well researched with excellent practical advice - just what you'd expect from an experienced gardener - and with a warm, helpful tone.  We've all been overwhelmed by the vast range of seeds available today; in the past, I've chosen seeds on looks only to find that they're tricky to grow.  Louise writes of just 23 annuals plus bulbs, corms, tubers and filler foliage, expanding within each category to name the varieties that she's found perform best, both in ease of growing and vase life. Simple and achievable.

After reading the book, I feel that anyone, whether beginner or more experienced grower, could successfully grow a few flowers for cutting, even with only the tiniest patch of land. All the information is here with helpful hints sprinkled throughout. Chapters such as 'What makes a great cut flower?', setting up and 'Caring for your patch', 'Growing from seed' and 'Why choose bulbs?' demystify the process and lead up to the grand finale, 'Showing Off', with page after page of deliciously beautiful flower arrangements. The penultimate section, 'Rich Pickings', looks creatively beyond the patch to seedheads, grasses, shrubs and hedgerows to extend interest throughout the year.

But this makes it sound like a gardener's manual and there is so much more here. I found the personal writing style made it both hugely readable and informative.  I particularly like the little bits of history and background to the plants and the 'Why grow it?' reason given for plant choices.  As far as I could tell, no small detail of successful growing has been overlooked; read diligently, this book is as complete a workshop in growing flowers from scratch as you could hope to find.  No wonder the RHS has added it to its bookshop shelves.


The publishers have offered an additional copy of the book as a giveaway so that one lucky urbanvegpatch reader can have their own copy.  (UK entries only, sorry.) To enter, just leave a comment and tell me your favourite flower to be in with a chance. The closing date is midnight on 21st March.

Important! Please ensure your comment links back to a means of contacting you! Your Twitter name, blog, google+, email (all words eg 'at' 'dot') or Facebook page.

My thanks go to Frances Lincoln for supplying me with a copy of the book for review.

UPDATE: The giveaway has now closed.  The winning entry was Susiesae - please get in touch before Wednesday 26th. If I don't hear from the winner, I will redraw from the remaining commenters on Thursday 27th.

PS.  As recommended in the book, if you're starting a cut flower patch from scratch, check out the website of Cornwall based Higgledy Garden for a seed collection of the best flowers for cutting … and support our British flower growers at the same time!

Blog readers may know that Louise (Wellywoman) is married to Ian, the writer of Piano Learner blog.  Read his brilliant post about the background to writing the book with links to newspapers reviews and other blog reviews here.

To order The Cut Flower Patch at the discounted price of £16.00 including p+p* (RRP: £20.00), telephone 01903 828503 or email and quote the offer code APG101.

Alternatively, send a cheque made payable to: LBS Mail Order Department, Littlehampton Book Services, PO Box 4264, Worthing, West Sussex, BN13 3RB.

Please quote the offer code APG101 and include your name and address details.

*UK ONLY - Please add £2.50 if ordering from overseas.

21 Feb 2014

It's been a good week

There are many things that can make a week nice to look back on. Sometimes a good week is just a productive week.  Or it's a week when nice things happen.  Or a week can be good because I'm able to get outdoors in the dry - working in sunshine under blue skies is a definite bonus.  The past seven days have, rather magically, brought all three.

To start with I'd just made a very delicious pear frangipane tart (we do good snacks in my house) when the postman brought a copy of Charles Dowding's Veg Journal which I'd won in Flighty's giveaway.  It  is a book stuffed with practical advice which I'm thoroughly enjoying reading - and with perfect timing for the veg growing year. The next post brought more loveliness from Flighty: I'd admired the marigolds (Flighty's Favourites!) that he grows on his plot and he kindly sent some seeds, together with a few cosmos seeds, to provide a riot of colour in my intended cuttings patch.

In north London this past week, the weather has been damp and breezy rather than wet and wild.  Over the last four days, and especially last Sunday, the sun has shone (at least for part of the day).  A bit of warmth and hint of sun is all it takes to spur me into action. As ever, there were plenty of jobs waiting to be done. A few raised beds still needing to be cleared, refilled and fenced off against use as an animal toilet; new beds needed to be built from kits ordered last year, lavender bushes needed to be trimmed back and plants moved out of the wind.

~ Raised bed being put together in my living room! ~
Most boxes were ticked by close of play on Sunday, although there are still two of the existing beds to be fenced and two smaller raised beds to be built when I have some more corner posts. (These smaller slug-proof beds were discounted in a sale, probably because of the chunky metal brackets holding the sides together - they just wouldn't tighten enough and left a large gap for the slugs to get through! I've thrown the brackets away and am screwing the sides into 2x2 corner posts. And then lining them (to keep soil in as they're being placed on paving slabs). With the copper tape around the sides, I'm expecting seriously nearly slug proof now!

~ Cerinthe pot has been moved next to new cold frame ~
One of the smaller beds became a cold frame; I left off one of the upper planks so that the sun can reach the plants inside and attached a fleece cover.  I can't use glass in a community garden - too easily broken!  My 'plants of shame' - the ones bought but not planted out yet - have been temporarily rehomed there, leaving the vacated bed free for my beans.

While the rain held off, I was inspired to complete one last project.  There's a 12 inch wide path that runs down the centre of the veg patch.  That's really not very wide, even for my size 4 feet and, once plants start to burst their boundaries, it becomes a tripping hazard. So, as I refurbish each raised bed, I'm pushing it back nearer the surrounding low brick wall.  It's a small distance of about 6 inches but, once edged with a few bricks, the central path becomes much easier to navigate.  I've pushed back a couple of beds so far and starting this simple job has given me immense satisfaction - not least because I've discovered handfuls of worms with every shovel of damp soil that I shifted.

It was great to be able to stay out in the garden for best part of the day.  I keep reading or hearing about the therapeutic effects of gardening or just being outdoors in nature and it's quite amazing to me how five or six hours can just slip by without notice and, despite hours of work, I just feel nicely knackered by the end of the day.  Nothing a hot bath with a bit of Radox can't sort out! Plus there's the satisfaction of knowing that I'm a little bit more ready for when the sowing starts.

7 Mar 2013

Veg Street: Grow your own community - a new gardening book by Naomi Schillinger

I met Naomi Schillinger a couple of years ago after realising that she lived and gardened not far from me in North London. Having followed her blog for some months, I was curious to know how she had succeeded in getting so many of her local community involved in her front garden veg growing project.  The answer, discovered over a cup of tea and a tour of the neighbourhood, is that she is enthusiastic, energetic and passionate about gardening. Naomi's commitment to the community gardening project has now seen those energies channelled into a new book called 'Veg Street - Grow your own community'.

A copy of the book was sent from Naomi via her publishers and it's a pleasure to see what a worthwhile endeavour this book has been.  Even with several years gardening experience under my belt, I've found Naomi's book very informative.  I'd go further and say it would be invaluable to anyone wanting to start an edible garden - whether in a bucket or a backyard. But the real point of the book is how the front garden vegetable project has transformed a few streets into a cohesive neighbourhood community. It's not only made it a nicer and more colourful place to live, but has made the area safer too.

I found the structure of the book very helpful: it's chunked up into months of the year, with each chunk following the same format of monthly list and introduction, community corner, sowing and planting, good ideas, one pot shop and harvesting.  To quote one of Naomi's headings, this is a Simple but Brilliant Idea; it makes it possible to swiftly locate areas of prime interest, although every section makes rewarding reading - and the absolute basics (soil, light, etc) are covered at the beginning of the book. Creative ideas, useful recommendations and beautiful photos - many taken by Naomi herself - abound throughout.

So, with a wealth of gardening books available, what makes this one different?  For a start, it's written in the first person, rather than as an informal guide, which gives it a warm and friendly tone; there's a real sense of how much fun everyone is having, the community spirit which this project has engendered and how it's all so achievable. Naomi's voice is heard throughout, imparting the full benefit of her extensive gardening experience - a bit like a cross between garden chat over a cup of tea and sitting down to read the gardening section of the Sunday supps.  For those that don't live in her street and can't pop into a Cake Sunday for practical advice, this is the next best thing. So whether you want to become more confident in creating or nurturing an edible garden or you want get to know your neighbours better, this book is worth a more than a look. Who knows? It may even be the catalyst that starts a gardening project within your own community.

I'll definitely be referring to my copy throughout the year; it's a keeper - thank you, Naomi!

The book is available from today, 7th March. Read more in Naomi's post here.

Naomi Schillinger writes a regular blog about gardening and her community at Out of My Shed.

17 Feb 2013

More haste, less weed

There's an alarming trend in my life where I sit down in front of the laptop for a 'quick look at my emails', I get distracted and suddenly a large chunk of my day has disappeared. You all know what I'm talking about. The weather over the weekend has been dry, mild and perfect for gardening ... then yesterday my washing machine decided it wasn't going to spin properly anymore. I can't be upset as it's done 10 years of sterling laundry servitude but it has meant going online to do some extensive research into a  new best buy. (I never make "big" purchases without a lot of thinking beforehand!) I've just finalised the deal, a new machine will be delivered on Wednesday, but it's now lunchtime on Sunday and I'm going straight down into the garden, and sunshine, without further ado. My heart and soul are singing already.

Life is good

Just before that though, two lovely things to tell:  Naomi Schillinger of Outofmyshed blog has kindly sent me a copy of her new book 'Veg Street - Grow Your Own Community', published 7th March.  What should have been a quick flick through on Friday evening almost made me late for my Girls Night Out;  it's really that good, even for an gardening obsessive like me.  I want to give it a proper review post in a day or two but (as I'm heading outdoors now) will say it's beautifully written, extremely well laid out, visually tempting and stuffed full of excellent advice.  Have I whetted your appetite? More soon.

Secondly, my tickets for the RHS shows are booked and the first has arrived.  I've taken Tuesday off work to pop down to the Horticultural Halls in Victoria, SW1 to visit the RHS Plant and Design Fair. It's my first time but I'm anticipating a good day out!  

But for now my garden awaits and I have two cheap mini-cloches from Morrisons to sow lettuce and spinach under.  Gotta go! 

Oh, and the pink gloves in the photo?  New weed and seed gloves bought from Capital Gardens online; they're a tad too big for my hands but the supplier hasn't responded to my calls or emails for an exchange or a return.  I used London-based Capital Gardens as they have a garden centre up the road in Highgate which I thought would make life easier. Apparently not.  After 2 weeks of one-sided communication, I'm going to give up and use Big Gloves.  Naughty Capital Gardens.  London readers have been warned.

24 Jan 2013

This is Thursday

Today is Thursday

Thursday is my Friday.  Currently the end of the working week, day off and time to plan and catch up before Garden College on Friday and two whole days off at the weekend.  I love my life.

Today, sitting by the radiator (there's still snow outside), armed with two slices of hot buttered toast with marmalade (I have a friend who tells me off for using that old fashioned nursery phrase but, let's face it, 'Toast' just doesn't sum up the experience), a mug of coffee, a pile of books and a large seed box, I'm armchair gardening.

The books were free (except for Brian Capon, Botany for Gardeners on the top).  I recently discovered a local Books for Free recycled book shop nearby.  At each visit, you're allowed to take (and keep) 3 of someone's unwanted gifted books ... like a library with no return date.  The gentleman in the shop kindly let me have a double ration (he could see the gleam of obsession in my eye) so I came away with  two books on garden planning, a city gardener's handbook, the Tree and Shrub Expert, an illustrated book of herbs and a short biography of Gertrude Jekyll.  Bliss! I think these shops are popping up in empty shop premises all over the country so worth keeping a look out as they're a boon for avid readers of all genres.

Once the seed box has been sorted through, I'll put that away and get out my drawing board - I have to complete a page of garden design symbols and a drawing of a border (plant elevation) for an assignment due in next week. My own (community) garden is uppermost in my thoughts, I'm constantly visualising different planting combinations so mapping all this out on paper really helps to clear it out of my head.

I'll be ordering some Root Trainers for my sweet peas (a cuttings garden essential) and starting off my beetroot and broccoli in a windowsill propagator; these should be ready to plant out in about 6 weeks time, having been hardened off on the balcony for the last of those weeks.

By the end of all that, I think the "sun will be over the yard arm" (to quote my Dad) or perhaps it will just be time for a Spot of Afternoon Tea ...  Anyone else got any 'old fashioned' phrases that keep slipping into the conversation or is it just me that over-indulged with too much 'Miss Marple' / Joan Hickson at Christmas?

A further thought on root trainers:  In previous years I've used loo roll inners to start off my sweet peas, beans and peas.  Even microwaving the tubes before use has not stopped mould forming on the outside and, once planted, the cardboard takes ages to break down so the roots have to find their way down into the soil, rather than spreading out.  I haven't been impressed with the quality of plants produced by this method so this year I'm splashing out on buying root trainers.  The hinged ones allow the roots to be removed without damage prior to planting out and the shape of the trainers encourages a stronger root system by promoting the growth of fine hairs (better uptake of nutrients from the soil).

15 Apr 2012

Review: Green Crafts for Children

~ Gratuitous photo of cowslip on balcony; just to brighten up the day! ~
Today started by looking at clear blue skies with a good stiff breeze. Rubbish for taking photos (the above was taken yesterday) but perfect for pottering around the patch and sowing peas and beans as long as I'm quick!  The veg patch only gets sun until midday and there was quite a chill in the wind yesterday so this is a day to be getting on with things.

First though, I have a(nother) book to review. Following on from my review of Garden Crafts for Children, Green Crafts for Childrenis another good start for beginner crafters and I mention it here only because a few of the skills can be taken outside.  I'm thinking about the Gardening with Children group on UK Veg Gardeners - there's a running theme of how to keep the children occupied for a short while so that adults can complete some of the more mundane, but essential, tasks in the allotment or garden. Most children won't need much prompting to rush off den building or exploring but there will, inevitably, come a time when they've had enough but the adult hasn't (if you're anything like me... ).

By taking a small bag of non-fussy crafts with you, everyone's happy for a bit longer and this craft book may offer a few suggestions. Interested? Then pop over to my other blog Veg Patch Kids for the full lowdown. (That blog has been rather neglected for a long while but, as I'm helping out at a local primary school gardening club from this Friday, it may well be seeing a bit more action.)

I rather like this project from the book ... !
P.S.  I was right about the wind - it's been very nippy today as well and the early sunshine was quickly covered by clouds.  Hope it warms up soon!

13 Apr 2012

Garden Crafts for Children

Regular readers here will know that, on occasion, my gardening efforts are besieged by a few mini-gardeners. They love to help out but, despite the magic of growing food from tiny seeds and the delights of watering, they'll soon be casting around for distractions. The promise of a crafting activity will sustain interest and this is where the two books I've received from Cico Books would come in very handy.

Garden Crafts for Children
The first is Dawn Isaac's new book Garden Crafts for Children. You may already know Dawn Isaac through her blog, Little Green Fingers (or through her writing in the Guardian), in which case you'll have seen some of her clever ideas woven through the gardening she does with her own children.

Dawn's book has 35 step-by-step ideas together with an introductory section on the basics of sowing and growing, choosing containers and essential kit. There's a lot that's very good about this book: visually appealing, clear instructions, engaging projects with results you'll want to keep, thus giving the kids a real sense of achievement. The activities aim to educate in a fun way, teaching skills that lead gently into a love for gardening - but don't be put off if you don't have a garden as many crafts are nature related and accessible to all. I particularly like that most of the activities are based both indoors and out, giving options for both good and bad weather, rather than being a book solely about crafting outdoors.  Projects are designed for a range of ages, assuming that adults will be working alongside the children. (Some projects need more supervision than others.)

I reviewed it with a fairly experienced eye as I've been crafting since childhood and used to teach a primary school arts club. For that reason, I would have liked to see a nod to health and safety in the garden as some of the book's audience may be new to this area of crafting. As gardeners, we're already aware (I hope) of the plants that sting, poison or cause nasty rashes and of the potential hazards of cat poo, garden canes without tops and behaving sensibly around beneficial bugs. Without wishing to be over cautious, teaching basic garden safety gets everyone off to a good start.

So, after all that, what's in the book?

~ Insect Hotel ... always a good idea
and fun to build ~
Stylish outdoor projects that will help to glam up your garden (or allotment) include an insect hotel, a sunflower walk, bean archways and - wish I'd thought of this - scented hopscotch. Expect to see some of these fab projects appearing in my veg patch over the summer months. Indoor projects include herbal bath bags, easy flower soaps, garden lights amongst many others. There are clear instructions for mini gardens that will provide hours of play long after the activity is finished.

~ Scented HopScotch ~
As expected, there's an emphasis on gorgeous props.  These help to style the book beautifully but may be inaccessible to folk on a budget; a few tips on recycled and cheaper alternatives would have been useful. An example of this: Planting herbs in a strawberry planter is a nice (but not new) idea; but, for those who can't afford the ceramic planter, a small note about the availability of polypropylene planters, especially in end-of-season sales, would be helpful. Likewise the mini window boxes; this project relies on being able to get hold of single wooden wine boxes, tools and good DIY skills. (Personally, I'd be able to make one out of thick cardboard, papier maché and varnish... and perhaps I will, as a future post.)

Two small (and very pedantic) niggles: Some of the ideas, such as planting into welly boots and growing cress caterpillars, have been around for a while and feel like page fillers. I appreciate that these are quick crafts for very little children but feel there's many more crafts that could have replaced these. Having said that, the dinosaur world is wonderful ... love the re-use of an old tyre.
Secondly, this UK book appears to be aimed at the American market. I'm aware that the interest in crafting is strong in the US but americanised phrases throughout became irritating. We're given rain boots, cookie cutters, Popsicle sticks, thrift stores, etc, with the Anglicised version in brackets. Call me patriotic, but I'm annoyed at being downgraded to second place especially as the author, and publisher, is British.

So would I recommend it? Unreservedly. Dawn Isaac is a trained garden designer and her children are given free reign in her family garden. This book draws on that experience and has a lot to offer. Even though many projects were familiar to me, there's still plenty to inspire.  Newcomers to crafting will easily be able to follow the projects and keep the kids amused over even the very long summer holidays.

My thanks to Cico Books for sending me a copy to review.

Green Crafts for Children
I've also been sent Green Crafts for Children, a book published last year but worth mentioning as there are several projects which, although not labelled as such, would be great in the garden.  My review will appear tomorrow.

30 Jan 2012

A garden story for children

I shall apologise in advance to any readers who already know this book; I'm only very recently aware of it and delighted to have found it. I love both reading and gardening so, when I find a book that encompasses both of these loves, I want to share it.  I found this book, Rose's Garden, in the children's section of my local library.  It was the illustrations that caught my eye; they're reminiscent of Quentin Blake's work (a favourite illustrator) but, in fact, are the work of the author, Peter H Reynolds.  I would hope that all children love stories and being read to and I find it's a particularly nice way to start or finish a spot of gardening with children.  For one thing, it makes sure you have their attention, whether you want to tell them what's planned or whether it's time to stop, clear up and go.

I have a small collection of really nice children's books about gardening, some that I enjoyed reading to my son when he was younger ('Oliver's Vegetables', for example) and some more recent finds. This one is definitely a keeper (as in, I'll be buying it, not purloining it from the library - heaven forbid), if only because it reminds me of myself (in the sense that I have a vision of how colourful the garden here could be - but I don't travel in a fantastic teapot, more's the pity.)

The story is a simple one about Rose, who collects seeds on her travels. When her teapot is full up, it's time to plant her garden and she finds herself in a busy city.

"This little patch needs some colour."
She chooses a forgotten stretch of earth and gets to work, imagining what a colourful place it could be. On returning to the teapot to get her seeds, she finds the birds have eaten them, leaving just a small handful behind. She sows these seeds and patiently waits through the seasons but to no avail.

"A girl approached with a present. It was a paper flower."
Word spreads of Rose's faith in her garden and children of many cultures bring paper flowers that they've made for her garden. Gradually the garden fills with glorious colour from thousands of paper flowers.  Then, one day, Rose hears a bee buzzing and realises that her seeds have grown and real flowers are blooming among the paper ones.

"Her faith had gathered a garden – and the stories of a city."

Lovely, isn't it?

I like to think everyone who gardens is doing exactly this: making friends, building communities and having faith that their work will result in colour and beauty. I'd love to believe that this story will continue to be read to children and inspire a future generation of gardeners.

19 Dec 2011


I've been giving the blog a gentle tweek - to my eye it still looks very cluttered - and part of that process is to succumb to joining Twitter.  I'm not sure that I 'get' what it's all about; it seems to me a bit like eavesdropping on someone's phone conversation and then being able butt in which seems a tad impolite.

On the other hand, it can be quite fascinating to read what random thoughts are floating around tweetland. Just this morning, for example, Emma Cooper has had the builders in, Mark Diacono has been drinking a foul tasting watermelon smoothie, Dawn Isaac is painting her children's bedroom and Alys Fowler is geeking out on scientific research. So, a sort of virtual chat over virtual coffee is taking place - or is it the internet version of Big Brother? Put that way, I'm so going off it already. Back to my books, methinks. (Although please feel free to Tweet me if you so wish.  The button is there, top right. I will join you over a cuppa.)

14 Jun 2011

Grow Your Food for Free (well, almost)

"Over the years I have travelled down the country rather like a sock slips down inside a wellington boot. ... I have found one universal truth that binds all productive gardeners - none of them like to spend any money! ... In this modern society we're so conned into believing we need money to do anything, yet in other cultures around the world where there is no money, people improvise and make do with what they have."  So says Dave Hamilton in the Final Words to his book 'Grow Your Food for Free'. 

I apologise for the delayed review of this book, it should have been done weeks ago. Trouble is, every time I pick up the book meaning to speed read it for the review, I get completely caught up in it because it's so good.

The book is sub-titled 'Great money-saving ideas for your garden' by Dave Hamilton (who also co-wrote The Self-Sufficientish Bible with his brother Andy).  So it's less about how to grow veg and more about avoiding spending lots of money by retraining your eye to reassess and reuse what you already have. Surely a subject dear to the heart of many an allotmenteer?

Please don't think that the growing, harvesting, storing and cooking of food, whether grown or foraged, is not addressed; the book is sprinkled throughout with tips on propagating, planting out, protecting your seedlings, pests and diseases, drying, storing and using.  Do you know how to get an extra harvest from your home-grown veg?

Sunflower perch
Reams of seriously practical advice draw on Dave's long experience as a forager and food grower; this advice is particularly helpful to both short-term tenants who may only have access to their growing space for one or two seasons and to new (and very practical) allotment growers who may be contemplating spending money on tools, seeds, composter, shed, etc.

The book is presented in four seasonal parts and further broken down into chapters relevant to each time of year. Apart from practical gardening advice (assessing your growing space and planning), there's suggestions on acquiring and using free timber - and not just the ubiquitous pallet; facts about the living soil: manure, compost, wood ash, no-dig beds, leaf mould and, my personal favourite, the Chicken Tractor. Edible hedges, building stepping-stone paths, hazel fences, ponds and wildlife gardening, all presented in a very accessible and well-written style. Seriously, I never thought I'd be so enthralled by this; I mean who knew that tomatoes grow better up a string than a cane? Or that peas fare better on horizontal supports as their tendrils work like little hands climbing up a ladder? (Okay, so maybe I'm the last to know but isn't that what's so great about gardening, the learning curve? And this book delivers.)

Because of Dave's self-sufficient background, there's a fair bit of information on gathering food in the wild which won't appeal to everyone.  Other information such as building a shed from pallet wood might not be taken up but how to dismantle a shed (should you be lucky enough to be given one on, say, Freecycle) is invaluable.

There's a lot of information packed into its 240 pages - and clear illustrations and photos on almost every page - but, whether dipping in and out, or reading straight through, it's like having a knowledgeable gardening neighbour chatting over the fence, fast-tracking you to the good stuff.

An excellent read.  It's available now from all good booksellers.
Published by Green Books in Devon and printed in the UK on 100% recycled paper.

22 May 2011

Perplexed by Potatoes? How to Grow Your Food

... A Guide for Complete Beginners by Jon Clift and Amanda Cuthbert.  This is a(nother) new book aimed at novice food-growing gardeners and, after reviewing it, I give this book 9½ out of 10.

I love surprise packages and this little book - just 16cm square - arrived during the week from Green Books, an independent publisher in Devon. Green Books say it will be published this week, on 26th May, although Amazon apparently have had it since 7th April this year!

First impressions:  Lovely size and feel. Clear layout, distinct headings, plenty of photos for each plant, drawings where needed, e.g pinching out tomato side-shoots. It's a soft-back book, about the thickness of a monthly magazine, so (and I apologise if this seems sacrilegious treatment of a new book) it's tempting to roll it up and stuff it in a back pocket where it will happily sit until needed. As a gardener who stuffs everything in my pockets, this is a plus. I also like the matt feel of the pages which are printed on recycled paper.

So far, so promising.  The main sections are The Basics, then Easy-to-Grow Veg, E2G Fruit and E2G Herbs, arranged alphabetically within their chapters.  Each plant has a symbol showing at a glance where/how it can be grown (useful for small space or container growers), excellent illustrative photos and clear information about what to do. Just 6 headings contain all you need to know answers:  Plant or seed? Planting/Sowing, How do *** grow? Looking after your ***, Harvesting, Now What?  For me, this is the winner. The information is straightforward, concise, to the point and very easy to understand. I've even picked up a tip or two myself and found myself wishing I'd had this book three years ago when I started the Veg Patch.

The downside:  There is no index, despite the pages being numbered. This is easily overcome with a few post-it type markers relating to the veg you're planting, although I couldn't find Spinach until I happened on Perpetual spinach! I'm also curious as to the choices of plants that were selected for the book;  parsnips and turnips but no pumpkins and squashes?  Broccoli but no cauliflower or brussels? The fruit section has nothing on strawberries which, in my view are easy to grow, a good investment (if you're shown how to peg out runners) and expensive to buy in the shops even at the height of the season.  Melon (from seed) would have been a nice addition, too. The herb section is very limited - no coriander, no chives, no oregano.  Sure, rosemary and sage are easy to grow but how often are they used by the average cook? (This is, after all, a book about growing food and I'd have thought that coriander and chives are frequently used by cooks, along with parsley and basil (featured). Any tips on the uses of various herbs would also have been a big plus point. And what about edible flowers?  Many people still want a pretty garden, albeit a useful one.  I think that was the appeal of Alys Fowler's garden, the randomness of finding lettuce among the marigolds and so forth.

And so, to summarise:  Bearing in mind this is a book for novice food growers, it should definitely take it's place as essential early reading.  (I wish I'd had the section on potatoes when I first grew them, as every gardener I asked had a different piece of advice about planting!) What I love about it is the accessibility; when I started growing veg, I wanted to get straight out into the garden, not be sitting indoors reading about it.  This book allows that possibility, even including three short chapters covering Before You Start, Useful Gardening Terms (so you don't feel like an idiot) and Common Problems.

Forget Dr Hessayon (for now), this book contains excellent clear advice, does not patronise the newbie gardener and I believe (and hope!) it will give beginners the confidence to get started (whether from seed or plant), to succeed and therefore keep going and to explore other varieties in the future.  I imagine the book will get scruffy pretty quickly, having a soft cover, but it's a reference book that belongs in the tool bag or greenhouse, as well as on a bookshelf.

I say again:   9½ out of 10
(And a bargain at only £6.95 cover price!)
Sold via Amazon or Green Books

And the tip I picked up?  I didn't know that basil will grow to 50 cm if you keep pinching off the growing tips ... or that outdoor grown basil (in a warm, sheltered spot) can be cut down to soil level before the first frosts, transplanted and brought indoors where it will throw up new shoots for winter eating.  Keep pinching off those growing tips though, else it will flower and become non-productive.

20 Sept 2010

Gourdness! Giveaway and pumpkin carving

Last year I recall resisting the onset of Autumn and savouring the last days of summer but, this morning, I'm positively excited about the forthcoming Pumpkin Season for I have learned of an exciting competition looming… 

Some of the carved pumpkins featured in the book

A chance conversation yesterday revealed that Fortnum & Mason, renowned London-based purveyors of luxury food hampers and other delightful goodies, are holding their first Pumpkin Carving competition on October 29th.  It's a Friday so, presumably, you can take your pumpkin home to show off on All Hallows Eve. There are fabulous prizes (Fortnum's broomstick anyone? Even better: a £1000 hamper, which would nicely sort out Christmas) and themed food such as witch's hair (aka - of course - candyfloss).

I've just spoken to them and been told that places are limited due to pumpkin display space (as of today 50 spaces still up for grabs), booking is essential but it's free!  Not that I'm competitive or anything ~ahem~ but I'm definitely going!  (It is open to adults as well as 5-18 yrs…)

Pale carved squashes look like porcelain. Find out how in the book.

Now this may all sound jolly frustrating to anyone living out of reach but I know that you're a creative lot and hope you'll be inspired to rise to the spirit of the event in your own communities.  Personally, I'm going to be referring to a book which I bought last year:  Decorating Pumpkins and Gourds written by my York Rise neighbour and fellow gardener, Deborah Schneebeli-Morrell and photographed by her husband, Heini.

Debbie is a phenomenal artist and her ideas in this book veer right away from the usual fare of grinning face pumpkins; she not only shows us beginners (in my case) how to carve designs such as Birds in a Bush, Maids in a Row or the Hansel and Gretal house, but also tells us the correct tools to use.  I absolutely lOvE the lantern pumpkins shown in the above photos.  Her love of gardening shines through when we're taught how to make bird feeders out of squash (an easy project for children) and also which are the best - and easiest - varieties to grow. On a practical level, Debbie advises what to do with different squashes (acorn squashes, for example, are difficult to hollow out but can be carved and displayed before being roasted into a platter of patterned veg). Excellent illustrations and instructions throughout make this all very achievable and, although it's not mentioned, it's best to keep the children's involvement to scooping out the flesh rather than knife wielding!
Cico Books have very kindly offered to send me a copy of Decorating Pumpkins and Gourds as a !giveaway! for my readers.  I'll also ask the author to sign it. Just leave a comment before 15th October (should then give you enough time to get carving before Hallowe'en) and I'll randomly pick a winner.  (Please also say if you don't want the book.)

(All photos in this post are © Cico Books and taken by photographer Heini Schneebeli.)

10 Aug 2010

How to store your garden produce…

I have a vivid memory at this time of year of my grandmother sitting, colander in lap, constantly trimming beans, shelling peas, bottling, pickling, preserving, wrapping and otherwise storing the tide of food from my grandfather's back garden-turned-allotment.  With the advent of freezers and supermarkets this has become something of a lost art.

When I wrote recently of my beetroot bounty and of the saga of my onions (now properly dried), several people remarked on the usefulness of the book I turned to.  Camillap, who writes about her veg growing at Seeds and the City commented, "Funny how storage is something veg books seem to gloss over a lot of the time."   Strange, but true - as a quick browse through my gardening bookshelf revealed.  The shelf offers plenty of advice about when to sow, when to reap, what to do in between and recipes - but nothing (apart from the occasional chutney) on storing. And even one of my most experienced gardening friends recently said "I haven't quite got the hang of successional sowing… " as we stared wistfully at her mounds of lettuce, etc.

The lettuce conundrum sent me delving back into my copy of How to Store Your Garden Produce: The Key to Self-sufficiency (no, you can't store lettuce) and I thought a post about the book (from a gardening viewpoint) might be of interest. (There are, of course, plenty of reader reviews to be found you-know-where…)

The first thing that I immediately appreciate is that the book is written and published in UK.  Not that I have anything against books published elsewhere in the world, it's just that, in this instance, I recognise the ingredients, the quantities and the terminology which is very reassuring because I am, after all, reading it as an idiot's guide to getting it right, with the added comfort that any recommended varieties are more likely to be successfully grown in the UK climate.

The author, Piers Warren, puts the argument for storing your produce very succinctly in his opening paragraph:  "… with less than an acre of garden, you can grow enough produce to feed a family of four for a year but, since much of the produce will become ready at the same time - in the summer and autumn - most of it will go to waste without proper storage, and you'll be off to the supermarket again."  Presumably having chucked a goodly portion of your (excess, bolted or woody) veg on the compost heap.

This is the revised and expanded edition of the book, the first being published in 2003 with much less practical information.  The book is very light on pictures - just a few in the middle of the book which are wholly unnecessary and (say it quietly) a bit boring.  (The same could be said of the design.)  But that's not what we're here for.

There are two sections: the first covers various methods of storing, some of which were already familiar (freezing, pickling, jam), some nice tips on drying, salting and bottling, the difference between fruit butter and cheese explained (new to me) and plenty of recipes for vegetable wine.  I'm not so fussed about that, but it shows the range of the book.  Part Two is an A to Z list of fruits and vegetables ranging over slightly more than 100 pages.  The list is not exhaustive but covers the basics and more.  I was impressed to find a section on Horseradish (my teeny, tiny horseradish plant is now over a metre tall) with 2 alternatives for storage and a recipe for H sauce - and I now know that I can put the young leaves into a salad. Bonus!

I love that the author is a gardener first and foremost, then a cook - or possibly then a winemaker?  Each vegetable section has a paragraph of advice and tips on when to harvest (e.g. cut lettuce in the morning for the crispest leaves), recommended varieties (onions, for example, best types for pickling, best for storage, even a Japanese onion for sowing now and harvesting early next summer), and then the most appropriate methods of storing.  Not everything can be stored and, when that's true, he says so and offers other appropriate advice.  (Short term storage and successional sowing for lettuce.)

Some people have criticised the book for not having enough recipes; I think they're missing the point.  It's a book targetted squarely at gardeners like me, jumping on the Grow Your Own bandwagon and not being experienced enough to plan ahead or quite know what to do with the glut when everything ripens at once.  With this book at my side, I'm able to work out what I should grow next year to see me through the winter and spring - and what I should grow more sparingly for eating in the summer.

It's not the ultimate reference book for storing produce (particularly if you're the leading light of your local Womens' Institute) but, for me, is an excellent starter book on the subject and definitely one of my gardening books that I have actually read!

And the recipes?  Haven't tried any yet but Mushroom Ketchup, Spinach Soup, Spitfire Sauce, Rhubarb Cheese (I'm guessing same texture as lemon curd - yum!), Pea Pod wine (didn't Alys Fowler do something alcoholic with her pea pods on TV?) and Baked Beans have all got my attention.

Now I just need to find a nice, dry, dark, cool but frost-free cubbyhole to put everything in…

My copy of the book was kindly sent to me by the publishers, Green Books, in Devon. As they say "Green by name, Green by nature." Where possible, books are printed on recycled paper, covering topics which may appeal to the environmentally, ecologically or conservationist minded. ("Soil, Soul and Society".) You can find more information about the publishers, including their latest publications and where to buy, on their website.

13 Jul 2010

Beetroot Bonanza: Store it!

A while back I was sent a book called "How to Store your Garden Produce" by Piers Warren.  I gave it only a quick skim through back in May as I had nothing edible to store at the time but I knew that the book would come into it's own later in the year.  That moment is now.

Last year, you may recall, despite loathing the taste of beetroot, I was determined to give it a try.  I'm now converted and happy to eat beetroot in a variety of guises.  (If you find yourself in a similar situation, you might like to be aware of this extensive list of beetroot recipes on the Abel & Cole website.)

As a result of my conversion, I have sowed plenty of beetroot seeds and I find myself in the same boat as other gardeners in that they all seem to be ready at the same time - in spite of successional sowing.

So, back to "How to Store …", look under the handy A-Z listing of veg, turn to B, yep, there it is … beetroot.  A little bit of background, some recommended varieties (take note for next year), some advice ('pull beetroots for storage before they get too large and woody', yep, got that one), ('twist the foliage off, cutting causes bleeding of the beets', hmm, knew about the cutting, good tip on the twisting), then the How To.  Seems to be two ways:  Freezing and Dry Storage.  So…

Freezing:  Pretty straightforward this.  Small beetroots should be washed and boiled whole - the book says for 1 or 2 hours in salted water.  (Last year, I cooked mine for about 45 minutes, depending on the size, and that seemed to do the trick.)  When cooked, rub the skins off, cool, slice and pack into containers ready for the freezer.

Dry Storage:  This one I want to try, sounds interesting.  Gently remove soil from undamaged beets and pack in sand in boxes, barrels, crates (see below).  (My tip, go to your supermarket fishmonger for boxes.  They're usually pleased to hand over their empty polystyrene boxes which are perfect for this and have a lid.)  Store in a cool, frost-free building where they should keep until Spring.

He also mentions Pickled Beetroot (keeps for 3 months), Beetroot Wine (not my thing, but if you're a winemaker …) and Borscht (Russian/Polish beetroot soup) which, of course, can be frozen.  Strangely,  chutney isn't listed - perhaps because other vegetables are needed or it comes under pickling?

In an earlier section called 'The Methods', storing in sand (or sawdust) is described thus:
  1. Use sand that is only just moist (but what sort? play sand, builder's sand, garden sand? and does it even matter? Does anyone know?)
  2. Make layers of sand and roots (unwashed but with excess soil gently brushed off) in containers - making sure the roots don't touch each other.
  3. Store the containers in a dry, frost-free place. Cellar = good; shed/garage = perfectly adequate except in truly freezing weather.  Consider filling them in situ - sand is heavy!
In the next couple of days, I'll post a proper review of the book.  Until then, trust me, if you're new to this, like me, this book is a mine of useful information and ideas - although, of course, to the more experienced among you, this post probably falls firmly in the category of 'Teaching your Grandmother to suck eggs'.

23 Apr 2010

Companion(able) planting…

As a family, we're having a week of gardening: horticultural heaven for me (being outdoors in the Veg Patch), horticultural hell for my son who is doing pre-GCSE work experience with the Gardening Guru. There was a suggestion that he'd go to the Ecology Centre (at a nature reserve in Islington) and I fondly imagined that he'd learn about bio-diversity, planting schemes, local wildlife, sustainability and environmental engineering.  They even have a wind turbine there!  and an education centre!  Sounds great, huh?  The truth is somewhat different…  he's been digging holes and potting on plants in a public park for five days now.  For free.  In the heat.  Breathing the traffic fumes of the Holloway Road. He tells me he's never doing gardening ever again.  Which is a shame because it was the one thing that we did together, quite companionably.  (Seeing as I don't 'do' Xbox or football.)

My week, on the other hand, has been delightful.  Out in the sunshine, digging out ivy roots, preparing raised beds for planting, organising my seeds and what should go where, painting plant markers and sitting outdoors to eat my lunch. (Oh, and being passed bars of chocolate by the very lovely Myra to keep me going! Myra and her husband Fred overlook the Veg Patch from their balcony and have lived here in York Rise for many decades.)

And the cherry on the top of my Cupcake of Life? Rather excitingly, I've been sent three lovely gardening books to review by Green Books, a publishing company in Devon, more of which later.

22 Oct 2009

Temptingly Tasty … (lovin' this lunch)

Loving this lunch …

One of my gardening books that I'm re-reading - and thoroughly enjoying - is 'Veg Patch:  River Cottage Handbook No. 4' by Mark Diacono.  He's the Head Gardener at River Cottage in Devon (the restaurant/farm/venture that put chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on the media map) and also teaches on the River Cottage courses.  He's written the book in a way that makes a first-time veg grower like me feel excited about what I'm doing – his passion for gardening is evident on every page; listen to this: "If you've got better things to do at 8 o'clock on a mid-June evening than pop freshly shelled peas into your mouth as you amble round your vibrant plot with a glass of what you fancy, then life must be pretty special."  (Definitely a  kindred spirit, especially the addition of "a glass of what you fancy", although I would also add a friend or two into this scenario.)

On making a wish list for what to grow, Mark advises:  put away your growing books,  get out all your food books and make a list of all the food you like that can be grown.
"Think firstly of flavour and you won't go far wrong."

And that's what I thought of when I sat down to eat my lunch: a delicious mix of Rainbow Stir Fry, rice noodles and coriander cut fresh from the kitchen windowsill.  Every crunchy, flavoursome, filling mouthful tasted of good health on a fork.

So now I know…  next year I have to grow bean sprouts, cabbage, red and yellow peppers, baby corn, red onions, carrots and edamame soya beans.  In the meantime, there's always Waitrose* …
*For non-UK readers, Waitrose is one of the big 5 food retailers in UK.

Foodie Fact:  
A lunch like this will make you feel good beyond it's sheer visual delights:  A rainbow of veg will supply fibre as well as a range of vitamins and minerals.  Vitamin A is found in carrots and peppers as beta-carotene, an antioxidant that converts to VitA when the body needs it. (And did you know carrots are more nutritious when cooked?) Soya beans supply protein and are rich in potassium and a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, iron, folate and Vitamin E (needed for healthy bones, teeth, nerves and muscles).  The peppers are excellent for Vitamin C (green peppers contain twice as much VitC as oranges, red peppers three times as much) - as are the Sprouted Mung Beans (one portion provides three-quarters of the adult daily requirement for VitC).  Cabbage is vitamin rich and well known for it's anti-cancer properties, especially bowel cancer - and only 16 calories per portion when boiled (hence the famous Cabbage Soup diet - which I loathe to mention as I hate "dieting".)  Small bunches of Coriander are used in Herbalism as a tonic for the stomach and heart and also strengthens the urinary tract.  Rice is a good source of starch protein which steadies blood sugar levels, but you can't grow it in the UK.

See?  Yum, yum - and anti-aging from all that vitamin C (vital as a building block for collagen).
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