13 Oct 2010


I've just popped a casserole in the oven - a piece of pork belly nestled among carrots, onion, garlic, turnip, parsnips and with sage going in later. (Trying out Heston Blumenthal's recipe of the week for Waitrose.) Bathed in home-made chicken stock (Prue Leith's recipe), it should be beautifully cooked by dinner time and all that will be needed is to mash the vegetables, fry off the meat and serve up with the crackling which is being slowly roasted in the oven alongside the casserole.

It gives me huge satisfaction to know that all the vegetables and herbs in this dish (bar the turnip) have been home-grown and, for me, the wonder veg is garlic. I planted a few cloves of ordinary garlic last November along with the onion sets, partly out of curiousity and partly because I wanted to have something growing over the winter.

I say "I" planted but, actually, the cloves were planted by the Veg Patch Kids, my part being to show the children how to measure the planting distance and dibble the holes (we used the handle of an old wooden spoon, marked to the correct depth) and which way up to pop the cloves in. I'm probably more amazed than they are that a single clove becomes a whole new garlic.  Even more amazing, I've read that home-grown garlic cloves will adapt year on year to produce the best bulbs. So I've saved a few of my heroes to go back into the ground later this month.

I assume that everybody grows garlic - it's really not hard - but what I found interesting was the little experiment that I ran.  Ever one to fly in the face of good advice, having been told not to plant supermarket garlic, of course I then had to. The original bulbs were, I believe, from Spain – they're the big whoppers in the picture.  They were already showing 6 inches of growth when the January snows fell and came through that beautifully. Then, in late April, the Gardening Guru gave me a few more garlic bulbs to sow - Isle of Wight and T&M Choice. They'd just been delivered to him by Thompsons which I thought was a bit late as they need a good frost to start them off.  I planted them anyway - some under the plum trees, some between the beetroot (probably not my best idea of the season).  The plum tree garlic should really have been watered more regularly and the beetroot garlic was overshadowed in the summer months.  A selection of the results are in the photo below, with the clear winner being my Spanish supermarket garlic which grew to be about 2 inch diameter with well-formed tasty cloves.  (But then it did have the benefit of being grown for 5 months longer than the others.)


Will I do it again this year?  Yes, absolutely. In fact, I've already selected some Porcelain Garlic which hails from the Highlands of Scotland (via Waitrose) and will plant those alongside my London/Spanish cloves - but will also be choosing some commercial bulbs to pitch against them for comparison.

P.S. I'm sure you all know of the massively diverse health benefits of eating garlic but did you know that recent research from the University of East London reveals that garlic may be effective against the superbug MRSA?  

11 Oct 2010

A-Foraging we will go…

::Book cover image from Amazon::

What bliss, I've actually won a giveaway!  I can't begin to tell how thrilled I was yesterday morning to learn that my name was plucked from the wellie boot as the lucky recipient of this book: Collins Gem - Food For Free  (The last prize I won was a Cliff Richard single from a packet of Smiths Crisps when I was 8. This one's been a long time coming.) The book was given away by Damien who writes over on Two Chances Veg Plot and is a very active member of the UK Veg Gardeners network as well as introducing his young family to the delights of foraging earlier this autumn.

I love the idea of wild food from nature.  Wonderful word, foraging. When applied to people, rather than - in its original usage - animals, what a fine concept this is for 21st century self-sufficient(ish) living and becoming reconnected to the earth around us. It's old Middle English used from the 14th century to refer to cattle wandering the land, grazing for fodder or food – forage being both (verb) the act of searching and (noun) the food itself.  Obviously I've been in touch with my Inner Cow for some time as I love to munch as I walk.

It would be somewhat impractical to totally embrace hedgerow eating but I feel such a townie by having no idea what I'm looking at when out on the Heath or further afield in the countryside or coast. I'm in awe of people who return from a walk with armfuls of elderberries, sloes, rose hips and wild mushrooms. This book, I'm hoping, will help me to swell their ranks.  In my Cornish childhood, my father would take all four of us out walking the airfields in the early morning mists to gather large field mushrooms for breakfast - an awesome experience, akin to treasure hunting, and such fun.  Expeditions like this and other nature walks full of shared knowledge were, I'm sure, partly responsible for a lifelong love of being outdoors and fostered a healthy sense of curiosity and adventure.

Children on our estate go mad for the bramble berries that grow over from the railway lines and rush to pick up nuts and berries outdoors ("Can I eat this?").  Now, at last, I'll be able to say with more certainty, Ye-ess or, more probably, No!

Expect more posts about my foraged finds - I did see some very promising red berries on the Heath just the other day! (Although those might end up wired into christmas decorations.)


 (photo © Cico Books/Heini Schneebeli)
P.S. If you haven't already entered the DRAW I started in this post, to win a free copy of 'Decorating Pumpkins and Gourds', there's still time (one week to go!) - and, in case you're wondering, yes I'll post anywhere in the world! 

1 Oct 2010

Sunshine and soft fruits…

 ~ Carrots, leeks, courgettes, tagetes, cabbage, runner beans, tomatoes ~
:: The Regent's Park Allotment::

Being of a very curious nature, I do love a good nosey around other gardens and allotments. I find inspiration everywhere: the planting, the colours, the layout, clever use of discarded items… So, it was with a carefree heart that I pedalled off last Saturday to a half-day training in the Regent's Park allotment run by Capital Growth and Capel Manor College. The sun was shining as I cycled through the park, a highly enjoyable but somewhat rebellious act due to it being Not Allowed. (Why is that, I wonder? Children who won't walk any distance will often cycle happily, thereby allowing families to embrace the Great Outdoors together.)

But I digress…   my hopes and expectations for the day were fully met:  an excellent and comprehensive training in Growing and Preserving Soft Fruits was provided by Tom from City Leaf (with handouts, which was lucky as I would never have remembered it all).  In three short hours we covered the four Ps (Planting, Pruning, Propagation and Preserving) in relation to a range of soft fruits: gooseberries, red/white currants vs blackcurrants, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries.  Whew - feeling hungry yet?  As if that wasn't enough, we also briefly looked at ways of training fruit, veering off into the realms of cordoned and espaliered apples.

~ Garden of Eden? ~
I must admit my motivation for going was to get access to an Idiot's Guide to Growing Raspberries as our canes didn't do well this year.  Poor little things. I now know that this is due to a combination of not planting soon enough (nor heeling in), not preparing the site well beforehand (it was nearly Christmas and we were desperate), not giving them enough space and also the poor plants being choked by weeds from a neighbouring patch. We'd literally plonked them into the soil in a spare corner of Leigh's allotment as the Veg Patch was not ready for them.  See?  Loads of info.  I'm going to replace the canes and, this time, lavish care and attention on them. 

We also looked at successfully growing grapes in an urban environment (apparently London is now warm enough for this, which is great  news).  Their grapes looked luscious:


And in anticipation of the wonderful harvest we'll all have next  year, and in case any of it actually reaches our kitchens (mine will all be eaten as it ripens by the children), our group was introduced to preserving your soft fruit harvest by a local guest speaker; a wonderful woman who brought along some of her produce and made it sound so easy.  She scotched several myths:  no, she doesn't use special preserving sugar (juice of a lemon will serve instead, if needed), blackberries do not set well on their own (throw in a Bramley) and the original jam jar lids are just as good as the cellophane/rubber band option, if properly cleaned. Mantra: Cleanliness is all when preserving!


I spotted this wonderful 1970s cookbook (Readers Digest, I think) on the table at the end.  It caught my eye, set against the jars of chutney and melons grown in the allotment.  Yes! Melons are possible in the UK - we had some of these fruits during the break. (Delish.) The allotment has an open aspect, sheltered by fencing on the North and East sides, with the melon vines planted at the southern end.


Elsewhere, other vegetables were all still flourishing and ripening (the carrots! the rhubarb! the beans! giant tomatoes!). You'll recognise the asparagus in the above photo - a huge bed of it, with ripening berries.  The volunteer gardeners try to nip them off when they turn red and before they burst and scatter the seeds.  Bare patches in the beds were explained by the recent harvesting of the butternut squash which was set to one side in baskets - there was an open day 'Harvest Cook Off' the following day (at least I hope so as the weather had turned wet by then).


The entire allotment was full of inspiration, if excessively tidy (but then they are on permanent view to the public).  Companion planting abounded:  Basil and cabbages, crimson nasturtiums under the runner beans and around the rhubarb,  and bright orange tagetes were planted (and interplanted) everywhere - around tomatoes, apples, beans, herbs - and doing a fantastic job of bringing in the bees.


But I especially l-o-v-e-d the use of recycling:  peppers, tomatoes and herbs grew in large empty white Italian tomato cans, an old Royal Parks watering can had been planted with herbs, and … the best bit for me …  the fibreglass poles from a defunct tent used to hold up netting.  I'm SO pinching that idea!


There, I think I've rambled on long enough.  It's worth a visit if you find yourself near Regents Park and also very handy the Cow and Coffee Bean Café. (Here's the Google map link). I took far too many photographs and am now making a Flickr page so, once the link is up, pop over there if you want to see more!

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!
 Giveaway!
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.)

19 Sept 2010

The Cheerfulness of Chard:


Isn't this fabulous?!  First year that I've grown chard - and I've yet to actually eat any of it - but those colours are a real show-stopper on the Veg Patch.  Love it!

(Note to self:  grow it in a higher bed next time to better display the stems!)

In case of interest: Bright Lights Chard, Johnsons seeds, sown into recycled council compost in raised beds, open aspect but shaded early pm onwards.  Well watered by the weather.

16 Sept 2010

From Soil to Sail:


Hello again, time's zipping by, we're nearly into Autumn and I'm still catching up with myself… There seems to be so much to pack into each day (not least of which is to get my potatoes dug up!).  As a result, I seem to have fallen out of the habit of popping in here to say hello which feels odd because, in my head, I've got lots to tell:  trips to the seaside, apple scrumping, a street fair, hedgerow-jam making, allotment-soup making, books to review (three!), autumn progress in the Veg Patch and new bedtime reading: seed catalogues for 2011…mmm, lovely!  So, whew. 

The thing that has taken a goodly chunk of time is the street fair which we had in our little corner of London.  I'd had a fancy to make fresh apple juice on the day (using a traditional press) and put my hand up to help in order to ensure that the event was actually going to happen. Doing the pressing was quite a learning curve so deserves a later post all to itself!   In among all of this frenzied activity, what with the end of the summer hols looming, I also decided to make a dash for the seaside to spend a few days on the south Hampshire coast with my parents. (Another reason for the silence here … I was beachcombing elsewhere!)


Lovely, isn't it?  I never tire of this view of the Solent (taken from the little cross-harbour ferry): Old Portsmouth on the left and, just out of view, sailing boats making their way in or out of harbour.  Look in the other direction and you see Portsmouth Harbour, ferries waiting to sail for the Isle of Wight and, in the historic dockyard, the masts of Nelson's HMS Victory and modern ships of the Royal Navy. All very busy and nautical.

For me, though, the highlights of a shore-side break-away are the long walks on the beach, picking up driftwood and shells (pebbly beaches are so interesting).


…and, at this time of year, collecting hedgerow blackberries (loads of them on the seafront common land). Turning the corner from my parents' house, a short walk leads to the common …


… with the Isle of  Wight clearly seen on a good day.  Wow, looks likes there's no sea at all between the mainland and island! (Although, I think there's probably a good couple of miles of Solent to swim before you get over to the Island, here reaching Ryde.)

Normally we walk along the shoreline towards the sailing club and the ice-cream café - yes, what bliss! New Forest ice-cream, yum yum, served with a sea breeze - or a cup of tea if the weather is chillier.  This time, we walked towards the scrubbier part of the common, for a change, where there were plentiful berries to be picked and, presumably from a discarded apple core, a heavily laden apple tree, ripe for the scrumping!  A big trugful of nature's harvest - and just in good time for my apple pressing venture!

1 Sept 2010

Catching up…


Well, here we are again… I hadn't realised that I'd been away so long, the weeks have just slipped by.  (Did anyone notice?)  I wish I could say that I'd been enjoying myself on holiday somewhere warm - but, no. Truth is that the deluge of rain … day after soggy day … coupled with very strong winds was wreaking havoc in my little vegetable garden and I had to devise various Heath Robinson structures to stop everything keeling over.

My poor beans had been happily climbing up a ridge-tent-shaped frame of bamboo poles - but I'd forgotten to pinch out the growing tip. Gradually it became a tad top heavy and started to lean ever-so-slightly.  The problem was made worse as continuous rain softened the soil and the wind pushed it over as if the frame was being pulled from one end.  I had to duck underneath to get by!  All very well until someone gets hurt and one stick was, by now, at eye-poking level.

While figuring out a solution to the bean problem, the wind kept blowing and then I found my beautiful super-tall sunflowers had succumbed and collapsed across my fruit trees and crash landed on the potatoes.  The roots were ripped up but because I found them not long after, I was able to firm them back into the soil and start hoping for recovery… but that ol' wind kept blowing.


Time for some urgent action.  A hazel wigwam was dismantled and the branches used to pin the sunnies against the wall.  Hmm, gooood thinking. 

The beans, though, were slightly more problematic: I'd tried tensioning the frame with some ties, like pitching a tent.  That worked for a while but the wind got stronger and stretched the ties.  It was Leigh who found the solution: a small team of us dragged a very heavy builder's bag over to the veg patch as ballast and anchored the bean frame to that.  Looks ugly as hell but - hey - it works!  Should get a few more beans before the end of the summer.  And what have I learned from all this?  Next year, I'm going to grow my beans up a very sturdy wigwam!  (and pinch out the growing tip)

Elsewhere everything is a bit wind-bashed but surviving:  I'm getting some lovely carrots with excellent flavour…  (all that rain must have done them good)


The beetroot is getting awesomely large…

The bees are still visiting the last of the lavender…


And what I thought were wonderfully chic black chilli peppers are, in fact, turning a vile colour I can only describe as blorange.  Fingers crossed for improvements on that front…

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