5 Nov 2011

Saturday Snap: Calendula Officinalis

All summer long I've been bowled over by the wonderful bright orange blooms of the calendula (aka Pot Marigold) in the veg patch.  The seeds were sown in late May and took a while to get going but have really been making up for it over the past three months and the plants are still flowering abundantly in early November!


The colour is such an intense orange that, despite taking numerous photos over the summer, I've never felt that they've done the flowers justice. This afternoon, just as the light was fading around 3.30 and rain threatened, I quickly tried once more and, this time, I'm quite pleased with the result.  You can just see the start of the raindrops on the petals!

Mine were grown to bring in the hoverflies and bees and did an excellent job but they also, apparently, reduce soil eelworm. They're a beautiful flower to look at, growing to about 18 inches high, but calendula is a herb and I really should have used it in cooking.  (There's still time.)

Fresh calendula petals can be sprinkled over salads and boiling the petals produces an edible yellow dye that will colour rice, hence the nickname "poor man's saffron". Dried petals can also be used to season and flavour soups and cakes. The petals should be picked early in the morning (preferably on a bright, sunny day but I think I may be a tad late for that) and dried quickly in the shade. As a bonus, the flowers are high in vitamins A and C which I didn't know before and is useful information to have at the onset of winter. Similarly, tea made from the petals will aid circulation (useful) or can be used as a hair rinse to add golden tones to auburn hair. (Not so useful, and unlikely to have me reaching for the secateurs.) Something worth noting for next year is that calendula is a good companion plant for tomatoes.  Wow, I love the idea of all those reds and oranges growing together!

Year on year I get a bit  more organised around planning in the veg patch so it's worth knowing that calendula seeds, like sweet peas and broad beans, can be sown in the autumn to give them a head start for the following year.  If they're happy where they are, they're highly likely to self-seed and I did have one or two from last year so, together with self-seeding sunflowers, nasturtiums, orache and cerinthe, it looks like the veg patch might slowly be turning into the flower garden!

2 Nov 2011

Small but perfectly formed

Sweet corn cobs

According to the BBC weather last night, there's a bank of mild but wet weather heading across the country so today's sunshine made it a day to be treasured.  Like many people, I'm slightly thrown when the clocks are altered, both Spring and Autumn.  I don't mind the darker evenings so much when we have days like today:  bright, breezy, dry and mild.  Perfect for a walk on the heath, perfect for watching the leaves fluttering down to the pathway (must take a large sack with me next time I go), perfect for getting the laundry done.  And, for the time being, the lighter mornings are very motivational which makes them perfect for a wander round the veg patch before work.

This morning, I was up at 6.30 (still light enough to make me jump out of bed with a determination to get on with the day), had two loads of washing flapping on the lines by 8 a.m, back upstairs for a spot of brekkie whilst making lunches and then down to the veg patch for a wander in the warm sunshine.

This mild autumn weather we're having may have got the plants confused but it's given my sweetcorn cobs the final shove they needed to ripen.  Frankly, after the disastrous start to growing them back in May, and having to start again in June, then a failed 'Three Sisters' experiment leading to replanting in July, I'd abandoned any thoughts of enjoying freshly picked cobs this year.  The plants were left where they were because I like the look of them in the veg patch!  This morning, though, I found that every plant has at least one plump-ish cob, the silks having turned brown and, peeling back the outer layers, golden kernels are to be found within. Yum.

Corn cob
This looks impressive but I have very small hands!

At this rate, I may even risk sowing a row or two of spinach ... !

1 Nov 2011

The Jewel in Mum's Garden

I just want to say thank you to everyone who wished my mum well after her recent accident.  Having spent three weeks in hospital (she suffered quite a blow to the head when she fell), she's now home and slowly making her way back to normal life, albeit finding that the spirit is willing whilst the flesh is still weak, to paraphrase.  My dad is with her and they're muddling along nicely together which is what they like. Next year will mark 60 years since they met! (And, very sweetly, they still hold hands as they sit next to each other.)

Cosmos Cloud

During recent visits to the parental domicile, one of my favourite things was to look out into the garden throughout the day and see this beautiful cloud of pink cosmos. My sister Julia grows lots of flowers every year for Mum and, while she swears she's not a gardener, I'd beg to differ as I've never had any luck with cosmos and these are truly uplifting.

Cosmos close up

They're planted against an east facing wall so get morning sunlight and warmth for several hours of the day.  The soil is very dry but, even so, the plants are still budding and flowering even at this very late stage.

An almost flower

I've just finished reading Monty Don's account of The Jewel Garden where he talks of his chocolate cosmos still presenting a striking display in October; is this usual, I wonder? If so, cosmos is definitely one for my garden next year.

Cosmos buds

16 Oct 2011

Well, colour me happy!

Excuse the gi-normous photo, but I couldn't resist! Everyone is relishing this lovely warm spell of weather and these are a few of the plants still brightening up the veg patch.  They're also causing me to carefully rethink my winter planting as I need the space but don't want to rip out plants (such as the nasturtiums) that are still flourishing! I've been told to be more ruthless but just can't. I'm happy to let nature take its course.

Another day of bright and breezy sunshine means my washing is flapping itself gently dry on the lines outside and I can hoof it down to the veg garden to sit on a warm wall and seed save over a coffee. Next up will be tidying and, perhaps, I might risk sowing a few spinach seeds, maybe some peas, pak choi and hardy carrots. I'm in an optimistic mood and looking forward to spending time in the garden. I won't post now until later next weekend; I'm away next week to look after my lovely dad while my beloved mum is in hospital. She's been very ill after a nasty fall which caused a bash to the head and she needs to be in hospital for a while;  I hope this lovely weather is putting a sparkle into her day as well and encouraging her to get better.

Happy gardening everyone, let's make the most of this warm autumn!
Caro x

Edited to add:  Ooops, I spoke too soon - it's just clouded over here!  (Still looking forward to gardening though!)

15 Oct 2011

Saturday Snap! Chilli re-growth

Here in London, we're experiencing what I can only describe as a glorious summer's day.  Although there was a distinct snap in the air at the beginning of the day, there's real warmth in the sunshine.  All this lovely warmth and mild weather is completely confusing my plants.  There's me trying to make ready for the winter (which I'm sure is due fairly soon!) and the plants are seemingly putting in one last effort before this year's growing season ends.  Look what I found this morning on my chilli plant:

Chilli regrowing
:: October Chilli plant, regrowing nicely ::
There's actually half a dozen pods like this on this plant (better than it did in the summer!) This is a plant which is not protected in any way but just sits on my balcony where it gets a few hours of sunshine, when available, and is buffeted by wind!  These new pods are a couple of inches long already and I suspect would pack quite a punch when cooked!  The pods should mature to about 3 inches long, changing through a banana yellow colour to deep red.  I wonder how far they'll get before the weather changes?

There's also a fair amount of colour lingering in the veg patch and it was interesting to watch Monty D on Gardeners World last night talking about how much colour there is in his garden at Long Meadow.  I'm intrigued that his sweet peas are still flowering energetically - obviously, next year, I should be picking mine more often.  And, although I've already ordered my sweet peas for next year, I really liked the one named after Monty, a glorious deep red.  Yumm!  (I suspect I could squeeze a few in!)

13 Oct 2011

The Constant Cauliflower

Constant cauli
How long before the pigeons spot this beauty, I wonder?

I've taken my time in writing about the wondrous cauliflowers that I'm growing as I wanted them to get really established first.  Earlier in the year, Stephen Shirley, who I met through UK Veg Gardeners, offered me a selection of veg from his family's business, Victoriana Nurseries in Kent.  The Victoriana website has an extensive range of tempting fruit and veggies and, as a result, choosing - always difficult for me - took some time; I wanted to grow veg that would capture the imaginations of the children here.  Eventually I ordered Tozer brussels sprouts (a beautiful red variety, hopefully gracing this years christmas dinner), Strawberry Popcorn, Rambling Cascade strawberries and Cut and Come Again Cauliflowers.  My order went in very late in the season so we all wondered if the plants would perform well, especially in the case of the Strawberry Popcorn, and Stephen's wife Serena kindly threw in some green brussels sprouts for good measure.  

I'm pleased to say that nearly 3 months on, by following the planting instructions and preparing the soil well, the caulis and brussels are doing really well.  The strawberries are also looking good, with recent warm weather they'll have developed really strong root systems ready for next summer and then we'll see them really flourish! The sweetcorn didn't survive but it's a plant that I'll go back to next summer, if only for the novelty - who doesn't love freshly made popcorn?

But it's the caulis that are going to be the magical, mystery plant of the veg garden - even I hadn't appreciated the full uniqueness of this plant.  In late summer, I was invited to a little evening celebration at the home of Mark "Vertical Veg" Ridsdill-Smith who had discovered he lived around the corner from me. He was celebrating a good year for his business including featuring in Alex Mitchell's recently published book The Edible Balcony. Standing in the kitchen, eating some delicious home-made focaccia, I uttered the phrase "perennial cauliflower" and the room of foodies and gardeners fell into an awed silence. "Perennial Cauliflower? What? Is it true? Does it work? Why have I never heard of this before?" Ooh, I created quite a stir, I can tell you! You'd think I'd revealed how to spin straw into gold.

So, for those who missed the ensuing conversation, this is what I'm told will happen: Each plant will produce up to 10 mini cauliflower heads on a branching system not dissimilar to broccoli. At the end of the season, where other caulis would be cleared from the garden, perennial cauliflowers are just tidied up and left. Not even cut down to resprout; no, no - just left. Come next winter, off they go again producing another crop of mini cauliflowers and so on, and so on, for up to another 5 years. I'm a little bit excited by this plant, I can tell you, and looking forward to seeing the first round of produce. 

cauli with apple

I've planted mine inbetween the fruit trees in the walled border where the strawberries will ramble between them in the summer.  They won't be in the way there because that's the border that I have to, rather inconveniently, climb into when there's work to be done so it makes the perfect spot for plants that can fend (for the most part) for themselves.

Edited to add: I'll be adding more photos of the caulis as the heads develop over the winter season. I'm told that the plants produce mini-heads of cauliflower; I assume this will be a bit like the baby veg found in the supermarket. Sounds perfect to me, a plant that gives cauliflower in one portion sizes!

2 Oct 2011

Saturday Snap: Summer swan song

Goodbye summer

Of all the flowers in the garden, the sunflower is surely the one most readily associated with the long, leisurely, picnic-filled days of summertime.  Most of my sunflowers have either faded and drooped their lovely faces towards the soil or have been cleared away during the last week due to their extremely brown and crispy appearance. As this gloriously welcome hot weekend dawned over the veg patch on Saturday morning, there are two sunflower plants still putting on a show.  By standing on a wall, I could just about photograph this one;  with the sun shining through the petals, I was struck by how beautiful the back of the flower is. It seemed an appropriate view to symbolise the last of the summer. 

This unseasonal heatwave is forecast to start fading soon, with it lingering the longest in the South East of England, and then we'll be forced to face the reality of October as it should be.  I noticed a heavy beading of dew on the cauliflowers so the night temperatures are low; not too long before we all have to think about night frosts and cloches, I think.  
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