21 Dec 2011

Book Review - The Fruit Tree Handbook

The veg patch has definitely embraced winter - I managed an hour of clearing and tidying in the garden at the weekend before my hands needed to warm up around a mug of hot chocolate.  I noticed that the branches of the fruit trees are now completely bare, in contrast to a couple of weeks ago when it was 'too soon to prune'.

(Taken on the day of Winter Solstice - so dark in the midday that I had to photograph in the bathroom!)
This year I feel much better equipped to deal with pruning as I've received a copy of The Fruit Tree Handbook by Ben Pike. What I needed was a book that properly explained the how, why and wherefore of pruning and, in this book, I've got it. There's an entire chapter devoted to the subject: read this and the brain fog surrounding pruning will magically disperse. Every pair of secateurs sold should be accompanied by a copy of this chapter.  For me, this is life-changing stuff and it's written in a really clear, logical way. No wonder I couldn't figure it out from a 2 page RHS handout - this one topic takes 22 pages to explain.

The author writes about the consequences of pruning lightly or hard, both immediate and long term, in producing both vegetative and fruiting growth.  Terminology is clearly explained, supported by very good diagrams - laterals, sub-laterals, fruiting spurs, growth rings, leaf buds, one year old growth, two year old growth: all of these are now easily identified.  Formative pruning, pruning techniques and a range of pruning tools are all comprehensively covered. And I now know the difference between tip bearing and spur bearing trees.  And that's just the general skinny on pruning; information specific to each fruit is contained in later chapters.

The book is presented in four sections plus a glossary, appendices, resources and index; pruning falls into the section on Fruit Tree Management and is followed by a chapter on identifying, and organically controlling, pests and problems associated with fruit trees. Detailed information in the chapter reads like a medical dictionary for fruit, complete with graphic pictures that drive the point home.  For me, this whole section would have been worth the cover price alone.

But there's so much more to this book.  Ben is a man who is passionate about orchards (indeed, he's the Head Gardener at Sharpham Estate in Devon where he manages two orchards containing 150 fruit trees).  So the third part of this book has separate chapters devoted to individual tree-grown fruits:  apples, pears, plums, cherries, peaches & nectarines, apricots - and other fruit (figs, quinces, medlars, mulberries). You won't find shrub or cane fruit in here - we're talking Orchards. Tables neatly set out the unique characteristics of each variety and are listed in order of their time of cropping: for example, I could pick Beauty of Bath in early August and, by growing a variety of apples, carry on picking fresh fruit through to late October with a Winston apple (sweet-sharp, aromatic and nutty). I had almost completed my preparations to buy more trees for the York Rise garden but this section had me tearing up my list after reading the recommendations for dessert and cooking apple varieties. Ben sensibly advocates taking some time to deliberate over the final choice to make sure that what you grow is right for your garden and your needs and for storage, if you so wish.  This is not something we did when the York Rise mini-orchard went in 3 winters ago as we opted for well known varieties: conference pears, braeburn apples, morello cherries and victoria plums.  I've realised that I now have an opportunity to broaden the scope of the 'orchard' here by growing some more interesting varieties such as Pitmaston Pineapple ("an old variety with crisp and nutty, small sweet yellow apples") or Lord Lambourne ("crisp, juicy flesh, sweet with balancing acidity").

Both the first and last sections (Planning and Planting an Orchard; Renovating an Orchard and Building a Community Orchard) are more probably targeted towards the professional fruit grower and of less interest to the amateur gardener who may only want to grow a few trees but that, in my opinion, does not detract from making this a useful reference book for both.

The book concentrates on growing fruit but doesn't tell you what to do with your fruit once picked; Ben Pike leaves that to other experts.  This is a handbook that reflects the author's love for the environment and for fruit trees. What you do get here is a wealth of knowledge that will benefit the trees in your care - written in an easy, flowing style that makes the information easily accessible and memorable, even for a novice like me. This is the author on the principles of pruning:
"Pruning fruit trees is a subject that seems to be shrouded in mystery. Many people, not really knowing where to start, are afraid of damaging their trees [...]; it is possible to harm fruit trees, either by pruning too hard, or pruning at the wrong time of year, but clear instructions and an understanding of the principles of pruning will allow you to make judicious cuts that will help your trees to prosper."
If, like me, you have any doubts about what to do when faced with any tree or shrub to prune, I recommend you give this book a try. You'll be in safe hands. And if you are yet to contemplate growing your own fruit, this book may just motivate you to find a space for a couple of trees in your garden. As the author says, by growing your own orchard, or just a few trees, you can grow the kind of apple that is perfect for you - with the added advantage of creating a habitat for all kinds of wildlife.

My (very grateful) thanks to Stacey Hodge at Green Books for sending the book.

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.)

17 Dec 2011

An award, a prize and some parcels ...

I've had a really happy week. These last few days have brought unexpected and much appreciated surprises in the form of an award, a giveaway prize, a parcel of books and a winning entry in a photo competition. I'm not sure what I've done to deserve such abundance but it's certainly brought a smile to my face and given me a huge boost.

First, very warm thanks to Jo of The Good Life blog for including the Urban Veg Patch in her Liebster Award list. It's rather lovely to have this award as, even after a couple of years of blogging, I'm never sure if what I write is of sufficient interest beyond being a record for myself. Jo regularly takes the time to leave appropriate comments on my posts which is lovely to read and very reassuring.  I've been reading Jo's blog now for over a year - and very good it is too.

As other bloggers have said, it's really nice when readers leave comments;  it strengthens the online community and friendships are developed.  I've met some lovely people through blogging, this year has been especially rewarding in that respect and awards such as this are a lovely way of introducing the blogs I enjoy to a wider audience.  In order to accept the award, I have to follow a few simple rules:

Copy and paste the award on your blog - (check!)
Thank the giver and link back to them - (done with pleasure!)
Choose five blogs (with less than 200 followers) that you'd like to pass the award on to and leave a comment for them on their blog.

This last rule is where I thought I'd run into problems as many of the blogs I enjoy have already been chosen for the award by Jo's other blog nominees.  But after carefully checking that I wasn't duplicating anyone's choices, these are the five that I would recommend:

Suburban Veg Plot
A Life Less Simple
Lovely Greens
Erin's Urban Organic Gardening in Sidney
Charlotte's Plot

These are all new to me this year and I've really enjoyed reading them and getting to know their authors a little bit and hope that others will find the time to pop over and take a look.  (I would have added A Woman of the Soil, Wellywoman, Little Green Fingers and FlightPlot to this list but that would be flaunting the rules  and we wouldn't want that.)

And what about my other luck?  Well, it appears that one of my photos has earned me the first prize in the UK Veg Gardeners photo competition and I'm going to be the very lucky recipient of a pair of Felco No 7 secateurs! Obviously I'm over the moon at this but can't quite believe it as there were some stunning entries from other members. Congratulations to Mark at Mark's Veg Plot and Karen at The Garden Smallholder whose photos were also, very deservedly, chosen.

Unbelievably, shortly after the above news came my way, so did another email from Jo saying that I'd won the giveaway that she was hosting on her other blog, Through the Keyhole.  My two childhood obsessions were with reading and making things, whether by sewing, knitting, drawing or building, so I'm really looking forward to the arrival of Jo's very generous parcel as I've won a copy of Cath Kidston's book 'Make!' (as well as other lovely things such as a tin of fudge - mmm, yum! - and a book of Victorian niceties.) Perfect timing as, with a few days off over Christmas, I intend to indulge in a spot of sofa flying (as Flighty would say).

But I did say parcels, didn't I?  More than one?  Yes.  Because I've taught children's art clubs, gardened with children and our newly formed Transition Town will be hosting children's crafting workshops, CICO Books have sent me two rather lovely books to review.  These are Green Crafts for Children(35 projects using natural, recycled and found materials) and My First Sewing Book. Both are beautifully photographed with some very interesting projects to make - perfect for ages 7 and up and just in time for Christmas.  I have a weekend ahead of me and an enormous stash of crafting supplies so I'll be back with a review tomorrow.


The sun is shining here in London;  I hope that each of you has some sunshine in your day too!

Caro xx

9 Dec 2011

I've been eating Fat Babies (or everything you need to know about Achocha)

There's not many places you could put a statement like that out in the open and not get immediately arrested but, in this case, it's absolutely true. They've been plucked, washed, sliced, gutted and fried in butter. And then eaten.

Achocha softly spined fruit on vine

Fat Babies, the nickname for this particular type of Achocha, are my star experimental plant in the veg patch and balcony this year. Admittedly, I muddled my seed order and thought I was buying eXplOding Fat Babies so I was quite bemused to find that my babies were quite docile, if alarmingly vigorous in their growth.

I met gardener and author Alex Mitchell earlier this year and, over a mug of coffee in my sitting room, she spied the spiky Achocha fruits poking out of the vine growing across my balcony. Having just written an inspirational book about Edible Balconies, she was intrigued by this plant as I'd created a sort of mini Forest Garden on my tiny balcony. (It towered over herbs, tomatoes, chilli peppers, spinach, radishes, orache, beans, nasturtiums and violets.) But more of my balcony food growing later ...

Achocha fruit forming in leaf node

The seeds came from the Real Seed Company who describe the young fruits as tasting of sweet green peppers; personally, I find cooking them in butter reminds me of the taste of asparagus. (For me, this is good.) Other people have likened the taste to grass (less appealing), having taken to heart the advice that they can be chopped and eaten raw in salads. From my viewpoint, I'm just really pleased to be able to pick 'peppers' in December from the veg patch. 

Given the vagaries of the weather this autumn, I'm uncertain if this late harvest is usual but the plants grown on the balcony have just about finished while the plants in the veg garden are still fruiting - I counted nearly 20 fruits ready to be picked.  I'm guessing that this is because the balcony plants had only a small window box to grow in and only saw the sun in the afternoon whereas the veg patch achocha had lots more sun and open space. Nevertheless, the vines grew up and across the pigeon netting, easily reaching 10 feet long from one spindly, seemingly dead stem.They put out long tendrils, rather like peas, that reach out for anything to grab and wrap around.

Achocha tendrils

And, having found an anchor, form very strong spiral springs to keep their grip! An awesome protection system which has seen my Fat Babies sail through stormy weather this year.

Achocha tendrils clinging on

I had two of these plants growing on the balcony and the vines filtered the sun beautifully all summer. Down in the veg patch, one solitary plant clambered around a 9 foot high cane wigwam and then got all tangled up as the vines had nowhere else to go. The vines can reach over 16 feet long! Real Seeds recommend that these should not be grown in a polytunnel as they can apparently completely take over, which I can easily believe. I think the plants would look lovely growing over a big wooden arch, like a grapevine, but they're an annual so die back in winter.

Achocha hails from South America, its Latin name is Cyclanthera brachystacha and, although it likes a nice sunny spot to grow in, it will happily thrive in the UK as long as the soil is free draining  and kept moist. There are a few variants but Fat Baby have bright green flesh with soft spines and, if allowed to mature, large black jagged edged seeds which look like small flat beetles.

Achocha pods sliced to reveal black seeds

The fruits can be eaten at any size, small (about an inch) or large (up to 3 inches). The larger ones have to be split open and the seeds removed before being cooked. If the spines have started to go brown, I just rub them off. They tend to fall off anyway when the fruit is being sliced. 

I've added them to vegetable chillies and eaten them fried with mushrooms but they can be sliced into a salad or onto a pizza, particularly when small. I think they would also be very nice in a stir fry with noodles. In any recipe that calls for a green pepper, you can reach for several of these instead. The flesh is thinner than a supermarket green pepper (so less watery), the taste greener and less sweet. Because they're very small, you need quite a lot to cook with, probably at least 10 to replace one green bell pepper. But these are much more fun to look at. 

The original seeds supplied are non-hybrid (ie, will grow again true to the original plant) and the Real Seed Company encourage future seed saving of all their seeds. Achocha seeds are very easy to collect because of their size so, come next April when we're all starting over, if anyone would like to try Achocha, I think I might just have a few spare. 

Achocha fruits

6 Dec 2011

Beautiful brassicas

Earlier this year, Victoriana Nurseries sent me a parcel of veg seedlings for the garden.  I've already written of the much anticipated cut-and-come again cauliflowers.  I'm not entirely sure what to look out for to see signs of cauliflower heads forming but I assume that the lovely rich soil they're growing in will encourage them to carry on and do the right thing.  They're looking wonderfully strong and  healthy and must measure at least three feet across which seems like a very good thing to me.

Cut and come again cauliflower

Also in the parcel were Tozer brussels sprouts (and rambling strawberries but, for now, let's just talk brassicas). How exciting to grow your own christmas dinner sprouts - and purple ones at that! More by luck than judgement, they were planted into a patch of well-manured soil - which I now know is exactly the right thing for them.  I wish I'd known to plant them deep (up to the first leaves for stability) but they seem to be doing okay as I staked them young.  In fact, I think they're really rather beautiful.

Sprout tops

I would have photographed the tiny sprouts forming but they're in shadow as the plants are between a raised bed and a low wall.  The tops have been catching my eye for a while now - the colours are stunning as the leaves of Tozer are richly veined with bright purple.  I'm not sure my pic does them justice but the shot that I missed last month was when bright orange nasturtiums had worked their way next to the plants.  The orange/purple contrast was sublime but it was too dark at dusk for photography so that one has to stay in my head.  The tops can apparently be cooked and eaten like cabbage - Sue at Backlane Notebook has been experimenting with cutting off the tops for eating.  I'm not sure whether this will inhibit the sprouts' growth or whether this will divert energy back into the sprouts.  Does anyone have any experience of this? I'd love to know as I don't want to waste the delicious tops!

4 Dec 2011

Walking in a winter wonderland

The veg patch in early December.  As mentioned in yesterday's post, the slow onset of wintry weather has been kind to my veg garden (if not to me - I'm suffering with the beginnings of a winter cold today).

December strawberry
As seen on 2nd December - the last strawberry of the year?
Looking back to this time last year, it seems that I'd run out of things to say (!) and had suspended blogging activity. That probably means that all was quiet on the veg front and I remember that I didn't grow any veg through the winter - even my garlic and onion sets were planted out in the spring.  I recall heavy snowfall over south east England making it challenging to get to a family christening in Kent in early December.  I managed to drive there but was amazed at the sight of snow drifts in Central London and the Kent countryside under a blanket of thick snow!  This year is different.  My chilly, sunny, "winter" walk around the veg garden on Friday showed my echinacea (and primulas) flowering; if that wasn't crazy enough, I also found this just blushing strawberry (a one off feast for the slugs, I expect).

In the herb bed, fresh herbs are still available: sage, parsley, oregano, lemon thyme, fennel.  Nice to be able to put off buying fresh herbs in the shops, although most home-grown herbs can be dried, or frozen in ice cubes, for use in soups and stews throughout the winter. I should really make time to do this.

December Herb collage
Clockwise from top left: sage, fennel, rosemary, oregano with thyme at back
A few other edible treats are keeping the garden alive:  chioggia beetroot, just a couple of sweetcorn cobs (yes, still!), horseradish root (really must dig all this up this year - it's a spreader and will regrow from the smallest root; I want to grow it in very large pots next year as it's a magnificent sight, very structural, but the roots can go very, very deep!) and, hopefully, a few Vivaldi and Charlotte spuds. The potatoes seem to have resprouted after I thought I'd emptied the tub in the summer.  Apparently I overlooked a tuber or two.  I've left them to grow because, well, you never know ... !

December Ready to eat collage
Clockwise from top left: sweetcorn, beetroot, potatoes, horseradish
And that's not all - this year I have my winter veg to look forward to!  I'm hoping for a few Tozer (purple) brussels sprouts before christmas (they're tiny at the moment) then, providing the weather isn't too severe, I'm looking forward to cauliflowers, kale and more sprouts in the springtime.  On a whim in early October, I bought some brassica seedlings then didn't have time to plant them out (this coincided with visits to my mum in hospital).  Not to waste a perfectly good plant, I've popped them into raised beds that I'd previously topped up with well-rotted horse muck or compost and we'll just have to hope for the best. All being well, this will give me some spring cabbages and PSB next year - and I also have a big box of seeds to think about over the coming months.  The winter doesn't seem so long when you still have veg growing!

3 Dec 2011

On the First Days of December

Just popping in to show off what my true love (my garden) sent to me ... a coneflower with open pink petals!  (Tra-la-la, festive spirit in the garden and all that.)

So glad I had a finger-numbing wander round the veg patch yesterday morning. The sun was shining (but it was very cold), it was my day off and I had a couple of tubs of seaweed to drop off in the veg patch, not wanting to take them food shopping with me - and look! ...

December coneflower

As the Christmas rush started in the shops for a large percentage of the so-called civilised world, this little gal had been quietly unfurling her petals.  Cue flutter of excitement from yours truly!  Warm enough to tempt her to keep growing but too cold for this mere mortal's hands so I snapped this photo very quickly. There's quite a bit more still happening in the veg garden but, as I have to be at a workshop in an hour and I'm still in my pyjamas, the rest will have to wait until later today - if I can prise the laptop away from my teenager.

Gosh, looked out of the window at London's very leaden skies just now - quite glad I'm going to be indoors today! Hope it stays good enough to garden for everyone else,

Caro x
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