20 Apr 2012

Sunshine, Rain and Perennial Cauliflowers

Perennial cauliflower
~ Perennial Cauliflower, looking good (and tasty) ~
I've heard so many people bemoaning the "dreadful weather" this last week: wind, rain, sunshine, as well as thunderstorms today. Welcome to April in the UK.  (I think it's great.)  There's a hosepipe ban in the south so all this rain is sending deep reserves of water into the ground and the veg and fruit will be fully refreshed.  Luckily I was able to find time to go down to the veg garden on Monday where I got quite a lot done.  I stayed really focused as I thought it might rain at any moment!

I earthed up my bag grown potatoes for the first time as they'd put on a good 4 inches of growth.  I sowed Italian parsley, coriander and 3 types of carrot seeds: purple cosmic (for fun), Amsterdam 3 (my usual) and a new one (to me) called Little Fingers as it's supposed to be harvestable (is that a word?) in only 8 weeks!  I'm growing these in deep tubs to see if it makes a difference; previously I've interplanted carrots between the onions and garlic which seems to have thwarted any carrot fly.  Let's see how the tubs do. (The theory is to grow a few at a time and re-sow at monthly-ish intervals so that I don't end up overwhelmed with carrots.  Or anything else for that matter.)

The pink broad beans are all doing really well - I sowed them in a raised bed that had been manured last autumn and I've left a space to plant beans or peas (not sure which yet) at the north-east end of the bed where they'll get plenty of sun without shading the broad beans. The sacrificial nasturtiums planted at the same time have yet to make a showing; I want them there to tempt any aphids or blackfly away from the broad beans... )

Meanwhile, back upstairs in my flat-turned-greenhouse, the artichokes, dill, borage and melon seeds have all germinated and been potted on successfully. They'll stay upstairs for a few weeks until they're strong enough to fend for themselves in the veg garden. I sowed a tray of 12 Jiffy 7s with bell peppers (purple and orange), capsicums and chillis and the seed saved from my Yellow Banana chilli grown last year (the one still fruiting at Christmas). I reckon the son of that plant deserves a space on the windowsill this year if I can successfully nurture it to maturity. I suspect it's not really called Yellow Banana but the plant came from Homebase when the fungus gnats munched my own chillis into oblivion and that was the name conferred on it there. The seeds went into the modules at the beginning of April and are over an inch high already.  I hope this bodes well for raising mature plants as I may have left sowing them a bit late.

The best part of the week is that I've enjoyed the first of my perennial cauliflowers! The main cauli head was quite large so I cut just a few chunky stalks.  It was cooked with the sprouting stalks from the bolted Brussel Sprouts plants and both were utterly delicious. (Served up with just butter, salt and pepper. Yum.) I wondered in my previous post whether the sprout stalks would be edible and now I know that they are. They were not unlike PSB so it's good know that the sprout tops and stalks can still be eaten even after the plant has bolted.  Lesson learned: don't be hasty in chucking your bolted winter veg onto the compost heap.  I can honestly say I enjoyed every mouthful of that particular lunch.

Tomorrow I'm off early for a long drive to Bristol.  Jekka McVicar's herb farm hosts occasional Open Days with talks by Jekka and farm tours around the herbs.  I'm booked onto the workshop "How to Design a Herb Garden" which I treated myself to for my birthday last month.  I'm really excited to be going, even though the weather forecast is not good, and I'll hopefully be able to post all about it when I get back.

Have a good weekend everyone!

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!

14 Apr 2012

Springtime in the veg patch

Well, yesterday's book review post went down well, didn't it? Not a single comment!  I've silenced you all.   I'm hoping after a rather long break from blogging (sorry) that you'll all bear with me while I review some of the books I've been sent. I've got one more craft book, a balcony gardening book and - the one I'm really looking forward to - Martin Crawford's How to Grow Perennial Vegetables, which arrived unexpectedly a few days ago and I'm quite excited about. I've a feeling that one is going to be a real winner.

It's such a busy time of year, isn't it? I'm still trying to decide what to plant where in the veg patch, I've got seedlings coming up in trays all over the windowsills (I really, really want a greenhouse), the recent warm and wet weather has prompted the brussels sprouts to zoom skywards so they look like sprouting broccoli (albeit with very pretty yellow flowers!)

Sprouting Brussels sprouts
~ Sprouting Brussels Sprouts ~

Purple sprouting brussels
~ Sprouting Tozer Brussels ~

I wonder if I could eat them?  They look so like broccoli, I can clearly see them steamed and served with a drizzle of olive oil or butter and quick grinding of pepper and a sprinkle of sea salt...  Hmmm, perhaps time I had some lunch.

On the plus side, I have 100% germination of my pink broad beans (I'm only growing nine plants as I've yet to discover whether I like them) and the herbs, garlic, onions and potatoes are all coming along nicely. I also have one or two cauliflowers ready to be picked (more on this later) and the fruit trees are in blossom.

I planted a cowslip in the veg patch last summer as the plant provides food for butterflies.  It's looking a bit wind whipped at the moment but has trebled in size and is a real splash of welcome colour (and edible to boot). All in all, a well spent couple of quid in the supermarket.

Cowslip in flower

My sage, repotted last summer to give the roots a nice deep pot, has got wonderful purple buds at the end of the stems - I'm not sure if these are flower buds or not, only time will tell.  Whatever, my liking for a purple and green colour combo continues...

Sage bud

Self-seeded sunflowers are popping up everywhere. I don't want them to completely monopolise the space (I have no idea whether these will be small or giant sunflowers) so I've been nibbling on a few of them and adding them to salad.  They taste a bit like watercress, tasty and succulent.  I'm going to grow a pot specifically for adding to salad leaves - the same technique as growing pea shoots and baby spinach leaves for a salad bowl.

And finally, I'm wondering if I might have strawberries to eat after the next warm spell ...

strawberry flowers

These were photographed this afternoon and are runners transplanted a couple of weeks ago. Amazing what a week or two of sunshine and rain will achieve! 

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.

18 Mar 2012

Impulse buying

Lime Mint in front with Broadleaf Thyme at the back
As part of my thoughtful gardening plan for this year, I went out shopping yesterday for some J Arthur Bower's seed compost.  It's the one that came out top for seeds and cuttings in recent Which? Gardening trials and, as I have to buy seed compost anyway, I want to get my plants off to a good start this year rather than sowing seed into any old multi-purpose compost and hoping for the best.

After checking various local sources, I found I could buy it in The Boma Garden Centre in Kentish Town, a small independently run company with friendly staff and interested customer service. I truly meant to just pop in for a bag of compost and come straight home...  but that wouldn't really be me though, would it?

Of course, having not been there for many years, I had to have a good look round, get a mental list of their stock tucked away in my head. Ooh yes, liquid seaweed:  I need some of that;  Bag of vermiculite? Oh yes please, excellent for topping small seeds, quickly past the seeds, whoops, no, back up, French Breakfast Radish? yep, add that to the basket.  Better have a check out back, it's not raining too heavily ... oh lawks, that's done it, I've found the herbs! Mmmm, hmm, hmm.... oh lovely, borage, better have some that just in case my self-collected seeds don't germinate; squeeze, pinch, sniff ... more thyme certainly but which variety?  Broadleaf looks good and excellent culinary usage, Lemon Balm? maybe later and ... ooh, what's this then?  Lime Mint?  I like a bit of the unusual and I hadn't come across this before.  Isn't it beautiful?  I had to have two.  One for the veg patch and one for my balcony.  There were many other lovely herbs that I regretfully left behind (I have masses of herb seeds in my seed box) but I may have to pop back for some violas from their extensive collection as I've just found a nice sounding recipe in Jekka's Herb Cookbook for Violet Apple Cake. (I have a few violets in the veg patch, planted there last summer but they're not quite big enough to start helping myself to the flowers yet.)

So, back to the new acquisition.  Lime Mint (Mentha x piperita f. citrata) will be a vigorous grower, up to 2ft/40cm, with purple flowers over red and green foliage. (Sounds heavenly.) Its leaves can be chopped up for cold drinks, fruit pies and fruit or green salads, yogurt and ice-cream; it has a strong flavour so a little goes a long way and it's best to use the young shoots.  It likes semi-shade in moist, rich soil and, like other members of the family, spread can be controlled by planting into a sunken terracotta pot. (Although, would I really want to restrict its growth?)

Now I just have to figure out where to put it and, preferably, in a slug free zone. (I'm finding lots of baby slugs and white catepillar-like larvae buried in the soil, this does not bode well for the veg patch this summer.)

17 Mar 2012

The Choicest of Beetroot

During the week I found time to get my red onion sets in and, in so doing, had to clear this last beetroot from the ground.  It was a tiny seedling that had not grown last summer through lack of space - most beetroot "seeds" are a cluster of tiny seeds and need to be thinned although, in this case, the overcrowding was entirely my fault in being rather enthusiastic when seed sowing. Monty Don recommends sowing beetroot in modules but I find it easier just to direct sow into the ground and have never had a problem with that method. This beet was not thinned but allowed to grow on as the surrounding beets were lifted and left in the ground over winter.  In a mild winter, providing you don't need the space, I've found that beets sown in the autumn will over winter very successfully and the small roots will be a welcome taste in early spring.

A couple of years ago I didn't even like beetroot.  Growing my own and experimenting with uses soon sorted that out. (Beetroot, parsnip and horseradish soup is a particular favourite.) Last year I experimented with growing different varieties of beetroot: Chioggia, Perfect 3 and this beauty which is Cheltenham Green Tops.  I first ate this as a starter course during lunch at Fortnums.  It was served with a goat's cheese and rocket salad, all beautifully dressed, of course, and so delicious that I sought out the seeds for growing last year.

I found that it was fairly slow to bulb up (compared to Perfect 3) but the young leaves are a delicious addition to any salad.  I tend to pull my beetroot when its bulbs are about 4 cm diameter, although slightly larger is still okay and smaller is even better!  Leaves pulled off the top will resprout, like a cut and come again salad.  Because I first saw Cheltenham beetroot in its cooked state, I hadn't realised that it was a cylindrical beetroot until I pulled up this one.  All the others were pulled young so were chubby ovals rather than long.

There are a number of ways of cooking beetroot; very young beets can be thinly sliced or grated and eaten raw; unpeeled beets can be washed and boiled, leaving the root intact and twisting the leaves off close to the root - this stops the root bleeding out; or, best of all, they can be roasted which brings out all the sweetness of the veg.  I've also grated beetroot into cake mix - chocolate beetroot cake is dark and moist although personally I'm not overfond of chocolate cake. This root will be chunked up and roasted, yum!

If you like beetroot, it's worth successional sowing to avoid having a glut.  In my opinion it's also worth experimenting with different varieties. This month I'm sowing a new choice, Merlin, and Cheltenham Green Tops; then, in April, will sow a row of Perfect 3 (still my favourite).  Chioggia is not going to feature this year - it doesn't cook well, losing all its colour, and I don't like the taste.  Bolthardy is another recommended variety which I've tried and dislike. I found the taste rather insipid and, as what I grow is all about getting the best flavour from my veg, you won't find Bolthardy in my veg patch either.

If you're interested in growing Cheltenham Green Tops, I bought my seeds from Garden by Mail although they're also now available from More Veg. My Merlin seeds came from More Veg and I pick up Perfect 3 in Morrisons. I think it's interesting that there are so many varieties available now; a few years ago the choice was a lot more limited.  Just shows how the upsurge of interest in food growing is driving the market - and not before time!

It's forecast to rain this weekend but I hope that I'll still be able to sow a few seeds. Happy weekend everyone!

14 Mar 2012

Tilth, we meet again

Having had an unintentionally extended break from the blog, I confess that it's been hard to put aside time to get back into the rhythm of writing. Weeks slip by with very little to report and no time to spare to research into meatier topics.  Although I haven't physically been active in the garden in February, mentally I've been visualising how it will be in the summer and trying to plan where I can fit everything in whilst also making the garden a visual treat. I've been reading Joy Larkcom's Grow your Veg, an excellent book to inspire and inform the laziest of gardeners and, as we head towards the spring equinox, I'm prompted into action.

Tozer sprout
Tozer sprouts from Victoriana Nursery:  a beautiful sight in the spring garden.
Last week my tiny balcony had a major tidy up, herbs repotted, seed beds prepared, pots cleaned and floors swept of winter leaves and spider webs. I have big plans for this space this year. Pigeons have found a tiny hole in my defences so a new net will have to be made and hung before prized seedlings are put out.  One big mistake was to site a bird feeder next to my aged (but still fleshy) mesembryanthemum. As the starlings and pigeons took command of the bird feeder, the tits and sparrows made do with eating the nearby plant and it's now just bare twiggy branches. I'm hoping for a Lazarus like come back in late spring and have moved the bird feeder.

Hellooo Ladybird!
Seven Spot Ladybird enjoying the warm rim of a glazed pot
And so onto the veg patch.  I was up early anyway on Sunday to collect a car load of Freecycled London stock bricks from a no parking area of Camden. Stacking them up in a corner of the garden afterwards, it seemed the perfect day to put aside chores and paperwork and have a little potter around, pulling up weeds.  Nine hours later, as dusk fell, I was still out there, having had the best of days. A whole day working in the garden without interruption, all beds were weeded and hoed to a fine tilth, straggling plants had been evicted, cat poo removed, tilting cauliflowers re-staked and anti-cat/fox netting put in place around one of the beds. I could see what was worth keeping (some little cabbages, psb and kale plus, of course, cauliflowers, sprouts, garlic) and what had to go (the last of last year's calendula, a few struggling sprouts and strawberries).

Looks promising - but has to go anyway, perhaps may be saved.

Strawberry runners from last summer have taken well; pity I need the space for this year's sweet corn, so digging them up is my next job. Some will be relocated elsewhere in the garden; most will be potted up for the Transition Town seed/plant swop or donated to the school gardening club.

My garlic is doing well at nearly 12 inches tall. Cloves were planted well before Christmas and netted against the birds; I'm hopeful that this year I'll get some good results. The perennial caulis are doing interesting things:  I think I can see shoots forming in the axis of the leaf branches - could this be the long awaited mini-cauli heads?  I can hardly wait.  

I pruned the raspberry canes a couple of weeks ago; the canes left at 50cm are showing buds or leaves, new canes are pushing up through the soil.  Some raspberry leaves were appearing quite a distance from the mother plant - is this usual?  I seem to have raspberry "runners" all over the place (or did, they've now been tidied as well).  

fruit buds
Morello cherry tree buds. Should be blossom very soon.

Fruit trees are all beginning to bud nicely so please pretty please let the pear and plum trees fruit this year. And I'm pleased to see that the 3 year old cherry tree which we dug up and moved before Christmas is covered in buds, ready to blossom.  

Now all I have to do is decide how best to use the space available.  This year, instead of random planting, I'm going to factor in growing times, companion planting, rotating the crops, the amount of sunlight and the direction that it comes from - and that's just for the veg.  I'm also hoping for wildflowers and a cut flower patch. No wonder I have no spare time! (But I'll try not to be away for so long next time!)

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