10 Aug 2012

Time to throw out the rule book

Cherry tree blossom Aug 2012
~ Cherry blossom in August, with ripe cherries on other branches. Confusing? certainly ~

Every year is a learning curve in the garden and this one is certainly no exception.  I read only yesterday that August is the last chance to trim hedges before the autumn frosts.  I was quite taken aback at this as, for me, the summer has only just got going. Plants such as courgettes, cucumbers, hyacinth beans and squashes that have been quietly waiting for some warmth have suddenly started to shoot away.  The cucumbers are putting on a rapid growth spurt, as are the beans. Canadian wonder beans are producing enough for dinner every day; so delicious as young pods but I had intended to grow these for the red kidney beans inside!

Without dwelling on the weather so far this year, my belief is that the seasons have shifted slightly; I'm optimistically expecting another slow decline into autumn, just as we had last year. Jekka McVicar told me earlier this year that she no longer cuts back her lavender in autumn, preferring to leave it until the air has warmed slightly in the early spring. Cutting it back in a warm autumn promotes new growth and confuses the plant, leaving it vulnerable to winter frosts.  She stated that she no longer relies on the old rules and given wisdom because the seasons have noticeably changed. Coming from someone whose business and reputation relies on interpreting the seasons correctly, hers is an opinion that I take note of.

Global warming is definitely affecting the gardening calendar and we have to make adjustments accordingly. Personally, I'm trying to garden instinctively, being prepared to experiment a bit and remaining stoic about any losses along the way. In this way, I haven't lost plants to water rot or slug damage this year but everything is very behind in it's growth. Except the sunflowers and herbs which are perennial or self-seeded.

If my prediction for the autumn comes true, that would mean 90 or more days of reasonably warm weather before any cold winter snaps visit the garden - bearing in mind that I live in London, in the South East of the UK.  Of course the light levels will diminish as days get shorter, so any planting done now would have to be in the brightest areas of the garden.  I'm fortunate that the veg patch gets a good seven hours of sun/light at this time of year.  The north-east facing walled border gets around 5 hours but the fruit trees planted there partly shade the earth beneath anyway.  (One of my winter jobs is to move a couple more fruit trees, especially as the cherry tree re-established itself so successfully this year.)

I pulled the last of the Little Finger carrots this week - they are by far the tastiest I've grown and I've just received a new bag of seeds to sow a new crop which should be ready by mid-October. The Amsterdam Sprint carrots will keep me going but the taste is not quite as delicious.  I'm also going to put in more dwarf beans (Canadian Wonder and Annabelle french beans), mange tout and salad leaves. It may not work but, on the other hand, my cherry tree thinks it's spring!

Edited to add:  I sowed mangetout, dwarf beans and giant sugar peas 2 days ago on the 8th; this morning, the 11th, they are showing through the soil.  :)

20 Jul 2012

Traybake: Summer Soft-fruit Cake

Blueberry Breakfast Cake 4

Faced with a day off work in order to catch up with paperwork and gardening, what did I do? Make cake, of course. Procrastination is such fun.

A mug of tea and a slice of cake is one of the great rewards after a good potter round the plot and as the veg patch is at least offering up soft fruits at the moment, this recently discovered cake sprang to mind today. I haven't done a recipe on the blog for a long time but, I hope you'll agree, this one is worth sharing, especially as the summer may be on its way finally and tea in the garden can take its rightful place once more.

I found this cake via Pinterest; it's originally baked with just blueberries and called Buttermilk Blueberry Breakfast Cake. While my renaming of the adapted cake is not so alliterative, it tells it like it is. This is a cake that celebrates the soft fruit harvest of the summer kitchen garden. I used mostly blueberries, topped up with raspberries, strawberries (and, this time, sweet cherries); with lemon zest, vanilla and buttermilk, it's full of subtle flavours - I also used some of my lavender sugar* for the top crust.

Baked in a square tin, it looks like a traybake; the crisp sugar crusted top yields to a light, moist crumb with bursts of soft fruit.  Because I've now made it twice, I know that it's also heavenly warmed through and served with cream or custard as a pudding.

The original recipe came from this American blog; I've reworked it to grams rather than cups. Interestingly, I first made it to be shared with someone who is dairy intolerant so it was made with dairy free sunflower spread to replace the butter and soya milk instead of buttermilk. It worked perfectly.

Blueberry Breakfast Cake 3

Blueberry, etc, traybake cake:

100g sunflower spread or butter
200g caster sugar (keep a couple of spoonfuls back for the top)
Finely grated zest of a largish lemon
1 medium egg
1 teaspoon vanilla (extract not flavouring)
300g self raising flour
½ tsp baking powder
300g fresh soft fruit, eg. 200g blueberries plus 100g strawberries/raspberries, etc
140ml Buttermilk (about half a carton)

1. Preheat oven to 350F or 180C. Cream butter, lemon zest and sugar until light and fluffy.
2. Add the egg and vanilla.  Beat well.
3. Take out a couple of spoonfuls of the flour and gently toss the soft fruit in this.
4. Mix the remaining flour, baking powder and salt together; Add to the batter a little at a time, alternating with the buttermilk.
5. Fold in the blueberries/strawberries/other fruit.
6. Line an 8" square tin with baking parchment, spoon the cake mix in and sprinkle a good tablespoon of sugar over the top. Pop into the oven, middle shelf.  I check the cake with a skewer after 20 minutes and it always needs another 5 minutes. Adjust the time in 5 minute increments for your own oven. (The original recipe calls for a 9" pan and 35 minutes; in my oven this would be a disaster so I err on the side of caution.)
7. Allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes before lifting the cake out onto a cooling rack.

* Lavender sugar is a lovely thing to have for use in the kitchen, it gives a subtle flavour to cakes, biscuits, etc. Karen at Lavender and Lovage has a nice easy post on how to make your own.

18 Jul 2012

Sun, flower


(Sing along now...)
I got sun-shiiiine, on a cloudy day...
When it's cold outside, I got the month of May...
I. guess. you'd. say... what can make me feel this way?

After the gloom of the slug post, I thought sharing a bit of mid-week cheer was in order (even though, for now, it's still raining here in London).

SunflowerTwo whole days of dryness in one week would be reason enough to celebrate this summer; yesterday was one of those days - albeit pretty overcast - and, on Sunday, we actually saw some blue skies in London. Yesterday evening after work, determined that summer will happen eventually, I took a stroll down to the veg patch to plan what needed to be done next.  Everything looked as it did when I left it on Sunday, perhaps the purple podded were a little plumper but the courgettes were no bigger, the climbing beans no taller. Then - whoop-di-doo! - I spotted that the first of my sunflowers had flowered!  Obviously the Sunday sunshine had worked it's magic.  Such a simple thing, but it definitely cheered me up.

I dashed home to get my camera and had to stand on two wobbly bricks and hold it up high, at arm's length, in the gathering dusk, to get this photo.  I confess I have used Photoshop to deepen the colours very slightly in the top photo to bring out the warmth of the petals.  I could almost believe the sun was shining!

According to online forecasts, the jetstream is moving north this weekend and, in the south at least, we will be basking in, err, 66 degrees Fahrenheit (19 celsius).  That'll do me.

Photo, untouched by photoshop.

For more feelgood cheer, try watching (or dancing to) this video by NZ band The Babysitters Circus:

So you say everything's going to be alright now
But how do you really know?
And I know everything's going to be alright now,
Cos that's the seed I sow.

15 Jul 2012

Guess who's coming to dinner?*

The (uninvited) dinner guest
I have the copper trowel, I have the raised beds.  I fondly imagined that, in the veg patch, this would minimise the impact of the plague of slugs being visited on the rest of the nation's gardeners. Not so, as this recent discovery bears witness. I cut a cabbage the other day for my lunch and found this beastie (actually only about 3 cm long) had taken up residence in the not-quite-outer leaves.  I discarded the leaf he inhabited and momentarily mulled over the benefits of pesticides.  The creature was contained in an empty butter tub until he could be safely despatched outside.  I couldn't bring myself to use my best kitchen knife for that purpose, the memory would have lingered long.  I still don't think I'm suffering as badly as others but have noticed that sunflower and cabbage leaves several feet off the ground have been decimated (probably snails) and the strawberries are more like Swiss cheese unless I get the ones high on the stem.

So, what can be done?  I've grown all my peas, beans, courgettes and squash in modules and planted them out as small plants.  They were given the added protection of a litre-sized plastic bottle as a collar and I've also heard that a good smear of Vaseline around the collar is a barrier that slugs won't cross.  The collars were sunk several inches into the ground and seem to have worked although the plants are woefully behind schedule.  I've also recently witnessed a friend stomping on a colony of slugs found under a plank in the veg patch; she was venting her rage at the loss of all her beans and seedlings to the slug buffet but the sludge left by their burst bodies was so revolting as to make me feel a bit ill. (And very glad it wasn't on the soles of my shoes.) There's no denying that this is effective.  Ultimately though I decided to make a Sluginator - it's a wide-necked bottle of very salty water into which I've been dropping slugs as I come across them. I'm not proud of myself but it works. Luckily for me, I live next to a handy railway line where I can dispose of the corpses.

Normally I see two or three slugs in a year.  This year they're out in force, slithering across the paths and pavements in groups and in broad daylight.  I don't care if they do eat rotting veg, I'd like to see less of them.  Not all are harmful to the garden, Defra has a rogues gallery of slugs with info.  On the other hand, anyone who feels kindly enough to know more about them should head over to the Higgledy Garden, or Wellywoman's blog, for a good sluggy read.

Bugs and slugs are accepted as part and parcel of growing your own veg but, yesterday, as I sat through torrential downpour and with rain forecast for the rest of the week, I'm wondering if anyone else is finding this summer a touch apocryphal?  Floods, slugs, snails, blackfly, weeds, no fruit and rotting and/or bolting veg - and, here in London, I've also had fox cubs digging up newly transplanted seedlings and pooing wherever they can get access.  I hope the proper summer comes soon because, frankly, I'm finding it hard to muster my usual delight in the garden.

(*With apologies to Sidney Poitier for using the title of his excellent 1967 film for this post. I've always considered him to be rather gorgeous and in no way does he resemble a slug.)

8 Jul 2012

Not the Hampton Court Flower Show ...

Wildflower meadow in tray
Wildflower meadow in a tray on my balcony!
Today I was supposed to be at Hampton Court for the flower show.  I had my ticket and programme ready and then I overslept.  I never oversleep.  No, seriously, I'm one of those annoying people that leaps cheerfully out of bed at 6.30 a.m. to embrace the day. Today the fates decided otherwise; between yesterday's extended balcony gardening, repotting and moving plants until beyond nightfall, being kept awake throughout the night by workmen laying gravel on the nearby railway tracks and torrential downpours of rain, I was thoroughly befuddled when I eventually awoke around 9.30!  It wasn't too late to go but I just couldn't motivate myself out of my pyjamas.  It was pouring with rain and I thought about the joys of standing in a large crowd getting soaked and decided to save myself the two and half hour return journey and do some more planting at home instead.

As it approached 4 o'clock, the appointed time for the big Sell Off of all plants there, I rather regretted my decision.  The sun was shining, there was no rain to be seen and I'd just read a good review of the Grow Your Own section over at the Physic Blogger that reminded me I really wanted to see Mark Diacono's forest garden display.  *sigh*  (There are just some days when, whatever you do, it won't go right.)

So, to cheer myself up, I thought I'd post about the flowers currently on display in the Veg Patch gardens and have resolved to be a bit more stoic about going next year. I'm sure it will be worth it.

Day Lily buds
Day Lilies about to flower.

Pea flower
Purple Podded pea flower.
Potato flowers
Potato flower from unknown tuber.

Onion flower
White onion. Several appeared this year after an onion was left for seed last year.
Oriental Lily Red
Oriental Lily - I think this is supposed to be edible but probably a bit chewy.

Tom Thumb nasturtium
Tom Thumb nasturtium: edible flowers and leaves. 
Calendula opening
Calendula opening.

Purple pea pod
Purple podded pea pod.
Margeurite Daisies
Marguerites - so fresh and cheerful.

Sage flowers
Sage flowers. Edible slightly milder taste than the leaves.
Violas in June
Violas, still flowering in mid-summer, probably due to the rain!

Empress of India
Nasturtium, Empress of India
Strawbs, lavender, oregano
A corner of my exuberant herb bed: strawberries, lavender, golden oregano.

Borage buds
Borage buds. I've sown seeds to flower at different times to keep bringing the bees in.

Veg Patch Lavender
Lavender, nurtured from a tiny wind-sown 2 cm seedling found in the soil last year. 
Kale flowers
Kale flowers, now eaten.  Yum!

So, less of a veg patch and more of a flower garden on this count! I said last year that I hoped to introduce more flowers into the veg garden; hmm, that seems to be happening okay.  And I haven't even mentioned the sunflowers or red orach or any of the other flowering herbs. I promise, there are plenty of veg in here too!

PS.  As I've typed this post, we've had several heavy showers so I'm now feeling vindicated in my decision (if very wasteful of the ticket. Still good causes and all that ... ).  Needless to say, all photos were taken on previous occasions!

3 Jul 2012

Summer pudding

Summer fruit, Autumn BlissI'm picking a bowl of raspberries and strawberries every day now but have gone off the taste of the strawbs that I'm growing - more often than not, the flavour is insipid. This is my fourth year of food growing in the veg garden and I've found that if you want to get people interested in food growing it has to taste really good. The strawberries were donated to the Veg Patch as runners so I have no emotional attachment to them (unlike plants that I've grown from seed);  think I'll pull them all out and choose a really flavoursome variety for next year.

With a couple of years of strawberry growing behind me, I've come to realise the mistakes I've made and will put that knowledge to good use in rethinking my strawberry growing area.

First, where to put them: Initially I set the plants out in rows, straight into the ground, in the traditional manner although the space was limited. The area gets around 6 hours of sun or good light in clement weather. They grew well and, in no time, were sending out runners.  My careful rows soon disappeared in a mass of plants - a lovely hiding place for slugs! (I almost picked up an e-normous slug the other evening when reaching for a juicy red berry under the leaves.) It's been challenging to get amongst the plants to separate out the runners as the rows were fairly closely planted.  I've recently read that chopping off the runners can send the plant's energy back into producing fruit, a tip worth considering if you don't need to increase your plant stock.   I've now thinned the patch to two rows, front of border with a foot-sized space between.

Second, accessibility: An unforeseen problem I encountered with having a strawberry "patch" was that children would wade in to get at the fruit, regardless of other plants being trampled underfoot. Bending down for an extended picking would also do my back no favours. I've now relocated many of the sturdier plants to a single row at the front edge of a 30 ft long raised brick-walled bed, about 2 ft high and much more attainable. This situation could have been entirely avoided if I wasn't trying to cram too much variety into my tiny space - on an allotment, the rows would (should) be around 30 inches apart, leaving plenty of room for feet both big and small.

Third, finding the fruit: The plants are very leafy with the fruit growing underneath and therefore hard to spot. I like to get to the fruit before the slugs (and birds) do so it's important to be able to see them. Children (and I) don't want to eat fruit that has been previously enjoyed by the animal kingdom. Plants bearing fruit on strong upright stems will be among my top choices for replacement plants - and putting a thick layer of straw under the plants also helps. I've been growing a few Rambling Cascade plants (from Victoriana) and they seem to have large fruit on upright stems so that's heading in the right direction. So far I've picked only one or two berries from these plants as they seem to be later in fruiting - the taste is semi-sweet and slightly floral.  In fairness, the smaller quantities may be due to being in a slightly more shaded area, although they would, in a normal year, get plenty of sun.

As usual, the garden is teaching me a lot this year. I'm amazed at how much I didn't know when I started. I believed it was as easy as it says on the seed packet - a triumph of expectation over experience. This year has, so far, has forced me to learn about bugs, pests, shifting seasons and now soft fruit.

With strawberries, the essentials are: Buy good plants to start with, plant with the crown at soil level, give them space to grow, mulch with straw or plant through black plastic (to retain moisture, keep weeds down and slugs at bay), chop the top leaves down after fruiting (except on perpetual fruiting plants) so that the new leaves on the crown can grow and, finally, replace the plants every 3 years to prevent disease or pests getting a hold.

I owe my rapid learning curve to the RHS website. Good videos, recommended varieties, top tips and recipes are just a click and a link away.

18 Jun 2012

Perennial Cauliflowers, my growing year

Almost a year ago I was intrigued to discover that Victoriana Nurseries in Kent offer plug plants of a perennial cauliflower that they call 'Cut and Come Again' and which are described as producing up to ten mini heads from each plant.  I imagined that these would be tiny 'designer' heads of cauliflower when I planted the plugs 90cm apart in my walled fruit border. The reality was slightly different, but the journey to maturity was fascinating.

It's a source of amusement to me that, rather as the fashion industry has to have 'this season's colour', now that veg growing is the trend du jour there are seasonal topics here also.  Last year it was edible flowers, with some supermarkets offering tiny salad bags of flowers at exorbitant prices. This year's buzz seems to be perennial veg, as mentioned in numerous books and magazines. Shortly after I planted the cauli plugs, I was invited to a little soirĂ©e of gardeners and garden writers and managed to silence the room when I mentioned that I was growing perennial cauliflowers.  Gracious, what a novelty! Perennial veg!  So, yes, just once I have managed to be on the forefront of something trendy although, of course, perennial veg is not new at all. Martin Crawford, Director of the Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon and best known for creating his forest garden, has written a book on the subject which I'll review this week because it's worth knowing about.

I've also come across this vegetable in Alys Fowler's book 'The Edible Garden'. She describes it as an old-fashioned cottage garden vegetable and writes:
'Perennial broccoli is actually a cauliflower masquerading as broccoli. Each spring it produces a small, central cauliflower; cut this off and it sends the plant into production of many broccoli-like side shoots.'
The only known variety is called Perennial Nine-Star Broccoli (due to the number of side shoots) which is the type supplied to me by Victoriana Nurseries.

It's recommended to place the plants in a sheltered position although they proved to be extremely vigorous in the funnelling winds of the veg patch fruit borders. They needed staking as they grew to be over 4 ft tall and, if left to go over and flower at the end of the season, can reach over 5 feet and be an absolute bee magnet.  Mine were well over 3 ft in width, which somewhat surprised me as the planting distance is advised to be 90cm. To get round this, I kept whipping the very large lower leaves off - they were drooping and providing shelter for wintering slugs and snails anyway.  The plants will go on producing for five years so it makes sense in the fourth year to save the seed from one plant and then start at least one new plant each year for a continued supply.

These plugs were incredibly easy to grow, one small hole dug, a bit of mulching and a bit of staking - obviously the hard work had been done for me by the suppliers! However, having spaced them according to the enclosed instructions, I realise now that those recommendations are fine for a field or allotment but not when the plants are sharing the space with fruit trees. It all started to get a bit overcrowded by April but that's okay as I'll try and move a couple of them now that they've been cut back, all bar one (keeping the bees happy).

I was fascinated to see that the caulis all grew at different rates, planted north to south in the same soil.  The most southerly plant (in a 7 metre row) grew fastest, largest and produced a head before the others.  Some of the plants produced mostly florets, the largest produced just the one cauli head. I suspect the reason for this is the British weather - a warm winter followed by lots of sun, lots of rain... hardly the typical spring conditions needed by the plant.  The heads and florets came thick and fast once the plant started cropping (as did the grey woolly aphids).  I had plenty to offer friends and neighbours but would have preferred a longer cropping season because the secondary shoots were extremely delicious, whichever way they were cooked.

Victoriana sell the plug plants in sets of 5 which would satisfy a family of 4 (or more) cauli lovers for at least a month - more if the weather permits. (I had nearly two months of pickings.) You do need to watch out for woolly aphids, be prepared to squirt them with an organic spray and give the florets a good wash in water with a splash of white vinegar added to dislodge any bugs.  Strangely, the pigeons didn't seem to bother with the plants beyond the occasional peck at the leaves, perhaps because someone keeps chucking bread crusts for them. In another situation, I would net the plants for protection.

What I have enjoyed most is the sight of veg growing in the middle of winter, the availability of freshly picked stems in early spring and the ability to harvest just one or two stems if I fancy a few steamed cauli florets for a snack lunch. If, like me, you're partial to a bit of cauliflower, this is the plant I'd recommend growing - plant it once and, with an annual mulching of the soil, you're set up for spring veg without further ado.

If you're interested in growing perennial cauliflowers yourself, plugs can be bought from Victoriana Nurseries here.  I planted mine at the end of July, probably a tad late, but still reaped the rewards in the following spring.  The warm extended autumn last year no doubt contributed to the plants' excellent growth up to the cold snap in early 2012 and therefore a good subsequent harvest.

I photographed the plant's development throughout the year - who could resist photographing a monstrously huge plant in December when all else is dying off? I've chosen 12 photos which chart the progress and have squeezed them into 4 rows.  Apologies for the smallness of each frame but you'll get the general idea!

Cauliflower plugs planted 22 July 2011.
Photos from left: 8 inches high 6 weeks after planting; 15 inches high, 9 weeks after planting; right pic taken 2nd December, plant now about 2 ft tall.

Frozen caulis in early Feb 2012; shoots forming in the leaf bracts mid-March; statuesque plant by early April.

First 4" head beginning of April; sprouting shoots end of April; still edible but starting to 'go over' early May.

Cloud of bolted florets by early June, which had turned to flowers by mid-June. 3 week old stump resprouting.

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