26 Oct 2013

A Capel Moment

Crab apples
~ Malus x robusta 'Red Sentinel' in the Which? trial gardens ~

Thursday's glorious weather coincided with my day at college and provided the perfect opportunity for an extended walk through the Capel Manor gardens in my lunchbreak.  Access to the gardens is one of the great attractions of studying at the Enfield site; there are 35 acres to explore: gardens, trees, woodland, ponds and the walled manor garden as well as the Which? trial gardens. After studying there for over a year, I'm still finding new plants to look at or revisiting more familiar plants as they change with the seasons.

As a food grower at home, I've noticed a few edible plants tucked into the gardens. Some are replanted after a trial has finished, such as the excellent and delicious Brice raspberries I found two weeks ago when I sat to have lunch behind a bank of Gaura lindheimeri (helloooo pudding!), others are grown as ornamentals. There are some gorgeous plump (false) quinces on a Chaenomeles x superba 'Red and Gold' at the moment and I found medlars and a mulberry tree in another of the gardens a few weeks ago. I checked back and the medlars are still there, untouched.


And then we come to the spice and herb selection:  The conicle flowers of a large Rhus typhina tree could be dried and ground to make Sumac - but I'd need a ladder to reach them! The spice is commonly used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking, imparting a tart lemon flavour that also lends itself to salads. The flowers can also be used to make pink lemonade and beekeepers can use them to smoke their hives (or so I'm led to Wiki-believe).  There are herbs dotted throughout the gardens: low hedges of rosemary or lavender, bronze and green fennel in the borders and, in the 'kitchen garden' of the manor ruins (a concept garden to tell the history of the site), horseradish, thyme, mint, marjoram and more fennel. There are even edible berries on shrubs such as Cornus kousa and Cornus mas (Cornelian Cherry) although personally I think those are best left for the birds.

My route from the design studio to the restaurant takes me past many of the ornamental show gardens so I see those regularly; yesterday I fancied a wander further afield around the trial gardens. It's always interesting to see what the Which? gardeners are growing before reading about it in the magazine.

Fallen apples

I've never found the orchard before and I was appalled to see so many apples and pears lying on the ground just rotting.  What a waste! I know there's a lot to be done at this time of year but I couldn't help thinking that surely the time could have been found to gather the apples before they fell? There was a couple left on one tree, one of which became part of my lunch - an extremely crisp and juicy green apple, I can't name the variety as I couldn't find a tag by the tree but it was delicious!

Wandering on, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a glorious crab apple tree which I remember as Malus x robusta 'Red Sentinel' from last year's plant knowledge (photo at top).  I also remember fruit dangling off the bare stemmed tree in January, another harvest left to be, as with all the crab apples in the ground.

Even the walled manor house garden is not immune - there I saw Cavolo Nero kale popped in among the cosmos which I thought was an idea worth copying! There's certainly no shortage of inspiration or food on a Thursday college day!

Kale and cosmos

19 Oct 2013

Sea Spring seeds

Before I move on from the London Harvest Festival show, I just wanted to thank Joy at Sea Spring seeds for the time that she took to chat to me about selecting and growing chillies. One advantage of going to shows like this is that the trade stands, often small businesses, are usually very generous with advice and Joy was no exception.

chilli display
Sea Spring Seeds marvellous display of chilli plants.

Joy (and her husband) are very experienced chilli growers and I, sadly, am not. I have managed to coax a chilli or two out of a plant in the past but the results have certainly been nothing to boast about. This year I didn't grow chillis at all as my windowsills were full of tomato seedlings and I don't use chillies that often in cooking. However, I do like the look of a flourishing plant - and Joy's were certainly that!

Joy, Sea Spring Seeds
In between serving other customers, Joy took the time to talk to me about the chillies (and tomatoes) that would work for me, i.e. grow well outdoors, without a greenhouse. Her advice emphasised the importance of choosing wisely to suit the growing conditions - Sea Spring have 50 varieties of chilli to choose from!

I was very taken with one of the display plants, an Apricot chilli with a mild heat, but was navigated away by Joy from certain grower's frustration as I was warned these definitely need the warmth of a polytunnel or greenhouse to thrive.

Leaflets about the differing heat values of the chilli seeds available were a useful reminder as I like a fairly mild heat. All I knew before was that Scotch Bonnet chillis are very hot as, I think, are the little Birds Eye chillis. Look at the heat factor of 'Apricot' compared with the Dorset Naga chilli!!

Joy explained that chilli seeds should be sown in February, need a minimum and steady temperature (27°C) to germinate (a heated propagator is best for this) and, once they have two true leaves, they can be pricked out, grown on in a mini-greenhouse (in my case) and then transferred outside. They can be quite hardy plants and, as ever, choosing the right plant for the growing conditions that you have is of paramount importance.

After lots of good advice, I chose a packet of Thai Green Curry seeds, a spice chilli (Capsicum annuum) where the long green pods can be harvested green or allowed to turn a beautiful deep red, still without excess heat. Mmm, I'm seeing strings of dried chillis hanging round my kitchen already!

Thai Green Curry
'Thai Green Curry' plant on Sea Spring display.
And this is the one that got away - 'Apricot' chilli - mild of heat and beautiful to behold. One to bookmark if I ever get a greenhouse!

Apricot chilli

In addition to chilli seeds, I also took advantage of Joy's good advice about tomatoes and other seeds on sale and bought 'Sungold' and 'Maskotka' tomatoes, 'Toma Verde' physalis (a sort of Mexican green tomato) and Scarlet Kale to sow as a cut and come again crop; with 200 seeds in the packet, I might try sowing a few under cover now, just to see what happens.

16 Oct 2013

Behold the Giant Pumpkin

There are days when everything seems to fall into place nicely. Last Tuesday, for example, a window of opportunity opened up in my working schedule enabling me to get to the giant veg show that is the RHS London Harvest Festival in Westminster. Even better, the sun was shining and very warm which was welcome during the 10 minute walk from the underground to the RHS halls. I went via Pimlico, my old stomping ground so I know the streets well; it's always nice to stroll through quiet tree lined streets in good weather.

Giant pumpkins
Prize winning giant pumpkins - the red rosette denotes First Prize.

Despite being an avid grower of veg, I have to admit I've never been to a proper horticultural show before. I can only describe the sight of those first giant pumpkins as I entered as A Thrilling Moment. They were undoubtedly the show stoppers although a wide-eyed wander round had me amazed at leeks the size of my arm, onions as big as cauliflowers, cabbages like footballs and yard long carrots. You're going to need a very big bunny to eat those. I imagine judging must be done to very strict criteria and with a very keen eye as I could only see perfection on a grand scale all around. Entrants have to submit a minimum number of each vegetable so I guess the expertise is in raising several prize specimens.

Amazing giant veg

Giant show vegetables is not a level of horticulture that I'd aspire to, I'm quite content if I get a reasonable haul of edibles each season, but I did give the apple table a more than cursory glance. I'm not one to boast (ahem), but some of my Braeburn apples this year have been huge, beautiful and very crisp and juicy! More by nature than nurture, admittedly, but who knows, in future years perhaps? To be validated by RHS commendation must be quite something!

Harvest collage

I assume that giant vegetables are fairly inedible (please tell me if you know otherwise) but this kind of showmanship is something that the RHS does very well. In the veg growing world, this is the equivalent of London Fashion Week and is to the allotment grower what Vivienne Westwood is to Primark - inspiring to look at but not necessarily what we'd want for every day!

Nevertheless, it was a totally brilliant day out - something I'd recommend every veg grower to attend at least once - and it certainly impressed the toddler that I took with me ... although I suspect she was waiting for the pumpkins to turn into Cinderella's coach.

First prize pumpkin

There was a handful of traders at the show doing brisk business and I met the lovely Joy at Sea Spring Seeds who gave me some invaluable advice about growing chillis. More on that in another post.

6 Oct 2013

Autumn, officially

There's no denying the need for a cardigan or jacket outdoors in the last few weeks. The temperatures have dipped, skies are (mostly) grey - today being an exception -  and I'm back at college for the next year of Garden Design training. So that's it for another year.

I rather enjoy autumn, the chance to pack it all away (and make space for winter veg) while the weather is just nice enough to be outside, the trees being laden with berries, leaves turning the most glorious shades of burgundy, red, yellow and acorns (lots of them!) appearing on the ground.

Orach seed heads
Orach (aka Mountain Spinach); stems are great cut for a flower vase in the late summer.
Stems left on the plant into autumn quickly develop brown seedheads.
In order to embrace the year's end,  I started tidying up the food growing areas last week and set off with a roll of garden waste bags and my secateurs.  I didn't get far with this, the garden is a bit lush at the moment so there's plenty to do. I cut down tall sunflowers that were leaning at a 45˚ angle, saving the seed heads for the birds. I cut down most of the Orach plants covered in seed heads as every one of these pods has the potential to burst into life next year (and take over the plot). And I also cut back some of the fennel seedheads for the same reason! (A bit of a theme developing there!) Those three jobs just about took up my gardening session.

Sunflower seedheads

Although the weather's feeling autumnal, there's still plenty to eat. Tomatoes, sweet corn and apples are still slowly ripening in the veg patch. I had home-grown tomatoes on toast for a late supper last night, one of my favourite quick snacks. I didn't need many as the Sub-Arctic and First in Field toms are almost a meal in themselves, weighing in at around 100g apiece! (And frequently falling off the vine due to their weight and needing to be ripened in the banana bowl.)

Tomato collage

I've grown several varieties this year - Yellow Pear, Outdoor Girl, Sub-Arctic and First in Field, the last two being a larger variety.  All are supposed to do well if grown outdoors in the UK climate. I bought some compostable tomato buckets to plant them in; these are supposed to let the deeper roots search out water in the ground so only the uppermost roots need feeding and this is done by only watering into the bucket area.  Very neat.  Having a proper warm summer probably helped but there's no denying that I've enjoyed good harvests - not massive deluges of tomatoes but just a gentle daily trickle of ripening tomatoes, enough for a salad or gardening snack.  The self-seeded Cherriettes of Fire (bottom right, above), a tiny centimetre wide fruit, have been perfect for snacking and the children love them as well. I allow the end of season fruits to fall back into the compost and rot down there, knowing that that's next year's tomato sowing taken care of!

Tomato 'buckets'  - quite hard to see as they blend in with the soil! 

It's interesting to look back and think about what worked and what didn't at the end of each growing year, especially if you have limited space, like me.  The big issue this year has been having enough time to look after the garden so crops that look after themselves (bar a bit of feeding and staking) such as these tomatoes, beans and potatoes, are a boon.  There seems to be a lot of reward for very little effort!  The biggest issue this year, though, has been the cat/fox visitors and their calling cards.  Some serious thinking is needed to come up with a solution to keep them at bay while keeping the beds easily accessible to gardeners! 

13 Sept 2013

Broad Beans - Top of the Pods

Picked beans

The weekend before last, during a big garden tidy up, the last of the dried broad bean pods were cut for seed and the plants dug up and added to the compost. It's been a strange year for broad beans as they're usually cleared well before now but I was harvesting beans until end of July (maybe I sowed later) and there's even a couple of plants that are resprouting having been earlier hacked in half by kids playing sword-fighting with my canes. (Grrr.) This year I grew two varieties of broad bean; the Karmazyn beans from last year and a crimson flowered heritage bean for colour.

Shelled beans

cooked and peeled
Heritage beans on left, Karmazyn on the right. 

Karmazyn is a variety with white flowers, green pods and pink beans. The beans are rounded, heart shaped and sit apart in the pod so there's usually no more than 4 or 5 to a pod. (The heritage pods are firmer and smaller.)  Once shelled and deskinned, the young Karmazyn beans are the most beautiful bright green. Last year's end of season pods contained inedible but useful beans that were dried and saved as seeds for this year and all germinated from an early March sowing.

I sow my broad beans in spring (rather than autumn) so when I bought some Heritage red flowering bean seeds earlier this year, I was still in time to sow those as well. I wanted to grow them alongside the Karmazyn to see if there's a difference, other than flower colour. There were subtle differences,  mainly in the taste, with the Karmazyn beans being sweeter and nuttier. (Some of my seeds were given to a friend working at the local City Farm and he agreed about the taste, finding it very pleasant.) The heritage crimson beans had a more pronounced bean flavour and were slightly harder and more floury in texture after cooking. As a recent convert to liking broad beans, I prefer the Karmazyn beans.

The plants all grew vigorously to the same height.  Karmazyn were slightly quicker off the mark but perhaps they'd adapted to my growing conditions as they were grown from saved seed.  A few of the crimson flowered beans didn't germinate whereas, like last year, the Karmazyn beans all grew. The flowers have been so beautiful:

White flowers for pink beans

Crimson heritage bean flowers

and, strangely, also from the crimson heritage beans, striped pink flowers ... lovely!

Pink striped bean flower

In 2012 the beans weren't troubled at all by black aphids; I put this down to the nasturtiums that I grew around the edge of the bed. This year, one or two plants were heavily invaded (temporarily, as I was on squish alert) despite some lovely Milkmaid nasturtiums appearing by their sides.


As the pods started to plump up, I pinched off all the tops so that the plants put their energy into the pods.  I steamed the tops with a few of the de-podded beans for supper -  they were delicious with just a trickle of butter and grinding of salt and pepper.  Well worth remembering for next time as I've composted the tops in the past.

I've managed to save a couple of large bags of parboiled beans for the freezer but I'm already looking forward to  next year's crop.  My Veg Planner advises that broad beans can be sown in October and November and then again in January.  I usually sow in early spring, i.e. late Feb/early March, but this year, I'll give an autumn sowing a go, protect the seedlings over winter with cloche protection, and see if that makes for an early harvest next year.

Broad beans 25th June
My little patch of broad beans in June this year.

11 Sept 2013

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday

My flowering veg patch

This was my veg patch a couple of weeks ago at the end of August.  Sun shining, bees buzzing ... it felt like the best of summer as I walked around picking fresh raspberries and tomatoes.  Crouching by the low wall around the central veg patch bed, this view looks more like a cottage garden - you'd never suspect that I was standing in a sea of concrete paving slabs and overlooked by about 50 flats, would you?

With the weather having become suddenly autumnal over the last few days, I wanted to post this photo as a reminder of one of summer's peaceful golden moments.  It will also remind me that, in spite of feeling that I hadn't achieved much this year, this part of the garden flourished with herbs, rhubarb, raspberries, sweet corn, mountain spinach (orach), beans, nasturtiums (red, white, orange), phlox and echinacea. There's also five varieties of tomato, a forest of sunflowers and a cabbage growing to the right in there.

I think the weather is set to stay gloomy for a while but I'm hoping that we're due a little more summer after the long wait for spring to arrive earlier this year .

7 Sept 2013

The eyes have it

Harvest crop

Earlier this year I wrote about my day out at the Garden Museum's Potato Day and which spuds I'd chosen to grow. (Arran Victory, Foremost, Vitelotte, Linzer Delikatess and Cherie.) This year I decided to grow my tubers in potato sacks as I'd tired of finding moochers (tubers left in the soil) popping up all over the place. (There's always one or two tiny potatoes that get left behind!)

Last week, I emptied all of my potato bags after a summer without sufficient water, either from rain or tap. A few of them hadn't even had sufficient depth as I didn't get round to earthing them all up in time.  (Shocking.) Even with my optimistic tendencies, I wasn't hopeful of finding anything usefully edible.

But what joy! Lots and lots of small to medium sized potatoes! Emptying potato sacks (or digging up potatoes) is a job I really delight in - it's a magical moment to find dozens of (hopefully) perfect potatoes where only one went in months before. I was watched by a two year old and, frankly, I couldn't have done better if I'd been Harry Potter himself. She stood transfixed and wide-eyed as I pulled one purple potato after another from the sack, only moving to gasp in amazement or silently mouth "Wow"! Love it!

One of the downsides to gardening in a community space is that the garden is at the mercy of whoever wanders by. I quickly realised that some mischievous tike had swopped all the potato labels over but I was able to identify them by referring back to my original post. The Arran Victory spuds were the easiest to spot being purple, with the Vitelotte potatoes a close second being almost black skinned with purple flesh.

To cook these little spuds, I simply boiled a selection of each one, throwing a knob of butter and sprinkling of salt over when drained. So, which potato won the taste test?  Arran Victory - the "rare blue-skinned, white-fleshed tuber of superb flavour". Never a truer word was said.

All of Pennard's descriptions were accurate and, undoubtedly, my little taste trial would have had truer results from well-watered plants but I found that the other varieties were nice but not outstanding. The Arran Victory had a flavour and creaminess that I haven't found in any shop bought varieties - and that's the qualifier that means I'll be looking out for these to grow exclusively next year. I don't have enough to know how well they'll store (as in, they'll all be eaten before the end of the week!! So delicious!) but next year I'll grow enough to last a good while longer.

Harvest trugHere's the fuller harvest picture, a sun-warmed tomato, a few physalis (tart but delicious) and a Braeburn apple.  The trees are loaded with fruit this year but I've noticed that people are picking the fruit already because they look so nice.  Surely they should still be on the tart side for a few more weeks? The two year old happily munched her way through two apples, declaring them to be yummy! I thought I'd better try one and ... hmm, and she's right! Apple pie ahoy!
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