5 Jun 2016

Bumble and Pod

Garden gathered
Not much, but at least there were flowers!
Supper of mint tabbouleh, steamed asparagus, salad + chive flowers, yoghurt and rhubarb compote. 


I've been struck by the 'hungry gap'.  I had this covered last year with plenty of kale, broccoli and chard to pick but this year I have failed abysmally. Blame has to lie somewhere so, yes, I am going to point my finger at the weather.  The mild winter encouraged my broccoli and kale to bolt in January, leaving me with nothing. Still, the bees enjoyed the early nectar-fest from the yellow flowers. The plants have now all been ripped out and composted leaving beds ready for the next crop.

But that same mild winter meant that broad beans sown in early February grew well in modules on my balcony. Although they were slightly sheltered from the cold wind, it was a chancy experiment as Karmazyn beans are not as winter hardy as, say, 'The Sutton' or 'Aquadulce', beans that are bred to be sown in November.  My beans were planted out in mid-April and have been flowering for the past few weeks - some of them already have small two inch pods among the flowers and the bumbles are all over them.  (This is unusual for me but perhaps less so for other gardeners; I've checked my notebooks and see that I usually sow later in mid-April.)



I've been checking on them regularly, not for pods but for the dreaded black aphids.  And this is where (finally) it gets interesting. I have squished a tiny amount of aphids on a couple of the plants but (dare I put this in writing?) they're otherwise aphid free. (For now.) This is excellent news as I haven't yet pinched off the top leaves of my plants which are insanely delicious steamed and served with a knob of melting butter and a grind of pepper.  The meal appeal dwindles if you have to wash a large colony of black insects off first.

Bizarrely, just across the path in my herb bed, less than a metre distant, the angelica is clogged with black aphids as is a nearby feverfew plant. Has anyone else experienced this selective colonisation or are your beans under attack?  Or is this one of the benefits of planting earlier?  If that's true, then early sowing is an experiment worth repeating.

Disgusting, right?  I'll spare you the extra large view of these photos. 

One difference that I've noticed is that my beans are radically shorter than in previous years when I've sown direct into the ground in mid-to-late April.  Karmazyn bean plants last year were a good metre plus tall by the time they podded, even after having their top growth removed.  This year, the plants are about 60cm (24 inches).  I've sown another few rows of beans as I was sent some Red Epicure beans by Marshalls to trial plus I had some crimson flowered beans leftover in my seed box. Let's see what will happen with those ... I'm guessing I won't be so lucky next time.

Oh, hey - the sun has come out since I've been typing!  Looks like it's going to be a fine day (at last!) so I'm nipping off to the garden to make the most of it.  Happy gardening Sunday!



26 May 2016

Torn between two gardens

Lonicera

pear blossom

Ant + blueberries
Photos from late April: Honeyberry blossom, pear blossom, blueberry buds. 


I make no apologies for my absence here on the written page because, yet again, the gardening year has pounced before I'm completely ready.  One blog post a month? Shame on me! Still, all in a good cause - both the veg patch and the new 'middle garden' (so-called as it's bang-slap in the middle of the flats where I live) have both been dominating my time out of work hours, right up until the sun sets in the evening - but only on the evenings when I have the energy to garden after working a 10 hour day.

I thought the hard work in the veg patch was over and done last year when I fenced around it to keep cats and foxes out.  But, with me, there's always another good idea lurking - which is not to say that good ideas and the time available are necessarily compatible. That said, this spring I've reworked the veg patch: a perennial flower border has been created plus a new run of Polka raspberries; old rotten raised beds have been chucked out and replaced (with some neighbourly help) with scaffold board edging. The herbs have been dug up and replanted together into one area and a dozen or so Rosemary Beetles have met a terrifying early death under my boot. I'll spare you the view of the carnage. (By the way, keep an eye out for these pests because they'll swiftly decimate not only rosemary but also lavender and sage. I've previously written about them here.)

The above mentioned fencing project of last year is, by necessity, back on the agenda as the idea was sound but some of the bamboo canes weren't up to the task and have bent.  I blame small children leaning in to reach for the raspberries. Anyway, a nice chap up the road donated four tall tree stakes when he heard about the garden and these will be used as replacement corner posts.  One is in already as I had a chance to dig deep into a corner when I put up the trellis for my sweet peas a couple of weeks ago. The others will have to wait as excavating London clay is no laughing matter for my back.

Despite all this (and more), there have been many evenings and weekends when my first love has had to give way to the usurper - the middle garden. The vision for this garden is to bring it back to life as a welcoming space to relax in, preferably with dozens of flowers-for-cutting among nectar rich shrubs and perennials.  I know what I want but it will take a long time to get there -  no quick three week Chelsea build for me!

After lots of staring at the garden from my second floor window, I realised that until I cleared the extensive ivy and hugely overgrown hedges, it would be impossible to realise the garden's potential.  17 large bags of garden waste, a pile of brick rubble and 7 huge mounds of hedge prunings later, I feel we're getting somewhere. (As luck would have it, a neighbour is also enthused about the idea and her gardening talents have been well deployed.) There will be more details in my next post but at last I can now measure the garden so I can start planning! It's taken quite a few long days over many weekends during which time the veg patch has had to make do with just an evening or two of weeding.

There's two lessons that have come out of this - one, never ever plant ivy in a small garden unless you have time to maintain it and, two, weeding is probably the most important task to keep on top of in the garden. A bit like painting the Forth Bridge but, nevertheless, essential.

Back soon ... hope you're all enjoying the Chelsea Flower Show, in person or on tv.  You'll notice that I didn't go this year as I stupidly missed the deadline for both tickets and a press pass.  Duh.

Geum unfurling

27 Apr 2016

How to successfully grow huge chilli plants

first chilli flower


I don't want to jinx myself by putting this in writing but ...  I'm now quietly hopeful of growing some chillies this year since this flower appeared on my kitchen windowsill plant yesterday.

I'm being tentative in this claim as it's well documented that I'm rubbish at growing plants indoors. Outside, no problem, but inside? Bleh. I wonder why that is? There are many more buds waiting to open and I'm certain that this vigorous little plant has a lot more growing to do.

I bought the sturdy but tiny plant in mid-February from Joy Michaud of Sea Spring Seeds. She is an amazing and passionate chilli grower and it's a testament to her skill in giving plants a good start in life that this chilli has continued to thrive in my dubious care.

I didn't do at all well with my chilli growing from seed last year so this year decided to treat myself to head start in the chilli department - and it looks as though it's paying off.  I've potted the plant on twice since purchase and it needs to go into its final pot this week as I can just see a few roots at the base of the current pot.  This is possibly where I'm getting it right this year; I watched a couple of excellent videos from the Sea Spring Seeds youtube channel with some top tips. (Link below.)

Sea Spring harvested 2,407 chillies from one enormous Dorset Naga plant two years ago!  Joy is generous with her advice on how it's done - here are a few of her tips:

  • Seedlings should be pricked out into a one litre pot and, when the roots are showing at the base, potted on into a 7.5 litre pot; they'll grow rapidly and can then be repotted into successively larger containers, as needed.  A plant will grow to the size of it's pot (depending on the variety of chilli you're growing) but a small pot will restrict its growth.  (Video explaining this here.) The giant champion Dorset Naga was in a 160 litre container! Possibly too big for my space - and for my cooking needs - but you take my point. 
  • Mix dried chicken manure pellets into the potting compost when transplanting into each successive pot from 7.5 litres upwards; these are slow release and will provide your plant with essential nutrients all season.
  • Water well and fertilise regularly throughout the season (in addition to the chicken manure pellets).
  • When the plants get large, support the branches. Push a couple of canes into the side of the pot and circle the plant with string, securing it to the canes. Add more layers of string as the plant grows.

So there we have it.  If I follow all this good advice, I might just have to book my slot at the local horticultural show this year!

For fellow chilli growing novices like myself, oceans of good advice can be found on the Sea Spring channel here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfZtoYQwmLpJ3k6BYVH4aFw

Update.
By August, I had lovely large plants and chillies ready for harvest - all grown on my balcony.  Read that post here: A chilli update

21 Apr 2016

Pickings and Pie



This year I have three rhubarb plants.  I don't need three, I needed one (all that my space would allow) and grew Glaskins' Perpetual from a seed several years ago.  It's huge and not very pink but I feel very proprietorial as I nurtured it into life all by myself.  Even so, when I saw Red Champagne crowns for sale a couple of years ago, of course I thought they sounded better.  Red. Champagne. Mm mmm, what's not to love?

I bought two crowns, planted them under the fruit trees as I'd read that rhubarb could tolerate a bit of shade and where (at the time) there was plenty of bare earth that needed covering and left them to it.  I thought I'd lost one plant last year as, without a hose, things get pretty dry under the trees.  The other decided to flower you may remember.  I wondered whether I'd ever get to taste any red champagne sticks but the crowns were inexpensive so it wouldn't be a huge loss. But reports of the death of my champagne rhubarb crowns were premature.



This spring, with the winter being relatively short lived and the rain lasting rather longer, I've watched rhubarb sticks from all three crowns gradually appearing over the past few weeks.  At one point I was tempted to plonk a black plastic bucket over one of them to try my hand at forcing but, as tends to happen, I didn't get round to it.  (Anyone had any success doing this? And is it worth it?)

Serendipitously, I opened an email from Simple Things mag last week to find a recipe for Rhubarb and Rosewater Tart. The timing was immaculate as I had the rhubarb in the garden and was in the mood for baking - and had some shop bought cheat's sweet shortcrust pastry in the fridge that needed using. (I'd like to say that I whipped up a batch of home-made pastry but I didn't. There.) It was delicious, whether eaten with cardamon flavoured cream or with friends and family. I made the pie in a smaller tin than suggested to share with family and used the extra filling with a dollop of jam in a small batch of Maids of Honour tarts for my goodie tin at home.

I've lost track of where we are in the gardener's calendar - I assume everyone's rhubarb is up and growing vigorously?  If you like the sound of the pie, the recipe is here and, with ready made pastry, is a doddle to make.   (The addition of rosewater is delicious but could be omitted if you have none, leaving a rhubarb and frangipane pie.)

20 Apr 2016

Nature in the City: Wildlings Wednesday



Nature is all around us and I can get my daily dose from nearby Hampstead Heath but, try as I might to ignore it, there's also a lot of bricks and mortar around.  That's London for you. Some of the architecture around here is brutal - in a modernist way - the local secondary school for example -while elsewhere in the neighbourhood there are parks and turrets, canals, domes and houses with lovely old walls and neatly planted front gardens. The contrast of old and new, concrete and nature is a daily sight potentially more so here than in the countryside.

Even in this all-embracing environment there are sights that just don't fit and one of these is the ability of plants to self seed into the most obscure places. It's awesome. Photographer Paul Debois held a similar fascination for this subject which he captured in his 'Wildlings' exhibition a couple of years ago.

The definition of a wildling is a plant that's escaped from cultivation.  I like that, the idea of a plant planning on how to tunnel out of a tidy garden or leap over the boundary wall - or just the thought of plants having a secret desire to live life on the other side.

Some wildlings are welcome - purple campanula is a regular sight growing out of walls around here, as is Corydalis lutea - and a memory of the lily of the valley and mint that crept into my mother's garden under the next door neighbour's fence has just come to mind. But around here, I'll take what I can get.  These for example, spotted on a sunny spring walk - gives a whole new meaning to the phrase 'a weed is only a plant in the wrong place'!



2 types of fern and herb-Robert | Polystichum setiferum | railway bluebells 


Clockwise from top left:
Calendula on the railway embankment,
Feverfew, Brunnera, Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) all growing amongst stone pavers.


Random facts:
Apparently fresh leaves of Herb Robert can be used in salads or to make tea and are said to repel mosquitoes if rubbed on the skin.  



1 Apr 2016

Extravaganza! The RHS Spring Plant and Orchid Show

I have a thing for automata and this one was on show at the RHS halls in February

While I often hanker for the country life, living in London does have its occasional perks. One such is coming up over the next two days with the second of the RHS spring shows - this one is billed as a Spring Plant Extravaganza and includes the RHS Orchid show. There will be talks throughout both days and there's also a sneak peek at the show garden being built for RHS Tatton Park by the Young Designer of the Year. Wowzer!

It's wonderful that the RHS puts on these shows because, no matter what the weather outside, visitors can be cozy and warm indoors, drooling over a selection of the most beautiful plants and getting advice from experienced nurseries and growers. Not to be missed, especially if you have a bit of cash to spend.

This is not to say that non-London folk will be overlooked as it's only a couple of weeks before the RHS spring show in Cardiff, followed by Malvern at the beginning of May and Chelsea (whoop whoop) just three weeks after that. * By which time it will be almost summer.  So, plenty to entertain us while waiting for our seeds to grow.

I can't get to this weekend's show (gardening deadlines to meet) but I did make it to the earlier show in February. I went because I knew that Pennard Plants would, as usual, be there with their enormous A-Z selection of seed potatoes plus I needed some more Polka raspberries from them - and why pay postage? I also wanted to pick up some baby chilli plants from the very reliable Sea Spring Seeds; my home-sown chilli plants matured very late last year, giving me just the one fruit, and then died overwinter. I knew that I could pick up healthy little plants at the show and these are now growing steadily on my kitchen windowsill - sorted! Sea Spring also sell an awesome selection of seeds if you want to grow your own salad leaves, tomatoes and chillies, including the infamous Dorset Naga, one of the hottest chillies available - but I think I'll stick to the salad leaves.

Having made my purchases (including some Heritage tomato seeds, again from Pennard, and some more gardening gloves), I was free to wander around the show drinking in the buzz and excitement of gardeners embracing a new gardening year. It's part of the fun, knowing you're among like-minded passionate gardeners and there were plenty of impromptu chats among visitors. There were the usual award winning displays of snowdrops, primulas, hepaticas and iris reticulata (all heart-stoppingly beautiful) but, hey, that was February, we've moved on since then.  For a taste of what might be found in today's show,  photos in the collage below were taken at last year's spring show.



With so many nurseries and trade stands here, there's always the possibility of picking up a really exciting new plant.  I bought the glorious Geum 'Totally Tangerine' from Hardy's Garden Plants here a couple of years ago, the same plant that was all over Chelsea flower show that year. Hardy's are fantastic at putting together stunning and inspirational plant combinations in their exhibit - in fact, Rosy Hardy has a show garden at Chelsea this year.  How do I know that?  The RHS had put on a large display of the drawings and plans for this year's Chelsea gardens in one of the halls and it looks like it's going to be a corker.  More about this in a later post.

So please go along to the show if you can - I want to read about it! The show is on today and tomorrow (1st + 2nd April,  10-5 pm).  Venue is the RHS Halls in Westminster (Victoria or Pimlico tube stations) and there's a cafĂ© on site.

Totally Tangerine - how could I resist?


* The Harlow Carr flower show is in June, Tatton Park in July and Hyde Hall is in August.  Check out the RHS Events page for more info.

30 Mar 2016

Lashings of tea, books and rain


As Bank Holiday Mondays go, this week's was fairly typical - lashing rain and lots of it.  Despite promises of a dry day, I woke up to the sound of wind whistling through the double glazing and rain being hurled against the window panes.  Just another stormy spring day in England.  Obviously the sensible course of action was to make a huge mug of tea, collect up my notebook and pencil, seed catalogues and gardening books and retire back to the sanctum of my bed to spend the morning in my pyjamas planning my seed order for this year.  Pretty much the perfect morning, actually.

For this pleasant interlude I pulled 'The Great Vegetable Plot', 'A Taste of the Unexpected' and 'Grow for Flavour' off the shelves and worked through them. I was particularly absorbed in reading The Great Veg Plot - a book I've had for many years but haven't read it for quite a while - shame on me because I found the author's reasoning for choosing what to grow quite illuminating. (Note: I would recommend this book for beginner growers; it's readable, inspirational and instructive.)

You'd think after growing food for quite a few years now that I'd pretty much have the seed list off pat, but I like to remain open to new possibilities.  I have limited space so it's essential to make sure that I'm using it well by growing the best tasting veg plus a few unusual new tastes. (And last year my tomatoes were a disaster so I'm grabbing the opportunity to try something different.)

By the end of my leisurely morning, I was well on the way to creating a (very long) list of seeds to buy. First, I considered the three categories of plants in The Great Veg Plot - Freshly Picked, Un-buyables and Desert Island picks. Interesting, huh?  The first two groups are surely the reason why anyone would want to grow their own, however small the available space. And the last group clarified my thinking quite effectively.

So what would you put into the freshly picked category?  I'd definitely put crunchy mange-tout, baby climbing beans, sun warmed tomatoes, salad leaves and young podded broad beans. These are all veg I love to snack on as I wander the garden in the summer.  Peas too when I remember to grow them. And Cape Gooseberries are so much nicer eaten straight from the bush - mine grows as a perennial.

With the storm still raging outside, I turned my thoughts to the 'Un-buyables'. What's interesting about these is that since the book's publication in 2005, a lot of the veg covered in this section are now available in selected supermarkets. So no longer un-buyable, but possibly hard to get. But shouldn't we also think about the days and miles between harvest and sale?  Veg such as globe artichokes, asparagus, edible flowers, pea tips and some of the more unusual squashes and beetroot are much nicer harvested at their freshest so perhaps these need moving to 'Better Grown than Bought' (I just made that up) rather than 'Un-Buyable'.

Karmazyn.
Un-buyables: Karmazyn beans sown earlier.
Superb flavour and seed readily available from Dobies, Chilterns, Suttons, Fothergills and More Veg
For my own un-buyables, my list would have to include rainbow chard, achocha, honeyberries (like blueberries), a rainbow of carrots, spaghetti squash, wild garlic and pink Karmazyn broad beans. (Incidentally, I came across a broad bean called 'Red Epicure' which stays red when steamed. Anyone tried these?)  I'm also growing Borlotti beans for the first time this year as my Cherokee Trail of Tears heritage beans of last summer were dismal. Each spring I hope for greater things!  I also checked into Mark Diacono's 'A Taste of the Unexpected' for inspiration here - and wished that my Chilean Guava of a couple of years ago had survived.

And lastly, Desert Island Plants - these are the must-haves, the plants that influence and enhance my cooking, that I take real pleasure in growing. Taking the name at face value, what would I absolutely have to have in my garden?  And if my choice was limited to just five plants, what would I choose?  Let's see - herbs, of course, such as parsley and thyme, raspberries, Cavolo kale and cape gooseberries. (That was hard - imagine life without chillies, pak choi, salad leaves and salad onions!)

But I still wasn't finished. Refreshing my mug of tea (and bringing a plate of toast back from the kitchen as well) I completed the indulgence by reading through my favourite seed catalogue, pen in hand, and circling all the seeds that appealed. Having noted these down in my book alongside the list of my perennial veg and the plan of the veg patch, I now have the onerous task of whittling down my list to fit the available space. Still, there's always pots and containers …

So, I'm intrigued - what would your top five Desert Island plants be - and do you grow any Un-Buyables that you'd recommend?  Tell all!  :o)



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