Thursday, 23 December 2010

Merry Christmas!

It will be next to impossible for me to do any gardening over the Christmas holidays, as there is still a fair amount of snow on the ground here.
However, this will be the perfect time for me to complete my seed stock taking: removing the seed box from the kitchen floor will also work as an excellent present for my husband! ;p

Until my next post, best wishes to every one: may your 2011 be healthy, prosperous, and... pest-free.

I'll leave you with a picture of my 5-Christmas old tree (which decorated itself, and rewarded me, with cones this year) at the peak of our snowfall!

Monday, 20 December 2010

Christmas veggie present

The other day I received an email from one of my favourite suppliers, Garden Organic, suggesting that I gave someone for Christmas an adopted vegetable from the Heritage Seed Library. While your money goes into funding the conservation of a heritage veggie variety, the recipient of the present receives an awareness raising card; in some cases, when the veg is not that rare, they also receive a packet of the adopted vegetable's seeds.
I was intrigued by the idea for a present to my auntie, who taught me my passion for gardening.
However, there were two issues:
  • First, I have never seen my auntie grow veg. Still, I thought, she has a big garden, and might enjoy some veggie growing, if she finds herself with some seeds;
  • Pea, bean, pepper or tomato, I could not find an adoptable vegetable that might be interesting enough for her to give growing it a go.
So I decided I would make her a gift of the full Heritage Seed Library membership for one year instead. With the membership, you get up to six varieties of veg of your choice (depending on availability). I can help my auntie, who does not speak English, choose some vegetables she would like to try, and they will arrive by post anywhere in the EU.
I am sure my auntie will appreciate conservation of something with a heritage. And if she is really not keen on growing veggies herself, she can always give the seeds to her friends who do.

Friday, 17 December 2010

A little enthusiasm...

... came back yesterday when I cooked Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino with my own garlic and chilli, and tonight I'm having three roasted veg, two of which are my own: potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes.

It feels good to cook with my own produce - so much so that I do not seem to feel the frustration of wilted, frostbitten and otherwise dead crops, the pests and crappy weather at the wrong time so much right now...

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Reasons why I am not gardening

After posting about "winter blues", I have been thinking about why I am not so keen on gardening right now, and came up with a list of possible factors.
  • First of all, I think I have associated the allotment with British discrimination of foreigners. I really do not think someone can do anything good when they feel uncomfortable as unwelcome guests - which is what I feel increasingly in the UK, and the shady behaviour of the council about the allotment has increased that perception for me; I feel under scrutiny, almost threatened that any shortocomings of mine will look so much worse just because I am a foreigner, which puts me off;
  • Second, the competing, incompatible demands of work (with increased travelling, and having to study to remain competitive) and gardening make me 1. very tired 2. feel as if I cannot do both together very well, and guess what: I do not like to do things half badly and I have a mortgage to pay... And anyway how many crops did I lose last year because I couldn't tend to the plants properly, despite the hard work I put into it?
  • Running out of space and not being able to do a proper crop rotation again makes me feel I cannot do a proper job, and I said I am quite a perfectionist... that combines with the limited control on where stuff comes from (i.e. manure, compost etc) and I ask myself: is it worthwhile?
  • Not quite sure how to work with the environment, I get frustrated when my gardening undermines my principles: i.e. I want to encourage insects in the garden, but to do gardening now and clear up to a decent state I have to displace the very hybernating insects that I am trying to encourage... I guess this feeling comes from my lack of knowledge, and I do not have time to find out more...
Well, it was good to talk them through, get them off my chest. As I re-read them, they might be that tinsely bit exaggeratedly pessimistic... better to be off and plant some garlic (even if not in a rotation) while the sun is out and to make most of the time, before the Uni essay is due for writing...

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Rewarded with Jerusalem artichokes

Trying to shake my winter blues, I have spent most of the day in the garden doing the odd jobs I have left for so long, and at the allotment.

First activity: trim back the lavender... ohhh, looks so much better now: it is one of those very small and extremely rewarding jobs in the garden.

Then, in a desperate attempt to keep the neighbours' blooming cat from my garden, I tied the boundary net that had come loose: while I was at the hedge, I also implemented a long-thought plan... I hate holly in a small garden: it's so brutishly evenrgreen! So I have long thought of cutting back the two berry-less plants that have grown among our cherry plums hedge. Today I trimmed the holly back as much as I could, and planted around it four seedlings of Pyracantha, which I had been growing in a pot from my previous garden: I hope they will grow strong and push back the holly, providing berries for the blackbirds in my garden to boot.

How frustrating to attempt at ladybirds' lives unwittingly, while doing winter gardening. Today I have propelled four around, two of which ended up in the pond - which luckily I never clean so was full of leaves, a decent enough life buoy. I have been thinking, and hybernating insects are probably one of the reasons I do not like doing much gardening at this time of year; not the main reason, but one.

At the allotment, I planted the three blueberries and a bunch of strawberries that had arrived through the post this week. Then I had my first go at pruning the vines - with not-too-bad results, so I rewarded myself by unearthing a few Jerusalem artichoke to roast tomorrow with my gammon.

Overall a busy day, in rather bleak weather. Still did not get the kick out of it I usually do... :(

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Wondering at sweet peas resilience in the freeze...

... I have been working from home for a couple of days now, and, when going out to empty the bin, I noticed that my sweetpeas are still alive, despite the freeze. I thought they were supposed to die (after all in my experience they have died for much less before) but no, these ones I planted out late and they can obviously be hardy annuals (they are not the perennial Lathyrus of that I am sure)... will have to investigate more when I have some spare time... anyone knows?

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Winter blues?

For the first time in six years, since I first started gardening, I am not inclined to spend every single bit of spare time in the open air, either fiddling with some plant or other, or planning what to plant and where, or even just having a look around in the garden: I can spend a whole weekend at home without setting foot out of the door...

.. and even from home I am not very active: for example, I haven't taken my seed stock for the year, despite taking the seed box from the allotment a while ago - much to the annoyance of my husband, who occasionally trips on it, as it has been lying on the kitchen floor since.

So nothing outside, nothing inside, the only garden-related activity I haven't given up is reading my magazines in the bathroom. Otherwise, I'm pretty flat at the moment.

Don't understand: winter blues?

-- Post From My iPhone

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Mushrooms and miserable weather

Yesterday I had to spend all my time at the plot re-building the greenhouse that had been wrecked open arguably by the strong winds over the week - sunset was beautifully red, but did not manage to pick me up after the event: I should be buying new greenhouse panels - they did not last that long and at the moment I cannot afford them.

And just to end the weekend on a high note, when I went to try and get some mushroom spawn on manure in the propped-up greenhouse today, I got so wet, bucketfuls of rain...

Anyway, it should hold up for a while, and I got my spawn scattered. Instructions said you need a bed of at least 25cm with strawed manure, under wet newspaper. You should take all the creatures that can eat the spawn, including worms, but that seemed a bit of an overkill, and impossible to achieve anyway: my greenhouse is no sterile environment!When the newspaper gets covered in white filaments, it's time to layer on some compost and chalk... getting chalk definitely no probs this side of the world, but the procedure seems quite elaborate - this time I will tring doing it by the book. I really hope they do grow, as the handful I managed to eat last spring were really delicious, tasty in a buttery sort of way.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

The ups and downs of trying to be kosher

After an afternoon at the allotment digging weeds out of the soft fruits bed, I came home and threw myself in the bath with my autumn copy of Garden Organic magazine. Someone had written a letter asking about non-organic manure. 6 months composting may well make it acceptable for use in organic gardening; however, it must be GM-free manure to start with.

Of course, if the animal had been fed with GM feed, the fibres and discarded material even through the guts of the animal may still have GM DNA in it. I had not thought of that. Yet GM-free is on top of my agenda. And I know that animal feed can be GM in Europe. Still, somehow I had not associated horses fed without the use of chemicals in the supply chain with the possibility of GM in the feed.

Big depression followed. I had already felt a bit defeated the other day reading some very interesting info on the website of the Scientists for Global Responsibility. It's everywhere: it's very difficult to keep track of all the right things to do, to source things that are ethical, sustainable, organic, especially when it's not the mainstream ones. I have a lot of time for those that are consistently inquisitive, attentive and selective. But I can also see why the average Joe Bloggs does not care. It's so complicated.

And there are so many powerful interestes pushing for GM, lobbying and sneaking it in as widely as possible, that one wonders whether we stand any chance. So little concern for the possible unintended and unexpected consequences of introducing something in the environment that by its own nature is bound to spread and cannot be controlled. I was really struck, studying my horticulture books, by how often they would point out we do not know exactly how a plants carries out its functions, have I mentioned that already? And consequently by how arrogant it is of man to want to change plants when one does not even quite understand how they work: the product of million years of evolution...

... anyway, it's quite interesting that the Economist debate, which was making the case for biotech and sustainable agriculture being complementary, started out with 79% in favour and is now down to 38%. Avaaz petition on banning GM in Europe has exceeded the minimum 1 million signatures. There's a lot of people on the anti-GM side, will it matter anyway? Does GM matter? It's only one of the irresponsible things we are doing to the environment...

My brother told me something I found very wise. He believes that Earth will bounce back from anything we throw at her, and regain a balance. The only ones that might lose out of our Earth's regaining a balance are the human race, as the new balance might not be suitable for human life: we are not needed for the Earth's survival. That's because it's not OUR Earth. Puts things in perspective, raises a lot of questions.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

It's autumn

When I came back from my travelling the allotment looked decidedly autumnal: the most tender plants such as nasturtiun, the vine, my precious chillies and the beans had suffered from frost-bite and looked miserable and rotting. And I could not find my stunted green pumpkins in the grass.

Time to clean up, that's what I did, making sure there was enough weeds and general mess to accomodate overwintering insects. I covered the artichokes - as they are just half hardy and barely made it through the freezing spell - the herbs and the salad seedlings.

Planted garlic, shallots and some onions - but I had to break the four year rotation. I hope we get some more land this winter: we put ourselves at the bottom of the waiting list on suggestion from the previous allotment manager in May. The hype for allotments seem to have passed already, and there is more turnover as a consequence.

Who knows, the allotment management processes are rather opaque... for example turns out that allotment managers are elected annually by the tenants... 3 have changed in the last three years and I never had any opportunity - request or notice - to vote anyone. And when I put myself forward as a deputy - as I got the impression there was noone - the manager never got back to me with a final answer, then I found out by chance someone else had been appointed. Not exactly how I had expected the UK system would work when I came over: in my naivete I thought it was all about fairness! In this case at least, not much difference from Italy instead.

Anyway - jerusalem artichokes are in season on my plot and I am on my way home to cook some for dinner. May post a pic - by the way, you may have noticed I am not writing much, and you are right: cannot bear any longer to look at a computer screen out of office hours...

-- Post From My iPhone

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

I miss my plot!

On Saturday I spent most of the day digging, my favourite activity as you will know, and it reminded me how much I miss my plot now that the days are short.

I have run out of rotation space, so I will have to reuse beds from a couple of seasons ago for my garlic. Unless I pull all of the beans, which are still cropping, and reuse the beds. Or maybe I will have to do both. Advice from anyone?

The grapes were a fantastic success, much more than expected, and I will take advantage of my recent learning about cuttings to extend my "vineyard". Figs, on the contrary, have been so disappointing, as they do not seem to ripen - any of them.

Manure was delivered: I covered it with plastic sheeting as I read that it is best spread in early spring, lest the nutrients wash out during winter. I got a full load as last year I gave it a miss, and checked with the farmer that no chemicals were used in the foodchain of the horses: I was really worried about contamination by Aminopyralid. It should be fine, and apparently 3 months composting are enough to purify manure for organic use - can't remember the source, but it was reputable.

I find it still difficult to plan in crops of green manure...

My chillies are still growing away under tents and in the greenhouse, but I am afraid I won't be self sufficient on those: one of my objectives gone, despite all the space I devoted to chilli plants. Garlic could be enough if I use it sparingly... I have bought more for this year, and very expensive it was!

I must say the slogan "grow your own to get cheap veg" does not seem to be working for me - definitely not. Did I mention before? It's good for all other sorts of reasons except the return on investment. At least so far. But it is true that I have gone into it big time, probably more than most would. And I should go back to measuring and evaluating my crops more precisely: not very diligent, this year, Mrs Cecconi!

On the feel of it I would say my best veg crop this year has been cucumbers, tasty and of impressive size. Fruit-wise, definitely raspberries: they are still cropping but mould very quickly if not picked.

Overall, I would say I had more variety than in previous years but in smaller quantities. Have to do better!

But I will not be able to go now until next week :(

-- Post From My iPhone (sorry for the funny words, the automatic spellcheck is a nightmare!)

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Call it love from a distance

I have not forgotten the allotment, or the blog, but everyone returning to work in the office after the summer has meant late hours, and days are drawing in. Weekends have also been busy...

But if you saw someone last night after sunset, in the pouring rain, picking grapes and rocket leaves, that was me! Seemed silly this morning, as I walked to the station in the warm sun, but that was the only sure time I could go.

There's still a lot going on: salad is slowly but steadily growing, the pumpkins have not grown big but are ripening, the vine has made so much more grapes than I expected (I could not see them among the lush leaves), raspberries are still fruiting, the Jerusalem artichokes are flowering so I guess they are ready, and finally the spinach I sowed in the newest bed I made is germinating...

In terms of looking forward, I am desperately late in getting the broad beans and garlic for next year, of all years the one when there seem to be a garlic shortage, so hurrying to get some would be in order! To boot,aAll my gardening magazines' subscriptions are expiring and I cannot find the time to renew them (well, not that I have read much of them lately anyway...).

Gosh, anyone else in such a terrible situation?!?

Looking forward to November, when the workload should fall back into its own right place.

-- Post From My iPhone

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Green tomatoes

You are looking there at my latest nightmare.

It was 4.5 kg San Marzano and 1.1 kg cherry tomatoes to process as quickly as possible, before the blight set in.

Not a chutney person, I started a recipe research: there are hints here and there that green tomatoes may contain the poisonous alkaloid solanine (typical of the solanaceae family), but that is not proved and I found an interesting article on the NY Times about tomatoes, poisonous food and the little we know about it and several recipes to avoid crop waste. I guess moderation in eating is always key...

Anyway, after trying deep-fried green tomatoes in a batter of egg and a dusting of cornflour (and not being overenthusiastic about them), I turned to Italy for inspiration. Two recipes I found particularly appealing: jam (which is rather less complicated and tastes delicious) and preserve in oil (which takes five days to prepare but smells lovely: taste trial in two months!)

Here's the links to the recipes that inspire me, loosely translated underneath. Of course, you need to sterilise the jars and the preserve as per best practice. 
Green tomatoes preserved in extra virgin olive oil

Slice the tomatoes, cover in salt for 24 hours, squeeze them dry, cover in white vinegar for 4 hours, squeeze them dry again. Place in a jar with pepper, oregano, slices of garlic and a few bay leaves before covering in oil. 

Green tomato jam

Blanch the tomatoes, peel them and remove the seeds. Add the juice and zest of a lemon and half a kg of sugar for each kg of tomatoes. Leave the mix to infuse in a bowl for 12 hours, then cook and can as you would do any jams. 
Green tomatoes preserved in extra virgin olive oil

You need properly green tomatoes so they do not soften up too much with time. Rinse and slice them in stripes, which you will put in a large glass or ceramic bowl.
Cover in salt and with clean hands stir it in well. Cover the bowl and leave for 24 hours. 

After that, pour them in a colander or sieve, and, in order to squeeze them well dry, place some heavy weight over them (i.e. a pan full of water).
Cover them and leave for another 24 hours.

The next step is to cover the dry tomato strips in vinegar in a clean bowl, untangling them with a fork so that the maximum surface is exposed to soak up the vinegar. Leave them for another 24 hours.
Squeeze them dry once again.

Aside, mix some finely chopped parsley (a herb mill is ideal), garlic, chilly, oregano and extra virgin olive oil.
Pour the mix on the dry tomatoes, stir it in, cover the bowl and leave for another 24 hours to soak up the flavours.

Finally, it's time to can them: put a little oil in the bottom of the jar, then add the toms, pressing them well. Cover with oil, seal and keep in a cool and dark place for at least 3 months before using.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Ladies and gentlemen: Phoenix and Dornfelder

The scepticism of my allotment neighbours has not proved right, at least for this one year. The grapes have a sharp burst and a rather sweet aftertaste. A pleasure for the eye and the tastebuds. Which, before washing, was home to a tiny snail and a 7-spot ladybird.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

RIP dear tommies... welcome preserve!

Blight struck.

On Friday my tomatoes pleased me beyond belief, lush, green, with two orangey ripe... and on Sunday night they were a rather messy heap of brown and mould.

So I picked all of the ones big enough & not damaged and have just discovered that I have to process them quickly to avoid deterioration, as they won't ripen but rather get the disease.

On the plus side, you can compost the leaves as spores don't survive on dead vegetation, only on seeds (so don't save any). Too late for my own plants which I threw in the bin as I was not sure, but the source being Garden Organic, it is reliable information.

Also on the plus, there are plenty of recipes for green tomatoes and you are not stuck with chutney - something I would have dreaded. They can be fried, made into pasta sauce and preserved in oil, for example, which I will try tonight, and someone apparently even eats them raw!

-- Post From My iPhone

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Obsessed with elderberries

As I mentioned before my short holiday break, I have been doing more preserving, particularly of wild berries - something that this year has really possessed me: I have to do it, to try how it tastes and can be saved for later.

I tried an early hawthorn jelly, which set so hard because of the unripe berries that it stuck to the lid of the jar: as my colleague observed, the first ever upside-down jelly... But elder berries are what really fascinates me. I have tried two recipes for liqueur, and the one from the German-speaking part of Italy which is called Holunderlikoer tasted so good that I wanted to have a go at elderberry jelly too. Throughout the holidays I could not look at an elder without coveting the berries. And as soon as I came back last night I grabbed some half-kilo and set about processing it, finishing well beyond midnight.

Here's the elder recipes, roughly, in my own style.

My problem with jam-making seems to be pectin levels, or the setting point: mostly I get rather loose texture - even though it tastes good, as was the case with my raspberry jam - 500gr jar all vanished on our holiday, deliciously (and a bit messily) spread on clotted cream and homemade scones (not my own). Any suggestions from expert jam-makers?

And with liqueurs I had  to play around a bit before I learnt how alcohol dilutes (in Italy they sell 95% vol alcohol for preserving and liqueur making and that is what the recipes suggest, so in the UK, supposing you use clear vodka, or eau de vie, the resulting liqueur will be weaker, or you will have to use less water in the recipe). You might find it useful to know the formula:
to dilute 95% to 40%, for every 40cc add enough water to make 95cc
where 1cc = 1 ml (if I am correct). So if vodka is 50% and you want to make a 40% liqueur you will have to add to 40ml of preparation enough water to make 50ml. And in the recipe below you will have to use roughly 1/5 less water.

Shall I say here: drink responsibly?!? I would hate that. I assume that people have enough self-respect not to drink themselves senseless and are wise enough not to damage their own health. Drinks, and food, are made to taste and enjoy consciously. I do not want to be associated with any idea that I might promote drunkenness, which I find so stupid and dangerous that I cannot bring my head round why people binge-drink at all.

Holunderlikoer (loosely translated)
  • 1 measure (however many you have) of elderberries, stalks removed washed and dried
  • 1.5 measures of water (1/5 of it being 0.3 measures)
  • 0.5 measures of sugar
  • 0.5 food grade alcohol (or clear vodka, eau de vie etc)
  • Vanilla pod
Boil the berries in the water for 15 mins ca (depending on the quantity more may be necessary). Sieve the pulp through a muslin. Put the liquid back in the pan with the sugar and vanilla for another 15 mins ca (always depending on quantity, until the sugar is melted). Let it cool down before adding the alcohol, mixing and bottling. Leave the liquour to rest for a while to improve flavour.

 Elderberry liqueur (loosely translated)
  • Ripe berries, stalks removed, washed and dried
  • Lemon rind, without white bit
  • Sugar
  • Food grade alcohol
  • Vanilla pod
Put the berries in an airtight jar with the alcohol and lemon rind and leave for a fortnight. Remove the solids.
Make a sugar syrup with as much water as needed to dilute to the desired strength and the vanilla, simmering until the sugar is melted. I guess the quantities can be made as per recipe above. Take out the vanilla and mix with the alcoholic infusion. Leave to rest for a few days before passing through a muslin and bottling.

Elderberry jelly (loosely translated)
  • 1 measure elder berries, stalks removed, washed and dried
  • Sugar (60% in weight of the sieved berries pulp)
  • Vanilla pod
Squash the berries and simmer on low until they look soft enough to sieve. Add the sugar and vanilla and bring to the boil until setting point is reached (cannot help you there!). Bottle in sterilised jars according to usual preserving procedure.

Cornwall is such a paradise and the weather was so great, it was hard to leave. However, it was good to get back and see that the allotment is still in full-blown production, despite the increased activity of slugs and that blooming bird that shamelessly enjoyed my second ripe fig. Look forward to tasting the grapes!

Monday, 23 August 2010

Season draws to a close

I did dig my new bed yesterday: as the days draw in, and the beds start to become empty, I feel like tidying up and adapting the plot based on the learning of the past seasons. Next to the shed, taking advantage of the cleanup of hollies the council did, I have carved myself some more space: all sorts of rubbish was buried on a spot that had obviously not been cultivated for years. I sowed some fodder radish as an overwintering green manure - Will see how it fares. I also recovered a wheelbarrow-full of soil, which I could use in the greenhouse to replace the spent compost from the current planting.

After clearing the potato bed on Saturday, I rearranged that too. This should provide a better arrangement for my vines, which by the way are ripening! Allotment manager John thought they might be encouraged by the windscreen that are my Jerusalem artichokes, which I planted there without really thinking about this side-effect!
Clearing the onion bed also prompted me to rearrange space there. It's still temporary as there are leftover crops in there, but it looks as if I may have more efficient use of space for next year.

In the meantime my preserving continues: I have made cherry plums jam, hawthorn jelly and two types of elderberry liqueur. More on a future post.
And I sowed some salad that with any luck the slugs won't exterminate...

Sunday, 22 August 2010

My potato crop

I digged out my maincrop potatoes yesterday: 8,5kg (17 pounds). Not as many as in my first year but definitely cannot complain given that I only planted 1 kg of seed and the odd germinated potato from home.

I found that, once the potatoes were out, I wanted to redesign the beds' layout: multiple parallel beds I now find more useful than one bed running the whole width of the plot, so I split the potato bed into two, as I did with the onions' bed after taking them out. I'm pleased with the result. And I think today I will go and dig a new bed, on the side of the shed, and sow it with green manure, so that it will be ready for the new year.

Which reminds me I'm in a bit of a quagmire about the compost heap. It is now in a really premium, sunny spot, after the council chopped back the hollies that were making it shady and wet. It should be moved behind the shed, where the position is not ideal for growing. This is the kind of job I would normally do in winter, but the compost heap has proved last year to be a precious overwintering hiding for lots of wildlife, so I am reluctant to mess with it when it is most useful... however, I am not ready now to move it now, because I have first to hack down the remains of the previous owner's shed: the perfect job for a winter sunny day. Mmmhhh

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

A fig!

Finally one if the figs managed to swell, the first one this year and the first of a decent size ever! A bit dry (the draught?) but very tasty...

The courgettes are blossoming and so, it seems, are the tomatoes.

All the salad seedlings have however succumbed to slugs, and I am at risk of a hungry gap if I don't sow something soon.

-- Post From My iPhone

Monday, 16 August 2010

Quick update

I have not written for a while, because I am not going to the allotment that often, because I have so many things to do at home and tiredness has started to catch up with me.

The last time I went, though, there were a few bean pods that I should probably be able to pick today if I manage to go, and many more plants of beans growing. Sweetcorn was 1 meter high, and the pumpkins expanding rapidly although no fruit was in sight.

Chillies are in flower and pushing out fruits, and I have already picked three humongous cucumbers, that actually have a flavour of their own, unlike the ones you usually find in shops. I also collected opium poppy seeds, the ones that you can use on bread - I will try and toast them and see how they turn out.

Hovering over the plot, numerous pollinators, with crickets busy on the ground and a lot of native ladybirds: it is a pleasure to take pictures and I am slowly updating the summer photo-album online.

My liqueur-making has been a bit disappointing as I am still in the process of learning dilution and dosage, but I have great hopes for the sage one, that I am going to bottle next. And I am still up for elderberry liqueur this week.

Shutting down my PC now, as I have 1,5kg damsons from the hedge to make into jam too.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Sage glut!

The next glut after soft fruit is going to be sage.

I have been talking about sage before, and provided a couple of recipes, not least my favourite one: sage focaccia (which I have just updated with the latest post-breadmaking course improvements).

I have found you can fry sage leaves in a batter to be used as starters (recipe in Italian here for my record, but you can search for English versions), which I will try some time. In the meantime what I tried is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's sage elixir which requires to dip 50gr sage leaves in 500ml eau de vie for 30 days before adding some syrup and bottling (my leaves in the pics, after a night in alcohol).

And I was absolutely determined to make some kind of jelly. Firstly, because I thought it might taste delicious. Secondly, to use up as many leaves as possible. Thirdly, to try my newly acquired jam-making kit (I got a maslin pan, straining funnel, sieve, thermometer and a set to pick sterilised jars out of boiling water, all from Lakeland).
Difficult to find a recipe without apples, but I did (thanks to Renee!), though I had to adapt the American units. Here's the modified recipe I used before I forget.

Sage jelly
  • 50 gr fresh sage leaves
  • 1000 ml water
  • 60 ml white wine vinegar
  • 1 kg organic granulated sugar
  • 1 sachet pectin powder (it may be too much, will know later)
Blanch the leaves in the water, crushing them in the pan while bringing it to the boil; leave for 10 secs then turn off the hob and leave for 15 min to infuse.
Strain the liquid, add the sugar and vinegar and bring to the boil. When you cannot stir down the boil, add the pectin (I have spooned it in 150 ml cold water to avoid clots) and bring to the hard boil again until it cannot be stirred down. Bottle in sterilised jars.

I have almost literally licked the pan clean... so I guess it will be ok, but I defer judgement to when it's set and ready. It must be gorgeous with cheese, or on bread and butter. And the jam-making kit made the operation much more seamless, happy with it!

Friday, 30 July 2010

Chillies flowering!

Finally the time has come when my chillies have put out the first bloom (which I read I should pluck out but have not dared yet). They are everywhere in the greenhouse, under cover outside, on the windowsill at home: will I manage to be self-sufficient?

In the meantime, salad and courgettes are filling my larder, while soft fruits are on the down.

I have a sad feeling that the summer is over, which probably comes of my exhaustion after a good three months of daily evening shifts at the allotment, mainly spent picking and watering.

Beans have just started to grow now, after a very slow start: if the weather keeps I might get some this year! Tomatoes are also in flower, and I have some cucumbers too. Gill's ground berries are happily growing in the greenhouse, grapes are taking shape and one-meter high sweetcorns are home to plenty of ladybirds (after a few weeks of harlequin-only sightings, the natives are back en masse).

Brassicas are as yet my biggest failure: cabbage, cime, kohl rabi, broccoli - all ended up in close to nothing.

-- Post From My iPhone

Sunday, 25 July 2010

More preserving

Yesterday I spent the day at home, preserving some more of the glut of soft fruits. I tried three recipes which I adapted a little (see below). I also tied up the garlic and hung it in the kitchen and plan to do the same with onions. Tonight I will make a bit more pesto with the basil, but for now I am off to the plot, as I have to sow sow sow before I run into a hungry gap.

Redcurrant liqueur

9oz/255g redcurrants, stripped from stems
9oz/255g brown sugar crystals
3 star anise
2 small pieces of fresh mint
1 ½ pints/750ml white rum

Put all the ingredients in a jar with a good seal. Shake every day for a fortnight, by which time the sugar should have dissolved completely. Strain into a bottle.

Raspberry icecream

568ml carton double cream
300ml whole milk
½ vanilla pod, split
6 large egg yolks
50g caster sugar (it could do with a bit more)
300g raspberries
Icing sugar to taste

Put the cream, milk and vanilla pod in a heavy-based pan and heat until just below boiling point. Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a bowl until thick and creamy. Remove the vanilla pod from the hot cream mixture. Pour the cream mixture on to the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the pan and heat very gently, stirring, until the custard thickens enough to lightly coat the back of a wooden spoon - this should take 10-12 minutes. Strain the custard into a clean bowl and leave to cool.
Meanwhile, purée the raspberries in a blender. Sieve to remove the pips. Cover and freeze overnight or until firm.

Redcurrant jelly

2 lb (900 g) redcurrants
2 lb (900 g) sugar 

As soon as the fruit is cooked (about 10 minutes), add the sugar, stir until absolutely dissolved, then bring the mixture up to a rapid boil, and boil for 8 minutes. Strain through a muslin or sieve and bottle hot.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Huge disappointment...

... as my precious rhododendron turns out to be after all a weed - how could I fall for it?
My horticulture text says some plants look different in their juvenile form from their mature one... the thing is that a juvenile plant would not flower and my seedlings has blossomed, shouting weed, weed!
Hope is not lost as there's several other seedlings that might turn out to be the real thing.

I've also however several seedlings to draught and am still struggling to find uses for excess soft fruits. I ate raspberries, froze raspberries, made raspberry jam, bottled raspberries and raspberry liqueur so far. However, I'm eating all my gooseberries raw, as I love it when they go slightly cloudy and taste vaguely of grapes. A lot of people that see me eating them do not seem to know they can taste fairly sweet.

Talking of grapes, there's a few bunches on the plants, including the new one I only bought this summer.

Today we finally hot some rain, so I will take the night off and go home straight, I am so tired.

P.S. I  have added a new "Summer at the allotment" picture album with seasonal crops, flowers and insects, and you can now access my allotment pictures from the link on the right.

-- Post From My iPhone

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Grow-my-own changing the way I cook

I cook every meal. I like big portions, but I have little time and patience, so what I usually do is to cook a quick, big pasta, or pizza or main course and veg (recently I have also started cooking more than I need for the meal, so that I can take it to the office and eat healthily in the process). Hassle-free.

However, given the size of my plot (and apart from soft fruits and some gluts) most other produce I get in moderate quantities, a bit at a time, which requires me to change the way I cook.
  1. Produce is fresh and needs to be eaten or processed quicker, because it goes off and because tomorrow there will be something else fresh ready to eat;
  2. I throw away much less, and make do of more, because I have much less and because of all the work that goes into it!
  3. My native stock of recipes does not necessarily cover the amount and types of veg/herbs that are available to me.
In this situation, which is surely better for the environment, my finances and surely my health, more creativity is required.

Last night, for example, I found myself with a punnet of tree spinach (Chenopodium giganteum), a single courgette Summer Ball, five or so courgette flowers, a handful of Thai basil (which smells of aniseed) and a bunch of sage. My main course was supposed to be sole (not that filling). How to use up so little and ill assorted veg?

I kept the sage (in a vase with water) for focaccia tonight, but worked out a set of quick recipes for the rest.

Quite elaborate in terms of amount of crockery and pottery they required, the recipes produced a good dinner which my husband liked (which is always a good thing, isn't it! :)). I blanched the spinach and served it plain with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Simply pan fried the sole, but accompanied it with a Thai basil pesto made by mixing the chopped leaves with some more oil. And then bulked up the courgette and flowers by making a small omelette. A bit more proteinic than we would normally eat, with the sole AND the omelette, but the different tastes did not clash, rather went reasonably well together.

Previously I had mostly used small quantities to make stir-fries, to be eaten on their own or as pasta sauce, but it was interesting to be a bit more adventurous for a change!
Now I just have to improve my dish arranging technique and my food photography skills! ;p

By the way, the tree spinach tasted more strongly than normal spinach and had a tougher and slightly rougher texture, which I liked, although it took ages to clean it as it was affected by black flies on the underside of leaves.

Monday, 12 July 2010


aJuly is the time of endless bounty of soft fruits. This year it was raspberry first, followed by gooseberry and redcurrant is just coming now.

Pound after pound of raspberry for dessert were getting a bit too much, so I have frozen some for later on (trick to keep them whole I discovered is to dry them thoroughly), but I have just a small freezer. Last night I tried a River Cottage recipe for bottling them with gin and syrup. It was very easy, quite rewarding.

It takes:
  • 1kg raspberries, firm just ripe
  • 150gr sugar
  • 750ml water
  • 100-150 ml gin, brandy or raspberry liqueur
Make the syrup by slowly bringing to the boil water and sugar, stirring to dissolve it. Keep warm.
Pack a sterilised jar full of raspberries, pour the alcohol and then fill with the syrup.
Put the jars in simmering pan at body temperature and bring to 88C simmering point over 20 mins, leaving to simmer for 2 mins

Will have to check that the lid is airtight, which is done when cool in 24 hours.
You know, I am really at the basics with sterilising jars and checking bottletops and airtight lids: still learning the difference between "Le Parfait" (with metal buckle, particularly difficult for me but the most common here in the UK it seems) and "Quattro Stagioni" (with screw lid) handling practice, and I am so scared of poisoning someone by mistake! I have so many questions, for example: is condensation ok? It could lead to moulds, but how do I prevent it? And if I close the lid when the jam is cooler, how do I get airtight?

I wish I had learnt from grandparents/aunties before those skills went mostly lost in the 70's. I wish I had been interested enough, for example, to learn how to bottle aubergines from my grandfather, who made delicious, spicy ones. Anyway... books should help, and I think it will be a good idea to take a preserving course - the one I did on breadmaking was such an eye-opener!

I also made gooseberry jam, but - same as last year - I added too much water so I had to cook it forever still to have it soft.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

The warmest, sunniest harvest day ever

It is the first time since I have had the allotment that I can pick onions and garlic and leave them in the sun to dry.

The crop is not massive, so it's unlikely I will be self-sufficient in garlic as I had planned. I must have left it too long in the ground, as the hardneck varieties started growing bulbils in the stems.

But the day was glorious: everything ripe, alive and buzzing.

I picked 7 pounds of gooseberry, the by now usual pound-worth punnet of raspberry, and a head of lettuce.

Also took pictures, which I will publish in my allottment album, in a new folder for the summer!

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Raspberries and foxes

4 pounds' raspberries in two days: that's a proper gluttony! My husband made a tasty sauce (with flour and vinegar) for our chicken tonight and I am trying to freeze some individually...

It took ages to pick them, and while I was inspecting the last few plants last nigh around 10 I saw the fox I had thought might be visiting the allotment: beautiful she is, and bold - she did not leave when I tried to scare her. But obviously we have a problem.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Waiting for the Eurostar...

... to go home and see what's happened to the allotment over four hot days without my care - hopefully we have had some rain in the night as forecasted, but i'm especially worried for the greenhouse. If they have not wilted, though, I would expect plants will have grown massively!

Speed of growth is certainly increasing. On Friday morning when I last was there, I picked a big punnet-full of raspberries and strawberries, all ripened over Thursday. Pity the strawberries are not doing too well this year, with taste ranging widely from foul to heavenly.

The last time I saw the plot someone had also trashed through my nettles, damaging some broadbeans in the process, which did make me really sad, adding to the depressing experience last week of damaging two trays of seedlings while reorganising the greenhouse around the vent that I hoped would prevent overheating while I was travelling.

On the other hand, with the positives, the new grape Phoenix that I bought at T&M's to expand my vine was bigger than expected, with flowers on it and seemed to take really well.

Some butterflies have started to appear too and I saw a small white and two admirals on Thursday.

-- Post From My iPhone

Monday, 28 June 2010

Strawberry spinach

Chenopodium capitatum, of the family of weed goosefoot and the seed quinoa, is a pretty little plant that produces edible leaves (to be eaten as spinach - cooked, or raw but in moderation) and red berries at each leaf node, which American Indians used as a dye, and when ripe should taste like wild strawberries.

I have tested the leaves, which bulked up my salad for work very nicely and look forward to try the berries!

-- Post From My iPhone

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

GO experiments update

The salad cardboard collars are regaining ground as slugs have annihilated one unprotected head.

Tree spinach have got leafminers, though.


Although I had to spend the last two evenings behind a watering hose (which you know I hate) the heat has pushed all the crops and last night I had salad made with my own strawberry spinach and broadbeans, followed by a handful of sift fruits.

Oh the joys of reaping...

-- Post From My iPhone

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

How I came to make elderflower cordial

Wood pigeons like to land on the gooseberry bush, all staked and netted as it is, in search of fruit, but they only manage to break branches and make all the berries fall on the ground. I recovered a good bowl-full, but they are too hard to eat yet and too few for jam-making, so I thought I would cook them somehow, and like I discovered last year, elderflower cordial is an ingredient in most of the recipes... so I set about making some.

I made some last year too and I enjoyed drinking it over the summer.

There's plenty of recipes out there, with roughly the same ingredients but in wildly differing quantities: difficult to decide which is best, especially with regards to the use of chemical preservatives: citric acid use varies from 2 tsp to 75 g!

I have decided to try a variation on the BBC's recipe as follows:

  • elderflower heads
  • 500 g organic caster sugar
  • 1 unwaxed orange
  • 1,5 unwaxed lemons
  • 1,5 l boiling water
  • 50 g citric acid
I have not tasted it yet but it has been infusing for a day and smell deliciously citrussy, maybe a bit too much for an elderflower concoction...

PS Argh it IS DEFINITELY too citrussy, and not quite enough sugar! Why didn't I use last year's recipe in the first place?!?

PPS doubling the sugar and halving the citric acid does the trick
-- Post From My iPhone

Monday, 21 June 2010

I can't believe...

... I did forget all about borage's use! It is true that at the time when I was writing about it last year my mind was set on my degree, still... Borage can be used in salads and stir fries, and I have been pulling it, because it was taking over the asparagus bed!

I will try some tonight: all the plant outside the soil is edible: stems (fried in batter in Spain), leaves and flowers!

I might find it as exciting to use as I did mint: I am now making mint tea every day - dried & fresh leaves make a slightly different taste, both fresh and naturally sweet, though!

-- Post From My iPhone

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Guess the plant!

Guess what the seedling is...

a clue: it started off as the seed leaves you can see in the background.

Another clue in the next picture: does the minute husk-like fleck remind you of anything I wrote recently?

Friday, 18 June 2010

Broadbeans and rhododendrons

After a couple of handfuls of rocket over the last few weeks and three or four asparagus spears, last night I picked the first decent crop of the year: my broadbeans (you can see the lovely flowers and how they looked last week)! They are still smallish, but enough to make a lovely pasta sauce.

I also harvested mint, sage and oregano as their flavour is best before flowering, and flower buds are just forming.

Pity it is impossible to reproduce the exhilarating bouquet of scents and the amazing variety of textures and shades of green.

While veg start cropping outside, inside the greenhouse something magical is underway.

A step back. I sort of like rhododendrons, pretty stunning colours if you manage to grow and keep them alive. Not generally overexcited about them though.

This spring, however, having a walk alongside a garden, I was struck by the most delicious sweet fragrance, which came from white rhododendron flowers, the slightest tinge of pink to the ample petals. Something possessed me and I wanted the plant, at all costs! If that is the instinct that drove botanist explorers to carry over plant specimens from any corner of the world I understand it: it was pretty powerful...

However, I would never consciously damage a plant, particularly someone else's. On some of the branches I could see a few remaining bunches of old, empty and dried seedpods. No harm done if I pick a couple, surely? I did it with very little hope. Their time was long gone.

Once home, a few husk-like flecks came out of the pods' folds. The flecks were minuscule, they could at best be underdeveloped leftovers from proper seeds. No image online of rhododendron's seeds to compare them to. Only very discouraging instructions on how to grow rhododendrons from seed.

Still under the spell of that plant's beauty, I decided to sow anyway.

One seedling came out. Minuscule. I thought weed but nurtured it anyway, just in case. More tiny, wormlike seedlings. Now I think that's the genuine article.

With a bit of luck, a few years down the line I will find out that one of them looks and smells like "mum".

-- Post From My iPhone

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

What I won't do for my veg...

Last night I arrived on the plot with the mission to sow some more seeds, as I do not have much time to get the next generation of veg ready to plant out.

However, on opening the shed I realised I had no working clothes! Going home and back was out of the question: too tired I would have succumbed to the lure of the sofa... so I looked around for inspiration... and decided to don a bin bag!

Not quite the style, but I was sitting in the greenhouse so no shocked neighbours either :)

And, though not comfortable, it was worthwhile: I sowed salad, brassicas, beans and peas of several species besides carrots.

I hope to get better results especially with brassica by not sowing directly in the ground. Time will tell.

-- Post From My iPhone

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Garden Organic experiments

I had not been at the allotment for a couple of days and I should know how it works by now: rain and warmish weather are good! Still I was surprised but how fast vegetation is growing. Especially weeds. But I found another sage seedling, and a bronze fennel one. I wish I could express the joy that stirred in me, despite the miserable greyness of the sky and the drizzle.

Not going so well for my Garden Organic experiments. As I have mentioned already, I enrolled in 3 of them.
  1. Monitoring butterflies at the allotment - I was lucky if I saw five in the last couple of months. And a couple of moths. Pretty much depressing.
  2. Trying tree spinach as a crop. Germination was very staggered, to the point that the earliest plants are now out and some 20cm tall while the latest are still tiny seedlings. And not growing very fast, but steady. Not so depressing.
  3. Growing lettuce under protection of a supposedly anti-slug cardboard collar. The lettuce is growing healthily and slugs and snails have not been very active this season. However, while the collars seemed to have a marginal effect at the seedling stage (only 1 non protected lettuce was slightly damaged), now that the leaves have outgrown the cardbord I found a slug on a protected lettuce - damage would have come to very much the same extent as a non protected lettuce if I had not picked the slimy creature and squashed in the usual manner.
I have taken more pictures of the allotment as it comes into its own, and will shortly post them to the Flickr set "Allotment in spring".

P.S. GO experiments photos now available on Flickr 

Friday, 4 June 2010

Ghost of previous crops...

My potato picking technique must be rubbish. Either that or potato is such a terrible weed that it is difficult to imagine how famine may ever have occured. Or both. This I say because I have potato shoots sprouting up everywhere, among strawberries, broadbeans, garlic and even cardoon, in the greenhouse and outside.

I also found a tomato seedling among the artichokes, though, which is much of a rarer find, and makes me happier. And my bronze fennel has self seeded, together with the sage, adding to my evergrowing collection of past crops' persisters: strawberries, raspberries, borage, onions, leeks and all. It's like previous crops have left a ghost behind!

Everything is growing everywhere, which is not tidy, but I am sure insects like it: we have a lot of tiny bumblebees and I have seen the biggest native ladybird ever. No butterflies, though.

A flurry of activity, at this time of the year with sowing, planting out and potting on , and a few "earlies" are starting to appear: a couple of strawberries, some rocket... but still no main crops.

-- Post From My iPhone

Monday, 31 May 2010

Finding a use for mint

Mint is invasive. But it is a pretty plant, and smells good. So I have plenty of mint. And I have been happy to give it away to whoever might be interested, for their Pimm's.

Mint can also be used to cook lamb, but I do not like it much that way. As I had to pull some this weekend I decided to find some other way to use it, and in the meantime learnt more about the herb.

There are two main types of mint: spearmint (Mentha spicata L.) and peppermint (a hybrid of spearmint and watermint, Mentha x piperita). You can recognise them as spearmint is sessile (without leaf petiole or stalk) and flower cluster are more pointed than peppermint's, whose leaves stand on a stalk. Flavour in the two mints is different because it comes from different substances, with the more peppery peppermint's coming from better known menthol.

Mint's qualities are claimed to be several: fungicide, insecticide, antioxidant, deodorant, refreshing and so on. A recent research seems to have claimed that spearmint tea drank twice a day may even reduce mild hirsutism in women!

With my excess mint I have decided to make icecream and followed a rather rich Waitrose' recipe. It's delicious!

P.S. I have tried making mint tea by just pouring boiling water on three/four dried leaves from last year, and letting it brew. Tasty and refreshing.

P.P.S. My current mint is all spearmint, but a friend has just given me a peppermint cutting, so I will be experimenting with that soon!

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Do not kill the slug predators!

After two years and a half on the allotment I have just realised in a frightening eureka moment that I have been killing my best friends: ground beetle larvae - notorious slug predators - because I was not sure whether they might be chafer grubs. Well, they are not! How could I be so silly?!?

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Ruby tiger and pea weevil

As I was digging a little space for my courgettes & pumpkins I found a lovely moth that I had never seen before and goes by the intriguing name "ruby tiger" (Phragmatobia fuliginosa). It was very friendly indeed, climbing on my glove to be moved away, and I discovered later that my patch must be its ideal habitat, as it feeds on dock and dandelion, both of which are plentiful; it is quite strange I never saw the hairy caterpillar before!

Unfortunately I did not have a camera with me; luckily it was a prettiy conspicuous and unique moth whose image is easily available online.

Through a picture of mine, on the other hand, I identified the tiny pest that has chomped on my broadbean's leaves: the rather prosaically named pea (leaf) weevil (Sitona lineatus) it was! Golden brown and rigged, I have not found an organic control method yet. Anyone has a suggestion? It looks like larvae feed on the nitrogen-fixing nodules on the roots, thus reducing crops...

-- Post From My iPhone

Monday, 24 May 2010

Sowing and potting on

Like a good girl, I am weeding, sowing and potting on, as I have decided that if I wanted to meet my target of being self-sufficient in chillies I have to do things by the book and I have put to good use all the little plastic pots that I collected over the years.

Also started the "allotment in spring" set of pictures in Flickr I had mentioned, but it is still unlabelled and incomplete; as you all know time flies, but I would like to show the progress of the different plants over the season, as it is amazing...
Talking of which, the heat of the last couple of days has set off photosynthesis and today I found an asparagus that was one meter long, the sweetcorn has grown from 0 to 20 tip to toe in one day and there are little grapes on the vines! A-ma-zing!

My Garden Organic experiments are also doing fine, hope I have time for some decent post in the next few days.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Badger, badger, badger... mushroom!

There is an online Flash video that my husband used to find amusing, and that I was reminded of last night when I thought back at what had happened. The relentless pace of the season's rhythms, and the sudden, unexpected (both good and bad, although it feels mostly bad) popping up here & there when you deal with nature.

A bit annoyed that I lost in the ether the post on mushrooms I was writing on the train, but still glowing with the success of my new crop, I arrived at the allotment last night and had an exchange of pleasantries with Paul.

One step back. On Monday I had picked my first four mushrooms: an easy crop this time round, I was already planning to grow more at home in the garden, as allotment space is running out, even though the space/yield ratio for mushroom is excellent - unlike asparagus, as I was writing in my lost post. Eureka! Now that I am writing about it again, I have had a great idea: could grow them on top of the beasties' hotel, behind the shed!

Anyway, back to last night, I come to the plot and HORROR! The asparagus bed was smashed to pieces and trampled on. I got duly upset, as I do nowadays with any act of pointless aggression. The rat cage was thrown on the path. My boundary line on the other side of the bed had snapped. No other damage around, I checked with Paul as well. First thing, I thought: humans, but there is a possibility it might have been an animal, trying to open the cage to get at the bait, and going on a rampage in the process. However, damage is so localised that it seems unlikely, unless the animal was very intelligent and careful, taking the cage from the top of the allotment, dragging it halfway through it without leaving any traces, just to go berserk on my asparagus bed. However, some digging of the soil suggested animal. Badger, fox, dog, cat?!?

Not happy with cats either this week, as neighbour's has taken to sitting next to my pond at home, with the result that all the damselflies and frogs have disappeared suddenly. I sincerely hope they were not harassed and killed...

Anyway, I pulled together, fixed what could be fixed, and proceeded to dig up some space for the sweetcorn, which must be planted in blocks rather than lines as it is wind-pollinated, and clustering is useful to get the pollen from the tassels falling onto the silks.

In the process of digging, I found two sage seedlings, self-seeded: a nice surprise, the first happy note of the evening.

-- Post From My iPhone

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Discount the weatherman's word at your peril

If I thought it was time to store away the March & April sowing seeds I was in for a surprise.

Arriving at the allotment yeasterday I saw the leaves of some self- seeded potatoes were dark green, dehydrated and flat on the ground: my brain started computing on such new evidence: herbicide maybe? A disease? Yesterday everything was ok! Only when I saw the tomatoes the reality dawned upon me: frost!

I had no idea that just one night of low temperatures could kill my plants in the tent, just because I left the flap open. Some smaller seedlings seem to have come out better than the bigger plants. The beans in the open went as well but the peas are ok. And the basil in the greenhouse also looks a bit damaged.

Let's get sowing all over again (it's my fault, I was actually less disappointed than when slugs ate all my seedlings).

-- Post From My iPhone

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Pond life news

The damselflies are out (although I found 2 dead in the water and only one drying out on a grass blade - it must be a very delicate phase emerging from the nymph body) and there are tadpoles some 2 cm long!

By the end of the day I found four damselflies alive, at different stages of drying up (not the scientific term, that one! ;)). Here is two of them: just out of the pupa and the complete item!

Sorry, no tadpoles pics came out decent enough.

I know I said...

... that I am in desperate need of a massive sowing session, but instead I spent my time today clearing out weeds and any overgrown grass, so that the allotment looks spotless. I haven't even had time to plant my newly arrived organic plants (the ones I ordered when I decided to support organic growers more).

So, nothing particularly exciting to say today; however, I thought I would pick up some loose ends in this post:
  • the ducks have not been seen for a while. Some of us do miss them, some others I'm sure are pretty happy. I am still divided on their usefulness v potential risks. What is certain is that soon after the mating episode they stopped visiting my pond (maybe it's the fact that I planted some water crowfoot), although they spent some time on someone's plastic sheeting after that. The last time I saw a male alone, he landed on the main path and - very dignified - he walked away, out of the site, through the gate.
  • cropwise, as I said yesterday the celery is gone, but the tomatoes, strawberry spinach and the artichokes I planted out are ok. Peas and beans are doing fine and today I picked my first radishes, which went to add some piquancy to a carrot salad. Rhubarb is also growing, and I picked my third batch: 400gr, not bad at all. However, the agretti were unfortunately just a mirage: no sign whatsoever of any growing. My brassicas, the ones that Jean said would never grow, did not grow much, but are preparing to bolt, so they put on a bit of weight: I will pick them before it's too late but at least will have enough to make a stir-fry. The cardoons are growing healthily, after a slow recovery.
  • one of the elders, chopped down roughly, has recovered and is bearing flowers now. Still two tree stumps in the path (with me still getting rid of branches in the path as they grow), and nobody has taken up the plot yet: that bit of land has been without "practising" owners for most of the time I've been there now, but the (now-ex) allotment rep said the council is on the case.
  • I have sown the Garden Organic experiments 10 days ago and the lettuce is almost ready to plant out. There are seedlings in the tree spinach tray but I am not sure it is the tree spinach - sometimes some tiny weeds manage to grow in the trays as well. I have not seen any butterflies though after my report and similar viewing the weekend after that. 
I was sure I had written of clearing the herbs bed and how I had decided to split the bronze fennel root clump as it was too big, realising soon afterwards that I shouldn't have. However, it seems one at least of the transplants has survived, and the original plant is growing nicely. I also seemed to remember telling you about the wasp that wanted to nest in my greenhouse, but that too was only in my mind. Anyway, it seems I have managed to distract her by taking away her half-built nest when she was not there (she kept coming back, looking for it on the ground and around, but luckily I had thrown it out altogether) and replacing it with a piece of cardboard egg box (I hoped she would think it was someone else's nest). She did not come back.

That's enough for today.
I am planning to do a spring photo special as I did with the frost one, as soon as I have a little bit more time.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Celery RIP in the midst of lush growth

I am back after a week or so and all the celery that I planted out is gone, all but one (ONE) seedling - no remains whatsoever so it was slugs, the mean slimy creatures - regret saying that their activity was less than usual... I have also lost all my tomatillos in the greenhouse to some or other hungry invertebrate, but all the rest was fine - thanks mainly to Carol who offered to keep an eye on them.

Outside, the growth was generally lush - including the weeds - with gooseberries and currants well under development; strawberries, blueberries and broad beans in flower, my first ever radishes ready and I also got the first vestiges of mushrooms!!!

A major sowing session is required to catch up now.

By the way, I renew my offer for borage seedlings and raspberry shoots if anyone is interested. I also have some periwinkle Vinca major, mint, hazels, a little maple, St John's wort, rosemary and tiny beech all grown from seed or cuttings and all looking for a welcoming home.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Planting out

As I am not very good at potting on, and I have a bit of time pressure, I went for the planting out option.

I started with celery, possibly the tiniest seedlings. It feels like yesterday that I was doing this before, but it is actually over a year: it did work - except that I got a ridiculous crop from leaving the celery thirsty over the summer - then I left it in the soil over winter as I had no time to pick it... but three plants are still alive now so I will give it another go.

Transplanting tens of tiny celery seedlings gives you plenty of time for thinking (I think it took me a good couple of hours) - read: it is quite boring, so to make it more interesting, I mentally registered all the steps to write about it. Here you go, my...

Step by step planting out process

Seedlings are ready to transplant when the first couple of true leaves are out; these may come after the cotyledons or seed leaves, which in several species is the first pair to emerge out of the compost (they look different from the others). Celery was ready.

I waited until later in the afternoon as the sun was too strong and I would have risked wilting and/or scorching. Overcast days are said to be best, but I usually do it in the early evenings (because that's when I am around). This is not ideal, however, I suppose because overnight the plants do not do photosynthesis, which by and large is the main way water moves through the plant. Moreover, you unnecessarily expose your seedlings to slugs. Anyway, the pre-transplant soak seems to sort them, and I use a little ferric phosphate for the slugs - which incidentally seem to have been less active lately (I hope I will not come to regret saying this :)).

When the sky got hazed, I first did something that might sound obvious but that I have forgotten endless times: give a good soak to the seedlings and let them absorb the water: it is stressful enough to go through a change of temperature and soil - possibly after some bruising of your tiny stem and leaves and with some of your roots ripped - without being starved for water.

I grow my seedlings in cardboard punnets, easy to rip apart to get to the block of compost from which delicately to extract the seedlings - possibly without even touching them, just handling the compost around the roots. However when that does not work, I pick seedlings by the leaves - I read one should leave the stem alone.

Having digged some trenches at a suitable depth and distance from each other (the seed packet often specifies), I planted the seedlings with as much as possible of the original compost and pushed the soil around them.

Then, I re-writed the label in felt pen (they tend to discolour and I forget which species I have grown in a particular place!), and with my watering can with a fine rose I watered around the seedlings: any one seedling that was knocked down or sideways needed the soil firmed around them. Roots absorb both oxigen and water from the soil - compaction and waterlogging prevent them to breathe, but air pockets may cause them to dry out as there is no contact between the soil water and the root hairs in charge of absorption.

I finished by covering with fleece, to minimise temperature variation from the greenhouse and to prevent direct sun that might scorch them at this stage.

Finger crossed, and I will now keep an eye on them for the next few days. I have overplanted anyway, so if any casualty occurs, I should feel it less painfully.

P.S. Warning - I read that same night that the potting on process and gradually hardening off the new plants - by putting them out in the day, not in direct sun, and bringing them back in at night - ensures they keep the head start you gave them by sowing in the greenhouse environment. Planting out too early can stunt growth - apparently some seedlings don't recover until as late as July! Anyway, I do the best I can given my circumstances...

Friday, 23 April 2010

Nettles and summer

Fancy nettles being all the rage this year! There is a special on the May issue of Gardener's World, saying that they are not only useful for attracting ladybirds but also to distract caterpillars of several butterflies from your plants, besides being a nutritious food, a compost heap starter and an effective soil test (some of the reflections were already published in a blog post from 2008).

The other night I got the first midge bite of the year, on my head as usual: it's summer!

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Weeds and Friar's Beards

I was pulling weeds here and there - a lot of grass tufts around - wondering why my barba di frate never got to come out (ok that it is a low germination seed, but...) when I realised that what I was pulling might well not have been a tiny tiny tuft of grass but actually the elusive agretti! In fact it was tinier than grass usually is when it emerges, so watch this space...

Most seedlings are out now

Suddenly al the seedlings are coming out together: this is the most difficult stage for me as I am not too good at potting on - a very delicate phase, with a lot of pressure to find suitable space.

I have prepared the greenhouses for the chillies already, and the tomatoes that I transplanted straight from the seedtrays to the ground under a tent seem to be doing fine. The cardoons that I planted out to save from slug & snails look on the mend as well.

Strawberries, redcurrant, gooseberry and blackcurrant are flowering. I wish someone got the shoots and self-seeded soft-fruits off me before they die in the small pots. I also have borage seedlings and plenty of mint that I could give away.

As I really loved the soup the other night, before leaving I decided to try some more nettles: you are only supposed to pick them while they are young in spring - which is now. It was already darkish, and an odd, gloomy feeling took hold of me, as if I was in the process of stealing, much as little Eliza must have felt in the childrens' story "The Wild Swans" by H.C. Andersen.

Anyway, I decided to make an omelette this time. It was lovely and I have some leftover for lunch today. For the recipe, I proceeded as per the soup until just before the flour/milk/stock step and added a sprinkle of white wine instead. I then whisked 6 eggs with some parmesan and mixed it with the wilted nettles straight in a pan, where I had heated some e.v. olive oil.
Another recipe I found suggested to chop the nettles finely and add them raw to the batter instead.

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