"Gardening makes my heart bloom" -- mum

"The hardest thing of all is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat." -- Confucius

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Artichoke - not guilty Your Honour

Would you sue a restaurant because you've ingested a whole artichoke?  I came across this story whilst reading a Roll On Friday newsletter yesterday.  Lets hope common sense will prevail.

Frost covered Violetta di Chioggia
Artichokes were alien vegetables to me when I first set eyes on them in Australia.  I had no clue on how to cook or eat one.  My first tasting was of the canned and vinegared version which put me off for the next 10 years.  Then, three years ago, I was introduced to the real thing: bought fresh from a Greek greengrocers in North London, trimmed and served raw with a bit of olive oil - heaven!  Even the stems tasted delicious.
Winter garden installation -
what will the neighbours think?
I tried growing artichokes in the spring of 2009.  It was a dismal failure.  All four plants melted into a clump of mush within days of arriving from a mail order nursery.  Perhaps clay soil is not conducive to the health of these sun-loving mediterranean plants? 

This summer, I spotted some magnificent specimens growing in a friend's garden and was chuffed to bits when, a week later, he gifted me with two Violetta di Chioggia.  Yep, he also gave me that aubergine plant.

I planted these on both sides of the garden to maximise the chances of at least one surviving.  They became total aphid and ant magnets all through summer and autumn, resulting in stunted growth.  Then quite suddenly it seemed, when I wasn't looking, they took off, sprouting large healthy leaves.

Sitting snug under it's very own garden chair

Two nights ago, I got a bit worried about frost killing off my 'experimental' artichokes, so I did a bit of research and found some great posts in Toad's Garden's interesting blog.  The next morning the entire garden was covered in a sheet of white frost.

Not being able to lay my hands on any clear glass or plastic covering at short notice, I sat plastic chairs over the plants. Hopefully this will protect the heart of the plant from icing over. Will they survive the winter?  We shall see.

Maybe I'll grow some from seed next year.....

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

Squash Uchiki Kuri

Early autumn - Munchkins
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

From John Keats' poem, To Autumn, 1820

Squash Rolet, ready for harvest

 Miniature pumpkin Munchkin
This is a year of many firsts in the garden.  Some of these were pumpkins, squashes and ball-shaped courgettes.
Squash Patty-pan
I had developed an inexplicable fascination with cucurbita fruit and although space was at a premium, I managed to tuck a couple of small sized species amongst the beans and sweetcorn.
Young Uchiki Kuri in
a bright lemon shade
Germinated under makeshift cloches outdoors, the seedlings burst forth without fuss and were soon scrambling up teepees, weaving through the broccoli greens and finally spilling onto the footpath to soak up the sun.

My favourite is the red Uchiki Kuri squash. The robust seedling I had raised from seed was attacked by slugs to a stump but miraculously survived. It sat in a state of shock for a week or so, then started producing secondary vines. 

There's nothing more exciting than spotting a tiny baby squash (or pumpkin) after weeks of expectant watchfulness.
Two weeks later, it turned to a lovely orange hue
These furry babies appeared in quick succession, one, two, three, along the vine, all looking very perky and pleased with themselves.

Two fell off eventually, leaving one which turned from a lovely yellow to a rich vermilion hue.  It sat in the garden for weeks on end brightening up one end of the footpath and now sits in a platter of cucurbits in the living room - I don't think I could bear to eat it!
Courgette Tondo Chiaro di Nizza (left)
- very sweet and juicy

Thankfully I didn't feel the same about the others so they were stuffed with rice, meat, herbs and then baked. 
Stuffed and ready for the oven

Friday, 19 November 2010

Friends of the garden

The garden was abuzz with all sorts of wonderful insects this year.  After such a harsh winter, I wanted to 'grow' lots of pollen and nectar primarily for the bees (as well as seeds for the birds).  The garden already had an established California lilac, a honeysuckle and an overhanging buddleia from next door.  To these I added chives, thyme, calendulas, borage, nasturtiums, lavender and sunflowers, planted alongside vegetables and fruiting plants.  'Weeds' such as celandines, daisies and dandelions were allowed to grow and multiply with reckless abandon to provide food for our garden heroes.
I had never encountered bumblebees until I came to this country.  They were mesmerising and demanded instant attention with their noisy arrival to claim the garden's airspace.  Showy, dizzy, clumsy, cute little furry blimps....how do they manage to stay airborne?  How?  Everytime I had seen one, I half expected him/her to crash drunkenly into the shrubbery....then I found this great series of short video clips produced by the BBC, check out Impossible Flight.  If you have time, watch musicians play Flight of the Bumblebee on this YouTube clip (7 pianos)...and this (trumpet)...and this (percussion) and finally this (iPad)!
White-tailed bumblebee
Red-tailed Queen bumblebee

Ladybirds are my favourite beetles.  They are considered by some as a harbinger of love, good luck and good fortune.  I am just so glad that they have taken up residence in the garden.  They were the first insects to come out of hibernation this year, tumbling out of the patio umbrella to stretch their little legs and wings.  That umbrella is never going to be moved into the shed again!
A wonderful surprise from within the patio umbrella 
Ladybird larvae: a most welcome sight anywhere.....though I must admit to wanting to swat this ferocious looking creature the first time I laid eyes on it.  Luckily, I left it alone, made some identification and was then able to welcome hordes more which were hatching all over the aphid infested honeysuckle.
Ladybird larvae

Hoverflies were everywhere from mid-spring to mid-autumn, busily feasting on the nectar and pollen of plants such as calendulas and borage grown to attract them.  Still, I had trouble telling the difference between hoverflies and wasps.  A quick research on the internet gave me my answer: hoverflies HOVER over the same spot (hence the name - duh!), wasps don't.
Hoverfly feasting on a calendula

Borage heaven

I'm not a great fan of spiders but I know they are an essential part of the eco-system.  As a child, I used to be frozen to the spot in terror at the sight of one.  Later on, living in Australia, the land of the deadliest spiders and snakes, I did my utmost to avoid spiders.  My last encounter was with the Redback Spider in Perth.  I rented a lovely old house surrounded by trees and bushes but soon enough Redbacks were dropping from the ceiling, everywhere!  Read this Metro article about Redbacks arriving in the UK. 
Can anyone identify this spider?
I am so glad that British spiders are harmless. Today, they weave their webs all over the garden with my blessing. I am now brave enough to relocate spiders out of the house without breaking into a cold sweat!

Fab location to catch insects - this web was spun
between raspberry canes.
Common Garden Spider

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Blackberry and Apple Butter

What does one do when one's freezer is full?  Make jam!  Out of the bottom drawer came 2 kilograms of 'wild' blackberries picked from the back garden last summer. 

These were exuberant and unforgivingly thorny plants which seemed to thrive on pickaxe type clay soil in the summer.  I was very glad to dig these up to make way for vegetables which do not bite at harvest time!
The recipe for this came from a recently published book, The RHS Allotment Journal by Mitchell Beazley which I had come across at the Shoe Lane Library (you've gotta love the name!).  The ingredients: 1kg blackberries, 1kg apples, 1.75kg sugar, 125ml lemon juice and 300ml water.  

Here's how my jam evolved into butter.....

Peel and core two large Bramley apples, these weighed about 1.8 kilograms.
Cover with water and simmer for about 10 minutes to a fluffy consistency.
These blackberries were rinsed a couple of times and left to defrost.
After half an hour, cook these on the lowest heat until soft enough to press through a sieve.
The softened blackberries were sieved directly over the apple pulp.
Press, scrape, press, scrape, press, scrape: slow cooking at its most mind-numbing....unless someone could put a spin on its meditative qualities!  Out of 2 kilograms of blackberries, 500 grams of seeds were eventually extracted.
Here, one was supposed to add a 1:1 sugar to fruit ratio.  I reckoned I ended up with 3 kilograms worth of pulp.  I could only find three 500 grams bags of organic demerera sugar in the pantry, so I figured this would do the trick, plus the blackberries were very sweet.  I added the rind of one large unwaxed lemon and the juice from two lemons, approximately 200 milligrams.
Thought I'd try out this newfangled jam thermometer but things got complicated when the blasted needle hovered forever at 100°C (we all know setting point is at 105°C).  Then after about 15 minutes, the needle started dropping even though the jam was boiling merrily away!?  At this point I reverted to the freezer spoon n plate method which is possibly the most effective after all.
Mmmmm I could dive into this purple black heaven!  After spooning this luscious jam into eight mid-sized jars, I spotted the third 500 gram bag of sugar which I had forgotten to add to the pot.  OMG, the ratio was actually 3:1!  I googled for some answers and found a most enlightening article on the Allotment Vegetable Growing website - I've unwittingly created fruit butter instead of jam.
Butter or jam, the end product is my summer of 2009 bottled and waiting to be savoured on wintry mornings.  The taste is reminiscent of sun-warmed berries with the occasional burst of citrus from the slivers of lemon rind.  Perhaps I'll introduce a thornless variety to the garden next year......maybe a loganberry.....or a tayberry.....or even a sunberry. 

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Tomato harvest

Tomato growing was one of my most exciting projects this summer.  Having tried planting tomato seeds many times in the tropics as a child and watching the seedlings flop over at about 3 inches high, I had never attempted growing this fruit again until now.

Early this year, whilst unpacking some boxes, I found a packet of unopened heritage tomato seeds from Diggers Club Australia.  It had been in a box for three years but I thought I would stick some in compost to see if they would germinate. 

It was a lottery as there were eight types of 'heirloom' varieties in the packet.  Amazingly, every single seed germinated.
I tucked some amongst the calendulas as I've read that these plants would help to repel pests.  Others were grown next to the sweetcorn further down the garden and one was planted in a pot. 

It was exciting, watching and waiting, not knowing what variety each plant was going to be until later in the season.

In the end, one tomato plant grew into a bush variety called 'Brown Berry'.  The fruits were juicy and very sweet.  I'd definitely grow more of these next year.
Brown Berry amongst the calendulas
Another plant turned out to be a vigorous growing Grosse Lisse with big potato leaves.  The fruits grew so large and heavy that the entire plant, even with stakes, eventually collapsed onto the calendulas and pea plants behind it.  Stronger stakes next year!
Grosse Lisse in early summer
Four fruits were left after pinching out
Mid-summer after rain
Early autumn
The rest were mid-sized plants which I 'stopped' at 2-3 feet high.  The fruits were elongated with light green streaks but as they ripened, the lot turned to a lovely yellow colour.  It was quite a mystery at first why one yellow fruit would taste so different from another yellow fruit.  After some 'Googling' the penny dropped:  they are two different varieties, Cream Sausage and Banana Legs!

Banana Legs ripening in late summer
Both varieties were prolific and very showy.  The Banana Legs tomatoes thrived in the ground as well as in a pot on the warm patio, the fruit turning into a beautiful canary yellow which remained hanging on the plant like big pendulous baubles until harvested.  The fruit is meaty with a very subtle flavour.  Apparently yellow tomatoes have less acidity and this variety definitely fits the bill.
Pot grown Banana Legs in early autumn
The Cream Sausage tomatoes are, true to their name, a light creamy yellow when ripe.  They are juicy, full of flavour and great for salads.   They grew very well in clay soil and required additional staking when the fruits got bigger.  Due to its thin skin, this variety is favoured by slugs and snails and must be kept off the ground! 

Cream Sausage ripening in mid-summer
The last tomatoes were picked today and none had suffered from blight.  Was it beginner's luck, companion planting with calendulas or wind direction?
Grosse Lisse, Banana Legs and Cream Sausage tomatoes

All in all, a very worthwhile effort and a very tomatoey summer was had by all!  

Brown Berry and Banana Legs tomatoes