The events of this time last year seem a long time ago now, but the house didn’t sell and when I left to go to Kent I left my garden behind, untended. The house has to sell this year, and I will have to move on, and so I am dismantling the garden.
A lot of the my favourite plants have already left, and are being looked after by my parents. But they don’t have room for everything (and some of my choices don’t fit my mum’s garden aesthetic) and so I thought many of them would have to be grubbed up and composted. Indeed, I spent a lot of last week pulling up the wild strawberry ground cover, which has worked really well.
I have started removing the concrete blocks that made up the raised beds, and stacking them to one side. My neighbour wants them as foundations for his new shed, so he will be collecting them when I’ve had a chance to move a few more (they weigh around 12kg each – I can’t shift them all in one go!).
As I go along, I am dealing with the plants that lived in the holes. Some are saved, some sent for composting. Of the miscellaneous mints, I have saved two nice spearmint specimens and the apple mint (I also have a non-culinary buddleia mint, which is in a pot). I am saving all of the saffron corms, which have bulked up nicely:
I have filled two big tubs, with more saffron plants to go…. Mum wants some, but the rest will find new homes.
From the bed itself, I have saved two self-seeded Buckler-leafed sorrels and some of the wild strawberries. I had red and white varieties; I need to wait and see some fruit before I know whether I’ve managed to save one or both!
I have no idea whether they will take, but I have struck some cuttings from the grape vine:
I took some once before, but at the other end of the year. They worked very well, although I never got around to potting them up and so they eventually died.
From elsewhere in the garden I have potted up my violet, and a rooting section of Rubus tricolor, which has been MIA at the bottom of the garden, hidden under brambles and other weeds.
For over a year now, the garden has not been a happy place – thinking about what would have to be left behind made me sad. But I have some exciting news, which is that I am getting an allotment. I am waiting to hear which plot will be mine, but I should be able to get started next week. So the garden is a happy place once more, because I can pot up and save far more plants than I had originally envisaged :)
The self-seeded elder will have to stay, but as it is just coming in to bud I may be able to harvest some flowers before I leave!
Posted in Blog on May 25, 2013 · ∞
Well, I haven’t been to Chelsea (again) this year, but I have been to Ikea, which has got to be the next best thing ;)
In fact, they have quite a range of GYO products this year, including some funky fabric planters, grow kits, tomato plants and the occasional Calamondin orange.
They’ve bought into the living wall trend as well:
If you’d like to create your own version, it uses the GRUNDTAL containers.
I hear that edibles have been a big feature of Chelsea this year (that, and gnomes), so here are some nice photos from my (show, ha ha!) garden:
I have been doing a lot of work in the garden, so the next blog post will be an update….
Posted in Blog on May 22, 2013 · ∞
The Weeder’s Digest, by Gail Harland, is subtitled “Identifying and enjoying edible weeds” – which gives you a much clearer picture of the contents, since it isn’t a diary about weeding.
The book is divided into two parts. The first is pretty routine, covering the standard ground of the various definitions of a ‘weed’, how they spread, how to keep them under control, and the importance of knowing that some plants are poisonous. I think the first section should have been an appendix (if it needed to be included at all – books about weeding are ten a penny) – it doesn’t sit very well with the second section.
The second section is far more interesting, as it’s an A-Z listing of the most common edible weeds and wild plants. Each plant is listed under its common name, but that’s backed up by its scientific species name, and commonly used synonyms. There’s a picture, and some notes about habitat and appearance that help you identify the plant (although this is not a field guide for foragers).
The most interesting information is the section on uses, which contains some interesting ethnobotanical snippets about how these plants are used around the world – although none of them is referenced, so it’s up to you to find out more if you are intrigued. (There are some references at the back, but these mainly refer to scientific papers about nutritional content and poisoning incidents.)
However, most plants have at least one recipe, and many have several. And some of them look lovely – I am eagerly awaiting the elderflower season, as I’d like to make elderflower rice pudding. There’s also an apple and sorrel sorbet recipe that’s on my To Do list.
There’s a lot of information here, and it’s interesting. Whilst I skimmed the first part of the book, I read my way slowly through the second section, making notes. It’s not a coffee-table book with pretty pictures, it’s one that will sit on my reference shelf and inform me for years to come. Except when it’s in the kitchen….
As it’s Be Nice To Nettles Week, I thought I would share a couple of things from the pages on Nettles (Urtica dioica). The first is that the nettle has edible seeds – apparently they’re nice sprinkled on to pizzas or used in risottos and soups. It also says that by the time the seeds ripen, the plants have usually lost most of their sting and you should be able to harvest the seeds without gloves; I’ll let someone else test that out first! You need to be a little careful about who you feed your nettle seeds to – Gerard’s herbal of 1597 noted that they provoke lust….
If you can’t wait for the seeds, then try making nettle cordial from the leaves. Once you have, you can make the Nettle Gimlet cocktail – one part nettle cordial to two parts gin, garnished with lime zest. One or two of those, and you might not mind so much about the stings :)
The Weeder’s Digest: Identifying and Enjoying Edible Weeds
by Gail Harland
Paperback, 152 pages, RRP
Publisher: Green Books
Posted in Blog on May 16, 2013 · ∞
Tags: books & weeds.
The stinging nettle Urtica dioica is one of the easiest plants to identify – a quick brush past it and you’ll certainly know that you’ve found one! This tough perennial that can reproduce by seeds and by spreading roots is hard to eradicate from the garden, but in times past its virtues were far more valued than they are today.
With the resurgence in interest in wild foods (cheap, nutritious and easy to come by), the nettle is once again on the menu. Harvest the fresh growth at the tips of the stems (whilst wearing gloves!) and you’ve got an ingredient for a delicious and healthy soup, tea or cordial. Cooking and drying both cause nettles to lose their sting – and dried nettles make an excellent addition to animal fodder.
Nettles are used by herbalists, too, generally to treat aches and pains and arthritis. Their fibres can be used to make clothes (sting free!) and could become more popular as interest in environmentally-friendly fabrics grows. If you’re interested in dyeing then nettle leaves and stems make a wonderful and permanent green dye, whilst the roots produce a yellow dye.
If you don’t fancy eating or wearing your nettles then you can at least make good use of them in the garden. Nettles can be rotted down in a bucket of water for a few weeks to make a very nutritious (not to mention smelly) liquid plant feed. Your neighbours might not thank you, but your plants certainly will! You can harness those same nutrients in another way, too, by adding nettle leaves and stalks (not roots) to your compost. The nitrogen they contain speeds up the composting process, and is then locked up in the compost and returned to the soil. You can even use nettles to preserve your harvest – packing fruit with nettle leaves helps to keep mould at bay.
And if you’re still not convinced that nettles are an asset to your garden, consider the many species of insect that call them home – including over-wintering aphids that provide food for ladybirds emerging from hibernation and persuade them to stay in your garden, where they and their larvae will help to keep your garden pest-free all season.
Posted in Blog on May 15, 2013 · ∞
If you have a blog, or website of any sort, on which you post links to other websites, then at some point you’re going to start having broken links. Web pages disappear for all kinds of reasons (it’s not quite true that you can’t ever delete anything from the internet, although it’s true for embarrassing photos ;) – people delete blogs they are no longer maintaining, or move to different URLs; companies drop products from their catalogues or just go bust and disappear completely.
From your point of view, broken links aren’t really a problem – you don’t go back and read your own content. But it’s frustrating for anyone poking through your archives when they come across links that no longer work. For that reasons, every so often I run a check for broken links on this site, using the free Online Broken Link Checker.
It’s not a quick process – if you have a large website or old blog then it will take a while to trawl through the pages. It spits out a report of the links that are broken, and the pages they appear on. It’s then up to you to decide what to do with them.
Occasionally (and here it happens mainly on the linklog), the link is the whole point of the post and when it no longer works, there’s no option but to remove the post. But I don’t like doing that, as it may well then become a broken link for someone else! And I’d like people to be able to get to my website, as even if they follow an old link, there’s bound to be some new content here for them on the same topic.
The ideal situation is simply to update the broken link, and where possible I find the new URL (or a suitable replacement) and put that in. Where I can remove the link from the post without any loss, and I do that too. I have, on occasions, removed the link but left the defunct URL in the post so people can see where it went, but can’t click on it. And once I linked to the archived version of an original page in the Wayback Machine, when I had used it as a reference and couldn’t find a replacement. (Google also caches pages, and you can search for those.)
Quite often, the broken link is in a comment, as people struggle to type their own blog address correctly. I’m kind, and I make those links work if I can :) If the blog no longer exists then I simply delete the link and leave the comment intact.
If you have a blog or a website, do you check for broken links? If so, what do you do if you find them? And readers – what would be your preferred solution to the broken link problem?
Posted in Blog on May 14, 2013 · ∞
Way back in 2008 I reported on the arrival of the Miracle Berry (Synsepalum dulcificum) in the UK. Whilst not in itself particularly sweet, miracle berries contain a glycoprotein called Miraculin. When Miraculin is combined with an acid (something with a low pH), it becomes able to activate the sweet receptors on your tongue – it literally changes the way your taste buds react to sour foods.
I still haven’t had the opportunity to grow a Miracle Berry plant (they are tender and would need to be kept as houseplants), and until the weekend I hadn’t tasted miracle berries either. But I was invited to a dinner party on Saturday night (in itself a rare occurrence these days), and as part of the post-prandial portion of the evening, we had some fun with miracle berry powder (from miracleberry.co.uk, and made from freeze-dried berries).
We had lemon quarters and lime quarters, and it’s quite an odd sensation to suck either of those after rolling miracle berry powder around in your mouth. You get the full force of the flavour – but it’s sweet, not sour. You’re sitting there expecting your mouth to pucker and… nothing happens.
I don’t imagine they have much of a future beyond being a novelty, but apparently they are used in their tropical homeland to sweeten sour dishes. There has been some talk about them being used as a low-calorie sweetener, but since they only work on sour things it’s not something that would be any use stirred into a cup of tea!
Have you tried miracle berries?
Posted in Blog on May 13, 2013 · ∞
Tags: unusual & fruit.
A composter’s dream heap
We’re coming to the end of International Compost Awareness Week, an annual event designed to promote composting on all scales, due to the important environmental benefits it brings. Removing biodegradable waste from landfill, and returning it to the soil, solves pollution problems and increases soil fertility in one fell swoop. As a newly reinstated Master Composter (now that I’m home from university), I am fully qualified to tell you about the benefits of composting ;)
But what the press releases won’t tell you is that making your own compost can become a bit of an obsession. The problem, for a gardener, is that you just can’t get enough of the stuff. There are pots to fill, and plants to feed, and although you’ve got the space for another heap, you’re just not sure how you’re going to fill it….
You’ve rifled through the bins and removed anything remotely compostable. You’ve begged your neighbours to give you their lawn clippings, and even their used tea bags. You drive out of your way to visit that coffee shop that will happily load you up with their waste coffee grounds, and you’re travelling around with a bucket and spade in the boot in case you happen on an untended pile of horse manure.
And now you’re eyeing up any other potential sources of organic matter with which you can feed your heap. You know all about the importance of balancing our your ‘greens’ and ‘browns’, and have been keeping your cardboard to one side to add to the heap as necessary. So I don’t need to warn you about that, but there are other potential hazards you need to bear in mind as you wander the streets in search of fuel for the compost bins:
- Firstly, you should never remove material from wild spaces. It might look out-of-control, and as though you’re doing the environment a favour, but other beings live there and you’re disturbing their home. Humans produce plenty of waste products, so look for those instead.
- Avoid material that is likely to be contaminated – those piles of autumn leaves by the roadside may look appealing (you have plans for a special leaf mould bin) but they are likely to be polluted and won’t add anything good to your garden.
- Anything spiny can cause problems – the prickles seem to take much longer to rot down than anything else, making it hazardous to handle your compost without thick gloves.
- Plant material from unknown sources could be diseased, or contaminated with herbicides.
- Perennial weeds, and seeding weeds, are only killed by very hot heaps. If in doubt, leave them out, or at least compost them separately and for a very long time.
- Cooked food, meat and dairy attract vermin. If you really, really, want to compost them yourself instead of sending them off in your municipal food waste collection, then invest in a pair of Bokashi bins to treat the waste before you compost it.
- Pet waste from carnivorous animals (e.g. cats and dogs) is another no-no unless you can provide a separate system (a wormery can work) and keep the finished compost separate and away from your food crops.
So, those caveats aside, what else can you use to feed your soil and compost
heaps? I have collected litter from pet bunnies (who lived on a houseboat, no less) that consisted of sawdust and bunny poo. I’ve investigated collecting hop waste from local breweries (another reason to celebrate the return of microbreweries!). And when I worked I brought home the coffee grounds from the coffee machines in the office, although that got me funny looks.
Gardeners tend to jealously guard sources of organic matter once they have found them, but have you got any generalised tips you can share with avid composters?
Posted in Blog on May 10, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on May 12, 2013
Sprouting broccoli is not the usual sort of broccoli you’d find in the supermarket. Those big heads of tight green florets are heading broccoli, also known as calabrese. Sprouting broccoli is a much more majestic plant, taller and hardier and giving a generous harvest of small florets in early spring, when the kitchen garden struggles to put food on your table.
Sprouting broccoli is also a taste sensation – one of those seasonal delights that are a revelation when they arrive on your plate. Because sprouting broccoli is rarely found in supermarkets, and is expensive when it is, growing our own is the only way to guarantee you can eat your fill each year.
Still, growing sprouting broccoli is not for the faint of heart. It’s a big plant, talking up 2 to 3 feet of space in the vegetable garden. You sow seeds in spring in pots or a nursery bed, transplant them into their growing position in midsummer and then wait until the following spring for your harvest. (If you miss that window you can buy plants to plant out in May and June). Very few vegetables (perhaps asparagus) are so anticipated for so long.
Like all members of the cabbage family, sprouting broccoli likes fertile alkaline soil (with a pH of 6.8 or above) and is prone to pests and diseases – remember not to grow these plants in the same area of the garden each year. The nice thing about sprouting broccoli is that it crops early in the year, before the cabbage butterflies are on the wing, and so stands a good chance of being completely caterpillar free.
The most common varieties of sprouting broccoli produce purple florets – although the colour changes to green when they’re cooked. You can get early varieties and late varieties, cropping about a month apart, to extend the growing season. You can also get white sprouting broccoli, popular with gourmets for its superior flavour.
The plants are very hardy, surviving the worst that the winter can through at them, although they may need some support to prevent wind rock. Although you should water plants in dry weather, don’t be too kind to them – too much lush leafy growth will reduce their hardiness.
Cut the florets before they flower, and the plant will grow more for you until it’s exhausted or you want to clear the space for summer crops. The stems and the young leaves are also edible, so you end up with stems around 6 inches long that are great simply steamed or boiled, or you can dress them up for a special meal.
Unfortunately, sprouting broccoli does not make a good container plant. However, if you look a little further afield – to broccoli raab (also known as rapini) or kailaan (Chinese broccoli) – you can find smaller plants, fast-growing and ideal for containers, with edible flower shoots that are the next best thing. Carl Legge talked more about eating shoots in his guest post How Pandas Helped Me Appreciate Brassicas.
Posted in Blog on May 10, 2013 · ∞
More and more these days, the media is full of stories of superfoods – usually fruits with high concentrations of antioxidants. The blueberry led the superfood charge, but has been left behind by newer and more exotic rivals, such as acai berries, goji berries and the yumberry.
But that doesn’t mean that the blueberry has lost its superfood credentials, or that blueberries are getting any less expensive to buy. Investing in one or two blueberry bushes now means that you can enjoy these tasty and healthful fruits for years to come – ultra fresh, from your own garden.
Blueberries aren’t too hard to grow, but they do need acid (also known as ericaceous and lime-free) soil. If you don’t have that in your garden (use a pH meter or a soil chemistry kit to check) then you’ll have to grow your bushes in containers (12-15 inches in diameter) in lime-free soil or compost. The pH you’re trying to achieve is between 4 and 5.
Blueberry bushes are fully hardy, although their blossom can be damaged by late spring frosts. Give them a sunny, sheltered spot and plenty of water, especially in containers. They like to be continuously moist, but not waterlogged. If you have alkaline soil then you’re likely to have alkaline tap water as well – invest in a water butt and only use rainwater to irrigate your blueberries.
Blueberries fruit on wood that is 2 to 3 years old, so there’s no pruning to be done for the first 3 years. After that, it’s simply a case of removing diseased or damaged wood in the winter, while these deciduous bushes are dormant.
If you have enough space, plant more than one variety of blueberry. Although these fruits are self-fertile, having more than one variety will increase your harvest. And since different varieties crop at slightly different times, it will extend the blueberry season as well. However, birds love the fruit and so to harvest any of them for yourself you’ll need to net the plants as soon as they start to fruit.
Ripe blueberries are deep mauve, with a grey bloom. They don’t all ripen at the same time, so you’ll need to check the bushes every couple of days. Assuming that any berries make it back to the kitchen, don’t wash them until you’re ready to eat them!
Feed your plants with a balanced ericaceous fertilizer in early spring and late summer, mulch with composted bark or pine needles and remember to check the pH of any soil amendments before you use them. Yellow leaves are a sign of iron deficiency, an indication that the soil pH is too high. Sulfur chips are an easy way to reduce soil pH, but this is most easily done on small areas of soil or in containers.
Blueberry bushes add some colour to the autumn garden, as their leaves turn a lovely red color before they drop. And although blueberry flowers are simple and white, they make a pretty addition to the spring garden. You can even under plant the bushes with cranberries (another acid-loving berry) to make the most of your space. Although they might be superfoods, blueberries are not demanding. Planting one or two bushes in your garden is an easy, and cost-effective way, to add them to your diet.
(And if you’re looking for a variety that’s a little bit more unusual, how about trying the pinkberry?)
Posted in Blog on May 9, 2013 · ∞
The sun has finally made an appearance, and it’s time to start hardening off all of those plants that will soon be living outside. I won’t be growing courgettes this summer, but I bought some the other day on a whim and then had to figure out something to do with them. I threw this together, and it turned out to be divine, so I am sharing it :)
It’s a very simple dish – you simply slice a courgette and slowly fry it in olive oil and/ or butter in which you have stirred a teaspoon of Chinese 5-spice powder. Once the courgette has softened to your taste, you eat it! It does something wonderful to the courgette, which really picks up the flavour. I have also added in carrot ribbons, and that works very nicely too. It’s so nice that I keep eating my way through a whole courgette and a whole (large) carrot for dinner by myself, served with rice.
My five-spice powder came out of a jar, but I have been discovering that many cultures have their own 5-spice (or 6-spice/ 7-spice) mixtures, so now that I have been reunited with my pestle and mortar I might see which ones lend themselves to giving this dish a differently divine flavour ;)
Posted in Blog on May 6, 2013 · ∞
Tags: food & veg.