I’m not a chemist, but I do find plant chemistry (and the links and patterns between different plants) to be a fascinating topic. Fortunately there are chemists out there who can bring these to our attention, and Compound Interest includes some great plant-related infographics amongst a wider spread of chemical topics.
If you click the infographic below you’ll be taken to the site, where you can find a larger version, and the informative post that goes with it. Suffice to say I didn’t know that the cultivation of blackcurrants (Ribes nigrum) was (and in some places, still is) banned in the US due to disease worries. They’re a very popular fruit crop in the UK, in gardens and allotments. I’m pleased to say that my little specimen, which I bought in a pound shop in the spring, is doing quite nicely (although it would like to get out of a pot and into a permanent home).
Compound Interest talks about the anthocyanins that give blackcurrants their colour, and the fact that the berries can have far higher levels of vitamin C than an orange.
And then it says that some people find the smell of the berries reminds them of cat pee. Now, this isn’t a problem I have myself but apparently there is a chemical link between the two – in the form of a sulfur compound called the ‘cat ketone’.
Have you made this connection?
Posted in Blog on Jul 27, 2015 · ∞
Last modified on Jul 24, 2015
Tags: fruit & science.
Healthy tomato plants in my greenhouse
I know I’m going to have rotten tomatoes aimed at my head for saying this, but I never had blight in my garden.
It wasn’t that I was doing anything special to avoid it, but rather a lucky combination of circumstances. I’m not the biggest fan of tomatoes, so I don’t grow many.
The ones I choose tend to be cherry tomatoes, ripening early in the season and avoiding the dreaded ‘Smith Periods’ of summer, when blight is rampant.
When I did grow maincrop tomatoes, they were safely tucked away in my greenhouse. And, since none of my neighbours grew tomatoes, blight spores just weren’t flying in my direction.
Allotment potatoes affected by late blight
I didn’t grow tomatoes on my allotment, but I did grow potatoes. I deliberately chose blight-resistant Sárpo potatoes, and had the sense not to look too smug when my neighbour’s crops were cut down by blight but mine weren’t.
If your garden tomatoes have fallen to blight in the past, then the only real solution is to grow blight-resistant varieties.
The only problem is that blight (more properly known as late blight, and caused by an organism called Phytophthora infestans that used to be considered a fungus, but which is now classed as an oomycete) evolves.
The strains that are attacking our tomatoes and potatoes now aren’t the same ones from a century or two ago. So plant varieties that used to have some resistance to blight can quickly lose it – and the first you’ll know is when they start to show those tell-tale splotches.
Blight-resistant Crimson Crush (left), from Suttons
But this year, outdoor tomato growers stand a fighting chance of harvesting a healthy crop, thanks to some serious science and breeding work.
A collaboration between the Sarvari Research Trust (home of Sárpo potatoes), Bangor University and independent tomato breeder, Simon Crawford has led to the development of Crimson Crush.
This new variety of tomato has two blight-resistant genes, which gives it excellent resistance to the strains of blight we have to deal with now.
Healthy fruits on Crimson Crush
Crimson Crush is available exclusively from Suttons, as plug plants.
It’s an indeterminate (cordon) variety, which will need support and you’ll need to pinch out the side-shoots as they appear. It has been bred for outdoor growing, and provides “exceptionally fine tasting, large, round tomatoes (each weighing up to 200g)”.
Order Crimson Crush plug plants now, at £7.99 for 3, with delivery set for April 2015.
If you’ve struggled with blighted tomatoes in recent years, why not give Crimson Crush a try this summer?
Disclosure: This post was written in collaboration with Suttons, who provided the images of Crimson Crush. The words are my own.
Posted in Blog on Feb 11, 2015 · ∞
Tags: veg & fruit.
Frosted oca Oxalis tuberosa foliage
I was beginning to think that my new garden might be the opposite of a frost pocket – a frost haven, if you like. Despite the sinking temperatures, and frost appearing outside the garden, there had been none inside. But this morning there’s a touch of frost on the ‘lawn’ (it’s mostly weeds), so that hope has gone out of the window! It might not be a frost pocket, but my garden will have to endure the winter weather that’s on its way.
On the bright, cold days it’s nice to potter about in the garden, doing a little bit of tidying up, and seeing how the winter crops are coming along. My onions are sprouting strongly now, and the chard has been growing as well. The birds are flocking to the newly installed feeding station – I shall have to go out and refill the bird seed later on. We’ve added a woodpecker to the list of visitors! With the arrival of the frost weather it’s important to remember that our feathered friends may need a source of fresh water as well as food, and to break the ice on the water dish after a frost.
We’ve had a long autumn here in the UK, but it seems as though winter is here now, which means it’s time to plant bare root trees, whilst they’re dormant. I’m not ready to do that in my garden yet – we want to get the hard landscaping done before we start thinking about planting – which is frustrating, but it does give me some time to ‘observe’ and see where the winter sun comes and and things like that.
One of the plants I definitely want in my garden next year is a grape vine. It might not be a choice for a GlutBusters garden, given that we hardly have a Mediterranean climate, and a harvest of edible grapes is not guaranteed. But as well as fitting in nicely with my Middle Eastern theme, a grape vine had a lot of advantages that may – at first glance – be overlooked. Now is a good time to plant a bare root grape vine, and there’s lots of varieties to choose from.
GlutBusters grape vine advice
- If you already have a grape vine in your garden, then now is also a good time to prune it. You can shorted some of the prunings and bring them inside as hardwood cuttings, if you’d like more vines. (Or you can wait until late spring/ early summer and take softwood cuttings.) I’ve had completely neglected vine cuttings root, it’s an easy process!
- Vines take up vertical space, which is a boon in a small garden. But it’s also possible to grow them in containers, as standards, if you’re really pushed for space (or want a variety that may need a little extra protection to crop well – you can move it when necessary).
- There’s more to a vine than grapes. They’re stunningly ornamental plants, with beautiful fresh foliage in spring, which turns to heavenly shades in the autumn.
- And they’re great for providing shade – if you have an arbor or a pergola for them to grow up, you can give yourself a cool spot in the heat of the summer.
- Choose a dessert or wine grape variety according to your preference. But if the summer is poor and your grapes don’t ripen properly, don’t despair – try turning your sour grapes into verjus, which was a popular culinary souring agent before citrus fruits became widely available.
- That fresh spring foliage is edible, you can use your vine leaves for dolmades and other wrapped delights. You could even preserve some for future use, by freezing or picking them.
- In a bountiful year, if you have too many dessert grapes to eat at once (!) they can be dried, or turned into jams and jellies, or juiced.
- There are different varieties for outdoor or protected cropping, so you can choose which works best for your space.
- Different varieties also have different ripening times – early, mid or late season. Within the constraints of your climate, you can choose different varieties to extend your harvest season. Most varieties are self-fertile, so one plant of each would be enough.
- Grape varieties don’t grow ‘true’ from seed, and are bought as plants – so an excess is not likely to be a problem! But they are easily propagated if you want more plants, or to share with friends.
- As with all fruit, thinning is vital – a painful process for the gardener, but the result is bigger, tastier grapes.
A grape vine’s autumn colours
If you don’t fancy a grapevine, then there are a range of other vining edibles that might fit the bill. Kiwis are lovely plants – Jenny is a self-fertile variety with beautiful furry leaves and stems with a red tinge. If you have room for a male and a female you’ll have heavier crops of fruit on the female (and one male can pollinate several females). Plus, there’s a male variety called ‘Adam’ that has lovely, pink, variegated foliage and puts on a good show. But it’s not a small plant. For a smaller scale planting, look at Kiwi ‘Issai’, which is a different species and a ‘cocktail kiwi’ – its fruits are smaller, and hairless.
Hops have attractive foliage (especially the golden variety) and the young shoots and leaves are edible – it’s considered to be a gourmet, seasonal, perennial edible. You’ll need a female variety to produce the hop flowers that can be dried for use in sleepy pillows, or for flower arranging.
Mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum) is the tuberous nasturtium, an unusual (but increasingly available) edible that clambers. With attractive (and edible) foliage and flowers, it makes very good use of space.
A plant I’m hoping to grow next year, but have never grown before, is the Maypop (Passiflora incarnata). A cold-hardy passionflower, it is reputed to have both stunning flowers and tasty fruit. It is deciduous, so it won’t give you year-round interest, but if it is as good as it promises to be then it will be a real edimental (ornamental edible).
There are also some annual options for climbing plants. Runner (pole) beans, of course, but also climbing gourds and squashes. I saw a lovely edible archway that consisted of grape vines, kiwis and bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) over the summer. Fruit, shade and flowers – albeit on a rather larger scale than most of us could manage.
A bottlegourd flower
If I’ve sold you on a grapevine, then Victoriana Nursery Gardens have a large selection to choose from, as well as a detailed article on how to train grape vines.
Or if the rapid approach of Christmas is making you a bit nutty, then Otter Farm are currently offering a 15% discount on their almond, hazel and sweet chestnut trees. You just need to use the discount code nuttydiscount when you place your order, and your tree(s) will be delivered in the new year.
This one is an affiliate link, but I am genuinely hoping that Santa will bring me one of Suttons’ cuttings tube kit for Christmas. It’s a Victorian/ Steampunk style doofer for rooting water cuttings, all test tubes and alchemist-chic.
I have already been referred to as the Grinch this year, because I don’t like Christmas food. I detest mince pies, Christmas pudding and Stollen. I can eat, but would rather not, roast turkey. Brussels sprouts… pah! A decent chocolate log, that’s what makes Christmas. Growing up, I much preferred Boxing Day, as in our house that meant boiled ham and parsley sauce. Heaven.
From two sowings a year, parsley can be a year-round feature of your garden (with a little protection in winter if the weather is particularly nasty – or a pot on the kitchen windowsill).
Whilst its flowers may not meet our definition of attractive, they certainly fit the bill for beneficial insects such as lacewings and hoverflies, so don’t despair when you parsley flowers and sets seeds (which you could save for next year).
Curly parsley is the traditional British garnish, but the flat-leaved versions are generally thought to have a superior flavour (and they’re easier to chop!). According to A Taste of Beirut, Lebanese parsley is delicate and silky, much finer than Italian flat-leaved parsley, but it’s the first time I’ve heard of Lebanese parsley and so far I haven’t seen it for sale.
As well as making a good garnish and culinary herb, parsley can be the star of dishes such as tabbouleh salad and persillade (which is a a bit like a parsley version of pesto), so sow some indoors now for early harvests next year!
GlutBuster top tip for December
Water is always a problem in winter – there’s often too much of it, and sometimes it’s frozen solid. In fact, it’s often issues with water that kill plants over winter, rather than the cold per se. In wet weather the root zone can become waterlogged; if it’s dry or frozen, roots can be starved of water for days, with plants dying of drought. The key is to improve drainage where possible (remove saucers and trays from underneath containers), protect plants from deluges and remember to water if it’s dry or the soil is frozen.
That’s the GlutBusters newsletter all wrapped up and delivered in time for Christmas ;) What are you doing in your garden this month?
Posted in Blog on Dec 7, 2014 · ∞
Tags: GlutBusters & fruit.
Unusual cucumbers, grown at West Dean Gardens
It seems to be Cucurbitaceae week on the blog. Fresh from talking about Gynostemma pentaphyllum, today’s post is about some unusual, and ornamental, cucumber varieties.
Just before we moved house, Ryan and I had a much-needed weekend away on the south coast. We’d planned various visits, but whilst we were there I picked up a tourist information leaflet about West Dean Gardens. I’d heard of them, but hadn’t realised we were so close. Of course, we had to visit :) And after a wet day at Fishbourne Roman Palace and Gardens it was nice that the sun came out.
West Dean Gardens is a lovely place for a kitchen gardener to visit, and I’ll share some more photos in due course. There are lots of greenhouses, growing impressive crops of fruiting vegetables, and one of the things that caught my eye was a display of unusual cucumber varieties that had been grown in one.
Hedgehog gourd, Cucumis dipsaceus
Also known as the teasel gourd and Ekaleruk, the hedgehog gourd comes from Arabia, and although it is usually grown as an ornamental, the fruit, seeds and leaves are all edible.
This one doesn’t seem to have a common name, and opinion is divided on whether or not it is edible. According to PlantzAfrica, the fruits “have been pickled and preserved at the Cape since the late 17th century”. However, there are other references to them being extremely bitter and inedible. It sounds like this plant may not be domesticated, and that variation in the wild population makes some fruits tasty and some not.
The common names for these cucumbers are confused – they could all be called a ‘horned melon’ or ‘hedgehog gourd’, and at some point they probably all have :) Horizon Herbs call this ‘kiwano’, but it’s not the kiwano I know and have grown, which is Cucumis metuliferus (I got my seeds from the HSL, but they’re quite widely available now). In fact, it seems that Cucumis zambianus is a relatively new species, first officially described in 2008.
South African Spiny Cucumber, Cucumis zeyheri
According to Trade Winds Fruit, these cucumbers are considered to be inedible, although it again notes that some plants will be more bitter than others.
Bur gherkin, Cucumis anguria var longipes
This last one is, perhaps, less ornamental than the rest. That might explain why the literature on Bur gherkin seems to be mainly scholarly ;)
I don’t think I’ve ever grown cucumbers – I don’t like eating them. However, Ryan does, so I may well try and grow Crystal Lemon next year. I have also failed to grow Mouse melons (Melothria scabra
) before – they’re not a Cucumis
species, but they are in the Cucurbitaceae.
What’s the most exciting cucumber you’ve ever grown? Do you fancy growing any of these unusual ones next year?
Posted in Blog on Nov 13, 2014 · ∞
Last modified on Aug 19, 2015
Tags: unusual & fruit.
Seven years ago, I found a couple of lemon pips in a bag of salad, and sowed them. It took them a little while, but eventually they germinated:
Citrus pips germinating
And by the following February I had a couple of nice seedlings:
What happened to the second is lost in the mists of time, but by November one was a nice, strong plant:
Young lemon plant
But life is never easy, and for a few years it was really tough on the little lemon. It had to overwinter in an unheated greenhouse – they say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but dying right back nothing every winter makes it hard to be a happy lemon.
Still, in June 2013 it proved that life goes on…
Rescued from the garden when I moved, the lemon spent last winter in my office at work. It was reasonably happy, sitting on my desk, until it was infested with scale insect. My first inkling was a sticky desk. Although I tried to clean up poor lemon as best I could, it was tricky at work and he had to wait until I could bring him home to the new house.
One of the first things I did when I moved was bring lemon home (and, boy! it’s heavy in his soil-based compost) and put it outside in the garden. A couple of good rain showers put paid to the stickiness, and I used an (organic) bug spray against the insects, but lemon couldn’t stay outside as the weather turned colder.
Instead, I brought it inside and did my best to clean off the remaining scales. Time will tell whether I’ve got the infestation under control, but for the moment lemon is clean and happy sitting on the living room windowsill. I wouldn’t say it was grateful for my ministrations, though. It stabbed my thumb with one of its thorns. Some of them are small and delicate, just right for slicing through skin. Some of them are impressively long and formidable – I reckon they’d go straight through the soles of flip flops! Still, the lovely citrusy aroma rising from the leaves did make up for it a little bit….
It remains to be seen whether my lemon will ever flower, but in the meantime, here he is enjoying the view:
Lemon tree at home on the windowsill
Posted in Blog on Nov 6, 2014 · ∞
Last modified on Aug 10, 2015
An archway into a pergola at the Cotswold Wildlife Park
Ryan and I went to the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens last weekend, which is a nice day out if you’re in the area. (If you book online you save a little bit of money, and some time at the ticket kiosk – tickets are valid for one month from purchase.)
The animals are great; there’s always a crowd around the meerkat enclosures, and there’s plenty of cute things on show. There was a man doing a falconry display as well, but since his falcon had basically flown off and was showing no sign of coming back, it was more like a man swinging a piece of dead meat on a string with a running commentary ;)
The planting is always interesting as well. My favourite part on this occasion was in the walled garden. A large pergola has been planted up with climbing edibles. At first it simply looked like a grape vine (there are several around the walled garden), which was fruiting merriily. But on closer inspection I found…
Kiwis hanging from the pergola
…at least one very happy kiwi plant, fruiting away merrily in the shade under the pergola. And it got even more exciting, as there was something else climbing up the poles….
A bottle gourd flower
They had several bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria), which were flowering and fruiting on the sunnier edges of the pergola. The flowers are quite distinctive, as are the immature fruits:
Baby bottle gourd fruit
It was a lovely feature, I could have spent hours there! Whilst I might not have room for an extensive pergola in my new Middle Eastern garden, I do have my arbour, so I can recreate the scene on a smaller scale. Vines, fruit and climbing squashes will fit in with the theme perfectly :)
Posted in Blog on Aug 24, 2014 · ∞
Last modified on Aug 10, 2015
Tags: gardens & fruit.
When I was at the allotment yesterday I noticed that my medlar (which is growing in a large container) is holding on to one fruit, despite the recent high winds. And it reminded me that it is oft repeated (and I have said it myself) that one of the French common names for the medlar is cul du chien (dog’s bottom).
When I mentioned this to a lady who lived in France, she said she’d never heard that name being used, and didn’t think it would be.
So… where did the idea come from? Did one Frenchman say it, a hundred years ago, for it to be repeated ever since? Is it common in one particular area of France? Was it common, but has now fallen from favour (much like the medlar (Mespilus germanica) itself has, in the UK)?
Enquiring minds want to know! See what you can find, and leave me your research notes in the comments :) If enough time has passed that the comments are no longer accessible, you can send me an email instead.
Posted in Blog on Nov 3, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Aug 2, 2015
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 · ∞
Last modified on Nov 6, 2014
Tags: unusual & fruit.
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 · ∞
Last modified on Aug 10, 2015
Spalding Bulbs have been kind enough to send me three pepino (Solanum muricatum) plants to grow this year, a ‘Lost Crop of the Incas’ that I have yet to try. The pepino (also known as pepino dulce, poire-melon and melon pear) is a low-growing, evergreen shrub native to South America. Here in the UK, it needs winter protection as it is frost-sensitive.
The fruits are reported to taste like a slightly sweet cucumber when unripe, and melon with a hint of pear when they’re ripe. Immature fruits can be cooked, but the pepino is mainly used raw.
Ripe fruits are large, conical and yellow with jagged purple streaks. They are very sensitive to bruising, and need to be handled with care. They don’t lend themselves to long-distance transportation, so you’re unlikely to find them on supermarket shelves.
Pepinos don’t like high temperatures (so don’t grow them in the greenhouse) and can’t withstand drought, so keep the water supply steady. Don’t over fertilize them, as that encourages leafy growth and leads to poor fruit set. Their flowers don’t need to be pollinated, so you can keep just one, although self- or cross-pollination will increase the amount of fruit. You’ll need to watch out for the normal roster of pests – aphids, spider mites and whitefly.
Pepino fruits don’t ripen all at once, which is great for a gardener as the plants crop over a long time. They are usually peeled, as the skin can be bitter. Seeds aren’t always produced, but they are small and edible and easy to remove if you don’t like them. Ripe fruits have similar levels of vitamin C to citrus. They don’t respond well to being refrigerated, so they are best eaten fresh.
If you’d like to try growing pepinos this year, Spalding Bulbs are selling packs of 3 plants of Melon Pear ‘Pepino Gold’ for £10.25.
Spalding Bulbs gave me two packs of plants – one to keep and one to give away. As pepino is “highly suited to culinary experimentation”, I have given the second set to Carl Legge. Hopefully he’ll have some new pepino recipes to share with us later in the year!
Most of the details given above are taken from ‘Lost Crops of the Incas’ – there’s not much written about pepino cultivation in the UK! Maybe we can change that this year ;) Apparently the fruit characteristics are affected by cultivation conditions, but no one really knows how that works….
National Research Council. 1989. Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.
Posted in Blog on Apr 27, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Apr 27, 2013
Tags: fruit & unusual.