Thursday, 30 April 2009

Mum's birthday present

It's my mum's birthday today. When I asked her about 6 weeks ago what she wanted for her birthday (yes, I know, I'm organised!), she said she'd like a replacement rosemary plant as hers had died over winter. As it happened, when I went to buy a rosemary plant the garden centre had an offer on on herbs. Buy 4 for £10. So I bought rosemary, marjoram, parsley and golden thyme. Then I hunted around for a container to plant them in and came across fake half barrels for sale. They looked just like half barrels but were actually made from a type of polystyrene so were incredibly light. This was £19.99 so I added that to my trolley and headed home.

Once home I asked my husband to drill holes in the bottom, which he did, although he said he probably could have pushed a skewer through instead as it was easy to drill through. I then half filled the bottom of the barrel with chunks of polystyrene packing material. I figured that if the barrel was light in the first place I may as well keep the overall weight down by adding this drainage material to the bottom rather than grit or similar. This also reduced the amount of compost I needed to put in, keeping the cost as well as the weight down.

I then planted the four herbs I had bought that morning as well as a small sage and thyme plug plant I'd got from Lidl's a few week before (£1.50 for 4 if I recall). I also had a chive plant I'd propagated from my garden so I put that in too. Finally, I mulched the surface with chipping from my garden shredder. Four weeks later when I gave my mum her present the plants had settled in nicely and even grown a bit.

So an impressive herb planter containing 7 herbs for less than £35 all told. Not bad!

Monday, 27 April 2009

The good things about growing food

There are many good things about growing your own food but one of them is that when it rains you are glad because it will be helping your crops grow. After a week of almost solid sunshine the ground is certainly in need of a drink. It is good timing too, at the beginning of the working week, having left Sunday bright and sunny to get on with more sowing.

I started with filling in a few gaps in my rows of peas. Once they get going peas are mostly unaffected by pests but before, during and shortly after germination they are vulnerable. On year I sowed the seeds too early and they were all eaten by (I assume) mice. It is certainly possible that the little gaps in my rows could be due to mice or maybe birds eating the seed. Close inspection of the seedlings show that they have been nibbled so maybe the gaps are due to slugs and snails chomping a whole seedling. The notch marks in the leaves could also be due to a leaf cutter type beetle or maybe birds. I already have slug pellets out but I scatter a few more and then drape a net over the pea sticks and hope for the best.

Next I turn my attention to watering the seed rows I sowed last week. I read somewhere that carrots should be watered every day for the first 14 days after sowing. Between us we have managed this for 7 days now. So I water the carrots and then the beetroot and salads but apart from some radish nothing has germinated yet.

At this point I spot my two girls sitting under an apple tree in the dappled shade, chatting to each other and a couple of small cuddly toys that they'd brought with them. From where I'm stood it looks quite idyllic and as if they should be discussing cross stitching or something. I get a little closer and discover that they are talking about Ninjas! Oh well. They spot me and proudly show me their soft toys. They have discovered that goose grass sticks to fur like fuzzy felts and they have given their toys eyebrows, moustaches and various items of Ninja clothing!

When the June edition of the Kitchen Garden Magazine came through my door this week I realised it was time to read the May edition so I dug it out and reminded myself of some of the things that need doing in May. One woman said that she always sowed a few dwarf French beans in mid to late April to have a crop during June that was over by the time the climbing beans were ready, helping to avoid a glut. I had always sown my dwarf and climbing beans at the same time, the dwarf beans starting to crop about a fortnight before the climbing beans but continuing until the frosts. We always end up with a glut so I thought I'd try her idea to see, firstly if the plants will grow early in this area, and secondly, if it does help avoid a glut. With this in mind I sowed 16 beans in two small troughs.

Just as I was finishing off my youngest went sprawling across the gravel car park, gashing both knees and an elbow. So that was the end of my allotment session. We got her home, cleaned up and plastered. Then her big sister built her a snugly cave out of cushions and blankets in front of the TV where she remained for the next hour or so.

With calm restored I busied myself around the house instead, watering the tomatoes and peanut plants on the windowsills. I pinched out the side shoots on the tomato plants and dropped 4 of the largest ones into a glass of water to see if they will sprout roots. Then I sowed a fresh batch of mixed salad leaves for putting on the windowsill. I watered all the things in the cold frame at the end of the garden. The sweetcorn are just poking through the soil, as are the brassicas and a couple of gherkin plants.

By then it was the end of the day, the weekend and the sunshine. Time to sit back and let the plants grow for a week.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Rhubarb and ginger jam

Rhubarb is ridiculously easy to grow and once you plant it, you have it for life. It is also handy to have as it starts cropping in April when there is very little else growing and certainly no other fruit - not that rhubarb is strictly a fruit. The only down side, that I can see, is its flavour! Of course, many people like the stuff and enjoy it stewed as a crumble or pie filling or just with a good dollop of custard. Personally, I can't stand the stuff, which is why I don't grow it.

I'm temporarily looking after a plot for a friend who's out of the country and he has rhubarb on this plot so I thought I'd make the most of this situation and see if I could make something tasty out of rhubarb without making the lifelong commitment to a plant. So yesterday I picked 5 stems and tried making rhubarb jam for the first time. After standing it in sugar and lemon juice overnight I went ahead with making the jam this morning and I was pleasantly surprised on two accounts. Firstly, the jam was easy to make and set, despite being a low pectin "fruit", and secondly, the end result was both beautiful and delicious - like a gingery nectar!

Hmmm... I'm beginning to wonder whether I have harshly misjudged the humble rhubarb plant!

Rhubarb and Ginger Jam
(makes a just 1 pound)

4-5 stems, weighing roughly 1 lb (454g)
The same weight of sugar as rhubarb
1 small lemon, rind and juice
1/2 oz (15g) root ginger, bruised
1/2 oz (15g) stem ginger, finely chopped
1 tablespoon syrup from stem ginger jar

Wash the rhubarb and cut it into pieces roughly 1 inch (2.5cm) long. Layer the rhubarb in a non metallic bowl with the lemon rind and sugar then pour in the lemon juice. Cover the bowl and stand overnight. Tip the contents of the bowl into a preserving pan and add the root ginger, wrapped in a piece of muslin. Bring to the boil then simmer for a few minutes until the rhubarb is soft, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a vigorous boil and boil for 5 to 10 minutes until the setting point is reached. Remove from the heat and discard the root ginger. Stir in the stem ginger and syrup. Ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Mint choc chip ice-cream

Mint is a bit of a thug in the garden. It will rampage across the bed, strangling anything in its path as it strives for world domination. Anyone wishing to grow the stuff should either plant it in a pot on its own on a patio or plant it, still in its pot into the soil.

Having said that, I have managed to unsuccessfully grow mint on at least 2 occasions, each time the plant succumbing to chocolate spot (brown spots on its leaves) before dying completely over winter.

An allotment friend either didn't know about mint's habits or chose not to follow the advice and now has mint romping its way across one of his beds. In an effort to keep it under control he had recently started pulling great lumps of it out. I hate to see herbs going to waste so I took some to use to make my mint choc chip ice-cream recipe. I invented this two summers ago when I had a healthy mint plant and it was unlike anything I had ever tasted before - deliciously minty, almost in a new potato kind of way!

Anyway, I got on with this this afternoon but was sadly disappointed with the result which had little to no mint flavour at all. This could be due to a different variety of mint but I'm suspecting it is the time of year and that the herby oils have not yet risen in the plant to their full. I had to add peppermint oil to the ice-cream to salvage it, which is hardly the point, and will consul myself with the thought that I have probably imparted vitamins to the ice-cream from the mint even if not the flavour. In the meantime, I shall pot on some of the excess mint and hope to have a healthy plant in the summer to have another go.

Mint choc chip ice-cream

4 sprigs of mint
10 fl oz (284 ml) milk
2 oz (55 g) icing sugar
10 fl oz (284 ml) double cream
2 oz (55 g) chocolate chips

Pour the milk into a pan, tear up the mint and place it in the milk. Gently heat the milk (but do not boil) for 5 minutes. Strain the milk to remove the mint. Place the mint and 2 tablespoons of milk in a blender and blend well. Pour the blended mint into a sieve and press it against the sieve with a spoon to squeeze out the milk. This liquid should be green. Add the sugar to the milk and stir until dissolved. Add the cream and stir. Pour into suitable containers and add the chocolate chips. Freeze the mixture for 2 hours until beginning to freeze then stir with a fork to break up the ice-crystals. Return to the freezer for another 2 hours then stir again, making sure to stir the chocolate chips through the ice cream. Repeat again 2 hours later than return to the freezer until solid.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Planting asparagus

Planting asparagus crowns is a very serious business. Unlike any other vegetable crop, asparagus is perennial and will be in the ground for more than 10 years. If the asparagus is going to do well and crop for all those years the ground needs to be prepared well. Asparagus loves free draining, sandy soil and we, like so many, have heavy clay soil. This makes soil preparation all the more important. Steve prepared the ground 12 years ago when he planted our first lot of asparagus and it did well.

Steve and I have very different approaches to everything we do in life. I like to get on with things and to feel as if I'm making progress. Steve, in contrast, is the sort of person who measures 3 or 4 times before starting anything, will never cut a corner and is unlikely to be happy at the end of any job because perfection is impossible to attain. He, therefore, is definitely the man you want when it comes to any DIY or gardening project that you want to stand the test of time. You just have to go away for a long time whilst he's getting on with it or risk becoming frustrated by lack of obvious progress.

It is for this reason that planting asparagus is unquestionably a job for Steve. The only problem being that the asparagus crowns arrived in the post on Friday and clearly stated plant IMMEDIATELY! Immediately is not in Steve's nature.

Over the course of the weekend, whilst planting potatoes, Steve started the preparation of the new asparagus bed, first rotavating it then digging out trenches. By the end of Sunday we had 3 trenches, heavily scattered with powdered rock samples (left over from Steve's years as a geologist). My only contribution to the planting was to go out today and buy a bag of sharp sand and some decent quality multipurpose compost. Then after work today Steve used the whole bag of sand, plus some gravel and a fair bit of the multipurpose compost to turn heavy clay into free draining, asparagus suitable soil.

He planted the crowns on top of mounds within free draining trenches, as is recommended in most books on the matter. Let's just hope the asparagus survived their temporary wait wrapped in damp kitchen towel and are now enjoying their lovely prepared bed.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

All the potatoes in now

Another beautifully sunny day today but I didn't have much left to do on the allotment. Steve was busy most of the day getting the second early and main crop potatoes planted. He started by rotavating the bed and racking to smooth. Then he checked a couple of reference books to remind himself of the recommended spacing for the rows and between tubers. He's been growing potatoes for about 30 years now but he still likes to check this. Then, as usual, he counts the number of tubers we have, looks at the space available and works out how to fit them all in. Having done this, he then uses the rotavator to dig trenches for each row of potatoes. He carefully places the tubers into the bottom of the trench then buries them with rotted compost from the compost bin mixed with pelleted manure. Only a thin layer of soil goes on top of this and over time we gradually fill in the trench to keep the plants covered until, after repeated earthing up, the trenches become mounds.

I sowed three rows of swede seeds. I grew swede for the first time last year and it grew very well. It is the main vegetable in Branston pickle so last year I made my own version of this pickle and sold the lot! So this year I'm hoping to grow a few more swedes and make more pickle. That's a heck of a lot of chopping though!

My girls had a great time on the allotment yesterday doing whatever it is they do when their imaginations get going. I assumed it would be more of the same today but within about half an hour my eldest arrived at my side saying she wanted something to do because she was a bit bored. I suggested she sowed a few sunflower seeds on her plot so I helped her with this. In the meantime, my youngest had arrived and wanted to know what she could sow. But I had nothing to suggest. We have all the crops sown suitable for this time of year and we're just waiting for the tender crops to grow in pots. When you are 4 years old waiting can be difficult and for a few minutes she nagged some more to plant a tomato plant.

Shortly after this I told them that I needed to pop home to pick up my camera because there were some things I wanted to photograph. They both thought this was a good idea and they wanted to bring their cameras out too. So a few minutes later we returned with our cameras: a Fisher Price indestructible thing for my 4 year old but my 6 year old can be trusted with one of our old digital cameras. Soon it was time for me to return home to start the dinner but my eldest was still snapping away happily so I left her to keep her father company as he continued to plant potatoes.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Sowing root crops

After a gloomy morning doing housework, the sun came out and out we went to the allotment. I started by sowing some carrot seeds. We, like so many others, suffer to some degree with carrot root fly damage. I was reading about ways to tackle the problem in the April edition of the Kitchen Garden magazine but none of the answers seemed satisfactory. It suggested fine netting completely covering the crop as one solution but this brings other problems such as inability to weed or deal with other pests. And if you miss-time the netting then you could trap the maggots inside, free to do their damage without attack from their predators. Last year I tried sowing my carrots with a row of onions for every row of carrots. It mentioned such companion planting in the article but suggest that far more onions were needed to make it work. Well, socks to that, I'm sure it helped.

Anyway, this year I have decided to repeat the carrot/onion planting. It certainly didn't do any harm last year and I want to grow both anyway. I've also decided to sow flowers around the outer border of the bed too. This may add to the confusion of perfumes but mainly it is because I seem to have accumulated a load of flower seed packets and it would be nice to have some flowers somewhere on the allotment for the pollinators.

Last year I tried sowing some parsnip seeds in 4 of the carrot rows. Parsnips are notoriously temperamental germinators so if you sow them on their own, firstly you struggle to remember where the row is whilst the parsnips get round to germinating, and, secondly, the germination is usually patchy and you end up wasting a row for 3 or 4 plants. The idea behind sowing with the carrots is that you know where the row is because the carrots germinate fairly quickly, secondly you don't waste a row because the carrots are there to fill the spaces, and thirdly, once you have harvested all your carrots you have a lovely thinned row of parsnips for the winter. Anyway, this worked so well last year that I have decided to sow parsnips in every carrot row this year. That could result in a lot of parsnips but they are a brilliant winter crop and I love roasted parsnips with a roast dinner.

Carrot seeds are very fine and need a fine "tilth" to germinate well. To help us achieve this in our heavy clay, Steve rotavated the bed for me earlier in the week. Having pulled out "drills" with my hoe, I then sprinkled in potting compost and sharp sand to give a lovely surface for the seeds. If the soil had been dry I would have watered the bottom of each drill at this point but having had 10cm of rain (according to my daughter's rain gauge) in the last two day watering wasn't needed.

Finally it was time to sow the carrot seeds - 8 different varieties - I like variety! This included some purple and some red carrots because novelties like this amuse my girls as much as they do me. There were also the old reliables such as Early Nantes, James Intermediate and Autumn King, as well as a variety I'd not tried before and have now forgotten the name of.

I often sow beetroot seeds in the same bed as the carrots but with room taken up with the flower seeds and onion sets I'd run out of space and I had to sow the beetroot elsewhere. We love beetroot and it stands well until it gets very frosted. The year before last I really struggled to get beetroot to germinate and we had very little to harvest so last year I decided to see what would happen if I sowed some in modules and planted them out as plug plants. They took ages to germinate but it was useful to plant them out well spaced rather than having some bunched together and then large gaps elsewhere as you get from sowing seeds. This year I didn't get round to sowing them in trays so I needed to sow direct. I read recently that soaking the seed for half an hour before hand can aid germination so I have tried this. We'll have to see what happens.

In the same bed as the beetroot I also sowed a couple of rows of spring onions, some rocket, spinach and two types of lettuce. I've also left some space so I can successionally sow more salad leaves over the next few weeks to help avoid a glut at one time and then nothing.

Having done all that I still had quite a lot of onion sets left and it really is getting a bit late to get these in so I needed to get on with it. A quick survey of the plot told me that the best place to plant these would in the bed next to the carrots. On the other side of the carrots I had already planted shallots and a few red onion sets so if I put onions on the other side the carrots would be flanked with onion as well as interplanted with them, surely some help against carrot root fly! Does that sound like a lot of onions? Well, they store well and we use them all the time but they are also an essential chutney ingredient.

The only problem with my assessment was that the bed on the other side of the carrots still had the remains of some brassica plants in as well as a good scattering of weeds. Brassicas, you should know, like a firm soil and I didn't much fancy having to dig over firm soil. Still, it needed doing and as it happened the soil was remarkably soft thanks to the recent rain. So it didn't take long to dig over and then I filled it up with rows and rows of brown and red onion sets.

Time to stand back and admire my handwork I'd say! Things are beginning to take shape!

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Gardening with children

The next day the plan was to get out onto the plot as soon as possible in the morning but once again other things demanded attention and whilst I dealt with the housework, Steve mended a puncture on our youngest's bike. So it was after lunch before Steve headed off to the allotment with the rotavator, hoping to make the most of last night's heavy rain.

My first gardening task was to water the indoor vegetables. The tomatoes from Wilkinson's have now reached the roof of the conservatory (no, they aren't monsters, they are on a high windowsill!). After watering them I also had to tie them again to their canes but they clearly need repotting and I'm wondering what is best to do with them before I can safely put them outside. My tray of windowsill salad is now big enough to eat and I really ought to sow a fresh batch to replace them.

Having done that I set up a potting station in the garden and set to sowing some tender crops - sweetcorn, tomatoes, brassicas and cucurbits. At first my daughters were inside, playing on the computer, but it wasn't long before my eldest appeared, asking if she could help. She's a very sensible 6 year old and is actually quite helpful and of course I love to involve her in it. So together we sowed the tomatoes and the brassicas, which turned out well because as she popped in the seeds I could write a label and the whole things was quicker. The labels, by the way, I'd made from cut up bits of yoghurt pot and they work well because they are small enough to fit into the module trays and still put a propagator lid over the top.

Before I had finished my youngest appeared, having been chased out of the house by a confused honeybee. I released the bee and then helped her sow some cucurbit seeds. Then it was time to join Steve on the allotment.

Whilst he continued to rotavate and build more raised beds, I tackled more weeding. With the soil moistened by the rain it was relatively easy to fork the ground over. My new trug proved useful to throw the weeds in as I went. Even my eldest decided weeding looked like fun and she asked if she could help. She stuck at it for about 10 minutes before declaring that it was harder than it looked and gave up. So young to have discovered that weeding is difficult! Still, even 10 minutes of help is better than none. In the meantime my youngest, whose favourite colour is yellow, asked if was OK to go around the site picking dandelions - she guessed that people wouldn't mind if she picked them because they were just weeds. I agreed and off she went, returning later with a beautiful yellow bouquet.

That's the funny thing about gardening with children... don't expect too much but they can provide help in their own way. Of course, what you can teach them and what they can learn is far more important than any help they might provide.

New season veg

We spent the Easter weekend away but, whilst we enjoyed glorious sunshine, our plot received copious rain. This is perhaps the best possible situation - no regrets for being away when the weather is wet but great potential for the plants to get on and grow in the rain.

With Steve off work Tuesday and Wednesday it was time for some serious work on the allotment. Unfortunately, life has a habit of getting in the way of best laid plans and instead of rushing straight out to the plot we had to rush to the supermarket to get some food in. Still, I did manage to buy a large plastic trug for £3. Back home and with the shopping put away it was finally time to get out.

Back at the end of last summer a fellow plot holder had offered me some of her excess spring cabbages. I didn't really have space for them and I had never grown them before but I didn't say no and I found space for 6 plants. Over the winter the poor plants got badly eaten either by pigeons or slugs but they started to regrow as soon as the weather began to warm. They didn't, however, show much sign of hearting up. It was somewhat a surprise, therefore, to find the plants ready to harvest yesterday... only with splendid florets of white sprouting broccoli! Oh! If I'd known I'd have never bought the cauliflower in the supermarket that morning.

It was also something of a surprise to see the first spears of asparagus ready to harvest. Our asparagus bed is about 10 years old now and the spears have become quite spindly. I have decided to work towards replacing the bed and have ordered replacement crowns (should have been delivered in March and I'm wondering where they have got to!). The idea is to establish a new bed over the next two years and then discard the old one. The old one is looking a bit neglected and with the emergence of new spears Steve decided to give the whole bed some attention. First he cut off all the spears and gave the bed a good weeding.

Whilst he was doing this I took the girls off to their plot to plant 4 seed potatoes each. I had recently bought them some kid sized gardening tools and this was their first outing. I was pleased that the tools were strong enough for the job and didn't instantly break. Once the potatoes were planted I left the girls to play with their new tools. Part of the set had been a broom and my youngest took it upon herself to sweep the paths and car park. This obviously gave Steve inspiration because shortly after seeing her sweeping up moss that was growing on the car park he decided to scrape it up and spread it between the ridges of the asparagus bed. He also used potting compost as a top dressing over the crowns themselves. The girls approved of his efforts because he had created a rather attractive stripey bed. Hopefully it will do some good too.

So for tea that night we ate our first harvests of the new season - white sprouting broccoli and asparagus spears.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Leaving it to get on with it.

I've just been away for a long weekend. I was only away for 3 nights but at this time of year that was long enough to see a difference when I came home. Before leaving I went round and watered everything on my windowsill and the things in pots outside and when I came home and went round and did it all again - and they were very dry.

Steve managed to get the first early potatoes planted just before we went away, which was just as well because with being away we missed out on a weekend of prime planting time. I noticed when I got back that our fellow allotment holders had all been busy over the weekend. Fortunately, plants continue to grow even when you're not there. The blossom on our plum tree in our back garden had burst open over the weekend and we were greeted with a dazzling display of white. Whilst away the peas had germinated and are now poking their noses out of the soil. The garlic (planted in autumn) seem to put on about 4 inches of growth. The broad beans too are all getting on with it.

Last year I planted a dwarf apricot tree on the allotment. A few years back I had tried growing a dwarf peach tree in my back garden but it suffered badly from peach leaf curl and declined each year until I eventually got rid off it. I thought that an apricot would be easier but really I planted it in the wrong place. It should be against a south facing wall but I just stuck it in with the other fruit on the allotment. I decided to protect it over winter by wrapping it in fleece. It is also recommended to keep it covered whilst forming leaves and blossom to keep the rain off it as this helps to prevent leave curl disease. However, when I went round to the allotment yesterday the new leaves were growing through the fleece! Whatever the risks for leaf curl I had to pull the fleece off now. Even so it caused damage but it would only have been worse if I had left it. So much for that advice.

With the lovely weather it is tempting to get on and get more things sown on the allotment and in pots but as I'm away for the long Easter weekend I know I have to wait until after that before I do that because I won't be around for watering duty. Goodness me, it's worse than having pets to look after!