Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Elderflower Cordial

As promised I went out yesterday and picked some more elder flowers to make some cordial. After a day of soaking to infuse the flavours, I bottled the stuff this afternoon. What a deliciously refreshing drink this has turned out to be.

Elder Flower Cordial (make about 1.4 litres)

1kg sugar
900ml boiling water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon lime juice
about 15 large elder flower heads
1 lemon, sliced
1 lime, sliced

Put the sugar in a non-metallic bowl with the boiling water and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Add the lemon and lime juices. Wash and flick dry the elder flower heads then snip off the flowers into the bowl. Add the sliced lemon and lime. Stir then cover the bowl with Clingfilm and leave to stand for 24 hours. Scald a jelly bag and drain the mixture through it into a clean bowl. Funnel into sterile bottles then refrigerate. Dilute to taste. For a really refreshing summer drink, dilute with chilled fizzy water.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Sometimes things don't go to plan

With the glorious weather this weekend you'd think I'd be full of the joys of spring but sadly not everything is growing well at the moment. It started on Friday when I decided I ought to take my gardening club seedlings home from school for the half term break rather than leave them to an inevitable thirsty death. A bit like taking the school hamster home for the holidays! But when I went to collect them I discovered that all the cucumber seedlings had been systematically beheaded by slugs and snails. Not only that, but the little blighters had chewed off the sticky labels off the sides of the yoghurt pots and now I had to wonder which pot contained which seed. A big, fat snail sat on the side of one pot so I vented my anger on it and crushed it under foot. We're not allowed to use slug pellets at school (not even the organic ones!) and quite honestly blind hope isn't particularly affective! So I gathered together the surviving bean, tomato and sweetcorn seedlings and which ever pots looked as if they might still contain ungerminated seeds and took them home for a slug and snail free holiday.

Then yesterday we went out to the allotment as a family and rushed straight to our new pond to discover that someone had found it amusing to throw bricks into it! So the first few minutes was spend removing bricks, straighting out the surrounding rocks and generally trying to put things right. But the mini water lily had completely disappeared but worse still is wondering whether it will happen again.

Looking around the plot, it seems our new asparagus has failed to take. Steve is particularly disappointed about this after the amount of effort he put into preparing the bed. It is too late now to replace the crowns this year so it'll have to wait until next. There is also very little sign of the beetroot germinating, despite a second sowing. And for some reason my sweet corn seedlings are dying back.

Deep breath... all is not lost and much is growing and I'm not the type to dwell on the negative. Seven strawberries were ripe this weekend and I fed these treats to my children. I have never known strawberries to be ready so early - it's not even June yet! And I have two tomatoes just about ripe in the conservatory. They are not very big, as Steve pointed out, but, hey, they are ready in May - we've never had that before.

So I spent some time on the plot this weekend getting intimate with the carrots and parsnips, painstakingly hand weeding between the seedlings. It is a good idea to do this and remove the weeds before they become big and difficult to remove without disturbing the carrots and parsnips. It is also relaxing and therapeutic and it really gives you a close up view of the seedlings. I'm pleased to say that the carrot germination has been good but better still, temperamental parsnip seeds have germinated well too so we should have a good crop in the winter.

Then I helped the girls plant out a couple of beans each, some sunflowers and some sweetcorn seedlings. I have also spent a good deal of my time watering the pour plants as they wilted in the intense sunshine!

There is still time to resow some cucumbers, sweetcorn and beetroot. I'm not defeated.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Rhubarb and Elder flower Jam

I have this things about making jam in sets of three - that is 3 different jams with a similar theme for the flavour. For example: plum jam, plum & cinnamon jam and plum & mulled wine jam. I think it is because when I sell my jams at craft fayres around Christmas time, I have hessian bags for jam with 3 spaces in them. In reality my customers usually choose a completely random selection of flavours to put in their bag and I don't think anyone has ever gone for a set of three along the same flavour theme. Still... the option is there if they want it!

So, having made rhubarb & ginger jam and then rhubarb & raspberry jam I was on the look out for a 3rd flavour. And then yesterday I went out picking elder flowers and the answer became obvious. The main reason I picked elder flowers is because last year I missed them and had to make plain gooseberry jam, not gooseberry and elderflower jam. In fact, by the time my gooseberries are ready to eat the elder flowers have all finished so this year I have been keeping a close eye on the hedgerow with the intention of freezing some elder flowers for use when the gooseberries are ripe.

As it happens, the elder flowers are only just beginning to come out around here but I picked a fair few heads yesterday, snipped the flowers off and froze them. I kept a few aside to use with another pound of rhubarb and today I turned them into rhubarb and elderflower jam. I'm thinking I might go out again next week and get some more to make some elder flower cordial after the great successes of both my blackcurrant and raspberry cordials.

Rhubarb & Elderflower Jam (makes a bit more than 1 lb)

1lb (454g) rhubarb
1 oz (25g) elder flowers
1 lemon, rind and juice
1lb sugar

Chop the rhubarb into inch long sections. Mix all the ingredients together in an non-metallic bowl, cover and leave to stand overnight. Decant the mixture into a preserving pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for a few minutes, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar, and cook until the rhubarb is pulpy. Bring to a vigorous boil until the setting point is reached. Ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Monday, 18 May 2009

A new pond

Three of the other allotment plots have small ponds. These are a magnet for my girls and each visit to the allotment they inspect each pond in turn. They have been especially interested in the one with the tadpoles. So much so that we decided it was time we ought to put our own pond in - just a little one. With any luck the frogs will help with slug control too.

Having decided to get a pond I went to a local garden centre, tracked down an assistant and said, "I'd like one of those, please." But it turns out that ponds are very popular at the moment, particularly the little one I was after so instead of getting a pond I got a sheet of paper to prove I was on the waiting list. The assistant asked me if I'd like to go on the waiting list for chickens as these are also hugely popular at the moment. Tempting but I declined - one thing at a time.

Two weeks later I received a phone call to inform me that ponds were now back in stock so the next day I went and bought one - 81 litre capacity for £14.99. Late Saturday afternoon my husband put on his boots and grabbed his spade and off we went to the allotment. An hour later we had a pond, complete with water and surrounded by a pile of attractive pebbles and stones collected from years of seaside holidays.

The next day we visited the garden centre again and this time we bought 3 marginal plants, a mini water lily, some oxygenating elodea and a bag of gravel. The rest of the day the weather flitted rapidly between sunshine and showers (sometimes at the same time!) and blew a gale. Early evening we dashed out and put the plants in, distributed the gravel around the outside and took a cupful of pond water out of one of the other ponds to introduce some wildlife to our pond. A fellow plot holder has promised us some tadpoles out of his garden pond so that should be fun!

So it was £14.99 for the pond, £3.99 for the gravel and £20 for the plants. Fairly expensive for imperfect slug control but a great source of entertainment and education for the girls and definitely worth it!

Monday, 11 May 2009

First & Last Harvests

Whilst talking to the South African mum last week, she excitedly told me about her first ever harvest from her allotment. It was a few French Breakfast radishes. She said they were so hot and peppery that they burned but she ate them anyway because she'd grown them! Good for her, I say.

To be honest, I can't remember my first ever harvest, although I have fond memories of that summer when I first grew my own vegetables. But I do enjoy first harvests and there are a lot of them to be had in a gardening year. For example, back in March we enjoyed the first fresh harvest of the year when the sprouting broccoli became available from plants sown in the previous year. Then the first of the perennials were ready to harvest when the asparagus and rhubarb started growing again. This weekend we too harvested some radishes, the first harvest from seeds sown this year. Even better, it was my daughter who had grown them so there were her first harvest too! Still to come, we'll have the first soft fruit and then the first new potatoes... and so it goes on.

With the arrival of the first crops and the imminent arrival of many more, it is also time to think about using up the last of the stored and preserved food in order to make room for the impending glut. Each cake, biscuit or flapjack I bake at the moment has to utilise a homemade preserve of some type. Each dinner needs to use a batch of frozen veg or a dollop of chutney. My husband has beetroot houmous in this sandwiches this week whether he likes it or not, and yesterday I used up the last 2 lb of frozen raspberries to make raspberry cordial.

The raspberry cordial was a particular success. I'd not made it before and I invented it by modifying my recipe for blackcurrant cordial. Raspberries, being much sweeter, required less additional sugar and the use of red grape juice also lessened the need for granulated sugar. My youngest daughter (we call her the fruit monster due to her love of fruit) tried it first and said "it tastes just like fresh raspberries," before downing the glassful. My eldest (the fussy eater) tackled it next and simply stated, "nice," after a small sip. She too finished a glassful over time. So I imagine we will probably get through the 4 bottles fairly quickly but I think it could easily be made in jelly or poured onto ice-cream and other desserts. Add it to vanilla ice-cream and give a brief stir and you'd have instant raspberry ripple ice-cream. Definitely one for the recipe book.

Raspberry Cordial

2 lb raspberries
1 pint red grape juice
1 lb granulated sugar

Gently heat the raspberries in the red grape juice in a large pan for a few minutes until the raspberries have broken up. Strain the liquid through a nylon (not metal) sieve. For every pint of liquid, weigh out 8 oz granulated sugar. Clean the pan and return the liquid to it, along with the sugar. Bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar then remove from the heat. Pour into warmed bottles and seal. Refrigerate once cooled. Dilute to taste. The cordial should be OK for several weeks but if you wish to increase the shelf life, heat up the sealed bottles in a pan of water to roughly 75°C for about half an hour. Note, however, this will slightly alter the flavour of the cordial.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Mother Nature's Mood Swings

Earlier this week I stopped at the school gates to chat to a mum who recently emigrated from South Africa. Even more recently, she'd managed to obtain an allotment plot. The whole thing is very much a new experience for her. In South Africa she had had a gardener and had never tried growing fruit and vegetables. She has also said that she would have feared for her personal safety to garden in an communal space back home. How wonderful if it then that we can enjoy growing our own food as well as appreciate the relaxation and calm that can be found on an allotment site.

With the sun shining on that particular morning she asked me if she was too late to plant out her tomatoes. I assured her not and told her to hold off until the end of the month. It did seem unlikely that there would be another frost whilst we stood there in glorious sunshine. However, the next morning we didn't stop to chat because it was raining... a cold rain that felt as if it had only just thawed out as it was thrown at us by a gusty westerly. Still, having arrived home I was glad the plants were being watered without me having to hump watering cans around. But then, not two hours later, Mother Nature threw a hissy-fit and chucked hailstones at the ground as if she were trying to dig a hole! Forget frost... these were chunks of ice!

Mother Nature was in a good mood again today - a little colder and breezier than I might like but sunny and dry. At this time of year it is all about nurturing. Tiny seedlings are springing up outside on the allotment and in the coldframe and they need to be treated carefully to get them through this vulnerable stage. Inside, tomato, salad and bean plants need to be toughened up ready for planting outside by the end of the month. This means daily having to take them all outside into the garden and then trooping them all back in again at night. The things we do for our babies! We tiptoe around Mother Nature, hoping to stay out of harms way should her mood swing again as she sulks and smiles her way towards summer.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Magic Seeds

Anyone who has ever read Jack and the Beanstalk will be familiar with the concept of magic beans but in my opinion all seeds are magical. They are amazing things, tiny containers of life locked up in storage until the perfect conditions set things into motion.

Last week in Gardening Club I talked to the children about germination (a word they were not familiar with) and we set up some runner bean seeds in plastic tumblers so that they can witness germination for themselves. Such a simple experiment but amazing nonetheless.

At the weekend I stood and contemplated the trays of seeds I'd sown a couple of weeks ago. I don't have a greenhouse and only very little windowsill space so I have to grow seeds in a small plastic coldframe. The temperature in there fluctuates between too cold and too hot and I have to remember to open it every morning and close it every night. I imagine that there are times when the temperature would meet with Goldilocks's approval and be just right but I don't supposed that happens often. On the positive side, the plants that do grow are tough. No namby-pampy greenhouse raised plants here. On the downside, germination is often slower than it would otherwise be and if I get the timing of the opening and closing of the front wrong then the seeds can either freeze or fry and never germinate.

To make matters worse, this year in a bid to be eco-friendly, I sowed my seeds in peat free compost. This is decidedly weird stuff: made from composted bark, it is like a pile of sticks. It doesn't stick together, it smells like a pine forest when it gets warm and every now and then a little crop of toadstools springs up from it. It also has the tendency to dry out completely on the surface but still be nice an damp underneath, making it difficult to judge how much to water it. I reckon it would probably make a great mulch but I'm sceptical that it is any good for sowing seeds in. Despite my reservations I went ahead and sowed brassicas, sweetcorn, cucurbits and tomatoes in this stuff. The brassicas didn't seem to notice anything different and sprung up happily about a week later. A few sweetcorn made an effort to germinate and after 2 weeks gherkins were the only cucurbits to have popped up. No sign of any tomatoes.

If I had sown the seeds in usual multipurpose compost I would have suspected temperature being the main culprit but I was now beginning to wonder if the tomatoes could ever grow in this stuff. So I decided to have a poke around and if necessary sow them all again in other compost before I lost too much time.

I started with the cucurbits because they are the largest seeds and I was surprised to discover that most of them had indeed germinated but weren't quite poking above the surface. Even so, I scooped the tiny seedlings out of the compost and replace it with decent compost before putting them back. Then I tackled the sweetcorn in the same way. Here I think age of the seeds was the main problem as the new seeds had 80-100% germination, whereas seeds from last year or older had 0-30% germination. I replaced the old seed with some more of the fresh. Finally I examined the tomatoes and discovered that they too had germinated so I decided to leave the lot alone.

Maybe next year I'll sow all my seeds in plastic tumblers in damp cotton wool so I can see when germination has occurred! Or maybe I'll just learn to be more patient!

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Rhubarb and raspberry jam

When I was wondering, a few weeks ago, whether to make rhubarb jam someone on the Yahoo Kitchen gardening list suggested making rhubarb and raspberry jam if I still had raspberries in my freezer. I do still have raspberries in my freezer and I'm always on the look out for ways to use raspberries because we have so many of them. So yesterday I picked another pound of rhubarb and retrieved 8 oz of raspberries from the bottom of my chest freezer. Today I converted them into a delicious, almost neon red coloured jam.

I am quickly warming towards rhubarb. It has an appetising citrus smell when chopped and I can understand why raspberries are suggested as a combination with it because there is a similarity in the flavours. Rhubarb is quick to cook and cooperatively sets into jam. And the end result is good too. Rhubarb and raspberry jam has an interesting flavour that I have been trying to describe all day. Sweet and sour, maybe, fruity, certainly. I'm beginning to think I might have to start growing the stuff!

Rhubarb & Raspberry Jam
(makes about 1 lb 8 oz)

1lb (454g) rhubarb
8 oz (225g) frozen raspberries
1 lemon, rind and juice
1lb 8 oz sugar

Chop the rhubarb into inch long sections. Gently heat the raspberries in a pan until they break up. Push the raspberry puree through a sieve to remove the seeds. Mix all the ingredients together in an non-metallic bowl, cover and leave to stand overnight. Decant the mixture into a preserving pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for a few minutes, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar, and cook until the rhubarb is pulpy. Bring to a vigorous boil until the setting point is reached. Ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.