Losing the plot over caterpillars

A couple of weeks back I decided – as they seemed determined to scoff it anyway – to let the Cabbage Whites have free range of the brassica bed. The grand idea was to feed the leaves to the chickens, complete with all the fat caterpillars, ridding the garden of the plants and the insects in one fell swoop.

However, this cunning plan has slightly backfired. Firstly, the girls have now decided they’ve had too much of a good thing, are tired of caterpillars, and point blank refuse to eat them. And secondly, this solution would have been a winner if the caterpillars had actually stayed on the brassicas. But they didn’t. I turned my back for just a second, and the little blighters are now EVERYWHERE! They’re rampaging all over the rhubarb, celery and  beans, and some have even snuck into the greenhouse and are having a go at the tomatoes and peppers in there. They’ve even chomped the baby cabbage plants I had grown ready to plant up into the beds.

Deciding enough was enough, I pulled out every last remaining brassica plant, and dumped them unceremoniously in the brown bin. Enlisting the help of the youngest, we then set to work rounding up any caterpillars that were left behind. This was no mean feat, as they were out in their droves. The more we peered, the more we found and we’d soon amassed a huge collection.  As the chickens aren’t keen, these went into the pond as tasty treats for the fish.

The caterpillar collection

The caterpillar collection

Next year I think I’ll give brassicas a miss. I just don’t think they are for us anymore. Mrs Cabbage White can go and lay her eggs in someone else’s patch, thank you very much, and I’ll be growing more stuff that we actually like to eat.

That done, the garden still needed a bit of a tidy up. The strawberries have well and truly finished, so that bed got a good haircut to allow the plants to rest. I’ve been planting up some the runners in pots, and these have rooted, so I’ll have a good stock of healthy plants for next year.

The peas have also stopped producing and the broad beans are now past their best. There were a couple of random pods left, but nothing to write home about inside – which is hardly surprising as they have all been cropping since early spring. Out came the finished pea and bean plants and into the empty space went a row of Swiss Chard (a brilliant alternative to spinach) and a row of lettuce. With any luck these just might just produce a harvest for later this year.

I then dismantled the cane and string wigwams and frames that had been supporting the plants. As I carefully wound up the string and put it safely in the shed to reuse another day, I seriously wondered if I was actually turning into my Grandad…

This appeared in The Hinckley Times on 29 August

The Hinckley Times - August 29 2013

The Hinckley Times – August 29 2013


Cabbage White

Looking out of the window last week, I’d be forgiven for thinking that – despite the lovely weather – it appeared to be snowing out there. And only over one patch of the veg plot. A closer look made my heart sink. It appeared our old friend, the Cabbage White butterfly was back with a vengeance, and had invited all her friends and relatives along to the party too.

Everywhere I looked, these harmless looking creatures flittered and fluttered in and out of the brassica bed, laying their eggs willy nilly all over my crops. Peering at the patch, it soon became obvious that I was a tad too late in spotting them, and they’d been busy indeed. Peering at the leaves, a good few now had clusters of tiny yellow eggs on – others were a stage further, with little holes nibbled out of them by miniscule caterpillars. Now, I could go through the plants with a fine tooth comb, and squish any I came across, but to be honest, it would be a mammoth task – and I know full well they’ll be back again tomorrow. I could also cover the plants with netting … but do you know what? I really haven’t got the time or inclination.

Cabbage White eggs on the brassicas

Cabbage White eggs

The brassica beds have gone bonkers this year, producing masses of dark leaves, but they’re not looking their best. The purple sprouting broccoli has bolted to seedand I think I may have planted the cabbages a tad too close – they’re struggling to heart up, and are more along the lines of leafy trees now. The chickens love them: the family hate them, and frankly I’m growing tired of thinking up new ways of disguising them into tasty dishes.

Add that to the fact that we now have an abundance of lovely colourful summer vegetables to pick from. Don’t you think that courgettes, aubergines, beans, peas, tomatoes and cucumbers are SO much more appealing at this time of year?

So, I’ve taken the executive decision to bid the brassicas goodbye, and to let them go. So there! Cabbage Whites – come on in, the door’s open. You’re welcome to my cabbage patch. Lay your eggs to your hearts’ content. The leaves are still eventually destined for the chickens, but very soon they will be complete with fat, juicy caterpillars. The girls are going to be in chicken heaven.

Caterpillars on the vegetable plot

Cabbage White Caterpillars

When the bed is empty and clear, it will give me the perfect spot to plant onion sets and garlic, come the autumn.

But we won’t be entirely brassica free. I’ve always associated cabbages with hearty winter- warming, gravy-soaking dishes. I’ve got some tiny Savoy and Tenderheart plants that I started off in a seed tray a while back. As the peas and beans get whipped out of their spot, I’ll replace them with these new plants. With any luck some will mature through winter.

For the time being though, we’ll be feasting on our summer crops and salads.

Eat your greens

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As my cabbages have started to heart up nicely, I’ve been trimming off some of the outer leaves to let more light and air around the plants and give them a bit more space to grow.

The trimmings could well go into the compost heap, or provide a quick snack for the chickens, but in an effort not to waste anything I’ve grown I thought I’d concoct them into some culinary delights.  A quick look on the internet confirmed they were, in fact, edible, so excited about harvesting something other than lettuce and radish from the garden, I set to work gathering the leaves.

The brassica bed

The brassica bed

As they have been fully exposed to light, the leaves are dark green, coarse and more strongly flavoured than cabbage. They also happen to be rich in vitamins A, B, C and K, folic acid and dietary fibre.  Apparently they contain no cholesterol and almost no fat, and are an excellent source of natural antioxidant. With all that goodness going on, we’d be fools not to try them!

On bringing my haul into the kitchen, the other half raised an eyebrow and questioned, “What are they?”

“These…” I replied proudly.. “are dinner!”

Being free from insects, and having never even sniffed a pesticide spray, the cabbage just needed a quick wash to remove any surface dirt. I then cut off the stalks and finely shredded the leaves.

A quick steam and a sauté with some finely chopped, fried onions just before serving, and Voila!  A healthy addition to the Sunday lunch vegetables: which went down a treat.

Apparently you can also lightly boil the leaves then wrap them around fillings to make stuffed cabbage rolls, or even add shredded leaves to a stir fry.

Spring green soup. Soup made from the outer brassica leaves

Spring green soup. Soup made from the outer brassica leaves

We have plenty, so I decided to turn some more of my leafy offerings into a hearty soup. True, it’s a bit whiffy whilst cooking, and the finished product ends up a violent shade of green, but it’s actually quite delicious – and freezes well. The rest of the family are not quite convinced so it looks like I’m souping it alone for the moment.

I’m sure to have the last laugh though. When I’m a size zero, with the complexion of a nineteen year old, they’ll soon be in the queue…

This one appeared in the Hinckley Times on 20 June 2013

The Hinckley Times 20 June 2013

The Hinckley Times 20 June 2013

Climate sparks a growth spurt


Salad leaves in tyres

Salad leaves in tyres

They say that everything in moderation is the key. Well, it’s certainly appeared to be the case in the garden. A bit of sun, a bit of rain, a bit of sun… and Hey Presto! The garden has positively burst into life and I am convinced that some of the plants have actually doubled in size the last week or so. On the down side the weeds have also started to pop up with a vengeance. So the first job of the weekend was to whip round with the hand hoe and finish them off whilst they are still tiny and easy to get out. Left to grow, they are nigh on impossible to get rid of.

Broad beans

Broad beans

Elsewhere in the garden though, it’s all good news. The broad beans are romping away, and the brassica bed is bursting with life. In the greenhouse, my courgette and squash plants were looking a tad big for their pots, so I decided to bite the bullet and plant them out. After the disaster with the runner beans though, I’ve erred on the side of caution and planted just half of them out, in case we get a late frost.

In addition, I’ve sowed mixed salad leaves in a tyre, to use as ‘cut and come again’ salad, but cheated ever so slightly. Whilst waiting for the seeds to grow, I’ve bought a tray of living salad from the supermarket, and planted that in there.

I’m also delighted to say that all six rows of potatoes have pushed through the ground and have lush, green leaves showing… which means it’s time to start earthing them up. This is simply covering the green growth with soil, ensuring any potatoes are well under the ground, and won’t be exposed to light. If the light gets to them, it turns them green, and therefore makes them inedible.

Brassicas and potatoes

Brassicas and potatoes

There’s just one tiny hiccup in our garden. We’ve had new raised beds and all the available soil we had has gone in them. So there’s no spare earth to be earthing up with. Luckily for me, our local garden centre sells soil that you bag up yourself, so off I whizzed at the weekend to fetch some for our beds. I have to admit I had a bit of a sweat on after I’d loaded up the bags, manhandled them into the boot, ferried them home and mounded the mud over the spud crop. Whilst I was busy with that, the other half whipped up and down the lawn with the mower.

I read an article in the week saying that gardeners can burn up to 19,000 calories per year. Apparently, three hours of gardening can be the equivalent to an hour-long slog in the gym, and just half an hour of weeding can burn up to 150 calories.

Good news indeed. With all that activity this weekend, we’re surely in calorie credit: That après-gardening ice cold beer positively slipped down – guilt free.

The Hinckley Times 23 May 2013

The Hinckley Times 23 May 2013

A brand new vegetable plot

A while back we dismantled the trampoline as it wasn’t being used any more, and gave it away to some friends who would get much more enjoyment out of it.

We were still left with a massive pile of rubbish that I tried a couple of times to have a bonfire with, but with limited success. Happy to say though, that ‘The Great Fire’ finally took place last weekend, leaving the patch relatively clear for me to do something with.

First job was to get rid of the bits that didn’t burn – the brown bin men are going to LOVE me this week!

Clearing the patch

At the back of the patch was a ridge of clay which we dumped there when we dug out the pond. I had two options – either turn this into a rockery of some kind, or break it up. I decided on the latter, and merrily set to work chopping up the clay and spreading it out. I came across some massive roots from the tree that we used to have, so OH nipped out for a mighty axe, and they were soon history.

Finally I could get my rotovator out and have a whiz round with it.

An action shot

I discovered ‘aerobics for chickens’ too.  Any worms I came across got thrown onto the mesh roof of the run.  All three stood underneath it, and jumped up in a Ninja-type manner, trying to reach it. Eventually the worm dropped through the holes, and one lucky chicken would pick it up and scarper before the others could catch it.

Anyway,  a quick rake over and another couple of laps with the rotavator, and it was all looking rather good.

I then planted up a load of brassicas I’d started off in the greenhouse earlier in the year. We now have brussels, cauliflowers, and three types of cabbages growing in there.

My family are all cock-a-hoop…. they thought they’d seen the last of cabbage…

We’ve been to The Edible Garden Show

On Saturday my friend and I went to the Edible Garden Show, and I have to say, had a jolly good time.

We had a nice chat with the beekeeping society, as I’ve quite fancied having a go with bees in the past. We kept bees last summer, but completely by accident: a colony of tree bees camped out for a few months in the bird box. Just at the point where I was nerdily going on about my bees to anyone who’d listen, they upped and offed one day, never to be seen again.

I digress… On speaking to the bee man, I’ve decided that keeping real bees is a bit more involved than I’d thought. I would quite enjoy the ‘prancing around in a white suit’ bit, and would probably wear my beekeeper’s hat at a jaunty little angle just for the fun of it, but the actual honey extraction seems like a lot of work. True, you can borrow the equipment from the club, but you’d still have to fetch it, take it back, clean it all down, jar the honey… you get the picture. We have some honey in the fridge that’s been there for six months, so honey is evidently not on our ‘must eat on a regular basis’ list.

From there we went to see Pippa Greenwood giving a demonstration on which vegetables to grow, and what to watch out for. Very informative indeed… According to the Pip-Meister, tomatoes are a relatively easy crop to try. She suggests that if you’re growing tomatoes, have a go at aubergines, as they need the same conditions, albeit slightly more light (up on the shelf?) and slightly less water.

Courgettes too, are apparently a doddle, and why not try some butternut squash while you’re at it. All good, inspiring stuff to be thinking about. Then she moved on to talking about brassicas and broccoli, and she went on to say that one of the main predators for these is pigeons. It was like de-ja-vu… had she been reading the Hinckley Times last week, I wondered?

After the show we decided to find a nice country pub to have a spot of lunch in. This plan went slightly awry, as we got completely and totally lost. After driving around for an age, we eventually found a pub, and on entering realised that a) not many girlies or non-locals frequented the place and  b) the floor didn’t get washed all that often. All eyes were on us as we ordered our drinks and a portion of hearty Irish Stew (as it was St Patrick’s Day).

Having said that though, the food was actually very nice, so overall, it was a most enjoyable day out.

Who’s been scoffing my savoys?

Recently I noticed that something has been scoffing my savoy cabbages. They’re in a bed with some purple sprouting broccoli, and on closer inspection all of the plants had little holes in them or had been nibbled round the leaves.

I grew some purple sprouting broccoli last year, but it never actually sprouted due to the masses of snow we had. This year I’d like to at least see what all the fuss is about – apparently it’s one of the tastiest vegetable to grow – and the more you pick, the more it sprouts. Experienced gardeners tend to shorten the name to ‘PSB’ – at first I didn’t know what they were on about… I thought they’d got some new, exotic veg up their sleeve.

So… what was eating it? I’d already discovered a family of slugs had rampaged through my pak choi, but that was under the polytunnel. Surely it was too cold out in the open for slugs… would they not freeze? And it’s certainly too early for the dreaded cabbage white.

The next morning, from my kitchen window I spotted the culprit. Bold as brass, a wood pigeon was having a fine old party for one, merrily chomping through my prize veggies. I noticed that he seemed to be particularly fond of the plants in this year’s plot, having blatantly ignored the sorry offerings we’d had to eat from last year’s bed.

“I don’t flippin’ well think so, sunshine!” I hissed through gritted teeth. It’s enough of a challenge getting stuff to grow into something that looks half edible, without some bird coming along and eating it all. With not a moment to lose, I slipped on my wellies and ran down the path waving my arms madly to shoo him off. I then set about making sure he couldn’t come back for seconds. A quick rustle round the shed produced a roll of netting I’d bought cheap at the end of last year.

So there I was, in my wellies and pink spotty PJs, stretching netting across my cabbages, at eight in the morning. My poor neighbours…

Personally I’m not a big fan of netting – I prefer to see the plants growing. Plus the fact that mine was a tad small so it was so tightly stretched across, the plants looked like they were off to do a bank job.

So this week I removed the netting. I poked a cane in at each end of the bed, tied some string between them and hung two old cds from it. I was feeling pretty chuffed with my bird scarer, right up until the following morning, where I noticed the pigeon was back – not looking all that frightened. There was nothing for it – I hunted round the shed for a bigger piece of netting and that’s now protecting my broccoli – which I’m pleased to say, is starting to form sprouts.

C’mon pigeon – bring it on… if you think you’re hard enough…

Who's been scoffing my savoys?

This one was in the Hinckley Times on 15 March. Is there some subliminal messaging going on, I wonder. In a previous article I was stood atop a ‘Replace your old boiler’ ad. Now we seem to have moved on to ‘Beach body boot camp’…. ahem….

Budge up, brassicas

This week, we have mostly been eating cabbage.

Now, this isn’t some new faddy diet or detox plan, but merely a practical solution to the conundrum that is crop rotation.

In an attempt to be ahead of the game this year, I dug out my four- year plan to see what needed to be planted where. Vegetables should be planted in groups of their own kind, in a different bed each year. The theory behind this is that some plants will leave good stuff behind in the soil, which the next crop needs, and some plants will suck some of the nutrients out of the soil, which the next crop can happily do without. And by rotating crops around, you can help prevent some plant diseases. I’m sure it gets much more scientific than that, but that’s all the detail I need to know – I just keep the map safe.

Apparently this is the law of the land:
Year one: brassicas ie cabbages,  brussels, kale and chard
Year two: roots and onions
Year three:  potatoes
Year four: legumes (peas and beans to you and I) – then back to brassicas in Year five.

I have a very slight spanner to throw into the works. At the first sign of spring, I’m meant to be planting onions into the bed where the brassicas were last year. How am I supposed to do that when the bed is still chock a block with leafy offerings?

Well, I say that… true, there are plenty of plants in there, but I have to admit none of them will win any prizes in the looks department.

The cabbages failed to heart up, the brussels didn’t form little nutty balls, and the red cabbage leaves are about the size of a small child’s hand. But they all need to be gone as soon as the weather warms up, to make way for the onions.

As I’d spent a good part of the summer picking caterpillars off them, I was loathe to throw them away just for not being pretty. I decided that there was no option. We were going to have to unite as a family, ‘man up’ to the challenge, and eat the lot. It’s taken a bit of creative licence to get it all from garden to table, but by Jove, I think we’ve nearly cracked it.

Every meal has come with a side order of cabbage or kale (sometimes both). Shredded cabbage goes well in a stir fry, baggy brussels are actually not all that bad sliced and steamed, and I’ve even been making sprout and potato soup.

The local wind conditions have been changeable, to say the least.

(Featured in The Hinckley Times: 16 February 2012)