The cabbage cull

It will soon be that time of the year when onion sets and garlic need to be planted. The onion sets are on order, and I’ll be splitting up a couple of the garlic bulbs grown this year, and planting their cloves. Onions and garlic can go in during autumn or spring, and after this year’s disaster, I was keen to get mine in as soon as possible, in the hope they’d get a good stronghold over winter.

I dug out the crop rotation plan, and discovered that they should be planted in the previous season’s brassica bed.

Slight problem there… the cabbages, broccoli and brussels are still whooping it up in there.

So this week I’ve had to make an important gardening decision. My dad used to say that if you’re umming and ahhing about something, write down the plusses and minuses on each side of a sheet of paper, and all should become clear. So off I went, and the list looked a bit like this:

The plus side:

  1. If we ignore the cauliflower disaster of a couple of weeks ago, brassicas are one of the few things that actually survive in my veg plot

The minus side:

  1. Yes, they grow, but it’s touch and go if we get a hearted-up cabbage or not, and only a handful of last year’s Brussels formed nutty balls: all the rest were like miniature baggy cabbages
  1. If there was a cabbage-only supermarket, my family would not be the first ones in the queue. Over the year, I’ve had to be pretty inventive with my culinary skills to get the stuff eaten
  1. The slugs in the garden may as well have their own bar tab, with the amount of beer that’s sloshing around in the slug pubs
  1. I could start off a caterpillar farm with the pickings from the patch

So there you have it. The cold, hard evidence. Brassicas have had their day, so I’ve decided to not grow as many next year. I’ll still plant a few, but not enough to be over-run with the stuff: just sufficient to eat now and again. With this new decisive air about me, I set about clearing some space in the brassica bed to make room for the onion sets that could arrive at any time. Anything that looked puny, holey, or had started forming flowers was swiftly whipped out, and only plants that actually looked edible were allowed to stay in.

The final nail in the cabbagy coffin happened in the week. A photo appeared on the OH’s Facebook page, depicting a slug on the grass, with an arrow behind him saying ‘cabbages’. “Hilarious!” I thought, “I wonder where he’s found that picture”. A closer look revealed the truth. The writing on the sign was his: he’d set the thing up. The message really could not be clearer…



Cabbage soup

It’s well documented on this blog that the only things that scoff our cabbages with gusto are the pigeons, the slugs and the caterpillars. In that order. The humans of the household need a little more persuasion.

The problem is, it’s one of the few things I can actually grow

I’ve come up with some ingenious ways with cabbage to make it more inviting to the family, from sauteeing with chopped onions after steaming, to actually hiding it in the mash and calling it ‘bubble and squeak’.

Presently we have a whole patch of cabbages that need to be eaten. For one, I’ve earmarked the spot they are in with a polytunnel, and for two I am tired of picking caterpillars off on a daily basis. So yesterday I decided to make soup.

A quick rustle around the garden produced six very small onions that were drying in the shed, a couple of cloves of garlic, a whole savoy cabbage and some cherry tomatoes that were ready.

After a thorough wash, I chopped it all up and popped it in my soup maker – I also sprinkled some chilli flakes in for good measure, added a beef stock cube,  chucked a bit of salt and pepper in the top and topped up with water to 1400 ml.  Half an hour later the beeper told me it was done. A quick blend on the liquidiser mode, and there you have it – free lunch for a week. It actually tastes pretty good too.

I persuaded the other half to try it, and he wrinkled his nose, commenting, “It tastes… healthy“.

I realised I was on my own for this cabbage-chomping marathon, but consoled myself with the thought that if the rumours about cabbage soup are true, I’d surely be a Size 8 by the weekend.

There may however be an unwelcome side effect. I’ll have no-one else to blame fo the inevitable ‘quilt ripping’ that will surely follow…

The dreaded cabbage white

During my day job, there are lots of opportunities to fraternise with learned Doctor types. One such chap was a keen gardener, and I recall having an in depth conversation with him about our shared hobby.

At the time we were digging out our pond, which, being 7 feet by 6 feet was no easy task. It soon became apparent that my colleague was also digging a pond… for which he would need to hire a digger. We then moved onto the topic of greenhouses, and what to grow in them. He announced that he didn’t use his much, due to the fact that he couldn’t get water down to it. Hmmm… a digger for the pond, and no water supply to the greenhouse… his garden was obviously a far larger, grander affair than mine.

It soon became evident that this large, grand garden went hand in hand with a house in a picturesque little village. I mentioned my vast collection of seeds: all obtained when our well known local hardware store sells them off at half price at the end of the season. He’d never heard of the shop, to which I replied, “you must have done… there’s one on every high street.”

“Not on mine there isn’t”, was the puzzled reply.

The subject then turned to garden pests – and in particular the dreaded cabbage white. This innocent-looking little butterfly has the potential to devastate an entire patch of vegetables. Brassicas are its particular favourite, and once it spots its target, eggs are laid in gay abandon all over them. Well, I say all over them – rather, all under them.  Regular checks are essential to play ‘hunt the eggs’, which appear on the underside of leaves, as clusters of yellow dots. Should you miss them, in no time at all, you’ll have a hungry hoard of caterpillars (who are handily the exact shade green as the vegetables), marauding through the bed, chomping anything and everything that crosses their path. Inevitably this means curtains for your cabbage patch.

We then entered a debate on whether putting netting over the veg actually did any good at all, as the cabbage white may simply lay her eggs on top of it, and any eggs will just drop through – making them doubly hard to find as they are now under the net. We agreed that spraying with pesticides was only done as a complete last resort, as you were liable to kill off friendly insects like ladybirds, along with the stuff that you’re trying to eradicate.

At the end of the conversation, I heard a phrase that I have never heard before in my life, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never hear again. Turning to leave, his parting comment, in his rather posh Dr’s voice was, “So, Lynnette, do you cover your brassicas?”.

With that, another work colleague who sat opposite me stifled a guffaw and disappeared behind the desk divider….

Our first complete meal

Being on clay, our garden is having a slight issue with drainage. It’s actually reached saturation point now, and the vegetable plot is struggling slightly. Slightly may actually be an understatement… parts of the patch are now constantly under water. I’ve resigned myself to kissing some of the onions goodbye, but thought I’d have a cheeky look at the garlic I planted at the end of last year. The shoots above ground looked healthy enough, but it would only be a matter of time before the water took its toll and they rotted away.

Pulling on one of them, it slipped out of the ground with a satisfying slurp, and I was amazed to find quite a large garlic bulb at the end of it. With no time to lose, they were all up and out of the ground, and they are currently in the greenhouse drying out before I store them. According to the book you can lay them on the grass to dry, but looking at my lawn bog, I think not.

On a roll now, I decided to check on the spuds. I know of people who’ve had their first crop of early potatoes: mine were second earlies (International Kidney) and main crops (Cara) so there was every chance that some might be ready. Sticking my fork underneath one of the early plants, I gently eased one out of the ground, and am delighted to report there were actually decent-sized spuds in there. Fishing them all out and into my bucket, I soon had enough for dinner, and happily took them up to the house to wash them. Whilst doing this, I noticed that some had tiny holes in them, obviously caused by some grub or other. Making the executive decision to dig up the rest of the plants in the row before they all got chomped underground, I shot off back down the garden, wielding my trusty fork.

In no time at all, my bucket was full of lovely new potatoes, and I was feeling rather pleased with my haul. I topped it up with the broad beans that were ready, and plopped a cabbage on the top for good measure.

Swinging my bucket jauntily back to the house, I allowed myself a smug smile, as the day had finally arrived where we had enough produce from the garden to make an entire meal: we have hardly been ‘living off the land’ to date.

The other half and I then set about shelling the beans. As we weren’t due to eat them for another couple of hours, I wondered out loud if we had jumped the gun and they would lose their flavour at all between removing the pods and eating.

“Will they be alright in some water?” I asked.

The other half gave me a sidelong look and replied, “They’ve been in water all summer. I think they’ll feel quite at home…”

Our first complete meal

How’s everyone else doing with their growing? Any bumper crops to report?



Rain stopped play

I know the rain stopped a lot of gardeners’ play recently, but I for one was having a teeny bit of a smug moment about it all.

My lovely new water butt

My lovely new water butt

Only the week before, my birthday present had consisted of some new greenhouse guttering and a shiny new water butt – who said romance was dead… flowers are sooo last year!  After the other half had spent the entire weekend dodging the showers to get it all installed, I was hoping for a veritable downpour… and that’s exactly what we got.

Not only was the new water butt filling up at a grand pace, but the garden was getting a good old water too – If I strained my ears, I could almost hear the sound of slurping roots. And, after being told our area was on a drought warning, we certainly needed it – looking round the garden, some plants had fared slightly better than others.

After rescuing my brassicas from the beak of a hungry pigeon earlier in the year, the purple sprouting broccoli (PSB) has grown into fine specimens, and we’re getting a good crop from it. Alas, the same can’t be said for the savoys. Some look as though they have the potential to heart up, but some haven’t so much bolted, as scarpered and run for the hills. I think it was down to the warm spell we had. Not to worry though, some will make tasty treats for the chickens, and I’ll let a few of them flower so I can save the seeds for next year.

The PSB's in fine fettle

The PSB's in fine fettle

Meanwhile, back in the greenhouse, a load more brassicas I’d started off were about ready to be planted out. Fast running out of room in the garden, I set about preparing a new patch. After clearing the area, a few laps round with the rotovator soon dug it over, and before long the bed was ready to be planted.

Whilst preparing the area, I discovered ‘Chicken Olympics’: an entertaining game that anyone can play, providing you have 1) a couple of hens and 2) a worm. Simply place the worm on top of the wire in the coop. The birds will spot it, and the High Jump trials will begin. After said worm has dropped through, it’s time for the 20 metre sprint. I have to say that Winnie was the clear champion, due to her speed, eye to beak co-ordination and sheer dexterity. Oh, and I’m sure being a bit of a thug helped too.

Anyway, patch ready, in went three types of cabbage, next year’s PSB and Brussels, and some cauliflower plants. Slug pellets went down, netting went on, and we’ll have to see what grows and what doesn’t.

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

Latest from The Hinckley Times – 26 April

Hinckley Times 26 April 2012

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)