Putting the beds to bed

With the nights drawing in, the weather getting chillier, and the simple fact that I’m a bit of a fair-weather gardener, I’ve started to wind down the garden for winter.

The onion sets have already thrown up some green shoots, and I’ll plant garlic next month – so these should be well established by spring.

All that’s left growing in the beds now are leeks and celery, which I’ll harvest for as long as I can. I’ve tidied up the other areas, and I’ll cover any bare patches of soil up until spring. Last year I planted green manure to grow through the cold months. This should have protected the soil, stopped all the nutrients being washed away, and provided me with some lovely nitrogen-rich plants to dig in once spring arrived. Slight problem with that idea: the manure germinated and grew, I let the chickens out, and they promptly scoffed the lot. So this year I’m covering the bare soil up.

Chicken having a scratch in the vegetable patch

Chicken having a scratch in the vegetable patch

Onto each bed has gone a good layer of comfrey, a generous helping of hen house scrapings and the contents of the compost bins.  I’ve then put strips of old carpet on the very top. I’m hoping that the organic stuff will rot down and nourish the soil ready for next year’s crops. Not only that, but the carpet should help warm the soil up earlier, giving me a head start. Well… that’s the plan…

The last of the chillies and tomatoes have been ripening in the greenhouse, and the benches are looking decidedly bare now. I’ve used the space to sow some trays of broad beans and early peas in there, and will plant them out as soon as winter is over. You can sow the seeds straight into the garden to grow through winter, but last year most of mine got whipped out and eaten by mice: hopefully being under cover will offer a bit more protection.

Earthed up leeks

Earthed up leeks

Having said that, the broad beans I cut down earlier in the year have actually sprouted again, and the jury is out regarding their fate. Some gardeners have informed me that these plants are never likely to be top croppers. Others say they will be better as they will be more established. I’ve decided to leave them alone and see what happens: if all fails I have my reserves growing in the greenhouse.

The last job of the year will be to dig up, trim the foliage, and store the runner bean plants in a cool dark place – apparently they should regrow next year.

So with the garden tidied and some of next year’s crops taken care of, there’s nothing left to do but hang up my trusty trowel and retreat to the warmth of the house.

From there, I can keep a gentle eye on the garden, with a glass of something yummy, whilst flicking through the seed catalogue for next year’s goodies.

My perfect idea of winter gardening…

This one appeared in The Hinckley Times on 31 October 2013

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Marrow brandy

Well, it would seem that after the awesome growing season we’ve just had, autumn is well and truly underway. Unable to get out into the garden due to the frankly miserable weather at the weekend, I turned my hand instead to making marrow brandy.

Now, I’ve been fishing around on the interweb for a while for a bullet proof recipe and different folk seem to make it in different ways. The main process is the same: chop the top off a marrow, scoop out the seeds, pack with sugar and fasten the top on again. This is where it gets a tad complicated. Some add brandy to the sugar, some add yeastand some add nothing at all. Figuring I wasn’t likely to get a potent brew with no brewing process, I decided to add yeast to mine.

Fetching my non-prize winning marrow from the depths of the pantry, I first cut off the top about 3 inches down. Scooping out the seeds proved trickier than I first thought due to the length of the marrow and the size of the opening. Undeterred, I removed all that I physically could, then made the cavity as big as possible by poking the remaining seeds down with a rolling pin. Genius!

I then set about packing the hole with brown sugar. After it was half full I added the juice of an orange and a sachet of wine yeast, then up to the top with more brown sugar. As this thing is hopefully going to ferment its head off I made a small hole through the lid of the marrow and inserted a wine-making airlock. With any luck this will let any yeasty gasses out and avert any unfortunate exploding marrow incidents. It should also keep the whole thing a bit more sealed and sterile and stop any bacteria getting in and sending the insides mouldy. That fitted, the top went back on the marrowand I fastened it with gaffer tape.

I then put the whole thing into an old pair of tights, hung it from the window latch and suspended it over a sweet jar. Apparently when the magic starts to happen, the marrow can get really mushy and hard to handle, so the tights will help support the weight.

Marrow brandy

Marrow brandy

According to form I now leave it alone for about three weeks, and then pierce a hole in the bottom to let the liquid drip out. At that point I should then pack the marrow with even more sugar and seal again for maximum juice extraction.

If all goes to plan I’ll be rewarded with a syrupy liquid that will be the start of my brandy. The liquid then goes into a demijohn with more yeast and water, to be fermented into a heady brew. From all accounts the end result can knock your socks off, so should be enjoyed in moderation.

I wonder if I should include a health warning on the bottles…

Appeared in The Hinckley Times on 17 October 2013

Harvesting the spuds

Wandering around the garden at the weekend, I decided to give the leek bed a bit of well-deserved TLC. I’m delighted to report that the leeks are looking pretty amazing at the moment. The plants are looking lush and strong, and it’s almost hard to imagine the scrawny seedlings they were at the beginning of the season.

Every last onion is now out of that bed, which has left a nice supply of soil to earth up the leeks with.  Pulling earth up around the plants stops the light from getting in, resulting in longer, whiter stems so I set to work covering as much of the patch as I could with soil: oh yes, it’s all rock ‘n’ roll here, I can tell you…

Earthed up leeks

Earthed up leeks

Leeks are really hardy, so they should now sit there quite happily until we are ready to dig them up.

Turning my attention then to the potato beds, I noticed that the foliage on the last two rows was dying back. Apparently that means they’re done, so I decided to whip them out well before any chance of frost and store them for the colder months.

Rummaging around in the soil, it soon became apparent that we were in for a mighty crop. Not wanting to damage any with my fork, I donned my gloves and furiously furtled around in the soil by hand. The more I rummaged, the more spuds I found, and we soon had a more than impressive haul: some were absolute whoppers!

Harvesting the spuds - with a bit of help from the chickens

Harvesting the spuds – with a bit of help from the chickens

When I’d harvested all I could see, I had a good dig over the bed to turn up any lurking deeper in the soil, and promptly discovered a load more. It’s worth the extra effort to get all the potatoes out of the ground, so they don’t sprout and grow rogue plants next year.

The other half had bought me a hessian sack earlier in the week (who said romance is dead?) to store the spuds in, and all I can say is that I’m so glad he’d ordered the largest size. As I was merrily pulling them out left, right and centre, he was on quality control duties. Any perfect ones went in the sack; any with slight blemishes or damage went up to the house to use first; and any really tiny ones that weren’t worth getting the peeler out went in the bin.

Sorting the spuds

Sorting the spuds

It’s important to sort them, as any damaged ones in storage may start to rot, and the rot can easily spread to the other potatoes. Our sack of spuds is now in the shed, where it’s cool and dry. When the long winter nights draw in, I’m predicting an endless supply of leek and potato soup.

With the beds becoming emptier by the week, it’s also now safe to let the chickens out during the day, and they’re having a fine old time scratching around for worms and grubs – I’m hoping they may sniff out the last of our slugs too.

Chickens free ranging

Chickens free ranging

This article appeared in The Hinckley Times on 26 September 2013

The Hinckley Times 26 September 2013

The Hinckley Times 26 September 2013

Berry good ideas for using up fruit

This article appeared in The Hinckley Times on 12 September, and came out of my recent post about Blackberry Jam and Blackberry Vodka

I’ve heard several reports that this year has been a great one for fruit, and on a recent walk out I discovered the proof was indeed in the pudding. Or the crumble. Or the pie really… Blackberries are growing in abundance around our local fields, hedgerows and jitties, so I decided to go foraging.

Learning from experience that a) brambles are lethally prickly and b) I may have to manoeuvre around dog doo, on went the long trousers, long-sleeved top and sensible shoes. Armed with a load of collecting bags, I was prepared for my mission and set off in the direction of the lane.

In no time at all – the branches were literally heaving with fruit – I had myself just over 2 Kilogrammes of lovely plump berries. Wanting to try something a bit different to a crumble, I opted for blackberry vodka and blackberry jam.

Blackberry vodka
You’ll need a 70cl bottle of cheap vodka, a clean, empty wine bottle with a screw top, sugar and blackberries.

Split the vodka between the two bottles, and put about 100g of sugar into each. Then simply plop blackberries into both bottles until they are full and screw on the lids. Put them in a cool dark place and about once a week, turn the bottles (think bell-ringer) so all the contents are well mixed. By Christmas, the berries should have infused into the vodka. Sieve and put the liquid back into just the vodka bottle. Enjoy!

 

Blackberry jam

Blackberry jam

Blackberry jam
The rest of the berries weighed 1.5 kilos and these went into a large cast iron pan. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 8 minutes until the fruit is soft.

Add the same weight of sugar (1.5 kilos), a teaspoon of lemon juice and a sachet of pectin. (Pectin makes the jam set, and blackberries don’t contain much of it naturally).

Bring the whole lot to a rolling boil for about another 10 minutes. The jam has to get to a certain temperature in order to set, and you’ll know when that’s close as the boiling liquid will suddenly look calmer, appear glossier and less frothy. To test if it’s ready, take a tiny bit of the jam and put on a cool plate. It will form a skin if it’s ready: if not, boil for longer, testing at regular intervals.

The jars need to be sterile to store the jam, so these should be washed and rinsed thoroughly. Whist the jam is boiling put the jars and lids on a tray in the oven on a medium heat. When the jam’s ready, funnel it up to the neck of each jar and screw on the lids.

Extreme caution should be deployed at this point, as the jam is approximately the same temperature of the earth’s core, and the jars and lids will be red hot too.

So, for the price of a bottle of pop and a couple of bags of sugar, we will be enjoying blackberries right into the New Year.

The Hinckley Times 12 September 2013

The Hinckley Times 12 September 2013

Undone by kinky beans

This is the Hinckley Times article that  came out of my village show blog posts – published there on 5 September 2013…

After all the hype, build-up and preparation, last weekend it was finally here… the Earl Shilton Town Show was upon us. Up bright and early on Saturday morning I shot off down the garden – still in my pyjamas – to harvest my award-winning veggies.

The runner beans were whipped off the plants, the spuds and onions came out of hiding from the shed, and I also picked my biggest marrow, a couple of courgettes, a couple of tomatoes and a mahoosive cucumber that I’ve grown.

I soon found that finding four identical beans was going to be pretty tricky. Laying them out in size order, I discovered that some were too curly, some were odd shapes, and some perfect, but a bit kinky. I straightened them out best I could, and selected the most likely candidates. I then weighed my spuds and picked the four that were most uniform.

Runner beans at the show

Runner beans at the show

I was also entering the 5 a day category – an arrangement of five different fruits and vegetables – so into a basket went my marrow, cucumber, yellow courgettes, onions and a couple of beef tomatoes – I was after a colour explosion.

Off I went to the hall to display my entries, and realising there were some pristine specimens already there, I discovered the competition would be stiff. Returning a couple of hours later after judging had taken place, I eagerly scanned the tables for the results. And do you know what? Instead of the fistful of winning tickets I’d envisaged, my entries had won nothing. Yes! NOTHING at all!

This vegetable show malarkey is obviously a tad more technical than I’d thought, but I had an interesting chat with a chap there who let me in on a few trade secrets. Runner beans and tomatoes should be picked on the day of the show: they can tell if they’re not. There were a good few bean entries, so I wasn’t too disappointed about that one. A closer look at my spuds revealed a miniscule grub hole in the back of one, which obviously hadn’t escaped the scrutiny of the eagle-eyed judge.

5 a day display at the village vegetable show

5 a day display at the village vegetable show

My 5 a day basket – which I thought was my trump card – didn’t win because the entries were judged on how balanced a diet they were (on reflection I had too many curcubits) – and get this – they also looked at the vitamin and mineral content in there!

Oh well. There’s always next year, and as they say, “it’s the taking part that counts”.

Although, I didn’t come away from the show entirely empty handed. After my article a couple of weeks ago, bemoaning my Cabbage White invasion, a very kind man gave me a present. A sachet of organic, natural caterpillar killer that you mix with water and spray on the plants. The caterpillars eat the leaves, and apparently die shortly after – not harming any beneficial insects in the process. As my greenhouse is currently being eaten alive, it was a gift very gratefully received.

The Hinckley Times 5 September 2013

The Hinckley Times 5 September 2013

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

Saving seeds

Part of the pleasure of growing your own has to be the smug feeling when you saunter off down the garden or allotment and busily harvest free produce. But what if you went one step further, and actually produced your own seeds… for FREE?

Saving seeds to plant next year is fairly straightforward, but there are just a couple of things to bear in mind before you start. First off, the type of plant you collect seeds from will determine the end product of what actually grows.

For example, if you collected seeds from a ‘heritage’ variety of plant, the odds are you’ll grow something the same or very close as the original plant. Heritage varieties haven’t been genetically modified or mucked about with in any way, so on the plus side they retain their original features. On the minus they may be less hardy to certain pests and diseases.

If the original plant was an F1 (hybrid) variety, this is a man-made species that’s been created from a number of different varieties to incorporate the best from each. So the plant you grow could be very different to the one you harvested the seed from: it could take on the characteristics of any of the plants in the mix.

Simple seeds to begin with include:

Parsnips and carrots – these will flower the year after they have produced the root and greenery. Just leave one or two in the ground for the next season, and they should throw up a flower spike. Simply leave this alone:  after the flowers fade, bunches of seeds begin to form. Once these have started to turn brown, cut off the flower head and place upside down in a paper bag or envelope. Leave in a cool, dry place and the seeds will all dry out and drop off.

Garlic – when you’ve harvested your garlic bulbs for the year and dried them out, set a couple aside for seed.  In late autumn/early winter, simply divide the bulbs and plant each clove about 6 inches apart and just deep enough so the top is showing.

Beans and peas – leave a couple of pods on the plant. At the end of the growing season these will mature and then begin to dry out. Once dry, remove the beans and peas and dry completely on some kitchen towel. Store in a cool, dry place ready for next year.

Salad crops – lettuce and radish can easily ‘bolt’ during the summer, and throw up a flower spike. Just leave it alone until the seed pods begin to form, cut them off and dry upside down in a paper bag or envelope.

Tomatoes – Remove the fleshy insides of tomatoes and wash the pulp off through a sieve. Dry the seeds on sheets of kitchen paper, and once dry, store as above.

So there you have it – with just a little time and effort, it’s possible to grow next year’s crops… for nothing.

Parsnip flower head

Parsnip flower head

This article appeared in The Hinckley Times on 15 August 2013.

 

 

Runner beans are up to speed

As the world went slightly hysterical over the coming of the new royal baby, I was having a smug little moment to myself down on the patch with my own little arrivals.

After runner bean-gate of a couple of months ago… you know the one… I put them out too early… they got clobbered by Jack Frost so I had to plant some emergency ones…yes, that’s the story…

Well, I am delighted to be able to tell you that not only have these grown almost to the top of the arches, but I have beans dangling in abundance all over them. When the plants do reach the top, I’ll pinch out the tips to encourage sturdier growth further down. I have three varieties in all – White Lady, Pantheon and a rather startling little number called Selma Zebra. This was an impulse buy heritage variety, and I’m so glad I tried her. The flowers are a gorgeous pink colourand the beans are mottled with purple. I’m pretty certain these will not be ‘available in a store near you’ any time soon, and I will definitely be leaving a few on the plant to dry for next year’s seeds.

Selma Zebra runner beans

Selma Zebra runner beans

As two of the Pantheons are almost a foot long already, I’ve tied a bit of string around their stalks. This signifies that these beans are definitely not for picking: I’ve earmarked them for the ‘Longest runner bean’ category in the Earl Shilton Town Show at the end of the month. With a good couple more weeks of growing time I think they are in with a fighting chance.

Elsewhere in the garden, the greenhouse is flourishingand we’ve harvested the first couple of cucumbers already – which were sweet and delicious. The tomatoes aren’t yet ripening, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.

Cucumbers

Cucumbers

I read in the week that a sprinkling of crushed egg shells around the base of tomatoes and cucumbers can give the plants a good boost of calcium. This apparently can help them reach their full flavour potential and also helps the plants regulate their water intake, preventing conditions like splitting and blossom end rot. As egg shells aren’t something that are in short supply around our house, I decided to give this method a whirl, and whizzed out to put a generous handful of shells around each plant. This, together with regular feeds should make for a bumper crop.

The tomatoes I planted in the upside down planters are also doing remarkably well. I have to admit I was dubious about these at the start – it’s just not natural for plants to grow upside down – but they appear to be proving me wrong. The plants are healthy and strong, and a good number of cherry tomatoes have started to form on the branches. Very soon it’ll be tomatoes and cucumbers for everyone!

upside down tomato planter

upside down tomato planter

This article appeared in The Hinckley Times on 1 August 2013

 

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

My first complaint

Following on from last week’s article, I recieved, via The Hinckley Times letters page, my very first letter of complaint.

The fact I’d put my runner beans in a tad early and the frost got them annoyed Mr Taylor sufficiently to write in about it. Apparently I’m a bit ‘gung ho’ with an ‘Oh dear, never mind’ attitude.

Gardening column was a little gung ho

Gardening column was a little gung ho

I’ll not hang my head in shame. Mr Taylor is completely right… I get excited about putting stuff in, and sometimes – yes – I am impatient, and things don’t quite work to plan. But isn’t that part of the fun of gardening? Mistakes are made, and you learn from them. Then you suck it up, and try another way of doing things.

Mr Taylor also calls for more good, sound knowledge. I thought there were a couple of good, sound messages in there…

  1. Don’t be fooled by a few warm days in thinking that summer’s here – there can still be a danger of a late frost
  2. Don’t do as I did and put stuff out too early – look at it – it died
  3. If you have put things out too early, and a frost is forecast, get out there and cover the plants up at night

The article may have actually saved people their hard earned money – one look at my beans and it would have put them off planting for a good couple of weeks…

I was also quite chuffed to have sparked a reaction – it meant that someone out there actually reads my ramblings and had a strong enough opinion to put pen to paper. I’m calling this one a landmark 😉