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January Delights: Inside and Out

January can be a hard month to love. A cold, dark, post-celebratory descent where the first hint of spring feels far too far away. But in times of scarcity even the smallest signs of life punctuate the gloom, creating little moments of January delight. Over the past couple of weeks, writing, design work and an inflamed hip have kept me mostly inside. But from my work space (the kitchen table) I can see the redwings eating next door’s cotoneaster berries and there’s just the merest hint of acid yellow – could it be the primroses in the lawn starting to emerge?

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Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’

My Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ are flowering and I’m pleased I planted them near enough to the window to be able to see the swaying bells – some creamy white, the others cream above and splotched with purple beneath. Flocks of long-tailed tits have been passing through, voleries of cheerful pompoms on sticks, bouncing in the birch canopy outside my daughter’s bedroom. Today the wren was watching me quizzically from the fence, head on one side, perhaps wondering why I wasn’t out working in the garden.

 

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Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’

The buds on the Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ are beginning to break and as it’s in a pot I’ve brought it right up close to the window – flowers in January are to be treasured. Not to be outdone by the viburnum, my witch hazels (Hamamellis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ and ‘Diane’) have been flowering for several weeks with their vibrant copper and red curled petals like delicately zested orange peel, their warmth defrosting any sombre winter moods.

 

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January chilli harvest

But the natural world isn’t deterred by a mere sheet of glass – it seeps into the house and surrounds us, even in the coldest months. In our bedrooms, chillies, lemongrass, physalis, coffee, tea, Vietnamese coriander, cucamelon and yacon are all overwintering. So many chillies have ripened this winter that we’ve been making chilli jam – in January. Our oyster mushrooms have proved their worth by growing a second crop. We made them into a spicy broth with frozen stock and meat from our Christmas turkey and, of course, a couple of chillies for good measure.

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Long-tailed tits – always a cheerful sight

We’ve been planting indoor bulbs to bring us colour and fragrance before the end of winter and in the propagator, chilli and sweet pea seeds are slowly waking up. Whether I look outwards or inwards, I can feel life stirring. Winter, darkness and even thundersnow might be upon us, but bowls of warming broth, trays and propagators full of plants in waiting and the ebullient winter flowers and birds outside my window provide a series of January delights to help us hang on until spring.

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Creating a Community Forest Garden

The Triangle Community Garden

Community gardens are special places. They bring together people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds working towards a shared goal. My local community garden – the Triangle Community Garden – has been a thriving public space for the past 16 years. Over this time it has expanded to include several social therapeutic horticultural and health/well-being projects for people with learning disabilities, two allotment plots with a new polytunnel and a developing forest garden site.

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The forest garden site at the beginning of the clearing process

Forest Gardening

Forest gardens are productive, self-sustaining areas which are modelled on the structure of natural woodland. They include a wide range of plants grown together in ways which are mutually beneficial. Forest garden plants might produce food, medicine, dyes, wood or cloth. Many also play a supportive role by fixing nitrogen or raising nutrients in the soil, by providing structure for climbing plants or by adding weed-suppressing ground cover.

Volunteers preparing the ground and planting

Our forest garden is still in its infancy. Over the last few years the perennial weeds have been partially cleared, mulch laid and the canopy layer (of trees and larger shrubs) has been planted. The next stage is to start adding the herbaceous perennial and ground cover planting, whilst ensuring that canopy layer continues to thrive. As a member of the garden committee, I’ve been privileged to be involved in some of the planning and planting. The potential for creating a rich eco-system with real practical and environmental benefits makes this a hugely exciting project.

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Shrub layer developing

Regular readers will know that there’s nothing gardening-related that inspires me more than planting which is productive, aesthetically pleasing and environmentally sound. Forest gardening fulfils all these criteria, as woodland is as beautiful in its own way as any designed border. Learning more about this method of gardening has been fascinating. A good place to start is Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden and I also regularly use the Plants For a Future Database for information on practical uses of individual plants.

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Fruiting hedging

Canopy Layer

So far the canopy layer includes Apricot ‘Tomcot’ and ‘Orange Summer’, Apple ‘Pitmaston Pineapple’, Damson ‘Shropshire Prune’, Plum ‘Mirabelle de Nancy’, Quince ‘Leskovac’, Asian Pear ‘Kumoi’, Strawberry Tree, Autumn Olive, Loquat, Hazel, American Elder, Judas Tree, Cornus Kousa, Italian Alder and Almond. The shrub layer so far includes Pineapple Guava, Chokeberry, Honeyberry, Red, Black, Pink, White and Buffalo Currant, Fuchsia, Goji, Chilean Guava, Goumi and a Rosa rugosa hedge.

Some plants are doing well and others have proved less successful, like the Chilean Guava which has succumbed to the cold and died (unlike my plants half a mile away which generally tolerate winter temperatures, but they are in a more sheltered position). The future of the Goji berry is also undecided as it has turned out to be too vigorous (a polite way of saying it’s a right thug) and needs either controlling or removing this year.

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Our American elder

Interesting Plants

Asian Pear, US Elderberry, Goumi and Chokeberry were all new to me this year – here’s a little on why they earn their places in a forest garden…

American Elder

American Elder (Sambucus canadensis) is a slowly suckering shrub. Each stem lasts several years and then dies back to be replaced by a new one. I’ve grown European Elder for its flowers – nothing encapsulates spring better than the first glass of elderflower cordial. But the flowering window is only around a fortnight and then they’re gone. With the American Elder, flowering lasts from July to November in the UK for cordial, wine or champagne all summer and autumn long.

Asian Pear

The Asian Pear derives from two Asiatic species – Pyrus pyrifolia and Pyrus ussuriensis. ‘Kumoi’ is a pyrifolia with golden fruit which taste sweet and store well. Asian pears are normally shaped more like an apple than a pear and have a crunchy texture.

Goumi

Goumi (Elaeagnus multiflora) originates from woodland areas of Japan. It has cherry-sized fruits which ripen in August and are best used in jams and fruit leathers. The shrub is also good for the bees and is a nitrogen-fixing.

Buffalo Currant

Buffalo Currant (Ribes odoratum) has berries which are similar to blackcurrants. They taste like a spicy blackcurrant and can be used fresh or cooked. Yields are lower than blackcurrants, but they have aromatic yellow flowers in spring, encourage bees into the garden and the leaves can be used in teas.

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Buffalo currant harvest

Gardens to Visit

Many forest garden plants are suitable for domestic gardens and will increase general productivity. But few gardens have enough space to create a dedicated forest garden – so if you would like to visit a forest garden, you could try…

The Agroforestry Research Trust – Martin Crawford’s 22 year old, 2 acre forest garden in Dartington, Devon. Forest garden courses are also on offer.

Littlehempston Forest Garden in Devon – the new Agroforestry Research Trust site, started in 2011 and covering 11 acres with 2 forest gardens.

Edible Landscapes London in Finsbury Park – these beautiful gardens grow over 200 edible species to propagate and give to community gardens around London. They offer forest gardening courses too.

RISC Roof Garden in Reading – designed in 2002, this edible garden is used for educational and research purposes

Old Sleningford Farm near Ripon – a 2 acre forest garden begun in 2004. The farm runs courses and events as well as organising group visits. Individuals are welcome on workdays.

The Forest Garden at the Centre for Alternative Technology in the foothills of Snowdonia – an amazing place which inspired my love of the environment on a visit back in primary school.

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Beginning the canopy layer

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Do you have forest garden plants in your garden or perhaps you volunteer in a community garden with edible plants? If so, I’d love to hear which plants are your favourites and any issues you’ve had with different plants. Do leave me a comment below and I’ll get back to you. Thanks  🙂

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Planning a Cutting Patch: Annual Choices

The winter garden is waiting, the new raised beds watching me through the windows, daring me to step out into the frost, the drizzle, the sunshine to tackle a host of gardening jobs. Instead I’ve been cooking, eating, playing, crafting, walking, cycling and enjoying this unusually long period of family time together. But this afternoon I snatched a quick break to curl up with a notepad, some new seed catalogues and my seed packets to plan the annual layer for the new cutting patch.

Bulb Base Layer

Since I last wrote about the cutting patch (in Planning a Cutting Patch: Bulb Time) I have buried all the Narcissi and Tulips deep down, ready for spring.

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The tulips were planted in trenches on a layer of grit to aid drainage

It’s now time to consider what will grow around and alongside the bulbs and how I will produce flowers and foliage for cutting throughout the spring, summer and autumn.

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An empty plot – with hidden treasure…

My seed packets make me smile with all their potential for colour and texture for flower arrangements in the New Year. I’ve already amassed a lovely collection: Lathyrus odoratus ‘Midnight Blues’, ‘Fragrantissima’ and ‘Floral Tribute’, Antirrhinum ‘Royal Bride’ (a lovely tall, white snapdragon), Cosmos ‘Purity’ (a particular favourite), Papaver somniferum ‘Irish Velvet’ and ‘Paeony Black’, Calendula ‘Daisy Mixed’ and ‘Sherbert Fizz’ (which I admired at Chelsea, so grew myself last year and liked), Nigella papillosa ‘African Bride’ (another favourite), Tropaeolum majus ‘Milkmaid’ (love the milky colour of this nasturtium and can’t wait to try it), Euphorbia oblongata (a short-lived perennial, often grown as an annual for cutting), Ammi majus (a winner in my current flower border for its delicate, feathery umbels), Coreopsis ‘Unbelievable!’ and Centaurea cyanus ‘Polka Dot’ and ‘Classic Romantic’ (you can’t have a cutting patch without cornflowers).

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Temptation…

I’ve also been sent a few treats to trial by Suttons Seeds (a company I’ve been using for years) like Bells of Ireland (Moluccella laevis – with tall spikes of fresh green bells), Calendula ‘Snow Princess’ (once I’d seen this white beauty with its dark eye I had to try it), Bunny Tails (Lagurus ovatus – an annual grass with fluffy white tops which is great for cutting) and the Scented Garden Collection (Sweet William ‘Perfume Mix’, Sweet Pea ‘Patio Mix’, Night Phlox, Lavender ‘Blue Wonder and Brompton Stock) which I’ll be including in the mix (as the patch will also include biennials and perennials too – more on these in a later post.)

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Greens, dark purples and rusty oranges are my colours this year

Then, like many of my fellow seed addicts (there should be a mutual support group – maybe I’ll set one up…), I have been enticed into a few extra annual purchases in search of floral perfection. My current order comprises: Bupleurum griffithii with its acid yellow flowers and lime green leaves (I’m definitely after green foliage and flowers to offset the deeper colours of the dahlias, tulips and others), Centaurea ‘Black Ball’, Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ (stalwart of any cutting patch), Cosmos ‘Double Click Cranberries’ (what a stunning colour), Crepis rubra (this pink Hawksbeard/dandelion lookalike wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, but I encountered it on a course this year and fancied a try), Daucus carota ‘Purple Kisses’ (more umbellifer indulgence), Linum grandiflorum rubrum (Scarlet Flax – another beautiful new flower for me this year), Nicotiana ‘Lime Green’ and Zinna elegans ‘Benarys Lime Green’ and ‘Benarys Giant Scarlet’.

I don’t imagine I’ll get round to sowing all of these, or indeed have the room to plant out a row of each, but I’m hoping most will find their way into the new cutting patch. Out of this marvellous annual selection, along with the bulbs, tubers and perennials, I must, surely, be able to create a little magic in 2017?

What are you planning to include in annual planting this year? Any thoughts for additions to my list to extend the season or offer alternative colours or textures would be great too. Thanks  🙂

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              With very best wishes for a happy and peaceful New Year xxx  🙂

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Oyster Mushroom Advent Calendar: A Christmas Harvest

We’ve been having festive fungal fun all through December in our house, thanks to the Oyster Mushroom Kit sent by the nice people at the Espresso Mushroom Company. This week it’s been the highlight of the process – harvest, cooking and scoffing them in waves of warm garlicky goodness. On Day 16 they were ready for harvesting and all 4 clusters of mushrooms came out smoothly. Here’s a short clip of how to harvest your mushrooms (I mention that it is a two-handed job and it is – my other hand is holding the container steady.)

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An explosion of Oyster Mushrooms ready for the picking…

We decided to have the first batch as creamy garlic mushrooms on toast with a poached egg. Delicious comfort food. Not a complicated recipe to cook – ready for the table in 10 minutes…

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After Christmas lunch it’s always good to have a light tea and what could be better than a comforting plate of garlic mushrooms on toast? If you haven’t grown your own this December, you can buy oyster mushrooms in good greengrocers, markets and supermarkets. Or you can wait until mid-January and grow your own – far more fun and your fresh mushrooms will be ready in around 16 days…

If you missed my post on growing your own mushrooms, you can see the beginning of the process here – Oyster Mushroom Advent Calendar: Part One.

I’d like to thank all of my readers for your support, comments and ideas during the first year of my blog and wish you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.  🙂 🙂 🙂

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Confessions of an Ocaholic

gob-1356-2Meet GOB (Guild of Oca Breeders) 1356, harvested in early December. It’s a cheeky little number with attractively flushed red/pink skin and creamy white eyes. My chief tasters were pleasantly surprised by its sweet taste and refreshingly delicate, yet acidic endnote. They were also impressed with the soft, buttery texture and bite-sized proportions of these diminutive rosy tubers which can be eaten raw, boiled or roasted. They did, however, request baked beans with them next time!

I first detected my leaning towards ocaholism (a technical term!) a few years ago when I bought five tubers of Oxalis tuberosa from Real Seeds because they looked interesting and different. I was attracted by their being unaffected by blight (as they aren’t related to potatoes) and their edible leaves (a bonus in a small garden containing even smaller children with a penchant for eating anything they came across). What I didn’t realise was how they would brighten up my autumn days, introduce me to a plethora of other South American tubers, lead me to join The Guild of Oca Breeders and participate in a fascinating study of the habits of this lesser-known member of the oxalis family.

A Little Oca History

Oca originates from the Andean mountain regions around Peru and Bolivia, where it is still widely grown. It has been grown a little in the UK over the past 150 years, but has never been commercially viable due to limited yields. Its common name, ‘New Zealand yam’ (although it’s not a true yam from the genus Dioscorea), comes from its popularity as a vegetable in New Zealand where it was introduced around 1860.

The Guild of Oca Breeders

This dedicated group of breeders are passionate about breeding oca varieties selected for early tuberisation, thus creating a crop which will be less affected by declining light levels, falling temperatures and early frosts. Oca starts to form tubers around the Autumn equinox, which this year was 22 September. If frosts occur too soon after this date the foliage withers and the tubers stop growing, or even rot. In the same way that decades of selection is believed to have bred potatoes which thrive in the UK, the Guild of Oca Breeders hopes to use people power to select oca varieties which will give higher yields.

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Tubers in pots to encourage early growth

My GOB oca went in at the allotment in June and has been growing away happily, unaffected by pests or disease, until I harvested it this week. Even the foliage and stems are interesting, with different habits and different colours ranging from light green, through dark green and pinks, to reds and purples. It really is a low maintenance crop, needing only occasional watering and protection from nibbling by deer on the allotment.

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The different colours and growing habits of my GOB Oca

The last couple of days have been spent happily washing, sorting, weighing and tasting the different varieties to ascertain which might be worth cross-pollinating when the cycle starts all over again next year. In the meantime, we’ve had fun exploring this Andean treasure in all its sensory beauty.

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Some of the washed and sorted December Oca harvest

A Fun Family Crop

Oca has a number of attractions as an allotment or garden vegetable…

1. When chitted (not necessary, but ours sometimes chit of their own volition) they look like little aliens. Once I planted some out with my son and one of his friends (both aged about 5) and they were most intrigued. His friend came round for tea last week and still remembered planting the odd red tubers from two years ago.

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Chitted Oca is a vegetable with personality

2. They come in a range of shiny rainbow colours – I’ve added ‘Bicolor’ to ‘Helen’s All Red’ this year as well as my 14 GOB varieties. Other varieties have delightful names like ‘Raspberry Ripple’, ‘Strawberries and Cream’ and ‘Occidental Gems’.

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My favourite Guild of Oca Breeders varieties this year

3. They are a versatile, nutritious and tasty vegetable. Unlike potatoes, oca can be eaten raw (with a taste like a lemony cooking apple), although I prefer them cooked (good in stir-fry, mashed with or without potato or roasted.) With a Sunday roast, they add a delicious lemony note to other roasted vegetables, taking 20-30 minutes in the oven with a tiny drizzle of oil.

If you like Oca…

You might also like to have a go with some of these other interesting Andean tubers. I’ll be trialling some next year, so look out for more tuber-related posts coming soon…

  1. Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) – related to sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes. I currently have two yacon plants waiting in pots in the house, ready to go outside next spring.
  2. Mashua or Peruvian Ground Apple (Tropaeolum tuberosum) – another tender Andean tuber related to garden nasturtiums with a peppery flavour
  3. Ulluco or Papalisa (Ullucus tuberosus) – vivid coloured tubers with succulent, edible foliage. Another beautiful crop to harvest in winter and brighten any cold December day.

I’d love to hear from anyone who enjoys growing tubers – what do you grow and how has it been this year? If you’d like to read more about my adventures with more unusual and delightful plants, you can subscribe to the blog below:

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