What’s In A Name? Capsicum Annuum

Chillies are deliciously fascinating – their forms, colours and flavours tantalise the senses; their names alone are enough to make your tongue tingle in anticipation.

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The alluring colours of last year’s harvest

I’ve been growing far more chillies over the past few years than sanity should dictate. I’m drawn in by the evocative colour and spice of names like ‘Bolivian Rainbow’, ‘Numex Twilight’, ‘Machu Pichu’, ‘Trinidad Perfume’, ‘Peruvian Lemon Drop’, ‘Apache’, ‘Cayenne’ and ‘Prairie Fire’. There’s a gentle charm to ‘Russian Red Fatty’, ‘Bulgarian Carrot’ and ‘Chocolate Cherry’, and a sense of mystery behind ‘Ubatuba Cambuci’, ‘Albertos Locoto’ and ‘Aji Fantasy’. Once I’ve tasted an exciting name, it’s too late, I’m hooked.

 

 

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This year’s darker crop

Capsicum, the genus including both chillies and sweet peppers, is a member of the Solanaceae family which also includes tomatoes, potatoes and deadly nightshade. Chillies originate from South America; a fact reflected in many of their names. The origins of Capsicum are obscure, but it may have come from the Latin capsa ‘box’, referring to the pods (hence the name of chillies such as ‘Aji Bolsa De Dulce’ where bolsa is Spanish for ‘bag’ or ‘purse’ – literally the ‘chilli bag of sweetness’) or the Greek kapto meaning ‘to gulp’.

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Today’s chilli harvest…

When Capsicum is combined with annum ‘by the year’, I like to think of my chillies as my ‘yearly gulp’. I’m not sure whether this refers to the relish with which I sample the first ‘Comet’s Tail’ of the year (a chilli whose parent seeds have spent time in space on the Chinese Academy of Space programme to improve size and yield by exposing them to zero gravity) or the yearly uncomfortable swallowing motion experienced when I see the hundreds of tiny seedlings emerging every spring and wonder how I will:

a) accommodate them all until they can be transferred to the unheated greenhouse

b) explain the chilli invasion to my husband

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Chillies make everything OK!

Next year I’m planning to add a few new chilli labels to the collection with ‘Aji Habanero’, ‘Pearls’, ‘Fresno Supreme’, ‘Trinidad Chilaca’, ‘Loco’, ‘Hot Lemon’ and ‘Poblana Ancho’ and I’ll be sharing seeds from my current plants with others to spread a bit of chilli magic. With names like these, who could resist growing a few… and then a few more? Just don’t tell my husband!

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First batch of chilli jam

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12 Practical Ways To Create A Modern Kitchen Garden

The RHS Kitchen Garden

What a great sign that the flagship garden at RHS Hampton Court this year is a kitchen garden. I’m excited by edible gardens of all shapes and sizes and like nothing better than to spend an afternoon pottering round an extensive walled kitchen garden in the sunshine, reading the labels and dreaming about having my own walled garden and team of gardeners to maintain it. However I, like most people, have a much more modest garden which also has to accommodate a shed, bins, BBQ, children’s toys and a washing line. And what if your garden is a small patio or even just a windowsill? What if you have no area upon which the sun smiles for six hours of the day? Will kitchen gardening remain a beautiful dream?

In the RHS Kitchen Garden, Juliet Sargeant explores different ways to grow fresh food in small spaces and in cost-efficient ways. This is a garden bursting with ideas, designed to inspire with simple labels throughout explaining the thinking behind the planting. Whether it’s reusing an old fish tank, building a simple compost bin or munching on your shrubs, there are ideas here for everyone to take home…

1. Plant a Living Wall

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This is the edible cooking bench which is the setting of The Hairy Bikers’ Kitchen Garden Live on BBC1 each morning this week

Vertical space is used in different ways in the garden. I loved this edible bench with its mix of viola, sage, curry plant, parsley and oregano. In reality, few of us are likely to have an entire outside bench covered in edibles. More achievable are the inexpensive hanging pockets which can be attached to the wall and filled with edible plants. I liked the way a variety of greens are used here with the silvery curry plant (Helicrysum italicum), dark sage and bright green parsley. The white and blue violas add a sprinkle of colour and their petals can also be used in ice cubes, on salads or crystallised in cakes.

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A simple wall storage unit filled with strawberry pots

This storage unit looks great and something similar (possibly smaller) should be fairly easy to buy or construct and then treat with weatherproof paint, although a piece constructed specifically for outdoor use would no doubt have a longer life. In fact, I’m tempted to throw the children’s toys out of our similar unit and relocate it on the patio as a way of gaining more planting space in the garden!

DSC_0156This runner bean wall is another way to capitalise on the vertical space against a sunny wall. With wires between the top and bottom frames, the beans can very quickly cover the wall and could be planted in pots or the ground. A simple cane structure could also be used, although this metal frame would be strong and durable, and could be removed in the winter months. For added variety, the beans could be interspersed with morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea), black-eyed Susan (Thunbergia alata) or sweet peas to add (non-edible) annual colour to the display. This method of growing could also be used with peas or even courgettes, cucumbers and squashes, which love to climb and welcome the extra sunshine accessible in an elevated position. In this way, crops can be grown which otherwise might struggle for space in a small garden.

 2. Grow Meals in Pots

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Container edibles are so accessible for small gardens and community spaces, with the only drawback that they require more watering than crops in the ground. I love growing herbs for teas – lemon verbena, a range of mint, lemon/lime balm (which can cope with some shade), scented-leaved pelargoniums and bergamot. These meal pots are fun for children to grow and provide a delicious small space solution to growing edibles. It could be taken even further with a small tray of pots growing chillies, lemon grass, mint, chives, salad leaves or basil, for simple summer meals and hot drinks or iced infusions.

3. Make a Simple Brick Compost Bin

This compost bin is stylish and easy – designed to grow over time

If there’s no room for a traditional compost bin or the idea of a plastic bin is unpalatable, Juliet offers an alternative in this brick circular compost bin. If you have spare bricks lying around or can get some through a recycling site like Freecycle, this could be a cost effective way to start composting. Best of all, its temporary nature means it can be relocated easily once the compost is ready to use.

4. Colour Your Veggies

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I’ve always been fascinated by colour in edible planting. This kitchen garden uses both colourful vegetables like the blue cabbages, chocolate millet, rainbow chard, purple kale, kohl rabi and pak choi interplanted with vibrant flowers  – edible calendula flowers and dahlias (whose roots are the edible part – although not all varieties are said to taste good). In particular I loved the combination of dark Redbor kale with Dahlia ‘Bishop of Leicester’ with its deep purple foliage and soft pink blooms – no flowerbed could be more beautiful to my eyes.

5. Use Aquaponics

The aquaponics crops looked delicious

I knew very little about aquaponics, so it was interesting to talk to Emerald from Aquaponic Life, a Community Interest Nonprofit Company, who had set up this section of the garden. She told me that aquaponics are a viable option for small gardens or even indoor fishtanks. The closed-loop system involves using the nitrogenous waste excreted by the fish to provide nutrients for the plants which are grown hydroponically (in water without using soil). The plants, in turn, filter the water, which is returned clean for the fish. This continuous cycle uses 90-98% less water than conventional methods. Aquaponic Life run courses in their home town of Brighton to train people about how these systems can be used in homes and gardens. The company is currently crowdfunding to develop their home aquaponics system so that more people can use this sustainable method of food production. They also hope to develop their work in school and universities, and create an urban farm in or near the centre of Brighton as a teaching resource to help put food security back into the hands of families and communities. I will be watching and supporting their progress with interest and if we acquiesce on the pet front with the children next year, maybe Tilapia will be our pet of choice.

6. Munch on Petals

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If you’re going to interplant flowers and vegetables/fruit in a kitchen garden bed, why not use edible flowers to extend the range of crops? Alternatively, your existing garden flowers can provide decorations and salad ingredients throughout the year. In the RHS Kitchen Garden, Juliet has included a colourful flowerbed to attractive pollinators, with the added advantage of using edible flowers. Dianthus, agastache, lavender, calendula, hollyhocks, and campanula are amongst the edible flowers in the garden. We also grow borage and nasturtiums in the vegetable beds to bring in the insects and provide edible flowers for the kitchen.

7. Use Straw Bales

This is an idea I’d like to try out on my allotment next year

This is a new one on me, although I have heard of straw bales being used at the allotment to create hotbeds. Juliet has planted strawberries and melons in compost within the straw bales. I particularly liked the melon ‘Ogen’ which is grafted onto courgette root stock so that it can tolerate the UK climate better. Seeds can even be sown onto bales if a 5cm layer of compost is added first and with the extra heat created, crops like melons are more likely to be successful on straw than in the ground. The only concern I’d have about using straw bales is the possibility of herbicides or in the straw. One solution would be to use organic straw or to investigate the provenance of your material before you use it.

8. Eat your trees and shrubs

With well over 2,500 edible plants across the world, the UK relies on perhaps twenty main crops, ignoring thousands of others which would grow in our climate. Trees and shrubs are a good example, with many common indigenous and non-native species offering food which we choose not to use. Elderflowers and berries, young lime (Tillia cordata), silver birch (Betula pendula) and beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaves, mahonia berries, fuchsia berries and rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) berries (cooked in jams) are all examples used in the garden, although if you have found a fuchsia berry which tastes delicious on cereals without the astringent aftertaste which I so dislike, please do let me know.

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9. Try more unusual plants

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Daylilies create drama in the garden and provide food

I love trying out new edibles – both to see how they grow and to experiment in the kitchen. Some of my new acquisitions this year include hardy ginger (Zingiber mioga with edible young shoots and flowerbuds) and Caucasian spinach (Hablizia tamnoides with spinach-like leaves). Juliet has included bamboo, hostas, daylilies and ferns in her garden with useful tips on growing and cooking with them on the labels.

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If you already have bamboo in the garden, this snack should be easy to come by

10. Use herbs as ground cover

Make thyme for herbs

Herbs have so many different uses in the garden – I use them as hedges, in my green roof and for scented ground cover. In this garden both thyme and rosemary are used to cover the ground beneath the trees. As well as looking good, they bring in pollinating insects and provide leaves for stews, soups and marinades. My favourite ground cover herbs are the woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) and chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) in my gravel path, as they seem pretty indestructible, drought tolerant (once the chamomile is established) and soften the hard edges of the stepping stones with their delicate leaves.

11. Grow dwarf fruit varieties

If it’s too big don’t despair – just choose a dwarf variety

Kitchen gardens have been using dwarf varieties for centuries, but their are still new crops being developed to increase the range of plants available to the small scale gardener. Mulberry Charlotte Russe is the latest example, offering a dwarf shrub (growing to about 1.5m) where other Mulberries would be well beyond the scope of most small gardens. It won the 2017 RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year award and is capable of fruiting in its first year. I have heard reports that the fruit taste is disappointing, but can’t comment as mine was devoured by the slugs in its first few weeks. It is now recovering in the greenhouse, but I’ll need to wait until next year to join the taste testing.

12. Celebrate the shade

Most traditional vegetable benefit from at least six hours of sunshine during the growing season. However, there are exceptions and some more unusual crops which will cope with shady areas. Hostas and ferns are good examples, alongside the more conventional salad greens, Swiss chard, beetroot, kale and pak choi. If the shady area is under an established tree, try creating a raised bed to give added soil depth or planting in seasonal containers.

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Do you have any other top tips for creating a practical, modern kitchen garden? Have you found any of these ideas successful? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment and happy edible gardening.

If you’d like to read more about edible and sustainable planting at Hampton Court, check out my post on London Glades: Forest Garden Solutions For Urban Spaces at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show and follow my blog as I experiment with all manner of fruit, vegetables and herbs…

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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Not everyone reacts positively to all edible plants or other plant uses. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

Plot to Plate: Cinnamon Poached Quinces

The whole house smells of Christmas and mulled wine – sweet, spicy and aromatic. We’re trying to make each of our quinces count as we harvested ten and after sending a couple to a friend, we were left with two for stewing with our apples and six for poaching. There will be none for jelly as we made tonnes of crab apple jelly in October and still have one pot of quince jelly left over from last year. I’ve also been trying to avoid using excess sugar, so I’ve created the syrup in this recipe with just a tablespoon of honey.

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Can’t beat local honey for flavour and low food miles

In its first year in the side garden, the quince (Meeches Prolific) was covered in delicate pink blossom. I’m a soft touch with fruit – rather than removing all the fruitlets as probably would have been advisable, I left eleven on the tree. So I’m expecting to have no fruit next year and I’m stocking up on quincely pleasures while I can.

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Quinces and apples from the garden

Ingredients

3 quinces

1 cup of water

1 tbsp honey

1 cinnamon stick

1 clove

1 tbsp lemon juice

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Quinces ready for poaching

Method

Peel, core and quarter the quinces (take care as the flesh is hard to cut). Place the quinces in the casserole dish with all the other ingredients.

Put the lid on the casserole dish and place in the oven at 160c for 1.5 hours until the quinces are soft.

Serve topped with yoghurt and a drizzle of runny honey.

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The yellow flesh turns the most beautiful light pink – we served the quinces with our homemade natural yoghurt and local Hertfordshire honey

Book Review: RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book of Hygge

A cosy window seat has to be the best place to curl up with a cup of tea and a good book. As a child, I preferred to read near the top of our tall Scots Pine, with a Famous Five and an apple from the garden. Now I favour the cushion strewn window seat in the lounge  which overlooks the front garden. When we redecorated, I wanted to recreate the feeling I had as a child reading endless stories on a little sheepskin covered window seat overlooking the fields and woods in a Scottish holiday cottage. I’ve recently discovered there’s a word to describe that feeling – ‘hygge’ – a Danish word roughly translated as an atmosphere of warmth, relaxation, security and love or even ‘cosiness of the soul’¹. Snuggled in the corner of my window seat, I am connected to the outside world but protected from cold winds and rain (increasingly important with winter looming), there’s room for a selection of books and magazines, and a cup of tea and piece of cake on the window ledge. I have my own secluded nook, a hyggekrog: a place to relax and find inspiration, before re-entering the frenetic, demanding, yet delightful world which revolves around my two young children and my work.

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My hyggekrog

Bookish Hygge

Looking along the window ledge, my book selection currently includes H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, The Well-Tempered Gardener by Christopher Lloyd, The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking, The Twins at St Claire’s by Enid Blyton (I’ve been raiding the children’s shelves again), A Christmas Party by Georgette Heyer, The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham and RHS Plants From Pips by Holly Farrell. The last title was a happy chance find in the library with the kids last week, lost for a while between Harry and the Robots and Emily Prickleback’s Clever Idea and finally resurfacing a few days ago. Its subtitle is ‘Pots of Plants for the Whole Family to Enjoy’ and I like the rustic style of the images, the range of ‘pips’ which can be nurtured into interesting house plants (from avocados to dragon fruit and pomegranates) and the clear instructions, equally suitable for the beginner or the more experienced grower.

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A little light reading

 

Childhood Hygge

My children (4 and 7) enjoyed looking at the pictures in RHS Plants From Pips showing how seeds grow and how they are dispersed. We chatted about which fruits they were familiar with and which new ones we might try (since then they’ve tasted their first pomegranate and both enjoyed it very much.) Several of the pips appealed to them – avocados, olives and lemons, but we decided to start with a peanut in a clear container so we can watch the new peanuts develop beneath the surface. Farrell rates each pip for ‘easiness’ (of growing) and the ‘patience’ required. The peanut scores 1 for each, which is good because the kids are neither patient nor particularly adept at growing plants yet. The method is relatively simple – soak the peanuts in water for 12 hours, sow in pots in pre-watered compost and place in a warm, sunny spot. Germination takes 2-3 weeks. As the kids watch the plants developing, they should be able to see the leaves folding up at night and the flowers growing downwards into the compost where they will produce new peanuts. They will be nurturing a new life and learning about the ingenuity of the plant kingdom.

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Shelling and soaking the peanuts

Botanical Hygge

As well as the chapter on ‘How Plants Grow’, RHS Plants From Pips also has sections on how to grow your pips successfully, how to repot, plant out and what pests, diseases and other problems you might encounter. There is also useful advice on how to restrict growth – particularly relevant as some of the plants would grow to a considerable size in natural conditions. A plant like the papaya (Carica papaya) is suggested as suitable as a ‘novelty plant for a single season’² due to its fast growth habit and full height of 3.5m, whereas mango (Mangifera indica) can be restricted by removing the top bud/leaves and tips of stems to keep it well below its natural height of 2m. By differentiating in this way, it is easy to choose a plant which will suit the position and space available. Most of the plants from pips are unlikely to fruit because their natural habitats differ greatly from household conditions, but they can make unusual houseplants which will give pleasure for many years and the act of experimentation is a valuable and interesting one, especially for children.

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The peanut in its homemade transparent plant pot

Community Hygge

In The Little Book of Hygge, Wiking describes five ways to achieve summer hygge, number three being ‘Join or Build a Community Garden’. This acknowledges the hyggelig (hygge-inducing) aspect of taking the time to tend crops, get together as a neighbourhood and develop a sense of community spirit. Hygge is about relaxing with friends and loved ones after a day’s hard work outside, eating hearty food and having a drink together. These are all things I value about gardening, whether in the community garden or with my own family in the garden or allotment.

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Hygge, when it’s cold outside, is a cup of assam, a stack of novels and botanical books, and some time to devour them…

Family Hygge

Not everyone has access to a garden, allotment or community growing space, but anyone can have a go at growing a plant from a pip – a free resource which would otherwise be thrown away. Everyone can experience the excitement of seeing an embryonic shoot emerge and the seed leaves unfurl. Watching such miraculous beginnings can spark a lifelong passion for plants and establish the foundation for plant hygge in adulthood. When my children experience the natural world as adults, I hope they will have just such a store of memories to draw upon. The call of a buzzard, eating raspberries with red fingers, the smell of apples stewing and the first spring bulbs emerging have all created moments of hygge in my life. In the same way that I get the kids involved in cooking with crops from the garden and allotment so they can share the satisfaction of producing a tasty meal for the family, so I want them to share the pleasure that I get from watching plants grow. Plants From Pips is a great, accessible way to share this experience and create warm family memories for the future.

1. The Little Book of Hygge, Meik Wiking, page 6

2. RHS Plants From Pips, Holly Farrell, page 68

RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book of Hygge are both available in hardback and The Little Book of Hygge is also available in a Kindle edition (aff. links).


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Overwintering Tea, Coffee and Other Tender Edible Perennials

I bought a tea plant (Camellia sinensis) and a coffee plant (Coffea arabica) earlier this year. I’m hoping, in time, to be able to produce infinitesimally small amounts of low quality hot beverages with which to underwhelm my friends and family. In the meantime, the coffee needs to come in for the winter and I’ll probably bring the camellia in too, although in time it should become large enough to overwinter successfully outside in its pot. Planting it in the ground here isn’t feasible as our soil is alkaline (pH 7.5) and camellias need acid soil. But potted in ericaceous compost, it should exist quite happily and produce leaves for green tea and salads for many years to come.

The list of plants needing winter attention is growing as my plant collection becomes more extensive and unusual, so this year I’m not convinced it’s all going to fit. Time to clear greenhouse benches and indoor windowsills, squeeze plants onto trays and cross my fingers as chillies, tea, coffee, lemongrass, lemon verbena, Vietnamese coriander, yacon, cucamelons and inca berries all come in for the winter…

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Scrubbing away a year’s grime

Fungus Gnats

My overwintering regime comes from a mixture of experience, good advice from fellow growers and intuition (aka. guesswork). Once the pots are in I’ll be treating them with nematodes as I had real problems with fungus gnats in the house last year (the annoying little black flies which buzz around the compost and can multiply disturbingly in just a few days) and using nematodes completely cleared them up. I’ve been sent a free trial pack of nematodes from the Green Gardener which can be stored in the fridge in their sealed packet for a few weeks until needed and then simply watered in the specified concentrations onto moist compost. I’ll be using them in the next few days and will report back on how successful they are this year. Here’s to a fly-free winter and lots of happy hibernating plants ready to burst into life early next spring  🙂

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My nematodes – currently residing in the fridge

Chillies

My 39 chilli plants will not, alas, all fit in the house, so the challenge has been to decide which are keepers and which will be feeding Compo (the compost heap). I’ve saved lots of seed that I will be able to sow next January and I’ve been sent an amazing array of exciting varieties by a reader of my blog who grows an extensive range and has been very generous in our seed swap. There is now no hope for me – I’m a confirmed chilli addict. Thirteen varieties this year and I suspect it will only get worse in 2017…

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The crazy chilli collection 2016!

As well as saving seeds, the kitchen has turned into a pickling factory with shallots, red onions and chillies disappearing into jars, to reappear in a few weeks to jazz up pizzas, sandwiches and salads.

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Pickled chillies to heat up cold winter suppers

Cucamelons and Yacon

I’ve tried to overwinter cucamelon (Melothria scabra) tubers a couple of times and never been successful. They’ve been left them in pots in the unheated greenhouse and brought in as dried tubers, but each winter rot has set in. This time I’m going to attempt to keep them in their pots, dry on a windowsill alongside the yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) and see what happens…

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I’m hoping for an early harvest next year – if I can only manage to overwinter the tubers…

 

Lemongrass

The lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) overwintered well last year and then I lost nearly all my plants by putting them out in the unheated greenhouse too early. Second year plants definitely grow more strongly (providing they’re kept warm), whereas first year plants don’t really have long enough to develop and multiply. So I’m intending to learn from my mistake and keep them indoors next spring until the frosts have well and truly finished.

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These little guys never really developed into mature plants

Lemon Verbena

I’ve had the same lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) plant for 5 years. It dies back in winter in the unheated greenhouse and reappears in spring, usually just after I’ve given up hope – I should know better by now. This year I repotted it and put it outside during the summer. It rewarded me by producing more leaves than we could use. It is such a lovely plant. Unlike lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), which has a similarly enticing scent, I find lemon verbena transfers its sherberty aroma more successfully to hot and cold drinks, cakes and spicy curries.

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The lemongrass stirring from its winter slumbers

This year I’ve dried the remaining leaves for tea over winter and I’m going to have another go at propagating from cuttings next year (something at which I have an embarrassingly bad track record).

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Makes the best tea mixed with Moroccan mint

Vietnamese Coriander

A new herb for us this year, I’ve been impressed with the easy of use and clean taste of our Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata). I love the more traditional coriander (Coriandrum sativum), but the necessity of repeated sowings to cater for the speed at which it bolts is an extra job in a busy summer schedule. If the Vietnamese coriander overwinters successfully, it will allow a continuous supply of tasty leaves for cooking throughout the summer and autumn months and will have earned its place in the herb container garden.

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Vietnamese coriander – so far, so good

Inca Berries

A couple of weeks ago I was lamenting the three worst crops of 2016 – inca berries (Physalis peruviana) being one. I had an extremely helpful comment about the perennial nature of the plant and therefore the possibility of overwintering it. I have tried growing physalis for 4 years now, with very minimal harvests, so had already discounted new plants in 2017. However, I’m going to try bringing a couple of plants indoors to see if they produce higher yields in their second year. If not, they’re history – at least until I move on to warmer climes.

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My inca berry harvest

I’d love to know if anyone else is growing tea or coffee, and what the verdict is. And does anyone else contemplate paying their friends and relatives to overwinter plants on their windowsills due to a mismatch between plant collection ambitions and house size? Or is that just me?! Do leave me a comment below to let me know what other overwintering activities are going on this autumn…

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Assembled plants for overwintering – maybe we should move out?

 

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Pumpkin and Apple Season: Two Warming Autumn Soups

Facebook has just reminded me that five years ago I spent the day at the Luton Hoo Pumpkin and Apple Day, retreating from the crowds from time to time to sit on the haystacks and feed my 6 month old daughter. Today I have been in the town square enjoying our community garden Apple Day. We’ve been selling apples, pears, quinces and our juice (made with windfalls and unwanted apples collected from local gardens and orchards), running craft workshops for the children and chatting to Hitchin shoppers about all things apple related.

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Some of the varieties that have been available for shoppers to try and buy today

Within a couple of hours many of the apple varieties had sold out

Throughout October our house has had an underlying scent of apples – cooking apples stewing, crab apples boiling for jelly and cupboards full of apple boxes stored for eating or cooking later in the year. Our recently harvested quinces have added to the aroma and at the Stotfold Steam Fair last weekend we bought a mammoth pumpkin from a local grower. This has pleased the kids no end as last year I was late to the shops and we ended up celebrating Hallowe’en with a carved watermelon (on the grounds that any cucurbit was better than no cucurbit!)

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You’d never have known that our Hallowe’en cat (designed by my son) was carved out of a watermelon!

There’s no doubt that October brings the excitement of the autumn harvest and related festivities, but it also brings wastage on a grand scale as much of the pumpkin flesh removed prior to carving goes straight in the bin. Sara Venn, co-founder of Incredible Edible Bristol, highlighted this waste at the beginning of the week in her article ‘Please don’t play with your food…’ with the appalling figure that 80,000 tonnes of pumpkin flesh went to landfill in 2014. She has been blogging with pumpkin recipes all week and has asked readers and fellow bloggers to add their recipes and ideas to the mix. So here are some pumpkin soup recipes with a bit of apple thrown in for good measure. The spices in the first soup and sweetness of the apple in the second help to add flavour to commercial Hallowe’en pumpkins bred for size and colour, not for taste. The soups are based on recipes in the Luton Hoo ‘Pumpkin and Apple Gala Cookbook’, bought from the Apple and Pumpkin Day five years ago and much used since…

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Savoury and sweet – this cookbook has recipes for the whole family to enjoy…

 

Pumpkin, Prawn and Coconut Soup

Ingredients

400ml can coconut milk

1 lemongrass stalk or several leaves, bruised

2 tsps Thai green curry paste

4 Kaffir lime leaves

500ml hot chicken stock

1 tbsp nam pla fish sauce

About 500g peeled pumpkin flesh, chopped

250g pack MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) prawns

Juice of 1 lime

1 chilli, deseeded and chopped

A bunch of shredded spring onions or chopped chives

Method

Add the coconut milk, Kaffri lime leaves and lemon grass to a pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the Thai green curry paste and hot stock. Stir gently until the paste has dissolved.

Add the pumpkin and simmer until tender (10-12 minutes). Add the prawns and cook for a further 5 minutes. Remove the lemon grass and Kaffir lime leaves. Add lime juice and fish sauce to taste.

Serve topped with shredded spring onions/chives and chilli.

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Regular readers will know I am a Thai food lover. I love growing Thai veg and herbs and this soup used our lemongrass and Thai lime leaves as well as the pumpkin

 

 

Roast Pumpkin and Bramley Apple Soup

Ingredients

1 large pumpkin

2 tbsp olive oil

25g butter

1 small onion, chopped

1 small Bramley ( or other cooking) apple, peeled and chopped

700ml vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Method

Cut pumpkin into quarters, scoop out seeds (rinse and save), brush flesh with olive oil and roast for 25 minutes at 180ºc or until flesh is soft. Once cool, scoop flesh out of skin.

Melt the butter in a pan and add the onion. Soften for 10 minutes without browning. Add stock and pumpkin flesh. Simmer gently for 15 minutes. Add the apple and simmer for a further 5 minutes until tender.

Blend the soup, add salt and pepper to taste and serve with natural yoghurt and ground black pepper.

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A wholesome warming soup for cold autumn evenings

 

As a tasty extra treat, the discarded pumpkin seeds can be toasted for 20-25 minutes at 180ºc spread out on an oiled baking tray. Remove from oven when toasted. Toss in seasoning and herbs or spices to taste (we used salt, pepper, cumin and paprika) and scoff as a pre-dinner snack.

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Toasted pumpkin seeds – no waste – great taste

The pumpkin and apple harvest adds a sparkle to October meals – there are so many delicious ways to make the most of these hearty ingredients

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My two little helpers enjoying the apple tunnel in a local orchard

For more apple recipes, try some tasty Apple and Cinnamon Butter, Spiced Crab Apple Jelly and Crab Apple Fruit Leathers or our family favourite Rhubarb and Apple Sponge.

If you have other cucurbits to use up, try Stuffed Summer Squash, Courgette and Chilli Cornbread or Courgette Tea Bread.

I’d love to hear about other favourite pumpkin and apple recipes – with all that pumpkin flesh going spare in the next few weeks, every delicious recipe counts. And if you’d like to explore more recipes with me, you can follow the blog below:

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Taking Stock: The Three Worst Crops of 2016

Ups and downs are part of every growing year and 2016 has seen some exciting highs interspersed with a few depressing failures. We’ve had our first quince crop from Cydonia oblonga ‘Meeches Prolific’ with ten glorious downy fruits from our three year old tree. (Actually nine now as a passing individual delivering leaflets pulled one off the tree, presumably thinking it was an apple, bit into it, discovered it was unpleasant – being actually a quince and unripe – and discarded it in our front garden.)

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Early on the fruits are covered in a downy fur which has now nearly disappeared

 

Sweet Success 🙂

The dwarf plum tree ‘Opal’ has given us a bumper harvest and we had a basket of greengages ‘Cambridge Gage’ for the first time which were utterly sublime – easily the sweetest, most aromatic fruit I’ve ever tasted. Three of our four apples trees have produced fruit, which is actually the best we’ve ever managed as the espaliers are planted in shallow ground where we had to use a pickaxe to remove as much concrete as possible, so they have a tendency to sulk and become biennial at times. But better to have beautiful espaliers for flowers, fruit and habitat for wildlife than bare concrete fence bases.

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One of our many baskets of plums which are now filling the freezer

Allotment 96B has yielded many baskets of potatoes, trombocinos and round courgettes aplenty, runner and broad beans, celeriac, rhubarb, currants, strawberries, raspberries, beetroot, carrots, achocha, shallots and onions, all within its first six months. There’s oca and Jerusalem artichokes still to harvest and the cucumbers, tomatoes and chillies are still racing to ripen their fruit in the greenhouse before the frosts descend. Throughout spring, summer and autumn, a most satisfying harvest has been making its way onto our plates and into our cupboards in the form of jam, jellies, chutneys and pickles. But a few crops have not managed to keep up – in most cases because I’ve not paid enough attention to them – and herein lie the lessons for next year…

Pear Crop 😦

We bought a patio pear tree several years ago which grows in a pot at the sunniest end of the garden. It faces a patio cherry, also in a pot, which has started to yield a small harvest of tasty cherries each year which we protect from the birds with netting just before the cherries begin to ripen. The pear gave us five fruit in each of the last couple of years which was not too bad, considering its age and size, but this year it plumbed new depths by managing one ugly, round blob of a fruit.

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The blob

I think it has finally outgrown its pot and needs to be potted on. I bought a lovely black pot for this purpose a few years ago, but didn’t pot it on when we got it as I did with the larger cherry, as I was concerned about overpotting. If the small rootball had been placed above wet compost, it could well fail to thrive in the anaerobic root conditions this would create. So I’ll be repotting the pear after leaf-fall this autumn and feeding it well next spring to help it develop the required energy to fruit successfully in future years.

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The bigger pot at the back should help this tree thrive next year

 

Kohl Rabi 😦

Many years ago I visited Zell am See in Austria and stayed for a week in the lovely Grand Hotel where we’d managed to get a discounted room. The scenery was stunning and the wildlife breathtaking. We swam in the lake, listened to live piano music with afternoon tea on the waterfront and cycled in the countryside seeking (and finding) red-backed shrikes. Every evening we had a 5 course meal – one course was always soup – delicate, creamy soups which introduced us to celeriac and kohl rabi. Since that holiday we’ve regularly made soup with these two underrated vegetables and we’ve tried growing both at various times. Celeriac has been unsuccessful in the garden, probably because it needs fertile, moisture retentive soil in full sun and our raised beds do have a tendency to dry out. But Allotment 96B already had celeriac growing in it when we took over in April – rather old and tired, but I managed to salvage some for soup. We’ve planted more this year and I’m hopeful we might get a modest crop in a few weeks.

Kohl rabi, on the other hand, hasn’t had such an easy time of it. I’ve grown it successfully in the garden before and love the smooth white or purple UFOs – the swollen stems of the plants. This year I tried growing it on the allotment. Early on the slugs decided they deserved kohl rabi more than me and they attacked it in earnest. They ate into the developing stems, hollowing the circles and eventually killing the plants. I had a spare bit of copper tape with which I encircled the base of one plant, buying it a little time. But eventually, it too succumbed to the relentless ninja slug patrol.

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There are beets and courgettes, but no kohl rabi this year – this photo is from 2014

I’m sad there will be no kohl rabi this year, as much for the beautiful form of the vegetable, as for its taste. But next year I’m sowing both the purple and white varieties. I’m planning a special area in the raised beds in the garden where I can raise a kohl rabi army and defeat the slugs through increased vigilance and special vegetable training sessions.

Inca Berries (Physalis/Cape Gooseberry) 😦

I’m a sucker for the weird and wonderful (as you probably know if you’ve been following the blog) and I first grew inca berries four years ago. Prior to this year I’ve always grown them from seed and they’ve developed late and produced a poor crop. This year I decided to treat myself to plug plants in order to get bigger specimens sooner. I potted on the six plugs when they arrived and continued to repot and feed them throughout the spring. I pinched out the tops of three and left the others to see if encouraging them to branch would help crop production. Now, five months later, I have six lanky, healthy looking plants (some branching, some not) with about 25 fruits between them. Not enough to make the Mrs Beeton jelly recipe I’ve been hankering after unfortunately. Don’t know why mine always grow so tall and produce so few fruit. Maybe the greenhouse doesn’t suit them due to reduced light levels, although I’ve tried them outside in previous years and had no fruit at all. Maybe I need to pinch them out more during the season? I’d be grateful for any ideas here please – the jury’s still out on whether I’ll bother again next year.

Inca berries have attractive flowers and fruits

I guess I’m not alone in feeling fed up when I’ve nurtured a plant for months and planned what I might do with the harvest, only to get little or nothing at the end of it. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s worth it and whether it might just be easier to stick to more conventional crops or buy all my fruit and vegetables from the shops. Then I watch the kids picking Chilean guavas from the front hedge on their way home from school and suddenly it’s all worth it.

Chilean guavas ripe for the picking

If you have grown any of these edibles with more success than me (not difficult), do leave me a comment or some advice below. Or maybe you’d like to share some of the successes or crop disasters of 2016. It’s always great to read about what other gardeners are up to. Thanks  🙂

If you’ve enjoyed reading about my growing experiences this year, you can follow the blog to get updates on the rest of my harvest and my plans for 2017 which will include my new allotment cutting flower bed and a revamp of the border in the back garden…

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6 Ways to Create an Ornamental and Productive Garden

When I started gardening I had a small patio and a keen desire follow my father’s footsteps and grow fruit and vegetables, but I also wanted flowers and colour, so I started to learn about ways to combine the two. Now, 20 years on, I’m still exploring ways to create garden spaces which encourage relaxation and an enjoyment of the beauty of nature whilst also providing a harvest for the kitchen. Over the past 6 years we’ve turned our back garden into a family space which includes a willow den and lawn with climbing frame for the kids, a flowerbed, a fruit cage and two vegetable beds. I’ve tried to maximise our space by using both horizontal and vertical structures for plants and also by combining the aesthetic and productive wherever possible.

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My first house had a patio which I covered with pots – many containing herbs and edible flowers

Three years ago we started work on the front, the aim being to create a hidden allotment – a space which would blend with the surrounding suburban front gardens and offer us a secret harvest throughout the year. As the size of modern gardens diminishes and the pressure on our outdoor spaces increases, it will become more important to combine productivity with aesthetic appeal. Here are a few of the ways we’ve been adding edibles to our outdoor spaces within an ornamental framework:

The front garden has changed from a sterile, unappealing lawn to a cheerful gravel garden filled with ornamental and edible plants

1. Eat a Hedge

Hedges are an great way to create separate areas, edge borders, establish boundaries and attract wildlife. They are also often used to add formality to a garden. With so many different functions, hedges are likely to be included in most gardens, creating an ideal opportunity to add an productive element. I have many low hedges in the garden – all evergreen and edible – and they provide a harvest throughout the year.

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My low alternative box hedge of Chilean guava (Ugni molinae)

After discussing Chilean guava as an alternative to box hedging with James Wong a few years ago, I thought I’d try it as the edging to the front garden. It has matured over the past three years and it looks like being a good harvest this autumn despite keeping the hedge at only 50cm high. It hasn’t established as well as box, partly because it is more prone to dieback in cold weather and because I haven’t been as assiduous as I should have with watering and feeding, but it isn’t going to contract box blight and its berries are not only edible – they are truly delicious. The children love snacking on them and they work really well as tiny bursts of flavour in muesli and cupcakes. Best of all, when I am weeding or pruning in the front garden, the scent of the fruit from midsummer onwards saturates the air and makes all the hard work worthwhile.

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Rosemary hedge in the front garden

I also have several rosemary and lavender hedges in the garden. I dry the lavender for scented bouquets in the house and add it to sugar for cakes and biscuits. The rosemary provides an invaluable year round harvest for adding to meat dishes, sprinkling over homemade chips and using in savoury biscuits. I’ve used the rosemary hedge in the front to trisect the garden, helping to disguise the rectangular shape. It almost disappears in summer as the flowers take over and then reappears in winter, adding definition and interest to the garden.

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Summer chaos in the front garden envelops the hedge almost entirely

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By early autumn the tripartite structure is becoming clear again

Lavender is generally used to edge the borders. There’s a hedge of dwarf lavender alongside the back flowerbed and one under the front windows. Hedges offer a wonderful opportunity to explore different varieties of lavender and we’re lucky enough to live close to Hitchin Lavender which has an extensive trial field. Summer often finds me wandering around the rows, learning about the different colours, foliage, habits and scents of this intoxicating plant. I grow ‘Twickel Purple’, ‘Dwarf Blue’, ‘Blue Ice’, ‘Munstead’ and ‘Hidcote’ and wish I had room for more varieties.

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Hitchin Lavender trial fields – a favourite summer haunt

Another way I’ve used hedges in the garden is to create compartments in the herb bed. When we moved to the house, the back garden had a long fence with an ugly concrete base which made the left side of the garden grey and monotonous. We planted alternating rosemary and lavender ‘hedgelets’ along the border to break up the line and create areas for different herbs – sage, mint, chives, oregano and thyme – arranged based on the increasing amount of sun as you go down the garden.

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The alternating hedges before their summer trim

If taller and less formal hedges are required, there are lots of suppliers offering native hedge plants these days, like the collection from the Wiggly Wigglers which I’ve often wished I had the space to plant. This particular collection includes ‘blackthorn (for sloe gin), crab apple (for jelly), damson (for jam and a luscious homemade alternative to Ribena), dog rose (for rosehip syrup), elderberry (for flu-preventing syrups from the berries in autumn and delicious cordial from the flowers in spring), hazel (for cob nuts), cherry plum and wild pear (for jams, liqueurs and syrups)’. (Links in the blog are not sponsored – they are simply from companies that I have used in the past and liked.)

 

2. Look up – Walls and Fences

In a small space it is important to use the vertical as well as horizontal plane. We’ve covered the fences around the whole garden with a mixture of soft fruit and trained fruit trees to expand our growing space and hide unpleasant concrete and overlooking windows.

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The apple espaliers went in as a priority

I’ve enjoyed growing our three apple espaliers (‘Bountiful’, ‘Egremont Russet and ‘James Grieve’) as they provide such structure and style along the boundaries. We also have a pink seedless grape ‘Reliance’ trained up the end espalier wire next to a fig ‘White Marseille’. There’s a thornless blackberry ‘Apache’ trained up wires at the back of the garden with a plum ‘Opal’ and greengage ‘Cambridge Gage’ in front, helping to screen the windows of the overlooking houses. The fruit cage has two rows of summer and autumn raspberries at the back, screening next door’s shed and we’ve covered a blank section of wall at the front with a cordon apple ‘Fiesta’.

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Fruit trees have the added advantage of fabulous spring blossom

With the foliage, blossom and fruits, trained fruit trees and bushes should be grown more in our gardens. Requiring little maintenance, except at pruning and feeding times, they form the backbone of our relatively small garden and bring us much pleasure throughout the spring, summer and autumn months.

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Now the espaliers have covered the fence with foliage and are providing us with crumbles, cakes and preserves

 

Cordons, fans and espaliers are all suitable for growing against walls and fences

 

3. Build a Green Roof

In the same spirit of using vertical spaces, I’ve tried to use horizontal spaces even when they are off the ground. When I got tired of ugly bins of the driveway, I designed a binstore with a local carpenter and included a green roof to create more growing space. This is now filled with a mix of edibles and ornamentals – sedum, dianthus, thrift, sempervivums (which although not edible, have a juice with herbal properties similar to Aloe vera and are hardy into the bargain), chillies, herbs and nasturtiums.

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The green roof brimming with herbs, edible flowers and chillies

The herbs (thyme, lemon thyme, summer savoury, golden marjoram and French tarragon) are thriving, as are the succulents, thrift and dianthus. The chillies have suffered from lack of water at times, so if I plant them in the roof again I’ll need to keep more of an eye on them if we want a larger crop. I’m also intending to try alpine strawberries (Fragraria vesca ‘White Soul’) in the roof next year to develop the edible theme.

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My first ever Habanero (Habanero Red) in the green roof

 

4. Spread Scented Ground Cover

Many herbs provide great ground cover, adding attractive foliage, flowers and scent to a garden, whilst also being extremely useful in the kitchen. Our front garden had a muddy path to which we’ve added paving and gravel, leaving plenty of space to plant ground cover herbs. There is a range of thymes, including woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus), creeping white thyme (Thymus serpyllum var. albus) and creeping lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus ‘Aurea’), alongside pennyroyal mint (Mentha pulegium) and chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile ‘Flore Pleno’). They create an aromatic effect as you wander along the path (along with the oregano which has self-seeded down the side passage and releases the most lovely scent when we put the bins out). They are enjoying the location, in full sun, and have rewarded us by increasing in size, creating plenty of ground cover even when they’ve just been harvested.

We turned the weedy muddy area into a path with room for ground cover herbs

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The woolly thyme is doing a good job colonising the water meter cover

 

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The herbs also have beautiful flowers in the summer – an extra bonus

 

 

5. Munch on Edible Flowers and Colourful Veg

Many vegetable patches are visible from the house these days rather than hidden at the bottom of a long plot, so it’s important to consider how the productive area will add to the aesthetics of the garden. Including annuals and perennials with edible flowers in the vegetable patch is an easy way to engage children with gardening and create a visually appealing, vibrant space.

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The kids love picking petals from the garden to adorn their salads

We grow calendula, borage, bergamot, marigolds, nasturtiums, viola, dianthus, primroses and lavender either in the veg beds or elsewhere in the garden. Although they don’t add a great amount of bulk to meals, they can be used to brighten up salads, cakes, biscuits and ice-cubes, adding a bit of creative fun to family meals.

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This is a summer plateful which we harvested and added to a crisp Caesar salad

Colourful vegetables are also a valuable addition to an ornamental vegetable patch as they create visual interest. From pea ‘Blauschokker’ with its delicate purple flowers and deep purple pods, rainbow chard with its thick stems shining like jewels in the sun to purple kohl rabi with UFO shaped swollen stems, there are so many interesting coloured vegetables from which to choose.

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Fabulous rainbow chard with vibrant stems

 

6. Pot it up

If you don’t have a fruit and vegetable patch, but want to grow ornamental crops, containers could be the answer. Several years ago I bought a great book called ‘Crop in Pots’ by  Bob Purnell. I loved the illustrations which pay as much attention to creating attractive displays as they do to providing food for the table.

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The redcurrants and dianthus work so well together here

I’ve tried several of the combinations over the years and made up some of my own, like the fruit salad hanging baskets for the school fete with alpine strawberries (we used Fragraria vesca ‘Baron Solemacher’) and chocolate mint (Mentha x piperita ‘Chocolate Mint’) with its deep brown stems and bronze flush to the leaves.

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This lovely combination is right up my street as a I love growing chillies and herbs for curries

Even with a small patio, windowbox or windowsill, it’s possible to grow beautiful plants which taste good too. My chilli collection includes some really ornamental plants like ‘Numex Twilight’ and ‘Purple Gusto’. I also love edible houseplants like Vanilla Grass (Pandanus amaryllifolius) and Kaffir Lime (Citrus hystrix) which can bring a little productive beauty into any house, whether or not it has a garden.

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My chilli ‘Numex Twilight’ looks great surrounded by mint and lemon verbena

Growing edibles is in the garden is great fun and connects us with the origins of our food, reminding us of the fundamental yet often overlooked role plants play in our busy, modern lives. Best of all, in an ornamental edible garden, a feast for the eyes can be transformed into a feast for the table and that’s a truly beautiful thing.

What are your favourite ornamental and edible combinations? Do leave me a comment and let me know what you are growing and how it’s going. What would you advise me to try next in the colourful veggie patch and what new varieties are on your wish list?

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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.