Hey Presto – Pesto!

It was too hot tonight to spend much time in the kitchen – what was needed was a quick supper for the family to eat in the garden. Salad is plentiful at this time of year, so add a bit of pasta on the side and job done. Pesto is great to mix with speedy pasta and luckily I’d made some earlier in the week. Here’s how I made it, plus some top tips on how to grow and harvest the basil and store the pesto afterwards…

Sowing Basil

I grow basil on the top shelf of the greenhouse (away from all but the best ninja slugs) and I usually grow sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) as it has the sweetest taste for pesto and salads. I’ve grown Thai basil in the past – I grew Ocimum x citriodorum ‘Siam Queen’ primarily for cooking Thai dishes. It has a stronger liquorice flavour which is lovely in a curry and is a more ornamental plant with its purple/red stems and pink flowers. It didn’t make such good pesto though, so I went back to sweet basil for my pasta dishes.

Seeds can be sown from February to June and take a couple of weeks to germinate in a propagator or a pot/tray inside a polythene bag. Once the seedlings are large enough, they can be pricked out into small pots. I tend to grow mine in pots (I pot them on a couple of  times over the growing season into larger pots and probably would grow them in bigger pots still if I had the room.) They can also be grown on a windowsill for the duration or hardened off after the risk of frost is over and planted outside in a sunny, sheltered spot. I’ve found this to be less productive due to low temperatures in past summers, but in a hot summer this would probably be more productive than greenhouse growing if you have enough space.

If you like the idea of growing different types of basil for pesto or other recipes these seed suppliers are a good place to start. Here are a few on my seed list for next year…

Thompson and Morgan – I like the idea of Basil ‘Lemonade’ adding a ‘sherbert lemon twist’ to a bowl of summer strawberries.

Kings Seeds – Cinnamon basil sounds tasty and ripe for some culinary experimentation. Lemon basil also appeals and I like the idea of adding it to Earl Grey tea. Especially when the tea is made from bergamot from the garden.

Nicky’s Seeds – Basil ‘Floral Spires White’ and ‘Floral Spires Lavender’ combine the ornamental and culinary, with pretty flowers on a compact plant. Sounds like it has real potager potential.

Top Tip 1:

If you don’t want to raise basil from seed it is easy to buy a cheap supermarket pot of basil and divide it. I did this one year when I needed plants for the school plant sale and mine had all been gobbled by the hungry and increasingly skilled ninja slugs.

Basil in pots is overcrowded and often doesn’t last long – convincing cooks that it is a hard plant to grow. With a few extra pots and a bit of compost, all the seedlings in the pot can be pricked out, given their own space and then grown on in a greenhouse, on a windowsill or in the garden. This gave me over 30 individual plants which all matured to be stocky sizeable specimens with many leaves over the course of the summer. Bargain!

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Some of the basil after its first mini haircut

 

Growing Basil

Basil likes warm conditions and plenty of water. It should also be fertilised once a month over the summer.

Top Tip 2:

I grow my greenhouse basil in pots placed in gravel trays. Although the plants shouldn’t be sitting in water, I do find they are happier in a more moist environment than many of my greenhouse plants. Without a gravel tray the water quickly drains away, but with it they can absorb more of the moisture and then any excess can be tipped away. (Although in practice I’ve found an occasional few days here or there sitting in water doesn’t seem to do them any damage.)

Even managed to squeeze some basil into the tomato hanging baskets

Harvesting Basil

Basil can be harvested throughout the growing season and is lovely in salads and well as in pesto. I particularly love it at this time of year in a basil, tomato and mozzarella salad with a mix of our red, purple, orange and yellow tomatoes.

Top Tip 3:

I generally harvest basil for pesto twice in the season. Pinching the plant out stimulates side growth, leading to a sturdier, more productive plant. I use the pinched out leaves for salad early in the season and then leave them for a few weeks to grow back. I then take most of my plants back to the lowest set of leaves and make pesto. Finally towards the end of the growing season I pinch the plants back to the lowest leaves again. This set of leaves usually makes the largest amount of pesto.

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This plant has been pinched back hard twice and is branching enthusiastically

 

Making Pesto

I collect a basketful of leaves from about 20 plants and then pick off and wash the leaves. These are blended with 50-100g of pine nuts, 1-3 cloves of garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 100g grated Parmesan cheese and enough oil to blend to a fairly smooth paste. I generally try the pesto when it’s blended and add more garlic, salt and/or nuts to taste.

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Late summer pickings

 

Top Tip 4:

This week I discovered I only had half a pack of pine nuts in the cupboard – disaster! I read about using other nuts in pesto so I added cashews to make it up to the right amount. The pesto was delicious and I’ll be trying different types of nuts in the future (pistachios and walnuts for starters) to see what works.

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Pesto ingredients with a mix of pine and cashew nuts

 

Top Tip 5:

The second batch of pesto invariably makes more than we can eat fresh, even in a particularly pesto-loving household. I have frozen it in little pots before which is a bit of a nuisance as it ties up all my containers for months, so this year I froze it in ice cube trays and then popped the pesto ice cubes into a bag when frozen. Leave out the cheese if freezing and add when you defrost. The pesto ice cube can just be stirred into hot, cooked pasta and it will melt with the cheese to create perfect easy tea.

Pesto ice cubes

What have you made pesto with and how successful was it? I’d love to try other greens in the future as well as different types of nuts…

Pesto pasta for all the family with a colourful garden salad

More delicious recipes from the garden to come in later posts. Follow the blog to get tasty updates…

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My Hard-Working Garden: An Ongoing Transformation(Part 1)

Potager gardens, walled gardens and old-fashioned cottage gardens – all styles I love for their eclectic mix of vegetables, fruit and flowers. They can be seen as nostalgic, whimsical, outmoded; gardens which exist in an historical context, from time to time tempting modern gardeners into grand estates or rural open garden shows, but without contemporary relevance. Their visual, almost casual beauty belies the amount of hard graft behind such dual purpose gardens, which needed to create an aesthetic impact whilst also fulfilling a practical role for the household – whether that be a cottage with two occupants or a grand estate of many hundreds.

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My veggie bed with a mix of edible flowers, flowers for cutting and vegetables (plus Billy the Scarecrow!)

Modern gardens don’t have to provide us with medicinal herbs which are unavailable elsewhere, they rarely need to feed large estates, or provide food for families who have no access to other sources of nourishment. But they do have to work as hard as in the past, especially modern small gardens which are required to fulfil a number of purposes. Many have an assortment of children’s toys sprawled untidily across the centre (ours often does), they are required to provide aesthetic appeal with flower borders, containers and other key features. They are intended to attract wildlife, to create space for entertaining, cooking and relaxing,  and some even have to provide fruit and vegetables for the table. As our requirements for our gardens increase and their size diminishes, the pressure on outdoor spaces to cater for many purposes grows. In this way we could be seen as returning to these older styles of gardening where the garden has to work hard to earn its keep. In spaces too small to allow different areas for each function, the potager style works well as each part of the garden can be used in multifunctional ways.

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Our much-loved, but enormous slide and swings

We moved into our current house six years ago and have just finished the major changes on the garden (although I know it will always be changing and evolving and that’s the fun bit). Now there’s no major designing and restructuring to do, I thought it might be good to look back over the past six years at what we’ve achieved and where I hope it might go next.

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Original tidy but rather dull border

Six years ago our back garden was uninspiring, with established shrub borders, a small rotting shed, a lovely little greenhouse and a fair-sized lawn. The garden is about 9m by 13m and is north-east facing, without much shading tree cover and fenced all round. I guess many people would have viewed the garden as low-maintenance, finished and tidy, but I saw it as an opportunity to create a garden which packs as much in as possible without seeming too busy or chaotic.

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This side had an empty gravel border which emphasised the concrete fence base and an overgrown Ceanothus

My first aim was to replicate the semi-wildness of my childhood garden for my kids. I grew up in a 1/3 acre garden in Cheshire with several mature trees, a vegetable and fruit garden and a wild patch at the bottom. The wild patch existed quite happily without having an impact on the rest of the garden as it was unviewed fron the house and therefore an ideal place for secret club meetings, wildlife watching and endless hours of tree climbing with an apple and a book. We have no trees big enough to climb in our current garden, nor much likelihood of growing any, so I decided to create a willow den in the flower border to give the kids an area where they could exist unobserved.

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Behind the shrubs, the border was empty and unused

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The garden had a good-sized lawn

We kept the lawn (although we extended the border area) and the greenhouse, which had been one of the things which had initially attracted me to the garden. I replaced the shed with a larger potting shed, in which I’ve spent many productive, happy hours in the past five years, creating a small plant empire and generally pottering, in teeming storms, muggy afternoons and evenings so dark I’ve needed a headtorch.

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Love my potting shed…

Initially we removed the large Thuja which were blocking light from the garden and then cleared out the back border, giving many of the plants away to local people though Freecycle. My main aim was to get the fruit trees and bushes established first as these would take the longest to become productive. Now, five years on from planting, the plum, apples, greengage, cherry (in a pot) and pear (in a pot) are really getting into their stride and we’ve been harvesting superb crops from the raspberries, currants, blueberries (in pots) and rhubarb for several years. We chose espalier apple trees along the side fence (‘James Grieve’, ‘Egremont Russet’ and ‘Bountiful’), two dessert apples and one cooker/dessert. ‘Bountiful’ went in the shadiest spot near the house, as cookers can tolerate more shade, and we planted short hedges of lavender and rosemary to create areas for herbs between the trees. We now have three modestly productive espaliers, now with four tiers, and a thriving herb border with sage, chives, garlic chives, assorted mints (sunk in pots), thyme (which has been fabulous for the past five years, but didn’t like the wet winter so now needs replacing), majoram, chamomile, lavender and rosemary.

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After planting the espaliers

I’ve also added bulbs with varying levels of success. The snowdrops along the side of the lawn are thriving and the white hyacinths which I planted around the base of each apple tree have increased threefold and look and smell stunning in the spring. Tulips were less successful as the area is mulched with bark and slugs (the latter not intentionally) so I gave up the tulip struggle in this border as they emerged eaten and misshapen year after year. Alliums are more successful and the Allium sphaerocephalon increase each year. This year, however, the stock of larger allium like Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ and Allium christophii looks diminished and I wonder if the wet winter is again to blame (we do have quite heavy soil here, but I usually use grit under bulbs when planting which seems to help with longevity.)

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Espaliers, herbs and Lonicera ‘Hall’s Prolific’ on the house wall beginning to get established

 

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The alliums at their best in the herb/espalier border

Winter clematis (‘Freckles’ and ‘Jingle Bells’) thrive up one of the espalier poles and Clematis ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Artic Queen’ up another. The final post supports Vitis vinifera ‘Reliance’, which last year gave us our first harvest of sweet, seedless pink grapes.

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Clematis ‘Freckles’ flowers non-stop throughout the winter

Clematis 'Arctic Queen'

Clematis ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Arctic Queen’ twine together up the post

At the back of the garden around the fruit trees I’ve planted several varieties of Narcissus which look and smell lovely in the spring, along with Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, Primula vulgaris, Fritillarea meleagris and two Cotoneaster horizontalis which were found in the garden as seedlings and have been trained up the shed wall as coverage for insects and berries for the birds.

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Fruit trees becoming established

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Daffodils at their best this year

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Early dwarf daffodils emerging – the logs are sections from the tree in the front which we removed as it was too large, too close to the house

 

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Plum heaven…

On the back fence, between the dogwoods and primroses we have a blackberry ‘Apache’ which gives us lovely blossom followed by huge, sweet fruit which form the basis of sorbets, stewed apple and blackberry and fruit leathers in late summer. It fits in perfectly with the potager style – combining beauty and utility, covering a boundary with foliage, flowers and fruit.

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This bench catches the afternoon and evening sun – perfect for a late cuppa and a book

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Other pop-up structures the garden has to contend with…

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Our DIY tent

So much for the herb/espalier border and the fruit tree area which I, rather grandly, call the spring garden in reference to the blooming of the daffodils, primroses and fruit blossom from March to May. In the next post I’ll take a look back at the development of the fruit cage, vegetable beds, willow den and flower border. All testament to the fact that you can include much of what you want in a garden, if you are prepared to think a bit outside the box (willow den in a flowerbed), embrace the potager style and let your imagination run wild…

Read about the transformation in the rest of the garden in next week’s blog post…

Out with the Ugly: Bin with the New

Cars, concrete, lines of brightly coloured bins – not easy to integrate into a friendly front garden. My front garden, like many others around the country, has to accommodate these elements, but I’m determined they will not dominate it. I’ve already cut down the 20 year old Swedish Whitebeam (Sorbus intermedia) which was growing too close to the house and darkening our inside space. Then there was the removal of the patchy front lawn – not sure all my neighbours understood that one! Now I have a little planted space with evergreen structure and bright spring, summer and autumn flowers (more on that later) and a narrow gravel path with stepping stones interplanted with creeping herbs. Beautiful, but not enough to completely deflect attention from the imposing purple and brown bins still lining the drive.

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From this…

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To this…

Mini Green Roof Beginnings

At Hampton Court last year I saw the beautiful blue binstore in the Community Garden and fell in love. I took lots of photos and spent ages asking questions about the construction and planting of the green roof. Unfortunately my budget wouldn’t stretch to an aluminium binstore, so with the help of a local carpenter, I planned a wooden structure with a green roof to hide my bins from the side view. Now it’s in place and the next task is to decide on the growing medium and plant it up.

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Loved this binstore

Crushed brick conundrum

At the moment the base of the green roof is lined with a plastic waterproof membrane and there is a drainage hose covered with a screwed down tea strainer. The base is filled with a shallow layer of 10/20mm gravel whilst I debate what growing medium to use. I’m planning a 30%/70% – inorganic aggregate/green waste compost mix and trying to decide between recycled crushed brick and expanded clay pebbles. The former is more sustainable and I can get it locally – but only in 20 tonne lorry loads. Currently I require about 90 litres, so I’d have enough left over to green roof the rest of my street! I’m pretty sure crushing the bricks myself isn’t a viable option as the particles really need to be 2-5mm and that’d be a lot of lump hammer wielding. Alternatively I can hire a crusher for upwards of £300 a day (!) So I’m coming to the conclusion that the local sustainable option isn’t viable unless I can find another 40 people locally who also want crushed brick for their own green roofs.

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Tea, anyone?

Having fun with plants

So with the rudimentary drainage system sorted and the growing medium (nearly) sorted I should soon be able to start the most interesting part of the experiment – the planting. The front garden is south-west facing and should be ideal for herbs. I’m intending to move a group of white alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca ‘White Soul’) which I grew from seed from under the apple tree in the front garden to the roof, where they’ll get more sun. Then I’ll add herbs like Lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus), the trailing Indian mint (Satureia douglasii) and some Sempervivums. I’m planning on growing some Black-Eyed Susan from seed to climb up the external trellis and to complement the planting in the narrow strip between mine and next door’s garden which is due to commence in a few weeks (more on that later too). Who knows what the bin store will look like when it’s finished and what plants will ultimately take up residence on the roof as I experiment merrily. All I know is I’ll have a lot of fun and learn a lot along the way. See the next stage of the process in my next bin blog post and read about the creatures that call it home

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New bin storage with green roof nearly ready to be planted

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And a side border to fill with goodies…

If you have planted up a green roof I’d be interested to hear what worked and anything which didn’t work. Please leave me a comment – this is my first blog post and I’ll no doubt have lots of learning to do…

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.