Fruity New Ideas in the Edible Eden Garden at RHS Hampton Court

Beautiful blackcurrants, deep rosy red fleshed apples, delicious patio tomatoes, and a ginger rosemary cocktail that will blow you away – all on offer at Hampton Court this week in the Edible Eden Garden, designed by Chris Smith of Pennard Plants

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Companion planting in the Edible Eden Garden. Image credit: RHS Joanna Kossak

Edible Eden combines a formal vegetable area, unusual edibles in the forest garden and a soft fruit display in a garden that is a feast for the eyes as well as the tastebuds. Chris explained that he collaborated with Burpee Europe and Lubera on the garden, two companies specializing in breeding and producing new varieties of fruit, vegetables and flowers. Initially Simon Crawford, of Burpee Europe, had the vision of a field of sunflowers and this developed into the impressive display of dwarf sunflower ‘Sunray’ which leads the visitor into the vibrant edible garden.

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Field of Sunflower ‘Sunray’ glory

Passing the Riverside Shepherd’s Hut, which would be wonderful to use as a potting or writing space, the sunflower field leads to a vegetable area full of ripe tomatoes, peppers and fiery marigolds grown as companion plants to ward off unwanted insects. 

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The ideal writing retreat…

Of particular interest was Sweet Pepper ‘Lemon Dream’, launched at Chelsea last year as a companion to ‘Tangerine Dream’. I’m growing both for the first time this year and peppers have just started to form – I hope my plants prove as ornamental and productive as the Pennard peppers at Edible Eden!

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Who could resist Sweet Pepper ‘Lemon Dream’?

The forest garden area showcases new fruit from Lubera including the Redlove apple varieties – ‘Era’, ‘Lollipop’ and ‘Calypso’. I was impressed by the amount of fruit produced on these trees in such a small space. The apples are particularly attractive with a deep rosy red colour that shows all the way through the fruit. The high levels of anthocyanins found in the skin means the apples are healthy to eat as well as being beautiful and the deep colour is retained even when they are cooked. 

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Redlove ‘Lollipop’. Image credit: Lubera

The apple trees have deep pink flowers in spring and beautiful autumn colour, making Redlove both ornamental and productive – an ideal tree for a small garden.

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Redlove blossom – a welcome sight in spring. Image credit: Lubera

Next to the apple trees, my eye was drawn to a display of several different Szechaun peppers from the Pennard Plants collection. These hardy shrubs are easy to grow and provide different flavoured peppercorns depending on the variety. Some also have edible leaves to extend the cropping period outside the ripening of the berries. I love the range of leaf shapes and colours from the purple-leaved Japanese Sansho pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum) with its aromatic leaves, to the lush deep green foliage of the Korean lime pepper (Zanthoxylum coreanum) which has edible berries and leaves. Pennards have collected over 15 different Szechuan and other pepper varieties all with different flavours and preferring different garden situations, so there’s sure to be one that will thrive in every garden.

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Chinese Red Pepper (Zanthoxylum bungeanum) in the Edible Eden forest garden

Inside the Alitex greenhouse, the fruit on Melon ‘Mango Mel’ (bred by Burpee to thrive in a northern climate) made my mouth water.  Fortunately I had the opportunity to taste the melons later when writer and grower Mark Diacono, of Otter Farm, prepared a range of cocktails to showcase the fruit, vegetables and herbs from the garden.

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Each melon resting in its own individual hammock

Mark’s Pimms with ginger ale and garden produce (cucumber, melon, lemon, strawberries, Moroccan mint and even radish) was delicious and then he prepared a ginger rosemary gin with ginger rosemary syrup (equal amounts of water and sugar, on a low heat until dissolved, add ginger rosemary or any other herb and steep until required strength, then remove), lots of lemon juice to add the sharpness and a good quantity of gin. This is one to drink at the end of a visit to the show though – not before touring the gardens!

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Beware Mark Diacono preparing (delicious) cocktails

Finally Chris showed me a new tomato due to be launched at RHS Tatton Park Flower Show later in the year. This tiny tomato combines a diminutive stature with a deliciously sweet taste – the holy grail of patio tomato breeding. Christened ‘Veranda Red’, this variety is ideal as a tabletop tomato and would be perfect to grow at home with children.

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Tiny tomato ‘Veranda Red’

As I was leaving Edible Eden, full of new ideas for my ornamental fruit and vegetable plot back home, I noticed blackcurrant ‘Black ‘N Red’ which develops gorgeous deep burgundy leaves as the summer progresses. I’ve just removed a blackcurrant that had become unproductive, so I think the sweet fruit of ‘Black ‘N Red’ along with its ornamental foliage might just be the next edible addition to my garden.

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Blackcurrant ‘Black ‘N Red’. Image credit: Lubera

Featured image credit: RHS Joanna Kossack

 

 

25 Colourful Crops for a Vibrant Vegetable Garden

In January I banished grey days by reading The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair. It took me on a vivid journey through the history of colour, to explore the unknown corners of sepia, fallow, orchil, Isabelline and vantablack. As I read, I noticed how many of the terms are derived from plants like madder, amaranth, saffron, ginger, avocado and violet. Often these words referred to the dye the plants produced as with woad, or the colour of the plant’s blooms, like heliotrope. Colour is an integral part of our relationship with plants, we have used them over the centuries to produce dyes and paints, to bring colour into our homes with cut flowers and recently we’ve learnt more about the health benefits of many of the antioxidants that give plants their colour.

Now we are nearing the middle of February and my dining table is splashed with colour as I sort my seed packets. I usually avoid sowing anything except chillies until early March, so there’s still a couple of weeks to select a rainbow of colour for health and happiness later in the year. Here are my top picks for a vibrant vegetable patch in 2019:

Red

  • Suttons’ new lettuce ‘Outredgeous’ is the first plant to be grown from seed, harvested and eaten in space. It has vivid red leaves, a sweet crunch and can be grown in part-shade as well as full sun
  • Sprout ‘Red Rubine’ is an unusual brassica with red/purple sprouts. We particularly liked the red sprout tops which taste like sweet, crunchy mini-cabbages
  • One of my favourite salad onions ‘Apache’ produces glossy red spring onions that keep their colour when peeled. They are also ideal for container growing
  • The first oca I grew was ‘Helen’s All Red’ from Real Seeds. It produced heavy crops and is also one of the best flavoured of the 15 or so varieties I’ve grown. With edible leaves and ruby fruits in November when the rest of the garden has gone into hibernation, this is one colourful crop you won’t regret growing this year

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    Oca ‘Helen’s All Red’

Orange

  • Suttons’ Squash ‘Uchiki Kuri’ has dense round fruits which keep well and look superb hanging off the climbing plants in the autumn
  • Chilli ‘Apricot’ from Sea Spring Plants was a first for me last year. Its mild fruits matured late and tasted more like a sweet pepper than a chilli – a good choice if you want chilli plants for young children or chillies for stuffing
  • Tomato ‘Sungold’ is an orange winner time and time again in taste tests for the sweetest tomato. The cherry-sized fruits are irresistible to both kids and adults, especially when eaten warm straight out of the greenhouse

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    Squash ‘Uchiki Kuri’

Yellow

  • Visually, I prefer ‘Chioggia’ beetroot with its striking pink central rings, but the kids’ favourite is always ‘Burpees Golden’ for its mild, sweet taste
  • Tomato ‘Golden Sunrise’ is a beautiful contrast in a salad to darker varieties and ‘Striped Stuffer’ has scarlet skins striped with vivid yellow making the most beautiful hanging display
  • If you prefer your chillies hot then try ‘Lemon Drop’, a delicious Aji chilli that comes in at a spicy 30,000-50,000 SHU rating

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    A mix of yellow and orange tomatoes

Green

  • A poor relation in the garden, green is often dismissed as simply the colour of foliage, but it can be beautiful and vivid in its own right. Try Tomato ‘Green Zebra’ with its deep green stripes over a soft lime background
  • Or try the tinted white-green patty pan squash with their prolific scalloped fruits – a seed mix like ‘Summer Mix’ from Thompson and Morgan combines the paler squashes with dark green and yellow fruits
  • Cucamelons also celebrate the colour green with their beautiful speckles over the paler skin and Romanesco broccolli excudes lime green from every fractal millimetre

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    Cucamelon green

Blue

  • An unsual colour in the vegetable garden, many ‘blue’ crops tip over into tints of purple. You could try Tomato ‘Blue Bayou’ from Chiltern Seeds for its ‘richly coloured dark navy-blue to purple fruits’
  • Alternatively try Sweetcorn ‘Hopi Blue’, an American Indian heirloom variety from Jungle Seeds to find out if blue is for you in the vegetable garden

Indigo

  • We like the meaty, deep flavour of Tomato ‘Indigo Rose’ from Suttons. This almost black cultivar has a secret – lift up the calyx and underneath you’ll find remnants of the red coloration where the skin isn’t exposed to the light

Violet

  • I love deep purple vegetables – whether it’s ‘Purple Haze’ carrots, ‘Kolibri’ kohlrabi or the dwarf bean ‘Purple Queen’ There’s something deep and mysterious about them – especially when the colour magically disappears during cooking as with the beans or gives way to the traditional orange centre inside the carrots

Rainbow carrots and the orange inside

Rainbow

  • If your garden is too small to grow a wide range of crops or you fancy more colours for your money, rainbow collections are a fun way to liven it up. Chilli ‘Prairie Fire’ moves through the colours of the rainbow as the fruits mature
  • We love growing carrot ‘Rainbow Mix’ as the kids never know what colour carrot will appear when they gently pull out the roots
  • Beetroot naturally lend themselves to multicoloured seed mixes. ‘Rainbow Mix’ includes ‘Chioggia’, Burpees Golden’ and Albina Verduna’
  • Of course, the ultimate rainbow crop has to be Swiss Chard ‘Bright Lights’one of the first vegetables I ever grew. If the neon stems of ‘Bright Lights’ don’t convince you of the charms of colourful crops, nothing will!

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    Beetroot ‘Rainbow Mix’

What colourful crops are on your seed list this year? Do you have any favourites that you grow time and time again?

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Plot To Plate: Tomatillo Salsa

It’s that time of year, when fruit and vegetables are entering and exiting the kitchen faster than bemused lovers in a French farce. Bags of windfall quinces, cooking apples and boxes of plums are competing for space in the fridge and the green tomatoes (salvaged from the outdoor blighty plants) are attracting fruit flies on the work surface. Pasta sauces, stewed fruit, jams, jellies, pickles and chutneys are being bottled, frozen and consumed in large quantities, so it’s a relief occasionally to make a dish which needs no cooking and for which little chopping is required.

Spice It Up

Some of my favourite ingredients at this time of year are the spicy curry vegetables, fruit and herbs which we use for the Thai, Indian and Mexican dishes which we love. This year’s crop of tomatillos started ripening this week and the first tubful arrived from the allotment accompanied by thechorus – supporting roles being provided by ‘Red Czech’ garlic, ‘Numex Twilight’ chilli, red onions, Vietnamese coriander and tomatoes.

Supporting roles are being played by my chillies, red onions and garlic

Tomatillos

The tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica or Physalis ixocarpa) is originally from Mexico. The fruits look similar to green tomatoes (although they can also be purple) and are encased in a papery husk. Unlike cape gooseberries, which I find crop late and produce poor harvests in my garden, tomatillos crop heavily outside, with 2-3 plants providing easily enough fruit for a family. Given space, the stems will bend and trail along the ground, often rooting from the trailing stems, creating even more productive plants. I’ve grown tomatillos for three years and the only issue I’ve encountered was last year when my seeds proved tricky to germinate, but in other years I’ve not had the same problems.

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The related Cape Gooseberry in its similar papery casing

Tangy Taste

These cherry-sized fruits taste like slightly tart tomatoes, but with a lime tang which gives the flavour added depth. I’ve used them fresh in salsa and guacamole, and a summer glut can easily be halved, frozen and then added to soups or casseroles at the beginning of cooking which gives the final dish a mellow fruity flavour.

Tomatillo Salsa

This year’s first tomatillo harvest disappeared swiftly into salsa – served with homemade mackerel pate on toast…

Ingredients

Couple of handfuls of tomatillos removed from their casing and washed (don’t remove until you plan to use them as it help to keep the fruits fresh)

Equal amounts of cherry tomatoes

1-3 chillies depending on variety and personal taste, chopped finely

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1 small red onion, finely chopped

Juice from 1/2 – 1 lime

Handful of Vietnamese coriander (or annual coriander), finely chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

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Star of the show – ‘The Tomatillo’

Super-Simple Method

Mix the ingredients together in a blender

Add extra salt, chilli and/or lime juice to taste

Once the salsa is complete, the curtain can rise on a Mexican banquet or it can be enjoyed in my favourite way – with nachos, soured cream and our homegrown pickled chillies for supper with desperados (or in my case, a gluten-free beer like Celia).

Now I’m hungry! Time to make another batch of salsa…

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Our spicy prima donna is ready…

I buy my tomatillo seeds from Suttons (who are also selling tomatillo plants for 2018) and from Real Seeds. I’ve grown purple and green varieties – both crop really well and taste great.

Other ‘plot to plate’ recipes using our garden, allotment and hedgerow harvests include:

Plot to Plate: Courgette Tea Bread

Plot to Plate: Spiced Crab Apple Jelly and Crab Apple Fruit Leathers

Plot to Plate: Apple and Cinnamon Butter

Plot to Plate: Stuffed Summer Squash

It’s worth noting that all parts of these plants, except the fruits, are poisonous.

If you’d like to follow my blog and hear about the next ‘plot to plate’ experiment, you can click below to subscribe. Thanks very much and happy gardening…

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Do My Cucamelons Look Big In This?

This will be my fifth year growing cucamelons and the first year I’ve successfully overwintered them. Heralded as an exciting addition to cocktails by James Wong in 2012, I’ve spoken to many people who have grown cucamelons only to be disappointed with either the taste or harvest of these diminutive fruits. I am prepared to accept that for some (misguided!) individuals the fresh, citrusy sweetness of a ripe cucamelon isn’t an instant hit. Perhaps they aren’t big fans of cucumbers, limes or watermelons either, as the cucamelon combines snatches of all these favours within its own zingy freshness. What I won’t accept, is that cucamelons are dry, chewy, bland or sour. All these complaints suggest one thing – that the offending fruit has been harvested too late.

Cucamelons need careful watching – miss the couple of days in which the fruits attain their optimum flavour and texture, and you’ll always believe they aren’t worth the hype. In the bustle of modern life this window can easily be missed and cucamelons don’t help with their trailing habit, as the tiny fruits are often hidden behind the leaves of other plants, only to be discovered several days later well on their way to winning the ‘grow a giant cucamelon competition’ at the expense of their taste. The ideal size is about equal to a grape and the colour should be green with dark stripes. If the fruits grow any bigger and turn a paler green then the skins become tough and the juice rather insipid. I generally advise first-time cucamelon growers to try tasting a fruit when it is pea-sized. Then, when fruits are harvested a few days later, if they don’t taste as sweet and delicious as the first tiny fruit, they should be harvested earlier next time.

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I found this one hiding at the back…

The other issue with cucamelons can be their tendency to have years when fruiting is reduced. I’ve had some bumper years where the vines fruit continuously throughout the summer and some where fruiting has been rather disappointing. I grow four pots in the greenhouse trained on wires around the top edge, although there are always side-shoots escaping to make friends with the tomatoes, chillies, lemongrass and other greenhouse residents. I’ve also tried them outside with some success (they grow well up supports but tend to fruit a little less than in the greenhouse). This year I fed and watered the greenhouse crops more and also made sure the door was left open to encourage pollinators in as flowers aren’t self-fertile and the crop was good. I suspect hand pollination might also increase yields, but I’ve not felt the need to attempt this yet.

I’ve also tried over-wintering cucamelons several times without success. A few years ago I attended a talk by James Wong at the Edible Garden Show where he mentioned that they could be over-wintered. Cucamelons produce long, tuberous roots which can supposedly be stored, like dahlia tubers, in a cool dry place over-winter. When I asked him at the end of the talk, James said he hadn’t tried it but this was the recommended way to store them. So the next winter I tried, but the tubers rotted in storage. The following year I left them in pots of compost in the greenhouse along with my dahlias. This was also unsuccessful (although the dahlias were fine.) I even found a tuber one spring in the vegetable bed which looked dormant but healthy. I potted it up, but it spent the whole summer in the pot without ever awakening.

This winter I thought I’d give it one last try before giving up on over-wintering altogether. Keeping the plants on the dry side in their pots in a cool spot indoors seems to have done the trick. I cut the vines back to about 10cm before bringing them in. One died back completely and the other has retained its vine but not grown further. Now both are showing some new growth and I do believe I’ve cracked it! Hopefully the over-wintered plants will crop earlier and more heavily than my seed sown plants – I’ll let you know how it goes.

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It’s alive!!

Raw cucamelons add a tangy note of sharpness to salads without being sour. I think this is by far the best way to appreciate their flavour. My kids love them and they are a superb fruit for small fingers to harvest. One year we also pickled our cucamelons. They were good on sandwiches and burgers, but lost the sweet/sharp combination which is their defining feature. I haven’t tried them in cocktails, but they’re good in Pimms with strawberries and mint. Go on, you know it makes sense  🙂

So if you want to experience the delight of a fresh, juicy cucamelon it’s important to ensure good pollination. Then, once you have your harvested crop in your hand, ask yourself this question: ‘Do my cucamelons look big in this?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, then you’ve left it too late…

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One or two of my crop here are on the large size. The smaller ones are an ideal size.

If you’d like to try growing these tiny taste bombs this year they are easy to raise from seed and are now available as plug plants. When I started growing cucamelons, seed wasn’t that readily available, but now it can be sourced from the following suppliers and many more…

Suttons Seeds (where I bought my first seeds, available as seeds or plug plants), Pennard Plants (also offers a great range of other unusual fruit/veg seeds and edible perennials), Chiltern Seeds (with a wide range of heritage and heirloom vegetables too) and Jungle Seeds).

Sow seeds indoors from the end of February until April and they will be ready to plant out in the greenhouse or the garden/allotment at the end of May. If you are planting them outside, consider slug protection as one small munch at the base of the vine can undo weeks of careful growing.

Maybe you disagree completely with my cucamelon favouritism? Have you experienced different problems from the ones I’ve discussed or do you find the taste too sour even in small fruits? Or perhaps cucamelons crop well for you and you’ve got alternative ways of using them in recipes? If so, I’d love to hear from you, so please do leave me a comment…

If you’d like to read about other more unusual crops, you could try:

You can also follow the progress of my overwintered cucamelons on the blog by subscribing below…

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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

Meet 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.

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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.

As with rhubarb, spinach and sorrel, oca leaves and tubers contain oxalic acid and therefore should only be eaten in small amounts and avoided by people who suffer from arthritis, gout and certain other ailments (for further information see the Plants For a Future Database). Tubers can be left in the light for a week or two after harvest to reduce the oxalic acid context and sweeten the taste.

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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Oyster Mushroom Advent Calendar: Part One

On the first day of Advent the postman gave to me, some mushrooms to grow in coffee…

My children (aged 4 and 7) were exploding with excitement this morning as they opened the first door in their Lego advent calendar – a special treat this year from Grandma and Grandpa. We also have the atmospheric beauty of another Jacquie Lawson digital calendar – this year it’s a seaside advent world with a puzzle, short video or mini-game each day. One of my friends even has a beer advent calendar – like a grown-up chocolate version, I guess. As usual, I’m off on a tangent with my advent journey – through upcycled coffee grounds to a harvest of oyster mushrooms, hopefully in a couple of weeks’ time.

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The Kitchen Garden Pearl Oyster Mushroom Kit is from The Espresso Mushroom Company, featured in my recent post 10 Ethical Gardening Gifts for a Green Christmas. They kindly offered me a kit to grow throughout December and having grown mushrooms in the past and had successful crops, I was happy to give it a go. The growbag filled with recycled coffee grounds from 100 espressos needs to be soaked for 12 hours and then I’ll be keeping a photo record of the development of the mushrooms over December and updating on my Facebook page and on the blog.

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The best kind of advent calendar

I’m intending to upload a few videos of the mushroom growing process to my YouTube Channel – if you’d like to see inside the kit, you can follow my mushroom growing exploits here. I’m pretty new to vlogging and it’s the first time I’ve narrated (not keen on the sound of my recorded voice – but then again, who is?), so any helpful hints will be gratefully received…

Here goes… and a very merry Advent to one and all.  🙂

What is your advent calendar this year – chocolates, art or something completely different? If you’d like to watch the development of the mushrooms and my other gardening activities, you can follow the blog below. Thanks.

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Allotment Soup Challenge: Roasted Jerusalem Artichoke and Sweet Chestnut

I love making soup. Homemade soup was a big part of family lunchtime when I was a child and I’ve carried on the tradition, making soups out of everything I can get my hands on. My favourite soup cookbook is a faded copy of ‘Soup and Beyond’ which I’ve had since I was a student. I really like the way it broadens traditional soup horizons, with combinations such as ‘Potato, Leek and Lavender Soup’ and ‘Prince and Pedlar Soup’ (quince and medlar). This recipe book, alongside a keen interest in more unusual crops, has led me to play with all sorts of soupy concoctions – most of which have tickled enough taste buds that they’ve been reprised multiple times, for example, our family favourite cream of kohl rabi soup (which alas has not been possible from the allotment this year for molluscular reasons – see Taking Stock: The Three Worst Crops of 2016).

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Love this book

Allotment Soup Challenge

So I decided I’d set myself challenge for the next few months – to make as many different soups with produce from allotment 96B as I can – to trial new flavour combinations and to make the most of our homegrown produce. There’s nothing better than soup to use up leftover vegetables and to warm your cockles when your heart is feeling rather chilly, for whatever reason. So here goes… the first soup is with the leftover Jerusalem artichokes, harvested last week, mostly used in stir-fries, but with some sorry specimens (not a problem in soup) hiding at the back of the veggie drawer. It’s a good job the soup is nourishing and tasty as there’s an awful lot more artichokes where these came from – whoever had our allotment before us really liked the knobbly tubers and we could currently supply the majority of Hertfordshire until Christmas and beyond…

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Our first plant produced this sizeable pile – only 20 more plants to go!

Roasted Jerusalem artichoke and sweet chestnut soup 🌰

Ingredients

500g Jerusalem artichokes

150g sweet chestnuts

250g potato

1 onion

200ml stock

200ml milk

100ml single cream

1 tsp winter savoury (could use thyme but it might have a less protective effect on your digestive system – see below!)

Salt/black pepper to taste

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We’ve been happily adding these seasonal treats to gravy, soups and casseroles for the past couple of weeks

Method

Roast the chestnuts (with a cross slit in their shells) and the scrubbed artichokes in the oven at 180ºc for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are soft (don’t need to add oil). Meanwhile, boil the peeled, chopped potatoes, winter savoury leaves and halved onion in the stock and milk until the vegetables are soft. When cooled, combine the stock, milk, onion, winter savoury and potatoes with the artichokes (which can be skinned at this point, or as I did, squeezed out of their skins – messy but fun!)

Blend the soup and when it is smooth add the chopped chestnuts and salt and pepper to taste. The soup can then be blended again until there are only small nuggets of chestnut to add a bit of bite to the soft soup. Heat in a pan and serve with crusty bread. It really is pretty simple… and delicious.

You might want to eat fairly sparingly to begin with as the effects of Jerusalem artichokes can be rather potent on the unwary digestive system, but the winter savoury should help take the wind out of the Jerusalem artichokes’ sails, so to speak.  😉

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Fresh, nutty and delicious soup

Please leave me a comment – especially if you have any suggestions about other ways of cooking with Jerusalem artichokes – or producing power with them, or any other ideas as I’m not convinced our collective digestion systems will cope with eating all of them over winter, so we need to dream up some alternative uses!!  🙂

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.

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.

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

 

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Plot to Plate: Stuffed Summer Squash

I’ve sometimes grown fruit and veg in the garden and then had insufficient time, in the whirl of hectic family life, to harvest and/or cook it, which rather defeats the object of growing it in the first place. Now my youngest is at school I’m resolved to make more time to enjoy the fruits (and veg) of my labours and to share some of the recipes that have proved popular on the blog.

So here’s one I made last week with summer squashes I swapped locally for some of my excess chilli peppers…

Stuffed Summer Squash

Ingredients

1 summer squash

Approx. 50g soft goat’s cheese

1/2 red pepper

Handful of mint leaves

Method

Cut out the top of the squash and scoop out the seeds and membrane, discard

Roast the squash in the oven at 180ºc until just soft – around 40 minutes depending on size

Cut the pepper and cheese into chunks

Finely cut the mint

Mix pepper, cheese and mint together

When the squash is soft, stuff the centre with the pepper, cheese and mint mixture (the amounts will depend on the size of the squash) and put back in the oven for around 15 minutes until the cheese is melted and the peppers are soft

Serve as a vegetarian supper for 2 with buttered crusty bread or a vegetable accompaniment to a meal for 4

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Like a cake, it looked rather too good to eat

 

We’ve also enjoyed a tasty alternative squash supper where we stuffed the cooked squash with chopped, fried chorizo and mushrooms mixed with cooked quinoa. Great for a complete gluten free supper in one delicious vegetable bowl.

Bon appetite 🙂