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Book Review: Around The World In 80 Plants

Rock samphire, eternal cabbage, wild garlic, Woburn perennial kale, cabbage thistle, stinging nettle, Bath asparagus, our wild heritage mapped out in salad greens. How did we come to accept mediocrity, the anodyne, now endangered, iceberg lettuce, the tedium of endless cos hearts, the apologetic slack round lettuce? In restaurants, the epithet ‘side salad’ is a precursor to gustatory disappointment. Will my baked potato come surrounded by a rainbow of salad greens, cucumber, pepper, celery, radish, chives, lightly dusted with edible petals? I’d champion any establishment that offered fresh ideas in a fresh salad, or even old family favourites: a mix of grated carrot, beetroot and apple softened with a dash of cider vinegar. All fairly basic ingredients, surely that’s not too much to ask?

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Now that’s what I call a salad, harvested from my garden last summer

Stephen Barstow’s homage to world salad history fights back, detailing the part perennial leafy greens have played in our culinary past and their potential for our future. Around The World In 80 Plants is a fascinating book, documenting the hidden variety of leafy edibles and their uses across six continents from Australia to the author’s own garden in Norway, not far from the Arctic circle. The journey begins in Western and Central Europe with Crithmum maritimum or rock samphire. Once a commonplace leafy green in London, it is now a little known edible, protected from commercial harvesting on UK coastlines. Stephen’s own location (near Trondheim) adds another element to his study as all the plants he trials are grown close to 64°N where mean monthly temperatures range from -3°C in January to 15°C in June. Rock samphire, he notes, began appearing along the Southern coast of Norway around 2000 – a strong indication of climate change. So we follow ‘death samphire’ (so called because its habitat on sheer cliff-faces has caused the swift death of many foragers) from its appearance in King Lear as part of a ‘dreadful trade’, through its use in the 17th century as a popular pickle ingredient, to its colonisation of new areas, creating fresh opportunities for harvesting and eating.

 

Rock Samphire (images courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

The next five chapters range through Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, the Caucasus to the Himalayas and Siberia, the Far East and Australia, the Americas and Norway (and Scandinavia). Many of the plant descriptions developed my knowledge of edibles I’m planning to include in my perennial vegetable allotment bed (Daubenton kale, sea beet, chicory, mallow, sea kale, Egyptian onion) and plants I already grow (hostas, wasabi, horseradish, oca, garlic chives). I’m astonished that I’ve not yet tried dandinoodles (dandelion flower stalks cooked in boiling water for 5 minutes with a knob of butter), or that my hankering for hosta shoots hasn’t yet led me to raid my pots for a quick sushi supper. Although I was aware of the edible history of both plants, my knowledge was sketchy at best. Stephen’s descriptions of edible plant histories alongside his own growing and cooking experiences have fed my obsession with edimentals – plants offering a combination of beauty and practicality which enables small gardens, courtyards and window boxes to offer a combined salve for the stomach and the soul. Nothing pleases me more than designing an ornamental border which leads a double life as a hidden larder. Nothing is more intriguing than a plant, hitherto a delightful, yet one-dimensional ornamental, which I discover to have a sweet tuber which can be baked, seeds which can be sprinkled on homemade bread or leaves with a sharp, lemony tang. These plants really earn their place in my garden.

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I’m looking forward to trying dandinoodles (image courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

I’m unlikely to be attempting to grow or eat Urtica ferox, the New Zealand giant tree nettle at four metres tall with needle-like hairs capable of killing a person. I’m also not queuing up try Angelica archangelica ssp. archangelica var. maiorum dipped in cod liver oil (like the author, I grew up being force-fed the stuff) and I dare not attempt to grow ground elder, even if its absence leaves my botvinya (a cold Russian soup) in need of that special something. But it does grow in the garden margins just around the corner, so I’ll be found one morning, on my knees, hiding behind my neighbour’s hedge, carefully checking my identification before surreptitiously snipping off a few leafy shoots for a real mixed salad.

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Truly terrifying Urtica ferox (image courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

Be warned: Stephen’s engaging plant histories, his propagation, cultivation and seed/plant sourcing information and his accounts of growing edimentals are not likely to restore sanity to anyone already teetering on the brink of a furtive life spent sniffing, rubbing and nibbling unsuspecting plants. In Chapter One, there’s an image of the National Trust property Knightshaye Court in Devon with its elegant lines of Allium ampeloprasum cultivars which is described as ‘an excellent edimental!’ I’ve grown elephant garlic for its bulbs and scapes, but haven’t yet used the leaves in an Egyptian falafel as suggested in the book, so I’m afraid the collection might be in danger next time I’m visiting. Especially if the mixed leaf salad in the cafe isn’t up to scratch…

 

Knightshaye Court – edimentals at their best (images courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

Stephen Barstow (‘Extreme Salad Man’) is one of the world’s great edible plant collectors. His website – http://www.edimentals.com/ – includes a collection of articles by Stephen on a wide range of edimentals, forest gardening, talks, courses and foraging trips, and further information about the book (which can be purchased here).

For more book reviews and further explorations of wild edibles, please see below:

Exploring Wild Flowers: 5 Coastal Plants With Interesting Edible Histories

Nettles Revisited: How Time Removes The Sting

Book Review: The Paper Garden Mrs Delany [Begins Her Life’s Work At 72]

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

And you can follow my blog below too (please do 🙂 )

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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 (who also sell other interesting cucurbits such as gherkin cucumber and horned melon).

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

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

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

A Little Oca History

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

The Guild of Oca Breeders

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

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Tubers in pots to encourage early growth

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

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The different colours and growing habits of my GOB Oca

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

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Some of the washed and sorted December Oca harvest

A Fun Family Crop

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

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

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Chitted Oca is a vegetable with personality

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

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My favourite Guild of Oca Breeders varieties this year

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

If you like Oca…

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

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

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

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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!!  🙂

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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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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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Allotment 96B: The Unusual, the Innovative and the Just Plain Weird…

Five months into allotment life and we’re hooked and starting to plan for next year. I’ve really enjoyed having more space to experiment, especially with some more unusual crops, and now it’s time to take stock. Here’s my conclusions so far on which have impressed and definitely made it into the seed list for next year and which are all show and no substance…

Fat Baby Achocha

My fat baby achocha (Cyclanthera pedata or possibly Cyclanthera brachyastacha – see Real Seeds website for further information) has been slow to start this year. Having grown other achocha before, I expected the allotment to be covered with rampaging vines, but until a couple of weeks ago there wasn’t that much growth and only a few fruit. Some other UK growers seemed to having similar experiences, so I guess the weather might have been to blame. However, my fat babies have been making up for lost time recently and I don’t think I’m going to need to buy green peppers for the foreseeable future.

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A snuggle of fat babies (or any other appropriate collective noun)

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This is where my fat babies live, next to my black-eyed susans

If you haven’t grown achocha, I would classify them in the ‘unusual’ category. They haven’t revolutionised the way I grow or cook, but they are easier to grow in bulk than standard peppers and can be used in much the same way. They work well when small as a raw addition to salads and are great in stir fried or on pizza when they get bigger.

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Mushroom and achocha pizza for tea

 

Trombocino

This climbing courgette (Cucurbita pepo) is a sweet tasting variety of butternut squash which can be eaten fresh or ripened and stored as a winter squash. This little baby trombocino is destined for courgette and chilli cornbread, but the daddy trombocino is still lurking in the undergrowth ready for harvest and measuring for the end of September for the Sutton’s Cup. I’m sure it won’t be the winning specimen, but it’ll be fun finding out.

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Ta da da da da da daaaaaa….

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Big Daddy trombocino

I like trombocinos for their versatility, ornamental value and productivity. I’d definitely grow them again and they fall into my ‘unusual’ category.

Oca

Oca or New Zealand yam (Oxalis tuberosa) originates from the Andes. I first grew it several years ago because, unlike potatoes, the foliage isn’t poisonous and is not susceptible to blight. Now the children are a little older it’s not so important to avoid poisonous plants, but the oca has thrived and become a family favourite.

Who could resist planting these little aliens?

Here’s my top 5 reasons why I’d place oca in the ‘innovative’ category…

  1. It is harvested around November when there is little else of interest in the vegetable garden. My kids and I love winter forays into the frosty garden (oca is best harvested after a hard frost has killed the foliage), returning with piles of red and yellow jewels – enough to brighten everyone’s day.
  2. They are very easy to grow, require no specialist knowledge and can be used in a range of ways – mashed, roasted or even raw in salads.
  3. You can save large tubers in paper bags in a dark place over winter and bring into the light to chit in early spring, which means unless you want to try new varieties, this is a very cheap crop to grow.
  4. The foliage is edible – with a lemony tang rather like sorrel. 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.
  5. They are at the forefront of a movement to democratise the plant breeding process by the Guild of Oca Breeders – a group of gardeners, farmers and horticulturalists who are working to create an ‘open source and genetically diverse, day neutral oca’. This should help to improve yields, making the crop more successful in northern latitudes. I’m enjoying being part of this experiment, trying different varieties, studying growth habits and dissecting the beautiful yellow flowers to learn about how they are structured.

Planting and labelling duties

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Hoping we get another harvest like this in November…

 

Fuchsiaberry

My husband loves fuchsias and we’ve amassed a small collection of hardy fuchsias in pots and in the front garden. I can’t resist anything which purports to be edible, so I’ve tried the berries of our fuchsias with increasing reluctance as I encountered increasingly watery, insipid fruits with a most unpleasant astringency in the mouth afterwards. So when I read about the new Fuchsiaberry fuchsia from Thompson and Morgan, bred to be a heavy cropper and to have ‘large sweet fruits packed with vitamin C and nutrients’, I was intrigued.

Beautiful flowers and large berries

I planted the 5 plugs in pots, grew them on and then planted them in the allotment earlier in the season. They have grown moderately well, although a couple are suffering from the hot conditions and they have some dieback. The remaining 3 plants have plenty of attractive flowers and this week the fruits started to appear. They are a rich burgundy and promise juicy pickings, so I was disappointed when the taste was reminiscent of my hardy fuchsia berries, but with perhaps a slightly less astringent after effect. Maybe it’s something about the growing conditions or when I harvested them (they were plump and juicy), but I can’t see the Fuchsiaberry fulfilling its promise to ‘change allotments and flower borders in the UK’ if everyone else’s berries taste like mine do. I’m afraid, in my allotment at least, this experiment has been relegated to the ‘just plain weird’ category!

Some other unusual favourites

That’s it for the more unusual in the allotment this year, but I’m still experimenting in the garden with cucamelons, lemon grass, tree chillies, honeyberries, inca berries, Chilean guava, coffee and tea. Now I have the allotment space, my plans for next year include earth chestnuts, yacon, ulluco (two more South American tubers), perennial kale – possibly sea kale and/or Daubenton’s kale and my tomatillos will be reappearing after failing to germinate twice this year. I’ll still be growing beetroot, sprouts, tomatoes, potatoes, raspberries, carrots and many more ordinary staples, but I wouldn’t be without the wacky, weird and wonderful for all the tubers in the Andes.

Have unusual crops done well in your allotments this year? I’d love to hear about what you’re growing and how it’s going (especially if anyone’s had good experiences with Fuchsiaberry and can convince me to give it another go!) Thanks.

If you’d like to know how my unusual and more regular crops are getting on throughout the year, do follow my blog:

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