My Garden Right Now: A Mini Tour

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Over at Veg Plotting this weekend Michelle Chapman has created the #mygardenrightnow hashtag for people to use with a picture of themselves in their garden (or allotment) to show what our growing spaces really look like at the end of winter – with all their glorious intimations of spring and their untidy, bare spaces (at least in my garden as you’ll see). I thought this was a great idea – so here’s my contribution. As well as the picture where I’m hiding and waving in the winter filigree willow den, I’ve taken a few short videos of different areas of the garden just before all the daffodils open, the perennials start to romp and the vegetables are sown. Vlogging is a new one on me (as you’ll see in the videos!) and nowhere near as comfortable a medium as writing, but I hope you enjoy the quick tours…

dsc_0054-3It’s interesting that last year the daffodils were poking their noses through on Christmas day and by the first weekend in March weekend they looked like this. I guess most bulbs are later this year and I’m looking forward to the start of the daffodil/tulip/wallflower cycle in a couple of week’s time and all the colour which I’ll be enjoying as I go to and fro through March 🙂

The hashtag is, of course, open to everyone, so do download your garden picture with #mygardenrightnow this weekend and join in the post-winter celebrations 🙂

I’d be really interested to know how your garden/allotment/pots are looking right now. Please leave me a comment below – I love reading your thoughts and ideas.

The videos show several areas of #mygardenrightnow which aren’t as organised as I’d like and where tangled winter debris has played its part in harbouring insects and needs clearing ready for spring growth. So I thought I’d also share some photos of some of the winter/early spring highlights in the garden…

If you’d like to follow the garden as it begins its spring journey you can subscribe below. Thank you 🙂

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If you’d like to read more about how the different areas of my garden were created, you could take a look at the following articles:

Out With The Ugly, Bin With The New

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

My Hard-Working Garden: An Ongoing Transformation (Part 2)

Side Gardens And Shared Spaces

My Secret Garden (A Guest Post on the hidden edibles in my front garden on The Unconventional Gardener’s Blog)

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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Show The Love With A Green Heart

February is ‘Show the Love’ month. People across the country are wearing and sharing green hearts to show our love for the natural world in the face of climate change. ‘Show The Love’ is run by the Climate Change coalition, a Non-Governmental Organisation dedicated to action on climate change made up of 100+ member groups with over 15 million members all over the UK. On the Climate Change Coalition website there’s an interactive map showing activities around the UK and places where green hearts are available. There are some interesting mini-stories, with links to more detailed articles on the way climate change might affect such varied topics as tea, the arctic, herons, coffee, gardening, coral reefs, bluebells, hot summers and chocolate.

As a tea-drinking, bird-watching gardener the facts behind these stories make for uncomfortable reading, but obviously there’s much more to it than that. It’s about respect, about safeguarding our planet for ourselves, our wildlife and those who will inherit our world with all its wonders and all its problems. On the Climate Coalition website you can sign up to be part of campaigns or you can follow the campaign on Facebook or Twitter. Individual member organisations also often have campaigns which you can sign up to – helping spread the word and increase pressure on politicians by writing letters and joining peaceful protests.

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Show the Love for our natural world

I’ve struggled recently, like many others, to maintain a positive attitude in the face of political and environmental news. The relationship between humankind and the natural world, and our understanding of its importance, not just to our emotional well-being but to our survival as a species, seems to be degenerating by the day. Thinking about these big issues is overwhelming, leading at times to paralysis, a state where depression can affect the ability to act. So I’ve been trying to focus on the positives, trying to stay rooted in the here and now, concentrating on actions I can undertake which make a small difference.

I think about all the people around the country volunteering in community gardens, in public spaces where people can engage with nature and focus on its importance in our lives. Our community garden helps local people develop relationships with plants and the natural world. This is just a small step towards avoiding ‘plant blindness’ – a lack of awareness of the fundamental role plants play in feeding us, helping maintain our environment and treat our diseases. I think about my kids and the primary school children I work with, about the way nature opens their eyes, connecting them with the natural world – its beauty, complexity and importance.

I’ve been focusing on just two or three organisations which I can support by donating and writing campaign letters, rather than feeling I somehow have to support every cause and fight every corner. I don’t feel that focusing on the positives is evasion or delusion – it’s a coping strategy which allows me to continue fighting whilst maintaining a degree of sanity and a better quality of life.

What are your coping strategies and how helpful have you found them? What do you think are the most important steps individuals can take towards improving the way we view and safeguard wildlife and the environment? 

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I picked ivy for my green heart as it epitomises the every day plants which surround me. They aren’t unusual but they form the basis of my love of nature…

If you’d like to follow the blog to read more about the plants which have inspired my love of the natural world, just click on the link below…

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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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Windowsill Crops: Sprouted Seeds

Sometimes, when the ground is sodden or frozen, it’s lovely to be able to harvest your own food from the windowsill, quickly and easily. Sprouted seeds are one way to achieve a speedy crop, plus they cost very little and require almost no space to grow. I usually grow mine in a three tier seed sprouter which I’ve had for years, but you can also grow them with little more than an old jam jar, a piece of muslin or tights and a rubber band, so there’s no excuse not to give it a go.

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A range of tasty seeds

This year Kings Seeds sent me four of their Suffolk Herbs sprouted seed range to trial – mung beans, fenugreek, alfalfa and radish. I’ve grown mung beans and alfalfa before, but radish has been a surprise newcomer and we’ve enjoyed its spicy kick. Fenugreek intrigued me as I love using it in apple and medlar chutney to add a smoky, curried flavour. As a sprouted seed it’s milder, with a fresh, beansprout taste. Mung beans add a lovely crunch to a homemade coleslaw and are good added to stir-fry, and of course, all four work well as a mixed raw snack.

Sprouted seeds as a raw snack and to top my chicken satay

I was delighted when the suggestion that my eldest have sprouted seeds for his morning snack was greeted with real enthusiasm. I’m pretty certain I didn’t respond so positively when my mum used to give me sprouted seeds, but I think he was intrigued by the process (having spent quite a bit of time this week watering the seeds and watching the drips move from level to level).

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Sprouting seeds is a spectator sport!

If you have a windowsill or table near the window, a clean jar, a small piece of muslin or clean old tights, a rubber band and some seeds, you are ready to grow a snack in three days. Wash and soak the seeds overnight in lukewarm water, then drain and add to the jar. Fill with water, put the cover over and secure with the rubber band. Then pour the water out, leaving the jar on its side to drain any excess liquid.

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The mung beans have just been watered for the first time

Alternatively, use a seed sprouter and soak, water and drain the seeds in the same way. We find the top layer needs to be filled with water almost to the brim in order for there to be enough water to drip through the spout once it reaches the bottom layer. Repeat this process twice a day until the beans have sprouted.

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Day 2 and the seeds are almost ready

Sprouted seeds are really nutritious and versatile. Once sprouted, they can be kept in a bag in the fridge for a couple of days, just remember to follow the normal sensible food hygiene rules as laid out by the NHS here. Sprouted seeds are easy, cheap, fun and tasty, so why not give it a go and you’ll be harvesting your own food in a few days, despite the wet winter weather.

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The radish sprouted seeds are a fabulous pink colour

Does anyone have any more recipes with sprouted seeds? Do leave me a comment as I’d love to develop the ways I use them in my cooking. Thanks  🙂

If you’d like more ‘grow your own’ ideas, you can check out my articles here or follow the blog to hear about the crops I’m growing in 2017…

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Allotment Soup Challenge: Celeriac and Blue Cheese

When we inherited our allotment last March, the only crop which had overwintered was a collection of celeriac – clearly beloved of the previous occupants if the quantity, amount and size of the plants was anything to go by. I’ve long been a fan of the nobbly, bald vegetable after having it in soups in Austria years ago and being regularly faced with it in veggie boxes since.

Last year I followed in the previous allotment holder’s footsteps and grew celeriac from seed. I suspect I didn’t lavish as much attention on it as the previous year’s incumbents had. We got a crop –  the celeriac were not as rotund as those I pulled up last March – but we managed to grow enough to harvest several for winter meals. Celeriac has a milder taste than celery and is lovely grated raw in salads or boiled and mashed. But as I’m endeavouring to produce as many soups as possible from the allotment this year, here’s one I experimented with recently which was particularly tasty…

Celeriac and Blue Cheese Soup

Ingredients

1 medium celeriac (or you could use a head of celery)

75g blue cheese, eg. Saint Agur

700 ml stock

50g butter

1 large potato or 2 smaller ones

300ml milk or cream

Black pepper

Few pieces of leftover chopped up cooked ham, fried chorizo or croutons

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The main ingredients

 

Method

Peel and chop the celeriac and potato. Melt the butter in a pan and add the celeriac and potato. Soften in the butter for a few minutes, then add the stock.

Boil in stock for 20 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Blend the vegetables and stock. Add the cheese, milk and black pepper to taste. Reheat the soup to melt the cheese.

Serve the soup sprinkled with black pepper and chopped ham to add a salty twist, accompanied with crusty bread and butter.

This soup is warming, rich and delicious, especially if you’ve spent the morning digging, weeding or planting out in the cold at the allotment!! ☺

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If you are after more warming soups, try my Roasted Jerusalem Artichoke and Sweet Chestnut Soup. You can check out more recipes here or follow the blog to get new recipe ideas as I add them to the blog…

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