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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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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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.  🙂 🙂 🙂

If you would like to follow my gardening adventures in 2017, you can click below to subscribe…

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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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Taking Stock: The Three Worst Crops of 2016

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

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

 

Sweet Success 🙂

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

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

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

Pear Crop 😦

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

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The blob

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

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

 

Kohl Rabi 😦

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

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

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

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

Inca Berries (Physalis/Cape Gooseberry) 😦

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

Inca berries have attractive flowers and fruits

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

Chilean guavas ripe for the picking

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

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

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6 Ways to Create an Ornamental and Productive Garden

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

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

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

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

1. Eat a Hedge

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

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

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

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Rosemary hedge in the front garden

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

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Summer chaos in the front garden envelops the hedge almost entirely

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By early autumn the tripartite structure is becoming clear again

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

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Hitchin Lavender trial fields – a favourite summer haunt

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

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The alternating hedges before their summer trim

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

 

2. Look up – Walls and Fences

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

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The apple espaliers went in as a priority

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

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Fruit trees have the added advantage of fabulous spring blossom

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

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

 

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

 

3. Build a Green Roof

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

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The green roof brimming with herbs, edible flowers and chillies

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

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

 

4. Spread Scented Ground Cover

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

5. Munch on Edible Flowers and Colourful Veg

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

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

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

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

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

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Fabulous rainbow chard with vibrant stems

 

6. Pot it up

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

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The redcurrants and dianthus work so well together here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Chilli Harvest 2016

Earlier this year I brought my overwintered chillies out of the spare room and sowed a range of new seeds in the hope that I would be knee-deep in chillies by the end of the summer. I’ve been pleased with the results of what has ended up as a collection of 39 plants with 17 different varieties.

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Chilli nursery in early spring

 

Our Favourite Chillies

We’ve enjoyed endless suppers of ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ chillies stuffed with cream cheese. Despite ‘Hot’ in the title, HHW is actually a mild 2000-8000 on the Scoville heat scale. I sowed an entire seed packet because the seeds were out of date and was amused and surprised when they all germinated. Even after selling many of them at the school fete plant stall I have had enough HHW chillies to dine royally throughout the summer.

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One of my trays of Hungarian Hot Wax

 

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HHW maturing nicely

‘Purple Gusto’ has been another favourite, with good production rates and a spicy Scoville rating of around 10,000. The fruits mature to a beautiful deep purple, creating an attractive display.

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Gloriously shiny ‘Purple Gusto’

‘Cayenne’ did well as usual and produced lots of long, spicy fruits (30,000-50,000 SHU) and I also grew ‘Cheyenne’ which at first I thought might be the same variety with a different spelling, but actually turns out to be a fatter chilli which matures to an attractive orange colour and has a SHU of around 40,000.

‘Cayenne’ and ‘Cheyenne’

Another favourite which overwintered successfully and has produced a good crop is ‘Aji Crystal’ which has a spicy citrus tang and scores around 50,000 SHU.

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‘Aji Crystal’ with its beautiful light green fruit

I’ve grown ‘Apache’ for years – it was the first chilli I grew from seed and I love the spicy fruit (70,000-80,000 SHU) which mature to a vibrant red. I only have one ‘Apache’ this year, rescued from a nursery where it was in a sorry state and retailing for an attractive 50p. I refused cake with my cup of tea and bought the chilli and a couple of its spicy neighbours instead.

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After some TLC this ‘Apache’ looks much more cheerful

 

Underperforming Chillies

Several varieties have been disappointing this year including some of my favourites – ‘Numex Twilight’ (30,000-50,000 SHU) with its tiny upright multi-coloured fruit, ‘Jalapeno’ (2,500-5,000 SHU) normally a prolific fruiter and the sultry heirloom ‘Hungarian Black’ (around 5,000 SHU). None of these have been heavy croppers this year and seem to have taken a long while to recover from their winter hibernation.

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The only ‘Jalapeno’ fruit – although being in the green roof hasn’t helped. An unsuccessful experiment as the plants have suffered from the dry environment. Worth trying, but not to be repeated

 

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‘Numex Twilight’ with its meagre crop in August

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‘Numex Twilight’ had recovered a little by this week

 

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‘Hungarian Black’ has sulked all summer. Its foliage is naturally variegated, but has been stunted and slow to develop

My tree chillies ‘Alberto’s Locoto’ have also been disappointing so far, with lush foliage and a branching habit, but no flowers at all until the past couple of weeks. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong – maybe they need feeding more than other varieties – my feeding regime has been rather haphazard this year. They are recommended to be particularly suitable as perennials, so if I can be bothered with the palaver of spare room chillies again this winter maybe they’ll do better for me next year.

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Healthy foliage, but no fruit on my ‘Alberto’s Locoto’

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Deep purple flower buds are just appearing on the tree chillies…

 

New Chillies on the Block

Some of my new chillies new this year were ‘Almapaprika’, ‘Peruvian Lemon Drop’, ‘Joe’s Super Long’  (its chillies are currently super non-existent), ‘Piri Piri’, ‘Habanero Red, ‘Habanero Big Sun’ and ‘Prairie Fire’. ‘Prairie Fire’ (70,000-80,000 SHU) has lovely little upright fruits which start the softest cream and then mature through yellow, orange and purple to red.

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‘Prairie Fire’ starts off a really pale cream…

‘Almapaprika’ is another Hungarian heirloom variety which has unusually shaped rounded cherry fruits and is very mild (1-1,000 SHU). It is also known as Hungarian apple pepper. The chillies start as a pale yellow and mature through orange to a rich red colour. Apparently you need lots of plants if you are going to dry it for paprika which I don’t have, but it tastes good stuffed like Hungarian Hot Wax and is an interesting novelty.

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A sweet little Hungarian apple pepper

‘Peruvian Lemon Drop’ is an aji type like ‘Aji Crystal’ and has a rating of 30,000-50,000 SHU. The long, hanging fruits start a pale green and then mature to a light yellow. They are great in curries and good to stuff if you fancy a hot lemony treat.

These ‘Lemon Drop’ chillies will get lighter as they mature

I haven’t had fruit to try on the other varieties yet as some arrived a little late as plug plants. But they all have either flowers or ripening fruit, so I’m looking forward to a late tastebud tingling harvest of ‘Joe’s Super Long’ (15,000-20,000 SHU), ‘Piri Piri’ (175,000-250,000 SHU), ‘Habanero Red’ (150,000-325,000 SHU) and ‘Habanero Big Sun’ (250,000-350,000 SHU)!

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Some of the chillies in the greenhouse before the tomatoes took over and obscured the view

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My crazy chilli display

An amazing array of different colours, shapes and sizes – I love chillies as they tick both my boxes – ornamental AND delicious…

So all that remains is to hope for more warm weather so all the chillies will continue to grow and ripen, and start concocting more devilish chilli plans for next year. In the meantime there will be more roasted chilli suppers, Thai curries and still chillies left over to freeze for winter curries, soups and stews. What better way to remember a long, hot summer than with steaming Thai tom kha soup on dark December evenings?

Chilli Seeds and Plants

I save seeds from my chillies as well as overwintering some plants and growing new varieties each year. I’ve particularly enjoyed the chillies I’ve either bought as plants or sown from seeds from these sources (these links are not sponsored, but based purely on my own experiences and recommendations):

Pennard Plants – Pennards have a fabulous collection of heirloom vegetables, fruit and herbs, including many chilli pepper seeds which I’ve been sampling and growing for several years. This year I visited their stand at Chelsea and bought a chilli trio recommended by Chris at Pennards. Can’t wait for January so I can sow the seeds and start a whole new chilli journey…

Real Seeds – really unusual varieties with excellent information about the required growing conditions, histories of the cultivars and customer recommendations. I love Real Seeds because every time I visit the website there’s more to learn and new varieties to try…

Suttons Seeds – wide selection of chilli seeds and plants, with some excellent offers later in the year which enabled me to get a set of 10 chilli plug plants this year for £4.99. Suttons have been exploring more unusual vegetables, fruit and herbs over the past few years working with James Wong. I’ve enjoyed sowing their seeds and have now established several plants I’d not be without, such as cucamelons, Chilean guavas and my particular favourite this year… the trombocino (more on my soon-to-be prize winning trombo later in the month) 😉

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The chilli trio from Pennard Plants that is getting my pulse racing…

 

Has the weather been kind to your chillies this year? What varieties have performed well and have there been any disappointments? I’d love to hear your chilli stories, so please do leave me a comment. Thanks 🙂

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Hey Presto – Pesto!

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

Sowing Basil

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Tip 1:

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

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

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Some of the basil after its first mini haircut

 

Growing Basil

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

Top Tip 2:

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

Even managed to squeeze some basil into the tomato hanging baskets

Harvesting Basil

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

Top Tip 3:

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

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

 

Making Pesto

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

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Late summer pickings

 

Top Tip 4:

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

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Pesto ingredients with a mix of pine and cashew nuts

 

Top Tip 5:

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

Pesto ice cubes

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

Pesto pasta for all the family with a colourful garden salad

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

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