Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Hop to it

It has to be said that Humulus lupulus 'Aureus' is much easier to grow than it is to pronounce. Since learning of the golden hops, I now delight in spotting it in domestic gardens, public parks and even as an escapee by the side of roads bordering residential areas.

The almost chartreuse colour of its leaves brighten up the darkest of corners and add an early season vibrancy that contrasts well with the blossoms of spring flowering shrubs. 
My plant took one season to really establish its roots before bursting into vigorous growth this year, twirling its multiple stems ever higher to clothe a metal arch that roughly divides the productive and ornamental elements of my garden.

Its virtues are not singular. As well as a visually appealing plant from spring through to the onset of winter, it provides a generous habitat to a range of insect life. Admittedly, not all these insects are desired or enhance the plant for periods of time, but such is the circle of life in a garden. Early in the season when the growth is very fresh, aphids cluster on the supple stems, drawing on the vital sugars within to drive a population explosion unmatched elsewhere in the garden. Their honeydew secretions are usually heavy, encouraging a bloom of sooty mould to develop on the leaf surfaces. If you are not a advocate of spraying to treat this, it is advisable to have a nearby plant in dramatic flower during this time with which to distract any visitors to your garden!

At around the same time, you may notice that some of the leaves undergo attack by caterpillars. In my case, this happened only on the lower leaves and the stronger the plant, the less overall impact this has as the base continues to send up increasing numbers of stems, generally disguising the less than perfect leaves with new growth. And you can take heart in the knowledge that you have provided for another generation of butterflies in your garden.

The third and final insect life I spotted on my plant was most welcome and was a direct result of the first invasion. The presence of aphids had attracted ladybirds to lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves and by early July, the plant was host to a new generation of ladybird larvae. Often mistaken for plant pests due to their somewhat ferocious, if minuscule, appearance, these carnivores will munch their way through thousands of aphids on their short journey to becoming a fully grown ladybird.

And while they're busy hoovering the last remains of juicy greenfly from the plant, your hops plant will quietly send forth one last burst of energy that results in the most delicate of flowers appearing from wispy terminal shoots. These are the hops flowers we might recognise from the brewing process, but if you're not planning any homemade beers, you can enjoy the pendulous flowers right through the autumn as they catch the sun and slowly turn the rich buttery colour from which they earn their name. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

You say tomato, I say passata

Every year, without fail I pack my greenhouse to the rafters with tomato plants.  Tomatoes are one of my least favourite foods, in fact I don't really like them at all. But I love growing them, hubby likes eating them and I like making passata to store in the freezer for winter pasta dishes.

I had some Franchi seeds (San Marzano and St Pierre) left over from a previous year and also 'rediscovered' some seed swap varieties hidden in the bottom of my overflowing tin that I had yet to try out. So I sowed 4 varieties in February – my new varieties for 2013 being Cuor di Bue (Ox Heart) and Tigerella.

Space is really an issue in my little concrete-floored greenhouse, but with a bit of grow-bag jiggery-pokery, I can shoehorn 8 plants onto my restricted floor space, leaving the staging surface clear for chilli plants and smaller plant propagules in trays. 

The very late spring meant that it was early June before I moved them outside, my final planting tally being 2 each of Cuor di Bue and Tigerella and 1 each of San Marzano and St Pierre. The wonderfully warm weather in June and July brought the plants on well and they flowered strongly. But pollination seemed to be an issue for some of them (despite tapping the plants regularly to distribute pollen and leaving the greenhouse door open as often as possible). 

The Cuor di Bue crop has been the largest in terms of fruit size – huge double or triple fruits with a very 'meaty' texture and few seeds.

The Tigerella crop was wave upon wave of small juicy fruits, which is continuing still well into September. According to those who have tasted them, these are the sweetest tomatoes I've grown so far.

Of my 2 Franchi varieties, St Pierre has been a moderate harvest with some nice sized fruits but San Marzano was certainly the worst. A single plant produced fewer than 10 fruits, none of which exceeded 5 or 6cm in length. Quite disappointing really, compared with other years. 

But all the tomatoes have been regularly collected as they've ripened and roasted as a mixture to form the base of my pasta dishes for the months to come.  Now that's how I do like to eat my tomatoes!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Redcurrant jelly - a recipe

First watch in early spring as green leaves unfurl from what looks like a dead twig stuck in the ground. Water well if Mother Nature decides not to bother and add a suitable feed to boost production.

Step back in amazement as not only does the dead twig seem to be alive after all but by mid June it is fully clothed in leaves and adorned with racemes of tiny flowers. It cannot be denied that I've seen more colourful flowers, but they have a charm all of their berry own. (see what I did there?)

Harvest resulting berries when they have ripened to a translucent plumpness, wash thoroughly and add to a pan with water. Heat rapidly, squashing the berries with a potato masher.

Pour pan contents into a jelly bag to drain overnight. Measure volume of liquid obtained and add sugar (450g sugar per 600ml juice).

Start over a low heat, then increase heat skimming any surface scum as you go. Check for setting after reaching jam point (a quick internet search will give you this info if you're unsure). Add resulting tiny amount of jelly to a sterilised jar and once set, proudly display to anyone who passes by. Ignore husband's first comment of, 'Is that it?' 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A cuckoo in the nest

A moral, if one were needed, on the importance of plant labels. (And putting them on the right plant)

I sowed my curcurbit seeds in April and tended them carefully as any good veg gardener does. I kept them in the warm, I watered them sparingly and I talked to them kindly. I always sow more seeds than I think I'll need, just so I have replacement plants if any wither before their time. And this year I had a bumper selection of curcurbit seeds, from stripy courgettes to yellow ones, from butternut squash to acorn squash – the suburban veg plot had never seen the like of it before! Having so many different varieties also meant I'd needed to write up some new labels for the pots.

As the weeks passed, I potted up the growing plants and moved them first to the greenhouse, then to the cold frame as I prepared them for life outdoors. I had to write up more plant labels at this stage as I'd sown them 2 or 3 to a pot. Upon selecting the plants I wanted to keep, I potted up a stripy courgette for my mum (a now annual tradition) and also gave her a spare butternut squash plant to replace one that had died in her garden. My own plants were planted out into the raised beds and daily protected from the onslaught of slugs that May brought with it.

Come the middle of July, my mum mentioned that her courgette plant had started to produce fruits but her butternut squash was yet to get started. I checked on my plants and found that although there were a few male flowers opening, neither of mine had started any fruiting yet. But I couldn't shake the thought that the courgette plant looked a bit different, maybe a bit on the, I don't know, pumpkiny side...?

The next week I got a call from a very puzzled mum. Being a newbie veg grower she often rings for advice on seedlings or plant spacings, but this question was not one I was expecting. Her butternut squash plant had finally started to fruit – but it seemed to be producing a courgette!
I just couldn't come up with an explanation for that – that is until the next time I was surveying the veg plot and discovered this little fella hiding under a leaf on my 'courgette' plant.

It's a good thing my mum likes courgettes.... And maybe I'll give her one of these once they've ripened.