Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reflections on a growing year

It's always interesting to look back on a year of growing to reflect on what worked well and what didn't in the suburban veg plot. I use this to draw lessons about what I sowed or planted, to decide if a variety didn't grow well because of something I did, or something I didn't do. It helps me decide on the next year's plans - whether I try again with a different technique or cultivation practice or just cut my losses, swap the seeds and use the space for something else.
So, lessons learned in the suburban veg plot in 2011:
  1. Celeriac does not grow well in my garden. It's difficult to germinate, requires lots of tlc during the early stages and then doesn't repay me in kind. Celeriac has no place in the suburban veg plot of 2012.
  2. Leek moth is prevelant in Hertfordshire. However, I'm not being beaten by something that small, so I will keep trimming the affected leeks to the ground and flipping a virtual finger to Acrolepiopsis assectella.
  3. Sugar snap peas do not freeze well. Not unless you actually like soggy pods in your stir-fry. Grow them and cook them; don't try to save them.
  4. Butternut squash is just like those men my mother warned me about. They look impressive when they first show up, promise you the world if you tend to their every need and then leave you with nothing at the end of the day. Oxygen thieves.
  5. You can never grow too many chilli plants. I have yet to find a dish that is not enhanced by the addition of a bit of chilli. Roll on chilli sowing February!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An untypical gardening year

What a strange winter we're having. I've just harvested the last chillies from my Lemon Drop and Bulgarian Carrot plants. They've been inside for only 2 weeks - just to ripen the last few fruits. Prior to that it was still warm enough in the greenhouse for them to thrive.
I've tried overwintering chillies previous years but they do tend to suffer from aphids and don't seem all that far ahead of those grown from seed in Feb.
So, it's into the composter for the last five plants. And only 6 more weeks before I'll be starting to sow new ones!
What unseasonal edibles are you still harvesting?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Ember Gate on Etsy - open for business

I haven't posted on my blog for more than 3 weeks. I feel very guilty, but I do have a valid excuse. I've been beavering away in the background on the launch of my garden-related Etsy shop - Ember Gate. And it's finally open! Vintage garden tools and other horticultural and planting wares - I choose only things that I'd buy for myself. Only 7 items listed so far (see thumbnails in the sidebar to the right), but I'll add more over the weekend. I have a dining room full of galvanised watering cans, enamel buckets, sickles, pruning saws, dolly tubs, dock lifters and slashers so I need to get them listed and sold before Christmas otherwise we'll be having Christmas dinner on our knees in front of the tv...

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Right said Ted - time for home

I came down for breakfast to be greeted by this sight:

Ted was stuck halfway into a box and was looking more than a little uncomfortable. I carefully helped him back out and sat him down.
When I asked Ted what he was up to, he replied that he and Bobble had had a lovely stay at the Suburban Veg Plot but thought that Jane might be missing them now and that they'd better go back home to Wales. Sad though it was, I agreed with him and so after a cup of tea and some honey on toast, Ted and Bobble climbed into the packing box and we headed off to the post office.

Ted asked me to thank everyone who's followed their adventures on here and posted comments on their activities. He hopes you'll all check in on Jane's blog to see where he goes next - or even invite them over to stay with you!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ted on tour

As Ted's and Bobble's time at the Suburban Veg Plot approached its end, Ted asked if we could have a night out to round off the week. I eventually relented, but said it had to be something quiet and local - maybe a quick drink and spot of dinner. Bears need their boundaries and a firm hand is always best.
Which is how we ended up at a gig at the O2 Academy in Islington.

Ted, being a bit of a music hound, scrambled straight up on stage during the Zoey van Goey sound check despite a distinct lack of access all areas laminates around his neck.

As the gig began, no-one at first seemed to spot Ted hidden at the back of the stage, watching the band closely like some kind of ursine R&R scout. But his moment of glory was yet to come.

And later, when sneaking into the 'after party', he revealed himself to be a complete groupie by flirting shamelessly with Kim from Zoey van Goey.

Definitely time to go home now Ted - and no, she's not coming with you.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Rain stopped play

Oh dear Ted, the weather has taken a turn for the worse and is displaying the mild and precipitous maritime climate conditions more typical of our middle latitude location, particularly for this specific cycle of our seasonal calendar.

Yes, I know you want to go and play with the chickens again (despite Ruby getting a bit too close for comfort yesterday) but a soggy bear is not a happy bear. I fear that Eau De Wet Ted is not a scent that would travel well, especially encased in bubble wrap.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ted meets the chickens

In a rare moment of sunshine, Ted headed out enthusiastically to meet the chickens. He claims to have a strong spiritual connection with the animal kingdom. Ruby came over first for a tentative investigation – she's never met a bear before.

What's that Ted? You want to go back inside right now? 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Ted's green fingers

After the excitement of a day in the city, Ted and Bobble decided to spend today at the veg plot. Like any good gardener, Ted spent a bit of time in quiet contemplation of the land before he started work.

Ted felt confident that his newly acquired knowledge (last Friday's episode of Gardeners' World) would come in very handy. Having seen Monty turning over the soil in preparation for the winter, he was eager to give it a go himself. Bobble looked on in a self-appointed supervisory capacity: Come on Ted, put your back into it!

After spending 5 hours digging over the entire plot with the world's smallest trowel, they headed into the greenhouse to have a nosy around. Yes Bobble, the chilli plant is very tall but I really don't think there's a giant living at the top of it.

Ted, meanwhile, was entranced by the sweet pea seedlings. He said he could see them growing but I think it was more likely the hallucinatory effects of low blood sugar and exhaustion. Come on you two, time for a cup of tea and some honey on toast.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Ted and the City

Monday morning means back to work for most people and today was no different for Ted and Bobble.

It was straight in at the deep end at the office - the markets were going crazy! Ted was hoping to get on the right side of some Footsie futures.

Despite being a junior intern, Ted somehow managed to get a desk with an enviable view. Hold my calls please Miss Jones, Bobble and I are heading off for lunch and a gossip a meeting.

On the way back to the train station, Ted was intrigued by the activity going on around St Paul's Cathedral. Having listened to all the issues, Ted is still considering his position on the situation.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Garden revision

Ted and Bobble were a bit tired today - both from their Royal Mail journey here and from their efforts with the fruit harvest yesterday - so they had a chilled out Sunday afternoon on the sofa after a big lie in.
I told Ted that we'd be doing some more gardening this week and he looked a bit apprehensive. What's that Ted? You want to do a bit of research before we hit the veg plot? Not a problem!

Pear storage

Now that the pears have been harvested and the pear tree pruned (in accordance with instructions in my trusty DK/RHS Pruning and Training book) it's time to try out my new pear storage trays. Purchased via eBay from a farm in Peterborough, the trays are very rustic and authentic but needed only a quick spray down with the jet washer before being ready to be put into use.

I spread the harvest out quite thinly over the trays, and wrapped the pears in one level in newspaper to see if that makes any difference to their rate of ripening. The trays have been put in a spare bedroom that we use very rarely so with no heating in there and the blind kept closed, it should be perfect storage conditions.

Not the prettiest of pears, I'll grant you. But hopefully a tasty one for Pear Tarte Tatin come Christmas!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Welcome Ted and Bobble

So, Ted and Bobble have arrived safely at the Suburban Veg Plot. Unfortunately though, they did have to spend last night in the local sorting office as they wouldn't fit through the letterbox...

Hello Ted and Bobble! I hope the bubble wrap kept you warm last night. And what a lovely sparkly t-shirt you're sporting Ted. I'm not sure my Irish husband likes it as much as I do though...

Ted and Bobble were barely out of their box when we set them to work outside. First on the weekend 'to do' list was harvesting the Winter Nelis pears. As Ted isn't very tall, he wasn't much help at getting the pears off the tree but he was very good at piling them carefully in the trug. Bobble was a bit useless on both counts to be honest.

Ted, not being one to shy away from danger, decided that if someone helped him up into the pear tree, he could give us a hand with the pruning. Mind yourself with that pruning saw Ted – it's very sharp and looks to be quite close to your face!

Gosh, thought Ted, if this is what we've managed in only one day here who knows what we'll be up to the rest of the week.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Awaiting the visitors

The Suburban Veg Plot will shortly be playing host to Ted and Bobble. If you haven't yet come across these names in the blogosphere, then head over to the Daisy Donut blog here for a briefing. And while you're there, make a donation via Jane's lovely blog to her admirable fundraising efforts for Macmillan Cancer Support. Hopefully Ted and Bobble aren't too tired out from their recent holiday in Menorca as we've lots of things planned for their time here.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

ID parade

I recently took advantage of a Fruit Identification Day at RHS Wisley in Surrey. Laden with samples from my apple and pear trees, I headed off to meet Jim Arbury, renowned fruit specialist for the RHS. He started with the easy ones first - my long smooth pears were quickly identified as Conference and the apples as Golden Delicious.The latter has produced a very poor harvest this year. In fact, to my inexperienced eyes, the whole tree has been looking a trifle below par all season. We did a bit of pruning last winter, but I'm fairly confident that hasn't caused its current woes. Early in the year it developed powdery mildew on much of the new growth. This could be explained by the early season hot/dry weather, causing water stress to the tree making it susceptible to infection. Then many of the blossoms were hit by the late frosts in May and resulted in only a handful of apples making it through to harvest time.
Conference pears

My second pear variety caused Jim a little further deliberation as reference books were consulted and samples were cut open. He soon identified it as a late pear - which sounds about right given that they've always been hard, even when they're falling off the tree. A few more comparisons later and we had a name - Winter Nelis. A variety with its origins in Belgium in the early 1800s, it's a small squat fruit, heavy with russet and not particularly attractive (a pear only a mother could love). But armed with Jim's advice, I shall be harvesting them at the end of October, putting them into storage and then enjoying beautifully ripe pears at Christmas.
Now, can anyone lend me a dozen apple storage trays??

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Blueberry tubs

Back in February I mentioned my two blueberry bushes. One was a very thoughful gift from a good friend and the second one I bought as a companion for the first. Although both are termed self-fertile, the received wisdom is that 2 bushes will give you a larger crop than a single one.
Having decided to keep them containerised in order to better manage their acidic soil requirements - I needed to find them appropriate containers. In the meantime, they were repotted into flower buckets from our local supermarket (the yellow one with the big M; other supermarkets are of course available...)
As I'm a fan of all things vintage when it comes to garden tools, household items and books, I pondered on the idea of suitable containers for a while before deciding to track down some dolly tubs. For those of you too young to have heard of these, dolly tubs were the washing machines of the Victorian era. Galvanised steel or zinc tubs would be filled with water on washday and a wooden dolly peg was used to agitate the clothes in the water until clean (or at least cleaner than they started out). Often at the end of the day when all the clothes were washed, the children of the family would be popped into the tub one by one for their weekly bath!

Anyway, having acquired two of these lovely items from the fabulous shopping emporium that is eBay, I asked my very handy handyman to drill some drainage holes in the bottom before I added plenty of crocks and what seemed like a trailer full of ericaceous compost. I'm really pleased with how they look and it gives the plants plenty of root growing space.

We had a pretty good harvest from these two bushes during July, August and September - plenty of blueberry muffins were baked but sadly there weren't enough for making blueberry jam as well. Now the cooler weather has arrived the leaves have begun to change colour, displaying wonderful rich autumn hues.

Monday, September 26, 2011

September chilli fest

I'll confess that I'm slightly pitying of anyone who doesn't like chillies. In my book, that's like saying 'I prefer my food to taste quite ordinary, I don't really like making it a bit more interesting'. Chillies don't have to be hot to make a difference in food, they can add fruitiness, spice or simply an unidentifiable tang that just adds a bit of pizzazz to everyday flavours. Tomato and mascarpone pasta sauce? Throw some chopped hot cayenne in there! Stir fry or pad thai? Whack a scotch bonnet in it! Courgette fritters? A couple of bulgarian carrot chillies will add some zing!
My chilli rollcall this year is as follows: Hot Cayenne, Peruvian Chinense, Scotch Bonnet, Razzmatazz, Numex Twilight, Lemondrop and Bulgarian Carrot. The latter 3 are new to me this year, the others I've grown at least once before.
Chillies have a long growing season, so most were sown back in February and March. I get the best results keeping them in the greenhouse and it means I can prolong the ripening through to October if I'm lucky.
Most of my harvest will be added to the freezer so we have an all year round supply. If I have a real bumper crop I may dry some to grind down for chilli powder or make a small batch of chilli jelly.

Scotch bonnets
New flowers on the Razzmatazz plant 
Hot cayenne ripening in the sun
The changing colours of the Numex Twilight

Monday, September 19, 2011

Tomato tasting

There are 3 types of tomato growing in my greenhouse. Which, some might say, is 3 types too many for someone who doesn't actually like eating them. But I love growing them.
And I find I can make things with them that I do like to eat - it's just whole and/or raw tomatoes that I don't like to eat. Sun dry them and it's a whole different story, make them into ketchup and I'm there.
Anyway, I'm growing Moneymaker, Roma and Gardener's Delight, which I realise are not varieties that set the gardening world on fire, but most of the seeds were freebies with gardening magazines so I stuck with them.
This year the Roma and Moneymaker plants have not grown particularly big, but their output in the last few weeks is more than making up for that. They're all still getting a weekly dose of liquid organic feed to keep them happy.

The single Gardener's Delight plant has been fruiting prolifically, giving hubbie a regular supply of fresh tomatoes for his lunchtime sandwiches.

The Roma plum tomatoes have been harvested once ripened, skinned, stored in the freezer and then every week or so I've been making a batch of passata, which then goes back into the deep freeze for another day. I make a great tomato and mascarpone pasta sauce when the mood takes me.
And the Moneymakers have been harvested green and made into chutney - the kitchen looks like a catering establishment!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Seed saving

There are many reasons why people choose to grow their own fruit and veg. Some for the fresh air and exercise, some to ensure they know exactly what they're eating and how it's been produced and some to reduce the environmental impact of food production on our environment. Many people choose to grow their own fruit and veg out of a desire to save money. Obviously, buying a packet of seeds is much cheaper than purchasing the end result veg from your local supermarket, but imagine if you could get the seeds for free as well?
I've slowly come around to the idea of seed saving around the veg plot. It seemed a bit of a hassle at  first but you just need to start with the easy stuff.
My focus is usually on large seeds - peas, mange tout, broad beans, etc. The mange tout seeds are usually saved by accident rather than design - if I haven't picked frequently enough then  there will be some plump pods hanging around. I take these off and leave them in the sunny greenhouse to dry out, crossing my fingers that the pea moth hasn't visited already. The last few broad bean pods go the same way once they've dried out a bit on the plant.

I've saved parsnip seeds for the first time this year from a parsnip I left to flower for the hoverflies. I left the resulting seed head for as long as I could outside - and then once the seeds started to drop off I cut it down and stored them in a paper bag.

And even flowers - I've been growing tagetes alongside my tomatoes for a couple of years now and noticed that as the tagetes died and dried, the centre of the flower was full of little needle-shaped seeds - looking like a tiny quiver full of arrows.
Nasturtium seeds are probably one of the easiest flower seeds to save as they're so big. I pull them off the plant once they've swelled up but often they'll simply fall to the soil and I collect them from there.

And I've been collecting seeds from the fried egg plant (Limnanthes douglasii) to plant again next spring. Once the flowers have died you can see the seeds (4 or 5) in the bottom of the calyx. Wait until they start to turn brown and then gently push them out.

The list is pretty endless in my garden - poppies, carrots, onion, leek, tomato, squash, aquilegia, sweet peas, sunflowers, chillies, melons, runner beans, sugar snaps...

What are your favourite seeds to save each year?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

New kids on the block

Following the recent demise of Myrtle, Chicken Licken was left bereft, though still laying a consistent egg a day 14-months post-battery farm. We were quickly onto the website of the British Hen Welfare Trust  and found a rescue and rehoming day planned for the following weekend. Despite feeling slightly guilty that Myrtle's roosting bar was not yet cold, we headed off across Herts and Essex to bring home 2 new girls to keep Chicken Licken company. Welcome home Ruby and Scholes!
So far Chicken Licken has shown her dominance with some vicious pecks and feather tugging to the heads and necks of the newbies as well as trying to mount them like a cockerel. She was consigned to a night in a pet carrier on the kitchen floor on the first night as she refused to allow them into the coop with her. The second night, the same thing happened so we shut the newbies up in the coop and she had to sleep in the covered run outside. Finally on the third night, with only a few tussles and squabbling, all three settled down in the coop together. So, it's very exciting to be getting 3 eggs a day again (even if one of them is laid behind a fern plant) and the suburban veg plot is complete once more.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Making comfrey tea

Back in March 2010 I established a comfrey patch in the suburban veg plot. It established itself well (despite the variable summer) and I followed the advice not to cut from it in its first season to allow it to establish well. Come spring 2011, it reappeared as promised and grew strongly, taking advantage of the plentiful nutrients coming out the back of the compost heap. However, my access to said comfrey was not so easy as I imagined. Blocking my way to the comfrey from early spring was a bramble stem so thick and strong you could have swung around on it like Tarzan. Albeit it Tarzan wearing a pair of heavy duty thorn-proof gauntlets, but you know what I mean. And even once you got past the bramble, which, by the way, grew faster than a courgette on steroids, there was the virtually impenetrable barrier created by the basal shoots of the laurel hedge to contend with. Now, I do have the tools to deal with the vegetation, but then we got the are-ay-tea invasion. Eeeugh! With their long snakey tails and their beady eyes, they took up residence in the compost heap creating an entrance burrow at the rear, right through my comfrey patch. Anyway, now that we have a new - and more importantly rat-proof - composter, full access to the comfrey patch has been restored.

Aside from using comfrey leaves as a compost activator, a mulch and as a direct feed in the bottom of planting holes/trenches, it can be used to make a 'tea' liquid feed for any veg or fruit plant you grow.  So, to make your comfrey tea - first harvest your comfrey. Leaves and stem can both be used. I would recommend the use of gloves for this as comfrey has small hairs on both leaves and stem that can irritate the skin.

There are various vessels you can employ for stewing comfrey tea. I've gone for the small but perfectly formed 2-pint milk container.
I'd definitely recommend a method that has the brew closed in, rather than left open - the smell is absolutely rank.
Stuff said container with as much comfrey as you can possibly cram in.

Fill container with water and replace the lid. Leave for 5-6 weeks to brew - date the bottle to help you keep track. The decomposition of the comfrey in the water may give off gases which could build up in the container. The beauty of the milk container is that the cap usually allows most of these to escape as it's not the tightest fit. If you use a squash or fizzy water bottle then these caps usually fit very tight and so you might need to release any built-up gases every week or so.
Your resulting tea needs diluting down with water before using on plants (1:10 tea to water is usually recommended). Once you've got the hang of this, you may never need to buy liquid plant feed again.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Another one bites the dust...

Myrtle, leader of the Houdini sisters, stealer of blueberries and the peckiest chicken that ever lived. You came, you pecked at shoelaces, you laid eggs for eight months and lived the life of Riley for the remaining six. The garden looks emptier without you.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Garlic for beginners

In November last year I planted 2 types of garlic: Chesnok Wight and Picardy Wight, both sourced from the lovely people at The Garlic Farm. Garlic cloves need well drained soil and a spell of cold weather to ensure the new bulbs form properly. And aside from that they're pretty low maintenance. A bit of watering here and there to get them through periods of dry weather - not that we've had too many of those since May - and that's about it. In June the hardneck garlic (Chesnok Wight) start to produce a flower head or scape, that should be snipped off to prevent the plant's energy going into the production of the flower rather than into the bulb.

In early July when the garlic foliage started to yellow and flop over, the new bulbs were lifted carefully with a fork, the roots shaken of soil and the bulbs dried in an airy location to prevent them going mouldy or rotting. I usually use the greenhouse - either hanging them up or laying them in wooden crates.

Once dry and papery, I rubbed off any remaining dirt and loose skin, trimmed the top foliage off and then stored in a cool dry place ready to be used! Hardneck varieties will last until January so should be used first; softneck garlic will store well until late spring next year.
And as ever, before using any bulbs, I'll be selecting the biggest and healthiest from each variety to break up and replant come November. That way my garlic production is self-sustaining from year to year. Now that's what I call self-sufficiency!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pear blossom??

So, it's not only me who's confused by the varied weather recently. We've had turbulent wind, chilly nights, torrential downpours, cool grey mornings, overcast afternoons and then suddenly, a return to the heatwave with blazing hot sun for the last 2 days.
This seem to have confused one of my pear trees - which has produced these lovely little blossoms at the end of one branch. The bees are loving them at least, but I suspect any resulting fruits will be doomed long before they're ripe.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

I lead, Alys follows

If you're anything like me, then every weekend you have your head deep in the papers, specifically the gardening sections, checking on what needs to be done next. One of my particular favourites is the lovely Alys Fowler - she of the 'tea dress and wellies' school of gardening - in the Guardian each Saturday. Now, I don't know if it's just that I'm getting better at this vegetable growing lark, but in recent months it seems that I'm mirroring exactly what Alice is doing - or is it the other way round? I harvest some green garlic, she writes about green garlic; I sow my winter brassicas, she writes about winter brassicas; I start saving poppy heads, she... I'm sure you get the picture.
It has been said in the past that I'm often ahead of the pack in action or thoughts - like wearing Dubes to Glastonbury or knowing that Robbie would be more successful than Gary post Take That (take 1) but this is getting ridiculous. I don't seem to be able to do anything in the suburban veg plot without it appearing in the Guardian. Is this coincidence or should I be changing the default password on my voicemail a little more often??

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Summer summary

I've been managing to keep up the watering regime during this week or two of hot weather and it seems to be paying off. We've had the occasional downpour to top up the waterbutts and give the raised beds a good soaking but the greenhouse crops pretty much need watering every second day.

The chilli harvest has started - hot cayenne and razzamatazz - and I'm slowly building up a freezer bag of them which will hopefully then last us through until next summer. We officially used the last frozen 2010 chilli about 2 weeks ago, so are very pleased to be self sufficient on that front. I've got about 7 different chillies growing - and I fear this is turning into something of a fetish...

The courgettes are starting to produce fruits faster and faster now. The Gold Rush variety, a beautiful solid rich yellow courgette, is very attractive on the plate and has a lovely taste.

One veg (well, fruit if we're being pedantic) that hasn't grown as well as in previous years is the Roma tomato. I'm not sure why, as the early days looked very promising. I have two plants in the greenhouse but they don't seem to have reached the size they have done before. There seems to be plenty of small fruits forming and I'm feeding them well. It's just they look quite dwarf compared to the Moneymaker plants next to them.

The salads have been a roaring success - both the loose leaf types and the butterheads. The latter were a trial seed I received free from DT Brown. They grew really well and almost took over one of the raised beds. I had to harvest some of them just to give the shallots their space back. In the end, the slugs and snails took over so the last few lettuces went on the compost heap, but one of two of the bases are re-growing so I may have another mini harvest from those before I need the space for something else.