Friday, December 21, 2012

Of cataclysms and croci, destruction and daffodils

So, we have reached the deadline of 21/12/2012 and it seems that the world is still turning. Hey ho, at least I can get this blog post written now. It seemed a bit pointless earlier today to spend what could have been my last hour writing a post if no-one would be around to actually read it.

Anyway, since planting a veritable plethora of bulbs in October and November I'd been checking everyday for signs of life. Absolutely nothing happened in the first few weeks so the checking sort of tailed off until I stopped looking altogether. And then suddenly this morning, I looked out and saw these:

The first two photos are daffodils (Cornish Gold, I think) and the last one is some kind of crocus. I planted 4 varieties but I won't know which this particular one is until it flowers. I could have labelled the pot when I planted them, but that would take a much more organised gardener than me. I usually rely on memory serving me well. Which it very often doesn't. Anyway, I was delighted to see it. Though the delight was slightly overshadowed by the possibility that the world would end before it had chance to flower and  that I'd perish in some epic and dramatic apocalyptic earthquake/flood/fire/brimstone event and would never know what crocus it was. In fact maybe I'd wasted £20 in September by forking out for a load of bulbs without first checking on the timing of end of the world forecasts. That's me all over though – rushing in with no long term plan...

But thankfully, it looks as though the Mayan calendar was just a bit too short, rather than being a prediction of the earth's final day. Happy Friday everyone!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Sloely does it

At long last, we got around to making our 2012 sloe gin. Bearing in mind that the sloe picking was a month later than planned, this should come as no surprise.

By the time we got out to collect the lovely berries of the blackthorn bush (in the secret location along the secret cycle path behind the not-so-secret Morrisons supermarket) it was almost the end of October. And by the look of things, the local council hedge-trimming contractors had got there before us - we arrived to the sight of the entire hedgerow line hacked off leaving behind split stems, ripped branches and mangled twigs. They took most of the sloe berry harvest with them, so we had a much smaller harvest than previous years.

Much advice on sloe berry preparation tells you to prick each berry with a thorn taken from the bush. Personally I think life's too short for that kind of thing, so a few days in the freezer will serve to split the berries and achieve the same end. And there are many different 'recipes' for making sloe gin, but there are so few ingredients that you can't really go far wrong. The basic idea is to have half as much sugar as sloes, but you can add more later if it's still too sharp.

So here's a basic recipe to get you started: a litre of gin, 500g of sloe berries, 250g sugar. That's it. If you're making it up directly into bottles you'll need an empty one to take the excess, and the patience of a saint to drop the sloe berries into the neck of the bottle one by one. We tend to use large kilner jars so it's easy to add the ingredients and there's air space in the top for stirring the contents or for mixing by shaking.

Add berries and sugar and then pour on the gin. Mix well and then store in a cool dark place, mixing every few days to help the sugar dissolve and the berries to break down. The gin will gradually turn a wonderful shade of rich purple as the berry juices are released. Leave it for at least 6 weeks before drinking - at which stage you can add more sugar if you wish. We find that decanting it into bottles through a coffee filter removes most of the remains of the berries. Serve neat as a winter warmer or with sparkling wine/cava/prosecco/champagne for my personal favourite - a Sloegasm!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Tulips on Twitter

Everyone loves a freebie - especially if it's in the shape of tulip bulbs. So when I saw a tweet from the lovely bods at Spalding Bulbs offering tulip bulbs to garden bloggers, I just couldn't pass it up.
So, just a few days later I received a well packaged delivery of no fewer than 4 varieties of tulip bulbs. This is the first year I've really gone for autumn/winter bulb planting and I'd already put a mix of purple tulips (Attila, Havran, Recreado) that I bought in September in the raised bed in the front garden. So I thought I'd plant these bulbs 'a la Carol Klein' and have them in pots. November/December is the best time to plant tulip bulbs as the cold weather we would usually expect (and have certainly be experiencing) should kill off any lurking viruses that might be detrimental to the bulbs.

My bulb delivery contained:
White Triumphator – a white lily flowered tulip – which have been planted in a pot currently home to black lily grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' for those who want to be precise). I thought white tulips emerging from a mass of black leaves would look quite striking.

Darwin hybrid – a mix of yellow and red viridiflora tulips, 'developed by crossing the wild Fosteriana Tulip with the large Darwin tulip'. 

Parrot tulips – mixed colour tulips with frilled and twisted petals.

Candy Kisses – dark pink and white on the outside and pale orange inside! The blurb says 'It is possible to get 5-6 flowers from one bulb' – it will certainly be interesting to see if that happens.

These last 3 varieties were planted up into terracotta pots to their required depth, (3 times the height of the bulb for tulips) using fresh compost and a layer of grit beneath for drainage. I also top the surface of the compost with grit/pea shingle to keep down the weeds and because I think it looks nice.

I shall post updates of the tulips as and when they start peeking through the gravel. Roll on springtime!

Friday, November 30, 2012

The chill sets in

Brrrrrr! It was a bit parky out in the suburban veg plot today. But as the low low temperatures had temporarily made the swamp-like lawn firm enough to walk on, I continued the end of the year garden tidy.

The greenhouse got a good sweep out and I washed the cold frame glass. I need a couple of replacement panes for the cold frame (*adds to hubby's to do list) but as it's only garlic in there, I think they'll be fine with the extra ventilation. The cloves planted out in the raised bed are already peeking their little green shoots above ground.

All this frost should be good for my first sprout harvest. There are some that have developed on the fat stalks but I'm not sure how good they look. Does anyone manage to grow them as they look in the supermarket? Mine are about a third the size and don't look as 'solid'...

But the ever-reliable broad beans are soldiering on. Anyone reading my blog over the past couple of winters will know that I love my broad beans. My harvest this year was a pretty good one and all the beans that aren't eaten fresh are immediately frozen so I have home-grown beans all year round.

The neglected brassicas (see previous post here) have taken to their new homes quickly. I'm putting a positive spin on this and predicting that I may have a much extended harvest season through the springtime as a result. Some call it neglect and forgetfulness, I prefer to term it successional planting out.

And the start of the proper overnight frosts signals that parsnip season is now upon us. After a bit of a struggle to germinate them this year, I did manage to produce a respectable crop that I'm sure will last us through the winter.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Out of sight, out of mind

Oooops! I just found these in a neglected corner of my garden. Brassica plantlets (savoy cabbage, tuscan kale and early sprouting broccoli) that I moved out of the cold frame in early October and subsequently forgot they even existed. Naughty careless suburban veg gardener!

I've found homes for most of them dotted around the raised beds. Hopefully they'll forgive my neglect and still give me something of a harvest come 2013?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Feeling smug

The sunshine this weekend proved something of a boon in the suburban veg plot. I hit the garden with great enthusiasm and a 'to do' list as long as your arm. And by Sunday afternoon, here's where we were:

Clear dead sunburst squash plant from raised bed - tick
Harvest remaining Conference pears that the damn squirrel hasn't got at - tick
Plant up purple pansies in window boxes - tick
Sow broad beans - tick
Plant garlic in beds and in modules - tick
Sow green manures in empty beds - tick (though it may be a bit late for much growth)
Plant out cauliflower and cabbage plantlets - tick
Feed any slugs I find to the chickens - tick
Clear dead sweet peas from raised bed - tick
Take propagules from sempervivum plant - tick
Remove yellowing leaves from sprout plants (and feed to abovementioned chickens) - tick
Harvest last of the toms and remove plants from greenhouse - tick
Harvest almost the last of the chillies - tick
Plant daffodil bulbs in pots - tick

Feeling rather pleased with myself after all that. What did everyone else do in the garden this weekend?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Christmas sprouts

So, my tomato and chilli harvest may have been disappointing this year but I already have high hopes for the winter crop of brussels sprouts.
This is my first attempt at these but I love them sooo much and would be delighted to harvest my own sprouts for Christmas Day. I acquired my seeds from the lovely VP of vegplotting and they were sown in March this year. (If only I'd been so 'on the early sowing ball' with the rest of my winter greens...).

They germinated really quickly and I simply potted the seedlings on a couple of times through spring and summer. They initially stayed in the greenhouse to protect them from the pesky slugs but were moved out in late summer when we did have some hotter days.

I have two plants that survived long enough to be planted into a raised bed and since they went out, they've gone from strength to strength. They stand at almost 3 feet tall and I can see little buds growing in the leaf axils. Sprouts a gogo!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Start of a new term

Sept/Oct means back to school for some of us. And I found a wholly appropriate new notebook for my new horticultural course:

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Time for a garden tidy

I'm trying to pretend that autumn isn't happening. In my head I'm sitting at the patio table with a Pimms in hand flicking through the latest Gardeners' World, whereas in reality I'm peering out from the kitchen, watching the chickens shelter from the rain beyond the dogwood bushes whose leaves are slowly turning an autumnal shade of red.

So, in a brief few hours on sunshine yesterday, I started my garden tidy. Well, hubby started it while I sat at the patio table sowing some hardy annual seeds. As you can see, it was warm enough for a refreshing glass of shandy! These seed trays will go into the cold frame over winter and shouldn't need pricking out until early spring.

During a clearing of an untidy border, this little chap put in an appearance. My internet searches have identified him (or her?) as a common frog rather than a toad. But if any herpetologists out there know better, then I'm happy to be corrected.

As part of the tidy-up, I braved the tying-in of this years new tayberry shoots. It put me in mind of wrestling a particularly spiny snake. This lovely plant has grown three impressive new shoots during this year and these will fruit in 2013. I implemented my 'Loch Ness monster' formation again, which looks a little convoluted, but allows me to train 3m shoots onto a 1m length of fence. I also buried the end of the longest shoot to experiment with a bit of 'tip layering'. Hopefully I will have a baby plant to pass on to a deserving garden next year.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

When I'm not gardening...

I have a very good reason for my posts to have been a bit...shall we say...thin on the ground this summer. Yes, I was revising for my latest round of RHS exams but I was also involved in the wonderful showcase of sport that hit London - the Olympic and Paralympic Games!

Now, although I was pretty handy with a hockey stick in my uni years, this talent did not stay with me on my journey into adulthood. I have finally come to terms with the fact that I may never compete for Team GB - but I did manage to get into the Olympic stadium. In fact, right onto the 'field of play'. (Disclaimer - no, that wasn't me gate crashing the India team parade...)

Sometime late in 2011, I happened upon a website that called for volunteers to fulfil a role that would, to roll out a much-used cliche, be a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity. And after a couple of attendances at a secret location in East London and a few months of waiting for an email, I was finally rewarded with the news that I'd been offered a role in the Paralympic Opening Ceremony.
The list of rehearsal times was extensive. For a period during July, we were rehearsing 3 times a week for 4 -5 hours at a time. But it was fabulous fun, meeting a wide range of people who had all volunteered their time with enthusiasm. And none of us really knowing what we'd let ourselves in for.
So, after 5 weeks of rehearsals in a film studio in Bow and 2 weeks rehearsing in the world's biggest car park in Dagenham, and the issuing of a plethora of access and accreditation passes, we hit the Olympic stadium for our first on-site rehearsal.

All too soon the night itself arrived. Backstage, in the warren of corridors, areas and rooms beneath the stadium seating, was a buzz of excitement. We were in our 'holding area' for hours, having arrived at the stadium at 3pm for a last minute addition to our choreography. The scheduled time for our part of the performance was 10.30pm, but as the athletes parade overran we were still waiting to go on at 11pm.

A lot of time was spent waiting in the wings, peering out at the show through any available open door or trying to evade security by getting upstairs to the media area where we'd managed to watch most of the dress rehearsal a few days before.

At long last it was time to move. Led to our area we got a glimpse of the vast audience flickering with camera flashes as another cast section headed out into the arena amid cheers and whistles from the rest of us.

And suddenly we were out there ourselves! (and I managed to find myself on a couple of photos on the internet...)

photo from Flickr
photo from Flickr
photo from Flickr
photo from Flickr 
photo from Flickr
 It was an amazing night and I have lots of fantastic memories from it. As well as a black and white costume that I am wondering on what occasion I might wear again...

I'm on the right...

Friday, August 24, 2012

In a jam

Way back in 2010 I planted out a small tayberry plant that was well overdue a permanent home. My first mention of that small plant is here.

It kind of sat by the fence for a year minding it's own business and showing just the merest hints of growing. Towards the end of 2011 it grew a bit more and then a bit more again. Three very prickly stems reached further and further out until the only way I could keep them under control was to rig up an amateur stake and wire type arrangement against the fence using some plastic coated wire and screws usually reserved for hanging net curtains. The long whippy stems, by now each a couple of metres, were tied to the wires in a 'Loch Ness monster' formation (if that's not an official fruit cultivation term, it certainly deserves to be).

In the springtime the shoots were covered in blossom and then a bumper fruit crop followed. Rather than eating the fruits fresh as they ripened, I saved them in the freezer until they fruiting period was over so I could make a big batch of jam. Five takeaway containers full gave me 3 jars of very tasty, slightly tart tayberry jam!

After consulting my RHS 'Pruning and Training' book, I've now cut out the stems that fruited, and am in the process of tying in the 3 rope-like stems that grew during this year. They will be my fruiting stems in 2013.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Bearing fruit

Things are ripening at the suburban veg plot. It's that time of year again (though admittedly, slightly later than usual) when I'm picking or plucking on a daily basis. Now I really get a chance to evaluate how something has grown (or not) and depending on the reasons for any failures, whether I will grow the same again next year.

My 2 nectarines were lovely. From a tree purchased in May and said to be self fertile, it arrived with little fruitlets already attached so I can't really claim much of a part in its success. More fruitlets were lying on the surface of the soil in the pot – thanks courier company for taking so much care and not throwing the box around en route... But at least I have hope that if I can look after it over the winter, then it will produce more than 2 fruits next year.

I have mentioned before that we have alpine strawberries rambling all over the suburban veg plot. These hardy plants have runners like steel wire that seek out any little space or gap to set up shop. Mistakenly I tried to create a small strawberry border using these plants at one stage – they multiplied like rabbits and ended up looking a horrible tangled mess and producing very few fruits. Needless to say, that border has now been 'de-strawberried'. So now I have them just about under control bordering a few raised beds where they seem happy and I can keep pulling out any new plants they try to throw out. The fruits are real crowd-pleasers around here – the husband, the chickens, my best friend's toddler – they all love these tiny fruit straight from the plant. I pick a few each morning to throw onto my muesli along with fresh blueberries. And as for deciding whether I'll grow them next year? Well, I don't think I have much choice in that.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Almost a potato disaster

Well, that was close. With the warm, yet wet, weather of late I did suspect that it might be ideal conditions for that most dreaded of all diseases in the vegetable garden – potato blight. On close inspection it did look like the potato plants were starting to suffer from those telltale brown patches on the leaves and some stalks and there was a general yellowing all over the foliage. So, once the greenhouse door was closed (to protect the tomatoes from the airborne spores) I set about clearing the bed.
My potato variety this year was selected purely on the basis of name alone – Ulster Classic – in honour of my lovely hubbie's Norn Iron roots. And what a harvest I found beneath the surface:

Lots of creamy white potatoes with pale pink splashes snuggled deep in the soil. And thankfully, no sign that any blight had reached them. Which is, when you've got an Irish husband, quite a relief to report. I don't want to see him disappearing across the Atlantic...

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Vegging out

The dwarf french beans are very prolific at the moment. Super resilient to the attentions of the slugs and snails and super tasty to boot. Can anyone explain why they lose their purple colouration when they're cooked though? I'm definitely growing these again next year – very low maintenance and no supports required.
I've left a couple of pods on one plant to form beans that I can dry and save to sow next spring.

In the recent heat, the courgettes are finally putting out female flowers and setting fruit. Here's the ever-reliable Striata type. Once they start coming, they don't usually stop for a couple of months.

And a new variety – Sunburst squash – a little patty pan type in bright sunshine yellow. Not a lot to go around when you only get one at a time, but as you can see, there are more and more forming on this plant now as it spreads its way across a vacant bed.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Rosemary beetle

Why did natural selection result in some very destructive, if very attractive insects surviving with the sole intention in life to eat my plants. In the brief respite between rain showers, I spotted these lil' critters all over my lavender bed. Oh they're very pretty – shiny like an oil droplet – but in high numbers they're not good. I've yet to discover who their natural predator is, and why those lovely colours evolve
ved to be on their wingcase. It must either be camouflage or a warning to potential predators. Anyway, despite them not being particularly welcome on my lovely flowering lavender, I don't use chemical sprays and so figured that as long as there weren't too many of them, then I could live with them. So, I took a few photos and shall we put this?...streamlined the population numbers. :)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Beanie Babies

Generally speaking, beans have not featured large in the suburban veg plot. I grow broad beans each year and I once grew runner beans (before deciding I didn't actually like them) but aside from those, my kitchen garden is a veritable dearth of beans. Until this year that is.

Through purchases and acquisitions, I found myself in possession of purple dwarf French beans, Cherokee Trail of tears climbing beans and even an ornamental purple hyacinth bean (Dolichos lablab).
Germination of them all was pretty successful in mid April – 100% in the case of the French beans – and I spent ages hardening them all off before anything left the safe confines of the greenhouse.

The gardening nerd in me loved to watch the new plant appear from between the cotyledons

The dwarf french beans were grown in toilet roll inners in a plastic fruit container. Here they are having a day out on the patio table back in May.

And once their roots started to explore beyond the cardboard tube, I temporarily potted them into a flower bucket to provide them with a bit more depth and moisture.

The french beans have been in their final positions for about 6 weeks now and have been madly producing delightfully tender beans. Their leaves are under permanent attack from our somewhat unwelcome mollusc friends but they don't touch the beans themselves, so I'm happy to maintain the standoff while that remains the case.

The Cherokee Trail of Tears beans are grown for podding beans which can then be dried and stored. They germinated quickly, grew well but then came under severe attack when I planted them out (those pesky gastropods again!). Thankfully, the brans grew slightly faster than the slugs nibbled them and they are just about hanging on. Photos to follow once I'm sure they're past the worst.

And the ornamental beans? Well, they might be a bit superfluous and don't actually contribute to the harvest, but they'll look attractive and will provide late pollen for all those lovely bees and butterflies – and I think that's reason enough. Here they are just getting to grips in their new home.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Hello - I'm back !

I have concluded that I simply cannot combine horti revision (my RHS level 3 exams) and blogging. As the queen of multi-tasking I am shamefaced to admit this. However, I have now finished my exams, have been on a little Spanish break to relax and recover and am now back and raring to go.
In the meantime, I can see by so many blogs that flowers have bloomed, strawberries have ripened, chilli flowers have opened and thousands of slugs have nibbled at your lettuces. I've been having a huge catch-up with all my favourite blogs these last few days and am almost up to date with everything that's been happening.  
I hope you can forgive my absence and I promise there'll be a bumper set of posts this month to make up for it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Central Park in Spring

Today it has been rainy, then a bit sunny, then quite warm. Then back to rainy, then very very haily and back to raining once again.
So, as I can't (am too much of a fair weather gardener to) go out to take photos of my veg garden, I thought I'd reminisce about my New York trip in April and recall what beautiful sunny weather we had over Easter weekend.

Being such a gardening nerd, I eschewed long hours of shopping on 5th Avenue and dragged my mother uptown to Central Park (with promises of prosecco at the Boathouse if she was very well behaved).

I love Central Park - it's so huge you can lose yourself totally in it and the varied areas and styles of planting mean that there always something new or different to see as you progress through it. I also adore the way it is literally plonked into a grid of uber-urbanness. One minute, you're stepping out of Tiffany's (note to hubby: just browsing...) and minutes later you're tripping across Central Park South trying not to get knocked down by a horse-drawn carriage. And then immediately you're scooped up into the green lushness of the park itself.
Created in the mid 1850s in response to the green public spaces of London and Paris, the location was selected due to the natural terrain of the area (swamps and huge rocky outcrops) making urban development unfavourable. As with most large scale urban regeneration, it did involve the displacement of roughly 1600 poor residents of the area who lived in squalid shanties on the site. Some things never seem to change, do they?

If you don't know much about Central Park, this should help put it in a visual context. This photo (taken a few years ago when I took a helicopter ride over Manhattan) show the placement of the park within the city. It was in November so the trees have their autumnal colours on show.

A large rectangular shape, the park has many different areas, lots of paths and areas of water, large outcrops of stone and a variety of seats from which to take in the view.

This next one is taken from the west side of The Lake – a 20-acre man-made stretch of water – situated about a third of the way up the park. The view is looking south towards Central Park S and the towering office buildings of midtown.

This photo is taken from the same position on The Lake looking west onto Central Park West between W74th and W75th. To the left, just out of shot is the Dakota building where John Lennon and Yoko Ono lived.

There were some beautiful hellebores in flower, gently nodding in the breeze.

And can anyone tell me what these are? I really feel I recognise them but just can't come up with a name and there were no plants labels near this one...