Saturday, 28 August 2010

A Day of Firsts

I was excited to find this when I dug among the leaves in the pumpkin bed. It's a Crystal Apple Cucumber - it should grow a bit bigger than this, but it is the first one I've managed to grow and there are a few more in there. Having said that, I've tried to grow this cucumber outdoors for a couple of years with no success previously and I've come to the conclusion that it really isn't suitable for our climate - maybe in a greenhouse, but not outdoors. So there won't be any next year.
This was another surprise - a solitary apple on my Blenheim Orange apple tree. This tree flowered for the first time last year (after 6 years in the ground) but didn't set fruit. I realised it was because it needed two pollinators and I had lost one to apple canker a couple of years earlier. So I went and bought a Spartan tree this spring to help it along. It flowered sparsely (Blenheim Orange can be a biennial fruiter) but it did set fruit, as did the Spartan. Unfortunately the extreme dryness of the spring meant that the June drop was very severe and I thought I had lost all the apples. So today, when I spotted this I was over the moon. My first Blenheim Orange apple - it's been a struggle, but we're getting there now.
And the Spartan tree also has two apples, again a first for me. I think Spartan is my very favourite apple and while you can buy them in good greengrocers now, I've long wanted to grow my own. This should be ready in October, along with the Blenheim Orange.
Now I have grown pumpkins before, but it has been an extraodinarily good year for them. Today I counted seven, but there could be more under the foliage - the largest number I've ever managed to grow. This is Small Sugar, it generally turns out a little under football size and the first fruits are just starting to turn orange.
Here is the first marrow I allowed to grow to full size - I hardened it off in the shed after cutting and now the skin is hardened, I've brought it home. It should keep for a good while yet. On the right is my first summer cabbage, a small one which I had for my lunch yesterday. The apples are some small windfalls from the Katy tree. As you can see, the courgettes are still going and there are more to come - an excellent year for them.
The weather is unusually cold for the time of year. Some of the trees are starting to turn already, and I'm concerned we may be in for an early and cold winter. So when we take up a whole crop, we're clearing the ground and doing the winter composting now. We did the same last year, and it paid off since we couldn't get at the ground for a couple of months. Better to be prepared for the snow to come, rumour has it the salt mines in Cheshire are working 24/7 at present as early frost/sleet/snow is forecast...

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Pruning a Rambling Rose

After a day of monsoon rain, today was fine and clear so I decided it was time to prune my rambling rose (New Dawn). This rose was grown from a cutting around 10 years ago, and above is a picture of what it sits in - compost surrounded by stones, placed on a paving slab. Yes, you read that right, it's not really in soil at all. Roses don't need much around their roots, but occasionally passers-by stop to look at this rose's roots, particularly when it's flowering as well as this. They can't believe it either. I just top it up with a good quality compost every year and feed it.
By this time of year, the flowers are long gone and there is a lot of growth, including some new vigorous shoots, which you can just see at the bottom of the picture. I prune it now for two reasons - to reduce the leaf cover before the autumn winds, as it's on the windy side of the house; and secondly to shape it for next year so I get good blooms again.
The key with a rambler is to create good, long, horizontal shoots, as the flower shoots grow off them vertically, as you can see in this picture. The main shoots have to be horizontal or they don't flower.
You can see here that there are some new shoots growing straight up - these are soft and malleable at this time of year so I can tie these in horizontally.
I start pruning from the outside, removing old flowering shoots and then identifying and removing weak and misshapen shoots. I gradually work back to the main branches, keeping an eye out for the vigorous new growth. I take out a few old horizontals, and cut others back to a good new shoot which I then tie in to the horizontal.
I say "tie in" but actually it's rather difficult to do on my house - the stone is extremely hard and undrillable, so I only have a few anchor points with screws inserted into the mortar between the stones, from which I attach pieces of string. A bit of weaving of stems together, some judiciously placed string to prevent movement, and the job is done.
I do prune it hard, as you can see from the left overs, but the plant can now put all its energies into the new shoots for the month or so of growing time left.
And here it is, much reduced leaf cover and a sturdy framework which will stand up to whatever the winter throws at it. The few shoots which are still sticking up vertically will be woven in when they've grown a bit longer.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

A brief time in the garden

Fine days have been few and far between lately, with the incessant rain, but we are now getting the occasional day without rain, and the hosepipe ban has now been lifted. The soil is very wet, so even when it's not raining, we're not doing jobs which require you to walk on it, to avoid compacting the soil. So this morning it was a quick scoot round the garden to collect some veg and take a few pictures. The runner beans (above) are flowering and fruiting well now.
This is the Katy apple tree. I was reading last week that growers suggested this year's crop would be smaller than normal due to the drought, but also sweeter as a result. If you compare the picture above with last year, it is clear that there are fewer apples on the tree - the June Drop was very severe this year, with trees dropping more fruit than usual due to the dryness (I did water, but it was hard to keep up with the demand). I do think the apples are slightly smaller too, but as to being sweeter, we'll have to wait and see. These apples aren't ready yet. In fact most fruit and vegetables appear to be about two weeks behind where they were at the same time last year.
In the herb bed, there are lots of flowers - here are some peppermint flowers, with a white tailed bee enjoying them.
And here's the fennel; you can't see them, but this plant is covered in hover flies, which love its flat yellow flower heads. I keep the seed from this plant for herbal tea and other kitchen uses.
The marrows are still growing, but the plants are showing signs of becoming tired now. We have a number of small marrows on the way, but I may let them grow to full size rather than cutting them early; I already have one hardened off in the shed but would like to lay up more marrows for late autumn/winter. This time last year the courgettes and pumpkins were pretty much over, but I think we have a few more weeks of growth left in them this year.
And the promise of things to come - the autumn raspberries are flowering well and setting fruit. I actually prefer the autumn ones to the summer ones, they have a deeper flavour with a hint of citrus (hope that doesn't sound pretentious!). We can expect to start harvesting these in about 3 weeks - the good thing about autumn raspberries is that we often get settled dry weather in late September, which means they don't rot, unlike the summer ones which get rained on very reliably. We lost a lot of raspberries to the rain this year.

Hope the weather is good where you are, happy gardening!

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Courgette (Zucchini) Recipe 2

We've had a lot more rain, so time in the vegetable garden has been short. When I did get out I found my camera batteries were dead, so no pictures this week. So instead, here is another recipe for using up courgettes - this time it's courgette fritters. First grate your courgettes (above), sprinkle with salt and leave to drain for a couple of hours.
Squeeze the liquid out of the courgettes, keep the liquid for use later. Then mix in gram flour with some chilli powder, the amount of gram flour will vary according to how wet the courgettes are - the courgette/flour mix should be fairly stiff.
Make into fritters and deep fry - I drop a spoonful into hot oil - until golden brown.
At the same time, make the sauce by frying some onions, then add either fresh or tinned tomatoes. I usually add some spices - ground coriander, ginger and a small touch of chilli, but you could make a plain tomato sauce. Add the courgette juice - this will contain salt so you shouldn't need much seasoning.
When the sauce is ready, you can reheat the courgettes by dropping them in the pan with the sauce, or if they are still warm from frying you can serve on top.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

August in the vegetable garden

I thought a little round up of what's growing would be in order. Despite the cold winter and late spring, this year is mostly turning out to be an excellent vegetable year, probably our best ever. Above are the first runner beans, which are now flowering well and will be at peak production in a few weeks.
And the peas have been excellent too. This is a picture of the second sowing, but I'm still getting peas from the first batch as well. The rain came at just the right time for them.
The beetroot got off to a slow start as they were planted out in the dry spell, but they're growing on well now. Strangely the plants at one end of the bed are smaller than the others, but the biggest beets are now past golf ball size so we're looking forward to harvesting them in the autumn.
These are the jerusalem artichokes which are having such a good year they're spreading into the beetroot bed next door and out into the path. I'll rectify that when I dig up the crop in the winter.
This is the biggest marrow, with my hand on the end for scale. We have lots of small marrows growing right now, so many more meals to come. This is the first year we've grown them, but it's an experiment we'll be happy to repeat next year.
The pumpkins (above) and courgettes are also doing well. The excessively wet weather of the last few weeks has rotted off a few pumpkins but there are plenty more on the way.
This is a shot of the pumpkin bed - the biggest plants I've ever grown. The only thing I did differently this year with the pumpkins, courgettes and marrows was to put a good dollop of horse manure and compost in the planting hole instead of fertilising the whole bed. Seems like it was a good thing to do.
The brassicas are also having a very good year. Here are the purple sprouting broccoli plants - staked with canes as the heavy rain and winds recently battered them a bit.
And here is one of the cabbages, which are beginning to heart up well and should be ready to pick in September. We have the obligatory slug/snail damage but generally they're growing very well.
Of course, some things are finishing now. This is almost the last picking of strawberries - pretty good to still be picking them in August when they started in June.
But not everything in the garden has been good. I've already documented the poor crop of potatoes due to dryness - here are the onions which have been similarly bad. Some of the onions have barely grown since being put in as sets. I'm seriously thinking about giving up growing onions - one of the problems with my plot is the slug/snail population which is almost impossible to control due to the grassy embankments on the steep slope and every year they decimate the onions in June/July. So this may be the last year of home-grown onions.

We're hoping for a bit of dry weather so we can get back out now, since the drought restrictions came in it's not stopped raining!

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Courgette (Zucchini) Recipe 1

At this time of year many of us are dealing with the glut of vegetables, so I thought I would share a couple of recipes in case you, like me, are faced with the prospect of eating courgettes at every meal! This one is for fried (spicy) courgettes.

Slice a couple of onions or shallots, and soften them in vegetable oil in a very large pan (a wok is best). You will need about 3-4 tablespoons of oil in the pan - sounds a lot, but you have to cover the courgette slices with them later so don't be too economical. Once the onions are soft, add salt to the oil, along with whatever spices you like. Black pepper is good with courgettes, as is chilli powder or paprika/smoked paprika (I sometimes used smoked pimenton de la vera). You can use anything really, cook the spices briefly and ensure they're well mixed into the oil.
Slice your courgettes thinly, then add to the pan. Mix well so that all the courgettes get a covering of oil and turn up the heat a bit to get them cooking. A large pan of courgettes like this will take about 10 minutes to cook through, with regular stirs.
This is a nice light supper dish, which I usually serve with rice. We Brits are found of our spicy food but we're abysmally bad at cooking rice, so here is my fool-proof recipe for perfect basmati rice.

Put your rice in the pan with some salt. Add water, just enough so that when you put your index finger in the pan with the tip resting on the surface of the rice the water level comes up no further than the first joint of your finger. You'll probably think this isn't enough water, but trust me, it is. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down to the lowest setting. Cook until the water is absorbed but try not to leave it until the point the rice starts to stick to the bottom of the pan. Then stir the rice, replace the lid and turn off the heat, leave it for 5-10 minutes and when you look at it again you'll have lovely fluffy rice. If you start the rice at the same time you start cooking the onions, it'll be ready when your courgettes are.

Anyway, back to the courgettes. Once they're cooked through but still reasonably firm, you can either serve them as they are or, my favourite, add some desiccated coconut - a couple of tablespoons is usually enough. The coconut adds a little sweetness and extra flavour. Hey presto, spicy courgettes.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Courgettes and Potatoes

I decided to take up some of the second early potatoes today in order to make way for leeks. The crop size was similar to the first earlies - fewer tubers, some big ones and some little ones. Interestingly, as you can see from the photo above, the ground was still a bit dry in some places directly under the haulm despite the abundant rain. Happily, the decimation of the slug population in the cold winter means there is much less slug damage so I'm going to leave the last row of potatoes in for a bit longer in the hope of a bigger crop.
Here are a few of the potatoes I collected today, a good example of the problem the dry spring has caused - these are normally all medium to large potatoes, and double the quantity. Anyway, I got the rest of the leeks planted today, so that's the last of this year's planting done now.
We've now got a gap in the pea crop, which is being filled by the courgettees - I only picked some a few days ago, but today another four were ready. Theya re very large, as you can see when they're pictured beside a standard sized trowel. Lots more to come...