Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Tomatoes potted-on

Over the Easter weekend I moved my tomato plants from the little Elmlea pots in which they were germinated into much bigger 5-inch pots.

The weather in the middle of April was really good, with lots of sunshine, so the tomatoes grew very quickly. It would not have been a good idea to leave them in those Elmlea pots for more than a few more days, because they would have run out of nutrients - and space!

I will only keep the plants in these 5" pots for two or three weeks. I hope they will continue to grow rapidly, and will be ready for transplanting again (this time into their final homes) by about the middle of May.

The upheaval of moving into a new home can be quite stressful for a little plant, so immediately after re-potting I water them and keep them in the semi-darkness of the garage for about 24 hours. This allows them to settle in without having to cope with sunshine, temperature changes, wind, etc.

I have 24 tomato plants at present, but I think I will reduce this to 16 before long. I'm going to have 12 big ones (mostly Beefsteak varieties) grown as cordons, and 4 smaller cherry-type ones grown as bushes. It's always a wrench for me to discard healthy plants, so I'll not just put the spares in the compost bin. I'll give them to friends and garden helpers. 

For the time being, these plants will live outdoors in the mini-greenhouses during the daytime, and inside overnight. The night-time temperatures are still only about 7 or 8 degrees Celsius, so too cold for tomatoes to be outside without protection. 10C would be better for them.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The end of the PSB

As you know, the Purple Sprouting Broccoli was disappointing this year. This past week I took a last harvest from it and then dug up the plants. The PSB plants still had a few tiny spears on them, but not enough to justify keeping them any longer. I need the space for my Runner Beans now.

PSB plant with last few tiny spears on it

There was one spear that I had missed, which I will use to demonstrate what happens when you leave the spears to mature. They go long and straggly like this, prior to opening their bright yellow flowers. They are far too stringy to eat when they get to this stage.

If you are not in a hurry to remove the plants, it is quite nice to let a few of them flower. The bees will certainly be grateful if you do.

So this is the bed where the PSB used to be.

I have dug it over and prepared it for hosting the beans. I found that the roots from my neighbour's Leylandii tree (just the other side of the fence, behind the compost bins in the photo above) had reached as far as this bed, so I had to spend some time removing them. I then added some Growmore general-purpose fertiliser and some of that composted stable manure that I wrote about yesterday, and watered the bed very thoroughly. The Leylandii had sucked out all the moisture from the soil, making it so dry it was almost dusty. I'm sure this is one of the reasons why the PSB did not do so well, and I will have to take the necessary measures to avoid this happening again.

Elsewhere in the garden I have been planting out more lettuces. These are four each of "Devin" and "Cervanek", grown from seeds sent to me by Dominika in the Czech Republic. My successional sowing plan is already looking shaky because these enthusiastic new immigrants are rapidly overtaking their earlier-sown indigenous counterparts!

Finally for today, a picture of a small but very significant Asparagus spear.

This tiny shoot serves to demonstrate that the replacement plant I put in last year is not actually dead, as I feared it was. Hopefully it will build up some strength this year and produce some bigger (edible) spears next year or the year after.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Harvest Monday - 21st April 2014

Happy Birthday your Majesty! (our queen, Queen Elizabeth II - who is 88 today, and still going strong!)

My offering for Harvest Monday, hosted as ever on Daphne's Dandelions is not big in terms of quantity this week, but I think it scores highly in terms of quality! What do you think of these?

Those are the first picking of my "Cherry Belle" radishes.

Growing radishes is often described as easy (maybe because they grow quickly), but I don't think it is. They need very close attention to watering. If their roots are too dry they will bolt and be tough and excessively peppery. They grow best in warm moist soil.

There is a programme currently running on our TV here called "The Big Allotment Challenge". Some people seem to think it is about gardening, but I think it is basically a game-show whereby the "Losers" are progressivley eliminated and eventually a winner emerges. Last week one of the challenges was to present three perfectly-formed blemish-free radishes. Obviously the growing of these took place in advance! Regrettably, no credit at all was given for the taste or texture of the radishes, and they were judged on looks alone. Most of the offerings were very poor. One pair of contestants admitted sowing more than 500 seeds and were able to get only four that were anywhere near meeting the required criteria - and even then they were not that brilliant! Here is my offering:

These were picked only this morning and have not yet been eaten, but I am confident that they will be crisp, juicy and with just the right amount of pepperiness. Furthermore, I had no difficulty in choosing 3 perfect specimens. They were ALL perfect! (well, I think so anyway...)

Other than the radishes, I harvested this week another 2-person serving of Asparagus. Actually, by this I mean that by cutting a spear or two every day or so I eventually managed to get enough spears to be a worthwhile quantity for two people! This may perhaps explain why I don't have any photos of it. Asparagus is frustrating stuff - there's never enough of it. I'll just show you a couple of photos of it growing...

The signs are good...

The prospect of a good Blueberry harvest seems very real this year. Last year I pruned the bushes very carefully and quite severely, and it seems to have paid off. The plants are just dripping with flowers:

I have six Blueberry plants now, all in pots ranged round the edge of the patio. Two of them are very small still, not big enough to produce fruit this year. All six of them are "freebies" in that they all came from offers in magazines whereby you pay only the postage - which works out at about £3.99 per plant or something like that.

 I know it is early days still ("Don't count your chickens until they are hatched", as they say), but I think this is going to be a demonstration of the wisdom of taking the long-term view in gardening. Sometimes it is better to completely sacrifice a mediocre crop in favour of a better one the following year. Unfortunately I am also aware that my Blueberries would also probably benefit from re-potting into larger containers, but I am not going to do that just now, because it could put at risk the potentially good crop. I think I may attempt that task later in the year, when the crop has been harvested.

I have also been making an "investment" in my garden of a different nature. I have been adding some really special compost to my raised beds. It is composted stable manure, supplied to me by a firm in nearby Woking. This is good stuff, I know. I have used it before with excellent results. Over the last couple of years my crops have been a little under-par, in my view, lacking in vigour, so I thought it was time to re-vitalise the soil. Maybe my home-made compost is not sufficiently nutritious after all...

Yes, I know that to 99% of the population that photo is dull and boring, but to us gardeners it is not! It shows the greyish old soil being augmented by the new brown stable manure compost.

In due course the bed pictured and its peers will play host to my Winter veg, such as these Brussels Sprouts:

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Everyday meals - comfort food

Some of you might think that it's only posh gourmet food that we eat in the Willis household. You'd be wrong though. Although we do like to eat well, many of the everyday meals never feature on our blogs - which is why I thought I would give a bit of visibility to a couple of meals I recently made, which don't really warrant a blogpost of their own, or a recipe.

First this:

This is what we Brits call "Toad in the Hole", but this one is actually its French cousin "Crapaud dans le Trou", because it is made with Toulouse sausages, which contain a lot of garlic. The batter is the same as that used in Yorkshire Pudding. Since this is the first time I had made this dish I foolishly thought it would be much the same as making Yorkshire Puddings, but it took MUCH longer to cook, and to be honest, the centre was still a bit under-done by the time the edges began to go very dark. I think it would have been wiser to cook it longer at a lower temperature, or perhaps use a bigger pan so that the batter is thinner. Hey Ho, this is the sort of thing that you learn through experience!

To add yet more garlickyness to the dish, I served it with new potatoes slathered in home-made Wild Garlic Pesto. I didn't take a photo of the salad I served alongside the hot food. Guess what was in the salad dressing? Garlic? No, it was shallots this time - and mustard, as well as the usual oil and vinegar.

I loved it, but Jane found the pesto a bit overpowering. The Wild Garlic in the pesto is raw, and I think it would be a bit milder when cooked.

My second dish is this braised steak with potatoes, asparagus and PSB:

This is very much the sort of thing I like, and I cook in this style very frequently. The meat is cooked long and slow (about 3 hours at 150C), so that it goes very tender. I always make sure there is plenty of gravy. In this case it is enhanced with the addition of onions, mushrooms and carrots, as well as fresh Thyme.

The Asparagus and Purple Sprouting Broccoli are from my garden. I wish I could say the same about the potatoes, but it's a bit too early in the year for that. The potatoes were the type generally known as Jersey Royals (aka International Kidney). They were evidently dead fresh as the skins rubbed off very easily.

Now here are a couple of photos of meals that Jane prepared just recently:

Lasagne - and old favourite! Normally served with a green salad. This is a good weekday meal, since it can be prepared in advance and easily finished off at dinner-time.

Jane puts smoked bacon lardons in with the beef for the meat sauce, which makes it particularly tasty.

Then there was this Cobb Salad (you may have seen this photo before, Jane posted about this on her blog Onions and Paper.)

The concept of the Cobb Salad is that the ingredients are chopped up small. I'm not sure whether there is an official list of authentic ingredients, but here Jane has used eggs, watercress, crispy bacon, poached chicken, parsley, chives, tomatoes, avocadoes and Roquefort cheese. Somewhere underneath that lot there was a load of Romaine lettuce too. I can tell you that this salad was amazingly tasty, especially since it was served with a nice tangy dressing using rather more vinegar than normal.

So there you go: that's the sort of food we eat most often. Not fancy, but blooming good. Our view is that since you have to eat, you might as well enjoy doing so!

Herbs rejuvenated

The early April sunshine has brought the prennial herbs on nicely. At this time of year their fresh young growth looks particularly attractive, so this is my subject today:

Lemon Balm

Winter Savory



Potted Greek Oregano


Moroccan Mint

Purple Sage

Variegated Sage


I know that not everyone will consider this to be a herb, but I'm including Lavender anyway, since I want to show you a photo of some that I have just potted up from cuttings taken last Autumn - most of which rooted successfully, by the way. The green new growth is easily distinguishable from the older silver-grey leaves.


Saturday, 19 April 2014

Revisiting my roots

No, this is not a post about family history, I just thought that was a clever title!

About 6 weeks ago I sowed carrots and parsnips in my big Woodblocx raised bed, but the germination rate has been very low - probably only about 10% - so I have re-sown them. I even double-checked to see that the seeds were still within their "sow by" dates, because I could hardly believe they had done so badly. They were all fresh seeds. Maybe the weather was the cause, because it has been a lot dryer than normal for this time of year.

I made sure to do the re-sowing as quickly as possible since I had to remove the "Enviromesh" carrot root fly protection in order to do the task:

You can see that the row of radishes dividing the carrots from the parsnips is fine:

One of the types of parsnips (Guernsey Half-Long) had germinated OK. Here you can see them in the right foreground. I deliberately sowed them in a wide swathe rather than a thin row, since I plan to thin them out to make what will be effectively a staggered row, giving each root plenty of space to grow.

Here's a view from directly overhead.

They look all right, but only one or two of the other type of parsnip (Duchess) had germinated. Likewise, I could only find about 20 carrots in total, from probably hundreds of seeds, of three different types. Funnily enough, the germination rate of the finger carrot varieties sown in the plastic crates has been completely different - extremely successful, despite using 2-year-old seed. I'm not taking the mesh off to show you though!

The radishes are just about big enough to pull. I can hardly wait. Home-grown radishes are just so much nicer than bought ones - crisp and tasty as opposed to rubbery and bland!

Here's hoping for a better germination rate this time!