Thursday, 19 September 2019

Harvesting "Crown Prince" squashes

Today I deemed it the right moment to harvest my crop of "Crown Prince" squashes. Their parent plants were dying down and there was no chance of the fruits growing any more. It was definitely time to cut them and leave them to cure in the sunshine before we progress to cold wet weather.

As you can see, I got a total of five fruits from my two plants. Not a huge crop, but considering the less than ideal site they had, I'm well pleased with this result.

The biggest of the five weighs 3.35kgs, the second biggest 3.28kgs and all five together come to 13.5kgs. This should keep the two of us supplied with soup material for several months!

You will notice that I have cut the squashes with a fair bit of stem, in the approved "T-shape" manner. Cutting with too little stem attached can lead to rotting of the fruit before it is cured.

The weather here at present is glorious - bright blue skies, sunshine and daytime temperatures in the low 20s - so the squashes should cure very nicely in my big coldframe, with the doors open.

At night-time the temperatures this week have dipped into single figures, so I'll try to remember to close the doors before dark!

Right, now to refresh my memory on recipes using squash...

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Does pinching-out chilli plants really help?

Some people pinch out (remove) the growing tips of chilli plants, which allegedly makes them bushier and perhaps more vigorous. I don't normally use this practice, but this year I thought I'd give it a try. This post describes the results of my trial.

I find that most chilli plants naturally branch out when they get to about 30 or 35cm tall, like this one:

Here's a close-up.

This year I did a comparative trial with three types of chilli - "Aji Limon", "Aji Benito" and "Cayenne Long Slim". In each case I pinched-out one plant and left the other to grow naturally.

Here's one that has been pinched-out. You can see that the plant's immediate response is to channel its energy into producing new growth at the leaf axils.

Over the growing season I treated all my chillis in exactly the same way - watering them when I felt they needed it, but not too often or too copiously, and once fruit had begun to set I fed them weekly with proprietary tomato food ("Tomorite").

Due to problems I encountered with weedkiller-contaminated compost (described elsewhere on my blog) the chillis got off to a very poor start. However most of them eventually recovered and they produced a good number of fruits, which are just beginning to ripen - which is about 3 weeks later than usual.

Ripening "Aji Benito"

However, the experiment with pinching-out reveals that this practice makes very little difference! Here we see two "Aji Benito" plants side-by-side. The one on the right was pinched-out, and the one on the left was not.

Allowing for a little bit of natural variation, I believe that they are very similar in shape, structure and yield. A more interesting comparison can be made when I introduce a third plant of the same variety - one which was over-Wintered from last year. It is the middle one in this next photo.

You can see that the over-Wintered one is taller and its leaf-cover is much denser. If you were able to look more closely you would see that the main stem is also much more robust and woodier, which presumably gives the plant greater ability to support foliage. I would also say that the fruits are probably more numerous and slightly bigger, though most of them are behind those of the other two plants, in terms of ripeness.

The "Aji Limon" plants have performed in similar fashion: no appreciable difference in overall size or in number of fruit.

Pinched-out one on the Right

However, I thought it might be useful to show you how the pinching-out altered the structure of the plants. This photo shows the Aji Limon" plant that was pinched-out. It has no dominant main stem and all the side branches are low down on the plant.

The unpinched one on the other hand does have a dominant main stem, and its branches are spaced further apart on that stem.

Overall though the total number of branches and their robustness is very similar in both plants. I suppose the pinched-out one is marginally more compact, but I believe that if I had wanted a more compact plant I could have achieved this by much less drastic pruning. I sometimes do this anyway. If a plant is looking too straggly I trim off the tips of some of the branches. Where the cut is made two smaller branches form.

I won't bore you with photos of the third variety - "Cayenne Long Slim" - because the results were the same. Indeed I had three plants of this variety and they are so similar that I had to look at the labels to tell which was the one I had pinched out.

In conclusion, my experiment has convinced me that there is no special merit in pinching-out chilli plants, but no damage is done either. In future I propose to let the plants "do their thing" naturally, as I usually do.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Harvesting apples

How do you tell when apples are nearly ripe? Answer - "When the birds start pecking them"!

I've lost a couple of my apples in this way this week, and I only have a few so every one of them is precious. Today therefore, I picked all the remaining ones from my "Laxton's Superb" tree. They are mostly pretty small but this is probably because the tree is still a youngster (this is its third productive season).

However, I'm quite proud of the two big ones at the front. Although they are a good size they unfortunately lack the rosy blush that most of the others have, presumably because they have been shielded from direct sunlight.

To be honest, I'm not fussed if the apples are small, as long as they taste nice - you can always eat two if you want to! This variety tastes very much like the well-known "Cox's Orange Pippin" (commonly referred to these days as simply "Cox's"). The texture is good too - firm and crunchy but still juicy.

At the other side of my plot is my "Winter Banana" apple tree, whose fruit ripens about a month later than the "Laxton's Superb". This year it has a lot more fruit than ever before, although they are smaller this time.

I have been progressively thinning the fruit, but it appears I have not been ruthless enough because one of the tree's branches has snapped.

I have rescued the fruit from the snapped branch, in the hope that they will be edible. Do apples continue to ripen after picking, or do they just decay??

My final apple tree is the one which is supposedly a "Bramley". I say "supposedly" because I'm not convinced that it is. Certainly it's most unlike all the other "Bramleys" I have encountered!

These look to me more like "Granny Smith" than "Bramley"!

This tree is also relatively new - it produced its first fruit 2 years ago, and last year it had 3, none of which made it to maturity. This year it has had 9, but again I have lost some to the birds (probably the destructive and malicious Magpies!). I think they peck the fruit to see if it's ripe, and when they find that it isn't they just leave it. The hole they have made lets in rot though, and eventually wasps move in, so the apple is lost (to me as least).

Three of my nine "Bramleys" have been lost in this way, so I have picked the remaining six.

We are planning to cook these ones tomorrow, and then we shall find out for sure if they are "Bramleys" or not.  One of the hallmarks of a real "Bramley" is that unlike other apples it falls (disintegrates) completely when cooked.

For now though, I leave you with this picture of my basket filled with apples of all three types.

And the best thing is, I still have most of the "Winter Banana" ones to come - birds permitting...!

UPDATE: Cooked the apples today (16/09/19), and they did not fall, so definitely not "Bramleys". Nice apples nonetheless.

Friday, 13 September 2019

Brassica maintenance

In one of my raised beds I have 6 brassica plants - 4 Brussels Sprouts and 2 Purple Sprouting Broccoli. They have grown into very big specimens and are straining against the Enviromesh that is protecting them from the marauding Cabbage White butterflies.

The biggest one is probably about four feet tall now and is doing its best to lift the mesh skywards.

They say that the best time to repair your roof is while the sun is shining, so making use of the current spell of beautiful warm, sunny weather, I have applied this principle to my brassica bed.

Until now the plants have been supported by short (18-inch) sticks, but I'm conscious that it is probably not going to be long before we get the first of our Autumn gales, and 18-inch sticks will not be sufficient any more. So today I temporarily removed the mesh and put in some sturdy hardwood stakes, tying the plants to them with plenty of soft string.

Most of those stakes are several years old now, and I have used them again and again. At first sight they seem expensive at about £3 or £3.50 each, but it's a good investment, I assure you.

With the mesh removed, you can see how big these plants are. They are a good healthy colour too.

I wish I had some longer poles for my "cage-building set" - but if I had I would also need some wider Enviromesh!

While the mesh was off I took the opportunity to remove all of the yellow lower leaves from the plants, and to remove the few weeds that had managed to survive in the shadows. Removing dead leaves helps to prevent fungal diseases and eliminate hiding-places for slugs and snails.

I noticed that the soil beneath the plants was pretty dry, which was not surprising since we have had very little rain recently. Inevitably the Enviromesh material reduces the amount of rainfall that reaches the plants, and in any case the big leaves do tend to divert some of the rain outside the raised bed, so before replacing the mesh I gave the soil a really good soaking using the hosepipe. I'd like to leave the mesh off now in order to stop restricting the plant's growth, but there are still a fair few butterflies around and I think this would be premature, so back it went.

Incidentally, the sprouts on the Brussels Sprout plants are still miniscule, so it will be a long time before any are ready to eat!

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Autumn colours

Although it definitely feels like Autumn now, the weather has really suited many of the crops in my garden. It's still quite warm during the day, with a fair amount of sunshine, and night-time temperatures are still in double figures - good conditions for ripening fruit and veg!

My tomato harvest this year is another good one.

Many of my plants have produced an above-average yield, like this "Moneymaker" one:

I stopped it after it had produced 5 trusses, but I'm sure it would have produced plenty more if I had let it!

The most exciting new-to-me tomato variety I have grown this year is "Little Lucky", grown from seeds kindly provided for me by Craig LeHoullier in the USA. Its fruit (when ripe) are a lovely rich golden yellow. You can see some of them at the Bottom Right of this next photo:

The best bit is inside though - when you cut one open a deep flush of pink is revealed:

In terms of taste this variety is also a winner. I generally find yellow tomatoes to be disappointing, but this one isn't.

Continuing the colour theme, I've picked some more Borlotto beans:

My original intention was to keep the Borlotti for drying, but we ate a batch of them a few days ago as flageolets (in other words, immature beans. The pink pods are discarded). I cooked them separately in water until just tender (about 15 minutes) and warmed them up later in some homemade tomato sauce. They were so delicious that I just had to pick another batch!

Here's a little tip: beans like this will probably never go soft if you cook them in salty water or stock - they just remain hard. It's better to cook them in plain water and add them to your dish at a later stage.

This is an "Autumn colour" I hadn't expected to see:

It's a fruit on my "Pink Tiger" chilli plant, grown from seeds provided by Paul Speight of The Chilli Diaries. This plant was one of those hardest hit by the weedkiller-contaminated compost incident in the Spring, but it eventually recovered. I thought it was too late for it to produce any fruit, but I have been proved wrong. This week I discovered that it has about half a dozen tiny pink/purple fruits like this:

Fortunately lots of my other chillis are also ripening now. This is "Paper Lantern":

And this is "Cayenne" (a very fat one, evidently).

Some of the salads are joining in with the Autumn Colours theme too. This is Chinese Cabbage "Scarvita F1":

Interestingly, some of those cabbages are more purple than others...

My Chinese Cabbages are flanked by chicories and endives. At the rate all these things are growing that bed is going to be pretty crowded before long!

As the weather turns cooler, some of the chicories change colour, becoming progressively redder. This is one of the Radicchio-type ones which will eventually produce a tight heart of red leaves with white ribs.

One of the few veggies in my garden which bucks the red / orange / purple trend is the Crown Prince squash.

I'm almost wishing I had opted for a bright orange pumpkin!

Monday, 9 September 2019

Smoked tomatoes

The other day we had some so-called "Smokey Tomatoes" made by the company Belazu. They were very nice, but a 330g jar of them normally costs about £4.50, so with plenty of home-grown tomatoes available at present, I decided to make some myself. Fortunately I have a stove-top smoker. I described how it's used in a blogpost from March 2013, HERE.

For my first attempt at this I chose some just-ripe but still quite firm tomatoes (they were "Marmonde" ones).  I cut the tomatoes into segments and arranged them on the rack of the smoker, which I had previously sprayed with a mist of olive oil to stop them sticking.

This method of smoking doesn't cook the food, it just infuses it with smoke, and it needs to be cooked or dried afterwards. Never having smoked tomatoes before I had to estimate how long they would need. In the end I gave them 7 minutes. Here is the smoker with the lid on, doing its thing:

The lid fits very tightly and you only see a few wisps of smoke coming out, but it smells very strong - in a nice way.

After the tomatoes had had their 7 minutes in the smoker I lifted them onto one of the trays of my dehydrator and sprinkled them with dried Oregano for an extra depth of flavour.

Then the machine runs for a few hours, gently drying the fruit.

I didn't want my tomatoes to be completely dry, just semi-dry and still a bit squishy and pliable. The length of time that it takes to achieve this texture depends on many factors, so it is just a case of testing them now and then and leaving the machine to run until the desired result is reached. Mine took approximately 7 hours, after which they looked like this:

I put the finished tomatoes into a jar, adding a bit more dried Oregano, and poured in enough olive oil to completely cover them. Of course the tomatoes shrank quite a lot as they dehydrated, so this batch only part-filled one large jar.

So what do we think of the finished product? A big success I think, in terms of texture, taste and colour - soft and gooey, and with deep rich smoky but still tomatoey flavour - and just look at the lovely golden colour! I'll be making these again.