Monday, 13 August 2018

On the downward trend

My plot at Courtmoor Avenue is not looking as fully populated as it was a few weeks ago.


There is quite a bit of bare soil, now that the onions, shallots and potatoes have been harvested, and recent weather conditions have not been conducive to sowing any seeds to fill the gaps. In fact most of my Winter crops are already in. I have two rows each of 24 Leeks, a row of Parsnips, seven Brussels Sprout plants and several cabbages.

Leeks next to Beetroot

Most of the Leeks are this size

Brussels Sprout plants

Little sprouts forming

The cabbages are mostly under netting, as seen here, although the "January King" ones (left of photo) will soon be too big for this arrangement.


I do still have one cauliflower, but it is the world's weirdest one - it looks more like White Sprouting Broccoli.


I have recently seen stuff like this being sold in one of our local supermarkets, labelled "White Sprouting Broccoli", but I'm convinced it's just bolted cauliflowers!


As I reported a few days ago, I have harvested my shelling beans, and now I have also taken down the wigwam of canes that used to support them, since this will allow just a little extra light to reach the Brussels Sprouts. You can see the wigwam in my next photo (at the left), with the sprouts behind it, but if you scroll back to the first photo of this post, you see that it has gone.

In the foreground are Parsnips, Beetroot and Leeks

My Beetroot won't last into the Winter at the rate we're consuming them. Now that they are being thinned in this way, the remainder have finally got enough room to swell up more, like these ones:


The "Pumpkin Patch" is definitely looking a bit tired now. The first thing I notice whenever I arrive at the plot is how droopy the leaves of the squash plants are!


Fortunately, once the plants get a drink they perk up pretty rapidly, often within minutes. The fruits are still looking fine, although not yet ripe. I have been getting advice from various Twitter friends on how to tell when a squash is ripe, so I'm confident that my ones have some way to go yet - particularly the Butternuts, whose skins are still fairly pale and soft. One test of ripeness that I have learned is to try pushing a thumbnail into the skin of the squash. If you can penetrate the skin easily, the squash is not ripe. The skin should be hard and rigid. I'm expecting my squashes to be ready by mid to late September, and since at present there are 11 respectable fruits they should keep us supplied for many weeks thereafter.

Butternut Squash "Sweetmax"

The three tomato plants that are in amongst the squashes have some fruits on them too, though not as many nor as big as their siblings growing in containers in my own garden. Like everything else at the plot, they have had to make do with less-than-ideal amounts of water.


The single "Mountain Magic" tomato plant that ended up in amongst the Dwarf beans and New Zealand Spinach also seems to have done well enough. It has set a lot of fruits, but again they are smaller than those on the one I have in my home garden. I didn't pinch out or tie-in the sideshoots of this plant so they have grown tall and flopped over. Lying on the ground like this their fruit will be very vulnerable to slug attack, something I shall have to be wary of, given the recent rain.

Tomato "Mountain Magic"

Tomato "Mountain Magic"

I'm not yet saying that Autumn is here, but my plot has a definite end of season look to it. However, we have had a bit of rain over the last few days (at last), so maybe things will perk up a bit.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Sweet Chilli Sauce

A couple of days ago I picked this year's first batch of ripe chillis.


The large red ones are a type of "Cayenne", the small red ones are "Aji Benito" and the solitary yellow one is a "Golden Cayenne".

The total weight of those chillis was 233g, which was just a little short of the ideal quantity (250g) for making a batch of our favourite Sweet Chilli Sauce. I decided to go ahead anyway, and just reduce the quantities of the other ingredients by a small amount.

If you want the recipe for this sauce you can find it HERE, but for the purposes of my post today I'll paraphrase it. By the way, we usually make a half-quantity because I can seldom produce 500g of homegrown chillis all at once.

The chillis are prepped by removing the stalks and seeds, and then roughly chopped. You can use any type of chilli you like - mild, hot or atomic - but we don't like the atomic ones so I made this sauce with fairly mild ones. This is a sweet chilli sauce after all, not a Hot Sauce, so it doesn't need a huge amount of heat.


The only other ingredients required are a couple of cloves of garlic (optional), caster sugar and white vinegar. [NB: NOT malt vinegar or pickling vinegar, nor indeed white wine vinegar!]


The chillis are then blitzed for a few seconds in a food-processor, along with the garlic and a third of the white vinegar. This reduces them to a coarse pulp.

The pulp is then poured into a large saucepan with the caster sugar and the other two thirds of the vinegar. It is stirred gently over a low heat for about 5 minutes to dissolve the sugar, then brought to the boil.


Next, you turn down the heat and simmer the mixture gently for about 35 - 40 minutes. You will know when the sauce is ready because it changes to a much deeper colour and thickens to a sort of "jammy" texture which resists the spoon when you stir it. Don't cook it for too long though because you don't want to caramelise the sugar.

When the sauce is ready, allow it to cool before decanting it into sterilised glass jars. I think you'll agree that this particular batch of sauce is a beautiful colour! It filled two small jars.


You can use this sauce immediately, but it will keep (in sealed jars) in the fridge for several months if it really must!

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Shelling-beans

By the term "shelling-beans" I mean the type of bean that you grow not for their pods, but for the beans inside them. When mature, the pods are dried and then split open or "shelled". The beans keep very well and are traditionally stored for use during the Winter when fresh vegetables are scarcer.


On Tuesday I harvested my shelling beans. The timing of this was dictated largely by the weather forecast. After weeks and weeks of hot dry weather, we had been promised a few days of slightly cooler temperatures and some light rain. My beans were definitely mature, and many of the pods were already dry, so I felt that rain might not do them any good - in fact the pods might split open, causing me to lose the beans. So, for better or for worse, I picked the beans.

This year I have two types. The first is "Cherokee Trail Of Tears", which have been growing up a wigwam of 7ft bamboo canes on my Courtmoor Avenue plot. With the prolonged hot dry weather, the bean plants have struggled, and I think they have matured a lot earlier than they would have done if we had had more rain. By this first week of August they had lost almost all their leaves.


However, there was still a fair few pods, particularly up at the tops of the plants, and the lack of leaves made the pods much easier to see.


The pods begin their life being green, but as they mature they change colour, though not always to the same colour. Some go pink, some go purple, some are very speckly, some are quite plain, but in the end they all dry to a buff / brown colour.



I took my big harvesting-basket with me for this task and when I had finished picking the Cherokee beans it was already half full.


I then moved to the second type of bean, which are the "Tunny" beans. They have been growing up 8ft bamboo poles incorporated in my main bean-support contraption. In this next photo you can see them between the Cherokees' wigwam and the much-greener Runner Beans, with the red flowers.


Again, I found that a large proportion of the bean-pods were high up on the plants. I don't know why this is. Perhaps the higher-up flowers were more visible / accessible to the bees and therefore the pollination rate was better??


The pods of this type of bean look very knobbly, because the beans inside are very prominent.


When I had picked all of this type, my basket was about two-thirds full.


Of course, when the pods are shelled, the beans inside will occupy a much smaller space - there will probably be less than 500g all told. Still, there is something deeply satisfying about this type of bean - especially when you can lift out your little stash of them in January or February and use them to make a nice warming soup or stew!


Not all these pods are completely dry, so I plan to give them a few days either outside in the sun, or (if it's rainy) indoors in the airing-cupboard, before I start shelling them. However, just for this post, here's a sneak preview of what each type looks like...

Black = Cherokee Trail Of Tears, Pink/white = Tunny

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

It's Tomato time!

I love growing vegetables, but the crop I look forward to most is the tomato. There is something magical about watching the green fruits slowly change colour. At first just a little hint of yellow maybe, and then with increasing speed, (though it seems like agonising slowness) the colour suffuses the whole fruit!


Usually it is the small tomatoes that ripen first. For the past ten days or so I have been picking a batch almost every day. These are a mixture of "Montello" (plum-shaped) and "Maskotka" (round):


These little tomatoes are lovely eaten raw (we often have some as a nibble before dinner in the evening), but with so many available we can afford to be more adventurous. This week I have semi-dried a few in the dehydrator. This concentrates the flavour and produces a soft sticky texture. Before dehydrating them I sprinkled this batch with some salt and dried Oregano, so you can imagine they were pretty damned tasty!


I also made some into a soup. This recipe, which I got from my long-time blogging / Facebook friend David Offutt, involves cooking the tomatoes in olive oil with onions and Basil and then blitzing them. The resulting liquid is sieved to remove the seeds and then chilled in the fridge. It makes a beautiful silky concoction as tangy and refreshing as the well-known Gazpacho.



The chilled soup is garnished with diced raw (homegrown) vegetables, and a sourdough crouton.


This was probably the best soup I've ever had - certainly the best one I've ever made!

Meanwhile, the first of the "large" tomatoes are beginning to ripen now, such as this "Super Marmande" one:


It's not 100% ripe yet. It just needs a little bit longer. After all this time, it's not worth compromising on flavour for the sake of a day or two! My plan for that particular tomato involves some Mozzarella and Basil - the classic insalata Caprese combination.

On a similar note, the first of the "Larisa" toms is just about ready, and when it is I plan to pair it with some Mozzarella Burrata, which is another wonderful combination, especially if accompanied by a slice of freshly-made sourdough bread.


We were pleasantly surprised to find these little 160g pots of Burrata for sale in our local Morrisons.


If you are not familiar with Burrata, I urge you to try it; it's delicious!

While I'm on the subject of tomatoes, I just want to mention these:-


In that photo you can see 3 small tomato plants. These are ones which I grew from pinched-out sideshoots, rooted in water. Once rooted (it only takes a few days) they were planted into pots of soil and now they have been transplanted into the ground at my Courtmoor plot. Yes, it is late to be planting tomatoes, but hey, 2018 has been a strange year so far, so who's to say we won't have another two months of Summer, enabling these plants to mature and deliver a crop of some sort? I think there's nothing to lose.

Since the weather is blazing hot again and we have had no more rain, I gave the plants as good a start as I possibly could. I dug a planting-hole and filled it with water and even before the water had drained away I dunked the plant in it and backfilled with soil! I then made a little moat for each one and filled that with water too.


So maybe the tomato season will last into October this year, eh?

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Is it worth over-Wintering chillis?

For the past several years I have kept some of my chilli plants through the Winter, and re-potted them the following Spring. To be honest, it is always a struggle. They often get seriously infested with aphids; many (usually at least 50%) of them die (often for inexplicable reasons), and at best you have to worry all Winter about maintaining them at the right level of temperature and soil-hydration. Why do we chilli enthusiasts inflict this upon ourselves? The theory is that the mature plant will do better in its second (and possibly subsequent) year(s); it will be bigger and stronger, and perhaps most importantly it will produce ripe fruit earlier than plants grown from seed in the second season. But is this true? Heresy though this may be, I'm not convinced...

This past year, my over-Wintered chillis did better than usual, largely because I used a self-watering system marketed by Blumat to keep them evenly hydrated. I described it HERE.


Even with the aid of these devices, I still lost 3 of my 8 plants. To be fair, 2 of the 3 casualties were ones which had not had the benefit of the Blumat self-watering things (I only had six, as pictured above).

I have to admit that by the time Spring came around, even the surviving chilli plants didn't look great.


The plants didn't have a lot of leaves, and those that there were mostly had yellow edges and dry brown patches. I had had to trim off quite a few dead branches. Overall the plants were not in good shape. That photo was taken on 19th April, that's to say two months after I sowed the seeds for my other 2018 chillis.

It took a long time (and several doses of feed) for the over-Wintered plants to regain their vigour. The very cold spells we had in the Spring ("The Beast From The East" etc) didn't help. Luckily, from about May onwards the weather has been hot and sunny, perfect conditions for chillis. They are now good-quality plants. Only three of the five have fruits on them though, which means that it is unlikely that the others will produce any ripe fruit this year. Admittedly, they are both plants originally grown from seeds obtained in countries with very hot, humid climates - Panama and Mexico - so maybe even our 30C+ temperatures during July weren't sufficiently warm for their liking.

The other 3 plants have plenty of fruit on them, but I have noticed some differences, compared to normal. One of the plants is an Aji Limon, and this year its fruits are much bigger and fatter than previously:

Aji Limon over-Wintered from 2017 - very fat pods

This (below) is more like what I expect from Aji Limon. It's on the same plant.

Aji Limon over-Wintered from 2017 - a more normal pod

I have another Aji Limon plant, grown from seed sown this year, and its fruits are much slimmer, as is normal for this variety.

Aji Limon grown from seed in 2018

Curiously, the opposite has happened with Aji Benito. The over-Wintered plant has produced fruits which are a lot smaller and mostly a lot slimmer than it produced last year.

Aji Benito over-Wintered from 2017

An Aji Benito grown from seed this year has more normal fruits - wedge-shaped and very chunky.

Aji Benito grown from seed in 2018

In terms of fruiting, the over-Wintered Aji Limon and Aji Benito are probably a couple of weeks ahead of their equivalents grown from seed this year. The over-Wintered plants are also perhaps a little bigger than the 2018 ones, but not much, and the 2017 ones may yet catch up. The Aji Limons for instance are both in the region of 75cm tall, though the 2017 one is a bit bushier than the 2018 one. Here's a size comparison:


Aji Limon 2017 plant (it's the one at the back, nearest the netting)


Aji Limon grown from seed this year.

Since it is still only the first week of August and there is plenty of ripening-time left, I'm not sure that such a small difference is sufficient reward for all the TLC I have given those plants since last Autumn!

I can't complain about their colleague "Not Cheiro Roxa" though. It has really romped away and is now a very handsome plant, nicely shaped, with lovely dusky foliage and loads of gnarly / rugged fruits which will be bright red once they are ripe.

"Not Cheiro roxa"

"Not Cheiro Roxa"

My conclusion is that over-Wintering chillis can give an advantage in terms of earliness of harvest, but I don't think it is a big advantage, and it may be outweighed by the care requirements necessary to achieve it. Will I try over-Wintering some chillis again this year? I don't know. Maybe I will, maybe I won't... It depends how I feel at the time, I suppose!