Tuesday 31 August 2010

Our Furry Friends

I went out into the garden this morning to take a quick look around before going to work... It was a classic Autumn morning. Not cold in the Winter sense of the term, but definitely chilly (my car thermometer read 6 degrees as I drove off). It was also misty. The visibility in our area was only about 50 metres at 7o'clock, although by the time I got onto the Motorway the sun was already beginning to break through. My initial reaction therefore was positive -- it seemed like a nice day. But then I noticed that the foxes had been busy overnight...

My precious salad bed was a scene of devastation! Something had been digging around with gay abandon, and there were lettuces and endives upended all over the place.

The scene of devastation

Lettuces uprooted left, right and centre

Now I'm not absolutely sure who the culprits were, but I blame the foxes for this. I have never seen them at it, but I have read that foxes root around in the soil searching for worms. In the past I had thought that this sort of damage was most likely caused by badgers, which are powerful animals and capable of serious destruction in a small garden. I know that there are badgers in our area because my brother, who lives only a couple of hundred metres from us, has seen them, but in all honesty I have not. On the other hand, I have frequently seen foxes in my garden -- in broad daylight. In fact, this evening, when I was writing this article, a fox sidled up to the French Window, about 2 metres from where I am sitting, and peered into our Living Room. The cheek of it! Was he apologising for last night's orgy of destruction, or just gloating??? When I stood up suddenly and grabbed my camera, he beat a hasty retreat. Let's hope he is not in the mood for worms tonight...

I'm as keen as the next man to preserve our wildlife heritage, but  (call it selfish if you like) having foxes destroy my veg patch is insufferable, so I tend to think of foxes as vermin! But what can I do to deter them? "Not a lot" is the answer. I put a few sticks in the ground next to my most delicate specimens, but in truth this is not likely to deter a hungry fox, so it is really just a matter of luck.

Domestic pets, specifically cats, are another serious nuisance. I must admit that until recently we were cat owners, and have derived a lot of pleasure from these animals. However, when they decide that my precious raised beds are actually cat toilets, then I begin to be less of an animal-lover. When I have young seedlings on the go, especially in the Spring-time, I often go to great lengths to protect them from cat damage, for instance by covering them with nets suspended over hoops. But that's a story for another time...

So, (dressed in my suit and tie, ready for work) I set to to effect some hasty repairs -- feverishly sticking those poor lettuces back in the soil and watering them in. If I don't do it until the evening when I get home they will probably not pull through, but swift action now may save them. If they do survive to maturity, they will have done well! Some of my seedlings must have endured such an ordeal several times, but most of them will be OK in the long run, and only a few will succumb. Isn't this the story of the Gardener's life? A constant battle of wits against Nature (i.e. disease, pests and wildlife)?

The lettuces upright once more!

Damage repaired!

On the bright side though, this morning I had one sympathetic witness to my efforts to restore order to the battered salad bed -- a baby robin. Over the last couple of weeks, I have seen this bird a lot. It is obviously a recent fledgeling; gangly and ungainly, fluffy, about twice the size of an adult robin. But completely unfazed by the presence of a human. It follows me around the garden hovering at only an arm's length, watching for the opportunity to sieze a worm that has been brought to the surface by my weeding activities. It sits there with its head cocked to one side eyeing me up with faintly amused expression, as if wondering how anything could be so inefficient! You wait, Matey; you'll be grateful for all those seeds I put out for you lot in the Winter time, and that bread I put on the bird-table to keep you from starving! [I haven't got a photo of this young robin yet, but it's not for want of trying...]

Monday 30 August 2010

Butternut Squash and Apple soup

Making soup is a very pleasurable experience for me - I find it very therapeutic!

This is the soup I made today. I reckon it is pretty appropriate for the time of year. Although the main ingredients (Butternut Squash and Cooking Apples) were not actually from my garden, these are fruit and veg that are in their prime in England in late August / early September, and are widely available. The apples were from that massive batch given to us by our friend Rosemary. My garden contributed a solitary chilli to this recipe (if you discount the herbs that went into the stock).

Since this is supposed to be a gardening blog (Ha Ha!), I'm not going to give detailed quantities / timings / temperatures etc for the recipe, just some general advice. When making soup I tend not to worry too much about precise quantities anyay, I just do it by "instinct"...

Step 1. Get some good stock (plan ahead here). I suppose bottled "bouillon" or a stock cube would do, but I think good home-made stock is the key to a good soup. We had a roast chicken for dinner on Saturday evening, so yesterday I made some stock with the carcass -- and some herbs from the garden (including a few leaves from the Celeriac which adds a nice bit of "umami".)

Home-made chicken stock

Step 2. Assemble the other ingredients. A whole Butternut Squash; a few cooking apples (I used about 300g peeled weight); a large onion; one small chilli, or half a big one; about 1 litre of good stock; some oil; salt and pepper. You'll need a big knife to prepare the squash.

The assembled ingredients
Step 3. Peel and roughly chop the onions. Cut the chilli and remove seeds and inner membrane. Reserve both for later.

Onions and Chilli prepared

Step 4. Quarter the squash. Remove seeds and stringy membranes from the interior. Place it in a roasting pan. Coat it with a little oil, and grind a bit of black pepper onto it.

The Butternut Squash ready for the oven

Step 5. Roast the squash in the oven (about 200 degrees) for about 45 minutes, or until it looks a bit caramelised at the edges -- like this...

Butternut Squash roasted

Step 6. Meanwhile, peel, core and roughly chop the apples and place in a small saucepan with about a tablespoonful of water.

Apples ready to be cooked

Step 7. Cook the apples over a low heat for just a few minutes, until they fall, and make a nice fluffy puree. [NB: Dessert apples will not fall like this.]

Apples cooked

Step 8. When the squash is cooked, the skin will be "blistered" and will hopefully look like this.

Butternut squash ready for skinning
Step 9. Skin the squash. Dicard the skin, keep the flesh. (Obviously!). Chop the flesh into roughly 5cm cubes.

Butternut squash peeled and roughly chopped
Step 10. Sweat the chopped onions in a large saucepan over a low heat for a few minutes, so that they soften but do not colour-up.

Onions cooking

Step 11. Put the stock into the saucepan with the onions and chilli, along with the roughly chopped Butternut Squash. Bring it to a slow boil.

Stock, squash and chilli added

Step 12. After a few minutes, add the apple puree. You can also add salt and pepper to taste.

The apples added
Step 13. (It would be Step 13, wouldn't it? Unlucky for some..) It's at this point that I have to confess I lost the plot a bit and forgot to photograph the rest of the proceedings! I shall describe them in words therefore.

Step 13 then. Bring the pan to the boil, and simmer gently for about half an hour. The texture will still be fairly chunky, but all the ingredients will be soft.

Step 14. Turn off the heat and let the mixture cool for a few minutes.

Step 15. Liquidise the soup in a blender or food-processor, or using a stick blender, until smooth, and return  it to the rinsed saucepan.

Step 16. Warm the soup up when you are ready to eat it. Serve with fresh crusty (home-made?) bread. Enjoy!

Bank Holiday ramblings

Spent most of the time in the kitchen today... I made another batch of Tomatillo salsa.

Tomatillo salsa going into the oven

Tomatillo salsa -- the finished article

I also cooked a nice Autumny Apple and Butternut Squash soup. I'll do a separate Blog-post about this later on. I'm planning to finish the day by cooking a Mexican-ish Pork and Black Bean casserole, so you can see I'm giving Jane a rest from cooking today. [Actually, not so -- she made fresh bread!]

Emma, Dave and Lara (the Button family) came over for lunch today, so we demolished the soup with the home-made bread that Jane had made. Lara ate some of the soup, but was more interested in the raw fruit and veg I had assembled for her delectation...

Lara's lunch

After lunch Lara made a tour of inspection in the garden.

Lara is obviously impressed by the Cavollo Nero
Lara makes a close inspection of the newly-planted Chicory
Lara admires the Chillis

After the Button family had left, there was time for a few jobs in the garden. The Sungella tomato plant needed some attention. You can see that although we have had plenty of fruit off this plant already, there is still a lot left. I have had to lean the plant against the French Window to stop it falling over.

Sungella still laden with fruit

Taking a closer look at the plant I noticed that a big side-shoot had appeared at the top, just near where I had "pinched-out" the plant to stop it growing any taller.

A big sideshoot on the Sungella plant

I have followed recognised good practice and removed this sideshoot. I don't want the plant putting energy into creating leaves at this late stage of the season -- I want it to concentrate on ripening its fruit.

Sideshoot  gone!

The sideshoot removed

I also pinched-out the flowers forming on the Basil plants on the Dining Room windowsill, for the same reason. If you remove the flowers the plants will put on some more leaf.

Basil flower removed

I also had a close look at the Dwarf Beans, to see whether I could pick some from the new batch. Not ready just yet, but nearly.

Delinel French Beans -- nearly ready

August 30th

Bank Holiday Monday, yippee!  And the sun's shining??? This can't be right. It's never sunny on a Bank Holiday, is it?

Up early this morning (as usual), so I ventured out into the garden at about 0730 to make the most of the photographic opportunities offered by the wonderful light conditions, with big contrasts between sun and shade. Here are some of the photos I took...

Spinach Mikado
Lettuce Batavian Red
Cavollo Nero
Chilli Serrano
Blueberry foliage
Basil - (Beginning to flower, needs pinching out!)

Hair-nets or Pear-nets?

I have a Conference pear tree in the garden. It is only a Minarette so it's never going to produce a massive crop I suppose. This year it has the grand total of FIVE fruits! However, they say that quality is more important than quantity, and a couple of the developing fruits look like very fine specimens. Because of this I am quite keen to ensure that the birds don't steal the pears before I have a chance to pick them (as happened last year!).

Conference pears approaching maturity

What do you think of this bird-deterrent ploy? I have used the nets from some packs of lemons and limes to make "hair-nets" for the fruit. Light and air will be able to reach the fruits, but the birds will be deterred (maybe). You will see that I have left some bits of the labels still attached in order to enhance the bird-scaring effect of these things. I'll let you know how it works out...

The "Pear-nets" in place

Notice the label proclaiming "Bumper pack" -- I wish!

As a footnote: I had always thought of Conference as being self-fertile, but I have read recently that it is only partially self-fertile, and that it will benefit from the presence of another tree for cross-pollination. Maybe this is why although my tree often has plenty of blossom, not many fruits actually set. Many of the fruitlets go yellow and fall off at a very early stage -- presumably because they have not been pollinated. Perhaps I should invest in another tree?? Does anyone know about this sort of thing...?

Sunday 29 August 2010

Around the world in 80 plates

Hmmmm... My blog is mainly about gardening (I think), but I'm not going to apologise for making a few diversions. The item is about two things: showing off some more pictures of my veg; and giving some air-time to some of the wonderful bowls, plates and pots that Jane and I have acquired on our travels around the world over the last 30 years or so. Instead of buying the usual tacky holiday souvenirs when we go abroad, we try to buy a piece of pottery from each place we visit -- preferably locally-made. Thereafter, whenever we use them we reminisce about those moments from the past. We do use many of these items quite a lot, but these days we have so many that some of them seldom see the light of day, and have to remain in a cupboard somewhere. This is their moment of glory!

The first one is my personal favourite. It is a small (10cm) dish, made in Napier, New Zealand. We bought it in a shop in Day's Bay, across the bay from Wellington. I remember the day well, because crossing the bay on a stormy day in a very small boat was quite exciting!

The Sunflower dish from Day's Bay, Wellington, NZ
Olive bowl, Jersey Pottery
A large platter from Guernsey Pottery

Two little leaf-shaped bowls from Penang, Malaysia
Another Penang bowl, this time in the shape of a Scallop shell

A striking blue plate from Prague, Czech Republic

Another Prague item -- a bowl bought to match the big plate
A heart-shaped dish from Jaipur, Rajasthan
Another Jaipur dish, with some chillis this time
Another Jaipur one
This one was bought in the Rocks area, Sydney, Australia
An English one for a change -- New Forest Pottery
Another New Forest Pottery item
This one is from Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands
This is from somewhere in the Cotswolds -- don't remember exactly where!
A North African dish -- a gift not a souvenir...
A small Moroccan-style dish -- actually bought in San Francisco!
The "Anthurium" dish from Ocho Rios, Jamaica
A double-headed mythological bird from Panama -- is it a "Quetzal"??
A peasant-style dish from Tulum, near Cancun, Mexico
A Japanese dish -- but a gift from a visitor to New York!
A piece of German Walther glassware bought in St.Wolfgang, Austria
A couple of little dishes from La Croix Valmer, Provence
A more impressive bowl from La Croix Valmer -- our 30th Wedding Anniversary present to ourselves
An Australian Sandstone dish, a gift from our friend Rosemary
A simple Chinese dish from See Woo in Reading -- definitely not a holiday souvenir!!
A little Chinese dish from Hong Kong, showing off a Tomatillo skeleton
A Susie Cooper serving plate -- made in 1939 -- inherited from my Father
A chutney dish from my Army days -- showing the crest of 7th Gurkha Rifles
On the crest of a wave -- a fine piece from Te-Papa museum, Wellington, NZ
A piece of Gmundener Keramik, from Austria
Another Gmundener Keramik piece -- bought this one in Vienna
Poole Pottery - not a holiday souvenir, but nice anyway!
Home-grown apples on a Portmeirion platter
A selection of olive bowls -- the one on the right is from Aix-en-Provence
Olive dish -- about 10cm square
Small Chinese dish from Hong Kong
Soy sauce dishes -- Hong Kong
Chinese rice-bowl -- Hong Kong

You probably noticed thay my tomatoes got tired of posing for more photos, and I lapsed into just photgraphing the dishes on their own... Anyway, I hope you enjoyed looking at these as much as I enjoyed photographing them.