Monday 30 April 2012

Chard in the kitchen

"Chard" that is, not "charred"!

Yesterday I wrote about trying to use up my Chard and Perpetual Spinach in order to make space for my Three Sisters plants. Well, here's what I did with some of the Chard. I think I mentioned previously that Jane is not keen on Chard, so since Jane is presently away looking after her Mum, I used some of it in a meal just for myself. The starting point was these two plants.

Individually they were not very big, but when disassembled each one provided several big leaves with bright white stems and glossy deep green outer parts.

In the centre of each was a small cluster of delicate little new leaves with pink-tinged stalks.

I used most of the green parts in lieu of Saag (or spinach) in a curry dish. Chard is good for this because the leaves retain more texture than spinach does, which for me is a desirable feature. My dish featured Butternut Squash, (home-grown) Borlotti beans and the Chard leaves, cooked in stock thickened with coconut milk.

Actually this dish had to be cooked in three phases: the dried beans were soaked for several hours then boiled until tender; then I simmered the squash in the coconut-infused stock; then I added the Chard leaves a couple of minutes before serving.

Alongside this dish I served some stir-fried beef which had been marinated in Indian-style spices. The beef was actually a couple of very thinly-sliced "sandwich steaks" which needed rapid cooking - hence the stir-fry method. Before adding the beef I cooked in the wok a sliced medium onion, using a spoonful of rapeseed oil. I also used a spoonful of the coconut-flavoured broth from the vegetable dish to give the beef dish the right texture.

With these two dishes I served some plain Basmati rice, so this is what the assembled meal looked like before I waded in:

Seen finally in close-up...

Of course I still have the Chard stalks to use. They will keep for several days in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, so probably one day later this week I'll braise them and serve them in a creamy cheese sauce. Oh, and I kept the tiny inner leaves for use as a salad ingredient...

Sunday 29 April 2012

Brassicas in; Chard out

This year I am experimenting with some different crops - like shallots and garlic, and the Three Sisters plants. This has of course meant less space for some of the other things. I have only been able to allocate to the Brassica family half of one of my raised beds. Yesterday, in between the heavy showers of rain, I found an opportunity to plant it up with these:

 Three Brussels Sprouts ("Brilliant") [centre], four Red cabbage ("Primero") and four summer green cabbage ("Golden Acre"). The individual seedlings were planted nice and deep, and the soil pressed in very firmly around them. If the weather had not been so wet I would have watered them in too. I have given each plant a "Brassica collar" to protect it against the Cabbage Root Fly.

These things provide a physical barrier so that the female flies cannot lay their eggs in the soil close to the seedlings. Afterwards I covered the whole bed with a net to keep the foxes off it, and sprinkled on a few slug-pellets. So a triple layer of defences then!

I also have a few Kohlrabi ("Modrava") and Summer Broccoli ("Matsuri") seedlings coming on. Where on earth I am going to put them remains unclear. Fortunately the Broccoli is a miniature version, so presumably won't take up too much space. I might be able to squeeze in the odd one or two plants here and there - or perhaps grow them in large pots.

In a week or two I will be sowing seed for next year's Sprouting Broccoli, and for Cavolo Nero, but I am deliberately leaving this until a bit later this year, in the hope that I may miss the worst of the Cabbage Root Fly season.  These crops will initially be grown in pots, and transplanted later, when the Broad Beans and Peas have finished.

I am currently trying to use up the Swiss Chard and Perpetual Spinach - both still going strong from last year - because I need space for the Three Sisters bed. So whereas normally I would only pick a few leaves from each plant, today I took out a couple of whole plants:

These plants are not huge - not much bigger than Pak Choi actually - but I still have another four in the ground, as well as about the same amount of Perpetual Spinach.

Opportunities to use them are comparitively rare since Jane doesn't like either of them, and it seems silly to cook separate meals when there are only the two of us to cater for. I tend to use it most often for a lunchtime snack at the weekends, served perhaps like this...

In my post tomorrow I will show you how I cooked some of it this weekend.

Saturday 28 April 2012

Seedling protection

First, an apology for my low profile in the blogging world over the last few days. A combination of factors has prevented me visiting or commenting on other blogs: Jane is away from home for a few days, supporting her mother who has been sick; our daughter Emma is due to deliver her second baby any time now; and I have been commuting to London for work purposes.

Gardeners are ingenious people, and experience shows that it's usually worth going to a fair bit of trouble if you want to preserve your little plants from damage inflicted both by weather and by animals.

This is a view of one of my raised beds, in which I am growing parsnips and beetroot. I divided the bed into two sections, each of 1.2 metres, which is half the length of the bed, and approximately the length of the "Longrow" cloches I have. I sowed seeds in one half about a month before the other half, with the idea being to stagger the harvest period.

The seeds in the part of the bed furthest from the camera have not yet germinated, but they are being warmed and protected from animal damage by the cloches. NB: It is necessary to remove the cloche and water the soil occasionally, to stop it getting too dry.

Meanwhile, in the part of the bed nearest the camera, the parsnip and beetroot seedlings are now a couple of inches tall and no longer need protection from the weather. On the other hand they are still very vulnerable to damage by animals (in my case foxes and cats), so I have protected them with a piece of chicken wire held in place with some pegs. The relative rigidity of the wire means I have been able to bend it in such a way as to keep it above the tops of the seedlings.



The other day I thinned-out the beetroot. You know, don't you, that each knobbly little beetroot "seed" is actually a cluster of 5 or 6 seeds? When they germinate it is best to remove all but the strongest one from each cluster, to allow room for expansion. [You can of course leave them all in place, but you will just get a clump of much smaller roots.]. I didn't want to waste all the thinnings, so I re-planted some of the best ones between the two rows, so I have now effectively got three rows.

My Broad Beans and peas are still under a net, although they are getting towards the stage when they will be big enough to look after themselves:

I recently put in six tall hardwood stakes, which are currently supporting the net, but in due course will have string attached to them, for supporting the beans.

The Shallots and Garlic are also under a net - again to thwart the foxes, rather than to provide protection against the elements. If you're thinking "there's a lot of spare net", it's because I sometimes use this net over some much higher posts, so I don't want to cut it. I just weigh down the excess with some spare bricks.

Nothing to do with crop-protection, but here's a couple of pics of my "reserves" of shallots and garlic, planted in pots and kept ready in case of the need to replace casualties:

Shallots "Jermor"

It's beginning to look as if I won't need the spares, so I shall just grow them on in those pots and see how they do.

Here are the Brassica seedlings, waiting to be planted out in a few days' time - still in pots so that they can be moved under cover to protect them from the worst of the weather:

Brussels Sprouts, Green Cabbage and Red Cabbage

I read a lovely thing in the paper this week: "...I am sitting indoors listening to the drought lashing against our wind-panes".   The start of our water restrictions on 5 April was the cue for the start of one of the wettest periods for a very long time! We have been told that even if rains from now until December, the hosepipe ban will remain in place. What a depressing thought.

Friday 27 April 2012

Hops, Maples and salads

The Golden Hop (Humulus Aureus) is beginning to take off. I grow it mainly as a fence-covering, using it to obscure some of the less-than-lovely larchlap fence panels.

The plant dies down completely in the Winter and I remove all the old dried-up stems. In the Spring it starts all over again. It is very vigorous and the stems grow several metres long in the space of a couple of months. I try to train then along some wires, but they have minds of their own and they usually end up in a complicated tangle.

A point to note though: Golden Hop spreads very easily and puts out very strong almost rope-like roots, so it is hard to eradicate it if you change your mind. I reckon it's best to dig up a bit of it each year in order to ensure that it doesn't get too well-established.

The other day I mentioned that seeds of my Bronze Maple tree are germinating all over the garden. These develop into very attractive little seedlings, so I have potted-up a few - "just in case".... Just in case of what, I'm not really sure. I can't see myself planting another maple tree any time soon, but maybe a friend would like them?

Elsewhere in the garden the Baby Leaf Salad is coming on nicely, growing in one of the wooden wine boxes that I got from Majestic Wines:

This salad is a Californian Mix from Sutton's. The pack doesn't list the contents, but it evidently includes Rocket, Spinach and various types of Kale. I think the spiky one might be Red Russian Kale.

I think it's time for me to sample it now. I just have to decide what to have it with it. What do you recommend?

Thursday 26 April 2012


This one is a Fresher, in the sense of a "Freshman" - a newcomer to the scene...

A few days ago I took delivery of a new Blueberry plant (type unknown), which was a special offer from the BBC Good Food magazine - "free, just pay £3.95 P and P" or whatever. It's not very big (that's a 7-inch pot I've put it in), but it looks healthy and strong.

Since the plant arrived in a very small pot, inside a cardboard box, I was keen to get it potted-up and out into the open air as soon as possible. After potting it up and watering it, I introduced it to its new colleagues - the Seniors, who are already four or five years old.

As you can see in this photo, I have my Blueberries growing in big pots ranged close against the wall of our house. This is for two reasons: first, it is warmer (the house-bricks work like a massive storage heater, retaining warmth during the day and releasing it slowly overnight); and second, it keeps them more out of the way of the pesky Blackbirds (which only risk coming close to the house when the lure of ripe berries is too strong to resist).

In the photo below you can see the new plant (red arrow) taking its place in the line-up, which includes all four of my mature Blueberry plants.

Just so that the new plant understands what is required of it, I think maybe I should show it this picture from last year...

Blueberries are a good thing to grow. They require only minimal maintenance, take up very little space and usually produce a worthwhile crop of fruit as well as exquisitely beautiful foliage in the Autumn. A point to note though is that they need an acid soil. For this reason it is often best to grow them in pots filled with ericaceous (or "lime-free") compost, which is easily obtained from a Garden Centre. For the same reason, watering the plants with rainwater as opposed to tapwater (which may have added minerals in it) is advised.

While we're on the subject of newcomers, take a look at this.

Some weeks ago I sowed a few pots with the chilli seeds I brought back from Turkey last year. Only two germinated, and they took ages (much longer than my other types of chilli). This is what they look like now:

 The others I gave up as failures and sowed some more seeds in the same pots - several seeds in each in fact, because I was expecting a poor germination rate again. Eventually one or two came up (which I assumed to be from the second sowing), but now all of a sudden each of the little pots has got four or five seedlings in it. So these new ones must be from the second sowing, and the slightly bigger ones must therefore be from the first sowing, germinating now after about 7 weeks!

Chilli seedling "hatching"
After such a slow start I'm thinking my "Turkey" chillis are probably going to be very disappointed with our UK Summer. Their parents were probably used to having temperatures in the high 40s (C that is, not F). Maybe I will never get them to bear fruit - but it will be fun trying!

Wednesday 25 April 2012


The type of weather we have had recently presents big challenges to the gardener and the photographer. From the gardener's point of view, you never know what the weather is going to do: one minute it is bright and warm(ish); next minute it's windy and tipping it down with really heavy rain - or in some cases, hail. I am so glad of the protection that my mini-greenhouses offer, because this sort of weather can be lethal for young seedlings. I dare not leave them outside unprotected, so the mini-greenhouses with their zip-up front panels are ideal.

From the photgrapher's point of view, the stark contrast between light and shade can provide some dramatic shots, but it makes photographing "ordinary" things quite difficult, and I'm not sure that I have "cracked it" just yet...

Sunshine on black clouds

Lettuce "All Year Round"

Baby Leaf Salad


Swiss Chard - left over from last year, but looking good again

You've seen this one before, but I like it!  I also think it epitomises the "Light and Shade" challenge.

Shallots and Garlic securely netted!


Looking back at these photos I realise that my garden is not producing much at present, because all the raised beds are committed to things that won't be ready for at least a couple of months. This is why I have some quicker-growing crops in trays and boxes, like these Radishes:

Hopefully they will be ready in a couple of weeks from now - so actually now is the time for me to sow some more to replace them. Where, though?

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Carrot plans

First, the answers to yesterday's Herb quiz:
A: Lemon Balm
B: Marjoram
C: (Moroccan) Mint
D: Oregano
E: Thyme
F: Rosemary
G: (Green) Sage
H: Thyme
I: (Purple) Sage
J: Winter Savory
K: Bay
L: Summer Savory
M: (Green) Basil
N: (Bush) Basil
O: (Bronze) Fennel
P: (Variegated) Sage
Q: Chervil

Did you get them all right?? There were two Thyme pictures. I'm afraid I don't know what varieties they are, but I just noticed that their leaves were very different. You probably also noticed the three types of Sage, which we all tend to know simply by the name of their colour.

Notice the absence of Parsley. Regular readers will understand the reason for this!


Now, the main thing I want to write about today is carrots. In the past I have had major problems with growing carrots. Despite all my efforts, they were always riddled with the grubs of Carrot Root Fly - even when I sowed the allegedly resistant varieties "Flyaway" and "Resistafly".

Having read that the adult Carrot Root Fly general flies very low above ground level, (allegedly seldom above 45cm) I experimented last year with growing my carrots "at altitude" as it were. I chose some seeds of very small "finger" type carrots and sowed them in an old plastic washing-up bowl:

And I kept the bowl in the tall wooden planter which sits outside our kitchen window, so the bowl was about a metre or so above ground level.

Carrots (centre) with Purple Sage and Maskotka tomato
This arrangement went on to produce some excellent carrots, and the Carrot Root Fly only found them right at the end of the season after I had harvested most of them.

This year I am using this method again, but with a deeper and rather more "tasteful" container - a black plastic storage box purchased from Tesco for the princely sum of £1.97. I bought a couple of them because I wanted one for some Strawberry plants too.

So here they are in place - Strawberry plants nearest camera.

The carrots are a variety called "Mini Finger". The first batch was sown on 11 March and took about three weeks to germinate.

Not very impressive yet, but I'm hopeful that they will do at least as well as last year.

I read the other day on Jo's blog The Good Life that she had last year successfully grown carrots in an old bath, so I think maybe this idea of elevating the carrots above flying height may be the best way to go. Have any of you ever grown carrots in hanging baskets?