Wednesday 31 October 2012

Scotch Bonnets

The fruits on my little Scotch Bonnet chilli pepper plant are ripe now:-

This plant is the one I bought as a "remnant" at my local Garden Centre for just 50p.

It has had the grand total of three fruits, but they are indivudually very fine specimens:-

I don't yet know what their heat is like - that pleasure is still to come!

Meanwhile, the fruits of the two "Turkey" chilli plants out in the garage are ripening in profusion.

There must be more than a hundred fruits on each plant.

Most of the chillis are straight, but just a few have decided to curl up:-

I think I might need to make them into some chilli relish or something, since we already have loads of chillis in the fridge and freezer. Or maybe I'll just dry them and hang them in the kitchen as ornaments.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Changing seasons

We had our first flurry of snow on Saturday, and the clocks went back on Sunday morning, so I think we have to admit that Autumn is inexorably giving way to Winter. I think our seasons have "slipped" a bit in recent years. We often get what I think of as "September weather" in October / November these days, and Spring seems to start later too.

Right now the colour on some of the trees and shrubs is at its best, like this Blueberry bush, whose leaves are a real fiery red this year. Often they are a more muted "Burgundy" sort of colour.

 Blueberries are particularly rewarding plants to grow, because they give you wonderful Autumn foliage as well as delicious Summer fruits. They respond well to being kept in pots, so they are suitable for even the smallest of gardens.

 If you follow my blog regularly you won't need reminding that I love the Dogwoods too. In the Autumn they provide wonderful colour not only in their leaves, like this

But also in their snowy-white berries, like this

and then when the leaves and berries have fallen, you end up with stems in various shades of red, yellow and orange, like this:

 The Cotinus is shedding leaves rapidly:



You also know that one of my favourite photo subjects is "raindrops on leaves", don't you? Well, I've had plenty of opportunities for such shots recently, so here are a few examples:




Cavolo Nero
Just had a rather unwelcome thought: our Bronze Maple tree is shedding its leaves in profusion, which means I have the task of raking them up and disposing of them. Not something I enjoy. I have one of my plastic compost bins devoted to making Leaf Mould from those Maple leaves, but they do take a very long time to decompose, and even when they do the result is only useful as a mulch or soil-lightener because it doesn't contain much in the way of nutrients.

Monday 29 October 2012

Harvest Monday - 29th October

This week I have been really extravagant:  I harvested my complete crop of Squashes all at once:-

Did you miss it? You must have blinked. Yes, well. What can I say? This it IT. My total harvest of squash for 2012 - one solitary tiny Patty Pan.

It's not even a good specimen of the type.

It's a good job I have had lots of Runner Beans. This lot may well be the final batch for the year. With one or two exceptions they are all fairly small, because I picked them early to avoid losing them to the weather, which has turned a lot colder now. We had snow for the first time on Saturday, and severe frosts are to be expected...

I also picked the last one or two pods from the "Cobra" climbing French Beans. They are not only very small but also curled up as if trying to keep warm!

We have been eating a fair bit of Endive recently, since all the ones I started blanching are maturing now.

Of course we only eat the really nice bit in the centre and discard the tough old green bits from the outside!

Some people think that Endive is bitter, but believe you me, the blanched centre is not. If you are at all unsure, why not just try some with a sweet (maybe honey-based) salad dressing? We like ours with creamy blue cheese dressing, made up quite runny so that it coats all the finely dissected Endive leaves. The perfect accompaniment to some nice Lamb cutlets!

I did also pick some more Cavolo Nero this week, or to be exact, Emma did - as part of her "wages" for helping me build the new raised bed. I have no evidence of this, so here's a generic photo of Cavolo Nero instead!

I'm entering this for Harvest Monday on Daphne's Dandelions, so why not join me in looking at what everyone else harvested this week...

Sunday 28 October 2012

A Bedtime story

Do you remember me mentioning Woodblocx the other day? And maybe you saw this company featured in "The Dragons' Den" on BBC Two a couple of weeks ago? Proprietor Henry Blake very kindly offered me one of their Raised Bed kits to review. Here goes...

Right from the first, I was impressed with Woodblocx's speed and accuracy of communication - which is a virtue regrettably rare these days. I was kept fully informed of the kit's despatch status all along - even to the extent that the delivery driver phoned me an hour or so before arriving at my house, just to ensure that I was in and ready to receive the goods. The kit arrived on a pallet (Great! That means I'll have some spare wood for all those little repair jobs that need doing in the garden...). Fortunately we had space to store it in the garage, but this is something you would have to consider if you don't have a garage.

I was a bit concerned by the state of the packaging, which was a bit higgledy-piggledy, with a couple of completely loose bits, and it looked as if some parts could easily have been lost in transit. However, I checked everything against the Picking List and it was all there. In fact I had two spare pieces. I'm not sure whether that was deliberate or not. The kit came with a very comprehensive, easy-to-follow set of instructions (and there is a load more info on the Woodblocx website if you need it - including videos). They even provide a pair of gloves with every order, so that you don't get splinters while handling the wood.

I wasn't able to make the kit immediately, because of work committments and the weather, but the delay did give me the opportunity to arrange for a bit of assistance from some other family members - my daughter Emma and granddaughter Lara, both keen gardeners. Before their arrival I prepared the site. Henry had advised me that this part of the procedure was very important. If you don't level the site properly the bed will not sit right and may be unstable.

I had rather optimistically presumed that it would be simply a matter of scraping back the shingle and raking over some earth underneath, but this was far from the truth. Ideally, a thick layer of sand would make life a whole lot easier, but... Underneath the shingle was a substantial layer of hard-core which needed shifting (I should have remembered this, because I had arranged for it to be laid a few years ago when the lawn was removed!). It turned out to be a couple of hours' hard work, but I expect it will be worth it in the end - and I now have a plentiful supply of rubble to use as "crocks" for putting in my plant-pots to provide drainage.

When Emma arrived with the children, Lara and I had a trial run, using Lara's Mega Bloks to make a rather fanciful "artist's impression" of the bed we were about to build... The principles are very similar you know!

Holly, now 6 months old, did her best to contribute to the proceedings:

Anyway, we were soon out in the garden and getting ready to start work. Lara helped me to make sense of the instruction manual:

We laid out the blocks in the correct format for Level 1 - easy to do with such clear plans, and since the blocks are only of two sizes. It's just like Morse Code you know: Long, Short, Long, Long, Short, etc...!

Then Lara and I banged in the plastic dowels which hold the blocks together.

Notice I'm wearing those tasteful Joe's gloves! It was at this stage that I made a big mistake. We were having so much fun banging plastic dowels into wooden blocks that we accidentally put dowels in EVERY hole in the first level of blocks, which is definitely not required. Having realised my error, I had to set-to and remove the superfluous dowels, which was much easier said than done. After this I understood more fully the role of the wedges that lock the dowels in place, and from that point onwards I decided to omit the wedges. I think the structure will be rigid enough anyway, and the absence of the locking wedges will make it easier to  disassemble if I ever decide I don't want it any longer.

Another piece of equipment that you will need if you want your raised bed to sit right and look neat is a spirit level:

Once I was happy with Level 1, we moved on to Level 2, tapping the blocks onto the dowels protruding from the level below, in such a way that the joins were staggered (following the plan very carefully now!). It's very similar to the principles of bricklaying.

Once we had got the hang of the construction method, progress was swift. As well as wielding the camera at appropriate moments, Emma read the plans and called out to me where I should put the next piece. We soon had all four Levels in place, and just the ornamental capping left to do.

At this stage Emma and her girls had to leave, so I decided to call it a day and finish the job at the weekend.

So, on Saturday afternoon I spent about an hour or so adding the final layer - the ornamental capping. The capping is much shallower than the blocks themselves, so it is necessary to use a saw to shorten the dowels that fix it to the blocks. Since there were 40 of these things to do this was a significant task, and I must say that I am very surprised that the manufacturers don't supply dowels that are already the right size. "Tapping" the capping into place is a task that is definitely made easier by the use of a heavy hammer or mallet (I used a 4lb club hammer); an ordinary DIY-type hammer really wouldn't be sufficient.

I was a bit worried that the capping would be hard to fit, since the angled corner pieces have to fit together snugly in order to look nice. The manufacturer recommends using a T-square to make the corners exactly right-angles. I don't have a T-square, so I had to do things by eye, but I needn't have worried - it all came out OK.

I have another little criticism to raise: the instruction leaflet was not easy to use. It kept blowing about in the wind, and getting damp in the drizzle, so it was a bit dog-eared before I had finished with it. This was exacerbated by the fact that I had to keep turning the pages to and fro, because they are not in a logical sequence. For instance the fitting of the capping is covered before the building of the final layer of blocks. I felt that the leaflet really ought to have been laminated to make it waterproof. You really do need to keep consulting it because the positioning of the dowels in the right holes is vital (see above!).

Anyway, it's all done now, and it looks very smart:

Now I just need a ton of compost to fill it with!  My plan is to fill it with home-made compost from my two plastic "dalek" bins, and anything else I can accumulate over the Winter, and then if it still needs more I'll top it up with commercial compost in the Spring. What a shame that I'll have to wait so long before planting anything in it, because I'm just itching to bring it into use. It is about twice the depth of my existing raised beds so it ought to produce some excellent veggies!

Many thanks to Woodblocx for providing this very fine piece of gardening equipment. It has certainly lived up to my expectations and I expect it will do sterling service for many years to come. The kit supplied was for a bed measuring 2250 x 1150 x 450mm. It retails at £225.95 + £35 delivery charge. Full details can be seen on the Woodblocx website HERE.

P.S. (for Henry:) Who needs sleepers??? They are nowhere near as versatile - and they are probably treated with creosote or something equally harmful to veggies.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Navarin of Lamb with Cavolo Nero

In our Abel and Cole veg box this week we had some good-looking turnips. I think they are probably "Purple-top Milan".

These inspired me to make a dish along the lines of Navarin of Lamb. There are lots of recipes for Navarin, but they are all different! The one constant theme though is the inclusion of lamb and turnips. In fact the name of the dish seems to be derived from the word "navet" which is French for "turnip". My dish doesn't claim to be authentic, by the way.

I just made the dish the way I would make a "normal" casserole. Browned the lamb (which had been marinated in garlic, thyme, bay and a little vegetable oil); softened the onions, added peeled carrots and turnips; topped-up the dish with stock and a good glug of red wine, brought it to the boil and left it to simmer for about two hours. About half an hour before serving-time I added a handful of frozen peas for some extra colour.

I actually added the turnips in two batches, because (being bought ones) I was unsure of their cooking characteristics. I put some in right at the start, cut into large pieces, and then I added some later, cut into smaller pieces so that they would cook quicker. Both batches performed well - the texture of the larger pieces was particularly appealing -  soft, almost gelatinous, but the turnips didn't disintegrate as I feared they might.

I served my dish with an accompaniment of Cavolo Nero from the garden. This dish was also one that I made up more or less on the spur of the moment, but inspired by something that Sara from Hillwards had said in a comment on my post called Spotlight on Cavolo Nero.

I removed the tough central veins from about a dozen large Cavolo Nero leaves, and tore the remaining soft parts into smallish pieces. I fried some smoked streaky bacon in olive oil until crispy, turned off the heat and added some finely-chopped garlic (also home-grown). The residual heat in the pan was sufficient to cook the garlic wthout burning it - which makes it bitter. Later (a few minutes before serving) I re-heated the bacon, added a splash of red wine vinegar (to give the dish a bit of a lift) and tipped in the Cavolo Nero. The kale cooks very quickly, and what looked like a monstrous pile of leaves soon collapsed into a manageable panful. It only took a couple of minutes to cook:

The finished dish was served alongside the Navarin, with the addition of some boiled new potatoes.

 In the last photo above you can see one large piece of turnip (centre), which is a lot darker than the smaller whiter pieces on either side of it. The big piece has absorbed more of the lovely lamb gravy during its longer cooking time. It's nice to have different textures in a dish like this, even if it does entail adding ingredients at different times.

This meal is very typical of the type of food I like to cook. Easy, but very satisfying, and making maximum use of good ingredients that are not excessively messed about with.

Friday 26 October 2012

Brassica update

My Winter crops are looking good! 

These Brussels Sprouts look impressive, don't they? The trouble is, they are still only about the size of a grape. It's wonderful what you can do with a close-up photo...

Looking at ths next photo, you'd think it was still August. The Raspberry canes in the background are still full of leaf. But it was the Brussels Sprouts I wanted to show off. My three plants are doing well so far, though I noticed today that there are lots of Whitefly on them. Not sure what to do about that. I'm considering my strategy. To spray or not to spray, that is the question...

At the foot of the left-hand Brussels Sprout plant you can see one of my 3 remaining Red Cabbages. A bit disappointing in the size department I think.

The Brussels Sprout plants have made plenty of foliage, which is good, not only because the leaves are the powerhouse of the plant, capturing solar energy for it, but also because the sprouts themselves form in the leaf axils, so the more axils the better, as far as I'm concerned.

As well as the sprouts themselves, the tops of the plants are also nice to eat, just like a rather loose cabbage:

Don't be tempted to cut the "Brussels Tops" until the sprouts are all finished though - the plant needs it.

This is one of the little Purple Sprouting Broccoli plants. As you know, I only kept the ones like this as reserves, so I'm not raising my expectations too high. I wonder if it will ever get big enough to provide useable flowering shoots? Even if it doesn't, it looks nice anyway, decorated with pearly raindrops!

The other type of broccoli - the "Matsuri" miniature one - is just about ready for harvesting. Another week, maybe. I only have two of these, so that will be a whole head of broccoli each for me and Jane one day soon.

Elsewhere in the garden, I have set up two of my cloches to protect some "Webbs Wonderful" lettuces.

These have been transplanted from various corners of the plot and have moved into the space vacated by the recently-harvested beetroot.  I had to wash the cloches because they were green with mould, having stood under the trees at the bottom of the garden for the last few months. This sort of thing is important, because plants under cloches often struggle to get enough light anyway, and dirty glass / plastic certainly won't help.

Behind the cloches in this photo are my parsnips. I haven't lifted any of them yet, but it probably won't be long now before I do. Frost is supposed to make them sweeter, so tradition dictates that you should wait until after the first hard frost before harvesting. Looking at our weather forecast, I don't think that I have long to wait.