Friday 30 November 2012

Chillis - the Grand Finale

I have picked the last chillis of the year. The two "Turkey" chilli plants that I had been keeping in the garage have been consigned to the compost bin. But, wow, did they go out with a blaze of glory! I couldn't resist according them a final photo opportunity...

Just for the record (since this was a vegetable harvest as well as a photo-shoot), this bowlful weighed-in at 170g. Not a lot in terms of weight, but with a good strong chilli a little bit goes a long way.

So now I have the usual dilemma. Cook them immediately? Freeze them? Dry them? Make oil with them? Not sure. Maybe a bit of all of the above...

Thursday 29 November 2012

I do like a good stake!

Here in the UK we sometimes describe Autumn as "the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" - but it's not always like that! It can also be (especially this year) a season of strong winds and abundant rainfall.

In the light of recent weather patterns I'm really glad that I took the trouble to put in some sturdy stakes to support my Purple Sprouting Broccoli and Brussels Sprouts:

Without this sort of support I'm fairly sure that my veggies would by now be horizontal.

As you can see in my next photo, I tie the plants to the stakes with soft string, not just in one place but in several places, in order to spread the strain. I also make sure not to tie them too tightly, allowing a bit of room for movement and  growth.

That photo also shows quite well the chicories that are growing underneath the big brassica plants, doesn't it?

In the next-door bed are my six Cavolo Nero plants. These are of course a lot smaller than the Broccoli, so I have only given them bamboo canes for support. These have the advantage of being slightly flexible, so they bend in the strong wind and don't snap. At the weekend I was out there adding another string for each plant, a bit further up their stems to cope with their continued upward growth.

In theory, the plants most likely to need support are these - Brussels Sprouts - because they are usually very top-heavy.

These ones of mine, on the other hand, are rapidly being overtaken by the PSB... They have lots of sprouts on their stalks, but they are growing sooooooo slowly. "Good things come to those who wait" they say. These had better be very good!  I like my steak stake Well Done, but in the circumstances I would settle for Medium Rare...

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Feeding the Asparagus

This is what my Asparagus looked like in August:

The ferns are about 8 feet tall and bending over under their own weight. (The brick is an aid to stability!).

This is what it looks like now. I leave a few inches of each stalk sticking up, so that I can see where the crowns are.

If the Asparagus is to build up its strength for another good crop next year, it needs some attention during the Winter. After I have cut down the fern (usually late October or early November), I cultivate the soil around the plants, removing any moss and weeds, and then I add a generous sprinkling of Growmore general-purpose plant food:

I have used Growmore in my garden for years and years. In fact I probably used it when I first started gardening, back in the 1980s, having learned about it from my Dad, who always used it too. Being a balanced fertiliser it is generally useful throughout the garden, for flowers, vegetables and fruit. You can get it in liquid form, but I always buy the granular one. The granular type is my favourite because you can apply it quickly and easily in whatever quantity you need, without having to dilute a measured volume of it in water or anything. The light-coloured granules are easy to see, so you can tell where you have applied it - which is not possible with the liquid one. I apply the Growmore by hand, and then work it into the soil with a hand-fork. At this time of year there is certainly no need to water it in!

Later - probably during the Christmas holiday, if the weather allows - I will add a good layer of home-made compost to the Asparagus bed. This will complete the preparations and then all I have to do is wait... (until April or May). If I feed the Asparagus now, it will feed me next year!

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Three Sisters Succotash

Many of you will be aware that I tried this year (unsuccessfully) to create a Three Sisters vegetable bed, combining the traditional squash, corn and beans.

Well, the Squash was a complete failure, and the Sweet Corn produced in total enough for one paltry 2-person serving, but at least the beans were good.

Those beans are "Cherokee Trail of Tears" ones, and the pods were full of small glossy black beans, which I dried and stored away for future use. Last weekend I decided to use some of them to create a dish loosely based on the idea of Succotash.

Cooking this dish is in truth not a great culinary challenge, it's mainly an "assembly job". The key thing is to get all three main ingredients cooked to the right degree without anything going mushy, so you can't just put them all in a pan and boil them up. I therefore pre-cooked the beans (after soaking them in water for several hours). Likewise I cooked the Butternut Squash first, and added the beans and Sweet Corn later on.

So this is my recipe: (Serves 2)

75g dried beans, such as Cherokee Trail of Tears
Half a medium-sized Butternut Squash, peeled and cubed (approx 250g prepared weight)
250g Sweet Corn (I used ready-cooked corn, but if you are using fresh corn then pre-cook it)
500ml stock (I used chicken stock)
1 red pepper or chilli (optional) - for added colour - finely diced

Pre-cook the (soaked) beans - about an hour
Cook the squash in the stock - 5-10 mins
When the squash is nearly done, add the beans
Simmer for a few more minutes to complete the cooking of the squash and thoroughly warm the beans
Add the Sweet Corn and chilli, continue simmering until warmed through
Season to taste
Drain the dish through a sieve, reserving the cooking liquour
Arrange the vegetables in your chosen serving-dish. If they look too dry, adjust the moisture level by adding some of the reserved liquour.

Serving suggestion.
I think this dish goes well with Pork chops, cured Pork Loin, Gammon steaks, or bacon; possibly Black Pudding - basically anything pig-derived! (Vegetarians, you can omit this part.) I also served it with rice.

We had a pair of lovely Pork Chops bought on our local Farmers' Market. They were from Greenfield Pork Products, based near Andover, Hampshire, about 35 miles from Fleet. Here's a picture of the chops marinating:

My marinade was a mixture of olive oil, garlic, fennel seeds, dried oregano, black pepper and a little dusting of Jamaican Jerk Seasoning. (I'm not following any recipe here, you understand. I just thought that sounded like a nice mixture.)

As a crunchy garnish to add texture to my dish I dry-fried the seeds from the Butternut Squash, cooking them until they were just beginning to go brown. Done like that they taste really nutty - rather like toasted pine-nuts.

Here's the finished Succotash:-

and in close-up, with the toasted seeds added:-

And with the Pork chops and rice:-

This dish turned out to be a lot more special than I had expected: the pork was tender and succulent, and strongly scented with the fresh (home-grown) Fennel seeds; and the chilli in the Succotash was a lot hotter than I was expecting. I used a couple of those little "Turkey" chillis, which are usually not particularly hot - except today!

Even the rice was special: it was a selection of brown Basmati, red Camargue and Wild rice - a really good mix of colours, tastes and textures.

Well, I'm not sure whether it's authentic Succotash, but I liked it!

Monday 26 November 2012

Harvest Monday - 26 November

My harvest this past week has been very modest. In fact I think I will probably not be putting forward any more entries for Daphne's Harvest Monday for the next few months, since most of my veg garden (with the exception of the brassicas) is now dormant.

I did however harvest a couple more Radicchio, one of which was a fairly respectable size:

I have a lot of Endives in the garden too, and they get used in most of our salads. The Autumn here has been relatively mild (though very wet), so they are still growing. Often I find that they stop growing about the beginning of October and them just concentrate on surviving. This year I have quite a few of them under cloches, so hopefully I will be able to extend their harvest period even more.

Endives. Cloche removed for inspection.

Does this qualify as a harvest? (Scraping the bottom of the barrel here!)

That must surely be the last of the "Autumn Bliss" raspberries. In any case, it's about time I cut the canes down now. I usually do this in two stages: once in late Autumn, to reduce the height of the canes to about 3 feet (this stops them getting blown around too much in Winter gales and rocking the roots); and then once more in late Winter (end of Feb?), when I will cut the canes down to ground level, making space for new canes to grow.


P.S. Although I may not be participating much in Harvest Monday for the next few months, I'll still be blogging (mostly about food and cooking), so please do stop by my blog once in a while to see what's going on. :-)

Sunday 25 November 2012

After the storm

Many parts of the UK have been affected by appalling weather conditions over the last few days (weeks? months?). Heavy and prolonged rain has fallen on already saturated land, and has been unable to drain away because the rivers are swollen beyond bursting point. Fellow blogger and allotment-holder Rooko, who lives in Somerset, has been very seriously affected, and has graphically described the difficulties of gardening in these conditions, on his blog Don't Lose The Plot.

Here in North East Hampshire (about 35 miles from London) we have got off comparitively lightly, but even we have had some pretty foul weather. Last night the heavy rain was accompanied by strong winds. This is the sight that greeted us this morning:

That's my back gate you can see... Fortunately (for me, not him), those larch-lap panels are my neighbour's, not mine. Three panels down and two posts busted. This type of panel is a mixed blessing: lightweight, cheap, quick to erect, but they have a lot of wind-resistance and are very vulnerable in a storm. These particular panels may be re-useable, but the posts aren't, because they have snapped off at ground level.

Look how the wind has arranged a pile of leaves right outside my back door:

They'll probably be inside my leaf-mould bin before very long!

Elsewhere, in the grounds of the new insect hotel, the wind has also been doing a bit of "landscaping". A pile of twigs has spontaneously appeared. These are Birch twigs from across the other side of the road. I'm sure they will make a fine Winter habitat for some sort of creature.

I would like to express my sympathy for less fortunate people in other parts of the country, who have much more serious damage to contend with. Let's all hope that the weather abates soon.

Saturday 24 November 2012

Volume vs Diversity

As many of you will know, my garden is small. The majority of it is devoted to six raised beds, each 1 x 2.4 metres, along with my new Woodblocx raised bed, which is a little bigger. I also have a border about 8 metres long and 1 metre wide, which is used for growing fruit.

With a limited amount of space available, I therefore have to think very carefully about what to grow. I generally don't have a big quantity of any crop, because I like to have lots of different things. Just recently I have begun to reconsider this stance. This is the dilemma: is it best for me to have a tiny quantity of many different crops (Diversity), or would it be better to have a plentiful supply of a smaller number of crops (Volume)?

Points in favour of Diversity
  • More variety of harvests for the kitchen
  • Can concentrate on small volume but high value plants - such as herbs
  • Smaller amounts are easier to fit into odd corners when space becomes available
  • Less impact if one crop is attacked by pests (which may not attack the other plants)
  • Weather conditions often suit one type of plant and not another

 Points in favour of Volume:
  • Viable amounts of each crop - enough to make "proper" meals with
  • Possibly less work - fewer sowing, plantings and harvestings
  • Probably easier (more uniform) when providing protection from pests and weather
  • Easier to plan for crop rotation
  • Best approach if you want to freeze produce for later use

As you can see, there are plenty of points in favour of either approach, so this is a tough choice!
In 2012 I had a some crops that did really well and provided me with a big yield over a long period - such as Tomatoes, Runner Beans and Beetroot.

The Broad Beans also did very well, though they cropped over only a short period.the Cucumbers got off to a slow start, but came good in the end., and the potatoes were as good as ever. But to be fair, I also had a few failures. The Squashes were a total washout, and the Sweet Corn was pathetic. I planted four Red Cabbages, but only one produced a decent heart (and the foxes ate another one!). Radishes were also very poor this year.

On the other hand, I did have small quantities of some really nice things that I had seldom, if ever, grown before. For instance Strawberries: I had only four plants which produced a minuscule harvest, but the fruits were just SO GOOD that I am already planning to have more next year.

Likewise, I put a few (was it six?) "Golden Ball" Turnips in a plastic container, just because I had a packet of seeds that came free with something, and a spare container. I wish I had sowed some more, because the one we ate the other day was perfect. Hopefully the others will be too.

My harvest of "Mechelse Tros" climbing beans (aka "Mushy Pea Bean") provided one solitary meal for us, but it was really nice, and it gave me a chance to try this unusual vegetable. I might even be persuaded to grow it in quantity on some future occasion.

In truth it would be hard for me to give up the pleasure of having such a variety of nice things to eat. I fear that my decision may well turn out to be a compromise. I think I will drop some of the things that didn't do well, and concentrate on producing a bit more of a smaller number of crops - but not too small a number. I think I'll perhaps forget the Peas (which have never done brilliantly), and the Celeriac (which was very hard work for a very small return), and have 3 varieties of Broad Bean instead of two, more climbing beans and no Sweet Corn; fewer varieties of Tomatoes, but still the same numer of pots; leave out the Cabbages (which are cheap to buy), and have more Cavolo Nero (which goes on cropping for ages), etc, etc...

Here's another thought: some plants crop once; others crop in succession. For instance Runner Beans continue producing new pods over a period of about three months, and Kale lasts all Winter if you pick a few leaves at a time, whereas Sweet Corn and Cabbages are "once only" crops. More of the former and fewer of the latter would be a good plan therefore. So, maybe we're back to the principles of VSR? [If you are not familiar with the concept of Value for Space Rating, have a look at this: VSR ]

Having said all this, what do you think will happen when some time over the Christmas holiday I sit down with a nice cup of tea to have a good long look at all those seed catalogues???

Friday 23 November 2012

Insect Hotel Mk2

The other day I wrote about helping insects to survive the Winter by providing hibernation refuges such as log-piles and insect hotels Well, I have followed my own advice and built a brand-new insect hotel, right next door to my existing log-pile.

The basis of my new construction is the wooden pallet on which my Woodblocx raised bed kit was delivered, so thank you Henry and Co. for providing this welcome bonus! The pallet in its original form was too big for my needs, so I cut it up and made a two-storey hotel:

I am expecting a very diverse clientele, so I have provided the rooms with furnishings of many different types - some man-made and some natural. There are wooden boxes, plastic pipes, bits of old fleece, flower-pots, sections of bamboo cane, twigs, pine-needles, etc, etc.

The hotel has a flat roof, which I am expecting to be used by the local cats as an aid to getting over the fence, so I have not put much on it - just a few bits of old brick and paving-slab. I think I may augment this by the addition of my old bird-bath, which will act as the hotel swimming-pool / bar!

The hotel is open for business with immediate effect. I'm taking reservations now...

Thursday 22 November 2012

Looking closely

Even in a small garden like mine there is always something of interest to see... as long as you look closely.

The leaves of my "Royal Purple" Cotinus are a constant source of beautiful colour combinations. This is what many of them look like today, as they fall off the shrub:

I almost prefer them like that to their normal uniform deep purple!

It's only 10 days or so since I cut down the big Bronze Fennel stems, and already the plants are putting up new fronds:

I'm sure that these delicate little leaves would make a fine culinary ingredient - imagine them as a garnish on top of a fillet of Sea Bream or something. Yuck! I'm trying NOT to do so, since I don't eat any fish,and even the thought of it disgusts me, but Fennel is supposed to go well with many types of fish, isn't it?

My interest in the Fennel leaves, however, is not of a culinary nature, but of a photographic one... In gloomy light conditions the camera has major difficulty knowing exactly what to focus on, but if you persevere the results are definitely worthwhile

The other day we had the guttering around our house replaced, a procedure which produced a considerable influx to the garden of lumps of moss previously residing on the roof. This one fell onto the lid of the water-butt, where it was at eye-level for me and caught my attention as I walked past:

Is it just my vivid imagination, or does this look a little bit like a Hedgehog? (A very little bit..?)

This shot is a bit different. I just saw that moment when a shaft of sunlight was illuminating this little cluster of Dogwood leaves. I think the effect is almost like a lampshade being lit-up from the inside.

My opportunities for photography have recently been quite limited for one reason and another (e.g. the atrocious weather), so maybe my next few posts are going to need to rely more on the written than the visual messages!