Wednesday 30 April 2014

Good growing weather?

Over the last week or so we have had a fair bit of rain (which is a good thing, because prior to that we had had a long dry spell). This, coupled with a steadily increasing mean temperature, has provided some good growing conditions for my plants - especially the veggies and herbs. I have started leaving my tomato and chilli plants outside overnight now, albeit inside the plastic mini greenhouses. The night-time temperature here has been about 8 - 10C for several nights now. They can manage that.

Look how lush the herbs are now:-

In the photo above are Lemon Balm, Marjoram, Oregano, Winter Savory, Good King Henry and Comfrey.  The little Comfrey plants I relocated about three weeks ago have just shot up:

Here we can see Mint, Greek Oregano and Chives (amongst the Sweet Peas and Aquilegia).

This patch of Oregano looks very attractive to me - anyone fancy making something Italian-style??

The Broad Beans ("Stereo") look very healthy too - though still small, although that is normal because this is a small variety:

The plants have huge numbers of flowers on them already. This variety apparently produces lots of small pods, generally with 4 or 5 beans in each. The pods themselves are alleged to be tender enough to eat whole, in the style of mangetout peas.

The one plant conspicuous by its near absence from my garden is the Carrot. The second sowing that I made has not germinated yet. I hope it really is a case of "yet". I'll be really disappointed if I don't get at least a reasonable crop, after all the trouble I have gone to with my big Woodblocx raised bed.

At least the Beetroot seeds have germinated now...

That photo above demonstrates clearly how Beetroot seeds need thinning. What we think of as a single seed is actually a cluster of several, and if they all germinate you need to remove all but the strongest one in each cluster. Having said that of course, you could leave them all as they are and hope to end up with a bunch of little roots rather than one big one. I prefer to thin them.

Tuesday 29 April 2014

Spicy chicken tagine with couscous

This dish of mine is vaguely North African in style. This is why I have described it as a "tagine" rather than a stew.

Part of my inspiration for cooking this was the desire to use some of the copious quantity of Parsley I had picked. My over-wintered Parsley plants are running to seed now, so I picked most of the useable leaves and am storing them in a Stayfresh bag in the fridge, where they will keep in good condition for at least a week.

Although I recognise that Asparagus is not a traditional North African ingredient, I had a batch of Asparagus spears that I wanted to use while they were still fresh, so I decided to experiment and see whether they would "work".

So this is my dish:

North African Chicken Tagine, with Parsley Cous-cous and Asparagus

This is how I made it...

Cut 2 skinless chicken breasts into small cubes and put then in a deep container
Add a tablespoon of vegetable oil, and the following spices to make a marinade
  • 2 cloves crushed garlic
  • A 1-inch piece of peeled fresh Ginger, grated
  • 2 teaspoons "Ras-al-Hanout" or similar mixed spice condiment
  • Quarter teaspoon powdered Cumin
  • Quarter teaspoon powdered Cinnamon
  • Quarter teaspoon powdered Cloves
  • Quarter teaspoon powdered Allspice
  • 1 teaspoon Paprika (the hot one or the sweet one, according to taste)
  • Approx 1 teaspoon Harissa. (This is what adds the heat, so adjust according to taste)
  • Salt and Black Pepper
Mix the whole assembly well, so that every surface of the chicken is coated. Cover with clingfilm and leave in the fridge to marinate for at least an hour.

About an hour before serving time:
  • Peel, chop and lightly fry two smallish onions in a deep casserole which has a lid
  • When the onions are done, add the marinated chicken and cook over a high heat for about two minutes, until the meat has gone firm and opaque
  • Add a regular tin of chopped Tomatoes
  • Add a small tin of Chick Peas
  • Add approx 8 semi-dried Apricots, halved
  • Add about 200 ml chicken stock
  • Bring the pan to the boil, turn down the heat, cover the pan and simmer for about one hour.

  • Prepare the cous-cous. I used 150g of dried cous-cous for the two of us.
  • Wash and chop a generous amount of fresh Parsley
  • Have ready about 50g of Raisins and about 25g chopped Pistachios
  • Prepare the Asparagus for cooking, removing the tough lower parts of the spears
  • Prepare about 250ml of chicken stock
About 15 mins before serving:
  • Heat the chicken stock and add sufficient of it to make up the cous-cous. [A good rule of thumb about the amount of stock to use is to use half as much again of the stock, when measured in millilitres, to the weight of cous-cous measured in grams. e.g. 150g cous-cous would require approx 225ml stock.]
  • Add the raisins to the cous-cous at this time, to allow them to absorb some of the hot stock.
  • Cover the dish / bowl in which you make the cous-cous and allow it to stand for 10 minutes
  • Then add the chopped Parsley and Pistachios, and fluff-up the cous-cous with a fork.

About 5 minutes before serving:
  • Cook the Asparagus. [I steamed ours over a large pan of boiling water]

As soon as the Asparagus is cooked, plate-up and serve. If there is any spare Parsley, use some of it to garnish the tagine.

The verdict.

We both loved this dish. I had put enough Harissa in it to make it quite "tingly on the mouth", but not too much. This contrasted well with the fragrant spices and the dried fruit. Large quantities of Parsley also gave a very fresh taste to the cous-cous. And finally, the Asparagus really did work well with the other elements of the meal. Its sweetness fitted in very well indeed. A good combination, in my opinion.

Monday 28 April 2014

Harvest Monday - 28th April 2014

My harvest this week has again comprised mainly Asparagus and Radishes. I have lots of stuff growing, but not much that is harvestable. The story will be very different in about a month's time...

The radishes I am picking at present are the "Cherry Belle" type - round and bright red. Since my garden is so close, I just pick as many as we want to eat straight away, so somewhere between 12 and 20 each time. This week we have had three lots like that.

The radishes are normally picked, washed and eaten within the hour!

We eat them most often as a pre-dinner "nibble" [aka "hors d'oeuvre"]. Before serving them, I remove the roots with a sharp knife, and also most of the leaves, just leaving about an inch of stem, to be used as a "handle" to facilitate dipping them in salt.

Coming along after the "Cherry Belle" I have a row of another type of Radish called "Flamboyant 5". I bought the seeds in France while over visiting my daughter. Here are the first few:

They are basically another variant of the ubiquitous "French Breakfast".

At the weekend I sowed another patch of Radishes, this time in the place where I am planning to plant my Leeks. The Radishes will hopefully be ready before the Leeks need to go in. I have put a piece of plastic clematis-netting over the seeds to stop animals digging in the freshly-turned soil.

The latest batch of Asparagus is not so impressive. The plants initially produced some nice fat spears, but then along came these rather skinny specimens.

With all the rain we have had these last few days, I expect the plants will put up another flush of spears very soon. I hope so anyway!

When cooked, the Asparagus goes a very bright green colour!

The herbs are just about at their best now, covered in fresh young growth. I don't normally reckon them as a harvest, since they are a constant feature of or diet, but I just want to put in a word for my Parsley. This is the stuff that over-wintered so well. I don't think I have ever had Parsley so good. It has been very prolific and has lasted for ages.

Sunday 27 April 2014

Planting out Brussels Sprouts

It's that time of year when I'm furiously sowing and planting everything in sight! This time it was the turn of the Brussels Sprouts.

The Sprouts I grew last year (3 x "Brilliant") were definitely successful, so this year I am growing twice as many. I have gone for two each of three types - "Napoleon", "Bosworth" and "Brilliant".

I have devoted one whole raised to the task. To be honest, they will probably be too crowded to reach their full potential, but I think 6 smaller plants is probably better than, say, 3 bigger ones.

I know you will say "but there are more than 6 plants in that bed". That's because I have squeezed in two "Tenderstem" Broccoli plants as well. They are very quick-growing and mature in the early Summer, so they will be finished before the Brussels Sprouts get very big, and at that point I'll lift them out.

When planting out the Brussels Sprout seedlings I made sure to plant them pretty deep, with their bottom leaves level with the soil. This will help them to root deeply, and will keep them more stable. I also made sure to label them so that I know which type is which. Brassicas in general like firm soil, so I pressed the soil down as hard as I dared around each seedling.

After planting, I applied some "Grow Your Own" multi-purpose nematodes - administered as a"drench" using a watering-can with a large rose. These nematodes are tiny worm-like things that will attack the larvae of Cabbage Root Fly (and others), and therefore help my plants to grow without interference. After this, I spinkled around a few slug pellets, and covered each plant with a plastic cloche.

View from rain-spattered Living Room window

With all those defences to help them, they ought really to do pretty well, I think! In case of casualties though, I have in reserve one more seedling of each type of Brussels Sprout, which I will continue to grow in pots until I'm happy that the main ones are established.

I think the reason why some people say "Oh, I'm no good at gardening" is that they expect instant results. Successful gardeners, on the other hand, take the long-term view and plan well ahead. These Brussels Sprouts of mine will probably not produce their harvest for about 7 months. You need patience for that...!

Saturday 26 April 2014

Transplanting leeks

You may perhaps recall that I have committed myself to growing more Autumn / Winter vegetables. With this in mind, I have got some leeks on the go. They are a variety called "Toledo", which is a late-season type, ready for harvesting between November and February. It is also claimed to be very hardy, and have good resistance to bolting. I have only grown Leeks once before, not very successfully, so I am trying hard to do better this time.

I originally sowed the seeds three to a pot on 1st March, and they germinated very well. They had grown to a size where I felt they needed to be transplanted and separated, and I also felt that the compost in which they were sown was probably exhausted. It had developed a rather unpleasant sticky black surface.

I decided to put them into the tall Elmlea pots, recently vacated by the tomato plants. Having washed the pots thoroughly I filled them with fresh general-purpose compost. I then gently tipped out each pot of 3 leeks and separated them. Some of them had very long roots.

I used my home-made dibber (a 6" length of bamboo, sharp at one end and square at the other) to make a deep hole in the compost, and then slipped a leek seedling into the hole, carefully easing it into place with the dibber, before backfilling the hole with a little more compost.

Each leek now has a place of its own, with lots of room to grow, as well as a good depth of compost into which to put their roots. When the job was complete I gave them all a good watering to settle them in.

I originally sowed 3 seeds per pot in each of 12 pots, so I was a bit surprised to end up with 42 leeks instead of 36! There were a few very small leeks in amongst the others, so I suppose their seeds must have somehow slipped in un-noticed. This is the main batch (30):

But being the person I am, I also kept the spares, even the four very tiny ones - just in case of casualties before planting-time!

The 4 tiny ones are in the bigger blue-and-white pot, at left!

So here they all are, lined up next to the Brassicas which are also waiting their turn:

Just behind the seedlings are the last of my over-wintered Endives, some of them under cloches, and in the background are the new season's lettuces (again, some protected by cloches).

I am going to leave the leeks to grow to approximately the size of a pencil before planting them into their final positions in one of the raised beds. I haven't yet decided exactly how many I will plant, but I don't think I'll have room for 42 of them! To do well, I imagine that leeks need to be about a foot apart. Is that right, do you think?

To be continued...

Friday 25 April 2014

The beans have germinated

These days I sow my beans in pots, not directly into the soil. This means that I can protect them better until the danger of frost has passed. Runner Beans in particular seem to respond well to this treatment. They rapidly form a robust root-system so I don't even sow them in individual modules. I put six seeds in a 6-inch pot, and then separate the plants at planting time. Here are the first ones, just germinating:

There's no doubt about the identity of this one, coming up conveniently close to its label!

"Scarlet Empire" is my "bean of choice" these days. I have grown it with good results for three years in a row, and I shall probably continue to do so. However, I'm also very conscious that too much reliance on one single variety is generally a bad thing, so I have also sown some "Red Rum" - again a variety that I have grown several times before. There's no sign of them germinating yet, but I expect they will appear soon. The "Scarlet Empire" that I like so much is a modern derivative of  "Scarlet Emperor", a very old variety much favoured by my father's generation. The new one has pods that are longer and smoother than their ancestor, yet retain the distinctive old-fashioned taste.

I have sown 12 "Scarlet Empire" and 6 "Red Rum", from which I want a total of 10 plants. That gives me a bit of room for manoeuvre in case one or two fail or succumb to bugs. I never sow exactly the number I need; I always have a few spares.

As well as the Runners, I also have some "Cobra" Climbing French Beans, which are at the same stage of development. I only want 8 of these, so I have sown 14 seeds. In my opinion, French Beans are not as nice to eat as Runners, but they are more versatile. I think the Runners only really work well in what I call "British" dishes (yes, I know that is a myth!), whereas French Beans are equally at home with a Chicken and Mushroom pie or an Indonesian Gado-Gado.

"Cobra" Climbing French Beans
Over the years I have tried many different varieties of climbing bean (I remember "Hunter", "Lingua di Fuoco", "Mayflower", "Meriviglia di Venezia" etc, etc), but I keep coming back to "Cobra", which has been consistently good in my garden conditions. It has exceptionally long pods and produces them over a long period. Despite the large size of the pods they never seem to go tough. This is a winner all round.

I have in the past grown Dwarf French Beans too, mostly in containers, but I don't rate them as highly as climbing ones. The fact that they are short means they offer less value-for-space than tall ones. Furthermore, their proximity to the ground means they are much more prone to slug damage. I don't get a lot of problems with slugs, but Dwarf Beans seem to be particularly attractive to those creatures. Another reason I don't grow Dwarf Beans these days is that I want to devote the space to more pots of potatoes and tomatoes.

Changing the subject slightly (though still on climbers), I have given my potted Sweet Peas a bit of help with climbing. People have told me that they will probably not be able to grip the bamboo canes I gave them, so I have provided them with a ring of soft string which encircles the canes:

As the peas grow taller I will add another couple of rings of string as required.

Thursday 24 April 2014

Peas - the end is in sight

These are the peas that began life on my windowsill in December, finally reaching the flowering stage:

The tendrils which meant these peas were little use as peashoot material are being put to good use, as you can see.

This is how I initially envisaged the peas being used - in theory a few days after this photo the shoots should have been ready to eat as a salad ingredient.

20 December 2013

This is what actually happened. They got planted out into big pots and "sent into exile" in the garden (though I did relent a bit and give them the protection of one of the mini greenhouses).
04 January 2014

The plants have not got very tall - perhaps 2 feet:

The plants in these two pots are evidently not going to produce a big harvest, but they look pretty good. I just wish there were more like this:-

It will be really ironic if they turn out to be prolific and delicious, because I might then have to rescind my decision to give up growing peas!

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Tomatoes potted-on

Over the Easter weekend I moved my tomato plants from the little Elmlea pots in which they were germinated into much bigger 5-inch pots.

The weather in the middle of April was really good, with lots of sunshine, so the tomatoes grew very quickly. It would not have been a good idea to leave them in those Elmlea pots for more than a few more days, because they would have run out of nutrients - and space!

I will only keep the plants in these 5" pots for two or three weeks. I hope they will continue to grow rapidly, and will be ready for transplanting again (this time into their final homes) by about the middle of May.

The upheaval of moving into a new home can be quite stressful for a little plant, so immediately after re-potting I water them and keep them in the semi-darkness of the garage for about 24 hours. This allows them to settle in without having to cope with sunshine, temperature changes, wind, etc.

I have 24 tomato plants at present, but I think I will reduce this to 16 before long. I'm going to have 12 big ones (mostly Beefsteak varieties) grown as cordons, and 4 smaller cherry-type ones grown as bushes. It's always a wrench for me to discard healthy plants, so I'll not just put the spares in the compost bin. I'll give them to friends and garden helpers. 

For the time being, these plants will live outdoors in the mini-greenhouses during the daytime, and inside overnight. The night-time temperatures are still only about 7 or 8 degrees Celsius, so too cold for tomatoes to be outside without protection. 10C would be better for them.