Saturday 28 February 2015

Crocuses in the spotlight

Over the last couple of years, when my pot-planted Crocuses have finished flowering I have put them in the ground at the bases of my mature trees, where they have become naturalised. Now each year I get an effortless display of small but plentiful Crocus flowers.

It's always the blue ones that come up first. Almost all the ones flowering at present are blue or purple. I've lost track of their names, but I can see that there are three distinctly different types.

Crocuses are really useful bulbs. They are small enough to be able to fit into all those little patches of spare space, and they provide a welcome splash of colour very early in the year, when there is not much colour about.

They are not all blue though...

This orange one is "Orange Monarch", which I bought last Autumn.

I have 10 bulbs growing in a pot.

They are very strikingly coloured, but also rather disappointingly small. With a name like "Orange Monarch" I had expected them to be "regal"!

Friday 27 February 2015

Tulips and PSB

Here is a photo of one of my Hellebores, in full bloom at last. Isn't it beautiful?

One of my blogging friends in the USA (Jennifer, of "Rainy Day Gardener") is a big fan of Hellebores and she has recently posted about an event dedicated to their sale/purchase, which you might like to read. Here is a link to Hellebore Heaven.

Elsewhere in my garden, the Tulip bulbs are peeking through now. They are in pots, up against the wall of the house (and protected from some of the wind by the water-butt), but when they come into flower I will put them somewhere more prominent. Hopefully by then the weather will be milder too.

These are the ones from the Sarah Raven collection that Jane won for me in a competition. I described them back in October, HERE. One of them looks as if it is going to produce three stems:

Looking back at my blogposts from this time last year, I think my bulbs are all about a fortnight behind where they were at the end of February 2014. Before the end of February 2014 all my Irises were out; so were most of the Crocuses and many of the Daffodils. I think it was 2014 that was exceptional though. We had a lot of wet weather last year, but not so much cold, so the bulbs developed earlier.

Anyway, I can manage without Daffodils as long as I have my beloved Purple Sprouting Broccoli! This is probably the most beautiful of all vegetables - a flower that is really good to eat...

This lot wouldn't look out of place in a vase, would they?

These photos were taken about a week after the main head of the plant was cut, and the side-shoots have grown visibly in that time. They are really the main part of the crop, so the more of them there are, the better.

I haven't had much time for gardening recently (or blogging). This week I have been commuting to London, and next week I have another stint to do near Gatwick (yuck, A3 and M25 again). At least the days are drawing out a lot now, so I should be able to see the garden occasionally!

P.S. ....

Thursday 26 February 2015

Livening-up the Libertia

I wrote on Tuesday about jobs to do in the garden at this time of year. If you are the owner of a Libertia (or some Libertias), here's yet another task for you - removing the dead leaves.

This is Libertia, which flowers in May, bearing clusters of delicate white flowers on long arching stems:

My Libertia bush is slowly but surely getting bigger.

Although the foliage is nice enough (and remains green even in Winter), the plant needs a bit of maintenance to retain its vigour. I discovered via a process of Trial and Error that you need to remove the old foliage if you want to get a decent amount of flowers. I reckon "a decent amount" for this plant of mine is now approximately 25 - 30 flower stems.

If you hold back the top (green) foliage you will see that down below there are lots of last year's leaves and flower-stems which have dried up and gone brown. These are the ones that need to be removed.

Fortunately removing them is an easy enough task. Grasp each leaf (one at a time, or else it won't work) well down towards its base and tug sharply. It will come out easily.

It's not vital to remove every single brown leaf, but getting rid of most of them is desirable.

As a nod to environmental friendliness, I leave a big handful of the dead leaves in a corner of the garden, where birds can take them to use for nesting material.

By the way, it looks as if we may have a pair of Bluetits nesting in the box I made the other day. Certainly they have been going in and out of it, so let's hope they move in permanently!

Wednesday 25 February 2015

Sowing Leeks

You know how it is... A Sunday morning in February; the sun is shining; the garden looks nice (although it is covered in frost); you are itching to sow something. You look back through your records to see what you normally sow at this time of year. Your eye lights on.... Leeks!

Yes, last Sunday I sowed some Leeks.

Last year I grew "Toledo" Leeks from Simply Seeds, and was impressed with them, so I am sowing some more of them this year. I was also sent some "Apollo" by the kind people at Marshalls, so I am trying them too. "Apollo" is supposedly the best Leek for growing at close spacings, so it should be ideal in my little veg-patch. I'll probably only be able to grow about 20 or maybe 24 Leeks all told.

The instructions on the packets are very self-explanatory, though it is interesting to see that they don't exactly agree! One thing that they do agree on is that Leeks take a long time to grow - the best part of a year - so it's good to start early. I shall probably sow another batch in a month or so, attempting to get them to mature at a rather later stage. In a small garden large-quantity production is not really a viable option, and it is better to aim for small quantities harvested more frequently.

These are the instructions from "Toledo" (£1.29 for 200 seeds):

And these are the instructions for "Apollo" (£2.95 for 50 seeds)

Well, to be honest, there is not much magic in sowing a few Leek seeds. I sowed about 20 of each type on the surface of some damp multi-purpose compost (New Horizon, peat-free), and then covered them with a 1cm layer of dry compost, and labelled them up. A 10-minute job. Easy.

At this stage there is not much to see...

The pots are now in the garage, where it is cool but definitely frost-free. I expect the seeds will germinate in about 10 days or so.

Last year I wrote a fair bit about Leeks. If you want to see what I said, this is a link to a post about Transplanting Leeks, and this is one about Planting Leeks.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

Getting some jobs done

When you are a gardener there are lots of little jobs you need to do - often unglamorous, messy, repeated, yet necessary. You get the point? One of those that needs doing at about this time every year is re-potting Mint. This is something I have written about before, so if you want to know more about how I do it, follow this LINK. Well, here's the evidence that 2015's Mint re-potting has taken place!

I have had my Mint in pots like those for years now. Each year I cut a small chunk from each plant and re-pot it into fresh compost and discard the remainder. This ensures that the Mint remains vigorous and doesn't get too pot-bound.

Keeping Mint in pots like this is a sensible thing to do where space is limited, because it does like to roam, and if let loose will soon spread all over the place.

I have also discarded the remaining Basil plants which I have been growing on the Dining-Room windowsill. This is another annual event. The plants usually survive the Winter, but only just, and by the end of February they are very weak and uninspiring, so I chuck them away and start again from seed. Here are my newly-sown pots, covered with plastic bags to increase humidity for better germination.

This year I am using Basil seeds from Seeds of Italy (Franchi seeds). If you don't already know this company, I suggest you take a look at what they have to offer. They have a wide selection of seeds, mostly produced on their own land in Italy. They are passionately proud of the quality of their product, as well as providing excellent service. One of the distinguishing features of their seeds is that the packs usually contain huge quantities. The pack of Basil I opened this time must have a thousand seeds in it - probably enough to sow a whole field of Basil! I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand the big quantity would be useful if you wanted to share the seeds with friends or fellow members of say an Allotment Society. On the other hand though, it could tempt you to keep the seeds even after they have become stale. The Basil seeds in that one packet would keep me going for about 25 years!

One job that I hadn't expected to do again so soon was to re-sow Broad Beans. Checking on the ones in pots in the garage to see if they had germinated I found that every single one had been stolen by mice! I have had to start all over again. Grrrrrrr! I shall have the last laugh though, because I have put down some "Rodine" rodent-killer. Sorry folks, but to me a mouse is not a cute furry little animal. It is a voracious pest.

Now that I have started sowing seeds I have the constant responsibility of checking whether anything has germinated. I have seeds in the (dark) airing-cupboard which would go leggy very quickly if not provided with light soon after germination, so I check them at least twice a day. I have seeds on the windowsill of the spare bedroom; I have seeds on the Dining-room windowsill; I have seeds in the garage; seeds everywhere that need checking frequently! This situation is not going to change until at least June. In fact it is going to get a lot worse. You know, this is where many inexperienced gardeners go wrong: they under-estimate the amount of care and attention that is required. Some of them maybe think that you just bung a few seeds in a pot and forget about them until harvest time. No such luck! Perhaps this is why gardening is sometimes referred to not only as a hobby, but also as a pastime?

Here's another job I have to do quite often at this time of year - put the newly-distributed home-made compost back in/on the raised beds. The Blackbirds kick it off in their vigorous efforts to get at the worms and other little creatures it contains.

Well, I suppose if they have to do it, now is the best time, before the beds become full of delicate young seedlings!

Must dash now - I have seeds to check!!

Monday 23 February 2015

Harvest Monday - 23 Feb 2015

Well, I finally picked some PSB!

Since PSB is clearly one of my favourite vegetables, this is a significant moment for me - the culmination of 10 months of waiting.

It wasn't a lot, but when "de-constructed" it was quite sufficient for a 2-person serving. I described how I used it HERE.

On Friday, my granddaughter Lara helped me clear the final part of my Woodblocx raised bed, and we collected the last of the Parsnips:

They were mostly little "tiddlers", but there were a few good ones.

This one caused a certain amount of hilarity!

Lara proudly shows off "Ms Hairy Legs".

Lara said how much she loves the sweet smell of freshly-dug Parsnips, and I totally agree.

This photo demonstrates very clearly the difference between the two varieties I grew. "Guernsey Half-Long" is the short, fat, turnip-shaped one at the right, whereas the thicker, longer one is "Duchess".

That's all I have harvested this week. My attention has turned now to sowing. So far I have sown Chillis, Asparagus, Basil and Broad Beans.

To read about some other harvests, please visit Harvest Monday, hosted as ever by Daphne's Dandelions.

Sunday 22 February 2015

Sweet Potatoes

I have read on many blogs about growing Sweet Potatoes, but I have never tried it myself. Inspired by the efforts of blogging friend Daphne over at Daphne's Dandelions I have decided to give it a go this year. I reckon that if she can grow Sweet Potatoes in Boston (currently under about four feet of snow!), then I ought to be able to do so over here in the milder climate of the UK. We shall see...

Since I'm not  confident of success I didn't want to spend much on my initial stock, so I am using some Sweet Potato tubers left over from a bag we bought from a supermarket some weeks ago. For some reason we have never got round to using them, and I recently noticed that they were beginning to sprout. Ideal for my needs! 

Having learned that the usual way to prepare them is to sprout them in water, I carefully selected glass jars of just the right size for each tuber, so that their bottoms would be able to sit in water without submerging the whole tuber.

They are now sitting on the windowsill of our spare bedroom (with a lovely view out over the garden, you will notice!). Within a few days they had started to produce roots. Not many yet, but growing rapidly:-

At the other end, the leaf sprouts are looking very strong. They are just like the "chits" on a conventional potato at this point. Eventually these will go green and start to produce leaves. These long slim shoots (aka "slips") are what you plant.

My plan is to plant them into a very big tub of compost and then just let them do their own thing. I expect their foliage will trail all over the place, but I believe it can be quite attractive, so that's no bad thing.

Since Sweet Potatoes are really warm-weather plants, I suppose that success depends mostly on what the weather is like this year. If we get a warm sunny Summer then they will probably do well. Otherwise not....  Anyone else in the UK growing (or has grown) these things?

Thompson and Morgan have a good basic guide to growing Sweet Potatoes here.

Saturday 21 February 2015

Pheasant breasts and PSB

My recently-harvested PSB was served yesterday as an accompaniment to a meal based on a pack of Pheasant breasts bought from the Farmers' Market.

Pheasant is really nice meat - a bit like a rather richer version of chicken, but not "gamey". Since it comes from a wild bird, it can be a bit dry, simply because it is not very fatty, so it benefits from being cooked in a sauce.

I made a sauce from shallots, mushrooms and cream (Elmlea actually), with a splash of Dry Sherry to liven it up. Here are some of my ingredients, during preparation:

The orange-coloured stuff is Blue Shropshire cheese, which I put in a sauce for the Broccoli.

To give it a full description, this is what the meal consisted of:
Pheasant breasts in mushroom cream sauce
Purple Sprouting Broccoli with Blue Shropshire cheese sauce
Baby new potatoes
I served it with a bottle of  Rosé wine - one of the few remaining from our membership of the now-defunct Wineshare wine club.

Here are the Pheasant breasts cooking in the shallot and mushroom sauce...

Yes, that is a lot of meat. The pack had 6 breasts in it, but we only managed to eat 2 each.

This is the Shropshire Blue cheese sauce for the Broccoli... I used the roux method: melt some butter; add some flour; cook for a minute; add milk in small quantities, stirring constantly until smooth; add the cheese and stir again. Add more milk if required to achieve the right (thick and glossy) consistency.

And the Broccoli covered in the sauce... Fresh PSB like this only needs literally a minute or two of cooking. (BTW: this sauce was absolutely wonderful!)

Here it is, all plated-up:

For me, the star of the show was the PSB (of course). Covered as it was in thick, creamy cheese sauce it would be hard to beat!

[Note: boiled / steamed PSB goes cold very quickly. My idea of covering it in cheese sauce was really a way of counteracting this, and it worked really well. I strongly recommend it.]