Thursday 31 March 2016


Today, 31st March was my last day at work - ever! I have now officially retired. I will probably not be posting to my blog for a few days until I have come to terms with the new situation, but I'll be back soon...

Wednesday 30 March 2016

Transplanting Basil seedlings

Since I have never had much success with outdoor-grown Basil (lack of warm sunshine is to blame), I have taken to growing some in pots indoors on a windowsill, where it does quite well - especially since the windowsill has a central heating radiator right below it.

My plants normally last about a year before they lose their vigour and need replacing. Last month (Feb 13th) I sowed some Basil seeds ready for this years plants. I put about 20 seeds in a 6-inch pot, and when they germinated I thinned them out a bit, to give them enough room to develop properly.

Today I judged them ready for transplanting. Each seedling had at least one pair of proper leaves (i.e. discounting the cotyledons); some had a second pair just forming.

About an hour before transplanting I gave the seedlings a good drink. This makes it easier to move them with a fair bit of compost adhering to their roots, thus minimising transplant shock. Then (since I had 9 seedlings) I filled four 6-inch pots with fresh compost and moved the seedlings into them, two per pot:

Guess which one didn't make the grade? Yep the little "runt" seen at the left in the photo below...

These pots have now taken their place on the Dining-Room windowsill.

Meanwhile, this was the fate of the plants from last year - frozen cubes of pesto!

Tuesday 29 March 2016

Planting peas

Having in the past not had much luck with growing peas (they always suffered badly with mildew), it is with some trepidation that I have decided to have another go this year. Fresh peas from your own garden are just so delicious that it is hard to resist!

A month ago (Feb 26th, to be exact) I sowed some peas of two different varieties in one of my raised beds. So far none of them have appeared. Are they OK? Have they been eaten by mice? Have they rotted in the soil? I'm getting anxious... However, in my usual fashion I also sowed some peas indoors in pots as a sort of insurance policy. These ones were sown on 30th January. They are "Early Onward".

I have been tempted to use them in a salad as pea-shoots. I think if the outdoor ones had germinated by now, I probably would have.

However, the seedlings looked very healthy and were just the right size to go outside, so I have planted them in the raised bed where the other peas seeds were sown. I had to be very careful in selecting where to put them, since I wasn't exactly sure where the un-germinated ones are / were. I made holes with a wooden dibber and planted the pea seedlings deeply, with the soil level right up to their lower leaves.

There were 16 peas in the pot, and spacing them evenly along the bed means that they are very roughly 6 inches apart.

As you can see, they are comprehensively barricaded against the local wildlife. A piece of chicken wire is pegged over the bed, and it is supported by some bamboo canes laid across the bed, keeping the wire well above the peas. A sprinkling of slug pellets completes the defence.

I have two other pots of peas growing on the Dining-Room windowsill, but their germination rate has been very poor. In both cases I sowed 16 seeds, and in both cases only 6 have come up, and a couple of those look fit to die! I think I will start again...

P.S. On a different note... Some of the Asparagus that I transplanted into a big container the other day has evidently survived the move:-

Monday 28 March 2016

Re-vamping the mini-greenhouses

Anyone who regularly reads my blog knows that I make a lot of use of my little plastic mini-greenhouses.

I use them in Spring and early Summer for hardening-off seedlings and young plants - particularly the chillis and tomatoes. To me they represent a crucial intermediate stage between the indoor seed-germination stage, and the final stage in which plants are put into the raised beds. They protect the delicate seedlings from wind and heavy rain. I am conscious though that even inside one of the greenhouses it can get pretty chilly, so I don't leave tender plants in them overnight if there is a likelihood of sub-zero temperatures.

I think that these things are excellent value for money. Prices vary a bit, but you can currently get one from B-and-Q for £19.91, or from Argos at £16.99, and no doubt from many other suppliers too. The former has a cover of plain clear plastic, whereas the latter has a cover that has a so-called "rip-stop" composition and has an overall green appearance. I suspect that it may be less good than the B-an-Q one at allowing light through.

I reckon that the life of one of these greenhouses is at least three years if you look after them properly. It is easy enough to disassemble them and store them under cover during the Winter if you want to, though I generally leave mine assembled and use them to protect some of my more tender potted plants. If you don't put them into storage, just be aware that they are extremely lightweight and will need weighting-down very thoroughly if they are not to be blown away by the Winter gales! The 2-tier ones are obviously much less vulnerable in this respect than the tall 4-tier ones. Incidentally, the covers are fitted with metal rings which allow you to secure the greenhouses to a wall, though of course this means that you would sacrifice the ability to move them around easily, which I think is a big benefit.

At present I have three of these greenhouses (I did at one stage have four, but one was comprehensively demolished in a storm last year). I'm not sure how old they are, but the covers of all three needed replacing, so on Friday I splashed out on 3 new covers. I got them from B-and-Q and they were £7.41 each.

I was going to fit the covers over the weekend, but we had visitors yesterday, and the weather today is atrocious, so they'll just have to wait till next weekend!

Sunday 27 March 2016

Roast chicken with Leeks and Tomatoes

A couple of days ago I saw a photo published on Instagram by Sami Tamimi (the less well-known co-author of the brilliant cookbook "Jerusalem", written in conjunction with Yotam Ottolenghi). It was of a dish he described as "Roasted chicken with tomato, leek, sherry vinegar, cumin and paprika". It looked so appealing that I decided to try to recreate it, even though I had no recipe for it.

Sami Tamimi's dish was evidently made with bone-in chicken leg / thigh portions. I had only some large breast portions, but at least they had skin on and a little bone too. Since they were so big, I divided each one into two. I marinated them for a couple of hours with olive oil, powdered cumin, and paprika - both the sweet version and the hot one.

Nearer cooking time, I put the chicken into an oiled roasting-tin, along with two leeks sliced into 1-inch pieces, 4 whole peeled cloves of garlic and 4 smallish tomatoes, halved. The whole lot was then sprinkled with cumin seeds, more powdered paprika and some salt and pepper, plus a generous splash of dry Sherry and a drizzle of Pomegranate Molasses. At the appropriate moment the dish went into a pre-heated oven at 180C, for about 45 minutes.

To accompany the chicken I prepared some Savoy cabbage and some Purple Sprouting Broccoli (both from my garden) and some couscous to which I added toasted pine-nuts, currants and chopped fresh Parsley.

A few minutes before serving-time I sloshed in a little red wine vinegar, which provided a lovely counterpoint to the sweet molasses. After 45 minutes in the oven, this is what the dish looked like:

Lots of lovely sticky bits, sweet and sour!

We loved this dish. Cooked with the skin on, the chicken stayed beautifully moist, and the flavours combined really well - sweet tomatoes and molasses, sharp sherry and vinegar, soft couscous with little nuggets of crunch in the toasted pine-nuts, iron-rich cabbage and broccoli. I nearly forgot to mention the leeks! A little charred on the outside (caramelised), but soft and creamy on the inside.

I used to think of Yotam Ottolenghi as Number One, and Sami Tamimi as Number Two, but now I realise that Sami is just as good! This recipe will undoubtedly be used again.

Saturday 26 March 2016

Another raised bed finished

The weather yesterday was perfect for "garden engineering" - dry, sunny and still. I used the opportunity to get another raised bed done.

This one was particularly difficult to build. For some reason I found it very hard to get it level. Thank Goodness for my trusty spirit-level! I think the problem may have been due to the fact that the surrounding soil is heavily matted with fibrous roots from my next-door neighbour's massive Leylandii Cypress tree.

I now have four of the new-style deep beds. Only two more to go...!

I took up the Purple Sprouting Broccoli plants that had been in this bed:

They yielded quite a nice final harvest - enough for two meals for the two of us, I think.

The old-style beds look very poor in contrast to the new ones. The two that remain are in pretty poor shape. The wood is rotten and falling apart. Using some scrap wood, I made a temporary repair to the end of this one:

They will just have to wait until next year though, because I don't think I have the energy or motivation to do any more of this type of work just now. And anyway, I really need to get on and prepare the beds for sowing and planting. The latest new bed is going to be used for salads this year.

This morning the weather had completely changed, and the forecast is for more and heavier rain - plus wind - over the next few days, so I was out in the garden early this morning, laying shingle around the new bed, before it got too unpleasant to work outdoors.

Shingle like this stops the gaps between the beds getting muddy, while at the same time allowing rain to penetrate down into the soil, which paving-stones don't do.

If you're wondering what is under those bell cloches, it's Radicchio - still pathetically small. It will be coming up soon, so that I can prepare that bed for growing Cabbages.

Friday 25 March 2016

Windowsill veg

During March and April every year the windowsills in our house are always crammed with pots and trays of seedlings. This year there is the added "problem" that 9 of my chilli plants from last year have survived the Winter. It's still too cold for them to go outside, so they are on windowsills too.

This is a pot of "Toledo" Leek seedlings, which have just germinated:

Initially I had this pot in the garage, but after about three weeks with no sign of anything coming up I moved the pots indoors. The increased temperature kicked the Leeks into life and they germinated after only 3 or 4 days. I'm lucky that we have central heating radiators underneath almost every window, so the windowsills are as good as many purpose-made propagators! Last year and the year before I transplanted my Leek seedlings into individual pots when they were still very small and then grew them on to the pencil-size stage before planting them out into their final growing-positions. This year I am going to skip the individual pots stage and plant out straight from the original pot. This will minimise root-disturbance as well as saving time and effort.

My Basil seedlings are coming on nicely too, and are just about ready for transplanting.

There are 9 seedlings in that pot, and I think I'll transplant them into pots of the same size, but with two plants in each. I always grow Basil indoors even after transplanting, because it never did well when planted outside. Being originally a Mediterranean herb, it evidently still prefers a Mediterranean climate.

My latest batch of Parsley seedlings is not so special. I sowed about 20 seeds but so far only 8 have come up, and they have germinated many days apart from one another, so the are very uneven in size.

I don't know why this has happened, because I have not done anything different this time. Just "one of those things", I suppose. I think I'll do another pot soon, so that I will have several clumps of Parsley all at different stages of maturity.

This year I germinated all my Broad Beans in pots on windowsills too, which has worked very well. Almost all the seeds germinated too. There were just two No-Shows. These ones here are "Reserves", just in case of casualties amongst the main crop, which has already been planted out.


Thursday 24 March 2016

Sowing tomatoes

Most of my chilli seeds have germinated now and the Growlight House is full of little plants.

The other day Jane received a parcel which had some interesting packaging material in it. It's like bubble-wrap but silvered on both sides. I have commandeered it to enhance the light levels in the Growlight House.

I have also positioned a free-standing mirror at the end of the set-up, which reflects more light.

Now that the chillis are "up and running" it's time to get some tomatoes in. Today I sowed 20 pots of them, aiming to eventually have 16 plants. As with the chillis, I have put two seeds in each pot, and if both germinate I'll keep the strongest and discard the other.

The trays of pots are put inside large plastic bags, sealed with a clothes-peg. This helps maintain humidity, which in turn aids germination. Then they go into the airing-cupboard until the seeds germinate. I check them twice a day, and any that have germinated are lifted out and put under the lights.

Here's my list of tomato varieties for this year:
Ferline (2)
Maskotka (2)
Vintage Wine
Giant Delicious
Caspian Pink
Costoluto Fiorentino
Gardener's Delight
Cherokee Purple
Black from Tula
De Colgar

As you can see, there's something of everything there - large, small, red, yellow, pink, black. I'm doing my bit for bio-diversity!

The ones of which I'm growing two plants are "old faithfuls", varieties which I have grown successfully many times before.

Ferline, noted for its blight resistance, is a big plant with large red fruits, and Maskotka is a trailing bush variety which produces a mass of red fruits the size of a small apricot.

My plan is that by the time the tomatoes germinate, the chillis should be big enough to survive without the artificial light. They will be moved to the windowsills, and the tomatoes will take their place, so I hope the weather is going to buck its ideas up. We could do with a spell of nice sunny days - although the prospect for the Easter weekend looks pretty grim.

Growing chillis and tomatoes without the aid of artificial lights is tricky, to say the least. Both of them take quite a long time to produce ripe fruit, and it is desirable to start them off early, but with our weather being as it  is, it is really best to wait until about the end of April before sowing. Having the lights allows you to sow about a month earlier.

Tuesday 22 March 2016

The final countdown

Some of you probably know that I am retiring from work at the end of this month. I have only two more courses to teach! It's an exciting, though somewhat scary, prospect. Right now I am finding it very hard to think about anything further ahead than 31st March. It's as if the world will end on that day, and I don't need to bother about long-term plans - though I do need to, of course. A competent gardener knows full well that you have to plan ahead if you want to be successful, and late March / Early April should be a really busy time.

To some people this photo may epitomise Spring:

Yes, the tall bi-coloured Soleils d'Or are lovely enough, but to me THIS epitomises Spring:

The little greenhouses are all outside now, and rapidly filling up with pots and trays of little plants.

In the absence of a "proper" greenhouse, these things are a real boon. I don't know what I would do without them. I have lost track of how old these ones are. In fact they are hybrids, cobbled together from elements of several such items. After a few years the plastic (both of the frames and of the covers) becomes brittle and will crack. The frames last longer than the covers, and it is useful that you can buy the covers separately. I need to get some more soon, because my existing ones are full of holes. That will be unacceptable once the chillis and tomatoes need to go in them.

Another job that is getting more urgent by the day is the completion of at least one more raised bed. Over the weekend I made a start - I sawed two of the big timber sleepers in half, to make the end-pieces for the bed.

Maybe over the Easter weekend I'll get round to building the bed? I have all the "hardware", I just need the motivation! A lot will depend on what the weather is like, I think.

My Hellebores are probably at their best just now. I don't yet have a lot (though my collection is expanding...) but they have mostly produced a decent display of flowers. Here's a small selection of photos of them.

I'm thinking ahead about these too. The seedlings I have grown from seed over the Winter are still too small to be planted out, but they are getting bigger all the while, and it won't be many weeks before they are able to take their places in the border.

Monday 21 March 2016

PSB - the Ex Factor

My Purple Sprouting Broccoli is nearing the end of its days.

I don't think there is much more to be had from poor old "Rudolph"!

The best bits of "Early Purple Sprouting" have also gone, but if you look under those big leaves, you'll see that there are still some worthwhile spears.

This is the same plant, with the big leaves removed.

Here's a closer look:

Yesterday I took down the "Rudolph" plant. The main stalk of a broccoli plant is big and tough. The secateurs weren't big enough for the job; I had to use the loppers.

I know from experience that if left whole, the big stalks decompose very slowly in the compost bin, so what I do is chop them into 6-inch pieces and smash them with a heavy hammer to break them into smaller bits.

The only part of the plant that doesn't go into the compost-bin is the root. This goes into a bag for eventual transfer to the Municipal Tip.

My other two plants will both yield one more small harvest before they go the same way. In a month's time I will sow the seeds for next year's crop, and the cycle will start again.