Sunday 29 January 2017

Stocking up with seeds

The other day I wrote that I had been looking at good-value seeds, and intending to avoid buying the highly-priced seeds that many of the Big Names offer. Well, I was delighted to receive an email from Gerry at Grow Seed, who had seen my post and offered to let me have some of his seeds for free, in return for a little publicity. How could I refuse?! This is the generous selection I received - 11 packets of seeds and 250g of "Sturon" Onion sets:

I'll confess that I have not previously bought seeds from Grow Seed, because there are just so many suppliers out there and you can't give your business to all of them. However, having seen what Grow Seed offer, I may well become a regular customer. They have a very respectable range of seeds for vegetables, herbs and fruit, as well as a few plants. Most of the seeds are sold at £0.99 per packet, which is pretty good by today's standards - especially since the number of seeds you get is generous. Beetroot "Cylindra", for example, comes in a pack of 500 seeds, which is surely plenty for any amateur grower.

There are some other aspects of this business that sound very attractive to me too - for instance, they strive to minimize the use of packaging materials (though I'm a bit wary of their use of plastic bags for the seed packs), and the postage rates are very reasonable - starting at £1.00, with UK orders over £25 being completely postage-free. I shall definitely be growing some of the seeds that Gerry sent me, and I'll report back on how they perform.

On a related theme, this weekend I have been stocking-up on seed potatoes too. Yesterday I went with my daughter Emma to the Hampshire Potato Day at Whitchurch (about 20 miles from here). I have been several times before, and described the event here on my blog, so I won't go over it again. If you want to see the details, have a look HERE and HERE. For today though, let me just show you what I got:

That is 22 potato tubers of 10 different varieties, some Broad Beans ("Witkiem Manita"), some Runner Beans ("Scarlet Emperor"), and some "Red Baron" Onion sets.

For the record, my potato varieties are:-
Lady Christl
Belle de Fontenay
International Kidney

It's a mix of First Early, Second Early and Maincrop types. Interestingly, when researching these varieties I found that some of them can be grown as different types. For instance, at the Potato Day "Orla" was being sold as a maincrop, but it is also often described as suitable for cultivation as a First Early.

I bought 2 of each variety, except "Charlotte" (my favourite), of which I bought 4. This is the joy of going to a Potato Day - you can buy as few or as many tubers as you like. This year the price was still 17p per tuber, or 10 for £1.50. Excellent value, I think.

Monday 23 January 2017

La Cloche baking dome

Over the years Jane and I have tried many kitchen gadgets (many of them ones that she has won in competitions), and to be honest a lot of them have been rubbish. A gadget has to be good to earn its place in our kitchen! This post is about one of the good ones.

You probably know that I have got keen on baking bread - particularly the sourdough type. My skills have been gradually improving, but until recently I seldom seemed to be able to get a crisp crackly crust on a loaf, and that is despite using the time-honoured method of placing a roasting-tray full of ice-cubes in the oven as a way of generating steam. Now, a "gadget" has transformed my loaves.

As a Christmas present, Jane bought me a "La Cloche baking dome", available in the UK via Bakery Bits. In the words of the supplier "A La Cloche will give your bread the wood-fired oven treatment, trapping steam with the rising dough to give you a loaf with a beautifully golden, crackly crust and soft, evenly baked crumb." It does, too.

As you can see from the photo above, the La Cloche comes in two parts: a base and a dome. You put the whole thing in the cold oven and allow it to heat up as the oven heats. Then when the oven has come up to temperature you remove the La Cloche, tip your dough into the base unit, quickly cover it with the dome and return it to the oven. The dome is removed for the last 10 minutes of cooking time in order to let the loaf develop a nice golden-brown colour.

I am very pleased indeed with this item. I have used it several times already, and the result has been perfect bread each time. This is one gadget that I have no hesitation in recommending. It's not cheap, (£47.99), but if you are serious about bread-making it will soon earn its keep. The only disadvantage I can see is that it is quite bulky and takes a lot of storage-space.

Incidentally, some of my bread-making friends have told me that they use an inverted cast-iron Dutch Oven for the same purpose, but cast-iron is very heavy and a blazing hot Dutch Oven can be very dangerous to use!

Thursday 19 January 2017

Plans for 2017

Hello again, I've re-surfaced! To be honest with you, for a few weeks I completely lost interest in blogging and (even worse), gardening. Maybe I had a severe dose of Seasonal Affective Disorder or something? Fortunately I have recently begun to consider some plans for my garden during 2017, so I thought it would be a good time to put together a blogpost...

Plan No.1. At this time of year in both 2015 and 2016 I was getting ready to build more raised beds, replacing old decaying timber planks with much more substantial constructions.

Old beds in the foreground, new beds in the background

In theory I should be doing that again this year, because I have two more beds very much in need of attention. However, I have decided not to replace the old beds at all, but to remove them altogether. The main reason for this is that I have felt over the last few years that my garden has become overcrowded. It has been jammed full of pots and containers hosting tomatoes, chillis, potatoes, blueberries and miscellaneous other fruit and veg at various stages. Now the plan is to create a flat (shingle-surfaced) open space where those two raised beds currently sit, and use it for positioning the pots of potatoes etc, which will of course leave more space elsewhere. There's an obvious problem here: I'll have to be disciplined enough not to fill this new space AS WELL AS the places where the pots used to go!

Plan No.2 is to grow fewer types of fruit and vegetables, but to grow them better. I am going to avoid all the things that have performed poorly for me in the past and concentrate on the ones that do well, or have high Value For Space Rating (VSR). The Raspberries are Out; the Strawberries are Out; Kale and Summer Broccoli are Out; Dwarf Beans are Out, as are Cabbages other than Red ones. Definitely In though are Runner Beans, Parsnips, Carrots, Lettuce and Beetroot. Marginal ones include Leeks and Brussels Sprouts. (My Brussels sprouts this Winter have been pathetic). We'll see if I can find space for them, but I won't be too upset if I can't. I'm not planning to grow anything radically different this year either (e.g. the Cucamelons I tried last year but was uninspired by). At present the only new-to-me crop I am planning to grow this year is Red Onions.

Plan No.3 is to spend less money on seeds - though I don't think I have ever been particularly extravagant in this respect (especially over the last two years, when I have had the luxury of lots of free Trial seeds from Marshalls). Still, I am going to sow some of the really cheap seeds from shops like Wilkos, and see how they fare. Only this week I bought a selection of seeds from Wilko's, priced in some cases as low as 25p per pack. They will probably be OK. I'll also have a look in places like Aldi, Lidl and The Range whenever the opportunity next arises, without making a special trip.

Plan No.4 is to spend less time on blogging - and the attendant photography. I hope my regular readers won't feel too let down by this, but I really think that my posts had begun to get a bit "samey", since my basic gardening approach differs little from year to year. I shall attempt to post something at intervals of about a week or so, or whenever something significant occurs. For instance, this year I am going to use bean-poles made of Hazel instead of the bamboo I have been using for many years, so I'll let you know how that goes. I got the beanpoles from my local Countryside Services department (who very kindly delivered them to my doorstep!), so I may have to return the favour by doing a bit of volunteering for them.

My Hazel bean-poles

Plan No.5 is to get more "into" fungi - both in terms of studying them and in terms of foraging them for culinary purposes. I expect that a book I was given for Christmas will be a big help in this respect. It is called "Edible Mushrooms - A forager's guide to the wild fungi of Britain, Ireland and Europe" by Geoff  Dann. The best fungi don't appear until later in the year (Autumn is the best time for them), so this will be something for Summer-time and beyond, I expect - once all the sowing and planting has been done.

Parasol mushroom

My post is beginning to sound too much like Teresa May's 12-point plan for Brexit, so I'm going to leave it there for now!