Monday 27 April 2020

Progress report - salad crops

The Premier salad crop in my garden is the tomato. My tomato plants are looking good and strong now, after spending quite a bit of time outdoors over the last couple of weeks. I'm thinking of transferring some of them to their final pots soon, after which it will no longer be possible to bring them indoors. However the weather forecast is predicting a spell of heavy rain over the next few days, so I'm going to leave this job to next weekend at least.

No salad is complete without Lettuce, is it? I planted 14 young Lettuces last week, taking a few each from two trays of seedlings I had been carefully nurturing. Each tray had LOADS of seedlings in it, but I don't really need huge numbers of Lettuce plants, so after taking out the ones I selected for planting, the others are already being used as "Baby Leaf Salad".

In this tray are "Lobjoit's Green Cos" and "Saxo".

This rather sparsely-populated tray was sown with an old salad mix - note the solitary Rocket plant!

Since successional sowing is the order of the day (to maintain a continuous supply) I also have some other, very much smaller Lettuce plants:

I don't know what variety those ones are. They are the only ones to appear from a handful of seeds from five fairly old packets, which I sowed more in hope than in expectation! Lettuce seeds evidently don't remain viable for ever. Still, in current circumstances I think it might be unwise to throw away ANY seeds, however old they are. I shall keep on sowing them in the hope that at least some of them will germinate.

Next up, Beetroot. My Beetroot so far has been a mixed success. I sowed a row consisting of 50 percent new seeds of "Crosby's Egyptian" and 50 percent "Boltardy" from last year. Normally I have no difficulties with Beetroot seed from the previous year, but this time the germination rate of "Boltardy" was very poor - maybe 20 percent? The "Crosby's Egyptian" germinated well though - probably 90 percent or more.

Beetroot "Crosby's Egyptian".

However, in my usual risk-avoiding fashion, I had taken the precaution of sowing some more Beetroot seeds of both varieties in small plastic pots, each pot containing 2 or 3 seeds in order to produce clumps of plants. These germinated well, so I have used them to fill in the spaces where the "Boltardy" has failed to show. The trouble is I didn't think to label the pots, so I have no idea which ones are which!

One of the pot-grown clumps. I think there are probably 3 plants there.

Flanking the row of Beetroot are a row of Radishes (again two different varieties - hedging my bets) and the clumps of Onions I planted out several weeks ago.

Radishes, Left; Beetroot, Centre; and Onions, Right.

The Radishes are nowhere near ready yet, but they look as if they will be OK.


Likewise, the Onions are a long way from maturity, but they are coming along quite nicely.

You'll notice that the onions are surrounded by some other small, broad-leaved plants. I believe these are Watercress seedlings, which have come in with the homemade compost. I did have some Watercress last year, from which I saved seeds, but I think the old plants which went into the compost-bin must have still had some seed-pods on them. This is a bonus for me, because we love Watercress, so I'll remove most of those little seedlings, but leave a few to mature.

I think these are Watercress seedlings

Another very important salad vegetable for us is the Cucumber. I can't show you any photos of cucumber plants yet though, because I have resolved not to sow them before the start of May. In previous years I have often found myself struggling to keep Cucumber plants alive and growing, because we always seem to get a cold wet spell just after I have planted mine! Last year I had a very good crop of the little tiny ones used for making cornichons (very small gherkins), so I'll be sowing some of those. The variety is called "Vorgebirgstrauben". I'll also have a few plants of the so-called "cocktail cucumber" type. They produce fruits about six inches long. The variety I have this time is "Delikatess". Both these and the gherkin-type ones are from Lidl. They sell quite a lot of more unusual varieties (to us in the UK, that is. They are probably common in Germany!), in small packs at sensible prices.

Finally for today, just a mention of my Rocket. I have a small number of plants (about 15??) in an 8-inch pot, which is enough to provide for our needs. Jane just about tolerates Rocket (in small quantities), but I like it better. I usually put just a few leaves in a mixed salad.


So, as you can see, I have plenty of salad crops "in the pipeline", but almost nothing at the cropping stage yet! Thank goodness for the peashoots...

Thursday 23 April 2020

I hate windy weather!

It's true, windy weather really upsets me. It makes me feel on edge; I can't relax, and doing any gardening seems like a chore not a pleasure. My young plants hate the wind too. I've been trying to get my chillis and tomatoes hardened-off, but for most of the early part of this week it has been too risky to keep them outdoors because the wind has been so intense.

Fortunately today (Thursday) the wind has dropped to a gentle breeze and we have had warm sunshine all day. Of course the tomatoes and chillis have been outside basking in the sunshine, but I've also caught up on a few jobs I had been meaning to do. My first task was to get some Lettuce planted out.

I've planted a total of 14 Lettuces, of 4 different varieties: "Lobjoit's Green Cos", "Saxo", "Marvel of Four Seasons" and "Cocarde". This should give us the opportunity for some nice varied salads in a few weeks' time.

"Marvel of Four Seasons"

I did the planting of Lettuce in the morning, before the sun got too hot, but my little Lettuces soon began to wilt, like this one.


I had to hurriedly make a contraption to shade then from the direct sunlight. This thing is normally a windscreen-cover for my car!

Underneath the shade-device there is some pretty comprehensive anti-fox protection.

This of course is made with the ever-useful wire shelves from my mini-greenhouses:

Another job I did today was pot-on my spare "Maskotka" tomato plants. These are the ones from my second sowing, after two of my first batch failed to germinate. As usual I put two seeds in each pot, and of course this time they ALL came up. They didn't all come up at the same time though, so they are very different sizes.

Tomato "Maskotka"

The prolonged sunshine has brought things on a lot in the last couple of weeks, and I want to show you one or two of the front-runners. For instance, the are the first Broad Beans I planted. They are the "Express" ones.

Broad Beans "Express"

I've not had this variety before but they seem pretty good - quite short plants, but already covered in flowers.

The potatoes are looking good too, coming along nicely in their mini-greenhouses.

These are the First Early ones - "Colleen" is in the lead, closely followed by "Rocket".

Down at the bottom of the garden the Comfrey plants are growing so rapidly that it almost seems that you can see them get bigger by the hour! It's not a huge patch, but it's always enough to give me a couple of bucketloads of rich but stinky plant-food.

The Comfrey's neighbour Good King Henry has produced a few flowering shoots now.

Some people eat those shoots, but I think I'll give them a miss, because I prefer Asparagus!

I only have a couple of crowns of Asparagus, and they produce a tiny crop (9 spears so far this year, though to be fair the season only officially begins today, St.George's Day), but it is just SO delicious. I like it best served with a poached egg, a spoonful of Hollandaise sauce and a few shavings of Parmesan cheese!

Monday 20 April 2020

White Sourdough loaf recipe

There has been a huge surge in the popularity of home baking during the coronavirus lockdown. Shops everywhere have run out of flour! I have been talking about bread-making with several of my social media friends and some of them have asked me which recipe I use for making sourdough bread. The answer to this is "my own recipe, but adapted from one I learned on a course at Bread Ahead a couple of years ago". I thought it might be nice to share this recipe with you, so here goes... (Sorry about the lack of photos covering the middle section, but I hadn't thought of writing this post at that point.)

[If you would like a copy of the recipe in Word format, without the photos, drop me a line at and I'll email it to you.]

White Sourdough Bread Recipe

(Makes one loaf – nominally 600g)

Stage1 – make a Rye Starter (most people will already have this or an equivalent)

Day 1. Put 50g Rye flour in a suitable lidded container, add 50g cold water, stir thoroughly, cover loosely (e.g. lid half open), set aside at room temperature.

Day 2. Add another 50g Rye flour and another 50g water. Mix and store as before.

Days 3, 4, 5, 6. Repeat procedure described above. By Day 6 the starter should be bubbly and should smell pleasantly beery. If so, it’s ready to use. If not, repeat the procedure as required.

Stage 2 – make a Stiff Starter or a Poolish.

[A Poolish is basically a sloppy version of the Stiff Starter, and uses a higher proportion of water.]

My Poolish is in the square plastic container in the foreground.

Begin with a lively Rye Starter. If your starter is not lively, refresh it at least 8 hours (or up to 24) in advance, by discarding about a third of what you have and replacing it with new Rye flour and water in equal proportions.

To make a Stiff Starter, in a suitable lidded container thoroughly combine 90g Strong (or Extra Strong) White Bread Flour with 45g Rye Starter and 45g cold water. It should produce a stiff paste.

To make a Poolish (I use this method), thoroughly combine 60g Strong White Bread Flour, 60g Rye starter and 60g water. It should produce a fairly loose paste. You can make it sloppier if you like, by adding more water, but just remember to add less water when you come to make the dough.

Set your Stiff Starter or Poolish aside for 12 – 24 hours, until it becomes nice and bubbly. If it becomes TOO bubbly, you can slow it down by putting it in the fridge for a few hours, until you are ready to use it.

Stage 3 – Make your dough.

Put 490g Strong or Extra Strong White Bread Flour in a large bowl.

Add 10g salt.

Add your Poolish or Stiff Starter. (Although you will have started with 180g of ingredients, it is likely that despite your best efforts you will leave some behind in its container, so let’s say you have 175g or thereabouts!)

Add 320g cold water

Mix thoroughly, using your hands, until there is no dry flour left in the bowl. Add more water in SMALL quantities as required, but don’t use more than 350g in total or your dough will be too sloppy.

When the dough begins to come together, tip it out of the bowl onto your worksurface. Most authorities say “a lightly-floured worksurface”, but I knead my dough on the kitchen worktop without using flour because the worktop seems to have very good non-stick properties!

Knead the dough vigorously for 10 minutes, using the “stretch and tear” method it you can. This involves pushing the dough away from you very firmly with the ball of your hand and then when it begins to tear, bringing it back towards you in a sort of folding action. The result is to stretch the glutens in the flour, giving the dough strength and structure. After 10 minutes of this you will be tired but you should have a nice smooth, elastic dough.

Form the dough into a rough ball and put it into a clean bowl. Cover it tightly with a plastic showercap or similar. [Warning: if you use a fabric cover, make sure it is wetted and remains moist. Otherwise your dough may form a hard crust, which is undesirable at this stage.)

Place the bowl in the fridge for 12 – 24 hours. This will be the “First Proving”.

Stage 4 – refresh and shape the dough.

Remove the dough from the fridge and leave it for half an hour to warm up.

Tip / scrape the dough out onto your worksurface (see above concerning flouring).

Flatten the dough roughly and then do a “Stretch and Fold”. This means pulling the dough out from the centre and then folding it back in. After each such action, turn the dough through 90 degrees and repeat (4 such actions equate to one Stretch and Fold). This gives the dough extra strength – it’s a bit like building up muscles through exercising!

Shape the dough into a rough ball and either return it to the bowl and cover it as before, OR leave the dough on the worksurface but cover it with the inverted bowl.

Leave it for half an hour and then do another Stretch and Fold. Form it into a rough ball.

Cover the dough as before, and leave it for 10 – 15 minutes.

Generously dust your Banneton (or proving-basket) with flour. I use a mixture of Extra Strong White Bread flour and Rice Flour. The different (rather grainy) texture of the Rice Flour helps to prevent the dough sticking to the Banneton.

Uncover the dough and shape it. A good technique here involves using your hand with palms uppermost and sliding them almost underneath the ball of dough, whilst constantly rotating the dough until you are happy with the shape. The upper surface of the dough should be smooth and any irregularities will have been pushed underneath.

Gently move your dough into the Banneton and cover as before, preferably with a plastic shower-cap or equivalent.

Place the dough in the fridge for 8 – 12 hours. This is the “Second Proving”.

Note, if the dough is not rising very much, it may be a good idea to give it a few hours at room temperature. However, I recommend that it should always spend its last 1 – 2 hours in the fridge, which will help it to firm-up, which in turn will make it easier to tip out of the Banneton.

Stage 5 – Final shaping and baking.

Pre-heat the oven to 240C – which is about the maximum to which a normal domestic fan-oven will go.

Some people would at this stage put in the oven a pizza-stone or an upturned baking-tray. I use a purpose-made baking “cloche”, which is like a pottery pizza-stone but with a domed cover. It keeps in the steam and helps the dough to rise whilst assisting the formation of a nice crispy crust. The same effect can be achieved by using a cast-iron Dutch Oven. If using any of these items, put them in the oven as soon as you switch it on.

Coat a baker’s Peel with about 20g coarse polenta. The polenta acts like tiny marbles and will help the dough to slip off the peel at the desired moment. If you don’t have a Peel, use an upturned flat baking-tray.

The Peel, coated with polenta

Take your dough out of the fridge “at the last minute” so that it is still as firm as possible.

Upturn the Banneton over the Peel and tap sharply. The dough should drop out.

Using a VERY sharp knife or preferably a dedicated “Lame” (basically an old-fashioned razor-blade fixed in a handle for safety), slash the top of your dough at least once, very deeply. This will allow steam to escape during baking, thus avoiding uneven and unsightly cracking of the crust. If you want, you can spend some time making additional fancy slash-patterns, but this is for purely aesthetic purposes!

Dough after tipping-out from the Banneton, showing long deep slash in the top surface

Using the palms-uppermost technique described above, give your dough a final shaping.

If you are not using a cloche, open the oven and give it a few squirts of water from a spray bottle. This will create steam which will help with the texture of the bread’s crust. If using a cloche or Dutch Oven, omit this stage, just remove its lid.

As quickly as possible, slide the dough off the Peel onto the base of your cloche, Dutch Oven, or pizza-stone, replace the cloche / Dutch Oven lid if relevant and close the oven door.

Bake at 240C for 35 minutes.

Remove the lid of the cloche / Dutch Oven and turn the oven temperature down to 200C (180C fan).

Bake for a further 15 – 20 minutes. During this time the crust will colour-up. If it is going too brown for your liking, turn the oven temperature down a little or cover the loaf with a piece of foil.

Test to see if the loaf is fully baked by lifting it in an oven-glove or tea-towel and tapping it sharply on the underside. If it is cooked you will hear a hollow sound. If not, it will make a dull thud!

When fully baked, remove the loaf from the oven and allow it to cool on a wire cooling-rack.

The finished loaf. Despite the deep slash, the crust of this one still cracked!

In my opinion, the bread is best eaten when just ever so slightly warm, served with lashings of salted butter!

This texture is ideal for me - lots of air-bubbles but not huge ones!

This sort of bread keeps best if wrapped in a cloth or clean tea-towel.

Sunday 19 April 2020

Prime sowing time

For me, the month of April is prime time for sowing seeds and raising young plants. March is too soon - usually too cold and windy, often wet. May is too late for many things - they won't have a long enough season to reach maturity. Of course these are generalisations, and you have to use your instinct and experience to judge when is the best time to sow or plant. Experience tells me that it is probably best not to sow seeds for squashes or cucumbers before the start of May; otherwise I'll have to expend a lot of time, energy and ingenuity in keeping them from getting frosted or battered to death by hail. Likewise, beans (especially French beans) are very susceptible to frost damage and it makes sense to delay sowing them until the risk of frost has passed or is at least very low.

Kohlrabi "Kolibri F1"

Some of my seeds (e.g. carrots and parsnips) are sown directly into the raised beds, but I also like to raise a lot of my plants in small pots or modules, and transplant them later on. This means that I can protect them more easily from adverse weather. As I write this, my garden is full of little plants in pots, and naturally this means I can get them indoors or under cover if I need to do so.

I've written recently about my chillis and tomatoes, but in addition to those I have lots of other plants coming along too, such as Broccoli, Cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, Kohlrabi, Rocket, Lettuce and Beetroot.


Beetroot "Crosby's Egyptian"

Lettuce "Lobjoit's Green Cos" and "Saxo"

This year I'm making a special effort to keep my garden colourful, so I have sown seeds for Lupins, Calendulas, Marigolds and two types of Sunflower. The Marigold seeds are ones I saved from some plants I bought last year from a local Garden Centre. They were amazingly good and lasted ages, so I felt that I just had to save seeds from them (and they produced loads!). Unfortunately the germination rate of the saved seeds has been very poor - so far I only have three new plants!

Marigold seedling

The Calendula seeds were self-saved too, taken from plants originally grown from "Flighty's Favourites" seeds kindly given to me by Mike Rogers who writes the blog Flighty's Plot.

Sunflowers "Sunspot" and "Red Sun"

You'll notice that there are one or two blank spaces amongst the seedlings (see photo of sunflowers, above, for example). It's never guaranteed that all the seeds you sow will germinate, so it makes sense to sow a few more than you think you'll need. Giving away spare plants is easy enough, and in current lockdown circumstances I suspect that more people than ever will be grateful to accept any spares that you offer.

Here's a different type of seed-sowing - the "broadcast" method. I'm trying to establish a permanent supply or Parsley (a herb of which we use a lot). Alongside a fence and underneath some small fruit trees I have lots of Parsley plants, some of which are from last year, and some of those were in turn grown from plants sown the previous year. The idea is to have so many plants that I can afford to let some of them run to seed, and drop their seeds into the soil where they lie dormant until conditions are right for the next generation. You'll recall no doubt that Parsley is a biennial, i.e. it grows and is cropped in its first year and forms flowers (and therefore seeds) in its second year, so many of the plants in this photo are old ones.

I'll confess that I was a bit impatient this year. I couldn't see any Parsley germinating, so I threw down about half a packet of new seeds, simply scattered in amongst the old plants without covering them with soil or anything - this is called "broadcast sowing" I believe. Now of course I have hundreds of tiny Parsley seedlings, and I can't tell if they are self-sown ones or ones resulting from my broadcasting!

Parsley seedlings

Conditions are good just now for sowing and growing. We had a few hours of decent rain on Friday, so the soil is moist but not wet, and now we have sunshine and a gentle breeze so the little plants are well happy!

Thursday 16 April 2020

Potting-on tomato plants

My little tomato plants have recently been spending time in the garden getting acclimatised to outdoor conditions. Their colour looks better now (darker) and their stems are beginning to get sturdier.

It's time to move them to bigger pots (5" ones) because they are beginning to outgrow the little 3" ones.

Comparison of tomato plants in 5" and 3" pots

I think it is important to do this so-called "potting-on" at the right time, because if the plants remain in small pots for too long their roots can become overcrowded, which in turn adversely affects their development. On the Down side though is the fact that once they go into the bigger pots it becomes much more difficult to protect them (or bring them indoors) if the weather turns cold again, which is entirely possible. Frost in the first half of May is not uncommon here.

There's not a lot for me to say about the actual mechanics of potting-on. I think perhaps the best advice I can give is to water the plants an hour or so before doing the job, so that their compost is thoroughly moist. Then when you are ready you can turn each little pot upside down and give it a sharp tap, which will hopefully release the plant and its compost all together. If you can keep the rootball intact this will be much less stressful for the plant.

When the young plants are in their new homes it may be advantageous to water them again, to help settle them in. Also, place them in a shady position for a few hours to help them recover from "transplant shock". Don't forget to label them!

The potting-on task gives me another opportunity to select the best plants, and weed-out any that are not up to scratch. As it happens, this year ALL my plants are good enough to keep, but I only potted-on 30 of them - simply for space reasons. That's the number that I can fit into the gravel-trays which I use for moving the pots around the garden. Once I'm satisfied that the ones I transplanted are happily settled in their new pots, I'll give the remaining plants away.

In the black pots are Mint cuttings.

Eventually I plan to have 12 "big" tomato plants, grown as tall cordons, which I will grow in 35-litre pots, and 8 (possibly 10) bush-type ones, which will be grown in smaller containers. I say "possibly 10" because when a couple of the Maskotkas failed to germinate I sowed some more, and these are presently a long way behind in terms of development. By the time they are big enough to be useful they may find that all the available space has been used!

Monday 13 April 2020

Hardening-off chillis and tomatoes

For the last ten days or so we had have glorious weather - sunny most of the day, and unusually warm - so I have introduced my young chilli and tomato plants to the Great Outdoors a bit earlier than I had expected to do.

This is probably the most risky time of the young plants' life. If they are put outside when it is too cold they will suffer a severe growth-check, and may die, but if they are exposed to extreme heat or too much bright sunshine too early, they may get scorched and lose some of their leaves - of perhaps get completely "fried"!  Because I'm aware of this, I took my plants outside for their first taste of fresh air on a day when it was relatively dull, and only left them out for a couple of hours. Since then I have left them out for progressively longer periods, and have had them in the full sun for only part of the day. I'm still bringing them indoors at night-time though. Once the night-time temperatures are reliably in the 8/9/10C range, I'll be happy to leave them out for the full 24 hours, though I'll probably have them in the coldframe for the first few nights. [I'm sure most of you will know this, but gardeners call the procedure I have described "hardening-off".]

This year my chilli plants are looking particularly good. I said that this time last year too, but soon afterwards I re-potted the plants into bigger pots, and used some commercial compost which turned out to be contaminated with the awful aminopyralid weedkiller that has plagued my gardening efforts so badly for the last several years, and the plants suffered terribly. This year I will be using the same compost for potting-on as I have been using since the seeds were sown. This is partly due to the difficulties of buying compost of any sort during the Covid-19 lockdown, but not entirely so. This time I am using the SylvaGrow growing medium, for a variety of reasons: it is peat-free and thus better for the planet; it was good value (3 x 50L bags for £16 at my local garden centre before the lockdown started); and it's not made by Westland or Levington! These two companies (and Corteva, manufacturer of the evil weedkiller) have been the chief culprits in the contaminated compost saga, and have been largely dismissive when I have contacted them to discuss the issue, as I have done several times now. I also have to say that the Health and Safety Executive, who are responsible for policing this issue, have also been conspicuously ineffectual. They make the right noises when you contact them, then do nothing!

Another reason why my chillis are looking healthier than usual this year is that they have not been infested with aphids. I attribute this to the fact that this time I did not over-winter any of my plants from last year. I have now decided that bringing mature chilli plants back indoors is a bad idea, because I'm sure this is where all the aphids come from. Even if the plants have no visible aphids on them, I reckon there will usually be aphid eggs lurking on them or in their soil somewhere. This year's chillis, untroubled by aphids, are growing rapidly and already producing flowers - and I think, some fruits:

My tomatoes are a couple of weeks behind the chillis in terms of development, simply because I don't sow them until the chillis are ready to vacate the Growlight House in which they are kept in their early days. To be honest, I think they look quite pale and they are a little "leggier" than I would like. This may be a consequence of the compost / growing-medium, which may possibly not be ideally suited for raising plants from seed. They are definitely OK though, and I'm not unduly worried about them.

I'm being very careful to avoid stressing them too much by not taking them outside unless the conditions are just right. It's hard to believe we are still only in Mid-April; the weather makes it seem more like late June!