Saturday 30 May 2020

The Broad Beans keep me waiting

My Broad Beans have finally deigned to set some pods.

Now that I can see these tiny pods, I really really want them to hurry up and mature! Looking back at my records I see that last year my first Broad Beans weren't harvested until 18th June, but the previous year I picked some on 6th June. Of course different years have different weather conditions, and I don't grow the same varieties of bean every year, so all I can say is that my 2020 beans will be ready "soon".

One of the varieties I'm growing this year, and the first that I planted, is "Express", which is supposed to produce an extra-early harvest, but it doesn't seem to be playing along with this. It is growing in the same bed as some "Imperial Green Longpod" and some "Witkiem Manita", but it's looking as if they may all be ready at the same time, which is annoying, because I had been hoping for a more spread-out harvesting period this year!

In view of the coronavirus situation and the initial uncertainty of food supply, I didn't throw away any of my spare Broad Bean plants this year; I just squeezed them into some little corners of the garden. Ironically, the biggest and healthiest-looking of all my beans are these "Imperial Green Longpod" ones, late-planted spares that ended up at the bottom of the garden next to my log-pile, Comfrey patch and second compost-bin.

These plants are definitely the ones with the most flowers, but I know from past experience that many of them won't set pods.

Well they say that "What's worth having is worth waiting for", so the beans had better be good!

Wednesday 27 May 2020

Planting cucumbers

In the absence of a greenhouse or polytunnel, all my cucumbers are grown outdoors - and quite successfully too, I must add. Of course this means I have to judge when the weather is right, and not plant them out too soon. Well, keeping a close eye on the 10-day weather forecast, I reckoned that yesterday (Tuesday) was the right time to do it - lots of sunshine during the days, and mild nights for the foreseeable future.

I had everything ready to go for the task - tubs filled with compost and enhanced with fertiliser; poles (Hazel rods 6.5 feet tall, tied at the top) erected; plants hardened-off - so planting was actually a very quick job.

The only advice I can offer here is to avoid planting too deeply. Cucumbers dislike having their stems in contact with damp / wet soil, so if you can, plant them on a little mound.

This is the first of my two cucumber tubs. I've put in it 2 x "Delikatess" and one each of "Diva" and "Passandra". These ones will be used to produce what I'll call "normal" (though small) cucumbers.

The second tub also has four plants, 2 each of "Vorgebirgstrauben" and "Venlo Pickling". These ones will be used to produce tiny fruits for pickling as gherkins of cornichons.

You might be wondering what the lines of string are for. Well, they serve two purposes: to provide some support for the plants until they manage to grab the Hazel poles; and to deter the nocturnal animals. I have found that sometimes a fox will actually climb into a big pot if it believes there's a chance of finding something edible in it (a juicy worm, perhaps?).

With the weather these last few days having been sunny and hot, I thought carefully about when to plant the cucumbers (I mean what time of day). I didn't want them to get scorched and dehydrated, so I waited until the site of their new home was going to be in the shade for at least 12 hours. I've also moved a potted Bay tree a few times, arranging it so as to provide a bit of shade for the young cucumbers. Once the plants are established they will enjoy the direct sunlight, but they do need a chance to settle in first.

In my usual fashion, I have some spare plants just in case there are any casualties, and I have to admit that I have used one of them already.... the rootball of one of the young plants disintegrated as I was removing it from its pot, and the roots were damaged, so I have discarded that one and used a spare.

Sunday 24 May 2020

Windy weather

Over the past few days we have had some incredibly windy weather - the sort of winds you expect to get in December or January, but not in late May. Fortunately the Met Office had been predicting this wind for quite a while, so I was able to make suitable preparations...

Having waited so long to plant my Runner beans, on account of the very cold weather the previous week, I really did NOT want to lose them! Being young and fragile, I considered them highly likely to be damaged by the wind, so I rigged up a windbreak for them. It consisted of a double thickness of horticultural fleece wrapped around four garden chairs, and held in place by multiple clothes pegs. This is it:-

My Broad Beans were in danger too. They are just at the setting pods stage, so it would be a real shame to lose them. Ironically, this is the first time for many years that I have not staked the plants individually. They are in a (mostly) self-supporting block, protected from the diggers (foxes etc) by a net draped over some bamboo canes. Using my last available piece of fleece I made this shelter for them:-

The fleece wan't long enough to reach all the way round, so obviously I left exposed the side I considered least vulnerable.

My very precious chilli plants were tucked away mostly in the lower level of my big coldframe, but with some having to go in the garage, which fortunately gets a bit of light through a side window. 

The upper level of the coldframe was crammed with as many trays of seedlings as I could fit in.

The difficulty with this was the fact that although the weather was windy, it was also very sunny and quite warm (about 20C in the early afternoon), and the little plants didn't really want to be in a glass container, and I had to water them frequently.

Anyway, the good news is that despite 48 hours of buffeting, my plants have survived. Some of the Broad Beans are severely bent over, but I expect they will right themselves in a day or two. Other than that, there seems to be no damage. The chillis are out in the fresh air again, much to their relief I'm sure.

Actually, it's surprising what effect a couple of days in very low light levels can have on a chilli plant. The leaves seem very dull and "peaky". Today I have given them a dose of "Tomorite" plant-food which will hopefully perk them up. Lots of them have plenty of fruits on now, though none of them are ripe yet.

These cucumbers, currently being hardened-off, will be planted out in the next day or two (some of them, at least). I bet they were glad to have been indoors during the recent gales, because they are very fragile.

As you can see, I have far too many cucumber plants (there are 16 in this photo, and more elsewhere!). I probably only need 8, but my normal technique is to raise a lot more plants than I think I will use, so that I always have some spares. Plants as delicate as these would never had withstood the recent winds.

Friday 22 May 2020


My veg-plot is fully populated with plants now - there is hardly a square inch of bare soil! However, I haven't yet got much to harvest. This is the time often referred to as the Hungry Gap, when all the previous Winter's crops have been used up and before any of the new season's ones are ready.

We have been eating a fair bit of Baby Leaf Salad and Rocket, but the high spot of this week has been the harvest of my first big batch of Radishes. We had had a few prior to this, but just half a dozen at a time. Here we have 2 x "Cherry Belle", 3 x "Malaga Purple", 2 x "White Icicle" (aka "Eiszapfen" from Lidl!)and 3 x "French Breakfast".

This is different though...

There are four different varieties of Radish in these photos. The round red ones are "Scarlet Globe" and "Cherry Belle", the long red-and-white ones are "French Breakfast", and on the top of the pile are just two "Malaga Purple".

To produce good Radishes I think there are probably three golden rules:
1. Choose a site that will get lots of sunlight
2. Sow the seed thinly - about an inch between seeds.
3. Water frequently, regularly and copiously

Radishes grown in dry soil almost always bolt before plumping-up, but even if they do, all is not lost. You can let them flower and produce seeds for sowing next year - and the seed-pods are edible too!

When it comes to eating Radishes, yes we do sometimes have them sliced as a salad ingredient, but our favourite way to eat them is dipped in salt, as an accompaniment to a pre-dinner drink.

If I had heaps of Radishes I might be tempted to cook some, because I've heard that they are nice stir-fried, or even roasted. Likewise, you can eat the leaves (lightly steamed, to accompany Chinese food is a good way, apparently). All this is hypothetical though, because I never have large quantities of Radishes and I don't want to risk being without our favourite snack!

Tuesday 19 May 2020

New potatoes coming along nicely

My efforts with protecting my potatoes, first with the mini-greenhouses and latterly with the fleece, seem to have paid off. The plants are looking big, strong and healthy.

For me, growing potatoes is not about quantity and big harvests; it's about a small but satisfying crop of good-quality potatoes, much better (and certainly much fresher) than anything you can buy in a shop.

I have only 12 containers of potatoes (they are 35-litre ones), so it is relatively easy to look after them. Apart from protecting them frost, and in their early days earthing them up, the most important thing to do is water them well. The soil in containers can dry out very rapidly in hot weather, and potatoes don't like that. Dry soil in particular promotes the disfiguring disease Scab. Since there has been very little rainfall recently I have been watering my pots about every other day. In warmer weather I would probably increase this to once a day.

The foliage of my potatoes is very fresh-looking still, and perkily upright, so this tells me that it's unlikely there are any sizeable tubers down below just yet. As the tubers begin to swell the foliage tends to flop and it starts to lose its bright green colour.

Another sign of approaching maturity is the appearance of flowers. However, though some potato varieties produce quite large and sometimes colourful flowers, others only have very small and insignificant ones. This "Colleen" plant is obviously one of the latter!

At the rate things are proceeding - and a spell of warm sunny weather is forecast for our area - I think we are on track for harvesting the first potatoes in about 3 to 4 weeks' time. Of course the first ones to be lifted will be First Early varieties and their yield will not be huge, but I fully expect them to be lovely and tasty!

Sunday 17 May 2020

Planting-out Runner Beans

In retrospect, I think I sowed my Runner and Borlotto beans a week too early. They were ready for planting-out just as we went into the spell of very cold weather that has just ended. Beans like this are not frost-hardy, so I had to keep them under cover in a coldframe each night. They grow very rapidly and now they are bigger than I would normally let them get before planting; however they look strong and healthy, so delaying a week doesn't seem to have done them any harm.

Here's a better view of the Runners. They are "Scarlet Emperors".

And these are Borlotti - "Lingua di Fuoco".

The Runners are going to be grown in one of my raised beds, supported by 9-foot Hazel poles, and the Borlotti will live in a large (60-litre) container, with 6-foot-six poles.

I have planted 10 Runner beans, each with its own pole to climb. I've also put in four "Cobra" climbing French beans, one at the base of each end pole. The "Cobras" are very poor by my normal standards, but luckily I sowed another batch, which will go in when they are big enough. I very seldom rely on one sowing of anything (especially beans), and I like to have some reserves waiting in the wings for occasions like this.

Climbing French bean "Cobra"

Just recently I have been having terrible problems with Blackbirds. They dig up everything in their search for food (currently more urgent than usual, because a pair of them is nesting in my hedge and probably have babies to feed). Little plant seedlings are shown no mercy, and anything unprotected is in grave danger of destruction. Accordingly, I have protected my newly-planted Runner beans with this array of obstacles:-

Down the middle of the bed is an old Army groundsheet, and between the poles I have placed some terracotta tiles.

I'm not expecting this arrangement to provide complete protection, but I hope that it will at least minimise the damage. I've already seen some Blackbirds inspecting it and looking very puzzled (and no doubt indignant!). One additional benefit of the covering with the groundsheet is that it will act as a sort of mulch, reducing water loss from the soil. I must remember to look underneath it frequently though, and dispose of any slugs that decide to hide there.

Here are the Borlotti I planted. They are big healthy plants, so I only put in one per pole. I'll keep the others as spares.

This is a view of where the tub for the Borlotti is sited - in the corner of the garden where the Comfrey and Horseradish are.

Right, so the beans are in! Let's hope we don't get any more frost now until the Autumn.

Friday 15 May 2020

Foraging again

Because of the coronavirus pandemic I have not been out foraging for several weeks, but on Wednesday, following the relaxation of some of the Lockdown rules, I ventured out into the woods for a short foray. The urge to find mushrooms is strong in me!

I was not disappointed either. My first find was a patch of Mitrula paludosa, the Bog Beacon.

These little things are not edible, but they are interesting nonetheless. Their favoured habitat is stagnant water or loose mud. I usually find them in flooded ditches.

To give you an idea of their size, here's a photo of one next to a carefully-balanced 20p coin.

I also found this solitary specimen of Leccinum scabrum, the Brown Birch Bolete. May is very early in the year to find any type of Bolete mushroom. They normally start appearing in mid-Summer, so I was surprised to find this one.

The second part of this mushroom's binomial derives from the rough black "scabers" (aka scabs) which cover its stipe (or stem).

This is an edible species, but the one I found was not in particularly good condition, and in any case I find the Brown Birch Bolete a rather unexciting mushroom to eat, so I didn't bring it home. The taste is quite bland and the cap flesh can be quite "sluggy"!

Later in my walk I came across something a lot more exciting - Laetiporus sulphureus - Chicken Of The Woods - for brevity's sake I'll refer to it as COTW.

COTW is highly sought-after in the foraging world, but from my observations not particularly common on NE Hampshire. I have only ever found a good one once before, and that was in August 2018. This week I went back to the exact tree where I had found it on that occasion. There was no sign of it there, but just 50 yards away I found this small specimen growing on the rotten wood of a long-fallen Oak tree.

Of course I would like to have found a bigger one, but as they say "Beggars can't be Choosers", so I cut it and brought it home anyway. I shall remember this place for next year too!

Despite being a small specimen the one I found was definitely big enough to form the basis of a tasty meal. This is what I did with it:-

Initially, I washed it, sliced it into thin strips, and simmered it in water for about 15 minutes. This ensures that the mushroom is fully cooked. As with many wild mushrooms, some people experience an adverse reaction to COTW, and I think it is best to ensure something like this is fully cooked in order to lessen the likelihood of problems. In case you're wondering, parboiling doesn't seem to diminish the flavour.

COTW prior to boiling.

After draining the boiled COTW, the next step was to fry it in oil and butter for about 10 minutes. Some people would add Garlic at this point, but I think that would overpower the taste of the mushroom. Notice how the colour of the mushroom darkens as it cooks.

When the mushroom began to turn crispy at the edges I threw in a handful of chopped herbs from the garden - Thyme, Parsley and Chives.

While the mushrooms had been frying I also been cooking some bacon, asparagus and toast, which I brought together like this:-

Actually the dish included one further element, which I added after that final photo had been taken - a generous dollop of Hollandaise sauce on top of the asparagus!

My opinion of the COTW is strongly positive. While the flavour is not particularly strong, it is very pleasant - almost fruity - and the texture is firm but meaty, very much like cooked real chicken. I'm hoping to find more of this lovely mushroom in the weeks to come.

Wednesday 13 May 2020

Sowing cucumbers

I have learned the hard way that it is not sensible to sow cucumber seeds too early. I don't have a greenhouse or polytunnel, so all my cucurbits are grown outdoors, and in the past I have often had to expend far too much time, effort and ingenuity in keeping alive some spindly little cucumber plants amidst floods of cold rain and gales of bitingly-cold wind, when it would have been better to delay a week or two. Seeds sown later will usually produce stronger plants and will grow more rapidly. With this in mind, I believe that Early to Mid-May is the best time to sow seeds for cucumbers and other cucurbits, such as squashes and courgettes.

"Cocktail"-type cucumbers.

This year I am growing three distinct types. The first is what I call "cocktail cucumbers" - ones that produce small fruits (about 6ins / 15cm long). I think these are more flexible for use in the kitchen than the big long ones, though many of them do have quite tough skins which need to be peeled off. The second type are ones that are grown to produce masses of tiny fruits for pickling as gerkhins or cornichons. Their fruits do grow bigger (again, about 6ins / 15cm) if you leave them, but are traditionally picked much smaller. The third type is a squash, not a cucumber. It is a Butternut variety called "Butterfly F1".

Cucumber "Vorgebirgstrauben"

Many cucurbit seeds, particularly of F1 varieties, are quite expensive and you don't get many seeds in a packet - maybe just 6 or 8 - and the seeds are quite big, so it is eminently practical to sow the seeds individually in separate modules, which makes planting-out much easier in due course. However, I have recently taken to buying many of my seeds from Lidl (the German supermarket), and these are typically much cheaper and the packs contain a lot more seeds. A lot of their seeds are of varieties that are not very common in the UK too, which appeals to me. Last year I bought "Vorgebirgstrauben" and "Delikatess" from Lidl, and both varieties did really well for me, so I'm growing them again, along with another one called "Venlo Pickling".

Cucumber "Delikatess"

Since the Lidl packs all contained loads of seeds I felt justified in sowing two seeds per module, as a sort of insurance against poor germination, whereas with the more expensive Big Brand F1 varieties I sowed only one per module. Of the latter I have two varieties - "Diva" and "Passandra". I'll only need one, possibly two, Butternut squash plants so I sowed three seeds in individual modules.

I sowed my seeds in moist compost and kept the modules indoors, where the daytime temperature would have been in the low 20s Celsius most of the time, until germination, which was amazingly rapid: I sowed the seeds on a Sunday, and most of them germinated on the Wednesday or Thursday. I needn't have worried about poor germination, because almost all the seeds have come up.

There has only been one no-show:

Which variety was it? Yes, you guessed it - "Diva"!

Since many of those modules have two little plants in them I now have the job of selecting the best one and removing the weaker one from each. This always feels cruel, but honestly it is for the best. The seedlings will do better without competition from rivals. Obviously this is not a good approach if you are using expensive F1 seeds - sow those in separate modules from the start!

I'm going to keep my cucumbers indoors overnight for the next week or ten days, but I will take them outside for a few hours a day whenever I think it is warm enough, so that they gradually become accustomed to outdoor conditions. They certainly wouldn't survive the extremely cold night-time temperatures we experienced earlier in the week!

Monday 11 May 2020

Potting-up Brussels sprouts

I usually start my brassicas in multi-sown pots - 10 or 12 seeds in a 6-inch pot - and then put them into individual pots when they are big enough. This technique seems to me to be easier than dealing with lots of little pots right from the word go. It also means that at the appropriate moment I can select the best seedlings and discard any that seem weak.

This year I sowed my Brussels sprouts seeds on April 10th. They were one pot each of "Attwood F1" and "Green Marble F1". A few days ago I judged them ready for potting-up. I reckon this stage is reached when they have developed two proper leaves in addition to the cotyledons (seed-leaves), as shown here:

Brussels sprout "Green Marble F1"

You can see that this pot of "Attwood F1" seedlings is beginning to look pretty crowded now and the seedlings need to be given homes of their own.

Just to illustrate my point further, this pot of "Greyhound" cabbages, sown on the same day as the Brussels sprouts is not ready yet. The seedlings are still mostly very small. The two biggest ones would probably be OK to transplant, but not the others.

Brussels sprouts are big plants and take a long time to reach maturity, so in my small garden I can really only find room for about four of them (normally grown in the same bed as my PSB), so in my usual fashion I have potted-up eight, allowing for the possibility of some casualties as a result of Cabbage Root Fly or whatever.

To help me identify the two types, I have put the "Green Marble" ones in black pots and the "Attwood" ones in terracotta-coloured ones. This means I don't need to label them individually. When the "Greyhound" cabbages are ready I'll probably put them in square pots so that they are easily distinguishable from the Brussels sprouts.

These little seedlings are destined to be planted in the bed currently occupied by my Broad Beans, which won't be vacant for perhaps another month, so it's possible that they will outgrow these pots and need putting into bigger ones, but we'll cross that bridge when we get there, as the saying goes.

Broad Beans "Express"