Monday, 30 August 2010

Harvest Time

Now seems like a good time to post a few pics of the current seasons crops.

I've been really busy with family stuff for the last few weeks so the garden is groaning under the weight of stuff that needs picking and storing. We've done very well on the stone fruits this year, the Victoria plum tree (above) has produced a large amount of fruit, and the damson Merryweather
 has, after several years of standing around doing nothing very much, produced a huge basketfull of fruit
ready for copious numbers of crumbles, and jam. Surprisingly, I find the fruits are also delicious raw, - I always associate damsons with jamming and cooking, -certainly the wild versions seem much more tart, but this cultivated variety is flavourful, rich and sweet. I would certainly recommend it, provide you're not in a rush as I planted this tree some four years or so ago.

The tomato plants have continued to crop well this year too,

so we will be having plenty of lovely tomato salad, with lots left over for makiing a delicous sauce for use all through the winter, I gave the recipe last year

I've also got round to buying a proper fruit press this year, so I'm hoping to be able to make the most of my windfall apples.
I tried to store my surplus crop last year, but I found that I lost quite a large number of fruits due to spoilage. Clearly any slightly blemished fruit will have to be used or juiced to avoid wastage, so my plan this year is to inspect all fruits for storage very carefully, and to use or juice the rest. I may even have a bash at cider making. I could be the Eddie Grundy of Latton, more details later.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Glad All Over

Horizontal Glad
The recent much needed rain has caused the usual late summer havoc in my garden, runner beans have fallen over on to the courgettes who must be wondering who turned the lights out, but won't be prevented from growing at a rate of knots even in the dark under the beans. Tall perennials have lurched alarmingly to the side under the weight of both themselves and the additional water, so I will have to set aside some time to go out and resurect some staking and reinforcements as soon as I can. Of course if I had done the job properly in the first place none of this would have happened, - I knew all the time that the first heavy rain would topple those swaying runner bean plants! The wigwam style beans are fine, it's just the ones in a long, insufficiently supported line that are suffering the effects of Gardener's Procrastination Syndrome - or That'll Do For Now, I'll Be Back Later To Finish. Lucky for me that I have about ten times more beans than two normal human beings can be expected to consume, even with the help of willing friends and neighbours. Next year I'll do better, honest I will..

Vertical Glad

The up-side of all the falling over is the unexpected increase in the supply of cut flowers for the house. Fortunately for me most late summer perennials seem to be quite self supporting, things like Rudbeckias, and Heleniums and so on, are rarely affected by bad weather unless it's really extreme, but if you have and of the tall Gladioli they will keel over without support in rain and wind. There are three solutions to this, (four if you count not growing them at all James), you can either be a Proper Gardener like Toby and Alan,(and my son James) and put in support canes early in the season, but see above under Gardener's Procrastination Syndrome. Or you could grow the smaller, more fashionable varieties which require no staking, like Galadiolus nana. Or, like me, you can plant them where you think they will be reasonably protected, hope for the best and use the ones that blow over for the house. I have to point out here  of course, for those of you who have your image to think of, that Glads are deeply deeply unfashionable, and you can only grow them if you're still wearing the same clothes you wore twenty years ago in the hope that they will eventually come back into fashion, or maybe you could grow them ironically, perhaps with three flying ducks on the fence behind them. I'm thinking I could develop this into a whole new style - "The Ironic Gardener", book and TV series to follow.

I only have a few glads, and only white ones, I think the variety is White Prosperity, butI really like them and I think I will get some more for next year. People used to dig up glads after they had flowered, like dahlias, and replant the following spring, but mine have been in the same place for several years and have survived even the hard winter we had last year, so like Dame Edna, and old ladies everywhere they are clearly tougher than they look and will soldier on regardless of whether you like them or not.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Millionaire's Shortbread Recipe

If you have a family of what my mother calls "good eaters", (as if it were a kind of skill like dentistry or playing the oboe) like our family, having  a tray of a great standby bake like Millionaire's Shortbread in the fridge pleases everyone and lasts through various teas and snacks over a lovely family weekend such as we have just enjoyed. Everyone knows what it is, the biscuity bit, the caramelly bit and the chocolate on top.

So far so good. But I'm afraid that many of the things I have sampled which purported to be Millionaire's Shortbread were in fact nothing of the kind, Skinflint's Biscuits of the worst sort, mere impersonations of the proper thing. I have even come across these Fagin's Follies in National Trust Tearooms of all places, I know they have to make a profit but really! A thick dry wedge of biscuit, a thin scraping of caramel topped with an even thinner scraping of chocolate, or, deary me, "chocolate flavoured" something or another.

It's quite simple, you just have to think "generous" in all respects. In terms of millionaires, Think Zsa Zsa Gabor, not Srallan Sugar.

Millionaire's Shortbread
8 oz/250gr plain flour
6oz/175gr butter
2oz/50gr icing sugar

Whizz all together in processor until the mixture binds together, then press into a 8"x12" tin and bake in a low oven until slightly golden. Do not overbrown.

1 x 1kilo tin condensed milk
10oz/300gr butter
10oz/300gr soft dark brown sugar

Melt the sugar and butter together in a saucepan over a low heat. Stir in the condensed milk and continue to stir over a medium heat until the mixture is a rich brown colour. Should take about five minutes or so. Don't leave it to answer the door, or stop stirring as it will immediately burn. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
Spread over the shortbread and allow to set.

 300gr bar of good milk chocolate (I recommend Lidl's Madagascan chocolate)

Melt the chocolate and spread over the caramel. Chill in fridge.

1 You could probably use a bigger tin as I had some left over even with this generous layer. Half quantities would do in an 8" tin if you're on a diet, or have a small  family with delicate tastes.
2  Leftover caramel can be kept in a jar in the fridge and warmed with some cream to make a hot caramel sauce for ice cream.
3 You should have about a centimetre/half inch of shortbread, topped with a very generous layer of caramel and enough chocolate to crack invitingly when you try to slice it straight from the fridge. Probably best in small squares, they can always ask for more.
Proper job.

Friday, 20 August 2010

The Wasp Lady Returns

The lovely Laura, our local wasp exterminator from Wiltshire Council has had to make a return visit as I discovered after her last visit that we were still inundated with small stripy visitors, this time coming from the opposite side of the roof, and so a different nest. I had a look up in the roof space and found this
and  this is just the bit you can see, the exit point is some feet away so there's likely to be quite a bit more of it on the other side of the masonry. The third wasp nest this year.  Actually I took this photo after her visit, just to be on the safe side, that's why you can't see any wasps flying about. The nests really are the most amazing looking things, made of chewed up wood collected by the wasps from the surrounding area. (I was wondering why my garden furniture was looking a bit "distressed", at this rate it will soon be a danger for all but very thin people to sit on.)

All gardening by it's very nature entails management of wildlife to a greater or lesser extent, I don't like to kill anything for no reason, but it's true to say that I think nothing of crushing a few slugs under my wellie, and removing hundreds of aphids with the water hose or just wiping them off with my finger, whilst at the same time I encourage worms with a wormery, feed wild birds, and provide harbourages for ladybirds. No life form is intrinsically bad, it's just that some are more useful to the gardener than others. If I thought there was any danger to the population of grey squirrels, rats, wasps, foxes, wood pigeons, and rabbits, I would certainly feel obliged to provide environments to encourage their numbers, but we are in danger of being overrun with grey squirrels in England, and I can no longer allow my chickens and ducks to range freely in my garden because of marauding foxes. My eyes are trained to spot the first sign of a rat run near the duck house in winter, and I immediately put poison down to kill them, retrieving and burning any cadavers that I find(so that they pose less of a danger to animals further along the food chain such as owls). 

Mice are a problem too, but because they are mostly harmless wood mice and voles that like to eat my early pea and bean seedlings, I generally find that I can take measures to outwit them by sowing indoors in covered pots and containers, and not resorting to anything more drastic unless they take it into their heads to come indoors during the winter, which they sometimes do. Anyway, I suppose what I'm saying is it's a matter of moderation and tolerance wherever possible, realising that ones garden is a living part of the landscape and not something superimposed upon it, -  no one wants to live in a sterile desert, at least I don't, but sometimes I have to admit it's just a matter or me or them!

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Marsh (and other) Mallows

When you mention marshmallow, most people think of the pink and white fluffy sweet things. And not the delicate wild flower above, Althea officinalis. Of course, the sweets or an ancient version of them, used to be made with extract of the roots or leaves of the plant, although modern marshmallows, you may be relieved to hear, no longer contain any trace of the plant. Now it's just sugar and glue (not really).
Marshmallow contains a large proportion of what herbalists call "mucilage", which when mixed with water forms a kind of gel which is used topically to reduce skin inflammation, or can be taken internally to calm inflammation of the throat or stomach. "Mucilage"sounds pretty unappetising, so I guess a large amount of sugar would have helped to make it more attractive to the consumer/patient. I've never tried making anything with my marshmallows, but I do like the plants, they are tall, with rather soft velvety foliage and delicate flowers of the palest marshmallow pink - I didn't plant them, they just appeared on their own in the bog garden (so weeds then really) next to the pond. I have an overgrown area of yellow irises and the marshmallow grows happily amongst them, together with a few Willow Herbs and Purple Loosestrife, which I know people think are dreadful weeds but I quite like them and I justify them as being a good dinner for the Elephant Hawk Moth,and bees and butterflies generally. The marshmallows look a bit like a wild and more delicate form of hollyhock, Althea rosea, to which they are closely related

All kinds of mallow make good cottage garden plants, - especially the white form of the common mallow Malva moschata

 which again appears uninvited and is a sparkling white low growing flower that goes on for ages, so I usually leave it to grow. It's easy enough to pull out if it gets a bit too rampant.  And then there's the good old hollyhock, Althea rosea, which I love but it always gets rust in my garden so I don't usually have them unless my brother gives me a few of his spares.

And finally there's the shrubby mallow, or Lavatera

which I grow as an easy fast growing plant for difficult places. It's unfussy and never fails to produce its mass of bright pink flowers in the summer months. This one is a proper garden plant and numerous named varieties are available, notably Lavatera Barnsley which is a softer colour than this ordinary one in my garden,  but they all need to be cut back after flowering though, or they just get very woody and bare at the base. They strike easily from cuttings, and it's just as well to have a few coming along as the plants are often short lived and die away after a few years.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Blueberries or Blackcurrants?

I don't really get blueberries. To be fair, I don't have the right kind of garden for them, they are ericaceous, or lime hating plants, in the same class as rhododendrons which also luckily don't grow here. So I have two blueberries in pots.

I got them because I kept reading how delicious/ fruitful/ good for you they are. And easy to grow. My two plants in pots did nothing the first year, so to give them more space I potted them in half barrels (old water butts that I sawed in half, and I used rather expensive ericaceous compost).  And they have produced a little fruit this year. Thing is though,I'm not impressed with the flavour overly much. And the quantity would have been fine if I'd been looking for the kind of quantity I need with say cranberries, (ie a couple of handfuls per annum for some sauce to go with the turkey) They are low acid, and therefore edible raw, but they tasted a bit dry mealy and uninteresting. Is it just me? Tesco's are selling them by the ton. It must be just me.

But give me a blackcurrant anyday. Now there's a proper berry. Juicy, tons of them on each bush, and enough acid to strip the paint off the garage doors. That's the kind of berry we like in England. There are some new varieties introduced in recent years that are meant to produce larger sweeter berries, such as Big Ben and according to Graham Rice's New Plant Blog on the RHS website can be eaten raw so I'm intending to give them a go, since my old plants are just that, getting on a bit, and producing less and less each year. I would also like to give Jostaberries a go since I heard Bob Flowerdew recommending them. And there's a man who knows his fruit, if not his hairstyles.

Blackcurrants make excellent jam, second only to damsons in my book, partly because they are strongly flavoured and highly acidic. But they also do very well in traditional English puds like Blackcurrant crumble, a great favourite of Him Indoors. You can even make your own Ribena, and I discovered by accident last year, that if you bottle some blackcurrant coulis you can make an instant dessert simply by mixing the coulis into a little ramekin of double cream. Blackcurrant coulis, by the way is not as complicated as it sounds, and is just a posh way of saying sieved stewed fruit. A recipe would be something like

Blackcurrant Coulis
8oz/250gr blackcurrants in a saucepan with a little water and sugar to taste. Probably about 3 or 4 oz.
Stir over gentle heat to dissolve the sugar then  bring to a gentle simmer for a minute or two, just enough to soften the skins a little, then pour into a processor and blitz to a puree.
Pour through a strainer to get rid of pips.
Bottle in hot sterilized jars, or freeze in little plastic pots.

Instant Blackcurrant Pudding
First of all I apologize for the name, it sounds like one of those horrible powder things you get in packets, but I can't think what else to call it, it's not a mousse, no air or whipping involved, it's not set with jelly or anything, just fruit and cream. Blackcurrant Cream maybe?

Pour some double cream into a ramekin dish, and stir in a few teaspoons of your coulis to taste. Miraculously the cream will thicken up as you gently stir, and voila, your dessert. I do like to understand how things work so if anyone can explain the science behind this miraculous transformation, I would love to hear it, (it doesn't seem to work with other fruits I've tried)- I'm not whipping the cream in any way, it's not curdling or separating at all, but it just thickens into a lovely creamy dessert.

PS did youknow that blackcurrants contain seven times as much vitamin c as apples? Considering that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, if you planted a couple of bushes of the new blackcurrant Big Ben, you could probably deter a whole range of NHS personnel in no time at all.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Wasps and The Waspinator

I had a visit from the Wiltshire Council Pest Control Department this morning. Which is not as alarming as it sounds, it was the Wasp Lady as I call her, a lovely lady who gets rid of wasps nests in difficult positions.  I don't mean she does it standing on one leg, it's the nest that's in the difficult position, in the roof space once again, same as last year. The Wasp Lady is kitted up in bee suit, or wasp suit I suppose, and a spray on the end of a long lance which enables her to reach up to the roof level. It costs £50, but is a necessary expense for me to protect my beehives from wasp invasion.

As I've mentioned before, wasps are a bit of a menace if you're a beekeeper, as they usually turn to robbing the beehives at some stage during the summer. I always wait to see if this will happen before ringing the council, as I would otherwise leave the wasps well alone, but I have found that my strong hive has a battalion of guard bees at the hive entrance fending off the wasps quite successfully, but my other hive, the weaker one is looking  pretty much overwhelmed by the invasion. Wasps steal not only honey from beehives, but being carnivores they also eat the larvae, and even the bees,  and over time can destroy a weak colony of bees. In fact we have two wasp nests in the garden, but the other one is in the ground and I can deal with this one myself. It's an easy matter to don my bee suit, and spray the nest with a proprietory wasp nest destroyer, best time to do it is at dusk when fewer insects are flying.

At least this is what I've had to do until I discovered the Waspinator recommended on Sarah Raven's website, and anything that's good enough for the sainted Sarah is good enough for me. They are imitation wasp nests which are apparently very effective at convincing wasps that the area is already occupied by another colony and so they give it a wide berth. Frankly it sounds pretty improbable but they are sold out on Sarah Raven** though still available from the manufacturers direct, so I've just sent off for a couple of Waspinators, and I will see whether they work and report back in due course. It would be lovely to have something that just kept wasps away, and didn't involve toxic chemicals and/or wholesale death and destruction. Generally speaking I'm in favour of life, rather than death, even for wasps.

**See comment below

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

An At Risk Group

To quote one of my favourite comedians, David Mitchell,
"I do not have OCD, I've checked . Three or four hundred times. I definitely don't. I've stopped myself catching it by washing my hands an even number of times. But I'm aware I'm in an 'at risk group' "

If you grow sweet peas, you may notice a tendency towards this kind of behavior. I certainly do. I took the dog out this morning in the pouring rain, the first pouring rain I've seen for ages so I wasn't complaining, just put the wellies on and set off, and  we were making a fairly cracking pace towards the front gate when I was obliged to stop and attend to this

Seed pods on the sweet peas. (Variety Cupani, by the way, an old fashioned variety with smaller but highly scented flowers) Seed pods however, are not allowed to form on the sweet peas, it contravenes Garden Regulation 472 paragraph 7 subsection 3.1, which clearly states that if you allow a seed pod to ripen on sweet peas the plant will fail to initiate any further flowers even if you take it off later and it will just sit there for the rest of the summer, a pile of pale green leaves and tendrils. I'm not sure that this is even correct, my sweet peas grow in a tangle on a wigwam so it's impossible to discern accurately. But I'm not taking any chances, and so every single time I pass the wigwams I have to stop and gather any seed pods that may have formed since last time I walked past, even if it was only ten minutes ago.
I have to do it. Even in a force ten gale, three feet of snow have fallen, and the house is on fire, David's revving the car in the drive waiting for me to open the gate because we're late, I just have to stop for the few seconds it takes to pick them off.

But of course however careful you are, like the labours of Penelope you will never finish, and this morning when Mo and I came back some twenty damp minutes after the first Seed Pod Incident and we were both desperate to get into the kitchen, dry out, and have a cup of tea (she likes tea), I spotted out of the corner of my eye...

there it is, lurking at the back.  And there were numerous others too.So we had to stand there in the pouring rain just to pick off the rogue seed pods ( actually I did all the picking, she just sat there in the rain, no help at all...)

I'm definitely in an "at risk group".

Tuesday, 3 August 2010


I had intended to show you a mouthwatering array of home grown toms, but I seem to have got the light setting wrong on the camera for this shot and they all look more anaemic than Tesco's offerings. So you must take my word for it that they are lovely -the varieties for gardener's info are top row left to right Black Prince, Mr Stripy, Marmande, and bottom row left to right Sungold, Sweet Million, Costelluto Fiorentina. I would recommend any of them, but I especially liked Black Prince, with it's dark and unusual colouring, but delicious flavour, and Mr Stripy is good too, -I think this is also known as Tigerella in some catalogues.

So far, and I hardly dare say it, there is no trace of the dreaded tomato blight. Not wishing to be slow to award myself the credit for success I am putting this mostly down to my Anti Blight Measures taken earlier in the year, (although I also suspect that the much drier weather this year has helped quite a bit too).  We are getting a steady and manageable supply of ripe tomatoes at the moment, plenty for salads and everyday needs with some to give away, but not a super huge amount for sauce making for the freezer as yet.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the plants keep on producing and stay healthy. Any one else had improvements on blight this year?


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