Sunday, 30 January 2011

January Gardening

I've been busy doing "January Gardening". That is, not bestirring myself to go out into the actual garden, (brrrr!)  but flicking through seed catalogues, and thinking what I would be doing if only it wasn't so cold and mudddy out there. What a wimp I hear you say, a real gardener would be out there come what may. I bet Toby and Carol aren't sitting by the aga nursing a cup of tea. And to be fair, on the odd decent day, I do go out and flail around a bit. Today I managed a quick sprint down to the greenhouse, where I made a temporary repair to a broken pane of glass with some plastic and sellotape, which helped raise the temperature in there to something slightly  less arctic. I cleared off the propagating bench, last year's new construction, turned on the power, and put a few seeds in a pot. So a start has been made.

Most of the rest of the day has involved hunting high and low for the plastic box I keep my seeds in, and which I was beginning to think I'd thrown out by accident, which would have been disastrous, since like many gardeners I keep seeds for several years, and also save some of my own. This helps to keep costs down,- most seed packets contain many more seeds than you will use in the course of one season, and with certain  exceptions, seeds remain perfectly viable for several years. Following a suggestion on ferris' blog, I have made some trial indoor sowings, particularly those that I have some doubts about, either because they are more than two years old, or are self saved.

I started with this kind of thing, bits of damp kitchen towel, a label, and cling film to cover, and left them by the aga to see whether they would sprout

and rapidly realised that I could get through a lot more if I just numbered the seed packets
 and the bits of kitchen towel (I do have rather a lot of old half used seed packets). I won't be using the seeds as it's far too early in the year for most of them, but I will know which ones are viable and which will have to be replaced, which should save me time and effort later on.

And how is it by the way, that you can search the shed for something three times, and it's definitely not there. And then, suddenly on the fourth search - there it is. It was there all the time, and you just didn't see it. Does this happen to anyone else or is it just me? I think strange forces are at work in my shed!

In case anyone is looking for suggestions, these are the veg seeds I've done best with in recent years.

Perpetual spinach - excellent crop. Still standing in the garden now even after all the snow. I no longer bother with the summer spinach  except as baby leaf for salad. Rainbow or Rhubarb Chard is also good, but has not weathered the winter in my garden.

Kale  Redbor. This is also still providing some pickings, and has withstood the winter along with Cavolo Nero.

Garlic Music. This variety always does well for me.

Sweet Corn Lark. This is an F1 hybrid, so you can't save seed, but it's always quick to grow and crops well in my garden.

Onion Kelsae. I only did well with these because my brotherwho is a champion onion grower grows them from seed and gives me the plants. They were whoppers though.

Runner Bean Wisley Magic. Grew this for the first time last year, and will grow it again. Lovely flavour, not stringy.

Tomatoes, many and varied. It was a great year for tomatoes, all my heritage varieties did well, as well as the modern variety Sungold, which never fails and tastes lovely. If you only grow one I'd suggest this.

Broad Bean, Masterpiece Longpod, made poor plants, wouldn't bother again. Will go back to Bunyards Exhibition this year which has done well in the past for me.
Late crop sweet corn, can't remember the name, was a waste of time, I'll stick to Lark this year.
Brussels Sprouts. I never grow decent sprouts here in Wiltshire, even though I had good plants, they mostly didn't come to much. Nothing wrong with the variety, Trafalgar, it's just me.

Monday, 24 January 2011

No Dig No Weed Gardening - Garlic

Gardening without digging and weeding sounds a bit unlikely. A bit like smoking without inhaling, you wonder what else there is?  But with a little planning you can make your gardening life easier, avoiding that back breaking digging and  tedious weeding. I'm all in favour of spending less garden  time digging and weeding and more  in the deck chair. If I had a deck chair that is.

We use enough garlic around here to keep Christopher Lee cowering in a corner, so really, I should plant it in late Autumn. More or less as soon as you've gathered one year's crop, you can decide which cloves will make good seed garlic for next year, and get them in as soon as you have a spare space.  Always pick the fattest cloves for replanting, and with a mixture of natural selection and gardener's selection, you will improve your seed stock year on year, eventually producing almost your own variety, perfectly suited to your own soil and your particular climate. You can do this with many crops of course, provided you don't use modern F1 hybrid seeds, which don't breed true, but with garlic it's particularly easy because the bit you eat also happens to be  the bit you plant.  

For such a mediterranean crop you'd think they would suffer in the average freezing cold wet English winter, but not a bit of it. They sit there in the ground all winter, putting down good roots, and then in the spring they happily shoot up, apparently none the worse.
But for the last two years, I find January arriving and the garlic is still not in the ground. Oh dear. Happily last year was a very good growing year, and my crop was still excellent, - if you don't get good results make sure that weeds are not the culprit  spoiling your crop. Because it's a long season crop it's very easy to plant garlic and forget it, and before you know it the bed is full of weeds which are awkward and time consuming to get out, and if you don't get them out you will drastically reduce the crop. Ask me how I know.

Anyway, before any more of my garlic found its way into winey beef casseroles or ground onto crusty bread, I thought I'd take the opportunity afforded by a day or two of watery winter sun to plant out this year's crop.

They're very quick to plant if you already have established raised beds - just select a nice weed free area,  lay out the cloves in rows using a bamboo cane as a guide - mine were about 6 inches apart, and about a foot between the rows, and when you're happy with the layout just go along the rows planting them with your trowel so that the top of the clove is just covered with soil  Raised beds are best because you can work from the sides, - walking on the soil at this time of year compacts and damages its structure  I don't dig my established beds at all any more, adding as much organic matter as I can during the year seems to keep it in good heart, and not treading on it with my size sevens in the winter  helps maintain structure and drainage. If you're starting from scratch with a new garden, you will need to get rid of the nastier perennial weeds like ground elder first, but if you're thorough this is a one time dig.

Straight rows look nicer and make weeding easier, but I've reduced this job to a minimum here as the garlic bed is the first to receive the many offerings from the lawn mower in our garden. The garlic will be growing well by the time you start cutting the grass, so use the first lawn mowings to mulch the garlic bed, making sure you cover every inch of visible earth with the mowings. The grass gradually rots down and enriches the soil, smothering weed seedlings at the same time. Keep it topped up during the year and you'll be feeding your crop, enriching your soil, and saving yourself all that tedious weeding at the same time. Oh and if it turns out to be a humdinger of a summer it will also cut down on watering needs too.

Maybe this year I'll treat myself to a deck chair.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Seasonal Garden Visitors

Having  had such a brilliant year on the apple front, I find I still have more than enough supplies to keep the local blackbird population well fed through the winter months. It's vital to sort through your stash of apples during the cold months and remove any damaged or rotting fruit immediately - the well known saying about one bad apple spoiling the whole barrel is well known for a reason. Garden birds will be more than grateful for these at this time of the year. I find it's a good idea to put them in two or three different places in the garden as blackbirds can be very territorial and the strongest will chase away the weaker ones, but even the most dominant bird can only be in one place at a time, so others get to enjoy the bounty too. 

I think of pheasants as mostly seed eaters, but this hen pheasant came into the garden this morning drawn in by the apple bonanza apparently.

But as I was standing at the kitchen sink yesterday, absent mindedly washing some dishes, I was astounded to see two, yes that's  not one but two, foxes stroll along the fence line and cool as cucumbers, out onto the lawn directly in front of the window I was looking out of. Whilst foxes are common in urban gardens these days, it's very unusual to see them at such close quarters around here. Of course I was outraged at their audacity since I spend half my life trying to think of ways to outfox foxes, and after watching them for a minute, I opened the door and let Mo chase them off at high speed and in great excitement. Sadly I didn't have my camera to hand.  I've never seen two foxes together before, certainly not six feet away from me, but having read on John Gray's blog Going Gently, that January is the month when foxes usually find mates, I wonder whether these two were a prospective breeding pair - they certainly seemed to have something other than safety on their minds anyway.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Bird Box Camera

I'm worried that I'm turning into Bill Oddy.
It's not that I'm growing a beard, or even the somewhat more rounded shape I've assumed over the winter. No, it's the new bird box camera that David gave me for Christmas. It's from Handykam and you get a whole kit in a box, nest box, feeding station, tiny video camera and all the fixings so that you can watch the interior of the nest box on your kitchen tv. (After you've got your technical son in law to fix it up for you of course - thanks Brown!)

 I'm was thinking that maybe we hadn't got it in quite the right place, as there seemed to be no activity for quite a few weeks, but then I noticed this (bear in mind that this is a photo of a tv screen)

Ok so it may not look all that exciting, (it's a bit of moss in case you can't tell) but it indicates that a bird has actually been in the box. Having a look round, possibly thinking of making a home here, and bringing in a bit of moss to try it out. What I really need now is the avian equivalent of Kirsty and Phil to point out to prospective residents all the advantages of living in this luxuriously appointed New Build complete with double glazing and level access to all local amenities (if you can fly) not to mention full cctv security arrangements. How could any bird resist?

All I need to do now is to work out how to get the video linked to the computer so I can have a live video link on the blog. And I'll need to work on my slightly annoying, over enthusiastic wildlife presenter skills too...

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Making Order Out Of Chaos

I wish I had greater self discipline.
If I had, my veg garden wouldn't look quite so bad as it does at the moment

because I would have spent a few days in the Autumn tidying up, and generally putting everything to bed for the winter, like a proper gardener.

Of course I do have the very best of intentions as the summer season draws to its end. But come September and I'm snowed under with the harvest of apples and tomatoes and so on that need to be dealt with, and then in November I start to think about Christmas, and then whoof! before you know it, it's December and I've lost all my inclination to go out there until here I am in January surveying the bleak prospect. Again.

Anyway I made a start today by having a good tidy up. One of the benefits of having designated beds rather than traditional rows is that although the ground was still frozen , you can sort things out without needing to walk on the growing areas very much at all, so that compaction and damage to the soil structure is kept to a  minimum. So they're worth having if only for that. There are a few things still soldiering on, a row of perpetual spinach seems unaffected by the weather, but most of my brassicas, not usually great specimens in any case, are looking a bit past it. Some of the kale may be usable and some leeks, but I should really have dug them up before the snow. And of course, Jerusalem Artichokes, which are always around in January.

And that's about it really, so much for my plan of keeping us in salad greens during the winter! I should have grown my chicory in the greenhouse bed as all the outside plants have disappeared. Note for next year.  But the makings of a large compost heap are coming together, and it's amazing how when the old bean sticks and general detritus are cleared away, it does start to look a bit more respectable.

One note I have made to myself for next year, is that I will try to reduce my use of plastic materials in the garden to zero or as close as I can get. Plastic is cheap but doesn't wear very well in the garden environment. Beside my composting pile I have a small dayglo heap consisting of the remains  of some pea and bean netting , along with some bits of lurid green plastic which were once plant trays, all of which will have to go to landfill. So no more of that thanks.

Also I will try to make more use of my Compost Blocker, a natty little device that saves using pots at all, which you can buy from the Organic Gardening Catalogue  or from Blackberry Lane  and possibly make some more paper pots, which I have used with some success in previous years.

And finally now's a good time to go through your seed box and see what you've got leftover and what you need to order. Ferris over at Adventures in a Field reminded me that the best way to check whether your last year's seeds are still viable to to sprout a few indoors as a test. Much better than finding they don't come up and wasting valuable growing time getting fresh supplies.

And if you've been moaning about the weather at all here in the UK, (it's a national pastime) do take a quick look at Grannys blog from Queensland Australia, and think how lucky we actually are!

Friday, 7 January 2011

At Last, A Proper Gardening Programme!

I've just finished watching the first of six programmes presened by Carol Klein - Life In A Cottage Garden, and for once, I feel I've actually watched someone doing some gardening, as opposed to someone walking across a film set  and "presenting" it to me. 

I have the feeling when I watch Gardeners World that immediately before the bit that I get to see, there were twenty three strapping lads getting everything ship shape, so that Toby and Alys can stride about showing me how hard they've been working. I know this because there is never any sign of a twig, let alone a weed, out of it's allotted place, no leaf blows unsupervised across the set, no cane, ball of string, no stray plant label ever falls drunkenly over to one side. 

I like Toby Buckland well enough, and like most gardeners,  I always watch Gardeners World, but it's rarely a piece of inspiration, unlike Carol's programme which just made me want to get out into my own garden and start sorting it all out for the new season ahead. This is what a garden programme should do. And a cookery programme come to that, in fact anything based on a practical skill should make you want to rush off and have a bash.  And it's one reason why I like Jamie Oliver, his programmes are nothing if not inspiring.

In this first programme of the series, Carol was in her garden in January, clearing away all the detritus and rubbish, not flinching from showing all the dead plants that we all  have to deal with after such a harsh winter.   Propagation being one of Carol's watchwords - she never discards plant material if it can be used to make new plants, and demonstrates enthusistically just how easy it is to do.

At one point at the top of a ladder supported by an anonymous man below in a non speaking role, she yanked vigorously at an overgrown clematis , "you need to get all this dead stuff OUT" she declaimed from up aloft, and as the ladder wobbled a bit ominously , "and that's my husband Neil down there in case you were wondering".  I expect Neil must be used to his fearless wife by now, addressing the audience confidently from twenty feet in the air,  he probably thinks at least he can at least break her fall if she comes down a bit quicker than she went up. And since Carol is some five years or more older even than I am, there really is no excuse now for me not to be out there with the wheelbarrow tomorrow.  Possibly not the ladder though.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Galette des Rois/ Twelfth Night Cake

 This is the frangipan pastry cake I mentioned yesterday, wherein a bean lies hidden, to be discovered by one lucky person who received it in their slice, and then gets to be king for the day, and can boss everyone about rather tiresomely for the rest of the day.
I haven't made this cake before, although I've always known about it, because frankly I thought it looked a bit dull and boring. Compared with a spectacular chocolate fudge cake, or mountainous pavlova it would certainly seem a bit of an also ran, but do not be deceived by appearances (as I was). This really is a very good result from a small amount of effort.
Because its ungilded beauty relies entirely on the quality of the ingredients, I would suggest you use the best you can find. And if you're a regular reader you may have noticed  that I'm not one to splash out on unnecessary luxury ingredients where they aren't really warranted. I put it down to my Yorkshire upbringing. But in dishes like this you'll really notice the difference. This is my slightly tweaked version of Mary Cadogan's recipe

You will need
1 400 gr pack of all butter puff pastry
2 good tablespoons of your best homemade raspberry jam
100 gr/4oz butter at room temperature
100gr/4oz caster sugar
100gr/4oz ground almonds
1 egg
2 tablespoons vanilla infused rum, or just rum
1 large dried bean such as a butter bean

Roll out the puff pastry and cut out two 9inch, 23 cm circles.Cut a narrow strip from the leftover pastry to fit all around the pastry circle which will give you a lip so that you can get more filling in. Stick it on with water. This is optional if you're in a rush.

Cream the butter and sugar til light, beat in the egg, then stir in the ground almonds and rum.

Spread the jam on  the pastry circle. Top the jam with the almond mixture. Remember to hide your bean in the mixture.**

Brush the border with water, top with the second circle and seal. You can decorate the top with a knife blade -spokes like a pinwheel are traditional, if you wish.

Brush with beaten egg and bake in moderate oven for 25 -30 minutes until golden brown.

Like most puff pastry items, at it's best served slightly warm.

**There are many ancient traditions connected with Twelfth Night, some of recent christian origin and some of older Pagan and Roman and Viking origin, and are often connected with riotous behavior and the idea of turning things upside down. The idea with the bean is the person who gets it in their slice becomes the King of Misrule, whereby peasants become rulers and rulers become slaves, (just for the day of course, it's not the Peasants' Revolt) so an excellent cake for socialists who will enjoy for once, both having their cake and eating it. Not many cakes have a political stance. There are many versions of the cake, some entailing a small ceramic figure being hidden, but a bean sounds less dangerous and the price of dentistry being what it is.....

And finally, as to the date, we have always insisted on regarding tomorrow, January 6th as Twelfth Night, despite the Church of England's pronouncement that it's the 5th.  There are good ancient traditions supporting the 6th, and anyway it's my daughter's birthday, so we always kept the decorations up for her, and had the riotous children's party in appropriate surroundings, and then swept up the whole shebang in one massive clear up!
Happy Birthday for tomorrow Sarah. And play nicely.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Our Beautiful Beanette

I was going to do a post  on Galette des Rois,or Kings Cake, the delicious almondy cake traditionally associated with Twelfth Night and Epiphany. In ancient tradition, a bean was hidden inside the cake and whoever received the bean in their slice of cake was made King or Queen for the day, and could lord it over everyone else for the rest of the day.  But I am laying aside the recipe for today in favour of another bean which has currently taken centre stage in our lives.

Proud granny with beanette
Bean I hear you say, what bean? Well obviously this is not a Bean, it is in fact a Beanette. When you get pregnant these days they send to to have a scan very early on and when  my daughter had her first scan earlier this year, sorry last year,she thought the picture resembled nothing so much as a little bean, so Bean it became thoughout it's foetushood, and since they chose not to know the gender, possibly Beanette. So  it seems appropriate that Beanette (as it turned out), has chosen to put in an appearance just around the time of the "bean cake" celebration. I think we will have to have a Galette des Rois every year from now on just for her.

Luckily it's a wonderful confection of sweetness, just like her.

My granddaughter's proper name is Amy, an 8lbs 4oz bundle of joy, born 2nd January safely at home with no medical interventions.
And I feel blessed.


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