Tag Archives: Elderflower

Ready, Steady, Grow!

Elderflower blossom

A wet week and a busy social weekend over Father’s Day saw me dodging the showers and downpours in a desperate bid to finish planting out my summer veg and flowers at the allotment, later than I’ve ever done it before. It seems to be one of those rules that when work is on the quiet side, the weather refuses to play ball, so you can’t get outside and make the most of the extra free time. I did, however, manage to find a dry (and blustery) day to pick some elderflowers at last for my annual cordial making ritual. I even picked more than enough for a change, so decided to experiment with some of the week’s crop of gooseberries and make gooseberry & elderflower gin. I enjoyed last year’s rhubarb gin so much – my favourite drink of last summer – that if the gooseberry & elderflower is half as nice, it will still be eminently drinkable*. Like last year, I used Aldi’s Oliver Cromwell London Gin, which gets excellent reviews.

Gooseberry & Elderflower Gin*

Gooseberry and elderflower gin

1 litre gin
500g gooseberries
strips of orange rind, peeled thinly from 1 orange using a vegetable peeler
250g granulated sugar
6-8 elderflower heads

Top and tail the gooseberries, then cut in half and place in a large 2 litre Kilner jar. Add the granulated sugar, orange rind and elderflower heads. Put on the lid and shake the jar well. Leave to stand in a cool, dark place for at least 6 weeks, then strain into another bottle. Serve with ice, tonic and lime for a refreshing take on the ubiquitous G&T.
(SEE NOTE BELOW*)

But back to my allotment: after working in my garden at home last weekend, I was determined to finish sowing my French beans and planting out my squash this weekend. Sunday was dedicated to a family lunch for Father’s Day, so that left Saturday afternoon. It had looked promising weatherwise, but the skies were looking very ominous when I headed up there after lunch. The rain held off for the first couple of hours, giving me time to prepare the beds (more bags of manure!), erect the wigwam bean structure, sow the beans (Cosse Violette and Neckarkönigin this year), and plant out the Crown Prince squash. I also took out the last remaining purple-sprouting broccoli plants, long since gone to seed, and did some essential weeding. So far, so good.

Netting the soft fruit was my next priority: the fattest pigeons in the village have already made inroads into my redcurrants, despite them still being green, so I was keen to net them before I lost the lot! Having unearthed last year’s net from the darkest corner of the shed, I managed to cover the bed, gooseberries and blackcurrants included, without too much ado and only needed one peg to seal the inevitable hole. Fingers crossed that this keeps the birds out and the fruit in…

My final job of the afternoon was potentially the most time-consuming and typically the rainclouds were gathering by this stage. No matter, I was determined to complete my list! Bit firmly between my teeth, I set about the task of removing the weedproof membrane from the final stretch of the newly reclaimed flower beds at the top end of the plot, and digging over the soil to remove any stubborn traces of perennial roots, and especially couch grass and the dreaded bindweed. Inevitably, that took longer than I’d have liked, so by the time I was ready to apply another two sacks of farmyard manure, the drizzle was coming down quite steadily.

Undeterred, I carried on, planting my six new dahlias: Penhill Dark Monarch, Emory Paul, Perch Hill, Rip City and Café au Lait Royal, all from Sarah Raven, and Marble Ball, a purple-speckled variety I picked up for 50p at my local garden centre a few weeks ago – who could resist?! The same garden centre’s discount bin also had some striking purple and cream gladioli Dynamite – they were clearly selling off all their bulbs and tubers at the end of the planting season, but definitely not too late to plant out! In too went another dwarf mulberry tree (Charlotte Russe) to match its twin planted a few weeks ago, a large helianthus Lemon Queen picked up at a plant stall near my parents’ house in Copthorne, and a peony I’d moved from the garden at home where it steadfastly refuses to flower and clearly doesn’t get enough sun. A couple of chrysanthemums I’d ensnared at the village Open Gardens day also went in; the pink variety I acquired from the same source last year had come through the winter, somewhat to my surprise, and had been great for later autumn flowers, even after the dahlias had stopped.  I also planted out some seed-sown Antirrhinum Royal Bride to accompany the Callistephus chinensis King Size Apricot (Chinese aster) I planted a few weeks ago and the zinnias I sowed direct one evening (Mazurkia, Purple Prince and Envy). They could do with some more warmth to take off properly, but fingers crossed the slugs don’t get them first…

Allotment top end, Leo and the new beds

A couple of spare squashes and an unknown cucurbit seedling that had appeared in the garden compost distributed around my roses completed my afternoon’s work. This will be a bonus plant – could be a melon, cucumber, squash or courgette – who knows?! If it survives, I’ll be sure to let you know :-). By this time the rain was coming down in stair rods and I resembled a drowned (but satisfied) rat.

New bed unknown curcurbit on frame

Just some harvesting to do before I could escape from the rain – my parents were coming for dinner to stay the night before we drove together to my son’s the next day. Asparagus, broad beans, dill, lettuce, strawberries and another kilo of gooseberries later, I was done. Four hours of very hard and soggy work, but at least I’d accomplished what I’d set out to achieve.

My parents had already arrived and let themselves in when I finally got home, dripping, exhausted, but happy. And my mother’s voice as I opened the kitchen door, saying “I’ve just made a pot of tea”, was balm to my gardener’s soul and just what I wanted to hear. You can’t beat a nice cup of tea after a long session at the plot…

New bed delphiniums

* Sadly, I’ve just tried the gooseberry & elderflower gin and am very disappointed. I’d read that gooseberries need longer to infuse than rhubarb, so left it 3 months, but, after straining, the resulting gin tastes very harsh and metallic, not at all gooseberryish. Perhaps dessert gooseberries might work better? You live and learn…. I’ll stick to the ambrosial rhubarb & ginger gin next time.

Chasing my tail

Broad beans and rapeseed

Here I am again, chasing my tail trying to get my garden ship-shape and ready for summer, despite the fact that we’re less than a week away from the longest day. Whatever happened to those, long, balmy evenings and sun-blessed days? It’s hardly June-like here, with torrential rain one day and dismal murk the next. My tomato plants, planted in their final positions outdoors a few weeks ago, have sulked since moving outside and it’s hard to believe they’ll be healthy, fruiting plants in a few short months… I delayed planting my French and runner beans at the start of the month due to the high winds and cold temperatures, but they’ve gone in now and will have to fend for themselves, along with the courgettes, squashes and sweetcorn.

Broad beans and basil

On the plus side, my broad beans are fantastic this year, now starting to reach harvesting size (typically just before I go on holiday!). I picked my first crop of tender baby beans this week to steam with asparagus and mint as an accompaniment to my friend’s delicious Shetland lamb chops. So good. I picked so many that I was able to give half away and still have enough to toss in the first pesto sauce of the season with pasta, caramelised onions and toasted pine nuts the following night.

Broad bean pasta

Strawberries too are coming thick and fast – little sign of slug damage yet, so perhaps those nematodes are getting to work at last. A shame that they aren’t having the same effect on my salad bed, where I’m still struggling to get lettuce past the germination stage before they’re munched off in their prime! In desperation, I’ve resorted to sowing some in a seed tray at home for planting out when they are a little more established….

I finally managed to finish planting up my new oak barrels at home this week – must be an all-time record for me to fill my summer containers so late in June! The old and disintegrating barrels in situ were well past their sell-by date – but as they made the move down from Scotland with us some 13 years ago and we’d had them in the Scottish garden for a good few years beforehand, I don’t suppose they owe me anything! It was quite a job emptying and refilling five full-sized half-barrels, so hardly surprising that it took me so long. Now filled with my giant tuberous begonias, fibrous begonias, lobelia and double petunias, I’m hoping for a spectacular display once they get going – slugs and snails permitting!

New barrel near gate

One final job I’ve been keen to do before the holiday season is upon us is to make my elderflower cordial. There’s an elder bush just down the road from where I live that’s absolutely laden with blossom this year – but I’d rather pick my elderflowers from a hedgerow away from road fumes if at all possible, so I’ve been holding on and dodging the showers, waiting for the perfect moment to harvest. Success at last one day this week, on a blustery dog walk down near my local reservoir: steeped overnight in their sugar and lemon solution, they are now bottled as the quintessential elderflower cordial, perfect for Hugo cocktails with Prosecco and lemon, as a refreshing long drink with sparkling water, or added to panna cotta or gooseberry compote for a certain je ne sais quoi… I wouldn’t be without it.

Elderflower Cordial – makes 2-3 (750ml) bottles

Elderflower cordial
20 or so heads of elderflower
2 pints boiling water
3lb granulated sugar
juice and grated zest of 2 lemons
1 tbsp citric acid

Pour the boiling water onto the sugar in a large preserving pan and stir over a medium heat until dissolved. Add the lemon juice, grated zest, citric acid and elderflowers (stripped of any chunky green stems, but left as heads). Cover with a tea towel and leave for 24 hours. Strain through a sieve lined with muslin into a large jug and pour through a funnel into sterilised bottles.
Keeps for several months in a dark place – refrigerate once opened.