Tag Archives: seeds

It’s a chill wind…

Kale

It’s been bitterly cold outside today, so apart from the requisite two daily dog walks, and a brief visit to the allotment to reinstate my brassica frame and harvest some leeks, parsley, calabrese and Cavolo Nero, it’s been a day for hibernating inside in front of a roaring log fire. The frame had blown down again in last week’s strong winds, along with several front panels of my allotment shed, so it was a good thing I was accompanied by my younger son, who took it upon himself to screw them back into place. Otherwise, I might very well have discovered the whole shed missing next time I go up! As it was, there was a large piece of wood lying at the shed door, which definitely wasn’t mine and must have blown from someone else’s plot. The joys of an exposed site… but a small price to pay for tranquillity and spectacular country views, I suppose.

I did manage to do my annual New Year’s Day plant survey earlier in the week, but the wet weather meant that there were only 11 plants in flower this year: a couple of primroses, hellebores foetidus and Party Frock, chaenomeles Crimson & Gold, viburnum bodnantense Charles Lamont and daphnes aureomarginata, mezereum alba and bholua Jacqueline Postill, rose Frilly Cuff (a new addition last autumn) and a deep pink heather. However, the snowdrops are growing by the day with all the rain and their first buds should soon be out. A decidedly cheering thought.

Other than cutting back last year’s hellebore foliage, most of which has now started to fan out from the centre to better show off the emerging flower buds, as if reminding me that it’s time for the chop, there really isn’t much to tempt me out into the garden at this time of year. Even the compost bins, still stocked by a weekly bag of vegetable waste from the kitchen, decay at a slower rate at this time of year. The hellebore leaves don’t go into the garden compost, of course, as some of them show signs of hellebore leaf spot, a fungal disease I definitely don’t want to perpetuate from one year to the next. I did cut down last year’s dead and strawlike flower spikes on my vigorous valerian (centranthus ruber) plants too, though, revealing the lovely new growth waiting beneath.

Seeds Jan 2018

One thing I did do yesterday was visit my local garden centre, where I snapped up some real bargains, not only in half-price seeds – always worth looking at this time of year – but half-price organic slug pellets and tomato food too. A substantial saving when you add it all up, and these are all things I will definitely get through when the gardening year gets going in earnest.

Back in the warmth, this was an evening for an old-fashioned Beef & Guinness casserole with herby dumplings, followed by that old favourite, pineapple upside-down pudding & custard. Comfort food par excellence.

Pineapple Upside-Down Pudding – serves 6

 

Pineapple upsidedown_cropped

1 large tin pineapple slices in juice, drained
50g glacé cherries, halved
2-3 tbsp golden syrup
125g caster sugar
125g butter
125g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract

Pre-heat the oven to 160ºC, Gas 4. Grease a 20cm cake tin – I like to use a tarte tatin tin for this, but any deep cake tin will do. Spoon the golden syrup into the bottom of the tin and spread out to cover completely. Arrange the pineapple slices on the bottom of the dish; you may not need them all, but fit in what you can. Arrange the cherries decoratively around the pineapple slices.

Place the remaining ingredients in a medium bowl and whisk until light and fluffy. Spoon onto the pineapple and spread out evenly to cover. Bake at 160ºC, Gas 4 for 45 minutes until golden brown and firm to the touch. Serve warm with fresh custard or pouring cream.

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Putting the zest back into February

snowy-day-in-the-woods-feb-2017

Well, February hasn’t been much of an improvement on January so far. We even had a smattering of snow yesterday, not enough to transform everywhere into a magical winter wonderland, just leaden skies, bitter wind and uniform greyness. Yuk.

Needless to say, there’s still nothing doing in the garden, although this is the perfect time to get on with ordering/buying seeds, potatoes and dahlias for the summer and indulge in a little wistful poring over the catalogues, online or print, to while away the grey days. I’ve been buying my seeds as I see them on offer in local garden centres, often half-price at this time of year, but still had to order a few specials online, like the Ammi visnaga from Sarah Raven, and squashes Crown Prince and Squashkin (a butternut/ Crown Prince hybrid from Marshall’s that sounded too tempting to miss!). I haven’t been overly impressed with the potato selections on offer in my local gardening emporia this year, so ended up ordering those online too: Jazzy from Thompson & Morgan, and Anya, a lovely waxy, salad variety I’ve had before and enjoyed, again from Marshall’s. They came ultra-quickly and are now chitting away in eggboxes in the conservatory – so I suppose that’s some progress!

I couldn’t resist ordering new dahlias too; not sure where I’m going to put them, but I’m sure I’ll find room – and there’s my son’s wedding to grow flowers for this year, of course! This year’s additions are Indian Summer, a spiky scarlet cactus variety, Labyrinth, a fabulous pastel peach confection (I did try this one last year, but with no success; fingers crossed it comes up this year) and Mel’s Orange Marmalade, another extravagant cactus type, purely because I loved the name and couldn’t resist the marmalade colour and fringed, almost marine-like petals.

Despite the lack of action in the garden, miserable weather is always a good excuse to spend time messing about in the kitchen and what better ingredients to use to add some zing to a grey day than citrus fruit? It’s the peak season for citrus just now, so my morning ruby grapefruits are extra-delicious and lemons and limes are plentiful. A neighbour, who I cat-sit for when they’re on holiday, very kindly brought around a big pot of home-made Seville orange marmalade on Friday and I even managed to buy my absolute favourite citrus fruits, blood oranges, in Lidl yesterday – they only have a very short season, so all the more reason to snap them up when you find them!

blood-oranges

So what did I make on this cold winter Sunday? First, a carrot, orange & ginger soup to add a touch of sunshine to a chilly lunchtime. Then I finally got round to using up some egg yolks that have been sitting in the fridge since last weekend, when I used the whites in a pineapple & coconut meringue roulade for my younger son’s birthday celebrations. Five egg yolks is quite a lot to have hanging around, especially when you’re cooking for one. The usual contenders of custard, or pastry, only use one or two yolks and my standby gooseberry & crème fraiche tart is best made in summer with fresh, not frozen gooseberries (too much liquid) and for a party to boot! A colleague on Foodie Translators had posted a tempting-looking recipe for lemon bars, based on a recipe by the Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network, which sounded interesting, but used whole eggs. Researching further found an article in the Guardian by Ruby Tandoh, in which she makes lemon curd with just the yolks – and thus an idea was born….

First, the soup though. I make several variations on carrot soup, including carrot & coriander and a carrot & lentil from an ancient M&S cookery book. Both excellent, but if you fancy something both citrussy and slightly spicy, this really hits the spot.

Carrot, Orange & Ginger Soup -serves 6-8

carrot-orange-ginger-soup

750g carrots, peeled & chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 orange, juice and grated zest
1 cooking apple, peeled and chopped
1 2.5cm piece root ginger, grated (I store in the freezer and grate from frozen)
50g butter
Salt and pepper
1.25 l chicken stock (or you can use vegetable stock if you prefer)
Few sprigs thyme, leaves only

Melt the butter in a large pan, then add the onions, garlic and celery. Sweat gently for 5 minutes or so while you prepare the carrots and apple, then add to the pan with the grated ginger and thyme leaves. Continue to cook for a few more minutes, then add the grated orange zest and juice. Pour in the stock, season and bring to the boil. Cover with a lid and cook for 30 minutes, or until the carrots are tender. Leave to cool slightly, then purée in a liquidiser until smooth. You may need to add more stock at this stage, depending how thick you like your soup – or you could add cream or milk if you prefer. Garnish with coriander or parsley if you have any; otherwise eat as it is and enjoy your little bowl of sunshine!

Needless to say, I had to tweak the Barefoot Contessa’s lemon bar recipe to suit the five egg yolks I had lurking in the fridge, so I more or less halved the quantities, cut down the sugar content, and went from there, adjusting as I went. I was delighted with the results, tangy yet buttery at the same time, but you might wish to tweak further!

Lemon Bars – serves 12

lemon-bars

125g butter
50g caster sugar
150g plain flour
pinch salt
Grated rind of 1 lemon

5 egg yolks
200g caster sugar
Grated rind of 3 lemons
Juice of 3/4 lemons (110-120ml juice in total)
50g plain flour, sifted

Put the first five ingredients, for the shortbread base, into a food processor and blend together until mixed and starting to form a ball. Remove, knead together lightly and press into a greased 17.5cm (7″) square tin. Prick with a fork, then bake in the oven at 160°C, Gas 4 for 15-20 minutes until light golden.

Meanwhile, make the filling: blend the egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice and zest and flour with a hand whisk, then pour over the cooked shortbread base. Return to the oven for 25 – 30 minutes, or until set. Leave to cool, then dust with icing sugar and serve with a nice cup of tea. Amazingly good!

Spring Rush

Green roof_cropped

It’s at this time of year, after the clocks have gone forward, the sun finally shows its face and the soil gradually starts to warm up, that the rush is on to get everything going in the garden. It’s often a case of dodging the showers and making use of the limited time you have available to sow seeds here, prepare ground there and generally tick off all those spring jobs.

I sowed my first seeds two weeks ago, but most are now up and can be removed from the propagator to make room for the next batch: tomatoes (two old favourites, Sungold and Gardener’s Delight, and a new variety to me, Black Russian, a medium beefsteak heritage tomato, supposedly with an outstanding, rich flavour – we shall see!) and cucumber. I’m reverting back to Marketmore this year, a variety I used to grow with great success in my big greenhouse in Scotland, but I’m hoping it will like the conditions on the open allotment too, as I haven’t had a lot of success with other varieties I’ve tried outside to date.

Other jobs include planting up my new dahlias. I leave my existing dahlia tubers in the ground over the winter, well-mulched, and they seem to thrive, but as I’m cutting down on potatoes and adding another cutting flower bed at the allotment this year, it seemed an ideal opportunity to treat myself to a couple more! I ordered Café au Lait (from Crocus) plus Labyrinth and Wizard of Oz (from Sarah Raven), all in pastel shades that will extend my existing range of colours beautifully – and with half an eye to my son’s wedding next year, I must admit! These are started off in pots in my grow frame at home, then will go into the open ground when they are established and better able to cope with slug attacks. I’ve also started off my tuberous begonias, now huge tubers after two seasons’ worth of growing. I may have to ask friends for the loan of some space in their large glasshouse when I run out of room in the grow frame/conservatory windowsill for these monsters!

I also like to use fibrous-rooted begonias in my summer tubs as they don’t mind rain or shine and are also pretty slug-resistant. I buy the tiny plug plants from my local garden centre, sold in 24s for pricking out at home. In actual fact, each plug often contains two tiny plants and I invariably manage to get at least 60 plantlets once I’ve prised them apart. A very economical way of buying bedding plants, especially as these are notoriously tricky to grow from seed without specialist conditions.

Other jobs included dead-heading last year’s hydrangea flowers, another way of instantly tidying up the garden. These crispy flowerheads have done a great job of protecting the new foliage from late frosts, but we should be safe now to snip them off – although I once did this in late March when we lived in Scotland, only to have a very severe frost a couple of nights later, ending up with frosted new shoots and far fewer flowers than usual – you have been warned!

New rasp bed 2

Down at the allotment, I finally managed to finish digging over my new raspberry bed and have planted up the new autumn canes, Polka, ordered from Thompson & Morgan. Having lost all my autumn raspberries last year due to some unknown virus, I thought I’d try a different variety: Polka is bred from the classic Autumn Bliss, but it supposed to have double the yield. I’ll report back in due course! I also dug up some summer raspberry suckers from where they are thriving underneath the Bramley apple tree and made a new row of summer fruit too – you can never have enough raspberries! I’ve finally found a taker for the top part of my allotment, so won’t have my original fruit bed any more – but I don’t think I’m going to go short any time soon….

Raspberry Polka

All in all, a very satisfying weekend’s gardening.

After a meat-filled few days over Easter, with family and guests, I fancied something simple and vegetarian this weekend. There’s very little left on the allotment at this time of year (a few remaining leeks, parsnips, purple-sprouting broccoli and spinach), so I opted for an old favourite, based on spinach, originally from my friend Bridget up in Cheshire. This is so quick and easy, but delicious – life’s definitely NOT too short to stuff a mushroom!

Garlicky Stuffed Mushrooms – serves 2

Garlicky mushroom

4 large flat mushrooms (Portobello), wiped and stalks removed

Knob of butter

1 medium onion, chopped

1 clove garlic

2 generous handfuls of young spinach, washed, large stems removed and chopped

Seasoning

1 Boursin cheese

 Melt the butter in a frying pan and add the chopped onions and garlic. Cook until translucent, then add the chopped spinach and continue cooking for 5 mins or so until nicely wilted, then season to taste.

Divide the spinach and onion mixture between the flat mushrooms in a roasting tin and add 3-4 tbsp water to the base of the tin. Top each mushroom with a generous slice of Boursin (blue cheese or even goat’s cheese also work well). Cover the tin with foil.

Cook in a hot oven (180°C, Gas 5) for about 20 minutes, then remove the foil and cook for a further couple of minutes to brown the cheese slightly.

You can serve these with crusty bread to mop up the garlicky juices, but I like them just as they are – who needs meat with flavours as good as these?!

Sowing the seeds of summer

Gerrie Hoek

Despite the chill winds of mid-March, now is the time to start off those early seeds for summer crops. I sowed my chillis (Apache), aubergines (Bonica) and sweet peas and lobelia just over a week ago before escaping to the Alps for a sunny ski break. The lobelia (dark blue Crystal Palace) are up already, but no sign of the chillis and aubergines – not that I expected there to be! They can take up to 3 weeks, even in a heated propagator, so all the more reason to get them in early. You can, of course, buy young plants later on, but that’s much more expensive and I find they are more prone to disease and aphids if you buy them in, presumably because they are hot-housed in great numbers…. The sweet peas (Singing the Blues) are sitting 5 to a pot on the sunny conservatory windowsill and usually take around a fortnight to germinate. I soaked the seeds in warm water overnight this time before sowing; this used to be recommended practice, but advice seems to have changed in recent years, resulting in much worse germination in my experience – so back to the old tried and trusted methods! I usually sow another batch of seed straight out in the open in April too, and they invariably catch up by mid-summer, and extend the picking season too.

Today I’ve planted parsley (Champion) and basil (British Basil), both in small pots in the propagator, and also three kinds of leeks : Nipper for early baby leeks from September onwards, Pandora for mid-season leeks and the blue-green Bandit for late winter leeks. Last year’s plantings are still going strong; in fact, I’m probably going to have to lift and store them in the next couple of weeks to make room for the new-season crops! Yes, they are in the ground a long time, but such a good-value crop for very little outlay and effort…. I would hate to be without my leeks! Each packet of seed usually contains plenty for two years of sowing – watch out for parsley, though, as fresh seed usually gives best results.

I’ve also potted up some new dahlias from Sarah Raven, ordered a few weeks ago: I love browsing through her catalogue (www.sarahraven.com) and try and experiment with new ones each year, if I can find room! I jettisoned some single yellow dahlias I’d grown from seed last year, which didn’t go with my deep red, white and pink colour scheme down on the allotment, so just room to shoe-horn in a couple more! I’ve gone for a white and purple bicolour collection: Edge of Joy and Alauna Clair Obscur, as well as two pinks: a spikey cactus type, Sugar Diamond, and Gerrie Hoek, a pale salmon pink waterlily type – can’t wait! I find it’s best to start them in pots in my grow rack, allowing them to get going away from the harmful effects of slugs, then transfer them out when the shoots are growing well. Once they’re established, I usually leave them out to overwinter as they’re planted deep enough in the raised beds to withstand the worst of the winter weather, even when we had sustained periods of ice and snow a few years back.

Alauna Clair Obscur dahlia Sugar Diamond Edge of Joy

My final task of the day was to pot up the tuberous begonia corms I bought last year and had overwintered, well-wrapped in brown paper bags, in the shed. The corms had tripled in size since last spring and seem firm enough, so I’ve potted them up in large pots and put them in the grow rack with the dahlias – just hope we don’t get any severe cold spells now!

Just time after all that for a brisk walk down to the allotment with the dogs to bring back some leeks and purple sprouting broccoli to accompany my duck breast and parsnip purée for dinner. Sublime…

Early season progress – slow and steady…

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Managed another three hours up at the allotment this afternoon – thought I might not do when I saw the rain this morning, but it eased off, and was mostly dry. Thank goodness – still lots to do after missing a weekend last week, so good to tick off more start-of-season tasks.

I planted my onion sets – I don’t grow many as they’re cheap enough in the shops all year round and onions aren’t that different when they’re home-grown in terms of taste, but I do like to have some late summer just so I can claim to be completely self-sufficient for at least part of the year! I like the mixed bags of red, white and brown onion sets from Thompson & Morgan – they seem to do well in my raised beds. I plant them as an edging around my leeks so I can rotate them with other alliums and hopefully avoid onion rot.

My first potatoes went in too – I’m growing Maris Peer this year, again from Thompson & Morgan, supposedly for its delicious taste and waxy flesh. We shall see! I’ve been disappointed with the new potatoes in recent years: last year I grew Casablanca which was nothing special and the year before International Kidney, the so-called Jersey variety, but it didn’t live up to its reputation on my soil. The nicest I’ve grown in recent years was Ulster Sceptre, which I thought had been discontinued but have just checked only to see that it is still available as a special collection on the T&M site – rats! It certainly wasn’t listed in the catalogue – that will teach me not to double-check online!

Another job was to water in the nematodes I thought I’d try for slug control this year. I ordered a pack of the Nemaslug with my seed order from The Organic Gardening Catalogue (I think it brought my order in for the free postage if you spent a certain amount!), and it arrived a week or so ago. The soil has to be warm enough before you apply it as the nematodes are living organisms and will die if the soil is too cold. This morning’s rain was ideal to moisten the soil first and you just have to dissolve the pack contents, looking for all the world like sawdust, split into 4 equal amounts in four 2-gallon watering cans and water over those beds you want to protect. I chose my hostas at home – fed up with the lace curtain effect after the slugs have chomped their way through my beautiful plants on our heavy clay soil. Strangely enough, the hostas were never touched when we lived in Scotland – though they certainly had other targets up there! Up at the allotments, I watered it around my dahlia bed, the strawberries, the potatoes I’d just planted, and my asparagus bed, which also has dahlias at each corner. Watch this space – it will be interesting to see whether I notice a difference.

Other jobs included putting supports – posts and wires – in for the raspberries I moved two weeks ago, general weeding and spraying Roundup over the invading hordes of buttercups and couch grass on my bark paths between the raised beds. I do try to be organic, but I reckon it’s acceptable to be a little less green on the paths….

I had hoped to plant some salad seeds – ideal time for leafy crops with a waxing moon, if you believe in lunar planting! – but with the inevitable chit-chat with fellow plotholders, ran out of time – hopefully I’ll have time to do that as part of an evening dog walk during the week. I’d planted my tomato seeds – Sungold, Gardener’s Delight and Tigerella – in the propagator at home yesterday, along with some cucumber seeds, and some basil and more parsley. I daren’t do them any earlier as with no greenhouse, they can’t go outside too soon anyway.

A thoroughly enjoyable few hours’ work – and a satisfying basket of golden chard, spinach, rhubarb, purple-sprouting broccoli, leeks, swede and parsnips to bring home – who said anything about the hungry gap?! Oh and a lovely bunch of deep orange wallflowers too, which now look stunning in a turquoise glass vase on my kitchen windowsill.

This weekend’s recipe is for some cookies I conjured up this morning whilst waiting for the rain to stop. Delicious, if I say so myself!

Chocolate orange cookies

4oz butter

4oz self-raising flour

4oz light muscovado sugar

4oz porridge oats

½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tbsp golden syrup

Grated rind of two oranges

4oz plain chocolate

 

Mix the sifted flour, sugar, oats and bicarbonate of soda in a large bowl.

Melt the butter and syrup in a pan, then stir into oat mix and add half the orange rind.

Divide into small truffle-sized balls (I got 19) and place well apart on two greased baking trays, flattening slightly with the heel of your hand.

Cook for 15 minutes at 160°C fan (Gas 4) until golden brown.

Cool slightly on the trays, then transfer onto cooling rack to cool completely.

When cool, melt the chocolate and the remaining orange rind in the microwave (short bursts and stirring help prevent burning). The orange rind leaves the chocolate slightly bitty in appearance, which doesn’t bother me, but if you’d rather have it smooth, you could try orange oil (extract) instead. Spread chocolate onto the bottom half of each biscuit with a small spatula and leave to set before serving.

Delicious with a cup of tea when you come in from your exertions in the garden…

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