My first leisurely start to the day for a while so I was enjoying a relaxed breakfast and checking my stocks of dried fruit as it almost time to start the preparations for Christmas – sweet mincemeat and plum pudding are on the list to be made this weekend. The Christmas cake is a mid December job as this household prefers a light glacé fruit cake rather than the traditional rich fruit cake.
As the morning progressed and the sun fought its way through the rain and grey skies I was lured away from the much needed domestic chores to take the dog for a walk. What a beautiful mild sunny day. The grey sky gone just clear blue and many trees still holding their leaves in a multitude of autumnal shades – a good to be alive day!
I haven’t been home much in the daylight recently so hadn’t really had a good look in the polytunnel or veg garden probably for 2 weeks. I expected mildewy tomato and cucumber plants and was amazed to find they are still looking relatively healthy and the tomatoes are still ripening. I picked 6 tomatoes and a cucumber which will add a bit more variety to the cheese on toast I was planning for lunch (food shopping is the final chore for today!). I checked in on the hens who are enjoying a temporary stay in the soft fruit area and there above their heads, and out of reach, were two ripe raspberries which were delicious.
So a morning that started off with wintery, grey and full of Christmas planning has developed into an autumnal day and I’m off to eat my cheese on toast topped with tomato and cucumber in the sunshine in the greenhouse!
It’s been a long and sunny autumn with an abundance of fruit and vegetable. Tomatoes still ripening on the tumbling toms outside, runner beans and cucumbers growing, autumn raspberries and still the occasional blackberry (despite the old wives tale of the devil entering them after the autumn equinox).
Life has been fairly full picking, pickling, freezing and storing but what a shock when the weather turned cool this week. Last night I was eating my evening meal listening to the wind battering the kitchen window when I realised that my beautiful conference pears were at risk. When the last mouthful hand been swallowed off I went with basket and torch to pick the remaining crop and to search the ground for any windfalls.
Apples placed in single layers ready for eating or sharing…
Picking this final crop spurred me on to deal with the previously picked apple crop – mainly egremont russet eaters. I’ve sorted out the best and wrapped them individually in newspaper and placed them carefully in cardboard boxes in a cool store. The rest I have placed in single layers to be eaten or given away as soon as possible – apples keep so much better if they do not touch each other.
Tomorrow I will lead the apple scrumping party in the field near work ready to start using windfalls to make apple jelly and apple and almond cake and anything else appley and delicious.
I had been keeping an eye on my courgette plants and picking the young tender courgettes either to chop finely and mix with dressing as a salad or cooking as a vegetable. All was going so well until I had to work away from home for a few days and when I returned to my horror lurking beneath the giant leaves were some marrow sized courgettes…
The large and the small!
So a little earlier in the season than planned we ate our first meal of stuffed courgette.
I cut the courgette into horizontal rings and remove the inner seeds and pithy flesh. Setting the rings on a baking tray (top tip line the tray with foil or baking parchment as it makes the washing up so much easier). Then prepare a tasty filling – I usually use minced beef as a base but nuts or lentils can be used. The most important thing is make your filling really tasty so with a classic mince, onion, garlic and tomato mix you can add cinnamon and dried fruit for a middle eastern taste or go heavy on the marjoram and basil for a Mediterranean flavour. Put the filling in the centre of the sliced courgette and then cover with a generous amount of strong cheese and roast in the oven ( about 180 degrees C) until the courgette is cooked which is usually around 45 mins. Serve with a tasty chutney and a crusty bread and enjoy. Any surplus slices can be frozen and come out as a surprise long after the courgette season is over!
The next giant courgette will sneak up on me soon despite my best efforts to keep them in check. That one will be peeled, chopped and cooked very gently in butter to form the base of the delicious recipe in Delia Smiths Complete Cookery Book for Eliza Acton’s Mulligatawny. But more about that later when there is a glut of tomatoes and onions and the temperature is dropping and we begin to think of winter soup. For now I am happy with tender young courgettes sliced in my salad for lunch.
Setting off in shorts and flip-flops to pick elderflowers seemed like a good idea until I realised that the recent hot weather had taken its toll on the elderflowers and the few remaining flowers were in the shadiest, nettliest places so it was with stung legs that I returned home with the requisite number of flower heads.
No not elderflower cordial or champagne ( I knew I was too late to make either of these) but elderflower and gooseberry jam. The main task of the day was to pick this year’s gooseberries, but I knew in my heart of hearts that there was a big bag of last year’s crop lurking in the freezer which just hadn’t made the preserving pan.
So I set to and weighed the frozen gooseberries (just over 3lb) popped them in the preserving pan with just enough water to cover them and put the elderflowers in a jelly bag (much simpler than cutting squares of muslin and the jelly bag can be washed and reused over and over again). I suspended the jelly bag from the handle of preserving pan so that the flowers were in the water and set the pan over a gentle heat on the stove. My wonderful Mary Ford Jams, Chutneys and Pickles book gives a detailed description involving pieces of wood and hacksaws to mark the starting level of your jam and therefore work out what level the contents should be when it is reduced by a third. Always looking for an easy solution my top tip is to take a wooden spoon and put it handle first into the preserving pan, note the level of the contents and mark with a pencil – you can then use a ruler and pencil to mark it into thirds and you have an instant measure which can be washed off when finished ready for another day!
So with the gooseberries, elderflower and water very gently simmering out I went into the beautiful sunshine to pick the crop from one of our two gooseberry bushes. The poor wee bush its branches were touching the ground with the weight of the fruit so when I had finished it looked quite happy and upright again. But what a crop…
I sat in the sun ‘topping and tailing’ as last year’s fruit cooked. When it had reduced by a third I added the sugar (just over 3lb) and stirred until the sugar had dissolved and Left it to boil. I returned to my topping and tailing! After a lot more topping and tailing I thought it was time to look for recipes that did not involved topping and tailing and was pleased to find a recipe for gooseberry sauce which sounds rather tasty so 2lb of the smaller untopped and tailed gooseberries were washed, bagged and popped in the freezer ready for making into sauce some time in the future.
By this stage the jam had reached setting point and was ready for potting up. Seven jars are standing proudly on the kitchen bench. The scrapings from the preserving pan were served on a scone for our afternoon tea and the verdict was ‘very good’! It has the lovely tang of gooseberries with just a hint of the heady flavour of the elderflower.
And this year’s crop? The final weigh in from the first gooseberry bush is 11lb! Next job is to make a gooseberry cake to take round to a friend’s house this evening and to stew some ready for a gooseberry fool tomorrow. The rest have gone into the freezer BUT will be used before July net year.
It’s always hard coming home after a lovely holiday. There is the thought of work, routine and things to be done, But as soon as the house appears and we enter the drive there is that feeling of homecoming and familiarity and then there is the excitement of seeing what has happened in the garden – always the first thing before unloading the car or checking the house.
When we got back today I was amazed at how things had grown in eight days. Yes the weeds have done well but so has the garden.
Roses, delphiniums, hollyhock,sweet peas on long stems and mesembryanthemum which bring back childhood memories of lying on my tummy watching the flowers open as the rays of the sun warmed them only to close again when a cloud passed by.
Next stop is to check the vegetable garden and greenhouse to see how things have fared. And as usual there are the successes this time- lettuce, radish, cucumbers, courgettes and potatoes. The french, broad and runner beans are looking hopeful but where are the parsnips? They are usually one of our best crops and as for the peas it will be a meagre crop.
But after unpacking there was a real sense of satisfaction and living the good life when we picked and harvested and then we sat in the evening sunshine and ate a completely home produced meal (well except for the mayonnaise). We enjoyed an egg salad with lettuce, radish, basil, rocket and potatoes. Finely chopped courgettes with a tiny red onion and slivers of freshly picked cucumber. Maybe coming home from holiday is not too bad!
There are certain plants in our garden which evoke memories of people of places and of points in life. What prompted this thought was the sight of ‘Auntie Iris’ peony’ which is laden with highly scented white blossoms at the minute. I have never been able to accurately name the plant but I have childhood memories of the peony in the wonderful formal garden Auntie Iris had on the shores of Strangford Lough near Killyleagh. When she moved from the garden she lifted the peony and I think it is at that point that my Dad had a cutting and I took a cutting from his plant for our first little garden in Nottingham.
Since then whenever I move I take part of my original peony and have grown Auntie Iris’ peony at over 600ft in Lancashire and now it is happily established in Shropshire. I like to think that people who now live in our previous houses are enjoying the fragrance and beauty of the flowers and perhaps wonder about the origins of the plant,
Having come over to County Down for a holiday with my family it is good to know that the flowers that we picked from Mum and Dad’s garden and are scenting our holiday house in Strangford are only about 8 miles ‘as the crow flies’ from their original home in Auntie Iris’ garden.
How many gardeners spend their time waging war on ‘pests’ ?- slugs, snails, birds, mice, squirrels, grazing children…
We have tried growing strawberries with little success for a number of years no matter what we do someone gets to the strawberries just as they ripen, We’ve tried nets to protect the fruit from birds and squirrels only to feed our numerous shrew and mouse population. We’ve tied them up to make it harder for the mice to climb up for a feast. Last year I tried hanging strawberry bags and got the watering wrong – failure.
This spring all the strawberry plants which had overwintered in a corner of the vegetable garden were dug up. about half were put in large black plastic pots in a lovely rich leaf mould compost. The other half were planted in the a new bed in the ‘big polytunnel’. Needless to say there is a bit of a his and hers competition in the strawberry department. His were looking very healthy in the polytunnel obviously growing in a large bed. but I persevered watering, feeding and generally loving ‘my’ strawberries in the glorious greenhouse.
Almost too good to eat!
So imagine my delight to be able to serve up ‘my’ mouse free ripe strawberries as part of his special birthday pudding this week. His strawberries are ripening and feeding the lovely little shrew that seems to have set up residence in the tunnel!
And the verdict – sweet, juicy and just delicious!
Nature is a an amazing thing just as the rhubarb comes into its own the angelica ( Angelica archangelica) raises its lofty head as if to say ‘here I am don’t forget how useful I am’
Before I started growing angelica I associated it with the sticky green candied variety used to decorate cakes and puddings. But now I know better. Fresh angelica is one of those amazing plants that reduces the acidity or sourness in fruit such as rhubarb and gooseberries so that much less sugar is needed to sweeten it.
The plant in the picture is in its third year and as you can see from the swollen stems near the top it is really trying to flower. The flower is a large umbelliferae (Apiaceae) blossom which is really quite beautiful. I have removed the flowers to try and prolong this plant’s life because once it flowers it will die. However, I feel that this one will probably sneak a flower or two when my back is turned and then gracefully fade in the autumn. But all will not be lost as each flower head produces literally hundreds of seeds which look a bit like fennel or cumin seeds. The seeds should be planted immediately as if kept there is a much lower germination rate. Before winter there will be lots of little seedlings ready to be planted out for next year and the promise of tender fresh angelica. I have just planted three plants into a different herb bed which I grew from last year’s seed just to make certain that the angelica supply will not cease.
So how to use angelica? The simplest use is adding a few leaves when your are stewing fruit and remove them before serving. ( People don’t really like seeing wilted leaves in their pudding). Taste the stewed fruit before adding sugar and you will be amazed that it not very sour – add sugar with care as you will probably need much much less than you would normally add.
Mice and voles are cute furry little creatures until they find a vegetable grower and then there is a conflict of interest! What havoc they can create – in the seed trays and in the vegetable garden. How many times over the years have we watched for the first sign of the broad beans and peas only to find that they have been munched by our friendly mice and voles and not a single one is left to grow.
This year I decided to get one step ahead of my furry friends. Beans and peas really don’t like having their roots disturbed so planting in a seed tray and then pricking out is not an option. So I have planted broad beans and french beans in little newspaper pots. A good use fo the excess newspaper and a biodegradable pot that can be popped straight into the row in the vegetable plot. I find that if you put tow or three little newspaper pots in a 9cm pot then fill with compost and plant the beans they are easy to move around and the plastic pot reduces the amount of water that is lost through evaporation.
So here is lovely little broad bean plant ready to go into the ground with a healthy root system and a few minutes later happily planted!
Broad bean in paper pot
Not that there is any competition in the household but I am hoping that ‘my broad beans’ starting life in their newspaper pot will crop far earlier than those planted by the man of the house directly into the ground – we’ll have to wait and see!
As I pottered in the garden this evening checking on the progress of flowers, fruit and vegetables I stopped to watch a bumble bee explore the delicate flowers of one of my favourite plants – Solomon’s seal. Watching the bee seek its supper I looked up and realised that the garden and surrounding fields are clothed in fresh green and creamy white – May is really here.
I had often read about Gertrude Jekyll and the famous white garden at Sissinghurst but it wasn’t until I moved to Shropshire and watched spring arrive with snowdrops then the blackthorn, fruit tree blossom followed by swathes of dandelion clocks and ox-eye daisies which are iridescent in the early evening light that I understood the full beauty of the white garden.
So I took a few minutes to enjoy the dappled evening sunshine and all the wonderful green and white around me – the Hawthorn in full bloom; the delicate lacy flowers of Guelder rose, Rowan, Sweet Cicely and Queen Anne’s lace; the pink tinged apple blossom of the late flowering King Edward and in the borders the Astrantia is just starting to open while the chrysanthemum hosmariense or Moroccan Daisy is in full bloom.
So here’s to Gertrude Jekyll and her wonderful sense of colour and design but more importantly here’s to spring with its hope, vigour and promise of new life.