It’s been a funny old year

Maybe it shows my age but when I reflect on the growing seasons this year I feel like  Arkwright from Open All Hours as he closes up the shop for the night with ‘It’s been a funny old day Granville…

I think it has been a funny old year this year with seasons merging into each other which has prolonged the growing period for many fruit and vegetables – it’s great that there is  in the middle of October there is still a lots to chose from.  Tonight we had a marrow stuffed with a savoury lentil sauce made with freshly picked tomatoes, green pepper and aubergine topped off with cheese – pretty tasty!
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This afternoon when I was out gathering autumn berries and leaves I was surprised to see shiny red unripe blackberries rather than wizened and mouldy over ripe blackberries that you would expect at this time of year. And yet when I was checking the sloes (thinking it’s almost time to make sloe gin) I was amazed to find that the laden bushes of last week are almost stripped bare of fruit.

So what else makes me think it’s been a funny old year in the garden?  Well we have been cropping climbing beans from the polytunnel since May and there are still a few stragglers left but on the other hand the runner beans just didn’t grow until the end of August so we have been eating young and tender runners as an autumn vegetable. Sadly that means there won’t be any getting to the seed stage before frost appear so no home grown dried beans to add to chillies this winter.

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Courgettes have been virtually nonexistent both in and out doors and yet the cucumbers have been like triffids they have just kept on growing p and are still growing. I have developed a taste for cucumber water and along with my new found delight in making flavoured gins I can thoroughly recommend cucumber gin – just pop about 4 slices into a tot of gin and leave for about 5 minutes before adding the tonic.

So a funny old year – but maybe every year is a funny year so that  gardeners have something to talk about!

 

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How many beans make five?

We’ve had some rain and it’s a beautiful evening so I have been outside planting out leeks, kale and sprouts in whatever gaps I can find in the vegetable garden.  On my way back to the house I checked out the polytunnel – tomatoes are doing well , the cucumber glut is progressing with alarming speed and the climbing french beans just needed to be picked.

As I was picking the beans my thoughts turned to Jerry, a dear friend who sadly is no longer with us. He used to amuse the boys when they were little with the question  – ‘how many beans make five?’
The answer which must be said at high speed is
‘two beans, a bean, a bean and a half and half a bean’
after years of repeating it I can say it quickly, without hesitation and without even thinking. How I wish I had asked Jerry the origin of the saying.

So as the french and runner beans in the vegetable garden struggle to get established due to wind, cold weather especially at nights and anything else you can think of to blame-  I am delighted with the results in the tunnel.  I had never tried growing broad beans and climbing french beans in the polytunnel before so I gave it a whirl this year.  We have been eating broad beans for about 6 weeks now and have moved seamlessly from the tunnel to the outdoor crop.  But even better the climbing beans are prolific and tonight’s harvest went straight into the freezer.

As a result of the early bean crop I have been experimenting with some new recipes.  All year I have been enjoying following the months in  Hugh Fearnley-Whiitingstall’s book The River Cottage Year and one of July’s recipes is french beans with tapenade and chicken.  I liked the basic idea of the recipe but not too sure about anchovies and thought what about using a mixture of fresh summer vegetables – french and broad beans and tiny baby courgettes. The experiment worked and served with freshly dug potatoes it is a really tasty meal.

See – summer vegetables with tapenade and chicken recipe

And if anyone knows the answer to the origin of ‘how many beans make five?’ do let me know!

Picking pears by torchlight

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 places in single layers ready for eating!

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.

 

Never turn your back on a courgette!

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!

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.

In Search of Elderflowers

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 Wooden spoon measurefor 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…IMG_8415

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.

 

 

 

Gardens are more than plants

Highly fragrant double white peony

Auntie Iris’ peony

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.

Strawberries at last!

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!

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!

Thoughts of Gertrude Jekyll

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.

Optimistic seed sowing and a busy Life

Yesterday I was optimistic about Spring actually being here but in fact I had suffered a rush of optimism about three weeks ago when I got that urge to get growing.

Compost was purchased (Fertile Fibre peat free) and the shiny metal box containing all my lovingly gathered and purchased seeds was opened with that rush of anticipation which heralds the start of a new growing season. Oh what to plant first and trying to be sensible and moderate the urge to fill scores of seed trays I rationed my early season planting to sweet pea, broccoli, rocket, greyhound cabbage and salad bowl lettuce. Remembering my brother’s mantra  ‘steady as you go’ I curbed my enthusiasm and stopped at that point (well for a day or two!)

next crop comingThe first two weeks were fine I had time to keep an eye on things ( and plant more seeds – stock, globe artichoke, butter-nut squash and basil to name a few) but then my early optimism came a cropper – working away from home, visiting parents, village events and in the flash of an eye seeds had germinated and stretched their leggy stalks up to the sky making them look quite unhealthy.  Oh why had I planted so early and why had I not taken a few minutes to check the seed trays?  How many times have we all said this to ourselves. Never fear one of my very useful birthday presents from my sister came into play a widger – a little stainless steel tool which replaces my rusty old teaspoon for gently lifting seedlings allowing you to transplant them without crushing their delicate stem or leaves.

The straggly cabbages were gently lifted out of the seed tray and  potted on into 9cm pots with the seedling planted deeply so that the compost covers the straggly stem and holds the leggy plant firmly in place.  After 10 days the plants are looking like sturdy little seedlings and my neglect is not evident.  All if safe for now but there are still many hurdles ahead – frost, slugs, pigeons, caterpillars and probably some more human neglect before we enjoy the first taste of the cabbage and bacon.

 

Is spring finally around the corner?

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wood anemoneThe weather has been so fickle recently –  one day sunny and warm the next the hail is bouncing off your face. But today as I went for a walk at lunch time I was filled with optimism as I saw a carpet of wood anemone in the wood so, despite the chilly wind, I was optimistic.

Imagine my delight when I got home in daylight and wandered down the vegetable patch and there in front of me was purple sprouting broccoli… suddenly the evening menu was looking brighter!

 

purple sprouting ready for the pot!

 

 

Within 20 minutes of spying the broccoli it was picked, popped in the steamer for about 5 minutes and then enjoyed by everyone.  The first harvest of the year – yes spring is finally on its way!