Sunday, 20 March 2011

Pottering and pruning

Glorious sunny Sunday afternoon in the back garden. You know how as the season starts, it's hard to decide what to do first? I wandered round for almost an hour looking at the mess and wondering where to start, despite P having given the lawn its first cut of 2011 earlier in the day.
Oak leaves strewn all over the place ( including covering the surface of the pond - is it too late to clear it?).
Witch hazel, so overwhelmed by last summer's honeysuckle growth - and then the winter's - that we could barely see it flowering back in January and February, and the branches now completely invisible, as was the flower bed beneath.
Paving at the bottom of the garden full of junk - plastic pots all over the place, open bags of compost, more oak leaves. Piano finally falling apart - I suppose it's had at least four years out here, doesn't owe us anything.
Weeds covering the shady side flower bed, with barely a sign of bulbs coming through, although the comfrey was coming into flower and buddleia and black elder already starting into leaf. And what's that horrible smell, is it the drains, the pond or the compost bin?
Alas dear readers it was the compost bin, my first experience of what can happen to worms in a plastic bin when you have a two nights of hard frost followed by a couple of very warm afternoons. I draw a discreet veil over the details, hose followed by hot water and bleach is all I will say. Not the best start to my gardening year.
After that, though, all was pleasure and industry - well I don't have to describe pottering and pruning to you. Out with the secateurs and string to tie up climbing roses and prune back honeysuckle; finding the sunny side full of columbine to look forward to later in the spring; weeding the shady side and spotting the grape hyacinths and allium just poking through; sorting out the pots so the daffodils and hyacinths look their best; deciding the pond can wait for another day; and finally the delight of a late afternoon bonfire and enjoying a beer while the sun went down.
And then coming indoors to find a vase full of pale yellow daffodils from the front garden.
I'm really looking forward to the growing season ahead, and I hope your Sunday afternoon was as full of pleasures and plants as mine.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Oranges and lemons

Something of a CitrusFest at home today. It's marmalade season, so I started preparing Seville oranges this morning. Splitting each fruit in half, squeezing the juice and reserving all the pips - many more than your usual oranges, and a great source of pectin, which makes the marmalade set - then paring the peel (taking care to slice close to the skin, as too much of the white pith would make the final product bitter). One and a half kilos of oranges later, (some prepared by beloved, who finished the job while I had some soup for lunch) I squeezed a couple of lemons, bagged up the pips and orange flesh, added two and a half litres of water and set the whole lot to stew gently for a couple of hours until the peel was tender and the kitchen full of wintry scented orangeness.

I had a load of lemons in the fridge too, so while I was waiting, thought I would have my first crack at lemon curd. This is a delicious preserve, and very simple to make - don't know why I haven't done it before. For three jars of curd I needed four lemons, four ounces (100g) of butter, four free range eggs and a pound (450g) of sugar.

Squeeze the lemons, grate the peel, put together with the other ingredients in a large heatproof bowl over barely bubbling saucepan of hot water and stir occasionally for about an hour. when it thickens (like a delicious lemony custard), strain and pot up in sterilised jars, then eat - with toast, in muffins and tarts, or however you like it - within about a month. It will keep in a cool cupboard but needs to be refrigerated once opened.

Once the curd was done, I got back to the marmalade, which by now had reduced by about a quarter. I added 2 kg of preserving sugar, stirred, tasted, then added about 1 and a half more, brought it to the boil and kept it going, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon for about 40 minutes until it looked a couple of shades darker and was just about setting on spoon. I find with jam, I can use the saucer technique, where you test a teaspoon of the mix on a cold saucer and if it wrinkles when you push it with your finger it's reached setting point. Marmalade may have overcooked if I get it to that stage, so it's worth stopping sooner and having a lighter set so it doesn't go bitter and burnt tasting. Looks prettier in the jar too!

Finished abour 5 pm and felt I'd almost done a full day's work! Though this time of the year it's great to stand over a hot stove and stir up something delicious on my day off. P took over in the kitchen to make a sausage supper and then we headed out to the Jolly Coopers on Epsom Common, for live music (including our son's band) at their monthly jam night. How appropriate!

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Weird experience of the week...

Looking over snowy gardens from my bedroom window this morning, I saw a dolphin sail past on the roof of a car below. Looked again and realised it was a Christmas tree!

Go on, have a look next time someone drives past with a tree tied to their roof. Surely not a unique Christmas experience?

Wednesday, 1 December 2010


London has snow again, the dry white powder that whips in from the north east with a chill and bitter wind. Our gardens and suburban streets are transformed, trees and plants dressed with iced blossom, roofs reflecting brilliance back to grey and overcast skies. Trudging back from the park, while we carefully negotiate the crunchy treacherous paths, the children newly released from school laugh, slide and catch an icy breath of air. Little ones play Santa in their bright toboggans, their parents reindeer pulling them home for hot drinks and cosy nights in.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Sweetcorn fungus?

Back to the allotment yesterday - my first visit for weeks and weeks - and after all the recent rain, everything looking lush and green. Alas, most of it is weeds, one bed in particular which I planted up with beans at the end of August was also covered with flowering chickweed and speedwell (delicately pretty) to nearly a foot high., Fortunately these were also interspersed with self seeded sorrel and rocket, which will be lovely in autumn salads until the first frosts. Every cloud...

P picked runner beans and sweetcorn on Monday - the beans looked promising but as they'd been on the vine so long, were very stringy, so we'll eat the rest in soups and stews without the sweet pods.

All the sunflowers are now well past their best; one had spread over a whole bed, I've never seen so many flowerheads on one plant before. The rest have gone to seed, which I've left in hope of feeding some goldfinches once they arrive here in the south later this month on their winter migration from northern Scandinavia.

Now here's a puzzle for you - what on earth happened to this sweetcorn cob? I've looked for similar pics of sweetcorn diseases but not been able to find any free information on a quick trawl of websites. The growths appear to be full of soil or compost, it doesn't smell, it just looks gross close up. I couldn't see any bugs in it either, so assume it must be a fungus. Any ideas anyone?

Doorstep gravel garden

Unless you're excited by shrubs, cyclamen or early Christmas shopping, UK garden centres can be less than inspiring at this time of year. So it was great to visit RHS Wisley the other week and find some small but delightful plants to create a small gravel garden for our front doorstep.
From centre back clockwise, we found: Helleborus x Sternii; Iris Setosa; Cyclamen Coum; Oxalis Lobata; and Gentiana (which looks a
little like rosemary in this picture). Alas, I've lost the label for the last pf these plants, so not sure what variety; since planting up, it has developed the deepest blue flowers, quite heavenly in contrast to the golden oxalis.
There should be something of interest in the pot in every season as it matures, though it is quite hard to judge at this stage... I'm hoping that there will be at least three plants either in leaf or flower at any one time.
I may have missed a trick by not including a small mirror as a "pond " next to the iris... but perhaps it would have looked too much like something off Blue Peter!
Isn't the yellow rose lovely? It's been flowering vigorously on our west facing patio since late August, when my mother brought it home for us.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Garden Party to Make a Difference: review

Up to the beating heart of royal London today, for a rare opportunity to visit the historic gardens at Clarence House, Lancaster House and Marlborough House, and experience the "Garden Party to Make a Difference", a unique festival devoted to ways of living more sustainably, as part of the Start campaign fronted by the Prince of Wales.
P & I had fun - we spent the morning helping with Garden Organic's contribution to the show, then were free to tour the whole site. We were giving away rocket and chard plants to people who made the One Pot Pledge, thus supporting GO's campaign to encourage more of us to start growing our own food.
GO have a very good deal on offer at the show - if you become a member (minimum £28 or £2.50 per month by direct debit) you get to choose three free packets of Duchy Original Seeds and take home a £5 Thompson and Morgan voucher - plus £5 off Heritage Seed Library membership, which entitles you to seeds of old or rare varieties to grow on your plot, save the next generation, and share with others.
As gardeners, our favourite exhibit was the Future City Garden, in a series of raised beds along the wall of Clarence House, which gave us some great ideas for recycling and saving space while growing veg. For instance, there was an attractive display of lettuces, flourishing in large yoghurt pots, set into an old door which could be leaned against a wall, shed or fence. We also liked the giant tepee-style tripods set in large buckets, supporting a good crop of golden yellow and red tomatoes. We could imagine being able to cover them with plastic sheeting early in the season to protect from rain and the dreaded blight and encourage sooner cropping.
The show has an eclectic mix of exhibitors, including independent (plant) nurseries and food and drink producers. Some of these were lined up opposite the Asda marquee, with slogans on the side about buying local that seemed somewhat... insensitive? untrue? Perhaps I've missed something about Asda's buying policies.
In any case, M&S appeared to have won the supermarkets' visual PR battle at the event. Everyone - even me - was carrying one of their striking "Twiggy" organic cotton bags. Now I know they are following Plan A (because there is no plan B in relation to climate change) but it is hard to find any organic food in their Colliers Wood or Sutton branches.
We were surprised to see how busy the Red Cross stand was - loads of people, mainly women, taking part in sewing. Brought back memories of knitting squares for charity blankets when I was young, so I'm afraid I rushed past that one. (Maybe that's why I haven't joined the great contemporary craft revival which seems so popular and much blogged about by others).
It was a shame that although we could have purchased a well known (bog standard, national brand, bottled) lager to drink for £3.50 from the onsite caterers, the independent Hogs Back Brewery was only allowed to give away small samples of their delicious real ale.
There were also entertainments (comedy and music) and talks on offer, and we especially liked the Commonwealth exhibit, a beautiful tie-dyed canopy with musical and visual presentations from around the world of people working together for a sustainable future. This was the only focus for the importance of community that we noticed at the festival; I would have liked also to see something about how communities, such as the Transition Towns movement, come together in this country, to support one another living greener lives. Doing things individually can feel demoralising sometimes.
My other disappointment, in an overall stimulating, imaginative and enjoyable event, was the lack of anything about complementary healthcare. Perhaps this was due to the closure earlier this year of the Prince's Foundation for Integrated Health? Given the growing problems of capitalism and of Western conventional medicine (eg antibiotic resistance and iatrogenic disease) - we all need to be looking after ourselves and each other with the support of traditional human knowledge, skills and methods such as herbal medicine and homeopathy, osteopathy and massage. I hope this important element of living sustainably can be included in any future event. It has always been an enjoyable part of our local Environmental Fair, organised annually by EcoLocal in Carshalton Park.