Friday, 25 February 2011

Rooting Around - in and out of the garden

Spring is surely on its way when the sun shines!
I've been outside today, walking around the whole of our plot, delighting in the sunshine. It's relatively warm and gone for the moment at least are the grey skies. How good it feels; for what with all the rain and earlier heavy frosts and snow covering, I've been working indoors for almost two months now. At least it's given me time to catch up on reading and also allowed me to play around in the kitchen, trialing recipes and ways of preparing those vegetables we managed to store last Autumn. So this post offers some basic ideas for using roots: carrots, swedes, turnips, parsnips – if you have none stored, at least they are cheap to buy.
Use from your own store of winter veg, or resort to the supermarket if stocks are low
If your Carrots are by now tired and horny, serve them this way (a tasty dish I discovered many years ago at The Willow Reaturant in North Yorkshire's Pateley Bridge). Cut carrots into small pieces, boil until soft, then mash (or whirr quickly in a food processor) with a seasoning of grated nutmeg; place into  an oven-proof dish, dot with butter and re-heat in a hot oven. Swedes and Turnips have a very powerful flavour not much liked by children, and can be wet and sloppy if over-boiled. Nevertheless, they impart a delicious flavour to soups and stock, or can be mashed together with plenty of pepper, or mixed with carrots finished as at the ‘Willow’. Parsnips, too, are often eschewed by children, but again are delicious mashed, alone or with carrots. I like to mix roughly chopped carrots and parsnips with a little cream, as if I was preparing mashed potato, but leaving the chunks. Nutmeg is good with this mixture, too.

Soups are a useful lunch standby for they can be made in advance and reheated when needed. And the beauty of many  recipes is that you can vary them according to whatever vegetables you have available, and make them thick as potage, thin and delicate as consomm√©, heartily chunky or smooth and creamy. Be adventurous, and get hold of a copy of ‘Soup Glorious Soup’, by Annie Bell (Kyle Cathie, 2010; ISBN 978-1-85626-913-1) and you’ll be using it throughout the year – and not just with humble roots. Over 100 recipes will take you through all four seasons, for soup truly is the ultimate comfort food, so versatile and not restricted to just the British way of thinking.

Useful, too – in kitchen or garden – is Mathew Bigg’s recently revised ‘Complete Book of Vegetables’ (Kyle Cathie, 2010; ISBN 978-1-85626-974-2) where “the ordinary mingles with the extraordinary”. An A-Z guide to vegetables, with practical considerations as well; it will encourage you to try growing all sorts of produce this year. A bonus for both new and experienced gardeners is the welcome nutritional advice – and plenty of delicious recipes. 

And as we're talking about growing and using your own produce, take a look at details of the forthcoming 'Edible Garden Show' to be held at Stoneleigh Park near Coventry in mid-March.
Finally, don't forget: if you haven't already done so, to check the root vegetable varieties - and others - that you wish to sow in 2011. Click here to go to the Dobies seed catalogue; you'll find the growing advice and nutritional information useful as well.

(This post written by contributor, Ann Somerset Miles.)

Friday, 18 February 2011

Planning the Perfect Potager

Discussing a secluded area in our Cotswold garden sorely in need of reclamation; almost a total makeover - but I have such plans (though bringing them to fruition will take time, and hours of work).

Rain in the wind, and falling from the sky - and I wonder when I will ever get back to the joys of plunging my hands in the warm soil, and actually sowing and planting anything, let alone harvesting young and succulent salads and vegetables. I return to my series of photographs taken around the garden in early January, and the plans that I was trying to formulate in my head for this year; always more than I can ever accomplish! Last week I blogged about my passion for herbs - but that is as nothing when compared to my PASSION for POTAGERS. Potagers? Best described perhaps as productive yet ornamental kitchen gardens. Not just food, but glorious colour, and the ongoing delights of watching edible plants grow, whilst also accommodating beneficial wildlife, no matter how small the space.

This potager is backed by a 'hedge' of rambling roses and willow with a wild garden alongside - and space to sit on a tiny paved area with fragrant herbs in pots - catch the fragrance as you brush past them. Somewhere to rest and contemplate the garden is essential. Meanwhile wild strawberries mingle with the cabbages.

In my various attempts at creating potagers over the years, the edible intermixes with other aspects of the garden. Each has been carved out of a semi-wilderness - and I have strategies for dealing with heavily weed-infested ground. But first, you need to decide whether this method of gardening appeals. It's ideal where space is limited - and one that even the RHS advocates. Advantages are many: crops can be packed closer together; it's easier to intercrop, easier to squeeze edibles into spaces within other areas of the garden; a doddle with children or grandchildren; and marvellous where you want to start immediately and don't have ground already prepared.

My 'grow-bag' potager: this is the area you can see from the paved area in the pic above (the rose hedge is in flower). The ground  was heavily infested with weed and I knew I would not be able to grow anything in the summer I created it; so I covered the ground with a plastic tarpaulin and arranged good-quality grow-bags into 'beds'. The crops flourished (you can see those bags which had only just been planted on the right).

Like the idea? Here's what to do: first decide whether you want to intersperse veg and salads within your flower borders, or whether you want to start from scratch. If the latter; assess the condition of the soil and how much work is involved with clearing. Heavily weed-infested areas can be treated as in the explanation above (using grow-bags); after one season, you should be able to lift away the ground cover, dig the soil and incorporate the spent grow-bag compost. If the ground is already 'fit', decide whether you want raised beds or other containers, and how you want to lay out the potager. 

Planning my new potager surrounded by existing shrubs and other wildlife-friendly plants - and logs from a recently felled eucalyptus.

I decide that the area shown above and in the first pic is perfect for a new potager, so I sat making notes (back in January that was), and sketched a very rough plan of what I want. There's a lot of work involved: tame the wildlife wilderness, accurately measure and peg it all out, dig out the bulbs that were planted seven years ago in what was then 'lawn', and somehow eradicate the delicious but invasive vanilla-scented Winter Heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) that has taken over the whole area. Meanwhile, to gain a headstart, I'll be raising seedlings in the greenhouse in pots and modules for planting when the area is ready. Or I'll do as last year when I was short of time and order some of Dobies excellent plug plants - we're still cropping leeks and sprouts.

A very rough sketch of the new potager - the central square (which still needs detailed planning) will be filled solely with Dobies vegetables, salads, edible flowers and herbs, whether raised from seed or grown on from bought-in plug plants. As soon as it stops raining (!) I'll be out there tackling the wild-life shrubbery - and, as time goes by, I'll keep you posted as to progress.

Potagers? What do you think? Your comments are invaluable to the Dobies team in helping us to focus on those topics you most enjoy reading about. So whether your preference is solely for a dedicated vegetable plot or allotment, or you are beguiled by the idea of a mixed-up garden, do let us hear your thoughts. I'm hooked on potagers because they are so eco-friendly and encourage biodiversity within the garden. But of course, you may not agree!
(This post written by contributor, Ann Somerset Miles.)

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Herbs and Herb Gardens

High summer at 'The Kennels', in the herb garden not long after it was first established.

In my days off since last blogging, and writing the Dobies February e-newsletter, I have been travelling – indulging in one of my passions: herbs. Down to the Goodwood Estate near Chichester, discovering a fascinating little herb garden, and a little of its history. Even in Winter, the magic is there; bare earth, mulched and cosseted, plants sleeping in geometric beds: just a hint of the culinary pleasures to come, once Summer arrives. And then imagine the plucking and snipping, the chefs taking only a few short steps from ‘The Kennels’, across the road and into a sun-kissed walled garden, returning with handfuls of fresh leaves to chop and garnish, releasing their savour and fragrance in delectable dishes.

How very different it looked last week in its Winter guise; the herbs are dormant, some only obvious by the plant labels stuck in the soil. All awaits the warmth of Spring to encourage new shoots.

It’s five years since the plot of land at the old whelping kennels was brought into use, arising from an idea put forward by the Estate’s Executive Chef who needed herbs ‘on demand’ for use in the kitchens. Now the close-clipped box-edgings have grown into green ribbons around the many borders; eight stately sentinel bay trees stand guard whilst innumerable herbs tempt and tantalise. Their names alone are reminiscent of culinary joys to come: borage and bergamot, hyssop, sorrel, lovage, parsley flat and curled, English lamb mint and winter savory, fennel, dill, chives and chervil, lemon verbena and lemon balm, sage, thyme and stripy pineapple mint, and rosemary in profusion.

This delightful spot I discovered quite by chance, walking around the garden that surrounds Tewkesbury Abbey. Herbs in profusion clustered beneath one of the main stone buttresses.

It isn’t just culinary herbs that beguile and tantalise the senses. Flora Klickman, an indefatigable editor of women’s magazines in the early 1900s, and way ahead of her time, would leave behind the toils of London and escape to her ‘Flower Patch Among the Hills’ above the Wye valley. In 1916 she wrote: “Do you know what the scent of cut herbs is like on a hot summer day, with sweet peas in the background? In this herb garden there is sage, with its lovely blue flowers, lemon thyme, silver thyme, savory, hyssop, lavender, rosemary, rue, balm, marjoram, black peppermint, spearmint and parsley … and old-time bergamot.” Times have not changed; the same joy in growing herbs is as true today as it was ninety-five years ago and an aromatic herb patch – a secret retreat – is one to be treasured, if you have such a spot. Seek out herb gardens (often a garden within a garden) for inspiration. Take notes and photographs, make sketches.

A culinary herb patch which I created alongside the upper part of our Cotswold orchard - sadly it catches the easterly winds and will have to be re-thought - and the bindweed which I so carefully removed has re-emerged.

Then look around your plot for a corner or patch, no matter how tiny, that you could enhance with herbs; you will be creating a sanctuary that will soothe and heal, just as have countless gardeners throughout history. Many herbs can be grown from seed, others from cuttings, or for a quick result, buy potted herbs and transplant them into ground that has been cleared of weeds and well mulched.

(This post written by contributor, Ann Somerset Miles.)