Thursday, 24 March 2011

March Miscellany

NSALG - The National Association of Allotment & Leisure Gardeners - had much of  interest on their stall at TEGS. They cover the whole of the UK (apart from Northern Ireland) and issue a quarterly magazine to members

A bit of a mixture for this last March blog post - ranging from my fascinating visit to the first 'Edible Garden Show': very busy, where I discovered a rhubarb forcer and offer you a recipe for using it (the rhubarb, not the forcer!), to working in the garden, progress in my potager and the imminent start of BST. I was just one of over 10,800 visitors who converged on Stoneleigh near Coventry last weekend. Apart from assessing all the stands, I was able to gather much useful information from vendors and organisations which will feature in forthcoming blog posts over the next couple of months. Even if you couldn't attend, you can still listen to 'Gardeners’ Question Time' which was recorded from the showground on the opening day with Eric Robson and the GQT panel – Anne Swithinbank, Pippa Greenwood and Bob Flowerdew. The programme will be broadcast this Friday, March 25th and again on Sunday, March 27th.
forced rhubarb is sweeter and more tender than when left to its own devices; cover with an upturned dustbin - or purchase a proper rhubarb forcer, as shown below

Stewed or Poached Rhubarb may not be to everyone’s taste, but if cooked as follows (and given the more genteel name of compote!), it is rich and syrupy and entirely palatable when served with thick cream or custard and sweet sponge cake. To poach 500gms (1lb) rhubarb, first prepare a heavy syrup: in a Teflon-lined pan over a low heat, dissolve one cup of granulated sugar in one cup of water; bring to the boil and boil for 3-5 minutes. Into this syrup place the young forced rhubarb, washed and cut into short lengths, avoiding any stringy stalks. Cover the pan and over a low heat bring very slowly to simmering point. Do not stir or you will finish with a ‘mush’; allow to cool.

I spotted this terracotta rhubarb forcer at 'The Edible Garden Show' - perfect to bring forward a crop of early fruiting stems. Incorporate plenty of organic matter into the soil, similarly once you have finished cropping for the season, to allow the plant to regain strength. (Don't crop in the first year of planting and, when harvesting, pull and twist the stem rather than cutting it - ignore the leaves which contain oxalic acid and are poisonous).

Purchase from Terrapot Ltd (illustrated), or from Whichford Pottery.

You probably cannot wait for the start of British Summer Time (BST): the clocks go forward at midnight on Saturday and thereafter, we can snatch time in the garden after work. Lucky are those like me who work freelance from home and no longer have to commute. You have to be self-disciplined, and not sneak into the garden to sow and plant whenever you feel like it, though admittedly, a huge advantage is that you can check the greenhouse or cold-frames at lunch time, or during coffee breaks. There's always something needing attention, and maybe because one only has to step outside the door; essential jobs are ignored. "I can always do that tomorrow!" And so I don't, but take pen and paper instead, walk outside and begin to write.

Potager Progress: not been able to do anything for over a week now, but have observed much bird activity. Breakfast with a cup of coffee and you'd see me ticking the species off on my hand-made bird-chart - I always record the date I first see any bird for the first time each month. But my new raised beds have arrived, and with these lighter evenings, I'll be outside again, and should have so much more to report.
Click on this image to enlarge the pages so you can read them more easily; not so long an entry this week as I haven't been in the garden for the last seven days, other than to feed the birds, and the hens.

I'm taking a break from posting for a couple of weeks whilst I help the Dobies team with the next e-newsletter, due out in a week's time (meanwhile you can see the last online edition here) - you can register to receive every monthly edition. Please come back to the blog the following week; we have lots in store for you in the coming months.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Strategy for a Productive Garden

In my 'potager-to-be', hauling out long-neglected clematis (see my Potager Progress diary pages below)
Planning a new garden or allotment, or taking over - and reclaiming - an old one? Then it's sensible to adopt a strategy to get you growing and cropping as speedily as time and weather allows. Maybe you are adapting an existing garden to allow space to grow more vegetables, salads and fruit; an 'edible' plot no matter what the starting point. Will you have one large plot or a number of raised beds? Whatever the circumstances, allow yourself a little time to assess the space available and its present condition: overgrown and weedy, full of builders' rubble, or herbaceous flower borders or shrubberies that you wish to convert.

My husband's allotment-sized vegetable plot in full swing last Summer, just as we harvested the first of the new potatoes
Each will need its own solution: dig out builders rubble (maybe crush and use the rubble as hardcore for paths or patios); check the soil type - heavy clay or sandy loam, or what? Improve it if necessary with mulches and compost - purchased or home-produced; cut back and / or remove overgrown shrubs -  refer to 'RHS Pruning & Training' (pub. Dorling Kindersley) and dig out or smother weeds - pernicious, deep-rooted perennials may take more than one season to eradicate. 

Whilst I've been attacking the overgrowth in the new potager, my husband was busy rotavating his large plot.
Next, look at location: which way does the plot face? How much is over-shadowed by trees or buildings? You can't do much about these factors, but can adjust what you plant where - some plants thrive in shade, others will not succeed without sun and an open outlook. And now you know where your produce is to be grown, you can set to work on digging or rotavating, or positioning raised beds - and most exciting of all, deciding what to grow. (And order your seeds and plants quickly if you haven't yet done so!) 

When deciding what to grow, speak to 'the cook' first - there's no need to grow everything under the sun. Why not first take a look at 'The Garden to Kitchen Expert' by Judith Wills & Dr D.G.Hessayon ** - a newly published and marvellous cookery companion to the long-established series of 'expert' gardening guides; tantalise the taste buds and then get back out in the garden. ** Published by Expert Books (Transworld Publishers), ISBN 978-0-903-50592-5

Potager Progress: whilst my husband has been rotavating his 30ft x 20ft plot, I've been really busy in the 'potager-to-be'; as last week, I've recorded my activities in my ongoing diary, and I'm almost ready to plan the layout.
Double-click on these diary pages so you can read them at full size (diary pages measure 5" x 7", or 12.7cm x 17.8cm)
I have to admit that these are not my sketches, but scans taken from 'A Pocket Guide to British Birds' by R.S.R.Fitter, illustrated by R.A.Richardson - a book I've owned for nearly 50 years. The robin and ivy in the page above are cut from paper napkins, adhered to the page with fusible glue.
Oops, how time flies. I nearly forgot - it's Mothering Sunday in a couple of weeks and Dobies have some fine gifts (hint to my children!) - why not take a look. Meanwhile Raymond and I are visiting the first 'Edible Garden Show' at Stoneleigh, S.Warwickshire this weekend. Click on the link on the right of this blog for the latest details.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Sowing Seed Techniques & Potager Progress

Seed can be sown in 'home-made' containers on the kitchen window sill (see description below) - inexpensive and practical
Although our vegetable plot is not yet in a fit state for sowing and planting, nature invariably manages to catch up - if we give it a helping hand; a headstart. If you have a greenhouse, polytunnel or cold-frame, fine; if you don't, resort to seed trays and pots under cloches, with added fleece if necessary on frosty nights. Or use a covered porch, conservatory or kitchen window sill. A method I discovered some years ago has added advantages: 'polycups' - polystyrene coffee cups or soup bowls in different sizes. The polystyrene acts as an insulator (almost a mini propagator in themselves), they are cheap to buy and easy to prepare. 

Further protection is provided by placing the prepared cups each within one that has not been 'doctored',  and standing these double-cups within a wooden box covered with a sheet of polycarbonate glazing material - converts the box  into a mini-greenhouse and keeps out mice. Once germinated, the glazing is removed.

To prepare the cups, you will need a small hacksaw (my husband made mine out of a hacksaw blade fitted into a turned wooden handle, secured with a small piece of copper piping). Pinch three equidistant holes from the base of the cup, and make a cut from each hole halfway down toward the rim (left hand pic). Rotate the cup and make further cuts, one between each of the three already produced), taking each from halfway down to just below the rim; these allow for drainage. Fill the pots with a mixture of potting compost and perlite, sow your seed and cover with vermiculite. 

You can stand six standard-size cups in a supermarket mushroom tray - and cover the seed with another to act as a mini-propagator; perfect for large seeds or transplants that were sown in the shallower and wider cups.

Large seeds, such as beans of all varieties, and courgettes and marrows, can be sown one or two in individual deep cups. Use a larger size for deeper-rooted varieties such as runner beans or sweet peas. Should you be pushed for time when it comes to transplanting (and the seedling roots have extended through the slits and holes) simply break away the pot. If you can't be bothered with all this; take advantage of the excellent range of pots, propagators and other equipment on the Dobies website.

The first pages of my new 'Potager Progress' diary, begun last month
Potager Progress: I can't let the week pass without reporting on work in the potager-to-be. I am keeping a written and illustrated diary of my progress - double-click on these diary pages and you should be able to read them easily. Earlier posts ('Planning the Perfect Potager', 18th February) outlined the area I am reclaiming and converting to a combined potager/wildlife area - further detailed in this month's Dobies E-newsletter. The notes below take me to the end of last month - and right now (11th March), I'm going to sneak a further hour out in the sunshine, clearing away some of the redundant undergrowth.

Keeping a garden diary is an excellent way of recording progress in the garden, and a useful resource in months to come.

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