Sunday, 26 February 2012

False Spring ?

species crocus, with visiting honeybees

Here in the north Cotswolds it has been remarkably warm this last week; so much so, we were able to eat lunch outside one day in our sheltered 'Courtyard Potager'. Could we be fooled into thinking that spring has sprung early? Crocuses opened their delicate floral goblets wide in the sunshine and were a mass of honey bees. Remarkable, that; we usually see bumbles long before hive bees. But bumbles actually prefer wild flowers (weeds). If you have none in your garden, it pays to cultivate some! For without bees – of any sort – you will lessen the chance of a damson crop, or other early-flowering tree fruits. If the thoughts of weeds (wildlings) in your garden is anathema to you, plant up a few pots, and keep down self-setters such as annual red-deadnettle, and creepers like the perennial white variety, and the violet-scented but insidious winter heliotrope. All three are in flower now, and serve their purpose at this time of year in attracting bees. 

Overwintering self-set corn salad - a taste to come, and earlier than if they had been sown now.
As I was weeding the potager, I was delighted to see that my corn salad (lambs’ lettuce) of last summer had seeded itself; the young plants look healthy, so I will protect them against hard frost which no doubt we will still experience, before the winter’s out. Be prepared! If the ground is fit and you are tempted to sow early, ensure you have an adequate supply of fleece or cloches. In my case, I am usually late, and every year, weeds have overtaken me; some weeks I have no spare time at all. But yesterday (25th Feb), I forked over two of the raised beds, throwing weeds to the hens rather than compost them. A handy tip to anyone using the excellent link-a-bord beds for the first time: avoid inserting the fork so that it is forced against the sides as you dig. Instead, work parallel to the sides, throwing the weed and earth into the middle; then extract the weed and rake the cleaned soil back into place.

Over-wintering greens have fared well, despite some very hard frosts
There is still weed in the cabbage beds, but these are left until later for fear of disturbing the roots, causing potential wind-rock of my purple sprouting, broccoli. By this time of year, these lush plants sometimes need staking – hazel prunings are fine, or a short bamboo cane. I then turned my attention to the courtyard potager perimeter. Not walls, but shrubs. Again, some had got out of hand and were pruned back to allow you growth (pruned to below the height you eventually want to achieve). 

Woody prunings protect newly forked beds from unwanted feline visitiors.
And here’s another tip: the prunings were placed over the newly forked raised beds; this prevents the attentions of marauding cats and dogs, and dust-bathing sparrows. There’s a danger in pruning and clearing debris too early: you destroy the winter hiding places of hibernating ladybirds. Once the forked earth has settled, the beds will be topped up with fresh compost, and once early salads are sown, the prunings will be replaced, providing much-needed protection for the emerging seedlings. As ever, still much to do, but I’ll stop for a mug of coffee and write up my ‘Potager Progress’ diary.

Keeping a garden diary is useful - looking back to exactly a year ago, before the 'courtyard potager' came into being, the weather was so very different, as was the area of ground from which this mini-garden was created.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Fruit, Nuts - and Pancakes

Autumn fruit and nut harvest (September 2011)
Thinking about fruit when walking around almost any supermarket has me realising just how glad I am that years ago we planted fruit trees in our garden, and have continued to do so as time goes by. Supermarket fruit is rarely ripe, and, out of season, is costly and consuming of air miles. I planted apples before we had even converted the house, keeping them watered in the hot, dry summer of 1969 with endless buckets of water pumped from an old well. Later on, we moved on to nuts – hazel and walnut, and now have more than we can possibly consume.

Fruit ripening on our Merryweather Damson (actually a damson-plum) -
perfect for damson jam, spiced damsons, or damson wine
Not everyone has the space we have, but it is perfectly possible to grow fruit and nuts in a small garden; you just have to be circumspect with the varieties, and check, in most cases, that they are supplied on dwarfing stock, which limits their eventual size and provides earlier cropping. Our Merryweather damson – whilst being in the orchard – could quite easily have been planted in one of my gardens-within-a-garden, which I am doing this spring with my new Mirabelle de Nancy (I can’t wait to be making sloppy jam ‘a la Francais’).

A ripening Brown Turkey fig - the small figs will never ripen and must be removed
(the UK climate cannot support the two or three crops possible in Mediterranean countries)
Without cataloguing all the fruit we grow, let me suggest types suitable for a smaller garden. Despite being relatively high for some fruit, pears do well, as do Brown Turkey figs planted against a wall, though in the UK they only set one crop (remove all the other small figlets for they will not survive). Plums, too, in succession and crab apples in the hedge. A dessert grapevine has taken over the greenhouse, and others (for wine) clamber through a holly tree.

Ripe walnuts will fall when ready; the outer case
will split. Wear gloves, for the green hulls stain.
Hazels have more uses than their delicious nuts. Whether you plant a cob or a filbert, they need regular coppicing, providing stakes for bean-poles and wigwams and twiggy bits for supporting peas. It isn’t all paradise, however – the beautiful 120-year old apples we inherited have succumbed to old age; but we still have more than we need of everything, and do not begrudge the birds their share, nor the squirrel who buries walnuts and hazels wherever the fancy takes him/her; if we were not vigilant, we would have a veritable forest before long!

Lemons add an extra piquancy to pancakes on Shrove Tuesday

If you have a conservatory, you can grow a lemon (outdoors in more clement areas of the UK) – perfect for Pancake Day, which this year falls on this coming Tuesday, 21st February. Just in case you do not already have an easy recipe, here’s the one I have used for over 50 years: Into a food processor or liquidiser put 250ml milk plus 2 tablespoons cold water. Add 2 medium-sized hens eggs. Process on high till well-mixed. With the processor set to its lowest speed, gradually add 100gms plain flour and half-tsp salt, then mix on top speed until all is well combined. Transfer to a jug, cover and store in the fridge overnight. To cook: Stir the batter with a fork. Take a flat pancake pan: melt a knob of lard, add a swirl of butter to the sides; at the first indication of ‘blue smoke’ – it’s more a haze than actual smoke – pour in about half a teacup of mixture, tipping the pan this way and that just above the heat to distribute the batter over the whole pan surface. Cook until a knife inserted at the edge of the pan will lift the pancake away from the base. Flip over with a knife (there’s no need to toss!) and cook the second side.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Kitchen Garden Update

Cold and snowy, but the birds are feasting
Not much has been happening in my mini kitchen garden of late here in the north Cotswolds – not so much the covering of snow but the fact the raised beds are all frozen. And I omitted to follow my own advice and forgot to protect the self-set rocket with fleece; it’s looking distinctly sorry for itself! Can’t wait for the purple sprouting to ‘sprout’ (really the emerging flower spikes). I turned my attention instead to feeding the birds, checking that the feeders were filled with seed, nuts and suet fat balls, which seem to be the most popular in times of hard weather. Water dishes had to be thawed each morning (I even spotted birds eating snow), but what brought unusual species down into this little patch was a feast of apples – bought specially as an experiment in what we could attract.

female blackcap
Apart from the usual tits, finches and blackbirds we were visited by the female blackcap, female greater spotted woodpecker, a pair of mistle thrushes, yellowhammers, long-tailed tits, and fieldfares, but not the male pheasant who was a constant visitor last year; I fear he may have fallen prey to a wandering fox. Seeing birds so close to the kitchen window was quite amazing – you do not appreciate the size or beautiful plumage of birds normally seen at a distance. The blackcap is fiercer than she looks!

My 'Red Love' apple
growing in a pot (the
ribbons prevent
 accidental pruning
It wasn’t just the food that brought them into the garden but the close proximity of the shrubs that surround this little plot – the one I call my ‘Dobies Potager’ in which I trial new varieties, not just vegetables and salads but flowers to attract pollinating insects, plus a potted apple tree and, heeled in ready to plant when the weather is fit, Mirabelle de Nancy – a mouth-watering plum-like fruit which has been cultivated in France since the 15th Century. (Read more about it in my Christmas Day post, here.)

Personal pages from my garden journal (double-click if you want to read my jottings)
Time to review my 2012 garden plans, at present just so many notes on scraps of paper, and even more ideas running through my head. I’m running out of space in the Dobies Potager, but have other areas – each a mini-garden, too; one where I trial other varieties of fruit, the other a mix of herbs and annual flowers – and both in need of care and attention. Out this morning as I write comes my suede-covered garden diary; more a journal of jottings with scribbled diagrams and sketches. Good to refresh the memory and assess progress over the last two years of success, and failure; and somewhere to pull together what I want, and need, to do.

Dandelion leaves can be used in salads, hens love them; the flowers make a delicious wine

I am reminded, not so much of the weedy state of most of my beds, but of the importance of many weeds in attracting early pollinating insects; and chickweed is much appreciated by hens. Some, such as the dandelion, are edible and will provide an early addition to a salad; simply cover a plant with a flower-pot to blanch the leaves (and thus remove a little of the bitterness) and serve with an oil and vinegar dressing.

If you've stumbled upon this post by accident, or from one of my other blogs, and would like a copy of the 2012 Dobies catalogue, easy to use, full of good things and very well set out, then click here to request a copy.