Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Where everything stands

The peas are swelling fast.

It's time to do a thorough update on the plants I have, the seeds I've yet to sow, and my plans and concerns at the moment. I feel like this is one of the pivots of the year, where a snap decision either way can set the next few months.

First, I bought more seeds. In my defence, they were super-cheap. When my sister visited a couple of weeks ago, we went to a discount book store in town, and they had a bargain bin full of branded seed packets - all the major names. 2 packs for £1. I held back at the time, as I didn't want to stall my sister, and I wasn't in a buying frame of mind. I finally went back a couple of days ago, and I was right to wait - they were now 4 packs for £1. There was a lot of good stuff, including - annoyingly - some I'd ordered from eBay at a much higher price (cavolo nero and Greek oregano for example, neither of which I've yet sown). I settled on 12 packs, which is a lot, but I don't have to grow them all this year. At that price, how could I refuse? Incidentally, the price of the seeds (printed on the backs of the packets) amounts to £21.50 - quite a saving!

I got:
  • Carrot 'Amsterdam 3 - Sprint'
  • Carrot 'Autumn King 2'
  • Lettuce (romaine) 'Pinares'
  • Lettuce (iceberg) 'Lakeland'
  • Mesclun mixed
  • Sage
  • Parsley 'Giant of Italy'
  • Wallflower 'Aurora'
  • Poppy (Icelandic) 'Ballerina Mixed'
  • Poppy 'Shirley Single Mixed'
  • Nemesia 'Carnival Mixed'
  • Ornamental Grass Eragostris spectabilis
The carrots were to replace my current stock of seeds. I've read that carrot seed has a short shelf life, and when I tried the homemade carrot seed mats championed by Annie's Kitchen Garden, not a single one germinated. The two varieties here are small, container-grown and large, maincrop respectively - covering all the bases. I have a lot of random cut-and-come-again salad seeds, but no hearting lettuces - I'd like to give the latter a go. Sage, well, I wouldn't normally grow perennial herbs from seed, but I always fail with shop-bought sage plants, so this might be a way forward - I adore sage. As for parsley, my current herb seeds (like the carrots) didn't yield much this year, so I need to replace them. As for the flowers - well, I love all of these, and there's still just enough time to sow them this year (some, like the wallflower, won't bloom until next year anyway). It occurs to me that the grass (a real random purchase for me) is in the same genus as teff, an Ethiopian grain used to make flatbreads. But I digress...

How are the tomatoes? Mixed, frankly. I gave my mum a selection of plants, but was dismayed to discover I'd run out of a couple of varieties already - 'Snowberry' and 'Sun Belle'. It turned out that I'd given a couple to my friends, and planted some myself, and the remaining plants all died. Well, they aren't quite dead, but all their top growth has withered. It remains to be seen whether they will bounce back - otherwise, I'll take side-shoot cuttings from the survivors. It could be a coincidence, or maybe these varieties simply don't take so kindly to neglect as their brethren.

The top plant, 'Jaune Flammée' is still by far the largest and healthiest-looking.

The flower buds on 'Costoluto Fiorentino' look quite different to the other varieties'.

Several of the 'Gardeners' Delight' plants indoors have started flowering - more through stress than anything else, I think. I've put them outside.

By the end of today, I should have around 25 planted in their final positions, i.e. into half growbags. The first ones to go in seem happy enough, although a lot of wind (the greenhouse, unfinished, offers limited protection) means they still look a little weedy. I intend to have 45-50 plants myself this year, to provide a year's supply of fruit, which was my original goal. At a kilo a plant, minimum, I should be able to manage that - though we'll see how I feel about watering in a couple of months' time. Indoors, there are several dozen plants remaining, though many have suffered from a lack of regular watering, so they may have to be ditched. I've started moving the rest outside regardless of their size and state, simply to give them a chance at getting some rain (there's been plenty of that this month here).

The same can be said for the aubergines. A few have thrived, although they grow achingly slowly compared to their cousins the tomatoes. Some have simply fried on the windowsill. Hopefully I will have a couple of each variety, which was my intention.

Pumpkins and other squash are thriving. Most varieties have germinated, some indoors, some out. The ones on the front windowsill have grown quicker, in the warm, but they are all doing well. I want to keep back two plants of each variety (there are around ten kinds) for myself, and sell the rest. My first melons went very leggy and died, but I sowed a second batch, which I've lost track of (all these cucurbits essentially look alike as seedlings). The cucumbers are everywhere too - just one variety sown so far, 'Armenian yard long' (I have a few of last year's 'Crystal Lemon' seeds left too), but they look happy for now.

The beans are looking great. The first couple of batches of broad beans have flowered for weeks, and now some pods are swelling (though I think the high winds will have drastically reduced the yield). The last batch, of crimson-flowered broad beans, are now healthy seedlings. The French beans are large, and I planted the first few today, one each into medium-sized terracotta pots. I also planted five runner beans, into a huge pot, with a very tall wigwam of reclaimed privet and Buddleia prunings, a good 7 feet tall (I learned my lesson last year - they grow huge!).

Young broad bean pods - I find it funny how they point upwards.

French beans to the left, runners to the right (and a tiny pumpkin 'Marina di Chioggia')

Finally, the less said about my ornamentals the better. I have seriously neglected them - which is a real shame, but I just don't seem to be able to juggle everything at once (I'm basically too lazy). Hopefully I'll have a few Cosmos, sweet peas, and Lobelia, nonetheless.

So it's a mixed bag overall. I have never in all my life been as self-disciplined as I should have been, but in gardening you really see the results: wilting, shrivelled, stunted plants, screaming out how inconsistent you are - you sowed them, labelled them, gave them love, then withdrew it and they died. Maybe the plants that survive are particularly tough as a result, but that's a very charitable interpretation. At least the perennials - in particular soft fruits - are racing ahead, regardless.

There is going to be a glut of raspberries at this rate - the hundreds of flowers are swarming with bumblebees!

Friday, 20 May 2011

Seeing results

The biggest news of the week - the first tomato flower has opened! This is 'Jaune Flammée'. In my defence, tomato flowers are hard to photograph.

The blue geranium that grows in my front garden. It's pretty, but huge and spreading, so I will dig it out. Still, I'll wait till it's finished flowering.

The peas have started flowering, almost behind my back. The first pod is an inch long - progressing fast!

A lot has been happening here recently. I've hosted my parents for a week, which has been much easier than I feared, and the main reason for their visit (my dad's application of electrical knowhow on to the new kitchen) has been fulfilled. More on that in the near future I hope...

The interior end of my greenhouse. On the left: the largest tomato plants in their final positions. To the centre and right: chilli seedlings, many more tomatoes, and a sole pumpkin, braving the grey weather.

Beans! French, runner, broad. Looking good now, especially the runners and French beans, which will need to be potted on soon.

Meanwhile, outdoors, things have continued to grow. May has been wet, blustery, grey and cool, but not cold (no frosts), which has led to the partial wrecking of the new greenhouse. It's probably retarded some of the warmer-climate crops, but the peas, broad beans, and spinach are thriving. We're on the cusp of summer now - peonies and roses are in bud, and tiny green strawberries and raspberries are swelling.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Mid-May harvest update

Not edible, but beautiful: this is ornamental Allium season. This one was only planted a couple of months ago, along with the spinach and first broad beans.

A quick one, to record how much I've harvested from my garden in the first two weeks of the month. As predicted, it's not much, but it's something - I've saved a couple of quid not having to buy spinach. And my broad beans are covered with flowers - hundreds of them - although no tiny pods are visible yet. The few peas I managed to sow outdoors are also in bloom, and the shallots seem to be bulking up. Tomatoes are looking good, at least the ones I have planted into half grow-bags, but some of the ones I've neglected aren't happy. Squash and pumpkins are sprouting, and looking good enough to sell off the bulk, hopefully allowing me to break even on the plants overall.

The new greenhouse got damaged in storms recently, before my very eyes in fact, but it wasn't anything too bad. I'm adding extra roof cross-beams, and have nearly finished the wooden parts, so it shouldn't set me back too much, but it's been cool, cloudy, windy and rather wet for a couple of weeks, so I haven't managed to do all that much outside. However, a load of mixed beans (climbing French, broad, and runner) I sowed less than a fortnight ago, which have sheltered in there, are now all sprouting, so the summer harvest still looks good!

Totals for two weeks from 1st-14th* May:
1st: 109g mixed chard and spinach
4th: 7g spinach
7th: 18g spinach
13th: 26g chard, 38g spinach, 11g chives
Fortnight total: 209g
Year to date total: 346g

*I won't harvest any tomorrow - too busy preparing for parental arrival.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

How to poach eggs, and what to serve with them

I love poached eggs. I am starting a diet this week, to cut into the layers of excess that have coagulated around my waist this past couple of years, and eggs are very prominent (it's essentially a fusion of GI and Mediterranean eating - portion-controlled, wholegrain, but with lots of dairy, vegetables, and lean protein). That's good - I love eggs, especially for breakfast. My favourite way of cooking them nowadays is poaching - which is luckily a very healthy way to cook them, alongside boiling, as no extra fat is added.

A lot of people seem to have trouble poaching eggs, my mother among them. I have never found it difficult, so I thought I'd share my technique, which is pretty standard, and observations built up over the past few years (I must have poached a couple of hundred eggs in that time). I must admit, this is unscientific - I followed advice, and it worked, and now I do it every time. Maybe there are other ways, or even better ways, but I can tell you with confidence that this way works.

The most important thing, if you want neat, compact, self-contained poached eggs, with no strings of white floating off in the water, is use the freshest eggs you can get. I buy mine from the local greengrocer, and they are perfect for a couple of days. Some uses of eggs, such as meringue, are better done with old ones, but here, freshness is key - since the whites become weaker and runnier as they age, and this leads to them breaking up when you poach them.

Cooking the eggs
Take a pan, fill it with water, and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat, add a dash of vinegar (white wine or cider is best, and not too much - maybe a tablespoon per litre). Take a slotted spoon, and stir the water into a vortex. Break your eggs, one at a time, into a cup or bowl, and ease into the swirling water (i.e., add one egg, then break another - don't break more than one into the cup or bowl at once). Cook for two or three minutes - timing isn't critical so much as checking the eggs visually. The white needs to be fully set (if the water isn't hot enough, or you cook them for too little time, the centre of the white tends to stay gelatinous), but the yolk should be runny inside. Once done, remove from the water with the slotted spoon - leave them too long and the yolk will set firm, which misses the point of poaching.

I always serve poached eggs on toast, or toasted pitta (whatever I have in), although English muffins are more classic, I suppose - but what you serve with them is endlessly flexible. Generally, the accompaniment goes between the toast and the eggs. Here are a few favourites:
  • smoked salmon/smoked trout: you can quickly microwave the fish (for just a few seconds) to par-cook it, or if the toast and egg are piping hot, the effect can be the same (although raw is fine too if you prefer).
  • spinach: wilt this if you like - an easy way is to put some in a sieve, and dip it into the boiling water as the eggs poach. Make sure it's well drained before putting on the toast. Asparagus can be treated the same way.
  • cheese: you could make cheese on toast, and top it with the eggs, or crumble goat cheese over the top before serving.
  • vegetable purée, e.g. broccoli: steam broccoli, and blitz with crème fraîche, salt, pepper, and parmesan; alternatively, try cauliflower blended with a little cream, salt and nutmeg, or peas blended with softened shallots and a little stock.
  • ham: prosciutto, Serrano, or equivalent, either raw or cooked until crispy, or English-style.
  • bacon.
  • tomatoes/mushrooms: grill or fry, as you would for a fried breakfast.
  • Hollandaise: this is rather classic, especially combined with, say, salmon or ham. Spoon a little over the eggs.
  • spices: try a pinch of garam masala, smoked paprika, or ground cumin on top.

However you serve them, if you like soft-boiled or fried eggs, I urge you to have a go at poaching them instead - don't expect perfect results the first time, maybe, but trust me, they are delicious, and feel a lot more special.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

April harvest

Hopefully, as the summer commences, I'll be able to do weekly harvest roundups, as is the norm in this sort of blog. However, as April is a lean time (and I didn't keep up with winter crops), I am doing one summary for the whole month.

Some things have been abundant. Applemint (which started out as variegated pineapple mint, but has reverted to the green form) grows freely in the front garden (though is rather choked by couch grass, so I need to dig the whole lot out and start again), and I've harvested lots of sprigs for summer rolls (rice paper wrappers filled with rice noodles, herbs, and sometimes prawns, sometimes chicken). Chives have been naturalised in the front for years, too, and I get lots of handfuls - it grows back quickly. The spinach and chard have bulked up almost without my noticing, and I've taken a few leaves (see the picture above). And I cut back the flowering sweet woodruff, though I won't eat that - it's mostly for enhancing rooms and laundry with its sweet vanilla scent.

Aside from this, wild foods have been abundant over the past six weeks. I've had dandelions (I gathered them for beer, then ignored them and had to throw them out), ground elder (which infests my friends' garden, and made a delicious soup with lovage and homemade chicken stock, of which more in a future post), and I keep meaning to gather the nettles that luxuriate in the uncultivated parts of the back garden (for soup, pesto, and making plant food).

May might see the first tomatoes forming, and the broad beans are already showing tiny pods. More herbs, nasturtium leaves, and rose petals will add a little interest, but no bulk. But come June, and the first strawberries, raspberries, ripe tomatoes, and salad leaves should be providing regular meals.

Total harvest to date (chives, spinach, mint, chard): 137g.