Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Today in the garden ... doom and gloom looms

Still Life With Bifurcated Carrot

There comes a point in the year when you realise you're starting to push against the tide instead of riding along with it. Trying to keep the plants chivvied along while nature is trying to make them keel over. The mini heatwave in early September has extended the ripening season for things like tomatoes but it's also given the pests and pestilence a good boost. Everything seems to be under attack at the moment, when until now it had been an almost trouble-free year. Any parts of the pea plants which aren't covered with mildew are being infested with greenfly ... not just on the leaves, but getting inside the flowers and distorting the pods. My sweet peas are completely encrusted, absolutely seething with greenfly. It's really quite revolting, and although I've dosed them with biodegradeable washing-up liquid there are really too many to tackle, and hardly a ladybird or hoverfly in sight (I suspect their populations have suffered badly in the drought). I had to harvest my carrot crop, pathetic as it was, because the tops were afflicted with a spectacular eruption of small caterpillars. I don't even know what they are ... they look like small sawfly larvae. Another community of caterpillars has moved in on one of my leek crops and eaten the hearts out of about two thirds of the plants. Bastards.

The milk and water treatment I tried on the mildew has worked, but it only slows down the spread of the infection and doesn't get rid of it. (The same would be true of a chemical spray, it's just the tenacious nature of mildew in our climate.) Some of the Alderman leaves are now more white than green and the plants are wilting slightly as their mildewed stems struggle to take water up to the tops (which are currently 6ft high). Each day I cut out more blighted trusses from the tomato plants, again merely delaying the inevitable and slowing down its spread. As a last resort I tried using a copper fungicide (Bordeaux mixture), but all the tomato plants now have blotches of blight and it's spreading on a daily basis so there doesn't seem much point using something as toxic as copper just to prolong the life of the plants by a few days.

There's hardly a single crop that isn't being assaulted one way or another.

Some of these Clementine tomatoes had to be harvested early as the blight spreads

The climbing beans are mostly free of pests and diseases but they were damaged by some strong winds a couple of weeks ago and haven't really recovered. I have noticed with French beans that wind damages them far more than cold does. Mrs Fortune's is surviving the best; it's sagged a bit and some leaves are going yellow but it's otherwise looking robust and has just produced a new flush of flowers. Kew Blue is looking bedraggled and the leaves are going through odd colour changes (bright pinks and blues showing up as the chlorophyll breaks down) but it's still producing healthy new leaves and pods. Some of the older pods are now being attacked by blackfly. By far the worst affected by the weather is Meraviglia di Venezia, whose leaves wilt and shrivel even in fairly moderate winds. And being such a big plant, sprawling right over an 8ft arch, it looks a complete and utter disaster area with bits of shredded and shrivelled leaf hanging off a great tangle of sagging vines. But its yields are not much affected ... it's producing pods faster than we can eat them. Small succulent knobbly pods the colour of banana milkshake.

Saturday, 16 September 2006

Purple-podded pea photo gallery

This is one of the unnamed cultivars of purple podded pea I've been collecting for next year's pea trial. It came from Edwin Tucker in Devon, and I've taken to calling it Rococo because the first place I saw it was the Rococo Garden at Painswick.

Purple podded peas seem to have flowers which constantly change colour as they mature ... you can watch them changing by the hour on some days. They start off creamy white in the bud stage and the wing petal gradually turns pink. By the time the flower opens it's a kind of two-tone purpley-maroon and whitish pink, gradually going more blue as it ages.

The flowers are quite a bluey-purple by the time they start to go over.

And then you get these.

This one is Ezetha's Krombek Blauwschok, one of the only named cultivars of purple podded pea. It dates back to the 19th century, and is noticeably taller and more vigorous than Rococo. This bud is just starting to show the first bit of rosy pink.

Friday, 15 September 2006

Today in the garden ... tomato weirdness

This is what happens if you plant seeds from F1 hybrids (known as F2 seeds). As the genes start to segregate, every plant ends up with a different fruit shape! Whoopee!

As my three Pink Jester tomato plants ripen I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the original Pink Jester I saved the seeds from was an F1 hybrid. Look at the variability between the ripe fruits of the three plants.

Plant 1 has rounded oval fruits, exactly as Pink Jester should have, but they are more red than pink. Plant 2 has the deep pink colouring exactly right but with an elongated shape more like a San Marzano plum tomato, and slightly on the small side. Plant 3 has wide topped pointy-ended heart-shaped fruits with a lovely deep pink colour, slightly flamed with orangey red, and the fruits are significantly bigger.

But wait a minute ... I've been growing these tomatoes from the same original batch of seed for five years ... how come I never noticed the variability before? Well, I did have one plant with elongated fruits one year, but I didn't think anything of it. I knew a lot less about plant breeding then. And because my growing space is limited I often only grow small amounts of any one variety. Over the course of those five years I've grown two or three Pink Jesters each year, and the total so far is about twelve. Of those twelve plants, three have had elongated fruits. Now that's starting to look like a Mendelian ratio, if the rounded fruit gene is dominant over the elongated fruit gene. Twelve is still a very small sample, so it's hard to draw any conclusions, but it's a start.

I think it does show that it's worth growing seeds from F1 hybrid tomatoes though. I have three very lovely plants here, all different, all lovely in their own right, and each capable of becoming a new and unique variety. All I have to do is save seeds from the one(s) I like best and keep growing those for a few generations, weeding out any that don't match. It's likely that most will come true from seed if I simply save the seeds from these fruits, because tomatoes are self-pollinators and their genes are very stable compared to most plants.

Ripe fruits on Pink Jester 1

There are other differences between the plants too. Plant 3 has large blistered leaves (not very attractive) but the fruits go through particularly beautiful colour changes as they ripen (I showed the peachy colours in a pic in a recent post). Plant 2 has fruits with extra-smooth skins, and slightly shorter trusses. Plant 1 has a determinate growth habit ... it's formed a small bush only one and a half feet high, while the other two plants are sprawling upwards. And it's not just the appearance that's different either. Plant 2's fruits have a significantly better flavour than the others, very rich and mellow, with soft flesh. Plant 3 has the same wonderful flavour in its juicy areas but it has thicker and crunchier flesh, which dilutes the flavour a little. Plant 1 has tasty fruit too, but it's not the same as the others.

I'm actually going to save seed from all three of these plants because they each have qualities that I like. I can decide later which (if any) are worth pursuing long term.

Semi-ripe fruit on Pink Jester 3 going through a lovely orangey phase

Towards the end of the tomato season you often see weird things appearing. As the plants run out of energy and the weather becomes less clement, some of the flowers don't form or pollinate properly, and the result can be some odd aberrations in fruit shape. Here's one example: I've spotted a few double flowers on my Tangella plants in recent weeks, where the flower was wider than normal and had two completely separate pistils (resulting in a double tomato, if both are pollinated). Even more curious was a flower which produced a very wide, flat ribbon shaped pistil. And now that the fruit is swelling it seems that it wasn't a ribbon shaped pistil at all, it was multiple pistils fused together. The result is a series of tomatoes fused together, or one very wide and very pleated tomato, whichever way you look at it. Unfortunately I don't think there's enough left of the growing season for this one to reach maturity, but I'll keep it going as long as I can.

Multiple fused tomatoes on Tangella make a weird puckered beauty

Another oddity (which unfortunately has already fallen off the plant) is this three-horned fruit from Pink Jester 3.

It looks more like a dragon than a tomato.

Wednesday, 13 September 2006

Today in the garden ... scrumpy

I thought I'd seen the last of the poppies this year, then along came this translucent purple-black opium poppy. It self-seeded from Black Paeony, which is a fully double (frilly headed) variety, but this one has come out single-flowered. That's poppies for ya!

My Black Plum tomatoes are finally showing signs of ripening after what seems like weeks of sagging under the weight of large, dense, bell-shaped green fruits. They have now taken on a dusky dark orange hue and look quite unlike any other tomato I've seen. There's also one missing from the biggest truss, although there's no sign of it on the ground. I've noticed this a few times now, semi-ripe tomatoes disappearing off the vine overnight never to be seen again. Either some critter is scampering off with them or my neighbour has been using a stick with a hook on the end to scrump them through the fence. (Me? Paranoid?)

Black Plum contemplates the possibility of ripening. And yes, it is meant to be that weird colour.

Meanwhile I've been keeping a close watch on my one and only Taynton Codlin apple, because it appears to be naturally green all over and therefore difficult to judge when it's ripe (and unlike tomatoes, you can't really squidge them to see how soft they are). This morning when I did my tour of the garden I found it had fallen off the tree altogether, which I took to be a reasonable indication of ripeness. So ... only a few months after I bought these trees as flimsy twiggy one-year-olds I am doing my second heritage apple tasting. I had expected to have to wait about five years.

One thing I need to explain about this apple is that I know next to nothing about it. There is no information out there, it's so rare. It's not listed in my apple encyclopedia, nor on the Brogdale National Collection database, so when I eat it I'll be biting into uncharted territory. All I know about it is that it originated locally in about 1700 and it's a cider/cooking apple, which could mean anything really. My mum, who is a Somerset lass and knows a thing or two about cider apples, says it probably means it'll have a tartness that takes the roof of your mouth off. Sounds good to me!

The first striking thing about this apple is the scent. I don't think I've ever come across a more aromatic apple ... just having it on my desk it's filling the room with exquisite appleness. It's a beautiful aroma, quite different from the bland crap you get in the shops. Unlike the Tewkesbury Baron, which I photographed from a particular angle so that you couldn't see the brown blotchy bits on the other side, this apple is flawless. It has natural lumps and bumps as befitting a 300-year-old cider apple but not a single blemish. And it was organically grown too. I'm impressed.

The skin is quite waxy and although it has a dull matt sheen it polishes up to a high gloss. The colour is a really bright pea green which is consistent all over.

I will do a taste test but in all honesty it smells so good I just have to leave it sitting on my desk for a couple more hours ... *sigh* ...

6 hours later ...
Mmmm, wonderful! The skin is a bit on the chewy side, and the pale green flesh oxidises and browns very rapidly, but the flavour is fantastic. Very acidic, very sharp, with none of the crabapple dryness I was expecting. A real acid-drop sensation with an intensely appley flavour. It's definitely not for the sweet-toothed but it's very very lovely. The flesh texture is crunchy and juicy. And if this is what our rustic ancestors used to make cider with then it's a wonder they didn't just sit around pissed all day. (Oh, er, actually ...)

What a joy it's been to rediscover these old apples. I pretty much stopped eating apples many years ago because I can't stand the homogenised supermarket varieties, boring and sweet and watery. I don't even like the mushy and over-rated Cox which is about the only old-fashioned English apple still readily available. In recent years I've found a local farm whose orchard shop sells a decent range of apples which taste massively better, and it's worth going there just to listen to the farmer's "I can't believe anyone really talks like that" Gloucestershire accent. But the fruit on these old local varieties, which I didn't even have a chance to try out before I committed to planting them, is out of this world.

Tuesday, 12 September 2006

Today in the garden ... dear old blighty

About time I put up another flower picture. This erodium was given to me by a friend who breeds them.

Dangnabit! Just as I was moaning about my peas being afflicted with mildew I find the first case of the dreaded blight, the curse of every potato and tomato grower. One of my tomato plants has got the telltale dark brown stems on some of its fruit trusses. I've spotted it quite early, so I'm trying to slow it down by cutting off and throwing away all the affected leaves, stems and fruits. But blight is one of those things you can't really do much about ... once you've seen the symptoms the spores are already thriving on your plants. And in a bad year it can wreck a crop in a matter of days.

As a precautionary measure I've been harvesting all the maincrop potatoes, which have mostly been Fortyfold, the most ancient of ancient spuds. I have a late crop of Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy on the go which will just have to take its chances. I have enough seed stock of that for next year already, safely harvested long before the blight season. Indeed I have enough that I can probably spare some to give away to anyone else who wants to try it. I'll post more about that soon.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who is currently obsessing over what to plant next season. I've been buying stuff in for weeks, in fact. And the first of the 2007 catalogues arrived this morning, from Thompson & Morgan. It's nice of them to keep sending me one as it's been a few years since I ordered from them, although I do buy their (flower) seeds from garden centres sometimes. Rather than browsing the catalogues to find new stuff I tend to research the heritage varieties first, choose the ones I want to grow and then try to find a supplier. My favourite veg seed company is Chase Organics and I also pick up heritage seeds from lots of non-mainstream companies, a few informal seed swaps and, of course, the Heritage Seed Library. This also gives me an excuse to collect a dozen or more catalogues which I slobber over throughout the winter months for my gardening fix.

Here's a sneak preview of some of the new varieties I'll be trying next year

I was intrigued to see that Franchi Sementi (Seeds of Italy) offer a variety of butterbean (that's a lima bean to folks across the Atlantic) on their UK website. Intrigued because butterbeans are supposed to take fright at the hideous British climate, and so you rarely see them for sale over here. Has global warming really got that bad, or is this some new Brit-friendly variety? I had to order some out of curiosity. They arrived in a box rather than a packet, most of which is printed in Italian, under the name of Fagiolo di Spagna (Spanish beans?) of a variety called Spagna Bianco. Just about the only words of English on the box are "climbing French bean" (that's pole bean to folks across the Atlantic), and that could well be the answer to its ability to grow in the UK, even if you're now thoroughly confused by the whole concept of Italian Spanish French beans. Butterbeans are of the species Phaseolus lunatus (moon beans!) which are too delicate for cold climates, while climbing French beans are Phaseolus vulgaris (vulgar beans!) which will grow over here quite happily once the soil warms up in spring. Looking inside the box (how could I resist?) the beans are very large and creamy white and do look very like butterbeans, even if botanically speaking they aren't.

Italian Spanish French butterbeans, ideal for the English climate

Sunday, 10 September 2006

Today in the garden ... colour magic

I was able to try the first ripe Clementine tomato today. It's a French cocktail tomato, a deep golden yellow. Lovely tangy flavour too ... and just as it says in the catalogue, it tastes distinctly citrusy. Very nice indeed and a lovely colour.

When I do my Heritage Vegetable Reviews they'll be divided into three categories: the exceptionally good, the perfectly adequate and the stuff consigned to the metaphorical compost. And I don't mind telling you that the last category is where I was planning to put this year's heirloom runner bean, Black Magic. Its yields have been very poor ... although next door has also had poor yields from his runners which are a different variety, so it may just be one of those years. But the notes I've been making for the reviews are along the lines of "stringy as hell" ... "unchewable" ... "flavour not much to write home about". It's not a bad looking plant. Left to their own devices with plenty of water the pods will grow to a huge size (some of mine are just over a foot long) but if you want to actually eat them you have to catch them while they're still very small. Otherwise you'll be chomping on a mouthful of green gristle. Yep, I was not impressed with this variety.

But then I wondered what they'd be like if I just left them to mature for a bit and shelled them out, like I did with the other climbing beans. I've never heard of runner beans being used like that in this country, but there are apparently people who do it in other parts of the world, so presumably they're not poisonous. I shelled out a couple of the pods which were way too large and knobbly to eat as green beans and whoooooooo! The beans were an amazing dark midnight blue. I shelled out another pod and the beans were practically fluorescent pink. Wowee!

Black Magic beans change colour right through their growth cycle. The pink develops early on in the green pod stage and at some point as they get bigger they darken quite suddenly into a graduated dark blue like the night sky. When they are fully mature they are a shiny, burnished black. I mean really black. They are very beautiful and large and lovely to handle.

The four colours of Black Magic

But colourful beans are not just for looking at, so they went into a pan of unsalted boiling water for five minutes and ended up as a delicious vegetable with a similar size, texture and flavour to butter (lima) beans. It's not a refined texture in this case, but it's substantial and very tasty. And no string!!

As is so often the case, the colour doesn't survive the cooking process. On contact with boiling water the beans turn an inky mauve regardless of what colour they were to start with.

But anyway, Black Magic may not be consigned to the C-list just yet. It's an open verdict.

Saturday, 9 September 2006

Mildew blues

In the last few days the weather has been much warmer and sunnier than it was through most of August, which is good news for the tomatoes (warmth is one of the things that triggers ripening) but has resulted in a significant increase of powdery mildew in my pea crops. To be honest, mildew is pretty inevitable if you grow peas late in the season in England, because it thrives on warm dry days and cool nights (especially if there's dew overnight) which is exactly what you get in an English September. I tried planting my late pea crop with a wider spacing than usual to improve ventilation around the plants, but they have still ended up coated with white powdery yukkiness. Alderman, a goddess among peas in every other respect, is particularly susceptible.

There are two basic types of mildew: powdery and downy. How can you tell the difference? Powdery mildew affects both sides of the leaf whereas downy mildew usually appears just on the undersides. Downy mildew is spread by sploshing water, whereas powdery mildew is airborne.

The one attacking my peas is the powdery type. And it's also having a go at my butternut squash.

Powdery mildew is a parasitic fungus (how charming) which spreads on wind-borne spores. The spores insert tubes into the leaf tissues and leach out nutrients. It can spread itself right through a crop in less than a week and causes a reduction in yields, and in extreme cases will kill the plants.

Normally my approach to mild outbreaks of things like this is to ignore them. In a balanced organic garden a lot of common minor diseases take care of themselves. In this instance though, I think the mildew is sufficiently bad that I have to treat it. A few weeks ago I had a very helpful tip in a comment from Bill and Libby, which I'm reproducing here:

"Looked up the specifics for milk- water treatment for powdery mildew: 1/4 c. milk plus 3/4 cup water, spray once a week. Once treatment is under way, a weaker solution will suffice. (When exposed to sunlight, a protein in milk produces oxygen radicals, which act as a natural fungicide.) Seems simple, anyhow.... from Herb Companion Magazine www.herbcompanion.com."

So that's what I've been trying today ... painting my mildewed peas with diluted milk! I'll report back on how they get on.

Treating mildewed pea plants with milk and water. I found it easier to paint it on with a brush as I've got a relatively small number of plants, but it can also be sprayed on.

Some research at Cornell University suggests that bicarbonate of soda works quite well too. Three teaspoons of baking soda in a gallon of water, sprayed on once a week. They don't specifically mention using it on peas, but it might be worth a try.

Because of the prevalence of mildew in the British climate I've been intending to make mildew resistance a factor in my pea breeding projects. I only know of one heritage variety, Ne Plus Ultra, which has resistance, but there are also quite a few modern varieties I can use to transfer the genes into my own stock. Powdery mildew resistance involves two recessive genes, officially known as er-1 and er-2 (catchy, eh?) and according to information from the Government of Alberta there is no such thing as partial resistance. It's either resistant or it isn't. But in practice it can't be quite that simple, because I'm seeing different levels of infection in different varieties grown together, with Alderman being the worst affected and Golden Sweet having hardly any, and the purple-podded types falling somewhere in between.

There are a few measures you can take to reduce the impact of powdery mildew. Growing resistant varieties is the obvious one. Keeping a good air circulation around the plants helps. And as water inhibits germination of the spores, a good soaking of the plants on a regular basis will help (not with downy mildew though ... it'll make that worse). Lush plant growth is especially vulnerable, so it's a good idea to avoid too much fertiliser, particularly nitrogen. When the crop is finished infected plants should be removed and not dug into the soil.

Friday, 8 September 2006

Today in the garden ... pinkness

My local heritage beetroot, Cheltenham Green Top ... a long root and exceptional flavour

Its top is as much pink as it is green, and its long tapered root doesn't look like conventional globular beetroot, but Cheltenham Green Top is an attractive plant and the flavour is absolutely sublime ... like no other beetroot I've ever tasted. Wrapped in foil and roasted in the oven, it comes out exquisitely rich and sweet. I mentioned my heritage apples which originated only 7 miles from where I live. Well, this beetroot probably came from right here, and although its age and origins are unknown the Gardener's Chronicle reported in 1889 that "scarcely any other is grown in the market gardens around Cheltenham". It certainly thrives very happily in the sandy soil in this area. And it overwinters here too ... several I left in the ground last year (for seed saving) were absolutely fine outdoors, despite the received wisdom that beetroot needs to be lifted and stored over winter.

And at last! We have a few ripe tomatoes.

These are Pink Jester tomatoes looking just as they should ... pinky-red, smoothly grape-shaped and shiny shiny!

It's a funny thing about these Pink Jester tomatoes. As I said in a previous post, I'm not sure whether Pink Jester is its real name or just adopted for marketing purposes. I originally saved the seeds from a beautiful packet of tomatoes I bought in Marks & Spencer's (an upmarket UK food store ... well, upmarket by my standards) about five years ago. If I really like a vegetable I buy from a supermarket and it has seeds in it I always try to save some and regrow it. Occasionally if it's imported produce the variety doesn't take to the UK climate, but for the most part it works fine. Although the original punnet of tomatoes was imported from Spain I've been growing them (outdoors) ever since and they've usually done well ... I'm still planting the original seedstock and I'm still getting 100% viability. As far as I'm aware Marks & Spencer's have long since dropped the variety, and it doesn't seem to be available anywhere else, so I'm glad I saved those seeds.

These are beauties too ... but they're not supposed to look like this!

But this time only one of the three plants looks as it should. Pink Jester normally produces very smooth symmetrical fruits, red but with a distinctive pink hue. Although all the plants look similar in terms of leaves and flowers, two of them are producing fruits which have the right colour but an elongated and blocky shape with a pointed end. They're looking more like a small pink San Marzano. And yet they're from the same batch of seeds I originally saved from one punnet of fruit, and I've never had these oddities before.

But ... I'm not complaining. Because of my interest in plant genetics I'm always absolutely delighted when something in my garden comes out weird and different. I like the look of these dangly tomatoes even if they're not proper Pink Jesters. I assume one of two things has happened. Either they got cross-pollinated with an elongated tomato on the Spanish farm where they were originally grown. Or Pink Jester is an F1 hybrid, and the genes are segregating (de-hybridising). A third possibility is that Pink Jester is naturally variable, but I doubt it.

This is not what Pink Jester should look like either ... but I do love the quirky shape and peachy colours

I'm not a consumer-minded person and I rarely covet material things, but there is one expensive item I would really like to have in my life: a greenhouse. I have a redundant corner of the garden which gets full sun in the winter but only dappled sun in the summer, and which is just the right size for a 6' x 10' greenhouse. The only difficulty is paying for it ... being a musician is not exactly a lucrative pursuit, and I'm not in any hurry to go back into publishing which has just got more and more competitive and stressful over the years. But I've managed to get some paid web-design work lined up, and my mum has very kindly offered to sub me the rest.

I went down the garden to get stuck into clearing out the corner where the greenhouse is eventually going. When I first moved here three seasons ago the garden was full of overgrown shrubs and trees and I had to prune my way through it before I could do much else. I ended up with a big pile of twigs and branches which I just dumped in a shady corner at the bottom of the garden, because I had other things to get on with and I didn't know how to get rid of them. A few months ago Cheltenham Borough Council introduced a garden waste collection service, and that's been a godsend in stopping the twig pile from building up any further. But now I want that spot for my greenhouse I have to clear out what's already there.

I thought I was in for a mammoth job of cutting up the twigs and stuffing them into the council's green bag, which is only collected once a fortnight. But then I realised they had been there so long they were all dry and brittle, and the most practical solution was just to spend half an hour jumping up and down on them. Which I did. Then Leafblower Dave came out to see what was going on because he heard the twiggy crackling noise and thought something was on fire. It's OK though, the neighbours already think I'm a madwoman so no change there.

One of many varieties of pea simply known as "purple podded" ... and as I begin to collect them from different sources it's becoming apparent that they're not all the same

The Alderman peas I sowed in July are now producing an abundance of flowers and pods are starting to form. The weather is perfect for peas at the moment ... sunny but cool. I'm going to be running a more organised trial of purple-podded peas next year but I have got three lots on the go at the moment for a kind of preliminary comparison. One has just started flowering (photograph above) ... it's one of the unnamed cultivars just known as "purple podded" and the stock originally came from Devon-based seed merchant Edwin Tucker. It's clearly not the same variety as the Mr Bethell's Purple Podded I grew earlier in the summer (and am growing a second batch of it now, which hasn't flowered yet). The flowers are smaller, and the colour less rosy. They have a whitish standard petal (that's the outer one) with a mauve flush, and a darker purply-mauve wing petal. Definitely less attractive than Mr Bethell's Purple Podded, although it's still more decorative than most white-flowered peas.

Monday, 4 September 2006

Today in the garden ... a pleasant surprise

Golden hop growing over an arch with a dangly mirror thingy

I'd like to say a big thank you to all of you who have left comments ... I really appreciate them. It means a lot to me when people tell me they've found my little instructional articles useful. And I thoroughly enjoy writing them.

I'm working on some detailed reviews of all the heritage fruit and veg I've grown this year, so watch this space.

I've had a very busy week, with my parents visiting for a few days and also a lot of time spent on music. I had an invite from a band whose music I really love, asking me to sing a lead vocal on their forthcoming EP (woot!) so that's taken priority over other things.

I've still had time to do a bit of digging though, trying to make room for some Chinese cabbage (which I've never grown before) currently languishing in pots on the patio. The soil here is wonderful; even though the area I dug over had been overlaid with lawn for years, it only needed a couple of turns with a spade to make it into a perfect dark crumbly tilth. A fellow Cotswold gardener I spoke to recently described the soil around here as "like chocolate cake" ... and it is. When I dug into the compacted earth under the lawn, full of bits of limestone, it looked like a slice of chocolate fudge with honeycomb chunks. Mmmmm. Not that I'm obsessed with chocolate or anything. But it's probably one reason I became a gardener, because I used to love making mud pies when I was very small and although I discovered fairly early on that they don't taste anywhere near as good as they look, the infatuation with soil has never left me.

Sage and raspberries on the left, Mrs Fortune's climbing beans on the right, and lots of lovely chocolatey soil.

The bad news is, the largest and most luxurious of my experimental hybrid peas had its stem chewed right through by a slug or snail this week. And the next day two more had been bitten off at ground level. That may mean I'm now down to 8 plants. It's a bit ironic really because the slugs and snails have been very efficiently controlled by the assorted reptiles in the garden, and hardly anything gets eaten. But when they do eat things they find the stuff that's precious and irreplaceable. I'm going to try sprinkling some fine grit around the stems of the plants ... the stuff that's used at the bottom of bird cages. It doesn't kill them ... they just don't like crawling over it because it's scratchy on their little slimy undersides.

When I decided to plant some heritage apple trees earlier this year I did some research to find out which varieties were most local to my garden. One was obvious ... the relatively well known Ashmead's Kernal which originated in Gloucester (about 7 miles away) in around 1700, and readily available on local farms. It has a lovely acid flavour for those who like acidic apples (which I do). The second most local apple is Tewkesbury Baron, originating about 12 miles away, and that was a bit less exciting. In fact I was rather disappointed, because what little info I've been able to find about this rare variety describes its flavour as insignificant. I had to think long and hard about whether I wanted to plant an apple tree in my garden whose fruit didn't taste good, bearing in mind the space it will take up and the shade it will cast. It was certainly a dilemma, and when I decided to go for Tewkesbury Baron it was pretty much an act of charity on account of it being rare and endangered. And as I used to live in Tewkesbury I'm probably a bit sentimental. I planted it in the least favourable spot, where it thrived rampantly despite being on the shadowy side of the garden.

My apple encyclopedia describes Tewkesbury Baron as having "little flavour". The Brogdale National Collection website, by far the most definitive apple guide in the UK, says "Fruits have a little coarse, dry, white flesh with an insipid flavour." Uh?! I just tried mine today. No complaints here.

Tewkesbury Baron ... surprisingly absolutely bloody delicious.

It's a nice looking apple, having a proper old English shape and size with a deep pinky red skin (flushed green where the sun doesn't get to it) and a very waxy shiny surface. Texture-wise the flesh is slightly grainy, but succulent and bursting with juice. The flavour is exquisite. It's so tangy it's almost fizzy. It's got distinct sharpness and sweetness in a beautiful symbiotic balance. I'm really bowled over by how good this apple tastes.

Maybe it needs the chocolatey soil of North Gloucestershire to develop its flavour potential, or maybe there's some other reason Tewkesbury Baron got a reputation for blandness, but I'm certainly delighted to have it in my garden.

My mum models the latest Bright Lights rainbow chard

We're eating very well from garden produce at the moment ... chard, beetroot, onions, garlic, potatoes of all colours and a profusion of beans. Not to mention the herbs, from Italian thyme to Greek oregano. Yum.