I had a message today from someone offering me a chance to become a pop star. So that was nice. Possibilities of Top 20 hits and big tours. *cough.* I don't think I'm the person they're looking for, unfortunately. Just as an example, today I went out to post a letter and when I put my coat on it felt a bit heavy on one side. When I looked I found I had a potato in my pocket. That's right, not only am I the kind of girl who has potatoes in her pockets, I don't even have any recollection of how it got there, which is even more worrying.
The weather (as those of you in the UK will know) went from pleasant warmth to ice and then to snow over the course of the week, and made it far too cold to get anything useful done outside, so I've mostly been busy on music stuff instead. But I did nip out in the garden and take a few photographs. The snow pictures were nice, but the hoar frost ones were better, so here's a selection. All taken on Wednesday morning.
These dangly mirror discs appeared in a previous blog post in the summer ... as did the rainbow chard
Purple sprouting broccoli
Saturday, 10 February 2007
Posted by Rebsie Fairholm at 11:05 pm
Friday, 26 January 2007
Ah, good old leaf beet. Not only is it one of the few vegetables still productive at this time of year, but it easily wins the title of prettiest plant in the garden, looking quite surreal in its flamboyance like a Spanish carnival stuck in the middle of the soggy brown winter squidge. The intensity and luminosity of the colours has to be seen to be believed, and the camera can't do justice to it. Some of the stems are two-tone, pink round the outside and orange up the middle. Rainbow chard as we know it has been grown since Victorian times at least, and a bright red form of it took Aristotle's fancy back in the 4th century. Most of the rainbow chard seeds available today are Bright Lights, which is sometimes sold as an heirloom variety but is actually a modern improved strain.
Leeks are also looking plump and happy ... they ain't huge but I ain't fussy. I harvest them as required. Meanwhile the purple sprouting broccoli is growing well, still producing leaves rather than flower tops. The whitefly have taken up residence but are not too bad at the moment.
Purple sprouting broccoli. I know, it isn't purple or sprouting at the moment but it's getting there.
The snowdrops and crocuses are coming out and so is the hellebore. They may be regretting it now that the weather has turned wintry for the first time, but we haven't had any of the snow that I've been seeing on other British blogs. I've had a nasturtium growing on the patio since last summer, which was still quite green and robust until the recent cold snap, and it's still just about clinging on to life. I've never had a nasturtium survive into January before.
My home-made cold-frame (I use the term in the loosest sense because it's really four slabs of old window glass held together with luck, gravity, flowerpots and clothes-pegs) is currently nurturing seedlings of onions and broad beans. When we moved into this house I removed about 3 miles of net curtains from the windows and they are now coming in very handy as a substitute for horticultural fleece, or floating row covers as they're sometimes called. They even have floral patterns on them. What more could you ask for? I admit they do look a bit strange out in the garden, and I feel a sentimental twinge of guilt at what the lovely old lady who previously lived here would think if she saw how I was abusing her curtains, but they do work extremely well and it's a good way to re-use and recycle old fabric.
My "cold-frame", with the old lady's curtains, optional bubble-wrap roll-top, and ginger kitten included for scale. (Needless to say, moments after this photo was taken he put his great clodhopping feet straight through it ... grrrrr!)
Posted by Rebsie Fairholm at 1:14 pm
Monday, 4 September 2006
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.
Posted by Rebsie Fairholm at 10:42 pm
Friday, 25 August 2006
Since we're getting into that time of year again, I thought it might be useful to put together a quick and simple guide to vegetable seed saving, since this sort of info is rarely found in gardening books. Most things can be home-saved, and it not only saves money but helps to maintain long-term biodiversity. As more and more traditional open-pollinated varieties disappear from the catalogues to be replaced by overpriced and overhyped hybrids, you could find yourself looking after a variety that's no longer available and helping to keep it from extinction. Like the lovely maroon and white beans shown above, an heirloom variety which is unavailable to buy.
When you save seed from year to year though, things can get more complicated. If you've read my post about F1 hybrids you may remember that plants fall into two basic types when it comes to reproducing. Inbreeders are happy to self-pollinate to kingdom come and show no ill-effects from it. Seed from a single plant, or even a single pod, can be enough to keep the variety going. Outbreeders are designed to cross-pollinate with other plants and need lots of genetic diversity. Without it they succumb to inbreeding depression ... within a few generations they start to lose their health and vigour. To avoid this you need to save seed from a number of plants, not just one or two. They will also often cross-pollinate with other compatible plants growing nearby so if you want to keep a variety true from seed you may need to isolate them from other similar crops.
So isn't it more hassle than it's worth to save seed from outbreeding crops? Not really, no. Because over the years you'll be selecting seed from the plants which grow best in your garden, and will gradually develop your own sub-strain which is optimised for your growing conditions. For this reason home-saved seed often does better than the stuff you buy (in America, commercial seed may have originated in a different zone with very different conditions ... while most seed sold in the UK is not produced in the UK at all).
F1 hybrid plants sometimes produce sterile seed, or no seed at all. And when they do produce viable seed it doesn't come true to type. The usual advice is not to save seed from F1 hybrids. If you're interested in plant breeding though, or just enjoy the element of surprise, you can ignore that advice. The resulting plants may turn out nothing like the parents, and may initially be inferior, but you'll have all sorts of brand new and possibly unique genetic combinations to choose from, and you're a step closer to producing a new open-pollinated variety.
Storage of seed is a whole subject in itself, but for year-to-year seed saving (as opposed to long-term storage) you can just dry them out as much as you can and store them in paper envelopes. I usually place each envelope inside a self-seal bag too.
OK, here we go:
Leave the pods on the vines for as long as possible, until they are dry or at least until they start to change colour. Then harvest them and dry them out further indoors. To hasten drying you can split the pods open, but try to leave the beans attached. When the pods are dry and brittle, shell out the beans.
Pollination issues: Strongly inbreeding and self-pollinating, so you can save seed from a small number of plants and grow different varieties close together with no problems.
Same method as for French beans.
Pollination issues: A rampant cross-pollinator, so keeping varieties true to type is almost impossible on allotments and where neighbours are growing them. If you need to keep them pure, hand-pollinate and bag up individual flower clusters to keep the bees out. If you're not bothered by a bit of genetic diversity though, don't worry about it.
Beetroot and chard
Beets and chards are biennial and normally go to seed in their second year. The seeds grow on long straggly spikes and take ages to mature. You can pick them off individually as they turn brown, or wait until they're nearly all brown, cut the whole spikes and run a gloved hand along them.
Pollination issues: Strongly outbreeding ... grow at least 16 plants to keep a healthy diversity. Beetroot, chard and leaf beet will all cross-pollinate with each other! To avoid this, grow only one type for seed at any one time. The pollen can travel up to five miles, so if purity is essential you'll need to bag up individual flower spikes.
Not the easiest to save for seed. Most flower in the second season. The long thin seed pods fall to bits very readily when they're ripe, and are likely to be ransacked by birds. The easiest solution is to cut the flower stalks as soon as they reach maturity and hang them upsidedown indoors with a paper bag over them to catch the little round seeds as they fall from the pods.
Pollination issues: Strongly outbreeding ... most can't self-pollinate and are prone to inbreeding depression. You really need to grow around 20 plants, if you have the space. They also cross-pollinate like mad, so isolation is needed to keep varieties true.
Garlic is a plant that no longer bothers to set seed in the conventional sense. It's normally propagated by dividing and replanting the cloves. Save healthy bulbs from the regular harvest and leave them intact until planting time (autumn).
If you allow garlic to flower it will produce a huge number of bulbils in the flower head instead of seed. These are essentially miniature cloves and can be saved for planting. They take two years to produce full-size bulbs, but have the advantage that they're less likely to carry diseases. Cross-pollination is not an issue because the bulbils are produced asexually and are therefore genetically identical to the parent plant.
Seeds produce little white tufts, like thistles, when they're mature. They tend to mature at different times, so collect them regularly as they ripen. Allow them to dry indoors until very brittle then rub off and remove the fluffy tufts.
Pollination issues: Inbreeding. Seed can be saved from just one or two plants. They don't usually cross-pollinate, but to be on the safe side grow different varieties a few feet apart.
Onions and leeks
Flowering in the second year, onions and leeks produce beautiful spherical seedheads. Allow them to ripen until the seed capsules start to go pale and papery (they will probably all mature at different times), then cut the flower head and hang it upsidedown in a paper bag in a dry place.
Pollination issues: Strongly outbreeding, and need plenty of pollination partners ... try to grow at least 16 plants. Onions and leeks will readily cross-pollinate with others of their own type but not with each other, though onions may cross with shallots. To maintain pure varieties grow only one type for seed at any one time (you can still grow other varieties for eating, since those won't be flowering).
Same as for beans really; allow the pods to dry for as long as possible on the plant and shell them out when the pods are brown and crisp.
Pollination issues: Strongly inbreeding, so there are no problems with saving seed from just a few pods, and they're unlikely to cross-pollinate even when grown close together.
To save tubers for next year's crop, select them at harvest time and keep them in a cool, dark, frost-free place over winter. Select only firm and healthy tubers, which ideally should be about the size of a hen's egg. Leave them in a bright sunny place for a few days before storing them, which helps to toughen the skins and keep them dormant. Check them from time to time over the winter and chuck out any that are going soft or mouldy.
Some potato varieties will set top fruit which contain true seeds, and these can be saved too. If your plants have produced "apples", collect them when they're just starting to soften and are ready to drop from the plant. Process them in the same way as tomatoes (though the stinky fermentation process shouldn't be necessary ... just wash them thoroughly in a sieve to remove the pulp).
Pollination issues: Potato flowers cross-pollinate fairly readily, but in practice so few of them produce viable pollen it's unlikely to be an issue. Even when self-pollinated though, they will not come true from seed (because they have a slightly eccentric arrangement of chromosomes). Each one you plant will be effectively a new variety. Conversely, plants grown from tubers are genetically identical to the parent plant.
Squash (pumpkins, marrows etc)
The seeds are so huge you can't miss 'em. It's usually best to leave the fruits to ripen for a few weeks after harvest before collecting the seeds, or just leave them until you're cutting them up for eating. Wash the seeds to remove bits of pulp and fibre, then spread them out on a plate to dry thoroughly.
Pollination issues: Outbreeding, and will cross-pollinate with any other squash of the same species. Unlike most outbreeders though, it's not prone to inbreeding depression ... so you can get away with saving seed from just a few plants ... 6 or so will do.
Saving seed from sweetcorn is not really practical unless you have room to grow a lot of it!
Leave the cob (ear) on the plant for as long as possible or harvest when it's mature and bring it indoors to dry. When it's completely dry, the kernels can be removed by rubbing two cobs together.
Pollination issues: Extremely outbreeding! More prone to inbreeding depression than just about any other vegetable, and even sowing just one generation of inbred plants can result in an inferior crop. To be sure of maintaining health and vigour you need to grow and keep seeds from about 200 plants. Gulp.
Sweetcorn is wind-pollinated and produces stupendous amounts of pollen which is then cast to the four winds. To keep a variety pure it needs to be isolated from other varieties by some considerable distance.
The 'proper' way to save tomato seeds is to scrape the seeds (including the gooey gel stuff) from ripe fruits into a small container, maybe add a tiny splosh of water, and leave it to ferment for a few days. During this time it will produce a crust of disgusting mould and a stench which could put you off tomatoes for life. When all the gel has dissolved away, rinse the seeds thoroughly in a sieve under running water and then leave them to dry for several days. Stir them around regularly to prevent them sticking together.
An alternative and much less stinky method is to scrape the seeds out onto a sheet of kitchen roll, spread them out to separate them and leave them to dry. The gel acts as a glue and sticks them to the sheet. I've heard this method criticised because the gel also acts as a germination inhibitor ... but in my experience the seeds germinate fine, even after several years.
Pollination issues: Strongly inbreeding. Saving a single fruit is enough, although more is better. Cross-pollination can happen but usually doesn't. If you want to be sure of pure varieties, isolate the plants from other types as far as you can.
Posted by Rebsie Fairholm at 7:27 pm
Saturday, 19 August 2006
California poppy and wild chamomile growing in the potato patch
Well, I did say Dodgem looked like he was nearing the end of his rummaging. I found him under the Tewkesbury Baron apple tree this afternoon, and he seems to have died of natural causes. We buried him in a tumulus under the tree.
There are plenty more animals in the garden though. Including this big woolly one who does plenty of rummaging of her own. This is Chiana, our Norwegian Forest cat. She's very camera shy so I never get to photograph her face.
So far I've only tried Mrs Fortune's climbing bean in the form of green beans, i.e. cooking and eating the whole pods, and they're very succulent but I haven't found the flavour to be outstanding. Today I found that this variety really comes into its own when you leave the pods to swell a bit and then shell them out and cook the beans fresh. Shelling them is a bit laborious because the pods are still very fleshy and succulent at this stage, but it's worth it. I also found it hard to find any cooking instructions, because fresh shelled French beans are something you almost never get in the UK ... I guess it doesn't make an economical commercial crop so you don't find it in the shops. Darned shame too, because if these are anything to go by we're really missing out. Boiling the beans in unsalted water (salt hardens the skins) for 5 or 10 minutes seems to do the trick. Mrs Fortune's beans are greenish white and rounded like a haricot. Texture and flavour are wonderful. When fully mature they develop beautiful maroon splodges on the seed coat, but I think for eating they're best before they reach that stage.
Mrs Fortune's climbing bean has a lovely texture and flavour when cooked without its pods. Notice the variation in the blue streaks on the pods because the blue only develops with exposure to sunlight. The pod at top left is reaching full maturity and is turning maroon and cream. I'm keeping that one for seed.
I also tried some shelled out Kew Blue beans cooked the same way, and they were possibly even more gorgeous ... the beans are slightly kidney shaped and start off white but turn a greyish blue after cooking, and they have a firmer and nuttier texture and flavour than Mrs F. But where Mrs Fortune's really has the advantage is in its mad yields, which far exceed Kew Blue's, so shelling is the obvious thing to do with it since you'd have a heck of a job getting through it all if you ate them as green beans. A preposterously abundant crop.
It's still raining on and off, and I'm starting to fear some of the tomatoes will not get a chance to ripen unless we get an improvement in the weather. It's not the rain that's a problem, it's the grey skies. Tomatoes need a certain level of light in order to photosynthesise; if the sky is overcast for any length of time they just don't grow. I had to move a couple of my American tomatoes because the bed I'd planted them in no longer gets enough sun now that the season is turning and it's getting lower in the sky, and they basically refused to grow any further. Unfortunately I'm completely out of growing space, sunny or otherwise, so I had to create a new bed for them out of the corner of the lawn, give it a frenzied digging over and enrich it with horse manure. It looks ridiculous, sliced out of an otherwise square lawn, but the plants are happy now.
One crop doing especially well this year is rainbow chard Bright Lights; last year the leaves were mangled by an assortment of slugs and caterpillars but this year they're pristine. I'm hoping this is a sign that the ecosystem is finding a balance now. The garden was managed with chemicals up until the time I got it (2004) so it's still in the process of adapting to organic.
Posted by Rebsie Fairholm at 11:24 pm