Update – 28th May 2018

Hello Blog, it has been a while.

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Honestly, I’ve been really busy. Uni exam revision, foot injury and then a lot of catching up of work in the veg garden. Also… I’ve been writing a cooking book specially for gardeners who need a variety of recipes for homegrown surplus or gluts, and some fiction.

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So… this week we have harvested our first baby broadbean pods, kale, parsley, radishes, oregano, chives, tree cabbage, swiss chard, lettuce, rocket, rhubarb… it is getting exciting! The harvesting has begun!

The potatoes are doing really well, so are the broadbeans. The runner beans and peas are hanging in there, the fruit trees are all starting to produce, some gorgeous roses are flowering and nearly everything is planted out except the pumpkins. Oh, and a lot of tomatoes and sweet potatoes for the greenhouse.

I found it really hard to get things to grow this year. The cold weather, the hot weather – so unpredictable. I’ve had a lot of failed germinations and then death by stress. Poor plants. Out of the billions of chickpeas I planted, two germinated, one died a week ago. I’m still heartbroken. Taking special care of the last one… Two spinaches germinated, and immediately bolted. My neighbours onions have bolted, one cucumber died in the greenhouse when we suddenly had a -2C. Crazy England.

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Pumpkin

A pumpkin is a cultivar of a squash plant, most commonly of Cucurbita pep, that is round, with smooth, slightly ribbed skin, and deep yellow to orange colouration. The thick shell contains seeds and pulp. Some exceptionally large ones are derived from Cucurbita maxima. In NZ and Australia, the term pumpkin generally refers to the broader category called winter squash elsewhere.

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Native to North America pumpkins are widely grown for commercial use and are used both in food and recreation. Pumpkin pie is a traditional part of Thanksgiving meals in the US although commercially canned pumpkin puree and pumpkin pie fillings are usually made from different kinds of winter squash than the pumpkins frequently carved as for decoration at Halloween. Pumpkins, like other squash, are thought to have originated in North America. The oldest evidence of pumpkin-related seeds dating between 7000 and 5500 BC was found in Mexico. Since some squash share the same botanical classifications as pumpkins, the names are frequently used interchangeably. One often-used botanical classification relies on the characteristics of the stems: pumpkin stems are more rigid, prickly, and angular (with an approximate five-degree angle) than squash stems, which are generally softer, more rounded and more flared where joined to the fruit. Pumpkin fruits are a type of botanical berry known as a pepo. The word pumpkin originates from the word pepon which is Greek for “large melon”, something round and large. The French adapted this word to pompon, which the British changed to pumpion and to the later American colonists became known as pumpkin. Traditional C. pepo pumpkins generally weigh between 3 and 8kg (6 and 18 lb), though the largest cultivars, C. maxima, regularly reach weights of over 34 kg (75 lb). The color of pumpkins derives from orange carotenoid pigments, including beta-carotene found in carrots, provitamin B compounds converted to vitamin A in the body.

Pumpkins are a warm-weather crop that are usually planted in early July. The specific conditions necessary for growing pumpkins require that soil temperatures 8cm (3 in) deep are at least 15.5C (60F) and soil that holds water well. Pumpkin crops suffer if there is a lack of water or because of cold temperatures and sandy soil with poor water retention or poorly drained soils that become waterlogged after heavy rain. Pumpkins are, however, rather hardy, and even if many leaves and portions of the vine are removed or damaged, the plant can very quickly re-grow secondary vines to replace what was removed. The thing I most fear for our pumpkins is powdery mildew – Powdery Mildew

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A courgette with powdery mildew – the white spots that grow on the leaves before the plant shrivels and dies.

Pumpkins produce both a male and female flower. Bees play a significant role in the fertilisation of the flowers. Pumpkins have historically been pollinated by the native squash bee, Peponapis pruinosa, but this bee has declined, probably at least in part to pesticide sensitivity. Today most commercial plantings are pollinated by honeybees. One hive per acre (4,000 m2 per hive, or 5 hives per 2 hectares) is recommended by the US Dept. of Agriculture. If there are inadequate bees for pollination, gardeners often have to hand pollinate – inadequately pollinated pumpkins usually start growing but abort before full development.

To grow pumpkins, plant one seed in a tall yoghurt container filled with good compost, puncture a hole in the bottom of the pot to allow water to drain through, in April. Plant 1.5cm, 1/2 inch, deep (deep as your thumb) and firm the soil over the top. Keep well watered and put on a warm, sunny windowsill in your house. Take it off the windowsill at night to keep it warm. Transplant outdoors in May or when the frosts are over, spacing 1.2m (4’) apart. Keep moist and well fed – I feed mine lots of manure throughout the season because of my sandy soil that leaks away the nutrients – pumpkins are hungry plants. To prevent the fruit from rotting, gently lift from the ground and place a brick or large stone underneath them. Careful not to damage the stem. Harvest once they are turning orange all over, September – November and before the first frosts. The most obvious clue is to look at the stem as if it has died off and turned hard you know that the fruits are ready. Other ways of telling that the moment of truth has arrived is to slap the fruit (it should sound hollow) and to push your thumbnail into the skin, which should dent but not puncture. Cut the stalks a good 4 inches from where it joins the fruit. Wash the fruit with soapy water containing one part of chlorine bleach to ten parts of water to remove the soil and kill the pathogens on the surface of the fruit. Make sure the fruits are well dried. Then you need to cure it. Curing involves the hardening the skins to protect the flesh inside from deterioration. Do it properly and you can expect fruits to stay in top form for at least three months, comfortably taking you to the first harvests of next spring.  Remove the fruits to a greenhouse or as sunny a windowsill as you can find having first brushed off any dirt. Allow your fruits to sunbathe and develop a tan! This should take about two weeks for the top of the fruit then once carefully flipped over, another two weeks for the bottom. Pumpkins and winter squash prefer a well-ventilated, dry place. Keep the fruits raised up off hard surfaces on racks or wire mesh with a thick layer of newspaper or straw. Keeping them off the ground will allow air to circulate around the fruits while the extra padding will prevent the skin softening and becoming vulnerable to infection.

The best pumpkin variety I’ve tried so far are ‘Racer’.

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The practice of carving pumpkins for Halloween originated from an Irish myth about a man named Stingy Jack. The turnip has traditionally been used in Ireland and Scotland at Halloween, but immigrants to North America used the native pumpkin, which are both readily available and much larger, making them easier to carve than turnips. Not until 1837, does jack-o’-lantern appear as a term for a carved vegetable lantern and the carved pumpkin lantern association with Halloween is first recorded in 1866. In the United States, the carved pumpkin was first associated with the harvest season in general, long before it became an emblem of Halloween. In 1900, an article on Thanksgiving entertaining recommended a lit jack-o’-lantern as part of the festivities to encourage families to join together to make their own jack-o’-lanterns. Association of pumpkins with harvest time and pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving reinforce its iconic role. Pumpkin chunking is a competitive activity in which teams build various mechanical devices designed to throw a pumpkin as far as possible. Catapults and air cannons are some of the common mechanisms. Some pumpkin chunkers breed and grow special varieties of pumpkin under specialized conditions to improve the pumpkin’s chances of surviving a throw.

Pumpkin seeds, leaves, and juices all pack a nutritional punch. Pumpkin has a range of health benefits, including being one of the best-known sources of beta-carotene and are a good source of fibre -one cup of cooked pumpkin is 2.7kg of fibre. Pumpkins have been found to reduce blood pressure, reduce risk of cancer, combats diabetes and supports your immune system.

Here are some yummy pumpkin recipes and ideas to get you started:

You can simply roast them at 180C in the oven covered in olive oil for 45 minutes. You can use them in soups, stews. Grate them up and add them to any casserole or bolognese, stir fry etc. Make pumpkin pie, try inventing a new dip…

Pumpkin Coconut Curry

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What to do with left over pumpkin? – make pumpkin seeds taste like popcorn

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Happy Halloween! Recipe Flashbacks – pumpkin cake anyone?!

Runner Beans

 

Phaseolus coccineus, known as runner bean, is a plant in the legume or Fabaceae family.

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This species originated from the high altitude regions of Central America. From there it made its way to Spain then eventually spread throughout Europe. The runner bean is believed to have first been introduced to England in the 17th century by plant collector John Tradescant the younger. The runner bean plant was grown for nearly one hundred years in Britain as an ornamental until the pods were rediscovered to be edible by Philip Miller of Physic Garden in Chelsea. Runner beans are easy to grow and a staple vegetable in British cuisine. In the 1969 Oxford Book of Food Plants the runner bean is described as, “by far the most popular green bean in Britain”.

The knife-shaped pods are normally green. However, there are an increasing number of other climbing beans that are purple or yellow for a variety of colour. (Maybe in another post…)

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Sow your runner beans in trenches filled with well rotted manure and compost. Sow the seeds indoors in deep pots of compost (tall yoghurt pots are ideal) with compost in April-May 2.5cm (1″) deep. Water well and place in a warm position and make sure the beans get plenty of light when they germinate. When the frosts have finished, plant the beans out into the prepared trench 25cm (10″) apart. Keep watered and protected from wind or too much sun by shading them in horticultural fleece. While you plant the beans out, stick a pole, such as a bamboo pole, next to each bean. Encourage them to climb up it as they grow upwards. Or sow outdoors May-July where they are to crop, 5cm (2″) deep, directly into finely-prepared, well-cultivated, fertile soil, which has already been watered. We often do some of each (as we love beans) – we start off with some indoors and add more outside when the weather warms up.

Over winter, do not pull your bean roots up. Leave them in the ground and cover with layers of thick horticultural fleece. The next season, the roots should re-grow and give you an early harvest of beans. This year we harvested beans from the roots of beans that we planted three years ago!

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Harvest the beans July-October. Pick off the beans gently, trying not to damage the plant or the flowers (which will be pollinated by the bees and made into the beans themselves). Try not to leave the beans until they get too big. Once the plant believes that it has enough large beans formed, it stops trying to produce flowers and your harvest ultimately fails. At the height of bean picking, we are often harvesting craters worth of beans daily and have far too much to prepare.

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To prepare beans for eating, I like to remove the tops (I don’t bother with the tails), string them if needed (but I prefer to harvest them before they need stringing) and to slice them in the bean grinder we have in out kitchen. I’m sure they are easy to buy on the internet, and are so worth it.

To cook them, bring a large pan of water to the boil and add the beans, turning the heat down to low. Leave to simmer for about 5-8 minutes, remove from the heat and drain.

To freeze beans, dip the beans in the boiled water for less than a minute, remove and plunge into icy cold water. Once they are completely cold, seal in a plastic bag and store in the freezer. This way, we often eat homegrown runner beans still on Christmas day.

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Variations of runner beans we have tried are: ‘Moonlight’, ‘St George’, ‘Firestorm’, ‘Wisley Magic’ 

They are all yummy. Growing your own beans is so much nicer than buying them from a supermarket. I remember loving runner beans from my gran when she used to grown them for us when I was little, before I every tried gardening. It was so disappointing to try them from the shop. If you ever try to grow something green, runner beans are so worth it.

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Runner beans contain vitamin K, folate, vitamin C and manganese. Legumes are a good source of fibre in general, and runner beans are no exception: 100 grams has 9 per cent of the daily RDA. And good fibre intake is essential for colon health, including maintaining healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Runner beans are a great way to load up on vitamin A, with 28 per cent of your RDA in 100 grams. This essential nutrient is important for eye, skin, bone and tooth health. Lutein, zea-xanthin, and B-carotene are some of the antioxidants are found in runner beans. Zea-xantin is thought to be important for UV light-filtering functions in the eyes. The beans inside the runner bean pods can be cooked and eaten on their own. They’re a good source of vegetarian protein, 20g per 100g of dried beans.

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Here are some recipes to try runner beans with:

Raw runner beans dipped in homous.

Boiled or steamed runner beans dressed in the juice of one lemon and tossed in sesame seeds as a side dish.

Favourite dinner: baked potato, baked beans, cheese and runner beans – Beans Means Heinz

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Eaten with your roast dinner, a cooked pasta dish, like bolognese or lasagne, with your potato and sausages, even as a side to pizza they are amazing.

Anything you would eat peas with, beans go very well with as an alternative.

I adore runner beans. If I ever had to grow one green vegetable in the garden, runner beans would be it!

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Recipe: Fried courgette-tomato sauce with spaghetti

 

Rhubarb

We finally got round to harvesting some of our rhubarb, a vegetable masquerading as a fruit, a couple of weeks ago. We have quite a lot ready for picking this year…

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Rhubarb contains a good amount of fibre, hence why it was used in ancient Chinese medicine for soothing stomach ailments and constipation. 122g of rhubarb provides 45% of your daily amount of vitamin K, which supports healthy bone growth and limits neuronal damage in the brain. It contains vitamin C,  A (the red stalks provide more of this than the green ones, good for vision, protection against cancers, good skin and mucus membranes), B vitamins, as well as other nutritional benefits such as iron, potassium, phosphorous, manganese and folate. A serving of cooked rhubarb provides us with as much calcium as a cup of milk would and is on the short list alongside salmon and spinach for food that provides us with the most calcium.
Rhubarb was a native of Siberia, found growing on the banks of the river Volga. The earliest recordings of rhubarb date back to 2700BC in China although it is believed that it was used as a drug even before this date. The plant was cultivated for medicinal purposes, particularly as an ailment for gut, liver and lung conditions. Marco Polo is attributed with bringing rhubarb, or ‘Rhacoma’ root, as a drug to Europe during the thirteenth century. The plant was so popular that in England during 1657, its asking price was three times that of Opium. The rise of modern medicine after the sixteenth century and the failure of the British trying to introduce the wrong strain of rhubarb to use as a drug replaced the root’s use for healing.

The first recorded planting of rhubarb in Europe was in Italy in 1608. It was not until 1778 that the plant was recorded as being grown for food in Europe. It was not until the Chelsea Physics Garden discovered forcing rhubarb in 1817, when some roots were accidentally covered with soil during the winter, that the vegetable became a British favourite. When the gardeners removed the soil, they discovered some tender shoots growing. These were found to have a superior taste, gaining favour with the public as commercial growers began to adopt the technique. The earliest cooking method of eating rhubarb was in tarts and pies.

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The forcing of rhubarb began in 1877 in Yorkshire, where the famous Yorkshire Rhubarb of course sprouts from. The Whitwell family are acknowledged as being the first family to produce enough rhubarb to out-sell the London markets. Special sheds were built for growing rhubarb in, prolonging the season. Yorkshire is an ideal place for growing rhubarb as it possesses the ideal requirements for growing the crop: cold, wet and a good deal of nitrogen in the soil. The quality of the Yorkshire crop became renowned and other markets could no longer compete and ceased altogether. The production of rhubarb centralised between Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford, becoming ‘The Rhubarb Triangle’, the centre for the world’s production of forced rhubarb.

During the Second World War, rhubarb became diet staple as the government charged a shilling per pound of Yorkshire rhubarb to keep it financially available. The rhubarb industry became one of the largest providers of employment during these years. Despite this, sugar was difficult to get hold of and the sharp taste of rhubarb needs to be softened by this particular ingredient. After being a nutritious part of the human diet during the 1940s, rhubarb’s popularity dropped due to the undesirable memories of war-time children who had to suffer the strong taste of rhubarb for too long. When the war was over and overseas refrigerators became available along with the chance to purchase and store exotic, tropical fruits, rhubarb was abandoned in the garden and the producers began to suffer huge losses, some going bankrupt, some selling their businesses.

Despite the decline, rhubarb is starting to raise itself up again. More and more chefs are advertising new recipes to include rhubarb in – one does not have to restrict themselves to using it in a crumble, although that can be one of the most yummy, traditional ways of using it, as long as you remove the fuzzy feeling you can get on your teeth by not sweetening it enough. All of my latest cookery finds have some ingenious ideas for using this beautiful pink and green vegetable masquerading as a fruit: cakes, fools, pies, tarts, steamed puddings, stewed on its own and served with another pudding like a cheesecake, soufflés, grunts, muffins, jams, jelly, yoghurt, ice cream, raw rhubarb sorbet… The list goes on.

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We were given various rhubarb plants by friends last year so I do not know the names of all of them. However, I am pretty sure we have bought ourselves ‘Champagne’, ‘Victoria’ (fruits later) and ‘Timperley Early’ (produces earlier than most varieties and does have a fairly high chilling requirement so it is suitable for cold areas).

You can buy young crowns of rhubarb or established ones. When buying young crowns, allow the plant to establish for a year in the soil before harvesting from them. Rhubarb likes to be planted in rich, well-manured soil in the full sun and water through dry periods. Allow 90cm between plants.

Forcing rhubarb: In Yorkshire, the plants are grown in a field for  two years before being brought indoors each winter after a cold period to induce dormancy. The warm sheds encourage the plants to awaken but light is excluded, making the plant resort to its own glucose reserves in its base to feed the early growth of the new stalks. Without the light, the rhubarb grows a livid pink colour and is more sweeter and succulent than the versions not forced. It is romantically harvested by candlelight as strong light halts growth. We can replicate Yorkshire’s forcing techniques simply at home. Place a rhubarb forcer or, in our case, a large bucket over the small crowns in late winter after piling fresh manure around it (this raises the temperature and the speed of growth). Forcing rhubarb will give you hopefully a harvest four or five weeks ahead of the main harvest time.

Depending on the variety of the plant and the weather, one can start harvesting rhubarb in March until the end of July. You need to stop picking as the plant growth slows down to allow it to store reserves of energy for growth the following year. Choose tender stalks. These are stems with good colour, where the leaves have just unfolded fully. Do not cut the stems. Instead, grasp the chosen stem low on the plant, give a sharp pull and twist in order to remove it cleanly. Rip  the leaves off and discard into the compost heap – don’t give them to the animals as they are poisonous, despite what my pigs might say after breaking out and rampaging the neighbour’s crops of rhubarb and our own, they love it!

As far as pests and diseases go, there are not too many threats for this vegetable. If you notice limp foliage, weak steams nad new buds dying during the growing season your plant could have fungal disease, crown rot. You just have to be brave and discard the plant and purchase new crowns for planting.

If flowers appear on your plants (they did on a couple of ours last year), cut them off as they reduce the vigour of the part of the rhubarb you want to eat. In the autumnal months, remove the withering leaves and add well-rotted manure and mulch to encourage them for the next season.

So now I can finally offer you pudding recipes. I love puddings, especially homemade ones. I eat one after supper without fail every night for ultimate comfort and although it is often a cake, or something covered in chocolate, that I have made, I do love a good fruity pudding and I have recently purchased the ‘Puddings’ cookbook by Johnny Shepherd. He is obviously a fan of rhubarb and includes a fair number of interesting recipes involving it. Instead of launching straight into crumbles or rhubarb cakes, I played around with his recipe for rhubarb fool  first of all before going for the crumble. I have had the best rhubarb crumbles at school. I was never too keen on the dishes they served but their chocolate sponge and custard (of course), jam roly poly, macaroni cheese, baked potatoes, apple crumble and, finally, rhubarb crumble with custard were all delicious. The thing I never liked about rhubarb crumble was the fuzzy texture you get on your teeth after eating it. There is little you can do about this other than to use a good amount of sugar, to cook it well or to peel off the outsides and to serve it with something like custard to combat the texture. When making the crumble this year, I decided to try roasting it first of all using Shepherd’s technique to see if this would help. It did reduce it quite a lot and it was delicious and went down a treat with the family.

By the way, we just picked some strawberries and ate them with homemade chocolate cake with some pouring yoghurt last night – delicious! I am going through a real strawberry phase at the moment. My favourite breakfast is strawberry and rhubarb yoghurt and if I get enough strawberries (those pesky birds ate most of them  last year), then I would love to try making strawberry and rhubarb conserve, just to try. They making a surprisingly delicious match.

Here is my adaption of Johnny Shepherd’s fool recipe and my rhubarb crumble. I never took an photographs of my fool as it tasted amazing and looked revolting so I have included his photo instead to inspire rather than put you off. The crumble is my own though.

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Rhubarb and Cardamom Fool – Picture from Johnny Shepherd’s cookbook ‘Puddings’

Rhubarb and Cardamom Fool

(Serves 6)

For the rhubarb: – 500g rhubarb, washed and cut into 5cm batons – 175g caster or granulated sugar – 10 cardamom pods, cracked

For the custard: – 315ml double cream – 3-4 large egg yolks – 48g caster sugar

– 300ml double cream

  1. Preheat the oven to 160C. On a non-stick baking tray, lay out the rhubarb and cardamom seeds, sprinkling 75g of the sugar over the top. Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes or until the rhubarb is soft and tender.
  2. Meanwhile, make the custard: Put the cream into a non-stick saucepan over a medium flame and bring to the boil. Take the pan off the heat.
  3. Whisk the egg yolks and the sugar together in a bowl. Pour the hot cream over the top, whisking all the time. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and place over a medium flame, whisking, until the custard is thick and coats the back of a spoon. Leave the pan to cool slightly before putting it in the fridge to chill completely.
  4. Return to the baked rhubarb once it is done in the oven. Pour the excess liquid from the tray through a sieve into a saucepan. Discard the cardamom pods. Heat the saucepan of liquid on the stove over a high flame to reduce it to a thick syrup. Remove from the heat and stir in the rhubarb along with the remaining 100g of sugar. Place to one side and allow to cool before keeping it in the fridge until fully chilled.
  5. In a large bowl, whisk the 300ml of double cream to soft peaks.
  6. Once you are ready to serve, remove the custard and the rhubarb from the fridge and combine. Carefully fold the cream into the rhubarb and custard to create a rippled effect. Serve in bowls.

 

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Homemade Rhubarb Crumble

Rhubarb Crumble

(Serves 6)

For the Topping: – 170g plain flour – 110g salted butter (or unsalted with a good pinch of salt) – 55g caster sugar

For the fruit: – 400-500g rhubarb, washed and cut into small strips, about 5cm long              – About 75g caster or granulated sugar – 100g caster or granulated sugar

  1. Preheat the oven to 160C. On a baking tray, spread the cut rhubarb out and sprinkle 75g of sugar over the top generously. Put the tray in the oven and bake for about 15 minutes until the rhubarb is just starting to become tender. Remove the tray from the oven and put it to one side. Turn the oven up to 180C.
  2. Pour the juice of the rhubarb into a small saucepan. Place over a medium heat and allow it to bubble until it has turned into a thick syrup. Turn down the heat to simmer and stir in 100g sugar and the rhubarb. Remove from heat.
  3. Prepare the topping: In a large bowl, mix the flour, butter and sugar with your fingertips until it has a breadcrumb consistency. If the mixture is too dry, add a little more butter and a dash of sugar. Likewise, if it is too wet, add a little more flour and sugar to the mixture.
  4. Scrape the rhubarb into a oven-proof dish. Scatter the crumble topping over the fruit, spreading it evenly and thickly.
  5. Bake the crumble in the oven for about 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling. Serve warm with custard.

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Salad – Rocket

 

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‘Buzz’ Rocket

Rocket, or Arugula has a sharp, peppery taste. It is high in vitamins A and C. Rocket is popular in Italian cuisine because of its aromatic flavour. In Roman times, this green was grown for both its leaves and seeds. The seeds were used for flavouring oils which is still practiced today.

Rocket is quite easy to grow: it germinates efficiently and quickly. It can be sown all year round if you start them off in containers indoors during the colder months and plant them out under the cover of horticultural fleece, cloches or cold frames. Their only real pest concern are slugs and snails.

However, rocket does tend to bolt and flower before you are ready for it to do so. Once this happens the delicate, tender leaves you were once eating become a bit stronger and the tougher. This is fine for some people but displeasing for others. When this happens, you can included these leaves in cooking instead of eating them raw if you do not like the taste – the leaves will just be a little hotter than the new, younger ones.

To avoid this, sow little and often, successional sowings. I am on my third sowing this year since February. I started the first batch off indoors and they germinated really quickly, in a couple of days. I am still picking them but they are starting to flower (you can eat these flowers, include them in salads or a stir fry). My second sowing I made outdoors under the cover of fleece when temperatures were still low in March. These took about a week or two to germinate because of the cold. My third sowing I did a couple of weeks ago indoors just before the temperatures rocketed to 20C daytime and an average 12C at night. These I will plant out shortly when they are big enough, perhaps in a couple of weeks.

Types of rocket I am growing this year are ‘Buzz’, ‘Monza’ and ‘Tirizia’. These can be grown indoors nearly all year round and then sown outdoors from March until the end of August, perhaps under the cover of a cold frame or fleece in the early months when frost is still about. These have all been delicious and easy to grow and transplant.

Rocket, spinach and watercress is a green salad made in heaven. Try adding this mix to your sandwich at lunch.

Another way I love eating rocket is with one of our ‘lazy family suppers’ when the idea of cooking anything extravagant is just exhausting: Pasta and Tinned Tomatoes. The rocket adds an extra classy flavour and makes it oh-so Italian – and it could take you no longer than half an hour to prepare on your own, tops.

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Pasta and Tinned Tomatoes

(Serves 6)

– 250g pasta – Olive oil – 800g tinned tomatoes – 300g cheddar cheese – 400g peas – 80g pine nuts – 6 large handfuls of rocket

  1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add the pasta and turn the heat down to simmer for ten minutes or until the pasta is cooked. Drain and drizzle olive oil over the top, stirring it in. Set aside.
  2. Put the tinned tomatoes in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove when hot. Meanwhile, grate the cheddar cheese.
  3. Bring another pan of water to the boil. Add the peas and leave to cook until heated and ready.
  4. Place a frying pan over a high heat. Add the pine nuts and stir in the dry dish. Once they start to brown, remove from the heat immediately and continue to stir the nuts over the very hot dish for a couple of minutes.
  5. Serve: place pasta on a plate, scrape tinned tomatoes over the top, scatter cheddar cheese on top followed by the toasted pine nuts and fresh rocket before adding lots of peas on the side.

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Huh? Gardening Terminology

I thought I should add some further information on certain words I use that might be lost to some. Therefore, I introduce the beginning of ‘Garden Terminology’.

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Mulch – material, such as decayed leaves or tree bark, that is spread around a plant or over a seed bed to both enrich and insulate the soil/plant. Mulching provides the plants with nutrients, helps to retain the water for the plant in the soil and visibly improves the garden soil in general. Wherever we mulched last year, the soil in that area is a hundred times better in comparison to a place we did not mulch. For gardeners working on sandy soil, this is a very good way of improving the condition of your soil.

We dig up our mulch from underneath the pine trees in our woodland area next door to the vegetable patch or in the woodland that the pigs roam in. It is good, brown, broken down materials, mostly leaves, bark and pine needles, occasionally some bracken too. We dig it up, remove any unwanted insects or roots and carry it in our wheelbarrows, distributing it generously over the garden. It is time-consuming work but worth the effort. We use mulch to cover paths as a form of weed control. The mulch is very good and suppressing the growth of weeds in both plant beds and on the paths. Plus, it looks actually very pretty as the colour is so rich and dark.

Catch-crop – a crop grown in the space between two main crops at a time. For example, I have sown this year radishes between my latest planting of purple sprouting broccoli. I have planted spinach between peas in one trench and chervil in another. Lettuce has been squeezed in between cabbages and asparagus, more radishes and spinach between brussels sprouts and brukale etc.

Using the catch-crop technique gives on a chance to squeeze in more varieties of vegetables in their patch, especially if they are short of space. The idea is to sow things that are small and temporary, making radishes ideal as well as lettuce and spinach as they bolt quickly. Be wary of the term companion planting before trying this technique.

Companion planting – the close planting of different plants that enhance each other’s growth or protect each other from pests. For example, poached egg plants sown near courgettes encourage beneficial insects to the pollinate the flowers. Summer savory attracts beneficial insects to eat the aphids that love broad beans. Garlic is supposed to deter carrot fly (as well as spring onions, leeks and sage) and the flea beetle that will put holes in your brassicas. French marigolds deter white fly from tomatoes. Nasturtium flowers are supposed to be a magnet for cabbage whites to draw them away from cabbages.

The term companion plating can also be applied for growing vegetables alongside each other. For example, the ‘Three Sisters’: pumpkins, corn and climbing beans are an example of companion planting, sowing them close together in the same patch. Beans provide shade for crops, like spinach, who in turn provide magnesium when their leaves break down into the soil. Tomatoes are said to protect asparagus from asparagus beetle (if you can grow them successfully outside without harboring blight). However, one needs to be wary of what plants dislike about each other. For example, cucumbers grow poorly around potatoes and sage (if grown outdoors), beetroot will compete with runner beans for growth too much and will struggle, the same with pumpkins and potatoes, both heavy feeders. Tomatoes attract pests to corn rather than repel them and dill and cilantro cross-pollinate when grown together. Read up carefully about ‘what-likes-what’ when companion planting.

The great thing about companion planting both flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables is that it means you can fit in more types of plants in your vegetable garden than if you restrict your beds to one type of seed. It might look more tidily organised if you do this but the production will be far more impressive if you adopt the ‘mix and match’ approach.

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Manure – animal dung used for fertilizing the land. Horse manure is the most popular form of manure as it is rich in nitrogen. People generally use manure from animals that have a grass-fed diet, meaning horses, cattle and sheep, rather than poultry, cats or pigs, unless they are grazers. As a homegrower, it is up to you what you use but if you ever consider selling commercially, be careful what you choose to use as some get obsessed by the hygiene and risks of illnesses from using other manure from non-grass fed livestock. There has always been debates about using manure but almost any gardener will tell you that it is a good idea. The first time I used horse manure from a friend to feed the crops I was terrified that it was not rotted enough and would kill the plants. Instead, they flourished and I have used it generously ever since. I even dig some in to the patches where I plant root crops, like carrots and beetroot that are said to dislike it but it really does make all the difference and improves the germination, growth, size and flavor of the vegetables. Vegetables that feed us need as much feeding themselves to grow up big and strong. John Collis, ‘The Worm Forgives the Plough’ writer describes manure at its best: ‘I take large spadefuls of the stuff, like great slabs of chocolate cake, and throw them into the cart’.

‘It starts with the grass and the roots and the corn upon which stock feed. These things are burned in the furnaces of their stomachs.’

It is then treated by ‘whole empires of creatures visible only under the microscope, called bacteria’. They break down complex substances. ‘Farmyard manure consists of excreta, urine, and the litter of the stable. The first movement in the bacterial symphony is the destruction of the litter and its conversion into a dark brown moist substance, hummus.’ Manure contains a great number of carbon compounds. The bacteria ‘splits the ammonia from the protein’ in nitrogen before converting it into nitrate and then changing it into a soluble form of calcium nitrate. A pile of manure should be left to rot for at least 6 months before being used. Once can increase the speed of rotting by turning it over with a fork (like one does to compost) and covering it with a tarpaulin to increase the heat for the bacteria to work in and to keep extra rain out that will slow it down. You will be able to tell when the manure has rotted enough for use as it will no longer smell strongly and will have broken down into a crumbly substance instead of being sticky.

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Blood, Fish and Bone – a slow release fertilizer. It feeds and strengthens the plant as well as improving the soil. When I ‘update’ my plants, I first of all weed around them, then I sprinkle a small layer of BFB (Blood, Fish and Bone)  around them, put a layer of manure on top followed by mulch to hold the nutrients for the plants for longer and to suppress the weed growth. Unfortunately, feeding the soil around the plants does increase the production of weeds as you are ultimately feeding them at the same time, hence why weeding before feeding is so important. BFB is strong-smelling stuff that comes mostly in grain form when purchased from your local garden centre. It does attract animals, cats and slugs alike, so do not be tempted to leave it on top of the ground without covering it with manure and/or mulch to deter the pests. Cats have dug up places where I BFB before but seem to not be interested wherever I lay down manure. Slugs will be more attracted to manure so set up the slug defenses after feeding immediately.

Liquid feeds – solutions that contain a combination of required major nutrients to boost the growth and health of a plant. Homemade liquid feeds include comfrey feed and nettle feed, as a couple of examples. Tomorite is probably the most popular shop bough feed used to feed tomatoes including an extract of seaweed. We have started making and using our own liquid feeds this year, comfrey and nettle. I will be discussing the process of making these homemade feeds in another post.

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Garden 2015 – Wheelbarrow of mulch ready for spreading

Weekly Update: 29th May 2016

We’ve had surprisingly good weather this week – other than the freezing night-time temperature that came out of nowhere one night and I had to quickly fleece everything up in layers and layers of protection. Thankfully, the courgettes, squashes and sweetcorn lived!

This week I have:

  • Planted out all of the sweetcorn.
  • Planted out hamburg parsley I grew indoors (outdoors did poorly this year), sorrel, pak choi, cosmos flowers, some lupin flowers, some orach
  • I weeded and fed a cabbage, brussels sprouts and brukale bed.
  • Weeded and fed the courgettes and squashes and set up umbrellas to protect them from the irrigation sprinklers (the sprinklers last year worsened powdery mildew).
  • Planted out more aubergines, cucumbers and peppers in the greenhouse.
  • Weeded and mulched the quinoa and amaranth beds.
  • Sowed more turnips and swede because some bird has been pecking them out of the ground.
  • I found a toad hiding under one of my cabbages! I moved him to the compost heaps out-of-the-way.
  • Planted out all of our runner beans.

Mum, while stuck in the throes of awful hay fever and more bee work has done:

  • Completed weeding and mulching the big carrot patch.
  • Did the poles for the runner beans.
  • Fed all of the potatoes with liquid fertiliser.
  • Sprayed the cucurbits and plants that can harbour blight or powdery mildew with our milk spray (more on that another time).
  • Potted on more tomatoes.
  • Weeded the broad beans.
  • Weeded and netter my broccoli and cauliflowers.
  • Weeded and cleared an old celery patch she is leaving to flower and create seeds this year.
  • Weeded the immense amount of mustard and goosegrass wrapping itself around our Japanese wine berry and boysenberry.
  • Created a support for the collapsing bed of the tree cabbages.

We also finally harvested our first batch of rhubarb for the year after putting it off for so long. More on that another time…