Thursday, 1 February 2018

Taming the Yacon monster

I have grown a monster. This is the harvest from just one plant, grown from a tiny seed tuber back in April 2017. Each one of those long oval roots is the size of a marrow. For all that it looks like a sweet potato it is in fact a yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius), a tuberous perennial hailing originally from South America, historically grown on the eastern slopes of the Andes. It's also known as Peruvian ground apple and, in its native South America is also confusingly known as jicama. It's definitely not a jicama, though - jicama is a Mexican legume also grown for its underground rhizomes, although the taste is not dissimilar.

It is however related to the Jerusalem artichoke and therefore also kin to the sunflower. The relationship becomes apparent when the plant begins to grow in early summer with its sturdy, slightly hairy, stem and broad leaves. At the end of summer the yacon plant produces small bright yellow flowers very similar to those of the Jerusalem artichoke.

I first read about yacon in Mark Diacono's book A Taste of the Unexpected. At the time I was experimenting with growing oca, another South American tuber, and finding the results somewhat underwhelming. The idea of devoting yet more space to another 'lost crop of the Incas' did not really  appeal.

I was surprised by just how vigorous and tall the yacon plants grew, reaching around 2m by August. Even so, I had no idea what lay beneath until I harvested the first plant at the beginning of November. That yielded three fat sweet-potato-sized tubers, and I was pretty pleased with myself, so much so that I tweeted the following:

Little did I realise that I'd just pulled up the (very much) smaller of the two. The second plant I left to grow on, mindful of Mark Diacono's advice that the roots will stay happily in the ground until - and beyond - the first frosts.

There's no way I can use all this yacon at once. After adding them to salads where the mildly sweet, juicy crunch gives a winter salad some welcome texture, I also tried yacon remoulade, stirring julienned yacon into creme fraiche laced with mustard and a bit of lemon juice. They were julienned again with carrot for a dish based on a south-east Asian papaya salad: sprinkled with a dressing made with fish sauce, lime juice, crushed garlic and sugar, and topped with cashew nuts. That went down very well.

The roots store like potatoes: keep cool - say, around 5-10 degrees Celsius - in the dark, not too dry (they will wither), but definitely not damp (they will rot). Some roots won't keep, but those that do should stay good for weeks if not months.

There's also no need to to buy yacon starter plants each year. Once the giant swollen tubers have been removed, you're left with the stems and the small round buds around the crown. These will grow again the following season. Bury this remaining haulm and nodules in barely damp soil or sand and keep somewhere cool and dark - possibly the same place that is storing the roots for eating. Plant out again in spring, somewhere sunny and well mulched with manure, once the soil has warmed up a bit and the frosts should be over.  

You should probably protect the new leaves from slugs and snails, but I found the emerging plants needed little in way of cossetting. Last year was a notably good growing season for many 'long season' crops so it will be interesting to see how they do this year in whatever conditions 2018 throws up.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Autumn tomato chutney

Tomato blight ripped through the allotment in August this year, turning stems and leaves sooty-black and blotching the fruit. Every plant was dug up and burnt by August Bank Holiday leaving just the greenhouse plants, safe behind closed doors, to carry on free of infection.

My greenhouse isn't frost-free and we've had a few very cold mornings now, with the temperature dipping just freezing. While the chilli plants seem to be able to withstand temperatures hovering around zero, the tomatoes are grinding to a halt, the plants looking pretty exhausted, with brown papery leaves and wizened stems, just a few small fruit still slowly turning red in the sunny days.

I decided last week that it was time to put them out of their misery and to gather up all the remaining fruits, whether ripe or not, and make a big batch of late harvest chutney, so that none go to waste.

I've called this autumn tomato chutney because while it might lack some of the sweet sunshine and honeyed notes of tomatoes picked in high summer, the rag-tag of season's end tomatoes, green, pinkish, orange and red in places, has a concentrated, distinctively sharper flavour.

I added a few more autumn pickings: the last of the huge glut of tomatillos, which restore some of the zingy freshness of flavour, a warm chilli or two from the greenhouse for a little bit of fruity heat, and also one of my favourite chutney ingredients, dates. I use these instead of sultanas or raisins quite simply because I like them better, but also because they add a depth of sweet flavour, and a fudgy texture that definitely contributes to the finished chutney.

Apart from that, I kept the recipe as simple as possible - I don't think chutneys are meant to be complicated either in quantities or method. If you sterilise the jars and lids and utensils, this chutney will keep for a year or so - leave it for three months to mature before starting to eat it.

Autumn tomato chutney
500g tomatoes, mixed green and red
300g tomatillos
500g yellow onions
3 cloves garlic
Large thumb of fresh ginger
500g cooking apples
200g dried pitted dates (I used Deglet Nour from Waitrose but any will do)
300ml cider vinegar
175g soft brown sugar

Chop the tomatoes, onions, garlic and dates. Peel and grate the ginger. Remove the papery husk from the tomatillos and rinse any sticky residue off under the tap. Give a quick shake to throw off most of the moisture. Peel and core the apples, then chop roughly.

Put all the ingredients into a large non-reactive pan and mix with a spoon. You might want to hold back 25g or so of sugar and add it to taste as the chutney cooks, depending on how sweet your tooth is.

Bring to the boil over a medium-high heat, then cover the pan, reduce the heat and simmer for an hour and a half by which time the chutney should be dark and thickened.

While the chutney is simmering, sterilise jars for potting up. The amounts given here will fill around six or seven 250ml jars. I think the easiest way to sterilise them is to run them through the dishwasher on a hot cycle, then dry them off in the oven at 120 degrees while the chutney is bubbling away. You should also sterilise the lids and the utensils used for transferring the chutney.

When ready, spoon the chutney into the prepared jars, seal and leave to cool on a wire rack. Label, and transfer to a cool dark cupboard to mature before eating.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Mellow fruitfulness - autumn harvest

Along with the smells of mellow earth and burning leaves, autumn also brings aromas of vinegar, honey, sugar and fruits in our house. I only have a small freezer and no room to install a bigger one, so if I'm lucky enough to get a produce glut (and there's usually something that runs riot and produces far more than we can reasonably eat while it's still fresh), it needs to be preserved some other way.

Liqueurs, pickles, jellies and chutneys will use up a satisfyingly large amount of excess produce and keep for months - indeed, liqueurs and chutneys are often at their best if kept for months before you start to use them. You can happily experiment with ingredients and the balance of spicing to suit your palate and nearly always end up with something delicious - although I am still haunted by the spiced quince chutney which tasted fine but looked exactly like Pedigree Chum.


Jellies are I think particularly rewarding. They look beautiful: clear and in jewel-like colours. Quince jelly sets to a rich tawny amber colour; the golden lemon chilli jelly is almost irridescent when it catches the morning sun. They are versatile:can be spread on bread, rolls or toast, can accompany meats and cheese, a scant teaspoonful will lift a gravy and I did once, in extremis, use damson jelly as a filling for a Victoria sponge when I found the strawberry jam jar quite empty. They use up loads of fruit (and, it must be said, an industrial amount of sugar) and make good gifts for friends, school fairs and harvest festivals.

The quince jelly (above left) is made using the classic method: chop up quinces and boil in water with a little lemon juice for about an hour, then strain overnight through a jelly bag. The next day, boil up again using 450g sugar for every 600ml of juice, and boil rapidly until the setting point is reached.

The lemon chilli jelly (left) is made with an apple juice base: chop up apples, simmer in water with a little lemon juice* for an hour then strain through a jelly bag. Next day, boil up again using the same juice-to-sugar ratio as above - I find apple jelly very quick to set compared to others. While the liquid is boiling away, chop up around 60-80g of hot lemon** chillies and one yellow sweet pepper - I put them in the mini food processor to get the pieces very fine and it means I don't have to take my eye off the jelly pan for too long. Once the setting point is reached, turn off the heat and stir in the chillies. Stir the mix again when you're just about to pour into jars to ensure the chilli pieces are distributed evenly.

* This year's batch, very poncily, uses fresh bergamot juice as the citrus as I've had a big fat bergamot hanging from my Citrus bergamia bush all summer and hadn't yet found a use for it.

** I use yellow chillies to highlight the gorgeous honey blonde colour of this jelly, but finely chopped red chillies (and a red sweet pepper) would be visually stunning suspended in the pale jelly as well.


I'm not as adventurous with pickles as I could be: sweet peppers, and also chilli peppers, in glut years, will be preserved this way. I also regularly go through the shallots to pick out the smallest ones and pickle these in white wine vinegar, salt and tarragon. Peeling tiny shallots, even after they've been soaked in boiling water, is a pain, but once that's been done, it's a quick and easy method.

There is also always one pumpkin that you know won't be a keeper, whether it's been damaged, or as happened this year, because the fruit grew through the plastic mesh supporting the plants and ended up looking more like a Penny Bun than a pumpkin. Non-keeping squash will also be pickled: peeled, sliced into slim wedges and steeped in white wine vinegar, spiced with coriander, allspice, mace, ginger, chillies and a little star anise. This year I took inspiration from Karon Grieve's recipe at Larder Love and added a spoonful of sherry to the pickling liquor. Pickled pumpkin, served with pickled walnuts (sadly, not having a walnut tree, I have to buy these) and burrata or very fresh mozzarella, makes an excellent no-cook Christmas Day starter to keep everyone quiet while you finish off the main course.

Flavoured liqueurs are an rewarding way to use up a glut of fruit while creating something delicious. The basic method is to steep fruit, with sugar, in your chosen alcohol - I often use vodka because it doesn't have a strong flavour of its own but it's fun to experiment. Brandy and gin are both excellent vehicles for making a fruit-based liqueur and impart their own flavour to the finished drink.

You can leave the fruit and sugar gently infusing the alcohol for days, weeks, even months. The amount of sugar to add is really down to your own taste and also depends on the natural sweetness of the fruit. For the damson gin, shown here still at the infusion stage, I will add half the weight of the damsons in sugar, ie, 500g of sugar to every 1kg of damsons.

For blackberry vodka (creme de mure), below, you can use less sugar as the blackberries tend to be sweeter than damson and to use a similar amount would give you quite a cloying liqueur.

The infusion needs to be kept somewhere cool and dark and the process can't be hurried. At the beginning, you can up-end the jar every couple of days to get the sugar to dissolve; once it has, leave the mixture severely alone.

After a couple of months, you might want to taste the infusion - just to see how it's doing. It probably won't taste quite ready, so re-seal and leave alone again for another couple of months. But once it does taste a bit more rounded, a bit more full-bodies, strain the liqueur through muslin or a fine nylon sieve into a clean jar, reseal, put it back in the cool dark place, and leave again for a good couple of months before tasting.

I made the blackberry vodka at the end of July and I'm planning to use it in a celebratory Kir Royale to toast in the New Year. The damson gin above still has a way to go; I think we'll start sipping that with our first outdoor suppers next spring.

Note: when making any of these preserves, including the liqueurs for long-term storage and use, make sure all your jars, bottles, utensils, etc, are sterilised. This can be done easily enough in a hot dishwasher cycle, followed by drying them off in an oven at 120 degrees. Don't forget to do the lids as well!

Friday, 6 October 2017

Planting for a shady rockery

Choosing the planting for this rockery was one of my very first garden design jobs and I always appreciate the opportunity to return to gardens I have helped to create to see how they develop as the plants establish and settle. This planting is two years old now and the plants have matured and grown in an around the rocks. While it's always satisfying when the finished article looks much as you had envisaged it, sometimes plants grow together in unexpected ways and you can get a quite new, unintended but still appealing arrangement. 

 It was completely bare of any vegetation when I took it on, something I now know is quite unusual - a completely blank slate to work with.
Although laid out as a rockery, it faces east and is predominantly shady. Paradoxically the north end is the brighter side, as trees and fencing overshadow it on the southern edge. So the conventional sun-loving alpine plants had to be set aside in favour of leafier shade lovers.

When initially planted up, you can see the distances between plants quite clearly. The positioning of the rocks determined the spacing between plants just as much as allowing for their eventual spread. 

Two years on, and Buddha is sitting atop a wave of grasses, flanked by the two small conifers and the Japanese anemones as a backdrop. Tellima grandiflora provides background vegetation in spring and summer. The colour palette of mostly pinks and purples is designed to be visible from the kitchen window opposite at the far end of the garden.

At this time of year, the sedums form pink cloudy cushions for Buddha, and the Verbena bonariensis will add colour until the first frosts. their seed heads will add structure to the evergreen leaves over winter and then in spring the bed comes alive with bulbs: crocus, dwarf daffodils, chionodoxa, and snowdrops, and then tulips and yellow and gold primulas.

Plants that have done well in this somewhat unpromising environment include Heuchera - the 'Palace Purple' is crowding out 'Ginger Ale' and we will plant more 'Ginger Ale' next year to maintain the balance of light and dark leaves - Euphorbia myrsinites at the brighter end of the bed whose leaves look suitably alpine like, Luzula sylvestris, and the ferns. Tiarella puts on a brave display during the spring and early summer but is barely evident for the  rest of the time, and Alchemilla mollis is beginning to self-seed satisfactorily. My efforts to establish Aubretia have come to nothing so far: too dark and damp, I suspect and I am now looking for something else that will fulfil an Aubretia-like function, ie, tumble over the stones with some bright flowers, which is also better suited to the conditions.

The focal point within the bed was originally to be a single conifer, either a Juniper 'Skyrocket' or J. communis 'Hibernica', or ideally something slower growing. Buddha at the time was sitting rather lonely under a tree nearby and the client suggested moving him to the centre of the new rockery with his two conifer sentinels. He looked at home straightaway, and I swear his face has developed a smile since his move.

We had another serendipitous discovery while preparing the bed for planting. I cut back the ivy covering the fence behind quite dramatically and fund a few straggly and tattered wisteria stems underneath. By clearing a space around them and giving the wisteria more light it has shot up and this year gave us long racemes of blue flowers for a dramatic backdrop to the bed.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Sussex Prairie - a garden to immerse yourself in

Paul and Pauline McBride created a prairie garden in a field on the family farm in Henfield, Sussex. It is one of the most stunning examples of prairie planting I've ever visited. With large swathes of planting, waves perennials interespersed with drifts of grasses, the combination of colours, textures and shapes is incredibly beautiful.
The grasses are probably at their best now, in autumn. The plants will be left to form seedheads into the winter and provide food for birds, then early next year the whole lot is burned, ready for regeneration the next season.
Sussex Prairie Garden is set over 8 acres with wide curved beds, with bark chip paths running through the middle of each so that you can get right up close to the plants. This you will want to do - the grass fronds, cobwebby or soft like cat's fur, are immensely touchable.
Also contained within the garden is a teashop with excellent homemade cake (courgette, mango and lemon drizzle, sticky toffee...) and a shop selling many of the plants from the garden and also sourced elsewhere. Many of these are quite rare and not your run-of-the-mill garden centre cultivars, so well worth a look.

Sussex Prairie is open 6 days a week (closed Tuesdays) from 1.00pm-5.00pm until October 15th. It's an RHS partner garden so RHS members go in free, otherwise it's £7.00 for adults, £3.50 for children.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Dahlias - dramatic and dazzling in the autumn garden

As many summer blooms begin to fade with the advent of autumn, those flowers which will gamely carry on until the first frosts are especially welcome. Verbena, Rudbeckia and Geranium Rozanne are all earning their keep in the garden right now, but nothing can compete with the sheer showiness of dahlias, now in their pomp and bringing dazzling colour and dramatic shapes to the border. Whether singles, doubles, pompoms, or dinner plates, the flowers demand attention.

Personally, however much I admire the flower forms that look like old-fashioned bathing hats, or sea anemones, it is the simpler blooms that have enduring appeal. Nothing like some old-fashioned ecclesiastical dahlias to produce masses of flowers throughout the autumn.

Keen dahlia growers will disbud and prune side stems to encourage fewer but larger flowers; I'm content to deadhead - when I remember - and give the plants some discreet support as they grow tall. An open-topped paeony support, fixed before the dahlia begins to shoot up, is ideal, but I never remember, or never have spare supports, at the right time and usually end up with cane and string as usual.

My main concern is usually keeping the slugs off them when the plants are young. Slugs seem to especially like the growing buds and need to be picked off assiduously in a bad year. (Last year was terrible for slug damage, this year not so bad at all.)

After the first frost it's time to cut down the stems and then the big question is whether to leave the tubers in the ground, mulch on top with bark chips and cross one's fingers, or whether to lift the tubers and hang upside down somewhere dry, and cold but frost-free, for the winter. I've found I can usually get away with leaving them in my London town garden, but it's obviously better practice to lift them.

Come springtime when it's time to put the tubers back in the ground, you can also increase your stock by dividing up healthy ones. Find tubers with more than one 'eye' or incipient bud and cut cleanly so that each eye comes with a nice plump bit of tuber attached. Leave for a couple of days for the wound to heal before planting.
Star dahlias with their petals curling inwards look like children's seaside windmills and have a delicate prettiness in contrast to the exhibitionist tendencies of pompom and cactus dahlias.

Decorative blooms: lush overlapping petals and no central disc

Collarette dahlia, named for the collar of smaller florets around the central yellow disc. This is Night Butterfly.
This collarette dahlia rejoices in the wonderful name Dahlia Pooh

Pompom dahlias have spherical flowers up to 5cm across - this one is Sunny Boy

Ball dahlia flower: bigger than pompoms but with the distinctively curled petals.
Bishop of Oxford: Bishop dahlias have dark leaves which contrast with the bright single flowers.

Dahlia Bright Eyes is a stunning single flowered cultivar in hot pink and gold.

A dinnerplate of a decorative dahlia: Fubuki Red and White.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Rescue plants

I'm a bit of a sale-shelf addict. I can't seem to resist the challenge of revitalising Pittosporums or flopped Buddlejas and so I have been lurking around the bargain plant bins again. Most garden centres and many nurseries have them: shelves of the wilted, the straggly and the frankly half-dead, knocked down to rock bottom prices, 50p here, a pound or two there. My local Homebase sometimes lets you take plants away for free if they think they can't charge anything at all.

There are some great bargains to be had here. Often the plants are just dried out from lack of water and will revive after a good soak. Others have lost their shape and grown straggly, but misshapen plants are welcome: a severe prune and then some TLC will usually see new shoots growing. Reduced price plants have often finished flowering for the season so once you have nursed them back to health you will need to keep them going until next year, but then they will frequently come back as good as new.

Having accumulated a collection of sale item plants that threatened to take over the garden, I had to start planting them out.. Those that haven't found an obvious home in an existing bed have gone into the dedicated rescue plant border: a 7m x 1m strip that is still very much a work in progress and which is being filled, bit by bit, by my bargain basement plants.

I have cheated a little bit by including not just cut-price specimens, but freebies: there's a fig tree at the far end which is a cutting from the mature tree in the garden, and the globe artichoke plants are offshoots from the older plants on the allotment. So far, though, I reckon the bed has cost around a tenner to plant up.

Buddleja are a staple of the garden centre sale shelves, and a couple of years ago I started collecting up Buddleja specimens, preferably with flowers in hot pink, crimson, or deep, deep purple, indigo and also white ... anything, in fact, except railway cutting mauve. This year I have had enough to plant up an informal Buddleja hedge, which should come back year after year and all, again, for around £10 in total.

I have become a bit more discerning over the years though: I used to scoop up the entire contents of the sale rail into my arms as though I was rescuing them from the Child Catcher. Now I am more discriminating about which plants make it into the trolley.

Firstly, I buy nothing that is actually dead. Some sign of life is required. Don't buy anything that is diseased: you don't want to bring spider mite, mildew, mealy bug or whatever into your garden and spread it around your plants. It is worth checking the rootball, if you can, to make sure a) the plant has enough in the way of root to revive and b) that there aren't any weevils or other nasties lurking in the soil.

I also don't buy bedding plants - towards the end of the season, what's the point? Or lavender, these days, since you can buy really good-sized plug plants at the beginning of the season for around £1 a plant. And you can take cuttings very easily in June. It feels a bit like a loss, though, because there is always lavender on the reduced price shelf.
No lavender - unless it's just 50p a plant, of course
Finally, it has to feel like a bargain. And you have to accept that some of the plants won't survive long-term and that they really were at death's door and not even worth the 50p asking price.