Tuesday 27 November 2012

Growing ginger - the harvest

It was either brave or foolhardy to harvest my ginger plants live at the Secret Garden Club in our Grow Your Own Curry session on Sunday. We dug these triffid-like roots, above, out from a pot where I'd planted a single piece of ginger root 10 months ago.

I've been documenting the growth of these ginger plants on this blog since January, when I planted the root. Over the summer, the plant grew tall and architectural, then, about six weeks ago, the foliage turned brown and wilted. By the time we came to harvest the ginger at the Secret Garden Club, all I had to show for 10 months of raising ginger were two pots of compost with no visible plant growth at all.

In truth I did check one pot the day before to make sure I would have some ginger root to lift on the day itself, prodding the soil until I could find a good solid mass of new root. As the other pot had been nurtured in identical conditions, I reckoned it was safe enough to leave that one undisturbed until the big unveiling.
Clockwise from top left:  (1) look for ginger root with visible yellow nodule - these will develop int shoots when you plant them; (2) sink the root in a pot of compost with the nodule facing upwards - cover the rot cover with a layer of compost; (3) cover the pots with a clear plastic cover and place somewhere light (but not in direct sunlight) and consistently warm, 24 degrees Celsius or more; (4) our first shoots appeared after about 30 days.

Ginger plants growing tall over the summer.

Friday 2 November 2012

All the way from Walla Walla - sweet onions

I was intrigued to see Nicky's Seeds offering Walla Walla sweets seeds earlier this year. Walla Walla sweets are a type of onion grown for their high sugar content and sweet taste. I posted on this blog about these and other sweet onions, such as the Oakley onion, grown here in Essex.

That post was in March, so the Walla Walla sweet onion seedlings were just germinating. I planted them out at the allotment in a raised bed in late April, and happily they did very well. The bulbs swelled up just at the height of summer, if you can say that last summer had a height, and I lifted them in August. They did rather better, in fact, than the 'ordinary' Sturon onions and Red Barons, both of which were disappointingly small.

So I'm looking forward to growing Walla Walla sweets again, although I believe the Walla Walla name  is subject to the north American equivalent of appellation controllee and so once the seeds are sown here they should perhaps now be called North London sweets. Doesn't quite have the same ring to it, does it?

Once the onions reach the kitchen - and they should be eaten fresh: not only do they have a higher sugar content than other onions, but also a higher water content which makes them less suitable for keeping in store - the sweetness means they can be eaten raw without making you cry. Indeed these are excellent for anyone who is prone to tears when slicing or chopping onions as the side effects are noticeably less severe. Thinly sliced Walla Walla sweets perk up salads beautifully. They added a lovely mellow note to Spanish omelette, made lovely syrupy onion marmalade - also fantastic added to a reduced sugar apple sauce for a relish-style accompaniment to pork.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Get Cape Gooseberries. Grow Cape Gooseberries. Fly

I was given some physalis seeds at the beginning of the year. Physalis is one of those fruits I buy occasionally and then never know what to do with them. They look little a small orange tomato, wrapped in a papery case, and I find it very hard to describe the taste - sweet and fruity with a tart note is about as much as I can manage. I didn't feel they would be very appetising cooked. I also wasn't sure why I might want them: physalis plants spring up self-seeded every year, germinating from the kitchen compost. 

So we buy them occasionally from the supermarket and snack on them. A few overripe ones get thrown in the compost and it is presumably these whose seeds germinate later on the allotment - often intermingled with some enterprising tomato plants which self-seed the same way. These 'volunteer' plants never seem to set fruit (the self-seeded tomatoes never seem to get blight, either).

Physalis are related - fairly closely - to tomatillos, and also to tomatoes and aubergines. They're part of the botancial family Solanaceae. Solanaceae is the nightshade family, but don't let that put you off. They're also known as Cape Gooseberries, groundcherries, Chinese Lanterns (usually the more non-edible varieties, grown for the lantern-like seed cases) and improbably enough, golden strawberries.

The one you'll most often see in British gardens iPhysalis alkekengi, which is hardy in winter and bears the bright orangey-red lanterns. 

The name Cape Gooseberry is often associated with the edible plant, Physalis peruviana - the 'cape' in this instance isn't a geographical cape harking back to the plant's origin, but the item of clothing, referring to the case which covers the fruit. They grow in sub-tropical and temperate climes, and, I have discovered this year, in a cold wet summer in London. I thought it might be interesting to grow some physalis on purpose and see just how many fruit we could raise. We were also growing tomatillos at the Secret Garden Club and I wanted to make a comparison between two such close relatives. 

I treated the physalis seeds as if they were tomatoes or aubergines: sowing them (a bit late) at the beginning of March, two to a small pot under a cloche, and leaving them to germinate indoors in warmth. The seedlings were up two weeks later, and grew quickly in their pots, uncovered, on a sunny windowsill - see above.

By the beginning of June, they looked as though they might need staking in their pots. I also desperately needed the windowsill space to bring on the pumpkin seedlings and so, despite the fact that it was pouring with rain every day, out the physalis had to go, transplanted to a sheltered, south-facing bed on the allotment (left).                                                                                                                    They grew on vigorously despite the inclement conditions, and yes, by July they did need staking. They also came into flower, the flowers closely resembling those of tomatillos. In fact the general growth habit of physalis and tomatillos are similar, although the physalis are sturdier. The tomatillo plants were almost flamingo-like with their long spindly stems supporting multiple branches. The downy heart-shaped leaves of the physalis are a darker green and wider than those of the tomatillo. 

Physalis flowers: much of the foliage shown here is actually of the neighbouring
comfrey plant. You can also see several immature green fruits developing.
The fruit starts developing inside the green cases in July/August. If you gently squish the green teardrop-shaped lanterns between your thumb and forefinger you can feel the fruit, at first just the size of a pea, then growing bigger and bigger. Unlike the tomatillo, they don't split the casing, but when the husk turns brown from green, the fruit inside is ripe.

An unripe physalis fruit in the foreground, with one ripening behind it.
Trying out the first ripe fruits, the taste was a revelation. Having never eaten a physalis that hadn't spent most of its days in a supermarket before, I was unprepared for any complexity or depth of flavour. But that ill-defined fruity-and-a-bit-tart is so much rounder and syrupy - and yet still with a threat of tartness. Now I can see why you might want to make jams or jellies (and definitely a pavlova) from them. If all physalis tasted like this, we'd do so, so much more with them.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Plums and pickles

With autumn bringing a bracing chill to the air even on sunny days, and even colder nights, it's time to accept that the summer crops are over. Whatever fruit they have produced, they won't be producing much more.

With that in mind, it's time to finish up the remains of some vegetables, and to deal with the gluts in other areas. This year, I've been making lots of simple pickles, experimenting with different flavoured vinegars and aromatics to give the preserved veg a bit of extra zing. Earlier this year I discovered using apple vinegar, thanks to Mia Christiansen and Anna Colquhoun, at their Nordic Cooking Class, and I've used this successfully as the base for pickled quinces and pears, and also pickled beetroot. Last year, I pickled beetroot in horseradish vinegar and while it was delicious, it was also hot enough to blast us from one end of the room to another. Apple vinegar - or cider vinegar, they're the same thing - has made a much softer, more rounded flavour to the pickle.

The beetroot are small, no more than the size of a ping ping ball, because the beets that go in the autumn pickle are the leftovers from the summer crop, the ones that for whatever reason, never really swelled and made it - too many of them the yellow Touchstone Gold variety this year as well. They're small enough to be pickled whole.

Pickled beetroot
Beetroot - about 10-12 small beets
Apple (or cider) vinegar
½ teasp Szechuan peppercorns
½ teasp coriander seeds
2 chillies
2 garlic chive flowerheads (optional)

Clean the beets and place in a large pan. Cover with cold water, bring to the boil and simmer until just cooked. Much depends on size, but ping pong ball sized beets should be ready after 20 minutes.

Drain and let the beets cool. Meanwhile sterilise a jar into which the beets will fit snugly.

When the beetroot is cool, slip off the skins and trim the root and stem. Pack the jar with the beetroot and aromatics.

In another jar, add 10g salt to every 400ml apple vinegar. Put the lid on and shake the jar vigorously to dissolve the salt. When ready, pour the vinegar/salt solution over the beets so that they are covered. Seal and store in the fridge.

Aside from the question of whether to cook the vegetables or not, the pickling method stays mch the same whatever you are pickling: bring vinegar, salt, and also sometimes sugar, plus herbs and spices to the boil. My husband can't tolerate the smell of boiling vinegar in the house, so I, a) wait until he's out for the day before doing any pickling, and b) heat the vinegar, salt and sugar up in the microwave, as it seems to contain the smell a bit better than on the open hob.

Pack a sterilised jar full of your chosen vegetables, then pour the hot vinegar solution over them. Seal the jar, let it cool down then store in a cool place.

I took much the same route with elephant garlic. These crop produced 4-5 mature bulbs, each with 7-8 mighty cloves; I think  the rest of the plants must have got waterlogged this year. After roasting one whole bulb to mash and serve alongside a Sunday roast, I was left with just enough elephant garlic to pack a 500ml Kilner jar.

Pickled elephant garlic
20 garlic cloves
500ml rice vinegar
1 chilli
2 kaffir lime leaves (optional – you could use bay leaves, or star anise, or nothing at all)
1 tbsp salt
2 tbsp caster sugar
250 ml water

Have a sterilised jar ready. Peel the garlic cloves, leaving them whole.

Place the vinegar, water, salt, sugar and any aromatics in a large pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for five minutes then add the cloves. Bring back to the boil and simmer on for another five minutes. You can do this in the microwave if yours has a good simmer function.

Pour everything into the sterilised jar and seal.
If the elephant garlic has been disappointing this year, like so many other crops, it's also worth noting the successes. I have a very old plum tree - I say very old, but I've no idea exactly how old it is, as I inherited it from the previous allotment holder. Its branches are covered in lichen, and there is no sign of a graft at the base of the trunk so I assume it is self-seeded, or planted before grafting became the norm? 
Thanks to this blog, The Garden Diaries, I think I have identified the variety as a Warwickshire Drooper. Certainly the tree has a somewhat weeping habit, and the plums themselves are yellow, blushed pink where they are exposed to the sun, and also sometimes with a slightly mottled look to them - they are not smooth and supermodel glossy.

The tree is mainly notable for its prolific consistency. Since I started work on this particular allotment nine years ago it has produced an astonishingly large number of plums every single year - and this year it has surpassed itself. Every single branch is laden with fruit. I simply cannot cope with all these plums, and in addition to sheer numbers, this year the fruit has been entirely free of plum sawfly larvae. Most years, despite the greaseband around the trunk and despite the fly trap hung among the branches, a few get through and worm their way into the fruit. This year, none at all.

So, we eat plums straight from the tree. I've made plum crumble and an approximation of Chinese plum sauce. And every year I make up a big jar or two of pickled plums and we eat our way through them over the course of the following year. Tart and fruity and fragrant all at the same time, they go brilliantly with pork, with duck and game, with cheese, and perhaps a bit more surprisingly, they are fantastic with Thai fishcakes.

Pickled plums
40 plums - choose firm-fleshed ones rather than overripe specimens or windfalls
500ml white wine vinegar
600ml water
600g caster sugar
2cm root ginger, sliced (no need to peel)
4 star anise
4 cloves
4 hot red chillies
1 teasp salt

Put the vinegar, salt, sugar and aromatics into a pan and bring to the boil, making sure all the sugar has dissolved.

While the vinegar is heating, wash the plums, halve them and remove the stones. Pack the plums into 2 x 1 litre Kilner jars, which have been sterilised (40 halves per jar).

Once the vinegar mixture reaches boiling point, take it off the heat and pour over the plums, making sure that each jar gets an equal number of star anises, chillies, cloves, etc. (You could scoop out the aromatics before they boil and add them to the jars when they are about halfway full of plums.) Seal the jars and let them cool down at room temperature before transferring to the fridge.

These pickled plums last about 3-4 months (less if they were pretty ripe when picked) before going a bit slushy and syrupy.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

The great nasturtium caper

No matter how pressed for space I am, I'll always find room to plant a few nasturtiums. I think of them as a superplant, both ornamental and useful in a variety of ways. They will grow happily without much in the way of attention - they don't need fussing over. The flowers are prolific and beautiful, cheering up odd corners, patio pots, and the backs of the borders with vibrant orange, yellow, pink or red flowers throughout summer and into autumn. Their scrambling, tumbling habit means that they make good ground cover and keep the weeds down, and they'll also climb over posts, low walls and up trellises, softening the view of harsh backdrops. (Admittedly, they attract blackfly like a magnet, but we can't have everything.)

They are ridiculously easy to grow. Each year, around April (or May, at a stretch) I push a few seeds into the soil where I want them to grow and water them in. After that, I treat them with benign neglect and they seem to like it.

Nasturtiums are great in the kitchen too. Shredded, the leaves make a succulent, pungent addition to a salad. Or you can mash up some herby cheese and roll it up in a nasturtium leaf like a cigarette. The flowers are also edible, lending a delicate peppery taste and soft texture to a salad, or scattered around a whole fish in a centrepiece, or just as a beautiful garnish to a vegetable platter.

When the flowers finally fade, around now, they leave behind little green seedpods. Brush your fingers through a tangle of nasturtium plants and you'll see them drop to the ground, the size of peas and a pale jade green.

The seed pods look like little pale peas
These seedpods too are edible, if pickled in vinegar, and have long been called 'poor man's capers'. They mellow with keeping, with a nutty taste and firm not-quite-crunchy texture. Good enough for everyone, I'd say.

Nasturtium capers
Nasturtium seed pods, still green, to fill a measuring jug to the 200ml mark.
200ml white wine vinegar
A pinch fennel seeds
A pinch peppercorns
2 bay leaves
(The vinegar and salt gives you a basic pickling liquor; the exact nature and amount of aromatics can be played around with.)

Wash and pick over the seed pods, removing any dirt, chaff, blackfly, whatever. Give them a good final rinse and dry on kitchen paper.

Sterilise a jar that will fit the nasturtiums snugly – a complete dishwasher cycle should do the trick, or wash in very hot soapy water, then dry by placing the jar upside down on a rack in an oven heated to 120 degrees.
Rinsing the seedpods prior to packing in a sterilised jar.
Put the bay leaves in the bottom of the jar and fill up with the seed pods. Bring the vinegar, fennel seeds, peppercorns and salt to the boil. I do this in a jug in the microwave – the vinegar smell is less pervasive. Then pour the liquid and aromatics over the seed pods in the jar. Seal and let the jar cool before storing in the fridge. They’ll keep for a good six months if kept chilled.

Friday 31 August 2012

Tangled up in blue

Not all the plants have suffered in the cool, wet and windy conditions that prevailed here in the south of England for much of the spring and early summer. The blueberry plants, snug in their sunken pots of ericaceous compost, loved the daily soakings and produced a massive glut of fat indigo berries.

Blueberries need an acid soil (lower than pH5.5) and London clay on its own isn't nearly acid enough. So each plant occupies its own 35cm pot, and each pot is sunk into the soil so that the tops are at ground level. Sinking the pots reduces water loss, which is helpful since blueberries also like plenty of water. A yearly topping up of ericaceous (acidic) compost keeps them fed, and I also spread the shredded needles Christmas tree around the foot of the plants as a mulch in January.

This year, seven blueberry plants have produced around 6kg of fruit so far. I'm still picking enough each day to sprinkle over breakfast cereal.

But what to do with the rest of them? Blueberry muffins was an obvious choice since the homemade variety is invariably so superior to anything shop-bought. I used Nigella's recipe from How To Be A Domestic Goddess, also reproduced here: http://www.mumsnet.com/Recipes/i/1203-Blueberry-muffins.

But blueberry muffins will only make a small dent in the glut. In the past, I've made a blueberry tart with a blueberry-flavoured custard topped with the fruit, but the custard always cooks to a brown colour instead of mauve or deep purple - it's the blue of the blueberries mixed with the orange egg yolk. It's a real 1970s wallpaper brown and doesn't look very appetising. So this time, I went for a more conventional vanilla custard underneath the blueberries.

I wanted this to look like something you might buy in a French patisserie, and knowing my limitations, used a bought ready-made sweet pastry case.

Blueberry tart
185ml double cream
4 egg yolks
3 tbsp sugar
1.5 tsp vanilla extract

Pastry case
1-2 tbsp blueberry jam (see below), optional
Icing sugar

Heat the oven to 190 degrees. Take the pastry case out of its wrapping and place on a baking tray. Beat the egg yolks, cream and sugar together until smooth. Add the vanilla extract to taste and whisk well in.

Pour the custard into the pastry case and bake in the oven until set - about 25 minutes. Leave to coll, then spread a thin layer of blueberry jam (see below) evenly over the custard. Stud the top of the tart with raw blueberries - the jam helps to stick them to the top of the tart but isn't essential. Dust with icing sugar to finish off.

Blueberry jam
For the first batch of jam, I followed the recipe from the National Trust's Jams, Preserves and Edible Gifts. This calls for 850g sugar to 900g blueberries and was far too sweet for my taste.

For the next batch, I reduced the sugar and used 350g ordinary granulated sugar and 250g jam sugar. I also had 300g blackcurrants left over from harvesting the blackcurrant bushes and added these too for extra bite.

I left the blueberries to steep in the ordinary sugar, lemon juice (one lemon's worth) and a pinch of salt overnight. The following day I added the jam sugar, and boiled it up - it reached setting point in about 10-15 minutes.

Blueberries in kirsch
An incredibly simple recipe from Preserve, published by Hamlyn. For every 175g blueberries, use 50g caster sugar and 100ml of kirsch. Layer the blueberries and sugar in a sterilised jar, add the kirsch and seal.
Shake the jar every day until the sugar is dissolved then leave in the dark, unopened, until you want to use the blueberries.

Monday 9 July 2012

Cutting remarks

I nearly forgot to take cuttings this year. With all the unseasonably cold and wet weather, it's been hard work just keeping the weeds down and taller plants staked against the wind. Late spring to early summer is the best time for taking softwood cuttings: creating new plants from the green stems and tips of this year's growth. Rosemary, lavender, lemon verbena, fuchsia and hydrangea are all easy to propagate this way. This year I've concentrated on rosemary and lavender as I want to restock the herbal bed at the allotment next spring.

1. Choose your cuttings. Snip non-flowering growing tips from the plant. Cut cleanly using a sharp knife or very sharp small scissors just above a leaf node. You don’t want to be leaving a long bare stalk on the plant which will be prone to rotting or admitting disease.

2. If you can’t use them straightaway, put your cuttings in a polythene bag and seal (zip-lock is ideal).

3. Use modules, tall and skinny better than flat and wide.

4. Fill the modules with cuttings compost, not too finely textured. Firm the tops lightly, and water thoroughly. Leave to drain.
5. Prepare your cuttings. Trim the stem just below the bottom leaf nodes. Remove the bottom leaves so that you have 3-4 leaves left at the top. Don’t peel or tear the leaves away: again, cut as cleanly as possible.
6. Take a dibber – my ‘dibber’ is a pencil, which is about the right width – and dip the pencil into the compost in each module to a depth of about 2cm.

7. Drop each cutting into the hole left by the dibber. Don’t bury the leaves - they should remain clear of the compost.

8. Use your fingers to firm the compost around the cutting.

9. Label your cuttings.

10. Place the potted cuttings in a seed tray or propagator. Cover with a clear plastic lid. Or a polythene bag secured over the cuttings will do, so long as the polythene doesn’t actually touch any part of the plants.

11. Move the tray or propagator to a spot out of direct sunlight for 2-3 days to give the cuttings a chance to recover, then move to a warm light, sheltered spot indoors.

12. Resist the temptation to check and pull at your cuttings. Take a look every so often and if there is any sign of wilting give the propagator some ventilation (punch a small hole in the polythene bag).

13. After 3-4 weeks, have a look at the bottom of the modules. If there is any sign of roots poking through, you can remove the lid altogether.

14. Leave the rooted plants to form a string root ball before potting up into small pots (about 8 weeks).

Thursday 5 July 2012

A wet day at Hampton Court Flower Show drove us straight into the Growing For Taste marquee where we met up with old favourites like Seeds Of Italy - I'll be trying some of its giant-leaved Neapolitan basil, Pennards, The Garlic Farm and Dobies, and found new exhibitors in Otter Farm's Edible Forest Garden and Plants4Presents' exotic herbs and spices.

Spice plants were popular in the Growing For Taste pavilion. Plants4Presents had an especially good range of
turmeric, ginger, cardamom and curry plants.
From top, left to right: chocolate mint plants, the herb display and Perilla frutescans at Jekka's Herb Farm stand. Bottom rotw, hostas and agapanthus in the Floral Marquee.

Sunday 1 July 2012

Waking up in the sun

After what seems like weeks of wind and cold and rain, it only takes a couple of sunny days and suddenly it looks as though we might get some produce this year.

These are tree onions, or Egyptian walking onions, which is a much more exotic name by far.
These edible bulblets are produced at the top of the stems.
Walla Walla sweet onions, grown from seed, beginning to swell at last.

These Quattro Stagione lettuces have been looking like limp flattened seedlings, but are now finally beginning to heart up.

Little Gems are also putting on new growth fast.

Last week they were immature white buds; this week, we have raspberries!
Hosts of strawberries hang down over the side of the raised bed.

Purple-podded mange tout peas need another couple of weeks before they're ready to eat, I think.

Friday 29 June 2012

Can you beat the blight?

The tomato plants look gorgeous at this time of year. Green, sturdy, in flower with the first truss just setting. It's always hard to imagine in June that in a few short weeks these lovely healthy plants could be a mass of sooty rotting foliage, as the blight hits.

This year, with the cool, rainy, windy weather battering our gardens, there have been reports of blight already. The RHS reported some early confirmed cases of early tomato blight on its Facebook page on June 14th, and then last week it came closer to home, with two gardening friends of mine in London reporting blight on their tomato plants.

That might seem just unlucky, except that in this particular case I discovered that the affected plants had been bought from the same nursery. And that in one case, these blighted tomatoes had been planted out next to tomato plants raised from seed and that the home-reared plants were still healthy.

I can think of no better argument for knowing the provenance of your plants and, wherever possible, starting from seed. You can control the growing medium, the environment, the feeding, the watering ...
Tomato blight: blackened stems, sooty-looking leaves, brown
patches on the fruit.
In the case of tomatoes, the arrival of blight in the UK is a case of 'when', not 'if' and even with the best of care, I reckon outdoor grown tomatoes in Britain will get blight sooner or later. But the middle of June is a bit too early to have to consign one's tomato plants to the incinerator.

Since I started growing tomatoes outdoors 15 years ago, there has been roughly one year in five where the plants have either escaped blight or it has arrived late enough to enable us to harvest a proper crop beforehand. 2002 was a blight-free year, as was 2006. (It's not that I keep meticulous records, but I remember these years particularly: 2002 was the first year I had my allotment and the tomatoes were about the only crop I had time to plant out and grow successfully; in 2006 we were staying with friends and bringing home bowlfuls of tomatoes every day. "I never knew growing tomatoes was so easy," they would say. "It isn't, usually," I would mutter back.)

Tomato blight has always seemed to be unavoidable. And once you've got it, you've got it. However, this year and especially when I was researching tomatoes for the Secret Garden Club workshop on Mediterranean vegetables back in April, I've thought a lot more about how one might increase the chances of avoiding blight in the first place.

Red Alert: can ripen in June
1. Grow early varieties, like Red Alert. They should start fruiting before the end of June, even grown outside (disclaimer: not this year, we have a few immature fruits the size of olives so far); normally you wouldn't expect blight until July so you would hope for a month's worth of cropping.

2. Grow as far away as possible from other tomatoes. If you have any sort of choice.

3. Grow in fresh soil. This is where I suspect the problems lie with the garden centre that my neighbours shopped at - as described above. Growing in fresh compost is essential, and I think, unwillingly, growing in pots or growbags rather than the open ground is desirable. And if you use pots, these should be thoroughly cleaned and rinsed before filling for the tomatoes. Greenhouse tomatoes tend to fare better than those grown outdoors, although I'm reluctant to give up outdoor tomatoes altogether. (I don't have the indoor space, for one thing.)

Sungold tomatoes beginning to ripen
4. Don't be so keen to pinch out those side shoots. If you grow cordon-style tomatoes, such as Sungold, Ailsa Craig, Tigerella, the advice is always to pinch out the shoots that grow between the main stem and the leaf stems. Leave them in, they say, and the plant will become wildly bushy and grow a mass of leaf at the expense of fruit. Over the years though I've come to think that maybe the over-enthusiastic pruning of side shoots is unhelpful. Every cut creates a wound; every wound is an opening into which blight can penetrate. My most blight-resistant tomato ever was Broad Ripple Yellow Currant, a bush variety which tumbled about all over the place, but which never succumbed to blight. Last year I semi-forgot about trimming a Marmande (semi-indeterminate, or not-quite-cordon) in the greenhouse and while everything around it eventually turned black and crumbled, the Marmande soldiered on. I'm sure it would have produced more fruit if I had pinched, and pruned, but we were still picking tomatoes off the plant in early December. (Although a Marmande that ripens in November tastes nothing like a Marmande that ripens in August.) I can't find any references that suggest bush or untrimmed varieties are more blight-resistant; this is anecdotal evidence only.

5. Try grafted tomatoes, or even better, graft your own. This is my secret weapon in the battle against tomato blight. The idea is that you take the top of one tomato variety and graft it to the root and stem of another - with tomatoes you would choose a 'top', or scion to give it its proper name, which would give you lots of delicious fruit, and a root and stem, or 'rootstock', which is known to be disease resistant. The rootstock confers this resistance to the scion, which continues to produce its delicious fruit as before. In other words, you get the best of both worlds.

Fruit growers have been grafting for decades, although more usually in their case, the rootstock is chosen to control the size of the mature tree. This is how you are able to grow apple or pear trees, say, which never grow taller than 8-9ft and yet are laden with fruit. The apple or pear tree 'top' has been grafted on to the rootstock of a much smaller tree (often in the case of apples and pears, a quince rootstock, as it happens).

Tomato grafting is fiddly rather than difficult. We showed Secret Garden Club attendees back in April how to graft tomatoes - detailed photos and instructions are here - and the initial results are looking good. I'm already planning to graft more tomatoes next year to give them more of a chance to beat the blight.

Any more blight-beating tips would be most welcome - I suspect a combination of tactics is the strategy that will work best.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Kailans - gorgeous greens worth tracking down

I harvested the first of the kailans, this week. Slightly later than usual but then everything is shaping up to be 'slightly later' this year. This has been a must-grow crop for me ever since I discovered how unobtainable they are in the UK after feasting on them during a trip to Singapore in the 1990s.

Kailans are a type of brassica with thick juicy stems, deep green leaves and a small head of florets. Joy Larkcom calls it Chinese broccoli in her essential text Grow Your Own Vegetables and certainly in looks they are closest to the type of broccoli sold as 'tenderstem' by Waitrose and others. Not the same, though. Kailan stems have a distinctly nutty mustardy flavour. It makes other types of broccoli seem bland in comparison.

It's not totally unobtainable in the UK. There's usually a crate of kailans set outside the Loon Fung supermarket in London's Chinatown and the New Loon Moon on the other side of the street. But that's the only reliable source of supply I've found other than growing my own - if you know of a UK supplier, do please share the secret.

Despite being mainly thought of as an oriental vegetable, they grow much like any other brassica here in the UK. I sow the seeds indoors in modules in March, then slowly harden them off as they grow, moving them out of the propagator as they germinate on to a sunny windowsill, then into the patio greenhouse and finally, around four weeks after the shoots appeared, outside.

Once they are about three inches tall and with proper leaves, I transplant the seedlings into a raised bed with lots of good compost. The first stems are ready to cut after about six weeks. If you leave a good bit of stem and leaf on the plant when you cut, the stem will regrow, making kailans a reliable cut-and-come-again crop. Harvested regularly, each plant will keep going until the first frosts.
Kailans growing in a raised bed
Once the stems are in the kitchen, I tend to cook them very simply.The big tough foliage needs to be trimmed off, leaving a good plump stem plus the younger, smaller leaves. A quick wash and a shake to dislodge any clinging insects and then they can be either steamed or boiled briefly - I like to leave a bit of crunch in the stalks. 

The Chinese often drizzle oyster sauce over kailans; in Singapore I ate them dressed with garlic in oil. Either of these are good, as is a quick slug of soy sauce and sesame oil. Yesterday I smeared the stems with an anchovy butter which I'd originally made for the last of the asparagus: the savoury bite from the anchovies went well with the nutty taste of the kailans.

Fat stems: cut above the first four leaves
shown here to ensure the plant will regrow
to provide you with another harvest.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

The trouble with radishes

Why does growing radishes give me so much trouble? Children grow radishes, for heaven's sake. They're the sort of crop you just drop in the ground to pop up quickly while everything else takes its time. Radishes are known as an catch crop or a marker crop, the latter especially with parsnips which can be slow and erratic. The faster-growing row of radishes 'marks' the row of parsnips, helps to keep it weed-free and - in theory - provides a quick harvest while the parsnips are still pondering germination.

And yet they give me endless trouble. They don't like my clay soil for a start and would prefer something more sandy and freer-draining. Their leaves are pockmarked by flea beetle: by the time I harvest the effect is like delicate lacework. The slightest check in growth and off they bolt, leaving a thick stem with a woody  stub of a radish at the end of it. Last month's spell of fine dry weather following the record-breaking wet April is a good case in point and I'm writing this after coming in from lifting a good three quarters of the first radish sowing - all bolted.

Radish leaves reduced to holes, complete with flea beetle - in the centre of the picture.

I usually make three radish sowings: in March in a sheltered raised bed. I get to March and I long to be able to put something in the ground and radishes seem to fit the bill. The second sowing in April are the parsnip marker rows. Hearteningly, this year's April sowing is shaping up quite well, especially welcome after losing so many of the first lot. The third set, in May, is always totally hit and miss. Mostly miss.

And yet I will persevere with radishes. Partly because, yes, they are quick to mature. If they're going to fail, they fail quickly and I don't feel I have invested too much time and space and hope on them. And partly because the ones that do slip through the net are well worth it. Home-grown radishes have a much stronger, more well-rounded flavour making shop-bought ones bland in comparison. They're so attractive on the plate - I always get a delicious sense of anticipation from a dish of ruby and crimson radishes. I've tried white varieties such as Ping Pong and the Polish yellow radish Zlata without much success: alongside the standard French Breakfast, I would rate Scarlet Globe and Amethyst the highest, although Amethyst is a bit of a bolter. All these three have a strong clean flavour, plenty of crunch and that all-important peppery kick to the taste.

The leaves may be beetle-bitten, but these radishes are still good to eat, if a bit misshapen.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Pumpkins - up or down?

Squash and pumpkins will expand to fill the available space, I find. If you put them in the garden they will run riot all over the garden. If you put them in the allotment then by September you'll find pumpkin stems and leaves trailing across all your beds.
My preferred solution has always been to train them upwards: to give them a climbing frame such as 10cm plastic mesh secured with bamboo canes. With a little initial encouragement and tying in, the plants soon get the idea and ramble upwards instead of out towards the neighbouring plot. I have indeed seen someone use an actual climbing frame, presumably one the kids had grown out of, for this purpose very successfully, but plastic mesh and bamboo will stand up to the task remarkably well.
Trained upwards, the fruit will hang down from sturdy stems. Off the ground, they stay clean and safe from slug damage.
This year, however, I need the squash to trail along the ground. I'm growing them as the Native Americans traditionally did, alongside climbing beans and sweetcorn in a companion planting partnership known as the Three Sisters. The sweetcorn provides a sturdy stem for the beans to scramble up; the broad-leaved squash will provide ground cover, suppressing weed growth and reducing water loss by evaporation.
Sowing squash seeds, each one sown 2cm deep in well-watered compost. These survived the cat inspection.
Once all the fruit have been harvested from each of the plants, the green matter can be dug back into the soil for the next year's crop. As well as nutrients from the gradually decomposing greenery, the beans will also fix nitrogen from their roots to feed the soil for the following months. 
Left on the ground, the plants will spread outwards and act as a weed suppressant.
Slipping a bathroom tile under the developing fruit will keep them some protection from the bare earth. 
The Three Sisters and other companion planting schemes is the subject of our next Secret Garden Club workshop on Sunday May 27. We'll be explaining how to adapt the traditional Three Sisters planting to the cooler, more unpredictable British climate, and how to grow specific plants together to deter pests. MsMarmiteLover is devising a Cherokee-inspired feast to follow the planting session. Click here for details and how to book tickets.