Friday 27 April 2012

Keeping pests at bay

Garlic (Solent Wight) on the left, Egyptian walking onions behind, hopefully protecting the Chinese broccoli (kailans) and kohl rabi seedlings. The copper-lined collars prevent slugs and snails from reaching the brassica seedlings.
I planted out these heavily guarded brassica seedlings yesterday. Bitter experience has taught me that they need this level of protection. The copper-lined collars are made from sections of 500ml plastic water bottles trimmed with copper tape around the top and will deter slugs and snails. The metal reacts with the mollusc's mucus when it tries to cross the copper strip and gives it a shock-like sensation.

I've found these home-made copper rings perfectly effective and use them with brassica seedlings, cucurbit seedlings, lettuces, of course, and also globe artichokes when they are first planted out. I can still remember the heartbreak of coming home after an Easter weekend away and finding my globe artichokes, planted out on Maundy Thursday, had vanished. The only clues to their disappearance were a number of long, ribbon-like, shiny trails.

The only drawback really, apart from the need to have as many collars as you have seedlings in the ground at any one time, is that the slug/snail population isn't controlled. In a particularly sluggy year, they will go off to try to find something else to eat that's unprotected. One year I found slugs attacking the beetroot, which is not normally vulnerable. This year, with a wet April with showers interspersed with sunshine, we are on Code Red as far as slugs and snails are concerned.

The second level of protection here is the perimeter planting of various alliums. I have deliberately positioned garlic (pictured here is Solent Wight, with elephant garlic out of shot) and onions around the outside of the raised bed to deter cabbage whitefly. Alliums are often planted with carrots to deter carrot fly, as it is said that the onion smell confuses the carrot fly (and also that the reverse holds true, the carrot smell deters the onion fly who is after an allium snack). 

Here I am hoping that the same principle holds true against whitefly. If this mini-trial proves successful, and the kohl rabi and kailans in the raised bed remain relatively whitefly-free, I will extend it to the main brassica bed, where the cauliflower, broccoli and cavolo nero will be planted later in the summer. Last year, the cavolo nero in particular was horribly infested with whitefly to the point of not being able to harvest it.

Copper tape is available from larger garden centres and from a number of online gardening suppliers. It's well worth searching and shopping around as prices can vary widely. Copper rings are also available but tend to be much more expensive while performing exactly the same function as the homemade rings here. For a copper ring with a larger diameter cut sections from a 2l water bottle.
Clockwise from top left: cut an empty water bottle into sections; take the mid-section and line with copper tape, tucking the ends over the rim to make a neat edge.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Spuds you like

For the last few years, I've been very conservative about growing potatoes. Having found an early new potato, Lady Christl (left), which for me matches a superb nutty flavour with beautiful unblemished creamy skin, I've stuck with that for harvesting from June to September, and have grown Pink Fir Apple as a maincrop for harvesting from September onwards. I've occasionally tried out some other earlies, such as Charlotte (nice but too similar to Lady Christl), and International Kidney, which I disliked at the time because the potatoes fell apart in the pan when I tried to boil them. I'm now not so sure that this is the fault of the potato and is more likely to be down to the growing conditions (too dry), so perhaps I should give the International Kidneys another go.

Having tried out a number of heritage potatoes in preparation for our Secret Garden Club Potato Masterclass, I've cleared some extra space on the plot in order to experimenting with growing some new varieties.

Recommended by a number of people as a great baking and chipping potato, it's also apparently fairly drought-resistant. I find I rarely have to water potatoes specifically, but if we do have a dry summer under the hosepipe ban, hopefully the Caras will come through unaffected.

Shetland Black
With skins of a deep midnight blue, the flesh is creamy-yellow with a dark blue vascular ring. Like Cara, above, these are best baked or chipped, or roasted.

Pink fir apple potatoes
Pink Fir Apple I'm sticking with Pink Fir Apple for this year at least, as it usually rewards me with a high yielding, long lasting crop. I can dig up beautiful Pink Fir Apples throughout the winter. It's great boiled or steamed in salads, but they're also good sauteed and I love baking them whole as well.

Salad Blue
"Are they dyed?" our Garden Club attendees wanted to know. These potatoes are puzzling as no-one expects potatoes to be a dark indigo colour all the way through the flesh - and yet they still taste like potato. They make a distinctive mash and great chips. Roasted, the colour loses a lot of its impact as the potatoes brown in the fat.

Mayan Gold
Mayan Gold is a variety developed comparatively recently from the Phureja potatoes of Peru, so you can say that this is a close approximation of the first potatoes brought back from the New World. They are a distinctive buttery-yellow colour, a shade I associate with potatoes served in the Mediterranean, as opposed to the creamy-white of many British varieties. The taste is very like a new potato, but the texture is more floury: they're good for mash, roasting, and beautiful, pillowy chips.

 Examples of heritage potatoes, clockwise from top: Highland Burgundy, Salad Blue, Mayan Gold, Golden Wonder and Pink Fir Apple
 I've managed to retain space for my beloved Lady Christls, but one heritage potato which I would have liked to have included for its looks failed the taste test: Highland Burgundy is a hugely attractive spud, with dark red skin and bright crimson flesh all the way through. Unfortunately, I found it bland in flavour and with an almost fudgy texture. It looks great mixed with 'normal' potato in a mash, but the flavour didn't stand out on its own.

Salad blue, Highland Burgundy, Mayan Gold potatoes supplied by Carroll's Heritage Potatoes - seed and eating potatoes both available. Lady Christls supplied by Marshalls Seeds. Pink Fir Apples supplied by Victoriana Nursery. Cara, Shetland Black potatoes supplied by Thompson & Morgan.

Monday 9 April 2012

Veg in a box

I've resubscribed to an organic veg box scheme to keep us going until the allotment produce kicks in again in June or thereabouts (assuming the sugar snaps, asparagus and lettuce don't all shrivel up in the drought, that is). We've managed without for the last couple of years, but the hungry gap seems to be particularly ravenous this year. And Abel & Cole were offering a free bottle of wine and cookbook for returning customers. I am that easily bought.

There's always a sense of anticipation opening up the box: this week it included a big flossy lettuce, a mango, aubergine, red pepper and purple sprouting broccoli. The basics - onions, carrots, potatoes, apples - I'd taken for granted.

I earmarked three of the carrots for an Easter weekend carrot cake (at least a day late, I know), for which I follow Nigel Slater's recipe to the letter. I'm sure it's my carrot cake of choice mainly because the quantities of icing that the recipe makes are so absurdly lavish that there are plentiful bowl scrapings to be had.

With the cake safely in the oven, I surveyed the rest of the contents of the box and decided to put the basics to good use with some brunch-style potato and apple cakes, which go so brilliantly with bacon rashers, or for non-meat eaters, a poached egg on top.

Potato and apple cakes
3 medium to large 'old' potatoes, not waxy salad potatoes
1 shallot or onion
1 dessert apple
1 egg
Olive oil

Grate the potato, apple, and onion/shallot. Beat the egg quickly and stir in, a little at a time until the mixture glistens without being sloppy. Season well.

Heat around 20g of butter and 1 tbsp or so of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan over a medium heat. Place a cookie cutter (about 3 inches or 75mm in diameter) in the frying pan and spoon enough mixture into the cutter so that the potato cake is about 1cm thick. Leave for around 20 seconds, so that the cake starts to cook on the bottom, then lift the cutter carefully and place elsewhere in the pan to make the next cake. This amount of mixture will make 6-7 potato cakes.

Fry for 5 minutes, then flip each cake over and fry for another 5 minutes until cooked through. The top and bottom of each cake should be nicely browned. Dish up on to kitchen paper to drain off excess oil, then serve hot.