Friday 9 December 2016

Glorious late autumn colour at the Beth Chatto Gardens

It occurred to me only recently that much as I love the Beth Chatto Gardens, I've only ever visited them in summer. With the run of fine dry (and very cold) weather recently, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss to see the gardens in early winter splendour. A bit late for the full glory of autumn foliage, but the gardens were still full of colour in the pale winter light.  

The oak tree which stands near the entrance to the gravel garden was still in fine golden leaf on this frosty morning. The picture right, shows the same view in late May.
The eucalyptus trunk shines white above the greens and bronzes in the gravel garden. This garden thrives without irrigation and for much of the year is a harmonious mix of green, gold and silver foliage, and flowers in many colours though purple and golden yellow always stand out. The gravel garden amply demonstrates that a beautiful garden can be created from unpromising pieces of land: this was carved out of the original car park.

The grasses still look fabulous, above, creating a veil-like backdrop for seedheads in the reservoir garden, and below, Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light' glowing bronze in the, er, morning light.

Fine filaments like feathers on Cotinus coggygria on the edge of the gravel garden, and also below.

Flowers and fruits on Euonymus europaeus 'Red Cascade' (spindle tree), lighting up the woodland garden, above.
The Taxodium distichum (swamp cypress) and Liquidambar with its multi-coloured autumn foliage, blend here in this long shot to provide a dramatic backdrop in the water garden.
Surprisingly deep hues for this time of year in this view across the water, the colourful stems of Cornus showing up particularly strongly. The pools in the Beth Chatto gardens are man-made, dug out from a stream running from a natural spring down to the reservoir on the edge of the gardens. In spring and summer the ponds are fringed with the large leaves of swamp cabbage and Gunnera manicata, both of which have died back by the end of November.
The tender crowns of Gunnera manicata need protection from winter frosts, so the leaves are cut and folded over the centre of the plants. It's not pretty - the stems look as though they are wearing shabby raincoats - but it is effective.

The view into the water garden, now sadly without the birch tree which stood like a figurehead at the foot of the ponds. The tree, pictured below last year, was cut down as it had reached the end of its natural life.

The Beth Chatto gardens definitely reward repeat visits. I love the lack of straight lines, the borders marked out in graceful curves, paths winding gently through the planting. I love the diversity of the planting, the gradation from the spiky silver leaved shrubs in the dry garden through the mixed borders and tranquility of water and then into the woods with their colourful carpet of bulbs in spring. I love how plants are left to self-seed (within reason) so that the gardens develop organically over time. It's endlessly photogenic, a garden full of enchanting views, and yet its visual appeal seems effortless.

Monday 28 November 2016

Chicory tips

A colourful salad of chicory, radicchio and capers is my idea of heaven at the moment. Something crunchy, something bitter, something piquant - and all bound together with a mustardy dressing with a slick of honey. It's the sort of sharp, clean taste that lifts the spirits in a wet sludgy November.

Best to start by disentangling some terminology:

To me, the chicory on the left is a green, or white, or witloof chicory. The plant has been partially grown in darkness, ie, forced, in order to get the tight blanched head of leaves, or chicon. The middle picture is red chicory, the Italian Rossa di Treviso, and on the right, with the round head and variegated green and red leaves, deep crimson towards the heart of the plant, is radicchio. They are all chicories, types oCichorium intybus. None of them are endive, which to me is like a frilly lettuce with thin crunchy stems and is a Cichorium endivia. The beautiful rich red colour of the radicchio and the Rossa di Treviso deepens as the temperatures drop and autumn turns into winter, although the RHS also suggests that the change in day length may contribute to the colour development.

Chicory isn't a difficult vegetable to grow, although it does spend a lot of time in the ground. Radicchio and red chicory are probably the most straightforward: sow in April or May, either in situ or in modules. I do the latter simply because I don't usually have the space in the open ground in May. By July, when I plant them out, something else will have been harvested and there will be room for them. This year I circumvented the space problem by transferring the seedlings to large recycling boxes - trying to avoid the slugs and snails which had overrun all my veg beds earlier this year. They grew very well although I had to knock up a homebrew irrigation system using a 2ltr water bottle and a ceramic cone in order to stop them from drying out.

Chicory seedlings growing bright green                       Radicchio plants growing in a container
The elegant pale chicons that we tend to think of as chicory here in the UK are achieved by cutting off the leafy growth in winter and letting the plant regrow its budding leaves in total darkness - this is the process known as forcing. We tried this out a couple of years ago as a Secret Garden Club project and it was so successful, providing chicons on a regular basis between December and March, that I have forced my green chicory plants each year since.

Witloof chicory after forcing.

This witloof chicory can be sown from April, again, either in modules or straight into the open ground. It didn't suffer too badly from the slug/snail invasion, perhaps because the plants were right next to the courgettes which acted as an attractive decoy. The most pressing problem I find with witloof chicory is that the growing plants look mightily like dandelions and if I'm not careful I find myself weeding them by mistake.

Once winter is on the way, the world's healthiest looking dandelions can be lifted and cut for forcing, removing all the leaves and stems just above the root before replanting into compost in pots and covering with a bucket to exclude all light. The chicory roots need about three weeks in the dark to produce the new leaves,or chicons. One thing I've learned since writing the Secret Garden Club post is to make sure the plant is dry when you transplant into the pots and that the compost is barely moist. Otherwise you lift the forcing pot to find brown mushy leaves instead of plump white chicons.

Sunday 13 November 2016

Pink currants - beautiful coral-coloured berries

I found these plants looking rather sad and forgotten at the back of an end of season sale bay in a Crews Hill garden centre. Alongside leftover hebes and apple standards with crooked stems were three bare-stemmed plants with 'Pink Currants RosaSport' on the label, £3.00 each.

I wasn't sure how serendipitous a find this was. We have a blackcurrant glut every year and two new redcurrant bushes thanks to cuttings a fellow allotmenteer gave me. But I was planning a soft fruit area on the new allotment and so far only had the redcurrants and some rather feral raspberry canes to go in there. The picture on the label was pretty, showing plants abundant with coral-coloured sprays of fruit, and clearly no-one else was going to buy them.

Pink currants are a redcurrant variant, ripening to a flushed salmon-pink in early July. They can be grown just as black- or redcurrants: best in free-draining soils and in a position where they can get a little afternoon shade. Having said that, my blackcurrants are established in the wettest part of my allotment and they don't seem to mind. I built some free-standing brick raised beds for the pink currants to help with the drainage. I also made sure to weed the raised beds properly: the blackcurrants do get a bit overrun each year by bindweed, however diligently I try to dig it out around the roots.

The pink currants came in containers so I removed them, watered well and teased out the roots, before planting them in a hole slightly bigger than the pot. I back-filled with compost, adding another layer as mulch once the plants were in situ and firmed the top. Having watered them in well, I left them alone to settle in.

They fruited just four months later (they must have been in those pots for a while ...). Not a huge crop, but enough to promise much more in succeeding year. The fruit look like little pink pearls, with a fresh, almost floral flavour. Certainly not as strong as blackcurrants or as sweet/sharp as redcurrants. Currants are easy and rewarding to turn into jelly, but until I get an overwhelming glut of these I'll be content to stick with eating them fresh from the plant. Those that did make it home were scattered over fruit salads, used to top breakfast cereal and porridge, and, most successfully, folded into an Eton Mess with a few raspberries, happily also ripe at the same time - see below.

Pink currant mess with raspberries.

Sunday 6 November 2016

Save the seed - tomatillos

You can never predict with any certainty which crops will do well at the beginning of the season. This year, the Swiss chard, usually one of my bankers, all ran to seed in May and I was barely able to pick a single leaf. I planted the borlotti beans far too late and despite the fine summer and mild autumn, they never caught up. And the tomatillo seeds inexplicably refused to germinate - I got a grand total of three plants from 20 or so seeds sown.

I always feel faintly amazed when the tomatillo plants grow strong and productive most years - they always seem very exotic in my north London allotment. They are closely related to physalis, or Cape gooseberry, and grow similarly, the fruit maturing within a papery husk (see picture, above). The fruit itself looks like a green tomato, another relative, though the tomato is more of a cousin than a sibling. Tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica or Physalis ixocarpahave a fresh zingy taste, not unlike either a physalis or tomato without the sweetness, and are commonly used in Mexican and South American cooking, in salsas, and cooked sauces

Thinking about how to ensure better germination rates, I considered saving seed from this year's tomatillos to provide seed for next season. Horticultural lore says that over generations, self-seeded plants will become more and more adapted to the specific conditions in your soil - your terroir, if you like. This is one reason why saving your own seed is so effective (it's also economic and sustainable, but let's just stick with the adaptive advantages for now).

The idea of saving seed from my plants has always been irresistible but there are practicalities to take into account. You should also only save the seed of open pollinated plants. These are plants which either self-pollinate, or which are pollinated by a plant of the same variety. The resulting seeds will then 'come true', ie, produce fruits like those of the parent plants.

Don't try saving seed with hybrid (F1) plant varieties - they won't come true to type. And if you grow more than one variety of a plant - or indeed, if your neighbour does - you may get undesirable cross-fertilisation: the seeds you gather and sow won't then come true to type. Squash and pumpkins are particularly known for this. Even with self-fertilising plants like chillies, it's recommended to isolate the different varieties because they will also cross-pollinate, for example by bees en passant.

If tomatillo seeds can be tricky to germinate, then seeds which you have saved yourself could well be more likely to sprout the next year, the parent plants having thrived in the comparatively cool, damp UK conditions. The plants that grow from the saved seed will then be even more predisposed to do well in my allotment, having been derived from two generations of plants which managed to deal with London clay and the omnipresent bindweed. And so on, through the generations, until the plants are completely at home, strong and reliable and productive. That's the theory, anyway.

I reckoned saving tomatillo seed should be similar to that of its cousin, the tomato. It turns out that it's quite a bit simpler. With tomato seeds, you have to let them ferment a bit, with tomatillos it's a comparatively fuss-free process.

Top left: 1) whizz up your tomatillo fruits in a blender to separate
 the seeds from the flesh; 2) Add water to the tomatillo pulp - the 
seeds will sink to the bottom of the jug; 
Bottom left: 3) Sieve the contents of the jug; 4) spread the seeds out on a plate to dry.
First, choose the fruits you wish to select seed from. These should be fully ripe, large, prime specimens. Remove the outer husk so that you are left with what looks like a green tomato. You need to separate the seeds from the flesh and the best way to do this is to give them a quick whizz in a blender (top left, above). This seems quite counter-intuitive, but it is effective and won't grind up the seeds themselves. If you have a pulse function on the machine, use this to ensure that the fruits get only a brief blitz.

Next, scrape the tomatillo pulp into a jug and cover with cold water (top right). Give the mixture a quick stir. The seeds will sink to the bottom leaving the pureed flesh at the top. You can skim this off and rinse the seeds through a sieve until all the flesh has been removed and you are left with the seeds in clear water.

Drain the contents of the jug through a fine sieve (bottom left) so that you are now left with just the seeds. These should be left at room temperature to dry out: spread them on a plain plate or similar non-absorbent surface (bottom right). DON'T be tempted to spread them on kitchen towel or a tea towel or anything similar: the seeds will adhere to the absorbent surface and you won't be able to pick them off again.

The seeds should be dry in 2-3 days. Transfer them carefully to a paper bag or envelope, label with the variety and the date, then seal and store somewhere cool and dry.

Tomatillo plants won't withstand frost, so you will need to start the seeds off indoors in spring. I usually sow mine in March, either in modules or two to a 9cm pot. They will take around 7-10 days to germinate and can be potted on before being planted out once all danger of frost is past.

I have grown tomatillos in the open ground and also in large deep pots, but it is definitely better to grow them outside. They're not self-fertile and rely on pollinating insects, so you need more than one plant, and bees and the like must be able to access them - which might be as simple as leaving the greenhouse door open, although they seem to like London summers well enough. The open ground plants do grow more bushy and produce higher yields of fruit, but the difference is not so great as to make the pots markedly inferior.

Tomatillo plant in high summer showing both flowers and ripening fruits.

Sunday 30 October 2016

This sweet, sweet cucumber

I could really do with a drumroll effect and a ta-da sound here. After three years of trying, I have a crop of these large, heavy, purple-striped melon pears, which go by the botanical name of Solanum muricatum.

Actually I dislike calling them melon pears. As you can see from the botanical name, they are neither melons nor pears, and they taste nothing like pears at all.

I first encountered them on a trip to South America: they are a fruit commonly found in shops and on cafe menus in Chile. There they go under the name pepinos dulces, or sweet cucumber (and no, they're not actually cucumbers either).

The green fruit, which are the size of a teardrop-shaped grapefruit, are ripe when they develop the purple striping and there is a little - but not much - give when you squeeze them. Inside is all flesh with a thin fibrous core.

The taste is generally referred to as a meeting between melon and cucumber, hence the popular monickers for them. This means they are equally happy in a vegetable salad - a simple dressing of white wine vinegar and olive oil, salt and pepper, brings out the sweetness beautifully - or a fruit salad. Substitute for melon and it goes brilliantly with ginger and/or cured meats.

The seeds germinate easily enough, but previously I tried to grow them either outside, and then when that didn't work, in a soft plastic patio greenhouse. This year, I've had my first season with a 'proper' greenhouse and it has made all the difference as far as the sweet cucumber is concerned. They need a long season in the UK: sow in February in a heated propagator, and, if your greenhouse is unheated, keep them indoors until the nights are no longer chilly, so around May, then transfer to a sunny greenhouse and water regularly.

The plants are inclined to trail once they are established, and my greenhouse really doesn't have room for trailing plants so I trained them roughly up bamboo canes.

Around June/July, the plants should bloom with striking purple and white striped flowers. This is when you can really see that it is a Solanum: a pointed yellow pistil like a furled umbrella and petals folding back from the centre.

The emerging fruit looks like a small green plum to start with, then a pale green aubergine. The distinctive purple markings don't develop until it ripens, which should be by September or October. As I write this in mid-October, I can see two more small fruit developing on the plant, about the size of a hen's egg, but I strongly doubt there is enough time now for these to mature and ripen in the UK, even in the greenhouse.

Sunday 23 October 2016

The original courgetti - no spiraliser required

This is a spaghetti squash. In a just world, the spaghetti squash should be having its 15 minutes of fame about now, as it is the original light, gluten-free alternative to pasta that needs no expensive spiralising equipment, just a 30-minute bake in the oven.

Instead, its brash skinny cousin, the courgette, steamed in and stole all the limelight, with its fancy gadgets and flashy green outer skin. Of course, courgettes are also readily available in the supermarket, and they fruit in huge numbers every summer, leaving gardeners wondering how to deal with them all. The spiraliser and its transformation into 'courgetti', long strands that can stand in for pasta without giving you a heavy carb or gluten overload, have turned courgettes into a must-have vegetable, leaving the much more naturally gifted spaghetti squash stranded in its wake.

A hefty 2kg spaghetti squash (such as the large yellow squash, lower right, above) can be baked in the oven, exactly as is, for 30 minutes, or until a knife slides easily into the flesh. Remove from the oven and slice in half lengthways, then spoon out the seeds. Now rake a fork over the cut surface of the squash. You'll find the flesh separates and falls quite naturally into spaghetti-like strands. Hence the name. One squash serves two easily, three at a push.

They have a mild nutty taste, not as 'green' as a courgette, and shouldn't be in any way watery. They go well with the conventional pasta sauces although I'm also quite happy to stir in some butter or olive oil, season with a little salt and lots of pepper, then dust with parmesan.

Grow spaghetti squash up a trellis, to save space and also to help keep the
ripening fruits undamaged from sitting on damp ground and away from slugs.

Spaghetti squash are one of the easier squash to grow. They germinate readily, sown indoors, two to a pot, sometime in April and then being transplanted outdoors in May or June, once it has a set of true leaves and looks like it's getting too big for its 9cm pot. Squash like rich moist soil, so it's worth digging manure into the squash bed before you transplant and then feeding the plants well once established. I like to train squash up a plastic mesh trellis or fence so that the fruit hang down but don't touch the ground: otherwise they will sprawl everywhere and take over your garden/allotment, and will be more vulnerable to slugs and snails. Apart from that, I confess, I leave them well alone.

I don't really know why spaghetti squash never make it into the shops. They're easy to grow, relatively prolific, good storers ... now that so many supermarkets find space for Crown Prince, onion squash and some of the more ornamental gourds, you'd think they could find a corner for the self-spiralising spaghetti squash.

If the squash does develop at ground level, slip a tile underneath so that it doesn't sit in the dirt.

Sunday 16 October 2016

The joy of allotment flowers

Flowers are a joyful addition to the allotment, not just because they are easy on the eye, but also for the sheer pleasure of watching  bees and hoverflies dig deep for their nectar. The satisfaction of seeing bees heavy with pollen. The cosmos I plant in and around the globe artichokes and then forget about until I see them standing tall and colourful and dancing manically in the breeze. The sweet peas I plant everywhere because their colour and fragrance makes weeding nearby a pleasure. The poppies that burst through the wilderness at the top of the plot that I vow every year I will clear. The daffodils and the bluebells that need no care, no fussing over, but come up year after year under the plum tree and tell everyone who passes by that spring is here.

Once this year’s shallots were harvested in early July, I had an entire raised bed left vacant without a plan for filling it. And since nature abhors a vacuum, you can be sure the weeds were queueing up for the chance to settle in there. In something like desperation, I planted out a few spare chilli seedlings and, to fill the gaps, transplanted some nasturtium seedlings that didn’t make it into the vertical garden, and then flung in some eschscholzia which I sowed – way out of date, but hey, if they come up, they come up – in June and never really expected to come through.

Thanks to some lovely warm days in the last month, this bed is now in full bloom in mid-October – and as a bonus the chillies are fruiting like mad – which is hugely comforting as many of the other beds are coming to an end and waiting to be dug over. The bed has also sprung a self-sown buddleja, which I will transplant to somewhere more suitable, and the aubergine seedling is struggling out in the exposed open ground, but everything else is loving the warmed soil, autumn sunshine and increased rainfall.

I think there’s always a place on the allotment for flowers. Not least because so many are edible and can count as produce: chives, nasturtiums, violas, bergamot, for example. Then there are those we grow as companion plants: I have chives – way more than I would ever snip into a potato salad – and Calendula, to keep away a number of pests. I’ve also raised Tagetes in the polytunnel (Homebase was selling those polystyrene boxes at £1.50 for nine plants in mid-season for some reason) and we’ve had no white fly at all, although it’s possible we might not have had them this year in any case.

I have an area of about 3-4 poles to clear this winter and I’ve already decided that flowers will be a central part of this bit of the plot. There will be a buddleja hedge of many colours: deep blue, crimson, cerise, and white – everything except railway-embankment mauve, really. It’s a sunny spot so there will be sunflowers and more poppies and achillea and cornflowers, all designed to bring in the beneficial insects. Without the pollinators, the fruit and vegetables will be left high and dry and so really the flowers should come first.

Thursday 21 July 2016

No space? Try a quick pallet garden

This vertical garden has given me so much pleasure over the summer months and it took all of 15 minutes to put together.

It requires a pallet in good condition, some woven plastic membrane and a staple gun. After that, just add soil and plants.

This pallet was donated to the allotment site by the builders next door. And it’s an ideal shape and size: 1) it will stand up on its own, 2) the horizontal struts at the base make good plant containers with minimal reconstruction, 3) it’s aesthetically pleasing: rustic without looking too decrepit. If you are going to re-purpose pallets, it really does pay to be very fussy. After all, they’re free.

I cut some strips of membrane to fit, and stapled pieces to the underside of each strut, as shown. This made the planting pockets. Next, I filled the pockets with multi-purpose compost and found a good place to site it. Finally I planted up the seedlings and watered them in. Without irrigation, it’s important to put the plants that are most drought resistant at the top and those that need most water at the bottom: plants on the top tier of a vertical garden are very exposed and will lose water very quickly. At the bottom, however, all the water gathers and the plants here are also often in a certain amount of shade.

I had calendula, cornflowers and eschscholzia Jelly Beans in the top two rows, and nasturtiums along the bottom as well as tumbling over the upper tiers.

This kind of shallow-pocketed, non-irrigated vertical garden works best for a single season. After that you can decide whether to redo the planting for another year or to re-purpose the pallet again. As I said, they’re free.