Category Archives: The garden

Brussel Sprout Wreath

The halls are beginning to get decked, the high streets are adorned with lights that are switched on by minor celebrities and tomorrow is the first Sunday in advent. Every household has its own traditions over the festive season, we have many. One being that I make a wreath to hang on the door during Christmas. Over the years they have evolved from a quite traditional wreath to last year’s alternative, yet still festive, creation. Read the rest of this entry

The Garden – 2011

The garden has been a bit different this year. The harsh winter killed a great deal of our crops leaving the garden really rather desolate after the thaw. Then we thought we were going to move house (the less I talk about this the better) so we were late planting this year’s crops. Read the rest of this entry

Blooming Baskets

Hanging baskets don’t have the best reputation. They can sometimes be considered naff with their garish trails of bright flowers that sometimes look like they have been thrown together (don’t get me started on their fake counterparts) but you don’t have to plant your hanging baskets with pansies and fuchsias; All of the baskets in our back garden contain either fruit or vegetables. Planting fruit and vegetables in hanging baskets can be a great way of growing-your-own in limited space.

Tomatoes – This was the the first vegetable we attempted to grow in baskets and the Tombling Tom variety works best. Just be careful of blight which can ruin your whole crop.

Strawberries – We’ve planted many varieties over the years and all have worked well apart from the white alpine strawberries we tried last year. The advantages of growing strawberries in hanging baskets is that they are not as accessible to pests (apart from birds) and because they are hanging the you don’t get the problem of the strawberries going soggy on the ground. To help protect the strawberries from birds cover the plants in netting.

Pea shoots – Last year discovered this gem and I have Alys Fowler to thank. You don’t need fancy peas from the garden centre. Plain and simple Bigga dried peas from the supermarket will work just as well. You simply sprinkle the peas over the soil and cover with a thin layer of soil and keep watered.You are able to grow them in baskets as you are literally harvesting the plants for their leaves rather than the peas. You can however transplant the plants once they have grown too much for the basket and grow in to fully fledged pea plants.

Salad leaves – Perfect as they are literally cut and come again. I prefer to use packets of mixed salad leaves for variety. Growing salad leaves is far easier than buying packets from the shops as in our case we struggle to get through a packet of ready prepped salad before it goes off.

Herbs – Most herbs that don’t grow too tall like mint and thyme work well in hanging baskets.

When growing in hanging baskets make sure the basket is well drained but also don’t get waterlogged. We usually line our basket frames with a husk/moss layer (watch the birds pick this out during the nesting season) then a thin plastic layer with a few holes to allow the water the drain through. Also balance the baskets on a bucket to stop them rolling around while trying to fill them with the compost.

Have you tried growing anything unusual in hanging baskets?

A Taste of the Unexpected

I’ve been a fan of Mark Diacono for a while. He runs UK’s first climate change farm, Otter Farm, and is head gardener at River Cottage. His River Cottage Handbook: Veg Patch is a well used book in this house so when I saw Mark was writing a new book it went straight on my wishlist. After helping Issy at Fennel & Fern with a project she offered to send me a copy of Mark’s new book, A Taste of the Unexpected. Trust me, I do get sent some not so great free stuff from various companies and I choose to not inflict these on you but this book is not one of those.  Not only does it have fantastic photography, by Mark himself, but great content.

The main theme of this book is to not grow boring everyday things you can can easily buy, but to try rarer plants that are more or less impossible to buy; A concept we have been loosely using on our garden for the last year or so. It was great to see some plants featured that we’ve tried to successfully of unsuccessfully grow recently. As the book is full of great tips we may attempt some of the plants again next year with hopefully better results. Each plant in the book is not only accompanied with growing instructions and tips, but also recipes. We are yet to try any of the recipes, but they certainly look good. Some of the plants featured are not suitable for our garden due to size, but we will certainly bear them in mind for our future, hopefully bigger, gardens. I will admit that I find a large amount of gardening books quite sleep-inducing, but this book is anything but and I hope it becomes as well-thumbed as River Cottage Handbook: Veg Patch

As our garden winds down for the winter we look back and see what worked and what didn’t work. Sadly Romanesco didn’t survive the caterpillar onslaught of Summer ’10 but the Purple Sprouting Broccoli is fighting on through and hopefully we’ll have a harvest in the new year. The white Alpine Strawberries finally fruited and while the vine still hasn’t shown any fruit it gave some vivid green colour to the garden. The overall winner of the garden this year has been peas. Easy and delicious. Next year, as inspired by Mark, the plans include: Egyptian Walking Onion, another attempt at Romanesco, Daylillies and Szechuan Peppers.

Garden Update – August ’10

There has been a definite theme for this month in the garden – rain and more rain. While this means the BBQ and Tandoor have been left unused it does mean the garden is beautiful and lush. August has really been the peak for crops in the garden with peas being by far the best crop this year closely followed by the beetroot. The various types of carrots we’ve grown have also fared well being grown in old floristry buckets. We harvested the first of the white pattypan last night and when roasted they are delicious and have an almost buttery taste. The plant has been more manageable that the Blue Ballet Squashes from a few years back. I’m not the biggest fan of squashes but this is one that will not end up in a cake! The alpine strawberries are very slowly getting there.

Somehow I’ve managed to kill my Borage plant. Yes the plant that runs rampant in the majority of places I’ve managed to kill. It shot up impressively, bloomed a few flowers but then the remaining buds never opened, the plant turned yellow and keeled over. I’m not sure if the plant just felt swamped in the big pot with the other herbs.

After 3 years of planting sweetcorn we’ve given up as our garden just isn’t suited to them. The Romanesco is getting savaged by caterpillars and there is no sign of the beautiful bright fractal covered vegetable but we’re not going to give up on it. Oh, and the less we talk about Asparagus Peas the better. On the brighter side the Purple Sprouting Broccoli is looking good and should bring some much needed colour in the winter months.

The harvest from the garden is slowly coming to an end and it is being cleared ready for some winter crops. I’m always surprised as to what we manage to achieve from such a small plot. While we are not self-sufficient it has certainly cut down on the amount of veg we’ve had to buy. Nothing is as good as eating freshly picked peas or carrots.

Garden Update – July ’10

Weather wise we’ve been quite lucky here with a good dose of sun and rain. When I went into the garden this morning, tentively  I may say due to a mouse-shaped furry friend I’d spotted, the way that the overnight raindrops glistened on the plants was beautiful.

Not sure the Pot Marigolds they are keeping away the pests but the almost day-glo orange of the flowers have really brought some colour to the garden.

Nothing beats the eating sweet, delicious peas straight from the plant. The peas certainly seem to be the success of the veg plot this year. Most of the peas are being eaten by us before the reach the kitchen.

The Purple Sprouting Broccoli plants are doing very well. The butterflies seem to be ignoring these plants and are heading straight to the Romanesco Broccoli that is slowing being eaten by caterpillars.

The grapevine is giving the garden a glorious wall of green for the 3rd year in the row. However still no grapes. Does anyone know what we have to do to encourage the vine to bear fruit?

Tandoor for an Indian Summer

I know for a fact Jules has mentioned many time on both the blog and on Twitter about my sometimes eccentric projects. From the cheese press to the hanging meat safe ever since I came up with the idea of making a tandoor oven I knew I had to make it. I’m an Engineer, what do you expect! With a little help from Instructables and my dad, the DIY king, the project soon took shape. When Jules received a copy of Miss Masala it gave me the incentive to make and try out this mad idea of mine with everything that has been cooked so far in the tandoor comes from recipes in this great cookbook.

I built a hot smoker for a few years. A cold smoker had been in the planning but stumbled when it came to sourcing a suitable barrel. Then one day at work I spotted an old metal barrel that was begging to be used in a project. I realised not only could I make this barrel into a Tandoor Oven but adapt it so it could also be used for cold smoking. Along with picking up a bargain pair of terracotta pots on ebay, a huge bag of vemiculite I managed to find hanging around at work, clearing Wilkos of all their fire cement and a cymbal (yes a cymbal from my dad’s drumming days) I was getting closer to building the tandoor. Due to the nature of my job I have access to machines and parts that help me make some of the parts, but I think it could be done without this luxury. I also made the extra long skewers using hexagonal steel bar left over from a work project and the twists help stop the meat from falling off. No thermometer yet on the oven but I can confirm it is hot. Super hot. Hot enough to singe your arm hairs hot. I Managed to brand my arm when the lid tilted and am now on the lookout for food safe elbow-length heat-proof gloves.  How they manage to use these ovens in restaurants without causing injury I don’t know!

The first main tryout of the oven worked better than I could have ever planned. Inevitably one of the 4 naan breads ended up at the bottom of the pit (you may spot it on the chicken kebab picture) as I couldn’t catch it quick enough when it came away from the wall. A bit of a way to go look wise but taste of the naans were closest we’ve got so far. They had that lovely chewiness that only happens when cooking in a tandoor. Next time we would try rolling the dough a bit thinner. The tandoor chicken pieces were also particularly good and cooked in under 5 min due to the heat. I have read about cooking pizzas in the oven in that you lower them in one at a time on a metal plate.

Read both these articles (article 1, article 2) before partaking in the project to make sure you understand the safety implications.

Garden Tandoor Oven

1 large metal drum (must not be galvanised)
2 terracotta pots that fit inside a metal drum when one pot is inverted on top of the other.
pots of fire cement (Wilkos works out by far the cheepest)

1) The first job is to drill a 4″ hole for the air vent at the bottom of the barrel. The vent needs to be high enough to allow a layer of sand at the bottom of the barrel for the plant pot to sit on but no too high that the fire can’t breath properly. Once the hole has been drilled a piece of 4″ pipe is welded into place. I added a vent flap to the pipe to allow more control of the fire.

2) Once this is done the barrel is ready for a lick of paint. As the barrel won’t get too hot I just used ordinary black gloss paint.

3) Whilst the paint is drying its time to get busy with some boys toys. The bottom of the first plant pot is swiftly cut off with an angle grinder (terracotta cut surprising easily). The next toy to play with is a drill with a big 4″ holesaw in it. This is to cut the hole in the bottom of the other pot for the air vent pipe to fit in.

4) The next thing to do is to fill the bottom of the barrel with enough sand to make sure the bottom plant pot will sit at the right height and level (its best to put the barrel where its going to end up as it will get pretty heavy once everything is in it). The first plant pot is put into place and the gap between the pot and the barrel is packed with vermiculite. The next pot is then put upside down on top of the other pot. More vermiculite is packed into the cavity (its surprising how much you can pack in a small space!).

5) Now for the messy bit! All the joints need to be sealed with fire cement and the top of the barrel needs to be sealed to stop the vermiculite escaping. The final piece is the cymbal that acts as a lid and was a perfect fit for my plant pot.

6) The tandoor is almost ready to fire. The inside needs to be coated with oil to make sure the naan breads don’t stick too much.

7) Now the fun begins. Use some charcoal and start a fire in the bottom as you would a bbq and wait until the flames have died down and the coals have a healthy red glow. Don’t use wood as from our experience it gets v smoky and the flames can get shockingly high.Your now ready to start cooking!

Garden update – June ’10

Thing are going well with our Edible Garden. The sun is producing a plethora of fine green plants along with small hints of vibrant colour. Tonight we tried the Borage for the first time. It’s such a beautiful flower, almost like a simplified Passion Flower; taste wise the flowers it taste like mild cucumber.It is an exciting time in the garden the bees and other insects are busy and our hard work slowly beginning to pay off.

For a change not many words, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

Peas beginning to take over the onions

Peas – I don’t know why but I love how pea plants can beautifully twist around everything & anything they can find.

Broadbean flowers

Tomato flower

Beetroot. Our Golden Beetroots are not doing as well as the red beets.

Good Food & Gardeners’ World Show

Visiting the Good Food Show with friends is a bit of a tradition for us. We prefer the Summer show as it seems to be less crowded and you have the added bonus of The Gardeners’ World Show you can visit at the same time. I can honestly say this year I found the Good Food part of the show disappointing. Genuine lack of artisan companies, too many big corporate companies and what on earth has toothpaste got to do with Good Food (anyone who went to the show will know what I mean). Don’t get me started on some of the rude stall holders. For some I got the feeling they couldn’t be bothered being there and potential customers were an inconvenience for them. I don’t know if the lack of decent suppliers was due to the show clashing with Taste London. Another gripe of mine was that a large proportion of the alcohol section was only available if you paid another £7 on top of the already quite expensive ticket.

Given the rough some diamonds did shine. The divine chocolate company Lauden‘s Marc de Champagne are some of the best chocolates I have ever tasted and am planning to order some of their truffles and pistachio cups soon. Taste of Johal  were selling delicious hot Indian dishes (a departure from the lack lustre hog-roast roll I had from another stall)

I will admit we ended up spending most of our time and money in the outside Gardeners’ World area as we found this area to be more interesting, plus you were less likely to be bashed around the ankle by the bloomin’ pull-along trolleys.

In the Gardeners’ World end as long as you avoided hot tubs, posh sheds and stalls that wouldn’t look out-of-place at Donnington Market there was the lovely presented Allotment shop along with charities and organisations passionate about wildlife. Outside on the green in the Floral Marquee was were the best stalls were. Stall after stall of beautiful plant and flower displays and to make it even better you could buy the plants. If I didn’t have an already full garden I could have spent a great deal of money. On the Fuchsiavale stand they had some stunning fuchsias including one that appeared to be almost black and hot pink. I wish I had noted the name of it. I also eyed up some alliums, lilies and stunning roses. Hubs purchased a Tree Onion from Pennard Plants. A slightly odd-looking plant that was gaining a lot of interest on the stall, I’ll be interested to see how well it works in our garden.

We enjoyed seeing the show gardens with my favourite being Salad Bar, A Stick in Time designed by Girlguiding Staffordshire and unsurprisingly the veg patch in the Birmingham Borders section. We also listened in to a talk by Alys Fowler on container gardening with the focus on edible plants. I was pleased to hear lots of the plants she suggested we already have in our garden. The floral marquee has given me the bug for flowers and next year maybe we’ll head to Tatton or Chelsea…Oh my goodness I think we’re getting old!

Our Edible Garden – May ’10

Finally the frosts have gone, well I hope they have, and the garden is beginning to spring into life. The biggest success so far has to be the pea shoots. After seeing Alys Fowler plant them on Edible Garden I knew I had to have a go. I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of planting bog standard dried peas before. The gorgeous emerald butterfly shaped leaves have now become a regular in our salads as they taste so delicious.

It’s great to see my herb garden thrive after thinking the long winter may have killed it off. The reliable hardy mint is coming back with vengeance along with the thyme and oregano. New additions in the herb garden are flat parsley and borage plus the rosemary and chives are beginning to bear flowers. The flowers on the rosemary are so beautiful and delicate almost like mini orchids, a bonus that they are edible and will probably adorn a salad at the BBQ later on this evening. The chive flowers are also edible however I find the taste of them a tad bit intense. After eating a lonely chive flower last year the best way I can describe the taste is of strong onion water bursting in your mouth.

This year is going to be the battle of the birds and butterflies. As much as we like having wildlife in our garden it’s a pain when the nibble and trample they crops so Hubs fashioned an ingenious frame made from an old wooden clothes airer that had originally been thrown in the wood pile for burning. The trio of dunnocks are not impressed. Given they are meant to be shy birds they have spent a significant time bouncing up and down on it, trying to break it and once working out how to get underneath the netting. The netting is doing its job though and everything growing under it is doing well.

Newest addition to the garden, Hubs’ newest project, will be appearing in the next few weeks – a cold smoker that also doubles up as tandoor oven made of terracotta pots. Yep you heard that right. Some days I worry for the sanity of Hubs.

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