Posted by: Naomi Slade | November 27, 2010

The Truth About Pumpkins and Couch Grass

A superior allotment

I am not given to culinary disasters but pumpkins are a minefield. As far as I am concerned, the bigger the worser. This year we hollowed out two cucurbits for Halloween: A big fat orange supermarket effort, donated by my sister and a tiny, stripy ‘Little October’ squash. The flesh of the squash was firm, sweet and tasted of chestnuts. The pumpkin was soft and watery, almost granular in appearance and tasted of, well, nothing (rather like the specimen that initiated my suspicions in an incident a decade ago, but we will gloss over that). Within a couple of days the big beast was sagging and growing grey-green fur while the squash stayed intact for nearly a fortnight, demonstrating a clearly superior structural integrity. This must be why we carved Halloween swedes and turnips as children – solidity and availability rather than some weird west country scarecrow fetish.

Moving on, we have decided to face the truth and give up our allotment. It was grievously untended state when we started and the battle lines have moved back and forth over the intervening four years as we vied for supremacy with the couch grass. It is also not that convenient to get to and tends to slip down the priority list when deadlines rear their heads and other peoples gardens demand to be visited in the (pleasurable) line of duty. Louche and rather devious, couch grass does not have deadlines or school runs and it is galling to be trounced by a weed.

However we are not downhearted and our grow-your-own ambitions have been relocated and localised, rather than scaled down. The new garden in Wales in proving rambunctiously fruitful – see my forthcoming series starting in Kitchen Garden Magazine in January. And, at home, now the builders have left we have realised that there is a patch of garden next to the apple and pear trees that is just crying out for a good prune and some raised veg beds. I have all sorts of plans for exciting and jazzy things to grow. Watch this space!

Posted by: Naomi Slade | October 17, 2010

Comforting Soup

Yum!

Satisfy Your Inner Soup Dragon

It is the season of mellow fruitfulness, the leaves are turning gold and last night was the first proper frost. With lots of goodies coming in from the veg patch and allotment it is time to break out the comfort food.

This is a thick, warming soup with just a little fire at its heart. The ginger can be surprisingly poky so if you are slightly delicate add the chilli sauce at the end if it still seems like a good idea.

Spicy Squash and Apple Soup
Makes about 2 pints

1 large onion
1 small squash – about 1lb or so. Choose one with a firm, sweet flesh; butternut is ideal
1 large clove garlic
1 dsp olive oil
1 tasty, sharp eating apple, I used Egremont Russet but something like Bountiful or Granny Smith would work. No need to peel.
½ tsp ground coriander
½ tsp grated fresh ginger
A few drops of Tabasco – optional
½ tsp marmite – optional
1 rounded tsp stock powder, plus a bit extra for adjusting consistency along with water
Plenty of black pepper
Salt to taste
A couple of tsp double cream and some sliced, mild chilli to garnish

Dice the onion and soften in the oil. Add cubed, peeled squash and sliced garlic. Cover and cook until the squash softens.
Just cover with water and add cored and diced apple, 1 tsp stock powder, ginger, coriander, marmite and a grind of black pepper. Cook until everything is nice and soft.

Remove from heat and blend until fairly smooth. Add enough stock, or water and additional stock powder, to achieve desired consistency. Heat until simmering, adjust seasoning, add Tabasco if desired.

Serve, stirring though a teaspoon of cream and sprinkling with sliced chilli.

Posted by: Naomi Slade | September 28, 2010

The Garlic Farm Cookbook – a review

 

Garlic of all sorts and sizes

Coming across family run The Garlic Farm exhibit at Hampton court, I was intrigued. Not only were there more varieties than I had imagined, but they genuinely seemed to love the stuff. Spotting the new Garlic Farm Cookbook, I resolved to lay hands upon a copy and find out more.

I was expecting a straightforward recipe book but it turned out to be more of a garlic bible. Something of a team effort for the Boswell family, they run down their history and involvement, how they got into farming garlic on the Isle of Wight in the early days of garlic popularity and how they had a hand in making interesting varieties available to the amateur gardener. The style is friendly, approachable and anecdotal. A bit like having a chat with a garlic-savvy friend who has your best interests at heart and knows all about health, folklore and the best way to prepare the garlic bounty.

They explain the background of 15-odd varieties with tips on growing, feeding and care, when to plant, when to lift, how to dry and the difference between hardneck and softneck garlics. One comes away feeling thoroughly informed and ready to bore the pants off people at dinner parties with in-depth garlic wisdom. And if keeping up with the joneses is a priority, there are instructions on how to plait and grappe the bulbs to store and display them to the envy of all.

The recipe section is divided into seasons and is tasty and straightforward – spring, for example explores the delights of green garlic, eaten when it is mild, juicy and young and I liked the way that they suggest specific varieties – eg purple Moldovan for garlic ciabatta and include recipes with garlic scapes – the flowering shoots.

As a veggie many of the recipes are a bit meaty, fishy or eggy for my personal taste but the likes of Oak Smoked Garlic Dauphinoise, Green Garlic Pesto and Roasted Elephant Garlic Soup sound rather jolly and there are plenty of other ideas to take away and adapt.

All in all, this good-looking, friendly little book is an excellent resource and would make a good present for kitchen gardeners and cooks of all abilities.

The Garlic Farm Cookbook, Edited by Natasha Edwards, £9.50 http://www.thegarlicfarm.co.uk; 01983 865378

Posted by: Naomi Slade | September 4, 2010

Shaking The Katy Tree

It has all been about apples lately. Picking, cooking, pressing for juice you name it. So far we have picked most of the Devonshire Quarrenden, some of the Reverend Wilks and the Grenadier, and tomorrow I will finish off picking That-aromatic-yellow-one-at-the-bottom-better-check-the-list.

To get a full batch of apples to go to my juicing man, I went to scavenge the fresh fallers and see what was ripe. “I’m off to shake the Katy tree” I cheerfully announced as I left the house. “Sounds interesting, I might come and take photographs!” said my sister-in-law, with a slightly dirty twinkle. Hmmm. Yes. Thanks.

Now as anyone with the merest grasp of Newtonian physics – or at least the legends surrounding the discoveries of the great man – will know, there are hazards inherent in standing under apple trees. I gave it a waggle and ripe fruit cascaded around me. I shook it again and a few more fell, one missing me by inches. Quit while you are winning, I say.

The orchard is a peaceful sort of place. Cool, green and appley, the peace broken by the occasional rustle-thud of another earth-bound faller. Reminded me of  Anansi and the Pudding Tree, but that is, quite literally, another story.

Posted by: Naomi Slade | August 13, 2010

Know Your Poison – book review

Don't Eat Autumn Crocuses!

Colchicums are toxic if eaten

Here for your delectation is a book review:

With a long-standing interest in plant toxicity and botany in general, and regularly fielding questions about this from friends and acquaintances I was pleased to receive a copy of Elisabeth A Dauncey’s new Poisonous Plants book, published by Kew.

According to the cover it is designed for parents and carers to which the blurb adds educators, medics, gardeners, nurserymen and just about everyone involved with plants or people – which is great, this is a book that has been needed for ages. The Author has worked both with Kew Gardens and with Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals on plant toxicity so the credentials are good and its value to nurserymen and medics (ie those who don’t spend a lot of time wrangling small children) is instantly apparent. However, as one permanently on alert for hazards of the berries-in-mouth kind, my interest was in ease and accessibility of the information. 

A good peruse later, it appears that this is a book that lends itself to proactive use (rather than reactive ‘oh god they’ve eaten this what is it?’ use). It is a great thing to have on the shelf to do the occasional assessment of the garden and check it out for things that might be better at the back of a border, or avoided until children are bigger. But the language could be considered quite daunting and nursery school staff, for example, may not have the assumed familiarity with this level of botanical and medical detail.

There are some good sections  – the first aid tips and ‘most toxic plants at a glance’ (aka ‘panic and go to hospital now’) are very useful. And the ‘fruiting plants of ‘low’ toxicity’ (aka ‘phew, it is just a nibble of pyracantha/hypericum/mahonia/berberis berries, wash out mouths and scold’), cover most of the plants that I am most often asked about.

 But for use under stress there are failings. While you can make a good guess at the symbols that indicate what part of the plant is poisonous and where to find it, I only found the key (sensibly but discreetly located under pull-out flaps) when I read the publication info. A traffic-light system of toxicity would also have been useful. And while the profiles of similar-looking plants are grouped together for ease of identification this means that until you are familiar with the book there is no logic to the listings even if you do know the Latin.

To its credit , the index is good and has both Latin and common names, so you can find what you want if you are being systematic.

 The trouble is that when a child appears with a mouthful of unidentified plant or a spreading mystery rash, people are rarely systematic and are likely to be reduced to leafing frantically through to find something that looks a bit like the culprit. All one wants to know at that point is ‘should I panic, and if so how hard?’. An interesting and slightly intellectual browse is not on the cards.

That said, this is a book that makes a decent fist of advising a dauntingly wide target audience. It should be compulsory reading for medics and garden nursery staff and every home, school, nursery and childminder should have a copy – just do your homework in advance.

Poisonous Plants: a guide for parents and childcare providers by Elizabeth A Dauncey (Kew Publishing 2010. ISBN 978 1 84246 406 9, £15, www.kewbooks.com

Posted by: Naomi Slade | July 12, 2010

Exciting Edibles

cabbage close upIt is the biggest gardening show in the world, but the great thing about RHS Hampton Court is that it is cool and relaxed enough to go its own way. Sufficiently self-confident to experiment. And therefore it evolves interestingly on an annual basis.

This year the grow-your-own element was spectacular. Glorious allotments, huge veg patches, big stands of sunflowers. The current taste for mixing up veg and herbs in the flower border continued and there were some exciting oddities as well.

Even for those of us already sold on kitchen gardening it was an inspiration and in the heat and excitement it was the patterns and shapes of plants in all their intricate detail that stood out and I found myself absorbed in taking abstract pictures of plants like the cabbage above. Check out the Electric Green  blog for my ‘Hampton Court as iterated in plant architecture and geometry’.

I want to try growing strawberry spinach like that in the Shakespeare Trust garden, if I can find it. Although the strawberries may or may not taste any good – it is frowned upon to pick and nibble things. And I’d like to have a go at experimenting with amaranth (rest assured, it is legal…or at least I think so, although best not inhale, I guess).

And now for something I hate, for a change. Egregious bronze goblins. There is really no excuse.

Posted by: Naomi Slade | June 17, 2010

Bad Science

In my eternal search for good, peat free, multipurpose compost, I am somewhat inconstant. I tend to dally with one brand then flirt with another – and then usually return to that Levington one through force of habit.

I am not in favour of using peat, but historically there are several problems with peat free compost. It often does not retain water well and can be hard to re-wet if it dries out. It is frequently coarse in texture making it less good for seedlings and as nutrients may leach out quickly, food resources may be variable. Conversely, peat holds water beautifully but although it is technically a renewable resource, it does depend on how many hundreds or thousands of years you are prepared to wait for your next bag of growing medium.

Being somewhat scientifically minded and possessed of a rare idle moment, I decided to test two composts against each other. I chose different species with different requirements – squash, artichoke and some calendula seeds. I planted some up in New Horizon compost and some in Westland Multipurpose Peat-Free compost. So far so good.

But then I ran into trouble. Although 8 out of 10 cats may prefer something, and 80% is a pretty significant number, if you only ask ten cats then it is not a big enough sample to tell you anything worth knowing (other than that their owners may be victims of advertising). And face cream marketed as ‘scientifically proven to reduce the appearance of wrinkles’ often has in the small print ‘64 of 87 women asked agree…’ (or something). As studies go, that is not a biggie.

Which is where I need to ‘fess up. Science tends to go pear shaped when, for example, 100% of the artichokes in compost A get knocked back by a passing snail. Similarly if all one’s test squashes in compost B mysteriously keel over, it throws the results out a bit. And that is pretty easy to achieve if there is only one of each to start with.

Which left me with calendula. At potting-on time these showed a substantial difference – at 13cm tall in New Horizon compost they were more than 40% larger than the 9cm plants in the coarser Westland compost. But there was only one pot of each and no control compost mixture, so technically not a rigorous test.

And the conclusions? ‘Initial observations indicate that calendula seeds do better in the finer New Horizon compost’ – but I could have predicted that if I had thought about it in advance. And indeed, bigger, stronger plants may care less. I have also reminded myself that science works better when each experiment is replicated many times and properly controlled. But my other conclusion is that, on a domestic basis, life may be too short.

For my next experiment, I predict that 100% of 10 cats are pretty rubbish at gardening… .

Posted by: Naomi Slade | May 25, 2010

Green About Tomatoes

But not like the '70s cartoon...

Rhubarb Crumble and Custard at Chelsea

It is official. I have tomato envy.

 Yesterday was RHS Chelsea Press Day and after taking in the delights of the delightful, but rather veg-free show, (plenty of herbs and marigolds though, and Ken Muir’s strawberries did their thing) was the traditional glass-of-pop-and-a-catch-up in the Rose and Crown. Garden writers like to talk about their own gardens and compare plants, and eventually the conversation turned to tomatoes. Turns out that while mine measure in at a couple of inches, the tomato plants of one Martyn Cox are like, THIS big; (holds hand about a metre off the floor).

His expression was one of amazement, rather than derision that one’s crops could be so puny in late May but while I would be delighted to share in such vegetal might, I must shelve my pride. The truth is that Martyn lives in London. London with its nice warm microclimate. I live in Berkshire, and as I defensively explained, we have had sharp frosts here as recently as a fortnight ago. And Wales recorded -3 degrees even more recently than that: the neighbour’s first early potatoes were toast (or possibly mash).

In my experience, (gained rapidly and sometimes disastrously after leaving my own suntrap in the capital a couple of years ago) if you are going to sow, it is better to start with hardy things that can be moved out of the greenhouse to make room for the tender things. If you sow tender plants early you risk ending up with a greenhouse or windowsill crammed with huge, thirsty, etiolated plants with nowhere to put them.  And even a greenhouse may not be enough protection if it gets properly cold.

Also, later sown crops will pretty much catch up with earlier ones once the average temperatures rise. That is what I am telling myself. Small but perfectly formed and full of potential, that is what my tomatoes are. Yes.

Since we have all seen runty tomatoes before, the picture is of the Welcome to Yorkshire Rhubarb Crumble and Custard Garden at Chelsea.

Posted by: Naomi Slade | May 13, 2010

Cucurbit Queen!

Growing squash, cucumbers and their kind is a satisfyingly speedy passtime. Butternut squash ‘Cobnut’ is rocketing out of the pot and trying to climb out of the propagator, ‘Crown Prince had seed leaves the size of my palm in five days flat and I am also the proud owner of three types of cucumber and two types of pumpkin.

Those who have been paying attention to my other blog will know that back in the Autumn I  saved some seeds from pumpkin ‘Mars’. This had been grown alongside patty pan squash, Crown Prince and sundry other cucurbits. Six months of neglect and mistreatment on my kitchen work top later, they still produced four healthy seedlings. Joy is unconfined and as I suspect that these creatures cross-pollinate like crazy, it will be interesting to see what sort of Squmpkin I end up with. Watch this space.

Not bothering with patty pan ‘Polo’ this year, though. They are quite pretty, but preparation is too much of a faff. If you pick early enough while they are still small, this is not a problem; but realistically early picking is not going to happen and life is too short to peel the decorative scalloped edges of otherwise slightly boring vegetables*.

I should perhaps point out here that the solid, sweet butternut types that mature a bit later in the year are delicious and not even a little bit boring, but with the light, summer fruiting patty pans I can’t get past the sneaking suspicion that they are basically a frilly sort of marrow.

Went to show some love to my new garden at the family home in Wales last weekend. Discovered that the grapevine in the furthest greenhouse is actually six grapevines. Yikes!

* Boring unless sautéed with lime and sweet chilli, but that is another story…

Posted by: Naomi Slade | April 30, 2010

A Change In The Weather

It has just started raining for the first time in about a month and it amazing how quickly ones priorities change.

Yesterday morning I was worrying about the watering, all the pots, newly sown seedlings and new shrub planting. By teatime the humidity had drawn dozens of snails from the bushes for a stroll over the garden wall. By 8pm it was properly chucking it down.

My attitude to all things slimy and wriggly tends towards the benign. I put copper rings around vulnerable plants, surround them with sharp chippings, and give all approaching molluscs a good hard stare with a hint of ‘come on if you think you are hard enough’ about it. My next line of defence is to put them in the wheelie bin (and pretend I don’t notice when they escape) and I have been known to take them on a nice walk to the long grass by the canal to take their chances with the local duck population.

But now it is so damp, the slugs are in a party mood. Not good. If they push their luck it will be out with the big guns – standing over them hissing ‘back away from the brassicas or I’m gonna get the Nemaslug out!’. Or possibly start a really strong letter writing campaign. The thrushes and blackbirds seem happy though.

Passive molluscicide aside, today’s jobs include continuing to sow veg. I have the decorative runner bean ‘Painted Lady’ to go in and I am hoping that the contents of the heated propagator will get to a size where I can turf them out and pack in pots of sweetcorn. By now one might well get away with just putting it in the greenhouse, but it comes up so joyously fast in the propagator it is more fun that way.

Have just discovered that the poached egg plant, marigolds and borage have self-sown themselves into the border, so that’s the companion planting sorted. Off to water the greenhouse and check the newly potted up basil seedlings for damping off and other deviant behaviour.

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