Sunday 30 October 2011

Drying Seeds

After the awesome success of my Angelle tomatoes this year, I've started taking the whole seed-saving thing a bit more seriously. Sure, it's okay to casually dry seeds on a windowsill and use them next year, but if you want your seeds to last longer and get a really good germination rate - and I do - air-dry is not enough. I've been taking the advice of Real Seeds' seedsaving guide (here and here) and drying my saved tomato seeds the proper way.

It's very simple really - just bake dry rice in the oven for 45 minutes or so then put it in a jar (the jar should be about half full, and there should be at least twice as much rice as seed) and put the lid on while it cools. This makes the rice - and the air in the jar, really, really dry. When it's cold, you put your seeds in a breathable pouch made of muslin or old tights, secure it with a rubber band or piece of string, and pop them in the jar on top of the rice for a couple of weeks. The super-dry rice draws all the moisture out of the seeds, and you're left with super-dry seeds that can be sealed in an airtight packet without the risk of suffocating, rotting, or trying to germinate too soon. Super.

Friday 28 October 2011

Wild Food Night - October

Numbers have been dwindling for Wild Food Night over the past few months - a real shame if you ask me. If you know anyone foraging- or homegrowing-minded in the Hertfordshire area, let them know what they're missing! We were still there on Wednesday night to see what October had to offer...

Canapes were all things we'd had before, but new and improved! First was a wild garlic crispbread, made with the bulbs rather than the more commonly picked leaves. I didn't know that the bulbs could be harvested too - they're quite small, sort of similar to the white shafts of spring onions, and they take up to three years to develop; internet sources say they're only worth harvesting when the patch needs thinning out (and remember, kids, it's illegal to uproot any plant without the permission of the landowner). Next, a pigeon mousse with a red onion and truffle oil vinaigrette - delicious. And finally a haw berry shot, which tasted nice and syrupy, but I still couldn't tell you what haws taste like. I'm quite curious about these as I'm seeing loads in our area at the moment - I'll have to look them up and see what can be done with them.

The starter was a lovely rich wild duck and "not-so-wild" orange pate, served with crispbreads, and a peppery nettle soup. I love nettle soup - I must make it more often! Apparently new growth nettles in autumn have a deeper, richer flavour. The nettles I pass on my walks seem to be dying off slowly now or even still showing their flowers or seeds, with no signs of new shoots, but I've noticed a few new ones popping up on the allotment so that's where I'll go...

The main was named 'Peasant Pheasant'; pheasant breast cooked with garlic, onion, lemon juice and rosemary, served with creamy mash, buttery carrot puree and some tasty green beans. Sadly I'm not so keen on the taste of pheasant - it has a livery flavour much like the pigeon we sampled some months ago - but everyone else at the table enjoyed it, and the vegetable accompaniments were lovely.

For dessert, this fabulously rich chestnut chocolate torte and very creamy wild berry ice cream (made with bramble, haw and damson syrups) were incredible! More please!

I was very glad there were chestnuts on October's menu, especially since my own chestnut-gathering attempts were frustrated last week when I found I'd missed them all already! 'Food for Free' clearly says they start to ripen around the end of October, but by mid-October every single one had gone from the trees near me! And I was even more shocked to see them going for £4 per small bag in the supermarket yesterday (twice the price of the prepared chestnuts sold by Merchant Gourmet all year round - it's amazing how much Christmas packaging can cost...) I haven't really cooked with chestnuts before but I do like them. Foraged or not, I am determined to use them more this winter...

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Winter Sowing

Okay, I really should have done this at least a month ago, but I was behind as usual and the weather's still so nice... It can't be too late yet, can it? Not if the volunteer salad plants I keep finding all over the garden are anything to go by. I've got claytonia in the seed-grown rosemary I gave up on and forgot about...

...and I've got rocket (or is it mizuna?) in my broccoli.

In fact, there are a lot of leafy greens that will grow over winter with a bit of shelter, and with night temperatures still not dropping below 8 or 9 here (with just one exception last week), a new cover on my plastic greenhouse, a quick study of Charles Dowding's great book 'Salad Leaves for All Seasons', and a sowing-spree in the sunshine on Monday, I have high hopes for at least a few overwinter greens this year. I've sown two types of spring onions, 'Winter Gem' lettuces, claytonia (love the stuff!), lamb's lettuce/corn salad, 'Bright Lights' radishes and some 'Nero di Toscana' kale (similar to the popular narrow-leaved 'Cavolo Nero'). They're outside hopefully being warmed by the sunshine for now, but if and when it turns cold they'll go straight in the greenhouse. Oh, and I've got some spinach and perpetual spinach going too, which I started some weeks ago, and of course the leeks and parsnips on the allotment, and some purple-sprouting broccoli and curly kale in tubs. With a bit of luck and care, this could just be my most productive winter yet...

Today we finally got round to sowing some winter turnips on the plot as well, and scattered the ex-potato beds with some out-of-date Phacelia seeds (fingers crossed...) to protect the soil over winter and provide some extra organic matter to dig into the soil in the spring. My mail-order onions, shallots and garlic haven't come yet, but I'm ready for them when they do.

And as a testament to how mild the weather still is, here's a very late-flowering feverfew I spotted poking up through my patio yesterday! Good job there are still flowers about - there are certainly still plenty of bees and butterflies enjoying them!

Saturday 22 October 2011

Community Orchard

On our allotment trip the other day we brought home a bag of lovely apples, not from our tree (they're all long gone now) but from the community orchard.

What fab colours! I'd love to know what the purple variety are...

I'm not exactly sure of the history of the place, but a couple of years ago the allotment association took over this plot at the back of our site, which already had several exisiting fruit trees, and turned it into a communal area cared for by volunteers and with fruit available for all association members. Although there are only apples remaining at this time of year, the orchard now contains pears, plums, and a few things I don't recognise too. This is the first time we've really made use of it, and we're glad we have - they're delicious! I'm glad Eddie's so tall, too - he managed to pick a lot of the fruit no-one else could reach at the top!

Thursday 20 October 2011

...Hello Winter

Better late than never, I have been tending to some new crops for over winter and, hopefully, if they make it that far, next spring. I have a late-summer sowing of perpetual spinach doing well in a container in the garden, and a newer sowing of traditional spinach (Medania) popping up too. These will have to go under cover in our plastic greenhouse, I think, when it gets really cold.

I bought some purple-sprouting broccoli, kale and spring cabbage seedlings from Homebase in the sale a few weeks back, and I've now planted some of these out in tubs in the garden. I was hoping to put the rest on the plot but it's getting a little late now... They've been under constant attack from snails and caterpillars, but I'm just about keeping up. Pesky blighters, those caterpillars. They're too good at hiding...

Though I don't know how they think poses like this help...

Some of the psb is doing really well:

But I'm not sure others are going to make it...

I've put two kale plants into the box that grew beans all summer. Hopefully the nitrogen fixed into the soil by the beans will help to encourage lots of leafy growth. It certainly looks like it's working so far!

The chard, parsnips and leeks on the plot are all doing okay. The chard is a bit munched around the edges and needs a good weeding, which I'll do next week. The leeks are a bit bedraggled and small, but in my experience always perk up and come into their own early in the spring. The parsnips are a great size - I should probably dig them up and put them in a box of compost at home so I can get at them when the ground's frozen, but in reality I don't have anywhere to keep them... I've got some onions and garlic on order for the allotment too - I've never overwintered them before but it's got to be worth a try. I just hope I can get them in the ground in time!

Next job, though, is to sow some winter lettuces and claytonia for salads. It'd be good to sow some turnip seeds on the plot too if I clear enough soil. Is it too late? I don't have a clue. But there's only one way to find out...

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Goodbye Summer...

With temperatures set to drop close to freezing later this week, and squash plants turning brown and straggly on the plot, we've had to bring in the last of our summer crops.

I am very disappointed with our pumpkin/squash harvest, which totals a measly 5.5kg. Most years we bring home whole pumpkins weighing that much! Here it is: two Baby Bear pumpkins, one stunted and underripe Atlantic 'Giant' (ha!), one miniature Sweet Dumpling, two smaller-than-usual Thelma Sanders and one very tiny and very unripe Butternut. Sigh.

I'm most disappointed with the Thelma Sanders - in all previous years they've reliably produced several big fruits per plant - this year just one small one each. What went wrong? Slugs were certainly a major problem this year, destroying two whole Crown Prince plants and eating the other Atlantic Giant pumpkin, which was looking really good early in the season. Perhaps they thrived in the cool and damp summer. Perhaps I should just be spending more money on pest control... I planted the seedlings out a bit late too, which meant they were a little pot-bound and took longer than usual to settle in. And the weed jungle which came up while we were on holiday couldn't have been timed much worse and gave the young plants a lot of competition. Hmmm. Must do better next year...

These will sit in the sun by our back door for a while now to finish ripening (hopefully) and for the skins to cure for storage (not that it'll take long to eat this little lot).

Still, it's not all bad news - we have dug up another 13kg potatoes, bringing our total to something around 30-35kg, and we even found a late handful of strawberries and raspberries!

In the garden, the tomatoes are still going - they've given us fruit since the beginning of July, sixteen weeks ago! Despite blight finally hitting the plants about a month ago, very few fruits have been affected and they're actually still producing! The plants look a total mess though... Today I will pick the rest of the ripe fruit, but I think I'll leave the green ones where they are just to see if they can continue to surprise me...

The courgettes and cucumbers have just about finished now, so I've picked the last fruits to keep in the fridge until I'm ready to use them, so that just leaves the peppers, and there are so many! I'm wondering whether to just haul the plants indoors on cold nights, rather than picking them all at once and trying to eat them all really fast! I think I'll overwinter a couple of plants anyway, but they're not small so it'll be interesting...

Monday 17 October 2011

October Strawberries!

It seems that hot spell last month really confused a lot of our plants - a lot of plants in the garden are flowering for a second time and I know I'm not the only one whose strawberries have started producing a second crop! Crazy!

It was my pleasure to write a guest post for Tom, the 'Hapless Gardener' for his blog 'Growing Up' on Friday - please go read it here if you haven't already!

Thursday 13 October 2011

Peppers - At Last!

October, and my peppers are finally reaching a decent size. Well, some of them. All right, I've eaten a few small ones earlier in the summer, but they were pretty few-and-far-between. Now, at last, I'm counting up to twenty peppers on my 'Doux Tres Long Des Landes' plants, the 'Aji' and 'Kaibi' are a semi-respectable size, and one of my 'King of the North' has even ripened to red - a first! It's the only one, mind, and it's snail damaged and going soft. Doh.

All these pepper plants were sown in late Feb - they really are very slow and steady growers! I might start them even earlier next year...

The King of the North were by far the earliest - I think we ate our first back in July - but we don't tend to get many per plant, and they're extremely irregular in shape and size..

The 'Dedo de Mocha' sweet Aji peppers - smoky flavoured but heat-free, and apparently rather rare - are DELICIOUS and I shall certainly be making sure to grow them again. Might even have to try saving some seeds next year to ensure I can continue to have them. I'm not sure if they're supposed to turn red... but they taste great anyway so I don't care.

The 'Kaibi no 2' sweet red peppers are... still green. And quite small. And there are only two or three per plant. But I'm looking forward to tasting them one of these days...

The 'Doux Tres Long Des Landes' (what a mouthful!) long peppers have been very productive, with around twenty fruits per plant, up to six inches long. We've enjoyed a couple already in salads and a chilli during August and September, but like the others, they're only really coming into their own now. They're supposed to be eaten red or green - but I don't think I'm going to be seeing any red ones this year.

Our chillis have been rather less successful - they only flowered in late August and it looks like this might be the sum total of our harvest!

Doh! I'm considering trying to overwinter this plant indoors to see if it'll give me an early start on some chillis next year.

Until then, I'd better find some recipes to use this little pepper glut well before the frosts get 'em!

Aji, left, and Doux Tres Long des Landes, right. Highly recommended!

Wednesday 5 October 2011

What a Whopper!

I'm making slow progress on my 'things to do' list from last week, but we did manage to dig up some more potatoes the other day, albeit in sweltering heat. Check out the size of some of them!

This beast weights 750g! And it's not alone - there are loads of big ones, which makes me so happy after last year's pathetic harvest of golfball-sized spuds.

We brought home 13kg the other day, we've had 4-5kg already and there's at least the same again still to dig - and I suspect we've missed a few deep ones too so we'll give the whole lot another once-over before the weather gets too cold.

And in the meantime... lots of jacket spuds for us!

Monday 3 October 2011

Wild Food Night - September

Last Wednesday was September's Wild Food Night, and I struggled out despite still not really being well, and with my tastebuds certainly not on top form! I even indulged in my first glass of wine for weeks... though I regretted it by bedtime, when I'd developed a splitting headache. Doh.

I can't help but feeling there's a bit of a lack of variety in the foods offered at the moment, and there's still a real lack of wild greens which is a shame. Perhaps it's just not a good year for greens - I know mine have struggled. Or perhaps I'm just feeling the inertia between seasons - that time when summer's kind of over but autumn hasn't really begun yet.

Our canapes were all crayfish; crayfish caviar on a blini, a whole crayfish (bit messy and fiddly for a canape if you ask me!), and crayfish tempura with chilli jam - delicious!

The starter was a real treat - two filo parcels filled with shredded rabbit - one with fennel and other warming spices, and one with tomato, garlic and herbs. I do love rabbit, and these were fab.

The main course was a curry; a pathia, with tomato, fennel and coriander, and very slow-cooked venison that really melted in the mouth. Delicious, and just the thing for a cold! I'm not convinced that naan was homemade though...!

Dessert was an elderberry panna cotta, with hazelnut biscuits. I didn't really think much of the panna cotta - just personal taste I think. Despite the lurid purple colour, the flavour seemed a bit lost, to me. (My elderberry ice cream was way better!) The biscuits were lovely though!

I'm really looking forward to seeing what autumn and winter bring...
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