At last, February

I’ve got a bit behind on the blog, what with the usual winter darkness and other commitments but, today, spring is in the air at last. I made a pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens with my mother to look at the snowdrops:

20190216_151036[1]

The gardens have a bare beauty at this time of year, with architectural trees, some tiny flowers and plenty of birdsong. They were also busy with visitors: families with small children, young couples, older people, tourists. We had a little reminisce over the generations of visits we have made to the gardens, always a popular place with children of all ages. We also enjoyed reading all the plaques on the memorial benches, and sitting on a few of the benches.  I noticed that there is now a ‘free library‘, down near the hot houses:

20190216_153919[1]

currently filled mostly with novels.

Note of course that public libraries are also free and have many more books but it’s good to know that, should you find yourself sitting on one of the many memorial benches with nothing to read, you can find something in the free library.

Having tried out a few more benches, sniffed a few witch hazels and listened to robins in the trees, we came away with a bag full of plants from the shop – my mother’s birthday present to me. By the time we got home it was dark so the plants will have to wait until tomorrow to be planted. Meanwhile we had a good sniff of the winter box (sarcococca confusa) that sits just outside the bike shed on the way to my kitchen door:

20190215_182401[1]Spring is definitely in the air.

The trouble with

.. courgettes is that they grow into marrows. We’ve had a bumper crop on the allotment this year and I’ve been struggling to keep up. My allotment keeper friend is not very keen on the big guys so I said would deal with them. Only, I didn’t get along to the plot for a few days and they grew even bigger and I couldn’t carry them all with my dodgy arm. I did get several home eventually. Fortunately my house has been taken over by a bunch of enthusiastic and hungry musicians (nothing to do with the Edinburgh Festival, just one of those things that happens when your young people grow up). They insisted on taking the most monstrous marrow and cooking it whole:

giant marrow(plates for scale, it didn’t even fit in our biggest casserole dish). In fact they cooked two marrows: the monster, which was stuffed with practically everything from the store cupboard plus some cheese, and its baby sister, which was created as a vegan version, with same miscellaneous filling but no cheese. These fed several hungry musicians, plus a few of us oldies for tea one night and the leftovers were turned into a rather good soup which fed us all the next day too.

You may not have spotted from the photo above, that the outside of the marrow was also tastefully decorated  to make it look like a bus – close up of windows here:

wp_20180815_21_59_06_pro.jpgThis was inspired, we think, by  The Trouble with Grandad by Babette Cole, a much loved favourite from when the musicians were much smaller. Fortunately we still have a copy so were able to remind ourselves of this glorious gardening story. I won’t give a way any plot spoilers, but lets just say that it features a similar giant vegetable which is not dissimilar to  our bus marrow.

Well done, young people for your creative efforts. Meanwhile, here is what is still waiting in the kitchen to be attended to (just saying):

WP_20180818_11_48_14_Pro.jpg

I’ll get the pickle making juices flowing soon. I won’t be pickling the cucumbers though. They have been equally majestic, if rather more restrained in size,  this year:

WP_20180811_12_31_42_Pro (1)The cucumber plant in my cucumber frame has escaped out of its raised bed and started climbing up the hedge at the back of the garden:

wp_20180818_11_16_05_pro.jpgWonderful. But these are best just eaten raw in salads, or even straight from the plant as a mid-morning snack.

Slightly off schedule

Dear blog, I’ve been away from you too long but I’ve had other things to do, including  some gardening and allotment plotting, but also working, seeing family, and listening to music: everything from solo cello to Don McLean. But, I digress. One thing that fell behind last weekend was potting up my tomato plants. I had taken them out for some sun at the weekend:

WP_20180513_11_23_13_Pro.jpg

but then didn’t have time to repot them. I snatched a moment on Monday night to do the repotting and then, of course, ran out of space inside for the happier plants in their bigger pots. Time to move them outside to the growhouse. But the big growhouse lost its plastic cover and was looking a little sad – here it is with the now-gone conifers in the backgroundwp_20180410_08_53_29_pro.jpgI had looked online for replacement covers but it seems that this model is no longer made. Time for some recycling or upcycling or whatever the term is – reusing, I suppose. I patched together a cover, using a part of the old cover and a large piece of plastic from some delivery which had been sitting in the shed, on the grounds of coming in useful one day. This was the day:

WP_20180513_14_18_56_Pro.jpgBut how to fix it in place?

WP_20180513_14_19_05_Pro.jpgWooden clothes pegs seemed to do the trick.  So the bigger tomatoes have moved outside and are hanging on, even with night time temperatures dropping to 4 degrees this week. To compensate, they are getting lots of sunshine during the day.  I’ve kept the cucumbers in the house as they are little less robust.

Meanwhile, one of our visitors brought me a book:

wp_20180517_22_06_40_pro.jpg

I’m a little excited – this is from 1971, updated from 1929. It has a stern warning inside:

‘the contents of this Bulletin are intended for use by persons wishing to undertake preservation of fruit and vegetables at home for their own consumption…. Any person contemplating the sale of food should seek the advice of their local food and drugs and/or weights and measures inspector, whose address can be obtained from the local Town Hall’

There’s something very 20th century about that but I’m pretty sure the actual business of home preservation is just as valuable today.

Finally, wordpress reminded me that it is my blog anniversary. This is a little earlier than the first post because it took me several weeks to work up the courage to press  ‘publish’ but it’s time to celebrate four years of blogging. I read somewhere that the average blogger lasts a year, so four years feels pretty good. Now that that particular flurry of family and other activities is over, I hope to get back up-to-date with my usual gardening, cooking and blogging schedule.

 

Drip

WP_20170606_08_17_56_ProI’ve had a day working at home, waiting for a plumber to attend to a dripping tap.  It seems like a very minor thing but it’s taken us months to get round to sorting it.  Finally, the plumber has worked his magic and we no longer have the drip.  In the mean time, I have been suffering endless guilt at all the water that has been wasted while we failed to get round to this apparently simple household maintenance task.

To assuage some of that guilt and to get out of the house, I made a little trip to our local DIY store this evening.  I came home with a length of guttering and some fiddly bits to fix the guttering to the shed on the allotment so that we can install a water butt.   I’ve already fixed similar guttering for water butts to the two sheds in the garden, following the very helpful advice in one of my handy garden books (Practical Allotments, by Paul Wagland Guild of Master Craftsmen, 2009):

WP_20180208_20_58_31_Pro

I’ve had this book for a good few years.  It differs from most of my gardening manuals because it is really a DIY book, giving lots of useful tips for making raised beds, things to grow plants up, and how to fix guttering to a shed. Paul Wagland’s advice is helpful, the main tip being to check that the whole thing works by pouring water into it.  Must remember to take some water with me to the allotment to check that bit when I get round to it.

Despite my skills at gutter fixing, my experience with water butts in the garden has been a little mixed, with the first two freezing solid one very hard winter, cracking round the edges and becoming quite useless. Photo here of the effects of excessive ice – and you can see the beautifully installed guttering at the top of the picture.

frozen water barrel

For more on that saga see here  and more here. But since then, fingers crossed, the replacements have done really well at collecting rain water and basically doing what they are meant to do.

water barrel

Despite the terrible waste from the dripping tap, water will be saved.

 

 

Green plum chutney

The plum tree is weighed down with fruit this year.

WP_20170805_12_25_58_Pro

Last time we had a crop like this, an entire branch fell off, laden with unripe plums.  This broken tree led to the silver lining that was green plum chutney. The tree seems to have recovered but this year I thought I would avert disaster by harvesting some unripe plums in advance and making chutney.  I picked 3 kilos, barely leaving a dent in the crop but aware that at least the branches were 3 kilos lighter:

WP_20170805_12_45_14_Pro

Now to make the chutney but I couldn’t find a recipe anywhere.  What did I do last time? I had no idea so had to look up my own blog to find out.  Which involved sitting down, turning on the laptop and getting distracted by other people’s blogs, tweets, cats and news.  It was so much simpler when you just reached for a recipe book.  I first came across the bizarre practice of googling recipes one year when we were on holiday and my boys had an urge to get up early and make oatcakes for breakfast (as you do).  I was amazed ‘But we don’t have a recipe’.  ‘We just looked one up online’.  Astonishing, but now I find myself tempted to do this too when my faithful recipe books can’t supply the answer.  As I’ve explained, this brings many hazards so it is usually better to rely on the books. We have a whole shelf, mostly well used and rather battered:

WP_20170806_12_11_32_Proand including some of my absolute favourites: The Apple Book and Plain Cookery Recipes .The book that I use the most though is a hardbound notebook where you write down your recipes:

WP_20170806_12_50_56_ProMy mother gave me this when I first left home as a student and it has followed me around since.  Usually I follow the ‘make it up as you go along’ approach to cooking and don’t rely on recipes at all but this book contains several important family recipes: The Christmas Pudding*, the Christmas Cake and the endlessly useful Plum and apple cake recipes . In this little book I can also find Green Tomato Marmalade, Plum (or rhubarb) flapjack , lavender biscuits, rosemary Christmas trees. If I can’t find a recipe in there, I can usually find what I need in one  of the cookery books on the shelf.

But not what to do with 3 kilos of unripe plums.  My previous blog post helpfully told me to adapt a green tomato chutney recipe. Here’s what I did this time (duly adapted from a green tomato chutney recipe in one of my faithful books).  I included a couple of not yet ready cooking apples from the Howgate Wonder as it is also threatening to collapse under the weight of fruit this year:

Green Plum Chutney

  • 2kg green plums
  • 3 onions
  • a couple of cooking apples
  • 450ml malt vinegar
  • 350g brown sugar
  • a 2cm piece of fresh ginger (or equivalent dried ginger)
  • a handful of peppercorns
  • a glug of green ginger wine
  • 1tsp salt
  1. Wash, stone and slice the plums
  2. Chop the onions
  3. Peel, core and chop the apples
  4. Put everything in a large pan and cook over a medium heat, stirring frequently until the chutney had thickened (probably about 45 mins)
  5. Pour into warm, sterilised jars

WP_20170806_11_59_15_ProDuly noted in my recipe book for future reference:

wp_20170806_12_55_34_pro.jpgThe observant and numerate among you will have noticed that the above recipe only uses 2 kilos of plums – that’s because they wouldn’t all fit in my big pan.   So I have one kilo left, and today I’m going to try and work out how to make them into plum pickle – several reliable books have been ransacked for relevant recipes and I am in the process of adapting them for the ingredients I actually have – watch this space once I’ve worked out how to do it.

*You’ll notice that I haven’t given you the recipe for the Christmas Pudding.  It is an ancient and secret recipe which has been passed down from mother to daughter over several generations – I will pass it on to my sons in due course.

Tangle

WP_20170624_15_59_03_ProThis month’s combination of sun and rain has brought lush growth in the vegetable patch. I thought I’d better do something about the equally lush weeds and overgrown hedges.  Underneath the escallonia, I found this tangle of flowers and greenery.  None of these are weeds though.  Here there is clover.  If not exactly planned, it is at least welcome.  There is also campanula.  I can’t quite remember how it came here but it’s lovely anyway.  And there is a lot of campion

campionThe campion has self-seeded all round the garden, from plants that we brought from our old garden.  It carries particular memories of summers by the sea and a small boy who loved flowers.  That small boy, all grown up now, was also the motivation behind the purply flower in the tangle:

WP_20170624_15_59_09_ProWe bought this plant when the boys were very small.  It was a wet day, things were getting a little fractious indoors but I had spotted an advert for a plant sale at the local church hall. These were the ‘Doing the garden‘ years, when we resembled the family in Sarah Garland’s lovely book.  There was a bit of a battle going on.  I was running out of vegetable space but the boys wanted more flowers.  ‘Let’s see if they have any bargains and we’ll try and find a space for them?’, I’d said, hoping to pick up some extra courgette plants.  When we got to the hall, it turned out to be a rather posh affair: not bargain plants at all but quite expensive individual varieties of flowers.  No vegetables. We came home with this little purple plant. We found a home for it and it has flourished, coming up every year and lovingly moved with us to our new home. I think it’s a kind of geranium but perhaps another plant expert can keep me right here.

The yellow flower in the photo is Craws’ Taes, otherwise known as Birds’ Foot Trefoil.  It reminds me of my own childhood and summers in the far north of Scotland. I loved it then for the contrast between its local name and its posh official name.  I love it now for its bee-attracting properties.

That tangle of wild, and not so wild, flowers is full of wildlife and full of memories

Mocking the marrows

What is it with marrows? People seem to love them or hate them. I have one gardening/cookery book which takes hatred of the beautiful beasts to extremes ‘I have never seen a marrow in a top restaurant’ (good reason not to go to one then) and ‘I challenge any reader to send me a marrow recipe devised by a top chef’ (good reason not to bother with top chefs then). I persevere with this particular book because it has other useful recipes. But how could anyone hate these beauties?

WP_20160815_002 WP_20160815_001

 

 

 

 

 

Here pictured with some of its smaller, cuter, but less awesome, cousins, the courgettes.

You can see which side of the love/hate divide I fall on. I love marrows because they are extreme – they grow almost before your eyes, and keep on growing, even in a coldish, wettish, northish facing garden in Edinburgh – if you can get them past the seedling stage they seem to be immune to slugs (that’s because the slugs have read about the top chef thing and avoid them) – and you can make completely mad recipes with them.

So this week’s joy was to try ‘Mock Preserved Ginger’ from a different cookery book that I inherited from an old family friend. When she died earlier this year, her family brought a huge selection of her books along to her memorial service and asked us to help ourselves. Both my friend and her late husband were amazing cooks. Keeping and using one of their recipe books seemed an appropriate way to remember them. So I brought home her copy of Making your own preserves by Jane and Rob Avery, (Prism Press 1981). The book has several marrow recipes and I couldn’t resist this one. There’s something very 19th century about ‘mock’ anything – the idea that you can make something posh without the expensive ingredients (aha maybe that’s why the top chefs don’t do it). Anyway, here’s the recipe:

Mock Preserved Ginger

  • 1 Medium sized marrow (that’s a how long is a piece of string measurement but you have to do your best)
  • 1lb sugar
  • 1/pt water
  • 1oz root ginger
  1. Peel the marrow and cut into large cubes
  2. Peel the ginger
  3. Put the sugar and the water in a pan and bring to the boil, continue boiling until it makes a thick syrup
  4. Add the cubes of marrow and the piece of ginger
  5. Remove from the heat when the marrow has turned clear
  6. Leave overnight in a covered basin
  7. Next day, strain off the juice and bring to the boil until it turns syruppy again
  8. Add the marrow and simmer for one hour
  9. Repeat from stage 6
  10. Pour into warmed jars and seal.

It was a bit of a faff – all this leaving overnight and repeating – but I followed it more or less diligently.  I think it worked – the scrapings from the pan certainly tasted good. but the marrow more or less disintegrated, turning the whole thing into jam and not really mock anything. I think the boiling for an hour bit was extreme. I asked an assistant for an opinion ‘It tastes of marrow.. and ginger .. and sugar’. Hmm. We’ll try it as jam but next time I might just follow the rather more straightforward (bung it all in a pan and cook it) marrow jam recipe instead.

In the meantime, the next best thing to do with marrow is to make marrow chutney – see here for a recipe.  I’ll keep growing marrows no matter what the top chefs say and, when we open up the jars and try the jam/mock ginger, I’ll think of of our dear friends.

Latin mice

We have mice in the garden. Not the kind that nibble the peas and eat the bird food. Not the kind that Bella watches every evening from her perch under the picnic table. We have these as well, though Bella does her best to keep their numbers down. The mice I am talking about are Latin scholars with very odd flowers:

WP_20160525_001 (1)

Arisarum Proboscideum – mouse plant

I don’t really do Latin names for the plants in my garden – I prefer to think of them in terms of how I can cook them, what they smell like, where to grow them, when they flower or why I’ve got them. But sometimes Latin is helpful to help you identify something. So, that’s the Latin over with. What about the other aspects of this plant?

Cooking: – I don’t think so – I didn’t realise this but, according to the RHS ,they are poisonous so just as well I’ve never thought of trying.

Scent: I don’t think they have one worth noticing

Where to grow: according to the RHS ‘woodland conditions’, ‘partial shade’, so that little dark north facing spot between the compost bins and the pond is obviously perfect

When they flower: now! Well midish spring I suppose which is why they are in my dark corner which I devote to late winter/ spring flowering things to cheer me up.

Where they came from: for me that’s the interesting thing about this weird little plant. We first acquired the mice from a retired botanist who took a liking to my small children. Touched by my older son’s passion for flowers when he was five or six, this elderly lady often brought us gifts of plants that she thought the boys would like. So she gave us a piece of mouse plant.

‘Plant it and look after it and let me know when you find the mice’.

So we planted it beside our shed in our old garden. We had spotted live mice under the shed so it felt like an appropriate place. It seemed a rather insignificant little plant but it produced mice and we were delighted. When we moved to our current house, we had to bring the mice with us. I dug them up, divided them and left some for the new owners (and the mice). They were among the first plants to find a home in our new garden – an optimistic hope that we could recreate some of what we had left behind in our much loved old garden. Now they are very settled and very prolific and the mice reappear every year: quiet, hidden and lasting only a few weeks but they remind me of happy times and a kind retired botanist who took an interest in small children. Sadly she is no longer with us but our memories of her live on.

WP_20160525_002

One of my favourite gardening books is ‘A Gentle Plea for Chaos’ by Mirabel Osler (Bloomsbury 1989), a lovely book with a true gardener’s understanding of what it means to live with a garden.  She reminds us of the importance of relating plants to people.  Many of my flowering plants have come from relatives or friends: as gifts, as cuttings, as purchases with birthday garden tokens, or recommendations.  Some date back to those days with small children, when we spent a lot of time in garden centres and plant sales and came home with the most surprising things.  (We were a bit like the family in Sarah Garland’s ‘Doing the Garden‘) .  I try and remember where these plants came from.  I don’t always succeed but the mouse plant is special.

 

Seed excitement

Today my seed order came through the post:WP_20160222_001Peas, courgettes, tomatoes, runner beans, marrows, sweet peas – all so exciting. I’ve also got quite a lot left over from last year. And a recent birthday brought a garden token and some perennial flower seeds.  I was going to look these up on google but decided to use my trusty bookshelf instead with the flower bible Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers – my copy (another birthday present) dates from 1994 and its been updated since then but it still found me information about these exciting seeds.

Now all I need is a little time to get my seed sowing under way and work out where they are all going to go.

Clear out – or not

New Year, time to do a bit of tidying up.  I did a little in the garden this morning, clearing away some more dead vegetation and putting nets across the raised beds to keep the cat off.  But then it got dark and I moved inside and tried to clear up my desk a bit.  It was hidden under a pile of books and papers so I’ve had a satisfying clear out.  Actually, it’s still pretty hidden but at least I now have a rough idea of what’s there and why. This also involved putting at least some of the books back on their correct shelves. Which is when I realised that my garden books had overflowed their allocated bookshelf space – time to pass some on to a charity shop? I don’t really need any of them but I like them all for different reasons.  I’ve written about some of my favourites before: indoor gardening, containers, cookery books, children’s books but here are my absolute top gardening books. Number one, my all time favourite gardening book is The Reluctant Gardener, by Ethelind Fearon, published 1952.

You can still get copies of this through second hand booksellers – whenever I see one I snap it up and distribute to gardening friends as it’s so good. This copy belonged to my grandmother which makes it all the more precious. It has her scribblings in the margin and underlinings of important points:

WP_20160102_001WP_20160102_002

The book pretends to be a lazy person’s guide to gardening but it uses this excuse to show that ‘doing nothing’ can often be the best way. ‘What we want is a garden which will do its own work, feed itself, clothe itself, sow itself, grow itself, tie itself up, cut itself down and in all respects be as relaxed and happy as its owner’. She continues her advice on pruning shrubs to say that the best way to do it is to ‘cut off the bit which has bloomed’ ‘while it is blooming’ and to prune the blackcurrants by cutting off whole branches of fruit and bringing them indoors where it is easier to detach the currants. She also has useful advice on pest control and compost making. Of course a book published in 1952 is rather old-fashioned and has its dodgy moments but it has been an old friend to me.

Moving slightly further through the twentieth century, my next favourite is by Geoff Hamilton, much missed presenter of BBC’s Gardener’s World. I’ve got several of his books but Paradise Gardens (BBC, 1997) is well-thumbed, particularly for the chapters on scented gardens and encouraging wildlife. The book was based on his last TV series and so is quite special for that reason. And of course it fits well with my blog:

WP_20141125_005

These books are mainly not about vegetables and I do need a vegetable bible from time to time. That’s when I turn to The Complete Manual of Organic Gardening (Basil Caplan, Headline, 1992):

WP_20141125_004

This tells me everything I need to know about sowing, pruning, harvesting, soil, compost and dealing with pests (except that it doesn’t tell me everything about pests, as I’ve yet to find a solution to either slugs or vine weevil that actually works). It has the added bonus for me that I bought it with a book token that I received for a piece of illustration work so in a sense I earned it.

My bookshelf contains other gardening gems that I turn to from time to time. I don’t think I can spare any just now so it will just have to overflow.