Happy new gardening year!

Happy new year everyone. I’m looking forward to another year of gardening, implementing lessons learned last year and starting with a nice blank canvas….at least that is what it looks like at the moment!

Garden Blog 2013 (060113) 002

Believe it or not it was so mild and dry yesterday that I found myself in the garden tidying up the brassicas, chopping down the verbena that was still flowering well into December and emptying dead plants into the compost bins. Not what I would have expected to be doing in the first weekend in January!

So what are we supposed to be doing in January?

  • Start drawing up plans for the coming year, crop rotation and what is going to go where, order seeds and plants.
  • Tidy, tidy, tidy…cut back perennials, clear away plant debris, continue weeding, sort out the shed / greenhouse, clean pots and labels, check and maintain tools and garden furniture
  • Clay soils can be dug over and left. Apparently the frost helps to break up the soil so when it is time to plant, the soil should just need raked over. Light, sandy soils should be left to the spring.
  • Add compost and well-rotted manure to the vegetable beds.
  • Established apple and pear trees should be pruned. Young trees and trees that are cropping well should be left alone. Gooseberry and currant bushes should also be pruned if they have not already been.
  • Check cages, stakes, nets and ties and replace where necessary.
  • Harvest any crops such as parsnips, brassicas and leeks.
  • Warm up seedbeds by covering them with cardboard, carpet or polythene.
  • Vegetable seeds that can be sown indoors include broad beans, early summer cauliflower, leeks, onions, peas, radish, salad leaves and spinach.
  • Plant new sets or divide and re-plant old crowns of rhubarb. It likes the cold but not to be waterlogged.

So what am I going to do? Put the kettle on…….now where did I put that seed catalogue?

 

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The highs, lows and lessons learned in 2012

Well what a year it has been. Officially the wettest ever in the UK! However, even though I am relatively new to this gardening lark I have a sneaky feeling that it would not matter what the year brought, gardeners are a fickle breed and there will always be something to complain about…..too dry, too wet, wrong kind of sunshine etc etc.

As regards my own experience, this is how I would sum it up…..

The low points

  • Most recent has to be Christmas dinner. Brussel sprout seeds were planted on 24 February and the plants produced barely enough for me, Mr Mac and little sis for our Christmas dinner. As for the parsnips, the seeds never even germinated due to the rain.
  • The crazy weather in the spring resulted in me losing all my tomato plants and set me back 7 weeks.
  • Okra was something new I decided to try this year, along with aubergines. It was too cold for the okra and although the aubergine plants did eventually produce two fruits, it was not until October and the cold killed them before they had the chance to mature.
  • Other than the Earlies grown in tubs in the greenhouse, the potatoes were a total disaster – if the slugs did not get them, the blight did!
  • The early frost got the blossom and so there were virtually no plums, pears or apples. Only one apple crumble has been made and NO cider at all!
  • Losing all the tulips in one night. This was particularly upsetting as we had planted up loads of pots and protected them all winter. Then one night, just as they were all about to flower, something came along and ate them. The jury is still out on whether it was the deer, pigeons, pheasants or squirrels.
  • Slugs – they just ate everything.
  • I am going to be predictable here….the weather! It was just pants.

The high points

  • Some of the flowers were exceptional this year, especially the acquilegia, echinacea, alliums, lillies and sunflowers.
  • Growing things in pots – early peas, carrots, butternut squash, spring onions and sunflowers.
  • The start of the hard landscaping at the bottom of the garden and the beautiful new paths Mr Mac started to build.
  • The greenhouse made from a conservatory rescued from a skip in Edinburgh.
  • Mr Mac’s portable fruit cage (although the netting needs some fine tuning!).
  • Having tried for 3 years, finally getting a bumper crop of chillies.
  • It was a brilliant year for soft fruits which obviously loved the rain.
  • Free seeds courtesy of Amateur Gardening magazine. I grew things I would not have thought of growing before…so thank you AG!
  • Starting my Blog….and thank you for reading and keeping me company!

Ten Lessons learned

  1. Label, label, label! Even though when you plant something in the ground it is obvious where it is (and what it is) YOU WON’T REMEMBER! Stick a label in the ground.
  2. Don’t be in a hurry to get all seeds sown as early as you can. Seeds sown later will catch up and there is less risk of losing them to frost.
  3. Keep a note of what is annual, perennial, bi-annual etc. To my cost I discovered I had pulled out a whole load of plants I thought were annuals when they finished flowering and it turns out they were perennials…oops!
  4. A lesson learned from 2011 was to put lots of drainage in the bottom of tomatoes. I filled my specially made troughs with lots of stones but now we can’t move the troughs to get rid of the spent soil as they are too heavy. All the soil will have to be scooped out by hand!
  5. Take out subscriptions to gardening magazines. Look out for deals like 5 issues for £5 (to see you over the summer) or my best find was half price Amateur Gardening magazine with free seeds every week from March to September.
  6. Bubble wrap is excellent to stop pots cracking from frost.
  7. Use Freecycle to get rid of plants or gardening items you no longer want or to acquire things you need.
  8. There is no point being a control freak and fighting mother nature…you will only lose!
  9. Don’t be lazy. If it is dry and you have weeds to hoe or plants to get in the ground DO IT NOW. You don’t know when you will get another chance.
  10. Plant little and often. I am constantly tormented by the thought that nothing will germinate and then it will be too late to start again. I end up with gluts of everything that have to be used within a short period of time. There are only so many vegetables you can force upon your neighbours!

For 2013 I am creating a sister blog….ayearinmygarden2013…where I plan to photograph the garden transforming over the year. I’ll still be here though and hope you will join me for another gardening year.

For now though I would like to wish you all a very happy, dry, sunny new year!

Camera to 0912 466

Control-freak gardening

This year I discovered I am a control-freak gardener. I realised this towards the end of the summer (I use the term loosely!) when I noticed one of the areas usually swamped with vegetables was only a quarter full with a teepee of peas, one of beans and a couple of rows of beetroot and swede. To be fair, there should also have been parsnips and fennel but neither of them came to anything.

In my quest to stop worms eating potatoes, they were all in bags, my carrots and peas were in pots, melons and tomatoes in troughs and lettuces and courgettes in growbags. The control-freak in me was determined to contain everything under the misconception that I would be able to control it. Did it make any difference ……what do you think?

The potatoes got eaten by slugs anyway, the carrots rebelled through lack of water and overcrowding and the courgettes got water-logged and turned to mush.

However, two experiments in control-freak gardening this year were a great success. Having had limited success with sunflowers and butternut squash in previous years – the former snapping in half from wind damage just as they were about to flower, the latter requiring a whole greenhouse to themselves – I was intrigued by the cover of Suttons Spring catalogue showing the most beautiful sunflowers in a pot.

The variety were Waooh! and promised “a multi-headed sunflower, producing a profusion of golden flowers with large, dark, central discs. The bushy plants are ideal for border or patio container…”. They germinated really well and I think you will agree the results were stunning.

Sunflower 1

sunflower 2

The added benefit of them being in pots was that they were portable and could be moved to a sheltered spot or placed at the front door so we could look at them from inside on the rainy days (of which there were many!), reminding us of sunnier times.

While perusing Suttons catologue I came across a similar solution for the butternut squash greenhouse hijackers – Squash F1 Butterbush. I was promised “a compact-growing variety which makes it possible to grow tasty butternut squashed on your patio.” And I was not disappointed. I grew two pots and they did have a fair spread but I was rewarded with many full size fruits.

Butternut 1Butternut 2butternut 3butternut 4

Now while these containment experiments were successful, it has become patently obvious that I don’t have room to grow everything in pots and I have a large garden with a selection of veggie patches lying empty. Something has to change.

So for 2013 I have decided to try to embrace the fact that it is impossible to control nature and give myself over to the green side; worms will eat my potatoes, slugs will eat everything, caterpillars will eat my brussels and aphids, flies, beetles, bugs, mice, birds, moles and deer will all try their best to scupper my hard work. To fight nature is futile and will only end in tears.

So my new mantra (provided by Monty Don) will be, “If a weed is no more than a plant in the wrong place, then a pest is only an animal eating the wrong food!”

However, my inner control-freak might need a wee bit of counselling first!

angry

il giardinaggio per gli avvocati italiani (or gardening for Italian lawyers – I think!)

After our disastrous summer, Mr Mac and I took ourselves off to Italy last month to catch some late summer sun……and we were not disappointed. This was our third trip to Italy, our second to Ravello and my first as a gardener.

 
From previous holidays my lasting memory was tomatoes. Big fat ripe juicy sweet tasty tomatoes everywhere. When I think about it, that is probably why tomatoes are my most precious crop. But our wishy washy Scottish summers cannot compete with the sunshine and heat of Naples and the intensity and sweetness of flavour they bring. A simple insalata pomodoro can make you smile all day!

This time, having spent all year scrutinising my own garden, I was immediately draw to all things green and vegetative. What struck me the most was how every square inch of ground is given up to growing fruit and vegetables.

 

These vegetables were being grown in the ground at a hairpin bend in the road!

 

 

Ravello sits 375 metres above sea level. Check the view from town down to the sea. Almost vertical but look at all the terraces filled with produce.

Even the hotels were getting in on the act and making a big deal about growing their own fruit and veg. This is the garden for the Hotel Villa Maria.

This did backfire on us though. On our first day we were treated to a delicious antipasti of figs with parma ham. Every day after that when we asked for figs we were told, “figgies finish”. The hotel’s fig tree was empty. However, on our last evening our waiter gave a conspiratorial wink when we gave our order, he disappeared for ten minutes and then returned with a plate full of juicy ripe figs. He nicked them from a neighbour’s garden!

As so much ground is given over to growing fruit and vegetables there are not many flowers in gardens. Other than Villa Rufulo and Villa Cimbrone where there are cultivated beds of roses and dahlias, most of the flowers we saw were wild. A perfect example can be seen in this bush growing wild.

And remember my blue wall project I tried this year? A trellis full of blue sweet peas and morning glory…well these morning glory climbers at the side of a road were slightly more successful than mine!

One feature of almost every garden was these trumpet flowers in yellow and peach….absolutely stunning.

Cyclamen were also growing in abundance under every tree. A far cry from the potted up versions currently being sold in our supermarkets and garden centres.

Finally, it would appear to be law that to be eligible to collect olives you must have a minimum age of 80! It was scary how many old couples with a combined age of 160 we saw climbing trees.

Arrivaderci!

The best tomato pasta in the world!

In any normal year, come August and September, Mr Mac and I usually take on an orange glow due to the amount of tomatoes we eat. Our staple diet is usually this simple pasta dish which originally came about as we had to find ways to use up all the tomatoes.

This year it was 21 September before we ate it for the first time and I have been waiting all summer to share it with you!

It takes minutes to prepare and you can leave it in the oven for an hour and go potter in the garden.

Ingredients

  • one big bowl of tomatoes
  • spaghetti
  • olive oil
  • balsamic vinegar
  • salt and pepper

Method

  • Fill a bowl with ripe tomatoes.

 

 

 

 

 

  • Wash and slice in half (or quarters if they are large).
  • Place in a roasting tray and add a generous helping of salt, freshly ground black pepper, a drizzle of olive oil and a glug of balsamic vinegar.

 

 

 

 

 

  • Place in an oven pre-heated to 180 degrees C until the mixture has reduced and the tomatoes have started to caramelise. This usually takes about an hour. Check after 30 minutes and give it a stir. It will look very watery but, trust me, it will reduce down to a gorgeous sauce.

 

 

 

 

 

  • Boil and drain the spaghetti and stir in the tomato sauce.
  • Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

We have tried adding garlic but I think this makes it bitter. Chorizo works well cut into small cubes and also using chilli oil instead of olive oil adds a nice bit of heat. However, I believe the tomatoes are always the star of the meal and this is definitely a case of less is more.

 

Beat that Captain Birdseye!

I have had a bumper year for peas. I decided to stick to petit pois and went for a variety called Calibra. I was promised disease resistant high yields and I was not disappointed.

I experimented by starting early and growing a crop in a large pot inside the greenhouse. I planted the seeds on 19 February and we started eating the first peas on 23 June.

By comparison I planted seeds outside on 27 April and have been eating them from early August. Doing it this way has meant a continuous supply of little green gems right through summer.

I would have had even more but I planted some mange tout beside the peas and got carried away when the first pods appeared. After forcing Mr Mac to eat very stringy “mange tout”, I realised one day while weeding that we had been eating the pea pods NOT the mange tout…..oops! One day I will practice what I preach and label things!

Over the two batches I  also managed to freeze some. When shelling them, I was reminded of the old Birds Eye frozen pea advert from my childhood, with the slogan “one hour to frozen”. Apparently this slogan was subtly dropped as the real time had crept up to 2 and a half hours!

I managed from bottom of the garden to freezer bag in less than 12 minutes – beat that Captain Birdseye!

Raspberry and Amaretto Jam

This summer’s soggy weather obviously suited the soft fruit because we have had bumper yields. Over the last few weeks Mr Mac collected and froze almost 15lbs of raspberries.

After our third batch of making plain old raspberry jam I decided we should try something different. I remembered tasting raspberry and amaretto jam somewhere…I think it was at a craft fair or farmers market…and so we decided to use the last of the raspberries to experiment. The result is delicious.

Ingredients (makes approx 4lbs jam)

  • 1.3kg rasberries
  • 1kg sugar
  • 60ml amaretto
  • 1 tsp almond essence

Method

  1. Put the oven on to a medium heat and sterilise the jars and warm the sugar.
  2. Put the raspberries in the pan and warm through until they start to melt (if frozen) and the juice comes out.
  3. Pour in the sugar and stir until all the sugar has dissolved.
  4. Turn the heat up until you have a rolling boil and leave like this for 10 minutes being careful not to let it boil over the top of the pot (it takes weeks to clean the hob!).
  5. Pour some of the mixture onto a cold plate and leave to cool. If the mixture starts to “crinkle” when pushed it has reached setting point. If not boil again for 5 minutes and repeat the set test.
  6. Add a knob of butter to clarify and remove any scum from the top of the jam.
  7. Add the amaretto and almond essence, mix through and pour into hot jars.
  8. Seal the lids tightly and leave to cool before labelling.
  9. Enjoy!

Five cherries do not a cherry pie make

We planted two morello cherry trees last year and had hoped to make cherry jam and cherry pies.

After a promising start we had loads of blossom.

 

 

 

 

 

But the late frost got most of the blossom and while we did have some fruit…

 

 

 

 

 

…after the birds got their share, this is the sum total of our cherry harvest…

 

 

 

 

 

Never mind, there’s always next year!

Green Tomato Chutney

With the amount of rain and lack of sunshine this summer it looks like many greenhouse owners will have a glut of green tomatoes. Fear not, this tasty recipe transforms them into a delicious chutney that will see you through to next summer.

Ingredients

  • 2 ½ lb green tomatoes (1.25kg)
  • 2lb onions (900g)
  • 2 ½ lb cooking apples (1.25kg)
  • 1lb seedless raisins
  • 6 large cloves garlic, crushed
  • ½ tablespoon cayenne pepper
  • ½ tablespoon salt
  • 2 level dessert spoons ground ginger
  • 1lb 6oz soft brown or Demerara sugar (625g)
  • 1 oz pickling spice (25g) – optional
  • 3 pints genuine malt vinegar (1.75 litres)

What you will need

  • Small preserving pan
  • 8 x 1lb (450g) preserving jars
  • A mincer (or a food processor)
  • A string and some gauze

Method

Wash the tomatoes and cut them into quarters; peel the onions and quarter them; quarter and core the apples, leaving the peels on and keep them in water to prevent browning.

Using the medium blade of the mincer, mince the tomatoes and place them in the pan; next mince the onions, then the raisins followed by the apples, adding them all to the pan.

Now add the garlic, the cayenne, salt, ginger and sugar, blending everything thoroughly. Next, if using the pickling spice, tie it in a small piece of double-thickness gauze and attach it to the handle of the pan so that it hangs down into the other ingredients.

Now pour in the vinegar, bring to a simmering point, remove any scum from the surface, then let it simmer very gently for about 3 ½ hours without covering. Stir now and then, especially towards the end, to prevent sticking. It is ready when the vinegar has been almost absorbed, the chutney has thickened to a nice soft consistency and the spoon leaves a trail.

Pour the hot chutney into hot jars, filling them as full as possible and seal with a tight lid. Label the jars once the chutney is cold.

Store for at least three months in a cool dark place before using. This allows it to mature and mellow in flavour. It will be worth the wait!

Finally, the 2012 inaugural tomato eating ceremony!

On the evening of Thursday 16th August 2012, Mr Mac and I were finally able to  pick our first tomato of 2012. It was one of the sungold variety and despite the appalling growing conditions it had, it did not disappoint.

It has become tradition that we share the first tomato each year. So the tomato was picked from the vine, taken to the kitchen, washed, sliced in half and sprinkled with a little salt. This year we contemplated some black pepper (I know – we are just crazy) but quickly changed our minds.

On the count of three we both ate our little half tomato. It was so sweet and delicious it probably did not even need salt.

Sungold really are the sweetest tomatoes I have ever come across and I have a challenge with fellow blogger  Carrot Tops that they are sweeter than his favourites, gardeners delight.

Unfortunately, I had to wait another 4 days before any more were ripe enough to eat and finally, in the middle of August, I was able to go down to the greenhouse and pick my first salad!