Saturday, 22 April 2017

How to crystallise edible flowers with a toddler

Edible flowers are such beautiful and versatile food decorations. Begone, enormous nauseating piles of buttercream icing in weird colours. Never darken my doorstep again, boring shredded leaves. Shoo, silver balls, it is edible flowers from here on in. They're also a really fun garnish to prepare. I make a traditional Simnel cake every year on Easter Sunday and like to dress the usual eleven marzipan balls with a pretty primrose to make the cake look light, bright and spring-like. This year I thought that it might be fun to get my two year old son GarlicBoy to help crystallise our flowers. I had to buy some organic edible primroses from a local farm because my Primrose seedlings didn't grow fast enough this year. I'll have to plant them earlier, and inside next year! I got a box of 70 which seemed excessive at the time but actually was a good thing once we'd been through the "practice" ones!

You will need:
- Primroses (or another edible flower)
- A small paintbrush
- One large egg white (and a whisk and small bowl / cup)
- Caster sugar (a light, rather than coarse sugar)
- Greaseproof / baking parchment 
- A 24 hour period for the flowers to dry before you put them onto the cake

1. (ADULT) Crack the egg and separate the white into the bowl. (CHILD) Have your small person whisk the egg white lightly until it it a little bit bubbly. At two years old GarlicBoy had a marvellous time splashing the whisk about and watching the little bubbles rise. (ADULT) Take over and make sure the egg white is frothy.
2. (TOGETHER) Check the flowers over for tiny travellers. We found quite a few little insects on our flowers and GarlicBoy enjoyed the hunt. 
3. Sprinkle a light covering of sugar over the greaseproof paper (lie it on a plate or similar)
4. (ADULT) Demonstrate gently painting the petals with the egg white, doing the front first and then the back of the petals before you sprinkle them lightly with sugar and put them down on the greaseproof paper. (CHILD) Have a blast painting the flowers!

5. Once they're done, the (ADULT) can go over the flowers again quickly to ensure that the petals were all thoroughly painted and sugared (as this is what preserves the flower). 

6. Leave the flowers on their paper somewhere relatively cool (I used the kitchen island) and pick them up off of the paper a couple of times over the next 24 hours to stop them sticking. Then you can put them on the cake that you've prepared. I used a bit more egg white to stick them on as I was grilling the marzipan top of the Simnel cake but you could use a little warmed apricot jam or similar. 
- GarlicBoy really enjoyed this, and then nibbled on an extra flower when we were done. But make sure that you check a reputable source for information on whatever flower you're crystallising because some can be toxic in large doses. 
- The UK Food Standards Agency recommends that any vegetation should be washed before being consumed. I found that this really damaged the flowers and so only washed some. But you need to make your own decision on this. 

Thursday, 20 April 2017

To grass or not to grass: The case against artificial turf

I was rather surprised to see what looked like an outdoor hoover when visiting the house of a friend recently. "It is a hoover" she laughed when I asked what it was "to clean debris off the grass". You see, she'd had that dreadful fake astroturf stuff installed and as it's fake, things like leaves can't simply rot down into it so it has to be hoovered, like a carpet. 
Overgrown tiny patch of grass
Weapon of choice: Strimmer
The longer I live in town, the more I despair at the overly sanitised way of life that seems to be taking over. Decking and patios sprawl over what little green is left, this carpet stuff is being poured over real green spaces (with none of the benefits of normal lawns that the RSPB highlight) and few gardens have real grass any more. That might, admittedly, be one of the reasons why we seem inundated with enormous terrifying spiders with big bottoms. Presumably ours is one of the few gardens in the area with any actual grass and so they've all decamped to our place. We used to have a patio, but it was very uncomfortable to sit on and I noticed that GarlicBoy used to be reluctant to crawl off our picnic blanket in the park and so wanted him to have some grass to play on so that he got used to it. But here's the rub. My lawn area is tiny, so much so, that a lawnmower wouldn't really fit on it, or be easy to store, but it is still way too large to cut with scissors alone. Given that the grass grows at an astounding rate (naively it never occurred to me that I would have to cut it every ten days), a solution had to be found. My solution? A strimmer. Yes, I still have to store it, but it's quite compact and fits nicely into the playhouse, plus it doesn't have any blades that inquisitive little hands could get hurt on. It doesn't work around the edges so much to my country husband's enduring amusement I still have to crawl around the perimeter cutting the grass there with scissors but that doesn't take too long. Having to rake up the grass with a hand rake isn't too bad either and it means I spend more time outside wrapped in that heavenly cut-grass smell. 

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that whilst I can see why some people might think that grass in their garden means mud in their house, isn't that a small price to pay for a garden that helps local wildlife, and that reminds us all what something natural underneath our feet feels like? If you have a tiny garden, and you're thinking of paving it over, please think again. A strimmer could be the answer to all of your worries!
Strimmed tiny patch of grass - it can be done!

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Going up in the world: The amazing climbing strawberry "Mount Everest"

I wonder if I'm being a bit too ambitious with all of the unusual plants that I'm taking on this year? First the hanging raspberry (which has admittedly keeled over as promised but has yet to produce any fruiting fronds), and now this, a climbing strawberry. I'm trying the perennial "Mount Everest" climbing strawberry plant. I've decided to grow it along the walls of some of my raised beds and to train the tendrils up along the trellis. So I got the small roots and have planted them up. I have to say, strawberry plants have always seemed so sad and dead-looking when I've started them in the past and these are no exception. I'm interested to see how it holds on to the trellis and string support though, and I'll be monitoring the crop carefully. If this works, this could completely revolutionise the urban growing world, imagine being able to get a huge soft fruit crop on a balcony by growing all the way up the wall! This is one new cultivar that I'm really excited about. 

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Topping herbs

One of the problems with plugs (rather than growing herbs and plants from seed) is that even once transplanted, they are sometimes quite sparse and patchy in their new home. In my herbal vertical garden planters some of the plants, parsley and thyme for example, have really taken off and have spread wonderfully to fill their little beds. But some, like the mint and rosemary, have simply grown very long and straggly. So in an attempt to encourage them to bush up a bit I've cut the growing tips and hope that they'll start to grow out rather than up. Fingers crossed! 

Monday, 17 April 2017

Harvest Monday: More herbs

Harvest has been rather sparse thus far, still just herbs. But I'm very pleased with it, being able to pop outside with herb scissors whenever I'm cooking is so satisfying. I keep on forgetting to photograph my harvest though. Will you believe me if I tell you I've had multiple bunches of flat parsley and a couple of cups of fresh mint to use for tea even though I have no actual evidence? I'm still learning about Instagram and Twitter and how to store images, so much has changed since I last blogged on a regular basis. But I'm trying to post everything that I harvest, as I'd really like to show that you can make a real difference to your cooking with your own produce no matter how small your garden is. So my haul this week is another relatively measly £1.70 in savings but an amazing boost in general happiness and wellbeing. Eating your own home-grown produce is life-affirming!

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Promising pumpkins: growing halloween pumpkins with a toddler

When gardening with a toddler you've got to consider various factors that maybe wouldn't apply were you just trying to grow edible food for adults. You have to consider planting as much variety as you can, planting things that all look very different so that he learns to harvest various different crops, and also what will impress them the most. With that in mind, we decided to plant some pumpkins for halloween. I'm planning ahead and am going to try to grow a "Hundredweight" pumpkin in our smallest raised bed next to our outdoor sofa thing. I've got a small trellis to put up against the fence behind one plant, and a wire structure for the other one to climb. We initially planted the pumpkin seeds together in our propagator (pumpkin seeds are fantastic for little hands to push into the earth) and then we chose the strongest ones for the garden to plant out. I don't know what it is about canes and climbing structures but somehow they just make the garden look so much more...done. Don't you think? They just imply hopeful skyward growth!

Saturday, 15 April 2017

It's a carrot calamity

A while ago, toddler GarlicBoy and I sowed some carrot and beetroot seeds in one of our shadier raised beds. I have to admit, I have been seriously worried about them. I had to cover the seeds with a cloche tunnel because the cats kept lying on the raised bed but I think that stopped the seeds from germinating. Taking the cloche off (and blasting the poor cats with the hose to ensure they know not to use that bed) appears to have kick started the seeds again and today I even had to thin them out! The seed syringe appears to have done it's job remarkably well.  So although we might need to find a few ringers to give to the Easter bunny because ours might be a bit slow, it looks like we're actually going to have our very own carrot and beetroot harvest this year!

Friday, 14 April 2017

Hanging raspberry canes can't (or at least it appears that way...)

Pretty unimpressive before planting
You know the old saying "too good to be true"? Well I think I may have fallen for the marketing hype on some raspberry plants to replace my old Raspberry canes. They claim to be trailing or tumbling canes that you can grow in hanging baskets. This makes me suspicious in the extreme. Apparently they promise up to 1.5kg of fruit per hanging basket. That's about what I got from a whole small raised bed of traditional summer and late-fruiting raspberry canes. I was sad to lose them but they simply took up too much space in my only full sun facing bed. So I went for two of the hanging basket raspberries but I have to say that thus far they look seriously twiggy and puny. They require a 16 inch hanging basket which implies they need plenty of room, and apparently as the tendrils grow they'll pul the plant down. I will hope of the best but I suspect I may have been taken in by the advertising on this one.  

Not that impressive in situ

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Plugging the gaps in the raised beds

I sometimes wonder if people with an allotment or vegetable beds in their garden face the same complications that I do when it comes to deciding what to plant where. Even if I'd been growing my own plants from seed rather than cheating and didn't have to wait for the plug plants to be shipped to me in tiny spurts when they're ready, I'd still have to work out where to put them. It is quite frustrating to see lots of gaps where the collars I'm using should be, but I'm trying my best to be patient and they're extremely useful in forcing me to keep a decent distance between each plant. I have a bad habit of overcrowding plants and so having them die on me. It feels strange, with the plants being so tiny at the moment, to see so much bare earth. I'm really looking forward to them leafing up soon, I've got various squashes and peppers and tomatoes in already, and can't wait for them to grow and make the place a bit greener!

Monday, 10 April 2017

Harvest Monday: Herby harvest

My urban garden harvest so far in 2017 has mainly comprised of herbs. This is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that it's very early April, in London and that the climate in the UK is pretty inhospitable at this point in the year. I'm actually not at all unhappy with this, as I love to use herbs in my cooking and popping out to the garden with my herb scissors every evening when I start to cook is an absolute pleasure. The herbs are so much tastier than those awful limp and sad-looking bunches you can buy in sweaty little supermarket bags. The leaves are firm and the stems strong and the smell is just divine. So although I've not been able to cook that much from my harvest so far, I've really enjoyed the little I've had. I can't wait to take more! But for now, the £1.70 of herbs that I have had will go towards my rather paltry savings. I've actually had a bit more from my herb beds but my husband forgot to photograph them so in the interest of transparency, I shall just register these.