Monday, 4 August 2014

The poor neglected garden

Dear readers. I write to apologise for my absence. Normal service will resume within a couple of weeks but I've been otherwise distracted for the last couple of week. Well, the last four anyway. Four weeks ago today our first child, a little boy, was born and it turns out that looking after a baby is considerably harder than I thought it'd be. So my poor garden is going to rack and ruin through neglect (though Mr Garlic is heroically watering it every night) but I'll be back soon! In the meantime, I leave you with this, a picture of our overgrown jungle!

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Keeping on top of the raspberries (or alongside them at least...)

The number of things that I have really not been that efficient at in the garden continues to increase. It didn't occur to me, when planting my rows of raspberries in my raised sleeper beds, to string up a proper wire frame. This has resulted in having to tie new lines, made of string, across the canes I'm using as a makeshift support every week or as (the plants are shooting up at mad speeds and there are small, underripe fruits hanging in tantalizing bunches from most of the branches - I think it's possible I'll get a good crop this year even though the canes are in their first year!). Next year I'm going to have to get a proper support and put it in before they start growing. String really isn't that strong...

Friday, 4 July 2014

It's all a bit of a squash in here

Oh, puns. They prompted Caligula to roast a comedian alive and Bierce to sneer at them as a “form of wit to which wise men stoop and fools aspire.” But my love of them, established early at the knee of my maternal grandfather, lives on. Puns and cracker jokes. I just can't get enough, and they spill over into all areas of my life, like when I made up herb-related puns for the herb centrepieces I grew for a friend's wedding. Still, dear readers, I'm sure you'll forgive me? Because the squash in the garden really are going crazy.

One of the things I've already learned this year is that less can be more. I'm not overly convinced that stuffing my outdoor shelving with as many plants in small pots as it can hold was the best of ideas. I suspect that using four larger pots per shelf would have been a better idea. Yet I have to admit, they are thriving! And, as you can see, they're spreading to block sunlight from other plants with their huge leaves.

Eventually I suppose I'll have to create little support bags for the squashes so that their growing weight doesn't pull them off their vines. But for now I'm really enjoying watching them grow. They soak up water at an astounding rate too.
Next year I think I'll deliberately position all of the squash plants next to the trellis on the side of the shelving so that the vines can cover that and so that the courgettes can get more sun. At the moment the squashes are really aggressive, threading their tendrils onto anything they touch, including leaves of other plants which they puncture. It's all a bit creepily reminiscent of Day of the Triffids.
Creepy vines puncturing leaves

I've got two winter varieties: Potimarron and Autumn Crown, both of which should be quite fruitful and yield 3-5 fruits per plant. We shall see!
Shelving covered by squash and courgette leaves

Thursday, 3 July 2014

What a difference some weeds make

Before weeding
I wish that I had a massive garden. Well, a smallholding really. That's the eventual dream, to be able to potter out of our house and see our cows and sheep grazing our fields in the distance, to wander about lovely large veggie patches next to the house whilst the chickens burble away at me demanding corn. I would use a razor hoe to grab weeds when I see them and all would be in perfect harmony.
Weeds creeping under the fence

Back to reality and my tiny London patio garden which has started to look really shabby around the edges. The problem? My neighbour rents his house out by the room to a bunch of people that have no interest in keeping it tidy. The weeds in his garden regularly top our six foot fences (which we had to replace last year) and they also sneak underground onto our land and push up through my raised sleeper beds. So we're not just weeding our own patch (by hand and with suppressant material, never with pesticide), we essentially have extra work because he never deals with his. Anyway, moan over, it is what it is, but it has meant that the garden has become incredibly messy over the last few months when bending over has become a bit too uncomfortable for me. But with the baby arriving next week, I resolved to do something about it and just three hours after the gardener started, look at the difference!
Post weeding (Cat conveniently in shot again)

It was an odd feeling, hiring someone to do something I'd usually do myself in stages, but very satisfying to know that at least it's done now, and that my poor plants are being given a break from the attention of the interlopers.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

How to freeze berries: making the most of a home-grown blackcurrant harvest

One of the biggest problems with having such a tiny city garden is that you can't fit in lots of plants. This isn't a problem in itself as most plants, especially berry bushes, will crop quite heavily over the growing season. However, if you find yourself (as I do) in the first year of your garden, with immature berry bushes that are fruiting sporadically, what are you to do? Eat the berries two or three at a time as they ripen? Or save them in the freezer until I have enough for cooking?

I chose the latter. I was enormously excited to see some of the beautiful blackcurrants on my Ben Connan Blackcurrant bush. They were enormous and beautifully black and shiny and just begging to be picked. I was also pleased that once I started picking them, there appeared to be many more than I'd originally though hiding under the large leaves. I managed to harvest an initial yield of 130g. Small fry for now, especially considering that I can apparently expect about 3.5kg a year (about seven pounds) as of next summer, but still, more than enough to make me happy as the bush should keep cropping for a good month or so this year and hopefully I'll be able to add to the bag of frozen berries I'll have in the freezer until I have enough for a pie or, if the weather is still good, homemade ice lollies.

So here's a quick "How To Freeze Fresh Berries" guide that will help you store your harvest without it all clumping together:
Under-ripe berries/blackcurrants should be left

1. Harvest your blackcurrants. Make sure that you only take the juciest and ripest berries. Leave anything else on the plant to flesh out and darken properly.

2. Cover a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and (without washing them) spread the berries out evenly across the surface. Carefully place the tray into the freezer for four hours, making sure that the berries still aren't touching. 

3. After four hours, decant the berries from the tray into a ziploc or vacum-packed bag. Label with the contents and date and leave in the freezer to have new berries added to it each time a load ripen. 

4. Bear in mind that once you defrost the berries they might look a bit wrinkly or deflated - but the flavour will be just as wonderful as ever. This is a good technique to use when you're looking to cook the blackcurrants, but if you want them to look pristine (for example, on top of a cheesecake), then you might want to wait a year until you can harvest all that you need all at once. 


Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Garden ornaments: Tacky or fun?

The Royal Chelsea Flower show always makes headlines. But one last year really caught my eye. Gnomes, those maligned imps of the garden world, were making a comeback. They've never really been my sort of thing but I have to admit to thinking that no garden is complete without a spot of whimsy. I have friends with pinwheels, and even a friend with Aleksandr the Meerkat in their garden, but no gnomes have made it into our circle yet.
My personal shameful preference has always been for the pink flamingo. As ludicrous in life as in plastic, they've always held a strange allure for me. I don't know if it's because I associate them with the plethora of bad 80's movies that I watched in my youth (there was always at least one flamingo on the lawn), or if it's just because they're tongue-in-cheek fun now that the low brow has been elevated. But I love them. And last month, whilst we were on holiday in Dorset, I emitted a high squee of happiness at seeing one peeping out at me from the window of a tourist tat shop. Mr Garlic rescued him from his perch next to the "Kiss me quick" hats and he now occupies a place of pride next to my Buckingham Tayberry. Tacky? Yes. Kitsch? Yes. Pointless? Yes. But he makes me smile as he whirls his silly wings that get him nowhere. He's not edible, but he's brought some fun back into the garden. 
Hello, my name is Catherine, and I have a tacky lawn ornament. What about you?

Monday, 30 June 2014

Harvest Monday: 30/6/14

Look! Mangetout!
The "beanbags"
One of the blogs that I read is the lovely Daphne's Dandelions. And so now that I've finally got some of my plants to start producing things I can eat (more than just herbs that is), I have decided to pluck up the courage to join her link party on Harvest Monday's. So now every Monday I'll be posting the harvest of the previous week. 

This week, the harvest was somewhat small. Less of a harvest than a scraping. But still, something I was enormously proud of. We managed a tiny side serving of sugarsnap peas and mangetout peas from the garden! Peas and beans haven't really gone well for me this year. I thought they'd be the perfect crop to squeeze along the side return to use that part of the garden, but I planted them too late and didn't give them proper support with the result that they've grown to be straggly and vunerable to snails. I suspect that this might be the only harvest I get from them this year and that next year I'll need to rig up something more robust than the shopping bag containers I used this year. 
"Golden sweet" mangetout, "Shiraz" mangetout and "Sugar Flash" sugarsnap peas
The three types of pea and mangetout that I pulled together from the garden to have with Mr Garlic's excellent chicken kiev (I'm lucky to be married to an excellent cook) were "Golden Sweet" and "Shiraz" mangetout, chosen for their unusual colour, and "Sugar flash" sugarsnap peas. The taste was extraordinary. We topped off the serving with some normal mangetout bought from our supermarket and the difference was incredible. The fresh mangetout, picked not twenty minutes before being steamed, were sweet and juicy enough to make me shiver. The supermarket mangetout, by comparison (hitherto one of my favourite vegetables) were dull and lacklustre, lacking both crunchiness and sweetness. There is no comparison really, food harvested from your own garden, however small, is better than bought! I am well and truly hooked. 50g of our own harvest is better than none!

Saturday, 28 June 2014

A rose by any other name: Golden showers

I have exactly two non-edible plants in the garden. One is the Peony I managed to buy on the last day of the Chelsea Flower Show 2014, and the other is a climbing yellow "Golden showers" rose (well hellllooooo confused google searchers....!).
When I was younger, my mother, who was an avid gardener, walled one of our gardens in beautiful dark leaved roses. In the summer the dark green backdrop would be splashed with huge blobs of vibrant yellow blowsy roses that seemed (to my young eyes at least) to be the size of dinner plates. They were beautiful. And I've always retained a deep affection for yellow roses. So when I was planning the layout of our edible city garden it was hard to justify any space at all for non-edibles but I couldn't resist a single climbing rose. Hopefully by next year it'll have covered a considerable amount of our ugly fencing. For now, I was just enormously thrilled by the appearance of my first flower! And to my delight, it is just as huge and frilly as the ones I remember. 

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Harvesting home-grown food: Tayberries

The Buckingham Tayberry is a lovely and vigorous plant. I erred on the side of caution when it came to planting up my soft fruit raised beds. I wanted to plant fruit that I love to eat, that would save us money and that I know tastes better fresh. So I went for a whole row of raspberries (my favourite fruit). But given that the Tayberry is a hybrid mix between black raspberries and loganberries, I wanted to try one of those. I now wish I'd gone for a full row of Tayberries rather than just the one lone cane. So far it's shot up in height and I can well imagine it'll reach its 2mx2m eventual size. Apparently next year I can hope for a yield of about 20lbs (a jaw-dropping 9kg) of fruit from it but it's started off well this year already. 

It's thriving against the south-facing fence I'm growing it next to and it has already started fruiting. I actually bought the Tayberry as a bit of a risk as I'd never tasted the fruit before. But several of the enormous berries were ripening nicely a couple of days ago so I harvested them and we enjoyed a couple of them. The taste is delicious, well-rounded and tangy with a lingering raspberry and citrus aftertaste. If it crops considerably more than the raspberries, I might remove the raspberry canes next year and replace them with Tayberries!
It's hard to come up with a way of serving 2.5 Tayberries in an elegant fashion. So I didn't really try. But they were amazing! Next stop, jam, I hope. That's if enough of them ripen at the same time that is.
30g - a princely first harvest
Serving suggestion only

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Death on hairy stems, or, the sad demise of the Japanese Wineberry

The first plant when the trouble began
When I decided to grow a couple of Japanese Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) plants in my tiny city garden, I was hoping for oodles of the sweet red berries, picked fresh from the bush in August. And the plant itself seemed so pretty, with bright red, unusual and hairy stems. However, I'm not quite sure what went wrong. Planted in full sun in my south-facing garden, they should have thrived and indeed they initially sprouted any number of leaves and flowers. 

And then it all started to go wrong. First one started to look
The first plant really starts to get ill
pretty peaky. The leaves curled and dried out, the branches started to droop and the plant looked really sorry for itself. I posted on twitter, searched the web and contacted the nursery I'd bought it from, desperate to find a solution. Nobody seemed to know what was wrong. I scoured the leaves for aphids or other bugs and found none. I checked the soil around the plant to ensure the roots were getting enough moisture and it was fine. I assumed I'd just been unlucky with a dud plant. But then a couple of weeks later, the other one started to sicken. 

The second Japanese Wineberry becomes seriously sick

Given that they were in a raised bed with a blueberry plant and a climbing rose, I started to worry that whatever was wrong with them might spread. And so it was with some serious regret that I removed the plants. I replaced them with a couple of other plants, a second blueberry that wasn't doing very well in a partially shaded pot, and a Jostaberry. They appear to be settling into their new home very well, but I'm really sad about the Japanese Wineberry. Maybe I'll try again next year. For now, it was my first urban gardening failure, and quite frustrating because I don't know what happened. 
Replacement Jostaberry and Blueberry

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

How to plant Pineberries in hanging baskets


The pineberry (I chose the "White Dream") is a funny sort of fruit. It's the sort of thing that one might expect to find at the tea party given by the Mad Hatter. They're expensive too, at £3.99 for 125g, so they seemed to be a good fruit to try to grow from scratch. I chose to plant them in hanging baskets with a normal strawberry so that I could give them lots of special care and attention and so far it appears to be working.

How to plant strawberries and pineberries in hanging baskets

You will need: 
- One hanging basket for every three plants
- Pineberry and strawberry suckers
- A rich compost mix (I used John Innes potting on soil and farmyard compost)
- Hanging basket liner (moss)

1. Cut the liner to fit inside the hanging basket
2. Fill with the soil / compost mix
3. Gently (they're fragile!) transplant the suckers into the soil
4. Water on a regular basis (I used a DIY drip feed irritation system made from an old water bottle) 

Pineberries in a hanging basket after about a month

Monday, 23 June 2014

Living space vs gardening space: How to divide a small urban garden

Whilst I want to grow as much of our produce as possible, I also want to ensure that our tiny patio garden is somewhere we have space to relax. One of the problems with living in the city is how little space there is overall and dividing it up between practical and relaxing areas. I've managed to do this partly by planting on shelves or in raised beds, but also by using the side return as a place to store plants when we have guests or we just want a relaxing weekend enjoying our very small garden. By tidying all of our pots away, we managed to make the garden change according to our needs. So voila - what do you think of how tidy it looks? It's very satisfying being able to have a BBQ (a Portuguese Sardinhada in this case) and to know that all of our lovely crops are still growing away hidden in the background. 

Pots on shelves and hidden away in the side return

Voila! Space made available for the sardines on the grill!

Sunday, 22 June 2014

DIY watering system (drip - feed from soda bottles)

When planning the garden, one of the things that worried me most about planting in pots was how easily they dry out, especially on hot days. It's not good for root structures to get completely parched as the plant stems start to collapse inwards. So my initial thought was to purchase a rainwater butt and to set up a drip feed irrigation system using hosepipes amongst the pots and raised beds. However, my garden was simply too small. However hard I tried, I couldn't find space for the rainwater butt without losing valuable growing space. But still, what I really needed was a system that would feed the roots of my plants and not allow them to dry out. And ideally the solution would be cheap. 

Enter the humble soda bottle, stage left. I'd seen watering spikes for sale on Amazon but wanted to avoid having to spend £100 (I have a lot of pots) if possible. So I decided to try drilling holes into the caps of water, soda and fizzy drink bottles instead. Mr Garlic wasn't overwhelmed with happiness at being showered with three months worth of empty bottles when he opened the larder, but it was worth it in the end. 

How to make a drip watering system out of soda bottles

You will need:
- One bottle per pot / plant (washed out, labels removed) with the lids
- A drill and small drill bit
- A safe place to drill into

1. Drill a tiny hole into the cap of each bottle and replace the lid
2. Cut the bottom off of the bottle. For the 500ml bottles going in small pots, I took the whole of the bottom off. For the 1.5l bottles going near the bushy plants in the raised beds, I cut half off to help slow evaporation. 
3. "Plant" the bottle, with the lid about two inches under the surface of the soil near the plant you want to water.
4. Fill with water every time you water the garden to get a slow drip straight on to the root of the plant

Make sure that you check the bottles regularly to ensure that the water level is going down. If it slows or stops, check that the hole hasn't become clogged with soil. 
1.5l Diet Coke bottle by a plum tree
This solution should keep your plants watered for a couple of days and will help to keep them healthy and encourage roots to spread deeply and properly rather than just watering the top couple of inches of soil which encourages plants to have shallow roots. It also avoids the plants missing out on water that might otherwise evaporate from the top of the soil and will allow you to go away for the weekend without worrying that your plants will wither and die in your absence.
500ml bottle in a hanging Pineberry basket