Sunday, 16 July 2017

Entering a vegetable competition at the Lambeth County Show

We've always been big fans of county shows and try to attend a couple every year. To be completely honest, our local on in Lambeth isn't usually on the list, but I've always wanted to try my hand at a vegetable competition so I thought we'd try it. 
Pulling Yellowstone, Purple haze and resistafly carrots
I had entered six categories (with encouragement from my lovely Instagram followers) but to my disappointment the majority of what I'd planned to show (tomatoes, peppers, chillis etc) was still unripe and so I had to scramble to find a few entries. I pulled up almost my entire root vegetable raised bed to find enough to enter a few classes. 
The majority of the produce from my "root vegetable" raised bed
I chose to enter six carrots, three round beetroots, a cucumber and a three herb vase. I was a bit nervous as I polished my various entries but it was actually lovely arriving early in the produce tent and setting out my entries with the other competitors, some of whom have clearly been competing for years. The other competitors were very friendly, discussing all of the entries and there was a real sense of bonhomie. 
My "small but perfect" cucumber in situ at the competition
We returned to the fair later that day to find out how the judging had gone and I couldn't believe it when my husband pointed out a "Highly commended" card by my cucumber! I didn't place in any of the categories but I was still walking on air. It's been years since I've won anything and I was thrilled that I'd been able to produce something good enough in my minuscule urban patio garden. Bring on next year, I'm going to enter every class!
Hurrah! Commendations!

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Recipe: Healthy lemony basil pesto pasta with courgette and broccoli

This is a really easy and tasty seasonal dish using home grown basil from the garden that I often make when I"m short of time. We are ardent carnivores but tend to eat vegetarian food during the week and this dish is absolutely delicious. We eat unholy amounts of garlic and so that sauce packs a powerful kick, do reduce the amount of cloves you put in if you'd rather go for a less intense flavour. But I find this is a lovely low calorie version of pesto that really zings and it's all ready within the time it takes to cook some pasta.


For the sauce
- Four handfuls of washed basil leaves
- 250g fat free natural organic yogurt
- Three peeled garlic cloves

For the pasta
- Two large courgettes
- Large broccoli head
- Small brown onion
- A head of garlic
- Rapeseed oil
- Green pasta (I use a spinach infused organic version) 
- One lemon

1. Put water on to boil
2. Place all of the sauce ingredients in the blender and whizz them until smooth. Set aside. I use a lot of garlic raw in the sauce because I like it to have a real kick but do lessen this if you prefer subtlety. 
3. Wash and slice the courgettes and chop the broccoli. Finely chop the onion and sauté on a medium heat for five minutes until soft, but don't let it brown. 
4. Put the pasta in the water and cook according to instructions. 
5. Add the garlic to the onion in the pan and cook for another three minutes. Add the courgettes. 
6. Five minutes before the pasta is finished, add the broccoli to the water. 
7. Strain the pasta and broccoli and stir in the onion / garlic / courgette mix. Stir in the sauce, squeeze some lemon juice on top and serve immediately. 

Friday, 7 July 2017

How to make sugar-free strawberry ice lollies for children

I've always tried to incorporate our own produce into my cooking but there are times where what we get from our tiny garden sadly just isn't enough for any one project. Take, for example, strawberry ice pops. I like to make homemade ice lollies for GarlicBoy so that I can let him eat his fill without worrying about his teeth but to do that we needed considerably more strawberries than I could get at home. So we after picking the three ripe fruits from our own plants, we headed to our local "pick your own" farm and spent a very enjoyable afternoon filling punnet with fresh strawberries before coming home to turn them into delicious cooling treats.

You will need:

- Strawberries (we used a kilo and this made    about three moulds full)
- Ice lolly moulds (I've picked various up over the years in supermarket sales)
- 100g Low fat organic natural yoghurt
- 1 tablespoon honey

As always I’ve used the directions [ADULT] and [CHILD] based on what I did with my son. However you know your child best so please think about their own capabilities before embarking on any of our projects. Never leave a child unsupervised. And please do tag us on social media if you post photos of your projects, we’d love to see how you get on!


1. [BOTH] Go and pick the strawberries, ideally in your garden or a local farm. I found that even a very small toddler had marvellous fun trying to find the ripe strawberries in the plants. 
2. [ADULT] Put the strawberries in a colander and your [CHILD] at the sink and set them to washing the hulled strawberries. 
3. [CHILD] Place the strawberries in the blender and add the natural yoghurt and honey. [ADULT] Whizz until as smooth as possible and pour into the moulds. Freeze overnight and enjoy!

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Herb management

Overgrown herbs
Scarily shorn herbs
I've found it so rewarding having a large herb garden outside and have started to plan our weekly menus (because that's the kind of geek I am) around what might be ready to use in the garden. The herbs have also acted as a lovely lure for all kinds of wildlife. I was hoping for a couple of bees but the massive variety of butterflies and bees that have made our garden a regular stop has really delighted me. The herbs have been a big part of that. I was initially frustrated when my thyme kept flowering regardless of how much I took away but it appears to be the hip new neighbourhood eatery for a wide variety of butterflies, moths and bees so I let it keep going rather than replacing it. I did have to give the rest of the herbs a drastic shearing though as the flat parsley, curly parsley and coriander had shot up out of control and were starting to tear the cat netting at the top of the fence. They also flowered at a rate of knots so I compromised with the insects - they could keep the thyme flowers and I'd cut everything else back to within an inch of its life to ensure some fresh tasting new growth. It looks a bit severe but new sprouts are already shooting, thank goodness. 
A day flying moth or (maybe?) a chequered skipper

Monday, 12 June 2017

Monday harvest

It astounds me that even my tiny little garden is providing quite this much produce. I harvest at least one "thing" a day, whether it's a small handful of strawberries or a bunch of herbs. In fact, it's only because I hadn't realised how much was ready to eat that I haven't been working out a menu around it. All that changes here. But in the last week we've had strawberries almost every day, herbs and lovely salads filled with pretty nasturtium flowers. How lovely it is to eat food that tastes that fresh and that I actually grew. Watch this space for much more than the below next Monday!

June 5th - Strawberries (£1.80)
June 7th - Strawberries (£1.20)
June 8th - Bunch chives and nasturnium flowers (85p and £1.43 respectively)
June 11th - Strawberries (£0.60) and chives (£0.85)

Sunday, 11 June 2017

How to grow more in a small garden: Building a mobile growing rack

This is a DIY that not only doesn't take long, it doesn't involve any tools at all and so is something I'm really pleased with. I'm always looking for new spaces to grow things in my garden but short of tine hover boards being invented in the next couple of weeks, I've always despaired at the lack of vertical space on which to hang things. I have a whopping 44 wall planters and hanging baskets and to be frank, I've run out of space to hang them (having been reduced to hanging them from sticks). I don't want to fill the small patio we have with heavy pots because my toddler GarlicBoy needs somewhere to play and we need somewhere to sit. So I started thinking. What if I put some pots on skateboards and just wheeled them about into the house whenever I needed the patio? The idea wasn't entirely ludicrous but it clearly wouldn't be worth the effort for just one pot. And that's when it hit me. A hanging rail! A heavy duty one would provide me with a considerable amount of growing space in the form of four hanging baskets, two large herb planters and a large trough planter and best of all, I could wheel it out of the way in seconds when I needed to use the patio. I think there's space on the market for a proper one of these (I call it "The Germinator", patent pending of course...) as they'd be very useful on balconies as well I should think. \

You will need:
1 heavy-duty hanging rail (check the weight limits) Mine is 3ft long

Heavy duty chains and some steel rope
Various hanging baskets
Two large wall planter bags
One balcony trough planter (designed to sit on a rail)

How to:
1. Put the hanging rail together and, using the steel rope, tie the hanging baskets to the top back to back
2. Slide the chains in between the bags and over the rail so that they hang down and hook the hanging basket hooks through both sides of the chain
3. Put the trough on the base and secure it well (I used electrical tape) to the rail so it doesn't slip off
4. Fill the bags, trough and baskets with whatever you want to grow
Herb bags secured to top of hanging rail

Hanging basket hook threaded through two chain links
I chose to use three of the baskets for hanging tomatoes (something I can never get enough of) and the trough has a couple of dwarf bush cucumbers in it. One of the baskets has a bunch of sacrifice French Marigolds (and another sneaky cucumber) in it and the two huge herb bags have basil and various types of mint respectively. I love growing herbs (hence my vertical garden for them) but I didn't want to use a whole raised bed for mint or basil. This means I get a large enough supply of both without losing a bed I could use for things like squash. 

A side note: the hanging rail is obviously carting quite a lot of weight so do be careful around pets and little people. When our garden is open, my rail is securely wedged in next to the playhouse where my toddler and/or cats can't get to it to pull it over on themselves. 

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Hanging baskets when you have nowhere left to hang them from

Poles holding a basket
Unsurprisingly, the biggest challenge to the frustrated gardener when regarding their tiny urban garden with critical eyes is a lack of space. I've covered my fences and walls with wall planters, vertical garden planting bags and hung hanging baskets from every single supporting fence post and still I don't think I have enough space. So what to do? Every inch in my raised beds is filled with plants fiercely competing for what is probably too little space already and I don't want to take over our patio or grass patch because I want our toddler to have space to play outside. So they only thing I can do is to wait for someone to invent hovercraft pots that will suspend themselves mid-air. Or, I could be wandering around the garden centre one day and suddenly realise that heavy duty tree supports might just be the answer. 

I planted some hanging baskets up with basil and tumbling tomatoes and hung them from the little hooks on the poles and shoved the poles down into the raised beds in the tiny gaps between plant surrounds. 

"Success!" I thought. Oh, how overconfidence comes before a fallen basket. The puny hooks on the posts were too feeble to hold the weight of a basket of soil in the rain so my mark two version consisted of strapping the hooks back against the poles with heavy duty electrical tape. The poles are leaning slightly but they're still up and the baskets are growing in mid air, taking advantage of growing space that I don't strictly have. Necessity is the mother of invention! (And lust for fresh produce will drive you further than you can imagine).


Friday, 9 June 2017

Better beetroots - how to thin beetroot seedlings

Shamefully puny beetroots
Last week I thought that I'd be enormously smug and plan a lovely afternoon of cooking with my toddler son. He's always so happy when he's perched on his tiny stepladder with his little apron on, cracking eggs or stirring things and tasting everything within reach. What could complete this middle class John Lewis advert of an afternoon? Why, to have him pull up one of our enormous beetroots from one of our raised beds and to cook beetroot chocolate brownies of course! So when we went to pull up the beetroots that were busy waving their ginormous leaves in the wind, it was a bit of a shock to find that they were tiny puny undeveloped roots! It turns out that the plugs I'd sown had multiple beetroots in each of them so none of them had space to grow. So we bought (to my shame) some backup beetroots to stick into the brownies and whilst they were cooking I went out to try to thin the beetroots. 
The beetroot bed, looking deceptively full of fat roots. It isn't!
My initial attempts to pull up the unwanted puny beetroots simply resulted in the whole plug coming out so a quick google suggested that instead I could simply cut the leaves of the ones I didn't want right back to the level of the earth. So that's what I did. The beetroot bed looks a lot thinner now, but hopefully we'll end up with some actual beets rather than a bed full of tiny weedy looking roots. As per usual the thinning left me feeling pretty guilty, but I think that long term it'll be worth it. 

One of the beetroots that survived the thinning

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Harvest time again

I've had quite a fruitful few weeks from the garden (if you'll pardon the pun). Life has been quite busy but I find that I'm starting to weave gardening into my everyday life. I do a tiny bit of weeding every morning whilst I'm cooking breakfast, and then in the evenings I do any tying in etc before I water the garden once GarlicBoy has gone to bed. And then a couple of times a week whilst he has his lunchtime nap I do the slightly heavier tasks, cutting the grass and planting things out etc. It's really lovely and I think I've been a much happier person since I started gardening again. I absolutely love having GarlicBoy help me harvest things too, he's such a happy little chap and gets so excited whenever there's a new ripe strawberry or similar to take in with him. I'm now cooking at least a couple of meals a week with garden produce that I've grown myself and that's very satisfying. I've updated my garden produce harvest records and I'm really pleased with how I'm doing. I've had about a punnet of strawberries so far (albeit one at a time) and huge amounts of spinach, parsley, mint and rosemary. We've also started regularly eating the nasturtiums and rocket. Once we start to get crops of things like courgettes and tomatoes I expect that we'll be saving a bit more money but for now I'm just so thrilled at what we do have. The taste of fruit and vegetables taken fresh from the garden literally minutes before eating is beyond compare. I've actually always disliked rocket and found it overly bitter but the taste of the rocket from the garden was so amazingly fresh and fragrant that I find myself wishing that we had much more space for me to grow leaves in!

Monday, 22 May 2017

Harvest Monday

This past week has actually been very fruitful. I'm still mainly getting herbs and leaves (spinach and rosemary and parsley) and although I'm really looking forward to getting some actual fruits and vegetables, I'm still really enjoying being able to wander out to the garden and harvest these greens whenever I like. Once again I forgot to photograph the rosemary, but I hope you'll believe me...! The rosemary was just enough for a roasted leg of lamb for a lunch party, but both the parsley and spinach hauls were pretty large so I'm going to say £1.40 for the parsley, £0.85 for the rosemary and £1.50 for the spinach. So this week we've saved £3.75. It won't be much of a boost for the pension, but frankly I couldn't be happier. I feel like I'm being paid to indulge in my hobby!

Sunday, 21 May 2017

How to release ladybirds with a toddler

Ladybird in situ
The day the aphids came back was a dark one. There they were, hordes of them swarming and pulsating all over my innocent strawberries and mint. I was beside myself in rage and frustration at their sheer numbers (previously I've always pulled aphids off by hand before their populations reach critical levels) as it was clearly too late for me to get rid of them alone. And then lo, out of the house wandered my husband, a king amongst men, who announced that he'd bough me a present of ladybirds. That's right, 100 live ladybirds were winging their way (hah!) towards me, along with a couple of ladybirds houses that I could apparently try to bride them to stay with. Two year old GarlicBoy was thrilled at the idea of a couple of boxes of insect "pets" and chattered happily all the way home from the post office about them. This is one project that I can heartily recommend that you do with a toddler or small child. It benefits your garden, teaches your child about insects and the food chain and encourages wildlife to flourish in your immediate area. And children find them charming!

Ladybird house positioned near at-risk plants
You will need:

Learning about ladybirds
- A book about wildlife / access to the web (the RSPB has quite a nice fact sheet on ladybirds)
- Some ladybirds (as it's May, we bought ours online as fully grown adults and they arrived in the post which was both cool and surreal)
- A fridge
- Plants, ideally covered in greenfly, blackly or aphids
- A water source outside where you're going to release them

As always I’ve used the directions [ADULT] and [CHILD] based on what I did with my son. However you know your child best so please think about their own capabilities before embarking on any of our projects. Never leave a child unsupervised. And please do tag us on social media if you post photos of your projects, we’d love to see how you get on!


[Before they arrive]: Make a point of reading about ladybirds and looking at pictures so your child knows what they are
1. When your ladybirds arrive handle the box very carefully. They'll look dead but will soon perk up once released. [ADULT] Place them in the fridge in a padded envelope for about half an hour to calm them down after their journey. 
2. It was pouring with rain when we released ours so we didn't need to worry about water but if it's dry, they'll be parched so [BOTH] put some water on the leaves of the plant you're releasing them onto so they have something to drink. 
3. Early evening / dusk is the best time to release them so that they have time to bond to your garden and decide it's a good place to stay rather than buzzing off to find more food in the morning. 
4. [ADULT] Open the box and gently pour the ladybirds on to the plant that you've chosen for them. You'll find that they perk up quite quickly and start wandering about hoovering up horrible bugs. Older children might be able to do this if they can be gentle. 
5. [ADULT] Retain one small ladybird and encourage it to walk onto your finger (by placing your finger in front of it as a ramp - they're fragile so don't try to pick them up with your fingers as you will damage their wings). Allow your child to look at them up close and have them walk on their fingers if they like, reiterating that they mustn't stroke or touch the little creatures. 
Looking for ladybirds
6. [BOTH] Help your child to release the ladybird onto the plant and watch it scurry about. You can then look for ladybirds for the next few days (99 of ours appear to have left us, the ingrates, but we have one solitary remainder!) and talk about what they're doing and how they're providing pest control. 

Saturday, 20 May 2017

I've lost the losetto

Suspiciously similar seedlings
In hindsight, I should have known that putting two types of tomato seedling (the tumbling "Losetto"and the climbing "Magic Mountain" in case you're interested) together in a large pot separated only by a seedling tray was a mistake. It was perhaps inevitable that a cat would jolt the pot onto the floor causing them to get mixed up but the heavens opened and I fled inside, abandoning the seedlings to their fate. So now I have a bunch of seedlings that all look alike that I've had to apportion, almost at random, into hanging baskets and raised beds. I suppose I'll only know if I got it right once they start to grow, but what a shame to have replaced my (ragged, hole-ridden, snail-mangled) basil if I've gotten the raised bed ones wrong!
Hanging tomato basket. Is it a tumbler? Who knows?

Friday, 19 May 2017

Come on courgettes!

By far, the biggest lesson I've learned this year whilst starting to grow as much edible food as possible, is that growing from seed is best. It's cheaper, more reliable and more satisfying than growing from plugs. I know I keep on banging on about this but I've been so very disappointed by the quality of the seedlings I've bought. They've all come by post and many of them haven't been sent by courier so a lot of the time, what actually arrives here is an anaemic, wimpy looking seedling with slightly shredded leaves. The difference between these pale and hunched over seedlings and the ones that I grew myself from seed is really obvious. I recently planted three courgette seedlings. They're "Patio star" courgettes, a variety I've had success from before when growing from seed, but they look absolutely puny. I don't have a huge amount of hope for these but as it's late May already I think it's too late to start from seed if I want a decent crop. It just goes to show, laziness doesn't pay! I'll do the best I can with these seedlings this year but next year it's seeds all the way.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Argh! Aphids!

Vile pulsating aphids - look how many there were!
The other day I was busily getting ready to plant out a few tumbling cherry tomatoes when a greenfly landed on my hand. I absent-mindedly swiped it off and suddenly focused. A greenfly! Where had it come from? A quick glance around the garden revealed two culprits - my hanging bag of strawberries and pineberries and my David Austin rose. Both of them were absolutely heaving with repulsive pulsating fat greenfly and aphids. Usually I remove aphids by hand when I first find them to try to maintain their population at a reasonable level but I'd missed the boat here. Every single stem and shoot was absolutely carpeted. So I panicked. I have always tried to garden organically and I'm ashamed of myself for what I did next. I ran to the garden centre and bought some bug spray. I tried to get a natural version but still, it was a spray. My strawberries are no longer organic. 
Blackfly. Boo!
I am genuinely so sad. I've removed the few aphids that had spread to other plants and the infestation appears to have been beaten but I think I've got to plan ahead. This calamity did make me grateful for my husband though. The wonderful man wandered outside when I was busy bustling about with and said he'd bought me a present. He'd bought me some ladybirds and a couple of little houses to encourage them to hang about and eat the aphids in my garden rather than wandering off to help other people. I am a very lucky woman. Until they arrive though, I'm going to have to really pay attention to my plants, I found a load of blackly underneath my pumpkin leaves the other day. Horrible things. Hurry Mr Postman, please bring my ladybirds!