Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Order, Order





Someone once said to me on discovering my interest in gardening, that they didn't think that I would have been "that much of a control freak". Now no one, of course, likes to think of themselves as any kind of control freak, but I can kind of see where he was going. A certain amount of interfering with and organizing of, Mother Nature's bounty is what it's all about. Leaving it entirely to nature only really works if you live in the Amazon Basin; if I left my greenhouse to nature for a couple of weeks it would in fact resemble the Amazon Basin, and I wouldn't be able to get in the door. Indeed I often can't. So there has to be a certain amount of "ordering nature" going on in all gardening to make it work. Or as a cleaning lady I once had, used to put it "Making order out of chaos dear", (what could she have meant?).

Certainly serried ranks of tulips have faded from fashion in suburban gardens, and with council bedding schemes becoming as rare as hens teeth, cheaper and more natural looking prairie style planting is springing up on roundabouts the length of the country. There's been quite a fashion for gardening "au naturel" in recent years, and I don't just mean that naturist couple who garden in Malmesbury in the altogether. Of course, gardeners have always looked to acheive a "natural" appearance in their schemes - hiding supports under the flowers and foliage and so on. But we all know really that it's complete nonsense, and that looking natural has nothing at all to do with how the garden would look if you really did leave it to nature. But wildflower meadows, ornamental grasses, natural ponds are the effects for which we all must now strive if we are to keep pace with modern horticultural trends.



I I have to confess I can't seem to get to grips with ornamental grasses very much really, I think they know I don't like them much, and so they don't do well for me, - you can only grow what you like the look of, as indeed you can only successfully cook what you enjoy eating, but I have made a small experiment with a wildflower patch, and it has been sufficiently successful to encourage me to expand the idea for next year.

I used a packet of wildflower seed, although most of what came up was the pretty yellow Corn Marigold, which used to be a ubiquitous weed of cornfields before industrial farming did for it (and many other once common but now rare and endangered wild flowers).

Anyway it has spread its grey-green foliage and bright yellow flowers around enthusiastically, almost as though it can't quite believe no one has come along in a tractor and sprayed it from a great height with Glyphosate, and in company with some red field poppies, the odd bright blue cornflower and a bit of white chamomile has made a tiny "natural" patchwork of the kind you would never ordinarily plant in your border, but which has a charm all of its own. It's also good for the bees, which is always a consideration in my garden. So I've been collecting the seed from the very many seedheads, and am hoping to expand the planting area next summer into a Monet-esque cornfield ( what do you mean ambitious..?) but without the corn of course. Come to think of it, the corn might actually come in handy for the chickens...Hmm.. Anyway it's a sloping area under trees which currently supports a good display of daffodils in the spring, but not much else, so I'm hoping this plan will fit in with the early bulbs and provide a continuity of flowers through the summer and autumn.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Party Party




As I said, I dropped and broke our camera, so I have been experimenting with my phone camera, and it seems to be reasonably good, so here is a picture of a cake I made for a family party the other day. In case it's not obvious, it's a drum kit, the birthday boy in question being a drummer of great distinction and promise, (good luck at Uni, Lee). I was quite pleased with how it turned out, though there is a degree of "sag" that I did not forsee. I used an ordinary victoria sponge cake and vanilla buttercream for the cake and fondant for the icing. The "sag" effect could have been avoided by the use of rich fruit cake, but most people seem to prefer sponge these days, except for Christmas. Black fondant isn't all that easy to come by in darkest Wiltshire, so I had to send away for a supply of that, - special stuff like that is much easier to find these days, God Bless the Internet. I used the Blue Ribbons Sugarcraft Centre and would highly recommend them for quick and helpful service http://www.blueribbons.co.uk/
And if you live in London there's a great shop called Party Party near Dalston market that my daughter took me to, that sells everything you could need for parties and has a whole floor dedicated to cake decorating. It's just past the Multi-Coloured Wig shop, and the stall selling Giant African snails (alive!!) but not as far as the trendy cafe full of media types with laptops and capuccinos. London is such a treat for country bumpkins like me!

I must have made millions (well not millions, but quite a lot) of cakes over the years, and I always come back to the good old all in one victoria sponge cake, made in a food processor. It really does make the best sponge cake in my opinion. It's couldn't be easier to make, is quick, and endlessly versatile. My recipe is pretty much the standard one (though I have adopted Nigella's suggestion of an ounce of cornflour in the mix) and I do tend to have a bit of stock syrup* around the place these days, (being a beekeeper) which is useful for all sorts of things including brushing over the cake as it comes out of the oven, and ensuring a soft moist cake, even on those occasions when you know you've left it in the oven five minutes too long, and have aquired HCS (Hard Crust Syndrome)

4 eggs
1 pack of butter at room temperature
8 ounces of self raising flour
1 rounded teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon of cornflour
8 ounces of caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
about 2 tablespoons milk

Put everything in food processor and switch on till blended. That's it. You might want to mix it without the milk first and then add as much milk as you think you need to get a soft, smooth, but not too runny mixture. Depends on the size of your eggs really.


Cook in two 8 inch sandwich tins, a large loaf tin, lots of little bun cases for butterfly cakes, a roasting tin for cutting into initials or numbers, or whatever you fancy. I cook the 2 sandwich tins on the bottom shelf of the roasting oven of the Aga with the cold shelf on top for about 30 minutes, which is probably about a Gas 4 but only you know your oven. The cake should be a pale golden brown, and springy to the touch, and slightly shrinking away from the sides of the tin when it's done. What you really want to avoid is cooking too fast and over-browning, leading to the dreaded HCS, and dryness. Now, where is that jar of syrup....
*Stock syrup - Dissolve a pound of sugar in a pint of water, or a kilo in a litre, gives you a medium syrup useful as an emergency feed for bees, or cakes.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Win Some, Lose Some

Success and Failure in the Veg Plot

First of all, I dropped and broke the camera today so as I have no photos to upload, here is a nice picture of a Painted Lady on one of my sunflowers to be going on with. Hope to obtain a repair/replacement soon


It's very easy to blog about all the great successes you've had in the garden, and conveniently forget about all those things that didn't quite turn out how you expected, not to mention all those things that were complete disasters. (Cherries spring to mind) Part of being a gardener is the ability to ignore, or at least learn from all the mistakes, and still feel enthused enough to carry on regardless. Although I did think for a while that I might give up on peas altogether. Well not really, even though my harvest was about the size of half a small bag of Birds Eyes, I will put it down to the variety, or the poor weather at vital times, (and will not mention my inadequate supports, lack of watering, and forgetting to pick regularly) and try again next year.

On the plus side, garlic has again been good,- variety Music,- although struck by rust which made the leaves brown prematurely, the crop is still good and we are already enjoying it. I'm not sure whether to use some as a seed crop as I did last year, or whether to buy some fresh, I don't know whether the rust will carry over on the bulbs?

I haven't grown runner beans for some years, but this years crop is excellent, I'm managing to pick the beans young and tender, variety Enorma. Courgettes, as always are excellent, and as usual I've planted far too many, variety, Nano Verde di Milano.

Tomatoes have done ok, I sprayed with old fashioned Bordeaux Mixture against blight as I lost all my crop the last two years, and it seems to have worked reasonably well. There is still some blight on some outdoor plants but most of the greenhouse plants are clean. I used Jamie's recipe for the Mothership Tomato Salad to good effect, it's delicious, and what's leftover makes a great sandwich the next day for lunch. In fact I'm rather addicted to it, which is jolly healthy and a sight better for the arteries than other common addictions like chocolate cake or gin, though I do like them as well.



For anyone who doesn't have Jamie's book the gist of the recipe is, I'm sure Jamie won't mind my saying, very simple. Roughly chopped garden tomatoes, the greater the variety, the better, sprinkled with salt and left in a colander to drain for a bit. This concentrates the flavour, ready for the dressing of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar 3 to 1, as much mashed garlic as you like, some pepper and chopped parsley and basil. Use plenty of dressing and serve with some home made flat bread to dip in with, and to make the sandwich with the next day.


This year's tomato varieties in order of success - Sungold, Red Zebra, Black Prince, Prudens Purple, Amish Paste, Brandywine, Sub Arctic Plenty. My son The Professional Gardener thinks that Gardeners Delight is the best flavoured, he may be right, but I didn't grow it this year. Next year I think I will try the blight resistant variety, I think it's called Ferline, has to be worth a try as I have lost so much in recent years.


Every garden has its instrinsic problems, mine is fungal diseases, - blight on tomatoes and potatoes, black spot on the roses, and rust on the garlic, roses, and hollyhocks. Other people suffer with different things, often to do with the climate and situation. The PG, for example has slugs and snails, which I happily do not suffer with. Although I know what it's like as I've had gardens full of them in the past. My chickens and ducks take care of every slimy crawling thing for me. He, the PG, has a walled garden and no chickens - I did offer to lend him a chicken, but I think we came to the conclusion that it might actually do more damage than the slugs, with all the scratching you have to put up with, you have to have a certain kind of shall we say, laissez-faire style of gardening to accomodate poultry. And he, being a PG, holds no truck with that kind of thing. For myself, I keep the birds in a run for some of the year, during the time they would do most damage to young seedlings and so on, but for most of the year, from about July onwards until the following late Spring, they are free to roam, and the damage they do is manageable.


I've even had some success with aubergines this year, Viserba, in the greenhouse, I usually grow some plants and then throw them out when they get whitefly and duly keel over. But I picked a good size one yesterday,and several others are coming on. There's an italian recipe for pasta with aubergine stuffing that I think I might try out, will report back if it's as tasty as I hope.




The Ornamental Garden
A good tip when planting out in the Spring is to remember that some plants grow very tall and others don't. This may seem like an elementary observation, and someone who's been gardening since the old queen died could reasonably be expected to know this. No one in their right mind for example, would plant a big clump of Michaelmas Daisies in the front of a border so that during the summer when it's growing like BillyO but not flowering, it will completely obscure the lovely Rosa Mundi behind, which is in full flower, and even the tall blue globes of the Agapanthus will be bobbing about behind it like someone at the theatre seated behind the woman with the big hat on. Like this for example.... [picture follows..]
So next year I shall move it somewhere more sensible, and make loads of other ridiculous mistakes.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

O Frabjious Day! Another Swarm!

I'm thrilled to announce that I have today captured my first swarm!

I was busy in the veg garden, when I first heard the noise, I looked up and saw a huge cloud of bees directly over one of my two hives. At first I thought my own bees had swarmed, but I knew, having looked at them just a couple of days ago, that it could not be them, and the swarm were probably attracted by the bee smells, and were checking out the hive to see whether it was vacant. Having found it occupied, they moved off down the garden, then across the lane and into a sycamore tree in the hedgerow, followed by me, with a cardboard box and a white sheet. I was lucky in that the bees were in an accessible spot, and I was able to knock most of the bees off quite easily into the box. I left the box for an hour or so for the stragglers to go in and then brought it back to the garden where I put them into a spare hive. This is the second swarm I've had this year, but the first one I've actually collected myself as the first one just arrived in the hive all by itself. So now I feel like I'm a Proper Beekeeper!

Sorry no pics, was too anxious to get it done properly to think about the camera!

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Three Sheets to the Wind


Rumour has it that I only give a dinner party once every seven years, which is a massive exaggeration. We had one on Saturday and it was at least the second or third this decade. On the menu was Mushroom and Blue Cheese Canapes, followed by home made Chicken Liver Pate, with home made Focaccia, (herbs from the garden), Roast Saddle of Wiltshire lamb, with garden veg ( potatoes, runner beans, courgettes) and for pudding we had a Chocolate Truffle Torte with cream, or an alternative of (or in some cases in addition to - you know who you are, Wayne) Vodka Jellies. Lest you should think I'm sounding too smug, I would point out that I didn't raise the lamb, grow the chocolate beans, or distill the vodka, so some of the credit/blame has to go to someone else.




Three Sheets to the Wind* Vodka Jellies

*This was my mother's description of my father returning home from the golf club on a Sunday lunchtime "your father's three sheets to the wind again" - I don't know where it comes from but it seems an appropriate link to the sheets of gelatine in the recipe.


Enough sheets of gelatine to set a litre of liquid (varies with the make, I used three. You'll be using a bit less than a litre to compensate for the alcohol) Don't use commercial packet jelly unless it's for five year olds, in which case you'll probably have to reduce the vodka)


400 ml warm water
about 2 tablespoons caster sugar
juice of half a lemon
400 ml vodka
raspberries, blueberries or other fresh berries


Soak the gelatine sheets in cold water for a few minutes.

Dissolve the sugar in the water over gentle heat, and add the soaked gelatine. Stir until dissolved.

Add lemon juice, and when cool the vodka. You don't want to be adding vodka to anything hot as you may vapourise the alcohol, and end up with no sheets to the wind at all, apart from the gelatine, which would be a shame.

A couple of spoons of raspberry juice colours it a delicate pink, or leave it clear. Place a few berries in pretty glasses and top up with the jelly, and leave to set in the fridge. Do bear in mind you have the equivalent of 8 large vodkas in this recipe, and it tastes fairly innocuous. But it's very pretty and quite fun. Isn't it Wayne.

If you should find the fruit floats on the top you can set it at the bottom with a thin layer of jelly in the fridge, where it will set faster, and then top up with the unset remainder. Cheers.

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