Now Picking: First Spuds of the Year

It’s always a bit of a gamble, with bag-grown spuds: when exactly is the best time to attempt a harvest? Main-crops are a bit easier, you can usually wait until the foliage has died back – usually at the end of Summer, going into Autumn – and then get them out of the ground before the weather turns too wet or the slugs get too adventurous.

But if, like me, you’ve been growing spuds in old compost bags, and you ideally want to harvest them at the salad-sized new potato stage, then knowing when to trim the stems and empty out the bag is a fair bit trickier. Because once you’ve taken that step, there’s no turning back. And if the spuds ain’t formed yet, then you’ve wasted a whole bag’s worth of effort.

Last weekend I braced myself and took a gamble on the first of three bags of Charlotte potatoes. I’m very happy to say I struck gold:

New Potatoes, July 2013

Not a huge haul, but enough for four portions. Steamed and served with butter and a sprinkling of sea salt, they were delicious. Nutty, spuddy and very, very creamy indeed. You really can’t get anywhere near as good in the supermarkets and it drives home the point of the whole GYO, back yard kitchen garden endeavour: enjoying some of the freshest best-tasting food you can possibly get your hands on.

Now Picking: Courgette Striata di Napoli

This year I grew about a dozen courgette seedlings and planted the strongest four in two large, round plastic tubs. Two each of Striata di Napoli and Zucchini. The all began flowering about six weeks ago and the first Striata di Napoli fruits were ready for picking about ten days back:

Jo and I ate those first two sautéed in butter with mushrooms and garlic. Absolutely delicious. A lovely fresh, almost nutty flavour. Very good raw as well (I couldn’t resist having a nibble).

There are a couple more Striata di Napoli fruits on the plants now, which really ought to be picked soon as they’re heading for mini-marrow size. The Zucchini are only just beginning to catch up: slower croppers, those.

Damn. Disastrous Garlic Harvest This Year…

I had high hopes for this year’s garlic crop. Based on results over the past couple of years, where four seed-stock bulbs resulted in forty plants and a harvest of around 36 good-sized bulbs, I was confident of a repeat performance. Last Autumn I used the same seed stock supplier and same planting method again – maybe positioning the cloves a little deeper – and rotated the planting location out of raised bed #2 and into first section of the long veg bed.

All seemed to be going well – strong growth, plenty of leaf and stem, no bolting – until last weekend, when I grabbed my garden fork and lifted the first few bulbs…

A horrible sight greeted me: rot, and lots of it. Some stems just broke away from the mush that maybe used to be a garlic bulb. Some bulbs had barely formed and were mostly mush anyhow. Others could have been halfway-decent, if not for the white mould, black skin and odour of rot. From the 40 cloves I planted last Autumn, I think I can salvage maybe eight or nine bulbs, of which two might be the sort of thing you can pick up in Sainsburys for 30p each.

I think the culprit has to be the piss-poor Spring. The plants seemed to have over-wintered nicely, despite the particularly harsh conditions, but then when Spring was delayed they just weren’t able to get up to speed. Too much cold, too much moisture. Bad luck all round.

So it goes, I suppose. But garlic is such a favourite, and usually such a reliable cropper, that this is a particularly disappointing result. Fingers crossed for better luck next year.

It’s DIY Fruit Cage Time

It’s been a busy few weeks in my back yard kitchen garden – mostly involving filling and emptying watering cans on a seemingly endless loop – and one of the jobs that Jo and I tackled recently was the construction of a cane-and-netting fruit cage to help keep the birds off the raspberries and strawberries in raised bed #1.

First the bamboo cane construction. Eight-footers for height, driven as deep into the raised bed as they’ll go. Then an assortment of eight-, six- and four-footers to form the skeleton of the frame, with plenty of diagonals for stability. I used green plastic plant ties to fix them together rather than string because they’re much quicker to fasten and they make the frame easier to dismantle at the end of the season. Finally, the netting, which of course is the fiddliest part of the whole process as you have to lift it over the canes and of course it keeps catching on cane-ends, plastic ties, splinters, the frames of your glasses… you name it.

In that final shot you might just be able to make out the ingenious methods we use for keeping the netting taut on the frame: bricks on the corners where the netting tends to bunch and gather, and a series of weatherproof screws around the outside-top of the timber frame, which the netting can be looped over, hook-style. One of Jo’s brilliant ideas, of course.

The finished construction is well worth the effort though. Net result: bees and other pollinating insects in and out at will, thieving birds looking on with envy, Jo and I enjoying bowlfuls of luscious soft fruit in the fullness of time, all being well.

Garden Inspiration: Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk

When Jo and I were down in Norfolk a couple of weeks ago we made a point of visiting a couple of the local National Trust properties. The first was Oxburgh Hall, home of the Bedingfeld family for centuries.

The moated house is interesting enough, but it was the gardens we were looking forward to. They didn’t turn out to be quite as impressive as we were hoping – mostly lawns surrounding the moated house itself, and a formal knot garden (a bit too formal for us), plus a woodland walk which we didn’t have time to indulge in. But there was a very colourful and bee-friendly border, packed with flower and scent, and a very promising-looking proto-orchard of local varieties, complete with bee-hives. And I spotted a hop plant, which I’m always happy to see.

It was a bit of a dull day and we had to dodge the occasional rain shower, but here are a few pics of our favourite bits of the Oxburgh Hall gardens:

“Growers Grow” says Life on Pig Row

Quick hat-tip to a great post on the Life on Pig Row blog that talks about the importance of taking GYO gardening seriously and decries the current trend towards using GYO merely as a way of being seen to be green.

If you are planning on putting your name down for an allotment, do consider whether you really will be able to spare the time, or whether there might be someone else behind you in the queue who’s just a tad more serious about it, whose plot you might end up occupying for those six months or so while you have a go and decide whether you like it or not.

It’s always worth bearing in mind that if you do want to get decent results, consistently, over the long run, then you do have to put in a serious amount of effort: planning, preparing, sowing, potting-on, planting out, weeding, watering, harvesting… it all adds up to a fair chunk of your time. And of course, the bigger the plot – allotments aren’t exactly tiny – then the more effort involved.

Nothing wrong with getting your eye in and trying your hand with a bit of back yard kitchen gardening before you go all out.

Garden Inspiration: Easton Walled Gardens, Lincolnshire

Jo and I are not long back from a few days down in Cromer, on the East coast of Norfolk. On the way down the A1 we stopped off for an hour or two at Easton Walled Gardens, just south of Grantham in Lincolnshire.

Ten years ago this was a derelict estate, the former site of Easton Hall, which was demolished in 1951 – after the Royal Artillery had been billeted there during the second world war – leaving just the stables and coach house section, which was apparently only saved because the demolition equipment broke down before the job was completed.

Now, it’s the site of a major restoration project that aims to return as much of the gardens to their former glory as possible. It’s a rather lovely place to visit, with a range of distinct garden areas to explore. There’s a kitchen garden, a woodland walk, semi-formal planted lawns, a turf maze, a meadow bank leading down to the stream that runs through the grounds, a decorative bridge and of course the walled gardens themselves, which are being planted as a combined orchard for local fruit varieties and rose garden. Sections of the gardens are still very much under development, but others are well-established and overall it’s a project with absolutely enormous potential.

Jo and I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around, as well as lunch at the on-site café, and I took a couple of dozen pic, the best of which are below. Click any of the thumbnails to open up a slideshow gallery:

Easton Walled Gardens is well worth a visit if you’re ever in that part of the world. Jo and I are planning to go back on a semi-regular basis, every few years, to see how the gardens are coming along.

Now Picking: Salad Leaves, Pea Shoots, Kale and Red Mange Tout

June is when all the hard work you’ve put into your back yard kitchen garden in the first half of the year really starts to pay dividends in terms of pickings. So far, the edible produce from my own plot has been limited to the salad leaves and pea shoots that I’ve grown in the greenhouse, but now a few of the outdoor crops are starting to come good as well.

Recently I’ve been harvesting last year’s kale – Curly Green, Curly Scarlet and Cavolo Nero. I planted them late, in September last year and I really wasn’t expecting much from them. But in the last couple of months they’ve grown on really strongly and in the last few days have put on huge amounts of leaf. However, they’re planted in the half of the second raised bed that’s ear-marked for this year’s runner beans, so I’m gradually stripping the leaves and up-rooting the old plants to make way for their successors. Which means lots of fresh, iron-rich kale for dinner – lovely.

I’ve also been picking the first few mange tout Red Shiraz. This is a purple-podded variety that I first tried last year and was very impressed with. Juicy, fresh-tasting pods, if you pick them young enough. Produces well, with attractive flowers, too – the bees certainly love them.

When Jo and I came back from a few days away in Norfolk last week, we found the plants – which I’d planted out into a couple of 45cm plastic tubs – had exploded, shooting out above the plastic framework I’d set up for them and spilling over onto the root and leaf section of the raised bed. We’ve tied them back and with any luck and regular picking, they’ll keep producing their tender, tasty purple pods right the way through August.

Coming soon: courgettes, strawberries, salad potatoes and broad beans, all being well.

Edit, 28th June

…and rhubarb! How could I forget the rhubarb. Must have had a couple of dozen stalks from my three crowns so far this year. I may take a few more from the oldest and best-established, but I’m leaving the two smaller ones to develop, as they’re only a year or two old and are still establishing.

Roots and Salads Experiment – a Quick Update

A few weeks ago, I sowed half of our second raised bed with four blocks of paired root and salad crops. Just a small companion planting experiment to see whether leaf-salad crops (mainly above-ground) and root crops (mainly below ground) can happily share the same space without crowding out the other too badly.

Here are a few shots taken last Saturday to show where they’re up to. Click any of the pics for larger versions:

Block A : beetroot, Boltardy and basil, Sweet

Very little activity here. A few spindly beetroot seedlings (I’ve never had much luck with beetroot) and what are hopefully a lot of tiny basil seedlings, although there’s always a chance they’ll turn out to be weeds. A case of ‘wait and see’ with those…

Roots & Salads block A, June 2013

Block B : radish, Candela di Fuoco and spinach beet, Perpetual

As you can see, easily the most vigorous growth so far. The leaves are similar, but they are different enough to pick out: the spinach beet is rounded, the radish leaves slightly wavy. Plus, the radish has a row of tiny spines running along the back of the leaf, down the central stem – not so nice to eat.

Roots & Salads block B, June 2013

Block C : swede, Ruby and rocket

I think pretty much everything you see in here is rocket, so far. Or maybe swede. Or both. Only one way to check – try some, see if they taste like rocket or not. Serves me right for planting companion plants with similarly-shaped leaves.

Roots & Salads block C, June 2013

Block D : kohl rabi, Green Delicacy and spinach, El Grinta

Two distinct leaf-shapes here – rounded spinach and crinkly kohl rabi – so no great difficulty telling them apart. I picked a few spinach leaves at the weekend and very tasty they were, too. And I know from last year that young kohl rabi leaves have a lovely, nutty flavour as well, so if I have to thin a few of those as I go, that’ll be just fine.

Roots & Salads block D, June 2013

So: mixed results so far. Not much happening in block A (maybe basil needs more heat to get going), a minor case of foliage-confusion in block C, but blocks B and D are producing tasty salad leaves around four weeks from planting, and with any luck their root-oriented companions will be growing nicely as well.

This Year’s Runner Bean Frame Goes In

Constructing the climbing frame for the runner beans is always one of my favourite garden mini-projects.

In the past I’ve tried a couple of configurations in an attempt to maximise light and air access, but realised last year that there’s a reason that the triangular wigwam style is the traditional one: it just works. The key is the addition of the diagonal canes, which prevents movement and keeps everything rock-solid.

Here a shot this year’s finished frame, and another showing a close-up of the joints. I’ve bound the canes together with plastic plant ties rather than string: they don’t snap (well, not quite as easily), they don’t rot and they’re re-usable. Plus, no knots to fiddle with. Click the pics for larger versions.

Runner bean frame June 2013   Runner Bean Frame plastic ties

I’ve put two runner bean Scarlet Emperor in so far, and there are another two in the cold frame that will go in sometime this week. Then I have another eight plants that I’ve just potted on to larger plastic pots in the greenhouse – the first batch I sowed didn’t germinate too well (just two from twelve seeds) so I had to sow another dozen.

As you can see, I’m growing my runner beans in the bed that currently holds last year’s over-wintered kale. It’s still putting out plenty of fresh leaf, so I’ll leave it in there until the rest of the beans are ready to go in. Hopefully it will have fixed plenty of nitrogen in the soil that the beans will thrive on. Oh, and those sprays of delicate yellow flowers are what you get if you let scarlet curly kale bolt and go to seed. Rather lovely, no?

That section of the raised bed also contains a catch-crop of spring onions, which won’t do any harm if I leave them in until they’re ready, and an attempted sowing of bull’s blood leaf beet. That hasn’t done so well, so I’m just digging the seedlings back in.

Another few weeks and Jo and I should be feasting on fresh runner beans until they’re coming out of our ears, if past years’ harvests are anything to go by.