Blog, gardening

Of Mice and Melon Seeds…

Tewkesbury Abbey by Robert Arden, via Pixabay

Working from home has both good and bad points. There’s no commute, so in theory I can start work from the minute I open my eyes in the morning and carry on until I fall asleep at night. That’s a recipe for burnout, so I try and schedule some time out in the fresh air every day. Dog-walking takes up at least a couple of hours each day, and I love escaping out into the garden.

The trouble is that the rush of spring brings its own pressure with weeds springing up all over the place. They keep growing, and the writing deadlines keep coming. While I’m sat at my keyboard I’m aching to get outside. When I’m outside, I’m fretting about that I should be writing. It’s all pressure, even if I love the tasks I must do.

This week, it got even harder to concentrate on my novel as I found myself caught up in the ancient story of the Town Mouse and Country Mouse. A little creature almost hitched a ride with me into town, and got me thinking about a new project.

Morello Cherry Blossom ©Christina Hollis 2021

For the past few weeks rain has been falling on Tottering Towers in amounts rarely seen outside of arty Japanese films. I’m in the early stages of writing a new novel. Work went well while the weather was bad because I wasn’t tempted outside. Then the sun came out for the first time in what felt like years.

Much as I love the characters I’m creating, it’s hard to concentrate on fictional family feuds while real life is speeding up outside. I wanted to get out and do some gardening. When DD asked for some help in her own little plot, it was the perfect excuse to leave writing behind for a few hours. I couldn’t get there fast enough.

DD’s cottage in Tewkesbury is the cutest little house you’re ever likely to see. Today it would be called Brownfield Infill. When it was built in fifteen-hundred-and-something, a canny landlord called it a way to make money out of a tiny wedge of land between two rows of cottages. He (or she—the women of my family have a long history of land-grabbing, and I bet they aren’t unique) didn’t even have to go to the trouble of building a whole house. All they did was build a brick wall five metres wide, tied into the properties on either side, and high enough to reach the neighbours’ eaves. Topped off with a roof, the gap became a three-storey house for the price of a few hundred bricks, two exterior doors, and six window frames. Grand Designs, eat your heart out!

The only drawback is that DD’s property is wedge-shaped: each of the three floors is the equivalent of only one room wide. Its tiny garden is no more than the gap between the walls of her neighbours’ properties and narrows to nothing six metres beyond her back door. There’s no rear access, so everything needed in the garden, from patio furniture to compost, must be carried through the house.

Mind your step! Lettuce seedlings, parsley and basil displayed on a ladder ©Christina Hollis, 2021

The garden is so small there’s no point in paying for a green waste bin which would only be filled once or twice a year. There aren’t any flowerbeds as the whole area is covered in decking. Previous residents had left behind a collection of ceramic containers which were overflowing with rainwater after the recent storms. Carrying them through the house risked spills and slips, but I’ve got several 30 litre containers which once held industrial quantities of fruit juice. They have water-tight lids, so it would be easy to fill them in the garden the transport the water through the house without making any mess.

There are always odd jobs to be done so as well as the containers I decided to fetch my packed shuttle tray of tools from the greenhouse. As I picked it up, a mouse jumped out and shot into the dense cover of parsley and lettuces edging the path. When my heart had started up again, I investigated the tray. The mouse had made a cosy nest in one corner by shredding an empty seed packet. It must have been busy all night as I’d only sown the seeds the afternoon before. If it hadn’t escaped, I might have accidentally taken it to Tewkesbury!

Would you prefer the crowded city to these wild woods? ©Christina Hollis, 2021

Imagine being a mouse carried away from the glade and steep ridges of Tottering Towers and arriving in the middle of a town. The Roman poet Horace wrote about the speed, noise, and danger that terrified country mouse Rusticus when he visited the home of his sophisticated friend, town mouse Urbanus.

Mice are a terrible pest in my own garden, but they’d have difficulty getting into the enclosed space behind DD’s house. She’ll never need to worry about tulip bulbs and seeds being eaten before they’ve had a chance to grow. I’d like to think her tiny garden is a mouse-free zone, but they are tricky little devils.

Window boxes can fit on a sill or stand on top of a wall, but make sure they are secure and can’t fall. @Christina Hollis 2021

Lockdown has inspired many people to take more interest in their surroundings, whether it’s making them more beautiful, or growing things to eat. DD hardly has the room to swing a Mus Urbanus, but she could still make use of the stepladder idea for displaying plants, as shown in the photo.

Window boxes are a good idea that work in the tiniest spaces, too. I grow all my lettuce and salad leaves in them, as slugs and snails make short work of any lush greens planted in the open garden. That’s the problem with gardening for wildlife—a lot of it prefers eating my fruit and vegetables to their usual diet of weed seeds and waste.

I used to write a regular column about gardening with children for Nursery World magazine. Thinking about growing things in small spaces made me wonder if Rusticus and Urbanus could become gardening mice. They could show children how to make the best of what they’ve got, whether in town or country.

As I drove home I was feeling quite friendly toward local yokel Rusticus mouse, who had made a nest in my tray. That feeling passed off when I checked the pots of seeds I’d planted the day before. While I was away, wretched Rusticus had dug up all the melon pips and eaten them!

Blog, gardening

If You Knew Yuzu…

…like I know yuzu, you’d know why its fruit is so expensive to buy!

I love reading, cooking, and gardening. To read about an exotic ingredient, and then manage to grow it makes me super happy.

My sister must be Nigel Slater’s greatest fan. A few years ago, Sis gave me his book The Christmas Chronicles. It’s an amazing combination of anecdotes and recipes both esoteric and more down to earth. I’ve been growing citrus fruit for quite a while and have cracked the best method for growing basil, so when I read the details of Slater’s Lemon, Orange and Basil Ice I was quick to try it out.

My yuzu, fruiting in November 2019

The recipe mixes basil-infused milk and cream with sugar syrup, and the juice of mixed citrus fruit to emulate Nigel Slater’s favourite citrus fruit, the yuzu.

I’d never heard of yuzu before reading The Christmas Chronicles. The Lemon, Orange and Basil Ice recipe was easy and good, although I couldn’t help wondering how much better it would have been if I’d used fresh yuzu juice.

As Nigel Slater says in his book, the fruit is hard to find. I tracked some down in a big, upmarket supermarket but, in common with a lot of imported fruit the yuzu they had on sale had been picked too early. They were hard, and the skin was completely free of that enticing spicy fragrance I’d been told to expect. Not only that, but it was many times more expensive than organic citrus fruit. I wasn’t going to make do with something second-rate, so I left the wrinkly relics where they were and decided to grow my own.

My favourite online nursery is The Citrus Centre. They had yuzu plants for sale, but at a price that made me think more than twice. I don’t smoke, rarely drink alcohol, and haven’t been away on holiday for years (because I don’t want to leave the animals in the care of anyone else) and lots of people spend small fortunes on all those things and end up with not much to show for it. If I had a yuzu tree, my reasoning went, I’d have the challenge of growing it, a greenhouse-full of orange blossom fragrance in spring, and the pleasure (I hoped) of using the resulting fruit in autumn and winter.

The same plant, this week. Look closely, and you can see the flower buds.

I took the plunge, but when the yuzu arrived I saw straight away why the fruit is so expensive. The bushes ought to come with a health warning! They are covered in very sharp spines, each one is five or six centimetres long. It’s like keeping an ever-expanding bundle of barbed wire in the greenhouse.

The workers who pick these fruit for the supermarkets deserve danger money!

The yuzu is a typical citrus, with green, glossy leaves and waxy white flowers which are rich with a sweet, heavy perfume. In 2019, my yuzu fruited for the first time. The juice is like a tangy cross between a mandarin and a lemon, and the grated zest is a great addition to cakes.

Over the winter of 2020/2021 it lost every one of its leaves all at once, during a cold, snowy spell. One day it looked fine, but the next morning it was a network of bare branches and wicked thorns, surrounded by a carpet of fallen leaves. It was such a sudden shedding I assumed the tree must be dead.

Nothing happened for three or four months, then at the beginning of this week I saw the first signs of life. A few tiny tufts of green at the tip of each branch. The next day saw a record-breaking high temperature for early April, with lots of sunshine. The yuzu took advantage of it. Within thirty six hours of seeing those first shoots, the plant looked like this—complete with flower buds!

Orange blossom was a traditional flower for brides’ bouquets. The new book I’m planning at the moment will feature both weddings, orange blossom, and greenhouses, so every morning when I walk into my big Dutch light glasshouse, I’m breathing in research!

The picture of a mandarin—one of the yuzu’s parents—in the heading is by Beverly Buckley via Pixabay, by the way.

What’s the most exotic thing you’ve grown, or used in cooking?

Blog, gardening

I’m Back (Temporarily…)!

Francis Close Hall, University of Gloucestershire

I haven’t blogged for a while as I’ve been up to my ears in university work. My final assessment of this semester was submitted on Tuesday morning. I spent the rest of that day in stunned silence. I’m sure my tutors would like to think it was mental exhaustion. Actually, I was more wistful than tired. By this time next year, my course will be over. I’m having such a great time, I wish it could go on forever!

After some reviving tea and cake, I managed to make it out into the garden on Tuesday afternoon. We’ve had only one or two short bursts of rain over the past few weeks, but weeds made the most of it. While I’ve been locked in the library or chained to my desk, a green tide has swept in across my vegetable patch. I’ve now got to try and stem the flood.

Our winter flowering honeysuckle was covered in bees during the dark days of January and February. It is now putting on lots of fresh green growth, making it almost impossible to push between it and the row of tanks holding any rain water which drains from the eastern side of Tottering Towers’s roof. The rule about cutting back early flowering shrubs such as this and forsythia is that you do it as soon as the flowers have faded. That way the plants are stimulated into making lots of new shoots which will flower next year.

Winter Flowering Honeysuckle, copyright Christina Hollis

First thing this morning, I took a saw and secateurs out to attack the honeysuckle…and had to bring them straight back in again! I always check before starting any job like that to make sure I won’t disturb any nesting birds. Sure enough, I spotted the bright eyes of a hen blackbird watching me over the rim of her nest. She looked exactly like the bird in the photo below by Heinz Melion, (via Pixabay) although this nest is in a conifer. I backed off, and left well alone.

Blackbird by Heinz Melion, via Pixabay

We’ve got quite a few nest-boxes dotted around the garden, and almost all are being used by busy house sparrows, robins, and titmice of all sorts. One nest box hangs on the north wall of our house, only yards from the kitchen door. We pass it dozens of times every day, and both the cat and dog are never far away. A little while ago this box was investigated by a pair of nuthatches. I never thought they’d use it. There’s a constant stream of people and animals going backwards and forwards past it but they still settled in. They’ve raised a family to the noisy stage, so —fingers crossed— there will be plenty of nuthatches in our wood this year. The parents are flying in with food on average once every seven minutes, from dawn until duck. That means we have to leave and return to the kitchen carefully. We wait until a parent bird has either just popped in to feed their chicks, or popped out on its next hunting trip!

Nuthatch, by Rebekah Wilkinson, via Pixabay

The garden plants and nestlings might be changing fast, but some things are the same all year round. DD got up for work at 5am this morning , and looked out of the kitchen window to see a wild boar rooting along the outside of our boundary fence!

Blog, gardening

Food, Glorious Food!

Apricot_flowers_best
Late winter

Back in February, I wrote about the apricot tree flowering in my greenhouse. That was before winter came back to bite us, in the form of The Beast From The East. At a time when spring should have been springing, we ended up with several feet of snow, and endless days with the thermometer registering well below freezing. Despite my greenhouse heater going full pelt and plenty of insulation, the later flushes of apricot flowers were nipped by the cold.  A lot of them shrivelled before opening. Some of the earliest fruitlets were killed too, so instead of a tree covered in fruit, we were left with only a few dozen surviving apricots.

That turned out to be a blessing in disguise. If every flower had turned into a fruit, we’d have had hundreds of apricots, none of them any bigger than grapes. The stone inside each one would have taken up a lot of room, so there wouldn’t have been much in the way of juicy fruit.

APRICOTS.1_0537
What a difference four months made!

The answer would have been for me to thin out the fruit by picking them off while they were still tiny. The idea is to leave about one fruit for every four inches of branch. I can’t bear to be ruthless, so we would have ended up with measly apricots.

Luckily, nature did the job of thinning the fruit out for me this year. We didn’t have so many fruit, but each one was the size of a peach! The seven in the photo at the top of this blog weigh nearly a kilogram (that’s 2.2lb in old money).

I’d be happy to sit in the shade and eat them fresh form the tree, but OH loves fruit crumble and custard. Here’s my recipe, which is really quick and easy. It includes jumbo oats and Demerara sugar which means the topping stays crunchy, in lovely contrast to the cooked fruit beneath.

Apricot Crumble

Ingredients:

700g (1.5lb) fresh apricots, sliced

A small amount of caster sugar

100g (4oz) flour

75g (3oz) butter

50g (2oz) Demerara sugar

75g (3oz) jumbo oats

Heat the oven to 180c (160 Fan) Gas Mark 4

Put the sliced apricots in an ovenproof dish. Sprinkle over a little sugar, and add a couple of tablespoons of water.

In a large bowl, rub the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar and oats. Spread this mixture over the apricots.

Bake in the pre-heated oven for between 35-40 minutes, or until the fruit is cooked. This is delicious whether you serve it hot or cold, with custard or cream.

Of course you could always make this with tinned apricots—just use the juice instead of water, and cook until the crumble is browned and crunchy.

What’s your favourite recipe using summer fruit?

 

 

Blog, gardening

Spring Fever…

 

…makes a change from the cabin fever we’ve all been suffering for the past few weeks. I’m itching to get out and do some work in the garden. Everything has gone to rack and ruin! Until the end of February, the winter was unexceptional. Nature was gearing up   for spring, as usual. I’d had cloches warming the soil so I could plant some potatoes very early. Tomato plants that I’d germinated on my office windowsill had been potted up, and were sitting in the heated part of my biggest greenhouse.  It was all on course.

seedlings-2708679_1920
My seedlings don’t exactly look as good as these any more!

Then March came in with not just a lion, but blizzard conditions the media dubbed The Beast from the East. We had days and days of temperatures well below freezing, and heavy snow. You can read more about that here and here.

Apricot_flowers_bestThe whole month was a write-off as far as I was concerned. When the weather was good enough to go outside, I was busy working on Women’s Lives in Bristol. When I had a break in my writing schedule, the weather was so bad, it put the garden out of bounds. There’s no point sowing seeds into freezing, waterlogged soil.  With the greenhouse door either frozen shut or blocked by snowdrifts, I left it well alone. The only action going on inside was the flowering of the apricot (you can read more about that here) and nectarine trees.  My visits were restricted to checking the heater, and bringing bowls of bulbs in from Tottering Towers, as they finished flowering.

This Easter weekend means a fresh, if late, start. The first purple sprouting broccoli will be ready to pick (I’m thinking broccoli and stilton flan…). The compacted, airless soil around the garlic and shallots needs freshening up. A winter’s worth of pesky weeds needs to be decapitated. My first job will be to sharpen the blade of my hoe. Then it will slice through those infant hordes before they can set seed. One year’s seeds means seven years of weeds, don’t forget!

Once the weeding’s done, I can plant my potatoes.  Good Friday is the traditional time for that job, not for any superstitious reason but because in the past,  religious festivals were the only time working people managed to get a day off.  I’ve tried loads of different potato varieties in the past, but this year the season is so late I’m relying on some tried-and-trusted favourites. I’m growing Rocket, which will produce new potatoes in about ten weeks, Duke of York, another early but which will take a bit longer, and Pink Fir Apple which is a late maincrop variety. It won’t be ready for lifting until the autumn, but the distinctive long pink tubers will give us that distinctive new potato flavour into the New Year.

I’ll also be making the first outdoor vegetable sowing, which will be parsnips. I’ve had some soil covered for them to warm it up and dry it out, but once the seeds are in I’ll leave the protection off. They’re tough enough to stand whatever April can throw at them.

Have you got anything special planned for this holiday weekend?