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.

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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.

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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?

Blog, gardening

March Towards Spring?

It feels more like we’re backing into winter!

I was planning to tell you all the things I’d be doing in my garden during March. Today is officially the First Day of Spring here in the UK.

Then The Beast From The East met Storm Emma.snowyshed 2

That sounds like a Fifties B-movie or a wrestling bout. Instead,  it’s a combination of weather systems fighting it out over Europe. The UK has practically ground to a halt. Countries who see snow every year are having a good laugh at our expense. I don’t blame them. Many of our main roads impassable. People have been sitting  in their cars for up to seventeen hours, stuck in endless traffic jams. Airports and trains have been at a standstill from the second snow began to fall.

In our defence, we’ve seen more snow in this country over the past forty-eight hours than we usually see in a whole month during the winter.

We’re simply not set up for bad weather here in England. It doesn’t happen often enough. OH and I used to fit winter tyres to our cars every autumn, but after years with no problems, we never bothered to buy them when we changed our cars. Snow chains are worse than useless unless there’s a good depth of snow, and in any case the lightest snowfall renders the one-in three lane between Tottering Towers and the country road connecting us to civilisation impassable.

So…there are my excuses. Now, down to work. In advance of the bad weather I travelled 40 miles to fetch a full canister of propane gas for my greenhouse heater. That would normally last for a month at the rate I use it. Temperatures have been well below freezing for days, so I dread to think how fast the gas is being used! I haven’t dared open the greenhouse to check. It’s well insulated, all the citrus trees and overwintering cuttings are clustered close to the heater, but there’s a limit to how much cold they can take.

PAPERWHITE_NARCISSI_CHRISTMAS_BULBS
Paperwhite narcissi, flowering in January. I wish you could experience their scent!

I’m not so worried about my fig trees, which also live in the greenhouse. They’re a bit hardier, and still dormant.  The apricot flowers I wrote about a few days ago may be damaged by the extended cold period. I’ll have to wait and see. The strawberry plants haven’t come in to be forced yet, and at this rate they’ll be staying outside! Once I can get into the greenhouse again I’ll be topdressing all the fruit trees with fresh compost. All the bulbs I forced for flowering at Christmas and in the first few weeks of the new year have been moved from the house into the greenhouse, waiting to be replanted in the garden when the weather warms up.  I’ll give them some plant food this month, to keep them going.

March is traditionally the main seed-sowing time, but they’re safer off in their packets for a day or two. I won’t be sowing anything for a while. There’s no point. It’s too cold to keep them growing, once they’ve germinated. The tomato and lettuce seeds I sowed a few days ago are living on my office windowsill, safe inside Tottering Towers, but they’ll soon get long and lanky. They need moving out into the greenhouse, but they won’t appreciate the conditions out there right now! OH wants me to get electricity in my greenhouse so I don’t need to worry about heating and lighting for my seedlings, but Tottering Towers is prone to power cuts. That’s why I rely on a propane heater.

There’s nothing to be done outside when everything’s covered with snow. The shallots I wrote about last week are snug under an insulating layer of snow. I have seed potatoes ready to plant for an early crop, but I’m holding them back.  A sheet of black polythene has been warming the soil in the kitchen garden for them. It’s been there since New Year, but I’m not going to risk planting them yet.

I need to thaw out  the hens’ drinkers with warm water several times a day, and make sure they are shut inside their insulated houses each evening. I bring the feeders in, as rats would soon discover that easy source of food. Fetching them at dusk is a challenge which means floundering downslope in the snow, then back uphill with my hands full. Alex our mad dog doesn’t help the process, dancing round my feet. One day I’ll trip over him and end up flat on my back in the snow, covered in hen food!

What’s the weather like where you are? Do you have any tips for dealing with wintry conditions?

Blog, gardening

That’s Shallot!

shallots-2289469_1920

It’s been a long, dark winter. Gardening is a great cure for the February blues, but a cold wind is slicing in from the east. The forecast doesn’t give much hope of it getting any warmer for the next week. The garden is still so wet, walking on it squashes all the air out. That’s not good for either the soil structure or helpful mini-beasts like worms. Despite that I managed to plant some shallots and garlic today, by working off  a scaffolding plank. The old rule of thumb was to plant them on the shortest day, harvest them on the longest. Mid-winter weather isn’t always kind enough for that!

I like these big pink banana shallots, Longor, for roasting whole. Slipped in around the roast or cooked on their own in a mixture of butter and olive oil, within an hour they are chestnut-coloured, stickily savoury, and equally good hot or cold.. They go well in casseroles, too. The round varieties  such as Red Sun fit into jars better, so those are the ones I use for pickling in the autumn. A nice, crisp pickled shallot with cheese and crusty home-made bread makes a great snack.

Shallots do well in the garden at Tottering Towers. Garlic struggles to make big bulbs here, but I keep trying. Whatever size of clove I plant, whichever variety and whether they’re planted in autumn, winter or spring, the resulting heads of garlic are always small-to-medium sized. This year I’m trying the variety Marco. I haven’t grown it before, so it’ll be interesting to see if the results are any better.

Are you trying any new varieties this year?