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Life with an Organic Gardener

July/August 2014

posted 13 Aug 2014, 05:23 by Bob Brace

It is the time of the nasturtiums, and very good they are this year too. They trail all over the place, budding
vigorously as they go. They are good and healthy with no sign of the terrible infestations of blackfly which normally disfigure them right from the start. The colours absolutely glow.

Mr O G, who has only a cursory interest in flowers, is also pleased with his fruit harvesting. Strawberries, raspberries, loganberries and gooseberries have all outperformed previous years by quite a large margin and they have ripened properly so the jam has set. Next we begin on blackcurrants and apricots. It is a very busy time, and the grass is still growing apace. Not quite the time for Mr O G to be messing about on the roof again, but he is. The leak in the flat roof which startled us back in January after one of the horrendous storms finally made it clear to him that the roof really must be replaced. ‘After all’ I had said, ‘it is very old’.

I shall not readily forget his optimistic reply as he stood in the bathroom with rain beating in on his head: ‘There’s nothing wrong with that roof’ he declared firmly. But I bided my time and in the spring I pronounced that there was a special offer on roofing felt and it would be foolish to miss it. So we stocked up on the essentials for renewing the roof and, naturally it has to be done when the weather is fine, not only has that but also when the sun is hotted enough to soften the material. This in its turn means that Mrs O G now has to mow. Not that I am permitted to ride on Big Bertha, oh no, I am allowed to do what Mr O G condescendingly refers to as the ‘little mowing.’ This means wielding the electric mower round every obstacle that gets in the path of Big Bertha, and so also means wearing out one’s elbows. Mr O G has conveniently forgotten that once I used to use the ride-on, and quite efficiently too. However when we had to have a new one, it was discovered that the pedals had been changed around. Why do they do that? Imagine going to buy a new car and discovering that the brake pedal was in a different place. Anyway, the upshot of that was a strong tendency on my part to panic when approaching obstacles such as ponds and trees, and to forget which foot was which. Hence my demotion to ‘little mowing’ which nonetheless goes on forever and of course, from the roof, Mr O G can see every error he reckons I make..........................

We have eaten the first of the new potatoes – only a few slug holes to cut out – and they were delicious. The first cucumber has been cut and eaten, but the tomatoes are still green. Subconsciously we are still awaiting the start of the tomatofest. Aubergines have grown big plants but no sign of a fruit, peppers have grown smaller plants and still no sign of fruit. Squashes have rampaged and fruits are forming. Melons have rampaged even more, but as yet only flowers have formed. The garden is becoming a veritable flower bower and I am very pleased with it. Just keep watering................ How marvellous to have a lovely hot summer without having to worry about the water. We can spend lovely warm evenings wielding the hose pipe and this year we are completely untroubled by ‘water carrier’s shoulder’.

Hot, hot, hot. We love it – even Mr O G, who found himself working on the roof when the thermometer up there
registered 52 degrees! He soon decided to have shade for his groundwork and spent an evening modifying Big Bertha so that he could have shade anywhere he cares to mow. This seems to be very successful, and joins the other modifications, i.e., sheepskin seat for softness, leg rest for dodgy knees, and teddy mascot on steering column!

The tomatoes have now begun to ripen apace and together with the ongoing so-called courgettes which are actually now large marrows, they require roasting and liquidising and bottling for winter spaghettis. It’s all happening.

I was delighted yesterday to find my first melon swelling and I visit it repeatedly, nettle soup in my watering can as a reward for its efforts. The onions have now been harvested and dried off, their necks tied down, and arranged on racks in the shed where Mr O G can periodically be seen gloating over them.

The little wild plums on the tree which grew itself in the spinney suddenly turned bright yellow and we have picked them and enjoyed our first plum crumble of the season. Next will be the greengages, if the pigeons don’t get them all first. The tree is festooned with old CDs which I have hung among the branches from strings and the idea is that they spin in the wind, catch the sun and frighten the birds. The birds use them as mirrors, but we are frequently startled by flashes of sunlight, and even of moonlight, and sometimes believe it to be lightning.

Imperceptibly the season has changed – so many things have gone over swiftly in the heat that we suddenly find ourselves ahead of the game – just waiting now to get the crops off before once again re-organising all the beds and arranging the garden for autumn – definitely not ready for that yet...........

June 2014

posted 31 Jul 2014, 04:52 by Bob Brace

‘The snake’s in the strawberries’ announces Mr O G breathlessly, hurtling into the kitchen. ‘Has he eaten them?’ I enquire, thus betraying a sad lack of knowledge about the lifestyle of a snake. ‘Can’t tell’ he replies, ‘he’s thrashing about in such a rage because he’s caught in the net – quick, give me some scissors’ I do so, asking what he is proposing to do. I suppose I envisaged stabbings, or beheadings. ‘Cut him free of course’ he says as he disappears again. I marvel, not for the first time, at his sang-froid in the face of what, to me, is a very real and present danger. We knew there was a snake living with us because we had on several occasions found shed skins, about 30 inches long. These are fascinating in themselves because where you would expect to find holes in the skin for the eyes, there are actually transparent membranes. We believe him to be a grass snake, and therefore harmless, but I really didn’t want to put it to the test. Mr O G returns. ‘Did he bite you?’ I demand to know. ‘No, but it wasn’t easy getting the blade between the net and his skin. After I got him free he shot off into the onion bed and disappeared down a hole. And get this,’ he adds bitterly, ‘beside the hole there was a small ripe STRAWBERRY.’ Circumstantial evidence indeed.

Mr O G broods for a bit and then pronounces ‘Unless he can produce a very good defence, this court finds the snake guilty of strawberry theft’ Meanwhile I have been reading the book, it states that snakes are entirely carnivorous. Mention this to Mr O G, advancing it as the necessary good defence. I show him the book. ‘Ha’ he says triumphantly, ‘it also says that they modify their diet to suit their environment’ I can see the snake is found guilty, but it doesn’t really matter because Mr O G quite likes him really.

What a beautiful spring it has been, the best for many years. It is a pity then, that Mr O G has had to be out of the garden for six weeks. This is because he suddenly had to become Mr Emergency Builder owing to the demise of the dining room chimney and the necessity for new stove, flue liner and repairs to the stack, not to mention
complete redecoration of said dining room. This had far reaching consequences for the garden and for Mrs O G who had to spend many days on her knees trying to plant out all the little plants before it was too late. Mr E B would helpfully call directions from the top of the scaffold (where he knew he was safe from reprisals) and reckoned that he could see every error she was making. While all this was happening, there was a great free for all on the weed front. They went raving mad and the veritable explosion of growth overtook everything and we shall probably not get proper control at all this season. However, we have had some good strawberries and the first helping of new peas this evening. Lettuce supplies continue unabated but so do the ongoing battles against the slugs. We knew it would be a bad year for them after the winter didn’t really happen. The frog army is doing its best. In every damp dark little nook and cranny lurks a huge fat frog, hardly able to move for having eaten so many slugs, but they just can’t eat fast enough.

The delphiniums have been particularly good and prolific this year, shooting up their great spires above all the chaos, with big cascades in all shades of blue. The most striking piece of growth of all, however has been the miracle apple tree. I call it a miracle because it is. The tree had been a wedding present so is now 50 years old. Back in January, after one of the worst gales, we found this tree lying on the grass, blown clean out of the ground, roots waving dramatically in the air. ‘Oh, it has had it’ say I, ‘what can you expect, at that age’. Mr O G was having none of this defeatist talk. ‘Bah’ he said, and set about digging a huge hole. I obediently pruned the top branches hard – this wasn’t a difficult task while the tree was lying down. Mr O G then liberally sprinkled the roots with some mycorrhizal fungi which he had been given as a Christmas present, and replanted the tree, giving it a massive iron stake as well. I still believed he was wasting his time, but sure enough, in the early spring I spotted signs of life in the form of little leaf buds sprouting out. Leaves formed and next came a smattering of blossom. I was truly amazed, but Mr O G took it as a matter of course. There is now a little green apple growing. If it manages to mature, and we get to eat it, it will have to be done in a ceremonial fashion, for it really is miraculous. It just shows what can be done with perseverance and mycorrhizal fungi!

Mr O G, after several evenings of quiet brooding, has come to a conclusion. ‘ We must not have any more loose nets’ he decrees. ‘It is not the first time a creature has become entangled – we shall have to forego them. The only nets to be used will be ones on a rigid frame, I can soon knock up some more.’ I remark that it would be easier to set up a giant fruit cage over everything, but this is not really the answer. If the birds can’t get at the plants at all, who will eat the greenfly, and the blackfly, and the white fly etc etc..........?

Now is the time of the waterlilies. Like everything else, they are abundant this year. In the little pond in the front garden there are no fewer than 7 pink blooms, and in the big pond there are so many huge white flowers that we have lost count. They are surrounded by a myriad marsh marigolds whilst overall the gunnera spreads its great parasols way over our heads. The pond teems with wildlife, from bright blue damsel flies flitting about the flowers, to the army of newts trawling around under the water. The water snails uncurl themselves on the surface and sunbathe, and in among them glide the pond skaters. We just sit and stare for hours. It was in this pond that the snake was first spotted swimming, by a visitor who could hardly believe her eyes. It’s quite true – you don’t have to do anything to attract wildlife to the garden, it’s all there already, just waiting to pounce on anything you may dare to plant!

November 2013

posted 4 Nov 2013, 08:42 by Bob Brace

This is the time of the grapes. They hang in dense forests of bunches throughout the biggest greenhouse and Mr O G spends some time every morning selecting the best ones for the day’s feasting. They are very sweet and tasty but they do have pips in them. Mr O G hates the pips and when he brings in the bunches he then spends a lot more time filleting the grapes. A labour of love! 

One year we made wine with them and it was a very pleasant light red wine, so much so that we saved two out of the three bottles for a special occasion. Needless to say, by the time we opened them, they had gone musty. Very disappointing, but home made wine is notoriously unstable. Mr O G then decreed that we must simply eat the things, so we are doing our best.

As ever, the issue of preserving comes to the fore. Apart from wine, however, there seems little to be done with them. Grape jelly is a possibility but after the jamming sessions of the summer, it hardly seems worth making more sweet preserves. Grape juice may do, but now that the freezer is full, there is not a lot we can do but drink it. The Victorian gardeners used to cut the bunches of grapes with a long amount of stem attached and then the stem would be put into the neck of a wine bottle filled with water (containing some charcoal to keep it sweet) and then the bottles would be put into slanting racks so that the grapes could hang down freely. Mr O G thinks this is a brilliant idea and so the kitchen is now adorned with his experimental version. The grapes certainly do seem to keep better that way.

The cucumber glut has taxed the preserving skills as well. After we had eaten cucumber salad, cucumber sandwiches and cucumber with mint in yoghurt, I made some sweet cucumber pickle but still the heaps of cucumbers languished in the larder. Then I was given a brilliant recipe: cucumber sorbet. It sounds a bit odd, but is delicious, very refreshing, and not unlike melon sorbet. Very simple to make. You peel and roughly chop three cucumbers, put them in a bowl with 10 ounces of caster sugar and the zest of two limes, mix well together, cover and leave in the fridge for a minimum of two hours, preferably overnight. Next day there will be an extraordinary amount of liquid in the bowl which has been drawn out by the sugar. Now liquidise all the contents of the bowl and then pass through a sieve. Add the juice of the limes to the resultant mush, and then gently fold in the whites of two eggs, whisked to peaks. Freeze, stirring frequently throughout the process. A most satisfying dish. Of course, if the freezer is too full, then the mush can be used like squash – a tablespoonful in a glass and topped up with tonic or sparkling water makes a lovely refreshing drink. It is handy to have some borage flowers in the garden – a few sprinkled in the top of the glass look very appetising.

Mr O G continues to saw and chop at the heaps of wood. He is gradually making progress, although he had to stop doing that and rush around battening down ready for the storm. After he had tied down anything that might move, and we had crammed as much as we could into the shed and greenhouses, he looked at the fences wavering in the wind and decided that all the ivy and clematis should come off, to reduce the wind resistance. He nearly ran out of time, and was still trimming and sawing and dragging at all the growth as it was getting dark. However it seemed to be worth the trouble because the fences remained intact – the first time they’ve ever stood up to storm force winds.

I have been ruthless with the flowers. All the geraniums, clivias and streptocarpus except for the two best of each have been binned. I used to try to cram everything into the conservatory each winter, but I eventually became heartily sick of not having any space so I resolved to be firm. Each plant has to earn its place in the ‘ark’, and those which do not make the grade have to go, after I have taken a couple of cuttings from each one. The little cuttings don’t take up so much space and the resultant plants the following year are much better. Hostas have all been trimmed down to the base and the pots are tucked away in a sheltered spot to overwinter.

The michaelmas daisies and the chrysanthemums are looking good. They provide a lovely mix of purples, lilac and lavenders, as well as the soft pinks of the November flowering crysanths. They are really tough against the weather and so are very welcome additions to the garden at this time of year. This year we also have some yellow ones. I know for certain that they were white last year – I bought them specially for a particular scheme, but after overwintering in the greenhouse, they have turned yellow! Quite an attractive yellow, but nonetheless, it wasn’t quite what I meant. I suppose they have reverted to their natural colour after intensive breeding. Still, they make a brave splash of colour under a cloudy sky.

Mr O G is still picking lettuces from the garden – the ‘little gem’ variety are ideal. One lettuce will serve two people at dinner and there is no waste. Carrots are still successfully sitting in the soil awaiting our attention, but that could all change as soon as it frosts. The little buttons of Brussels sprouts are nicely formed, despite the fact that the tops resemble lace where the caterpillars have devoured the leaves, right back to the stems. Mr O G hates caterpillars almost as much as he hates slugs. The brassicas are all kept covered with nets, but to no avail. The butterflies frequently get under the nets and when they can’t get out, they just lay more and more eggs. The birds can’t get under the nets to eat the eggs and caterpillars so really the nets are a mixed blessing. We have to have them otherwise the pigeons just eat everything. Every year Mr O G says ‘no more brassicas’, but every year we succumb to the desire for the Brussels sprouts and ‘we’ll just try once more’.

The final push with the tomatoes is the red tomato chutney. 6lbs of tomatoes, 8 ounces of onions, 12 ounces of soft brown sugar, one teaspoon of Cayenne pepper, one tablespoon of salt and half a pint of vinegar. Skin and finely chop the tomatoes and onions, (or liquidise if in a hurry) and put all the ingredients in the preserving pan. Simmer over a very low heat until thick – this takes about 2 hours – and then bottle. You can use it as tomato ketchup and it is delicious. I have one more batch to do, and then there are only a few more tomatoes ripening. The green ones we will pick and lay out on trays on the windowsill where they will gradually ripen, in this way it is possible to still have tomatoes at Christmas.

Mr O G will now be taking a short break from gardening while he helps Roger to rebuild his barn which was crushed by St Jude and a tree. Meanwhile I shall continue putting the garden to bed for the winter, and will plant the bulbs. That is an act of faith, if ever there was one! Remember to plant bulbs at a depth two and half times their own height. With most bulbs this needs quite a large hole, and there is only a small window of opportunity when the ground is soft enough to do it. And that is now.

So we’ll sign off now until next year when, as every gardener knows, everything will be much better. I’ll leave you with these thoughts:-

On a tundra-scape of grey and white 

Under bleak and lowering cloud, 

Shrivelled in the windy bite, 

Small frost rimmed trees are bowed. 

The close-pruned roses nothing more 

Than groups of bundled sticks, 

The East wind chills them to the core 

As icy eddies mix. 

Driven by the gale tonight, 

The snow will intertwine 

And every ridge and rill and height 

Artistically define. 

Beneath the deep-dug, rocky earth 

The cold bulbs hibernating 

Know nothing of their brilliant worth And glorious day awaiting.

October 2013

posted 11 Oct 2013, 02:46 by Bob Brace

The blackberries have been duly gathered in and turned into jam, Mr O G style. Rosehips as well; our grandmothers used to turn them into nutritious syrup during the war, faute de mieux, so we always had the taste for them, and I still sometimes make a little, just for old times’ sake. 

Now it’s all about the firewood. This is one of our most valuable crops. We have a lot of trees, including one venerable ash tree which was old when we arrived. This tree has many huge branches, and each year Mr O G selects a promising one and fells it. He spends a considerable amount of time sawing and chopping and stacking it each autumn and then rotating the stack so that we are burning seasoned wood each winter. Mr O G is very proud of his skills as a woodman. However this year I have managed to persuade him to employ the services of the tree surgeon. He didn’t want to, but after the episode of the flying grandmother last year, I had to insist.

It happened like this. Mr O G selects his branch, and then, suitably accoutred with hard hat, ropes, a chain saw and a hand saw, climbs the tree and attaches a rope to the chosen branch. He then hurls the rope over a suitably strong higher branch to form a pulley, and throws it to me on the ground so that I can control the fall. Next he starts up the trusty chain saw and powers through the branch. As he gets to the last cut, he hollers ‘timber’ and I take the strain and allow the branch to descend slowly and carefully to the ground. Last year, with an uncharacteristic miscalculation, Mr O G chose a branch which was heavier than I was.

‘Timber’ he cries, and I, who have wound the rope tightly around my waist for extra purchase, make a couple of startled running steps before being hoisted off my feet. I would like to say that I flew gracefully but it wasn’t quite like that. The neighbour ran for her camera to record this latest eccentricity, but she had difficulty getting along because she was laughing so much. Mr O G, after the first astonished glance, laughed so much it was some moments before he could gather himself sufficiently to descend the tree and lighten the load so that I could regain my footing. This year the tree surgeon will do it, and I will go out for the day. Enough is enough!

In the flower garden I am still busily transferring the small plants of wallflower and sweet williams from their nursery bed into their final flowering positions. This is not easy because the beds are still occupied by the summer flowers which seem to have regained a new lease of life since the warm weather returned. Slowly but surely, though, they are succumbing to the longer nights.

The amaryllis bulbs I planted last month have shot up and flowered beautifully, and shrivelled and died again all in such a short time. In the winter they last much longer, but I suppose the warmth and the longer daylight hours than they normally have, speeded them up. They were lovely while they lasted but I shouldn’t think they will flower again this year.

I have tipped the lilies out of their tubs and sorted through them. The bulbs have had many babies, and a few more have shed scales. All these are gathered up and planted in boxes. They will make new lilies eventually, although I will have to bring them up in pots for several years. I have learnt not to put them in the ground to be destroyed by the lily beetles. These beetles are bright scarlet and easy to spot, but not so easy to catch. They will drop to the ground and burrow when they feel the slightest vibration – you have to creep up on them and grab suddenly! It looks quite funny to onlookers if they don’t know what you are doing. The beetles are most fond of the new shoots of the lilies, so it is a good idea to keep the pots and tubs of lilies in the greenhouse until they are of a reasonable size. Then you can bring them out and the beetles aren’t so interested.

We continue to harvest tomatoes and cucumbers, and the french beans are still going strong as well. The runner beans did not do so well and the beetroot are over. Of carrots there are a-plenty but we have never really found a successful way of keeping them for long, so this year we are going to try leaving them in the ground, and just covering them up against the frost.

It is time to sow winter lettuce, to move into the greenhouse as soon as the summer crops come out. Successional sowings of spinach can take place now, and if you are very keen to look clever, now is the time to put some potatoes into buckets or bags of compost in the greenhouse so that you can produce new potatoes for Christmas lunch.

The cabbages are ravaged by rape beetle and whitefly, but we have learnt not to despair – when it turns much colder, these pests will disappear and the cabbages will grow through. At least, so we hope. The leeks are well under way and we have started eating them, along with the butternut squashes of which we have many. They have performed better this year than they ever have before and I believe it is because they like the really hot weather.

At least we can eat freely of the cucumbers and other items which Mr O G had been hoarding in the wardrobe (cool and dark) ready to make up his entries for the horticultural society show at Cholesbury. Mr O G was very successful at the show – winning three silver cups, including the Society’s Open Challenge cup. He has been like a dog with two tails ever since. ‘Surely’ he says, gazing raptly at his trophies, ‘surely this vindicates organics’. I am inclined to agree with him.

September 2013

posted 3 Sep 2013, 23:55 by Bob Brace

The drifting scents of summer are giving way to the dusty, nutty, smell of the corn as the combine harvester roars and bleeps its way through the fields. The season is subtly shifting towards autumn. The sun is still hot enough for swimming and afterwards beats on my back as I bend over the autumn fruiting raspberries. Even as I work, a clanking crash and an oath apprise me that Mr O G has overreached himself for the ripest greengage and fallen out of the tree, landing loudly in a gooseberry bush. But the greengages are doing well, and a bucket full has rewarded his efforts. The raspberries are not doing as well as they should – they have expended their energy in spreading their canes in a rampant fashion, rather than producing the usual heavy crop. ‘Gone wild’ says Mr O G briefly when I complain about this. I think the time has come to dig most of them out and plant afresh. I have tied ribbons round the canes which have fruited well, and the rest are for the compost heap. Ideally I would shred them first. I have a shredder which Mr O G kindly bought me for a retirement present. However it is a bad tempered and unco-operative machine which will only shred provided the sticks are of precisely the right length and thickness, have been stripped of all leaves and protuberances and are fed to it in a scientifically exact manner. Rather than face having to strip it down and re-build it when it jams up every few minutes, I usually cut up the canes with my trusty secateurs. They are ratchet ones – a marvellous invention for people whose hands are not very strong – I can thoroughly recommend them and can’t imagine how I ever managed with ordinary ones. One year I saved all the thick raspberry canes, soaked them in a tray of water for a week and then wove a hanging basket with them. It worked too. I was very pleased with it, although it was a bit lop-sided, but it took a long time and was more novelty than use as the gaps between the canes were rather large and most of the compost washed out despite the fact it was lined with Mr O G’s old sweater. There’s a limit to the number of hanging baskets you want anyway.

Mr O G has spent many hours picking fruit, perched on his little wheeled cart which he can scoot from bush to
bush – he has the patience of a saint. Particularly with the blackcurrants. When you cook blackcurrants, put a bit more water in than usual. When they are cooked you can strain off some of the juice and there you have instant blackcurrant cordial. (we all know what it is called but I think I might run into trouble if I mention the name). It doesn’t affect the blackcurrants which are still just as good to eat.

It is the time of year when we are now sinking under the weight of the harvest, and I must make the tomato puree. I assemble three baking trays. Three, because there are three shelves in the oven and while we are using electricity we may as well have the maximum return. The performance can be repeated as many times as necessary. On each tray I put a large onion and a medium courgette both chopped into chunks. They are then pushed to one end of the tray and the rest is filled with tomatoes, cut in halves and arranged in rows with the cut side up. I then sprinkle overall with a little salt, a lot of fresh ground pepper, shredded basil and finally about a tablespoon of sugar. It is the sugar that makes the real difference to the flavour. Then I drizzle olive oil over all the cut surfaces and put the trays in the oven at 200 degrees (roasting temperature) for about 35 minutes, or until I start to smell the charring. When they come out they smell fantastic. I then tip them into the liquidiser, and pour a little boiling water into the trays to stir around and get every last tasty bit out, add that to the liquidiser as well. They are then thoroughly liquidised, cooled and poured into little plastic boxes. The size which holds 200 grams of cream cheese are ideal – save them up all year. Then they are frozen. Once the freezer is full we have to bottle instead. The mixture is heated through and bottled into little jars according to Mr O G’s patent bottling method.

Once you have your tomato puree you can use it for so many things. Spread it on pizza bases and top with cheese or ham or pineapple or a mixture of all, add olives if you like them, or mushrooms or anything else you have to hand, 12 minutes in the oven and you have the best pizza ever.

So long as you have some dried pasta and a jar of your tomato mix in the house, you can have a meal in 10 minutes with hardly any effort at all. If you fry some bacon and add it to the heated tomato puree you have a luxury meal.

A mere ice cube size chunk of the puree will transform a beef casserole, while a couple of such chunks will be the base for your poulet chasseur. It saves so much time when you are cooking if you have a sauce ready made, and you’ve only made a mess in the oven once! I have to admit here, that since you must cook the trays of tomatoes uncovered to get the right result, you also have to clean the oven quickly afterwards. But really, it is worth it.

The butternut squashes in the greenhouses have finished now, but the plants outside in the garden are still fruiting well. We have had the heaviest crop ever and this is due to the lovely hot weather. Squashes like it hot. The large onions are now lifted and are on a covered shelf drying off. Another crop which has gone mad are the spring onions. According to the government their title is now ‘salad onions’, but Mr O G refuses to comply – ‘spring onions’ they remain. We have hundreds of them and they are now getting too big to grace the salads. ‘Pickle them’ instructs Mr O G. I demur – it surely can’t be that simple, I don’t think they will dry well enough, they may not keep properly etc, but we decide to try it anyway – better than wasting them. Purchase large amounts of vinegar and get another experiment under way. While I mention vinegar – mixed with salt it makes a good organic weedkiller. Heat a quart of vinegar and stir in a cupful of salt, mix until dissolved and then apply to your weeds on a day when it isn’t going to rain. You can spray or water onto weeds in the drive, or on the patio, but if you want to use it on weeds in the flower borders, then you must paint it on with a brush. It is a contact killer. Mr O G does not permit weedkiller in the vegetable garden at all, even the organic variety. Anyway it isn’t really necessary because the garden is dug over two or sometimes three times a year after each crop finishes so the weeds don’t really get a grip. But the drive is a different matter.

My sunflowers are going over. A pity, because it is another week before the horticultural society show at Cholesbury and I was hoping to enter them, along with the meticulous and splendid entries being carefully prepared by Mr O G. I may be able to nurse them along a bit longer and get the necessary number of blooms but really they need to be dug up and the bed prepared for something else. Potatoes actually. Mr O G has booked the area for more potatoes. The crop was good, but there aren’t enough for the whole year. Someone remarked that the answer is to grow more, and this he intends to do. He is already preparing for next year by digging large quantities of rotted horse dung into every space which becomes available. Gardeners love dung. Some visitors came to tea recently and jumped out of the car saying, ‘we have brought you a present’. Was it a bouquet, or a box of chocolates or a bottle of wine? No, out of the boot they hauled a huge sack of chicken dung. And we were thrilled!

I have found last year’s amaryllis bulbs under the staging in the greenhouse where I had put them to dry off. I re-planted them and after just a few days there are budding spikes about 4 inches high. They are very reliable toughies. One year I forgot them and they lay on their sides on the floor and flowered anyway! I shall also plant up the dried corms of last year’s cyclamen, they will make a good bit of colour for the winter in the house. I don’t really want to think about winter. The summer seems to be going on and on in a wonderful haze of heat and harvesting and it is just bliss.

However the good gardener must keep on top of all the tasks. We must keep up to date with all our work because next month we shall be very busy indeed harvesting what is probably the most valuable crop of all to anyone who hankers after this space.

August 2013

posted 5 Aug 2013, 00:36 by Bob Brace

Oh the joy of the hot blue weather! The trug went from pitiful to plentiful overnight and now Mr O G toils up the garden laden with fruit and vegetables of all kinds. The only problem about dinner is to decide which to use first! Of course, the remainder then need processing and this task mostly falls to the kitchen maid. I am demoted from cook, because Mr O G always makes the jam himself, believing that no one else can do it properly. By properly, he means abandoning Mrs B’s recipes and using his own. This is a difficult process because he insists that it is not necessary to use equal amounts of sugar and fruit, as advised by dear Isabella and indeed any other cookery book one might consult. No, he uses mostly fruit and as little sugar as he thinks he might get a set with. It is true this makes his jam fruity rather than simply sweet, and tasty it most certainly is, but anyone who has ever made jam knows that setting is not the most easy thing to achieve. I have often had to refer to Mr O G’s jam as a fruit sauce, but he himself prefers the builder’s terminology of ‘self-levelling compound’. With some fruit, he gets away with it and his gooseberry and blackcurrant jams are perfection. Strawberry jam has to become mixed fruit, with the addition of loganberries and a sprinkling of gooseberries he can usually achieve something approaching a set, and all others have to be sealed into their jars like bottled fruit to ensure that they keep. Then there is the bottling itself. Somehow the freezer always seems to be full, no matter how hard I try to organise it, and so after cramming in as much fruit as I can, we have to resort to more old fashioned methods. Mr O G does this too because he has perfected a streamlined process which depends largely on brute force to seal the red hot jars, and, he remarks loftily, ‘females just don’t have the strength’. It always works so I am happy to agree to this. The one thing I do reserve space in the freezer for is my strawberry sauce. If you simply freeze strawberries whole, they come out again as fairly unappetising watery mush, so I put them in the liquidiser with a generous amount of caster sugar and a couple of large splashes of milk. The resultant sauce is delicious and can be frozen in small quantities for use in the winter – it mixes wonderfully well with plain yoghurt and makes a genuinely strawberry tasting dessert. Ditto with ice cream or a topping for cheesecake or shortbread or a trifle. 

The other things which have to go in the freezer are raspberries ( just push them into a bag and straight into the freezer) and peas. The peas are easy because again they can just be put in bags as free-flow, and the bags can be tucked into any spare corners where they will mould themselves into the available space in a most obliging manner. I tried the same thing with the sweetcorn, but that is too moist to be freeflow and so the large bags froze solid and now I have to take a hammer to them whenever I want a handful of sweetcorn. When you hammer a freezer bag it has a regrettable tendency to burst, and it is remarkable what a mess a simple bag of frozen sweetcorn can make. I will have to invent a better system. It is no good leaving that to Mr O G. For some reason the freezer appears to be the domain of the kitchen maid. Sometimes Mr O G can be seen peering into it with ‘must try harder’ expression on his face, before he plaintively asks me where his ice cream is NOW?

One result of the new drought is that Mr O G has had to do some maintenance on his water harvesting system. One of the interlinked barrels has sprung a leak and so it had to be mended swiftly before it upset the whole row. As he subsequently remarked, upside down in a barrel wasn’t precisely a comfortable way to spend a morning during a heatwave!

He is already looking forward to the next season and is sowing a new lot of lettuces. In September he will sow some of the new seed he has found which is called ‘winter gem’ and is specially bred to thrive in the low light levels of winter. It will be an interesting experiment.

The giant striped stuffer experiment has not been a success. This variety of tomato we found under the ‘heritage’ section and I couldn’t resist the name. However I did have reservations, believing that the seed had only joined the heritage department because it had been a failure in general use, and this indeed has proved to be the case. The plants are extremely vulnerable to blossom end rot and so far every single fruit they produce starts to show the trademark black blotches before ever they think about ripening. The RHS says it is caused by a deficiency of calcium. This is not because there is no calcium available – there almost always is plenty in the formulation of growbags and proprietary composts. It is because irregular watering affects the plant’s ability to take it up sufficiently to reach the fruits which are always the last to receive the nutrients after the leaves have had their fill. Mr O G does not believe this, and certainly his experience this year belies it. Owing to the fact that we grew so many plants in the spring, we had too many for the space in the greenhouse. Mr O G hates throwing anything away so he put some of the spares in large tubs under a shelter. One such tub was shared by two plants – one was a Giant Striped Stuffer and the other was an Ailsa Craig. Obviously, being in the same tub, they both had the same nutrients and the same watering regime. Both plants thrived and grew huge with dark green healthy leaves. But there the resemblance ended. The Striped Stuffer succumbed in a spectacular manner to the rot whilst the Ailsa Craig has performed brilliantly. He rests his case.

In the flower garden things have done well. One unexpected bonus of my failure to keep order in the spring was that several combinations of plants which otherwise would not have been allowed to keep company have managed to appear. The best one is the vision of cream roses and anthemis blooming amid a sea of acid yellow alchemilla mollis. This is not something I would have planned, but I am absolutely delighted with the result. The foxgloves have been beautiful, if short lived. They seed themselves readily and it is worth just leaving them where they choose because they produce a lovely selection of colours, new each year. This time there was a creamy pink which was unusual and pretty enough to attract the attention of the art society on their annual drawing evening here. I have grown Sweet Williams this year after a long time and very striking they are too. So much so that I have already sown several trays for next year. Therein lies their snag. They are biennials and so have to be sown, pricked out, and planted into final flowering positions the year before they are to flower. It is so easy to forget what they are and weed them out again in the spring! I shall have to write myself a memo.

August will be the month to make the salsa. Pick some nice ripe tomatoes, a pepper (any colour) and a medium onion. Simply spread them out on a large board and chop them together very finely. Add some chopped basil and salt and pepper and a good spoonful of sugar. Mix all together until it pleases your tastebuds, then just pile it into plastic boxes and freeze. When you de-frost it, stir it through and use with salads, or with fish, or as a flavouring for any more complex dish you are cooking. I even put it into sandwiches with cheese or ham. It keeps very well and is useful in many ways. You can vary the quantities of the ingredients according to your taste and what you have growing.

I think that the rest of August will be spent picking blackcurrants – they are fruiting splendidly – all we have to do is beat the birds to them.

This morning I discovered to my delight that a striped stuffer has succeeded in ripening without any rot. It is not giant, not very striped, and the flavour is only mediocre. Mr O G says ‘I told you so’.

July 2013

posted 2 Jul 2013, 09:35 by Bob Brace   [ updated 3 Jul 2013, 01:39 ]

‘What we need’ says Mr O G, staring out at the wind battered garden, ‘are some gale-proof plants.’ Cue the
agaves. I bought my first one at an open garden day at Lambeth Palace. The Archbishop had potted up some very nice examples and I bought one about the size of a teapot – Mr O G said I could only have it if I carried it home on the train myself. I did, but even at that size it was able to inflict a series of injuries on anyone who came near it – quite handy on the tube, actually. It is now about three feet in every direction and is a veritable monster. Agave Americana and its cousin AA Variegata are wonderfully tough and very stately and architectural plants upon which I now rely for structure in the flower garden. It is true, they do not actually flower. In fact, some members of the family have been known to ask plaintively ‘what do they DO?’ and the truthful answer is that they don’t DO anything much – they just sit there gradually becoming larger and larger and more and more stately and architectural. Their great advantage is that they never so much as quiver, no matter how hard the wind blows and, a bonus, no slug or snail or indeed any creature will tackle those tough leathery and spiny leaves. Agaves have to go into the greenhouse, or some kind of shelter for the winter – not because they can’t tolerate the cold, but because they can’t tolerate the cold while wet. The book tells us that they can survive down to minus 40 degrees centigrade provided they are perfectly dry, although I am happy to say that I don’t have personal experience of such extremes, but I do know that they survived the night of the celebrated minus 19 degrees the BBC attributed to Chesham a couple of winters ago. I did actually take this up with the BBC, asking to be told exactly where in Chesham this was recorded, but they never replied. Anyway the agaves are no trouble. They never need watering, and are quite happy in raised pots for years. This is why we started growing them. In the drought years we had begun to suffer with a peculiar ailment known to all gardeners as water carrier’s shoulder. The government exhorted us to harvest rainwater and to concrete over our lawns. Luckily we resisted the concreting but Mr O G has always harvested rainwater. He has a complicated system of interconnected water butts and pipes and channels, and also a Heath Robinson device which collects the bathwater as well. Even with all of this, we became heartily tired of watering and sought ways to reduce it. The agaves were perfect. They will occasionally produce babies as side shoots which you can just pull off the main root and pot up, and so the collection grows. The only thing is, they are vicious. Those spiky leaves will draw blood if you touch them, so for moving the agaves, or acting as their midwife, it is necessary to wear armour and goggles and gauntlets. It’s also a good idea to grow some yarrow in the garden. This is a useful plant, known as the carpenter’s herb because of its styptic qualities, and it has pretty flowers as well. I know how efficient it is at stopping bleeding because Mr O G tends to have a cavalier attitude towards his workshop cuts and scrapes and generally refuses any kind of first aid, preferring to wipe up the blood with an oily rag, but will put up with having a leaf or two wrapped around his wounds. Whilst we are on medicinal plants, petty spurge, that lowly wild version of the garden euphorbias, is a good one. A handful of its leaves, covered with boiling water and left to steep will then make an effective bathe for warts or veruccas or those nuisance spots that the doctor so cheerfully refers to as ‘the barnacles of old age’. Wipe the infusion over the spot two or three times a day for a couple of weeks, and it will steadily reduce until it vanishes.

The garden, despite the recent high winds, is looking good. Peonies and baby figs jostle for space with poppies and hardy geraniums, cornflowers both white and blue, irises, and spires of foxgloves and lupins and delphiniums,
while the fences and arches are clothed with clematis and golden hops. The fruit garden, just as the man predicted, is burgeoning. We have tasted our first strawberry – one each, and look gloatingly at the fat beauties reclining on their straw waiting to turn red. As long as the slugs or birds don’t get them that is. Blackbirds are wonderfully adept at getting under the nets. Lettuces are now enormous, and we can have the luxury of just discarding the outer leaves and feasting on the crisp hearts. The chives are a mass of fluffy pink flowers – not only do they look good in a vase, but you can scatter the flowers over the lettuces on their plates and it is the prettiest and tastiest way of eating chives that I know.

We have also feasted on our first tiny new potatoes which have such a wonderful flavour. This feasting though was not entirely joyous. The reason we have dug some of them so early is this: I was wandering around the vegetable garden, just generally seeing what I could expect shortly in the kitchen trug, when I spotted something which made my heart plummet. One of the potato plants was shivering. This is my way of describing the look of the leaves – just not quite as happy as the others, and just the suggestion of a curl at the edges as if it was hugging itself – not much really but enough to strike fear into the soul of the gardener. I sent immediately for Mr O G who took one look, and silently fetched his fork. As he turned up the plant, the tiny white potatoes cascaded around, they looked lovely and I started scooping them up, but the problem was easy to see, at the base of the stem the first black marks were starting to show. Blight. It gives an inkling of how those poor Irish farmers must have felt when the signs started to show in their staple crop. You have to act fast. First remove the affected plant and take all of the haulm and any stray leaves and put them straight into the green bin. (You used to have to burn them, but the council claim it is all right to put them in the bin. I don’t believe this, it seems foolish to take the chance of spreading such a pernicious disease, and I asked them about it, but they insisted they could cope with it.) The potatoes are still all right and can be eaten, but they will not keep. Any longer in the ground and the black marks would have started to spread through them. As they grow, so does the damage. Next change all your clothes and sterilize your tools. Don’t even think about going into your greenhouse until you have done this and taken a bath and washed your hair and waited until the next day. Because the infection spreads fast and deadly and it affects tomatoes as well – they are of the same family as potatoes. It can decimate the whole crop within days if it gets a hold. Last year the TV guru got blight in his tomato house and the pictures of the whole crop turning brown and black and having to be thrown away were quite awful to see. It is something all gardeners dread, and in recent years it has become much more prevalent. The thinking is that it is borne on the rain, which is why Mr O G will never attempt to grow tomatoes out of doors, but once it arrives in the garden, it is very dangerous. We now go about our daily rounds with fear and trepidation and disinfectant.

Once potatoes are large, they taste very similar to any other potato so although the loss of the potato crop would be annoying and a great nuisance, we could put up with it. But the loss of the tomato crop would be a very different issue. We feel that tomatoes only taste good if they are home grown and we don’t even bother to buy them out of season. Not only do we look forward to the crop with eager anticipation and we wallow in the delights of the lavish summer tomato salads, and the great bowls of them lying around to be eaten like sweets, but also, as bottled purée and frozen salsa, our tomato crops sustain us throughout the year. It is our staple. I really think that if we lose the tomato crop I would feel like giving up gardening altogether and going to live in that chic little Paris flat I have coveted ever since my sojourns there as an exchange student. I would be able to walk upright and have clean hands and divide my days between the Tuileries gardens and the Musée d’Orsay. But of course Mr O G would never hear of such a thing. He would be quite devastated by a major crop loss, indeed his displeasure would probably be audible throughout the village, but he would never, ever give up. It just isn’t in his nature.

But there, perhaps, as he says, it will be perfectly all right and stop fussing woman.

In my trug yesterday there were some of the tiny potatoes, refugees from the blight, one thin and elderly leek, last of the mohicans, and some tiny carrot thinnings. (This thinning should be done on a calm day, preferably in the evening, and the carrots covered up immediately afterwards. This is because apparently the root fly can smell a carrot at four miles!) There was also a bunch of spinach and a bunch of coriander. I put the potatoes on to boil, and while that happened I put the carrots and the shredded leek into some olive oil and started to fry them very slowly, adding a teaspoon of sugar as soon as they were really hot so that they would caramelise. I then added shredded raw chicken breast and continued to stir fry until they were all cooked through – not very long. Then in went the chopped coriander, the spinach leaves wilted over the top and the whole lot tipped over the now cooked potatoes. Very quick, tasted nice and looked clever. Of course if you don’t like coriander, it doesn’t taste nice and you must dine on bread and cheese.

There is another problem. If you stand very quietly in the vegetable garden on a calm day you can hear a peculiar little pattering noise. It is the little black rape beetles tap-dancing on the cabbage leaves. This puts Mr O G into a rage because he knows it is the preliminary to reducing the cabbage leaves to lace. He digs deep into his memory and comes up with the fact that someone once told him that you should get a large piece of cardboard and cover it with grease, then trawl it over the tops of the cabbages, and the beetles will jump on to it and become stuck. I am very sceptical about this but he finds the necessary equipment in his lair and proceeds to try it out. Unbelievably, it works. The cardboard is thickly encrusted with a layer of the tiny black beetles.
Unfortunately, there is an equally thick layer of them left behind on the leaves. ‘Did he tell you what to do with the squillions who are left?’ I ask sarcastically. Mr O G simply replies that we shall obviously have to do it in relays. I sadly notice the plural, but he volunteers to do another shift that same evening. An odd sight he was too, trudging through his vegetables in the dusk, towing a cardboard sledge on a string, wearing his bright red nightshirt and muttering oaths and imprecations into his beard.

It must have been about then that it bit him. Whatever it was. His big toe swelled up swiftly and alarmingly. ‘That’s it’ he cries, falling back on his pillows – that’s it, I’ve got gout!’ And there he lies, despairingly enumerating all the disastrous diseases this could presage and making himself thoroughly miserable until the next morning when the swelling goes down and it is seen that it was an insect bite after all.

Today the trug contained potatoes, a small onion which Mr O G had pulled up by mistake whilst weeding, and another bunch of coriander, along with half a baby courgette which had suffered a disaster to the other half. We had salmon fillets bathed in a sauce constructed with the onion fried together with the bit of courgette, chopped coriander and some yoghurt stirred in, served on the now customary bed of new potatoes. The saying that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ was never more apposite than in the household of a gardener who aspires to self sufficiency. The saving grace was the dessert which was the first of the new season’s gooseberries and they were delicious.

Mr O G is now lurking around moaning that I must stop rabbitting because it is time to go to bed, which it is, but who is to do the night shift on beetle greasing I do not know.

June 2013

posted 3 Jun 2013, 02:02 by Bob Brace

‘Poor little things’, exclaims Mr O G, coming into the kitchen with his hands carefully cupped. I peer to see whether he has found a baby bird or a hedgehog, but no, the poor little things are a pair of cucumber plants which have succumbed to the cold. They are flopped over the edge of the pots into which Mr O G has hastily stuffed them after finding them collapsed into the earth in the greenhouse.

‘They have had it’ I remark helpfully. However Mr O G does not give in that easily. He rushes into the dining room and builds a roaring fire in front of which he arranges the flopped cucumbers on the hearthrug. And astonishingly, within a couple of hours they are starting to recover and spread out their leaves. We can hardly believe our eyes. By the end of the day they are looking just as healthy as they did when they were planted out. We are truly amazed, even Mr O G who is ever the optimist has never seen anything like it. The night time temperatures are still extraordinarily low for the time of year and cucumbers are among the most vulnerable. The other plants which are really suffering are the sweetcorn. They are still standing in the garden, albeit surrounded by windbreaks and muffled in fleece, but they are yellow. There just isn’t enough sunshine for them, or the humid warmth they need. Don’t we all.

The bluebells have been the usual delight, but we have seldom seen them still flowering this late in the year. Runner beans and French beans are clinging on despite the howling gales although we have to keep tying them back in after they are blown off the sticks. ‘It will make them strong’, says Mr O G hopefully.

Repeated earthing up of potatoes, sowing of peas and lettuces, and weeding are the order of the month, interspersed with mowing the grass and running indoors to sit by the fire when the cold rains descend. At least, we hope the latter won’t really be necessary but the auspices are not good. Upon hearing the opinion of the TV weather forecasters Mr O G withdraws to the fire and stares into it, calculating how many more logs he must saw up to see us through summer as well as winter. Mr O G is not given to depression, but even he is becoming rather daunted by the cold.

On the plus side, the fruit garden is looking good. We went to a lecture at the National Growers Society and the guru told us that this would be an exceptionally good year for fruit. First indications certainly seem to show that he is right. Although there is many a slip twixt flower and freezer, the plants are bearing loads of blossom and embryo fruits. Strawberries are covered in flowers and looking healthy and green-leaved. Gooseberry bushes are laden with young fruit, as are the blackcurrants while the greengage trees are already showing baby fruit, and the apricots continue to grow. Doubtless the dreaded June drop will happen shortly, but it is a natural process and really should not engender the severe alarm which it always causes to Mr O G who hates to see it. Summer fruiting raspberries and loganberries are already laden with fruitlets, and I am spending a lot of time hanging up old discs around them to frighten the birds. Sometimes it works, just for a while, but the smaller birds, blue tits especially, soon become used to them and actually seem to use them as mirrors! The autumn fruiting raspberry canes are popping up all over the place and I am tying them in as fast as I can. This task is not strictly essential but if I don’t do it they will flop all over everything else – they will still produce the raspberries though. The rhubarb has already performed brilliantly, yielding vast quantities for the freezer and already trying to run to seed. You have to be alert and quick to remove any flower buds or the stems will be hollow. But if you can spare any bits to allow to flower they will reward you with enormous spikes, about 5 feet tall and covered in huge cream florets, the shape of giant lilacs, which look truly exotic. No-one can ever guess what they really are. So striking are they that I keep one rhubarb root specially for the purpose.

In the flower garden all is looking good because it is the time of the aquilegias, otherwise known as Granny’s bonnets. These are beautiful, hardy and tough and come in a wide variety of colours which change from year to year because they are very promiscuous. They are also very good at spreading everywhere and the reason they thrive is that they emit toxins which make them unattractive to rabbits and deer. Grow more aquilegias! Actually we don’t need to do anything because they do it themselves very efficiently – all you have to do is weed up the ones you don’t want. The giant poppies are doing well, it is a pity they are so short-lived, but the few days when they do flower can be quite breathtaking. Delphinium plants are growing strongly so we can hope for some beautiful spikes later in the year. Bedding plants are struggling of course, because of the you know what, but they haven’t actually died, so that is a result. Polemoniums (Jacob’s ladder) are showy and easy – they spread readily anywhere you will let them and produce pale pink flowers freely. They also can produce blue flowers and I have tried to grow blue ones, but they always come out pink – I think it may be that they are like hydrangeas and will colour according to the amount of iron in the soil. All my hydrangeas are pink as well.

I am very pleased with the lewisias I grew from seed, they are flowering well – the only way I can get them to thrive is to keep them in an alpine house – they can’t stand the wet – enough said. The rhododendrons and azaleas are just coming into flower and look as if they will be magnificent. I really love them, and was very disappointed to find that they do not thrive in our alkaline soil, however Mr O G who refuses to be defeated has sunk our old bath into the ground and filled it with ericaceous compost which provides a very good home for them, however their overall size is somewhat limited. A fairly new introduction has been the Inkarho rhododendron series, which have been bred to tolerate alkaline soil, and they do. I have two of them and after a shaky start a couple of years ago they are now thriving. I think they are available at most nurseries nowadays, although we did have to trek to a nursery at Frensham in Surrey to get them in the first place.

Today the sun is shining and there is a modicum of warmth. Maybe at last I can cast my clout – and maybe, just maybe we are not doomed after all!

May 2013

posted 9 May 2013, 12:47 by Bob Brace

It will soon be the time of the irises. A bit late flowering this year, but very welcome nonetheless. The big yellow water irises are always a picture – they are, to be honest, quite invasive. However they make such a show that they are worth the trouble of clearing up afterwards – especially if you employ Mr O G’s method which is simply to have a bonfire on them in the autumn. It clears away all the debris of the leaves and far from killing them, actually stimulates the flowering for the following year. The same thing applies to pampas grass. It is almost impossibly tough to cut down, but the bonfire does the job and creates more plumes as well. 

The frogs have arrived. They put in their appearance on April 12th, which is the latest we have ever known. They have laid the frogspawn in the middle of the pond which is great news if you believe in the old adage. This says that if the spawn is at the edge of the pond, it will be a wet year, but if it is in the middle of the water, then it will be a hot dry year. The thinking behind it is that if the spawn is in the middle, it is because the frogs know that the water will dry up from the edges. If they do indeed know these things, it is a pity the meteorological office cannot harness their services. Whilst on the subject of old adages – when you are sowing seeds remember the saying: ‘one to die and one to grow, one for the rook and one for the crow’, to which Mr O G insists on adding the line ‘one for the snail and one for the slug, and some for every other bug.’ This is very true – you need to sow at least six times as many seeds as you think you require and probably some more as well.

The seedlings are doing nicely and most have now been transferred to positions in the greenhouses or indeed even in the garden, depending on their type. The TV guru advises that you should feel the soil with your fingers to see if it is comfortably warm for planting out, but Mr O G’s old granddad used to say you should sit on the soil without your trousers to see if it is comfortable. Be warned, villagers – it may be necessary to avert your eyes if Mr O G decides to follow his granddad’s advice!

The wild garlic is up – the leaves can be shredded into salads where they impart a delicate garlicky flavour. It is a most useful plant – apart from the edible leaves (do not eat the bulbs of this one), they have pretty white flowers and if you plant them under your roses the smell of the garlic confuses the greenfly. Companion planting like this is one of the organic gardener’s most useful weapons against pests. Tagetes, the tiny French marigolds, are excellent for planting with tomatoes to combat the whitefly, and any of the alliums will be helpful among crops which would otherwise succumb to aphids.

When our son condemned Mr O G’s old motorbike and told him not to ride it any more, Mr O G diligently cut the yellow fairings into strips and hung them up in his greenhouses. He smeared them all over with axle grease and watched with satisfaction as all the bugs, attracted by the yellow colouring, landed on them and were duly trapped. Mr O G is a great one for re-cycling and never wastes anything, although in this instance I do not know whose axle had to go without!

On the evening air drifts a steady thudding sound. It is Mr O G jumping in his green bin, the better to force in more of the mountains of prunings and debris we accumulate at this time of year. The council will empty two green bins if you wish but you have to buy the second one from them. It was about £40 and we think it has been well worth the money – but they still need jumping on.

Actually any serious gardener you talk to will agree that they regularly jump in their bins – we even know one frail little old lady who looks as if she can hardly walk, but she always enthusiastically jumps in her bin. It is getting in and out which causes the problem and Mr O G usually climbs via his wheelbarrow. This looks very hazardous to me and when I mentioned it, Mr O G promptly constructed a little wooden step, even covered with a bit of old carpet to make it non-slip.

The butternut squashes are looking good in their pots – they germinated quite quickly and are growing strongly, but won’t be planted in their final positions until the middle of the month. Four of them will reside in greenhouses and two of them will take their chance in the garden. This is hazardous really because they need a long hot growing season and I don’t need to mention the weather do I? We have two varieties this year – one is Avalon which has proved very reliable in the past and provides plenty of seed for the following year as well. The second came from the wonderful 50p seed sale and is an Italian heritage variety. The picture looks good, but again, it is probably used to more heat than we can give it.

The odd sunny spell has been very useful for the annual greenhouse washing. It needs to be sunny because you get very wet. Arm yourself with your swimsuit, your hosepipe, a long handled brush and a bottle of bleach. Proceed into greenhouse and start pressure washing – it is great fun and creates the most glorious mess. It is even more wonderful when it is finished and sparkling (don’t forget to wash the outside as well, clean windows maximise the light for the plants and they appreciate it.) If you don’t wash it down, then pests and diseases will build up over the years and eventually become impossible to deal with. After washing down, we used to light those ‘firework type’ smoke bombs to poison any remaining bugs, but the government say we can’t have them any more, and anyway, you could hardly call them organic. The Victorian gardeners used to burn pure nicotine and of course we can’t have that either, but it gave us an idea. We now grow nicotiana silvestris (otherwise known as the tobacco plant) each year – it makes lovely scented white flowers and huge leaves. These leaves Mr O G saves, dries, rolls up and barbecues inside the greenhouse while all the vents and doors are closed. He reckons that 24 hours of the resultant smoke will finish off the last of the pests. Some people think he is eccentric – perish the thought. (naturally you remove your plants before ministering to your greenhouse in this manner!)

The new leaves of the horseradish are showing. This is another very useful plant. Dig up a couple of bits of root, peel them quickly under water, then put them into your food processor to blitz into a dry paste. Hold your breath when you take off the lid. This is very important – the first time I did it, I removed the lid and peered into the bowl, inhaling the pungent aroma. I thought the back of my head had exploded, and had to lie down in a darkened room with a cold flannel over my face for the rest of the day. So, holding your breath, swiftly scrape the paste into a container and cover it with plain yogurt, or double cream if you are feeling decadent. Now breathe. Stir well, and you have the best, most pungent and literally stunning horseradish sauce ever. An unusual and delicious way to use it, is to spread it liberally over salmon fillets before baking them slowly in a moderate oven for about twenty minutes, or until they flake. The baking removes the vicious pungency and leaves a great flavour.

Horseradish is also a very effective antibiotic. Prepare the dry paste as before, add a little boiling water to make a stiff liquid, cool and freeze in ice cubes. When required, defrost a cube, add enough water to make it palateable, and drink. Take this three times a day. It works for most uncomplicated minor infections. Colds are caused by viruses and therefore in theory the horseradish doesn’t help. However this isn’t strictly true because if you inhale the aroma of the newly blitzted horseradish (see above) I guarantee you will forget about your cold for ages.

Mr O G is now concentrating on successional sowing. As soon as the first lot of peas are underway, sow another lot, and repeat fortnightly. This means that you will have a nice succession of peas ripening when you want them. They have such a short season that you must pick them very fast or they go hard. You could simply pick them all and put them in the freezer, but somehow there is nothing quite the same as opening a fresh pod of peas to sprinkle raw on your salad, or even to eat whilst wandering around the garden. Lettuces should be sown in the same way – every fortnight or so. If you sow them all at once, they will get huge and run to seed before you have a chance to eat them – unless you are feeding an army of course.

New stinging nettles are appearing – be glad! They are highly nutritious both for people and plants. For the former, fry some bacon and onion, add a good glug of sherry or white wine, followed by the washed nettles, add some stock or water and boil for about 20 minutes – liquidise and serve as a soup with a swirl of cream. For the latter, fill a bucket with nettles and cover with boiling water. Leave to steep for about six weeks, then siphon off the liquid and use as a plant food, diluted with water about 50% for established plants and 1 part liquid to 10 parts water for younger ones. Hold your breath while you do this, the smell is appalling, but the feed is good (and free).

Now is the time for the tomatoes and cucumbers to settle into their permanent quarters in their greenhouses. Each plant is preceded into its planting hole by half a bucket of Mr O G’s home-made compost and a liberal sprinkling of blood, fish and bone meal. As soon as the plant is in place, its ex pot is sunk into the soil close beside, right up to the brim. The water for the plant is always poured into this pot, thus making sure it goes straight to the root and isn’t wasted on the surface.

For all outside plants in May – just remember Mr O G’s golden and very strict rule – no matter how beguiling the weather may become – never, ever, plant out any tender plants before 16th of the month. Tried, tested and true! And don’t forget the plant sale – Hastoe village hall, May 19th – there will be a large selection of all kinds of plants, including some of Mr O G’s favourites.

April 2013

posted 2 Apr 2013, 14:25 by Bob Brace   [ updated 2 Apr 2013, 14:28 ]

‘It always snows on the daffodils’ asserts Mr O G to anyone who may be listening. It is true – no matter how mild the weather may have been, as soon as the brave yellow heads open, a snowfall beats them down. They spring back up again, quite miraculously, but this comment is a reminder that last year’s March weather was extraordinary. Take heart. Some of the coldest and snowiest weather of the entire winter has always taken place in March. Our first baby was born at the end of March in 1966, and the snow and bitter winds were so dreadful that he and I were brought home in an ambulance. It wasn’t considered safe to do otherwise, although I understand that nowadays people have to make shift as best they might. The cold was appalling, no central heating or double glazing and now I had to get up in the night as well to feed a baby!

The rural idyll had come as a terrible culture shock. Nowadays they call it ‘the good life’ but believe me, Mr O G had thought of it long before the BBC did. My mother had seen to it that I could sew, and my grandmother had given me her old treadle sewing machine with which she had earned her living as a seamstress during the first world war. I still have it, and I still use it – it has outperformed any electric machine which ever found its way to this house, and now my granddaughters use it as well. What an advertisement! It was lucky for me because things were so expensive in those days that I jolly well had to make my own clothes, curtains and household items like pillowcases – not to mention the mending. But with a curious and inexplicable omission they did not teach me to cook. At school I had shunned cookery in favour of latin and ancient greek at which I excelled, but this turned out to be a singularly useless accomplishment for the lifestyle I eventually embraced.

When Mother finally grasped that I meant it when I said I would get married, she made haste to repair the omission by presenting me with the large tome of Isabella Beeton’s book of cookery and household management. I still have that as well, well thumbed, dog-eared and heavily annotated with alterations, notes to myself, and stains of blood and tears. All I can say is: Isabella had never met anyone like Mr O G. A far more useful book was produced by my grandmother. It is called ‘The reluctant cook’, and is written by a lady with the enchanting name of Ethelind Fearon. Dear Ethelind – she understood about seasonality and most importantly she understood that it is necessary to cook with the ingredients one has, and not those which one’s recipe directs one to acquire. She also understood the need to make it easy and quick. It was she who taught me to make a cake without eggs, and, most useful accomplishment, to make a smooth white sauce. Her directions to make what she called, in one of those lovely literal translations from the french, a ‘ well-joined sauce’ were easy. She did it by explaining the science behind it – namely you must fry your flour thoroughly because that makes the granules expand so that they can absorb the milk you subsequently add. Simple, once you understand.

One of the first things I did when I had mastered this technique was to attempt a cauliflower cheese. Mr O G had brought in a nice looking cauliflower but I had to stand at the sink for ages denuding it of the slugs and bugs which were hidden in its intricate folds. When I finally had it ready to coat in the beautiful white sauce, liberally sprinkled with grated cheddar, I put it into the oven and smugly awaited praise. The scent of the cooking was wonderful. Mr O G came in from the garden, sniffing appreciatively and clearly believing his luck had changed. Once the dish was done, I opened the oven and we both admired the lovely golden brown surface and breathed in the superb aroma. Our mouths watered. It was a pity, then, that as I lifted it out of the oven, I dropped it. It hit the floor in a veritable explosion of white sauce and shards of broken pyrex. While I shrieked and wailed, Mr O G calmly surveyed the wreckage of his dinner and spoke quietly –‘I’ll fetch a shovel’ he said.

I have often remarked that the man is a saint.

It was a long time before I could fancy a cauliflower cheese again. Just as well really, since the slugs and bugs eventually won, and Mr O G gave up growing cauliflowers and concentrated on other things instead.

Cooking in the early days was also hindered by the fact that the house came complete with an ancient Rayburn stove which was supposed to heat the water and cook the dinner. It did, but only if you shovelled an incessant supply of gold I mean phurnacite into its gaping maw. Also you had to nurse it constantly, adjusting dampers to take into account every change of breeze. I was further hindered by the lack of a kitchen floor. One of the first things Mr O G did was to condemn the woodworm in the floorboards. He simply ripped them up and fed them to the Rayburn – brilliant fire, hottest oven ever, but I had to balance precariously on the joists which he had spared and liberally coated with creosote. I have hated the smell of creosote ever since.

I knew little about running a house. I suppose I had envisaged housewifery as spending the mornings floating around with a duster, and the afternoons arranging flowers. It was soon borne in upon me that if I wanted to arrange flowers I must first learn to grow them, and that when one’s house resembles a building site, you don’t need dusters, you need industrial strength steam cleaners.

I also found out that clean clothes did not magically appear in the boiler room. Worse still, there WAS no boiler room. I don’t think I fully recovered from this shock until several years later when Mr O G’s renovations had progressed sufficiently for him to install central heating, mercifully in time for the birth of our second baby. The oil boiler thundered away in its room, the house was warm, oil cost 10 pence a GALLON – life was good!

In April, even now with all his experience, Mr O G finds it quite hard to produce a selection of vegetables. Leeks are still going strong, and some cabbages, while the baby greenhouse lettuces continue to provide support, but there won’t be lot more until the first spinach shows a few shoots. When you cut a cabbage, don’t pull up the root – cut a cross in the remaining stalk and you will get a few more cabbage leaves to help tide over until better things. Fruit still comes out of the bottles we prepared last year, or from the packs we froze. All activity is now centred on the seedlings. The first tomatoes are showing one or two leaves, and so are the squashes. Leeks are a forest. Marigolds, both french and african, are up, so are some dahlias. Mr O G prefers to grow his dahlias from seed each year because keeping the tubers through the winter is so fraught with hazard that they seldom succeed.

In my department the cinerarias are showing a nice surface of green, and morning glories have a second set of leaves. The nicotiana continue to sulk under the surface of their pots. I was so disappointed with the melon plants last year (6 beautiful plants produced just one melon, little bigger than a tennis ball) that I haven’t sown any this year.

Each morning we rush to the windowsill to count any new appearances – it is very exciting, but doesn’t make the dinner. The carrot crop was long since eaten and so were the celeriacs, although we still find the occasional parsnip. I shall probably be driven to buying some vegetables soon.

Back in 1964, before the garden really took off, we had to buy most things. In the garden we found a beautiful and prolific greengage tree, but you can’t just live on love and greengages. They had just about invented the supermarket, but these were in their infancy and could only be found in large towns. They certainly hadn’t penetrated to Tring. Here we had a shop called the International Stores, and it was in the building which is now Lloyds Pharmacy in the High Street. The International had heard about supermarkets and had daringly acquired some wire baskets and allocated an aisle where we could pick up our own cornflakes and custard powder and suchlike. There was a cash register by the door where a lady would ring up the price of the items before we left. Where it went wrong was that this lady was also the person who served behind the counter where they kept the bacon and cheese and butter. Therefore if you wanted bacon she would leave her till and go and wield the fearsome bacon cutting machine and get you whatever else you wanted from the counter we would now called ‘chilled’, only they hadn’t invented that word yet.

It soon became apparent to this lady that I knew so little about cooking that I didn’t even understand the difference between smoked and green bacon, so she very kindly would give me little lessons each week, cutting different types for me and explaining what to do with them. A lot of the Tring housewives would join in with these instructions – they had to, because they couldn’t leave the shop until she had finished and returned to her till. No-one seemed to mind. There didn’t seem to be the desperate sense of urgency there is today. Very few housewives then had employment outside the home, and so, although they certainly had plenty of hard work within their houses, they didn’t watch the clock like we do now. I had been obliged to resign from the Foreign Office when I got married. It was the rule. I don’t suppose they would get away with it now, although it is difficult to see how you could manage overseas postings while trying to live the rural idyll.

Anyway, I duly pursued my education in cooking and household management. I managed to plant a few bulbs, so
that I would have some flowers to put in a vase in the Spring. That was a start but it was a long time before I mastered the art of pruning so that I could look after the roses which had bloomed so fetchingly around the cottage door.

I was vaguely aware that in my mother’s well-ordered house, some bit of an animal had been roasted on a Sunday and the resulting meal had been delicious. So I consulted Isabella’s clever diagrams of animals, and selected what seemed to be a good piece for Sunday lunch. I then proceeded to the butcher – an awe-inspiring and powerful personage in the life of the housewife. He was in a little shop in one half of what is now Diffusion hairdressers. The other half was occupied by the everyday greengrocer. The posh greengrocer occupied superb premises in what is now the Post Office, but he was very expensive. The Post Office was in what is now the Italian restaurant and it was vast and impressive, but there was always a queue.

So I went to the butcher and asked for what Isabella had advised. I was chagrined to learn that it would cost 25% of my week’s housekeeping money. The butcher was a kind man, and seeing my dismay, showed me other cuts of meat and explained how to cook them. The patient ladies from the queue in the International Stores were getting to know me, and they too would join in with the advice. Thus I eventually learned to cook.

After a few years, a new shop opened in the high street, it was in the shop which is now Coral bookmakers. It was very small. You went in the door at one end, shuffled along an aisle where you could pick up your groceries and put them in a wire basket, and when you got to the other end, there was a till, and the door back to the street. The snag was that it was always full of people so that if you forgot anything in the short shuffle along the solitary aisle you couldn’t go back, you just had to ask the person behind you in the queue to pass it along. It was like chinese whispers – by the time the request had been passed right along the queue and returned as an item, it probably had nothing to do with what you had originally wanted. You just had to put up with it, and probably the person who handed it to you would explain how to use it. When you got to the till, the assistant would carefully enter the price of everything which was in and falling out of your basket, take your money and present you with a handful of green stamps. These you saved for a million years and then you could exchange them for a poker for your fire or some such household accoutrement.

The name of this shop was Tesco, and I loved it because I could get more for my money there than I could in the International Stores, but they weren’t so good at the cookery lessons.

I saw this morning that two seedlings of the giant striped stuffer tomatoes have come up. They are very small but at least they have germinated – always a result. Quite a few of Mr O G’s tomato seedlings are bigger and stronger than mine and he points out, not unreasonably, that he has made his choice of varieties after years of testing for the best – what do I expect from an unknown and ancient variety? I still cling to my visions of the superb meals my giant stuffers might produce.

The flower garden is looking good, despite everything the weather has thrown at it. Daffodils are now unfolding and they must have interbred because each year we have more and more different shapes and whorls and shades of colour. The snowdrops have lasted such a long time they have collided with the daffodils, making an unusual and attractive combination. Forsythia is slowly struggling into flower. Like the snowdrops, the hellebores have also had their season extended and they are now joined by the primroses and polyanthus. There were one or two crocuses but the moment they show the slightest colour the birds nip off their heads. I have never been able to resolve this problem.

It won’t be long before the slugs get going. I think we have tried everything in the book, to very little avail. The best thing has been the copper bands. When our hot water tank burst Mr O G, first having replaced it while taking the opportunity to instruct me in the art of this plumbing feat, then bore it off triumphantly and cut it into strips. These he wrapped around every plant container we have and they have lasted quite a few years. The slugs climbing up the pots will not cross them, but of course they can still leap cleverly from any adjacent plant or tree and land neatly and hungrily in my hostas.

Initially we were advised by the guru on Gardeners’ World to breed frogs. Frogs will and do eat a lot slugs. So Mr O G dug a huge pond and created a shangri-la for frogs with all kinds of water plants, sloping beaches, and hidy holes, together with water lilies and a Monet bridge as well. The frogs loved it. They came in great hordes to breed – usually the unmistakeable croaking begins towards the end of March (hasn’t happened yet this year) and the pond is literally filled with frogs, falling and climbing over one another in a breeding frenzy. After a few days they disappear whence they came and the pond is full of frogspawn. The frogs do indeed feast on the slugs – the snag is that the slugs breed faster than the frogs can eat. Guru didn’t mention that. We used to use slug bait but gave it up after we visited Jekka McVicar’s organic herb farm and she explained to us that the metaldehyde doesn’t only kill the slugs but also attracts them from miles around and moreover its effect lasts in the soil for five years without any further application. Horror!

Many and varied are the recommendations for beating slugs organically but few work very well. Ideally one would keep chickens which would eat the pests and turn them into eggs. We tried that, very many years ago, but the chickens steadily and inexplicably died and even Mr O G became disheartened and just took to growing vast quantities more than we need, because we have to share so much with the slugs.

So now we eagerly await the abating of this abominable East wind and the little touch of warmth which will start everything into growth. Plantings this month will include the potatoes which had to be postponed from Good Friday. After much careful studying of weather forecasts Mr O G has come to the regretful conclusion that this will probably not be before the middle of April.

It is time to prick out the lettuce seedlings, and to sow some more to keep the succession going. But naturally all these things must still take place under glass, or indeed on the window sills in the house. The broad beans are now planted in the greenhouse, and the peas and sweetcorn will be joining them shortly. Mr O G has developed the method of filling strips of guttering with compost and planting seeds into them inside the greenhouse (or a cold frame). As soon as the first few leaves develop and the weather is a bit better, he will dig a shallow trench in the garden and slide the contents of the gutter into it. This gives the plants a bit of a head start. It works for parsnips, beetroot and carrots. Broad beans, peas and sweetcorn need deeper pots, and Mr O G puts peas and sweet peas into cardboard inserts of toilet rolls (you have to save them up all year of course). Some people plant their broad beans directly into the ground but we have always found that they simply disappear, prey to the underground army of moles, voles, shrews, mice and other unmentionables, or simply the cold and wet. Peas and sweetcorn will have to stay in doors until danger of frost is passed – usually the middle of May. However, careful study of the weather will be key – there is simply no telling what will happen, frosts have happened in June before now.

It’s going to be a late season folks...........................................

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