March 2013

posted 3 Mar 2013, 03:40 by Bob Brace   [ updated 5 Mar 2013, 00:44 ]
‘They have sprayed the potatoes to stop them from sprouting’ complains Mr O. G. morosely. I am not certain who They are, but they are ubiquitous and omnipotent and their mission appears to be to think up things to annoy Mr O G. Actually he is right – they do spray them so that you aren’t confronted with a forest of shoots in the racks at the shops. I suggest that he might treat himself to some new seed potatoes but of course this is anathema to one as dedicated to re-cycling as Mr O G. He has always used ordinary potatoes for seed and since his crop is always as good as the current population of slugs permits, I think he might be right again.

The offending potatoes are currently gracing the bedroom window sills, where they are laid out on trays for the light to cause them to shoot. This is in preparation for Good Friday, which has always been the day for potato planting. This year, of course, Easter is very early, so the actual planting day may be subject to a careful consideration of the soil conditions. If it is frozen solid and covered with snow, as has been known at the end of March, then the potatoes will have to wait.

We are still eating leeks of course, but this diet is tempered with Savoy cabbages which have done quite well. They look impressive since they are huge but when you have removed the slug chewed leaves from the outside and the blight infested leaves from the inside, you probably have something the size of a cup left to cook. Never mind, slice it thinly together some sliced onion (these are still keeping well in the larder along with the squashes) and stir fry briefly. I then cover them with a liberal dose of coarse ground black pepper, or you can use nutmeg. Or not – as the case may be. You could use garlic as well if you like, but Mr O G doesn’t do garlic.

There are occasionally still a few Brussels sprouts lurking in the bottom of the daily trug and these are a treat. Mr O G’s real triumphs at this time of year are the lettuces. Well, when I say lettuces I really mean lettuce leaves. They have no hearts, they are tiny – you have to pick one whole one per person but they are quite tender and such a welcome and refreshing change. Arrange them on the plate and dress with some of the salsa you froze last September (I’ll tell you about that in August) and you have a super side-salad with little effort. Mr O G grows these lettuces as a catch crop in the greenhouse – sowing them in early January. Contrary to what you might think, they don’t need heat to germinate, in fact they positively dislike it. Another good thing to add to your winter salad is a dish of broad beans from the freezer, boiled, cooled and stirred in some balsamic vinegar – you can add some of your frozen sweetcorn as well – no need to cook it first – just defrost. In the garden the chives have appeared and a few snippings of those in the mix will make it feel positively summery.

In the flower garden things are really looking up. The snowdrops have been joined by pink pulmonarias which are spreading themselves rapidly, (Mr O G says they are ‘taking over’), and they make a wonderful display of colour so early in the year. They are planted under the dusky pink hellebores and backed by a bush of pink wintersweet, which makes an effective combination I found by accident. As soon as they have finished flowering the pulmonarias can be propagated by digging up and splitting (just ask if you would like a root –we have more than enough) whilst the hellebores are better propagated by seed. But beware. The juice contained in the seed pods will burn your finger tips. The first time I picked hellebore seed I found this out the hard way, and the skin on my fingers actually blistered. Wear some latex gloves for the task. Split open the seed pods and scatter the seed into the compost before covering lightly with a layer of sand. Then put the pots in a plunge bed of gravel and leave in the shade until September. This is the annoying bit of course, especially for Mr O G who had to make the said plunge bed when he could, as he remarked bitterly, have been doing something more useful.

He is doing something more useful at the moment. He is reinforcing his deer defences. After the disastrous incursions last year when the deer ate all the roses (and I don’t just mean the flowers, I mean whole bushes) he put so much more barbed wire into the perimeter fence that you can hardly pass a piece of paper though it. The deer just jumped. We don’t want to live behind a 5ft deer fence so Mr O G has tackled it a different way. ‘We must think laterally’ he declared and embarked on the mammoth task of building tall paling fences around each fruit tree and shrub which has been gnawed, barked and generally wrecked. This is in addition to the anti-rabbit fence he has already built around the vegetable garden and over which I so carelessly tripped last year. I was carted away to casualty while I swear the rabbits were sitting in a row laughing.

Mr O G has also built a marvellous defence against carrot root fly. He first made a raised bed for the carrots and then covered it with a dome, which you can lift up with one of his ingenious string winches, and which is then covered in some beautiful net curtains which one of my friends had thrown away. Several of his clever structures adorn the vegetable garden and in the past the neighbours have taken them for futuristic sculptures and have been uncertain as to how best to voice their artistic appreciation.

But we get the carrots. The root flies don’t.

At this time of year Mr O G is delighted to uncover and bring into use the latest compost heap in his rotation system. Mr O G is very keen on his compost. Rightly so, because it is the absolute engine of an organic garden. He keeps four heaps, each in a different stage of decomposition, because of course, it is a very long term operation. The mysterious alchemy which turns all our peelings and ex-plants into wonderful friable earth takes place over some eighteen months or more, and if anyone tells you it can be done faster, ignore them declares Mr O G. I have an important task in this process. It is my job to watch for passing horses, and to rush out with my bucket and shovel and gather up any steaming piles of offerings they may make. I then have to bring it in and spread it lovingly over the latest compost heap. It is the best compost accelerator you can possibly have. But don’t put it on the garden at this stage – it will burn up your plants. It must first mature, along with the other contents of the heap. The best of all are the grass clippings which arrive in mammoth amounts in the summer and mix with the dung to create a terrific heat which can even be seen smoking at times. Mr O G is very proud of this process. ‘The heap is beautifully hot’ he informs me one day, ‘just put your hand in there and see’. And I do, and it burns.

I don’t know why I always unquestioningly do as he says. It has always been the same, ever since that day so long ago when he told me to throw away my high-heeled city shoes, put on my welly boots and follow him into a rural idyll. His actual words were something along the lines of ‘I do take thee to my lawful wedded wife’ but it amounted to the same thing. So I did, presenting the aforesaid shoes to my sister, and moving with Mr O G to Hastoe, arriving in an old Ford Squire, I with my box of books, and he with a bag of tools. This luggage, of course, demonstrates perfectly our different attitudes to life!

But I digress. This week Mr O G will plant in his carefully prepared pots a selection of tomatoes (he always prefers Ailsa Craig but has grudgingly agreed to try some other varieties as well this year), broad beans, and the dahlias and French marigolds. It is too early for peas, cucumbers and African marigolds. I will commandeer one of his pots for my seeds of cineraria – such useful silver grey leaves which complement practically every other flower and are bone hardy into the bargain. They will stand for several years but they become progressively more untidy and this is the year to renew the plants. Other things which must wait until next month will be French and runner beans, courgettes and squashes. All these things will remain in the greenhouses until the frosts have passed – usually about the middle of May. The crops which are planted directly into the ground such as lettuce, carrots, parsnips, cabbages and Brussels sprouts have an even longer wait ahead of them. Leeks will be sown in the greenhouse now, just to ‘get ahead’.

In the garden ,unbelievably, the white blossom on the bullace trees is already open. These must be the earliest of all and it is a wonderful lift to see them in the midst of this continuing cold grey gloom. In the greenhouse the pink buds on the apricot tree are fattening up and we must watch them daily because as soon as they open Mr O G will spend many happy hours with a stick on the end of which he has fixed a piece of cotton wool. This he passes carefully from flower to flower, ‘being a bee’ as he puts it. We live in hopes of enticing a real bee in there but it is so early in the season they are unlikely to appear unless there is an enormous rise in the temperature. Keep hoping!