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.