Friday, 6 March 2015

Potato containers

The other day I saw a picture on Twitter of someone's potato containers and was immediately jealous. They seemed perfect for the job, and I was conscious that my own potato containers are a mix of old chicken manure tubs and cheap plastic florists' buckets, many of which are really too small for the intended purpose. OK, they were cheap (sometimes effectively free, as per the manure tubs), but they are mostly a bit "sub-optimal".

Old potato-growing containers

Enquiring of the Twitter friend where they got their containers I found that they are available from a company called LBS Garden Warehouse. They are described as "Heavy Duty Container Pots" and come in a range of sizes from 30 litres to 1000 litres. I was pleasantly surprised by the prices too. The 30-litre ones are priced at £2.25. After comparing them with the best of my existing containers I decided to buy 8 of the 35-litre pots. Here they are:

As you can see, each one has two carrying-handles, and a number of drainage holes around the base. That will save me a few minutes with the electric drill!

These are just what I wanted. I think they will be ideal for growing potatoes in. They will give the potato plants plenty of room to spread out and develop. However, there's always a Down side: it will take a fair bit of compost to fill them!

Hopefully we'll soon be here...

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Pruning Dogwood shrubs

Just recently I noticed that all my Dogwood (Cornus) shrubs were beginning to produce tiny new leaves, and this told me that it was time for their annual pruning. Dogwoods are generally very vigorous and put on a lot of new growth in a year. During their leafy stage in the Summer I prune them a bit quite frequently simply in order to keep them in check, but their main pruning is a Spring-time job. For a start, it's so much easier to do when there are no leaves on the plants and you can therefore see what you are cutting. This is how the border looks in May / June (photo from 01/06/14).

In the foreground of the photo above you can see one of my favourite Dogwoods - Cornus Alba "Aureum", with its stunning golden-yellow leaves.

Despite such beautiful foliage, much of the appeal of the Dogwood is in its Winter colour. Different varieties have different coloured stems, but they are mostly various shades of red, orange and yellow.

My aim when pruning the shrubs is to promote the production of the maximum number of tall straight, whippy twigs - the ones that will look so striking in dense clumps during the Winter. Hard pruning helps to maintain the vigour of the plants and enhance their colour.

With some of the plants, I cut them down to about a foot above ground level, like this:

Dogwood is like the proverbial Hydra, in that wherever you cut, two more twigs will grow! (That's as long as you cut just above a pair of leaf-buds). In the photo above you can see that I have pushed into the ground a few of the offcuts, in the hope that some of them will grow - they often do.

This next one is the Cornus Alba "Kesselringii", which has very dark red stems, verging on the black. The colour is not so pronounced in the older wood at the base of the plant, only in the young wood. You can perhaps just make out some very dark-coloured twigs pushed into the soil close to the main stem.

It looks as if I have been a bit too drastic, but let me assure you that I have not. In a few months' time this plant will be big and bushy again.

I have not been quite so severe with this one:

In this case I have left the main stems quite tall, and I will allow them to produce new twigs up high rather than near the ground. This means that smaller plants beneath it will get more light. You can't see them yet, but there are Crocosmia bulbs in the patch of open soil seen at the bottom right of the photo.

I have used the same approach here:

Each tall stem has produced some lateral twigs and these have in turn produced more uprights. Here's a close-up:

Here again, I get the best of both worlds. The bright red twigs are eminently visible, but the plants at ground level (In this case Euphorbia and Primroses) are not deprived of light.

I haven't pruned much off this one. It is "Midwinter Fire". I pruned it hard last year, so I don't want to over-do it. Actually the colour hasn't been so special this past Winter, so maybe it needs some time to regain its energy.

The Down side of all this pruning is that you have to find some way of disposing of all the trimmings:

My solution (a laborious one, I accept) is to cut the branches / twigs into short lengths and stuff them into old compost bags prior to taking them to the Council Tip.

Well, I'm glad that job is done for another year!

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Sowing "Salad" Carrots

Until last year, when the effective use of Enviromesh made such a dramatic difference to my success with growing Carrots, I had tended to stick to growing only baby Carrots (aka Finger Carrots or Salad Carrots) - ones which are quicker-growing than Maincrop ones, and ones which being small are easier to protect. For several years now I have grown this type of Carrot in plastic crates positioned inside a raised wooden planter outside our kitchen window.

Photo from 2013
This year I am going to grow Maincrop Carrots in my new extra-deep raised bed, but I'm still going to grow the Salad Carrots too. I have chosen 3 varieties:

They are "Chantenay Red Cored 2", a short almost triangular-shaped variety; "Amsterdam Forcing 3", a longer, slim one; and "Paris Market 5", a short fat stump variety.

The stump varieties are supposedly particularly suited to growing in pots and containers, because they do not require any great depth of soil. I have not tried this type before, so it will be an interesting experiment for me. My instinct tells me that my little granddaughters will like them!

I sowed my Carrot seeds at the weekend.

There isn't much to see at present, but let me tell you that one crate is devoted entirely to Chantenay, and the other crate has half each of the other two varieties. I used ordinary multi-purpose compost (New Horizon peat-free), at a depth of about 20cm. The seeds were sprinkled onto the surface of moist compost and then covered with a thin layer of dry compost. The crates then went into the wooden planter and are now covered with a piece of Enviromesh weighted down with bricks.

When the seeds germinate I will put in some wire hoops to raise the Enviromesh well above the Carrots, to allow the foliage to grow without being restricted. All I have to do now is wait...

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Pricking-out Chilli seedlings

Here's a progress report concerning my chillis. About half of the 20 varieties I sowed have germinated so far. This doesn't mean that the others have failed. It's just that some chillis germinate quicker than others. I haven't had room in the airing-cupboard (doubling as propagator!) for all of them, so I had been shuffling things around more-or-less every day, taking out ones that have germinated and putting others in.

Just germinated

Success! 3 out of 3.

The ones that have germinated have gone straight into my Growlight House, where they get good light but little extra heat. The Growlight House is in our spare bedroom, which is fairly warm all day (about 20C?) and I have put an electric heater in there too, at a low setting, so that it will come on if the temperature falls below 15C during the night.

Most of the plants have now developed their first pair of real leaves (discounting the cotyledons or "seed-leaves"), so at the weekend I pricked them out. This one is "Bolivian Rainbow" (Seed from Victoriana Nursery Gardens.)

"Pricking-out" means putting each little seedling into a pot of its own. I had originally intended to just pinch-out all but the strongest seedling that germinated and leave that one in the original pot, but since so many of the seedlings have come up strong and healthy I have relented and kept two of each type. This has meant re-potting them:

To do this involves gently easing the seedlings out of the compost (for this I use a small piece of bamboo, cut to a point) and then planting them into a pot of fresh compost, making sure the roots are carefully arranged as deep as possible. Finally you add a bit more compost around the stem and firm it down, before watering-in with some room-temperature water. Avoid using cold water straight from the tap. This may be too much of a shock for the young plant. Then they go back under the lights. The seedlings may droop for a while after transplanting, but they will soon recover.

This "Puma" seedling is from seeds sent to me by Enrico Ferrario, a friend from Italy, who writes the blog "Ortolano a 30 anni". Amongst many other vegetables, he grows a big range of chillis.

This is "Cayenne Thick" from my Twitter friend and fellow chilli enthusiast Chris Holmes (@HolmesAllotment)

As well as these chillis, the first of my "Connover's Colossal" Asparagus seeds has also germinated:

Only that one so far, out of a total of 12, but I'm still hopeful that the others will appear soon.

Meanwhile, the second batch of Broad Beans, kept indoors to avoid the ravages of the mice that obliterated the first batch, are beginning to show through. The warmth of the house has allowed them to germinate in half the time of the first batch, which were kept in the garage.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Harvest Monday 02 March 2015

The PSB season is in full swing now:

From my point of view, these are perfect spears of PSB. Just the right balance of flower, leaf and stalk.

Although they do shrink a bit (especially the leaves) on cooking, 8 spears like that is just the right amount for a 2-person serving.

PSB is not easy to cook. Getting it right is very much a matter of judgement, and it is easy to over-cook the stuff. When overcooked, PSB is vile - almost slimy - and the flower parts disintegrate, so you have to stand over it and be ready to take it off the heat very rapidly. For this reason we usually steam PSB, preferably laid flat in a single layer in the steamer, so that you can easily jab the stalks with the point of a knife to see whether they are done. I find that it usually only takes 2 or 3 minutes to cook fresh PSB. Older (possibly woody) stuff from a shop may take longer, but it will never be more than a few minutes.

PSB cooking in the steamer

Since I want to get on and start preparing my raised beds for new crops, I have harvested the last of my Leeks.

There were only four left.

On close inspection, I found that one of them was not useable (it had a tough woody centre but squishy outer leaves!), so only three made it into the kitchen:

These Leeks were not big in terms of diameter, but they certainly had a good length of useable white shank, and they made a welcome addition to a chunky bean soup.

This is my entry for Harvest Monday, hosted by Daphne on her blog Daphne's Dandelions. I wonder whether anyone in the snow-bound North-East USA will be posting about any harvests this week?


This is nothing to do with Harvest Monday, but I wanted to show it to you anyway - a Great Tit having a good look at the nesting-box I made the other day.

Earlier I had seen a pair of Blue Tits looking round it too, and acting very defensively / possessively when a flock of Long-tailed Tits showed up! It may yet prove to be a very Des Res...

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Game casserole with Yorkshire puddings

On Friday I felt an urge to cook Yorkshire puddings. Not with the traditional roast beef, but with mixed game casserole. My idea was to serve the game casserole inside the Yorkshire puddings. It was partially successful...

I made a game casserole in my usual way, but this time I added some button mushrooms and some chestnuts (foraged last Autumn and kept in the freezer). The meat was a mixture of Venison, Partridge and Pheasant.

I also cooked some buttered new-season carrots with Parsley:

And some home-grown Purple Sprouting Broccoli:

The final element of the meal was some baby new potatoes. (No photo. You know what baby new potatoes look like!)

The Yorkshire Puddings didn't turn out exactly as I had envisaged them:

They didn't rise very much and went very brown at the edges (Jane tells me that I probably had the oven too hot), but My Goodness they were nice! Although "Well Done" they were crisp, not hard, and probably the tastiest Yorkies I have ever had. (I ate 3 of them. No let's be honest, 4. I had another one later, before going to bed.)

Since they didn't rise as much as anticipated, I served the Game Casserole alongside them, rather than inside:

One of the reasons why the Yorkshire Puddings didn't rise so well was perhaps that the batter mix was not exactly right: I followed Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's recipe but it makes a lot of batter so I halved it. However, I decided that it was impractical to precisely halve "two whole eggs and one egg-yolk" so I used two whole ones. This may have affected the balance - but it evidently enhanced the flavour, so it was a "happy" mistake.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Crocuses in the spotlight

Over the last couple of years, when my pot-planted Crocuses have finished flowering I have put them in the ground at the bases of my mature trees, where they have become naturalised. Now each year I get an effortless display of small but plentiful Crocus flowers.

It's always the blue ones that come up first. Almost all the ones flowering at present are blue or purple. I've lost track of their names, but I can see that there are three distinctly different types.

Crocuses are really useful bulbs. They are small enough to be able to fit into all those little patches of spare space, and they provide a welcome splash of colour very early in the year, when there is not much colour about.

They are not all blue though...

This orange one is "Orange Monarch", which I bought last Autumn.

I have 10 bulbs growing in a pot.

They are very strikingly coloured, but also rather disappointingly small. With a name like "Orange Monarch" I had expected them to be "regal"!