Saturday, 20 September 2014

Hidcote Manor

Some of you will know that we recently spent a few days on holiday in the picturesque Cotswolds area of England. On one of our days there we visited Hidcote Manor Gardens - a National Trust property. We had actually been there once before, some years ago, but our visit had been rather brief because we were going somewhere else as well that day. This time Hidcote was our specific destination.

Hidcote describes itself as "the place where the National trust learnt to garden". It was established in 1907 by Major Lawrence Johnston, who spent the next 40-odd years scouring the world for plants with which to fill his expanding garden.

The most characteristic aspect of Hidcote is that the garden is sub-divided into a number of smaller sections, equivalent to "rooms", enabling many different design and planting themes to be explored.

 Johnston was an avid plant collector and travelled very extensively in search of new plants, as well as sponsoring plant-finding expeditions, and reputedly would only accept the best specimens. His garden contains an amazing array of plants - most of which are completely unknown to me! OK, there are plenty of the old favourites, like this Marigold:

...this Dahlia:

...and this Astrantia:

...and some well-known but still exotic plants like this Protea from South Africa:

But what is this?

Or this?

Apart from the plants, Hidcote has many other features to attract the visitor. For instance you can see Lawrence Johnston's potting shed:

Can you see the Solar Topee helmet posed above the globe, rather cheesily symbolising his travels around the world?

At present the gardens are featuring an exhibition of modern sculpture, whose elements are liberally scattered throughout the gardens. I'm generally not very keen on sculpture or garden ornaments, and today I passed quickly by some of the more abstract offerings, but I did like some the animal-themed ones, such as this cute little piggy (labelled "Sitting Pretty"):

I also liked this aptly-positioned "Wall Lizard":

And this enormous though rather sinister Dragonfly:

Talking of sinister, what do you think of this "Velociraptor", evidently made from old car parts?

Another part of the property which I was particularly interested to see was the Vegetable Garden. This is a real vegetable garden (some of its produce is used in the property's café, and some of it is offered for sale to visitors), not an ornamental one. Here we see a fine patch of Cavolo Nero:

When you see this massive array of Leeks you probably won't be surprised to hear that "Leek and Cheese Macaroni" is one of the Specials on the café menu at present...

Behind the leeks visible in my photo were many more leeks at various stages of development, so "Leek and Cheese Macaroni" may well be a feature of that menu for some months to come!

Here is one of several "Bug Hotels", providing interesting nesting-places for beneficial insects:

To be honest, the flowers on display at Hidcote at this time were not the main event - many of them were definitely past their prime - but Autumn has much more to offer than flowers, and sometimes the colours of Autumn leaves can out-shine them:

Should it be of interest to any readers, let me end by saying that we had a very nice lunch in one of the property's two cafes, and also a browse around the extensive Plant Sales area (though on this occasion nothing took my fancy, so I didn't make any purchases). A visit to this place is strongly recommended for any keen gardener, though please note that access for disabled or less mobile people is evidently a bit of a challenge!

Friday, 19 September 2014

Daylesford Organic Farm

Recently Jane and I spent a few days away from home, staying in a rented cottage in the town of Stow on the Wold, in rural Gloucestershire. This is the heart of the Cotswolds country, an area renowned for its natural beauty. It is so nice to be away from the pressures of work and the daily grind of household chores and general "admin", for a while. As the saying goes, it was chance to re-charge our batteries...

This is the cottage in which we stayed

As you all know, Jane and I are very interested in food and cooking, so it was inevitable that one of our outings was a trip to Daylesford Organic Farm, just a few miles from Stow.

Daylesford is more than just an organic farm. It is also a cookery school, a restaurant and a shop, all of them thoroughly imbued with the spirit of celebrating the pleasures of good food made from the finest ingredients. We timed our arrival there to coincide with lunchtime (now there's a surprise!). We were very impressed with the restaurant. It was neat, smart and efficiently run, and the food was beautiful - in terms of the taste of course, but also the presentation. Most of the ingredients including meat, fruit, vegetables, bread and dairy products, are from their own farm, so there are very few food-miles involved. The dishes available sounded so attractive that we asked permission to take away a copy of the menu for future inspiration.

Display outside the shop - this is just to get you interested!

Our meals sound basic: Jane had Welsh Rarebit (cheese on toast) with salad, and I had a tomato salad with burrata mozzarella. Writing it like that scarcely does the dishes justice, because they were made with the finest ingredients you could wish for. Jane's cheese, for instance, was their home-made Daylesford Cheddar, and both her baby leaf salad and my tomatoes were from the Daylesford farm. I was particularly pleased that my tomato salad was served with Mint instead of the usual Basil, which gave it a more English feel. The burrata mozzarella was drizzled with olive oil from Daylesford's partner organisation in Provence, France, called Chateau Leoube, who also provided the wonderfully crisp, refreshing (and not too sweet) Rose wine which accompanied our meal. Our desserts both included berries from the Daylesford farm - blackberries, raspberries and redcurrants. Jane had hers left plain, but mine were an accompaniment to a really zesty Lemon Tart, made with those huge and powerful Sicilian lemons.

The meal was not cheap, but we thought it excellent value for money, and the service was good too: attentive and knowledgeable staff, but not too pushy.

After lunch we had a good look round the gardens followed by a comprehensive browse of the shop. Here are a few photos to illustrate what we saw:

Crab Apple tree

Rustic table (not for sale...)

"Indigo Rose" tomatoes

The shop was full of things we wanted to buy, and it was hard to restrain ourselves! One of the most interesting features of the shop is the cheese room, where cheeses are kept under controlled conditions of temperature and humidity.

Nicely aged Daylesford Cheddar cheeses
 Although the range of cheeses in stock was not huge, it contained a good mix of local and imported cheeses. There was (amongst others) Comte and Roquefort and Brie de Meaux from France, Parmesan from Italy and Manchego from Spain, alongside Stichelton (an English blue cheese similar to Stilton) and this Adlestrop, made on the premises:

The shop also had lots of things in it that were not edible, though they were mostly food-related, such as kitchen utensils and pot and pans - and books. We couldn't resist buying this fabulous book about the whole Daylesford concept and its food.

 This lavishly-illustrated volume has loads of recipes and serving suggestions, presented in the house style, which is to make the most of the ingredients and not to disguise them with too much contrived "cheffiness".

This is very much what we like, and how we like to cook and eat, so I'm sure this book will provide a rich source of inspiration for us in the years to come.

If you are ever in the Cotswolds area, I strongly recommend that you put this place on your itinerary!

Thursday, 18 September 2014

"Autumn Bliss" Raspberries

Along one side of my garden I have a row of "Autumn Bliss" raspberries, growing against the fence. At this time of year they are an unruly tangle, somewhat inadequately restrained by three parallel wires secured to eyebolts in the fence-posts.

I am concerned about the state of the raspberry foliage. Only the leaves at the (still growing) tips of the canes are green now; the rest are pale yellow with pronounced green veins:

Is this a mineral deficiency or a disease, I wonder? And what should I be doing about it? Can anyone advise me on this please?

Despite the state of the leaves, the fruit seems OK:

I have picked quite a decent amount of fruit over the last two or three weeks. Never a lot at any one time, mind, just a handful every couple of days. Still, with a scoop of ice-cream or a splosh of "proper" cream they make a welcome dessert.

Autumn Bliss is a so-called Primocane variety, which means that it fruits on the current year's canes, as opposed to ones from the previous year as in Floricane varieties. This suits me well, because it means I can cut them down completely at the end of the year, without the need to sort out which canes need to be kept and which discarded.

As the name suggests, it is a late-fruiting variety too, producing its fruit from mid-August right up to the time of heavy frosts. Again, this makes it an attractive choice for me, because it produces its crop after the Strawberries have finished. My photo also demonstrates that it fruits simultaneously with some of the Blueberries - the late varieties though, definitely not "Earliblue"! Most of the Blueberries have been harvested now. Just the odd one or two remain, and I'll leave those for the birds to enjoy.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Images of Autumn

As a gardener, you instinctively know when Summer has finished and Autumn has arrived. The temperature changes, but so does the quality of the light. Here in the UK we passed that point about three weeks ago.

My garden is definitely in a transitional state. Some of the Summer crops are still going strong (e.g. beetroot, lettuce, chillies), but the Autumn ones are beginning to be more prominent. The most obvious sign of this in the veg patch is the transformation of the Radicchio from its plain green Summer foliage to its dramatic red Autumn livery:

However, today it is not vegetables that I want to write about, it is flowers. By my standards, I have had a very colourful garden this year. Most of the flowers are past their best now, but I think there is still a certain attraction - albeit of a different sort -  in their faded blooms. Star of the show, without a doubt, has been the Rudbeckia "Goldsturm", which has flowered continuously throughout the Summer.

Its flowers must win the prize for longevity. With other plants you seem to spend most of your time dead-heading, but the individual Rudbeckia flowers last literally for weeks. Up till now I don't think I have cut off one single flower. Maybe I should now, though I am reluctant to do so.

Look how one single petal of this faded bloom is held erect by the gossamer thread of a spider's web:

Maybe this is the owner of that web?

Here are some other flowers whose moment has passed...

Echinacea "Little Magnus"

Echinacea "Pom Pom White"


Gaillardia "Burgunder"

The Gaillardia has flowered a lot later this year than last, and it still has some nice blooms:

Gaillardia "Burgunder"

The flowers on this plant have widely-variable amounts of red and yellow. This one is on the same plant as the one above.

Gaillardia "Burgunder"

Dead-heading this Scabious "Chile Black" has proved to be a fairly onerous task, since the plant has produced literally hundreds of flowers.

Scabious "Chile Black"

The Hydrangea meanwhile, requires a very different approach. I am following the received wisdom that Hydrangea flowers are best left on the plant over Winter to help with frost protection, and only removed in the following Spring.


The "Bishop of Llandaff" Dahlia that I bought earlier this year has lived up to expectations, giving me a seemingly never-ending succession of dramatic red flowers, which contrast nicely with the black stems and leaves.

The overall effect is good, but some of the flowers are looking a bit "moth-eaten":

So, as you can see, there is plenty of interest in the garden still, and it will be a few weeks yet before I have to cut down all the perennials and put them to bed for the Winter. I'm putting the task off for as long as possible!

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Potatoes: an end-of-season review

As some of you may remember, this year I bought my seed potato tubers at the Hampshire Potato Day held in Whitchurch, back in January. I deliberately bought tubers of several different varieties, so that I could try out a few that I had not grown before, and also so that they would give me a harvest over a longer period. In this post I will give my assessment of their various merits / problems.

After chitting (in the garage) the first tubers were planted on 21st March. These were the First Early varieties, two each of "Sharpe's Express", "Marilyn", "Leontine" and "Red Duke of York".

Almost exactly 11 weeks later, on 6th June, the first ones were harvested. They were Sharpe's Express.

Sharpe's Express

I found them to be a classic new potato - light and almost creamy. They were very delicate, with papery thin skins that could be rubbed off easily, and needing only very brief cooking.

Sharpe's Express

The other First Earlies followed at a good even rate. Next to be harvested was Leontine:


Leontine was a good one for the kitchen. Their exceptionally smooth firm flesh cooked well with no disintegration. It would be a good one for using cold in salads.


There's no mistaking Red Duke of York, a very dramatic-looking potato:

Red Duke of York

Whilst there is no doubt about its visual appeal, this variety produced a fairly small yield, and was difficult to cook. I found that it disintegrated easily, and the texture was too floury for a new potato.

Red Duke of York

The last of my First Early varieties was Marilyn - apparently a variety that is very popular with the supermarkets (I'm instantly suspicious....) on account of its dependability and even appearance. Yes, this variety did produce very regular, even-sized tubers. A good variety in the kitchen too. It held up well when boiled.


My Second Earlies were planted on 4th April - two each of "Balmoral" and "Blue Kestrel", and four of "Charlotte". I know Charlotte well, having grown it several times before, and I consider it to be perhaps the best potato variety of all. This is why I had more tubers of it than the others.

Charlotte and Blue Kestrel

Charlotte was as good as ever, and yielded well, but the Blue Kestrel is not one I will grow again. They look impressive (though the colour of their skin colour fades to a dirty grey when cooked), but their taste and texture is less so.

Blue Kestel

Charlotte is confirmed as the queen of new potatoes though - excellent in all respects.


Balmoral was also a good-looker:


It produced the biggest tubers of all the varieties I grew this year, and also the smallest number. Despite their small numbers, they were good potatoes. We baked some of them and they were nice this way. If you are into growing for exhibition, I think this would be a good variety to choose.

The next variety to be harvested was "Harlequin", (planted 12th April) which is listed in the British Potato Variety Database as an early Maincrop. I have seen it described elsewhere as a Second Early, so I suppose it is an "Intermediate" one. It's parents are Charlotte and Pink Fir Apple, which I think is evident in its appearance - the kidney shape of Charlotte, with a tinge of pink colour from PFA.


I thought this variety was OK, but (understandably) a bit of a compromise: not as good as either of its parents. The yield was modest too. I probably won't grow this one again.

My next one is "Nicola", which I had thought to be a Maincrop variety. I treated it as such, though I later realized it is a Second Early, not that that makes a lot of difference! Mine were planted on 18th April and harvested in late July and early August.


The yield from Nicola was good, probably because (thinking them to be a Maincrop variety) I left them in the ground for longer than I needed to. The first pot of these yielded 35 useable tubers, weighing 900 grams - not bad from a single seed tuber!  In terms of their culinary qualities, I think these are on a par with Charlotte.

My last variety - the only true Maincrop one - is "Pink Fir Apple". This is also one that I have grown many times. I usually avoid Maincrop varieties, because since they remain in the ground longer than the others they are more vulnerable to blight infection. I make an exception with PFA though, because the potential result is definitely worth the risk.

Mine were planted on 27th April, and the first pot was lifted on 24th August. In retrospect, this was possibly premature, because the yield was very small, a mere 281 grams:

Pink Fir Apple

The next pot to be harvested yielded a more respectable 580 grams, which is about normal for this variety. I find that it concentrates more on quality than quantity!

Pink Fir Apple

This year the risk paid off: blight finally arrived in my garden on 6th September, but by this time the potatoes had mostly been lifted. Only the last couple of pots of PFA remain, and their foliage is already brown and dry, so their tubers will have already matured.

Pink Fir Apple plant ready for harvesting

Pink Fir Apple

So what have my experiments with potatoes this year taught me?

Well, firstly they have confirmed that Charlotte and Pink Fir Apple are the ones for me, and Nicola will probably join them as a Regular. I liked Sharpe's Express a lot, and that will probably be my First Early of choice from now on. Balmoral may be lucky enough to feature again, but Red Duke of York and Blue Kestrel will definitely not. The others - Harlequin, Leontine, and Marilyn are ones I would happily grow again if someone gave me the tubers, but I would not seek them out because they are less good than my favourites.

An afterthought. Almost without exception my potatoes this year were smooth and practically unblemished. I put this down to the fact that they were grown in composted stable manure, with Multi-Purpose Compost being used only in the latter stages for earthing-up. The high level of organic matter obviously suited the potatoes well, probably because of its superior water-retention properties. Potatoes grown in pots can be difficult to hydrate properly and if their compost dries out it can promote the growth of the disease Scab. I shall definitely be using composted stable manure again next year.