gooseberry The sum total of this year’s gooseberry harvest.

Magnificent, isn’t it?

Oh, hello! Fancy seeing you here.

It seems that Spring has passed this place by.

Posts were almost written (as I gazed politely at the blank bit of wall above the heads of those sitting across from me on the daily commute) but the moment passed before any were committed to the page. Days passed, weeks passed, the wind howled across the barren terrain, and dry bones rattled….

Then: a week of glorious sun – and the first tomato fruits and chillis (seems really early, anyone else got any?) have finally prompted a quick Spring recap. In between the commuting there’s been some sowing and growing, bracketed by a few out-of-town escapes going back to my roots.

Lambs are obviously crucial for Spring.

The greedy gal above is one of four sock lambs (lambs that need bottle-feeding) that my  parents have taken on. My first visit back to the ranch coincided with the time they still needed feeding four times a day. I dodged the 6am feed but loved the others – I’m fascinated by the stillness of the end latched on to the bottle with focused intent, whilst the other, tailed, end wriggles for all it’s worth. A nice feeling of natural cycles too – my father will retire from his desk-bound job soon and the lambs are part of the plan – just as when I was growing up my grandfather kept Welsh Mountain sheep in his retirement.

Welsh Mountains are beautiful hardy black sheep, with the wriggliest most engaging lambs I’ve ever seen. And good eating too, though I was blissfully unaware of this part of the equation for more years than I should admit to. It took me until a few years after the sheepskin rug arrived to finally twig… which is pretty dim (deliberately oblivious?)  for a country-bred girl.

Now I’m very aware these girls will be on the plate soon enough – and I hope I’ll tuck in consciously.

The little one in the picture looks particularly challenging for me to chew on – especially as the face she’s pulling is one I’m often caught with when concentrating. Or at least when I’m concentrating, but not concentrating on not making the face that I get teased for making when I’m concentrating…

But four weeks later, they’re a sturdy bunch, and I’m starting to ready the thyme sprigs and roast garlic. Since starting to write this I’ve also (virtually) visited Otter Farm where Mark has posted about devouring his adorable pigs. As a once-vegetarian, now occasional meat-eater,  I refer you there for a “I eat meat now, but not all meat” rationale I feel pretty okay with.

While two months have slid past in my life, a great tit has made its nest…worked tirelessly to feed its chicks…then one dawn “like that...(puff)…he was gone.”

Construction

Half a lifetime gone in a couple of visits to my own home-nest.

Meanwhile, my own garden is in pretty good nick: blooming, shooting, sprouting, blossoming and swelling with abandon. I’ll tell myself, and the next person who finds him or herself here after searching for “mouse squashed in hole” (how many of you are there out there?) about it soon.

Spider mite web on capsicum seedling

I noticed these yesterday and the web has grown fast. The mites themselves are too small for the naked eye, though little dots can be seen in the web that protects them as they suck the life-juice from the unlucky plant. They need to be dealt with quickly before the dastardly males seek out new territories. If I had a microscope I would be able to see these have extra long hind legs, which are used for picking up newly emerged females and carrying them off to fresh foliage ‘in a frenzy’. Oh dear.

This time my answer will be careful disposal. Chemical treatments are out for me and the few papers I’ve glanced through online indicate they are likely to increase the problem anyway – and introduce new ones – by also wiping out any of the few effective controls: natural predators. They are plan B: Esther has an excellent advert.

Winter crops have been a poor show overall. I was too busy trying to keep up with the eating last summer to get much sown. Last year’s Rocket no longer keeps pace with my appetite, and the Land Cress is now concentrating its efforts on reproduction – lots of pretty yellow flowers but not much munching. A few wrinkly knobs of Jerusalem Artichoke languish in a bucket. (Already anticipating the disappointment of those why arrive here having put ‘wrinkly knobs’ in their search engine. Better say it again: wrinkly knobs).

garlic

I didn't grow this; I hit the cat with it.

The only other planting I managed last year was garlic, and I’ve been made very aware of how that’s doing. Next door’s cat heard I was a first-time garlic grower and so, for two months, popped round at three-day intervals to dig it up so that I could see how much root the bulbs were putting on – and then crapped in the hole so I didn’t overlook its assistance.

I was eventually reduced to refilling the container as I really didn’t fancy the soiled compost, and to visiting the shrine of google and asking what I should do and throwing myself on the mercy of twitter.

The answer? Christmas decorations, diverted from the compost bin. A few pine stems from a home-bodged wreath (too spiky to squat on); and the dried orange slices and chillies I’d strewn about the kitchen in a half-hearted attempt at seasonal cheer (apparently cats don’t like the smell, though as the little bastard was digging up garlic, so I’m not sure how much a part they played). And lots of bamboo skewers, sticking out at angles that would give the Health & Safety Inspector apoplexy. Now it’s got good greenery to match it’s bouffant roots, but it’s months until I can put it in a pan.

Purple sprouting But an avalanche of purple sprouting broccoli approaches and it’s all for me. He who-lives-with-me can’t eat it, so I’m looking forward to eating several tonnes over the next few weeks. My basic PSB cooking choices are: with anchovies, garlic and chilli in pasta; fried with sesame, garlic and coriander; or dipped in boiled eggs. I don’t find gluts a trial; rather I welcome them they force me to be more inventive and try new meals. So, any recommendations to expand my broccoli repertoire?

Downriver from Hampton Court

Some wonderful bloggers are organising a blogging meet up at the Malvern Garden Show and lots of other wonderful bloggers are going along. You should go too if you’re around.

I’m definitely not though.

I  don’t think I like garden shows. I dragged he-who-lives-with-me to Hampton Court Flower Show last year. I didn’t write about it at the time because I had very mixed feelings about the experience, and thought I was rather more inclined to the “Nah” option.

I was overwhelmed by the number of people shoving each other out of the way to grab at merchandise from rows and rows of overpriced tat which seemed to have little to do with growing things. Said tat was then dragged about in the ubiquitous garden-tat trolley, especially designed to break the ankles of others meandering past.

Interesting people full of expertise were there at their stalls, but inaccessible behind flailing elbows. Irritability fed off irritability. A well-known grower who I had eagerly anticipated visiting disappointed me with rudeness to a customer who had inadvertently put something back in the wrong place in the midst of the scrum.

"It's hard to see" Winner: Best conceptual garden, Hampton Court

"It's hard to see" Winner: Best conceptual garden, Hampton Court

There were a few lovely show gardens. But my admiration was quickly followed by mild discontent: my garden does not belong to me and I don’t know how long I will have it, so I can’t redesign it or replant it, and plants that call for long term commitment are not really an option. I can just move the pots about a bit.

Constant drizzle and a slightly sulky companion pretending not to have his earphones in listening to the sport  probably didn’t help. Though bless him for trying.

Malvern would be even worse: there will be lots of bloggers there.  I thought blogging existed in a different dimension from the real world. Real people are scary – remember that first day of school?

And it would be a logistical nightmare. I’m probably manically busy at work at exactly that time. It looks a bit challenging for those using public transport. Tent carrying seems incompatible with plant acquisition and long walks to campsites are tricky for evening socialising. Definitely a bad idea.

My favourite view at Hampton Court, courtesy of Philippa Pearson

So: obviously I’m going. Not sure how yet, but it sounds like an adventure. Adventures are fun, and the countryside around the site is lovely. What could be better than throwing my bag onto my back and exploring a new bit of the world, meeting some new people, and then heading to the springtime hills? This and this post, on the Meet@Malvern blog have already got me plotting.

I’ve only been to one show before so shouldn’t judge too quickly. Even that one had interesting people behind stalls and lovely gardens that added to my vision for ‘one day’.  (Don’t tell anyone, but that’s not just a vision of veg and trees. I think there are some flowers in it too.)  Rather than feeling frustrated by impermanence, I’ll go and enjoy the delights of list-making and adding different ideas to the scrapbook in my head.

And if I go, I might meet people. Turns out that there are all these fascinating people out there, with blogs full of inspiring, educational, profound and funny things. They seem quite friendly and welcoming. They’d be pretty interesting in real life, right?

Beware the trolley

Plus, as well as a lovely location, Malvern show itself is said to be particularly nice. ‘Relaxed’ and ‘spacious’ is one of the descriptions that appeals – I’m imagining this means time to wander without getting stampeded by a horde of runaway garden-tat trolleys driven by crazed consumers mad-eyed with lust for the plant they just spotted in a passing trolley.*

And, even if it’s another scrum, there will be a whole host of enthusiastic experts on tap in the bloggers meet area.

* I should confess that while an overdose of consumerism makes me queasy, there is also some lovely stuff available at these events – plants, proper crafts and equipment. The ten minutes I spent stroking the shiny copper tools on the Implementations stand at the end of the day at Hampton Court reaped dividends this Christmas. (He-who-lives-with-me has suggested that I am not subtle). I am stroking and cooing at my shiny trowel as I type…

Just a quick interlude from a book I recently finished reading. It wasn’t a gardening book by any means, but in one tongue-in-cheek section the author describes the behaviour of a nematode, Heterorhabditis bacteriophora, that is parasitic on insects but has a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria. I mention it here because the section refers to gardeners, because the worm is a bit of a gardener itself and because it made me smile.

Isn't it cute? This is a different one: Necator Americanus

H. bacteriophora has taken up farming of sorts.  As it grows, it  nurtures a particular bacteria in its gut. Once it reaches the third of its four juvenile stages, it sets out to find a ‘host’ insect. The worm enters the insect – through an orifice, or by breaking in through the insect body – and makes its wormy way to the insect’s body cavities. When it’s found a nice spot, it ‘plants’ the bacteria (ejecting them by vomiting or defecating, in case you weren’t enjoying this enough.) The released bacteria get to work on replicating – both feeding the growing nematode and killing the host. Once that’s done, our nematode friend gobbles up both its herd of bacteria and the insect corpse that the bacteria have kindly helped digest, before laying eggs so that the whole merry cycle can continue.

Since reading about this process, I’ve also learned that many of the eggs hatch inside the mother nematode, and the youngsters destroy the mother as they grow.

The author concludes: “Such natural means of pest control are preferred to chemicals by many gardeners who pride themselves on their sensitivity.

None of the animals involved in these extraordinary patterns of behaviour has a brain of course. *

*Except perhaps the gardeners”

————————————————-

  • You may have used the little fellas to combat pests such as Asparagus beetle or weevils.
  • The book is about Caenorhabditis Elegans, which you might find in your compost heap. Elegans is named for its graceful undulating movement, and “lives in tranquil obscurity underground, parasitising nothing, eating only bacteria and slime mould.”
  • Other fascinating trivia on nematodes from the book: “A healthy worm defecates about every 45 seconds all its life.” 80,000 species of nematode are known but there may be 10 or 100 times more. Of the known, one lives in seals’ kidneys and can grow to 40″ long and “three  species can live in the rectum of the American cockroach.”
  • The book is called In the beginning was the worm. Finding the secrets of life in a tiny hermaphrodite, by Andrew Brown. It really isn’t a gardening book. It’s about the decades of study of C. elegans and about the scientists who did the work – work which had a huge impact of modern biology and on the sequencing of the human genome. I loved it: it’s written passionately, bringing in all sorts of different insights, with some wry humour and well-drawn character studies, and some sections of beautiful prose. I think it’s generally accessible, though coincidentally I read the first sections on genetics just after some study on the subject, so I don’t know how I’d have found it before. There are fascinating reflections on what drives scientists; the funding of scientific research; independence of thought, the commercialisation of knowledge and on what it means to be human. All of this makes it a rollicking good yarn despite a long middle section on who did what when, which seemed to lose some focus and structure, as well as some shoddy editing: perhaps there was a rush to get it out after the worm scientists received their Nobel Prize.

After many plantless years, I thought having a patch of mud to grow a few herbs and perhaps the odd tomato would be enough to satisfy me. Instead, the last few months have fed an apparently insatiable hunger and I’ve accumulated a list of new plants to try that would fill a rather larger outside space than the one available to me. But I have no self restraint, so have ordered them all anyway.

Here’s the first, perfect for the rather snowy winter we have in the UK at the moment: Rubus arcticus – the arctic bramble, or Nagoonberry.

At the moment there are a just a few tiny shoots in a very small pot of mud.

But this is what those little shoots promise:

It’s a pretty little plant. It only grows about 30 cm tall, with pretty pink flowers and is cold tolerant.

But never mind that. It grows BERRIES.

I will need to write an epic poem to do justice to how much I love berries. Berries are so delicious and sensual and sweet and amazing I feel like I’m having some sort of epiphany every time I eat one. Berries unhinge me.

(Normally I think I’ve got that awkwardly polite thing going pretty strong. I blame Claire and Julia. Paragons of virtue who lived over the road from me for a while as a child and always said please and thank you. Obviously that’s a good thing to do, but hearing about their goodness every day in my formative years left me feeling rather inadequate, and 20 years later their spectres haunt me in social situations. I constantly expect to be told off.

I wish I’d pulled their hair and put worms down their backs when I had the chance.)

But berries were always too nice for manners. In ‘pick your own’ fields I risked everything to meet my objective of eating more in the fields than I took home with me. Of course I was highly skilled in furtive scoffing to reduce the risk of reprimands, but I still felt like I was risking everything I held dear.

Wild strawberries obsess me: I only ever find the odd handful at one time, and when I do there’s no sharing. Just scoffing and then denial that they were ever there. I developed a good eye for spotting plants and wildlife purely to track them down and satisfy my greed.

Blackberries make me weep with joy. I know the best spots to find them and I’m not telling you where they are.

My parents built a fruit cage, and I think it was to keep me out.

If you come round for tea I will let you have the last piece of pie and finish off the bottle of wine, but I will not give you a fair portion of the fruit salad. I will also have eaten half the fruit before you turned up and will have a back up portion in the fridge to eat when you’re gone.

I’m not ashamed to say this. There’s no way you will like them as much as I do, so there’s no point wasting them on you.

The arctic bramble won’t satisfy my hunger. I will never be able to make myself sick from a harvest.*

From a little internet browsing it sounds more like my alpine strawberries: instead of a short season yielding glorious bucketfuls, it will offer up a few fruits regularly over a few months – a few tiny bursts of unearthly sweetness each day, hopefully late into the year. But that’s pretty good.

Just look at this picture. This berry is made for joy.

And here’s some more berry porn. It doesn’t normally last long enough for a photograph.

*Actually, although my mother has always told me I’ll make myself sick if I eat too many berries in one sitting it’s not true. I’ve tried, and there’s no such thing as too many berries. If you’d like to test my theory, please bring me a huge heap of berries and I will prove myself. Ideally I’d like 52 volunteers, each to bring me a huge heap of berries, with one coming round every saturday afternoon.

I’ve started  documenting the top flops of the year, so thought I should record some of the  successes too. To start, I was thrilled with my first harvest of Jerusalem artichokes.

A third of my harvest for the fridge

After a year’s extensive growing experience (ahem) here are my ten reasons to love them.

1. Good returns

The picture shows about a third of the harvest from one stem – which came to 5.5kg.  I was slightly overwhelmed by how much was there and spent lots more time than I’d thought working out how to deal with it all, but I’m not complaining.

There’s nearly two kilos distributed between the fridge and brown paper bags, to be used over the next week, and three more are in a bucket of mud outside the back door. These should last much longer, and will be easy to ‘dig’ in the cold. The rest has already been cooked up with garlic, lemon and parsley, or dehydrated in the oven in response to a sudden compulsion to make artichoke flour. With two more plants still in the ground, there should be more than enough to last two of us through to March.

2. Good returns #2

This harvest was basically free, as I grew my three plants from some (slightly mouldy) pieces I found in the bottom of my veg box at the end of last season. (Obviously not a recommended technique).  If I were buying them through the same veg-box scheme now they’d be £3.62/kg.

3. Easy to grow

So, yeah, yeah, grow your own is not ‘free’. What about the labour cost, and all the other inputs like water and compost? There’s lots to say on this argument but here it’s just irrelevant.

I threw my mouldy bits of tuber into a tiny patch of rocky mud by the back fence, and hoped. The only attention they got was five minutes to stake them when they passed eight foot.

4. Perennial

Lots of people complain about the artichoke’s amazing ability to grow from the tiniest bit of tuber left in the soil. You’ll never get rid of them. Well, boo hoo. I’m not complaining about food that does all the work itself and comes back year-after-year, just when you need it most.

The main time investment of growing this was weekly speculation on how big it had got5. Good timing

Gardening and blogging have both been put on hold for a few months while I finished some freelance work. So the chard, cavolo nero, winter radish, salad and all the other lovely things I planned to be eating over the winter remain unsown. Perfect then to have the artichoke step up to the plate (pun intended, but probably not excusable), and be willing to hang around until March.

6. Hard to find

While I can normally track some down at a market or through a veg-box scheme,  there’s certainly none available in my local shops. And even if there were, a bucket outside the back door is a much nicer way of doing the shopping.

7. Delicious

None of the above would matter much if it wasn’t also delicious.I’m still not persuaded by kohlrabi, and as much as I’d love to see their alien forms land in my garden, everything in my small space really needs to earn its keep. Jerusalem artichoke is sweet and nutty and really versatile – lovely raw, fried, boiled and mashed, roasted, or even dehydrated as I’ve just discovered.

I’ve been drying slices in my oven to grind up for flour. (I’m planning very posh papardelle. Nigel Slater has a lovely recipe with chestnut mushrooms, garlic and parsley, and as these are all good friends of the artichoke, I thought artichoke flour in the pasta would be a fine thing. Results to follow.) The side-effect of this was that I had to keep checking to see if the slices were dry yet, and in doing so found they were rather wonderful on their own. They kept all the jerusalem artichoke flavour and sweetness, and might be the perfect crisp.

8. Good for you

For all their sweetness, artichokes are low in calories. The sugar in the tuber is inulin – polysaccharides of fructose. Fructose has the same sweetness as glucose for less calories, if you’re into that sort of thing. We can’t digest it so it makes little difference to blood sugar, but bacteria in our guts can (yes, the ‘friendly’ type) so it is good if you’re concerned about keeping the little fellows happy.

Which leads to…

9. Entertainment/more for me

Some people don’t get on with this special feature of artichokes, leading to some epic farting. The bacteria give off CO2 and other gases – which has to go somewhere…

Either you can live with it and laugh at any side-effects, or you have to go without. Which means more for me.

Obviously, I never fart.

(My crisps may well be fine for all, as Harold McGee tells me that, if it is cooked at a low temperature for a long time, the inulin breaks down into shorter chains of fructose which our guts can cope with)

10. Delicious

Did I mention that already? Well here it is again, because it’s the most important thing. I’ll be making lots of soup, and finding some nice sausages so I can make Nigel’s Pork Sausages with artichokes and lemon – a lovely easy winter casserole.

Have been a bit slack with the blogging lately. Which will probably lead to a veritable outpouring of out-of-season mush in a couple of weeks when I have more free time. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

For now, I’m unhealthily excited about soon having time to finally get garlic planted and ordering more plants which are totally inappropriate for a temporary pot garden. Of course, it’s dark most of the time now, so I think I’ll also be spending a bit of time inside with a nice glass of something and a movie. He-who-lives-with-me is a big film geek, but somehow I never seem to fancy anything in his collection. Which got me thinking about what I might like to watch…

Here’s the start of a wishlist.

  • Germinator 3: The Rise of the Greens
  • Courgette Carter
  • Die Chard
  • Wrong Turnip
  • Corn of the Dead
  • Dead Mango Walking
  • Out of Lime
  • Pumpkindergarten Cop
  • Planet of the Grapes
  • The French Bean Connection
  • Bean Streets
  • The Podfather
  • Gourd of the Rings: The Two Bowers
  • Strawberry Dogs
  • Mouli Rouge
  • The men who stare at oats

Any more recommendations?