Monday, 22 October 2012

Harvest - the highs (and lows) of the season

This wasn't the easiest year to create a kitchen garden: a warm spell in March brought many plants to life, only to be soaked by the wettest April on record, followed by a equally rainy June and with temperatures below normal. In the Secret Garden, we struggled with globe artichokes, which we hope will finally produce some fruit next year, and our heritage potatoes, although tasty, were very low yielding. We raised some good sweet peppers, but the jalapeno plants never really got going; our tomatoes succumbed to blight.

Even in the worst of years, you can count some successes. Elsewhere on this blog we have already documented how happy we were with a bumper crop of Mexican tomatillos, and on Sunday, our Secret Garden Club session concentrated on harvesting those crops which have come good in this mellow autumn.

Pumpkins and squash
Spaghetti squash, ready to be picked.
We raised our squash this year following the 'Three Sisters' planting methods of the Native Americans. There's more detail about the Three Sisters here, but the general idea is that sweetcorn, squash and climbing beans are grown together, the beans providing anchorage for the corn, which provides the beans with a climbing frame. The squash ramble at ground level, providing cover which suppresses weeds and keeps the soil moist underneath.

The squash plants didn't give us a glut, but we harvested good-sized spaghetti squash, Connecticut Old Field, the Italian Berrettina Piacentina with its dense orange flesh and chestnutty flavour, and Futsu, a compact Japanese variety. The courgettes were planted elsewhere in the garden and gave us a steady of not particularly prolific supply (it's not often you can say that: usually one courgette plant is not enough, and any more than one is a glut).

Courgettes and squash seeds should be sown indoors in pots: two seeds to a pot and then the weaker seedling thinned out once they’ve germinated. Once they have true leaves, they’re ready to be moved outside to be hardened off, ie, the plants are allowed to become gradually accustomed to the colder, windier air outside. Then they can be transplanted to the open ground. They like a rich soil so if you have manure or, better still, fully composted kitchen waste, dig that in before you plant out the squash. They do have a tendency to ramble all over the garden – if you don’t have the space for this, you can train them up a fence or trellis. The stems of pumpkins and squash are remarkably strong and will bear even very large fruits without them falling.

If you have a particularly rampant squash plant, nip out the growing tip after it has produced 3-4 fruits, then it can concentrate on growing these fruits to a decent size, instead of lots of little ones at the stem which probably won’t make it to maturity in our - comparatively - short season. Rest fruits on a tile to prevent damage by damp, slugs, woodlice, etc. Courgettes should be picked regularly, otherwise they will grow into giant marrows and the plant will stop growing more courgettes while it’s putting all its energies into the marrow.

Squash should be lifted before the first frost. You can tell they are ready by tapping near the stalk – you should hear a hollow sound. Try to keep a long stalk attached to the plant when you pick them  and store somewhere warm, dry and light to finish ripening before you eat them. If you eat them immediately after picking, they will taste very green and raw, particularly the orange-fleshed varieties. The flavour won’t sweeten and deepen until they have ‘cured’ for 6-8 weeks. Check them regularly as some store better than others – I have kept squash for up to eight months before eating them.

Borlotti and other beans
We sowed climbing borlotti beans in May as part of our Three Sisters plan, and harvested a small but tasty crop last month. Most of the plants managed to entwine themselves around the corn stems satisfactorily, although several made for the fig tree and climbed up that instead.

Borlotti beans do well here in London, the bean pods are spectacularly beautiful, as are the beans themselves. The fresh bean pods are bright crimson, housing creamy beans splashed with purple. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t pick borlotti bean pods to cook and eat fresh. They’re delicious, especially served with a squeeze of lemon, some salt and a drizzle of olive oil.

But leave at least some on the plants to keep for use later in the year. As summer wears on into autumn, the pods will change from bright pink flecked with cream, to a dark purple papery husk.

Pick the pods once they’ve turned dark and dry, but before the first frost, usually sometime in October. Thread the pods together and hang them up somewhere airy until all the pods are dried out. Then shell the beans. They should be dry already and clatter when dropped on the work surface. If they land with a soft thud instead, they need more drying.

Finally, freeze the shelled beans in a bag for about 48 hours - this quick freeze just ensures that if the beans were harbouring any bugs, mites or insect eggs, they are killed off.

Once out of the freezer, spread the beans out briefly on kitchen paper just to check they’re dry again, then pour into a jar with a tightly fitting lid.

Keep in a dark cool place and they will last for months – until your next bean harvest, in fact, if you haven’t eaten them all by then.

Beans, whether you grow them for green beans or to dry the mature beans for use in the winter, are a fast crop. They don’t like the cold and should be sown when the soil warms up in April or even May. They will catch up very quickly.

You can buy seeds for dwarf bushy plants or climbing plants. While the bushy plants are less work – you can reach all the beans easily when harvesting and you don’t have to build a frame for them to climb up – the climbing plants are better croppers. You’ll get much better yields and beans over a longer period of time from a climbing plant.

Like squash, beans like to be fed well. Before planting, choose the spot where you want to grow your beans and mix lots of kitchen compost into the ground. If you don’t have kitchen compost, use commercial compost and feed such as seaweed extract.

Figs are surprisingly easy to grow here in the south of England. In fact, trees can become very vigorous, but you will see many spreading leafy trees with very little fruit on them.

The trick to making your fig tree bear fruit is to restrict its roots. Find a sunny sheltered site for your newly-bought fig tree, and plant it in a pot sunk into the ground, or line the planting hole with stones, so that the roots are contained and you get a bushier tree with more fruit. Our summer season isn’t really long enough for a full crop of figs. When the frosts come, remove any immature fruit left on the tree. It is the very tiny pea-sized fruit which will develop into mature fruit the next year.
Brown turkey figs harvested in London.
Once your fig tree grows multiple branches, you can prune it in spring, removing any old, dead, crossing branches so that the tree is nice and open.

Cavolo nero
This is also called Tuscan kale, or Black kale, and has become very fashionable in recent years. By fashionable, I mean that not only will you find it on the menu in Clerkenwell restaurants, but also that you can buy it in Waitrose for about £3.99 for a few stems.

This implies that 'cavolo nero' is surely imported specially from Italy, where it is best grown, but in fact cavolo nero is simply a form of kale (a member of the brassica family), and grows extremely well right here as you can see. It’s also highly decorative, with these distinctive indigo leaves, and so the plant looks good in a mixed border.

Cavolo nero is best started off as seed in modules in April or May and left to germinate indoors or in a greenhouse. Once the seedlings develop their true leaves they can be hardened off – like the pumpkins and squash they need get used gradually to being outdoors after being indoors. The cold nights, winds, rain, and strong sun will all be terrible shock to the system of a seedling that has been in a warm settled, windless spot all its life.

When you transplant cavolo nero, space the seedlings about eight inches to a foot apart. They will need protection against slugs and snails – in the Secret Garden Club we use home-made copper rings, made with copper tape and sections cut from plastic water bottles. This is extremely effective – slugs and snails won’t cross copper. And it’s better than using pellets.

Brassicas are also vulnerable to whitefly – you’ll see clouds of them like tiny snowflakes whenever you disturb the plant. They’re not terribly damaging, but it’s not nice when you get your leaves home and you’re rinsing them off at the sink. We’ve had good results this year with planting marigolds around the cavolo nero plants – the marigolds exude a chemical which repels whitefly and it’s worked very well.

Apart from this, birds, especially pigeons, like the leaves. Consider throwing a net over the cavolo nero if they’re a problem. Garden plants shouldn’t be so affected since there’s usually a relatively high cat population keeping birds off the veg, but on an allotment site you may have to net your brassicas.

Once you’ve protected against whitefly, slugs and birds, your cavolo nero should grow very happily. It will need watering in a drought and when the seedlings are turning into full-grown plants, but from seeds sown in April, you should be eating cavolo nero from August, throughout winter and into February-March the next year. Worth a little bit of care and attention.

We planted our first blueberry plants in the Secret Garden just a week ago in anticipation of harvesting our first fruits next July. We have four 'Goldtraube' blueberry plants, which have a reputation for being heavy croppers and highly flavoursome.

Blueberries need an acid soil (lower than pH5.5) and our London clay on its own isn't nearly acid enough. So each plant occupies its own 30cm pot, and each pot is sunk into the soil so that the tops are at ground level. Sinking the pots reduces water loss, which is helpful since blueberries like plenty of water. A yearly topping up of ericaceous (acidic) compost keeps them fed, and I also like to spread the shredded needles from the Christmas tree around the foot of the plants as a slightly acidic, weed-suppressing mulch in January.

Jerusalem artichokes
I always think Jerusalem artichokes are great plants for anyone growing vegetables for the first time, so long as they like Jerusalem artichokes, anyway. If you do like them, and you’re not too bothered by the after-effects – not for nothing are they known as 'fartichokes' in our house - then they’re a rewarding crop to grow.

For a start, they’re indestructible. Not noticeably bothered by pests. They’re reliable: dig up the plant and there, underneath, will be the artichokes. They also pass the shop test: they’re not widely available in supermarkets and they’re stupidly expensive when they are. They are bountiful: a dozen tubers planted in March-April will begin producing artichokes to feed you in November/December all the way through the winter and into the early spring.
Finally, they’re economical: you only need to buy artichoke tubers once. The following year, select 8-12 nice plump tubers from the current crop and plant these in March-April to provide the next year’s crop.

The only care notes I can really think of are 1) when the seedlings emerge you might want to look out for slugs and snails. As soon as they produce their true leaves which are tougher, the slugs lose interest, but at the very beginning the growth might be slow if your plot is very sluggy. And 2) round about August-September, the plants will grow very tall and may even flower – and when they do you’ll see that they are related to sunflowers. However, if they’re flowering, they’re expending energy on producing flowers rather than fat tubers, so it’s a good idea to cut the plant down as we have here, otherwise high winds can blow them over and anyway you don’t want them putting on top growth any more.

And if you do like them, they’re very versatile in the kitchen. They make a lovely creamy soup; I always make a Jerusalem artichoke gratin as part of Christmas lunch; you can roast them under the Sunday joint like roast potatoes and they also make tasty chips. You can whizz them up with aromatics to make a kind of Jerusalem artichoke houmus, you can use them to make JA pancakes – like a potato pancake – and I’ve also had them raw, shaved very finely in a salad.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Tomatillos - Mexican fruits in a London garden

One of our most successful crops this year in the Secret Garden was the tomatillos. We grew them last year specifically for MsMarmiteLover's Frida Kahlo dinner and we liked them so much that we planted again this year.

These are tomatillos: tall spreading plants that need support, and these are the fruits themselves, looking like green tomatoes in a papery husk. If they remind you of physalis (Cape Gooseberries) that's because they are closely related. Tomatillos are also cousins of potatoes, tomatoes and so also of aubergines - all members of Solanaceae. (If you grow potatoes you may have noticed that the potato plants sometimes produce small green berries that look similar to a tomatillo. Don't be tempted to try them: potato berries are poisonous - as indeed is the entire plant, apart from the tubers).

We're particularly pleased that the tomatillos have done well this year because it was such a poor year in general for them. Tomatillos like warmth and sunshine - they are really a subtropical plant and the fruit is typically used in Mexican cooking. Our climate in north London is far from Mexican. If you read the books or online, many people say that they should really be raised in a greenhouse, and maybe they would be more prolific if so. But they have done well here.

This is another plant which needs to be sown indoors, then planted out once all danger of frost is over. They like a well-drained soil, a sheltered spot and plenty of sun, so choose your planting spot carefully. Don't just plant them straight into our clay, but dig in some organic matter before you transplant. We mulched the whole of the garden with horse manure last winter and it has paid off in terms of soil quality this year. You also need to give each plant plenty of space. It's hard to imagine when you transplant your tiny seedling but they will grow quickly into this 1.6m high, spreading plants. 

The stems are quite slim and green as well, so you will need to give them a cane support as they grow - another reason for not putting them in too exposed a place. But make sure you plant at least two reasonably close together -these plants do not self-pollinate and need another tomatillo nearby to ensure pollination, Without pollination, there will be no fruit.

Protect the seedlings from slugs when you first plant them out - once they're established and bigger the slugs find them less tasty. Once you have ensured the plants have support you can pretty much leave them to their own devices. They don't need huge amounts of regular water like tomatoes - in fact they don't like sitting in the wet at all and here in London with our clay soil we probably don't have soil as well-drained as the tomatillo would like.

The flowers should come in June and July and then in August you'll see the first husks forming. If you pinch the young husks you'll feel the developing fruit, about the size of a pea at first, but swelling quickly into the size of a big gobstopper, or eyeball. Once the husk starts to turn pale and split, the fruit is ready to pick. Leave them too long and they'll start falling off the plant.

Tomatillos aren't eaten raw but lightly cooked - either simmered or roasted - to form the basis of a Mexican salsa or green sauce. They're also superb in chutneys. The tase is one of zingy freshness - halfway, say, between a tomato and a cucumber.
Saving seeds: we'll be saving seeds from the tomatillos this year, so that we can sow our own seeds again next spring. This is a fairly simple process - and remember if it's just for you, you don't need so very many seeds.

Choose two to three good-sized, healthy-looking fruits to save and leave them on the plant after you've harvested the rest. Don't let them get frosted - if there is frost forecast, cut the fruit at the stem, leaving a length of stem and bring into the house to finish maturing.

After about a week, the fruit may look past its eating best, but the seeds should be ripe. Break open the tomatillo - you can cut it with the knife, the seeds are tiny and hard and quite tough. Put the tomatillo pieces in a bowl with some cold water, then mash up the fruit. Either use the handle of a knife as though you were crushing a clove of garlic, or rub the tomatillo pieces with your fingers until the seeds start to separate from the flesh, keeping the fruit underwater. You can also put the resulting mush in a fine sieve - not a colander or you'll lose all your seeds. Rinse well with cold water, again rubbing the flesh with your fingers to loosen the fibres and flush out the seeds. 

Repeat until the seeds are well separated from the fruit. Put the remaining flesh and seeds back into the bowl and cover with water again. The heavy seeds -the good seeds - will sink to the bottom. The light seeds - which are not viable - and fibres will rise to the top. Leave the bowl alone while the seeds settle, then pour off the surface flesh and seeds, leaving you with just the good ones.

You may find the seeds come away nice and easily just mashing with your hands, or you may have to repeat the process above once or twice to get the seeds really clean and free of fibrous material. Once you have clean wet seeds, lay them on a tea towel to get the excess water off, then finish drying them on a flat glass or stone surface. Don't be tempted to try kitchen paper, or leave them on tea towel, or even a porous material like wood. The seeds are very sticky and will glue themselves to anything remotely absorbent. Also, let them dry at room temperature - don't be tempted to try to speed up the process in an oven, or in the sun.

Once the seeds are completely dry, tip them into a sealable paper bag or envelope and label them clearly with the name of the vegetable and the date. This last is very important! Keep them in the dark, somewhere cool and dry. They should keep for up to three years.

PS: should you not have a garden, this year Riverford Organics have been growing tomatillos and you can request to add them to your box. 

Monday, 1 October 2012

The vine and the choke

Globe artichokes are basically big thistles. They're not related to the Jerusalem artichoke, which is a type of sunflower. They are, however, related to cardoons, another big thistle which is grown for its leaves. Globe artichokes contain the active ingredient cynara – this promotes liver and kidney function, which is the main reason why the globe artichoke has a reputation for being good for hangovers.
It also has taste inhibitors which will make everything you eat for a while after eating an artichoke seem sweeter. This is the reason why artichokes are difficult to pair with wine.

The part of the artichoke that we eat is actually the flowerbud. Once the bud has opened and is in flower the bloom is spectacular, but now inedible. You want to cut your artichoke when the bud is plump and firm, and the leaf scales are still packed tightly around the heart. You can pick them when small and cook as baby artichokes - when the choke is soft and undeveloped and can be eaten whole - or leave them to grow bigger so you can eat them in traditional style, pulling off each fleshy leaf before lifting off the hairy part of the choke and dipping the rest in dressing.

Globe artichokes are notoriously hard to overwinter. Seed-raised plants are particularly prone to dying in winter, while some varieties simply aren’t hardy and since you can’t bring them indoors you will need to protect them, usually with straw which will also keep off a lot of the wet. The last couple of winters when we’ve had lots of frost and snow in London have been hard on artichokes.

Even the hardier varieties may give up the ghost over winter – not necessarily because of the cold but because globe artichokes don’t like sitting in waterlogged soil.

Many if not most of the world’s globe artichoke plants are in California or France – lots of them in Brittany, but also further south, in a climate warmer and drier than ours in the UK. It’s worth protecting the plants to keep them going because they don’t always flower in their first year and  winter survivors flower more prolifically in year two than they may have done in year one.

Assuming you’ve covered the plants with straw or fleece and they’ve bounced back up green in spring, the good news is that established plants are tough customers. They’ll grow big, look spectacular and give you lots of flowerbuds which are delicious to the point of being addictive.

Starting off, though, you can either grow from seed, buy young plants, or divide up older plants to produce smaller new ones.
Seeds need more cosseting and are less reliable. Young plants are convenient but an expensive way to grow. Division is great, but requires you to know someone who is preparing to perform surgery on their plants – and you’ll get no choice over the variety.

If growing from seed, start by sowing indoors in March, then plant out after the last frost. In London you should be safe in April, but keep an eye on the weather forecast and some fleece handy. But if you get warm weather in April, as we quite often do, they’ll get off to a good start. This last season (2012) the winter survivors got off to a great start in March when we had two weeks of weather that was almost like summer. The new seedlings, however, which went out in April, all had a terrible time when it turned cold and we had the wettest April on record – followed, I think, by the wettest June (remember they don’t like sitting in the wet).

If you buy young plants, they will come in small plugs. Plant out again in April and look out for late frosts.

Artichokes are hungry plants so before you transplant them, get lots of good rotted organic matter into the soil. Really well rotted horse manure is good. Really well rotted kitchen compost is good. If you’re at all worried your soil isn’t quite up to scratch buy some liquid seaweed extract and give the ground a good soaking with that. This is also brilliant stuff for foliar feeds – basically you dilute the seaweed extract and drench the plants with it.

With young plants, you will also need to protect against slugs and snails. Once these spiky prickly leaves have developed they’ll stop being a problem, but the soft succulent new leaves are exactly what slugs and snails like. I use copper rings, placed around each plant. They can be removed once the plant is established and the mature leaves appear. Copper rings are effective because the copper reacts with the mucus on the underside of the slug/snail body and they dislike travelling across it. Make sure you don’t trap any beasties inside the copper ring – or they won’t be able to get out.

If you’re lucky, you should see your first flowerbud form, at the top of the main stem, in late May or June. Pick this as soon as it reaches a manageable size, because, 1) it’s delicious, and 2) cutting the main flowerbud will encourage side buds to form – which means you get more artichokes to eat.

Generally I find that I’ll get a batch of artichokes in June/July and then they’ll go quiet before producing another batch in September/October. Your plant may flower differently.

Once established, artichoke plants can be left alone to get on with it once you’ve successfully nursed them beyond the seedling stage, but there are a couple of things to look out for:

1. Watering. I try not to water established artichoke plants. Here in London the soil tends towards heavy clay even with organic matter dug in and drainage can be variable. Now what artichoke plants will do is send down long roots and eventually a long-lived healthy plant will have roots deep enough to find moisture in the soil.

But if the weather is very dry, better to mulch around the plants rather than water. I have also successfully grown artichoke plants through plastic, which of course retains moisture in the ground by preventing evaporation and also keeps the rain off, so the soil doesn’t get waterlogged.

2. Aphids and ants. Once the slugs stop finding the plants attractive, the blackfly moves in. How badly your artichokes are affected really depends on how prevalent blackfly is in your area. On an allotment site, you can probably count on an infestation, although on my allotment I have blackfly on some artichokes and others which are quite free of it. Here in the Secret Garden we have none at all.

You don’t want to be spraying your flowerbuds, but one quite effective way to get rid of them is to get your garden hose and nozzle, turn it to 'jet', or it smost powerful setting and blast the blackfly off. You may have to do this more than once, but you will eliminate them eventually.

If you get a bad attack, you may also find your plants become riddled with ants. This is not coincidence, although the ants aren’t preying on the blackfly, they’re farming them. Aphids suck in the sugars in the plants cells and then secrete a sticky sweet substance called honeydew – you can see it and feel it on an affected plant. Ants are always attracted to sugar and they come to eat the honeydew. They will protect their aphids from predators, indeed they will even ‘milk’ them by stroking the aphids to stimulate them into excreting more honeydew. They have been known to move the aphids from one plant to another if the first plant becomes sickly.

None of this does the artichoke plant any good. It looks unattractive, it loses sugars to the aphids and the honeydew blocks up the plant pores. If you can identify where the ants are coming from you can try destroying the nest; otherwise persevere with the jet-blasting. If you get rid of the aphids and their sweet secretions, the ants will lose the motivation to invade your artichoke plants. 

Growing grapevines
Some vines are meant to be grown indoors, some are happy outdoors. When grown outdoors here in London, a south or west-facing aspect is best and against a wall rather than a fence – the wall will be slightly warmer – is even better. Take time to determine the best planting position: grapevines can live for up to 100 years. Before you plant your vine, try to imagine which part of your garden is most like France!

If you are planning to make your own wine from your own home-grown grapes, go and buy a vineyard. Or accept that you will get a few bottles at most. Better, really, in a domestic garden, to grow for dessert grapes from which you can get a good crop.

The key is to spend some time on soil preparation before planting. The soil should be dug as far down as you can get, and lots of well-rotted farmyard manure incorporated into it. In the wild, vines were historically forest plants: their roots planted in the cool of the woodland floor, and the stems climbing through and around the branches to reach sunlight. So as well as manure, try mulching your newly-planted vine with leaf mould to remind it of the forests of long ago - leaf mould is always good for your soil structure too.

Alternatively you can help to keep the roots cool by surrounding the bottom of the stem with large stones or rocks, as you do with clematis, another climbing woodland plant, if you think the planting site is too exposed.

You can just buy a grapevine and leave it. In the right place it will grow vigorously and provide lots of foliage, wall/fence/pergola cover, and leaves for making homemade dolmades. But in order to maximise its fruit production you will need to train it.

Vine training
Buy your vine in either autumn or spring. It will look like a rather unpromising stick. Before you plant it, drive in a sturdy stake that will form the support for your growing vine in its first year. Then plant the vine in the prepared planting hole, refill, and firm.

In the first year, the main stem of the vine will grow. Keep this on the straight and narrow by loosely tying it to the stake. Use a soft tie rather than plastic wire.

In autumn, you can start training. You are aiming for a cordon effect, where strong lateral branches grow horizontally at  right angles and at regular intervals, like a espalier apple tree. Once trained the vine will be balanced on either side, with the  lateral branches receiving maximum available sunlight to encourage the plant to produce plenty of fruit.

Remove all the existing lateral stems, and cut the main stem back down to the healthy wood. Tie it in again using a soft tie.
Be ruthless about pruning out weaker stems – you will not kill the vine.

There are lots of grapevine pruning guides on the web but the basic method is the same. This is one of the clearest and easiest to follow.  

The next year, you’ll have many more side-shoots. Prune the main stem back but as before but also choose two lateral shoots to train horizontally and along a fruiting wire, pegged into the back fence or wall. The next year, you can let shoots from the laterals grow on. Prune away everything else.

After three years you’ll have a hardy grapevine and should get grapes which get plenty of light and sun to ripen.

Harvesting vine leaves 
As well as growing vines for grapes, don't forget that the leaves can also be eaten, wrapped around a rice filling as in dolmades, for example.

  • Pick leaves in spring when the leaves are young, tender and pale green.
  • Pick reasonably sized leaves, big enough to wrap around a filling.
  • Pick whole leaves, nothing damaged or with holes in them.
  • Be 100% sure that they have not been sprayed with any pesticide/fungicide/pesticide.
  • Be 100% sure that they are grapevine leaves and not the next plant along.

They need to be blanched before you can use them. Rinse under the tap to make sure you get rid of dust, dirt or even any little creepy crawlies.

Lay the leaves in a bowl or a wide shallow dish like a lasagne dish. Pour boiling water over them and leave them for three minutes, a bit longer if they weren’t quite so young and tender after all. They can now be used but you can also freeze them for use later in the year.

To freeze grape leaves they must be dry. You can dry them very carefully after the first rinse, then lay them one on top of another and slide them into a plastic bag. Seal and freeze. They’ll keep for six months and after three months may not need to be blanched before use.

Or dry them thoroughly after blanching, then freeze as before. Use within a couple of months.

For more on preparing and using vine leaves, see MsMarmiteLover's comprehensive blog post here.