Tuesday, 24 November 2015

15 Christmas gifts for gardeners and outdoor cooks

Gardening books

The New Kitchen Garden by Mark Diacono £18.80
I've been an admirer of Mark's work for some time and here is his award winning kitchen garden book. Like us, he wants to make the best use of his garden space (even though he has a great deal more) and grow unusual interesting plants. He thinks like a cook as well as a gardener.

Fern Verrow, a year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen by Jane Scotter and Harry Astley and photographs by Tessa Traegar (Quadrille) £19.99
Fern Verrow is a biodynamic farm near Haye on Wye owned by Scotter and Astley and this book is their story.  Like the Secret Garden Club, the emphasis is equally upon growing and good food, with interesting seasonal recipes throughout structured around the elements. Tessa Traegar's pioneering nature, landscape and food photography is superb. A beautiful gift.

Heirloom Harvest by Amy Goldman and Jerry Spagnoli (Bloomsbury 2015) £26
Shot in stark architectural black and white, these art house daguerrotypes by Spagnoli are reminiscent of the work of photographic pioneer Edward Steichen. The book consists of nude vegetables and fruit, almost sexy. The text by Goldman explores growing heirloom seeds. This book is for lovers of good photography, gardening and vegetables.

RHS Grow for Flavour by James Wong (Mitchell Beazley) £10
A truly fantastic book, reviewed earlier this year by my colleague Zia Mays.

Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way by Lars Matting (MacLeHose Press) £13.60
This book has been a surprise hit in the best seller lists. Did I ever mention that I used to go out with a cross-dressing French lumberjack? He used to smell of bonfire (which I find a big turn on, I have quite basic tastes when it comes to men) and live in a squat in London Fields swimming pool along with myself, my daughter and the street artist Stik. They had no heating there and the only person that could really cope with the condition was my boyfriend who spent all year preparing for winter. Outside his room, which was a changing room, he had months of beautifully stacked and dried wood. He found wood chopping therapeutic and taught myself and my daughter how to use an axe.

The Ladybird Book of the Shed (Ladybird books for grownups) by Hazeley and Morris (Michael Joseph) £5.24
This would make an amusing stocking filler. I love a shed, I've got a she-shed at the bottom of my garden.


Yuzu plant £40
I've had a go at planting citrus before but everything died. I wondered if I kept it in the wrong place. Plants4presents are now stocking yuzu fruit plants at £40 plus delivery which is a gorgeous citrus that has an almost indescribably floral taste. I'm going to try again, this time keeping it in the living room. Fingers crossed.

Kaffir lime plant £25
The great thing about this plant is that even if you don't get any fruit, you can use the gorgeous fresh lime leaves in your cooking. Check out my Thai Green curry recipe here. I also keep lime leaves in the freezer. The kaffir lime plant is available from Plants4Presents.

Plant wasabi £7.50
Genuine wasabi is different to horseradish. You can easily grow it in the UK. Order your plant from The Wasabi Company. 

Plantable wrapping paper £4.99
You can get it with all kinds of vegetables such as broccoli, peppers, onions, tomatoes. Such a fun idea.

Plantable paper shapes £14.99
A similar principle to above but these would be so pretty as tags for presents wouldnt' they? The paper is impregnated with seeds such as herbs or poppy seeds. 25 in the pack.

Copper Gardening Tools £32
Copper is a very special material. When alloyed with tin it becomes bronze. It's antimicrobial, non magnetic and repellent to slugs and snails. This trowel from Alchemade is pricey at almost £100 but much cheaper in the States. A cheaper version in the UK(seen above) is from Implementations at £32.

Sophie Conran Gardener's Gubbins £15.99
A zinc organiser for all the gardener's bits and bobs. Sort of retro French in style, shabby chic gardening.

A Big Green Egg BBQ from £399 up to £4k
The ultimate BBQ, the design means you can build up a long slow burn, meaning your food is succulent and juicy. You can use it as a smoker in the winter.

Local lumpwood charcoal £8 a bag
For that BBQ you want local sustainably sourced charcoal, most of the UK's charcoal is from overseas, isn't as good. My local guy is Iain Loasby of Rivenwood Coppice.  You can also buy biochar from Iain which is a great way to put minerals back into the soil. We will be experimenting with this in the Secret Garden Club. Find out more about biochar here. You can find your local coppicer, firewood supplier and charcoal maker here.

A Secret Garden Club e-voucher £40
Buy a Secret Garden Club workshop and supper, £40 a head, redeemable for any event. Just email me at marmitelover@mac.com

Don't forget our Grow Your Own Curry supper club is on this Sunday afternoon. Buy tickets here: http://www.edibleexperiences.com/p/69/The-Underground-Restaurant/770001/Secret-Garden-Club-grow-your-own-curry £40

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Flower power - the appeal of edible blooms

poppy liqueur

This Sunday's Edible Flower Secret Garden Club went very well. We are also thrilled to now have a monthly column in HouseandGarden.co.uk Our first column was on edible flowers. 
This was the menu:
Coqueliquot liqueur with champagne (pictured above)
Squash flower soup with home grown ancho peppers
Bread with marigold flowers and pumpkin seeds
Mint and borage yoghurt dip
Purple and pink potato salad with herb flowers
Salad with nasturtiums
Fresh floral fettucini with butter and sage

purple pink potato salad with herb flowers
Purple and pink potato salad with herb flowers, made with homegrown Salad Blue and Highland Burgundy heritage potatoes.

Edible flowers will make your dishes look spectacular and add new flavours to your food - and all for very little outlay. Ideally you would be able to step outside into your garden to pick your homegrown edible flowers. But if this isn't possible or your garden or patio doesn't give you enough, you can source flowers for eating by other means:
  • Some supermarkets, notably Waitrose, sell edible flowers in their larger stores. Chegworth valley is also another supplier.
  • Online at sites such as Greens of Devon, and Maddocks Farm Organics. Delivery can often be made the next day.
  • In a florist only if you can guarantee that the flowers are organic. Otherwise they may have been sprayed or otherwise terraced with chemicals.
  • By foraging, for a wildflower feast. 
Selecting edible flowers
Be aware, though, that not all flowers are edible and some are very toxic. So you do need to be discriminating when it comes to picking flowers to eat. If you follow the same guidelines as you would when foraging for mushrooms you should be OK:
  • Be 100% certain that you have identified the flower correctly.
  • Only pick flowers in good condition 
  • Do not take all the flowers from a single location - and do not uproot whole plants
  • Know the provenance of your flowers. This means being sure that the plants have not been sprayed, whether with weed killer, animal urine, or preservatives (in florists, for example). Or knowing that they have not been contaminated, eg, with car exhaust fumes. By the side of a busy road is not a good place to look for edible flowers.
Pick flowers in mid morning if possible: late enough for the dew to have evaporated, early enough that sun has not started to dry out the petals.

Generally speaking, remove green sepals, stems and calyxes. Cut out stamens and therefore the pollen if you tend towards hay fever.

marigold pumpkin seed bread
Bread with marigold flowers and pumpkin seeds.

flower pasta
Adding flowers to the pasta while rolling out the dough.
Using edible flowers
Petals and smaller whole flowers can be scattered in their natural state over a variety of dishes - salads, desserts, over soups or vegetables. However flowers have traditionally been used in a number of other ways as well:
  • Suspended in ice cubes to make stunning addition to cocktails and soft drinks. Fill the compartments of an ice cube tray half full with water. Lay a flower, or petals on the surface of each. Dunk each petal with your finger to ensure they are covered with water - they will yen float to the top again. Freeze. Once frozen, top up each tray with water and freeze again. This ensures that your flowers are suspended in the middle of the ice cube rather than floating to the top. This is a classic way to use borage flowers, also good for violas, pinks, primroses. Instructions to make a floral ice bowl are in Supper Club; recipes and notes from the underground restaurant by Kerstin Rodgers.
  • Floral sugars – take a few handfuls of flowers. Remove stems but you needn't be over fussy about sepals and calyxes. Pick over to ensure they are clean and put into a clean jar. Cover with caster sugar, anywhere from 3x to 10x the weight of the flowers. Leave somewhere cool, and dark for a month and then sieve out the flowers. Recipe for Lilac sugar here.
  • Jellies – floral jellies have a wonderful aromatic flavour. Use a recipe for apple jelly (there are good ones on Cottage Smallholder and David Lebovitz, for example) for the base flavour and to give the jelly enough pectin to set. Add the flowers/petals to the apples when boiling them up for their juice. Some petals can be added to the jelly for decorative effect once it has reached setting point and before it is decanted into jars. Floral jelly recipes are in MsMarmitelover's Secret Tea Party book.
  • Floral butters work beautifully for herb flowers in particular, especially fennel, rosemary or basil. Pick a good handful of the tiny flowers and ensure they are clean. Add to softened butter and mash gently with a fork. Chill in the fridge until the butter is firm enough to be moulded between two boards or rolled into a cylindrical shape. Chill again. To use, slice off a round of the butter from the cylinder. Calendula and tagetes (marigolds) also make a lovely floral butter. Recipes for floral butters are in Supper Club; recipes and notes from the underground restaurant by Kerstin Rodgers
  • Crystallised petals – a classic treatment for rose petals, also good with primroses and violets. You will need a bowl of egg white and caster sugar, either in a bowl or a dredger. Give the egg white a brief whisking just until it's foamy - this is to ensure you don't have any lumps or globules. Take a fine soft paintbrush and gently paint each petal with the egg white. Dredge with the sugar, or dust lightly with the sugar in the bowl. Lay each petal in piece of grease proof paper and dry overnight in the airing cupboard. Use within a couple of days. Instructions on how to do this are in Supper Club; recipes and notes from the underground restaurant by Kerstin Rodgers
  • Floral teas, or tisanes: camomile is the traditional flavour here, but you can make restorative and uplifting tisanes from lavender, bergamot, lemon verbena and many other flowers. Simply take a handful of your chosen flowers and place in a glass jug or teapot. Pour over hot water (not boiling) and leave to steep for 3-6 minutes. Strain into a cup. Recipes for herbal teas are in MsMarmitelover's Secret Tea Party book.
  • Syrups, oils, and vinegars. Floral vinegar is amazing in salad dressing. Herb flowers are especially suitable for both oil and vinegar. Pack flowers into a measuring jug and decant into a clean jar. Pour over the same volume of white wine vinegar (ie, if your flowers reached the 500ml mark in the measuring jug, add 500ml of vinegar) and a little sugar to taste. Cover the jar and leave in a warm sunny place for 2-3 weeks. Then strain into a sterilised jar. Sweeter flowers, such as pinks, roses, lavender (again), lemon verbena or scented leaf pelargonium make beautiful syrups for drizzling over ice cream, over pancakes, over sponge cakes. Dissolve sugar in water (use equivalent amounts, eg for 300g sugar, add 300ml water), bring to the boil and simmer for 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and pour into a clean jar when still warm. Add a handful of flowers, and push down into the syrup to make sure they are covered. Put the lid on the jar and leave until cold. Strain into another clean jar or bottle.
  • Floral smoothies: add a few petals from your chosen flowers to the smoothie mix - great in lassis or milkshakes as well. Mint, roses, or bergamot are especially good for these.
  • Fruit jellies can be lifted to a higher plane with the addition of a layer of flowers or even whole blooms set into the middle of the jelly. Visually stunning.
  • Flower waters- see here in our blog post on making rose water.
borage flower and mint flower tzaziki
Mint and borage flower yogurt dip.
For a recipe on how to make fresh floral lasagne or fettucini go to my post on msmarmitelover.com .

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Growing up - the DIY vertical garden

Lack of space is probably one of the main reasons why many people don't get into gardening, especially in an urban environment, where outdoor space is often at a premium. We have guests at the Secret Garden Club in London who want to know what they can do with a courtyard, a patio, or, often, just a balcony.

We reckon, if you can't grow out, you can grow up. We've been experimenting with an number of inexpensive and DIY vertical gardens and presented some of these ideas at our Herbs and Microleaves workshop last Sunday. Herbs are an ideal starting point for trying out vertical garden ideas as many herbs are more than happy to be grown in pots. Small plants are also readily available and inexpensive to buy.

We've experimented in the past with creating a vertical herb garden from an over-the-door-shoe hanger (like this one, for instance). It's cheap and effective and would last about an season before the material starts to disintegrate. A number of companies have taken the shoe hanger idea and created a more bespoke product for plants.  
One of them is Burgon and Ball, which makes Verti-Plant, above, a small vertical garden frame out of tough non-woven fabric and with six pockets for herbs. The one we used here cost £9.95 for a pack of two hangers, so enough for 12 plants in total. It comes in a number of different colours and takes just a few minutes to screw into a suitable place on an outside wall.The upper pockets have drainage holes in them so that the pockets don;t get waterlogged and also to help water the pockets below.

Ours is planted up with mint and just outside the kitchen door to make it easy to pick a couple of leaves for mint tea. As with the repurposed shoe hanger, we think the Burgon and Ball product would last a season before beginning to show signs of wear and tear. 

Thinking of something a bit more permanent, we started looking at using wooden pallets as a framework for a vertical garden. There's a thriving pallet furniture community over on Pinterest, showcasing everything from using your pallets simply as shelving, to creating vertical gardens using succulent plants that look more like works of art.

The great thing about using pallets is that they are available free of charge, which means you can experiment to your heart's content without major outlay. Also, although there are standard sizes for pallets, they come in an astonishing number of permutations: wide slats, narrow slats, square, rectangular ... the best way to get started is to fold down the back seats in the car and go foraging around the neighbourhood, or your local builder's yard.

Be choosy: don't pick up any pallet that is broken, or too dirty. And I always find someone to ask before taking a pallet from someone's property - and that includes in their skip. No-one has ever yet said no. 

The picture at the top of this post is the simplest way to create a vertical herb garden using a pallet  - and yet it's surprisingly effective. Find a pallet with slats both on top and underneath which create a framework to hold a small pot, when the pallet is stood on end. Pots with 0.5l capacity (check on the bottom of the pot - they are all labelled with their size) should fit snugly in-between the slats. Pot up your herbs (or other plants, if you like) into 0.5l pots and arrange over the pallet 'shelves'. Remember to water regularly: small pots will dry out very quickly.
This mature living wall at Capel Manor College in Enfield, uses a bespoke vertical garden frame with wedge-shaped planting pockets. 
Our final challenge was to create something which could approximate to the living wall style of garden, where the plants have enough root space to grow bigger and up into the light. This can take up a semi-permanent space on a balcony or patio and when fully grown will look spectacular.

Our prototype uses a close-slatted pallet, lined at the back with woven plastic membrane and filled with multi-purpose compost. I used black cardboard at the front and inside to hold the plants in place which at the time I thought was very clever (ie, by the time it had degraded the plants would be well established and kept in place by their root system) but I am not now so sure.
We planted it up with herbs: rosemary and thyme on the top, parsley and chives in the middle and more parsley and lemon verbena at the bottom. As the plants mature, they will grow upwards towards the light and spread out.

Overall the vertical garden is extremely heavy - the pallet frame isn't light to start with and using ordinary compost weighs it down too, especially when it's wet. The one we made here can be used as a standalone system, which is a good thing - I think if I tried to hang it up on a fence it would bring the whole thing crashing down.

For our next one we'll work on making it lighter - mixing in something like vermiculite as the growing medium and we'll use something more durable to hold the plants, like fine black wire mesh maybe. But the principle holds good, and the construction works - below shows how we built it, step by step.
1. Stand the pallet upright and start affixing the plastic membrane to the back of it with a staple gun
2. Fold over the raw edge of the membrance to make a 'hem', otherwise it will fray horribly.
3. Tuck in the corners neatly to ensure there not gaps where compost could spill out.
4. Cut the membrane to fit the back of the pallet neatly and staple the membrane to the wood. This is the bottom of the vertical garden - leave the top open so you can plant it up and water the garden from above.
5. Turn the pallet back right side up and start adding compost.
6. Pack the compost in well: it will damp down when you water it and the plants will slip if you leave gaps.
7. Slide strips of card or another unobtrusive lining to keep the compost in place before planting up.

Words: Zia Mays
Most pictures: MsMarmitelover

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Midsummer night's eve Secret Garden Club.

Secret Garden Club menu, herbs workshop 

It was all the stuff we had for midsummer's eve, Swedish style, with a few dishes added on:
Bloom's Gin with lemon balm sugar syrup, lemon verbena garnish and soda water
Canap├ęs of skagen, egg and Kalix roe on Peter's Yard crisp bread
Smoked mozzarella with lovage and broad beans and hay smoked oil
Strawberry cake topped with wild strawberries and red currants from the garden
Apple fritters with cinnamon sugar

Zia Mays gave a workshop on herbs and microwaves as well as demonstrating her vertical palette garden ideas. More on this in our next post and recipes will be up on msmarmitelover.com over the next few weeks.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Lilac is out

For about three or four weeks the bottom of the garden is two shades of pink: lilac and clematis montana intertwine. I cut flowers for the house, the scent forecasting summer.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Pictures from the Secret Garden Club Mediterranean Vegetable event

Sicilian dried tomatoes with pistachios Secret Garden Club
Roasted sweet peppers with helium and pesto secret garden club
avocado mozzarella salad secret garden club
artichoke, broad bean, mint salad secret garden club
caponata secret garden club
learning to graft tomatoes secret garden club
Guests learnt to graft tomatoes then sat down for a mediterranean inspired lunch.


Raki and orgeat cocktail
Sicilian sun dried tomatoes with pistachios
Roasted sweet peppers with halloumi and pesto
Avocado, mozzarella, hay smoked rapeseed oil, red wine salt salad
Broad bean, artichoke, mint salad
Gnocci in tomato and basil broth
Cheeses with Sheridan's brown bread crackers and MsMarmitelover's seaweed oatcakes
Blackberries, frais des bois, crystallised rose, lavender, mint Eton Mess with creme fraiche

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Secret Garden Club supper club this Sunday 26th April

The Secret Garden Club is back with a 'med veg' gardening workshop and a brilliant sunshiney jewel-bright lunch cooked by msmarmitelover. Click on this link to buy tickets here

Growing workshop:

  • We will be showing how to grow Mediterranean vegetables in the UK without a greenhouse. It can be  possible. 
  • How to graft tomatoes for bigger, stronger plants.
  • Hot, or not? Growing chillies and peppers for flavour.
Supper club:

I will be cooking with Mediterranean vegetables, my favourites, using ideas from my trips to Istanbul, Athens and Sicily over the last few months. I'll also be pouring a glass of the fantastic British sparkling wine from Ridgeview in Sussex that I visited last weekend. But do feel free to bring your own drink, I recommend winetrust100.com who will deliver directly to my house.

Copies of my new book V is for Vegan will be on sale. 

I can't wait to see you all and cook for you. 

Buy tickets here: £40 starts at 2pm. 

Love msmarmitelover


Monday, 9 March 2015

Book review: Grow For Flavour, by James Wong

James Wong maintains that for too long, kitchen gardeners have been following rules laid down by the Victorians that were designed mainly to boost yields. Wong now wants to turn attention away from size and towards flavour. After all, he says persuasively, that is why we grow our own fruit and veg, isn’t it? To get better tasting food than we can buy in the shops.

He pitches straight in with tomatoes, an excellent choice of crop for reappraisal, as tomatoes, although a popular choice for growers, can be fussy and finicky to raise. 

Wong’s approach is to distrust a lot of received wisdom and to start again from his own ethnobotanical viewpoint. A botany graduate who trained at Kew, he is at pains to stress the botany/chemistry principles that inform his ideas and the scientific trials that back up his findings. 

About the tomatoes, he suggests doing away with the watering plans, the trimming and snipping and the pinching out that we spend so much time doing each summer. Instead he prescribes salt water and soluble aspirin, working to increase the flavour of each fruit, even if that means reducing the overall number of fruit. Better one delicious tomato than three disappointing ones, he reckons, and it’s hard to argue with that.

Wong goes on to similarly deconstruct our growing habits for salads, blueberries, beetroot, peas, carrots, corn, before moving on to less conventional crops such as edible flowers, grapes and sweet potatoes. He loses me a bit on beetroot, before I realise that the earthy beet flavour Wong complains about is precisely the thing I like about them. But my Secret Garden Club colleague MsMarmiteLover will be delighted to know that he has found a sweet, non-soily beetroot for her.

As well as radical growing advice, the book also contains some recipes, again leaning towards the unusual and impressive – the floral jams, pear in a bottle (a must-try, that one), truffle ciabatta and a fluorescent purple carrot cheesecake are hardly the stuff of quick ‘n’ easy suppers.

Wong writes informally and with verve, rattling off statistics and findings from trials at a brisk pace. The scientifically minded reader will appreciate the detail and the backing; if you’re more of a layman like me, you can simply be carried along by his enthusiasm. The book isn't all about using exotically new techniques to grow vegetables: there is some solid and fairly conventional advice about pruning, for example, and many of his recommendations are based around choosing specific varieties for the flavour you desire.

Thanks to this book, I now have added a persimmon tree to my shopping list for this season. Now to find somewhere to put it ...

James Wong
Published by Mitchell Beazley, price £20.00

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Bringing Mediterranean sunshine to a London patio

A sunny day in February brings hope and a promise of spring to come like no other. The days are getting longer, the light is higher and stronger ... and it always reminds me that it's time to sow my Mediterranean vegetable seeds.
Compared to the Mediterranean climate, our English summers are cool and wet. But by starting early and waiting patiently until the end of the season, we can raise a fine crop of Mediterranean produce such as tomatoes, aubergines and peppers, both the hot and sweet varieties.
These are extraordinarily satisfying vegetables to grow: the plants are attractive and the colourful fruits bring the patio to life as they ripen. Being able to pop out to pick a chilli to spike up a supper dish (not hot enough? Just go and get another one) or to eat a tomato straight from the bush like an apple is immensely rewarding.
In the UK these vegetables are ideal for people with limited outdoor space, as they do well in containers. There's not reason why you shouldn't grow tomatoes and chilli peppers in the open ground, but in a nice big pot you can choose exactly the right place to put. Aubergines and sweet peppers definitely like somewhere warm and sheltered: the hot spot on the patio, perhaps, or better, one of those soft plastic grow-houses with the door left open once summer is underway.
In April, the Secret Garden Club will meet to discuss all aspects of growing Mediterranean vegetables: focusing on tomatoes, aubergines, chillies and sweet peppers, but with a nod to courgettes, beans, and leafy greens as well. We'll explain how you can make sure your Med crops grow and fruit successfully, and look at the possibilities of grafting the plants to make them stronger and more fruitful. The afternoon finishes with a Mediterranean-themed meal created and prepared by MsMarmiteLover: in the past, guests have enjoyed homemade sourdough with tomato butter, chocolate aubergines, peperonata, and tomato confit with vanilla cream.
Growing Mediterranean veg: how to start

Now is the ideal time to start off your Mediterranean plants if you are growing from seed. Tomatoes, peppers and aubergines will not withstand frost, so you need to find a warm sunny place indoors for them. A south-facing windowsill is ideal. 

  • Take clean 3-inch pots and fill with seed compost (available from garden centres) to about 1cm below the lip of the pot. 
  • Use a watering can with a rose (diffuser) to water each pot well.
  • Place two seeds on the surface of the compost per pot. Cover very lightly with more compost.
  • Label the pot carefully: either use a marker pen on the pot itself or a plant label in the pot. While tomato seedlings are quite distinctive, aubergines and peppers are easily confused when they're tiny and chilli seedlings look just the same as sweet pepper seedlings!
  • Put the pot in your warm and sunny place to germinate. You can place the pots in a larger seed tray with a clear plastic lid, or cover each pot with a polythene bag to help speed up germination.
  • You should see the first tomato leaves emerge after 3-4 days, aubergines 4-5 days and peppers in about a week, maybe even longer.
  • Once the seedlings appear, remove any plastic covering and leave them to grow on. 
  • Water gently and try to get as little water on the new leaves as possible.
  • Keep seedlings indoors until all danger of frost is past. Then they can be planted out into the open ground or into containers.
Join us for Mediterranean Food at The Secret Garden Club, Sunday April 26th, starts 2.00pm.
Tickets £40 for workshop and lunch. Bring your own alcohol.