Friday 27 April 2012

Good companions: plants that help each other

Our next Secret Garden Club workshop, on Sunday May 27th, will discuss the principles of companion planting, with lots of examples of good plants to grow next to each other for their mutual benefit. 
The sort of mutual benefits we're talking about here include the following:

  • Some plants will deter pests, perhaps because they are thorny or prickly, or they give off a repellent odour. Such plants can act as bodyguards for those that are vulnerable. If you plant carrots and onions together you will find that the oniony smell deters carrot fly, and the smell of the carrot plant can deter onion fly. 
  • Similarly, some plans can act as decoys: attracting pests away from the plants you want to protect.
  • Legumes - peas and beans - can fix nitrogen in the soil through their roots, and so are immensely useful as companion plants for those that use up a lot of nitrogen. 
  • Plants with broad leaves provide ground cover, suppressing weeds and keeping the soil moist and cooler for plants that don't like their roots to get warm - clematis, for example.
Broad-leaved pumpkins and squash provide good ground cover.

  • Plants which attract beneficial insects will bring bees and hoverflies to your ground to boost pollination. 
  • Plants which bear berries will attract birds, which in turn will eat insects (of the not-so-beneficial kind) and slugs and snails.

Many companion planting practices have been passed down the generations, and are being revived again now as people become more interested in growing organically, minimising the damage done by pests and diseases and increasing the nourishment of plants without resorting to manufactured or synthetic fertilisers or pesticides.
We'll look at all of these, with the discussion continuing through to MsMarmiteLover's afternoon tea, with a companion planting inspired menu. Guests will be able to do some companion planting themselves, with plants to take away and we hope, lots of good ideas to try at home. 
Book here for your place on the Companion Planting workshop, Sunday May 27th.

Grafted tomatoes - a progress report

Our grafted tomato plants are progressing nicely. We removed the grafting clips five days after the grafts were performed and found that on each plant the graft had taken nicely. The plants were then moved out of their intensive care unit (in reality, a quiet indoor corner out of direct sunlight) and into the greenhouse. It's still too cold for them to go outside.
Left: the stems immediately after grafting - held together with a grafting clip. Right: the clip removed after five days and the graft has taken.
The next step is to complete the graft. At the moment, the top growth is being fed by two root systems - the root and stem from both the scion (top plant) and the rootstock. Once you see evidence of new growth at the top, it's time to cut off the bottom of the scion just below the graft. Be very careful here and make sure it is the stem of the scion that you cut, not the rootstock.

Left: the tomato plants on the day of the graft. Right: ten days later, the plants are growing well and are much bushier. 
Once that's done, you will have a fully grafted plant, with the vigorous, disease-resistant rootstock feeding the high-yielding fruit-bearing scion. Keep the plant in a warm sheltered spot again until it's fully recovered and then grow on as normal. The plants should be ready to go outside from mid-May here in the south-east.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

How to graft your own tomatoes for disease resistance

Grafted tomato plants are beginning to become available to the home gardener. A grafted plant will have the roots and lower stem of one plant, with upper stem, leaves and fruit grafted on to it to create one new plant.
The idea behind grafting tomatoes is that the roots and lower stem (called the rootstock) will be from a disease-resistant variety; the top part of the new plant (called the scion) will be from a variety bearing highly flavoursome fruit. You, the grower, gets the best of both worlds: plenty of delicious fruit on a disease-resistant plant. As heritage tomatoes have become more popular, gardeners have also had to accept that heirloom varieties are also more prey to diseases such as tomato blight.
Grafting is a long established practice in the world of fruit trees, where the rootstock chosen will often determine the size of the tree. That’s how you get dwarf apple and pear trees where you don’t need a ladder to reach all the fruit.
It’s becoming more widely practised for other fruit as well, but particularly tomatoes.
The downside is that grafted tomato plants aren’t yet widely available and they are more expensive than ordinary plants. Also, the variety of tomato that you want to grow may not be available in grafted form.
So why not graft your own?
It’s not really difficult and only requires one piece of inexpensive specialist equipment – the grafting clip.You’ll also need a sharp blade – a scalpel is ideal, and a clean work surface. We obtained ours from Heirloom Tomatoes in north Yorkshire - they also sell a wide range of tomato seeds, plants and other tomato-related supplies.

Grafting tools. You will need: 1) your rootstock tomato seedling, which will form the roots of the new plant, 2) the 'scion' tomato seedling, which will be the top, fruiting part of the plant, 3) a very sharp clean knife such as a scalpel, 4) grafting clips and, 5) a pot to put your grafted tomato plant into.

The best time to graft tomatoes is when they are still small, at seedling stage. Seedlings work best because the smaller the cut, the quicker and better it heals. For a commercial nursery, early grafting means the space saved (by making two plants into one) can be used for something else.
So, you have your rootstock on one side, the plants that will be the scions on the other. Keep them separate, you don’t want to mix them up. Varieties such as Maxifort or Aegis are grown specifically to provide rootstocks for grafting. They are vigorous, disease-resistant plants. Don’t grow them for the fruits – they’re pretty much inedible by all accounts and the plant runs riot. I doubt you’ll find Maxifort or Aegis in garden centres – try online (Heirloom Tomatoes are, again, a good starting point).

1. Take the rootstock plant (the blight resistant/bottom half) out of the pot, and remove surplus soil. 
2. Remove – as cleanly as possible, this is why you need a very sharp blade – the baby leaves and the top leaves, leaving as long a stem as possible.
3. Take the scion (the fruiting/top half), and remove the baby leaves and a couple of the lower leaves, leaving just the top growth.
4. On the rootstock, cut a downward notch in the stem. Slice about a third of the way in so that you have a fleshy slice of stem either side of the cut. Make a corresponding  upward cut in the scion.
5. Now fit the two together, so that the protruding scion slice fits into the rootstock cut. 
6. Take a grafting clip and clip the wound together, making sure the cut sides fit together snugly. 
7. Gently put the grafted plant back into the pot, with both rootballs covered. 
8. The grafting clips apply just enough pressure to keep the cut sides pressed together without damage the plant tissues.
Leave the new plant somewhere sheltered, out of direct sunlight, for a 3-4 days until it recovers from what is effectively major surgery.
After 3-4 days, you should see that the graft has taken and you can remove the grafting clip – and reuse it of course.
In the next few days after that you should see signs of new growth on the scion. That means it’s time to complete the graft by separating the scion from its own rootstock.
Cut the bottom off the scion just below the graft, so that the top plant is now being fed only by the rootstock.
The top of your tomato plant is now fully grafted to the rootstock. Keep the grafted plant in its pot for a couple of weeks until you can see really strong top growth. Then pot it on, or plant it out as usual.
You should find you have a vigorous, more disease resistant tomato plant.

You can also see how to graft tomatoes on this excellent video from the University of Vermont. This also shows the same grafting process for aubergines as well as two different ways to graft tomatoes.

To buy your grafting kit go here.

Tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, and courgettes - the best of Mediterranean vegetables

To encourage the British to eat more healthily, one of the most persistent recommendations has been that we should adopt a more Mediterranean-style diet. People living in (particularly) southern Italy, and Greece have historically lived longer, with lower rates of coronary heart disease.
I'd hazard a guess that the foods most closely associated with a Mediterranean diet would be tomatoes, garlic and olive oil. In fact, it goes wider than that. Most often quoted is Dr Walter Willett of Harvard University's School of Public Health, who described in the 1990s, the emphasis on "abundant plant foods, fresh fruit as the typical daily dessert, olive oil as the principal source of fat dairy products (principally cheese and yogurt), and fish and poultry consumed in low to moderate amounts, zero to four eggs consumed weekly, red meat consumed in low amounts, and wine consumed in low to moderate amounts..."
Those abundant plant foods would certainly include tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, aubergines, courgettes, and beans and pulses, the last often preserved by drying. The fresh produce on this list are of course readily available in shops all the year round, although this loss of seasonality seems to be accompanied by a corresponding loss of flavour.  Even in season, we appear to prefer to source our peppers and aubergines from Holland rather than the heart of the Mediterranean itself.
You can of course, try recreating a little corner of Greece or southern France in your own back garden by growing your own Mediterranean vegetables. They may not be ideally suited to the UK climate, but with a little care and by making the most of our comparatively short season, you can grow your own Med produce. And there are plenty of reasons why you should:
  • The fruit and veg themselves are delicious. Your own tomatoes, sweet peppers, etc, will taste better than those you buy in the shops …
  • ... and so they will remind you of holidays and travels to the Mediterranean region. To me they are always redolent of summer and sunshine. That sweet tangy burst of tomato juice, the fragrance of thyme, a squeeze of lemon juice over a salad … it all says summer.
  • I think there’s an element of wish fulfilment in growing fruit and vegetables that should really do better in warmer climates. We’ve had a succession of mild but wet summers in the last 5-10 years, but if you can raise a crop of aubergines, perhaps you can kid yourself that our weather’s not so bad after all. There is definitely a sense of achievement to be had in growing these tender crops.
As a grower, you can make things easier for yourself in a number of ways. The Secret Garden Club met last Sunday to explore ways in which the cornerstones of the Mediterranean vegetable diet could be adapted to grow on the British patio.

Individual foods are discussed below, but there are some general principles that hold true for all:
  • Choose a suitable variety. There are varieties of tomato from Siberia, chillies from Poland, aubergines that have been bred to thrive on northern Italian hillsides rather than Sicilian glades. Bear this in mind when browsing the nursery catalogues.
  • Mediterranean veg like warmth and light. Give them as much as possible. Don’t expect them to do well on a north-facing slope. Try a south-facing patio instead; against a sunny wall; in a greenhouse, even if it’s a soft plastic version.
  • Don’t overwater them. They won’t like being drowned in a wet English summer. This of course is good news as we labour under a hosepipe ban. But not even tomatoes like too much water: it will make their skins split.
  • Do give them a long season. I sow my Mediterranean vegetable seeds in February, and I don’t expect aubergines before September, peppers before August (usually) or tomatoes before August – with a few exceptions that we’ll come on to later.

Sungold tomatoes, freshly harvested.
The UK climate is not really conducive to growing tomatoes. Too cool, too humid, too short. Tomatoes are prey to a number of disorders and diseases which are beyond the gardener’s control.So a lot of the work involved in raising tomatoes is done to combat the effects of growing them in a hostile climate.
But every time I eat a really ripe, flavoursome homegrown tomato, it’s worth all the trouble. There is no tomato on sale commercially in the UK that tastes as good as one you have grown yourself.
Tomatoes can be grown in London both in a greenhouse and outdoors; either way you can start sowing seeds as early as the end of January or as late as April. I usually sow a batch in February and a late batch of Sungold tomatoes about now. The plan is to give myself as long a season as possible, and I’ve found from experience that Sungold still taste good when they ripen late – in autumn sun rather than summer sun.
Sow in modules or pots, two seeds to a pot. Place indoors or under glass until the seeds germinate. If you sow in January or February, keep the pots indoors in a consistently warm and light place. By March and April, in an unheated greenhouse should be fine.
Don’t transplant to the final planting place until all danger of frost is past. You can grow tomatoes in pots, in a grow-bag or in the open ground. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, but in practice it will probably depend on the space you have available.
  • In pots, you can position the tomatoes in the best place to get the best of the sun. They will need regular watering, perhaps daily in the height of the summer.
  • Grow-bags are an easy option: buy the bag, cut a top in the top, plant the tomato and off you go. They can also be positioned where you want them. But staking and supporting the tomatoes can be a problem with grow-bags if they are placed on a patio or a deck, and they will also need very regular watering in summer. Grow-bags are also, to my mind, rather unsightly.
  • In the open ground, the tomato plants can send down roots to find moisture. They won’t need as much watering – which is good news in this time of drought – or as much support. However, this assumes that you have a bed free in a sunny sheltered position, otherwise it may be too windy for your plants. You may also get more in the way of soil-borne pests.
Reluctantly, I’m going to recommend growing them indoors. In a conservatory, under a skylight, or in a greenhouse. I say reluctantly because in a good year, outdoor grown and ripened tomatoes taste amazing. But I think we don’t have enough good years. Tomatoes will more reliably ripen under glass, and it is also easier to protect them from blight, the most common problem to affect tomatoes grown in the UK. There's more about blight further down this post.
Use fresh dedicated tomato compost. I think it’s a valuable precaution against soil-borne diseases. You can always re-use the compost as a mulch on non-tomato, (and non-potato) crops afterwards.
Water regularly. Irregular watering will lead to blossom end rot. A good soak once a week, plus feeding once the fruits start forming should keep the plants happy.
When watering, don’t splash the leaves. Deliver water directly to the roots. One very good way to feed tomatoes, whether they’re in a pot, a grow-bag or in the ground, is to lop the bottom off a plastic water bottle, remove the cap and push it, cap end down, into the soil next to the plant.
Pinch out side shoots. If you have what is called an indeterminate tomato plant, that is, one that grows tall and straggly, you are advised to remove the shoots that grow between the main stem and the leaf. If you don’t, you’ll get a very vigorous green plant but not many fruits.
As the trusses, ie, the stems bearing fruit, form, remove the leaves around them to let the air circulate.
In any case, shop around, in nurseries or online, to explore the wide variety of tomatoes available. The plants sold in garden centres, such as Alicante, Tumbling Tom, Gardeners Delight and Moneymaker, tend to be those that can withstand manhandling, rather than those that taste best.
You can buy cherry tomatoes in brown, red, yellow or green, or striped, or beefsteak tomatoes, in small bushes or huge vine-like cordons.
At some stage during the summer, your tomatoes will almost certainly get blight. Greenhouse tomatoes may be protected to a certain extent, but all tomatoes grown outdoors in the UK will get blight sooner or later.
Blight is a fungal organism. It lives in the soil and is activated on cool humid days, typically in July. The spores are then carried on the air. Blight can sweep through an allotment, or an area where lots of plants are grown close together, like wildfire. So one preventative measure is to grow your tomatoes a considerable distance away from other tomatoes.
From July onwards, check your tomato plants regularly. The first signs of blight will be a blackening of the edges of the leaves, so that they look almost sooty. Remove any leaves that look like this immediately and ideally burn them. Don’t put them in the compost.The other tell-tale sign of blight is black patches on the stems. Again, try to remove these as soon as you see them – difficult if it’s the main stem.
If the fruits are near to maturity, you can try removing them and ripening them on a sunny windowsill indoors. Heart-breakingly, green fruits that look OK often develop brown blight patches and rot while ripening.
There are blight-resistant varieties – Ferline, Legend, and also a heritage tomato called Broad Ripple Yellow Currant. They’re not always the best-tasting.
If you grow a very early-ripening variety such as Red Alert, First In The Field or Glacier, you should get fruits before July which is usually the earliest time for blight to appear. 
One very interesting way to stack the odds against blight and other disorders in your favour is to consider grafted tomato plants. This is a plant where the fruiting plant has been grafted on to a disease-resistant root or rootstock. You get the disease resistance from the roots, plus the good fruiting characteristics of the top half of the plant. Grafted plants are becoming available in the larger garden centres and nurseries but are considerably more expensive.

You can also try grafting your own tomato plants - we included a grafting session in Sunday's Secret Garden Club and guests were surprised by how uncomplicated an operation it is. See here for a step by step guide to grafting tomatoes.

Caldero peppers, a hot-but-not-too-hot variety.

Sweet peppers and hot peppers, or chillies, are varieties of the same species, Capsicum annuumLike many other vegetables that we think of as Mediterranean, peppers came to Europe from the Americas.
The heat in chilli peppers derives from a substance called capsaicin (and related compounds), and the heat of a particular variety can be measured in Scoville units.

  • A sweet red pepper has a Scoville rating of 0.
  • A jalapeno, quite a mild chilli, is between 2,500 and 5,000.
  • Habaneros, some of the hottest peppers, are around 300,000 Scoville Heat Units.
  • Recently, there has been much interest in developing the ‘hottest’ chilli, and giving it a suitably macho name. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the hottest chilli in 2011 was the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper, at nearly 1.5m SHU.
Peppers used in Mediterranean dishes are either sweet or mild to moderately hot. As well as flavour, and colour, there’s another good reason to grow your own peppers: they are easy to grow.
Indeed, if you have somewhere light and consistently warm indoors – under a kitchen skylight for example – you can bring them in at the end of summer and grow them as perennials. Chilli plants seem to do better over-winter than sweet peppers.
However, when you start off sowing pepper seeds, there are some things to consider.
  • Do shop around: check the catalogues and online. There are 100s of sweet and chilli varieties available.
  • The seeds will need to be sown early in the year, in January or February.
  • They will also need heat. If you have a heated propagator, that’s ideal. If not, then identify a sunny warm windowsill where the heat will be fairly consistent.You can start your peppers off in seed modules to save space, or in 3-inch pots, which will save you one potting-on stage later on.
  • Fill the module or pot with seed compost, soak it well and let the water drain. 
  • Sow two seeds per module on top of the compost, then sprinkle with dry compost so that the seeds are only just covered.
  • Cover the pots – with the clear propagator lid or a polythene bag attached firmly to the pot with an elastic band.
  • Then leave them be. They should germinate after 10-14 days, after which you can remove the covering and the bottom heat if you used a propagator.
If you started them in modules, they will probably outgrow them in about a month and will need to be transferred to a small pot. Don’t pot on until they have four true leaves.
They will also probably be looking a bit straggly and long-stemmed from being raised indoors. This is OK: when you put them in a pot, bury the stems in deep to make them sturdy. The potting-on stage is also the time to discard the weaker seedling of the two sown together.
If you’re growing more than one variety, be meticulous about labelling them. All peppers, sweet or hot, look exactly the same at this stage.
Your peppers will need to stay inside until the risk of frost is over. Even here in London, I’d be cautious and say that’s the end of April. Once the days are warm – and especially when the nights are no longer truly cold, generally in around mid-May – the peppers can be transferred to their final pots and moved outside. Or you can grow them in the open ground. Either way, you need to find somewhere sunny, and not too windy and they should do well.
They will need to be hardened off before going outside permanently. Hardening off just means getting the plant accustomed to being outdoors gradually, over a period of a week or so. Indoors there’s no wind, and much more gradual fluctuations of temperature, so for a plant, going outdoors all at once will put it in a state of shock.
Most plants will recover but it will check their growth. Hardening off properly makes your plants much sturdier.
As the plants grow, they will probably need some support. They’re not climbers, but they will appreciate the main stem being tied to a stake, as many varieties will grow to about 60-75cm tall.
They will, of course, need watering and this is topic of some concern in the current drought. The good news is that they don’t need masses of water. Sweet peppers need more than hot peppers. Peppers grown in the open ground will need less water than those in pots.
Water them when they look thirsty – the leaves may start to look a little limp or lose their gloss.
Your peppers will self-pollinate. You should see the delicate white flowers in late May and into June and July. The flowers point down like an umbrella and as the blooms fade, you’ll see the green fruit beginning to swell behind them.
You can start picking and using peppers when they are green. However, with sweet peppers you won’t get the full flavour or the benefit of the rainbow colours. Where possible I think you should let the fruits mature.
Green chilli peppers won’t be as hot as the ripe versions, whatever the variety. Chillies also develop heat as the summer wears on, so that an early red chilli picked in August will be milder than one from the same bush picked in October.
Harvest your peppers before the first frost – which could be as early as October, so keep an eye on weather forecasts. If you’re overwintering your plants, bring them indoors in October as the nights get colder.
The one other thing to do with your peppers to keep checking them for pests. They are not prone to pests and disorders and thankfully don’t seem too attractive to slugs. If they are in a greenhouse, there are the usual greenhouse pests to look out for: red spider mite and whitefly. Look for a sticky residue on the leaves, or a fine white webbing between the leaves and stems.
Outdoors, pepper plants do seem to be something of an aphid magnet. These look like tiny green discs on the underside of leaves and it’s worth checking regularly for them. Again, they leave a sticky sheen on leaves and stems; also look for tiny white flakes on the surrounding soil.
Now, my bespoke solution for aphids and red spider mite, etc, on mature plants (not seedlings) has always been to blast them with water from the jet nozzle on the garden hose. They either get blasted off the plant altogether, or they drown in the deluge. I’m not sure this method is allowable during a hosepipe ban unfortunately.
The classic anti-aphid treatment is to spray with mild soapy water, and I stress mild. Neat washing-up liquid is more likely to kill the plant off.
In either case, make sure the plant is clean before bringing it into the house for winter. I’ve had many aphid outbreaks after bringing pepper plants into the cosy warmth of the house.

The white aubergine variety Tango is firm-fleshed and sweet.
Aubergines are a little trickier in the British climate. While I’m happy to grow peppers outside, I prefer to keep aubergines under cover. Even in high summer, I’ll have them in a soft plastic greenhouse with the door open. 
And this makes them prey to greenhouse pests, especially aphids. I do quite a lot of spraying and wiping with the aubergines. 
Sowing and raising them is very similar to peppers. Start them off in February in the warm, sowing two seeds to a pot or seed module and keep moist without soaking them.
Once they have true leaves they can move to a pot from the seed module, but keep them indoors until after all danger of frost has passed, and harden them off before planting out in big pots, in a grow bag, or if your garden is very sheltered, a sunny patch of open ground. Aubergine plants like reasonably high humidity, so the plants can be sprayed with a mister regularly to keep moisture levels up.
This is another plant that likes to be well watered when the fruits are forming in July and August. I also feed them at the same time as feeding the tomatoes. Here, being forced to use a watering can could be a good thing. Aubergines are so leafy that a lot of water just runs off the leaves on to the ground if sprayed with a hose.
The fruits should be ready to harvest in September and October. Make sure you’ve picked them all before the first frost, which will kill off the plant.

Courgette Romanesco ripening in the sun.

It seems perverse to talk about courgettes as a Mediterranean vegetable and not pumpkins and squash, but while there are lots of recognisably Med things to do with courgettes, pumpkins seem to belong to a more northern European and American tradition.
Courgettes, however, go in ratatouille, or are simply stewed with tomatoes, or best of all, the flowers are stuffed and then deep-fried, which always seems to me to be a very luxurious dish even though it’s almost a free by-product of the plant. 
Courgettes are fast growers. You don’t need to think about sowing them until April, and since the plants and fruit won’t really grow until it’s properly warm you won’t gain much by sowing earlier. I have tried growing them early under a cloche, but the fruit was very small and had a tendency to shrivel before it matured. 
Courgettes have big seeds and would outgrow a seed module very quickly, so start them off indoors in 3 inch pots.
Nearly all gardening books and experts say you must sow them on edge, or on their side, to reduce the chance of the seeds rotting. I’ve never had any problems with germination or rotting, despite being lazy and simply laying the seeds on the soil. However, in the interest of accuracy what it means is pushing the seeds into the soil vertically, pointed end first.
Sow two seeds to a pot, and remove the weaker seedling once they’ve germinated and produced true leaves. Incidentally, whenever you remove the weaker seedling, don’t yank it out. You may damage the root structure of the other, stronger seedling. I snip out the seedling to be thinned, at soil level, with a pair of manicure scissors. 
Courgettes – and squash – are greedy plants. They like lots and lots of feeding. Many books suggest growing them on the compost heap with good reason. If the top of your compost heap looks at all plantable (rather than being a pile of eggshells, avocado skins and teabags), this is an excellent space-saving idea. Transfer them to the compost heap, or open ground, once any danger of frost is over and the nights are no longer cold. You might want to give the plants a little slug protection: put a copper collar round the plants or scatter a few slug pellets.
You can pick the male flowers to stuff and eat. Pick the fruits when they’re small. Leaving them to grow into marrows will stop the plant producing any other courgettes, so only let them grow on into marrows if you really want marrows.
At the height of summer you’ll find you have a glut of courgettes. Don’t despair: grated courgettes can ‘disappear’ into casseroles, spaghetti bolognaise, soups, and they also make lovely fritters. There is a recipe for a chocolate cake here on my Gourmet Gardening blog which incorporates two grated courgettes - the same principle as the carrots in carrot cake.

Many Mediterranean dishes are unthinkable without the accompanying herbs to flavour them. Basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano and bay are all herbs we associate with the warmth and sunshine of the Med.
Herbs are probably the easiest of plants to raise, especially if you don’t have much space. They will do well in pots or even a window box on the balcony.
Rosemary, thyme and oregano are similar in that in the wild they flourish in poor, even stony, soil. So don’t treat them too kindly. They will survive cold, but not prolonged wet.
Basil, on the other hand is much leafier, and likes a rich, moist soil. I prefer to grow basil indoors where it can be cossetted and produce lush emerald green leaves.
There's more on Mediterranean herbs and herbs in general elsewhere on the Secret Garden blog.

Saturday 14 April 2012

Secret Garden Club in Country Living magazine

 One of my favourite magazines, Country Living UK, has done a piece on The Secret Garden Club. They have a blog here, covering anything from craft, to home decoration, recipes and gardening. For years I've lusted after the gorgeous houses (particularly kitchens) in their beautifully photographed spreads. I was thrilled also when artist Lucinda Rogers came to do some painting in the Secret Garden to illustrate the article. I'm a big fan of her work, her fluid but accurate style. She's done a series of ink drawings of restaurants.

Don't forget tomorrow is Secret Garden Club's Mediterranean Vegetable Day. I'll be cooking: expect Bloody Mary's with Rosemary, a Middle Eastern style ratatouille and chocolate aubergines. Zia_Mays will show how to grow those tricky Mediterranean vegetables in a British climate. Do come there are still places and it's only £45. Starts at 2pm.

Thursday 12 April 2012

A taste of the Mediterranean

Even if the Med diet wasn’t being held up as healthy and life-extending, it would surely be hard to resist the fruit and vegetables that make up the bulk of the diet. Brightly coloured peppers like toddlers’ toys, the deep red of ripe tomatoes with the promise of a burst of sweet-sharp juice when you cut into them, the deep velvet plush of aubergines ... there is a sensual delight here that you just don't get with parsnips, say, or turnips.

The ease with which these raw ingredients can be transformed into a finished dish is seductive too. Some chopped and fried garlic, a dressing of olive, oil, a squeeze of lemon juice and some herbs and you’re done. This is the rough basis for ratatouille, for pasta al pomodoro, for imam bayildi, and many others.

As with so many fruits and vegetables, what is readily available in the shops is only a fraction of the variety which exists. Commercial wholesalers make stocking decisions based on looks and uniformity, on disease resistance, on length of life in storage, which means that only a narrow range will be eligible for the shelves.

In growing your own Mediterranean vegetables, however, you only need to consider which types would taste the best and give you that intense Mediterranean flavour, that burst of warmth and sunshine and memory of thyme-scented hillsides. The idea of bringing a little of the Mediterranean back from your holidays on to the patio at home is very beguiling. These are attractive plants, not too difficult to raise from seed, which grow happily in pots, and so needn’t take up too much space. 

On Sunday, the Secret Garden Club will look at the sowing, raising, harvesting and cooking of a wide variety of Mediterranean fruits and vegetables – including some interesting varieties of aubergines, chillies, peppers and tomatoes mentioned above, but also some others as well. If you’d like to find out just how you can bring a bit of the Med back to your back garden, and enjoy MsMarmiteLover’s famous and creative afternoon teas into the bargain, click here for booking details.

Monday 9 April 2012

Beat the hosepipe ban

If, like Secret Garden Club HQ, you live in an area under a hosepipe ban, you may be wondering how your plants are going to survive the drought. We're putting our own measures in place and we'd be interested to hear from anyone who has any other water-saving tips and strategies to share with us.

1. Concentrate on drought-resistant plants. It may be a little too soon to be thinking about a cactus garden, but plants that like a Mediterranean lifestyle won't mind a bit of drought. In our Secret Garden Club session next Sunday, we'll be looking at Mediterranean fruit and vegetables - such as aubergines, chillies, tomatoes, courgettes, grapevines and figs - and discussing ways to beat the drought. (Click here for booking details).

2. Mulching. Spreading a layer, either of organic material such as straw, or manure, or bark chips, or inorganic such as plastic sheeting, or gravel, is a great way to conserve the moisture already in the soil, since you greatly reduce or even eliminate water loss through evaporation.

3. Water plants in the evening: again there will be less loss due to evaporation than if you water during the heat of the day.

4. Use a watering can with a long nozzle rather than a rose and target the water precisely at the roots of the plant rather than splashing the leaves. That means more water goes where the plant can use it best.

5. Another way to ensure the roots get all the water is to cut the bottom off an empty 500ml plastic water bottle. Unscrew the cap and remove, then push the bottle, cap-end down, into the soil next to the plant. Fill up the inverted water bottle from your watering can and the water will be directed straight to the roots. This is an excellent way to water leafy plants like tomatoes, which do get thirsty in summer, and aubergines.

6. Install a water butt, if you don't already have one.

7. If you can, divert your 'grey' water: water from the bath or shower, from the washing up. The amount of detergent in a normal bath or shower won't be enough to harm your plants.

Thursday 5 April 2012

Notes on Med Veg

Mediterranean vegetables are my favourites, to the point that I'm sad to be British. I'm sorry but cabbages and turnips simply can't compare with shiny purple aubergines, scarlet tomatoes, taut crimson peppers and aromatic chillies. Paired with basil, bay, thyme and oregano, it's impossible to create a dull tasting dish.
I've not had alot of success growing aubergines and peppers in the past and I'm hoping Zia Mays can enlighten both me and the workshop participants. My tomatoes have always worked a treat though. Is there anything better than a home grown tomato?
It's going to be fun for me to create a light supper; I haven't made ratatouille in a while and will once again struggle with the big ratatouille debate which rages over continents: add tomatoes or not? I think a ratatouille shouldn't be too sloppy.
I may make pepperonata, red peppers slowly braised in onion and garlic. Bread will be needed to mop up the slick juices.
Baba ghanoush, a recipe from my book. Not too much tahini is the secret here. And properly sear the skins of the aubergines to get that smoky smell.
Or maybe a melanzana parmigiana...this takes a long time and I'm generally forced to consume a bottle of red during the making. Don't mind me if I'm pissed when you arrive.
I think we should start with a Bloody Mary but with a twist perhaps as a soup or a jelly?
Chocolate covered aubergine slices and candied chilli peppers for dessert possibly?
Shopping advice for buying tomatoes:
Buy tomatoes that feel heavy in your hand.
Store them carefully, in fact do not put them in the fridge, their flavour turns mealy.
Don't worry about funny shapes, do worry about soft spots.
Smell them! Good tomatoes should have that earthy, acidic, greenish smell.

Workshop and supper on April 15th £45. Starts at 2pm.
Book here: