Tuesday 25 June 2013

Fruits for summer

However big or small your outside space, growing a fruit bush or two will, with care, repay you year after year with delicious produce, all for rather less fuss and pampering than the inhabitants of the vegetable patch.

The simple joy of eating fruit straight from the tree (no scrubbing, or trimming of roots) never palls. Fruit also tends to be more popular with children (sugar snap peas excepted), so it’s easier to get them out and helping with the harvest.

The Secret Garden is situated on land which was an orchard before the houses were built, and is overlooked by very tall trees at the back of the gardens - pear trees, grown in the days before fruit trees were grafted and bred to grow smaller, making the fruit easier to reach. The pears that grow here are liable to go to waste unless they drop as windfalls – though we do get a lot of windfalls.

Types of fruit
You can broadly talk about two main kinds of fruit: tree fruit, such as apricots, cherries, and, later in the summer, peaches, plums, damsons, and greengage. Then, into autumn, we get apples, pears, and quinces.

Then there's cane and bush fruit, including berries: Strawberries, raspberries, black, red and whitecurrants, gooseberries, blackberries, blueberries. We're also going to include rhubarb here, even though it isn’t a fruit at all, since we eat it as though it were. In this post, we're concentrating on bush fruit, much of which is just beginning to ripen now.

Everyone should have a strawberry patch. They are easy to grow, they can be grown in a pot, and the strawberries your plants produce will be far superior to anything you buy in a supermarket. The ubiquitous Elsanta is stocked in shops because it will keep for a long time once picked, not for any reason to do with flavour or sweetness. 

You should be able to buy other more delicious varieties – Gariguette, perhaps, or Cambridge Favourite - to plant in the ground. However, strawberries send out runners, which when planted up will readily root to create a new strawberry plant. Ask around your gardening neighbours or at a local allotment and you may well find someone only too pleased to offload some plants from runners. You may get them in a pot, or as bare roots. If the latter, keep the roots moist and plant up as soon as possible.

If you’re growing in the open ground, find a nice sunny patch, dig it over and mix in some organic matter, plus if you like, some bonemeal – strawberries like that. Water the strawberry pants thoroughly about half an hour before you plant them out.

Dig a hole, drop the plant in, disturbing the roots as little as possible, fill in and water well to settle them.

Your main challenge with strawberries is to stop other beasties from eating them before you do. Slugs, snails, woodlice, ants and birds all love strawberries.

Keep slugs and snails at bay. My usual solution – using copper rings around plants – won’t work here as strawberries are naturally trailing plants. I’ve had good results using slug-resistant matting under the strawberry plants. Slug-resistant usually means the fabric has been impregnated with copper, which slugs and snails dislike as the metal reacts with their mucus and gives them a sort of electric shock. When using the matting, I lay this over the bed after digging over, then cut slits or small circular holes in the fabric and plant the strawberries through this.
Strawberry plants growing through copperised fabric to deter slugs and snails.
Woodlice and other creepy-crawlies will do much less damage if the ripening fruits are kept off the ground. This is one reason why planting strawberries in elevated troughs or bespoke planters – high-sided bins with openings up and down the sides to take the plants – is so popular. These also save space and will grow a decent crop of strawberries so long as you remember to keep the plants well-watered.

To ward off birds, you can try bird scarers – hanging CDs from a cane to produce a kind of flashing mobile effect is popular – but maybe the birds in my locality are particularly bold as this doesn’t seem to bother them, hardened urbanites as they are. The only reliable way I’ve found to keep them off is to net the crop as soon as the first fruits start to ripen. It’s bothersome, but better than having all your fruit eaten.

In a wet summer you may find some of your fruits develop grey-ish brown fur all over. This is a mould called botrytis, very common in strawberries and raspberries. Just eliminate affected fruits and leaves as soon as you can, and try to keep the plants tidy – removing brown and yellowing leaves promptly, not letting fruit trail in the dirt. Planting them spaced well apart helps too, since it means the air can circulate more efficiently around and between the plants.

You should move your strawberries and replenish the plants every 3-5 years or so. In the open ground, you can ‘walk’ them over to the next bed, by training the runners to settle in the new bed, fixing them with a peg to encourage them to root on that spot.

Alpine or wild strawberries

Less prolific than their bigger cousins, the tiny fruits from wild strawberries have an intense, honeyed flavour if you pick them when they're really ripe. Readily available from garden centres, these small plants, once established, will spread across semi-shaded parts of the garden, fruiting throughout the summer.

My other must-have soft fruit is blueberries. The plants are very attractive, with foliage that turns golden-red in autumn, and soft pinkish-white blossom in spring. They don’t need pruning, in fact they need very little special care apart from one vital requirement. Blueberries like acid soil; at least they hate lime. Here in London, the soil tends to be slightly acid, but it’s not acid enough for blueberries. So I always grow them in pots and fill the pots with ericaceous compost. This is compost formulated for lime-hating plants such as blueberries, cranberries, azaleas, rhododendrons, and others.

So, they’re good for a patio and good for where you only have pot space. Our Secret Garden blueberry plants are sunk into the ground – this is partly for aesthetic reasons and partly also because blueberries like to be kept very moist. They crop best in a wet summer and when growing anything in pots, it’s all too easy to let them dry out through evaporation. Sinking the pots helps keep them cool and moist as well.

I find blueberries practically pest-free, apart from the birds wanting to eat them even before they ripen. I have lost an entire crop of blueberries to birds while they were still green before now. These days, I grit my teeth and throw a net over the lot before the birds realise they are even there.

Blackcurrants, redcurrants, whitecurrants
Currants are another fruit high on my list, if only because they are difficult to find in the shops. Apparently the reason you can’t find blackcurrants is because 95% of the UK crop goes to make Ribena, but that doesn’t explain the dearth of the red or white variety. And they grow very happily in our climate, giving you long strings of fruit in July. Better in the open ground, than a pot though.

I find people either love or hate gooseberries. We love them at the Secret Garden Club and we’ll be planting gooseberry bushes later this year. The best time for planting is late autumn, in a sunny but not windy spot. We'll dig the ground over thoroughly beforehand, removing any weeds and roots, and we'll dig in some organic matter - manure, compost, leaf mould, before planting as well, to lighten up our clay soil.

There are two types of gooseberries: tart fruits which stay green when ripe and which really need to be cooked, and dessert gooseberries which ripen to a gorgeous maroon mahogany colour when ripe and are sweet. In practice, I find you can cook with these perfectly well too, so prefer to grow dessert gooseberries and get the best of both worlds.

They are fairly low maintenance: mulch around the base of the plants to keep them as weed-free as possible, and prune in the winter to tidy up the bushes and keep them open. They should reward you with fruit in June/July. Be careful when picking them because the bushes are very thorny. Needless to say the thorns don’t deter the birds and yes, it’s probably wise to net the bushes when the fruits start ripening. Gooseberry bushes tend to stay smallish and so rather than buying a specialist net and training it over a frame you may well get away with throwing an old net curtain over the plant.
Dessert gooseberries ripening under a protective net.

Another love it or hate it taste, and something of an interloper in this blogpost, since there is no way that the stalk of a large leafy perennial plant can be described as a fruit. But we mostly eat rhubarb as if it was a fruit. So we’ll include it as a guest.

Rhubarb is indestructible once you get it going. It’s one of the first of the new season veg to be ready – usually you can start cutting in April and you can make it come even earlier by forcing it. Forced rhubarb stems are a beautiful bright pink colour and more tender than the conventionally grown stalks that come later.

Forced rhubarb stems uncovered.
We’ll be forcing our Secret Garden crop next year. Rhubarb dies down overwinter and you need to wait until you see the first signs of new growth coming in January. Then cover the tiny shoots with an upturned bucket to exclude all light from the plant. Make sure any holes in the bucket are plugged – cover with straw – and put a weight like a half-brick on top as well as pegging the lip of the bucket to the soil to ensure it doesn’t blow away in the wind.

The stems will take around 4-6 weeks to shoot up in the dark, although this year in the prolonged cold they took nearer to three months. Once you’ve cut the forced stems, uncover the plant and let it rest – don’t cut that particular plant over spring and summer.

One other bit of rhubarb maintenance needed is to cut out any flowering stems – you want the plant to put its energy into producing leaf stalks, not flowers.

And bear in mind that the leaves and flowers on a rhubarb plant are poisonous. Only eat the stems.

I love raspberries but I wouldn’t include them as a must-grow plant for a few reasons: 1) they are an open ground plant and need space, not suitable for growing in pots; 2) once established they can be invasive and shoots will pop up in neighbouring beds and pretty much anywhere you don’t want them; 3) following on from (2) if you ever want to move your raspberry bed to somewhere else, tough, and 4) they can be temperamental and fail to establish in what appears to be perfectly suitable ground.

Having said all that, happy, established raspberry canes in the right spot will reliably give you fantastic fruits year after year. All they really need in the way of maintenance is to have the old canes cut down after fruiting, the new canes tied in during spring, and a good mulch in February or March.

There are some interesting new varieties available from specialist nurseries as well, if you fancy it, Try golden orange fruits, such as the autumn-fruiting Allgold. If you want something more unusual, try some of the other less well-known berries like loganberries, or the sweeter tayberries, both of which are blackberry x raspberry hybrids. 

Physalis (Cape gooseberries or Chinese lanterns)
Now these are a bit of a luxury since they take up space and need a nice long summer to ripen in enough numbers to make them worthwhile, but home-grown physalis are something of a revelation compared to the imported shop-bought fruits. Much tangier and fresher-tasting. 

Physalis will germinate very readily from seed from March onwards on a warm windowsill. Once they'll about the size of the seedlings pictured here you can transplant into bigger pots and then into a nice sunny spot in the open ground once there's no danger of any more frosts.

The fruit develops inside the lantern-shaped papery husks and should be ready for eating in September.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Menu for Summer Fruits, Summer drinks supper at the Secret Garden Workshop

I'm a berry addict which is no bad thing, since it was discovered that they were in fact, super foods. Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, black currants, red currants, white currants, elderberries, just to mention a few we grow on the British isles, but I envy Scandinavia with their larger range of berries: cloudberry, lingonberry, sea buckthorn berries... I like the combination of sweet and sour, gooseberries should be in season but sadly I haven't seen them around. Can we grow some gooseberries for next year, Zia Mays?
Visiting Jekka McVicar's #herbfest at the Queen Elizabeth hall last night, (do go and see her remarkable herb greenhouse and garden) I saw a copy of her book, which described how to grow your own berries by keeping the pips or seeds, teasing them out from the pulp, drying and planting them. There is a bizarre interesting debate on this Paleo diet site as to whether we should chew the seeds or not.
Zia will be showing guests how to grow berries and make summer drinks while I make the food.
Of late I've been interested in using fruits with savouries and vegetables with desserts. I'm going to play around with the former in this meal. Here a few ideas I've come up with which I'll serve this Sunday. As always, expect the unexpected at the Secret Garden Club.

Berry Spritzers

Strawberry and baby leaf salad with raspberry dressing. Strawberries are still quite acid, so should complement a savoury salad beautifully.

Roasted apricot and Danish blue cheese salad. Roasting apricots makes them gorgeously sour.

Stuffed pasta shells with pickled cherries. I like to add the piquancy of cold pickles to hot savoury dishes.

Summer pudding: a British summertime classic.

Forest fruits sorbet in blueberry soup, with grated chocolate: a sorbet made quickly in the Vitamix and paired with a very Scandi blueberry soup.

Wines from Winetrust100: a new wine club which asks three masters of wine to pick a range of 100 wines, the best for their price, from all over the world.

Book tickets here £30