Thursday 30 January 2014

Under the gooseberry bush

Ripe dessert gooseberries (Gooseberry 'Pax') ready for harvest.
We've planted three gooseberry bushes in the Secret Garden this winter, in a sunny sheltered bed down by the summerhouse. With the fig tree establishing itself against the summerhouse walls, it's a good spot for soft fruit: south-west facing, out of the main winds, and not exposed so it won't get the worst of the frosts.

We've planted a cooking variety, Invicta, which will ripen to a bright green and which are superb in tarts and crumbles. Gooseberries also make a remarkably good curd - see here for MsMarmiteLover's gooseberry curd recipe.

Some dessert varieties will ripen to a golden, or maroon colour, are much sweeter when ready to be picked and can be eaten straight from the bush. Cooking gooseberries are much tarter, even when ripe. They generally stay green (but then, so do some sweet varieties).

Gooseberry plants have vicious thorns and Invicta are also known for being particularly thorny - we'll wear gloves when picking, pruning, or hand-weeding them.

Gooseberries are pretty forgiving where soil is concerned - you can plant them in clay, or poor soil, so long as it is reasonably well-drained, but they do like the sun. Often you will buy them as bare-rooted, pruned, plants in winter - the best time to plant them is November/December, or early spring. Don't try to plant out your new gooseberries when the ground is frozen, or waterlogged. If your plants are delivered and the conditions aren't right, just pot them up in a pot big enough to take the roots comfortably and keep the pot somewhere sheltered and frost-free until they can go in the open ground.
Gooseberries potted up to be planted out when the ground is
neither waterlogged nor frosted.

To plant out, soak your bare-rooted plants for about half an hour beforehand in a bucket of water. (If your plants are potted up, water them well before planting out. Dig out a squarish hole where you want the gooseberries to go, and fork in some organic matter. Water thoroughly. Place the gooseberry plant gently in the hole and spread the roots out. The plant should sit comfortably so that the soil surface is just above the roots at the base of the stem - there will be a mark on the stem showing the original planting depth, and you should plant to the same level as this again. Fill the hole again with the displaced soil, firming it lightly as you go and holding the plant steady so that it remains upright. Mulch with some more organic matter and water again.
Gooseberries 'Invicta' planted out, with a little extra organic mulch around the base of each plant. 

If you have finches in your neighbourhood you might consider covering your trees with a net in winter: finches love the embryonic gooseberry buds as they develop. Otherwise, leave your bushes to settle in, watering them regularly until they are established.

Gooseberries fruit on two year old wood, so don't worry too much if you don't get a crop in your first year. The plants will flower in May here in London, although the flowers on many varieties are small and easily missed. The fruit will start to ripen in July, and now you should definitely consider a net unless you want the birds to help themselves to your crop.
Gooseberries ripening under a net to protect them from birds.

In a really good year when it looks as though you're going to have a glut, you can thin the unripe fruits out in May/June, leaving half to two-thirds of the crop to ripen on. If you have a dessert variety, the unripe fruits can be prepared as though they were cooking gooseberries, with the promise of the sweeter ripe fruit still to come. You get the best of both worlds.

Newly planted out in the open ground.

Friday 24 January 2014

Rhubarb - may the force be with us

Following our success with forcing chicory, we’ve turned our attention to our rhubarb crowns. Forcing rhubarb is a notable tradition in the UK, providing bright pink, tender stems to harvest at a time when there is little else to be dug out of the ground.

You may have heard of the ‘rhubarb triangle’ – not a place where rhubarb mysteriously vanishes, but rather an area in West Yorkshire bordered by Wakefield, Rothwell and Morley, where rhubarb is grown in special darkened, warmed sheds and forced to produce early stems between January and March for UK shops. Lit only by candlelight, the sheds house 1000s of rhubarb plants which send out long slender shoots in search of light. You can even take a Yorkshire rhubarb triangle tour, during which you can even hear the fast-growing forced plants popping if you listen closely. Forced rhubarb from this area of Yorkshire has been granted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Commission.

With our two young rhubarb plants, we won’t be forcing on quite the same scale, but the same principles apply. As with chicory, the process deprives the growing plants of all light. The resulting stems (rhubarb) or leaves (chicory) are pale and more tender, more delicately flavoured than those grown in the tough outdoors. The darkened plants will also grow faster, desperately hunting for light in order to photosynthesise and convert sunlight to energy.

The best time to start forcing rhubarb is when you can just see the first signs of new growth at the turn of the year. Up-end a large dark-coloured pot, or bucket, one that is big enough to accommodate the growing stems, over the whole rhubarb crown. Pin it down into the soil with pegs, so that a) there’s no danger of the bucket blowing away in a winter storm, or b) no light gets in between the edge of the bucket and the soil. Any drainage holes in the bottom of the pot must be blocked off to stop even those pinpricks of light from getting in. I usually cover them with stones or concrete slabs, which has the dual effect of blocking light and again weighting the pot down so it doesn’t blow away.

Try to do this during a spell of dryish weather so that the embryonic plant isn’t wet when you cover it with the pot. Also don’t cover the rhubarb when the ground is frozen or the covered plant will remain too cold. It’s also a good idea to give the plant a quick onceover for slugs, woodlice and the like.

You can now leave nature to take its course. Check the plant every couple of weeks for growth and in 4-6 weeks you should be cutting your own forced rhubarb. The forced stems are generally less fibrous and slimmer than ‘normal’ rhubarb stalks, and also a bright pink – the colour of Pepto-Bismol rather than the darker crimson of stems grown outside in summer.

The incipient leaves should be removed as these, like their outdoor grown counterparts, are poisonous. Then the forced stems can be used in cooking just as you would for any rhubarb – poached, in a fool, or as a savoury accompaniment to meat or fish. Or treat yourself to a classic rhubarb crumble with MsMarmiteLover's recipe

Wednesday 15 January 2014

Secret Garden Club in winter

It may be the middle of winter but there is plenty of life and colour in the Secret Garden, helped by the relatively mild weather (if not the persistent rain).

Clockwise from top left: the camellia tree is in bud, ready to burst into bright red flowers in February; Clematis sieboldii flowers are determined to continue throughout the winter; the cavolo nero (Tuscan kale) is thriving; winter jasmine provides a welcome splash of yellow against the ivy-clad fence; the oriental salad plant mizuna provides leaves for winter salads; violas brighten up the patio in their pots.

Elsewhere, we have primroses, spring bulbs are pushing spiky leaves above ground in every bed, and seedling lettuces and carrots are ready to put on growth as soon as the weather gets warmer to provide us with early crops.