Tuesday, January 31, 2012

End of month view: January

So here we are then, at the turn of another year; and so I took a look back at what things were like this time last year (one of the many benefits of following the End of Month View meme kindly hosted by Helen at The Patient Gardener).

This may become an annual event: I see that last year, the first time I did this, I was also comparing and contrasting, though on that occasion I was monitoring change over a mere three or four months; this time it's a whole year's worth.

I had thought I'd hardly achieved anything during the year - the frustration of competing and always, it seems, more urgent claims from small children, animals, work and the running of a somewhat chaotic household.

But from comparing these photos I discover things have actually, in some bits of the garden at least, changed quite a lot.

They say the longest journeys start with a single step. Perhaps I should just stop beating myself up about how little progress I've made towards the dream garden in my head; and start celebrating the fact that I've made any progress at all. Because as long as you make just a little progress every day, before you know it you've changed your little corner of the world more than you ever thought possible.

And besides, just think what I could achieve by January 2013!

The Vegetable Garden:

This time last year it looked like this...

And now....

Actually I'm rather regretting having taken this picture so far back: the shot I took last year is taken standing just behind the far tree in this picture. I cannot believe that just a year ago I was looking at bare ground here.

In just a single year I have dug over all that scrubby-looking grass and turned it into an incredibly productive vegetable patch that has fed my family almost completely: I have only had to start buying veg from the shops this month for the first time since last March, and that's only because I didn't get around to planting my kale out early enough.

The patch of black-polythene-covered veg patch you can see in the distance (the whole of the 2011 picture) is about 80ft of veg garden; the grassy bit in the foreground is the bit I'm going to expand into this year, I hope. I've just got a greenhouse to move, then I can start the same old routine of cutting back hedges, putting in rabbit fencing and opening up the ground. Can't wait.

The Fruit Garden:

In 2011:

 ..and now:

Not a lot of change here, then, apart from a lot more grass (and some optimistic scaffold boards). But there is much planning afoot in the background and I'm just about to start work on this bit too: in fact this week should see me cutting back those hedges and covering the grass with black plastic ahead of a serious bit of fruit cage construction and path layout. If you want to know the details: there's more on t'other blog.

The Herb Garden:

in 2011:

and now:

This is one of the areas I've been working really hard on, though there's not anything too spectacular to show for it yet: I find when you're developing gardens that things tend to get a whole lot worse before they start looking better.

This rocky bed is slowly being transformed into a herb garden, and this year it's been comprehensively cleared. I've dug out two out of the three grandma roses planted incongruously and entirely pointlessly in the middle of the equally pointless lawn at the top of the slope: this lawn also has its days numbered, as in April I'm planning on replacing it with chamomile.

The big hairy fuchsia bush in the top picture is long gone, as are about four large stumps (crowbar and fencer's graft and a lot of sweat) a skip load of Anemone x japonica 'Honorine Jobert' (sounds like vandalism but, believe me, this was invasive beyond the call of duty - and besides, I've kept one small clump at the far end for digging up and moving somewhere it can be better behaved).

So all in all the whole thing looks a great deal tidier, if rather empty at the moment. But I am stewing up the plant order to end all plant orders this spring as I will be packing this space with every kind of herb you can think of: hundreds of them, in the most wonderful planting fest. It's going to make my year.

The Pot-Pourri Garden:

in 2011:

and now:

This is another area that has required an awful lot of clearing before I can do anything with it. I've still only got around halfway around the circle - around as far as that big bush in the background (it's a Philadelphus and I am in a dilemma about it: it looks rather lovely in the summer as it's an 'Aureus' with pretty golden foliage, but appearances are deceptive as it's previously outgrown its welcome at some stage and been hacked down to a stump which has then regrown. It looks very, very ugly at this time of year and I can't help wanting it out: but it's so nice in the summer.... ack. Cannot decide.)

This bit was actually one of the nicest areas of the garden last summer as I filled it with annuals - cosmos, nicotiana and marigolds mostly - so it was exuberant with colour. Now it's filling up with bulbs: I have planted half of my 200 tulips in here, although rather worryingly there's no sign of them yet and I'm fretting about mouse attack. We'll find out in a month or two, I suppose....

The Tropical Garden:

in 2011:

and now:

Still feeling a bit of a fraud (and slightly silly) calling this a tropical garden as it looks anything but tropical in January frosts. But though you can't quite make it out unless you know what you're looking at, there's a small loquat tree establishing itself in front of the bank, and a Pawlonia getting its feet down a little further along.

There are also major earthworks going on here: I've dug out the border in front of the path, partly so I could plant the other half of my 200 tulip bulbs and partly so I had somewhere to put all the wonderful things I want to grow here this year. I have gingers and yacon and lots and lots of taro root (that's Colocasia esculenta to you, mate) as well as non-edibles like Geranium maderense and cycads. I'm also going to experiment here with growing large-leaved things that aren't really tropical but look it: so we're talking squashes and courgettes and pumpkins and rhubarb. And maybe some Cavolo Nero kale.

Another area where the plans are racing ahead of the actual work, then....

The Hill:

in 2011:

and now:

The one bit of the garden that's looking, if anything, scruffier than it did last year (though can you see how well the snowdrops have spread? Nothing to do with me, honest guv).

Not so much as a slight shuffle towards the nuttery I hope this will become one day. It's the far end of the garden, so I reckon will probably be the last to get the treatment. In my defence, though, I have been doing a lot of work on the hedge, or rather the hazels perched precariously on top of the vertiginous bank here (as was I, pruning saw in hand, while hacking away at them):

Just to give you an idea of how high this is, my head reaches up to that first patch of leaves on the right.

The grass has carried on growing on the hill right through autumn into early winter thanks to all that warm weather, and it's been so wet we haven't got the mower anywhere near it. So in a sudden flash of inspiration brought on by my dilemma over what to do about my sheep who have run out of grass in the field where they're currently living, I put the two together and have decided that this is going to become a sheep paddock for the next month or two.

Sheep = mobile lawnmowers = job done. Plus I get well-fed sheep and a lot of natural fertiliser too. I may have to fence off those snowdrops though...

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bagging my salad list

Gone are the days when we were satisfied with a limp lettuce leaf or two plonked on the plate.

Love them or loathe them, bagged supermarket salads have opened our eyes: we now know the delights of a salad full of colour and texture, with not only lettuces but also herbs, and a range of flavours from mild and sweet to spicy, peppery or bitter.

One of the many reasons I leapt at the chance to join VP's 52-week Salad Challenge is that I've never quite managed to organise things so that I have a good mix of salad ingredients to pick at any one time.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised I was looking for my perfect, home-grown supermarket bagged salad. Without the bags, without the chemicals, and without the carbon footprint.

But more than the environmental benefits, I want it to be more interesting than the actual ones you buy from the supermarket; more personalised than the salad seed mixes you can buy from the seed companies. One made just for me.

One problem: deciding what to grow. Well - where better to start compiling a shopping list than the ingredients list on that bag of supermarket salad currently languishing in the drawer at the bottom of the fridge.

At the moment, mine is a standard issue Florette Mixed (I like Florette as it’s one of the few brands which states where the ingredients are sourced – and that’s the UK, and Lincolnshire in particular, all year round, it seems. Why others are so coy about where their salads are from I've no idea. Could it be they're shipping it in from halfway around the world even though we can grow it here?)

Ingredients: Frisée lettuce (we know this as curly endive: it has a pleasantly bitter tang, and needs blanching), iceberg lettuce and radicchio which adds a splash of burgundy to the green. Right: that’s three on this list, although last time I tried to grow iceberg it refused to heart up.

Florette's Crispy adds lambs' lettuce to the list but omits the Iceberg. We buy both, can't remember which I prefer (maybe that should tell me something, though).

From the rest of their range I like the sound of 'Four Leaf Salad': that's Lettuce 'Can Can' (frilly, green, new one on me but widely available), lambs' lettuce, red butterhead (this one from T&M looks really good) and something they refer to as 'red multileaf' – I'm taking that to be a mix of red lettuce such as Lollo Rossa.

Let's try Essential Waitrose mixed salad: green Batavia, Apollo lettuce, red oak leaf and Lollo Rossa. Red oak leaf and Lollo Rossa are old friends and I’ll be glad to give them house room again. Batavia turns out to be another frilly-leaf lettuce type; and I think Apollo is only grown for commercial use as I can’t find it offered to gardeners. It’s a Romaine lettuce – a type I like anyway, so I’ll just have to find a substitute.

So far... so everyday though. I'm not really looking to grow a wide range of lettuces. I'm after something a bit more interesting. I'm after some herbs in my salads. And maybe some peppery zing.

Waitrose baby leaf herb salad mix: very vague about the lettuce content, but adds baby spinach, rocket, flat-leaf parsley and chives (interestingly, the mix states the proportions of salad leaves to herbs: it’s 78% salad leaves to 22% herbs. So a handful of herbs to every four of lettuce-type leaves then).

Other interesting bits from the Waitrose range include their Tenderleaf Salad: lamb's lettuce, pea tops and chard.

I had a hunt through other ranges, most of which we've tried at some point: Sainsbury's Herb Salad is Lollo Rossa, Cos lettuce, rocket, coriander and parsley (again with that 80/20 ratio of lettuce to herbs).

Then there's Steve's Leaves: relatively new in town but with a good and improving environmental policy. Pea Shoots and Baby Leaves is a 40/60 mix of pea shoots, and baby spinach and chard. Other mixes in the range include wasabi (now that should be interesting), and watercress.

But you know what? I think we can do better than all that.

I want to try some heritage lettuces, with their quirky flavours and splashed or ruched leaves. I want to throw in some oriental leaves: mizuna, peppery red mustard, maybe chrysanthemum greens. And oddities like samphire and New Zealand spinach.

I shall report back via these pages. Should be an interesting year!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Watch the birdie

Pinecones (left) and terracotta pot (right)
Happy (cleaned-up) child (centre)
Our annual transmogrification into a nation of twitchers happens this Saturday and Sunday: it's the Big Garden Birdwatch, organised by the RSPB and just getting bigger... and bigger.

In fact, for over 30 years it's been the barometer of change, charting the effect of modern life on our most vulnerable garden friends.

Last year broke all the records again: over 600,000 people took part and spent an hour freezing their... ahem, noses off for an hour (remember the weather?) recording the birds which visited there.

This year, with a bit of luck, it'll all be a bit more balmy and as long as the rain stays off we'll have a much nicer time. I'm busy playing with some ponies on Saturday but am hoping to join in on Sunday.

Our triple-pinecone extravaganza
in all its gloopy glory
Our garden is these days surrounded by proper old-fashioned hedgerows on all sides - five-star habitat for birds - so I'm hoping that we'll be busy (a lot busier than the first time I tried it, anyway - that was a few years ago now but we were living in built-up Surrey suburbia at the time, the frost was thick on the ground and I nearly got hypothermia for the sake of one measly starling).

The RSPB encourages you to tempt the birds into your garden with lots of irresistible bird feed, baths and such like. And this gave me an idea.

I help out from time to time at the local youth club, which involves coming up with activities which the children might enjoy. So last week, we made bird feeders.

This has it all for kids: it's wondrously messy, so simple even the littlies could join in, and dead cheap (we made around 20 bird feeders for all of four quid). So this week, set aside a little time with the small people in your life, suspend your misgivings where grease combined with birdfeed and your kitchen surfaces are concerned, and get stuck in for the best Birdwatch ever.

You will need:
- a block of lard, at room temperature: we found that a third of a one pound block of lard was enough to do each bird feeder
- bird seed: around two 1kg bags did our 20 feeders with some left over
- assorted containers. We used:
  • small logs, no more than 10cm (4") diameter, hollowed out with a Forstener bit (that's a bit of a techie thing which will I hope mean something to blokes: the hubster told me how to spell it and I have absolutely no idea what he was on about)
  • pine cones (opened): ours were rather small, so we tied them into bunches of three, but if you've got larger cones they can be used singly
  • small terracotta plant pots
  • yoghurt pots
- string and scissors
- bowls
- plastic bags
- washing up liquid, for clearing up

1) Take your lard and with your hands, mush it up. This is a child's idea of heaven and an adult's idea of hell. But a messy child is a happy child, so take comfort in that expression of unbridled glee.
2) Tip a handful of birdseed into a bowl, and then mash the lard into it, mixing lard and birdseed well in together in a lovely greasy mushy splodge.
3) Adults, while this is happening, can be tying bits of string to whatever you're going to make the bird feeder out of. We found a few techniques which worked:
  • the logs needed a U-bend staple banged into the top: the 11-year-old boys took to this like ducks to water and at last found a youth club activity they could relate to. Loop the string through and you're done.
  • pine cones: put the pinecone upside down and loop the string around the fat end, weaving it under the open segments wherever possible.
  • terracotta plant pots: just poke the string through the drainage hole and tie in a loop over the top: the pot then hangs on its side (easy for birds to access)
  • yoghurt pots: poke a hole in the bottom (or in the side, if you want it to hang horizontally) and thread the string through. Then get a matchstick and tie the end of the string that's inside the pot around it. When you pull the string tight to hang the bird feeder, the matchstick holds it nicely in place.
4) Fill your bird feeder with the lard-and-birdseed mash. With pinecones, you'll need to work it into the cracks between the open segments: once you've finished it looks like a ball. The holes in the logs worked beautifully, filled to the brim with mush: yoghurt pots and plant pots were simplicity itself to fill. Cram as much in as possible and smooth it off.
5) Place your completed bird feeder on a plastic bag in the fridge for the lard to harden again.
6) Then hang from your chosen tree, get out your RSPB identification chart, sit back and enjoy your annual hour's birdwatching.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Big Seed Giveaway

Anyone want some seeds?

One of my new resolutions for this year is to get stricter with the number of seeds I sow. No - really. I will.

(At this point, probably best not to mention the fat envelope full of little packets of RHS seeds I found while clearing out which are just so mouthwateringly gorgeous I can't bear to let them go).

The thing is that every March I pull out the old floppy disc* box I use for keeping my seed packets in, and rifle through the section labelled - rather conventionally - 'March'.

This is where I stuff all the packets of seed I acquire during the year, just as somewhere to put them, really. Result: far too many seeds. And I mean far too many: this year I counted around 60 packets I know for sure I will not have time, space or if I'm honest inclination to grow.

No point in keeping all these spare seed packets: but what to do? They're all within date - some with 'sow-by' dates this year but most longer than that - and it seems such a waste just to chuck them out. Nearly all are pristine and unopened: some have lost their outer packets and therefore instructions, but I still know (because I've written it on the inner foil packets) the variety and sow-by date.

My usual fallback is to offload them at a seed swap, but I'm not planning to go to one this year: last year's was great but it was a bit of a hike, being in Wiltshire, and I haven't found one near enough to go to around here (yet). And besides, I've already got quite enough seed to sow to be getting on with for this year and - see resolution above - I really, honestly, truthfully don't need any more.

So I thought I'd just... well... give them away, in my own sort of seed swap without the swap bit.

Therefore, I hereby announce, in its inaugural year of what I suspect may become an annual event...

The CG Big Seed Giveaway for 2012
(rules (not many, I hope) follow the list)

(I'm having to be a bit coy about the exact varieties in some cases, so where I've only listed the name + colour, email me if you want the full details (see below))

Poppy (Papaver laciniatum) (pink) (2 packets available) - both taken
Hollyhock (two-tone mix) - taken
Godetia (pink) - taken
Foxglove (pink)
Foxglove (white with purple dots) - taken
Foxglove (compact, pink) - taken
Calendula (single, yellow)
Coreopsis grandiflora - taken
Antirrhinum dwarf mix
Phlox (mauve mix) - taken
Zinnia (striped mix) - taken
Californian poppy (double, mix) - taken
Salpiglossis (wine-red)
Cornflower (pink & white mix) - taken
Petunia (pink and white mix) - taken
Wildflower mix (for bees) - taken
Gaillardia (butter yellow) - taken

Courgette (yellow variety) (2 packets available) - both taken
Chilli pepper 'Hot Cayenne' - taken
Chilli pepper (medium hot, red) - taken
Brussels sprout 'Evesham Special' - taken
Carrot (yellow variety) - taken
Carrot (white variety) - taken
Cabbage (green coleslaw type, autumn/winter variety) - taken
Cauliflower 'Aalsmeer' - taken
Tomato 'Moneymaker' - taken
Tomato (patio variety, cherry) - taken
Onion 'Long Red Florence' - taken
Onion 'Ailsa Craig' - taken

Seeds saved by me (NB I am a little erratic on the seed-saving side so viability can't be guaranteed, though it's quite likely: all the following are heritage varieties)

Martock beans (9 packets) - 3 taken
Squash 'Potimarron' (9 packets) - 6 taken
Climbing French bean 'George's' (9 packets) - 4 taken

Opened packets (still with plenty of seed in):
Cabbage 'Ruby Ball' - taken
Beetroot 'Chioggia' - taken
Bronze fennel - taken
Artichoke 'Purple Globe' - taken
Runner beans (no variety given as this was a seed swap acquisition) - taken

How to claim your free seeds:
- comment below giving the names of the seeds you want (if you have any questions about how this works, do just ask. Ditto re more information on any of the named varieties above - most of those named can be found on the interweb if you google)
- then send an email to sally dot nex at btinternet dot com confirming your request
- I'll send you an email back giving you my address
- send an SAE to me and I'll put the seeds in the envelope and post it back to you
- I'll update this post regularly giving details of what's gone and what's left
- the giveaway will last for a week, until 27 January: since this post will go wandering off down the blog, follow me on Twitter (@sallynex) for updates
- if you enjoy growing your seeds, please blog about them later in the year if you can!

- no more than 10 packets of seed and no more than one packet of the same variety per person.
- after the week is up, I'll divvy up the remainder between those who have said they want more than 10 packets, so do indicate if you'd like to be part of this.
- first to place their order in the comments below gets the seed
- sorry but the offer is only open to UK respondents, otherwise I'll get clobbered by customs and those nice people who try to stop nasty diseases crossing borders on the backs of foreign seeds

*remember floppy discs? Mine were 3 1/2" and made a whirring noise when you put them in the computer: they seemed the ultimate in hi-techery at the time. The only thing I couldn't quite work out was why they were called floppy when they were so... well... un-floppy. All in all it was quite a relief when CDs and memory sticks came along and relieved me of having to think about it any more.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Wordless Wednesday: January rose

(with credit to the hubster, who takes a mean photograph)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

January flowers

And now for probably the most peculiar January Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day post I shall ever write (I hope).

As all British gardeners are acutely aware, this has not been our usual chilly frost-bitten winter in Blighty. Normally we're just about poking around for the first nubs of snowdrops and crocuses edging warily through the earth to see if it's spring yet (it isn't).

We have our greenhouse heaters going at full blast, we have several layers on just to crunch up the drive (trying not to slip embarrassingly onto our backside in the process) the sun hasn't been seen since late October and we're generally a bit on the grumpy side.

We don't - generally speaking, and last year (and the north) excepted - even have any snow to make us feel all this misery has been worth it: it's usually alternating between cold and sodden, cold and frozen, cold and windy and drizzle (cold).

Not so the winter of 2011/12. We've been struggling to fall below double-digit temperatures at night: by day it's positively balmy. My garden is full of snowdrops: the crocuses are edging into flower. The roses and nasturtiums haven't stopped since September: even my Nicotiana mutabilis were still going strong until the first hard frost of the year struck just two days ago, on 13 January. Yes, you read right: the first frost of the year. I have never, ever had it frost-free for so long.

I am rewarded by more blooms in my garden than I have ever had before in January: the winter flowerers are overlapping with the spring flowerers and some of the summer flowerers which have refused to go to bed. Part of me loves it and is revelling in the spectacle, to say nothing of the warmth and the spring-like sunshine. And part of me is filled with dread at the havoc this will play when the true spring begins. Will we even have one, I wonder?

 Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

 Alpine strawberry 'Baron von Solemacher'

 Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)

 Skimmia japonica 'Rubella'

 Rose: one of several we refer to as our 'grandma roses'

 Pelargoniums still flowering in the terracotta pots on the patio

 A host of golden daffodils on the hill

 Even the lawn has daisies already...

 And this hydrangea has forgotten to stop flowering

 Leucojum vernum

 Mahonia x media


Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'

PS by way of a reminder of how very odd all this is: I stumbled across this picture today, taken of our garden almost exactly a year ago.

Thanks go as always to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers Bloom Day!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Have you seen this gooseberry?

I love a good urban myth. A good rural myth is even better.

There is a gooseberry known as the Flintshire gooseberry. It is, rumour has it, a prolific cropper: it was born and bred in north-east Wales, around the Wrexham area, and if you ask anyone around there who knows fruit, they'll mention it with pride as their local gooseberry.

The trouble is, it may not even exist.

One man has been looking for this gooseberry, quite hard, since 2003, and still hasn't found it. He's Simon Farr, who runs the North East Wales Orchards Initiative, currently surveying and reviving ancient orchards in north-east Wales and neighbouring counties in England. Now even he admits he's beginning to wonder if it's a myth.

'We've gone through the old catalogues and looked in all sorts of places to find it,' he told me,' and there's not even a description.'

His orchards survey already has one high-profile success story when it comes to finding obscure fruit: the Denbigh Plum, first mentioned in 1785 and believed to be the only surviving native Welsh plum, was almost extinct a few years ago. Then its plight was highlighted by the project, and caught the attention of a chap called Ian Sturrock.

Ian has a good pedigree on saving rare fruit: he's responsible for rescuing the Bardsey Apple, the last tree of which was found growing on an island off the north coast of Wales. Much grafting later and you can even buy one to grow in your garden; and so it is with the Denbigh Plum. In fact so complete is this fruit's return from obscurity that it now has its own festival.

Not so the Flintshire gooseberry, though. Simon says almost everyone in the area can tell you about it: if it is a myth, it's certainly a persistent one. Some even remember having a Flintshire gooseberry in their gardens, or their parents' gardens. What's worse, all they can tell you is that it was a prolific cropper: no word about what it looked like, or even if it was a green or a purple variety.

Simon thinks it might just be a chance seedling from a wild gooseberry, found commonly in the hedgerows here: they're also reported growing further afield, too, in the Lake District and Northumberland.

Wild gooseberries are small, the size of marbles (the Plants for a Future database has them at 1cm diameter), and also rather hairy and can be sharp to the taste (though if you can find the plum red ones, they're much sweeter – if you beat the wasps to it).

There's a fair bit of debate over whether these hedgerow gooseberries are truly wild, or just garden escapees. There's no particular reason why Ribes uva-crispa shouldn't be a wilding: it grows perfectly well in most temperate woodland settings, and there's a long and honourable tradition of wild gooseberries in America, though they're different species: there's Ribes oxyacanthoides, the bristly wild gooseberry; R. cynosbati, the prickly gooseberry; and with no small relief R. hirtellum, which is merely a bit hairy.

And there is a wealth of common names for gooseberries – 26 of them, grossetts, feaberries, goosegogs... – which hints at a long history. They've been eaten since the 13th century and grown in gardens since the 16th century, although it was (isn't it always) the Victorians who really shook things up in the gooseberry world by breeding many of the best-loved varieties we grow today.

But those who argue that the hedgerow plants are from the garden point out that they weren't recorded in the wild till 1763 – long after it was grown in cultivation. And there's an argument that they aren't British native plants after all: the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) certainly takes this view, pointing out that the spread of the wild gooseberry has happened since they became popular in gardens. But you can always argue the toss on native status, especially in this case.

Anyway, back to the Flintshire gooseberry: poor Simon is still on the hunt for it, and regularly follows up leads such as the old market gardens in Rhyll said to have a healthy population of Flintshire gooseberries which turned out to be a fine but nonetheless inescapably English collection of old varieties.

So have you seen this gooseberry? If you think you might have it growing in your garden – the North East Wales Orchard Initiative would like to hear from you.

Monday, January 09, 2012

A walk on the wild side: Gorse

Ulex europaeus catching my eye in the morning sunlight
'It's just the sort of place,' he explained, 'for an Ambush.'
'What sort of bush?' whispered Pooh to Piglet. 'A gorse-bush?'
'My Dear Pooh,' said Owl in his superior way. 'Don't you know what an Ambush is?'
'Owl,' said Piglet, looking round at him severely. 'Pooh's whisper was a perfectly private whisper and there was no need - '
'An Ambush,' said Owl,' is a sort of Surprise.'
'So is a gorse-bush sometimes,' said Pooh.

Gorse is not a much-loved plant.

It is unremittingly prickly. In fact it has become a byword for all that is prickly in life. Winnie the Pooh's wariness on the subject of gorse-bushes came from a close encounter with one after his experiment with the bees failed spectacularly. And whenever the Famous Five needed a really good hiding place, there was always a handy gorse bush around (mysteriously and perhaps a little conveniently always hollow on the inside).

But for the last month my eye has been irresistibly caught every day as I walk the dogs by a vivid flash of yellow in the hedgerow. It stops you in your tracks: the only bright colour in a winter landscape of sepia brown and green.

I think it must have blown in from Exmoor, 40 miles to the west, as we're on a relatively gentle hillside of hazel hedgerows and sleepy sheep and it's the only gorse bush for miles.

West Country names belie a relationship between man and gorse bush as old as the hills it grows on. Another common name for the plant is furze, and place names like Furzey Island off the Dorset coast, Furzey Gardens in the New Forest, and the names of numerous farms, roads and houses reveal the plant's long history here (Furzey is also a common local surname in Somerset).

It was once almost indispensable. The fierce burning properties of gorse made it perfect fuel for fires hot enough to bake bricks: you're well advised not to grow gorse close to a house as it's prone to spontaneous combustion in a prolonged drought.

People made it into fearsome besom brooms to sweep chimneys and hung their clothes out to dry on it as it held them in place better than any clothes peg. It is a good strong dye, the flowers turning cloth yellow or green and the bark a smokey darker green, it's a medicine for jaundice, kidney stones and scarlet fever, and the flower buds make good caper substitutes. The flowers are edible and can be used in salads, steeped in boiling water for a tea, or turned into wine (recipe here: the Vikings are rumoured to have brewed a gorse beer, which may explain their generally atrocious behaviour).

It was also much used to keep witches away: the common confusion between gorse and broom comes from its ancient use as a broom to sweep curses and hexes away from the door of the house.

There are three native gorses: U. europaeus, U. gallii (found, as the name suggests, on Welsh mountainsides, and smaller than the common gorse); and U. minor, almost prostrate, flowering in autumn and found mainly in the New Forest. Gorse flowering alongside heather in great swathes across the moorlands is probably one of the most breathtaking of Britain's natural spectacles.

But - bright yellow splashes in hedgerows aside – it's not something you'd have in your garden, surely.

Well I'd just like to make a little plea for this old friend. If you have a coastal garden, or one where the soil is really, really poor, there are few plants which will thrive better. It makes a dense and thorough windbreak: and it'll keep any amount of burglars out.

And it is just wonderful for wildlife, particularly bees. As well as the main flourish in winter and early spring, it produces a few flowers sporadically all year round ('When gorse is out of blossom, kissing's out of fashion', the old saying goes), which bumblebees find irresistible. The flowers, incidentally, are as explosive as the seedpods: they go off like a cannon the moment the bee clambers on, pasting the poor insect with pollen.

There are cultivated forms: U. gallii 'Mizen' is prostrate and tiny, growing to just 30cm x 30cm, and there was once a useful-sounding U. europaeus 'Strictus' (sometimes 'Fastigiatus') which makes for a good low hedge, though it's no longer listed, sadly.

More commonly-found is Ulex europaeus 'Plenus' or sometimes 'Flore Pleno', compact and double and recommended by Christopher Lloyd who calls it 'a fine sight in spring' and says it has coconut-scented blooms (he's less keen on gorse when it comes to propagating the stuff: 'a painful operation best left to the nurseryman', he says).

Friday, January 06, 2012

La vraie echalote

'Hative de Niort' shallots
Well. Just when you thought you were starting to know quite a lot, you realise you don't know a damn thing at at all.

I've been growing shallots for many years now. I like their ability to store for – well, pretty indefinitely, which makes them a good follow-on once the main crop of onions is over. And there's something rather pleasing about watching them grow and magically spread into that open palm of multiple bulbs.

But I've never been able to get that thing the chefs go on about – the whole shallot flavour thing. Some particularly picky chefs refuse to use anything else. All the shallots I'd grown were distinctly oniony: nothing to choose, in fact, between them and my regular onions.

Until... I grew French shallots.

'Hative de Niort' was the one that opened my eyes. I can't remember where I came across them: I was probably on the hunt for my more usual 'Golden Gourmet' or 'Red Sun'.

I have a weakness for any French vegetables as they are invariably exceptionally good to eat. Think 'Vitelotte' potatoes; 'Charentais' melons; 'Chantenay' carrots. Sometimes they're trickier to grow: but that's only because for the French taste is everything and if you can't grow it, well tant pis. And all the better for that, I say (though I defy anyone to produce a 'Marmande' beefsteak tomato with more edible flesh than blemishes).

Back to shallots, 'Hative de Niort' were a revelation. Such plumpness. Such flavour. By far, in fact by a country mile the best shallots I have ever, ever grown. And the flavour was everything they said a shallot should be: mild, subtle, definitely different from onions. Ah. So this is what they were on about.

I graduated from 'Hative de Niort' to 'Echalote Grise', which is just French for Grey Shallot. Doesn't sound very enticing, until you grow the actual shallot: again, plump, with a smoky sheen to the skin, richly flavoured and so silkily beautiful that other shallots simply curl up in embarrassment alongside.

Now I discover from my new favourite gardening blog, 'Au Potager' (written in English by an American garden writer from Indianapolis living in Paris and Normandy.... oh, do keep up) that there's a reason for this head-and-shoulders superiority.

And that reason is that until now, I haven't been growing shallots at all.

You see, the French shallot grows differently. If you buy a packet of shallot seeds, at least according to French growers, you aren't buying shallots at all.

(Don't mention this to the Dutch, who by and large are responsible for the seed-grown varieties. Though they are also behind standard-issue bargain-basement supermarket tomatoes, so that says it all, really).

I confess I've never gone to the trouble of growing shallots from seed: far too lazy when sets are available. But of course 'shallot' sets like the best-selling 'Golden Gourmet' are technically seed-raised.
And what about exhibition shallot growers, who make a point of raising their shallots from seed – longer growing season, better selection of varieties and less tendency to bolt, so you're more likely to end up with perfect shallots for sweeping the board at the village horticultural show. Except they aren't shallots.

L'échalote traditionnelle, or true shallot, however, propagates itself vegetatively, and – get this – doesn't ever set seed. And the flavour is therefore fully developed, rich, elegant, vastly superior.

Seed-grown shallots, on the other hand, are just mini-onions, with the same sharp taste. So that explains my disappointing 'Golden Gourmets' then. And you've got to ask yourself what is the point of that.

To tell the difference, look for the scar on the root plate: French shallots have a small flat rootless area where the offset came away from the parent. Also traditional shallots have two central cores when you cut the bulb open: seed-raised have just one.

So the hunt begins for as many French échalote traditionelle varieties as I can find. It's a short list:

Echalote Grise: said to have superior flavour even by French standards. I think 'Griselle' is the same thing
Hative de Niort: fatter, flatter bulbs: super, duper flavour
Jermor, Longor: recently-bred in France and 'Jersey' long types: inferior to the above but still good

If anyone else has found other varieties for me to try, do let me know.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Garden words: The January Review

Amy Stewart

There are some books that just make you go 'Well. I never knew that.' And then there are books which make you say it over and over again, to the point where you start bringing up random facts in conversation with friends and family, just to get them out of your head, and when those facts happen to be about small and often fearsome things with a lot of legs your friends and family quickly start looking at you a teensy bit oddly.

Did you know, for example, that British diplomat Charles Stoddart was condemned to spend four years being eaten alive by blood-sucking assassin bugs while held captive in an Uzbek bug pit in the mid-19th century?

Or that there is a caterpillar in south America so venomous that if you happen to tread on them barefoot you suffer massive internal bleeding and organ failure? Or that the crew who sailed to America with Christopher Columbus were driven so mad by the chigoe flea, which buries itself under a toenail and lives out its life there, that they cut off their own toes to get rid of it?

Nope, nor me.

You will have guessed by now that 'Wicked Bugs' isn't, strictly speaking, a gardening book, but since we gardeners spend such a lot of our time either encouraging in 'good' bugs (ladybirds, lacewings, hoverflies) or murdering 'bad' ones (aphids, caterpillars, whitefly, slugs: the list goes on... and on...) then a book about them can only be endlessly fascinating.

There is a section on garden pests which is... well... almost as interesting as the ones about sailors and armies (did you know some used to throw clay pots full of scorpions at advancing Roman troops, circa 200AD, by the way?) though it does suffer a little from a sudden outbreak of advice-giving. I did think the bit about aphids was horrifying though: apparently one female aphid is born already containing within her the beginnings of a 'daughter' who is herself already pregnant with a third generation. Wow. That explains a lot.

Others, though, like the terrifyingly efficient Colorado potato beetle, are given a section all their own, so dreadful are they. The Germans thought the US Army was waging biological warfare by dropping Colorado beetles on their heads from planes during the Second World War, you know.

And so Amy Stewart gambols on through tales and titbits so surprising, arresting and downright gut-churning that I have been glued to this book ever since I started on page one. I love her obvious delight in her subject and her ability to tell a good yarn; she has a talent for winkling out little snippets of unfeasibly extraordinary information and using it to grab you by the ears. I just wish I knew how she finds out this stuff.

Little niggles: this is an unremittingly American book, to which you have to adjust yourself and stop chuntering about early on. Sometimes that's a good thing: I've always loved the American ability to find an original turn of phrase (no clichés here).
But there's a general assumption that the reader's attention is wandering off all the time (surely impossible given the content of almost every page), so we've got silly little 'pull-quote' things repeating choice bits of a paragraph in a larger type, presumably to titivate the reader but which end up interrupting the flow. I trained myself to ignore them.

Otherwise, though, the book is a gorgeous little thing: I loved its styling as a battered field notebook, and the line drawings and etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribbs are simply exquisite and a master touch.

Amy already has a more plant-oriented book out, 'Wicked Plants', all about poisonous plants, and it's now on my must-have list. Incidentally. you can read a bit more about the book in Amy's own words on the BBC Gardening blog.
Related Posts with Thumbnails