Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden - Chinese proverb

Friday, 29 August 2014

Portland Inspiration: Raindrops on Rhone Street

If the embedded video doesn't work, you can view it here (opens in a new window).

One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Portland was to find out more about their pioneering rain gardens I'd heard about on Nigel Dunnet's study day a few years ago.

I didn't dream I'd actually get to see a rain garden in action. The high 90s weather we had on our visit broke on the final day to give us some much needed respite from the heat. Luckily the thunderstorm delivered itself in 15-30 minute chunks with long pauses in between, so we still had plenty of time to explore the gardens on our itinerary.

The exception was when the storm first broke whilst we were visiting Fling organiser Scott at his Rhone Street Gardens. Here's Scott and Galloping Gardener Charlotte taking refuge from the rain. They're the people you can hear talking in the above video.*

As you can see, Scott has woven a lush garden around his property, which also nicely screens the barrels fed by the rain chains. I think the chains he's chosen are great when it's raining and are attractive when it's not.

I'm now eyeing up the guttering around our house. I know NAH won't let me disconnect our downpipes,** but perhaps I can persuade him it solves our problem with a couple of places where the gutters overflow during heavy downpours. I just need to check they'll bear the additional weight and the rain will be directed away from the walls.

I'll return to Scott's garden again in future posts; in the meantime here's what my fellow Flingers said about their visit to this delightful garden.

* = I did create a version with a music soundtrack, but thought the featured version where you can hear the rain is much better. In future I need to remember to shoot video in landscape, not portrait - thank goodness you can turn uploaded videos around in YouTube.

** = he's refused to let me put a green roof on our shed, so he has 'form' with these kinds of initiatives.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Plant Profile: Echinacea purpurea

Gatekeeper butterfly on Echinacea purpurea in my sunny single terrace bed

I've been growing Echinacea - aka coneflower - almost as long as I've been at VP Gardens. It replaced the Pyrethrum I grew from seed when it gave up the ghost a couple of years into the garden. I still wanted a dusky, daisy-like flower for that spot and finding Echinacea is loved by bees clinched the deal.

As I was on a tight budget, I bought a couple of those basic bare rooted Echinacea found at various stores and garden centres in the spring. This is usually marked up as Echinacea purpurea, though some outlets offer the more select E 'Magnus' instead. I fully expected my plants to come to nothing, but to confound me they're still going strong nearly 15 years later.

This year I've replaced a lot of the planting in the double terrace beds across from the single terrace bed where I have my Echinacea. I like to repeat a texture, colour or bloom if I can across various spots in the garden, so I thought a different cultivar would be a good way to link these beds together.

I've gone for E. 'Little Magnus' this time, 2 foot high instead of the more usual 3-4 feet which I've planted under a massive Salvia 'Hadspen'. This means it's in semi-shade instead of the full sun available across the way. No matter, it's thriving in its new home and has found plenty of ways to peep out through the Salvia's leaves. It's been in flower since the end of June and I expect it to keep going until late September, possibly October if I'm lucky.

Echinacea originates from the USA and is a classic component of prairie planting alongside the likes of Rudbeckia, Veronicastrum and various grasses. However, it's a versatile plant and fits in nicely with all kinds of styles and blooms. I've combined it with Salvia 'Caradonna', Monarda 'Fireball', Knautia 'Red Knight' and Erigeron. They're knitting quite together quite nicely after just 3 months.
Further cultivation notes:

Other colours are available - the most well-known is E. 'White Swan', which unfortunately didn't thrive in my garden. This was probably me putting it in the wrong place (too shady), rather than the plant being at fault.

As you can see there are zingy yellow and orange colours available; other colours include light-ish greens and a tomato red.

Echinacea purpurea is generally trouble free here in the UK, though I did find this rather nice example of fasciation recently.

Hardiness ratings are RHS 7 (very hardy); USDA Zones 3-9. It thrives in most soils.

It can be grown from seed, or from root cuttings taken in the spring. I've not tried dividing it as it bulks up slowly. Some sites say the best time for this is autumn or spring, though others don't recommend it as they say this is a plant which doesn't like to be disturbed.

Bees and butterflies love Echinacea, as long as it's the single flower version. Double flowers are sterile or keep their nectar out of reach.

It's not edible, but is available as a preventative for colds and 'flu (though it's not clinically proven re its effectiveness). It's a safe plant for the garden if you have pets.

I've heard it makes a great cut flower as long as it's placed into water straight away. I like drying the cones in the autumn for arrangements with e.g. scabious and allium seedheads.

Further references:
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Monday, 25 August 2014

Seasonal Recipe: Spicy Chicken and Peanut Soup

Last week the weather turned a little cooler so NAH and I had the following conversation:

Me: I think I'll make some soup for lunch - I can use up that chicken carcass for starters.

NAH: (Pulling a face) Er, not for me please, I like the homemade bread we've been having lately.

Me: Why that face?

NAH: Well, haven't you noticed I give you most of the carrots when we have it? I'm not that keen. (The soup he's referring to is similar to the turkey leftovers soup I blogged about years ago)

Me: (Surprised face) So I've been making this soup for 30 years and it's only now you tell me you don't really like it?

NAH: (trying hard to make me feel better) It's OK if it's got leeks in it...

Me: I'll see what I can do...

I then dredged up a memory of a meal I cooked as a student about 35 years ago. It was a spicy dish called West African chicken and peanut stew where most of the vegetables were disguised in some way. I didn't have some of the remembered ingredients to hand, so I devised a soup using some of the glut vegetables we have hanging around.

The result? A huge thumbs up from NAH :)
Cook's notes:

I started this recipe the night before we were going to eat the result by making the chicken stock.

If you don't have a chicken carcass, then use a chicken stock cube made up to 1 litre, or fresh/frozen chicken stock if you have it. If you start with any of these, then this recipe can be made on the day of eating. However, you'll miss the pleasure of finding pieces of chunky chicken in your soup.

Vegetarians can use a vegetable stock cube or stock instead, omit the chicken and substitute some shelled, chopped unsalted peanuts to taste.

Serves 4 people generously. If you want to make the stew version for a main meal, then this is the closest online recipe I can find to my memory of the meal I created as a student. NB the linked recipe serves 8 and you can serve it with rice or couscous.

I also like the idea of using coconut milk as a variation to this recipe. Let the experimentation continue!
  • 1 small chicken carcass (the size that's provided 4 portions for previous meals)
  • Water - approx 1 litre
  • 1 large onion - roughly chopped
  • 1 medium to large potato - cubed (or sweet potato if you have it - this is more like the original recipe)
  • 1 large garlic clove
  • A half inch square cube of fresh ginger - peeled and chopped
  • Enough fresh red chill to give the amount of heat you like - in my case this is one chilli of medium heat, with the seeds removed and the rest chopped
  • 10 medium sized fresh tomatoes (or a 14 oz tin of plum tomatoes) - I leave the skins on when using fresh tomatoes, but you don't have to
  • Half a cucumber, sliced (or the equivalent amount of courgette, squash, carrots or greens depending on what's available and in season)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • One heaped tablespoon of peanut butter - smooth or crunchy. I prefer crunchy as this gives a nice texture to the finished soup
  • A handful of chopped, fresh coriander (optional)

For the chicken stock:
  1. Place the chicken carcass in a large pan and add enough water to just about cover the bones
  2. Cover the pan and bring to the boil on the stove, then turn the heat down to simmer for around half an hour
  3. Turn off the heat and leave to cool
  4. When cool, or the next day, skim the stock's surface to remove the fat. If the chicken has lived a good life, there won't be that much to remove
  5. Strip the chicken from the carcass's bones and leave to one side, Dispose of the bones in your usual way
  6. The stock and chicken can be cooled and kept in the fridge for a couple of days at this point if making the soup later
Alternatively, if you are using a stock cube, make this up to a litre with boiling water, add to a large pan and then continue to the next stage.

To make the soup:
  1. Heat the stock in a large pan and add the onion, potato, garlic, ginger, chilli, tomatoes and cucumber
  2. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste. It's best to err on the cautious side with the salt at this stage as there will be some added later via the peanut butter. Note the soup will taste spicier at this stage than the finished result, so don't panic!
  3. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for 15 minutes
  4. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly
  5. With a stick blender, blend the soup into a smooth, non-lumpy liquid
  6. Start to reheat the soup, then stir in the peanut butter. Ensure this is thoroughly incorporated into the liquid - there should be no lumps except for the crunchy bits if using crunchy peanut butter
  7. Add the reserved chicken
  8. Add half the fresh coriander and simmer for 5 minutes to ensure the chicken is heated through thoroughly
  9. Taste and adjust the seasoning and serve immediately with the rest of the coriander scattered over to garnish
Bon appetit!

Friday, 22 August 2014

Salad Days: Tomato 'Indigo Rose'

It's a couple of months since I introduced you to the black tomato I'm trialling this year, so I've put aside my salad leaves this month to bring you a full report on how they're doing.

'Indigo Rose' hails from Oregon State University in the USA and has been available there for a couple of years. We had a spontaneous exchange of experiences on the coach on the last day of the Portland Fling, so I'm not alone in the observations I'm about to tell you about.

This tomato was bred as a healthier option by crossing cultivated tomatoes with wild species from Chile and the Galapagos Islands. It's higher in anthocyanin (hence the purple/black colour), which are naturally occurring antioxidants in plants which may help to protect our nervous system, plus they may have have anti-cancer, antidepressant and pain killing properties.

Anthocyanins aren't confined to the fruit, they're in the leaves and stems too. This picture also shows the
tendency of the leaves to curl slightly. Unlike other tomatoes this isn't usually a sign of a problem.
Whilst some fruits such as blueberries and blackberries contain higher levels, they tend not to be eaten that often. Tomatoes are the fourth most popular vegetable in the States so the team went for breeding anthocyanin-rich tomatoes instead. Whether the tomato's properties have a significant contribution to our health has yet to be seen.

Flowers and fruit - fairly large trusses of medium sized fruit are produced. You can also see
the fruit's tendency to stay green underneath where they're not getting sufficient light. 
I'm growing these grafted tomatoes outdoors in my self-watering container and they were planted out during a warm spell on May 17th. Of course we then had a cold spell the week after, but this didn't seem to hold them back. They were in flower in late April and I ate my first tomato on July 19th (see the picture at the top of this post).

However, I think this may have been too early as the tomato was almost tasteless. The university's website says the fruit take around 90 days to ripen (which is fairly slow) and I've found that leaving the tomatoes as long as possible before eating does give them a better flavour.

Part of the problem is knowing when the tomatoes are actually ripe as there aren't the usual visual clues. A completely black tomato doesn't necessarily mean it's ripe. I've found if the fruit also has a slight give where it joins the stem, then it's time to pick. You also need to eat them quickly at this point, or if they've gone the colour shown in the picture as they don't keep that well.

Some do go completely red (and will be ripe) like the usual tomato. This is probably due to the anthocyanins varying in colour with pH. In the lab they're green-yellow in alkaline, purple in neutral and pink in acidic conditions. I've also noticed the red or browny-red tomatoes are much juicier than their more fleshy, black cousins.

NB the tomato size on this plate isn't representative - they're not cherry tomatoes.
Most 'Indigo Rose' are 2-4 times the size of 'Sungold'

Inevitably some tomatoes do fall off before they're ripe. These take a long time to ripen compared to their pictured 'Sungold' relatives. Note that 'Indigo Rose' is an open pollinated variety, so it's possible to save their seed. The jury is still out on blight resistance; I haven't had blight yet on any of my tomatoes, but then we've had a pretty dry summer thus far.*

* = and I'm also trying blight prevention using an aspirin spray which James Wong mentioned earlier this year.

The stems are more brittle than the other tomatoes I'm growing this year (Sungold and Moneymaker). When the remains of Hurricane 'Bertha' swept through the garden a couple of weeks ago, all my tomato plants fell like ninepins and some of the 'Indigo Rose' stems snapped (the other varieties just bent over). I've put the stems in vase on the patio making the most unusual bouquet I've ever had and to give the tomatoes a chance to ripen.

My final verdict? 

Early to flower, yet longer to ripen; sturdy yet brittle plants; attractive fruit, yet difficult to know when ripe, this is a tomato with good and bad points which scores strongly on novelty value.

So far as a salad tomato it's rather lacking in flavour, though it has been improving with age. Perhaps late season is when it comes into its own? However, its fleshier fruiting habit means I've had a tastier success with salsa and sauce making, so perhaps this is where this tomato's true forte lies.

I've also heard there are further developments in this breeding line which are an improvement in the flavour department. So watch this space!
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