Seen at the Festival of the Tree

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

Friday, 28 December 2012

Salad Days: A Winter's Airing


As a first time winter salad grower, I'm learning not only is good protection needed, a good airing of everything from time to time is also a wise move. I'd spotted a touch of mould on the compost under the coldframes, so I decided to give everything a good airing last Friday to prevent further problems. It was a lovely dry, mild day amongst all the rainy ones we've had recently and it perked my salad up no end.

As you can see, the potted lettuce 'Amaze' is coming along rather well under its cloche on the patio. A picking from a couple of these, plus some mustard, mizuna, fennel, chervil and pea shoots gave us a fine Christmas salad. Indoor sowings start in earnest in the New Year to supplement my under cover crops.

NB I'm continuing with the 52 Week Salad Challenge into next year. Whilst I've managed to grow and blog something 'salady' for every week in 2012, it wasn't until March that I managed to grow a complete serving of salad for NAH and me. Therefore, I don't think my year of growing is complete yet and I have quite a few posts to spare. Regular and new Salad Challengers are welcome to join me for 2013 :)

How's your salad coming along? Let me know in the comments or add your blog post link to Mr Linky below. Happy New Year everyone and here's to lots of salad growing in 2013!

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Postcard from Christmas

Field of Light at Holborne Museum, Bath - December 2011
Seasons Greetings to all Veg Plotting readers. Thank you for your kindness, comments and friendship during 2012. Warmest wishes to you and yours and here's to a cracking 2013!

Veg Plotting will return briefly for Salad Days next Friday (28th), then there'll be a further break until the New Year.


Friday, 21 December 2012

A Salad By Any Other Name

It's been great to have so many Salad Challenge and #saladchat participants from across the globe this year :)

Therefore, I've had this post on my 'To Do' list for a while as I've found sometimes we don't speak the same language. For example, I've been contributing to Niki's next book and quite often had to look up Canadian/USA names to make sure she understood which crops I was talking about.

So here's a handy guide to the naming of salad leaves. You may have something to add, so do pitch in with your comments below.

Common Name used in UK Latin Name AKA and Notes
Alfalfa Medicago sativa Lucerne, Purple medick
Amaranth Amaranthus sp. Calaloo, Chinese spinach
Beetroot Beta vulgaris 
Carrot  Dauca carota
Chard & Perpetual spinach Beta vulgaris var. cicla Chard: Swiss Chard, Silverbeet; Perpetual spinach: spinach beet
Chicory Cichorium indybus Types include: Sugar loaf; Witloof or Belgian; Radicchio (red varieties)
Chinese broccoli Brassica oleracea var. algoglabra Chinese kale, Gai laan, Kai lan
Chinese cabbage Brassica rapa Pekinensis Group Chinese leaves, Napa cabbage
Coriander Coriandrum sativum Cilantro, Chinese parsley
Endive Cichorium endivia Frisee, staghorn, cut-leaved (curly leaved); Batavian, escarole, scarole (broad leaved); Chicory (in non-English speaking countries)
Florence fennel Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce Sweet fennel, Finocchio
Kale Brassica oleracea Acephala Group Borecole
Komatsuna Brassica rapa Perviridis Group Mustard spinach
Lamb's Lettuce Valerianella locusta Corn Salad, Mache
Land Cress Barbarea verna American Land Cress, Upland cress
Lettuce Lactuca sativa plus variants e.g. L. sativa longifolia = cos lettuce. The Constant Gardener has written a handy guide to the different types of lettuce
Mibuna Brassica rapa var. nipposinica Same latin name as Mizuna, but leaves are strap-like, rather than deep serrations
Mizuna Brassica rapa var. nipposinica Kyona, Potherb mustard
Nasturtium Tropaeolum majus Also the tuberous rooted Nasturtium, Tropaeolum tuberosus (mashua) has edible flowers
Orache Atriplex hortenis Mountain spinach
Oriental Mustards Brassica juncea
Pak choi Brassica rapa Chinensis Group Celery mustard, Bok choy
Pea (shoots) Pisum sativum
Radish Raphanus sativus Spring/summer grown radish is known as radish, but the latin name also encompasses winter radishes such as Mooli (aka Daikon in Japan)
Rocket Eruca  sativa spp. sativa Arugula, Mediterranean salad rocket, Roquette, Rucola
Sorrel Rumex sp. Rumex acetosa = common, garden, broad-leaved (and wrongly French) sorrel; Rumex scutatus = true French or Buckler-leaved sorrel
Spinach Spinacea oleracea
Tatsoi Brassica rapa var. rosularis Spinach mustard, Spoon mustard, Rosette bok choy, Rosette pak choi
Texsel greens Brassica carinata Texel greens
Tree spinach Chenopodium giganteum
Watercress Nasturtium officinale
Summer/ Winter Purslane Montia  perfoliata (was Claytonia perfoliata) Claytonia, Miner's Lettuce; Summer purslane seems to have Golden and Green varieties
Sources: Plants for a Future; The Organic Salad Garden by Joy Larkcom & Wikipedia

They may be salads by any other name, but which ones taste as sweet? * For Florence fennel, the clue's in the latin name, because dulce means sweet.

NB, the above table doesn't include all our favourite varieties. See previous posts for our top lettuce and other leaf recommendations :)

* = with apologies to William Shakespeare. A salad taste guide is in the pipeline...

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Orchids Flower on the Streets of London

I'm not sure if the slogan's part of the pictures, but it fits somehow

I love this! It's a shame I don't live in London because I'd be down there like a shot. If you've seen my photography blog Sign of the Times, you'll know already that I'm a huge fan of graffiti art :)

I don't think I've seen much of it featuring flowers, so perhaps it's not surprising this is part of an exhibition designed to raise awareness of orchids as well as bringing some seasonal cheer. If you head down to Great Eastern Street in Shoreditch on Friday (21st December 2012), they're giving away orchids too :)

The exhibition continues until December 23rd and there's also the chance to win a luxury trip to Amsterdam (where NAH and I honeymooned, so that's a big thumbs up from me) which includes a visit to a Dutch orchid grower. Sounds fab.

The artwork was created by the London based graffiti collective Graffiti Kings who were the official graffiti artists for the 2012 Olympics. The street orchid exhibition forms part of an on-going awareness campaign by Art of Life, who believe that the 25,000 species of orchid are all unique and pieces of art in their own right, with their diverse shapes, colours and patterns. 

The exhibition wall is available to view on the Great Eastern Street side of Village Underground by Holywell Lane, Shoreditch, London EC2A 3PQ.

Interesting facts, inspiration and tips on caring for orchids can be found here. If like me, you can't get to the exhibition you can find out more about the competition to Amsterdam via the Facebook page or via @orchids_info or #orchidsinldn on Twitter. NB the competition closes on December 23rd. 

Disclosure: The photos are used by kind permission from Weber Shandwick.

Monday, 17 December 2012

From a Goody Bag to The Guardian


It's funny how things turn out. If you'd said to me last year my first article for The Guardian would be about compost and tools I'd have laughed. I'd racked my brains for a couple of years and pitched all kinds of unusual ideas (to me anyway) to the editor, which were rejected, used for the blog instead, or kindly suggested as suitable for another publication.

A couple of these finally did get to the development stage last year, but then to my surprise the editor suggested I should revamp my Trendwatch 2012: Honey I... blog post instead. This was based on the catalogue I'd found in the 2011 GMG Awards goody bag and was very different to the kinds of ideas I'd been pitching, as well as having a rather strange source of inspiration. Note to self: I must get better at spotting these kinds of opportunities.

Having written the piece once, how do you write it afresh for a different audience? I'm a Guardian reader, but I wrote for 'me' in the original blog post and I struggled to find who I was writing for this time around. Eventually the picture of a young couple with a courtyard garden came into my head. They were relatively knowledgeable, but trying to make sense of various new products they'd found in the shops and how they might use them.

Then came the steep learning curve. I may have blogged for years and started writing for magazines, but this was quite different. There's a certain style and layout to get used to, as well as a word limit. I already admired many garden writers, now I have even more respect for them. So much knowledge and research is distilled into each sentence as well as lots more getting thrown away in the process. Yes, it's exactly the same approach for writing a good blog post, but with knobs on. It also helps having a patient editor, who gives constructive feedback when the initial article is way short of what's needed.

I met my deadline and the article was accepted, admittedly with quite a bit of editorial polishing needed. Then came the wait for publication. A summer date was initially pencilled in, then something more suitable for the time of year came along. Writing a blog, I'm used to publishing pretty much straight away, so it's been strange to play the waiting game, even though this is quite normal. The immediacy with most of my writing also meant I hadn't spotted I'd written a piece which can be slotted into any time of the year. It still needed a little bit more tweaking and price checking prior to publication.

I've been on a rollercoaster of emotions during this time. I questioned whether I have the ability to write for The Guardian and repeatedly going over them meant my words often felt lifeless. That's all put to one side now it's published and I have a deep sense of achievement. NAH always says difficult things are much more rewarding and he's right. I'm also thrilled with the specially commissioned photograph which accompanies the article - who knew tools and compost could look so good?

My thanks goes to Jane Perrone for giving me the chance to write for her and for taking so much care to ensure I came up to scratch. She could have chosen a much more experienced writer for this piece and saved herself a lot of time and effort in the process. I promise I'll do much better next time ;)

Saturday, 15 December 2012

GBBD: Buds of Hope


This week's winter chills have served to lay much in my garden low over the past few days. However, this morning's milder weather and bright sunshine tempted me outside to see what's what. It's heartening to see many of the drooping plants (including the fennel I showed you yesterday) are bouncing back and turning their leaves towards the sun for whatever warmth they can glean from its wintry rays.

There aren't any blooms to show you, but at least there are plenty of buds of hope like the pictured Helleborus 'Winter Moonbeam'. Whilst its partner plant has nearly 20 fat buds on display, I've chosen this picture because I like the contrast of the fresh green leaf. We may be only a week away from winter's darkest night, but it's comforting to know that nature is planning to bounce back whenever it gets the chance.

Elsewhere in the garden, the cyclamen are also sporting fresh new buds and it looks like once again the snowdrops may be out before Christmas. The daffodils are beginning to push their noses through the soil: they may not be as advanced as their Cornish cousins, but it's great to see them there. I don't know why, but I always feel my bulbs are never going to come back. It's rather reassuring the seasonal rhythms are still in force, without the need for intervention on my part.

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

PS I have my first proper grown-up article in The Guardian today. They've also made it available online. Needless to say I'm chuffed again and I'll be telling you more about it on Monday :)

Friday, 14 December 2012

Of Winter Frosts and Snizzle

We've had our first real breath of winter here in VP Gardens this week. A few days of air frost and cold surfaces have combined to outline everything in a magical dusting of hoar frost. Many plants can withstand the odd ground frost or three, but just like us a thorough air frost can chill plants right down to the bones.


Even a dustbin bag full of tinfoil* can look quite interesting when its varied folds have a hoar frost outline. But seeing it's Friday, what of the salad? I hear you ask...


The beets I showed you a couple of weeks ago are standing up well so far, even though I've left them without any protection. It'll be interesting to see if their leaves toughen up as part of the plant's self preservation.


My fennel's wilted leaves are showing a textbook example of physiological drought. I've rescued them and tucked them up in a coldframe now. I think the leaves will bounce back OK from their experience, but whether the small, iced up bulbs will also be edible - never mind keep growing - remains to seen.


I don't have the luxury of a polytunnel or greenhouse to cosset my salad leaves over the winter, so part of my own personal 52 Week Salad Challenge is to see how much useful protection is provided by simpler, cheaper options such as fleece, cloches and coldframes. Even these less roomy coverings help to keep the temperature a few degrees warmer (outside we've been down to -5o centigrade over the last few days and nights) and increase my salad's chances of survival. Before this week I was a little sceptical of their effectiveness, but after a quick peep under the pictured cloches (so my leaves don't get too much of a shock!) I'm encouraged to see they're a great help. Whether they can cope with the rest of this winter's chills, or indeed the exceptional weeks of cold like those we saw in the winter of 2009/2010 remains to be seen.

As well as learning a little more about effective winter crop protection, I've also discovered a fab new weather word this week: snizzle. This is a light drizzling form of snow which can fall from e.g. freezing fog. I went out on Tuesday night and was surprised to find the centre of Chippenham covered in a light coating of snow when I returned home. Our local TV weatherman alerted me to the technical term and said it's a relatively new one having only been proposed in an academic paper in 2009. However, I see there's a blogged reference to it dated 2007 :)

Related Posts

I saw lots of fields in Cornwall last week with their soil covered for warming up ready for early crops. That plus this week's frosts have reminded me of my earlier What's the Weather for Salad? post showing you how you can calculate your sowing, planting and cropping times for outdoor grown salad leaves. If you prefer a shortcut, there's also a link on there to a useful website which gives the air frost dates for many of the UK's towns and cities.

Today I've linked to a selection of relevant posts I've made previously about the weather. You may also like to see my popular ABC of Weather series and further posts I've made under the Weather label.

* = NAH's aunt can no longer get to her local recycling facility in Poole, so we brought her piles of tinfoil home with us after our last visit. We're waiting for the right week (i.e. the recycling one) for our bin men to take it away. Distance caring tasks get a bit bizarre at times...

Monday, 10 December 2012

Postcard From Cornwall


We've just got back from a week's break in Cornwall. I love the deserted beaches you find when visiting out of season. This is the view from Tate St Ives last Tuesday just before the wind blew us indoors in search of something warming :)

Friday, 7 December 2012

Travellers' Salad: Out on the Streets

When I started the 52 Week Salad Challenge in January, I had no idea I'd find some salad in public bedding schemes this year. I took the above picture a couple of weeks ago whilst out shopping in Calne. The chard looked even more dramatic a few days earlier with the sun slanting through the red stems. Of course the leaves on display here would be a little tough for a salad, but at least the thought's there.

Bristol has also gone into edible bedding schemes in a big way this year. In the summer I saw lots of lettuces and mangetout peas on display in Castle Park. It seems they've continued this idea into winter. Luckily Nigel Dunnett was on hand to comment on and photograph the results recently:



It looks like the influence of Incredible Edible Todmorden on our public planting is spreading :)

What salad have you found on your travels?

Monday, 3 December 2012

Still Chuffed


Apologies to those of you who've seen this on Facebook or Twitter already, but I have a few things to say which need to be said within Veg Plotting itself.

Firstly, a huge thanks to all of you who've contributed to this blog in some way this year - as a guest poster, by leaving a comment or contributing to #saladchat or Salad Days. This award is because of you :)

Secondly, a number of you took the trouble to get in touch by email after the awards last year re the judging. Like you, I was extremely disappointed not to have been shortlisted. However, it gave me a chance to look again at the way in which I'd submitted Veg Plotting's nomination. Whilst what I'd said was OK, I hadn't really told the judges enough about why Veg Plotting was special (to me anyway!) and different to any other blog out there. I set out to change that this year.

With a change of event organiser for 2012, the opportunity's been taken to do things slightly differently this time and all blog entrants were listed in the 'book of the day' given out to all attendees at the awards lunch. From that I see the number of entrants was down this year and I strongly believe a number of 'independent' bloggers who deserve to get the recognition I've had are missing from the list.

If you value your blog and what you write about, I urge you to enter in 2013. I know some of you aren't keen on the entry fee or the self-nomination process. The entry fee covers the admin and postage needed for the awards process and is comparable with the fees I've seen this year for writing competitions. As for self-nomination... well you have to be in it to win it. Besides, we don't have friendly editors or publishers to shove us into the limelight - we're those things as well as being the author and photographer!

Going forward I hope to encourage the judging process to include feedback for all entrants in some small way. Hopefully this won't be too onerous a task for the judges (who are probably queueing up to throttle me now) and means we'd have something to work on (if we want to) in the future. If you have any observations you'd like to add, do let me know. I've just been elected onto the Garden Media Guild's committee and so have the power to make your views known!

Finally, huge congratulations to the Guardian Gardening Blog on their win. They have an extremely talented set of regular bloggers, so were always going to be the one to beat. It's been a pleasure to write a guest post for them this year :)

Saturday, 1 December 2012

GBMD: Birches

The birch tree from our bedroom window - Christmas Eve 2011
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Extract from Birches by Robert Frost (1874-1963). The full poem can be read here.

Birch trees are one of the most commonly seen trees in the UK and it's no different here at VP Gardens. As well as the one on view from our bedroom window, our neighbours have 2 in their garden and we have another out the front. They add stature to our winter view both here and elsewhere on our estate.

In January it'll be the birch trees which will probably yield the most sightings for the RSPB Garden Birdwatch at the end of the month :)

Friday, 30 November 2012

The Wonderful World of Tweeted Salads

Tweeted salads have been a welcome surprise from issuing the 52 Week Salad Challenge this year. I've been favoriting them madly so I could bring you a selection of the most recent ones. Many of the tweets also have pictures showing off the final results, so Twitter has been a great source of ideas :)




Saladchatterer @monicashaw deserves a special credit as she tweets a salad pretty regularly.

I have lots more of these to share - I just need time and to work out a way of documenting them more effectively. It'd be great to use (and credit) some of the photos, and re-create the ideas myself.

Another project for the winter methinks :)

Monday, 26 November 2012

Book Review: Three For Perennials

My 'step sitting' to consider what to replace the sentinel conifers with, includes looking at a number of books for inspiration. A nice offer from Timber Press to make a selection from their catalogue means I now have three extra volumes on the subject of perennials. It's these I'm reviewing here today :)

I visited Bressingham Gardens - and bumped into Adrian Bloom :) - whilst on holiday in Norfolk a few years ago. I have a number of Bressigham introductions (Crocosmia 'Lucifer' and Heuchera 'Bressingham Hybrids' to name but two) in my garden. The garden itself is home to two of our most well-known plant design innovations from the past 50 years - island beds and the currently deeply unfashionable conifers (often combined with heathers).

When I was at Bressingham it was clear grasses were being interwoven much more strongly into the mix to provide longer seasons of interest in the garden. Also large drifts of these plus lots of free standing perennials are at the heart of its design.

In Bloom's Best Perennials and Grasses, Adrian Bloom sets out to transfer the knowledge he's gained from over half a century of gardening at Bressingham. Whilst over 400 plants and many photographs are featured in this book, at its heart is Adrian's key message that 'less is more' as far as garden design is concerned.

The key chapter in this philosophy is 'Take 12 Plants' where Adrian describes how focusing on a smaller group of plants, the gardener can use them effectively to create drama in the garden. I welcome this idea - especially as I feel my garden is too 'bitty' - though I found most of the 12 plants featured are ones I wouldn't choose. Thank goodness there's plenty of options in the rest of the book to form my 12! Having warmed to the idea of including some grasses in my new planting, this book is also helping me to get to grips with how to do that effectively.

Tracy DiSabato-Aust's The Well-Tended Perennial Garden is a more practical volume with nearly half of it dedicated to how to look after perennial plants, from pre-planting soil preparation through to division and pruning.

The other half of the book is an encyclopedia of around 175 plants of merit to the garden. Whilst this is an American book, all the plants are garden worthy for the UK too. Each entry also has care and maintenance instructions as well as a number of related plants which can be used as substitutions.

At the back is a practical maintenance section with details of the tasks needed throughout the year by specific plant groups. This is the book to study not only for which plants are best for your situation and how to look after them, but to also help make decisions based on how much time you have for your garden.

Plant-Driven Design by Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden is different to the two volumes above because it places its emphasis on how plants can form a major element of design. They argue that it's the careful choice of plants which ensures a garden has soul, rather than the choices made in its architecture and hardscaping.

However, I believe many of the plant designs highlighted in this book are in themselves architectural in their look and feel. That's not meant as a put-down to their argument, but serves to highlight the quality of the examples chosen to illustrate it.

What follows is a mouth watering masterclass in how to choose and marry plants together to suit their needs and the space in which they inhabit. This is 'right plant, right place' with a designer's eye. As well as lots of photograph's there are plenty of plant lists for specific uses, styles and climates to help anyone make the right selections for their garden or the effect they're wanting to achieve.

So if I had just one of these books, which would I choose? That's a difficult one because each of them has something to offer. Plant Driven Design is the one to read first, because it deals with what you want to achieve from your garden in terms of its look and feel. The other two titles complement it in different ways: gardeners who feel overwhelmed by the possibilities shown in Plant Driven Design will enjoy the 'Take 12 Plants' focus of Adrian Bloom's book. Those wanting to know more about how to look after the perennials in their care, will like the planting and aftercare focus of The Well-Tended Perennial Garden.

The choice is yours :)

Friday, 23 November 2012

Salad Days: Eat to the Beet


I've been surprised how well my beetroot 'Bull's Blood' has kept on growing throughout November despite its lack of protection. We've sampled a few leaves already and as you can see there are a few more ready for picking.

It's got me wondering whether a windowsill crop can be grown over the winter, just like I successfully managed with pea shoots at the start of the year. I did grow some beet for microgreens back then too, but baby leaves would be much better and more substantial. In theory the lack of light over the next few months should make that a 'no', but they're already growing better than expected this month...

...Alys Fowler did an online Q and A session for The Guardian last week , so I posed my question there (scroll down and you'll see I'm there as 'Veep'). Her response was:

You could start them off indoors, harden off and plant out but don't expect to eat anything before March at the earliest. If you hanker after a pink/red micro green I'd try sowing purple oracle or amaranthus red army on your windowsill indoors, much more prolific.

I'll try Alys' suggestions, but I'm going to try the beets just to see what happens. At the very least, I'll have a bumper crop of microgreens, so I've got nothing to lose.

How's your salad growing coming along this month? Mr Linky is set up below for your posts.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Ash Dieback Resources

Further to my post lamenting the potential loss of the ash trees at the side of my garden, here's a recap of  the useful links I've found, so we can all do our bit to provide identification of potential outbreaks ASAP.
And here's some hope for the future - a recent study in Sweden suggests some trees have resistance to infection.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

A Christmas Gift Selection

Some  Christmas gift ideas from 'the trug of plenty' ;)

Windowsill chilli growing kit
A pocket money gift idea
Suitable for medium-hot spicy food lovers or those with little GYO space
Contains everything needed - just add water
The container and lid form the growing pot and drip tray, though you might want to add a nicer pot for a more stylish gift
Dribber
A new idea from Hen and Hammock
Made in Shropshire from oak
Ideal for gardeners who do a lot of potting on, or marking out rows for sowing e.g salad leaves
The back of  the dribber can be used for tamping down compost

Plant families card game
A fun game derived from Happy Families
Also teaches the binomial naming system devised by Linnaeus
A total of 36 plants from 9 different plant families are illustrated
The beautiful drawings are also suitable for framing
I found these when visiting Chelsea Physic Garden last year and couldn't resist!

Bosch Keo cordless multisaw
Ideal gift for the gadget minded gardener
Uses a rechargeable Lithium-ion battery
Comes with a saw blade suitable for cutting wood. Other blades for plaster board and metal are available
With the guard removed, I've found it ideal for awkward places where it's difficult to use my usual pruning saw
Look out for pre-Christmas special offers

Other gift ideas included in my trug are Ethel gloves for the most glove-aphobic, Felco secateurs and garden gift vouchers. In previous years I've also enjoyed some Pink, Pink Sunshine from my niece and nephew, plus a Brother garden labeller.

Disclosure: all items were donated for review purposes except for the plant families card game, felco secateurs (which I won), the garden gift vouchers (a present I'm always happy to receive) and the pink hyacinths from my niece and nephew. The trug is my own and would also make a nice gift!

What would you choose?

Friday, 16 November 2012

Seasonal Recipe: Raspberry Vinegar


I picked the last of this year's 'Autumn Bliss' raspberries at the weekend and instead of scoffing them as usual, I decided to try making some raspberry vinegar. I eventually plumped for Nigel Slater's recipe via The Guardian. His version uses much less sugar than the others I found and is strained, so it has no pips :)

I substituted cider vinegar for the recipe's white wine vinegar and I steeped the raspberries for 5 days instead of the minimum two. The recipe also calls for a stainless steel saucepan for the cooking stage because the acid from the vinegar will react with aluminium ones. I don't have one, but I found the ceramic pan from my slow cooker was a good substitute.

I only had 250g of raspberries instead of the 450g given in the recipe, so I've adjusted the rest of the ingredients accordingly.

Ingredients

  • 250g  raspberries (good ones - I found I had to sort through mine to pick out the best)
  • 250 ml white wine vinegar (cider vinegar for me - NB the vinegar should be a minimum 5% acetic acid so it'll keep)
  • 45g sugar (I used granulated which seems fine)

Method

  1. Place the raspberries in a stainless steel or glass bowl and crush lightly with a fork or potato masher
  2. Pour over the vinegar, stir then cover and set aside for at least 2 days (other recipes say 5-7 days)
  3. Give the fruit an occasional stir
  4. Drain the fruit through muslin and leave for 2 or 3 hours – longer if you have time (I left it overnight)
  5. Pour the liquid into a stainless steel saucepan and add the sugar
  6. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, scraping off any foam. 
  7. Leave to cool, pour into sterilised bottles (I heated mine in the oven at 100oC for 20 minutes) and store in a cool dark place. 
  8. Leave the vinegar for 2-3 weeks before use. It will last for a year.
What the recipe doesn't mention is the rich ruby red colour of the resultant vinegar, which glows with goodness and promise :)

As well as mixing with olive oil and some crushed black pepper to make a salad dressing, Nigel Slater suggests raspberry vinegar can be poured over ice cream to make a piquant fruity sauce, or over ice and topped up with mineral water or lemonade to make a refreshing drink. It can also be added to a pan to deglaze meat juices.

Some of the other recipes I looked at mention raspberry vinegar is good for soothing coughs. I'm looking forward to this taste of summer helping to beat future winter ills :)

NB next week is Salad Days - I'm looking forward to hearing how you're getting on with your salad growing or eating :)

Thursday, 15 November 2012

GBBD: Seasonal Cyclamen


I'm really enjoying these warm, pinky red Cyclamen outside the back door this month. I have a couple of pots of them at eye level, so I can't miss them when I step outside into the garden and they're about the only flower on top form. Whilst there's still quite a bit of colour elsewhere, most of it's in terminal decline. I don't mind really as all is at it should be and whilst I have the Cyclamen to greet me, all is well.

I tried to photograph some of the Cyclamen hederifolium which are naturalising themselves under the birch tree in the front garden. I planted 3 a few years ago and they're slowly spreading themselves outwards. However, sugar pink flowers and gloomy undergrowth does not make for good photography and despite lying on my tummy on damp leaves to take their picture, the resultant photo revealed some overexposed pinprick blobs :(

When they've stopped flowering, I'll push their seed heads down into the damp earth to help them spread further. There's always lots of leaves around from the birch and ash trees above, so I feel I need to give them some extra encouragement. Hopefully it means I'll soon be able to show you great swathes of Cyclamen, just like the ones I have in my mind's eye for that part of the garden.

How's your garden blooming this month?

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Getting to Grips With Biochar


I've been trialling various biochar products since the spring, courtesy of Carbon Gold and now it's time to make some sense of the results.

The trials I set up were:
  • Seed germination rates with rocket seed - biochar seed compost vs John Innes seed compost. Plants were raised  indoors and each tray given the same amount of water (via a spray mister)
  • Seed germination rates and salad leaf productivity using the seed mats I showed you in March (plus an update picture here) - biochar vs New Horizon peat free compost. Plants were raised outdoors and no supplementary watering was required owing to the weather!
  • Salad leaf productivity in my new growing area - biochar vs New Horizon peat free compost and no supplementary watering was needed
  • Tomatoes grown in pots - biochar vs New Horizon peat free compost
  • Allotment cucumber and courgette growing - biochar vs home-made compost in allotment soil and no supplementary watering needed
Owing to the poor summer the tomato trial had to be abandoned. This also happened with the courgette trial because it turned out the courgette plants were different varieties. Strange seeing the seed was from the same packet!

Results 

Seed germination - I've already reported on the results of the rocket seed trial here. The germination rates with the salad seed mats were 50% higher for the seed mat grown on New Horizon compost. There was no observed difference in seed germination rates for the cucumber and courgette trials. 

Salad leaf production - a mixed set of results. The salad leaf mats yielded 25% more with biochar and the new salad growing area yielded just over 53% more for the leaves grown in the New Horizon (i.e. non biochar) compost.

Cucumber - the home-made compost + allotment soil cucumbers were larger and more prolific than the allotment soil + biochar ones. However, owing to pest damage the cropping season was too short for this trial to be conclusive.

Other observations - there was no noticeable difference in plant condition or colour between the biochar and non-biochar raised plants. All plants seemed equally susceptible to pests (!). I didn't compare root growth during the trial.

Comparison with results elsewhere - Carbon Gold have announced the results of trials conducted by professional growers, which are positive all round. The Big Biochar Experiment independently run by Oxford University has reported (by email) positive results using biochar for wheat germination plus improved onion, carrot, potato and pepper yields. They have yet to confirm if these have statistical significance. 

Conclusions

I'm wondering if the difference I saw in the rocket and salad mat germination trials might be due to the seed size involved, with the larger courgette and cucumber seeds unaffected by the type of compost used. Another factor may be the differing water requirements for the growing media used - the biochar compost is based on coir, which usually needs less water.

The positive result for the salad leaves produced from the seed mat grown on biochar could have been due to its poorer germination rate. The mats were pot grown, so the seeds which did germinate on the biochar weren't so crowded as their New Horizon grown cousins. NB the salads grown in my new salad area were evenly spaced and the positive result for biochar grown leaves was reversed. This could explain the difference in results.

The trials I've set up this year aren't really scientific enough (or large-scale) to draw any firm conclusions concerning the effectiveness of biochar as a component of a growing medium. I need to set up some further trials where the growing medium is the same with biochar added to one half of the trial area or pots used.

I've shared my preliminary findings with Carbon Gold who've asked when I received my samples (which were May if memory serves). Apparently there was a poor batch sent out - I don't know if mine were part of that.

One general observation: growing media containing coir needs a different watering regime because it retains water differently to other components. Ordinary gardeners like me need more guidance on what to do. This doesn't just apply to the products I've reported on here.

I've also set up a garlic and autumn onion trial on the allotment on two of my new raised beds. The biochar trials continue...

... and here are my variable results. I also found an interesting article referring to work conducted in the 1840s as part of my research for that post. It could be that my soils aren't deficient enough in carbon for the biochar to make a difference.

Further information:

General biochar information via Wikipedia
Carbon Gold biochar trial results pdf (sadly no longer available)
Oxford Big Biochar Experiment website

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Review: Let There Be Light

An ambient glow - these candles are from 3 to around 6 inches high

What do the cold, dark nights need now we're heading towards the shortest day? Somewhere warm to curl up, a good book and hot chocolate are high on my list, as well as the reassuring flicker of candlelight.

But what if - like us - you have curious pets (or children) hell bent on exploring everything happening in their world? We've had a couple of near misses with toppling candles and flying fur, which means we've put ours away for the foreseeable future :(

So I recently opted to try out a set of remote control candles courtesy of ParamountZone via Fuel My Blog.

My first surprise was they're actually made of wax, hollowed out and with a small light about the size of a small candle flame in the bottom. They come with a small remote control to switch them on/off plus options to swap between steady and flickering flames; a dimmer switch (2 settings - dim and dimmer); plus a 4 or 8 hour timer.

My second surprise was the candles don't come with the batteries they require (though the remote does), so NAH was dispatched to fetch me the 6xAAA batteries I needed to test them all out. As you can see the effect is quite realistic. The candles flicker gently, though I'm unsure whether someone with epilepsy would cope with the effect.

The remote has a range of around 5 metres, though at longer distances it didn't always work with all of the candles. Sometimes 2-3 clicks were needed to get all the candles to the setting required - it could be one of the candles was blocking the reception of another. If the remote gets lost, then there's all the switches you need in the base of each candle.

Overall verdict: They're more realistic and better than I thought they'd be. They provide a safe solution for replacing candlelight, but I've decided that's not enough. I prefer the way a candle's flame grows and diminishes, plus the smell you get when you finally extinguish the light.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Salads: My Constant Reference Library

My salad reference library. For some reason Food for Free was missing (presumed foraging) when I lined them up for their photograph this morning

During the 52 Week Salad Challenge I've built up a small reference library which I've found very useful for both my salad growing and writing my salad related posts. Some I had already and others I've been pleased to buy in order to plug gaps. Here's a brief summary to whet your appetite:
  • A Taste of the Unexpected - Marc Diacono - good sections on microgreens and daylilies
  • Food for Free - Richard Mabey - a foraging classic which has stood the test of time
  • Homegrown Revolution - James Wong - has lots of ideas for unusual salad ingredients and how to grow them. Suttons have a seed and plant range tie-in
  • Salad Leaves for All Seasons - Charles Dowding - the book mentioned spontaneously as a good ‘un by most salad challengers . See also my interview with him.
  • The Edible Balcony - Alex Mitchell - not just for balconies (or salad), but any small space. With plenty of ideas, information and DIY projects
  • The Organic Salad Garden - Joy Larkcom - an absolute classic. A comprehensive guide to cut and come again leaves and a good introduction to sprouting seeds
  • The Thrifty Forager - Alys Fowler - food for free, mainly from our cities and with recipes
  • The Year Round Vegetable Gardener - Niki Jabbour - sensible advice from this award winning Canadian author. Good section on climate and its impact on growing salads
Salad Challenge regular Carl Legge kindly wrote a review of Four Season Harvest by Elliot Coleman. Whilst this book hails from the US, it's very useful elsewhere. Alys Fowler also mentioned this book at a talk I went to earlier in the year.

Do you have anything else to add to the list? It'd be great to hear what your favourites are :)

Update: Carl has been in touch to say he reviewed The Thrifty Forager for Permaculture Magazine last year.

Disclosure: I received copies of A Taste of the Unexpected and James Wong's Homegrown Revolution for honest review purposes. The rest I've either had for years, or were bought this year with hard-earned cash!

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

OOTS: Plastic and Trees


A couple of months ago NAH and I spent a pleasant Sunday afternoon in Gloucester. We like the colourful canal barges plus the industrial heritage and old buildings found along the wharves. I've already featured the planted walkways by the moored barges as part of my occasional Unusual Front Gardens strand.


We strolled into the nearby indoor shopping centre. How nice, I thought, they're using real trees for their public planting inside. That's not a flowering variety I've seen before.

So I went a little closer to have a good look...and what did I find?


Plastic flowers had been attached to the main branches of the trees. And the 'trees' themselves were really just lumps of wood placed in the planters.


Here you can see how it's been done. Trunks and larger branches have been placed in the planters with smaller branches of plastic flowers bolted onto them :(

It's a shame because only a few hundred yards away there's a commemorative plaque to celebrate the floral canal walkways winning a Gloucester in Bloom's Street Regeneration competition in 2007.

Bristol's Cabot Circus is a similar shopping centre where they've managed to keep their trees completely real. So why didn't they do the same in Gloucester?

You can find more examples of our public planting - good and bad - under the Out on the Streets (aka OOTS) label.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Pondering the Blog


My blogaversary always finds me pondering the blog. As a result I've been tweaking away under the 'bonnet' - fixing broken links, tidying up the sidebars and correcting out of date content in the Pages.

I have quite a long list of that kind of thing left to do, which will get worked on gradually over the winter months. As you can see from the above picture I'm also pondering some larger, more obvious changes too. It's a while (2-3 years) since I had a major think about the blog's template and because I'm pondering some major changes, for once that merits trying things out on my test blog first.

That in itself was a salutary lesson because I exported Veg Plotting as of October 10th and then imported it into the test blog. Not everything arrived, so my To Do list now includes fixing my blog backup process. If you have a blog, you might like to have a go too and see how you get on. Having almost lost the Meet @ Malvern blog on one memorable occasion, I know how distressing losing a well-loved blog can be.

One of the major template changes I'm considering is enlarging the blog post text area. The test blog shows I can make it quite a lot wider, BUT I know not everyone will be able to see everything should I do so. That means looking at lots of different browsers and computer configurations to see what will work.

November is usually the time when I join in NaBloPoMo. I don't think I will be this year, though my blogging buddy Mark is taking part again. It's not because I've ran out of things to say, it's just that most of them are more complicated and that takes a lot longer to blog! Instead I've decided to resurrect National Commenting Week, extend it over the month and not lurk so much as usual. I hope to see you over at your place very soon :)

If you have any suggestions for what you'd like to see changing on Veg Plotting or have any difficulties with reading the blog, leaving comments etc., then now is a really good time to tell me. Leave a comment below, tweet me @malvernmeet, or email me at vegplotting at gmail dot com. Thanks.

Do you have any plans for your blog over the coming months?

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Book Review: Two for Practicality

Whilst we can look up practically everything on the internet these days, sometimes you just can't beat a good book to find out what's needed. Today, I'm going to review two books I've received this year which come firmly under the practical heading.

First up is Jim Gardiner's Encyclopedia of Flowering Shrubs. If you're looking to add some shrubbery to your garden, or to simply decipher what you've inherited there, this is the book for you. There's over 1,500 shrubs described and clearly pictured, so it's one of the most comprehensive guides available. It's arranged in alphabetical latin name order with each shrub having a short description, a good photograph of it in flower, plus a guide to eventual height, ideal growing conditions and cultural notes. There's an indication if the shrub has been awarded the RHS AGM plus the USA's hardiness zone.

The short Table of Selected Shrubs by Key Design and Cultural Characteristics towards the end is what elevates this book to greatness. This is the first port of call for readers wanting to ID a mystery shrub or to select something new for their garden. The colourful guide to foliage type, flower colour, size, light requirements, flowering season, soil type and Zone allows the reader to shortlist shrubs which fit either their ID needs or garden requirements, which can then be looked up in the main part of the book. This is something which is currently hard to achieve via the internet, though there are a number of sites which are working on it!

Definitely one for a gardener's reference bookshelf in either the UK or on the other side of the pond.

Looking at The A to Z of Plant Names' entry on Amazon, it looks like this might be an update to an earlier edition dating back to 1985. As plant DNA analysis is regularly renaming many of our garden plants (much to the frustration of this gardener sometimes!), a revised edition is to be welcomed.

Any keen gardener soon recognises Latin as the common language of all gardeners, but sadly most of us aren't Latin scholars. However, by understanding the Latin 'codewords' used to name our plants, it means we can deduct much about other plants bearing the same names. Thus chinenis shows the plant originates from China and striatus means the plant is striped.

Allen J Coombes' book breaks the 'code' for 4,000 of our most commonly used plants. A brief introduction describes how the binomial plant naming structure of Genus + species name (aka epithet) came about, then moves swiftly through a guide to pronunciation, how to use the book and a list of the most commonly used epithets and their meanings.

The bulk of the book is in alphabetical order and is dedicated to unravelling the meaning of the names. Most of the entries start with a Genus, followed by a listing of the common species names relating to that Genus. Both Genus and species entries hold a wealth of information, some of which is abbreviated, so the abbreviation guide on page 22 should be kept to hand. The identity of the person who first named the plant is also given. Unfortunately this is in abbreviated form and there's no handy guide to telling who L. may be (the great Linnaeus?), or Desf. etc.

The book also lists common names amongst the Latin, so the reader is then pointed to the appropriate Genus name for the full entry. The older, now defunct Latin names are also listed e.g. under the entry for Dicentra, the species list includes spectabilis, which points the reader to its new name of Lamprocapnos spectabilis.

A good book for demystifying Latin names and learning some of the history and origin of many of our best known, and loved plants.

Disclosure: I received review copies of these books for honest review purposes. The links to Amazon are meant for your reference only and I don't receive a penny if you decide to make a purchase.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

A Very Special Blogaversary

Meeting Michael Jamieson, our top Olympic swimmer from London 2012
Veg Plotting reached the grand age of 5 yesterday. I usually mark the day itself, but instead I left the 52 Week Salad Challenge to trundle along in its usual Friday slot and went out to party.

For almost a year now I've been looking after Smiths News' Dispatches blog, which is all about the company's charity fundraising events. Yesterday also marked my 200th post for them and it has been an absolute pleasure to write and bask in their glow of raising over £100,000 for good causes.

They'd also decided November 2nd is a day of celebration by holding their 2012 Community Week Awards and I got invited along. It was great to meet so many people whose stories I'd blogged about. They were already familiar faces and were most welcoming once I'd explained I was the mysterious smithsnews from Dispatches.

Smiths News also supported Michael Jamieson this year in his quest to become an Olympian. He's the son of one of the members of staff, so it was a natural step for the company to get behind his efforts. I've followed Michael's progress this year from before the Olympic trials in March, through his amazing performance at the Olympics, then getting back into training to start working towards his next set of goals. Today he's back into the swing of competition again in Sheffield and will see what shape he's in post Olympics :)

As an ex-competitive swimmer it's been a treat to take Michael's guest blog posts and add my excitement to his progress. As you can see, Michael was guest of honour at yesterday's event and it was wonderful to meet him :D

When I started Veg Plotting on that very wet and dreary November day, I never dreamt where it would take me. It's thanks to your comments and encouragement that I'm still here 5 years later blogging away. Thank you.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Seasonal Recipe: Last of the Summer Soup



I had quite a pile of salad leaves after the final clearance of the summer salads beds, so after I'd washed them and put the best ones in a bag in the fridge*, I still had quite a few lesser quality leaves left over. I also discovered a cucumber which had hidden itself in the coldframe and needed eating up quickly.

With Saturday's colder weather, the answer came in the form of soup. This is a very flexible recipe, adjust according to whatever you've cleared from your plot which needs eating up now.

Ingredients - serves 4-6
  • 150g (approx) mixed, washed lettuce leaves or a large head of lettuce, washed and pulled apart
  • 300g cucumber, cubed
  • 4 leeks - the top green cylindrical part, about 4 inches in length for each one (I used the lower white part for our Sunday dinner veg)
  • 1 litre vegetable or chicken stock - whichever is preferred or available
  • ½ teaspoon lovage seed (or about 10 leaves if you're growing some)
  • Salt and ground black pepper to taste
To garnish (optional but recommended): Half-fat creme fraiche - or cream if you're feeling slim and decadent - and chopped fennel fronds (thanks for my seeds Joanna!).

Method
  1. Put the stock in the pan and bring to the boil
  2. Chop up the leeks and add to the stock
  3. Add the cubed cucumber plus the lettuce leaves and ensure they're fully immersed in the stock (the leaves tend to float given half a chance!)
  4. Add the lovage, plus salt and pepper to taste
  5. Turn the heat down and simmer for 10 minutes
  6. Blend with a stick blender until smooth - watch out for that odd bit of cucumber which always escapes processing ;)
  7. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed
  8. Pour the soup into individual bowls
  9. If using, swirl through a generous spoonful of half-fat creme fraiche in each bowl and scatter over the fennel fronds to garnish
Serve warm, with a large chunk of bread e.g. multi-seeded or sourdough for a hearty lunch.

My soup was extremely quick to make and had a fresh, delicate taste. It reminded me of summer, but also had the warmth of winter. Whilst I've called it the Last of the Summer Soup, this version could also be made in the summer months and served chilled.

Variations
  • If you're needing something more in the way of comfort food, add a scrubbed and cubed medium sized potato. Adjust the cooking time to 15 minutes, so the potato is tender.
  • Use whatever herbs you have to hand. I chose fennel to garnish as it echoes the anise flavouring of the lovage seed. Parsley or coriander would also work well as would par-cel or celery leaf
  • Late season lettuce leaves can be on the bitter side, especially if they're starting to bolt. Add some frozen peas, tomatoes or red pepper to the soup to add some counterbalancing sweetness if needed. Peas will also add to the comfort food factor, so could be used as a substitute for the suggested potato.
  • Courgette can be used instead of cucumber.
  • I used leek tops because I had some to hand and their more delicate flavour doesn't swamp those of the lettuce, cucumber and lovage. A large onion could be used instead, especially if you have one of the milder, sweeter kind.
  • If you don't have fresh stock, a stock cube can be used instead. You probably won't need any salt if this is the case.
This is a great soup for anyone on the 5:2 diet, if the creme fraiche and bread are omitted.

* = has anyone else noticed how long hand picked salad leaves keep in the fridge? Much longer than the supermarket 'pillow' bags do.
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