June 2009

The back garden

A little diversion for this post: instead of waffling on about my vegetables I thought I’d give you a little tour of the back garden.

In the background you can see the East Wing of Drooling Towers, and in the foreground is my herbaceous border.

I know what you’re thinking. “Drooling old bean, the alliums are looking a bit shabby. And what were you thinking with that yellow-purple colour combination in the background?” Truth is, I’d just had a minor altercation with one  of the servants when I was sorting out the planting scheme and I wasn’t really paying attention.

No? Fair enough. I had a spare day last week so I took myself off to Great Dixter, home of the late Christohper Lloyd, professional gardener and contrarian. And very beautiful it was too.

The garden is famed for many things, but most notably for being innovative and somewhat iconoclastic in the choice of planting combinations. I’m going to struggle to tell you anything intelligent or insightful about the design or planting, other than to say it was all eye-wateringly beautiful.

The garden consists of a series of “outdoor rooms”, demarcated by yew hedges and encircling a gorgeous 15th century manor. Each garden is packed full of plants notable – to me, anyway – for their colour and architectural structure. For such a traditional setting the gardens are much more interesting than your average English country garden – much more variety.

Great Dixter

If you go to enough National Trust properties you can pretty much predict what you’ll find in the garden – lupins, roses, hemerocallis, foxgloves and so on. Nothing wrong with ’em, all gorgeous, but not a great deal of variety. No bamboo, for example, let alone an exotic garden with gingers, cannas and bananas.

I never read Christopher Lloyd’s column in The Observer, but I gather he had something of a repuation as an endearingly grumpy old sod. He may not be around any more, but the spirit clearly lives on: I wanted to know the names of several plants, but couldn’t see any labels for love nor money. All was revealed when I got to the shop and saw a sign, written by the great man, that stated that he didn’t bother with labels because it was his garden (although he happily takes everyone else’s cash to look at it) and anyway people trample over flowers to read the labels and they pick them up and put them back in the wrong place and they put them in their handbag instead of writing down the names and there’s always someone around to ask so yar boo sucks.

I paraphrase slightly but you get the gist. Naturally there were loads of plants I wanted to get named and hardly anyone around to ask on a quiet midweek day. And when I found someone I didn’t feel I could drag them round half the garden asking “just one more plant, it’s round here somewhere…”

So, if anyone has any idea what this beauty below is, I’d be very grateful…

Insert name of plant here

Still, this did prove inspirational in another respect. It turns out that you can treat your paying customers with open contempt and they will love you for it! This has encouraged me to take a slightly different tack with the blog.

Look out therefore for the next post: “What’s growing on my allotment? None of your @£!*ing business!” in which I shall give you lots of exciting…

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On the ipod while planning how to spend my first million: The Wonder Stuff / It’s yer money I’m after baby


Look carefully at the bush at the back. Do you see any gooseberries? No, me neither.

The other day I raved about the gooseberry bush I inherited on my plot. Things were progressing nicely, and last week saw me lovingly stroking my near-perfect berries in anticipation of an imminent gourmet treat.
Today I strolled over to the plot to harvest them, ready for my first ever homegrown gooseberry feast. And then I saw it. Or rather, I didn’t. For you see, every single gooseberry on the bush has gone. Disappeared! It’s as if they weren’t ever there!

It appears that there is a thief at the allotment! And this thief has stolen my gooseberries! I saw a comment on My Tiny Plot that mentioned one of the benefits of growing in your garden was that no-one would steal your veggies, but I dismissed this as being overly paranoid. How wrong I was. More fool me for trusting my fellow allotmenteers.

Who would do such a thing? And how could I find them? Fortunately today was also the first allotment barbeque of the summer, which gave me a chance to undertake some detective work.

Normally I’d be warmed by the social interaction and the pleasant chit chat with my fellow growers. But knowing that there was a thief in the crowd darkened my mood. I wasn’t sure how to raise the subject, but I knew I had to. Sure it’s sensitive, but you can’t let people get away with this sort of thing.

Deirdre came over with a large brownish lump on a plate.

“Slice of cake?” she smiled.

“What sort is it?” I muttered distractedly, peering past her to see if I could spot someone evil-looking.

“Gooseberry. I picked them myself!”

That got my attention.

I stared at the woman. Was she brazen enough to steal my gooseberries, bake them and then offer them back to me? Could Deirdre be the Gooseberry Thief?

I fixed her with a piercing glare, hoping to force a confession by sheer strength of will. Nothing. Clearly a hard nut to crack.

“Did you grow these on your plot then, Deirdre?” Let’s see how good the alibi is.

“Oh yes! Gooseberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries. I do so love my soft fruits.” And then she coolly inserted the dagger through my heart: “You should try growing some yourself!”

Who was this Moriarty that stood before me? A hardened criminal who took pleasure in taunting her victims with their lovingly-grown fruit.

“I was growing some, Deirdre. I was going to pick them this weekend, but you know what? When I went over to my plot just now they were all gone. Every last one. Can you believe it?”

I’ll bet you can Deirdre, eh?

“Oh no, that’s terrible.” She can certainly feign sympathy, I’ll give her that. Probably had lots of practice, mind you. “Was it pigeons? I bet it was.”


“Pigeons. We get loads of them here. Horrible things. They eat anything that’s not covered in a net. I can’t tell you how much fruit I’ve lost to them.”

Pigeons. Nice try. Almost had me there, Deirdre.

Will wandered over to join us.

“Oh Will, I was just telling this young man about the pigeons.”

Her accomplice rolled his eyes. “Don’t get me started on the @$&*! Pigeons. I’ve spent half my pension on nets to keep those vermin off my crops. Bastards.”

They’re all at it! Thick as, well, thieves! I thought I’d joined a friendly local community of like-minded vegetable growers. It appears instead that I have stumbled into a viper’s nest of criminals.

I’m going to have to watch my back.

On the ipod while mourning my gooseberries: Public Enemy / 911 is a joke. Apparently you can’t report missing vegetables. Go figure.

Salad leaves

I know! Screw the recipe books and complicated preparation of expensive ingredients: let’s get some leaves and put them in a bowl!  And eat them! Bear with me. I know it sounds crazy but it might just work!

Of all the things I eat, it’s fair to say that salad is one of the less exciting. There’s no great mystery, no magical transformation of ingredients into something thrillingly more than the sum of their parts. Just the picking and eating of some leaves.

And yet. Sometimes even ol’ Drooling can tire of fois gras. Occasionally the thought of oysters rockerfeller again is a bit much. Yes, sometimes the simple taste of a bowl of salad leaves lightly dressed is just right.

This is why several of my vegetable beds are given over to assorted lettuces and leaves. Last summer it was an unexpected success, allowing us to have a daily salad for almost nine months of the year. This was aided by salad guru Charles Dowding recommending some varieties that are particularly hardy in the cooler months.

This year things are off to a good start, although I haven’t quite got the succession planning bit right. The salad in the photo above is on the verge of bolting, but the next batch are only about 1cm high. Might be having slightly smaller portions of salad for a few weeks.

It’s definitely worth growing and it’s one of those veggies that taste massively different when home-grown. I know I’m going to sound like every other gardening bore, but you really can tell the difference. Really! The leaves are crisper and fresh-tasting, although they do tend to wilt a tad quicker than shop-bought lettuce.

I found this out to my cost when attempting to be neighbourly. I generously took a bag of salad leaves over to a friend as a thank you for some forgotten favour. Having picked the gorgeous leaves and tossed them in a bag an hour or two previously I proudly opened said bag to display the garden delights to our neighbour.

She smiled a polite smile, well, more of a wince really, as we both looked in the bag. Hurt by this less-than-effusive reaction, I followed her ungrateful gaze. Dear reader, if I had ironed the salad leaves before placing them in the bag they would have looked more appetising.

Still, if you eat them a little sooner than that after picking them, dressed with a little vinaigrette, you can’t go too far wrong.

Vinaigrette recipe

It’s over-egging it a touch to call this a recipe, but here you go…

8 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp vinegar (red of white wine vinegar works, balsamic is good. Malt vinegar not so much)

1 tsp mustard

That’s the basic vinaigrette. Whizz it all up in a cup with a fork and there you go. Add in other stuff as you fancy – citrus tastes are good (lemon / lime / orange juice), honey adds a sweeter taste and thicker texture, a teaspoon of marmalade is interesting. Try sesame or chilli oil instead of olive. I could go on for hours, but you probably get the picture.

The other joy is that you really can’t go wrong with this. If you get the proportions wrong and it tastes a little oily / tart etc then just add some more of the other ingredients until you get it right. You may end up with too much for tonight’s salad, but it lasts for ages so it won’t go to waste.

Happy tossing…

On the ipod while whisking: MC Solaar / T’inquiete. French rap. Two words you don’t often see next to each other. Some might say there’s a good reason for that. Moi, je dis “porquoi pas?”

Failure. Tasty, but a failure.

Look at this photo. Tell me what you see. Do you see some tasty looking spring onions? Big, fat and bursting with flavour, deep red and beautiful? Do you? Is that what you see?

Well my friend, you are WRONG. I don’t mean to be rude, but you are looking at failure.

A couple of posts ago I eulogised the allium family, praising their versatility and beauty –providers not just of statuesque flowers, but also first rate herbs and vegetables. Unfortunately it appears that one particular member of said family let the praise go to their head and took their eye off the ball. You’re looking at the results above.

I planted a crop of red onion sets back in the spring and sat back waiting for rows of tennis ball-sized bulbs to push themselves up out of the soil. But then I made the mistake of prematurely congratulating them and they promptly stopped trying.

The bulbs were looking elegant in the raised bed and then I noticed the danger signs; little seed heads forming at the top of the tall green spikes. Instead of concentrating hard on growing the bulb at their base they had decided that was too much like hard work. No, being a vegetable was too good for my onions, it seems. They wanted to be flowers.

Such aspiration is bad news for the vegetable gardener. Once the flowers pop out the plant sees the home straight. Its job is done, it can die safe in the knowledge that it has produced seeds to spawn the next generation. And this in turn means that the bulb stops growing and starts slowly deteriorating.

So pretty flowers in the vegetable patch means no more onions. It’s not a disaster, because in their semi-grown state they do make rather grand spring onions, but it’s not quite the crop of daddy-sized onions I had planned.

There’s a moral in here somewhere. It seems that positive reinforcement and encouragement are not always the right approach. Some vegetables will let it go to their head. From now on when I talk to my plants in the greenhouse of an evening I shall be whispering veiled threats and waving bottles of industrial-strength weed killer. No more praise until they come up with the goods.

And then I shall pay them the greatest compliment I know. I shall eat them.

On the ipod while preaching tough love: Carly Simon / You’re so vain. Nuff said.

Snails: know your enemy

45, 46, 47…..48. Not bad for a night’s haul. Just returned from a moonlit sortie in the garden, protecting my poor helpless vegetables from the slimy bogeymen that would otherwise have them for dinner.

Slugs and snails are the biggest problem I have outdoors. Don’t be fooled by the pretty patterns on his shell or the twinkle in his eye, this little bugger and all his ilk are nothing but trouble.

Ever since I started veggie gardening slugs and snails have caused havoc, munching their way through tender seedlings and generally destroying everything. Not only that, but for the committed organic gardener the options for tackling them are pretty poor.

I’ve tried most things, all with minimal success. Beer traps? Messy and not too practical when you’ve got three small boys thundering round the garden. Eggshells? Pointless. Copper tape? Haven’t noticed any effect. Everyone seems to rave about nematodes, little microbes that attack slugs from the inside. Apparently they are staggeringly effective, but unfortunately I’m just too lazy and disorganised to apply them in just the right quantities at just the right times.

My raised beds have made a bit of a difference – perhaps the local slugs are just too lazy to crawl up and have a look at what’s growing. I surrounded them with woodchip, on the basis that it would be unpleasant to slither over. Thought it was working nicely until I found a whole family of slugs sleeping soundly just under the surface.

So that leaves the only thing that works: hunting them down with a torch at night. Catch them unawares, chase them down and…ahem…dispose of them. I won’t go into the details – hey, you might be eating – but trust me, it’s quick and painless.  It’s a bit gross sometimes, I admit, but it gets easier when you realise it’s them or you. Well, your salad leaves.

Damp nights are best, and if you pop out for a few nights in a row then you’ll soon notice the number of slugs and snails decreasing. Victory shall be ours!

Of course, it can get a bit messy, and it’s not for the squeamish. I was returning from a mission at the bottom of the garden last night when I heard a squishy crunch underfoot. Mixed feelings about that, I must confess: on the one hand I could consider another foe vanquished. On the other hand I was barefoot at the time.

On the ipod while cleaning between my toes: Squeeze / Pulling mussels from the shell. Sounds a bit hardcore but it might just work.