Wednesday April 30th 2008, 4:06 pm

free veg plants I found through freecycle

I’ve got a few friends who are fantastic gardeners. They have years of experience and dedication behind them and they seem to know the right time to plant everything and generally get it all done on time. Their earth is always dug ready for planting, their seeds get sown on time and their seedlings are planted out before they show the slightest signs of stress (plant or human).
Unlike them, my ambitions are always much greater than what I manage to achieve. Last year, my planned tomato terrace of unusual heritage varieties didn’t quite come off. I started them all off from seed, the plants were doing ever so well but just when I needed to pot them on, on to the ‘terrace’, my attention was diverted for a few weeks and that was that. The plants tried their best to flourish in their tiny pots but without divine intervention they didn’t stand a chance.
That is just one example where time and other commitments took precedence over my gardening schedule. Still, it is always better to dwell on the successes rather than the failures isn’t it?. More recently I have been examining my ‘style’ of gardening in order to find other ways around these problems. Of course in the ideal world we would all follow the rules as told by wise old gardeners with knowledge handed down through the generations, or, at the very least, by following those charts with coloured coded ‘sow’, ‘plant out’ and (hopefully) ‘harvest’ bars. There are thousands of gardening books out there spelling out the ideal scenario.
I have mentioned before that I am fast becoming a fan of buying ready grown veg plants when you only need a handful of plants but yesterday I went one better. I belong to my local Freecycle group. For anyone who doesn’t know what Freecycle is, it is a global network, split into local and regional groups, whose main aim is to prevent reusable things from being discarded and sent to landfill. Since I have been a member I have seen caravans, wood burning stoves and even condoms! change hands. It is a great way of recycling stuff, getting rid of things and acquiring other things you didn’t realise you wanted.
Plantstuffs, which don’t really fit into the landfill remit, occasionally come up for grabs, as well as bean poles, peasticks and plant pots. A constant stream of emails all day long can become a little annoying but the advantage of opting for immediate updates is that you can be first to bag a bargain. Yesterday someone was offering a few trays of vegetable plants that were surplus to requirements and I was able to go and collect them straight away.
It seems to me that this is just the most brilliant way to do things, for people to always plant more seeds than they need and then to swap the excess for something else they don’t have time to sow. I know this goes on to some degree already on gardening forums etc and seed exchanging is quite established but I’m sure that with grow your own veg becoming increasingly fashionable combined with the technology we now have at our fingertips, plant swapping makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, I still don’t know where the seed potatoes are going to be planted and the clock is ticking.

Roland - my gardening helper

Saturday April 26th 2008, 7:30 am

planting seeds in paper pots

I have just ordered some Nemoslug and I am feeling in two minds about it. Nemoslug, in case you have never heard of it before, is a biological slug killer which when watered in, introduces nematodes into the soil which in turn kill the slugs that are lurking underground. It arrives in the post in a small box, but as it is full of living organisms, it has a limited shelf life and needs to be kept in the fridge and used within two weeks. So long as the soil is the right temperature and so long as there isn’t a heat wave which dries the soil out, the nemotodes get to work, thus in theory creating a 6 week window of opportunity for seedlings to avoid slug damage for just long enough to be well on their way. It isn’t particularly cheap and they do recommend that you give the soil more than one treatment.
Now this of course is all good stuff. Slugs and snails are the bain of a gardeners life and it is soul destroying when your nurtured crops dissapear overnight and you are left doubting your own sanity, ‘I’m sure there were some seedlings growing there yesterday, but perhaps I imagined it?’ So what is my problem with Nemoslug?
Some people say it works and others say it doesn’t. There are alsorts of uncontrollable variables as regards the conditions which will make it work effectively or not and as all the work is carrying on unseen underground anyway it isn’t as if you can be sure that anything is happening at all. It is intriguing that some of us are trusting enough to hand over money for a product that only might work and comes with not a single guarantee. As an entrepreneur myself, it is certainly one of those products which I only wish I had invented, that and the water filter. At what point do you add up what you are spending on growing your own food and say, ‘This is costing me a fortune!’

a paper pot made from The Guardian

Anyway, enough of that. As I have very little luck when sowing directly into the ground, I have been busy starting my seeds in pots, making my own pots using a Paper Potter. At least with this ingenious invention, once you’ve bought it, it goes on working for ever more and uses up waste paper at the same time. I did get rather carried away, starting by making pots out of newspaper, then using the colours and fonts to get creative. The weekend Guardian is really good for this as it is well designed making it easy to find lovely headings and typefaces to use. I also found some cheap wrapping paper in the shed which made even fancier pots as well as some wicker-patterned paper for pots that look like baskets. Thankfully, at this point I told myself to get a grip. Using the Paper Potter you can make pots for your seedlings out of any waste paper of a newsprint quality that will absorb water and biodegrade.
Here’s how you make them.

paper pots that look like baskets


Tuesday April 22nd 2008, 7:05 am

a plate of lovely almond macaroons

My Mum lives 160 miles away so every morning we speak on the webcam. The other day she was trying to remember someone’s name but, though on the tip of her toungue, the words just couldn’t be found. ‘Oh you know…., Enid Blyton….’ she kept saying, to which I replied, ‘Do you mean Delia Smith?’, and she said ‘yes, that’s who I mean’. This made me laugh out loud, but the more I have thought about it since, the more perfect this juxtaposition becomes.
So in order to find a peg to hang my latest blog post on, here is a recipe for macaroons, which I feel sure would have made fitting fare for The Famous Five (don’t try saying that in a hurry). The ones I’ve made are almond macaroons but they can also be made with coconut or hazelnuts and, I must admit, any variation appeals to me.
Freshly made macaroons are just heavenly and are my new discovery. They are so quick to make, you’ll wonder why you don’t make them on a regular basis. Are they a biscuit, are they a cake? The main thing is not to overcook them. They can bear to be undercooked and squidgy but once high baked they become so hard they hurt your teeth. The first time I made them I lined the baking tray with rice paper because it seemed a nice traditional touch and I just happened to have a packet in the cupboard that had been there for a very long time unopened so it was an oportunity to use it up, but I wont bother in future as that detail has no bearing whatsoever on the finished article.
I’m not sure though that they make a fitting accompaniment to lashings of ginger beer but a cup of tea does the job nicely.

Almond Macaroons – makes 14

150 g ground almonds
200 g caster sugar
3 egg whites
1 level Tbsp plain flour
1 tsp of good quality amond extract
7 blanched almonds, halved

Pre heat the oven to Mk3, 160C, 325F.
Mix the almonds and sugar then stir in the egg whites, followed by the flour and extract. Place dessert spoonfuls, spaced apart on a baking tray. Push a halved almond on the top of each macaroon and bake for 20 – 25 minutes till just starting to appear golden. Keep you eye on them, you don’t want them to be overcooked. Leave to cool on a wire rack. They firm up as they cool.

almond macaroons and tea

Thursday April 17th 2008, 10:02 am

paper friand cases

I first came across friands when travelling in Australia and New Zealand. These little cakes seemed as common as muffins over there, served in coffee shops everywhere I went, and yet I had never heard of them before. Presuming them to be of French origin I thought I’d look them up when I got home, expecting to find them referred to in Elizabeth David or some such. After extensive research and unable to find any mention of them anywhere, I had to surmise that they are in fact an Australasian invention with a French sounding name.
They are similar to a little French cake called a financier, made with ground nuts as the main ingredient and very little flour. This of course results in a lovely moist cake. They are easy to make, thrown together with the butter melted not creamed (what can be easier than that?) and the mixture is barely combined. The nuts and egg whites make them slightly superior to a muffin ( whilst a muffin looks up to a friand but down to a fairy cake – the fairy cake says ‘I know my place’), but the extent of their variations with different nuts and added fruits means they are just as versatile. A perfect cafe cake or a special little treat to serve up when a friend calls round for tea.
They have become a bit of an obsession of mine and I have collected lots of recipes. Having said that they are a cinch to make, I am in fact starting with a recipe that calls for a fair bit of extra messing about, which isn’t usually what is required but it seems like a good opportunity to use up some more rhubarb.
For these rhubarb friands the fruit is added to each one in the form of an frozen cube made of rhubarb puree. Subsequently you have to think ahead, making and freezing the cubes beforehand. When the cake mixture is spooned into the tins a cube of puree is popped into the centre of each one prior to baking. It is an interesting idea as it keeps the filling together in the middle of the cake. Freezing fruit puree like this is a good way of preserving fruits when there is a plentiful supply for use later out of season. If you think this is just too much faffing about, you could try putting a teaspoonful of rhubarb compote in the middle of each one and hope it doesn’t ooze out all over the place.
Here is the recipe.

a rhubarb friand

Tuesday April 15th 2008, 11:32 pm

zinnia textile print from The Laundry

I’ve just found a box full of zinnia seed packets that I bought several years ago to give away to promote The Laundry’s zinnia bedlinen. I have kept the box in the bottom of the fridge for most of that time. I love these flowers as they grow in such great colour combinations from brassy yellow to burnt orange to mucky pink.

I haven’t had a great success growing zinnias myself though each year I get that bit better at it and am hoping to crack it this year. The trouble is that slugs absolutely love the seedlings so you need to either be very lucky, or more likely use a combination of vigilance and cunning to outwit them. Last years attempt did result in a handful of lovely blooms but the leaves below them weren’t anything to be proud of and to reach that stage I had started the seeds off in pots, planted them out, each one in a plastic tube made from a recycled water bottle edged with copper tape, positioned them close to slug traps that needed to be replenished with beer at regular intervals and sprinkled organic slug-away, slug-off or whatever the acceptable eco friendly slug pellets are called, on the soil surrounding them. Granted it was a very wet summer, so that didn’t help, but surely it’s not meant to be quite that difficult.

Now seven months on, the agony seems to be but a distant memory and this year I am again visualising vases of zinnias filling my house by late summer ’08 and a zinnia supply so plentiful I’ll be giving bunches away to my neighbours as well.

First things first though. Are these seeds even worth bothering with? Not knowing whether the seeds would still be viable after 5 or more years I thought it best to do a viability test to decide whether chucking them on the compost heap would be a better option. Luckily zinnia seed, if kept under suitable conditions, can stay viable for 7 or more years.

To test them I took a piece of paper kitchen roll and sprayed it with water so it was somewhere between damp and wet, then placed 20 seeds, evenly spaced out, on the towel. Multiples of 10 make it easy to work out the viability percentage but obviously if you don’t have many seeds to begin with use fewer.

The kitchen roll was then carefully rolled up, the roll placed in a sealed polythene bag, the bag placed in a warm airing cupboard, in the dark. That was on Saturday. Today, 3 days later, I thought I’d have a look see how they were doing, and lo and behold when I unrolled the towel, all 20 seeds had germinated. This is a really impressive result considering that seeds are supposed to lose significant viability as each year passes. So the seeds are raring to go.


Thursday April 03rd 2008, 7:02 pm

rhubarb in abundance

I wish I could say that the rhubarb in the picture above, growing in such abundance it is flowing over the fence, was mine, but it isn’t. It belongs to my neighbours and I am suffering a serious case of rhubarb envy. Of course in gardening there are some things you can’t possibly cheat. Trying to control nature is like King Canute turning back the tide – it aint going to happen. When you plant rhubarb all the books and any expert gardener will tell you, the first year you mustn’t pull off any stems and the second year you can harvest but only sparingly as the crown takes that long to become established and strong.
I thought that my two rhubarb plants which went in last year were doing really well and was looking forward to a crop of some sort in the months ahead, if only a handful of stalks. I’d be happy with just one rhubarb crumble to keep me sweet till next year. But on closer inspection I realised that what I thought were leaves all knubbling up and ready to unfurl were in fact flowers.

rhubarb starting to flower

I have seen the flowers on sale in smart London florists and when fully grown they are really fabulous, towering and architectural (if a little wierd) but when growing rhubarb for culinary purposes they are not at all desirable. They sap all the strength from the plant and if not removed as soon as you see them appear can mean that the plant will never ever recover properly. My rhubarb could be destined for a life with chronic fatigue syndrome if I don’t take immediate action. Then to add insult to injury, I noticed my neighbours rhubarb, so full of vim and vigour it looks set to leap over the fence.
So again it is a lesson in patience that nature kindly teaches. I’ve removed the flowers and will need to keep removing any more that appear and just hope that with some TLC next year I will be rewarded. I have read somewhere that you can eat the flowers, (DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME!) and they do look a bit like calabrese, but I think I’ll give it a miss as everything ever written about rhubarb shreiks about the leaves being poisonous and NOT TO EAT THEM. In the meantime, luckily for me, only one of my neighbours, in the house with the plentiful supply, likes rhubarb so I have been told to help myself to theirs. So expect a few rhubarb recipes in the coming weeks.

you must cut the flowers of rhubarb