You know it’s been a good summer when you breathe a huge sigh of relief on waking to a rainy day. When a gardener needs an excuse to stay indoors it’s fine weather indeed.
My rainy day has been much anticipated as I’ve desperately needed some time catching up with all the indoor gardening jobs piling up while I’ve been busy getting sunburnt resowing the lettuces or planting out a late batch of mangetout seedlings.
The relentless sunshine (see, we Brits can complain about anything) has meant I’ve been desperate for some indoor time to store my ever-burgeoning harvest of seeds, roots and beans. Since the harvest is what it’s all about, it’s a little ironic that I get so behind with it all in late summer. It’s hard to prioritise when the garden is demanding its mid-summer resow too: but instead of wielding a fork and sowing seeds I should be downing tools outside and getting into the kitchen instead.
First on my list were the beans: I’ve had two wigwams to pick this year, good old reliable green ‘Cobra’ and handsome deep purple ‘Cosse Violette’, which took a little while to get going but is now pumping them out faster than we can eat them.
Time to get freezing. Most very fresh vegetables like beans, peas, broad beans and runners can be frozen as soon as they come off the plant: the exception is courgettes which turn into a soggy mush so are best made into chutney or cooked up into soup or pasta sauces before freezing.
I have had many disappointments on the journey to finding the best way of freezing beans so they come out very nearly as good as they go in. They have a nasty habit of turning watery and a little tasteless if you do it wrong.
I don’t process the beans, beyond giving them a quick wash: I don’t even top and tail them, let alone slice them. I just chuck them whole into a big pan of water on a rolling boil to blanch for around two minutes. Then I just scoop them from the water and dunk straight into a bowl of cold water to stop them cooking as quickly as possible. Pat more-or-less dry and pack into freezer trays.
Next up; the beetroot. I like roast beetroot but sadly nobody else in the family does. Normally if the family think they don’t like something I just include it in whatever I’m cooking without telling them, but it is difficult to smuggle beetroot into any dish without anyone noticing as explaining away a vivid pink colouring takes some doing. Luckily we all like pickled beetroot and it’s a doddle to make, so that’s where most of my beetroot end up.
I follow Delia’s recipe for pickled beetroot with shallots; takes half an hour to do tops, and it’s completely delish. And my shallots are conveniently ready to harvest right now, too.
And most excitingly of all, I’ve been branching out into saving more seed this year. I’ve always saved a little of my own seed just for fun: but I’m beginning to think I ought to take it more seriously.
A couple of years ago I got my hands on a packet of ‘Telephone’ peas (also marketed as ‘Alderman’). I was pretty impressed: 6ft high plants, mega-high yields and fat, sweet peas. So I saved myself an envelope full of seed and re-sowed them last year.
Result: turbo-charged growth, even better than the previous year, and super-healthy plants. Might have been the season, I thought. So I saved a few from that second-generation batch of plants too.
This year my Telephone peas have been stupendous. They have grown above head height and made a mockery of the feeble 6ft high peasticks I put in for them. Next year I shall have to use runner-bean-style A-frame pole supports. Might have been the good season again but… it also might have been the fact that I’m now two generations down the line of adapting, ever-so-subtly, to the exact conditions I have in my particular garden.
So to put the theory to the test, this year I let one of my lettuces run to seed. Once it started producing little tufts of white down – rather like thistledown – I cut off the whole stalk and brought it indoors to finish drying (and to make sure the seeds didn’t blow away while I was waiting for them to be ready).
Now it’s started raining I can process them, removing all the bits of stalk and fluff till I have as close to pure seed as you can get if you’re saving your own.
This is a long and very tedious process, so find yourself a good radio programme and settle down to the task. I picked out the stalks by hand, then passed the remaining pile of fluff and seeds through a sieve. Result: seeds plus finer fluff.
This last you can blow, very very gently, off the top (go outdoors if you can as the fluff goes everywhere) till you’re left with mostly-seed to sow next year. Can’t wait to see what happens…