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Life in the sloe lane

Don’t tell anyone I told you this, but if you really can’t be bothered with all that seed-sowing and weeding and tying in and composting you don’t have to do much gardening to get a free supply of food.

Let the brambles grow and you’ll get blackberries by the basketful, and for nothing. And hasn’t it been a bumper year for them this year: the best crop since records began, according to the Woodland Trust. I know we’ve been picking them from the hedgerows in such quantities we’ll be eating blackberry and apple crumble for life. If you don’t happen to live anywhere near a hedgerow, either take a day out into the countryside and go foraging somewhere likely, or plant your own: cultivated varieties like ‘Loch Ness’ have the undeniable advantage of not having thorns, the main reason I can accept for bothering to give garden space to blackberries when there are so many to be had for the picking in the wild.

Rosehips are another delicacy available in hedgerows right now, though rarer: thread a dog rose through your own hedges for a supply, or simply grow a hippy rose. Rosa rugosa has the fattest and tastiest hips, but others you could try include R. spinossissima (the clue’s in the name: ouch. But it does have very fat hips), and R. setipoda with hips like upside-down goblets.

Our hedgerows are also full of blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) another British native and tough as old boots. It’s also extremely thorny (come to think of it, every blimmin’ thing you pick from the hedgerows is prickly as hell. Perhaps its their way of making you work for it after all. Or at least suffer, which is just another way of paying for being too lazy to do the gardening).

Its take-no-prisoners robustness is one of the reasons it’s so good if you have a coastal garden: there are hedges of the stuff along the tops of cliffs on the south coast of the Isle of Wight, where the wind doesn’t get much blowier. Walking along behind the wall of gnarled black stems and vicious thorns it’s as sheltered as a summer’s day: if you have an exposed garden, especially on the coast, this is the one for you (though buy a good pair of gauntlets along with your plants).

Quite apart from its usefulness and the pretty, frothy white spring blossom, in autumn buckthorn is laden with fat, dusky blue-black sloes, this year (just like the blackberries) more heavily than since I can remember. You wait until they have a slight powdery bloom on them – a little like a blueberry – and ideally a little frost, though that’s not always possible here in the south-west as we rarely have frosts before December these days (if at all) and by then the sloes will be past their best. Once they look right, just pick them in their hundreds.

They are horrid. Bitter as a Conservative candidate in Clacton, they extract all fluid from your mouth before turning it inside out if you try to eat them raw. So what’s a girl to do? Buy a bottle of gin, that’s what.

Sloe gin has now ousted sherry at Christmas in our house. Warm, fruitily syrupy, richly flavoured and dangerously drinkable, it could have been invented solely for the festive season, if only to give you a tearing hangover by Boxing Day.

It’s easy as pie to make: collect about a pound of sloes (450g if you were born after 1980), then prick the skins all over with a needle to release the juices. Pack them into a sterilised jar (sterilise by washing in hot water then baking in the oven for 10 minutes at 100°C), then add half a pound of sugar (225g) and a litre bottle of gin. Seal and shake well.

Pop the jar in a cupboard and make a note to yourself to shake it every day for a week. After that you can slack off to about once a week for the next two or three months. Finally when you’ve had enough, strain it through a muslin into a sterilised (see above) bottle: and there’s your sloe gin.

You can drink it right away but it won’t taste anything like as good as if you lay it down, rather like a bottle of good wine, for as long as you can bear to. We left one bottle for three years once and it was like nectar once we came to drink it at last – an exercise in self-restraint, but well worth the wait.

Brandy and schnapps work just as well as gin if you want to ring the changes. And for the teetotals among you, or indeed anyone who has a surfeit of sloes and is worried about what the local shop staff are going to think if you go in for yet another litre of gin, there are lots of other things you can do with them too: sloe jelly sounds particularly scrumptious, as does sloe chutney; and best of all, you can use the leftover sloes after steeping in gin to make sloe chocolate. Now that’s what I call lush.

Raspberry ‘Autumn Bliss’

Just from time to time, while footling about in the garden, you pop something in your mouth in passing and everything stops while you’re transported into another plane of total ecstasy. The kind of closed-eyes, blissed-out ‘mmmmmm’ moment that only people who grow their own food get to experience.

Oh, all right, I’ve seen a similar expression on the faces of student friends who popped over to enjoy a chocolate fondue (a monster bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, perhaps a Toblerone or two, and a carton of double cream, plus marshmallows and Mars Bars to dip in. We really knew how to live in the ’80s).

But chocolate fondues, while one of those essential bucket-list experiences everyone should have at least once in a lifetime, are not something you can do every day (not if you want to live past 30, anyway). Whereas eating an overflowing fistful of perfectly ripe, plump raspberries fresh from the cane most certainly is.

Round about mid-August, my sworn allegiance to the strawberry as my all-time favourite fruit starts to wobble as the first fruits of my summer raspberries, ‘Glen Ample’, start appearing on the canes. By now, when the far heavier-cropping ‘Autumn Bliss’ is in full flow as well, I have treacherously handed over my heart fully and passionately to the raspberry.

I secretly prefer autumn raspberries, though I do grow both types. Summer raspberries are prima donnas: they crop fitfully for me, and I’ve never quite understood why it’s accepted wisdom that summer varieties are heavier yielding and more reliable. Perhaps it’s because I’m a softy southerner (summer raspberries are also said to do better in cooler climates) but I’ve always found quite the opposite: autumn raspberries start being productive sooner, crop more heavily and go on for weeks longer than summer ones.

In fact my ‘Glen Ample’ canes are going to have to pull their little raspberry fingers out if they want to cling on to garden space in my fruit patch. Even more so since I recently discovered double cropping: a crafty little pruning technique which means you can have raspberries from July to the first frosts, from the same canes. If space is limited, it’s the only way to grow.

Autumn-fruiting raspberries are usually pruned just once a year, in midwinter: you just work your way along the row, take out all the canes down to the ground, and that’s it. They fruit on this year’s new growth (unlike summer raspberries, which fruit on one-year-old stems), so the new canes which emerge in spring will bear that year’s fruit.

Now forget all that and throw the pruning book out the window. There’s another way of doing it that brings the harvesting season well into summer – giving you months more berries.

It’s pretty straightforward. At the end of autumn, instead of cutting the whole stand to the ground, prune out only the canes which have fruited, leaving the others in the ground (a little like you would for summer types).

These grow on into next year, fruiting much earlier than usual and giving you your summer crop. Next spring’s shoots still emerge, just as they would normally, giving you an autumn crop, too. Et voilĂ : summer and autumn raspberry crops on the same canes.

You can do this with just about any autumn raspberry variety. Most will yield a higher weight of fruit under a double-cropping system: in a recent Which? trial the ‘Autumn Bliss’ harvest rocketed from 2.5kg on a conventional system, to 5.75kg when double-cropped. And anything which more than doubles your raspberry-eating pleasure has got to be worth a try.

Cucumbers still dripping fruit: the tomatilloes are at the end, with 'Red Snackbite' peppers and 'Black Beauty' aubergines on the left

I had a bit of a tidy-up in the greenhouse this month. Goodness knows it needed it: weeds everywhere, the cucumbers in a spaghetti junction of a tangle and the tomatilloes (of which more in a minute) lurching drunkenly across the aubergines.

The tomatoes have been recovering from their bad start in Greenhouse no. 2: ‘Ferline’ is looking particularly splendid and I do like the big, fat toms you get (not exceptional flavour, but cropping well despite the blight which is always a plus). This is one I’ll be growing again.

I also tried a couple of American heirloom varieties this year as they were feted for their supposed blight resistance. Well; you can keep your ‘Tommy Toe’: it never once got past the weedy stage, even as a seedling, and didn’t even make it to the kind of size where blight becomes an issue. I don’t think it likes it here in the UK. ‘Old Brooks’ was more promising, but fell foul of the terminal delay in getting the plants in the ground this year: I’ll try them again next season I think.

If you can grow tomatoes, you can grow tomatilloes, and mine this year have been spectacularly successful. The last time I tried I wrote them off as really not worth the bother: tiny yields plus huge plants equals bad use of greenhouse space.

So fat it's bursting from its skin: this one is ripe for salsa'ing

But I’m always willing to be proved wrong, and this year my tomatilloes have been huge, sprawling behemoths laden with fruit so fat they are splitting open their Chinese lantern carapaces.

I have no particular explanation for the sudden change in fortunes: the soil here in Somerset does tend to be damper than most, and we have had an exceptionally good summer this year. But whatever the reason, it’s completely changed my mind about these Mexican beauties.

The green variety – like the ones I’m growing this year – are said to have the best flavour for salsa (my main reason for growing them), though the purple ones are undeniably prettier. They’re tart, a little acid, and complement tomatoes and coriander to perfection. You can also slice them thinly to add a citrussy high note for salads, and add them to guacamole and gazpacho. Basically, if they’re likely to cook it in Mexico or anywhere in South America, it’s likely to have tomatilloes in it. I’m told you can make jam with the sweeter purple varieties – a tempting prospect, so I might just have to have one of each next year.

Still more flowers - so more to look forward to I hope!

This late in the season it becomes more and more difficult to keep plants in the greenhouse happy. They’re hugely leafy, and at their greediest just when the soil is exhausted from all that hell-for-leather growth at the early part of the season.

Pests have had all season to build up their numbers and often attack with a vengeance in September: I’ve been battling the red spider mites all summer and have only just managed to beat them back by the slightly drastic method of picking off all the affected leaves. It’s worked though: the cucumbers just sprouted more, healthier foliage and are back to producing prolific fruits again.

The tomatilloes in particular are clearly finding end-of-summer life rather difficult. I’ve had to truss them up to keep them off the aubergines next door, and they’ve developed a worrying nutrient deficiency. Judging from the yellowing leaves with brilliant green veins (you can just about see one in the background in the picture on the left) I’d say it’s magnesium deficiency (if you ever need to diagnose a suspected nutrient deficiency, here’s a handy at-a-glance guide).

The usual solution is a dose of Epsom salts, and since we have a good five weeks or so of good growing weather left (I hope!) that’s what I’ve given them. Whether it’ll kick in before the plants run out of puff is anyone’s guess. But in any case, I already have a big pot of the fattest tomatilloes I’ve ever grown, and it’s making me come over all Mexican. You ain’t tried salsa till you’ve tried it made with home-made tomatilloes. Here’s how:

Authentic Mexican salsa
You will need:
400g tomatilloes
a small onion
a good fistful of fresh coriander
a fresh chilli
1tsp brown sugar

This is one of those serendipitous recipes where all the ingredients are ready fresh from the garden all at once, so start by popping outside to cut a fistful of fresh coriander, pluck a ripe chilli from the plant, pull an onion off the string you dried earlier and of course fill a bowl with ripe tomatilloes.

Some cook the tomatilloes before using – cover with water and boil for five minutes – to take the edge off the piquant sourness of the tomatilloes, but I prefer mine raw.

Cut the tomatilloes and onion into quarters and finely chop the coriander and chilli. Bung the lot into a food processor and whizz it till it’s turned into salsa. Taste it and if it’s a little tart for you, add the sugar and whizz again. Spoon out into a glass bowl and serve with tortillas, hot chilli, fresh salad, sour cream and guacamole… mmmmm….

Big is beautiful

A monster lurks in the shrubbery....

Look what I found in the pumpkin patch.

Isn’t it the fattest, plumpest, most pumpkiny pumpkin you ever did see?

You can probably guess I’m inordinately proud of it: I suspect it may even be the biggest pumpkin I’ve ever grown. I even measured it: 115cm – that’s nearly four feet – around the girth, in case you’re interested. I don’t have the scales to weigh it, even if I could lift it up, which I can’t.

Actually, you can work out a guesstimate of the weight of a pumpkin from its circumference: an even better way is to measure its OTT (Over The Top) – the distance from blossom end to stem end, plus the distance from the ground on one side, across the top of the pumpkin to the ground on the other. You then use the figures with an OTT table to figure out the weight of your pumpkin.

Or, if you’re me and can’t be bothered and don’t in any case need to know to the nearest ounce, just measure your circumference and use the circumference chart instead. By this reckoning my baby weighs a cool 18.3kg (40.3lbs). Not bad.

Growing big pumpkins, rather like producing 11ft sunflowers or mind-blowingly fat marrows, defies all logic. What I’m going to do with the best part of 40 lbs of pumpkin flesh I have no idea. I don’t even like pumpkin that much. But I don’t care: it’s so damn satisfying.

Minus the shading leaves, and after turning the pumpkin over as it was growing 'stem down', this side should turn as red as the other

I’m hoping this one might change my mind about the eating value, mind you. It’s ‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes’: and as regular readers will know, if it’s French, I’ll grow it, on the grounds that les grenouilles know a thing or two about good food and are incapable of contemplating a vegetable variety without exceptional flavour. Even better, the French are still growing it and loving it at least 180 years after its debut in Parisian markets. It’s described as milder than most pumpkins (great: pumpkins are usually so sweet they overpower any dish you put them in) and a great base for soups. So far, so promising.

Of course, my ‘giant’ is puny compared to the real monsters, the Hundredweights and what have you. It’s not long till pumpkin competition season now, and we’ve already been promised a potential new UK record holder to beat the 689.5kg (1520lb) behemoth produced last year by Mark Baggs in Dorset.

Even that beast – requiring a horsebox and forklift truck to move it – is a mere squirt by comparison to the world record holder grown by Ron Wallace of Massachusetts USA: 911.27kg, or 2,009lbs to you sir. Well, they have more sunshine over there.

But I don’t really need, or want, over 900 kilos of pumpkin flesh. Imagine all the soup. So I’m quite happy with my own quiet little triumph, a Sally’s Garden record holder at least, and as much pumpkin as anyone could reasonably get through in a season.

Before I cut it away to bear triumphantly into the kitchen, though, there’s some work to be done. Pumpkins have quite soft skins at this stage in their growing lives, and if you’re going to store them for any length of time you have to ‘cure’, or ripen, the outer layer so it hardens into a carapace protecting the flesh within. Do it properly, and your pumpkin will last for months and months – I’ve used particularly good keepers in late spring before with no appreciable loss of freshness.

Finally: up on bricks to ripen in the September sunshine

This technique works for winter squash, too, though some (like butternuts) store less well than others (like Turk’s Turban, perhaps, or Kabocha). When I say less well, I mean for three months rather than six; so just eat your stored butternuts first and you’ll never even notice.

1: Remove the leaves covering your fruit so it’s fully exposed to the sun. Don’t completely strip the plant: just remove enough leaves to expose your fruit.

2: Hitch the fruit up onto bricks, bits of wood or whatever you have to hand: a pallet works well for really huge pumpkins. The idea is that you lift the skin clear of the ground (and therefore slugs and dampness can’t damage it) – and at the same time allow air to circulate underneath too.

3: Turn smaller pumpkins and squashes by about a quarter every few days, to ripen the fruit evenly (to avoid twisting the stem right off, just revolve it 180 degrees one way, then 180 degrees back again). I’ve never quite figured out how you’re supposed to do this with a giant pumpkin: my guess is, judging by the undeniably squished shape of most whoppers, you don’t.

4: If you haven’t already pinched out smaller fruits through the season, do so now. You want to leave around three or four maturing fruits on your vine and remove any pale, small fruits now: they’ll never reach full size anyway, given how late in the season it is, and you want your plant concentrating all its efforts on the fruit it already has.

5: After a couple of weeks of this, the colour should be fully developed – deep burnt red for my ‘Rouge Vif’s or a lovely warm orange for Hundredweights and Autumn Giants – and the fruit should sound hollow when you knock it. The stem may be starting to look a little shrivelled and dry too. At this point, cut the fruit with around 10cm of stem and bring it indoors to keep somewhere cool (but frost free) and dry.

Well here’s a pretty mess.

This is my strawberry patch. As you can see, it’s become a little enthusiastic of late. In fact it may not be too much of an exaggeration to say it’s run amok, thrown off the veneer of respectability and is having a riotous party hovering somewhere between anarchy and abject chaos.

The trouble is, I’ve let the law and order slip: I haven’t got round to snipping off my runners and they’ve been breeding like rabbits. This should be a weekly job during summer, and I’ll probably pay for my laziness next year, as the parents have become so keen on making babies they’ll be far too exhausted to produce me any nice strawbs. On the plus side, they’re growing so thickly the weeds haven’t had a look-in.

Letting your strawberry patch grow into a mat might seem tempting: after all, you get a ton of free strawberry plants which obligingly plant themselves. But when it all gets tangled up quite this much, each individual plant has barely space to breathe, let alone spread out its leaves to the sun and make strawberries.

Overcrowded plants are vulnerable to diseases like botrytis which thrives among humid, closely-packed foliage. They don’t have room to produce a decent crop of fruit, and – call me a control freak if you must – when the generations are all jumbled up like this you simply don’t know your babies from your teenagers. Knowing the age of your strawberry plants matters: any older than three and they’re long past producing jam-making quantities and sliding into carpet-slippers-and-can’t-be-bothered middle age.

So I replace my strawberry plants at the end of year three. If you’re organised, this is easy: just pot up some strawberry runners in the summer to replace the parents come November (unless you suspect your parent plants of virus – in which case buy in new, clean stock).

But if they’re all tangled up like this, who knows which is last year’s baby, which is this year’s offspring and which are the parents. It’s all a bit hippy commune, and though I’m secretly a bit of a hipster myself – I’ll admit to no more than the Tangerine Dream albums and knowing all the words to Big Yellow Taxi – we all know that when the flower children take charge it rarely ends well.

Time to restore a little order. It’s a good time of year to clear up your strawberry patch anyway, after fruiting and just before winter so you can tuck them up snugly at the same time. Here’s my routine:

1: Feel back along the still-attached runners to find the parent plants and detach all the babies. My neighbours suddenly start being particularly nice to me at this time of year: I think I must have contributed to most of the strawberry patches in Somerset by now.

2: Once you’ve reclaimed your original strawberry population, remove any straw or matting mulches and cart them off to the compost heap.

3: Next have a good weed-through: satisfying, this bit.

4: Take your secateurs and cut off all the raggedy old top growth from the year, leaving a little bright green tuft of new leaves at the centre of each plant. It tidies things up no end, but more importantly you remove any pests or fledgling fungal infections building up on those old past-it leaves.

5: Stick your finger in the soil. This may get you odd looks from the neighbours, but it’s a great way of finding out how much water there is by your plants’ roots. If it feels damp, don’t water; but if it’s really dry, give the plants a good soak.

6: Finish off with a nice thick mulch of garden compost, a bit like tucking it up in a blanket for winter. A 5cm layer locks that moisture in, keeps weeds out and settles your patch for its cold-weather slumber. Do pull it back from the actual crowns of the plants though – they’re a little prone to rotting if they’re damp.

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