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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.

Rainy day gardening

Purple French beans cooling off after a bit of a blanch

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.

Beetroot pickled in hot vinegar and peppercorns and packed into a Kilner jar. Yum.

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.

Lettuce seed stalks waiting for some patient soul to come and sort the seed from the chaff

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…

Turnip ‘Purple Top Milan’

Turnips get a bad press.

In the minds of many they’re only one step up from cow food. They’re fall-backs, winter staples, the kind of thing you only eat if you really have to and there’s absolutely nothing else left on the veg rack. Peasant food, in fact: in fact I’m pretty sure harvesting turnips is what the peasants in the Holy Grail were doing.

It’s not the turnip’s fault. Yes, it’s been used to feed animals, and you still get sheep let onto turnip fields to eat the tops – but you shouldn’t hold that against the poor vegetable. It was also your standard peasant potato in the Middle Ages, before Sir Francis Drake arrived back from South America with an odd-looking Peruvian root vegetable in his pocket. Tudor peasants ate turnips with everything, which somewhat explains the poor-man’s-veg tag. It’s been a bit sneered at ever since; the infamous ‘Turnip Head’ jibe to England manager Graham Taylor in 1992 is just one example of being rude to turnips.

But it’s hardly fair on a veg that’s actually a lot nicer than most people think it is. Perhaps it’s time we had a bit of a revival. After all we did it for kale – also an animal feed before the foodies got hold of it.

It’s not even like it’s ugly. Celeriac – now that’s a veg which ought to have an image problem. All those warts and hairy bits. Yet the foodies can’t get enough of it. So it should be easy with something as pretty as a turnip: just look at it, blush pink on the top, shading to pearly white below. Gorgeous.

And the flavour: earthy with umame overtones (the fifth sense; a sort of savoury. You have to get in a bit of Guardianista food columnist jargon if you’re going to hook in the Jamie Olivers and the Gordon Ramsays of this world). It reminds me of some of the milder oriental vegetables: komatsuna, perhaps, or maybe chrysanthemum greens (shungiku). And it doesn’t come much more hip ‘n’ trendy than orientals.

A lot of people don’t know what to do with them, of course. Actually, they’re pretty versatile: just think parsnips. Whatever you can do to a parsnip, you can do to a turnip too. Roast them, mash them with carrot (yum) or sometimes potato; make wonderful warming soups from them or braise them gently in chicken stock and herbs. Or – our favourite way of eating winter vegetables bar none – cut into large cubes, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper and sprigs of rosemary and bake them in a big tray with squash, potatoes, carrots for around 45 minutes. It’s a meal in itself.

You can also eat the leafy greens, or ‘tops’, like an unusual umame side vegetable (Jamie and Gordon, I hope you’re paying attention) steamed lightly rather like spinach. Sow now and you probably won’t get the roots (unless you grow the super-fast ‘Tokyo Cross’ and it’s a mild autumn) – but you will get turnip greens for picking right through till December.

Turnips are wondrously easy to grow: I start an early crop in modules in February or early March to transplant outside in April, but after April you can just sow them direct. The slugs don’t much like the foliage, though the caterpillars do so I usually pop a bit of fleece over the top. They’ll soldier on steadily more or less whatever you do: pull them during summer at around tennis ball size, or leave to grow a little larger (when the flavour is also stronger) and pull in autumn to store in boxes of damp sand over winter.

Oh, and PS: if you are sitting in Edinburgh reading this you will by now be very puzzled. By turnip I mean the small white root vegetable. In Scotland, where they have turned being contrary into a fine art (sorry, I know, that’s several extra ‘yes’ votes, but I don’t care, it’s true) turnips, or ‘neeps’ refers to swedes, the big orange turnip-like vegetables which nobody else calls turnips apart from the Scots. And swedes are turnips. So none of the above will make any sense to you whatsoever. Sorry.

My greenhouses are the engine rooms of my garden.

I have two: both six-by-eights, or in modern parlance 1.8m x 2.4m. Aluminium, pretty bog standard, and I love them both.

Neither cost me much: I just kept an eye on the small ads in the local paper (Freecycle is another happy hunting ground). The first cost me £30 as long as I came along with a willing husband to dismantle it; the second came free with the house, though it was in a bit of a state so I’ve had to move it, dig up the crappy gravel-and-plastic-bags floor and replace most of the glass.

It’s still not enough: under Percy Thrower’s Law, which states that whatever size greenhouse you have it will always be too small, I am now hatching plans to acquire one of those temporary pop-up greenhouses so I can evict my seedling trays when it’s time to put the tomatoes in the ground, as this year things have really gone wrong on the tomato front following a traffic jam on the seedling benches in greenhouse no. 1.

But failing a third greenhouse – and in any case, if I get one it’ll be a polytunnel – I have to manage with what I’ve got. It changes, rather wonderfully, every month, so I thought I’d follow the example of Helen, The Patient Gardener, who has a monthly meme looking at what’s going on inside her greenhouse. Here’s what’s happening right now:

The busiest greenhouse: it's a jungle in there...

Here she is: the ‘main’ greenhouse, by which I mean the one that’s successful. Cucumbers groaning under the strain of all the fruit on the right; also in here are aubergines, peppers and tomatilloes at the back.

But this month has been all about drying onions.

It’s been a good onion year: sun plus a spot or two of rain and mine are about as enormous as they’ve ever been. I have perennial onion bulbils, a rather pathetic garlic crop (after my outbreak of rust earlier this year), maincrop onions and shallots, all spread out across both greenhouses and getting thoroughly in the way.

My prize specimens have been my ‘Stuttgarter Giant’ - a sort of beginner’s show onion. Not quite as large as, say, ‘Bedfordshire Champion’ or ‘Ailsa Craig’ but satisfyingly eyecatching nonetheless: around 15cm across each, with a handsomely flattened, golden-skinned bulb.

Top left: perennial onion bulbils. Top right and bottom left: 'Stuttgarter' onions. Bottom right: 'Golden Gourmet' shallots (a bit feeble and certainly not as good as the 'Picasso')

Actually though I’m inordinately proud of them, large onions aren’t terribly practical in the kitchen. If you’re cooking a recipe which calls for two onions, you’re fine: just use one of your big ‘uns. But normally you just want one, medium-sized onion, and large ones like these have little to do with moderation. You end up with fridge salad compartment syndrome: when you get half an onion mouldering away in your salad compartment and by the time you find it again it’s much too late.

So I might just go for a smaller variety next year. On my must-try-again list are the ‘Picasso’ shallots I grew for the first time this year: wonderful big, fat things, almost as good as the ‘Hative de Niort’ ones I grew a few years ago (and that is high praise indeed coming from a Francophile like me).

This are the 'Picasso' shallots: the size of small onions and beautifully plump

The only real disappointment has been the ‘Electric‘ autumn-sown onions. We have eaten them all now: but they were a disappointing pale pink instead of the deep red I had hoped for. I shall not be planting them again: instead I’m including one of the good red maincrops in next year’s planting, something like ‘Red Baron’, maybe. To grow the really sweet red onions, like the Italian ‘Rossa Savonese’ or ‘Red Brunswick’, you’ll have to sow from seed: more patience than I’ve got, but I might yet be converted (we really like red onions).

I bring them in around now, once the stems have collapsed into a brownish heap on the ground. They won’t be doing any more growing so you may as well dig them up: ideally, loosen the roots a couple of days in advance, just so they stop sucking up moisture and start to go into a state of suspended animation.

If it’s reliably sunny for two weeks after lifting them you can dry them on the surface of the soil: this is a bit of a pipe dream in the UK, so best just to get on with stacking them one layer thick in trays to dry. Mushroom trays are fine; you can also lay them on pallets as long as the gaps aren’t too wide.

Bring them into the greenhouse for two weeks of irritation as you tiptoe over them where they’re blocking your pathways, not forgetting to turn them every day or two so they’re evenly dried. Once your fortnight is up, you can take them inside and string them into long plaits to hang in your spare room or corridor (kitchens are a little damp, though our onions get used so quickly you can just about get away with it). They should last like that for around six months, through till February next year: that’s if you haven’t eaten them by then…

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