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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.

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.

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