Peas, please!

Peas – those round, sweet, green things – even people who don’t much like veggies seem to approve of peas. It’s the perfect instant veg, to be whipped out of the freezer and cooked at a moment’s notice, but let me assure you they are even better when picked and eaten fresh.

Lots of people think growing peas is a bit of a waste of time and space… but they have probably never picked them and eaten them straight from the pod. They are so sweet and so delicious! I pick a few at a time, as they mature on the plant, and steam them for a couple of minutes, then run them under cold water and add to my salad alongside my home-grown leaves and broad beans creating a garden salad ­– delicious.

Peas are one of those things that we think of as essentially ‘British’. Fish, chips and mushy peas, pie and peas, pea soup… but as is so often the case when you look into it, they are a relatively recent arrival on our shores and originate from north-west Asia!

But our climate suits them perfectly and they thrive here. As a nation we certainly love them – we eat far more than any other country in Europe, chomping around 9,000 each per year. That’s a lot of peas! Fortunately, they are good for us combining fibre and protein with vitamins and minerals and must be the most popular of the ‘5-a-day’… or is it ‘10-a-day’ now? I can’t keep up!

They are relatively easy to grow either from seed, or you can buy them as small plants. The only real problem is with pigeons… they love them! Having lost an entire crop in one day a few years ago, I now cover them with netting. Even then, they still get a bit nibbled. But to me, the sweetness, the vivid colour and that pleasing ‘pop’ of the pod makes them all worthwhile

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James Wong – what a great writer!

James Wong – what a great writer! Just occasionally I come across a writer or a new book that really grabs me and this was the case with James.

The first book I bought was ‘How to Eat Better’ which I saw mentioned in Good Food magazine. It’s really fascinating and has masses of facts that made me exclaim out loud as I read through… possibly a little annoying for Richard! Did you know smaller (and therefore cheaper) blueberries are better for you than the big ones – green asparagus is much better for you than white? Lazy people rejoice as apparently the vac packed and cooked beetroot has as many good things going for it than boiling and peeling your own… and so the list went on.

I felt sorry for Richard listening to my reading out paragraphs aloud and so bought him (and his brother) a copy of James Wong’s ‘Grow for Flavour’ which has so many tips and tricks that help in the garden. For example – watering tomatoes with seawater gives them a much better taste – giving hard to germinate seeds like parsley a quick dose of soluble aspirin helps them along – and yes you guessed, Richard is now reading out bits to me from his book!

Finally, having been so interested in his other books I treated both myself and my sister (I love giving books) to ‘Grow your own Drugs‘ – Kate was a little worried as it had to get through the mail and therefore the Jersey Customs department but, so far it all seems to have gone swimmingly! As I have a summer cold at the moment I was very taken with the recipe intended to help colds and flu – Echinacea Ice Lollies. This contains 80ml of vodka and that alone has to cheer things up! But there are plenty of other ingredients that should ease the throat. Disappointingly, the vodka is to soak the Echinacea root and doesn’t actually make an appearance in the finished lolly – hmm, sad.

Just thought I would share these titles with you – I love books with useful hints and tips and James is certainly an author I will look out for him in future programmes – he has shared a TV series with another person I admire – Dr Michael Moseley and has covered the Chelsea Flower show with the BBC team … I will be keeping an eye out!

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Vegetable spiralizer fun!

Continuing with my little series of kitchen gadgets – I thought I would show you my vegetable spiralizer.

I am quite new to this particular gadget, so I’m sure there’s an awful lot still to discover. However I am having fun with the bits I have played with so far, especially courgettes. My dear neighbour grows courgettes and I suspect is trying for the ‘who can produce more courgettes than all the neighbours combined’ prize again this year! It was so kind to be given so much produce and I want to be prepared this year as he gleefully shows me some amazingly strong looking little seedlings!

I am trying, as part of my healthy living/slimming campaign, to keep carbs under control and making courgette spaghetti or spirals certainly does that. The main key to it all I suggest is not overcooking the courgette. The instructions I read on a recipe suggested 30 seconds and it sounds ridiculous but if the spirals are put into already boiling water that is bubbling away – then yes 30 seconds can be enough – make it two minutes and they are soggy and ‘orrible!

There are many vegetable spiralizers on the market and I spotted this one in Good Food magazine so decided to give it a try. It’s a bit cumbersome but works pretty well. You ‘stick’ it to the worktop with its suction cup feet, choose which of three blades you want and then feed in the courgettes. It comes with pretty good instructions.

There are many different fruit and vegetables you can experiment with. I think on balance my favourites are butternut squash “noodles”. You can use fruit, like apples and firm pears, root veg such as carrot and potato (ordinary and sweet) and parsnips. Finally you could try veg such as squash, peppers and even cabbage.

There are some recipe books out there too – but I just lightly boil the veg and, in this case, added a savoury mince made with homemade stock, baked beans and lean mince. But any pasta type sauces work well whether tomato based or creamy. My next experiment I think might be apples and pears with some nice Greek yoghurt!

 

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Divide and rule!

David Perry demonstrates how to divide a clump of Miscanthus.

This week, I’m handing over to my partner in crime writing, Julia, to tell us about her latest trip to RHS garden Rosemoor where she received some seasonal advice.

It is such a treat to visit Rosemoor on a regular basis, as I am doing this year attending a series of talks, and to see the garden evolving with the seasons. Last week, I went on a garden talk entitled ‘What now? Spring’

The course notes said: ‘Let the RHS experts help you through the gardening year providing a whistle-stop tour of techniques, tips, tricks and advice on seasonal tasks so that you know what you could be doing when. Spring topics covered – dividing and planting herbaceous perennials, spring shrub pruning, cutting back of ornamental grasses, plus other topics of seasonal interest.’

This was exactly what I needed as I am never entirely sure what I should be doing when especially when it comes to pruning. Somehow, I had it firmly in my brain that I had to cut everything back in the Autumn… and was then surprised how many plants I manage to kill off every year! There really is no excuse for such ignorance as there are tutorials online and thousands of excellent gardening books but, somehow, it is always better to be shown how to do something first hand.

Our tutor at Rosemoor was Garden Manager, David Perry. Pruning is always a thorny topic, but within the first minute, David had explained two pruning terms that I had followed but did not know why – prune back to two buds and cut on an angle. Why two buds? If the top one gets frosted and dies, you still have the second one. Why cut on an angle? To provide a difficult surface for water, dust or parasites to settle on. Obvious, really!

The ‘bare bones’ at Rosemoor, beautiful in their own right.

Shrubs grown for their colourful stems or foliage, such as dogwood, need to be cut down in the spring to encourage new growth, known as coppicing. No wonder they hadn’t done well for me before, as I had chopped them off in November! He also demonstrated how to prune shrubs and roses into a ‘goblet’ shape, cutting out shoots that cross over, or were growing inward, to allow free airflow and a general rather lovely shape.

Buying plants can be expensive, so it is really useful be able to identify ones that can be divided to create more. All clump-forming herbaceous perennials, including ornamental grasses, can be divided and, when done regularly, helps ensure healthy plants that will continue to perform year after year. While perennials can be divided at almost any time if they are kept well-watered afterwards, David said it is best to do it when the plants aren’t in active growth. He demonstrated how to divide a substantial clump of Miscanthus using two garden forks back-to-back as levers to loosen and break the root mass into two sections. He made it look easy!

It was interesting to see the ‘bare bones’ of the garden at this time of year. The shape of espaliered and step-over fruit trees were art forms in themselves and it was also great to see the wooden supports staff were creating with coppiced sticks – so much more natural than bamboo poles!

How to divide perennials

Here are simple tips for dividing perennials from the RHS website:

  • Lift plants gently with a garden fork, working outwards from the crown’s centre to limit root damage. Shake off excess soil so that roots are clearly visible
  • Some plants, such as Ajuga (bugle), produce individual plantlets which can simply be teased out and replanted
  • Small, fibrous-rooted plants such as Heuchera, Hosta and Epimedium can be lifted and pulled apart gently. This should produce small clumps for replanting
  • Large, fibrous-rooted perennials, such as Hemerocallis (daylily), require two garden forks inserted into the crown back-to-back. Use these as levers to loosen and break the root mass into two sections. Further division can then take place
  • In some cases, a sharp knife, axe or lawn edging iron may be needed to cleave the clump in two
  • Plants with woody crowns (e.g. Helleborus) or fleshy roots (e.g. Delphinium) require cutting with a spade or knife. Aim to produce clumps containing three to five healthy shoots.

Top photo: Lovely pair of pottery chickens by Somerset artist George Hider.

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Winter garden inspiration

My partner in crime writing, Julia, moved house last autumn and is planning how she is going to design and plant up her new garden. I’ll let Julia tell you what she’s been up to…

One of the many Cornus to be seen at Rosemoor.

I am fortunate enough to live about half an hour away from RHS Garden Rosemoor, where they run talks and courses about all aspects of gardening. My new (new to me, anyway) garden is large, relatively empty, on a very slight incline and south facing… almost the complete opposite of my previous garden that was steep, terraced half in shade, and a frost pocket! My new house is also about 700ft above sea level so I am keen to try and ensure I buy the right plants for the garden.

As well as the right plants for the setting, I also want to try and ensure I have interest throughout the year. My old garden used to be at its best from May to July and pretty uninteresting the remainder of the time. So, my first session at Rosemoor was called ‘Winter colour for your garden’.

The amazing Acer griseum, the aptly named paper bark maple.

Their course brochure says: “Winter is often considered to be a closed season in the garden, but this definitely need not be the case. Colourful and fragrant flowers, striking barks and stems and a wide variety of evergreen plants all help to brighten up the garden and provide a wealth of interest throughout the winter. On this walk we will look at a good selection of plants, all of which are star performers during the winter months, and also discuss how to care for them.”

Luckily for me, the mid-February day was sunny and not too chilly. Rosemoor has a specific winter garden, and it was wonderful to see just how much colour and interest you can create. The thing that struck me most was the scent! I had no idea a winter garden could smell so wonderful. As the air was crisp, the mix of winter sun, birdsong and floral fragrance was just wonderful. Sarcococca is not a shrub I had encountered before, but I will definitely be buying some. Compact, evergreen shrubs with simple, leathery leaves and tiny, fragrant creamy-white flowers in winter or spring, followed by red, purple or black berries they smell divine. While I am familiar with Daphne, it’s another winter flowering plant whose fragrance I had not really appreciated.

Dramatic Camelia.

As well as scent, you need colour. While Camelias are a good bet for dramatic flowers, I was drawn more towards the coloured stems of Cornus, or dogwood as I have always called it, their bright red and yellow stems looking wonderful against a dark hedge or fence in deepest winter. Dogwoods is pretty wonderful all ways around, having blossoms, berries and, when you prune back the stems, providing beautifully coloured whips that you can use to make woven shapes and decorations.

I am lucky enough to have space to plant some trees. Witch hazels, or Hamamelis to use the proper name, are a delight with their fuzzy brightly coloured flowers and attractive scent. They also tend not to grow too large so they are definitely on my list. A tree that I fell instantly in love with at Rosemoor was a paper bark maple, Acer griseum, a beautiful tree with cinnamon-coloured peeling bark. I don’t think I’d ever seen anything quite like it.

Sarcococca confusa… I think!

At the end of our walk and talk, we were given a comprehensive plant list… this is, of course, fatal, as you feel you want to rush out and buy everything on it! I didn’t and am instead trying to draw out a proper plan of what to plant where as I won’t be able to do much in the garden until late summer anyway due building work going on. As an RHS member, I receive discounted rates on any walks or courses I go on. If you live near an RHS garden, it really is worth becoming a member… or get to know someone who is as they can also get you the discounted rate!

In lieu of a holiday this year, I have booked myself on a series of these events looking at what to grow throughout the seasons and, as I am now the proud owner of a greenhouse, how to manage cuttings and collecting seeds. Planting a new garden can be terribly expensive, but if you can grow from seed and take cuttings you can keep the cost down. If you don’t live near an RHS garden, there are hundreds of videos online and hints and tips to refer to. The RHS website, as Joanna has said before, is always worth looking at, as are the BBC Gardening sites. And apart from anything else, gardening is just so good for you!

 

 

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