Thursday, 24 December 2015

All change as another tree comes down

For most of the 30 plus years we have been in this house we have had trees surrounding the back garden. When we moved in there were four sapling sycamores lining the footpath that runs along the back of the gardens in our terrace. Two of those were directly behind our boundary fence. As they grew they provided some welcome shade in hot summers and their autumn leaves helped add nutrients to our soil. Rather than gather up the fallen leaves and compost them we would leave them in situ, only moving those that were in danger of smothering the vegetables. By January/February they had usually rotted away.

Sycamore tree roots
As the trees grew the council would come and prune them every year and we were able to manage the branches that overhung our garden. About 10 years ago, the council stopped pruning and the trees began to get out of hand. Just over a year ago it was obvious that they were causing serious damage: the trunks were breaking through fences, the roots were damaging paths and the road, and on our side their extensive root system (see the photo on the left) was a barrier to planting anything in the rear third of the garden. Also, the heavy shade when the trees were in leaf meant that it took a long time for the soil in half of the garden to warm up in spring.

Eventually, the council chopped down all four trees. Although welcomed in some respects, we realised that the environment in our garden was going to alter significantly; we spent much of last season trying to get a feel of how the light and temperature had changed and the effect this would have on our vegetable plot. We have already planted two trees - a damson and a cherry plum - but there is another spot that could benefit from the shade of a third fruit tree. The place was soon identified simply by standing in the garden for a short time in the midday sun and getting well and truly sun burnt! (We have not yet decided on which fruit tree to plant). As for planting crops at the back of the garden we have been using grow bags, partly because of the remaining tree roots that are close to the surface but also so that we could move the bags if we got the location wrong and the conditions weren't ideal.

That was the situation until a few days ago. Now, another tree has gone and this is a massive one. It is, or rather was, a sycamore at least 75ft high and in a garden a few doors down from us. The garden belongs to a cottage that has not been lived in for a couple of years but now it is up for sale. There is a possibility that the land might be sold to developers although, as we are on a flood plain, a successful planning application is far from guaranteed. Anyway, we assume that in order to make this desirable plot even more attractive the tree surgeons moved in and the tree is now gone.

Removal of the sycamore begins
Tree surgeon at work
Almost gone

It is sad to see such a magnificent tree go, although I suspect that the people living either side of the property are probably delighted. It did cast heavy shade over their gardens and houses. We shall miss it, and in particular we shall miss watching and listening to the myriad birds that used it. And, again, the environment in our garden is bound to change. But time to move on, and think of possibly planting some extra trees in our garden to compensate. Our neighbours can be reassured, though, that these will be of a more modest size.

Friday, 18 December 2015


We don't have turkey for Christmas dinner - we have roast beef. And for me horseradish sauce is an essential accompaniment. We grow horseradish in the garden in an Unwins potato growbag. Plant it uncontained in your garden and you will live to regret it. It will surely and steadily take over.

Christmas is just a week away and it is time to make the horseradish sauce.

Digging, dragging and pulling the stuff out of the bag was the equivalent of an hour workout at a gym, but eventually I managed to get about 500g. 

That was the easy bit. Cleaning the roots and peeling them was not a problem but grating the roots generates fumes far worse than the most pungent onions. My food processor began to fall apart about a year ago after 25 years of use. I had decided to try and manage without one and succeeded, but today I am rethinking my strategy. Grating and shredding the horseradish from the garden by hand required the wearing of industrial eye protection, a face mask and the kitchen door and windows to be fully open. 

Why bother? Because home made horseradish sauce is infinitely superior to the bland stuff that is sold in the shops and supermarkets. Just add a dash of cider vinegar, honey, salt and home made yogurt to the horseradish and you have the perfect sauce.

Now, about that food processor. Dear Father Christmas....

Saturday, 28 November 2015

First of the winter brassicas

We picked the first of the winter brassicas today: some cavolo nero and leaves from cabbages, kale and sprouting broccoli. 

For lunch we had some bean casserole left over from yesterday (with onions, garlic, tomatoes, swiss chard stems and herbs from the garden), a small yellow/green acorn squash picked a few weeks ago, the cavolo nero, and brassica leaves and mash.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Bean seeds for next year

The last of the bean pods have been harvested for seeds. I am always loath to leave some of the biggest and best beans on the plants to mature and dry but I know it is worth it for the sake of next year's harvest. This photo shows just some of the varieties I have collected from the garden. The problem is that labels were lost many years ago so I have no idea which varieties they are apart from "runners", "climbing" and "dwarf".

The season is not completely over yet and the weather has been so mild this autumn that I am still harvesting runner beans. I'm not gathering a massive amount bit a handful is enough to add variety to a mix of veg in a risotto or a casserole.

Indigo Beauty

The last of our Indigo Beauty tomatoes has been eaten with great ceremony. This was our first time with this variety and we shall definitely be growing more next year.

I was intrigued by the description of the fruit in last year's Simpson's Seeds catalogue but their photos really do not do it justice. On the outside the top half /two thirds of the tomato is almost black with the rest turning a very dark red when ripe. Inside it is dark red.

As for taste and texture I rate it as very good and a nice, meaty tomato. My taste rating scale is: forget it; average; good; very good; excellent. A little more sweetness would have made it an excellent tomato, but it probably suffered from the poor growing conditions early in the year as did my other tomatoes (they are all outdoor plants). 

A couple of people have asked me about the yield per plant; all I can honestly say is average and about the same as every other variety I have grewn this year Again, the yields suffered from the erratic outdoor growing conditions. Definitely worth a go next year.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Home made yoghurt

This is my third attempt at making yoghurt and the best so far in terms of taste and texture. Rather than guessing the temperatures when heating and cooling the milk, this time I went out and bought a kitchen thermometer. I also wrapped the jars in several layers of bubble wrap before placing them in my shredded paper box overnight. The end result is served here with honey from Mill Green, which is just around the corner from us.

Although I use yoghurt in cooking I don't often eat it as a dish in its own right. I am unlikely to get through a large jar such as this very quickly so keeping a starter for the next batch "going" could be a problem. Apparently it can be frozen so that will be my next experiment.

The final squash?

I found yet another squash in the garden. It's the acorn squash second from the left. When it was picked a couple of days ago it was completely yellow but is now beginning to turn green. I'm almost certain that this is the last one from the garden, but I said that about the previous one!

The one on the far left, which was picked a couple of weeks ago, was green with pale green stripes but is now turning to a butternut squash colour.

We've already eaten the onion squash, two of the small butternuts, a green acorn squash, the green marrow type squashes (best description I can think of) and a very large green skinned pumpkin like squash. All very different in texture and flavours and all delicious.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

First parsnips of the season

Judging by the foliage, the parsnips are doing well. I have them in two different patches in the garden one of which was a bit stony and compacted. This is where I dug out my first parsnips of the season and not surprisingly they are not the prettiest of roots. But given the growing conditions I was pleased with them and they tasted good.

I'll be building up this bed over the next couple of years with compost and mulch, so there should be an improvement in the shape and size of any root vegetables we grow there.

Elsewhere in the garden the swiss chard is going berserk. As soon as I cut some for lunch it grows back with a vengeance!

Saturday, 31 October 2015


I love sauerkraut. It tastes delicious, is so easy to make and you can play around with the veg mix to get different flavours. I started this batch of sauerkraut about 8 days ago and included red cabbage, white cabbage, celeriac, carrots and some caraway seeds. This is my favourite mix at the moment.The only disappointing aspect about it is that you lose the individual colours of the vegetables and everything becomes pink but it's a sacrifice I can live with.

To keep the vegetables submerged under the brine while they are fermenting I place a whole cabbage leaf on top and a clean small jar filled with water on top of that (not easy to see in the photo on the left)

If you want to try making sauerkraut yourself, Sandor Katz explains the process in his video Fermenting Vegetables with Sandor Katz - YouTube


Warning: If you make sauerkraut in jars do not screw down the lids too tightly. The gas produced by the fermentation can cause the jar to explode. I make my sauerkraut in Ravenhead red top kilner jars. These have a glass lid that sits on top of the jar and is held in place by the plastic ring. When I have filled the jar I screw down the lid completely and then undo it by 2 turns. This allows the glass lid to move enough to let out the gas produced by the fermentation. These jars are no longer produced by Kilner but can be found second hand on eBay.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Last tomatoes of the year

The weather is still relatively but we have had a couple of cold nights and a touch of frost. The foliage on the tomatoes is starting to die back so I decided to pick the remaining tomatoes. With the batch I picked a few weeks ago we should have enough to last through to early December.

Many of the tomatoes are green: some will ripen, some will not, The green ones are delicious simply fried or mixed with green lentils and spices, so they definitely will not go to waste (I am not that keen on green tomato chutney). The Tomato Book published by Simpson's Seeds has a good section on green tomato recipes. As well as recipes the book offers good advice on growing tomatoes and saving seed. It is no longer available from Simpson's but there are some second hand copies on Amazon.

At the same time I found another decent sized squash hidden underneath some leaves. It's the green stripey one to the right of the tomatoes in the photo. I also managed to gather a few beans and some small yellow courgettes but it does look as though that is the last of those crops.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

20th September 2015, Harvest and lunch

Today's harvest from the garden. The yellow courgette, which had been hiding underneath a mass of leaves, is more like a marrow in size but was still delicious. The yellow courgettes have been truly prolific this year.The other veg I gathered are swiss chard, runner beans, hungarian wax pepper and a long thin hot chilli (can't remember the name and the label as gone AWOL)

For lunch we had spiced chicken with some of today's veg harvest. The veg mix included the last of the squash that had been picked a couple of weeks ago. See the entry under 7th September on the Harvests 2015 page for a photo of the beast. I have been told by friends that it is a non-orange skinned form of pumpkin. Whatever it is it was delicious and we have another one sitting in the kitchen ready to be eaten.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Harlequin squash

I'm new to this squash growing lark but suspect that I ought to this harlequin squash soonish. It was one of the plants that popped up out of the compost I spread across the garden at the start of the year, I recall buying a squash similar to this from the True Food Co-op in Emmer Green and I would have put the seeds and skin into the compost, so that is where this one has come from.


It's September and clumps of cyclamen are now flowering and adding splashes of gorgeous colour to the shady borders. And the wonderful thing about them is that once they are established they come out year after year, so no work is involved other than thinning them out.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Harvests page

Several of us thought it would be a could idea to keep a record of what we actually harvest from our gardens and make notes on the quality of the veg. So I am keeping a separate record on a Harvests page at We are two thirds of the way through the growing season but we have to start somewhere. The list will be continually updated with the most added to the top.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Tea Bag Index (TBI) UK

My Tea Bag Index (TBI) UK kit has arrived and all three pairs of tea bags have now been buried in various parts of the garden. TBI UK  is being run by Sarah Duddigan, a PhD student working on a collaborative project between the University of Reading and the Royal Horticultural Society. It is looking at the effects of applying organic matter on soils and one way of measuring this is the TBI ( There are several experiments running across the world and Sarah put out a call for people to participate in the UK project.

We each receive three pairs of tea bags (one green tea and one rooibos) and bury each pair in different parts of the garden. After three months we dig them up and send them back to Sarah for analysis with soil samples and a completed questionnaire. More information about the project is at

Suggested places to bury them are the lawn, a spot that has been treated with organic matter and an area that you are particularly interested in investigating, for example a bare patch or an area that is often waterlogged. We are allowed to choose other spots but the important thing is to fill in the details on the questionnaire of the location and whether fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides have been or are used.

The lawn was not an option for me. We do have a small patch of grass but the tea bags have to be buried about 3 inches deep and at 1.5 inches under our lawn you hit builders rubble! So, I decided to put the first pair in the middle of my herb patch. I don't add any compost or fertiliser to this area other than some leaves from the comfrey plant that is growing there.

The second pair went into an area close to the compost heap that is regularly fed garden compost and is used for growing brassicas and squash. I buried the third pair in a small patch of ground in front of the house. It is a bit of a problem area in that it gets full sun during the day and dries out very quickly. I've not had much luck growing anything in it apart from a few wild flowers, bulbs, rosemary, onions and masses of rudbeckia.

So now we just sit back and wait for three months.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Squashes popping up everywhere

A lot of squash plants have been popping up all over the garden. They've mostly come from seeds that have germinated from our compost made out of our kitchen peelings and discarded squash seeds, so we haven't a clue what most most of them are. This one could possibly be a butternut but I'm not totally convinced yet.

This squash came from a friend who said it was either a butternut or a dumpling squash (they'd lost the label). It doesn't look like either of those and is fast growing into what appears to be a marrow. It is now close to needing a sling to support it.

This is another one that popped out of the compost. This one could possibly be an acorn or a harlequin squash.

And there are a lot more dotted around the garden including a definite butternut squash.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Don't panic! Don't panic!

We've had two full Smith Periods in our area according to Blightwatch so I've been carefully checking the tomatoes for early signs of blight. My heart nearly stopped when I saw these from a distance. Then I realised that they are Indigo Beauty, a variety I am trying for the first time this year and that they are meant to be that colour. Panic over.

A full Smith Period has occurred when at least two consecutive days have had min temperatures of 10ºC or above and on each day at least 11 hours when the relative humidity has been greater than 90%. A 'near miss' occurs when one or both of the above two consecutive days has only 10 hours when the relative humidity is greater than 90% and the temperature is 10ºC or above. Of course, microclimates in the garden will also come into play and I find that going into the garden a couple of times a day to get a feel for the temperature and, more importantly, the humidity is a better guide to when conditions make blight more likely to occur. 

Full Smith Period alert for RG4 is run by the Potato Council's Fight Against Blight. To receive alerts of full Smith Periods you first have to register (free of charge) and then give it the first part of the postcode you want monitored. You can receive alerts by email or by SMS and view the charts online.

When it comes to treating plants, by the time the symptoms of blight have appeared it is usually too late to do anything. Most of the chemicals that have been used in the past to prevent blight have been withdrawn from sale to home gardeners in Europe but it has been suggested that aspirin may help protect plants (Trouble in the vegetable patch? Break out the aspirin). Prevention remains the best strategy. See Identify, prevent and treat Tomato Blight in the UK 

Saturday, 18 July 2015


Blackfly on a courgette
The veg gardening is flourishing and so are the aphids, and in particular the blackfly. I haven't been too badly hit - only a couple of beans and a courgette - but some of my friends have reported a total infestation plus a noticeable absence of ladybird larvae that usual chomp up all the little blighters. A couple of people have reported that the ladybirds have started to appear but too late frown emoticon
I sprayed the beans with water from the kitchen washing up bowl and the courgette is thriving left to its own devices, although the infestation isn't that bad.
Are others in the UK, and especially Reading, suffering as well and how do you manage the problem?

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Cauliflower glut

We have a monster cauliflower glut. We planted them out late summer/early autumn last year in various places in the garden to fill in gaps as we harvested crops. They overwintered well and we had a couple of what I would call reasonably normal sized cauliflowers in April and the beginning of May. The remaining 4 plants just seemed to be growing masses of over-sized leaves and I resigned myself to making lots of "cabbage" soup. Then they went berserk and we ended up with cauliflowers weighing in at 3-4 lb each. I wish I had kept a record of the variety but I do remember the seed packet saying "ideal for the small garden"! 

Cauliflower and squash cheese with crispy, shredded
cauliflower leaves
There is only so much cauliflower cheese one can eat, lovely though it is, so we are having to get creative with our recipes. The small freezer section in our refrigerator is now choc a bloc. Even the traditional cheese recipe has been adapted to include squash (not our own but a harlequin squash from Waitrose) plus a bit of chilli to add a bit of a zing. As well as the "flower" there are the leaves to be disposed of. Many of them were too tough, or partially destroyed by slugs and snails, to be edible but there were enough in good condition to make some crispy, shredded cabbage and for dolma (stuffed leaves).

Dolma - stuffed cauliflower leave
To make the dolma, one first has to separate the leaves from the central stem and then blanch the leaves in boiling water for a minute or so. Then you can stuff them with whatever mixture you want. For ours we used a mixture of rice, peas, beans and onions left over from a paella.

Dolma with spiced tomatoes, steamed cauliflower and carrots

We added a spicy tomato and onion sauce to our dolma and served them with steamed cauliflower florets (what else!) and carrots.

Spiced cauliflower, potato, beans, mange toot and
onion on injera
Another recipe we used was spiced cauliflower with potato, beans, mange tout, onion and cauliflower leaves, all on injera style bread made from a sourdough starter.

Cauliflower, potato and leek soup

There has to be a soup in this collection of recipes and the one I went for was a chunky cauliflower, potato and leek soup with herbs and a dollop of yoghurt.


And finally... piccalilli. I love it. The first batch was a variation of the Hairy Bikers recipe. For the second I used a Waitrose recipe.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Breakfast doesn't get much better than this

Home grown oyster mushrooms with a little parsley on toasted, homemade sourdough bread. Fried potatoes with shallot and chives, all from the garden. White currants (White Versailles) and "wild" strawberries - again from the garden - with yoghurt (not home made) and local honey. And to wash it down some home grown lemon verbena tea.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

The garlic harvest is in

All of the garlic in the garden has now been harvested. It was done in two batches: garlic in the main part of the garden was gathered in a couple of weeks ago and those in the veg bags, which were a different variety and matured slightly later, were picked a few days ago.

I had a go at plaiting some of the earlier crop but I had left them to dry and cure for too long and the stems and leaves were too brittle to make a tidy plait.

There are plenty of videos on YouTube showing how to braid garlic. The ones I found most useful were:

Plaiting Garlic (in the Horticultural Channel)

Plaiting the garlic crop

How to braid "Hard Neck" Garlics - Garden Harvest

Blue garlic

One of the garlic bulbs that I harvested from the veg bags has a blue-green area on the outer skins. I've heard of  garlic sometimes turning blue-green when cooked but can't find anything about the outer skin of a garlic bulb going blue. The individual cloves are pure white and when cooked they stay white. The bulbs either side of it in the photo are from the same bag and appear normal. They were grown in soil with some home-made compost and the bag had been watered every 1-2 weeks with a dilute comfrey feed. I can't think of anything that has been added to the veg bag to cause this and, as I said, the others in the same bag look normal. Any suggestions or ideas as to what has caused this are welcome!

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Veg bags

This is one of the veg bags alongside our south facing kitchen/bathroom extension. It's all concrete along here so raised beds of some sort or pots are the only realistic option for growing plants. For many years I grew chillies and tomatoes in pots but then thought I would be able to grow a greater variety of crops using a raised bed. I wasn't sure if it would work so rather than build more permanent beds made from wood I opted for the bags to start off with. They also makes it slightly easier to access the wall should we need to for maintenance purposes. If the experiment didn't work I could use them elsewhere in the garden or Freegle them. I have three bags altogether that I bought from Unwins but there are plenty of other sources on the web that sell them. They are now into their third year and are still intact but they do tend to "sag", so I have to kick the front facing side back into shape and prop it up with planted pots. I'm happy with them as an interim measure but I'm now considering a more long term replacement.

All three of the bags have tomatoes and onion/garlic borders but I also plant chillies, lettuce, beetroot or carrots. The one in the photo contains tomatoes, garlic (about to be harvested), onions (about to be harvested), lettuce, plus a couple of things (squash/marrow?) that popped up out of the compost added to the bag earlier in the year. Throughout the year there is always something growing in these bags, which are in our permaculture zone 1.

I add a thin layer of my own compost to the top twice a year and when stuff starts to actively grow I water them once a week with a very dilute feed of comfrey fertiliser (around 1:100). I've stopped the liquid feed now as I have added some shredded comfrey leaves to the surface.

I was thinking the other day that I wasn't having many problem with pests in the bags. I assumed it was because of the the mix of veg I had planted and the onion-garlic borders. Then this morning I spotted a frog, no doubt just having finished her breakfast and thereby zapping a few more pests for me. This is the third frog I've seen hopping around the garden. We don't have a pond - just some areas that are shady and covered in foliage, a couple of wood piles, and a few plant pot saucers containing water dotted around.

So, the veg bags are still looking good and I'll probably continue using them until they fall apart. 

Monday, 18 May 2015

Garlic from bulbils

Last year I decided to try growing garlic from the bulbils that had formed on the top of one of my garlic plants. I harvested them and rather than plant them in the main part of the garden and forget where they were I put them in pots.

Two of the pots were quite large but the third was a shallow seed pan; I had so many of the bulbils I just grabbed the nearest pot for the last batch. I did not expect many of them to grow. To be totally honest I did not expect any of them to grow.

They have all grown! So I am going to have to see if I can transplant the ones from the seed pan to somewhere more appropriate. Or just eat them. I shall be more positive with any bulbils that I harvest this year!

Friday, 10 April 2015

Stag or lesser stag beetle?

I was starting to clear away part of a rotting tree stump at the back of the garden when I found seven or eight of these larvae. I'm not sure if they are the larvae of the stag beetle or lesser stag beetle. They were about 1.5-2 inches long and curled up when they were exposed.

I went off to check my identification guides and when I returned about 10 minutes later to take a closer look they had burrowed back under the remaining rotting wood. Rather than disturb them, I shall keep my eyes peeled and wait for the adults in order to determine which of the two beetles they are. From the information I've found so far I may have to wait at least a year or two if they are stag beetles.

An Easter bouquet

The weather may still be too cold to sow and transplant crops outside but the herbs and wild plants are flourishing. For our Easter meals I gathered the first bouquet of herbs from the garden: garlic chives, chives, mint, lemon balm, ramson leaves, dandelion leaves, fennel and hairy bittercress.

Sunday, 5 April 2015


It's that time of year when the slugs emerge from winter quarters hungry and raring to go. Earth Ways has a timely article on Dealing With Slugs in a Permaculture Garden including a description of the different slugs and which ones are the veggie munchers. I especially like the diagram showing the anatomy of a slug. 

Our garden is now totally out of balance after the removal of bordering trees and fence replacement plus the associated digging. I'm going for a nematode solution supplemented by the bottle beer trap recommended in the article while the imbalance is corrected. We used nematodes several years ago and they did seem to reduce the number of slugs sufficiently to minimise crop damage. I've also tried open beer traps but decided that was not a good idea as the sozzled slugs were quickly gobbled up by other wildlife. Whether or not alcohol is present in the slugs in a sufficient concentration to affect anything that eats them, I don't know, but probably best to err on the side of caution.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Chutneys and piccalilli

Some of my spiced chutneys and piccalilli made last year from produce from our own garden and foraging. From left to right: spiced marrow and bean chutney; spiced damson; hot chilli and tomato relish; piccalilli. The flavours have definitely merged and matured over the past few months but I think I overdid the onion seed in the marrow chutney. The hotness has leached into the chutney, which now has a hell of a kick to it!

We have enough jars of these and other chutneys to last well into the autumn when the next production cycle begins.

The bread is homemade sourdough, which I am now making on a regular basis. Every loaf is different mainly because I am experimenting with different combinations of flour (white, spelt, rye) and varying degrees of "stickiness", but also because I am trying different ways of baking the loaf. This one turned out rather flat because the dough was a bit too wet. Nevertheless, it tastes great and makes wonderful toast.

Taken as part of the Flickr photo group Challenge Friday, #‎cf15‬, theme spice.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

My rosemary bush has died

My poor old rosemary bush has finally given up the ghost. It is a bit old - about 20 years - but has thrived in this spot, which is not ideal, to the extent that it required regular pruning.

It's in semi shade and although the ground drains well it gets the run off from the shed roof. For the last two years there has also been a vigorous comfrey plant growing behind the bush and in the autumn I have simply left the leaves to rot back into the ground. So too much nitrogen might be a contributing factor. I have two small rosemary plants from cuttings but won't plant them here in case of disease. One I'll put in a pot and the other I'll put at the front of the house where it is sunny and dry.

I've decided to apply my recent permaculture training to help me decide what should be planted in this area in its place. Expect to be bored by sketches, photos and outline plans in the near future!