Up the garden path

In a well maintained kitchen garden the growing beds are often kept in shape by the paths. Is it the paths that have edges to stop the gravel spilling over or is it the beds that have edges to keep them from spreading on the paths? Whatever it is, I like a good strong edge.

For several years I have battled with wooden edging and used bark chippings for my paths. They haven’t been great. In this damp northern location that I call home, slugs and snails thrive. They have made my timber edges their home for too long, sneaking out at night to rampage through my salad crops and raise my carrot seedlings to the ground. The recycled wooden chippings haven’t helped either, gradually rotting down to a useless mush and losing the fight with the endless weeds that inevitably push through.

I can see the merit, and beauty, of a firmer path be it gravel, brick or hoggin.( Okay I’m never really going to have a hoggin path but it’s such a lovely word I wanted to include it.) These scratchy surfaces make life just a little bit more difficult for the mean little molluscs and, with a bit of luck, they will dry out in the sun or get gobbled up by birds as they venture across my plot. Laid well on a good sub-layer of sand or hardcore a brick path will last for years and years. Leaving gaps in the brick work will provide planting pockets for low growing thyme.

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Woolly thyme Thymus pseudolanuginosus is a low growing variety, just 2 cms high. Tiny silvery, grey leaves spread to around 20 cms and is covered in soft, pastel pink flowers for most of the summer.

Thyme ‘Redstart’ is another low growing variety reaching 5 cms in height. Pretty, dark green oval leaves spread to around 20 cms and a profusion of bright red flowers are produced in the summer.

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Both these thymes release a delicious, spicy aroma when crushed underfoot. Thymus serpyllum ’Lemon curd’ is another creeping variety that will spread along the cracks of the brick path, bears pinky white flowers in summer and the leaves have a distinctive lemon scent. A fine thyme to get your nose twitching and the bee’s will love them too!

As I am writing this blog there are great thuds and crashing sounds going on above my head. Today the builders are removing the roof tiles of my house and yes, you guessed it! I have already commandeered 500 tiles to become the beautiful path edges I long for. I can’t wait for my walls to be demolished so I can start laying my paths…     

 

Kitchen gardens v Allotments

Allotment; what an ugly word. When uttered it conjures up a hodgepodge of images; suburban shanty towns peppered with decrepit sheds, wonky bean poles and forgotten corners.

Say ‘kitchen garden’ to me and my heart skips a beat. Images of weed free, gravelled paths edged with clipped box fill my mind’s eye. Perfect rows of vegetables in freshly turned crumbly earth, expertly labelled, make me a little bit giddy inside. Allow me entrance into a beautifully maintained Victorian glass houses, warm and muggy and I am gone.

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Tatton Park Knutsford, Cheshire

Allotments give me the impression of being taken over by The Borrower’s whereas a kitchen garden is a breath taking sight. Bold, structural layouts of paths, pruned fruit trees and terracotta forcing pots make these gardens a delightful place to be, even in the depths of winter.

So, I have called for change. Our family allotment is no longer to be called an allotment, or a plot, it is the kitchen garden. After all they both perform the same function. Both are areas of land given over to the production of fruit, vegetables and herbs for the kitchen. Kitchen gardens take it one step further, they provide flowers for the house too.

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I am a great believer in a productive garden being a beautiful one and proved this with my edible gardens at the Rhs flower show Tatton. My reason for creating beautiful, productive gardens was because not everyone can get an allotment and most of us don’t live on a large country estate. Using our own gardens creatively to look amazing and provide us with healthy produce is the answer. Why have ornamental grasses when you can have sweetcorn with it’s bonny tassels. Ditch the begonias and petunias and plant borage and pot marigold instead. Both self-seed freely, flower profusely and can be added to salads or made into herbal tea.

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Tulips for the house, feathery fennel for the kitchen.

The plans to turn my own back garden into a productive one have been scuppered by our five feathered friends. I wouldn’t part with my chickens, they are fantastic egg layers and fun to have around but they really do demolish a garden. So my kitchen garden is a hop, skip and a jump away, behind a hedge huddled together with some other  ‘edible gardens’. I will just have to imagine that I do live in that country estate and am just taking a short stroll across parkland (aka Ashton Park) to fill my basket with lettuce, beans, strawberries, radishes and a handful of sweet peas for the house.

Lemon, rosemary and black pepper shortbread

Rosemary is one of the great winter stalwarts of the herb garden.                               Aromatic, needle-like foliage provides evergreen colour in the garden and flavour in the kitchen. Rosemary carries us through the lean times as we wait, patiently, for her less robust, herbal companions to emerge from their winter slumber.

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This versatile herb is easy to grow and comes in a variety of different forms. R.officinalis is the big, bushy variety that you can’t resist running your hands through to release that heady fragrance, so reminiscent of Sunday dinners. This can be allowed to grow rampant or clipped to form an informal, edible hedge within a well kept herb garden. Who needs box hedging when you can have this delicious alternative! Rosemary ‘Miss Jessop’ is a prim, upright kind of a girl, who has a neat, compact habit, perfect for a small garden.                     For those who like to grow herbs in a pot close to the kitchen, trailing rosemary ‘Boule’ is ideal.                                                                                                                                      All rosemary asks is that she be positioned in a sunny spot in well drained soil and she will reward you with sprigs that can be used in cooking all year round.

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The flavour of rosemary is, more often than not, associated with savoury dishes. It goes well with roast meats, especially lamb and casseroles. However the aromatic flavour of rosemary is now being recognised as a favourable ingredient in biscuits and desserts, blending particularly well with lemon. One of my favourite recipes is lemon, rosemary and black pepper shortbread, here’s how to make it.

You will need:

350g (12oz) plain flour

225g (8 0z) butter

100g (4 oz) caster sugar and a little bit extra for dusting

pinch of salt

zest of 2 lemons

2 dessert spoons of freshly picked rosemary, finely chopped

1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Pre heat the oven to 180 degree (gas mark 4). Grease and line a 20 cm square tin or similar. Sift the flour into a bowl and rub in the butter. Add the sugar, rosemary, lemon, salt and pepper. Gently knead until mixed. Press the mixture evenly into the tin and bake for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and dust with caster sugar. Allow to cool slightly then cut into squares when still warm.

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I took mine to the Kingsley gardening club yesterday evening and they seemed to go down well. After all I can’t give a talk on edible gardens without giving them a little taste of the good life.

Kingsley gardening club ” Thank you” you made me feel very welcome.

A chick, a brick and a jolly fine stuffing

It’s the twelfth day of Christmas and, as tradition and superstition insists, the festive decorations have been packed up and put away. The removal of the great, oversized Christmas tree, whose branches dripped with blessings and sparkle, revealed a half-forgotten pile of gifts hidden beneath. In the mad cacophony of Christmas day our ‘grown up’ presents were shoved under the tree for safe keeping, ready to be rediscovered in the new year.

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One such gift was a terracotta chicken brick. I have never come across one of these before and was intrigued. A chicken brick is a large, terracotta pot comprising of a base and a lid. Oblong in shape it fits a good sized chicken perfectly. The porous pot is soaked in water prior to cooking and, as the oven temperature rises, the moisture is released, gently steaming the meat. The result is a moist, plump bird cooked in it’s own juices without the need for basting.

Cooking a chick in a brick takes a little longer than roasting on a tray as the pot is put into a cold oven (to prevent cracking) not a pre heated one. Given that you will have extra time to kill, you could use it productively and venture off to the allotment to pick some veg, or, pour yourself a well earned gin and tonic.

Pot roast chicken and vegetables in cider/ wine

This is one of my favourite recipes. Place the chicken in the brick and add a selection of seasonal vegetables including onions or shallots, garlic and carrots. Add a couple of bay leaves and thyme. Pour over 300 mls of still cider or white wine then season with salt and pepper and put the lid on. Switch the oven on to 180C/gas mark 5 and pop the whole lot in (remember to put it in the oven immediately, no pre heating!). Cooking takes around 2 to 2.5 hours, to check the meat is cooked pierce the breast and the juices should run clear.

Serve the chicken and veg with roast potatoes or crusty bread and a little bit of stuffing. I chose Gordon Rhodes Jolly Fine stuffing mix, a blend of sage, garden herbs and red onion, delicious.                                                                                                                  The remaining juices can be made into a delicious gravy or reserved and turned into stock ready for another tasty dish.

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My chicken brick came in a set with two packets of Gordon Rhodes stuffing mix. Check out the website http://www.gordonrhodes.co.uk it is such a fun site with very entertaining names for the the stuffings and spices. Chicken bricks are available from http://www.wmpot.co.uk

P.S I have had a bit of a name change, hope you like the new blog title.

A No7 lady threatens to shoot me and other passionate people

I went shopping last night, not for plants, seeds or any other garden paraphernalia, I went ‘pretty’ shopping. I went to browse clothes, shiny trinkets and general frippery. I indulged in intoxicating fragrances, sprayed tester scents liberally and wrinkled my nose. As I wafted around I remembered I was running a little low on facial moisturiser, and as I was one of the optimum places for buying skin care products, Boots, I took advantage of this serendipitous moment. I headed to the No7 counter. After browsing the myriad of different moisturising products on offer and feeling thoroughly bamboozled by the range I decided to seek assistance from the nearby No7 lady. Once we had established my skin type as normal, just normal, not normal/dry or normal/oily or even combination, just plain normal, I was guided to the appropriate products. I impressed upon the sales lady my desire for a product with an SPF factor included as I spend the majority of my time either outside or in a greenhouse, and I believe it is essential that us outdoor types look after our skin.

The No7 lady stood me in front of a scary looking display of creams, the perfect and protect range.”What’s so special about these creams?” I ask, wincing at the price “I think I remember reading about them. Have they some wonder anti-wrinkle ingredient maybe?” I have to ask as no one likes to wrinkle. “Oh I don’t know, all this stuff goes over my head” replies the No7 lady gesticulating wildly, flailing her arms over her head. “I haven’t got a clue about it.”  What!!!!    Who in their right mind would try and sell you over fifty pounds worth of beauty products and tell you they know nothing about them. Madness, but bless, she calls over another assistant to help, this one looks at me coldly. “So you want to know the magic ingredient do you? If I tell you I would have to shoot you.” She stares out.                      Oh my giddy aunt!!! A No7 sales lady just threatened to kill me in Boots!                     Turns out she was bluffing. Good job I remembered, it was retinol, which seemed to jog their memories. The thing is I know that retinol is prescription only so any over the counter beauty products claiming to have this cell regenerating product in aren’t quite the real thing, they only have the smallest trace in, rendering them pretty ineffective. Also, skin treated with retinol can become very sensitive to sunlight, so don’t try and sell it to someone who has just told you they spend most of their life working in sunlight!!!

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Lemon verbena

This scenario reminded me of another episode that occurred in L’occitane a few weeks prior. I was browsing fragrance as a potential gift for Mr Broccoli (he nearly got an old piano but that’s for another day). The manageress approached and asked if I would like a cup of herbal tea. Aha now your talking, yes please. Lemon verbena you say, why that’s my favourite, mmm I love that taste of sherbet lemons but how will I shop after such a relaxing tisane. I realise the nice lady has gone pale. “I am really worried about giving you this tea now” she said. The tea was horrible and I couldn’t help wrinkling my nose (I so need that wrinkle cream!) The tea tasted of old grass.”Hmm, not great ” I confessed.The manageress had already worked out that my initial enthusiastic response to lemon verbena tea hadn’t quite matched the response she had had from customers. She then asked if I would try the lemon verbena fragrance and I was delighted to discover the scent really did have that lemony zing so evocative of the herb, and they had an accurate photograph of the plant standing proudly nearby.     What I couldn’t understand was why the beautiful packaging was labelled Verveine and Verbena with no mention of lemons.       Vervaine is French for verbena but there are several verbenas; verbena bonariensis, trailing verbena, bedding verbena to name a few, but none of these smell as delicious as lemon verbena. L’Occitane, sort it out, you are selling a fragrance, be specific, it’s a scent worth shouting about, it’s gorgeous!                                                                         Incidentally there is the blue flowered vervain. This is also a herb, doesn’t smell great and is often used to supplement the diet of horses, it is also a tea, this could explain the grassy flavour of the tea initially offered in the shop. A bit of a herbal mix up methinks.

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But this got me thinking, retailers should really know their products, and to really know your product you must be passionate about it. Nurserymen, growers, gardeners, plant experts these are passionate people and that’s why plant fairs, shows and individual nurseries are the best places to shop for plants. The enthusiasm and advice so cheerfully given is invaluable. So this year why not support the experts, the passionate ones, the ones in the know and seek out some real garden treasures at the same time.                                Events for 2014 include Arley Hall in Cheshire who will be hosting a spring plant fair on Easter Sunday 20th April. A spectacular garden festival on Saturday 21st and sunday 22nd of June will be visited by Chris Beardshaw on the Sunday.                                                 For more info visit www.arleyhallandgardens.com/events                                                      Other fairs include  www.flowerpowerfairs.co.uk or why not check out one of my favourite nurseries Lodge lane nurseries run by Sue Beesley www.bluebellcottage.co.uk

For anyone who may be interested I went with my usual facial products Clarins. I can’t resist them. Expensive? Yes, a bit, but sometimes a girl deserves a bit of luxury.

Live vodka tasting blog

I was reminded this evening (thanks Dave!) that several months ago I wrote a blog about my fruity vodka making and haven’t, as yet, filled you in with the progress of these delicious concoctions. I do apologise and will do my very best to rectify this immediately.                                                                                                               Vodka tasting can be a messy, dangerous business and probably should be consigned to new years eve party or other such momentous occasions but, as we never know what tomorrow may bring, let’s crack on.                                                                           *for those of you sharing new year with the broccoli’s fear not, we will exercise restraint, there will be plenty to go round.

First, their appearance. Once the vodka has been strained through a kitchen, not garden, sieve and the fruit discarded ( or scattered over vanilla ice-cream mmm) the resulting liquor takes on a very rosy glow, helped muchly by the fairy lights.

vodkas This is quite a different appearance to when they were made several months ago. It’s amazing what a bit of time and agitation can do. All 16 bottles have been gently swished over the past few months to ensure even dissipation of fruit and sugar. What surprises me is that the white currant vodka has a red colour to it. I can understand the damson, pink gooseberry and rum and black looking rosy but the white currants? Odd.

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The picture above is my pink gooseberry vodka. I have always been wary of gooseberries having been forced to endure a raft of bad gooseberry crumbles somewhere in my dark past. Then I discovered  the pink ones and what a joy they are. Earlier this year my dad was surprised when I turned my nose up at the gooseberry harvest and urged me to, well there is no delicate way of putting this, slurp the inside of the berry out, thus avoiding the sharp, bitter, prickly skin. If you have never tried this, do, it will change your perspective on gooseberries forever. But I digress. Pink gooseberry vodka, it was quite nice, well, it must have been more than quite nice, there is none left. It took a little more sugar than usual and I am tempted next year to add a vanilla stick or two to sweeten it a little.                                                                          The white currant vodka is…interesting. Some may say it is an acquired taste. I find it tart, it makes my nose wrinkle in a most unattractive manner and I end up leering and gasping with one eye open and one tightly shut. Yet my old man loves it. If you bear with me I will do a live blog taste test.

Me ” Darling would you like a white currant vodka?”                                                    Him ” Which one is the white currant?”                                                                         Me “The one with the white currants in!”                                                                    Passing him the vodka….                                                                                       Husband studies it quizzically.                                                                                    “Why is it red?”                                                                                                                                           For goodness sake he has been drinking it for weeks and never felt the need to be so observant. I think he is angling for a bit of blog fame.                                                   Him “Are you typing this?”   “It’s not red it’s, sort of, rosy with a single currant looking like an eyeball staring back at me!”                                                                 Hand on hip like some 1920′s film star he, finally, takes a sip.                                   “What do you think Mr Gatsby?” say I.                                                                     “Sweet, vodka, fruity. In no way, bitter or tart, unlike me wife” Excuse me for a minute readers….

Let’s try him on the damson vodka.                                                                       “Darling, try this one”  I know reader this is where I should slip the arsenic in but I will resist. I have vodka testing to do.                                                                                      “It already looks more gloopy” he observes through slightly squiffy eyes.                     “It’s got a lovely bouquet, very fruity”.                                                                                I am getting the giggles. Think it’s the vodka.                                                               He’s off.                                                                                                                 “Sweet, bordering on the diabetic but slightly acidic. I don’t think I could drink more than a bottle”.                                                                                                                          He prefers the first, says it’s more manly, interesting as I love the damson vodka. It almost feels good for me…like a tonic….

And now swiftly on to the Rum and blackcurrant. Now this was a blinding flash of inspiration on my part as I have several blackcurrant bushes that produce an abundance of fruit. Using the same 1/3 rum to 1/3 sugar to1/3 fresh blackcurrants I have managed to ‘preserve’ the fruits in alcohol, capturing that taste of summer! We have finally found a bottle at the back of the booze store and will sample it for you dear readers.

Ahhhh delicious. Cheap white rum is not too dissimilar to paint stripper  but add a smidge of sugar and some ripe fruits and you have pure nectar. All traces of rum disappear, it’s a bit like alcoholic Ribena. Ribena alcopop? Interesting.                 Husband seems happy, he is peering bleary eyed into the bottom of a glass. “I see five blackcurrants” he cries ” Is that my five a day?”

rum n black I must go now readers my old man has passed out on the kitchen floor. I will sweep him into bed and settle myself in front of a roaring log fire with a small glass of something nice (schloer?) and a few seed catalogues that are jammimg up the front door. So, so long and a very happy new year to you all x

 

Joy to the world

I love this time of year. You may think this is an odd statement from a gardening girl but I love the stillness, the peacefulness. I feel no need to step outdoors other than to harvest the sprouts. Yesterday I watched the sun go down at a ridiculously early hour, as I watched, that infamous carol ‘In the bleak mid winter’ popped into my head.  There were no frosty winds to speak of nor was the water frozen. The ground was more mush than iron and there wasn’t, much to my disappointment, any snow. But the landscape was bleak, yet it was a  bleakness that captured my soul. There is a peacefulness about the bare landscape at this time of year. The trees stand stark against the sky like an illustrators handy work. This years favoured flowers, now spent, hide underground, preparing to emerge resplendent when the time comes. Tiny insects and mammals lie cocooned in their hibernation, sleeping softly, biding their time.                                                                                                                                                  In our own way we too cosy up in our homes. Christmas tradition has it that we dispel the darkness with light and fill our homes with a myriad of tiny twinkling fairy lights. Evergreen branches are brought in to remind us that spring is on its way. The traditional Christmas tree  is a glorious combination of both these ideals. I love that I can put an oversized fir tree in my lounge and no-one bats an eyelid. If I did this in spring you would think I was crazy.                                                                                              “Why have you got a multi-stemmed birch in your house?”  you would ask me in a puzzled tone.  IMG_4627                                                                                                                                                                                                                          I I love the feasting too. I have been harvesting sprouts for several weeks now (Severn Hills) but need to go easy or their will be none left for the big day. All the Broccoli’s enjoy sprouts and we are happy to have them lightly boiled with a dash of salt and pepper, but there are times when I like to glam them up. Last year I was partial to sprouts laced with pine nuts and lardons, this year the chorizo has snared me. I have taken to frying up a few slices of Italian sausage in olive oil then chucking in the lightly boiled sprouts. I am no longer fussy about what ‘glaze’ I introduce, it is whatever I find in the cupboard. Today It was gooseberry and chilli jelly I added to the mix. I have to tell you it was delicious.

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