Friday, 31 August 2012

A bloggers' rendezvous

A short while ago I had the privilege of meeting "in the flesh" a couple of fellow bloggers with whom I have interacted over the internet for nearly two years now.  I must say I was a bit apprehensive about this. You never know how things might turn out. People can have an internet presence that is completely at odds with their real persona. I'm happy to say that this didn't apply in this case!

The bloggers in question are Egretta Wells of both Cottage Creative Living and Paintings by Egretta Wells; and Kelli Boyles of Kelli's Northern Ireland Garden.

Me with Kelli (left) and Egretta (right)

Kelli set up her blog at very much the same time that I started Mark's Veg Plot, so we have had a very similar journey through the blogging world, and we compare notes via blog comments more or less on a daily basis. Amongst other achievements she has recently had an article called "The Art of Gardening" published on the website of Culture Northern Ireland. In this she explains why she loves gardening and how she became keen on it. Well worth a read, because I expect many of you will have had similar experiences.

Egretta is a very accomplished artist, working in a variety of media such as watercolours, oils and pastels and she is a generally all-round artistic person - as well as being an enthusiastic amateur gardener. She is forever setting her hand to some new creative venture. She once did a painting of Mallard drake based on one of my photos, which she saw on my blog. I bought this picture from her and it now hangs in my Living Room alongside the original photo.

Egretta and Kelli, accompanied by their husbands Bob and Mark, were over in England for a few days, on a coach tour centred on Stratford-on-Avon, from where they were to visit the Costwold hills and surrounding areas, and their proximity was an opportunity too good to miss so Jane and I drove up to Stratford to meet them. Maybe they used my blogposts from earlier this year called "Stratford on Avon" and "Minster Lovell and the Cotswolds" to do some prior research?!

Kelli's husband Mark is quite interested in entering competitions (aka contests), which is of course the area in which Jane specialises, so he and she had plenty to talk about too. Just in case you didn't already know this, Jane is the editor of the well-known comping magazine The Competition Grape Vine. If you're interested in this sort of thing, why not visit her website or her blog and find out more?

Here's a group photo, taken in the lounge of the visitors' hotel.

Mark (Boyles), Kelli, Egretta, Bob, Jane
Of course Kelli and I talked about gardening a fair bit, for instance comparing notes on our tomato-growing efforts. Kelli, this photo is specially for you:

The container is a re-purposed 1-litre ice-cream tub, and it currently contains approx 500g of cherry tomatoes, which is what I am picking from my 4 plants about every 2 -3 days.

Nice to meet you all, Kelli, Egretta, Mark, and Bob. I hope the coach tour turned out well; I hope you liked the Cotswolds area, and I hope to see some pictures of it on your blogs before very long!

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Chillis. Green chillis.

It has not been a bumper year for chillis - just an OK one. The weather this year has been very strange, and the chilli plants got off to a slow start. Not many fruits have ripened yet, just a handful really. They need more sunshine! However there are plenty of green fruits on the plants, and I am hopeful that most of them will eventually ripen.

Fuego F1

These two are "Hot Portugal", the first type to ripen. I have had five ripe fruits from this one so far. This year I have not fed my chillies very much. Last year I gave them regular doses of 'Tomorite' tomato feed but I felt that they put on too much lush growth at the expense of fruit - and the fruits did not have a lot of heat. However, my plan to also give them less to drink this year has been thwarted by the weather...

None of the plants have grown very tall. The tallest is about two feet  / 60cm, which is considerably less than last year. The bamboo canes I provided for them have turned out to be largely unnecessary.

Fuego F1

Fuego F1


This one looks a bit camera-shy!


These are my "Turkey" chillies. The plants have gone very bushy. The one on the right in the recycled chicken manure tub is the most vigorous of all my chilli plants this year. Its sibling (at left of this photo) is a bit smaller.

They now have dozens (hundreds?) of fruits forming.

None of the fruits have ripened yet. Will they make it to maturity before the Autumn sets in? They were probably expecting temperatures of 40C+ like their parents had...

Seeing them develop I now think they look uncommonly like the ones that were regularly served at Breakfast in the hotel where we stayed on our holiday last year. I wonder why?? [The hotel was Bordubet, close to Marmaris in Turkey].

I think our mild UK weather is also partly to blame for the lack of heat in many of my chillis. I'm sure that some good strong sunshine and high daytime temperatures would add a bit of zing to them. No chance of that this year, I'm afraid.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

And the Winner is....

Yes Folks, it's me! I won the "Gardens" category in the recent Blogs Award. I owe this honour to you, my readers. Thank you very much indeed for your support!

The prize for this award is £500 to spend on the website. We will have lots of fun choosing what to get, because the range of merchandise is huge and very reasonably priced. However, for me there are a couple of additional benefits. Firstly I think the competition may have given my blog a bit of extra visibility, and to a different type of audience too. Secondly, I have been offered the chance to write a Guest Post for Achica's blog, which will be another great opportunity to widen my readership.

Winning this competition has given my enthusiasm for blogging a new boost...

Good news and bad

On Thursday, having been unable to harvest anything for the preceding four days (I was working in London again) I was able to bring in a lot of lovely things, so this is the Good News:

This haul included Runner Beans, French Beans, Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Chillis, Sweet Corn and an Aubergine.

In amongst this lot there were some nice things, clearly, but also some things that were, shall we say, "sub-optimal". Whilst most of the Runner Beans were worthy specimens, I want also to show you these:

No matter how hard you try, you will inevitably end up with a few beans that don't develop properly. They produce one, or possibly two, beans at the end of a scrawny pod that has scarcely any flesh at all. Unattractive as they may seem, you really do need to pick these pods, because if you don't the plants will concentrate on bringing those seeds to maturity and will not produce any more pods for you to eat.

I have already admitted that many of my tomato plants have been struck with blight. For this reason I have picked many of their fruits well before they are really ripe - like these "Incas" plum-style tomatoes:

I have them ripening on the Dining-Room table now, surrounded by other, riper, specimens in the hope that they will take the hint and adopt a nice red hue. Thanks for all your suggestions for cooking with green tomatoes by the way - much appreciated. I especially like the sound of the Southern Fried ones!

Here we have "Incas" at left, "San Marzano" in the middle, and "Speckled Roman" at the right. These are all Plum types, but aren't they very different? The 'navel' of the Speckled Roman is particularly distinctive.

In my first photo you saw a pile of Sweet Corn cobs (carefully arranged so that the half-decent ones were on top!). Unfortunately the corn has been a complete flop. I was so disgusted with it that I didn't even take any photos - and that says a lot about the situation. Shall we just say that from 11 cobs we got enough kernels to make a two-person serving? Yes, eleven cobs! The 12th one was so pathetic that I composted it last week when I was checking so see if any of them were ready to eat. The problem was that at the time when the silks were ready for pollination the weather was totally atrocious, and pollination just didn't happen. I may try again next year, but then again maybe I won't...

I have always striven to be honest about my gardening successes and failures, and this post seems to have been strongly biased towards the latter, so to offset the balance I'll finish with this:

Aubergine "Pingtung Long"

Oh, and this:

Runner Beans "Scarlet Empire"

Yep, there's more to come.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Unexpected successes

Who was it that wrote in a comment on my blog a few months back "Don't bother trying to grow Aubergines in the UK. They never do well and you'll be lucky if they set any fruit" (or words to that effect)?

Well I don't care who it was, because I have proved them wrong! My two "Pingtung Long" Aubergine plants have done much better than I expected, and they have both now delivered their first mature fruits.

The very first fruit is visible in this picture from 19th August:

And now the other plant has produced its first one. This fruit is over 12" / 30cm long.

I'm sure it would have grown longer if I had let it - but you know how impatient I am...

The plant that produced it is groaning with further fruit - about another dozen or so, I would say, at various stages of their development - and that's not counting the ones still at the flower stage.

Now, you may recall me saying that we are not keen on eating Aubergines, but that we were prepared to try them again with home-grown ones. Well, we ate the first one the other night in a Filipino-style beef, vegetable and peanut dish. It was actually quite pleasant. There was no bitterness, and the skin was not tough. And of course you have already read about the Aubergine relish I made... So, I think it is safe to say that we will be trying a few more dishes that include Aubergines.

The key to my success may have been the use of my trusty plastic mini-greenhouses, in which the plants were raised in their early days, successfully protecting them from the atrocious weather.

My other unexpectedly good result has been with cucumbers. Last year my "Marketmore" outdoor cucumbers were a complete washout, producing only one solitary (and very bitter) fruit. This year I switched to a Lebanese or cocktail-type cucumber, an F1 variety called "Iznik". Early in the year I thought I was going to have another total failure, since the plants struggled even to survive in the cold wet conditions we endured during the Spring. Starting from 6 seeds, I eventually ended up with 2 plants, both of them looking pretty sickly. With the advent of warmer conditions though, they bucked up a lot. I have already harvested 12 cucumbers, and they have been really nice - firm and crunchy without being in any way tough.
Last Thursday I picked 6 fruits all on the same day:

I haven't been able to get a decent photograph, so you'll just have to take my word for it that there are loads more cucumbers to come. Great! I think they are wonderful, and I will definitely be growing this variety again.

Cucumber "Iznik"

Maybe next year I will delay sowing until about the beginning of May though. This year my early sowing was not a good idea, and with warm conditions cucumber plants grow very rapidly.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Defence in Depth

One of the things I learned when I was in the Army was the principle of "Defence in Depth" - in other words don't rely solely on one line of defence, but have several. These days I apply this principle to my gardening activities.When I sow some seeds I often sow them in more than one container, and I often sow some more of the same type a couple of weeks later. If one of the batches fails for any reason, the other may do well. I would like to show you how I have used this principle in relation to next year's Purple Sprouting Broccoli.

When I sowed my seeds I sowed far more than was strictly necessary. I usually only grow 6 Broccoli plants (as many as will fit in one of my raised beds) but I sowed about 50 seeds of two varieties, in two large pots. When they were at the small seedling stage I transplanted them to indivdual pots.

Then when planting time came I was able to select the best 3 specimens from each type. I didn't discard the rest. I kept them as spares.

Unfortunately, soon after planting out, the Cabbage Root Fly struck, despite the fact that I had applied nematodes and used brassica collars. One of the "chosen six" was badly hit, and another was affected but less seriously. I was getting ready to deploy my Reserves, but then many of the reserve plants died too! At this point I was very worried and I thought I would lose the whole lot, so I immediately sowed another batch of seed, even though it was really too late in the year for this. A desperate measure you could say, but having Broccoli to harvest in the early Spring is very important to me, so I'll stop at nothing!

Reserves behind, new batch in front

You'll laugh when you hear what else I did.... I unpotted my Reserves, manually picked off the Cabbage Root Fly maggots from their roots, and re-potted the plants in fresh compost! As a further remedial measure I gave each plant a good squirt of multi-purpose bug-spray down near its roots. I don't know whether this was the deciding factor, but somehow many of the plants recovered and are surviving. Five of the "chosen six" are looking nice and healthy now, and even the one that I had thought to be totally doomed is still alive (albeit a lot smaller than its peers), so maybe my late-sowed batch of seedlings will not be required after all.

The one at the left is the one that nearly died.

The moral of this tale is that I had lots of different options, and I felt sure that at least one of them would succeed. I know that not everyone wants to go to this amount of trouble, but it's an approach that works for me, especially since I am growing things in such small quantities. I am lucky in that my little garden is right outside my back door and I can easily keep an eye on it. Perhaps if I had to trek to the other side of town in order to tend an Allotment I might not be quite so meticulous?

Sunday, 26 August 2012

I like Aubergines!

Who would have thought it?

Until recently I would have said that I did not like Aubergines. Despite their obvious visual attractiveness, in the past I have often found them to be bitter and tough-skinned. However, the turning-point for me was an Aubergine dish, a sort of relish, that I encountered whilst on holiday in Turkey last year. Hesitantly trying a little of it just because it was there (served as part of a mixed starter), I had to admit that it was quite pleasant - especially when dipped-up with some of the delightful local flatbreads. So this year I have had a go at growing Aubergines in my own garden - with considerable success, I might add!

After a slow start, my two Aubergine plants began producing fruits in mid-August, and there is now no stopping them:

Aubergine "Pingtung Long"
Encouraged by the good growing results I have finally plucked up the courage to try cooking with Aubergines, and I have made an attempt to re-create the dip that we liked so much in Turkey.

Here is my recipe (serves two).

Aubergine relish

2 medium-sized long aubergines (or one big fat one?)
One medium onion, peeled and diced
3 or 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
3 or 4 large tomatoes (approx 350g), peeled, de-seeded and chopped
A few sprigs of fresh parsley, chopped
Half teaspoon home-made chilli sambal from the fridge - or equivalent in fresh chillies
Pinch of Cinnamon powder
Pinch of Cumin powder
Squeeze of tomato puree (mainly for added colour)
Oil for cooking onions (approx one dessertspoonful)

  • Cook the aubergines over a low open flame until they feel soft, and the skins are black and blistered. [I impaled mine on skewers and held them over a gas-ring. Using your oven's grill would probably work just as well.]
  • Allow the cooked aubergines to cool and then peel off the blackened skins
  • Wash them under a running tap to remove the last few bits of charred skin
  • Put the aubergine flesh in a bowl and chop it finely
  • Cook the onions in the oil, in a small saucepan, over a low flame, until soft but not brown
  • Add the crushed garlic and cook for a further two minutes
  • Add the aubergines and tomatoes to the pan of onions
  • Add the spices, chilli or chilli sambal, parsley and tomato puree
  • Cover the saucepan and cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally,  for approx 20 minutes - until everything has blended together into an unctuous sticky sauce-like texture
  • Be careful not to let it burn. Add a little water if the tomatoes are not sufficiently juicy
  • Adjust seasoning to taste
  • Remove from heat, allow to cool
  • Transfer the relish to a suitable bowl
  • Garnish with more chopped parsley and a couple of lemon wedges

Serve with flatbreads or pitta. (we had ours with home-made Lahmacun), and some crunchy home-grown Lebanese cucumbers.

The fortuitous discovery in our freezer of a half-finished bottle of Ouzo further enhanced our meal!

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Pruning the Blueberries

My 5 potted Blueberry plants gave me a good crop this year - about 1kg of delicious berries. Actually, this amount came from only 4 plants, because the fifth one is still tiny and was acquired only in April this year. Nevertheless, I think I could do better. The 4 mature plants had gone very "gangly" - tall and top-heavy - so I thought it was time to prune them. I have chosen to do this now, immediately after their fruiting season has finished, so that they have a chance to produce some new growth before the Autumn sets in.

Each of the big plants (which must be about 5 or 6 years old now - I can't really remember), had several thick woody stems which were bare down below but bushy up above, like this:

I decided to remove most of the old stems. So, out with the long-handled Pruners... Five minutes later, this is what they looked like:

I left in place all the young pliable stems, but I removed most of the woody ones.

Two of the plants didn't have any young stems coming out of the base of the plant; only bushy growth at the top of some very thick old wood, so I removed most of the old stems, leaving one or two behind. If new basal growth appears, I will remove the last of the woody stems next year.

I also trimmed the bushy growth at the top of these old branches. I expect more new shoots will soon appear.

In order not to put the plants under too much stress I am being very careful to keep their compost moist, and I have placed their pots in pot-saucers to minimise water loss.

I'm not sure whether this is the "approved" method of pruning Blueberries, but it's what feels right to me. I'll let you know how things go.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Vienna, part 2 - the Naschmarkt

A few days ago I wrote about our recent trip to the city of Vienna, and I described some of the sights we saw and attractions we visited. Now I am going to home-in and give you some detail on my favourite attraction - the Naschmarkt.

The Naschmarkt is an area of the city devoted to the sale of food and drink. It has a huge succession of stalls - some temporary, but mostly permanent- which sell ingredients of every conceivable nature, both local and exotic. The market extends over 1.5km in length, with a triple row of stalls. Two rows sell ingredients, and one row is devoted to restaurants selling prepared food. The market is in a street called Linke Wienzeile, right next to the Kettenbruckengasse U-Bahn station on the U4 Line, so it is very easily accessible.

This is a market frequented by locals and tourists alike. The locals genuinely use it for their everyday shopping, whereas the tourists do what we did - ogle, and take photographs. On the other hand, I suspect that most of the locals don't often eat in the restaurants, but the tourists usually do.

Many of the stalls sell "conventional" fruit and veg - but what fabulous specimens! Every one of them seemed to be in A1 condition.

There were dozens of stalls selling ready-prepared goods (hors d'oeuvres etc), such as tomatoes, peppers, courgettes, dates etc stuffed with cheese, figs, walnuts, prosciutto etc.

These "Birds Nests" seemed to be made of Baklava and decorated with Pistachio "eggs".

One of the least attractive items from my point of view was the Baby Octopus and Calamari stuffed with prawns (I don't eat fish or seafood).

The bread was more to my liking

As was the cheese

I had to steer Jane (who is diabetic) quickly past the mountains of fudge

And the cakes

And the Macaroons

And the honey (with Vanilla; with Pumpkin seeds; with Walnuts, etc)

And the candied fruit

These all make it look as if there was practically nothing that Jane could have eaten, but this was far from true. We were both interested in this stall which sold many different types of oil and vinegar

The owner of this stall was proudly handing out samples of his Tomato vinegar.

The mushrooms looked nice. There were loads of really huge Porcini / Boletus on sale

Lots of herbs too. Most of the common ones, but also plenty of the more obscure ones as well - such as these nettles. (BTW: How many words do you know that include the same letter three times in a row?)

There were dried herbs and spices in profusion

There was a lot of meat and meat products on sale - mainly pork, sausages of various types, and Wiener Schnitzel (Veal escalopes) and even ducks:

And teapots

Several stalls sold growing plants - almost all of them edible, like these chillis

Some of the stall-holders had gone to great lengths to display their wares attractively (No, that is not a live chicken).

All in all, quite the most comprehensive and mouth-watering display of food items I have ever seen. If you are a Foodie, you must NOT visit Vienna without going to the Naschmarkt! I just wish it was local to us so that we could actually buy some of the items we saw.