Wednesday 28 March 2012

Hellebores providing a great show

We have a lot of hellebores which are giving a particularly good show this year. They start flowering on inch-high stems in January and keep going. The last rain we had (about 3 weeks ago) gave them a boost and they shot up with some 15-18 inches high. We have various colours but they self-seed and so there's a predominance of mid-pink with greenish markings

Monday 26 March 2012

Digging and planting

Really summery weather this weekend - in March! After a foggy start to Saturday the sun came out and the rest of the weekend was lovely. The clocks went forward on Sunday morning so we could enjoy the sunny evening. It's just a bit worrying that there has been no rain for about 2 weeks and the water levels are very low. The whole region has been pretty dry for months. However, the soil is still damp and with the warm weather it should be good for planting.

During a busy weekend we planted shallots, moved the runner bean frame to its new position, set out  3 gooseberry cuttings and planted Big Boy tomato seeds in pots. They'll stay in the conservatory and be planted out into grow-bags. The last few summers have been fairly cool and our early experiments with outdoor tomatoes were complete failures. They also got blight. So now we just grow tomatoes in the conservatory and greenhouse fairly successfully. We regularly grow Big Boys which are great for cooking and last year we grew Harbinger and Alicante as salad tomatoes. I'll sow some of these in the greenhouse tomorrow.

Sunday 18 March 2012

Getting started with sowing

Started sorting out seeds - remains of packets and some that we saved from last year's harvest. Sowed a couple of short rows of PakChoi. Haven't had a great deal of success with these in previous years. They tend to get eaten by slugs but thought I'd use up the remaining seeds. Sowed Lollo Rosso Lettuce and Rocket in the greenhouse. They will be up and eaten before the tomatoes are ready to go in the bed.

Dug over the plot for the Broad Beans and worked in a bit of well-rotted stable manure. Planted 60 beans - 2 groups of 3 rows. These were saved from last year's harvest. Later Mum & I planted 24 Beetroot seeds and 40 Sweet Peas in modules which will stay in her conservatory until they're ready to plant out. The Sweet Peas are Spencer Mixed and saved from last year.

Also planted 5 Celebration Squashes - seeds saved from a bought squash - and 3 Uchiki Kuri Squashes left in the packet from last year. This is a bit of defiance really because last year none of the 7 planted in pots and kept indoors even germinated. 

The season has started!

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Mr & Mrs & Mrs Pheasant

Watched a lovely little show today. Two female pheasants came into the garden from the field and spent a few minutes pecking around under the bird table, with upward looks at the nut feeders trying to work out if they could get up there. Enter Mr Pheasant - a beautiful bird with shiny golden feathers, a red face and little black tufty ears. He didn't go for the food but walked into the helibore bed and clucked and bobbed up and down almost like he was saying to the females - "Look at all these lovely flowers I've got for you!". This went on for quite a while with the females moving around the garden feeding and the male following and keeping watch.
The menage-a-trois was finally disturbed by the neighbour's big tabby cat who fancied his chances with the birds while their attention was elsewhere. He crept up the steps and around the fountain but the birds caught sight of him and flew off with customary squawking.

Sunday 11 March 2012

Last of the Celeriac

An absolutely beautiful spring day! Warm and sunny with a light breeze, birds singing, first few butterflies and ladybirds everywhere.

I'm gradually getting around to digging over all the vegetable beds ready for broad beans and peas straight into the soil as soon as it's a bit warmer. They're frost resistant so not much risk with early sowing. We've got caught a few times planting runner beans and french beans in May even, so this year I'm going to be cautious and leave them till nearly June. They grow fast when it's warmer and will catch up.

I've still got sprouts standing. Today I picked enough for a couple of meals and there's still some left, but they are beginning to open out so maybe another fortnight and they'll be over.

The other crop still in the ground is Celeriac. Last year Paul gave me a packet of seeds. I've never grown them before but followed the instructions on the packet and also advice from  Joe Hashman (On the Plot with Dirty Nails). I ended up with about 60 seedlings which I planted out. But they never really got going and, unlike the football-sized job we bought from the supermarket just to see what they were like, we've only had tennis and ping-pong balls. Anyway I dug up what was left and made Celeriac and Potato Mash to go with roast pork and the sprouts - very easy because celeriac cooks quickly in the microwave with a splash of water and a bit of butter and you can mash it up with a fork.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Pyrocantha pest

We have a pyrocantha growing against the wall at the front of the house. It has developed sort of dry blisters on the leaves which are going brown and dropping. Inside the blister are some little dots I suspect are aphids. My neighbour's shrub is showing similar signs. I sprayed liberally with a mild solution of washing up liquid, my usual anti-aphid weapon, and there does seem to be some improvement. Don't know what this pest is called. Any ideas?

Monday 5 March 2012

Coffee & Walnut Cake

This weekend was a wash-out. Brief sun on Saturday was followed by persistent rain so I decided to stay in and bake a cake.

A quick poll around the family elected Coffee and Walnut which I haven't made for a while so I consulted with Nigel Slater (The Kitchen Diaries). I'm not a great follower of recipes. I use them as a guide and then do my own thing.  I used less sugar and more flour, proper coffee instead of instant and rather than put chopped nuts in the butter icing I arranged half walnuts over the top (looks pretty!).

Coffee and Walnut Cake

Ingredients for the cake:
  • 175 grams unsalted butter
  • 200 grams self-raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 150 grams granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3 tablespoons STRONG coffee
  • 65 grams walnuts pieces
  • A little extra butter for greasing the cake tin
Ingredients for butter icing:
  • 150 grams butter
  • 300 grams icing sugar
  • 2 tablepoons of STRONG coffee
  • walnut halves for decoration

Butter a 20cm loose-bottom cake tin, then line it with grease-proof paper and butter that.

Take the butter out of the fridge an hour or so before you start so it is soft enough to work with. Mix the butter and sugar in a bowl using a fork or wooden spoon. When it's creamy and smooth add the eggs and flour and baking powder. Add one egg then some flour, keep beating, then the next egg and more flour and so on. Then add the coffee. Chop the nuts very finely using a large knife on a flat board (or blitz in your favourite machine). Stir into the mixture.

Turn on the oven to 160C. I used a fan oven which heats up very quicky so I don't need to turn it on before starting the mixing. If you have a conventional oven you may need to turn it on earlier and set it to 180C. Pour the cake mixture into the cake tin and smooth over the top. When the oven has reached the correct temperature place the cake in the middle of the oven. It should be done in 45 mins, but check towards the end because ovens and the mixture can vary.

Take the cake out and cool it on a wire tray. When cool enough to handle remove from the tin, remove the paper and leave to cool some more.

Make the butter icing by beating the butter and sugar together until smooth and then mixing in the coffee and beating some more. I do this by hand but you might prefer to put all the ingredients in a food mixer and blitz.

When the cake is cool cut through the middle with a bread knife. Spread half the butter icing through the middle, sandwich the top and bottom together and spread the rest of the icing over the top and decorate with half walnuts. Enjoy!