Thursday, June 30

Playing gooseberry

This post is specially for Jenni from Rainy Day Gardener who said in a recent post that she was unfamiliar with gooseberries. So here’s probably more information than Jenni really wanted. If you are very familiar with gooseberries then you could just skip this post!
Gooseberry is a strange name and there seems to be no clear idea of where the name came from - it certainly doesn't appear to have anything to do with geese. 

Gooseberries are related to the currant family, which explains why it was possible to cross a gooseberry with a blackcurrant to create a jostaberry.

It’s likely that the first thing anyone will tell you about gooseberry bushes (other than that babies are found under them) is that most varieties have evil spikes growing up the stems. Picking gooseberries can be a painful activity.
Advice is to try and make life easier for a gooseberry picker by pruning the bush into what is often described as an open goblet shape. The idea is to cut out the branches in the centre of the bush and also thin out the rest of the stems so that you can get your hand in without it coming out scratched to pieces. The open effect also allows air to circulate to try and avoid the plants suffering from mildew. Funnily enough, even though gooseberries don’t seem to be popular in the USA, the mildew that affects gooseberries is called American gooseberry mildew. Most modern varieties have some degree of mildew resistance. The bushes can also be attacked by gooseberry sawfly  larva which can devastate a plant very quickly.
Gooseberry flowers are fairly insignificant to our eyes as they are small and have no petals but in April the bees and other pollinating insects love them.
Young gooseberry fruits are covered in soft spines . Some fully ripe fruits are smooth skinned but many keep the hairy spines which sounds awful but really you don’t notice them when you eat a gooseberry. All young gooseberries are green, once ripe some remain green and others become yellow or reddish.
The gooseberry fruit is about the size of a large grape but has a thicker skin and a firmer texture. Inside the fruit are seeds arranged a bit like the seeds inside a tomato or a kiwi. It’s difficult to describe the taste  but I guess the nearest comparison would be a  firm grape with edible seeds. Can anyone give a better description of the taste?
There are lots of varieties of gooseberries - all ours are dessert varieties which means that they are sweet enough (for us anyway) to eat raw although you can also cook with them. There are other tarter varieties that really need to be used in cooking. Generally though if you pick the berries early even the dessert varieties will be tart. I usually give the berry a little squeeze and if it is is a little soft I pick one off and taste it to see if it is sweet enough to eat.
Gooseberries can be made into desserts such as pies, fools and crumbles or jams, and chutneys, and you can even use them to make a sauce to eat with meat such as pork or fish such as mackerel. I think the French translation of gooseberry is groseille à maquereau which translates something like mackerel currant.

By the way playing gooseberry means you are the third person in a group where the other two only really want to be alone!

Sunday, June 26

Rich Pickings

Although we are still planting and weeding and generally carrying out the usual maintenance of the plot, the main task at the moment is picking soft fruit.

My fears that the dry weather would mean a poor crop were thankfully unfounded and it seems that most of the soft fruit is conspiring to be ripe at the same time!

Our ancient redcurrant bushes have as usual produced a bumper crop. 
We didn’t buy or even plant the bushes they were planted by the last person to garden the plot and must have been planted well over 20 years ago. Once the plot was vacated it became totally submerged under a mass of weeds, including, bramble, and docks. The whole plot was covered in growth that was above head height and in a moment of madness we rented the plot in an attempt to recover the fruit that we knew was lurking in there somewhere. It was hard going but eventually we not only uncovered the redcurrants but a row of apple cordons, blackcurrant and white currant bushes.

Once rescued the redcurrants have repaid our efforts by fruiting prolifically each year. I don’t think the blackbirds were impressed as they lost what would have been (if they had managed to find them) a cache of juicy red berries.
The redcurrants don’t take much looking after just a bit of pruning of one or two branches that end up trailing on the ground. We also have to make sure we net them as soon as they start to turn red or the blackbirds are straight into them and will soon strip the plants. Interestingly when we have picked enough and remove the net the blackbirds have lost interest.
I usually have the task of picking redcurrants as, being a foot shorter than Martyn, it is easier for me to duck inside the makeshift fruit cage. I strip or cut sprigs of fruit from the plant and then at home we have the sticky, time consuming task of stripping off the currants. Some are then eaten fresh in fruit salads and as we don’t eat jams or jellies most are then bagged and frozen.
I could have spent an entire afternoon picking redcurrants but there were so many other fruits to pick too. I’ll pick more another day!

I had initially thought the jostaberries hadn’t produced much of a crop but it seems that the berries were in hiding until they had ripened. The bushes were loaded.  A few years ago we bought one jostaberry bush which grew rather straggly whilst being kept in the greenhouse before planting so I trimmed it a little and decided to pop the trimmings in as cuttings. They all rooted and so we then had seven bushes which grew really quickly and fruited the year after! 
We gave one of the jostaberry cuttings to our plot neighbour who gave us lots of gooseberry cuttings. These all grew away and are now producing masses of sweet red fruits. Unfortunately we haven’t a clue about the variety. We also have some green gooseberries and a variety called Pax which have yet to start picking.
A couple of years ago we cleared out the blackcurrant bushes originally recovered from this plot, as they had stopped being productive, but I did take a few cuttings. I also took cuttings from the whitecurrant bush as it was planted just where we wanted to erect our greenhouse. I later found out that I had taken them at the wrong time and not used the correct method. Expecting failure we bought more blackcurrant bushes and - you’ve guessed it haven’t you? - all the cuttings grew.
It wasn’t a waste though as the cuttings are only just beginning to produce fruit and as yet only fairly small currants whereas the new bushes are loaded.

Our early, mid season and late raspberries seem to have identity issues as all the varieties seem to be fruiting at the same time along with our purple fruiting Glencoe. 
Glencoe is still producing fairly small berries which although they taste lovely are not what I expected. Does anyone else grow it and if so can I ever expect bigger berries.
The autumn raspberries - Allgold - will hopefully provide us will yellow raspberries later. These are now producing quite a thicket and so I had a break from fruit picking to thin out the canes. I removed any thin straggly canes which should mean that all the plants vigour should go into the stronger canes. It’s the first time I’ve bothered to do this and so time will tell whether it works or not!
Like everyone else, (and maybe a bit later than many of you), we are picking lovely sweet juicy strawberries. The ones from the old beds are producing much smaller fruit now and we are picking them before fully ripened as they are not netted. 
They still taste good and we beat the birds to them this way. As well as their big brothers we are also picking alpine strawberries although these tend to produce larger berries later in the season.

Oh I nearly forgot - we inherited a tayberry too and are also harvesting fruit from that.
We’re having a barbecue with our plot neighbours this afternoon and guess what will feature highly on the menu for dessert?

Friday, June 17

Beating the birds and the slugs and ...

As we hadn’t got round to protecting our new strawberry plants we were picking the fruit before fully ripe to make sure we beat the eagle-eyed birds to them so we urgently needed to set up our strawberry protection. 

In the past we have used a straw mulch to keep the berries from the ground but the disadvantage of this is that the straw contains so many weed seeds that weeds were almost impossible to keep in check without uprooting the plants. The result has been that the plants in our old strawberry beds have disappeared under a mass of weeds.

To try and avoid a repeat situation we wanted to try a different approach to the new bed. We considered planting through weed suppressant membrane but discounted this. We didn’t want to permanently cover the soil as we felt that it would be difficult to apply a feed and also felt that the membrane could harbour slugs.

Then browsing the Internet we came across a biodegradable mulch. This is a sort of fabric made from plant starch which is said to last 16 weeks before breaking down into the soil. As that should be long enough to protect the ripening berries we decided to give it a try. 

The fabric feels rather weird - it’s very thin so we had to wait for a still day in order to lay it. 

Our strawberry patch is fairly large so the fabric was cut into strips and laid onto the strawberry plants. A cross was cut so each plant could poke through the mulch and then straw was laid on top of the fabric. The straw was really to keep the mulch in place as we thought being so light that any fairly breezy weather would whip it away.
Hopefully the fabric will last long enough for the strawberries to fruit and the straw to be removed.

That was still no protection against our feathered friends so we then covered the whole patch with netting held down with a few bricks.

I want all the plants strength to go into producing good plants and lots of lovely fruit so I am being kept busy cutting off the runners that are being sent out by the plants with gay abandon - it’s almost a full time job! When it comes to needing to renew the plants I’ll let some runners develop but this won’t be for a year or two.

Meanwhile the old weed infested strawberry beds are producing fruit too but these are being left to fend for themselves. Any fruit will de a bonus. We didn’t want to dig out the old plants until the new bed had proved it was going to provide us with a crop but once the fruiting season is over the plants will be dug out and discarded and the beds tidied up to make room for other crops.

If the biodegradable mulch proves to be successful we are thinking of using it between rows of carrot seedlings to cut down on weed growth under the enviromesh tents.

Other fruits update:
I was a bit concerned that the dry weather would adversely affect our fruit crop this year but things seem to be progressing well and from some fruits such as plums and apples we should have a bumper crop. The most excitement is that the nectarines and our Issai kiwi fruits are continuing to swell  The photo album below shows the state of our fruits at the moment.

Wednesday, June 15

A tour around our plot - in pictures.

When we were at the plot yesterday I took a few photos that I thought I'd share. Some show how dry the soil still is.

Monday, June 13

Plans change don't they?

Back in January I posted on several plans for garden projects so I thought I’d update on our progress or lack of it!

Halfway through 2011 and so far we have almost completed one of the projects which was to plant up a small bed at the front of the house with perennials  - the plants that I bought for the front garden bed have now been planted up - the last batch planted just yesterday morning. I say almost completed as I want to plant some spring bulbs in between the perennials to provide some early colour and I can’t really do that just yet. The gaps are where I’m also going to add a few of the aquilegias that I have grown from seed and these aren't really ready for planting out just yet. It even rained all afternoon to settle the plants in which was a long awaited bonus. For more about the rain click here.
I don’t expect that it will look much this year but maybe next. A couple of brave hardy geraniums are producing a few flowers as is a very premature Michaelmas daisy. Some of the poor plants that have been planted a while had to cope with the period of very windy weather and have been a bit battered but they seem to have survived. It's surprising how stony the ground looks - the stones seem to have come from nowhere.

Another plan was to tidy up the area by our cold frame using the paving slabs which would be replaced on our patio. A temporary solution was called for as the patio hasn’t yet been tackled so for now Martyn has created a bark chipped area. Once the area was tidied up (I know it may not look tidy yet but you should have seen how it looked to start with) and bark chippings laid we were surprised at how much room there seems to be in what is just a bit of space tucked behind our greenhouse so we now need to think of how to make best use of what is a sheltered sun trap. The ivy which is creating a fedge is coming through the fence from next door and will be trimmed back hard. The birds love the berries it produces and it also provided ideal shelter and nesting which is why it hasn’t been cut back just yet.

Another plan was to create some sort of focal point in a shady area under our crab apple tree. We were thinking of placing some sort of statue there and planting around the base with shade loving plants.

I searched and searched for a suitable statue but nothing took my fancy. Then we saw a bird bath that we liked which we thought would fit the bill (no pun intended). I know we already have a couple of bird baths but I’m sure the birds will enjoy another. Before we bought the bird bath we decided to cut back some of the bamboo and a very large fatsia and in so doing got a bit carried away so now this has become a project to replant the whole area. What was intended to have been a small project has become a major one which involves trying to cut out some of the branches of the crab apple tree! I quite like the idea of planting a small acer here as we have quite fancied having one for ages but need one that doesn’t need a very light position - any variety suggestions?

At the moment the area looks like this - but as they say with any project things often have to get worse before they get better.

As for our other intended projects - well these seem to have been scaled up too and more have been added to the list after some losses due to last year’s awful winter.

I  planted out the dark leaved dahlias bought earlier but not where I had intended to plant them - they were destined for a bed in which we have (or should I say had) a group of banana plants. As all that seems to have survived over winter is one small shoot this bed has been earmarked for a major renovation so the dahlias have been added to our perennial bed. I can always move them later if they don’t fit in.

Allotment update:
We did manage to plant a few more things on the plot too last week but as I don’t want to duplicate what Martyn has already written on his blog then you can read about that here.

RSPB - Make Nature Count
We took part in the RSPB annual nature survey and for the first time ever the birds were co-operative and didn’t go into hiding so we had a good mix of species with only one or two regulars missing. We even had a couple of new faces.
Mr and Mrs Bullfinch

The garden is also full of baby birds but the ones that the RSPB asked people to look out for seem to have grown up even though we have had baby blackbirds and robins earlier in the year we had none to count last week. The challenge was to count the sparrows - how on earth do you accurately count a flock of sparrows? In the end we had to make a guesstimate.

Sunday, June 5

You may not believe it but …

Looking at the contents of our plant waiting room (cold frame) at the moment you could be forgiven for thinking that we haven't made any effort to plant out anything yet. It’s still looks crammed full with plants but what you have to realise is that these are different plants to the ones in the last photo.
We seem to be missing any rain that comes towards us from any direction - we’ve had some slight dribbly stuff but nothing to change the fact that our soil is bone dry but the wind at least has granted us a bit of a respite so we decided to get planting.

The planting method that we are employing at the moment is to dig a hole as quickly as possible with the trowel - quickly because the hole fills up almost as quickly as we can dig it, then to pop in the plant and fill the planting hole with water. Then the hole is refilled with soil and the plant firmed by which stage the water has been absorbed enough to prevent my gloves becoming a soggy mess. Hopefully this way the plants have access to moisture at root level and not being on the surface the moisture shouldn’t evaporate as quickly.

So what have we managed to plant? First was a selection of cabbages and sprouts. As these like to be in firm ground I made sure I firmed them in really well. These were also covered with insect mesh netting to hopefully foil the wood pigeons that sit on the telegraph wires waiting for us to leave so they can swoop down and devastate any choice greens. Being insect mesh this also doubles as protection against the cabbage white butterflies which will try to invade anything left by the wood pigeons. Unfortunately it doesn’t keep off the clouds of whitefly that no doubt will soon descend.

While I was busily dealing with the brassicas, Martyn planted the first of our courgettes. He did do lots of other things too like tilling the bed where the dahlias were to be planted.
Once the bed was prepared the 30 dahlias that we grew from seed this year were planted alongside the dahlias that had survived the winter. Originally we thought that we had lost all last year’s tubers. Last year we planted one tuber of each of our dahlia varieties in the ground and we piled all the duplicate tubers on top of them and covered with a pile of straw and black polythene. We weren't too bothered about the duplicates as we wanted to plant some different colours. When we first uncovered the pile we thought as Martyn reported in his blog that all the tubers had rotted but we later discovered that most of the ones that were planted are producing shoots.

Another lot of broad beans have been planted out. These are the third lot - all the other broad beans are flowering and I planted surrounded by the beautiful scent of those planted earlier - no wonder the bees love them. Don’t you think that the flowers look a bit like bumble bees? The crimson flowered ones have also attracted the attention of some of our plot neighbours.

After erecting the great wall (well bamboo thingy) of Green Lane I planted dozens of sweet peas. I didn’t intend to have dozens - it just turned out that way. I usually buy a couple of packets but this year decided to also try a  short growing variety. As these were unavailable the seed company substituted some tall ones and we found another packet in a magazine. Then my plot neighbour ran out of room and gave me her leftovers too. If they all grow we will have a beautiful wall of colour - must keep them watered.
While I dealt with the sweet peas Martyn planted our first lot of runner beans and lots of lettuce.
Back in the garden I planted out the penstemon collection that had grown on in the greenhouse so the bed at the front of the house, although not fully planted yet, is filling up nicely.
Martyn has also planted up some tomatoes, cucumber, peppers and melon in some air pots that we are trying for the first time. We are going to risk some tomatoes outside in the garden and hope we don’t have a blight problem there.
Just a quick update on the new fruit
The nectarine fruitlets are hanging on and growing and the Issai kiwi seems to have set fruit. More on this later.
And another bit of news
We spotted a new bird to our garden this week - a male bullfinch - we have seen it twice - once when we were outside without a camera to hand and then yesterday when we were looking out of the house window. We had a camera this time but the bird wasn't very accommodating and hid behind a branch so the camera focussed on the branch - click here for one shot we managed. Hope if he becomes a regular visitor he doesn't cause trouble by pecking off our fruit and flower buds. Forgot to mention it's RSPB Nature Count week.