Friday, 27 May 2011

Tasted our First Frost Sloe Gin

Last year we picked some sloes after the first frosts for the first time I think I've covered the theory behind this before, but I'll precis it for newer readers anyway.

Popular wisdom says that frost make the sloes sweeter or it breaks down their skin a little, allowing the juices to flow out more easily, either way, the upshot is supposed to be sloe gin with a rather more mellow and complex flavour.

When we first started making sloe gin I had trouble picking post frost sloes as, by the time the frosts came, the sloes had withered on the vine (so to speak) I put this down to global warming and the frosts getting later. But, as we all know, the last couple of winters have seen an altered gulf stream and a preponderance of ice and snow. As a result, 2010 presented us with our first opportunity to grab some frosted sloes before they shrivelled.

It's spent 3 months macerating in the demi-jon and a further 4 months maturing in the bottle so it was with a flourish that we finally opened it.

I don't know what other sloe gin aficionados find, but I think the taste of sloe gin can vary batch to batch anyway, the amount of ginny tang and tannins can change considerably and there are so many variables (how long the gin is left to macerate/mature, how the sloes were pricked, differences between locations of the trees they grew on, whether bullaces have crept in etc etc) it hard to pinpoint which one is responsible.

However, this batch is definitely one of the best we've produced, noticeably thicker and mellower than the non frost batch. Whether that's down to the frosting alone is impossible to tell but I think we'll carry on making it when we get the opportunity, just to be sure!

Talking of bullace - has anyone heard of Essex Bullace? A friend of Adam's reckons he's picked some but when we Googled it we only found references to them on American sites along with Royal Bullace and White Bullace, none of which I've ever heard of, can anyone shed any light?

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The weather gets even more bizarre.

What is it with this weather? I get the impression that I'm imprisoned in the last dry and dusty corner of the county, bleating into the ether about the lack of rain while the rest of the country bends under the weight of torrential rain. My Facebook page is full of far flung people exclaiming at thunderstorms/hailstones/floods etc. (No locusts or frogs yet but surely it's only a matter of time) while I gaze mournfully at the dustbowl I call an allotment.

On the plus side though, the elderflowers are early. Willow has been eagerly anticipating her first taste of summer and has been monitoring the progress of the flowers in the hedgerow and telling me to get my finger out re cordial so yesterday I obliged. I say 'I', Willow did most of the work as you can see.

Anyway, I'm as confident as confident can be that the dry spell will break by 18th June as that's when Proms in the Park is held in Diss. Every year, without fail, there is torrential rain and revellers end up forgetting the words to Jerusalem and sipping warm wine out of plastic cups while huddling under golf umbrellas in an attempt to keep dry.

I was actually offended by the frost in April, how can it be fair that we're battling mid summer conditions and yet have to contend with extreme night time cold at the same time? Interestingly though, I read a couple of old garden diary type books, The Urban Gardener by Elspeth Thompson, (published in the mid '90s) and one whose name I can't remember as I was reading it in the Oxfam bookshop but was published in the 1930's (didn't buy it as it was about growing flowers rather than veg) both complained of 'freak' frost and snow in April. So I guess it's not that unusual after all, next year I promise I won't cast any clouts til May is out.

Yesterday though, things took another turn for the unexpected with the gale force winds. Luckily our, as yet empty, cold frame on the allotment stayed put but my plastic greenhouse at home has suffered. It didn't move as it's lashed securely to various down pipes on the side of the house and the frame is weighted down with gro bags. However, it did rock violently enough to tip up the tomatoes on the top shelves so they came crashing down on the tomatoes below. Plus the outer cover has ripped where the ropes tying it down are attached. Now the winds have died down I have a morning of duct tape repairs and surveying the damage to my Mr Stripeys in front of me. My leftover tumbling tom seedlings, who were destined for the allotment, flew around the garden alarmingly, the pots have been left behind but the plants have simply disappeared.

I have to admit I'm genuinely quite worried and can't help feeling that global warming is genuinely upon us. Some people may claim it doesn't exist and I hope they're right, but I doubt it.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Surviving the drought.

Here in the East we've had an exceptionally dry spring with only something like 10% of the usual rainfall. I haven't found it too difficult to cope with although that's not to say I haven't had disasters. My broad beans and asparagus crowns have definitely failed and my carrots are worryingly slow to germinate but I've not giving up hope just yet. On the other hand my strawberries, fruit trees, borlotti beans, chard, cavolo nero, lettuce, leeks, sweetcorn and calabrese seem to be not just surviving but flourishing. This is down, in no small measure, to all the help I got in this post last year.

So, a year down the line, I thought it would be useful to review how I got on with the drought measures over the season, which tips worked and which am I carrying on with this year.

Last year I planted as many seeds as possible direct in the ground. I reasoned this would be less work than handling dozens of seedlings with all potting on and hardening off, but I was wrong. Hard work is trying to keep a 10m line of seeds wet enough to germinate (hence the fate of my carrots this year as I've sown them direct) It's much, much easier to keep a tray in a coldframe at home well watered plus this gives the seeds a head start as they germinate much more quickly. Once hardened off all the plants could all be watered simultaneously with 10 minutes under the sprinkler.

One of the best suggestions I got last year was from Craftygeek (see the comments on the old post) which was to plant bean seeds in cardboard tubes or rolls of newspaper full of compost. I packed mine together in an orange crate from the supermarket which I moved in and out of the coldframe en masse to harden them off. Once they were ready to go out I planted the whole tube/roll in the ground. This encourages deep roots and the compost and cardboard hold onto water, preventing it seeping away through the horribly cracked clay soil. Plus it improves the texture of the soil long term. Last year, once the beans were established I didn't water them at all but they continued to thrive and crop well.

Planting in a depression (just think of all the Lib Dem broken election promises ..... ) is probably the simplest and most effective thing I do. I put the seedlings in a dish shaped depression in the ground about 3cm deep and also build up a little 'wall' of soil around the plant. This holds the water, preventing it running off and giving it time to properly soak into the soil. As the plant grows bigger it tends to overrun the depression making it redundant but by this time the roots are deep enough to cope anyway.

As a proper double whammy, with large water hungry plants such as squash, cucumbers and tomatoes as well as the depression I use the bottom-chopped-off-plastic-bottle technique. I find this hugely effective, 48hrs after watering the soil is usually still damp around the plant, even on a hot, dry day.

These techniques are time saving too as I can quickly dump the water where it's needed and walk away, I don't have to stand at each plant for 20 seconds or so til the water has soaked in. Also as the water is getting directly to where it's needed, I don't need as much which means fewer trips to the tap/water butt. It takes me about 20 minutes to water each allotment, although I plan on stopping watering at all on the old allotment once the plants are established.

Have a look at Allotments4you's comment on the old post, I took this one to heart, last year I didn't water my borlotti beans, sweetcorn, brocolli, chard or cavolo nero once they were established and all did well. I didn't water the carrots either, apparently this encourages root veg to grow down further in search of water, making them bigger. Which they were. The wireworm seemed to approve anyway ....

PS - Just thought of another one. If you've got any spare seedlings with no room, pot them on and keep them alive as backups just in case your planted out ones fail, or die of frost, or get eaten by a chicken or something.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Blogger Curse strikes this time!

A big "waaaaaaaah!" to Blogger for the technical confusion over the last few days, apologies to those who have left comments which have gone astray. I guess I should be thankful that my courgette post came back to life eventually!

Is that Wordpress I see on the horizon????

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Courgette Curse strikes again

Regular readers will know that courgettes are unfeasibly popular here in the Kitchen. Back in the day when I was struggling to grow what I could in my tiny garden they were a blessing as they give a generous crop in return for the smallest corner of ground. Having a glut was a novelty and I embraced the challenge with gusto - courgette cake, roasted courgette, courgette soup, courgette pickle, courgette jam, I love them all.

Therefore the great courgette tragedy of 2009, when I lost my slender green friends to mosaic virus, was a bitter blow. It's not just the loss of a popular vegetable but the ignominy of being unable to grow something universally acknowledged as a 'beginners' plant which is derided rather than celebrated for it's fecundity. Truth be told, I think it's the latter point that drives me on in my quest to conquer the courgette more than anything else.

2010 got off to a shaky start. I finally got my long awaited allotment (hoorah!) so the problem of being unable to use my mosaic virus infested garden was solved. I planted 4 courgette plants (2 green and 2 stripy) but I underestimated how exposed the allotment site was and all 4 plants went into shock after the cosiness of my back garden. I bit my nails for a week or two before they got a grip and started to actually grow.

It's true we had a glut after our holiday when the courgettes had been left to their own devices and a handful grew to monster proportions but the actual number of fruit was surprisingly low. The stripy variety in particular seemed to have quite a low yield, although I do wonder if this had something to do with their early shock.

Which brings us up to date. This year I have 2 allotments so space is far from an issue and I went to town! I sowed yellow courgettes, round courgettes and patty pan squash plus a friend kindly gave me a couple of crook neck squash seedlings. So courgettes all round then?

Hmmm, not so sure. I planted 2 yellow and 2 round on the allotment, only for us to have a frost a mere 2 days later, 1 of each type (plus a cucumber) was felled and the remaining plants have that familiar stunned look about them. Luckily my crook neck and patty pan squash were still at home and my sheltered garden escaped the frost so I'll plant a few more of those to step into the beach.

However, note to self for 2012 - don't plant the courgettes out til mid-May, it's just not worth the heartache!

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Sweet(corn) Nothings

Let's talk sweetcorn. Am I just rubbish at growing it or is it a somewhat testy diva of a vegetable that swoons when the conditions are anything less than perfect?

Last year I started the seeds off at home, outside in small pots. I reasoned that they'd grow already accustomed to the ambient conditions and I wouldn't have to bother hardening them off. This meant that they were outside during the late frost we had at the end of April last year, still tucked up under the potting compost in my sheltered, relatively frost free garden though, so not catastrophic. However, I do wonder whether this may have stunted them in later life.

I found that, at every stage of the growing process, I seemed to lose a proportion of the plants/ears of corn. About half of the seeds actually germinated and their progress was slooooooow, about 3 weeks from sowing to green shoots. Of the germinated seeds probably one third failed to thrive and didn't produce any corn. Of the plants that actually grew, about half produced decent corn and the other half produced weird nearly naked cobs. I think in the end we only had 6 or 8 decent decent cobs of corn from 20 plants.

This year I decided to buy a bigger cold frame so that I had the room to start off all my seeds under cover and get a head start. The sweetcorn has germinated within days but still, half the seeds have failed (in stark contrast to everything else which, other than the disappointing Mr Stripy tomatoes, has a success rate of almost 100%). I can also see huge disparities in size between the plants, a few are large, vigorous and obviously healthy (as seen in the photo, mid sprinkler session this afternoon) but a handful are rather runty. The pattern of last year seems to be repeating itself already.

So - what's your experience? Is my allotment fundamentally unsuited to sweetcorn, or is this fairly typical? I'd love to hear your stories and tips.