J Peggy Taylor
One of the special moments in the gardening year is digging down into the earth to harvest your very first batch of first early potatoes of the season.
In the shops, these early potatoes are known as ‘New Potatoes’ … but there is nothing like the the taste of delicious earthy tubers you have lovingly raised yourself.
‘First Early’ potatoes are simply the type that are normally planted earliest in the year and are therefore ready to harvest first. The ‘First Early’ potatoes I chose to plant this year are the Pentland Javelin variety.
Back in the cold days of January, I took delivery of my Pentland Javelin ‘seed’ potatoes and set them up on cardboard egg boxes to ‘chit’. ‘Chitting’ potatoes means leaving them in a light, frost-free place to start sprouting little shoots from the potato ‘eyes’.
Here in the northern UK, we would often expect to be planting out our first early potatoes during March. But with our cold Spring, this wasn’t possible this year. My Pentland Javelins sat patiently in the greenhouse until 11th April before I felt the Winter had sufficiently turned to Spring to risk planting out my first earlies.
Each seed potato is set into its own little planting hole on a bed of fresh green Comfrey leaves. For me, this is another indicator that it’s time to plant my early potatoes – when the Comfrey has grown enough leaves to make the potato planting hole beds. I add Comfrey leaves because Comfrey is a wonderful natural plant food that feeds my growing potato tubers as the Comfrey leaves break down in the soil. I’d also added a good helping of garden compost to the planting row, as potatoes really benefit from a nutrient-rich soil.
The seed potato tubers are then covered over with a generous amount of soil – and then, you just sit back and wait …
But then … oh no! Two weeks after I’d planted my early potatoes, the Winter returned with a final icy blast! I had to dash off and collect bracken to cover over my already-planted potato bed. The bracken mulch provided its protection beautifully – though, I did leave it in place for a few weeks … just to be on the safe side!
Gradually, the green shoots of the potato ‘tops’ began to push up through the soil. By mid-May all of the potato plants were showing some green leaves.
We had some heavy rain leading into the Bank Holiday Weekend at the end of May and this ample watering produced something of a growth spurt in my potato plants. This meant my task for Bank Holiday Monday was ‘happing up’ the potato plants – otherwise known as ‘earthing up’ – which involves drawing up the soil around the potato plants, leaving a small tuft of green leaves sticking out at the top.
The potato plants then grew, and grew and grew … the potato tops were like trees! The potato tops became a regular topic of conversation on the garden. By the end of June they had grown as tall as the garden fork!
Now it was time for the Big Question – the exciting part. The tops were well grown. The flowers were beginning to show. But were my early potatoes ready to harvest? All the signs were there, though I still wasn’t quite sure if the potatoes had been growing long enough.
Full of anticipation, I dug up my first Pentland Javelin potato plant. There was my first potato!
When I dug in further, I could see there were a promising number of tubers growing, but, as I’d suspected, they were still a bit too small. I would need to be patient and wait a little longer.
Two weeks into July was the Big Day – my first potato harvest in my new garden space. I selected two plants with open flowers and dug in with great expectations. I wasn’t disappointed this time. Each plant produced a selection of decent sized tubers.
When I returned home with my first cargo of newly harvested potatoes, I weighed them. There was about a kilo of potatoes from the 2 plants.
As I’m sure you know, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’ … and I can tell you, my Pentland Javelin first earlies did not disappoint. They are very tasty, with that genuine ‘earthy’ flavour of home-grown potatoes. Now I’m looking up more potato recipes … 🙂
J Peggy Taylor
Cooking herbs are essential, aren’t they? How could people possibly manage without bunches of fresh parsley? Or pinches of thyme and marjoram? Or sprigs of mint? Imagine having no handfuls of fresh sage leaves just there when you need them!
Well, perhaps I exaggerate slightly 😉 But I find herbs really are quite easy to grow. Even if you don’t have a garden or outdoor space, your herbs will grow happily in pots on a reasonably sunny window ledge. Before I had my allotment garden, I grew my herbs in pots on my kitchen window ledge or in my yard. Now, I’m growing herbs on the window ledge AND on the allotment. Let me show you what’s where.
My old pot of Thyme was well-used but had grown woody and the leaves are now very small. This Spring I sowed some new Thyme. When I returned to blogging after a long break, I talked about “Making more Thyme“. The thyme has now begun growing on a little and I’ve potted it up into a terracotta pot on my kitchen window ledge. Thyme doesn’t like wet soil, so I find a clay pot is best for growing it.
I was aiming to grow Pot Marjoram directly in the herb garden but when the snails ate my seedlings, I resorted to sowing more seed indoors in a seed tray. As with the thyme, the marjoram is growing on a little now and I’ve potted it up into a terracotta pot on the window ledge.
I’ve not harvested leaves from my new thyme or marjoram yet. I’m letting them grow on a little more first. Both my thyme and marjoram plants have benefitted from pinching out – that is removing the growing tips to encourage side growth. If you’re new to gardening or would like to learn more about the process of pinching out, you might like to take a look at the helpful Green Thumb Tip on pinching out by fellow blogger, and experienced gardener, Woodland Gnome, over on her Forest Garden blog.
Parsley is a herb I use regularly, so I grow lots of it. Here in my herb garden you can see last year’s parsley plants. This is a flat leaved variety of parsley – “Titan” (from D T Brown). I’ve found it a very sweet, tasty parsley with the deep green leaves produced on short stalks.
I over-wintered some of these plants in pots in the greenhouse so that they still grew and I could harvest from them during the Winter months. Some of the parsley plants just stayed in the ground in a sheltered part of the garden through the Winter and, although they grew more slowly, they were fine. I’ve left my parsley plants to grow their flower heads now and then they’ll hopefully produce seed.
This Spring, I’ve chosen a different type of parsley – “Italian Giant” parsley, from the Organic Catalogue. It took the plants a while to get going (though, as with many plants this year, I suspect it did not care for our cold Spring), but now these Italian Giants are beginning to live up to their name.
My Italian Giants are looking rather large for their small pots in the greenhouse so I must get them potted on again soon. I have just begun harvesting leaves from these plants. The large flat bright green leaves are produced on long stalks. I think perhaps this variety doesn’t have quite the full parsley flavour of the “Titan” variety and seems a little drier and less juicy, but it’s still tasty enough.
The spearmint plant that I’d nurtured from a cutting a couple of years ago had grown to a nice clump in a pot in my yard. I had hoped to add the mint plant to my new herb garden this Spring, but sadly somehow it didn’t survive the Winter and I lost it altogether.
To replace my lost mint, I asked a neighbour (who I knew had a large patch of mint in his garden) if he could take a couple of mint cuttings for me. He readily agreed … and the following day presented me with this beautiful large bucketful of herbs – far more than the plant cuttings I was expecting! I could see there was a large clump of spearmint, complete with roots. I could not resist taking a few leaves for a lovely, refreshing cup of mint tea … mmmmm … wonderful.
In the bucket with the mint, there was also a large clump of sage, flowering freely with its gorgeous bee-friendly purple flowers. Sage flowers are so bee-friendly, there were bees visiting these flowers as I was collecting the bucket of herbs from my neighbour, bees visiting while the bucket of herbs stood in my yard and more bees visiting when I took the herbs down to my allotment garden! If you want bees, plant sage!
When I investigated my bucket of new herbs more closely, I found there were two full sage plants, complete with roots. I’ve now planted up these sage plants in the centre of my herb garden, next to my own original sage plants. And the bees are still visiting my sage flowers!
I planted my new clump of spearmint into a very large pot and it is currently still standing on the herb garden, though I will be moving it elsewhere in the garden at some point. You have to be careful with mint, as normally it is a very strong grower and can easily do a bit of a take-over in your garden if you aren’t careful. I will choose a permanent spot for my mint when I’ve thought carefully about where will be best. Mint needs rich, moist soil which is quite the opposite of some of the other herbs I like to grow.
As well as my culinary herbs, I love lavender. I’ve grown pots of lavender in my yard for years. I love to brush my hands over the leaves and breathe in that beautiful perfume. Lavender is another herb flower that is very popular with bees. The lavender I grow is the old English lavender, “Vera”.
In addition to the lavender plants I keep in my backyard, I have planted out a couple of well-grown lavender cuttings into my herb garden, between the parsley and the sage. I take and cultivate cuttings from my lavender plants to create more plants. As well as receiving unexpected bundles of beautiful herbs from generous neighbours ( 😉 ), taking cuttings is a really useful way of producing new plants for free. I’ll have to show you that process another time.
For the very first time in my life, I am growing Pot Marigolds. I don’t how I’ve never grown them before, but this year I decided to rectify this oversight. I sowed the seeds directly into ‘pots’ in the herb garden. I grew them in bottomless pots so that I knew where I’d sown them! The Pot Marigold plants that the snails have kindly left for me seem to be growing on quite well now and I can even see the promise of flowers.
The final herb in my herb garden at the moment is soapwort (Saponaria officinalis). I raised these soapwort plants in my yard a couple of years back (you can read my soapwort tale here). I decided the soapwort plants would benefit from the sunnier position of the herb garden, though, rather like the mint, I’ll need to be careful that the soapwort doesn’t take over, as it too can be a rather vigorous grower.
However, I must say, so far there isn’t much chance of the soapwort running amok, as my bob-tailed garden helper is keeping it rather well-pruned! Yes. Of all the herb plants in the herb garden, my visiting rabbit only seems interested in eating … soapwort! 🙂
Are you a herb gardener too? Do you grow your favourite herbs in your garden or in pots?
J Peggy Taylor
Wild fruit foraging is one of my favourite Summer tasks and in our area there’s a forager’s feast with lots of delicious berries to find. The raspberries are usually the first to ripen and one or two berries are just beginning to show their rosy tones.
Whilst we’re awaiting the imminent raspberry-picking season, I’ve still been working my way through the last few of last year’s blackberries from my freezer. I concocted these rather delicious blackberry tea scones, tinged pink from their added wild fruit. I love cooking with wild food.
J Peggy Taylor
Our Christmas feasting would not be complete without a dash of wild food. Wild fruits, carefully harvested and preserved during Summer and Autumn, bring out memories of warm sunshine in these deep days of Winter.
You may have seen my Wordless Wednesday pic last week, with my son expertly whisking up a Yule log cake. Here is the Yule log cake in all its decorated glory, replete with lashings of home-made blackberry jam and cream … and not forgetting the cherries and chocolate! This is definitely a cream cake to eat with a spoon!
Another wild food festive treat I like to rustle up is Raspberry Coulis – a delicious fruity sauce topping that turns plain vanilla ice cream into a delightful dessert, especially with a shaking of grated chocolate on top. We prefer this wild food dessert instead of traditional Christmas pudding.
Raspberry Coulis is easy, though slightly time-consuming to make – here is the recipe I always use:
175g / 6 oz of fresh raspberries (washed) or frozen raspberries (thawed)
3 teaspoons of water
3 teaspoons of sugar
(We find this is sufficient quantity to accompany 8 servings of ice cream.)
1. Blend the raspberries in a blender or food processor with the water and sugar.
2. Sieve the mixture through a metal or nylon sieve. (This is the time-consuming part! I find stirring the mixture carefully in the sieve helps it on its way 😉 )
3. Turn the resulting liquid into a saucepan and boil for one minute. This makes the sauce clear and glossy.
4. Cool and refrigerate until needed. (I find this sauce lasts about four or five days in the fridge … then it tends to have been eaten! 😉 )
If the raspberry harvest has been disappointing and we have none left in the freezer by Christmas, I have also made up the same recipe using blackberries with equally delicious results. We always tend to have many more blackberries. Sometimes the bramble bushes are blooming again before all our blackberry stash has been devoured!
J Peggy Taylor
… you can’t catch me! I’m the Gingerbread Man!
A few years ago our youngest son became keenly interested in helping with Christmas cooking. He scoured recipe books deciding on new things we should add to our Christmas feast. When his eyes alighted on pictures of iced gingerbread men he realised this was a Christmas treat he had so far missed out on – a situation he must immediately remedy!
Part 1: Mixing the gingerbread dough,
Part 2: carefully cutting out the gingerbread men shapes and adding the currants for eyes and buttons,
Part 3: baking them
– and then – the ultimate fun part,
Part 4: decorating them with coloured icing
… all have now become part of our Christmas countdown schedule.
We’ve tried out a couple of different recipes for our gingerbread dough, but we find this one works out just right.
350g (12 oz) plain flour
5ml (1 level teaspoon) baking powder
10ml (2 level teaspoons) ground ginger
100g (4 oz) butter or margarine
175g (6oz) sugar (brown sugar is best)
60ml (4 level tablespoons) golden syrup
1 egg beaten
Currants to decorate
Sift the flour, baking powder and ground ginger into a bowl.
Rub in the butter or margarine and stir in the sugar.
Beat in the syrup and egg.
Knead the dough until smooth.
(TIP: We usually freeze the dough at this point and do the rolling out and cooking part separately. If you do freeze the dough, defrost it in the fridge overnight and then leave it out for about an hour to come to room temperature before rolling.)
Roll out the dough on a floured surface to 5mm (1/4 inch) thickness.
Cut out your gingerbread people or shapes and place well apart on a greased baking sheet (we normally use and reuse baking paper).
Decorate with currants for eyes and buttons.
Bake at 190C (375F) Gas mark 5 for about 10-12 minutes.
Cool slightly then transfer to a wire rack to cool.
Further decoration with coloured icing is then essential in our house (guess what we are doing today!), but the gingerbread is equally tasty just as it is after cooling 😉
The gingerbread keeps well enough in air-tight containers … plenty long enough before it’s all been snapped up by your hungry little foxes! 🙂
J Peggy Taylor