Thursday, 29 September 2011

Ripening tomatoes

The after work gardener, Thursday 29 September

At last, after weeks of worrying, the forest of rampaging tomatoes has finally begun to listen to my prayers and turn red. No more fears of endless jars of green tomato chutney.

3 key factors have helped in this change of colour fortune.  Firstly, I tried the trick of picking the green tomatoes and putting them in a bag with one red one, and hoping that the redness would rub off (a bit more scientific than that, apparently it's temperature and ethylene that makes them redden).  This worked to some degree, but unfortunately to the detriment of the sweet taste you get when picked ripe straight off the vine.

The next method I tried was stressing the tomato plants by pulling off lots of the stalks and leaves that weren't laden with fruits (which made me feel a little sad) which definitely had an impact at shocking the plants into action and started producing a handful of red fruits.  However, if I was a professional tomato gardener, I should have been pinching out tops and side-shoots much earlier in the season to channel all growing energies into ripening, rather than letting the plants rampage around the veggie plot, overshadowing my aubergines, and growing completely out of control.  In fact, it was only due to sheer luck that the plants weren't all snapped in two by high winds as until they reached waist height, they remained pretty  much un-staked.  All top tips for next year.

Thirdly, and probably most importantly, the factor that has kick-started ripening the most, has been the glorious Indian summer that has suddenly overtaken us here in London - this last burst of sun and hot weather has speeded up the reddening massively.  In fact, last evening, all my tomato dreams came true, and I returned to such a glut  that I finally had a chance to create my own oven-dried tomatoes.  Delicious. My fridge now looks like a professional delicatessen, I'm very impressed.

PS. Thankfully I didn't have to rely on 'Fourthly', which would have been to pull the plants up before the first frost and hang them upside down to encourage a bit of colour.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Pumpkin cooked and eaten

The after work gardener, Monday 12 September

Pumpkin Risotto
Pumpkin bake-off
For those following my blog and the journey from pumpkin seed to beautiful fruit - it's a relief to report that I've finally eaten all my pumpkin.  Phew. 

Only one fruit and it has kept me in food for an entire week.  There was me being disappointed that the plant hadn't produced more...but I've no idea how I would have managed unless I was feeding a family of four. Plus there was the final four rhubarb stalks which I cunningly transformed into a delicious crumble, that also lasted me a week.  Sorry runner beans and French beans, I'm back to you, boiled and drizzled with butter for the week ahead.

My first worry with the pumpkin was that its scaly outer shell was an indication of it being rotten inside, but thankfully no - fleshy, orange, sweet and perfect.  I'm not the greatest of cooks (although I am realising more and more that vegetable growing and cooking actually go hand in hand), but I did manage a great pumpkin soup, roasted pumpkin, and a vat of pumpkin risotto. It was delicious.  Thank goodness I've kept my old margarine containers, as I clearly hadn't enough Tupperware to go around.

Note to self that roasted pumpkin is extremely easy - slice, drizzle with oil, season and roast for 40 mins, done.  However, I did have a mishap with the pepper mill and ended up tipping the entire unmilled contents into the roasting tin by mistake.  It added a great amount of flavour, but was a little bit overkill on taste, and rather difficult to digest!  I also never knew that roasted pepper could be such a great added topper to salads, mixed with couscous and even on a cracker.

Anyway, pumpkin is now all gone, as is the rhubarb crumble.  So now I am focusing all my thoughts on willing the tomatoes to turn red (all ideas welcome).  I have now had my first three - which were delicious - but I'm keen that the other hundred or so, languishing in bunches on my army of plants, ripen up before the first frost.

With my burgeoning cooking skills I want to try my hand at oven-dried tomatoes in olive oil.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Pumpkin picked

The after work gardener, Tuesday 30 August

It's picked!  I couldn't wait any longer, and I'm not actually sure it's ripe.  However, all will be revealed when I begin tonight's cooking spree of pumpkin soup and roast pumpkin risotto.  Comparing the size of me, and the size of it I'm reckoning on a week's worth of food which will make a welcome change from the endless, now slightly leggy, runner beans.  Although if it is rotten inside, then bean risotto it is - again!

The reason for this early harvest happened yesterday when I came back from 3 days away and saw that the entire skin of the pumpkin (as you can kind of see in the photo) had gone all scabby and scaly.  I've had a quick look on the internet and it looks like Oedema which is a disorder that causes the skin of pumpkins to get cracked and scaly due to excess moisture stress.  It's definitely been changeable weather in London recently from cold and rainy to warm and sunny, so I'm guessing it's similar to when I get cracked hands from gardening in the cold and wet.  However, I'm clearly no botanist, so if anyone is able to let me know anything different, I'd be very grateful. 

Hopefully under its not-so-ripe, scabby outer shell, there is a rich orange tasty flesh, ripe and ready for cooking.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Pumpkin perfect

The after work gardener, Tuesday 16 August

It's truly massive, and as such, my pumpkin is now quite a feature in my small garden. 

6 days since my last post and it's now surpassed the size of my head and feels like it might weigh rather a lot more.  I have tried gently lifting it off the branch on which it is precariously balanced to test its size, but realised very quickly that to do such a thing would result in immediate harvesting. 

Now, don't get me wrong, this is no 300lb beauty of the like Toby Buckland has been writing about in his piece on the BBC Gardening Blog nor is it the size of beanbag, but I think it might make a risotto, a batch of soup, and maybe even a pie.

My current worry is when to harvest? From reading around it says between 12-16 weeks after sowing - but in my north facing garden, things can take a lot longer to reach fruition due to the severe lack of sun. Other articles say to harvest before the first frost - which I'm hoping can't be for at least another month, but most sources reckon to wait until the skin is a deep colour, the rind is hard and the stem begins to dry and shrivel. 

Now, my pumpkin is slightly unusual in that it is ranging over the barren apple tree rather than being supported on the ground, and indeed Toby Buckland suggested engineering a make-shift hammock to prevent the fruit from falling off.  However, I've chosen to let nature take its cause (as I can't see where to sling a hammock) and have decided that it might be best to harvest just before the supporting apple tree branch snaps - I'm guessing if it drops of its own accord then I'm too late.

I've also read about the whole 'curing' thing, where you leave the pumpkin in the sun for the skin to harden enabling you to then store it for up to 6 months, but with the aforementioned lack of sun, currently only one fruit to speak of, and a distinct need to vary my diet from the glut of runner beans and cut 'n' cum lettuce  I've been eating each day, I'm sure I'll be cooking this beauty pretty much on the day of its picking. 

Any pie, soup or risotto recipes greatly received.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Barely broccoli and rampaging tomatoes

The after work gardener, Wednesday 10 August

It's been a great couple of weeks for cucumbers.  The two I've eaten thus far, have been so realistic that I could have passed them off as the expensive ones from the local organic shop.  They were that delicious, in fact, that it was a shame to dip them in houmous. However, I did learn that if you leave cucumbers ripening too long, the seeds inside start to grown quite large and inedible (perhaps I should have kept some of these for next year's planting).

Following on from the cucumber success, one brilliant thing that I've learnt from my ever handy Royal Horticultural Society Gardening Encyclopedia has quite magically stopped my broccoli plants looking like leggy cabbages and has helped them produce some  much needed green florets (here is a link, but I've actually got a treasured second hand copy of the mammoth book on my coffee table) .  On the production of pretty yellow flowers, I thought the plants had gone to seed, but the encyclopedia told me otherwise.  Cut the flowers off and the plant is then encouraged to produce lots of green floret side shoots - I'm now rejuvinated in my broccoli expectations, and am hoping that I'll have enough to mix with my (sometime) stringy runner beans and French beans for a medley of green veg when my parents come to visit at the weekend.

Then there are the rampaging tomatoes.  Two things that I wish I'd taken heed of, not only from the encyclopedia, but from the many blog articles that I have been reading, is to make sure that the plants are supported and that all side shoots are snipped out.  Yesterday, during the strong winds that were eddying in my garden, it was only from the good fortune of the mange tout having died down, that I had any canes spare to support my wind blown forest of tomatoes.  Then, whilst tying these up, I noticed the disproportionate amount of thick green leafy growth compared to flowers and fruit.  The plants have quite clearly been expending all their energy on growing rather than fruiting.  However, following a quick belated cull of side shoots I'm still hopeful for some cherry sized tomatoes that might ripen in time to mix with the now bolting cut 'n' cum lettuce and the nearly ready third cucumber.

Finally - I just have to mention the pumpkin which is the size of my head (the photo doesn't do it justice) and is currently growing up my non-fruiting apple tree, mocking its fruitlessness. Never having grown pumpkins before, I'm not sure if this upward growth is normal or if they usually grow along the ground, but with the lack of light in my north facing garden, I am used to everything growing lanky and leggy.  My only worry with this gravity defying plant, is that even though the much maligned tree is supporting this head sized fruit,  will I one day come home to see a snapped branch and an orange mess on the floor?   I just hope that next door's cat, which now sleeps in the shade of my veggie patch, keeps a lazy eye open for this potential danger.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Pumpkins, cucumbers and sunflowers...oh my!

The after work gardener, Wednesday 27 July

I've just got back from 10 wonderful days in Greece, free from all cares and worries - apart from the odd moment of fear that there would have been no rain whilst I was away, and the last three months of love and affection nurturing my vegetable garden would have resulted in a dry and crispy graveyard of dead plants.  Seeing olive trees, bamboos and figs blossoming in the dry heat of the Greek island of Andros - whilst making me worry about my plants at home, also made me fully aware of what a hard time my tiny overshadowed olive tree and wispy bamboo must be having in a damp north facing garden.

Anyway, arriving back at 1am (slightly tipsy from champagne) it was immediately with torch in hand that I inspected my small garden.  I was overjoyed to see that firstly there must have been rain whilst I was away, as everything has gone bonkers, and secondly that my plot seems to have thrived more without my constant attention.  The runner beans are a foot long and the French beans and mange tout have continued to flourish - everything has grown truly gigantic.  The tomato plants that I was worried would not survive have blossomed into a dark green forest with the beginnings of yellow flowers, and the tiny courgette I left behind has transformed itself into something nearing marrow proportions. 

It is my continual joy of vegetable gardening to come home to a seemingly empty larder that within 10 minutes of being in the garden is once again filled with freshly picked food.  Amazing. Yesterday's dinner consisted of 3 types of bean, plus the marrow sized courgette, lightly seasoned with ginger and garlic and served with brown rice - delicious, almost free, and home grown by amateur me. 

Now, the two biggest surprises whilst I've been away - apart from the beautiful sun flowers that have opened and are happily smiling on either side of my gravel path - are the cucumbers and the pumpkins.  I've never grown either before, and am surprised equally by both.

The two scrawny cucumber plants raised from seed which I bravely planted outside (despite saying 'indoors' only) have produced 2 authentic looking cucumbers, with more on the way.  I know it sounds strange, but they actually look like cucumbers just hanging on a plant, that I grew from seed, in my garden.  Absolutely amazing.  Of course I am now worrying about how long I should leave them to grow before I harvest - will they keep getting bigger?  Will they be sour if I pick them too early? Or will the slugs and snails that are taking over my garden devour them if I leave them a day longer?  I think I'm going to brave it, and leave them for another week, or until I can find my Royal Horticultural Society gardening encyclopedia for further advice - whichever way,  I'm looking forward to my next home grown salad - if only a tomato could miraculously blossom and ripen in time.

Then there are the pumpkins.  When I left they were just beginning to flower, with their identical courgette-looking petals.  But now I've got 3 pale orange globes forming petite pumpkins, one behind each flower.  Again, amazing.  What's even more wonderful, is that I didn't believe the gardening books when they said allow 4ft square around each pumpkin plant.  They really do 'own' their space.  The apple tree which is on one edge of the plot (and probably overshadowing it too much) has been taken over, with the pumpkin plant using it as a climbing frame - this may be useful as a means of supporting the pumpkins in the next few weeks.  I have read you should only let it produce 3 fruits to ensure they all grow to a good size, but I might feel a bit mean thinning the others.  I think it all depends if I can find good pumpkin soup and pumpkin pie recipes, and if I'm feeling brave enough to put pumpkin lanterns in my garden for Halloween.  Maybe it will keep (the now friendly) next door cat at bay.

I've only been back a few days, but ten days without me fiddling with the plot seems to have done more good than bad, and coming home to a blossoming vegetable garden of pumpkins and cucumbers has certainly gone a long way in curbing my post holiday blues.

Friday, 8 July 2011


The after work gardener, Friday 8 July

Breakfasts have never tasted so 'super-food' good.

Accustomed as I am to my daily dose of porridge, it has been a welcome blessing to spice up this cholesterol reducing gruel with handfuls of home-grown blueberries.  Even with next door's cat - currently my best friend, (although I still don't know his/her name) patrolling the garden for me - I've been nervously watching my solitary blueberry bush to see if the occasional visiting blackbird will strip it bare whilst I'm away at work.

Ideally, in my Good Life world, I was hoping to wait for a bumper blueberry harvest to then make a batch of muffins with which to delight my colleagues at work.  However, due to my over worrying dispostion I have instead been picking these fruits religiously on a daily basis to spice up my morning meal.  These early picked fruits have been tasting somewhat tart, so probably could have done with a few more days on the bush, but never-the-less, it has been a joy to go a foraging for berries each day before breakfast, and it looks like there should be enough for the week ahead.

Elsewhere on the patch the thornless blackberry bush which I bought in spring, has been growing vigorously, but no flowers or fruits as yet (they did warn of this in the first year), and the new growth on the raspberry bush dug up from dad's allotment is going into flower again, but no fruit as yet.  On the other hand, the rhubarb - following my over-picking a month ago has really taken off, and is flattening all radishes and cut 'n' cum lettuce in its wake - I wonder what stewed rhubarb and porridge would taste like for breakfast?