Monthly Archives: January 2015

knowing your onions (or shallots)…

The OH and I have put in the last of the shallot sets for the season.  This spring planting adds to those put in late autumn last year.


Autumn planting of garlic and shallots; weeding to be done once the ground dries!

We’ve given up allocating much space for onion set planting, apart from a couple of rows of red onion – Red Baron.  It’s a bit sad because I like the look of a row of onions with the tops folded over ready for lifting.  However, brown skin onions are cheap to buy and we have found over the last few years that shallots store far, far better than onions.  We are still cooking with stored shallots lifted last summer.

So the pluses for shallots are: they store better; they taste better; I don’t cry when I chop them and I’m always surprised at how expensive they are.  So it makes sense to give more ‘Allium allocated’ space to growing them.  Perhaps the yields from commercial fields of onions is much greater than fields of shallots hence the price premium on shallots and of course shallots have to be separated once lifted.   Like garlic, a single planted shallot bulb clones itself, producing offsets creating a cluster – all very clever botanical stuff involving meristem cells.  The clue to a shallot’s habit is in the species name Allium cepa (Aggregatum Group)

When I plant my shallots I only have a little bit of the neck showing as the birds have a habit of walking along the rows pulling the bulbs out and tossing them around, mixing up the rows of varieties.  Which is really very annoying.  Once the roots have formed anchoring the shallots I shall pull back the soil a little.

The varieties we have just planted are:

  • Red Sun – this is a pretty round red skinned variety, good for storing and crisp white flesh;
  • Golden Gourmet – a variety that is less likely to bolt with good-sized round, gold skinned bulbs and again excellent for storing;
  • Red Gourmet – a recent development, early to mature, pink tinged flesh and meant to have a ‘spicy’ flavour , (I’m looking forward to this one) finally,
  • Vigarmor – a French variety, banana shaped bulbs, coppery coloured skin and crisp, pink flesh.  Again, this one is meant to store well.

January sowing/planting done – onwards into February.





comes from a land down under….


I’ve never seen a mole, (Talpa europaea), on the holding.  Which is not surprising as they spend 99.99% of their time below ground.    What I can’t miss are the mole hills which have been appearing over the last few weeks.  I’m not sure how many moles we have, but as they are solitary animals it could just be one who’s an over achiever.    Still I’m not fussed about perfect lawns.   Molehills in the veg.  patch?  Okay, it gets a bit trickier here.  The moles won’t eat the plants, (they are insectivores), but the tunnelling could disrupt the root systems or dislodge plants.  A quick check – the autumn plantings are unaffected.  Hopefully the excavations will die down once the mole has established his/her network.  Perhaps being ‘mole central’ indicates that we have a healthy worm population?

I’m not at all in favour of dispatching wildlife and would much, much rather have a natural balance, aka some other form of wildlife acting as predator.   Getting the balance is tricky as the veg. patch forms an oasis of goodies.   In our first year of planting the vole population was so high we could stand at the end of the row and watch them fighting amongst the beetroot.  At least I think it was fighting – could have been some other form of energetic activity. Last year the squirrels munched their way through the entire walnut crop, something swept through, feasting on damsons and caterpillars binged on the hazel leaves.  Physical barriers help; the trunks of fruit trees in the orchard are  circled by guards, the veg plot is surrounded by chicken wire.  Even so, the slightest damage to the fencing and the rabbits were in like Flynn.

So this is always a welcome sight:


Raptors overhead!


here we go round….

… the mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush.
Here we go round the mulberry bush
On a cold and frosty morning.

 DSC_0059Actually it’s a half standard tree rather than a bush;  a cultivar ‘Chelsea’ (syn. ‘King James I’) of Morus nigra; a companion to the ‘Wellington’ we planted a year ago.  Except they won’t be able to get too friendly as we shall have to shift the King James.

Whilst the nursery label describes this as a small tree, it’s not that small at 10m and it likes to spread out – a lot.  I can’t see a graft point so the OH was right and the 4m spacing won’t be enough.


mulberry tree

The mulberry, like the medlar, seems to have fallen out of favour as a fruit tree.   The tree can take a while to come into fruit; it doesn’t fruit all at once making harvesting more difficult, the fruit doesn’t travel well and the juice stains markedly.  But, commercial growers loss, our gain because the fruit is delicious, and I think it is a pretty tree.

Like so many plants, the mulberry has a fascinating history.  The specimen we have has come down, allegedly, from a cutting off a tree in Swan Walk, now the Chelsea Physic Garden, (hence the cultivar name ‘Chelsea’), which was taken out to make way for an air raid shelter in the Second World War.   The original specimen is said to have existed at the time of King James I (17th century).  So not bad if it was still around in the mid 20th century.

And of course there is the famous story of the disastrous attempt, by King James I, to build a thriving silk industry in England during the 17th century.  The story goes that the wrong species of mulberry was planted, Morus nigra, the black mulberry, rather than Morus alba, the white, hence the failure of the enterprise.  Though I expect the Silkworms, (Bombyx mori), do eat black mulberry leaves and that the enterprise failed for reasons other than planting the black instead of the white mulberry.  Still it’s a good story, more of which can be found here.

I better go off and find a different spot for the King James.


snow, snow, SNOW


Snow fell a few days ago and still lies on the hills.  It’s chilly, chilly outside but the OH forges ahead with cutting back the self seeded plums and damaged tree limbs in the old orchard.   I completed a quick prune of the apples in the new orchard. We removed 2 of the damson fruit trees – a Shropshire Prune that had always looked iffy and a Farleighs Prolific that had canker.   I should have picked up the issues when selecting the trees for planting.  But there we are, and there is no point is trying to mollycoddle struggling or diseased top fruit specimens.

orchidOur librarian is due to retire in a week so we set off on an excursion to an independent plant nursery, Ashwood Nurseries, to seek out a gift.  Whilst the glasshouses were toasty warm and full of lovely things, I’m not too keen on house plants, (mainly because any house plant I have ever owned has, unfortunately, passed away – guilt no doubt influencing my reluctance).   A tree is a wonderful gift but needs more knowledge of the recipient’s garden.



We wanted something unusual, pretty and which but didn’t need much maintenance.  So settled on snowdrops. I had thought about purchasing ‘Ballerina’; a pretty double form but they had sold out of the stock and so we plumped on the day for ‘Wendy’s Gold’ a Galanthus plicatus hybrid with yellow ovaries and inner segment markings.  Which is ideal as our librarian is named Wendy.







ready …. steady…..


Seed sowing continues.  I’ve sown a crop of broad bean (Bunyard’s Exhibition) and dwarf french bean (Tendergreen).  Once they’ve germinated they’ll be planted out in the polytunnel.    I usually do an autumn sowing of broad bean Aquadulce Claudia and top it up with a spring sowing of another variety.   This year I’m going to see if I can get an earlier crop by using the  polytunnel.

Once again the variety has been dictated by ‘what I have in my seed stash’.  Bunyard’s Exhibition is an old variety, introduced 1884, and is meant to be reliable with excellent flavour.   Tendergreen is a heavy cropper, again reputed to have very good flavour.   Both are meant to freeze well but I’m hoping that by spreading out the sowings, and by focusing on seasonal recipes, the freezer will be last resort this year.  The early sowing of the french bean is an experiment.  Tendergreen is meant to mature early though I have to say a January sowing is very early – we shall have to see.

In a departure from the norm I’ve decided to keep these early sowings in the house to deter the mouse raids!


Thanks to the OH, the polytunnel is ready and waiting.


horses for courses….

Last week I braved the weather to visit an orchard/nursery perched 400m up a hillside.  The owners practise a hands off approach.  The trees are all on M25 rootstock, were planted as whips and not staked.   The argument being that the combination of very young tree on a very vigorous rootstock will cope better with the more exposed position.



I suppose I’m a bit shallow when it comes to the visual.  I stake for a maximum of 2 years because I want my trees standing upright.  The topography of our land is a SW orientated valley.  The winds can howl through.  We are not so high (115m), and I don’t want full standard trees – so the rootstock is MM106.  I also prune because it gives me a chance to check over the condition of the tree and because I like to walk the orchard.


So a completely hands off orchard regime is not for me.

However, whilst visiting I did come across something very much for me.  A new drink!  Mulled cider is delicious.  I whipped up a batch and the OH and I held an impromptu wassail back home.

Here is the recipe, courtesy of Mr Diacono:

Per person:  250ml dry cider, 1 clove, 1 star anise, 2 allspice berries, 2-3 lemon verbena leaves (optional), a good grating of fresh nutmeg, 4.5mm cinnamon stick, a few strips of unwaxed lemon zest, (I also added strips of orange zest)

Pour the cider into a pan, add the other ingredients.  Simmer for 8 minutes or so.  Serve.








She sows seeds…. Day 2 Chillin’ with the chillies

Good news: the tomatoes have mostly germinated or are about to.

Bad news: Those seedlings that have already germinated are leggy. This is a problem caused by a combination of low light levels (early planting), and having the heat mat on; the stems etiolate as the seedling searches for light. And it happens fast, one day is sufficient.


I’ve placed a light source directly above the propagator which hopefully will improve matters for those seedlings just poking through. For those that have stretched already all is not lost. Last year I potted on some leggy seedlings once they had developed a pair of true leaves, sinking them to an inch below this set of leaves. Tomatoes have hairy stems and these hairs are capable of developing into roots.

tomato stem

They bulked up and were no worse for wear but it’s not ideal as the stem is fragile and the seedling could damp off.  However, having sown early means that there is still time to re-sow in February should it all go pear shaped.

Next up. I really, really like the idea of growing our own chillies. So it’s no surprise to find that I have amassed a handful of chilli seed packets over the years. Sadly, most of my chilli growing escapades have come to nought. They do need a long season to ripen and I suspect that in the past I’ve got distracted as time elapsed. I did have a, bought (oh the shame), chilli plant that became infested with whitefly. I gave it a heavy prune and it expired soon after. Dousing with a mild soapy solution would have been a much better approach.

Of course it’s so very annoying that my youngest brother can grow chillies from the flip matchbook handed out at Wahaca.

I not a fan of the burn on the way in and way out sort of chilli but prefer one that brings a fruity background heat to a dish. The OH tends towards the hot.  So it is important to know the heat potential of the prospective crop.  The chilli  intensity is measured in Scoville Units (SHU). Back in 1912 an American chap called William Scoville invented a scale based on how much dilution of the chilli extract with water was needed before the heat of the chilli couldn’t be detected anymore. The ‘heat’ effect is caused by capsaicin which is an irritant to mammals causing a burning sensation on sensitive tissue.  Which is why washing your hands thoroughly after handling chillies is so important and why sprinkling chilli on bird food deters raids by squirrels.  The chilli doesn’t affect the birds but the squirrels leave well alone.


Looking at my extensive chilli seed packet collection I have:

  • Peach Habanero; yes they are peach coloured when ripe; very fruity and hot,hot (SHU 150,000 – 325,000)
  • Habanero; the red one, SHU as above.
  • Jalapeno; green ripening to red, often sold in the supermarkets, a mild chilli (SHU 2500 – 8000)
  • Rokita; long red chillies, good for drying, medium hot (SHU 30,000 – 50,000)
  • Twilight; a really pretty chilli bush with a multi coloured (red, purple, orange, yellow) fruit, according to the picture on the packet. Hot at SHU 100,000.
  • Aji Crystal; pale green ripening to pale yellow, then red. Has a citrus note when semi ripe. SHU 30,000- 50,000
  • Inferno; produces large fruit good for roasting. This is a Hungarian Hot Wax hybrid so I suspect the SHU is possibly around 5,000 – 10,000.
  • Hungarian Hot Wax; not that hot really at 5,000 – 10,000.
  • Gusto Purple; another pretty one; purple ripening to red. Medium hot at around SHU 10,000.
  • Tabasco; 30,000 to 70,000 on the Scoville.
  • Prairie Fire; another hottie at around the 70,000. The plant is neat and compact and so is a good choice for the window sill. The chillies are small but with that rating will pack a punch.
  • Heatwave; a cayenne hybrid so I suspect it is around the 30,000 – 50,000 SHU.

I also have a few packets of Franchi, (and their even posher range Golden Line), ‘Peperoncino’ style such as Padron (mild); Ciliegia Piccante (hot), Friggitello (very hot) and Roumanian Giallo (hot).

Hopefully a January sowing will provide enough time for producing some chillies ripe for picking from mid-summer onwards. I have 18 cells free in the propagator; one seed in each cell.