Monthly Archives: January 2016

home grown herb heaven….

I have found the BEST antidote to a dismal, grey January day.  The supper was roast duck legs with a red wine sauce, new potatoes and peas.  I gathered up the ingredients from our stores, potatoes, shallots, garlic, herbs and peas.

DSC_0684The recipe is this one and it has some lovely twists like adding quince jelly to the red wine sauce and sprinkling the duck with 5 spice before roasting.

The duck lay on a bed of rosemary, shallots and garlic cloves; I plundered our standard rosemary bush for as many decent sprigs as I could find though wished I had more.  The rosemary had been looking rather sorry for itself so last year I had cut it back hard.  Whilst new shoots were appearing they weren’t very long.


As the duck roasted the kitchen was filled with the delicious, enveloping scent of rosemary.  I think that when you cook with fresh herbs you need generous handfuls not mingy sprigs.  My herb growing has always been a bit hit and miss but I’m determined that all will change this year.

First a list of what we will use:








Bay – we’re okay on this as we have 2 standard trees which are overwintering in the polytunnel.  Rosemary – the standard is looking a bit sparse but the lovely OH made some cuttings last year.  These I’ll pot up into 10l tubs of a very free draining soil.

DSC_0685Parsley – the curly parsley has survived a treat in the tunnel, next year I’ll make sure we have flat leaf as well.  The dill also performed well in the tunnel last year.

DSC_0692Thyme; Basil; Tarragon and Lemon Verbena – I always struggle with these so I’ll try growing them in the tunnel this season.  I have more success with Coriander; splitting the seed by gently crushing before sowing is a great tip.   Finally peppermint and spearmint.  The mints tend towards thuggery so I’ll grow them in pots.

Indoors I have started pricking out the chillies into 9cm pots and the early sowing of pea (Meteor) and broad bean (Aqua dulce) have sprouted.  Once this cold snap has passed I’ll plant the peas and beans in the tunnel.

DSC_0658 The lovely OH strung up the guttering and I sowed pea Meteor and Canoe.  Just as well as we finished last season’s peas with the duck!



The lovely OH and I went wassailing today. The 17th is Twelfth Night in the old calendar, (Julian), the traditional day for the celebration. Mulled cider in hand, recipe courtesy of Mr Diacono from ‘A Year at Otter Farm’, (lovely book), we the wassail King and Queen set off to the old orchard.  The OH anointed the roots of the old gnarled, lichen covered Bramley with cider and I hung slices of toast on the branches.  We chose a traditional Worcestershire rhyme from the 19th century:

‘Bud well, bear well,

God send your fare well

Every sprig and every spray

A bushel of apples next New Year Day’

and toasted the old orchard.

DSC_0629To link old with new – we toasted at the young Bramley in the new orchard in the same manner.









the big, bold berry!

Onwards with the pruning.  We have now finished the blackcurrants, (Ribes nigrum).  The bushes are 3 years old, so other than cutting back when the bare roots were planted, this is the first time we have pruned.

IMG_20160111_152541983Blackcurrants fruit best on the previous year’s wood, and to a lesser extent on 2 year old wood.  Anything older is much less prolific.

So the aim is to take out the oldest wood at the base, or back to a IMG_20160111_152953774strong shoot, plus the 3 Ds (dead, damaged, diseased).  Then it’s  a case of removing anything too low – this avoids fruit lying on the ground, and finally a thinning of the remainder to ensure an open centre.

It’s definitely a job for a pruning saw and loppers.

We finished off by top dressing all the bushes in the tunnel with a scattering of an organic general purpose feed (fish, blood and bone).

IMG_20160115_1158590832 of the bushes still have their label, though I’ve lost the label for the other.  I know we have ‘Ben Connan’ and ‘Ben Alder’.  The third is a very upright compact bush so it may be ‘Ben Sarek’.

These varieties were all bred by the SCRI, (Scottish Crop Research Institute), now the James Hutton Institute. This august organisation has been going since the late 1950s and its varieties, named after mountains in Scotland, account for 95% of the British blackcurrant crop and 50% of the global commercial crop!

The blackcurrant is so easy to grow though it is susceptible to viruses and mildew so it makes sense to go for varieties which offer some resistance.

‘Ben Connan’ (AGM) is a very heavy cropping, early ripening variety with good mildew and gall midge resistance, (the gall midge spreads the reversion virus and an infestation can be easily spotted because the buds on the bush are enlarged – hence known as ‘big bud’).  The berries are big and have excellent flavour.

‘Ben Sarek’ is a mid season variety with a compact habit, which is important when space is at a premium, again having resistance to mildew and big bud.

‘Ben Alder’, another mid season variety, has delicious berries which are also very high in ‘anthocyanins’. These compounds, which account for the black coloured berries, are very good for you.  Plus the berries are  high in vitamin C.

We add a handful of frozen berries to our morning porridge to add a spark to a cold January morning.




half hearted about the hybrid berries…

Pruning continues – pat on the back all round.  I tackled the hybrid berries the other day.  As we’ve only got 2, (a tayberry and a loganberry), it didn’t take any time at all.  Both are young plants and in truth we haven’t had any fruit from them yet.  We had a hybrid berry in a previous home and even then I wasn’t wowed by the fruit – I must have had a weak moment or the perhaps the canes were on sale.

Both are crosses between the blackberry and raspberry; what the exact difference is I don’t know.  Though our loganberry is more vigorous than the tayberry having 4 canes!

Pruning is straight forward.  Hybrid berries fruit on last season’s wood.  Any canes that have fruited are cut to the ground, last year’s canes (floricane) fruit this season and new shoots (primocane) produced this year will bear fruit next year – so the idea is to have 2 years of canes on the go.   The RHS pruning and training book has some lovely pictures on various training methods for hybrid berries which separate out the  new canes from last year’s. As we have so few  I’ll give this a miss.

I have, however, trained the canes horizontally on the wires.  Apparently more laterals are produced from horizontally trained canes and as hybrids fruit on laterals it makes sense to sort this out now.

IMG_20160111_152437750 IMG_20160111_152453965




here comes the sun…

We have had a break in the rain.  Which is a relief because its relentlessness was becoming biblical.

1-IMG_20160108_150358555_HDRThe ground is saturated and in spite of the mildness of the weather there is no point working the soil until it dries out significantly.

1-IMG_20160108_123848475Looking back to this time last year, the ground was just as wet.  Though it was far, far colder.  Last year I cut back the autumn fruiting raspberries in late February.   I’ve started clearing the canes today.

1-IMG_20160108_123939784_HDRAnd here is why:

1-IMG_20160108_143603387Shoots are sprouting forth – if I left cutting out the old canes for much longer I would risk damaging the soft new growth.

1-IMG_20160108_143615842There is a small amount of hand weeding to do once the ground dries out.  As the new canes are coming through now I’ve top dressed with a general fertiliser:

1-IMG_20160108_143830600_HDRThe old canes have joined the wood store – next year’s kindling.

1-IMG_20160108_143725974Indoors the chillies are sprouting.

1-IMG_20160108_130729438_HDRThe year turns round again.


hot stuff…

1-IMG_20160105_134857043 I’ve started the sowing – how good that feels!

Though it could all end in tears of course.  I have started with the chillies – 26, yep, twenty six varieties.  3 seeds to each cell sown at a depth of 5mm.   As some chillies take an age to germinate I’ve done the early sow to free up the propagator in February for tomatoes, aubergines and sweet pepper.

At this time of year low light levels can play havoc with producing overly etiolated seedlings so I have a cunning plan.  I’ve positioned a floor lamp over the top of the propagator. I have no idea whether this will help but I’ll give it a go.

1-IMG_20160105_134938889_HDRThere are 5 common species of chilli: Capsicum annuum; C. chinense; C. pubescens; C. baccatum and C. frutescens.  All the plants I grow are C. annuum varieties. Whilst I’ve sown many of the same from last year, (see here), I’ve acquired some real stunners:

Pot Black: This is described by T&M as an ‘edible ornamental’ and is  so striking the Telegraph recommended a planting combining it with amaranth, black scabious, coleus, diascias and ‘lipstick-pink zinnias’! It is a british bred variety with dark leaves, purple flowers and black fruit which turn red when ripe. The chillies are medium hot at 45,000 SHU.

Loco: Another british bred chilli. Moderate heat at 24,000 SHU.  But see how pretty it is:

chilli locoEven prettier is Razzmatazz.

chilli razzmatazz

Super Chilli.  This is a thai style chilli, with lime green fruit turning red and a  compact habit. Hot at 40-50,000 SHU.  The variety holds the RHS AGM.  Another thai style chilli is Demon Red. Also a compact habit with small, slender chillies held in upright groups; 30-50,000 SHU.

Joe’s Long is a cayenne style chilli with lovely long slender fruits.  Moderate heat at 15-20,000 SHU.  Krakatoa, another cayenne style chilli, compact and very hot when fully ripe.

On the mild side are Cayennetta, coming in at 10-20,000 SHU, and very mild at 1000-1500 SHU, Poblana Ancho which has large fruits that are good for stuffing.

Now the real hotties:

Paper Lantern is a habanero style pepper and hot, hot at 250,000 SHU.

Finally, (drum roll here), Naga Jolokia.   Back in 2007 was the world’s hottest chilli, though it has now been surpassed by others. It comes in at over a whopping 1 million SHU.

I better make sure I label this one!