Monday, 19 June 2017

Mid summer

It does not matter which month the calendar displays, or what the weather forecast predicts, nature alone decodes when winter has ended and summer has begun.
I have noticed that the weather in the spring is much more extreme: it is a time when the weather can be wintry for three days, summery for two, then return to colder, windier, weather then we had during the winter itself.

It has certainly been like that this year; however summer has made itself know now and is ready to start.

As growers such unpredictability means that it is crucial that we have a measured approach to the changing seasons. We must notice details and not wait for the papers to proclaim ‘Phew what a scorcher’ or to experience motorway traffic queues to know that it is summer.

When you have picked the last purple sprouting broccoli and next years seedlings are eager to be planted out, when the radishes and rocket are abundant and when the flowers appear on the strawberries, it is safe to say that summer is,at the very least, imminent.

The sun shines and it will not be long before we have a hosepipe ban, which will mean that real summer, in all it’s precipitous glory, arrives.
At the moment we are having a few balmy nights.Wrestle out the chair from the back of the shed and enjoy the evening.

It is 33 degrees here in Oxford and has been for the last three days

Wednesday, 14 June 2017


Mice are eating my cabbage shoots and have lost the whole crop.

But at least I was not burnt to death in my bed and I have set traps and will get them to night.

Then re-plant.

Monday, 12 June 2017

How To Get the Best From Your Herbs

How To Get the Best From Your Herbs

The use of herbs in our cooking has grown over the last couple of decades. Most top chefs recognise that the importance of good quality fresh herbs in their dishes can make a world of difference to the flavors of the food. So much so, that many top restaurants have their own herb gardens from which to pick and use only the freshest herbs.

Growing your own herbs in the garden or a container is an excellent way to ensure a good supply of fresh herbs or even growing them on the kitchen windowsill. But if you do not wish to grow your own, supermarkets now sell a wide range of pre-cut and potted herbs. Pots of herbs last longer than cut herbs, but need to be cared for just as houseplants do. They will need a sunny windowsill and be picked regularly to keep them growing and from going to seed. Other sources of good quality herbs might be a greengrocers, who often sell a wider range of herbs than supermarkets do. Also farmers' markets, often have more unusual varieties of herb such as angelica, lovage, pennyroyal, and uncommon varieties of thyme, mint and sage.

To get the best flavors from herbs, storage is very important. Many of us tend to store dried herbs as well as spices to well past their sell by date. This will definitely not enhance the flavors of your dishes to their best. Make sure you renew jars and packets of dried herbs frequently, as they go stale very quickly. While it's handy to keep a few dried herbs in the cupboard, most herbs taste best fresh, and some such as basil or coriander, have a very disappointing flavor when dried. Frozen herbs are a good substitute. These can now be bought from the freezer section in a supermarket or frozen from your own home grown herbs. This can be done by finely chopping herbs and placing them in ice-cube trays, top up with water and place in the freezer. This is handy to keep to put in stews and casseroles.

To protect the flavors of fresh herbs with cut stalks they should   be wrapped in a plastic bag (left open, not sealed) or in a damp paper towel and kept in the fridge. Bunches of herbs that have longer stalks can be kept like cut flowers in a jug or vase with a little water in the bottom. Do not fill right up as this may rot the delicate leaves. Some hardy herbs, such as curry leaves, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, can be stored whole in the freezer, wrapped in a freezer bag. If using potted herbs bought from the supermarket they are best kept on a sunny windowsill with the soil regularly moistened but not waterlogged as this will rot their roots.

Preparing Herbs

Fresh herbs are usually best prepared by picking the leaves from the stalks, apart from herbs such as bay, (although this is not always necessary), then chopping them as finely as desired with a chefs' knife or two-handled rocking knife (mezzaluna). Herbs such as chives can be cut in bunches into small pieces using kitchen scissors. Some tender herbs - particularly basil, tarragon and mint - bruise easily which can adversely affect the flavor. To avoid bruising and discolouration, do not chop these herbs too finely and make sure you use a sharp knife. They can also be added as whole leaves to dishes, or torn into small pieces with your fingers.

What gives herbs their unique flavor and fragrance is their highly volatile oils which in some cases dissipates quickly after exposure to heat, so to get the best from your herbs it's best to add them to dishes towards the end of cooking, or just before serving. However, some herbs such as sage, bay, rosemary and thyme are best when given time to infuse with the other ingredients in the dish, so should be added at the beginning of cooking dishes such as stews, soups and casseroles. Tender herbs - such as basil, chives, mint, chervil, dill, coriander, parsley, tarragon - can also be used fresh and uncooked to make salad ingredients, toppings and garnishes. In this case they should be picked just before serving.

Getting the best from your herbs just involves a few simple steps in storing and preparation. Using fresh herbs wherever possible is always best.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Growing Herbs In Containers

Growing Herbs In Containers

Growing your own herbs is something that everyone can do even if you don't have a garden. Most herbs are suitable for container growing, in fact some such as mint are better grown in a pot as it is very invasive. Herb containers are well suited to patios, balconies or even the kitchen windowsill. You can design your herb container to suit the space you have available as well as your taste.

Providing the conditions are suitable, the choice of herbs you grow is up to you, but there are one or two rules regarding the siting and design. A collection of herbs in containers in a convenient  sunny place is a great asset for the kitchen. The downside is that many outdoor pot-grown herbs die out in winter. However, they can be harvested in autumn and stored for use throughout the winter season.

Most herbs can easily be sown from seed, but for more instant results it is often easier to buy ready rooted plants from garden centres. Beware of the pot-grown herbs offered in supermarkets, as they are usually grown under glass and are often too tender and stressed to adapt well to life outdoors. These however can be used if you wish to make an herb container indoors.

While most herbs are suitable to grow in containers, some are a little more delicate to grow such as basil, marjoram, coriander, and tender perennials such as French tarragon. These should be started off indoors or a heated greenhouse and planted out in spring when all risk of frost has gone.

Some herbs can live outside all year once they are established. These hardy herbs include; mint, oregano, rosemary, thyme and sage. These can be sown indoors as with the tender herbs, or sow them outdoors in May in containers.

It is very tempting to rush out to the garden center as soon as spring comes to buy your plants, but you should not buy herb plants until the weather warms up in late spring. Winter planted herbs are vulnerable to root damage in the cold wet potting media.

Before selecting your herbs you should consider not only your favorite herbs you wish to grow, but how they will look in your container if you want them for decorative reasons as well as their culinary purposes. Many herbs have decorative flowers such as chives which have lovely purple flowers. Lavender and rosemary also have purple or white flowers. While chamomile has pretty yellow-centered white flowers. Pot marigolds provide a wonderful splash of bright orange summer colour to compliment the mainly greens of a herb container.

Choosing a Container

Once having decided on the herbs you wish to grow, you next need to decide on the container you are going to plant them in. If growing herbs such as rosemary or mint, they do need a fair amount of space as opposed to an herb such as thyme which is very low and  spreads across rather than up. If planting bay, you might want to grow this in it's own individual pot and clip it to shape on a regular basis. This way you will not only have fresh Bay leaves for your cooking, but a lovely tree to admire. Also when choosing a container, choose one that gives your herbs a deep root run where they can be left undisturbed. Long tall pots have the required depth and look good massed together. It is also worth buying a container that is frost hardy. Some glazed pots may look good, but will crack if frozen. For this reason, wooden planters make excellent containers for herbs.

Planting Your Container

Once you have chosen your containers you can now pot them out. You will need some gritty, well-drained compost, adding up to 25 percent by volume of coarse grit or perlite to a loam based compost. The compost should be kept moist, but never let it become soggy. Use a balanced fertiliser to encourage leafy growth, rather than potassium-rich fertiliser that might promote flowering. The herbs can be replanted frequently, using generous pieces of root, into rich potting media, taking care to avoid over potting by putting your cuttings in too bigger container. The best way to judge if your herbs need re-potting is if they look straggly, lift roots and repot into fresh compost. Larger perennials such as rosemary and sage can be left in the same containers for several years before they need repotting.

Over wintering herbs in a container

Some herbs die back in winter, such as French tarragon and mint. These and most herbs will look after themselves if placed where they cannot become frozen, saturated by rain or allowed to become too dry. To protect more tender herbs in winter they are best placed against a sheltered wall away from wind and rain or in a coldframe or even in an open fronted shed. A protective sheet of glass, plastic or plywood will keep off heavy rain and protect from frost.

To avoid your container becoming waterlogged, stand it on pot feet or stand containers on bricks. If very cold weather is forecast, protect containers from freezing by wrapping in bubble polythene or garden fleece.

Basil is one of the herbs that will not survive outside in the winter and can only be grown if brought indoors into a warm, bright frost-free greenhouse, conservatory or a sunny windowsill.

Growing your own herbs is very simple and satisfying to do. If you select your herbs carefully you can be sure of fresh or dried herbs for much of the year.