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Archive for June, 2012

Over the last few years, we’ve planted annual native wildflower seed mixes in our tree pits, and although they’ve looked fantastic, by the end of July (and some years August), most of the blooms are over. This spring, during Sarah Raven’s ‘Bees, butterflies and blooms’ on  BBC TV, I was wowed by some of the wildflower mixes designed by Pictorial Meadows in Sheffield (and also by the lady herself, who produced 3 truly inspiring 1 hour programmes-clips still available on iPlayer). By adding some non-natives, mixes have been created so that flowers will continue to perform later in the year too. From nine tempting annual combinations, I plumped for ‘Candy Mix’, sowed seeds at the beginning of April and at the moment fairy toadflax (Linaria moroccana ‘Fairy Bouquet Mixed’) is looking delightful with clusters of delicate snapdragon-like flowers glowing like little jewels. You can probably also notice Californian poppies (Eschscholzia) just starting to join the colourful throng too.

I only planted up a small triangle of wildflowers (about 3 square metres in total), but the effect is mesmerizing and has the power to transport you to open fields where you can breathe in the fresh country air and relax your pace a little too (or is it just me?). It would be lovely to plant the whole corner plot with wildflowers, but then where would that leave my veg?

Decisions, decisions and now longing for acres (or at least one) of land to experiment in.

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Just read a fab post by Michelle at Veg plotting about leaves that can take all this damp weather we’ve been having and one of her images was of this beauty Cos ‘Freckles’. I  noticed this variety in Sarah Raven’s catalogue last year as it needed ‘plenty of water, but not too much sun’. I couldn’t have predicted the weather (or hose pipe ban!), but I hoped it might do well on a bit of ground that only gets 3 or 4 hours of sun in the morning. I merrily sowed seeds in modules at the end of February, planted them out about 6 weeks later in our community front garden and have been happily picking and eating them for the last month or so, and sharing the bounty with a few other neighbours too. Following Charles Dowding’s advice, we pick the outer healthy leaves, leaving the small inner leaves to carry on growing, enabling us to harvest over a longer period.

Although not completely devoid of slug damage, they’ve held up really well compared to other crops grown in the same garden, but I’ve also planted them bang slap in the centre of the plot, leaving other veg nearer walls to fight off (not always very successfully) armies of slugs and snails.

I love the look of this Cos lettuce, where some plants ‘freckle up’ more than others, and it has a great texture, slightly crunchy at the base, but with plenty of softness in the rest of the leaf too. Just about to sow another batch as it can be planted up to the beginning of September for autumn (and possibly winter?) leaves. Most definitely on next year’s list already.

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Shame led me onto a very enjoyable herb course recently, run by Judith Hann of Hann’s Herbs Gloucestershire. Shame that I didn’t know what Lovage looked like and also the fact that I had no idea how to use it even if I did get hold of a bunch or two. Although proficient at growing many of the better known herbs such as mint, marjoram, sage and thyme, Judith’s course offered an introduction into some unknown (to me) herbs, with plenty of cookery ideas as part of the day too.

After a warming Lemon verbena tea (much-needed after driving 3 hours in a never-ending downpour!), we started the course by tasting, and discussing, the uses of various herbs and salad leaves. Here’s a quick ID of the perennial herbs above for those of you who may be in the same boat as myself.

Top left is the beautifully airy Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis oderata). I was wondering why there was a fern nestling amongst the other herbs until I tasted its gentle aniseed flavour. Leaves are delicious in salads, but we were  informed that the stems are also a great natural sweetener. The next day I cooked up some Rhubarb with the Sweet Cicely stems, with no added sugar, and it certainly took the tartness out of the rhubarb. I did add sugar to the crumble top, but with half the amount of sugar for the whole dish, calorie-wise, this can only be a good thing!

Top right is Buckler leaf Sorrel (Rumex scatatus, AKA French Sorrel). Smaller and shaplier than it’s larger Sorrel relative, but with the same tart lemon taste and an almost succulent crunch to the leaf. Great for sauces and cooking with fish, as well as citrusy leaves for salads. I have a rather decorative red-veined Sorrel happily growing away in my front garden, but wasn’t sure if this indeed was a Sorrel as it has no distinguishing taste to it at all. Judith confirmed its tasteless credentials, thus clearing up one of my many herby misconceptions.

Bottom left is Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor). Leaves do grow a little bigger and they add a refreshing hint of cucumber  to the salad bowl. Slightly metalic aftertaste, but very pleasing non-the-less and a very decorative plant for the garden too, growing in a bushy habit to about 60cm with pinky-red small pompom like flowers in summer.

And finally, bottom right. The Lovage itself. Eaten raw, it has an intense celery flavour and can be used in salads, sauces, soups and to flavour cheese. Judith gave us an intriguing recipe for roasted guinea fowl with lime, vermouth and cream, which I cooked soon afterwards. Very easy to make and truly delicious. A recipe I’ll be using again and again -that is if I can get hold of a few handfuls of lovage.

As we chomped and chatted, Judith imparted many useful bits of herb knowledge, including the fact that Sorrel, Mint and Chervil will grow better in a shadier spot in the garden and that in Marks and Spencer’s trials, ‘Miss Jessop’s Upright’ was found to be the tastiest Rosemary out of 30 different varieties! Lovely upright plant, as the name suggests, growing to about 1m high.

As we moved onto salad leaves and started nibbling at Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus), above left, armed with a Jekka’s Herb Farm catalogue, the anorak in me couldn’t help realising that Fat Hen (C. album), above , bottom right, is a near relative. Fat Hen is now seen as a weed, but on a foraging course last year, I learnt that it was the European precursor to spinach and is a highly edible leaf. Top right is Tree Spinach (C. giganteum), a delighfully decorative form of the genus, with amazing bright pink powdery colouring at the bottom of the leaves. It’s a whopper of a plant too, growing up to 2 metres and a prolific self-seeder,  so once bought, you’ll never have to buy a pack of seeds again!

Sorry, I digress. Back to the course, and next on the agenda was the serious and highly enjoyable business of tasting various pestos made from different herbs and having a go ourselves at preparing our own herby starters in the kitchen. At this point, during sunnier summers, we would have started to wander around the gardens, but the rain during the whole day was relentless, so we happily settled down to lunch, an enjoyable feast of fresh produce from the garden.

Finally, it was time to brave the elements. Wellies and waterproofs were donned and we were expertly guided around the herb garden.

It is so useful to see the herbs growing in situ to gather an understanding of the growing conditions each herb will need and to see how big they can grow too. Judith has been growing Lovage in the same spot for 18 years and as it’s a tall herb (can grow up to 2m), uses it to create shade on one side of her greenhouse.

Many of the herbs, such as Sweet Cicely above, and Sorrel, are just going to seed now, and will be cut down to encourage fresh new growth for the rest of the summer.

Seeds of annual herbs, such as Coriander (above) and Chervil, are sown in July and August, providing flavours for autumn and happily overwintering outside in the garden. Something I plan to do now, along with sowing mustard leaves in late summer for winter salads too.

Sages were abundant in a number of forms, from grey green sage (S. officinalis) to purple sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurescens’),

a delicate small-leaved white-flowered sage (S.x sylvestris ‘Schneehugel’?)

and an impressively huge clump of a large-leaved sage (sorry, variety unknown), which would happily fill up most of my front garden!

Edging paths with Winter Savory was discussed  as it’s a semi evergreen herb (with an intense Thyme flavour) and I loved seeing wild strawberries (above) edging the beds too.

Judith encouraged us to take away cuttings of all of the herbs in her garden, along with handfuls of seeds, and I left brimming with enthusiasm for both growing and cooking with a larger palette of herbs than I was aware of before the day had started.

Lovage, Sweet Cicely and Sorrel are top on my list, and I can’t wait to get planting, as all 3 herbs are nigh on impossible to find in most local green grocers or supermarkets, but make a great addition even when cooking the simplest of dishes. A day certainly well spent and now planning future trips to expand my herbal horizons.

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