Sunday Telegraph "The leaves were exceptionally good".
Anneka Rice on Radio 2 - "Almost too beautiful to eat"

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Watercress - does it realise that this is January?

Stunning January watercress

The watercress in the polytunnel is putting on April growth in January as a reaction to this incredibly mild winter and this is a really welcome addition to the early salads. 

At this time of year our salads usually comprise 30% lettuce, 20% lambs lettuce and a mixture of spicy mustards balanced by milder baby leaf spinach, winter purslane and mizuna.

This year is completely different. The winter hardy lettuces are struggling with the warm damp  weather. The polytunnel doors have barely been shut to keep the air flowing but the lettuces have struggled with mildew and rotting off despite not watering. Likewise, outside the lambs lettuce is suffering with mildew and slug damage and the effort in cutting smaller and smaller leaves make it hardly worth the effort.

We have never bothered to grow watercress through our stream because of the concern with liver fluke and we are also excessively cautious not to manure any of the beds that we are going to use for watercress production. Beyond that we have found that watercress grows fantastically well if just planted in a raised vegetable bed and kept well watered. It grows particularly successfully in early spring and late autumn and is incredibly prolific. If growing early outside it works effectively with a clear sheet of plastic over the top to protect from the frost and this seems more effective than fleece because it also retains the moisture which watercress loves.

As with a lot of things there is no comparison between shop bought watercress and homegrown for both crunch and flavour. Watercress flavour tends to deteriorate from the time that it is picked. Initially when it's first cut it can be up there with horseradish in heat but two or three days in the fridge will render it pretty bland.

On the downside watercress is a veritable magnet for flea beetle in the summer. Fleecing, enviromesh, nothing works. They will find a way in somehow. This last year we used this to our advantage by growing two or three watercress plants at the ends of a bed of wild rocket. The  sacrificial watercress was smothered with holes and beetle and we treated it  with diatomaceous earth. The wild rocket was completely untouched.

We let our early outside crop of watercress flower and seed before clearing the bed and planting summer lettuce and find that come mid autumn the residual watercress seed germinates and we get a crop that will last us through until the first hard frost (yet to happen this year).

Definitely worth growing. 

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Globe Artichoke - Unlikely January Star

The Globe Artichoke is an unusual star for January but during the last few days, as temperatures have dipped, the artichoke patch has been a flurry as a variety of garden birds have pulled the chokes apart to reach the tasty oil rich seeds.
Another bonus is that Globe Artichokes retain some three dimensional interest in a vegetable plot into winter, long after the bean poles have been put away, as well as being stunning architectural beauties when dusted with snow or frost.

We traditionally leave the old growth in the artichoke patch for the birds and clear it in late spring but this year I have also left two other beds to seed/stand over winter - one of Red Frills Mustard and one of Red Amaranth. As with the artichokes, both beds have been busy with birds pecking at the seeds with the Red Amaranth in particular being covered in finches and tits.
My reasons weren't completely altruistic however. Primarily I wanted to see how early in the year any dropped seeds would germinate and if they would provide me with an early crop before burning the over winter growth off. Of course I wasn't allowing for this mild winter and the red frills germinated in early December and has subsequently been mowed by slugs and the Red Amaranth has germinated this week and I suspect will fall foul of the frosts of the last few nights but we will see.

Back to the Globe Artichokes.... the new growth is already pushing lushly through the soil and making promises of a summer feast of roasted 'chokes on wood fired pizzas, or more traditionally served boiled whole with hollandaise sauce or salty tarragon butter.

Artichokes are the epitomy of a great natural 'slow' food requiring getting stuck in with hands; oily fingers; warm bread to mop  - the whole tactile joy of eating which seems too time consuming to be anything other than a luxury now. They are also brilliant for the liver, which is a bonus if they are washed down with a couple of glasses of chilled white wine!

Artichoke plants attract ladybirds in profusion,  drawn to aphids that tend to accumulate at the fleshy base of the 'chokes.We find that the ladybirds feed, breed and overwinter hidden in the remaining heads or in the hollow stems and the plants are therefore a really valuable addition to an organic plot.

In late summer the green sphere split open to reveal purple flowers which become so laden with nectar  and pollen that they literally vibrate with the buzzing of bees and other insects which in another fabulous bonus for an organic grower.

So, Globe Artichokes are in reality a year round star. They feed us, pollinating and predatory insects and overwintering birds as well as providing year round beauty and structure in the garden. A perfect plant.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Star of the week

Red Stemmed Radish 

Pods of leaf radish are full of
flavour if picked small.

Leaf radish flowers. Edible & beautiful

The star of week one is red stemmed leaf radish Sai Sai which is flowering unseasonably early in our Devon field.

The leaf radish is a fantastic plant. It germinates well and suffers little from pests and diseases if planted in cool seasons. The leaves have a vibrant red stem and taste of fresh radish rather than pungent mustard. The base forms a large inedible radish but the leaves keep coming all winter if regularly picked. I grow these in the polytunnel but the photo above is taken outside yesterday. The flowers when they come are white or pale pink and keep going for weeks on soft spicy edible stem. Then comes the pods which are fabulous. A wonderful crunch and radish flavour. The plants produce loads of seeds for the following year or will self seed if you let them. What more do you want?