Monday, 13 September 2010

Breaking news on the Bilberry Front…

Ok so I know there isn’t such a thing as a Bilberry Front - yet. Although I wouldn’t put it past the politicians to start another war against an abstract foe (Drugs, Terror. What next, Pies?). Perhaps the ‘Bilberry Front’ will be part of the ‘Bramble Salient’ it does have a very MOD ring to it. Have you ever noticed how the yanks always give their military operations very macho and bombastic titles; Desert Storm, Scorpion Sting, Airborne Dragon, etc, which these days even seem to come pre-packaged with an embroidered patch logo, baseball cap and a T-shirt. We Brits have a long tradition of rather more twee operational designations; Shed, Fork, Vegetarian (all ridiculous but true). Imagine the ignominy of being captured during operation ‘Saucy’ (Burma ’43).

Anyway, I’ve just received the Ken Muir catalogue for 2011 and I see it has bilberry bushes for sale – typical! I ordered a load of blueberry bushes from Suttons Seeds as I couldn’t find anyone selling bilberries when I actually wanted them. I wonder if I still have time to cancel my Suttons order? At least now all you soft southerners can get access to your own bilberries and finally have the chance of making mucky mouth pie or black and blue ripple, you lucky things!

Sunday, 5 September 2010

First (and possibly last) Minnesota Midget

A great surprise today, when one of my greenhouse's former inmates graduated to become a fully fledged Minnesota Midget.

As mentioned in a previous post I had initially started growing both Sweetheart and Minnesota Midget varieties of cantaloupe melon, but it soon became apparent that the midgets were going to be troublemakers. Only 3 seedlings of each variety actually managed to make it as far as potting up and the midgets were fidgety and prone to fits from the start. It was always too cold or too hot and humid for them, bloody irritating little sods. Thus they were eventually packed of to live with my gran in her sunroom.

My gran has a well earned reputation for being able to turn around troublesome and/or sickly plants, and get them back on the straight and narrow. She probably has them balancing books on their heads and listening to radio 3. Whatever, it works. She turned up today with the first ripe specimen and considering they are only supposed to grow to cricket ball size she had worked some sort of fruit based miracle.

Weighing in at 502g or just under one pound, two ounces and measuring exactly 12" in circumference it was no wonder that it had impatiently detached itself from the vine - thus declaring itself 'well ripe'. The sweetheart I picked the other day had no discernible aroma until I cut it open, but you could tell that the midget was obviously ripe from across the room (taken out of context that sentence could sound like the twisted confession of a serial killer, or the opening line to my great and as yet unwritten novel).

On all counts this surpassed the retrospectively shabby sweetheart, as for flavour it was of course the best melon I think I've ever eaten. I suspect I may have to delegate the growing of melons to gran next year as obviously her sunroom is better suited to the nurturing of recalcitrant youths than my asylum for bad seeds.

NB. I bought my Minnesota Midget seeds from the brilliant real seed catalogue - I might give 'Collective Farm Woman' a go next year, bigger melons (if the photo is anything to go by fnarr, fnarr.)

Friday, 3 September 2010

Greenhouse taken over by red zebras, hybrid monsters and triffids…

Entering the greenhouse today I was assaulted by a riot of red zebras, hybrid monsters and triffids… I waited for the flashbacks to begin; the wop-wop of rotor blades that fade into The Doors and the inevitable whitey, only to be discovered hours later in the foetal position clutching the small, mangled, lifeless form of a hideously misshapen tomato and screaming ‘the horror, the horror…’

Luckily I had not walked straight into some sort of post traumatic or drug induced flashback to a long forgotten jungle trauma, just a pathetic attempt to spice up an intro to another dull blog post about veg.

My greenhouse is however, frighteningly full of tomatoes (or at least it was when I half-heartedly started writing this post a week ago, but then got distracted, there are now considerably fewer tomatoes).

The three f1 hybrid ‘Floridity’ tomato seedlings that I planted in GrowPots have completely taken over one end of the greenhouse. They are an early plum-type tomato that have cropped heavily and happily proved very resistant to splitting (whereas the free ‘Minibel’ variety that came with Gardener’s World magazine split if you so much as look at them with one raised eyebrow.) I was worried about Floridity at first. They started life as rather leggy seedlings and I thought they might be a little fragile. However, they have turned into monsters that seem to produce side shoots faster than I can cut them down; at one point I was hacking off armfuls of foliage twice a week and wishing I still had my trusty khukuri instead of a dodgy pair of Wilko secateurs that kept jamming shut. In addition to hacking chunks off it at frightenly regular intervals I also had to construct and update a complex web of jute twine slings - cunningly attached to the greenhouse struts by diverse means in order to support the weight of the ever expanding branches, convoluted cordons and fruit.

After all that effort though I found that they taste rather disappointing in salads, but great for pasta sauces; they made an outstanding passata along with my shallots, basil, oregano and garlic. However I’m thinking of replacing them next season with something more specifically suited to cooking that hopefully might be more manageable, and growing a different variety specifically for salads. * Update* Having said all that I just had a load for lunch in a salad and they now totally rock, perhaps they overheard me and bucked up their ideas, because this batch had that magic balance of sweet and acid that screams TOMATO!

The Red Zebras were a novelty impulse buy from The Real Seed Catalogue. They impressed from the outset, quickly producing very stocky trunks and looking very substantial. Despite being sown 6 weeks after the other varieties they quickly caught up and made their own bid for domination of the mid section of the greenhouse. When the fruit arrived they quickly swelled to a worrying size and required another complex system of rigging and supports that now threatened to implode the greenhouse under their weight. I had visions of the finale in Poltergeist where the house folds in on itself and is then sucked into the ground. Annoyingly the fruit were so heavy that several plants buckled under the weight and had to be splinted with twigs and canes before they had even had a chance to colour. The last thing I splinted was the broken ankle of a Swedish tourist twenty years ago, and I made a right mess of that. I later heard that she had to have it re-broken when she eventually got back to civilisation. In my defence it was a moonless night in the middle of the jungle in a monsoon downpour with only green bamboo and an old belt to work with. And considering the fact we were being circled by a leopard the whole time, I think in the circumstances I did ok…

The triffid (Sarracencia Leucophylla) is doing well, having gone from one pitcher to three, the newest of which is a huge white throated thing that is constantly buzzing and shuddering with the death throes of something caught inside. I bought it to catch wasps in the greenhouse but have a nasty feeling it’s mainly feeding on friendly hoverflies. To be honest it’s a rather depressing plant as whenever I go in the greenhouse there’s always something dying noisily in the background. It makes it difficult to enjoy the gardening experience and I admit that I have made my excuses and left early on more than one occasion as it was creeping me out.

The Cucumbers (F1 la Diva) have been fantastic, producing loads of 6”- 8” fruit(?) that have been a revelation. I never understood the point of cucumber sandwiches until I tasted my first home-grown, proper, cucumber. These are the first I’ve eaten that have tasted of anything other than water. They are fantastically crunchy and deliciously in a different league to the insipid supermarket sticks of wateryness. I will definitely be making room for more next season, but will have to give more thought about how I support them as they have become entangled in the great tomato web, thus increasing the likelihood of greenhouse implosion.

As a complete novice I attempted to grow two varieties of melon in the greenhouse this first year, an f1 hybrid ‘Sweetheart’ and heirloom Minnesota Midget. Everything I had read said that I shouldn’t try to grow them with tomatoes or cucumbers as they prefer totally different conditions. I didn’t listen, I wanted melon ice cream.

The greenhouse is dripping wet with condensation each morning as the windows are all automatic and designed to open when they reach 20 Celsius. All I can really do to regulate the temp and humidity is either open or close the door. The tomatoes and cucumbers seem to love this but the melons never looked happy. I had planted them in cheap multi-purpose compost that seemed to solidify into an impermeable brick after the first watering. Despite the fact that I had sunk plastic bottles into the pots in order to water the roots directly, the surface quickly started to grow green mould and moss. I tried using black permeable membrane as mulch but this seemed to make things worse and then the slugs started taking chunks out of the stems. The Midgets got really sickly very quickly and were packed off to my Gran’s as she has a knack for reviving plants, and sure enough at least one of them seems to be doing ok.
The Sweethearts had a constant battle with what I think was blossom end rot and some sort of manky leaf thing. They produced long climbing vines and lots of flowers, some of which turned into mini melons but they never grew bigger than a gooseberry before yellowing and falling off (a lot of my squashes outside did the same thing). One melon on each of two plants hung on and managed to grow to something approximating maturity. The other day I noticed that the largest of the two melons I’d be nurturing was in trouble, the stem had somehow been pinched by the weight of the fruit and it had cut off the ‘blood supply’ to the rest of the plant which was obviously dead. Ok so ‘nurturing’ was probably over selling it a bit. Anyway, I had no option but to pick the fruit but as it was only the size of a small grapefruit (or large orange) I didn’t expect it to be edible, especially as I read that melons ripen on the vine and stop as soon as you pick them. I had no choice but to try it as it was never going to get any riper. I am ashamed to say I didn’t bother to take a photo as when I cut it in half it was perfectly ripe, looking and smelling fantastic. It tasted even better than I had dared to hope when I first ordered the seeds.
All of which leaves me with a problem as I now want to grow more next year, but don’t want the hassle that I’ve had with these annoying specimens. I have one more fruit likely to reach maturity and will try and remember to post a photo of it. *Update just been out and removed one of the melon plants as I realised it was almost totally covered in weird leaf lurgy and none of the fruit on it had any chance of growing beyond the shrivelled yellow gooseberry stage. I thought the best thing was to remove it ASAP before it contaminates the last good melon.
BTW the zombie cayenne chillies are all doing well - see below.