Fruit growing · Vegetable growing

The greenhouse

So this has been the first summer that we’ve had our greenhouse and I didn’t really have a proper plan for what I was growing, I’ve been fairly spontaneous with what I’ve grown. Our greenhouse is a good size and rather than be too ambitious and try and grow lots of different types of crops in it, I decided to focus primarily on tomatoes. Both C and I adore tomatoes and I love using tomatoes in my cooking. J isn’t as fussed at all about them but when we’ve grown them in hanging baskets in previous years he has admitted that they are nicer than shop bought so I’m hoping to convert him.

I’ve really used left over seeds this year and haven’t bought any new ones, partly as I hate waste and partly as I wouldn’t have a clue which ones to get. You may remember that spring in the UK was plagued by very cold weather and even some snow so my tomato seedlings didn’t get off to the best start. I planted them at the earliest recommended time and we had a rubbish amount of seeds actually sprout. I confess my watering was fairly sporadic and despite the greenhouse being heated the weather probably didn’t help. Anyway, after a very slow start I finally managed to get sufficient seedlings for the greenhouse bed.

Our greenhouse has, as do many others, a sectioned off bed down one side which we have filled with gravel and then laid our compost growbags on top of. Our growbags are in trays which are designed to help provide more consistent water to the plants. Each growbag contains space for three plants and we have a total of six growbags in our greenhouse, 18 plants. I do have one growbag with bell peppers in instead of tomatoes to give a bit of variety. Each growbag also has a plastic stake in it to support the plant as it grows.

I also have two hanging baskets with leftover tumbling tomato seeds in them and a good dozen or so pots with a variety which were fine to be grown in pots. Why so many you may ask? Well I did give away a fair few plants to friends but it seemed a waste to just bin seedlings that had sprouted so I accommodated as many as possible in the greenhouse. I do also have a rouge courgette in one of my growbags, more an experiment to see where they would grow best as I also have a couple outside. When everything was first planted it didn’t look that crowded and in fact I did think at one point that I wasn’t making good enough use of the space.

Well when everything started to flourish the whole greenhouse was taken over with green and it has looked rather wild. I did pinch out the side shoots a bit but probably not as much or as well as I should have but it’s my first year with a greenhouse so I still have lots to learn. It took ages for us to get any flowers on our plants and longer still for any of our tomatoes to actually ripen but once they did, they just didn’t stop. The warm weather this summer has undoubtably helped although it has meant watering up to twice a day.

The season isn’t over quite yet but we have had bucket loads of tomatoes. Most of the plants we have give cherry tomato sized produce but we do have a few giving us larger varieties. At first we were just eating them fresh as they ripened but there’s only so many tomatoes a trio can eat. One of the delights of homegrown is that you can preserve your goodies so you can enjoy that same great taste later in the year. I’ll write once all the tomatoes are done more about how I’ve preserved our harvest.

Fruit growing · Raised beds · Recipes · Vegetable growing

Preserving our produce

So I’ve previously mentioned that for some of our homegrown fruit and vegetables we have had a bit of a glut. Whilst we love all of our homegrown produce I can’t really stomach eating strawberries every meal or everyday for a week. There are some products that can be stored for prolonged periods of time in the right conditions but others need to be preserved in some other way. The main ways in which I preserve produce are either by freezing or by making jams and chutneys. I know that in the USA in particular caning is also a popular method but I don’t yet have the proper equipment for that. Today I thought I would go through a couple of the different ways I’ve preserved our produce this year. All the ingredients that were homegrown I’ve put in bold.

Tomatoes

Our tomatoes haven’t quite finished yet for the year so there will no doubt be more preserving to be done but so far this is what I’ve done.

  • Roasted vegetable pasta sauce; roast tomatoes, courgettes, onions and peppers in olive oil, then blend about half so the sauce still have some substance and season well. Then freeze as required.
  • Roasted tomato pesto: roast tomatoes in olive oil then add to basil, pine nuts, a couple of gloves of garlic, Parmesan and black pepper and blend in a food processor until fine. Add more olive oil until you achieve the desired consistency. Quantity-wise I tend to go for the same basil, pine nuts and Parmesan when I’m doing pesto with tomatoes, if not including tomatoes I’d have double the amount of basil to the other ingredients. Pesto is all about personal taste so just keep testing to find what you like best. You can also toast the pine nuts to emphasise the nutty flavour. Or change them up for a different type of nuts. Or switch the basil for spinach, or rocket leaves. Then portion up and freeze (it will store in the fridge for up to two weeks just make sure it’s covered with a film of oil to keep it fresh).
  • Freeze cherry tomatoes whole to defrost and cook fresh at a later date.
  • Strawberries
    • Strawberry jam: strawberry jam is notoriously hard to achieve a good set due to the low pectin level in strawberries. In order to achieve a good set you need to either mix it with another high pectin fruit or add pectin to it. I’ve gone with adding pectin as I wanted to keep the lovey freshness of the fruit. I’ve made a couple of different batches now using two different recipes, one of which was much more complicated and I couldn’t really see or taste much between them.
      Strawberry and yogurt lollies. A nice simple recipe, blend strawberries and Greek yogurt add to ice lolly mould and freeze. You can add a bit of honey if you want but I found our strawberries were sweet enough.
      Freeze whole: remove the stalks and wash then open freeze before bagging once frozen (this will prevent them from sticking together). I prefer to weigh before freezing and label the bag so I know how much to defrost.
      I also plan to use them in smoothies from frozen and make strawberry ice cream in the future too.
  • Potatoes
    • Potatoes store well in the ground but all gardeners have the dilemma of deciding when to pull them to avoid pest damage or damp ground. Once harvested brush off any loose soil and ideally leave the skins to dry for a few days. Then store in hessian sacks in a cool dry place. Check them periodically for damage and remove any damaged potatoes straight away.
      Potatoes cannot be frozen without being cooked first or their consistency changes too much. My favourite thing to do is to freeze potatoes as roasties. Par boil and then roast for about 20-30 minutes. Then cool and open freeze before bagging. They can then be taken out as required and put straight in the oven and will just need 20-30 minutes roasting. It certainly reduces some of the stress of a roast dinner.

    We still have lots to harvest and I’ve only looked at three different products here so I’ll do another post (or two) soon about some different ways to preserve homegrown produce.

    Fruit growing · Life in the Countryside · Raised beds

    Just look how crazy the garden went when I was away…

    We recently came back from being away from the cottage for almost three weeks and I have to say that although I loved our holiday, I was really glad to be home. Our garden was watered whilst we were away but any gardener know that no one looks after your garden as well as you do. It was so lovely to see how the garden has come on whilst I was away, and even better to started tending to it.

    We had a courgette that had kept growing and growing, look how big it is compared to a normal sized one!

    So now I need to find a good way to use up a marrow.

    The plums weren’t quite right when we left for holiday and by the time we came back they had all ripened. We had lost some to insect activity and some had gone over but I managed to harvest a good amount.

    Because of how ripe they were, those that weren’t to be eaten straight away were halved, de-stoned, vacuum sealed and frozen. That way when I have some more time I can use them up.

    Some of our turnips and beetroot have also grown a bit ginormous. Hopefully they still taste alright.

    It also looks as though somebody has been exploring our asparagus bed. Hopefully whoever it was (C suspects Peter Rabbit) hasn’t done any damage to the roots.

    Fruit growing · Raised beds

    Is there such as thing as too many strawberries?

    As you may know one of our raised beds is dedicated to strawberries. We planted it up last year with a couple of different varieties (none of which I can remember now) with plants of varying ages and had a very small but steady crop last year. Now I had planned to properly prune the strawberry bed in Autumn this year but things just got away from me and aside from removing the runners which had tried to escape the bed I did very little pruning. In fact I basically just left it alone. I promise you I haven’t neglected all of the garden this year. Anyway, come springtime our lovely little strawberry bed had an abundance of flowers. And we all know that flowers lead to fruit so we got rather excited about our potential harvest.

    When we set up the raised beds J put semi-circles of piping over them so that they were easy to net as you can see above and once our strawberries looked closed to ripening we covered them with a black netting as shown below.

    The netting enables bees to get in but keeps birds out. Once the strawberries were ripe it was a proper battle to keep on top of harvesting them. At peak time we were picking a kilogram or more everyday. In the end I was actually quite glad when the season ended. Aside from those which were eaten fresh we gave lots away; C took some into nursery where they made chocolate dipped strawberry ladybirds, I took some into work and we gave away lots to friends and family. I ended up freezing about 8 kilograms in the end to use up in the future. There really is something special about homegrown strawberries though, they’re so sweet that once you’ve eaten them you’ll struggle to buy regular supermarket ones again. I’ll update in the future about how we’ve started to use up our frozen ones.

    Fruit growing

    Blueberries

    Now some of you may remember that last year we had a great disappointment as we managed to grow only one blueberry from our three plants. This year, however, things couldn’t have been more different. Our blueberry plants are in pots as blueberries tend to prefer acidic soil and for where we live we can best provide for them in pots than in the ground. Now the blueberries have been fairly neglected this year as they were moved about to make way for some of the house works and I was very grumpy at their lack of productivity this year so basically just ignored them. However, when I moved all our pots over to the greenhouse (in about April time) they looked a lot more bushy than I remembered and seemed to hold promise for more blueberries this year.

    The blueberry flowers themselves actually looked rather beautiful and were in abundance on two out of the three bushes. The third one did have some but not as many at all and in general it’s foliage was much less healthy looking. It all looked rather promising as the tiny green blueberries emerged from the remnants of the flowers and slowly (much more slowly than I would have anticipated) began to grow.

    Now I don’t really know how blueberry plants are supposed to look when they grow but ours have just become rather wide. You’re not supposed to prune them for the first couple of years (I think) although I imagine I should have probably done something to support them. However, once the delicate fruit had begun to emerge there was no way that I was going to to try and wield their branches about. The only problem was how to net them from the birds. Birds will not take the fruit until it is ripe but then will strip it of ripe fruit at every opportunity. So I decided to take the rather lazy step of just moving our pots inside the greenhouse when the first fruits were nearing ripeness to keep them safe from being stolen. This did mean that the greenhouse became even more crowded than normal for a couple of months (turns out blueberries take ages to get ripe and stay looking almost ripe for quite a while) but it was worth it.

    Once they began ripening there was no stopping them and we were picking huge amounts every day.

    It has been a bit of a battle to stop C from eating them all straight away. Not that I blame her mind you as they are so sweet. They were a great snack for C and I really enjoyed having them in my yogurt for breakfast. I even managed to sneak away enough to freeze a kilogram or so to use in the future for baking or smoothies. They’re finished for the year now so have moved back out of the greenhouse which has given us a bit more breathing room there and hopefully they’ll continue to give us more amazing fruit for years to come.

    Fruit growing · Life in the Countryside · Vegetable growing

    Tomato bed

    So our greenhouse has one side sectioned off to be used as a growing bed. This week one of my jobs was to prepare the bed ready for our tomatoes. As a family it is surprising how many tomatoes we actually use in various forms. Both C and I enjoy eating cherry tomatoes and we also use raw tomatoes in salads (I love a good capers salad). I use tomato as a base in my cooking a lot (my husband would say too much) and we also like to indulge in the odd sun dried tomato. In previous years we have grown cherry tomatoes in hanging baskets and the taste compared to shop bought varieties was incredible, so much so that J even liked them. So we’re really excited about growing so many more varieties of our own tomatoes this year. We’ve already planted some seeds and they have began to grow (with varying success) so this week I got our beds ready for when they are big enough to be transplanted out.

    Now the bed down the side of the greenhouse is a really good size and was one of the reasons that we chose this particular greenhouse. We’ve filled the base of the bed with gravel. This apparently is good for helping with watering as you water the gravel and it keeps moisture in the greenhouse? I’m not really sure exactly but J has done his research and says it does. Then on top of this we have space for six grow bags, and the requisite black plastic trays underneath them. The at the end there is still just about space for our two citrus trees. Citrus trees? Yup, we have two citrus trees, one orange (I think it’s actually a mandarine to be exact) and one lime. They’re only little, although I did repot them recently, but they should hopefully give us a couple of fruits this year. They’re just starting to show new Spring growth as you can see below.

    We mainly wanted the orange tree as we like to eat oranges, and, I’m not going to lie, the lime tree is mainly for gin and tonics. They will be alright to go outside in warmer weather, if we ever get any, but they will need to spend the colder months inside.

    Anyhow, back to the tomatoes. So the bed is all set up, we do have everything ready for when the tomatoes need support but we’ll wait to add them as required. We have 18 slots to fill grow bag wise now and I’ve planted numerous seeds, of a number of different varieties, which are slowly starting to show promise. I’ve also planted a couple of pepper seeds and I’ll probably dedicate one grow bag to these. The flowers you can see are little C’s selection from the garden centre a few weeks ago. Like her daddy she really loves growing flowers and also has some in her bedroom, she loves stroking the petals.

    Next to the flowers is our greenhouse heater which gives it an extra boost when it gets particularly chilly, which it has a lot in recent weeks! I’ve also given the greenhouse a good old tidy as you can probably tell. We have our little bistro set of table and chairs in the greenhouse at the moment and it fits quite nicely over the power supply stand. There is a lovely long work bench down the opposite side to the tomato bed which is now fairly clear and stores various paraphernalia at either end. Our seedlings are currently in the various propagators you can see. The purple thing is C’s fairy garden in case you were wondering.

    Our tools are currently laying flat underneath the workbench. Not necessarily a permanent location for them yet but one which suits them for now. I have a lovely folding tray table at the very back which is useful both inside and outside, mainly for holding cups of tea at the moment but hopefully more when the weather gets a bit better. C has her own supply of gardening bits as you can see at the bottom right of the picture including her Peter Rabbit gardening apron which I made for her recently. I have plans for one for myself, although probably not with the same fabric.

    So this has been a rather distracted post I know, so I shall end by bringing it back to tomatoes. Here are some of my tomato seedlings when they finally appeared. Thankfully they have grown a little bit more since this photo.

    Fruit growing

    Green tomatoes

    So my hanging baskets have been looking pretty sorry for themselves for a while. I tried reviving them but now the weather has started cooling (how can it possibly be Autumn already?) there is not as much of the heat and sunlight that they require to ripen well. So I decided to cut my losses and pick the remaining tomatoes. The hanging baskets were starting to look rather unattractive and so they are better off down and out the way emptied and ready to use next year. 

    As you can see we still have a significant number of unripened tomatoes. So what do you do with them? Well I have removed them and brought them inside to sit on a warm sunny windowsill. Here we should get some more of them ripening and reaching that lovely deep red colour that indicates a lovely sweetness. In fact most of the tomatoes I’ve picked this year I’ve put on the windowsill for a day or so to get that last bit of ripening. 


    Any that remain green can become a green tomato chutney, which is a winter favourite of mine with cheese. 

    Fruit growing

    Blackberries 

    Chatting to my grandmother the other week she said that October half term used to be called Blackberry Week as that was when the wild blackberries used to be ripe and you could go foraging. Now she is from Northumberland but I wouldn’t imagine the seasons to be vastly different from where we are based in the South West. However, we started having blackberries here from about mid August. It was the same time of year last year that they began and by the first couple of weeks of September we were overrun with them. Our blackberries are all wild and are spread about the land which is nice as we get to have a good wander, but we do tend to occasionally miss a patch. Last year the field was our best blackberry hunting ground and I would end up going round it every other day and picking two to three kilograms every time. And that was only the ones we could reach as there were many more that were too high up and so we left them for the birds. We had the field hedges cut back massively in January and they haven’t really got back to full strength yet so the field hasn’t been the best harvest this year. Last year C had blackberries pretty much everyday as her snack and she has enjoyed them again as a snack this year, especially picking them and then eating them straight away. 


    What I have noticed about soft fruits from the garden is that they just don’t last that long. Not just beacause they are eaten, which of course with C around they rarely make it back into the house. But also as they go soft fairly quickly after picking. Now this has made me realise several things. Firstly, the supermarket ones tend to last for a couple of days, at least, after purchase and presumably they are not in the shop the day they are picked. So what on earth do they do to get them to last that long, and how can that be good for you? Secondly, our homegrown soft fruits taste so much better than shop bought (in my humble opinion), much sweeter and juicier. I’m not sure whether it’s the fact that they are eaten so much sooner after picking or just that some part of the production process for supermarket ones tends to mask their true flavour, but I just can’t find the supermarket ones as satisfying anymore. 


    So what do we do with all those blackberries? Well aside from eating a good portion of them, I tend to freeze those not being eaten immediately to preserve that wonderful natural goodness. I am lucky to have a tray at the top of one of my freezers so I can open freeze them. What this means is that I can lay them out flat and freeze and then bag once frozen. This means that the individual berries are kept separate and so it is easy to take out a few at a time. I always try to label the bags with the prefrozen weight if I remember! What do I use these frozen berries for? Well defrosted they tend to go a bit squishy so I have tended to use them for smoothies or yogurt toppings, fruit crumbles and of course jams and chutneys (I made about 20+ jars of blackberry and apple jam last year that were amazing). This year with the hedges having been cut right back we haven’t had quite so many but C was still able to have a couple of friends over for some blackberry picking and eating and I’ve still added to my freezer collection for the winter. What do other people do with their blackberries? Does anyone else do any foraging? 

    Fruit growing

    What a lovely pear

    Now last year our pear tree gave us nothing. Zilch. There were a couple of malformed pears on there but nothing remotely edible. As the trees in the orchard haven’t been pruned for a number of years we hoped that a good pruning and bit of attention might bring it back to life although we weren’t hopeful as it is next to the pampas grass and quite overcrowded. Well yesterday we were able to harvest our first pears. 


    One thing about pears is that it is really hard to work out when to pick them as they need to be picked before they are ripe. So it is a bit of a challenge to decide when to pick. We picked a total of 23 yesterday, I’ve set aside some to go with our lunches this week and have a few left over that I might try and do a pear tart tatin with. There are still loads left on the tree so it looks like we might be eating pears for some time to come. Does anyone have any favourite ways to use up pears? Or any suggestions on how to make sure that you are picked them at the right time? 

     

    Dog · Fruit growing · Life in the Countryside · Recipes

    House sitting for the Cottage Garden Trio

    So this week we have been away on holiday in Ruda (watch out for a future post about my week and recommendations for things to do in North Devon) with some of our extended family and whilst we were away my mum had kindly volunteered to stay at ours and keep an eye on things. I asked her for a midweek update that I could share about what’s been going on at the cottage so far and what she’s found the biggest challenges and successes which I’ve included below. It sounds like she’s been having a good time (I hope) and she’s used to having a dog and doing bits of preserving so she’s well placed to keep an eye on things. 

    Ok………so here I am, left in charge of chickens and a ten week old puppy. The chickens are a doddle and have reliably given me six eggs a day. The puppy, lively at times but manageable and great fun (her rash has cleared up nicely but I’m still finishing her course of antibiotics). The problems are actually with the inanimate objects around here…..namely fruit and veg! Apples and plums just keep needing to be harvested and used as I hate waste, but before I did anything major with them ( apart from eat them or give bags of them to J’s Dad ) I thought that I would do an easy job with with some beetroot that Laura harvested before she abandoned me……sorry, went on holiday.


    There are many different options out there when it comes to pickling beetroot but sometimes the simplest can be the best. I’ve used some Kilner jars which were pre-washed and sterilised. Simply cook the washed beetroot in salted water for about forty minutes until they are soft when pierced with a knife. Then drain and leave them until they are cool enough to handle. Try and find some plastic gloves so that you can peel them without your hands looking like you have just committed murder (disposable gloves like the kind that dentists and doctors are ideal), then slice them, pack them into warm sterilised jars and cover with pickling or white wine vinegar and seal (a clear coloured vinegar is best to allow the colour of the beetroot to shine through). It needs to mature for about a  month……can’t wait! Next job plum and apple chutney.