Grow Your Own! Pulling Up Daisies

If you are one of those mere mortals trying to have a full time job and a life whilst also being the primary care giver to a garden space, chances are you’re either a wee bit stressed right now. That or you have given up all forms of social activity not involving deadheading or nematode waterings until November.
I am the first kind, my garden is giving me stress y’all.
What with the schizoid weather everything that was hardy enough to survive the odd near-zero evenings is going utterly mental in the interluding periods of mass sunshine. My good stuff is dead. All the evil is thriving like a weight watchers salesman in pre-bikini season. The beds are a mess and I really, really don’t know if I should swap my blue grass planting for the hebe or keep the hebe in a pot and try to tame the hibiscus down instead? And what are we going to save the last planting trough for? Radishes or lettuce? The radishes got eaten last year. The lettuces get eaten every year.

Fuck my life.

OK so it’s not that bad, but  it is a rude awakening from the ultra slow/cold start to the year where I had nothing to do but lament my lack of pot fleecing skills. It’s all kicking off, and having a couple of pleasing invites on the cards for next weekend means that I have up until the end of this happy Bank Holiday Monday to get everything out there ship shape and bug free for the next couple of weeks.

Yesterday was tieing up the spent tulips (of which I have way too many) and wrenching out a couple of miles of sticky weed, which left today aside for pretty things like my new Senetti and getting the butternut babies into their outdoor bed. And deciding about that bloody hebe, perhaps. It should have been fine, I should be out their with my feet up in all the well tended splendour with my first gin of the day by now.

I have pulled up roughly a million of these perennial dairy shoot offs today. They have a root structure of pure evil.

I am not out there in any kind of splendour. Because, daisies. For once, my sweary rant of garden issues is not about Oxalis babies or Moby Dick The Phantom Crapper. You see, I have a nice slightly shady patch at the back of the garden. Last year it gave us my sentient and malevolent pumpkins. 2018 has it down for a butternut squash nursery. I don’t weed this patch in the winter, there’s no point as crap grows on there faster than I can keep up with it and if there is crap growing in there the cats don’t tend to add their own actual crap on top of it. So I resign myself to a solid weeding session in the spring and leave it to help out the bugs and butterflies until then. Today was ‘Then’ when the mass weeding was due, which should have taken half an hour and been restricted mostly to dandelions and forget-me-nots and other easily tugged culprits.  Oh no, what is his new green invader? I know not, but fear not, I shall pull it all out with my trusty garden fork. My trusty garden fork which got stuck in the root mass of this be-leafed menace and failed to come out again even with my full weight on the bloody thing. If you don’t know me, I can assure you that my full weight is not an insignificant amount. An hour and a half and three litres of middle-aged-pain sweat later, I have more kilos of daisy roots than I can carry in one trip to my compost bin.
Bastards.
For clarity, I don’t mean teeny tiny pretty daisies like you get in the lawn. I mean Leucanthamum, a tall and sturdy perennial flowering aster which will die back over the winter in order to not draw attention to the fact that it is burrowing under your paving with a super strong root network that Groot’s evil twin would be proud of
It. Is. Everywhere.
Or more, it was everywhere. It is now in the compost bin whilst I am in the throws of a good anti-inflammatory hit and trying to remember the last time my legs hurt this much. It was either the walking marathon or my first weighted squats class. Urgh. On the plus side, I remembered at all times not to try and lift/heave with my back and I now have a legit reason to do nothing but drink, elevate and ice for the remains of the bank holiday. The lesson is to always have gin handy. The other lesson, is that what happened in your garden last year won’t necessarily repeat itself. The other other lesson is that plants are bastards, and you can never let your guard down around them, even the pretty ones. Especially the pretty ones.

And now for the early May round up:

Beans: All dead but one stalk, which is potted. Those in the ground never really recovered from the late frosts. RIP buddies.

My monster rhubarb, soon to be dismembered for pie and gin making.

Rhubarb: Going nuts. NUTS. Now big enough to harvest but not ripe enough. Likely to now take over as my weeding has removed the dominant force for evil that was those bloody daisies.

Tomatoes: These are a first for me, started off to zero fanfare in the conservatory last month. I managed four sensible seedlings from attempting about twenty, which is both disappointing and practical. I have three in the 80s old lady staple that is a grow bag and one in a pot to be transplanted to the patch when it’s a bit stronger. I have started some more seedlings to try some latecomers too and planted a bunch of marigolds nearby to test that natural pest-repellent theory.

Gooseberries: Doing well after a growth spurt, showing very small buds.

Raspberries: Received from Susie-Soo last year, growing very well in a pot by the house and showing signs of flowering.

Pear trees: All happy, blossoming and good.

Basil and Coriander: Going great guns having started out in the conservatory, now on the patio in a tub.

Rosemary: Currently in flower, doing well as always.

Rainbow Beets: A seedy gift from the Mothership, currently very small spouts that started in the conservatory and went out in a pot this weekend.

Garlic: Looks fine……..who can tell?

Lettuce: Showing no signs of anything.

Chard: Still going from last year, was very tasty fried up with some mushrooms this morning.

Carrots: Now I was going to give the carrots a miss this year, but I have space now from all those dead beans so I have sown some Nantes 5 and Heritage Purple variety straight into the ground today. A little bit late perhaps, but I usually harvest them too early so maybe this will stop me from premature pulling.

Finally, daisies out and butternut squash babies in. 

Butternuts: Planted today into the aforementioned weed patch of doom with a bit of fish, blood and bone and a very good watering. I have also sown fifteen nasturtium seeds to border them in the hope that they give the slugs a tastier option.

So that’s it for today, if my legs regain any flexibility before sundown I will be out to spritz all the green stuff with my bee friendly nibbler repellent of soapy water. Yes, really. I’m still on that whole enviro-gardener thing despite The Daisy Incident and discovering a four foot thistle trying to bodyslam my lavenders yesterday.

 

Like I said, plants are bastards.

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Grow Your Own! Caretaking and Damage Control

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Snowy gargoyle

I’ll bet that if you could get the statistics up, one of the least spoken phrases in my neck of the woods lately would be “Oooh, it’s nice outside.” Because it isn’t. It’s been a Game Of Thrones esque winter here, cruelly punctuated with tricksy odd days of sunshine to make the crippling cold and stealth frosts even harder to contend with*.
OK fine, so there are no White Walkers to contend with in sunny Brightlingsea but its been bloody cold for a bloody long time. When faced with a balmy nine degrees for Saturday daylight hours, I had to take the opportunity to get in my garden today and see exactly how bad it has been out there.
*I speak comparatively as one snow week in North Essex basically amounts to a continuous three month blizzard anywhere else. We don’t do snow in these parts very often. 

The snow might be a laugh if you have nowhere to go and a properly lagged plumbing system, but it can be a total bitch for both floral and vegetable gardeners alike. There’s more going on at this time of year than all the mud and bare branches might suggest, and late (or entirely timely, based on the last few years) snow and frosts can strike right when new plant life is at its most vulnerable.  For the last two years I’ve been lucky and managed to blag my green babies through the winter despite knowing/caring very little about tricks like fleecing pots and digging up corms for safe keeping in the shed where the subzero temperatures are less likely to kill them. I give an open apology to my dahlias, may they rest in loamy peace if they decide not to come back this summer. The violas and primroses all seem to have taken their three day snow blanketing as something of a spa treatment and are doing very nicely but we have a serious amount of blank looking daffodil and tulip leaves which makes me nervous not just for the pretty factor but also for the bees if they don’t flower.
I’m on a bee mission this year in our garden. We really need bees, people. Bees pollinate stuff and make that lovely summery buzzy garden music too. Bees get a rough time of it in a world thick with non discriminatory pesticides and they really need a bit of help. By ‘help’, I mean poison free nectar, by which I generally mean as many untreated flowering plants as is possible, for as much of the year as possible. With the recent cold and unpleasantness, I am at risk of a much lower flower count for the spring which has prompted me today to put in a 3 point care plan for my bees, and any of their mates who might visit.

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Lung wort, the first spring flowers in the garden this year

First off- flowers. Actually caring for everything in my garden that flowers and not taking for granted that there will be other petals and sepals around if some don’t miraculously thrive with little to no effort from this greedy person who is more concerned with a decent carrot crop. This year I will tend, I will deadhead and I will fertilize. I will read up on how to love and prolong the little patch of lung wort currently in flower in the mudbed. Sweetpeas and nasturtiums are started off in the conservatory as we speak to go out next month and boost the pollen count. I will do better for the flowers.
Secondly- pest control. I’m going to seriously reconsider the organic but still deadly bug spray I used last summer to control the flea beetles munching through my cabbages and chard. Leafy veg that doesn’t flower should not attract bees, but I’m being a bit of git by saying that this makes bug poison ok to use in some parts of the garden. This year I will try to keep on top of the munchers by natural means and the old wives cocktail of washing up liquid from a spray bottle. We will see how that goes. I am also going to restrain my dandelion removal compulsion and not yank out those pesky, mass rooted bastards until they have flowered. I hate dandelions. Bees love them. Maybe I can grow some big enough to harvest the roots for some tea. I will also restrict myself to only ripping the wild geraniums (which flower quite convincingly) from the veg patch and let them do as they will in the main beds. I am not even bothering to thin out the nettles that grow behind my pear tree, bugs and bees love them and they still manage to sting my through my ultra strong gardening gloves so to hell with it, let them stay. I’m mentally strong enough to let some unruly weeds grow in my specially arranged outdoor space. Good God, I need a gin just thinking about it.
And thirdly, finally, whatever, there is housing. We have a nice little bug hotel already in place for solitary bees and their crawly cohorts, and I’m off to fetch another one from the garden centre on Monday.  I’ve also started up a little woodpile right at the back of the garden which will stack up as housing for a multitude of woodlice and beetles and other little critters which may have a home in my garden. I may live to regret this.

So that’s the care angle from today. Damage control was a little less light handed and involved hacking back many of my outside plants to rid them of their snow-murdered extremities. My broadbean stalks are about 40% intact after snipping off all the black and dead bits and have been treated with some fresh ties and a compost boost. Hopefully they will make an April comeback. My rhubarbs are in sight again after their winter hackback, though one is looking much healthier than the other. I’m hoping for some rhubarb vodka action later in the year so these babies will get the star treatment but for now there’s not much to do for them other than to pile on some fresh compost. The garlic cloves I put out in January are breaking the soil now and looking strong. With any luck they will smell strong too and put off Moby Dick The Phantom Crapper from his visits to my veg patch. Shallots don’t appear to be doing so well but there’s not a whole lot to be done about that for now so they got a brief weeding and some new dirt on top too.
I now take a moment to sing my thanks to the Gods of Chard. Chard is amazing. My three little chard plants have not given a single shit about how cold it has been and are stoically carrying regardless of the fact that they should be long dead by now. They aren’t massive, but they are healthy and very green and if they go on at their current rate will be big enough to start snipping into my scrambled eggs again in the next few weeks.  Go chard!!!!

Tomatoes, courgettes and butternut squash seeds have all been planted today in the conservatory, when those are done in the propagator I’ll be getting the herbs going. Believe it or not all that took me four lovely outdoorsy hours, which is more than enough work for a Satruday, so I’m off now to inspect the local beer pumps before dinner.

How’s your garden looking?

Grow Your Own! A Winter’s Tale

Looking out at my garden this morning after our second proper frost in sunny Essex, I am (perhaps over dramatically) put in mind somewhat of tales of winters on the Somme.
There’s a lot of mud, you see.

My planning was a bit out this year in terms of maintenance and removal of edibles and pretties alike, and we seem to be paying for it now if only in aesthetic terms. There is very little going on in my veg patch as I put the winter cabbage seedlings out a bit too late for them to really get going and they have all died bar one skinny little plant who is soldering on but frankly not looking like he’s going to do a Steve Rogers any time soon.
I did remember to cut my rhubarb back, roughly shredding up the massive leaves he managed to grow to dig straight back into the rest of the patch for some nutrition so he’s but a sad, compost covered clump at the moment.  The two sections of late potatoes that went in with Christmas dinner expectations were ripped out again when it became clear we have a blight problem.

roasties from my homegrown pumpkins, delicious and organic!

The pumpkins were a massive success however, and their patch is now full of weeds resting empty until the spring.
My chard plants are finally slowing down, it’s too cold and too dark for them now I think but there is one small harvest left to be had before I give up on those until next year.
My 50p rescue sage plant is positively booming, and the rosemary and parsley pots are showing no signs of retreat but my mint transplant (out of the beds and into a huge pot) is flagging. I’m being polite by saying ‘flagging’. It is suffering and straggly and in need of euthanisation, STAT.
There is life from my late onion planting though, some of those are a good six inches clear of the topsoil now and we all know you can’t kill an onion so hooray! I also made a budget buy of beans from the garden centre in early October on the assurance that they were frost hardy down to about minus 4 and they are doing pretty well, not much shy of doubling in size since they went in the ground which is most pleasing. My first attempt at a home-made frame is holding up for them which is a matter of some pride after certain on lookers felt the need to comment on its lack of symmetry and troublingly low quantity of string ties. In your face, non believer!!!

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Beans getting on well in the winter

This might sound like a lot but it is pretty sparse and scattered about, and since we took the budlejas back down to the ground the rest of the garden is looking very low, dull and muddy and I’m kind of glad I only get to see it in the daylight for two days a week or else I would find it endlessly depressing. But we must not depress, for it is Saturday and I’ve had more than six hours sleep so I’m full of beans and ready to inspire myself for next year! Starting on what to fill out those mud blocks with and I’m currently leaning towards some kind of mass rosemary planting and lots of osteospermum to fill out the ground. Project Feathers is also in need of advancement, as we have seriously reduced bird activity since taking out the rotten little plum tree over the summer and they really don’t seem to trust our new upright iron feeder holder thing. I have upgraded our seed supplies and added a jaunty green feeder (his name is Gerald, obvs) in the hope of attracting them back and that all needs a clean and some arrangement. Don’t forget to defrost your bird baths, fellow cold dwellers!

It was a cold start today for Gerald The Gentleman Grashopper

I shall be donning my gloves and three extra jumpers to get out this morning after another cup of coffee. Boring tidying and trimming out the dead tops of all the stuff I hope will survive under the soil for another winter because I forgot to dig it up like a good person last month. This leads to my inevitable research of how and what to cloche before I get scared of the masses of spider webs covering my cloche stash in shed and laughing it off for another year because screw it most of the pots did OK last winter.
I will also be humming some suitable battlefield soundtracks as I break out my recent delivery of Silent Roar and go once again into the breach against that ****er Moby Dick The Phantom Crapper. Let’s see how he likes coming across a little stack of lion poo in his toilet spots. There is something rather poetic about taking revenge on cats by filling their favourite poo spots with poo that they are frightened of. Bastards.

So see, there is actually quite a bit to do, and yeah it’s freezing but it’s dry and frozen solid cat turds are much less of a fuss to shift so I’m going to get to it so I can move on to phase two of the day- the dread Christmas shopping! Which isn’t too dread as I get to go to the garden centre, again, as the Older Male Silbling has expressed an interest in getting his own home-grow on next year and has requested a starter kit *insert sibling rivalry eyeroll here*

If you have a lush and lovely winter garden, good for you! If you have a frozen muddy mess like me, do not despair, put some seeds out for the robins and cuddle up with a good volume of Monty and we can work out together how to make it all better next time.

And remember, mud is better than weeds any day of the week!

Are You Going To Eat…..Chard?

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Freshly harvested chard, from my garden.

I remember seeing chard mentioned on Masterchef increasingly frequently and assuming it was about to become the next go-to-food-twat ingredient taking the supermarket by storm. That was a while ago, as it’s been at least two years since I have paid any attention to Masterchef and I am still yet to recall a single incident of seeing actual chard to buy in a shop anywhere, though I think I have had it perhaps twice in restaurants.

Obviously there is a seasonal issue here, but chard has a pretty long growing season potentially from spring to autumn in the UK so we can’t just blame that. It is also tasty, potentially attractive to your plate and has a superheroic nutritional profile. So what is our problem with chard!?!?!?!

First to address is the above mentioned issue that you don’t see chard about much and thus a ton of people don’t know what it really is. Who is that adventurous about green leafy veg they don’t recognise? Not many people. Thus no one to sell it to. Thus no one sells it. The circle of consumerist life.  So what is it? Well I can tell you it is basically a big old leaf from the same family as beetroots and spinach, that grows much in the same way as a lettuce but is frankly a lot more robust in both texture and flavour. Young leaves are tender and can go straight into a salad, like most veg chard will retain the highest levels of nutrition when raw. Speaking of nutrition: 100 grams of raw chard will set you up with over a day’s worth of vitamin A requirements (to see in the dark), half your recommended vitamin C (which the body can’t store so you need to consume frequently) and 10, yes TEN TIMES the scientifically complicated daily volume of vitamin K that clever people in white coats think you should eat. Who cares? Women facing the menopause should, as vitamin K plays a big part in bone health. Nutritional (i.e. eaten) vitamin K is also known to play a role in inhibiting arterial calcification associated with heart disease* so if you have a heart or arteries, you should probably get plenty of it in your diet.

Older, and bigger, chard leaves are more bitter than the tiny wee ones thus more likely to be cooked in the same fashion as inexplicably trendier but not dissimilar kale. Like kale, chard doesn’t need a huge amount of cooking and tends to be shredded and added towards the end of the process of whatever you are rustling up in the kitchen. Chard is also much better at keeping it’s form when cooked and you can enjoy the stem as well as the leaf, unlike bitty annoying kale and its chewy horrid stems. The fact that it only need a short time to cook helps to maintain those lovely vitamin levels too** Not all of us like the bitter end of the taste spectrum, but if you find yourself cooking for oodles of children or indeed my own mother, you can sneak some chardy goodness into stews and bolognesey dishes by cutting it up very finely or add it to blended soups for some stealth nutrition. However if you take your coffee black and your chocolate dark, chard is quite wonderful as a vegetable in it’s own right, very quickly sauteed and stacked up alongside some red meat and a bit of gravy or shredded into a Spanish omelette. Raw vegan types might chuck it into a lurid smoothie for extra smugness and additional Instagram followers, and dinner party hosts and unicorn trend fans can seek out pretty old rainbow chard for extra photogenicity too.

There is a lot you can do with chard, and it is really good for you, so why the eff can’t you buy it anywhere?!?!?!?!?!

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chard seeds are widely available and easy to grow at home

Actually along with the aforementioned lack of demand, it has a cruddy shelf life. Proper cruddy. But this shouldn’t stop you, as I have kept the Mr and myself in chard since this May with a simple planter box on our patio. As Grow Your Own veg goes it is incredibly easy to cultivate, needing partial sun, watering and the odd feed when they first start to sprout. You may have some interest from aphids and fleabeetles but there are many simple and organic pest control sprays that will fend these little buggers off (just don’t spray it near anything flowering and don’t eat within 2 weeks of a spray!). If you plant late march/early April you should be able to harvest your chard from May, and if you stick to snipping the outer leaves one plant will continue to grow for the whole summer. If you are very lucky more established plants will recrop even if you completely strip down to half inch of growth at the base. They will grow on a balcony or a well lit windowsill so come on people, grow some chard!

And eat some chard. Which is exactly what I am about to do with some scrambled eggs and a cheeky Sunday crumpet.

*thanks Wiki https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitamin_K

**for cooked nutritional info look here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chard

Grow Your Own! The Wind Down.

A brew in the last of the sunshine

It’s nice, as we descend into the season of falling leaves and escalating rows about the central heating settings, to be able to say that I have really enjoyed my garden these past few weeks. In the real sense of just being out there and having s good time. In the earlier half of the summer I couldn’t profess to the same, as we became overrun with various beetles, grubs and potato related mishaps atop the standard issues of constant mowing, weeding and felines. But as it has cooled down a bit and the majority of critters have undergone a mass exodus (something to do with the hellish spiders nest under the conservatory I suspect) it has been positively wonderful to sit out with a coffee of a sunny Saturday and just, well, be.

I’m not going to descend into some hippy crap about spiritual oneness with my petunias but there is a definite therapy of the soul to be found by hanging out with nature, even if that is just a bit of lawn and two planters rather than a wild and ranging heathland. Yes, the pumpkins are still running amok and we got no edible radishes to speak of and the carrots weren’t much cop but it is still just lovely to be here. Of course basking in the glow of those few home grown triumphs does increase my smug enjoyment of our outside space. The sight of the dwindling stubs of chard in my patio planters prompts fond memories of the summer-long harvest of tasty green leaves which has only just begun to slow down. My sage plant is thriving in the brick planter, having doubled in size since I swept it out of a sad pile of potted yellow-sticker twigs at the back of Homebase, and makes me feel entirely self righteous and even God like for selecting it for salvation.  It is rather wonderful when my eye runs across our two gooseberry plants and I am reminded of the gooseberry gin in the pantry that needs straining, rather than just recalling the pin-picked shreds of my fingers when I was harvesting the damn things. It’s all good.
I suspect a purely ornamental gardener might find the Autumn depressing, what with all the tying up and fleecing down and endless bulb rearrangement for the spring. This is the joy of fruit and veg.  Spending my previous free hours taming squash vines and trying to entice bigger courgette flowers meant neglecting the big old budlejas which are now enormous but still in bloom and feeding a veritable army of fat bumble bees, which is great, and makes the ‘pretty’ end of the garden a rather shabby delight that is way too far gone to care about now. Yes it’s a mess but it’s full of life and one doesn’t get depressed about drooping flowers and plugging daffodils when there’s fruit to pick and jam to jar. This is no time to rest and contemplate the deadheading for there is so much better stuff to do than tidy up the shrubs.

Attack of the mass rhubarb

My first year rhubarb plants are MASSIVE, and also undisturbed as common wisdom is against eating these in the first growing season. Having taken some advice I apparently need to bundle up and pin down the huge stems in a way as to both protect the crown over the winter and let the leaves rot some nutrition back into the soil. I sound like I know what the hell this involves I’m sure……….

Next, I will start off the winter cabbages on a windowsill now that the caterpillars have evolved off to eat someone else’s green stuff. Then the pumpkins need some care in the final run up to their inevitable October evisceration. So that’s plenty of feeding and preening for them and the late potato crop I planted three weeks ago which should be ready right in time for Christmas dinner. These have sprouted surprisingly quickly, although I’m not convinced at present that there is enough time to get them past the yuky hard green stage. Thankfully the Older Male Sibling will have a line on some last minute festive spuds if it comes to it. And speaking of yuletide, my little pear tree is springing up straight and smart again, unburdened by two and a half kilos of pears which are now pickling in a cool dark space in the pantry.

It’s not been a bad back yard haul at all and hopefully by the time it is all done and dusted the flowers will have died off by themselves and left me some nice bare spaces to fill in with crocus bulbs.

Research jobs for the spring will be on less harsh bug sprays and more bird-enticing behaviors to adopt, as they have all buggered off since we took out the rotten plum tree and replaced it with a feeding station. Ungrateful, feathered fools. In fact much of the next season will involve reviewing the environmental impact of our lives in both the garden and kitchen. I plan many boring and preachy posts about this, for which you can blame Chris Packham, but that’s for a later time.

So I like the autumn, overall. I’ve got pickles and can have a cuppa in the sun without burning and some cyclamen are popping up already to cheer the view while we wait for the January Kings to get going. Ok so it’s getting chilly and of course the bloody cats are still at it, though hopefully I can get hold of some decaying nuclear material and realise my dream to irradiate the spiders under the conservatory into enormous patrol beasts to keep the kitties out for good this time. Watch this space.

The X(mas) Files: Grow Your Own Christmas Spirit!

xmas pudI assure you that I am not your irritating facebook friend constantly posting about how many weeks/Saturdays/nanoseconds are left to pass until we can crack open our advent calendars. However, there are certain activities of yuletide prep which really need to begin in this the final quarter of the year and if you’ve got a decent pear crop, my Christmas Spirit is one of them.

Like pretty much everything this summer, the pears in my garden have matured early and thanks to several weeks of classic British summer washout they are of good size but still, as last year, harder than a concrete cage fighter. I did three things with them last year. Firstly, after a minor brush with fame getting read out on Saturday Kitchen tweets, I took on some telly chef advice and pickled the best part of three kilos of my rockhard green babies and put them up for Christmas. I mostly followed this recipe from Saint Delia of Smith but put in about three times too much pepper by happy accident. They were pokey and sweet and went wonderfully on the boxing day cheese board, so it’s worth a look if you have your own crop to process.

The rest of them got made into an unsuccessful puree and the bulk of my Step Father’s Christmas bottle. He’s an awkward sod to buy for, because he generally doesn’t know what he wants and the Mothership gets fed up of asking him so on gifting occasions I tend to steer unguided towards obscure sci fi books and lesser contemplated consumables around themes of coffee, booze or marmite. I often remember him enjoying a sneaky tip of Benedictine back in the halycon days of us all living in the same house, and got into my head that I was going to make him some kind of sweet, spiced vodka for his stocking last year. What I made was absolutely NOTHING like Benedictine, mostly as I am not a monk with a secret recipe, but I did come up with a pretty winning and distinctly Christmassy home brew that will warm many a cockle of a cold winter’s eve. So if you’ve got a spare pear, so to speak, you might want to give this a go but get it started in the next 2 weeks for maximum infusion time.

Boomboom Christmas Spirit

1 bottle mid-range vodka
2 large conference pears
1 teaspoon of orange or lemon zest
1 vanilla pod
2 cinammon sticks (one now, one later)
6 cloves
4-6 tbspns Golden granulated sugar depending how sweet you take your tipples.
5 Cardamom pods
A 1l mason jar
Decorative bottle to decant

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Pear infused Christmas Spirit in process

Start by thoroughly cleaning and drying the mason jar- the combination of vodka and sugar will keep most microbial growth at bay but it still pays to give the glassware a really good clean and a very hot water rinse before you get started. Same goes for the decanting bottle in December.
Start to fill the jar with the spices and sugar (you can add more later if you don’t love the first taste test so less is more at this point).  Split the vanilla pod, crack the cinnamon stick in half and gently press the cardamom pods to crack the outer skins and allow as much surface area as possible for all those aromatics to seep into the vodka. The cloves can go in whole.
Wash the pears gently but thoroughly in cold water and cut off the very ends. With a sharp knife, score through the skin from top to bottom three times around the pear, then add to the jar. Chuck in the zest then fill the jar up with vodka. As always, don’t fall into the trap of budget cooking vodka use something you could stand to drink! Russian Standard or Smirnoff at a minimum please. Seal the jar, give it a very gentle jiggle then put it somewhere cool and dark to contemplate its destiny for a couple of months.

Continue to jiggle the bottle daily for a week, then once a week until early December, when you should take a little taste test and add more sugar if required. It will start to darken over time and should be a golden yellow after about 8 weeks. Don’t be put off by the pears starting to look a bit manky by this point and do not be tempted to open the jar or taste it before this- you really want to minimise oxygen exposure. If you want to sweeten add a table spoon more of sugar, shake, then leave for another 24 hours to taste. If this is not required, strain the liquid through muslin or a very fine metal mesh sieve and decant into a clean bottle with another, intact cinnamon stick for some pretty factor. Put a ribbon around it and give it away to be served over ice or in a martini. Merry Christmas!

Variations- you could try this with gin  using a very plain dry London gin like Gordon’s however I would leave out the cloves and vanilla. 

Grow Your Own! An Onslaught of Pumpkins 

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Earlier in the year whilst planning my garden efforts I picked up some pumpkin seeds to try in my little patch of green. I opted for the ‘Invincible’ variant as I had never grown them before and wanted a good chance of one of them surviving my lack of squash nurturing skills.

Oy.

Well I needn’t have worried. After planting six seeds in my conservatory I gifted one young plant and put four more outside (one never woke up). I tried one in a pot, three in the ground. They got regular watering, a couple of babybio feeds and a sparse anti-bug spraying. The one in the pot has grown steadily and sent out two vines and is currently holding an orange sized fruit.

The three I planted in the ground have formed their own democracy and are currently negotiating trade terms with the hoards of ivy next door.

Suffice to say they are thriving. By which I mean spreading, daily, over and through whatever crosses their path. They have covered the back third of the garden, choked out my irises and had a damn good go at strangling the silver birch. You see when I hear ‘Invincible’ I think Superman, I think benevolent higher power that will save the day and keep it’s gracious super strength to itself until it is needed for the greater good. These pumpkins are the other kind of invincible.  It’s funny because all the online info for pumpkin growing suggests that you care for them by fighting pests and watering exceptionally regularly as they are very thirsty indeed. That’s all. No one tells you that they need all that water to power their underground lair from whence their  sentient super computer will soon reprogram the sun and bring forth the zombie apocalypse.  I was hoping for some unique black halloween lanterns and a decent stock of pumpkin chutney for the winter, now I will just behappy to escape with my life and a jar of Branston’s. I haven’t slept in days. Come the evening with the windows open, I can hear the low incessant creak of their creeping limbs, gently extending by moonlight ever closer to their goal of invading my foundations, assuming my identity and then after my inevitable enslavement drinking all my gin, the bastards!!!

I was not ready for this. I was not prepared to foresee the effects of the heat blasts of spring and the downpours of summer and the perfect growth conditions they would support. I was sucked in by the innocuous greenery and tasty blossoms and turned my back on their blooming advancement for a second too long and here I am now, doomed and imprisoned with only the hope that some kind of jack o lantern carving prince will breach their defenses and save me before they offer me up as sacrifice to the Great Pumpkin himself!

Please send help. And a really big pie dish.

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