Carpet berries

There are lots of reasons to plant spring-fruiting elaeagnus, but flavour, sadly, is not one of them.

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I have inherited in my garden several hedges made of this elaeagnus – it is, I think, Elaeagnus x ebbingei, a plant widely used in gardens and landscaping.  Its leaves have a pleasant silvery sheen and it is a well behaved yet strongly growing evergreen tree.  It is a nitrogen-fixing plant, which makes it very useful to have near fruit bushes and trees because it cuts down on the need to fertilise.  The most compelling reason to grow this plant however, is the beautiful fragrance which lingers around it in mid-late autumn.

In March this year I noticed lots of oval fruits, 1-2cm long hanging on the bushes. Having confirmed that they were edible, I immediately tasted one of the silvery-green berries, ignoring the footnote about the fruit being astringent when unripe.  The most extraordinary thing happened – my mouth turned in to a carpet!  It was both surprising and unpleasant.  Not like a lemon, which causes you to pucker; or a chilli, which gives the sensation of heat; or rhubarb, which makes tooth enamel feel gritty.  No, it was a definite carpet sensation.

Concluding (insightfully) that the berries were not ripe, I left them for another week by which time the fruits were pink.  I sampled them again:  Carpet-mouth.

A week or two later, the berries were red, plump and well, ripe.  Although the carpet sensation had mostly disappeared (lingering just a little in the skin of the berry), the flavour was disappointing and quite honestly, not worth the risk of eating an under-ripe fruit by mistake.

Ken Fern, in his enormously useful book ‘Plants for a Future’, describes eating this fruit by the handful upon finding it on the central reservation of a dual carriageway near Heathrow, before being moved on by a policeman.  Perhaps the fruit of the Heathrow bush was a variation which tastes nicer than my garden hedge (perhaps some time I’ll try it and find out).

I would like to be enthusiastic about a fruit which appears at such a useful time of year, so I won’t write it off just yet.  However, I’ve limited my plans for planting it in the field to areas where the fragrance will be appreciated.

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Willow on a cold day

5 degrees Celsius.  I can’t muster the necessary spirit to plant any of the bare-root trees which are drunkenly waiting in the vegetable beds for a proper home.

Instead I wander round the field and find to my delight, the tips of the Osier willows (Salix viminalis) are covered in delicate white catkins.  They extend gracefully upwards; tall spires against the blue, blue sky.

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Osier willow (Salix viminalis)

If I had pruned the willow in the early Winter as I had intended, this would not have happened.  So I won’t be doing that, then.

The other willows are also interesting and lively in the otherwise dreary field.

I love willow!  I resolve to buy more varieties.  Luckily there is still a whopping 60m of hedge space still available to play with…

 

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Winter vision

The same thing happened last year.  Standing in the field in the depths of winter, planting trees in the mud under a grey sky, I began to wonder if the whole concept was valid.  My idea of a beautiful Eden-like garden, filled with lovely things to eat and pretty things to look at seems, at times, so far away.  And walking in the empty-seeming field today with the cold clay literally squelching under my boots is definitely one of those times.  Was it through a veil of insanity that I imagined the colours and the butterflies, the sunbeams and the smell of lavender…?

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The trouble, I think, is that the field has so little structure at the moment and so in winter everything dies back to a uniform, flat, brownness.  But we have recently planted some hedges and with a few more to go in this winter, some more branches on the trees as they mature a little, and the Olympian growth of the willow hedge/tunnel this will soon improve.

Last year my thoughts became full of hope and excitement again the moment the spring arrived and my plan became, well, if not exactly sensible, at least credible.  So for the time being I’ll just keep planting the little bare-root trees, shrubs and other stick-like things in to holes in the mud, follow the paper plans, and try not to think too much beyond the next cup of tea.

 

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Two special trees

Lizzie and Purple Candy

I went today to collect two fruit trees from our local nursery, Blackmoor.  Bare-root trees are arriving thick and fast from a range of suppliers at the moment and I had forgotten that these two trees would be particularly exciting ones.  Not just another apple tree or anything ordinary like that.  No!  These are trees of unfamiliar and exotic fruits:  an Asian plum called Lizzie, and a Pluot – a cross between a plum and an apricot.

When I collected the them, the slightly muddy, stick-like trees with their roots wrapped in a black plastic bad had on their labels the following descriptions:

Lizzie:  A new Asian plum that has been bred in America. It’s medium-sized fruit are remarkably sweet and juicy – they’re almost candy-like and unlike any other plum we know.

Pluot Purple Candy:  Pluots are a cross between a Plum and an Apricot with a Plum being the dominant cross. The fruit is as big as a peach and gets its taste rather on the side of apricot while its juicy texture comes from the plum. The variety takes its name from its dark skin, between purple and violet, and has very sweet flesh. These are large fruit with yellow flesh of excellent flavour.

How could I not be excited?!  Sometimes I worry that I’m becoming addicted to browsing the catalogue descriptions, imagining tasting the fruits and wandering around the orchard.  Is it possible that I love the process of selecting the varieties of tree more than the actual growing and eating of the fruit?  It’s too soon to know since our entire crop this year was just one single apple – but I did derive a lot of pleasure form eating my quarter of that apple, so I think it may not be as bad as I fear.

I arrived home from Blackmoor to find a bundle of 26 trees from Keepers Nursery on the drive.  Now for the planting…

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Bringing in the pumpkins

Pumpkin harvest 2014

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It’s all true about the figs

This really is a story about the eating of a superbly delicious fig, warm from the sun, picked directly from a tree on a sun-baked Greek island…

Island of Kea

I have read many accounts of the deliciousness of figs and yet I remain sceptical.  I can’t match the accounts with the insipid, juice-less Brown Turkey figs we have been growing for several years.   We eat them because we feel obliged to, having gone to the effort of growing them, but there’s no pleasure in it.  Perhaps the variety is to blame; perhaps the pot.  Perhaps the general lack of care – or sun, but whatever the reason my fig experience to date has been very disappointing.  The dark figs which appear sometimes in the grocer or supermarket are better, but still nothing to get excited about.

My conversion took place last week during a holiday on the Greek island of Kea.  Figs grow like weeds on the hillside, suckering in to disorganised thickets.  The fig tree next to our lodging was diseased and unpromising but a walk in to the surrounding countryside, baked golden and dry after the summer gave me plenty of chances to sample some others

FigBy luck, the first one I picked was The One – brownish blue on the outside and dark red and juicy on the inside when I pulled it apart.  Popping half in to my mouth without expectation of success, I was completely taken by surprise! The warm, sticky fig had an interesting and significant flavour and it was deeply sweet and well, fig like.  I ate three more before I began to feel a teeny bit sick from the sweetness.

I tried lots more while I was on the island.  The dark ones were the best.  The green ones with white insides were nice but not in the same league.  I could taste the figginess of fig rolls – a childhood treat containing dried fig paste – but this was the actual, real taste before it became dried and pureed and put in a biscuit in my lunch box.

So, the million dollar question: Can I recreate this at home?  I don’t know but I do know I need to try.  I’ve found a supplier of figs, Reads Nursery,  with good descriptions of the many varieties they sell.  I have selected one called ‘Sugar 12’ for a prime, sheltered spot in the garden, and ‘Dauphine’ for the orchard, where I’m hoping it will prosper as a large standard tree – to be picnicked under, surrounded by suitably evocative ground cover (rosemary, thyme, lavender…)

All I need now (in addition to quite a lot of grit for the heavy clay soil) is lots of sunshine. Perhaps then this little corner of Hampshire might fulfil its alter-destiny as a glorious souvenir of my Mediterranean holiday.  What could possibly go wrong?!

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On the making of raised beds

raised beds

In the dark, cold days of winter we embarked on the making of our raised vegetable beds.  I drew three tiny rectangles on the plan of the field and began to search around for something to make the edges from which wouldn’t be crazily expensive. So that’s a no to durable, hardwood sleepers then.  In the end I settled on a combination of eco-treated softwood sleepers and cheap bits of wood for the less visible edges.

I began to mark out the edges of the beds with posts and string.  It was immediately obvious that my usual hap-hazard approach of pacing out and judging by eye was not going to work because the distances involved were causing lines to converge in a slightly alarming manner.  The result was a giant spider’s web of coloured threads containing no right-angles.

The second attempt involved my husband and was surely foolproof; he is a practical man, living in a world of precise measurements and clearly defined events.  His approach involved Measuring The Diagonals. The result was a lessening of the spider’s web effect but there were still no right angles!  We gave up, slightly shaken (me) and very cold (us both).

A friend came to stay:  The challenge was issued.  Much indoor measuring and knotting of string ensued.  Surely the application of a masters degree, further qualifications in physics and a longer tape measure would solve the problem.  It did.  (Although I suspect this may have been at least partly due to a general averaging out of mistakes and a lowering of my expectations.)

Anyway, this post wasn’t intended to be a cataloguing of our surveying mistakes.  Rather, I wanted to record the success of the Charles Dowding method of raised bed construction.  The method was as follows:  Once the rectangles had been marked out, the sides of the bed were fixed together and placed directly on to the grass.  They were filled with organic matter – mostly horse manure from our kind neighbours – to a depth of 4”.  And that was that.

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I should mention at this point that it quickly became apparent as I tried to fill the beds using wheelbarrows of manure, that my ‘tiny rectangles’ were actually enormous and would require equally enormous volumes of horse poo to fill.  We bought a trailer…  And even after this it took us many weekends of shovelling, transporting and recovering to fill the beds, resulting in a ‘just in time’ scenario where the beds were being planted up at one end and still being filled at the other.  Consequently the manure was a bit fresher than it would have ideally been but lots of things have grown well despite this (potatoes, squash, beans). Some things fared very badly (lettuce, direct sowings of seeds) but most seedlings just seemed to turn a sad shade of yellow on planting out, before settling in happily (strawberries, tomatoes, nasturtiums).

More significantly, the grass has not grown through the manure and neither have most weeds.  There are a few things which I am having to remove by hand, including thistles, field bindweed and the odd dock, but generally the whole area has been very manageable and good to work with.  A more challenging problem is that the heavy mulching has resulted in a booming earthworm population, causing much interest by the local badgers who are repeatedly digging craters in the bed to find the worms.  Our initial hope is to deter them using a sprinkle of manly hormones in liquid form, but that’s another story…

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