Friday, 29 July 2011

Pepper piggy

Time was when a title for this post would have been a riff on the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, the ring of fire or something a bit more culturally knowing than a cartoon pig loved by children the country over. But age and life experience takes you to places you least expect it and this was the title I kept coming back to when forming my homage to this country's rocket fuel.

My dad eats raw chillis. Fact. And yes of course he's bigger than your dad but that's beside the point, he's Mauritian and they have guts of steel. You see these are not any old chillis, they're those small potent ones you get from Asian supermarkets that other people move warily to the side of the plate, or cut up wearing rubber gloves in case they accidentally get some juice on their fingers and then rub their, um, eyes. That's right. Eyes...

Chilli plants rock

I still can't get over the fact that you can grow chillis in this country. With our weather? It's just the most awesome thing. Chillis are by definition exotic. Still the mysterious master of curries and Mexicans. A few years back some friends and I stepped into Wahaca, Covent Garden, and had a cracking dinner. But at the very end we were all given a small pack of chilli seeds. Eh? If ever a cuisine needed some cool mints to douse the fire in the mouth. But it was a stroke of genius.

My friend Claire showed that at least one (adopted) Londoner knew how to pot a seed back in the day and soon nurtured a handful of seedlings. I was stunned to see them. Genuinely. She was kind enough to gave me one of her brood which I cared for in the kitchen of my pokey top floor flat in North London which was distinctly lacking in sunlight. The plant lasted two years before giving up, and I have three abiding memories.

The second, is just how many more chillis my mum got from repotting it to a bigger plant pot compared to the one fruit, yes one, that I managed.

The first is the most important. The moment when I realised I really didn't pay any attention during biology. A bud appeared after a few months growing, and then a flower, which opened and then died. Whilst that was going on I was looking the plant over thinking 'so where do the chillis come from?' You could have said a stork delivers them and it would have been plausible at that moment. Suddenly there was a single green chilli where the flower once bloomed, which then fattened until I was ready to cook the goose off it.

And the third? Well when I came home one day to find it wasn't green any more but bright red. For those of you from the Peppa Pig brigade, it was like an ugly duckling had just turned into a swan. For the Chilli Pepper lot, the chilli had just got naked.

I grew chillis in and outdoors last year and I've got a range of chilli plants on the go this year, some grown myself and one a present (guess which one's doing best). And things are hotting up as the flowers have finally appeared.

We can only hope summer decides to make an appearance. If it does the chillis will flourish and you can take the kids to Peppa Pig world (I am not joking). If it doesn't. Well, lets pretend...

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Split pea troupe

I vividly remember this time last year. A growing clamour in the reaches of my mind, the sense that summer was coming to an end; August bank holiday weekend - the traditional glorious finale galloping into view.

I am burdened with a childhood memory that associates September with the sky turning grey in late afternoon with winter shortly following.

Last year, I thought I'd reached the end of the growing season and that it followed that gardening was over for another year. I was clearing the debris from my successful broad beans and peas thinking about hanging up my gloves trowel and retiring indoors. I've reached that point again as demonstrated by one final picture of my abandoned peas:

Yet, last year I remember using the space to regrow - I put some leeks and celeriac in, and tons of rocket. Runner bean plants started to flourish, and I learnt how to row. Like, proper rowing. Steve Redgrave (sir) not Billy Bunting on a boating lake. And to me rowing was the whole summer. Ok, that's a bit random but I'm heartened that this time last year, I'd only just begun.

So, reflecting on my split peas and the end of summer the truth is that the joys of long evenings, bbqs and fresh picked veg are all still to come. Among my many hopes and tasks next week is to finish clearing the garden weeds, flower and bean corpses and set in train some autumn or winter planting so that I don't reach a dead end. Except, I haven't really planned anything. Or thought about what is possible to grow, if anything.

So, I'm putting a call out to anyone with some winter veg experience. What is there to grow? My garden is pining for inspiration...

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Cheeky monkeys

No-one likes evangelicals, except other evangelicals.

My life grounding was in a small minimialist Catholic church. Sermons and hymns were not quite Latin but certainly unintelligable. Seeing an evangelical mass at a young age was like a kick in the lower regions and a slap in the face with enough fish to feed 5000 (2 apparently). It was loud, in your face and a disturbingly, unconvincingly happy.

But evangelicals are not restricted to religious walks of life. No, if you thought you were safe, tucked away in your garden then you hadn't reckoned with the (ground) force of nature. One thing that has surprised me is just how this sedate pastime is actually bristling with emotion, conflict and opportunity. And where you find those, there's an evangelical lurking just behind the garden fence. I find myself pushing the virtues among friends, colleagues and well just anyone I happen to get into a conversation with.

Now, you can do one of two things. Resist, or eventually submit. For years many have resisted. For some, the grow-your-own movement has persuaded them to dabble. But not far over the horizon is a more potent movement that has been some years in gestation and whose time is about to come.

The other week I was wandering through the underpass of the Cumberland Basin flyover on my way for a morning on the water. It's an eerie display of concrete pillars supporting the escape route to the Quantocks, on a bed of concrete and tarmac. Thoughtfully placed in this landscape were what looked like builders gravel bags with, um, red flowers. Who? Why? When? How the @?*$?

Wonderfully, if gradually, people are starting to express themselves, their creativity and there desire to influence the spaces around them. Whether they have permission to or not. This desire is so powerful it forces action and thankfully it has led to a movement that to me at least appears like an inspirational one.

Otherwise known as guerilla gardeners, changes can appear overnight in the most unexpected, derelict or unloved of spaces. Bristol is now starting to see more planned vegetable growing in parks and open spaces as people embrace the breakdown of private space. It's a shame the name has military connotations. I'd much rather picture a bunch of primates with massive hands fumbling around trying to plant leeks.

Shy weed of the day

Monday, 25 July 2011

Peas sir, can I have some more?

As a well-known Rupert has found out, cultivating a successor can come fraught with difficulty. And I'm not talking about the Bear.

Succession planting should be easy. Every seed packet tells you when to plant and when to pick. As does every self-respecting kitchen garden book. And you also know how many seeds you plant. So with a bit of basic maths and planning you can set yourself up for a glutinous summer.

As a planner by trade, how it came to this I'll never know:

I blame May. Not only did average garden tasks fall by the wayside, my hopeful plans to create a lasting supply of fresh vegetables took a battering. Every now and again I would pot up some peas or beans in pots, but again would fail to plant them out. These also went the way of the pods above.

So on 25 June, having dug up potatoes and blessed with an empty container. I chucked in some peas in the hope that I might get lucky.

Yep, just chucked 'em in.

A month later, and I couldn't be more excited. These little solitare beauties have responded with vigour and within weeks have provided healthy green shoots, leaves and those funny but tough little climbers that hang on like a baby's grip. And a fresh harvest of peas is only weeks away.

Until the evening post...

My body had a fight with my alarm clock this morning and as a result I've run out of time to write a proper post.  The bed. Blogger's ruin.

So until later I'll leave you with this snap from a visit to the rather impressive Rococo gardens at Painswick yesterday. As ever, I have no clue as to what it is, but it looks like a good, blokey sort of plant. All I could think, from bitter experience was 'if this was a sea urchin, I'd have stepped on it...'

Saturday, 23 July 2011

In a pot of bother

Three days ago, I discovered a new arrival in the garden. Fungus. Mushrooms are on my hit list of bad vegetables, second only to tomatoes (yes yes ok, it's fruit, but that's not the point. It's top of the list).

These 'shrooms were discovered hiding in a small pot I'd neglected on the ground with an experimental pot red onion. Now, it might not seem normal to grow an onion in a pot, but if you can grow it in the ground and it's not as big as a pot, then why not try?

Containers are the saviour of all balcony-dwellers and Londoners, except Nigel Slater who's kitchen garden I'm reliably informed is 'massive' (thanks Coco). But he, like every other individual with a nice house in every weekend supplement, lives in North London.

If you're in possession of a 'how to grow' book, there will be a container section. I imagine it's because people in South London also want to garden. And anything can be a container. An old sink, a bucket, a pair of wellies, hell even the compost heap. You can really get creative and move things around. Said books also have lovely photos of nearly arranged containers, full-to-bursting with veg, herbs and fruit. 

My take on it though is a bit more, um, haphazard. In my garden you'll find all manner of pots and containers littered around, moved because they were 'in the way', or because once potted  I saw something I wanted to photograph instead and got distracted never to return.

The moment you neglect a pot on the ground it is at the mercy of rogues...oh yes, we all know about them now. And this poor onion has got itself surrounded:

Weeds to the left of it, mushrooms to the right, here it is stuck in the middle with

A snail. 

And it doesn't get much better for Mr Onion as tonight I'll be transferring it to a different sort of pot...

Just one question? Can you eat this particular mushroom?

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Hapless weed of the day

(Adopting Jeremy Clarkson's tone...)

Some weeds fight with veg.

Others with grass. 

Some go and colonise wildspace, like a gun-totting American settler. 

This fool, however, decides to lay it's hat...

...on a pavement. 

Yes ladies and gentleman, welcome to Bristol's very own hapless weed. Probably one of the busiest thoroghfares in town, leading as it does from many a work place to the great park by the river. All it will take is a random slipped stilleto, an unco-ordinated jogger or a hungry canine to end this foolhardy attempt to seek out a riverside location. Dear oh dear...

(and not only did I get funny looks bending down to take this pic, a lady said, aww, he's taking a piccy, like I'm some 5 year old)

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

In the eye of the beholder...

I have a new page and a new challenge for you.

Inspired by a twitter follower loving the weed of the day posts, I've created a rogues gallery page

The Rogues Gallery

But I'd love this page to be filled by rogues from all over the place, so I'm putting a call out to anyone willing to send me, or go out and take photos of all manner of things we turn our noses up at or aim our trowels, pellets, water guns at in fits of garden rage.

Email me at and lets get this gallery up and running. Anything from slugs, to weeds, to your broken old garden chair. The only thing I ask is that you calm your anger, tap into your compassion and reflect your beast of choice in a positive light.

After that feel free to indulge your dark side...

Iron weed of the day

This is just nuts.

Growing on metal. It probably put the No Fishing sign up too, just to keep the riff raff of its turf. And yes it must own that bike above for when it does quadruple iron-man races and the like.

The gloves are off

When you get carried away with the excitement of a new hobby, you want all the kit. You get seduced by the new, the shiny, the best. This can end up putting an almighty dent in your savings. But boy will you look good. So choose your hobby wisely

If it's knitting that floats your boat, you'll be fine even if you go crazy and buy vintage needles, bundles of yarn, a bike with a basket and a floaty skirt simply to cycle round the park in some 50's dream.You may even make a bob or two with your creations. If it's yachting that hooks you though, you're sunk.

Gardening, however, can be both wonderfully rewarding for small pennies or unwittingly costly if you happen to live up the road (or gorge in my case) from a fancy garden centre. I have views to share in time about garden centres, but today I just want to reflect on one of my very first garden purchase. My gloves.

At the weekend I finally decided to hang them up...

...and replace them with new ones (nearly had you there didn't I? What do you mean no?)

A year of wear, tear and very little care meant they were becoming more fingerless by the hour, holes appearing in the fabric that has held all manner of plant, soil and inadvertent cat poo (always look at the soil before putting your hand in. Always wear gloves too).

Yet I've been strangely reluctant to let go of them. I can still remember buying them, and stepping out into the garden, emotionally raw from recent events but with that sliver of hope that I could actually take my time, escape from the world outside and put all my energy into something that won't hurt. That was before I picked up the rose bush from the stalk. I felt like a proper gardener with gloves on. My grandad always had them on, and once I got started I too would walk through the flat proudly removing them after a day's toil.

Having a sentimental attachment to an inanimate object feels slightly disturbing. Not as bad as fancying a cartoon character, that's just wrong. Even if it is Jessica Rabbit. But looking back, those gloves were with me through those formative months in my gardening 'career', and for that they won't be going in the bin.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Weed of the day

Normal service...from my friend's back garden, a weed gone to seed.

Weed of yesterday

I was too tired to post anything after a trip to the seaside yesterday.

Here's a question, what's the difference between a weed and a wildflower? Is it that one has better PR?
This flower had grown in a wild uncultivated slope near the top of the cliff, just close enough to the path for me to take a phone snap. We had no idea what the flower was but that didn't matter, there was a lengthy discussion about whether it was actually a weed, and therefore whether it could be allowed on this blog?

One thing you can't dispute, it chose a damn good spot.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Weed of the day

After mistakenly, hopefully thinking I had elderflower in my garden I was disappointed to learn that I hadn't. This lonesome ground elder seems to have survived my subsequent cull:

Root maneouvers

You may remember my concern about that rabidity of mint in a previous post. This brief epilogue concentrates on the method behind the minty madness. Roots.

It's no surprise that for a plant to dominate its roots have to be both strong and clever. Without nutrients they will die, and it follows that they really should do anything to make sure they survive, that they get to the nutrients first lest someone else make more out of it than they do.

Today, that aforementioned patch of garden mint finally destroyed the other herbs and was in the process of destroying itself. Time to dig up and start again.

Rotting from the bottom to the top
As I reflected on just what mint had managed to achieve in this crowded container, my thoughts turned yet again to just how News of the World has managed to poison our society whilst remaining in many eyes something to be proud of (witness the final print day defiance of ex NOTW staff in front of their adulating peers). Could it be that mint offers a close to home understanding and reminder of how we should consider not just the NOTW but the print press in general?

Here is a herb that has a reputation for spreading quickly that it takes in all in its path. Dominating without apology, justifying itself simply by the need to have it.

I, of course, wanted it. It lifts a dreary meal, spices up a summer drink and is just something that I had always grown up with. In truth, it despite us gardeners knowing how invasive it is has a reputation carefully honed on the access to us given by ice cream makers, after dinner confectioners and pea chefs over the years. Keeping its methods hidden only until one stops to consider the extent of its influence:

Mint roots

I was genuinely taken aback at the size and reach of these roots. No wonder everything else cowered in the face of this insidious herb.

My mint has been destroyed, I will be replanting herbs next weekend with some care and thought (not least to work out if I can grow through the autumn). If monitored properly I do hope I can have my mint and not let it ruin the lives of other herbs.

I don't often like to get serious on this blog, but discovering what was going on in that soil, does make me think that unless we have proper transparency about what goes on - who politicians and police meet, when, why and what they talk about, and a proper debate about whether journalists and media outlets are indeed uncovering the truth or just selectively creating narratives however honestly intended, then we are only ever going to remain addicted to society's equivalent of mint whilst it spreads its ever invasive and powerful roots through the compost of Westminster and beyond.

I promise to find my humour again soon, and to take your mind off it all a little tune to lift your spirits and take you back to the title:

Gardeners do it whatever the weather

Nothing like recycling a worn out line. Apparently gardeners are a filthy lot. They do it in the dirt, on their knees and with hoes, if google is to be believed. If you have even considered buying merchandise with any of those on it be very very ashamed of yourself.

And if you've actually spent the cash, then your punishment (for those living in the UK, Westside) is to get out there with said merchandise and get on your knees and dig until the rain stops. And it won't be stopping for a couple of days yet.

Yes, it's miserable out there. Gone is the glorious heat and sun of recent days and in its place, this:

Bristol sky 8:30am

And with it millions of refreshing mini bombs bringing happiness to every leaf and retribution to every fairweather homeowner who has eschewed the raised bed for the sun bed.

Faced with a space that is rapidly eating itself with wild growth, I promised myself earlier this week that I would take today's forecasts head on and garden regardless. Things are looking bad out there and another week would end my year's ambitions for staying in control.

Surprisingly, this psychological trick has overcome what previously would have been a peek through the shutters, and a decision to make a cup of tea and rest under a blanket on the sofa. I'm fired up, ready to step outside and take on the rough. I've been out already and have a full uninterupted day ahead.

I shall return this afternoon with Weed of the day, a spring in my step and no doubt a scar from a pigeon ditch your 'hanging with my gnomies' t-shirt' and get busy.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Nothing rhymes with borage

I knew this day would come, the day inspiration deserted me. I was warned that I would run out of puns, and like a fickle trader, pretty soon people would see the signs and switch to another new, young, fresh blog. Today I've run dry. Borage, you have beaten me. But I soldier on in the hope that there are some die hards out there still feeling the hapless love...

I was really excited when I planted borage seeds back on 6 April. I sowed a line in compost formulated for seeds, in a wooden half barrel container, £14 extravegance from Riverside garden centre, complete with handles.

The young leaves quickly appeared and soon accompanied the unseasonal warmth in a glass of Pimms, their rumoured cucumber flavour proving joyously true.

Left - borage, middle - rocket, right - dill

But I'd never taken the trouble to understand just what a beast the plant becomes, and it wasn't until it had engulfed the helpless rocket and razed the dill to the ground that I realised I'd been misled. All the talk in books was about the flowers. How pretty they look in an ice cube, that they're edible and refreshing. Rubbish. Like living with a newborn and only telling people about the cuddles.

Borage is a beast and make no mistake. It needs its own home, it needs attention, watering and space. At least, that's my experience.If you don't, this is what happens:

This is part neglect part anger. Does that make me a bad person? Well, in gardening circles yes. Probably not in the company of dishonest police officers, politicians or journalists (sorry, this is the last time I'll reference 'the scandal'. I should probably start a separate blog to unleash my views the unholy trinity - although I do know a few good coppers, have worked for one good and one crazy politician, and once fancied a journalist. But she was on the magazine so that doesn't count).

I digress. Borage. Yes, overblown strumpet of a plant (is it ok to use that word in the 21st century, in a jovial context?). Yes it's seductive, but afterwards I felt cheated. Here was the promise:

My good friend Emma gave me a top tip from her good friend's book that we tried out. Put a borage flower in wine and it'll turn from bluey-purple (I'm sure there's a proper name for it) into pink. Well, it didn't. And it tasted of, well, wine. Humph.

The wine was good though...

Underneath the courgette canopy

Monday, 11 July 2011

Flower power

I'm really not into flowers. I find it odd that people become obsessed by them, particularly those individuals who get featured on gardeners world because each year they grow nothing but one type of flower creating new species each year. Really, honestly, there is more to life. So much more.

Last year, my mum supplied all my flowers. Or so I thought. I didn't really pay attention to the flowering shrubs in my garden, which this year have started to create a never ending synchronised display.  It started with a little white number that brought in the bees and no doubt gave my raspberries the bumble kick start they needed:

If you look closely, under the top green leaf is a bee - I promise!
Then, in a move of shock and awe, the buddleia came into full bloom.

Perhaps the problem I have with flowers it that they're often attention seekers, the peacocks of the flora world. So it often takes just one little charmer to tug at you and say, look, I'm actually very sweet and worth having around. As I discovered this morning from this little rascal


Sunday, 10 July 2011

Stealing the limelight...

....apparently there's some sort of famous bridge in the background. Sadly this is not the view from my back garden, although the weed does seem to have a cousin or 50 on my turf. In a tenuous gardening link, I spent an hour out here when I should have been mowing the lawn. A gardener's work is never done, and sometimes for very good reason.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Issues of gravity

We all know what happens if you don't get the right support. Gravity takes control.

A force of such manipulation and evil, it shows about as much mercy as a media baron with its cancerous red-top. Once it takes hold there is no stopping it. You know its existence is necessary so you end up accepting that this is the way it has to be, even if it pains you to do so, even if you know the world could be so much better if only it wasn't so powerful (who here has always wanted to be able to fly?)

To my cost these past weeks I have found out what happens if you don't get the right support. You have to direct all your energy to protecting yourself and fighting the things, and the people, that pull you down. It has brought a halt to my gardening and indeed my writing.

Without my gardening, my veg has not had the support it has needed either. With more to come, I'll start off with the cherry and normal tomatoes. After writing about my fear of a ripening harvest I confess the thought of trying them started to appeal - the thrill of a challenge perhaps?

I started them off in the grow house until they were over 4 inches or so and then planted them out by canes. I only knew that they would grow up and fairly tall but in the rush of the modern world I neglected to read up on planting out. I didn't tie them to the canes, hoping they would find a natural means of attaching themselves much like beans and sqaushes do.

But no:

The canes in the background to the left are the support, the green leaves pushing and shoving to get to the front, to pose for the camera are my tomatoes at the moment. Aching to grow, tethered by an unseen force rather than a dedicated support. Granted, I made a feeble effort at providing them with the help they needed and so I must learn from this. If anyone has any tomato tips, please post them!

If they make it to fruit, then it shows that despite being unsupported, some still have the strength to to come will show that they are the lucky ones...

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Friday, 1 July 2011

Second coming

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Which is why so many of us drink coffee for breakfast.  Nothing like a good drug to create the illusion that all is good in body and mind.

In the London rat race, I was a convert to the wonderful Monmouth coffee shop on the corner of Borough Market. I was back there recently, two years after my last appearance, resurrected in their ultra efficient queuing system. And they remembered me! Unheard of in London, I was thrilled.

But then I paused, and wondered, does that make me like the old drunk at the bar; pub and punter dependent on each other? Not valued but quietly mocked and pitied for my dependency?

Well, no more. I have porridge. All those oats and milk, I actually have long lasting energy in the morning.  Porridge is now a strange necessity; once you have it regularly you can't live a morning without it and energy wise kicks a croissant dans les noisettes.  However it doesn't look, sound or even taste inspiring on its own. It really is just mushy cardboard.

But. If you grow your own fruit then ha! you can get all creative on it's papery ass.

Earlier in spring I was chucking in the raspberries with abandon, all strong and intense. But as the harvest died away I had to turn elsewhere. To my blackcurrants. I had never eaten a fresh whole blackcurrant before. It's worth the investment in pot, canes and compost for that moment alone.

In porridge though it's like fireworks, a popping candy type experience as you get constant unexpected hits of flavour changing with each chew (yes I chew porridge, and once bit my tongue so badly I couldn't speak properly for a fortnight).

I currently (no pun intended) have enough to last a few weeks of gurt lush breakfasts, as they say in Brizzle. But to my surprise and hope this morning, my raspberry plant appears to be gearing itself up for a fresh batch.


The Hapless Kitchen Gardener

My photo
I only feel hapless because some people make it look easy to grow 10 ft marrows or a banquet of greens whereas my courgettes got nabbed by killer slugs and I only got one raspberry. So tips and stories from people less hapless than I are more than welcome. As a disclaimer though, none of my comments should be taken as expert advice on which you can rely! © Unless stated otherwise, and with the exception of guest content where that guest retains copyright, all photos and posts are the copyright of Tom Carpen and may not be used without permission.