Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!


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September brings …

Warm September brings the fruit;  Sportsmen then begin to shoot.

You may be relieved that I am not going to write about shooting here.  A far too controversial topic for a garden blog!  Far more interesting and rewarding to talk about fruit.

Raspberries in the garden (c) Elizabeth Malone

Last summer I found myself blackberry before starting work!  It was one of the joys and surprises of working from home, heading out for a walk before the endless screentime and Teams meetings, and in July coming home with a bag full of fruit!  However, it was early July, far too early for blackberrying.  Whilst this summer will no doubt be remembered for being wet and grey, it has produced fruit closer to the time of year we used to expect.  Blackberrying this year has definitely been an August pursuit.  Both this year and last, it has been a joy to see blackberrying being passed down the generations.  On various walks we have seen people of all ages filling the ubiquitous plastic bag with berries and heading off literally red-handed!

Out and about blackberrying (c) Elizabeth Malone

This year we are also lucky enough to have an abundant supply of blackberries at the far end of the garden.  This is a mixed blessing.  Twenty years ago we spent many hours hauling out bramble from this overgrown and chaotic area of the garden.  Now it seems that some of it is back, delighted to have been exposed by some judicious pruning of a giant laurel.  We are hoping that we can contain it and manage it in such a way that it will continue to bear fruit in future years without taking over the entire garden.

Washed and drying! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Last year was the first time we added bramble jelly to our jam-making repertoire.  We were inspired by a commercially bought jar and thought ‘we can do this!’  We already had the jelly strainer and stand from our crab apple jelly making so all we needed to do was delve into our ancient but trustworthy Good Housekeeping recipe book which is full of ideas for jams and jellies.  In our eagerness to ensure a good set, it would be fair to say that the first batch came out a little, eh, stiff!  It tasted delicious but it was firm enough to support walls!  We have learned from this and the batch made last weekend is a lovely light, easy spreading consistency!

Deep, dark blackberry juice dripping (c) Elizabeth Malone

Blackberries and raspberries have certainly been the winners on the berry front this summer.  The less said about strawberries, the better – too wet!! Although we worried at the start of the raspberry season as it was so wet and we found that the berries were turning mouldy before we had time to pick them. A more pleasant benefit of the rain turned out to be a surprisingly good crop of cherry plums which were the first fruits this year to make us get our jam making it ready.

Jam ready for potting up (c) Elizabeth Malone

Cherry plums are small, dark red on the outside but glowing orange on the inside. They are also extremely sharp! Too sharp for even enjoying in something like a crumble. Believe me, we have tried it! If you enjoy you jam with a slight tang to it, cherry plums are for you!

Now as we head into September we are starting to watch the crab apple tree with interest. Fruits that seemed quite small only a week ago, are now starting to look a good size. The longer you leave crab apples, the more juice you tend to get for the jelly making process. That said, there are limits. Into October is good, but by November the fruits are falling off the tree and are better suited for bird food or potentially wiring into an Advent decoration. But let’s not even mention the ‘C’ word just yet!

Crab apple ‘Laura’ in fruit (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Water wise

As I write this, the thermometer is set to soar into the mid-thirties centigrade later today. Admittedly the forecast is suggesting that it may be the classic British summer week of a few hot days followed by a thunderstorm. Anyone who knows me well will know that I’m not looking forward to the thunderstorm bit! That said, I would welcome the rain. In fairness, the garden isn’t looking quite as parched as it did a week or so ago. That Thursday of heavy downpours has refreshed the grass and the veg plot remained damp for several days after. More importantly, the pond filled up as did our water butts, and that’s where I want to focus really – what we do to manage our water wisely.

Rain falling on patio and chairs
Summer downpour (c) Elizabeth Malone

Scarily, over 25 years ago, I remember cataloguing a report from the then National Rivers Authority called Water: Nature’s Precious Resource which was in high demand from our Environmental Sciences students. This report emphasised that, whilst the press might focus on droughts in less developed parts of the world, the developed world needed to become much smarter at managing its water supply as changes to the climate were already beginning to signal trouble ahead. Without a doubt, handling books on these topics influenced my own approach to managing water, especially as gardeners can get a bit of a bad reputation when it comes to water usage! So what steps can we each take to do our bit? I don’t suppose I’m going to mention anything you don’t already know about but, as each summer seems to become a little warmer, there’s no harm in reminding ourselves of the changes we can make.

Watering can being refilled
Filling up – yet again! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Let’s start with water meters. I’ve always found it interesting that we expect to pay for gas and electricity according to usage but not water. If you’ve not yet fitted a meter, do consider it. Compulsory metering is being rolled out by Thames Water but not to our area just yet but you can get a step ahead and request an installation. Evidence suggests that if you are a one or two person household, you will almost certainly save money as well as water!

Two water butts
Water butts – not things of beauty! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Without doubt, a water meter makes you think about how much you are using, particularly in the garden. I suspect that there is a correlation between the owners of water meters and the owners of water butts! We have two water butts and every summer, as they run dry, we threaten to install more. The challenges are space and aesthetics. The two butts we have are not things of beauty! Located behind the shed, they are generally out of sight but the most obvious place to install more is on the patio and, worse than that, directly beneath our carefully chosen light fittings! You can appreciate our dilemma! We keep flicking through catalogues and websites offering slim, discrete designs, designs that pretend to be something else, and designs that also cost a small fortune! At some point we will bite the bullet as we really value our rainwater stocks, not just to avoid using tap water unnecessarily, but to ensure we can water acid loving plants such as our blueberries and our Christmas tree with lime-free water. We also use it to top up the pond occasionally which is better for the wildlife. According to the Consumer Council for Water, “The average house roof in the UK collects enough rain water in a year to fill about 450 water butts.” Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that you install 450 butts – that would be a little excessive!

Blueberries ripening on plant
Blueberries ripening (c) Elizabeth Malone

Being selective about what you water in the garden is also important. New plants deserve good and frequent soakings as there’s nothing more soul-destroying than seeing your new favourite flower wilt and die within days. Try to find time to water either early morning or later evening to prevent excessive evaporation and also accidental scorching of leaves. The veg plot also needs careful attention. There’s not much point in throwing away all the hard work that goes into germinating, pricking out and planting on young veg plants, only to fry them on a sunny day.

Over view of vegetables plots
Veg plots (c) John Malone

Most advice on using water wisely in the garden makes it clear that you should ditch that sprinkler! That said, I have one exception to that rule and that has been trying to soak around the root area of a large tree. Our birch tree is really struggling and the tree surgeon’s advice was to really soak a wide area around the tree once a week. If we just leave the hose on, then the water runs off. Leaving the sprinkler spraying gently around the base of the tree enables more water to be absorbed where we need it.

Birch tree with dead and live branches with bird
Trying to save our birch tree (c) Elizabeth Malone

Mulching your borders in spring to seal in moisture is something that I always attribute to serious gardeners! For years I thought about doing it and would usually remember too late. We also had a run of very dry January and Februaries which meant that I felt I’d already missed the boat. Mulching also helps condition the soil and last year I decided I would be organised and we ordered sacks and sacks of mulch. It all seemed such a great idea until our rather hairy cats rolled in the straw-like substance and our lounge looked more mulched than the border!

Curled up cat in flower border
Mulch magnet! (C) John Malone

Finally, I’m going to mention the ‘lawn’. If you are fortunate enough to have a garden with a piece of ‘green’ in the middle, I suspect that, like me, it’s not exactly bowling green standard. Don’t water the grass when it’s hot and dry, it will turn green again remarkably quickly after one of those stormy downpours. Also, don’t cut during dry weather unless you really have to. Let some of the weeks flower and enable the bees and other insects to flourish on it.

Clover growing amid grass
Clover in lawn (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Grow your own

At the start of this year I set out to write a series of Outside the Back Door articles focused on different aspects of climate change and how we can all do our bit to improve the environment.  Against this month I noted down, “Grow your own”.  At that moment I could not possibly have foreseen that the global lockdown in response to the Coronavirus pandemic was about to cause the most enormous surge in interest in people growing their own food.  As tinned tomatoes vanished from the supermarket shelves, so did packets of vegetable seed from every garden centre and then, as the garden centres closed, from every online supplier in the country.  I just checked some of the well-known seed companies and discovered that two are still trying to fulfil orders placed three weeks ago whilst another has deployed an online queuing system before you can even enter their website!

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Finna helping me organise my seed box!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

One thing I have learnt from this current crisis, I’m not someone who jumps onto bandwagons!  At no time in the past few weeks have my kitchen cupboards been overloaded with pasta or flour and my bathroom is not stuffed full of loo-roll!  However, as I patiently wait to see whether last year’s packet of parsley seed will still germinate, I slightly regret this attitude and what is turning out to be the mistaken belief that these huge surges in demand would soon flatten out and we’d be able to buy things as normal, well at least online.  As a result, I find myself advocating growing your own veg at a time when my own veg plot is looking a little less full than normal.

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Preparing one of our small veg beds for potatoes (c) Elizabeth Malone

That said, wouldn’t it be marvellous if this crisis produced a whole new generation of gardeners?  Or at least brought about a greater recognition of what it takes to grow food for our tables?

Interestingly, the ‘grow your own’ trend was already booming in the UK, fuelled by a combination of growing concern for the environment; concerns about the use of pesticides; and the growth of Veganism.  If you are growing good yourself, you know precisely what has gone into it.

When I started experimenting with growing my own vegetables on our small plot in the garden, I really wasn’t sure whether I would keep it going but my interest has definitely increased, enough to consider whether we might even venture as far as an allotment one day.

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This year’s beans ready for planting out (c) Elizabeth Malone

Before digging up a sizeable bit of lawn, I read around a great deal to help me decide what to grow and one of the most useful pieces of advice which sticks in my mind was stating the obvious really – grow what you like to eat!  This is so true!  I like courgettes but my husband doesn’t.  Even one courgette plant can produce a considerable amount of fruit, not to mention that they are monsters that take over every inch of available space and, if you’re really lucky, become unsightly as their leaves are prone to mildew!  He doesn’t like tomatoes either but they are more versatile and store more easily plus you tend to be quite popular with friends in either sharing out spare plants or spare fruit later in the season!

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We wouldn’t be without our garlic crop!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

It’s interesting to discover how loyal you become to certain varieties of vegetables over the years.  For me, Sungold tomatoes are by far the best.  When it comes to peas and beans, Hurst Green Shaft and Cobra respectively seem to do well in my garden so I stick with them.  Perhaps if I had more space or more mouths to feed, I might be tempted to experiment a bit more.

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Sungold tomatoes gradually ripening (c) Elizabeth Malone

Growing your own produce is only satisfying if you eventually get to eat it.  I quickly abandoned lettuce in my veg plot as it simply fed the local slug and snail population.  Instead, I sow seed into large trays and I can create my own pick and mix selection of chard, rocket and red oak leaf lettuce, all of which seem to grow well this way.

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Salad trays to protect from slug attack!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

Returning to the main impetus behind this article, the climate crisis, why is growing our own food good for the environment?  There are many answers to this so I will simply pick out the things that stand out for me.  Vegetables, and I include salads and herbs within that, are great for enhancing the biodiversity in your local plot.  You need insects to pollinate your crops, the insects need you to grow them to get the food they need to survive too.  It’s the perfect working relationship.  Home grown produce doesn’t need to be wrapped in plastic in order to transport it or extend its shelf-life.  The fact it doesn’t need to be transported wins on the pollution front too.  As the grower, you are also in control in terms of reducing pollution from pesticides.  Finally, with careful management, you can also reduce your food waste as you pick what you need.  That said, sometimes there’s no avoiding gluts but there is always the freezer or a grateful neighbour!

I would love to end this article by extolling you to go out and buy a packet of seed and grow something edible for yourself but I fear that sourcing that seed may be a step to far just at present.  But if you can’t grow something edible this year, there is always next!

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A bee reminding us that growing our own fruit and veg is good for wildlife (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Harvest home

“Now autumn strews on every plain,
His mellow fruits and fertile grain;
And laughing plenty, crown’d with sheaves,
With purple grapes, and spreading leaves.”

Felicia Dorothea Hermans

How can it possibly be almost October? October is the month of National Poetry Day (taking place this year on Thursday 3rd), so I thought I’d start with a verse!  This year’s theme is ‘truth’ which made me ponder on the success of this year’s ‘harvest’. Could I truthfully say that the garden has been more productive than ever?  My honest answer is, I think so.  We seem to have been picking fruit, herbs and vegetables since early spring but, as with any year, there have been successes and, perhaps not disasters, but let’s just say things that didn’t quite go to plan!

Blackberries – a little of our wild rather than planted harvest!

Fruit has been incredibly abundant. Two years ago John remarked that the way the raspberries were developing, we would be making jam another year. How true!  Little did I think we would be adding strawberry to that list alongside our more usual cherry plum and, hopefully, crab apple jelly still to come.  The fridge is looking a little full so I shall be seeking to sell a few jars in aid of good causes. [See The Joy of Jam Making for a better insight and Thinking Forward to Fruit for where I was at with fruit growing a couple of year’s ago!]

Our crab apples ripening (c) Elizabeth Malone

If fruit was on the up side of things, then my peas were definitely on the down side.  Every year I try to grow a bigger pea harvest but I seem to be thwarted.  Top of my ‘don’t bother to try that again’ list was a late sowing.  They were the last peas in the packet and they sulked.  In the end I had just two seedlings which I gave up on as it was clear that they were never going to produce anything.  I knew it was a gamble when I sowed them but part of my motivation was the failure of two previous sowings.  The first sowing of the season was excellent and we were able to make our delicious ‘pasta with peas’ recipe (seek out Ursula Ferrigno’s Truly, Madly, Pasta) and we also had sufficient to add to a number of other dishes but the second two sowings fell victim to slug attack when the previously dry summer suddenly decided to become wet!

Pea ‘Hurst Green Shaft’ starting to fill out (c) Elizabeth Malone

Back on the up side of things, this was a good year for garlic it turns out.  Last year’s grew well but stored poorly but I am hoping for better things this year.  As you can see from the photo, I started out determined that they would do well! The chicken wire was born out of discovering that, if the squirrels weren’t pinching the planted cloves, then the cats were digging them up! Back in November I planted two varieties, Early Purple Wight and Provence Wight, most of which have produced some good sized, healthy looking bulbs with quite a strong flavour.  Normally when I lift them, I brush as much soil off the bulbs as possible and then lay them out, leaves and all, in a seed tray which I then put in the greenhouse to dry off before I do a final clean, trim and store.  Last year I think I left them in the greenhouse for far too long, so this year I was particularly careful and allowed them to dry for just a week before I put them into storage.  They seem to be doing well at the moment so I hope this was the right decision.

Garlic starting to sprout (c) Elizabeth Malone

Weather-wise I have called this the yo-yo summer as the temperature has gone up and down quite randomly.  I seem to recall one weekend when we all roasted just on the Saturday and went back to reaching for cardigans on the Sunday!  This has made judging when to sow and where to nurture seedlings really quite tricky.  I lost one of my earlier sowings of peas when the beautiful fresh green shoots were burnt to a crisp in my greenhouse on an unexpectedly hot day.  My tomatoes sat in the greenhouse for a very long time before I actually got to eat one! Late July and early August lacked sunshine and in the end I removed the shading early in the hopes of encouraging the fruit to ripen. The inevitable result of that was a sudden tomato glut when they all decided to ripen at once!

Sungold tomatoes getting there slowly (c) Elizabeth Malone

To avoid my salad leaves simply being slug food, I grow them as ‘cut and come again’ leaves in trays which I normally start off in the protection of the greenhouse.  Having experienced the pea episode, I have spent more time this summer than usual, walking up and down the side of the house manoeuvring trays of rocket, red oak leaf and chard into either warmer or shadier spots depending on the forecast temperature.  Twice I failed miserably and had to start again.  In contrast to the tomato experience, the cooler, damper conditions of August were a welcome relief and we’ve had some great pickings.

Excitement of the first green shoots of the season (c) Elizabeth Malone

Some crops are also more sensitive to weather conditions that others.  For example, beans stop producing once the temperature goes much over about 28 degrees Celsius.  That used to be a rare event in the UK and so not much to worry about but this year and last it has become more the norm.  Does this mean that I will be wasting my time sowing beans in the future?  Despite my failed late sowing of peas, I did the same with my French beans and, at the time of writing, the plants are scrambling enthusiastically up their canes so I am hoping that we may succeed in picking an autumnal crop.

Blue Lake French beans cropping nicely (c) Elizabeth Malone

By trying to get a late crop of beans, I’m not trying to defy the seasons. The September edition of Gardeners World Magazine focused on the seasons and what they mean.  This year my church has decided to celebrate Harvest in October because it happens to fit in with other arrangements.  There is nothing wrong with that but, living in the urban environment as we do, it’s important to remember how the produce from our gardens and the nature surrounding us is changing significantly at this time of year and, when we look on the supermarket shelves, to remind ourselves that we are not meant to eat strawberries in December in the UK!  That said, I’m not going to preach about seasonality as life is just too busy not to succumb occasionally to non-seasonal produce.  That said, I did enjoy this quote from Monty Don, reminding us of just how privileged we gardeners can be.

“The seasons connect us directly to the true rhythms of life. … No one is more connected to them than those of us lucky enough to have a garden.”  (Monty Don, Gardeners’ World Magazine, September 2019)


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In praise of Laura

Laura is a bit of a star!  Laura is our crab apple tree and, no, we have not named her!  Laura is simply the variety … but it has caused confusion on a number of occasions!

Crab apple Laura in fruit

We chose and planted Laura about 8 years ago having been inspired to plant a crab apple tree by a friend’s jelly made from the very popular John Downie crab apple.  We weren’t entirely sure if we wanted to make jelly and we were also concerned that at John Downie could get too big in our garden.  So we decided to research alternative varieties.

Crab apple Laura in bloom

Laura in bloom – Copyright John Malone

We wanted to keep our options open with regards to the jelly making but we also wanted attractive blossom in the spring and ideally autumn colour – not much then!  For jelly making, you need to plant a variety that will produce sensible sized fruits.  You cannot, for example, easily make jelly from a tree that produces crab apples the size of a grape!  When we discovered Laura, she sounded perfect with dark red fruits about the size of a ping-pong ball.  The lovely thing about dark red fruits is that you also get dark red jelly!

Crab apple jelly

Laura has really flourished and every spring we enjoy her stunning deep pink and white flushed blossom and summer by summer she is getting more and more prolific so that we are literally picking bucket-loads of fruit!

Our jelly is made very traditionally using a recipe from a 1960s Good House Keeping cookery book but also following their hot tip which is to add about 3 cloves to the fruit when cooking.  Any more than that would be overpowering but this just gives a slightly warm note to the overall flavour.  I also highly recommend purchasing a jelly straining kit such as the one from Lakeland.  The first year we tried this, I attempted to set up some Heath-Robinson style affair and, goodness me was it messy!  My other hot tip is, do not forget to put your bowl underneath the strainer before pouring!!  (Yes, that is the voice of experience …)

Of all the trees in our garden, I think it would be fair to say that it is Laura that gives us most pleasure.  We enjoy looking at her, we enjoy eating the end product, and she has been a very easy plant to care for with just a little pruning required to keep her in tip-top shape and to ensure she continues to fruit well.

Crab apple Laura in Spring

Crab apple Laura in Spring – copyright John Malone

Should you be inspired to acquire Laura for yourself, she’s not easy to track down but a quick Google search shows that she is currently available from Ken Muir and Pomona Fruits amongst others.

 


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Season of mellow fruitfulness

Traditionally October is the month for Harvest Festival services and yet, in our current climate and ways of farming, the harvest is often long gone and put away even by the start of September.  For me September is the beginning of autumn although this year, it was the end of July when I first walked out the front door one morning on the way to work and thought it felt different.  There’s a sense of coolness in the air and a smell that’s hard to describe but it says that the height of summer is already past and soon the morning ground will be thick with dew.  By thinking of 1st September being the start of Autumn, I’ve read that this means I’m following the meteorological calendar as against the astronomical calendar which would mean that Autumn didn’t get underway until later in the month on the 22nd.  Either way, now is certainly a good time to take stock of the harvest that the garden has produced this year.

Back in May I wrote about our increased interest in growing fruit and this summer we have really reaped the benefits of this.  In June our strawberry plants went mad!  In May, wonderful clusters of white flowers burst through thick bushy green leaves and I watched nervously as the fruits began to form.

Unexpectedly cold nights worried me.  On Gardeners’ World, Monty Don warned that if the centre of the fruits turned black, that meant they had been damaged by the cold.  I sighed with relief as ours remained a healthy yellow but I began to worry again as May turned into June and our summer holiday approached.  Were these fruits all going to ripen as we crossed the Channel?  And if so, who was going to be eating them?  Certainly not us!  As it turned out, luck was on our side and about a fortnight before our departure a few fruits began to turn red.  We started out being thrilled by picking one or two fruits to eat each evening but soon this became ten or twenty fruits – complete bowls full!  Gardeners often proudly declare how many pounds of fruit their plot has produced but we were too busy enjoying the fruit to bother counting.  As our portions of fruit became larger and larger, eventually I had to draw the line.  Faced with masses of strawberries the evening before our holiday departure, I declared that it was too much and suggested that we take a punnet with us to eat en route into the Netherlands.  So it was that, on midsummer’s day, we found ourselves sitting in the lay-by of a service station in Belgium eating home-grown strawberries whilst watching a flock of sparrows taking dust baths!

Our raspberries have also been very productive.  In fact John was heard to say recently that we may yet be exploring recipes for raspberry jam in future years.  Yet again the scale of the harvest crept up on us, from tentatively picking the first few ripe fruits to suddenly realising that we had several punnet’s worth sitting in the fridge.

The blackbirds have also been enjoying our raspberries and our blueberries for that matter!  My defence of sparkly Christmas wrapping tape tied to branches and supports has not been overly successful in deterring our determined feathered friends.  Raspberries have been plentiful enough for us to feel generous towards the birds but their plundering of our blueberries has been less endearing.  We strongly suspect that they have eaten more than us!

Back in July the cherry plum tree was also laden with fruit which was ripening considerably faster than I was expecting.  I have jam jars clearly labelled with ‘cherry plum jam’ and dated 19th August.  This year’s crop was ready by 19th July!  The very hot spell of weather in June and early July clearly had an effect.  Not only were our cherry plums ripening rapidly but a colleague had apricots coming out of his ears!

One of the most rewarding sights of the harvest, however, has been our mirabelle tree.  We planted our Mirabelle de Nancy about four years ago but it is a tree that has had its challenges.  We fell in love with the mirabelle fruit during holidays to Alsace.  In September we would pass stalls selling brown paper bags full of mirabelle, a fruit that we had never seen on sale in the UK.  Having investigated trees, we finally established the variety, ordered one and planted it with great attention to detail.  However, it has been subject to leaf-curl which causes die-back in the branches, and also to fruit withering before maturity.  As a result, we have had about two mirabelle in total that have ever tasted remotely like what we had hoped for.  This year may well be different.  At lunchtime today, we had four mirabelle with yellow skins beautifully blushed with rosy pink that indicated these were perfectly ripe fruit and they were absolutely delicious!  We’re a long way from having enough to make mirabelle tarts or mirabelle jam but we are definitely heading in the right direction.

Soon it will be time to get the jam pan on the boil again and this time for crab apple jelly.  Our tree, Laura (that’s the variety and not a nick-name), is laden.  The wonderfully dark beetroot coloured fruits appear to be swelling day by day, presumably due to the rather extreme amounts of rain that have descended during August.  Like everything else, it looks like being an early harvest!


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Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble!

The cherry plums are early!  When John said that they were ready last weekend, I didn’t quite believe him.  With a busy weekend ahead of us and no jam sugar in the cupboard, I took a quick glance and suggested that they could wait at least another week.  However, by this weekend a sizeable number were starting to fall off the tree.  It was time to act!

You may not be familiar with cherry plums.  They are small, bigger than a cherry but not as bit as a plum, and very, very sour!  But they do make good, flavourful jam!  Their red, plummy exterior covers a deep orangey / yellow flesh that gives the jam the colour of a good, dramatic sunset.

This morning we timed our pickings well as not long after the rain began to tip it down, making this the perfect afternoon for jam making.  I confess to be a little taken aback by just how many fruit were on the tree!

This is an old large cake box which was full by the time John returned to the kitchen!  I suspect that the very hot, dry weather that we’ve had up till now combined with the fact that the tree has not fruited for the last couple of years due to pruning (plums tend not to fruit well for a year or so after pruning), has led to a bumper year.

This was an awful lot of fruit to halve and stone!  Very quickly it became clear that we were not yet half way through but we already had the requisite 4lbs of fruit recommended by the recipe.  At this point it can be very easy to get carried away.  Let’s go on to 5lbs I said, or more said John.  Then I pointed out that our large stewpot that we make jam in probably wouldn’t take more than 5lbs of fruit!  At least not by the time you’ve allowed for 5lbs of sugar to join it!  At this point the realisation dawned that we were probably going to be doing the same thing again tomorrow afternoon.

Whilst the fruit simmered down, we washed jam jars and heated them in the oven and I acted on the old trick of cooling plates in the fridge to check the setting point.  Ten minutes of what is technically known as the ‘rolling boil’, when usually both you and the fruit get overheated (you must keep stirring at the same time!), and we were ready to dribble it onto the cold plate to see if it was going to set.  This duly wrinkled and so we were ready for the messy and dangerous job of getting a vat full of boiling fruit and sugar safely into its jars.

Cherry plum jam making

We had underestimated!  Further emergency jar washing commenced!  Although this looks like a right hotch-potch of jars, we find it really useful to have different sizes.  Many of our jars of jam are destined for the church pre-Christmas sale and, with an usual flavour such as cherry plum, it’s good to have some small jars that people can purchase as a taster.

So all that remains now is to repeat the whole exercise again tomorrow …!

And please don’t add ‘eye of newt’ to your jam!!

 


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Thinking forward to fruit

The desire to grow fruit seems to have crept up on me unawares.  When we first moved here, we inherited a relatively young, leaning apple tree of unknown variety and a selection of blackberry and common bramble – both wanted and unwanted!  That was it really and for a couple of years nothing changed.

Our 24105214226_23c618e151_zfirst venture towards fruit growing was to plant another apple tree – an Egremont Russet which I gave John one birthday as it’s always been his favourite variety.  For the past couple of years we’ve had a reasonable crop helped, no doubt, by warm summers which enabled them to ripen properly.

At some point we took up an offer in the newspaper of free strawberry runners and planted these up in pots.  They have fruited quite well but the plants are now quite old and, without filling the patio with even more strawberry pots, there’s really no way this is enough to produce a decent sized bowl of fruit.  The desire to grow more strawberries and also to add raspberries was one of the main drivers for revamping our veg plot two years ago.

Our ‘Autumn Bliss’ raspberry canes came in the winter but, as soon as spring sprung, they shot away with bright green shoots.  We erected poles and wire to support them, although not quite the sophisticated set up with tensioners and the like as seen on Gardeners’ World!  Despite all the expert advice, we succumbed in year one and let them fruit – how can anyone possibly resist?  Clearly it did them no harm whatsoever as in year two they not only reached for the skies but also started heading off across the lawn!  Now this we hadn’t really anticipated.  Everyone knows that bramble and blackberry is invasive but no one warns you about over enthusiastic raspberries!  Just slice down the side to stop runners, is the expert advice.  Well we did that but to no avail!  They are determined to rule the world and we now spend considerable effort in removing them from where they are not wanted!

Last year, on the Friday before the May Bank Holiday my new strawberry runners arrived, perfect timing for planting over the weekend.  Strawberry runners are just a mass of root with small signs of shorn back leaves and when they’ve arrived in a jiffy bag in the post, they look distinctly unpromising.  However, I prepared my row as instructed, sprinkled some general fertiliser, spread out the runners and duly planted and watered in.  With the warm sunshine, the following day they already looked settled and I could have sworn were showing more signs of green.  The variety I chose was ‘Albion’ and produces fruits throughout the season from June until October – I have since learnt that this is what is known as an ‘everbearer’.  There are so many varieties available, however, that it’s very hard to know whether you’ve chosen well.  All the reviews suggest that this has excellent flavour but we’re not really convinced – the jury is still out.  However as year 2 approaches, the strawberry plants have bushed out and are absolutely covered in flowers – I cannot wait to find out what happens next!

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Meanwhile, our blueberry collection is growing.  We grow these in pots as they require acid soil so would fare badly if planted in the relatively neutral soil of our garden.  Two of our existing blueberry bushes were selected at random as offers in gardening magazines.  One is a tall striking plant that produces lots of berries but 33662456630_a7abea7134_zalso has striking red foliage in the autumn.  The other is small and compact and has been less reliable on the fruit front.  I have been on the lookout for another of the same variety as the tall one, ‘Chandler’, but it seems quite hard to track down.  Two summers ago I became distracted in a garden centre by a new variety called ‘Sunshine Blue’.  Another compact variety but bred for patio growing, it was absolutely laden with small pinkish flowers.  I just couldn’t resist.  It’s a self-polinating variety and produced a bumper crop before almost succumbing to being waterlogged.  We have now spent a summer nursing it back to health and this spring it has flowers once more so we have our fingers crossed.  However, unable to resist another of those magazine offers, we have three more juvenile blueberries that arrived only a couple of weeks ago and which have now been potted up into small pots as befits their current size.

Autumn holidays in France were responsible for us falling in love with the Mirabelle, that tiny yellow plum that packs a huge punch in terms of flavour.  However, they are not often grown in the UK and it’s possible that we are beginning to discover why.  Our Mirabelle tree, which has just spent its fourth Spring in our garden, flower in late March and produces a tiny delicate white blossom.  The flowers eventually turn into small green berries and from then on in it’s a question of all fingers crossed for a tiny crop of plums.  This is really exciting as it’s so hard to buy these as fruit in the UK.  Occasionally a few boxes appear in M&S for a short period and also in the occasional select greengrocers but to have our own in the garden will be quite an achievement but so far we have had about six and, to be honest, we’ve probably picked them too early to ensure we ate them and not the birds.  That said, keeping the tree alive and healthy is all we currently wish for.  It seems particularly prone to some sort of leaf curl and eventually this causes die-back.  We prune these branches out carefully and hope that they remain disease free.  This spring it looks a little more confident but we just have to wait and see – there are no guarantees in the fruit world.

And talking of guarantees, our cherry plum keeps us guessing year on year.  Often confused with mirabelle, the cherry plum produces small red fruits with deep gold flesh which is very, very sour!  However, they do make excellent  jam – particularly if you like your jam with a bit of ‘zing’!  Three years ago we were inundated with cherry plums and produced pots and pots of jam but we’ve now had two fallow years.  This spring the tree was covered in its delicate white blossom and we can see fruit forming so we have all fingers crossed.

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