Tuesday 30 September 2014


I've been thinking hard about what to put in the space where the raspberries were, down at the allotment.  Raspberries are nice, I love them, but there are lots of pests at the plot and I've a feeling it will be a battle to harvest any before something else eats them.  Plus there are all those suckers popping up everywhere.

So I hit upon a plan.  Apples.  The boys get through mountains of them.  They are fairly low maintenance to grow.  And I have the framework of posts and wires left over from the raspsberries so I can grow them as espaliers.

A friend is sending me a voucher for my birthday, so I've been having a look at all the different varieties there are - currently over five thousand.  Did I ever mention I'm not very good at decisions?

There are ancient varieties such as Court Pendu Plat, which was around in the sixteenth century, if not much earlier, maybe even in Roman times.  It's still available, and it's quite appealing to me to grow the same thing that people were eating five hundred years ago.

In the garden I have a Ribston Pippin, which was first recorded in 1707.  It's absolutely delicious, although the crops aren't particularly heavy and I've heard it's prone to canker.

I've also got an Egremont Russet, another really delicious apple, this time from the Victorian era.  This year the fruits were vast, although again, there weren't too many of them.

At the allotment I've got a tiny Cox's Orange Pippin tree.  It's often considered to be the gold standard as far as flavour is concerned, but it's quite troublesome to grow.

The last apple I have is a young Worcester Pearmain, like the Cox, an apple from the eighteen hundreds.  The biggest boy ate all the fruit this year and said it was the best of all of them.  It has its problems as well though, being prone to disease and also being a tip bearer - it's hard to prune as the fruit only forms at the ends of the branches.  It doesn't store well either.

As well as these lovely older varieties, breeders are constantly creating new apples, and while I love the idea of apples with history, I know that there are many benefits to the new ones.

In the end I drew up a list.  In a notebook.  You know what I'm like.  A few points to consider when choosing two little trees from the five thousand available.  Or at least, from the one or two hundred that are easy to source.

1.  Flavour and texture

A home grown apple has to taste amazing.  This was top of my list of things to consider, although it's fairly subjective unless you go to an apple day where you can actually taste lots of different types.  But nurseries include descriptions, so you can get a vague idea of what it might be like.  Textures also vary.  I prefer a crisp and juicy apple.  Some are drier and still delicious, and some have softer flesh.

2.  Heavy cropper

We eat lots of apples.  It would be nice to have trees that regularly have good sized harvests.  Ashmead's Kernel was at the top of my list for a long time until I discovered that the crops are only light.

3.  Disease resistance

Especially important if you don't like to use chemicals, which I don't.

4.  Fruit size

I don't want anything too small.  I was completely sold on a Pitmaston Pine Apple from the 1700s, until I read that the apples were sometimes no bigger than crab apples.

5.  Storing

If the crops are heavy, then the apple needs to store for a while.  Probably not months and months, but for a few weeks at least.  And some apples such as Tydeman's Late Orange, which was also high up on my list, need to be stored for a while before they can be eaten if you want them at their best.

6.  Pollination

Apple trees blossom at different times, and to ensure your flowers are fertilised it's best to pick two trees from the same pollination group.  To make it even more complicated, some need two pollinators, so you need three trees to make an apple.

7.  Rootstock

The size of the rootstock determines the size and vigour of the tree and the size of the harvest.  An espalier needs one of the larger rootstocks, MM106.  There are six rootstocks commonly used, from M27 which is for very dwarf trees, to M25 which will give a vast tree of 6-9m tall.

8.  Harvest time

Apples ripen from late July until October depending on variety.  It doesn't really bother me when they are ready, but it's something to consider if you have lots of other apples ripening at a particular time.  Later apples come from later blossom, so if you live in a colder area, you might avoid frost damage to the blooms if you choose a later flowering variety.

9.  Cooker or dessert

Cooking apples often turn to a frothy purée when cooked.  Dessert apples don't.  Even for cooking, I often prefer dessert apples.

10.  AGM

The Royal Horticultural Society gives Awards of Garden Merit to plants they consider to be outstandingly excellent.  They look at things like susceptibility to disease, so all in all it's an indicator of a pretty good variety.

Once I had my list I looked through my gardening books and at a few online nurseries.  I quite like the way this one was set out.  I'm not being paid to say that, I just thought I'd mention it as I found it quite easy to compare the various varieties.

I was very tempted by many of the old apples, ones that have been grown for hundreds of years.  I like to imagine what it was like way back then, when apples were a precious harvest and a real treat.  But on the other hand, a modern variety, with higher yields and higher disease resistance makes sense.  Head or heart?  Heart or head?  It's usually always heart with me, and I did write down the three varieties I mentioned above, Ashmead's Kernel, Pitmaston Pine Apple and Tydeman's Late Orange.  Then I crossed them out and wrote down Sunset and Christmas Pippin.  New apples with all the advantages an apple can have.  We shall see.  If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

While I'm passing, and wittering on endlessly about apples, I would just like to have a word about Pink Ladies.  Pink Lady is not an apple variety, it's a commercial brand owned by Apple and Pear Australia.  UK farmers are not allowed to grow it, and yet our supermarkets are full of it.  Each and every apple shipped here from far away, each and every apple pushing the market share away from our fantastic British orchards.  The marketing behind Pink Lady is phenomenal.  It has a logo, a slogan, a club and an all singing all dancing website with a blog and a whole section aimed at children.  The apple itself, in its plastic wrapper, with its countless food miles, is available all year round.  Don't buy it.  Please.

This is Britain.  We do apples too.  And we do them pretty well.

Saturday 27 September 2014

Stand well back, I'm making jam

Last week still felt like summer quite a bit, despite the date.  I worked hard outside and quite a few times I was hot, even in a t-shirt.  I've brought the squashes home to store.  There aren't many, but they'll last us a while.

The boys are all about the conkers at the moment.

It amazes me how long the simple things entertain them for.  Of course it all turns a bit lively in the end, but the first half hour or so is delightful.  We picked these up at the park, after another bike ride along the local country roads.  It really is wonderful out there at the moment.

Now that there's no football training on Saturday morning I've designated it as homework time.  I'm hoping they get into the routine of this; so far it's been a struggle.  Today the littlest boy enjoyed copying out a poem though, which made me happy.  I like to just sit and handwrite things for the sake of it too.  He concentrated hard and did his very best writing.  The Owl and the Pussy Cat.

He did a bit of cooking this week as well - tortillas with huevos rancheros.  The tortillas were quite thick, but nobody minded.

Me and the biggest boy went to the open day at the local secondary school on Thursday.  It was big and scary and tremendously exciting.  So many opportunities and so much to learn and explore.  We were shown round by two sixth formers, who were SO impressive - polite, friendly, well spoken and really enthusiastic about the school.  One of them told us that he would happily do it all again tomorrow.  No higher praise I think.

I went to the allotment every day last week.  What can I say, I'm feeling it.  and I know enough to know that I should roll with it while the enthusiasm lasts.  The weather helps, it's nice and dry there, perfect for getting stuck in.  I dug out the raspberry canes which haven't done much since I've had the plot.  I thought they were supposed to be shallow rooted, but there were one-inch thick roots going down at least two feet.  I ended up pulling them with all my might and then doing that cartoon thing where they suddenly give way and you fly backwards and end up sat down in the middle of the neighbouring plot.  They're mostly out, but I've a feeling they'll be back.

I've even got allotment reading.  Two books from the library and a book about the history of allotments from a thoughtful bloggy friend.

I suppose you want to hear about the jam making.  The smoke has almost cleared now, so I'm just about able to speak about it.

You will recall the grapes from the next door neighbour's vine, trailing tantalisingly all over our side of the fence.  One or two of them had just started to shrivel, so I decided that he didn't want them and so I should help myself.  The more I think about this, the more I think it is probably a cautionary tale about The Girl Who Took Someone Else's Grapes.  But they do look good don't they.

I washed them nicely, several times, to dislodge any passing wildlife.  Then I simmered them gently until they broke down and released their juice.  Next came the straining.  You may recall that the last two times I strained things it didn't go entirely to plan.  This time I was SO careful.  A huge bowl, painstaking transfer of grapes and juice to the muslin-lined colander.  Not a drop was spilt.  Not a drop.  Oh how fantastic I thought I was.

I left the juice until this evening.  The boys were getting ready for bed.  I put the jelly in the saucepan and turned on the heat.  This was my first mistake.  Doing anything at all during the getting ready for bed period is utter madness.  I warmed the sugar and added it to the hot juice and brought it slowly to the boil.  Then I turned it up to a rolling boil.  And then, and I cannot say what possessed me, I left the kitchen and went upstairs to read to the smaller boys.  Actually this is very typical of me, trying to do too many things too quickly all together.  I warned them I would only be able to read for a short while.  It was "My Side Of The Mountain".  Quite absorbing.  I got lost in the story of Sam Gribley, living wild in the Catskill Mountains.  All too soon there was a sudden strong smell of jam.  Following by a sudden strong smell of smoke.  Sigh.

A huge amount had boiled over the edge and was burning nicely on the hob.  I don't have a picture.  We really don't need to see smoke billowing out of my kitchen do we?  Plus I thought it might be pushing my luck to go and get the camera as my first course of action.  The pan was a hideous mess of burned jam.  The hob was a hideous mess of blackened charred jam.  Other Half peered through the door, sighed and opened the front door to let the smoke out.  He's used to the burnt stuff drill.  The boys were of course utterly thrilled, they love this kind of thing.  It's a bit of science for them.  What happens if you heat sugar until it pretty much explodes, and you then spread it all over something that's about five hundred degrees in heat?  Now we all know.

It's mostly cleaned up now, although I smell quite distinctly of burnt sugar.  I'm not quite sure why, I didn't get it on myself, but I do.  There are three jars of grape jelly.  It did not reach setting point, so we'll be pouring it onto things, but I didn't think I should try to attain setting point when there was a risk of everything bursting into flames.  I'm wondering if this was some kind of cosmic karma for taking the grapes.  Or if it's just me again, doing what I do best.

Thursday 25 September 2014

The Colour Collaborative: September: Stitched

There is great comfort in stitching I think.  Both in the act of stitching, slowly, one at a time, creating something unique and meaningful for yourself and your family, and also in the appreciation of hand stitched items.

I visited the American Museum near Bath recently, somewhere known for their beautiful old quilts.

There is something very reassuring about these vintage pieces.  Generations ago, women sat and slowly stitched these quilts to keep their families warm and to decorate their homes.  And here I am, decades, in some cases even hundreds of years later, doing exactly the same thing.  In these times of uncertainty and austerity it helps me more than I can say to connect with the past like this.  It makes me think that somehow everything will be alright after all.  The same troubles and dramas of my life today have been played out long ago by these women who went before, they would understand, they would sympathise, and no doubt they would tell me that in the end all will be well.  The same rhythms of the seasons and of our lives, repeated over and over, on and on, despite the bumps in the road.

In the central atrium of the museum there are several quilts hung from the cupola.  They have so many quilts at the museum that not all of them can be displayed at any one time.  There's a room full of them too, but the light is kept so low to protect the ancient fabrics that photography is difficult.

But this is a post about colour, and when I think about stitches and colour, one name comes to mind.  After all of those muted tones, brace yourselves.

Also at the American Museum right now is an exhibition of Kaffe Fassett's work.  Originally from California, Kaffe has lived in Britain since 1964.  He is the king of colour when it comes to knitting, sewing and quilting.

The exhibition is full of pieces from his long career.  Very different to the old quilts in the main house at the museum, but redolent of their period and telling their own story.

Kaffe's message to the world is, don't be afraid of colour.  I must admit I am a little hesitant when it comes to vibrant colour, but after seeing this exhibition it is hard not to fall a little in love with all the reds and purples and greens and blues.  There is nothing hesitant here, this is colour done with complete assuredness.

I loved the way Kaffe uses colour to capture and direct the light.  This quilt looked as though the sun was shining into its centre

It's not a great photo, but the intensity of colour in this knitted shawl was incredible.  Every shade of red and pink pushed close together like little houses on a mediterranean hillside.  And the knitting was perfection.  I wanted to run through the woods wearing it.

As well as knitting and quilting there are plenty of tapestry pieces, each painstakingly hand stitched.  This shell piece is a good size, maybe three feet wide by four foot deep.

The tapestries are mostly pictures rather than abstract patterns, and they often feature flowers and scenery.  Another big piece (five feet maybe), with beautifully rendered leaves, drooping slightly below the flower spikes.  The shades of green are worked perfectly together to paint such realistic hollyhocks.  It's hard to remember that these vast canvases are made up of thousands of tiny stitches.

I really liked this chair, covered in crazy patchwork effect tapestry, with little flowers, birds and vegetables in each of the crazy pieces.  I loved the pot of knitting needles as well.  They made we want to sit and knit awhile.  They always have that effect on me.  It makes me think I should fill a pot with them and put them on my windowsill instead of flowers.  Maybe with a little basket of yarn next to them.  Who knows what inspiration might be sparked.

My favourite bit of the exhibition?  It had to be this bench, with the vegetable cushions and cabbages in pots either side and that beautiful yellow-green wall behind it.  Fantastic.

The overall effect of the exhibition was dazzling.  When do our senses ever have the opportunity to process this much colour all at once?  It was incredible.  What wonderful things the human brain is capable of.  And how unique each of our expressions are.   It was impossible to leave without absorbing something very positive from what I'd seen.  Does colour affect mood?  After spending time with these pieces I'm certain it does.  I felt invigorated, energised, inspired.  They are not colours I routinely live with, but it made me wonder, maybe I should.

To visit the other Colour Collaborative blogs for more of this month's posts just click on the links below:

           Annie at Annie Cholewa                                    Gillian at Tales from a Happy House

           Sandra at Cherry Heart                                       Jennifer at Thistlebear       

What is The Colour Collaborative?

All creative bloggers make stuff, gather stuff, shape stuff, and share stuff. Mostly they work on their 
own, but what happens when a group of them work together? Is a creative collaboration greater than the sum of its parts? We think so and we hope you will too. We'll each be offering our own monthly take on a colour related theme, and hoping that in combination our ideas will encourage us, and perhaps you, to think about colour in new ways.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

The September plot

I've been a whirlwind of activity at the allotment this week.  I want to do a better job of tidying up this year while the weather is so glorious.  Last year I was only partway through when it started raining and didn't stop until spring.

I started with the strawberries.  I grew them through weedproof membrane this year which cut down no end on the weeds, I can't recommend it highly enough.  But as well as the old foliage there were dozens of little plantlets rambling everywhere and trying to root through the fabric.  I cut everything off.  It seems drastic but it gets lets light and air into the centre of the plant, and it means there aren't any rotting leaves under the new growth next year.  This should cut down on the risk of fungal infections and hopefully slugs.

I'd potted up a few of the runners a couple of weeks before, and I took those home to plant out in one of the raised beds there.  I'm slightly concerned that the fruit at the plot will be taken by birds, slugs etc. so growing some at home is the backup plan.  And you can never have too many strawberries.

Afterwards it looked satisfyingly neat.  Almost nothing on my plot ever looks neat, so this was a very exciting moment for me.

I had a big pile of sticks and other woody stuff to be burned.  I wasn't sure it would be dry enough, but as it happened it turned into a blazing inferno.  Guess it was dry enough after all.  It was a while before I dared to leave it to get my camera.

Today I started on the area of doom behind the shed.  Check out the eight foot nettle above the roof.

The previous plotholder used to grow rhubarb here, and he had a couple of nice neat little compost bins.  They don't seem to be nearly big enough for my needs, so I brought two old ones I had from home.  I ripped out the nettles, levelled the ground (after a fashion) and put one of them up.

I used the top of it to mark out where the second one will go.  At the moment the second one is stuck deep in the dark dangerous recesses of the garage.  It won't be an easy retrieval.  I'm debating whether I'll do it tomorrow.  I think I need to press on while I still have a bit of forward momentum.  Wish me luck.

Around the plot there's not much to pick now.  Mostly courgettes,with the odd cucumber, some squashes, blackberries and the last of the tomatoes.

This is my favourite kind of courgette, tromboncino.  It's a climbing plant, although mine decided it would rather romp around on the ground this year.  It curves nicely with a bulbous bit on the end.  The skin is thin and delicate, and by the time a small boy has carried it up to the top of the allotment site using it alternatively as a telephone and a gun it will tend to look a bit on the battered side.  You won't find it in the supermarket for that reason.  But the flesh is dense and crisp and I find it always fruits really well.

Something of great excitement to me (bear in mind I don't get out much) is the sight of tiny little sproutlets on my sprout plants.  I've never grown them before, but I found several unwanted plants in the "Free Stuff" area a while back, and remembering my motto (If It's Free It's For Me) I snaffled them.  The caterpillars are eating the main leaves, but I'm hoping enough will survive to support the sprouts.

There are still a few flowers left, sunflowers and the odd rose.  The sunflowers have been lovely this year, I nearly picked a bunch today but I couldn't bring myself to cut them.  Plus I have a horror of earwigs dropping out when I least expect it.

I'm hoping to happen upon a pile of free bricks to make a small area to stand things on behind the shed, as well as to make a path across the plot (where the red wheelbarrow is in the picture above).  (A number of the site's wheelbarrows were painted red for the town carnival, so that plotholders could walk in formation as the Red Barrows.)  In the meantime I shall continue the battle with the area of doom and maybe even do some weeding.  It would be nice to have things a little bit together before the end of the season.