gardening

Gardening Update: Some You Win, Some You Lose

As harvesting continues and the growing season in the vegetable and fruit garden winds down, it’s time for reflection and a gardening update on the year.
The foliage from the potatoes has been completely cleared now and the tatties are resting in the ground for a couple of weeks until the threat of contamination from the blight has passed. Only then will we know if the potatoes themselves have escaped unscathed.
Meanwhile, the first blight showed on the tomatoes yesterday and this morning I finished removing all the foliage from the plants. This won’t halt the progress of the blight, but might slow it enough to give the fruit a chance to ripen. As it is, this year’s crop has been poor – a combo of indifferent weather and my lack of attention due to The Broken Leg. Still, what there are might make a few jars of green chutney.
The squash have done remarkably well given the conditions, and the courgettes have fruited better this year than last.
Blight has been a theme for the last three years. I can’t do anything about it with the potatoes outdoors, but I am going to try some tomatoes in the greenhouse next year along with garlic, which consistently fails or is rusted outside. I’ve also noticed that the stray tomato plant growing tucked away in another part of the garden has yet to feel the fingers of blight, so that is worth keeping in mind for next year.
In other garden news, the magnificent crop of plums has been discovered by squirrels. Millie and Thegn guard the tree when they can, but it’s a thankless task. Last year wasn’t such a problem, but perhaps that is because the pesky creatures were busy stripping the walnut tree instead. We have a device usually used to deter herons from the pond – a motion-sensor spray attached to a hose – which we are considering giving a go in the orchard. It will need a very long hose, but if it works, is something we can deploy for other fruit trees.
The onions have been curing and are almost ready for stringing. We still have three from last year so are delighted that we can grow enough to keep us in onions from harvest to harvest. Like many gardeners, some you win, some you don’t. That’s the nature of the ever changing game.

A Blight On All Their Houses – Spotting Potato Blight

I spotted the first signs of blight on the potatoes today. Not many leaves, so it was a matter of cutting off affected foliage and burning it. But it will be back. When a third of the leaves show the tell-tale brown splotches followed by the rapid collapse of the plant, I’ll remove all the leaves and stalks because there is nothing to be done to halt the spread once it starts and I won’t use chemical sprays. The dying leaves have done their job of growing the spuds and will serve no purpose other than to harbour the problem. Better to get rid of the foliage sooner rather than later in the hope that the tomatoes on the other side of the garden escape infection.

 

There are two schools of thought about harvesting potatoes from a blighted patch: dig them up immediately or leave them in the ground for at least two weeks to protect them from spores. I’m inclined to the latter – except, you might recall – we have a problem with wireworm, and leaving the tatties in the ground is asking for trouble. Still, the blight was late this year and I’m trusting the crop will have benefitted from the few extra weeks in the ground and the copious amount of rain we’ve had over the last month. Time, as they say, will tell.

Growing for Gold: the Enduring Appeal of Saffron

‘Saffron Walden’ – a name forrmalised by Henry VIII in a charter granted in 1514.

It’s one of those things people seem to know about the past  (like Henry VIII had six wives and that spices were used to disguise rotten meat – more on that later): saffron, they say, was worth its weight in gold. It was so valuable that they even renamed a village – Saffron Walden – after it. However, two of those three statements are incorrect. In growing for gold, what is the enduring appeal of saffron from antiquity to the modern era? But first a recap on the fate of my own modest project.

Saffron corms ready to split and replant.

Having enriched the soil first, I replanted the saffron in the original position. I’ve selected the fattest corms for this bed and will nurture the smaller ones into productivity elsewhere. It’s not a crop for the impatient: I might get a few flowers later this year, but the corms will not produce their best for at least another year after that. 

Trial and error, dearth and glut is precisely what our Medieval forebears would have encountered as they attempted to establish new crops on a commercial scale. Too little rain, too much, low temperatures, mice – all affected productivity as much as they do now. With the initial outlay on corms and limited harvests in the first year, saffron was a risky business. Labour-intensive husbandry – both to keep the fields weed free and in the delicate, time-critical harvesting of the fragile stigma – raised costs even further. But the potential rewards were great.

Wild Saffron fields in Gran Sasso National Park

Recorded in antiquity in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Crete, as well as in Persia and Alexander’s Greece, saffron had a global appeal. It was used variably as a dye for cloth, a pigment in art works, and for a wide range of medical conditions including a cure for headaches and heart problems and a salve for wounds. It was thought to have mood-altering qualities and indeed can produce a sense of euphoria due to its compounds (safranal and crocin might have an anti-depressant effect by maintaining the balance of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin (Hosseinzadeh et al., 2004)). Studies in humans show there can be a benefit to patients with anxiety and depression, so perhaps it is then not surprising that it was also an ingredient in some forms of incense and used in both civic and religious ceremony. 

In cuisine, we think of saffron as a flavouring and colourant in dishes requiring an exotic touch. English cookery books from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth-century show an extensive use of saffron despite its exorbitant cost, appearing in almost a half of the recipes in the compilation from Harleian MSS. 279 & 4016, Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books (Thomas Austin) (1430 – 1450) and over a third in Forme of Cury (c1390). Demand remained high with production in England peaking in the Sixteenth-century, before a slow decline and the eventual cessation of production in England altogether.

Crocus sativus – the saffron crocus

It takes upwards of 150 flowers (roughly 450 stigma) to produce one gram of saffron. I won’t be growing enough saffron to sell, but the few delicate strands added flavour to the Medieval dishes I’ve tried (see below).  

Saffron is now grown in other regions, including in Iran and Afghanistan, Greece and France and remains as valuable today as it was in the later Medieval and Early Modern periods. Its high value perhaps accounting more for its  intoxicating appeal than its slightly bitter flavour and hay-like aroma, saffron nonetheless offers a link to the past and a tantalising glimpse of its potential for the future.

 

And the odd ones out of the three statements I mentioned at the beginning of this blog?

  1. Henry VIII did indeed have six wives.
  2. Saffron was worth far more than its weight in gold.
  3. Spices were not – I repeat not – used to disguise rotten meat. But more on that in a future blog

This is basically rice pudding. I tried it because it uses almond milk and is therefore suitable for those with a dairy or lactose intolerance. I added saffron, which turned the  pudding a glorious golden yellow and imparted a subtle flavour.

Rys. Take a porcyoun of rys, & pyke hem clene, & sethe hem welle, & late hem kele; þen take gode mylke of almaundys & do þer-to, & seþe & stere hem wyl; & do þer-to sugre and hony, & serue forth.

Take a portion of rice, and pick it clean, and boil it well, and let it cool; then take good milk of almonds and thereto, and boil and stir it well; and do thereto sugar and honey, and serve forth. 

 

Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books  (Thomas Austin, comp.)

 

Of Compost & Writing

 

Between writing one chapter and the next I usually do something completely unrelated. At this time of year and on dry days it will be a gardening task. Over the last few months I’ve been tidying winter’s detritus from around the kitchen garden, scooping up leaves and worms and putting them in a safe heap to get on with making lovely, friable compost.

Meanwhile, I’ll be plotting the planting of the vegetables while planting the plots for the next chapter. Both require gentle handling and time to compost, although the outcomes are completely different.

Spudlicious: A new way to grow potatoes reviewed

I’ve waited all summer for this. Since it is a fine, breezy day I risked taking a look at the potato crop. After last year’s disaster, where we lost 2/3 of the harvest to eelworm, blight and scab, I changed tack. Instead of digging deep trenches, I planted shallower, covering the Maris Piper spuds with about four inches of soil. As the foliage came through, I earthed up using a mineralized straw (Strulch produces it https://www.strulch.co.uk). It was a bit of a risk as we had an exceptionally dry summer and spuds like a good amount of rain. Still, today was the day that I found out whether the ruse to defeat the evil worm worked.

The result? Numerous smaller potatoes, even-skinned, dry, despite yesterday’s deluge, and almost free of scab. Best of all, despite a hearty spud having been nibbled – possibly by a mouse – there has, so far, been no sign of eelworm or slugs. I expected smaller spuds, but we have also had some decent sized ones that are perfect for baking. The thick layer of Strulch kept the soil evenly moist, protected the soil from the heavy rain in spring and the deprivations of the dryest weather (we did water at this time). It acted as a superb mulch, kept weeds and pests down and, to top it all, will be dug into the bed as a soil improver once the rest of the spuds have been lifted. All in all, I’d say it’s been a success and I’ll be using the same approach again next year.

On Weeding and Writing: Creative Gardening Writes Novels

Can creative gardening write novels? I think it can. It’s that post-Christmas period when the morning sun reveals the dust on the shelves and the first snowdrops and winter aconites wink under the hedges. I ache to get out into the garden and continue the jobs left undone at the close of autumn.

 

With Thegn’s help I’ve been concentrating on clearing ivy in the spring garden. Seedlings of ash and sycamore have over-wintered there as well, and their bare stems defy attempts to dislodge them. Where I win the battle, I push crocus bulbs and snowdrops into the loosened soil, and plant wild primroses and spotted pulmonaria (lungwort) under the shelter of the trees. They look sad at the moment but, given gentle rain and warm sun in equal measure, will soon rally, providing nectar for emerging bees.

Such repetitive work gives me plenty of time to think about writing. Often, gardening is when the best ideas filter into my consciousness, bud, and blossom. Over subsequent weeks as the garden develops, I weed out the blind bulbs of ideas that lead nowhere, the weak seedlings that undermine the plot. I feed and tend the stronger saplings whose branches will bear the most fruit and the best storylines. In my garden, I flesh out my characters and prune those that get ahead of themselves. Even the very act of tending the soil gives ideas for the future. While Emma D’Eresby in The Secret of the Journal series hates gardening (because her father loves it), Isobel Fenton in The Tarnished Crown series lives for it. For her, the garden is a place of refuge in a land of turmoil where she, and she alone, is mistress.

Perhaps that’s also one of the reasons I like to garden. Here, I have the time, the space, and the freedom to create. From a simple patch of bare ground I can make a world of my own, whether in my head or on my knees, in the certain knowledge that hard graft now, will bear fruit later.