Thursday 31 July 2008

Some Greens less Ordinary

Cardoon flower

Although they look a lot like artichokes, Cardoons; Cynara cardunculus, are grown for their leaf stalks which are tied up and blanched, a bit like celery, for use as a cooked vegetable. I've never actually done this, although we have been growing cardoons for several years since we inherited a patch on our allotment in Newport Pagnell. I've seen large fields of them in preparation for the markets on the east coast of Spain around Valencia but they are an unusual vegetable for UK and as far as I can tell for Northern France.

The plants are perennial and can be propagated from slips or offsets which form around the parent plant. It's also possible to start from seed but we've found it easy to keep ours going by regular vegetative reproduction. They seem slightly hardier than artichokes and since we haven't been worrying about eating them, just enjoying their statuesque architecture and thistly flowers our patch is rather cruelly treated. It keeps going.


We first grew the annual chenopod, Magentaspreen; Chenopodium giganteum, as a novelty five or more years ago. It's been with us ever since. I was shocked to discover two months after we first came over here that there were seedlings of it growing in the gravel of the yard. Seeds which must have fallen out of pots that I thought had been cleaned up for the journey. It's a survivor!

Although I wonder the appropriateness about introducing another prolific alien into the environment it is barely more than funny Fat Hen and can be used as green vegetable (but take it young). It will grow taller than a person so hoick it out pronto if it's in the wrong place, its vigour will weaken all around it.

Golden Purslane

Purslane; Portulaca oleracea, is one of my all time favourite vegetables used most often in salads but also in cooked dishes. It has a fleshy texture and a slightly sharp taste which holds up well under dressings.

The one in the picture is described as Golden and this is often suggested to be best flavoured but it seems little different to the green version we've grown before. Once you have it, again it will stay. The plant looks a little weedy because I left it too late to get seed for this year and was seduced into buying an expensive pack of plants at the HDRA at Ryton when we were there last. I will save a little seed but I expect to find seedlings happily popping up all by themselves next year as soon as the weather warms up.


Which brings us finally to Scuplit. Way back when I was looking for large bean seeds I found seeds for this plant, which seemed entirely new to me on the Seeds of Italy site. It's actually Bladder Campion; Silene inflata (or vulgaris), a native (or possibly naturalised) plant of most of Europe including the UK but it seems it's only used as a herb in Italy.

I have to say it's a bit backward in coming forward on flavour. Seeds of Italy suggested it was somewhere between Tarragon and Rocket, I'd say grass might be closer. It doesn't like being photographed much either, you can't really see the bladder heads of the flowers in this shot.

Maybe it will grow on me, Good King Henry did when I gave it a chance but at the moment it seems more like an addition to the wild flower meadow than a useful vegetable.

cardoons by night
Cardoons by Night

Wednesday 30 July 2008

Allium Harvest


It's the time of year to lift the onions, garlic and shallots. These onions were the first to mature, grown from some inadvertently created sets when I started seed in the spring of last year and failed to plant out the resulting seedlings. They stayed in their modules for a year, baked in the sun of the greenhouse and were finally planted out this year. They've put on good sizes but the first one I tried had a brown skin halfway through the bulb. Experience shows that onions like that rarely store well.

The rest of the onions, started from French sets at the usual time are nearly as big and will be coming out to dry in a week or so, but the red onions, started from seed this year are pretty insignificant. A couple of jars of pickles perhaps.


The early planted garlic; left just a week or two too late and the sheaths are rotted and blackened. The garlic is fine though and the bulbs (and the cloves in them) good sized. The late planted garlic is much smaller as well as being riddled with rust. The early crop came from culinary garlic originating in Spain, the late crop from proper 'seed' garlic from the garden centre. If the difference in size due to growing periods is disregarded I think I know which method to choose next year. The Spanish actually seems much healthier.


The shallots also came from the same garden centre. To be fair they were almost too late to be planted so any crop at all is surprising but it must be said they are a bit weedy. Normally I would save the biggest bulbs for planting next year but none of these seem worth it.

Also, the chives are putting on a second spurt of growth after I rescued them from the mint and the Babington leeks are making their usual bulbfilled flower heads with abandon. I really need a bunch of leek seedlings from the market but may not be able to persuade myself to make the trip to town in time. Those deer are overfed as it is.

Tuesday 29 July 2008

New Blog

In order to put more pressure on myself to get on with my painting I've created a tumblr blog where I hope to update at least five times a week with new images of the work I'm doing.

The Saatchi thing just wasn't right, not least because their site is such pooh. This way I have more control over the way things are displayed and visitors won't be bombarded by a mass of incomprehensible advertising and broken links.

Eventually I hope to be able to actually sell some of this stuff but for the moment I'd just be happy to get people looking at it!

paintings of the catofstripes

Monday 28 July 2008

Stormy Weather

We've had a hazardous weather warning for this area, thunderstorms are expected and as I type the wind is whipping up excitedly, the sky is grey and the temperatures have dropped not one degree since this morning.

Time to batten down the hatches I think.

Sunday 27 July 2008


We've been back a few days now but little progress has been made on recovering the vegetable patches from overgrowth and weeds.

Return to the veg patch

I have done a couple of hours weeding and this evening I got out the lawnmower to start the long process of catching up on lawns that have been untouched for nearly six weeks. Luckily in some respects it's clearly been exceedingly dry for much of the time and the grass is in no way as long as it might have been if left for that period earlier in the year but it's still enough to stop the mower in its tracks on a regular basis.

We harvested the garlic. The plants from last December had been left too long, the stems and outer sheaths have decayed away and there is nothing left to string them with, even the bulbs are splitting into individual cloves. The spring planted row has got terrible rust and the bulbs are small. We may be able to string them using the dried foliage but will we run the risk of carrying rust spores over into another season?

As I speak, there is very little sign of blight on the potatoes or tomatoes. I think I will spray the toms tomorrow morning, early, as rain is expected later in the day which may bring blight spores over from the Channel Islands. The potatoes are now ready to harvest so I won't spray those but cut back many of the haulms on the finished varieties and keep my fingers crossed for the lates, Pink Fir Apple and Highland Burgundy Red. I plan to lift everything in the next couple of weeks anyway.

The dog is still with us. Her final chance will come tomorrow when I take her to the vet to see if she has been chipped, and if so whether her owners can be located. If not, I will have to take her to whichever refuge will have her. At this time of year they are all over full already from the callousness of owners anxious to take their holidays without the cost of kennels. Anxiety over this has already ruined the few days Paul and I were hoping to spend together here before he goes abroad on business, so wherever those bastards are, I hope a speedboat removes their arms and the genitals of their children.

Saturday 26 July 2008

A shameless plug


My boy, not pictured here; this is some of the talent, has been organising some events showcasing new comedy acts in London. The next show is on the 6th August in Wandsworth, London, UK and you can read more about it here. Worth a trip if you're in the area.

Friday 25 July 2008


lost dog
We have a problem.

So we arrived home - and we did stop along the way briefly, at Deauville for a coffee, not much in the scale of doing tourism but a great step forward for us - and everything here was pretty good, if swamped with weeds. The worst casualty was the sweetcorn, tops nipped off as if by deer. No surprises then.

A light lunch and we decided to take a siesta (only three hours sleep the previous night) but before we could get comfortably snuggled down there was a tremendous crashing sound at the door and I rushed downstairs to find the watering can overturned, water everywhere and a large dog in attendance.

She is terribly friendly and somewhat overweight so it seems hard to believe she has been abandoned. On the other hand this is only too common in the holiday season. I've asked around my local friends and at the Mairie, no one is reporting a dog missing. I've put a notice in the window of the EPI but without much hope.

She has a flea collar but no tags, no obvious tattoo and we'll have to take her to the vet to have her checked for an ID chip. It looks like she's been hanging around for a few days, the rubbish had been torn open and I think it was probably her that had the sweetcorn, I've heard of dogs and foxes getting quite a taste for it.

I really really hoped she would head off home overnight but she's still with us, still touchingly playful and attentive, very well behaved and totally unwanted. She will have to go a refuge, we cannot take her on. I'm hoping we can find a way to get her home or moved on before she gets too comfortable here.

Thursday 24 July 2008


I'm hoping that by the time this is posted we'll be back at the farm.

A short break in the UK is about to end and the worst bit about it is the travelling. Although it's possible to get from door to door in less than seven hours with a following wind and clear traffic on the UK side (French roads are rarely congested except in August) it is usually a much longer slog than that.

This time we're doing it in two stages, stopping along the way for a very quick visit to a relative before heading off unfeasibly early to the Chunnel to catch the train to France.

After that it's a long drive from Boulogne back to the forest. Usually we have the cat with us - it's going to be so odd without him - but this time we're free to explore and stop along the way if we so desire.

I'm not sure this will actually happen, we once did Californian wine country, 12 hours in the car and we didn't stop once. The next destination always seemed more important than the one we were passing. On our journey this time I'm sure the need to get back home and find out how things are will override any desires to do the tourist thing.

And my usual uncomfortable anticipation of travelling is setting in. Oh dear. Must go and pack.

Sunday 20 July 2008

Opium for the People

block heads

Time to come out of hiding, probably.

We've been choosing the seed for the late sowings. These will, with luck, come into cropping in September and carry us through to late autumn. It worked well last year but like all gardening is a bit of a gamble on the weather - it needs to be warm for quick growth but not so hot that drought kills the fragile newly germinated seedlings. And tempestuous summer storms aren't too great either.

I've chosen beetroot Forono for this sowing. It is a long rooted variety, you can get plenty of slices from it and it grows quickly and strongly. One of my favourites.

Some Chinese Kailaan is a new brassica to us but should suit the season. It's a sort of flowering broccoli and can be repeat cropped. We'll also buy a pack of winter cabbage seedlings as I've left it a bit late to start these from seeds for cropping next January and February.

Another Oriental vegetable is Mustard Spinach, Komatsuna, another form of brassica grown for its thick leaves which can be used in stir fries and soups or salads.

We found some burdock seeds. I love burdock but we've grown it before and it needs really deep soil. I'm not sure we've got anywhere on the farm that's fertile or deep enough for a good crop but we're going to try anyway.

Winter radishes are excellent and quick growing and this year I'll try even harder to keep them properly thinned so that they make big roots and don't bolt to seed.

More salad radishes, repeat sowings of coriander and rocket, lamb's lettuce, early maturing carrots will all contribute to a fine late harvest to which I hope we will be able to add lots of oca and ulluco.

Saturday 5 July 2008


Next year, we'll have a tractor like this.

The hay is made in various shapes of bale, this year M. Vincent has made two sorts, the very large oblong bales here (there are two on the forks) and some rolls about a month ago. I think he must have to use what equipment he can borrow.

If we can, we'll get a small baler. It can be powered by a smaller tractor, the bales will be easier to manhandle on the field and I think they will sell more easily to the amateur horsey set too.

Sorry I've not been posting much. I'm trying to put together an obit for the Bad Black Cat and I can't find the photos and it's all too sad. His kidneys failed and we had him put down on the 28th June. We're missing him.

Wednesday 2 July 2008

Potato Picking

We had a bit of a shock at the end of June; some of the potatoes were showing signs of what appeared to be blight, despite having had two preventative sprayings with Bordeaux mixture and relatively dry calm weather for a couple of weeks.

Most worryingly it was just one variety of potato that seemed to be affected initially, not just one plant but most of the row equally. It looks as if the infection came in on the tubers and not the wind. Unfortunately, once blight has arrived there's little that can be done to stop it spreading.

We've taken up the variety where the problem started and given another spraying across the whole plot to try to control things for a week or two longer. Then I think we'll have to remove the foliage and allow the tubers to harden underground for a couple of weeks before an early harvest. If the weather stays dry we should still get an adequate crop although the Pink Fir Apple, a very late maturer and prone to blight, may not have time to make much weight.

Swift tubers

We also cleared the plot of Swift. These first earlies mature reasonably well but there's little point in conserving them, their day has been and gone and the last tubers need to make way so that the area can be cleared.

The eating quality is only average, the value is in the extreme earliness of the crop. Next year I think we'll try my old favourite Epicure or one of the newer varieties like Orla.

Stroma tubers

Stroma is one of our favourites, very strong plants which seem to show some blight resistance, reasonably early and clean pretty red skinned tubers which cook well.

Kestrel tubers

Kestrel is the potato that started the trouble this year. Nearly the entire row was affected even though adjacent Stroma still looked well. However, there were signs that the problem was spreading even in the couple of days we hesitated while deciding what action to take. Kestrel is recognised as having poor blight resistance.

We've had quite variable experiences with Kestrel. The first year we grew it the potatoes were so iron hard and apparently uncookable I said I would refuse to ever grow it again, but I was persuaded to give it another try because of its excellent slug resistance (figures!) and the following crop was really quite useable, stored well and made reasonable returns.

This year we've had to hook them all out early. The yield isn't too bad considering they could have done with another month and the tubers look clean and healthy enough although the skin is very soft. But, a trial cooking has revealed that this year's spuds have a somewhat bitter aftertaste when boiled, although we didn't notice this so much when we chipped a few. The jury is still out.

Ambo tubers

We first tried Ambo from a few odd potatoes left over from a supermarket bagged purchase when we had just taken on an allotment in Newport Pagnell and I think we've grown them every year since.

A very reliable potato, genuinely all purpose, making nice roasties, fluffy bakers, mash and salad as required. They show some blight resistance and store well too. The few in the picture are from a single plant we took up as a trial and are still quite small.

British Queen tubers
British Queen

Again one trial plant produced these tubers. They really need that extra month or six weeks to bulk up.

British Queen make the best chips, we're both agreed on it and we chipped these. Even fresh from the ground (and chipping potatoes are usually stored for a while before use) and barely mature they made a wonderful plate of golden goodness, needing little more than a sprinkle of salt. I hope we can keep the blight away long enough to get a lot of these.