Tomato, tomato, tomato: a season’s growing notes

Home grown tomatoesOf all the veg and fruit that I grow, there is no doubt that I have most success with tomatoes. Tomatoes love me and always grow well for me. I love them right back and am always ridiculously over-proud of my tomato-growing achievements.

And this year is certainly the pinnacle of those tomato-growing achievements so far.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been growing five different types of tomatoes in my giant beast of a greenhouse.

Three tomato varietiesSuper Marmande is a beefsteak variety (the seeds given to my hubby as a present a year or so ago, but stolen by me this spring time). Gardener’s Delight is a small cherry tomato that I grow every year as it crops so very well and tastes so very good. Tigerella are new to me and are striped like a tiger. I know! Could you ask for more? Tumbling Tom Yellow is another new-to-me variety. I’ve got some small still-very-green tomatoes on a few plants that I can’t wait to see ripen. And finally, a solitary plant of Lizzano, the only seed to germinate from an entire packet. Also yet to ripen.

I was hoping against hope that I’d have all varieties ripe and ready to eat at one time so that I could photograph them all together. But, I suspect that the Marmande and Tigerellas will be over before the last two ripen, so I settled for some nice pictures of the first three varieties.

Gardeners Delight tomatoes
Gardeners Delight tomatoes
Super marmande tomato
Super Marmande tomato
Tigerella tomato
Tigerella tomato

All three have cropped magnificently. My only quibble is that I would say the beefsteaks aren’t always quite as beefy as I suspect they should be and the cherry tomatoes are sometimes very, very tiny.

But all are utterly, utterly delicious and I will certainly be ramming my greenhouse full with these varieties again next year.

Red tomatoesA few lessons I’ve learnt from this season:

  • Don’t pack the tomatoes too deep onto the staging. I’ve been finding it seriously difficult to pick the plants at the very back without crushing the plants at the front. (At least it does release that heavenly tomato vine smell into the air, though.)
  • I won’t use tomato growbags again, an experiment I tried out for the first time this year. I found it a total pain trying to water into the small exposed bit of soil at the cuts in the bag, which were often covered up with foliage. Much easier to water into a normal pot, and all the rest of my tomatoes – growing in (often quite small) pots – have produced more fruit than the ones in the growbags.
  • In the height of summer, if the tomatoes are in a greenhouse, you might have to water twice a day. To be honest, I find this a bit of a pain. I dream of having the money to afford a computerised irrigation system for the greenhouse!
  • If you do water a bit irregularly, you’ll most likely spot blossom end rot: a sunken brownish patch at the bottom side of a tomato fruit. It’s caused by a lack of calcium, but comes about because the water flow to the plants extremities isn’t sufficient. I lost a couple of fruits this way, after a very hot week and not enough time spent watering… But I upped my game after that and all the rest were subsequently fine.

Tell me, do you grow any varieties that I should know about? Do let me know in the comments below…

You call this June?

June eh? I’ve got to confess, I’ve had the heating on these past two evenings. And looking out of the window, I can see that one of my tomato plants has been blown over in the winds. Sigh. Good old English summers…

Moaning aside, I dashed out of the back door the other evening, and took a few shots of the garden in between the showers. It’s been a while since I’ve taken any photos out there, but everything has been growing quite well recently, especially the veg. Anyway, come and see:

Flower bed
This is by far the worst photo in the post, so please keep reading. Why, in fact, am I even putting it at the top?!

Only one of my flower beds is even a little bit planted up. (We’re contemplating moving house this year (I know, I know! It seems a bit insane, but there we go…) and if not, then I plan to re-design the entire garden next year, once I’ve finished my garden design training. So, it seemed a bit silly to spend lots of time putting plants into beds only to either leave or have to dig them all out in a year.) This is that bed. On the left is the wallflower (Erysimum ‘Bowles mauve’) that I bought last year.

Allium christophii going to seed
The last of the flowers just clinging on

The alliums have been amazing (Allium giganteum) but by the time we got back from holiday, they were starting to go to seed. I do love the seed heads too, so they will stay in situ as long as they don’t get too windswept.

White allium
Can anyone identify?

And I think these are white allium, just about to bloom. I remember, vaguely, planting them last Autumn, but not exactly what they were.

Erigeron karvinskianus
Undoubtedly one of my all time favourite flowers

At the bottom, are lots of wonderful Mexican fleabane, aka daisies, aka Erigeron karvinskianus. I planted it all last year and it’s doing really well now. I just adore the way they turn pink as they get older.

Stachys byzantina and raindrop
Look at the amazing fine hairs

Also at the front of the bed, I procured some lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina) on my recent trip to Painshill Park. I say “procured” which sounds as if I stole it, but I’m not that much of a rule-breaker and I just bought it from the shop. It’s one of my favourite plants ever (so very very very soft!) so I am pleased to finally have some in the garden. Of course, I will need to divide and increase the solitary plant I’ve put in and try to make a proper little clump of them at the front.

Pink geranium
I have the name of this kicking around somewhere, but it’s not to hand

Also recently purchased (from Eltham Palace, this time), this rather delicate looking pink geranium is currently in my window box, but I’m planning on moving it into this bed eventually too.

Campanula and forget-me-nots
You can leave this well alone and it will just keep on coming up, year after year, perfectly happy

There’s also a fair bit of campanula with the odd forget-me-not still going strong. Some say these are weeds, but as far as I am concerned, any plant that produces gorgeous flowers and is just happy looking after itself is very welcome in my garden.

Raindrop on sweet pea leaves
I wish now I had an even-more-macro lens

Elsewhere, I’m hardening my sweet peas off outside and found these little rain drops sitting in the leaves. Rather lovely.

Tomato Super Marmande
Just starting to unfurl…

The tomatoes are all just starting to flower. I can’t remember if I said before, but I’m growing many different varieties this year (Super Marmande, Gardener’s Delight, Tigerella, Tumbling Tom Yellow and some tomatilloes as well…) The one above is a Super Marmande, which I’ve not grown before. The flowers appear in the most amazing way: what seems to be a gigantic flower bud comes out at the very top of the stem, then slowly, it peels back and separates to reveal several individual flowers all on tiny stalks. Rather fascinating to watch.

No longer such a beast

And finally, do you remember how, last year, I planned to spruce up my greenhouse? It’s not yet a finished result (I plan to artfully string some more bits and pieces from the outside, and hopefully give it a paint job as well) but here’s a little “in progress” shot for you. It’s definitely improving from the monstrosity it was before. Maybe next week I’ll take you a little tour inside…

Grow, forage, cook: a disappointing harvest

As August has bid us farewell and summer has melted into the season of mellow fruitfulness, I’ve started to feel a little bit of a fraud.

It’s been great to see so many of you joining in with our Grow, forage, cook series; Laura posted what we hope will be the first of many round ups of some of your mouth-watering photos and recipes last week: August round up.

I am practically salivating onto my keyboard at the sight of all the wonderful jams, pies, salads and other delights, made from homegrown or foraged foods.

I, on the other hand, a founder of this wonderful series have not, I confess, been out day after day picking the bounty of my garden.

Despite Laura’s kind words about my gardening prowess, back when we launched this series a month ago, this year has been my least successful when it comes to growing food.

Homegrown apples | Wolves in London
Apples from my tree: about the only edible thing in my garden right now

There was the excellent plum bounty, to be sure, and the apple trees have produced a small but steady supply of really delicious apples (though nowhere near the apple glut we had the first year we moved in). The brambles at the bottom of the garden by the greenhouse have been nothing if not prolific.

But, to the production of these delicious fruits I have assisted but a little. Yes, I did prune and thin the apple and plum trees earlier in the year (I recall the rather worrying incident of a heavily pregnant lady swaying atop a rickety ladder fairly well). And when it comes to the brambles, well, I have actually spent quite a lot of time and effort trying to eradicate them, so far completely unsuccessfully.

But everything that I have actually tried to grow has been an unmitigated failure.

Come take a stroll with me, if you will, and see if you can spot the problem…

Horrible courgette | Wolves in London
Erm, what can I say, this looks utterly vile

Now, I hope you’re not eating anything when you take a look at the photo of my single courgette. Yes, this limp (I am restraining from using the word “flaccid”) nibbled, part yellow specimen is the solitary courgette produced from my courgette plant. Appetiising? Not so much. Everyone, but everyone growing courgettes has the September “what the hell am I going to do with all these courgettes?” quandary. Everyone, that is, but me, who knows perfectly well that this sad looking specimen is headed straight for the wormery. The slug damage inflicted is just too great for any recovery now.

A few steps over and you find this glorious prize winning aubergine.

aubergine flower | Wolves in London
Yes, it’s really pretty, but can you turn into into baba ganoush?

What’s that you say? Just a tiny little flower? Oh. Yes. So it is.

Though the plant has put out about 30 flowers this year, not a single one has produced a fruit. I don’t know whether it’s lack of germination, or lack of water at a crucial time or just lack of luck, but this is the best I’ve got from the aubergine plant…

I can’t even show you a photo of my purple sprouting broccoli plants, veg that I have grown in previous years and eaten with delight for the whole of the winter months. I lost them all a few months ago to caterpillars. Overnight.

The broad beans are certainly more successful because they have, gasp, produced one whole entire almost certainly edible bean. Hurrah! This is he.

Broad bean | Wolves in London
Granted, the slugs might have a harder time if I actually weeded around my poor bean plant

Hot on the success of my lovely borlottis last year, I planted half borlottis and half broad beans. I cared for them, nurtured them from seed, watered and loved them in the greenhouse and, in May, certain the last frost was over, I planted them out into a specially prepared patch in the garden. There were 24 plants in total.

Two weeks later there were three.

Now, there is just the one, with this single bean hanging from its stem.

Slugs. Bloody slugs again.

Even the cucamelons, something I declared both prolific and fail-safe after my first attempt growing them last year, are struggling on, pitifully, producing a few fruits but mostly dying down.

Cucamelon | Wolves in London
Awww, I never tire of their cuteness!

The problem with it all, of course, is lack of time. I never use chemical bug killers or computerised sprinkling systems because of environmental / sustainability issues. But hand slug-removal and hand watering are only good if you actually *get out into the garden and do it*. This summer, what with one thing or another (thing one: a toddler, thing two: a baby) free time has been slightly on the rare side and the poor garden has rather suffered as a result.

The one hope for any sort of real harvest I have are my beetroot, which succumbed in a big way to some sort of fungal disease a month back (the result, I am certain, of letting the sproglet be in charge of watering them, which will have bounced the fungal spores all over the place. Never water from above in the middle of the day, I know that, of course, but the sproglet loves watering the garden so much that I feel exceedingly mean to deny his enjoyment…) At one point they had not a single green healthy leaf among them. Now, amazingly, a pleasing resurgence and they look as if they might yet produce some decent roots for eating.


Beetroot | Wolves in London
Sunkissed and, astonishingly, still alive, hurrah!

So the verdict from my garden this year. Pests: 1; Sabrina: 0.

I’d love to end on a deep philosophical note about how gardening isn’t just about the end result, but also the pleasure of time outdoors, taking a moment out of your life, yadda yadda yadda < insert appropriate homily here> but, you know what, I really wanted to actually grow something to eat this year and I am pretty miffed at the sorry show.

So please, keep your pictures coming so I can live vicariously through your gardening successes! Tag your photos #growforagecook on instagram, tweet us your blog posts (to @circleofpines or @wolvesinlondon) or just leave a comment below.

Meanwhile, over here in slug city, my love of stocking the larder won’t be thwarted (Autumn time to me = permanent eye-watering vinegar aromas in the house as I pickle / chutnify everything I can get my hands on…) But if it’s not made from plums, apples or blackberries, it’ll be from the veg box this year, not the fruits of manual labour.

Ah well, seed catalogues have been circled and next year’s planning has already begun…

The story of the asparagus pea

Like most back garden-vegetable growers, I can’t resist the lure of the unusual.

Asparagus pea plant
What is this horticultural marvel? It’s none other than an asparagus pea. (Plus a few aphids because, you know, it came from my garden and that is aphid central…)

We’ve all heard innumerable times about the quest of the evil supermarkets to stamp out choice and offer us only the same few varieties of veg (those that store well and grow uniformly) whereas we (the elite! The vanguard! Those sticking it to the man!) with our allotments, our vegetable gardens, our peas growing in pots on a balcony, well, we have the option of growing every variety on offer in nature. Which is a pretty huge choice.

Not for us your orange carrots in plastic wrappers. Oh no! I’ll have a purple haze carrot, please, freshly pulled this morning.

Your prosaic beetroot is purple, pickled and in a glass jar? Ha! Mine is striped white and pink and still has a little bit of soil on that I just can’t shift…

And don’t even talk to me about your imported, rock-hard, bland supermarket tomatoes. Tomatoes! I don’t even know if those tasteless things deserve the name. Mine are heirloom and eaten as soon as I pull them off the stem.

Now, I say all this with my tongue firmly in cheek, but it is of course also true. The reality of veg growing is that you’re going to spend ages – months in fact – lovingly tending a seed to a seedling, planting it out into the soil, watering it every flipping day in this insanely hot weather, fighting the good fight to prevent it being completely devoured by slugs and finally, hopefully, getting a small crop from it, which is probably enough for a meal or two. Well, you don’t want to go through all that just to get a bog standard crappy variety of carrot that you could have picked up from your corner shop…

So, my desire for the unusual meant that I found a marketing email from Suttons seeds completely irresistible earlier this year. The email offered me the chance to buy some seeds from a wonderful veg I’d never even heard of before. A vegetable called the asparagus pea.

I love peas. I love asparagus. You’ve pretty much got me sold by the name alone.

As if the seed description had been written entirely to appeal to me, after saying the veg tastes like a cross between peas and asparagus, it went on to say that it is popular throughout Southeast Asia, a particular favourite spot of the world for me (though I have to mention that in the two years I spent living  / travelling there, I don’t think I ever came across one of these little beauties…)

And the joy of growing this amazing sweet, delicious-sounding vegetable that I couldn’t buy in any shop was the cherry on top of the cake.

So a packet was ordered and I cared for the little seeds lovingly.

I photographed the progress of my plantlings, already certain of success and the amazing blog article I would write, outlining my new discovery and the wonders of this magical plant.

The flowers are undeniably attractive, starting a dark, dark red:

asparagus pea flower bud
Oooh the excitement when I first saw a flower…

And then turning a bit lighter when they’re fully in bloom:

asparagus pea flower
I think they’re quite attractive with the flower peeping through the green leaves

And after the flower, they produce some wonderfully frilly and odd-looking “peas.”

Asparagus pea
Have you ever seen an odder looking vegetable?

But it was at this point that the story of the asparagus pea becomes a sad one. My first sign that all was not quite as I had imagined came when I went to check how I would know they are ready to pick. The seed packet told me I should harvest them while they are still less than 3cm (or 1 inch).

This seemed so ridiculously small that I thought it must be a misprint. I checked online. I found hundreds of florid descriptions of this wonderful vegetable, all ecstatic about its delicate taste and all saying that yes, indeed, it needed to be picked when they were less than 3cm long “otherwise they will taste too stringy.”

Hmmm. At a quick count, I am growing nine plants. Each of which has produced four or five peas. So, a total of 45 peas, tops. Peas that are less than 3cm long. I think if you ate the whole lot as a side with one meal that would probably be a reasonable amount to eat. For one meal only.

Still, not to worry, not to worry, for this one meal will clearly be a spectacular delicacy.

I picked the first five when they were ready and – following instructions from the internet – put them into a plastic bag in the fridge to wait for some more to be ready. Vigilantly, I checked the little asparagus peas every day. After a few days, a few more were ready. I picked them and went to add them to my bag…

…but the asparagus peas in the bag had wilted away to nothing.

Right, I thought to myself, time to eat these eight asparagus peas and see how wonderful they taste.

Asparagus peas
Ready for eating. A meal for a giant! (Excuse the iPhone pic…)

As the seed packet had instructed, I lightly boiled them, adding nothing else in order not to risk spoiling their delicate flavour (again, the pedant in me would point out that Southeast Asian cuisine is not world renowned for lightly boiling things and not adding flavour, but hey ho…)

Now, if only I had seen this article (and comments) on the cottage smallholder’s blog in advance, I would have been prepared for what awaited me.

The vegetable tasted neither of asparagus nor pea. Neither my partner nor I could put our finger exactly on what it did taste like.

He said, “It’s not quite as bad as unpleasant but it’s certainly not nice…”

Cardboard seems a little harsh, but there certainly wasn’t a distinctive flavour I could recognise. Perhaps the hard outside of a bean that’s grown very large would be the closest I could venture. Fibrous and green, but not, exactly, tasty.

So the lauded, beautiful and unusual asparagus pea spectacularly failed to live up to expectations. Often the way, isn’t it? Poor asparagus pea.

Ever the optimist, I’ve now taken to a daily examination of the cucamelons instead…*

One day he’ll be a grown up grape sized cucumber-watermelon mix

*Not a euphemism

Related articles:

  • My (tried and trusted) rhubarb is a far greater success: bounty from the weekend
  • And though I don’t necessarily recommend these seeds, my method of planting seeds in loo rolls has probably saved me a far bit of money over the course of this year…