Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Growing Watercress

Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is one of my favourite leafy greens, with its rich, dark colour and spicy, pungent flavour. It goes well in salads and soups and I'm even eating it in omelettes at the moment, just wilted by the heat of the eggs as they come out of the pan. My home village in Wiltshire has a fascinating history of growing watercress, providing local employment for the villagers until as recently as 1970. It lies in a flat-bottomed valley with meadows which were once flooded by river water, although now the watercress beds are gone and the land has been drained, only flooding occasionally in winter.

But I read recently that although watercress thrives when planted in gravel beds under clean running water it can also be grown in soil as long as there is plenty of moisture. Apparently, the obliging watercress plant will also root easily when placed in a jar of water providing it has been freshly picked. As I buy watercress regularly (in bunches of stems and leaves, not just bags of leaves) I thought I may as well try rooting some stems to see if I can grow some, so I took several of the most sturdy-looking out of the bunch, trimmed off the base and put them into a pot of water on the windowsill with a clear plastic bag over the top (to stop the leaves wilting too much).

Less than a week later the stems have grown lots of spidery white roots and I have removed the plastic bag. They are even growing new leaves. My next step will be to pot up the stems individually and grow them on into sturdy plants so that I can try planting them outside, probably at the allotment. It will be interesting to see how they grow and how much water they need to give a good crop of leaves.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Strawberries in Pots

I'm growing strawberries for fruit at home for the first time this year. Most of my previous experience of growing strawberries has been with wild strawberries, propagating them from runners to sell as plants when I worked at a herb nursery. So now, trying out more commercial varieties with the aim of producing fruit feels like a leap of faith - will the berries get eaten by pests? Will I get a reasonable crop? Will the plants produce anything at all? The thought of eating home-grown strawberries, juicy, sweet and sun-warmed, was enough to convince me that the expense of buying the plants was worth it, especially as my previous efforts to grow alpine strawberries from seed have always failed (not enough constant heat I think).

The next leap was to decide which variety to grow and where. When I bought the plants I didn't know I would be lucky enough to get my hands on an allotment, so due to lack of flower-bed space in my garden I thought it better to grow my strawberries in pots. This also meant I could make the most of the sunniest aspect of the garden, which is largely taken up by a patio.

Rather than pin all my hopes of glorious fruit on one variety I decided to grow a range of different strawberries, both as a way to extend the cropping season (hopefully), and to try out a selection of types to find my favourite.

So this year I'm growing:

'Honeoye' - An early season variety with tolerance of powdery mildew and botrytis. It is supposed to be productive and vigorous. Hopefully tasty too!

'Red Gauntlet' - This is a mid-season variety which may produce a second crop later on (in September) if the summer is good. Apparently it is really sweet and tasty and has excellent disease resistance.

'Mara des Bois' - I'm most excited about this one, a perpetual-fruiting strawberry which combines the flavour of a wild strawberry with the yield and fruit size of a modern cultivar. It is resistant to powdery mildew, but may not be as productive as other varieties.

'Sophie' - A late season variety producing high yields of good quality fruit.

I bought my strawberry plants in 9cm pots from the garden centre where I work, but many varieties are also available as bare-root plants by mail-order ready for potting earlier in the year.

At the beginning of April I potted three plants of each variety into multi-purpose, peat free compost in some large plastic pots and watered them in well, picking off any flowers on the plants to encourage root growth. As they grow I'll feed them with an organic liquid plant feed and make sure the compost doesn't dry out - no problem at the moment with so much rain! They all seem to be putting on plenty of growth so far, especially the 'Sophie' plants which are producing very large leaves.

Strawberries from left to right: Red Gauntlet, Honeoye, Mara des Bois, Sophie

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Cooking with Nettles

Stinging nettles are abundant, nutritious, and free. All good points to recommend them for dinner, as long as you are prepared to take certain precautions to protect you from stings until they've been cooked! They contain lots of vitamin A and vitamin C, as well as iron and protein. The best time to collect nettles is between March and early June, while the leaves are still young and tender. Older leaves are bitter and gritty and should not be eaten.

I regularly drink tea made from nettles but had never tried eating them, so I headed out to a local nettle patch with gloves and scissors to snip myself some greens. I collected only the tips of the plants, and considering how much spinach shrinks when cooked I did my best to fill a carrier bag so that I would get a decent amount of cooked nettles.

Back in the kitchen, I followed the recipe for cooked nettles in Richard Mabey's 'Food for Free'. I trimmed the leaves from the stalks (wearing rubber gloves), discarded the stalks and washed the leaves well. After draining the leaves I heated them in a covered pan for about five minutes until they had wilted down. I then added a knob of butter, some chopped onion, salt and pepper and mashed it all together, cooking for another five minutes.

The resulting nettle and onion mash was certainly palatable, although the main flavour was onion as the nettles didn't taste of much. The nettles had an interesting texture, a little fibrous but not at all unpleasant. I made enough to have some the following morning to fill an omelette for breakfast, which worked very well. The mash would also make a good base for nettle soup.