I’ve decided that the first winter as a greenhouse owner is a bit like having your first baby – you are really keen to do things right but a little scared that things might go wrong. I realise that plants are nowhere near as precious as children but over the last few days when we have had our first really hard frosts I’ve felt the concern of ‘new parenthood’.
Until November we had very few frosts and (as you will have read) I was picking tomatoes until late in the season. I did an early winter tidy of the greenhouse and wrapped the most precious plants in lovely warm horticultural fleece. Being concerned about freezing roots especially for the orange tree, three little home grown lemon seedlings and the jasmine, I lined boxes with sheets of polystyrene to stand the pots in.
No real frost arrived until the 27th when the skies cleared,the stars shone and the temperature plummeted. At that point I unearthed the large candle purchased in October. Following Dad’s advice I went outside to light the candle and place it in the greenhouse – he relies on the heat generated by the candle to keep the temperature above zero.
I woke early, about 4am, on the 28th and could see quite a glow on the hedgerow – was the greenhouse on fire? I shot out of bed and popped a coat and some wellies on and went out to inspect. It was bitterly cold outside but inside the greenhouse it felt relatively warm and the glow that I thought was fire was just the candle flame reflecting on the glass. So back to bed happy and relaxed and the candle has been lit and done its duty every night despite frosts hard enough to cause one of the water butts to split!
Today the bright crisp weather had disappeared,it was above zero by dawn and felt really quite warm outside. This afternoon I took a deep breath and unwrapped all the plants to see if jack frost had done any damage. Amazingly under the fleece wraps the geraniums and the orange tree were still in flower and so far there is no sign of frosting on any leaves. I picked chillies and sweet peppers and then carefully tucked the plants back in their fleece wraps. As the temperature is not due to drop there will be no glow of candle light from the greenhouse tonight.
My first leisurely start to the day for a while so I was enjoying a relaxed breakfast and checking my stocks of dried fruit as it almost time to start the preparations for Christmas – sweet mincemeat and plum pudding are on the list to be made this weekend. The Christmas cake is a mid December job as this household prefers a light glacé fruit cake rather than the traditional rich fruit cake.
As the morning progressed and the sun fought its way through the rain and grey skies I was lured away from the much needed domestic chores to take the dog for a walk. What a beautiful mild sunny day. The grey sky gone just clear blue and many trees still holding their leaves in a multitude of autumnal shades – a good to be alive day!
I haven’t been home much in the daylight recently so hadn’t really had a good look in the polytunnel or veg garden probably for 2 weeks. I expected mildewy tomato and cucumber plants and was amazed to find they are still looking relatively healthy and the tomatoes are still ripening. I picked 6 tomatoes and a cucumber which will add a bit more variety to the cheese on toast I was planning for lunch (food shopping is the final chore for today!). I checked in on the hens who are enjoying a temporary stay in the soft fruit area and there above their heads, and out of reach, were two ripe raspberries which were delicious.
So a morning that started off with wintery, grey and full of Christmas planning has developed into an autumnal day and I’m off to eat my cheese on toast topped with tomato and cucumber in the sunshine in the greenhouse!
It’s been a long and sunny autumn with an abundance of fruit and vegetable. Tomatoes still ripening on the tumbling toms outside, runner beans and cucumbers growing, autumn raspberries and still the occasional blackberry (despite the old wives tale of the devil entering them after the autumn equinox).
Life has been fairly full picking, pickling, freezing and storing but what a shock when the weather turned cool this week. Last night I was eating my evening meal listening to the wind battering the kitchen window when I realised that my beautiful conference pears were at risk. When the last mouthful hand been swallowed off I went with basket and torch to pick the remaining crop and to search the ground for any windfalls.
Apples placed in single layers ready for eating or sharing…
Picking this final crop spurred me on to deal with the previously picked apple crop – mainly egremont russet eaters. I’ve sorted out the best and wrapped them individually in newspaper and placed them carefully in cardboard boxes in a cool store. The rest I have placed in single layers to be eaten or given away as soon as possible – apples keep so much better if they do not touch each other.
Tomorrow I will lead the apple scrumping party in the field near work ready to start using windfalls to make apple jelly and apple and almond cake and anything else appley and delicious.
I had been keeping an eye on my courgette plants and picking the young tender courgettes either to chop finely and mix with dressing as a salad or cooking as a vegetable. All was going so well until I had to work away from home for a few days and when I returned to my horror lurking beneath the giant leaves were some marrow sized courgettes…
The large and the small!
So a little earlier in the season than planned we ate our first meal of stuffed courgette.
I cut the courgette into horizontal rings and remove the inner seeds and pithy flesh. Setting the rings on a baking tray (top tip line the tray with foil or baking parchment as it makes the washing up so much easier). Then prepare a tasty filling – I usually use minced beef as a base but nuts or lentils can be used. The most important thing is make your filling really tasty so with a classic mince, onion, garlic and tomato mix you can add cinnamon and dried fruit for a middle eastern taste or go heavy on the marjoram and basil for a Mediterranean flavour. Put the filling in the centre of the sliced courgette and then cover with a generous amount of strong cheese and roast in the oven ( about 180 degrees C) until the courgette is cooked which is usually around 45 mins. Serve with a tasty chutney and a crusty bread and enjoy. Any surplus slices can be frozen and come out as a surprise long after the courgette season is over!
The next giant courgette will sneak up on me soon despite my best efforts to keep them in check. That one will be peeled, chopped and cooked very gently in butter to form the base of the delicious recipe in Delia Smiths Complete Cookery Book for Eliza Acton’s Mulligatawny. But more about that later when there is a glut of tomatoes and onions and the temperature is dropping and we begin to think of winter soup. For now I am happy with tender young courgettes sliced in my salad for lunch.
Setting off in shorts and flip-flops to pick elderflowers seemed like a good idea until I realised that the recent hot weather had taken its toll on the elderflowers and the few remaining flowers were in the shadiest, nettliest places so it was with stung legs that I returned home with the requisite number of flower heads.
No not elderflower cordial or champagne ( I knew I was too late to make either of these) but elderflower and gooseberry jam. The main task of the day was to pick this year’s gooseberries, but I knew in my heart of hearts that there was a big bag of last year’s crop lurking in the freezer which just hadn’t made the preserving pan.
So I set to and weighed the frozen gooseberries (just over 3lb) popped them in the preserving pan with just enough water to cover them and put the elderflowers in a jelly bag (much simpler than cutting squares of muslin and the jelly bag can be washed and reused over and over again). I suspended the jelly bag from the handle of preserving pan so that the flowers were in the water and set the pan over a gentle heat on the stove. My wonderful Mary Ford Jams, Chutneys and Pickles book gives a detailed description involving pieces of wood and hacksaws to mark the starting level of your jam and therefore work out what level the contents should be when it is reduced by a third. Always looking for an easy solution my top tip is to take a wooden spoon and put it handle first into the preserving pan, note the level of the contents and mark with a pencil – you can then use a ruler and pencil to mark it into thirds and you have an instant measure which can be washed off when finished ready for another day!
So with the gooseberries, elderflower and water very gently simmering out I went into the beautiful sunshine to pick the crop from one of our two gooseberry bushes. The poor wee bush its branches were touching the ground with the weight of the fruit so when I had finished it looked quite happy and upright again. But what a crop…
I sat in the sun ‘topping and tailing’ as last year’s fruit cooked. When it had reduced by a third I added the sugar (just over 3lb) and stirred until the sugar had dissolved and Left it to boil. I returned to my topping and tailing! After a lot more topping and tailing I thought it was time to look for recipes that did not involved topping and tailing and was pleased to find a recipe for gooseberry sauce which sounds rather tasty so 2lb of the smaller untopped and tailed gooseberries were washed, bagged and popped in the freezer ready for making into sauce some time in the future.
By this stage the jam had reached setting point and was ready for potting up. Seven jars are standing proudly on the kitchen bench. The scrapings from the preserving pan were served on a scone for our afternoon tea and the verdict was ‘very good’! It has the lovely tang of gooseberries with just a hint of the heady flavour of the elderflower.
And this year’s crop? The final weigh in from the first gooseberry bush is 11lb! Next job is to make a gooseberry cake to take round to a friend’s house this evening and to stew some ready for a gooseberry fool tomorrow. The rest have gone into the freezer BUT will be used before July net year.