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Saturday, 23 May 2020

Diary From The Pandemic Day 65 - The Food Shopping Nightmare

If the pandemic has taught be anything it is to appreciate the little things in life and the stuff that we normally take for granted.

I have been having my groceries delivered for years as I find it much more convenient and it is an excellent service generally. It certainly became all the more important to me as the pandemic spread across the world and my family took to isolating to help to shield my husband. I was very grateful to not have the stress of going out to the supermarkets and the worry that I might bring back more than I bargained for.

But then, of course, the shopping delivery services all but collapsed under the weight of demand as more and more people took to self-isolating, shielding and social distancing. As I battled to deal with apps being taken offline, virtual queuing systems on the supermarket websites and unavailablity of delivery slots for weeks on end, I struggled to find ways to bring even basic food into my home. It has probably caused me the biggest stress of the lockdown situation. And, yes, I am grateful that this "first world problem" is my biggest stress and I don't have to worry about other things!

So, with online shopping from supermarkets becomes less and less accessable, it was time to explore other options.

My first instinct was to work on my own food security by turning to the allotment with a more serious determination than I had ever had - and we have always had very productive allotments anyway! It was a relief, therefore, that the government deemed that allotment sites could stay open and people could tend them as part of their daily exercise. Thank goodness!!

However, with the best will in the world, an allotment in late March to May is not very productive and this period is known in the kitchen gardening community as the "Hungry Gap". Yep, brilliant timing Corona Virus!! So, we made the most of our end of season potatoes, leeks, beetroot and purple sprouting brocolli and enjoyed fresh asparagus, micro salad leaves and rhubarb but it won't be the ideal fruit and vegetable solution until June.

One of the first shopping solutions I tried was the Morrison's Essential Box. For £35 you can have a box of essentials delivered to your door (via courier DPD). The box was a set of fixed items and the only options were for either meat-eating families or vegetarians. Initially, it was even quite difficult to order these due to availability issues but I managed to get one at a crucial time when I was unable to get any other supermarket deliveries. Yes, it was basic but it was very welcome and filled some holes in my food cupboard! They even managed to deliver pasta and toilet rolls when the world was at its maddest! Since then, both the availability of the boxes and the contents have improved now that there is better availability of stock of key items. I note too that other supermarkets, such as Aldi, are now offering something along similar lines.

Shortly after that delivery, I happened upon Jaspers Catering. This is a national company but with local franchiases and the MK one had put together a selection of different food boxes for local delivery. I ordered a "fresh bag" of basic fresh essential aimed to feed a family of 4 and a fresh meat bag, containing meat from local "Best Butchers". They also had available a bag of readymeals suitable for someone isolating and not feeling up to cooking meals. Again, there was no choice in the ingredients included in these bags but it was a brilliant selection of good quality ingredients and it was delivered to my door a day later. Since then they have added other "bags" to their offerings including home baking, pizza making kit and an afternoon tea picnic.

After that I managed, with some stress and frustration, to secure a few delivery slots with online supermarkets. If the difficulty of getting slots wasn't annoying enough, often items were out of stock so couldn't be ordered or they weren't delivered, often with no warning until the day of the delivery, making meal planning a particular headache. It seemed the whole world had taken to making their own bread and home baking so flour and yeast went out of stock for weeks, followed by other things such as various sugars, baking powder, eggs, gelatine and greaseproof paper.

What seemed slightly odd at this time was that it was actually relatively easy to find alternative deliveries for fruit and vegetables (including local box schemes by Moorgate Farm) and even meat (including from local butchers), even if it wasn't always possible to choose exact items. It is kind of heartening to know that fruit, vegetables, meat and basic ingredients were the top of suppliers' priority lists to get out to the public. Maybe we would become a nation of home cooks after all.

However, after a while I started to run out of stuff that wasn't included in any of these box schemes; things such as fruit juice, ketchup, cooking oil, crisps, oats etc. So, what next to solve this problem?

Robots, of course!

We are very fortunate in Milton Keynes to have Starship Deliveries with their cute little robots delivering shopping to an increasing number of residental grid squares. In our area, the shopping either comes from Tesco or Co-op and, although the selection is a lot more limited than when doing a major supermarket delivery, you can at least select what you want from the items listed. A robot delivery is limited to 20 items though and often it doesn't tell you that an item is out of stock until after your order is place and even then it just tells you that you won't be getting it rather than offering a substitution.

The delivery charge is quite small (for example £1.99) but if items you have ordered are out of stock, you can end up with, say, only five things being delivered, which makes the delivery charge less economical. As you might imagine, I was not the only person to turn to robot deliveries as a solution so there were issues with crashing apps, unavailabililty of delivery slots and out of stock items but it did bring with it some successes and a few more household items restocked.  I am very grateful to have access to this delivery service and it is a wonder to be able to order groceries online and have a robot deliver them to your street within a hour.

On top of these branded household favourites, I found myself longing for a few treats to make me feel better. Let's face it, when you can't go out for amusement, enjoying good food at home becomes even more important. And this is where my local foodie friends really came into their own. A box of assorted truffles from The Chocolate Mill, a selection of tasty cheeses from Good Times Cafe and a restock of Thai curry premix from Reasons to Season were all very welcome. There were plenty of treat boxes of cakes and bakes available too, had I not been in a position to make my own, and there were several possibilities for local beer and spirit deliveries if I were not tea-total.


Indeed, if I were a big takeaway eater then I would have definitely made use of the huge range and varieties of cuisines that have suddenly become available from the local street food vendors and restaurants. From boxes of scones from Scone Quest, to lunchtime cheese toasties from Good Times Cafes, to restaurant-style lunch roasts from The Brothers Supper Club, we are positively spoilt for choice. Whilst major chains have shut up shop to even drive-thru options to protect their workforce, the family run businesses and sole traders have stepped up and filled the void with an impressive array of handmade, gourmet and artisan fayre, delivered direct to your door.

As an aside, I was particularly pleased to be able to order a restaurant meal from The Cross Keys in Bedfordshire, to deliver a hot meal to my mum on the day of her 70th birthday. With a family meal out scrapped, it was lovely to be able to at least provide her with a meal on her special day so that it didn't go by unmarked.

I have been very impressed by how my friends and colleagues in the local food scene have adapted and stepped up to the challenges to both keep their businesses viable and to provide their customers with tasty, local and artisan food under difficult circumstances. I am heartened by the support people have given these small businesses and I hope that there are useful business models and practises that will continue even when things return to something closer to normality.

Whilst I wrestled through these difficult few weeks, the major supermarkets made some substantial changes, sorted out issues with their websites and employed more drivers and gradually it became possible to book a delivery again, even if it was for three week's time and only allowing deliveries to be booked once a fortnight and for a maximum of 80 items (which sounds like loads until you try to maintain a household of 4 for a fortnight when you have been running out on stuff for several weeks already)!

So with a few delivery slots booked and entered into my diary (one of the few things in my diary these days), it was time to try to tackle some of the other missing items from my larder, such as flour!

That was when I discovered The Food Box UK. They do I range of different food boxes (some of them looks bit weird, to be honest) but it includes several bakery box options. I plumped for the "White Bread Bakery Box" and I was very pleased a few days later to be in receipt of a selection of different flours, a big bag of white bread mix (not ideal but better than nothing) and sugars. There was also some very dodgy margarine in a tin, which I would not contemplate putting into my body but I can overlook that!

Since then I have discovered that Doves Farm are now offering a box of various organic flour for £11 including delivery so I am excited to try that out when my current flour runs out, if they are in stock at that point.  I am trying not be become a hoarder and cause other people supply problems but it is tempting to hoard flour when previously faced with shortages. It would seem that flour is an important part of my life!

Just when I thought I had probably got lockdown food deliveries as sort out as I could, I received an email from Milk and More to tell me that there was now availability in my area for me to join their delivery service. I had, in desperation weeks before in the darkest of shopping struggles, attempted to join the local milk round but had been told that due to demand they weren't taking on new customers. They asked if I wanted to join their waiting list, so I did and then moved on to explore other options.

But now, finally, this delivery service was available to me so I signed up and went to explore their website. There aren't kidding about the "More" part of their name as they offer all sorts of things in addition to milk; more than you might consider a milkman to offer. Yes, eggs, juice, yoghurt and cheese. But also bacon, vegan products, fresh fruit and vegetables, cereal, coffee and soft drinks. What's more, these things are available for delivery in my area on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday... or all three if you so choose! No crashing websites, no three week wait for a delivery slot, no limitations to once a fortnight, and orders can be ammended up to 9pm the previous evening!

So, I placed a regular order for a Wednesday to include essentials such as milk, juice, cheese, eggs and a vegetable box and I was super excited to receive my first delivery. Outside my door before I had even come down for breakfast. I was hooked and soon ordered more things. It was so liberating to know I could restock these fresh essentials any Monday, Wednesday or Friday and not have to eek them out until the next supermarket delivery. In addition, it meant I could remove some of these things from my supermarket delivery, freeing up my capacity of 80 items only for other things.

But you know what excites me most about the milk delivery? It's that I can order milk and juice in one pint glass bottles. How much of saving the planet has just gone out the window whilst we struggle to exist? Even the supermarket deliveries come in plastic bags and they are not accepting them back for recycling. The green bin food waste wasn't collected for weeks and we are getting through disposable PPE like plastic waste isn't an issue. Understandably so. Can't be helped. So it is lovely to be able to order my milk in glass bottles and put my empties on the doorstep for refilling.

As with my curiosity to wonder if some of our social changes and new business models will continue into our post-pandemic world, I am curious to know how our shopping habits will change as a result. Will there always be more demand for flour and basic essentials now that people have got to grips with home baking and cooking their own meals? Will people discover new local businesses that offer a fantastic service and decide to stick with them or will they return to their familar chains and brands? Will people still want, or even be offered, local food delivered fresh (and sometimes even hot) to their door or will we return to customers going out to events to find them?

I for one will be glad when booking a supermarket delivery isn't as stressful but whatever happens I will at the very least continue to support my local milkman and rinse and return my bottles.

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Diary from the Pandemic day 57 - Elderflower Season

Last Saturday was the end of the long run of beautiful weather we have been having recently. The forecast for Sunday was for the temperature to plummet, bringing with it the possibility of frost. It is one of those things about May, it is easy to get lulled into a false sense of security and to push ahead  enthusiastically. I have learnt to hold fast and to not plant out tender plants into the garden until the end of May/beginning of June. Even so, we had a very healthy crop of potatoes poking their leaves out above the soil and they would surely be damaged by a frost.

Even with the forecast, it was hard to believe that there may be a frost. Often when one is forecast, it can mean for somewhere else and not for us in our sheltered spot in the warmth of a city. So we decided that earthing up the potatoes would help to protect them from the frost but we probably didn't need to cover them in newspaper or fleece. So there I was on a hot Saturday afternoon attempting to bash solid clay soil into submission so that I could break it up enough to rack it up over the potato plants.

And yet what really caught my eye was the elderflower bush in full blossom in the hedgerow that grows along the allotment fence. I was surprised to see it so advanced. I couldn't recall seeing any others in bloom yet locally but then I remembered that I am barely leaving the house so when would I have seen them? I felt the urge to rush over and pick them right then and there and before they went over but I had a job in hand - an exhausting job that would leave me too tired to be processing elderflowers once back at the house.  So I focussed on my task and continued to earth up the potatoes.

Job done, I walked over to the elderflower bush to inspect it. I wanted to see if any of the glorious blossom was within reaching height and to see if there were buds that would potentially be flowers in a few days time. Yes, on both accounts. So I went home knowing I could come back in a few days.

Well, the weather did take a turn and it got cold. And there was a frost - three in fact! And, despite our efforts, the potatoes got damaged. Although, I was reassured today that one of our allotment friends had covered her potatoes with fleece and they had still got damaged so we wouldn't have avoided the problem had we decided to cover them.

So for the past week I had to scrap my plans to plant anything else out from the greenhouse. Obviously I wasn't planning to plant out the tender stuff such as tomatoes, sweetcorn and French beans anyway, but I thought I would plant out the salads, leeks and peas during the week but it didn't make sense to yank them out of the cosy greenhouse to the shock of cold nights.

Instead, my thoughts returned to the elderflowers that had been so distracting on Saturday. So, I went out and harvested enough to set up a batch of elderflower cordial. This not only makes a lovely, refreshing summer drink, but it is a lovely flavouring to add to other desserts too.

The next day, having infused the flavours, I bottled the elderflower cordial then went on to make elderflower panna cotta with my youngest daughter. Weirdly, I had just put them into the fridge to set when Facebook decided to remind me of a memory. It was from 9 years previously to the day and my eldest daughter had made elderflower panna cotta for the first time! Ah, there is something lovely about the rhythms of eating with the seasons.

Anyway, if you fancy making elderflower cordial do it soon. Unlike so many things these days, the elderflower season isn't something you can get on catch-up or get round to when you have more time - it is now and needs your attention now if you want to make the most of it.

Elderflower Cordial

450g granulated sugar
450ml boiling water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon lime juice
about 7 large elder flower heads
1 lemon, sliced
1 lime, sliced

Put the sugar in a non-metallic bowl with the boiling water and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Add the lemon and lime juices. Wash and flick dry the elder flower heads then snip off the flowers into the bowl. Add the sliced lemon and lime. Stir then cover the bowl with Clingfilm and leave to stand for 24 hours. Scald a jelly bag and drain the mixture through it into a clean bowl. Funnel into sterile bottles then refrigerate. Dilute to taste with still or fizzy water. Will keep in the refrigerator for about 3 months.

Elderflower Panna Cotta

100ml whole milk

250ml double cream
20g caster sugar
2 tablespoons elderflower cordial
2 gelatine leaves
150ml plain yoghurt

Soak the gelatine in cold water for 5–10 minutes. Combine the milk, cream and sugar in a saucepan.  Scald the liquid – bring just to the boil, but don’t let it bubble then add the elderflower cordial.  Heat the gelatine to melt it then add to the cream mixture.  Cover the surface of the cream with clingfilm and leave it to cool to room temperature then stir in the yoghurt. Pour into suitable containers then refrigerate for 4 hours until set. Eat out of the container or turn them out onto a plate. We often serve it with some diluted raspberry jam.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Diary From The Pandemic Day 51 - Tasty Things To Do With Lemon Curd

Whenever I have an event I always make a batch of lemon curd. It makes 5 of my 110g jars and a bit leftover for us to enjoy. Being curd, it has a six week shelf-life, unlike jams and marmalades, which last at least two years. As such, I don't make it unless I have an event imminent and it always sells out, expecially if I have tasters to hand.

With lockdown I don't have any events in the diary but fortunately Scone Quest have asked me to supply them with lemon curd for their lemon scones. I have, therefore, been making repeated batches of lemon curd, which results in a little bit leftover for us.

I do like having a bit of lemon curd in the fridge as it is the perfect thing to stir into some homemade natural yoghurt for a refreshing elevenses, or into some Saturday morning porridge. However, it is also lovely to use in baking. It makes the perfect filling for the middle of a lemon layer cake and it turns a plain yoghurt cake into a zingy lemon one. And today I absolutely nailed dessert with a lemon sponge pudding served with lemon frozen yoghurt.

Lemon Sponge Pudding (makes 4)

100g softened butter
100g caster sugar (blitz granulated sugar in a food processor if you can't get caster sugar)
3 eggs, beaten
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
100g self-raising flour
Pinch of salt
4 tablespoons of lemon curd

Preheat oven to 200°C and grease 4 ramekins. Cream together the butter with the sugar then stir in the eggs one at a time. Add the lemon zest and juice then stir in the flour and salt to form a smooth batter. Spoon a generous tablespoon of lemon curd into the base of each ramekin then divide the cake batter evenly between the four ramekins. Bake for 20 minutes until golden and springy. Leave to cool. When ready to serve, run a plastic knife around the edge of the sponge to release the cake from the ramekin and invert over a serving plate. Spoon the curd back on to of the cake if it remains in the ramekin. Microwave each cake for 30 seconds then serve with a scoop of frozen lemon yoghurt.

Frozen Lemon Yoghurt (serves 4-6)

250g natural yoghurt
100g lemon curd

Mix together the yoghurt and the lemon curd then place in a suitable container to freeze. After three hours, remove from the freezer and break up the ice crystals with a fork. Repeat after 2 more hours. Remove from the freezer about 20 minutes before serving to allow it to soften a little.

Lemon Layer Cake

225g margarine
225g caster sugar
4 eggs
1 lemon (zest and juice)
225g self-raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
115g lemon curd
125g icing sugar
1 lemon (zest and juice)

Preheat oven to 180°C and grease and line 2 circular sandwich cake tins. Cream together the margarine and sugar then add the eggs one at a time. Stir in the lemon zest and juice then add the flour and baking powder and mix well. Pour the batter equally into the two tins then bake for 20 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack then sandwich the two cakes together using the lemon curd. Mix the icing sugar and lemon together to make the icing then drizzle this over the cake.

Lemon Yogurt Cake

This recipe is a no-weigh recipe based on using a 150g yoghurt pot as a measure, therefore the ingredients are given in measurements of pots.

1 x 150ml natural yogurt
2 x pots of self-raising flour
1 x pot of caster sugar
1/2 x pot of vegetable oil
3 x eggs
1/2 pot of lemon curd
Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 180°C and line a 2lb loaf tin. Put all the ingredients in a bowl and stir until well combined. Spoon into the loaf tin and make for 45-50 minutes. Test with a skewer.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Diary from the Panedmic Day 46 - Natural Dyeing

My daughter and I have been having fun dying her old school shirts in the last few days. Well, it's not as if she's going to need them again, having finished Year 11 abruptly in March.

Mentally it took me a while to let go of school uniform. I have been washing and ironing school uniform for 12 years now and without the normal circumstances leading to the end of school, I couldn't quite believe that there wouldn't be a moment when she would have to return to school for a formal occasion where uniform would be expected.  However, we are now at the point where she would be starting her study leave anyway and exams have, the government assures us, definitely been cancelled, not to be reinstated.

My first step toward letting go of the uniform was to remove all the white shirts from her wardrobe and to run them through the washing machine on a 90°C wash with no detergent or conditioner. This would give them a thorough clean and remove any residues of detergent and conditioner from them too. This is scouring and is the first step towards dyeing. Dyes take better to cloth that is free from detergent, conditioners, oils etc. On the plus side, it does not in any way make them unwearable should she suddenly need her uniform for something. It is surprising, however, that even this did not remove the deodorant staining from the armpit area!

As it happened, there were 15 shirts in her wardrobe! This probably came about because she had "inherited" all her elder sister's shirts at the end of last school year when she had moved into sixth form and there was a mix of both long sleeved shirts for winter and short sleeved shirts for summer. Whatever happened, we were unlikely to get around to dyeing all 15 of them any time soon.

When the weather turned rainy last week, we suddenly became aware that the acer tree in our front garden was almost entirely blocking the path to the front door. When hadn't really noticed before because we had mostly been coming and going via the back door but also because brushing past in the dry was unremarkable. However, when it became wet we realised that it was making for an unpleasant experience for any delivery drivers. Hence, my husband went out and hacked off a couple of branches.

A couple of autumns ago, I had scooped up a bundle of fallen leaves from the acer and stuck it in a pan of boiling water to see if it would yield a dye - and it did - a very strong dark grey one. So, with a couple of branches of fresh leaves at my disposal, I decided to see what colours we could get out of spring acer leaves.

There are two main ways to dye using natural material. The first is, as I have explained, to put the natural materials into a pan with some boiling water. I usually boil things from about an hour then turn out the heat and come back to it the next morning once it has had plenty of time for the colours to be extracted. I drain off whatever it was that I was using and keep the coloured water, which is now a dye.

The second method is called "eco-dyeing" and this works by placing flowers, leaves etc. onto the paper or fabric, tieing it into a tight bundle and steaming it to extract the colours. This results in dyed patches, sometimes in splody patterns and sometimes in the very distinct shapes of the leaves and flowers used.

We decided that we would eco dye the first shirt and this we did by placing the acer leaves all over the shirt and wrapping it very tightly around a rust tin can. You see, some things can help to extract the dyes from the leaves or they can act to change the colour produced. These are "modifiers" and iron is a known modifier hence the use of a rusty can. In addition, we dipped some of the leaves in rusty water before putting on them shirt. At the same time, we stacked some leaves in between pieces of paper to see how they would eco-dye the paper. Then we put them both on to steam for an hour and a half.

Not opening the bundles as soon as they are cool enough to handle is something of a challenge so we opened the paper one straight away. We managed to resist opening the shirt until the next morning and we were rewarded with bright pink leaf shapes and rusty stains. However, upon rinsing the shirt, the pink changed to a kind of grey colour. I hung it up to dry and over time other colours developed, with various hues of purple, grey and hints of green - especially in those stained armpit areas!

With plenty of acer leaves left, we boiled up some leaves to see what colour they would yield. After leaving it all day, we had a lovely bright pink colour so I dipped a shirt in that and left it to soak for a bit.

By the way, it is necessary to "mordant" fabric before dying it. This means to treat it with some kind of chemical that helps the dye to adhere to the fabric. There are various things you can use for this but we use alum, which we bought online.

When I removed the shirt from the dye it was a lovely shade of pink but I didn't really expect it to remain that colour upon rinsing, drying and ironing. However, I was pleasantly surprised that it did so that was a win!

Whenever I make a dye pot I always like to do one dyeing with it first and then to try adding a modifier to it to see if we can change the colour and dye something else with the new colour. It is often really surprising what colours can be made and also which additives cause the change. Having had some success with iron with acer leaves on our eco-dyed shirt, I tried adding that to the dye pot but the dye remained stubbornly pink. So instead I tried adding a little water from a jar I had created mixed with ash from the fire place. This instantly turned the dye a dark blue colour. I love a bit of kitchen chemistry!

So, with a new colour created, we grabbed another scoured and mordented shirt and tied some rubber bands around it do that we could try tie-dye in this new colour. By the time this one had been dyed, rinsed, dried and ironed it was a grey colour with an attractive marbling effect caused by the tie dye.

We still had an abundance of acer leaves so this time we decided to combine natural dyeing and eco dying. I made a dye pot from avocado skins and arranged iron-dipped maple leaves over the fourth shirt. We then tied it into a tight bundle, boiled it up in the avocado dye for an hour and a half then left it for several hours. It was great fun to see the mix of peachy colours from the avocado, interspered with pink marks from the leaves, with faint leaf-shaped outlines like an impressionistic watercolour.

Well, we didn't get to the end of the acer leaves from the prunings but we certainly had a lot of fun experimenting with natural dyes and creating four very different shirts using basic kitchen chemistry.

If you fancy giving natural dyeing or eco-dyeing a go, here are the basic steps.

1) Scourer your fabric by washing it at 90°C with no detergent for fabric conditioner.
2) Soak the fabric in a mordant such as alum.
3) Boil some natural materials in water for an hour and leave to soak over night to create the dye pot.
4) Set up the fabric with rubber bands, string etc if you wish to tie-dye it, or arrange with leaves and flowers if you wish to eco-dye it.
5) Soak the fabric in the dye pot or heat it in the dye pot for an hour and half.
6) Leave to fabric over night.
7) Remove the fabric from the dye pot and undo it.
8) Rinse and hang to dry away from direct sunlight.
9) Once dry, iron it.

Here are some of the kitchen and garden natural materials we have used successfully in our natural dyeing experiments:

Kitchen - tea, coffee, turmeric, onion skins, fruit teas, berries, avocado skins, red cabbage

Garden/Foraging - oak galls, walnut shells, nettles, carrot tops, kale, acer leaves, eucalyptus, mahonia berries

Possible easy modifiers - rusty nails in water, ash in water, vinegar, bicarbonate of soda in water, soda crystals in water.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Diary from the pandemic day 41 - Germination

Germination is one of the great wonders of the world and even after more than 20 years since I first started growing my own food, it doesn't cease to amaze me that seeds germinate. Every year I sow seeds with hope rather than expectation that they will grow and every year they do!

Seeds are amazing things. Perfect little portable starters for plants that can be stored until required and activated into life at will by just providing a few basic requirements. Of course, they can't be stored indefinitely and germination success rate does deminish with time, and this varies from species to species. I have always read that parsnip seeds should be bought fresh every year and I have found from experience that sweetcorn and French bean germination rates go down significantly with storage time. However, some seeds, such as carrots, lettuce and brassicas seem to be fine years after the expiration date on the packet.

Seeds are made up of three main parts - the outer protective coating, a store of food that will be needed to fuel germination, and the germ or embryo that will grow when the conditions are right.

The first requirement for germination is water and a seed will spend several days absorbing water until it has enough to activate the enzymes that power germination. However, a seed also needs oxygen so it is important to not just submerge it in water. As such, providing enough water but not too much is critical for the first few days if germination is going to be successful. The final requirement is warmth and this is why seeds don't tend to germinate during winter. Germination rates are better if done inside or in a greenhouse during spring. Again, however, it is important to not over do it and if they are left in a closed greenhouse on a sunny day they can go above 40°C and this can cause the enzymes to be denatured (destroyed).

The first stages of germination happen under the ground and it can be difficult to be patient during this time and to not start to doubt that it will ever happen. This is particularly the case this year when I find myself standing in the greenhouse several times a day, wondering if anything has grown since I last looked! Sometimes just a little indication of disturbance to the soil surface is enough to get me excited.

After the initial stage of absorbing water, the root is the first thing to emerge and hormones control its growth towards gravity (gravitropism). Next the shoot emerges and hormones cause it to grow towards the light (phototropism). This is quite amazing really and very useful so that you don't have to worry about planting a seed the wrong way up!

It is only when the shoot breaks through the surface of the soil do we finally know for sure that germination has been successful. The leaf seeds (cotyledons) unfold and a seedling is born. Cotyledons are weird things because they look like leaves but very often they look nothing like the leaves that the plant will eventually go on to grow. As such, it can be very hard at this stage to know if what has emerged is the thing you planted or some rouge weed seedling. It is only after the true leaves grow that it becomes clearer. However, with experience, it is possible to recognise seedlings at the coyledon stage too and to quickly spot an imposter.

By the time the true leaves start to grow, the supplies in the seed are exhausted and it now necessary for the little solar panels that are leaves unfurl and start photosynthesing to make food. Ah photosynthesis - that awesome process that is probably the only thing that is more amazing than germination!

Left to its own devices, nature is quite capable of taking care of itself and germination happens everywhere during spring and summer without human intervention. However, a little understanding of it can help you to know how to store seeds to keep them viable, the conditions you need to provide to allow seeds to germinate, and how to recognise seedlings in their early stages. But don't worry, understanding the science behind it never takes away from the wonder of it or the thrill of seeing seeds you have sown starting to grow.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Diary from the Pandemic Day 37 - Growing Herbs

May is probably the leanest month in the kitchen garden. Food in storage has either been eaten up or is beyond its best. On the plot, the purple sprouting broccoli is coming to an end and the only new crops are rhubarb and asparagus... and there is only so much of either of those that you can eat.

However, what are really coming into their own are the herbs so it is a good idea to think about your herb garden now, ready for next month. Maybe your herbs need some attention, or a few new additions, or maybe you need to start a herb garden from scratch..

Late spring/early summer is prime time for leaves and that includes the leaves of herb plants. They put on a spurt of growth at this time of year and the leaves are fresh, tender and full of flavour. By June many of the herb plants will be putting their energy into flowering, which, although a lovely display that the pollinators enjoy immensely, means that energy is diverted away from the leaves. So make good use of them now and maybe cut some for drying or freezing too.

Herbs are a lovely addition to the kitchen garden, providing interest and flavour to recipes and meals. They are also relatively easy to grow and something that can be grown even if you don't have a garden.

Supermarkets sell growing herbs and you can keep them going on a windowsill for several weeks. Generally, there are more plants in the pot than can reasonably grow in such a restricted space and this is probably the main reason why the plants deteriorate and die after a few weeks. As such, if you split them up and repot them them, not only do you get more plants for your money but they should be able to go on and thrive rather than die.

Many herb plants are perennial, meaning that they survive the winter and will continue to grow for several years. This is another reason why they are easy to grow. Perennial herbs include all the classics such as sage, thyme and rosemary. Then there are some which are biennial, flowering in their second year and then dying. This include parsley. Finally, there are annual herbs that are not hardy enough to survive the winter and must be grown fresh every year. This includes basil.

Most herbs originate from the Mediterranean region and as such they enjoy warm, dry conditions. If possible, plant herbs in full sunlight in well-drained soil. We don't have well-drained soil but we managed to very successfully grow herbs in our sunny south-facing front garden for many years.

A few years ago we had our house extended and during this period our builders used our front garden as a storage area for their building material. We were, of course, expecting this so before they started we dug up our front garden and potted up all the plants we wanted to salvage. Since then, we have continued to grow herbs in pots in our back garden.

Similarly, back in April 2009, I planted up a large half-barrel with 6 herb plants for my mum's birthday and she has had it in her front garden ever since. So, as you can see, herbs grow very well in containers and it a method you can use if you don't have a garden or just as part of your garden. Indeed, herbs such as mint have very invasive roots and should only be grown in containers so as to limit their spread.

It is possible to buy herb plants from garden centres and online plant retailers. This is a great way to get started and can result in an instant herb garden. However, you can also grow many herbs from seed and this is particularly useful for annual herbs such as basil. In late summer, you can take cuttings off most herb plants and leave them through the winter to establish and this is a good way to get new plants.

So, which herbs should you grow?

Well, that depends on what you like to eat. As I say about anything in the kitchen garden, if you don't like it, don't grow it. This is why I don't grow coriander or parsley but these may well be your favourite herbs.

Sage is a good one to grow if you like sage and onion stuffing or a garish on butternut squash. Once established, it will look after itself and often produces beautiful purple flowers. You can also get variegated varieties and purple leaf varieties.

Rosemary is the classic flavour to go with red meat, particularly lamb. Again, it looks after itself and produces small blue flowers that bees love.

Related to rosemary is lavender and this is often grown as an ornamental plant due to its beautiful purple flowers and pleasant smell. It is supposed to be good for relaxation. It can be used as a culinary herb, although it needs to be used with caution so as not to end up with a soapy flavour.

Thyme is another classic and useful herb and there are loads of different types of thyme. We grow both the classic one and a lemon flavoured one, although we did have several varieties in the early days of our herb garden. It is useful in many types of dishes and is part of pizza herb mix. The lemon version is great in fish dishes and a few leaves really peps up a prawn mayo sandwich.

Both marjoram and oregano are important herbs in pizza and pasta dishes and both of these can be grown as perennials. There are green and golden versions of both, although the green ones are stronger plants.

Chives are a useful herb to add an onion flavour to dishes. They have lovely purple pom pom flowers too so are attractive to include in the garden. It is also possible to grow garlic chives, which have a garlic flavour and white flowers similar to wild garlic.

Bay can grow into quite a large bush so think carefully about where to put this before growing it. It can also be killed by very cold weather so it is good to grow it in a sheltered position near to a building or warm wall. It is useful to add to soups and casseroles to add flavour.

Dill and fennel are other herbs to grow at home. Fennel can grow very tall very quickly so, once again, think carefully about position before growing it.

Mint is a very tasty herb and very easy to grow. There are lots of different varieties of it, with subtle variations of flavour. However, it is very important to keep it confined to a pot and to not allow it to be planted directly in the ground as it is very invasive.

Parsley has two main varietys - curly leaves and flat leaved. They both grow readily but need to be replaced every two years as they are biennial.

Basil is a tender annual so needs to be grown fresh each year. There are lots of different variations including lemon and cinnamon flavoured ones and purple leaved ones. They grow readily from seed so are straight forward to grow. Basil does not dry well into dried herb and is best used fresh.

Coriander is an odd herb because it tastes differently depending on your genetic make-up. Some people taste it as a delicious herb with citrusy notes, whilst others taste it as soapy or like burning plastic. I wish I could appreciate coriander but unfortunately it completely ruins any dish it is added to as far as I'm concerned. If you wish to grow it, it is fairly straight forward and it is the best way to get a supply of fresh leaves for the kitchen.

Tarragon is another herb you can grow at home, although you need to make sure you grow French tarragon and not Russian as it has the superior flavour. It can be grown as a perrenial, although it can be killed by very cold weather. We grew some for years but it died off one cold winter.

Savory is another herb we have grown for years. It has a slightly unusual flavour but it pairs remarkably well with broad beans.

So, whatever your favourite herby flavours are in the kitchen, why not try growing them at home and enjoying fresh herbs throughout the summer and dried herbs in the winter.