Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The National Botanic Garden of Wales

Following a week away in West Wales the return journey seemed like a perfect opportunity to visit Wales' most popular garden. With 8000 different plant varieties, set in 560 acres, the National Botanic Garden of Wales is a plant lovers dream.

We had visited before, a couple of years ago, I think on that day the incessant rain had rather ruined the visit for us. We ended up rushing around not really taking it all in so having the chance to visit again was a real treat.

Due to the size of the site you often get the pleasure of feeling like you have it all to yourself. Long walks around the lakes, surrounded by wildflowers, or a detour along a woodland path will lead you away from the main drag and present you with a wealth of different plants and habitats.

Of course the main attraction of the garden in the great glasshouse right in the middle of it all. This is the largest single span glasshouse anywhere in the world and also boasts the largest collection of Mediterranean plants in the Northern hemisphere. Although it is a huge man-made structure, due to the design it doesn't look at all out of place in the rolling Welsh countryside in which it sits.

Of particular interest to me, as followers of this blog will know, was the vegetable garden. As a keen grower myself it's always fascinating to see other gardens throughout the seasons; not just to see what they are growing but how, where and when they are growing it. You're guaranteed to learn something and take inspiration from what others are doing. Whether that's looking over the fence at somebody else's plot on the allotment or visiting a garden as fabulous as this, there's always something to take in.

The vegetable gardens didn't disappoint; spread over multiple areas everything you could imagine was being either grown or harvested. The 'Growing  the Future' garden was particularly good with great examples of what can be done in smaller spaces and an absolute abundance of fruit and veg just waiting to be picked. The brassica collection in the Wallace garden was also a sight to behold and a cause of great envy after my annual summer battle with the cabbage whites.

The double walled garden also definitely deserves a mention. The main growing space for vegetables, and more formal than the other areas, great rows of leeks, onions, fennel, artichokes and much more surround you as you walk along the gravelled paths.

After a day spent wandering around there is also an excellent garden centre at the end with some great plants on sale that can be hard to find elsewhere. This is something that increasingly frustrates me living in Wales, an absolute lack of decent garden centres nearby. Unless you want ornaments or plant pots there very little around other than the standard B&Q and Homebase. If you want actual plants the internet is usually the best place which is a real shame.

Having an allotment can sometimes seem a chore particularly in the summer when it is at it's most productive and you've perhaps been away for a week or two. The best thing you can do is get out and see what others are doing, take inspiration and ideas away and apply them to your own space. I can guarantee that you'll return invigorated with a fresh appetite for your space and a re-found love of why you do it all in the first place.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Pickled Beetroot

I'm still fairly new to pickling and in fact preserving as a whole, but with such a glut of gorgeous beetroots at the moment I thought what better way to extend the joy of eating them then to make a pickle.

In previous years I've pickled onions and shallots but never really out of necessity, more for the fact that I enjoy them with a ploughmans. I've also dabbled in jams and chutneys following a successful day at a pick your own farm or a seasonal glut of courgettes (as I'm sure a lot of us experiencing at the moment). So with what little knowledge I have got and with Pam Corbin's River Cottage handbook to hand I thought I'd be a bit experimental and make it up as I go along.

Many beetroot pickle recipes would call for you to cook the beetroot before preserving; this year I haven't cooked a single one preferring to pick them slightly smaller and slice thinly in salads to keep the fantastic stripes that the Barbabietola di Chioggia have running through them.

As with standard recipes I heated enough distilled malt vinegar to fill the jar and added three heaped teaspoons of sugar to take some of the sharpness away. Whilst this was coming to the boil I packed the sliced beetroots into the jar fairly tightly to maximise space.

To the vinegar I added some whole black pepper corns and a few bay leaves from the tree in the back garden. This was all poured into the jar whilst still hot ensuring that the beetroot was fully covered. The intention is that by pouring it in hot and then sealing the jars, it may slightly soften the beetroot along with the actual pickling in vinegar itself.

The end result looks great and exactly as I had imagined. After a day the beetroot has coloured the vinegar an almost fluorescent pink which is far more attractive than a dark brown jar on the shelf.

Hopefully, when it comes to eating, the beetroot will still retain it's earthy flavour along with picking up some of the sharpness and sweetness of the pickling solution. Whether or not it will retain it's crunch I don't know but I'd like there to still be a bite to it. Imagine a single slice on cracker topped with cheddar or couple of slices finely shredded in a leftover roast pork sandwich; I'm already salivating!

Monday, 24 April 2017

Progress on the allotment

Since taking on the allotment in November progress has been slow but steady. The landowner had said that he would plough it for me when it dried up a bit. So I waited and waited and by early March I thought I’m just going to have to do it myself.

The problem with the site is the amount of rabbits that are in the neighbouring fields and hedgerows; each individual plot needs to be fenced off and rabbit proofed. Not that I’m complaining too much, having an allotment amongst open countryside is an absolute joy. It’s a real pleasure just to sit and watch nature, although I’ve not had too much of chance to do so yet due to the copious amount of digging that has been required.

By fencing the plot I was accepting that the tractor wouldn’t be able to get in and I’d have to dig it all by hand. I waited as long as I could but eventually conceded defeat and set to work with the fork and spade. I was eager to get some broad beans and early potatoes in, some strawberries plants that I had put in a few weeks earlier had been immediately dug up by the rabbits so protection was my top priority.

I’ve now cleared almost all of one side of the plot and am now working my way back up the other. Being well over halfway I can start to see the light at the end of tunnel. The beds are starting to take shape and what was once just a picture in my head is becoming a reality.

As with all projects the plan is changing all the time. Seeing a greenhouse on eBay for £50 I just couldn’t resist. If you can imagine trying to build the worlds most complicated Meccano set without any instructions, you’ll be somewhere near the difficulty level involved in dismantling and rebuilding this greenhouse. Worth it now that it is finally done but I spent days trying to work out how this thing went back together.

Still, we're getting there. A few more full days spent digging and hopefully it will be time to sit down and enjoy it all.