The last harvest of 2009

RB and I spent a solid day working in the garden today. Between sowing seeds, clearing beds and pruning back bushes, we’ve been busy!

We pulled up the last of our leeks this morning, the last of our 2009 vegetable garden. It is amazing to think that we planted these guys nearly a year ago – they are extremely tolerant considering this is the coldest winter we’ve had in the UK in over 30 years. These leeks are the ‘Meziers‘ variety, so they are long and thin. For 2010 we are going to try a fatter variety, although we may not be enjoying them as long as we did these.

It is zero degrees here, so we decided to make a leek and potato soup to warm us up when we came in around sunset. It is so easy to make, and really warming. Some crusty homemade bread and a small pile of crunchy toasted chorizo on top gave it an extra kick and turned the modest soup into a treat.


Pruning a mature apple or pear tree

Pruning our mature and neglected pear tree has been on the to do list for ages. Having done a bit of research, we decided now is the time.

I stumbled upon a super fact sheet created by the Ohio State University Extension programme – they allow their material to be copied given appropriate credit. And credit is indeed due! I paraphrase their suggestions here.

—    A good fruit tree should not make a good shade tree!
—    Prune late in the dormant season to minimize cold injury.
—    Prune heavily on neglected/vigorous trees, less so on less vigorous cultivars.
—    Make all heading back cuts just beyond a bud or branch.
—    Make all thinning cuts just beyond the base of the branch being removed.
—    Avoid pruning too close (See Figure 1.)
—    Don’t prune a “shade tree” back to a fruit tree in one year. Do it over a few.
—    Wound dressings are unnecessary for trees pruned in dormant season.
—    Match pruning tools to the size wood being removed. Shears for twigs, loppers for branches, and a saw for larger limbs.

How to prune a mature apple or pear tree

Figure 1. Flesh cuts heal slowly; so leave the collar.

How to prune a mature apple or pear tree

Figure 2. Pictured from above, space scaffold branches to allow access.

How to prune a mature apple or pear tree

Figure 3. The suggested pruning cuts.

And finally they add: backyard trees are rarely over-pruned, but inexperienced growers often procrastinate on pruning for fear of damaging trees. ‘Topping’ or shearing a fruit tree is about the worst thing that can be done, but even that may result in better fruit for a year or two. Ultimately shearing will produce a dense crown that inhibits access for sunlight, sprays, and harvest, and invites weak structure and breakage. As long as pruning cuts are made to remove, head back, or thin as the examples illustrated and discussed, no nightmares are necessary. Don’t use hedge shears. ‘Just do it.’

And with those final words of encouragement, we went for it. Here is the tree first thing in the morning:

Pruning mature pear tree - before and after

And here is the result, a bit obscured by the trees in background.

Pruning mature pear tree - before and after

And now to tidy up the mess we’ve made.

New year, bigger vegetable garden

Hoorah, we have added 8 new raised beds to the vegetable patch! And when I say we, of course I mean RB who built them in December (read about how to build raised beds). Here is a photo of the whole patch of 20 beds in the snow.

We have used our snowy downtime to order seeds, and here is our final tally for the 2010 vegetable garden:

Wild Rocket
Fiorana Spinach
Golden Ball Onions
Potatoes – Mayan Gold, Charlotte, Golden Wonder
Green Globe Artichokes
Beetroot Sanguina
Yellow Carrot Jaune Obtuse de Doube
Fat Leek Monstrueux de Charentan
Burgess Vine Buttercup Squash
Summer Crookneck Squash
Striato di Napoli Courgette
Napia Red Pointy Pepper
King of the North Sweet Pepper
Nigels Outdoors Chilli
Red Top Radish
Double Standard Bicolour Sweetcorn
Garlic (planted in autumn)
Broad Beans
Runner Beans
Asparagus (planted in autumn)
Calabrese Broccoli
Strawberries Cambridge Favourite (already in situ)
Red Iceberg Lettuce
Tomatoes – Rose de Berne, Gold Medal, Millefleur

Most of the seeds come from The Real Seed Catalogue which stock only non-hybrid seeds. It means you can safely save seeds from the plants which is a sustainable and common sense practice. You can’t seed save with F1 Hybrids. The Real Seed Catalogue urges all growers to seed save, and we like that kind of business ethos.

I am looking forward to a whopping return on this year’s vegetable garden economics!

The economics of vegetable gardening

Last June, when our first Strawberries were picked, I decided I would keep track of our vegetable patch’s productivity, much like a business does. As an economist and entrepreneur it made perfect sense to question the cost/benefit of money invested versus lovely organic produce generated. Rather geeky, I know!

There are so many variables and everyone’s patch is different, so this case study is not making any universal statements – it only applies to The Modern Gardener vegetable patch and our approach. After all, some people don’t have tools when they start out, others don’t bother with raised beds,  and some stick vegetables between flowers and in window baskets – all of which would certainly affect ‘profitability’ (where profit basically = value of vegetables out of the ground minus money handed over to the seed and soil merchant).

On the other hand, time is money too, so many of you may argue that the countless hours spent sowing, watering, weeding and harvesting must also be calculated as an ‘opportunity cost’ (the value lost when you could have been doing something more lucrative). This would in turn require that we calculate the mental and physical health benefits of fresh air, exercise, and in my case having quality time with my husband. And finally, we get car loads of free well-rotted manure from a farm down the road – how to account for that?

I have decided instead on a very simple model of separating out the CAPEX (capital expenditure – the initial investment outlay in, say, timber and pots), and directly comparing OPEX (operational expenditure, basically seeds and soil/food) against the value of the produce. Value of produce was calculated using the Waitrose organic price at the time of picking. We use Ocado to deliver our shopping as we both work, so although we could have found a cheaper price it made sense for our purposes to use them for the value comparison.

Here are the results in short:

Capex                                    £189
Opex                                        £89
Revenue                                £293
Gross profit 2009        £204

So in 2009 The Modern Gardener vegetable patch made a profit and paid off our initial outlay. In 2010, we expect to be a in the money by a long way!

My other observations are to do with best value, so if you only grow one thing make it either courgettes, runner beans, parsnips or tomatoes (avoiding the last if you’re short on time). On the flip side we learned that potatoes have a negative return if you don’t take the time to earth up for a larger crop.

All in all it’s an interesting, fast and easy bit of information to compile that I am going to repeat year after year to see how our patch ‘performs’ over time. But it’s a far cry from the perfect study – the spreadsheet certainly doesn’t tell you how good those carrots were fresh out of the ground and therefore their incalculably high value to us!

Harvesting parsnips

RB and I harvested the first dozen of our parsnips last weekend. A few frosts are purported to improve the flavour of parsnips, so with a couple of cold spells behind us we decided to start harvesting.


These parsnips took a bit more work to get out of the ground than carrots. We had to carefully dig away the dirt from the top third of each parsnip, enough to hold it and twist it out of its place. It is worth being careful as the parsnips can snap in place if tugged or bent in haste.


Roast parsnips are a favourite, but our first batch went into a spicy soup for 10 people. We used Jamie Oliver’s recipe which incorporates Garam Masala, and it was a resounding hit. As the soup is fairly dense it also looks great with a little olive oil and fresh coriander decoration on top.


Parsnips can be left in the ground until January, a great way to save room in the refrigerator and provide fresh home grown vegetables for the holidays.

This has to be one of the biggest winners of our vegetable garden this year – easy to sow, relatively low maintenance, and big reward when most of our kitchen garden has already stopped producing.

Autumn flower arrangement: gourds

There is something buried in our psyche that attracts us to anything in miniature, and the same goes for baby gourds. Not only are they ‘cute’, but they are infinitely interesting and exotic. RB and I were at a garden centre yesterday and found these little ornamental gourds (with the exception of the baby butternut, which was a runt from our own plot).


They are a little on the pricey side, but with how long they will last they provide some visual value for money, not to mention a talking point – from a mini turk’s turban to the strange sputnik looking one. And whilst they are not strictly flowers they do make an excellent and colourful arrangement that will last during the busy holiday season.


I have piled a few into the pot with a Cambria orchid.

You can grown these gourds yourself and I may give it a go next year. Seeds of some interesting varieties are carried at Unwins and Nicky’s Nursury.

Butternut squash tortellini

A few weeks ago RB and I harvested our butternut squash and have been very pleased with the taste. Having recently been to a cooking class I decided I had better put some of my new skills to use and make Ravioli – only a last minute decision turned them into tortellini.

Ravioli/tortellini do take time, but they aren’t as difficult as they may seem. You don’t need a pasta machine, although one helps – I made do with a rolling pin and good old-fashioned effort.


Find a pasta dough recipe using ’00’ flour.


Create your filling. Mine is on the right, made of butternut squash, garlic, salt and sage. On the left I mixed together the last of our home-grown vegetables as an accompaniment which I threw into the oven with olive oil and sea salt.


I used a cookie cutter to cut the shapes and dotted them with filling. Make sure the surface is well floured to avoid sticking, and that your dough is SUPER thin. You should be able to read through it.


Use a paint brush (or your fingers, as I did) to paint water on the edges before closing into the shape of your choice.


Serve with sage gently cooked in butter. Et voilà!

Harvesting butternut squash

We harvested 4 butternut squashes last week. The foliage had started to die back and the squashes sounded ‘hollow’ when knocked. Tonight we made homemade butternut squash tortellinis which were lovely. It is great to finally have a use for all the sage we have planted.


I have heard some seasoned allotmenteers saying that butternut squash is not worth the space as you get so little volume or added flavour for how much ground you sacrifice. But I have to disagree. The taste was magnificent.

Harvesting sweet corn

Sweet corn brings back California for me, with barbecues and Mexican food being two of my favourite culinary categories. I really wasn’t confident about the prospect of getting cobs in Southeast England, but it has been with great pleasure that we have harvested 7 this weekend.

You know to start thinking about harvesting sweet corn when the silks (the hairy tassels at the top of the cob) start to brown. Sweet corn should be picked in the ‘milk stage’, when a milky liquid is drawn from pressing a fingernail into a kernel. If the liquid is watery, it’s too early, and if doughy, it’s too late. Be sure to pull the husk down sufficiently when testing, as the tips of the cob are most immature and can deceive you into thinking they’re not ready.


There’s not much magic to harvesting sweet corn: just hold the stalk with one hand, hold the ear at the base with the other. Twist the ear firmly downward, like turning a door handle. Sweet corn starts to lose its sweetness as soon as it’s picked so it’s best to harvest when you know you can eat it, otherwise refrigerate.


For lunch we rustled up a simple dish using corn, onions and green bell peppers from our garden with a bit of Spanish chorizo. We sweated the onions and then fried up the rest of the ingredients – it was wonderful!


Mountain out of a mole hill

Drat. We have worked hard on getting our lawn looking good. We have delighted at the vast population of earthworms we benefit from. Nice lawn + earthworms = heaven for moles. Our neighbour says a shotgun is the only way, I think we’re happier using the phone book and calling someone in.