With March this year starting with some serious frosts and a couple of hefty snowfalls in the Thames Valley, remember that even in April, cold snaps are possible, so be prepared if frosts are forecast.
More positively, as the sun is now getting higher in the sky and the days are getting longer, it is likely that we will see increasing light and warmth. In our area April has tended to be quite warm and dry in recent years. So as well as watching for frosts, make sure that greenhouses are ventilated if it does get hot!
If soft ground has kept you off the borders and lawns, then by April you ought to be able to start getting back on to them. Mind you at the time of writing, Cookham is subject to a flood alert and the river is still rising. Once you can get back into the borders, give everything a thorough weeding then feed and mulch to help your ornamental plants get ahead of the weeds.
It is also worth getting supports in for plants now so that they are already in place by the time that the plants need them. Delphiniums and Peonies are emerging now and will soon be shooting up, so get the stakes in while the borders are still relatively clear and the plants are easy to get to.
Herbaceous perennials will be coming into strong growth now and it is a good time to split them, either to rejuvenate old, large plants or to propagate new ones. It is also a good time to prune early flowering shrubs like Forsythia.
In the kitchen garden, early April is a good time to get main crop potatoes in the ground and as the soil warms up later in the month then it is time to start sowing carrots and parsnips. if you have a little bit of patience with carrots and parsnips and do wait until the soil warms up you will get much more reliable germination, it is also best to use new seed for these two crops.
For parsnips we tend to station sow, with three seeds per station and then after germination we thin out to leave just the strongest seedling. With carrots we often mix the seed with sand to thin out the sowing levels so that we don’t have to thin out the seedlings too much later on, a process that can attract carrot root fly.
We’ve written before about the joy of quinces, but having just made this year’s batch of jelly ready for Christmas cheese boards, we thought that we’d add a bit of detail. The recipe is pretty basic – quince, lemons, sugar and water. You will need a preserving pan or large saucepan and a jelly (muslin) bag.
Making it is almost like cooking alchemy, as during the process what begins as a yellow mush turns to a clear red jelly and the house fills with the lovely fragrance of quince.
Wash the fruit and cut into quarters (no need to peel or core them). As quinces are cut, put into a pan of barely simmering water so that they are covered and won’t discolour.
Bring to the boil and simmer for 45 – 60 minutes until the fruits go soft. This is the yellow mush stage. Cover and leave overnight. Pour into jelly bag held over a large bowl and leave to drain for several hours. It’s important not to force this bit or squeeze the contents of the bag or the final jelly will be cloudy. Even at this stage, the juice looks fairly unpromising.
Measure juice into pan and mix with 12 oz. sugar for each pint of juice (we use preserving sugar but any white sugar will do). Add juice of 2 lemons. Heat gently and stir until sugar is dissolved. This is when the colour starts to change.
Then boil rapidly and remove scum from the top as it forms. Boil for about 10 minutes or until the setting point is reached and pour into sterilized jars. As you can see this year’s batch was not quite crystal clear, suggesting that we could have strained the pulp a bit more slowly. Perhaps by dividing it into two batches to reduce the weight in the jelly bag. Nevertheless early taste tests indicate a Happy Christmas to come.
Ever since we first started growing vegetables in a few small raised beds in the garden having our own stuff for Christmas dinner has been a major aim. Nowadays with the allotments this is fairly straightforward, but this morning’s harvesting trip along with a trip to the garage to get some spuds out of storage means that we are well set for tomorrow.
The traditional Christmas Eve trip to the pictures takes us to Star Wars now and then tomorrow we’ll have these vegetables to look forward to (along with the roast goose).
A traditional part of our Christmas is the collection of fresh vegetables to accompany the roast. It gives us a huge amount of pleasure to have plates full of multi-coloured vegetables that are the fruits of our labours.
With a few spare carrots floating around we thought about using some of them to make a carrot-based version of a Christmas cake. Lynn found a recipe on the internet, and after a brief shopping trip headed for the kitchen with the following result.
Christmas Cake 2014
250ml veg oil
350g carrots, grated
75g macadamia nuts, chopped
75g pecan nuts, chopped
170g mixed dried berries / cherries (I used lots of dried cranberries)
100g ready to eat dried figs, apricots and prunes, chopped (I left out the figs and used dates instead)
300g golden granulated sugar
300g self-raising flour
1tsp mixed spice
1tsp freshly grated nutmeg
2tsp baking powder
4 large eggs, beaten
Pre-heat oven to 160 deg fan. Grease and line a 20cm round loose bottomed cake tin
Combine oil, carrots, nuts fruit and sugar. Sift and add flour, spices and baking powder. Mix thoroughly. Add eggs and mix well
Put into cake tin and level. Bake for 2 – 2.25 hours until skewer comes out clean. Cover with foil after 1.25 hours to stop top browning too much.
Mark has been lucky enough to be working in a garden with a mature quince tree. As well as having gorgeous spring time blossom, it is an abundant cropper. As most cooks know, quinces can’t be eaten raw, but poached they turn into a delicious fruit that is a gorgeous deep orange that evokes late evening sunshine. Making them into a jelly has an equally stunning transformation as a scummy yellow liquid, changes into a beautiful clear ruby red jelly.
Quince flowers 30 Apr 2014
Quince Tree 24 Sep 2014
A quince tree is now on our list for Father Christmas.