Jerusalem artichokes

Short version:

A tall, perennial, sunflower like plant that grows in full sun, in almost any type of soil to produce knobbly tubers that contain inulin and can be eaten raw or cooked.

The Jerusalem artichoke (also called sunchokes) – Helianthus tuberosus – is in the Asteraceae family like globe artichokes, though they are more like Chinese artichokes in the Lamiaceae family. Like Chinese artichokes, you harvest the tubers and propagate via tubers. Jerusalem artichokes however make tall, impressive plants like globe artichokes. Like the Chinese artichokes, posted last week, this is my first year growing them, so I have limited experience. I do love them though, so I thought it would be worth sharing and I can update as I find more about them.

How to grow

These came in a gourmet roots pack with Chinese artichokes as little plants. They were put in the ground in May, but like Chinese artichoke these can be grown from tubers, and like Chinese artichokes if any tubers are left in the ground then plants will come back next year and are therefore perennial. Because the tubers are larger than the Chinese artichokes you are less likely to leave some behind. I will keep a tuber spare in some potting compost in the shed over winter in case I’m too thorough with harvesting. Each tuber is capable of producing more than one shoot.

Jerusalem artichokes will do fine in just about any soil, except waterlogged as this will rot the roots. However, deep, fertile, well-draining but water retaining soil (can be achieved with plenty of organic matter) will give the biggest tubers. They do fine in big pots. I grew mine in old, repurposed water tanks.

The tubers can be planted from February to April, around 10cm deep and 30 cm apart. These do grow into big plants so do need some space as they can grow up to 10 feet tall. They make great living screens or do well in the back of a bed as they can still reach the sun. They can also be cut back and kept at 5 feet tall if that suits your space better. This also discourages flowering. If you do get flowers it is best to cut them back so that plant can put that energy into producing tubers. I have also read advice about earthing up the soil up the stem to support it and for better tubers. To be honest this plant is done very well despite my neglect. The only thing I did was shove the plants in very big pots and then stake with a bamboo cane when they got tall. I have run a dripper watering system through the garden (saves time as well as water – which you can read about here) so that was taken care of. However, don’t underestimate overcast days and strong winds. I made the mistake of turning the water off when the sun disappeared, and I lost one of my Jerusalem artichokes. We ate them anyway, but the tubers were much smaller and drier (shown in the very first photo at the top of the page).

How to harvest

It is best to leave this plant for as long as possible to get the biggest tubers. The leaves will start to go yellow and die as the weather gets cold. In this particular year (in London, UK) it was mid-November. You pull the stem up and some of the artichokes will come with it but really you will need to dig. Any plants you want to leave for later harvest, you can cut the stem back to a short stump and then leave the tops over the soil to keep it warm. They are fine to remain there even into December (as long as the soil isn’t waterlogged, and the ground doesn’t freeze). Once harvested they store in the fridge in a covered bowl fine for a week.

How to eat

The tubers have a thin skin that do not need to be peeled. The dirt should be carefully washed away though. If you would like to peel them, you can use just a spoon to scrape away the top layer and any bits you don’t want. Be aware that they do discolour very quickly so have a bowl of lemony water ready to receive them.

They can be eaten raw or cooked. Raw they have a texture and taste a bit like water chestnuts, with a nuttiness and a very slight taste of artichoke hearts. I like them roasted with garlic and rosemary or thrown in with a roasting chicken. They take on flavours well and the inside becomes very soft like potatoes do, but silkier rather than floury. I feel they lose the nuttiness with cooking but acquire this sweet, artichoke heart-y, potato-y taste. If you do roast them, if you make sure they are not touching their skins can gain a bit of crispiness.

 Warning

I thought I’d best put this in as my other half had a bad night after eating a few too many. Like yacon, Jerusalem artichokes contain inulin, which is a sugar that humans cannot digest. It is a prebiotic (not a probiotic) that feeds the flora in the gut (as opposed to repopulating the gut). It’s good for your digestive system, but it can cause bloating and flatulence if you eat too much, too quickly. Apparently, your digestive system can adjust if you can introduce it slowly.  

Chinese artichokes

Short version:

An easy to grow, perennial tuber that can look a bit like a tiny Michelin man, with top growth that looks like mint. They are not related to artichokes… though maybe, just maybe … when sautéed in butter it has a taste a little like steamed artichokes.

Stachys affinis – often called Chinese artichokes or crosnes – are in fact in the Lamiaceae family (not the Asteraceae family, like artichokes), which is the one that contains many aromatics like mint, sage, oregano, rosemary, lavender, balms, catnip and thyme. Chinese artichokes do in fact have leaves that look like mint, but they have no aroma at all. This is the first year that I have grown them so I have only a limited amount of experience with them, but I think they’re so crazy looking and tasty that I couldn’t wait to share.

How to grow

I bought these from ‘Suttons’ as part of a gourmet roots collection. They arrived in May as little plants. I have read that they can be grown from the tubers that are planted into the ground from October to March – pointed end up, 5 cm deep and around 30cm apart. Hopefully, what I’ve read about them regrowing from tubers left in the ground will make them an easy to grow perennial in my garden for years to come. This is what piqued my interest when I read about them in my trusty ‘How to grow Perennial Vegetables’ book by Martin Crawford. From digging around I can see how some of these tiny tubers could easily be left behind. I’ll probably keep a few spare tubers at the end of the season in a pot of compost in the shed over the winter as a precaution. The tubers can rot if left in waterlogged soil over winter, but I’ve read that growth in spring can be really early so tubers are best put in in late winter.

They like fertile free draining but moist soil and plenty of sun. Once planted though, they can be ignored. They grow to about 40cm tall. They can grow flowers. Mine didn’t this year, but if they appear it is best to remove them so that energy goes into tubers instead.

A few of my tubers have appeared to be eaten by some mini critter. This looks similar to what happened to some of my carrots this year, where there were tracks on the surface. It only affected about 5 or 6 out of the 50 or so tubers.

How to harvest

These are ready to harvest in the UK from late October. I was planning to leave mine for another month, but a cat made the choice for me by digging up a third of the plants. There were still plenty of tubers, no bigger than my thumb (first week of November). I was surprised by the varying shapes and sizes and the depth at which they grew. The roots are very brittle so it’s not possible to just yank then out by the stems. You need to dig, and quite deep too. I found some tubers about 40cm deep. Apparently thick, organic mulch encourages growth closer to the surface, something I’ll try next year.

Apparently if you leave till first frost, they get sweeter. I’ll let you know if it’s true later in the year. They also don’t store too well once harvested (they had started to go brown at the ends within a day of being in the fridge) so I’ll leave the rest as they are and just have a dig every time I want to cook some. I have read that they store well in the ground as long as it doesn’t become waterlogged.

How to eat

They have a very thin skin (part of the reason they don’t store well) so they don’t need peeling. They can be a bit fiddly to wash. When they come in odd shapes with arms, I’ve found that I’ve had to snap the arms off to access the ingrained soil. Any imperfections can be scrapped off with a nail because they are so delicate.

These can be eaten raw. They have a crispness like water chestnuts and a similar taste, with a hint of radish, but much milder in flavour.

When sauteed in butter they lose a little of that crispness and gain a bit of texture and taste closer to taro. Their flavour deepens and becomes more nutty with a bit of sweetness. When I do think they do taste a little like the steamed heart of a globe artichoke. Just a little mind you, and they don’t have the weird thing that happens with artichokes that make everything else taste sweet.

Pumpkin carving 2020

Happy Halloween!

Another Halloween has rolled round and with it the excuse to carve another pumpkin. This year little one asked for Octonauts. Yes plural. I really should have pinned her down to a single one but she found it hard to choose. I then made the mistake of buying a very large pumpkin. Yup, I’m afraid, as usual, I didn’t grow this one. I still can’t justify giving so much space to a huge pumpkin vine in the garden for the sake of a tasteless £1 Halloween pumpkin. Yes, granted, I could plant a carvable pumpkin that tastes good too but I like to stick to red kuri pumpkins. These taste great and can be trained vertically to save space.

Anyway, a big pumpkin just made the temptation to do something challenging too hard to resist. so here it is, this years Halloween pumpkin.

This is little one’s pumpkin. She drew her design on the pumpkin in biro. I then cut the outline of her shapes with the Thai carving knife. She then gouged out most of her bits with a little carving tool. I kid you not. That was the scariest 20 minutes of my Halloween. I just hovered around her both hands ready to grab, rearranging her hands so she wouldn’t hurt herself.

Last year’s pumpkin carving post goes into more detail about how it was done. This year there are just a few photos from the process, which you may not be surprised to know, took a friggin’ long time. So long that in the end I couldn’t be bothered to try and cook something out of the bland insides this year.

Here it is in the light with some creepy veg that we DID grow in the garden. The carrots grew like this because I added too much fertiliser to the pot. The pumpkin munchkins grew like this, I think, because the young fruit had been pierced by the berry pirates (aka Southern shield bug).

And here are some more photos because I’m sadly rather proud of it and it took sooooo long….

Lambs lettuce

Short version:

A slow growing, winter hardy salad that grows in short rosettes and happily self-seeds. It can be sown direct into most soils but also does well in pots on balconies and rooftops. It can be sown now in October or in the spring.

I think that lambs lettuce is the name most commonly used for valerianella locusta in these parts, but this leaf is often known as corn salad, field salad and mâche. I have also heard that this is the leaf in the Rapunzel story that the mother craved so badly, so I have called it rapunzel when showing it to kids in the edible garden at school.

How to grow

October is a great month to sow this salad. There is very little that can still be sown this late in the year, but this is a great salad to sow September to October in preparation for the winter months. It has sprung up in the school edible garden, having self seeded, a testament to it being a good time to grow it. It can also be sown in March and April. It does well sown directly into the soil outdoors. The soil does not need to be particularly fertile and it grows well in pretty much all soil conditions, though it does like full sun. It can also be sown in early winter under cover.

You need to give these plants some space as they grow in rosettes that hug the ground. They should really be about 15cm apart and I’ve found that pretty much all the lambs lettuce seeds I sow germinate. You can either show thinly in rows about 15cm apart (though you can harvest/thin the plants that are too close to each other) or what I like to do is pop them in and around other, taller plants, that are not very bushy or that grow slowly. As they grow so low and have few needs, they don’t form much competition.

My preferred time to grow lambs lettuce though is now, in October, after I’ve harvested and cleared some of the other annuals. They fill the time and space over winter and can be harvested before the spring crops go in. They have quite thick, slightly waxy leaves which might contribute to their winter hardiness (British winters anyway). They do well with frost and the cold weather isn’t detrimental to their taste or texture. They do grow slowly though, especially so in winter but it’s a nice one to just sow in a box or pot and dump on a balcony or roof, to be ignored for a couple of months.

It grows like a weed and self-seeds very well so you can establish a patch somewhere in the garden and leave it to do its thing. If you prefer your salad less unruly you can collect the seed heads after flowering and just shake them into a bag. Just as a weird warning though – I have done this twice and have found that there is an odd smell.  

They seem to be left alone by the slugs and snails in the garden.

How to harvest

When thinning the extra plants can be eaten.  They can then be treated as a cut and come again salad leaf by removing the outer most leaves each time or the whole plant can be pulled out. They are often found in salad bags in small rosettes. The flowers are also edible but as it diverts energy into flowering, leaf production decreases. Unlike many other leafy greens, the taste does not diminish with flowering.

How they taste

It is basically a lettuce like leaf with a hint of nuttiness. It has a bit more body and texture than lettuce though. We often eat them in salads or just as a garden snack. Little one loves to graze on it so we try and grow it where she can access it. She’s often quite fussy about salad leaves and won’t eat things like cos or iceberg lettuce – either home grown, or shop bought. They can be wilted and seasoned or thrown into cooked dishes at the last minute.      

Carrots

Short version:

Not that much tastier than shop bought, doesn’t save you much money and carrots are easily available in the shops, but carrots are good fun for kids. They can be very easy as they can be sown thinly where they are to grow, but soil must be stone and weed free and not high in nitrogen. They are a great one for deep containers plonked on a sunny balcony or rooftop.

This is an odd one for me as I typically prefer to grow plants that are expensive or difficult to buy in the shops, or that taste much better when home grown. Carrots don’t really fall into any of these camps, in our experience they only taste a little bit better than shop bought. However, we do grow them because little one absolutely adores picking, washing, peeling and eating her own carrots. The draw for kids to carrots is so strong that the carrot and beetroot bed in the edible school garden that I maintain is the only vegetable bed that has been ransacked by the kids. I didn’t mind too much as I heard that they were taken home and forced upon parents to prepare.

The Daucus carota subsp. Sativus is from the Apiaceae or Umbellifera family. The umbellifers are characterised by the flowers growing in a head of small clusters of tiny flowers. You may have seen this type of flower formation in cow parsley, dill or coriander, which are in this family. This family tend to be rather aromatic and have tap roots. Be wary though as there are a few dangers lurking in this family like the deadly hemlock (highly toxic) or giant hogweed (contains phototoxins). The sap of hogweed can cause blisters if it gets on the skin and is then exposed to the sun (that’s where the photo bit comes from). In fact, this is why I have never been tempted to grow parsnips (also of this family) with the little one around, as the sap of parsnips also contains phototoxins. You don’t tend to see the flowers of the carrot as they should be harvested way before they get that far.

How to grow

They like stone free, sandy, loamy soil in sunny spots. Carrots are rather picky. The heavy clay in our garden would give short roots. Any obstacles (like stones or even the roots of other carrots or weeds) will lead to forks and twisty roots. Too much nitrogen can also cause carrots to fork. Nitrogen will give lots of great foliage, but that isn’t a good indication of what is going on down below.

They don’t like being transplanted and if the foliage is crushed during transplanting (or even during thinning) then they can attract carrot root fly, whose larvae burrow into and eat the roots. This means that sowing directly into the soil THINLY is the way to go. This does make for an easy crop to grow, as long as you provide the right growing medium.

For all the above reasons I prefer to grow them in repurposed containers, like polystyrene boxes or old water tanks. The containers should be about 7cm deeper than the variety of carrot you intend to grow in it. Because they are low growing, they are also a suitable one for deep containers shoved on a roof or balcony. I’m afraid the urge to grow edibles in any available container on every conceivable surface was inevitable in our house when lockdown happened. They also do well in raised beds full of compost. The nutrients already available in good compost means that fertilising isn’t necessary, so I don’t need to go find a fertiliser that is low in nitrogen but higher in potassium and phosphate.

They can be sown as early as February if they are protected from any frosts, but for an easy life we sow between April and July.

Sow 1cm deep in rows about 5 cm apart. It’s best to sow each row thinly. If necessary, thin the seedlings when about 10cm tall so that seedlings are about 4cm away from each other. They don’t like competition so should be weeded. When thinning or weeding be careful not to crush the leaves, to avoid attracting carrot fly. There are fly resistant varieties on the market though if this is a worry. I have read that planting strong smelling plants like onions, garlic or chives nearby can mask the smell. Do not plant near other umbellifers as these can also attract the carrot fly. 

Grow shorter carrots if you’re worried about your container depth. You could even grow spherical Parisienne carrots. You can grow interesting coloured ones instead as they are not easy to get in shops.

How to harvest

Carrots take 2-3 months but if thinning is required the thinnings can be eaten. You can tell if the carrot is ready to harvest by pulling the soil around the base away. You’ll be able to see how big the carrot is underneath. You can pick the carrots as you need them, taking the largest ones first to give the others time to grow. However, be gentle with the plants and take the carrots away straight after harvest as you don’t want to attract the carrot fly.

How to eat

Er… raw or cooked. It’s up to you. The forked ones may look a bit weird and are hard to clean or peel, but generally they taste the same. The carrot tops are edible, and taste much like parsley but we haven’t found a use for them yet as they’re a bit too tough for us. I’ve read that they make a good pesto ingredient though.

(Swiss/Rainbow) Chard

Short version:

Also called leaf beet and perpetual spinach this easy to grow, winter hardy leaf is great for cold months and the hungry gap as a cut and come again green. It’s something you can still sow now in September to replace the things that have been harvested. It tastes great but can cause that furry feeling on the teeth and isn’t recommended for anyone who has kidney stones.  

In some pages on the internet swiss chard, rainbow chard, chard, leaf beet, perpetual spinach are all terms that are interchangeable and all versions of beta vulgaris subsp.cicla var.flavescens. From what I can gather the term swiss chard is sometimes used for the chard with white stems. Perpetual spinach is usually green stemmed and rainbow chard is a mixture of seeds of chard plants that are white, green, red (sometimes called ruby chard) and yellow (sometimes called golden chard).

How to grow

September is your last chance in the year for some chard sowing in the UK. They can be sown outside where they are to grow between March and September, depending on where you live. In London, where it is warmer, you can push to the boundaries either side of the sowing season. Up north (like Liverpool where my parents are), sowing April till August is a safer bet.

Sow in fertile soil in a sunny spot in drills between 1-2cm deep in rows about 30cm apart.

Chard seeds are like beetroot seeds in how the seed is actually a cluster of seeds. 1-4 seedlings can sprout from one seed. This means that you need to thin the seedlings to about 15cm apart once they have sprouted. If you have a cluster you can thin with a small pair of scissors as pulling seedlings out can sometimes pull up all the seedlings.

For this reason, and also because it means I can sow early and late in the season  I prefer to sow in pots (often made of old milk and juice cartons) indoors and then dig up the seedlings to thin them into individual pots. If you do this, handling the seedlings by their leaves leads to less damage than holding their fragile stems. I also do this because seedlings are dug up and pooed on by the local cats or devoured by the local gastropods. Planting out rather more well placed, substantial plants have been more successful for us.

In addition, with feeling like the apocalypse has been looming this whole year, our small garden is crammed full of edibles. There isn’t any space for the winter veggies yet. At some point the beetroots, carrots, onions, squashes, Jerusalem and Chinese artichokes, yacon and tomatoes will be harvested, and the garden will be very bare. So, this month I’ve sown kales, cauliflowers, Chinese veggies (kai lan, choi sum, Chinese cabbage) and chard indoors. Each plant has (or will have) its own tetra Pak pot on every conceivable window sill space. Once there is bare earth I’ll do some hole composting (bury my growing collection of green kitchen waste in holes about a foot or two deep) to add fertility and then plant out the winter veggies on top, which should be bigger and sturdier then.   

After the chard flowers it dies back and then needs to be dug out.

How to harvest

All the different types of chard will grow leaves on slender stems from the base. You can begin gently harvesting a few of the leaves when the plant is about a foot tall. Patience is rewarded with stems and leaves that are bigger and thicker and you can begin more substantial harvesting. Harvest the bigger outer leaves first by cutting close to the base.

When the weather starts to get really warm chard starts sending up thick (can be up to 3cm in diameter) flowering stems from the centre. These can be picked when immature and make a great bulky, fast growing vegetable. Once you cut the central flower stem, it will send up thinner stems from just below the cut. These can also be harvested. They become thinner and thinner, as you harvest, until they’re too fiddly to pick easily, but by continuing to pick the flowering stems you can prolong the life of the plant.

If you sow later in the summer, they become a biennial. They won’t mature before the weather turns colder and then provides a great source of food over the colder months and the hungry gap later on. They then will start trying to flower and subsequently die when the weather gets warm.

How they taste

Chard can be eaten raw, but I prefer to simply fry in a little butter and garlic with a sprinkling of salt. The stems need more cooking time, so I usually chop with scissors into 1 cm long pieces straight into the pan. I’ll fry for about 2 minutes before tearing (or cutting) the remaining leaves into bigger pieces before adding.

They also work well steamed, boiled or the stems are great roasted.

The leaves are soft, almost velvety and yielding when you bite into them. The stems have a crisp bite, like celery does or a beansprout.

They have a slight earthy taste, like beetroots, the red more so. The yellow maybe slightly nutty and the white and green sweeter. There is a slight metallic aftertaste and usually the same furry feeling on the teeth and tongue afterwards, like you get with spinach. This is due to the oxalic acid present. It combines with calcium that is also present in the leaves to form crystals of calcium oxalate. This is insoluble (doesn’t dissolve) in water so the crystals give you that film in your mouth. This also means that, though chard is high in calcium, you won’t be able to absorb much of it in the body as it is bound as oxalate. Whilst eating in moderation isn’t a health hazard for most, chard consumption is not recommended to people who have issues with kidney stones.   

By boiling chard, discarding the water and rinsing you can remove some of the calcium oxalate and some of that furry teeth feeling.

Problems

Growing chard is generally easy, though the slugs and snails can be quite fond of it. The biggest problem I find is the leaf miners. The grubs of these beetles live and burrow within the layers of the leaf. This is a reason in itself not to use pesticides as they don’t work when the culprit is protected by the leaf. You can protect with fleece, but I usually just rip the bits of the leaf off and dispose of (not compost) them to stop the grubs from maturing and then going on to produce it’s own offspring. The leaves can often carry on growing fine with holes in. Another way is to harvest all the affected leaves and then cut out the affected bits in the kitchen as part of your prep.

Southern green shield bug

Short version:

The invasive southern green shield bugs are not benign like the native green shield bug (England). Let them live to the peril of your berries, fruits and beans. This one species comes in many guises. I can only apologise for the blurry photos, especially the microscope lens ones.

I found these newly hatched bugs whilst harvesting beans. What do they look like? Beetles? Ladybirds? Leave them be I may hear some of you say. Don’t you want a gazillion tiny ladybirds that will become voracious eaters of pests?

No… well yes… I do want that. But no. These are not ladybirds. These are Southern green shield bugs, also known as stink bugs. I know they’re definitely NOT ladybirds. I know because ladybirds start off as alien looking nymphs (click here for last week’s post). In fact when I wrote last week’s post I had put some eggs into the bug jar so I could confirm that they were ladybirds. They hatched and this is what they looked like below. Mini ladybird nymphs.

This is an interesting bug for it’s young alone. After hatching it goes through quite a few stages, known as instars before it becomes the recognisable green shield shaped bug. If you hadn’t seen them before, you wouldn’t be the only one to think that the different instars were different bugs. Now the common green shield bug (palomena prasina) adult looks very similar to the southern green shield bug (nezara viridula) except it has a darker patch at the back of the body. I’ve not seen any of them in the garden so I have no photos, but if I did, I would not mind as the common green shield bug isn’t a berry pirate. The southern one though…

This monster only arrived on our shores fairly recently (reportedly 2003). It is thought they hitched a lift on food produce from Africa. The southern green shield bug does a lot of damage. I first came across them about 6 years ago. My cucamelons had funny little bumps on them and it was only when I saw the shield bugs swarming over them (if a dozen constitutes a swarm) and put 2 and 2 together. I hadn’t really minded them in the last 2 years in this new garden, until they treated my blackberries like juice boxes and damaged hundreds of berries. I wouldn’t mind so much if they ate the whole berry. When half of the drupelets have gone this weird white colour, the berry just isn’t appealing. The individual drupelets then go on to die anyway. So, when the berry isn’t ripe and this damage is done, by the time the berry is ripe, the damaged drupelets are just disgusting. They have needle like stylets which they use for piercing. You can see the entry wound on the individual druplets.

I had harvested many of the blackberries 2 days before and everything looked lovely. In only 2 days they had done this. I knew it was them as, again, I saw them crawling over the berries. After a good old hunt and collect of the berry pirates there was considerably less damage.

They seem to favour berries, beans and tomatoes in our garden. Their eating can cause little bumpy scars on beans and cucamelons, which I don’t mind too much to be honest. Unfortunately when they feed heavily there can be distortion of the beans.

From looking at the young you wouldn’t have thought that they were green shield bugs. This is how they change over time. Just as an FYI they are a giant pain in the butt to kill. I tried to take photos of them alive, but boy do they move fast. I tried to drown them in an old jam jar. I thought they had died and lined them up to take photos. 20 minutes later though they were wandering around… Every…. Single…. One of them! These are hard little devils. I’m afraid my camera is only my iphone, I’m no photographer and my subjects were very reluctant so the photos are not great quality. The young come in stages called instars. I’m not sure how accurate my identification is, but this is a rough estimate of the nymphal stages:

They apparently stay on the egg cases for 48 hours, which is probably why I was lucky enough to spot them and capture a batch before they wreaked havoc. They moult between each stage and as far as I can tell only the adult has wings. The one from the above photo had a damaged wing so they never folded away properly.

As I tried to take a photo of what I thought was a dead shield bug, it started to wiggle and then climbed into my microscope lens. They really are resilient little blighters!

Ladybirds

Short version:

Harlequin ladybirds have overtaken the native British ladybirds mostly in the South of England, but they are still great predators to encourage in the garden. They go through a nymph stage, turning into a pupa, before becoming the recognisable beetle shape.

I was actually going to post about berry pirates, better known as the Southern green shield bug but as I was writing I found myself researching an awful lot about ladybirds. You’ll understand when you see next weeks blog. I was also hunting the garden for specimens of both the shield bug and ladybird to take photos of and I found the ladybird in its various stages and thought it might be an interesting read. So pictured here are both ladybirds that are one of the most helpful critters in the garden. Yes, I do realise that pictures are a little blurry, but these are small creatures that are being photographed with an iphone, through a microscope.

Unfortunately, the British native red ladybird (coccinella septempunctata –7 spot or adalia bipunctata – 2 spot) is in decline because the harlequin ladybird (harmonia axyridis) has muscled in. They are all part of the same Coccinellidae family, but the harlequin reportedly came from Asia in 2004 via Europe when it was introduced as a pest predator, according to the natural history museum website. I’m sad to say that I haven’t seen a native ladybird for about 15 years. This is also down to a move from a more rural setting up north to a big southern city, where the harlequin is reportedly more prevalent.

The same website also mentions the STD that the ladybirds are reported to carry. It is a fungus called laboulbenia, and no, it does not affect humans. Phew! I was bitten during my research this week. It hurt but at least there are no lasting effects.

Between the STD and the natural predators like parasitic wasps there will be an equilibrium reached where both native and invasive species should co-exist (so says the website). In the meantime, I’m rather fond of the harlequin ladybirds (even the bugger that bit me) because they are voracious eaters of the aphids that are my most unwelcome garden inhabitants. The photos are all harlequin ladybirds as those are the only ones I seem to have in my garden.

Below are ladybird eggs, I think. I have put them in the bug jar and so will confirm this when they hatch. They were laid on the most aphid infested leaf that was in the garden which is a good indication. Mothers will lay eggs where there is a plentiful supply of food. The leaf would not have made for good eating with that much damage.

Below is a ladybird nymph. They hatch as tiny versions of these. I’m afraid I couldn’t get a photo because bugs that small are hard to find. I did manage to get a photo of a discarded skin though. As the nymph grows it sheds its exoskeleton several times.

They then enter a pupa stage, where its insides change. It then emerges in the beetle shape. This is the adult form with a hard wing case that hides the wings when not in use. They hibernate over winter, ready to lay eggs in the summer.

Despite their very different colouring these are below are all harlequin ladybugs. Their colouring acts as a warning to tell predators that they taste unpleasant and they can extrude a horrible yellow liquid when they feel threatened from their leg joints.

The best way to encourage ladybirds into the garden is to have plenty of food, i.e. aphids, and to not spray pesticides. You can help them to overwinter by providing them with somewhere to hibernate. Apparently the bug hotel of choice is one with narrow tubes of various sizes like a pot stuffed with bamboo and other woody, hollow stems.

Musk mallow

Short version:

A tasty and attractive short lived perennial plant with unusual leaves and lovely large pink flowers. It can grow in almost all soil types and can tolerate some light shade.

Malva moschata or musk mallow is a relative of the better known marsh mallow, whose roots in times past were use to make the confections of the same name.

I started growing this after reading about it in ‘How to grow Perennial Vegetables’ by Martin Crawford. I’ll have to blog more on this book at a later date as I’ve found it to be an amazing resource. Out of the types he listed: hollyhocks, wood mallow, marsh mallow and musk mallow I found, at the time, the musk mallow seeds the easiest to purchase. All mallows are supposed to edible (but don’t eat them unless you’re sure of your identification and do your own research to check that the specific one that you’re eating is definitely edible) but I think only these ones are listed because the others are biennial or annuals.

How to grow

These can be grown from seed either in autumn or in spring. If growing these for the first time I’d suggest sowing in a pot indoors if possible, to help with identification when the seedling appears. It can then be planted out after frosts. I originally sowed mine in autumn and kept it indoors through the winter where it grew fairly slowly.  It then was a strong little plant in the spring.

It can tolerate all types of soil but prefers a moist soil that drains well. I’ve read that it should NOT be fertilised as it can accumulate harmful levels of nitrates in the leaves. Apparently, it is the same with lettuces. It likes full sun but can tolerate light shade. Ours are in a pot which only gets sun from about 1pm onwards and they’re happy.

It has the strangest leaves though. They become more divided as the plant flowers. This makes for interesting pressed leaves or sunprints (which I’ll do a blog on at some point too). In the set of pics of the flowers you can see all the different leaves.

The flowering period runs from July to September, but we have had some flowers in late June before.

It is an evergreen plant and will keep a few leaves at the base, even if the frosts come. However, it is a short-lived perennial but it does self-seed quite happily (even my voracious 5 year old doesn’t manage to eat ALL the flowers before they have a chance to set seed). You won’t notice the oldest plant has died if you have a few that are a year or so old filling in the gaps.

How to harvest

Help yourself to leaves and flowers as of and when they’re there. After flowering, the unripe seed pods can be eaten. I’ve read that they are called cheeses due to their shape. These only have a short window of opportunity before they ripen and become hard seeds. That isn’t a problem as it means you’ll be able to save seeds for next year or let it self seed.

How they taste

I’ve been trying to grow a plethora of edible flowers. Edible is not synonymous with tasty. Things like artichoke buds are gorgeous steamed, borage makes a fun cucumbery snack, nasturtiums are tasty but a bit spicy when raw to eat many of, pansies have a wintergreen flavour (think ‘deep heat’ spray) and then there’s sunflower or dahlia petals which are nicely nutty but many varieties are bitter. Some taste like the rest of the plant, like brassica flowers or herb flowers. Some are just deeply bitter and I find it hard pressed to call them food, though they make a lovely garnish like fuchsias or Siberian purslane. I’m still growing fuchsia in the hope that one of the varieties I grow will produce tasty berries (all are edible but not all taste good).

Musk mallow is a delicate, beautiful flower that grows prolifically in season and tastes lovely raw. It has a lettuce like flavour so goes very well on top of salads or, as it happens in our garden, as a snack as soon as the petals open. If you’ve beaten the bees to it (and the bees do love it) you’ll also get a lovely sweetness to it. The flowers have a slight musky smell if you put your nose in close – hence the name. The musky smell is not noticeable when eating though.

The leaves have a lettuce like taste again, but they also have a slightly mucilaginous feel which is probably why they can be used to thicken soups or stews.

The ‘cheeses’ taste slightly nutty.

Chinese Chives

Short version:

These perennials have flat, grass like leaves that radiate from the base in an upright manner. They spread slowly and grow in clumps. They can be grown from seed or the bulbs/rhizomes can be transplanted to start a patch. They thrive at the opposite time of the year to three cornered leeks so work well grown in conjunction. They taste like sweet mild garlic.

I have been around Chinese chives , also called garlic chives – allium tuberosum – my entire life. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents, as well as my mum grew these in their gardens. Each single plant looks like a succulent wide leaf grass with the leaves stemming from the base. They will grow in a clump.  

How to grow

They can be grown from seed in little pots around April/May and then planted out as small clumps. It’s written in lots of websites that they self seed invasively, but in my own experience the seeds don’t germinate particularly easily. They also lose viability within the year. This may be why they don’t spread very fast. An easier way to get started is to ask someone who already has them to give you a dozen or so spare little plants. They are perennial so they come back every year and can keep growing for decades. The plants my mum has have continued to thrive even after 30 years. It would be hard to know though whether they are still the original plants or whether the oldest plants have died off years ago but have been replaced over the years by self propagating itself some replacements plants. They don’t run rampant like three cornered leeks, which can fill a whole bed within a couple of years. The Chinese chives (from what I’ve seen in my and my family’s gardens) will stay rather local and spread much much slower.  They are however a great plant to grow in conjunction with three cornered leeks.

The three cornered leeks thrive in the winter. They start in October and are in full swing by November when the Chinese chives are beginning to lose their umph. The three cornered leeks flower in April and die back soon after. This is when the Chinese Chives are filling out. As you can see from the photo they look very similar with the broad, flat leaves. The three cornered leeks have the middle rib and have the triangular cross section, whereas the the Chinese chives are very flat.

They like sun but grow fine in shade. This year the runner beans have completely shaded them and they’re still looking fine (picture at the start of the blog – you can even see that the nasturtiums are trying to overrun them).

The flowers grow on tall stalks that get tough as the flowers open. The flowers are lovely and don’t look out of place in a flower bed.  They are also loved by bees.

How to harvest

You can chop the whole thing off at the base before they send their flower shoots up. This is the quickest way and generally how my mum harvests. I, myself, often pull the thickest, juiciest, individual outer leaves to give the inner leaves a bit more time to grow, by severing with a thumbnail.

The flower stem with the bud on top can be harvested, as scapes, before the bud opens.

The flowers can also be harvested and look lovely in a salad, but by this point the stem will be too tough.

How they taste

They have a sweet, garlicky taste. They are excellent lightly stir fried or added to dishes at the last minute. We often eat them as a spring onion substitute in crispy duck pancakes. When they are at their fullest and juiciest, we sometimes stir fry as much as we can collect as a side dish. If they’re chopped up into centimetre long bits, they can be dropped into piping hot soups or congee (a Chinese rice porridge) to add flavour and colour. The scapes are fabulous just lightly fried in a pan.