Monday, 21 May 2012

Balcony gardening

If you do not have the luxury of a few square meters of soil, there are plenty of possibilities to grow vegetables on your balcony. Some crops like the warmth and shelter even more than the cold earth. Other advances are: the ability to guide your plants closely; having them near the kitchen (a fresher meal is not possible); and normally mice, rabbits and most insects will not reach your plants (be aware of pets, though).
Next to the presumed pots on the ground, you can hang pots on the wall, on the railing and grow climbers against the wall and above the windows by using racks. Without a lot of space, working in layers is a good option.

This picture shows the different possibilities described above. We recently turned over our balcony, so the plants do not cover the whole wall yet. When growing vegetables on your balcony, you have to take in mind that big crops are not possible because there is not enough space to create adequate roots. In the superficial balcony boxes (on the right side in the picture) you can grow vegetables such as spinach, radishes, lettuce, rocket, and all kinds of kitchen- and tea herbs (chamomile, mint, marigold). 
In bigger pots you can even grow the more 'exotic' or warmer crops such as eggplant, paprika, tomato and pepper. Protected by wind, and with the extra warmth from the walls, you can easily create a tropical atmosphere for them.

Having four pieces of wall on our balcony, we took advantage of it by placing all kinds of racks for climbing plants. The good thing is that most climbers have beautiful flowers as well, think of peas, kiwi, runner beans, Indian cress and caigua. Those last three are all doing great on our balcony.
Furthermore you can keep plenty of herbs, flowers and small crops in vertical rows of bags on the wall, or cover your wall with small hanging pots (also called 'vertical gardening'). It saves so much space!
On the most difficult reachable places you can construct a hanging basket. A perfect edible hanging plant is strawberry. You can hang the plant higher up; the strawberries will hang down the sides of the basket. 
No more excuses for too little space for vegetables on your one square meter balcony!

How to start your own vegetable garden

Often we hear: "oh, how I would like to grow my own fruits and vegetables, but I do not know how and where to start." For those, we would like to give a simple step-by-step outline and tips to start your own vegetable garden.
As for all first times: don't make it too complex or too big. You will loose your overview. And especially with growing plants, this can be discouraging.

February would be an adequate time to begin with the following steps:
Step 1. Firstly, think of the vegetables you like to eat, and which plants would you like to grow? Don't take crops that are too exotic for the climate. Also, don't buy too many (different) seeds for the first time. We would recommended (for a temperate climate): radish, lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, onions, leek, pumpkins and zuchinni. These are relatively easy to grow.

Step 2. It is important that you make a plan before you just throw in the seeds. If you buy seeds in packages, there is a calender at the back which tells you when to sow and when the crops are ready to be harvested. If not, there well be tons of sowing calenders for your climate on the internet. 
Decide if you want to breed the seeds earlier indoors, or you want to place them immediately in the soil. If your garden is also inhabited by rabbits, or if the garden is not immediately near your house, we recommend that you sprout the seeds in little pots in your window sill. Here you are able to keep a close eye on the seeds and water them if needed.

Step 3. Place the seed packages before you and make a list including the following: vegetable name; the planting season(s) (indoors and outdoors); followed by the harvesting season. Also include other notes from the package, for example the space that is needed between the plants. Next to that, make a little drawing of which plants you place where in the (square) vegetable garden. Then write in your diary, or make a note on your phone, when you have to sow the particular vegetables.

Step 4. Then it is time to prepare the soil. Choose a sunny spot and set out a few square meters. If the soil is very sandy: add a little dark/black soil. If the earth is very though and moist: add a little sand. Remove weeds and dig the soil a spade length deep. Make sure the soil is mixed well (so that the upper part is mixed well with deeper soil). You can also mix in some dung or compost.

Step 5. When it is time to sow the seeds, make little holes in the ground. Just place the seeds a few centimeters under the ground (approximately one time the size of the seed; so the bigger the seed, the deeper it goes) and cover them with earth. You can place a name tag with it, or separate the beds with sticks. Make sure the seeds have plenty of water. 

Now there is only a little watering and weeding needed. It is worth the work and patience to see your food growing! 

Monday, 14 May 2012

Sunday, 6 May 2012

What to do with... rhubarb?

Rhubarb has a bad name for some people; and for others it may be nostalgic. Both these people associate it with this stringy compote substance, with too much - or too little - sugar. To be honest, my father was the only one in my family who ate rhubarb occasionally; I never tried it.

When we took over the allotment, we accepted a huge rhubarb plant with it. First it looked horrific - 'is that bulb from outer space?' - but when it grew into pretty red stems and large leafs, it was actually the first thing that 'greened' our garden. We had to try it though, and the taste was amazing! Somewhere between grapefruit and passionfruit; I can't believe it's made out of Dutch clay! 
However, licking the rhubarb stems, we soon found out that a sweetener was definitively needed to continue eating it. And yes, cooking was the only thing I knew, but it sure did not enhance the vegetable (or is it fruit?). So, I made a pie out of it: a kind of applepie, but then I replaced half of the apples with chopped rhubarb.

Now that the second spring of our garden has approached, it is time to harvest our sour friend again. Throughout the year I collected ideas and recipes for it. Next to more mainstream rhubarb crumble or pies, these are my favourites (and they are easy to make too!):

Rhubarb - apple sorbet - cook 200 milliliters organic apple juice with 150 grams of sugar. Add vanilla and 700 grams of chopped rhubarb and cook for 15 minutes. Mash it and put it in the freezer for about four hours. Don't forget to stir every half hour. 

Rhubarb cheesecake - make a dough, crumble cookies or mix chocolate with cornflakes for the base. Mix Mascarpone or cream cheese with stiff whipped cream, sugar and a bit of vanilla. Chop the rhubarb in small pieces and bake it in the oven with sugar until it's soft. Drain it, and when cold, top it on the cheesecake.
(Salad dressing - from the drained fluid above, you can make a nice vinaigrette for salads, with goat cheese for example)

Rhubarb - rosewater syrup - or Sharbat-e reevas, a traditional Middle Eastern drink.  To make the rhubarb syrup: add 400 grams of sugar to 500 grams of rhubarb and leave it for about 1,5 hours.  Pour 250 milliliters of water with it and let it cook for 20 minutes. Filter it and boil it down with lemon juice. For this sharbat, add two spoons of rosewater or rose petals. To serve the drink, mix one part syrup with three parts water and some ice.

Rhubarb cake - add pieces of rhubarb on top of your favorite home-made cake before you shove it in the oven.

Rhubarb vodka - chop two or three dry rhubarb stems, cover it with 25 grams of sugar en put it in a glass jar. Add 700 milliliters vodka and close the jar well. You can also add spices, lemon or ginger for an even more original twist. Sieve the drink after two or three weeks. Add ice and enjoy the spring afternoons.