Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Prize Parsnips and Bogus Baby Carrots

A bag of perfect ‘baby’ carrots

I was looking at prize exhibition parsnips this week.  It’s not something I usually hang my nose over but I was interested in some of the growing methods that are used to product the long tapering roots worthy of being a competition winner.  It seems the best method is growing them in 50 gallon drums filled with mostly sand. 

All of the obsessive allotmenteers who take part in this type of growing have their own secret additives but I did find out that the 2015 winner of the Dublin City scheme added vermiculite, ground limestone, calcified seaweed, compost and a top dressing of a granulated organic fertilizer. Of course I couldn’t find out the quantities so you’ll have to experiment if you want to be up there with the best.

I mentioned a while ago about the sorry state of the root vegetable market. One point in particular was that farms producing parsnips actually look for “good” parsnips as they go along the production line and all of the rest are discarded and dug back into the earth.  It’s the same with carrots and has been for a while as the retailers are convinced that we will only but vegetables if they are “perfect” with no blemishes or irregular bits sticking out.

This is by no means a recent phenomenon. One American farmer back in the early 80’s by the name of Mike Yurosek realised that a lot of his carrots weren’t going to market because of their shape. The carrot business in the US was stagnant and wasteful, growing seasons were long, and more than half of what farmers grew was misshapen and like the UK market, retailers thought that customers wouldn’t buy them. So Yurosek, itching for a way to make use of all the misshapen carrots, tried something new. Instead of tossing them out, he carved them into something more palatable looking.
At first, he used a potato peeler, which didn't quite work because the process was too labourious. But then he bought an industrial green-bean cutter. The machine cut the carrots into uniform 2-inch pieces. They  have proved to be just the right size as they just  fit into your mouth.

The ‘unsightly’ carrots are  milled, sculpted and standardized  serving as an example of how disconnected we can be as at first glance (or second) you can’t tell them apart from actual whole peeled carrots.

Yurosek didn’t really know how these modified shapes would go down with his regular retailers so he delivered a few bags to a local shop. He suspected he was on to something, but hardly anticipated such an enthusiastic response. The shop phoned him the next day and told him that “We only want those.” From there most of his other customers went the same way.

The little carrot sculptures (or baby CUT carrots, as they're sometimes called to clarify, because they are actually NOT baby carrots) not only revived a once struggling carrot industry in America, but they also helped both curb waste on the farm and sell the Vitamin D-filled vegetables at the supermarkets. Today, baby carrots such as these dominate the carrot industry in the US. The packaged orange snacks are now responsible for almost 70 per cent of all carrot sales and we are not too far behind as more and more shops and cafes are selling them – because they are just so convenient. 


Why are these types of carrots so popular now? Maybe as we find ourselves with less time to sit down at restaurants or even cook at home, convenience has guided all sorts of decisions about food, especially when there is an option that requires little more than opening a packet. The fact that you don't have to peel them, wash them or chop them makes the carrot pieces an ideal healthy snack, in fact they are advertised as an alternative to junk food, rather than a different way to eat carrots. The packaging was changed to mirror that used for crisps. “Eat ’Em Like Junk Food,” went the TV adverts, which boosted sales by 13%.

At a time when most ugly vegetables go to waste, ugly carrots are carved, sold at a premium and marketed as ‘Ready Prepared Mini Carrots’. It’ll be interesting to see if we can convince our young to pick up a snack pack of carrots over a packet of crisps or a bar of chocolate. We should never underestimate the power of advertising; it might come although I think it might be a huge challenge making carved parsnips a popular snack.

I’m just wondering too where all of the carrot peelings go after they have gone through the machine at the factory?  All I know is that my scabby, dirty, misshapen carrot peelings go back into my garden via the compost bin, which is a good place for them to go.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Corten Steel in the Garden

Corton Steel Planter at the Titanic Exhibition in Belfast

I have a fascination for garden pots and containers. A majority of shop bought ones are made from plastic, terracotta and concrete, but I was looking for something different. My search for variation prompted me to make my own over the past few years and so far I have tried hemp, hypertufa, paper and cardboard, clay and lime - all with different degrees of success (and some I class as a learning experience as they end up in the compost) 

This hasn’t deterred me though and I do find that I look in some unusual places for any type of container that could house a plant or two. One of my favourites of last year was an old 1930’s Bakelite banker’s lamp. I did try to fix the lamp initially but it kept blowing all the fuses in the house so I relegated (or promoted it depending on how you look at these things) to the garden. There it has happily been a receptacle for some glorious succulents that don’t need much space for their roots.  

This year I have great plans to make some containers out of steel. I have a few old galvanized fire buckets and cement planters painted with my special rusty paint mix (any leftover paint and iron dust if you want to know the recipe) but these just don’t seem to have the old decaying look I am after. I also don’t want to start planting into any old bits of rusty metal as the roses are enough of a tetanus threat already without introducing other hazards.

I’m inspired by a visit to the Titanic Exhibition in Belfast this week. Of course the actual exhibition was fantastic, as the ship has always sparked my imagination. I also loved the building architecture and overall design of the public spaces though.  

The ten foot high wording and large ornamental planters have all been made from steel to compliment the industrial feel of the place. It’s not just your ordinary steel though, it has a name-Corten Steel, and I think you’ll be impressed at its uses in the garden.

Corten Steel
Corton Steel is popular with garden designers who have both large and small budgets. The RHS Chelsea Flower Show practically drooled over the 2010 The Daily Telegraph garden installation designed by Andy Sturgeon, which won Best in Show and prominently featured sculptural Corten screens.

Corten—or weathering steel—is typically used for landscaping and outdoor construction. It is made with alloys that cause its surface to develop self-protecting rust when exposed to weather, and this is what makes it different from regular steel. 

U. S. Steel developed the product in the 1930s and trademarked it as Cor-Ten; it was used primarily in railroad coal wagons. The insulating patina resists corrosion, requires no painting or weather-proofing, and doesn’t compromise structural strength. Once you see this steel you can’t ‘unsee’ it and you will realise it’s everywhere in design!

It’s been popular for a long time in building and became a go-to material for modernistic architecture and outdoor art in the 1950s and 1960s. Recently, the twenty metre tall Angel of the North sculpture in Gateshead Tyne and Wear was made from Corten Steel.

Landscape designers appreciate Corten for more than its warm hue and the fact that the colour changes over the months and years. When initially installed it’s just a reflective steel, then it turns a yellow colour before numerous brown and gold tones and eventually grading down to a chocolaty colour depending on the weathering. 

The steel is generally available in sheet and plate form, its strength and durability combined with minimal thickness allows it to serve in situations where a concrete wall, for instance, would not fit or would visually overwhelm its surroundings. Corten has been used for walls, fire pits, edgings, dividers, planters, gate trims, and arbours; its versatility seems to be limited only by our imagination.
The planters at the Titanic Exhibition are delightfully simple and the salt air brings a special colour (and extra rust) to the metal, so I think it’ll be ideal for Inishowen. I even like the fact that over the years, rusty liquid will seep out and stain the concrete slabs the containers are sitting on. For me this adds to the beautiful thing we call the ageing process, and we are all experiencing that.

Small planters can be bought but they do seem to be very expensive so I think I am going to try and replicate the effect myself using anything I find that’s steel and can hold a plant. Old bean tins for a starter painted with rusty and sprayed with varnish.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Avocado Growing

Avocado seeds grow well in the compost bin

Have you ever found something strange in your vegetable crops?   One story I read this week was about a family who found themselves scared witless when they discovered a mysterious hole in their shop bought turnip. 

The offending vegetable was bought from Lidl in the UK and when the woman’s husband cut into it they found what looked like a hole with a spiders web inside (fungal growth probably) They are now convinced that venomous spiders are in their home. The woman said that she was in a “state of shock” at finding the offending hole. 

Lidl are looking into it “as a matter of urgency” and claim it’s an isolated incident. 
I’ll bet that the family don’t grow their own veggies, if they did, they’d find more than just the odd spider in the sink when they are washing them… Oh the stories I could tell of the strange things I’ve brought into the house from the vegetable patch, well not really, it’s mainly slugs, snails, ant and wasps. The squishiest thing I brought in was a blighted potato. Now the thought of that could keep me awake at night.

Avocado Selling
I was making my daily visit to the buy and sell websites and came across an interesting post in the plant section that I had to look at twice in the same manner as the spider story.  A woman is selling avocado plants (or trees) for … wait for it…€120 each, or 2 for €200. Now I don’t know what you think but that price does seem a bit steep for a 10cm tall plant with 6 leaves in a 1 litre pot. They tell us that these plants are really hard to propagate and are worth every cent. I’d like to save you a lot of money here and tell you how you can grow them for free. You might already know how to do it because as of yet, surprise surprise, they haven’t sold one!

Avocado Growing
When we have finished with our avocados I put the stone/seed in the compost bin and forget about them. When it comes to emptying the bin in winter/ spring, I just scatter the compost onto the beds in the polytunnel and fork it in gently. 

The forgotten and neglected avocado seeds go in there too without much thought. So far every one of them germinated and produced healthy green leaves on sturdy stems. The trees grow in the humid regions of Mexico and Central America and the compost bins replicate the warm, damp and humid conditions needed to sprout the seeds. 

There are alternative methods, however, if you don’t fancy rooting around the compost heap:
Pierce the seed with toothpicks and suspend it, pointed end up, over a glass of water. Roots should start to develop within two to six weeks. Then pot up the plant, leaving the tip just poking out of the soil. However, not all avocado seeds will germinate, so if your seed hasn't sprouted after six weeks, try again with a fresh seed

Leave the seed in direct sunlight until it starts to split. Then pot it up.

Place the seed in a pot, and cover it completely. Water well, allow to drain, then leave in a warm, dark place, such as an airing cupboard. Check on the pot every week to ensure it is moist, and water if necessary. As soon as the shoot starts to show, move the pot to a sunny spot, such as a windowsill.

Avocado Care
Use rich, peat-free potting compost and use a pot that has good drainage. After your plant is roughly 30cm tall, cut it down to around 15cm. This makes the plant grow bushy, rather than tall. Once your plant has filled its pot with roots, transplant it to its permanent home – the largest pot you have room for. Fill with rich, peat-free compost, which you should top up with fresh compost each year.
Avocado trees can take up to ten years to bear fruit and indoor-grown plants don’t always live that long. However, if you provide it with a moist, fertile soil and plenty of sunlight, and keep it in humid conditions such as a greenhouse or conservatory, your tree will have a fighting chance of fruiting.  Mine only last the year as I don’t move them when they grow, although I might do now and sell them on the web for loads of money!

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