Three years ago…

… there was disruption, with builders all over the garden and construction of the limery in full swing. Mr Snail was well out of it working in Reading and I was trying to retain my sanity and soldier on with my work (not easy when you have to keep making cups of tea and pacify two terriers in the face of “strange men”).

Now all is relatively peaceful. No builders, only one terrier and a calm spaniel and Mr Snail is the one making cups of tea for me. There is, admittedly, the prospect of him going off to Reading again, but nothing is certain at the moment. But all that effort  really was worth it, as the limery fills up with plants and the first signs of a harvest. The winner in terms of early productivity this year is a variety of pepper called “Yellow Monster”, which is already bearing fruits a couple of inches long. A second variety, Kaibi, is not far behind. Both of these are from the Real Seed people. I did succumb to some F1 pepper seeds this year, but germination was poor and no plants have survived, so I won’t be seduced next year. We’ve also got some black chillies flowering, with a lovely purple tinge to the petals.

Of course there are other things in there too: tomatillos, epazote (both for forthcoming Mexican cooking), squashes, lemongrass, a curry tree, tea (a very tiny plant), not to mention the carnivores and the passionflower, and of course several things that I started off in the limery are now outside: peas, potatoes, salad onions, sorrel. Here’s hoping for lots of crops… but, perhaps, fewer greenfly (they are a real pain this year for some reason).

There is also a new addition to the limery, but I’ll share that with you in a later post.

Holidaying Hens

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doing their thing at home

Keeping livestock, even on a small scale involves lots of responsibility. When you go away, there are kennels in which to house your dogs and there are catteries for your kitties, but henneries (chickeneries?) are few and far between. Big farms may have staff or helpers, but back gardens do not. In years gone by our neighbours – previous chicken owners themselves – would pop round and care for our four ladies. However, now they are in their nineties (the neighbours not the hens) we think it’s a bit much to ask. So, some dear friends who also keep chickens have taken on the job.

The problem is that said friends live a half hour’s drive away, so calling round twice a day to let chickens out and put them to bed is not an option. And so, every time we go away, so do the chickens. First, they get stuffed into cardboard boxes and then transported by car to their holiday home. Fortunately our friends have a two-part run with two houses, so their flock and ours are kept separate (we don’t want any squabbles). They always continue laying whilst they are away, although the space is more restricted than at home, so they are clearly happy with their alternative accommodation.

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holidaying hens

And there are interesting neighbours to shout at…

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brown hens next door

We have considered installing automatic doors on the coop that have light sensors so that they open in the morning and close at night, which would mean that we could (in theory) leave them unattended for a few days. We are not, however, very comfortable with this idea. Taking care of animals comes with responsibility to attend to their needs and protect them, and leaving them unwatched would mean that we couldn’t be certain of their welfare. So, for now, they go on holidays and we are very grateful to have good friends who will help us out this way.

 

Springing into life 2018

Today is the vernal equinox – the first day of ‘astronomical’ spring. Despite the late snow here in the UK, spring has arrived with glorious sunshine and I have been busy potting up some of the plants that have grown from the seeds I sowed back in January. As with all seed sowing there have been successes and failures – and a minor slug invasion at germination time did for a few of the seedlings. The loofah seeds have not germinated and neither have some of the varieties of chilli, but I have not given up hope yet and I they may eventually appear.

I sowed generous amounts of parsley seed because it is notoriously fickle when it comes to germination. It appears that every single seed, however, has produced a plant, so I will be able to share these with my local friends (a particular pleasure when it comes to gardening). Last year I planted another unreliable germinator – lemon grass. Again, I was swamped with plants and gave lots away. Since it grows to quite a size, I only retained three plants for myself and these have been happy in the limery over the winter. Today they have been transplanted to larger pots and I’m looking forward to fresh, home-grown lemongrass in my cooking for the first time this year.

A few weeks ago, before things in the limery had actively started to grow, I decided to divide some of my carnivores. This was a little nerve-wracking as I’ve never done it before and I was not sure how they would respond. Several weeks down the line, however, I’m happy to report that they seem to be thriving, and there are lots of new pitchers (for the Sarracenias) and sticky leaves (for the Droseras). Several of these plants are destined for a friend who lives locally, so I’m delighted that the operation has been so successful. The tatty old pitchers from last year (or even the year before) look very sad compared to the vigorous new ones. The plants that I didn’t split are also springing back into life and it looks like flies are going to have a very hard time if they come into the limery this year.

There’s still more potting up to do and plenty of new seeds to sow later on in the week. I love harvesting, but the promise of abundance at this time of year really does lift my spirits.

Chilly and Chilli

The first germinating seeds of the year are always special, in particular when their toasty conditions in the propagator are in such stark contrast to the outside (poor garlic under that net tunnel):

Apparently spring is coming!

A very chilli January

It may be the 28th of January, but for me it’s the first day of spring. I spent a busy afternoon today repotting two of my citrus trees, splitting and potting up various carnivorous plants and sowing the first seeds of the year – mainly chillies.

The chillies and sweet peppers need a long growing season, so I always start them early in my dad’s propagator in the limery. I don’t own many things that belonged to my dad, but his propagator is a valued possession and I know he’d be delighted that I’m still using it.

This year, with my new interest in Mexican food, I have planted six varieties of chilli: lemon drop, chocolate habanero, jalapeño, black Hungarian, serrano and ancho. Fingers crossed for good germination.

Start with a seed

One of my favourite activities at this time of year is ordering seeds. It is a tangible manifestation of the summer to come, of abundance and the promise of longer days.

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recipes and future ingredients

For my birthday Mr Snail gave me Rick Stein’s new book The Road to Mexico, as I had very much enjoyed the recent television series. I like Mexican food, but I’ve never really cooked it. I settled down with the book the other afternoon to drool over the recipes and read what he has to say about various ingredients. As I read, I realised the potential from growing some of the herbs and spices for myself, and so I did some research and modified my seed ordering accordingly. I spread my orders between companies because no single company had all the seeds I wanted, including the two Mexican herbs Epazote and Hoja Santa. I placed the first order on Wednesday, so I was delighted to receive the seeds this morning. The company in question, South Devon Chilli Farm, sells ingredients as well as seeds, so I gave in to temptation and bought some large dried chillies and some chipotle (dried, smoked) chillies too. Chillies are the first seeds that I plant in the year because they do need a good long time to grow, so I’ll be planting the ones pictured very soon.

The rest of my seed orders mainly stuck to tried and tested things: a good range of peppers, spring onions, courgettes, squashes, parsnips etc. My only other departure was tomatillo seeds – another common ingredient in Mexican recipes and something that I grew successfully many years ago, but wasn’t exactly sure what to do with at the time. I do love the process of growing the things that I want to cook with – it may be taking ‘slow food’ to the extreme, but it is so satisfying.

My next gardening job is to have a good clear-out in the limery and then I’ll be all set for the 2018 growing season. Do you have plans to grow anything new this year?

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pictures and the real thing – hopefully I’ll have home-grown ones later in the year

 

Rare as hens’ eggs

Sunday waffle-making

It’s that time of year again when the ladies don’t lay much. That, coupled with the fact that none of our little flock is a spring chicken anymore, there haven’t been many eggs to be had for the past couple of months. Gone are the days of a poached egg every lunchtime and as many cakes as we could eat. Instead, there’s warming vegetable soup for lunch and what eggs there are are used for very specific things – waffles for Sunday brunch, for example. We could buy eggs, and occasionally we do, but the scarcity makes our home-produced eggs so much more precious and makes us so much more grateful for the abundance when they are ‘in season’.

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a seasonal summer meal – now a distant memory

I like this seasonality of food. I know that, with enough money, it’s possible to have pretty much any sort of food at any time, but what’s the fun in that? How lovely it is to enjoy the first strawberries o the year – picked and eaten on the same day. What delights to see the sequence of British apples arriving in the shops in the autumn. What a pleasure to eat seasonal salad leaves, so that each season delivers a different set of flavours and textures. And eggs are the same in this house – plus the yolks change colour with the season, influenced by what the hens have been eating.

Eating seasonally is a fundamental way of connecting with natural cycles, plus it’s good for the environment.

Saving for the future

With summer well and truly over and winter on the horizon, my thoughts start to turn to the 2018 growing season. I won’t be buying seeds for a while yet (although I plant my peppers and chillies as early as January, so that job is not too far away), but today I have been ensuring I have seeds for at least one crop next year.

One of this year’s big successes was climbing French beans. The original plants were destroyed by strong winds, and one of my friends came to the rescue with some spare plants that were just ready for transplanting (thank you Ann). I have completely forgotten what variety they are, but they produced delicious tender beans in abundance over a long season. Knowing how much we enjoyed them, I left some beans on the plants to mature and today I collected some of the drier pods from which to take the seeds to be saved:

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pods collected before they get washed away or rotted!

Over morning coffee, Mr Snail and I extracted the seeds and now they just need to be spread out to dry. So, that’s the first of next year’s bounty sorted… and not a penny spent.

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bean futures

What’s more, there are still quite a lot of pods to harvest, so I think tomorrow we will have Boston beans made, unusually, with freshly shelled beans (no soaking required).

Apple time

Yesterday we went to pick apples just down the road…

since then the kitchen has been a hive of activity…

There was a little time yesterday to do something that didn’t involve apples. I made harissa paste with some of the abundant chillie harvest…

A right old caper

Years ago I planted some nasturtium seeds in the garden… I have never needed to do so again, because they self-seed every year and I continue to get them growing all over the place. They provide a riot of colour, good ground cover and they are edible. The leaves can be added to salad or used in cooking (nasturtium leaf pesto, for example) and the flowers are also edible and look stunning as a garnish. The seed pods too are edible: until now I’ve never harvested them to eat, although I have eaten them elsewhere.

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today’s little harvest

Today I had a bit of a headache and decided to go out in the garden. Looking round I noticed the abundance of nasturtium seeds. So I picked some – it didn’t seem like many, but turned out to be about 140g. Consulting the River Cottage preserves book, I found that to make a couple of small jars of “nasturtium capers” I only need 100g, but that they do have to be soaked in a light brine for 24 hours before they are pickled with peppercorns and herbs. I, therefore, can’t actually pickle them until tomorrow. In the mean time they are soaking and I no longer have an excuse for not getting on with some work…

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24 hours to go

 

 

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