Going potty

That first time at The Bistro Chez Snail

The past year has seen many changes in our approach to life. In particular, our relationship with ‘home’ has evolved as we have been forced to spend so much time here. I don’t think this has been a bad thing, and there are certainly new habits that are really positive. For example, early on in the first lockdown in 2020 we were feeling glum about not being able to eat out, so I created “The Bistro Chez Snail” in the limery, and immediately we realised how lovely it was to play at going out and to make use of our growing space as our eating space. There have followed, for more than a year now, many excursions to our fantasy eateries, and even when we are not pretending to go out, we continue to eat in the limery almost every night. It was never really the plan to do anything much but grow plants in the limery, but I’m very happy that we have found that it’s good for nurturing us as well.

All this time at home, however, has raised the issue that our garden was very full of growing things and there was hardly any space for people. This hasn’t been a problem whilst it was just me and Mr Snail – we had a lovely corner to occupy where our two deckchairs and a small table would fit. However, as it’s been increasingly clear that welcoming visitors to our home is safest outdoors, we came to the conclusion that we need to make more space for this. I outlined my ideas for some changes to Mr Snail and he launched himself enthusiastically into the project(which he’ll be blogging about very soon). However, making space for people means less space for crops, so I’ve decided to move over to growing more things in pots. On a recent visit to Sue (Going Batty in Wales) I was impressed by potatoes that she has growing in large plastic pots. Mr Snail measured them and worked out that they have a volume of 50 litres, so once we were back home I sought some out online. I could have got very cheap ones, but I was determined to buy some made of recycled plastic (if I am using plastic, which is essential for such large pots if the are to be moved about, I’m certainly going to make sure it’s made from existing stuff). So, the pots were found, an order placed and a few days later, I had more mobile growing space. Combined with some 30 litre pots that I bought a few years ago and lots of other containers collected over the decades, we’ve now got various options. Currently, many of the new large pots are planted with potatoes and these are out on the tarmac at the front/end of the house in a space that is otherwise pretty useless and where I’ve done some container growing before. We had to dig up the horseradish during our garden remodelling, so that’s in a 30 litre pot, as is the oregano, which also had to be moved.

The combination of the garden remodelling and the very cold weather this spring mean that lots of crops are still indoors, but hopefully the weather will be kinder from now on (an incredible hail storm two days ago notwithstanding) and I can plant some things out and sow some seeds outdoors without fear of them being killed. I’m toying with the idea of buying a large wooden trough on legs for growing herbs in, and I’m sure I’ll have other ideas about suitable containers, so watch this space.

Not very Springy

I don’t seem to have written about growing things for ages. We’ve had a rather sunny April so far and, normally, this would have helped the garden along. However, it has been really cold and we’ve had frosts during recent nights, so the few things that are outside – garlic, shallots and some hardy salad leaves – are making slow progress. The exceptions are the rhubarb, which is thriving as a result of the heap of compost that was piled atop it a couple of months ago and the red currant bush that we moved in March, which I was worried might not survive, but seems to be doing fine. Just this morning, however, I brought one of my small trays of salad greens indoors because the tiny seedlings were looking so forlorn outside.

My issue at the moment is space in the limery. Things that I had hoped to move outdoors by now (in particular the three citrus trees) are still inside. There are still potatoes chitting on the windowsill, and lettuce in pots. The planter I want to use for the tumbling tomatoes remains unplanted because there isn’t room for it inside, so the plants are in pots still because these take up less space. Last year’s chillies and peppers are slowly resprouting, but it’s too early to know which are likely to be worth keeping and which can be “recycled”, so that’s more space being occupied. I’m holding off planting more seeds because I need to prioritise what little spare space I have for potting up things that are already growing. I have a number of things that I would like to get sown, but they will have to wait until things warm up outside… I’m sure they will make up for lost time once they do get planted.

The weather forecast is showing cold nights for another week at least, so it looks like I’m going to have to be patient a while longer.

Prospects

This is one of my favourite times of the year – no, not the biting winds, incessant rain and sodden garden, but the fact that this is when we invest in the future. From little paper packets, we extract tiny packages of potential. That unassuming, dry disk is filled with magic: given a little moisture and heat, life will spring forth. Life, in the form of tiny green shoots that will immediately start using light to grow. Life that will provide food, beauty and oxygen.

On Saturday, after a trip to pick up some compost from a friend who had arranged a bulk order (much saving of money), I planted the first seeds of the year – tomatoes and peppers. Into the propagator they went and now we wait. They are the first of many this year – lettuce, rocket, beans, peas – as well as some plants not from seed – potatoes, shallots and garlic. Not all of them will thrive, but I know that in months to come I will be able to pick fresh food, all of which started from those tiny seeds that I put my faith right at the beginning of the year.

So, if you are feeling glum about the prospects for the coming year, plant a few seeds and just see how much joy and hope emerges with every little shoot.

Apples of my own

As you may know, our garden isn’t very big. I do what I can with it, but there is only limited space. As a result, I don’t have room (unlike Sister of Snail) for an orchard. However, a few years ago,we were given an apple on a very dwarf rootstock, which now lives with the chickens… which liberally apply fertiliser around it and make it very happy.

The variety is an interesting old one “Ashmead’s Kernel”, which is a good dual purpose variety with a great flavour, although visually it’s not very appealing. It takes a few years to start fruiting well and, apparently , it can be quite pernickety about pollinators, but this year in our garden it thrived. I used some of the fruit in my most recent batch of sweet hot chilli sauce, but this morning I picked the rest of the crop for bottling.

Not the prettiest apples, but maybe the most delicious

It doesn’t look much in the bucket, but once prepared, there were enough apples to make six 500ml jars. I’m so happy to finally be bottling my own apples from the garden. It’s not enough to keep us going through the year, but it sure is satisfying.

Bubbling away

Autumn kitchen

I’m always in two minds about this time of year – one the one hand, I hate the days getting shorter and the reduced opportunities for walks with the dogs, but on the other these couple of months are always associated with happy times in the kitchen, as I preserve the harvest (mine and that of others). So, I am choosing to concentrate on the positives and spend time enjoying the abundance.

I went and bought lots of lovely vegetables – many locally produced – on Friday and have spent the past couple of days combining these with some home-grown produce to make passata, delicious soups and a second batch of sweet, hot chilli sauce. This year has been particularly good for chillies in the limery: I grew lemon drop, trifetti, Trinidad perfume, red and purple jalapenos and hot cayenne. In total, I’ve harvested approximately 2kg, but I haven’t kept track exactly, as I often pick a few to use immediately. Anyway, there’s more than 1.6kg in the freezer, we’ve eaten lots and each batch of chilli sauce uses 100g. In addition, there are still some yet to ripen in the limery and also there are the outdoor ones to bring inside.

Since we are close to ScrapHappy day, I do want to point out the use of “scraps” in my soup-making. Whenever we have meat bones, I boil them up to make stock, then freeze this in blocks. I never use a stock cube or stock powder, I just use my frozen stock and add whatever herbs and spices I fancy. On the bottom left above, you can see two blocks of lamb stock added to the chopped and lightly fried vegetables that became leek and potato soup.

And so, my freezer is filling up nicely – soup, chillies and little blocks of passata, as well as stock and roasted peppers from earlier on in the year – all ready to fend off the winter blues.

Right on Kew

Last weekend I visited Kew gardens for the first time in over 30 years. It’s a place that I’ve been intending to return to for ages. It’s amazing, with iconic glasshouses and rare plants, as well as some artwork that I particularly wanted to see again. As an unexpected bonus, there was also an impressive exhibition of the work of Dale Chihuly, who creates huge glass sculptures, many inspired by natural forms.

It was a hot day, so spending any time in the tropical house was beyond us, but we did manage to enjoy some of the glasshouses. Mostly, however, we wandered the extensive outdoor spaces, enjoying the sculptures dotted around the garden as well as the beautiful plants.

I particularly wanted to revisit the Marianne North gallery – it’s a wonderful space, completely filled with her paintings. She paid for its construction, but was prevented from implementing her original idea that it be a tea room… such a shame because it would be a perfect place to relax with afternoon tea.

I’m not going to leave it another 30 years before going back.

Back from the brink

A couple of years ago I bought a specimen of Drosera dicotoma – it is an amazing sundew, which produces huge leaves and, therefore has the ability to catch a lot of flies:

Huge, trailing leaves

I hung it up in the limery and it did a brilliant job. However, during last winter it completely died back and I wondered whether, reluctantly, to tip the contents of the pot into the compost bin. I decided, after a little thought, to leave it and see whether any shoots might reappear – carnivorous plants do seem to have a tendency to ‘play dead’ and, whilst they don’t always come back (Venus fly traps, I’m talking about you), I have experienced several resurrections.

To begin with, it looked like this:

Apparently dead

But, with a little patience, I started to see signs of life:

Tiny shoots

It was weedy at first:

Struggling

But as the weather warmed up and the sun shone more often, it rather perked up:

More shoots

And now, although it’s nowhere near as big as it used to be, it is thriving once again:

Call me Lazarus

I have high hopes for a long and active life for this very useful plant. I really hope that it achieves its previous impressive size.

Opening up

It’s all very well to visit large estates and see amazing rolling acres, huge walled gardens and what can be done with a dozen gardeners, but inspiration is probably more likely to strike closer to home. It was lovely, therefore, to visit a couple of gardens just round the corner from us who were participating in the National Garden Scheme. I think the pictures say more than my words could:

And as a secondary source of inspiration, I discovered that Beryl (one of the owners), who I regularly have a chat with when I’m passing with the dogs,  is the most amazing needlewoman. She had some of her quilts, stumpwork and stitched pictures on display in her conservatory along with the open garden. Because I usually see her when she’s gardening, we normally talk about plants and I never knew about her sewing… learning more about your neighbours is certainly a hidden benefit of visiting their gardens.

Growing and groaning

The saga of the tooth continues – the first part of the root canal work has been completed, but it has awoken the infection and so I’m back on antibiotics. Hopefully the stuff I’m taking now will have less of an adverse effect on me than the last lot. Anyway, I have a few weeks to wait before the procedure can continue. In the mean time I’m sitting here, moaning gently and watching my garden grow….

I’ve photographed the good bits and carefully avoided the jungle elsewhere!

Sunshine and showers…

… no, hang on, that should read ‘torrential rain’.

So far this June we’ve had more rain than in the two previous Junes combined. This, of course, provides challenges when it comes to growing and I have been especially grateful for the limery. I potted up all my pepper and chilli plants with a view to trying to raise some outdoors this year, but then the wind and rain arrived and it seemed unlikely they would survive outside, so in they came. Some of the other plants weren’t so lucky and I lost several patty pan squashes that were still in pots – I think they simply drowned.

Nevertheless, we are now eating lots of home-grown food and that is always a joy. I have three courgette plants in the limery and they are way ahead of the outdoor ones and already supplying us with food. The jalapeno chillies (red and purple) are producing fruit, as are the sweet peppers, although none are ready to be harvested yet. We’ve already eaten lots of lettuce and many potatoes. The peas are starting to flower now, so I’m hoping for some of those soon and the little herb garden that I planted up a few months ago is doing well – especially the oregano.

As climate change takes effect, I feel that I’m going to need to be much more responsive to severe weather, so that having both indoor and outdoor growing space available will become increasingly important, as will growing in pots so that plants can be moved in response to the weather (this year potatoes, peas, beans and squashes/courgettes have been planted both in the ground and in pots). So far this year I have managed to nurture a variety of crops, but there will always be years like 2018 when, after the early summer, we were unable to raise things like lettuce because it was simply too hot. This year I’ve diversified somewhat and so we have carrots, parsnips and sweetcorn in addition to our usual vegetables. For various reasons, I haven’t grown any of these for ages, but I think it’s time to have a wider range so that if one crop fails, another might succeed. In short, I am trying to build more resilience into my garden and I hope that this means we’ll be able to supply even more of our food than before from the limited space available.

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