A rosy view

I think that we all have the capacity to regard the past with nostalgia. It is all too easy to think that ‘things were better when…’ to long for some sort of historic utopia that probably never existed.

Looks natural, but it isn't: planted trees and a canal

Looks natural, but it isn’t: planted trees and a canal

As an ecologist working on habitat restoration, this is something I know all too well. Human beings yearn for the native vegetation of their countryside… for a time when the whole of Britain looked like a Constable painting or a Capability Brown landscape: rolling hills, artistically placed trees and agricultural labourers, meandering rivers. And it can be quite a disappointment to realise that this rural idyll never existed; that the countryside is a dynamic place, which has been used, changed and manipulated by man for a long time; that Capability Brown ‘designed’ his landscapes based on a romantic notion of the countryside; that unless we put a great deal of energy into it, our countryside will naturally change into whatever vegetation is best suited to the prevailing conditions. As conservationists, we need to exert a significant amount of effort to maintain, for example, species-rich meadows or ponds suitable for dragonflies.

And it’s the same with human society – the past where everyone had a job, could sustain themselves and lived in a village with a shop, a post office, a pub and a fully functional community is simply not real. It is a story that we tell ourselves, it gives us comfort. This post is probably coming across as very cynical; it has all come about because of a song called The Liverpool Lullaby. Do you know it? If not you can listen to a version of it here and read the lyrics here.

Well, I was reminded of it the other day because of a chance remark by a friend on Facebook. I always found the song upsetting as a child and decided to listen to it as an adult in order to explore these feelings. As it turns out, I still find it upsetting, but am haunted by it and by some of the imagery of life in working-class Britain in the 1950s and 60s. One thing in particular that struck me (child abuse aside) was the reference to The Lune, which as a child I had misheard as ‘the loom’ (you can tell I grew up in the heart of wool-producing country where big mills were part of our history).

What, I wondered, was The Lune – my initial thought was that it was a pub, after all the song refers to the boozer and dad drinking all the money away, but a quick search on the internet revealed that The Lune was a “laundry and dry cleaning works”… and not just any laundry, but a vast place. Householders sent their laundry there, as did hotels. I was astounded when browsing the memorabilia on the Lune website to see endorsements written in the 1930s from as far afield as The Gleneagles Hotel (Scotland), Somerset and Hove in Sussex. I had no idea that 70 years ago anyone would have dreamed of sending their linen on a 540-mile round trip simply to be laundered. In my head I have an image of small, local laundries for those who could afford them at that time, but it turns out The Lune was huge, and it was not the only one of its kind.

The Lune Laundry (from the Wavertree Society Newsletter: http://www.liverpool.ndo.co.uk/wavsoc/news08/page7.html)

It was founded in 1905, but I can find no record of when it closed, just that the building was demolished in 1987 and that the company has now been dissolved.

And so, on reflection I acknowledge that much of our past –  in the lifetime of those of us who might be reading this – is less than rosy. Whilst there were communities who supported each other, there were also terrible working conditions, abject poverty, abused children, and affluent people who could afford to have their linen shipped half way across the country simply to be washed. Let us not forget that, whilst there are real problems in the modern world, many of them are not new and some of the old ones have disappeared. Let’s not wallow in nostalgia, wishing for a return to a world that never existed, but work towards a more equitable and sustainable world with a modern vision.

And the results are in…

An early harvest of Colleen

An early harvest of Colleen

This year I decided to keep a record of some of the crops that I harvested from the garden (not all of them, I’m not that much of a garden-geek). Really I wanted to demonstrate to myself that I am making a useful contribution to our food consumption, and to show that it is possible to grow a significant amount of food in a relatively small space. The two crops that I recorded were courgettes and potatoes. Since the potatoes were all dug up some weeks ago and the courgette plants have now been finished off by the cold weather, I have the full season’s results.

Prolific courgettes

Prolific courgettes

In total, from an area of approximately four square metres I harvested just over 12kg of courgettes. Of these 7.3kg were from ‘ordinary’ courgettes (two green bush and two Trieste White Cousa) and 4.8kg from three Costata Romanesco plants. We ate the majority of these over the summer, but some of them went into soups that are currently frozen for winter consumption.

Colleen and Valor in a raised bed

Colleen and Valor in a raised bed

The total harvest of potatoes was an impressive 41kg. They have been feeding us since about June and we still have quite a lot stored. We grew these in approximately five square metres of garden plus three dumpy bags* and one small growing sack. The most prolific variety in the dumpy bags was the first early variety Colleen which yielded just over 6.07kg from one dumpy bag filled with grass clippings. garden compost and shredded paper and planted with 9 tubers. In comparison, six tubers planted in a soil-filled raised bed gave us 5.73kg. The main crop varieties Milva and Mira did less well, only yielding 3.5kg from their dumpy bag (I mixed them together). Valor (a second early) did particularly well in the raised bed containing soil, yielding an astonishing 12.7kg  from 6 tubers.

Potatoes in dumpy bags in the 'waste of space' corner

Potatoes in dumpy bags in the ‘waste of space’ corner

All varieties of potato did better in soil in beds than in dumpy bags. I think this is actually related to water availability: we had a very dry summer and the vigorously growing potatoes in the dumpy bags wilted on numerous occasions even with daily watering, whilst those growing in the garden never wilted. Despite this limitation, the dumpy bags were a great success – they increased the growing space available and added significantly to our harvest. My favourite potato has to be Colleen – they grow really well and provide the first potatoes of the season, but I liked Valor too. I think these are the varieties we will focus on next year.

Costata Romanesca - delicious fried with garlic (each of those slices is 5-8cm across)

Costata Romanesca – delicious fried with garlic (each of those slices is 5-8cm across)

The Costata Romanesco courgettes are a favourite of Carol Deppe and she recommends using them for drying. This is something we didn’t get round to doing this year, but I will have a go at next year. The plants are big and start off as bushes, but then get to sprawling around. Whilst not prolific in terms of fruit, those they do grow can get really big but still remain very tasty (unlike marrows) and tender. However, I do like the more normal courgettes, especially for their joyful abundance and will continue to grow them every year.

All in all, it’s been an interesting experiment to weigh our crops. And what’s the most important thing I have learned? Next time make a proper recording sheet, because trying to decipher all those scribbled notes on several tatty sheets of paper is quite a challenge at the end of the season!

-oOo-

* I have been experimenting with growing in containers in a previously unused bit of space. There are several ‘waste of space’ posts if you are interested: here, here and here

Squashy squash

You can't see the wrinkles from this angle

You can’t see the wrinkles from this angle

Now is the time when the skins of pumpkins and winter squash are ripening and hardening up. This allows us to store them over the winter in a cool place. If any part of the skin is damaged, however, there is a chance that fungi will attack and the fruit will rot in storage. So, I am keeping a sharp eye out at the moment.

As a result, one of our Boston squashes has been harvested. The top looked fine, but the underside was starting to become wrinkled, so it was brought in and dissected. In fact, I’d caught it before too much damage had been done, so only a tiny bit of flesh had to go on the compost heap.

Ready for roasting

Ready for roasting

One of my favourite ways to eat squash is roasted: chopped into chunks, drizzled with oil, sprinkled with a little sugar and cooked in the oven until it’s meltingly soft. This is how we consumed the first serving of our first mature squash of the season. Some of the remaining flesh has been turned into a creamy squash and sweetcorn soup, but I haven’t decided how to use the rest yet … so many nice ways to eat it.

The others in the garden seem to be undamaged, so I am hoping for good storage. If you plan to store any fruit unprocessed, always make sure it isn’t damaged and the skin is not pieced or blemished. This is especially the case for apples, some varieties of which will store well for many months if you are careful and keep them cool. It’s also important to check produce stored this way regularly – once one starts to rot, the damage can spread very quickly and destroy your whole harvest.

Which reminds me… the great High Bank apple harvest approaches… better get my preserving jars out!

Rumpaging about the garden

A couple of days ago we called in on a friend who had been the recipient of some Boston squash plants earlier in the summer. She complained that they were ‘rumpaging’ about her vegetable garden. She showed me them progressing up the bank adjacent to their bed and along into the courgettes. Not a bad bit of rumpaging, but mine are doing better: across the patio, over the butterfly netting, into the potatoes, up the greenhouse and well on their way up the willow hedge… they obviously like the conditions:

Over the netting

Over the netting

Supported by the blue plastic piping

Supported by the blue plastic piping

Through the willow branches

Through the willow branches

Up into the hedge

Up into the hedge

Through the potatoes and over the greenhouse

Through the potatoes and over the greenhouse

And all the while, producing fruit (I think this is Oregon Homestead)

And all the while, producing fruit (I think this is Oregon Homestead)

And this is Boston - the original 'rumpager'!

And this is Boston – the original ‘rumpager’!

 

Fingers crossed for an abundant crop that will last the winter!

Food with friends and ginger

Today we went round to see some friends for brunch, being treated to fresh pineapple, bottled damsons, blackcurrant jam, homemade bread and Grossmutters Rührei mit Schinken* (that’s grandmother’s scrambled eggs with ham, in case you weren’t sure). It’s lovely to have friends from round the world in order to be exposed to different culinary experiences from a home kitchen rather than a restaurant. As you might guess, one of our hosts is German, so the bread was sourdough and the scrambled eggs were not the usual British variety.

Suppliers of the Llwynhelyg Farm Shop (from http://www.llwynhelygfarmshop.co.uk/)

Suppliers of the Llwynhelyg Farm Shop (from http://www.llwynhelygfarmshop.co.uk/)

On the way home we called in at one of our favourite shops, the Llwynhelyg Farm Shop. As always, the place is stuffed full of local food (some local and some very local), although at the moment we don’t need to buy any vegetables as we are well supplied with lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, mange tout and courgettes out of the garden (and we will soon have runner beans and sweet peppers). However I needed live yogurt, as mine had turned whilst I was away over the weekend and I needed a new culture to get going again making my own. Of course we were also tempted by a variety of other produce and, just as we were about to pay, I noticed a basket of root ginger that was starting to sprout (ok, not everything they sell is local). It was all a bit shrivelled and unlikely to be bought by anyone planning to cook with it, but I wanted some.

Sprouting ginger root

Sprouting ginger root

I used to have a ginger plant grown from a root piece that I bought in a supermarket, but I lost it one winter and I’ve been keen to get another one going ever since. So, I bought a likely looking piece and came home to read up on what I need to do to nurture it. According to the ginger section on the Plant Cultures website, which is run by Kew, they are relatively easy to grow, but it’s unlikely that I will manage to harvest useable roots and it will probably  die over the winter (like the last one). Apparently they need high temperatures (more than 30C) and lots of light… according to the website, it’s the lack of light that does for them over the winter. Anyway, I have planted it in some potting compost and it’s currently residing in a toasty greenhouse. I try not to believe everything I read, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I will be able to produce some local ginger and keep it alive over the winter; if not, I will have had fun cultivating it and will have used something that was probably just going to be composted otherwise… not a bad outcome either way.

-oOo-

* The recipe can be found in Free Food for Rats by Anja Forrest Dunk; she also writes a lovely food and family themed blog.

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