Forward thinking

This is a time of abundance – tomatoes are ripening every day, there’s the last flurry of courgettes, squashes need picking and there’s the potatoes to harvest. Indeed, as I was digging up potatoes this morning I thought about my successes this year and my failures, and I have come to the conclusion that I need to change my attitude in the garden. You see, my problem is that I am easily seduced.

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Some of this week’s harvest that we will definitely enjoy

No, not like THAT… I am seduced by seed catalogues! I read the descriptions of interesting crops and I fall for the marketing. I’ve got better over the years at resisting, but I still succumb sometimes. There are several vegetables that I love the idea of growing even though I know that there are good reasons not to – because only one of us likes them, or because they need lots of care, or because they’re  not something that thrives in our area, or just because they don’t really come out well in a cost benefit analysis (for example, space versus yield). Broad beans are good example: yes I like the flowers and the young beans are nice, but I don’t like them when they get old plus they take up lots of space for a relatively small crop… they also tend to get blackfly.

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Ready for soup-making

When you only have a limited amount of space, it’s essential to prioritise, and so that’s what I’m going to do next year. I’ve been thinking about the things that I really like growing and that I’m successful with. So next year we’ll continue to grow peppers, chillies, tomatoes and melons in the limery (I may even be tempted to try something new), but in the garden I’m going to focus on potatoes, courgettes, squashes, kale, lettuce and other salad leaves, broccoli, mange tout and climbing French beans. These are all crops that I know we will eat and enjoy and that, where appropriate, I have reliable ways of preserving. I’ll also carry on growing various fresh herbs and nurturing the soft fruit.

This afternoon I will be making Mulligatawny soup for the freezer, using courgettes, potato and tomatoes that I harvested this morning. I’ll also be planting some winter lettuce seeds and I will be collecting seeds from the French beans to sow next year. And later in the winter when I’m being tempted, I’ll come back to this post and remind myself of my priorities!

Preserving our Heritage

For many years now I have been a member of the Heritage Seed Library, part of the organisation Garden Organic, which…

… aims to conserve vegetable varieties that are not widely available… The collection consists of mainly European varieties, including:

  • rare landrace varieties, which are adapted to specific growing conditions.
  • heirloom varieties that have been saved over many generations. These are unique to the Heritage Seed Library catalogue.
  • varieties that have been dropped from popular seed catalogues over the past decade. This occurs for a number of reasons; their lack of popularity with customers, their unsuitability for commercial scale production or simply the prohibitive cost of trialling and National Listing.

Each year, as a member, you get to chose six packets of seeds. This year I have had success with several of their varieties:

Sheep’s Nose Pepper – once it has ripened up, this is the sweetest pepper I have ever grown. The fruit aren’t huge, but the flesh is thick and, when ripe the taste is excellent. In their green state, I don’t think they are particularly special, although they are fine for cooking; once red, however, they are ideal for using raw and are truly delicious. Some of the fruit are quite dull-skinned and these seem to have the best flavour!

Theyer’s Kale – I’ve grown this successfully several times, but this year it seems to be especially exuberant. When I think of kale in my childhood, it was the curly stuff, which required very thorough washing to get all the grit out. This variety is completely different: with large divided leaves, it does not collect debris and is easy to harvest, process and cook. Plus, it’s very hardy and it has attractive purple stems.

Green Nutmeg Melon – I first grew these a few years ago, but they didn’t do well in my old greenhouse, so I passed the plants on to a friend. He harvested lovely sweet melons, but was unable to share them with me, so I’ve never tasted them. This year, with the wonderful conditions in the limery, I have three fruits growing well and the possibility of several more. I’ve supported them with mesh so they don’t pull the vine down. Fingers crossed that they will taste as good as reports suggest. As a bonus, the flowers have been lovely too.

Blue Coco Climbing French Bean – I usually only grow runner beans, but the lovely purple flowers and dark pods of these beans really appealed to me. Sadly, like all purple beans I have encountered, they turn green when you cook them, but they do look great on the plant and they taste good. I also like the fact that you can let them grow on to produce beans for drying… so it really doesn’t matter if you get a glut as you can just ignore them until the seeds have developed.

Czar Tomato – a bush variety that produces plum tomatoes highly recommended for cooking. I’ve already turned some of these into passata and they were very good – lots of flesh and hardly any seeds. I’ve also used them to make  salsa, which worked well, but I find them a bit dry just for eating raw on their own.

So, that’s this year’s excursion into HSL varieties. There should have been a Caribbean squash to report on, but sadly a compost disaster earlier in the year meant that none of the seeds germinated… well, maybe I’ll manage some of those in 2017.

Heritage seeds are really great for gardeners – often the flavours are better than commercial varieties, or they are specifically suited to local conditions. In addition, by helping to maintain heritage varieties, we are helping to maintain maximum genetic diversity and thus to provide a more secure future for our crops in terms of adaptation to a changing climate and resistance to pests and diseases.

So, if you are in the UK, I encourage you to support HSL, and if you are in another country there are almost certainly similar organisations doing an equally great job… if you know of one, please share the information in the comments below.

Waiting

It’s a funny time of year in the garden… so much potential, so little actual produce. There’s still lots of lettuce and plenty of rhubarb, but otherwise, it’s mainly flowers and developing fruit:

I’m not sure how much longer the lettuce is going to last in this hot, dry weather, so it may not be long before we are just left with rhubarb to eat…

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it’s been a good season for rhubarb so far

Still, there’s plenty of it!

Spring has been cancelled

Well, we seem to have transitioned directly from winter to summer in less than a week. I’m sure it won’t last but whilst the sun is shining I have been planting and sowing and potting up. The runner beans are in the soil, I have sown peas, potted up peppers and tomatoes and transplanted herbs… too busy to write much, but I have pictures…

I hope your weekend has been as productive as mine – oh, I did my accounts too!

Three out of four ain’t bad

Now, if I had stuck to a ‘three sisters‘ planting, as is normal, I would have been able to quote Meatloaf and tell you that ‘two out of three ain’t bad‘, but since I upped the ante, I’ve had to paraphrase.

The four sisters crop

The four sisters crop

You may recall that I tried a ‘four sisters‘ planting this year, adding sunflowers to the traditional mix of beans, corn and squash. The sunflowers were self-seeded from the bird feed, so were something of a bonus, but have turned out to be remarkably prolific. We have managed quite a few squashes (not bad for about four square metres), lots of runner beans – both fresh pods and seeds for drying – but once more the corn has been a disappointment. Despite growing flint corn rather than sweetcorn, and having a really sunny summer, few of the cobs are full.

So, what do I conclude? Well, corn is too unreliable to put much effort into, but I like the combination of beans and squashes, especially since the latter are so good at suppressing weeds. The beans make use of vertical space and so the squashes don’t seem to have to be planted at a reduced density compared to planting them on their own. I’m not convinced that the sunflowers were a particularly good variety for my needs, but they were easy to grow and successful and they were an accident this year, andI can be more selective in the future

Next year my three sisters will comprise squash and courgettes, beans (var. The Czar, again) and sunflowers (probably naked ones, such as var. Lady Godiva)

Beans out of time

Temporally shifted beans

Temporally shifted beans

I know that it is entirely the wrong time of year to be harvesting broad beans, but I am… well, field beans at least.

Once again this year, I didn’t plant my bean seeds at the right time. I know that you can plant broad beans in the autumn for a nice, early crop the following year, but it doesn’t seem to work well round here. I think it is because it’s usually so wet over the winter, and the seeds tend to rot before they germinate. As a result, I try to plant my beans in the spring. This year, however, it was so cold in March that somehow it didn’t get done, and I ended up planting my runner and broad beans at pretty much the same time.

Never mind! It just means that I’m just starting to enjoy them now. Lots of people have had bad experiences with eating broad beans, but I think those are generally the huge, tough, mealy things that supermarkets seem to sell. I love them fresh out of the garden – removed from their squishy pods just before cooking. And my favourite recipe? It has to be one adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (here’s the original):

Fry a finely chopped onion in oil until soft, add some chopped pancetta and allow that to crisp up, then toss in some fresh broad beans and  allow them to cook through.

Hugh eats his beans cooked this way on toast, but I like to serve this with sautéed potatoes cooked with paprika and garlic mayonnaise… yum. It’s a recipe that you could equally use for thinly sliced pole, runner or French beans.

Hands in the dirt, head in the sun

The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul. There is no gardening without humility. Nature is constantly sending even its oldest scholars to the bottom of the class for some egregious blunder. Alfred Austin

Abundant potato growth

Abundant potato growth

After a rather frantic week retrieving chickens from their holiday home (thank you Glad and Mr Glad for looking after them), retrieving dogs from the kennels (thank you Ann at Rhydlewis – a unique place where the dogs are cared for better than anywhere I know), attending a day-long trustees’ meeting and a learning guild get-together, as well as editing a couple of papers and doing piles of washing, I have finally managed to find some time to spend in the garden. During our two-week absence the potatoes have grown like mad and the raspberry canes have become laden with (as-yet unripe) fruit; the mange tout are on their way up (the variety we are growing – yellow-podded – is tall) as are the runner beans; the courgettes and squashes are settling in and the onions are flowering – boo! As always, some things do well and some don’t, but that is the way of the world and gardening does not come with a guarantee.

Squash, corn and beans doing well

Squash, corn and beans doing well

Anyway, overall the week has been quite stressful, but a few hours in the garden are good therapy. I find gardening to be remarkably good for my state of mind – it gives me time to think, as well as allowing me to be both creative and peaceful. I love seeing plants grow that I have nurtured from seed. Even when it comes to the time that they have to be removed, knowing that what is left will go on the compost heap and contribute to the next cycle is immensely satisfying.

But, reading an article in The Guardian today by Alys Fowler, I discover that gardening is not good for me just because of all the things that I’ve mentioned, but also because there are bacteria  (specifically Mycobacterium vaccae) in the soil that have a beneficial effect on health. These bacteria boost production of seratonin (which is a mood regulator) and help to build a healthy immune system if we come into direct contact with them. So, there you are – get out there and get your hands dirty and you really will be improving your health and happiness!

Confidential waste

Yesterday’s post elicited a comment from Nanacathy that the only thing she burns in the garden is confidential waste. I responded that I have friend who shreds his, then puts it on the compost heap and then pees on it. He considers that if anyone wants to reconstruct his bank statements and steal his identity after that they are welcome.

Would you brave that beak to steal my identity?

Would you brave that beak to steal my identity?

Similarly, we shred anything that is confidential or has our address on it. But we then use it as chicken bedding. This is a two-fold deterrent: first there’s all the chicken poo covering it, but before you get to that you would have to brave Perdy, who is likely to give you a severe pecking, just in case you are edible. After that use it goes into the compost bin. Alternatively, at the right time of year, shredded paper gets put into the bottom of the bean trench along with uncomposted kitchen waste… thus allowing in situ composting to generate heat and give the beans a good start. In addition, this approach provides nutrients and increases the water-holding capacity of the soil… all that carbon in the paper is too good to waste.

So, I’m wondering… do you have ways of turning your confidential waste into a resource and preventing identity theft at the same time?

The battle of the runner beans

Regular readers will know that Aliss the hen has turned out to be some sort of reincarnation of a velociraptor… but with a taste for vegetables rather than people. This is something of a relief – I wouldn’t want to take my life into my hands to go out and collect eggs, and the cost of a rifle might outweigh the savings as a result of not having to buy in so much protein – but there is now something of a battle going on as regards the vegetables.

The reason for growing vegetables is so that (mostly) Mr Snail-of-happiness and I can eat them. Aliss disagrees. She is not content with left overs – lettuces running to seed, weeds, peelings, slightly manky kale leaves – she wants the good stuff. And she wants it fresh off the plants. The answer, therefore, is to place the vegetables out of harm. I want free ranging chickens to keep the slugs under control, so the hens run free whilst the vegetables are confined.

Runner beans, denuded to a height of four feet or so

This approach worked well with our previous little flock, but Aliss is wily… like a coyote as well as a velociraptor. In the past the hens were allowed in amongst some of the vegetables once they reached a suitable height. Runner beans were great – none of the old hens wanted to eat them and they provided shade if it was sunny. So, this year, once the beans were well on their way up the bean poles, we opened the area to the hens. All went well until…  Aliss developed a serious taste for runner bean leaves. And not just one or two, and not just up to a height of a foot. Once she’d stripped the bottom leaves, she started jumping up to get at leaves above chicken head-height.

Anti-Aliss barrier!

Enough was enough, so we reinstated the chicken wire… it’s about two feet high and is usually enough to put them off. Not Aliss, though. She simply jumped over it. And then beans started appearing, so she decided to try those… and found them to be delicious. So, I erected an extra layer of chicken wire… four-foot high now. Aliss managed to breach the defences and also use the structure to reach beans that were otherwise out of her reach. By this stage, she’d also convinced Perdy, her partner in crime, to join in too!

A new use for a clothes airer

I reinforced the barrier – ensuring that there were no handy chicken foot holds, holes, gaps, points of weakness or nearby launch pads. I realised that the adjacent lettuce cage provided a location to jump down from so employed an old clothes airer as a barrier, balanced between the lettuce enclosure and the beans. And finally, I think I have won… a whole day has passed without the cry of  ‘she’s bloody well in there again’ ringing through the house. Perhaps my beans are safe… perhaps I will get to eat the whole of some beans rather than just the top half that she couldn’t reach… and perhaps I’ll go out there tomorrow and she will have organised the others to form a chicken pyramid from which she can flap over into her favourite place in the whole garden…

The time of gluts…

It’s normally around this time of year that we are starting to eat courgettes… every day. But not this year. The southerly placement of the jet stream is causing us to have a remarkably soggy and sunless summer here in the UK. Pretty much any UK gardening blog at the moment will include references to rain, slugs, snails, wind and a lack of vegetables.

Broadbead flowers – just need a few more pollinators

Well, I’m here to set the record straight – there are some plants growing in the UK. They may not be all the ones we expect at this time of year and some crops are certainly sluggish (if you’ll excuse the pun), but there are some things to be harvested. We are currently enjoying delicious potatoes straight out of the  planters, lettuce, rocket, mizuna and  Hungarian wax peppers. OK, so there’s not a sign of a courgette, the runner bean flowers seem to drop off before they are pollinated, I’ve brought one of the tomato plants into the house to try and encourage it not to rot and my onions have disappeared under a glorious swathe of Calendula, but there are things growing. The broadbeans are flowering abundantly if late and the bunching onions seem to be coming along nicely, as does the oca.

Breadseed poppy

As for dessert… we have raspberries and rhubarb along with a few strawberries and some red currants and blueberries just starting to ripen. On the herb front there’s mint, lemon balm, horseradish and rosemary. And the first flower of the bread seed poppies has opened.

And finally, our now well-integrated flock of hens is providing an abundance of eggs. Last night’s dinner comprised Spanish Omelette with a green salad… not quite all out of the garden , but not bad considering the dismal weather.

So the moral? Don’t rely on a single sort of crop… plant a variety of things and some will succeed. Oh, and have raised beds and containers so your plants don’t drown and can be moved indoors or into a more sheltered spot.

And have chickens so that all those vegetable-fed slugs don’t go to waste!

Hungarian Wax Peppers in the greenhouse

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