Those pesky pesticides

Having written, the other day, about growing your own food to avoid unwanted chemicals, I’ve been doing a little more thinking. A friend asked me whether washing vegetables in dilute vinegar would help reduce pesticide residues more than washing with water alone. My initial thought was that, even if this did work, it would only help with surface residues, not pesticides that the plant had absorbed. I did do a bit of reading around and I didn’t find an answer to the original question but I did come across an interesting piece from Cornell University, entitled Can you wash pesticides off your fruits and vegetables? They note that various heat treatment (e.g. pasteurisation, canning and frying) have been found to reduce pesticides, as have milling, brewing, baking, malting and wine-making, but that drying and dehydrating can increase pesticide levels. Their conclusion:

Washing your produce certainly removes pesticide residue from the outside, but there’s no clear data showing whether it reduces pesticide exposure compared to consuming organic fruits and vegetables.

So, it does seem that the safest option is to grow or buy fruit and vegetables that have not been exposed to pesticides in the first place. At this point, it’s worth noting that some pesticides are acceptable in organic systems, so buying something that is labelled ‘organic’ does not necessarily mean that it is pesticide-free.

With home-grown produce, you need not worry about pesticides if you know you have not applied any. This means that when it comes to preparation, cooking and storage, you can relax and do what you like.

Since my (pretty-much chemical-free) garden is now at the beginning of its most productive period, I’ve already started preserving some of the bounty. I’ve made mint sauce, I’ve frozen some of the raspberries I’ve picked and I have some oregano hanging up to dry in the limery. There’s a small bowl of tomatoes in the fridge ready for conversion into passata, which I freeze if it’s only a small quantity or bottle if I have large amounts.

I love all the potential at this time of year. I know that by the end of summer I will be sick of courgettes, but now as I watch the first fruits swell, I can hardly wait for my first harvest. How about you? Is there something you love to grow and eat?

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2017 Courgette #1

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!

There will be no green tomato chutney

The basic message over the years has been: It doesn’t matter how many of you tell me it’s lovely – I simply do not like green tomato chutney! Honestly, it’s a waste of time and ingredients me making it when I know it will only go to waste. It’s better for the chickens to have any unripe tomatoes than for me to make them into chutney.

And this year? There will be no green tomato chutney; not only because I don’t like it, but because there will be no green tomatoes! The limery is still providing a productive growing space – chillies  are going red or yellow, according to variety, courgettes are blooming and producing fruit, peppers, although growing slowly, are still being productive, the red banana passion fruit vine is reaching for the skies and the tomatoes are ripening.

It astonishes me that, despite the delay in starting growing in the limery (it wasn’t completed until July), we have harvested so much and will continue to do so into November. I can’t wait to see what’s possible next year with a full growing season!

Autumn Bounty

Despite a garden full of builders and no indoor growing space until late July, the autumn is proving to be bountiful chez snail. One of the raised beds spent much of the early summer completely covered in building materials, but clearly the tiny potatoes remaining after last years harvest loved the conditions. We went from this:

There's a bed somewhere under there

There’s a bed somewhere under there

to this:

Not bad in two months

Not bad growth!

in a just a couple of months. Resulting in this 615g monster:

Wow!

Wow!

and hopefully many more to harvest, as this was just one very close to the surface that Max would have ‘harvested’ otherwise. We will let them continue growing until the tops die back before we dig the bed over and can see our final crop.

Meanwhile, inside the limery, chillies and sweet peppers abound, tomatoes are ripening and we’ve had a couple of large courgettes from the plant sown in July,. I’ve potted up the plants from the courgette seeds sown in August and we are crossing our fingers for a few fruits from those a bit later in the autumn.

We are keeping our fingers crossed that the chillies ripen (they have started and the pyramid chillies are already hot) and that the younger courgette plants mature, but even if they don’t, we’ll have had an amazing end to the season, including a couple of months when we haven’t had to buy any sweet peppers.

As to future crops, we found this very promising ginger root in the local organic shop the other day:

It’s now been planted and we’re hoping for good things. In addition, the passionflower has taken off:

Up, up and away

Up, up and away

And I’ve sown some more lettuce in a big tray that can be brought indoors when the weather cools. So, no shortage of fresh goodness here.

Not-so-hungry in the gap

We are currently in the time of year known to vegetable gardeners at the ‘hungry gap’ – when we’ve planted our seeds (or at least some of them) but there’s nothing to harvest yet.

However, we  don’t seem to be suffering too much this year… the purple sprouting broccoli and kale are both doing well and there are still leeks to be harvested. In addition, as we prepare vegetable beds for future planting, we keep finding overlooked potatoes – not enough to supply all our needs, but still a welcome addition to our supplies. We are also starting to be able to harvest some leaves – blood-veined sorrel seems to have established itself around the garden and the Claytonia is growing in profusion in one of the planters… in combination with some young kale leaves, these make a very acceptable leafy salad. Indeed, combined with hard-boiled egg and the surprise potatoes, I have been able to rustle up a meal or two completely out of the garden.

Because I was careful to store as much as possible from last summer’s harvest, we are also enjoying a wide variety of home-grown produce. There are still bottles of apples and a few frozen raspberries and blackberries. Plus, in the freezer I can find roasted courgette, passatta, pesto, vegetable soup, roasted squash, chilli and redcurrants and there are more bottles of passatta in the cupboard. We are by no means close to being self-sufficient, but I love to be able to eat something we have grown at least once every day.

However, it is the promise of crops to come that really excites me. The herbs are starting to perk up now – mint, chives and lemon balm producing fresh shoots. Plus rosemary and sage beginning to wake up and grow again. I’m restraining myself from picking any rhubarb yet – but there are now lots of tender shoots. The lettuce and mizuna seeds that I planted a week or so ago are germinating and the chilli and pepper plants need potting up. Some more compost translocation is required before we can plant potatoes and various seeds directly into the garden, but the weather forecast for this weekend is good and my labourer is home, so we should be able to achieve something.

I’m also delighted  to report that, although Anna is still doing more sitting down than usual, she is no longer limping. At 3.1kg she is a big chicken, so physical injury (literally falling off her perch!) is a distinct possibility. I think she’s even laying again, although distinguishing eggs is quite a challenge… and Lorna keeps sitting on them whether she’s laid or not!

Anna and Tiffany enjoying the sunshine

Anna (l) and Tiffany enjoying the sunshine (yes, there are two hens there)

The Preservation Game

Because we have a seasonal climate, we are unable to produce crops steadily throughout the year: sometimes there’s loads and other times there’s very little to harvest from the garden. And so, we preserve… those courgettes that we are sick and tired of in August will be welcome in our hearty soup in December, when the days of glut are a distant memory.

So, this week I have been preparing for winter by stocking the freezer with soup –  carrot and courgette and mulligatawny (see pictures above) – and passata made from oven roasted tomatoes.

Now, I look in the freezer and can savour the prospect of all sorts of goodies through the winter:

And as soon as I can manage to collect a load of apples from Perkin, I will be bottling those like mad too.

All dried out

Yesterday I experimented with dehydrating as a way of preserving some of the great courgette mountain. I borrowed an electric dehydrator off my friend Linda so that I could test out the resulting produce and see whether it’s worth our while building a solar dehydrator of our own (i.e. one that does not use electricity).

I chose a sunny day to do the test because (a) the air was dry and (b) we were generating enough electricity from our solar panels to run the thing. I started by wiping and drying the courgettes, then sliced them by hand into thin pieces. I spread the slices carefully on the drying racks and switched the contraption on at about 10:20 in the morning. The temperature was set to 125°F/52°C, so it’s a fairly gentle process. Being new to all this, I checked how things were going every hour or so. It’s a slow business, but by about 8:00 in the evening they seemed to be ready. I allowed them to cool in the dehydrator and finally transferred them to clean Kilner jars. They taste very intensely courgetty to me and quite nice, but Mr Snail isn’t keen – he says that they taste like cucumber (which he doesn’t like).

The finished product

The finished product

I’m going to try re-hydrating some of them soon to determine whether the reconstituted product is good to use. If it is, I’ll do some more, otherwise it’s been an interesting experiment. I notice that sweet peppers are also supposed to be good for drying, and I might have a go at these if we get a big enough crop.

Have you had any successes with drying your own vegetables?

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Yesterday's courgette harvest

A small harvest a few days ago

Every time I go into the garden there are more courgettes (zucchini) – clearly a run-away success this year. I’ve generally been weighing them when I bring them into the kitchen, and so far I’ve picked well over 7kg (15lbs) of them… not bad for mid-July, eh? Currently there are seven decent-sized specimens in the fridge, a pot of courgette soup on the stove (simple recipe: courgettes, curry powder, homemade stock, cook together, then stir in some creme fraiche and season to taste) and lots growing on the plants in the garden. Last night we did have a meal that did not include courgettes (new potatoes, lettuce, boiled eggs and homemade mayonnaise: all out of the garden except the oil in the latter), but we did have courgette soup for lunch!

However, not everyone is having my success this year, and I have been asked by a couple of people what might be going wrong. I can’t say for sure, but I can tell you what works for me.

Courgette plants in the compost bed

Courgette plants in the compost bed

I always grow my courgettes in lots of compost; in fact, the bed that I use for most of them doesn’t have soil in it – it’s an in situ composting system to which I add grass clippings, leaves, cardboard, shredded paper, compost, chicken bedding and anything else I can think of every year. I have grown courgettes and squash in it for the past four years and the lack of rotation seems to have had no adverse effects. I think I add so much extra material each year that, effectively, there is always new substrate. In the winter I let the chickens onto this bed to give it a good turning and to further increase fertility. When I do plant courgettes into beds with soil, I always add lots of extra compost and water sometimes with some sort of nitrogen-rich liquid fertilizer (worm wee, for example).

Making use of lots of compost has two benefits: first, you are supplying plenty of nutrients and second, organic matter holds large amounts of water. Courgette plants are both hungry and thirsty! According to the University of Kentucky, a courgette is 95% water! So that means for every 1kg (2.2lbs) of courgette that you harvest, you need to supply 950ml (33 fluid ounces) of water. In contrast, a potato contains a mere 79% water. I, however, do not like to have to spend too much of my time watering plants, and all that organic matter saves me having to do so. I do give them a drink very occasionally, but even in June when we got a total of 58mm (just over 2 inches), I only watered them about once a week, despite the very sunny, warm weather. So far this month, I haven’t watered them at all, apart from giving the ones in the soil some liquid feed once. In drier climates, watering is likely to be required, but using lots of organic matter will certainly reduce the amount you need to apply.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with some images of the abundance… clearly the organic matter approach is working here:

Daily pinta

Today's pint

Today’s pint

There used to be an advertising slogan in the UK ‘drinka-pinta-milka-day’… being lactose intolerant rather puts the kibosh on this, but currently I am picking  a pint of raspberries every day. It’s turning out to be a very good year for berries, so each day I go out to the garden with a plastic pint jug (that’s a UK pint, so 20 fluid ounces) and fill it with raspberries. Once it’s full, I come back in and don’t pick any more – it’s enough. Every day I have raspberries for breakfast with my homemade yoghurt and homemade granola… what a joy, especially if they are just picked, still sun-warmed from the garden. The remainder are being put into the freezer for a delicious taste of summer in the winter.

Yesterday's courgette harvest

Yesterday’s courgette harvest

And raspberries are not the only abundant thing in the garden… the courgettes (zucchini) are prolific. I picked a kilo and a half yesterday, despite the fact that the day before I had turned a kilo of the things into soup. I probably shouldn’t have planted six plants, but that’s what I’ve got! It’s quite early for a glut, but the weather here in June was so good that the plants have just romped away. Never fear, though, they do not go to waste. Apart from soup and courgettes fried in olive oil with garlic, we will be enjoying courgette moussaka (replace the aubergine with courgette), courgette risotto, roasted vegetable sauce… just not courgette cake – Mr Snail will not eat any sort of cake containing vegetables! What we don’t eat straight away will be turned into either soup or simply roasted in chunks and frozen. I love to have a freezer full of soup for use in the less abundant months – it’s so good to be able to defrost a block for lunch on a chilly day. So much nicer than opening a tin and I know what all the ingredients are.

On the horizon are runner beans, mange tout and shallots. All of these are grown without the aid of chemicals and from traditional seed varieties. I just want to remind you, though, that my vegetable patch consists of an area measuring 4m × 6m, with an additional 2.5m ×1m plus some pots and a 1.9m × 2.2m greenhouse, then I have 3m × 4m for fruit and herbs. So, it is possible to grow a significant amount of your own food in a really small space… you don’t need a farm. And all these crops help me control what I’m eating and cut down on food miles, to say nothing of making me feel a connection between my food and the seasons, the soil and the sunshine.

The lettuce and potato diet

I have discovered that there are a number of things that I can grow really well in my garden: lettuce, potatoes and courgettes amongst them. Tomatoes I don’t seem to be able to have much success with, but I’m a dab hand with peppers. Of course I do grow other crops and this year it looks like parsnips and shallots are going to be a roaring success, plus the runner beans are doing well, not to mention the raspberries. But so far, what we have mostly been eating is lettuce. I have delayed harvesting potatoes in order to maximise yield and because lovely local Pembrokeshire new potatoes have been readily available, but once the last kilo in the cupboard is eaten up, our own harvest will commence.

Lettuce in an old strawberry planter

Lettuce in an old strawberry planter

This year I have grown three varieties of lettuce: Flashy butter oak (a firm favourite from the Real Seed people), Forellenschluss (which means ‘speckled trout’; these seeds came all the way from Australia) and Red deer tongue (which may become my all-time favourite as it’s prolific and so crunchy). To add variety, we also eat blood-veined sorrel (a perennial) and various brassicas (there’s a nice self-seeded mustard currently doing well and adding a kick to our salads). I’m really not keen on supermarket lettuce out of a bag, but ours is always fresh from the garden – no packaging, no food miles and no chemicals.

Potatoes doing well

Potatoes doing well

This abundance has led to many of our meals in the past few weeks comprising boiled new potatoes, freshly picked lettuce and some form of protein… last night smoked trout, the night before Glamorgan sausages and one night last week simply boiled egg – seven minutes so that the white is hard, but the yolk is still slightly runny. In all cases, served with homemade mayonnaise. Until recently, I bought ready-made mayonnaise, but I have now decided to add this to the increasing list of things I will try to make from scratch. When I made it years ago I used a food processor and struggled to get it to thicken, but now I have an old-fashioned Kenwood Chef (actually I’ve had it for three years!) and fresh eggs, it turns out that I can (literally) whip up a batch in double-quick time. No only that, but I can thin it using my homemade apple scrap vinegar, so there’s an extra “no food miles” ingredient’

Anyway, tonight things are going to change as the ‘great courgette harvest’ begins… perhaps served with potatoes…?

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