Three Things Thursday: 29 December 2016

As usual I’m joining with Emily of Ms Emily’s Home for Full-Grown Nerds (and others) for Three Things Thursday. As she says…

*three things that make me smile: an exercise in gratitude – feel free to steal this idea with wild abandon and fill your blog with the happy*

First, although we don’t ‘do’ presents at Christmas, I was very grateful for the wonderful box of fruit given to us by our neighbours. Over recent months we’ve acted as a parcel drop-off point for them on many occasions and, although this causes us no problems, they just wanted thank us. This lovely gift meant we could have, amongst other things, fresh strawberries and pineapple for breakfast on Christmas morning.



Which leads me on to my second thing… I’ve been able to plant the pineapple top and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will root and be happy in the limery.

Pineapple futures

Pineapple futures

Third, I’m really enjoying working on a completely new knitting project. Ages ago I bought myself a kit from Sheepfold – it has everything required to make a work bag. This week I decided to set aside crocheting blankets for charity and immerse myself in this project. The yarn is British, the pattern is easy and the colours are really making me smile… when finished it will be felted and have bells on too!

Jester work bag pieces

Jester work bag pieces

So, those are three things making me smile this week – what about you?

It’s a jungle out there

The garden has been neglected. Having builders around has meant that not only have I not grown things, but also I have not been doing all the day-to-day maintenance. As a result the fruit cage has turned into a jungle with head-high docks and mint, plus nettles and brambles starting to take over some patches.

However, now I have the garden to myself and a bit of decent weather, I’ve started making in-roads into the chaos. I’m far too ashamed to show a picture of the full horror of it, but there are hidden treasures.

When I eventually hacked my way through to the far corner, I was greeted by shining red jewels:

Red currants

Red currants

Despite being overshadowed by a large comfrey plant, this particular red currant bush had the biggest juiciest fruit you can imagine. I think I might make red currant and  white chocolate muffins for breakfast tomorrow.

And elsewhere, the raspberries are doing well – not quite as pretty as the red currants, but I like the flavour better.



Some of these will be frozen for later use, but most mornings I have a handful on my granola… best when still warm straight out of the garden.

Are you harvesting at the moment?


Let’s get ready to crumble!

So, the season of British rhubarb and British strawberries is here… hurrah! Possibly my all-time favourite fruit combination and a great way of using up strawberries that are slightly past their best. I like them best served in a crumble, which is exactly what I made for dessert last night:

As you can see, the rhubarb was freshly picked from the garden. I made the crumble topping with 50/50 white and stoneground wholemeal flour, plus butter and soft brown sugar, and I did have to sweeten the fruit a bit as it was rather tart without any added sugar. Not a bad way to get two of your ‘five-a-day’!

Return to Karuna

Nothing is too good for Karuna's ducks!

Nothing is too good for Karuna’s ducks!

I haven’t posted for a few days because, once again, I’ve been teaching an introduction to permaculture course at the Karuna Permaculture Project in Shropshire… three days focusing on how to design robust, resilient and sustainable systems based on the principles and processes that we find in natural ecosystems. The sun shone on us (most of the time), Merav cooked lovely food for us, much of which was grown on site, and we were able to see examples of the things we were discussing all around us, with the opportunity to spend lots of time chatting to people who had created the place and who live there.

Sculptures nestle amongst the trees

Sculptures nestle amongst the trees

In general, I like teaching, but I particularly enjoy it when I am in an inspiring place – and Karuna is one such venue. The project is an amazing series of forest garden areas with surrounding meadows, developed by a single family, with the help of WWOOFers in the summer and occasional other volunteers. It’s hard to describe the diversity of the site, with its fruit trees, herbs, vegetables, specimen trees and  glades, plus a mass of butterflies and birds. In addition, there are some beautiful sculptures to be found as you explore.

The trees around this sculpture were only planted seven years ago

The trees around this sculpture were only planted seven years ago

It’s a young site (only seven years old), but that is hard to believe when you look at it and consider that, apart from some large trees on the edge of the original fields, it was just grazing land when the planting started in 2006. The incredible growth of the trees can be attributed, at least in part, to increasing the fertility of the site and suppressing competitive grasses by mulching around the trees with straw soaked with urine… you see, I told you it was a good source of nitrogen! It’s even more impressive when you discover that the site is at an altitude of about 300m… so it’s not exactly in a sheltered lowland area.

We run a permaculture course there once a year at around this time, but Karuna is a demonstration site as part of the LAND network, and there is a variety of interesting courses run during the summer and early autumn… how about Earth Bag Building (in early September)?

So, here are just a few pictures to tempt you to visit Karuna… perhaps to do a course, to volunteer there, or to book it to use as a venue for an event you are organising…

Camping next to a forest garden area

Camping next to a forest garden area

Vegetables and herbs in abundance

Vegetables, flowers and herbs in abundance

A guided tour

A guided tour

Cucumbers in the polytunnel

Cucumbers in the polytunnel

Exploring the forest garden

Exploring the forest garden

Oh, there’s also a Karuna blog on WordPress here, and a Facebook group here

Storing the sunshine

PV panels are one way to collect the sun's energy

PV panels are one way to collect the sun’s energy

Solar energy can be collected in all sorts of ways: you can use it to heat water, you can have photovoltaic cells installed and generate electricity, you can have a sun porch and enjoy passive solar heating, or you can grow plants. Green plants use sunshine to convert water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates… that’s how they grow and that’s photosynthesis. So, any plant cultivation you do means that you are collecting solar energy (and making use of a greenhouse gas, but that’s a whole other story) and it doesn’t require a bank of batteries to store it.

The trouble is that in temperate climates we experience seasons. Some periods of the year are sunny and some not, some are hot and some are cold, so our plants are not able to photosynthesise the same amount all year, nor do our solar panels generate the same amount of electricity. Here in the UK we are currently in the middle of summer… and a rather nice one too. The sun is shining and the fruit and vegetables  are growing well (at least they are it we give them some extra water). As a result there is every likelihood that, in our garden at least, we will soon have more produce than we can consume immediately.

Of course, an abundance in the garden means an abundance on the farm too, so seasonal produce is likely to be cheap at a time when we don’t really need to buy it. The answer is to stock up on the sunshine now, or at least the products of the sunshine, and keep them so that you can enjoy them later in the year. The best fruit and vegetables in this respect are those that can be stored as they are harvested – potatoes in paper sacks, beans dried in the air and stored in jars, onions hung in strings and winter squashes ripened in the sun then kept in the cool dark attic. However, many crops require a little more work.

In the middle of processing the apple glut of 2011

In the middle of processing the apple glut of 2011

I posted the other day about bottling peaches, and ages ago wrote about dealing with the High Bank apple glut in 2011 (another is promised for this year). And, thus, I store the sunshine: bottling and freezing are the two main routes I take for produce that will not keep unprocessed. I know that many people make preserves, but we honestly don’t eat much in the way of jams and chutney, so it seems a waste to make these in abundance.

In many ways, freezing is the easier option – there is little chance of produce going off (unless your freezer fails) and there are many things that need no or little preparation before they are frozen. For example, raspberries can go straight into the freezer and, once defrosted, can be eaten as they are. Other things, such as runner beans or mange tout, require blanching before freezing (i.e. plunging into boiling water for a minute or two) and cooking when they are required, but these are very simple processes. Some vegetables and fruit do not freeze well: courgettes, for example. However, even these can be fried in olive oil and frozen for subsequent use in Bolognese, casseroles or on pizza.

But, part of me balks at storage that requires continuous energy input, so I really like being able to keep at least some of my harvest in bottles and jars. Of course, there is an initial high energy requirement for sterilising jars, boiling syrups and then heating the processed product in the jar to ensure that it keeps. But, it is possible to time these activities to coincide with the solar panels producing at their maximum rate so that we are using sunshine even more in the process. I only bottle fruit – there is too much risk of botulism with vegetables as they are much less acidic.  I use proper preserving jars and ensure that I follow the instructions (particularly minimum temperatures and timings) to the letter to prevent contamination and spoiling of the food and I find the whole process remarkably satisfying.

Once I have the dresser in the kitchen packed with jars of preserved fruit, I find myself peaking in just to enjoy the sight of all those bottles of sunshine that will be cheering many a dreary February day.

Just peachy



On Wednesday I went to visit a friend up in Machynlleth to give her some surplus plants and to visit the weekly market. It’s about 35 miles, so it’s not somewhere that I visit very often, but the market has loads of stalls and is very popular. It was a hot day, so I didn’t spend as much time browsing as might have done, but I did visit the ‘Fresh and Local’ stall to buy some produce from local small producers and I had a wander round to see if I would be tempted. Of course I was, and bought some lemongrass plants, plus a big tray of peaches.

I love peaches, but don’t buy them often because they are so expensive. However, buying a tray of 24 made them quite affordable. They were a little under-ripe, but since none of them were bruised I was happy to wait for them to ripen up. They have been sitting in the kitchen since then, and the aroma has been pervading the air a little more each day.

Simmering the jars for an hour sterilises everything so that the contents will remain good for a year.

Simmering the jars for an hour sterilises everything so that the contents will remain good for a year.

By this morning more than half of them were ripe enough to use, so (despite the hot weather) I decided to embark on a bit of bottling (or canning as it’s called in the US). Following the guidance of the River Cottage handbook on preserves, I skinned the ripe fruit, cut it up and placed it in sterilised preserving jars (I use Kilner jars) and  covered it with syrup. I then immersed the jars in water in my preserving pan, which I brought to simmering point (about 90C) and kept at that temperature for an hour.

Cooling down - the tops of Kilner jars are designed to form an air-tight seal as they cool

Cooling down – the tops of Kilner jars are designed to form an air-tight seal as they cool

They are now cooling and will remain undisturbed for 24 hours. They should be able to last for up to a year (although I’m sure we’ll eat them well before that). So, in the depths of winter, we will be able to remind ourselves of this lovely sunny day with a bowl of preserved peaches… delicious!

Garden dinner

I love the time in the year when it is possible to eat a significant proportion of our food from out of the garden. We are not quite there yet this year, but last night we did start with spring onions, potatoes and sage from the garden (plus an egg):

Ingredients for dinner

Ingredients for dinner

and ended up with Glamorgan sausages, boiled new potatoes (variety Colleen) and lettuce for our dinner:

Ready to eat

Ready to eat

Not quite  a garden dinner, as the lettuce came from a local farm and the Glamorgan sausages were made with breadcrumbs from a homemade loaf (organic white flour from Shipton Mill; wholemeal from Felin Ganol) plus Snowdonia Black Bomber Cheese and freshly ground back pepper, but with the sage and onions and bound together with the egg. Not entirely home-grown, but very satisfying that almost everything was fairly local.

I am having a slight problem, however, at breakfast time. Despite the strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and red currants being covered in fruit, none of it is ripe yet. Thank goodness for rhubarb to keep me going in this rather lean period!

Oranges really aren’t the only fruit

Raspberry flowers... fingers crossed these turn into fruit

Raspberry flowers… fingers crossed these turn into fruit

Some years ago I realised that the digestive problems I had been suffering from were the result of lactose intolerance. I was devastated because I had, until then, always started the day with a bowl of milk and cereal along with a cup of tea with milk. So, I had to do some research and completely alter my morning eating habits. I was delighted to discover that I could eat live yoghurt because the Lactobacillus that turns milk into yoghurt actually breaks down lactose (which is a disaccharide) … so these wonderful little micro-organisms can do the digesting for me!

Looking forward to our first red currants this year

Looking forward to our first red currants this year

Eventually I settled on (home made) yoghurt, fruit and either oatcakes or muesli to begin my day. In addition I completely gave up milk in tea and coffee. For quite a while my  fruit of choice was banana, preferably accompanied by raspberries (I LOVE raspberries). After a while I came to realise how expensive this was, especially since, at the time, I had to buy any raspberries I ate and even frozen ones were not cheap. And then along came the apple mountain of 2011. My friend Perkin over at High Bank gave me car loads of apples, which I stewed and bottled or froze or juiced or made into jelly. My freezer was stuffed with blocks of frozen apple; my dresser was stuffed with jars of apple puree. In addition, 2011 was the first year that my raspberries fruited in abundance, so all through the summer I had been eating fresh raspberries and I had more of those in the freezer.

Blueberry flowering well in 2013

Blueberry flowering well in 2013

The idea of buying fruit was absurd – we had more fruit than I knew what to do with at that time and so I gave up the bananas and transferred my allegiance to apples: very few food miles and no added chemicals. As we planted more things in our fruit cage, I realised that we might be able to be avoid having to buy any fruit… as long as Perkin’s apple tree continues to thrive. The fruit cage now contains red currants, blueberries, choke berries (new this year) and pink dessert gooseberries as well as raspberries and rhubarb, so we’re not putting all our fruit in one basket, so to speak.

Sadly 2012 was not a good year for apples and I ran out in March, but this coincided with the start of the rhubarb season, plus I still had some blackberries (picked from the wild last autumn) in the freezer and these have supplied my breakfasts until now. So, apart from lemons and a punnet of strawberries to celebrate the new season last week, we have not bought any fruit in 2013. And I have high hopes for the two potted citrus plants – one lime and one lemon – that I have sitting out in the sunshine at the moment.

It turns out that discovering I was lactose intolerant made me think about my diet in a whole different way and has encouraged me to grow much more of my own produce… every cloud has a silver lining!

Can I keep chickens in a fruit cage?

In my earlier post on the searches that lead people to my blog, I mentioned the question ‘can I keep chickens in a fruit cage?’ My, rather glib, answer was ‘Yes, but only if you don’t want any fruit.’ I now realise that this really isn’t a good enough answer – this is a serious question. I know this because variants of it keep appearing as the search terms used to get to my blog.

A spot of excavation

When we first toyed with the idea of keeping chickens, we considered the options for confining them – including whether having them in the fruit cage for some or all of the time would be possible. This was in the days before we owned any chickens and really didn’t know what they are like. I’m guessing that anyone who asks this question is, like we were at the time,  unfamiliar with hens. So for all you folk in this position, I’d better describe the natural habits of these creatures. First, you should understand that hens like to dig… I don’t mean just scratch around a bit… I mean they will excavate quite large holes and they are capable of getting through really compacted earth. I recently visited some people who bought a property with an old cow shed on it. This shed contains a highly compacted layer of cow muck so packed that it requires a pick axe to loosen it. They have found, however, that their chickens are able to scratch it up, making it possible for them to excavate it and use it on the vegetable beds.  You can imagine, therefore, what a chicken can do to earth under your fruit bushes.

The other important thing to know about chickens is that, even though they don’t really fly, they can get quite a height off the ground if they have an incentive, or even just when the fancy takes them. Some are better at it than others, but the temptation of raspberries is likely to entice even the most portly chicken to do a bit of jumping. Wing clipping is touted as the answer by many, but that only stops them getting lift with their wings and ours can certainly jump quite high if they really want to even if they are missing some feathers.

Janta at Karuna describes chickens as ‘the enemy of the forest gardener’… although he does have a few chickens, he prefers ducks. Ducks do not scratch the ground, so do not excavate your plants, they are fond of slugs and they seem less inclined to consume fruit (unless they get a taste for it). Since a fruit cage often contains an assemblage of plants that can be thought of as the lower layer of a forest garden, then Janta’s experience suggests that there is no place for chickens in  your fruit cage. My answer, however, is a little more complicated.

A chicken-free fruit cage

I would not keep chickens in the fruit cage permanently, unless I had a very big fruit cage and just a few chickens – in which case the loss of fruit might be at an acceptable level and there would be enough ground for them to scratch around without doing too much concentrated damage. However, I think it unlikely that you’d have a sufficiently big fruit cage for this to work and all low-growing fruit would be likely to be eaten. I do, however, allow ours into the fruit cage occasionally in the winter – partly because they enjoy rooting around in an otherwise forbidden area and partly because they eat some of the slugs in there. I am careful to prevent them going during the spring when fruit is starting to develop because they have no qualms about eating unripe fruit – don’t think that because it’s still green, it’s safe from their attention! The other time I put a chicken in the fruit cage is when I have one that needs to get over being broody. Aliss is particularly susceptible to broodiness and will, if allowed to, sit on the laying box for days at a time. When this happens, we turf her out into the fruit cage, where the only shelter is provided by the plants and where there are many things to pique her curiosity. She spends her days in the fruit cage and her nights with the other hens and after about 72 hours she’s usually over it.

As well as preserving ground flora, roots and fruit, I have another reason for excluding our hens from the fruit cage – it seems to be a preferred habitat for frogs, toads and lizards in our garden. We often find frogs in there and it certainly provides them with a refuge. If you do not keep chickens you may be unaware that they can be enthusiastic meat-eaters and frogs seem to be particularly attractive to them. I’m always slightly distressed when one of my pest controllers eats one of my other pest controllers, so keeping them separate seems the best option!

So, overall, the answer is that chickens and fruit are not the ideal combination in an enclosed area, but you can use the two to mutual benefit.

In suburbia

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”
—  Edmund Burke

I often hear people bemoaning their lack of land and citing this as a reason that they don’t grow their own food. I, myself, yearn for a greater area to cultivate, but this is not going to stop me making the most of what I do have. And, to some extent, we all have the potential to grow something, be it a pot of basil on the kitchen window sill, a few tomato plants in a grow-bag on a balcony or a garden full of a variety of produce.

It’s easy to focus on what we haven’t got, rather than what we have. For some time Mr Snail-of-happiness and I have been looking out for a piece of land to buy that we can turn into a forest garden, but we haven’t been able to find anything that is both suitable and sensibly priced. Earlier this year I started to realise that my desire for land was distracting me from optimising the area around the house. I do have a productive garden but, as I described in my ‘Waste of space‘ post, I still had plenty more space that I wasn’t using. I’ve also go a small front garden that I have my eye on and, fortunately, can convert into a productive area without fear of a battle with the local council (unlike some places in the US).

Having harvested more than 10kg of potatoes from an area less than 1.5myesterday, I can confirm that even a small patch of land can contribute significantly to our food needs. Even this year, with the terrible summer weather here in the UK, we have still eaten food from the garden pretty much every day; mainly potatoes, lettuce and eggs over the last few weeks, but we’ve also had a few peppers and chillies plus lots of raspberries and rhubarb and now a few blue berries. Oh, and eight mangetout pods on Saturday! There is no way that we could be self-sufficient, but we can make a difference. What if everybody grew a bit of their own food? First, it would provide us with a connection to what we eat in a way that going to the supermarket never can and, second, it would go some way to improving the environment. It’s also a good way of building relationships with your neighbours – Mr and Mrs Next-door love to receive eggs. They used to keep chickens themselves but they are in their 80s now and don’t feel able to (although they still grow a few vegetables), so fresh eggs are always appreciated and, in return, they take care of the girls when we go away.

Many of us in the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere in the world live in what could be described as suburbia… you may think of it as a social and cultural wasteland, but look again. Look at all that land – all those gardens that currently support a lawn, three hydrangeas and some bedding plants. Image what your neighbourhood would be like if everyone had some fruit and vegetables growing in their garden; if there were enough apple trees for the crop to be shared, so that no one ever needed to buy another apple again. Imagine what it would be like if the folks who were not able to garden let others do the job in exchange for shares of the produce from their land. Imagine a community, where there was always a neighbour willing to feed your small flock of chickens whilst you were away, or go round and water your plants, or help with a job you couldn’t manage yourself. This is a reality that can be achieved in the suburbs – people have useable land and the potential to build communities; there are hidden skills and opportunities and now seems like a good time to take advantage of these possibilities.

David Holmgren, one of the originators of permaculture, is particularly keen on the idea, in an article entitled  Retrofitting the suburbs for sustainability  (really worth a read) he writes: “The bottom line here is that we do not need to wait for policies to change. We can choose today to do this – to create our own small neighbourhoods. ‘Suburban sprawl’ in fact gives us an advantage. Detached houses are easy to retrofit, and the space around them allows for solar access and space for food production. A water supply is already in place, our pampered, unproductive ornamental gardens have fertile soils and ready access to nutrients…”

So, what are you waiting for? Change the world starting with your own back yard (and your own front yard if local ordinances allow)!

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