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)!

Teaching at Karuna Permaculture Project

I spent last weekend teaching an Introduction to Permaculture course at a forest garden project near Church Stretton in Shropshire called Karuna. I arrived on Thursday afternoon to get settled in and set up the teaching area and the course started on Friday morning. Janta and Merav, who own the place, made me very welcome and we enjoyed damson wine beside a camp fire on Thursday evening.

An outdoor session in the sunshine

When the course started I was delighted to find that, as well as folks from England, Scotland and Wales, we had one person from Holland, one from Mexico (although she now lives in the UK), one from the US (currently living in London), one from Russia (via Berlin) and one who had been living in New Zealand for five years… not bad out of 11 participants. The best courses are those where people come from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of experiences and we certainly had that. We were able to discuss attitudes towards food, growing, the land, communities and chocolate in a range of countries and from various perspectives. On a course like this I feel that I go away having learnt as much as the participants. Although I am referred to as the teacher, I really just facilitate, providing a framework for everyone to build up knowledge together.

Janta showing off one of his almond trees to the group

Karuna itself provides a marvellous location to teach about sustainability and growing, with a series of forest gardens containing trees, shrubs and perennial vegetables, annual vegetable growing areas, open rides, apple grafting, a pond, a large poly-tunnel, solar panels, compost toilets… and more. The range of fruits and nuts grown is staggering, including apples, pears, plums, soft fruits (loads of black currants this year), apricots, grapes, cobbs and almonds (actually fruiting this year). Then there are the perennial vegetables : artichokes, cardoons and kales. Plus the annual vegetables that we ate every day: they are still eating potatoes from last year, when they grew 20 varieties.

There is so much going on and Janta and Merav and their two boys work hard to maintain the site. After a long battle over planning permission, they have recently been granted permission to construct a low impact dwelling from straw bales… can you believe that it could take five years to get permission for a small, low-impact house, when there are huge ‘executive’ homes being built everywhere you look across Britain (well, at least where we live)? I can’t wait to see how they get on with it – the detailed plans have not been drawn up yet, but I know that it will be circular with an external diameter of 12m. Still, in some ways they have been lucky, it took Tony Wrench 10 years to get permission for his tiny low-impact round house in Wales!

All-in-all, it was a great course at a great location. Although we were only together for three days, the group had really bonded and I was extremely sad to say goodbye to them on Sunday afternoon.

Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves!

Station Road Permaculture Garden

I spent the last weekend teaching an introductory course on permaculture. This is going to provide me with subject matter for a number of posts, but I thought that I would start by describing a project that we visited.

An abundance of vegetables in front of the house

In a tiny village in the Shropshire hills is a row of four former council houses and one of these was our destination on  Saturday afternoon. Station Road Permaculture Garden demonstrates what you can do when you only have a normal-sized house and garden (80 ft x 40 ft) but want to produce as much food as possible. The garden provides fruit and vegetables as well as eggs from chickens and ducks. It’s hard to describe the amazing range of produce that comes out of the garden, but it includes currants and apples, raspberries and strawberries, asparagus and artichokes, carrots and potatoes, tomatoes and beans… at total of about 20 types of vegetable and 23 types of fruit!

During our visit we were treated to home produced apple juice – pasteurised so that it will last for at least a couple of years – and scones with home-made jams. We were also invited to sample the soft fruits as we walked around the garden. My favourite was the red dessert gooseberry – I’m not usually a gooseberry fan, but these were so sweet and juicy that I’m certainly going to find a place for some in my garden.

Shower cubicle cloche

The garden is separated into different areas by means of fences and hedges, including a low damson hedge and a fence with raspberries towering over it. The tiny orchard area is where the chickens and ducks live; it contains a small pond and two compost bins (with squashes growing in them). In total there are three greenhouses – two conventional ones and one containing a peach tree and constructed out of three old doors. An interesting curved glass cloche turns out to be a salvaged corner shower cubicle and the old septic tank has been converted very simply into rainwater storage. The site shows the best of creative use of waste materials along with inspirational plants.

A lemon tree – outside for the summer

And, as well as all the productive areas, there is a lawn for the two young children to play on and where they have their swing and keep their guinea pigs. This isn’t simply a demonstration site: this is a family home. It has been created by someone who goes out to work and is not able to dedicate all his time to tending his garden. To me, this represents the reality of life for many people. It certainly inspired the participants on the course, proving that vast tracts of land and unlimited resources are not necessary to improve your quality of life, to manage to produce a significant amount of your own food and to make a real difference to your environment.

-oOOo-

Station Road Permaculture Garden is a Land Centre, one of a network of permaculture demonstration sites around the UK that you can arrange to visit to see permaculture work in action.

The right to garden

Do you think that we have a right to grow our own food? Well, apparently not all countries do…

I have just read two astonishing stories about Americans being prevented from growing herbs, vegetables and fruits in their front gardens: one in Ferguson Missouri and one in Tulsa Oklahoma. In a country where residents have a right to bear arms, they appear not to have a right to bear spades.

Suddenly the UK seems like a very liberal place to live.

Rhubarb, rhubarb

I’m pleased to report that Gytha is on the mend: she has started objecting to being given antibiotics at 9am (it’s a bit easier at 9pm because we wake her up to do it) and she’s shaped more like a rugby ball than a soccer ball now, which must indicate an improvement. So, my mind is turning to plants…

This is the time of year known as the ‘hungry gap’ (at least here in the UK). It’s spring – seeds are germinating and seedlings are growing, but there are precious few crops ready for harvest. My kale has started flowering – the pollinators like it, but it’s not much use for me to eat now – the purple sprouting broccoli is battling on and providing one fresh vegetable from the garden, but the current star is the rhubarb.

Rhubarb this week – with sage in front of it and blueberries to the left

Rhubarb is really a vegetable, but we treat it like a fruit. It’s great stewed with a little water and some sugar and served with natural yoghurt or vanilla ice cream. Even better with the addition of waffles and maple syrup. Some people mix it with orange when cooking, but my favourite combination is rhubarb and strawberry. It’s not strawberry season here yet, but they will soon be available from Pembrokeshire (not too far down the road) and after that we should have them from the garden too (if the chickens don’t get to them first!). And then we will be having rhubarb and strawberry sponge  – delicious and made with eggs from Esme and Lorna (sadly not Gytha for a while – we have to discard any eggs she lays for quite a few weeks after she’s finished her antibiotics).

As well as providing lovely fresh food early in the season, rhubarb just keeps on giving – it likes a good application of compost each year or two and benefits from watering through the summer, but as long as you keep picking it, it keeps growing. Some years it decides to flower, and if you allow it to do so, you get statuesque flower heads, but precious little to eat because all its energy goes to the flowers. However, if you cut the flower stalks back as you notice them, you will have your harvest.

Admittedly, by the end of the season, you may be fed up with rhubarb, but don’t fret – it freezes well, just raw sliced into chunks or stewed (which takes up less space). You can also make it into a variety of preserves, although I have never tried this approach. This year, however, I do intend to have a go at bottling it, since the apples were so successful preserved this way last year. But now I’m thinking of it, I think I’ll just look up rhubarb preserves in a few books…

Nothing lasts forever

Although it’s the wrong end of the season to be preserving much food, now is a good time to think about how to store produce and what it is possible to keep. The summer is full of good things to eat from the garden, but some simply have to be enjoyed in season; others can be preserved by processing and some will last for months in their raw state.

Some of last year's harvest - raw and processed

I love winter squashes and pumpkins because they provide me with fresh food for many months after harvest – simple ripening and they are ready to be stored in a cool place. We put ours in the loft for the winter, only cutting into the final one from 2011 a few weeks ago. I do wish I had grown more last year and will try to rectify that in the coming season. Here in west Wales my best producer is ‘Boston’ and that is the variety that I will be concentrating on this year: it is a beautiful yellow fruit and, for me, the orange flesh is like sunshine in the dark winter days! So, if I plant the right seeds now, I should be enjoying the fruits (or vegetables) of my labour until this time next year, or beyond.

Unlike squashes, most crops require some active preservation. Perhaps the easiest method is freezing. Although some crops, like mangetout and runner beans, require blanching (plunging into boiling water for a few seconds), quite a few can be frozen from fresh – peas and raspberries, for example. Some crops, however, need much more processing. Courgettes can be fried then frozen for use in stews or soups, or any vegetable or combination of vegetables can be turned into soup and frozen for later consumption. But, of course, this requires a sizeable freezer if there is food for several months and there are costs (financial and environmental) for both the electricity to run it and for its production in the first place.

Canning and bottling are options that require time and energy (both personal and for heat production) at the outset, but subsequent storage should be energy-free. There can be substantial set-up costs too, but all the equipment will be used year after year. I had considerable success with bottled apples – both slices and puree – last year and hope to repeat the process this year if my friend Perkin supplies me with as many apples as he did in 2011. I’m planning on jars of passatta as well, although I’m hoping that Perkin can oblige with the raw materials for this too, as I have limited success with tomatoes usually. Perkin gets a fair deal – I process produce for him too so he has time to concentrate on more growing things. Jam making is another ‘bottling’ technique used by many and you can end up with preserves that last for years.

If your runner beans get too big, then let the seeds develop and dry them to use later in casseroles. Herbs, of course, can be dried, as can apple rings and onions. Fruit and vegetables can also be fermented – parsnip wine anyone? And then there are fruit leathers, sauerkraut, pickles… so many options.

Perhaps the most satisfying way to feed yourself through the year is to have crops that prolong the season or that are harvested at unusual times. Great winter standbys are leeks, kale and purple sprouting broccoli, plus there are many oriental winter vegetables and a variety of salad leaves.

So, as you buy and plant your seeds, think about the vegetables (and fruit) that will crop for you over a long period and at different times of the year. Think about varieties that store well. Think about sequential planting to prolong the season. Then, when you come to harvesting, try to store some of your produce; and if you can’t do this share it with other people and store it in the form of good will!

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