Three Things Thursday: 23 March 2017

*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*

Inspired by Emily of Nerd in the Brain here are my Three Things Thursday.

First, a new vaark for a new friend. I made this little creature on Sunday and on Monday it went in the post to make a new friend smile:

A new vaark ready for the world

Second, seed saving. Last year I saved seeds from the melons that I grew. The variety, Green Nutmeg, came from the Heritage Seed Library and so it’s particularly pleasing to have a new generation germinating this year. I have loads of these seeds, so if anyone in the UK would like some, just let me know and I’ll put a few in the post.

Green Nutmeg melon seedlings

Third, a rare carnivore. I have lots of sundews and pitcher plants in the limery, and whilst they present some challenges, they generally seem to be doing ok. The Venus Fly Traps are a bit more of a challenge, but I have three small ones. My favourite carnivore, though, is much more tricky to care for. The Monkey Cup can’t stay in the limery over winter as it’s too cold – it has to come and live in my office on the window sill. I’m very happy, therefore, to be able to return it to the limery this week and to note that it’s getting bigger and looks really rather healthy:

Monkey Cup (Nepenthes ventricosa x talangensis)

So, those are three things making me smile and for which I am grateful this week – what about you?

Three Things Thursday: 26 January 2017

Inspired by Emily of Nerd in the Brain (note her new self-hosted web site) here are my 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 – a silly film. My friend Derrick, who lives in California sent me a link to this and it certainly made me smile when I watched it this morning:

Second, a yarn selection box. One of the ladies in the 60 Million Trebles group put out a request for 4-ply sock yarn (especially the self-patterning variety). She asked if people could send her just 10g of yarn for a special charity blanket she’s involved in making. Having knitted so many pairs of socks over the years, I have loads of odds and ends. So I got out my tiny digital scales and had fun putting together this collection of sixteen different yarns:

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a colourful collection

 

Third, the start of the gardening year. I’m still holding on for a few days before I plant my first seeds, but I have got three varieties of potato chitting (sprouting) in the limery:

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and so it begins…

 

So, those are 3 things making me smile this week – what about you?

Just one thing

The other day, someone on a discussion group that I’m a member of asked what one thing they should do to start leading a more sustainable life. I have to confess that I didn’t respond, but it is a question that I’ve been pondering ever since. Of course there’s lots of things you could do, from saying no to plastic bags to catching the bus rather than driving the car, but on reflection, I think my advice would be to consider your eating habits.

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In control of your own potatoes!

If you start thinking more about the food you eat, you will begin to wonder what’s actually in it and where it came from. The more your food has been prepared or processed before it gets to you, the more difficult it is to unpick its history, so you become less and less sure of what you are actually swallowing. Let’s consider two extremes, in the form of mashed potato:

  •  If you eat a potato that you have grown yourself, then you can be sure how far it has travelled, what chemicals have been applied to it, exactly what variety it is and when it was harvested. In addition, it’s pretty certain that it won’t have had any packaging, except when it’s parent seed potato arrived for planting. You can boil it and eat it without any additional ingredients, but any that you do add – salt, butter, milk, oil – will be under your control in terms of source and amount.
  • If you buy pre-prepared mashed potato, you’ll have to look at the ingredients to know what’s in it (for example, Tesco Fresh Mashed Potato contains: Potato, Skimmed Milk, Whole Milk (9%), Butter (Milk) (3%), Salt, White Pepper). You won’t know how the potatoes were grown, and you may only have the vaguest indication of where they were grown and/or processed (the Tesco version states “Produced in the UK” and nothing else). There’s bound to be packaging (plastic and cardboard in this example) and there’s going to have been lots of food miles, because of transporting the potato to the processing plant, transporting the product to a central distribution centre and from there to the shop, before you can finally transport it home to eat.
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Buying in bulk can mean less packaging

Of course, we can’t all grow our own food, and many people can’t grow any of their own food, but if you can (even a little bit), you can be completely in control of that part of your diet. The next best option is to buy direct from the producer – if you buy from the person who grows or makes your food, you can ask them questions about it. In addition, in my experience, small producers of non-luxury foods generally minimise their packaging as it costs them money: many small-scale sellers will aim simply for freshness and protection. Buying direct also reduces food miles because the supply chain is so short. The popularity of farmers’ and producers’ markets has given many more people the opportunity to buy direct, plus more and more small producers are selling online. This is encouraging, but still you’d be very lucky to be able to source all your food direct – almost all of us have to rely, at least to some extent, on third party suppliers, and then there is an element of trust in the relationship.

Over the years I’ve read so many labels on packets containing food. Sometimes, I just can’t face the disappointment of discovering that my favourite biscuits contain palm oil, so I don’t read the ingredients, but sooner or later I get round to it and often it results in me making changes to my diet. There are some products that I’ve given up not because of the ingredients, but because of the packaging (teabags, for example). As a result there are now only a few things that we eat that I haven’t made myself, and increasingly I find that I no longer enjoy the flavour of pre-prepared/processed things that I used to eat or drink often . This, however, has been a very gradual process. Twenty years ago we did almost all our food shopping in a supermarket and I didn’t think twice about buying a pizza or a bag of frozen chips. And this is one of the joys of focusing on food – small changes accumulate over time and because we eat every day, a little change can have a big impact over a whole year.

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Some home-made food is fancier than others

I wish I’d kept better track of the way our food has changed – it would be interesting. I’m sure that stopping going out to work made a big difference. Since I now do all my paid work from home, it’s much easier to fit in cooking from scratch. My commitment to cooking has also meant that I have bought kitchen equipment that I would otherwise not have bothered with – for example, my Kenwood Chef sure does get a lot of use, and we like it especially because a single motor can run the coffee grinder, blender, ice cream maker and mincer as well as the basic mixer; it’s also possible to buy spares if there’s a problem. Having the right equipment makes a huge impact on the speed I can make things, although very few items are essential.

 

So, if you want to make a start on saving the planet, think about your food and make a few changes that fit your lifestyle. You may be surprised how your shopping and diet are gradually transformed without a huge traumatic shift in your habits.

Experiments in gardening

As regular readers know, I have quite a small garden, so I have to be choosy about the crops that I grow. For a long time I focused on things that were expensive to buy in the shops, difficult to transport or were simply not readily available. Over recent years, however, I have realised that there are lots of good reasons to grow some of the more common things, especially if they form a staple for us (see my post, for example, about whether it’s worth growing potatoes here).

This year, however, I’m going to be able to expand a bit… not because we’re moving house but because my sister is! Now, I know that I shouldn’t have designs on her garden, but she is buying a house much closer to me and with a decent-sized garden that already has a vegetable patch and greenhouse. So, when I ordered my seeds the other day, I knew that I could experiment a bit more; not only this, but that any excess plants can go to my friend Perkin who has loads of space for growing and who will be just a few miles from my sister!

Making good use of vertical space

Planning to grow lots of mangetout again this year

So what have I chosen that’s a bit out of the ordinary? Well, a couple of things from the Heritage Seed Library: Shark fin Melon (a rather rampant sort of squash from which you can eat the fruits, shoots and leaves) and Callaloo (a leafy green, much used in Jamaica). The latter I’ve been intending to try for a while, but the former was just a whim… apparently it covers a lot of ground, so I’m thinking of growing it over my shed as well as giving plants to sister and Perkin. I have  few other heritage seeds coming from the lovely Kate in Australia… I chose genuine Australian varieties of lettuce, pumpkin and pepper, which will be interesting to experiment with. And then my big seed order was from The Real Seed Catalogue. This included some tried and tested varieties that I have written about in the past, plus a few new things for me and my sister to have a go with: Rainbow Quinoa (for the seeds), Groundcherry, Tall Giant Sugar Pea (this has HUGE pods, apparently), Really Red Dear Tongue Lettuce and a previously untried pepper called Nova.

I don’t know what will work and what won’t, but I’m certainly looking forward to trying out both old and new varieties here and with my sister… are you trying anything different this year?

Sheds

I had always understood that the place to go for a bit of peace and quiet was the shed… where, in 1970s sitcoms, a man might escape from a nagging wife (marriage being obligatory and involving two genders in those days) and enjoy… well, I’m not sure what exactly, on account of being (1) female and (2) aged three at the beginning of the 1970s. Anyway, it was always the shed: sometimes as far away as an allotment, but often in the garden.

We don’t have a very big garden and consequently, we don’t have a very big shed. So, once the plant pots, shredder, potatoes, spades, fork, spare netting, canes, and lawn mower** are in there, there is standing room only. In addition, when we bought our shed, we chose to have one without windows (the weak point in the old shed), so once the door is closed it’s both claustrophobic and dark. Call me picky, but I don’t find that combination particularly relaxing.

My greenhouse... hoping it will breed with next-door's

In the theory of 1970s sitcoms, I guess that I should be the one in the house doing the nagging and Mr Snail-of-happiness should be seeking refuge in some garden structure. However, he has his studio/workshop (formerly the spare bedroom) and I seek my respite (from scientific editing, not from Mr S-o-h) in the garden. It would be lovely simply to sit out on the bench and chat to the chickens (they always come over to see what’s going on), but this is west Wales and we are considering buying a dinghy and trading the chickens in for some ducks, so shelter is often required. And so, I often find myself spending a happy ten minutes pottering in the greenhouse, examining what has germinated, watering and generally enjoying being with growing plants. This seems to me, so much better than a shed – it’s light, there may be things to eat and when there is a little sunshine it’s lovely and warm in there. My long-term plan is to make sure that there is always something growing in my greenhouse, whatever the time of year. In this respect I have been inspired by the home-made geodesic dome up at Blaeneinion, where there seem to be salad leaves, at least, always available.

My trip out there earlier today revealed lots of bean germination – both runner and pea-beans (featured in the Guardian last weekend). None had made a bid for freedom today, but my ‘jumping bean’has not germinated, so I suspect a mouse was responsible for the earlier migration and that it might have consumed the embryo… resowing probably required. Nevertheless, the greenhouse has restorative properties for me… I think I need to put a chair out there… and possibly some gin and tonic.

Germinating beans

** A complete white elephant, since we no longer have a lawn… the chickens ate it!

Varieties in the veg patch

Variety’s the very spice of life,
That gives it all its flavour.
William Cowper, 1785

When I started writing my post ‘Variety is the spice of life’ last weekend, my intention was to write about ‘varieties’  and somehow ended up at a slightly higher taxonomic level writing a bit about the range of vegetables/fruit that I grow. Today, however, my thoughts are turning to all the choice of varieties there are… or aren’t… available to us.

To be able to sell vegetable seeds in the UK, they must appear on the ‘National List’. Until recently this was a very costly process, but last year the regulations changed and now, I understand, it is possible to list an ‘Amateur Vegetable Variety’** for a fee of £100. Such varieties are those grown by gardeners and deemed to have ‘no intrinsic value for commercial production‘.  This has helped us ‘amateurs’ to access a variety of seeds without breaking the law, but I would still encourage you to support the Heritage Seed Library run by Garden Organic (formerly the Henry Doubleday Research Association), who have done a fantastic job for many years acting as guardians of varieties that would otherwise have been lost.

So, why should we be interested in different varieties of seed? What’s wrong with the ones that the big seed houses sell?

Well, first of all, listing seeds used to be a very expensive business, so the only varieties that were on the list were the ones that made money commercially… because they were valuable crops in one way or another. Something that’s good as a large-scale crop isn’t necessarily the best thing for your garden. It might be, for example, that the farmer wants a crop that is uniform in appearance or that isn’t readily damaged during transportation. But as a gardener, these are likely to be irrelevant – it’s likely to be more important that our variety tastes good or has a long season. The latter may be really inconvenient for a farmer who wants a single harvest.

The second key point is that seed houses want you to buy seed from them every year. What better, then, than the expensive F1 hybrids, which do not breed true? You can’t save the seeds from these and know what you will get next year, so you are tied into a never-ending relationship with the seed seller. The Real Seeds folk, in contrast, send seed-saving instructions with your seeds in a deliberate attempt to do themselves out of business!!

And then. there is the joy of supporting a small business that sells seeds produced on a small-scale – why shouldn’t it be possible to produce just a little seed each year and make a little money on it without being a criminal?

I have loved some of the varieties that I have grown over the years… crimson flowered broad beans are a particular favourite that only used to be available from the HSL, along with Greek squash, Salt Spring Sunrise tomato, bronze arrow lettuce, asparagus kale… I could go on. I’m on the lookout for new friends… perennial kale has promise according to Esculent et cetera.

In many cases, we have had wonderful flavours from our less usual varieties (as promised by the quote at the top!) as well as beauty… from beans, squashes and mangetout, in particular. We’ve also seen our crops attract large numbers of pollinating insects because traditional varieties tend to be more accessible to them.

So, why not try some of the less commercial varieties? Another little step on the path to sustainability.

** I’m amused by the concept of an ‘amateur vegetable’… does it have a day-job and is it just a vegetable in its spare time?

Variety is the spice of life

Perhaps it’s a bit late in the year to be thinking about what edibles to plant, but as the seedlings and shoots start to emerge I have been thinking about what I am growing, as well as what I don’t grow and what I’d like to grow…

I suppose that my starting point always has to be what we like to eat or, more importantly don’t like to eat… for example, Mr Snail-of-happiness can’t stand cucumber so I don’t bother to grow it. We did get given a plant a couple of years ago, which I couldn’t bear just to compost and I did discover that the chickens LOVE cucumber, but even so I don’t think that it’s worth the trouble (after all, there are lots of other things they LOVE… apple cores, lettuce leaves, scrapings from the porridge pot, slugs…).

Another question is what is expensive to buy or is associated with lots of food miles? I like to grow chillies and peppers because, when locally produced, these are quite expensive. I also like early potatoes (the first ones of the season are always costly), which can be planted in the greenhouse in containers to get a head start on the season. I don’t have room to grow lots of potatoes and anyway blight is endemic in this area so maincrop are not worth the effort, but the joy of new potatoes straight out of the ground cannot be overemphasised!

On this note, I think about what is good straight out of the garden. A crop of salad leaves is always worthwhile. I grow ‘cut-and-come-again’ varieties, so that we only need to pick as much as we  are going to eat immediately – perhaps just a few leaves for a sandwich. Other straight from the garden hits are purple sprouting broccoli, kale (so good to have fresh greens through the winter) and mangetout.

As well as things for immediate consumption, I like to grow some things that store well… pumpkins and squashes are popular because they require no processing prior to storage and they taste great even after months in the loft.

Then, there are things that I simply can’t find in the shops… salsify, oca, different varieties of chilli. This year I am planting root parsley on the recommendation of someone else who grows it very successfully locally. Vegetables that are unusual are less likely to have a large native ‘predator’ population and there may be fewer diseases locally to which they are susceptible, which is an additional benefit. Sourcing the more unusual seed or tubers (like you need for oca) may be tricky, but we are very lucky to be near the home of The Real Seed Catalogue… a valuable resource and quite inspirational. I bought my oca tubers from them last year and have been able to plant saved tubers this year, so avoiding additional expense. In fact, the Real Seed folks encourage seed saving, so are trying to put themselves out of business in the long run! Another great seed resource is Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library… become a member and you have access to some very interesting varieties and are supporting the preservation of varieties that would otherwise be lost.

So, what do you grow and where do you get your seeds from? I’m always looking for inspiration.

Inspiration

I was inspired to start this blog by Hedvig Murray, so it’s great to see her mentioned in The Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/gardening-blog/2012/apr/13/diary-window-box-garden-permaculture

What an inspiration for those who don’t have access to land!

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