Something to eat

Following on from yesterday’s post about all the potential crops, I just wanted to say that, even at this time of the year, we are still harvesting from the garden. Throughout the winter we have picked (and continue to pick) kale, mizuna, parsley and blood-veined sorrel and now we are about to have our first purple sprouting broccoli of the season:

In addition, because of all the preserving, we are still eating last year’s crops: bottled apples, bottled passata, frozen raspberries and red currants, apple juice and frozen chillies. We are also getting loads of eggs from the hens. Plus we are undertaking a different sort of cultivation by making yoghurt and cheese.

We are a very long way from self-sufficiency, but I am very proud of what we do manage to produce in our small garden. Even if you don’t have much space, you will be amazed what you can achieve if you have a go.

Forward thinking

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

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

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

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Ready for soup-making

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

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

Preserving our Heritage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of season

Look at any gardening book and it will tell you when you ‘should’ sow certain seeds. Search the Garden Organic website and it tells you that in August (at least here in the UK), you should be planting (amongst other things) amaranth, chicory, Chinese cabbage, kale, lambs lettuce, winter lettuce, oriental greens, rocket, spring cabbage and turnip.

However, Garden Organic were not awaiting their indoor growing space during the spring and early summer like I was. They don’t have all the facts, namely that (1) I bought a whole heap of seeds last winter, (2) Plans for the limery were hatched after purchase of said seeds and (3) I don’t believe everything I read!

So yesterday I sowed seeds… leeks, parsnips, basil and purple sprouting broccoli. Oh, and kale, which is on the list. All except the basil are in modules or little coir pots in the limery… where it’s warm and lovely. Maybe they will thrive and maybe they won’t. Maybe they will be so shocked when they are planted out (not the basil, that’s staying indoors) they will keel over, but maybe they will have had such a good start in life that they grow into be healthy plants and give us a stupendous crop.We will see.

Repotted courgette

Repotted courgette

A couple of weeks ago I planted three courgette seeds – only one germinated, but that has grown into a large plant in the limery, so yesterday that was potted up into a very large pot in the hope that, by keeping it indoors, we can have some completely out-of-season courgettes. Because of the poor germination, I also sowed a couple more seeds last week (a different variety) and both of those have germinated even though they were a year older than the first ones. The variety is large and probably totally unsuitable for indoor growing, but, again, we’ll see. I have really missed my glut of courgettes this year, so it would be lovely to have at least a little crop in order to re-live past harvesting glories.

Maybe I’m just over-optimistic, but there is such a joy associated with the transformation from seed to plant to crop to dinner on my plate that I simply couldn’t wait until the ‘right’ time!

Winter harvest

Sometimes being disorganised has its advantages.

Tayberry newly planted

Tayberry newly planted

On Sunday we planted soft fruit: a red currant, a tayberry (a blackberry/raspberry cross), a boysenberry (a cross between loganberry, raspberry and dewberry) and six strawberry plants. These have gone into our small front garden – the only area currently not producing food. We mulched round them with cardboard and weighted this down with some used compost. I’m not sure how many jobs this compost has done, but it includes homemade garden/kitchen waste compost, the contents of pots in which we grew peppers, some cardboard and grass clippings. Last year it was put into a dumpy bag in the ‘waste of space‘ area and had potatoes planted in it. I know that we harvested some of the potatoes out of this bag, but when we came to transfer the compost to the soft fruit, we discovered some lovely big spuds – untouched by slugs, just waiting for an unplanned January harvest. In total, there were 3kg of them!

Parsnips (planned) and potatoes (unplanned)

Parsnips (planned) and potatoes (unplanned)

In addition, we had a couple more planned additions to the table: lovely parsnips (knobbly but delicious) thanks to some seedlings given to me my Kate the day we went to Wonderwool (I drove and she provided me with vegetable seedlings and eggs to bring home… what a great exchange!) and kale (that ever-welcome addition of greenery in the dark days of winter). We’ve also got some leeks coming along nicely (seedlings also provided by Kate), plus Mr Snail found even more potatoes when he was digging up parsnips (still growing in that bed although it’s a couple of years since they were planted there). We even managed to grow a parsnip in the shape of a snail:

The parsnip of happiness?

The parsnip of happiness?

The cheese continues to be a work in progress… it is now maturing and won’t be ready to be eaten for at least a month. I managed to modify a cheese box that has ventilation in the top so that I could mature the cheese in conditions where the humidity is fairly easy to control (just add or remove the egg cup with water in it) and now, apart from regular turning, we just have to wait:

Maturing cheese

Maturing cheese

So, what are your recent harvests (expected and unexpected)?

Our daily veg (and fruit)

So, here we are in the depths of winter and I realise that we are still managing to eat something home-grown at least once every day. Considering our small garden, I’m terribly pleased about this.

Aliss - star layer

Aliss – star layer

First, there is the fresh produce… currently we are getting an egg every day from Aliss (none from any of the others, but that’s not surprising from the two oldies). In addition, I’m able to go out into the garden and pick kale, broccoli leaves, blood-veined sorrel and a range of oriental leaves (my favourite in salads is red mizuna), or dig up some oca; plus a few chillies are finally ripening up in our very soggy greenhouse. There’s also still sage growing abundantly, which I love to use in stuffing. NB: all photos in this post were taken today (26 December 2013).

Red mizuna (mostly)

Red mizuna (mostly)

Second, we have stored produce. We still have many kilos of potatoes left: we’re currently eating Colleen, the last of our first earlies which have simply been stored in a cardboard box in the loft. We’ve got some of each of the other three varieties left – Valour, Milva and Mira – so those should keep us going for quite a while yet. Maybe next year I will manage to be completely self-sufficient in potatoes. Other stored produce that needed little or no processing are the winter squashes (two big ones left) and the dried beans (Czar runners), dried chillies (Lemon drop), poppy seeds and sunflower seeds.

Broccoli - not sprouting yet, but the leaves are good

Broccoli – not sprouting yet, but the leaves are good

Then we have things that needed some work to allow them to be stored: bottled apple, apple butter, frozen stewed apple* (does there seem to be a theme?); frozen stewed rhubarb; frozen raspberries and blackberries (the latter foraged rather than grown ourselves); frozen vegetable soups; frozen passata; and frozen chillies (Alberto Locoto, which don’t dry well because they are so fleshy).

I know that I couldn’t supply all our needs, but it is lovely to know that we eat food from our garden every day – food not doused in pesticides, not grown using chemical fertilisers, vegetables of heritage varieties, many from local producers or from saved seed and with very very few food miles. To me, that feels like a real triumph that I want to celebrate.

-oOo-

* OK, I confess this is all from the lovely Perkin… homegrown at High Bank rather than Chez Snail.

PS There’s a new square on the Masterpiece page, if you are interested.

Winter veg

A time of plenty... courgettes growing by a Boston winter squash

A time of plenty… courgettes growing alongside a yellow Boston winter squash

Yesterday brought beautiful August weather, with lots of sunshine and a breeze to keep the air fresh. It does feel like the end of summer, though, with the mornings a little cooler and a slightly different smell in the air. It’s a time of plenty in the garden… something to harvest every day. However, we also need to think about the future… we may be awash with fresh vegetables now, but things will be different in the winter. So, even as we harvest, we should also think about sowing. And that’s exactly what I did yesterday afternoon.

Newly planted seeds surrounded by abundant capsicums

Newly planted seeds surrounded by abundant capsicum growth

I sat in the garden with compost and seed trays and planted a range of vegetables that, I hope, will help us through the winter. In the seed trays I planted kale, spring onions, red mizuna, komatsuna, kai lan and namenia. I discovered that I had very few plant labels just before I started, so I cut strips from a plastic milk carton and wrote on the rough side – it seemed to work well. Next, I cleared the bolting lettuces out of the strawberry planter and fed these to the chickens. In their place I sprinkled seeds of Claytonia and a lettuce called ‘Winter Marvel’. I also potted up some sweet pepper and chili plants. as they seem to be growing really well and it looks like we have a late-season mountain of capsicums to look forward to.

I will be planting more seeds over the coming weeks, including coriander, rocket and several more varieties of oriental greens. If you want ideas about what to plant now, the best resource I know is the Garden Organic website. They have pages for ‘what to do in the garden this month‘ which include planting suggestions… do check it out, it’s great.

Green shoots

For the past four days we have had sunshine and no rain! It’s cloudy now, but the forecast is for more sunshine over the next few days. This is great news because the winter of 2012/13 has, so far, been very gloomy. Every day we record the amount of electricity that our solar panels generate, so we have a ready means of comparing sunshine between years. These past few months have been rather darker than the equivalent periods in the past two years, so the recent weather has been particularly welcome.

Some rather puny leeks!

It’s not just us people who have been suffering from the dark – the winter vegetables have been struggling. Our leeks, purple and white sprouting broccoli and oriental greens are much smaller than we had hoped and I don’t even want to think about the kale. Fingers crossed that they will put on a spurt of growth as a result of all the recent photosynthesis. To be fair, the white sprouting broccoli is supposed to be a very late variety, so I wouldn’t expect much from it yet, but the purple is described as ‘early’. The sunshine does seem to have encouraged some growth from the garlic and onion sets that were planted some time ago… I was beginning to think that they might have drowned!

Sweet peppers

However, there is a whole growing season to look forward to in 2013. The first batch of seeds that I planted earlier this month have started to germinate, and this is always a good feeling. I use an electric propagator to get peppers and chillies started early in the year. In my experience, they need a long growing season and do best if sown in January or February. Most capsicums germinate best in the UK if they have some gentle heat applied, otherwise they simply don’t do anything or even just rot. I gather that the optimum temperature is in the range 20-30°C (68-86°F), but my experience is to aim for the upper end of this. The only things I have sown so far are the capsicums (hot and sweet), basil (for an early crop grown indoors) and tomato and tomatillo.

One year I sowed courgettes and squashes in February, but I just ended up with leggy plants that I couldn’t transplant outside because there was still a risk of frost. In the end my crop was relatively poor because by the time I could put them in to soil they were too tender and thus prone to slug attack. Mind you, that was in the days before the chickens when our slug problem was much worse. Anyhow, the curcurbits will wait a while before sowing… I will just have to enjoy watching the things I have up and running and getting some “Wizard” field beans in soon now it appears they won’t either rot or float away!

Reasons to be cheerful (or give thanks!)

Normally at this time of year we would be enjoying a wide range of stored produce from the garden, but 2012 will not be remembered as a year of gluts, so we have no pumpkins and squashes, few runner beans in the freezer, and only a limited amount of apple (stewed and frozen or pureed and bottled). I am thinking wistfully about the mountains of apples last year, the winters when we have eaten gallons of courgette soup and the times when we had enough ripened squashes in the loft to provide stored sunshine on even the gloomiest days. Not this year, though.

Sunrise 18 November… from out of our back door

So, what s there to be grateful for this year? Well, the first thing is that we don’t have to rely on what we grow to feed ourselves – if we did, we’d starve this winter. Fortunately, even if we only buy locally produced food, there is plenty – potatoes, meat, leeks, onions, swede… so we won’t go hungry. Living in a marginal area, the country has lots of land that isn’t suitable for plant crops, but is suitable for raising sheep, s0 there’s a source of protein from land that, in arable terms, is pretty useless. Living in the countryside means not only lovely surroundings, but lots of local growers, producers and foragers, allowing us to support the local economy whilst eating well. Llwynhelyg, our local farm shop, sources the majority of the produce that they sell from Wales or the borders, so we even have a one stop shop that delivers the majority of our needs from fairly local farmers and makers.

Peppers ripening today in my office

However, we are also still producing at least a little of our own food. There is a raised bed containing broccoli (fingers crossed for a good harvest from January onwards) and kale (which we have already started eating). We also have leeks growing and still some bunching onions (some of which we ate this evening along with broad beans that were frozen a few moths ago). The Claytonia that I planted doesn’t seem to have germinated, but the oriental greens have and I have high hopes for them plus there is some root parsley that seems to be coming along nicely… and we are using the leaves already even if the roots don’t do well. Meanwhile indoors, there are still a few sweet peppers on the plants that we are hoping to overwinter and some of the rocoto chillis are now ripening up. By the look of the picture here, they may well make great Christmas trees! We even, believe it or not, still have mange tout growing in pots outdoors, although a frost will finish these off soon, no doubt.

November mange tout

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…

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