Three Things Thursday: 15 September 2016

As usual I’m joining with Emily of Nerd in the Brain (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, baking cake. Today it’s a lime drizzle cake. A joy to make and to eat… do call in for a slice if you are passing later, but don’t leave it too long!

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Ready, set, bake…

Second, chillies. This morning Mr Snail picked another 17 chillies from our two lemon drop plants… they are so beautiful and very tasty (if you like that sort of thing).

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Lovely lemon drop

Third, mint. I love our apple mint both for its culinary uses and for the abundance of bees, butterflies and hoverflies that visit the flowers.

So that’s it for this week. What are you feeling grateful for?

 

And sow it begins…

Saturday 9 January was officially the first growing day of the year for me. I absolutely love growing from seed, so it is always a joy to put the first seeds of the year into compost and imagine what they will turn in to.

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My late dad’s propagator

It’s too early to plant most things, but January is definitely the time to start off peppers and chillies chez snail. So, Mr Snail retrieved the propagator from the loft. It was my dad’s and I’m sure that had he still been with us he would have appreciated the fact that it is still in use. I dug out the ethically -produced coir pots that I sourced last year plus a few small plastic pots and sorted through my seed collection. Then I made some new plant labels by cutting up some old plastic milk bottles that I have been saving for just this job.

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A lot of frozen chillies

The fantastic conditions in the limery meant that the 2015 chilli crop was HUGE. We have pots and pots of hot sweet chilli sauce and in the freezer I have a 2 litre tub completely full of whole chillies. So, in 2016, I plan only to grow one variety – my favourite – Lemon Drop. Of course some of the plants from last year may survive the winter (sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t) and so we may have more than this, but frankly, we won’t need them.

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Seeds sown

I have focused instead this year on sweet peppers. I had some seeds left over from last year for two varieties: Kaibi and Nova. The former did well in 2015, but we got very poor germination from the latter. Anyway, I have planted all the left-over seeds and we shall see. In addition I have one variety – Sheepsnose – from Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library, and I have decided to try out two new varieties from Tamar Organics: Yolo’s Wonder and Corno di Torro Rosso. I’m hoping to identify varieties that like the conditions we can provide so that I know what to focus on in future years.

Few other crops benefit from being planted this early in the year, but I did sow a few lettuce seeds to grow indoors… the last of our 2015 lettuce was consumed by slugs in early December. Now I await germination… I can hardly wait to see those green shoots.

Hot, hot, hot

Well, as the song says “the weather outside is frightful” (rain and wind) but indoors we are revelling in a warm fuzzy feeling brought on by produce from the limery and the generosity of friends.

Part of the chilli harvest

Part of the chilli harvest

Despite the relatively late completion of the limery in the summer, it has still provided us with an abundance of food, not to mention being a lovely place to sit and a great place to be messy with water! We’ve had a decent number of tomatoes, plenty of sweet peppers and some courgettes (still producing slowly), but the biggest success has been the chillies. Admittedly this is because I went mad and sowed far too many seeds, but even so, it bodes well for production next year. The heat in the chillies is variable – currently the Bartlett’s bonnets are the mildest, which has come as rather a surprise – and so making curry or our our much-loved red-hot cauliflower has been a bit hit-and-miss. With this in mind I decided to have a bash at making chilli sauce to use as a condiment with a guaranteed level of heat. I trawled the internet for inspiration, found a recipe I liked the sound of and proceeded to modify it beyond recognition! This is what I ended up with:

Sweet apple chilli sauce

100g chillies, chopped (I used 5 lemon drop, 2 Barlett’s bonnet and 18 pyramid)
200g caster sugar
200g Demerara sugar
3 cloves garlic chopped
15g fresh ginger chopped
200g roast tomato passata
400g stewed apple (unsweetened)
160ml cider vinegar
1tsp salt

Put all the ingredients in a pan and simmer for 30 minutes. Allow to cool and then liquidise.

All in one pot

All in one pot

With my chillies, this produced about 1 litre of very hot , very sweet sauce. It provided a great accompaniment to smoked mackerel fishcakes last night and I think it could easily be used as an ingredient in a curry… you wouldn’t need much!

Ready to eat

Ready to eat

Autumn Bounty

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

There's a bed somewhere under there

There’s a bed somewhere under there

to this:

Not bad in two months

Not bad growth!

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

Wow!

Wow!

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

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

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

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

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

Up, up and away

Up, up and away

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

Parade of peppers

One of my favourite crops to grow is peppers… partly because they require no garden, so anyone with a windowsill can manage them, and partly because they were my very first growing success.

Pepper plants in the sun

Pepper plants in the sun

After I completed my degree, I stayed on at university to work towards my PhD. I moved into a little flat on the sea front in Aberystwyth (in the 1980s, before it had been ripped apart by storms). It was on the back of the house, so I didn’t get a sea view, but I did look out on my landlady’s tiny garden, which was filled with roses and an enormous ivy growing up one wall. There was no space for me to grow anything outdoors, but I had a hankering to produce some sort of fruit or vegetables and so I settled on peppers. I found a dwarf variety that claimed to be suitable for growing in pots on the windowsill and planted some seeds. The variety I chose was Redskin and it turned out to be a great success. Such a success, in fact, that I didn’t have room for all of them in my flat and I transferred some of them into the bay window in the big storage room in the house, where they flourished. My landlady did not mind a bit – she was a lovely lady.

These days, 25 years down the line, I wouldn’t choose Redskin as it is an F1 hybrid and my preference now is to grow open pollinated and heritage varieties. However, the F1 hybrids are consistent and, whilst success is not guaranteed, there is a good chance that you will get uniform results. As a complete novice, Redskin was probably a good choice and it certainly encouraged me to continue growing peppers… in fact I think I have grown some every year since that first attempt.

A parade of potted peppers

A parade of potted peppers

This year, the varieties I have chosen are more varied: Lipstick (a favourite now from The Real Seed Catalogue) and Nova (also from Real Seeds, but a variety I have not tried before), plus the plants from a mixed pack of Australian Peppers from Kate (Tall Tales from Chiconia). In addition, as I have developed a liking for spicy food, I grow chillies. I’m quite boring with my choice of these and now only grow Lemon Drop and Alberto’s Locoto, but both of these do well in my greenhouse, and sometimes will overwinter.

Despite having given some pepper seedlings to my sister and another friend, when I came to do my potting up yesterday, I discovered I had rather a lot of plants. I haven’t counted them up, but I think that (weather permitting) this year might be a really good year for capsicums. If so, I’m planning to make pepper passata as a way of storing them.

In the greenhouse

In the greenhouse

Growing shoots

This week things seem to be growing particularly well.

First, the chilli and sweet pepper seeds in my propagator are starting to germinate. All varieties have made an appearance, but the most abundant are the Lemon Drop chillies and the Lipstick sweet peppers. I am particularly delighted to report, as well, that there are signs of life from the Australian peppers kindly supplied by Kate (tall tales from chiconia):

Lipstick peppers making an appearance this week

Lipstick peppers making an appearance this week

Second, the lovely Sissie, the High Bank baby has outgrown the first pair of mittens that I made for her, so a second larger pair is required. These look very big to me for such a little girl, but at least she won’t outgrow them too quickly:

New mittens for Sissie

New mittens for Sissie

And, finally, the hens clearly think that spring has arrived (despite the gale-force winds and driving rain) and Perdy has joined in with the laying bonanza so that today, for the first time in months, I collected three eggs from the laying box. It looks like cake season is here again!

What’s growing well for you this week?

Carnival of Capsicums

The first seeds that I plant each year are Capsicums: chillies and sweet peppers. They need a long growing season to maximise fruit production and ripening, so I sow seeds in January or February. The best levels of germination are achieved in warm conditions, so I always plant mine in an electric propagator.

Five varieties of Capsicums sown

Five varieties of Capsicums sown

Last year, in an attempt to reduce my use of resources, I planted them in toilet roll middles filled with compost, but unfortunately the germination rates were very disappointing and I ended up undertaking a second sowing much later. I thought carefully about this and realised that the problem was probably the result of raising the seeds too far from the heat. A toilet roll middle is about 5 inches long and an electric propagator heats from the base, so the seeds were quite a distance from the source of heat. This year I have cut the toilet roll middles in half, thus using less compost and reducing the distance between heat and seed. Fingers crossed that I will have more success this year – I will report back.

The varieties I have sown are: sweet peppers Lipstick and Nova; chillies Lemon drop and Alberto’s locoto; plus a mix of seven Australian heritage sweet peppers (thanks to Kate).

Colleen and Mira

Colleen and Mira

An additional job yesterday was putting the seed potatoes out to chit. When I removed them from their box, I discovered that the first earlies (Colleen) had all already started growing profusely so care was needed to remove them from the nets they had been sent in. The main crop (Mira) also had some small sprouts. I intend to share these tubers  with my sister (who has a new garden) and have a great potato harvest in 2014, like we did in 2013, but this time in both west Wales and Shropshire.

Hot stuff

Ripe Lemon drop chillies

Ripe Lemon drop chillies

Although it’s November, we are still harvesting a few summer crops from the garden. Our sweet peppers are nearly over, but the hot chillies are just starting to ripen up. This year we have grown both Lemon drop and Alberto’s Locoto. The latter produce big fat juicy fruits that are best used fresh – I have tried drying them, but they go very hard and need soaking before use. The Lemon drop, however, are more versatile – delicious fresh, beautiful to look at and very easy to dry.

If you look closely there are lots of unripe fruits on this Lemon drop plant

If you look closely there are lots of unripe fruits on this Lemon drop plant

Sadly, it’s getting rather cold and mouldy in the greenhouse now and I know that if I leave the pepper plants out out there, the crop will rot before it ripens. So, I am bringing some plants in to nurture over the winter. I do this most years and some survive in order to fruit again next year. This also allows growing fruit to ripen on the plants. However, there isn’t room indoors for all of them, so some of the chillies will be picked green and allowed to ripen up off the plants in the company of an apple or two… these are usually the ones that are destined for drying.

Fat, juicy Alberto's Locoto starting to ripen indoors

Fat, juicy Alberto’s Locoto starting to ripen indoors

Whatever way they ripen up and make it onto our plates, I know that we will be enjoying the heat of the summer for months to come!

Don’t believe everything you read

When did you sow your peppers this year?

When did you sow your peppers this year?

In all areas of life there seem to be people who will tell you the ‘right’ way to do things. Gardening is a case in point. There are those who will tell you that you must double-dig your vegetable garden (the BBC website says that it is ‘fundamental to good gardening’) and others who will tell you to employ a no-dig system (see what Charles Dowding has to say about it here); and both are equally adamant that theirs is the right way. Of course, this appeals to many of us: follow a recipe that tells you exactly what to do and what can go wrong?

But there are two problems with this. First what do you do if the recipe doesn’t work? My friend Deano tried to get high productivity from his land by employing the much-recommended (in permaculture circles) approach of no-dig, but in the end had to acknowledge that on his heavy clay soil, it simply wasn’t working. He is now having more success with his land by digging it. (you can read some of his thoughts here). Do you repeatedly move from one recipe to the next until you find the right one? It seems a bit inefficient to me, and I would advocate being rather more thoughtful about the solutions that you apply rather than blindly doing something because someone who you don’t know and doesn’t know your situation has said that it works.

Left to right: Alberto's Locoto chilli, Amy wax pepper, Lemon drop chilli: all planted in January 2012 and still healthy in September 2013

Left to right: Alberto’s Locoto chilli, Amy wax pepper, Lemon drop chilli: all planted in January 2012 and still healthy (and fruiting) in September 2013

The second problem is that by following a single approach to the letter there is no room for creativity and innovation, so you might miss out on something really useful. For example, for many years, at the end of each growing season I allowed my sweet pepper and chilli plants to die off and then composted them, as suggested in every gardening book I had read. Then one year I realised that these plants are not annuals and I could try to over-winter them. Now, each year I select some plants to bring indoors; I cut them back otherwise they are very prone to greenfly and I water them sparingly over the winter. Not all of them will survive, but the chilli plants in particular seem to do ok and I have some plants with a head start the next spring.

September 2013: broad beans!

September 2013: broad beans!

I’m also prepared to plant seeds at unusual times if I happen to discover a packet that I have forgotten. This is why now, at the beginning of September, I’m about to start harvesting this year’s broad beans! Having a go at something different doesn’t always work, but it can be worth giving it a try… often that’s how we learn.

My Very Own Seedy Saturdays

What a lovely time of year here in Wales. No, not the current weather… stop looking out of the window… but the fact that I can now turn my attention once more to growing things. Not only ordering seeds, but also actually planting.

The beginning of February may seem early, but with my propagator removed from the loft, yesterday I was able to make use of all those toilet roll middles I have been saving for months and get my hands dirty.

Newly sown in February 2013

Newly sown in February 2013

Those new to gardening often read the seed packets and think that you can do no better than sow everything at the earliest possible moment, but those of us with a little more experience know that it may be prudent to wait. Sow too early outdoors and seed can rot, or germinate but not grow because it’s too cold, or grow very slowly and therefore be susceptible to pests and diseases. Hanging on and planting a few weeks later can produce more vigorous plants that romp away faster than the early plantings. Sow too early indoors and your seedlings can become weak and leggy before the conditions outside are favourable for planting. It’s a bit of a balancing act.

However, there are some things that really benefit from an early start. These are usually plants that are destined to be coddled for the whole of their lives – things like peppers (sweet and hot). So, yesterday I planted Lipstick sweet pepper, Lemon drop chilli, Alberto’s Locoto chilli, Roma tomatoes and basil. The lid is on the electric propagator and conditions should be good for germination… in fact capsicums germinate much more reliably when warm.

My interaction with seeds hasn’t stopped there, though. I have been frugal with my seed-buying this year. Last weekend I inventoried my left-over seed from last year, compared notes with a friend and we have coordinated purchases… sharing our surplus and reducing waste. I was so taken by this idea, that I’ve also set up a seed swap via Facebook for people doing the diploma in applied permaculture design.

Lots of seed does go to waste each year, and lots of people have surplus saved, so seed swaps are a great idea. You can get involved either online or in person. Patrick of Bifurcate Carrots blog fame runs a seed exchange network, for example. There are also  lots of local events, for example, near me the Dyfi Valley Seed Savers have a Seedy Sunday coming up in March (just waiting for confirmation of the date), and there’s one at the Welsh National Wool Museum in Drefach Felindre on 23 March as part of their Eco-fair. For something in your area, just search on the internet for ‘seed swap’ plus your location and you’re bound to find something. And don’t worry if you don’t have seeds to exchange – a small donation is usually fine; in addition, swaps aren’t direct, offers go into the pool of seeds available, so you don’t have to arrange a mutually beneficial one-to-one transaction.

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