Mend It Monday #6

“If it’s not worth mending, it’s not worth buying” …

I’m afraid it’s more darning this week. I was intending to do some visible mending involving some embroidery, but when I looked at my thread, I discovered that a key colour was missing. As I’m sure you’ll understand, just popping out to get the colour that I want is not possible right now, so that project has had to be put on hold (and may, in the longer term, be re-designed on the basis of the colours that I do have).

Anyway, there always seem to be socks to darn. There was a pair of Mr Snail’s colourful socks, knitted by me as well as hole in some thick socks I wear with my walking boots. The latter is a work in progress, but the former are all mended.

So, have you mended anything this week? If you’ve written a post about mending recently, do share a link to it – I love to see how other people manage to extend the lives of the things they own.

Back to the market

Living in a place where a car journey (or a long walk) is required to get to the nearest shop, it’s good to have a well-stocked store cupboard. When it comes to fresh produce, however, things are a bit more tricky. My success with peach and tomato bottling using produce from the local Friday market encouraged me to make a return trip and seek other produce to add to my stores. So, last Friday I returned home with six mangoes plus a tray each of nectarines, sweet potatoes and mushrooms.

My haul

My haul

We ate some of the fruit fresh, but my idea was to experiment with ways to store these goodies. You can’t safely preserve vegetables or low-acidity fruit using the hot water bath method, but I have a pressure canner and so the possibilities are wide open. In addition, freezing is an option.

A little research suggested that the best way to store mushrooms (other than drying, which I didn’t want to do) is to cook them and freeze them in their lovely mushroomy juice. I decided to use 250ml Kilner jars for this purpose, thus avoiding plastic and using a container that is very versatile.

Ready for the freezer

Ready for the freezer

The nectarines are acidic enough to bottle without using pressure, but the mangoes aren’t unless you use an acidic juice (e.g. orange) as the preserving liquid. I had some beautiful red syrup from bottling the nectarines (the colour leaches out of the skins) and wanted to use this for the mangoes, so out came the pressure canner:

Up to pressure

Getting up to pressure

And I was able to safely preserve my precious mangoes, although I only managed to get two jars once I’d eaten some fresh! The result of Saturday’s activity was this:

A row of jars

A row of jars on my dresser

They’ll actually have to be stored in the dark, but they do make a handsome display for a little while.

Because the sweet potatoes last quite a while without processing, I’ve only got as far as making some of them into soup (a glorious colour) and freezing it, but I have discovered that they too can be pressure canned and so, that’s next on my list of things to try.

The lack of produce from the garden this year is encouraging me to explore other sources of fresh food, which is no bad thing. I wonder what a trip to the market will yield in another month or two?

Making connections

I was delighted to observe this week  that one of my hazel (Corylus avellana) trees, a Kentish Cob, has found a friend:

Hazel and friend

There on the right of the main stem you can see the fruiting body of a fungus. I am really hoping that this indicates that there is now a beneficial relationship between the two and that the fungus has formed a connection with the roots of the hazel. Such fungi are known as mycorrhizae (the singular is mycorrhiza) and are a key component of natural woodland ecosystems – they are associated with the enhanced uptake of water and nutrients, resulting in healthier plants that can survive more harsh conditions than those without the association. The fungi benefit too – receiving carbohydrates from the plant.

As you can see, this particular hazel is in a pot, but it is destined for the ground very soon. It arrived last winter when the ground was frozen and so it could not be planted immediately so I put it in a large pot with wool compost. Then  I entirely forgot to plant it out in the spring. Anyway, it seems to be happy and healthy and I hope that it and its companion will enjoy their new home. Fingers crossed that this means an abundance of hazel nuts in the future.

Very small things

I’m very well read. Possibly not in the sense of great literature – I’ve never read a whole novel by Dickens, my Shakespeare is shaky and I’ve managed the first chapter of Catch 22 about four times but never got any further. However, I work as a scientific editor and this means that I get to read some fascinating pieces of research (as well as some dull ones). And they come from all over the world because, mostly, I work with authors whose first language isn’t English. Much of the work that I read is at the cutting edge of its particular subject, whether that’s ecology, genetics, forestry, biotechnology, nursing or education, so I get to know about new ideas and technologies before they have even been published and become available to the rest of the world… which is how, a couple of years ago, I came to know about research in Sweden looking at how micro-organisms that occur naturally in the soil can be used to deal with pollutants from the paper industry… and not just make them harmless, but convert them into a useful product… biomass or ethanol to use as fuel, for example.

Which brings me to the point of this post… aren’t micro-organisms brilliant?

Yes, I know some of them cause diseases, but they are in the minority. Go out into a woodland and scrape the top layer of leaves off the soil and you will find very fine white strands – fungal mycelia. These make connections with plant roots, providing the plants with improved access to water and minerals. And the only time most people are aware of them is when they produce their fruiting bodies – mushrooms and toadstools. But these fungi are not really micro-organisms – we can see them with the naked eye (at least some of the time). What about organisms that are even smaller?

Bacteria and small fungi in the soil are essential components of the system – without them the soil simply would not function in the way it does. They are responsible for all sorts of activities, but especially decomposition of plant material, dead animals and faeces… without this happening the world could not function. There are also special bacteria that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and without them there would be no life as we know it since nitrogen is an essential part of the proteins that are building blocks for life and enzymes that allow all sorts of chemical reactions to take place inside living things.

We use fungi directly in our food chain – mushrooms and truffles are an obvious food, but there’s also the yeast we use in our bread, beer and wine, and to make Marmite and various cheeses. Remember too that the first antibiotic, penicillin, came from a fungus. We eat bacteria as well, although that may not be quite so obvious, but they are used to make yoghurt, cheeses, wine, vinegar, soy sauce and various pickles.

Algae are also interesting – they are microscopic (or bigger) plants. They are very simple in terms of their structure, but they photosynthesise and so they, like all green plants, make their own food from water and carbon dioxide with the help of sunshine. As humans, we don’t tend to eat much algae… although we could… but lots of organisms do. If you head over to the Aquaponic Family blog you will find out all sorts of interesting stuff about algae and what they can be used to do.

So, we really should appreciate the micro-organisms around us more. If we are gardeners, we can care for the fungi, algae and bacteria in the soils that we cultivate by ensuring good soil structure and plenty of compost for those decomposers to work on. Be thoughtful, too, about what chemicals you apply to your soil – changing the pH will change the composition of micro-organisms, applying fungicides may kill the fungi you do want as well as those you don’t. Allowing the soil to become waterlogged will deprive decomposers of oxygen and dead matter will not break down fully (that’s how peat forms). Our compost heaps also rely on the action of micro-organisms, creating a valuable resource for the garden in the form of compost, but also generating heat which, if we are careful, we can make use of by means of hot beds or siting our composter against the greenhouse or inside a polytunnel. You can even grow squashes on top of your compost heap for an early and abundant crop.

So, next time you’re sitting enjoying a beer or some wine and cheese, give a thought to the little critters that made them possible.

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