Not-so-hungry in the gap

We are currently in the time of year known to vegetable gardeners at the ‘hungry gap’ – when we’ve planted our seeds (or at least some of them) but there’s nothing to harvest yet.

However, we¬† don’t seem to be suffering too much this year… the purple sprouting broccoli and kale are both doing well and there are still leeks to be harvested. In addition, as we prepare vegetable beds for future planting, we keep finding overlooked potatoes – not enough to supply all our needs, but still a welcome addition to our supplies. We are also starting to be able to harvest some leaves – blood-veined sorrel seems to have established itself around the garden and the Claytonia is growing in profusion in one of the planters… in combination with some young kale leaves, these make a very acceptable leafy salad. Indeed, combined with hard-boiled egg and the surprise potatoes, I have been able to rustle up a meal or two completely out of the garden.

Because I was careful to store as much as possible from last summer’s harvest, we are also enjoying a wide variety of home-grown produce. There are still bottles of apples and a few frozen raspberries and blackberries. Plus, in the freezer I can find roasted courgette, passatta, pesto, vegetable soup, roasted squash, chilli and redcurrants and there are more bottles of passatta in the cupboard. We are by no means close to being self-sufficient, but I love to be able to eat something we have grown at least once every day.

However, it is the promise of crops to come that really excites me. The herbs are starting to perk up now – mint, chives and lemon balm producing fresh shoots. Plus rosemary and sage beginning to wake up and grow again. I’m restraining myself from picking any rhubarb yet – but there are now lots of tender shoots. The lettuce and mizuna seeds that I planted a week or so ago are germinating and the chilli and pepper plants need potting up. Some more compost translocation is required before we can plant potatoes and various seeds directly into the garden, but the weather forecast for this weekend is good and my labourer is home, so we should be able to achieve something.

I’m also delighted¬† to report that, although Anna is still doing more sitting down than usual, she is no longer limping. At 3.1kg she is a big chicken, so physical injury (literally falling off her perch!) is a distinct possibility. I think she’s even laying again, although distinguishing eggs is quite a challenge… and Lorna keeps sitting on them whether she’s laid or not!

Anna and Tiffany enjoying the sunshine

Anna (l) and Tiffany enjoying the sunshine (yes, there are two hens there)

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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