Three Things Thursday: 11 May 2017

*three things that make me smile: an exercise in gratitude – feel free to steal this idea with wild abandon and fill your blog [or Twitter account or Facebook page or diary or life in general] with the happy*

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

First, tomato futures. The limery provides such great growing conditions that my first tomatoes are appearing already. I see lots of passata in my future!

Heritage tomato: Veepro Paste

Second, potting-up. Every day now I am spending a bit of time potting up plants: lemongrass, peppers, melons and summer purple sprouting broccoli in the past few days. There are also seeds to be planted and surplus plants to be given away.

Third, working from home. Almost all my work these days is done from home. It means there’s no commute and no dress code, but best of all, it means I can intersperse my day with coffee, homemade biscuits and crochet in the limery.

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So, those are three things making me smile and that I am grateful for this week. What is making you happy?

Start a revolution…

Several people have asked over the past few days about what constitutes craftivism. Basically, it’s any crafted item that gets a message across – whether personal or political. Many people feel more comfortable with gentle ways to encourage change rather than being confrontational, and what better way to get your message across and gain attention than via a unique item rather than a letter? Send a felt bumblebee to your MP to make your point about conserving pollinators and they are certainly more likely to remember it than if you send them an e-mail.

Over the past few days I have been working on a message that is close to my heart. Here is my latest creation, made for our craftivism exhibition:

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Do you have a message you’d like to share with the world? Perhaps you can make your voice heard more effectively than simply shouting.

 

Spring has been cancelled

Well, we seem to have transitioned directly from winter to summer in less than a week. I’m sure it won’t last but whilst the sun is shining I have been planting and sowing and potting up. The runner beans are in the soil, I have sown peas, potted up peppers and tomatoes and transplanted herbs… too busy to write much, but I have pictures…

I hope your weekend has been as productive as mine – oh, I did my accounts too!

Bags, beans and ebay

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A repair like a carrot!

I realise a whole week has gone by without a post… a combination of being busy and having a computer problem. The latter was related to an overheating power input, which was rectified with a new cable with replacement plug secured with Sugru – a cheap and simple solution, but one that took a little time because of the logistics of finding the replacement and then having to wait 24 hours for the Sugru to dry. The current obsession with excessively replacing electronic equipment is a real issue environmentally, and so I’m delighted with any solution that allows me to keep using my computer… I fully support the Restart Code, which you can check out here.

Away from the computer, the declutter continues, with five successful sales on ebay this week. I find the whole process of sorting out online auctions somewhat tedious, but it’s a good way to make sure unwanted items go to homes where they will get some use, so every now and then I grit my teeth and do a few listings. This time I sold five out of six items listed, which seems like quite a success to me.

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Drawstring bags for vegetables

Reducing clutter is also taking the form of turning some of the “I’m keeping this because it might be useful” things into things that really are useful.So, I spent a while cutting up an old sheet to make cleaning cloths (more on this in a later post when I’ve finished experimenting). In addition, I made four drawstring bags from off-cuts of very thin curtain fabric to use when we go shopping. We always take our own shopping bags, but rarely remember to take individual bags to put vegetables in. I used scrap fabric and some cotton tape that had been around some clothes I bought (rather than plastic packaging), so the resulting bags really are something for nothing. So far I’ve made two large ones and two small ones, but I’ll dig out some more fabric soon and make a few more. I’ve also been working on a crochet bag using yarn oddments… more on that when it’s finished.

And then there has been the garden. Two of our raised beds have been mulched over the winter, but the other day we took the mulch (Mypex) up from one of them, netted it and sent the chickens in to clear our any pests and weed seeds.

They spent a few hours in there on two days and then the bed was ready for planting… just a few roots of docks, dandelions and buttercups had to be dug out first. This afternoon I planted it up with broadbeans and potatoes… fingers crossed for a good harvest.

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Plants in – scarlet-flowered runner beans and potatoes

Seedy Saturday

Some of today's work

Some of today’s work

Today I’ve been sowing… I love putting seeds into compost, knowing that such tiny things will transform into the huge variety of vegetables that we’ll be eating later on in the year. Today I planted squashes, pumpkins, courgettes, melons, tomatoes, ground cherry, runner beans and maize. Tomorrow I’ll be focusing on leafy things and starting off some mange tout. Already in the ground are garlic, shallots and some potatoes and there will be more of the latter going in soon. And, having fumigated the greenhouse earlier in the week, I’ve now transferred the peppers and chillis out there to carry on growing.

Beans in root trainers on the left and the propagator lid on for double insulation of the more sensitive seeds

Beans in root trainers on the left and the propagator lid on for double insulation of the more sensitive seeds (it’s not plugged in)

This year I’m trying to focus on using up resources that I already have. In the pictures you can see that most of my curcurbits are planted in coir pots… I bought loads of these years ago and I think that these are the last of the batch. I’ve also done some more planting in toilet roll middles and the beans are planted in some very old root trainers, which are just about holding together… I’m very reluctant to replace them as they are quiet expensive.

What a lovely time of the year… fingers crossed everything germinates.

 

Ends and beginnings

Finally, we have come to the end of last year’s potato harvest… not bad for such a small space. This is all that’s left:

Just a few little Mira and Milva in the bottom of the last box

Just a few little Mira and Milva in the bottom of the last box

I think I might plant them and see what they can produce!

Thank you farmers!

Thank you farmers!

Of course, having money and living where we do, the end of our own crop does not mean that we have nothing left to eat: a trip to our local organic shop replenished our stock of potatoes. It does make me think, though, of people who do have to be self-reliant and the challenges they must face in providing for their families throughout the year. Big thanks to our local farmers for ensuring that we can continue to eat. The gap between now and our own new potatoes being ready to eat is only a few months, but it would be long enough to starve in.

Ready for potting up

Ready for potting up

Today, however, is also a day for moving another crop forwards. The peppers and chillies are now ready to be potted up and moved out of the propagator. Tomorrow, we will take some of them over to my sister for her to grow on in her lovely new garden, complete with greenhouse. We’ll also be taking her some chitted potatoes so that she can plant them out in her newly prepared beds. I do love this time of year for its new beginnings.

Trees and sunshine

A day of sunshine… and there has been no rain for 34 hours so far!!

This respite in the weather has meant that we could get on with some outdoor activities today. We walk the dogs almost every day, just avoiding the very worst of the weather, but today’s walk took much longer than usual, because so many other people were out too. In our community that means stopping for a chat… and getting given sweeties by the wife of one of our local farmers!

A bit of a wallow

A bit of a wallow

Once home, we were able to allow the hens into a part of the garden that has simply been too wet for them recently. We want them to clear and fertilise some of the vegetable beds in anticipation of the growing season. Of course, as soon as the soil dries out a bit, they want to have a dust bath… I think it was more of a wallow today, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves anyway.

The chicken patch at Station Road

The chicken patch at Station Road (chickens are hiding!)

Whilst they were busy on the vegetable beds, I was able to plant two trees that have been awaiting my attention. In the chicken’s main patch, I want to create a more woodland-like habitat (after all they are descended from jungle fowl) and I was inspired by the area in which Wade Muggleton keeps his chickens at Station Road, which has fruit trees. We do not have ground vegetation at present because of having to raise the level of the soil to stop the waterlogging, but now that we have solved that problem, I wanted to get started with a Kentish Cob and an apple tree.

Cob nut in the foreground with the apple and chickens behind.

Cob nut in the foreground with the chickens foraging behind.

The Cob (a variety of hazel) has been in a pot for a couple of years, because it originally arrived at a time when the soil was frozen so solid that we couldn’t plant it. The apple, however, came very recently from my dear friends Janta and Merav at Karuna – the variety is Ashmead’s Kernel and it’s grafted onto a dwarf rootstock, so should be perfect for our little garden. Both are now planted and will hopefully provide a great habitat for the hens and a harvest for us. Don’t be fooled by the woodchip on the surface in the pictures, it’s lovely and fertile underneath from the chicken droppings that have been slowly incorporated into the soil over several years.

The start f a little jungle for the hens

Happy hens with ‘their’ apple tree

Shopping (yes, me)

It’s now the time of year when I do a big shop. No. I’m not talking about stocking up for gluttony over the festive season, I’m talking about seeds.

Tea and seed-shopping - a lovely combination on a winter's evening

Tea and seed-shopping – a lovely combination on a winter’s evening

This time of dark evenings and rain (here in west Wales at least) is ideal for settling down and choosing what I’m going to grow next year. I used to use paper catalogues, but these days I sit down with my laptop and a mug of tea (or possibly a glass of wine) and browse some of my favourite seed suppliers… The Real Seed Catalogue, Chiltern Seeds, The Organic Gardening Catalogue…

I think about the successes and failures of the past year. What do I want to repeat? What worked well? What was a disaster? And I look to the future – always trying something new each year. I find the idea of a new growing season particularly uplifting. It’s not many weeks now, in fact, until I need to start planting chillies and peppers, which benefit from a very early start, even though we are still harvesting fresh chillies from both of this year’s varieties: Lemon Drop and Alberto’s Locoto (both of these are on the list to grow next year).

In 2014 I’m also definitely going to grow Yellow-podded Mangetout, Lipstick Pepper, Lady Godiva Pumpkins, Lady Godiva Sunflowers, Mira and Colleen Potatoes and Mizuna. What about you? Or if you are in the southern hemisphere, what’s doing well for you now?

For every season

There are many reasons to eat local and seasonal – reducing food miles, accessing really fresh produce, the anticipation of a certain food becoming available, supporting local growers, growing your own…

Of course, growing your own food is likely to be associated with ups and downs: hungry gaps and gluts. This means that a gardener needs to be thoughtful about supplying food throughout the year and careful to store crops for later use. For example, I’ve previously mentioned that it’s been a good year for courgettes (we’ve harvested over 10kg from our small plot so far and there are more growing), so we have eaten them more often than if I hadn’t grown them; but knowing that we like to eat soup, I have converted many of them into soup for the freezer. Our glut will help to fill a hungry gap later in the year.

If you Google a phrase like ‘seasonal eating’, you will be presented with thousands of web sites, telling what to eat when. For example, if you are in the UK, you could look at ‘Eat the Seasons‘ and find that this week, the vegetables in season are:

artichoke, aubergine, beetroot, broccoli, butternut squash, carrots, celeriac, celery, chillies, courgettes, cucumber, fennel, french beans, garlic, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce & salad leaves, mangetout, marrow, onions, pak choi, peppers, potatoes (maincrop), radishes, rocket, runner beans, spring onions, sweetcorn, tomatoes, turnips, watercress, wild mushrooms

a helpful list if you are off to your local shop. But beware – just because things are in season at the moment does not mean that the versions for sale are from a local source. I am appalled when I see apples from all over the world available in supermarkets in the UK in October… and apples rotting on the ground around trees because no one has bothered to pick them.

Immature Boston squash in September... it's never going to get the chance to develop a hard skin for storage

Immature Boston squash in September… it’s never going to get the chance to develop a hard skin for storage

However, if you have a garden you can, to a certain extent, beat the seasons. Be a little bit daring with your planting times, or make use of a greenhouse, polytunnel or cold frame, or even your kitchen windowsill, and you can extend seasons, or even crop completely out of season. Big commercial growers can’t afford to take risks – they need an income – but you can. Try planting at a different time, or bringing plants indoors and you may get an out-of-season crop that provides a real treat. With home growing, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t get the size or quantity of produce that you might at other times of the year and it can add much sought-after variety. In some cases, a plant starts producing at an unfortunate time; this often happens with pumpkins and winter squashes, when fruit sets late in the season so there will not be time for it to mature. In this case it’s possible to be creative – just harvest them and use them immature like you would a summer squash or courgette.

September strawberries in the greenhouse... I think we'll have Eton mess

September strawberries in the greenhouse… I think we’ll have Eton mess when these are ripe

Sometimes, an out-of-season crop can be a fortuitous accident… take my strawberries for example. I have two hanging baskets of strawberries (the idea was to keep them away from slugs and chickens). They produced quite well in their season (around June), but then I moved them to a location where slugs found their way to them and the leaves started to get severely eaten. Not wanting to lose all the plants, I hung the baskets in a convenient location to keep an eye on them… inside the greenhouse. Once there, they perked up and started flowering again. This is why we are now enjoying a second small strawberry crop… and most delicious they are too!

Exotic trees

There is not a huge amount to be done in our garden at present apart from tidying. This is fortunate because the weather is currently not pleasant… wind and rain.

Earlier on in the week, however, we had some lovely clear, sunny days, with frost. We live less than a mile from the sea, so it’s rare to get really cold weather here, but we did get down to about -4.5°C overnight. The surface of the ground was frozen, but this was only to a depth of a couple of inches. And I know this because I had to dig some holes. After several months of waiting, my order from the Agroforestry Research Trust (ART) arrived. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining – the plants are produced to order and there are only limited numbers, so you have to order in the summer for delivery in late autumn/winter.

I am delighted to tell you that I am now the proud owner of three rather exotic (well, exotic for west Wales) plants: a Siberian Pea Shrub (Caragana arborescens); a Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa); and a Szechuan pepper (Zanthoxylum schinifolium). Having just checked the ART website, I see all three are now out of stock, so I’m very glad that I ordered well in advance. But, why, you are probably asking, did I want these three particular plants? Why did I want them so much that I was prepared to order (and pay) for them so many months ago? First, I must say, that the Agroforestry Research Trust has a great reputation. Located on land on the Dartington Estate in Devon (not far from Totnes), it is run by the astonishingly knowledgeable Martin Crawford, and has an enviable reputation for the range and quality of plants available. Apart from anything else, I really wanted to support this brilliant organisation, but also, I wanted to buy good quality plants.

As for the three species I selected, well my motivations were based around producing crops to replace things that I currently ‘buy in’.

Siberian Pea Shrub may be the most talked about plant in permaculture and so I wanted to have a go at growing it. This is what the ART website has to say about it:

Siberian pea shrub. A large leguminous shrub from Siberia, reaching 6 m (20 ft) high and growing some 40 cm per year. The seeds, produced in numerous pods following yellow flowers, are edible when cooked (having a pea flavour), as are the young pods. A fibre is obtained from the bark. Bees visit the flowers and the species is a good fixer of nitrogen. A very hardy hedging and windbreak tree, hardy to -40°C.

It certainly sounds very versatile, but really my interest in it is for the ‘peas’, which I am hoping will make a valuable home-grown addition to the diet of my chickens. Of course, I will be delighted to see it fulfilling its role as a nitrogen-fixer, and perhaps adding a component to the diet of myself and Mr Snail-of-happiness, but it’s the chickens that I hope will get most out of it.

Similarly, I hope that Chokeberries will add an extra dimension to the diet of our chickens. Some months ago, I read an article that mentioned chickens’  love of Chokeberries. I now no longer have any recollection of where the article is to be found, but the information has stuck and so I thought it was worth giving it a go. Again, it may also be a useful addition to the human diet. The variety that I selected was ‘Nero’, about which ART says the following:

Black chokeberry. A shrub from North America, growing to 2.5 m (8 ft) high. It grows in any soil, in sun or part shade. It bears lots of black fruits, 7 mm across, which are edible with a good flavour when cooked in pies etc. Hardy to -25ºC. ‘Nero’ is a cultivar bred for large fruits with a high vitamin C content, and bears heavy yields.

The final addition is not destined for chicken consumption, but for humans. I am aware that the food miles associated with spices can certainly mount up. Admittedly, we only use them in small amounts, but I would like to do something to improve my self-sufficiency in this respect. We already grow our own chilli peppers, coriander and various herbs, but we use quite a lot of pepper and it would be satisfying to supply this need from the garden. A little research suggests that Piper nigrum, the standard source of peppercorns, is a native of India, grows to 10m and is not really suited to our climate. The best peppery alternatives are members of the genus Zanthoxylum :

Szechuan pepper. A very aromatic shrub from China and Japan growing 2 m (6 ft) or more high. The leaves can be used as a flavouring, but the main use is the peppercorn-like black seeds, which are used a spice (peppery and fragrant) – grown commercially as a spice crop in Asia. Grows well in any reasonable soil in sun or light shade; hardy to -20ºC.

And so, on a frosty day earlier this week I planted my three specimens. They don’t look like much at the moment (hence the absence of photographs), but with any luck they will settle in well and we (and the chickens) will be enjoying peas, pepper and chokeberries in the next few years.

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