String theory

I used to think that I could officially be classified as ‘crazy’ when the cat population in my house exceeded three. This did happen some years ago and the situation got so bad (factions formed – there was war) that I had to find a new home for one of them. I have, however, revised my classification… this is because we now only have dogs but I don’t think I got any saner with the reduction in feline numbers (maybe it’s a threshold thing and once you’ve had four cats, there’s no going back).

Anyway, This morning as I constructed a frame for my runner beans to climb up, it dawned on me that I may have achieved new heights of craziness. “Why?” I hear you ask… well, I realised that I have started collecting small pieces of string. The bamboo canes needed tying together and, rather than getting out my ball of twine, like any sane person, I was able to lay my hands on enough short pieces of string to fulfill my needs. And then, to make matters worse, I found myself photographing my string so I could share it with you:

 

Some of my string collection

Some of my string collection

String in action

String in action

But, it’s not just string… I also have a bag of yarn scraps:

Odds and ends

Odds and ends

Which I have been using to stuff hexipuffs, but not fast enough to stop the collection growing.

And then there’s my inability to throw out apple peel and cores, although this has produced some lovely vinegar:

Apple scrap vinegar

Apple scrap vinegar

Perhaps I just need to embrace the crazy…

 

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.

 

The four sisters

Image

Sunlight streams through the willow hedge onto the ‘four sisters’

When I wrote about the ‘three sisters‘ planting that I did earlier in the year, I promised I would report on how it has progressed. Well, the situation so far is good – beans are flowering, we have already harvested our first courgettes and the flint corn is shooting up. However, I have to confess that I introduced an extra sister into the mix by including sunflowers, and these too are doing well.

You may be wondering about the sunflowers and I have to admit that growing them was unintentional (although not unwelcome). We feed a mix containing sunflower seeds to the wild birds in the garden. Earlier in the year I left a tub-trug containing compost near to one of the window feeders and clearly not all of the seeds that the birds dislodged got eaten. Thus, when I planted my intentional seeds in pots, I got some sunflowers too. Never liking to let anything go to waste, I planted these in with the three sisters combination of corn, curcurbits (courgette and squash) and beans. And, my word they are doing well. No only that, but my transplants have been joined by some self-seeded individuals (volunteers) that have appeared directly in the bed.

The UK is currently experiencing very sunny weather, so I have high hopes for this bed, although I can’t see any winter squash fruit setting yet, and the female flowers on the corn are only just appearing. It certainly looks like there will be a good harvest of both beans and courgettes anyway, and I’ll let you judge the prospects for the fourth sister:

Good morning sunflower!

Good morning sunflower!

The battle of the runner beans

Regular readers will know that Aliss the hen has turned out to be some sort of reincarnation of a velociraptor… but with a taste for vegetables rather than people. This is something of a relief – I wouldn’t want to take my life into my hands to go out and collect eggs, and the cost of a rifle might outweigh the savings as a result of not having to buy in so much protein – but there is now something of a battle going on as regards the vegetables.

The reason for growing vegetables is so that (mostly) Mr Snail-of-happiness and I can eat them. Aliss disagrees. She is not content with left overs – lettuces running to seed, weeds, peelings, slightly manky kale leaves – she wants the good stuff. And she wants it fresh off the plants. The answer, therefore, is to place the vegetables out of harm. I want free ranging chickens to keep the slugs under control, so the hens run free whilst the vegetables are confined.

Runner beans, denuded to a height of four feet or so

This approach worked well with our previous little flock, but Aliss is wily… like a coyote as well as a velociraptor. In the past the hens were allowed in amongst some of the vegetables once they reached a suitable height. Runner beans were great – none of the old hens wanted to eat them and they provided shade if it was sunny. So, this year, once the beans were well on their way up the bean poles, we opened the area to the hens. All went well until…  Aliss developed a serious taste for runner bean leaves. And not just one or two, and not just up to a height of a foot. Once she’d stripped the bottom leaves, she started jumping up to get at leaves above chicken head-height.

Anti-Aliss barrier!

Enough was enough, so we reinstated the chicken wire… it’s about two feet high and is usually enough to put them off. Not Aliss, though. She simply jumped over it. And then beans started appearing, so she decided to try those… and found them to be delicious. So, I erected an extra layer of chicken wire… four-foot high now. Aliss managed to breach the defences and also use the structure to reach beans that were otherwise out of her reach. By this stage, she’d also convinced Perdy, her partner in crime, to join in too!

A new use for a clothes airer

I reinforced the barrier – ensuring that there were no handy chicken foot holds, holes, gaps, points of weakness or nearby launch pads. I realised that the adjacent lettuce cage provided a location to jump down from so employed an old clothes airer as a barrier, balanced between the lettuce enclosure and the beans. And finally, I think I have won… a whole day has passed without the cry of  ‘she’s bloody well in there again’ ringing through the house. Perhaps my beans are safe… perhaps I will get to eat the whole of some beans rather than just the top half that she couldn’t reach… and perhaps I’ll go out there tomorrow and she will have organised the others to form a chicken pyramid from which she can flap over into her favourite place in the whole garden…

Bringing in the harvest

OK, I admit that there have been some fairly gloomy posts over recent months about the paucity of the harvest here, chez snail. But, some things have grown and some things are growing and some things now need storing.

One of our best harvests this year was potatoes – we’ve just collected the last of these from two containers that were in the ‘waste of space‘ area. I bought 1kg of certified seed potatoes, which are quite expensive, but we have harvested more than 20kg, which I consider a good return. I have learned that we get a better crop out of the ground than out of containers, so may dedicate a little more of the raised beds to potatoes next year. I only planted up just over a square metre this year, so I can double the area next year without the whole garden being taken over. I think that the crop was helped by the wet weather, so additional watering may be in order in dry years. Storage of potatoes is easy – cardboard boxes in the shed.

Another good harvest has been broad beans… well, actually a variety called ‘Wizard’ that was described as a field bean. These were planted (in my opinion) way too late in the season (about April) than in a normal year , but with the cold dull conditions of 2012, they have thrived. Unlike the potatoes I didn’t weigh the entire crop, but we have eaten them in many meals and today I have frozen over 1kg of them… shelled, then blanched for a minute in boiling water. It’s a simple method of preservation. Again, I only dedicated a small area to this crop – 1 square metre – so they really have delivered well.

Flashy Butter Oak – my favourite lettuce

We’ve had loads and loads of lettuce… and are still picking it. My favourite variety is ‘Flashy Butter Oak’, partly because it’s so beautiful with its mottled foliage, but also because it is remarkably reluctant to run to seed. I’m not keen on lettuce soup (or swamp soup as we know it here), so all the lettuce gets eaten fresh. I always plant the ‘cut and come again’ varieties so that we only pick what we need and never store any in the fridge… should we pick too many leaves they go straight to the chickens, who love them. I think that the key to good salad leaves is that they come straight out of the garden!

Belatedly, we are enjoying a good runner bean crop. As always with runner beans there are too many to eat fresh, so the excess is being blanched and frozen, lie the broad beans. My mother used to store runner beans by salting them. I did try this a few years back, but just couldn’t soak them enough to get rid of sufficient salt for my taste and they had a rather leathery texture… we ended up composting them (after a great deal of soaking) so it’s not a technique I plan to use again.

We are still picking a few mangetout, but they will not need preserving as we’re eating them as we go along. This is, in fact, not a crop failure… I just forgot to order any seeds this year and only had a few left over from last year, so that has limited our harvest. All the ones we have had have been grown in pots up the fence in the ‘waste of space’ area, which seems to be ideal for them – certainly an approach I will adopt again next year.

My final bit of crop preservation today, although relatively short-term, was to make strawberry ice cream! I used strawberries from a local organic farm, but I made the custard base using egg yolks from the hens in the garden, so I feel justified in thinking of this as partly my produce. The recipe for the ice cream is an Italian one – I make a custard out of milk, cream, sugar and egg yolks and add to this whatever takes my fancy, or comes out of the garden. I love it made with a very dark chocolate melted into the custard when hot, but today’s strawberries were also delicious and I make an apple or toffee apple version when we are dealing with the apple glut. I don’t have a dedicated ice cream maker, but have an attachment for my Kenwood Chef that does the job – perhaps one of my favourite purchases for the kitchen over the last couple of years

Looking round the garden I can see lots of crops still to come. Although the winter squash seem to have completely failed, we will have kale, chard, purple and white sprouting broccoli, leeks, salsify and bunching onions over the winter, plus the rhubarb seems to be having a second growth spurt and there is lots of fruit on the autumn raspberries. Oh, and I think we’re due a bumper harvest of chillies this year.

Overall, it’s been a poor summer, but variety in the garden means that some things have succeeded, perhaps a good lesson for all of us to remember when planning our planting schemes.

Fifty shades of green

Apparently a woman of my age should be enthralled by the book ‘Fifty shades of grey’… erotica unburdened by plot or believable characters if my niece is to be trusted. She tells me that she can’t believe that she wasted hours of her life on the whole trilogy. She’s more than twenty years younger than me, but I have always found her to be thoughtful and reliable, so on her recommendation I am going to spend my time on a colour other than grey.

Lettuce, oriental greens and rocket in my polyculture bed. Alas the dwarf french beans rotted in the wet.

Of course, my colour of choice has to be green. The transformation of the British summer from washout to glorious sunshine has revealed that not everything in the garden is beyond hope. There may be no red tomatoes or golden squashes, there may be precious few runner bean flowers or vibrant black and yellow hoverflies, but there are lettuces in a variety of shades of green… from ‘Flashy butter oak’, which is green mottled with a deep burgundy, to ‘Emerald Oak’ with its crinkled vibrant green leaves. All hues seem to be there in the salad crops, whether lettuces or oriental leaves.

The photograph does not adequately show the contrast between the dark green of the potato leaves and the downy grey-green apple mint.

But other crops are showing their true colours in the sunshine too – potato leaves, contrasting with the grey-green downy foliage of apple mint. Even some of the corn and squashes are finally starting to flourish, though it seems rather too late for the production of mature winter squashes that will store well or bursting-with-sweetness corn, straight off the plant and into the pan of boiling water (in the style of Bob Flowerdew). In the greenhouse (how appropriate) greens abound – deep shiny green lipstick peppers, sickly yellow-green Amy sweet wax pepper, plus another brighter green-shading-to-red Hungarian wax pepper. And quite a few green tomatoes… which I hope will not remain so for too much longer.

Oca… plus a Calendula flower that just opened today

Elsewhere in the garden, the yellow-podded mangetout are starting to flower, purple against their subdued green foliage. Field beans (planted very late because of the bad weather) have abundant flowers amongst their grey-green leaves and oca (masquerading as shamrock) has soft green trefoils nodding in the wind. The glaucous leaves of breadseed poppy are surmounted by both purple flowers and newly formed seed pods (which should not open when they are ripe, thus preserving all the seed for me to harvest).

Squash and corn… flourishing in a compost-filled dumpy bag.

I could go on… salsify, leeks and bunching onions are just starting to show signs of resuming growth, ginger mint and lemon balm look and smell delicious as I walk through them in the fruit cage to collect raspberries off the old and slightly tatty canes in the midst of new fresh green canes that will bear fruit next year (or later this year for the Autumn variety). But, it’s time to stop now and go and enjoy picking and eating some of this bounty. So, when asked to choose a colour, I say ‘no thank you, grey… give me shades of green any day’.

-oOOo-

Of course, there’s no such thing as an original idea… Diggitydigg beat me to it!

Filling the gap

In my earlier ‘Waste of Space‘ post I described my plans for a previously unused area beside the house. The first stage was just to get something in the area and I started by placing some potatoes along the fence in bags. These have grown like mad, but the rain and strong winds last Friday rather battered them – being raised above the ground they are more exposed than plants growing directly in the soil. However, they weren’t completely destroyed and so should still be producing tubers down in the compost.

Mangetout with some of the storm-ravaged potatoes

But potatoes were only the beginning. The next addition was two large pots of mangetout to grow up the fence. This fence has had to be covered with mesh and the height increased because of escaping chickens that would  get over the top (via the compost bins) in order to visit the neighbours or take a stroll down the street. Sadly our greatest escapee, Gytha, died yesterday, but the mesh has to stay as the others are not entirely trustworthy. So, tall pea plants seemed a good way to mask the mesh and make use of vertical space that was just begging to be utilised. The plants were started in the greenhouse where some of them were eaten by a mouse; however, some survived and are now a few inches tall… fingers crossed they will produce some pods.

My latest addition to the area is a ‘dumpy bag’ filled with compost from my big green cone compost bin and planted with the ‘three sisters’. For those of you who don’t know, a dumpy bag is one of those cubic metre sacks that building materials arrive in. The builders merchants won’t take them back for reuse (in case they fail, I guess) and so they are generally regarded as rubbish. We have several of them and I’ve heard of them being used elsewhere for planting so thought I would give it a go once I had enough compost to fill one.

Mostly from waste: a dumpy bag filled with grass clippings, cardboard and home-made compost.

As for the ‘three sisters‘, they are squash, corn and beans, which grow well together as a ‘guild’. In theory, the corn should provide support for the beans, but I know that corn is a tricky crop here in west Wales, so I have added some canes for the beans. My planting is very dense, but since the bag contains compost with a cardboard-grass clippings-cardboard sandwich in the base (to hold moisture and provide heat as it breaks down) there should be plenty of nutrients and the beans should fix nitrogen to further boost the fertility. I did cover the top of the home-made compost with about an inch of coir fibre with no added nutrients to serve as a mulch and discourage weed growth from the compost until the squash leaves get big enough to suppress any weeds on their own. I only had three runner bean plants left from my earlier garden planting and these are looking the worse for wear, but I’m hoping that they will perk up now they are in such a great growing medium. I planted three different squashes: Boston (a winter squash), summer crookneck and a courgette (zucchini)… any rampant rambling can be across the tarmac or along the little fence. This is a real experiment for me, but I think that it might be quite successful.

Slowly less of the space is wasted

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