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)

Stealth vegetables… and not so stealthy ones too

I’ve already bemoaned the sneaky courgettes that hide under leaves so that you only discover them after they have become monsters, but they are not the only devious vegetables in the garden. You would think that Boston squash, being bright yellow, would be easy to spot, but they aren’t always:

And green vegetables are even more of a challenge. We had completely overlooked this shark’s fin melon despite the fact that it’s hanging over our garden bench:


Some of our squashes are being more helpful, but they are the exception:

Out in the open

Out in the open

And I don’t even want to talk about the deceptive runner beans!

Three out of four ain’t bad

Now, if I had stuck to a ‘three sisters‘ planting, as is normal, I would have been able to quote Meatloaf and tell you that ‘two out of three ain’t bad‘, but since I upped the ante, I’ve had to paraphrase.

The four sisters crop

The four sisters crop

You may recall that I tried a ‘four sisters‘ planting this year, adding sunflowers to the traditional mix of beans, corn and squash. The sunflowers were self-seeded from the bird feed, so were something of a bonus, but have turned out to be remarkably prolific. We have managed quite a few squashes (not bad for about four square metres), lots of runner beans – both fresh pods and seeds for drying – but once more the corn has been a disappointment. Despite growing flint corn rather than sweetcorn, and having a really sunny summer, few of the cobs are full.

So, what do I conclude? Well, corn is too unreliable to put much effort into, but I like the combination of beans and squashes, especially since the latter are so good at suppressing weeds. The beans make use of vertical space and so the squashes don’t seem to have to be planted at a reduced density compared to planting them on their own. I’m not convinced that the sunflowers were a particularly good variety for my needs, but they were easy to grow and successful and they were an accident this year, andI can be more selective in the future

Next year my three sisters will comprise squash and courgettes, beans (var. The Czar, again) and sunflowers (probably naked ones, such as var. Lady Godiva)

Still life

Squashes and apples

Squashes and apples

Thanks to Perkin at High Bank for the Oregon Homestead squash (the grey-green one) and the apples. The monster on the left I grew myself weighs 7.6kg; it may or may not be Lady Godiva. If it is, it will contain naked seeds!

Squashy squash

You can't see the wrinkles from this angle

You can’t see the wrinkles from this angle

Now is the time when the skins of pumpkins and winter squash are ripening and hardening up. This allows us to store them over the winter in a cool place. If any part of the skin is damaged, however, there is a chance that fungi will attack and the fruit will rot in storage. So, I am keeping a sharp eye out at the moment.

As a result, one of our Boston squashes has been harvested. The top looked fine, but the underside was starting to become wrinkled, so it was brought in and dissected. In fact, I’d caught it before too much damage had been done, so only a tiny bit of flesh had to go on the compost heap.

Ready for roasting

Ready for roasting

One of my favourite ways to eat squash is roasted: chopped into chunks, drizzled with oil, sprinkled with a little sugar and cooked in the oven until it’s meltingly soft. This is how we consumed the first serving of our first mature squash of the season. Some of the remaining flesh has been turned into a creamy squash and sweetcorn soup, but I haven’t decided how to use the rest yet … so many nice ways to eat it.

The others in the garden seem to be undamaged, so I am hoping for good storage. If you plan to store any fruit unprocessed, always make sure it isn’t damaged and the skin is not pieced or blemished. This is especially the case for apples, some varieties of which will store well for many months if you are careful and keep them cool. It’s also important to check produce stored this way regularly – once one starts to rot, the damage can spread very quickly and destroy your whole harvest.

Which reminds me… the great High Bank apple harvest approaches… better get my preserving jars out!

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!

Squashy

Last year Patrick, from Bifurcated Carrots, was kind enough to send me some seeds that he had obtained from Carol Deppe. These included flint corn, which is now growing in my four sisters bed, and several varieties of squash.

Squashes of all varieties are flourishing in the 'four sisters' bed

Squashes of all varieties are flourishing in the ‘four sisters’ bed

I love winter squash – people keep telling me that I ought to try the variety ‘crown prince’, but somehow I have never got round to it. The most successful one I have grown here on the west coast of Wales is Boston – which I get from the Real Seed Catalogue. However, I was excited to have some different varieties to have a go with, particularly since Carol Deppe is in Oregon… another rather wet and dull part of the world with a relatively short growing season (at least as far as squash are concerned).

Anyway, I planted the seeds with great glee and was delighted that almost all of them germinated and started growing into robust plants. I had more than I needed, so passed some onto my friend Katy, who had a space in her garden and wanted some winter squash. Since then I have been watching mine grow… I was sure that I had labelled all of them when I planted them out, but one or two seem to now be anonymous; never mind, I will be able to match then to pictures on the internet, I’m sure.

Costata Romanesco - not a winter squash!

Costata Romanesco – not a winter squash!

However, I was happily inspecting the abundance the other day when it dawned on me that one of the varieties – Costata Romanesco – looked much more like a huge courgette (zucchini) than a winter squash. So, I dug out the packets and, sure enough, it’s a summer squash! I got out my copy of The resilient gardener by Carol Deppe and discovered that this variety can grow up to three or four feet long… although she recommends harvesting it before that. She claims that it’s very flavoursome (she hardly has a good word to say about courgettes on this matter) and can be dried for use over the winter in stews, soups etc. So now I’m even more excited about the prospect of a tasty and storable summer squash.

Delicious fried in olive oil with chopped fresh garlic

Delicious fried in olive oil with chopped fresh garlic

Just to test it out, I harvested one for dinner last night – only about 9 inches long, so a mere baby. I fried it in olive oil, with a little chopped garlic, straight out of the garden and it was, indeed, delicious. Another good characteristic of this variety is that it is dense and has a relatively low water content , unlike those horrible watery marrows that some people grow. This quality means that it is good for frying and should also be great for drying.

Dinner last night... all out of the garden except the small servings of chorizo cooked in cider

Dinner last night… all out of the garden except the small servings of chorizo cooked in cider

So: thanks to Patrick for the seeds; Linda – I will need to take you up on that offer to borrow your dehydrator later in the season; and Katy – some of those winter squashes I gave you are summer ones!

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!

Storing the sunshine

PV panels are one way to collect the sun's energy

PV panels are one way to collect the sun’s energy

Solar energy can be collected in all sorts of ways: you can use it to heat water, you can have photovoltaic cells installed and generate electricity, you can have a sun porch and enjoy passive solar heating, or you can grow plants. Green plants use sunshine to convert water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates… that’s how they grow and that’s photosynthesis. So, any plant cultivation you do means that you are collecting solar energy (and making use of a greenhouse gas, but that’s a whole other story) and it doesn’t require a bank of batteries to store it.

The trouble is that in temperate climates we experience seasons. Some periods of the year are sunny and some not, some are hot and some are cold, so our plants are not able to photosynthesise the same amount all year, nor do our solar panels generate the same amount of electricity. Here in the UK we are currently in the middle of summer… and a rather nice one too. The sun is shining and the fruit and vegetables  are growing well (at least they are it we give them some extra water). As a result there is every likelihood that, in our garden at least, we will soon have more produce than we can consume immediately.

Of course, an abundance in the garden means an abundance on the farm too, so seasonal produce is likely to be cheap at a time when we don’t really need to buy it. The answer is to stock up on the sunshine now, or at least the products of the sunshine, and keep them so that you can enjoy them later in the year. The best fruit and vegetables in this respect are those that can be stored as they are harvested – potatoes in paper sacks, beans dried in the air and stored in jars, onions hung in strings and winter squashes ripened in the sun then kept in the cool dark attic. However, many crops require a little more work.

In the middle of processing the apple glut of 2011

In the middle of processing the apple glut of 2011

I posted the other day about bottling peaches, and ages ago wrote about dealing with the High Bank apple glut in 2011 (another is promised for this year). And, thus, I store the sunshine: bottling and freezing are the two main routes I take for produce that will not keep unprocessed. I know that many people make preserves, but we honestly don’t eat much in the way of jams and chutney, so it seems a waste to make these in abundance.

In many ways, freezing is the easier option – there is little chance of produce going off (unless your freezer fails) and there are many things that need no or little preparation before they are frozen. For example, raspberries can go straight into the freezer and, once defrosted, can be eaten as they are. Other things, such as runner beans or mange tout, require blanching before freezing (i.e. plunging into boiling water for a minute or two) and cooking when they are required, but these are very simple processes. Some vegetables and fruit do not freeze well: courgettes, for example. However, even these can be fried in olive oil and frozen for subsequent use in Bolognese, casseroles or on pizza.

But, part of me balks at storage that requires continuous energy input, so I really like being able to keep at least some of my harvest in bottles and jars. Of course, there is an initial high energy requirement for sterilising jars, boiling syrups and then heating the processed product in the jar to ensure that it keeps. But, it is possible to time these activities to coincide with the solar panels producing at their maximum rate so that we are using sunshine even more in the process. I only bottle fruit – there is too much risk of botulism with vegetables as they are much less acidic.  I use proper preserving jars and ensure that I follow the instructions (particularly minimum temperatures and timings) to the letter to prevent contamination and spoiling of the food and I find the whole process remarkably satisfying.

Once I have the dresser in the kitchen packed with jars of preserved fruit, I find myself peaking in just to enjoy the sight of all those bottles of sunshine that will be cheering many a dreary February day.

Hands in the dirt, head in the sun

The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul. There is no gardening without humility. Nature is constantly sending even its oldest scholars to the bottom of the class for some egregious blunder. Alfred Austin

Abundant potato growth

Abundant potato growth

After a rather frantic week retrieving chickens from their holiday home (thank you Glad and Mr Glad for looking after them), retrieving dogs from the kennels (thank you Ann at Rhydlewis – a unique place where the dogs are cared for better than anywhere I know), attending a day-long trustees’ meeting and a learning guild get-together, as well as editing a couple of papers and doing piles of washing, I have finally managed to find some time to spend in the garden. During our two-week absence the potatoes have grown like mad and the raspberry canes have become laden with (as-yet unripe) fruit; the mange tout are on their way up (the variety we are growing – yellow-podded – is tall) as are the runner beans; the courgettes and squashes are settling in and the onions are flowering – boo! As always, some things do well and some don’t, but that is the way of the world and gardening does not come with a guarantee.

Squash, corn and beans doing well

Squash, corn and beans doing well

Anyway, overall the week has been quite stressful, but a few hours in the garden are good therapy. I find gardening to be remarkably good for my state of mind – it gives me time to think, as well as allowing me to be both creative and peaceful. I love seeing plants grow that I have nurtured from seed. Even when it comes to the time that they have to be removed, knowing that what is left will go on the compost heap and contribute to the next cycle is immensely satisfying.

But, reading an article in The Guardian today by Alys Fowler, I discover that gardening is not good for me just because of all the things that I’ve mentioned, but also because there are bacteria  (specifically Mycobacterium vaccae) in the soil that have a beneficial effect on health. These bacteria boost production of seratonin (which is a mood regulator) and help to build a healthy immune system if we come into direct contact with them. So, there you are – get out there and get your hands dirty and you really will be improving your health and happiness!

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