Winter harvest

Sometimes being disorganised has its advantages.

Tayberry newly planted

Tayberry newly planted

On Sunday we planted soft fruit: a red currant, a tayberry (a blackberry/raspberry cross), a boysenberry (a cross between loganberry, raspberry and dewberry) and six strawberry plants. These have gone into our small front garden – the only area currently not producing food. We mulched round them with cardboard and weighted this down with some used compost. I’m not sure how many jobs this compost has done, but it includes homemade garden/kitchen waste compost, the contents of pots in which we grew peppers, some cardboard and grass clippings. Last year it was put into a dumpy bag in the ‘waste of space‘ area and had potatoes planted in it. I know that we harvested some of the potatoes out of this bag, but when we came to transfer the compost to the soft fruit, we discovered some lovely big spuds – untouched by slugs, just waiting for an unplanned January harvest. In total, there were 3kg of them!

Parsnips (planned) and potatoes (unplanned)

Parsnips (planned) and potatoes (unplanned)

In addition, we had a couple more planned additions to the table: lovely parsnips (knobbly but delicious) thanks to some seedlings given to me my Kate the day we went to Wonderwool (I drove and she provided me with vegetable seedlings and eggs to bring home… what a great exchange!) and kale (that ever-welcome addition of greenery in the dark days of winter). We’ve also got some leeks coming along nicely (seedlings also provided by Kate), plus Mr Snail found even more potatoes when he was digging up parsnips (still growing in that bed although it’s a couple of years since they were planted there). We even managed to grow a parsnip in the shape of a snail:

The parsnip of happiness?

The parsnip of happiness?

The cheese continues to be a work in progress… it is now maturing and won’t be ready to be eaten for at least a month. I managed to modify a cheese box that has ventilation in the top so that I could mature the cheese in conditions where the humidity is fairly easy to control (just add or remove the egg cup with water in it) and now, apart from regular turning, we just have to wait:

Maturing cheese

Maturing cheese

So, what are your recent harvests (expected and unexpected)?

Let’s get ready to crumble!

So, the season of British rhubarb and British strawberries is here… hurrah! Possibly my all-time favourite fruit combination and a great way of using up strawberries that are slightly past their best. I like them best served in a crumble, which is exactly what I made for dessert last night:

As you can see, the rhubarb was freshly picked from the garden. I made the crumble topping with 50/50 white and stoneground wholemeal flour, plus butter and soft brown sugar, and I did have to sweeten the fruit a bit as it was rather tart without any added sugar. Not a bad way to get two of your ‘five-a-day’!

What’s up, dock?

I am trying to establish a useful ground flora in the fruit cage, including aromatic herbs and flowers that attract pollinators. I have several mints, lemon balm, comfrey, strawberries (supposedly a good weed-suppressor), thyme, rosemary, chives and oregano.

Unfortunately, I also have ryegrass, nettles and docks… I don’t mind the first of these too much , but I could do without the other two. I try to garden without chemicals, so wouldn’t normally use any weedkiller and, anyway, it’s not an option in the fruit cage. Whilst nettles are good for a range of insects, they are no good for my bare arms and legs, so I am cutting these back regularly and putting the wilted tops on the compost heap since they are a good compost activator.

Chickens find freshly-cut docks highly entertaining.

Chickens find freshly-cut docks highly entertaining*.

The trouble with docks is that they are vigorous and seed very freely. If you dig them up, it’s likely that you will leave pieces of root in the ground, from which they will resprout. In addition, if you dig them up, you leave a bare patch of soil that is an ideal seed bed for new docks, or other unwanted species. I am, therefore, trying to eradicate the docks slowly. This year, I let them grow until they produced flowers and thus used up lots of resources, then yesterday I cut them back to the ground. I removed all the cuttings from the ground and spread them out on the concrete path for the chickens to enjoy.

In theory, now the hens have lost interest, I could now compost this material, but I’m cautious in case any of the seeds have already formed – I don’t want to be propagating even more docks. So, I’m going to dry out the material and them we will use it as fuel for our Kelly kettle… a good use of a ‘waste’ product from the garden.

-oOo-

* Please note, Perdy has not lost her head in the dock-related excitement, she’s just looking over her shoulder.

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.

Coed Hills

I went to visit Coed Hills today, a permaculture community near Cardiff. They have somewhere between 70 and 90 acres of land, so a great contrast to my own little plot. However I came away with lots of inspiration, plus some plants – Coed Hill tomatoes (seeds from open pollinated plants, so they may turn out to be anything!), a tree lupin, perennial onions and some strawberries.

Perhaps the most immediately useful observation was that strawberries create self-mulching ground cover. This leads me to the decision to plant more strawberries in the fruit cage as both a crop and weed suppressor. And with the gift of some plants, I can start straight away.

I also saw tomatoes planted in a polytunnel with a clover ground cover below them. Again there is a mulching effect, plus the clover plants fix nitrogen and boost soil fertility. This is an approach that I will suggest to Perkin for his big greenhouse.

We looked at their young woodland garden, which is bursting with fruit frees, soft fruit bushes and a wide range of ground cover – the trees are small as yet, but will grown into a beautiful habitat. One of the ground cover species was poached egg plant (Limnanthes douglasii). I used to have lots of this in my previous garden, but not in the current one: I must introduce it, as it is particularly attractive to those most beneficial of insects the hoverflies.

I was also reminded that I must reintroduce borage (Borago officinalis) into my garden (it was there but seems to have disappeared). It has beautiful blue flowers that bees love and that can be used in salads and, traditionally, are put in Pimms.

I also saw the most beautiful tree: a black lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla) that I will certainly consider for future planting (and I may be able to persuade Perkin to have one in his garden… thus achieving at least vicarious ownership).

I could go on, but really what I wanted to highlight was that visits like this can be a real source of inspiration. Permaculture gardens are particularly valuable because they often reveal novel approaches to problems and inspiring uses of resources. I also find that permaculture people are very generous with their time, seeds, plants and ideas. So, thank you to the folks at Coed Hills for the hospitality and abundant cups of tea – I will see you again later in the summer.

Rhubarb, rhubarb

I’m pleased to report that Gytha is on the mend: she has started objecting to being given antibiotics at 9am (it’s a bit easier at 9pm because we wake her up to do it) and she’s shaped more like a rugby ball than a soccer ball now, which must indicate an improvement. So, my mind is turning to plants…

This is the time of year known as the ‘hungry gap’ (at least here in the UK). It’s spring – seeds are germinating and seedlings are growing, but there are precious few crops ready for harvest. My kale has started flowering – the pollinators like it, but it’s not much use for me to eat now – the purple sprouting broccoli is battling on and providing one fresh vegetable from the garden, but the current star is the rhubarb.

Rhubarb this week – with sage in front of it and blueberries to the left

Rhubarb is really a vegetable, but we treat it like a fruit. It’s great stewed with a little water and some sugar and served with natural yoghurt or vanilla ice cream. Even better with the addition of waffles and maple syrup. Some people mix it with orange when cooking, but my favourite combination is rhubarb and strawberry. It’s not strawberry season here yet, but they will soon be available from Pembrokeshire (not too far down the road) and after that we should have them from the garden too (if the chickens don’t get to them first!). And then we will be having rhubarb and strawberry sponge  – delicious and made with eggs from Esme and Lorna (sadly not Gytha for a while – we have to discard any eggs she lays for quite a few weeks after she’s finished her antibiotics).

As well as providing lovely fresh food early in the season, rhubarb just keeps on giving – it likes a good application of compost each year or two and benefits from watering through the summer, but as long as you keep picking it, it keeps growing. Some years it decides to flower, and if you allow it to do so, you get statuesque flower heads, but precious little to eat because all its energy goes to the flowers. However, if you cut the flower stalks back as you notice them, you will have your harvest.

Admittedly, by the end of the season, you may be fed up with rhubarb, but don’t fret – it freezes well, just raw sliced into chunks or stewed (which takes up less space). You can also make it into a variety of preserves, although I have never tried this approach. This year, however, I do intend to have a go at bottling it, since the apples were so successful preserved this way last year. But now I’m thinking of it, I think I’ll just look up rhubarb preserves in a few books…

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