Fruit vinegar

A report on the BBC today highlights the amount of food that is going to waste in the UK, with Tesco reporting that it threw away 30,000 tonnes of food in the first six months of this year:

Using its own data and industry-wide figures, it has also estimated that, across the UK food industry, 68% of salad to be sold in bags was wasted – 35% of it thrown out by customers.

And it estimated that 40% of apples and 47% of bakery items were wasted.

My bucket of 'food waste'!

My bucket of ‘food waste’!

These are shocking figures… but I’m not entirely surprised. Perhaps the fact that food is relatively cheap and, when bought from a supermarket, the customer has invested little effort in its production, means it has little ‘value’. I am reluctant to waste anything that I have taken time to create – whether a sock I have knitted or apples I have bottled – and I think this is true for many people. In our household no food goes to waste – if for some reason we can’t eat it, it is consumed by dogs, chickens or worms, with the compost heap being the ultimate destination if there are no other takers. In addition, we never buy a bag of salad leaves because I can almost always find some fresh in the garden or in a pot and then we only pick what we need… even if that’s just half a dozen for a sandwich.

However, this week I have embarked on an endeavour to make even better use of a ‘waste’ product. A few days ago, my friend Deano (supplier of my naked pumpkin seeds and all-round inspiring permaculture practitioner) posted a link to a blog describing how to make vinegar from fruit scraps.

Apple scraps, fermenting naturally as you can see from the bubbles on the surface

Apple scraps, fermenting naturally as you can see from the bubbles on the surface

As you may have noticed from recent posts, I’ve got lots of apples! Until now, the peel and cores have either been fed to the hens (they love them, but there is a limit to the amount they can eat) or put direct on the compost heap (creating a lovely cidery smell). However, I’ve now decided to get an extra yield and am making apple vinegar. It takes several weeks, so I’m currently only at the stage of apple scraps, water and a bit of sugar fermenting naturally in a bucket (food grade plastic) covered with muslin to keep the fruit flies off. I will add to this as I work my way through the rest of the apples that I am going to bottle or freeze, and then it will be more weeks until the vinegar will be ready for bottling itself, but fingers crossed that it works. Once strained off the vinegar, the scraps will still be going on the compost heap, but cannot be fed to the chickens as they will contain alcohol and I really can do without drunken hens reeling round my back yard!

So, in our house, we’re not contributing at all to food waste. Do you have any tips for using up scraps?


This year I have been experimenting with growing pumpkins for seeds. My friend Deano (see his great blog over at The Sustainable Smallholding) kindly gave me some seeds earlier in the year. Originally, they were intended for High Bank, but various things got in the way, so I ended up growing some of them here,

Seeds out of the pumpkin

Seeds out of the pumpkin

The seeds are ‘naked’ and therefore can be consumed whole. Apparently the flesh of these pumpkins is not quite as tasty as others, but is still quite acceptable. I haven’t eaten any yet, so I can’t comment. The fruit were harvested last week and today I have removed the seeds from one of the small ones. It’s a bit of a fiddle to extract the seeds from the stringy interior, but nothing goes to waste as the ‘debris’ is popular with chickens.

Pumpkin seeds ready for drying

Pumpkin seeds ready for drying

I think, that a slightly more mature fruit would be easier to handle and the separation of the seeds would be more straightforward, but it didn’t take me too long to get a tray of seeds ready for drying. I intend to put them in the top of the oven once it’s been switched off but is still warm from cooking other things. Once dry, the seeds can be stored for later use – roasted and salted, fried or added to bread.

So, thanks to Perkin for the inspiration and to Deano for the seeds… let’s hope they taste good!

Don’t believe everything you read

When did you sow your peppers this year?

When did you sow your peppers this year?

In all areas of life there seem to be people who will tell you the ‘right’ way to do things. Gardening is a case in point. There are those who will tell you that you must double-dig your vegetable garden (the BBC website says that it is ‘fundamental to good gardening’) and others who will tell you to employ a no-dig system (see what Charles Dowding has to say about it here); and both are equally adamant that theirs is the right way. Of course, this appeals to many of us: follow a recipe that tells you exactly what to do and what can go wrong?

But there are two problems with this. First what do you do if the recipe doesn’t work? My friend Deano tried to get high productivity from his land by employing the much-recommended (in permaculture circles) approach of no-dig, but in the end had to acknowledge that on his heavy clay soil, it simply wasn’t working. He is now having more success with his land by digging it. (you can read some of his thoughts here). Do you repeatedly move from one recipe to the next until you find the right one? It seems a bit inefficient to me, and I would advocate being rather more thoughtful about the solutions that you apply rather than blindly doing something because someone who you don’t know and doesn’t know your situation has said that it works.

Left to right: Alberto's Locoto chilli, Amy wax pepper, Lemon drop chilli: all planted in January 2012 and still healthy in September 2013

Left to right: Alberto’s Locoto chilli, Amy wax pepper, Lemon drop chilli: all planted in January 2012 and still healthy (and fruiting) in September 2013

The second problem is that by following a single approach to the letter there is no room for creativity and innovation, so you might miss out on something really useful. For example, for many years, at the end of each growing season I allowed my sweet pepper and chilli plants to die off and then composted them, as suggested in every gardening book I had read. Then one year I realised that these plants are not annuals and I could try to over-winter them. Now, each year I select some plants to bring indoors; I cut them back otherwise they are very prone to greenfly and I water them sparingly over the winter. Not all of them will survive, but the chilli plants in particular seem to do ok and I have some plants with a head start the next spring.

September 2013: broad beans!

September 2013: broad beans!

I’m also prepared to plant seeds at unusual times if I happen to discover a packet that I have forgotten. This is why now, at the beginning of September, I’m about to start harvesting this year’s broad beans! Having a go at something different doesn’t always work, but it can be worth giving it a try… often that’s how we learn.

Dog poo experiments

My inspiration - Dr Andrew Agnew

My inspiration – Dr Andrew Agnew

One of my lecturers at university, the person who inspired me to become an ecologist, was Dr ADQ Agnew. He was (and still is) the epitome of a dotty professor… one day he came in to the department wearing two ties because he’d forgotten that he’d put one on and so he donned a second before leaving the house. He would sing to us in lectures (I particularly remember a rendition of ‘I’m a Gnu‘) and deliver anecdotes… he even took us on a field trip to the Low Countries (Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France and a bit of Germany) that involved him and seven female students all in their early 20s… which probably wouldn’t be allowed these days! Anyway, Andrew often claimed to have studied the effects of population density by examining dog turd predation by lawnmowers in a park… I can find no published paper on this subject (and, believe me, I’ve looked), but it may exist somewhere. I might ask him about it next time I see him.

Max - a source of pollution

Max – a source of pollution

My experimentation, in contrast, has a rather more practical bias. One of the waste products that we have to deal with on a daily basis is, indeed, from our dogs, Sam and Max. They are terriers, so there isn’t a huge volume, but even so it is something that we do not feel happy about sending to landfill.

It is easy enough these days to buy plastic ‘poop’ bags that are biodegradable and simply to throw these away with all the rest of the trash. I wondered whether it might be possible, however, to collect the dog poo this way and then just place the entire bundle on a compost heap to break down. However, some trials revealed that even after a year, the bags were still identifiable, although the content had often disappeared. Anyway, whilst trying to reduce our impact on the environment, it seems inappropriate to ‘consume’ plastic bags in this way.

What we wanted was a composting system that was contained (to avoid flies and smells) and that was separate from our standard composing bins, so that the end product could be used separately. It’s generally recommended that you don’t use humanure on food crops and I assume that the same goes for doganure (ooh look, another new word!). However, whilst I don’t want to apply it to salad crops, for instance, I see no problems with using this type of compost when planting fruit trees and bushes, or in a bean trench.

I have written in the past about my wormery, but I have become increasingly aware that I don’t really need one except for the liquid feed: pretty much all the compostable material we produce can go on a ‘normal’ compost heap and with the aid of grass clippings, we manage to get these hot enough to break down quite quickly. In addition, I’m an increasing fan of in situ composting… so that the heat generated can be utilised by growing plants. So, the wormery has become superfluous and, thus, available for use in the composting of dog waste.

Some limited research suggested that dog waste is acidic (I haven’t tested this, but perhaps I will once I can work out the best way to sterilise my pH meter afterwards) and that some means of raising the pH would be appropriate. One of the suggestions was that adding wood ash would work – something that we produce from our Kelly Kettle and that we normally add to the compost or put straight on the garden. I was inspired by Deano’s approach to this problem at the Sustainable Small Holding, but decided to use shredded paper for some bulk rather than the Miscanthus that he has access to. We collect the faeces in a bucket round the garden, but when we are out on a walk, they are picked up in paper and transported in a plastic bag before being added to the bin, complete with the paper wrapping as an additional source of carbon.

Initially, I only added the three dry ‘ingredients’: faeces, ash and paper. But Deano’s suggestion to add urine as well seems to have been well-founded: a recent agitation of the content of the bin revealed that it was very dry and did not seem to be very active, although there was no unpleasant smell. In addition, there was no sign of the worms that I had added. So, with this in mind, I have been adding urine for the past couple of weeks, now that I have a ready source. I will give it another stir in a week or two and see how decomposition is progressing.

Despite the slow composting process and the dryness, I had extracted about a litre and a half of liquid feed from the reservoir at the bottom of the bin prior to starting to add additional liquid in the form or urine. This extract has been used to feed peppers and tomatoes… applied to the soil not the foliage… and is the only feed that I have provided them with so far this year, with good results.

Although I had hoped that decomposition would be quicker than it has been so far, I am hopeful that this will turn out to be a valuable way to add fertility to the soil and will be a real case of turning something initially perceived to be a pollutant into a valuable resource. In the past urine and dog faeces were used in the tanning industry, but since this is not an option for me, I think I’ll stick with increasing soil fertility!

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