What’s in your dinner?

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potatoes

At this time of year I feel particularly lucky to have access to growing space. We don’t have a very big garden and we have chosen to prioritise food production, so that means we don’t have flower beds or a lawn, just space for fruit, vegetables, chickens and compost, with some paved sitting space that we share with lots of pots of plants. We used to have more space for outdoor sitting, but the limery took that over.

My reasons are partly because I love growing food – being connected to the seasons, eating food fresh from the garden and clocking up food metres not food miles. However, I also like knowing exactly what sort of chemicals go into my food. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publish a ‘dirty dozen’ each year – a list of foods with the highest levels of pesticide residues. Although these data are collected in the US, the list is of interest wherever we live in the world. In 2015, the list was as follows:

  1. Apples
  2. Peaches
  3. Nectarines
  4. Strawberries
  5. Grapes
  6. Celery
  7. Spinach
  8. Sweet bell peppers
  9. Cucumbers
  10. Cherry Tomatoes
  11. Snap Peas (Imported)
  12. Potatoes

Closely followed by Hot Peppers and Kale/Collard Greens.

From this list, we grow Peppers (hot and sweet), snap peas (we call them sugar peas or mange tout, I think), potatoes, kale and some apples. The bulk of our apples come from friends who do not use pesticides on their trees, and the other items on the list we eat rarely or not at all. Of course you can buy organic produce and avoid issues with pesticides (and we often do), but growing your own delivers so many extra benefits.

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red salad bowl lettuce growing in a container

One of my particular favourite crops is salad leaves. I don’t think that there’s any substitute for freshly picked leaves. By growing your own, you can avoid packaging, the threat of salmonella, exploitation of workers and the use of chlorinated water for washing them – all issues that have been identified as being linked to bagged leaves sold in supermarkets (details here). And you don’t even need a garden – you can plant cut-and-come-again varieties of lettuce, along with oriental greens in pots, in window boxes, or in trays on your windowsill. Let the leaves grow up and then harvest them by trimming with scissors and allow them to grow back. If you plant a few trays in succession, you can supply yourself with a regular harvest for several months. And honestly, the taste just doesn’t compare with leaves that have been encased in plastic for a couple of weeks in a modified atmosphere so they don’t go off.

Herbs are another great windowsill crop and it’s lovely to pick your own fresh seasonings, even if you don’t have space to grow anything else.

So, however small your space, I encourage you to plant something to eat – you won’t regret it!

Peaceful Sunday

I was going to call this “Silent Sunday” and just post some pictures of the garden after a few days of sunshine and rain. However, I went into the fruit cage to take some photos and it was anything but silent, which large numbers of bees (not one of which I was able to photograph) buzzing around the raspberry flowers. So, rather, this Sunday is peaceful and pictureful, both outdoors…

… and indoors…

I hope you too are surrounded by peace and abundance today.

Sunny gardening

Us Brits are well known for being weather obsessed, so you will forgive me for telling you that the past few days have been glorious. The weather has been lovely and so this weekend has been all about planting. I had intended to complete my sketchbook contribution this weekend, but the timing of the good weather made it ideal for planting some of this year’s crops. The forecast for next weekend (when there are two bank holidays) is poor, so crafting is much more likely then.

In the past few days I have (whist wearing my new apron) potted up tomatoes and sowed lots of seeds: squashes, courgettes, a variety of purple sprouting broccoli that sprouts in the summer, chives, parsnips, asparagus peas, various lettuces, mizuna and rocket. I’ve cleaned out pots, weeded and removed brambles. From the shed I retrieved a plastic bin with a lid and filled it with nettles and water to turn into nitrogen-rich liquid feed – it gets stinky, but it’s good stuff and it’s free. And I planted a whole raised bed with potatoes and netted these to prevent Max (who I think is some sort of potato hound) from digging them up and eating them.

I’ve also been admiring the growth of other plants in the limery – lettuces, melons, lemongrass seedlings and carnivores:

The sun has gone in now, hence finding the time to write, but I am feeling very satisfied with my activities. What have you been up to this weekend?

Sow far sow good

Regular readers may have been wondering about the limery… well, now it’s time to plant seeds, the wide windowsills have come into their own. It’s lovely to know there’s plenty of space to give our crops a good start in life.

Already germinated and growing are broad beans, melons, peppers, chillies, tomatoes, oregano, parsley, sage and salad leaves (we are eating these – they are cut and come again). Planted today were leeks, courgettes, winter squash (five varieties), garlic chives, kale, runner beans, French beans and sunflowers. There are also potatoes chitting and the two citrus trees (one orange and one lime) are growing well and will be good to move outside once the risk of frost is over.

I cannot express how happy I am about all this – everyone needs a limery!

Daily pinta

Today's pint

Today’s pint

There used to be an advertising slogan in the UK ‘drinka-pinta-milka-day’… being lactose intolerant rather puts the kibosh on this, but currently I am picking  a pint of raspberries every day. It’s turning out to be a very good year for berries, so each day I go out to the garden with a plastic pint jug (that’s a UK pint, so 20 fluid ounces) and fill it with raspberries. Once it’s full, I come back in and don’t pick any more – it’s enough. Every day I have raspberries for breakfast with my homemade yoghurt and homemade granola… what a joy, especially if they are just picked, still sun-warmed from the garden. The remainder are being put into the freezer for a delicious taste of summer in the winter.

Yesterday's courgette harvest

Yesterday’s courgette harvest

And raspberries are not the only abundant thing in the garden… the courgettes (zucchini) are prolific. I picked a kilo and a half yesterday, despite the fact that the day before I had turned a kilo of the things into soup. I probably shouldn’t have planted six plants, but that’s what I’ve got! It’s quite early for a glut, but the weather here in June was so good that the plants have just romped away. Never fear, though, they do not go to waste. Apart from soup and courgettes fried in olive oil with garlic, we will be enjoying courgette moussaka (replace the aubergine with courgette), courgette risotto, roasted vegetable sauce… just not courgette cake – Mr Snail will not eat any sort of cake containing vegetables! What we don’t eat straight away will be turned into either soup or simply roasted in chunks and frozen. I love to have a freezer full of soup for use in the less abundant months – it’s so good to be able to defrost a block for lunch on a chilly day. So much nicer than opening a tin and I know what all the ingredients are.

On the horizon are runner beans, mange tout and shallots. All of these are grown without the aid of chemicals and from traditional seed varieties. I just want to remind you, though, that my vegetable patch consists of an area measuring 4m × 6m, with an additional 2.5m ×1m plus some pots and a 1.9m × 2.2m greenhouse, then I have 3m × 4m for fruit and herbs. So, it is possible to grow a significant amount of your own food in a really small space… you don’t need a farm. And all these crops help me control what I’m eating and cut down on food miles, to say nothing of making me feel a connection between my food and the seasons, the soil and the sunshine.

Experiments in gardening

As regular readers know, I have quite a small garden, so I have to be choosy about the crops that I grow. For a long time I focused on things that were expensive to buy in the shops, difficult to transport or were simply not readily available. Over recent years, however, I have realised that there are lots of good reasons to grow some of the more common things, especially if they form a staple for us (see my post, for example, about whether it’s worth growing potatoes here).

This year, however, I’m going to be able to expand a bit… not because we’re moving house but because my sister is! Now, I know that I shouldn’t have designs on her garden, but she is buying a house much closer to me and with a decent-sized garden that already has a vegetable patch and greenhouse. So, when I ordered my seeds the other day, I knew that I could experiment a bit more; not only this, but that any excess plants can go to my friend Perkin who has loads of space for growing and who will be just a few miles from my sister!

Making good use of vertical space

Planning to grow lots of mangetout again this year

So what have I chosen that’s a bit out of the ordinary? Well, a couple of things from the Heritage Seed Library: Shark fin Melon (a rather rampant sort of squash from which you can eat the fruits, shoots and leaves) and Callaloo (a leafy green, much used in Jamaica). The latter I’ve been intending to try for a while, but the former was just a whim… apparently it covers a lot of ground, so I’m thinking of growing it over my shed as well as giving plants to sister and Perkin. I have  few other heritage seeds coming from the lovely Kate in Australia… I chose genuine Australian varieties of lettuce, pumpkin and pepper, which will be interesting to experiment with. And then my big seed order was from The Real Seed Catalogue. This included some tried and tested varieties that I have written about in the past, plus a few new things for me and my sister to have a go with: Rainbow Quinoa (for the seeds), Groundcherry, Tall Giant Sugar Pea (this has HUGE pods, apparently), Really Red Dear Tongue Lettuce and a previously untried pepper called Nova.

I don’t know what will work and what won’t, but I’m certainly looking forward to trying out both old and new varieties here and with my sister… are you trying anything different this year?

And the results are in…

An early harvest of Colleen

An early harvest of Colleen

This year I decided to keep a record of some of the crops that I harvested from the garden (not all of them, I’m not that much of a garden-geek). Really I wanted to demonstrate to myself that I am making a useful contribution to our food consumption, and to show that it is possible to grow a significant amount of food in a relatively small space. The two crops that I recorded were courgettes and potatoes. Since the potatoes were all dug up some weeks ago and the courgette plants have now been finished off by the cold weather, I have the full season’s results.

Prolific courgettes

Prolific courgettes

In total, from an area of approximately four square metres I harvested just over 12kg of courgettes. Of these 7.3kg were from ‘ordinary’ courgettes (two green bush and two Trieste White Cousa) and 4.8kg from three Costata Romanesco plants. We ate the majority of these over the summer, but some of them went into soups that are currently frozen for winter consumption.

Colleen and Valor in a raised bed

Colleen and Valor in a raised bed

The total harvest of potatoes was an impressive 41kg. They have been feeding us since about June and we still have quite a lot stored. We grew these in approximately five square metres of garden plus three dumpy bags* and one small growing sack. The most prolific variety in the dumpy bags was the first early variety Colleen which yielded just over 6.07kg from one dumpy bag filled with grass clippings. garden compost and shredded paper and planted with 9 tubers. In comparison, six tubers planted in a soil-filled raised bed gave us 5.73kg. The main crop varieties Milva and Mira did less well, only yielding 3.5kg from their dumpy bag (I mixed them together). Valor (a second early) did particularly well in the raised bed containing soil, yielding an astonishing 12.7kg  from 6 tubers.

Potatoes in dumpy bags in the 'waste of space' corner

Potatoes in dumpy bags in the ‘waste of space’ corner

All varieties of potato did better in soil in beds than in dumpy bags. I think this is actually related to water availability: we had a very dry summer and the vigorously growing potatoes in the dumpy bags wilted on numerous occasions even with daily watering, whilst those growing in the garden never wilted. Despite this limitation, the dumpy bags were a great success – they increased the growing space available and added significantly to our harvest. My favourite potato has to be Colleen – they grow really well and provide the first potatoes of the season, but I liked Valor too. I think these are the varieties we will focus on next year.

Costata Romanesca - delicious fried with garlic (each of those slices is 5-8cm across)

Costata Romanesca – delicious fried with garlic (each of those slices is 5-8cm across)

The Costata Romanesco courgettes are a favourite of Carol Deppe and she recommends using them for drying. This is something we didn’t get round to doing this year, but I will have a go at next year. The plants are big and start off as bushes, but then get to sprawling around. Whilst not prolific in terms of fruit, those they do grow can get really big but still remain very tasty (unlike marrows) and tender. However, I do like the more normal courgettes, especially for their joyful abundance and will continue to grow them every year.

All in all, it’s been an interesting experiment to weigh our crops. And what’s the most important thing I have learned? Next time make a proper recording sheet, because trying to decipher all those scribbled notes on several tatty sheets of paper is quite a challenge at the end of the season!

-oOo-

* I have been experimenting with growing in containers in a previously unused bit of space. There are several ‘waste of space’ posts if you are interested: here, here and here

Mulch magic?

I don’t often get requests, but last week my friend Perkin asked me to write about mulch. Perkin has acquired a pile of organic gardening magazines and has been struck by the number of references to mulch and the claims for its apparent magical properties. So, he got hold of some straw and mulched under his squashes. And, guess what? He created a fantastic habitat for slugs! He, therefore, asked me for my thoughts on mulch.

Mulching can work really well in some circumstances

Mulching can work really well in some circumstances

I too was seduced by the charms of mulching when I first read about it many years ago. My first experience of it was a wild success. I moved into a semi-derelict cottage around the time I got my first job. I had to hack my way through the vegetation to get down the drive and to the front door, so you can imagine the state of the garden. Anyway, I had read that squashes love growing in rotted vegetation, so the first spring I was there, I covered an area of rough grass measuring about 4x4m with black polythene, anchoring it round the edges by simply pushing it into the soil with a spade. I grew courgettes and patty pan squashes from seed in pots on my window sills (it may have been falling down, but the house had really deep window sills because of the two-foot thick walls). When It came time to plant out, the vegetation under the plastic had rotted down, the soil had warmed up and that summer I harvested a bumper crop.

When I moved house a few years later, I tried the same approach (although the garden was not so wild) and the results were nowhere near as spectacular. Over subsequent years I have experimented with various types of mulch – carpet, permeable membranes, grass clippings, cardboard, gravel, cocoa shell – but have never had the same success as that first time. There have been two main problems –  first, like Perkin, the issue of providing ideal conditions for slugs and, second, the mulch not actually suppressing plant growth (e.g. the permeable membrane which seems to let light through as well as moisture).

Sometimes, I have worked the slug problem to my advantage. The first year we kept hens, I mulched two raised beds with cardboard over the winter. By the spring, there were only a few spindly plants surviving in gaps around the edge of the mulch, but turning the soggy cardboard over revealed dozens of slugs. At this point I drafted in the chickens. They ate the slugs, consumed the weeds (mainly creeping buttercup), shredded the card, cultivated the surface of the soil and added some of their own special fertilizer: great job, girls! In fact, our garden has a smaller slug population now as a result of the presence of hens, but I still don’t want to provide them with perfect conditions to thrive.

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

Those big squash leaves prevent the growth of all but the most determined weeds!

The second problem can be avoided by selecting the right mulch – don’t use something that will blow away if you live in a windy place; don’t bother with permeable membrane unless it’s just one component of a layered system and so on. Chose a mulch that will deliver what you want – weed suppression, increased fertility, surface stabilisation, warming the ground, or any combination of these. Sometimes it’s better to incorporate organic matter into the soil than to apply it to the surface, sometimes a weed suppressant isn’t necessary if you plant a crop with big leaves or a ‘green manure’… think carefully before indiscriminate application of a mulch!

My experience is that mulches have their place, but they do not represent a magic solution and they are certainly not suitable for all conditions. As with so many suggestions, it’s a case of using mulch thoughtfully, knowing your specific circumstances and doing some careful experimentation to find out what works for you on your patch.

I’d be very interested to hear other people’s experiences with mulch, so over to you…

Caterpillars ate my kale

The past week has been dominated by apples… some are frozen, some are bottled, some are in cake, many are still in boxes and even more remain on the tree. It’s very time-consuming but also very satisfying.

And abundance of small tortoiseshell butterflies (Mara Morris; Denmark Farm Conservation Centre)

And abundance of small tortoiseshell butterflies (Mara Morris; Denmark Farm Conservation Centre)

This is a funny time of year in the garden – we are always given to believe that autumn is always about harvests and the end of growing crops for the year, but this simply isn’t true. This summer was a fabulous year for butterflies in the UK, as you can see from the picture on the right taken at Denmark Farm just a couple of weeks ago. Not all butterflies are quite as welcome as these small tortoiseshells, however, and it has been an equally good year for both large and small whites… those are the ones that eat your cabbages.

Skeletonised kale leaf

Skeletonised kale leaf

And so it was in my garden… an infestation of caterpillars on my broccoli and kale reduced all the leaves to mere skeletons. But I was not fooled. This defoliation does not kill strong healthy plants, so I left them in the ground and the caterpillars have now gone away to pupate, leaving my plants to magically regenerate. Later on in the year we will be harvesting fresh greens from the kale, then in 2014 there will be white and purple sprouting broccoli to enjoy. When plants get damaged like that, it’s very tempting to just get rid of them, but sometimes it’s worth thinking twice.

Brand new growth on the broccoli

Brand new growth on the broccoli

Other plants are also thriving in the garden – I’ve recently planted red onion sets, and the oriental greens (and reds) are establishing well. In addition, the autumn raspberries are flowering and starting to set fruit. It just goes to show, the growing season can last a very long time if you plant the right crops.

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!

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