The fruits of our labours

Here we are in September – according to Keats this is…

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
      Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
Potato variety Valor... blight-free and delicious

Potato variety Valor… blight-free and delicious

And, we do tend to think of harvest at this time of year. Certainly we have some swelling gourds in our garden… well, winder squashes actually. We are enjoying an abundance of runner beans and still more courgettes, plus the other day Mr Snail-of-happiness harvested nearly 9kg of potatoes from a plot measuring less than a square metre (we can recommend this particular variety heartily, it’s called Valor). A rather busy summer meant that these particular potatoes were never earthed-up, so the abundance is especially welcome.

Pearl's blankie

Pearl’s blankie

Other projects have their yields too. I was pleased to finish my latest blankie in time to be able to give it to my friend when I saw her last week. Fingers crossed that the babe will arrive happy and healthy and that my work will be used for  years to come. Many folks confine their knitting and crochet to the cooler months of the year, but I love to make things all through the summer too… mind you those often are cooler months!

Winter vegetable seedlings will help to fill the 'hungry gaps'

Winter vegetable seedlings will help to fill the ‘hungry gaps’

But autumn is not just a time to rest on our laurels and enjoy the fruits of our labours – it’s also important to think about what we will be able to harvest later in the year and at the beginning of next year, when there is often little fresh food in the garden. I will be allowing some of my runner beans to go to seed so that I can dry the large butter bean-like seeds for use in soups and stews over the winter (I grow the variety The Czar specifically because they are good for this) and, of course, the squashes will keep for months, but I also want fresh vegetables. I’m happy, therefore, that my seed-sowing from a couple of weeks ago is also showing a yield… not that we will be harvesting these for a while.

It’s really important to remember the cycle of growing and harvesting, so that we don’t get carried away with current successes and forget to plant for the future.


		

Green shoots

For the past four days we have had sunshine and no rain! It’s cloudy now, but the forecast is for more sunshine over the next few days. This is great news because the winter of 2012/13 has, so far, been very gloomy. Every day we record the amount of electricity that our solar panels generate, so we have a ready means of comparing sunshine between years. These past few months have been rather darker than the equivalent periods in the past two years, so the recent weather has been particularly welcome.

Some rather puny leeks!

It’s not just us people who have been suffering from the dark – the winter vegetables have been struggling. Our leeks, purple and white sprouting broccoli and oriental greens are much smaller than we had hoped and I don’t even want to think about the kale. Fingers crossed that they will put on a spurt of growth as a result of all the recent photosynthesis. To be fair, the white sprouting broccoli is supposed to be a very late variety, so I wouldn’t expect much from it yet, but the purple is described as ‘early’. The sunshine does seem to have encouraged some growth from the garlic and onion sets that were planted some time ago… I was beginning to think that they might have drowned!

Sweet peppers

However, there is a whole growing season to look forward to in 2013. The first batch of seeds that I planted earlier this month have started to germinate, and this is always a good feeling. I use an electric propagator to get peppers and chillies started early in the year. In my experience, they need a long growing season and do best if sown in January or February. Most capsicums germinate best in the UK if they have some gentle heat applied, otherwise they simply don’t do anything or even just rot. I gather that the optimum temperature is in the range 20-30°C (68-86°F), but my experience is to aim for the upper end of this. The only things I have sown so far are the capsicums (hot and sweet), basil (for an early crop grown indoors) and tomato and tomatillo.

One year I sowed courgettes and squashes in February, but I just ended up with leggy plants that I couldn’t transplant outside because there was still a risk of frost. In the end my crop was relatively poor because by the time I could put them in to soil they were too tender and thus prone to slug attack. Mind you, that was in the days before the chickens when our slug problem was much worse. Anyhow, the curcurbits will wait a while before sowing… I will just have to enjoy watching the things I have up and running and getting some “Wizard” field beans in soon now it appears they won’t either rot or float away!

Full of eastern promise

Ever year we manage to produce some crops over the winter. We extend the pepper season  by bringing some of the plants indoors (and hopefully keep them going over the winter to fruit again next summer); we grow kale and purple sprouting broccoli; we plant leeks (unless, like last year, a family disaster intervenes); and we grow oca, which is harvested as the days grow shorter and into the early winter. This year, however, I have decided to try to make more effort, so I have also sowed winter lettuce and miners lettuce (Claytonia) seeds to give us fresh salad leaves over the winter, plus we have salsify and root parsley coming along nicely.

A new book and some seeds

However, my big experiment this year is with oriental vegetables. I have recently bought a copy of Joy Larkcom’s Oriental Vegetables: the complete guide for the gardening cook. It’s my perfect book really, not only does it have information about cultivation, it’s also got history of the different vegetables plus recipes. As usual, I decided to buy my seeds from The Real Seed Catalogue, but in this case felt somewhat overwhelmed by the choice, so I plumped for their Oriental Explorer pack. I’m experimenting with different ways of growing these plants, both outdoors and in the greenhouse, and hope to report back as I reap the harvest (or not).

Blue pipe and net cloche

On Saturday (a glorious sunny day here in west Wales) I cleared the bed that had contained the potatoes and broad beans and planted six different oriental vegetables: Komatsuna Japanese Greens; Mispoona  oriental greens for salad or cooking; Tai Sai White Stem Leaf Pak Choi; Sobi Chinese salad cabbage; Yukina oriental leaf greens; and Hot Mustard Greens. I imagine that all of these would make tasty treats for chickens, so the bed is protected with a net cloche. This structure has hoops made from blue water pipe… a classic material in permaculture gardens, as it’s cheap, readily available and remarkably versatile. As well as keeping rampaging chickens out, the cloche should increase the temperature inside a little (it’s a degree or two warmer in our fruit cage in the winter, believe it or not). Of course, we can always convert this into a more traditional cloche by covering it with polythene, but I don’t think that’s going to be necessary.

My next task is to sow some seeds in trays in the greenhouse, so that we will have some completely protected crops too… oh and to settle down and read all of Joy Larkcom’s book (along with the dozens of others that surround me in my office).

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.

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