Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Meet Wallis

Wallis thinks he is the big man (he weighs just 14 ounces full grown) and he struts like he owns the world.
We called him Wallis because when those beautiful feathers came in they reminded me of a Tiffany lamp and so (hoping for a hen) he was named after 30's icon Wallis Simpson.
Sadly, Willow then named her hen 'Gromit' thus forever tying the pair to 'Wallace and Gromit' the ugly clay figures from a cartoon.
Ah well, my mum reckons Simpson was tarty strumpet anyway!

The Autumn jobs continue here. Today I'm harvesting the last of grapes for jellies and jams. The crop suffered with the strange weather we've had this season, hot and dry spring followed by a damp, grey summer and we lost quite a few to mould.

Still, there's enough for jam if not for wine and the chickens are loving the pulp from the jelly bags.
There's going to be lots of weird purple chicken poop for the compost next week!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Perfect piccalilli

I'm fed up with chutney.
Each year I use all the odds and sods from the plot, chop them up, spice them and cook them in vinegar til they're completely unrecognisable and when they disintegrate into a brown, smooshy mess, stick it in a jar.
Chutney tastes pretty good and is generally well received but it seems a shame to to reduce all that colourful, crisp veg down to gloop.
  So this year I made piccalilli instead.
The beauty of piccalilli is that the vegetables are raw. You don't cook them at all and they retain their colours, crunch and vitamins. 
You take 2kg of chopped veg (I used cauliflower, onions, peppers, nasturtium seedpods, chard stalks, cucumbers, green tomatoes, immature tiny pumpkins, carrots, bulb fennel and purple beans) layer with salt and leave overnight.
Next day, rinse the veg and drain,
Make the sauce.
Mix (all heaped teaspoons)
6 of cornflour
2 of turmeric
2 of colemans English mustard powder
2 of ground ginger
2 of all purpose seasoning
1 of smoked paprika
make into a paste with some vinegar taken from 1.2 litres
Heat the rest of the vinegar with 300g sugar and 100g honey to boiling.
Thin your sauce with a little of the hot vinegar then put the sauce into the saucepan and stir.
Boil for 5 minutes or so then remove from the heat, fold in the veg and spoon into hot sterile jars and seal immediately.
Allow to mellow for a good six weeks before eating.

 For the vinegar I tend to use whatever I have...wine or cider, sometimes pickling. I find brown malt vinegar a bit strong but if it's all you have then so be it.

I use jars from instant coffee because they have plastic lids....metal lids react with the vinegar. If you only have metal lids put a wad of cardboard in between the cellophane cover and the metal.

And I know American readers will be stressing about the lack of a waterbath and the inclusion of cornflour but truly, piccalilli has been made this way for centuries! 
It's delicious (even though it looks a bit radio active in the picture) Give it a go.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Best Beans

This year I grew two different types of  'new to me' beans.
They were so good that I think I'll be sticking with just them for a year or two.
 First, the beans drying in the picture are 'Frost' or 'Pea beans'. A very old variety they have a multitude of uses. You can pick and eat the young, almost empty pods like mange tout. A little later you use them as french beans. Wait another while and use the beans out of the pods and they taste like peas! Wait again for them to change colour and use as fresh beans and at the end of the season shell and dry for winter soups and stews.
With their half cream half brown colouring they look awful pretty in a jar too!
I just love them. I only had three beans from a friend to try and they grew so well we've been eating them all summer.
The other bean I grew was 'cosse violet'. Beautiful and tender and untouched by pests these will also be regulars at the plot from now on. They lose their vivid purple colour when cooked (reverting to fresh green) but they're so tender you can eat them in all their purple glory, raw in salads.
No pictures I'm afraid.....I've just bunged the most recent picking into a batch of piccalilli so you'll just have to trust me....with these two varieties there really is no need for any other bean on my plot!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mabon Blessing

At this time of equal light and dark,
And of ingathering,
May you find balance and abundance in your life
And wish some of your good fortune upon others.
Blessings to you x

I copied this blessing from a generous friend who also writes a blog. I know she won't mind because she states on her blog that anyone is welcome to copy and share anything they find there.
Refreshing attitude isn't it?
Might copy that too.
So to those of you in touch with the seasons I wish you an excellent harvest to share with  generous and inspiring friends.

Top Find....

Autumn is definitely here now.
The leaves on the long suffering conker trees have browned and fallen and the die back is well underway at the plot....
 And just round the corner, near my daughter's school, we've found a group of walnut trees!
Each morning, when Wurzel walks her to school he picks up another few pocketfuls of this wonderful free bounty. I can't imagine how we've never noticed these trees before except that they appear to be young so maybe this is the first year of real production?
Anyway...160 walnuts are now drying in my dining room.
Walnut loaf anyone? 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A mixed flock...

.....means it's easy to know which hen laid which egg!

From the left; 
Hattie (welsummer) 
Racey Lacey (wyandotte bantam) Millie (pekin) 
Lola (serama)

We no longer have any hybrid birds so egg production is slowing down now for the winter.
Soon we'll get none at all until spring. I've read on the internet that some folk crack eggs into little bags and freeze them so I might give that a try.
I hate to buy eggs, especially since companies who claim to be particularly concerned with animal welfare keep being exposed by undercover journalists....check out 'Happy Eggs' and see what I mean.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Okay, My bad.....

I have been neglecting my blog.
I have excuses, London riots, summer holidays, computer problems, a busy life, writers block but at the end of the day I know it's just me, it's my bad.

So, to get back in the habit, I'll be doing things a bit differently for a while. Instead of saving up a nice selection of pictures and things to tell you about I'll just aim to put something up most days....just one thing, or maybe two.
For today, here are some images from our summer holiday by the sea. I think they pretty much speak for themselves, we had a blissful time!
And, just for once here is a picture of me. I hate to have my picture taken but it has been pointed out to me that loved ones far away that read this blog want to see me so, here it is.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Rose by any other name....

Just look at these weeds!
Does the fact that I love them mean I'm not a serious grower?
My allotment neighbours are perturbed by my love of weeds. They tolerate my quirks because I diligently mow my paths and any communal areas near my plot and because I always pay my rent in cash and on time but I know they think I'm very strange.
Last week a new lady took over the plot next to mine and I heard the allocations officer explain that I 'garden differently' from other folk. 'It takes all sorts' she added.
 But I am no botanist and I don't really understand the difference between a weed and a wildflower so I have come up with my own definition.
I have decided that a weed is a plant that hurts me with prickles or stingers, hurts the plants around it by strangling them or growing enormous very quickly and is of no conceivable benefit to either.
Very, very few plants fulfil this criteria! Stinging nettles for example, hurt me but not the surrounding plants and they are very beneficial to bees and to compost and to me when cabbage whites lay eggs on them instead of my brassicas.
Must be wildflowers then!
Any really pretty unidentified plants that are 'in the way' get carefully transplanted to the amaranth bed (because amaranth simply doesn't care)   
I think this yellow one is called birdsfoot trefoil. It makes beautiful pillows of yellow and red.
And I think this one could be the elusive Scarlet pimpernel! I'm not at all sure though and if anyone could recommend a good book to ID these with I'd be everso grateful.
I especially want to know what this lovely purple flower is.
It's popping up all over the place this month. It wasn't here last year and I suspect it's one of those whose seeds lie dormant for decades untill the ground is disturbed again.

A less welcome flower springing up all over the plot is the ragwort.
Ragwort is so poisonous and horses who ingest it die slow and painful deaths. There is no antidote.
I recently discovered that small children (like mine) who pick flowers for their mum (like mine)  can also die if they ingest the milky sap of ragwort....the stuff that gets all over their hands when they pick it.   So that one's going in the fire pit.

As for the actual veg on the plot it's rather a mixed bag this year. I had my first ripe tomato last week, earlier than ever before but the cucumbers on their big healthy plants are just refusing to swell. And judging by the slime trails on that leaf, I'm not the only one impatiently waiting
Plus, to my great shame, my courgettes are not even
flowering yet (surely any fool can grow courgettes) 
nor are my runner beans.

 But the grapes....ahh! the grapes are doing splendidly with literally hundreds of bunches swelling by the day....think of the wine! jam too and fresh black grapes for eating but mainly...think of all that wine!!!!


Friday, July 08, 2011

Day of the Triffids...

Things are growing like triffids up at the plot!
The combination of rain and sunshine is bringing things on at such a rate.

 The tomatoes, particularly are doing well. The gardener's delight are starting to colour and have fifteen or so fruit on each truss. At this rate I'll be setting a personal best by eating homegrown, outdoor toms in July! It's usually well into August before I get a taste.

The marmande has set more fruit than ever before, purple ukraine setting now and the mille fleurs have gone completely bonkers!

All I need to do now is cross my fingers and hope that the dreaded blight doesn't strike before I have the chance to harvest them.
A couple of plants at the end of the row have been stripped totally bare...no leaves or fruit remain just a stubby stalk. I've a horrible feeling this is rabbit damage and I need to step up my defences quicksmart.

The squashes are running riot, escaping from there beds and careering across the paths.
This (I think) is a 'Queensland blue' a heritage variety reported to taste divine. 
It already has sixteen fruit on this one plant. I know I should thin but I'm essentially a greedy person.
How many pumpkins can one plant grow anyway?
I'm hoping one of you experienced growers can tell me. I'm after good eating rather than competition winners.

Somewhere in the middle of these flowers lives my garlic.
The first crop of purple garlic had to be pulled early when it split. I turned half into umami paste and the rest into 'persian sweet pickles' thanks to a new cyber friend's suggestion.
The pickles need at least a month to mature so I haven't tasted them yet but they smell heavenly!

t's not really time yet to pull the other garlics but, worried they might be splitting and ever the impatient gardener, I dug up one of each today...just to check.
Here is a picture of the elephant garlic and the normal white garlic together.
I think they will both need harvesting real soon because the ground is so wet. Further down the site there is a problem with white rot and I don't want to tempt fate.

Clustered round the bottom of the elephant garlic were half a dozen of these little bulbils.
Apparently, if replanted immediately these will form single cloves this year then the proper, divided bulbs the year after.
Given the price of elephant garlic to buy this has to be worth a try.
I wonder though, if I left one complete bulb in the ground, would it perennialise itself?
What do you think?

Right, that's it for today. It's been a long, wet day at the plot and I'm looking forward to a steaming hot bath followed by a dinner of roast elephant garlic and roast new potatoes.

Friday, July 01, 2011

And the prize for knobbliest spud goes to......

Well, it would if I entered it in a competition!
I've reached that time of year when I can serve up meals almost entirely produced by me and it's a wonderful feeling. What's more, I find I'm reaching this happy point earlier each year!
This very knobbly spud is a 'pink fir apple' and I am getting the heaviest crop ever from these at the moment. They are delicious steamed or boiled but for a real treat, they make the most fantastic big and lumpy chips! It seems the early frostnip they got did no harm at all.
Yesterday dinner was a plate of these, beetroots and carrots from my allotment with hard boiled eggs from my chickens and mint and chives from the garden. (okay, I bought the butter but even so!) 

We often have eggs for breakfast but when we don't our shopbought breakfast cereal is studded with berries from the garden, gleefully collected by little flower in her pyjamas on her way back from letting the hens out.

 We've had a little robin redbreast keeping us company in the garden for the last couple of weeks.
We've watched as she hopped round the garden collecting bits and pieces for her nest that she built in Wurzel's shed.
We brought horse hair back with us from the stables and put some on the ground beside us and she came right up and got it.

We bought live mealworms to keep her strength up while she sat on the eggs and were so excited when those little fledglings started bombing round the garden!
One came close to being a chicken snack so little flower had to pick it up and show it back to the nest....quite an experience for an eight year old London kid!

I've started processing the purple garlic that had to be harvested early because it split.
For the first batch I decided to make myself  some 'umami' paste. I cooked the cloves gently in oil, added herbs, balsamic vinegar, anchovies, horseradish, parmesan and worcestshire sauce.

When it cooled I blitzed it all and put it in the freezer. It tastes really good but not very garlicky or strong which is a bit disappointing. 
I'm hoping that the oil will make it easy to take just a spoonful of this paste to liven up risottos or to add to basil for a super quick pesto.

So, all in all June has been a good month. Plenty of fresh things to eat, wildlife nesting in the garden, the weather is evening out now and we're all looking forward to the long summer holidays. 

Even the dog looks chilled out! He spends hours like this, asleep on the decking.
 It ain't a bad life eh?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Fruitless furtling

As the rain continues to fall I've been busy up at the plot and in the garden at home. We've gone from drought conditions to ark building weather and I'm getting soaked so often my feet are in danger of webbing!

Earlier this week I harvested the last of the winter peas. They were a variety called 'Douce Provence', sown in January and they did really well in frozen clay! I can't tell you how they taste cooked because none ever made it that far, I graze on them straight from the pod while I work. By the time they fill the pod they have lost their sweetness but at this stage the chickens love the peas and the horses enjoy the pods. Nothing much gets wasted hereabouts!
The sudden change of weather has wreaked havoc on the purple garlic. Almost every bulb swelled too quickly and split. This hasn't happened to me before so I'm at a bit of a loss. I assume the bulbs won't store well dried in this condition so what shall I do with fifty or so bulbs of immature, split garlic?
So far, strangely, the white variety is unaffected.

Some crops though are lovin' the rain. Remember the potatoes so badly frosted in April?
Well they have recovered and bushed up and are just about to flower. I had an optimistic furtle today (furtle is a slightly rude, very old fashioned English word for a furtive fumble that has now come to be commonly used for rooting around for spuds) but sadly it seems that the lush top growth is not evidence of fat little tubers beneath. All I turned up was a handful of slugs.

 Tomatoes too are enjoying the rain. These are gardeners delight, always the first to come ready. I can't wait to taste my fist home grown tomato of the year!

Today I took advantage of the rain to get started on my 'lasagne gardening' project. I'm doing this as a last ditch attempt to make the area in front of my shed productive. 
Currently the ground is so hard as to be impenetrable and if this doesn't work I'm going to return it to it's original use as a car park!
For anyone who's never made a lasagne bed, here's how I did it.

I've been getting my neighbours to save me their newspapers and I laid these down directly onto the weedy, scrubby grass. The area is on quite a slope so I bordered the lowest edge with clods of clay to stop the whole thing washing away.

Each layer must be thoroughly soaked before moving on to the next so it's the perfect job for a rainy day.
The next layer is manure.
This is to lure the worms up from the ground through the paper to start working your bed for you.

After the manure is soaked you add a brown layer, something very water absorbent. I use Aubiose (shredded hemp horse bedding) This is from the henhouse and contains some poultry manure too.
Once that's good and wet add a thick layer of green waste, veggie peelings, grass cuttings that sort of thing.

Here you can see the four layers. Paper, manure, absorbent, green.
The final layer (for now) is a thick blanket of straw. Hay or dried grass cuttings would be fine too. This will keep your bed warm and moist for some speedy composting action.
In a week or two this will slump down and I will probably add more layers.
Then, in the autumn, I plan to move my raspberry plants here. I'll let you know how they get on.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

At long last....

We have finally had some rain, great drenching cloudbursts with thunder and lightening that flattened the plants and soaked the washing and I am oh! so grateful!
 Hattie, our beautiful welsummer went off lay for a few days (or so we thought) but it seems that with three broody pekins hogging the nest box she was sneaking off to build her own nest! A couple of times we've been unable to find her in our small garden, even with three of us searching. I followed her the other day as she toddled round the rhubarb and through the solidago to a spot just behind her favourite redcurrant bush and found her stash of eggs.
I'm so impressed that this bird, hatched in an incubator somehow knows how to do this...and do it so well! We would never have found this secret place!

I think I have amassed enough seedlings now and the threat of frost is pretty much over (touch wood quick) so it is time to start planting out.
Earlier this year I went to Seedy Sunday with my friend Dom and we chose some weird and wonderful seed varieties to try.
Dom has a conservatory and a greenhouse so agreed to start off all our tomatoes and squashes etc. while I concentrate on hardier stuff. I've been transporting seedlings back and forth between our houses and I think we each now have a pretty good mix. So now I know what my family will be eating this year and barring catastrophes we should be eating very well!

Dom has sown a lovely selection of tomatoes. We are growing;
Tigerella (my absolute favourite) 
Black cherry
Mille fleur
Purple Ukraine
Gardeners delight
Costoluto genovest
Cuor di buie
I also swapped some cabbages with another plot holder for a Marmande.
There are also a tray of unidentified toms (labelling issues) so maybe some surprises.
We have five different types of winter squash, three types of cucumber, sweetcorn, assorted beans and peas, grain amaranth, cape gooseberries, various colours of carrot and beetroot, fancy lettuces, spuds, all manner of cabbages and cauliflowers and the regulars, garlic, spring onions and leeks, perrenial friut bushes, raspberry canes and such.

  My parsnips failed to germinate in the dry heat of March so, inspired by my friend Flo, I'm soaking the seeds on kitchen paper until they shoot then transplanting them quick.
I'll let you know how they get on (bet you can't wait) well, just in case you're as weird as me!

And for those of you who aren't enjoying picture after picture of seedlings, here's a shot of Teddy stealing kisses from Little flower as she grooms him. I'm off to try and find room for forty odd tomato plants, 20 squash plants, 20 sweetcorn..............

Monday, May 16, 2011

Conspiracy theory

We British are obsessed with the weather. 
We talk about it all the time. It is the basis for polite conversation on the commute to work..."Morning! turned out nice again" is one of very few accepted phrases exchanged by strangers on the 6.32 to London each morning.
And yet, somehow, the total lack of mad March storms and April showers have gone unmentioned, perhaps even unnoticed!

That's just weird!

We still have not had a single drop of rain round our way. Not one. April is always the wettest month of the year so to have absolutely no rain, you would think, would be news.
Not world news, I'm not suggesting for one moment it's as serious as the flooded Mississippi, the Spanish or Japanese earthquakes or the American typhoons, but locally I feel it deserves a mention.

 My allotment is on clay.
Thick, claggy, orange clay and it's a bit of a nightmare.
Three seasons in it's not really improving at all and I'm starting to get discouraged.
I've imported manure, double dug, trench composted, made mountains of leaf mould, mulched heavily with straw, turned over rough for winter, and still each spring I'm planting into builders rubble.
These photos (ignore the date, they were taken yesterday) show what I mean.
This is never going to be a 'friable loam' is it?
Whatever I add, this is what I get, fist sized chunks that stick to spade when wet or unbreakable as concrete when dry.
Either way, it's bloody hard work.

The books keep telling me that clay is full of life and potential, that with some organic matter will be unlocked....but I've been piling on organic matter for three years and nothing is happening.
In the garlic bed, where I dug out the first layer of clay and replaced it entirely with compost and manure (topped up twice a year) the clay foundation is sucking the moisture down to leave great chasms on the surface.
I would normally mulch this bed in April when the soil has had a chance to warm and the ground is good and wet, but I'm still waiting for the good and wet part.

Another casualty of this dry spell, my comfrey has developed rust. It grows just near the tree line and I hoped it's long taproots would be able to find moisture but it has really been struggling for a few weeks. I've tried watering but the water just runs straight off down the hill. It was wilting for a while before the rust arrived.
I just hope the young oak tree behind it is coping better.

One or two of the shallots in the raised beds are bolting and going to seed.
I'm thinking I might let this one go and harvest the seed for a bumper crop next year. These are the legendary 'Banana shallots' absolutely massive and easy to peel. I couldn't get hold of them from any seed seller, garden centre etc. Folk advertised them but when they arrived they were bog standard so I bought these from a greengrocers.
I put them in their own little raised bed so that any disease on them wouldn't contaminate the whole plot, it's always a risk with 'shop bought' and they're doing really well.
I've never grown shallots from seed before....if it works though I'll be well happy!

And still, I'm worrying about this weather....or rather, I'm worrying about the silence about this weather. By now we should be getting those public information adverts from 'Thames Water' on how to conserve the stuff. There should be talk of hosepipe bans and the papers should have headlines misquoting the met office. This is, after all, the driest spring certainly of my life.
Agriculture in the South East must be suffering, surely there will be price hikes and shortages later in the year so why so quiet? hmm?
It's making me paranoid.