Saturday, 8 October 2016

Totally home grown

 We reached a milestone this week, our first meal that was made from entirely home grown ingredients. It doesn't feel like a big deal, it feels like an enormous achievement and one that I'd like to repeat regularly.
 I've continued to harvest the crops as they ripen and prepare them for storing for the winter. The beans, in particular, have been very good, I had left the last of the runner bean pods on the plants to ripen and this week I picked the fat bean pods and spent a lovely half an hour popping the creamy white kidney beans out of their green jackets.

The largest of the kidney beans will be dried and saved to use as seed for next year's plants. I was surprised at just how large the beans are, so hopefully next year the White Lady runner bean seedlings will be strong and healthy. The remainder of these fat beans will also be dried and added to the larder for use in soups and stews over the winter.

On Tuesday we were without electricity for the day. The local electricity supplier had told us that the power would be off for the best part of the day while they did essential maintenance to the power lines. The essential work that they were doing was to cut back trees that were at risk of interfering with the power lines. Far from being an inconvenience, I realised that this might be a great opportunity and so, as soon as we could see where the workmen were, we hopped into the car and headed off to talk to them. I gave them a note with my name, phone number and address on it and asked them to drop off any wanted wood chippings that they weren't leaving at the properties they were working at. 

 The next day they arrived with two trailer loads of chipped wood. It will need to sit for a year or two before it can be added to the floor of the food forest or into the soil of the raised beds (as it's from fir trees), but in the meantime I am using it on the pathways to cover the weed suppressing membrane. I know it's not ideal to have plastic membrane on the ground, but for now I am using it to kill off the pernicious weeds and in years to come and when I have saved up to buy the materials, I will replace it with bricks, flagstones or something else more environmentally kind.

On Wednesday, we had our 100% home grown meal. The only things on our plate that didn't come from the garden were a bit of butter and salt and pepper, but everything else had been grown or raised on the smallholding. The chicken was small, but tasted fabulous and was all the better for us knowing that it had lived a good life with daily (all day) access to the chicken field with fresh air, space to run around and a healthy diet including plenty fresh greens to eat. With the chicken we had roast potatoes, purple sprouting broccoli, leeks and a ratatouille type mixture made using patty pan squashes, tomatoes, garlic and basil. We had a certain sense of pride and satisfaction at knowing that we had put all of that food on the plates.
 On Thursday I started to clear the pumpkins from the small patch where they've been growing all summer. Earlier in the year I made a compost heap hotbed from spent brewery grain and straw, then made four small planting pockets in the top and planted a pumpkin and a nasturtium in each. One plant was eaten by slugs over the course of the first night, but the other three plants have gone on to produce some nice fruits.
 We had nine large pumpkins, seven of which are now ripening and hardening in the gentle autumn sunshine. As the seeds we a gift from my daughter and grandsons, they will be given one of the fruit to use for their halloween evening and the others will boost the larder considerably.
I was looking foward to seeing how much the grain and straw mixture had broken down and had visions of being able to spread a nice deep layer of well rotted compost across the area where the pumpkins have been, but the materials haven't broken down as much as I'd imagined that they would. So I think the best thing that I can do with this is create a new compost heap and use this as the brown material in it.
 In the raised beds, the nasturiums have grown well and seem to have done their job of attracting pollinators to the garden. I've collected some of their seeds and others I have scattered across the beds. I am happy for them to pop up at random in future years, after all, if they are somewhere inconvenient then I can either plant around them or pull them up.
 Nasturtium seeds can be pickled to make a 'poor man's caper' and if they are soaked in brine for a few days before pickling in vinegar some of the heat is taken out of them and they are a milder, gentler taste. I've tried this before with success and would happily make them again, except neither Mr J nor I like them! I might make one batch so that I can give them to friends and family at Christmas in a home-made hamper.
 In early summer I noticed that a sapling was growing in the area to the side of the piggeries and this week I've spotted that it is now about eighteen inches high. Fortunately it is growing in a suitable place, not too close to other trees or near buildings, so I will leave it where it is and allow it to grow. In other spots around the garden I have noticed other seedlings that are not in such clever places. There's a cherry tree that is growing at the foot of a compost bay, I will carefully dig it up and move it to the food forest. Several hawthorn and buckthorn are growing in the scrubby area behind the piggeries and they will be moved to the hedges.

There is still a great deal to do in the garden before autumn sets in fully and as today it's dry again, I am heading back outside to carry on getting in the vegetable garden, but first I think there's just time for a cuppa!

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Monday, 3 October 2016

Bountiful garden, busy kitchen

As the summer gives way to autumn, the focus of my day seems to have shifted from outdoors to the kitchen. Gathering food from the garden and preparing it for the freezer, canning, making preserves, meals and drinks takes up increasing amounts of time. 

I'm not a bad cook, as domestic cooks go. A bit basic maybe, nothing modern or fancy, but as what we want is wholesome, hearty or comfort food, I can do that pretty well. I'm now facing the new challenge of preserving all the vegetables that I've grown for using throughout the winter.

Obviously some will stay in the ground, winter cabbages, parsnips and leaks can be lifted as and when we need them, but others like the softer leafy greens and celery will need to be brought in or they will just turn to mush in the frosts. Because I have grown so many vegetables that I haven't tried growing before, I've had to look up when they need harvesting or whether they can stay in the ground and also find out the best ways to preserve them.
 I've frozen a large number of rainbow chard stems, chopped into two to three inch lengths which will be added to stews, roasted or tossed into a stir-fry. Neither Mr J nor I are very keen on the leaves of chard and while I have frozen a few servings of chard leaves, most of them were given to the chickens as I picked the stems.

The celery (Red Soup variety) will be cut this week, then chopped and frozen to add it's warming effect to meals throughout the winter. I don't like celery in salads, but I do like it braised, made into a soup or added in small quantities to dishes that are cooked gently over a long period, but most of all I like it roasted in a tray filled with a mixture of vegetables with fresh herbs and plenty of garlic.

Every day I have managed to prepare and freeze some vegetables and fruit. I've decided that even if I don't get to make syrups and wine immediately as long as the raw produce is frozen I can spend time in the kitchen once everything is gathered and make them at a later date.

The tomato fruits on the plants in the greenhouse continue to ripen and every few of days I've been bringing in a couple of handfuls of semi-ripe tomatoes.They are left in the warmth of the kitchen to ripen more and then I'm cutting them in half and freezing them. These will be a welcome addition to breakfasts in the colder winter months.

The purple French beans from a late sowing of seeds have yielded about 5lbs and there are still more to come. I planted a few seeds on 31st July in the hope that the plants might grow enough to provide a small crop, but it didn't matter if we didn't get any beans as the plants would fix some nitrogen into the soil following the onion crops that were in those particular raised beds. Having such a good crop from this late sowing feels like a bonus blessing.

Earlier in the week I noticed that one bed in which I've recently planted some purple kale also has lots of small purple leaved seedlings popping up all over it. I thought perhaps that it was red orach as there is a plant nearby, but yesterday I realised that these colourful little leaves are actually a purple oak leaf lettuce. I had forgotten that I had broad cast some seeds from a plant that had gone to seed (and now I think about it, I did the same with a tasty green leaf lettuce somewhere in the garden, I will need to go and look for seedlings). I will cover the bed with fleece to keep the warmth in the soil and hopefully we will have some baby lettuce leaf salad before too long.

I have gathered some fresh herbs and frozen the leaves whole, so that during the winter months when the herbs have died back I will still be able to use them in cooking. Each type of herb is in its own bag in the freezer. I keep them all in a small cardboard box so that I don't have to hunt around in the freezer looking for them.

Out in the garden I'm continuing to lay cardboard and make new raised beds, it's become quite slow going as there is so much to do in the kitchen. I've repositioned some strawberry runners that were growing in long grass in a corner behind the stables. They now have plenty of space in a more open position in the food forest and I've planted another blueberry there too. 
The Australorp chicks are growing fast now and their petrol black feathers are growing with a delightful sheen. They are so soft to the touch and very friendly. It won't be too long before I need to make the decision about which ones to keep for breeding and which to dispatch for the freezer. There are eight chicks and I am certain that two are pullets and two are cockerels, the other four I am not sure about! So hopefully in the next few weeks it will be become clear what gender they are and I will be able to make a proper decision. 

Of the four hybrid chicks that hatched at the same time, two are cockerels and one of the pullets is bantam size. Typically, the two cockerels which we won't be keeping have beautiful colouring while the pullets are white with scruffy black splashes. No matter, they will still provide us with eggs next year.

Yesterday (Sunday) we had sunshine for most of the day and the forecast is for fine weather for the next week. I am delighted to have this last touch of warmth before autumn and winter arrive. 

Today we will be taking one more walk along the hedgerows to pick the late ripening blackberries, they have been particularly good this year, not only have there been masses of berries but they have been large, juicy and sweet. We've already enjoyed blackberry and apple crumbles, blackberry Eton mess, I've made jams and frozen pounds of berries to make syrup and wine from. I want to make the most of this foraged harvest as not only is it free food, but there is such an abundance of it this year.

But before we head out to the fields to pick blackberries, I think it must be time for a cuppa!

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