It’s been a while since I’ve written I guess I can blame putting all my energies into More than Willow but that is another story and a happy one too.
We have been waiting for spring to appear and it seems to have been just around the corner for ages. All of a sudden the bees, the call of the chiffchaff and fresh green shoots are all evidence that winter is almost over.
But despite eagerly yearning for spring and watching for signs once again I have almost been caught sleeping. The horseradish which should have been dug up and processed months ago was harvested just before the first leaves appeared and the horseradish butter is safely in the freezer. The last of the parsnips have been harvested too so last night’s parsnip mash with horesradish butter was a winter treat – to celebrate spring?
The very last stands of willow were cut last week and though there was no sign of leaf on them stools that had been cut in January have teeny tiny shoots appearing – isn’t nature wonderful?
So skipping with spring in my step I am off outside to enjoy the sunshine and with stout gloves on gather nettles to make nettle cordial – a first for me and one that I will report on when complete.
Maybe it shows my age but when I reflect on the growing seasons this year I feel like Arkwright from Open All Hours as he closes up the shop for the night with ‘It’s been a funny old day Granville…
I think it has been a funny old year this year with seasons merging into each other which has prolonged the growing period for many fruit and vegetables – it’s great that there is in the middle of October there is still a lots to chose from. Tonight we had a marrow stuffed with a savoury lentil sauce made with freshly picked tomatoes, green pepper and aubergine topped off with cheese – pretty tasty!
This afternoon when I was out gathering autumn berries and leaves I was surprised to see shiny red unripe blackberries rather than wizened and mouldy over ripe blackberries that you would expect at this time of year. And yet when I was checking the sloes (thinking it’s almost time to make sloe gin) I was amazed to find that the laden bushes of last week are almost stripped bare of fruit.
So what else makes me think it’s been a funny old year in the garden? Well we have been cropping climbing beans from the polytunnel since May and there are still a few stragglers left but on the other hand the runner beans just didn’t grow until the end of August so we have been eating young and tender runners as an autumn vegetable. Sadly that means there won’t be any getting to the seed stage before frost appear so no home grown dried beans to add to chillies this winter.
Courgettes have been virtually nonexistent both in and out doors and yet the cucumbers have been like triffids they have just kept on growing p and are still growing. I have developed a taste for cucumber water and along with my new found delight in making flavoured gins I can thoroughly recommend cucumber gin – just pop about 4 slices into a tot of gin and leave for about 5 minutes before adding the tonic.
So a funny old year – but maybe every year is a funny year so that gardeners have something to talk about!
Well it’s exactly one year and two weeks since my last blog and, even though I haven’t been sharing it, there has been a lot of freeranging thinking going on in that time. The exciting thing is that the thinking has at long last morphed into action and it feels good!
I’ve made some life changes – jumping from the security of a well paid and demanding job to a very part time job on an exciting project linking young people and the environment AND taking the first steps to start my own small business.
It’s early days with lots of planning, market research and making contacts so there is not much to share apart from my deep sense of satisfaction and the joy of taking the first steps towards a new future and way of life.
Key to this change is stepping up the food growing and self sufficiency and so the greenhouse and polytunnel are full to bursting with plants – it has not been an easy growing season with a dirth of runner beans balanced with lots of climbing french beans and the anticipation of sweet corn – the first for many years!
There have been many clear, bright, days in December and January. The clarity of winter light causing the leafless trees to stand out in stark beauty against the skyline always makes me pause, gaze and marvel at nature. Throughout the day as the light and the colour of the sky changes, lightening then darkening again, the trees stand still and their shape and beauty is accentuated by the different tones and contrast.
It’s also the time of year to carry out traditional woodland management tasks like coppicing and hedge laying. It’s a perfect pastime providing exercise after the winter indulgences and in activity but there is also a sense of grounding and being at one with nature – setting the scene for spring and the start of a new growing year.
Over recent weeks there has been much wielding of billhooks by certain members of our household as some very old and straggly hedges have been laid in the traditional manner. It is very satisfying to see a hedgerow all neatly laid with neat cuts (pleachers) open to the sunshine ready for new growth as soon as the sap starts to rises in spring. The finishing touch to the perfect hedge is the bindings – the sue of long lengths of material woven along the top of the hedge t hold if firmly in place helping to make it stock proof until the hedge regenerates. I read recently that this was traditionally done with long lengths of bramble (with thorns removed) which shows just how our predecessors made use of every bit of material.
I must confess de-thorning brambles does not really appeal and hence my pain as I look at the beautiful straight stems of willow against the blue sky and know it’s time to start coppicing so that I can bind the hedge and make use of this season’s crop. The first cut is the hardest but as you make progress through the stand of willows there is an immense satisfaction sorting the willow and once the last stem is cut there is the beauty of the coppiced trees and the anticipation of next season’s growth.
The hedge has its binding, there are neatly tied bundles of willow sorted into different colours and lengths and there is the traditional willow ‘flower’ arrangement of coloured stems and even a few pussy willow in the living room.
Next job? Making some hurdles using coppiced hazel and green willow to act as rabbit fences around the herb bed.
I’ve decided that the first winter as a greenhouse owner is a bit like having your first baby – you are really keen to do things right but a little scared that things might go wrong. I realise that plants are nowhere near as precious as children but over the last few days when we have had our first really hard frosts I’ve felt the concern of ‘new parenthood’.
Until November we had very few frosts and (as you will have read) I was picking tomatoes until late in the season. I did an early winter tidy of the greenhouse and wrapped the most precious plants in lovely warm horticultural fleece. Being concerned about freezing roots especially for the orange tree, three little home grown lemon seedlings and the jasmine, I lined boxes with sheets of polystyrene to stand the pots in.
No real frost arrived until the 27th when the skies cleared,the stars shone and the temperature plummeted. At that point I unearthed the large candle purchased in October. Following Dad’s advice I went outside to light the candle and place it in the greenhouse – he relies on the heat generated by the candle to keep the temperature above zero.
I woke early, about 4am, on the 28th and could see quite a glow on the hedgerow – was the greenhouse on fire? I shot out of bed and popped a coat and some wellies on and went out to inspect. It was bitterly cold outside but inside the greenhouse it felt relatively warm and the glow that I thought was fire was just the candle flame reflecting on the glass. So back to bed happy and relaxed and the candle has been lit and done its duty every night despite frosts hard enough to cause one of the water butts to split!
Today the bright crisp weather had disappeared,it was above zero by dawn and felt really quite warm outside. This afternoon I took a deep breath and unwrapped all the plants to see if jack frost had done any damage. Amazingly under the fleece wraps the geraniums and the orange tree were still in flower and so far there is no sign of frosting on any leaves. I picked chillies and sweet peppers and then carefully tucked the plants back in their fleece wraps. As the temperature is not due to drop there will be no glow of candle light from the greenhouse tonight.
My first leisurely start to the day for a while so I was enjoying a relaxed breakfast and checking my stocks of dried fruit as it almost time to start the preparations for Christmas – sweet mincemeat and plum pudding are on the list to be made this weekend. The Christmas cake is a mid December job as this household prefers a light glacé fruit cake rather than the traditional rich fruit cake.
As the morning progressed and the sun fought its way through the rain and grey skies I was lured away from the much needed domestic chores to take the dog for a walk. What a beautiful mild sunny day. The grey sky gone just clear blue and many trees still holding their leaves in a multitude of autumnal shades – a good to be alive day!
I haven’t been home much in the daylight recently so hadn’t really had a good look in the polytunnel or veg garden probably for 2 weeks. I expected mildewy tomato and cucumber plants and was amazed to find they are still looking relatively healthy and the tomatoes are still ripening. I picked 6 tomatoes and a cucumber which will add a bit more variety to the cheese on toast I was planning for lunch (food shopping is the final chore for today!). I checked in on the hens who are enjoying a temporary stay in the soft fruit area and there above their heads, and out of reach, were two ripe raspberries which were delicious.
So a morning that started off with wintery, grey and full of Christmas planning has developed into an autumnal day and I’m off to eat my cheese on toast topped with tomato and cucumber in the sunshine in the greenhouse!
It’s been a long and sunny autumn with an abundance of fruit and vegetable. Tomatoes still ripening on the tumbling toms outside, runner beans and cucumbers growing, autumn raspberries and still the occasional blackberry (despite the old wives tale of the devil entering them after the autumn equinox).
Life has been fairly full picking, pickling, freezing and storing but what a shock when the weather turned cool this week. Last night I was eating my evening meal listening to the wind battering the kitchen window when I realised that my beautiful conference pears were at risk. When the last mouthful hand been swallowed off I went with basket and torch to pick the remaining crop and to search the ground for any windfalls.
Apples placed in single layers ready for eating or sharing…
Picking this final crop spurred me on to deal with the previously picked apple crop – mainly egremont russet eaters. I’ve sorted out the best and wrapped them individually in newspaper and placed them carefully in cardboard boxes in a cool store. The rest I have placed in single layers to be eaten or given away as soon as possible – apples keep so much better if they do not touch each other.
Tomorrow I will lead the apple scrumping party in the field near work ready to start using windfalls to make apple jelly and apple and almond cake and anything else appley and delicious.
I had been keeping an eye on my courgette plants and picking the young tender courgettes either to chop finely and mix with dressing as a salad or cooking as a vegetable. All was going so well until I had to work away from home for a few days and when I returned to my horror lurking beneath the giant leaves were some marrow sized courgettes…
The large and the small!
So a little earlier in the season than planned we ate our first meal of stuffed courgette.
I cut the courgette into horizontal rings and remove the inner seeds and pithy flesh. Setting the rings on a baking tray (top tip line the tray with foil or baking parchment as it makes the washing up so much easier). Then prepare a tasty filling – I usually use minced beef as a base but nuts or lentils can be used. The most important thing is make your filling really tasty so with a classic mince, onion, garlic and tomato mix you can add cinnamon and dried fruit for a middle eastern taste or go heavy on the marjoram and basil for a Mediterranean flavour. Put the filling in the centre of the sliced courgette and then cover with a generous amount of strong cheese and roast in the oven ( about 180 degrees C) until the courgette is cooked which is usually around 45 mins. Serve with a tasty chutney and a crusty bread and enjoy. Any surplus slices can be frozen and come out as a surprise long after the courgette season is over!
The next giant courgette will sneak up on me soon despite my best efforts to keep them in check. That one will be peeled, chopped and cooked very gently in butter to form the base of the delicious recipe in Delia Smiths Complete Cookery Book for Eliza Acton’s Mulligatawny. But more about that later when there is a glut of tomatoes and onions and the temperature is dropping and we begin to think of winter soup. For now I am happy with tender young courgettes sliced in my salad for lunch.
Setting off in shorts and flip-flops to pick elderflowers seemed like a good idea until I realised that the recent hot weather had taken its toll on the elderflowers and the few remaining flowers were in the shadiest, nettliest places so it was with stung legs that I returned home with the requisite number of flower heads.
No not elderflower cordial or champagne ( I knew I was too late to make either of these) but elderflower and gooseberry jam. The main task of the day was to pick this year’s gooseberries, but I knew in my heart of hearts that there was a big bag of last year’s crop lurking in the freezer which just hadn’t made the preserving pan.
So I set to and weighed the frozen gooseberries (just over 3lb) popped them in the preserving pan with just enough water to cover them and put the elderflowers in a jelly bag (much simpler than cutting squares of muslin and the jelly bag can be washed and reused over and over again). I suspended the jelly bag from the handle of preserving pan so that the flowers were in the water and set the pan over a gentle heat on the stove. My wonderful Mary Ford Jams, Chutneys and Pickles book gives a detailed description involving pieces of wood and hacksaws to mark the starting level of your jam and therefore work out what level the contents should be when it is reduced by a third. Always looking for an easy solution my top tip is to take a wooden spoon and put it handle first into the preserving pan, note the level of the contents and mark with a pencil – you can then use a ruler and pencil to mark it into thirds and you have an instant measure which can be washed off when finished ready for another day!
So with the gooseberries, elderflower and water very gently simmering out I went into the beautiful sunshine to pick the crop from one of our two gooseberry bushes. The poor wee bush its branches were touching the ground with the weight of the fruit so when I had finished it looked quite happy and upright again. But what a crop…
I sat in the sun ‘topping and tailing’ as last year’s fruit cooked. When it had reduced by a third I added the sugar (just over 3lb) and stirred until the sugar had dissolved and Left it to boil. I returned to my topping and tailing! After a lot more topping and tailing I thought it was time to look for recipes that did not involved topping and tailing and was pleased to find a recipe for gooseberry sauce which sounds rather tasty so 2lb of the smaller untopped and tailed gooseberries were washed, bagged and popped in the freezer ready for making into sauce some time in the future.
By this stage the jam had reached setting point and was ready for potting up. Seven jars are standing proudly on the kitchen bench. The scrapings from the preserving pan were served on a scone for our afternoon tea and the verdict was ‘very good’! It has the lovely tang of gooseberries with just a hint of the heady flavour of the elderflower.
And this year’s crop? The final weigh in from the first gooseberry bush is 11lb! Next job is to make a gooseberry cake to take round to a friend’s house this evening and to stew some ready for a gooseberry fool tomorrow. The rest have gone into the freezer BUT will be used before July net year.
It’s always hard coming home after a lovely holiday. There is the thought of work, routine and things to be done, But as soon as the house appears and we enter the drive there is that feeling of homecoming and familiarity and then there is the excitement of seeing what has happened in the garden – always the first thing before unloading the car or checking the house.
When we got back today I was amazed at how things had grown in eight days. Yes the weeds have done well but so has the garden.
Roses, delphiniums, hollyhock,sweet peas on long stems and mesembryanthemum which bring back childhood memories of lying on my tummy watching the flowers open as the rays of the sun warmed them only to close again when a cloud passed by.
Next stop is to check the vegetable garden and greenhouse to see how things have fared. And as usual there are the successes this time- lettuce, radish, cucumbers, courgettes and potatoes. The french, broad and runner beans are looking hopeful but where are the parsnips? They are usually one of our best crops and as for the peas it will be a meagre crop.
But after unpacking there was a real sense of satisfaction and living the good life when we picked and harvested and then we sat in the evening sunshine and ate a completely home produced meal (well except for the mayonnaise). We enjoyed an egg salad with lettuce, radish, basil, rocket and potatoes. Finely chopped courgettes with a tiny red onion and slivers of freshly picked cucumber. Maybe coming home from holiday is not too bad!