Friday, 4 November 2016

Quince brandy workshop and social

Last weekend I attended a quince brandy making workshop or, as one of my Facebook friends pointed out, a quince vodka workshop. Technically, she is correct as we used vodka rather than brandy to add to the fruit but I assume that it is sometimes referred to as "brandy" because of the colour of the final product. [Note: brandy can be used instead of vodka so that would definitely be quince brandy.] Moving on: the event was organised by Slow Food Berkshire & Wiltshire and although the stated aim of the the event was to learn how to make the aforementioned beverage it was very much a social occasion as well. One can, after all, just follow a recipe retrieved from the internet but it is not as much fun grating quinces sitting on your own in the kitchen. As well as learning a new skill we all shared our own quite different experiences of  growing, preparing and preserving food, and made several new friends.

The quinces and other dry ingredients were provided by our hosts and the fruit came from a tree in their garden. We brought along the jars, vodka, graters and paring knives. The recipe we used was straightforward: 8 medium-large quinces grated, 450g sugar, 20 cloves, 1 cinnamon stick per jar (about 2-3 inches long), 1litre of vodka and water if necessary to top up the jars. My three jars are now infusing on the kitchen window sill and are turned every day as per instructions.

I managed to grab some of the cores that were left before they were consigned to the compost and those are now in a jar with a little sugar and water in an attempt to make quince scrap vinegar. It will be some days before I can judge whether or not that is working.

Ready, steady, GRATE!

Time to add the alcohol

Back home on the kitchen window sill

Quince scrap vinegar in the making - hopefully!

Saturday, 1 October 2016

September 2016 harvest and foraging summary

Garden harvest total 19.404kg
Garden harvest worth £107.28
Foraged food total 566g
Foraged food worth £5.66


Garden crops

Tomatoes 4974 £39.00
Cucumber 1682 £10.00
Runner beans 1240 £7.19
Yellow courgette 1158 £5.79
Green courgette 1010 £4.40
Grapes 836 £4.15
Cavolo nero 300 £2.25
French beans 228 £1.52
Raspberries 218 £2.18
Swiss chard 148 £1.11
Carrots 140 £0.28
Pear 130 £0.70
Cabbage 94 £0.18
Curly kale  88 £0.73
Figs 84 £0.76
Damsons 78 £0.31
Green peppers 58 £0.21
Estimate for herbs
Estimate for salad leaves
Foraged food
Elderberries 566 £5.66

Sunday, 25 September 2016

August 2016: the harvest and foraging begins in earnest

August seemed to be especially busy this year. As well as harvesting the crops from the garden, we went out foraging for blackberries, elderberries, apples and damsons. See the August harvest and foraging summary 2016 for details of what and how much we gathered.

A lot of the blackberries were eaten as we picked - they were especially sweet this year - and the rest eaten fresh with ice cream, made into a pie with some of the elderberries and damsons, and included in elderberry, damson, blackberry and apple jam.

Around half of the elderberries were made into syrup to help alleviate the symptoms of winter coughs and colds. Some of the damsons and berries were also "brandied" for Christmas liqueurs. Depending on their type and flavour the apples were eaten, added to jams and chutneys, or incorporated into fruit pies.

Our own damson tree produced some fruit for the first time. It was not a huge harvest but more than we had expected. The tree was planted about two and half years ago and the frost had burnt off much of the blossoms so we were pleased to have the handful that made it through. The variety is Merryweather and they taste more like plums than tart damsons, so they were reserved for eating "straight" rather than being made into preserves and pies as were the foraged ones.
We had our first grape harvest. There were plenty of bunches and although the fruits themselves were quite small they were very sweet. We've had plenty of advice on how to improve the yield and size of the grapes, ranging from removing some of the bunches early to reducing the number of grapes in a bunch with nail scissors. I'm not sure either of us has the patience for the latter and it seems a shame to lose entire bunches. We'll see how it goes next year but might thin out the number of grapes in just a couple of bunches to see what effect that has.

The cucumbers went berserk. I went away for a couple of days and came back to find that several monsters had materialised. Similarly, some of the courgettes both yellow and green had decided to try and imitate marrows. 
The runner beans are in full flow, the cavolo nero is doing well and we have some green peppers, which we are particularly pleased about as they are being grown outside against the south facing fence. A few of the golden beetroot were of a size that made it worthwhile pulling them up, and the tomatoes are finally ripening en masse. Our potatoes, which are grown in pots and Marshalls Gro-Sacks, are now finished. We generally had good yields and they always taste better than shop-bought so it was worth the effort. It is a shame we do not have more space that we can use for growing them. 

The most prolific of the tomatoes at the moment is a yellow/orange cherry variety. It is one of the plants that emerged from the compost that we put on the Gro-Beds and as we have not bought any seeds that fit the description it must have originally been bought from our local supermarket. I do vaguely recall buying a pack of variously coloured "speciality" tomatoes that were on the reduced price shelf. They were described as extra sweet and flavoursome but when we tried them we ranked them a big fat zero in the taste stakes. I think we put them on one side and they were eventually consigned to the compost heap. Unlike the parent fruit, the ones that have now emerged really are indeed sweet, which I can only assume is down to the growing conditions in our garden. 
Our strategy of cutting the cabbage heads and leaving the stems in the ground has paid off as we are still harvesting small heads of pointed cabbage. It will be interesting to see how long the plants keep regenerating. Kale, brussel sprout and cabbage seedlings have been potted up and are in an area next to the north facing fence that I call the brassica nursery. They will soon be planted out and so far they are looking good. The main problem is that the wood pigeons have identified our garden as a source of tasty cabbage snacks so we've had to put up some protection against the feathered varmints! 

Our sole gooseberry bush (Whinham's Industry) has settled in against the north facing fence and produced a few berries for us. It's a lovely sweet dessert gooseberry. We have taken some cuttings but have yet to decide where we shall eventually plant them.

It's not all been good news, though. The large sycamore trees that blighted our own and our neighbours' gardens have been cut down by the council but the roots are still there and very much alive. We spotted leaves sprouting from one of the roots on on our side of the fence and it was increasing in size daily. Some people recommended that we just keep cutting it back and it will eventually give up and die. But that would mean checking on the wretched thing daily and it could take years to give up the ghost. Another approach that I found on the web, and which would be especially satisfying, is to drill holes in the wood, fill them with kerosene and set fire to the whole lot. While I am sure this would be effective, it would also probably be effective in burning down several fences along with the gardens in the immediate vicinity. So we have gone for the chemical option and applied tree stump and root killer. I suspect that one treatment may not be enough and it will try and spring up elsewhere along the root or from another one, so constant vigilance will be required.

But to end on a happy note, here is a photo of part of our zone 1 alongside the kitchen and bathroom extension. Beans, tomatoes and chillis are flourishing, and the squashes are rampant and clambering up the garden wall. I may have overdone the comfrey juice! 

August harvest and foraging summary 2016

As well as the garden harvest this month's summary also covers our foraging activity, including the hazelnuts we picked up in Turkey. This presents a problem for calculating the worth of some of the items as they are not available in most shops. So we have had to do a rough calculation using the prices for similar types of produce, for example the price of plums to work out the worth of the damsons.

Garden harvest total 12.266kg
Garden harvest worth £76.30
Foraged food total 18.4kg
Foraged food worth £162.00

TOTAL WORTH     £238.30

Garden crops

Potatoes 2552 £5.10
Green courgette 2388 £11.94
Runner beans 2208 £13.23
Cucumber 1440 £7.00
Yellow courgette 718 £3.59
Tomatoes 506 £5.06
Cabbage 502 £1.00
Damsons 498 £2.49
Beetroot 302 £2.42
Carrots 294 £1.76
Sweet peppers 222 £0.80
Squash 146 £0.70
Cavolo nero 106 £0.66
Gooseberries 92 £0.65
Grapes 84 £0.50
Peas 82 £1.00
Curly kale 64 £0.40
Spring onions 44 £2.50
Pea shoots 18 £0.50
Estimate for herbs
Estimate for salad leaves

Foraged food

Hazelnuts 4600 £69.00
Apples 4200 £8.00
Blackberries 3500 £42.00
Elderberries 3220 £32.00
Damsons 2880 £11.50

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

July - harvest summary

The amount we gather and harvest from the garden is recorded in a Google spreadsheet which is available for anyone to view. We started off by recording everything that we gathered from the garden but we keep forgetting to note down small amounts of salad leaves that are picked throughout the day e.g. cut and come again lettuces, dandelion leaves, young beetroot leaves. The column for lettuce will be removed from the spreadsheet from 2017 onwards.

Since June we have been estimating how much we would have spent had we bought the fruit and veg in a shop or at the local Farmers' Market. The problem is that many of the varieties we grow are not available in the local shops so we have decided to take an average of  the prices across a range of the varieties that are available as well as organic options. As we are no longer recording lettuces or salad leaves we shall include an amount that we think we would have spent on them over the month. Similarly, we shall include a rough figure for the herbs that we pick. At this time of year it is a lot: chives, oregano, mint, lemon balm, rosemary, basil, lovage, lemon verbena, parsley, coriander.

Weights in the table are in grams

Total harvest 8.215kg
Total harvest worth  £60.40

Runner beans
Swiss chard
Spring onions
White currants
Estimate for herbs
Estimate for salad leaves

Thursday, 18 August 2016

July 2016 - hot!

July was an average sort of month for our area in the UK except that we had several days of very, VERY hot weather. On July 18th the temperature hit 35 degrees C. The cat gave up and tried to find somewhere cool indoors, we didn't even try to work in the garden and any watering that was needed was left to early morning. At least the spell of hot dry weather gave our squashes, peppers and tomatoes a boost, and one of the cucumber plants went berserk.

I was away working for a few days in the middle of the month and came back to a monster cucumber that had suddenly appeared alongside a couple of slightly smaller ones. It was a very nice ridge cucumber but not what I had expected. The plants that I had put in this container were supposed to be striped and globular (can't remember the name of the variety). I have no idea what went wrong with this one as the other plants are now fruiting as described on the packet. I probably mis-labelled the seedling.

The walking onions - also known as perennial onions, Egyptian onions, tree onions, or topsetting onions - are at last walking, They form a cluster of bulbils on top of a stem which makes it top heavy. The stem bends over and when the bulbils touch the ground they take root and produce more plants, so it is like they are walking across the garden. You can add the bulbils to salads or use them in cooking but this year we have reserved them for generating more onions. Nearby is a serpentine garlic, which I had completely forgotten about. Near the top of the serpentine stem bulbils are formed. When ripe, the stem uncurls and the bulbils drop to the ground, again forming new plants. Love these plants. Almost all you have to do, once they are established, is let them get on with it. Of course, you still have to thin them out and pull up the bulbs and stems that you want to eat! Otherwise, it is relax on the garden lounger with a drink and watch them do their own thing.

Egyptian walking onions
Serpentine garlic

This year has turned out to be a superb one for onions, although earlier in the year we did think that the overwintered sets were going to a disaster. A few did flower and set seed or bunch into something more akin to shallots but on the whole we have had a good crop.

The same cannot be said for the garlic. We gathered plenty of bulbs but they are all on the small side. Many of them also had bulbils forming halfway up the stems.

The veg in the containers in zone 1 alongside the kitchen/bathroom extension are doing well and an experiment in growing peas at the back of the gro-beds has been a great success. We have been having peas, peas and yet more peas for lunch! The lettuces have all been eaten and the tomatoes and squashes are now taking over the beds.

The chillis in the pots have finally sprung into action following the hot weather and it is onwards and upwards for the the runner beans. The problem with the beans is that they are so tall they are crawling across the kitchen roof. We shall either have to resort to ladders to harvest the topmost beans or leave them until the end of the season when they can be collected for seed for next year.

Peas, potatoes and cabbages are still the main crops at the moment with a few carrots and beetroot. As mentioned in the June posting the cabbages were very poor last year but have made up for it in 2016. Cauliflowers are the complete opposite. In 2015 we had several 4 pounders but this season we were lucky to have enough for a couple of meals - and the colour was weird. There is white cauliflower, cream cauliflower, green cauliflower and purple cauliflower. But we found a couple of mostly white with purple splodges caulis in our garden. It was in an area where self seeded stuff is allowed to grow so we're wondering if it's a cross between a white cauli and purple sprouting broccoli - or just a mutant! Disappointingly, the colour disappeared on cooking as is often the case with purple coloured veg.

Escaping horseradish
The bag containing the horseradish is in zone 3 and generally we don't pay much attention to it unless we want to pull up a root to make some sauce. This year we started growing strawberries for ground cover around this and other veg bags in that area and it was when we went to pick some berries that the horrible sight you see to the left greeted us. The horseradish has broken through the bottom of the veg bag, not just here but at four other points, and it is spreading. The gardening magazines, forums and blogs do warn that horseradish will eventually stage a break out no matter how well contained. This is war but it looks as though it is going to be a never-ending battle with no chance of either of us winning outright.

Mr or Mrs Toad (or both, or perhaps even the whole family) have been crawling around the garden and there are frogs a-plenty hopping everywhere. This one was spotted under the shade of the gooseberry bush. Great to see so many of them in residence.

Brassica seedlings
Everything is in place for the summer, autumn and early winter harvests but now is the time to start thinking about the mid to late winter and early spring supply of veg. We don't have to worry about the purple sprouting broccoli as we allow it to go to seed and it sorts itself out. Brussel sprouts and some cabbages are already on their way to being established as is the cavolo nero but this/next year's main project re brassicas is to try out different varieties of kale. Red Ursa on the right of the picture, a stable cross between  Frilly Siberian Kale and Red Russian Kale (seeds from the Real Seed Catalogue), leaves looks especially interesting.

With so much food coming out of the garden this month I have to show off at least one meal, which is what we had for Sunday lunch at the start of July - and we did rather pig out. NOT from the garden were rice, split peas for the dhal, chickpea flour, vegetable oil, milk for the home made yogurt, and spices. Home grown ingredients: beetroot (beetroot tikki), potatoes, peas, pea pods, cabbage, swiss chard, onion, garlic, cucumber, lettuce, coriander, parsley, mint. The bhaji (below the beetroot tikki) was made of onions, shredded pea pods and shredded cabbage.

And finally...

The view from the kitchen window, 22nd July 2016. The first crop of peas have nearly finished and now the triffids (squash) are taking over and trying to break in!

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

June - busy, busy, busy

Like 2015, 2016 started off cold and sometimes extremely wet. Everything, including parsnips, was started off indoors but May saw the start of warmer weather and planting out could begin. The good growing conditions continued in June and we had a continuing harvest of overwintered crops. We also had to play catchup over a very short time-span with sowing and planting out so there was very little time to relax and lounge around.

I started to clear and tidy up an area against the kitchen wall where, last autumn, I had dumped a couple of pots and piled up some wood. I abandoned the tidying up and replaced everything when I spotted this grumpy looking inflated toad. It could explain why the chard and brussel sprout seedlings that I had forgotten about and left out overnight had not been gobbled up by slugs and snails as they normally would have been.

I saw a second one at the other end of the garden but it could have been the same one having a wander around in search of alternative hiding places. May he/she and their friends continue their good work in the garden.

At this time of year not all the possible food growing areas are in use so if flowers pop up I leave them be. Like this poppy, they add a welcome splash of colour and encourage pollinators into the garden.

The potatoes bags right at the back of the garden are doing well and we've managed to plant runner beans against the fence itself. We still can't plant much in that strip because of  the sycamore tree roots. The trees that were on the other side of the fence have been removed but the substantial roots remain and are close to the surface. The beans do OK there but very little rain reaches them with the potatoes overshadowing the soil, so I have to remember to water them regularly.

The Babington's leeks have now reached maturity (it is their third year in the garden) and three of them have sprouted flower stalks. Hopefully they will mature and we shall have dozens of bulbils some of which will go back into the garden and the rest shared with other gardeners in the area.

Clouds of these beauties have been darting around the garden this month. Common blue damselfly Enallagma cyathigerum.

This was an experiment in growing potatoes from supermarket potatoes. It is not generally a good idea to try this as you cannot guarantee that they will be disease free and they are usually sprayed with chemicals that inhibit sprouting; but I decided to see how far I could get with some Ruby Gem. As expected, they didn't sprout very well when left on the dresser in the kitchen (my usual chitting area) but there was enough growth to encourage me to plant them out in a potato bag. Growth was rather leggy and it quickly died back. The total yield from 3 potatoes was 274g. Some supermarket salad potatoes fared even worse. They just sat on the dresser for two months and turned green.

The experiment supports the general opinion that it is not really worth trying to get a decent group out of the treated potatoes to be found on supermarket shelves.

The peas that I used to test viability and germination rates for the Reading Food Growing Network are growing apace in the bags alongside the kitchen and bathroom extension. This is what they look like from the kitchen window.

And here is the outside view. The runner beans in the tub are also starting to take off.

We have plenty of  overwintered pointed cabbages and onions this year. Last year the cabbages were a great disappointment but they have more than made up for that in 2016. I have been cutting the heads off but leaving the stems with a few of the lower leaves hoping to encourage them to regrow. We are now starting to see a second crop of looser heads of leaves.

We have a lot of wild alpine strawberries in our garden that were planted to provide ground cover at the rear of the garden while we decided what to with that patch. The area had, for the last few years, been overshadowed by sycamore trees on the other side of the fence and their roots still restrict what we can plant there. The strawberry fruits may be small but they are gorgeous little flavour bombs. Delicious with homemade yogurt and the first of this season's locally produced honey from 600 yards down the road.

The wild strawberries take over a patch of ground very quickly and are difficult to manage so regrettably they will have to go now that the ground is to be used for higher yielding crops.

Replacing the wild strawberries in some places are the larger "domesticated" varieties and the first of those are beginning to ripen.  
Two years ago I planted a small grape vine that I bought from a stall at a RISC Roof Garden open day. We may have grapes this year!

The tea bags for this year's Tea Bag Index Project have arrived. See my posting about last year's participation for details of what is involved. This year the pairs of tea bags are going into the strip of ground next to the back fence, the ground that is next to the composting area, and the narrow strip alongside the garden shed.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

First and last

We are enjoying the first of the mangetout and almost the last of the swiss chard. I thought the chard was finished earlier in the year but having chopped it right back to ground level a couple of plants sprang back into to life. They are now on their last legs and are going to seed so we really shall be finishing it off over the next few days.

We have just a handful of mangetout at the moment but a lot more are forming on the plants.The yellow ones are Golden Sweet from the Real Seed Catalogue and the green are Oregon Sugar Pod. I started both of them off indoors in seed pans. The Oregon was originally grown in window sill pots for early spring pea shoots but after a few cuttings I decided to see how they would fare outside. I did protect both varieties from the cold snaps we had by surrounding them with a sort of cold frame made from old metal window frames, bubble wrap and garden fleece. 

I spotted the Golden Sweet seeds in the Reading Food Growing Network's seed swap box along with the more common Oregon Sugar Pod. (I swapped some Indigo Beauty tomato seeds for them). That is one of the great things about community seed swaps; both the unusual and commonplace are often to be found side by side. The Golden Sweet is growing at about the same rate as the Oregon, but I understand it eventually reaches double the Oregon's height. One other noticeable feature of the Golden Sweet is the lovely purple-blue flowers. Easy to grow, tasty and pretty. Definitely worth a try. 

Friday, 3 June 2016

A very obvious Harlequin ladybird

This very obvious Harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis conspicua) has appeared on my cherry plum tree. I have previously spotted the larvae and other colour forms in the garden but this is the first time I have seen "conspicua".

 A friend told me I should squash it because as well as eating aphids and scale insects they also feed on butterfly and moth eggs and other ladybird species. I have left it alone. Last year I checked most of the ladybirds I found in our garden and the majority appeared to be Harlequins. If I go on a killing spree I am likely to have an aphid infestation and, to be honest, I don't believe eliminating them will make the slightest difference in the overall population. More will move in from neighbouring gardens to fill the gap in mine.

Many of the Harlequin colour forms look very similar to our own native species. Here are some identification guides that can help differentiate between them:

Harlequin Ladybird Survey - Recognition and Distinction  has a useful PDF identification guide at
Ladybird descriptions_Info pack_NEW_v.5.pdf 

The Ladybird Survey has an identification sheet showing the most common UK ladybird species and another for the larvae of UK ladybirds.  

Ladybird Spotter has an interactive key to help identify ladybirds

A second updated edition (2013) of the Ladybirds Handbook is available through the publishers Pelagic Publishing and other booksellers.

Mapping the Garden - Zone 1

I have been intending to map our garden permaculture zones for about two years but have only now just started on the project. The idea is that the map will serve as a reminder of what was and is already in place, what grows well and what doesn't, and will also help me adjust the plantings. Although this is starting out as an ordinary blog posting I will make these maps individual blog pages so that I can easily update them and add more photos.

Rather than tackle the whole garden at once I thought that if I mapped the different areas separately I would be more likely to finish the project. For the first map I choose the area between the end of the kitchen/bathroom extension and the ancient garden shed because it is one of the smaller patches in the garden. When I started to map it in detail, though, I realised that the area may be small but there is a lot going on here.

The boundaries are a six foot wooden fence to the left, a 4ft 2in high brick wall on the right, an old home made garden shed that was erected in the 1940s and the end of the bathroom extension.The wall is used by many of the local cats as a walkway and they then drop down in front of the shed or into the neighbour's garden to continue their daily prowls. So we have a small zone 5 incursion at that point.

There is an earth/gravel path between the north side of the shed and the wooden fence that leads into the main part of the garden (zones 2-4). There are two raised beds in front of the shed on either side of the shed door, and concrete paths along the end and to the side of the bathroom/kitchen extension. When we moved into the property there was a thin layer of concrete in the middle that was badly cracked and broken in places. We replaced it with gravel and stepping stones some of which were made from the concrete we pulled up.

We have two water butts fed by rainwater coming off the rooves on the back of the house and the extension. We should really install a third to make the most of the run-off (we do have the space). The roof of the garden shed slopes in the direction of the raised beds and, ever since the guttering came off, rainwater runs directly onto the raised beds.

The main productive area is the right hand raised bed in front of the shed. This is how it looked for many years during the summer.

21st August 2013 - rosemary bush still flourishing
The runner beans do well here but to pick the beans on the plants nearest the garden wall I have to step on the bed, which is usually a no-no because it compacts the soil. I realised even before I started harvesting, though, that there is a permanent, narrow track just in front of the beans. This is created by the cats using it as as short cut through the garden, so I decided I might as well walk on this part of the bed as well!

The rosemary bush in the middle flourished for many years and provided us with a regular supply of the herb until it died at the beginning of 2015. Luckily I had taken cuttings the previous year so we now have several new plants in pots.

The other herbs in the ground are ramsons, chives, lemon balm and oregano. These are supplemented by hairy bittercress and nettles. The herbs in the pots vary as I move them around from one spot to another to test out the best environment for them.

28th March 2015

This is the same area in March 2015. The rosemary bush has been replaced with a pear tree (Concorde), which I had bought in autumn 2014 and kept it in a container while I considered where its final location should be. The demise of the rosemary made the decision for me.

At this time of year the available herbs are chives, ramsons and lemon balm as well as some hairy bittercress.

Comfrey was added to the upper right hand corner in late 2014 and is now well established.

During May and June, the herbs and the comfrey begin to take over and are pruned back. None of it goes to waste. The herbs, including the nettles, are dried for cooking or teas and the comfrey leaves are used to make fertiliser (see Comfrey juice decanted). The ramsons have usually died back by now and set seed.

15th June 2015 - herbs and nettles taking over
In October the beans are still going strong as are the herbs and nettles.

10th October 2015
This is how the patch looked on 29th May 2016

29th May 2016
The beans are beginning to climb and the pear tree is now established. The herbs and comfrey have already been cut back once and the golden oregano needs thinning out. The pots on the right and left contain mint but most of the one on the right has been eaten by something I have yet to find and identify. It has started to recover and grow back. The pot in the middle contains lovage.

Tea Bag Index results

In 2015 we took part in UK Tea Bag Index experiment and one of the pair of tea bags was planted in the middle of the right hand bed. The Tea Bag Index decomposition rate was found to be group ii and the C:N ratio of the soil was also in group ii, both slap bang in the middle for garden soils.