This is the time of year when you can think about increasing your fruit crops for the following year, planting bare-root plants or putting pot grown plants into their permanent home. This is exactly what I have turned my mind to now that the vegetable growing side of things has slowed down for the winter.
I have bought and planted three bare-root gooseberry bushes in the forest garden. The chickens took great delight in getting in my way as I dug the holes and eating any worms or other little creatures that I unearthed. I mulched with some fallen leaves and amended the soil with a little compost.
The blueberries are pot grown and they will remain in containers in the orchard/forest garden area. They are best grown in a container as they like acid conditions. I will be keeping them in their own area of ericaceous compost rather than amending our soil.
I am hoping these plants will thrive and we will increase our fruit stocks next year. We should now have some blueberries and gooseberries in addition to our strawberries, raspberries, wild and cultivated, mahonia berries, elderberries, plums and apples. Perhaps we will also be able to help our cherry trees to keep their fruits and our pear tree to produce more than one sad looking pear. I hope my little damson sapling will also fruit next year or the one after, so we will have to wait and see which of these plants will deliver a bounty next year.
Just because winter is here, that does not mean that there is nothing to do in the garden. I have now received and planted the rhubarb crowns I ordered to create a rhubarb bed.
First of all I prepared the bed, adding some of the rough compost that the chickens very kindly helped us to make to the vegetable bed that contained a few squash in the summer. (They did not do all that well.) I decided that this spot is rather too exposed for squash but it could do well as a permanent rhubarb bed as rhubarb does not need to be mollycoddled.
I placed the three crowns around 1m apart along the length of the bed, taking care not to bury the crowns. I hope that other than applying some mulches and weeding or watering occasionally I will not have to do much with them until they can be harvested in their second year. It is best not to harvest from the plants in their first year as they need time to become established. I hope they will do well.
Originally, I was planning on planting the rhubarb in the orchard/forest garden but I have not been able to establish whether or not this would be dangerous for the chickens. Reading on-line, some people say that the leaves are poisonous to chickens, as they are to humans in quantity, while others say they have been feeding rhubarb leaves to their birds with no ill-effect. In the absence of hard facts, I decided to err on the side of caution and avoid putting rhubarb where the chickens could get at it.
Oops. I really did mean to update this blog a lot sooner than I have done but things have been all go recently on the work front and of course there is always lots to do around here.
Just after I wrote my last post we celebrated one year here, one year since we started to transition to this more sustainable way of life. It does not feel like a year but we have done a lot since we got here. We have made a lot of progress and eaten a lot of home grown food. We erected our polytunnel, prepared vegetable bed areas, rescued the chickens, did work on the house and – great news – we finally have the planning permission to carry out our planned eco-conversion/renovation of the outbuildings!
There have been many successes and several failures – by and large though the baby steps we have taken have really added up and it is pretty staggering when we look back and see how far we have actually come.
The garden is not looking at its best at this time of year but we do have a few things still growing. I have planted onions and garlic and a few swedes and Brussels sprouts still in the vegetable beds and in the polytunnel there are a variety of winter cabbages, beetroot and a few other bits and bobs. Some herbs are in on the windowsill for winter, others are drying nicely. There are plenty of jars of jams and chutneys to see us through the coldest months and a few things like peas and beans in the freezer. We have one small pumpkin/squash on the windowsill still.
The chickens all seem to be doing well. We are still getting two or three eggs most days even though the weather has got so much colder. The girls saw snow for the first time the other day – they were not too impressed. I gave them some porridge to warm them up.
I still have a lot of tidying up to do in the vegetable beds before the ground freezes too hard and the orchard/forest garden is the main area that will get my attention over the winter. Time flies and there is no rest for the wicked…
A lot has been going on here since we got back from America and things have been all go – which is why it has taken me until now to write this. I have been meaning for a while to give everyone a garden update.
In the polytunnel, I have some things going to seed which look a bit scraggly now but will provide us with some seeds for next year. There is some beetroot, whose seeds are nearly mature and some radish seed pods that are still green. There is a yellow cucumber amongst the green ones still growing on other plants as I want to make sure we get some seeds to try from one of the healthiest and best producing plants. Aside from the cucumbers we also still have quite a few other plants producing food for us in there. There are little gems and other salad leaves, never-ending spinach leaves, tomatoes, little chilli peppers and we have had three or four little bell peppers, though they did not do all that well really – I think in part because of the cold weather and partly because I put too many in one container. The squash and pumpkins have not really been a success story, though I have harvested a handful of summer patty pan squash and of course endless courgettes. There are about five or six fruits growing on the sprawling plants that seem to be swelling, though whether or not they will come to anything remains to be seen. There are, still growing, some more beetroot, purple-sprouting broccoli and calabrese, winter cabbages, over-wintering onions. I did plant some broad beans but something ate them all just after they sprouted! (I suspect a rodent of some description.) Also in the polytunnel, on my hanging shelf, are more cabbage family things and some strawberry plants. (The runners from the bed in the centre of the orchard/ forest garden.)
In the vegetable beds out front, two have been cleared of potatoes and one has been scratched over by the chickens while the other has mustard in it from which I want the seed. One had been cleared of peas though still has some salad stuff to eat and another has some nearly spend broad beans and some chard. The squash are still producing the odd tiny patty pan.
One of the jobs I got round to after getting back from our holiday was lifting all the onions. Some (especially the red onions) have fat necks, I think from the dodgy summer weather, and they will not store so well, so we are using them up fairly quickly. The rest I have hung in a mesh bag in the outbuilding for now, after they were out in the sun for a time to dry. When they are fully dried I will braid them, mostly just because I love the way it looks!
The main post-holiday job, however, has been dealing with our fruit tree harvest. We have had a reasonable apple crop from a couple of the trees, not so good from a few others. (Still not sure of any of the varieties.) There are still plenty of fruits though. The plums, however, are the main success story of the year! Wow! We had so, so many plums that we have been scratching our heads trying to figure out what to do with them – as well as giving some away, of course.
We have been eating plenty of fresh plums but I have also been trying to preserve at least some of the harvest. I’ve made two big batches of plum jam and I also made seven jars of a sweet and spicy chutney that I think will be good with cheese around Christmas. I also just popped some half plums in the freezer so we can pull them out to make a crumble or something later in the year.
I also got a bit inventive with savoury recipes that involved plums. I made a plum tabbouleh and a spicy plum curry, also using our own chillies. Plum also lends itself well to a sweet and sour sauce in place of tomatoes.
It won’t really matter if the plum harvest is not so good next year because it looks like we’ll be enjoying this glut of plums in the form of the preserves for quite a while to come!
Preserving some of the apple harvest is the next job – when I have a spare moment!
It is always lovely getting to know a new space and our garden here is still throwing up surprises nine months or so after we moved in. I was just looking at the wildlife pond behind the polytunnel and I noticed a bonus crop in the wild corner behind it – a bumper crop of wild raspberries! I knew that there were some in the estate farmlands round behind our place but I had overlooked this brambly corner area.
My home grown raspberries in the orchard/forest garden are not ripe yet so it is good to find we have some raspberries earlier than expected. It is great to forage and I do so every year – but how great is it when you can forage in your own garden! Permaculture design proponents talk about zoning – we are reaping the benefits of the wilder zone to the rear of the garden, but it does go to show that you really do overlook things in zones that are further from the house and which you do not pass every day.
We have had our first few strawberries of this year (the ones that the chickens did not get to first) and there is lots of fruit yet to come. I have to say that I am really looking forward to getting apples, blackberries, raspberries and possibly plums a little later in the year. Signs are looking good so far for a fairly bountiful fruit harvest.
Here are a few more pictures of the fruit developing. It is great getting to know the orchard/ forest garden a little better as the year goes by.
There are also some brambles in wilder corners and a greengage tree and an elder (currently in full bloom) in the back garden. We could pick the blossom and use it to make an elderflower cordial or wine but we are leaving most of it to get the berries later in the year. Unfortunately since everything except the raspberries and strawberries was here when we moved in, we do not have a clue about which varieties we have, so I hope to learn at least a bit more as the year goes on.
We are so lucky to have so much fruit already here, but already we are thinking about increasing our fruit stock in years to come. I know I would like to get a rhubarb patch going, and grow some gooseberries, and currants… one step at a time.
One of the things I love the most about growing almost all of our own vegetables is that we are really eating what is in season and working our meals around the healthy food we have to hand. Though before we moved in here we had tried to eat seasonal fruit and vegetables most of the time, here I am being far more disciplined about eating what is ready to harvest at the time. It is far easier to be disciplined here than it is doing a shop at a supermarket. I am learning a lot about how out of tune many people are with the food that they eat throughout the year.
Gluts are exciting, but I have so far avoided having far too much of any one thing. I have been planting successionally and we are finding so far that we have enough without having massive excess. There are seven of us living here and we do have quite a few guests here from time to time and so any surplus is usually used up fairly quickly. As time goes on and we experience more seasons here, I hope to gradually get us to a place where we have enough and more of everything and we can really stock up the freezer for future insurance against disasters and bad weather. Already, I have learned a lot about what we all eat and do not eat, what I need to plant more of (radishes, perhaps, and at the moment we could do with more potatoes, though most are not yet ready to be harvested). I do not think I have planted too much of anything at the moment, though as the summer goes on perhaps that will change. We’ll have to wait and see.
The other thing I have noticed about eating what we grow is that I am really enjoying the meditative time taken to harvest and prepare all the food for the meals I make. Though it takes time, I find that time relaxing and it is also when I get the chance to observe and reflect on the growing spaces. I would far, far rather spend half an hour picking or shelling peas or podding beans than plodding around the shops!
If only more people grew at least some of their own food, there would be less of the disconnect that we so often see between food production and what and how people are cooking. We are very lucky here to have the space we do, but most people would be able to do at least a little growing on windowsills or in containers. It costs less than you might imagine to get started, requires less effort and space and takes less time. Everyone should know the joys of eating something they have grown.