Sowing and Growing

I’ve been having a busy day so far today. I’ve got the next batch of seeds germinating on the kitchen windowsill: pea shoots, mixed lettuce, pak choi, broad beans and spring onions.

The weather has been grey but dry and fairly mild so I also managed to go out into the polytunnel and do quite a bit of work out there. I added some of my compost to the vacant beds and cleared things up a little. I got rid of a few weeds and tidied up the winter cabbages and broccoli. The cabbages were rather badly nibbled earlier in the season by various culprits but we have still had plenty to eat and the badly nibbled outer leaves went to the chickens, who devour them eagerly.

I also took some of the pea shoots from the windowsill and popped them in. They are a fairly hardy variety but I will still cover them with cloches if the temperatures dive too far below zero again in the next couple of months. They probably won’t shoot up much before the early spring but getting them in situ means that they will be positioned for speedy growth when the weather does warm up.

When I was in the polytunnel I noted that the soil that I have been amending throughout the year is definitely improving. One side bed of the tunnel had soil that was not in the best state because it was underneath the spreading arms of large conifers which we chopped down. The soil is gradually coming back into its own. After I had amended it with plenty of compost last year, the tomatoes did reasonably well there, though I think as the years of my permaculture ‘regime’ go on, yields will continue to grow.

I also cleaned out the chickens and spent some time with them. It has been a very mild, though wet, winter here so far but the chickens have been surprisingly un-fazed. They were rather surprised and bemused by the snow but do not seem to mind. Egg production has remained fairly constant at around three a day, which is a little surprising as I had read that you should expect far fewer eggs in winter.

Anyway, after a couple of months with lots of colds and coughs doing the rounds and little happening in the garden, I was glad to feel I was making progress again. I’m looking forward to all the challenges to come this year.

 

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Happy New Year!

This blog is over a year old now and we have been working towards our more sustainable way of life for even longer. Some things can be hard but on the whole I am feeling very positive about how much we have accomplished here so far. Still, as always, there is a lot more to do!

It is that time of year and the windowsills are filling up again. There are some salad things and pea shoots in the porch, tomatoes and chilli peppers germinating and as of today, seed potatoes chitting. I’ve ordered more seed potatoes than I did last year, having learned how many of them we collectively go through and knowing that we can successfully grow them here. I will also be planting out a few seed potatoes from our last year’s crop, to see how well they do. More onion sets have also arrived.

In spite of several minor setbacks, we are further ahead than we were this time last year with growing things. There are winter cabbages, onions, strawberry plants and a few other bits and bobs in the polytunnel still. peas and beans will probably go in there next month. There should have been broad beans and peas over-wintering but they were unfortunately gobbled up by rodents in the autumn so didn’t get a look in!

We have the consent we needed from the planners to go ahead with our outbuilding conversion so are currently getting plans drawn up for the building warrant and hope to actually start work in earnest in the next couple of months. We have to think about how to meet the stringent insulation requirements while still using eco-friendly materials and doing this affordably without compromising our sustainability goals. I feel we are actually getting somewhere – but more on that at a later date, once our architect gets back to us with her drawings based on out ideas.

The chickens are doing well, though we plan to build them a better home in the next few months as the coop we bought is not great. One of the main problems is the front door, which has jammed shut in the very wet weather. We are thinking along the lines of customising a small, wooden garden shed, which will be easier for us as well as better for them, though we have not yet worked out the exact plan.

I hope everyone had a good festive season and I wish you all the best for the coming year.

 

Time Flies…

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…

Chickens Eat Mice?!

The other day I was out in the orchard/forest garden tending to some work that had to be done there clearing and harvesting and I saw the most astonishing thing. Yes – it turns out chicken eat mice! Whole! Like snakes! For the first time I could see the resemblance between T-rex and its closest living descendent. The chicken (I think it was Clara) was really almost like something from Jurassic Park.

I had heard that chickens occasionally ate mice but I found it rather hard to believe and even harder to imagine. But when I pulled some weeds up and a mouse ran out, all the chickens knew what to do and one despatched it quickly. We do have quite a lot of mice and other rodents round here so this is yet another way in which the chickens are well and truly earning their keep! Who needs a mouse-catching cat when the chickens are about?!

So, in addition to providing us with three or four eggs a day between them, fertilising our soil, activating our compost, scratching up the vegetable beds, eating slugs, cutworm larvae and other pests and keeping down some perennial weeds, the chickens are also keeping the mouse population down! They really are incredibly useful creatures.

Plums on the Brain

I think all of the work I have been doing to preserve all of our plum harvest has made me go plum crazy! Only joking, but it certainly seemed to influence me when it came to choosing a paint colour for the walls in the little living room we are using until we renovate the outbuilding. For some reason I was just drawn to a colour called ‘ripe mulberry’ – a rich plummy colour. I wonder why?!

On a whim we decided that we should really get round to doing something about the terrible 1980s wallpaper and hideous patterned carpet in there. We’ve been working on that after work in the evenings, which is part of the reason why I feel I have barely had a second to spare lately.

We did however get away camping last weekend – more about which in my next post. We have now finished painting the walls, two plum, two white and are working on the new flooring. Soon we will be able to more back in there and get back to some kind of normality!

In other news, we have created drawings of our plans for the outbuilding with our architect and are now waiting to hear whether the council planning department will agree to let us do what we would like to do. Fingers crossed. It will probably be a while before we hear so we can’t do anything on that at the moment, which is why we chose to do something about the space we are using for now. Bad timing, perhaps, but it already looks a lot better.

Enjoying a Plum Glut

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.)

Herb spiral in the foreground - dill and parsley are taking over but there is still also some sage, thyme, oregano, chives and seeding coriander in there too.
Herb spiral in the foreground – dill and parsley are taking over but there is still also some sage, thyme, oregano, chives and seeding coriander in there too.

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.

Just some of our many, many plums.
Just some of our many, many plums.

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!

Jam Making and Cake Baking

I have been making the most of having access to so many fruits. Last week I made a jar of strawberry, apple and mahonia berry jam and yesterday I made another jam with wild raspberries, adding in some small apples and mahonia berries again. The windfall apples and mahonia berries are not nice on their own but high in pectin and so help other fruit jams to set. I also find that they add a nice complexity to the flavour of the jams that I personally really like. I have a feeling that I will be making more jams over the next month or two.

Here are the ingredients that I collected from the orchard/forest garden area:

The ingredients for the mixed fruit jam.
The ingredients for the mixed fruit jam.

There were also a lot more raspberries from the stash behind the polytunnel.

First I chopped out the apple cores and boiled the apples and mahonia berries down:

Stewed fruit. No sugar added yet.
Stewed fruit. No sugar added yet. As you can see the mahonia berries turn the mix a lovely colour.

Then I strained it to take out the skins etc. which left me with this:

After straining the apples and mahonia berry mush I added a lot of raspberries.
After straining the apples and mahonia berry mush I added a large cup of raspberries and about the same amount of sugar.

After all the ingredients were in I brought the jam to a rolling boil, allowing excess water to boil off and the temperature to rise. I do not use a jam thermometer or anything so I just get a sense when the jam is nearly done. Resist the urge to stir it too much though I find that the right temperature for the jam is reached when the pot reaches a rolling boil that cannot be stirred down. To check the jam, I put a couple of metal spoons into the freezer then dropped jam on them to see if it was ready. When the jam is ready you can make a line through the jam with your finger and it will stay put.

Here is the finished article, in a recycled coffee jar that I popped in the oven to sterilise while I was making the jam.

Finished Jam

As you can tell I am no expert on jam making, but I do enjoy making use of what the garden and surroundings give us and jam is one great way to do so.

Another way to use up some fruit and some of our many eggs is to do a bit of baking. One member of our household had their Birthday on Wednesday so I baked a chocolate and raspberry cake for the occasion. Here is what is left:

Just one or two slices left. Sorry I forgot to take a picture of the whole thing,
Just one or two slices left. Sorry I forgot to take a picture of the whole thing before we all tucked in.