Friday, 30 April 2010


I just love the way nature provides. May and June are traditionally referred to as 'the hungry gap' but with a bit of planning, that's not the case. Just as the winter crops are coming to an end, the late spring-summer crops are coming into season.

One of the fortunate things I inherited with the garden at my house is one single asparagus crown. Although it's a single solitary crown, it throws up the fattest asparagus spears you can imagine. I'd been reading about how asparagus was coming into season and had despaired slightly at the complete lack of signs of activity from this crown, so imagine my surprise last night to come home and find that during the course of the day, the crown had pushed three 3/4-inch thick spears more than a foot out of the ground! With another four spears coming through behind it.

We're not the biggest fans of asparagus, but dinner tonight clearly needs to involve it. Now to just figure out what to eat. Risotto? Frittata? A warm salad? An open lasagne, maybe with mushroom and spinach? Asparagus and tallegio or asparagus, red pepper and feta pizza? A tart? Something to use up some more of the leeks, salsify, scorzonera and parsnip before they leap to seed?

Such a nice problem to have.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Eating seasonally

As I've mentioned, one of this year's challenges is to try to eat most of our meals seasonally, from the garden. The night before last I managed this by cooking kothu roti (a Sri Lankan dish) of left-over roti, a red onion bought from someone else's garden, our own stored potatoes, green garlic tops and cabbage leaves. I'd have added carrots if we had any, but the remaining carrots want to grow a bit more before I harvest them.

Last night's meal was a mixed bag. We treated ourselves to fried okra and plantain fritters (both probably flown in, big bad), but our main course was a Vietnamese tofu dish. The vegetables in the dish were green garlic tops, leeks, spring onions, the last of the cabbage leaves plucked from the cabbage gone to seed, and a handful of purple sprouting broccoli. The sauce was from the last of our canned tomatoes from last year. We're having the leftovers for lunch with a sprinkling of fresh salad burnet leaves and spring onions on top.

I suspect I'll give in and buy tomatoes again before the new ones are ready...

Coincidentally, I've noticed that Cauldron Foods, which used to make the most readily available tofu in UK supermarkets, no longer sell their tofu as organic. They've replaced it with a softer, lower-quality non-organic tofu, in larger quantities, packaged in plastic (rather than the cardboard the UK version used to come in), and made in the US. Talk about adding food miles. I'll be going out of my way to go to the food store for alternatives now. And maybe replanting those soya beans the mice ate, to grow and make my own.

Planting things? I've failed sadly this week, although tonight I intend putting the next crop of squashes in the heated propagator.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Happy, happy making...more flowers

The new and replacement herbs are all still in their pots, awaiting planting out once I've tried all possible arrangements. In the ceramic tub are chives, purple sage, oregano and saffron, with lemon thyme, dill, parsley and more chives to the left.

It's a busy time and progress is slow, but I'm gradually chipping away at all the jobs to be done. It's frustrating to be at work during the hours I want to be playing with the garden. But my previous work is still giving rewards. The new tomato seeds I planted to replace the ones I dehydrated to death have sprouted. I was down in the greenhouse last night, checking on the other seedlings, and got lots of good news.

The fleece is staying on the onion and broad bean beds and preventing rabbit predation. The tomato seedlings are jumping away, the squash and pumpkin seeds survived their drying out last week and the bean seeds are sprouting, showing that the mouse predation wasn't as bad as previously feared (although there's a total crop loss with the soya beans). But best of all....

My bacon and fuerte avocado trees are flowering. Mr. G and I eat half an avocado between us every day, and I wasn't expecting them to do that for another couple of years. So this is an event that has me bouncing up and down with excitement.

This weekend, oncoming cold weather notwithstanding, the avocadoes, figs and citrus are coming back to the house so they can live outside and be exposed to the bees. The strawberries in the strawberry barrel are also now starting to grow flowers.

I've also decided that I need to start a seasonal recipe cookbook, to help make the most of the seasonal veg. I picture this as being a large self-published book in time, but at the moment it's just a slightly fleshed-out table of contents.

Monday, 26 April 2010

The investment paying off

Blackcurrant in flower

I spent a lot of money on my garden last year. A lot. Certainly enough to make me ask whether I was throwing money away in my enthusiasm, and to question each purchase's necessity. But for the first time since I started on my path towards self-sufficiency, I had a chance to make big leaps towards that goal and I decided that it was worth spending a lot of money in a short time to make leaps in time-saving. So I indulged, and considered it an investment. Now that investment is paying off...hopefully!

Blueberry flowers

It looks like we'll get a decent crop of soft fruit this year. The currant bushes - three whitecurrant, three blackcurrant and one redcurrant - are all on flower, as are the five blueberry bushes. I hadn't expected to get blueberries for another year. The grapes, which survived a cold winter outdoors, probably won't flower this year but they'll overwinter in the greenhouse next year to give them a chance. We'll get strawberries although they haven't yet flowered, but the real prize is this:

Cherry blossom

The morelly cherry, one of the orchard in pots, is flowering profusely! Hopefully they will translate into cherries if there's another tree in the vicinity, as my other cherry tree has one lone blossom. But the Victoria plum and one of the plums on the dual-plum tree are also flowering so we'll hopefully have plums. The apple, pear, plum and cherry trees on the land are in full flower and as I cleared them of brambles over winter, hopefully they'll fruit as well.

This fruitfulness is extending to the vegetable garden. We're still eating potatoes stored from last winter, and the last of the parsnips. We're also eating overwintered leeks: I just cut the tops off them and let them regrow. I'm getting a handful of purple sprouting broccolli each week which isn't quite enough, so I'll plant more of that for next year. The celery is looking great after recovering from the winter. I'm still eating small leaves from the last of the spring cabbage as they run to seed, plucking the leaves individually and tossing them into stir fries. There are new veg, too. Lots of garlic, onion and shallot tops to toss in salads and stir fries, new Red Russian kale, deer's tongue and little gem lettuces and salad burnet for salads, and hopefully soon pea tops and broad bean tops too. The two laying chickens are giving us 10 eggs a week, which covers all our needs with some to give away.

There have been losses. I learned last year that the seedlings in the heated propgator need checking for drying out and watering every single day. Apparently I didn't learn that well enough, and have fried and dehydrated an entire tray of tomatoes and half a tray of chillies. I've resowed a few more and bought some seedling plants from locals to fill the gap, but there should still be enough for this year's purposes. Similarly, we've learned that it's not clever to take seedlings down to the greenhouse and leave them there for a week without checking whether they need watering. I may have killed off some squash plants, but had intended sowing some more anyway.

We've had an almost total crop loss on the broad beans I planted last autumn. This will be due to predation from rabbits. So I'm now covering all new sowings with fleece to prevent nibbling. The other thing I've learned is that planting beans and peas in small trays in the greenhouse to sprout is self-defeating because mice come into the greenhouse to dig them up and eat them. I've lost an entire flat of soya bean seeds to them. So I'll have to either sprout beans at home, or plant them direct. The soil is warming so I'll try planting them direct now.

Digging and planting continue apace, as I try to sow something every week to stagger crops. Next week I'll sow beans and plant out the maincrop potatoes.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Eating seasonally: Morrocan tagine recipe

The challenge I have set myself this year is to produce more of our own food. The plan is to be completely self-reliant on our vegetables year-round, which will entail eating more seasonally. We have gone some way down this path already, as we have vegetables we stored or preserved last year supplementing the few veg we still buy from the supermarket. But part of this challenge is to change our diet to eat more seasonally, and not rely on our favourite veg year-round. Especially as these are hot-climate veg.

The veg we have available to us at the moment are the last of the leeks and parsnips still in the ground, which need to be used before they go to seed, a last couple of sad-looking cabbages which have been picked leaf-by-leaf, pak choi and cavolo nero overwintered in the greenhouse, and potatoes stored from last autumn. We also have early carrots planted last autumn and purple sprouting broccoli starting to head. We did have winter squash, but have eaten the last of those. We had stored onions and garlic but finished them long ago, so we have increased the quantities sown of those this year. I was lucky enough to buy some early red onions from a local farm stall recently though, so consider those to be fair game.

The veg ready in the garden now mean we don't need to buy supermarket veg so long as meals are planned accordingly. That means not buying as many greenhouse tomatoes as I'd like (our preferred diet is tomato-heavy) and working with the root veg we have now. Dinner on Saturday night filled that niche nicely.

Recipe: Morrocan tagine of spring and stored root veg.
Serves four.

First pre-heat the oven to 220C and make a Chermoula paste:

2 red onions , chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1-inch knob of ginger , peeled
1/2 cup lemon juice (about 3 lemons)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tbsp each honey, cumin, paprika, turmeric
1 tsp hot chilli powder
about 1/4 cup fresh coriander leaves

Put all of these in a blender and whizz to a paste.

Then collect and scrub:
3 large parsnips
3-5 small carrots
4-5 small potatoes (I used Arran victory because those are the potatoes we're using up at the moment)
6 smallish leeks
1 head purple sprouting broccoli
and whatever else you have in the garden/store (I cheated and tossed a few small tomatoes in. I will add some whole garlic cloves and chunks of red onion next time.)

Cut these into bite-sized chunks. Heat a heavy-bottomed frying pan over a medium-high heat and fry the veg in a tablespoon of olive oil for 5-10 minutes until browned. You may need to do this in one or two batches. When browned, put the veg in a casserole dish. Add a few prunes or dates, pour the chermoula paste and 1 1/2 cups of water over, cover and put in the oven. Bake for 45 minutes, reduce the heat to 180C, and bake for another 45 minutes. Sprinkle some chopped mint over the tagine before serving.

The result is sheer magic. Warm, satisfying and really tasty. Traditionally, this is served with couscous or bread. We preferred to eat it with brown basmati rice, accompanied by a good dark mild beer (a form of English ale) while sitting in front of a lit chiminea.

Starting the gardening year

My year starts in April. Not just the gardening year, my year in general. This is because I work away for the beginning of each year and tend to get back just in time for the spring planting. Because of this, I plan my garden and order in any seeds and plants necessary in December and get stuck into sowing at the end of March. This year it's of more importance than ever because this is the first year (as of the first of April) we're going to try to rely entirely on our home-grown veg, rather than supplementing any gaps from the supermarket. The only concession we're allowing ourselves is tomatoes and mushrooms until the weather warms up.

This year I've been lucky because spring has come late. I've had two weeks to sow seeds on heat and start on sowing seeds in the greenhouse, and this past weekend when we had the spare time to get down to the allotment, the weather had finally warmed up and the soil had started to warm. That means we're able to start digging, weeding and sowing before the weeds run away too badly. This is what we found:

To reiterate, the beds in this allotment are narrow beds roughly 1 metre wide, oriented north-south to maximise the sun. This photo is looking north. The wheat and barley off to the left behind the bike are just starting to come away again (despite being nibbled a bit) and the bed of garlic, just to the right of the garden fork, is coming along strongly. The very right-hand bed should contain broad beans, but they've had limited success. I suspect they've been nibbled in the snow and frost by hungry rabbits and muntjac deer. After a few hours of digging and sowing, we were pleased to have achieved this:

Three and two-half beds dug and some veg set in. The far left beds contain four types of broad beans to supplement the unsuccessful automn-sown bed. The varieties are Sutton Dwarf, Witkiem Manita, Super Aquadulce and Bunyard Exhibition.

The long bed in the middle ground has been sown with two varieties of parsnip: All American and Tender and True, and a mixture of intercropped onions, carrots and radish. We have four types of onions (from memory, Ailsa Craig, Giant Zittau, Blood Red Holland and Rijnsburger 5), three for storing and a red onion, and green-shouldered white carrot and giant red carrot. The carrots and onions have been sown in the same row together to confuse carrot sly when the inevitable thinning occurs. They've been sown quite thickly, to allow for the inevitable losses that will occur when a few sparse green things appear over lots of bare soil. Radish have been sown in with the onion and carrot to germinate quickly, show where they'll come up, and give us a quick crop.

The nearest bed in the foreground is the first early potatoes going in. This year our first earlies are Colleen, a variety I grew last year and was pleased with. We still have about 10kg of last year's potatoes in store although they're starting to sprout now, so I hope that they'll last another month or two until the Colleen are ready to harvest. The rest of the potatoes will go in in a few weeks time.

In addition to the above, at the far end of the allotment, I planted a couple of rows of beetroot, kohl rabi, turnip and radish, and a couple of rows of peas. I'll plant more every fortnight for the next couple of months, to stagger the harvest.