Category Archives: gardening

April Diary 2017

It’s been an early, dry Spring in most of England this year. Here in our southwest corner, the rhubarb is thin and the potatoes slow to come up. On the positive side, the slugs are discouraged and the seedlings are getting a good start. Watering them is a daily chore now.

Well watered rhubarb in a pot
Well watered rhubarb in a pot

Having failed to negotiate a supply of wheat seeds – it’s hard to buy a small handful – I planted some old gleanings I found in the seed box. They seem to be coming up, but look exactly like grass just now. If the experiment doesn’t work, I’ll dig over and plant out squashes, or grow a catch crop of cress.

We managed to subdue most of the really wild quarter of our new Resilience Allotment while the soil was still soft. To clear the established perennial weeds – couch grass, bindweed, dandelion and horsetail – we turned the matted turf over to a spade’s depth, pulling the exposed roots out by hand as we broke up the clumps. These went to the tip for recycling, as they can sprout again from fragments.

The rough bit of the allotment before digging
The rough bit is on the left
The weed roots we are removing
The weed roots we are removing

A layer of leaf mould covered with cardboard sheets was laid on the sections we dug over, topped with another layer of leaf mould. Holes were cut in the card and our vegetables planted through it, in a handful of compost. The thick mulch will discourage the weeds – though we haven’t seen the last of them – and give our plants a head start.

The leaf mould was free, from a huge pile dumped in the allotment car park. It’s not ideal; in this dry weather it starts to blow away, and I worry that the potatoes may not like it.

“Do not dig your potatoes up to see if they are growing” – a modern Zen saying!

There was an urgent need for a weed suppressant though, and the leaf mould was available in large amounts. Resilience gardening is about making use of local resources, in a very permaculture-like fashion.

It’s also about low maintenance. While I’m concentrating on the allotment, the original Resilience Garden is ticking over nicely. The leeks and purple sprouting broccoli are finishing now, the kale going to seed, and the new peas coming up. The wild garlic is getting a bit ragged, but other salad leaves are coming up fast. The remaining small piece of lawn takes me more effort to maintain than the vegetable patch does.

You can learn the basics of starting a Resilience Garden from the Handbook...the best way to learn is to try things out. Even a windowsill pot of herbs is worth doing!

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March Diary 2017

The weather during the first part of the month was lovely and warm here in Somerset. Just as everyone got ready to sow the spring seeds, the very weekend a whole lot of lovely outdoor events were planned….an icy wind sprang up and plunged us back into winter!

The Red Brick Building Garden Club still managed to make a few raised beds at their Friday workshop. These are constructed from dismantled pallets, and only take a couple of hours to make once you’ve had a bit of practice.

raised garden bed made of pallets

raised bed with base

 

They were on display for the Seedy Sunday event on the 19th, along with a biochar stove, advice on mushroom cultivation and the main event in the hall.

Every year, there’s a seed swap day in Glastonbury, in time for planting season.  It began in a small church hall at the obscure end of the High Street.  Gardeners, sorting through their seed boxes, would bring along the ones they really weren’t going to get round to planting. They’d add them to the pile on the table, and have a look for anything interesting brought by other people.

There was tea and home made goodies, of course.  You could sample exotics such as beetroot or parsnip cake, or stick to the traditional lemon drizzle. People sold gardening books, sapling fruit trees, craft items, tools, Resilience Handbooks….the event had to move to a larger venue!

Green Wedmore held an Energy Advice Day in the yard of the George Inn on the Saturday; although only a few braved the icy cold to investigate, it was a great networking opportunity.  Mark and Liz came down from the Centre for Sustainable Energy in Bristol, with a display of in-depth advice leaflets and some very interesting gadgets.

I was quite glad I hadn’t been able to book onto the free willow fence making course run by Glastonbury Abbey – it was nice not to be outside all day! The demonstration at the garden event showed me all I needed to know about getting started – maybe I can upload the pictures sometime 😦

Meanwhile, I’m digging over the allotment after work most days.  We’ve been given another patch to look after and it’s pretty wild.  I’m turning over the soil, pulling out the main weed roots and binning them. Then, using the great heap of leaf mould which someone – the Council, I suppose – left in the car park, covering the dug ground with a thick mulch.

A local fast food store generates more cardboard than its bins hold; we’ll cover the lot with sheets of card, weighed down with bits of brick and a couple of tyres.  The first cleared patch is destined for potatoes, planted through holes in the card.  Strawberries next – the wild strawberries in my garden are lovely, but I’d like enough to make wine from!

Will the birds eat them instead?  Will rabbits get our carrots? Is it worth locking the shed when the most valuable bit of it is the door? An allotment presents a whole new set of challenges to resilience gardening!

Join the adventure – choose a task from the Resilience Handbook and see where it takes you!

Growing for Resilience

Now that the children have left for university and city life, the simplicity of the resilience kitchen shows through. I’ve been exploring this concept in depth recently, researching for my next book.

I’m exploring food resilience in a rapidly urbanising area. If the global food transport network became subject to frequent disruption, you might have to live on stored food supplemented by what you could grow within walking distance. Local farmers and growers would become an important part of your landscape again, in between the arrivals of imported foods at the declining supermarkets.

The erratic income of an author is well suited to such experiments. My colleague, Linda Benfield, and I acquired an allotment this year, in addition to our gardens. With the extra land, we’re quite well off for fresh vegetables now. Next season, we plan to grow wheat and tobacco!

We’re not small holders. We depend on local farms – we still have a few – for milk, eggs and meat. Potatoes, grains, sugar and spices come from the food co-operative; other supplies from the cash and carry. We can’t provide everything for our households from two gardens and an allotment, but we’re learning what else we need. A lifestyle more in tune with the unfolding seasons, more importance given to locally based food suppliers, more gardeners!

We’re resilience gardeners, cultivating survival skills, and every little helps!

potatos-in-tyre1

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Happy Resilient New Year!

April Diary 2016

March seemed to be a busy month, though I couldn’t exactly say how.  I built a new tyre garden on a derelict car park, harvesting a windfall heap of spent mushroom compost donated to the Red Brick Gardening Club.  Once there’s a few dry days, I’ll paint labels for the plants and take pictures.

Gardening was the theme – the long wet winter has delayed planting as the soil here was too cold and wet.  Seeds tend to rot in those conditions.  A greenhouse would have been useful to me; my neighbour has one they don’t use much.  The issue would be access for watering.

I gathered bags of the compost to fill up my own raised bed, made a trip to the seaside for seaweed, and finally began the planting.  Leeks and broccoli are the staples; carrots grown in large pots with extra sand.  The broccoli is from saved seed, but I’m still having trouble getting viable leek seed.

carrot seedlings in sand with a background of mature broccoli leaves
carrot seedlings in sand with a background of mature broccoli leaves

I’m planting Valor seed potatoes in the ground, and Stemster in tyre stacks.  The peas, soaked for a few days and beginning to sprout, have been buried beside their climbing frames.  I’ll buy in tomato plants and squashes this year.  They need that head start to be ready by the end of summer.  There’s only so much green tomato chutney a household can eat!

I’ve been out with the Resilience Handbook a few times too. Earth Hour in Chard was splendid, if bitterly cold.  Chard has an interesting history; industrial rather than farming, unusual for Somerset.  The Magic Oxygen Literary Prizegiving day in Lyme Regis was excellent, like a miniature Literary Festival!  I gave a talk on food resilience, which went down well.

signing Resilience Handbooks a t Chard Earth Hour Day

 

In between outdoor work and excursions, I’ve been working on my new book ‘Recipes for Resilience’, plus designing some talks and workshops.  I’ll be talking at the Green Wedmore meeting tonight.  I haven’t been out on an adventure for awhile now, so I’m planning a trip to the furthest south west – the Scilly Isles – promoting the Handbook and looking out for resilient recipes!

Diary October 2015

The Resilience Handbook has been out in print for a busy two months now. Distributing and promoting has taken up most of my time – learning to sell books from a standing start! I’m just about to go on tour, heading north through the scary urbanisation of the Midlands to Hebden Bridge for the Food Sovereignty gathering.

poster for Food Sovereignty

I’m planning to stay on and revisit the wonderful people at Incredible Edible Todmorden nearby – I hear their aquaculture project is thriving. Then, taking the North Wales Expressway which I hear so much about on the traffic news, off to explore Welsh bookshops ending up with a visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth. I hope the weather holds!

No wonder we obsess about the weather in Britain. I’ve had to pack for wet cold, dry cold, unseasonable warmth and days of torrential rain. I could get all or none of these during a ten day walkabout! I’m afraid I drew the line at taking a spade to dig myself out of snowdrifts, as my neighbour advised, though that may turn out to be a false economy.

Packing wasn’t the only weather challenge this autumn. There were two weeks of cold wet weather at the end of August. My optimistic crops of sweetcorn and chickpeas went mouldy where they stood. The slugs multiplied alarmingly, not even bothering to crawl into hiding during the long wet days.

Once things dried out somewhat, I had to clear up the wreckage and deal with Mollusc World Domination. I replaced the stone slab garden bed paths with oven shelves and bits of fireguard; metal grids providing no shelter for them, nor for Ant City. I’m normally quite tolerant of ants, but this year they managed to destroy an entire courgette crop and most of the broad beans with their bug farms. Chemical warfare, however, is just not on the agenda.

The elderberry harvest in early September was upset by this weather; it took far more trips to collect enough for the crucial anti-flu syrup and we may not have a full winter’s supply. Elder trees can exert a great deal of influence over their flowers. They will hold them back as buds during rainy days, then open them like sudden umbrellas as soon as the sun comes out. Much the same applies to their berry clusters.

My friend’s bees didn’t produce enough honey to see themselves over the winter, so they will have to be fed by humans. I don’t know if this was the weather. Perhaps they are on strike against pesticides.

Right. Departure delayed to let the high winds abate, but not for too long or I’ll get entangled in Rush Hour. I just have to check out Knit for the Planet – who are the Woolly Angels? – and pack some wool….

Borage and Brie Tart

The beautiful blue or white flowers of borage are a lovely feature of the Resilience Garden. They currently add colour to the patch of seeding cress, and are very attractive to bees.

cress and borage resilience garden

Borage is relentlessly self-seeding. Fortunately the leaves are edible and a regular cull of small plants yields plenty for this recipe. The other important ingredient is a chunk of cheap soft cheese – Brie, Camembert, goat’s cheese – which you’ve picked up on offer.

I found some Somerset Brie at the Farmers’ Market, and it was time for some selective weeding.

The Recipe

Collect a colander full of young borage leaves. Wash, lightly shred, and steam for about ten minutes until they are quite soft and merged into a pulp. Make a shortcrust pastry base and bake it blind. I’d use a small dish to try this out, about 8” across, which takes a mix of three ounces of fat to six ounces of plain flour.

Spread a layer of steamed borage across the cooked pastry base, between half and one centimetre thick. Now do your best to slice the soft cheese and cover the layer of borage with it. Settle for dotting chunks on the tart if you have a particularly resistant cheese; it will melt.

Bake it on the middle shelf of a medium oven until the cheese has melted to your satisfaction while the pastry edges remain unburnt. It takes twenty minutes or so, if you work while everything is still hot.

Adding Things

This is the basic structure of the borage cheese tart, to which you can add by foraging. For this one, I foraged a red onion from the vegetable basket and a few rashers of smoky bacon neglected by the lodger. These were finely chopped and fried up together, then stirred into the steamed borage. While in the garden, I’d found a couple of early courgettes. Thinly sliced, these made another layer on top of the borage.

We had the tart cold, with new potatoes from a tyre stack and salad leaves from the greenhouse next door; the meal fed three adults. Even the weeds in the Resilience Garden are useful!

Growing Rocket

Rocket leaves are good in salads. Once you are used to the slightly peppery taste, you may find ordinary lettuce too bland.

It’s this taste which makes it resistant to slug attack. Rocket is easy to grow, and can be sown any time of year for a crop of fresh leaves. These contain the essential vitamin C not found in preserved foods.

If sown in autumn, the plant will overwinter as a small form, about 20cm (8 inches) high, with many leaves. These are densely packed, providing good ground cover so that little weeding is required.

You can use this as cut and come again for winter salads. Even if covered by snow, the plant can quickly regroup to produce more leaves. If it is protected from frost, you can browse on it all winter.

When spring arrives, though, it will grow quickly, with long tough stems. Flowers, as shown in the picture, appear. The energy of the plant will be directed to seeding, so the leaves will gradually become tatty from the attacks of small pests. All parts of the plant remain edible, though, and the flowers make a pretty decoration for summer salads.

The leaves become more fiddly to collect, so once the wild garlic is out and if you can use the space for more seasonal vegetables, dig up most of the rocket at this point. Leave the best looking plants to carry on flowering. They’ll produce seed, which you can harvest when the seed pods are dry. You can use this seed to sow your next crop of rocket.

It is a prolific self seeder as well, so learn to distinguish these seedlings from inedible weeds. If you allowed any rocket to go to seed this spring, the seedlings will be coming up right now. Sowing on a different patch with saved seed can be left until September.

flowering rocket plants

This article was written to accompany packets of rocket seeds donated to the Fair Frome Food Bank in Somerset.  For more information about this project, please visit here

Not too late to grow food!

The rain has finally eased off in Somerset and the sun even comes out occasionally. The soil is saturated and the legions of molluscs are emerging from their winter caves. Yet the intrepid gardener must make the best of it and see what can be grown.

Adding some dry compost or soil improver before sowing will help to soak up the water in seed beds. Circling these with a ring of dry bran discourage slugs. Try and avoid resorting to chemical pellets, though the neighbourhood cats have probably put paid to any natural predators.

If you have windowsill or greenhouse space, start some plants off there. Don’t put them all out at once. Grow enough to have a reserve, and be careful to harden them off before planting out. Healthy plants are the best defence against pests.

It won’t be a good year for the more delicate vegetables. Potatoes can hold their own in most circumstances. Plant them around the edges. The hairy leaves of pumpkins and squash are also resistant to attack, though it is too early for these to go outside. Sow a catch crop of radish or cress in the large patch of empty space they will need later.

Remember to feed your soil. The liquid fertiliser you made last year from comfrey and nettle leaves will do just fine. Peas and beans make their own nitrogen, however, so don’t overdo it around them. Avoid treading on the soil to keep its structure intact. Keep to marked paths in large beds. Once the soil is properly aerated, the difference is obvious.

Brassicas will need constant attention this year. They’re worth some trouble for their winter leaves and the delicious sprouting heads in the following Spring. However, if they can survive the mollusc army, the caterpillars will be next. Planting nasturtiums in the same bed distracts these creatures, who will munch on them by preference.

Leeks do better in clay soil than onions. They develop slowly but steadily, requiring little maintenance apart from weeding. Root vegetables prefer sandier soil, which you can mix yourself to cultivate carrots in pots, or the larger parsnips in tyres.

Finally, don’t forget to sow some borage and marigold. The colourful flowers attract bees and make the vegetable patch look decorative. Happy gardening!

© Elizabeth J Walker 2014

 

Roast dinner and leftover stew

You’ll find that collecting vegetables from the garden adds to the preparation time for a large meal. They need to be dug up, washed and trimmed. You can economise on effort by cooking more than you need and adding the surplus to a stew the next day.

Buy a bird or joint for a roast dinner. You can afford organic free range, as you’re going to be able to get up to twelve adult meals from under £10 worth. While it is cooking, use the oven to roast trays of potatoes, onions, parsnips, carrots and squash – whatever you have available. Keep enough room for a tray of Yorkshire puddings to go in later.

Timing is crucial. Wash all the vegetables. The meat will take longest to cook, so put it in first. Read some recipes for more exact times. After the meat has cooked for awhile, the roast potatoes are next. Put them on the shelf above the meat until they start to brown when you can move them lower. If you get fed up waiting for this to happen, you might be able to finish them off under the grill. Don’t forget they are there.

Make a Yorkshire pudding mix using one egg, two tablespoons of plain flour and four fluid ounces of milk. It needs to stand for at least half an hour before cooking. Longer is better.

Prepare the vegetables for roasting. They can go in when the potatoes are getting soft nearly to the middle. You could move the meat down a shelf now. Do use hand protection when moving hot oven shelves, always take the trays off and set them on a heat proof surface first, and be careful of hot oil.

Cut up some cauliflower, shred brassica leaves, spinach or chard ready for steaming on the hob. Take your Yorkshire pudding trays, add a teaspoon of oil in the bottom of each and put the empty tray near the top of the oven for the oil to heat up.

Check the progress of the other things in the oven. The meat should be nearly ready to take out and the vegetables almost edible. If not, this is a good time to tidy up. When everything else is up to speed, take out the trays and carefully add a couple of tablespoons of the batter mix to each. The above amounts should make six, just share it around, they don’t need to be very full. Return them to the oven, near the top. Start steaming the vegetables.

The idea is to smother everyone’s plate with vegetables so that they do not notice there is only a small piece of meat each. The Yorkshires are for filler, and if you can make a thick gravy using the juices from the roasting dish, so much the better.

Hide the rest of the meat, or otherwise ensure no-one is going for seconds or midnight raids. There should be a mixture of vegetables left over. Keep these for the next day’s cooking, when you will be making leftover stew, possibly with dumplings. If you bought a bird, you can make a stock with the carcass and use this as a base for a broth on the third day.

An expanded version of this strategy, along with recipes for vegetables, has been included in ‘Recipes for Resilience’, to be published in 2018.

Mince and Barley Broth

This is incredibly cheap and can be put together in minutes, then left to cook while you do other things.

Use a large pan. Take a half pound (about 250 grams) of mince, preferably from your local butcher, and brown it in a little oil. A dash of soy sauce at this stage improves the colour. Add a couple of finely chopped onions, herbs and garlic.

Stir till the onion is soft, then lightly sprinkle with plain flour and stir some more. Slowly add a litre of hot water as you stir, then crumble a stock cube into the broth. Throw in a couple of handfuls of dried barley grains and simmer on a low heat for at least half an hour, stirring occasionally.

Serve with bread. This broth provides a nourishing meal for at least four people.  Increase the quantities to feed more.

At this time of year you will find that your stored potatoes begin to soften and sprout. Soon they will no longer be a reliable source of carbohydrates and the resilient household will need to turn to grains.

The leeks you planted last year will be ready to use now, and can be substituted for onion in this recipe. For extra vitamins, add shreds of new brassica leaves or throw in a handful of chopped wilted rocket just before serving. Use up the last of the potatoes, carrots and parsnip over the Spring to bulk the broth up into a stew.

Dedicated survivalists can, of course, strip the meat from a lightly roasted rabbit or squirrel and make a stock from the carcass instead of using mince and hot water.