Saturday, July 30, 2016

Cooking from the garden: Chard

Rainbow chard

I don't know when I first bought chard seeds, but it was also the first year I ever ate it.  Chard is a fairly mild leafy green vegetable, similar in taste to spinach, but not quite as slimy when cooked.  It also has a fairly thick stem, which tastes a bit like a mild beet.

I let my chard plants go to seed in their second year of growth, and have been collecting my own seed for many years now.  This year I've had a few badly behaved plants go to seed in the first year:  this trait isn't wanted and these plants are cut down and not allowed to flower.  I want a full year of leaf production before seeds;  making flowers/seeds stops the leaves from growing and the plant usually dies after.

On to cooking chard.  With tender young leaves I will chop them, stems included, and add them to stews, stir fries, curries, casseroles.  The older stems can still be eaten, but I usually strip the leaves off, chop the stems finely, and cook them first, adding the leaves at the end of cooking.

While I don't generally cook chard on its own as a side dish (because A. I'm lazy, and B. it's a bit boring), I sometimes saute it with some onions, garlic, a can of tomatoes, and any herbs I happen to have lying about.

I've also experimented with lacto-fermenting the stems (no leaves) with fresh garlic.  Preliminary trials seems to indicate this is quite tasty.  I just cut the stems into inch long pieces, chucked them in a jar with some sliced garlic, covered it with water and tipped in a spoonful of salt.  Then I let it ferment, covered, on my counter for about a week.  It tastes similar to a garlicky cucumber pickle, but with a hint of beet and goes great on a salad.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Suburban Permaculture Project: The Pond

Tiny frog pond in 2014
Worried about safety, we had filled in a deep garden pond in a shady part of the garden when our son was born in 2010.  For the next two years in spring I found many frogs and toads confusedly searching for their former home. After that, they left us entirely, and I realized the mistake we'd made in destroying their habitat: a huge increase in slugs. And truthfully, I missed seeing them hopping around in the rain, and hearing their chirping in the evenings; I felt very guilty for displacing such gentle, helpful little creatures. 

In 2014 we built a new pond, and I decided to make use of its heat storage and reflection of light to my advantage by situating it in a sheltered sunny spot near to the thermal mass of our garage wall.  It began as a simple sunken half barrel with two goldfish for mosquito control.

Later in the year we expanded it with a pond liner.  One edge has a gravel beach, to enable small creatures to access the water without danger of drowning.  I added a small brick patio to another side, giving us a nice place to sit and watch the goldfish, and also adding to the thermal mass and light reflection. It's a great microclimate for heat loving plants. And frogs and toads have been spotted once more.  This spring we've even seen a tadpole!
2014 pond newly expanded complete with goldfish.  Blue barrel is incomplete gravel filter
Finally, to improve water quality, we installed a pump and a gravel filter planted with bog plants and (a few) vegetables.  The pond itself has several different kinds of plants including some natives such as cattails and kingcup, a handful of goldfish, and possibly a swan mussel (we introduced two, and one is still unaccounted for).  We've even seen a water skipper--how on earth did it get there?
Newly planter gravel filter, 2015
My original intent for the pond was frog habitat, to help with slug control.  Secondary uses include heat retention and light reflection to create a warm microclimate for my almond tree;  the possible extension to aquaponics with added gravel filter beds (hopefully this year);  the attraction for birds and insects.  It's a joy to sit by the edge of the pond in the sunshine, listening to the trickle of the fountain, watching sparrows and bees having a drink, seeing the fish sparkle and dart beneath the water.
Pond 2016

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Slugs and resilient gardening

Someone ate my pumpkin...
The bane of my garden is not the incessant rain or lack of meaningful sun.  It's slugs.  Add in snails, woodlice, aphids, and the occasional earwig, and things start to get ugly.

But really, slugs are the one pest that I have an overwhelming amount of, and only a few less than perfect strategies to cope with. 

In 2014 there was an apocalypse of slugs.  It was epic.  They ate Everything I planted or sowed in the ground.  They ate most of the things I planted or sowed in my planters and raised beds.  It was annihilation.  I tried eggshells, coffee grounds, beer traps, wheat bran.  I even went out at night with a flashlight and pair of scissors.  Nothing stopped them or even slowed them.  It was then I realized how I had put all my eggs in one basket, figuratively speaking.  Most of my food production was annual vegetables, and most of it can and will be munched by slugs.

It was then I began rethinking food gardening--how to be resilient in the face of this kind of widespread destruction.  I made a list of the things slugs left alone: fruits like apples and cherries;  rhubarb;  tulips;  grass;  you get the picture.  Slugs also didn't affect chickens or egg production, except positively (unfortunately chickens did not make a noticeable dent in slug populations).

So I planted more perennial foods, including fruit trees, and added more egg layers to the flock.  I'm encouraging slug predators like frogs and toads.  I'm beefing up numbers of vegetables which are less attractive to slugs, like runner beans and chard, and concentrating what protection I can to the slug-candy vegetables like cucumbers and cabbage.  And overplanting, to counter inevitable losses.

That year, in the end--after replacing plant after plant--I had to accept I wasn't going to get vegetables.  Believe me, it was a bitter pill to swallow.  But I did.  And in doing so, I learned a valuable lesson:  what it means to be resilient, and how much I was lacking.  I've been working towards it every since.

I have to accept there will be slugs, and other major setbacks.  But with good design, there will still be food in spite of it. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

What's brewing?

Elderberry wine and elderflower wine, in a corner of the living room
According to The Plan, I aim to make 20 bottles of homebrew this year, most of which will be country wines.  Size of bottles is not specified!  But they will be between around 400 mL to 1 L (random wine/spirits bottles with some Grolsch bottles thrown in).  Though we aren't big drinkers, it's nice to have some bottles on hand for special occasions and for gifts. 

I've already bottled up 8 bottles of apple cider in June;  we picked the apples from a wild tree last October, so it was brewed/aged in the demijohns for about 8 months before bottling.  We've drunk some:  a bit sharp, but still tasty.  We're trying to pace ourselves and not drink it all before something else is ready.  Plus we know from past experience, apple cider improves with age!  I hope to pick at least twice as many this autumn and keep a good steady supply of cider.

Around the same time as we began the cider, I also picked a batch of elderberries, again from wild local trees.  I brewed them as a wine without added sugar:  we tested it in June and decided to add sugar and yeast to referment it;  it just wasn't alcoholic enough.  It tasted pretty good, but if too weak it will spoil quickly. I hope to bottle it up soon.

I also made two batches of elderflower wine (one week apart) in June.  I picked the flowers from a neighbor's tree which hangs over the fence onto our property.  Both demijohns are fizzing away furiously, and will probably be ready to drink by Christmas, though we may let one batch age longer.  It's a light, refreshing country wine, not meant to be kept for longer than 12-18 months.  I had about a liter leftover when I filled the demijohns;  I poured this into a screw top bottle to make elderflower "champagne."  It's bubbling in the bottle, building up pressure, and we'll open it on 23 July (three weeks after bottling).

And my last demijohn--I have 5 in total--is merrily bubbling away with rhubarb wine, begun earlier this month.  When visiting my mother in law in London, I asked if I could harvest her overgrown rhubarb, and she let me have all of the stalks;  apparently she doesn't like it so I didn't feel guilty about taking it all.  It was about 8 pounds of rhubarb in total, and I took it home and brewed it up.  I chopped it, poured boiling water over and let sit overnight.  Then I strained off as much liquid as possible and added sugar and yeast.  It's a beautiful pink color, and boy is it fermenting vigorously!  Like the elderflower wine, we could start drinking around Christmas, but may let it age a bit longer.

All this typing has made me thirsty:  I think I'll go crack open a bottle of cider.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Suburban Permaculture Project: Fostering Wildlife

Dragonfly, a helpful insect predator
One of the three ethics of permaculture is Care for the Earth.  To me, this means living in harmony with all other creatures, as much as possible.  To this end, I have designed my garden to be a haven for local wildlife, as well as a food-producing engine.


Birds are one of the most helpful animals in my garden.  They eat all sorts of pests: from slugs and snails, to aphids and woodlice.  I have two mature trees at the edge of my garden, plus many different small trees, shrubs, and plants of various heights, to provide both cover and nesting sites for all kinds of local birds.  They drink and bathe in the shallow end of our pond.  I even have some plants and shrubs which I keep specifically with birds in mind, like guelder rose and berberis, both of which have lots of berries and provide good hiding places and shelter.

Of course, there is a small downside to having birds:  they can eat my food before I get a chance to!  However, for the most part, I have found having such a diverse amount of living bird food (both plant/seed/berry and insect), means the birds aren't much interested in my fruit and vegetables.  I keep my soft fruit bushes surrounded by other plants in a polyculture, and the birds don't seem to notice the berries.  However, I net my small morello cherry tree against birds, as those bright red cherries are simply irresistible;  I don't blame them for wanting to eat them all!  And after I have picked around 75% of them, I remove the net and let the birds have the rest.

This year we've had regular visits from many different birds:  goldfinches, robins, wrens, sparrows, blackbirds, thrushes, and doves.  The blackbirds and thrushes are particularly good for controlling pests, and I love to see them out and about teaching their children how to hunt bugs and slugs.

Frogs and toads

We dug our pond in 2014 to attract frogs and toads, first and foremost;  since then, we have seen one or two, hopping about the garden.  These gentle amphibians are great slug eaters, and I hope they build up a good population in our pond, which has a shallow end for getting in and out, and is deep enough for frogs and toads to hide at the bottom without being seen.


One of the cutest local predators are the spiky hedgehogs.  I have not seen any yet this year, but in past years have spotted them both in my garden and in the neighborhood.  I have plenty of low growing ground cover plants around the edges of my garden, as well as brush piles and loose leaf litter--all great places for them to sleep or hide.  I also have two or three small gaps in my fences to allow them to get into and out of the garden, as they like to range far and wide in their hunt for slugs and snails.

Helpful bugs

Lots of bugs are an asset in the garden.  Many, like ladybugs and hoverflies, are well known aphid-eaters.  To attract and foster them I actually leave the aphids alone, and simply let these predators handle it.  Since my garden is so diverse in plants and weeds, I have built up a regular population of these helpful predators over the years;  I really don't have much of a problem with aphids any more.  I've often seen sparrows delicately eating aphids, too.

Other bugs, like bees and butterflies, are needed to pollinate flowers for producing fruit.  I have many flowers in my garden, and try to have something flowering at all times during the year--even in the middle of winter.  I want bees in my garden at all times, to help pollinate my fruit trees, and vegetables like zuccini and tomatoes, and to help me in my seed saving adventures. 

There are more helpful creepy crawlies:  beetles to eat slug eggs, wasps to eat cabbage white moths and caterpillars, spiders to eat flies, dragonflies to eat mosquitoes, and so on.  All of these little creatures are welcome in my garden, and the abundance of plants and weeds means they have plenty of habitat.


All these creatures act together, along with their plant and micro-organism counterparts, to add to the health and vitality to the ecosystem.  Each creature provides a function, and some--like the pollinators--are absolutely necessary for my garden to grow and thrive.  Because of this, I operate on a live and let live policy, even for pests* and weeds:  they all have a role to play;  and my garden, and little part of the world, is more vibrant and productive for it.

*Disclaimer:  I will kill slugs, snails, and cabbage white caterpillars on sight, but I only step on the ones I see;  I don't put down slug killer/insecticide.  Every other pest gets a free pass--and they generally don't last long enough to become a problem.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Let the vegetables begin!

Main vegetable patch (misc bed and pea/bean bed), July 2016
It's time to stop buying veg from the store.  We will still be buying fruit.  And while it  may sound like exploiting loopholes, we are allowed to buy all kinds of fruit, and that includes things like peppers, cucumbers, avocados, etc. 

It is my goal to stop buying vegetables for a full year, starting now.  To be honest, this has been my goal for many years now and I've never achieved it.  We usually begin buying again around mid-November, though we generally still have a bit of frozen garden veg now and again until maybe January.  It may happen again this year exactly the same.  Maybe I can push it back so that we start buying in January, with odds and ends until March? 

As far as winter veg goes, I'm still sowing (kale, rutabaga, pak choi, chicory) and growing (cabbage, sprouting broccoli, leeks).  I've got some growing for storage:  onions, garlic, peas, runner beans.  I've got seeds for winter salad leaves:  lettuce, miner's lettuce, corn salad.

I keep trying to grow root crops, a winter staple, but the slugs and bugs seem to seek them out over everything else;  I only have a few beets and celeriac growing, from several sowings.  I have some carrots in a few planters, but they won't be for winter use:  they don't get big enough or plentiful enough for storage--but it's better than the beet situation.  I'll be lucky if I get ten beets this autumn.  And one celeriac...

But enough of my misgivings.  Let the vegetables begin!

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Suburban Permaculture Project: Building Soil

Chickens helping the hydrangea grow, 2015
I'm a firm believer that good soil turns out good food.  Lots of organic matter, lots of worms and other soil organisms means good nutrition for plants, and good nutrition for my family.  Since first reading about gardening, and especially after learning about permaculture, I have been working to build my soil.

Almost all organic matter on site is kept and recycled back into my soil.  I compost it, feed it to chickens (who compost it for me), mulch with it, or even just bury it (we have a veritable chicken graveyard out back).  This could be food waste or garden waste;  I even compost small pieces of (nonsynthetic) fabric and yarn.  To me, it's actually not waste at all, but valuable nutrition for my soil.  

We buy in a few straw bales a year for chicken bedding, which is a wonderful addition to the soil over winter. I noticed a big difference in plant health and growth once we began incorporating it.  A few months after a top dressing of used bedding the soil is black, soft, and full of worms.  It's an abundant resource, too--chickens poo constantly!

What's more, we have been saving our own urine for the compost pile, and occasionally (when diluted) to fertilize plants.  After all, it's mostly just nitrogen and water:  two things plants love!  Perhaps one day we may even switch entirely to a composting toilet, but for now, we collect our urine and use it in the garden, another way of adding nutrition in the soil.

I don't dig my soil, except to plant or harvest.  I don't want to disturb all those creatures at work down there, and as I don't step on it, it doesn't get compacted:  there's really no need for digging.  When I incorporate compost or chicken bedding, I simply spread it on top and let the worms dig it in for me.  If I want to replant a weedy bed, I'll sheet mulch on top of it:  chop and drop the weeds (or just flatten them), cover them with cardboard or newspaper, then a layer of compost and/or topsoil on top to plant into.   Much less work than pulling out dozens of weeds--which will only grow back bigger and better, let's be honest!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Four reasons to save seeds

Brussels sprouts, going to seed June 2016
This year I'm growing the following solely from my own collected seed:
  • Runner beans, climbing beans and peas
  • Tomatoes
  • Chard
  • Pumpkin (from a local farm, not my own garden)
I grow most of my vegetables from seed;  the main exception are perennials like rhubarb which come back every year--however even some of my perennials, like sorrel, have been grown from seed.  Since I grow a lot of vegetables, this translates to a lot of seeds.  I like to collect my own seed where possible, for a variety of reasons.

Saving money

Let's face it, buying seeds costs money.  Just one or two packets aren't too expensive really, but they can add up especially year after year.  I try to buy seeds on sale, both online and at the garden center, but sometimes I Need Seeds Now, and have to pay full price.  If I paid full price for all my seeds, it would add up to around £30-£50 a year.  I'd much rather save that money and collect my own, for free.

Stronger, more adapted plants

I admit, I'm not the best gardener around.  A lot of my plants don't make it.  In 2014, every single plant and seed that went into my garden died.  All of them!  The only things that hung on were a couple things in planters and raised beds on my patio.  It was a combination of slugs and a soil pH change (due to excessive concrete from the neighbor's new fence)--and just plain bad luck.  It was a sad, sad year for me.

Because there are so many fatalities (and I get these every year), I know the plants that do survive are strong and well-adapted to my garden;  they obviously have good pest and disease resistance, and are vigorous growers.  I want to collect seed from them, since they have a proven track record.


I don't mean my saved seeds are more reliable than bought seed (although this is sometimes the case).  However, I have a supply of seeds in case the store doesn't have them.  Sometimes the seeds I want aren't available:  they've sold out, or they've been discontinued.  When I save my own seeds, I don't have to worry about trying to source them every year:   they're in an envelope in my cupboard already!

It's easy

Not only am I not the best gardener, I'm also pretty lazy.  I certainly put in the work in spring when things are getting started, but after that I just want to take the easy route.  It takes effort to drive to the garden center and read the backs of seed packets and compare prices.  It doesn't take much to collect seed:  let the plants flower and then gather the seeds once they're ripe.  Some plants just seed themselves:  even better!  I have self-seeded chard and mizuna all over the place this year, and flowers like nasturtiums, honesty and poppies, too.

True, some seeds need a little more work.  For example, different kinds of brassicas shouldn't be allowed to flower at the same time, to avoid cross pollination;  I choose one brassica per year to save seeds from (Brussels sprouts this year).  And some seeds require a little bit of treatment before saving, like tomato seeds which should be slightly fermented in water before drying out.  But all in all, that tiny bit of extra effort is worth it to have seeds which are reliable, have strong genetics, and are free.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

June 2016 Food Totals

Redcurrant, June 2016

Miner's lettuce: 1 oz
Arugula:  2.5 oz
Chard:  55 oz
Rhubarb:  8 oz
Kale:  23.5 oz
Sorrel:  5.5 oz
Lettuce:  4 oz
Spring onion:  11.5 oz
Broad beans:  2.5 oz
Garlic (immature):  2 oz
Pak choi:  4.5 oz

Total:  118 oz, or 7 lb 6 oz

Does not include a small amount of peas, or fresh herbs (tarragon, rosemary, chives) which were either too small an amount to weigh, i.e. less than 0.5 oz, or eaten straight from the plant.

Note:  I weigh all my vegetables after preparation:  peeling, trimming, etc.


Total:  5 strawberries and 8 redcurrants


Total:  170 eggs (from 10 adult hens)
Total feed bought:  2 bags layers pellets
Elderflower:  makes a refreshing, lightly alcoholic brew

1 medium jar pickled rhubarb with garlic


9 L elderflower wine begun brewing
6 L elderberry wine begun refermenting (this batch from 2015)
6 L cider bottled up (this batch from 2015)