Saturday, April 29, 2017

Off season brewing

Photo of four demijohns, filled with a variety of different colored liquid
New brew
In my brewing cellar (aka behind a chair in the corner of the living room), I've got another couple of batches of new homebrew.  Still brewing away from last summer is 4L of elderflower wine.  This stuff is pretty potent;  we've been slowly drinking the first batch (both started around the same time), and while strong, it's also pretty sweet.  I prefer it with ice and lemon, and maybe a little water. 

There's still 4L of cider bubbling away too, from last autumn.  I anticipate both of these will be bottled up in late spring/early summer.  I won't be making more elderflower wine this year--we've got plenty!  But certainly more cider, as we've already finished the previous batch.

Newly brewing away are 4L each of rhubarb wine and elderberry/blackberry wine.  Both of these were harvested last summer/autumn and frozen at that time--all five demijohns were still occupied.  However, once they were free, I got these two new batches going.  Although I've done elderberry before, blackberry is a new one;  we picked a couple of small tubs of each, and I figured I might as well throw them all in together (turns out I missed a tub of elderberries though, as I discovered them at the back of the freezer the week after I began the batch). 

We have one bottle of three year old elderberry wine, and several bottles of one year old wine.  I think the younger wine is too harsh, but the older wine mellows nicely.  And we have so much elderflower and rhubarb wines I may try making a bit of vinegar from them too--always good for cooking.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Broody hen

Our little one year old Pekin bantam Cookie has gone broody.  As part of my master plan for self-sufficiency in chickens, raising our own chicks is priority, with the expertise of a broody hen.

None of our other hens, in our 6 or so years of chicken keeping, has considered broodiness, so this is as new to us as it is to Cookie;  she was raised by us in a box in our dining room, after being hatched at the breeder's house.  We're taking a chance on her by buying some fertilized eggs (we've got six Orpington eggs);  hopefully she's committed and will sit on them the full three weeks--and then go on to raise them, as there's not much point in brooding them only to abandon them as hatchlings.  Though we could step in at that point and bring them back to the dining room...

But that's not ideal.  We're hoping Cookie can raise us some healthy, independent chicks, with little to no intervention from us.  And if she's successful, the next step would be to keep a breeding rooster of our own (as Tiny rooster, our English game cock, is too small to successfully mate with any of our hens, even Cookie).  So come on, Cookie:  you can do it!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Peas and beans, April 2017

Photo of a small row of broad bean plants in flower, with chickweed in between
Dwarf broad beans interplanted with chickweed
In this year's Peas/Beans bed, I already have broad beans and peas up and growing.  I actually sowed the broad beans last autumn, and they've been hanging on ever since;  in the photo above, they're flowering now.  I also sowed a second batch this spring to fill in gaps in the row--these younger plants look a bit healthier leaf-wise, but aren't near flowering yet.

Last year I had maybe four or five broad bean plants survive, which I heroically saved for seed (I got about 10 seeds...sigh).  The rest are from new bought seed;  I think the spring sowing was from my own saved seed actually.  Let's hope it performs better this year.
Photo of young pea plants growing up supports made from buddleia trimmings stuck in the ground
Mange tout, with pea sticks
The rest of the bed is growing peas now, of three separate varieties;  I kind of had to plant them next to each other because of space constraints, so I hope I can keep them growing up their own supports and not all jumbled up!  I've got a batch of mange tout (I think we call them snow peas where I come from) really growing quickly, and two batches each of early and maincrop peas.  I hope to dry the maincrop peas for winter use, and keep the early peas for eating fresh.

Because I have both the peas and broad beans starting off so early, I hope to be able to grow a catch crop of French beans and/or runner beans in their places once they finish in early summer, and then in early autumn, I will be transplanting winter brassicas after the French/runner beans are finished.  I hope my timing is right, as I really don't have any space left in this bed for any more plants--I even had to sow the second batch of maincrop peas in the perennials section (it's just sprouting up now).

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

My seed "bed"

Photo of an old wooden table covered in various seed trays and plastic tubs and pots of plants
Seed trays and containers on the patio, April 2017
My gardening manual, The Complete Guide to Self Sufficiency, by John Seymour, advocates a separate bed just for sowing seeds to be transplanted out.  My regular garden year book suggests this too, as do the backs of various seed packets.  I haven't made such a bed, since previous years' experience has taught me that direct-seeded plants rarely survive in my garden.  There are a few exceptions (chard and mizuna have self seeded pretty successfully this spring), but most of my seedlings either get mown down by slugs very early on, or just never appear at all. 

I try to raise most of my vegetables and annual flowers as transplants, to give them a better chance of surviving slug attacks.  Some of these are tender and raised indoors first (tomatoes, cucumber, etc), but a lot can be sown in trays outdoors this month.  I keep them high up, like on a table, to minimize slug attacks;  like being directly in the ground, they're just as vulnerable in a tray if it's on the ground too.

For the most part I space the seeds at regular intervals in the trays, unless the seeds are too small to handle, like celery or snapdragons;  these are broadcast, but I try to limit their numbers to around 20-30 seeds per tray.  It's really easy to accidently tip out a hundred of these tiny seeds, and they're a real pain to prick out when all clustered together.
Photo of carrot seedlings close up
Carrot seedlings in a container, April 2017
Pricking out:  when seedlings have grown a true leaf or two, I will try to prick out these little plants into regular spacing, usually into a new tray to make it easier on myself.  In February I sowed a tray with a third each of lobelia, snapdragons, and tobacco flowers, then went on to prick them out into their own separate trays.  After I pricked out all the plants I could possibly want--about 30 of each, including some for gifts--I tipped out the remainder into the compost.  

As for the seedlings which I'm able to space regularly in the trays:  brassicas, leeks, etc, I try to grow these on in their trays until they become fat little plants and transplant them into the ground.  They're usually around 2 inches apart in their trays, giving them enough room to grow for about 6 weeks before needing more space anyway.

There's one vegetable I grow exclusively in containers, and that is carrots (I have the double whammy of slugs and carrot fly).  These I broadcast and don't bother pricking out.  I'll thin them out as they grow bigger, and eat the thinnings--or the seven year old will, or the husband will...they're very popular here.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

I have a lawn

Photo of a little boy sitting cross-legged in a homemade tent on a small lawn
Seven year old in a willow wand/bedsheet tent we made
Though my food yields would no doubt be bigger without it, some of my property is still given over to grass. 

We live in a mild, rainy climate which can support a lawn quite easily, with no extra watering.  When I first moved to this house, the lawn out back was substantially larger than it is now;  it covered more than half the garden, with small flowerbeds around most of the edges.  Gradually we made those beds larger, and eventually dug up the grass in the back corner for a veg plot (now given over to perennials, both ornamental and edible).  There is still a sizeable portion of lawn, however.

When I first mentioned the possibility of digging out the lawn to replace with veg beds, the husband was not convinced.  He thought we should keep some of it for recreational purposes, and I admit, having a bit of lawn to sit on during sunny days is nice.  The lawn is also a good source of chicken food which they harvest themselves, as long as we fence them in.  It's not all just for looks, you know!

But a few years later, he told me that he would agree to replacing the grass entirely if I wished.  And really, I do want to add more veg beds--I never have enough room to plant everything I want! 

At the moment, I've got all the sunny locations near the house in veg production.  Moving past the big patio and to the back of the garage is the last place (in full sun, that is) not in food production:  it houses the umbrella-style clothes line on a patch of lawn.  This autumn, I may move the clothes line to a slightly shadier place (still part sun) on the remaining lawn, and dig that patch over.  It would add another 2m x 2m ish bed for growing some veg, and hopefully increase my yields. 

The only downside is that this new bed would be detached from all the other veg beds, and not visible from the house.  I like having all the beds close to the house where I can keep an eye on them for pests or other problems. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Purple sprouting broccoli, hooray!

Photo of purple sprouting broccoli forming on a big leafy plant
It's sprouting
I've been waiting just about a year for this moment:  I sowed the seeds last spring, grew the young plants on in my holding bed, and transplanted them out after the summer peas were finished, in late summer.  I vigilantly picked caterpillars and eggs off them every day for a month, to keep them from being stripped (they've been completely defoliated by caterpillars in previous years).  They grew all autumn and winter--in fact they even outgrew their stakes and flopped over (two are still staked up, at least).  But all the while, they've been just taking up leafy space, with no harvest from them.  Until now.

Purple sprouting broccoli doesn't grow a big central head like storebought broccoli;  it grows little shoots all over the plant, which are time consuming to harvest, I'll admit.  The first shoots are picked--I use scissors--then new, smaller shoots grow in their place which are then harvested, then new smaller ones grow, and so on.  This plant is a labor of love, from its long growing time to its little-by-little harvest.  But it's one of the few vegetables to be harvested this early in the spring, and a very welcome change to our diet:  particularly if we were eating solely from the garden (wish we were but not quite there yet).

I have around a dozen plants, all in 2016's peas/beans/brassicas bed, except for two which somehow evaded notice in the old holding bed.  Now they're all sprouting, I expect to pick them every two or three days--left too long, the shoots will flower, which are still edible but not as nice (a bit soft for cooking, and spicy when raw).  There have been years where I let them get away from me, and lost a large proportion of the harvest to flowers.  I'll be diligent this year and if I have to, will freeze any excess.  Hopefully it won't come to that though, and we'll eat it all up as it comes--it's laborious enough without the extra preparation of freezing!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

You eat what? Unusual perennial edibles

Photo of a leafy daylily plant with a pond behind
Daylilies by the pond
Some of my more ornamental perennials also happen to be edible, although I confess we only nibble them occasionally.  Case in point:  daylilies.


Known more for their pretty orange lily-like flower (apparently true lilies are poisonous--don't eat them!), every part of this plant is edible, from its roots to its flowers.  Mainly I harvest the tender young shoots of leaves in early spring, just as they appear, and eat them there and then.  They taste a bit like a cross between lettuce and onion.  When the leaves get bigger, they're a bit too tough to eat raw, and though I've added the flowers and buds to stir fries, I've never tried the roots;  I don't have a big enough supply to actually dig them up yet.


Another pretty perennial, campanula has spread itself all around my garden, including along the entire edge of my house where it meets the driveway (there is no soil here, only asphalt).  The leaves of campanula are edible, as are its cute purple flowers.  I only pick a few here and there in summer, to mix with other salad greens.

Sorrel and rhubarb

I guess people are more likely to know these two are edible!  We are more likely to eat both in the spring when there are fewer choices of vegetables in the garden.  Both are a bit sour, and for rhubarb, this adds a pleasant tang to savory stews and stir fries;  sorrel is more likely to be added to mixed leaf salad like campanula, or if I'm feeling adventurous, a creamy sauce--it goes well on salmon.
Photo of young sorrel leaves sprouting in a garden bed

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

We are what we eat: herbal!

Photo of two cabbage plants completely surrounded by a sea of nasturtiums
Nasturtiums smothering cabbages, 2016
Perennial herbs

By far, the best herbs for me are the perennials:  they require little work and keep coming back every year.  True, they don't all come back every year;  I seem to have lost the marjoram and I actually managed to kill a mint?!  Here's my tally of perennial herbs currently still alive:
  • Rosemary
  • Tarragon
  • Thyme
  • Chives
  • Sage
  • Mint 
  • Sorrel
  • Lemon balm
  • Bergamot
Of all of these, tarragon is probably my favorite, but rosemary is the biggest and most used.  Lemon balm and bergamot are more used for scent than flavor.

Annual herbs

I do my best with the annual herbs every year, but the slugs love them as much as we do.  I almost never get basil because of slugs;  even when grown in pots on the patio table it's been demolished.  However, I've had success with:
  • Chervil
  • Parsley
  • Arugula
  • Nasturtiums
  • Calendula (this and the above two are pretty good self-seeders)
We eat nasturtium leaves as a cooking herb (I like to eat them raw, but the seven year old finds them too peppery);  I use calendula to make a soothing salve although it too is edible.

Trying to grow

I've got seeds for summer savory and Chinese chives (garlic chives), neither of which I've managed to grow before;  the chives are a perennial, so hopefully I can get them going this year.  And I'll probably try basil yet again;  wish me luck!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

March 2017 Food Totals

Photo of a garden bed with shallots and garlic growing strongly
Shallots on left (small), garlic on right (huge)

27.5 oz cabbage
21 oz kale
6 oz salad greens (miner's and lamb's lettuces, arugula)
3 oz rhubarb
6 oz sprouting broccoli

Does not include fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, chives) which were too small a quantity to weigh, i.e. less than 0.5 oz.  

Total: 63.5 oz

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


No fruit harvested this month


Total:  206 eggs from 12 adult hens (at last our little Pekin bantam is laying, but old Red hen--a rescue--died of natural causes)
Total feed bought: 1 bag layers pellets (20kg total)


No preserves made this month


Cider and 4L elderflower wine still fermenting.  4L each of rhubarb wine and elderberry/blackberry wine begun brewing (rhubarb from a friend's garden, elderberries and blackberries wild harvested, all out of the freezer from 2016)