Only a few weeks till Hallowe’en and if you’ve been growing pumpkins, this is your time to shine. Carving your own home-grown pumpkin into a Jack’o’Lantern for the doorstep is mighty satisfying, and one of those rites of passage for a veg grower: it puts a full stop on the autumn harvest and readies you for the crisp, bright days and rich, earthy flavours of winter.
Your choice of pumpkin is crucial if you’re to produce a lantern that’s just the right size and shape for carving. Don’t be tempted to grow real mammoths like ‘Atlantic Giant’: they’re fun, but produce behemoth fruits that easily lose their shape and are often big enough to block the doorway! Continue reading…
In the garden, it’s August: the pumpkins are swelling, the beans are coming thick and fast, and I’m feasting on courgettes, tomatoes and cucumbers.
But in my head, it’s October, or maybe November, and I’m thinking about my winter salad supply.
As the lovely students on my course, Self-Sufficient Veg Gardening will tell you, I’m big on planning. Stay one step ahead of the season and you’ll give yourself the best chance of a veg plot that’s pumping out the produce month after month, all year round.
So right now, though the summer harvest is in full swing, I’m pulling out the seed trays and taking to the potting bench again to get my winter greens under way. At this time of year seeds germinate quickly, and there’s time for them to grow to picking size by November, when the cold weather hits. Continue reading…
Harvesting this month: French beans, carrots, the last of the courgettes and patty pan summer squash, Musquee de Provence winter squash, potatoes (maincrops to store), raspberries, curled-leaf and flat-leaf parsley, baby-leaf salads from pots outside the back door.
Sowing this month: Broad beans for overwintering, beetroot (for leaves), turnips (for leaves), spring onions, and round-rooted carrots.
This month I will be:
Clearing out the greenhouses
Pricking out greenhouse salad seedlings
Turning the compost
Mulching empty beds
Planting herbs and perennial vegetables
Juicing the last of the apples (mine and other people’s!)
Remember my poor mouse-beheaded beetroot seedlings from last month?
The obvious solution was to trap the mice – and that’s certainly what I would have done before I became aware of the need for sustainability in the garden.
I don’t like killing things at the best of times: and with mice in particular they’re a really important food source for larger predators like owls, so every mouse that you trap is one removed from the wider ecosystem.
Also mouse traps are, usually, plastic, and I have vowed not to buy any new plastic for my garden (even if it’s not strictly for gardening).
The wildlife photographer Simon King once said to me that we humans are really, really clever animals: so if we can’t figure out a way to keep other animals away from our food without killing them, we’re not thinking hard enough.
Quite right: so I put my humanoid thinking cap on, and this is what I came up with.
I bought myself a big roll of 8mm gauge mesh from B&Q for about £20 and made myself a mesh cloche (the roll was big enough to make two or three, but one step at a time).
It took a while to get right: I had to staple the bottom edges to wooden battens, burying these in the ground to hold the whole thing stable and prevent mice from burrowing underneath, and the ends are squares of mesh tied in with wire, again buried a few inches beneath the ground.
But I resowed my beetroot seeds at the beginning of the month and they are already much bigger than they ever reached last month before the mice got them. It’s tricky to get in and weed, but I sow into mulch so the few weeds that have come up aren’t too troublesome. Once the seedlings have developed into sturdy young plants, of less interest to mice, I will remove the whole cloche and stash it to use elsewhere. It should last me several years of mouse-free sowing.
The big greenhouse clearout
That’s it: time to admit defeat. I had a good pick over of the last tomatoes to cook down and freeze, and now the plants are undeniably finished. They’ll go onto the compost heap (I had a spot of blight during the season where the rain got inside the greenhouse – but even blighted foliage can be composted as the disease doesn’t survive once the foliage breaks down).
Once the toms are out I’ll give the glass a good wash, then weed out the borders and refresh with a good thick (5cm/2″) mulch of garden compost before replanting with greenhouse salads (see below). My only dilemma is that I can’t bear to pull up those lovely French marigolds just yet; I sowed them back in February and they’ve been flowering their socks off all summer, no deadheading required. I guess the salads will just have to go in behind them till they’re done.
Pricking out salads
All the salad plants I sowed last month are now big sturdy seedlings and ready to move on into their own individual newspaper pots (the above are Winter Density lettuce (left) and mizuna (right)).
I’m a big fan of newspaper pots: zero plastic and pretty much zero carbon (as you’re reusing waste newspaper to make them) and the seedlings do so much better as their roots grow through the sides and don’t circle as they would in plastic. I get much better results from them every year – well worth the extra 15 minutes it takes me to fill a seed tray with paper pots.
The last of the windfalls: I have a lovely little Devonshire Quarrenden apple tree, very early eater with a lovely sweet, strawberry-like flavour. But my only slight problem is that it crops so early in the year – over by about mid-September most years – that I miss all the Apple Days and my windfalls are already long gone before I can juice them.
This year, what with the coronavirus an’ all, Apple Days aren’t really happening – or at least not the ones with the big community juicing events. Luckily, though, I’ve found a friend with access to a scratter, to chop up the windfalls into rough pieces, and a press, to make the juice.
I am taking along my own few remaining windfalls, and scavenging apples from everyone I can think of with a surplus. It’s one of the best ways I know of storing the abundance our apple trees provide: tip the juice into saved plastic litre bottles and freeze, then savour the rich, sweet flavour all through winter. Yum.
Harvesting this month: French beans, courgettes, patty pan summer squash, sweetcorn, potatoes (the last of the second earlies to eat, plus maincrops to store), apples and raspberries, plus cucumbers and tomatoes from the greenhouse, and baby-leaf salads from pots outside the back door.
Sowing this month: Autumn-sown (Japanese) onions and lots of salads, for outside (under cloches) and in pots to refill the greenhouse borders once the toms are out, including winter lettuce, mizuna, mibuna, American land cress, corn salad, chard, beetroot (for leaves), turnips (for leaves), spring onions, and round-rooted carrots.
This month I will be:
Clearing summer brassicas
Planting autumn-sown onion sets
Mulching empty beds
Taking cuttings of herbs and borderline-tender plants like salvias and pelargoniums
Planting herbs and perennial vegetables
Cooking apples (and tomatoes) to freeze for winter
New perennial crops for this year
Perennial vegetables are so much more sustainable than annual as you don’t have to continually disturb the soil (so no carbon release) and they require much less input in the way of resources compared to raising seeds and using lots of water, warmth, feed and compost.
There aren’t many of them, though, and some are very unfamiliar. So one of my projects this season has been to start a perennial vegetable garden. No soil disturbance, a fraction of the inputs (feed, water, fertiliser, compost) of annual vegetables, and you lock up more carbon with permanent planting too. And a fraction of the effort of regular vegetable gardening. But the trick is to find perennial vegetables you actually want to eat: here’s what I’ve started with.
Daubenton’s (perennial) kale is growing well: it’s under a little tent of mesh to keep the butterflies off but I’ll remove that once they go away at the end of the season.
The skirret was a total failure: sowed direct in May as instructed, absolutely no seedlings. No idea if the slugs got them or if it was too dry or if they just didn’t fancy it this year. It may have been the seeds themselves so will order from a different supplier next year just in case. And I will be sowing them into pots where I can keep an eye on them.
Salsify were more successful: several good leafy rosettes now from direct sowing in May. I am leaving them to establish for a year or two before I try to pull a few roots.
American ground nut (Apios americana): I planted these odd little tubers (they are actually beans but are more like small, floury potatoes to eat) at the foot of canes by the low wall. Not all survived, but enough did for me to think this will be an interesting taste test next year!
Chinese artichokes: Easy as anything to grow – they’re related to deadnettle. I’ve got them in an old sink in the back garden: I will wait until they die back before harvesting some of the knobbly roots to try (probably next month: watch this space).
And a new addition: Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis). It’s not the most spectacular plant, being a clump of fuzzy-felt leaves and not much else. But it is bone hardy and a useful spicy salad ingredient. And when I say spicy, I mean spicy: I had a little taste and like most things Turkish it’s ten times stronger than anything you’ve ever tasted before. I am not sure if I like it yet, but I will persevere.
New mentoring service
Well actually it’s not entirely new: I’ve been mentoring several students recently and have found it works so well I am offering it more widely.
The idea is that you have me “on tap” for advice and help about organic and sustainable methods of food growing, over email (no complicated technology to master!) and when you need it. Arrange an hour whenever it suits you and I can answer questions, give you loads of ideas and inspiration, guide you in starting up a new veg garden or help you develop an existing one. It’s entirely up to you what we talk about and it’s completely tailored to you and your garden. Book a one-off session, or a regular time each week. It’s up to you!
A lovely comment from one regular student recently: “I’m SO glad you’re there!”
For more details contact me at sally(dot)nex(at)btinternet(dot)com.
This year’s tomatoes: the verdict
I haven’t a lot of room in the garden to grow dozens of different types of tomatoes but I do like to try one or two new ones each year (there are about 7,500 varieties to choose from so there’s always one you haven’t grown before)
It has not been a vintage year. I’ve had lots of tomatoes: but only one of the three I grew came up to scratch.
Ailsa Craig Good old Ailsa. What would we do without her? There are relatively few straightforward medium-sized salad toms around nowadays – we all seem to be growing fancy cherries, black tomatoes and beefsteaks instead. But sometimes all you need is a straightforward slicing tom and this one is fantastic: reliable, prolific and great flavour too.
Coeur de Bue To be honest this is my own fault as I was being a cheapskate. I grew Coeur de Boeuf a year or two ago and loved it: all the flavour and size of a beefsteak without the difficulty (or low yields). This one came as a freebie and I thought, Bue? Boeuf? Not much in it… how wrong can you be. Insipid taste, pinkish red (so hard to tell when it’s ripe) and a sort of dry texture: a pale shadow of the original. Won’t be growing again.
Reisentomate Another freebie I should have turned down. It’s an interesting idea: a tomato that grows in segments, so you can pick off a segment at a time to eat rather than having the whole tomato. But beyond the novelty value, you’ve got to ask yourself….. why? Flavour insipid, texture dry, fruits small. Just no.
I have been battling the mice. You may think this would be something of an unequal fight, being as I’m several gazillion times their size but they are obviously far cleverer than me.
It started with them taking munchies out of my low-hanging tomatoes: I have never had this happen before in all my 25+ years of growing veg but it was definitely mice as they climbed on top of one fruit and left a lot of poo as a calling card. Yum #not.
Now they’re after my beetroot seedlings. I sowed them direct and they came up within days. Yet along came my whiskery friends and… no more beetroot seedlings.
I do have a feral cat but she is getting old nowadays and spends most of her time on the boiler. I am also starting to think a cat brings too much in the way of collateral damage: don’t mind the baby rabbits so much, but the robins are heartbreaking. So Sooty is to be my last cat and I will have to think of other ways to keep the little blighters off my food in future.
I could trap them, but I always prefer a live and let live policy so for now I am trying an alternative approach. Come back next month for news of its success (or not).
By far the most exciting thing to happen to me in the middle of a rainy and slightly frustrating week was the publication of my new book.
This is all a novel experience for me (sorry, dreadful pun) and I am finding it a little disconcerting: I have to draw attention to myself, for one thing, blow my own trumpet and generally go on about what I do instead of hiding in a corner of my living room bashing away at my keyboard behind the comforting anonymity of a computer screen.
However, now I find myself with book launches, author signings, talks and podcasts to do: publicity a go-go, and nowhere for a slightly reclusive gardener to hide. I can’t even go down to the far end of the veg garden where nobody can find me, as it’s (still) raining.
The book began as a simple idea: what if everyone could be just a little bit self-sufficient? Even if they lived a normal 21st century life in an ordinary house, without a smallholding, or much time, just like me?
And – as these things do – it mushroomed into an examination of what exactly it means to be self-sufficient, and from there became a gallop through the last 20 years of my life distilled into all the stuff I’ve learned about growing things and providing for myself and my family, on a journey of my own to look after myself as much as I possibly could through my own efforts.
As I’ve learned to supply more and more of my own food from my back garden, plus various borrowed fields, allotments and strips of land, I have realised lots of things.
First: there’s no such thing as self-sufficiency. Even the most dedicated off-gridder has to hew their house from the surrounding woodland with an axe someone else has smelted and forged. So once you’ve taken that on board, it becomes a question of how self-sufficient you can be.
And then you realise that everyone can supply at least some of their food by their own efforts. Even if all you’ve got is a doorstep, you can plant a rosemary bush in a pot in the sun and never have to buy herbs wrapped in plastic from the supermarket again.
Add a middle-sized garden and you can become self-sufficient in half-a-dozen vegetables really easily, and another dozen or so with a little extra effort. Start to get really hooked (and you will) and you can knock more things off your weekly shopping list, including fruit, drinks, cough and cold remedies, tea, eggs, lamb…
There will always be some things I will have to rely on others for. Flour, for one thing, and bread, pasta and rice. Butter, milk and cheese (I could keep goats, but I value my sanity: I have chased far too many of my mum’s goats across various villages in the South of France to want to ever do that again. Long story). Clothes (I can’t wear wool. Besides – woolly knickers. ‘Nuff said); cars and transport, other than walking.
So actually, in the grand scheme of things, I’m probably not that self-sufficient at all. But the point is, it is hugely important to me that I produce as much as is within my power from my own efforts.
Why? Because that way, I can eat absolutely fresh, organic food that I know for sure has never been sprayed with any chemicals at all, or injected with antibiotics unless it needs to be – and there’s lots of it, and it tastes great.
Because there is something deeply satisfying about sitting down to a plate of food and knowing that you have provided everything on it, through your own efforts. It taps into some atavistic caveman instinct and there’s something profoundly reassuring in the knowledge that, come the apocalpyse, we’ll be all right. We certainly won’t go short of home-made chutney, that’s for sure.
And because when I’m providing for myself it means I’m not sitting like a baby bird, mouth open, waiting helplessly for someone else to feed me. It’s a matter of self-respect. Plus growing what I eat, even if it’s just a part of my overall consumption, makes me really think about where my food comes from, and appreciate the effort that goes into growing it: and that makes me waste less, and pollute less, and treat the animals that produce my food better. It makes me responsible, as far as I can be, for the weight of my foot upon the world. And besides, it’s a lot of fun. Care to join me?
Grab your own copy of Growing Self-Sufficiency at a hefty introductory discount from Wordery – here’s the link!
Not, I must hastily add, in the alcoholic sense (well, not very often and only in extremis). But in the reach out into the garden and grab your remedy of choice sort of sense.
Herbal medicines can be as simple as a sprig of peppermint dunked in a mug of boiling water to ease your indigestion after an overindulgent meal: tastier than a Rennies, and at least you know exactly what’s gone into it.
Or you can go the whole hog and start boiling up comfrey roots into a sticky paste to smear over gauze in a poultice: wrap it around a sprain and it’ll ease pain and reduce swelling. Not for nothing is comfrey commonly known as knitbone.
I use sage tea to soothe a sore throat; I try to drink a rosemary tisane at about elevenish to aid my failing memory (the redoubtable Jekka McVicar swears by this one). There’s an aloe vera plant on my kitchen windowsill in case anyone should burn themselves; and I’ll pick a leaf of feverfew in the herb garden to slip into a cheese sandwich (just a little as it’s quite bitter) to ease the pain of headaches, including migraines, which my youngest occasionally suffers from. There are loads more: in fact there’s a whole chapter on the subject, including recipes, in my new book (in all good bookshops from September 7th!)
But I wish I’d had this book on my shelf to refer to while I was writing it. My knowledge on herbal medicine tends to be a bit piecemeal, handed down from friends and relatives or snippets picked up from books and magazines. So I’m not all that adventurous, really: I stick to my known remedies and go to the doctor for the rest.
This book, though, gathers all those scraps of herbal lore into one beautiful tome, along with a whole load of other remedies I never even knew existed. Who knew you could brew hawthorn berries into a spicy wine to help with poor circulation? Or that squash leaves are anti-inflammatories – you can rub the sap on burns, apparently. Elderberries prevent colds from taking hold – take a teaspoon of elderberry-infused vinegar three times a day at the first signs of a cold and you’ll head off the worst. And chickweed, of all things, can help soothe eczema.
I particularly like the considered, measured approach to the subject. This is no flag-waving sales pitch for the benefits of herbal medicine: it’s an impartial assessment of the potential uses for each plant and – best of all – the scientific basis (if any) for its effectiveness.
So let’s take hops, for example: I’m familiar with them as a sedative, usually the dried flowers slipped into a pillowcase to help you sleep. That use is listed here (along with others including mixing it with poppy seeds to treat bruises and boils); but there’s also an analysis of the evidence. There are few clinical trials (yet) which support its usefulness for treating restlessness and anxiety; but solid evidence confirming that the essential oils are antibacterial.
A balanced view is a rare thing in the field of herbal medicine, so this alone would have earned this book a place on my “essential reading” shelf. But it’s also packed with recipes and instructions – everything from rosehip syrup to calendula lip balm and passionflower tea (it helps you sleep). And all in a book which is a useful size – a tad larger than A5, so you can hold it in one hand quite comfortably while stirring the chickweed cream with the other. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the exquisite illustrations lifted mainly from Kew’s archives of botanical art. My one and only criticism of this otherwise thoughtfully compiled book is that there is no detailed list of who painted these beautiful works of art; credit where credit is due, after all.
But overall this is one of the best books to land on my desk in ages, and one which I can already see I shall be thumbing through again and again. In short – an essential reference work for anyone who has even a passing interest in picking their medicines from the garden. I will treasure my copy for years to come.
A little interlude from my tour around the Garden Isle, as I have a little news I wanted to share…
Our first arrival came along on Friday afternoon. Slightly took me by surprise, if I’m honest, as we weren’t due any lambs till Tuesday, and I hadn’t even seriously started checking the ewes regularly yet. But I turned up for the usual afternoon feed to find my oldest and most experienced ewe, Apple, on her side and in the middle of giving birth.
They look very pathetic when they first emerge: I try to stop myself interfering too much if I can possibly help it though as the ewe knows best what to do. In this case all I did was to make sure the mucus was cleared away from the lamb’s nostrils and it was breathing OK, then lifted a leg to find out what we had – a ewe lamb, as it turns out. How lovely: that means we can keep her. The kids have already named her Sugar….
This particular ewe normally has twins, so it was a surprise to have her with a single for the first time: I had been worrying that she was smaller than usual this close to lambing, and now I know why.
We waited with them till the lamb was up on her feet and had taken her first feed: it took a while, about half an hour, but she figured it out in the end. I towelled her down a little as it was chilly and they do come out sopping wet: then I sprayed her navel thoroughly with iodine. This is a key point of entry for infection so you have to be diligent: I sprayed it twice more over the next 12 hours or so just to make sure. You can tell when it’s healed well because it dries up and shrivels with no swelling by the belly.
What a difference a day makes. By Saturday morning she was up and about and though a little wobbly still, very healthy, taking an interest in her surroundings (and her mum’s milk supply!) and even trying a little skip, though she did fall over mostly. Her eyes are clear too – very important as we have a little inturned eyelashes in our flock, easy to fix but you have to be quick as it’s a very painful condition.
And this is what you want to see. Mum healthy, eating and feeding well: later today, after two days inside where I can keep an eye on them, they’ll be going out in the field with a companion for company, and we’ll be waiting for the remaining two to arrive.
Big ol’ wattles… check. Handsome tail feathers… check. It’s taken him a while, but he’s definitely decided he’s a boy. Oh dear…
One of my girls has turned into a boy.
I’m talking hens: or rather, in this case, cockerels. This spring I had a slightly chaotic little spate of broody hens and just sort of left two of them on a couple of clutches of eggs. This turned out to be a very bad idea, as hens, it seems, get very jealous of each other when they’re sitting on eggs. It was when I turned up at the henhouse to find one broody sitting plumb on top of the other one in an attempt to hatch out her eggs as well that I realised I probably should have shut them both into separate broody cages.
Well, you live and you learn: unsurprisingly hardly any of the eggs hatched as the moment the hens got a chick they wandered off and abandoned the rest of the clutch. But I did get two precious little chicks, one for each broody, from my haphazard and rather traumatic experiment.
I did think that both were female and was quietly congratulating myself: chickens are notorious for producing clutches which are 99% male therefore forcing you to have to dispose of a lot of unwanted cockerels.
However now, coming up for a year later, it is rather obvious that one of my ‘she’s’ is in fact a ‘he’.
This is a bit of a blow. And it brings me up short against my stated desire to be self-sufficient in as many kinds of meat as I can manage (save beef: I just don’t have the access to enough land, or the right body clock, to keep cows).
I have so far managed pork, lamb and pheasant without once killing anything with my bare hands. But chickens are a different matter: unless you raise a lot, enough to justify taking them to the local slaughterhouse, it’s definitely DIY.
I hold the opinion that if you aren’t prepared to face up to the realities of killing animals, you should be vegetarian. So this is my test. If I can’t kill my chicken myself, it’s lentils all the way.
One of the things that’s holding me back is simple fear of doing the animal harm and killing it inhumanely through my own ignorance. So since I know a friend who is an old hand at wringing chickens’ necks I think I’m going to co-opt her and get her to oversee my efforts, and advise the least painful way to do it (preferably without the chicken knowing a thing about it, which is what I always strive for).
I’ve got to get on with it soon as Clive (Big Kahuna cockerel and baby-cockerel’s dad) is starting to notice there’s a young pretender in the flock and there is more squabbling than I’m happy with. And that can only get worse.
At least there will be roast chicken for tea at the end of all this. Wish me luck…
There is a distinct air of panic hanging around my greenhouses this weekend.
This is because I have been caught on the hop. Two weeks of double-digit temperatures in November lulled me into a false sense of security: it may have been raining, but global warming and all that – I expected another winter like the last one, when the first (half-hearted) frost didn’t arrive till February.
So I’ve been eyeing the deepening blues on the weather forecast with increasing alarm: and this Sunday there is an undeniable minus figure on the chart.
This has become highly unusual here in Somerset, and it’s sent me into a bit of a tailspin. I had already cleared out the tattered remains of the old crops, at least, although that was mainly so that I could plant the salads in place of this year’s tomatoes.
This morning saw me start the process of covering the borders with weed-suppressing membrane and lining the inside of the frost-free greenhouse with bubblewrap. A heater will go in here on Sunday, set to a couple of degrees above freezing. I’m kind of hoping I won’t need it for more than a few nights. And I’ll be spending my Sunday afternoon moving in the entire collection of scented-leaved geraniums, a couple of lemon verbenas, several Mexican sages, the prickly pear that’s been holidaying outside for the summer and a purple banana (I live in hope).
(In case you’re wondering why I’m not mentioning the monster tree chilli in the corner, by the way – that’s because there’s more on that tomorrow.)
There are potatoes in here – second-cropping ones, timed to be ready for Christmas. But I’m a bit worried about them: they’ve been growing like topsy lately but are showing definite signs of blight. No wonder: it’s been so damp lately I think I’m getting blight. I’ve trimmed off the worst and am now keeping my fingers crossed the disease will be slowed by cold.
The other greenhouse, meanwhile, is looking much more shipshape: I have planted out the lettuces and moved in my three-pot salad and coriander plots (read all about it in the bookywook next Easter folks!). I just cleared the latest pot so once the cold snap is over I’ll sow this with a winter mix.
All set for winter then: and looking like a good supply of leafy salads for us till spring. In here there are several kinds of lettuces, mibuna and chard; I have some mizuna in a container I’m wanting to move in here too as it’ll keep growing much longer under glass. And I’m expecting the coriander to keep leafy till it gets seriously cold: it’s miles easier to grow at this time of year as it’s not so inclined to bolt.
So we’re almost shipshape and ready to go: just got to figure out where that last sheet of bubblewrap has got to…