Things are Popping Up After the Late Start to Spring!

Blauwschokkers Pole Peas

Blauwschokkers Pole Peas

After the late start to spring, with the ground finally un-soggified, Suz and I took the day off to make use of the sunshine and get the patch into some sort of order. There’s a list of post-winter jobs that still need doing – the grass had its first cut on Saturday, electric fence lines were strimmed, grassless soil was rotovated, seeded and rollered, and Colin the Light Sussex cock was popped in with his nieces to do his job. Coops were shuffled,

De-weeding strawberry runners

De-weeding strawberry runners

Eddie the cock was moved from his into his aunts’ paddock, which leaves a coop spare for the Marsh Daisy chicks that are currently just under two weeks old. Sunday continued the work, and the bantams were moved onto fresh grass.

Today, whilst I had the easy job of sowing the seed in the raised bed, Suz had the unenviable task of weeding errant strawberry runners from under the current bushes, then weeding the future beds of the sunflowers and sweet corn. Horrendous job!

Raised bed

Raised bed

Continuing to use our organic seed from the Seed Co-operative, we sowed in the raised bed the following:

  • Butterflay (spinach)
  • Greens and Salads (lettuce leaves mix)
  • Wild Rocket
  • Merveille des Quatre Saisons (butter head lettuce)
  • French Breakfast 2 (radish)
  • Miranda (carrot)
Red Sun shallots

Red Sun shallots

Witkiem broad beans

Witkiem broad beans

The sowings from a few weeks ago have broken the ground after the last few days of sun, and the weeds are still tiny and easily hoed, too easy! Spring has definitely sprung into action 🙂

First Plantings of the Year

The snow has gone!! Oops – did I say that out loud? Should never tempt fate!

But it was true, and this weekend was a great weekend to get stuck in to planting and sowing things we’d had tucked away in the garage and seed box until a suitable time happened along.

The first things were the strawberries, all bought from Pomona Fruits. To try and stagger the picking season somewhat, we planted six Vibrant early season (developed by East Malling Research), six Elegance mid season and eighteen Fenella late season. They’re all British varieties and good croppers, providing some useful pollen for the bees.

Next came the preparation of the main crop beds. Last autumn saw us build the soil up by about 8″, soil from the foundations of the new kitchen we’ve built out of necessity – the original being far too small for a growing family who cook a lot of their own food. The soil height is welcome and will help the drainage where we grow veg. To bolster the unknown nutrient level, we added a good layer of well-rotted manure and then a layer of leaf mulch from the orchard. This was all then covered to encourage the worms to dig it in for us over winter and to prevent the weeds from kicking in. As you can see, the worms dug in most of the covering and the grassy weeds have been killed off nicely. All it took was twenty minutes pulling out tap root weeds followed by a quick rotovate to help finish the job, making the ground pliable enough for planting and sowing.

The following day, Sunday, we planted all of our onion and garlic sets, and parsnips and beans. All of these could have gone in the ground earlier if the snow and cold hadn’t been so vociferous! As it is, we work with what we have and they are at least all now where they should be.

The seeds had arrived a few weeks ago, from the Seed Co-operative – the UK’s community owned seed company. By supporting them it helps keep old seed varieties in the hands of the public, and out of the greedy mitts of the big agrochem companies. They are also organic, meaning less strain on the environment all round.

In the photograph to the left (that’s what the beds looked like after rotovating), the foreground has had three rows of Aromata parsnips sown. On the back left there’s a wigwam of Blauschokkers climbing peas, and two short rows of Witkiem broad beans. As you can see from the makeshift guards, pigeons are our biggest problem at this time of year, and I’m determined that I won’t be sowing a second lot to replace the first lot! At the back on the right is the onion bed, where we’ve planted:

  • Red Sun shallots – for cooking and pickling.
  • Karmen onion sets – a great salad onion which stores quite well.
  • Picko Bello onion sets – a white onion for cooking, which we’ve never tried before!
  • Solent White garlic – another old favourite.

This leaves two rows spare for the leeks to end up filling.

I’d call that a successful weekend! Whilst Bunny was busy revising for her exams, Smiler helped out  and cleared the old strawberry bed of grass and weeds, ready to fill with edible pollinator flowers, and also cleared the paths to the patch of fallen winter leaves. He also shifted the pile of hedge and tree clippings to make sure the hedgehog wasn’t hibernating under it, before we burned it into a pile of useful ash.

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Gooseberry Sawfly

2016 gooseberry sawfly larvaeCrikey – it’s that time of year when everything wants to devour everything else! This time it’s gooseberry sawfly larvae, and our prized gooseberry bushes – it looks like a caterpillar, it moves a bit like one, but it’s actually a fly maggot – nice! They’re between 1-2cm long, and eat fast!

Our Answer to the Gooseberry Sawfly

Luckily for us, and unluckily for the gooseberry sawfly, we’ve been here before and on the same bush. It’s the earliest bush, and the largest and greenest – if I were a sawfly larvae I’d head straight to it, knife and fork at the ready. But we know the routine now – I immediately ordered three sachets of Namasys Natural Fruit & Veg Protector.

It’s easy to apply – wait for an evening, when rain isn’t forcast. Mix one sachet with 5 litres of water, if you’re applying with a knapsack sprayer or other type of sprayer, and give the affected plants a really good dousing of the spray mist. The liquid has to touch the sawfly larvae for the nematodes to enter the body of the larvae, so it’s important to get right under the leaves too, to make sure you nobble them all. Make sure you cover the entire plant, not just the eaten leaves as you can see in the video above. If you get them in time, fruit drop will be minimal and you’ll still get a decent crop. A week later, mix the next sachet up and repeat the process, and then again a further week later of the final sachet. The shelf life is limited, and they must be kept in the fridge, but so far this has been the best way for us to keep the sawfly under control, unless you like bleeding to death from the millions of cuts by pulling them all off by hand.

We should also point out that also check your red and white currant bushes, as they are also a member of the genus Ribes in the gooseberry family, unlike the black currant. To be safe, as soon as you begin to see leaves on your gooseberry bushes, check them as you walk past, near the base, as that’s where the sawfly larvae starts it mission upwards!

Simple White Currant Cordial – Sugar & Sugar Free

This is such a simple recipe for white currant cordial, and one we had a go at last year for a sugar-free version which used red currants instead (essentially the same berry, with more pigmentation).

Every year we struggle to think of things to do with our white currants. I know there are many things we *can* do, but in reality, there’s only so much jelly you can eat, and we don’t eat enough meat to cook a portion up to accompany it when the berries are ripe. So as I stood by the two bushes we have, taking a break from turning some weeds over, I thought I’d look for a useful recipe that would keep, that didn’t involved freezing the blighters, which can be summed up as a ‘putting the (nice) problem off’ solution.

Cordial was the answer. Everyone likes a drink, albeit sugar-laden, so at the end of this post I’ve also added a sugar-free version. It won’t keep for long, but as it’s sugar-free you won’t feel guilty gulping it down!

Step 1 – Pick the currants! Bit obvious, but important, as it’s the step where you make sure you pick as many of the decent currants as possible, and none of the mouldy or dried currants. Just place a bag or similar under the currants and snip them off with a pair of scissors – easiest method. Jay cut ours on the promise that this drink, unlike many recent ones, was suitable for younger people!

Step 2 – Wash the currants thoroughly – stalks and all. Discard any currants that look dodgy, get rid of stray leaves.

2015 white currant cordia 1Step 3 – Place the currants in a pan – we use the invaluable, and much abused, jam pan. We started out with 3kg of white currants – stalks and all – don’t go to the trouble of removing them! We used to for some recipes, and it’s a needless pain if you’re going to seive the liquid anyway. Add 600ml of water for every kg.

2015 white currant cordia 2Step 4 – Cook them gently until they’re soft and the skins have broken down. In reality I forgot ours and left them on their initial high heat for a while. Suz saved them, turned them down again, and there were no noticeable adverse effects.

2015 white currant cordia 3Step 5 – Strain the juice. Finally, after several years of laying a cloth in a colander, we have invested in a strainer! Posh eh?! It’s one of those things you’d wished you’d done earlier, as we use the technique for so many things. They’ll drain pretty much instantly – I left them overnight and only gained an extra quarter cup of juice – not worth it really.

2015 white currant cordia 4Step 6 – Add 700g of sugar to every litre of juice, in a pan, and heat gently, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. I used demerara sugar, which doesn’t give the most pleasing final colour (dirty dishwater      brown!), but does taste delicious. For the sugar-free version I just added 15 sweeteners (Canderel tablets)  to a half litre of juice.

2015 white currant cordia 5Step 7 – Bottle the cordial in sterilised bottles.

The final cordial should keep for several months, but the sugar free version I don’t think will last anywhere near that. In fact I popped mine in the fridge and give it a week maximum, to be safe. To see the effect sugar has on the 2015 white currant cordia 6colour – the photograph to the right shows the sugar-free version in the foreground, with the two litres of juice with demerara sugar added behind.

I used sterlising powder for the bottles, which you can buy at any homebrew shop, and the bottles are some I purchased in a sale at IKEA ages ago – they seem quite sturdy (better than the new Kilner bottles if I’m honest – more metal in the clips).

Family Day in the Patch

2014 Allotment Quarter Layout Update

Updated 2014 patch plan with final planting distances. Grid size is 1 foot.

Every year the weekends surrounding the last frost date (about mid-May for us) are one of the busiest. And every year Suz’s parents pop on down to help out with weeding, digging, hoeing and sowing. This year is no exception, with the exception that the weather has been glorious and everything has got off to a good start. We had a minor hiccup a few days ago with a slight frost, which seems to have nobbled the peas and the newer leaves on the orchard trees, but the potatoes survived it and it’s going to be a good harvest at this rate.

The potatoes were mounded up, lovely and regimented. The french climbing beans (Sultana) and runner beans (Enorma) were sown at the bottom of the wigwam canes – 8 or 10 canes, two per cane, and we’ll thin the weaker plant out later in the year. A few additional Scorpio and De Monica broad beans were sown to fill the gaps, and more Onward peas were sown as they were hit pretty hard by what I can only assume was the frost. They never germinated, but we have them netted and slug-pelleted (organic pellets) so it’s the only conclusion I can draw.

2014 Root CropsThe onion patch was de-weeded – a painstaking process – but so worth it when you see the neat lines of onions and shallots. The carrots were thinned to 1-1.5″ spacing, and will be thinned again in a few weeks. The beetroot were thinned to 4″ and will stay at that, and the parsnip weren’t touched as they didn’t seem big enough yet. Then went in some corgette (Nero di Milano zucchino), two per station, straight in the ground after it had been 2014 Squash Patchrotovated nicely. Cloche protection over those – to be safe, and then under the mini poly tunnels we planted out the pumpkins which had been growing on nicely in the dining room for a month or so.

Talking of which – alongside the pumpkins, inside we also had:

  • Tomatoes (Roma VF plums, Marmande beef and Shirley)
  • Cucumbers (Telegraph Improved)
  • Sweetcorn (Incredible F1)
  • Sweet peppers (Antohi Romanian, Golden Bell and Friggitello)
  • Hot peppers (Jalapeno, Hungarian Hot Wax and Red Cherry)
  • Aubergine (Black Beauty)
  • Butternut squash (Butternut Rugosa)
  • Leek
  • Basil (Italiano Classico)

Onwards with the outdoor work – the sweetcorn mentioned above were planted out and watered in, and the flower bed was coming along nicely, having been sown a fortnight ago with sunflowers, marigolds and nasturtiums. Unfortunately, we hadn’t realised the tenacity of sunflower and nasturtium seeds in particular. The sunflowers that were planted this year were obvious to make out, as were the unintended sunflowers that were the result of dropped seeds from last year! It was quite painful to hoe them out, but they would drown out everything else, and we really did need to weed the flower bed. A couple of rows of nasturtiums were also equally easy to define, but the no-mans’ land that stretched between the sunflower and nasturtium bed was awash with everything that nature, and we, had allowed to grow there in the past; sunflowers, nasturtiums, chickweed, wild pansies, shepherds purse – all the favourites plus those I couldn’t identify. So with heavy heart I hoed the land there and will wait a few days before re-sowing the marigolds. Lesson learned – next year the marigolds will be sown in plug trays and potted out in their final positions.

On to the soft fruit – all were looking great with the exception of one black currant bush and one gooseberry bush, which had succumbed to greenfly on their newer growth. I have some organic spray which I used sparingly on both, but I have noticed the ladybird population looks quite healthy, so dropped a few on to the infected plants to munch their way through the green nasties. No sense spending money on a spray when nature will do the work for you.

The fruit trees are all looking decent – again, some greenfly here and there but nothing too onerous yet. I counted approximately 300-400 apples on one small cider tree! I know the June-drop will see many lost, but it’s a sign of how decent the weather has been so far.

2014 Small Orchard QuarterOh, and we lost the colony of bees Christian had brought around a few months ago. At the time he was unsure whether there was a queen at home, and it turns out there wasn’t. But on Friday he brought a new colony around. Again, not a large colony and maybe without a queen, but it’s a second attempt. Whilst I was planting the sweetcorn out, I heard  a buzz nearby, and looked around for the culprit. Nothing, and yet it was getting louder and louder. I had my wide-brimmed hat on, and couldn’t see past the horizon, which was my mistake. I looked up and around six feet above my head was a swarm of bees – stretching about twelve feet in diameter! Needless to say – a couple of expletives passed my lips, the hapless sweetcorn I was holding was cast aside and I legged it to the first gate. The last time I was pestered by a bee I made the mistake of thinking I had run far enough, only to be hit on the head by it at this very gate, and then the next, and only lost it after running 200 yards back to the house. This time I just opened the gate and ran, only stopping to check behind me half way to the next gate. I needn’t have run – the swarm wasn’t interested in me – it was still hovering over the sweetcorn, possibly mildly interested in the adjacent strawberry flowers, but then it just moved off at a fair whack, heading south over the vegetable patch, then the hay quarter (much to the consternation of the geese) and into the rape seed field. What an experience! I have never witnessed a swarm before, and I have to admit I was quite nervous of it, but you just can not help but be in awe at the scale of it! Worried that it may have been our new colony, I went back to check on the hive, but they were still happily plodding in and out of the entrance. Only the day before Christian has said he’d been inundated with swarms this year, due to the clement weather, and was physically shattered.

As the day waned, into the greenhouse to tend those plants already in position – the Roma VF, Marmande and Shirly tomatoes, plus duplicates of those inside the house (the cucumbers etc). I edged my bets and placed half of everything from the house into the greenhouse a couple of weeks ago, to see how they fare. So far not bad at all, though the indoor plants have really taken off in the last few days, and will need potting on very soon.

 

Root Crops

Another scribbled mental note – these are so useful for the following year, to get a feel for the plants that do well here. The day began with the usual dandelion beheading – another barrow full, then watering the new fruit trees in as it’s been a dry week so far. The strawberries and raspberries had some of the lovely manure donated by Ken spread around their bases, as did the rhubarb and gooseberries. The geese had their full clean out – fresh straw in the houses, ponds emptied and refilled.

Then on to the root crops. This plot hasn’t been manured, but the squash stations will have plenty added just before they go in later in the year. For now the stations will have cloches dropped where the plants will go, to help warm the ground up. The seed that went in today were one 9′ row of Flyaway F1 carrot, three rows of Boltardy beetroot and three rows of Hollow Crown parsnip.

All root crops were netted against the dreaded pigeon, sparrows and rabbits. Or row of peas were also netted, but we need to rethink the layout of the peas and beans to make netting easier. Whatever the case, we need more netting!

The final job of the day was to water in all the seeds sown over the last two days – that was over an hour’s job as the onion patch was also beginning to look a bit parched. As were the strawberries, rhubarb, gooseberries and currant bushes. A quick check on the chicks, who have now taken up residency in the garage as the fluff and dust produced by week two was just too much to keep them in the house, and 10 o’clock saw me finally stumbling in, to a warm fire and mahoosive mug of sweet tea. Perfectamundo 🙂

Damson Gin

Christmas Damson Gin

Christmas Damson GinIt’s that time again, and this year’s damson supply has been a darned site better than last year which, for us, was practically non-existent.

The recipe was almost the same as this one – but I decided to add some typically festive spices – nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. Absolutely gorgeous!

Homemade Redcurrant Cordial & Rhubarb Juice

2013 Redcurrant CordialThis is another easy one – along the same lines as our homemade rhubarb juice. The picture says it all really – squeeze every last drop of juice from your redcurrants – or you can blend them and leave them to drain through a seive – find a way that works for you with what you have to hand. Then add a small amount of vanilla essence, to take the bitter edge off, and sweeten to taste. We use sweeteners, but sugar is better if you don’t need to use sweeteners, and a spoon of honey wouldn’t go amiss. Boil the juice down, to remove the excess water, and you have created a cordial that you can add water to when needed! Chill it, and use within a couple of days.

Rhubarb juice is exactly the same method, except you use the waste water left over from cooking your rhubarb! Leave the water in the pan you cooked your rhubarb in, strain it if there are bits floating in it. Add the vanilla essence and honey and sweeteners/sugar, bring to the simmer, just to mix the ingredients, and leave to cool before popping in the fridge. This is one of my favourites, especially as it uses something you would otherwise throw down the sink!

For a particularly refreshing version of either, add a dash of lemon juice to either

Harvest Time

2013 Rest Awhile It’s that time of year when you really struggle to stay on top of the amount of food coming in. After a quick relax with a cold drink after picking it all, it’s back to the kitchen with the booty – today it was broad beans, and red and white curr2013 Redcurrantsants, with a cup of tea between tasks.2013 Broadbeans and White Currants

Sprouts, Onions & Fruit Cage

The finished fruit cage in all its glory – new path, mulched with bark and trimmed strawberries. It looks so much happier!

Then we have the onions – these are last year’s winter onions (Japanese onions). The recent bad weather means those from seed are struggling to grow – it’s not looking good, I just hope we have a decent end of year.

The sprouts are doing well though!