Sowing Continues

Better late than never I guess. For most of these it’s an okay time – but again we’re late with the aubergines, which should have been sown 6 weeks ago!

Today we sowed the contents of the greenhouse:

  • Red Basil
  • Aubergine (Zora)
  • Tomato (San Marzano)
  • Tomato (Ruthje)
  • Pepper (Sweet Chocolate)
  • Cucumber (Arola)

Then for outside we started:

  • Celerica (Monarch)
  • Leek (Musselburgh)

Below you can see the seed potatoes all chitting along nicely. Once the ground has dried out (again) we’ll get those in. They’re also a week or two late, but it’s been so boggy once more, it’s best to wait a few days for it to dry out.

Again, all the seeds were from the Seed Co-operative – supporting the UK’s independent seed suppliers, and organic to boot!

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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Marsh Daisy Incubation

Spring is here, and it’s never complete without an incubator purring away in a corner of the house. Today we started cooking 28 Marsh Daisy eggs – children of Mikey (the 2015 rare breed winner at the Staffordshire County Show) and the ladies we hatched two years ago, from Sharon who runs the Marsh Daisy club.

We have a hatching from last year from the same coupling, who are all at Rob’s a couple of field’s away and are due to be served by Rupert, their uncle. Hopefully Mikey will be good for another year and we’ll be able to run him with his grand-daughters from this year’s hatching, creating a closed flock system. Fingers crossed fate plays along with the plans.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the incubation room, Larry, Curly and Mo are keen to see what all the fuss is about 🙂

Cider No.3 Bottling

I’ve been measuring the specific gravity of Cider No.3 every couple of weeks or so, and today it hit 1.005. To ensure there’s enough residue sugar for in-bottle carbonation, I’ve been told that is a good level, so today was bottling day!

I have to say, if I could stop it now I would. The slight sweetness is incredible, perfect for me even. But that’s another learning curve for another year – this year I want to perfect the in-bottle carbonation first. Comparing this cider to the first of the year, you can tell a difference even at this stage – the apples, being late varieties, gave a much higher sugar level. That, coupled with the higher tannin content of the Medaille d’Or cider apple gives it a much fuller body – less harsh and abrasive. Fingers crossed the next stage will work out for the best – just six months to wait until we can begin trying it! Having tried some cider from 2016, it is quite amazing what a year in the bottle can do for a flavour.

This was also the occasion I decided to not waste the cider lees – the bit typically washed down the sink. I’d heard of using it in bread making, so I bottled it and left the lees, with the jar lid slightly undone, on top of the fridge, with the murky cider dregs placed in the fridge. The next post shows how it came out!

Planting Plan 2018 – What’s Going Where

The layout for this year’s planting plan. We run a 5-year rotation, but with the new smaller allotment having seven different 10′ x 10′ beds, it’s changed to a 7-year rotation!

The Allotment

Briefly, the rotation works like this. The top-right bed – this year the nitrogen fixing beans and peas – will drop down a bed next year, so will end up where the current potatoes are. The potatoes will in turn drop down to where the roots are (they’re last in line as they don’t like fresh manure, so the manure will have depleted by the time they get planted). The roots will move to the top of the middle column and the middle column beds will all shuffle one down too. The last middle column  bed (sweetcorn and corgettes) will move sideways into the estranged middle bed of the left had column where there are currently brassicas. The artichokes and asparagus are permanent beds so will not move. The brassicas will then move to where the current potatoes are, and the whole thing will cycle once more. This gives us almost enough of what we need, although we’ll be short of potatoes.

The Currant Patch

The six currant bushes are permanent, but in front of them we’ll be planting a row of nectar producing flowers, to help with pollinating insects and predatory insects, such as lacewings.

Behind the current bushes we’ll have a section for sunflowers, predominantly for the bees but once flowered the birds can make use of the seeds. Then we’ll also have a bed of carrots, as this is new soil and less prone to carrot fly. We will also establish a new strawberry bed – at last!

The Raised Bed

At the bottom of the path, this is the first planted bed to pass, so we add the pick and come again produce – spinach, mixed leaves lettuce and rocket. Then we’ll also have some full lettuce and carrots, with radish making use of the little pockets of space.

The Rhubarb & Gooseberry Patch

This one is a bit of a struggle as it’s becoming blighted by twitch – couch grass. We can’t remove it without spraying, which we won’t do, or by digging the patch up. My thought is to struggle on as best we can for the time being, but think about creating a new rhubarb and gooseberry patch somewhere clean. We can self-root the gooseberries so we know what we’re getting, and don’t have to buy any more. The rhubarb we could risk digging up, halving and replanting, but we’d have to make sure no twitch carried through to the new patch.

Greenhouse No.1

This will be the tomato greenhouse – one variety of eating and one variety of cooking. Heaven knows we could probably triple this number and still get through them all!

The San Marzano we’ve grown a few times, and are horrible eaten raw. However, when cooked into a ragu, they are absolutely gorgeous, and remind me of childhood smells from Naples.

Greenhouse No.2

Our more humid greenhouse, we’ll water the ground in here to help the cucumbers grow – they like it humid.

We’ll also grow on the potting bench – the peppers don’t seem to mind the same treatment, and the basil and coriander will only start in the greenhouse. Once they’re established and the risk of frost has passed, we’ll move them outside, leaving the potting bench free once more to start more seedlings – possibly lettuce.

Greenhouse No.3

This is the vegetable we struggle with growing more than any other. One year in four it’s been successful, the rest fell fowl to not enough water (last time we go away on holiday mid-growing season!), ants, and cold. However, we will persevere, and this year we’ll start earlier with them so they have a fighting chance. This is also the greenhouse that needs a good clean before the season starts!

And that’s it! The varieties are all labelled in the planting plan images, and all are either from Stormy Hall seeds, now part of the Seed Co-Operative, or from seeds we’ve saved ourselves.

Snow at Merrybower

It feels like an age since we’ve had some proper snow and cold weather. Thanks to the wind blowing from Russia, we’ve had some great days of frosty weather, hopefully nobbling some insects in the process! This is just a random selection of photographs taken during the cold days where, as you can see from two of the photographs, chicken cleaning was a challenge (no hoses working) and pruning came to a standstill!

2018 Allotment Plan (or the Patch Plan as we call it)

It’s that time of year again! It just fair whizzes past these days, but after last year’s house work putting the kibosh on a lot of the allotment work, it is with renewed vigour that we turned to the planning of the year’s veggie and fruity goodness, and the 2018 allotment plan

The Big Guys

We have our favourites of course, but where you get your seed from is a massive question these days. I had two catalogues land on the doormat this week – a rather glossy catalogue from Mr Fothergill and a more rustic looking DT Brown. Needless to say, the DT Brown catalogue looked more ‘niche’, a bit edgy – if you will, but it raised questions about why they should happen to appear on the same day? A quick bit of research on the old interweb showed that these seed companies are so intertwined it’s a bit of a nightmare if you like to support the smaller seed companies – Mr Fothergills and DT Browns are one and the same, but the same can be said for many of the well-known brands these days.

Our Seed Suppliers

So what to do? Dobies were one of the first as they don’t list any seed varieties that are the result of genetic modification. Then there is also Franchi – Seeds of Italy – who are the oldest family-run seed company in the world and were found to be the most ethical major packet seed brand by Ethical Consumer Magazine in 2016. Their range of Italian varieties is wonderful, with the Tonda Padana being our favourite winter squash, and I haven’t seen a packet of their seeds yet that are a hybrid. One year we bought from Stormy Hall Seeds, based in North Yorkshire and part of the Botton Village Camphill Community and the quality was fantastic, but the range wasn’t huge. However, their ethos is incredible, and they’re also Demeter certified, so this year we’ve bought as much as we can from their collection which, I need to add, has grown considerably. We’ve also bought some flower seeds from them, to help provide nectar for the bees and food for the lacewing, to help combat the unwanted pests. As long as we plant within 7 metres (20 feet) of the vegetables which need help, we should see a benefit. We have the old strawberry bed that has been resting for a couple of years, so we’ll sow them there – a good 30ft x 2ft strip adjacent to the current bushes, and the Borage we’re including in the mix will provide a good ground cover that we can also dig in at the end of the season, as a green fertiliser.

Onion Sets & Seed Potatoes

When it came to onion sets and potatoes, we have once again turned to Bridgend Garden Centre. They’re a way away, but they measure out the sets and spuds in convenient amounts. Whilst their onions and shallots aren’t organic, they have a small range of organic potatoes, so we’ve bought our varieties from there. They’re also ridiculously helpful, which is a pleasant attribute to find these days.

Local Brassicas

When it comes to brassicas, we’re planting so little of our own this year that it really doesn’t make sense to buy seed packets! Besides, Jacksons at Swarkestone are one of the oldest growing families in our area and we can buy plugs from them, which makes far more sense.

Fruit

Lastly, we have the fruit – we’ve bought from Pomona Fruits and they’ve supplied quality produce, so when it came to deciding where to buy the new strawberry patch from, they were the obvious choice.

There we have it – where we’re buying 2018’s seeds from. The next post will show what’s going where!

Cider No.3 Pressing & Cider No.2 Update

Cider No.3 Pressing

2017 Cider No.3 PressingThe final cider making day of the year, and what a day was forecast! A height of five degrees Celsius, with rain from mid-day to mid-afternoon – lovely! The thermals were extracted from the rear of the wardrobe where they’d lain since last winter, and with four layers on I ventured out, double-socked and ready for anything. A pub brolly, kindly donated by our friend Nev, cast its welcome shadow over the scratter and chopping board, with my little gnome seat central to the whole operation. I felt I was about to perform a Phil Collins’ drum solo, with more apples and less drums. Everything bar the press was within arm’s reach of the command centre gnome seat; baskets of apples, two cleaning tubs filled with water (a double-dip operation to remove large dirt, then finer grime), a second gnome seat to balance the chopping board on, the scratter, a cast-off’s bin for disgarded apple bits cut out, and a barrow for the pomace. Maybe next year I’ll do it wearing a gorilla costume.

I’m not complaining though, whilst I had the luxury of sitting/stooping, Suz and Bunny were down the patch, cleaning out the chooks, whilst Smiler was duck and goose cleaning!

I’d only got a 25 litre fermentation bin to fill this time, so not too bad. Realising that I wouldn’t be able to use all of the apples at my disposal, I started with the main varieties I was interested in using. I should say at this stage that I’m really excited about this cider – it uses our local Newton Wonder apple and a Normandy bittersweet that is finally giving a good crop.

I tend to work on the rough visual amount of apples to figure out the eventual mix, which is a rather ambiguous method as each variety gives a differing amount of juice for its weight and size. Therefore, for the first time, I actually measured the amount of juice going into the mix! I need to be careful as it’s getting a bit too accurate for my liking 🙂 The eventual mix was something like this:

Apple VarietySpecific GravitypHVolume (Litres)% of MixCrates
Newton Wonder1.056~3.210.041%1.2
Medaille d'Or1.066~3.25.522.5%1.0
Forfar1.0623.24.016.5%0.5
Rosemary Russet1.060~3.23.514%0.5
Dabinett1.0544.21.56%0.2

Based on my basic knowledge of the varieties, the sweet,sharp and bitter mix ended up something like:

21% acid
65% sweet
14% bitter

(This is assuming Newton Wonder is subacid – 50/50 acid/sweet, Medaille d’Or is bittersweet – 50/50 bitter/sweet, Forfar is 100% sweet, Rosemary Russet is 100% sweet and Dabinett is bittersweet – 50/50 bitter/sweet).

The final SG reading was 1.060 and the pH was 3.2 – both respectable!

As you can see, we’ve invested in some proper crates! Up until now it has been a mix of the hand cart and donated mushroom boxes. As the quantities are getting larger, we’ve had to step up to euro containers, which are perfect for lugging food items around in, and if you buy used you can get a real bargain! Again, for the record, I’ve also added how full a crate was, so in future I can work out the volume of liquid to expect from a given number of apples – this was a good run for working these varieties out as there was very little spoilage and therefore wastage.

I’ll add a page in the future with all this data in, and also save it to the main fruit spreadsheet, which desperately needs updating with the one on my computer!

Cider No.2 Update

The juice sat for around two weeks in the unheated garage, and finally started to ferment, nice and steadily. Today the specific gravity is 1.020, and it’s beginning to clear nicely. I’m going to rack it as soon as it gets to 1.015, and then bottle it at 1.005, for a natural carbonation as it matures in the bottle. By next summer it should be done!

Cider No.2

cider no.2 pressing

I have to say that two of the ciders from last year have aged well – Tally Ho! and Half-Cock (and Cock On – the naturally carbonated cider which was essentially Half-Cock). Tally Ho! was our random cider, but as it’s so good I’ve decided to try and recreate it, throwing a few other varieties in but keeping the core varieties the same – namely Harvey, Sanspareil, Ashmead’s Kernel and Barnack Orange.

It also had Ribston Pippin and Wyken Pippin, but we had neglible amounts of those this year, so chucked in Allington Pippin’s instead.

The make up, by rough volume, was as follows:

Harvey (19%)
Sanspareil (19%)
Allington Pippin (15%)
Hoary Morning (15%)
Queen (8%)
Barnack Orange (6%)
White Melrose (3%)
Medaille D’Or (3%)
Dabinett (2%)
Yarlington Mill (2%)
Marriage Maker (2%)
Random apples (6%)

The apples were a mix of windfalls and plucked from the tree, about 1:2 ration, and were left to sweat outside in baskets for a fortnight. We lost about 5% before pressing. I also took specific gravity and pH readings of the four main varieties, to keep as records. They were as follows:

[avia_table]

Edit Specific Gravity pH
Sanspareil 1.046 3.3
Harvey 1.055 3.2
Allington Pippin 1.060 3.0
Hoary Morning 1.050 3.2

[/avia_table]

The Allington Pippin was a shock as records from BRSquared’s website shows an SG of much less – around 1.048

I also broke the various apple’s attributes down roughly into the acid/sweet/bitter mix I wanted.

Roughly – very roughly – the above broke down into the following percentages:

45% subacid
42% sweet
7% bittersweet
6% random (unknown)

Rightly, or wrongly, I assumed sub acid (such as the dual purpose Queen) to count as half sweet, half acid. Sweets are sweet. Bittersweet again, half bitter, half sweet.

The following percentages popped out of the rather dubious maths:

22.5% acid
68% sweet
3.5% bitter

For a good mix in a cider we actually want to get as close to a 35/65 mix of cookers to eaters – or acid to sweet. Some suggest down to 20% cookers, especially if they’re quite a tart cooker like a Bramley. For me, the numbers above seemed about right.

In practice I measured the final Specific Gravity and pH of the pressed juice and it came to 1.054 and 2.9 respectively. Slightly more acid than I’d have hoped, but still good nonetheless – better too low than too high (too acidic than too alkaline), as it’s more likely to preserve better. The potential alcohol is level is also good – if fermented to dryness then we’ll be looking at an ABV of just under 7%.

Having failed miserably to intercept the first cider early enough to rack it with some residual sugar so that it could naturally carbonate in the bottle, I’m determined to not miss this one.

Cider No.1 & Perry Pressing Day

True to form, the weekend nearest the 1st October seems to be our first early pressing. The varieties uses can be seen in the Cider No.1 post from a few days ago and all we did was add a few Bountifuls – a subacid cooker that is quite sweet. It seems to be a decent filler apple, not upsetting the balance too much.

A beer-making friend, Matt (aka “Random”), came down from Yorkshire for the experience, and went away with a gallon of juice pressed from his own trees – sounds like there’ll be another cider-maker his way soon! We took it reasonably steady and managed 68 pints – 50 pints of Cider No.1 (SG 1.052), 8 pints of Matt’s “No Name” (SG 1.046), and 8 pints of a Blakeney Red perry pear and Cider No.1 50/50 mix (SG 1.048).

It’s the first time I’ve used perry pears, and as they’d fallen from the tree over a week ago, I thought it best to experiment rather than lose them. It’s the first crop from that tree and I’ve read it makes a decent single variety perry, but we only had a half-demijohn worth! As the books said, we scratted them the day before, leaving 24 hours before pressing.