Monday 30 June 2008

Now Picking

Now picking

Currently being harvested along with abundant lettuce, coriander and rocket are (clockwise from the garlic):

Garlic, planted last December and now just about ready to dry off. Long white icicle radishes. Broad beans, these are the crimson flowered heritage variety. Pods have four or five seeds typically, quite small but tender and well flavoured. Carlin peas, which are usually grown for drying but are pleasantly sweet and tasty picked young and some rather large mange tout, a French variety called Bamby which have very pretty flowers but don't have much else to recommend them although they're perfectly edible.

Tuesday 24 June 2008

Nothing doing

The vegetable garden displayed.

The el cham has failed. Despite my hopes for it when I bottled it a couple of days ago it has developed a nasty mould on the top and I'm going to have to bin it. I knew those flowers were against me.

Just as well then I made some Elderflower Cordial. A slug of that in a glass topped up with fizzy water will be almost as nice and will give a more concentrated flavour that will be useful for sorbets and puddings.

The basic recipe is available all over the place but first I'd like to say a few words about citric acid. This can be hard to get nowadays after it was discovered that drug dealers were using it to cut crack and make their wares spread further.

Pity, however if you need some it's still available from bona fide brewing suppliers. Boots on the other hand will likely laugh in your face and/or call the cops so don't waste your time there.

It's not actually essential and I don't like the tang it gives in the quantities usually recommended so my recipe cuts right back. If you have to leave it out altogether chuck in the juice from a couple more lemons, the only difference will be a more lemony taste.

To make a bit more than 1.5 litres you will need:

20 large clusters of elderflowers
2 large lemons
1 litre water
1kg white sugar
15 - 20g citric acid

Shake the insects out of your flowers and use scissors to take the frothy white petals away from the stinky stems. A few green stalks don't matter. Finely slice your unwaxed well washed lemons and throw them into a food grade lidded plastic container with the flowers.

Mix your sugar with the water, stirring until dissolved and bring everything to the boil. Pour the boiling liquid onto the flowers and add the citric acid. Give everything a good stir and cover tightly. Allow to infuse in a cool place for 3 or 4 days.

Strain the cordial from the debris. The lemon slices are delicious and should be saved and used in a cake or cocktail immediately, I can even eat them straight from the dish.

Put the cordial into extremely clean glass bottles. This isn't a long keeping preparation. Keep some in the fridge and use up within the month, freeze the rest. I don't like using plastic containers so freeze in an uncapped glass bottle and put the lid on after it's frozen to avoid shattering the glass as the ice expands.

Use the syrup diluted with water or alcohol for summery drinks or use it in cooking at full strength.

Monday 23 June 2008

Purin d'ortie or How I Learned to Love Nettle Tea


What is it?

In the UK many gardeners swear by a infusion of comfrey to feed their greedy crops in a natural and free way. Although comfrey is available in France, the French prefer to make a brew of nettles. Just like the comfrey it is understood to be full of minerals and trace nutrients combined with a hefty dose of nitrogen , phosphorus and potassium making an ideal plant food.

What is it used for?

This brew is a wonder preparation, used neat it works as an insect and weedkiller, diluted it repels insects and protects against fungal and bacterial infections, ideal for roses and other plants subject to rusts and spots. It can be used, diluted again, as a fertiliser on the roots of plants and finally, well thinned it can be applied as a foliar feed.

How do you make it?

It is, like its comfrey cousin, simplicity to make. A quantity of leaves are chopped and infused in a bucket of water for a period of fermentation, the pulp is strained out and the tea is ready for use.

To make 10 litres you will need 1 to 1.5 kgs of fresh nettles. Get the leafiest growth you can, stems and seed heads are less effective. If you're making a large quantity it's worth laying them out on a flat service and running the lawn mower over them to shred and collect them conveniently but smaller amounts can be chopped by shears or scissors in well gloved hands.

If you possibly can use rain or stream water, if not allow tap water to sit for 24 hours in an open bucket to allow chlorine to disperse.

Mix your chopped nettles with the water in a non-metallic container that can be covered. This is mainly to contain the smell that will develop as the process continues but it also discourages flies which will want to lay eggs. Give everything a good stir, cover and leave for period of days for fermentation to take place. This will be between 7 and 28 days depending on the ambient temperature but 15 days is usually considered adequate. You can check fermentation has finished by holding your nose and giving the soup a stir. Any fizzing or bubbles means that you need to leave it a bit longer.

When the bubbling has ceased it's ready to be strained off the pulp for the next stage. If you're not going to use it immediately then you should bottle it in plastic bottles and keep it in the cool and dim for a few months. If you want to preserve it longer or cannot find a cool shed then it can be frozen but not many people have a quarantine freezer or would want to mix this with the frozen peas.

Put the used pulp in the compost.

How do you use it?

To kill aphids use it within 12 hours of the fermentation ceasing, at full strength. Strain again through a fine mesh or your sprayer will clog and apply while the sun is not burning down, in the morning or evening. Use with caution and don't spray too liberally, some authorities suggest it will act as an effective herbicide at this concentration if applied generously. It can also be used at full strength as an activator for compost heaps or septic tanks.

Diluted at a ratio of 1:5 with clean water it makes a good soil preparation feed, applied to beds before planting.

At a ratio of 1:10 it can be used as a weekly feed on the soil of tomatoes, potatoes and other solanums like aubergines. These sorts of plants do not respond well to foliar feeding. Make sure the plants have adequate fresh water as well, nettle tea applied to roots that are dying of thirst will likely kill them. At this dilution of 10% it is also reputed to repel aphids and cure fungal infections when sprayed on ornamental plants.

Foliar feeds on well watered plants should be at 1:20 or even milder. Regular spraying is more effective but the more frequently it is applied the weaker the solution should be. This applies to all feeding routines, since the plants can only take up a certain amount of nutrients in any given time and excess will just build up in the soil or on the leaves and cause problems.

Other tips.

To stop the pulp from clogging water containers with taps use old jute potato sacks or plastic bags with holes punched in them weighted with a brick and tied at the top. A string handle is a good idea too. Strain the pulp through a similar arrangement to avoid contaminating kitchen equipment. For fine straining for sprayers old tights are effective.

Nettles are often only too easy to find but remember they are the preferred food plants of a number of our loveliest butterfly caterpillars so harvest judiciously and try to share with nature.

Nettles can be dried for use at other times of the year. Cut them and lay out to dry in a shaded airy place, ideally on netting so that the air can circulate. Crumble down into paper sacks and store in the dry. You will need about 100g dry weight per 10 litres of water.

In France it is possible to buy nettle concentrate to make instant feed. This is still available in the shops despite some difficulties with horticultural legislation and the EU. Nobody wants to give this up.

Nettles and comfrey can be used for humans too, make a weak tea with fresh or dried leaves mixed with a little of your favourite tea for flavour and sip throughout the day. Good for arthritis and general health.

Thursday 19 June 2008

The sun is hot but the wind is cold

long white icicle
Long White Icicle Radishes

I made a bit of a mistake with these radishes. For some reason I thought the seed was old and losing viability so I sowed it all thickly, anticipating poor germination and little need to thin. They all came up and although I did thin a couple of times, mainly to enliven my salads with peppery shoots, the plants are still woefully overcrowded. Luckily at least some of them have had space to produce useful roots, but I will have to buy new seeds for the next sowing which could have been avoided.

Today I'm supposed to be tidying the house. I will have visitors tomorrow, the first this year. Naturally I'm procrastinating like crazy but some small progress is being made. I've bottled the elderflower champers even though it shows no signs of fermentation yet. Bit of a disappointing year in fact, if this batch fails I shall try some ginger beer. You have to add the yeast to that, what could possibly go wrong?

I notice from the stats I'm still getting more hits for the elderflower champagne recipe than anything else but I can't see how to get backlinks to work so that all the follow up posts are listed on that original page. I think people should be told it's not all beer and skittles before they waste the sugar and lemons.

And at the risk of TMI I seem to be heading straight back into a depression. I don't know what the hell is wrong with me.

Back to the floor swabbing...

Tuesday 17 June 2008

Hoeing, mowing, sowing

Some lovely sunny weather has made it possible to spend some time tidying up the vegetable plots. Hoeing is easy enough if you keep on top of it but I still find it hard not to swipe away a little too hard and cut off wanted plants along with the weeds.

An example of this was a beetroot plant, just one that I had left to flower, partly because I wanted the seeds and a bit because I wanted to see the flowers. With my mind well out of its orbit I'd chopped off a couple of flowering stems before I'd even realised it was something I was trying to save. The whole thing is now loose in the soil and will probably die instead of seeding.

That aside, it was a reasonably effective exercise and along with a bit of hand weeding around the peas and runner beans in the heritage bed everything looks much neater than before. It's not just for the sense of pride in a tidy garden, it removes places for slugs to hide and aphids to cluster, not to mention ensuring that resources of air, food and water go where they're needed and not back into weed seeds for next year.


The dry weather has also meant that I can get on with the twice monthly task of cutting the grass. Each time I cut I try to extend the boundaries just a little bit more and I'm now taking in patches behind the cider house (making it easier to get to the apples!) and around the tractor shed, hopefully this will assist the builders if we ever manage to get any.

I've also cut down the grass and removed quantities of brambles from the raised 'dog exercising area' which I'd love to make into a herb garden but which I think will have to be put to potatoes or something next year so that we can get a grip on the perennial weeds infesting it. I've been about to cover this patch with plastic for nearly a week now and might even manage to do it tomorrow now that I've stated the intention for the whole world to see. Well, some of them anyway.


Tonight I've sown some more seeds. It's a bit late but I've found some old marigold and borage seeds and I hope I can get some of each going in time to set seed this year. They usually self seed prolifically and I've never had to replant anywhere they've got going but I can only find one marigold seedling this year and I don't think borage has ever been tried here before so that needs to be addressed.

I've also made repeat sowings of rocket and basil and started a few plugs each of red mustard greens and dill. I'd far rather sow those in position but I'm running out of space (!) and will have to drop things in when an opening appears.

Sunday 15 June 2008


spud flowers

Paul has made a rather nice montage of the potato flowers, currently making a brave display. The Salad Blue are startlingly different, the British Queen munificently floriferous and I can detect a lovely perfume in the Shetland Black but I've had no confirmation of this from anyone else. If the writing is difficult to read, click through to Paul's flickr stream where it's clearer.

So what's to be gloomy about? Not sure really. It's being a very bad season for ticks and I have been attacked more times than I've kept count of now. Apart from the ick factor ticks could be relatively benign, they don't hurt and they don't really take a lot of blood but they can carry a couple of very nasty diseases which can be difficult to diagnose or treat effectively. There is a huge amount of uncertainty about it all, does the tick have disease, has it been on long enough to have transmitted it, will the disease take hold, if the disease develops will it pass quickly or lurk in the system waiting to create havoc with joints, organs, even mental faculties? I'm at a low point and this is an added strain on my spirits.

It doesn't help that there seems to be little or no information available about areas where disease is endemic. I discovered for example that it's possible to get Lyme disease from ticks in the Central London Parks but does that make it more or less likely in rural Normandy? There is no answer. There were in the region of 800 cases reported in the UK last year although experts estimate that there could have been as many as 3000 unreported. It is said to be more prevalent on the continent. About 15% develop complications, a small proportion of those life threatening. How many people were bitten and escaped unharmed is not known.

Anyway, I'll keep checking and hoping nothing is attached to that part of my back I simply can't reach.

The last attempt at elderflower champagne was, as expected, a failure It might have been the pectin in the sugar or the water being too hot or even leftover steriliser in the bucket (although I rinsed well!). With the small amount of natural yeast on the flowers it was almost certain that if something was wrong the brew would mould before it fizzled. Sadly, that was the case.

There are just a very few elderflowers left fresh enough for another go. I managed to collect a handful of those opened in the last day or so and have tried again, this time with a lime in place of lemon because it was all I had to hand but at least the sugar is pure and the water had cooled properly. Fingers crossed.

Rocket, about to blast off.

Wednesday 11 June 2008

Schools Out

It was hell in the supermarket this morning.

I was going to write a serious piece about another local pest, ticks, which are making my life a misery just at the moment but after I'd done a bit of research I felt so ill I've decided not to bother. You can get all the unpleasant details here.

One tip I will pass on, and I can recommend it as it worked very effectively to remove a parasite from the poor old cat is this; take some fine cotton thread and make a noose with a loose slip knot. Gently position this around the head of the tick as close as you possibly can next to the skin of the victim, really low down, then tighten it and the tick will come off. Be careful when positioning the thread not to squeeze the tick's body and make sure the cotton is absolutely at skin level otherwise you risk some things that make me feel sick just to think of them. Swab the area with a little disinfectant afterwards.

Manda in the Sheepdip Pond

While Paul was here we decided that there were enough of us present for an attempt to free our waterlily, Barbara Davies, from the weed that was encroaching on her and her protective netting. We had to net because of water rats which nearly did for her in her first year. It's unattractive but at least it's functional.

Unfortunately she's in the middle of a pond. Well, good for her, obviously but less good for the one chosen to do the wading, particularly, and you may not be able to make this out in the picture, when the wading requires not just walking through water but sloshing through several feet of fine claggy silt.

We have plans to extract all this valuable organic matter as a contribution to our compost heaps but we're still investigating the best possible prices for pumps, so for the time being any pond work is a messy task.

Barbara is now free, I hope she'll flower for the first time this year although there are no sign of buds. The rest of the pond needs work but I won't be venturing back in without bankside support, I'm too frightened of a horrible end.

Monday 9 June 2008

The moon, the moon

the moon in pink

The weekend is over, the cat and I are alone again.

Friday 6 June 2008

They're making hay

At last the Meteo has changed its mind about the forecast and given us five days of dry to come. Why we should believe this any more than the previous expectations of doom which they've discarded I'm not sure. They could easily have changed their opinion again by tomorrow, but regardless, hay must be made and the current conditions, dry, breezy and not overly warm are just about as good as one can get, excluding the dead dry temperatures of a summer heatwave.

daisy daisy

I had some good fortune yesterday, from the serendipity of bounteous nature and the rather untidy and slapdash gardener that I am. As I was weeding between the shallots I found a tiny shoot of oca, obviously a volunteer from the row that was in that position last year, which had survived the winter wet, the cultivation with a rotavator and managed to avoid my hoe on the couple of times I'd waved it around the general area in the last month. I decided to leave it where it was as the shallots don't root deeply and will be dried and out of the way in a couple of months leaving plenty of room for the oca to mature and hopefully produce tubers by the autumn.

Heartened by that I searched along the rows and found another tiny shoot. That pleased me so much that I went and searched through the long grass and weeds where the oca had grown two years ago and to my exceedingly great joy found a number of shoots. These had to be moved, the grass and weeds were swamping them and the patch, which has got completely out of control, is destined for severe treatment and a covering of plastic to kill the existing growth before it is put back into cultivation.

I carefully dug down and managed to extract two plants, stem and tubers, several tubers which I hope will now sprout again and some shoots, mostly with roots that should be able to support themselves. In all, enough for six more plants. All of these tubers appear to be of the crimson sort, the sort I had decided was less hardy than the pink. They seem to be robust enough! I'm hoping the two plants on the onion patch will be the pink sort but whatever, I am so pleased!

The flower on a Shetland Black potato, really pretty and a rather attractive subtle perfume.

Wednesday 4 June 2008

Garden Roundup

broad bean heaven

The broad beans have been flowering for a while now but only today have I spotted a few tiny pods setting. Rain and high winds have kept the bees away but as soon as the sun comes out they are drawn irresistibly to the glorious scent of the bean flowers. It really is amazing and a picture is just totally inadequate to cover the experience.


This oca has white tubers and quite a different growth habit to the pink and crimson sorts I have grown before. They were quite delicate, even lightly furry and shaded with darker patches, this is waxy, thick leaved and sturdy. All six plants finally came up.

carlin flowers

I wish I hadn't started the carlins so early in the UK. They struggled for several weeks after we arrived and I planted them out. Finally they're beginning to make strong growth and flowers. I hope we don't get pea moth.

run bean run

The Spanish White runner beans as we now call them, are finally starting to run. Unfortunately this picture also shows the weeding that needs doing.

papa lisa
This is the ulluco with the pinker stems and leaves.

and this is the greener version. I think there is a variety positioned between, making three sorts in the garden but I'm not sure and the pictures aren't very exciting so we'll just show these two for now. I had a bite of the leaves, raw. Um, just like spinach!

And talking of spinach

Tastes like spinach

I cut and cooked a handful of the Good King Henry. It really didn't taste very nice as I nibbled a leaf raw on my way to the kitchen but actually, after cooking in some salted boiling water for five or so minutes it was pretty good, in a leafy green foraging sort of way. I've seen mention of changing the water part way through cooking to remove bitterness and I think that would be a good idea, but marks out of 10? A definite seven and a half.

Monday 2 June 2008

Cat Blogging Update

old cat

He's not well. He won't eat any more. He sits on his chair, quietly, without energy or interest in his surroundings. After 18 years of determined self direction he has become a puppet, carried to his food, his water, his heated mat.

It can't be long now. We'll miss him.

Sunday 1 June 2008

Good King Henry

Chenopodium bonus-henricus

This culinary pot herb, Chenopodium bonus-henricus, a native of central and southern Europe is alleged, like that other pernicious weed Ground Elder, to have been spread to northern Europe and the UK by the Romans as they conquered and colonised their way to an empire. Many of the common names associated with it across Europe make mention of Good Henry, the Germans call it Guter Heinrich and the French chénopode Bon Henri but only the British have added the King part, presumably in honour of Henry VIII. It's also known as Mercury.

As a member of the Chenopod family it has among its relations fat hen, goosefoot and quinoa, all of which plants have been or still are used for food for humans and animals since neolithic times. It has other benefits for the gardener. It's extremely easy to grow, surviving almost anywhere and it's perennial, returning year after year with no need to save seed or regularly replant. However, it's not great to eat. Although undeniably nutritious the flavour is bland and the texture often coarse. A sustenance food for times of famine.

It grows to about 60cm tall with a spread of about 30cm but clumps can expand considerably further than that. The leaves are arrow shaped, up to 10cm long and they are slightly textured, almost hairy when young.

To grow it all you need is a patch of land to put it in. It is hardy and tenacious, my patch survived several years of neglect, bind weed and couch grass encroachment before I moved it to its pleasant quarters in the vegetable plot.

Although it can be started from seed, sown where it is to grow and allowed to grow on for a full year before harvest, it is probably easier to get a small plant to keep as a novelty in one corner of the herb bed. If you like the taste and want more plants divide the clump in spring and plant out in good garden soil. It will take a little shade for part of the day and may produce more tender leaves during summer as a benefit of it. It is said that 30 plants will feed a family of four, but I suggest they'd have to be pretty hungry to prefer this to spinach or chard.

Cooking is easy, take a bundle of young leaves any time between the end of April and August and use them as you would spinach, lightly cooked with some salt and fat to add moistness. Eating them raw is certainly possible but many authorities warn of an excess of saponins and oxalic acid so it's probably best not to do this often. The method of cooking I have yet to try is to take the flower stems and buds and steam them like asparagus. I'll report back on that in a week or two!

Medicinally it has been used as a gentle laxative and the leaves have been boiled and used as a poultice for infected sores and abscesses but this is pretty much standard usage for all non-poisonous green herbs and there is no evidence of any particular benefit to be gained by using this plant. One reference suggests it was popular as a cure for indigestion. It has been used a dye plant, producing greens and golds.

It does make good animal feed, chickens are particularly fond of it and its relatives so if you don't fancy it yourself you might treat the chooks.