Sunday 31 August 2008

The news on Sunday

The back garden never did quite get finished, and then Saturday was blissfully sunny and hot so mowing was started and that didn't quite get finished either.

The news on Sunday is that it was cold, grey and grizzly and nothing much got done at all.

The view from the chestnut with the big nuts.

A deliberately provocative title if ever I thought of one. This field is usually used by a local man to graze his horses. Mysteriously this year, although he cut for hay, he hasn't actually put any horses here. I'm not quite sure what's going on, but presumably all is well.

This is one of the pictures I took for the post I'd planned about the back garden. It's not very good, I still haven't got the hang of the new camera. The little Japanese maple was a present from Paul, brought back for me from Hampton Court Flower show after he'd been there with his mum. The metallic beetle is very pretty but I've no idea what its name is. Does anyone know?

Burr Marigold - Bidens tripartita

This is a weed that's new to me although it's supposed to be widespread in the UK. The identification isn't completely certain, the other possible ID might be Bidens frondosus but that appears, as far as I can tell from the somewhat sketchy details on the internet to be a North American species. Bidens tripartita is quite a useful herbalist's plant and can apparently be eaten or used as a dye. I think it's wonderfully architectural and perfectly ornamental in the garden although I should probably stop growing it in my vegetable patch (it came in with some plug plants and was so pretty I couldn't bear to pull it up) and find it a place in a sunny border somewhere.

The swallows didn't come home last night. They have been taking long trips with the babies each day for the last two weeks but have always come home to roost each night. Yesterday, with fine weather and their uncanny appreciation of the calender they went south. I miss them dreadfully.

Friday 29 August 2008

YES! we have some tomatoes

tomatoes at last

These aren't quite the first but it's the first time I've been able to go to the patch and pick a ripe tomato from every plant. Enough to fill a washing up bowl. Even the later fruiting Potiron now have properly sized fruit (that's big) and stand a chance of ripening. I thought it would never come.

Of course, now I have to decide how to process them.


In an effort to get my sense of direction back I've narrowed my horizons down a little to getting the heritage bed and back garden tidied. Here's a picture of the ulloco after weeding. It grows pretty thick and strong but there were a few weeds that had got between the plants and a certain amount of chickweed just growing over them. These interlopers are now gone.

The plants put out little adventitious roots all along their stems. I suspect in an intensive garden it would be beneficial to give them a light earthing up at some point but I haven't done so with these. Partly I'm too lazy but mainly since there is almost no literature in English on their cultivation I'm having to make it up as I go along with the help of the brief notes provided by Realseeds. So far everything is looking good but the crop won't be ready for another 10 weeks or more. It really is a voyage of discovery. I don't even know if we'll enjoy eating them, which is the main reason for growing any vegetable.

More about the back garden next time.

Wednesday 27 August 2008


I think Ed at The Slow Cook has put into words a description that at least partly matches my mood today. Everything keeps happening, everything is the same, there is so much to do.

Busy Busy

Some of the problem has to do with losing my focus; I'm not sure what the aim is, what the end result should be, how to reconcile what I do with what I hope for. So it's no longer possible to assign a weight to the importance of any particular task. There are plenty of directions to take and an inkling of the future in my putative list of plants for next spring, our vague plans for ground breaking and rotations but nothing seems more pressing than anything else and faced with so many apparently equal and competing pressures on my time I cannot move in any direction.

So much for the online therapy.

What happened today is that I mowed some grass, this was so much easier than I expected I wonder why I didn't get around to it sooner. There were some small lizards on the grass heap, nice to see as we'd seen none so far this year.

In the field I discovered several broods, if that's the right word, of peacock butterfly caterpillars. They have escaped immortality on flickr because they are almost impossible to photograph. I've tried three times now with two cameras and each time there is just an amorphous mass of black wriggly to look at, nothing clear at all. I'm not even entirely sure they are Peacock larvae, Red Admirals also lay eggs on nettles and the few pictures I've googled are not definitive or may even be incorrectly identified. Maybe it's just as well that I can't add to the confusion there.

Meadow grasshopperScorpion FlyGround BeetleFlies

Here are some more of Paul's insect pictures, click through to see the large sizes.

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Mostly for Pamela

I found this quiz and thought of you...

And my results are:

You are the Greek Goddess Hera

You can be beautiful, gracious, and delightful, mature and comfortable in your own body. Although people hold you in awe, you are suspicious of their motives, usually feel insecure, and so, generally need a lot of strokes. Presents don't hurt, either. You may over-react and should consider practicing meditation.

Which Goddess are you?

Monday 25 August 2008

Take a leek


At the weekend we bought a bunch of leeks for transplanting from the market at St. Lo.

Leeks are big business in Normandy, the local sandy soil is ideal for their production and along with carrots nearly every market gardener and small holder relies on them for a cash crop. About 30km north west of here is the town of Carentan which has given its name to a famous leek variety 'Monstreux de Carentan' famed all over the region (and available in the UK amongst other places) for its hardiness and tubby growth. My bunch of over 100 transplants, I had 115 but some were a bit weedy, set me back 5 euros, pretty cheap for the leeks to come from them and a bargain for me. I'm a poor mother in the nursery bed and rarely get my charges started in time, let alone bring them to a point where they can take their places in the proper potager.

It's a little bit late to be setting leeks out but I can't be the only one, there were queues of eager French gardeners collecting their bunches along with endives, lettuces, kale and cabbage seedlings.

Traditionally one trims the roots of leeks. This is falling out of fashion and you may read that it is unnecessary, even counter productive since it sets the plants back but it does little harm and does allow the young plants to be dropped into their deep planting holes with a chance of getting their feet in the soil. Because trimming roots does slow down the uptake of moisture for a while I also trim the leaves back to reduce the burden of transpiration, very important in hot weather.

Use a strong dibber - I use a poker but it's a bit narrow - to make holes 15-20cm apart in rows about 30cm apart. How deep you make them depends on the quality of your soil and what sort of leeks you like. Because I'm only interested in cooking a fairly short blanched white stem suits me so I make the holes about 15cm deep.

Pop a plant into each hole making sure it reaches the bottom with its roots but that it is straight in the hole. They're very difficult to pull if the stem gets kinked. Don't fill the hole but use a watering can to puddle into each depression with enough water to fill it. As the water drains down it will settle the soil over the roots and the plant will grow thick and strong in the loosened soil and space left for it.

The leeks will continue to grow whenever conditions are warm enough to permit it and they are very hardy. I expect to start pulling these in November and continue through until the last few come out at the end of March, one of the benefits of a mixed bag of seedlings.

To protect them from rampaging deer I've re-erected a 'cage' we constructed last summer. It's not sturdy but it should give those pesky deer the hint. These leeks are not for them to eat.

Friday 22 August 2008

Good Eating

We went out this morning, wildly optimistically, to look for Giant Puffballs. There are at least two reasons to search out this fungus. It is excellent eating, even with my much publicised ambivalence to materials mushroomy I don't think I would ever turn a slice down. The other reason, of course, is that it's instantly identifiable. You just can't mistake a football sized white ball appearing on the grass overnight for anything else. Naturally, we didn't find any, we're looking about a month too early. What we did find were these.

Probably not The Miller
*** UPDATE Identification inconclusive - do not rely on this photograph ***

My identification is Clitopilus prunulus, also known as the The Miller in English and Langue de carpe in French. Roger Phillips says these are good eating but there is a slight chance of misidentification with a deadly poisonous species; Clitocybe dealbata or a relation of that, Clitocybe rivulosa. Our fungi are much larger than the usual size for those toxic fungi but the only sure way to tell (in the absence of a friendly pharmacist) is to take a spore print.

The Miller should have a pink spore print, the Clitocybes will produce a white one. Even with that reassurance I'm not sure I'd have the nerve to actually eat these mushrooms but we are at least trying the scientific approach. If it turns out my identification is wrong, I'll update here later.

***UPDATE: the spore print was more cream than pink although the flesh of the mushrooms showed some pink staining after 24 hours. We weren't going to eat them anyway but anyone looking for information on these fungi should be aware that this is NOT a positive identification of an edible variety. Seek more expert advice ***


And so to Chutney. The tomatoes are still not really getting red although there are some signs of ripening at last. With a quantity of green tomatoes that came off the vines when I stripped the leaves and a handful more we now have several jars of Piquant Green Tomato Chutney for the store cupboard.

The only problem I can see with doing this at the height of the season instead of the traditional time at the end of summer is that the apples aren't really ready. I had to make do with immature mealy dry crabs but they worked well enough even though they were fiddly to prepare. If using windfalls make sure they are well washed and all damage and rot is removed. Quantities are not critical in this as long as rough proportions are maintained.

Green Tomato Chutney

2kg green tomatoes
500g apples (after prep)
500g onions or shallots (after prep)
500g sugar (I used demerara but soft brown would be good)
250g currants or sultanas
50g root ginger - grated or shredded
15g salt
0-12 dried red chillies (in the end I forgot to add them, but to your taste)
500ml 7% wine vinegar. (if using weaker vinegars add a little more and cook down a little longer.)

7 or 8 400g sterilised jam jars for potting.

Chop the fruit and vegetables up then put all the ingredients together into your large stainless or enamelled pickle pan. Do NOT use a copper jam pan for this, or aluminium either for preference.

Bring to a boil, stirring well to make sure the sugar dissolves and then simmer for a long while, stirring fairly regularly until everything is cooked down and the vinegar is absorbed.

Continue cooking until it is thick. A spoon drawn across the base of the pan should leave a furrow that takes a moment or two to disappear. Be careful not to abandon your post at this stage as the mixture may stick and burn, not nice. The whole cooking will take at least two hours.

Pot into the sterile (cleaned and baked in oven at 100C for 10 minutes) jam jars and seal carefully while hot with clean vinegar proof lids. Allow to mature in jars for a couple of months before eating.

Thursday 21 August 2008

Just after dusk

if the wind drops there is a moment of profound stillness.


The quiet is so intense that the only sounds audible are the stretching and creaking of muscles and sinews as you move your head to try to isolate any discrete vibration from the silence. The passing of your breath through your nostrils and the contractions of the zinc guttering in the cooling evening are the loudest articulations of the air waves.

It is absolutely noiseless.

And then the owls start.

Monday 18 August 2008

A few rather good photos of two insects* and a spider

Paul has been getting some wonderful pictures of local wildlife with his new camera, which is considerably better than mine. The pictures look even more impressive in big, so don't forget to click through and view them on flickr in full sizes.

small copper
Small Copper Butterfly on mint

Wasp Spider
Argiope bruennichi on its web.

Hornet dismembering hoverfly.

Just for information - Paul is usually happy to allow non-commercial use of his photos but please PLEASE contact him first via flickr for permission. Thanks.

*or maybe three if you include the dead hoverfly.

Sunday 17 August 2008

A walk round the farm


It's not entirely true to say we've got stunning weather at the moment. Mostly it's rather grey, not terribly warm, a bit windy but at least from time to time we get a patch of glorious summer, even if it only lasts 10 minutes.

empty plot

The potato patch - Ta Da! Completely cleared and (probably) entirely empty of potatoes. Paul has been working hard to remove the big weeds, enormous stones and indestructible couch grass. We plan to put a green manure crop in here next.

You can see the tomatoes, still mostly green but also still mostly blight free. It's nail biting stuff. No, really, it is!


This morning's booty. The big white one is Trieste White Cousa Courgette from Realseeds. I was pleased to get this as my previous home saved seeds had expired. Unfortunately the long green one is also from the seeds I bought. Still a nice vegetable but not the variety I wanted. Never mind, all the curcubits are cross pollinating tarts and almost impossible to keep true. I'm not planning to save seed this year so it's not a problem. The little round ones are Rondo de Nice. The single plant came from the local garden centre and was so slow to get going that it entirely missed its purpose of providing an early crop but it's making up for it now, fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it.


These beans, on the other hand, are being grown for seed. They're a variety I've been saving for years, a brown seeded, purple podded climbing french bean that I originally bought from T&M at least 15 years ago. Unfortunately an unplanned breeding experiment contaminated the stock. I'm trying to re-establish the true strain and at the same time separate out the interlopers, a white seeded pole bean with green pods and a black seeded variant. I'm only half hopeful about the black and white seeds but the original buff seeded bean is extremely strong. If I'm careful I should be able to isolate my own locally adapted Normandy beans which will be nice.


The first sunflower. They're all suffering in the wind a bit but a vegetable patch isn't a proper plot without sunflowers, so I'm pleased.

I'd never even heard of this book...

but as part of my continuing fascination with pointless quizzes;

You're Love in the Time of Cholera!

by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Like Odysseus in a work of Homer, you demonstrate undying loyalty by sleeping with as many people as you possibly can. But in your heart you never give consent! This creates a strange quandary of what love really means to you. On the one hand, you've loved the same person your whole life, but on the other, your actions barely speak to this fact. Whatever you do, stick to bottled water. The other stuff could get you killed.

Take the Blue Pyramid Book Quiz

Thursday 14 August 2008

Carlins revisited

pea vine

The Carlins, started in March have reached the end of their cycle. The pods are turning paper thin, the seeds are drying, the vines are dying. Time to harvest.

peas pod

I'm really pleased with the way they've turned out. The plants are hardy and vigorous, these have survived some poor treatment and indifferent weather to produce a good crop. Although they are really grown as a dried pulse for winter use fresh peas taken young are perfectly acceptable and make a pleasant addition to the early summer vegetables. They are prolific croppers, appear to be immune to pea moth (or lucky) and the dry pods don't shatter, a useful attribute that leads to a less frustrating harvesting experience.

peas shelled

With as many as nine peas to a pod it is a rewarding task to sit and shell them for an hour. These will dry now for a few more days before being packed away for winter soups and a dish of Carlins next spring.

I'll have some seed to spare so the first three people in the EU to mail me at catofstripes [at] gmail [dot] com with their snail mail address will receive small packs (25 seeds) of peas so they can try them next year. I'd like to send the seeds further afield but think that they might fall foul of Customs regulations. It would be a pity to waste them.

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Dinner by Candlelight


No blog for a while, I've had my son over to stay for a few days and we've been making the most of our time away from the computer.

The weather has now taken a turn for the miserable, there'll be no more dining out late for another 10 days if the long range forecast is to be believed and wind and rain are hampering our efforts to get the last of the potatoes in. Which is a pity because this was going to be the time set aside for doing summer holiday things like going to the beach as a light relief from everyday tasks.

Oh well, there are sloes to harvest before the birds take them all, grass to cut, chutneys to make, ginger beer to brew and blackberries enough to bathe in. It won't be so bad!

Wednesday 6 August 2008



It's been incredibly hot today. The Meteo says there will be storms but wave after wave of thin clouds roll over, blanking the sun for half an hour and then they pass away again, leaving breathless heat behind them.

The last few years have worried us a bit, each summer seems to have fewer and fewer examples of wildlife on the farm. This year we have only one pair of breeding swallows, hardly any butterflies and a much reduced range of dragonflies. There are no fish in the pond, although that might have something to do with a heron that's been hanging around. I've seen no hares, not even any feral cats.

So it was good to see this Jersey Tiger moth (Euplagia quadripunctaria) on the mint today along with a huge selection of variously coloured-bottom flies, wasps and bees. We had one the first year but hadn't seen one since. We saw a few early butterflies, Brimstone and Orange Tip but hardly any Peacocks, Red Admirals or Fritillaries which are usually abundant. There have even barely been any Cabbage White butterflies although there are signs we've had at least two in the vicinity because here is the evidence.


I went out this morning to continue digging potatoes but when I reached the patch discovered the first unmistakeable signs of blight on the tomatoes. We've only managed to take half a dozen ripe fruit from the patch so far and there are literally tens of kilos of green tomatoes waiting to ripen. It put me into a bit of a flurry.

First of all I went out to buy some more bordeaux mixture thinking I would spray again, even though it's barely 10 days since the last dose. Then I thought I would remove some of the foliage so that the spray could penetrate better. Finally, I decided that I would just denude the plants severely so that the sun can reach the fruit. Spraying our food with poison just wasn't appealing enough and there was no guarantee that the spray would stop the blight once it had started anyway, particularly since the expected storms would probably wash all the new fungicide away almost immediately.

Once I had reconciled myself to the thought that there would be no second harvest it seemed the most sensible option. I hope the tomatoes ripen quickly now.


Monday 4 August 2008

Heritage Junk Food

junk food
Crisps made from Highland Burgundy Red and Salad Blue potatoes.

A poor sense of humour...

I think I've apologised for my poor sense of humour on the blogs before but this made me laugh.*

Worral Thompson cocks it up.

Let's all forage safely out there!

*it will also be the straw that stirs the teacup before my pride takes a karmic fall, just you wait and see.

Sunday 3 August 2008

Fingers crossed for the tomato harvest

green tomatoes

I'm hesitant even to talk about our tomato crop. So far we've managed to avoid getting blight and the fruits are swelling. I've managed to harvest two ripe tomatoes so far, both from plants in containers, one by the back door and one from the plants in mini polytunnel. The main crop in the field is growing well, with a little sun it won't be long before we can start picking.

And it's breath holding time because for several years now we've had no tomatoes at all from plants grown in the open. Blight has destroyed our entire harvest. I'm beginning to wonder if we'll ever have a tomato glut again and I miss it.

The weather, which has been warm and dry, has just taken a turn into stormy rain. Humidity is up and the wind is from the west. We need the rain for all the plants which have been parched for a week but for the tomatoes this has come at just the wrong moment.

The blue splodges on the leaves in the picture are Bordeaux mixture sprayed on as a prophylactic measure to stop the blight spores from getting hold but it's still a poison and I'm reluctant to keep using it, particularly as we need to eat the produce. Its effectiveness only lasts for a couple of weeks at a time - less in wet weather.

Please keep your fingers crossed for us.