Wednesday 28 January 2009

Seed Swap Update

After reviewing stocks and quality of my saved tubers I think I'm able to offer a very few small packs of 3 ulluco and maybe one or two oca tubers per person. Have a quick look at my seed swap page for contact details and to see if there is anything you'd like to try - click here.

And yes, I am turning into a kitten bore. They are exhausting because their favourite time to play at the moment is between midnight and 2 a.m., just when we'd rather be asleep but here they are gathering strength for later.


Thursday 15 January 2009

Gratuitous Kitten Blogging

Yes, it's true! Last night I became the mother of kittens!

Two boys and girl, all from the same litter.

The boys look very similar, the girl has long hair and a flatter face. All have very different personalities but they are healthy, unafraid and already keen to bond with us and explore their new surroundings. They were born on Hallowe'en 2008.

One of the boys and the girl.

We got them via the RSPCA, so had a nominal cost to pay for their first jabs and microchips. We've had to undertake to have them neutered as well but that won't happen for a few months yet.

Names are yet to be decided. Suggestions in the comments will be welcome, we're beginning to get a bit desperate although after their first 'quiet' evening with us in the lounge we're considering Sid, Johnny and Nancy.

Sleepy babies.

Friday 9 January 2009

Green Woodworking

tools of the trade

We think a lot about old skills, renewable resources, making do with what we have and being creative.

Over the winter break Paul progressed with some of the projects he's planned for green woodworking. I don't often write about this because it's something he does and mostly I don't, except when a bit of weight comes in handy to hold something steady but he did a lot over the holiday and I took some pictures recording it.

In the picture above you can see some of the tools of the trade. There is a froe, a side axe and a billhook. There is also a hand made wooden mallet, shaped from a single piece of wood, and a book. No one is born knowing these old skills and in the absence of a master, the only way to learn the craft is from knowledge recorded by others. Paul's been working using Mike Abbott's Green Woodwork which is pretty much the standard primer for all new woodworkers.

shaving horse

One of the things he's been working on is this shaving horse. Apart from the use of a chainsaw to cut the trunk of the Ash tree that provided the wood, all the work has been done with hand tools in a traditional manner. The main beam of wood was split from the log with the aid of an axe, wedges and a sledgehammer. The shaping has been done with a side axe, the bill hook and various wood chisels.

The shave horse isn't very exciting in itself but it is an essential tool for preparing wood for turning on the pole lathe.

the worker

Most of the work was carried out in the freezing cold. In this last picture you can see the pole lathe in the shelter of the tractor shed. On it, Paul turned the pins that hold the shave horse together, which is a bit confusing really because he could have done with the horse to prepare the wood for the lathe.

Now, we have nearly everything we need to start working green wood into useful items. We have apple, cherry and box woods on the farm which will make all sorts of furniture and kitchen tools. My dream is to be able to turn bowls but it's extremely skilled work and I'm not actually able to turn a rolling pin yet!

Saturday 3 January 2009

Bleak Midwinter


It's cold, bum numbingly cold and it's been like it now for nearly two weeks. The forecast suggests it will continue to be this cold until at least the middle of next week and even then, it won't be much better.

Which is a bit of a blow because three weeks ago, although it was a bit chilly, the soil was soft but I only had time to lift a tiny proportion of the late Andean crops. I expected to be able to collect the rest during the xmas break.

I've barely been able to get a fork into the soil because the top three inches are frozen solid. Which means the garlic has missed its deadline and the precious unusual tubers of the oca and ulluco may have become write offs.

However, in desperation I've hacked my way into the frozen wastes and extracted a handful of the ulluco. The main crop of oca may have been lost entirely as mice have laid waste to the whites in the back garden and the soil in the open plot by the field has resisted my every attempt to breach it.

ulluco crop 2008

This picture shows the tubers I hope are free from frost damage and will survive to become next year's seed tubers. By luck it looks like all three possible 'varieties' are gathered, the plain(ish) yellow, the orange with pink spots and the yellow and pink striped but really there doesn't seem to be an awful lot of difference in the colours and it might just be natural variation.

Information about yield and performance is therefore somewhat restricted but the most important test, the edibility quotient if you like, has been performed. We tried a few tubers sliced into a chilli bean dish and they were quite good. Lovely crisp texture, slightly earthy taste but it grows on you.

I've left the rest of the plants in the ground in the hope that the deeper tubers will survive and come up as volunteers next year. It seemed safer to let them take a chance in the warm underground than risk damaging them with a fork or thawing them too quickly and inducing rot.


It's very beautiful here but we are beginning to hope for some warmer weather soon, before all the wood stocks run out.

Thursday 1 January 2009

Crème de la crème

I've been agonising a lot over this year's selection of seeds for the garden - do I select for novelty? heirloom qualities? rarity? and it's easy to forget that a long time ago it was possible to pick up a seed catalogue and become totally overwhelmed by the choice available.

Rather that publish a long list of stuff that I hope to cram into the garden this year it seems more practical to share the selections that we've found reliable year after year. I might not be growing these this time but if you asked me for a safe recommendation this is what I'd say.

The selection may seem idiosyncratic but represents the sort of vegetables we actually use. Where there are omissions it's because they are impossible to grow (like cauliflower), only for very specific purposes (like pickling cucumbers), of such limited available variety that recommendations are pointless (like salsify) or needed in such small quantities that buying half a dozen plants is more sensible (this is how we do cabbages and it works).

They are all (I think) variously available from mainstream suppliers like Chiltern Seeds, Unwins, Tuckers, Suttons, Realseeds and the rest and although you may not find them in the garden centres there should be no difficulty in getting them mail order.

Broad Beans - I really love Red Epicure (and will be growing them this year).

Dwarf French Bean - Annabel is quick and very tender.

Climbing French Beans are my nemesis. If you are growing for drying Borlotto Lingua di Fuoco (also Barlotto) are strong, pretty and have a good name. Young pods are edible whole. If you're growing for pods choose a round or pencil podded green variety. The purple ones go green when cooked anyway and the yellow ones always look a little sickly to me.

Runner Beans, for me it has to be White Emergo. The pods are rough and relatively short but the flavour is the best. Painted Lady is fun and pretty but tougher.

Beetroot. Unless you are a huge fan you won't want that many of these. Forono is an excellent long rooted sort. Egyptian turnip rooted has always done well for me and the thinnings are excellent in salad and stirfries.

Broccoli. It's not worth trying to compete with commercial green broccoli (which is calabrese anyway) but if you have space and butterfly netting to spare Early and late Purple Sprouting is a food of the gods and doubly useful as it crops in March and April.

Carrots - don't waste money on F1 seed but get Nantes and/or Autumn King selections. Cover the rows with fleece to stop carrot fly or make little fences around your rows (the flies are a bit stupid) or try the rhythm method and sow at times when the flies aren't flying.

Courgettes, I love the long white Cousa types but almost any available will be just fine. I usually have at least one round fruited plant.

Squash/Pumpkins. I try to grow a Musquee de Provence type every year, they are gloriously fleshy, orange and long keeping. However, if your household can't cope with the size of these then Uchiki Kuri, Melonette Jaspee de Vendee or Sweet Dumpling are excellent smaller fruits.

Onions, buy sets from a reputable supplier and follow the instructions on the packet for guaranteed success but I also like to sow some Long Red Florence in early August. Thinnings are great for salads and they will usually overwinter to give an early crop of torpedo bulbs which are excellent for cooking.

Garlic, again buy only firm healthy looking heads from seeds suppliers, garden centres or supermarkets. I have sown eating garlic from UK and French supermarkets (Spanish sourced stock) without any disease problems but you might not want to take that chance. Planting early, like now or even earlier, is a good plan but you'll be o.k. up until the beginning of March if conditions don't permit this.

Lettuce. Call me old fashioned but Webbs Wonderful is the one for me. We've also had great success with Marvel of Four Seasons and there are good mixtures available which help to break the monotony of single variety sowings.

Parsnip White Gem has always worked for us.

Rhubarb Chard either Red or Mixed is much easier than either Spinach or summer cabbage and looks beautiful too. Swiss Chard with white ribs is also excellent.

Tomatoes. There are far too many of these for any meaningful recommendation to be made. Stick a pin in the catalogue. My default choices in the past have been Roma for plum/cooking/paste (as good as San Marzano in our climate) and Marmande for salads and I have no complaints about either but ask locally for opinions and see what you get.

Potatoes. We recommend Ambo to everyone for general purpose use. They are strong growers, heavy yielding and keep well if you can stop the mice from getting them (of which, more later). Stroma are excellent clean second earlies and I like Epicure as first earlies. If you want Jersey Royals try International Kidney but they are only as early as they seem because the climate on Jersey is so good, they don't perform any better than the other earlies on the mainland.

This selection won't be everything you need but it's a good start. After a year or two you'll be ready to branch out into all sorts of experiments and these varieties will be yawn making and boring but you'll come back to old favourites like these time and time again when you want to be sure of success. Good luck.