Tuesday 20 December 2011

A Happy Yule to you all

a xmas tree

It's time for the Solstice followed by another two weeks of festivities. I hope you all survive Sun Return and celebrate the holidays in the way that pleases you best.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

We're still here

3 cats

But just for the moment, it's all rather quiet.

I made jelly with the wild medlars - don't they look tiny. They have a nice flavour and gave a good set. An excellent addition to anyone's forest gardening project.

wild medlars

The harvest from the cultivated version "Nottingham" is over 10 kgs this year. I have given a few away and the rest are now resting until they are bletted but I think I'll need some new recipes to cope with this. Does anyone have any favourite treatments? I'm thinking chutneys and pickles or wine - we already make plenty of sweets.

The fruit from the tree was covered in 7-spot ladybirds looking for a warm dry place to see out the winter. Luckily it's still relatively mild so I have ejected them and hope they can find a more appropriate place to snuggle into.


We found this tiny ladybird on the wall on the stairs, proving that wildlife will find a way. Not absolutely sure of ID on this, we think it might be a variation of Harlequin ladybird but would like to be proved wrong. Leave a comment if you know.

And we're also wedding planning. The bubbly and truffles were to celebrate choosing the engagement ring. It's really rather lovely but won't be ready until just before Christmas so no pictures until then.


Monday 24 October 2011

From the third week of October

gourds again

It really is autumn and we had a cold snap last week that I thought would kill me because the men were still working on the roof and I couldn't light the fire until the evening for fear of smoking them alive. Of course, as soon as they'd finished - and it looks like they did a good job - the warmth returned with a stiff breeze from the south east. It's been another wonderful weekend, and although they say all this hot air will produce storms I choose not to believe them. What do they know anyway?


All the wilful disbelief in the world doesn't stop time passing though and I'm now in a path that requires me to get a lot of things here sorted and tied down for the winter before I take a month off to do the Stripey Cat pop-ups around the UK. If you do happen to be able to join us I'd love to meet you. Unfortunately I won't be using much home-grown produce, I'm simply not geared up to it this year, but if the venture is even partially successful it will inform my planting for next year.

One of the tasks on the list is to collect the wild medlars pictured above and from all around the farm. It's been a good year for them and the clement autumn has meant they've stayed on the trees to mature for as long as possible. They are just about edible raw now although so tiny that there's barely a bite of flesh around the seeds in the middle. Gathered up and allowed to blet for a week they should make excellent jelly and my plan to compare and contrast the wild with the cultivar Nottingham back in Newport Pagnell will finally happen.

I have managed to prepare land and get the overwintering onions planted. The garlic and elephant garlic go in today and I'll be putting bean seeds in envelopes on Thursday when the rain is forecast. The deer have found the oca already.


This is how far the Papalo has progressed. I was expecting purple poppy shaped flowers but these tiny bunches of stamens are protruding from the top of unopened buds. Knowing nothing about the botany of the plants and only having half a dozen of them I fear that this is some sort of mechanism for ensuring cross pollination that will surely fail in my greenhouse, now almost devoid of both insects and moving air. I'll keep documenting with pictures, I don't think I'm going to get any seeds.

Monday 17 October 2011



The roofing is proceeding slowly, too slowly if you ask me, and there's not a lot I can do to hurry them along. But the roofers won't work in the rain unsurprisingly, and I'm disappointed that two splendidly warm and sunny autumn days at the weekend were missed opportunities when there is rain forecast for most of the next week.


The butterflies had no such scruples about making use of the sunshine. Red Admirals and Peacocks were out in crowds, greedily eating rotting pears and soaking up the warmth before hibernation.

red admiral2

Harvesting is continuing. I tried threshing out the last of Carlin peas. It was fun, beating the dried vines and pods with a big stick but the cleaning and winnowing that was then necessary took nearly as long as if I'd sat and popped each pea out individually, particularly as the day was nearly dead calm. I collected another 800g of seed, some of which were made into dinner (after a good soak).

Recording harvests isn't something I've bothered with much before. Perhaps it would be interesting to see just how much we're getting and how close it takes us to food security but it's extra effort and I'm not sure if the day is long enough to add extra bureaucracy to it.

artichoke flower

Almost at the stage when I can put up the Swap page for this year. It's not going to be all that exciting I'm afraid but there'll be something at least.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Unexpected bonus

birdy - probably a Water Rail

Here's a new to me bit of wildlife from the farm. I think it's a Water Rail - Rallus aquaticus and this one was clearly feeling a bit under the weather when I found him/her resting on the lane in full view and at risk of cat attack. It didn't move when I went back for my camera and posed obligingly for a couple of snaps until it realised it wasn't absolutely safe and disappeared into some brambles.


We're having some work done on the roof which meant I had to clear a corner of the garden that had become more than usually overgrown and wild. Whilst hacking back some invading willow, rampant brambles and a much unloved hydrangea I also had to restrain my Vitis vinifera 'Purpurea' or purple leaved vine. I've had this plant for ages, torturing it in a pot for years until we arrived here and I could set it free.

Finally, it's beginning to show some vigour again and to my surprise has recovered enough to produce a few bunches of grapes. O.k. they are a bit sharp but in a good way and it's great to find a little unexpected harvest like this. I won't try to train the mother plant, its place is in the wilderness corner but I might take some cuttings (easy enough, this plant was from an original I had in Worthing) and give them a more structured cultivation. And maybe even, buy a few more varieties for an arbor.

And so to something that I fear will never come to harvest, the Papalo. It's still hanging on in the greenhouse and has developed flower buds over the last couple of weeks but not one has opened yet and the warm autumn is dripping away into cool constant mist and drizzle. Without sun and insects any flowers that open are unlikely to set seed. Fingers still crossed.

flower buds on the papalo

Saturday 8 October 2011

Blessed Bee the Carpenters


When we arrived back in France it was just at the tail end of the brilliant Indian summer enjoyed by the UK and Northern France at the beginning of the month. And on the last day we were thrilled to see we had Carpenter bees, Xylocopa violacea, on the sweet peas.

carpenter bee 3rd Oct

I'd never seen them this far north before although I knew they were often to be found just a hundred miles or so further south. There were two and I'm hoping that means we might have the start of a colony. The bees are large, nearly 2.5 cm long (about an inch, the size of the biggest bumble bee you'll ever see), a lovely hairy black body and with a violet blue sheen on the wings. They are very active but not in the least aggressive and rarely sting. With luck they will overwinter in holes they have found in dead wood around the farm and come out next spring to make babies.


The bigger better photos here were taken by Paul but I'm quite pleased with my snap in the middle so I've included it as well.

These big bees are solitary and don't socialise much but I've been doing a bit of networking with bloggers during my absence. Paul and I attended a local meet in Buckinghamshire of the Cottage Smallholder forum where it was lovely to meet some other gardening and preserving enthusiasts.

I've also been following Emma Cooper's recent Write Club event where she encouraged guest writers to contribute articles to her blog. The event is closed now but the articles are still available along with lots of other useful and interesting information about gardening so it's worth taking a look. And I was lucky enough to win a prize! Not for my writing but for a lucky random number that picked my comment to this rather nice piece about brambles that has a great recipe included in it.

The weather has gone right off now and I'm in full autumn tidy-up mode, trying to finish harvests, clear up weeds and get prepared for winter. I'm also attempting to keep up with Vegan Mofo 2011 on the Stripey Cat food blog so posting here might be a bit sparse but I do hope to list my seed swaps for this year and talk about my plans for reducing the hungry gap next spring before too long.

Friday 30 September 2011

One last day of September

dragonflybluegreenSouthern Hunter dragonfly

Wonderful late days of summer. So hot and dreamy that blogging is the last thing on my mind.

A few more days in the UK and then we'll be back to see what the deer have left of the vegetable patch. See you then.

Friday 16 September 2011

Another Long Gap

Sorry, I'm pretty much away with the fairies as far gardening is concerned at the moment. I'm planning and plotting stuff for the Stripey Cat Supper Club Underground Restaurant gigs (about which I promise to shut up now, here at least.), the end of the season is fast approaching with all the stress and confusion of the move back to the UK and my hand was asked for in marriage, which after 14 years or so of side-stepping the issue I have gladly agreed to. There's a lot on my mind.


So I've been drifting around, in the mostly rather lovely weather, doing things like picking rosehips to make Parfait Amour (from this recipe in the Guardian, not sure where they got it from, it seems unique on the web and not much like any commercial effort) which is very good and only possible because I had a stash of Rosehip Syrup from last year. These rosehips are to replace that so I can make it again next year.

autumn strawberries

I've also been enjoying a late bounty of wood strawberries, just as well since the blueberries are finished now.

hazelnuts on tree

Foraging for hazelnuts most days now for over a week. I did have a whole post planned on this but everyone and his dog seems to have covered it now so I'll confine myself to a few top tips:

  • Don't pick too early. Unless at least one of the nuts will come out of its leafy cluster fairly easily then it's unlikely any of them will be mature enough to ripen off the tree.
  • Don't bother with anything small, picking the biggest and the best is much less heartbreaking.
  • Take care not to damage the newly forming catkins and female flowers if you want to pick more nuts next year.
  • When you get your nuts home, clean them up from the leaf husks and then dump the whole lot into a bowl of water. A lot will float. The ones that sink are mostly good, with solid kernels. The ones that float are between 50% and 85% (I did tests) empty shells or full of maggot and unless you're a masochist should be discarded.
  • Obviously you don't need me to tell you that anything with a neat little hole already drilled in it is a non-starter.
  • Dry them in a shallow tray, not more than one or two nuts deep and riffle through them regularly to turn. When they're dry store them in the fridge for a few weeks but they won't last forever.
nasturtium seeds

Yesterday I gathered seed pods from the nasturtiums to make pickles. People describe these as false capers but I think that's misleading as they are far spicier and  more pungent. Pick only fairly young crisp seeds, they can become tough when they're nearly mature. The reddish ones in here are from the variety Cobra but they taste the same.

Soak them overnight in a strong brine (10g salt to 100g water) then rinse and drain well before packing in cider vinegar. You can add extra pickling spices like coriander seed or fennel for more flavour.

Map butterfly

The first and last Map butterfly of the year. Still loads of Peacocks out there but it's nearly all over. Until next time.

Sunday 4 September 2011

What worked and what didn't


It's a strangely end of term title, indicative that it's all over and the challenge is finished. It's not by any means, of course, but a few days of brilliant late summer followed this morning by the grey skies of a warm autumn fill a person with thoughts of closure. The swallows went home on the 2nd of September, the evenings are noticeably shorter and the blackberries are beginning to turn. The change in seasons has become obvious.

What worked?

trenched beans

Lots of things actually, but a notable success this year was with the climbing beans which have been profuse and prolific if a little deer bitten. I put this down (although it's only one year's experiment) to the traditional bean trenches I dug back in the spring. It helped them through the dry start and seems to be feeding them into the autumn.  Worth the effort.

wasp achocha

The achocha, not because it was a great addition to the vegetable selection; the small fruit are mildly cucumbery in salads and the large ones only fit for curry, but because of its exuberance and attractiveness as a climber and food plant for insects. We found all sorts of lovely little creatures to photograph and have plans to use it as a green screen around the outdoor dining area next year. It was also the first and only place we've ever spotted a Brown Hairstreak butterfly around here but I think that was just resting on its way past to more appropriate shrubs.

sarpo mira

The Sarpo Mira. When the blight finally came for the potatoes about three weeks ago now every plant on the plot was wiped out, practically overnight, except for the Sarpos. We knew they were good but in other years I've usually sprayed all the plants together and so the differentiation  has not been so clear. I didn't spray any Bordeaux mixture at all this year.

I will still say, loud and clear, that I'm not convinced the Sarpos are the solution to all troubles. I've had plants of them that have succumbed to blight when they were the only variety growing and the eating qualities of the potato are only so-so but, as we did this year, it's worth having a row as insurance.

The potatoes in the background of the picture are the last few Pink Fir Apple as I dug them. We have lost quite a lot of crop to tuber blight this year and may lose more in storage. Not spraying at all was a mistake but we so nearly got away with it I know I'll be tempted to avoid the poison again next year...

What didn't?

ugly flesh fly

No pictures for this section, it's just all too too gruesome.

What didn't work can best be summarised by calling it anti-companion planting. I'm not a proponent of companion planting, at best it's common sense of grouping plants with similar needs together and at worst it's close enough to crystal worship to give me the willies but there were definitely some combinations of plants on the plot this year that didn't work well.

The ridge cucumbers were planted next to a row of volunteer oca. All the cucurbits suffered from mildew a bit in the dry this year but the cucumbers were devastated by disease. I had six small fruit from the entire planting early in the season and that was that. Was it the oca? I'm not sure but I suspect it was, their fleshy shade and acid dew was quite inappropriate for the preferences of the cukes.

I thought it would be amusing to plant tall sunflowers between the trailing stems of the pumpkins but although this is similar is concept to the three sisters planting system the pumpkins suffered in the fight for moisture. Yield is a long way down on normal expectations and the plants are weedy and struggling.

It was suggested that garlic and strawberries were a good combination, by chance I had them in close proximity this year but saw no benefit to either plant, unless the harvesting of the garlic allowed the the slugs to enjoy the fruit more comfortably but I think that was a change in the weather rather than anything to do with allium smell.

And direct planting of sweetcorn failed. I like wherever  possible to direct sow because it saves resources and energy, potting compost, protection etc but sweet corn in this climate needs that extra boost at the start. Something to remember for next year.

Saturday 27 August 2011

Irish Preans

Irish Preans

These peas are believed to have come from an Irish Vegetable research project, although information is sparse and rather vague. I got my seeds via the Heritage Seed Library. They are quite novel compared to most modern peas, very large seeded, mealy peas that are flat and with a black hilum (the little scar where the pea attaches to the pod) that give them the appearance of small broad beans. They are a little like the Dutch Capucijners although the pods are green and not blue and there are other peas with similar characteristics in collections in the States and Canada. Of course, those were probably taken across with settlers in the past so the history remains cloudy, were the Preans some sort of reselection of an older type or new breeding from old varieties? If anyone knows I'd love to hear from them.

The plants are sturdy steady growers, big fleshy plants that will make two metres in height if they're well supported. The flowers are pink and dark red. Rather slow growing, my plants also suffered from mildew during growth although this doesn't seem to have caused them much check. I planted the seeds on 21st April and harvested today. There are still some greeny pods left. Most pods had 5 or 6 peas inside but a few were stuffed with as many as 8.

This year I didn't take any for the kitchen as I was growing for seed but the ones I had last year were very good as hearty marrowfats cooked with other vegetables in stews or just eaten raw. The pods can be eaten as mangetout when young but I think they will do best as a drying pea for the winter.

Irish Prean seeds

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Holiday break

small  copper butterfly

Wow, nearly two weeks since I posted here last. We've been on holiday, staying at home but resisting a lot of time on the computer. Today though, it's a bit dull and drizzly and I'm avoiding doing anything useful out of pure laziness. Perfect day to blog.

This Small Copper butterfly is a bit unusual with a green/yellow colour flash on its wings. Probably not new to science, they are quite variable and have even been seen in shades of black and white, no orange at all.

wasp spider

Wasp spiders are some of the prettiest beasts around at the moment, weaving webs in the long grass to feed well on the huge quantities of grasshoppers and crickets still hopping around. The zig zagging pattern is perhaps to attract mates, although we think we saw one little chap get bitten and wrapped before he'd managed to get his leg over.

carrots and achocha

Plenty of vegetables to harvest still although I haven't been very timely with sowing for the autumn, the bed is prepared but empty. The carrots have been excellent this year after a very slow start in the droughty spring. The achocha are now in full swing but I'm sorry to say I don't find them of much use in the kitchen. Paul suggests we try currying some, and that may be the only way to add some interest to something which is basically green and crunchy with none of the character of cucumber or nutrition of beans.

lupini bean

The last lupini bean plant is finally making some pods but with only a few warm weeks left I'm not hopeful of getting any mature beans. A pity, I had high hopes of these as an alternative crop which would fit into our vegan protein resources but without cover or further breeding work they're not going to do in Normandy weather.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Bean Parade

annabel beans
Annabel dwarf french bean

These have been cropping for nearly a month now and still have new beans forming. They are delicious when picked small but even the larger, goutier bean remain stringless which makes them useful at all stages. Cream/orange flower buds opening to white flowers.

Ice Crystal Wax dwarf french beans
Ice Crystal Wax beans

It's worth picking this old heritage variety regularly as the older pods do form irritating strings. If you get the pods young they have a marvellous flavour and texture that I find particularly good in salads. The older pods are still very edible if you take the time to string them, and it's not a difficult task. Cream/orange flower buds opening to white flowers.

Carter's Polish beans
Carter's Polish bean - a pea bean

I was quite sniffy about these beans which I received from HSL but they are healthy vigorous growers and setting a lot of very tender flat pods, attractively mottled with red. I've yet to see if the dried beans are going to be of any use in the kitchen but these are worth a trial to see if they suit your garden conditions and palate. Small mauve flowers.

Unknown long bean
Long Beans - name unknown

I still don't know what these beans are called as a variety. I've been calling them after their donor, Riana, but I'm sure they must be a named sort. Excellent long stringless beans that thrive in hot dry conditions. The flower buds are the creamy orange sort opening to white flowers and the bean seed are narrow ovals of brown/black colour.

Giant Purple bean
Giant Purple french bean

This is another heritage variety which I think originated in Australia. The plants are strong growing and beautifully flushed with purple and the beans (at least when young) are smooth and tender although, as with all coloured beans, the beautiful colour is lost during cooking. If I have a reservation about this variety it is that all the pods seem to mature at the same time or within a very short period which makes me wonder if this was developed more for the commercial grower than the home gardener. Still, it makes a good shelling bean before the seeds dry hard. Purple flowers held high.

White Emergo runner beans
White Emergo runner bean

The only runner bean I'm growing this year, it's an old favourite. The pods are rather rough but with excellent flavour. Pick them young and you won't be disappointed. The flowers are white and so are the seed, not quite as big as the seed of the White Spanish but still usable and a more garden worthy plant altogether.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Back to the garden


Lots of things to do in the garden still. I have managed to get the leeks planted out and the permaculture fans amongst you would have been proud of me as I sunk their holes into the undug bed where the roots of the broad beans still linger.

Today I took up the rest of the BF15 potatoes. A really lovely looking crop, no sign of the earlier dry scab and quite a reasonable yield.

bf15 harvest

The potatoes are doing well to avoid the blight after several days of warm damp but the outside tomatoes are in a terrible state. Not quite sure what to do about it, barely any ripe fruit at all. This might be a brown sauce year!



A scary sky nowhere near London

This isn't a political blog. I'm not really a political person, my understanding and interest is both slight and fickle but I couldn't carry on with normal programming when the UK is such uproar over the events of the last few nights.

A little unrest in the city isn't a new thing and after the shooting of a man during a police operation almost to be expected. When the relatively peaceful demonstration began to get out of hand late in the evening I (and probably many others) expected a rapid response by the police to contain and control the rampaging protesters. That didn't happen.

When the police failed to get a grip on the second night, it was obvious that this wasn't just an ordinary disturbance, if there is such a thing. There was talk of social networking being used to organise looters and plenty of pictures of youths taunting, throwing missiles and torching property while the police were either absent or in defensive huddles apparently unable to act assertively.

By the third night, it could have been scenes from a civil war. Shopkeepers and community elders struggled to chase away hooligans, law abiding citizens locked the windows and doors and sat in fear of their buildings being set alight. Looters blatantly filled bags and suitcases from the shops they had smashed open. The police still seemed unable to cope, barely able to provide protection for fire and ambulance services working to save the casualties of the mayhem.

We are going into a fourth night, with reports on the news of the violence spreading to other cities and the government recalled to debate and sanction whatever moves are needed to return the country to law abiding peace. I don't know why the police have been so tentative in enforcing the law until now but I hope that hugely increased numbers and the support of senior politicians returned from holiday breaks will give them the confidence to bring this to a close.

And everyone is discussing why and how this happened.

It's very clear that in the deprived areas affected there is little in the way of social responsibility or cohesion, no respect for authority which is perceived as having failed, a hopeless outlook on life from lack of prospects and a raging hunger for consumer items fuelled by the relentless advertising by global businesses who have no care that what they are offering is far beyond the pockets of those on handouts. All that explains why, when the chance was offered for civil disobedience and looting many rose to the opportunity, but it's less clear why that flashpoint occurred.

I have a theory; I think this was malicious crowd sourcing instigated by a very small number of organisers, genuine criminals who wanted cover for their own activities, the chance to put small businesses in fear of their existence, creating further blackmailing income and a way of terrorising the police. They pushed the buttons and the whole media experience went to work for them, social networking, television and newspapers shared the message that the rule of law had been overthrown.

It's not unheard of, football violence in the UK, which seemed spontaneous, was eventually tracked down to various groups of thugs who had organised themselves to start confrontations at matches. This seems to be more cynical and calculating still, exploiting the disadvantaged in a way that will only make their lives worse, purely for personal gain. I hope they're found and something very horrible is done to them.

Saturday 6 August 2011

Is it autumn already?


After finding the huge bloom of ceps last week we thought we'd take a wander around our field margins to see if there were any more. There weren't but we found copious quantities of chanterelles and this old hazel trunk fully laden with delicious oyster mushrooms.

It's raining again today. A bit of a pity as Paul is here and we'd hoped to do some outside work together, but if the fungus season has started so completely it might just bring on a crop of giant puffballs and they are our favourites.


The first fruits on the Gezahnte Bührer-Keel have ripened. So pretty and they taste good too. The seeds for these were sent to me by my Flickr friend Herbi Ditl who as well as being very generous and a vegan takes some very fine photos, so you should have a look at his stream.


Thursday 4 August 2011

Tomato, tomato


At last the tomatoes are coming onstream. So much for my naive belief that the greenhouse would bring this happy state of affairs forward on the calendar. Never mind, despite the setbacks and cultivation difficulties we're there now.

All the varieties are producing, even the Noire de Crimée in its bed in the isolation ward. The odd seeds that I had casually labelled Black are in fact Black Prince, easy enough to see now they are grown with cross referencing to my records. Don't remember saving the seed though!

So far I've had fruit from Coeur de Boeuf, Longkeeping, Beefsteak and Black Prince in the greenhouse and the Latah outside has produced a handful of small tomatoes, with some of the Salt Spring beginning to show colour.

tomato breakfast

But although the harvest should be cause for rejoicing I have to say they haven't been as delicious as I had hoped. The larger tomatoes are rather tasteless and mushy with the Beefsteak indistinguishable from a Moneymaker (why is that I wonder, seed from HSL). The Longkeeping isn't fine flavoured, although to be honest that's not why I was growing it but more hopefully for an ability to extend the season. Instead it seems to be early, prolific and largely pointless as I'm pretty sure it will have finished long before the autumn. Of those I've tried only the Prince and Latah are providing anything like a fruit I'm eager for more of.

In terms of easy cultivation and quality yield it looks like the Black Prince is the winner by a mile, the plants are strong with good setting and the fruit is pleasingly tidy on the vines. I also have high hopes of the Gezahnte Bührer-Keel, a Swiss-Italian heritage variety, which are doing much better under glass than they did outside last year (picture at the top). I just wish I could remember the name, I've resorted to calling them GBK in my head but still have to look it up every time I blog about them.

Black Prince tomato

Of course, some of the problems may be down to my growing techniques. There are plenty of rules of tomato growing available for anyone who wants to google them, everything from full regular (over)feeding to starvation and all sorts of management from stripping off every leaf to allowing every shoot to do its thing.

Mostly I've favoured minimal input and limited training, the last mainly because I detest the yellow stain and smell of the tomato dust. On a hot day it leads to migraine and nausea so I avoid touching the plants at all if I can.

This year because I've overfilled the space available I'm having to take a bit more of an interest in keeping the plants tidy if only to remove the places that slugs can hide and allow the sun to see the fruits, but I'm wondering if this combined with skimpy feeding has produced its own problems. I'm not convinced it's all down to culture because the Black Prince is working for me so perhaps it's just my choice of varieties this year.

With a feel for the way the greenhouse works again (it must be six or seven years since I made any effort at glasshouse toms) I'll be more confident with starting seed and choosing varieties for next year. I've enjoyed Potiron Ecarlate in the past, a magnificently large tomato with great flavour and Purple Calabash is another heritage sort that has good flavour. There are so many good fruit to choose from, has anyone any favourites they think I should try?