Sunday, 30 August 2009

I forage therefore I am

A very weird thing about my bf (imho) is that he doesn't forage. At all. For someone skint living on a boat this strikes me as very very odd. He was born awfully premature so maybe it's something to do with that...;-)

He was trying today, I think, to persuade me that instead of gardening or foraging, I should be doing more important things. I think his idea was that once I'd done the more important things (and this looked like it was going to take months, I might add, not days), then I could go back to foraging and gardening.

He clearly doesn't understand that I couldn't do that. For me, the meaning of life is somewhere in gardening, collecting food & fuel, making friends and pootling about. I can handle fitting it around other stuff (like going to work, sorting out the house and doing my finances), but I can't not do it. Apart from anything else, it's very seasonal. I either forage for elderberries in the next couple of weeks, or I don't do it at all. If I neglect my tomatos today, tomorrow they will be a blight ridden slushy mass. In fact tomorrow I have to make green tomato chutney before the blight gets them and rack my elderflower wine before it tastes bad. Apart from anything else, I tend to feel that it makes sense to garden/forage/do outdoor things when the sun shines. There will be plenty of time for doing indoor things in the coming months.

Talking of which, he is right about some things- I really ought to sort out having the chimney lined and installing my multifuel stove before the winter...;-)

Elderberry fruition

Following on from my musings about manana, I am happy to say that elderberries represent a good case in point for me. *Last* year, I put them in my blackberry and apple pies and developed a real taste for them. I froze a few bags full and they were fantastic in the winter for adding to pies and crumbles. I vowed that next year, I would freeze a lot.

I took the kids (mine plus the BF's) out foraging this weekend, with the express intent of getting elderberries. Ok, so my two year old didn't do so well, but my 5 year old proved an excellent forager, even developing his own alarm sound for the presence of edible goodies. I'm not sure how much we collected in weight, but I've been stripping elderberries whilst mainlining three back to back episodes of River Cottage this evening, I've put four piesworth in the freezer, alongside the four I did yesterday and I still have a huge bag in the fridge to do. A resolution very satisfactorily brought to fruition.

A rather obvious, but hitherto unthought thought has also occured to me as a result of this. I should work out roughly how much of whatever it is that I actually plan on eating and therefore how much to aim to grow, preserve or freeze. I could happily use a bag of elderberries a week throughout winter, so that's about 15- 20 bags. Hmm, I am just going to have to get that chest freezer I've been thinking about...

Tommorrow always comes

Starting this blog has coelesced a number of thoughts in my head -many of them about my focus for this blog and thereby my goals in life. I've realised today that one of my goals is to revel in the seasonality of life and the fact that, death aside, tommorrow always comes. I think we have a cultural distaste for the idea of manana and there is an inherent assumption that doing something tommorrow (or, god help you, next year) is somehow lazy and unproductive. I'm making a stand against this - doing something tommorrow, next season or next year is great - there's so much to look forward to! If you fuck up, forget to do something this year or suddenly realise that there's a better way of doing it, there really always is next year.

Tomatos are a case in point for me. As I said, I realise I've been growing them the Wrong Way. Some years, I've got lucky. There was the Year of the Compost Toilet. I was living on a boat on our mooring and we didn't have facilities for sewerage disposal. Inspired by several visits to CAT and various "How to shit in the woods" (this is a real title; check it out on Amazon) type tomes, we developed an extremely basic composting toilet. Most models involve a 12v fan, which, unless it's solar powered does rather seem to be missing the point. Our version consisted of pooing in a bucket-and-chuck-it; covering each deposit with sawdust (being a wooden boatyard, we had a lot of that) and then, when the container was full, emptying it into a stack of tyres, with a grid at the base to stop rats and provide drainage, again layering each deposit with sawdust. We left a year to compost and it was amazing. No smell at all. In theory you're not supposed to use it on edibles, but I couldn't resist. It went on my (very) raised beds and I planted squashes and tomatos. It was a hot summer and there were enormous quantities of tomatos and no blight. Sadly we were away at the peak tomato moment, so my friends had most of them:-(

I can't even remember what year that was - it must have been more than 5 years ago. Since then it's been hopeless. Last year I swore I wasn't going to grow tomatos outside again because blight was so inevitable, but I succumbed this year and planted out some HDRA seedlings that were supposed to be relatively blight resistant - I think one was called Peremoga and the other Salt Spring surprise. Sadly they seem to have now totally succumbed. I've been taking the leaves off, but it's on the stems now and if I leave the toms on any longer, they'll get it. If you haven't seen what blight can do to a plant, it's pretty awesome. The speed at which it can transmute a plant into a smelly mass makes you very grateful that it's not a human pathogen.

So tomorrow it's green tomato chutney and tonight it's an analysis of what went wrong and what I can do better next year. I'm still positive about my tomato growing progress to date. Things I now do include:

1) Planting out before the plants are too big
2) Labelling the plants clearly
3) Growing most of the crop indoors
4) Taking the side shoots off regularly
5) Staking properly (although I still need to work on this)
6) Spraying against blight (goes against the grain, but so does losing my entire crop)
7) Mercilessly taking off any blight affected leaves
8) Knowing when to give up and make green tomato chutney!

Things I'm going to do better next season:

1) Sorting out a watering butt automatic drip watering system - this should ensure that I don't have to use the hose (which I think is pretty criminal), and that the leaves don't get wet (blight just loves damp leaves), and that the plants are getting regular fertiliser because I'll put it in the butt - oh, and that they are getting watered regularly - no more blossom end rot for me!
2) Stripping the leaves off mercilessly before the blight strikes

So, although I can't control the sun and the rain, I can at least look forward to maximising my chances of a good crop next year...manana!

Saturday, 29 August 2009

And the secret to life, the universe & growing tomatos is...

...Counterintuitive. In general, as a gardener, you seek to nurture and grow things. Whilst roses and the like might require pruning, vegetables on the whole require growing. It seems that tomatos may be a bit of an exception to this rule. For years, as I said, I've grown lush crops of tomato leaves, but not quite so many actual ripe tomatos. I am now suspecting that pruning is the key. I'm not talking here about taking out the side shoots of indeterminant tomatos (although it has taken me years to do that), but pruning most of the leaves off.

This is currently more hypothesis than an established fact for me, but the evidence is growing. I started toying with the idea when I saw an episode of River Cottage where Blight strikes in the polytunnels and Hugh's organic guru advocates stripping the leaves off. This was news to me - my experience suggests that once you spot blight, you can say goodbye to your tomato crop. In the DVD at least, if not reality, Hugh apparently went on to have a crop of tomatos.

With this in mind, I've been savaging my toms whenever I spot a blight like leaf. However, I might have to go a step further if I follow the advice that I encountered on the Net today. Someone was trying to flog their e-book on the subject of growing toms and advocating taking off all but three leaves as a pre-emptive strike to blight. The plants then apparently focus their energy on the fruit and blight is less likely to get a hold because there's better air flow. Oh, it looks like bedtime. That's quite enough hypothesising about tomato growing for the day anyway.

Tomato revelations

I'm not sure when I grew my first tomato. I was probably an adult, I was probably in my early twenties and although I can't remember the event, I have a fairly shrewd idea of what happened. I imagine that I planted the seeds indoors, got very excited when they actually germinated, carefully nurtured them through transplantation and growing on to planting out size and then...well, then I probably did what I usually do, which involves planting them out a bit too late and then watching them grow into monster plants outdoors, with the occasional titillatingly gorgeous ripe tomato, and a slew of green ones that either never reach full ripeness before the frosts or succumb to blight before the season even gets that far.

There have been variations on a theme. There was the Year of Green Tomato Chutney, when version a) of events above occurred on a sliver of land I had appropriated by my boyfriend's mooring (mine was on hardstanding, so no good there). I used to cruise my boat up to his, breast up and tend the garden. I had an amazing harvest...of green tomatos. I was so keen not to waste them that I set about creating Canal Tomato Chutney. I learnt the hard way that if you make chutney on a boat, the smell lingers. For weeks, people passing my boat commented on it, whilst I smelt like a spice shop. The chutney itself was inedible, which I put down to flirting with a friend of mine whilst putting in the chilli powder. There is, however, a happy ending. I stashed it all under my bed and about a year later in a state of desperate no chutneyness, I broke into a jar - and it was lovely!

Recent years have seen a run of Version B - where blight has got the plants before I could harvest everything. I vowed last year that I would never grow tomatos outside again. This year I grew a vast number of plants, sold quite a few from a table outside my house and planted most of the rest in my conservatory and greenhouses. I have a great range, from the Black Seaman to Big Rainbow with Tigerella and Gardeners Delight in between. Most of them are either saved seed or from the HDRA or an eccentric seed supply in the States.

I think tho that I might have begun to crack the tomato connundrum. I will tell more....but after I've gone foraging for elderberries by the reservoirs....

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Pod ponderings

Like I said, if it all goes wrong this year, there's always next season. I was mentally reviewing my garden and realised that it would make sense to make a list of what's worked and what I want to improve, so I thought I'd make a start here with my legumes...

Peas/Mangetout etc
Peas - everyone says what a waste of space these are compared to mangetout or sugar snaps, but obviously everyone doesn't have small children. Once you've sat on the sofa with your smalls ardently picking the peas out of the pod and gobbling them greedily raw, you won't think that peas are a waste of space - they're a wonderful introduction to the joys of grow your own for sprogs and the gourmet indulgences of fresh veg.
On the constructive side, I have learnt that it would be a good idea to label them better. The labels got lost in the plants and, as the row was mixed, I was unsure at what stage to harvest (pod, pea or both). I went to a school recently and their veg patch had long wooden labels written on with indelible marker - not a bad idea at all. The labels looked rather nice actually and who says that you have to have some piddly little white plastic thing that you can barely see?
The other thing is support. I used to use some rather nice gold twig trellis (jumble sale Christmas decoration), but I've rather run out of that and my peas sticks this year were frankly useless. I saw a great solution at an organic smallholding I stayed on in the summer. They had several long rows of pealikes, all with hefty five foot wooden stakes supporting a line of wire at the top, to which was attached/hung pea netting. I already have pea netting in the greenhouse; all I need to do is procure some stakes. I actually had to ask if these were permanent pea beds, the stakes looked so longstanding, but apparently they move ok, so next year I will do the same.
My final pea improvement point is to have more. Possibly lots more. Not a lot more peas as such, I admit. I had about 6 foot and that was probably enough to enjoy a few sofa sessions shelling and hoovering with the boys, although they might appreciate more. But I would like more mange toute and possibly sugar snaps. My veg patches are currently 5 m long and one length of this, even a wide one, really wasn't enough. I could have done with at least two 5m long beds, especially as much of my sole bed was also occupied by broad beans. It would be good to be able to freeze some peas next year. Frozen peas are great, but you don't get frozen organic mange toute, to my knowledge, let alone purple ones.
That reminds me, my really final point is to note that I could do with more purple peas. I grew these first years ago from the HDRA and my main recollection was the beautiful flowers and purple pods, but it has to be said that they are also an awful lot easier to pick, simply because they are so much easier to see.

Broad Beans
This was a surprise success for me this year. I confess that I was too late to sow my own, so I cheated and bought some cheap plants. It worked out really well. I can't quite remember now (the perils of not blogging before) but I think I cloched them (a first for me). It was only plastic hoops with thin plastic over, but it did seem to provide some protection.
I had loads of beans - more than I knew what to do with. I realised rather belatedly that the small ones (>1 cm) were fantastic and the large ones were soup fodder (well, I suspect that they would make good soup dried; in reality I tended to liquidise them with things to make broad bean, um mush). I planted two rows of broad beans, either side of the peas. I think next year I would be tempted to go for the same amount but stake it as above, use the tender young beans fresh and see what I feel about any dried broad beans I get this year. I think the plants got chocolate spot ( I think that's a bean disease, not the consequences of too much confectionery) this year, but it was very much towards the end of their life. Next year I will know to try drying the beans on the vine too.

Borlotti beans
A first for me this year too. I did manage to grow these from seed, but I suspect I either sowed too early (indoors) or planted out too late because the plants were lanky and intertwined by the time I got them in the ground, at which point, despite the fleece tent around their teepee, they promptly sulked, looking most unhappy for a few weeks. In fairness to the plants, they do seem to have recovered and their lustrous green and red spotted pods are now decorating my legume bed. Unfortunately, there aren't an awful lot of them. I think this mostly reflects the fact that I simply didn't grow enough plants. I've probably got about half a dozen. I've eaten some fresh (fairly innocuous and lose the fabulous colouring even when steamed), I'd really like to dry the rest on the vine and see a) what they taste like in winter soups and b) whether I can actually be arsed to put them in winter soups ;-). If so, then growing a full row, supported like the peas and saving dried beans, would seem to be a good idea for next year.

French Beans
These are on the same wigwam as above, and have suffered similar problems - they sulked and there aren't enough of them. I seem to have only purple beans growing and they are absolutely beautiful. It's not just the pods, but also the leaves, which are gloriously purple tinged. I really should try growing yellow and purple together, on a proper tall staked row.

Runner Beans
I wonder if I'm being overly harsh on myself about the late planting of the french and borlotti beans. I'm sure that I planted the runners even later and the plants were even longer, but they seem to have bounced back really well. I had some tricolour seeds - ie with pink, red and white flowers. I wasn't that bothered about the flower colour, tbh, but I have to say that it's most attractive. I've only just started harvesting them, so time will tell, but I suspect that one wigwam, unless I'm going to get into freezing a lot of them, will actually be enough. It does occur to me that it's so pretty that it would be a nice idea to use it as a feature in any part of the garden. I did actually design the borlotti/french bean wig wam so that the kids could go inside (partly to pick the beans but mostly for fun). I'm not sure whether this was a good idea, simply because I haven't pointed it out to them (I had visions of squashed beans), but it is still a thought for next year.

Ah, like I said, thoughts for next year - what a nice thought a thought for next year is.....

Sex vs Gardening

I know. It's a attention grabbing headline, but it's also an interesting thought. I read today in one of the more scurilous papers that one in four women prefer gardening to sex. This led me in turn to wonder which I preferred. I came to the conclusion that it very much depends on what kind of sex and gardening you are talking about. If we are comparing, say, the pedestrian fumblings of a late night get it over with and get to sleep kind of shag (if you don't know what I'm talking about here, you probably don't have kids) to the ectastic moment when you discover that your rare tomato seed has actually germinated, then I'm sorry but I'm with the one in four. I have to admit that if however, we are comparing bodice ripping, bed breaking, earth shattering abandoment to weeding in light drizzle - well, what are those women on? ;-)

That said, I have had much of either recently so I'm not sure I'm one to judge. To say that the last twenty four hours haven't gone quite as planned would be akin to saying that Chamberlain's strategy for world peace went a bit Pete Tong. My original long term plan had been to take today off to go to the County Show. This is a minor, if important part of my Overall Plan. I really like County Shows...and fetes, fayres, jumble sales, horticultural shows, the lot. Now I'm not with the PDX, I can do what I damn well like. And what I like is all the above.

However, I went to help someone out the night before - not entirely altruistically, I admit. There was no gardening in the offing, but there was the strong possibility of my other favourite hobby. It all seemed like a great idea at the time, except that I got a flat tyre on the motorway and then discovered that my spare was also knackered. It all went rather downhill from there, involving a terrible night's sleep on the sofa, cocking up a mooring (well, it's been a while since I've boated on rivers) and culminating with a minor in the brink (they were ok, but the only thing that's worse than going in yourself is watching someone else go in, especially a kid).

I had one of those moments when I thought that if I wished hard enough perhaps I could will teleportation into existence and beam myself back to my lovely canal cottage with my lovely roses and serene cottage bedroom, complete with extremely comfortable mattress. I can now confirm that this approach doesn't work. I still found myself in the middle of nowwhere, about 20 miles from my disabled car with a bunch of unhappy people - oh and children to pick up in a few hours.

So, the County Show didn't happen for me. The good thing about such events, however, is that they have a great habit of reoccuring annually. Something that I rather enjoy about my life at the moment is the sense that if it all goes tits up this year, hey ho, there's always the next.
Which does, finally, bring me back to gardening. That's a large part of my raison d'etre for blogging really - if I cock things up this year, I can rectify them the next, be it beans or not getting to the County Show