Friday, 28 September 2012

Self-Sufficinet in Suburbia - late summer

Here is the next edition of Self-Sufficient in Suburbia. It is late summer and we take a look at how the weather has affected the wild food foraging crops and try out an historic recipe for rosehip syrup. I also head to the Bowes Agricultural Show to enter the jam and eggs competition. And finally, our ducks arrive, making the most of the pond we dug last year.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Wartime Farm

I was recently sent a review copy of "The Wartime Farm", a book to accompany the BBC series of the same name, by the publishers Octopus Books. Last year, wearing both my historian's and horticulturalist's hats, I spent 2 weeks living on a wartime diet. I made a series of videos about it and the local media took quite a bit of interest in what I did. It seems Octopus Publishing noticed it as well. So when they asked me if I wanted a copy of the book, I replied that I would love to receive one and review it for them. After all, I am a great fan of the previous programmes they have produced about farming in the Stuart, Victorian and Edwardian periods. The Wartime Farm itself is currently being broadcast on Thursday evenings on BBC2. After locking up my hen and duck houses and watering the greenhouse, my Thursday evenings are now spent watching the tv.

I've just finished reading the book. I loved it. The big joke in our house is that when we are watching a history programme, I will predict what is about to be said and, assuming I get it right (not always the case!) I end up saying, "I could have written it for them!" Whilst this can be applied to some of the history behind the Wartime Farm programme and book, there is plenty that is new to me. Farming and food production during the war years is something about which we as a nation have a vague collective consciousness but it is an area that is not extensively researched. There is much to be learnt and, frankly, the lessons of the war years can be applied to the modern world. Problems of poor diet, over-consumption of calories by some, under-consumption by others, waste, land use, health were all tackled successfully in the war years. Sadly, the UK as a whole has, for decades now, been forgetting much of what was learnt in the war years with terrible consequences: obesity in some, unhealthy lifestyles and lack of exercise, bad diets, to name but a few.

The book and the series covers a range of issues, not all directly to do with food. One of the most interesting was the revival of old skills that were dying out as the war began. For example, blacksmiths came out of retirement to help repair old farm machinery that had been left to rust for years in the corner of fields. Alex Langlands revived the art of making bee skeps. As a beekeeper myself, I found this fascinating. He even created the materials himself from straw available on the farm and from brambles.

"Make do and mend" is a familiar catchphrase from the war years. Its meaning is now something that is lost on modern Britain. There is a tendency now to throw something out if it is broken, rather than repair it for continued use. Indeed, some things are thrown out now that have years of life left in them. Look at the way clothes are bought and disposed of nowadays. The number of people who make their own clothes is, sadly, diminishing. I fear that we will lose those skills forever. Clothes are often thrown away because they are no longer fashionable. Such utter waste is killing the planet and would have been viewed with complete horror in the war years. Typically a person now would buy more clothes in a fashion season than someone living 70 years would have bought across the whole of the 14 years they had ration books. Then people knew how to make things last, how to reuse something, how to repair, how to get the best from something, how to make it into something else.

One of the unsung heros of the war was the Women's Institute. The book examines the tremendous voluntary work the WI put in during the war years to increase the country's food supply. Not only did they turn Britain's bounty of wild foods into the jams and preserves that are always associated with them, they also turned themselves into a mobile university and training organisation, teaching others the skills needed to preserve food and increase the food supply. In the war on the home front, they were the cavalry, charging in to do the job. Sadly, too many people now think of the WI as a small "c" conservative organisation, full of "Little Britain" ladies whose stomachs turn when confronted with people who do not follow a preconceived norm. The reality is totally different. The WI helped us get through the war. The book brings that out superbly.

Now that I have a copy of "The Wartime Farm", it is no longer on my Christmas present list. (The book has a section on making toys so if anyone wants to make me the Spitfire Alex Langlands made from tin cans, you know what to pop in my stocking this December.) The book however is a great read, even if you have no interest in history. So forget about asking for more clothes that will be unwearably unfashionable by this time next year. Get a copy of this book for Christmas (or even earlier) instead.

"The Wartime Farm" is published by Octopus Books, price £20.

The Horticultural Channel at Harrogate

I visited the Harrogate Flower Show earlier this month and met up with Sean Cameron, producer of the Horticultural Channel for which I was a presented last year. I was also introduced to Jamie Butterworth, BBC Young Gardener of the Year finalist. I interviewed the beekeepers at the show and talked to them about how the weather has hit honey production.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Ducks doing well

Our new ducks and ducklings are doing well. They appear to have settled in to the duck run and have been making full use of our pond. They have eaten most of the duck weed on it though they have also started to eat the watercress. We may move some of the watercress into a barrel pond we have in our back garden. Getting the ducks into the duck house tonight was much easier than last night. No wild duck chases tonight to catch duckings small enough to get through the wire netting. Instead, I funnelled them all into the duck house without any bother. They remain very nervous of people but I think in time they will get used to us, especially when they learn that we are a source of food for them.

Bee hive recovery

I have written recently that we thought one of our hives had become queenless. Our plan was to merge it with another but an inspection of it was needed before merging it to ensure there were no workers in the hive laying their own eggs. Such eggs will give rise to drones but not workers. They can be spotted as an irregular pattern of dome shaped capped comb. An egg laying worker thinks it is a queen and if it is in a hive that is being merged with another, there is a strong chance it could kill the queen in the other hive. That would leave the merged colony to die gradually.

Today I checked the hive we thought was queenless to look for the signs of an egg laying worker. I had a rather pleasant surprise. There was brood in the hive and no sign of any laying workers. It means this hive is recovering. We had a large swarm at the start of August (very late in the year for swarming) and we think this hive was the one that produced it. The swarm would have taken with it the existing queen. When we last checked the hive about 3 weeks ago, there was no brood. Our conclusion was that the queen had been killed whilst out being mated. It seems we were wrong. The queen had returned to the hive. We must have checked it right at the point when the new queen had not started laying.

The other bit of good news is that the super on this hive had 4 full frames of capped honey. We may just be able to get a very small honey crop after all.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Bowes Agricultural Show - photos

I went to the Bowes Agricultural Show in Co Durham on Saturday 8th September. As well as winning the jar of jelly and the eggs competition, I also spent some time taking photos around the show. Here are a few of them>

Bowes Agricultural Show Sept 12 (2)
Sheep judging competition

Bowes Agricultural Show Sept 12 (37)
Modern transport

Bowes Agricultural Show Sept 12 (23)
Time to take the cow for a walk

Bowes Agricultural Show Sept 12 (18)
Time for a haircut

Bowes Agricultural Show Sept 12 (10)
Cut and blow dry

North East Horticultural Society Championship Show

The North East Horticultural Society Championship Show was held today at the South Causey Inn near Stanley, Co Durham. Also being held there was the National Pot Leek Show. We did not enter the competitions but we called into look at the supersize veg. And some of them were of an unbelievable size.

North East Horticultural Society Championship Show (16)

North East Horticultural Society Championship Show (11)

North East Horticultural Society Championship Show (9)

North East Horticultural Society Championship Show (6)

North East Horticultural Society Championship Show (2)


Ducks Sept 12

I am desperately trying to avoid puns such as going quackers, hello duckie and so on but today we bought our first ducks. It was a bit of a rushed affair. We had previously planned to get ducks but when we searched around for a supplier, we drew a blank. We then decided to put the plans on hold for a few months and then approach the whole issue from a different angle - we would buy an incubator and order fertilised duck eggs over the internet. The incubator could also be used for rearing quails and possibly turkeys as well.

This afternoon, we headed to the South Causey Inn, about 4km up the road from where we live, to go to the North East Horticultural Society Championship Show, run in conjunction with the National Pot Leek Society Show. We weren't entering any competitions. We simply went along to have a quick look at the enormous vegetables. When we got there we found there was also a poultry show and when we looked around, we discovered ducks for sale. Three point of lay khaki campbells were looking for a new owner and they were competitively prices, compared to what we would expect to pay for hens. So we decided to buy them but had to rush off to get cash and sort out a duck house.

We phoned Durham Hens, from whom we have bought most of our hen supplies and they said that one of their hen houses was suitable as a duck house as well. So we headed over, bought it and on the way back, returned to the South Causey Inn to get the three ducks. There, the seller persuaded us to buy the 5 ducklings in the next cage as well. For £3 each, we thought they were worth the price.They consist of one khaki campbell, 2 aylesbury, one runner and one magpie. I don't know what sex they are but we will find out soon. The adult khaki campbells are one drake and 2 ducks.

Back to the allotment and we put the duck house together and then fenced off the area of the allotment we had already planned for the duck run. It contains the pond. The hens won't approve that the pond has been fenced off. They drink from the pond and also have a taste for duckweed. Much of the area we have fenced off cannot be used to grow crops. It floods when it rains. When we first got the allotment, we tried to grow potatoes there. They all rotted in the ground. The land we have put aside for the duck run therefore is not a loss for our vegetable growing activities. The run however will be temporary. Once the ducks have become established, we will remove the fencing and let them roam free over the allotment.

When we put the ducks into the duck house, they immediately headed off into the duck run. The ducklings stayed with the adults constantly. Whether they like it or not, they have become adoptive parents. I hung around a bit to see if they would use the pond but they all seemed to settle down on the ground (see above photo) so I left them to it. I returned an hour later to encourage them to go into the duck house. It was clear at that point that they had been using the pond. Much of the duckweed had gone.

Getting them into the duck house was something of a challenge. The adults were no bother. They went straight in. The ducklings however scattered to the winds. 2 were small enough to get through the wire netting of the fence. We had an interesting time rounding them up in the semi-darkness. We eventually got them all in. Let's hope we don't have to repeat that exercise!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Making rosehip syrup

I used a wartime recipe to make rosehip syrup recently. The rosehip foraging crop is not too bad and they are a good source of vitamin C for us. 14 bottles made. We'll swap some for other people's produce. The rest we will put on pancakes, drizzled on cakes or used to make a cocktail.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Trade and swaps

leeks and onions Sept 12

Call it trade or swaps, it's effectively the same thing in the world of self-sufficiency. One of the things I found early on in my attempts to become self-sufficient is that when I have a surplus of one type of produce, there are often others who are keen to swap their surplus with me. We are unlikely to produce all our own food ourselves but other allotment gardeners are likely to be producing something we ourselves have not grown. And visa versa. Eggs and jam act as a sort of self-sufficiency local currency.

So tonight, I swapped 10 eggs and a jar of lemon curd for two enormous leeks and a bunch of onions with one of the neighbouring allotment holders (see photo above). Our own leeks are still growing but our onions have now all been picked and they were not overly impressive. They are rather small so I am going to pickle them instead. Last week I swapped 6 eggs for a pile of rhubarb with one allotment gardener and a jar of lemon curd for some beetroot from another. Eggs for us are not in short supply. Today we had 12 from the hens, a record for us. One of our older hens stopped laying 6 weeks ago but yesterday started laying again. So egg production is going well and that creates a useful currency for us.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Bowes Show

If you are a regular visitor to this blog you may already be aware that I went to the Bowes Agricultural Show on Saturday and we won prizes for our eggs, rowan jelly and blackberry jam. This is the video I filmed at the show.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Foraging news

We carried out an inspection of the local wild food sources last week. It is a mixed picture. Hazel and rosehips are doing well, hawberries, elderberries and blackberries are doing okay, acorns, apples and sloes have failed. The video was filmed during the inspection and I go into a few details about how the extreme weather we have had this year has affected wild foraging crops.

Pickling eggs

When we have more eggs than we can realistically expect to consume, we pickle them. I made another jar of them last week. This is the video on how to pickle eggs. We use the smaller eggs laid by our hens for pickling.

Winning at the Bowes Show

Yesterday's trip to the Bowes Agricultural Show turned out to be something of a success. Firstly the sun shone all day. Secondly, I had a good time and thirdly, I came first in two of the competitions I entered and 2nd in another.

Bowes Show prize Sept 12 3

This is my rowan jelly which got first prize in the jar of jelly section of the jams and preserves.

Bowes Show prize Sept 12 1

The 4 eggs were laid by one of my new hens, one of the columbines. The eggs are an olive green colour. They got first prize in the 4 eggs competition.

Bowes Show prize Sept 12 2

The blackberry jam I made on Friday was entered for the "any jam other than raspberry" competition and came second.

We didn't win anything on the chutney, raspberry jam or lemon curd competitions. Having looked around the industrial and produce marquee, I regretted not going in for the baking competitions. Given the poor state of my crops, I was probably wise not to enter the produce competitions but I am inspired to enter next year. And the baking competitions are also likely to see Wallace entries in the future as well.

Friday, 7 September 2012

2.5 million viewings

Thanks to everyone who has viewed my videos on my YouTube channel ( The good news is that the viewing figures have now reached 2.5 million. Though I also include my travel videos and occasional others, the drivers that are pushing up the viewing figures are those dealing with cooking and gardening. There are over 700 videos on the channel. My oldest cookery video is (I think) about how to make raspberry jam. The most popular cookery video is currently "How to dry tomatoes", picking up over 7,000 viewings a month. For the record, my most viewed video has nothing to do with my self-sufficiency activities. It is "Former Soviet Secret Submarine Base", filmed in Balaklava in the Crimea in the Ukraine in 2006. It has nearly a quarter of a million viewings.

There are two videos already edited waiting to go up: "How to pickle eggs" and "Foraging news August 2012". Waiting to be filmed are "How to make horseradish sauce", "How to make Yorkshire pudding" and "How to make panhaggaty". I will also be filming at the Bowes Show tomorrow and at the Harrogate Show next Friday. So there's plenty more coming up.

Getting ready for the Bowes Show

Tomorrow, 8th September, I will be going to the Bowes Agricultural Show in Co Durham. And for the first time I will be entering a jam-making competition. Actually, technically it will be the second time. Last year, I was invited to enter the Whickham Air Training Corp Annual Garden Party jam making competition, which I won. There were however only 4 entries and 2 of them were from me! So I don't really count it as it wasn't a battleground between seasoned prize-winning jam makers. Tomorrow I will be up against some serious competition and as a novice in these competitions, I enter the race with a significant handicap.

Anyway, I am going in for the raspberry jam, lemon curd, jelly, non-raspberry jam and chutney sections and the egg section (4 eggs are required for this). I am taking 4 of our green eggs laid by our columbines. The first prize is a mere £3. The real prize is the prestige of coming out top. Hopefully there will be rosettes or certificates for the winners to show off. I doubt I will win anything on a first attempt but it will be fun nonetheless.

More information about the show can be found at

Thursday, 6 September 2012

How to make mint sauce

We have lots of mint growing on Dad's allotment so we have used some of it to make mint sauce. Start by stripping the leaves from the stalks and then chop them. Put the chopped leaves in a bowl and mix in a small amount of sugar. Leave to stand for an hour and then add white wine or cider vinegar and sugar to taste. Mix thoroughly and store in jars. Leave for about a week before using.

The dangers of queenless hives

We have been having a bit of correspondence with someone whose two hives have both become queenless. We have copied in a beekeeper friend, Mark, whose expertise is well in advance of ours. The discussion is important to us as we too have found that one of our eight hives has become queenless. We are planning to merge this hive with another. Mark has advised that it needs to be done as soon as possible. A queenless colony can see some worker bees start laying. These bees are infertile but when a fertile queen is added to the colony, the infertile fake queens can end up killing the new one. Clearly this is something we want to avoid. We don't want rogue bees killing the queen of the hive to which they have been added. It means we will have to do the hive merger in the next couple of days.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Self-Sufficient in Suburbia - July edition

This is the latest edition of our Self-Sufficient in Suburbia videos. It covers July. Bad weather has knocked back some of our crops but the jam making season has begun. Meanwhile the hens have started moulting. Elderflower is late and I use it to make cordial and drop scones.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Sunny days ahead

At last, the weather forecast announces a sunny week ahead. And we need it as well! Firstly, I need the ground to dry out so I can dig up the rest of the potatoes. Secondly, I need some sun to ripen the tomatoes in the greenhouse. Thirdly, I need some sun to ripen the blackberries. Fourthly, I just need some sone as I'm fed up with the rotten weather!

Anyway, coming up today: I'm pickling eggs and making a blackberry pie, horseradish sauce and rosehip syrup. I also swapped a jar of lemon curd and six eggs for a pile of rhubarb yesterday so I may be making rhubarb and ginger jam soon.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Hive check

We carried out a full hive check today. All 8 were checked thoroughly. It seems we have another queenless hive. We had a very large swarm at the start of August and we think the result of that is that the colony left behind was weaker than it should be. Somehow, the virgin queen that should have been left with the colony was disappeared. We will need to merge this weaker colony with a stronger one. We have not yet decided which. Interestingly, the late swarm has taken well to its new hive. The queen is working well - there was brood in this new hive - and there was lots of activity from the bees.

We have three hives that are a mess because of wildcomb. We made the mistake of giving these hives fondant when they were set up at the end of June. The effect of this was to create a large space at the top of the hive which the bees have now filled with comb, attached to the crownboard. Solving this is not going to be easy and we are thinking that the best solution is to let the bees simply get on with it and next year we'll add a queen excluder and supers to collect honey. It will also mean that doing proper inspections of these hives is going to be next to impossible in the future.

Nevertheless, all the new hives were strong and active.