Tuesday 31 March 2009

Restoring the London garden

I mentioned last week that we had made a start on turning our London garden over to food production. Here are some of the photos I took at the time.

The above is the bottom right hand corner of the back garden. As you can see it is heavily overgrown and behind the holly and ivy towards the left is a derelict shed. This side of the garden belongs to the upstairs flat but they don't do anything with it and are happy for us to take it over. All that corner needs to be cleared out. The bushes and shed occupy a very large space which we need. We are planning to put the hen house there.

A side view of the derelict shed. It's going soon.

The front garden is a patio area. My plan is to cover it with half barrels and pots.

The dividing wall down the side of the property is ideal for long pots and we have had 6 on them for quite a few years, mainly growing ivy but olso some herbs. Below, we have cleared out some of the pots (the ones growing the ivy, and refreshed them with some compost. They are planted out with garlic but I am about to grow spinach in them as well. Spinach is fast growing so it means I can crop it in a few weeks before the garlic really takes hold. It a useful way to get two crops for the space of one.

Somehow the raspberry obsession is still with me! Having planted over 60 in the allotment back home in Gateshead, I planted another 10 in the garden in London. The contents of the compost bin the the background were dug into the soil. To be honest, the soil on this bed isn't too bad. We've regularly dug in home made compost over the past few years.

Thursday 26 March 2009

Roast pheasant with wild garlic stuffing

We had this meal on Sunday - roast pheasant with wild garlic stuffing.

To make the stuffing, you need:
large handful of wild garlic leaves
4 slices of bread
one egg
one onion, chopped
ground black pepper and sea salt to taste
tablespoon of olive oil
leaves of 4 fresh sprigs of thyme
half tablespoon of sage (we used dried as we had some left over from last year)

Put all the contents into the food mixer and throw the switch. After less than a minute you have stuffing ready to put into the birds.

Roast the pheasants on vegetables in water. This stops the birds from drying out. We added wild garlic leaves to this vegetable base.
We also added bacon to the birds to help retain their moisture.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Wild garlic pesto with homemade pasta

The weekend just gone was a first for us in two senses. Firstly, I made wild garlic pesto for the first time; secondly we used the pasta making machine for the first time.

I collected the wild garlic leaves from Washingwell Woods and made the pesto as follows:

2 handfuls of wild garlic leaves
125g of walnuts
a good slosh of extra vigin olive oil (enough to ensure all the incregients are covered in oil - it acts as a preservative)
ground black pepper and sea salt to taste.

Put all the contents into the food processor and blend but not for too long. You don't want a liquified paste.

To use, simply mix a good dollop of it into hot pasta and serve. We were very pleased with the results.

Keep the pesto in a jar in a fridge and generally aim to use up within 6-8 weeks. You can keep making it until the end of the garlic growing season in June but I am looking for ways to preserve it in oil so that I can use freshly picked autumn hazel nuts instead of walnuts.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

The London garden

The garden at our home in London is a bit of a poor relative of the allotment and our garden at our house in Sunniside, Gateshead. Having set ourselves the task of turning over the London garden as well to food production, we have made a start on the work that is needed to be done.

We have made half hearted attempts before to do something with the London garden, but never anything serious. It does mean however that we already have a number of fruit bushes planted. We also have 3 compost bins and a water butt. Along part of the dividing wall we have pots which we have used to grow herbs.

About a quarter of the back garden is occupied by a derelict shed and a huge rhododendron bush. They waste a great deal of space so we will shortly set to work to get rid of them. That part of the garden will be used for the hen house. We are aiming to have 3 hens, hopefully by the summer.

Today the time was spent on planting raspberries and rhubarb in the back garden and garlic in long pots along the dividing wall.
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Monday 23 March 2009

Seed planting

With the greenhouse now up and in operation, we spent Sunday planting seeds. The following were planted into seed trays: sweet pea (incense mix) - not a food crop but we are going to plant them around the beans to help attract pollinating insects; brussel sprouts (Wellington) - we didn't group sprouts last year, regretably as they are one of my favourite foods so this year we are determined to give them a go; celeriac (monarch); tomato (sweet olive) - in the greenhouse they will have more protection from tomato blight which ran off with so much of the crop last year); gherkins (a big success last year); red cabbage (rodeo) and cucumber (Telegraph).

A more unusual planting was in the form of 21 acorns. I kept these back last year when I collected acorns to make flour. The idea is that I grow them to soak up my carbon. If they grow (and alas I suspect that some may have become too dried out) I will need to find homes for them in a few years' time. I already have 40 sycamore sapplings growing in our London garden, though this was not a deliberate planting. The seeds found their own way into various pots. Once I found them growing, I simply left them to it.

And finally, the last new planting, actually not in the greenhouse but into bed 5 was horse radish. It is said to be a bit invasive so we will need to keep an eye on it.

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Saturday 21 March 2009

Going wild about garlic

The first appearance of wild garlic is the sign that spring is on its way. Typically found growing on woodland floors, it has a remarkably short life cycle. The ground tends to be carpeted with its long, green leaves before the trees above them are in leaf. By late May, the white flowers of wild garlic are turning into green seeds. By mid June, the life cycle is virtually over. So make the most of wild garlic whilst you can. And there is every reason to do so.

Wild garlic, just like its domesticated cousin, is good for the circulatory and immune system. It helps the liver clear unwanted chemicals from the blood and it is rich in vitamins A and B. Whilst it is much more pungent than its bulbous cousin (walk through a woodland in spring and you will smell it - and your clothes will smell of it as well) its taste is quite mild. That means it is great as a salad leaf and for cooking in soups, dips and so on.

I've just picked a bag full of bright green leaves in Washingwell Woods, near Sunniside. Most of the wood is made up of commercial fir trees, which is useless for wild garlic, but there are patches of deciduous trees where I found what I was after. If you live in an urban or suburban area, you will find it in wooded parkland and cemeteries with tree cover.

If you want to supplement your diet with some free, healthy wild food, wild garlic should be on your list. And if you are aiming for self-sufficiency, wild garlic is most definitely on your list.

Tonight we are making wild garlic pesto (to go with the first pasta we have ever made), and a stuffing for pheasant we are having tomorrow.

Coming up will be spring salad, garlic bread, flan, stuffed garlic leaves, garlic bread sauce, leaves dipped in batter and hopefully a range of other foods we haven't thought of yet, as well as anything else we stumble across in recipes we find.

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Wednesday 18 March 2009

Elderflower cocktail

Last year we made two batches of elderflower champagne. The one we made at home in Sunniside work superbly. The batch made in London failed to ferment. I never really got to the bottom of why the same recipe would not work at our London home. I was however left with 24 bottles of an unfermented elderflower juice which I have used as a cordial instead. And then I discovered an interesting recipe for an elderflower cordial cocktail, in "Seaweed and eat it" by Fiona Houston and Xa Milne and decided to give it a go:

30ml elderflower cordial
30ml gin
30ml dry Vermouth

Combine the ingredients together in a cocktail maker with some ice cubes. Shake and pour into a glass. Then enjoy.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

A wild garlic weekend

The first wildfoods are starting to show and we'll be celebrating the spring equinox and the official end of winter this weekend by collecting wild garlic and using it for various recipes I have found and some of my own. I'll keep you posted.

In the greenhouse

I was at a conference two weekends ago which was also attended by Floella Benjamin, former children's presenter and host of Play School. Well, didn't that bring back memories of "through the arched window". I digress, but it does bring me on to "through the greenhouse window". Now that we have the greenhouse built, we can get on and use it.
We haven't got a great deal in there at the moment but our seed potatoes are sprouting merrily there. David also took a number of cuttings from the red and black current bushes we planted earlier this month. He has planted them in pots in the greenhouse as well.

Soon we will be planting other seeds as well. We have a set of sweet pea seeds to go into pots. Not edible plants I know (unless someone can tell me otherwise) but the idea is that we plant them around the allotment to attract bees and other pollinators. (Thanks to Claire's Allotment for the tip - see my blog list.)

Clearing the dereliction

Our involvement with the allotment began two years ago when Dad took it on. He has an allotment in the next village, Marley Hill, but lives in Whickham. So it is easier for him to get to Sunniside. His plan was to get the allotment in Sunniside up and running and then give up Marley Hill. But he was ill shortly after taking on Sunniside and began to think of giving up the new allotment and sticking with his old one.

Then we stepped in to take on Sunniside. To cut a long story short, Dad fully recovered but kept on Marley Hill and Sunniside is now ours. Since the allotment was completely derelict (we think it hasn't been used for about 10 years at least), we found ourselves with a big job on our hands getting it back into use. 2007 saw our using one very small patch.

In reality, we were not attempting to get any crops. we had taken on the allotment too late for that. But in the autumn, after I had picked all the wild blackberries (and most of the allotment was covered by a thick bed of brambles) we began the process of getting the land back into use.

We spent a couple of months clearing the undergrowth from just over half the allotment. They are the areas which we have been cultivating or are about to cultivate. We have graducally encroached on the remaining derelict part and this is now about one third of the allotment.

If we are to become self-sufficient, we cannot allow that dereliction to continue and the land needs to be cleared and restored. This will be one of the big jobs for this year. The brambles and weeds will need to be cut back and the large amounts of rubbish dumped either by the previous occupier or other people using it as a free dump will need to be removed. There's lots of it and it will involve a number of trips to the official waste site.

The hedge bordering the derelict area will also have to be cut back. At the moment it is doing a very good impersonation of the hedge in sleeping beauty. I actually made a start on Sunday. Once the site is cleared, we'll need to dig out what brambles and weeds we can and then get another load of manure. What fun that will be! The photos below give an indication of what we are up against.

Digging the beds

When we took on the allotment, we knew we would have a big job to get the soil back into shape. After all, the site hadn't been used for at least a decade. If the soil is no good, we don't get sufficient produce and our dreams of self-sufficiency are gone.

Last year we brought 3 beds into use. They are pictured below (the third bed is top right where the fruitcage is. The first two beds were successful. We manured them well last year and got a good crop of onions, courgettes, beans and peas and especially Swiss chard.

We put potatoes on the third bed but put on hardly any manure. The soil there was damp and contained a great deal of clay. The potatoes were a failure. We have learnt our lesson. Potatoes like lighter, well composted or manured soil. We have used bed 3 for the sight of the fruitcage and it has been well manured. The fruitcage now contains 3 black currants, 3 red currants, 35 raspberries, 2 blueberries and about 60 strawberries.

Beds one and two were manured in January and over the weekend we dug it in. We are rotating the crops obviously so the bed with the courgettes and onions will be swapped with the one that grew chard and beans.

There are beds waiting to be dug. Bed 5 was used last year for strawberries (all now moved to the fruit cage) and this year we will grow the potatoes there, though they will sit next to a nectarine tree and a peach tree, both planted over the weekend, and an apple and a plum tree, both planted last autumn.

Plot 4 was rotovated last year though we didn't use it. As a result, it grew a good crop of grass and the occasional bramble. We spread a thick layer of manure over this bed 2 weeks ago, in the expectation this would smother the grass and help to kill it. When I dug through the manure over the weekend, I found the grass was still green. This experiment may or may not work but we are going to have to do a lot of digging on bed 4.

Anyway, having given all the beds different numbers, it seems to me that I need to draw a plan of the allotment and post it up on this blog. I'll add it to my list of things to do.

In the picture above, I'm on plot two in my mucky jeans and incredibly old and battered gardening trainers. The manure has been dug in so this patch will be ready for planting soon. I spoke to a friend of my today by phone who asked me how my self-sufficiency plans are getting on. He was amused that every time we meet, we are always both in suits and collar and tie. He suggested I needed to be seen more in my wellies, dirty gardening clothes, unshaven and smelling the smell of someone who grows their own food. I don't have my wellies on in the above pic but I certainly had all the other requirements! I since directed Stephen to the photos of me shovelling manure!

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Acorn bread

Last year, when I had a test run of using acorns to make flour, I was determined to have a go at using some of it to make bread. The above was the result. It wasn't entirely made from acorn flour. It was 50:50 acorn flour and strong plain white.

The recipe was as follows:

750g acorn flour
750g strong plain white flour
500ml warm water
2 tablespoons of cooking oil
half teaspoon salt
dried yeast

Mix the flour together with the salt and cooking oil. Add in the water and mix until it becomes a dough. Need for about 10 minutes and then leave to stand for about 45 minutes.

Need again for about 5 minutes and then place in baking tins. Leave again to rise for about half an hour.

Bake for about 40 minutes.

The final result is a heavy wholemeal type bread. I was pleased I diluted the acorn flour with plain as otherwise, I think it would have been a bit too heavy. This does of course leave me with the problem of how to produce our own strong white flour as we move towards self-sufficiency.

Neverthless, I was rather pleased with the results.

Sunday 8 March 2009

Even more raspberries and the prospect of honey

Unfortunately, because of work commitments, I am away from home this weekend. However, I am pleased to report that David has been hard at work down on the allotment. He has planted another 30 raspberry canes that arrived through the week. That just leaves the 10 we have to plant in our garden in London (I am heading there now).

Also planted was some of the rhubarb that we bought 2 weeks ago. Half has gone onto the allotment. The other half is in one of my bags, heading down with me to London where I will plant it.

Last night, I spoke to a friend who lives in Northumberland who keeps bees. I want to check out the possibility of keeping bees myself and so we now have an open invitation to see his hives in action. Were we to go ahead with bee keeping, and at the moment it is only something I am considering, it could give us a useful alternative to processed sugar in many, though not all, instances.

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Thursday 5 March 2009

My latest allotment video

I've now edited my latest video about how we are restoring the allotment in Sunniside. It covers January and February. 5 tonnes of manure arrive and the greenhouse and fruitcage are built. Here's the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQcqZPUFwjE

Monday 2 March 2009


despite the allotment being derelict when we took it on, there was one patch of rhubard growing. we added 2 more patches last year but it seemed as though all ot if died off. Last week we bought 2 more sets of roots to plant but over the weekend we found that the older rhubarb had not died after all. There are a large number of shoots coming through.

We will still plant the new ones but again, as witht eh raspberries, we are looking forward to a good crop this year.

Planting soft fruit

Now that the fruit cage is built, we can start to use it. On Friday I planted 34 raspberry canes, mainly a summer crop variety but with some autumn crop as well. Also into the fruit cage went 3 red currant and 3 black currant bushes. And yesterday, we dug up the strawberries that were in two different patches to put them in the fruit cage. Strawberries were the first plants we put into the allotment in a small corner 2 years ago. About 10 went in. Last year we planted another 7 on a different patch. Yesterday I dug up over 70.

This isn't the end of the soft fruit planting however. We have another 30 raspberry canes on order (they will be planted outside the fruit cage) and 10 waiting to be planted in our garden in London. There are also 2 blueberries to go into the fruit cage. They have been in pots on the patio for a year and are now pot bound.

Assuming we have a recent crop, watch out for interesting recipes for using raspberries and strawberries later this year.