Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Tempted by the seed packets?

Tempting? Oh yes, the lure of the seed packet is very strong right now - as the wind howls outside.

These seeds were a welcome Christmas gift, but I must confess, they have unleashed the budding gardener within far, far too early.

Every fibre of my being wants to rush out and get planting - but, as my brain knows well, that not a clever move - yet.

Apart from broad beans and onions I'm gritting my teeth and biding my time.

If I start the sowing spree too early I'll have a rake of seedlings going leggy on windowsills and having to be coaxed to survive until it's time to put them in their final growing places.

So, what to do to satiate that lust to get planting? Well, I could sprout some sprouts on a windowsill for a VERY quick crop, or even attempt some indoor cut and cut again seedlings, but, luckily I found a diversion. Get planning.

Oh yes, time to channel my energies into getting organised for the coming season.

So, I've been looking at my gardening notebook from 2009 - and noticing that I didn't plant ANYTHING (apart from broad beans and windowsill basil) before the first week in April. Granted, that was because there was nowhere to put any seeds until the shell of the house went up in March 2009.

Anyway, it was really helpful to look back over the timings, successes and failures of last year. The tomatoes grew fine despite a late start. It's just a pity they got blight in mid September. Most things did really well. We had great sweetcorn, peas, cucumbers, sweet potato, salad leaves etc.
I have learned a thing or two along the way. That putting up a polytunnel with two people is indeed possible, but quite silly; that squashes are thugs that need constant attention(hacking back) unless you want them to smother everything in sight; that chickens are devious and will find a way into the tunnel if at all possible; that there really is NOTHING like the taste of the first broad bean, pea or corn of the season. I could go on... but I digress.

I have the planning bug big now. I did start in the autumn with an outline plan for the polytunnel.

I already have a crop rotation system underway in there and have some oriental leaves, salads and brassicas overwintering already. The radishes I planted at the end of August, between broccoli seedlings, were very yummy, so that worked well .. and we still have nice salad leaves etc

Anyway, in my growing enthusiasm, I took the big plunge .. and started to plan out the 'kitchen garden' aka the vegetable beds that will be right at the back of the house. I had a rough size and shape but hadn't got around to planning exactly what I'd put in them.

Successional planting is key for me. I want as much home grown produce as possible as much of the time as possible. I've never really tried to grow food on a 'large' scale before. Before setting up the polytunnel I'd just been dabbling really - trying a few things here and there.

When I stopped to think about it, there is a lot to consider. How many potatoes or cauliflowers or peas do we eat in a year? How much space would that take up? How exactly do I manage to have cabbage all year round? I still have a lot to learn. To be honest, the more I thought about it, the more complicated it seemed to become.

So, I turned to my trusted companion - Joy Larkcom's "Grow Your Own Vegetables" to look at her planting ideas. Noticing that the kitchen garden plot is a similar size to her sample plans, I have very strongly modeled my plan on her 'gourmet plan'. I've substituted a few things and made a few additions, but otherwise it's a straight copy. Actually, it's a great way of learning about successional planting and seeing first hand crop rotation in action, so thank you Joy, you've made that much easier for me, on paper at least.

I must admit that, although not sowing seeds yet, I do have the urge to buy a few more, in preparation. I do notice though, that I won't always use the full amount of seed I get in a packet. I'm hoping that some of last years spare seed will still be viable, so I can use it this year. Even so, it gets me thinking about seed swapping - even 1/2 packs. It seems a great way to try new and different things. I'm sure there are schemes for it out there. I will check it out.

Meanwhile, if anyone out there fancies swapping some seeds, just get in touch. Leave a comment or email me (

Still on the subject of seeds I'm pondering this year's system for propagating. Last year I took full advantage of my neighbors airing cupboard - and it looks like I may be going down that route again (sorry Jenny) to get chillis, tomatoes etc started. Then I kept them in the shell of the house until the polytunnel went up in mid May. I did try my invention of the hot water bottle propagator, which was rather ineffective to say the least.

Well, for 2010 I have a new plan. As we won't have mains electricity in Spring, I can rule out a proper heated propagator or heat mat for starting off seeds OR keeping them happy until outside temperatures warm up. So, undaunted, I have a new plan. It will involve a 12 volt electric blanket and a car battery. Watch this space.

Otherwise, I'll try using a cloche at night in the polytunnel if temperatures drop.

Also, while I ponder the balancing act of when to start seeds so that a) they aren't so early that they go leggy indoors or could get too cold in the tunnel or b) they aren't too late to produce well ... I'm leaning towards starting them later and trusting they'd catch up with any riskier earlier sowing ... heres a picture of the hens having a holiday in the snow.

Have a Happy New Year everyone. Here's to a fabulous 2010 for us all.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Winter slow down?

Well, we're heading into winter now. Those nights are getting really long and it's getting colder for sure. Some say winter is a time for slowing down. In some ways that rings true. We're still not able to work on the house, due to ongoing planning issues, so building work is still halted and will remain so until early next year if things drag on (and believe me they they are dragging).
Yet, there is always plenty to do.
Here's a picture of our late blooming butternut squashes. We got 5 squashes from 2 plants - but I was late germinating them, I think I started them off in April.

I've been experimenting with drying the seeds from our pumpkins and squashes. I never factored in the TIME that it takes to 'process' seeds for eating - guess I was too busy planting and tending things to even consider it.
Well, it does take time. Squash seeds are really slimy when first removed, so need washing and drying, but it is worth it, as they taste great and are full of goodness.
With time on my hands I also started shelling the sunflower seeds that I'd collected from my polytunnel giants. Some of the seedheads, even in the tunnel, had got a bit mouldy and some others still had a lot of immature seeds (without a proper seed inside the shell), but we had some really nice ones. I find it quite meditative shelling the seeds - but you really do need to find the time. Would be tricky if we had a tight schedule.

The linseeds were even trickier (no photo - sorry) to shell and a lot of time shelling provided slim results.
The quinoa (pictured below), just needed the seed coating rubbing off. There are a LOT of seeds though.

Now the frosts have come we've been digging up our oca tubers. We haven't tried any yet. I hear they are quite versatile to cook with. We'll let you know how we get on.

I've been trying to dry out of black cherokee trail of tears beans. They're part way dry. I'm not sure how to cook them that way - they're aren't quite fresh or quite dry.

Some of my garlic is emerging. I have them in pots overwinter, so they can get a spell of cold without being in really damp ground, then I'll plant them out in spring.

In the tunnel the salads are doing well. We have a few sneaky slugs and caterpillars but noting too drastic. We did have some pak choi that succumbed to vine weevil (don't know how that got in) but most are fine.

The brussel sprouts are absolutely gorgeous. Just hope we manage to save some for Christmas dinner!

I'm trying some cardboard collars round my brassicas. I have started some cauliflower and broccoli so we get an early crop in the tunnel next year.

It's time now to dig up the sweet potatoes (the leaves that look like ivy in the picture). We'll get a few - but we won't be quite self sufficient in them yet ... unless I get a few more polytunnels ;-)

Growing my own has been an eye opener in many ways. I don't mind that I get small yields (as I plant small amounts). In a way I appreciate things more when they are seasonal. Quality not quantity is ok. There is a buzz out of picking a few choice blueberries from the bush that outweighs buying an expensive punnet of them from the supermarket.

That where we're lucky to have the best of both worlds - growing our own as best we can and then supplementing it with veggies from elsewhere when we need to. It can be tricky though these days - do you prioritize local or organic? It can be quite a brain teaser that one, enough to tempt me to stick more closely to seasonal produce that can more easily be both. Yet, they say variety is the spice of life and to eat a varied diet. What do you think?

I must admit that I do hanker after being relatively self sufficient even though I know its a pipe dream (as somewhere along the line it could take too much work and time and thus become less fun) . I joke to Sam that I'll put an acre to goji berries and turn the really damp patch into a paddy field for rice. Thing is , I'm only half joking.

I guess it's good to have a dream, even a pipe dream. Whatever I end up doing in 'the field', I know I'll have fun trying. To me thats the key. Fingers crossed that we'll get to have fun building our house again soon (all positive thoughts, vibes and prayers for us being able to get our planning finally sorted and our build back on track are very greatly appreciated).

I'll sign off with a picture of our nasturtiums (interspersed with a few leeks) appreciating the shelter of the polytunnel.