A Little Bit Of Earth Magic While Out Foraging For Leeks And Parsnips

Well one thing was certain, when I waded through the snow to the allotment yesterday afternoon – no-one else would be daft enough to be there. A hundred or so yards from the house, I almost turned back. The snow was coming in over my wellies, and it truly was hard work tramping through the low drifts. My well trodden path along the field edge was no longer familiar. The world was iced blue-white with only a passing buzzard to break the stillness.

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You might wonder what had induced me to go up there at all – with all the garden plots buried under a foot of snow. But I needed parsnips, and I needed leeks, and parsley and Tuscan kale from the polytunnel. And once I was there, I thought I’d better shift some of the snow from the polytunnel roof, since we’d been promised all-day snow on Sunday, which has indeed come to pass.

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It took a while to find and extract the parsnips. The soil wasn’t frozen under the snow-blanket, but was very, very sticky – doing a good impression of stuff stuck in quicksand. But mission accomplished, veggie-wise, I noticed a change in the light and started taking photos instead.

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As I was heading home, I realised I could hear the whoops and cries of happy sledders. You can just make them out on the hillside north-east of the church tower. But for the power-lines (that intrude on most views of Wenlock) it might be a traditional Victorian winter scene.

Which reminds me. While I’m here, I’d like to thank all the local farmers who have been out on their tractors clearing roads and spreading grit. My entranced-by-snow moments are all very well, but some people need to drive places. Multiple gold stars to the farmers then.

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

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Five Minutes With Munchkins, A Batonga Basket, Then A Bit Of A Yarn ~ Regular Random

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Here we have two of my passions-distractions for the price of one: growing stuff and an enduring yen for baskets. I’ll tell you about the latter in a moment. Here it is though – a personal treasure – bought when we were living in Zambia – a basket made by the Batonga people.

 

The Batonga, these days, live either side Lake Kariba (it forms the border between Southern Zambia and Northern Zimbabwe, but once they lived in the upland valleys along the Zambezi River.  This was back in the days when their traditional homeland was not flooded by nearly two hundred miles of Lake Kariba. In the late 1950s the Zambezi was dammed in order to provide hydro-electricity for what were then the British colonies of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

Prior to their expulsion from their homeland, they lived by fishing, hunting, stock rearing and agriculture, and in fact had a subtle farming system which embraced both risk and caution. In other words, they exploited different ecological niches from the valley tops to the river flood plains. In the marginal upland areas they grew cow peas, ground nuts and different strains of millet and sorghum, reliable drought-resistant crops that ensured a living. On the flood plains they took a risk with water-hungry maize. If the river did not flood too badly and wash their crop away, then they would be in for a  bumper harvest with surplus to sell. They also made use of the damp clefts of tributary streams in order to grow squashes. Doubtless their varieties produced much bigger specimens than my fist-sized munchkins.

So: they were a resourceful people, but deemed primitive by the colonial administrators because their possessions were few and made mostly  from handy natural materials. Yet this paucity of paraphernalia had survival advantages too. When disaster struck – tempest, drought, raiders or epidemic, they could up sticks and start out afresh in a safer spot. They could not, however, escape the will of the colonial administration, or the rising flood waters that came with the building of Kariba Dam. They were moved from their ancestral lands against their will, and somehow, by all accounts, the British administration with little money set aside for the task, overlooked the need to make more than token restitution for the huge physical and spiritual loss of a displaced people. In effect they had become refugees in their own land. Meanwhile, the game department took great pains to rescue the wildlife that had become trapped on islands as the flood water backed up.

Back then, in 1959, the Batonga said the lake (by then the size of Wales) would take its revenge.  At the time this seemed unlikely. The dam’s engineers had purposely built it on a bed of black basalt. But  some fifty years on, it was discovered that the force of water down the spillways had undermined the dam, creating a huge crater. Repairs were badly needed to avoid collapse and a tsunami in Mozambique.

The BBC reported on this catastrophe-waiting-to-happen in 2014. And at last the repair work appears to be underway, scheduled to start last month at an estimated cost of nearly $300 million – funds courtesy of the EU, World Bank, African Development Bank and the Swedish government, and one key objective being to avoid a humanitarian disaster.  In the meantime one can only wonder how the Batonga people have been getting along all these years, and whether their communities actually have access to the electricity supply for which they were uprooted. I’m guessing they may not. But if you want to lend them some support you can buy their baskets on-line HERE

Regular Random  Please visit Desley Jane for the challenge rules. and see her own five minute photo-shoot.

Five Minutes In The Polytunnel ~ Regular Random

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As ever, I have probably overdone things in the polytunnel, been too liberal with the seaweed extract. On the other hand the half dozen Tuscan kale plants have been producing succulent leaves since the winter. Almost undamaged too. I’m wondering how long they will keep going. Forever? I’m also pleased to find ladybirds in there, although the one featured below seems to have missed the aphid on the aubergine leaf. Maybe it’s trying to lull it into a sense of false security.IMG_5272

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Regular Random Please visit Desley Jane for more Five Minute Photo Shoots

Fading Flowers In All Their Glory

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I never used to like dahlias. As a small child I soon learned they harboured earwigs, the sudden sighting of which still sparks pangs of revulsion.  But this winter I relented – over the dahlias that is.

For the past few years I had cast envious looks over the fire-coloured rows grown by fellow allotmenteers. Not only did they yield lots of cutting flowers all summer long, but their presence brightened up the allotment for everyone working there.

But next I would think of earwigs, and the slugs that attack leaves and flowers, and the fact you have to lift the tubers in autumn and store them in frost-free conditions. It all seemed too much of a faff.

And then in the dark days of mid-winter, when gardeners are at their most susceptible to images of lush and succulent growth – whether floral or vegetable,  I was ambushed by Sarah Raven’s plant catalogue, a little publication that takes horticultural lust to a whole new level. So be warned. Plant lovers open the link at their own risk.

Ms Raven, a one-time medical doctor, now exercises her life-enhancing inclinations by sharing her growing-cooking-flower-arranging aesthetic in print, on screen and on home-run courses. One of her cunning knacks sales-wise is to group the plants in striking or subtle colour-ways. It works. You want them all.

And so it was, I overcame my dahlia resistance, and ordered a few tubers, starting fairly modestly, just to see how we would get along together.

They arrived in January,  in perfect condition and with full growing instructions, which I duly followed. For one thing I realised I could make good use of the winter-depleted polytunnel to start the plants off. I also bought a packet of the Sarah Raven dark cosmos seed collection, and I am pleased to say that both cosmos and dahlias are now flowering vigorously outside my polytunnel.

They look so bright and cheery there I am presently rather stingy about cutting them. But when I do, I’m pleased to find I enjoy them twice – both alive and dying when they take on a new kind of beauty.

So in my own Fading Flower Collection we have cosmos Dazzler (top), dahlia Dark Butterfly (bottom left), and dahlia Ripples (bottom right).

But to show you how at least one of them started out, here’s Dark Butterfly in full flight up at the allotment – pleasing lots of small insects, but thankfully earwig free. They, the little ratbag, pincering varmints, have been chewing my cauliflowers instead. It’s the gardener’s way of course: win some; lose some, and then, just now and then, when all goes to plan:  win, win, and WIN!

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Cee’s Flower of the Day  Please visit Cee’s blog. Another great spot for plant lovers.

Never Mind Jack And The Beanstalk

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See what I grew from a handful of bean seeds – four pounds of shelled Field Beans from one square metre of raised bed (excuse the mixed metrification). For those of you who do not care for Broad Beans, these are their much smaller, juicier cousins, although they are all known as Vicia faba, faba or fava beans.

They are one of the oldest Old World vegetables, their remains found on ancient Neolithic settlements in the Near East, where their cultivation probably originated some 8,000 years ago. From there they spread across Western Europe and North Africa. Today, of course, they are perhaps best known as a staple of Egyptian cooking, the dried and rehydrated beans forming the basis of falafel.

I use them to make soup, or refried beans or a bean version of guacamole which is surprisingly convincing. Otherwise we just eat them steamed with melted butter and chopped parsley, or add them to a green salad with a vinaigrette dressing .

In the UK this small-beaned cultivar is usually grown as a green manure, or as animal fodder. As green manure it is good for breaking up heavy, clay soils. The seed is sown in autumn (September to November). The plants will germinate quite quickly, and are left to over-winter. In spring, once they have shot up to about half a metre or 2 feet, and before it flowers, you are supposed to dig them in. By then the roots will be quite deep, and they also have the added benefit of fixing nitrogen. A good follow-on crop would be cabbages or broccoli, or any brassicas.

I prefer to grow mine to eat. Not only that, they have wonderful flowers that waft their scent over the allotment in late spring and get the bees very excited. The plants require no attention. Slugs don’t care for them. I grow them in blocks which tends to make them self-supporting, so I don’t add string supports as you need to for broad beans. I don’t feed them or even water them, not even in our increasingly arid springs. I do, however, pick off all their growing tips at the end of May to discourage black fly invasions.

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Growing Field Beans to eat seems to me like a win-win-win situation. They feed me and He Who Is Presently Building A Shed; they feed the bees; they feed the soil. They also freeze well, and there will be enough to dry to sow in autumn for next year’s crop. And then there’s all the top growth to add to the compost heaps. You  may perhaps have noticed the bean weevil damage on the leaves. It is one of many endemic pests at the allotment, but their nibbling doesn’t seem to affect the crop. So now please conjure the sweet, subtle fragrance of bean flowers. There is no scent quite like it. Aaaaah…magic beans!

Copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Six Word Saturday

Please pop over to Debbie’s place at Travel With Intent. She’s currently hosting 6WS

Did The Earth Move For Me? Not Blooming Likely. More A Case Of DIY

All right I confess. I’m a fraud. I call myself a writer, but in reality I move soil.  Year in and year out I move soil. It has become my lot in life – not only on the home front with The Man In My House  Who Keeps Having Ground Moving Notions, but also on my own time up at the allotment. How did this happen? Was this the plan I had for myself?

This time last year we were busy shifting ten tons of gunky green Silurian clay and the junk of builders past, removing a huge and hideous waist-high flower bed outside our back door. We had lived with it for ten years, but finally it had to go. Ground Moving Man, then became Wall and Steps Building Man – using traditional mortar and the old bricks and limestone lying around to place to build a much neater, narrower raised border, and safer steps to the top of the garden. (Our cottage is built into a  bank).  The effort was as momentous, as it was cunning. The Wall and Step Builder had devised a way of dismantling the old steps in tandem with building the new ones so that we always had access to the upper quarters of our small domain, and thence my path to the allotment. Hats off to you, sir!

Here are views of the work as it proceeded.

A wintery before:

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During the synchronised step demolition and rebuilding (pretty good work for a retired plant pathologist):

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After – a bit heavy on the limestone perhaps, but we had it on site, which is always a bonus when you live on a road where deliveries can be tricky:

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Most of the clay spoil and erstwhile builders’ rubble that had been hidden behind the steps and in the bed was barrowed round the front of the house and tipped into a Hippo Bag. This natty item is sent through the post in return for some loot. You fill it with 1.5 tonnes of stuff, and then a truck comes and cranes it away. Ideal for people who live on a busy main road, and have no room for a big skip. We had several of these handy mega bags.

Meanwhile up at the allotment I was dismantling a forty-year old allotmenteers’ spoil heap the size of Everest, and using the substance, which only vaguely resembled compost, to make new raised beds and terraces on my polytunnel plot.  I shifted probably sixty barrow loads, and all with the aim of creating (ultimately) a NO DIG gardening system. I know this may sound mad.

The year before I had started clearing the plot by slicing off the neglected, weed-choked surface and piling the turves into pallet bins in the hopes that one day they would decompose into something usable. This was in no way compatible with the principles of NO DIG, but was my quick and dirty method of checking the buttercup, couch grass, and dandelion infestation. After learning the error of my ways early last spring, I gave it up for covering the remaining uncleared ground in layers of cardboard, and tipping a good six inches of spoil heap soil on the top. He Who Builds Walls and Steps then knocked up a few raised beds. (Those of you who come here often will know all this.)

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This year I find that ants have been busy in the horrid heap of weedy turves, and the ensuing soil is usable, so am now repatriating it to the areas whence I cleared it two years earlier. So good on the ants, but more earth moving required.

Meanwhile, the notions of NO DIG, also require the seasonal application of deep layers of compost to the surface of all beds. The only problem with this is making enough compost. You need tons and tons. However, last autumn I made an effort and amassed material in bins and heaps all over my two plots – wherever there was space in fact. And now these need digging out, or at least turning.

NO DIG, it seems, does not mean the end of wielding forks and spades – not by a long chalk. So there we have it – ‘my days’ career’ as a young Kenyan farm wife once described to me her life of endlessly hauling things about.

And back on the home front  this year we have already dug up the front lawn and replanted the bank beside the road. And we have dug up the back lawn and moved more soil so He Who Builds can now branch out into shed construction, though we did at least have two strong young men come and lay the paved concrete slab from which said edifice will arise. I am told it will have a curved roof.

The arrival of the shed will next dictate the remodelling of the back garden flower beds. All of which makes  me feel as if my  life is founded on shifting ground; the strata beneath my feet in perpetual motion and always needing to be somewhere else, and in some other shape. Perhaps one day all the earth in my vicinity will be in the places where we actually want it – no more moving required. Then perhaps I can give up the fraudulent writer posture and finish off a book or two; return to mental heaving and lugging, re-shaping and visualising, create the content and structure exactly as I want it – and all this without heft of spade or putting on my wellies. Perhaps…

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

December Apples And Other News From The Allotment

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These days it is usually dusk as I leave the allotment.  I go there late afternoon to pick kale, carrots and parsnips. It has been too wet underfoot to do much work (our soil turns to glue in winter rain) but I have been making paths between the raised beds and behind the polytunnel. For the permanent paths I have laid membrane, for others whose location I may change, I’ve put down recycled cardboard. Then I’ve been covering both with wood chippings.

These last I am currently scavenging from a big heap left by the council beside the footpath not far from the allotment. It means a longer walk from the house. Instead of going south along the field path, I strike out west up the Sytche, where I fill two bags from the heap and then slither my way along a hedgerow track and into the wood before I can turn east and drop down on to the allotment. All a bit daft I know, but you get a fine view of the town along the way.

Back in the summer I was gathering chippings from the Linden Field and using them in a no-dig experiment. When I took over the polytunnel a couple of years ago, I also acquired half a plot that had been neglected for several seasons. Some of it I cleared by digging until I saw the error of my ways. The rest I divided into terraces using old planks, and then  instead of hacking at the pernicious weeds (dandelion, buttercup, couch grass), I buried them in cardboard and several inches of chippings.

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This is not fool-proof. You can’t keep a good weed down. And I’ve had to pull up a few young dandelions since, but they are easier to get a grip on through the chippings.

Eventually, when the worms and fungi have done their work, I should be able to plant into this mulch. Thereafter, it will be a matter of adding more layers of compost. AND NO DIGGING.

Now is also the season of leaf gathering. They do take a good year to eighteen months to rot down, though someone told me you could speed up the process by stirring in some grass mowings. The leaves I gathered last year are already breaking down into lovely crumbly loam which I’ll use for seed sowing in the spring. Leaf mould is low in nutrients, but it can be enriched with the addition of shredded comfrey leaves that rot down very quickly.

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I make simple silos out of a rolls of chicken wire, but you can use black bin bags or leaf sacks.

And now I’ve lingered here long enough. The light is going, and it’s time to walk home across the field, the dusk lit by apples like lanterns along the allotment fence.

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November Poppy’s Last Hurrah…

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…at least till next year.

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I posted the first photo of this oriental poppy last Thursday during a spell of unexpected sunshine, but I’m afraid the weekend’s rainstorms cut her off at the roots. Ah well. She was lovely while she lasted – so bravely out of time and season.

But writing this has just reminded me of what the lovely woman who sold her to me said.

If you cut your oriental poppies down to the ground after they have finished flowering in early summer, you will have a second late blooming.

Somehow I don’t think she meant they would flower in November. But then who knows what to expect these days, the way the seasons are shifting.

 

Cee’s Flower of the Day Please go visit Cee for more floral pleasures.

Be-eautiful Borlotti

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Well I simply couldn’t miss taking part in Yvette’s inaugural Friday food challenge over at Powerhouse Blog. So here you have them, my favourite beans, caught at the allotment in a sunset glow. Not that they need external aids to enhance their beanificent beauty. Not for nothing do the Italians call them: Borlotto Lingua di Fuoco –  Fire Tongue.

I love everything about them. I love growing them. I love the way their pods change colour through the summer – from green to deep claret. Then, as picking time draws near, the leaves turn yellow, and start to fall, revealing hanging rows of glowing pods.

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But the best bit is shelling them. You never know what colour they will turn out – pea green, cream with pink speckles or claret with creamy streaks. Every bean is different.

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I usually freeze them freshly podded, or you can dry them. Freezing means they are quick to cook, and you don’t need to do the overnight soaking necessary for dried beans. They are highly nutritious, mineral and fibre-rich, and can be used in soups, or to make baked beans. I use them mostly in re-fried bean dishes. This simply involves mashing up a batch of cooked beans with fried onion, garlic, and a few chopped tomatoes, then adding seasoning, chopped parsley or coriander, plus spices of choice (I use chilli and cumin), turning all into a shallow, heatproof dish, topping with cheese, and putting under the grill for 10 or 15 minutes. We eat this by itself with a salad, or as a side dish with just about anything savoury. A poached egg on top would also be good.

You can find out how to grow borlotti beans HERE. Then pop over to Yvette’s for more vegetable offerings:

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copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Never Mind Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: How About A Courgette? Or Maybe Even a Blooming Potato?

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During the recent heat wave I managed to get myself across the field and to the allotment by 7.30 a.m. It was wonderful up there – full of birdsong and humming bugs and bees. (Note to self: must do this more often). All the vegetables were flowering full blast, and so instead of watering and weeding, I started taking photos.

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The courgette (zucchini) plants had broken out into multiple suns – each one big as a dinner plate.

And then I spotted the potato flowers – I think they’re the French salad variety called ratte. (I couldn’t locate my plant label for spud leaves). Anyway aren’t they rather lovely?

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Then behind the potatoes the runner bean flowers were busy making the first beans of the season (thank you bees):

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And behind my polytunnel the Lark sweet corn was tasseling:

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So much excitement up at the allotment, and all before breakfast. Who’d’ve thought it.

 

P.S. This post was inspired not only by my vegetables, but also by Jithin at Mundane Monday #69, and Jude’s edible Garden Challenge. Please visit them for more inspiration and some very excellent photography.