Tuesday, October 13, 2009

More stairs create a few challenges

Stairs, of course, is apples and pears in Cockney Rhyming Slang, and that's what I harvested at the weekend. The apple variety Sunset - a good eating apple - and the traditional pear Conference.

They're all stacked outside in crates at the moment. The pears are excellent quality - few blemishes but the usual mis-shapen fruits you get with Confernce.

The apples are not so good. Not sure what's going on but some of the fruit are a bit dull, almost dirty in appearance. I'll take some photos tomorrow and seek advice.

The pears are hard and while they are quite edible now - and taste great - they are more edible when they get a bit softer. The problem is, once they get a bit soft they go rotten really quickly so I'll have to keep an eye on them. I'll also try and store them in several different ways - freezing and bottling. More on that later.

Time to plant onion sets and garlic

It's time to start planting again. The onion sets and garlic cloves I use need to go in before the winter starts, though I've had a mixed success with these two crops in the past.

The onions I grow are red onions. Our staple diet involves copious volumes of Greek Salad for which we need red onions. I also grow spring onions or "jibbons" for salads but don't bother growing the white onions for cooking because they are so cheap and plentiful in the shops all the year round and the qualuity is usually pretty good.

The red onion I used to grow was called Red Baron. You'll see it in all the seed catalogues in the UK as both seed and sets and I used to go fo the sets. It came highly recommended .The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has given it an award of garden merit (AGM) which is about as good a recommendation as you can hope for.

But year after year mine ranged in size between golf and tennis balls. Very disappointing - and I'm not a fan of either sport.

I was on the verge of giving up this time last year when I decided to have a go with a different variety, Electric. I don't think it has a coveted AGM from the RHS, but in early August I harvested a crop the smallest of which were the size of tennis balls ("the failures" we called them) and grew to about twice that width. The biggest weighed 2lbs.

They tasted terrific too - not too strong and not too mild - perfect for Greek salads. I'll let you know how well they store.

I can thoroughly recommend them for anyone else struggling with the bloody Red Baron - which I'm sure must be terrific for those who know how.

Anyway, tomorrow I'll get next year's crop in.

The garlic was also very successful this year. I grew two varieties, the hard necked variety Moldovan Purple Wight and the sof necked Albigensian Wight  - or is it Albigensian White?

There are four main differences between hardneck and softneck types : the obvious one - when they are harvested, having died back, the necks of one are hard and the other soft. The garlic plaits you sometimes see are only made from soft necked varieties. The same physical difference means one type, the softneck again, stores better. The hardneck varieties have fewer and larger cloves, just arranged in one ring and without little bulbules around hte outside of them.

The fourth is a culinary difference - and I suppose quite subjective - but chefs tend to facvour the hardneck one for their superior flavour.

Now, I eat a lot of garlic and I do like it but I have never really been able to tell the difference between flavours, perhaps because I inly use one variety at a time. They taste (and smell) ... well, garlicky.

Elephant garlic - those masive cloves that look impressive are in fact not true garlic and they are quite mild - see I can tell the difference there.

Anyway, I've grown two varieties very successfully this year. The secret - having ahd a few failures in the past, is to get the cloves planted in the early autumn - September-October time.Wait until spring and you'll get much smaller bulbs.

And I'll do my utmost in the next couple of months to do some flavour comparisons, perhaps when I'm not going to be around people for a few days.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Going nuts over the hazels

I am an animal lover and believe everything in nature has its place ... but I wish grey squirrels didn't think their place was in our garden.

Last year they stripped the orchard bare of cherries, plums, apples and pears before we'd taken any fruit.

I am now their natural enemy.

However, I understand why they are here and that we'll never get rid of them all. The hedges around Stonecroft around about 70% hazel and in August, as the nuts start to ripen, the squirrels come from miles around

I don't mind them getting the hazel nuts but we'd like a few ourselves so my daughter and I duly gathered a basketful.

I don't know yet what we'll use them for but first we've got to shell them and that, I recall from previous years, will take forever and a day. The mere thought of it is putting me off from starting.

Surely there's a quicker way than a simple pair of nutcrackers? How do they do it on an industrial scale? Is there some device I can buy?

Help, please before I go nuts!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What is this enormous caterpillar?

Fat as a finger and almost as long (about 75mm), it's got a couple of spots at one end (the front I presume) to look like eyes and a single small "horn" at the other end. The underside has a few black, thick, stumpy legs, arranged in groups.

That's my little finger in the picture. I'm 6ft 2ins tall and my hands are proportionate to my height.

I found it on the steps outside our kitchen door today. It may have fallen off a hazel tree overhanging the steps but there is plenty of other vegetation around from which it could have come.
Where do you find out things like this? Well, answering my own question, on http://www.whatsthiscaterpillar.co.uk/, of course. Turns out it's an elephant hawk moth's caterpillar. Isn't the web great!
Elsewhere online and off, I read that the caterpillar feeds off willowherb (great and rosebay varieties) which we don't have in our garden. They are also partial to fuschias which again we haven't got. So there are probably other plants it feeds from too.
The caterpillar's head swells when it is alarmed making the eye-type markings more prominent and so it looks like a snake - a neat defence mechanism. The name "Elephant hawk moth" also comes from the caterpillar rather than the moth. The front segment is tapered into a trunk, making it look (with a bit of imagination) a bit like an elephant. But when I sa it it was alarmed and more snake-like than elephantine.
The moth itself feeds on the nectar of honeysuckles, which we do have. I'll keep an eye open for them - they're browney pink and quite large (upto 70mm wingspan).
PS Actually, the homepage of whatsthiscaterpillar finishes with this line: "The Elephant Hawk-moth comes in two colour forms: green and grey; it is the caterpillar that puzzled visitors send pictures of most frequently in the UK!" So noteworthy rather than rare.

Monday, September 14, 2009

There be dragons

It's a very busy time of year but with the great weather we've had over the last seven days, you've got to take time out to smell the roses - to enjoy the good life.

This spring we built a large pond, about 39 feet by 20 feet and up to 4 feet deep. It's going to be a wildlife pond but I need more oxygenating plants in it - at the moment it's a bit green - but that will come. I'll try and get it sorted out this winter.

However, the wildlife is already arriving with all sorts of insects in and around the pond, and the most spectacular of all are the dragonflies.

I've seen four different species of very large dragonflies so far. The most impressive is the Emperor dragonfly (Anax imperator) - with green thorax and sapphire blue abdomen.

The Brown hawker (Aeshna grandis) is almost as large. The female is brown with cream slashes along the side of its thorax and abdomen.

And the Common hawker (Aeshna juncea) is similar but the slashes are light green.

All three have been around almost every day (apart from the wettest) over the summer - but I've never seen more than one at once. They fly up and down patrolling an area that extends over the pond, under a large oak tree, around some grassland and into the orchard.

The fourth was a species I haven't yet identified. It's one of the reddy-orange abdomed Darters (the Sympetrum genus) and it was around in the same parts of the garden earlier this summer for several weeks.

There are plenty of insects for them to prey on, especially under the oak tree. They do fly over the bee hives too and are said to eat bees, though I've never witnessed it. Tonight I saw the Brown hawker catch a crane fly in mid-air, then carry it off to eat. They're welcome to them!

I'll try and take some photos as the opportunity arises but it's tricky - they need to be settled, and dragonflies, more than damselflies, fly for long periods without resting. Add to that, it's late in the season, so it may have to wait until next summer.

So I've added some images I've picked up from the web. Altogether ... Oooh! They are (top to bottom) the Emperor dragonfly (Anax imperator), the Brown hawker (Aeshna grandis) and the Common hawker (Aeshna juncea), which actually looks a bit greener than this photo - take my word for it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

And the first pears from Beth

It must be a woman thing - the pear tree Beth is also yielding her first pears today just like the Katy apple trees.

In fact I harvested Beth's entire crop this evening as I scared off a squirrel who left a half eaten pear beneath the tree. And I'm not going to lose another fruit to these pests.

The rounded fruit are thankfully ripe - still a little crisp and tasty but just about ready to drop. I've got about two dozen in all from a tree no taller than five feet. A reasonable crop

So now I'll need pear recipes too.

The first apples, from little Katy

I've picked the first apples from our orchard in the last three or four days. The two Katy (or Katje) trees are the earliest and produce bright red fruits, very crisp, juicy and a great flavour. I'm told they don't store particularly well, but then again we don't have that many - maybe 30-40 fruit, and they are delicious, so storage doesn't come into it.

The trees aren't big - one's about eight feet and not very bulky, the other about 4 feet and not much more than a couple of branches. Why is this?

The original apples in the orchard were bought mail order from a "reputable grower". The order for each of the four varieties we bought (plus a ninth tree free) was to have them all on MM106 rootstock which should have produced a mature tree between 10 and 13 feet tall.

After the first year, one of the Katy's had only grown a couple of inches in any direction. I enquired with the vendor and was advised to cut the top four inches off and let it grow again, which I did.

I pruned the trees into shape over the first three years or so and let them thicken up, but one Katy and another tree - a Sunset - have struggled to get much beyond three feet tall.

The Sunset is partly in the shadow of an oak tree, so far from ideal, but not a full explanation of why it is so short. And thee other Katy is right in the middle of the orchard, in full sun on a south-facing slope.

The fruits are fine, but few because of its size. Any ideas? Have I been given a couple of trees on dwarf rootstock, like M27?

I'd think twice about buying mail order in future. I had a disappointing experience buying asparagus crowns (cheaply!) on eBay earlier this year - only one spindly stem emerged.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Saving Private Plums

What do you do with 30-40lbs of plums that nearly all ripen in the space of about three weeks?

Eat a few, give a few away and store the bulk of them for the months ahead, when there is no fruit around, that's what.

Consider the statement "eat a few" - it is important, for three reasons; first, they're full of vitamins and minerals and so very good for your body; second, they're gorgeously flavoursome and so good for your soul; and for thirds, we focus on the word "few". To put it another way, eat too many and they'll interfere with your digestive tract. You'll not want to go more than 50 yards from a toilet for a couple of days.

The most interesting part is storing them. In their raw, ripe state they won't stay fresh for long so you have to do something to preserve them.

The first two methods are effective but a bit dull to write about. Try freezing them (here's the process I use) or try bottling them. I've not tried it before but here's the the method I'm using.

Much more interesting, however, are cooking them and fermenting them. Here we go!

First cooking. There are plum recipes all over the net but I was interested in plum pies and plum sauce.

For the pies, I ended up improvising. The pastry on each, by the way was simple shortcrust pastry with a little sugar sprinkled on top.

Having lost most of the gages to mould after they were weather damaged before ripening, I had just about enough for one large pie filling. Here's the original recipe, credited to celebrity chef James Martin.

I had a bigger pie dish than he was using and my gages wouldn't quite fill so I took a few Victoria plums and halved them, adding them uncooked to the Gages which had been pretty much stewed before putting them into the pastry. I'm hoping I might get a bit of difference in flavour between the two as well as a bit of difference in texture.

But I won't know yet because it's gone straight into the freezer. Looked and smelled good though!

I had (have) far more Victorias though, so I whipped up a Victoria Plum pie based on the same recipe but with absolutely minimal pre-cooking at all, just to see what the difference would be.

The plums were halved and less then 100ml of water and around two tablespoons of sugar to the approx 1kg of plums in the pan and brought to the boil quickly, with the lid on. I let them boil for around two minutes, lid still on to steam all the fruit. This way they kept their shape.

I suspect this pie will be terrific - the juices tasted both sharp and sweet - but once again it went into the freezer. We'll actually be eating it an a couple of days time, so I'll let you know.

The plum wine I embark on first thing in the morning. I'm going to make a dry wine using this recipe (plum wine 1). Again, I'll let you know how it goes, but it may not be until this time next year as plum wine is notoriously slow to clear. So here's to the future.

As for giving a few away, it's easy - especially in a bumper year like this one. I've made plum pies, I'm making plum wine, I've frozen a few and bottled a few. My wife's also made 16lbs of Plum jam (it's delicious). But I've still got half the fruit left on the tree, so why not?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

It's time for the beekeepers to harvest the honey

It's none stop this bank holiday weekend. As well as fruit from the garden, it's time to harvest some honey from the beehives.

It's been a pretty wet summer - July and August in particular - but in their first season here at Stonecroft, one of the two stocks of bees have established themselves well enough to provide us with a few pounds of honey.

My wife Annie is the beekeeper but our daughter Molly, at 4 years and eight months, is a willing apprentice and was on hand to help her mum check the hives yesterday, finding the queens and then, today, remove the frames and extract the honey.

The bees have been given a sugar solution to keep them going over the winter and, of course, will carry on making honey for the rest of the summer and into the autumn.

If we have an Indian summer (and it's looking quite possible, according to the weather girls at the Chicken Weather Forecast website - due to launch shortly) the bees will keep on foraging and making honey for upto another six weeks.

The other colony arrived a few weeks later than the first one and hasn't yet produced much honey so we'll need to keep an eye on them and nurture them to full strength to survive the winter.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The world's finest Victoria Plum Jam

Here it is in all its glory. My wife made about 20lbs of it in two batches a couple of evenings ago using Victoria plums from our orchard. You can use damaged fruit as long as you clean it thoroughly and cut out any rotten or mouldy pieces. Regardless of this, it is probably the best plum jam in the world.

The same recipe can be used for other plums and gages but you may need to adjust the sugar to taste.

We don't put seals (greaseproof paper etc) over the top of the jam before putting the lids on because the jam won't be kept for that long (a year max, usually). But this is an option and may even be advisable if the jam's going to stay unopened for more than a year.

Here's the recipe:

Victoria Plum Jam (makes 10lb)


5lbs plums
6lbs sugar
1/2 pint (275ml) of water
1/2 bottle Certo (pectinase)


1 Wash the plums, cut into pieces, removing any stones.

2 Put the fruit and water into a large pan - ideally a jam making pan - and heat.

3 Bring to the boil, stirring occassionally.

4 Simmer for 15 minutes.

5 While continuing to heat slowly, add the sugar and stir constantly until the sugar has dissolved.
6 Then bring to a full rolling boil and boil hard for two minutes, stirring occassionally.

7 Remove from the heat and add the Certo.

8 Skim if necessary to remove anything from the surface.

9 Pour quickly into the jars and put the lids on.


Playing chicken with the weather forecast

Hurricane Bill blew in to South Wales on Wednesday ... yawn. As the tail end of hurricanes go, Bill, it must be said, was a bit a limp-wristed.

How do I know it was Hurricane Bill mincing around that dampened the garden and snapped one or two minor twigs from the Ash trees? Because the paranoid BBC weather forecasters warned us it was coming, several times.

And why did they bother? Because they are terrified of getting it wrong again after The Great Michael Fish 'This is not a Hurricane' Blunder of '89. Ever since then, the slightest threat of a minor weather system spoiling things for someone and they roll out the weather warnings with a fanfare.

This exasperating combination of undue pessimism and ultra-caution renders their forecasts nigh-on useless!

Add to this the frustration of the local BBC Wales forecast every weekday night at 10.30pm which is then usually contradicted by the BBC1 UK forecast that immediately follows it!

You can tell I have a bee under my bonnet here. But rather than choke on my rage (more ragious than Huricane BIll, any way) I decided to do something about it and have invested in my own weather forecasting system.

The weather station itself has duly been set up on the corner of the chicken pen outside and is already broadcasting to a computerised display screen in the house. I'm in the final throes of setting up the computer to record the data and then Chicken Weather News will be ready to get into the forecasting business in ernest.

First step will be to train the weather girls, of course. I'll introduce them in the next few days. and then we'll (hopefully!) put the BBC in its place for playing chicken with the weather forecast.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Plums aplenty - but what to do with the harvest?

We're just coming into the main harvest time in the orchard. There are 17 trees in all, three plum, three pear, three cherry and the rest apples - two cookers and the others are eaters.

The first of the trees to bear fruit are the cherries - the two varieties we have in the orchard - Stella and Sunburst - ripen in July, if the birds and grey squirrels give them a chance.

The squirrels are joined by wasps at this time of year as the plums start producing their sugary juice as they ripen. We've managed to keep the squirrels at bay so far this year, although another crop rapidly approaching readiness are the hazel nuts in the hedges on all four sides of the property. And with one or two large trees within the garden for good measure, they're sure to bring our number one pest flooding in.

This year, however, we've kept on top of them with some pretty serious pest control measures.

And that's good news as the weather from spring until now has allowed us plums aplenty and every chance of a bumper harvest.

We've got two Victoria varieties and one Oulin's Gage. The three trees have been overladen with fruit to the point that the first Victoria - a seven-year-old tree growing on St Julien A rootstock -lost two branches that snapped under the weight of fruit back in early July.

I should have removed some , as I did with the hard fruit, but I was too greedy. The result is
a very heavy crop of small plums. They would have been larger had I thinned them. And the possibility with Victorias is that the tree exhibuts biennial fruiting, meaning that following the glut this year, next year fruit will be sparse.

The two broekn branches are still partially attached and the bark and cambium tissue immeidately underneath it are not entirely broken so they'll still be fed and ripen, albeit less efficiently.

Plums seem to be quite brittle. We had a heavy crop a couple of years ago and the wild bullaces, a plum relative I think [help me out here!] growing in th hedges around Stonecroft, also snapped a few branches under the weight.

I'll take some photos tomorrow and post them up here. The Victorias are in good condition with a fair bit of wasp damage but probably about 70% will be edible (to us, not the wasps!). The Oullin's Gage, however, lost most of the crop to mould. This set in after the fruit split back in June I think, while I was on holiday.

I think the cause was sun burning down an focusing on the skins through rain drops that had setteld on the top surfaces of the fruit, and this led to the skins splitting wher the heat had been focused. [Again, I need help here - this is something I've been told in the past so can anyone verify it?]. Anyway, the mould duly set in to through the broken skins and we've lost hte bulk of he crop. I still hope to get a good few pounds from this, at 16 feet, the biggest tree in our orchard.

Oullin's Gage - sometimes called Oullin's Golden Gage - is a good eater but also freezes well.

The Victorias are to me the best tasting and most versatile plum, probably because my father had several trees and, like many people, I'm prone to see my childhood through rose-tinted glasses.

So we'll scoff quite a few, my wife will make plum jam with most of the damaged fruit, I'll cook with some more and make wine with others [recipes for wine / spirits etc and other cooking ideas are most welcome!]. I'll let you know how I get on and I'll even share my wife's outstanding jam recipe (if she shares it with me ...). I may try bottling a few if all goes well.

So here's to the harvest. Cheers.


Friday, August 7, 2009

In the beginning

....Was the word and the word was "garden".

We bought this place in 2002 and have worked at it ever since. Our plans are to have a beautiful outdoor environment where we can get our hands dirty, grow our own healthy food and enjoy the fruits of our labour in our own little piece of paradise.

Most of the time, when I'm not doing the day job which pays for all this, I'm working outside. If I'm inside, there's a good chance I'm cooking, eating, drinking or sleeping.

I'll add the detail as I go along but just to give a broad heads up to anyone who's interested, we've got a small orchard, a vegetable garden, a greenhouse, a herb garden, a small wood, a wildlife pond and ornamental gardens. We also keep chickens and bees.

Apart from the wood, it all started off as grassland which we've steadily chipped away at. Tonight, it's taken me around 1 hour and 45 minutes to cut the grass, seizing the opportunity of a rare dry day this summer. I hope in a couple of years time to have this down to around 45 minutes. Not an atomiclawn mower but more garen and less grassland.

I'll be posting on all of this as I work on it. And I'll be needing your encouragement and advice!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Stonecroft is an acre and a bit (0.5 hectares) of hillside in a South Wales valley and it's where I live.

My passion for gardening, good food and drink, natural history, fresh air and exercise come together here for me. In all of them I'm an enthusiastic amateur, so hopefully I'll get some useful advice and share what I learn along the way.