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.