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Rainy day gardening

Purple French beans cooling off after a bit of a blanch

You know it’s been a good summer when you breathe a huge sigh of relief on waking to a rainy day. When a gardener needs an excuse to stay indoors it’s fine weather indeed.

My rainy day has been much anticipated as I’ve desperately needed some time catching up with all the indoor gardening jobs piling up while I’ve been busy getting sunburnt resowing the lettuces or planting out a late batch of mangetout seedlings.

The relentless sunshine (see, we Brits can complain about anything) has meant I’ve been desperate for some indoor time to store my ever-burgeoning harvest of seeds, roots and beans. Since the harvest is what it’s all about, it’s a little ironic that I get so behind with it all in late summer. It’s hard to prioritise when the garden is demanding its mid-summer resow too: but instead of wielding a fork and sowing seeds I should be downing tools outside and getting into the kitchen instead.

First on my list were the beans: I’ve had two wigwams to pick this year, good old reliable green ‘Cobra’ and handsome deep purple ‘Cosse Violette’, which took a little while to get going but is now pumping them out faster than we can eat them.

Time to get freezing. Most very fresh vegetables like beans, peas, broad beans and runners can be frozen as soon as they come off the plant: the exception is courgettes which turn into a soggy mush so are best made into chutney or cooked up into soup or pasta sauces before freezing.

I have had many disappointments on the journey to finding the best way of freezing beans so they come out very nearly as good as they go in. They have a nasty habit of turning watery and a little tasteless if you do it wrong.

I don’t process the beans, beyond giving them a quick wash: I don’t even top and tail them, let alone slice them. I just chuck them whole into a big pan of water on a rolling boil to blanch for around two minutes. Then I just scoop them from the water and dunk straight into a bowl of cold water to stop them cooking as quickly as possible. Pat more-or-less dry and pack into freezer trays.

Beetroot pickled in hot vinegar and peppercorns and packed into a Kilner jar. Yum.

Next up; the beetroot. I like roast beetroot but sadly nobody else in the family does. Normally if the family think they don’t like something I just include it in whatever I’m cooking without telling them, but it is difficult to smuggle beetroot into any dish without anyone noticing as explaining away a vivid pink colouring takes some doing. Luckily we all like pickled beetroot and it’s a doddle to make, so that’s where most of my beetroot end up.

I follow Delia’s recipe for pickled beetroot with shallots; takes half an hour to do tops, and it’s completely delish. And my shallots are conveniently ready to harvest right now, too.

And most excitingly of all, I’ve been branching out into saving more seed this year. I’ve always saved a little of my own seed just for fun: but I’m beginning to think I ought to take it more seriously.

A couple of years ago I got my hands on a packet of ‘Telephone’ peas (also marketed as ‘Alderman’). I was pretty impressed: 6ft high plants, mega-high yields and fat, sweet peas. So I saved myself an envelope full of seed and re-sowed them last year.

Result: turbo-charged growth, even better than the previous year, and super-healthy plants. Might have been the season, I thought. So I saved a few from that second-generation batch of plants too.

Lettuce seed stalks waiting for some patient soul to come and sort the seed from the chaff

This year my Telephone peas have been stupendous. They have grown above head height and made a mockery of the feeble 6ft high peasticks I put in for them. Next year I shall have to use runner-bean-style A-frame pole supports. Might have been the good season again but… it also might have been the fact that I’m now two generations down the line of adapting, ever-so-subtly, to the exact conditions I have in my particular garden.

So to put the theory to the test, this year I let one of my lettuces run to seed. Once it started producing little tufts of white down – rather like thistledown – I cut off the whole stalk and brought it indoors to finish drying (and to make sure the seeds didn’t blow away while I was waiting for them to be ready).

Now it’s started raining I can process them, removing all the bits of stalk and fluff till I have as close to pure seed as you can get if you’re saving your own.

This is a long and very tedious process, so find yourself a good radio programme and settle down to the task. I picked out the stalks by hand, then passed the remaining pile of fluff and seeds through a sieve. Result: seeds plus finer fluff.

This last you can blow, very very gently, off the top (go outdoors if you can as the fluff goes everywhere) till you’re left with mostly-seed to sow next year. Can’t wait to see what happens…

Turnip ‘Purple Top Milan’

Turnips get a bad press.

In the minds of many they’re only one step up from cow food. They’re fall-backs, winter staples, the kind of thing you only eat if you really have to and there’s absolutely nothing else left on the veg rack. Peasant food, in fact: in fact I’m pretty sure harvesting turnips is what the peasants in the Holy Grail were doing.

It’s not the turnip’s fault. Yes, it’s been used to feed animals, and you still get sheep let onto turnip fields to eat the tops – but you shouldn’t hold that against the poor vegetable. It was also your standard peasant potato in the Middle Ages, before Sir Francis Drake arrived back from South America with an odd-looking Peruvian root vegetable in his pocket. Tudor peasants ate turnips with everything, which somewhat explains the poor-man’s-veg tag. It’s been a bit sneered at ever since; the infamous ‘Turnip Head’ jibe to England manager Graham Taylor in 1992 is just one example of being rude to turnips.

But it’s hardly fair on a veg that’s actually a lot nicer than most people think it is. Perhaps it’s time we had a bit of a revival. After all we did it for kale – also an animal feed before the foodies got hold of it.

It’s not even like it’s ugly. Celeriac – now that’s a veg which ought to have an image problem. All those warts and hairy bits. Yet the foodies can’t get enough of it. So it should be easy with something as pretty as a turnip: just look at it, blush pink on the top, shading to pearly white below. Gorgeous.

And the flavour: earthy with umame overtones (the fifth sense; a sort of savoury. You have to get in a bit of Guardianista food columnist jargon if you’re going to hook in the Jamie Olivers and the Gordon Ramsays of this world). It reminds me of some of the milder oriental vegetables: komatsuna, perhaps, or maybe chrysanthemum greens (shungiku). And it doesn’t come much more hip ‘n’ trendy than orientals.

A lot of people don’t know what to do with them, of course. Actually, they’re pretty versatile: just think parsnips. Whatever you can do to a parsnip, you can do to a turnip too. Roast them, mash them with carrot (yum) or sometimes potato; make wonderful warming soups from them or braise them gently in chicken stock and herbs. Or – our favourite way of eating winter vegetables bar none – cut into large cubes, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper and sprigs of rosemary and bake them in a big tray with squash, potatoes, carrots for around 45 minutes. It’s a meal in itself.

You can also eat the leafy greens, or ‘tops’, like an unusual umame side vegetable (Jamie and Gordon, I hope you’re paying attention) steamed lightly rather like spinach. Sow now and you probably won’t get the roots (unless you grow the super-fast ‘Tokyo Cross’ and it’s a mild autumn) – but you will get turnip greens for picking right through till December.

Turnips are wondrously easy to grow: I start an early crop in modules in February or early March to transplant outside in April, but after April you can just sow them direct. The slugs don’t much like the foliage, though the caterpillars do so I usually pop a bit of fleece over the top. They’ll soldier on steadily more or less whatever you do: pull them during summer at around tennis ball size, or leave to grow a little larger (when the flavour is also stronger) and pull in autumn to store in boxes of damp sand over winter.

Oh, and PS: if you are sitting in Edinburgh reading this you will by now be very puzzled. By turnip I mean the small white root vegetable. In Scotland, where they have turned being contrary into a fine art (sorry, I know, that’s several extra ‘yes’ votes, but I don’t care, it’s true) turnips, or ‘neeps’ refers to swedes, the big orange turnip-like vegetables which nobody else calls turnips apart from the Scots. And swedes are turnips. So none of the above will make any sense to you whatsoever. Sorry.

My greenhouses are the engine rooms of my garden.

I have two: both six-by-eights, or in modern parlance 1.8m x 2.4m. Aluminium, pretty bog standard, and I love them both.

Neither cost me much: I just kept an eye on the small ads in the local paper (Freecycle is another happy hunting ground). The first cost me £30 as long as I came along with a willing husband to dismantle it; the second came free with the house, though it was in a bit of a state so I’ve had to move it, dig up the crappy gravel-and-plastic-bags floor and replace most of the glass.

It’s still not enough: under Percy Thrower’s Law, which states that whatever size greenhouse you have it will always be too small, I am now hatching plans to acquire one of those temporary pop-up greenhouses so I can evict my seedling trays when it’s time to put the tomatoes in the ground, as this year things have really gone wrong on the tomato front following a traffic jam on the seedling benches in greenhouse no. 1.

But failing a third greenhouse – and in any case, if I get one it’ll be a polytunnel – I have to manage with what I’ve got. It changes, rather wonderfully, every month, so I thought I’d follow the example of Helen, The Patient Gardener, who has a monthly meme looking at what’s going on inside her greenhouse. Here’s what’s happening right now:

The busiest greenhouse: it's a jungle in there...

Here she is: the ‘main’ greenhouse, by which I mean the one that’s successful. Cucumbers groaning under the strain of all the fruit on the right; also in here are aubergines, peppers and tomatilloes at the back.

But this month has been all about drying onions.

It’s been a good onion year: sun plus a spot or two of rain and mine are about as enormous as they’ve ever been. I have perennial onion bulbils, a rather pathetic garlic crop (after my outbreak of rust earlier this year), maincrop onions and shallots, all spread out across both greenhouses and getting thoroughly in the way.

My prize specimens have been my ‘Stuttgarter Giant’ - a sort of beginner’s show onion. Not quite as large as, say, ‘Bedfordshire Champion’ or ‘Ailsa Craig’ but satisfyingly eyecatching nonetheless: around 15cm across each, with a handsomely flattened, golden-skinned bulb.

Top left: perennial onion bulbils. Top right and bottom left: 'Stuttgarter' onions. Bottom right: 'Golden Gourmet' shallots (a bit feeble and certainly not as good as the 'Picasso')

Actually though I’m inordinately proud of them, large onions aren’t terribly practical in the kitchen. If you’re cooking a recipe which calls for two onions, you’re fine: just use one of your big ‘uns. But normally you just want one, medium-sized onion, and large ones like these have little to do with moderation. You end up with fridge salad compartment syndrome: when you get half an onion mouldering away in your salad compartment and by the time you find it again it’s much too late.

So I might just go for a smaller variety next year. On my must-try-again list are the ‘Picasso’ shallots I grew for the first time this year: wonderful big, fat things, almost as good as the ‘Hative de Niort’ ones I grew a few years ago (and that is high praise indeed coming from a Francophile like me).

This are the 'Picasso' shallots: the size of small onions and beautifully plump

The only real disappointment has been the ‘Electric‘ autumn-sown onions. We have eaten them all now: but they were a disappointing pale pink instead of the deep red I had hoped for. I shall not be planting them again: instead I’m including one of the good red maincrops in next year’s planting, something like ‘Red Baron’, maybe. To grow the really sweet red onions, like the Italian ‘Rossa Savonese’ or ‘Red Brunswick’, you’ll have to sow from seed: more patience than I’ve got, but I might yet be converted (we really like red onions).

I bring them in around now, once the stems have collapsed into a brownish heap on the ground. They won’t be doing any more growing so you may as well dig them up: ideally, loosen the roots a couple of days in advance, just so they stop sucking up moisture and start to go into a state of suspended animation.

If it’s reliably sunny for two weeks after lifting them you can dry them on the surface of the soil: this is a bit of a pipe dream in the UK, so best just to get on with stacking them one layer thick in trays to dry. Mushroom trays are fine; you can also lay them on pallets as long as the gaps aren’t too wide.

Bring them into the greenhouse for two weeks of irritation as you tiptoe over them where they’re blocking your pathways, not forgetting to turn them every day or two so they’re evenly dried. Once your fortnight is up, you can take them inside and string them into long plaits to hang in your spare room or corridor (kitchens are a little damp, though our onions get used so quickly you can just about get away with it). They should last like that for around six months, through till February next year: that’s if you haven’t eaten them by then…

Like most people of a certain age, the whole self-sufficiency thing drifted into my consciousness via two main routes: Tom and Barbara Goode, and John Seymour.

What they didn’t tell you back then is that the reality isn’t much like either.

I think I probably knew the first time I read the detailed description in John Seymour’s classic ‘Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency’ of how to kill and skin a rabbit with your bare hands that this wasn’t going to be something I would ever do.

Similarly, sloshing about in two feet of mud while being laughed at by the neighbours and having to forsake Prosecco in favour of home-brew parsnip for the foreseeable future was not something that greatly appealed.

This is a sad thing. I think more people are put off providing food for themselves by the prospect of having to choose one of these two scenarios to live in than by anything else.

In fact, it’s perfectly possible to raise your own food while also working full time at a desk job, having kids, clean clothes (most of the time, anyway) and drinking Prosecco. Every day, if you want to.

I used to think I was the only person who approached it like this, and suspected I was either a) a little bit bonkers, as nobody else was stupid enough to try having it all, or b) self-deluded and not ‘properly’ self-sufficient at all. Then I read John Jackson’s ‘A Little Piece of England’.

(c) Val Biro

It’s a re-release of a book first written in 1979 but it could have been written about my life right here in 2014. In fact think I may have been John in a former life. Well, obviously that can’t be true as John is alive and well and living not a million miles from me just over the border in the Yarty Valley in East Devon. But rarely have I felt so strongly that here is someone who’s approached things exactly as I have: muddled, slightly chaotic, bordering on lunacy from time to time, but on the whole deeply fulfilling and a lot of fun.

John set up home in the Weald of Kent with his family, commuted to London to work long hours as a lawyer, brought up three kids with his wife Ann and generally lived a very normal life. Except that he used his spare time to raise animals – lots, and lots of animals – and work with his family to feed himself from the land.

You can’t call it farming, exactly; it’s not even smallholding, as neither myself nor John own much land. Like me, John got by borrowing bits of land here and there, occasionally paying rent, more often bartering a spring lamb or (in my case) some veg gardening advice. But it is taking responsibility for yourself and what you consume, by providing what you need by means of your own skills and effort.

John was a lot more adventurous than me: his animal owning expanded to include bullocks called Angus and Ogilvy, a goose called Henry and goats called Chance and Fancy.

(c) Val Biro

The very act of naming your animals sets you apart from farmers (and, to a large extent, smallholders too): they are part of the extended family when you only keep a handful, just enough to keep you and yours in lamb, chicken and eggs. John found out the hard way the best bit of advice I was ever given by my mum (who also kept sheep): never, ever name animals you’re intending to eat. The ram lamb currently gambolling in my field will be on my plate by November which is precisely why I very carefully miss him out when scratching the other sheep behind the ears.

Naming your animals also gets you laughed at: and John like me has had his fair share of being the butt of much hilarity among local farmers. I laughed like a drain at John’s very un-farmerly solution of catching your sheep with a herring net. Journeys in the car with assorted farm animals sitting on your kids’ laps is also familiar territory for me and gets you a lot of funny looks, I’ve found.

Just sometimes, though, muddling out your own way of doing it turns out to be an improvement on conventional farming methods. I tamed my sheep early on, which amuses friends and local farmers no end: but whereas the local farmers need dogs, and complicated sheep runs made out of hurdles, and tractors and trailers to move their sheep 50 yards down the road, I just pick up a bucket and mine follow me meekly across to their new pasture.

John, too, discovered by doing things differently the joys of ‘butterfly beef’ – almost totally unknown these days, but according to John a revelation. He ended up by a series of accidents with two Jersey bullocks: you can’t keep them, as they have an unfortunate habit of turning into bulls, but Jerseys are milk cows. In the milk farming world, they go to pet food.

When you’re self-sufficient, raising just enough for your own needs, that amounts to a criminal waste; so John sent them to the abattoir anyway. This ‘butterfly’ beef was once a well-known delicacy: it has yellow fat (which is why butchers and their customers don’t like it) but is, John says, ‘a lean meat with a granular texture and wonderful flavour, and the yellow fat… is tastier, as well as prettier’.

John Jackson is also founder of the Countryside Alliance, an organisation created for the right reasons then sadly hijacked by the hunting lobby. But the widespread perception they’ve managed to create that the countryside is all about large red-faced men hunting and killing things for sport and not much else is a travesty.

This is the land that feeds you, and me. It is so important that I run out of words: it is fundamental to everything we are. It’s the brown earth that I pull my potatoes from, the grass that feeds the sheep that produce my lamb and the chickens that lay my eggs. It’s the hedgerows that shelter the butterflies which pollinate my beans. And it does the same for you, and you, and you, whether you pick the beans yourself or not. It is, quite simply, the reason we are all still here. We destroy it and we perish ourselves.

I’ll leave you with more eloquent thoughts on the subject from John himself:

“The detachment from the land which goes with urbanisation brings with it many problems. All over the world people living and working on the land congregate in relatively small communities. And they have a strong sense of what a community is and its contribution to social stability and social values. Communities are the building blocks of any nation… Misunderstand the need for it and the complexity of the task [of meeting modern requirements] and our marvellously varied countryside which is one of our unique national assets will wither away. Soon – if we do not care for it more – the countryside will have no ecological or social value and will not be there, in any meaningful way, for any of us to enjoy.”

The bitterest pill

This is what a cucumber flower ought to look like. See that little baby cucumber behind the petals?

Crop failures are pretty bad. You put all that effort in, coaxing the seed into life, nurturing and cossetting with all the optimism of an early-season gardener. Then along comes the weather, or rabbits, or mice, or slugs (or, in my case, a rampaging cow. Don’t ask or I may have to sob). Suddenly your tomatoes are so much mushy blight, your peas are a powdery heap of mildew and that row of lettuces you planted has mysteriously vanished.

But crueller by far even than this is the crop turned bad.

All appears to have gone swimmingly. Your plants are romping away, they’re following the textbooks to the letter and the harvest is coming along nicely. At last arrives the day when you’re ready to pick, your mouth perhaps watering a little in anticipation. And then it all goes horribly wrong.

So it has been with my cucumbers this year. I started out with one seedling I’d raised myself (well, actually I started with five, but four of them went for slug food: see above.) This wasn’t quite enough to feed a family which eats cucumber with everything, so I backed it up with a couple of bought-in plants.

I thought the bought-in plants were ‘Femspot’, an all-female variety guaranteed to produce nothing but female cucumber-producing flowers. The one I’d raised myself was ‘Sweet Crunch’, which I’ve grown before and enjoyed – though also complained about, as it does produce male flowers which turn the cucumbers bitter from time to time.

All was going well: big, rumbustious plants galloping up their supports so fast I could hardly tie them in fast enough. Fruits so heavy they started pulling the plants back off the supports (cue more supports and a Heath Robinson-esque cat’s cradle of string attached to various points on the greenhouse frame. I have yet again been caught out on the plant supporting front this year. Note to self – next year they need a double row of canes to roof height plus horizontal ones at 30cm intervals all the way up too. You messed up the peas too, by the way.)

But if you see one of these little blighters - no baby cucumber, just a stalk - nip it out right away.

Triumphantly I brought my first cucumber into the kitchen and sliced it, with that quiet little swagger to myself that goes with preparing home-grown food, into a salad.

It ruined the whole thing.

Ack, ack, ack. Bitter as a bitter thing. Inedible, in fact. My disappointment has cut deep.

Mistake no. 1: mixing my varieties. Really, really stupid. You see, if you take a variety bred to produce female-only flowers and put it next to a variety which produces both male and female flowers, you completely cancel the advantages of having female-only varieties, since you pollinate the fruit and that’s what makes it bitter.

Mistake no. 2: buying in plants from a garden centre. Yes, they were labelled Femspot: but on closer inspection, it was quite clear that while the one at the far end was producing nothing but female flowers, the one nearer the door was producing pretty much a three-to-one ratio of male to female flowers. I had, in other words, bought a dud.

This happens far more often than you’d think. I got caught out last year, too: bought in three melon plants and one, would you believe, turned into a pumpkin. They’re virtually indistinguishable as seedlings, though I got a bit suspicious when it started producing mature leaves which were huge and oddly reminiscent of a squash plant. The game was up when it flowered (after practically taking over the greenhouse: goodness, it did enjoy itself in there). I evicted it crossly into the garden without even bothering to harden it off and it just bounced back and started taking over several veg beds instead. You can’t keep a good pumpkin down.

But I digress. I did consider pulling the rogue cucumber plant out, but that would have left me short, so now I’m just going through and picking off the male flowers every other day. It only takes five minutes and it’s rather satisfying, in a vindictive sort of way. And I’m taste testing all my cucumbers before committing them to a salad.

Most of the first batch went into the compost bin, but slowly the number of sweet cucumbers is overtaking the bitter ones and I think I’m winning the war. Just remind me to buy some proper F1 all-female seeds next year and stay away from the plug plants section in the garden centre, that’s all.

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