Feed on

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.

My garlic has turned ginger. And not in a good way.

It happened just about overnight, a few weeks ago. One day I had perfectly healthy, sturdy garlic shoots: the next day the foliage was a bilious shade of orange. On closer inspection, it was covered in little raised bumps and pustules the exact same shade as rusty metal. There are few diseases more easily identifiable.

I’m reliably informed by Wikipedia that there are 7000 species of rust. I can entirely believe it. It’s one of the most common fungal diseases you can get in the veg garden, or indeed anywhere in the garden: I’ve had rust on my hollyhocks too, and it also affects pelargoniums, mint, lawns, fuchsias and pear trees (this last with the rather eccentric habit of spending part of its lifecycle on juniper bushes – so you need both plants for it to flourish).

On the plus side, each type of rust is very, very specialised. So I can’t blame the hollyhocks for infecting my garlic: hollyhock rust (Puccinia malvacearum) only likes hollyhocks. This is garlic rust, Puccinia allii, and it mainly likes leeks and garlic (it can also infect onions, but for some unexplained reason chooses not to in the UK: perhaps it just finds garlic tastier. All I know is that my onion crops are growing blithely alongside the blighted garlic, their normal healthy shade of dark green).

It’s far more likely the spores arrived on my garlic on the feet of insects. It might have been blown there, though that’s less likely as we’re a little way from the nearest veg garden and there is nothing behind the garlic in the prevailing wind direction but a hedge. The wind was probably, however, responsible for spreading the rust from plant to plant.

Rust spores infect perfectly healthy plants and by the time you see that characteristic orange colour they’ll have been having a ball with your plants’ leaves for about two weeks. By this time it is too late: they are well away and spreading their nasty little fungal babies far and wide.

And here’s the bad news: there’s pretty much no cure. You can remove rusted leaves if you spot them soon enough, but you’re just delaying the inevitable. There’s nothing you can spray it with; no clever little hand-me-down gardening wisdom. There aren’t really even any cultivation tricks you can use to keep it at bay: yes, it’s worse in over-fertilised soils so you shouldn’t overdo the nitrogen, but I haven’t fed my garlic at all and they still succumbed. Nor were they crowded, nor overwatered as they usually are in our damp corner of the UK; it’s been the driest summer for ages.

So I’m feeling a little peeved. I haven’t done anything wrong, yet my poor garlic bulbs have been stopped in their tracks. I’ve harvested what I can, but it’s weeks earlier than they’d usually be leaving the ground: no wonder the cloves are so small. The only thing I can do is pick up every last bit of dusty orange foliage and keep it religiously out of the compost, as this is a disease that will overwinter if you let it.

Though there aren’t any varieties of garlic which show resistance to rust, one way around re-infection next year is to grow your garlic fast and early, so that by the time rust gets busy in around May they’re already well developed. There’s just one variety which crops in double-quick time: so next year I’ll be growing ‘Early Purple Wight’, ready to pull by May so by the time the orange dust arrives the plate will be empty. That should foil the little blighters.

Veg gardening the traditional way

Well I thought I was doing pretty well on the exotics front this year, what with the tomatilloes hogging one end of the greenhouse and my huge tree chilli – now, in its second year, almost at roof height – fighting it out with the tomatoes at the other.

The loquat tree is thriving, the fig less so after I strimmed its head off a few weeks ago.

The yacon rotted in last winter’s wet so I’ll have to buy some more next spring (should have brought it in under cover, I know) but I’ve made up for it by acquiring a Japanese wineberry.

But the pros at Hampton Court, as always, make me feel like a stuck-in-the-mud traditionalist.

There were veg in that Growing Tastes marquee I never even knew existed, let alone thought of growing.

Here are the ones which are going in my little black book:

Harvesting cranberries the New England way

Cranberries: These were everywhere this year, thanks to a show feature by Ocean Spray all about the great tradition that is the American cranberry harvest.

I’ve heard about this before. Every autumn in New England they flood the wet marshlands where the cranberries grow, then stir up the water so the ripe berries are loosened and float on the surface in great wide ruby-red mats, ready for collection.

Kind of difficult, of course, to replicate in your back garden. But the bit about wet marshlands does offer a clue as to how to grow these tart little berries.

You’ll need an acid soil – we’re talking 5.0 or lower – or a pot of ericaceous compost; line planting hole or pot with an old compost bag to create those swampy conditions. You don’t want to create standing water (that’s a pond), just soupy soil, so punch a few holes in the bottom for drainage. Then water like mad, with rainwater whenever possible.

Get the conditions right and it all becomes a lot easier: they’ll survive the frostiest winters and will crop heavily for 10 years or more. Oh yes, and you can pick the berries in the normal way: no flooding required.

Cardamom (the black kind) - the perfect houseplant

Cardamom: I have to admit to being a bit hazy as to the origins of those curious, crispy little pods I occasionally pound in my pestle and mortar when making posh curry. Something vaguely exotic; tropical jungles, perhaps, and south Asia.

Well: I know a lot more now. There are two types of cardamom, it seems, both distantly related to ginger.

The green one, Elettaria cardamomum, has the stronger, more familiar flavour if you’re using your cardamom in sweeter dishes. Black cardamom, Amomum subulatum, has a smokier, more subtle taste: some say not as nice, but apparently that’s because they’re not using it right. It’s used in meatier, heavier dishes, always savoury.

You can grow both as houseplants. Not the most exciting of windowsill inhabitants, perhaps, since they’re unlikely to flower and produce pods in the UK, but they are evergreen at least.

And if you grow the green type you can use the leaves instead of the pods anyway, so you still get to boast about your home-grown cardamom.

Malabar spinach (the red kind): pretty as a pretty thing

Malabar spinach: My but this is a pretty plant. I haven’t seen anything quite so eyecatching on a kitchen garden stand since the arrival of the lablab bean, amid much flurrying of garden writers’ notebooks, a few years ago.

In fact they aren’t that dissimilar, both having a tinge of sultry deep purple, pretty flowers and an attractive habit of scrambling fetchingly up the nearest support.

They also both like it as warm as you can get it: definitely one for the greenhouse or polytunnel, this one.

Raw, the leaves are thick, crunchy and fleshy and taste of green peppers. Cooked, it’s more like our type of spinach, though it doesn’t collapse into nothing the moment it hits a pan. There’s a green version, but my favourite is the red one, Basella alba ‘Rubra’, pretty enough to put the most traditional of ornamental climbers firmly in the shade.

'A Space to Connect and Grow', by Jeni Cairns and Sophie Antonelli (Gold, Best Summer Garden)

Recycling in the garden can be tricky to get right.

It’s all very well making planters out of teacups and planting strawberries in colander hanging baskets or nailing tin cans to your fence posts, but unless you judge your junk with faultless taste and a steely determination not to overdo the winsome artlessness thing it’s all too easy to end up with a garden that looks like someone’s emptied a dustbin over the top of it.

Or you can go the other way. Stuff winsome artlessness: we’re talking heavy metal. Think big junk, the kind that involves welding torches, and it’ll give your garden a Mad Max grunge vibe, transcending its rubbish-tip origins and entering a hard rock zone of f-you style.

Metal’s ‘A Space to Connect and Grow’ did just that at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show and got a gold, best Summer Garden and my vote for the most inspirational garden in the show.

It’s a fusion of community, art and gardening (as all the best gardens are) and best of all it’s a kitchen garden, so packed full of veggies as well as flowers.

Possibly the best vertical planting wall ever

It brings together the Green Backyard, a community allotment in Peterborough, and the talents of artist and garden designer Jeni Cairns – and not a single thing in it is new.

But this is junk gardening on a grand scale. Forget raiding the recycling box: go down your local farmyard instead. Here are some of Jeni’s rubbish ideas which really caught my eye:

Oil drums: tin cans with attitude, these industry cast-offs upcycle into planters and, with the addition of a couple of reclaimed grilles and bike wheels, the funkiest wall planters I’ve ever seen.

Paint them different colours, and get busy with the plasma cutter to etch pretty designs in the side and you’d never guess their grubby origins.

Pick them up from MOT garages, remove the top if it has one (you’ll also need to bash flat the metal edge so it’s not sharp any more), and clean with detergent or by simply burning out any residual oil. It’s a good idea to line it before using it for growing veg, too.

Bits from a combine harvester... or funky water feature?

Steel reinforcing rods: if you can find a supply of these they are invaluable in the garden. Try a friendly local builder or Freecycle. Tie them together in threes for a heavy metal bean support; or do as Jeni did and thread them through holes in upright fence posts to make a frame for an espaliered apple tree to grow up.

Reclaimed scaffold boards: these are already a bit of a theme in my own veg garden so I know just how useful they can be. Phone round local scaffolding companies and you’ll find one willing to sell you their cast-offs, though be prepared to pay around £10 a board as most are getting wise to the demand now.

It’s still cheap: they’re 13ft long, around 8″ wide and a good inch and a half thick so really sturdy timber for raised beds, walls, planters, decking…

Agricultural machinery: I confess this isn’t one I’ve ever tried, but Jeni must have a very co-operative farmer living nearby (or one which has a particularly unfortunate track record with combine harvesters).

An old metal conveyor belt and an unloader pipe become a jazzy water feature; and best feature in the whole garden, an old bit of sheet metal plasma cut into filigree shapes becomes a beautiful roof garden planted with herbs.

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