Thursday 29 January 2015

Celeriac - love or hate (or indifferent)?

I grew some celeriac for the first time this year. 
My mum got me some young plants from a plant sale so I stuck them in next to my leeks and they've been growing happily since the spring.
 Just lately I've started to use them and I must say that it's a difficult vegetable to fall in love with. There seems to be a lot of waste from the roots, the slugs have been at them as well, so I've had to cut quite a bit away inside leaving a lot in the sink - although this may be to do with the fact I've just left them in the ground until now and they might have been best lifted and stored somewhere
. To be honest I'm just not a very big fan of celery and that's essentially what they are - the smell puts me off! 
On the other hand when I've been adding them to stews it has given over a really nice flavour and they help to bulk out a stew and add another vegetable to it so it can't be bad for us.
I did buy some seeds to grow my own this coming year but now I'm in two minds. I know space isn't that much of an issue with me, but it is another vegetable to look after all year, although growing a few probably wouldn't hurt.
What's everyone's opinion on celeriac? 

Tuesday 27 January 2015

A Cake For Playgroup

I think no cake will ever be judged as much as a cake made by the only man in a mainly female playgroup! 
It was my turn to make the cake this week - luckily I nailed it! 
 I wanted a show stopper to impress and kept thinking of different cakes I could make. Then I decided that simple was best and went for a simple Victoria Sponge Sandwich.
The sponge was made using the normal recipe (8oz of flour, 8oz of sugar and 8oz of butter, four eggs and a teaspoon of baking powder) then I added butter icing and homemade damson jam to the middle and dusted the top with icing sugar. 
A simple cake that everyone likes, sometimes you can't beat a classic. 
Everyone was very complimentary! 
What cake would you have made (I need ideas for when it's my turn again!)?

Sunday 25 January 2015

Sweeping Chimneys & An EcoFan

Before Christmas I took another small step with self reliance and purchased some chimney sweeping brushes. As ours is a steel lined flue I had to buy a special brush and flexible poles for it - not cheap but I figured it would soon work out much more cost effective than hiring someone to sweep it twice a year (A friend had theirs done at a cost of £40 the other week).
 I also went a bit mad and got another carbon monoxide alarm and a Ecofan, the firm I brought it all from also chucked in a chimney cleaning log. 
The Ecofan is a clever bit of kit and I've been hankering after one for a while! The motor is powered from the heat from the fire, no batteries or anything. It was purchased because the heat from our stove just stays in the living room so the plan being that it would circulate it around the house more. We've been using it for a month now and so far it's been brilliant, it runs very quietly, starts as soon as the fire gets warm enough and pushes air around the house a little more. I have it aimed at the living room door to get some heat up the stairs and I'd say you can definitely feel a difference when you're up there.
As for sweeping the chimney, the brushes were designed for that sized lining and you can tell - it was so easy, no way worth a £40 charge for how long it took me! We burn our fire at optimum temperatures for our stove most of the time (between 200 and 300 degrees c) and it showed by how much soot came down the chimney, barely enough to fill a half pint glass, that was after a season of use as well so I was pretty pleased!
Who else sweeps their chimney themselves? How often do you do it?

Thursday 22 January 2015

9 Self Sufficiency Goals For 2015

I used to be a big list writer and it helped keep me focused and organised, but I've slipped out of the habit. I've decided to try and write down some goals and then I'll see how close I get to them!

  • Increase my growing area - I've already started on this with the new raised beds but I want to be able to grow a larger variety of things as well as having an area for growing trees and shrubs to sell on a small scale.
  • Produce more protein on the homestead - The obvious way is with meat. I keep toying with getting pigs and/or rabbits, I think the girls have got their hearts set on both! I need to finish building pens and get water supplies sorted first. I could also look at growing chickpeas or something similar for a vegatarian option (and they would help with a point below).
  • Improve my composting and "loop closing" - Trying to make sure that as little as possible leaves the homestead (unless someone has bought it). I want us to produce less landfill waste, recycle more (cardboard on the garden etc) and get really organised with my compost. I want to be buying a lot less compost in years to come, last year was a great success with my home made plant foods, removing something I used to buy quite often, so hopefully I'll be able to start making an impact with this as well.
  • Look at experimenting with growing staples - I'm pretty good at growing fruit and veg but they're not normally the main part of a meal. I grow potatoes but I also want to look at growing a cereal or a grain to see if it can be done on a small scale, ridiculous really as my dad grows hundreds of tons of wheat but it will be an interesting experiment if I get around to it!
  • Increase my number of herbs and spices - The easiest way to change a meal is with herbs or spices but I'd like to increase the number I've got here and experiment with some new ones. I'd also like to look at growing something for my indigestion - mint tea isn't enough sometimes and I eat far too many Rennies!

  • Improve my food storage - I want to waste less food so having somewhere good to store it is essential. I've got a few ideas on this one, from building a purpose built shed in the garden to improving how we store food in the house, my can rotator door I built last year was a good start on this. I also want to preserve more food and be better at using it in day to day cooking. 
  • Seed Saving - This is a big one I think! You can't be very self sufficient if you're having to buy seed each year. I want to try and collect more seed, set biannual plants apart and let some go to flower each year as well. I'd like to learn more about it and learn how to create my own hybrids (with squashes) or keep plants pure. 
  • Fire wood - My willow coppice wasn't much of a success last year but I'd like to improve on that in the next year as well as thinning out some trees from our hedge rows and sawing up a few at my dads farm for firewood.
  • Baking - I'd like to start baking bread a little more often. I baked lots of soda bread last year but I'd like to start making bread from scratch or maybe starting a sour dough culture to use regularly.

What other goals do you think I should set for myself? 
Have you set any goals in a similar vein for yourself this year?

Tuesday 20 January 2015

How Did You Learn To Cook?

I was talking to my mum the other day and she was laughing about how much I'd changed over the years and could never see me in the role I'm in now!
 She said she could remember one day when I stated that cooking was easy. I was in my late teens at the time and hadn't cooked anything greater than beans on toast since being a small boy helping mum bake cakes, so I had no grounds to say it!
"Right that's it, you can both [my brother and I] cook once a week!"
She was determined not to have her sons leave home without being able to cook. So we took it in turns to cook tea, picking a different recipe each time and normally having to have our little sister show us what to do. I moaned like hell, it was the last thing I wanted to do in the evening, but I'm glad she did it! 
Roast wild duck
Homemade tomato soup
Now we're both good cooks, each of us making everything we cook from scratch (my sister has been able to do this since the age of about 9) and we all have a core repertoire of recipes that we can cook from memory. We're also pretty adventurous and share new recipes between the three of us. I don't think any of us would ever consider buying a ready meal.
Now I use these skills every night when I cook tea (or dinner depending where you're from) for my wife and kids and I bake two or three times a week, I really enjoy it as well - once I've decided what to cook! My wife is also a good cook (an essential part of picking a wife I think) and food features pretty highly in our day to day lives, it's one thing we try not to skimp on and one reason we spend so much time trying to grow our own and finding ways to use it.

How did you learn to cook? What's the first recipe that you could cook from memory?

Sunday 18 January 2015

Homesteading TV?

Since Christmas I've avoided watching Frozen as much as possible, and watched some YouTube videos instead. 

One series I watched was Frontier House. I know that to the Americans reading this that this series is pretty dated (filmed in 2001 I think) but I hadn't seen it before and really enjoyed it. The families involved are pretty whiny, and they do grate on me a bit, but over all the series was really interesting and I learnt a fair bit from it. It's hard to believe how far America has come in that short time I think! 

One of my all time favourite TV series was the Victorian Kitchen Garden. 12 episodes split into each month show how a walled kitchen garden was grown and managed in the late Victorian time by an old head gardener Harry Dobson. I also have the book that accompanies the series and it's one of my favourite gardening books with so much to learn from it even though it all went out when I was still in primary school. 
I've searched on YouTube to see if I could find a link but it's not uploaded on there. There is, however, a later series set in WWII showing how they coped with the war in the large gardens and kitchens of manor houses, I've not watched these yet but if passed performance is anything to go by they'll be great! 

So my question to you all is what other series/programmes do you recommend I watch. Obviously most of you will know my interests and although I try to avoid watching too much TV it is nice to watch something interesting when I do!

Friday 16 January 2015

Blogging Seed Swap

I want your seeds!

One of my aims for this growing year is to save more seed. I was going to do it more last year but through a mixture of my own disorganisation, poor planning and a mouse eating all my sweet pepper seeds, I didn't quite manage what I hoped.
I have managed to save some though, so I'll offer up some Cherry Bomb and Cucamelon seeds to anyone that wants to swap with me, I also have plenty of fennel as it grows like crazy here.

Cherry bomb
This is a really mild chilli pepper and more like a sweet pepper in some respects, it has the tiniest amount of heat to it. I grew it with the pure intention of trying to copy a very popular sweet pickled pepper that we buy from the shops and with a little help I completely nailed it. A nice little chilli to grow that doesn't take up much space, not much good to adding heat to a meal though so I'd grow others as well.

My girls loved these last year and I know that many of you were interested in growing these. They taste like a crispy cucumber with a hint of lime and great as a snack and I'd imagine they'd pickle really well. I haven't got huge numbers of seeds but a few should be enough to get you growing, once you've grown them once you can save the little tubers they produce underground and grow from these the next year as well (I'll do a post on that another time).
They're a thin climbing vine and grow like mad but don't take up too much space. I had them growing in the greenhouse and had three to 12" pot and they coped fine (I do feed quite a bit though). 
If you want some let me know by email it's kevalviti at hotmail dot com (I won't keep this email up too long). 
Sorry I've not got more to offer! 
If you have something to swap then that's great, if not then just send me an SAE and I'll send you some anyway!

Wednesday 14 January 2015

Mouldy Squash

I hate food waste, that's one of the reasons I'm trying to be more organised with our food storage (the other being I'm tight). So I was a little annoyed the other day when I could see some our our squash harvest going bad.
It happens so quick and before you know it the mould has spread.
Squash normally keep really well, but they need the right environment to keep for a long time. Normally we store them in a box in the dining room, and we find that at room temperature they keep well into May and last year we even had them store into August.
Where mouldy squashes have touched, I'll have to use these fairly soon or they'll go off as well.
 Last seasons crop was so big that we didn't have the space to keep them all in the dinning room, so I stored some in the shed and workshop. The conditions in there are much colder and we're beginning to see the affects from that. Some squash are starting to go mouldy and because I've got them packed in tight together (which I know I shouldn't, be needs must) this mould spreads really fast. The other day I chucked out half a dozen squash and a large one went to the chickens (it was on the turn but they didn't complain). 
Wasted food - only good for the compost bin now.
It goes to show the importance of good food storage and the importance of checking your stored food. I knew I'd have problems storing them where I had them but I had no other choice. My long term plan is to build a "food storage shed" built out of block with different areas to store the different produce that I grow; there's no point in growing it if you can't use it before it goes off. The shed will ideally be thermostatically controlled and heavily insulated with adjustable ventilation and completely rodent proof - I'm hoping to start building it this year so watch this space!

I think that food storage is one of the key points on the road to self sufficiency. In the past how good you were at it would have directly dictated your families future, especially at this time of year when you'd see your food reserves start to diminish. 
Anyone else lost food this season due to poor storage? Time for some confessions!

Monday 12 January 2015

Chicken Colditiz

Last week when I went on my days pruning the customer we were working for had a rather extreme chicken coop, he called it Guantanamo Bay but with all the wire it reminded me of a chicken colditiz castle.
Chicken Colditiz...
He resorted to these measures after the fox kept taking his chickens and then crapping on the roof of one of the coops, just to give him the finger as he left!
The pen is made out of Heras fencing, with chicken wire dug into the ground all the way round and then an added barrier at the top facing outwards to stop Mr Fox climbing in.
A pretty extreme chicken pen to erect, but I'm sure we all feel like building something like this when we have animals attacked by predators. Hopefully his will keep his birds safe but it does make me think I should increase the security on mine!
What's the most extreme pen you've ever built to keep predators at bay?

Saturday 10 January 2015

Fruit Tree Pruning Talk

I had a phone call from my mum on Monday inviting me to a talk at her gardening club. It was on fruit trees by a very knowledgeable nursery man so I decided to drive the thirty or so miles and go to the talk, my brother met me there as well.

I've not been to many gardening clubs before, but lets just say that if you added the age of my brother and me together we'd still be younger than most there! We were given a warm welcome though and the speaker was excellent.
His name is Nick Dunn and he runs the nursery that I visited the year before last and he is also the author of the book "Trees for your garden" which is excellent.
His talk was brilliant (no photos sorry) he brought in many trees with him and cut them all up into how he's start different forms and shapes. Although I've been on many fruit tree pruning courses and talks before I still learnt a lot from this. He was truly passionate about it and seemed very happy to be talking to my brother and me at the end as he could see we were a younger generation interested in it.

A few random tips I wrote down are:

  • Prune hard when you plant - This si something I never do but he was taking quite a bit of growth off, by half on the one tree. He says to be brave and the tree will grow a lot stronger because of it. It seems counter-intuitive but I'm going to adopt this practice and see how I get on. 
  • Tie cherry tree branches downwards or break them slightly - any growth going upwards produces vegetative buds but downwards will produce fruit buds. Break them when the spa is rising.
  • Bend and tie the trees into an S bend to slow the spa rising and to produce more fruit. Also some orchards are planting closer and closer together to increase competition. 
  • Try to pick out branches that are a wide angle from the main trunk. they use toothpick like things to space them on some orchards now as it will mean a much stronger branch in the future. remove narrow angle branches as they tend to want to grow upwards.
  • Summer pruning - I thought it was tricky to work out when but he says after the longest day you're good to go, although you might have to prune twice if they put on lots of growth.
  • Figs - Prune in early autumn or summer, not in winter like I would have assumed. 
  • To prevent peach leaf curl you need to stop the rain falling on the leaves until the end of may. Give the tree a cover until then that is open to the sides.
My mother keeps on to me to do some talks for gardening clubs? What do you think I could do them on? Could you do a talk to a club and what would it be on?

Thursday 8 January 2015

Hybrid Willow Update - Year One

Sol asked how my hybrid willow that I planted back in the spring last year was doing. I hope I'm not one of the bloggers who only posts how wonderful everything I do is, and to prove it here's some willow that hasn't really grown! 
Not quite ready for the fire!
 These pictures were taken in July, but believe me when I say that they haven't put on any growth since I took these photos. 
Most have seemed to survive but I guess I should have done a bit more when I read that willow didn't like competition. The majority are at about 8 inches high, not the 8ft that I've read about, it really doesn't like competition from grass and I did nothing to stop it so it's my own fault. Also I think I was a little late in planting them so I doubt that's helped as well.
There's two hundred trees in this picture - see them? No? Don't worry I don't either until I trip on one!
With coppicing in this way you're meant to cut them down at the end of the first year, but as they're barely established I'm going to leave it an extra year before I cut them back. That does mean that it will be six years until I get any firewood from these little plots, but I'm not planning on going anywhere so I can wait!
I'm going to plant up another plot this year, although I might plant through plastic or mulch, and I'm planning on putting in a row of a variety of willow for basket making as well, I've no plans to make any baskets yet but if I ever do then the willow will be there waiting for me! 
Anyone have much luck with willow last year? Or any other sort of coppicing?

Tuesday 6 January 2015

Some New Raised Beds

Over the Christmas break I started to try to tidy up the bottom of the veg garden.
The messy bottom end of the veg garden.
It's located below my fruit tree nursery and it sits wet for a lot of the year. My plan is to dig a small drain by hand to hopefully move some of the water on and then to raise the growing area. I grew some of my artichokes down here last year in my cheap raised beds and they grew really well so I thought I'd up the scale this time. Lots more pallet collars needed - luckily I get them for free!
The very wet area at the bottom. standing water

Raised beds added. Chicken shown for scale...

This should tidy up the bottom and provide some new growing areas.
So I've now got nine 4ft by 3ft raised beds 16 inches high at the bottom of the garden. I'm planing on using them for plants that don't quite work with my usual rotation so lots of unusal veg like Oca, ground apples and the like, it also lets me tailor the conditions to them a little more as well. I might dedicate one bed to some more flowers and one to things like leeks that we never seem to have enough of, there might be more raised beds going in yet!
I've lined the bottom of the bases with cardboard, now all I've got to do is fill them! It took ten barrowfuls of soil to fill one (I've got a big pile of spare top soil) so I've got a bit more work to do yet, I also need to find some muck to to add in as well.
Hopefully I'll get started on my large raised bed for asparagus in the next couple of weeks as well, but I've also got lots of work on as well so I'm already getting short of time!
Anyone else been increasing their growing area this winter?

Sunday 4 January 2015

A Days Pruning

I was flattered last week when my brother asked me to go on a days pruning with him as he actually wanted to use some of my knowledge of fruit trees - as you all know I'm a little obsessed! I was keen and it turned out to be a really nice day, we worked hard and got a lot done and I'm really pleased with the results. 
A beautiful little smallholding with a great layout. 
 It was on a little smallholding next door to my parents farm, none of the trees had been touched for a few years as the current owners hadn't been living there long. We were concentrating on the apple and pear trees in the front garden, the house is located in the middle of the plot so the front is almost as big as the back and there was quite few trees to work on. 
Opening up a young tree creating much more light in the middle
 There was a nice mix of young and old trees to deal with, the youngest about eight or ten years going up to 30 years plus. I set to work on the small trees whilst my brother tackled the bigger ones. We were pruning for fruit production, so trying to create trees that are light and airy in the middle (a goblet shape), pruning all diseased and crossing branches first then starting to shape them. As these hadn't been touched for so long we couldn't remove too much wood this year, instead reducing some of the growth and overcrowding with a plan on tackling it again next year. If you try to take too much in one go then it puts too much energy into growing new wood instead of fruit, that's when you get lots of water shoots (quick growing upright growth).
A overcrowded small tree before pruning

Dave doing some more major work in one of the older trees


After - more work to thin it out again next year.
It's fun working with my brother and he's a master of all tree work so I always learn something, but it was nice that he trusted me on what I was doing and when he's up in the tree he took my direction as it's especially difficult for him to tell the overall shape of the tree when he's in it. The last one was particularity horrible with a wild rose climbing up all through it, I didn't envy him as it was bad enough pulling the wood out and putting it in the chipper, it must have been much worse getting scratched to pieces in the tree!
An enjoyable days work and the weather was great as well, really cold but we were both dressed right so it didn't bother us in the slightest and instead enjoyed what little winter sunshine there was. 

Friday 2 January 2015

Days Shooting

I got invited on a days shooting again this (last year but i wrote this before) year, I went a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it and this day was no different, I loved every minute. The weather was perfect, a cool, crisp, frosty morning with clear skies and sunshine all day.
As the shoot is so local it was great to be waking around the countryside with the same hills as our backdrop, crossing brooks, walking through woods and out on fields in the crisp air was all you needed really. Watching the dogs work with the beaters, flushing the birds for different drives and picking up any birds at the end with the added excitement that comes when the birds fly overhead makes the day amazing. A true countryside experience. 
I just love this picture I took at the end of day, perfect winter countryside.
There was lots of like minded people there as well and as I've been in the village a few years now I knew a few more than last time as well which is nice. It was good talking about all things countryside all day!
I even managed to come home with a brace of ducks and a brace of pheasants so I'm now tempted to make a game pie some time next week (using Gills recipe) although I've put the meat in the freezer until then. 
Thanks to Tim who invited me again - really appreciated! 
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