The year has already brought its first flowers – the odd precocious daffodil or two, an impatient camellia bush making the most of a warmer January, and a few crocus having a peek above heavy wet soil.
Wet has been a theme for what seems like the past month. Soil so sodden we dare not dig it – mainly so the structure doesn’t suffer but also due to the fear that all of the soil will stick to our boots and leave the veg beds empty!
But there are still things to do and not much will give the satisfaction of pruning. Like combing knotty hair, or tidying a spare room – it can seem daunting at first but once we get down to it and things start to take shape what follows is a flood of triumph.
We can get in a rhythm – clear old and dead wood, lop off low branches, remove crossed branches, take away branches that have grown towards the centre, reduce long branches, step-back and see a tree that hopefully looks organic yet structured like the best parts of nature.
Now with the tree de-cluttered it can focus on making less branches strong and fruitful. Yet another technique used in the garden that we could maybe apply to our day to day lives!
The Greenhorned Gardener has not abandoned everything – only encountered a clog of busy days, holidays, and disorganised lazy days. But with the new year upon us – it’s time to take the bull by the green-horns and maintain control!
This week at St. Peter’s Community Garden we’ve been repainting our many meters of fencing – a job that is enjoyed by some and hated by others in equal measures. Tuesday might have been wet and grey but Wednesday and Thursday offered pristine winter sun that could not have been better for fence maintenance – in a both physical and mental sense.
The winter months can be difficult at times. Christmas can offer relief – a glittering, bright flower in an otherwise empty garden. In the time that follows Christmas however – there can be a lull that seems at times to be stretching out into the distance – miles of bare earth with a crust of frost stretching out into the far distance. But we have our fences to break this bareness up and to protect us a little from the coldest winds. Because these fences are important, it is a good idea to maintain them, repair them, and paint them whatever colour makes you feel better!
Though the garden might seem desolate and bare at first glance there are treasures still there. Bulbs are beginning to punch through the frost, some tenacious roses are still flowering, and there are visits from all kinds of wildlife (last week we saw a heron by the pond and before Christmas a king-fisher!).
Here’s a simple way to help maintain your fences over winter – it will only take a few minutes and you can do it whilst doing something else.
Think of three things that make you happy in life. They can be anything at all, big, small, important, trivial…
I like the sound of rain on my roof
Seeing the squirrel in my garden makes me happy
I’m thankful I have clean drinking water
Sometimes it might be more difficult to think of something but hopefully your fences will soon feel more resilient to the weather and when the winter sun shines it will get a little more appreciation.
Now November has sneaked up we’ve reached the final chances to make use of the last-latest harvests. There are few better ways to celebrate the ultimate hoorahs of the dying year than to pack them into hot jars. Jams, jellies, pickles, and chutneys will be our memorial to 2017 – carefully cloistered away for frozen days. At one time these arts might have seemed like a disappearing tradition – but it seems there is a fresh exuberance for the old ways – an antidote to a soul-free future.
Today we remember the Green-tomato…
Green Tomato Chutney
2.5kg (5lb) Sliced green tomatoes
500g (1lb) chopped onions
500g (1lb) soft brown sugar
1.25l (2pints) vinegar
250g (8oz) seedless raisins
250g (8oz) sultanas
15g (0.5oz) pepper
25g (1oz) salt
(makes about 4kg (8lb) chutney)
The day before you want to make the chutney, put the tomatoes, onions, salt, and pepper into a bowl. Mix and leave overnight (be warned – if left in the fridge take out anything impressionable as it is sure to taste of onions by the morning!).
The next day, put the sugar and vinegar in a big pan and bring to the boil. Add the raisins and sultanas and bring to the boil again, leaving for about five minutes to soften. Add the now pungent concoction of tomatoes and onions to the pan leaving out most of the fluid that had drawn from the veg overnight (if this is added – the chutney takes much longer to reduce and thicken).
Simmer everything until golden-brown, tender, and thickened, stirring every-so-often to stop the chutney sticking. This will take at least an hour… but probably more.
Whist the chutney is cooking, it’s a good idea to wash out the jars you will use and put them in the oven on a low heat to sterilise. When you are ready you can take the hot jars from the oven and carefully fill them with the hot chutney. As the chutney cools the air inside the jars will create a vacuum sealing them for future use.
Each Autumn the days shorten and yet each year this change hits like a conker to the head. Waking up when it’s still night – an uncomfortable body still yearning for sleep. If there ever was a time – ever – that the phrase ‘life is easy’ was EVER on anyone’s lips – it definitely wouldn’t be this time of the year.
But with all it’s heartache, the coming of winter hides gems like the damp dark walls of a diamond mine. Most of harvest is over but this is squash season. No other veg holds quite so much variety and wonder as the squash – swollen fruit on its vines – like multi-shaped and coloured lanterns to light the gloom. Also, sweet chestnuts are falling to the ground like comets and bursting open to show crisp sweet flesh in the most luxurious packaging. Not to forget the unparalleled scent of the season – fallen leaves, autumn fruits, damp moss like a thousand spices in a kitchen drawer.
As the days grow colder and nights longer – not everything is as bad as it seems. Nothing can compare to returning home on a chilly evening to cosy up in the warm with a feeling that you need to be nowhere else in the world.
Last week we took our first harvest of honey from our bees….
After the worry of the hive not being able to eat honey all winter, and another storey of a crowded hive of moody bees in spring, followed by a tempestuous summer of swarming resulting in a new hive and swarm though not quite honey for nothing – it is difficult to believe we finally arrived at white combs filled with sweet honey from our beehives inside the heart of St. Peter’s Community Garden.
Now to do it all again with a little more knowledge and with fresh motivation from a little more sugar in our blood!
The Harvest this year has brought some surprises. Notably the Jerusalem artichokes. For months we looked at the bare earth in the vegetable bed by the pond at St. Peter’s Community Garden wondering what had happened to the artichokes we had planted. If the internet is ever to be trusted, the Jerusalem artichoke is a sinch to grow – so easy that they can become invasive, towering plants popping from any mislaid tuber; so easy that their growers grow sick of eating them, cursing the day they ever put them in the ground.
So where were ours? Had the tubers rotted in the damp Welsh soil? Had slugs swallowed the seedlings before any chance of development?
We needn’t have worried. The plants were slow starters but are now thick stemmed and over six foot. Though really a winter crop – usually harvested around November – last week our impatience dug one up. Amongst the roots hung a mass of pinky tubers. They might not be everyone’s favourite veg – due to strong earthy flavour and ‘fartichoke’ notoriety – but they are delicious roasted and taste excellent paired with sage.
We are looking forward to growing sick of their great numbers!
A photo from this date in June. Two months have passed and so has the wild-flower meadow at St. Peter’s Community Garden – in part trampled last week whilst desperate volunteers tried to hoist a favourite apple tree back onto its feet after the wind and the weight of its fruit brought it to its knees. Now temporarily staked it might be saved.
The pond also required a helping hand. The newest section had a build up of algae that had to be cleared. After the pond had been entered and the sheets of algae were being collected it became clear that leaves from the oak had already begun to litter the bottom. How long ago did the tadpoles grow limbs and leave?
This feels like an entry for the middle of autumn – not the last weeks of summer – but it might be time to accept that summer has come to an end. Though it was short – there were still a few good days to remember and by working in the garden we luckily did not miss them.
Regular readers might have noticed a silence over the past month. This was not The Greenhorned Gardener giving up already but was due to a trip to the distant land of Japan. Although photo proof of a simple yet perfectly balanced and thought provoking Japanese garden would have been ideal – The Greenhorned Gardener is notoriously bad at remembering to take photos.
After a month away from St. Peter’s community garden, change is inevitable – though it still comes as a surprise. The runner beans are plentiful, Onions swollen and ready to dry, ears of corn formed, some perennials ready to cut back, the flower meadow gone over, and ironically a whole crop Japanese wineberries have been and gone.
All these changes are easy to come to terms with – even the new vigorous growth of bindweed. However the crop of tomatoes smothered by blight is disappointing. The only option is to pull out every plant and remove them from the garden or burn them. Sadly crop rotation didn’t prevent tomato Armageddon save a few healthy plants tucked away in the fallout shelter of the greenhouse. Even the Pink Fir Apple potatoes in the bed closest to the pond are touched by it and apparently worsening. Luckily – underground – the potatoes have formed enough to be rescued and enjoyed. In Japan potatoes seem to be at a premium – sold in tiny packs of three – so digging for our home grown is like uncovering a Celtic gold hoard.
Although only the middle of August – a feeling of Autumn hangs in the air already. Though it might be a little early, the cool drizzly days are welcomed after 35 degrees plus with lung filling humidity of southern Japan.
Last week professionals came to help remove a tree at St. Peter’s Community Garden to make space for a new greenhouse. When the volunteers arrived the tree was fast being dismantled – sawdust floating down like spring blossoms. To our amazement by 10:30 they had finished – clearing up the matter of ‘what is the fastest way to the top of a tree if sitting on an acorn isn’t the fastest way?’
With the tree down it was now the turn of the volunteers to cut branches to manageable sizes and move everything to the working area of the garden. This would not have been an easy task even in optimum weather – as it was the sun was gloating about there being a summer this year raising the temperature to above 25 degrees. The heat was accompanied by its friend high humidity, and what seemed like a plague of horseflies taking passing mouthfuls of hot, sticky limbs. It was not an easy task but once momentum had been built every scrap had been moved by lunchtime the next day.
Through a common lunchtime discussion of superheroes and their latest films we came to realise we had moved an entire tree by raw strength alone. Now, although we hadn’t pulled the tree from the ground and carried it whole – in that moment the accomplishment felt just as grand making everyone feel a little bit super.
These last few weeks at St. Peter’s community garden have shown us a little reward for the work we’ve done this year. From a summer meadow shot through with colour to successful crops of peas, beans, and fruit.
Our strawberries seem to swell, blush, ripen to red, and go over in one day with weather as warm as we’ve experienced recently. With crops so fleeting, it feels as though summer moves more quickly than we can in this heat.
Though we can’t slow the seasons we have some tricks. A pan of bubbling jam can mine for memories that have been long forgotten. Why do softening gooseberries smell so familiar and comforting? And when the jars are opened as far away as Autumn or Winter – one taste and the sun will come out and make us feel a little happier.
As for now, it seems there is enough for a small taste…