There’s nothing like homemade compost to make plants glow and grow!
It’s the foundation for nutrient rich fruit and vegetables.
An inch or so spread on all the beds once a year is like waving a magic wand.
Sweet orange carrots; deep vibrant green, purple and white cabbage, kale and broccoli; pink passion ruby chard; vigorous herbs and delicate lime green lettuces.
The veggies really do glow like jewels in the low winter light.
The compost making is less glamorous but just as satisfying!
Every year at about this time I empty and remake the main heap nearest the house.
Last year, Fynn came over from northern Germany to visit and helped me.
This year Alex dug out the “black gold”.
Then when the bay was empty she helped me combine and consolidate material from the other heaps nearby.
We layered brown woody stuff like spent bean vines and half rotted woodchip with nitrogen rich greens like grass cuttings, chopped up comfrey leaves and vegetable peelings.
This time I remembered to sprinkle each layer with QR activator – a biodynamic powder made of dried plants/herbs mixed vigorously with water.
The last time I used this it really did seem to speed up the composting process.
Unfortunately you can’t buy it from Chase Organics anymore as the company was taken over by a bigger concern so I’ve sent off to France for some biodynamic compost preparations which I’ll try out next time.
The new heap is already warm and toasty.
It’s shrunk somewhat as the billions of organisms get to work decomposing and transforming the material into the rich dark compost that we’ll dig out and use in a year’s time.
Blue skies. Quiet neighbours. Time to spread compost made this winter on the vegetable beds and remake the heap for more.
Also a brilliant opportunity to tidy up.
The self sown forget-me-nots have not flowered yet – perfect time to hoe them out and include them on the new heap along with duckweed from the pond and other unwanteds like dead nettle and wild mustards and a couple of thistles and groundsel.
It was hard physical work emptying the compost heap and remaking it – layering the weeds with half made compost from my two black dalek bins.
There were lots of tiger worms in evidence – a good sign.
The heap has also had some wood ash and urine sprinkled through it as well as half rotted leaves.
Some of that was very wet and slimy so I included a few layers of ripped up cardboard and old newspaper.
A bit further down in the garden towards the orchard and other compost heaps there are plenty of good things to eat.
This took about two or three weeks to force. I’ll pick it tomorrow to stew and eat fresh. Some of the other crowns are still almost dormant – but when they get going I’ll make rhubarb and lemon chutney.
The ruby chard is still glowing along along with nearby clumps of snowdrops that light up this shady area of the garden.
I harvested the purple sprouting broccoli and some winter salad leaves – I shared some with Rebekah who helped me this morning.
I was pleasantly exhausted after five hours in the garden – so much so I had a cheeky pint of homemade cider to refresh myself when I’d finished!
I’ll do a proper post next time – but so far radish in modules are germinating well.
Calabrese also reaching for the light and the first Greyhound Cabbage is through.
But no sign of the spinach.
The lettuce looks as if it’s “damping off” – I think I overwatered it and it’s going mouldy on the surface of the compost. I might have to sow some more!
We had a very productive day on Saturday making a new “no dig” bed with old flattened out bike boxes covered with an inch or two (up to 5cm) very rough homemade compost.
It’s where the old asparagus bed was and the ground has been “rested” for about 3 years.
I’m going to put a new strawberry bed on part of it.
I was lucky to have help from Rebekah for the first part of the day.
We were fortunate the weather had warmed up again after a few days of hard frosts.
I pegged out one of my late father’s old lines and neatened the edges where the grass had started encroaching into the veg garden.
It was just the right length and I had visions of him using it years ago when he first laid it out.
I used a semi circular edger and composted the grass/weeds that I gathered.
I also laid compost around the rhubarb and the rest of the fruit bushes that were missed out last year when I ran out of homemade mulch.
I mixed in some potash from the wood ash from our fireplace to lay around the redcurrants – apparently they like it!
As do overwintering onions which will have to wait their turn until I’ve had a few more fires.
I have inverted an old metal dustbin over one of the rhubarb crowns to force a few pale pink spears for an earlier harvest like I did last year.
I’m also weeding the gravel path with a flat shovel/spade – using it almost like a hoe to sever the weeds off at the roots. But I’ll have to be careful to avoid the beautiful clumps of chives which thrive in the edges next to the rhubarb. They spring back year after year then die back to nothing in winter.
The brick edging is also getting the same treatment – it should look very smart in a couple of weeks time.
I guess you could say this time of year is about preparation – my Dad always said a garden’s made in winter!
This includes going through old seeds, discarding some and keeping others.
I have ordered some new ones including two varieties of beans, “Greek Gigantes” and “Czar”. The former is for drying and keeping as a giant butter bean and the latter can be eaten as a runner bean or also dried for storage for winter soups and stews.
I’m going for celeriac this year and a new variety of beetroot, “Sanguina”.
I would like to plant a persimmon tree but I’m not sure which variety yet.
One of the enduring images I’ve retained of the late autumn landscape in Japan is the orange globes hanging on the bare branches of a tree that had shed its leaves — against a piercing blue sky.
Recently I bought some seed potatoes “Sarpo Mira” – a blight resistant variety from a lovely old fashioned ironmongers and DIY shop in Stalham. I might also plant red skinned “Mozart” as they were so good last year. They will need chitting on a windowsill before planting in April.
I’m planning go to the Norwich Seed Swap in a couple or three weeks time which yielded some great finds last year.
A couple of weeks ago I looked out onto the garden and saw tiny orange globes hanging from an evergreen shrub in the main border.
I knew my father had planted the Japanese bitter orange as an ornamental specimen. It has shiny smooth green leaves and small fragrant white flowers in spring and early summer that stand out against the dark green yew hedge. It also sports the most vicious looking thorns a couple of inches long!
But I’d never really noticed the small orange fruit. I picked some of them and left them to settle in the kitchen while I wondered what to do with them.
Two weeks later – after Christmas – my friend Steve, came to stay again and pruned the apple and pear trees as well as the quince.
I cut back the gooseberries and redcurrants which were overgrown and tangled in the centre of the bushes to give them some air and to stop disease from creeping in.
The blackcurrants will have a third of their branches taken out when I harvest the fruit in summer.
I’ve also coppiced the hazel tree – which really was overgrown and shading some of the vegetable beds. I cut the whole lot down to the base of the main trunk.
It should send up new growth which will make new hazel poles for use as supports. The twigs I will use as pea sticks.
I also turned the compost heap, forking a lot of the main pile into two black plastic dalek style bins – it’s breaking down nicely and should be ready for the new growing season in a couple of months time.
In other news: We are still able to pick salad including lettuce and curly endive growing under thick fleece, as well as parsley and chrysanthemum greens and stridolo – an Italian herb. I brined some oriental mustard leaves recently which are very tasty – and pungently hot!
Leeks have been great in soup and raw grated beetroot has been a refreshing salad with sliced orange and half moons of red onion dressed in red wine vinegar and olive oil.
As well as cooking together – Steve produced some amazing meals. I’ll post three recipes of his – using the ruby chard you can see below – next time.
He also found a use for the bitter orange which is very similar to Japanese wild orange or yuzu. It’s not eaten as a fruit but is used primarily for it’s scented juice and zest.
He used this to lace a black fruit sorbet with a tantalising tang of citrus.
Steve defrosted some of our blackcurrants and blackberries and macerated them overnight in sugar before adding a small amount of gin, the zest and tiny amount of juice from the bitter orange as well as an ordinary orange and blending it.
Then it went into the freezer and emerged a grainy, luscious sorbet the like of which I haven’t tasted for a long time.
He did the same with tayberries (a kind of raspberry), redcurrants and ordinary orange zest and juice with a couple of large jiggers of gin. Again – a taste sensation!
What I liked was he didn’t try to sieve out the pips – he used the whole fruit – and I think it’s better for that. Anyway – the basic recipe is from this amazing website.
It’s worth mentioning that Steve didn’t use an ice cream maker or take the sorbet out and stir it as it was freezing and it still worked.
Thanks Steve. You’re a culinary and horticultural wizard!
Finally – I wish everyone a very happy, productive and resilient year ahead.
I also sowed some “Kyoto Market” spring onions and some more squash (North Georgia Candy Roaster and Hungarian Blue) – all in modules – to go with the Hokkaido onion squash seedlings that are already big enough to go out under fleece.
My friend Julie saved the seed and gave me some.
Monday morning was devoted to sowing beans.
The six purple ones are two kinds of runner beans and the five massive white ones are Giant Greek butter beans which I can’t wait to try.
They were another gift – this time from Kate Poland who runs Cordwainers Garden in Hackney.
I also sowed some Cherokee Trail of Tears climbing beans which I’ve never tried before (not shown).
And some Cosse Violette are going in – they’re a purple french bean that cropped well over a long period last year (see gallery below).
Borlotti beans – both climbing and dwarf varieties – will be the foundation for many delicious meals throughout the year as they can be dried and stored (not shown).
My friend Tierney came over and helped plant out the courgettes and squash as well as some more mangetout.
The peas will hopefully climb up bamboo canes and extra chicken wire tied along the fence of the new bed.
I cleared nettles the other side so we don’t get them growing through and stinging our hands when we pick the peas in about six weeks time!
The stingers went on the new compost heap.
More compost – it’s officially an obsession!
Much of the past weekend was spent turning unfinished compost from my black plastic dalek bins into a big cubic metre open heap and layering it with grass clippings, partially rotted leaves and newspaper as well as the odd bit of kitchen waste.
I have added some QR compost activator which I bought from Chase Organics.
It’s reputed to speed up the composting process so it’s ready within 4 – 6 weeks.
It was devised by May Bruce (one of the founders of the Soil Association) just after the war based on a Rudolf Steiner recipe using a biodynamic preparation of seven herbs/medicinal plants including valerian, oak bark, nettle and yarrow.
Meanwhile a massive mother heap at the bottom of the garden is yielding valuable growing material.
A major project in the next week or so will be to excavate the rest of that.
I’ll lay it around the blackcurrants, gooseberries and globe artichokes.
Then I’ll then underplant some of them with six strawberries I got at a plant swap.
And in other news…
Tierney and I also planted out cucumbers (fleeced initially as they haven’t been hardened off) and some more mixed lettuce that glowed like jewels in the freshly watered dark earth.
We moved the brassica cage (it protects the plants from pigeons and cabbage white butterflies) down the main veg bed ready for the magic caulis, the red cabbage and the cavolo nero kale that will be ready to set out in a couple of weeks.
That left the Nine Star perennial cauliflowers without protection.
After a bit of faffing we came up with a structure that works perfectly and adds an ethereal quality to the garden I think!