Bridging the gap

Spring is almost officially here and we have just eaten the final picking of leeks and the very last cabbage from the garden. It feels a bit sad in a way but we’ve been harvesting leeks since last September so they really have done us proud.

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There is still a good crop of purple sprouting broccoli, rainbow chard and small pickings of mizuna, pak choi and komatsuna fresh from the patch and we still have plenty of squash and beans in storage. We have been using fresh sage, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, chervil and coriander all winter and now the vigorous new growth on parsley, spearmint and chives offers additional delicious flavourings.

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That said, we are teetering on the edge of that ‘hungry gap’ when there will be very little to be had from the garden; if we want a wide diversity of veg in our diet, we have to buy a few now. The next crops won’t be too long; there are flowers on the autumn-planted broad beans and peas, and the second plantings are through the ground. In the polytunnel, ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Red Rosie’ lettuce are leafing up nicely and the first taste of radish is on its  way.

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The bottom line, though, is that it would be good to be gapless.

We were much later getting our polytunnel organised and up than planned (and we’ve had nothing but problems with it since . . . mmm, that’s another story) but next spring, it will be key to bridging the gap. There are many things that can be planted in autumn to give crops all winter or an early spring harvest and we intend to exploit that situation to the full. At the moment, there are a few bits and pieces in the ground but much of the space is either empty or housing the staging, currently heaving under trays and pots of emerging seedlings – our food (and flowers) of the future!

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The plan is to remove the staging when it’s done its job and plant the whole space with tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, chillies and melons plus a few other bits and bobs; we’re also planting everything but tomatoes outdoors and it will be an interesting experiment to compare both lots over the summer. Now I have to admit that I love a good dig – or at least, a good rummage around in soil with my fork. It’s a simple thing, the joy of physical activity combined with that wonderful earthy smell, the sight of worms, that feeling of preparation and expectation . . . but I know there are arguments against it and I’m interested to try a bit of ‘no-dig’ gardening. Roger isn’t at all convinced of the benefits and we have enjoyed some lively discussions on the subject but I’m wondering if the tunnel might just provide an opportunity to have a go this year? To that end, I hauled what felt like several tonnes of homemade compost into the tunnel and dumped it on all the bare areas; there’s plenty of excess to spread around once the trestles have gone. It’s a deep layer of lovely, worm-riddled, crumbly gorgeousness so my idea is not to dig it in but leave it as ta thick mulch, plant directly and observe with interest.

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Back to that gap and another strategy this year is to alter the planting times of some crops; it takes a while to understand a new climate and we are still in the early stages here. This time last year, we had trays of leek plants several centimetres high but we haven’t even planted them yet this year. The truth is, we don’t need to be eating them in September when the patch is still heaving with other veg, so by pushing them back a bit with any luck we will be able to harvest them until the end of March at least. Parsnips have always been a huge winter staple for us; they are notoriously tricky to germinate but we have never had a problem, fresh seed saved from our plants and sowed with freezing fingers in cold, waterlogged February soil always yielding more than enough to feed our family of five all winter. They grow like stink here, too – enormous great roots which do several meals for two of us – but oh my goodness, the trouble we’ve had getting them started.

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Last year, we had to plant three times before anything germinated and then the harvest was not quite as big or prolonged as we would have liked. This year, we’ve started them off in the tunnel, the seeds planted in little cones of newspaper filled with compost (I had great fun making those cones, like folding tiny piping bags . . . very therapeutic!); fingers crossed for a successful germination and then we simply pop the cones into the ground outside and look forward to a winter feast of those delicious beauties.

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On the subject of adjusting to a different climate, we have been catching the tail end of the wintry weather sweeping across more northerly parts; we aren’t suffering from frosts or snow but the temperature has been pegged back and there is a certain amount of gardeners’ frustration at play. Patience, patience! That said, the signs of spring are all around, not least the delicate beauty of peach and apricot blossom.

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This is a timely reminder that the new season’s harvest is on its way and we still have a mass of fruit in the freezer from last year’s glut. No problem, I have been pulling them out in batches, stewing them lightly in their own juices on top of the woodstove and eating them for breakfast. I don’t know about other people, but sometimes when reflecting on our attempts to live a simpler, greener, more sustainable life I find myself focusing on how much we aren’t doing; it’s human nature, I suppose, but occasionally it’s good to stand back and look at the positives, too.  So, here is my breakfast: peaches picked and preserved from our trees, organic oats bought in a paper bag which will be shredded onto the compost heap, and walnuts from our woodland, stored in their shells and cracked as needed. No hint of chemicals, no plastic wrapping in sight, zero waste. (Not to mention it’s a delicious and nutritious combination to start the day!)

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One ‘gap’ we really can’t risk is that of logs; we rely on a steady supply to feed the stove and that means planning ahead. This winter we have been burning the old roof timbers, ‘recycling’ them into heat – the stove heats the entire house – as well as hot water and a hob and oven for cooking. During the autumn, we have cut the remaining timbers and stacked them to dry; this week, Roger has moved them all into the shed for storage and turned his thoughts to logs for 2020!

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We are blessed with several acres of woodland, a mix of mostly eucalyptus (planted by the former owner as a cash crop), chestnut, birch, oak, willow and holly. There is much shrubby undergrowth including Spanish heath and gorse and a wealth of wild flowers, too (there are carpets of sweet violets everywhere at present). It is a beautiful wild tangle of growth and a haven for wildlife – wild boar and deer are regular visitors and there is a tremendous population of birds. Our attitude to logging is to take just enough for our needs through careful ‘management’ rather than greed; fallen trees are always the first port of call. The chestnuts can be coppiced rather than felled – this is typical local practice – and that is what Roger has been doing, cutting selected trunks and hauling them home with the tractor to split and season.

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There’s no waste here, either: the sweet-smelling sawdust is a great addition to the compost heap and I’ve been happily sweeping it up and spreading it across the top of our greatly reduced pile.

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So . . . here’s to another year of logs and compost and  – if we play our cards right – no hungry gap at all next spring. Happy equinox, everyone! 🙂

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To be or not to bee wrap

‘Material life and diet should be given a simple place. If this is done, work becomes pleasant, and spiritual breathing space becomes plentiful.’  Masanobu Fukuoka, The One Straw Revolution

 
I have just finished reading a book about minimalist living. Whilst being an interesting and thought-provoking read, I found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned by some of the ideas being suggested. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own interpretation and opinion but for me, the whole essence of minimalism is about getting rid of excess, living with only what we need and no more so that what is left – whether in terms of space or time – can be used for happier, non-material things and appreciating the beauty of life and the world around us (as per the opening quotation). Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong?

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For instance, there was a lot of time spent on the idea of de-cluttering which seemed to focus far more on organising existing ‘stuff’ rather than reducing the overall amount of possessions; I found it a bit ironic being advised to go out and buy large plastic boxes so I can store things under the bed. There is nothing under our bed at present because, quite simply, there is nothing to go under the bed (and if there were, I’d be seriously questioning whether we really needed it). When it came to getting rid of things, there was also far too much ‘throw it away’ for my tastes: whatever happened to re-use and re-cycle? Well, I’m happy to agree to disagree with the author on a few things but when it came to a discussion of decorating, I felt completely lost at the suggestion of a simple black and white scheme for everything. Now admittedly, we have painted all the walls of our little mountain house white in order to maximise light as the windows are very small . . . but there is colour in everything else. I am happy to embrace a simpler lifestyle but I didn’t realise it extended to removing an excess of colour! I love colour, it brings so much joy and happiness into my world and the idea of eliminating it is out of the question. In fact, quite the opposite – it’s been high on my agenda this week.

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Last year, I decided to brighten up an old garden seat we’d had for many years; we had kept it as natural wood, oiling it every year to keep it waterproof, but the poor thing was really looking its age. I painted it with the dregs of paint left over from a previous project and we placed it in one of our sunniest patches. It has become one of our favourite places, a natural spot to gravitate towards, mug of coffee in hand. Unfortunately it had gone to look weather-beaten again and having no ‘petrol’ paint left, this week I opted for a brighter ‘peacock’ instead and spent a happy couple of hours in the sunshine giving it another facelift.

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I also finished making the crochet patchwork granny square blanket, something I started last year to use up a pile of  yarn left over from other projects. It’s been great fun creating something useful from a crazy mishmash of colours and clashes, although in theory I suppose I could have put the yarn into storage under the bed or thrown it away. 🙂 Instead, it will be a blanket of many uses, including padding out that seat or throwing in the back of the car for picnics.

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We are edging ever closer to being able to move the spare bedroom furniture out of the kitchen and upstairs. We won’t be able to sort our kitchen/living area out properly until then but in the meantime I dug out our old cotton bunting, washed and ironed it (quite something for me!) and we hung it from the beams. A visiting neighbour was very taken with it and asked if we had been celebrating a birthday to which I had to honestly answer no, it was just me being a bit frivolous and girlie and the bunting was a permanent thing.

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He said he thought that was wonderful because it meant we were celebrating our non-birthdays every day and that was surely a great thing to do? What a lovely way of looking at life! Black and white? I don’t think so!

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One of my goals this year is to try and get as close to zero waste as possible. The amount of waste that goes out for the rubbish collection is already relatively small – one small bag per fortnight, rarely full; we recycle everything we can, compost biodegradable waste and re-use things wherever possible as second nature. The composting in particular is a huge success here; as gardeners, we have had compost heaps for 30 years but have never had such a fast working one. It’s like some sort of magical bottomless pit of gorgeous, crumbly compost. I turned it and emptied it in the autumn, digging out enough to mulch the entire vegetable patch. This week, I’ve turned it again, piling it onto the terraces where the squash and sweetcorn are to be planted (they are such greedy feeders), top dressing all our pots and troughs and hauling buckets and buckets up to the polytunnel. I love this sort of activity, definitely not work in my book. What a thing of wonder compost is . . . and all from waste and worms!

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For us, the biggest issue to tackle is plastic waste, and in particular, food wrapping – something of a hot topic at the moment. Luckily,  a huge proportion of our food here comes package-free . . .

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. . . but we are not self-sufficient so inevitably we have to buy from other places and that’s where the problem starts. Even buying fresh meat and fish loose over the counter, there seems to be no getting away from the plastic it is subsequently wrapped in and which cannot be hygienically recycled. I’m not sure what the answer is but I’m working on it and in the meantime, I’ve had a go at making some bee wraps which should at least help to eliminate home-produced cling film waste. Waxed cloth is not a new idea but it has become popular in recent years as an eco-friendly alternative to disposable food wraps. There are some really beautiful products on the market but they tend to be a bit pricey so, encouraged by many helpful websites, I decided to have a go at making my own; driven in from the garden by Storm Gisela a couple of days ago, I decided the moment had arrived!

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The theory is a simple one: soak cotton cloth in melted beeswax, pine resin and jojoba oil to create a waterproof, flexible, washable food wrap. The fabric I used was good quality 100% cotton left over from a baby quilt project (I think it came from Hobbycraft). Beeswax is easily obtainable in a block that can be grated or as small perles, but I had some beekeeper’s waste – a sheet of wax foundation that had shattered – so it seemed the right thing to use. There are various methods for making bee wraps; as the stove was stoked up and the oven hot, I decided to use that rather than the ironing method. I opted for mixing the cold ingredients and spreading them across the fabric as this seemed to be less wasteful and also I know from making lip balm and hand cream that cleaning bowls and utensils that have been around melted beeswax is the very devil!

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It would have been nice to cut the fabric with pinking shears but I don’t have any so straight edges had to suffice; I was working on the theory (correct, as it turned out) that such a tight weave was unlikely to fray after waxing. I chopped the fabric into various shapes and sizes and made a start with the largest square (30cm x 30cm), laying it on a large baking tray covered in parchment paper.

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I popped the tray into the hot oven and the mixture took only moments to melt. I then removed it, used a paintbrush to spread the melted mixture around, making sure it went right to the edges of the fabric, then put it back into the oven for another couple of minutes.

Mmm. What can I say? It did work in as much as I ended up with a sheet of waxed fabric but . . . for some reason, the resin pooled in places and left rather unattractive yellow splodges – no mention of this little problem on any of the websites. I turned the second piece right side down on the parchment which did at least mean the resin wasn’t quite so obvious but I really wasn’t very happy with this method. I honestly wished I’d used the pre-melting approach instead, so for the smaller pieces I piled the mixture on to the parchment next to the fabric, melted it then brushed over. You can see the difference that made in the photo below.

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The upshot of my little wrap making experiment is that I certainly won’t use this method again but will melt everything together first; the good news is that I will definitely be making some more because although aesthetically they aren’t the greatest, they work. They have a strange texture but smell pleasantly and subtly of beeswax and there is something very satisfying about moulding them around the top of a food container with just the warmth from my hands (yes, I’m a simple soul!). I’m interested to see which sizes we use the most in the coming weeks and then I shall make a second batch.

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To me, these little ideas are the epitome of the simple life we live here. I know it’s only a drop in the ocean, but drops add up. It’s another tiny step towards zero waste and steps add up, too. It’s not about grand gestures or dramatic dogma, strict colour schemes or savvy storage systems. It’s about living peacefully, kindly and mindfully every day, taking little steps one at a time to tread more gently on the earth. That’s a life worth living, surely? 🙂

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