Monday, November 29, 2010

Ain't Gonna Work on Daddy's Urban Farm No More

Last weekend, my three year old daughter walked up to me wearing her beloved set of fairy wings and wielding her star tipped fairy wand. She glared into my eyes and delivered the following withering line: “Sweetie, I make forces of nature,  YOU make pots and kettles! I work up in the sky and YOU work down in a ditch!"
The effect was to leave her dad sincerely alarmed on two fronts: first wondering where in hell she got that vocabulary range and second, to try and work out exactly what she was saying about my career. And she’d only just turned three last month!
Observing my state of shock, Her Outdoors pointed out that our fairy mad munchkin was merely quoting a line from Tinkerbell - one of her favourite Disney films. She’d just delivered word for word the dialogue from a segment in which one of the cattier fairies jibes Tinkerbell over her lowly status as a “tinkering fairy” rather than a higher ranking “garden fairy.”
"Sweetie, I make forces of nature!!"
And this wasn’t the first time either that uncle Walt had delivered some pint sized invective by proxy. Almost as soon as she began to talk Plot 34’s Waterer of Everything began blurting out: “Go Away and Leave me Alone!” ...for no apparent reason.  It took us a few weeks of embarrassment in shops and such before we worked out that she was quoting, tone perfect, an indignant Mowgli as he gave some lip to Baghera in the Jungle Book - or the “Jumble Bump” as she called it back then.
For his part her eight year old brother, Plot 34’s erstwhile Head of Secret Tunnels, has recently started speaking with a particular type of American affectation that sees him raising the last word of every sentence and leaving it hanging there. Those who remember American Pie and the “This one band camp...” monologue will know exactly what I mean.  We think he gets it from a particularly irritating television noisefest called iCarly.
What all this shows is just how much our little spongebabes absorb from popular culture – in particular from television and film. And while our three year old continues to follow me around as her brother once did, watering and tinkering in the garden,  HST himself  seems to have decided somewhere along the way that food growing is “uncool” or “cool....not.”
Keeping them interested in food growing is a losing battle
The thing is that there’s bucketloads of food growing activities featured on children’s television and in children’s media every day, but unfortunately most of it appears to be featured on those worthy sorts of ultra pc programmes that kids like HST deem to be “definitely uncool.”
His pre primary school helped for a time with their efforts to win a Green Flag by setting up a vegetable garden. Back then our HST was proud that he know more than the other kids. But the nearest thing his new school – a sports oriented outfit – encourages to juvenile horticulture, is the planting of full backs.  Indeed they recently had a large greenhouse removed.
In any case, these days the big battle is to get his nose out of the Nintendo DS handheld game system and to move him outdoors. Recently he missed the irony when I suggested that it might be a good idea to get a metal fitting and attach his Nintendo wing mirror style to his head so he wouldn’t have to stop playing while he walked down the street. “Cool!” he enthused. 

When he recently asked if he could have his own "farm" because all his friends had one, my surging hopes were as rapidly shot down when it emerged that he wanted to join Facebook so he could play "Farmville," the game where users run a virtual farm. The irony is, that while he's on his Nintendo he's also quite often "farming" in a version of one of his favourite games, "The Sims," in which he can grow "virtual food."

Plot 34's eight year old former Head of Secret Tunnels - "Take me to your Nintendo."

Last year the international computer gaming consultant Andrew Mayer told a major industry conference that farming games would be the biggest growth segment in the business: "In the future there will be only farming games," he predicted. In September it was estimated that "Farmville," Facebook's virtual farming game, had sixty two million active users - or one in ten Facebook users overall. Sixty two million virtual farmers?!! That's a lot of kids "growing" virtual good who could themselves do far more growing outdoors.
I’m not against computer games for children per se, because I believe they help develop problem solving skills and quick thinking but I can’t help but see the irony that I’m losing our plot’s Head of Secret tunnels to a pixelated farm.
In truth my initial idea of a family run allotment has all but evaporated by now. I persisted for a time in bringing HST along with me, partly on the traditional of the “character building” ethos. But the long faces, moans and slouchy dramatics that accompanied any tasks he was assigned, finally saw me give in, especially when Her Outdoors opined that the few weekly hours of allotment training was akin to modern day child abuse for a lad who was missing out on playing with his friends at weekends.
Down on the virtual farm
Instead I’ve had to restrict his food growing education to short sharp bursts in the back garden where he at least maintains an interest in some aspects of our endeavours notably edible fruit –  blueberries, grapes, strawberries, raspberries and apples. But at least that’s something.

But by now it's hard to get away from the fact that allotmenteering is still largely a pastime for men or childless couples over thirty five and is likely to remain so - unless Spongebob starts packing a secateurs in his square pants any day soon.
But at least our three year old Waterer of Everything is still on the job. Almost.
Since watching Tinkerbell over and over, she’s decided she doesn’t want to be a garden fairy any more. She whacks me in the head with her star  pronged magic wand and declares: “Look Daddy, I’m a tinker!”
The wonderful world of Disney for you.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Garlic - Our Garden's Superhero

In it’s cloak of good-guy white, and muscles of virtue rippling underneath, the pugnacious garlic bulb reigns supreme at the top of the superfood charts. And as every food or health writer keeps telling us, there’s no end to the miracles it can perform.

Garlic - the veg world's superhero
Apparently garlic health benefits include combating colds and flus, cutting heart disease, fighting infections, reducing blood pressure, purifying the blood, giving you healthier, more subtle skin.

It reverses outward signs of aging, cures baldness when rubbed on the scalp, strenghtens fingernails and toenails, eradicates erectile disfunction, helps dieters lose weight, doubles the strength of athletes, makes candidates perform better in job interviews, boosts that part of the brain which controls your fashion sense, enables you to win the X factor, trebles the ability of finance ministers to solve complex economic problems... and if enough people eat it, garlic can deliver world peace.

Eradicates erectile disfunction - they'll be fighting over you if you eat garlic!
Well perhaps not that last par.

But given that garlic has been used both as a vital food and a medicine since the beginning of time and that most great ancient civilisations relied  heavily on its applications, it’s not surprising that some lofty claims have emerged alongside its verifiable qualities. Galen, the gladiator’s physician, called it the “rustic’s theriac” (cure all).

It does contain high levels of vitamin C, vitamin B6 along with selenium, calcium, phosphorus, copper, iron and is brim full of alliin, an amino acid.

 Wilder claims include:
(a) Eating a six cloved garlic bulb enables a woman (only) to live forever (ancient Korea).
(b) A garlic bulb has the power to demagnetise stones (The Roman Empire - Pliny).
(c) A garlic bulb is a self contained deity to worship in its own right (The ancient Egyptians)
 In living memory, garlic was used before penicillin emerged to treat tuberculosis. In India it was used to treat leprosy, in Japan it was proscribed for impotency, and in Greece it was given to athletes at the Olympic games to increase energy levels.

No wonder it emerges, that in the thick of Ireland's economic meltdown,  finance Minister Brian Lenihan was been outed as a secret daily garlic chewer. He admits to keeping a stash of raw garlic cloves hidden in his pocket - it might repel vampires, but not the black suits from the IMF it seems.

Garlic breath minister yesterday....poooohh!!!

And so ensconced in the pub one night about this time last year, my Dad plonked a healthy looking garlic bulb in front of me. He had picked up three of them for a tenner in town. He split the other two and planted them and gave the third one to me. “Are you growing garlic?” he asks. The strange thing is, that having grown more than 60 different types of food in the last three years, I had never successfully produced a crop of garlic.

The old man didn’t know which particular variety of garlic his purchase happened to be -  other than the fact that the label had warned: “Very Strong.” To me, with its smaller, thinner cloves it looked like a wild strain.

He directed sternly that I needed to plant them “NOW!... That’s right NOW!” - this being emphasised by a finger jabbing the air and two highly raised eyebrows a la Bert (of Bert and Ernie fame). There was a long pregnant pause with the eyebrows held raised - and then the finger prodded air again to remphasise: “Right NOW!”

Dad with raised eyebrows: "Right NOW!"

There does seem to be a wide ranging dispute among growers about when to plant garlic and the importance of getting it right. All agree that the exact planting time is vital, unfortunately none of them agree when that actually is. Most pin a date some time between September and mid November.

I took it home, split it up (I got ten cloves inside) and the next morning planted them indoors in a window box sized container. Unfortunately, I’m not a morning person and until I have showered, caffeined and sat for a half hour to creak into life, I’m not really awake at all. It was only later in the day that I realised  I’d put the whole lot in upside down. The “butt” end is supposed to face downwards (where the roots emerge) and the “pointy” end faces upwards (this is where the shoots emerge). When I got home I dug them all up and started again. They’re supposed to be positioned about five to six inches apart and sunk two inches deep.

Some of our wild garlic harvest - note to self: plant the cloves butt end down!

More conflict on the internet where growers also disagree about whether garlic is easy or difficult to grow and whether it can be started indoors or not. Most seem to think garlic, like parsnips and swedes, needs a period of cold for its best performance. So my window box is going out of doors.

Much disagreement too about soil richness with some urging to manure it up and others warning that garlic doesn’t like high nitrogen levels. To be safe, I’ll keep mine in between.
What they do agree on is that garlic needs full sunlight and well drained soil and that it’s particularly important to keep weeds from choking it.

I discover that you harvest when the outer leaves start to turn brown and that the bulbs need to be dug up carefully around August to prevent bruising and thus ruining their storage life.

So I planted my cloves and was rewarded with a windfall of tiny wild garlic cloves currently stored in the fridge. While they're about twice as small as the regular shop bought cloves, they're about five times stronger. We learned this lesson when we dosed up a casserole with just three small cloves and ending up smelling for a week like a frenchman's belch.

Our wild garlic to the left, shop bought to the right

Today the snow is on the ground outside and it's heartening to find that already poking through the white sheet, in one of our raised beds, is this year's brand new garlic crop. From just one bulb last year, I got ten to twelve more all of which I split and planted. From this I got about 120 cloves, half of which were replanted for this year. All for free, or three quid were you to buy that one clove.

This year's fresh crop poking through the snow yesterday

My planned culinary experiments this coming year include attempting to make my own garlic oil and I might even try my hand at black garlic, the new asian culinary phenomenon sweeping the west in the form of heat fermented bulbs.

The other great thing about garlic is that its extraordinary qualities also repel all pests - no crop eating beastie will get its fangs into it. Which reminds me -  I can personally confirm the truth of at least one garlic legend - it’s ability to ward off vampires. I’ve been eating the stuff for years and I haven’t been bit yet!!

Some garlic claims are bona fides.

Raised Beds - How To Lift Your Food Growing Yields

When I started growing vegetables, one of the first jobs I got stuck into was to build some raised beds in my back garden. A raised bed is essentially any structure or format which takes the soil up off ground level. A raised bed or a series of them is a basic yet profitable arrangement if you want to grow your own.

There are a number of benefits to be had in growing with raised beds. First off, in a back garden setting, they look good, particularly if you still have some herbaceous borders, flowers and shrubs and haven't turned the whole lot over to food growing.

Raised beds made of rustic timber, stones, blocks or even poured concrete can add some architectural design to a vegetable garden which can often look chaotic. While this isn't a problem in an allotment setting, the beds will allow you to grow food in your garden without ruining its structural aesthetics.

The second factor is that the soil climate in a raised bed environment is contained and therefore it's far easier to control. If, for example, you're growing acid loving plants like blueberries and cranberries and your soil is neutral or alkaline, you'll find that even despite dosing them with ericaceous compost, they'll experience problems as the main body of the soil around them continues to change the ph back to neutral or alkaline.

Plot 34's three year old Waterer of Everything (WOE) attending to the salads in one of our raised beds

Isolated in a raised bed however, the soil can be maintained steadily at any level of ph or consistency that your plants require.

Raised beds drain far better than ground level beds and will warm up quicker than their terrestrial counterparts, thus allowing you an earlier start to the growing season.

From a practical point of view, a raised bed is far easier to work on given that you have to do far less bending down.

You can build a containment comprised of simple planks, railway sleepers, stones, bricks or even corrugated sheeting or plastic. Some people just heap the earth up without any containing medium although this can be messy in the long run.

Planks are perhaps the easiest to work with

I used log roll for my first raised bed. This is a series of one and a half foot logs split in two and then linked together via double lacings of durable wire. This stuff has the advantage of being flexible like a linked chain, allowing you to create any shape you want. A kidney shape suited the curving beds in my garden (Her Outdoors says it's a heart shape but it's a kidney).

Herbs, salads and a miniature coronet apple tree in our log roll raised bed
 After creating the shape of the bed, I pegged the log roll into place using stakes hammered into the ground on at intervals on the outside to hold the shape into place. I then lined the inside with durable plastic sheeting all along the ground and then up to the lip of the containing boundary. This is designed to keep out pests who might burrow in as well as to help contain the moisture in the bed. Because I didn't want it to fill in the rain like a paddling pool, I made strategically located drainage holes all around the base with a garden fork.

Then I filled it in with a mixture of top soil, compost, agricultural sand (for friability and drainage) and  mature manure. Don't fill a raised bed exclusively with compost from a garden centre or you'll quickly find yourself with a dried-out nutrition starved mass in which nothing will grow. 

To the right, raised beds constructed from random rocks and stones
My log roll arrangement proved ideal for mixed salads as the slugs and snails didn't relish the prospect of scaling the rough chippy surface of the log roll.

A raised bed needs to laid out in a suitable size and shape. The ideal is one which allows you to reach every part of the surface area without standing in it - you don't want to have to walk across the soil as it causes it to compact and hinders your plants.

You'll also want to select the right location.Every part of the raised bed will need from six to eight hours of full sun each day to provide enough light for viable crop growth.

Some people recommend you only use wood that hasn't been treated with chemicals. I don't see why we shouldn't recyle scrap wood like railway sleepers which has already been treated. They last longer, and a plastic sheet skin between them and the soil prevents toxics like creosote leaching into it. Reusing them prevents them ending up in a landfill anyways.

If you like you can go all the way and build two or three foot high poured concrete beds which will last forever, can be painted in pleasing colours and used double as garden seating. In Havana, Cuba, which has perhaps the world's most developed urban farming culture, a combination of cheap corrugated sheeting holds the beds in place in larger communal areas while poured concrete is used where food growing is a full time fixture.

Concrete raised beds at an urban farm in Havana
Some people even like to build high rise raised beds in undulating layers and "steps" which can also look great in the garden, particularly in a bright corner where the highest level is set to the back.

If you're thinking of installing raised beds, don't go out and buy the expensive kits from garden centres. These could see you paying E80 for an installation the size of a kitchen table and which includes nothing more than four simple planks which slot or screw together.

If you can't salvage the wood, stones or sheeting you need, go to a lumber merchants and buy scrap timber or else to a builder's yard and purchase concrete blocks and cement. You don't need to pay through the nose to raise your food growing game.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Getting Into A Pickle

Last month I got myself into a pickle while trying to uncover the origins of that very expression.
Having heaved a vast surplus of cucumbers up onto the kitchen counter with no idea what to do with them, I eventually hit upon a solution (literally) - a mixture of vinegar and brine. I'd pickle them.

But first things first. Where did the term: "getting into a pickle" originate from?

With no immediate results apparent from Google I began scanning pages of British naval sayings. Because when they weren’t scuttling spanish men o war with a shiver of their timbers, a hoist of their mitzens and so on, it’s a well known fact that the British navy men would sit down together for weeks on end to concoct the most bizarre, surreal and ridiculous terms in the English language.

Those sons of guns (illegitimate offspring born under ship cannons) couldn't spit on a poop deck without banging out yet another colourful new descriptive. Cold weather meant balls freezing off their brass monkeys (metal cannonball baskets) and the discovery of wrongdoing meant the "cat (o-nine tails) being let out of the bag."  If they had room to swing it that is.

Among the dippy terms brought to the language by limey salts there are “slush funds” (crew income from selling surplus ship’s gruel ashore) and “booby traps” (stealth devices for catching seabirds) and the battening down of hatches (to prevent water spilling in) so surely these were the guys who first got us “into a pickle?”

Did it originate when a slain Nelson himself got into a pickle - popped into a barrel of brandy to preserve him for the Trafalgar trip home? "Getting pickled" perhaps but it didn't spark getting into one. That said, Nelson's pickling wasn't wasted for creative idiom - those caught siphoning off his pickling booze for personal consumption were put over a barrel (flogged over a cannon) for "tapping the admiral" (clandestinely stealing and consuming drink).

He's dying! Get a barrel of brandy quick!

After all that, "getting into a pickle" is in fact a naval term, but founded instead upon the Dutch merchant navy expression: "In De Peken Zitten" (to sit in the pickle/preserving brine). Unfortunately I can't find out how and why they got there..

Away from 18th Century salts and back to my kitchen pickliing process. This follows a three thousand year tradition among households for preserving summer food through winter and spring. While stong traditions of home pickling continue all over the world, particularly in mainland Europe, the USA and Canada, it seems to have died out here in Ireland.

Our chest freezer has been a great storer of Plot 34’s surpluses, but some crops just don’t freeze well. The cucumbers for example are a bad candidate for the ice box as are those fat necked onions from the allotment which are already showing signs of perishing.

The answer is to pickle them. So I’ve bought a load of Kilner jars in preparation for making two types of pickle.

First off is the dill pickle. The litre jars have to be boiled for ten minutes to sterilise them and I plan on removing the rubber seals and sterilising them in a baby bottle steamer to prevent damage. Bacteria is the enemy of anyone planning to get themselves into some pickles. The cucumbers will be cut into “spears,” or vertical slices and jammed into the sterilised jars. I’m planning to follow the guidelines of James from the Healthy Homestead whose dill pickle making demonstation can be seen on Youtube.

The Canadian lad with the baseball cap, gingham shirt, beard and ponytail recommends a brine comprising a quart (two pints) of water, two pints of white vinegar, a half cup of coarse canning salt, three quarters of a cup of sugar, a spicebag and some onion slices.  You bring this mixture to the boil and keep it simmering until it goes into the sterilised jar. A sprig of dill is placed into the jar along with a thin chunk of clean shaven horseradish. I’m told a whole clove of garlic is a good addition too.

A half inch headroom is maintained at the top but the spears must remain covered. After filling the jar, a sterilised cloth is used to wipe the rims to create a good seal. The jars are closed tight and then placed into a pot of hot boiling water for fifteen minutes (put a cloth on the inside bottom to prevent the glass cracking). You then allow them to cool before removing them (handled with a sterilised cloth) to somewhere dark and cool for storage. After six weeks you can start eating them. James recommends skinning the cucumbers or at least topping and tailing them both ends to remove enzymes that can make the mix go soft in the fermentation process.

If you’d prefer instead to get into a pickle with three suggestive and giggling young Canadian girls in shorts then search Youtube instead for “Grandma Marg’s Pickles.” Do not try to feed your cucumbers to a dog however.

My finished jars of cucumber, onion and tomato pickle spread

The next kind of “pickle” I’m planning to get into is more like Branston or Bicks - a pickle in the english sense - a savoury spread. I’m planning to go by the Youtube clip “Aunt Polly’s Pickles” as demonstrated so defty by someone who looks like they’ve done it all her life - a  silver topped barefoot dame in a proper apron and glasses on a string (again Canadian I’m guessing by the “aboot” accent). I’m using this recipe because it’s main ingredients are cucumbers, tomatoes and onions, the three big surpluses I have hanging over me at the moment. Yellow cucumbers, which are over ripe for eating fresh, are ideal it seems for making into a pickle spread; as are the pots of perishing onions from this year’s harvest and perhaps even the softening apples remaining from my miniature coronet apple tree.

Mix even quantities of diced cucumber, onion and peeled and chopped tomato until they half fill a pressure cooker/stew sized pot with a little water and two pints of white vinegar and boil for an hour. In a bowl make a sauce separately with two table spoons of salt, a quarter teaspoon of pepper, a pound of white sugar, a teaspoon of mustard, a teaspoon of tumeric and two table spoons of flour. Mix it up and then add to the main pot and boil for four minutes before filling your jars.

And that, me hearties (good fellow sailors deserving of a hearty meal), is how to have a field day (a 24 hour period laid out for cleaning a ship) turning your windfall (good luck from a rush of wind to the sails) into a square meal (the British navy ate from space saving square plates).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Irishman From Delmonte

Last month I became Kimmage’s very own Man From Delmonte. Today the man, he say “YESSS!”  because last month, the man, he take twelve kilos of tomatoes from his garden patio and greenhouse in just one picking - quite a haul from a small suburban back garden, even if the man does say so himself. Another ten kilos followed towards the end of October just before the frosts got stuck in.
And then the man, he gets them processed and frozen tickety boo so his family can enjoy tomatoes for the next six months. Today he really does feel like that silver haired godfather of good home grown food - on whom decent, but flippant peasants do await anxiously on for approval. Today he is the alpha male grower gatherer.
This is absolutely fantastic because tomatoes are the most important part of our food growing efforts. Not only are they a joy to grow – colourful and exotic in the garden,bursting with taste and nutrition etc but organic toms are also quite expensive to buy - so we’re saving pot loads lots of cash into the bargain.
Kimmage's man from Del Monte shows off some Yellow Centiflor cherry tomatoes on the patio last month, by now rendered  into nutritious frozen pulp for pasta sauces.

Tomato pulp can be frozen forever and unlike many foods, it gets better for you through subsequent cooking - by which process makes it easier to absorb lycopene, the tomato’s magical ingredient. A Harvard study proved that eating tomatoes daily (high in Vitamin C and A) not only keeps us healthy (lycopene helps prevent cancer) – and important for a 20 a day smoker like me - but they also keep us young because the magic substance reduces the usual rate of cellular damage by between one third and 42%.
So say Harvard pointy heads anyways.
Excellent results so from the small suburban garden, but the next question is what exactly does a small suburban family do with twelve kilos of tomatoes?
It took much of a weekend to process the lot. They went into big pots and had scalding water poured over them to loosen the skins and remove them. The remaining pulp is simmered, stirred, cooled, bagged and frozen in meal sized plastic ziploks to provide vital vitamin C for stews and sauces all winter long.
Carried away with the processing I almost forgot about the seed saving. Greedy multinationals have doubled the price of food seeds sold here in three years for no obvious reason save to cash in on the food growing zeitgeist. So collecting and keeping the seeds saves me about twenty five euros next year and I won’t have to hunt all around for the particular varieties I want.
So now I’m not only the Man from Delmonte but I‘ve also become Mr Fothergill. And because saving heritage seeds ensures biological diversity – I’m actually Mr Eco Correctness Delmonte Fothergill.
It’s important that the fruit you select for saving are heritage only (not F1 hybrid clones which produce mutant plants from their seeds – check varieties online) and you need to ensure that they are big, unblemished, ripe and taken from similarly healthy plants -  because all the genes are inherited. Be a tomato Nazi here. Don’t take from a plant that has double fruit – two tomatoes bonded together – and the plant’s version of twins - because you don’t want to pass on those Jedwards.
Saving tomato seeds to last you up to eight years rather than the usual one or two, is a strange process which involves fermentation. First the seeds are scooped out into a glass or a jar and a drop of water is added -  then you stir it all through. You leave it somewhere warm over three to five days during which a skin of mould rapidly develops on the top of the solution. Beneath the mould cap, the mixture ferments to relieve the seeds of their gel bags and to sterilise them against mould or disease in storage.
Tomato seeds fermenting on my window sill last month
OK. Gel bags. If you look closely you’ll see that each tomato seed comes in its own gel sac. The gel is an inhibitor which prevents the seeds from fertilising inside the tomato and stops them sprouting on the ground on warm autumn days. It stops the seeds activating until the cold weather arrives and takes over to put the seed to sleep. Then the gel dries out and behaves like glue by attaching the seed to the ground.  This anchors it against the wind dislodging it and blowing it around. Not until the frosts are gone in late spring (or early summer in Ireland) will the soil reach a temperature which wakes the seeds into sprouting. Our artificial kitchen sink fermentation process thus speeds up the natural gel removal process.
After the allotted time, remove the mould skein and throw the seed mix into a sieve, run it under the cold tap and stir the seeds gently to slough off the last bits of gel and pulp. Now the seeds are separated and left out to dry for a week. Remember to mark each glass/jar to keep the varieties clearly denoted all through the process.
I separated the seeds over two evenings. Seven big wet lumps of about three hundred seeds a go came from each glass, each one slapped out onto a big dinner plate and teased out by me, one seed at a time, with two serrated steak knives. If you don’t spread them before they dry, the remaining bits of nature’s glue makes them almost impossible to prise apart without damage.
Gardener's Delight tomatoes pictured looking good last month

From there I transferred the seeds individually to dry on paper party plates  – in good supply because we’d just celebrated Plot 34’s WOE (waterer of everything’s) third birthday. Over two evenings spent teasing seeds apart in front of X Factor (Because I was "busy doing something" I didn't qualify for my usual 50% tv vote), I finally had seven multicoloured balloon and ribbon patterned children’s party plates full of singular seeds with the name of each variety carefully inscribed on the underside. I placed them tentatively on the table near the glass double doors where the Autumn sun would dry them out.
It was time to instil into Mrs Kimmage Delmonte the vital need to prevent unwarranted interference in the drying process.  Like many couples who are used to one another, we are wont to switch off when we’re preoccupied (Judge Judy/Discovery Channel) and the other happens to be procastinating .  Therefore I know by now that despite Her Outdoors making all the usual appeasing noises and gestures, it is was wholly possible all actually heard is: “Blah, blah, blah seeds blah blah.”
Bearing this in mind, I decided to plump for the rarely deployed “look at me” thing, and repeated over and over again that they party plates were VERY IMPORTANT and that they were NOT TO BE TIDIED UP, that they weren’t JUST LYING AROUND that they were involved IN A VERY  IMPORTANT PROCESS TO PREPARE THEM FOR STORAGE. And Her Outdoors did duly leave the party plates alone. After drying the plan was to file them into labelled envelopes for careful storage until next year.
Tomato seeds in carefully labelled envelopes yesterday

But the very next blustery day, and just before I wrote the last paragraphs of this entry - self satisfied and all that I was -  I popped downstairs to find the double doors wide open and the wind rushing around in the kitchen ( “the place needed an airing.”) The paper plates are all in a kerfuffle and the seeds are all blown into one another. I could clearly read “Centiflor Yellow” on the base of one upturned children’s paper party plate.
So biting his tongue, Kimmage’s Man from Delmonte heads straight back out to his bountiful plantation -  to hunt once again for seven perfect plants with seven perfect fruits.
Because today, even though he loves her to bits, the Man from he say: ... b*****ks!

The other man from Delmonte - who says "Yes!" instead of "b******ks!"


Small blessings in Austerity from the Chillies

To mark the unveiling of Ireland's national four year austerity plan yesterday, the print on this blog entry is deliberately really really small and the tone, deliberately depressed - designed to make life even more difficult. In either case we'll need practice with reading small print if we're going to be able to figure out how the plan will effect us personally. If you're not from Ireland however, do exercise the "international" option to turn it up to 14 point.

The austerity plan which incorporates swingeing cuts in the minimum wage and massive hikes in taxes makes it look like we'll all have to go back to growing our own food whether we like it or not. By the way, I'm open to those who require crash course tutorials in food growing and will also accept payment in butter vouchers. As for my allotment, there are already signs that our cash strapped council is preparing to triple our allotment rent in order to crank more cash out of us urban farmers. They tried it on last year but following protests, postponed it for twelve months - just like the thousands of civil service job cuts announced this week but actually not due until 2012 (ahem).

Depending on who you believe, Ireland has either been turned back to 2002 (says our straight talking Finance Minister (ahem)) or to the 19th Century (according to a particularly gleeful BBC reporter). Nothing but growing cabbage, turnips and mangelwurzles for us from now on - that and ducking the big sticks of IMF officials (no carrots anymore).

To cap it all, today my bank sent me a letter telling me that they'd be delighted to increase my personal overdraft! I might just pop around tomorrow and see if they'll lend me fifty four million for an acre in Ballsbridge. I've already been assessing how tightly I can roll up their missive for a hand delivered return of post to the manager. A special kind of lodgement if you like.

But whatever about our banks and politicians, at least history tells us that we Irish can always rely on the spuds.(ahem!!)

And to round it all off, it seems we're also due some particularly miserable weather to fit with our Winter of Discontent - long range forecasts are for a lengthy period of "extreme cold" likely to involve some heavy snowfall and temperatures of minus ten and such - according to the Met. And the largest lightning bolt the world has ever seen is forecast to flash down from the heavens and set fire to us all.

No not that last one, I made it up.

But if we're attempting to look on the bright side, the extreme cold means the elimination of many overwintering pests - that's a good many slugs and snails as well as saw fly larvae and vine weevil grubs in particular.

On the downside again, the lack of a milder winter as we've generally had over the last five years means that; apart from the garlic, celeriac, swedes and winter caulis, there's absolutely zero growth expected for the months ahead. Even early greenhouse salad starts will be difficult if we get what's predicted.

Despite slouching national spirit, the chilli peppers are still braving it out with gusto on our patio and that's despite three or four doses of frost and a rash of successive sub zero nights. The outdoor tomatoes and the cucumbers and courgettes were already slashed down by the icy winds but the brave chillies, despite distinctly soggy looking foliage, soldier on. It's all the more surprising given that the plucky sun-loving south americans are generally supposed to keel over once it's time for us to reach for the overcoats (sackcloth this year).  Their surprising resilience leads me to believe that we should all grow chillies here instead of root crops next year.

My chillies busy braving out the Austerity yesterday

Apart from their cheering fire engine red colours (see the pic at the very top of my blog), they're a heartwarming and blood stirring addition to winter stews. They're high in vitamin C, lower cholesterol and best of all they contain a magic cheering-up substance called capsaicin which is a natural endorphin booster. This is probably why those chilli eating South American countries sang, danced and jiggled their mammaries on carnival floats all the way through their own IMF years.

Capsaicin is also the ingredient used in pepper spray - handy for trips to and from work (if you still have a job) and in particular to help fend off those pesky stray stick flailing gardai (spray only if their visors happen to be up) who have lately tended to whirl at random from protestors into uninvolved passers-by on the way to collect their reduced dole.

I've been growing cayennes which I find are the best for our depressing conditions. Another pepper which works well in a northern european climate is jalapeno which I also grew successfully last year. Unfortunately a range of other types just didn't work out. But between the jalapenos and the cayennes I've done well over the last four years. Two or three plants generally go on the inside window sill, five or six go outside on the patio and a handful in the greenhouse and that gives me a year's supply and lots more to give away to friends and relations. They dry out really easily and store really well. What's really surprising though, is that as we push into December, they're still flowering.

I'll keep you posted on their continued resilience.

Hopefully I'll have pepped up by the next post. For now, cheers (not) from the Republic of Austerity.

Keeping Your Cauliflowers Suntan Free

Peter Ashcroft believes that his cauliflowers are wired to the moon.
Via Youtube I accompany the West Lancashire based cauliflower farmer on his rounds in the hope of gaining some clues as to when my own winter caulis are likely to start flowering.  He's just the latest in a legion of true characters from all over the planet who have taught me via the worldwide college that is Youtube.
Ashcroft tells the camera he’s been farming since he was very little and has been working at it ever since he can remember, helping his dad as a child and then leaving school aged 15 to join him on the land. “Some years you make money and quite a lot of years you lose money,” is his take on a life of commercial cauli farming.
And while I don’t glean any vital clues from the steady Lanc as to when my own Roscoffs are likely to start producing heads, he does provide me with a few pretty decent nuggets of cauliflower wisdom. Firstly that the cauliflowers we get in the shops are only white because farmers take measures to shade them from the sun, otherwise they turn a more natural yellow. They’re supposed to be yellow.
“There’s nothing wrong with yellow caulis-  just that people won’t eat them,” he opines. “People like bronzed bodies from the sun, but they won’t eat bronzed cauliflowers,” he asserts.  Indeed he has a point.

Lancashire cauli man Peter Ashcroft with a healthy handful
So he shows us his own little trick to stop his caulis getting a tan whilst simultaneously to keeping the birds from spotting them. He bends a big surrounding leaf over until the stem cracks and makes a sort of natural lid for the emerging floret.
Ashcroft also believes his caulis are influenced by the moon cycles. “The moon is very important for cauliflowers. As the moon is coming to the full, nine times out of ten you’ll get a lot of cauliflowers. When the moon is full, something in the gravitational pull or light levels alters the growth cycle in the cauliflowers.”
It’s been a blue moon since I visited Plot 34, which I haven’t seen now in a good many weeks and where, despite winter arriving,  I still have a few crops remaining. Cabbages, some spuds still in the ground, a large bed of celeriac and finally there’s the cauliflowers which have all grown ginormous – to about four feet high. But still no sign of a floret.
Back in the garden I have five or six more cauli plants of the same variety – an particularly Irish heritage strain of Winter Roscoff, the seeds of which I acquired from Irish Seedsavers.  Seedsavers in turn procured them from an elderly farmer in County Dublin who may or may not be aware that he has been instrumental in preventing the particular strain from being lost here in Ireland.
Because I’m not going up to the allotment too often these winter days, the handful of Roscoffs in the garden were put there as an early warning system -  to let me know when their siblings, five miles away, would be ready to pick. Like their same species sisters, the broccoli,  they can ripen and turn quite quickly and it’ll be a wasted effort if I don’t harvest them at the opportune moment.

My "early warning" garden cauli plants
The problem is that in the months ahead in the garden I’m replacing the old wooden shed in the garden with a larger steel version. We’re expecting again any day now and my office is about to be being evicted from the house. I’ll be rehoused in the steel shed which will come fully insulated and in the process I'll be joining the long tradition of Irish men whose domestic presence has been downgraded to ancillary outdoors accommodation.
But it’ll be built right on top of the home cauliflower bed. While I don’t mind losing these few plants, with them go my alarm system or their counterparts on Plot 34.
I haven’t grown cauliflower before because I heard they can be quite difficult.  My current batch were sprouted in the greenhouse last March and went into the ground a month or so later. And even at four feet, there’s still no sign of a small white curd emerging at their centre any time I go rooting in there in search of progress.

Without a sun tan
The "cauli" from cauliflower is the latin for "cabbage." So as the name suggests, they’re cabbage flowers. They always need a good rich soil as they're heavy feeders and plenty of water. Caulis like cool weather and I read that any jolts in their life cycle will effect their abilitity to flower. So I’m hoping the easter heatwave hasn’t thrown them out. The seed packet doesn’t say when they’re normally ready for harvest only “cut as heads develop.”

With a tan
The white curd is of course a flower, much like the broccoli head. Indeed there’s a sort of halfway house between the two – a green cauliflower some people call brocciflower.  Caulis also come in less frequent purples and oranges (fake tan?) as well as the familiar creamy white.
Caulis are low in fat, high in fibre and quite dense in nutrition. They contain a range of phytochemicals including sulforapane which fights cancer. Unfortunately the traditional Irish way of cooking them – boiling them to within an inch of their life – actually renders most of these useless. Ten minutes in boiling water kills half of these. So the best way to prepare cauliflowers is to steam it or stir fry it. Or even eat it raw. Another beneficial substance contained in caulis is the indole-3-carbinal a chemical which also blocks cancer cells and helps boost cellular repair.
However, another Youtube grower, chirpy Claire from the Claire’s Allotment series of segments explains that home grown caulis need a thorough examination before consumption unless you want to be eating mouthfuls of heebie jeebie passengers who like nothing better than to crawl right in there between the tight pressed florets. The solution it seems is to break your heads into smaller florets and soak them in salt water for a half hour before preparation.

There's Claire now
Claire also helps me figure out when the florets are ready to pick. How do you know when they’re fully grown? When the first ones start to separate it seems. Separated cauliflower is also quite edible, which is also good to know.
Another good reason to grow cauliflower is that the fresh heads are starting to disappear from the shops.
You may have noticed caulis have been missing from some supermarket shelves of late. This is because more and more farmers are refusing to grow them because the expense involved is no longer covered by the supermarket prices offered to them.
In Britain the National Farmer’s Union has already warned that the popular veg is will disappear entirely unless the situation in remedied and farmers get a fairer price, a concern also voiced here by the Irish Farmer's Association.  The NFU says that in the UK it costs a farmer like Peter Ashcroft 44p to grow one but the supermarkets there will only pay 36p even though they sell them at £1.20 that’s a 300% mark up.

This is the main reason why Winter Roscoffs are not growing all over the fields of North Dublin as they did for generations previous to ours and why local cauli farmers like Peter Ashcroft are fast becoming extinct in these islands. They're very definitely not a protected species and with them into extinction goes the lifetime of knowledge and skill that goes with dedicating a lifetime to one food plant.

Like anything else in this day and age, you’re going to have to try much harder in future if you want to get a head.

Cyanide in the Garden - Mind Your Children!!

When Plot 34's self appointed head of secret tunnels was two or three years old, I had just started growing food. In an early effort to teach him about where his food came from, I'd pick off a lettuce leaf, take a bite and then pass it to him to taste it. Then I'd pick a bright red tomato and we'd share it. Natural enough and a good thing you might think?

The next day I caught him in the front garden trying to feed a poisonous white berry to one of his little friends.

Teaching very young children about food growing seems the natural thing to do but I'd forgetten that my little lad didn't know the difference between a big green lettuce leaf, a dock leaf or a rhubarb leaf. Or the difference between picking and eating a tomato or rowan berry. All he saw was his daddy picking leaves and berries off plants and then eating them. The message I'd given him was: "Picking and eating things off plants (all plants) is a new and interesting thing to do."

A three year old is surrounded by poisonous plants which we adults regard as innocuous. And if you show him how to eat leaves and berries off food plants, he's won't stop at the safe ones.

Most childhood poisonings occur under the age of 5, the peak age for poisoning is 2 years, and boys are more likely to be poisoned than girls - presumably because they're far more curious. I can remember my brother and I as children snacking down on some red berries from a tree in our own back garden which luckily weren't highly toxic but enough to make us pretty sick for a few days.

Last year I myself unwittingly poisoned my family with my own home grown potatoes. I'd starting storing them outside in a see-through plastic container where the sunlight turned them green, stimulating them to generate a poison called solanine. Viable tubers exposed to sunlight do this to protect themselves from being eaten by birds and animals.

Green potatoes, contain hugely high levels of solanine which, because children are smaller and lighter, will prove far more dangerous to them. The most famous case of solanine poisoning occurred in Britain in the 1970's where thirty schoolboys were hospitalised after the cook in the school kitchen used a sack of green potatoes. Green tomatoes also contain solanine to similarly protect themselves from predation before they're ripe and the leaves of both potato and tomato plants are also rich in the toxin.

Don't eat the greenies!

Early on in my food growing I simply didn't know that green potatoes are dangerous. It doesn't say so on bags of shop bought potatoes and no one ever told me. A straw poll of my friends showed that around half didn't know the dangers while the other half did and assumed everyone knew not to eat them.

Rhubarb leaves, while looking to a child vaguely like spinach or salad are also highly toxic - containing high levels of oxalates. During World War I rhubarb leaves were misguidedly recommended as a substitute for other veggies that became scarce leading to acute poisoning and deaths.

It might be a shock to learn that you can also find cyanide in your garden.

Many fruit seeds, particuarly those from apples and cherries, contain amygdalin, which when introduced to the human digestion system, degrades into hydrogen cyanide. The seeds need to be broken to release the poison and will otherwise pass through the digestion system sealed and intact. It is estimated that it would take a half cup of broken apple seeds to make someone seriously ill.

You might think: How the hell how would I consume broken apple seeds in quantity? Try running a bag of uncored apples through your blender. Again, if someone didn't know this about apple seed toxins, a poisoning could conceivably occur.

Comsuming uncored and blended apples will lead to small amounts of cyanide released in your system

Indeed plenty of items among our every day food products have, at one time, been poisonous. Anyone who's eaten tapioca pudding might not be aware that the roots of the cassava plant from which tapioca is made, contain hugely lethal levels of cyanide.

In Africa, the tribes who rely on it for food, have learned to crush the root and then rinse it out in wicker seives placed in fast flowing rivers and streams to strain out the cyanide. The tapioca we buy in the shops has the cyanide removed in commercial preparation.

And let's not forget the unnatural poisons we ourselves introduce to in the vegetable garden. One commercial carrot grower recently told me: "There are chemicals out there, commonly available in the shops and used in domestic vegetable gardens which should never, ever, be used without proper procedure and protection. When commercial growers use them we are obliged by law to use gloves, facemasks and so on, but we see people all the time spraying these substances liberally around them with no protection whatsoever."

That's where I got another fright. My Dad gave me Roundup, a strong weedkiller, for careful application to dock plants which just wouldn't go away. I normally avoid chemicals but this limited one off usage seemed justified to get rid of the docks once and for all. He'd poured a small amount of it into a plastic mineral bottle and being cautious with these things, he'd also stuck on a very large warning label clearly denoting it as a dangerous weedkiller. 

But as I said, younger children can't read. I'd stashed it on the allotment (I thought safely) behind my neighbour's compost bin. A few weeks later my young son (too young to read) walked up to me with it in his hands asking if he could have some "lemonade." Luckily he'd asked.

A quick glance around on my allotment quickly revealed chemical containers on neighbour's allotments. Those holders who don't have children on their allotments seldom think of the dangers to other people's young ones. Rats are common on allotments, as too is rat poison. The blue pellets are colour coded to ward off birds and so on, but to children they look just like sweeties.

Finally for those who grow in built up city areas, lead in the soil is something most people seldom consider. Lead is a poison which has got into the ground via decades of leaded petrol use. It occurs in highest levels in older central areas near busy roads and close to buildings which have had years of lead based paint used on them. The flakes fall off and land on the ground where they become absorbed into the soil and tend to stay there.

Most plants don't absorb lead, but some leafy plants, like lettuce and salads which are more popular in smaller city gardens, soak it up. For those living in much older houses, in areas of heavy traffic, it might be advisable to replace your soil, particularly the soil closest to older buildings, as testing for lead is expensive.

Peeling lead paint from old buildings can contaminate the soil in city areas

Most of the poisons mentioned above won't kill you but they might give you or your children a dose to remember.

Growing your own food is still the best way to provide your little uns with the most nutritious and pure food they can eat, but until they're old enough to know what's what, do cast a child's eye over your garden exactly as you would inside your house. Deploy the veg gardener's equivalent of keeping kettle flexes out of reach and electric sockets covered and when they're with you on the allotment or in the garden, always keep one eye out.