Fruit growing · Vegetable growing

The greenhouse

So this has been the first summer that we’ve had our greenhouse and I didn’t really have a proper plan for what I was growing, I’ve been fairly spontaneous with what I’ve grown. Our greenhouse is a good size and rather than be too ambitious and try and grow lots of different types of crops in it, I decided to focus primarily on tomatoes. Both C and I adore tomatoes and I love using tomatoes in my cooking. J isn’t as fussed at all about them but when we’ve grown them in hanging baskets in previous years he has admitted that they are nicer than shop bought so I’m hoping to convert him.

I’ve really used left over seeds this year and haven’t bought any new ones, partly as I hate waste and partly as I wouldn’t have a clue which ones to get. You may remember that spring in the UK was plagued by very cold weather and even some snow so my tomato seedlings didn’t get off to the best start. I planted them at the earliest recommended time and we had a rubbish amount of seeds actually sprout. I confess my watering was fairly sporadic and despite the greenhouse being heated the weather probably didn’t help. Anyway, after a very slow start I finally managed to get sufficient seedlings for the greenhouse bed.

Our greenhouse has, as do many others, a sectioned off bed down one side which we have filled with gravel and then laid our compost growbags on top of. Our growbags are in trays which are designed to help provide more consistent water to the plants. Each growbag contains space for three plants and we have a total of six growbags in our greenhouse, 18 plants. I do have one growbag with bell peppers in instead of tomatoes to give a bit of variety. Each growbag also has a plastic stake in it to support the plant as it grows.

I also have two hanging baskets with leftover tumbling tomato seeds in them and a good dozen or so pots with a variety which were fine to be grown in pots. Why so many you may ask? Well I did give away a fair few plants to friends but it seemed a waste to just bin seedlings that had sprouted so I accommodated as many as possible in the greenhouse. I do also have a rouge courgette in one of my growbags, more an experiment to see where they would grow best as I also have a couple outside. When everything was first planted it didn’t look that crowded and in fact I did think at one point that I wasn’t making good enough use of the space.

Well when everything started to flourish the whole greenhouse was taken over with green and it has looked rather wild. I did pinch out the side shoots a bit but probably not as much or as well as I should have but it’s my first year with a greenhouse so I still have lots to learn. It took ages for us to get any flowers on our plants and longer still for any of our tomatoes to actually ripen but once they did, they just didn’t stop. The warm weather this summer has undoubtably helped although it has meant watering up to twice a day.

The season isn’t over quite yet but we have had bucket loads of tomatoes. Most of the plants we have give cherry tomato sized produce but we do have a few giving us larger varieties. At first we were just eating them fresh as they ripened but there’s only so many tomatoes a trio can eat. One of the delights of homegrown is that you can preserve your goodies so you can enjoy that same great taste later in the year. I’ll write once all the tomatoes are done more about how I’ve preserved our harvest.

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Life in the Countryside · renovation

Our new living room cabin

So we are now completely moved out of the house and are living between the caravan, my craft cabin and our new living room cabin. This will eventually become J’s home office once the work on the house is complete but for now we are using it as a kitchen/living room/dressing room/playroom. For now we refer to it as our living room. It’s a 10 by 12 foot simple wooden cabin with double doors and a pent roof. J will paint it and we will put down a floor similar to that in our cabin when we’ve moved out but for now it is bare wood and chipboard floor (though we do have a random square of cast off carpet from my father in law in the middle to help keep our toes warm).

On the bank holiday weekend we spent time moving some furniture into it. In it we currently have:

  • C’s chest of drawers which is filled with mainly J and my clothes as C’s clothes are mainly in the caravan.
  • Our television and DVD player on top of this.
  • A small white table from our kitchen which has our coffee machine and table top cooker on it.
  • Our fridge
  • C’s princess castle and dolls
  • C’s plastic table and chair set
  • Our pop-up wardrobe
  • Two armchairs
  • There’s also an electric radiator and some lamps, as the cabin does not have it’s own power supply and relies upon extension leads from the garage and sheds.
  • Now I’ve taken some photos of it but please don’t judge us by the mess as we’re still trying to find a home for everything. It’s quite cosy and provides us with a nice bit of extra space.
  • Craft · Life in the Countryside

    Sew your own wardrobe

    As you know I have a lovely little haven in my garden, my sewing studio. I really enjoy my sewing and am improving in skills with time. I have taken a few sewing classes locally with Sodbury Sewing School and have learnt some new skills. So I thought I would share some of my recent makes and favourite patterns.

    This is a pattern that I’d been looking at for a while, the Ogden Cami by True Bias. I love wearing little cami tops and although you can get them fairly cheaply in most shops in fairly plain colours, I fancied something a bit nicer. This cami pattern has been recommended by several people so I thought I would give it a go. I chose a mustard material from my local fabric shop and I’m really happy with the end result. I’ve since made the pattern in another fabric and intend to make lots more.

    This is my summer beach bag made from a free pattern in a magazine (though I can’t remember which one). I have previously made small matching beach bags for C and I which were fine to use if we were just wandering around a town but aren’t really big enough to carry the extensive beach equipment that our little family seem to require. This bag has a small pocket inside (useful for a phone and a purse) and a simple magnetic closure. The sides are lined with foam so it holds its shape well and the handles are reinforced with chord. It has served us well this holiday, large enough to hold everything we need for a day at the beach and yet still stylish enough if you end up shopping instead.

    This lovely button back top was made at one of my sewing classes. It is fully lined and taught me a lot of new skills. The pattern is individually designed to my measurements so it fits really well. Although it involved lots of steps I have since made another version in a white fabric with navy anchors on and it sewed up much quicker second time around. I’ve had several compliments on this one and will probably make another couple in the future.

    This dress is one that I made for my and J’s five year wedding anniversary. The pattern is called ‘Joni’ and it’s from the Tilly and the Buttons Stretch book. The fabric was so silky and was a nice challenge to sew, as was the pattern but I was really pleased with the end result. Not an everyday dress but certainly one to wear for special occasions.

    Life in the Countryside · renovation · The cottage

    Stripping out the house

    Well we can’t go back now. The builders first job has been to strip out our house completely. Bear in mind that we had already moved all our furniture etc out so it was looking pretty empty to begin with. Well even in a day it looks totally different. Carpets are gone, doors are gone, bits of walls are gone. We needed to start by stripping back to see if we were able to keep certain things namely the supporting timbers and floor boards. As we suspected they were all pretty rotten and need replacing. Some supporting beams seem to actually only just providing enough support its a miracle the cottage hasn’t collapsed before now. Walls that will no longer be needed have been removed upstairs and it’s looking a lot more open. In fact you can now see up to the roof from the ground floor in parts. The upstairs bathroom is gone. The airing cupboard is gone, the third bedroom is gone. There’s still more stripping out to do and I’ll do a proper round up of each room once that’s done but here is where we are at so far.

    Upstairs

    Downstairs

    Exciting isn’t it? I know with the stripping out you see big changes fast and that the rebuilding will be a lot slower, but I can’t help but love how we see so much change everyday. I promise not to bombard with constant cottage updates though!

    Life in the Countryside · The cottage

    So the house is empty

    We’ve spent the last few days/weeks/months slowly emptying our house and it finally clear ready for our builder to start. It has been quite a challenging process at times, actually a very challenging process but we finally have the house empty and ready for work to start this week. It just feels so bare and old and incredibly dirty. The first task for the builders is stripping back as much as possible so we can see the state of the timbers (not looking good) and get the steel ordered as required. So all the photos below are of the cottage in its current state – empty, dirty and falling to bits. Looking at it I can’t believe we were actually living in it. One of the first jobs the builder is planning on doing is stripping it back completely so hopefully this weekend I can post some photos of the cottage in an even more stripped back state!

    Upstairs

    Downstairs

    Lazy beds · Life in the Countryside · Vegetable growing

    Potatoes…what went right and what to change

    We have now harvested all of our Spring planted potatoes and so I thought I would do a quick review about what went well and what to change for next year. So this year we grew our potatoes in growbags as opposed to last year when we used lazy beds. We had five different varieties:

    • Red Duke of York: we grew these successfully last year and they were just as good this year. My only complaint was they weren’t as large as I would have hoped but still a good size. This is probably due to harvesting too early but I was just so keen to get some potatoes. We’ll probably still grow these again next year.
    • Cara: these were our most prolific cropper this year. A really good harvest of decent size potatoes which taste amazing. A definite one to do again next year.
    • Pentland Javelin: our most disappointing crop this year. A small harvest both in quantity and size. Whilst it could have been down to the weather I don’t think we’ll do these again next year.
    • Charlotte: a good solid harvest. Decent size potatoes with good taste these are always a favourite in our house. We’ll do these again next year.
    • Pink Fir Apple: our first time growing these but we had them at a fellow gardener’s house and they were delicious. They have given us a really good crop of nice sized potatoes. Perfect just boiled and topped with butter. I think we’ll try these again next year.
  • Overall a very good year potato-wise, we barely lost any to pests or damage which was a big improvement on last year. The individual potatoes weren’t as large as last year which could either be down to being in bags as opposed to the ground or due to the weather. Our Autumn sown potatoes are in bags so they can be moved inside to avoid the cold (more about that another time) but next year I’ll have to work out whether to go for the ground or bags. Does anyone else grow potatoes? How do you grow them?
  • Fruit growing · Raised beds · Recipes · Vegetable growing

    Preserving our produce

    So I’ve previously mentioned that for some of our homegrown fruit and vegetables we have had a bit of a glut. Whilst we love all of our homegrown produce I can’t really stomach eating strawberries every meal or everyday for a week. There are some products that can be stored for prolonged periods of time in the right conditions but others need to be preserved in some other way. The main ways in which I preserve produce are either by freezing or by making jams and chutneys. I know that in the USA in particular caning is also a popular method but I don’t yet have the proper equipment for that. Today I thought I would go through a couple of the different ways I’ve preserved our produce this year. All the ingredients that were homegrown I’ve put in bold.

    Tomatoes

    Our tomatoes haven’t quite finished yet for the year so there will no doubt be more preserving to be done but so far this is what I’ve done.

    • Roasted vegetable pasta sauce; roast tomatoes, courgettes, onions and peppers in olive oil, then blend about half so the sauce still have some substance and season well. Then freeze as required.
    • Roasted tomato pesto: roast tomatoes in olive oil then add to basil, pine nuts, a couple of gloves of garlic, Parmesan and black pepper and blend in a food processor until fine. Add more olive oil until you achieve the desired consistency. Quantity-wise I tend to go for the same basil, pine nuts and Parmesan when I’m doing pesto with tomatoes, if not including tomatoes I’d have double the amount of basil to the other ingredients. Pesto is all about personal taste so just keep testing to find what you like best. You can also toast the pine nuts to emphasise the nutty flavour. Or change them up for a different type of nuts. Or switch the basil for spinach, or rocket leaves. Then portion up and freeze (it will store in the fridge for up to two weeks just make sure it’s covered with a film of oil to keep it fresh).
    • Freeze cherry tomatoes whole to defrost and cook fresh at a later date.
  • Strawberries
    • Strawberry jam: strawberry jam is notoriously hard to achieve a good set due to the low pectin level in strawberries. In order to achieve a good set you need to either mix it with another high pectin fruit or add pectin to it. I’ve gone with adding pectin as I wanted to keep the lovey freshness of the fruit. I’ve made a couple of different batches now using two different recipes, one of which was much more complicated and I couldn’t really see or taste much between them.
      Strawberry and yogurt lollies. A nice simple recipe, blend strawberries and Greek yogurt add to ice lolly mould and freeze. You can add a bit of honey if you want but I found our strawberries were sweet enough.
      Freeze whole: remove the stalks and wash then open freeze before bagging once frozen (this will prevent them from sticking together). I prefer to weigh before freezing and label the bag so I know how much to defrost.
      I also plan to use them in smoothies from frozen and make strawberry ice cream in the future too.
  • Potatoes
    • Potatoes store well in the ground but all gardeners have the dilemma of deciding when to pull them to avoid pest damage or damp ground. Once harvested brush off any loose soil and ideally leave the skins to dry for a few days. Then store in hessian sacks in a cool dry place. Check them periodically for damage and remove any damaged potatoes straight away.
      Potatoes cannot be frozen without being cooked first or their consistency changes too much. My favourite thing to do is to freeze potatoes as roasties. Par boil and then roast for about 20-30 minutes. Then cool and open freeze before bagging. They can then be taken out as required and put straight in the oven and will just need 20-30 minutes roasting. It certainly reduces some of the stress of a roast dinner.

    We still have lots to harvest and I’ve only looked at three different products here so I’ll do another post (or two) soon about some different ways to preserve homegrown produce.

    Fruit growing · Life in the Countryside · Raised beds

    Just look how crazy the garden went when I was away…

    We recently came back from being away from the cottage for almost three weeks and I have to say that although I loved our holiday, I was really glad to be home. Our garden was watered whilst we were away but any gardener know that no one looks after your garden as well as you do. It was so lovely to see how the garden has come on whilst I was away, and even better to started tending to it.

    We had a courgette that had kept growing and growing, look how big it is compared to a normal sized one!

    So now I need to find a good way to use up a marrow.

    The plums weren’t quite right when we left for holiday and by the time we came back they had all ripened. We had lost some to insect activity and some had gone over but I managed to harvest a good amount.

    Because of how ripe they were, those that weren’t to be eaten straight away were halved, de-stoned, vacuum sealed and frozen. That way when I have some more time I can use them up.

    Some of our turnips and beetroot have also grown a bit ginormous. Hopefully they still taste alright.

    It also looks as though somebody has been exploring our asparagus bed. Hopefully whoever it was (C suspects Peter Rabbit) hasn’t done any damage to the roots.

    chickens · Life in the Countryside

    The death of a chicken

    As you may remember we have six chickens who are all about 18 months old now. Once they started laying they were pretty consistent although have been less so recently. We suspect that Dorothy has been eating her eggs and we think the girls have been a bit put off laying by their home being moved about a bit and some of the workmen and machinery that we’ve had around recently. Anyway whilst we were away in Cornwall we used the services of a local lady to come and water the garden and tend to the chickens for part of the time as my father in law was away as well. She contacted us to let us know that Henry didn’t seem quite herself. Henry has always been the runt of the group really. She had a poorly leg not long after we got her which took a couple of weeks to heal and she had always seem the weakest. Well to cut a long story short, she died.

    The chicken lady said it seemed like she had respiratory problems and was egg bound but whatever it was she didn’t survive. Whilst it is really sad to have lost one of our girls, it is all part of life in the countryside. In fact we’ve been lucky not to lose any of the girls before now to foxes. Chicken health care isn’t exactly available and aside from some home remedies, chickens are generally expected to either make a recovery or not. Simple as that. We have debated whether or not to replace her but have decided not to immediately. Chickens can be rather bullying to newbies and as such it’s best to introduce them to an existing group slowly and in pairs. So we’ll leave it for now as a family of five and may add to our brood in the future.

    The big thing that we’ve had to do is to explain to C about Henry. She understands the idea of death but hasn’t had any direct experience of it until now. We decided to be honest about it and tell her that Henry was really poorly and the doctor couldn’t make her better. We also have a book with a story about death which explains it really nicely about a fox going to sleep forever and how his friends remember him. So when J told her he said that it was like the fox in her book. She seemed to understand and wasn’t sad but very matter of fact about life an death. Guess that’s what comes from being a country girl.

    Fruit growing · Raised beds

    Is there such as thing as too many strawberries?

    As you may know one of our raised beds is dedicated to strawberries. We planted it up last year with a couple of different varieties (none of which I can remember now) with plants of varying ages and had a very small but steady crop last year. Now I had planned to properly prune the strawberry bed in Autumn this year but things just got away from me and aside from removing the runners which had tried to escape the bed I did very little pruning. In fact I basically just left it alone. I promise you I haven’t neglected all of the garden this year. Anyway, come springtime our lovely little strawberry bed had an abundance of flowers. And we all know that flowers lead to fruit so we got rather excited about our potential harvest.

    When we set up the raised beds J put semi-circles of piping over them so that they were easy to net as you can see above and once our strawberries looked closed to ripening we covered them with a black netting as shown below.

    The netting enables bees to get in but keeps birds out. Once the strawberries were ripe it was a proper battle to keep on top of harvesting them. At peak time we were picking a kilogram or more everyday. In the end I was actually quite glad when the season ended. Aside from those which were eaten fresh we gave lots away; C took some into nursery where they made chocolate dipped strawberry ladybirds, I took some into work and we gave away lots to friends and family. I ended up freezing about 8 kilograms in the end to use up in the future. There really is something special about homegrown strawberries though, they’re so sweet that once you’ve eaten them you’ll struggle to buy regular supermarket ones again. I’ll update in the future about how we’ve started to use up our frozen ones.