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.

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    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.

    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.

    Raised beds · Vegetable growing

    Preparing the raised beds for planting season

    As you know last year my husband and I designed and built our own raised beds which proved to be a really great way for us to grow our vegetables. At the end of last years growing season we covered the empty beds with cardboard (to prevent weed growth) and just left them alone for the winter. So when it looked like it might be actually getting warm enough to plant some seeds I started to ready the beds for the season.

    Two out of our six beds are occupied already with perennial crops (asparagus in one, strawberries in the other) so they need slightly different treatment but I’ll save that for another day. A good amount of the cardboard cover had began to compost down so I started by removing any large remaining pieces and then used a hand fork to thoroughly turn over all the compost to ensure it was lump free and crumbly. I’ve not added any extra nutrients to our beds this year but will probably give the crops some appropriate boosts once they have begun growing. I tried to plan out what to grow in the beds but have kept dithering about exactly what to go for so I’ve ended up starting with what we really enjoyed from our crops last year.

    We’ve planted one bed so far. Just with seeds directly sown into the ground rather than trying to grow seedlings and then transplanting them. We’ll thin as required, the chickens really enjoy seedlings and we have loads of free seeds from gardening magazines. Two of our stand out crops from last year were turnips and carrots. We only planted one row of turnips last year and we found they grew really well and were delicious. We really enjoyed turnip in soups and it is a great staple roast dinner side dish. Not only that but they grow relatively quickly, freeing up the ground for more crops. The second crop was a relatively late addition to our vegetable garden last year but became a firm favourite. As a late addition (we actually planted some in the space left by the turnips last year) we only had a small crop but they were probably the vegetable where we noticed the biggest taste difference with shop bought varieties. Carrots too are a relatively quick growing crop so the pair are well matched.

    So our first raised bed has two rows each of carrots (Nantes variety) and turnips (Purple Top Milan variety). If it turns out to be too early and too cold to have planted them then we haven’t really lost much more than a few seeds. Let’s wait and see in a few weeks if we have any sign of life, fingers crossed. Next week I’ll have a go at planting one of our other beds up though with what I haven’t quite decided yet.

    Life in the Countryside · Raised beds · Recreation area · Vegetable growing

    Cutting the asparagus back

    So our asparagus crowns went in in April and for the first year you are supposed to not harvest them at all and let the foliage grow wild so that the crowns can really develop and establish. It was lovely to see the spears appear from the ground but as they grew into foliage the bed looked a bit messy.


    So when it comes to Autumn and the foliage starts to turn brown and die back you can cut the stems back to about one inch above the ground and them mulch the bed. 


    The bed now looks so much neater and hopefully we will have a good crop next year. One of the crowns does look a little weaker than the others but fingers crossed it will still produce well. It may seem a pain to have to not harvest it in the first year, but as crowns can typically last for 20 years, leaving one years worth of harvest in order to have 20 years of excellent harvest seems a small sacrifice to make. Hopefully it will pay off next year. 

    Life in the Countryside · Raised beds

    Preparing the raised beds for the winter

    So although I have debated about whether to plant more things in the raised beds to try and grow them over winter, I have decided not to and to leave them empty and ready for Spring. Now there are three reasons for this. Firstly I’m looking forward to a bit of a rest from the gardening over the winter, not that there won’t be things to do but there certainly won’t be as many. Secondly, I want to make sure that I can start my planting for the summer as early as possible and don’t want to have to wait for other crops to come out. And thirdly, and possibly most importantly, I’m not a big fan of many of the crops that you can put in at this time of year. So I’ve decided to leave some of the raised beds empty for the summer. I will try to do something to build up the nutrients in the soil possible, but otherwise they will be empty. The asparagus and strawberries stay in their beds (read how they’ve been prepared for winter in a forthcoming post or two) but the pumpkin bed is currently empty as is the bed which had housed baby corn and broad beans. The other two beds should be mostly empty shortly apart from my experimental leeks which will be there through winter. But for now I’ll start with two beds. 


    So the beds have been emptied of any plant matter including as many roots as I could pull up. I then forked them over using a hand fork so that the soil was loose. I also ensured that any weeds were removed, especially important that the roots of these are removed as well. I have decided to add some more compost in the Spring as part of my bed preparation so for now I just want to prevent any weeds growing. So what I’ve done is covered the bed with cardboard and weighted it down with left over bags of compost/grit/manure/anything lying around. Hopefully that means that at least some of the weeds are kept from appearing and it should rot down enough just to be dug into the soil in the Spring. At least that’s what I’m hoping, I guess time will tell if I’ve done enough to keep the weeds at bay. What does anyone else do to prepare their garden for the winter?

    Raised beds · Vegetable growing

    The death of the broad beans

    Our broad beans were grown from plants bought from the garden centre to fill a gap as we were rather late in getting the raised beds finished. So I wasn’t too precious about them really. We had a few the other week but most of them weren’t ready before we went on holiday. Unfortunately, by the time we had come back from holiday they had been hit by what is known as rust. I did open some pods to check if the beans were alright but they weren’t, they were a write off. So we’ve had to dig them up and bin them (bin rather than compost for any diseased plants in our house). Not exactly what we would have hoped for but nevermind. Next year they will hopefully be in the field and will get more of the attention that they need. 

    Raised beds · Vegetable growing

    When to pick a pumpkin

    Now as I’m sure I’ve said before, pumpkins were very much a novelty item for us. J doesn’t really like them, neither does C (I think, I haven’t really tried her with them since she was weaning) but I do like pumpkin soup as a nice winter warmer. But I had some seeds free from a magazine so I’d planted two next to each other and then once the seedlings had appeared removed the weaker seedling. The pumpkins had been planted in a raised bed with the cauliflowers (naively I had thought the cauliflowers would be out by the time the pumpkin got to any size, how wrong that was). We’ve had moments when they started to invade the rest of the garden and had to be cut back. 


    I ended up cutting it back to leave us with a total of two good pumpkins. It has been quite fascinating to watch not only as they grew in size but also slowly changed in colour.




    So you can see they have grown quite a bit and slowly changed colour as they’ve ripened. So after a little bit of research about when to pick them (tap them and a hollow sound is a good indication) as the vine was starting to die back by itself I decided to bite the bullet and cut them. 


    You can see that the stem has already started to darken to the traditional look that you see in shops. So now we are going to leave them for a few weeks to finish the hardening. Apparently if stored in a cool and dry place they can last for a good six months so even though they have been picked now they should still be good until Halloween when we can try our first carving! Now I have about a month to find some good pumpkin recipes. Any suggestions? 

    Raised beds · Vegetable growing

    Harvesting carrots

    So carrots this year for us were very much a ‘let’s just chuck some seeds in this empty space and see what happens’ kind of thing. I had some free seeds from a magazine and a bit of a gap from where some of our beetroot seeds hadn’t taken so C and I just threw some in to see what happened. When C is sowing seeds they tend to be rather unevenly sown, try explaining ‘sow thinly’ to a toddler! I wasn’t really expecting any of them to come to much, it was more a bit of fun for C. We have since sown a few carrots into a pot by the side of the house, and a last few into the raised bed. It’s been quite exciting watching the tops emerge and thrive but of course you don’t really get an idea of what the soil is hiding. 


    One of the biggest pest risks to carrots is carrot fly. They are attracted to the scent of the carrots apparently (I never really smell carrots but apparently they have a scent which attracts the bugs). So it’s best to try and avoid disturbing the soil until you are pulling them up. When I was pulling them up though I was surprised that there really was a carrot smell. As they were so closely sown (and as I did no thinning whatsoever) there are some very interestingly shaped ones where they haven’t had enough space to really grow, but I still am very proud. I think we’ll just give them a clean and then cook them whole, unpeeled or maybe try them raw with some hummus. 




    I think it will be a few more weeks until we can start harvesting our next batch but I think I would definitely plant a few more carrots next year. I don’t think we would ever manage to grow enough to be self sufficient in them (we do go through a lot) but we could certainly have a few little tasters during the year. Not bad for a packet of free seeds really (Grow your own magazine, Autumn King 2 variety for anyone who’s interested) and we still have plenty of seeds left for next year. 

    Raised beds · Vegetable growing

    Broad beans

    So the broad beans were really J’s idea. He is a big fan of them and has been really keen to grow some beans but as our final bed was rather late getting filled we’d had to pick up whatever plants we could find to grow rather than starting them off ourselves from seed. Hence we’ve ended up with broad beans. Now I’ve not really given them much attention at all apart from including them on my usual nightly watering. A month or so ago I saw that they had flowers appearing and shortly after I discovered they were being ravaged by aphids.


    I told J to give them some attention (spraying with diluted washing up liquid is supposed to get rid of them) but I don’t think he got round to it as we had a fair bit on trying to sort the cabin. For future reference it is recommended that you pinch out the tops of the plants once the flowers develop to help prevent nasties. No matter as they seemed to dissipate on their own  (helped I feel by the ladybirds I spotted on the corn) and I noticed the pods begin to develop. 


    Now as I’m not an experienced broad bean consumer I had to look up how to know when to harvest them. You can either harvest when they are about 3 inches long to consume the pods whole or you can wait until the beans are clearly visible to shell them and consume whole. Consensus seems to be that if you leave them so long that the line down the spine turns black then the beans will be inedible. 

    We didn’t really have enough to make a meal out of when we picked our first batch a couple of weeks ago so we shelled them (great activity for a toddler) and blanched and froze them for a future meal when we have some more picked.