Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Freezing your homegrown produce

I've been experimenting. My kitchen is currently filled with plastic bags, a large array of saucepans, colanders, jugs, sieves and funnels. There's also a pervading odour of boiling vegetables.

A combination of Mother Nature, lots of worm poo, care & and attention and sheer luck, has produced a vast quantity of vegetables and fruit from my vegetable patch. Perhaps I need to get better at timing my planting so as to stagger my harvest, but this year everything has arrived at once. I'm doing pretty well munching my way through a wide variety of salad leaves but there's only a certain amount of peas one girl can eat. Some of the extra produce, I'm donating to friends and family but it seems a shame not to try to keep back some of the produce to use later on in the year.

So, I'm attempting to freeze my homegrown vegetables and fruit.

My Mum is expert at freezing vegetables (not her only talent, I should point out), having had plenty of practice freezing the excess produce from my Dad's vegetable patch. She tells me that there are many vegetables and fruit that will still taste delicious several months after freezing- reassuring me that they won't lose their taste or flavour.

Peas and beans are ideal for freezing. I blanched the beans by boiling them in water for a few minutes, and then popped them into plastic bags and into the freezer. With the peas, I shelled them first, which is a really satisfying job. I highly recommend doing it in the sunshine with a glass of something chilled and white. I then blanched them slightly, bagged them up and popped them in the freezer. My Mum's top tip for freezing peas is to make sure you use young, juicy ones, rather than older, starchier ones.

Tomatoes are very versatile and can be frozen raw or cooked. I began by cooking the tomatoes, then peeling them but, after a while, I decided it was just as easy to leave them raw and decide what to do with them when I want to use them. Freezing tomatoes means you will need to cook them after defrosting them because they will go a bit mushy but this is perfectly harmless.

Herbs are also great for freezing and, unlike dried herbs, can be used in the same quantities as when fresh. Although herbs will look limp and when defrosted, this will not affect their flavour as this will stay for several months after being frozen. You don't need to blanch them and they can just be bagged and frozen straight away. I've read that you can can put a few herbs into ice cube trays, mixed with water, and this makes a convenient way to use them straight from frozen as you simply plonk the ice cube straight into whatever you're cooking. Personally, I haven't tried this as my ice cube trays are fully stocked and ready for the evening G&Ts but it does, nevertheless, seem like a good idea.

Berry fruits just cry out to be frozen! You can make mixed bags of whatever takes your fancy, such as raspberries, blackcurrants and gooseberries, put them in the freezer after washing and de-stalking them, and you'll have readymade mixtures for crumbles, jams, pies and any number of delicious treats.

And finally, a useful but easily forgotten (if you're me) tip: label all your bags! It's really annoying if you come to find a bag of beans and can't distinguish it from the gooseberries. Sounds silly? Believe me, things look different covered in ice.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

We've got bees!

Wednesday was a very exciting day! I learnt that bees march. They really do!

I came across this fascinating piece of information when Richard, our Farm Manager and, so it seems resident bee keeper, came across a swarm of bees flying about outside our office.

Rob immediately got excited at the prospect of an excuse to leave his desk and was off and out of the office as fast as if the bees had been wriggling about in his pants.

Five minutes later, he'd donned a bee-keeper's outfit and was in and amongst the swarm with Expert Richard. The bees we've now got on the farm are pretty chilled out as bees go and the risk of being stung is pretty minimal. Richard says that his at home are much more aggressive and that we are very fortunate to have "such beauties." Nonetheless, full hat, wellies and gloves were worn, just in case.

To keep and care for a swarm of bees, you've got to house them somewhere. Not only that, you've got to convince them that they want to live in the house that you're providing them with. So, Richardset up a box, near to where the bees were hanging out, with some ivy honey that his bees had made last year, to entice them.

After a couple of days, the box was full of bees happily munching on honey. Next job was to get them into a hive, which will become their permanent home. And this is where the marching comes in. Richard placed the box near to the opening of the hive, put some honey into the hive and waited. Before long, hundreds of bees were marching up the ramp into their new home. Magic! A few were dawdling, so these were helped along with the aid of a dustpan to scoop them up, although Richard assures us no bees were injured during this process.

Once installed in their hive, Richard has to settle them in and eventually get them making honey. The process of making honey will take at least 2 years.

To me, the buzzing of bees is synonymous with Summer. A lazy, sunny day just wouldn't be the same without that familiar hum. Unfortunately though, bees are on the decline, thanks to a multitude of reasons, mostly connected with modern living.

I try to keep this blog pretty light-hearted but I hope you'll excuse a rather chilling quote from Albert Einstein who makes things pretty clear: "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

Safe to say, we're pretty excited about having our own bees to nurture. Bees are great to have around the place. Not only will we hopefully get honey from them but they're brilliant at helping with pollination throughout the farm. They're especially useful for pollinating our strawberries, tomatoes, blueberries, peas and beans.

Watch a video of Richard encouraging the bees into their new home- look closely and you'll see the bees marching. (Apologies for the wonky angle!)

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

An Edible Garden at Glastonbury & other festival tales

We're very excited to be doing the round of festivals this year. Having just done a very successful stint at Sunrise festival, we'll also be taking Rocket Gardens out on the road over the summer, heading to, amongst others, Port Elliot, Gilfest, Camp Bestival & Harvest at Jimmy's.
Right now though, we're busy polishing our wellies, packing our shewee's and practising our sunshine dances- we're off to Glastonbury this weekend!

The Rocket Gardens crew is heading up the A303 to build a shed with an edible roof! In keeping with our mission to get everyone to joing the grow your own revolution, we're working with Greenpeace to design and build the tasty structure. The roof will be made up of 24,000 plants, crafted lovingly into a Greenpeace logo.

John, our resident computer whizz has been released from the confiines of his laptop and into the wilds of Somerset to get to work on the building of the shed, before the rest of us join him in time for the start of the festival. He sent us this photo:

It seemed a shame not to use all those plants for something a bit more useful afterwards though. So, we figured if would be the perfect opportunity to support Garden Organic's One Pot Pledge. Like us, they're working hard trying to encourage more people to have a go at growing their own veg', so we thought we'd try to help them out a bit. From midday on Sunday, festival-goers can stop by the Greenpeace stand and pick up a bit of Glastonbury to take home with them. When they sign up to the One Pot Pledge, they will be able to choose a plant from the Rocket Gardens roof display. We're hoping that people will recycle plastic cups by using them to carry their plant in, so that we can help with the big Glasto' clear-up, too!

Friday, 18 June 2010

Slugs and snails!

Slugs are part of a garden's natural habitat, so I prefer to think about keeping the little blighters away from my plants, rather than necessarily destroying them.

With this in mind, I have learnt that regular weeding is imperative as this ensures there are less hiding places for slugs and snails. Similarly, regular picking of crops, particularly leaves, can be effective. Picking strawberries, beans etc. regularly means there is less to tempt the creepy crawlies anyway.

One of the stranger pieces of advice I have received was to think like a slug and act accordingly. A bit weird but also oddly handy. Slugs like to hang out on and in walls, so it makes sense that if you plant things near a wall, the slugs have less far to travel and are more likely to munch your crops there. Canny planting can thus make a real difference to the survival of your crops.

Also, slugs are partial to a midnight snack or two, so a night-time patrol and launching a surprise attack can catch quite a few in the act. I've taken to doing this and (maybe I lead quite a dull life) but it can get quite exciting. Peering behind a leaf, only to discover a slug mid-munch, then removing it carefully to the safety of a distant patch of undergrowth, can be really rather satisfying.

I can anticipate, however, a time when my nightly sojourns become slightly irksome. When this happens, I'm reserving my special weapon- beer. It turns out that slugs and snails are both partial to a drop or two of ale. Place a glass of beer next to the plants and the sugary, hoppy liquid will attract them. They'll then climb up the glass, plop into the beer, get drunk and drown. No all that ceremonious but it's a way to get rid of slugs and snails more permanently, when you're really fed up, without resorting to chemicals or sprays.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010


Rob's been on his travels again. This time to the Big Smoke- London! It doesn't happen very often and it's quite an occasion when he does- he even shaved his beard this time.

He was up there to help out with a rather quirky and exciting project with Cafe Direct. They wanted to film him doing what the Rocket Team happen to think he does rather well: plant stuff.

The Cafe Direct crew have rather cunningly managed to acquire bits and pieces belonging to celebrities, which they've then used as plant containers. And Rob was the man to help them out! Hence, he found himself attacking Stella McCartney's handbag with an electric drill to make drainage holes. Absolute sacrilege, if you ask me!

Designer handbag massacre aside, Rob's adventures have definitely inspired me to want to have a go at growing my own strawberries. And I'm in good company it would seem, as the story goes that Henry VIII loved them and even ate them as a cure for gout.

Strawberries do need a bit of tender loving care- pretty and delicious as they are, they're also ever-so-slightly temperamental.

I'm using traditional strawberry plants, which are far more straightforward to grow than runners. Runners arrive in a dormant state and need to be soaked in water for half an hour and then planted, before they'll spark back into life. They then grow horizontal shoots, which then grow individual roots themselves. Whilst runners can produce more fruit than just plants, if you've only got a small amount of space, they can be a bit of a hassle because they'll root themselves in amongst gaps between other plants and take over. As a novice grower, I've decided to steer clear from this method of growing strawberries, for now.

I'm going to plant a couple of rows of strawberry plants in one of raised beds in the garden- this will hopefully keep me in strawberries for most of the Summer. I'm using an early variety (Honeoye), a mid-season variety (Cambridge Favourite) and a late variety (Judibell) in order to spread out the harvest.

I may well also plant a few pots on a window sill - partly as an experiment to see which grow best and partly because they'll look so pretty. That's the beauty of strawberries, it seems to me though: they'll grow in a variety of locations....pots, raised beds, gro-bags; inside or outside.

Strawberries love lots of compost and also a layer of straw laid amongst the plants keeps them protected and happy. I'm fast becoming a fan of worm cast fertiliser, so I'll put a good handful of it in each hole, before popping in each plant.

Strawberries really dislike the cold and frost can kill them so it's really important to cover them in fleece until all danger of frost has passed.

Because of their beautiful, brightly-coloured fruit, strawberries have quite a few admirers in the animal kingdom: slugs, snails, birds and badgers are all partial to the fruit. Regular checking of the plants and removing any pesky slugs and snails will hopefully solve that problem. Covering the plants in netting should stop birds from attacking. Badgers could prove a little more tricky, however....I'll keep you posted.

Although a little nervous that my plants survive, I'm really excited about picking my first crop of fruit and eating whole piles of them, slathered in Cornish Clotted Cream!

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Borlotti Beans

I stumbled upon this contraption in one of the store rooms at Rocket HQ the other day and was immediately intrigued. Was it a miniature maypole? I realised probably not.

It's actually a climbing frame for Borlotti beans. Brilliant!

Borlotti beans grow on climbing plants and the plants need something to climb up, otherwise they droop over. The particular contraption that I found has 8 strings stemming from a central pole. Each string can be pulled out straight and secured with what looks like a tent peg. It's quite compact, so can be used in a container, as well as in beds.

One Borlotti seedling can be planted next to each string and as it grows it will wind itself round the string, keeping it nice and vertical. As they get taller, I'll probably have to secure them with ties, just to make sure they stay put.

It's also possible to use canes for growing beans on (runners being another climbing bean.) You can either place them individually in rows or make a tepee by placing them several canes in a circle, then tying them together at the top or placing a topper on it. If you've got a bit of space, you can also use netting.

I'm keen to use my new-found contraption though and so I'm going to stick with the climbing frame.

Borlotti plants are best sown outside from May onwards, when they are at least 5cm in height. Considering it's been so cold this year (there was snow up in Scotland yesterday, apparently!) I'm running the risk of killing them by planting them out right now but with a blog to write, I've got to plant something! It might be best to hold fire for a couple of weeks before planting them. Either that, or cover the baby plants up with fleece to protect them from the frost.

When choosing a spot to plant Borlottis, consider that they like plenty of sunshine. Dig a small hole, sprinkle in a small handful of organic fertiliser and then pop in the plant. They like plenty of space so try not to plant them too close together. An ideal space would be 30cm between each plant. Once they start flowering, they will need regular watering.

Marigolds are a good companion for Borlottis as they will help keep the bugs away. Slugs and snails are also partial to these particular plants so I'll have to do regular checks. If they do become a problem, I'm going to try sprinkling used filter coffee granules round the base of the plants, as this apparently is a deterrent. If that fails to work then I'll have to resort to the glass of beer trick, which draws the slugs in and then drowns them- a bit gruesome though!

Borlotti beans should be ready to harvest from August onwards. You can tell they're ready when the pods turn cream. Before that, they'll be speckled with red.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Earthing Up Potatoes

My potatoes are looking 'andsome!

In just a few weeks, the plants have shot up and are now a good foot or so high, with a thick covering of leaves. This means that the potatoes, hidden underneath the ground, should be growing well, too.

Unfortunately, just as the wanted plants are growing, so too are the weeds and so today it was time for a little bit of weeding. Luckily, the unwanted weeds were small enough to be pulled up by hand, which I did in between each row of potato plants.

The space now looking much clearer, I was told by my resident expert, to 'earth up' round the potatoes. As they get bigger, there is a danger that the potatoes themselves will start to emerge from the soil. This is bad news because, once in contact with the sunlight, they will turn green and become inedible. So, I scooped soil from in between the rows and mounded it on to each row of potatoes. This makes the depth between air and potato deeper, making it less likely for the potatoes to pop up as they continue to grow.

With any luck, I reckon I'll be eating home-grown potatoes by the end of May.