Last Supper

I have been outside pottering about, seeing what’s growing and pulling up nettles, docks and dandelions that are cheekily pushing their way through between my flowers and veggies. These pesky weeds get tossed across to the three pigs who snort with excitement. Every now and again Tiger or Mog emerge from the Nepeta (catmint) to sit on my newly planted leeks. There’s work to be done and bills to be paid inside but it’s dry and I couldn’t resist staying out longer than intended.  A regular evening for me. Except it doesn’t feel quite right tonight.

Tomorrow evening the pigs are loaded onto the trailer to be fed, have a sleep and be driven to the abattoir (very local) first thing Thursday morning – so they will be first in the queue, no waiting around getting anxious.

Last Supper

This has always been the plan of course and we’ve thought about it logically lots. They’ve been reared slowly, had good food and plenty of space, been well looked after. As far as a pig’s life goes, surely these have been as happy as it gets – trees to rub themselves against, shade when they need it, great wallows which they’ve been enjoying only this morning. Ground that hadn’t been touched for years for plenty of piggy rooting around. If I’m going to buy meat I would rather know that it’s been well looked after and slowly reared both from a health point of view for my family and because I care about the animal welfare side of things. What better way to ensure this than to do it myself?

And although we’ve enjoyed having pigs in the back garden, children have loved seeing them and they’re definitely intelligent beasts, they still feel like beasts. Definitely not pets. You only have to look at the way their jaws work on a huge raw butternut squash and spend some time around them with bare legs on show in between your skirt and willies to have an awareness of this.

Of course I’ve spent many an evening in the garden thinking about how well homemade little chorizo meatballs or slithers of air dried ham will go with my broad beans too. I’m the person who’s already frozen surplus broad beans and has 20 yards of Hog Casing in the fridge in readiness for goodness sake.

But still, I was definitely thinking of giving the piggies their favourite treats tonight. Any slightly slug damaged lettuce and chard was going their way. I actually pulled up and threw over some purple orache that was perfectly healthy, looked splendid against the orange calendula and was doing nobody any harm.

After these evening snacks had been thrown in, the best thing for it this evening seemed to be some severe cutting back with my secateurs. Flowering perennials that should flower again after their harsh treatment. The cuttings were destined for the compost heap, not the piggies. The piggies weren’t even in sight. And for once I was trying not to think about future meals while gardening, a rare occurrence for me.

Accidental Harvest

I love the look of sweet peas and climbing beans growing up natural wigwams of sturdy sticks from the garden. Borlotti and purple tepee beans look great winding their colourful way up smaller ones too, especially if their scarlet and purple pods are surrounded by the very easy to grow calendula and red/purple orach.

Not having hazel in the garden but with a willow tree along the drive that regularly needs coppicing to keep it in check, we decided that willow sticks would work just as well. We turned a blind eye to the fact that they grow so easily themselves, in our eagerness to build our free and beautifully rustic looking plant supports.

accidental harvest

Surely using sticks that we have an abundance of, that bent conveniently and looked great was much better than spending money on imported canes? Enthusiastically we got out the twine and began bending and weaving.

Of course the very dead looking sticks came to life much easier than the beans. As the beans, faced with harsh weather as they emerged from the ground, began to slowly creep up the supports, the willow erupted into fertile life. Shoots burst out everywhere, giving the poor beans some fierce competition.

Feeling quite foolish, but ever optimistic about the efforts of the beans (by now the painted lady runner beans are covered in lovely red and white flowers) I looked with envy at other people’s hazel trees.

But a visit to my wonderful pig guru Carol left me a lot more cheerful about my willow teepees. Carol took Ruby and I through her orchard to see some new Berkshire piglets. Thinking of the sow who was no doubt in need of a treat, let alone extra nutrition, she tossed her some willow, explaining how good it is for pigs.

Ever since, I’ve pulling shoots from my teepees as I potter around the garden, enjoying another free way of adding to the pig’s healthy diet. Stripping the willow has never been so satisfying.

Flower Power

Had a lovely visit to my friend, Alex Stevenson’s, inspiring smallholding (www.dalecottagefarm.co.uk). She has pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, beehives and, to Ruby’s delight, a tortoise and a labradoodle called Ruby. All in a gorgeous setting.

October buckets

Alex’s smallholding nestles into a really lush little corner of rolling Worcestershire countryside, the ducks and hens share a wonderful apple orchard, there are great edible borders to paths (redcurrants and raspberries line the path from the kitchen to the pigs) and husband Rob makes wooden fencing, hurdles and great sheds!

As Alex has had pigs for several years now and tried many ways of curing the meat from air dried ham to chorizo, I was keen to find out what worked in our climate. So I’m ready to really do justice to our Berkshire pigs.

It was great seeing homemade chorizo still hanging under the shaded porch from last year. And I loved the outdoor woodburner, great for friends to gather around in the Autumn on a ‘pig day’.

Wedding flowers

But the other treat that I was keen to see at Alex’s smallholding was her flower patch. She grows gorgeous organic, English cottage garden flowers and sells them at farmers markets and for weddings. Buckets of flowers are becoming really popular, according to Alex. The village fete style look is popular and instead of opting for a costly, formal look, friends often simply fill vintage jugs or even jam jars or milk bottles with flowers.

Wedding flowers

The rainy start to our summer has made it tough for Alex this year, with annuals struggling to grow and lovely blooms being battered. But her flower patch still looks wonderful, with beautiful swathes of cornflowers and velvety Sweet Williams. She works so hard and has such a great country style, I hope the rest of the summer is easier for her.

Lazy Gardening

While I love having a garden that I can pop out into to pick dinner from, really enjoy having space for children to play in and like it to look pretty, I have come to the conclusion that I’m never going to have a neat vegetable patch with orderly rows of prize onions, carrots and cabbage. And although I admire other people’s herbaceous borders, they’re not going to make an appearance here.

Lazy Gardening 1

Much as I’m addicted to pottering around picking weeds for the pigs, gathering herbs for the kitchen and getting carried away dreaming up the meals that my edible garden is going to lead to, I obviously need to do other things too.  And besides, I’m quite partial to a ‘natural’ look in the garden – chaos, others might call it.

Lazy Gardening 2

So I’ve got into the habit of making things easy yet appealing (to my eyes anyway!) in the following ways:

Natural gardening – Luckily I prefer lots of our small flowered native flowers to the more exotic blooms that need more attention. It makes sense to me to have lots of native British plants in the garden, whether self-seeded or planted by me. They tend to thrive easily, aren’t needy, and butterflies, bees and other wildlife like them too. The Natural History Museum has a great section on its website where you enter your postcode and are given a list of plants native to your area. Obviously some are weeds, but you’ll also find herbs, wildflowers and old cottage garden plants that will probably grow with virtually zero attention in your garden.

Lazy Gardening 3

Flowers and vegetables – Companion planting such as growing borage and calendula near beans to encourage bees and nasturtiums near brassicas to deter cabbage whites is also great for covering the bare earth. I can’t see why you would have long rows of vegetables with bare earth between that constantly needs hoeing when you can plant blocks of veggies with pretty flowers around them. Having bare earth covered saves on weeding, acts as a living mulch and looks great. Okay so my calendula have now seeded everywhere and I’m not the most ruthless person when it comes to pulling them up. I have to admit that in some areas they’re smothering my borlotti beans, while the garlic’s getting a raw deal. But we have plenty to eat from the garden at the moment so I’m happy to sacrifice a bit of productivity (I’m sure I benefit from the bees elsewhere) for looks and ease. And the dark leaves of cavolo nero look so dramatic emerging from a mass of calendula!

Competing with tenacious weeds – I’ve heard people complain that plants such as mint, borage, lemon balm and comfrey are ‘terrible for taking over the garden’ and decided that as I love having plenty of lemon balm and mint for tea (especially the Moroccan variety of mint) and tabbouleh, am partial to ice cubes made with borage flowers for elderflower cordial or pimms and have become very appreciative of the nutrients in comfrey for feeding the garden, I’ll take the risk. In fact in some areas I really want plants like these that will give the weeds a run for their money. One side of our back garden borders a lovely old meadow and much as I adore looking over at the rampant cow parsley in early summer, the docks and nettles that are constantly making their way through are pesky. So I’ve planted comfrey, borage and mint right up against the fence.  And variegated lemon balm to spread prettily in some of the weed prone areas around the raspeberries. If the comfrey starts to encroach too much on areas of the garden that are destined for other things, I happily fill up a wheelbarrow with surplus plants and either use them as a mulch around veggies that are just getting established or add it to the compost heap.

Lazy Gardening 4

Hardy perennials – I’m a big fan of flowers that come up year after year and look beautiful with next to no attention. But I’m gradually finding more vegetables that fit into this easy but productive but easy category too.  Jerusalem artichokes seem to grow anywhere and are great in soups in the Autumn or winter, they’re always  a great vegetable for patches of ground where not much else will grow. I’m looking forward to planting an asparagus patch next year. And Egyptian walking onions are a recent perennial veg discovery for me. They look majestic with their tall, sturdy stems and spikes of onions at the top, are great amongst flowers, but they have so many edible uses and seem particularly suited to lazy gardening. You can use the onions that grow on top as you would spring onions. Eventually they get top heavy, topple over and take care of replanting themselves. You can dig up the little onions in the ground in Autumn or maybe eat some, leaving others to grow.

Herbs – I love the fact that many of my favourite herbs for taste (thyme, lovage, sage, rosemary, oregano, sorrel) not only look great but grow so easily. Thyme, rosemary and oregano even love rubbish soil, so you need zero effort in improving the area they’re planted in.  Lovage grows gigantic each year and you only need a leaf or two to add a celery flavour to dishes. And if you have a few perennial herbs in the garden there are always salads to be picked. Even in the winter/early spring, if I haven’t got round to planting cut-and-come again salad leaves (another lazy favourite) sorrel (particularly the buckler leaf variety), winter purslane, lemon thyme are great added to the baby leaves of any beetroot I haven’t got round to pulling up, for a quick salad.

At the moment, despite lots of things being drowned by the rain, I love the rampant look of my garden. A lime green band of chard edges the sugarsnap peas but the order is interrupted by a few rogue calendula. Self-seeded plants are going crazy – some in a slightly planned way such as the dill and vivid blue cornflowers that look so pretty together and smell wonderful when I walk near them to pick broad beans. Orange and yellow calendula, red orach (the leaves are great in salads), borage and poppies have arranged themselves nicely in one corner. And although I had to  put my foot down when too many poppies self-seeded around the raspberries (I’m determined to enjoy lots of raspberries this year and don’t want too much competition for nutrients around them), I’m very happy with the lovely magenta and lilac coloured ones that have landed accidentally but beautifully near the hollyhocks and nepeta.

When the pigs are bacon and I plant more of the back garden, there will definitely be an easy mass of wildflowers amongst fruit trees. And I’m already thinking of some beds for more perennial veggies. I would like to add a little order to the chaos with edging of some step-over pears and apples and rows of Sweet William or other flowers for cutting around the veggies. And I’d like to plant a rainbow bed with Ruby (each curve of the rainbow planted with seeds of pretty flowers of the right colour). But I’ll do my best to ensure my planting doesn’t need labouring over all weekend. Pretty and edible would be great but time to play hide and seek in it is essential. And some decadent time to lounge in a hammock between the trees would be nice.

As happy as pigs in…

I am all for cosy rainy afternoons watching films with homemade popcorn or even rainy walks that make you appreciate a hot chocolate in a warm kitchen, but I’m starting to think there’s been quite enough rain for July.

Happy as Pigs 1

The combination of continuous rain and determined rooters has resulted in the muddiest mud I’ve ever seen in the pigs’ area. When I go in to feed them, I’m constantly in danger of landing flat on my back, it’s so slippery! And I’m so used to regularly having a bit of mud on my legs, I’m hardly aware of it these days.

Happy as Pigs 2

Already aware that mud is the word far more likely to be associated with my legs than glamour, I had a firm reminder recently. Taking Ruby to her Friday afternoon gymnastics class, we arrived just slightly late as usual, after feeding the pigs. I soon settled into the lovely late Friday afternoon wind down for the weekend mode. It’s so relaxing sitting on a school hall bench, watching the children for a whole hour and chatting to the other Mums. Impossible to do any work or chores, just look forward to the weekend.

Happy as Pigs 4

Admiring the new haircut and natural looking spray tan that one of my friends had treated herself to ready for her birthday party, I suddenly noticed with horror my own bare limbs. Brown too, but because of the generous amount of pig mud splattered over them of course. A little reminder of our different lifestyles!

Happy as Pigs 3

I’m very comfortable with my muddy lifestyle of course. But not quite as happy with the real squelchy nature of the mud in our garden as the three not-quite-so-little piggies. Given any brief interlude of sun they adore wallowing in the stuff. And the rain’s made the soil so incredibly soft that they can get their snouts down to an incredible depth when they’re rooting. Treating themselves to all sorts of edible goodies. As happy as pigs in…

Summery Food for Rainy Days

Summery food for rainy daysIt may look grim outside but the glut of new potatoes, broad beans and strawberries from the garden is still telling me that it’s summer. So my daily harvest may be very muddy but it’s cheering me up on this very rainy week. I’m enjoying it in the following ways:

Broad Beans:

When I pod the first tiny beans that are so tender they’re delicious raw, it reminds me why it’s worth bothering to grow your own – you never see them this small or fresh to buy do you? I love the first little beans just podded, mixed with olive oil, torn basil and shavings of parmesan (I use a potato peeler) and seasoned. They’re great as a salad or on bruschetta. But my favourite broad bean bruschetta is to cook a handful of podded beans for a couple of minutes, then squash them with a fork, mix with olive oil, a little garlic, salt, pepper, chopped mint and basil. Piled onto garlicky toasted bread, with a little olive oil drizzled on top, they’re yummy. Continue reading

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