The Straw Cottage

eco-accommodation and growing experiments on a small scale

Leave a comment

Ripe apples

2013 was a fantastic year for apples. I was obviously very impressed judging by the number of photos I took! At home we have an old tree in the garden with apples that ripen in August. They are a soft apple and won’t store (but they are lovely fresh or frozen in yogurt pots as apple sauce).

Apple sauce ready to freeze

Apple sauce ready for the freezer in a handy sized pot

I took some of these apples to an RHS identification day where the expert, Jim Arbury, told me they were a variety called Bushey Grove (RHS award of merit 1922). I do have a little doubt over this as the information I’ve read says that they are harvested October to December but few remain on our tree by October. Also Auntie Dolly reckons the tree was planted before 1920 and the first ever Bushey Grove tree only fruited in 1910. Would it really have made it from Kent to a Yorkshire garden by 1920?
Apple tree Bushey Grove

An RHS expert identified the apples on this tree as Bushey Grove

Anyway, whatever its name, we love the apples from this tree. With it ripening so early though, it is very popular with wasps. Our favourite eating apple tree, Discovery, is also early and plagued by wasps. However, knowing how fabulous a freshly picked Discovery is, I was tempted to buy three more bare rooted trees at a local sale last spring. I planted them in buckets for this year and let them carry one or two fruits each. They definitely weren’t Discovery! I took these to the expert too and he told me they were Jupiter (RHS award of merit 1993). I’m not disappointed though. They are nice sweet apples with the added bonus that they ripen much later – long after the wasps have gone for the year. I now have an extended eating apple season!
Discovery apples

2013 was a great year for Discovery apples

Jupiter apples

This tree was labelled Discovery in the sale but actually the apples are Jupiter

I now have an extended cooking apple season too. When I was told that this gorgeous tree at Village Farm was a Bramley Seedling I wasn’t very impressed – I’ve never been a fan of shop bought ones.
Bramley seedling apple

Bramley Seedling apple tree in full bloom at Village Farm

However, having so many other apples to deal with, the Bramleys were left untouched. They were still on the tree in November and I still have some keeping well just in a bowl now. They are delicious raw or cooked so don’t be put off by Bramleys picked far too early for commercial reasons – they are 100 times better when left to mature on the tree!
Bramley Seedling apples

Bramley seedling apples like you don’t see them in the shops!

I’m sure that if I’d picked more back in November and stored them correctly, they would last a lot longer. Aunty Dolly recommends storing a few in plastic bags in a cold outbuilding, putting pin pricks in the bags so the apples don’t sweat. The advantage of this over wrapping them in newspaper is that you can instantly see if any are going bad and remove them.
It was also a good year for wild crab apples. I made this bowlful into chilli jelly. I made some into a mint jelly too but next year that experiment will need more mint!
crab apples

2013 was a good year for wild crab apples too

The thing with all these apple sauces and jellies though, is the amount of sugar needed to preserve them. I cut it down in the chilli jelly recipe but then it needed a lot longer on the boil to achieve a set. We did juice quite a lot of eaters and froze some to drink later. That was lovely without any added sweetness. My friend Judy makes wonderful apple crisps in her dehydrator. The variety she used didn’t need any sugar and were absolutely delicious. I’m looking out for a second hand one so that I can trial my varieties dried. Seems we need electricity to either prepare or store most apples!

Leave a comment

Ripe pumpkins

Taking shelter from a heavy storm on Saturday, I flicked through a pile of Farmer’s Guardians. I always like to have a quick read through before recycling – even though my pile can get quite big sometimes. I’m keeping myself up to date with news in the farming world mostly but in the 18 October 2013 edition a recipe for pumpkin, apple and cider soup took my eye. I have 2 huge pumpkins left over from last year – and the onions and cooking apples that were needed too.

pumpkin and apple

A home grown pumpkin (Tom Fox) and apple (Bramley Seedling)

I’ve just made the soup for lunch. I started by softening a chopped onion in a knob of butter (the recipe said oil but I think butter always makes a tastier soup). Then a two inch cube of chopped ginger was added, together with half a teaspoon of allspice and a pinch of cayenne, stirring for a further minute or two. Next a peeled and chopped cooking apple and 800g cubed pumpkin flesh was added and softened for a while before adding 500 ml chicken stock and 200ml cider (I had to dink the remaining 368 ml in the bottle of course!). The soup was then simmered for 15 minutes, seasoned and blitzed.
It’s quite a sweet soup, with a ginger kick. It’s fairly nice but I think it needs a bit of something else. Perhaps I should roast the seeds in some spices to sprinkle on top? However, I will try to keep some of the seeds to plant this year too. It’s a Tom Fox variety from the Garden Organic catalogue. I know the seeds won’t come true as I had other varieties nearby but it’s worth a little experiment if I have space.
As I perused the cookery books in a charity shop last week, a Gordon Ramsay book (Kitchen Heaven) fell open at baked pumpkin so I felt obliged to part with 50p. The pumpkin looks great in the page size photo so I’ll have a go at that next. There is also a recipe for pumpkin and parmesan soup in the same book – together with his tips for choosing pumpkin – should be nice and ripe or the dish will be” tasteless and anaemic”. He recommends a dark brown, quite wrinkly skin and bright orange flesh that smells strongly of sweet pumpkin. I think mine fits that bill – hopefully the proof will be in the baking.
I mentioned Carole Deppe in my Potato notes 2013. She is the author of The Resilient Gardener which has a chapter on pumpkin and squash too – one of her staples. She has trialled lots of varieties and selected her favourites for storing, eating fresh and drying. The varieties may not be available in the UK but the chapter makes fascinating reading (as does the rest of the book).

Leave a comment

The good old days?

The second speaker up on arable farm day at ORFC14 was Henry Edmunds, a Wiltshire organic farmer. Henry is an advocate of rotational ley farming – pretty much how farming was pre WW2 when grass and grazing animals improved soil ready for combinable crops later in the rotation. Over the last 60 years arable farms have become dependent on machinery and chemicals, creating a clinical environment. Grazed animals, on the other hand, build high organic matter in the soil – holding and providing more plant available nutrients. Henry showed amazing photo after photo of flowers, birds, butterflies and other insects on his farm to illustrate the biodiversity his farming methods encouraged.

Henry employs 15 staff on his 2,500 acre holding. I know that is a much higher employment rate than on most large modern farms. A quick online search found a report from the UK Food Group stating that there was roughly 1 person employed per 210 hectares (520 acres) of arable crops in 1993. On that basis Henry would employ 5 people (probably less now as employment rates have continued to decline in the last 20 years), so he is doing at least three times better than the UK average.

The same report stated that in 1950, 1 person was employed per 31 hectares (77 acres) so back then Henry’s farm would have provided a livelihood for 32 people. Agricultural work in 1950 was physically very demanding and I wouldn’t recommend a return to the past in that way – there’s nothing wrong with appropriate machinery making physical tasks easier. But 32 clever human brains working to improve natural and agricultural biodiversity – now that would be interesting work.

Leave a comment

Oxford Real Farming Conference – biodiversity first and foremost

There has been an annual farming conference in Oxford for 68 years. This “alternative” one I attended was in its 5th year. There were more speakers and more attendees at the alternative conference – but no Royalty, no Ministers and no mainstream press! In this and following blog posts I’m going to discuss the speakers I listened to. There were many others as you can see on the website.

Julian Hosking was first up for me. He talked about how the importance of biodiversity isn’t restricted to wild species – it needs to be built into farming species too. Of the hundreds of thousands of plant species on Earth, only a few thousand are cultivated for food and three crops – rice, wheat and maize – account for 60% of the calories and protein obtained by humans from plants. There is a great deal of single trait selection going on in these crops too, such as wheat varieties bred for higher gluten content.

Six huge corporations control 60% of agricultural seeds and 76% of the chemicals used to grow them (Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, Bayer, Dow and DuPont). As an aside, I suspect that companies such as these are behind recent EU moves to make it illegal for small growers or gardeners to collect and swap their own seed. This is a really worrying situation and I would strongly urge anyone reading to support the heritage seed library run by or look at the Saving seed is certainly something I need to do more of in the future.

Julian mentioned yield may not be maximised in a polycultural system but resilience would be. I think it depends how you define yield. I hope I can show that we can have biodiversity, yield and resilience.
Before I started on my Village Farm plot last spring I counted 9 main species (in order of dominance – couch grass, dandelions, ryegrass, white clover, creeping buttercup, nettles, docks, thistles and chickweed). As I reseed areas over the next few years I hope to include at least 40 species of traditional grasses, herbs and wild flowers.

In the new vegetable beds on the Village Farm plot last year I grew potatoes (3 varieties), amaranth (2), quinoa, strawberries (3), asparagus (3), peas (2), mange tout (3), climbing beans (2), broad beans (2), French beans (3), lettuce (5), leeks (2), onions (7), carrots (5), beetroot (4), cabbage (2), kale, kohlrabi (2), turnips, radish (3), calabrese, courgette (3), summer squash, pumpkin (2), sweet corn, rainbow chard, parsnip and mizuna. That’s at least 28 crop types in total. Year on year, the aim is to increase both the number of crops and the varieties of each.
At the end of each vegetable bed I planted a flower bed which included mainly borage, pot marigolds, alyssum, lupins and French marigolds. The borage was far too big for those beds so I need to move that elsewhere next time (the bees absolutely love it). Again – aim to increase flower species year on year.

Leave a comment

Sunshine and swirls

I’ve had an hour weeding the vegetable beds in glorious sunshine yesterday afternoon – what a tonic! And I picked fresh carrots, celery, parsley and rosemary to make chilli for tea. Quite amazing for January – it’s been so mild (so far). I also went into the greenhouse to get a chilli pepper. I’ve been quite behind (lazy?) and not got the greenhouse cleaned out yet but the chillies are quite happy in there and I ate two very sweet cherry tomatoes still on the vine too!!!

Monday and Tuesday last week I went to the Oxford Real Farming Conference. It’s a very inspirational gathering of agro ecological like minds. I have lots to tell in next posts but to start on a lighter note – an organic beef farmer from Cornwall was saying how, with the breed of cattle he kept (Stabilisers), he could tell if the cow was good natured or not by the position of the hair swirl on her face; if it was above the centre line of her eyes, she would be sure to clear the gate. If it was lower, she would be a more placid cow.

So I have been examining our varied cow breeds to see if the same applies. We have one just calved that would kill you as soon as look at you and her swirl is very high (hubby assured me from a safe distance!). But this one – Bronte – has a high swirl too and she is as docile as they come.

Bronte the cow

Our cow called Bronte

This one is Harriet – my favourite young heifer – her swirl is well below her eyes.
Harriet the heifer

Harriet is a young heifer in our breeding herd

Harriet is expecting her fist calf in the next month or two. I persuaded hubby to keep her in the breeding herd. She is a really bonny colour and I have a soft spot for her mother- very good commercial reasons! Her mother is 226 (before I started naming them) and she has been on the farm for 13 years now. She was destined for slaughter but was accidentally caught by the bull and no one noticed until it was too late. She had that first calf by caesarean section as she was too young really but she reared it well. The next year, her second calf was born small (we nicknamed it “Handbag”) and we battled for months to keep it alive until it eventually died. It would then be good business sense to have fattened 226 and sell her for meat but she was such a good mother and very quiet to do with that we decided to give her another year. Then she was lame and that really should have been curtains for her as that usually means constant foot trouble. But she recovered and has had 7 trouble free calves since – the 8th due soon.

Anyway, back to the swirls – there doesn’t seem to be any rigid pattern with our cows. Best to treat them all with the healthy respect a 600-800 kilo animal deserves. Even the quiet ones can be very dangerous – especially when they have just calved.


Plants v animals

This is my reply to Jon re his comments on my last post about diet. There was probably a “reply to comment” button but I couldn’t see it! Oh, well………………..

Hi Jon. Many thanks for your kind words about my straw work. We have just got planning permission to build another straw house at Village Farm, so that is very exciting!
Also thanks for your thoughts on a plant based diet. I have many vegetarian friends and absolutely respect their choice. My main issue is from a resilient food production point of view – how much of a vegetarian diet can be grown in this country? If you could analyse your diet in terms of % potentially UK grown I’d be really interested.
I’ve just read a book called Grain Brain by Dr David Perlmutter. It is recently published and is written around new research which confirms that a high carb/low fat diet is definitely not going to help your heart and can in fact do an awful lot of damage to your nervous system. Our brain is made up of mostly fat and it is vital we eat plenty in our diet to keep it in good health – with animal fat being the best kind. The book also explores the huge amount of damage done to human health by sugar and gluten – whether you exhibit intestinal symptoms or not.
The best fats this country can produce are grass fed animal ones – beef and lamb primarily. Grass (but more especially herb rich meadows) produces meat high in omega 3’s and there are biodiversity bonuses too (which I will get to in a later blog). I’m thinking hens and ducks on grass will produce eggs and meat with good omega 3 levels too but I need to research this a bit more.
Animals have an important role in a growing system too. They can build fertility, recycle, control pests and do work. For example, we had three pigs this summer which happily ate all the fresh vegetables and fruit that us humans didn’t want. I’m thinking of having some more this summer to dig up the rest of the growing area. I don’t want to plough or spray chemicals to kill all the couch grass. I picked out an awful lot out of small vegetable beds by hand last summer but I don’t feel like rubbing 3 acres worth of soil through my hands to get out every last bit of couch root. I think some pigs will do a much better and quicker job of it and very much enjoy doing so.
If I ate a diet of meat and vegetables only I would easily maintain a healthy weight. My weakness is cake and puddings (homemade largely – although I do sometimes (often?) give in to confectionary from the shop). I know this is where the unnecessary calories (and other baddies) lie and I often wonder why I still eat them. Am I very weak willed? Is it because although I know excess weight will cause me health problems eventually, currently I feel fit and well and at 50 still have the energy to work a 12-14 hour day so I don’t see any urgency? Having two 500 calorie days a week is just an easy way to lose some weight while I get my head around other issues. There are health benefits to fasting too – see The Fast Diet by Dr Michael Mosley. It seems to make sense because we evolved in a time when a constant supply of food was not available. I think ultimately, I’m heading towards a paleo-ish diet with an added mantra of “everything in moderation”.



I need to lose two stone. In the couple of months before Christmas, I lost 8 pounds on the 5:2 diet. Two days a week (usually Monday and Wednesday or Thursday) I ate only 500 calories. It’s tough but I find it much easier than dieting 7 days a week! On my diet days I have a boiled egg for breakfast, tinned salmon or tuna with a bit of salad for dinner and a bit of meat and green veg for tea. No great hardship really. I’m hungry but I tell myself it will soon be tomorrow when I can enjoy a fried egg, mushrooms and tomato on wholemeal toast for breakfast! On the non-fasting five days I try to avoid processed food and try to limit bread to breakfast. I lost a stone this way last winter. The 8 pounds I have just lost are the ones I put back on over the summer when I let things slip again. Oh, it’s such a constant battle!

I have a couple of friends following a paleo diet. They eat the foods our caveman ancestors would have access to 10,000 years ago – free range meat, seafood, fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. I can understand the principle – this is the diet we evolved to eat.

Caveman faced obvious danger out hunting or fighting territorial battles. We face more subtle danger everywhere we turn these days – sugar, gluten and other lovely chemicals purporting to be “food”, lining the shelves wherever we go!

However, I need to think a while about a paleo diet in the context of mainly locally grown food with a few imported luxuries. More on this and 5:2 later……………… the meantime I need to book in 2 diet days next week!


Happy New Year

2014 resolution number 1 – start blogging – been meaning to for a few years now! Just get on with it woman!!

First one about growing potatoes – been drafting it (and the accompanying report) for weeks so might be too long winded. Resolution number 2 – try to be quick and brief 🙂

Growing potatoes Potato notes 2013

I grow early or “new” potatoes because they are very popular with my family. Nothing surpasses the taste of a freshly dug new potato. Also, from an organic growing point of view, you can get a decent crop of early potatoes before the arrival of blight.

Summer 2012 was very wet – perfect conditions for the spread of blight. I was able to save my crop by simply cutting off the tops of the potatoes at the first sign of blight. As the crop below ground was fairly well developed by then we could just dig them up as required and they were as fresh and tasty as usual. Commercial potato growers spray their crops many times through the growing season to keep blight infections at bay. As I refuse to use any chemical intervention, I could lose my entire crop if I were to grow main crop varieties in a blight year (although a lady staying in the straw bale holiday cabin told me how a man on her allotment could manage to grow a potatoes despite blight by covering them in some fine green mesh he recycled from a building sites – I’ve made a note to try this next year!).

Summer 2013 was sunny and dry and I grew good yields of new potatoes. The report above (click next to title) gives a lot more detail. Here is a summary

  • New potatoes are easy to grow in the UK
  • I can grow higher yields in my garden than is possible on a farm scale
  • I can achieve those higher yields without machines. Fuel or chemicals
  • Potatoes have a high yield of calories per m2- This was useful historically when calories were in short supply and may be useful if we have food security issues in the future – or for fattening livestock.
  • Potatoes have a high GI but this can be moderated when eaten with fat and salad or vegetables.
  • 2014 to do list – try more early varieties, save own seed, follow with another crop, try a blight resistant main crop.

1 Comment

My experiments in vegetable growing

I’ve been growing vegetables in raised beds on my front lawn at Barmby Grange (BG) for a couple of years. I never use chemicals or artificial fertilisers on my crops and I do all the work by hand or with small tools. In 2013 I acquired a new plot in addition – previously a grass field. During the winter months I devised planting plans for the new plot at Village Farm (VF) and a variety of experiments – most of which involved weighing the resultant produce.

Spring 2013 was very late coming. The land was so cold and wet. It soon became apparent that I had far too many ideas given the time now available for land preparation and planting!

Nevertheless, I did manage to grow some crops over the summer and I will share my harvest results in posts over the next few weeks.

A cold, wet spring 2013

A cold, wet spring 2013