vegetables

How does your garden grow?

Hmm, well in our garden the answer to that question all depends on where you stand. I could place you in front of the bog garden and pond, for example.

pond and bog garden

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That might give the impression of a relatively well-tended space. But you would only have to turn through 90 degrees to see this.

hedge clippings
And this.

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Hedge clippings waiting to be disposed of, a flowerbed so full it is amazing everything doesn’t collapse from strangulation.

It’s a similar story, but multiplied to the power of ten, down on the allotment. On the one hand I am ridiculously excited about the number of beans we have been able to plant, and I particularly like having enough room for a ridge support, which makes me feel like a proper veg grower.

beans
On the other hand – this confusion of fruit bushes, comfrey and waist-high grass is more typical of the plot as a whole.

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There have been times this month when I have wondered whether we will ever get on top of everything. Slugs ate all our beetroot and Brussels sprout seedlings. Birds took the first strawberries.

As an allotment newbie I’m learning the importance of perseverance. I’ve put nets on the strawberries and bought some new Brussels sprouts plants – which will also be netted. I’ve taken an old strimmer to be overhauled. It feels like a long slog, getting this plot under control, but every day there are encouragements to spur us on.

gooseberries

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green strawberries

I’m linking up with Soulemama today: I love the idea of gardeners all over the world sharing their plots. What’s more, sometimes Amanda posts a garden cocktail recipe. I’m not normally a great cocktail fan, but she had me at the Rhubarb Collins – another great incentive to persevere with growing.

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Incredible spreadable

vegetable tourists

‘Vegetable tourists’ in Pollination Street, Todmorden. Picture by Estelle Brown

I’ve got a guest post up today with Veg Plotting, one of my very favourite gardening and growing blogs. I’m writing about how Incredible Edible is spreading across the country and even into other parts of the world as more and more people grasp its potential for transforming the places where they live. Do hop over and have a look, and while you’re there take some time to explore Veg Plotting, which is full of information, advice and fun for anyone who enjoys gardening. Be warned, though – it’s quite addictive! The post is here.

the power of thinking little

Thinking little is not very fashionable these days. We are supposed to ‘reach for the stars’, ‘follow our dreams’ and above all ‘think big’.

Of course it is good to try and make the most of life, but these messages also carry a danger – they make it easy for us to fall into the trap of ‘all or nothing thinking’.

‘All or nothing thinking’ was explained to me at a depression management group a few years ago (and it must have been a good one because I haven’t needed to go back since!). The ‘all or nothing’ syndrome is the one that goes: ‘If I can’t write a work of great literature, I’d better not write at all.’ Or: ‘Since I have shouted at my children this morning, I am clearly a complete failure as a mother.’ It has been genuinely life changing to recognise this kind of thought pattern for the lie that it is.

Recently, I’ve seen how ‘all or nothing thinking’ can be the bane of the environmental movement too.The evidence on environmental degradation is, frankly, scary. What can one person do in the face of melting ice caps, increasing food shortages and peak oil?

Way back in the early 1970s, the US writer and farmer Wendell Berry wrote a prescient essay entitled ‘Think Little’. In it he argues that we have got so used to everything being done on a large scale – food production, government, protest movements – that we have lost sight of the fact that ‘there is no public crisis that is not also private’. He writes passionately about the importance of anyone who is concerned about the big problems of the day to start by ‘thinking little’.

A man who is trying to live as a neighbor to his neighbors will have a lively and practical understanding of the work of peace and brotherhood, and let there be no mistake about it – he is doing that work.

When it comes to the environmental crisis, Berry is clear: if you’re worried about it, start growing vegetables.

A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.

Berry is not saying that our action on the environment should only be about our gardens, but he believes that growing vegetables can lead to a radical shift of mindset – one that is essential if there is to be any long-term change in the way we treat the world. As we reconnect with the way the soil and the weather work to produce food, so we grow in understanding of why our wasteful economy is so wrong. I can’t do him full justice here: if you haven’t already read it, it’s a must.

Berry and my depression management techniques have combined to give me fresh hope about our garden. Much as I love it, it is hardly your ideal piece of veg-producing ground. It’s looking particularly sad at the moment.

It can look quite pretty in the summer – here’s a family gathering in 2010. It would still be easy to moan about how small it is, how there’s too much paving and about that darned shed that takes up far too much room. But this is to venture into ‘all or nothing’ territory, too – ‘If I can’t have an allotment or better still a smallholding, there’s no point in trying to grow more food.’ What rubbish! And how ungrateful!

Inspired by Berry, I have determined to ‘think little’ about producing more food this growing season. This means two main things for me: first, not to worry about what we can’t do. It is better to start slowly, with something small, than not to start at all. And second, to look out for all the nooks and crannies, the tiny, hidden places, where an extra plant could be stuffed in.

Like this primrose, somehow surviving in a drystone wall.

 

Pierce Penniless and the vegbox

Not long ago the River Cottage chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was famous, notorious even, for his red-blooded approach to meat eating.  At a time when most people’s meat came in polystyrene trays from the supermarket. Hugh was out there fearlessly slaughtering his own pigs and even tucking into roadkill.

Then he shocked everyone by bringing out a book extolling vegetables, and a very fine book it is too, with over 200 recipes and not a shred of meat in sight. The reason? Well, as someone who hates factory farming and fears for the future of our fish stocks, he realises that we need to eat far more vegetables and much less flesh if we are going to stop damaging our planet.

I love it when my studies connect in unexpected ways with other parts of my life. It’s one of the advantages of being a mature student, I think – the upside of having to keep so many balls in the air simultaneously. I am doing a wonderful module this semester on Renaissance literature and could not help thinking of HFW last week when the set text was Pierce Penniless his Supplication to the Devil by Thomas Nashe. More than 400 years ago, Pierce was saying stuff about the English diet which chimes remarkable closely with Hugh’s thoughts on the subject.

It is not for nothing that other countries whom we upbraid with drunkenness call us bursten-bellied gluttons, for we … eat more meat at one meal than the Spaniard or Italian in a month. Good thrifty men, they draw out a dinner with sallets (salads) … and make Madonna Nature their best caterer.

It gets worse. We are, says Pierce,

‘such flesh-eating Saracans that chaste fish may not content us but we delight in the murder of innocent mutton, in the unpluming of pullery (poultry), and quartering of calves and oxen. It is horrible and detestable; no godly fishmonger can digest it.’

Since our family started getting a weekly veg box, we too have been proving that ‘Madonna Nature’ is the best caterer. In fact, veg has played such a starring role at the dinner table that I’ve barely needed to go near a butcher or a fishmonger, godly or otherwise. It’s not that we’ve turned vegetarian, but rather a shifting of emphasis. As HFW says, it’s quite liberating not to have ‘a tyrannical piece of meat dominating the agenda, making everything else feel like a supporting act’. It’s also loads cheaper, which is pretty amazing given that our veg is now organic and delivered to the door.

The contents of the box got used up with unusual speed this week so I don’t have a photo of the beautiful curly kale or the little fat carrots that were so fresh I could smell them before I even cut them. Here’s some romanesco instead – unfortunately not in season at the moment, but surely one of the most stunning vegetables in Madonna Nature’s treasure chest.


romancing the sprout

Some of my best days in 2011 were spent in the wonderful west Yorkshire town of Todmorden. I wrote here about my most recent visit and about the incredible edible project. You really can’t spend much time with Todmorden folk without becoming inspired to do more with vegetables and, more importantly, be honest about how your food choices affect the world around you.

Over the Christmas break I got to thinking about how our family could eat in a way that has less impact on the environment and is more sustainable in the long term. Growing more of our own food is an obvious first step and I have some plans in that direction, but for now it is January and there’s not much in the garden.

So I decided we should go back to having a weekly veg box, something we used to do but abandoned because I had an idea that it was too time consuming. I know organic parsnips with the mud still on them are much better all round than the anaemic, plastic-wrapped variety you get in the supermarket, but back when I had just started a degree and was juggling it with work and a teenager crisis, I felt I couldn’t cope with anything extra. If anything is worse than a shrink-wrapped courgette in Tesco, it’s a mouldy organic one looking at you accusingly from the bottom of the fridge. (Though I’ll admit it’s a close run thing.)

I hope to return to the issue of time in another post. I don’t think you can get away from the fact that doing things in a sustainable way often appears to gobble more time than the convenience option and may well actually do so. But speed can be overrated, I think. Just as I’d rather pay a few pence extra for fairly traded bananas, so I think I need to be wiser about how I spend my precious time.

Anyway, the first veg box arrived from the excellent Riverford. A stunningly beautiful red cabbage and some fabulous purple sprouting broccoli sat alongside more homely offerings such as carrots, potatoes, parsnips and leeks.

No problem deciding what to do with any of those, but I have to admit I was temporarily stumped by the bag of Brussels sprouts. The two teenagers who still live at home are definitely not picky eaters, but they really do not like sprouts. In their entire lives, they have never managed more than one at a time, and that is with the Christmas dinner. There was only one option – I would have to cook the sprouts for my Friday night ‘date’ with Julian.

This Friday tradition goes back to when our children were small and we couldn’t afford to go out and pay a babysitter too. It’s a great excuse to splash out a bit on posh food. Sometimes I get sea bass or tuna steaks from the fishmonger; sometimes we indulge in home made tortellini from the Italian deli. What we do not expect to eat is anything as homely as a Brussels sprout. But I love a challenge and what’s more I knew my amazing Leith’s Vegetarian Bible (now out of print, but there is a newer edition) was unlikely to let me down.

Enter the Brussels Sprouts Gratinée. Let me tell you, this did not look promising. But I put that down to the sprouts and all our prejudices about them. In fact – and as is usual with the Leith bible – the taste was excellent. Crunchy sprouts and a crispy, cheesy topping contrast perfectly with the creamy, paprika-spiked sauce and the smooth potatoes. Add candlelight and a glass or two of red wine and I promise you the humble sprout can be transformed into the food of romance.

Brussels Sprouts Gratinée

Sightly adapted from Leith’s Vegetarian Bible by Polly Tyrer

450g Brussels sprouts

350g unpeeled potatoes

1 teaspoon paprika

a pinch of cayenne pepper

200ml crème fraîche

50g wholemeal breadcrumbs

1 dessertspoon of butter, melted

15g Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Switch the oven to 200 degrees C and grease an ovenproof dish with butter. I used a round one; the base has a diameter of 21cm.

Trim the stalks and outer leaves from the sprouts. I didn’t bother making a little cross in the bottom, although I know some people say you should. Cook them in boiling salted water for just five minutes. Drain and allow to cool slightly.

Cut the potatoes into even sized shapes and cook in boiling salted water for about 10 minutes. They should be just tender. Drain and allow to cool slightly.

Cut the sprouts in half and slice the potatoes. Mix together gently and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Stir the paprika and cayenne into the crème fraîche and season.

Put half the sprouts and potatoes into the dish. Spread over half the crème fraîche. I found this a little tricky, but a bit of coaxing with a palette knife did the the trick. Top with the remaining vegetables, then the rest of the crème fraîche.

Mix the breadcrumbs with the melted butter. Stir in the cheese and parsley and spread on top.

Bake for about 20 minutes, by which time the vegetables will be hot and the crumbs crisp and brown.