30 Oct 2009

Bees on Earth … Goodwill to all men

Recently, a friend of the York Rise Growers wanted to come over and show our children how to build bee hotels but, in the end, didn't have time.  The idea, though, remains a good one - I love bees; for me, they signal the arrival summer - and children, taught properly, have a healthy interest in bugs and the environment.

I took the photo above during a walk earlier this summer.  This little fella was too busy collecting nectar (and pollinating the flowers) to notice my camera lens nearby.  I've also had a number of buzzing visitors to my balcony this summer - by chance I grew lavender, marjoram, mint and marigolds (amongst others) which they love - and several have found their way indoors and had to be rescued with the old "tumbler and card" trick.

But there's a continuing international crisis in the bee world: a Bee-mergency, if you like.  Their numbers are rapidly diminishing due to an inability to resist larvae-borne disease and environmental factors such as loss of habitat (chalky grasslands, meadows and hedgerows).  In the UK alone, three species have become extinct - including the wonderfully named Bombus Pomorum (Apple Bumblebee).

Several campaigns are under way to try and reverse the trend but, amazingly, the plight of the bumblebee is not yet a conservation priority.  Not only are bees major pollinators of wildflowers but they're also commercially important due to their vital role in pollinating many arable and horticultural crops.  No bees: no crops to harvest; no wildflowers; no colourful UK countryside; loss of rare plants and a knock on effect on other wildlife.  Now times that by Europe, USA and Asia.  Okay, now you're getting the scale of the problem. 

There are ways that we can - and should - help.  After all, bees are the only insect to make food for mankind.  On a modest scale, if we make space in our gardens for more traditional flowers - the cottage-garden varieties or wildflowers - everyone should be able to attract at least 6 species of bees into their gardens.  Fruit and veg growers especially will benefit as we need bees to pollinate our plants.  (Beans in particular will thrive if companion planted with marigolds at their feet to draw in bees, as their scarlet flowers must be pollinated for an abundant crop.)

Until the end of December in the UK, look out for special jars of Rowse Blossom Honey which have a unique code for claiming a free packet of wildflower seeds.  (Rowse has already donated £100,000 to the University of Sussex's Apiculture Lab for research into developing disease-resistant UK bees.)

As they said at the Isle of Wight Festival this year:  (All.We.Are.Say-ing)… is Give Bees a Chance!

Here's how to help:

Build little Bee Hotels so that the queen bee has somewhere nice to make more baby bees. Find out more at BBC Gardener's World (Loving this one as I can use dead Japanese Knotweed stems – of which we have many – instead of bamboo!) 

Build a bee nesting box - lots of ideas here from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Plant flowers which will attract bees (and butterflies!).  Here's a list of flowers to get you started from (unsurprisingly) the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Teach your children about bees:  Rowse Honey have set up Bee School (a teacher's resource for children aged 5 - 7), including a free honey tasting kit and free seeds for the class!  (There's also honey recipes to be found on Rowse's own website here.)

More fun can be found on the Edible Playgrounds website - scroll down to Help the Honey Bees.

28 Oct 2009

When Herbs Freeze over …

 I read somewhere that parsley can be difficult to grow from seed - a fact which I'm questioning as our parsley (grown from seed by a child) is lush, tall, abundant and still growing strong.

We're all cutting it for our casseroles and soups but there's still loads.  I know you can chop and freeze parsley but it was still pleasant to come across an article on freezing herbs on the Gardener's World website.  Apparently Basil and Mint, as well as Parsley, can all be frozen in individual ice cubes which is great news as I've never had much luck growing herbs indoors.  Still… maybe I'll give it another go this winter - I'll let you know.

26 Oct 2009

A nice cup of Tea with Cake …

Sundays, weather permitting, seems to be the day when we go out to the Veg Patch and dig, sow, harvest, chat or loaf around discussing next year's planting plan whilst (if you're me) gazing encouragingly at this year's plants.  And at the end of all this hard work, in the time honoured tradition, a nice mug of tea and a slice of cake has been earned. 

I like a bit of cake at teatime, it's the way I was brought  up.  My mother ran a tight ship where meals were concerned and you could set your watch by her schedule for afternoon tea.  When my siblings and I were very young, we had proper tea: sandwiches first - or perhaps boiled egg and soldiers (fingers of bread and butter) - then fruit or jelly (if we were lucky) and, finally, cake. Always, always, homemade.  My maternal grandfather was a baker by trade and, when we went to visit, he would make the most beautiful fairy cakes for us; I particularly remember a plate of cupcakes iced with tiny swans - and I don't mean drawn on; they swam in 3D formation across the tops of the little cakes. How totally cool is that?   

My cupcakes are nowhere near so spectacular but I still believe they should look tempting.  With lingering thoughts of the cupcake mountain from the Regent Street Festival, I decided to make cupcakes rather than a whole cake.  Half these cupcakes were swirled with coffee buttercream and sprinkled with chocolate strands (above) and the other half were reserved for my Secret Surprise.

The recipe is what is known as a basic 4, 4, 4 and 2.  (Experienced bakers will immediately recognise this as a classic Victoria sponge cake mixture).

Secret Surprise Cupcakes
(makes 12 in a Muffin tin.  Use Muffin sized cases.)

4 ounces butter; 4 ounces caster (fine) sugar; 2 eggs at room temperature (UK medium size); 4 ounces flour (Self Raising, sieved).
Also 1 teaspoon Baking Powder and 1 teaspoon good quality Vanilla Extract.
Milk to loosen if mixture is not 'dropping' consistency at the end - add as needed but go easy and start with 1 Tablespoon.

Preheat oven to 180C.  Mix softened butter and sugar together until very pale and creamy.  Add eggs plus a couple of tablespoons of flour to stop any tendency for the eggs to curdle.  Mix.  Use a metal spoon to fold in the rest of the flour (with baking powder added). This keeps the air in the mixture.  Add the vanilla extract.  Test consistency of mixture.  If it feels thick, add a little milk.

Two-thirds fill each muffin case.  (Any leftover can be shared between the cases.)  Bake for 15 minutes.  Then test by patting the top with your finger.  If the cake resists, they're done.  If not, give them another 3 or 4 minutes.  Remove to a cooling rack.

Here's the surprise:

When cool, slice out a cone shape from the top.   Add a dollop of strawberry jam in the hole (preferably homemade) and a spoon of whipped or thickened cream.  Replace the cone of cake, push down slightly and dust with icing sugar.  Secret Victoria Sponge (cup)Cake!  And, to my  mind, utterly delish - and a fair reward after a day's gardening.

Cupcake revealed …

22 Oct 2009

Temptingly Tasty … (lovin' this lunch)

Loving this lunch …

One of my gardening books that I'm re-reading - and thoroughly enjoying - is 'Veg Patch:  River Cottage Handbook No. 4' by Mark Diacono.  He's the Head Gardener at River Cottage in Devon (the restaurant/farm/venture that put chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on the media map) and also teaches on the River Cottage courses.  He's written the book in a way that makes a first-time veg grower like me feel excited about what I'm doing – his passion for gardening is evident on every page; listen to this: "If you've got better things to do at 8 o'clock on a mid-June evening than pop freshly shelled peas into your mouth as you amble round your vibrant plot with a glass of what you fancy, then life must be pretty special."  (Definitely a  kindred spirit, especially the addition of "a glass of what you fancy", although I would also add a friend or two into this scenario.)

On making a wish list for what to grow, Mark advises:  put away your growing books,  get out all your food books and make a list of all the food you like that can be grown.
"Think firstly of flavour and you won't go far wrong."

And that's what I thought of when I sat down to eat my lunch: a delicious mix of Rainbow Stir Fry, rice noodles and coriander cut fresh from the kitchen windowsill.  Every crunchy, flavoursome, filling mouthful tasted of good health on a fork.

So now I know…  next year I have to grow bean sprouts, cabbage, red and yellow peppers, baby corn, red onions, carrots and edamame soya beans.  In the meantime, there's always Waitrose* …
*For non-UK readers, Waitrose is one of the big 5 food retailers in UK.

Foodie Fact:  
A lunch like this will make you feel good beyond it's sheer visual delights:  A rainbow of veg will supply fibre as well as a range of vitamins and minerals.  Vitamin A is found in carrots and peppers as beta-carotene, an antioxidant that converts to VitA when the body needs it. (And did you know carrots are more nutritious when cooked?) Soya beans supply protein and are rich in potassium and a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, iron, folate and Vitamin E (needed for healthy bones, teeth, nerves and muscles).  The peppers are excellent for Vitamin C (green peppers contain twice as much VitC as oranges, red peppers three times as much) - as are the Sprouted Mung Beans (one portion provides three-quarters of the adult daily requirement for VitC).  Cabbage is vitamin rich and well known for it's anti-cancer properties, especially bowel cancer - and only 16 calories per portion when boiled (hence the famous Cabbage Soup diet - which I loathe to mention as I hate "dieting".)  Small bunches of Coriander are used in Herbalism as a tonic for the stomach and heart and also strengthens the urinary tract.  Rice is a good source of starch protein which steadies blood sugar levels, but you can't grow it in the UK.

See?  Yum, yum - and anti-aging from all that vitamin C (vital as a building block for collagen).

21 Oct 2009

The best for your blueberries

(Blueberries, raspberries and redcurrants atop a large dollop of Greek Yoghurt.  
Yum.  I'm looking forward to recreating this dessert with my own soft fruits next summer!)

Even I have to admit that it's now Autumn.  Crisp, sunny days (a rare treat) alternate with grey skies.  The ends of the day are not yet frosty but soon, I think …  weather that's giving us a sharp reminder of pre-winter work to be done in the veg patch. 

I've got broad beans to go in with the other overwintering veg - a vegetable which I'm personally not very fond of (too many memories of school dinners) but maybe Home Grown will change my mind and, if not, plenty of others have professed a liking for them.  And, of course, there's our four blueberry bushes and two lemon trees to go in, all of which need to be planted before the rest of our Orchard arrives … and the beds have to be cleared and prepared.

So, because we're not yet seasoned gardeners, I just like to have a quick nod to the experts and today's invaluable advice comes from the BBC Gardeners' World website with a little video of the correct treatment when planting blueberries (and cranberries), most importantly the use of Ericaceous Compost.  Click here if you're interested in viewing this for yourself.

I've just learned that the above video is no longer there so I've edited to include this page from Gardeners' World about blueberries. 

P.S.  The photo is of one of my favourite ways to eat fruit (i.e. over thick Greek Yoghurt) and, obviously, any fruit is nice on top but I also like to finish it with some chopped pecan nuts and a drizzle of runny honey.

19 Oct 2009

Our Brick Skip Hour …

A load of old bricks

If you happened to be in the Kentish Town Road at 6.30 a.m. last Friday you might have seen my … ahem … derrière sticking out of a skip.  (If you were sensible, you'd have looked away quickly.  Ho, ho;  No, not really, I'm sure my bum didn't look that big in it …  Er, why's it all gone quiet?)

I'd spotted a skip load of lovely old weathered bricks as I cycled home the previous afternoon, a sight which quickened my heart.  (And, believe me, there's not a lot that does that these days…)

As the ground in the vegpatch is a lot damper in these Autumn days (which is good) and quite a lot of it goes home on the soles of our shoes, we needed to put down some little paths next to our raised beds.  And because we want to keep appearances up, we thought brick would be nice … except they're expensive and we have a tiny budget.  So the Skip Sisters (L and me) were on the lookout, and also passed the word around.  After many weeks, and many people claiming to have "only just got rid of" theirs, fate presented us with this bountiful haul.  And, by the way, I wasn't up at the crack of dawn because I doing anything illegally, but because the traffic is dreadful in Kentish Town.  I had, of course, asked permission to take the bricks as, I imagine, would all of you lot.

Now then, where are those builders when you need them?  Er, Frank?  Frank?  *Tap, Tap*  Is anyone there?

15 Oct 2009

A matter of priorities …

October Peppers - still growing!

I can't believe how quickly the time has gone since Saturday's jaunt to Camden's Good Food Day, what with the arrival of our first fruit trees on Tuesday and Wednesday (on which topic, I think enough has been said), plus we've had a couple of beautiful sunny, fresh autumnal days so, obviously, back out into the Veg Patch for some happy time, and a chance to look around the place with my camera lens. Sometimes there's so much good stuff going on you just don't know where to start …

Ooo… lucky D.  What a stunner! 

But first, a quick update on Saturday's event.  It was quieter than I anticipated - but hopefully lots of people went along later because there was some good stuff there: inspiration and education for food growing, advice about healthy eating and food waste, food co-ops and the seed exchange.  I chatted to a variety of folk doing sterling work in the community; hopefully a few of you will click through to their websites, below, and be inspired by the good they do - or maybe you already have something similar in your part of the globe.

Let me just say this - Real Bread making skills are back on everyone's agenda (as part of a community food project and as a free workshop on the South Bank on 24th Oct - more details nearer the time)  and I'm pursuing a line of enquiry about making huge baskets for plant growing - see Global Generation below, and I've made simple recycled plant markers from a top tip on City Leaf's website. (I also made some of my own which I'll show with a tutorial - mine are also recycled, but prettier, naturellement.)  Utterly F.A.B.

And, as they say, last but certainly not least:  Pumpkin progress.  We're watching this one.  Only 2 weeks to go before (say it quietly) … snip, snip, snip.  (Ouch! I feel so mean saying that.)

Here are a few highlights from Saturday:

Sustain - loads on their website about food, the environment, urban agriculture, workshops, training and grants.  Recommended! 

FoodWorks - Cooking and redistributing surplus retail food overstock as nutritious meals to needy people in the local community.  (Inspired by the Campus Kitchens Project in the U.S.A.)

Global Generation, engaging with younger generations to promote change in both the community and business.  (Take a look at their website; I was inspired by the large baskets they made to grow veg in at a local school, especially good if you only have a concrete patio, balcony or rooftop at your disposal.)

City Leaf:  Helping would-be gardeners make the most of their growing space (however small).  The website has some interesting tips and advice for gardeners - even if you're not local to London!! (Yayy, something for the non-London readers!)  …  I would, however, take them to task with their by-line "Grow Food Not Flowers".   For shame, guys!  Flowers are edible (nasturtiums, violas, lavender, marigolds, sunflower seeds, for heaven's sake!) … and companion plants … and pretty up your growing space to make it even more inviting.  Okay, I rest my case.  Point made.  Getting off my soapbox (for now).
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