Pumpkin time !

Just in time ! The last of the pumpkins in just before a frost this morningLots of people have been asking me how we manage to keep our pumpkins for so long, so I’ve put together a list of things that you need to do to ensure that you’ll have pumpkins to eat all winter and for most of the following spring.

To get really good mature pumpkins, make a note of the number of days they need to grow to maturity. That’s usually marked on the packet if you buy them and for seed swaps, ask people to remember to add that information to the packet too, because it’s important.

Bear in mind that some varieties of squash will keep well in store for a lot longer than others. For example the Siamese squash  (Fig-leaf gourd, Malabar gourd, black seed squash or Cidra) which is in the wheelbarrow in the photo on the left, can be stored for up to two years. The Queensland Blue on the right can be kept for about five months.

Some pumpkins need a long growing season, so for those, about three weeks before the the last frost is due, I either plant them outside and cover them with a cloche which I tuck in with some mulch around the outside, or start them off in the greenhouse.

If you plant good seeds in a greenhouse, they’ll probably sprout amazingly quickly, so make sure your pots are really deep so that the root has enough room to develop, as most squash resent root disturbance. Empty the pot gently when you plant them and take care when you fill up the planting hole. Water in the young plants really well.

It goes without saying, that the richer the soil the better and pumpkins do really well on raised mounds of last year’s compost with anything and everything added to it.

The art of growing pumpkins to avoid cross pollination for seed-saving is a completely different subject and I’ll cover that in another blog post. For the moment, let’s imagine that summer is coming to an end and you’re watching your pumpkins get bigger every day….

I love the colour of pumpkinsIf your objective is to store some for use over winter, leave them on the vine for as long as you can. In a good summer, the leaves will die and become brown and withered, leaving the pumpkins exposed but always remember to gather them in before the frost. (If you’re a day or so late, you can still eat lightly frosted pumpkins, butternuts etc. straight away but they rot quickly and will not store.)

If there a good strong stem then the pumpkin is normally good to store BUT if it has any discolouration after being in contact with the ground or nearby bushes, use it immediately.

Check around the stem for cracks or soft patches, if there’s any doubt, use it straight away.

Never carry a pumpkin by the stem, carry it gently, like a baby

Leave them to ‘cure’ in a dry place in full sunlight with good ventilation for about ten days. A covered terrace like ours in the photo is ideal.

Store only mature pumpkins with hardened skins (Test the skin with your fingernail) they should sound dry/hollow when you tap them and have a good all-over colour.

Wash around the top stem, the base of the pumpkin then give it a rub all over with eau de vie, vodka or some other strong alcohol. Don’t be mean.

Make sure the pumpkins are completely dry then store them in a dark, dry place between 10-15°c

Use wooden planks or fruit boxes to keep the pumpkins off the floor and allow the air to circulate around them.

Check them regularly to make sure that they are still in good condition.

The Pink Jumbo squash in the photo above was gathered on the 22nd of September then cured for a week in the sun on the terrace.

A photo of the same Pink Jumbo (Cut in half) was taken on the 14th of May – about eight months later and both the inside and outside were in perfect condition and I and the Council of Administration of Brin de Paille (The French Permaculture association) who stayed with us for a few days for one of their quarterly meetings, can assure you, it tasted great !

Chickens feasting on the Amaranthus Gangeticus (Elephant Head Amaranthus)

This summer has been another extremely dry one – with a lot of very hot days up until a few days ago when the temperature outside was 30°C. There’s very little grass anywhere and we’ve been supplementing the sparse grazing for our sheep and goats with hay for the past few weeks. The geese are going further and further away from their normal circuit to find something to eat and we’ve been giving them extra corn to keep them in condition and build up their fat reserves for winter.

With the lack of fresh vegetation around, I suppose it’s inevitable that the chickens have started pecking food in the vegetable plot which they normally leave alone. A week ago they started eating the remaining courgettes and then pecked away the leaves until each plant has almost disappeared.

I don’t mind them eating the courgettes, everyone is fed up with them anyway and they’re hard and tasteless at this time of the year especially since it’s been so dry.

The chickens normally start to peck the veg towards the end of October when there’s very little for them to eat after a hot summer but this year they’ve started early, snipping off the lower leaves of the sweet peppers and Aubergines when they’re still plenty of fruit left on them. I’ve noticed them pecking the new growth of Globe artichokes, they’ve even started to peck out the Foxgloves and they’ve almost totally destroyed the leeks I planted a few weeks weeks ago !

Thankfully, I had a lot of Amaranthus self seed last year and this variety “Elephant head” have been really rich and beautiful this year growing alongside Cleome Spinosa which also self seeds freely. The chickens love the Amaranthus, so I’ve started pulling up a plant or two to let them eat the leaves and seed heads. They peck away furiously at each one for about two days until there’s nothing left but the stalks.

I’ll keep giving them a few plants each week to give them something to squabble over and keep them of mischief until the rain (hopefully) encourages the grass and weeds to appear – and I mustn’t forget to save a few seeds for myself for planting next year.

The tomato blight is under control !

Sweet peppers and tomatoesWe’ve been lucky – either the hot weather or the Bordeaux mix has stopped the blight from taking hold and we’re getting good crops of tomatoes from the plot. The capsicums and aubergines are doing well too and I’ve lifted my onions. So as well as eating lovely fresh salads and tasty Provençal dishes, every week we’ve enough veg to store in sterilised jars for the winter.

Ratatouille is often my choice because it’s quick and easy. The smell and taste of it bottled is almost as good as freshly made and it’s good for couscous, adding to a stew or to eat just on it’s own. I simply stir fry all the ingredients in batches then put them together in a huge pan and reduce the water content by simmering then put them into Kilner or Le Parfait jars and sterilise them for 30 minutes.

Rocket stove for cooking and water heatingAt this time of the year we clear out the freezer. The ice melts quickly and the freezer dries properly ready to be filled again with our own meat and winter game. I use up all last year’s meat to mix with the summer veg to make stews and curries and this week I’ve made a few batches of bolognaise sauce.

Reducing tomatoes and the long slow cooking needed to make a really good bolognaise sauce takes a lot of time and a lot of gas so we rigged up a cooking plate on the rocket stove with a simple chimney leading the flames towards our back boiler in the fireplace so while we’re cooking we also get hot water.

We normally use tree branches as fuel but at the moment, we’ve thousands of light, clean, dry corn cobs lying outside. (We grow a couple of hectares a year for animal feed.).

A dozen pots of Bolognaise sauce sterilised ready for the cellarWe’ve been using them in the rocket stove with really good results. With one bucket of cobs we slowly reduced 7 kilos of tomatoes (four hours) and now there’s enough water for a bath !

I usually to make a dozen or so jars a week of garden veg in August and September because there’s not an awful lot to do outside and it’s hot here in August !. So we can have “ready meals” two or three times a week throughout the year without having to buy veg or spend too much time cooking – which suits me just fine !

Late Tomato blight strikes again this year

Green Beefheart Tomatoes, originally uploaded by hardworkinghippy.

I’ve hardly commented on how the vegetable garden is doing this year but – apart from tomatoes – things are coming along nicely and we should have enough vegetables to eat fresh and to store to last us all year.

I say apart from tomatoes because although we’ve a had a few kilos of early tomatoes, I’ve noticed the dreaded late blight rear it’s ugly head and I’m hanging on in there hoping that the precautions I’m taking help to delay the onset of the disease just long enough for me to harvest our main crop.

Over the past couple of years we’ve had a problem with tomato blight, a fungal disease spread by spores in the atmosphere. The disease is highly contagious and although I’ve noticed that some varieties like Brandywine resist blight slightly longer all tomatoes succumb in the end and there is no cure for blight.

It’s so annoying because I plant a lot of tomatoes and really look forward to getting a good crop which we use almost every day for salads throughout the summer and have loads left over to purée into tomato sauce and add to ratatouille which I bottle and keep in the cellar for the winter.

Late blight is caused by Phytophthora infestans an oomycete or water mould. (Early blight, caused by Alternaria solani, is usually called “potato blight”.) Late blight was the major culprit in the devastating 1845 Irish and 1846 Highland potato famines.

The spread of the infection is most rapid during conditions of high moisture and moderate temperatures. It’s spread by the wind or by rain splashing the spores on to the plants. Once the blight really takes hold the leaves, stems and even the tomatoes themselves go brown and the whole plant withers and dies. It spreads rapidly, devastating a crop in a few days.

The first year I saw blight I took the brown leaves off and burned then – composting them spread the disease. That stopped it for a while and my early season tomatoes ripened well. Later into summer – with a rainy and cool August the bottom leaves of all the the plants curled and started to have brown mottled patches.

I don’t like putting anything on my plants so I decided to cut my losses and ripped them all up and burned them plus their wooden stakes in the fire and sterilised the metal electric fence posts to use again next year.

To try to prevent blight, I give my vegetables a very thick mulch to stop the earth splashing on them when it rains. I always water my tomatoes at ground level and never on the leaves. I plant tomatoes in full sun. This year we made a new raised bed using a hugelkultur bed and I decided to use it for growing tomatoes because almost all my existing garden has at some time or another had tomatoes on it and the new bed is tucked away behind trees and protected from the wind.

Last year for the first time I used Bordeaux mixture and it did help to delay the spread of the disease.

This year, I’ve sprayed the beautifully formed tomatoes once again hoping that they won’t take long to get to to the stage when they start to go even slightly red and I can pick them and ripen them indoors. The blue haze on the plant isn’t pretty and I have to forgo one of the garden’s treats of being able to take a perfect ripe warm tomato from a plant and pop it straight into my moth – but needs must.

Although Bordeaux mixture is deemed suitable for organic growers, if it’s used excessively (Hopefully once a year isn’t “excessive”!) the Copper, it’s principal ingredient, can lead to the destruction of beneficial organisms and cause an imbalance in the soil nutrients that probably reduce the ability of the organisms and the plants themselves to fight off disease naturally.

In that case, the truth of the saying “You are what you eat” leads me to believe that for the good of my own immune system, I should try to allow my vegetables to grow as naturally as possible and if they can’t grow without my interference then I should replace them with something else.

That’s very easy to say, but trying to replace tomatoes isn’t going to be easy and for the time being I’ll take my chances that nature will help me to restore the balance in the soil for the years to come.

Harvesting rain water

We have piped “town” water but in our area it’s very expensive and smells of chlorine. I hesitate to use it even on my hair or when I’m washing or dying wool. I may be wrong but I have the impression that the chemicals used to kill the harmful bacteria in the drinking water aren’t good for an organic vegetable garden, so I try to capture as much water as we possibly can to use where we need it.

Collection of containers for catching rain waterWhere there’s a slope on the land or a roof there’s the possibility of collecting rainwater and over the years we’ve created swales, ponds and drains and amassed quite a collection of barrels and water butts to contain this precious stuff. Buy buying, making or scrounging anything that will hold water we now have a capacity to stock around 12,000 litres in containers. Some of the containers have lasted for years others have failed us miserably. The cheap green ones we bought in a garden centre split after two years even out of the sun but we hope the new ones will last us for some time to come.

Our vegetable garden and the planted areas around our new house have increased dramatically over the past few years. Despite lavish mulching we still need a lot of water for our new fruit trees, shrubs and windbreak plants to keep them healthy and in some cases to keep them alive until they become established. Summers seem to be getting longer and hotter and water is becoming more and more a worry especially when, like us, we really need good crops in the veg plot to be able to feed ourselves all year round. We intend to increase our stockage capacity little by little until we’re collecting enough rain water to never to have to use the hose from our taps.

Rain water collection behind a pig shedWe’ve built the house and almost all of the sheds at the top of our south facing garden and our system is very basic and gravity fed. Our chickens, geese and the goats and sheep are watered from the roof water and we’ve enough pressure to clean feeders, plant pots and even the pigs appreciate a shower !

Although we have composting toilets outside (and loads of trees!) we’ve flushing toilets inside the house and we have a terrible job to try to persuade visitors to use the outside loos or at least only flush when it’s really necessary. (If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down.) The water in the septic tank isn’t wasted – it waters the shrubs and trees on the shady slope behind the goat shed but it seems a shame to use drinking water to do that. So we’re planning on directing some of the water from the roofs of the extension for use inside the house so that we can wash clothes inside the house and flush the toilets without spending a penny !

More raised beds and the chicken shed is completely covered in perfumed climbers

We’re making more space for food growing – there are too many flowers in the veg plot !

The perfume from the Star Jasmine around the Chicken shed is really glorious and as there’s a bit of shade, it’s a nice place to work in the heat we’ve had this week.

At the moment, the wild honeysuckle is all over the place and the Foxgloves are in full flower. There are chicks everywhere and as you walk further down under the shade of the Chestnut trees, you can hear the pigs grunting, thinking that there’s sure to be something nice to eat on it’s way. They’ve eaten well this week – all the brambles and weeds have been thrown over to them. Their favourite munch so far is Milk Thistle aka Pig Leaf! I’ve cleared this patch, made an instant fence with hemp string and Honeysuckle and planted a few more courgettes. I had a few Rose cuttings and some Cannas and I’ve popped them in here too to give a bit of colour. The earth is lovely because I mulched last year and at the top we had a huge compost heap.

The new compost heap will be further up towards the house and little by little we’ll open up this little part of the wood without too much damage to the trees and insects.

“Compost Awareness Week” and making more raised beds

Hugelkultur CompostingDid you know that it’s “Compost Awareness week ? No, neither did I until someone in the GROWVEG forum posted about it.

We’ve got several different ways of making compost, some methods work quickly and some are incredibly slow. The slow way we have of making compost is by using all the organic “waste” materials we have when we first clear a patch of land, adding more roots, weeds, branches, twigs, brambles, sheep and goat daggings and dog and human hair.

I’ve just found out from a reader of this blog that this system is called Hugelkultur.

Twiggy compost heap rotting down after five years HugelkulturThe pile then gradually becomes a home for all the insects, snakes, lizards and other animals we’ve disturbed during the clearing and gives us somewhere handy to throw organic materials. We don’t have to burn our waste – we simply walk round it and in doing so shape the paths and add form to the garden.

Hugelkultur compostingAfter about a year we cover the top with used goat litter and leave it for a few weeks to settle down then we use the pile to grow easy vegetables like pumpkins and plant some climbing plants like Ipomea and Virginia Creeper to decorate the heap. We never disturb or move the heap except to throw more and more things on top of it and despite having thrown many square metres of organic matter on it it never seems to get any higher.

Raised bed made on Hugelkultur Compost heap surrounded by tree rootsOur oldest heap had started to sink and last year we decided to leave it to rot completely to make a new raised bed.

We were going to use chestnut poles as we’ve done almost everywhere else in the garden but we were clearing roots out of the pig park after the pigs had dug round them and it seemed a shame not to use them to make something nice. So Fabrice hauled them round one of the old compost heaps and we’ll use them to retain the earth for a raised bed. We also gathered up lots of stones and used those and the remaining branches to backfill the roots to improve drainage in the hope that they’ll last a bit longer.

I’ve started planting around the outside of them already and the chickens are still “digging” the middle bit for us and getting rid of all the grubs and insects.

Linden tree with Hugelkultur Compost bedWhen we cleared the little wood at the back of the house to make a garden, we decided to keep the well-shaped trees which were too beautiful to cut down. They give us a bit of shade and interest and provide nesting sites well out of the way of our cats and the birds don’t seem to mind our presence.

Under the trees, I grow raspberries and other shade loving plants and store cuttings for potting up and they do well in those conditions. There are a few Oaks and one beautiful Aspen Populus tremula, where the Collared Doves nest each year.

The Aspen’s roots go on for metres and send up new little trees every so often but I just work around them trying to keep the planting between the roots and the veg far enough away so that they don’t suffer too much. At the south of the tree we’ve had a compost heap which we’ve also made into a new raised bed this week so there will be loads more room this year for summer veg.

Romantic Permaculture and our Spring gardens

Califonian poppiesI’ve been talking a lot recently with my gardener friends about what’s growing. Everyone’s excited now that the earth is warming up and things are coming back to life and it’s time for sowing and repotting and preparing the garden for the best growing season ever.

I’m a bit embarrassed sometimes because I want to share my joy at what’s growing here and although the fruit trees and bushes and the self seeded Parsley and Coriander, the rhubarb and Artichokes and the seedlings are doing well, it’s the flowering plants that give me the most pleasure.

There’s no rule that says a self-sufficient gardener shouldn’t have pretty flowers, wonderful shrubs or glorious climbers, so I’d like to celebrate not only the start of the growing season for the vegetable plot but also for the return of Spring and Summer colour, perfume and beauty in the garden.

As you know if you read this blog regularly, I’m basically a very practical person. As soon as I decide I want to live somewhere, I plan the house, the vegetable garden and the housing for the animals. In permaculture terms I’m ZONING, that is during the design process I’m thinking of walking and carrying things to and from different areas of activity. Things that need to be done regularly like opening the chickens, feeding the pigs and goats and making sure everyone has fresh water need to be near the house to make life easier.

Once that’s done though, there’s time to be more creative, more exuberant and I like to bring the garden together with little walkways full of shrubs, climbers and flowers and on our daily rounds of caring for the veg plot and the animals, we have the chance to walk through a paradise.

I love growing climbers which can be seen from inside the house and examined closer up as we walk on the terrace. This beautiful Chilean Potato Vine is flowering already and it’s fast-growing branches mean that we’ll have shade on the terrace this summer.

I’ve taken about thirty CUTTINGS from this plant and used it to hide the water butts and cover screens and fences in different parts of the garden. The cuttings take easily in water and if you’d like to see how fast it grows then click on THIS link for photos or this one for a SLIDESHOW.

I’ve never been a Rose person. I always thought that they were sickly inbred creatures who needed a lot of attention but few years ago I started a love affair with a Rose.

Lady banks RoseI wanted a fast growing shrub to cover the BANK AT THE BACK of the cellar to keep it cooler in the summer. Our gardener friend Andrew suggested the Lady Banks Rose. I had a look at the qualities of this plant – almost evergreen, thorn-less, fast growing, low maintenance and decided to plant one. It has far exceeded my expectations for the job in hand as well as being one of the joys of the Spring garden.

I’ve taken loads of cuttings from an old cherished Wisteria cutting I brought from the UK and now there are five substantial plants which are in flower at the moment.

We’re lucky to have a lot of wood which we use all the time to make pergolas, sheds, screens and before a shed or pergola is up, I’ve already started getting excited about what I’m going to plant round it.

I make gardens because having beautiful things around to look at and watch changing, to smell and to enjoy – are more important than we think.

Smallholding means that our lives revolve around our land and animals. There are very few opportunities to go out and enjoy new fashions, surprises, culture and beauty, so everything we need to nourish not only our bodies, but also our senses, has to be on site.

All the “gardens” we’ve made here have been from scratch. Many of them, especially at the new house are still very much work in progress. I like the challenge of gardening on a very low budget and I enjoy taking the time to find interesting bits and pieces – some of them become treasures and some are sentimental. Almost all of them have a history or an association with a person or a place.

We’ve 100 acres of land, with valleys and woods and water, so there’s lots of scope for wild areas and experiments with big projects. Huge plants and invasive species can be accommodated with ease and used in settings where they can enjoy freedom to grow to maturity and provide food, shelter and shade for wildlife.

Nature has taken over in some of our gardens because there’s just not enough hours in the day to strim and trim. I used to worry, but now I just look and see what’s happened since the last time I visited.

Magical surroundings can be created with seeds and cuttings and the odd delightful purchase of new plants and I can honestly say that I’ve never regretted planting something beautiful.

Early evening storm brewing in the potager

I’d just transferred plants and repotted and watered everything then I noticed those black clouds looming overhead.

The chickens have gone to bed early, the goats are in the shed, the dogs have gone back up to the house. The atmosphere is just magical and I want to savour it right to the last moment.

There's going to be rain and I've just watered

I hope the rain doesn’t batter the Wisteria too much!

Just before the storm

I hope the rain doesn't batter the Wisteria too much!

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