Wednesday, 25 November 2009

All good things: food for thought

My Tif-inspired expression of glee has gone a little awry today after hanging out a couple of loads of washing, only to find that ten minutes later the clear blue skies had turned a leaden shade of grey, and raindrops started to slap at my windows, even though the Met Office, bless their little cotton socks, had promised me sun until three. So I helter-skeltered out of doors and gathered up my dripping laundry, and carefully festooned my kitchen with socks and sheets, only to find that the rain had beat a hasty retreat and here came the sun again. I couldn't face the agony of a repeat performance so I sat and worked amongst the sheets and towels, and pondered the purpose of weather forecasts.

 But maybe Met Office I might forgive you, for just after three we are now in the midst of wild wet wind and rain, battering at our battened-down hatches, and now, in an attempt to don the mask of jocosity once more, I am trying to reimagine all those damp tea towels as a festive gleeful whatnot garland, and thinking of Ginny and her November gratitude, I will take you for a virtual stroll around our November garden. (In the interests of veracity and authenticity, I must tell you that I took the pretty pictures at the weekend when the sun was shining and the light was good, but yes, I still have marigolds and a single lonely rose in flower, along with a copious crop of weeds.)

I have posted before here about the complications of self-sufficiency, and would reiterate that for us true self-sufficiency will remain a mirage, because I am not about to grow flax, and I know not how to spin or weave, and the sheep are but a dream of the future, and a cow ... well, perhaps not, no not ever. But we are aiming to be as self-sufficient as possible in food, given the limitations of climate and time.

Carbohydrate staples are greedy of land and labour, and growing wheat on a small scale really is the stuff of dreams: we would have to give up a lot of our tinyholding to keep ourselves in flour, and really, the investment that would be required in tools and equipment for all of that harvesting, thrashing, winnowing and grinding - not to mention storage - makes wheat-growing an unrealistic proposition. We consume potatoes by the sack, but luckily my dear papa grows them commercially so we can eat local on that front. And do we want to give up rice and lentils - well, perhaps not yet.

But we have been able to produce all of our vegetables and nearly all of our fruit since the early spring, and, contrary to my expectations, we still have a good variety growing in the garden in late November. This is where we reap the benefits of our location in the former garden of England. Kent was named the garden of England not for its decorative qualities, which is what we so often associate with gardening nowadays, but because of its market gardens which supplied London and its environs with fruit and vegetables. Gardens were originally garths and yards - little enclosed spaces for growing herbs and vegetables. Subsistence didn't allow for the luxury of growing purely for the purposes of ornament, although that is not to say that beauty and vegetable growing are mutually exclusive, and gardens for leisure and ornament were the preserve of the wealthy until surprisingly late in history.

So we are in a good location for self-sufficiency in vegetables and fruit, for these have been part of the indigenous agriculture for very many years: our rich clay soil, mild climate and southern latitude make for a long and productive growing season. If ever you are looking to take on a smallholding, the agricultural history of your surroundings is a very useful guide as to what will be the easiest and most feasible way to manage your land, and the traditional local diet will be the one that is most self-sufficient.

For example, my friend Ellie from Fleece with Altitude has a smallholding in the north of England on land high up where the soil is thin; the weather is colder, wetter, and windier than down here: traditionally this would have been land purely used for grazing sheep at low densities. Ellie has a magnificent herb garden, but this has involved her in much work building shelter and creating drainage for the soil. Whereas I can plant lavender and other Mediterranean herbs all about my garden, with no soil preparation at all, and they love the summer drought and sunny south-facing area at the front of the house: wet feet will kill lavender very quickly.

And our lack of time over the last few months has worked to our advantage - many weeks ago I remember feeling guilty that I wasn't up to date with clearing the tomatoes out of the greenhouse or the runner beans from their frames. Yet this lackadaisicalness has (luckily) worked to our advantage because of the unseasonably mild autumn we have had: at the weekend we harvested the last tomatoes, and still have a few aubergines and peppers coming on. I have found before that aubergines are really worth keeping on into the autumn if they are sheltered in some way: as we have no heat in the greenhouse we cannot sow them very early, and they seem to need a long growing season. October is the time when we harvest the bulk of the crop.

After a sticky start in the spring when it seemed unwilling to germinate, we did a second sowing of celery: the first caught up with the second,  and we have in consequence been overwhelmed with celery. But it really sharpens up the flavour of squash or pumpkin soup, and although the frosts will finish it off, there is no sign of that yet. It might have been wet and windy, the temperature is creepily high as yet, having been in the mid teens in the past few weeks. And the heavy rain has had a reviving effect on our summer-parched soils.

We still have beetroot in the ground, and lettuce which we sowed outside at the end of the summer is coming into full production, with rocket and radicchio in the polytunnel.

 My Italian cabbage plants, which were a donation from a friend's surplus, have survived the determined assault  of caterpillars, which gave them the air of green lace sculpture at one point. So we are glad that we didn't have enough time to abandon hope and dig up the crop: they look ravishingly dark green and healthy now with their curled leaves festooned with pearls of rain and dew.

All our hard work in transforming the clay into a fine soil has reaped dividends in carrots and parsnips - some of which are such monsters they make exciting treats for the pigs. For root crops such as these, we have proved to ourselves that raised beds are definitely the solution to counteract the problems of a clay soil. The parsley has been the best ever: the garden is filled with luxuriant green frills around all the beds.

And there is more to come: once again our tardiness has in the long run been an advantage, in that the leeks and celeriac went in very late, because of lack of time (and space, because the garden was full of celery). So I can look ahead and feel comforted that we have vegetables to last us on into January, at least. We also have runner beans, peas and broccoli in the freezer, as well as fruit of all sorts, although I think the real key to true self-sufficiency and thrift is to manage to grow a succession of seasonal plants, which sitting in the ground don't take up freezer space and consume electricity.

Fruit is another question entirely: in this climate, fresh as opposed to preserved fruit is nigh on impossible during winter and spring.

Apples cover many of the gaps, but I do crave citrus fruits around this time of year because they are so delicious, and their bright orangeness brings light into the grey days.

And the pigs, alas, their days are numbered, and whilst my hearty family dream of bacon and sausages for Christmas day, I secretly mourn and avert my gaze.

The Head Chef's excitement at the sight of pheasants in the orchard may well have a different source from mine, but I am full of gratitude for a garden full of good and growing things, a larder where the jars of jam and jelly gleam expectantly, and we are all blessed with the assurance of plenty and more food to come: good things to be grateful for in November.


sarah-jane down the lane said...

What a wonderful bumper post!

That exact same thing happened to me today too! The washing is now strewn around the house on all the rads!I thought Kent was in for some dry weather???????

On to your absoloutely wonderful produce, it all looks so lush and healthy you are doing such a brilliant brillaint job WELL DONE!

the preseved apples and fruit looks amazing, yum!

Sarah x

Floss said...

All I can say is, Pomona, that the washing didn't dry in the south of France today, either! I have some of it gleefully festooned around me as I type, and some more in a basket that I really must spread out.

Thanks for telling us more about your gardening and moves towards self-sufficiency. I like your point that the agricultural history of an area gives you a good idea of what you can grow. We spent a lot of time talking to Ben's colleagues when we first moved here, to discover what grows and is popular around here.

Hen said...

Wow, it looks brilliant, all your veg looks so healthy. The rain was a shocker wasn't it? There I was, feeling oh so chuffed to see the sun and the next thing it was pouring down. Not having my washing on the line is one of the things I dislike most about Autumn/Winter.
Hen x

Gina said...

What a fabulous post. I really enjoyed reading it. This year has been the first that I've seriously started to grow vegetables and I've been delighted by how many meals have come from our garden. Reading about your harvest has encouraged me to want to do more (although I don't think I could keep a pig!)

rockinloubylou said...

Your tinyholding is doing a great job, and it's very inspiring to read about what you have achieved.
country mouse xx

Serenata said...

Wow your vegetables look fabulous. I can't even seem to grow parsley here! Our soil is dreadful though and I can't dig - and even though have a family of males, can't seem to get them to do it for me!

I do hope though that one day when we move we will be once again able to grow our own vegetables.

andamento said...

A very enjoyable tour of your plot. Despite your comments it's obvious a lot of hard work has gone into it - enjoy reaping the rewards!

Cally's Cottage said...

Fantastic post!!Full of great observations and musings,we would love to be more self sufficient but until an allotment comes up it is lovely to read all about it!
I know that when I am cooking and baking the end product would be all the sweeter if I had grown it too.
But until then..
Warm Wishes,
Cally x

JuliaB said...

Great post Pomona. It's hard to be self sufficient nowadays so I do my best on the vegetable plot and use local produce for the rest. We are lucky here that local produce is plentiful and varied. I was veggie for 10 years but am not now due to the rice/lentils/foreign protein thing. Again, we are lucky to live near a family run farm which not only raises and butchers it's own herds, but grows the food to feed them too. Our business this year has also led to unexpected crops! xxx

Elizabethd said...

Your parsley is amazing! I wish mune would grow like that.

Sarah said...

Goodness what an amazing garden you have!! I'm having issues with white powder on my older peas at the moment. Any ideas? Oh and I've lost my lettuces to the rain. Damn that weather aye?!! It's blowing a gale here today so think the washing would blow away should I dare to hang it out.

Serenata said...

Thanks so much for the tips. I might have a go next year! I'm sure I could find somewhere for a couple of raised beds, and it would be a start. I always used to grow veges in NZ, but never been that successful here, but you have inspired me! :-)

Lyn said...

Gosh, I have abandoned our garden to the grey miserable weather, well done on your beautiful garden.

willow said...

The rain today didn't reach us until just after lunch and so my washing which went out at first light was just about dry and I rescued it in time.
I am impressed by your garden, tomatoes at the end of November - amazing.

Cathy said...

You have some yummy looking veggies there Pomona. I read somewhere that Kent was one of the few counties that had had less than average rainfall prior to the autumn. I bet you have made up for it now though. I didn't realise that "garden of England" meant that, and me a Kent girl too - born in Lyminge...tut tut.

Ticking stripes said...

Lovely post! Totally understand where you're coming from with the self sufficiency idea. Thank you for your message - I admit to forgetting to collect gorgeous girl from nursery once too. Not something I'm allowed to forget! Might try the emergency ironing option though - although a work trip to London tomorrow means I need to be suited and booted so maybe the next day...

Bobo Bun said...

I can't believe all your wonderful produce Pomona. I really admire you for being able to plan it all out. I know you say a lot was hit and miss, but I really wouldn't know where to begin.

Lisa x

Sarah said...

I too had problems with washing on the line one minute and dashing out to bring it in the next!
I do admire you with all your produce. We try hard every Spring to be a little self-sufficient, but time seems to be our failing and everything either dies or fails to produce. Maybe next year....!

Pipany said...

I loved this post Pomona. So much of what you do is what we are trying to achieve here too. we always grow veggies and fruit, though never as much as we mean to oras well due to those same time constraints. My theory is that something is better than nothing, we have fun doing iut, are healthier for it and will eventually increase production. This was truly inspiring x

Cottage Garden said...

I really admire what you are doing on your smallholding Pomona and I'm sure you will achieve all your goals. Our fruit & veg growing is done on a much smaller scale here at home, and on the allotment of course, but we are nowhere near as self-sufficient and I agree with Pipany - something is better than nothing.
By the way your top photo looks very much like parts of Cottage Garden at the moment - except a few lonely Astors rather than marigolds!

A wonderful post.

Jeanne x

PS Get beating that walnut tree!!

Menopausal musing said...

I was feeling just the same re the flowers...... I don't ever buy them from the shops. I still have the odd straw flower, margiold and cosmos, but they will soon be gone methinks. My other half is eyeing up the woodpigeons as a foodsource.......... they are rather numerous and definitely a nuisance here.

Kate said...

I absolutely loved reading your post, it's a real geography/history/horticultural lesson rolled into one. Your self-sufficiency is impressive to say the least and I have to say I feel a tad envious! We worked hard to create a small vegetable plot (minute by your standards) earlier this year, planted up some dwarf beans, beetroots, radishes etc but then went away for the Summer and the whole lot was ruined on our return. The plot is just a mass of weeds now. Oh well, better luck next year. Thanks for the interesting read.

Kate x

Chrissie said...

What a lovely post, thank you! I dream of venison casserole when I see the devastation that the muntjack deer cause in my veg patch!

. said...

Yesterday it happened the same with me. In Accuweather they said it would rain in the pm. I put my clothes on the line and in a minute it was raining.
About the vegetables: some beauties. And the pictures are very nice, very well taken.

Michela said...

Hi Pomona! It was interesting to know more about the place where you live. And I can understand all your efforts for growning your vegetable garden, my grandparents who are both around 80 years old still grown their own vegetables for the whole family and not to mention hens, rabbits..and porks!

Charlotte, Cottontails said...

Dear Pomona,

Hello, lovely to meet you and thank you for entering my giveaway.

I really enjoyed reading your post and also the bits down the right hand side.

I am amazed at your self-sufficiency. If you don't mind my asking (and I'm sure the answer is there if I read more) I wondered if this is something you do full time? Only I work such long hours I seriously haven't found the time even to grown herbs this year! (Mind you, did move house and business too). And I would so love to have more time to spend outdoors, but don't want to commit to things I know I won't be able to keep up. I am interested I suppose in whether self sufficiecy must be a full time endeavor...?

Lovely to meet you.


alice c said...

I am so impressed by your energy and organisation which ensures that you have a supply of home grown goodies over such a long period.

Charlotte, Cottontails said...

Thank you so much for your email :-) I will reply, and also follow your blog as am genuinely fascinated and impressed by your lifestyle!
Love Charlotte

Tabiboo said...

Same here yesterday too - on/off, on/off - though silly little old me did keep trying, I gave up at around attempt number four!!

Sorry I'm talking about the weather and washing - by the way!

Nina xx

Florence and Mary said...

WOW you are fantastic with all these efforts... I would love to have just a little vegetable patch but what you've achieved is great

Victoria xx

Shirleyanne said...

Hello Pomona,
Very good with all the self-sufficiency produce, really good to see. More & more people seem to have the same idea. My neighbours, at present, are creating housing for some chickens.
This year,I created a raised bed for growing veg but couldn't use to full potential due to other reasons.
Hopefully for a better crop next season.

Take care X said...

Gosh, I think you are fantastic! It really is practically impossible to be completely self sufficient, but you do look like you are doing very well at what you can do! The weather here in North west England is pretty wiet and windy, so our garden is a bit worse for wear! I have put the knitting pattern for the tea cosy on my post this week, which I am just about to publish! Have a lovely weekend! suzie xxx

jennyflower said...

I wish I'd kept the curtains drawn on my pitiful back yard now! Although I have got a healthy pot of Parsley- Mum says it will only grow in a house where the woman wears the trousers. That must be Anna here- you?

jus said...

What would you recommend adding to really clay-ey's driving me crazy as there are only so many potato beds a person can handle!
have you ever tried preserved lemons, a la the moroccan's? we are lucky enough to have a lemon tree here and I make jars and jars of the things to see me through a local citrus free winter, x

Paul Cornies said...

What wonderful pictures of your garden. The 'greens' look delectably nutritious. How do you keep those salivating rabbits from eating them before you do?

ParisMaddy said...

Your sentiments, garden and canning are all fantastic.

ginny said...

Pomona, you really are an inspiration... i have loved reading about your vegetable garden and am very impressed that you are pretty self-sufficient too... we have lots to learn here and are thankful for the rewards from our small plot... though my aim is to grow more and more each year. how wonderful that the tastes from your garden will carry you through these dark winter months.
warmest wishes
ginny x

Karen L R said...


After being in Vermont, where my only internet connection is down in town at the library or laundromat, I am finally back in Connecticut, catching up with some blog reading. This is a WONDERFUL post! And I loved the post about RED as well, especially all those lovely ribbons! I really enjoy your blog.



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