Monday, 17 October 2016


An amazing apple harvest this year. We've been collecting fallers and easy-reachers for several weeks from the cooking apples - Bramley and two others we don't know the variety - and have picked a good crop off the crab apple. Today we went up on the scaffolding platform to pick more (not all!).

Unfortunately the eaters haven't done so well. The Russet which ripens early did fairly well, but the little Red Apple tree had hardly any fruit, the first time this one has had a bad year since we came here 10 years ago. The new trees, Elstar and Braeburn had nothing. We're looking forward to a good crop from the other Red Eater which ripens very late and should be ready in a week or so.

The Crab Apples, as usual, went into crab apple jelly, some plain and some with rosemary or sage in to eat with meat or cheese.

I usually cut up, cook and freeze the cooking apples ready for crumbles, pies and apple sauce during the winter and spring but now have freezers full of apples. Some go into chutneys and we wrap some in newspaper and store in trays in the conservatory. We still had buckets of apples so we decided to try something new - CIDER!

Plastic boxes with apples etc for cider

We don't have a cider press available so we Googled "Making cider without a press" and came up with a suggestion which involves freezing the apples for a few days. This apparently breaks down the structure of the apples in a similar way to crushing them. Well we had a go and put 5 lbs of the frozen apples, 1.5 lbs sugar, 7 oz yeast and  6 pts cold water into each of two plastic boxes with lids. (Buckets with lids are inexplicably much more expensive). Stir every 2 days. After 3 weeks test for sweetness - definitely cidery but we added some sugar because one was pretty "rough". Next stage is to rack off into demi-johns and let brew a bit longer. Let you know how it goes.

I've also made some Apple Cider Vinegar. Put 1.5 lbs cut up apples in a large wide-topped (Kilner) jars, 3 tbsps of Demerara sugar and fill up with water. Cover with kitchen towel and elastic band around - so air can get in but not flies). Leave on cupboard top in kitchem, stir every couple of days. It fizzes a bit and then after a week or so the apples start to sink. After 3 weeks pour off the vinegar. Filter into small bottles. Tastes quite good to me but will try again in a week or two.

I once did this by accident with a batch of crab apple juice I didn't get round to boiling up into jelly. It had nicely fermented and gone over into vinegar all by itself. So I had enough Crab Apple Vinegar to use in salad dressings and beetroot for a couple of years.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Toads, frogs and newts

At this time of year we're doing a lot of tidying up, clearing dead stuff, cutting back bushes that have grown like crazy this year. We also rotate the 3 compost bins.

We have 3 large compost bays about 3ft square surrounded by moveable wooden boards. All the cuttings, lawn mowings, vegetable peelings, small apple fallers.... get piled into the empty bay during the year. Then that gets turned over and left to do it's thing and then when it's ready it goes on the vegetable beds, used for potting up things and so on. It's really good stuff.

More in this article on composting earlier in the year >>

On Sunday Paul was digging out the remains of the "done" bay to spread over the veg beds and discovered an enormous toad, about 4 ins long. Toad was rather annoyed, he (or she) had settled down in a nice warm spot for the winter. So we very gently lifted him out and placed him at the base of an old plum tree where we've seen toads before. There are holes going down into the roots and he didn't take long to crawl in and be completely hidden. We put a small pile of compost over the hole to give a bit more shelter and warmth for the winter.

When we first arrived here in June 2006 there were frogs and toads all over. There was ivy growing up the walls of the house and Russian vine over the back fence and shed which all trapped moisture and provided hidey-holes for all sorts of creatures amongst the living and dead vegetation. We'd come down in the morning to find slugs, big ones, in the middle of the kitchen floor and silvery trails all over the living room carpet. Opening the back door at night you'd have to be quick and careful to prevent little frogs jumping in.

There was a particularly big ivy growing at the back of the house, 2ft thick, and when we chopped it down we discovered several large black toads living in it.

Each Spring the air was full of mating calls of frogs and subsequently there would be big clumps of frogspawn in the the pond. Small brown newts lived in the rather damp boiler house and there were often toads over-wintering in the soil in the greenhouse.

Things do seem to have changed. We still have little frogs jumping around in the long grass up by the orchard and last week I disturbed a couple of newts and a tiny frog while weeding the front garden. There are toads under the pile of logs and timber by the hedge.

But for the last couple of springs we haven't had the problem of driving down the road through a moving carpet of amphibians as we did when we first came here, frogs and toads migrating to their breeding ponds. It's not called FROG-garts Cottage for nothing!

Maybe we've been too tidy in the garden. Also one of our neighbours did a lot of landscaping work and cleared bushes and trees from an established pond, and another has done some rearranging of the ponds and waterways at the bottom of his garden. But it's still very much a rural area with a lot of wild life.

Here's a BBC article about declining toad numbers "Toad numbers fall by two-thirds in 30 years".
The article doesn't have an answer, just highlights the issue. It's based on this research article >>

In our small patch we do our best by leaving quite a lot of wild space around the edges. We have old established hawthorn hedges and are surrounded by a field grazed by cattle. We don't use pesticides and only occasional weedkillers on pathways well away from the pond.

However, amphibian health will be on top of the agenda this coming year.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Tomato feast

We've had a bumper tomato harvest this year. The 9 tomato plants (Alicantes) in the greenhouse have done really well. During their peak I was picking 2lbs of tomatoes each day. This year we didn't grow any Big Boys in the small conservatory. (They were really my Mum's project.)

Home-grown tomatoes (Alicantes)

It's great to have home-grown tomatoes. The shop-bought ones just don't have any flavour and I'd just as soon do without. I never have any problem getting them to ripen. I pick them when they are ripe or nearly ripe and put them on the window sill. Unripe ones quickly catch up - even green ones turn red in a few days.

What to do with them all?
  • Eat in salads or on their own.
  • Roast them in the oven for an easy veg to accompany - well, anything.  Put a tablespoon of olive oil in an oven-proof dish. Cut the toms in half through the middle and rub the cut side in the oil. Turn them over with cut side up and sprinkle with black pepper, a little salt and some herbs if you have them - marjoram or thyme are great.
  • Make tomato passata. Roast whole toms in the oven wih a little oil. Cook for 1hr or so at medium heat. There will be a lot of water and juice after cooking. Rub the tomatoes through a sieve to get fairly thick puree. Use it as a sauce, soup or in dishes like bolognese. It freezes well. Keep the juice / oil to use in soups or where you need vegetable stock.
  • Tomato soup. Make a tomato passata and add peper and salt to taste, maybe a handful of herbs. You don't need anything else. It's delicious just as it is.
  • Tomato chutney. I made some delicious tomato and chilli chutny, using chilles Paul grew this year.
  • Tomato tart. Make a pastry base, lightly cook. Chop some onions finely and cook gently in some olive oil. Slice tomatoes and discard any hard bits around the stalk. Spread the onions on the pastry base, arrange the tomatoes prettily over the top and sprinkle with black pepper, herbs, a little salt. Pop back in the oven at medium heat for half an hour.
  • Sell at table-top sales (they were very popular)
  • Give away to friends and neighbours.
 The tomato plants are beginning to shut down now, but there's still a few pounds left. I think I'll make more chutney!