When I lived in England hedgerow foraging was serious stuff! Every year I got very excited at specific times of the year based on what I was able forage. In the UK there are public footpaths everywhere so people go back to the same spot year after year when they know something good grows there. I have found so many great things when I least expected it: wild asparagus, sorrel, wild garlic, sloes and elder! Here in the Pacific Northwest it took me a while to really get to grips with what I could forage but I was not disappointed! I will write separate blogs on the various wild foods when they are ready to harvest!
This takes me to today. I noticed when I was driving home from work Friday that the elder flowers are out! This made me remember the time I made elderflower Champagne in the UK. When it was time to bottle I did so but made the error of putting the bottles on their sides. One night while watching TV we heard a pop, then another pop, and then lots more and eventually realized that we had a mess to clean up! I will not make that mistake again!
Today on a hike I was lucky and found lots of elderflowers, so I decided it was time to make elderflower Champagne. Where I live the red elder is the one I see a lot and the difference from the UK elder is that the flowers are in more of a cone shape, that is where the differences end.
I used the River Cottage Handbook ‘Booze’ book for my recipe this time as it has worked before. They give the advice to use 8 full flower heads but if you are picking the red elder you need maybe 24 - 40 heads, depending on the size.
You need to dissolve 2 liters of water with 800 grams of sugar; you can then add an additional 3 liters of cold water, but make sure this is cool before you add the elderflowers, and the zest and juice of 4 lemons.
Leave this to ferment. I used a bucket fitted with an air lock (basically this is a brewing bucket which my husband makes to brew beer).
If fermentation has not started after 3 days then you should add a packet of Champagne yeast.
After 6 days of fermentation strain the liquid through a boiled cheese cloth. Cover the liquid for a few hours to let the dust settle and then siphon into bottles (any kind) and cap. I plan to use the bottles that have an attached stopper, they call them bale wire bottles
I will add pictures to this blog as I get through the process. I really wanted to publish this today so that those of you in the Pacific Northwest can get picking before the flowers fade!
UPDATE - Fermentation complete! Admittedly I went on a business trip for a few days and should have bottled before I went away. No problem though as I tasted it and WOW!
I used the flip cap bottles as they are easy to work with. When I opened the bucket the smell was amazing, elderflower and lemon were the strong scents that overwhelmed me!
I then used a siphon with sanitized muslin cupped around the end of the tube to capture all those dead black bugs :)
You can already see the bubbles! Once this was done I filled the bottles....1 more week before I can enjoy :)
FINAL UPDATE - The day has come and it is time to give this stuff a try. I am shocked and impressed at the same time, this stuff is amazing. It is SO full of bubbles so be careful. You MUST give this a try next year. I will never live a year without this stuff again!
When we bought our house about 5 years ago I convinced my husband that I would look after our 1.2 acres as he is not into gardening (and I knew this would clinch the deal :)). What I really wanted was 5+ acres where I could really grow things on a larger scale and raise some chickens and pigs but we realized that unless we wanted to live in the middle of nowhere I needed to change the brief. So although I would not be able to grow masses of onions, potatoes, winter squash etc. I would be able to grow a lot of things I was interested in...it was a temporary compromise (until 2020 at least).
I made quite a few changes to our plot, admittedly most additions have been edibles :) One thing I was keen to do was add more fruit and I decided on currants and gooseberries mainly because they are quite attractive from the perspective that they are bush-like and even when not fruiting they don't look bad. Additionally, these plants can handle some shade which gave me more options.
I decided to plant 10 currants/gooseberries in the borders. I selected the following:
They are all three years old now and I am shocked by the crop I get from these prolific plants! The black currants produce SO much and the smell you get from the plant, even when not flowering, is amazing!
I have had some trouble with the plants which are located near some large evergreens as this is where the birds hang out as they wait their turn at the bird feeders. I love birds but last year they pretty much ate ALL the berries from these 6 plants - I was not impressed at all.
This year I decided to throw some bird netting over these plants. Due to my growing dislike for plastic I used large branches from a dead tree we removed as the stakes to hold it up. I am super excited as these bushes are covered with flowers right now! I am already dreaming of gooseberry fool, blackcurrant jelly, red currant muffins, red currant scones….I need to stop thinking about this now as I am drooling!
The sun is out and I am not working and so I can enjoy today. Walking around the garden this time of year fills one with so much hope and happiness for a lovely summer. In the Pacific Northwest this is SO needed in April, especially this April as this winter has broke records with the sheer volume of rain we have had!
Here are a few things I looked at today and am super excited about:
Raspberries - My raspberries look good, the first time in 5 years so I am very hopeful for a good crop. I think they struggled for so many years because the soil was not ideal. Before these raspberries were here there were three 100+ foot pine trees that had the stumps ground out but after years of amending the soil I think I might be on track for a bumper crop!
Blueberries - I think this is year 3 for these Top Hat Blueberries and they are looking amazing and filled with SO many flower buds, I am salivating as I remember how good they tasted last year.
Rhododendron - I am unsure of the name of this one but the flowers are amazing, they start out as a dark pink and then as the days go by they become white.
Anemones and Ranunculus - These are just stunning flowers and being able to cut a few and bring them into the house to enjoy keeps me going until the roses are in bloom.
I LOVE SPRING!
I cleaned out the greenhouse today, moved my orchids, consolidated the seedlings to clear the way for the tomatoes! I grow my indeterminate tomatoes in fabric grow bags. Fabric grow bags are an excellent option as they allow for air pruning which is a process where the roots of the plant come in contact with the fabric inner wall of the pot they are forced to penetrate and grow into the breathable fabric. This causes the root tips to dehydrate and branch behind this point. I use 25 gallon Smart Pots and have been using the same ones for 5 years, they are a great investment and very economical in terms of a large pot. I think I mentioned this in a previous post but these pots, due to the size, support my tomatoes which reach 12 - 16 feet. I grow these tomatoes using a string which I have attached to a wire at the top. I merely twist the tomato around this string as it grows up and it essentially becomes self supporting. I will show some pictures of this as they get bigger. I grow 9 indeterminate tomatoes down the center of the greenhouse in roughly 2 staggered rows. I then grow a row right in the front of the greenhouse. This year I will grow 2 chilies, 3 cucumbers and 4 bush tomatoes. I have not bought tomato sauce, salsa or dried chilies in over 5 years - I will never see a return on my greenhouse investment but I am eating damn good stuff.
I have all of the plants on a timed irrigation system which I will be replacing this year (I will do a blog post on this) as I want to have the small bags and large bags on different watering cycles. This is really the best way to water tomatoes as over or under watering them is bad. You need to keep to a consistent watering schedule to avoid things like blossom end rot and too much water can leave your tomatoes having a watery taste.
I enjoyed my first walk in the woods this Spring and it did not disappoint, the flowers are well and truly out and it reminds me that if I cannot be living on a farm in Italy this is not such a bad place to be.
This time of year you can see all of the wild berries in bloom. This reminds me that I must be better about remembering where these spots are so I can come back and harvest when they are ripe and full of fruit. I saw Salmonberries, Huckleberries, Oregon Grape, Elderberries, Salal and many more.
I also saw some amazing wildflowers as well. One of the most special Springtime plants we have here, in my opinion, is the trillium. I was lucky enough to see many of these and, as you see from the pictures, I was able to see a lovely pink trillium as well. I saw lovely patches of yellow viola and wild dicentra.
When you walk slowly and look closely you see such beautiful moss and ferns. The Pacific Northwest is truly a special place...
One of the things my husband and I like to do throughout the year is make fruit infused alcohol/liqueurs. Living in the Pacific Northwest I like to try and select some interesting fruit. In the past I have made an oregon grape liqueur which was delicious and tasted almost like Port. This year I wanted to try a rhubarb vodka as well as a native red huckleberry vodka (they are currently flowering so I will have to wait a bit longer). There are so many options here beyond those I have mentioned. It is easy to find huckleberries, native raspberries, chokeberries, salmonberries, and many more.
I was keen to try the rhubarb vodka after reading a great book called Booze by John Wright. This is the 12th book in a series called the River Cottage Handbooks. John says that rhubarb is the best infusion that there is and this compelled me to try it given I grow rhubarb.
It is so easy to make, you need 280g rhubarb stalks, 150g sugar and 600ml vodka. John recommends using a mandolin to get really thin slices or 3 - 5 mm per slice. You add the rhubarb, sugar and leave for a couple of days, then you shake the jar once a day until the sugar dissolves. Decant the vodka into bottles after 3 months.
I am keen to hear other ideas/recipes for local fruit alcohol/liqueurs if you have any!
I have always loved the idea of espalier apple trees as a natural and very attractive fence that also produces food. This is a winning combination in my opinion. I think what stopped me from getting some sooner was the price tag - they are about $75 each and for the area I was planning I needed 4.
I finally decided to make the investment this year and bought 4 trees. I decided to go with 2 Honeycrisp Apples and 2 that had 3 different varieties on a single plant. You need other apple types to cross pollinate Honeycrisp apples so worth keeping in mind. As I was not going to have the time to plant them in their final positions until the following weekend I just dug a shallow hole so that all of their roots would be kept moist. The following weekend I went to get them planted and was horrified to see that the ends of the 3 branches had been chewed off and in many places bark had been chewed as well. If you know anything about espalier apples you have about 6 chances per plant for the branches to grow and in each case I lost 3 - 4, I was VERY unhappy. I knew that I could train a spur into the horizontal branch but this was not ideal.
I got on with things and planted them and they started growing, for the most part. The lowest of the 3 horizontal branches was at a height that the rabbits could get to them and eat all of the new growth. These poor trees had lived through hell up until this point. I decided it was time for some major action and I decided to put chicken wire all around the base of the plants, not the most attractive accompaniment to these trees but I was left with little choice.
As it is April the leaves are just starting to appear so it will be fun to see how they grow this year. Regardless I need to wait another year until I start eating the fruit.
I wanted to write a blog about my greenhouse since my friends on Reddit seemed to be interested (thanks guys!). I always wanted a greenhouse but when I lived in the UK for 10 years I never had enough money or space for one. Saying that I saw SO many amazing greenhouses, that is one thing that the UK does better than anyone. The greenhouses at all the country houses and at Kew Garden (you MUST go to visit Kew Garden if you are ever in the UK) are some of the most impressive in the world, in my opinion.
One thing I love about the UK greenhouses is the cold frames that they often have incorporated into them. When I decided to build a greenhouse in the Pacific Northwest I really wanted to have a cold frame down one side to have extra growing space. The first thing I needed to do was some research on the various greenhouse building companies. I had to compromise as I wanted the largest greenhouse I could afford but at the same time, as the greenhouse is close to my home, I had to get a greenhouse that was attractive. What I mean is I needed a greenhouse with glass vs. all polycarbonate. Clearly polycarbonate is the better option as it is cheaper and more insulating but it is not as attractive. I decided to go with polycarbonate on the roof and glass on the walls. I found an amazing greenhouse company call BC Greenhouse Builders, which is a family run business right across the border in Canada. They were such a pleasure to work with and given that I did not end up buying a standard style (as I wanted the cold frame) they worked with me to design my dream greenhouse. In addition to the cold frame the greenhouse has a thermostatic fan system and heater as well as electricity and water. It really has everything!
The greenhouse has concrete footings which was built in the exact same way you would build footings for a house. I was able to find a local tradesman who had installed greenhouses before and he installed the entire greenhouse for me.
I have not regretted the money I spent or any of the decisions I made in relation to this greenhouse and it is 5 years later. This greenhouse brings me so much joy and allows me to keep busy with plants, year-round. Here are some pictures of the process:
My summer vacation/reconnaissance mission to Italy has been booked and I am excited! Italy is a very strong contender in terms of where we will move to live the self sufficient life in 2020. Having been to Italy many times I just think it is perfect. The people are so friendly and welcoming, the lifestyle and quality of life are something to be admired. The food and people’s love of living off the land and eating fresh, seasonal and local is very appealing. While in Italy we might even check out some potential properties, I look forward to blogging all about this when we are there! Funnily enough, right now, there is a BBC Show called Second Chance Summer which is about 10 people heading to Italy to live on a working farm for 2 months to fulfill a dream.
We are spending a week on a farm in Northern Umbria and then walking in the Val d’Orcia for a week . Here are the specific details:
Thinking of this trip will keep me going for the next couple of months as the rain here in Seattle is almost a daily occurrence. Here are some pictures of Tuscany from my last vacation there, how can someone not want to live here?
I have a love hate relationship with rabbits. I love them because I love wild animals in general but also because my son REALLY loves bunnies. I hate rabbits because they like to eat everything to the point where I cannot really grow flowers or anything with soft stems or leaves in the ground. I have resorted to many contraptions over the years to keep these pests out and the only one that has stuck is chicken wire around a plant, problem is this is pretty ugly! I went from having about 50 little chicken wire cages to accepting that I can grow pretty flowers/edible food in either raised beds, containers or in my greenhouse. I feel very liberated now that I have accepted this.
So fast forward to today, and I am satisfied with my setup. When thinking about what I am going to plant in my large pots this year I have decided that instead of annual flowers in all the pots I would like to plant fruit bushes and other edible options. This means I can keep these plants in their pots over winter and this means less work for me as well. I already have lots of blueberries (yes there are chicken wire cages around them) and raspberries as well (clearly too painful for the rabbits to eat) so today I went on an expedition to my favorite garden center Molbaks in Woodinville to see what options I have available. They stock super interesting and unique plants which I would struggle to find anywhere else. Here are the options available to me:
Sugar Mountain Strawberry Honeysuckle - Where has this plant been all my life? Easier to grow and healthier than blueberries? I will take two thank you!
Carmine Jewel Dwarf Cherry - Wow, a bush cherry tree? This sounds amazing and I would love to get one but by the time I am catching a plane ride to my new home in 2020 I will miss the 20 - 30 pounds of fruit!
I was looking for some columnar apples but I think I am too late this year to get them. These are perfect for growing in a pot and as they only grow on the mainstem you really can keep these in small spaces. In fact they would be perfect for an apartment balcony!
So I am going to get 2x Sugar Mountain Strawberry Honeysuckle plants and I will save a pot for the columnar apple tree...done!