Raising The Beds

beds_leadOur ground was pretty poor in parts, a shallow covering of soil over heavy clay. Anything we planted would be fighting this so we decided on raised beds. They needed to be fairly large (they can scale to fit the space available) and I wanted them to last so it meant a trip to the local timber supplier. I found some treated 4.8m x 200mm x 45mm lengths which looked like they’d do the job. Using these 3 high, with beds 4.8m x 1.2m was the plan. I’d need some square posts for the corners and it became apparent I’d need some central support and bracing in the middle.

IMG_6335

So each bed used:

  • 7.5 x boards
  • 4.8m of 75 x 75 posts (60cm lengths in each corner and in the centre and one 1.2 to brace between the centres)
  • A lot of exterior screws
  • Weedstop in the bottom

Once finished I needed to work out roughly how much compost / topsoil to put in each bed. I wasn’t going to fill them to the very top.

Soil Calculation:
4.8m x 1.2m x 0.5m = 2.88 cubic metres.
Multiply this by 1000 gives 2880 litres of soil or compost per bed

Wow! We were going to have to buy that in bulk!
We built 3 in a polytunnel initially, _TDF4541then 2 smaller ones for herbs like sage and rosemary. Then came another 3… then came another 8… So most of our food is grown in these now. This year we’ve got:

  • Carrots
  • Kale
  • Leeks
  • Broad Beans
  • Jerusalem Artichoke (aka Sun Chokes)
  • Summer & Winter Squash including pumpkin and patty pan
  • Beetroot
  • Sweetcorn
  • Kohl Rabi
  • Horseradish
  • Rhubarb
  • Chard
  • Raddish
  • Tomatoes
  • Chamomile
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Chives
  • Oregano
  • Thyme
  • Broccoli Raab
  • French Beans
  • Cucumbers and pickling cucumbers
  • Strawberries

On the one bit of good ground we’ve mainly laid that with legumes – peas, mangetout, runner and other climbing beans, sweetcorn and sunflowers. These can be grown in beds also.

Benefits of Raised Beds

  • Higher Yield – plants can be grown closer together than in the open ground
  • Minimises Weeds
  • Companion Planting of crops and flowers to minimise pests
  • Extended Growing Season – as soil temperature will be higher than open ground
  • Scaleable & Easily Adapted to suit your needs

IMG_3832

It’s All About Da Herbs!

leadareo_herbFresh herbs  – What’s not to like? Apart from the sticker shock when you pick up one of those miserly bags from the supermarket. But it doesn’t have to be that way as they are so easy to grow from seed, even in small spaces. I read somewhere that 90% of all the_TDF4594 nutrient goodness is lost within 10 minutes of picking. Whether that’s true or not it’s so nice to grab a handful of the stuff to add flavour to the meals we cook.

Some of our herbs we grow in raised beds – Chives, Sage, Rosemary, Oregano, Thyme & Chamomile. Mint grows in pots as you don’t want to let it loose in open ground!

We grow our herbs in an enclosed aero-hydroponic system. The plants sit in small net pots filled with clay pebbles with their roots growing in the air. A water pump then pumps nutrient rich water through a sprinkler system that sprays the roots. surplus water drains back into the tank and recirculated. Periodically the water and nutrients are topped up, to make sure the growing conditions are optimum. Having said that they seem to grow pretty strongly even if neglected a little once they are established.

At the end of a growing season we empty the nutrient rich water into either our raised beds, garden or use to feed the fruit trees. So nothing is wasted.

Our hydro-aerponic tanks hold 40 small pots, so it is quite large but with everything hydroponic is is very scaleable. There are plenty of DIY hacks on the internet and even small scale windowsill options available.

With a system like this most commercial growers heat the water and provide additional artificial lighting to increase production yields. We don’t do this in the polytunnel , but it doesn’t seem to be a problem at the moment even with the off and on sunlight we’ve been having throughout July.

So what do we grow?

  • Basil Genovese
  • Cilantro (aka coriander)
  • Italian Flat Leaf Parsley
  • Dill

We tried growing Russian Tarragon from seed, as French Tarragon is propagated only by cuttings, but frankly we found it had none of the aniseed tones of its European counterpart.

So What to do with loads of herbs?

Here are just a few suggestions…

Nando’s style Macho Peas – Whole peas covered with mashed peas, mint, flat leaf parsley and red chili. Try swapping out the herbs for dill or basil. glass_herbOur favourite was basil and chili combo._BYS0025

Always looking for ways to spice up my veggies, I found a recipe for Bakla (broad bean salad) in “Middle Eastern Cookery” by Arto Der Haroutunian. Usually made with the whole young pods and eaten whole, I adapted the recipe for a quick mid week meal as I didn’t have time to follow the recipe to the letter but made use of the main ingredients, broad beans, mint and the aeroponic herbs  Dill and Parsleybroadbean

Cook the beans in water with a little allspice
Once cooked, drain and sprinkle the fresh herbs over the beans and chopped scallions
Toss in lemon juice and olive oil and serve.

Salad Dressing to accompany seafood and shellfish
Flat leaf parsley
Squeeze of lemon
Hemp or Olive Oil
Spot of Balsamic Vinegar
Whizz that up in a blender or food processor to toss with crisp green lettuce and french bean salad.

Not Your Mother’s (Gran’s?) Pressure Cooker

leadimageLet’s get over this first: They’re safe to use.

The days of fear that gripped households as they cooked with these unexploded aluminium bombs in the 50’s, that if misused or badly built, would eject the contents of the pan skywards (at best) are gone! They went on the scrapheap for decades but they deserve a comeback because they really create an amazing cooking environment.

Many contemporary chefs are turning once again to the pressure cooker to create some awesome food. In this YouTube clip, several chefs expound the virtue of this way of cooking.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4nOIRoe6mU

And in Modernist Cuisine, The Art & Science of Cooking, an encyclopaedia to the science of modern cooking, (Sticker Shock Alert! OMG! Christmas list for a rich aunt?…) one of the authors, Nathan Myhrvold believes pressure cookers are the must have kitchen tool for making stocks.herbs

The reason?

Pressure cooking, is moist cooking.
The temperature at which water boils rises when pressure increases. When the pressure cooker gauge is showing 1 red ring, the boiling point of the water can be around 120 degrees centigrade. Water will not boil inside a pressure cooker because the pot is sealed. As water vapour vaporises inside, it raises the ambient pressure  which in turn increases the boiling point. As long as the pressure cooker is sealed and no water vapour is escaping, the pressure inside will stay high enough to stop the water from boiling.

The Result?

The flavours and aromas of the food are all sweated out of the ingredients and as the liquid vaporises on the lid the moisture and flavour is retained in the sealed pan. Also cooking food at high temperatures can produce a Maillard Reaction, this is what happens when food is browned and caramelised, infusing a greater depth of flavour in the food.

Pressure cooking is also fast, it cooks in less time than most conventional methods of cooking.

Enough of the science stuff here’s something fun to do with a pressure cooker.

Not got the time to cook a whole roast chicken? Bung it in a pressure cooker! IMG_4812Really? Yes Really!
It comes out so juicy and tender and falls off the bone.
All within 25 minutes.

I was using the chicken to make a chicken chili verde, so I used the following poaching ingredients:

  • Fresh Tarragon
  • Fresh Thyme
  • A couple of Bay Leaves
  • 10 Szechuan Peppercorns
  • Half a red onion
  • A Carrot roughly chopped

Put the cooking rack in the bottom of the pan and add 2 cups of water (or whatever the manufacturer recommends)
Put the chicken in the pot breast side upIMG_4748
Seal the pressure cooker and bring up to high pressure – for my cooker that means I see 2 red rings on the gauge.
Once it’s reached pressure cook for 25 minutes.
Don’t forget leave the lid on for the pressure to drop naturally and so all the vapours drop back into the pan and use the liquid at the bottom as stock.

I used mine in the chili verde that I served with red rice and broad bean guacamole.

There was even chicken left over for the next day. Enchiladas anyone?

herbs2

Any Night can be Pizza Night

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Homemade pizza is one of our favourite foods. So simple and so much fun!

There are two pizza books on my kitchen shelf, that I would not be without. The first is Pizza Pilgrims by James & Thom Elliot. A couple of guys who travelled through Italy in a 3-Wheeler Van learning to cook real Neapolitan pizzas, and then came back to make great simple authentic pizzas in London. The second is American Pie by Peter Reinhart also the author of The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.

American Pie contains my favourite go to dough recipe, so the book is getting rather dog-eared now.IMG_6889 I usually make a big batch at a time as it freezes well. It’s also a very forgiving recipe, the dough doesn’t seem to mind being mixed by hand, planetary mixer or spiral mixer. It makes a really tasty thin, crisp base even if you cook your pizza in a normal oven.

I tend to omit or reduce the amount of salt and sugar used in recipes (just our preference), so for my pizza dough I changed the quantities used. I also adapted the recipe to work with dried active yeast (readily available in UK supermarkets), instead of instant yeast. If using instant yeast just add it to the dry ingredients and mix.

NEO – NEAPOLITAN PIZZA DOUGHIMG_6883

10 cups 00 flour
3 teaspoon salt
Yeast  *see below
4 tablespoons olive oil
500ml room temperature water

DRIED ACTIVE YEAST PREPARATION

2/3rd tsp sugar
100ml water (taken from the 500ml)
2 tsp yeast
Dissolve the sugar in the water.
Mix in the yeast and leave in a warm place for 15 minutes.
This is now ready to use with the other ingredients.

The Pizza Pilgrims insist the best pizza sauce is made from uncooked San Marzano tomatoes that have been squished to a light pulp and sprinkled with salt. Getting my hands on those in my little Welsh Valley is nigh on impossible – or is it?…IMG_8065

I managed to locate a pack of seeds and I’ve a handful of plants growing in the greenhouse and polytunnel! Can’t wait for them to ripen! If you can’t buy it – grow it!
At the moment I use Italian whole plum tomatoes and carefully remove them from the juice and mash the fruit.

Some of best garlic bread is the simplest to make when you’re using a wood fired oven.

Take a piece of pizza dough.
Roll it out.
Dot with garlic, butter (or olive oil) and maybe a sprinkling of parmesan and poppy seeds.

”Pizza is like sex. Even when it’s bad it’s good”
Mel Brooks


Building a Watercressinator!

watercress

We love watercress –  the peppery bite goes really nicely in warm winter salads and is particularly good at cutting through fatty meats.

The plant is very high in calcium, iron and vitamin C. It can grow wild in the UK but it’s really too risky to forage because of the possibility it’ll be contaminated with liver fluke.

So let’s grow some then. It’s a good candidate for a first hydroponic crop as it’s so easy to grow.

Watercress loves flowing water so I thought I’d build a cascade of pools for itIMG_6388. A hydroponic watercress setup like this could also easily be built on a smaller scale and is ideal for a patio – you don’t have to go quite as mad as this! On the other hand, this would scale quite well for a larger setup.

 plan

Ok so here are the materials we used:

  • 1 x 90L reservoir tank – a black tank will minimise algal growth though you can still expect some
  • 3 x tote boxes – we bought food grade plastic for these
  • 6 x plastic “mushroom” trays or similar
  • 3 x Speedfit tank connectors, 22mm
  • 3 x 22mm Speedfit elbows
  • 6 x 22mm Speedfit inserts
  • 1 or 2m of 22mm Speedfit pipe
  • 1 x Hailea HX-2500 650lph Adjustable Pump with Air Pipe
  • 1 or 2m silicone tube for water
  • Assorted wood offcuts to support everything

This is what I did

  • Drilled a hole suitable for the tank connector – you can see I had to take a part of the lip away to get this as high as I wanted.
  • Then it was JG Speedfit pipe to the rescue once again to join on the elbows.
  • On the lowest one, I made the pipe down a little longer. This goes back into the reservoir but should still allow the water to splash in.IMG_6341
  • This will provide plenty of oxygenation of the water so I didn’t really need the pump to have an air pipe on it and could have bought a simpler one.

We bring the watercress seed on in grow cubes and in a propagator in winter. These then slot quite well into holes snipped out of the bottom of the mushroom trays. The cubes should be about half way into the water. As it turned out we don’t really need 4 holes cut in each one as watercress grows really quickly!IMG_7922

Once it starts going you have to keep harvesting it to stop it flowering – give it a good “haircut” every so often and it’ll grow back really quickly!

 

We do put some nutrients in the water but have also run it with clean water and it seems to do ok. Water ph should be 6.5 to 6.8 The EC should be 0.4 to 1.8 (EC or Electrical Conductivity is a measure of the dissolved salts or nutrients in the water – I’ll go into this more in a later blog focusing more on hydroponics). Not enough nutrients or too hot a temperature and the watercress will bolt and start flowering so good to keep an eye on this.

Every so often you’ll have to start over again as things get clogged up and overgrown. Recently we’ve just started using some of the existing plants to do this rather than start from seed again. On the junctions of the stalks you’ll notice the watercress will start roots. If you just pop these into the water the plant will regrow quite quickly.

We usually run this hydroponic system in rotation, cleaning out one of the totes at a time and re-seeding it before doing the next one a couple of weeks later. You shouldn’t run out of watercress!   

Oh and if you’re got too much and have some chickens – they love it!!

For more information on the health benefits of watercress or more information in general try www.thewatercresscompany.com/health-benefits

Suppliers for the various bits that went into this include:
GroWell Hydroponics www.growell.co.uk
Booker Wholesale www.booker.co.uk
Screwfix www.screwfix.com
Amazon UK www.amazon.co.uk
Nisbets Catering Supplies www.nisbets.co.uk
CN seeds cnseeds.co.uk
Just to clarify, we’re not directly endorsing any of these companies and we get nothing from them for mentioning them. They’ve just proven themselves to us to be efficient and reliable suppliers – 5 stars to all of them, We’ll continue to try and give you a head start by doing this throughout this blog as half the difficulty is trying to find out where to get the things you need to make something yourself

Update:

We’re running the pump off solar now which feels good. Our solar panels charge up a leisure battery in about 4 hours (on a good day!) and this runs the pump via a small inverter for about 3 days. When the battery get’s down to 40% capacity I swap it for another one.

Future plans:

Get an Arduino to monitor the battery capacity and tell us when to change the battery – this will save us checking the batteries every morning when we’ve got better things to do.  Make the tech work for us!

Can We Do This?

tunnel1So here we are, got a couple of polytunnels, one with raised beds, one with 3 or 4 hydroponic systems in, a couple of greenhouses, some land outside and some raised beds outside.

We’re going to try and do this and see what works. One thing – our weather can be simply grotty. It rains often so we scrabble to grow things sometimes. We are going to have to rely on technology a lot and don’t really have time to do everything. Also we love to cook and I’m a photographer so I’m apt to spend 4 hours in the studio getting the perfect shot of a basil leaf.

 

What we want to find out is can we do this? Can we provide a fair amount of our food, with not too much effort, relying on the rest from locally sourced suppliers. We’ve made a start with our chickens – they’re paying for themselves at the moment…We’ve got free eggs!

Why do this?

It’s difficult to know exactly when, but we’ve had an increasing distrust of the commercialisation of food production for some time. You see films, Food, Inc.,  read books, Farmageddon, all talking about the demise of the modern day food industry. The mis-sell of sugar and the addition of high fructose corn starch in our food chain.

The media then oscillates between one opinion and another – things are good for you then bad. We couldn’t help thinking that what we ate when we evolved in a non commercial state is probably what our bodies are designed to process best.

We dug deeper and wondered about how some of the most basic life sustaining ingredients are making us ill all of a sudden. An important moment for us was finding out that the industrialisation of bread production by the Chorlywood process removed the stages of fermentation that process gluten into something we can handle. Bread’s really important – we started making our own and felt better almost straight away.

Seeing supermarkets reduce the shelf space for ingredients in favour of processed meals is accelerating and quite shocking…

So this is where WE are now.

We think it’s time to look at personal food production. It’s been done before. Wales has a great history of organic and grassroots food production and we feel the time to evolve is here again.

We’ll apply all the technology we can to try and produce and cook decent food for chiliourselves and others. We’ll source or swap everything else locally and from people who believe in similar ideals to ourselves.

We’re talking about feeding ourselves good honest food.

This is not about clean eating or diets. It’s about enjoying food.

Time to take responsibility for what we eat. Knowing what goes into our meals and its provenance.

Going back to basics, learning to cook well with the simplest of ingredients.

Seasonality in the modern world.

I hope you join a couple of tech hippies on their 21st Century food production adventure.

 

Why Not Just Pots?

If you follow our journey you will see that we throw convention to the wind at times. Pots are not necessary for cooking or planting there are other options.