What can I do with my home garden?

As I look down our garden with its long privet hedges, some overgrown trees, a malfunctioning composting system, overgrown beds and a general unsettled feeling about what I could be doing to preserve nature in these ever unsettling times.

I had chance benefit of a visit from Ian McGrigor of Gortbrack Organic Farm. Ian was delighted to share his knowledge and help me out in various areas of my garden.

Heavily cut back hedges.

Privet Hedges
While it was my intention to get rid of some the hedges entirely, basically because I’m tired of trimming them every summer.

Ian encouraged me that keeping the hedges was the right course of action. The hedges will be a haven for wildlife as well as contribute keeping the garden ‘green’ in more ways than one. Due to this advice, instead of replacing the hedges, we decided to cut them back, hence narrowing and lowering the hedges in places. This makes the process of trimming the hedges more manageable.

Overgrown veg beds
I had some overgrown vegetable beds that got taken over by hard grasses. I didn’t have the will or energy to keep weeding them.

Ian suggested I cover the area with cardboard, especially around the lavendar plants I had in the area. Also grass clippings can be put on top of the laid cardboard as a mulch, providing much needed nitrogen to the ground thus saving the need for constant weeding.

I intend to collect cardboard to cover this bed and fresh grass clippings put on top as suggested.

Kitchen compost and Comfrey liquid container

Kitchen compost bins
We just kept throwing kitchen waste into our dome shaped kitchen compost bin. It started to get quite smelly and we never once took compost out of the bin over a three year period.

Alongside this, I had kept some leaf piles from the autumn leaf fall. Ian mentioned it’d be good to layer the leaf mould and the partially composted kitchen waste and it’ll break down quite quickly. The uncomposted vegetable waste could be put back in the compost bin for futher decomposition.

Garden Trees
Its been an ongoing dispute with my partner how to take care of our ever growing garden trees. I’m keen to cut them back to stumps almost and my partner prefers a topiary approach to trees; keeping the trees form for as long as possible while still trying to manage its height and growth.

Ian advises that we coppice the trees in a circular method, cutting back a branch or two at a time. When the tree starts to sprout again at the exposed end, we can then cut another branch, giving the tree less of a cropped haircut and keeping as much of the trees form as possible. This makes sure the tree can easily recover from the limb.

Improving the garden composting system
While we do compost kitchen waste, we had no composting system in place. We pay for a garden waste provided by our local council.

Variable height compost boxes. Ian spoke of a stacked compost enclosure system. These allow you to vary the height of the compost heap and be easily lifted off and moved to the next compost pile.

Hedge trimmings are nitrogen rich. I will attempt to compost all hedge clippings from now on. Ian encouraged me that keeping the hedges was right course of action. He ensures me that the compost heaps will reduce by almost two thirds as the composting process kicks in, providing nitrogen rich compost for the garden.

Conclusion
It’s always nice to spend time out in the garden and knowing that we are contributing to biodiversity and keeping nature working at its best gives us pleasure alone. Many thanks to Ian for his patience and advice as he explored all the options with us, taking into account our semi-lazy approach to gardening.

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Dreaming of a Green Christmas

Dreaming of a Green Christmas

As we hurtle through the season of compulsory/compulsive purchasing and obligatory jollity it might be useful to stop and consider our options before we get caught up in the snow globe of retail frenzy that has come to define Christmas. While no one wants to hear a diatribe of misery or Grinch disgruntlery in the already dark days that lead up to the festive season, we cannot, any longer, afford to ignore the now obvious consequences of unsustainable consumerism. We need to address our personal role in the reduction of CO2 emissions. It is not a fad to be eco aware. Sir David Attenborough has made a passionate contribution to the UN climate change conference in Poland by articulating the fear we must all recognise; climate change is our greatest threat.

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Rather than feel helpless and despairing in the face of such global crises we can use this season to highlight and actively change the destructive forces that underline every aspect of our modern lifestyles. No matter how small our gesture is, we can and must demonstrate a shift in our pattern by growing, making, sharing, eating, buying and giving the kind of festive comfort that everyone loves and needs during these short winter days.

A few simple limitations to our shopping list can have a significant impact, however small, on the environment, our health, and the future of the planet. The challenge to find eco- friendly gifts and groceries can even help us to avoid the stressful choices that line the shelves on the high street. By reducing the mountain of non- degradable waste from packaging we can take personal responsibility and demand producers to be equally accountable. By choosing to support local businesses we are helping to sustain a community while reducing our carbon footprint and demanding unpolluted food produce. Local crafters, bakers, farmers and small businesses need our support at Christmas.

If we can make even one active change to our purchasing it can be the start of an urgent challenge to claim our own power and responsibility in the marketplace. We may understandably feel powerless or ineffective when we consider the scale of plastic production and usage, but it is our own domestic behaviour and the marketing skills of the mass producers that has brought us, in a relatively short time, to this state of crises.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when we lived without clingfilm, plastic bottles, face wipes and all manner of ‘disposable’ wear that promised to simplify our lives. Now is the time to examine what alternatives there are in the kitchen and bathroom where most of these culprits reside. Gladly there are new and interesting products moving forward to help us replace some of these harmful ‘convenience’ goods. Waxed cotton wraps are a colourful alternative for covering food in the fridge or to parcel your sandwich.

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Shampoo bars are an amazingly simple way to reduce the gallery of plastic bottles in the bathroom.

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Bamboo toothbrushes and coffee mugs are a smart alternative to the non-degradable plastic ones that are destined for landfill.

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Cosmetics and confectionery rank high on the Christmas shopping list and a critical look at their labels might guide us towards a more considered choice throughout the year. If we only decide to eliminate products containing unsustainable palm oil it will impact on the destruction of indigenous communities and animal habitats in Indonesia, Malaysia and Africa. The- ever growing demand for palm oil is responsible for vast areas of deforestation and the wrecking of biodiversity. As consumers, we must curb the demand by informing ourselves of the link between seemingly harmless products and the environmental destruction they are causing.

It may be well-nigh impossible to avoid palm oil entirely as it has become an ingredient in so many products and may not always be obvious on the label. You may be surprised to find out just how ubiquitous it has insidiously become. Breads, margarines, snacks, chocolates, nut spreads, shampoos, soaps, vegan cheeses, biofuels……. the list goes on.

Dairy butter, cheese and quality vegetable oils, in moderation and preferably organic, are surely preferable to highly processed substitutes that are largely reliant on the cheaper option of palm oil in their manufacture.

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The pre -Christmas shopping aisles are bulging with wrapping material, which is rarely biodegradable, has itself become a commodity, sometimes costing more than the gift it might enclose. It is not difficult to present cheerful and stylish gifts with recycled or natural trimmings and the results are always individual. Do you need a plastic wreath from China?

It is surely an absurdity that our reputation as a Green Island should be shamefully listed as the worst in Europe for action against climate change. If our politicians display indifference, we will have to be more active and vocal on a personal level by voting with our proverbial feet. In the marketplace. It may sound like a hollow cliché, but we can begin to face the challenges ahead by gifting and sharing something that doesn’t cost the earth. Yes, I am dreaming….

Have a Happy Christmas wherever you are.

Ita.

 

 

 

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Earthly Goods

Earthly goods

As the Samhain festival quickly approaches it is hard to believe we are soon to be shrouded in the darkness of winter. Warm sunny days have been plentiful and welcome this October with blazing autumnal colours to make a walk in the forest the perfect sensual experience to ease us toward the chillier weeks ahead. Earthiness is palpable when we stroll under a canopy of tall trees; our figures seem smaller, we are closer to the ground.  Our senses are alerted to the magical, sometimes spooky, environment of the undergrowth. It is no wonder that woodland flora and fauna has inspired the imagination of folk cultures throughout the world providing a landscape for fairies and goblins and all sorts of mischief.

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Some fungi specimens like puffballs can be large enough to suggest a small dwelling. Some, like the oyster, have flesh as white as porcelain.

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Others, more strangely ,like the Trumpets of Death, are as black as charcoal. All have a unique symbiotic relationship with the living trees they grow under or the dying wood they thrive on. These mushrooms that we see and savour are in fact only the flowering part of a much larger and complex body of a fungus called mycelia.  Mushrooms reproduce by spores (not by seeds like plants) which germinate to produce a mass of interwoven cell structures known as hyphae. Masses of hyphae are called mycelium. The mycelium layer is a truly fascinating underground network of thin cells which has been likened to a communication system which connects the growing roots of other plants.

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The variety and abundance of mushrooms that are on display at the moment are a thrill for any observer and a treat for the eager forager. We have a mutually beneficial relationship with the many edible wild mushrooms that can be found throughout the months of autumn which should be picked with all the usual caution and respect for their sustainability. Always be sure of what you eat and learn how to identify them with a guidebook relevant to Ireland (many on line guides are American), or better still in the company of a local expert.

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Mycology is a fascinating subject and the identification of different species is a skill that won’t be learned overnight. It can however be a rewarding and tasty hobby to make the onset of winter less dreary and all the more pertinent because mushrooms contain vitamin D which is rarely found in plants. Once you can confidently recognise what you are looking at it will encourage you to explore further and lessen the risk of any fatality. Get to know the vital details which are necessary to distinguish the common edible species if you are foraging in the wild. As a beginner surfing the web for facts about fungi it can sometimes be quite baffling to glance headings such as ‘ Trumpets of Death; Recipes’ or figure out the conundrum….chanterelles have false gills and false chanterelles have true gills.

Chanterelles (the real ones) are one of the tastiest wild mushrooms that can be found and the winter chanterelle (below) is quite plentiful at the moment, though they are not as obvious to the eye as some photographs would suggest. Looking down on them, they are incredibly well camouflaged.

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They have a much darker, browner colour from this angle but underneath their characteristic yellowish stem and funnel shaped cap are more distinctive. An experienced forager might qualify a chanterelle by its fruity aroma, often likened to apricot.

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It is the waft of chanterelles cooking that will eventually draw your attention to their earthy goodness. They have a very tempting aroma and a typical ‘meatiness’ that nominates them for a broad selection of delicious classics.

Add the trimmed and cleaned mushrooms to a dry hot pan and wait until they begin to release their juices. Gently stir them until the liquid has evaporated and then add enough butter and/or olive oil to continue sautéing for another few minutes. Use this base of sautéed fresh wild mushrooms as the main character of a risotto, soup or omelette. Combine with leeks and diced celeriac to fill a luscious pie. Mix with fresh thyme, rosemary or sage to create a versatile breadcrumb stuffing. Combine with discs of mozzarella and dried oregano to top a pizza. Simplest of all, splash with some balsamic or wine vinegar as they saute and enjoy on a slice of toast.

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Whatever your preference for mushrooms is, wild or cultivated, do try to get out and into the forest at this time of year. There is a living underworld to entrance or spook, depending on your imagination.

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Ita

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Heaven and Earth

Heaven on Earth

A recent gusty storm has whipped the ripening apples from their trees and strewn the farm with a mighty crop of windfalls. These apples are of different heritage varieties which I won’t attempt to identify but am willingly tasting and enjoying. They suggest all kinds of culinary delights, both sweet and savoury which embody the essence of autumn. Baking and preserving can be a full-time preoccupation now while the orchards and hedgerows are laden with fruits and berries and it is a very rewarding task. Even if your time is limited a lot can be gained by simply freezing soft fruit, either whole or pureed to be utilised later in baking or as base for a smoothie. The flavours of wild and locally sourced autumn fruits are far superior to anything found on the supermarket shelves. Their ‘shelf life’ can be considerably shorter than the latter which is why it is important to use or preserve them as soon as possible. Imported fruit is sprayed with pesticides to preserve its life in transit and cold storage.

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The marriage of apple and blackberry is a joyful and heavenly union. (If you Google apple or blackberry in search of a recipe you might just find promotions for smart phones….) A basic filling of these trusty partners with a topping of buttery oat flakes and flour makes a simple but delightful baked crumble dessert. There is nothing humble about an apple pie if the ingredients are treated with care. Bear in mind that the common Bramley cooking apple will go fluffy when cooked while the sweet dessert varieties will hold their shape. Gently simmer some cooking apples in a pan with a tablespoon or two of water and some sugar to taste. Add a teaspoon of cornflour (mixed with a little water) to the cooked apple to make a thick apple ‘sauce’ and set aside to cool. Add to this some peeled and chopped dessert apples to make a pie filling. This method holds the filling together while keeping an interesting bite. Place the apple filling into a blind baked short crust or puff pastry base, top with a pastry lid and bake. A hint of cinnamon, clove or nutmeg will add an aroma to whet your appetite.

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Everyone has their own preference when it comes to apple pie or fruit crumble. The textures and proportions of fillings and toppings can delight or disappoint depending on our expectations which invariably sprout from a childhood nostalgia. Whichever style you favour, this cook has one priority when it comes to an optimum bake; the pie case or topping should have a distinctive and separate texture to the fruit filling. A wet or doughy pastry is not pleasant.

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Soft autumnal fruits are nature’s way of easing us into the cooler bitterness of winter. Deep purpley plums are a warming and comforting fruit when poached or baked in a pudding or pie. Damsons (if you can find them) need more sweetening and are more suitable for jam or a fruit ‘cheese’ to accompany savoury foods. Blackberries and black currants are the traditional candidates here for jam but are used in Nordic countries for savoury accompaniments to fish and game as well. The easiest way to preserve blackberries without loosing their nutritional value is to combine the strained pulp with a little sugar syrup and lemon juice and freeze or process in an ice cream maker. If you don’t have an ice cream maker, the fruit puree should be briskly stirred several times during the freezing process to break up the water crystals.

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Blackberry sorbet is a perfectly cool partner for this autumn frangipane pie. Almonds and apple, being another heavenly pair, are the main filling for this rich and satisfying dessert. Halved plums, apricots, rhubarb or pears can replace the apples with equal success. This recipe is for a 20cm tin.

Autumn Apple Frangipane pie

For the base

150g plain flour

75g chilled butter

1 tbsp. (approx.) cold water

Egg for glazing

 

For the Frangipane

100g Ground almonds

100g butter (room temperature)

75g caster sugar

20g plain flour

2 medium eggs

2 or 3 dessert apples

 

Pre heat the oven to 180c.

Rub together the flour and cubed butter with your finger tips to form breadcrumb consistency.

Bind together with the water to make a dough and chill for at least 20 mins.

line the baking tray with pastry and chill again before blind baking for about 10 mins.

Glaze the base with beaten egg to seal and bake 5 mins. Remove from oven to cool.

Make the frangipane by creaming the butter and sugar before mixing in the flour, almond and eggs. Leave the mixture to rest while you peel, core and slice the apples.

Spread the frangipane on the cooled base and press the apples gently into the soft mix. Bake at 180 for 15 min. then reduce temperature to 150 and bake for 45mins. Check intermittently and cover the crust edge with tinfoil if it is inclined to burn.

Glaze the pie while still warm (if desired) with warmed honey or apricot jam.

Serve with a scoop of blackberry sorbet.

Make this with a mix of apple and/or blackberry. Serve with an apple sorbet. Sprinkle with toasted almonds or walnuts. Eat with a vat of custard. The options are yours.

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Ita.

 

 

 

 

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Yellow Alert

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As the blackberries blacken in the hedgerows we are relishing the vibrant colours of the late summer garden, with a reluctance to speak of sunshine in the past tense just yet. The glowing yellow and orange red fruits and flowers of late summer radiate their energy, awarding us with all their splendour. Sunflowers, Calendula and Nasturtiums are the cheerleaders of summer. Tomatoes, Zucchini and Yellow Squash are performing in equal measure to create a show. Many greens too, those that are left to seed like brassicas or wild rocket in the herb tunnel, gift an array of delicate yellow flowers to attract the busy honey bee.

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The place is aglow with deepening yellows .

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After a “blistering” summer, which our fair skins are not really accustomed to, it may be appropriate to observe the many nutritional values of the summer harvest which are beneficial to our immune system in general, and to our skin in particular.

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We can absorb and prolong the bounty of the sun by eating more of the wholesome fruits and vegetables that are brightening up the garden at the moment. At the same time we can help our overexposed bodies to recover from the less welcome effects of the sun. Our skin is the boundary between ourselves and the environment; it will readily betray any imbalance in our diet, over exposure to UV rays, ambient pollutants or self-administered toxins. To maintain a healthy skin, it is important to seek out the relevant nutrients that are found in fresh seasonal food; a balanced and colourful diet which is rich in minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants will aid hydration and protect the skin from the harsher elements that pervade the air we live in.

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Carotenoids are the pigments responsible for the vivid colours of the late summer harvest and are significant for the promotion of skin and eye health. The red of tomato (lycopene), the orange, of carrot (alpha-carotene and beta-carotene), the yellow of calendula, sunflower, yellow carrots and zucchini (lutein and zeaxanthin) are some of nature’s most powerful nutrients.

Astaxanthin is a potent carotenoid found in wild salmon which derives its colour from the algae it digests. This pink pigment is what gives flamingos their distinctive hue and is also found in mackerel, prawns, lobster and other red fish. It is no coincidence that our Irish mythology attributes the mighty salmon to the procurement of wisdom or knowledge; astaxanthin is reputed to be of major benefit for the eyes and the brain. It may also be effective as a protection from sunburn to humans; it’s inbuilt ability to protect itself from intense sunlight. These vivid pigments which reflect the brilliance of the summer sun are attractive and invigorating to look at as well as bursting with nourishing flavour.

Seeds and nuts, also coming into a new season, are also a great source of hydrating natural oils which are essential to the upkeep of a clear and not so youthful complexion.

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Sunflowers, after their glorious display of yellowness, produce an abundance of seeds which are now consumed world- wide for their nutritional properties. Among many attributes they are rich in vitamin E which reduces oxidative damage to skin cells caused by UV rays. Almonds are also high in vitamin E along with selenium and manganese to similarly protect the skin. Almond oil is often used topically as a massage to soothe and moisturise.

Calendula is perhaps the champion of ‘yellow’ plants which is known for its healing powers as a balm for the skin. Also known as Marigold (there are many varieties) this medicinal herb has been used historically in ointments and creams for all kinds of mild skin irritations and inflammation.  The pretty petals can be added to a salad or steeped in olive oil to make an infusion for applying to the skin. Its orange/yellow flowers are a feature of most vegetable gardens and are known for their useful ability to attract aphids away from other plants. When the season is over for many garden flowers, the hardy Calendula can last through the winter in some places , providing a lingering glow to remind us of the warming sun.

So ,if you want to take advantage of seasonal fare while rehydrating your sundried body make sure you eat your yellows as well as your greens. Use chunks of lemons (or any citrus fruit), garlic, onion, celery, carrot and ginger as a skillet for oven cooked fish or fowl.

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Add zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes or squash to absorb the flavours and provide moisture. The juices that flow can be strained and refined to a sauce by the addition of coconut cream and spices or a simple handful of fresh herbs, depending on your taste. Keep it colourful. Appreciate the hidden strengths of these vibrant hues. They will imminently be usurped by the yellowing of autumnal leaves which I hope is now less melancholic in the understanding and appreciation of their magical  chemistry.

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Ita.

 

 

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