Thursday, October 17, 2019

Make Your Own Sauerkraut

I generally have a supper. Just to clarify, this isn’t a late dinner; it’s merely a light snack before retiring for the evening. According to my lad ‘suppers’ as such don’t really exist anymore (only in my head) and he claims the word supper has been declining since the beginning of the 1900s, while the use of ‘lunch’ has been increasing. 

I was confused for years when people ate Fish Suppers in the afternoon and just what time of day do you turn up for something like dinner, anytime between just after noon to eight in the evening? I’ve never been able to fathom it out. 

My supper is at a pretty constant time though and I always been partial to anything pickled. I have in the past made my own beetroot, onions, and gherkins (baby cucumbers in my case as I didn’t grow the smaller West Indian Burr kind) 

They were all very successful so I have decided to rekindle my enthusiasm by making something similar this time to have as an accompaniment to a lump of cheese. I made some sauerkraut from both green and red cabbage. Sauerkraut or "sour cabbage” isn’t in vinegar though, it’s a fermented liquid made from sugars, salt and bacteria and lactic acid, just the stuff to be digesting before bed (maybe not).

This finely cut raw fermented cabbage has been cultivated for longer than almost any other vegetable on record. Although sauerkraut - German for "sour cabbage" - is thought of as a German invention, Chinese labourers building the Great Wall of China over 2,000 years ago ate it. Their cabbage was fermented in rice wine though, which sounds more fun. It’s said that the idea was brought to Europe 1000 years later by Gengis Kahn after plundering China. The Dutch, who were great sea-fearing traders, used sauerkraut on their ships as it did not need refrigeration and helped prevent scurvy.
Eastern European families prepared for winter by putting up several barrels of sauerkraut. Depending on the size of the family and the size of the cabbages, a clan might ferment as many as 300 whole heads of cabbage in wooden barrels. Occasionally, along with the salt, spices like caraway seeds, wine, or other vegetables were added.

By the late 1800s, the cabbage was shredded before being placed in covered crocks. If the family couldn't afford their own shredding tool, a peddler went door-to-door and performed this service for a fee in much the same way people would come around and sharpen your knives.
There are other vegetables that have been preserved by a similar process. Also, silage, a feed for cattle, can be made the same way.

Sauerkraut is said to have a raft of health benefits and there are the usual ‘cure all’ claims. Done right it’s is packed with B and C vitamins and minerals, works as an immune booster and balances the bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract.

Here’s my recipe for basic no-claims attached sauerkraut. There are loads of recipes online, but like most things in my life, I like to keep simple.

Recipe for Sauerkraut 

    2kg very firm, pale green or white cabbage (any leathery outer leaves removed), cored and finely chopped (think coleslaw)
    3 tbsp coarse crystal sea salt (or 6 tbsp flaky sea salt)
    1 tsp caraway seeds ideally but I used fennel seeds as they were in the cupboard
    1 tsp peppercorns

Other things to consider would be use clean containers. I’ve used glass jars but you can use stoneware and glazed pots too.

My first batch wasn’t quite covered completely with the brine juice so the shredded pieces above the waterline went mouldy and I had to compost it.
Check it daily and also release the gasses. My second batch of red cabbage leaked all over the worktop one night as the pressure got too much inside the jar. I’m now looking at effective methods to clean off red cabbage stains from kitchen worktops. The jars are not sitting on the garage floor out of the way until they are ready to put into the fridge. It can be ready in a week and the longer the leave it at room temperature the sourer and bitter it gets. Yum.
One teaspoon a night of my “fermented cabbage” will be enough for me and I hopefully won’t be looking to cure anything apart from my inability to understand when dinner is.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Restless Legs and Wall Falling Down

Our neighbour’s garden wall came down this week. One second the 10 metre long wall was there then the next it was gone. 

The whole thing was very dramatic and was caught on ccvt cameras which showed the ground shaking like a mini earthquake as it tumbled in a cloud of dust. Imagine looking at a Fred Dibner demolition of a block of flats but on a smaller scale and you’ll have a good idea of the spectacle.
The six foot high wall was built in the 1950’s from old concrete blocks and had a suitable foundation so even though it was a single block thick there shouldn’t have been an issue with stability. There were two problems that we could see for why the wall and fence came down in such a dramatic way.
Attached to the wall was another 4 feet of vertical wooden fencing with the posts only fitted to the blocks by bolts and not dug into the ground which was covered in huge amounts of ivy. Over the years the pressure on one side got greater and greater until everything collapsed. 

If extra height is needed for a block wall by adding a fence it’s a good idea to secure the vertical posts into the ground and having the fence free standing from the way. That way it won’t put pressure on it.
It’s a cautionary tale about fixing extra things onto walls. Sometimes they are just designed to hold themselves up and not another fence or heavy climbers. 

The growing season is slowing down now but I am still sowing seeds and taking no notice of the sowing times on packets. This week I planted some catnip, mimosa sensitive plants and a new ground cover called Herniaria glabra or rupturewort. It’s a really hardy little known perennial known to be nearly indestructible.  It’s an excellent choice for growing between flagstones or growing as a lawn substitute. The tiny leaves create a dense evergreen carpet, becoming bronze in winter. I’m hopefully going to be adding it to my list of groundcover plants for sale next year.

Reflecting and Restless
I’m in a reflective mood about my career choice in horticulture.  I have always loved growing things. I don’t know may people who had over 70 types of houseplants in their home as a teenager and it was the thing that gave me the most pleasure, distraction and comfort. But I was always a restless child and my family refused to sit with me on the settee as I couldn’t stop moving my legs, jiggling them up and down and getting up every ten minutes to walk around. As an adult my own family still won’t sit with me. I used to have the same issues at school and couldn’t sit still for more than a minute.
It turns out that the issue with my legs affects up to one in ten people so at least one of you reading this might have something called “Restless Legs Syndrome” This is why after leaving school I couldn’t sit in an office and relished the fact of a horticultural course that had at least 90% practical work outside. It wasn’t until recently that I realised RLS was a thing but when I found out I had it,  it was like a lightbulb going on in my brain.

Restless Legs Syndrome
Restless legs syndrome, also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is a common condition of the nervous system that causes an overwhelming, irresistible urge to move the legs. Some people have the symptoms of restless legs syndrome occasionally, while others have them every day. The symptoms can vary from mild to severe. In severe cases, restless legs syndrome can be very distressing and disrupt daily activities; thankfully mine doesn’t get that bad although it is worse at night which can mess up sleep patterns. Some people fall into a depression with it too.

What causes restless legs syndrome?
In the majority of cases, there's no obvious cause of restless legs syndrome but it can run in families.
Some neurologists believe the symptoms of restless legs syndrome may have something to do with how the body handles a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is involved in controlling muscle movement. There could be other factors like kidneys and iron deficiency but as I have had it since I was a child I’m quite sure that’s not the case.  Smoking drinking and stress can agitate the condition as well. 

So many people go down the medication route for RLS and social media is awash with suggestions about what prescriptions to take but all I can see is that nothing really works. All we can do is lead a stress free life, do a bit of stretching and keep active.
Next time you see a dedicated gardener spare a thought for them being on the go all the time. It might be the only time they feel relaxed and at ease with the world.

The wall has been replaced with a sturdy fence 

Monday, September 30, 2019

Buying a Pressure Washer

 Fun with a pressure washer

I'd recommend buying a pressure washer. There’s no way I could have guessed I would have so much fun with a high power burst of water. 

To be thorough, the process is slow, messy, wet and repetitive. Just the type of job I like. Over the years I have given the paths and driveway a cursory going over with a hosepipe but over time moss, dirt grass and weeds have taken a hold and even a good sweeping with a stiff brush wasn’t doing the trick. 

It’s taken three full days to work my way around the concrete but the results are amazing. I was thinking of getting the driveway resurfaced this year but it can wait now. Apart from the multitude of cracks it’s come up like new and will be less slippery in the winter months. I’ve also cleaned an unpainted cement rendered wall which has also come up like new.

Even sweeping before I started I still collected at least 10 compost bags of slop from the clean. I’ll add this to the compost bin.

I did a bit of research to get the best pressure washer for my needs. Apart from the drive, walls and paths I will be using it to clean my car, wheelie bins, guttering and some brickwork. One tip is to get the best one you can afford and luckily that was €100 and I found there are loads of makes that were suitable within that budget that had five star ratings for their power and attachments.
The washer only weighs around 10kg so is easy to lift, portable and easily stored. There’s a place to put the detergent, but as the power is good at 130 bar I didn’t need to use any for the jobs I was doing. I also got a decking brush which will come in handy as I have a few square metres of it near my shed. The brush is contained so it doesn’t spray water and mess everywhere. 

Pressure Washer Uses
When researching and buying a machine think about how you will use it, what other things may you need it for once you have it? I’ll be cleaning the plastic on my polytunnel in winter. Check the specification is suitable and has the power you need.

BAR: This is the force at which the water is pushed out at, the higher the force the easier it is to remove dirt.
Light Use – 100 bar:
  • Garden furniture
  • Garden tools
  • Motorbikes
  • Bicycles
  • Rubbish bins
Medium Use – 110 to 130 bar
  • Car Cleaning
  • Boats
  • Lawnmowers
  • Fencing
  • Guttering
Heavy Use – 130 bar +
  • Brickwork
  • Decking
  • Patios
  • Concrete driveways
As mentioned I went for the 130 bar as I knew my jobs would be demanding.

Other considerations such as water flow should be taken into consideration but most of us have more than enough pressure to cope.
If you intend just to use it to clean your car, then you the lower end of the range is more than good enough. I’d still be tempted to get a more powerful machine and hold the lance a bit further away so the paintwork doesn’t get damaged. You never know when you might need that bit of extra power.
Power is one thing, however it is important to look at other area such as hose length. Some pressure washers can be heavy so a longer hose can be useful so that you don’t have to carry or wheel it around when doing the car. Most entry models come with a 4m pressure hose at least as standard but I managed to get one with a 5m hose and pleased I did.
There are a multitude of accessories, many of which you might never use.  This might bump up the price of the washer at the expense of power so if you start with a basic kit of a good spray attachment for the lance you can’t go wrong. It might be an idea to check if the manufacturers do more accessories if needed so you can pick and choose at a later date. All of the products come with a one or two year guarantee so at this price you won’t need to take out the extra guarantee larger retailers try to push on you to bump up their profits.
When it comes to using the lance - Let the force be with you. You will soon find out the best way to clean.  If you haven’t invested in a power washer I’d recommend it as I’ll probably use more than I would a vacuum cleaner.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Ash Diebck

 Earthstar Fungus

We all love a good mystery. 

Liam the barber in Buncrana set a few gardeners a quest to find out what was growing under his beech tree. The item in question is a dark brown, tulip bulb shaped object, which set us looking in the wrong direction trying to find out of it came from the tree or what type of bulb it could be. Cutting into the object revealed a soft centre with no sign of the usual fleshy scales you would find in a bulb (think onions) Eliminating bulbs from the inquiry made identifying the object a bit easier. Take into consideration the time of year and location we soon realised it isn’t a bulb, it’s a fungi. Geastrum or ‘Earthstar Fungus’. It’s a lovely thing to find but apart from the satisfaction of identification there’s no payoff as it’s classed as inedible. Although it is eaten by the tribal peoples of Madhya Pradesh in India.

Identifying things in the countryside is fun and can also be extremely important. We can spot signs of trouble before it spreads but unfortunately sometimes it can be a bit too late in the case of an ash tree disease that’s hit all of Europe.

Ash Die Back
Ash die-back came to Ireland about seven years ago as a result of planting infected trees that were imported.  Leitrim had the first reports of this disease and the Department of Agriculture tried to stop the spread through eradication and confinement programmes, which didn’t work.

What is ash dieback?
Ash dieback, also known as Chalara dieback of ash, is a serious disease that is killing ash across Europe. Ash is a very important tree both ecologically and culturally so this disease is causing great concern about the damage it will do.

Ash dieback is caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. This disease was first spotted in central Europe in 1992 and has since swept westwards. It was first identified in nursery stock then in the wider environment in 2013 although it could have been in the country much longer.

  • Dark lesions – often long, thin and diamond-shaped – appear on the trunk at the base of dead side shoots
  • The tips of shoots become black and shrivelled
  • Blackened, dead leaves – may look a bit like frost damage
  • The veins and stalks of leaves, normally pale in colour, turn brown
  • Saplings have dead tops and side shoots
  • In mature trees, dieback of twigs and branches in the crown, often with bushy growth further down the branches where new shoots have been produced
  • In late summer and early autumn (July to October), small white fruiting bodies can be found on blackened leaf stalks.
The disease is spread by spores from the fruiting bodies of the fungus produced on fallen ash leaves. These airborne spores can disperse naturally via wind over tens of kilometres
Prior to the ban in October 2012 on the movement of ash trees, spread over longer distances was likely to have been via the movement of infected ash plants.
Klaus Laitenberger from Milkwood Farm in Leitrim feels that not many people seem to be aware of this devastation. When he shows infected trees to farmers on their land they are often unaware and shocked.

Klaus also thinks it’s too late to save the trees and says in his Newsletter. “What it means is that nearly all ash trees will disappear in Ireland, just like the elms did a few decades ago.  The ash is our most common native tree and I couldn’t even guess how many millions of ash trees there are in Ireland.  The thought that probably 95% of them will be gone is beyond my imagination, but unfortunately this is the reality.”

He continues “The environmental, economic and also cultural effects of wiping out this species are monumental.  We point our fingers to the forest fires in Brazil and Bolivia – burning down the lungs of the Earth, but yet quietly ignore the death of our own carbon sinks – our millions of ash trees that will leave us within a couple of decades.”

We urgently need to plant more broad leaf trees in our landscape.  Farmers should be made aware of the problem and incentivised to plant alternative trees.
Teagasc are doing some research on the issue by developing ash tree genetic resources with resistance to ash dieback. If you think your trees are infected check out  If you have a farm, you can also get information for tree planting  and other farm related projects via the Inishowen Upland Farmers Project.

The Conservation Volunteers (TCV) has just released a fee tree planting PDF. You can read or download it here:

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