Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Water Kefir Grains

What to do when the weather is just too wet to go outside and garden?  

It’s always a bit of a dilemma finding things to do in the house as you might start to notice the cobwebs that are slowly covering the wall edges in the kitchen that need clearing away.  Even worse you might realise that the walls need painting and there’s a host of other DIY jobs that need doing, not to mention the bowl full of dishes or piles of laundry that need doing. 

You could always try and finish off the bottles of booze that have been left over from Christmas and New Year, which will at least take your mind off things that need doing for a few hours. But if you are like me and have nothing left over from the festive period apart from bits of sellotape stuck to the walls and a pair of socks, then how about having a play with some Water Kefir grains?  

“What are Water Kefir Grains “?  

This is what I asked my mother in law only this time last week and now it seems, I am now the kefir master of the house. It’s not hard as this stuff grows on its own and as yet is only asking for sugar to help it ferment.  It’s very similar the Kombucha sweetened fermented tea that’s doing the rounds now and like Kombucha, there are a multitude of health benefits claims.

Kefir Grains
You can get Irish Moss plants which are not Irish and also not a moss. Kefir grains likewise are not ‘grains’ as such, they are a mixture of bacteria and yeast living together in symbiosis to produce loads of probiotics, probably something similar to a fungi. 

The mixture is called a culture and there are different types, some of them are happy to be fed by goat, sheep or cows milk. I have now got a bowl of the type that like just water and sugar.  

The grains resemble the water absorbing granules that you can add to soil (or get from nappies) and multiply quickly when added to a linen covered bowl of sugar water. These are left for a couple of days to ferment and then the grains are sieved off leaving the liquid to be flavoured with anything you fancy. I am choosing ginger and lemon simply because I have these ingredients in the house. If it’s anything like wine you could flavour it with a mint like I did once, or even an old boot (did anyone really do that?)  The resulting mix can be drunk a couple of days later after it’s been decanted into airtight glass bottles. 

The resulting drink is slightly fizzy after the yeast has been to work and also it turns out, slightly alcoholic. I don’t think its cause for concern with non-drinkers though as the amount of alcohol present is slightly less than eating over ripe fruit.

Friendship Cake
I remember something called a ‘Friendship Cake’ culture that did the round years ago (It’s probably still out there somewhere and its name is Herman – that’s true) It contained yeast and lactic acid and the idea was/is to make your cake and then as it multiplies, pass half of it on to a friend (or son in law) I got so fed up of the stuff I think I ended up putting it in the compost bin. 

 If the amount being produced gets too much of a good thing kefir liquid can be used for cooking apparently but I’m not really sure what you would add it too, maybe it’d make the buns rise.   
The good thing about the Kefir culture though is you can ‘switch it off’ so to speak. Just like the water absorbing granules, you can lay these grains out and dry them off over a few days. They will then keep for six months which is more than enough time to rekindle your enthusiasm for drinking sugar filled fermented drinks. 

If you are interested in setting yourself up with a bowl you could buy the culture off ebay for €1.30 a spoonful (yes you heard me, this probiotic lark is a huge money earner!)  Or you can pop around to my house and I’ll fill up a jar for you for nothing. Be quick though, when it stops raining I’m heading for the compost heap.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Roadway Landscapes - (probably the biggest horticultural design projects ever)

                                                    Points of interest on the roads to keep us aware

Have you noticed a lot of councils are keeping the grass verges along main roads uncut nowadays? 
The grass might be cut once or twice a year leaving wild flowers to flourish and keeping down shrubs and trees that might try and grow.  

The area directly near the road up to 1 metre or more is usually cut often to stop any grasses from bending into the road when it’s wet but the rest is left to grow on. It’s a great idea both in terms of biodiversity and also cost to the taxpayer.  This isn’t where the attention to detail stops for road planners though. You might be surprised to learn that their influence can stretch to the horizon you see from the road. 

Highway landscape planning is a hidden gem that doesn’t generally get any recognition. It’s an important aspect of landscape design on par with the likes of Lancelot Brown (Capability Brown) who designed around 170 parks on the 1700’s. Lancelot took into consideration all of the details in a landscape from the foreground to the horizon and replicated nature with focal points of interest. This type of design did have its critics and comes in and out of fashion, some say it was just like designing a field but there’s more than just pitting in a hedgerow to look nice. 

When land is developed it could change the existing ecology such as wildlife, flora well as the aesthetic, visual and the non-visual attributes of the landscape so it’s important for the designers to do a lot of research and attempt to keep a lot of the natural features intact without the need for protestors to live in trees to highlight fragmenting the countryside.

The aim of the landscape designer is to design treatments that will develop into self-sustaining habitats that do not present a future hazard to the road user or require the use of fertilizer, general broad-leaved herbicides and frequent cutting or mowing regimes.

Points of interest
A good planner will make sure that certain factors stay in a road designs. Keep the view interesting and varied including things such as lit up local landmarks and variying tree lines. Even adding distant mountains and seascapes creates a varied backdrop. 

The View from the Vehicle
The two fundamental types of views are the ʻpanoramaʼ and the ʻvistaʼ. A panorama refers to a broad view with a good vantage point, while a vista refers to a framed view e.g. a view restricted by bounding margins such as trees.

The relationship between the driver and passenger within the vehicle, and the roadside landscape is more complex than the relationship between a person who is viewing the landscape from a stationary position; the mobile road user views many more features and landscape types as they move along a road corridor so this type of landscaping is totally different to how you would view the garden from a kitchen window.
Certain features of the landscape can only be viewed at particular speeds. All views are restricted or bounded by the confinements of the vehicle structure, while at the same time being framed or blocked by vegetation, buildings and other infrastructure along with elements of the natural terrain.

A lot of thought has gone into designing todays road networks. The designers don’t always get it right , here are just a few considerations they need to look at just on the grass verge. This is even before any consideration ois given to the wider landscape.

Key Issues for the Immediate Roadside Verge
  • The verge should be of the minimum width required to provide for its safety and design functions, which include the provision of sightlines and the accommodation of signs and lighting columns.
  • The verge should function as an environmental and physical buffer between the road and the wider landscape.
  • Appropriate treatments should aim to establish a robust, low maintenance grass sward.
  • The verge should be maintained to a minimum width with minimum input of natural resources such as fertilizer.
  • The treatment should not prove attractive to fauna as this could cause a hazard.
  • Medium, wildflowers small trees, hedges, signage, drainage lighting are included here.
This is just for the first couple of metres of the grass verge, we then get to the wider verge area which can be used for attracting wildlife, include large signs and go some way to help correct the defragmentation of the land after the road was built.

If like me you take an interest in these types of matters (I’m a bit of a roadside anorak) you can read the (riveting) 175 page Irish Roads Authority document titled  “A guide to Landscape Treatments” which covers a wide range of conditions that go to make a safe and interesting roadside experience .

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

New Year Ideas for the Garden

It’s time to go crazy with ideas for the garden. 

After all of the hullabaloo of Christmas and New Year it’s great to free our minds and let imaginations run riot with horticultural ideas without distraction.  Do we need more flower beds? Will the veggie patch be big enough for all of the crops this year or do we expand?  Where can I get a lorry load of manure? There’s a lot to be thinking about.

New Year Seed Choices
One of the first questions we need answers to is where to buy seeds and what are we going to buy this year?  I usually buy from either Klaus from Green Vegetable seeds in Letrim, (he has 110 types of veggie seeds on offer this year) or the Organic Centre in Rossinver but last year I tried buying seeds from online suppliers I found on Ebay. I actually found them to be really good with a very high germination rate and were also certified organic, whatever that really means. I think I’ll pick and mix this year and get different seeds from all of the above so as to keep both local and national suppliers happy. 

Going Potty
One of my New Year projects is to start making my own pots.  I have tried over the years to make plant pots from different materials such as concrete, hypertufa and hemp and although they looked attractive they didn’t really prove to be too practical. The concrete ones took the skin off my hands when I made them and they all seemed to make the soil more alkaline with the lime content they all had. The hemp ones dropped to bits too which wasn’t really the desired effect I was looking for.
This year I am going to go back to basics and recreate some traditional terracotta pots.  I was lucky enough to acquire a potter’s wheel and a huge kiln for firing and have set up the shed as a potters studio where I am learning the art of centring clay on the wheel and making basic cylinder shapes. I have done a couple of pottery classes in the past but always had to battle for a go on the wheel, now I have one to myself and with the help of YouTube videos am well on the way to becoming a pottery master (well, give me 50 years) For now though I’m happy just making the popular pot 10-12 cm shape that are similar to the aricula and long tom pots I got a couple of years ago from Carleys Bridge Potteries in County Wexford. The one big difference with the original pots and the ones I am making is how the CB ones have aged over 100 years. Once I have got the shape and fired the pots all I need to do is try and replicate the aging process. I could let nature do it by leaving them outside for a while or try and create a wash with yogurt to get some moss growing on the sides and let a few spiders leave behind a few cobwebs. We’ll see, I might even like them new looking for a while.  The fun is in the experimenting.

Feed the Birds
We’re putting out lots of food for the birds and they love it. Last year we had the feeders on fences and walls filled with peanuts. They were still in place in summer as no birds seemed interested. This year I have hung the feeders on poles so they are free to blow around in the wind away from buildings and filled them with fat balls and small seeds. It seems to have made all the difference as I am filling them up every day at the moment. The fat balls attract the larger birds like starlings, crows and magpies and the smaller seed feeder brings in the robins, sparrows, tits and wrens. Pigeons get in on the act too hopping around on the floor looking for fallen seeds. If you haven’t manages to take the festive tree to be recycled you could always put that upright in the garden and hang a feeder on it for a while.

This time of year is just perfect for taking a bit of time out of the garden to give you time to reflect on what happened you would like to improve on last year and enjoy the process of learning for the coming season.

Here’s to a fun filled, enjoyable and productive new year.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Winter Houseplants

          Vivid purple lilies making a fine Christmas display, unless you suffer from hayfever!.

We’ve had some frost…yea! 

Thankfully the nasturtiums are dying back and nature will be sorting out the rest of the garden clearance as I watch out of the window from the comfort of the house. I did go out for a while to put up some bird feeders with food to satisfy the smaller birds, which I thought would be robins, blue tits and waxwings, as yet though only the starlings have come to visit but there’s time yet.
My other small job was to pull the fleece over my more tender plants in the polytunnel. I think it’ll be enough to keep the frost from getting to the leaves up to about minus 2 or 3, after that I’ll need to either get some form of heating in there or bring them into the house, which I am not keen to do as we don’t really have any room on the window ledges as these are taken up with wheatgrass production and homemade ceramic clay pots (It’s my new hobby, I’ll tell you more in the coming weeks) 

Festive Plants
This time of year sees a huge increase in festive plants given away as presents or bought to brighten up the dinner table. Both cut flowers and potted plants are in abundance.  I was given a very colourful bunch of lilies this week with the most vivid purple flowers. You’d think they were artificial but know they were real by the powerful smell they give off.  We’ve had to put them in the shed as it was giving one of the family hay fever. 

Other popular cut flowers are white freesias, with a vase life of at least two weeks, white alstroemeria and hyacinths, which are chunkier but also elegant as a single stem are long lasting too. Most of these flowers can be “bulked up” in the vases by adding things we can get from the hedgerow or garden. I like bay leaves on branches – as they dry you can put them in a bag for use in cooking at a later date. Rosemary also makes a floral display more attractive as well as using the old favourites such as holly and ivy for that festive look – check first they come from reliable sources and not from someone pinching the branches from the wild. Wreaths are ever popular this year too and have a long shelf life.

Potted Christmas Plants
Back to the potted plants. The old favourites are here again and even though I have looked around I can’t really see anything new to the market that challenges the ones listed here for the place on the podium for best Christmas plants. 

Orchids. Probably one of the most long lived flowering houseplants you can get. Great colours too.
Cyclamen - this winter to spring flowering plant is excellent for indoor use and is available in a variety of colours, red, pinks, purple and whites.
Christmas Cactus (Zygocactus truncatus) is another great plant to use in your home and will flower for weeks.
African Violet - One of the most popular houseplants here in Ireland and so widely available in a variety of colours with great velvety green foliage.
Ivy (Hedera) - Small ivies make great houseplants.
Ferns – Try the holly or maidenhead ferns, both make excellent indoor plants.
Osmanthus - Commonly known as 'False Holly' it is a great Christmas display.
Poinsettia – Red white or cream, they will compliment any Christmas theme.
Azaleas - Colours including white, red, pink and purple.
Also on the list are: Winter cherry (solanum) Norfolk pine, Kalenchoe, Amaryllis and hyacinth (bulbs), Begonia, indoor Christmas roses and topiary balls.

Plant Care
Most plants need to be pampered to survive in a modern house; central heating is one condition that plants don’t generally like. The air around the plants can get very dry. One method I found quite successful if you’re not prepared to spray them with water every day, or indeed you can’t because the pots are near plug sockets, is to put water on the radiator.  You can get ceramic containers that can be clipped onto the front of the radiator and the heat gently evaporates the water put in it and makes the room more humid which is the condition the plants will prefer, (You may even find it more pleasant too). 

If you keep the festive plants out of cold drafts and moderately watered you will probably have them well into the New Year so they will have done their job graciously.

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