Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Talk about the Weather

Being in a queue isn’t an issue for me anymore.

Having a smart phone with 4g means that I have access to all sorts of information (usually Facebook) and can keep myself not only occupied and entertained until it’s my turn to be served.

I will occasionally chat about the weather if someone brings the subject up. Usually it’s because of concern for the sales staff that has to endure a cold icy draft from the exit doors of the supermarket throughout their shift (why don’t shop designers put checkouts in warmer places? No need to answer that as I know really) 

Talk about the Weather
I do find myself coming out with a few old wives tales to other people in the line about the state of the weather, most of these ‘passed down the generations’ old sayings are pretty accurate and come from a time when looking up at the sky was the only way of seeing what nature was going to do next.
"In the morning mountains, in the afternoon fountains" I’ll chirp to the person behind me with a trolley load of food. I happen to know the meaning for this one, although I rarely have to explain as it’s usually greeted with a nod and a smile, although I’ll tell you. - The phrase comes from when clouds building through the morning are often followed by thunderstorms in the afternoon. If atmospheric conditions are just right, clouds will rapidly grow into towering cauliflower-like mountains. By the afternoon, the clouds will have reached the dizzy heights of the top of the atmosphere, resulting in rain and lightning below. Now you know and can pass on the phrase.

Dropping in
There are a few more I can quote too, which also make me sound like I have been dropped into the shop from medieval times to entertain shoppers. 

"If a circle forms 'round the moon, 'twill rain or snow soon" I’ll say smiling at a confused looking stranger.  This saying comes about because of a layer of ice crystals in the night sky that can create an optical phenomenon called a ‘lunar corona’ - a circle of colours surrounding the moon. Hence, the idea that a weather front is approaching and rain is on the way.

"When the wind is out of the east, tis neither good for man nor beast" I reply when someone comments on the wind coming through the supermarket door, again sounding like I should be in a period drama.

Rain before seven, fine by eleven, Cold night stars bright, are others which although come from a time before mobile internet and the meteorological office are still quite accurate although I wouldn’t hang my washing up just to be safe if it rains before seven as that one in particular can be quite unreliable

Red Sky
The saying is most reliable when weather systems predominantly come from the west as they do in Inishowen. "Red sky at night, shepherds delight" can often be proven true, since red sky at night means fair weather is generally headed towards us.

A red sky appears when dust and small particles are trapped in the atmosphere by high pressure. This scatters blue light and leaving only red light to give the sky its notable appearance.
A red sky at sunset means high pressure is moving in from the west so therefore the next day will usually be dry and pleasant. "Red sky in the morning, shepherds warning" means a red sky appears due to the high pressure weather system having already moved east so the good weather has passed, most likely making way for a wet and windy low pressure system. 

I have tried to explain this to people in the checkout queue but by the time I have finished they have pushed the trolley to the car, loaded up the boot and driven off, leaving me standing alone, mid-sentence in the car park. 

Still at least it’s not raining and even if it was it wouldn’t last long as "Three days rain will empty any sky" 

If I am in a really slow queue and have someone interested about old weather sayings I’ll drop out a lesser known one “Mackerel sky and mare's tails make tall ships carry low sails” I say with theatrical projection. 

 Like the person driving away in their car, they’ve usually lost interest by this time so I resort back to staring at my phone screen to check the weather.

Monday, September 19, 2016

200 Billion Daddy Long Legs and Would You Take Cuttings from a Garden Centre?

Apparently there are over 200 billion daddy long legs hatching out this week. Most of them seem to be trying to get through our kitchen window. 
These harmless wafting insects, sometimes called crane flies are a real boost to feeding wildlife as the summer ends. The warm, humid weather has been perfect for them to flourish. The young leatherjackets from where they emerge in the ground can cause a bit of damage to grass roots, but I’ve never really seen much damage being done.  I think the payoff is pretty small when you think how much nutrition they are giving to overwintering animals and birds and even me. I might have even eaten a few this year as well. We can think ourselves lucky these billions of flying insects are not the angry unemployed wasps or mosquitoes; we would be in trouble then.
Talking of things appearing in large quantities, I see the small plastic balls we get in cosmetics and bathroom products are being banned next year, called microbeads.

What are microbeads?
Commonly called ‘Microbeads’, these are tiny pieces of plastic that are added to everyday cosmetic products face wash, toothpaste, abrasive cleaners and lots more. They are most frequently made of polyethylene but can be of other petrochemical plastics such as polypropylene and polystyrene. Microbeads are usually smaller than 5 millimetres in size.

There can be over 100,000 of the small things going down the sink after just one wash. Trillions of these small plastic balls contribute to the 8 million tonnes of plastic that enters the sea every year.
 The plastic is so small it can get through the filtering systems and ends up being eaten by marine life and then back onto our dinner plates. I’m pretty sure that this started off as a waste product until someone had the bright idea to put it in cosmetics. The same principal as fluoride, it’s cheaper to put it in the water than dispose of it safely. 

What did we do before this plastic was added? I hear you say.

We’ll go back (hopefully) to natural alternatives.  Exfoliating the skin is big business and there’s no reason why you can’t add your own abrasives that are safe and cheap to buy or grow. 

For Light Exfoliation
For a more sensitive skin type, you are going to want something that is soft and rounded. Some good options are whole oats that are preferably finely ground up or straight baking soda which is naturally soft and fine. If your skin is oily, go with the oatmeal as it will also help to absorb excess oil in your skin. Honey and yogurt work but you might be tempted to eat it.

For Mild Exfoliation
You’ll want to look for an ingredient that is a little bit tougher but still rounded. Ground up almond or walnut shells will work. If you have a nut allergy, jojoba beads are a safe alternative. Another good choice in the “mild” category is coffee grinds. Raspberry and blackberry seeds work too.

For Strong Exfoliation
Options in this category are sugars like white cane sugar, brown sugar, or even raw sugar mixed with olive oil.

There are probably a lot more things you can use and I’ll think they are all a better alternative to little plastic balls.

Ethical Question
Would you take plant cuttings from a garden centre?
 Would you pick a few tips from plants when you are visiting a public or private garden? How about when you are walking in a public park or past a council summer planter?  Would you be tempted? Old Percy Thrower in the 1970’s closed his doors to the public after most of his plants were stripped. One visitor said she didn’t think her one cutting would be noticed. Times that by 100,000 (see my large numbers theme going on here) and you will see that your one cutting will be the tip of a rather large issue.  After working for the council parks department and growing plants I know just how problematic it can be.  One garden is stolen from every eight minutes apparently and I’ll bet that statistic isn’t taking cuttings into consideration. The thefts will be more like lawnmowers and ornaments.

I’ll admit do taking the odd cutting. I was young, which is no excuse really. My enthusiasm for building up my houseplant collection when I was a teenager outweighed my financial situation. I just snipped the odd leaf or stem of a tradescantia from the garden centres. i don’t even think about taking cuttings now but I will deadhead spent flowers when I see them. Nipping tips off is a hard habit to break.

Feelings can run very high on the subject and most see even taking one geranium cutting as stealing, just as much so as clearing the shed out of tools. Someone on a forum thinks taking cuttings without permission the worst kind of stealing "because gardeners should live on a higher ethical plane" I’m not sure about that but it sounds good.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Perennial Fruit and Vegetables

Just what is it with me and home grown tomatoes?
Every year I choose small, crisp, sweet varieties. To edge my bets I go for different types, sizes and even seed companies to get just the right types. This is the third year that the tomatoes haven’t lived up to their labels and descriptions.  

 I’m taking full responsibility as I’m sure it’s something I’m dong, but they turn out to be ‘little balls of flour’, which is fine if you are buying a bag of local spuds down the Letterkenny road. But when the tomatoes are all foamy it just doesn’t have the same appeal.

My plants have always been free of blight, leaf curl, insect infestation and anything else that tomato plants can suffer from apart from the foam. I’ve tried Google to get answers but as yet I can’t find anyone else that complains of such a thing. Don’t get me wrong, I can still use them sliced thinly in sandwiches and they do go well in a spaghetti bolognaise, but bit into one straight off the vine and you would think you had just tried to take a bite out of a bath sponge full of soap suds.

Perennial fruit and Veg
Maybe it’s situations such as this that highlight how beneficial perennial fruit and vegetables can be. Just think, you could go out into the garden and just know that you have a reoccurring addition to your dinner that’s fresh, doesn’t taste like soap and keeps coming back year after year. 

If you get yourself a healthy looking sea kale for example, you can pick away at it all summer. Part of the Brassicaceae family, sea kale (Crambe maritima) is so named because it’s commonly found along tide lines so there are opportunities for it to grow well in most gardens around Inishowen. The young leaves can be eaten like collards or spinach, and the leaf stalks can be blanched until semi-soft and taste a bit like asparagus.

Edible perennial plants don’t even need to grow in your own garden. We can consider wild plants growing in the hedgerows. There are loads of wild perennial plants that could be classed as edible vegetables.

Comfrey for example doesn’t just make a great addition to the compost bin and as a liquid feed, it’s edible too. The young leaves can be eaten like spinach and the young tender shoot cooked up is similar to asparagus.  The young tender leaves of dandelions can be added to salads and you could make soup from broad leaf sorrel. Fat hen, yarrow and stinging nettles can all be eaten. Apart from the green leafy plants in the wild, we can also find useful seeds and berries.  

Rose hips (Rosa canina) and Hawthorn.
You can make soup; jam and puree with rose hips but the seeds should never be eaten. Their small hairs can dangerously irritate the stomach, so train well or remove. We used to use them as itching powder at school, putting the seeds down victims basks.

Haws from Hawthorn bushes are edible but will also need a bit of work to make palatable.  When cooked they can be made into a sauce or jelly. Young leaves and unopened buds in spring can be used in salads, sandwiches, and casseroles or in mint sauce.

Don’t forget the trees too.
Ash and elder can be harvested and if you are lucky enough to have a walnut tree nearby then you have a great resource. Ash can be used like capers, and elder berries can be made into wine and the flowers deep fried. 
If you would feel happier growing plants in the garden then there are loads of perennial edibles to choose from. 

You have a wide range or long lasting fruit bearers, from apples, pears plums to strawberries, currants, raspberries and gooseberries which can be harvested year after year.

Leaf Vegetables
Canna lily. Certain types are edible and the tubers, leaves and flowers can be cooked up. It’s said the seeds are edible but are really tough. They can stay viable for 600 years and have been used for buckshot!

Good King Henry. Called the Lincolnshire asparagus, you might be disappointed.

Ground Elder. Yes you can boil up ground elder, one way of ridding the pest from the garden
Lovage, rhubarb, globe artichokes are all good.

Perennial spinach. (Basella alba) is a staple food throughout tropical Asia and Africa, and with good cause: it’s high in protein, calcium, and iron, and grows like crazy.

Marsh Mallow,artichokes, Pink Purslane,Salad Burnet,Sea Beet,Sweet Cecily and Wild Rocket are all worth a mention too.

Root Vegetables
Consider: American Groundnut, Chinese Artichokes, Chicory, Earth-nut Pea, Hardy yam, Jerusalem Artichokes, Lovage, Mashua (only if you have room, I have been trying to rid my garden of this invasive climber for two years) , Oca and Pig Nuts and of course asparagus. 

As with all plants that will be in the ground a while, preparation is key for a long and productive relationship. I’m hoping I’ll be getting asparagus spears for many years to come with the minimum of effort, hopefully other perennial vegetables will be the same.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Longest Courgette

The longest courgette was 2.52 m (8 ft. 3 in) long. The longest zucchini was also exactly the same size. The reason for this isn’t a strange coincidence; it’s that they are the same vegetable.
It all depends where you come from. In the United States, Australia and Germany, the plant is commonly called a zucchini. But here, Belgium the United Kingdom, New Zealand and the Netherlands we refer to them as courgettes. 

When is a courgette not a courgette? The answer to this is pretty vague but generally when a courgette gets to a certain size it is classed as a marrow, (which is what I think the longest courgette was but I wouldn’t be bothered to argue about it). I think most countries call them marrows when you can’t pick them up with one hand,  although in South Africa they are harvested pencil size as ‘baby marrows’. 

Prolific Courgettes
Regardless of what they are called, these prolific summer squashes are in full production at this time of year. So much so that there has been a “Sneak some zucchini onto a neighbours porch” campaign in America as people find they run out of ways to eat them.

We have courgettes growing in our garden. As we only have a few plants we haven’t tried to palm them off to relatives and neighbours. We are getting most of the fruit (yes they are a fruit as they have seeds in them) when they are young and juicy, some of them are missed though and soon turn into the size of rugby balls. These are good stuffed but give me the young fresh ones any day. You can eat them even younger as well. The flowers are edible and can also be fried up or used as a case for stuffing things into. 

Pests and disease
The damp weather sometimes rots the courgettes so having a bit of dry ground under them helps, so does keeping the air circulation good by chopping back a few large leaves every now and then. I’ve also found some of the spent flowers can start to rot the tips if they don’t fall off so sometimes I nip them out to avoid this. There are a few pests and diseases that effect courgettes. The fungal disease powdery mildew turns the leaves white, but I’ve always been lucky with this and if any of the plants succumb it’s usually well after all the courgettes have been picked. The main pest is usually slugs, but even these seem to get a bit fed up of them after a while. Maybe it’s the skin getting thicker; wither way the slugs seem to leave them to grow un-chewed.

I had a look on Google for recipe suggestions and there are websites that will offer you over 100 different ways to prepare the courgette so it’ll be a long time until I run out of ideas. My mother in law doesn’t follow recipes very often and she made her own soup last week with her own courgettes and broad bean concoction which went down very well with everyone at the Amma relaxation day in Clonmany.  All in all then, courgettes make a great first time crop for a new gardener and gives you the opportunity to make both sweet and savoury dishes out  of them. You can even grate them raw and add them to salads and they make great noodles. Apparently they do have a lot of vitamin C in them.

Talking of huge record breaking vegetables:  My chum is growing his prized onions for this year’s autumn horticultural shows like the one we get in Carndonagh.  He gets the mighty onion seeds from Peter Glazebrook who grows some of the largest onions in the world and gives them a really long growing season by starting them off in a greenhouse under artificial light. Adding loads of well-rotted horse nick the onions grow quickly. 

One of Peter’s tips for growing large examples such as this is to concentrate your efforts of just a few and pay them a lot of attention, in much the same way you would with a courgette crop. Too many and you can’t keep on top of them. After saying that, you should see marks polytunnel full of leeks. There’s a sight to behold.  They aren’t grown for young tender tastes and texture, simply for showing in competitions. 

It’s another world but an entertaining one.

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