Bringing the Outside In

  
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and as part of the fun and festivities I really wanted to try making my own festive wreath. I’ve got a couple of lovely wreaths already, including this fabulous Pom Pom one gifted to me by a very good friend last year, but there’s just something about using the plants and foliage in the garden to make your own that really appeals to me. 

  
After some careful research on YouTube and Pinterest I was ready to start. The only equipment I needed was a natural wreath base, a pair of scissors and some wire cutters. 

Before it got dark, I headed out to the garden to get a good selection of leaves and berries. Now, at this point I should be telling you all the names of the plants and leaves I selected…. erm… confession time… I don’t know them all!! I do know I picked conifer, holly, ivy, there’s some pussy willow branches tucked in, it’s possible I picked rhododendrons but that may be totally wrong and there was a lovely plant fruiting bright red berries so I took a good bunch of that too! 
The main reason I took a wide selection of foliage was that I wanted to create depth and contrast to the wreath. I wanted to create a bit of interest and have a variety of leaf shapes, with different tones of greens. 

Once I’d selected the foliage I arranged them into groups to make it easier to create little posies to fix into place. Once everything was laid out, I was ready to begin!    

   
I took a few bunches of leaves and cuttings and arranged them into a nicely sized posie, sticking with the rule “big at the back, small at the front”. Once I had a fairly balanced grouping I laid it onto the wreath and fastened securely with florist wire. For the next posie I varied the foliage but kept to the same approximate size, placed it just overlapping the base of the first posie, and again, secured in place by wrapping the wire round the base and the posie. It was that simple, assemble posie and secure! The finishing touches were made by joining some pine cones together and filling in the gaps with berries and holly leaves. 

  
  
  
  
I had a great time making the wreath, it was much easier to make than I thought! I’d definitely recommend giving making your own a go! 

    
I’m so pleased with the end result, even if I don’t know all the names of the plants I’ve used! My resolution for next year is to be able to make the wreath only from plants I can name! 

Autumn Treasure

  
There’s something about the change in season, from Summer to Autumn that I just love. The crispness in the air, the last remnants of warm sunshine on your face, the magnificent colour changes in the leaves, bumper crops of apples and the rich pickings of blackberries in hedgerows… what’s not to like?! 

Something I absolutely love to do at this time of year is to go out for nature walks. To soak up the season change, marvel at the rich colour tones of the leaves and forage for nature treasure to make Christmas decorations from. I did this last year, well, I found loads of treasure but didn’t actually get round to making the decorations.

Doh! 

This year, not only did my squad of magnificent treasure hunters gather in loads of items, I found 10 minutes today to try a little experiment…

  
A mini acorn (not quite sure if they’re acorns) garland to hang  on the tree! 

  
I’ve got bags of them along with pine cones, cinnamon sticks and mini sleigh bells.. I think the hot glue gun is going to get quite an outing! 

Happy Autumn everyone 🍁

  

The taste of summer

  
I’ve been a busy bee over the last couple of weeks, particularly in the kitchen. The best part of growing your own food has got to be eating it. Hands down, homegrown tastes the best each and every time, no matter what it is or what it looks like. I’ve been eagerly waiting for this specific time of year as the two things which sing “summer” to me are in season right now. 

Elderflowers and Strawberries

Until last year, I’d never really tried anything with elderflowers in it but since then, well, it’s a different story! Last June I made strawberry and elderflower jam and I’ve got to say, the lift the elderflowers gave the jam was amazing. This year I was keen to make more jam and perhaps some cordial too to make the taste of summer last a little longer. 

Armed with strawberries and elderflower heads (foraged from the trees which overhang the allotment fence) I got to work. 

Elderflower Cordial

  
Makes enough for one medium sized Kilner bottle

10 elderflower heads

300g caster sugar

1 pint boiling water

25g citric acid

One large orange

One lime

1. Gently rinse the elderflower heads to remove any little creatures. 

2. Put the sugar into a large mixing bowl and pour in the boiling water. Stir to dissolve the sugar and allow to cool slightly

3. Add the citric acid. Slice the fruit and add to the syrup. Finally pop in the elderflower heads. 

4. Cover the bowl with either a lid or cling film and allow to infuse for 24 hours. 

5. Strain the cordial through a sieve lined with a muslin square and transfer to a cooled sterilised bottle 

Elderflower and Strawberry cordial

  
Makes enough to fill 2 medium sized Kilner bottles with a little left over for “quality control” testing! 

10-15 elderflower heads

750g caster sugar

25g citric acid

225g strawberries (halved and hulled)

1 large unwaxed lemon

2 pints boiling water 

1. Gently rinse the elderflower heads to remove any little creatures and place into a large heatproof bowl. 

2. Add the sliced lemon, the citric acid and all of the sugar. 

3. Pour over the boiling water and stir gently to help dissolve the sugar.

Allow the mixture to cool for 10-15 min.

4. Add the strawberries and stir the infusion. Cover the bowl with either a lid or cling film and allow the mixture to rest. 

5. The mixture is going to infuse for about 72hours and will need to be stored in a cool darkish place. Give the strawberries a squish with a spoon to release their lovely flavour and stir the mixture twice a day. 

6. When ready to bottle up, strain the syrup through a sieve lined with a muslin cloth and pour into cold sterilised bottles. 

7. Quality test the leftovers poured over ice with some sparking water, a slice of lemon and a sprig of mint, summer in a glass 

Strawberry and Elderflower Jam

  
Makes enough to fill 3 standard sized jam jars

900g strawberries (washed, halved and hulled)

1kg bag jam sugar with added pectin

8-10 elderflower heads

Juice of 1 lemon

1. Gently rinse elderflower heads

2. Layer the strawberries and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Just before you’re ready to add your final layer, pop in the elderflower heads, add the last layer of strawberries and sugar and cover with a lid or cling film. 

3. Leave the fruit, flower and sugar mixture for 24 hours. The sugar will draw out the juice from the strawberries and by the time you’re ready to make the jam, there’ll be a lovely syrup suspending the strawberries. 

4. Carefully remove the elderflower heads and prepare the make the jam. 

Pop a small plate in the freezer (to check the jam has set later on) and put your scrupulously clean jam jars into a cold oven to sterilise while you’re making the jam. Turn the oven on and the temperature up to 120 degrees C

5. Put the fruity jam mixture into a large heavy based pan and add the lemon juice. It needs to be quite large as the jam mixture will rise and bubble like mad! 

6. Over a low heat, stir the syrup until all the sugar has dissolved. Don’t rush this step, you need to make sure ALL the sugar has dissolved otherwise you risk the sugar catching the bottom of the pan and burning. 

7. Once the sugar has completely disappeared, slowly increase the heat until the jam temperature comes up to 104 degrees C. If you don’t have a jam thermometer, don’t panic, you’ll know it’s pretty much there when it’s at a vigorous rolling boil. 

8. Let the jam boil for 4-5 min then remove from the heat. Grab your small plate from the freezer and using a spoon, drop some of the jam onto the plate. After 30 seconds push the mixture gently with your finger and see if the jam has formed a skin. If it has, you’ll see the skin wrinkle up as you push the jam- the wrinkle test! If it’s still quite runny, pop the pan back onto the heat for another minute or two then test again. 

9. Once you’re happy that the jam has reached its setting point and you’ve got wrinkly jam, you can remove the jam jars from the oven and carefully start to fill the hot jars with the hot jam. 

10. Once filled, pop on a wax disc and close with the lid*. 

Leave the jam to cool completely and store in the cupboard. 

Now I’ve got that fresh taste of summer bottled and preserved so anytime I need a taste of sunshine, even on the coldest of days, it’s just a trip to the kitchen away. 

* I usually boil the lids in a pan of water for about 20 min to sterilise. 

  

  
    
    
 

 

Under construction 

  
The warm weather this week has worked wonders for the allotment. Everything seems to be thriving in the sunshine and I’m delighted with the progress that the plants are making. Earlier on this week I planted out my tomato plants, I’ve picked the  2 strongest of each variety and planted them in grow bags against the side of the shed. It’s a lovely sunny but sheltered spot currently being enjoyed by the strawberries, but after a quick re-organisation there was room for everything. 
 

On Wednesday morning, on my pre-work visit, I noticed the first of my strawberries starting to ripen and turn red.
  
Not wanting to leave them in the car to sweat it out while I was at work, I decided to pop back along after work to pick them. Unfortunately the birds must’ve spotted them too because they’d completely disappeared by the time I got back! I’ll have to work out some form of protection for them because I’m not losing any more! 

Today I’ve spent a lovely morning at the plot building some more of my squash hide-out. With a bit of training, the squash plants will climb up the bamboo framework and I’ll have a really cool little hide away covered with little mini squashes. I attached the first rung when I initially planted out the squash plants a couple of weeks ago and now the plants are growing well, it’s time to give the plants more rungs to scramble up. 
   
   

I’m making the framework from bamboo canes, cutting each rung to fit. It’s amazing what you can make with canes and garden twine! 

   
   

While I was making the squash hide-out, my dad popped along to check on the progress of the vegetables. While he was there I showed him my random red flowering peas. I noticed them a day or two ago and I’ve not been able to work out how they’re red! The only thing I can think of is that a random red flowering pea variety snuck into the seed packet. I’m not complaining, I can’t wait to see what the peas are like.

 

While I was checking out the pea flowers I noticed something curly sticking out from one of them…

  
A POD! 
I can’t believe it! An actual pea pod. Once I saw that one I spotted another, and another!
   
   

I can’t believe it was only last Thursday I saw the first pea flowers and just one week later we have pods! 

I must’ve got swept up in “pod fever” and I picked my first broad bean pod today too. I think I picked it a bit too early but it just seemed too good to pass up. 

  
I was really pleased with the jam I made last week (the jar I kept for me has been used up already) and I really fancied making some elderflower cordial, so I managed to pick a few umbrellas of elderflowers before I left the allotment. 

  
I’m going to make the cordial tomorrow and add some fresh ginger to the mix too. The plan is to use the cordial in drinks and to add extra flavour to any more jams I make. 

Tomorrows day at the allotment will be spent weeding mostly I think. The weather has worked wonders for the weeds too! I might even treat the pumpkins to a mulching of manure while I’m at it. Happy days. 

Gifts from the garden

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June is a busy month for birthdays and occasions in our family, and typically they’re all at the end and within 10 days of each other. Needless to say, June weighs heavy on the purse strings. I was discussing this with my sister, who has her birthday in June, and she gave me a challenge of making her birthday gift this year rather than buying her something. What a great idea I thought, and while I’m at it, I’ll make a birthday gift for my Mam too, whose birthday is the day after my sister’s.

Now, what was I to make? I wanted to keep the cost down, but I wanted to make something special that looked good too.

Jam. Everybody loves jam, and the jars can look fancy too can’t they? That was settled. I’d make a lovely batch of home-made jam using fruits and flavours from the allotment. While I was at the allotment on Thursday I cast my eye over the plot to see what I could use. The rhubarb is still producing a few stalks so I picked a few of those, and then I saw it. The perfect accompaniment to the rhubarb: elderflowers. There’s  something about the taste of elderflowers that just says “summers here”. The elder tree is actually in the park, just on the other side of the allotment fence and overhangs the plot ever so slightly, so because I had to climb up onto the fence to reach the flowers, I think this technically counts as foraging. Armed with my goodies I set off homeward bound to make the jam.

I love baking, and have baked regularly for a number of years now but I’ve never made jam before. It’s always seemed so technical to me with all the talk of setting points and wrinkle tests, but I do like to try new things, so, not put off by my lack of experience, I ploughed on. As I was assessing my ingredients, one thing became clear, I didn’t have enough fruit. The 4 stalks of rhubarb I’d brought back were definitely not enough to make jam. The only fruit I could think of that would go with the rest of the ingredients was strawberries but my strawberries at the allotment are nowhere near ready yet, so reluctantly I called into the shops and bought a couple of punnets to bulk up the fruit.

Once I was happy with the amount of fruit, I got started on preparing them for the first stage; infusion.

I soaked the Elderflowers in water to make sure no little creatures were hiding, then washed and rinsed them again.

Foraged Elderflowers

Foraged Elderflowers

I chopped the rhubarb into small chunks and hulled and halved the strawberries.

Chopped rhubarb

Chopped rhubarb

The rhubarb went into the bowl first and I covered the chunks in sugar, then I alternated the strawberries and the sugar, until there was only one more portion of strawberries remaining. The upturned Elderflowers went into the bowl, then I added the final layer of strawberries and sugar.

Fruit/sugar combo

Fruit/sugar combo

I left the mixture over night to allow the sugar to get to work on the fruit and pull all the lovely flavours out and into a syrup.

After 3 hours

After 3 hours

Fruit suspended in syrup after being left to infuse over night

Fruit suspended in syrup after being left to infuse over night

The next day, I sterilised the jam jars, and got to work on making the jam. I was in two minds as to whether I should put some of the actual flowers into the jam too, but as it was going to be a gift, I thought it best to pull all the flowers out.

Flower removal

Flower removal

Slowly I heated the fruity syrup until all the sugar had dissolved and then brough the mixture to a rolling boil. After a few minutes I tried the wrinkle test on a really cold saucer (if the jam has reached setting point, a tea-spoon of mixture dropped onto a really cold saucer should form a skin and wrinkle when prodded with your finger after a few moments)

Wrinkle test

Wrinkle test

It wrinkled! Fantastic. I wasn’t sure how long it had taken to get to setting point so I let the mixture boil for about 3-4 more minutes then turned off the heat. The result was a lovely deep red fruity jam.

Before

Before

After

After

Carefully I transferred some of the jam to a measuring jug and filled the hot jam jars. The lids went on straight away and I turned the filled jars upside down. Apparently this is to help form the seal and to keep the jam in tip-top condition.

Topsy turvy jam

Topsy turvy jam

I found some squares of material and cut out large circles to cover the lids and hey presto! Gifts from the garden.

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I can’t just give a jar of jam for a birthday gift, so for my Mam, I whipped up a batch of scones, popped them into a basket and I had a lovely gift. My sister is in Glastonbury for the festival at the moment so won’t be back for a few days. When she does get back, I’ll magic up some fresh scones for her too.

Birthday gifts

Birthday gifts

My son and I also made a pebble art picture using wool and some pebbles. It’s a really simple idea and works really well put into a box picture frame.

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My Mam was delighted when I gave her the gifts last night. Of course we had to try the jam and scones (the scones were still warm).

I think the jams a winner!

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Take a walk on the wild side

  
I did it. I ate the mushrooms. After conducting some carefull research into  the pros (tasty treats) and cons (stomach cramps and possibly being poisoned) I came to the conclusion that the mushrooms growing in nature corner at the allotment were indeed the safe and tasty variety Morel. 

After collecting them on Sunday evening I brought them home, in my brand new vegetable trug, along with some of the micro salad, rhubarb and herbs I’ve been growing. 

  
To prepare them I cut them in half and soaked them in a container of water. Some of the advice suggests simply brushing them carefully with a small paint brush to remove debris but after seeing a tiny slug creeping up the side of the container I’m pleased I opted for soaking! It must’ve been seeking refuge in one of the mini crators on the mushroom. After an hour or so, I dried the mushrooms off and wrapped them in kitchen paper overnight. 

  
I love mushrooms. Being vegetarian I use them regularly in everyday cooking, so I was keen to use them in one of my favourite dishes…risotto. I love using porcini mushrooms as the base flavour in risotto, they’ve got a wonderful texture and a real earthy-ness about them which I think works perfectly in this type of dish. The Morel mushrooms were added to the mix and a mushroom feast was had at tea time. 

  
The mushrooms tasted good, not too strong and were surprisingly soft, I’d expected them to be firmer, but were still a delight to try. 

Now, I can’t take all the credit for the tasty wild mushroom risotto, actually I can’t take any of the credit…my sister cooked it, added some micro salad, tossed in a chunk of Stilton, threw in some cannilini beans and served it up… it was awesome. 

  

A really fun-gi

I woke up to a lovely sunny day this morning, and feeling spurred on by the progress made yesterday I headed along to the allotment with my sandwiches and flask in hand.

First task of the day was to plant up the strawberries. I have an area on the allotment which, at the moment, houses the broken cold frame. I had planned to take it down and dig it out to use as the strawberry patch, but the little test dig I did a few weeks ago proved it to be full of really tough woody roots (where they’ve come from and what they are I’ve got no idea). So strawberries in planters was my next best option. I like the idea of vertical gardening and as I’m short on patio space I thought stacking strawberry planters was the way to go.

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I love strawberries, so I’ve planted 18 individual plants, 3 per pot. I had thought about stacking them 3 pots high to save on space but I think stacking them 2 pots high is going to give the plants more sunshine.

After an hour or so’s digging (got to keep on top of those weeds) I stopped to plant up some more seeds. I planted my climbing beans – Cobra, my runner beans – Enorma and my dwarf bush beans – Purple Teepee. I’m growing the runner beans and the climbing beans up wigwam style support canes so I’ve only sown 6 seeds of each. If I need any more, I can plant a few seeds directly into the ground when I plant the beans out.

After that, I thought I’d test my luck and plant a few beetroot seeds and some Swiss chard directly into the ground where I’d been weeding. I’m really looking forward to seeing the Swiss chard. The variety I’m growing is called Bright Lights and the stems will be lovely shades of red, yellow, silver and purple. If I only pick the outer leaves, they should keep producing more to last right the way through the summer, and even into autumn.

After all that hard work, it was time for a cup of tea. Off I went to nature corner to relax and enjoy the flowers.

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As I was watching the bees, I noticed something growing beside the grape hyacinth…

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There, right in the middle. Can you see it? It looks like the weirdest wrinkly fungi ever! I cast my eye over the woodland-like floor and spotted another…

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And another!

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Once I got home, I did what anyone else with pictures of weird looking wrinkly fungi would do. Put the picture on Instagram and asked for help! After a short time I had a reply saying it was a Morel wild mushroom. The best thing is that it’s really easy to identify (once you know what to look for in your mushrooms) and it’s edible too, supposedly it’s quite delicious.

I’ll have to do a bit more research, just to make sure it is a Morel before I eat them all, but I’m delighted that nature corner is producing things to forage. And so what if the mushrooms are all weird looking? It’s can certainly come to party at my allotment…because it’s a really fun-gi.