Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Biochar

Biochar is a is a potent soil improver made with eco-friendly charcoal. It is designed to improve soil fertility and water retention – and so boost plant health and crop yields. It looks very much like garden compost...


Digging biochar into the soil is actually an ancient practice. It was first used in settlements on the banks of the river Amazon, deep within the rainforest. Surprisingly, the soils of tropical forests are extremely poor – acidic and low in minerals and nutrients. When they took up farming, the indigenous people got round this problem by engineering extremely potent soils using charcoal. These human-made super soils, known as Terra Preta, still cover up to 10% of the Amazon basin today. Scientists have dated them back at least 2,500 years – some even as far back as 6,000 years.

I have been sent a sample of a biochar product that is shortly (1 Sept 18) to be launched onto the market by an organisation called Sacred Earth, or to give it its full name, the Sacred Earth Community Benefit Society. Based in Horam, East Sussex, this is an environmental organisation that connects people with nature. Specialising in experiential learning, it runs courses and events designed to help people establish better relationships with themselves, each other and the natural world on its 40-acre, off-grid site. It also rents out land to entrant biodynamic farmers at affordable rates, offering them infrastructure and support. As a Community Benefit Society (CBS), all profits made are returned to the community organisation, rather than being distributed among members or external shareholders.

According to Sacred Earth "The structure of biochar makes it the perfect home for the beneficial mycorrhizal fungi and friendly bacteria that are essential to healthy soil. Made by burning sustainable plant and wood waste at low temperatures, in the absence of oxygen, biochar is more porous and absorbent than common charcoal. Its surface is pitted with minuscule nooks and crannies, in which beneficial micro-organisms and fungi can flourish. When a healthy microbial ecosystem is established, a plant's root mass will become larger, which in turn allows the plant to take up more water and nutrients." If you want to know more about the product and its production process, have a look HERE.


Sacred Earth have kindly sent me a 1kg sample of the product, despatched (in accordance with their principles) in a compostable bag contained within a recyclable cardboard box.


When the product goes on sale in September it will be supplied only in 3kg paper sacks, again with a compostable liner. The price for 3kgs will be £9.99.



Biochar can be applied directly to the soil, or mixed in with compost and then dug in. If using the former method the recommended 'dosage' is approximately 1kg per square metre, if your soil isn’t good and a little less if it’s not too bad. If you want to add it to established plants, Sacred Earth suggest incorporating a good few handfuls around the roots. You’ll need at least 1kg for a small tree. If you decide to add it to compost first, they recommend one part Biochar Soil Booster to nine parts compost. I'm planning to apply my sample directly to the smallest of my raised beds.

It will be interesting to see what results it produces, but I'm very conscious that the product comes with a warning not to expect instant results: "Please note: the revival or establishment of microbial ecosystems can take time, depending on the current health and makeup of your soil. Please be patient. Sacred Earth’s Biochar Soil Booster is designed to improve the long-term health of your garden soil. You might not see its benefits the first season, but it will greatly improve your soil’s function over time."

There is one other important fact to note. Sacred Earth suggest that you use your Biochar Soil Booster as soon as you receive it, because it’s a live product, bursting with the fungi and beneficial bacteria essential to soil health. They say that "due to the product’s dampness and living vibrancy, it really should be used within two weeks of purchase – to avoid it decomposing its own packaging." That's not much of a Shelf Life, is it?? It will take a lot to persuade me that this stuff is superior to my own 1-year-aged Garden Compost!

Homemade compost "cooking" - Best Before End Feb 2019!


Note: Sacred Earth provided me with the review sample, free of charge.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Not all tomatoes are red

As is my wont, this year I have been growing loads of different varieties of tomato - some big, some small, some cordons, some bushes, some red ones - and some not red ones...


I've mentioned before that I'm not usually keen on yellow tomatoes. I suppose it's a deep-seated prejudice, but to me a tomato is red, and I regard different coloured ones with suspicion! Yes, I know this is silly, but there you go... Most of the tomatoes I am growing this year bear red fruit, of course. For instance, the tally of (red) Maskotka and Montello has now exceeded 14kgs (from 8 plants). However, I want to show off a few different-coloured ones today.

This is the first. It is "Tango", which has orange-coloured mini plum fruits. It's probably just a false perception, but I think they do actually taste a bit orangey.


Then we have "Bumblebee Sunrise". The first few I picked were mostly yellow, with few of the red stripes, but the latest lot are much stripier. They remind me of the famous variety "Tigerella", but with the colours reversed. They look very striking in a mixed salad!


I got my granddaughters to test a couple of these on Friday, and they reckoned they were sour. Maybe this is a variety that needs to be eaten very ripe?

This one is the first ripe fruit of "Dwarf Beauty King", again a very beautiful red-and-yellow variety.


The "Dwarf" part of this variety's name refers to the height of the plant, not the size of the fruit, which are actually quite big.  This specimen weighed 121 grams.


I've shown off this one in a previous post. It is "Dwarf Barossa Fest", a plain yellow one, but surprisingly tasty.


These dusky beauties are "Cherokee Chocolate", a close relative of the more well-known "Cherokee Purple".


The Cherokee varieties all seem to suffer a lot from deep cracks that radiate out from the stems. This may spoil their good looks somewhat, but it doesn't affect the flavour, or indeed the internal texture. These are lovely tasty tomatoes, and I think the deep colour gives them a certain richness - be it real or imagined. The fruits of this variety generally reach 350 or 400 grams, sometimes bigger. The two in my photo were 473g and 364g.

Despite all the above, the type of tomato I like best is the big, rugged, deeply-ribbed (red) one. The sort you find in markets in the South of France and elsewhere in the Mediterranean. This one is actually "Monserrat". It's not ripe yet, but it soon will be...


What's your opinion? Do you think red tomatoes (in general) taste any different to yellow ones or orange, or green?


Friday, 17 August 2018

The Shelling Beans are shelled.

Over the last week or so, my beans have been completing their drying - outside in the sunshine whenever possible.


I'll remind you what types they were. The first was "Cherokee Trail of Tears".


The other was "Tunny".

Tunny beans drying - some still green at that point

Yesterday it rained for hours, so Jane and I had a Cooking Day. Apart from our normal lunch and dinner, we cooked an extra meal for our granddaughters Lara and Holly, and we also made a loaf of bread, a batch of tomato sauce and a batch of stewed Bramley apples - plus shelled the beans!


After shelling, the Tunny beans weighed 458g.


It's not a huge harvest, but those beans are so pretty!


The Cherokee Trail Of Tears beans weighed 463g.



Used with other ingredients, I reckon 100g of dried beans is about enough for a two-person serving, so allowing for saving a few to re-sow next year, my harvest is probably enough for about 8 meals. Some people will say "All that effort to produce less than a kilogram of beans - not worth it!", but I say it IS worth it. The sense of achievement in bringing them to harvest is enormous, added to the comfort of knowing that they have been grown without the use of any chemicals or artificial fertilisers. I don't recall seeing Tunny beans on sale anywhere either (as a food product, rather than as seeds, I mean), so they have rarity value too.

One final thought: dried beans keep for ages, without the need of any additional processing, and their storage consumes no energy. They also don't spoil if your freezer loses power in a Winter storm!

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

A couple of Firsts

Having been away for a couple of days I went up to my Courtmoor plot today to see how things were doing - but thankfully not to water it, since there was a little rain at the weekend. I was rewarded with this:


It's the first of my "Uchiki Kuri" Winter squashes. My first-ever successful Winter Squash. Here is a shot of it next to my mobile phone so that you can gauge its size. By the way, it weighs 928 grams, which seems typical for this variety - the catalogues mention "1-kilogram fruits"...


To be honest, I hadn't really intended to harvest it just yet, but I noticed that both of my Uchiki Kuri plants have new tiny fruits on them, and I thought that picking the mature fruit might improve the likelihood of the new ones setting. I'm not sure if things work that way, but it sounds possible!



In the circumstances, I intend to keep the harvested squash for at least a couple of weeks before eating it, just to allow it to complete its ripening. I have two more at exactly the same stage, so I'll see how things go before cutting those ones. To be honest, three squashes from two plants doesn't sound like a very impressive crop, so a couple more would be welcome.

My other "First" was the first ripe tomato from any of my 6 Dwarf tomato plants, in this case "Dwarf Barossa Fest". In this next photo it is the yellow one seen next to two red "Mountain Magic" ones:


I'm hard to please when it comes to yellow tomatoes. I find most of them very bland, and many have a spongy texture. Not this one though. It has a very nice taste and good texture. The skin was not tough either, so a winner all round.


It wasn't all Firsts at the plot today though. The ordinary stuff is still producing quite nicely, like these "Boltardy" beetroot.


The beetroot has developed slowly this year - probably because of the hot dry weather - but it has very conveniently matured over a long period. I'm pulling a few at a time and am not having to cope with loads of them all being ready at once. This batch of 5 was 3 for the plot-owners and 2 for Jane and me.


Likewise, the French beans are still churning out pods at a good rate. The Dwarf "Canadian Wonder" have done OK, but nowhere near as well as the "Cobra" climbing beans, which are in the middle of a second flush right now. They are my favourite French Beans by a long way. The pods remain tender even if you let them get very big (which I don't!).

French beans "Canadian Wonder" (flat ones, at back) and "Cobra".

If you grow "Cobra" don't pull up the plants until you really have to because they often spring back into life and give you more pods, just when you thought they had finished.

Monday, 13 August 2018

On the downward trend

My plot at Courtmoor Avenue is not looking as fully populated as it was a few weeks ago.


There is quite a bit of bare soil, now that the onions, shallots and potatoes have been harvested, and recent weather conditions have not been conducive to sowing any seeds to fill the gaps. In fact most of my Winter crops are already in. I have two rows each of 24 Leeks, a row of Parsnips, seven Brussels Sprout plants and several cabbages.

Leeks next to Beetroot

Most of the Leeks are this size

Brussels Sprout plants

Little sprouts forming

The cabbages are mostly under netting, as seen here, although the "January King" ones (left of photo) will soon be too big for this arrangement.


I do still have one cauliflower, but it is the world's weirdest one - it looks more like White Sprouting Broccoli.


I have recently seen stuff like this being sold in one of our local supermarkets, labelled "White Sprouting Broccoli", but I'm convinced it's just bolted cauliflowers!


As I reported a few days ago, I have harvested my shelling beans, and now I have also taken down the wigwam of canes that used to support them, since this will allow just a little extra light to reach the Brussels Sprouts. You can see the wigwam in my next photo (at the left), with the sprouts behind it, but if you scroll back to the first photo of this post, you see that it has gone.

In the foreground are Parsnips, Beetroot and Leeks

My Beetroot won't last into the Winter at the rate we're consuming them. Now that they are being thinned in this way, the remainder have finally got enough room to swell up more, like these ones:


The "Pumpkin Patch" is definitely looking a bit tired now. The first thing I notice whenever I arrive at the plot is how droopy the leaves of the squash plants are!


Fortunately, once the plants get a drink they perk up pretty rapidly, often within minutes. The fruits are still looking fine, although not yet ripe. I have been getting advice from various Twitter friends on how to tell when a squash is ripe, so I'm confident that my ones have some way to go yet - particularly the Butternuts, whose skins are still fairly pale and soft. One test of ripeness that I have learned is to try pushing a thumbnail into the skin of the squash. If you can penetrate the skin easily, the squash is not ripe. The skin should be hard and rigid. I'm expecting my squashes to be ready by mid to late September, and since at present there are 11 respectable fruits they should keep us supplied for many weeks thereafter.

Butternut Squash "Sweetmax"

The three tomato plants that are in amongst the squashes have some fruits on them too, though not as many nor as big as their siblings growing in containers in my own garden. Like everything else at the plot, they have had to make do with less-than-ideal amounts of water.


The single "Mountain Magic" tomato plant that ended up in amongst the Dwarf beans and New Zealand Spinach also seems to have done well enough. It has set a lot of fruits, but again they are smaller than those on the one I have in my home garden. I didn't pinch out or tie-in the sideshoots of this plant so they have grown tall and flopped over. Lying on the ground like this their fruit will be very vulnerable to slug attack, something I shall have to be wary of, given the recent rain.

Tomato "Mountain Magic"

Tomato "Mountain Magic"

I'm not yet saying that Autumn is here, but my plot has a definite end of season look to it. However, we have had a bit of rain over the last few days (at last), so maybe things will perk up a bit.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Sweet Chilli Sauce

A couple of days ago I picked this year's first batch of ripe chillis.


The large red ones are a type of "Cayenne", the small red ones are "Aji Benito" and the solitary yellow one is a "Golden Cayenne".

The total weight of those chillis was 233g, which was just a little short of the ideal quantity (250g) for making a batch of our favourite Sweet Chilli Sauce. I decided to go ahead anyway, and just reduce the quantities of the other ingredients by a small amount.

If you want the recipe for this sauce you can find it HERE, but for the purposes of my post today I'll paraphrase it. By the way, we usually make a half-quantity because I can seldom produce 500g of homegrown chillis all at once.

The chillis are prepped by removing the stalks and seeds, and then roughly chopped. You can use any type of chilli you like - mild, hot or atomic - but we don't like the atomic ones so I made this sauce with fairly mild ones. This is a sweet chilli sauce after all, not a Hot Sauce, so it doesn't need a huge amount of heat.


The only other ingredients required are a couple of cloves of garlic (optional), caster sugar and white vinegar. [NB: NOT malt vinegar or pickling vinegar, nor indeed white wine vinegar!]


The chillis are then blitzed for a few seconds in a food-processor, along with the garlic and a third of the white vinegar. This reduces them to a coarse pulp.

The pulp is then poured into a large saucepan with the caster sugar and the other two thirds of the vinegar. It is stirred gently over a low heat for about 5 minutes to dissolve the sugar, then brought to the boil.


Next, you turn down the heat and simmer the mixture gently for about 35 - 40 minutes. You will know when the sauce is ready because it changes to a much deeper colour and thickens to a sort of "jammy" texture which resists the spoon when you stir it. Don't cook it for too long though because you don't want to caramelise the sugar.

When the sauce is ready, allow it to cool before decanting it into sterilised glass jars. I think you'll agree that this particular batch of sauce is a beautiful colour! It filled two small jars.


You can use this sauce immediately, but it will keep (in sealed jars) in the fridge for several months if it really must!