Monday, 29 October 2012

On digital cameras

  Tonight I saw a beautiful thing.  The moon over Strawberry Hill was full and uncommonly luminous; ringed by a striking, vivid, perfectly circular double rainbow.  It was breathtaking.  My inner scientist smiled in wonder while my inner writer clamoured - and still clamours - for the words to do such a sight justice.  Failing that, I took the camera out and snapped off half a dozen photos, bracing hard to  lamp post to keep my arm steady.  Alas, this was the best of them:

Fucking cameras!

  This would lead me to despair at the shitness of there being such a thing as an incapturable moment, but for the fact that it drew my attention to something just as amazing: my eye.  We like to say that the human eye is woefully inefficient, that it is an evolutionary hodge-podge that isn't half the instrument it could be.  Fair enough, but when we set out to build a camera with precision-engineered lenses and fuckillion-megapixel resolutions and more extra features than you can shake a stick from the guardhouse toilets on Hadrian's wall at we still can't get it to see something that my squishy, evolutionary hodge-podge of an eyeball can.  

Biology 1, technology nil.  

Fat cakes

So I got a great tip from Julia at Stages of Succession, and ran with it.  Fat cakes are a way of keeping birds in your garden over the Winter, which raises the overall bird-friendliness of the garden.  I want birds and other creatures in my garden, because a greater biodiversity means fewer little sods eating my crops.  Encouraging birds and other predators in is cheap and organic, while using pesticides costs money and is arguably poisonous.

Into the blender I've put:

  • A couple slices of bread too stale for toast,
  • The fat leftover from yesterday's roast potatoes,
  • A small pinch of salt,
  • A leftover carrot,
  • Some nuts,
  • Some lentils,
  • An apple that had rolled away unnoticed yesterday whilst I was making cider, from apples...

The resultant paste I put into the ice cube tray and froze overnight to drive out excess fluid and make it firmer.  It also keeps those I'm not using right away fresh.   

I've put three cubes in a shallow tray on the roof of the strawbrary.  I chose that spot because the overlapping wire panels of its roof make it impossible to sneak silently across.  Birds and squirrels sit unmolested there now because the local cats have learned there's no profit in stalking up there.  That was the best I could engineer at the time, though when I've got a few bob spare I plan on attaching jingle bells to the underside of the wire near the joints.  

In other news, the cider's ticking over nicely.  At the bottom of yesterday's page is a short clip of the airlock, taken an hour after the vessel was sealed, bubbling at a rate of roughly 2.5 per ten seconds.  The clip below on this page is from this morning.  Now bubble rate is an interesting proxy for fermentation rate.  Obviously you can't measure alcohol content in real time, and nor can you sit and watch the yeasts eat, but the bubble rate suggests how much sugar they're eating.  From this clip, I'd suggest they're having a twenty course Roman orgy in there!

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Well, mostly apples...

Someone had to say it, as per Gytha's Law.

So I've laid down the Winter cider in preparation for a party I'm having the night before New Years'.  Cider is basic enough to make; you need a minimum of kit and no fear of a small amount of graft.  This can get messy so do it in the bathroom.

You'll need a rubber bucket and some manner of fermentation vessel.  Start by scrubbing and sterilising your kit.  Do this in a bath full of hot water with a chlorine-based steriliser.  Always be sure to rinse the chlorine away with plenty of water before you use it.

You'll need a tool for smashing apples.  I like the old MOE favourite; the 7Lb sledgehammer.  It can't be adequately sterilised, so instead you clean it thoroughly before wrapping the head and top half of the haft with shitloads of cling film.  

Line your now sterilised rubber bucket with a clean bedsheet.  I've chosen one of Squeaky's spares, which she won't know about until she wakes up one morning reeking of apples.  

That's about £20 worth of apples.  Most of them are dessert apples for the sweetness, and because what's being fermented is sugar, but I've included a dozen bramleys for the tartness.  You'll want three or four different varieties of apple in there for a more complex flavour.  I may yet add some rhubarb or brambles or something.  

The next bit can be safely summarised by HULK SMASH!!!

Keep going with this until somebody complains about the noise, then switch to the blender.  Once you've got a rough mush - kinda like apple sauce - then it's time to strain off the liquid.  Bunch up the sheet and twist it hard.  

It's gone brown, but don't worry about that.  You aren't making apple pies here, you're fermenting; and whether you're using fermentation to make cider, cheese, or any number of useful and delicious things, what you're essentially doing is seeing that the raw material goes off under controlled circumstances.  By this point the bathroom stank of apples.  Tip all the liquid into the fermenter.  

The next thing to do is make up the yeast in a jug.  You'll need brewer's yeast (1 tsp/gallon plus one for luck), citric acid (1 tsp/gallon into the fermenter with the juice, minus 1 tsp which goes into the jug), yeast nutrient (same as for the citrate), and a couple of dessert spoons of brown sugar in the jug to give the yeast an easy start.  Fill it up with water that is neither lukewarm nor hot hot, but blood hot.  Stir vigorously.  

Yeast nutrient is a mixture of ammonium sulphate and ammonium phosphate.  Sounds nasty and you sure wouldn't want to eat it neat, but it all gets used up by the yeast.  We talk of terrestrial life as being carbon-based, but our cells revolve around six basic elements - carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus - which I tend to refer to collectively as "sponch".  Yeast nutrient dissociates in water into free-floating sponch (minus the carbon), and the yeast takes it straight up for use in protein synthesis and ATP synthesis.  I'll stop now, because not everybody shares my interest in cellular biology.  

The remaining apple mush, having lost much of its liquid content, should be firm and somewhat tacky, like a burger patty.  There are stems and seeds and all sorts in there, so it's useless for crumble.  Shove it in the composter and any fruits and flowers you grow in it will get a kick up the arse.  

Prepare the lid of your fermenter by running some vaseline around the threads of the lid with your fingertip to ensure a good seal.  

Then seal it up, taking care to put a reasonable amount of water in the airlock.  

You'll know it's working if after an hour or so you see bubbles in the airlock.  Yeast takes a little while to set up, so if nothing's happened after a few hours then check all your seals and wait until the following morning.  If you're still getting no bubbles then make up a fresh jug of yeast.  Pull out the bung and tip the yeast mixture in via funnel, then replace the bung.  

This video was taken about an hour after I sealed the fermenter:

This'll take a couple of months to brew, but my brewing tends to end up at about 10% ABV when it's done, so it'll be worth the wait.  To test ABV, take 100ml of your grog, heat it to 75ÂșC for a minute then measure the final volume, which we'll call n.  100-n=ABV.  

Looking forward to this!  If a certain someone can lab test it when it's finished then there'll be a gallon in it for her...

Autumn Maple

  So it's Autumn, for the originators my 62 British pageviews this past month.  30 might call it Fall while 152 would call it Herbst (according to Google, at any rate).  It's bloody cold after what weather reporters called "Freezing Friday", which to me just conjures an epic yet PG-rated quest being undertaken by a polar bear, a puffin, and one very lost penguin.  All of them singing jaunty songs about snow and things that rhyme with snow, which thirty years later prompts heated (but largely esoteric and thus widely ignored) debates as to whether the word "Eskimo" is racist.

But I digress...

  The big maple growing through the roof of the Strawbrary is having its annual shed.  I've not yet managed to get a photo which includes the entire tree - Google Earth notwithstanding - so suffice it to say the thing puts down enough leaves each Autumn that the garden becomes effectively cushioned.  Any deeper and I'd have the cast of Jackass wanting to fling Wee Man off the roof in a Superman cape.  Ordinarily I'd just leave them to rot over the Winter, but this year is different:  this year I'm getting a brew on!
The fallen leaves thus far - and it's only the start of the shedding - are scraped up into a plastic bin.  

Once it's filled, pressed down and filled again (because leaves trap a lot of air!) I poured three litres of water over the top of the leaves, replaced the lid and weighted it on with a stone.  

That'll rot down over the coming year.  The resultant liquid - known as leaf tea - can be diluted to one cup of the tea into a watering can of water for use as a high nitrogen feed for the lawn and other nitrogen-hungry plants.  The leaves which wouldn't fit into the bin can be mulched directly onto the lawn.  

In other decomposition news, the compost is coming along nicely.  Some berk put bread in it though, which is doing nothing so much as turn blue.  I must remember to pop round to Nathan's house for some horse manure.  

And I found this leaf in my bean patch.  It's not the Vicia faba that I planted, and nor is it anything that I've seen in this garden before.  It's of a firm, rubbery texture.  My hand is in the shot, and for scale I wear size 7 gloves.

If anybody knows what in Earth that is, please comment below.  Ta muchly :)

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Your input is wanted.

My garden is on the North side of the house.  This means that the soil gets full sun for more of the year as it gets further from the back wall. On the arable (East) side fence I want to paint four diagonal lines, showing the line of full direct sun.

The blue line I'll paint at Noon on the Winter Solstice,
The green line I'll paint at Noon on the Spring Equinox
The yellow line I'll paint at Noon on the Summer Solstice,
The orange line I'll paint at Noon on the Autumn Equinox.

I think it'll be useful and will also look kinda cool.  In my head it'll tie my garden in with the passing of the seasons.

Is there a better way of doing this?  Can I make it look better?  Your input is most welcome.

Friday, 19 October 2012

In Pictures: My first strawberry!

These are of Pinky this morning.  

That yellow ball in the centre is the flower's female sex organ.  It's a massive soft shell.  The tiny yellow things just about visible on the outside of this shell are the flower's ovaries; dozens per flower.  Each ovary holds an oocyte.  Once the oocytes are fertilised to become seeds, that fleshy yellow shell swells with sugar and nutrients, in the process turning red. 

The ovaries harden to protect the seeds, which are kept on the outside of the berry so they can easily find the soil when some pigeon excretes them.  

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

They're good for your heart...

Today begins the process of conditioning the soil on the East half ready for a six bed rotation.  I've dug seven neat rows, each two inches deep, and planted field beans.

At the time of planting they were scarcely distinguishable from pebbles, which was a mite disconcerting.  £3 of beans has covered the entire arable patch.  I don't know how edible field beans are as they are primarily sold as a green manure for Winter, like grazing rye.  But like all beans, field beans are legumes, which means they fix nitrogen, and we like nitrogen!  They'll grow over Winter and I'll dig them in in the Spring, thus making way for whatever veggies I end up planting.  

I'll rotate by family, so solanaceae, legumes, alliums, brassicae, apiaceae, and the 6th bed will be fallowed with either wheat or a couple of chickens.  I'm still arguing for the chickens but it'll probably end up being wheat.  

While I was at the garden centre I spotted these two alpine strawberry plants.  They were in a bit of a sorry way, with their lower leaves deprived of sunlight, the upper leaves waterburned, the roots too dense for the pot, and obvious deficiencies in nitrogen and potassium.  My heart went out to them, so I bought them at a discount.  They've been repotted in larger pots, given some 4:2:6, and they're now keeping Mike company on the landing windowsill.  

The one in the red pot is Pinky, the one in the purple pot is Perky.  

Lastly, my jasmine is growing well, although it's slowing down for the Winter.  I anticipate a growth spurt in the Spring, and I've noticed there was nothing about the arbour which would serve to encourage vines to grow across the front at the top; they'd just grow straight upwards.  I've put in a beam to correct this.  It's a kludge, but give it a couple of years and it'll be greened over anyways,  

That'll be lovely when it's all grown over.  I'll take some cuttings in the Spring and sow them in my propagator.  With any luck I'll end up with a pair of small jasmines I can plant out in April 2014.  

Until next time :)

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Youse takin' the Mickey?

An article in today's Metro has annoyed me.  In it the Potato Council, an industry lobby, blames gardeners and allotment keepers for this year's high incidence of late blight.  There are many things wrong with this position.

  1. Late blight is a fungus.  Fungi like warm (but not too hot), moist, and preferably dark conditions.  The Met Office reckon 2012 saw a mild Winter followed by a Summer that was hot yet cooler than average, cloudier than average, and with unprecedented rainfall keeping it very moist.  In that weather it's amazing that stones didn't catch infections, never mind the tatties.  
  2. Agribusiness don't grow the healthiest crops to begin with.  They grow monocultures which drain the soil of nutrition whilst providing the perfect environment for disease to flourish.  Combine that with the Summer we've had and it's no wonder the spuds are going nasty.  
  3. Farms are out in the countryside, surrounded by other farms.  Allotments are in the cities, surrounded by houses.  There are a lot of miles to cover between a city allotment and a country farm.  How on Earth is a disease of potatoes - a famously sedentary species - communicated between urban tubers and their rural counterparts?
Still, the comments aren't a surprise.  Industry supports industry, after all, and the prime culprit - the weather - is the fault of climate change; a byproduct of the manufacturing, petrochemical and automotive industries.  For agribusiness to call these industries out for knackering the 'tater harvest would readily lead to a case of legal Mutually Assured Destruction, from which only lawyers and journos would profit.  

Furthermore, every home gardener growing potatoes is one fewer person buying potatoes.  Us arable gardeners are literally eating the profits of agribusiness, we are their enemy, so it is little wonder they would use the failings of big business as a means of attacking us as "irresponsible".  The statement "it would be preferable if people bought healthy potatoes from their retailer rather than grow their own" is most telling.

Take good care of your potatoes, burn any that show signs of blight, but don't stop growing just because the weather's bad for business!  When agribusiness feels the need to distort the truth and ignore the science just to attack the home gardener and the allotment keeper then it becomes apparent that the edaphic revolution has gained more ground than industry is comfortable with.  

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Objectives and Objections

The house assigned me the task - a year ago - of de-jungling the garden and turning the larger West half into a lawn and recreational area, the slightly smaller East half into an arable patch for growing root veg and some fruit.  This is the garden, not counting the patio, as it stands right now:
Yes, I'm in that interesting age cohort (I started school in 1989) where my mind thinks in millimetres while my hands and eyes think in inches.  I've heard it referred to as metric schizophrenia, which is an unfortunate way of putting it, though not wholly inaccurate if you accept the omniprotean slang definitions of "schizophrenia".  Anyways, here are the plans in inches.  I've drawn up the garden as I would want it to look this time next year:
I'll grant you the handwriting ain't great.  The black square is a 4' greenhouse, the orange squares are 5' beds, the blue circles are 330L composters.  All to scale, of course. The East side (the top of the page is North, of course) is busy.  The West side is quiet.  Though I've only just committed it to paper, this is how I pictured it before I ever broke the ground.  

I've hit a number of objections from within the household, which are somewhat frustrating.  Time to vent!

That's so cluttered!
Not really, as beds take up little vertical space.  Besides, the lawn is clear and that's effing large.  

Why do we need beds to grow veg?
1) Species compete, and without a barrier in the soil the dominant veg will push out the other veg.  
2) Because if I had a cricket bat I could stand outside our front gate and drop a tennis ball right into the Thames!

I don't want it to look like an allotment.
You want to grow veg.  No, let's be clear, you want me to grow veg.  This would be significantly harder to accomplish whilst keeping the garden looking like Wimbledon on both halves.  

Do we need a greenhouse to grow tomatoes and herbs?
Do we need a kitchen to cook food?  No, but it improves our ability to cook food and broadens the range of food we can cook.  

Do we have to grow great frames of beans in rotation?  Can't we just grow leafy things that sit close to the ground?  Why the composter?
The Nitrogen Cycle is an interesting thing and I suggest everybody acquaint themselves with it's basics.  How it applies to the arable gardener is as follows: your tatties and carrots take nitrates out of the soil; beans put nitrates into the soil.  No beans = nowt else!  No - I tell a lie - nowt else unless you're prepared to save all your pee and extract the nitrogen from that.  

Okay, that's that done.  I'll have to argue this some more, methinks.  If I'm gonna get the first earlies in for the coming year then I shall have to resolve these issues and get the beds built by the end of January.  Wish me luck!

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Strawberry Topping

So George and I went to the garden centre.  I returned with a sackful of bark, and he was sitting atop some garden supplies.

Strawberries are hardy plants, but they fare better over Winter if they're bedded in all snug and warm.  Many people - myself included - have presumed that they're called strawberries because you mulch them in straw.  Language Geek reckons that's bunk, and that straw is an evolution of strew, from the way strawberries lie about.  Here's my strawbs so far:

I added bark mulch first, straw mulch second:

And Bill was very curious about all the new barley straw in the garden:

This week I've been revisiting Ashes by pianist CN Lester.  A dark album, but then it is the Autumn now.  I'm also reading Arbroath, to feed my inner misanthrope it's daily dose of human stupidity.  

I'll be weeding the arable side again over the weekend, ready for the first lot of veg at the end of January.  They'll have to be enclosed, that cloche to the frost.  I've not done with the puns yet, because I got a new thingamabob for disposing of weeds and kitchen waste.  It's not the genuine process of peat formation, it's a mere composter...  No more puns - Ed.

330L, £13 new from Townmead Road Depot, bargain!