In our Bed and Breakfast we like to serve as much home-produced food as we can. The key to self-sufficiency is to save and preserve the glut of the harvest in order to serve it up in the lean times.
I like to use the best of traditional techniques alongside modern technology. The freezer is key to saving plentiful fruit and vegetables, while keeping back and drying seeds maintains diversity and while selecting for characteristics which help the plants to survive in the conditions here in Wales. In the potager at Tyrannell a new enterprise is under-way.
I have been a gardener for a long time. I love the feeling of working with the soil and the weather to produce something that the family can eat. I enjoy sowing, planting out, growing on and harvesting but it is only in the last year that I have attempted to save seed. Partly this is meanness: when I was twenty I would sow the contents of a seed packet along a furrow with resulting overcrowding and the need to thin. I would find this heart breaking now – the waste, the work and the cost of seeds is all too much. I sow one seed at a time whenever I can.
There is another factor at play, though, and that is natural (or unnatural) selection. Growers have been selecting seeds for thousands of years and it is only in the last two centuries that we have come to rely almost completely on seed merchants. While I love to browse a catalogue as much as the next gardener, I find it disappointing that the commercial considerations of uniformity and predictability – most notably in the production of F1 hybrid strains – work against my best interests which are a long cropping season and a degree of variability.
For some time now I have been using my own best garlic for the next year’s planting. This takes quite some discipline – I would really rather eat the best – but it has resulted in a strain that does well where we are in Mid-Wales and I have not purchased any for years.
Last year I allowed some lamb’s lettuce to go to seed then shook the heads over a bed and a seed box. We still have overwintered salad now, with no sign of it running out, and I suspect that some late seeds dropped beyond autumn will germinate come spring.
A lovely Victorian salad plant, Red Batavia, has made itself at home in the potager and sent up tall spikes of flower in August. I watched as the seeds dried to a papery brown and then, as the first ones fell, I collected all the rest into a paper bag and now have thousands in readiness for endless rows this year.
My daughter Alice gets great amusement from emptying seeds from our pumpkins as I prepare them for cooking. She would normally eat them. This time I kept and dried some of the types that did well and that we enjoyed most.
Finally I had the idea that, if I brought the spent plants of Runner Beans into the new Greenhouse and hung them from the roof trusses, the over-grown pods that had been hiding in the dense green foliage might dry. They did and I have fifty beans in store. I feel like Jack – and I didn’t even have to exchange my cow.
Still feeling a little unsure of myself, I ran a germination test behind the Aga in a plastic cup filled with damp paper and sealed in a bag. To my considerable pleasure I had complete success with all the varieties.
I am now going to try to save a range of seeds. Most vegetable plants are annual, though not all, so I’ll start with the ones that run up to flower at the end of the summer. In future I might try the biennials, such as parsnip and onion, where the tuber or bulb is stored over winter and replanted to produce the flowers.
Pickles from the freezer
Meanwhile the harsh weather continues. On Saturday, after I had checked the Greenhouse and secured all loose covers before the forecast storm, the clouds raced in from the south west and chased me indoors. Not to worry; I have a freezer full of garden produce ready to be turned into preserves.
I have developed two sweet pickles which suit our taste. They sell well in the farmers’ markets near Beulah and around Powys and, best of all, use fruit and vegetables that grow well at Tyrannell.
Sweet Brown Pickle, a finely chopped traditional style, is mostly onion, given a fruity lift with apple and a mild, juicy heat from my own preserved ginger marrow. It goes especially well with cold meat.
Orchard Pickle is, as the name suggests, heavy on the apples. I first had it on warm, buttered cheese scones and that is still our favourite; it works well with meat and in sandwiches too. At our summer garden party it was the best seller.
Both these preserves are made with organic sugars and vinegars along with freshly ground spices. I have come to the conclusion that beautiful food is simply the best and freshest ingredients, carefully cooked. When the produce is straight from the garden so that its provenance is known and trusted the food is unique as well. If one day I make my pickles from onions grown from my own saved seed I shall be a proud woman indeed!