Wednesday, 3 February 2010

God bless wax-eyes ~ and other non-chemical remedies!

When people talk about pest control the beneficial role of certain birds, animals and insects is seldom mentioned. In my garden they're a big help and I think of them as friends and helpers. 

I'm always especially pleased to see wax-eyes in the garden: they seek out the small green caterpillars who make such a mess of the growing tips of my hebe bushes, and pick the roses free of aphids.  There are plenty of flowers on hedges and shrubs for them to pick over for additional fodder as insects are attracted by the nectar.  In winter I put out fruit for them or lard in a netting bag.  You can see how small the wax-eyes are in comparison to the sparrows.  These two are eating a piece of apple pushed onto a nail on top of a pole. They eat any fruit I put out for them. Placing these offerings at a safe height is important as wax-eyes are not ground feeders and are particularly vulnerable to cats who seem highly attracted to their fluttering movements and high-pitched cheeps. 

Ladybirds too are keen on aphids and yum them up.  At one place I lived we had a tree spoilt by thrip but were fortunate that a sizeable population of ladybirds established themselves there - and the thrip disappeared.  I'm told ladybirds are attracted to marigolds, so I always have plenty in the garden.

Hedgehogs eat slugs and snails.  I know they also eat the eggs of ground-nesting birds, but these are not present in the average suburban garden. And I know that in addition to pests they also eat other insects which are beneficial or which need conserving, and this can be helped by providing a number of different habitats for the insects to live in - not all at ground level; shrubs, trees and stone walls are great places for insects to have their homes. For me there is something fairy-like about the scurrying forms of hedgehogs in the twilight. If you want to feed them offer cat food rather than bread and milk. 

I want to put in a good word for spiders here: I had a deep aversion to these creatures when young, and am grateful to Gerald Durrell's influence in helping me to overcome it, and in its place find respect and interest.  Indeed, my appreciation of the natural world as a whole was greatly helped and enhanced by him for which I am deeply grateful: Gerald, eternal thanks for your tireless work against all odds - we owe you such a lot, may you rest in peace. 

At another place we lived we had quite a few of these spiders: 
This one was particularly large. (The ruler shows 1 and 2 centimetres.) I've used a small image so it doesn't look too scary! Most spiders, in New Zealand anyway, are not aggressive, and this one had inoffensively set up house in the outside corner of this window.  He or she was tolerant of my attention in placing the ruler so close. In my view spiders are great ecologists: they eat flies, which I do find troublesome.  Since I avoid the use of poisons wherever possible I don't use fly spray; instead I chase the flies out with a woolly duster, and as a last resort use a fly swat, but that makes a mess and besides it doesn't make me feel good.  So I have no objection to spiders going about their lawful business of eating them when and where they can.  I'm still not crazy about spiders at close quarters, but recognize they do an important job. Besides, they're mighty clever at web design and construction, which shows intelligence.  I admire intelligence.

Possibly flies are brainy too, but if so I don't know of it. Nonetheless they too have important work to perform in assisting in the digestion of waste matter.  Don't forget either, that they in turn provide food for helpful birds, as do many other less popular insects, who also eat each other!

Bees and butterflies pollinate plants and our livelihood on the planet depends on this service so I always have plenty of flowering plants in the garden for them to feed on - as well as a patch of nettles for my friends the Admiral butterflies.  And hands up those who like honey?  Okay, so look after the bees in your area!

Worms are the great cultivators of the earth, eating their way around underground making the soil more suitable for plant growth.  No worms, no good, so when I dig I do so carefully, putting the worms I find aside into shady spots that I'm not going to disturb further.  

When I removed a row of dying marigolds recently I was aware that each time I took one out insects scurried for cover and worms writhed in the discomfort of sudden exposure.  I realised I was destroying their homes and habitat, and although new plants will grow up in their stead it seemed unnecessarily invasive. 

I can see I'm moving steadily to a preference for permaculture or no-dig gardening. Healthy ecosystems are astonishingly complex and carefully balanced establishments which function best with a minimum of human intervention.

The application of poisons interferes with this chain of co-operative living and introduces risk to all levels of life including ourselves.  I'll talk about the literature another time.  For the meantime I put to you the question that if it's possible to have a relatively healthy and abundant garden without the use of poisons wouldn't you prefer that?  There are loads of non-toxic ways of lending nature a helping hand, which will usually make all the difference we need.  

The creatures who contribute in this way need our help - and respect. Don't poison them. I am sure that the predominance of toxic remedies in gardening and hardware shops reflects the money to made from them rather than their overall efficacy in our lives.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again: choose life!

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Disorderly daisies, tall poppies and thrifty gardening

I don't know what you do with flowers that just keep on growing - you can't very well tell them that they are tall enough now and could they please stop or at least slow down - sometimes they just keep on reaching for the stars!  My Shasta daisies are now as tall as I am and are still growing, the only trouble being that they can no longer stand up, even with the assistance of numbers of lengths of string and about half a dozen bamboo poles!  Next year I'll give them a collection of metal hoops to grow through which might work better. I took this photo a week or so ago when they were still relatively upright:

Observant readers will see my runner beans edging in at the right of the photograph. They too are doing well and we have had some delicious beans with our meals lately. Some distance beyond the daisies I have a fine stand of lilac poppies which are really gorgeous:

Both the daisies and the poppies originated in earlier gardens I've tended, from which I've taken rootlets and seeds. What wealth there is everywhere for the price of a little attention and forethought! No one minds; every garden always produces far more plant growth than it can contain, which often just gets thrown out!  Almost the entire garden here is populated from just such origins, so I am always happy to give away my surplus, or to try to persuade friends and family that they have just the place where something from my garden would thrive.

Sometimes I even go to the trouble of planting my surplus in other people's gardens myself: this summer I put in a new front garden for my landlord next door while he and his wife were away, as it took less energy to do so than to go on looking at what had been languishing there in the previous months. Fortunately Neil and Sue had given me full permission to do what I thought fit and were delighted with the result.  I've also planted a row of koromiko shrubs and native grasses along the far boundary of Harry's flat at the back, also with his and Neil's approval. My latest campaign is to persuade Harry how much more he would enjoy the view from his sitting room if he put in a small garden in front of a painfully plain fence, with the incentive that I always have heaps of plants to spare. So far he has tolerated my suggestions with good humour. Gardening is fun, a great means of social exchange, and a delightful and refreshing view is easily created.

After a  cool damp summer we are now in a hot dry phase, so I'd better go out to water the tomatoes.  No pink cheeks on them yet, but if this weather keeps up they are sure to be ripening soon.
Happy gardening to you all!

Monday, 1 February 2010

Preserves ~ notes both general and particular

Making preserves is almost as simple as stewing fruit and not much more work.  It's a lot less time-consuming than making jam and requires a fraction of the sugar.  Having said that, it is more demanding in terms of timing, and the appearance and texture of preserved fruit is important, a key difference to jam making in which it matters little if at all.  

Many people freeze produce rather than preserving it, but I find preserving simpler: the great advantage is that when you want to use the fruit it's ready immediately, and if the power goes off you have nothing to worry about.
I'll update this article as I do more preserving, so information given here may change from time to time. 

General method:
This should be read in conjunction with the article about pop-top jars.
  • Get your jars washed and have them ready and waiting, preferably more than you expect to need.  I find that a stock pot of fruit usually fills as many jars as I can fit lying down in the sink and then four or five more!  You'll work out your own rule of thumb.
  • You'll need enough water so that your fruit can be moved around gently while cooking without being excessive. The fruit will produce liquid of it's own. It's better to have too much syrup than not enough because each jar needs to be filled to the brim and it you don't have enough you'll have to top up your jars with boiling water.  Excess syrup can be pleasant to drink or added to cereal. 
  • Make sure you've got enough sugar - you probably won't need all that much - see notes below.
  • Prepare your fruit, doing any slicing with care so that fruit is pleasing to look at and easy to eat. 
  • If blanching to loosen the skins, as with peaches and tomatoes, pierce each piece of fruit with the tip of a vegetable knife before placing it in a bowl and pouring boiling water over them.  Leave them there only briefly as fruit will begin to cook and become difficult to handle if left too long.  
  • Once peeled or otherwise prepared you may wish to place fruit directly in water to stop it from browning but be sure to...
  • ...Weigh it first! Write down the amount and the date! 
  • Calculate the amount of sugar needed and have it measured out and ready.  The natural sweetness of fruit varies considerably, so I've recorded the amounts I've used in the notes that follow the method, but tastes vary and it's important to sample it before you fully cook the fruit.  If you need more, that is the time to add it.  Write down all amounts and adjustments! Properly sweetened fruit should leave the palate fresh; too much will leave a cloying after-taste. 
  • Working out ratios for any quantity of fruit: using a five to one ratio as an example, which in this case would represent five parts of fruit to one part of sugar, take the weight of your fruit, divide it by five to get one fifth, and the fifth is the amount of sugar you'll need. If you wanted a five to two ratio, you would multiply the one fifth by two, and so on.
  • Cook your fruit in water until just simmering.
  • Add the sugar and stir gently until it has dissolved.
  • Bottle immediately the fruit is cooked and while it is still boiling.  This is where speed is of the essence as you don't want it to go mushy, with the exception of tomatoes which don't matter. 
  • When filling each jar you may wish to push fruit down with the ladle so that any excessive syrup overflows.  When you come to use your preserves you won't want too much or too little syrup. I'm happy with about a fifth or a quarter of the bottom portion of the jar being syrup only.  You'll work out what suits you. 
  • Make sure you fill jars to the brim, which is why it makes sense to have a heat resistant dish with boiling water poured into the bottom of it just next to your cooking pot to stand each jar in while you're filling it with fruit. 
  • Wash and label your jars as soon as soon as the jar lids have clicked down, and you're done! 
  • Any jars which don't seal properly can be swiftly emptied back into a small pot to re-heat and fruit can be re-bottled as soon as it has returned to boiling point.
Notes from December 2009
The only preparation required is to top and tail the fruit and wash it.  Even well-ripened gooseberries are very sour, so the syrup has much more sugar in it than most other preserved fruit: I use three parts of fruit to one part of sugar, and a minimal amount of water; others may prefer a ratio of two parts of fruit to one part of sugar.  Whatever the case, be sure to get it tasting how you like it before bottling it as sugar added later doesn't produce the same flavour and your valuable fruit won't be as delicious as it should be. This fruit is particularly vulnerable to losing its shape and colour so be vigilant with the cooking process or you'll end up with green or even pink mush!

Red currants:
Notes from December 2009
I have made 'fool', a dessert of fruit purée and whipped cream, from both gooseberries and red currants, as noted in my earlier article.  I liked it so much I preserved some fruit purée so that I could make some in winter as a special treat.  I used three parts of fruit to one part of sugar and again an absolute minimum of water.
I haven't made preserves of currants in any other form, but have enjoyed those made by others.  

Notes from February 2009
Spent $18 at the Farmers Market on an 8.5 kilo box of Ettrick Gold. Purchased on 21st February and bottled on 25th February. I left it sitting in the box too long so some was wasted - once it begins to go off it rots very fast!  In the normal scheme of things wastage from the removal of stones and blemishes is about a sixth of the original weight.
     Once the fruit was fully prepared for cooking there was still about six kilos.  
    When cooking it helps to keep the size of batches small so that fruit doesn't overcook and go mushy while decanting it into jars.  I use my 6 litre stockpot which takes 2.5 kilos of prepared fruit comfortably.  I use two cups of sugar (450 grams) per 2.5 kilos of fruit, and about ten cups of water.  The ratio of fruit to sugar I have found suits my taste works out at about five parts of prepared fruit to one part of sugar which gave it an excellent flavour.  The Edmonds Cookbook suggests much more.
    The amount of water used was just enough so that I could stir the fruit without bruising it as I wanted the pieces to keep their shape.  Do be careful not to overcook the fruit, which makes it mushy. 
    To give you an idea of the yield I got 11 large jars and five medium ones from this lot! 

Notes from February 2009.
This fruit had been sun-ripened to perfection inland at Ettrick Gardens and was meltingly superb in the way one hardly ever finds in shop-bought fruit.  I didn't record the weight, only the number of nectarines which was reduced to 40 after we'd eaten a few; cost $19.45. This orchard sells from its own gate in Ettrick as well as at the Farmers Market in Dunedin on Saturdays.
    Fruit was purchased on the 5th and bottled on the 8th.  The season was a fortnight late that year, with the main harvest expected to be in mid February.
    I blanched the fruit so that the skins would peel off easily - very briefly so as not to soften the fruit more than was necessary; even so the fruit was very slippery and the stones tended to split when cutting. 
    For the 40 nectarines I used 2 cups of sugar. The syrup was just right, retaining the delicate flavour of the fresh fruit and leaving the palate refreshed.
    Yield: seven good-sized jars.

Black Boy Peaches:
These seem to fruit later than ordinary peaches and I don't think I've ever seen them in the shops.  Once ripened they spoil extremely rapidly which could well be the reason, particularly deceptively as they commonly go brown from around the stone; even with careful handling wastage may be anything from a third to half of the initial weight.  However, they are delicious if prepared properly, so if you know anyone with a tree make sure you're nice to them! 
    Last year I had a lovely lot from my mother, which after preparation weighed about four kilos. I used about a cup and a half of sugar (about 330 grams) in the syrup.  From this I got twelve medium jars, of the sort which would have been labelled as holding 400 to 500 grams originally.


Rather to my astonishment I got ten kilos of tomatoes from my rather neglected and late-ripening vines. Much of the fruit finished ripening on our long sitting room window sill after the weather got too wet and cold to leave them on the vines any longer.  I preserved them by blanching them by pouring boiling water over them and then pealing them, cutting out the fibrous bit where the stalk joins, chopping them up and then cooking them in their own juice - no water, no salt, no sugar, no nothing - just pure and unadulterated tomato - it was scrumptious and beats anything you can get in a tin hollow. By that time I was suffering from jam and preserves fatigue or I would have done heaps more of bought ones. 

More of my articles about jam and preserves as well as other food articles can be found listed together via the link below: