Blessings # 12 – L is for Larder

I deliberately try to grow more food in this garden than I need so I have some to give away. That is prticularly true for low work, high value stuff like soft fruit. I mean what woman can eat all the apricots 2 trees produce or the grapes from 5 vines? The grapes are a bit OTT I have to admit. I have tried making wine and it comes into the ‘drinkable if desperate or too drunk to care’ category so I have given up. Partly I grow the vines to give some shade in the greenhouses, partly because they look so lovely – the fruit is a bonus. But it is easy to give away and the birds enjoy the rest. Bushes like blackcurrants are so easy to reproduce from cuttings – again I give away loads and find spaces for any that are left which add to the bounty. I also go foraging along the lanes in autumn for blackberries and sloes.

As well as eating as much of the fruit and veg as I want and giving away some of the surplus I bottle fruit, fill the freezer, make jams, chutneys, pickles and buy citrus fruit to make marmalade. Those stocks help me through the winter and there are very few people who aren’t grateful for a gift of homemade preserves.

I also belong to a group who buy direct from Suma Wholesale. Suma is a workers co-operative which supplies wholefoods and organic groceries, mostly to shops, through a website. When John and Jean, the organisers of the group tell us that they are planning a delivery we each go online and order what we need. At the checkout we put our name as the reference. The whole lot, together with copies of the orders, is then delivered to John and Jean who spend a couple of hours sorting it into different piles in their home office ready for us to collect. I have discovered (sometimes the hard way) that not everything is worth buying in bulk – some walnuts went rancid before I could use them all up. But flour, dried fruit, tins of tomatoes and things like that last indefinitely.

A few weeks before we were all told to stay home I had to go to Carmarthen. I usually shop in Cardigan where there are more of the small independent shops I prefer but to get my hair cut or to have my NHS hearing aids serviced I have to go to Carmarthen. The supermarkets there are bigger than in Cardigan and realising that Easter would come up before I went there again I decided to stock up my freezer ready for family visiting. I expected my son to collect his son from Swansea University and he usually makes a weekend of it. Lately he has been giving Sean’s housemate, Irfan, a lift home too so that is 3 extra people to feed. I also wondered if my daughter might take the chance to come whilst her daughter was on holiday with her friend’s family.

In the event of course my son made a flying visit just before lockdown began and none of them has been able to visit since. Nor have I been going out to workdays and events so I have been baking less.

I have been so grateful for my ‘pantry’ now! I was able to help my neighbour out with some things she had run short of and she gave me eggs which she gets from a friend of hers. Since it is a dairy farm they can also give me milk when I need some.

After not going out other than to walk the dogs for 2 weeks I went to C&M on Saturday for some fresh veg and this week I will have to go to the Farmers Co-op for some dog food and cat food. Both places have instituted systems where you tell them what you need and they put your order outside for you to pick up. There is no contact between staff and customers and customers are expected to be sensible about staying well apart in the car park. But I think it will be several weeks before I need to brave a supermarket again!

In praise of hedges

I spent Sunday at a field just outside Fishguard on the North West coast of Pembrokeshire. One of the members of the Permaculture group has just bought it with the intention of creating a small nature reserve with a wild flower meadow, lots of trees and shrubs, a couple of ponds and somewhere to sit and enjoy it all. He has had the ponds dug and is waiting to see what sets up home there. Some trees have been planted but one of our tasks was to plant more and in particular to put in a double row of saplings along the track leading to the field to grow into a hedge.

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Janey, Ian and I planted the hedge

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Brian and Denise stripped patches of turf off the area where the wildflower meadow will be and strewed meadow hay full of seeds on the bare ground

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our base camp!

Around here most of the farmers have their hedges cut back almost to the ground every autumn using a flail on a tractor. The flail, for those of you who have never encounteed one, is a cutting head like an old fashioned push along lawn mower – a collection of sharp blades spiralling round a central axle

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The result is a hedge which is neither use nor ornament!

No use to keep stock in, no use for birds to nest in or small animals to hide in and producing no fruit or berries. I look at the ugly, mangled stems and feel so sorry for the plants.

Many years ago, before tractors and such like machinery became ubiquitous, farm workers spent days and days in the winter keeping the hedges in good order. It was cold, hard, skilled work and I can quite understand why they would much prefer to sit in a warm cab letting red diesel power through the job! I suspect that it will also be cheaper to do it that way.

Since I have the time and have learnt the skill I lay my hedges the old-fashioned way. My trusty billhook does most of the work. I use it to sharpen posts which I knock in with a lump hammer. The stems are then partly severed, bent down then woven round the posts. I have a bowsaw (or a pruning saw to get into small gaps) to take out any stems too big to weave in or which are surplus to requirements (some of the multi stem hazels are just too dense). Those cut stems are set aside. The thicker bottoms make posts and the brash can be woven in where the gaps between trees are too big or the trees too weedy as ‘dead hedge’ to fill the space and provide cover for the new saplings I put in to thicken the hedge up.

I don’t have livestock but the resulting boundaries are very effective at keeping my elderly lurcher, Orchid, from wandering off in pursuit of interesting smells. As the trees put out new branches and the whole tangle gets thicker, wider, denser, they will provide a safe place for small creatures and food for them too.

This winter Rob has cleared old dead willows (the remains of some planting my husband did many years ago) from a section of the top boundary, coppiced the living trees and laid the hedges north and East of the orchard. I have almost finished the one on the southern edge of the orchard, cleared the brambles under the apple trees and trained the old loganberry.

There are saplings ready to plant out between the hedge and the top fence. I have chosen species which will provide fruit or nuts for the wildlife – apples (from pips), hazel, holly and hawthorn which I have weeded out of veg beds and rowan which I have bought. Hopefully in a few years time there will be a narrow strip of productive woodland that joins the much bigger wood that I rent beyond my Western boundary and the smaller one to the East.

Even though quite a lot of the material cut out has been used to dead hedge, there are still piles of wood to go for firewood. Many a small farm produced all its fuel from the hedges.

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An entirely natural and sustainable boundary, a resource for wildlife and a source of fuel – what’s not to like?!

I am looking forward to going back to Howard’s field in a few years time and helping to lay that new hedge as part of his wider plan for a small patch of biodiversity in a green desert of farmland.