Friday, 28 June 2013

Preserving culinary herbs and edible flowers

A sun-drenched corner in the herb garden at Upton House, Warwickshire

If you grow culinary herbs, it is presumably because you love to cook with them. Apart from growing them to eat, they enhance any garden, and look marvellous when grown to perfection, and the scent as you brush past them on a summer's day is sheer delight. They are the simplest of plants to grow (being closer in nature to 'wildlings') and easy to preserve in a number of ways. Yet I wonder how many shop-bought jars languish on larder shelves, purchased because one needed a pinch of this or that in some recipe. They soon lose their savour. 

The paper cones should ideally cover the plant material (but that would
make for a rather dull photograph).
There are a number or ways of preserving herbs – and edible flower petals, which add a touch of colour to many a dish. Amongst the most common are air-drying, dehydrating, freezing and storing in olive oil. The easiest is air-drying, for which all you need are some brown paper bags or brown parcel-packing paper twisted around the stalks - and warm weather devoid of overmuch humidity.

Dehydrated fruit will be the subject of a future post - the jars were
photographed with my dried herbs and flower petals stored in bags:
calendula, elderflower, rose and marjoram (store in a dark place)
Or you can cover ordinary cake-cooling trays with muslin and lay the plant material on that. Ensure you pick plant material that is truly fresh once all moisture has evaporated in the warm sunshine, and lay onto the trays; turning regularly until they material is dry. Alternatively, invest in a food dehydrator which can also be used to preserve fruit and vegetables. When I first used mine, I made the mistake of mixing plant material with sliced fruit – the latter requires longer to dessicate. (Subject of a future post).

Herbs ready for planting - and good for freezing - thyme, sage, rosemary and lavender
(the santolina bottom left is not a culinary herb but one whose dried stems
are used to deter clothes moths)
Freezing small quantities of herbs is useful if you want to be able to add flavour to soups and stews – or make mint sauce out of season. Pack chopped leaves into ice-cube trays, and top-up with bottled water, then freeze. Store the cubes in zipped freezer bags.

Jars and pots awaiting preserved herbs and edible flowers -
with a pot of freshly-made herbal tea in the background
Olive oil is equally easy as a means of providing piquancy for certain dishes – though it is the actual oil that you will be using, which, by the time the herbs have been steeped for some weeks, will impart a specific herbal flavour to your cooking. The simplest method is to insert fresh sprigs of specific herbs into individual bottles of olive oil (buy the smallest size from the supermarket). That way you do not need to worry about sterilizing the bottles. Brush meat with the flavoured oil, or use it when making a salad dressing. You can use the same method to flavour vinegar – particularly good with chives; add a flower stalk, very pretty.

Dried herbs - but don't be tempted to keep them too long
Make a mental note to throw out any unused preserved herbs each year as a fresh crop becomes available. using stale, musty ingredients is worse than not having them at all. As for those that don't really need preserving at all because you can pick them fresh all year round (such as Bay - Lauris nobilis), that's fine; no need to clutter your shelves. BUT gather a few and preserve some nonetheless when they are at their best, because who wants to head down the garden for a few leaves to make a heart-warming stew in the depths of winter when it's snowing hard? or keep an eye on the weather forecast.

Lavender florets are edible - and a boon to wildlife as well
Does your garden lack the herbs you find are frequently required in all the new recipes you dying to try? Start a list, make a point of checking the herb section at garden centres you visit and read the labels if you find an unfamiliar one. Visit the herb section of the Dobies website (plants) and also list the herbs you could grow from seed. And if the thought of all this preserving seems somewhat tiresome, the easiest of the lot in a good summer is lavender. Leave the flower spikes on the stalks until the petals start to fade; cut the heads on a warm day and rub the florets into a dish. Use sparingly and, if you like, mix them with sugar for cake toppings.

Don't forget to  visit the Dobies' website for all your gardening needs and requirements. You may particularly like: vegetable seedsvegetable plants, flower seeds, flower plants, herbs, fruit and equipment. And don't forget their regular mailings and special offers online. Just keep visiting so you don't miss anything special. I'll be back again next month.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Garden Memories

Created at the start of 2013
No doubt, you have been keeping notes of your garden this year - what you have sown, grown, planted and transplanted, be it flowers or vegetables, herbs, shrubs or fruit. Or a mixture of all of them, arranged formally or mixed together decoratively in a potager, or harking back to the increasingly popular cottage garden style. How have you recorded your successes and failures? Just as notes, or on a garden task board (very simple to make; visual and easily adapted to whatever you grow)? For the latter, all you need is an inexpensive pin board, some luggage labels, and pins upon which to hang the tags.

No preparation needed: just
the will to start!
You may care to keep more visual records in a small notebook: ongoing lists, words, verse, and any reminders of what you have done, a written diary, or better still, an illustrated one, a I did here. An ordinary A5 sketch book with paper that would take water-colour paints is what I use – I have a tiny traveling paint-box that goes everywhere with me, and I use a waterproof pen so that the writing doe not smudge.

Pocket-sized, handy and easy to make from scratch (you don't need to illustrate it)
Sometimes I like to make my own pocket jotter that will literally fit into a pocket. I have quite a number now, made from stiff art paper bought in a pad, with pages folded to a size that will comfortably fit into my hand, so I can sketch standing up of need-be. The pages are held together with a pony-tail band, which allows me to turn them back on themselves for an even sturdier surface. I create a memory of a particular day, or a place to which I have been – a National Trust garden, or a Show such as I will be visiting in a week’s time, at Hampton Court. Sometimes, as in the image above, I will plan the page on the spot, drawing the little picture-frames and then infill after reference to a photo I have taken.

Plenty of space for words and sketches, or photographs
When at home, and before I had the courage to make tiny cartoon sketches, I would use an A4 notebook and decorate the page edges to ‘frame them’ with paper napkins. Choice of book can again be an ordinary stiff-surfaced sketch book, or as here, one with coffee-coloured paper – often less daunting than to have a stark white page staring at you. Select a napkin relevant to your theme (this was Autumn) – they must be the 3-ply type. Cut around the selected leaves or flowers, and separate the plies; attach the image layer by positioning it on the page and ‘stroking’ it into place with acrylic wax. Leave to dry. If that seems too complicated, you could of course use pictures cut from magazines, brochures or seed catalogues.

Auditioning napkins for a herbal
I collect paper napkins as often as I do plants and amalgamate different images to make page displays to accompany text. These – for a herbal – are being positioned into a hand-made notebook, the pages have been ‘prepped’ with thin white gesso, acrylic paint and sprayed ink, and then stamped with text using a rubber-stamp plate, very feint to simulate an old diary. The napkin pieces were then ‘auditioned’ until I had them to my liking. Depending on the piece of work, I will fuse napkin pieces to the background using heat-set bonding – always remembering to protect above and below the surfaces with baking parchment to avoid wrecking either the work or the iron.

More adventurous techniques, but really simple
My ‘Salad Days’ piece is languishing at present but began out of an experimental piece to celebrate the creation of our courtyard potager. The pages are created from brown paper bags to which I applied strips of masking tape on some pages, and whole sections of napkins to others, planned in such a way that the colours complemented each other. The taped pages were coloured by applying scribbles of water-soluble wax crayons onto one page, spritzing with water and then folding together, creating a ‘blot’ print. Text is written, and all the varieties I was trialing have been typed onto fabric labels ready for stitching into place – but I have mislaid them!

More complicated; nothing difficult -
just plenty of time needed
Map Trails are fun to create and can be as simple or detailed as you wish. Tear a strip right across the folds of an old map and lightly cover with diluted white poster paint and, when dry, spray sparingly with walnut ink. You don’t want to obliterate all the map; the idea is to ‘antique’ it. To continue the antique theme, I used a brown artist’s sketching pen for my text, leaving space for photos printed on very thin ‘layout’ paper (45gsm) which were then stitched onto muslin and fused to the map. This particular map trail has been with me to so many places: from my Spring garden, to Pembrokeshire, France, Dorset, Northern Ireland and the River Teme on the Shropshire/Welsh border. 

Create your own memory books – my advice is to just begin. You can follow some of my techniques on my Journal blog, where you will currently also find details of my Caravan Open Studio event – starts Sat 29th June; all the items illustrated above will be on display.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Inspiration is all around you ..

Inspiration is everywhere 
- please read on .....
All too often you slave away in the garden or allotment and feel that the ongoing chores are endless – digging, weeding, sowing, thinning, protecting from predators, and of course – continual maintenance. Often it pays to sit back, look hard at what you are doing, and then take time out to re-charge the batteries. It works, as I have found this last week after being advised on doctor’s orders to ‘take it easy’ – impossible for me – I’m not that sort of person. But for once I did as I was told and instead of worrying at all there is to do outside, I walked right around our acre and delighted in so much of what I saw.

Squash destined to be ties into the supports - taken a couple of weeks
ago; they have grown since then
Courgettes and squash are romping away in the potato tubs into which they are planted – taking advantage of gaps between the long-established herbs, which will soon be flowering. Runner beans at last looking as if they were glad to be alive! Allium bulgaricum, which I had forgotten I had planted, flowering in the wild flower patch under the plum trees. The new hens flourishing and laying lovely deep brown eggs earlier than anticipated – perfect for a herb omelette on a hot day. Shrub roses already scenting the enclosed potager – they thrive here in the north Cotswolds where hybrid teas will not. My newly acquired lemon tree is sitting pretty in a pot by the back door, whilst the Dobies peach on the workshop wall is putting forth lush new growth. We have Spring wallflowers in flower, in June! The tiny plug plants transplanted last Autumn have suddenly shot up and, joy of joys, will be left to become shrubby perennials which I far prefer to rooting them out each year.

Allotment in centre of image, taken from two miles away across the valley
I thought back to the very different scenario of a Welsh allotment and community orchard on the side of a steep hill that I visit every time we stay with friends near Knighton in Powys. What a location – I photographed it from a sheep track near Offa’s Dyke on the other side of the valley. Only the day before, I had noted that the allotment was set out in such a way as to allow a central mown lawn where gardeners could gather for a chat over coffee (out of a thermos); a village camaraderie that is so often missing in this day and age. Being a wide-spread farming community, there is never any shortage of equipment to erect the sturdiest of fencing, and copious quantities of manure.

Suitable breeds of sheep will graze
an orchard, or rough ground.
Last weekend, I was working at the Malvern Royal Three Counties Show, from which I would normally have ‘blogged’. WiFi in the lee of the Malvern Hills is not at its best (we were not in the usual press room), but during the three days there it was a great pleasure to see that gardening and plants are creeping into this Show which is essentially connected with farming. There was time to chat to exhibitors – and to enjoy the rare breeds of farm animals that were there in great numbers. Interesting because I learned of breeds that will forage in weedy ground, and keep the grass short under orchard trees. Now, if I were years younger, maybe a few sheep would not come amiss.

Orchids grown and displayed by
schoolchildren - remarkable
There were other aspects of the Show that inspired me – and particularly to see so much encouragement given to children, and a huge variety of activities in which they could participate. A highlight for me was the School who micro-propagated orchids with great success; their award-winning display was spectacular. Other inspiration came from the occasional show garden, stalls selling baskets and other containers that could be used as planters – it wasn’t a case of seeing them used in this way, but of realising the possibilities without any prompting. My only purchase was a beautiful chamois skin with which I intend to experiment; making stitched and painted book covers – at least that is the plan.

Journaling in my caravan - at home - but exactly the same when
I'm away 
visiting gardens, countryside or Shows
Visits to shows and gardens, the countryside through which we drive, and even more, my own mini-plots, provide a continual source of themes for my creative work. I am never short of ideas and recycle old books, dried plants, paper napkins, hessian sacking, and whatever falls to hand, in an ever-increasing range of journal-keeping and book-making techniques. Parked in our yard is my caravan – which becomes part-studio when we are away, and over the next three weekends, it will be open to visitors. Though small, it will be crammed with paper and fabric journals incorporating words, stitch and sketching; and I will be demonstrating some of the ways in which my garden acts as a creative trigger. Details here (the map on the Open Studio website is incorrect, so please leave me a comment if you have a query about visiting.)

Friday, 14 June 2013

News from the Elephant Farm

Hello there from wild wind swept Devon,

I love this time of year, all the hard work is rewarded with the bountiful crops that are coming through. The peas will be ready to pick next week.

We have already had some golden burpee beet roots which take a little longer to grow but are well worth the wait.

The broad beans are amazing, taste delicious and are cropping like wild fire.

The wild strawberries have so much fruit on I have put a net over to stop the pigeons being too tempted!

Carrots too, Yellowstone and rainbow baby carrots have already gone over to the restaurant. Simon brings the chefs up to see where the food is grown . Fingers crossed that this good weather continues for us but looks like rain forecasted for the next few days.  :-( 

Debs the guru gardener !