Small dishes to beat the blues

October 20, 2014 § 11 Comments

Although it is unusually mild, the light is starting to fade and I’m aware of the long fingers of winter tugging at my mood. Over the decades I’ve found ways to manage the seasonal blues. Spending time in the fresh air during daylight hours definitely helps, whether it’s a stroll in the park or pottering in the garden. Wrapping myself in gorgeous woollens also lifts the mood as does surrounding myself with golden and russet hues, whether in the form of fabric or flowers. In short, come autumn I look to pique my senses to keep the blues at bay, and no where more so than in the kitchen.

As it’s still warm, I am not yet longing for hearty stews, ragù or fish soups, like Mr M’s superb venison goulash, a rich pheasant ragù or a steaming cullen skink. Instead I look to foods charged with herbs or spices to soothe my melancholic disposition and, in particular, to tapas/meze style food inspired by the Mediterranean, Maghreb and Levant.

A mix of meze

An array of small flavoursome dishes not only tantalises my sense of smell and my taste buds, it also looks good on the table. What is more, in my experience, the more tasty a dish is, the more satisfied I feel with smaller portions. How many of us feel replete after tapas or meze starters in a restaurant?

At the weekend Mr M and I enjoyed a particularly satisfying meze meal. Pretty much everything on the table was homemade and some of the ingredients had been homegrown too for good measure.

The dishes included aioli, using The Zero Waste Chef’s recipe and homegrown garlic, served with crudités, including our carrots; hummus, once again complete with my garlic and smoked paprika (but minus tahini for allergy reasons); chestnut mushrooms sautéed in oil and, yes, garlic; the last of the fresh garden beans cooked in tomatoes and our oregano; and some flatbread that I rustled up.

Aioli and hummus

Garlic and vegetable dips and crudités

And in true contrary style, the meal was all the more enjoyable as virtually all dishes were served in bowls made by yours truly… Talk about taking homemade to its natural and gloriously satisfying extreme!

Flatbread, an ancient staple 

Flatbread is ridiculously easy too make. This humble ancient staple is barely given a second thought but is worth having in your armoury as it is a quick and efficient way of making at least some of your own bread.

For two people simply, take 4 oz of plain or bread flour, stir in half a teaspoon of salt, a small glug of olive oil (officially half a tablespoon but I tend to work by eye and feel) and about half a small glass of warm water (approximately 75 ml). Knead the ingredients together by hand to form a smooth dough. It’s worth doing this manually as the mix is easy to manipulate and it allows you to gauge when the dough starts to feel elastic. This consistency is a sign that the gluten in the flour is working, which makes the flatbread puff up a little despite the lack of yeast.

Set aside the dough in a bowl for 30 minutes to an hour. Recipe books tell you to wrap it in cling film but as I consider film one of the most pointless plastics known to man, I just cover the bowl with a tea towel. After all, it’s a method that has worked fine for centuries!

Just before you’re ready to serve dinner heat a frying pan or griddle. Turn the heat up high but don’t add any fat. Break the dough into walnut sized balls and roll them out very thinly. (Use plenty of flour on the counter top/pastry board to stop the breads sticking!) Pop a flatbread in the pan and cook it for about two or three minutes on the first side. Don’t flip it over till it starts to puff up. Then give it a couple more minutes on the other side. Pop the bread in a bowl or basket and cover it with a tea towel or serviette to keep it warm while you cook the others.

Flatbread

Flatbread – the perfect accompaniment to many meze

Maximum benefit from minimum input

Although making flatbread is really easy, it’s worth making more than you need – I typically make double the amount – as it will keep for a day or two. I generally reinvigorate the flatbreads in a dry frying pan before serving them but you could just pop them in the toaster for a few seconds. Cut them into triangles or strips and serve them as an alternative to nachos or pita bread with aioli, tapenade, guacamole or bean paté, particularly as it is almost impossible to make these in small portions.

Alternatively, you can heat the flatbreads in the pan for a few minutes to soften them and pile them up with a beans, chilli or leftover chicken, some soured cream* and a healthy helping of salad and serve them as a light supper.

Food is a great way of beating the winter blues, and by taking inspiration from the lands around the Mediterranean, dishes needn’t be large, complicated, meat-heavy or expensive to have a real impact!

***

 * If like me you’re not a big fan of dairy products and struggle to finish a whole tub of cream, don’t bother buying soured cream. Instead go for double cream. Use half of it for desserts (e.g. stewed fruit, crumbles, scones…) and squeeze some lemon juice into the rest to achieve a taste similar to soured cream. It saves money and avoids waste!

Embracing imperfections

October 16, 2014 § 6 Comments

This week I stumbled across an article that extolled the virtues of wobbly pots. The author was promoting a range of bowls and plates from an ‘executive’-style interiors shop that cited the wobbly imperfections as their USP. I had to chuckle. When I first left home, I kitted out my kitchen with cast-offs from home and wobbly bowls, only in those days we called them rejects. Isn’t it remarkable how a little marketing speak elevates a reject to an object of desire!

Now I’m not suggesting for one moment that wobbliness or imperfections are anything to be ashamed of, or avoided even. In fact, as a maker and aspiring craftsman I celebrate wobbles and flaws and no more so than with my own bowls.

Markers of progress

In the spring I finally indulged a longstanding interest and signed up for pottery classes. From the word go I was hooked. The first lessons were frustrating yet addictive as I learnt to handle and then control the clay. For weeks my pots and bowls were minute as I shed three quarters of the grey lump I had started with and wonky where my centering had gone awry. Despite such imperfections, many were still perfectly serviceable and now hold salt, pins, paperclips…

Hand-thrown bowls

Tiny & oddly shaped but perfectly usable

As the lessons progressed, I grasped how to manage the clay and centrifugal forces with my hands, breath and core, and my pots have started to improve. They are gradually growing a larger, thinner, more shapely and decidedly less wonky. I’m still a long way off throwing a ‘perfect‘ pot but when I examine the bowls and vases to decide which ones to fire and keep, I get to know their wobbles. The flaws teach me what to focus on next: where I need to apply more pressure; where less; where I can be more decisive with the rib; or more confident when turning…

And with such scrutiny comes a certain attachment, not just for the lesson the imperfections teach me but because the flaws are fewer than the weeks before. They signpost not only where I’m going but how far my skill and technique have come.

Hand-thrown bowl

Not flawless but a well-thrown bowl

Accepting the alchemy

Pottery, like any craft, involves honing technique, developing muscle memory and an eye and building an instinct through experience. However, it also teaches us that for all our skill and know-how, other elements might have the last word. Even when I produce a well-thrown and elegantly turned bowl and dip it in tried and tested glazes, once the pot goes back into the kiln, I have no control over the chemistry.

Two pots dipped in my current favourite colour combination of reactive grey and Greenwich green can come out looking completely different. Sometimes variations are down to me, due to the thickness of my pots or the layers of glaze, but the imperfect colour match can also be due to where the pot was positioned in the kiln or what other pots it was fired with. I’ve had to learn to accept that the chemical composition of glazes on an adjacent pot can influence mine and vice versa. At times it’s frustrating but often it feels like alchemy, producing an unexpected but wondrously beautiful result.

And anyway, are colour mutations due to a chemical reaction imperfections or are they an integral part of the craft?

Hand-thrown bowls

Glazing: part chemistry, part alchemy

Artefacts of joy

Mastering a craft, whether it’s potting, carving, spinning, ironmongery…, is a process of learning and practice, frustration and breakthroughs. Of developing technique, getting a feel for the material and its quirks, of endless practice, of coaxing an object out of the medium whilst recognising that not all elements can be controlled. However, for many practicing a craft is also a source of joy, relaxation, satisfaction, pride… so even an imperfect handmade object can be an artefact of the maker’s joy. They certainly are for this maker!

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Woolly delights and temptation

October 12, 2014 § 4 Comments

A week ago the temperature dropped. The mercury didn’t gently slip down a few degrees, allowing my limbs to acclimatise to autumn; instead it tumbled off a sharp cliff. As it’s only early October, I refuse to put the central heating on. Instead I’ve resorted to my tried-and-tested cold busting method: jumpers, cardigans and socks.

Wool is my first (and second) line of defence against the cold and I suspect I’m not alone. In recent years, around about this time, the Campaign for Wool organises national Wool Week to highlight the numerous possibility of this traditional fibre. Events and exhibitions are organised in London and Edinburgh, but also as far afield as the Shetland Islands. There are workshops to pick up new skills and, of course, plenty of opportunity to buy wool, one of which presented itself to me.

Out of the blue I won a ticket to attend the Knitting and Stitching Show at Alexandra Palace. I was in two minds about going. On the one hand, I dislike shopping and department stores so the thought of a venue with hundreds of stands and thousands of dawdling shoppers didn’t set my heart racing. On the other hand, I like to support small independent British wool producers and as many of these only sell via the Internet, knitting fairs are the only way to meet them and get a feel for their yarns. Also, I’ve always wanted to visit ‘Ally Pally’, the Victorian entertainment palace in North London and younger sister to the destroyed Crystal Palace south of the river.

Alexandra Palace

Alexandra Palace, the iconic Victorian pleasure palace

So on Thursday I trained it to North London and marched up the hill to the People’s Palace. Despite the grey day the views to the City, Docklands and beyond to Shooters Hill in South London were superb.

I entered via the Palm Court and was ushered on towards the Great Hall. It was a vast space filled with stalls numbered in a way that was logical and baffling at the same time. Fortunately I had come prepared. Out came my list, well three short ones. The first listed names of half a dozen producers and their stall numbers; the second was a list of yarns I wanted to look at and note down colour codes for; and the third was a shortlist of yarns that I might treat myself to.

My first port of call was Eden Cottage Yarns’ colourful stand. This Yorkshire-based producer stocks wonderfully soft British yarns, including some she dyes herself at home. These hand-dyed fibres range from subtle oyster, pearl and celadon… shades through to stunning jewel-like garnets, amethysts and emeralds. I jotted down some colour codes for future reference and bought a couple of skeins of a warm grey 4-ply, spun from Bluefaced Leicester and silk, and a sock pattern.

Eden Cottage Yarns

Eden Cottage Yarns’ hand-dyed skeins

I then strolled around the Toft Alpaca stall to check out the crocheted animals. I have wanted to make one for my niece for some time but was still toying between the pig, cat and donkey. Whilst trying to find my bearings, I happened upon the Purl Alpaca stand and admired the sample cardigans, tops and coats, fully realising that these garments are aspirational rather than practical.

Baa Ram Ewe was one of the main reasons for visiting the show and it didn’t disappoint. I had read a lot of good things about Titus 4-ply, the flagship yarn of this small Yorkshire company. Spun from Wensleydale, Bluefaced Leicester and Alpaca the yarn is not only incredibly soft and warm, it also has a wonderful lustre and drape thanks to the long curly fibres of the Wensleydale sheep. These characteristics were demonstrated beautifully by the sample knits that graced the stand. I settled on a single skein in a delicate blue-green colour for a pair winter socks, but shall definitely use this yarn when I knit myself a dark long-line cardigan to replace my dressy black one, which is on its last legs.

Titus 4-ply

Baa Ram Ewe showing off its lovely Titus 4-ply

I swung by a couple more stands to note down colour codes and browse pattern books but by this stage, I’d had enough of the heat, bright lights, crowded space and excess choice, so I left. I suspect I didn’t enter into the true spirit of the show. Sticking to a list probably meant I missed out on some delightful discoveries but I’m totally fine with that.

Apart from being a relaxing pastime, knitting is a key tool in my quest for a lower-impact wardrobe. It allows me to re-stock based on my needs rather than to be dictated to by the fashion industry; it offers me a degree of control over the supply chain and labour conditions associated with my garments; and as hand-knitting takes time, it’s a great antidote to fast fashion. By limiting my choice to a handful of independent producers who believe in local products as well as a local supply chain and who take a real delight in designing timeless garments suited to the characteristics of local yarns, I can knit with joy and purpose rather than be sucked into yet another industry that aims to relegate us to mindless consumers.

Stitching & Knitting show haul

My modest haul: woolly gorgeousness destined to become toasty socks

Four years

October 3, 2014 § 10 Comments

Tomorrow is the fourth anniversary of The Double Life of Mrs M. It has been four years since I tentatively committed my thoughts and experiences to cyberspace and another six months before I started to tell friends about this space.

Journey to date

Much has changed in my life in the last four years and some changes have definitely been helped along by my scribblings here. If it had not been for my blogging, I may never have acknowledged just how much I enjoy in the miscellany of daily life; re-valued longstanding interests; or realised that random long-held aspirations were still bubbling away below the surface. In short, I may never have admitted that my double life, or rather a life of many faces, was the essence of me and that I wanted that version of me more than an all-consuming career.

Early readers of my blog will have followed my journey from me entertaining the idea of taking a few more risks to me embarking on a short sabbatical and ultimately leaving the law.

As life spins on around me, I have inevitably alluded to major events that become the markers of life, like births, weddings and death (whether of a father, mother or pet) and, of course, to Mr M – my best friend and rock.

Looking back over the past four years the constants on this blog are food (from the garden fork to the plate), the joy of making, resourcefulness, curiosity and learning, and most of all words. Although I’m developing my photography skills, my love of writing is very much and will always be at the heart of Mrs M’s blog.

Collage DLMM

Where next?

As blogging has allowed me to find my voice (as well as meet some super people), I have no plans to stop but I have, for some time, been wondering where to take this blog next? My thoughts have turned to moving my blogging home but I’m torn.

As the real Mrs M is no longer living in the twilight, I wonder if I have outgrown my blog’s title? To change it to something more appropriate, I’d have to move my blog and if I do that, it makes sense to self-host my site. This would give me more flexibility and control, e.g. it would allow me to block unsolicited adverts so my readers can enjoy a digital ad-free oasis.

So why my hesitation? As a Luddite I don’t get particularly excited about jumping through digital hoops. I’m sure I’d learn a lot and feel empowered by it but I can already hear myself swearing at software and see myself losing a raft of new passwords. And to be honest, I’ve become quite attached to this cyber home. It may not be the most designed blog in the world and a little clunky in spaces but every feature, widget and what-not is the result of my dogged determination.

And then there are my philosophical qualms about rebranding. Much of our disposable culture is based on slight tweaks to products and services that make existing ones obsolete. Such changes are rarely driven by a real need but are designed to create extra economic activity. Even though I may have valid reasons for changing this blog, I’m just not sure that I want to partake in the rebranding culture. The best arrangement would be to change the name and move to self-hosting but to keep the existing design. Unfortunately, this design is now redundant for self-hosted blogs (proving my point about unnecessary obsolescence).

Your thoughts

As blogging is more two-way than traditional print, I’d welcome your thoughts.

  • Would you follow my journey at a different address or if the space looked different?
  • Are there any topics you particularly like reading about?
  • Would you like to see any of my posts form the basis of more extensive stand-alone volumes? (I refuse to use the term e-books!)

Finally, I should love to know which post you have particularly enjoyed and why? Has one of my posts inspired you to try something new; to look at something differently; to appreciate somebody or something in a new light; or just provided a moment of delightful reprieve in an otherwise busy life…?

Please do share your thoughts below in the comments box.

Tea: revelation and revolution

September 30, 2014 § 6 Comments

Most of Brits don’t think twice about tea. It’s such a staple in our individual and collective make-up. Although coffee has come on leaps and bounds in this country, tea is still very much a fixture of life. Like the first cup of tea in the morning; the restrained luxury of tea and scones; or the general view that a cuppa is pretty much a cure-all.

Despite spending nearly thirty of my forty years abroad, my attitude to tea has always been incredibly British. In fact, tea is my only real addiction, or rather was until recently.

I had been sleeping badly for a while. Taking forever to fall asleep was nothing new but my dreams were more complex than normal and I was waking up more exhausted than when I’d gone to bed. One evening I was discussing the matter with my sister and she asked me whether I had a cut-off time for my last cup of tea of the day. My response was a dead-pan “Just before bed”. For all my adult life, possibly even longer, I had drank a cup of tea just before turning in for warmth and comfort, but articulating it so bluntly threw a switch in the brain. Not a “I’ll stop doing this immediately” switch, rather a nagging curiosity: could I break the habit of a lifetime; did I even want to?

A few days later I was reading other bloggers’ experiences of Plastic Free July, including Westy Writes‘ and Treading my Own Path‘s posts about tea, or rather teabags. To their and my amazement most teabags contain plastic, actually a thin plastic filament. For years I have been merrily adding my endless pile of teabags to the recycling bin and wondering why they took forever to decompose and now I know. They are not actually compostable!

Plastic in teabags

They look plastic free but are they really?*

Of course, the easiest solution is to not use tea bags in the first place. I have always drunk some loose leaf tea but, as I was drinking eight to ten mugs a day – yes, I know, it’s astonishing I slept at all! – washing up the teapot and strainer became a bit of a bore. On the whole, convenience won as far as my tea consumption was concerned.

However, the seed sown by the conversation with my sister collided with my annoyance at discovering that a resource (oil) was being unnecessarily wasted on the humble teabag, making an otherwise compostable item non-biodegradable. The statement by a particular tea company only added to my indignation. TeaDirect’s presumption that “most people don’t notice [the polypropylene] and probably don’t care” riled me so much that from one day to the next I slashed my tea intake.

The first three days were grim. The headaches were worse than those I experienced when I stopped drinking coffee, probably as I never consciously went on an espresso detox and, of course, as I had tea as a crutch. Then there was the fidgetiness and perversely my sleep was even more erratic than before. After three days however, much to my astonishment, my body was telling me in no uncertain terms that it did not want more than two or three mugs of tea a day. Now, if I have any more, I get the shakes!

Having slashed my tea intake to normal proportions, I now make tea in a pot and enjoy drinking it out from a cup, rather than a large mug. I think the psychology and process of pouring myself a second cuppa has made cutting back easier. As I have a supply of teabags and hate waste, I am of course using them up but by emptying the leaves into the pot so I can at least compost the tea. However, once the bags are gone, I shall be a strictly loose leaf girl.

Tea ceremony

My little tea ceremony

My recent tea revolution came completely out of the blue. It was not some long-held aspiration or a detox I had considered in detail. It just happened because I hit upon the right motivation at the right time. A spark turbo-charged my will power to break a habit, admittedly a very old one, and replace it with quite a jolly new one. And for me, that spark was anger that a tea company dared to presume that I did not care!

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If you too are indignant about unnecessary plastic in teabags, do write to your favourite tea company and tell them so. Lindsay of Treading My Own Path has collated some contact details here.

* Twining’s teabags are merely used as an example. Any teabag that is heat-sealed, rather than stapled or stitched, is likely to contain plastic.

Savoury heaven

September 26, 2014 § 8 Comments

I have a weakness for savoury nibbles. You can keep sweet desserts, indulgent cakes and fancy chocolates…; salty, spicy or tangy snacks are my downfall. There’s generally a jar of olives or cornichons in the fridge to deal with savoury cravings but I’m always on the look out for easy recipes.

One of the quickest solutions is to whizz up a tin of white or cannellini beans with several cloves of garlic, a few sundried tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil and use it as a dip for crudités. The dense paste keeps for several days if stored in the fridge and doubles up as a sandwich spread. Mr M’s tzatziki – with a generous helping of garlic and plenty of lemon juice – also ticks the box.

For extra crunch, I might make herb grissini as part of my weekly bread bake. Reinvigorated homemade flatbread is another easy option. Flatbreads go stale pretty quickly but I always make more than I need as I can revive them for nibbles. Just slice them into strips or triangles, brush them with olive oil, pop them in a very hot dry frying pan, add sea salt and/or a pinch of paprika, and heat through on both sides.

Rustic breadsticks

Rustic breadsticks

Recently I added two new recipes to my armoury that are easy, tasty and will definitely become firm favourites.

Encouraged by Anne Marie – aka the enthusiastic ZeroWasteChef – I tried my hand at aioli last week. I’ve always loved the taste of it but was put off by concerns about it being difficult to make or not being able to finish it before it went off. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I used Anne Marie’s recipe but halved the amount of olive oil when I did the cup to ml conversion. This was partly due to instinct – Mr M uses Mediterranean quantities of olive oil; I treat it a lot more sparingly – and partly due to stirring and storing practicalities.

As I don’t have a food processor, I made aioli by hand. I used a pestle and mortar to crush the salt and garlic and added the egg yokes and lemon juice. Using a balloon whisk I whipped the mixture vigorously whilst slowly adding the oil. This may sound like hard work but it didn’t take too long and worked fine, even with a shoulder injury. What’s more, working by hand allows you to feel the change in consistency, which is oddly satisfying. The whole process took less than ten minutes, including the washing up. In fact, the hardest thing was not devouring the luscious yellow mix before Mr M got home!

I served the aioli as part of a meze style meal of homemade falafel, crudités, salads and savoury biscuits, presenting it in a small jar so I could pop any remaining dip in the fridge. As it contains raw egg yolks I would not recommend storing it for more than a day or two but as it is so glorious, I doubt it would hang around that long anyway. The next day Mr M and I polished it off with some sautéed potatoes!

Aioli and tomato & thyme shortbread

Two heavenly savoury snacks

These tomato & thyme shortbreads (flagged by the lovely Jackie of Life During Wartime Challenge) make the most moorish savoury biscuits. Once again, I played around with the proportions. I only made half a batch but added more flour to reduce the overall fat content (to about 5-6 oz flour to 2 oz butter). I knew the result would be a little drier but made up for this by increasing the amount of tomato paste. I also used more thyme than recommended as I had picked too much.

The finished biscuits were a revelation! Piquant with a lovely lingering tangy flavour and not nearly as greasy as cheese savouries. Best of all, they keep for almost a week in an airtight container and the flavour gets better as they mature. I was so impressed with this recipe, I think I shall try some variations, using garlic paste instead of tomato and any number of herbs or seeds.

Making my own savoury snacks obviously involves more effort than popping to the shop for a bag of crisps or salsa, but not that much more. And because the resulting flavours are so interesting, a cheeky snack becomes a proper sit-down meal to be savoured with company and maybe a drop of wine.

A year in the garden: abundance, learning and little victories

September 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

There’s a chill in the air, dusk is falling earlier by the day and autumn has definitely arrived in the garden. As I’ve harvested many of our crops, pots and beds are looking emptier than usual. There’s still work to be done (reinvigorating the soil, sowing a final few winter crops and laying the groundwork for next year) but it’s a good time to reflect on what a joy my little urban garden has been this year, celebrate the successes, learn from the less productive spaces and admire nature’s amazing processes.

Bs & Cs

I have had particular success with edible Bs and Cs this year.

Basil – This Mediterranean herb is temperamental! It doesn’t like it too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry. For years I have tried to grow it without much success. My seedlings tended to stay spindly and then rot. This year, however, the combination of happy seed, satisfactory soil, a gently warm location, pinching out and regular harvesting came together. As a result we’ve had a bumper crop of basil and a lot of luscious pesto!

Beetroots – These roots aren’t everybody’s cup of tea but Mr M and I love them – especially in borscht or with salmon or sill and soured cream. Fortunately, they also seem to love our conditions. We’ve been enjoying earthy red roots since late spring; had a minor glut in August allowing me to preserve some for the hungry gap; and still have plenty to see us through till early winter.

Beans – This was the year I cracked the art of growing beans. I suspect the super performance of runner and French beans (both climbing and dwarf ones) was down to a combination of position, soil turbocharged with our compost and the weather. At the height of summer we were picking beans every other day.

Grow your own beans

Relief and delight when the first beanlets appear

And before long you have a regular supply of beans

And before long we had a regular supply

Carrots – Last year I successfully grew a few carrots in deep pots so this season I quadrupled production by diligently sowing Chantenay and Amsterdam Forcing in succession. I still use pots, typically eight to twelve inches in diameter and a good foot deep, as it is easier to ensure the right soil conditions. Also, by placing the pots on shelves around the garden, I can use marginal spaces as well as reduce the risk of carrot fly.

Cucumbers – With space limited I decided to grow only one plant so I ruthlessly selected the healthiest looking seedling and nurtured it. Growing fruiting plants in this climate requires patience and a little hope that the sun will come out but both were definitely rewarded. We had a steady crop of knobbly cucumbers, more gherkin than the watery specimens found in shops. Combined with our garlic and mint, a tub of Greek yoghurt and a squeeze of lemon each cucumber made the most moreish tzatziki!

Chard and brassica – Just as in previous years, rainbow chard, spring cabbage and kales of most description continued to thrive in our productive backyard.

Some disappointments and continuous learning

Not all crops did so well, of course, but even the disappointments offered useful lessons.

Potatoes – This year’s crop was very tasty but not plentiful. The largest yields came from the second earlies that I had grown in the Vital Earth’s punchy peat-free compost. The other tubs contained a much inferior but more readily available peat-free mix that I had bought out of time constraints. And I paid the price for it! When it comes to gardening, the soil really is the key ingredient so I’ll have to be more organised next year. I also learnt of another way to maximise potato yields in small spaces. Apparently it’s possible to grow a second batch of first earlies in late summer to ensure a modest crop of potatoes at Christmas, something I shall definitely try next year.

Tomatoes – I was very relieved not to have a reoccurrence of blight but I’ve realised that I should stick to bush tomatoes. With limited space and a north easterly aspect, I just don’t get enough sun to ripen up my cordons of Ailsa Craig and Black Russian. Better to select various bush or tumbling varieties that produce an abundance of cherry tomatoes in quick succession!

Grow your own vegetables

Abundance everywhere but the tomatoes refuse to ripen

And the less obvious yields

Compost – As I said, good soil truly is an essential ingredient for a productive garden. Well rotted compost is the key! We’ll always have to import some but I have squeezed in two compost bins to make as much as I can in our tiny space. This year, much to my delight I harvested rich, crumbly compost from the Dalek shaped one. Throughout the months of feeding the vat, turning the contents and waiting, you have to trust that the mix will do its thing, and then one day you open the bin to find dark brown, fresh smelling soil. When harvesting this precious material, it’s hard not to feel a connection with ancient civilisations. After all, without compost there would have been no agriculture and without agriculture no civilisations!

Leafmould – I was incredibly excited last week: I harvested my first batch of leafmould ever. This medium is the ultimate no-hassle garden crop. All you need is leaves, space and patience. I can muster the last but in a patio garden the first two are more problematic. I managed to find a corner in the darkest part of the patio for a homemade wire bin. The sycamore in the neighbour’s garden provides some leaves each year but most came from me sweeping up leaves in little parks nearby (i.e. by me importing waste). The result is a crumbly dry medium that I can combine with our compost and a little perlite to make peat-free potting mix.

Home-made leafmould

Imported waste & patience turned into a useful growing medium

Wildlife – Wildlife, like good soil, is essential for a bountiful garden. When we moved in five years ago, our garden was as barren as the surrounding ones but over the years my efforts have brought creepers, crawlers and flutterers to our backyard. The hoverflies, ladybirds and bees are particularly delightful. This year, we’ve not only admired boisterous bumblebees and contented solitary bees but we also spotted mason bees in abundance. And the variety of birds has also taken off. My heart lept when I saw sparrows in the garden. I know, these little birds may not look remarkable but as they are in decline in urban Britain, discovering them is a joy. And when I discovered song thrushes rioting over the legions of snails I felt I was winning… not a major victory in the global scheme but a victory nonetheless!

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