Bryony's Blog

I suppose that's nature...

(27/05/11)

Yesterday afternoon I was reading in the garden room which looks onto the tree where the bird box and camera are situated. Then there was a sudden flurry of black and white and, to my horror, an adult magpie had flown up to the entrance of the nesting box, grabbing one of the chicks in its beak. I rushed outside shouting and screaming making it drop the chick and, although it was terrified, the poor little thing was just about alive. I gathered it up quickly and pushed it back through the hole of the nesting box. Back inside, I tuned in to the birdcam to follow its progress and although it moved around the nest, mostly because of its siblings activity, sadly it was dead this morning. The remaining six (out of a possible ten - maybe the magpie had been successful previously) chicks seem just about ready to fledge. This photo shows a cheeky face inspecting the big outside world - I don't expect they will remain much longer in the comparative safety of their bird box.

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As I walk around the garden inspecting yet more docks and other noxious weeds I have as yet to eradicate, I am accompanied by the constant cheep-cheep-cheep of baby birds, either from inside the other nesting boxes, or else by the liberated chicks sitting on the washing line, lining up in the apple and plum trees, or on the terrace on top of the stone pig all waiting to be fed by their parents. I have never known so many great and blue tits to have hatched in our garden - there must be literally hundreds.

Update on the tits

(27/05/11)

Since this morning I have been catching the odd five minutes to see the progress of our little blue tit family. There were definitely six of them this morning and now there are only five. At least two look as though they also are ready to fledge because when they have been fed and the parents have left they flex and whir their wings and jump onto the inside of the bird box near the entrance. When the parents come with food, instead of feeding them and flying off immediately, instead they jump onto the entrance, peer down at the babies, make as if to fly off, repeat the peering etc. as if they are encouraging the chicks to follow. I think it will be a matter of hours rather than days before the nest is completely empty.

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The wild flower meadow is a billowing sea of frothy white daisies with the odd sparkle of blue and red from the cornflowers and poppies. It is absolutely beautiful and the flowers are alive with the bees who have this amazing running buffet right on their doorstep.

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The small amount of rain can only do some good, refreshing the leaves and hopefully making the packets of left over flower seeds germinate (although some were probably out of date) which I mixed with some compost and scattered.
Even if only a handful develop it will be more than if I hadn't done anything with them.

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AND THIS COULD HAVE ENDED UP ON THE COMPOST HEAP!

(21/05/11)

BROAD BEAN SHOOT SOUP

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If you are growing broad beans now is about the time when the dreaded blackfly strikes. They start to appear when the plants are in full flower and one organic way to cure some of the problem is to nip out the fan-shaped, ruffled growing tips before they take hold. If, on your travels up the row, you fall upon a cluster of the pests squash them with your fingers. Ladybirds love them so, if there remain any hidden, hopefully the girls will despatch them.

Don't throw them away! I had read that these broad bean shoots are nice to eat, either in a risotto or a soup. As the sun was shining and I wanted to be outside, I couldn't be bothered with the former and decided on the latter. I picked enough to fill a colander.

The other ingredients I used were as follows:

1 medium onion, chopped finely
1 stick of celery, “ “
1 little gem lettuce, roughly chopped
1 large clove of garlic, chopped
1 pt chicken stock (I used a Knorr stock pot plus boiling water)
½ - 1 oz butter
a few fresh mint leaves – about a tablespoon's worth when chopped
salt and pepper
milk

Begin by melting the butter and then sweating the celery and onion for about five minutes, stirring to prevent them burning. Tip in the drained broad bean shoots, lettuce and garlic and stir until everything has wilted. Next add the stock, stir again, and bring to the boil. Allow to simmer until the vegetables are cooked – about fifteen to twenty minutes. Never overcook vegetables for soup or they will lose their fresh flavours.

Remove from the heat and whizz with a hand blender in the pan. Add a good splosh of milk – about ½ pint – and whizz again. Taste and season accordingly, remembering that commercial chicken stock is already salted.

This made a really nice and refreshing soup, bright green and full of goodness. It was out of the garden and into our tummies in under forty minutes – beat that Monsieur Raymond Blanc!

SPRINGTIME IN THE ENGINE ROOM OF THE GARDEN

(20/05/11)

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In spite of the extraordinary lack of rain the vegetable plot, aka the allotment, is going great guns and for the first time in years we are picking almost slug free radishes, which must mean something as slugs hate dry soil. Way back in February I sowed some mixed lettuce seeds in modules, then I went down with flu and then into hospital which meant I was virtually house bound for weeks and gardening was off limits. However, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, instead of trying to prick out the individual lettuce seedlings and transplant them (as I have always done in the past) I asked Mike the Gardener simply to put each 'plug' of seedlings in the ground a few inches apart. This would mean that I could use the leaves as cut-and-come-again. This has worked absolutely brilliantly and we have been having huge bowls of salad on a daily basis. In spite of constant picking, I can't keep up with the rate of growth and have recently been eeking out several small entire lettuce plants, which has meant that the remaining ones have space to grow and develop further.

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Before I knew just how effective and easy this way of growing salad is, I did buy some cos and little gem lettuce seedlings at the garden centre and as you can see, they are coming on a treat. In the greenhouse I found a bag of shallots I had forgotten to put in the ground and so stuffed them in a row between the lettuces, which will be picked and eaten soon leaving plenty of space for the shallots to spread.

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Although we have a pigeon proof fruit cage, the cabbage white butterflies cause mayhem on any sort of cabbage or kale grown there. I managed to find this wonderful contraption in an Agriframe catalogue. It stands over six feet high, which means you don't have to bend double to pick or water and is covered with a suitably fine black net which (I hope) will prevent the butterflies from entering. So far so brilliant, and we have some fine cabbages on the go and yesterday I planted out my dwarf kale, tuscan kale and half a dozen brussel sprout seedlings between the cabbages.

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I have at last planted out our runner beans which have been struggling to escape from the cold frame. Ma always said never put out tender things until after 20th May...Fingers crossed we are safe from Jack Frost.

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The roses are beginning to come out in abundance and this is my all time favourite, Penelope. Ma gave it to us as a tiny cutting from her garden when we first moved here in 1985 and with careful pruning, it is a joy every summer.

BAKED ASPARAGUS AND GOAT'S CHEESE CUSTARD

(14/05/11)

Last week I picked up one of Waitrose's recipe cards for an asparagus and goat's cheese quiche/flan.

I forgot all about it until I discovered it with some other bits and pieces and, since there was a lovely lot of asparagus ready to be picked in the garden, I decided to have a go. However, since I am still being careful with the calories I let my head rule my heart and with my sensible hat on, rather than follow the recipe I gave it my own personal slant. This was also because the only ingredient I had at home for the Waitrose recipe was the asparagus! You will note that I don't use any pastry, so it's more of a baked cheesy, vegetable custard.

You will need for my version:

A nice bunch of asparagus as fresh as you can find
300ml pot of half crθme fraiche (I actually used a little less than this as the pot had already been started – about 250ml)
2 small, round goat's cheeses
3 medium to large eggs
1 bunch of spring onions
salt and pepper

Begin by washing the asparagus and trim off the tough ends. Cut into 2” pieces and cook in a little boiling water for three minutes. Drain, cover in cold water, drain again and scatter on the bottom of a shallow, buttered/oiled gratin dish. Using your hands, roughly break up the goat's cheese into lumps about the size of a walnut and place randomly on top of the asparagus.

Trim the spring onions and cut into fine slices. Beat the eggs in a bowl and whisk in the crθme fraiche till smooth and then the spring onions. Season with salt and pepper and pour over the asparagus and cheese.

Bake in a moderately hot oven on the middle shelf for about 30 minutes until it has risen and is golden brown and firm to touch.

Best eaten lukewarm or at room temperature with a plain green salad. If there is any left over, carefully lift it into a fresh, clean dish, cover with foil and have the next day, making sure it's piping hot. Don't reheat it in the dish it was originally cooked in because the crusty remains where the other half of the flan was will burn and be a devil to clean!

BLUE TITS 'R' US

(12/05/11)

We are a grandmother! Actually, no, but the great news is that the intense activity from the blue tits in the bird box with the built-in web cam has produced a clutch of eggs (we counted ten). This week they hatched!

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The box is on a tree near the sun room and we can watch the birds' to-ings and fro-ings from only a few feet away and then, once they have entered the box, we can watch what they are up to on the television. It is fascinating to see how caring and attentive they are as parents. For the last few weeks when I brush Charlie I have been putting his soft fur in a feeder meant for fat balls and within minutes it has all gone. Now we know where, as the nest is full of it!

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I love this time of the year and with the wonderful wall to wall sunshine almost daily since March, the elderflowers are already emerging from their tight clusters of buds. Don't miss out on this delicious, free harvest and get cracking with making as much elderflower cordial as you can.

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The recipe I use is in my book A Compost Kind of Girl but it is quite expensive to do as it needs 6 lemons and a mass of sugar. However, the following is my mother's more economical one but none the worse for that and which appears in Angel in an Apron.

You will need:

2 pints of water (I have started using my filter jug again and this will vastly improve the flavour)
1.3kg (3lbs) granulated sugar
20 elderflower heads – don't use if they smell of tom cat – they must smell of muscat grapes!
85g (3 oz) citric acid – this can be purchased from the chemist and acts as a preservative
1 lemon, sliced – I always used unwaxed, organic lemons for this

Pretty bottles – I keep the posh French lemonade bottles as they have a metal/rubber clip fastener.
Make sure they are ultra clean and sterilise them by rinsing them with boiling water.

METHOD

1. Bring the water to the boil in a large pan and add the sugar and lemon. Remove from the heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved.
2. Bring the syrup back to the boil and add the elderflowers and citric acid. Bring back to the boil once more, remove from the heat, and allow to stand to cool. Once it is quite cold, strain through a sieve lined with some muslin and pour into your bottles.

Store either in the fridge (if you have room) or in a cool, dark place and it should keep for about three months after which it might become cloudy.

Serve diluted to taste with plain or fizzy water, lots of ice and a sprig of mint – add a slug of gin or vodka for a change!

This cordial can be used in cooking and is great with gooseberries which ripen soon after the elderflowers.


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The wildflower meadow, in spite of the lack of rain, is developing nicely. In a week it should be a mass of white daisies and mixed cornflowers – I can't wait! Updated pictures will follow as and when.

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The vegetable plot is also going from strength to strength and we have daily pickings of asparagus, chard, lettuce and fresh herbs. The broad beans are in full flower and I am on the verge of risking life and limb by planting out my runner bean plants, praying at the same time that there will be no further frosts!

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