Category Archives: The Garden

Local meat producers and Waterloo Cottage Farm

British Saddleback

Before the Shire Book of the Month, currently Pigs, changes, I want to tell you about a local meat producer called Waterloo Cottage Farm and the important role that small producers have in selling good meat from happy animals.

Meat is expensive and so it should be.  To produce good meat takes time, through slow fattening on the right kind of food, fresh air and exercise for the animals, slaughter in the least stressful way possible followed by a decent period of hanging before it finally arrives in your kitchen.

With this in mind, I visited local producer Waterloo Cottage Farm in Great Oxenden, Northamptonshire and was given a tour of the farm by owner, Kirsty Clarke.  We met in the light, cool shop, where a mouth-watering array of meat and produce was displayed.  After a brief chat about what I wanted to see, I was taken out through the back door to the business end of the enterprise.

Glorious Pig

I was confronted by lots of open pens, with several different types of pigs enjoying the sunshine.  I was wearing a long skirt and strappy sandals, so I tucked my skirt into my knickers and prepared to meet the pigs and what a gorgeous crew they were.  I have a big soft spot for pigs at the best of times, but being able to climb into the pens and actually scratch them and talk to them was a treat indeed.

Happy Pig

Saddleback Piglets

And Kirsty did indeed talk to her pigs and her care and enthusiasm for the creatures came across loud and clear.  The farm has a herd of British Saddlebacks which are allowed to mature fully in the fields and woods which surround Waterloo Farm, as well as Petrans and Ginger Durocs.  I became extremely soppy when she introduced me to the piglets who were running and rolling with their mother in the straw.

The Clarkes also have lamb and hogget, chickens, ducks and geese and they select beef and veal from local farms who also use traditional breeds.  All the animals have something in common.  They are all reared using traditional, sustainable farming methods which work with nature, not against it.  The animals are free to lead full, natural lives on healthy soil and fed on natural, local feed and the pigs are slow grown until they are 9-10 months which is a significantly longer life than an intensively bred animal. The barley comes from the farmer next door and the slaughterhouse is only nine miles away, the animals being accompanied there in a quiet and unstressed way which is better for the animal and better for the resulting meat.

Looking at the meat in the shop is a very different experience to browsing the chiller aisles in the supermarket.  The meat is darker in colour and more wholesome-looking than perhaps we’re used to and the bacon and sausages sit in great piles, pleading with you to take them home.  The bacon and hams are cured on the premises and their master butcher produces fresh piles of traditional and artisan varieties of sausages every day.

I bought some bacon and something I haven’t eaten for over thirty years – veal.  I have deliberately avoided veal because of the unspeakable practice of veal crating, but with the sure knowledge that the animal that provided this had been happy, healthy and natural, I took a chop home and had it for my supper.

My veal in the shop

I can honestly say that I’ve never tasted meat like it; it was tender, sweet and juicy and so flavourful I could have wept.  I also had some of their dry cured bacon for my breakfast the following morning and, apart from the taste, the most obvious difference was visual.  No white scum stickily coating the bottom of your frying pan here, and two rashers and a couple of fried eggs was distinctly more filling that the abominable mid-range stuff you buy at the supermarket.

Local producers do an incredible job of farming.  Not only do they help to preserve the rare breeds but they also help to preserve the very land on which they’re reared because of the sustainable ways in which they farm.  The meat hasn’t travelled huge distances and is therefore beneficial to the environment in a wider sense.  They are also firm protagonists of old skills such as proper butchery and artisan methods of preparation and, because of the renewed interest in this kind of food, many farms  are taking on apprentices.  Waterloo Cottage Farm also runs meat craft courses to encourage you to get the best out of their meat.

We must support these local producers in their endeavours by shopping with them whenever we can.  I have said it before and I will keep saying it until you do as you’re told; eat less, eat better.  Learn how to use to meat to get the best out of it and, I am convinced that properly reared, slow grown meat actually fills you up more so you don’t need as much of it.  Eat less, eat better.  It’s better for all of us.

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Filed under Animals, Ethics, Food, Livestock, Nutrition & Sensible Eating, Regional, Slider

Some tips on growing vegetables in pots and a gardening retrospective

This evening I was waxing lyrical to a couple of friends about the ease and virtue of growing vegetables in pots.  I love home grown vegetables but sometimes there are simply not enough hours in the day to be digging and composting, improving the soil followed by yet more digging and raking. Sometimes there is more to life than a fine tilth.

The easy and effective solution to this is to grow vegetables in pots.  One can grow practically anything in a pot and the great benefit of this type of gardening is that each pot can contain a completely different soil type to get the best out of your veg.

Carrots like poor, sandy soil, so a big pot of earth mixed with sharp sand will produce a fine crop.
Cauliflowers like rich, firm, deep soil whilst
onions and garlic will grow in practically anything as long as the soil is well-drained.
A dustbin full of soil can produce half a dozen corn on the cobs.
Beans and peas (legumes) prefer a rich, light, slightly limey soil and don’t like the cold.
If you like new potatoes with your Christmas lunch, pop a few seed potatoes in now

Even better, crop rotation is easy, as all you have to do is change pots.  I always keep a notebook in which I write details of what I’ve planted in each pot and this allows for a bit of experimentation.  It is important not to grow the same plants in the same soil as the soil will become depleted and prone to disease.

There is also much scope for companion planting as you don’t have to use up valuable veg growing space with flowers.
Simply pop a pot of marigolds next to your carrots to repel aphids and carrot root fly –
onions also repel carrot fly,
oregano fends off Cabbage White butterflies,
sage is a deterrent against flea beetles, slugs and cabbage moth
and a shotgun soon sorts out the squirrels. I jest of course – a catapault is far less ostentatious.

Give it a go and pop in a few onion sets and spuds and see how you get on.  Seed packets and small plants (sets) nearly always have clear instructions on how close plants should be and it may be that you just plant one cabbage to a pot, or a couple of seed potatoes.

Have a look at the sites below to see how I fared.

https://wartimehousewife.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/garden-update

https://wartimehousewife.wordpress.com/2010/10/04/garden-update-2

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Filed under Food, Plants, The Garden

Shire Book of the Month – British Pigs by Val Porter

A clearly smiling Large White

What is it about pigs that singles them out from other farm animals?  Chickens make good noises and lay eggs, sheep are stupid but feel nice, cows are a graphic designer’s wet dream and give us milk and pursuant dairy products, but pigs are different.  Pigs smile at you, they wriggle when you scratch them and, particularly the smaller ones with long noses, are hairy, intelligent looking and you get the feeling that they truly belong in the English landscape.

The Shire Book of British Pigs by Val Porter is a glorious celebration of this animal’s transition from wild boar to domesticated pig. It starts by explaining the basics of pig keeping and the history of farming and gives detailed information about the various breeds and how they come to look as they do.  Most British breeds have, at some point, been cross-bred with Chinese stock which has resulted in the squashed snouts.

Old English pig from 1842

The pictures in this book are so glorious they’ll make you weep; whether they are photographs of existing pigs or paintings and etchings of animals commissioned by proud owners and stockmen from the past.

Like many domestic farm animals, the drive for intensive, high speed farming homogenised pig breeds and had them shut away from public view. In the decades after the war animals were raised in large-scale, purpose built buildings where the only interest was how much bacon, pork and sausages could be made as quickly as possible.

Thanks to the renewed interest in rare breeds, slow food and local farming, there has been a concomitant awareness of animal welfare and pigs are appearing in our fields once again.  The rare breed is making a comeback and it is quite usual to see Tamworths, Gloucester Old Spots, British Saddlebacks and Oxford Sandy and Blacks rootling around happily in the fresh air.

This book also covers the New Pigs on the block.  Pig breeds continue to evolve and the farmers are interested in make the breeds hardier again so that they can manage an outdoor life.  A pig with a fleecy coat is a sight to behold and I wonder how many people were aware of the, now extinct, Lincolnshire Curly Coat?

Pennywell Mini pig - so gorgeous you could just eat them ... except not these because they're pets, tiny enough to fit in Paris Hilton's handbag.

Porter’s clear and appealing writing style draws you in to the life of these delightful animals.  She has written more than forty books about livestock, farming and self-sufficiency and her enthusiasm shines through. If you like pigs, read this book.  If you like eating pigs this book can only enhance your gastronomic experience.

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Filed under Animals, Livestock, Poetry, Literature, Music and Art, Reviews, Shire Books

Thought for the Day: Water

Many of us in the UK have finally had a bit of rain which is finally soaking into the ground.  Anyone who has a garden will be grateful for this, although, of course, what we want is warm sunshine during the day and good old downpour at night. It is heartbreaking to see flowers and plants wilting during a hosepipe ban.

Just be aware though, that putting a garden water sprinkler on for two hours is the same as a family’s water consumption for a day.  If you love your garden, get some water butts or any old water container which can collect rain water or drain water and use that.  Washing up water that has had washing up liquid in is useful for pouring on paths and patios as it helps to keep down the weeds.

Another interesting fact that I learned recently is that the geology of an area can seriously affect water supplies.  We always raise our eyebrows in wonderment that somewhere like Manchester, where it seems to rain for 28 hours a day, could possibly suffer from drought. Well here’s the science bit.

The South East has a high proportion of chalk rocks which hold water in natural aquifers, while the North West has little natural underground storage, being predominantly sandstone, mudstone and shale,  so they experience regular cycles of drought and flood.

I like stuff like that.

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Filed under Science and Technology, The Garden

Let’s hear it for … The Beetles

In which the Wartime Housewife discusses the importance of leaving a bit of your garden messy to attract beetles.

The other night I heard a great crashing on my kitchen window.  I ran though, assuming that, at the very least, that it was an eagle  who had missed the last bus.  What I saw was an incredible furry creature with bright orange fans on the end of its antennae, brown wing cases and a sort of black and white diamond pattern on its furry sides.  It was flinging itself with gay abandon against my window but was unable to get any purchase on the thin spars.  I ran for my camera.

Cockchafer or Maybug at my kitchen window

Look at those amazing antennae and the astonishing condition of my window frames

I consulted the insect book and discovered that it was a Maybug or Cockchafer beetle (No sniggering at the back, Jennings).  Melolontha Melolontha is often seen in British gardens in May and June.  They are super flyers and on summer evenings they often fly around houses, and inadvertently crash into windows or wander into your living room.

They are quite big – around 3cm/1.3” long – which can be a little nerve-wracking if you’re not expecting them, but they are completely harmless.  Although my mother didn’t think this when one got tangled up in her formal hairdo in the 1960s.  I think, in England, we’re just not used to seeing big insects but they should be a cause of joy and interest and must be encouraged.

A cockchafer - my picture's much more exciting

The cockchafer is found all over Britain and its habitat is woodlands, fields, hedgerows and gardens.  There are more of them in the south but their numbers are declining.  They eat deciduous leaves and flowers but they rarely cause much significant damage in Britain.

Another beetle which I used to see a lot as a child is the Stag Beetle, Lucanus cervus, but I have only seen one beetle since 1973.  The stag beetle is a protected species and it is the largest beetle in Britain at between 2.3-7.5cm / 1-3”.  The larvae love rotting wood and vegetation and they lay their eggs underground by logs and tree stumps – the larvae can spend as long as seven years chomping away on the rotting wood, although the adults don’t seem to need to feed.

A stag beetle - sadly I don't have a photo of one of these

Of the UK’s 4000 species of beetle, 250 haven’t been seen since  the early 1970s and could be threatened with extinction.  Beetles are terribly important in nature.  They recycle dead and rotting wood, some pollinate flowers whilst others are the refuse collectors of the wild, clearing up dung and sometimes even small dead animals.  Their habitats are precarious and even small changes can be catastrophic, not only for them, but for the animals that predate them.

‘All of the terrestrial ecosystems would collapse if you removed the beetle,’ said Max Barclay, beetle expert at the Natural History Museum. ‘Beetles are fundamental to most of the land environments on earth’.

We are all terribly keen to attract birds and mammals into our gardens, but insects are just as exciting and it can be tremendous fun finding and identifying them.  I used to read nature books as a child and would get terribly huffy when they claimed that such and such was common all over England.  Not in Staines it wasn’t.  I remember the excitement of seeing a Devil’s Coach Horse beetle for the first time in 1998 in Oundle and thinking ‘At last!’

All sorts of beetles can be attracted to your garden by the simple expedient of leaving a bit of it to go its own way; leave a patch wild.  Try to leave an area which has a pile of leaves, some fallen branches and a rotting log, a pile of stones and some dead stems which will provide a fabulous feeding and over-wintering site for beetles and other insects such as bush crickets, malachite beetles, mint leaf beetles, common red soldier beetles, shield bugs and our friends, the stag beetles.

A small wild area can create a haven for insects

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Filed under Slider, The Garden, Wildlife

New Season Gardening Tips

Heavenly blossom in the churchyard of St Nicks

A Blackthorn Winter:  You may have noticed an awful lot of blackthorn in blossom.  This heavy blossom usually follows a hard winter and country lore says that you shouldn’t put new plants or vegetables in until the Blackthorn blossom is dying off as there are still likely to be frosts.

Hanging Baskets:  Now is the time to sort out your hanging baskets.

Tip 1.  Line hanging baskets with old tea bags – they hold water and release nutrients for the plants.

Tip 2.  Old jumpers make super liners for baskets and look jolly as well.

Tip 3.  You  can avoid covering yourself in water when you water your baskets by putting a handful of ice cubes on top of the soil every so often.

Evergreens:  Clip and prune evergreens and flowering shrubs and give them a good mulching,

Mulching:  Mulching can be done with all sorts of things.  Try to get as many of the deep rooted perennial weeds out as you can for the best results.  The mulch must be thick enough to deprive the weeds of air and light.  You could try:

Carpet squares or lengths with holes cut in for the plants

Newspaper laid in thick layers then covered with straw can later be dug into the soil if necessary.  Alternatively you can cover the newspaper in bark or gravel

Old lino or vinyl floor covering is superb

Grass cutting laid 6” thick are an effective mulch round the bottom of currents or raspberries to keep down annual weeds

Seeds:

After sowing seeds, put a stick into the ground at the end of the row then place the seed packet or a label into a jam jar and put it upside down onto the stick

Individual seeds can be planted in tea bags and kept moist.  When they sprout they can be transferred directly into the soil without upsetting the roots

Seedlings can be protected from pests with plastic bottles, using the end with the cap on so you can allow air in

Soot:  Lily of the Valley enjoys being fed with water that has been mixed with a couple of tablespoons of soot.  Leeks will grow stronger if you add two or three handfuls of soot to the soil when you plant them

Wildlife:  If you are planting for the new season or moving your garden around, try to have an area with a bit of hedge where insects and small animals can shelter.  Also reserve a small area which can go a bit wild, including some logs to encourage beetles and suchlike

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Filed under Outdoor Activities, Plants, Slider, The Garden

Snowdrops

What a vision of hope on this beautiful, crisp, sunny afternoon.

Snowdrops at Skeffington

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Filed under Life in general, Outdoor Activities, Plants