How to start growing vegetables: Start small

A lot of people think they don’t have anywhere to to grow. The truth is you don’t need a big garden to grow your vegetables. If you are quite new to growing or if you only have a small space available I’d recommend starting small. One or two raised beds is a great start, as you can experiment with what will grow well in your area and microclimate, and also it is a much less daunting prospect than starting a vegetable plot. And remember anything you grow however small will make a huge difference to you and the way you think of and appreciate food. All of a sudden you will think twice before you buy and throw away those bags of salad. Because growing your food takes a lot of effort. But the the rewards are far greater. So get growing this year.

Traditionally, vegetables are grown in long rows on flat soil with space between the rows for access. A raised bed is a concentrated growing area, higher than the surrounding ground, and its sides are usually constructed of wood. Or you can even set up a vegetable border that is every bit as attractive as a flower border.

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There are many advantages to growing your crops in raised beds:

– if your soil is poor or indeed if you lack top soil, which can be the case in some areas, you can fill your bed with good quality soil or garden compost appropriate for your crops.

position – the ideal vegetable growing area is south-facing and sunny without too much shade. With a raised bed you can find the best position in your garden.

drainage – this can be a real problem in our area so you can add some gravel to the bottom of your raised be to ensure it is free draining.

depth – you can decide how deep you want your raised beds to be which is particularly useful when growing root vegetables.

yield – in a small area you can grow small numbers of different crops and generally the yield his higher than from a traditional plot.

maintenance and weeding – due to easier accessibility weeding and looking after your bed should be really straightforward. Remember little and often is the trick.

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Building and maintaining a raised bed

You can buy a ready-to-assemble DIY raised beds but generally they are quite expensive and it is not difficult to make your own. We usually use 6″ x 2″ pressure treated timber and the ideal width of your bed is no more than 1.2m for easy access. The length is entirely up to you.

There are also many alternatives to raised beds like fish boxes, any kind of larger shallow containers or tubs. Growbags are a cheap and effective way of growing tomatoes or strawberries but they will soon run out of nutrients so a good quality fertiliser is a necessity. I only use organic fertiliser or quite often I’d make my own from seaweed, comfrey or nettles. Or you can try growing potatoes in special potato sacks.

One disadvantage of raised beds or containers is that they dry out more quickly than open-ground beds you will have to keep watering them regularly. Mulching helps to prevent evaporation and it is also a good way of suppressing weeds.

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The raised beds above are in our garden. Sadly the photos below are not but they are a great inspiration. They show a vegetable garden at The Royal Highland Show in 2013.

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So will you give it a go?  Let me know how you get on or if you have any tips. Happy growing!

#grow15in15 challenge

January must be one of the most exciting times in a gardener’s year. You wave the old year goodbye and welcome the new one with anticipation and a head full of plans. It’s a time of feeling positive and hopeful. But it is also easy to be seduced to think that spring is just around the corner…

Then there are such delights as leafing through seed catalogues and gardening books to get inspiration for the growing season ahead, ordering seeds and plants, researching and drawing planting plans.

It seems like every year I come up with ideas for so many different plants and crops and to be honest several of those usually fail as I somehow get distracted and perhaps lose interest as the season progresses. So this year I decided I will stick with a few things that grow relatively well here and that we enjoy eating, rather than experimenting and trying lots of different things.

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And then I had this #grow15in15 challenge idea. I was inspired by a lady in the US who is a keen spinner and whom I follow on Instagram.  She has gathered the interest of other Instagram spinners and gave them a challenge of spinning 15 minutes a day in 2015.

I thought it was a brilliant idea and so here’s my challenge to myself, to fellow growers or aspiring gardeners for this year – let’s grow fifteen crops this year and be one step closer to self-sufficiency.

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So here’s what’s on my #grow15in15 list:

Tatties

Carrots

Neeps

Beetroot

Peas

Garlic

Celeriac

Kale

Rocket

Spinach

Radishes

Strawberries

Raspberries

Gooseberries

Black Currant

What are your crops going to be?

 

Reestit Mutton Tattie Soup

A very belated Happy New Year to you all! 2014 was a really busy year with some brilliant moments but also a lot of hard work. Some of the highlights were: 60 North magazine being published in print; setting up this blog; an amazing trip to Iceland where I met a lot of interesting people and instantly I fell in love with the harsh but but immensely inspiring and spectacular place; a first-time visit to Berlin where we met with my uncle and aunt that I hadn’t seen for over ten years; Shetland Wool Week which attracted 300 keen knitters and wool enthusiasts to Shetland… and the biggest thing of all – our house renovation which is still ongoing. Phew.

So here’s to a year filled with experiences, good books, projects, travel, unforgettable moments spent with friends and family and lots of fun things! A year when we all find more time for ourselves and spend it meaningfully, it being just sitting down for a while reading a chapter to two, making something, going for a walk, or just stopping for a bit and think about the world. And let’s grow food, flowers and trees. That’s the best fun!

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Shetland winter can be pretty harsh so it’s important to find a way to keep positive and motived however it has been hard this past fortnight. It has been a time of relentless rain, hail, snow, lightning and gale-force winds. To be frank it’s been bleak so all those new year’s resolutions of getting back to some sort of fitness regime and healthier eating seem to have disappeared only to be replaced by cravings for substantial portions of hearty and comforting food. But I’m optimistic, with Up Helly Aa round the corner, the brighter days must surely be getting closer.

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Before Christmas I bought a piece of Reestit Mutton from our favourite butchers Scalloway Meat Company but somehow it didn’t get used. So when searching the fridge for some inspiration and ingredients at the beginning of the week, when the weather was particularly bad, I decided to make a deliciously warming and nourishing Reestit Mutton tattie soup.

Reestit Mutton is a traditional Shetland way of preserving mutton which is first salted in brine and then hung to dry traditionally in the rafters (reest) of the house above a peat fire. The smoke from the peat fire helps to season the meat.

Reestit Mutton Tattie soup is an acquired taste and personally I wasn’t really keen on it initially. However it does grow on you. In fact after ten years in years in Shetland, several Up Helly Aa and the occasional wedding I can say there’s nothing better to warm you up than tattie soup and bannocks – combination is simply perfect. Traditionally it is a thick hearty soup but personally I like the version that is served in Peerie Shop Cafe which is a relatively clear broth with large chunks of vegetables.

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Reestit Mutton Tattie Soup

Serves 8 – 10

250g Reestit Mutton

cold water to cover

4 large potatoes, peeled and cut in 1.5 cm chunks

3 large carrots, peeled and cut in 1 cm thick slices

1 small turnip, peeled and cut in chunks

2 medium onions, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 bay leaves, 5 peppercorns and 5 allspice berries (optional)

Place mutton and spices in a large pot. Add enough cold water to come about 2cm above the mutton. Bring to boil and continue to boil until soft. To speed this process up I use a pressure cooker. With this method it takes approximately 25 minutes, otherwise boil for 1 and a half hours.

Remove mutton and set aside. Water will be very salty, so pour off some and add more cold water. Stir in the potatoes, carrots, turnip and onions. Return to boil, and simmer until tender.

OPTION 1 (the ‘stick to your ribs’ version: Mash the vegetables with a potato masher or large fork. Remove the meat from the bone, tear into shreds and add it to the soup. If too thick, add a little water or vegetable broth.

OPTION 2 (my favourite clear broth option): Leave the vegetables in chunks and add the shredded meat. Serve with bread or bannocks with butter.

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Bannocks

500g of plain flour

1 tps (large) baking soda

1 tsp of cream of tartar

1 tsp of salt

Buttermilk for mixing

Mix the dry ingredients together. Make into a soft dough with the buttermilk, just as soft as can be easily handled. Turn on to a floured board and roll out gently until 1.5 cm thick. Cut in squares or rounds and bake on a moderately hot griddle or in fairly hot oven for 10-15 mins.

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Enjoy!

A quick carrot & celeriac salad

Life has been hectic recently – so apologies for the lack of posts – I’ll get better I promise.

Here’s a quick recipe for a delicious seasonal carrot and celeriac salad which makes a nice crunchy side dish and it is very healthy too.

At the weekend I was busy working at the Shetland Food Fair where Promote Shetland ran cookery demonstrations but I made sure I had some time to go around the stalls and do some shopping as there was a great selection of lovely local produce on offer. I bought yummy pork sausages from Gateside Croft, goat meat from Sandwick Pork company, Shetland honey from Scoop Wholefoods and a celeriac and carrots from Transition Turriefeild as our root produce didn’t come to much this year.

The goat meat is in the slow cooker as we speak and I quickly threw together this lovely salad (I might just eat the lot now) as I fancied something crunchy and sharp to serve with the dinner. In fact the salad is so tasty I thought I have to share the recipe with you immediately. So here it is:

Peel and great three large carrots and one small celeriac. Use juice of one lemon, a table spoon of olive oil, a table spoon of cider vinegar, a teaspoon of honey (Shetland of course in my case), pepper and a tiny pinch of salt to season the salad. And if you like capers throw a small handful in too. And take a big spoon to sample… Enjoy!

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Inspired… and in awe

Yesterday we spent a most enjoyable afternoon in Shetland’s Westside – namely in Sandness. Transition Turrifield held their third open day this summer and they also put on a small farmers’ market and teas, soup, bannocks and homebakes in Sandness Hall. A perfect reason for a little drive West, I thought, especially since the weather was lovely too.

It’s always great exploring different areas and corners of Shetland but the Westside must be my favourite as the lanscape is really beautiful. There are miles of quiet single-track roads with many hidden lochs that shine like gems, nestled in the hills. And sheep roam free. The vistas are juxstaposed with peatbanks with lovely dark peat and white crofthouses, dotted in the landscape. It feels like the Westside is Shetland in miniature. And then there are the egg and veg boxes beside the roads… it’s so exciting buying local produce and having the element of surprise as sometimes there can also be homemade cakes, jams or preserves. The whole experience feels like a little treasure hunt!

So after a plate of tasty soup and a spot of shopping at the hall (we bought some veg, Shetland cheese, pork, beer and fudge) we set of to the croft at Turriefeld. And what a busy place it was! Cars and people everywhere. It was great being back again and seeing how everything grows as the season progresses. In June we spent an ejoyable day with Penny and Alan learning how to build a polytunnel from discarded salmon cage pipes and plastic sheeting. Back then it was a cloudy day with a lot of wind so we didn’t get a chance to finish the tunnel and put the sheet on. (I’ll write about that experience another time.)

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This time the weather was just perfect, it was sunny, warm and there was very little wind. Everything looked green and lush. When we arrived we were given a lovely guided tour of the croft’s growing areas by one of the volunteers and in a few words I have to say I was in awe… Yes, it was amazing to see big juicy tomatoes, beans, courgettes, aubergines… but there were also pumpkins, corn… and melons too! All these were in the tunnels. Outside all sorts of brassicas, peas, carrots and tatties are thriving. And then there were the animals – hens, turkeys and ducks… and the pigs that help to work the ground.

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I could keep going on but basically visiting Turriefield and seeing the amazing work that Penny, Alan and their volunteers do is simply amazing and utterly inspiring. Visiting their croft is real eye-opener and it shows how with a bit of knowledge, some shetler and a bit of digging (or a lot) it is possible to grow many things in Shetland. And do so in a responsible, sustainable way.

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I’m totally inspired and next year I’m planning to reduce the lawn area even more to make space for a few more raised beds… just a shame we don’t have more space as I would love to have one of thoose big tunnels too… (the one pictured below is the one we built in June and it currently used for drying a great crop of garlic before it is used in the new season).

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Find out about my previous visit to Turriefield here. For further information and recipes click here.

More photos here.

Grow your own garlic

If you ask me what my favourite ingredients are one of them would have to be garlic (Allium sativum). Garlic is a versatile food flavouring but most importantly it is an amazing natural remedy. It’s been proven garlic is powerful natural antibiotic and therefore it’s great for preventing and curing many illnesses.

There are two main medicinal ingredients which produce the garlic health benefits: allicin and diallyl sulphides. Allicin does not occur in “ordinary” garlic, it is produced when garlic is finely chopped or crushed. The finer the chopping and the more intensive the crushing, the more allicin is generated and the stronger the medicinal effect. Garlic is a sulphurous compound and in general a stronger tasting clove has more sulphur content and hence more potential medicinal value. Some people have suggested that organically grown garlic tends towards a higher sulphur level and hence greater benefit to health. Whether or not that is in fact the case, it certainly has the best taste. (Source: Garlic Central)

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So growing your own garlic definitely makes sense, especially as it can be quite expensive buying organic.

In fact growing your own garlic is really simple and hugely satisfying. Even in Shetland, at 60° north, you can succeed to grow good size bulbs, which will taste much better and stronger than supermarket-bought garlic. And it will keep much better too.

To grow your own garlic all you’ll need is a small patch of well-dreained soil or ideally a raised bed. 1 x 1m will give you sufficient space to produce enough garlic to keep you going all year (I judge this by our standard and we use a lot garlic. I mean a lot). For best results choose a sunny site and add some garden compost too.

Garlic can be planted in the spring, as soon as the ground is dry enough to be worked, but to get good sized bulbs you’ll need to be a bit more organised and plant the seed garlic around October or November time. Since in Shetand we do not suffer from frost too much planting garlic in late autumn is ok, however if you live in an area where hard frost is an issue make sure you plant garlic six to eight weeks before that frost.

Break apart cloves from bulb, but keep the papery husk on each individual clove and plant 10cm deep and approximately 12cm apart, with their pointed ends up. You can also cover the planted area with 5cm of organic mulch, such as shredded leaves or grass clippings. And that’s the hard work done – the rest will happen on its own. In early spring the garlic will start growing and come late summer you’ll be able to start enjoying your crops! Really, garlic must be one of the easiest plants to grow!

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Harvesting and storing – from early summer to midsummer, keep an eye on your plants and pull them when about one-third of the leaves appear yellow and withered. Use a fork to loosen the soil before pulling the plants and avoid bruising the freshly pulled bulbs. Lay the whole plants out to dry in a warm, airy spot that is protected from rain and direct sun. After a week or so, brush off soil from the bulbs and clip roots to 1cm long. Do not be tempted to remove the papery outer husks as these inhibit sprouting and protect the cloves from rotting. Hang your dried crop in mesh bags in a cool place. This way your garlic should keep for approximately six months.

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So give it a go – grow some super healthy food and save some money too! It’s easy…

Healthy Snack Recipe – Homemade Energy Bars

Do you sometimes feel like something sweet yet you want your snack to be healthy and nutritious? I like shop-bought granola bars but they tend to be loaded with sugar so I decided to try to make my own. This recipe is very simple and the two main ingredients are bananas and rolled oats.

Bananas are an amazing fruit. They are a brilliant source of energy and they are good for digestion, are probiotic and are a good source of fibre, Vitamin C, Potassium, Manganese and Vitamin B6. Eaten raw they are a delicious and satisfying snack. But they are also brilliant for baking as they take place of sugar, eggs and fat.

The great thing about these bars is they have no added sugar and you can whip them up in just a few minutes. They are a perfect mid-morning snack or they are also fantastic for picnics or days out walking.

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Homemade Energy Bars

Makes one 25 x 25cm tray

2 large, ripe bananas

2 cups rolled oats

1/4 cup pitted, chopped dried dates

1/4 cup raisins

Grated nutmeg or cinnamon (optional)

You can also add chopped wallnuts or hazelnuts, chopped dried apricots, dried berries or seeds such as pumpkin, sunflower or linseed.

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Heat the oven to 180°C and line a 25 x 25cm square baking tray with baking paper.

Peel the bananas and mash them thoroughly in a medium mixing bowl; the bananas should be essentially liquid.  Add the oats and stir them in. Stir in the dates, raisins, spices and any other ingredients you’re using.

Pat the thick mixture evenly into the baking pan and press it well. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown.

Place the baking tray on a rack to cool. When the tray is mostly cool, cut into bars. I use pizza cutter which makes the job easier.

Enjoy!