Sam Gray’s diary
Despite never-ending tussles with bindweed and ground elder roots, Sam Gray waxes lyrical about her way of life
Of hemlock and hogweed
It is past 9.30pm and I find myself still weeding in and around the vegetable patch. The endless tangle of bindweed and ground elder roots appear to glow in the fading light. As empty the wheelbarrow onto the tuckedaway composting area of the garden, I pass even more bindweed, numerous nettles and flowering weeds all stuck together with goosegrass or sticky willy as we liked to call it growing up.
Despite the weeds, I don’t think it gets better than this; light, warmth and a sense that everything can and often does repair itself. Winter and early spring seemed to go on forever this year. Weeks and weeks of sub-zero temperatures, frozen water troughs, regular bouts of snow and mammoth feed bills just to keep all the animals alive. This summer has so far (despite some occasional flooding) offered a welcome reward after the extremes of winter and has been much appreciated in the garden.
Growing vegetables is an area of smallholding I have been passionate about for more than 20 years. Way before chickens, pigs and sheep, I loved nothing more than following the instructions on the back of a seed packet and watching life germinate before my very eyes. Never with the idea of achieving vegetable perfection or growing for a commercial market, my partner Chris and I have just enough to feed ourselves and our children, Maddie and Connor, and our cottage guests with something seasonal for several months of the year.
Alongside the management of pigs, lambs, chickens and cottages, this summer has allowed for many late afternoons in the greenhouse. Tying up the tomatoes and cucumbers, pricking out unwanted shoots, watering all growing plants and leaves, as well as harvesting a few for tea most evenings, is not easily surpassed.
I believe greenhouses (or polytunnels, of course) to be very special spaces, being light, warm and full of goodness. They are quietly calming yet bursting with life. They offer something to snack on during many months of the year, making them a delicious retreat, perfect at all times of day and in any weather.
Since we don’t heat the greenhouse at Middle Farm, activity starts in April (late April this year) and is usually over by the end of October. The changes that take place in those six months are nothing short of breathtaking.
There is a slow build-up at first. The seeds are sown — sometimes according to packet instructions — with increasing levels of watering needed as seedlings grow bigger. Then, as potting on is required or the need to transfer to an outside bed, the work intensifies and peaks around the end of June.
For me that longest day in June and the Summer Solstice is another turning point; recognition that the next level of harvest starts now. We have been picking green leaves and herbs for many weeks, but now it’s the turn of other vegetables: mangetout, peas, courgettes and beans. Red and white onions, as well as French garlic, can soon be dug up and dried, while several kilos of sugar are purchased for the preparation of jams. The work has been constant, but the rewards are sweet. It won’t be long before tomatoes, aubergines, cucumbers and peppers, to name but a few, will be ripe for the picking. Seasonal harvests don’t get better than that.
With time being divided up into so many areas on the farm it can be a challenge to make sure everything grown gets eaten or preserved. There can be a sense of urgency not to waste the fruits of our labours as the window of opportunity seems all too short.
For me, the appetite to grow food successfully is second to none. To feed my family from the land we have and to try and remember all the lessons learned throughout the years is at the very heart of everything we do here. These beautiful and edible changes in the garden and greenhouse are a reminder that a little soil, knowledge and enthusiasm are all it takes to turn a handful of seeds into plates full of delicious food.
Armed with knowledge
It turns out that a lot more knowledge is required if you dare to eat from other areas of the garden, or roadside for that matter.
I always knew that there was a large gap in my knowledge of wild foods, but I had no idea just how large that gap had been. Chris and I were privileged enough to go on a foraging course recently and it struck me how foraging is intrinsically linked with smallholding. Recognising the edible from the inedible, the medicinal from the irritants, would have kept our ancestors alive (thankfully for us) and been an important part of self-sufficiency.
As I spend time tending to the vegetables and fruits that we grow quite deliberately and safely in the garden I have to confess that just a little, albeit recent, knowledge of some of the wild food has injected a bit of excitement. I did not expect to be picking and eating the young leaves of the same ground elder I have been weeding out of the veg garden, or rubbing crushed-up ribwort leaves on a horsefly bite or picking young leaves from the lime tree to add to salad. Hogweed (not giant hogweed of course) soup was a first for me, too, being absolutely delicious and a great alternative to broccoli.
With a whole new level of enthusiasm and approach to the garden, coupled with a wondering of why we are not teaching the next generation this vital information in school, I went about showing my own children what hemlock looks like and going into great detail about what would happen if they ate it. With so many easy mistakes to make, I think I’ll be sticking to the ones I definitely know and recognise. Nettles are a perfect place to start.
We learned that nettles must be young, preferably the top 4in of the plant and never use when the nettle has gone into flower as they can irritate the bladder and kidney. They are considered a superfood as they are highly nutritious, they make a delicious soup and a perfect pesto and they are certainly more readily grown than basil in the UK. Not wanting to scare the kids too much with stories of hemlock poisoning, we carefully picked our way through the previously strimmed back nettles for the new growth. Just like a cut and come again salad leaf, the nettle remains with us for many months to come and, on this occasion, gave us a great opportunity to prepare our food together outside and with a little more knowledge than before.
Soup making al fresco
The children and I have cooked nettle soup outside with a gas camping cooker and large camping saucepan, which is ideal when dealing with an even larger bucket of perfectly selected nettle tops. We boiled them with a little salt to remove the stings and soften them, then quickly strained all the water away. After cooking a sliced onion in oil on a low heat in the same saucepan we put back in the wilted nettle leaves, by now all chopped up and the stems removed. After adding a good couple of handfuls of rice (potato would also do) and plenty of chicken stock and seasoning, we watched patiently as it simmered until the rice was cooked. Admittedly, the blender was in the kitchen, not outside, but after a quick whizz it was soon turned into the finest soup and gobbled up by the whole family.
Picking kale in the greenhouse
Sam’s tools are frequently needed for weeding
Sam enjoys a foraging course: ‘foraging is intrinsically linked to smallholding’
Garlic growing at Middle Farm
Sam has always loved planting and seeing life begin