Sam Gray’s diary

De­spite never-end­ing tus­sles with bindweed and ground elder roots, Sam Gray waxes lyri­cal about her way of life

Country Smallholding - - Contents - For more in­for­ma­tion on Mid­dle Farm, visit www.mid­dle­far­mand­cot­

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

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