Garlic: How to rid yourself of vampires (and garden pests)

My vegetable growing year often seems to go like this:

Early Spring: Sow seeds into pots with great optimism in my heart, remembering last year’s harvest of organic goodies.

Mid Spring: Plant out my seedlings, carefully surrounded with an arsenal of defences to protect them from slugs (more about beating off the slugs in my next post).

Late Spring: Admire and enjoy the first fruits of my Herculean labours: mange tout, spinach, lettuce. And think about the harvest to come: tomatoes, beans, peppers, aubergines, spring onions, strawberries….

Early Summer: Watch the airborne pests descend on my lovely young veg and leave them looking tattered, weak and in some cases, dying.

The good news is that there are some very effective ways of repelling these critters. I’m going to explore some natural, eco-friendly pest deterrents in the next few posts, and I have to say, garlic spray is one of my favourites. It really does act as a natural repellent for a number of insects including aphids, ants, whiteflies, caterpillars, reds spider mites and beetles. It also helps combat slugs and snails.

You will need:

  • Spray bottle
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 litre water
  • Blender / food processor (optional)
  • Cheese cloth or very fine sieve

There’s no one set way of making garlic spray, so you can experiment to see what suits you best. I use a couple of garlic cloves and either chop them up finely or puree in a food blender with about 300ml water. Pour the mixture into a pyrex jug or bowl and top the mixture up with boiling water – you want about 1 litre in total. Then cover and leave overnight to make sure the garlic has thoroughly infused the water. The next morning, strain the liquid through a piece of muslin or a superfine sieve (I use a really, really fine tea strainer) into a spray bottle. Do make sure you strain the mixture carefully as you don’t want any bits of garlic to clog up the spray nozzle.

The best time to spray your plants is when the weather is dry, in the early evening. Give the affected leaves a good even spray all over, paying particular attention to the underside and folds where insects might congregate. You may want to do a further spray at weekly intervals if necessary, but be aware that the spray also deters garden friends such as ladybirds, so only treat leaves with pests on.






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Hung Out to Dry

About two thirds of people living in the UK have a tumble dryer. And why not? They make your clothes super fluffy, dry in hours and save all the hassle of having soggy clothes around the house. Here are some rough ballpark figures on your energy usage though. A 9kW vented tumble dryer uses around 5.34kWh for a full load cycle. That’s 636 kWh per year (if you use your dryer twice a week). Depending on your energy bills, you’re probably looking at over £200 a year for this. And if you run a wash more regularly, ouch! And that’s before we think of the cost to the environment.

More energy efficient alternatives include heated drying racks, dehumidifiers (I use one of these in winter when the weather is dismal) or simply allowing washing to dry inside on a rack or radiator. But beware, the latter is a recipe for damp, condensation-filled rooms.

There is a better way! Hang it out. Yes, get a washing line and a few pegs and hang your washing up outside the old fashioned way.

Believe me, even in winter, you’ll be surprised how often you can get a wash outside (confession time – I live in the sunny south of England which helps). On a sunny day, or a breezy day with light cloud, even in winter, my clothes are dry enough to be finished off inside on a clothes airer without any other help. In summer, it’s great. My clothes come in super dry and smelling of fresh air!

Perhaps I’m sad, but I really enjoy the act hanging washing out on a line. It gives me a chance to just switch off and let my brain refocus. If you live in a block of flats with a communal area, it may even be a chance for a good old chinwag with your neighbours. And our beautiful planet will heave a sigh of relief at a little less energy consumption.

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Plant a Tree for Free

Before I tell you how you can plant trees for free, I thought I’d take a look at just how useful trees are for our ecosystem. They combat climate change by absorbing CO2 emissions while releasing oxygen back into the air. They help prevent soil erosion on hillsides, provide shade in cities and in our back gardens, provide a vital habitat for wildlife, give us wood, filter pollutants out of the air, supply us with food – and they do many other vital things for us and for the planet.

The Committee on Climate Change has recommended the UK begin planting 30,000 hectares (115.8 sq miles) of trees to help meet its goal of cutting all greenhouse gas emissions. You can read more here in this really useful article from the BBC website about the current tree planting efforts in the UK.

So, what can we do to help? The good news is, there are plenty of ways you can get involved in tree planting in the UK and abroad. I’m highlighting two fabulous organisations in this post:

The Woodland Trust protects and campaigns on behalf of the UK’s woods, plants trees, and restores ancient woodland for the benefit of wildlife and people. Established in 1972, they now have over 500,000 members and supporters and more than 1,000 sites, covering over 26,000 hectares, all over the UK. Alongside their work of managing their woodland and campaigning on environmental issues, over the next 10 years, they are aiming to plant 64 million trees.

There are so many ways of getting involved with their work – as a volunteer, you can join a working group, monitor wildlife and record tree health for their research. Why not get involved with their campaigns too? You can also buy native UK saplings from them to plant in your garden, local school, place of work and so on. The Woodland Trust also have a page outlining all the ways you can dedicate trees and wooden benches – as a Christmas present, in memory of a loved one, to mark a significant event in your life, or simply to support their work. Here’s the link.

Another fabulous way of helping plant trees worldwide (and this won’t cost a bean, so if you’re on a low income, there are ways to help out without having to struggle financially), is to use the Ecosia search engine. You can download this search engine and use it in place of Google (or whatever search method you use). Ecosia use the profits from their online advertising (all search engines do this to fund themselves) to plant trees where they are most needed in the world. They have calculated that it takes approximately 45 searches to finance the planting of one tree – that’s not a huge amount! There’s plenty of information on how they work and the different projects they support here.

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It’s Freezing!

We’ve all seen the figures. In June 2019, the Environment Journal reported that UK households are throwing away a whopping 281,000 tonnes of edible vegetables every year. In total, every year, we bin millions of tonnes of food that could have been eaten.

There are some fantastic projects aimed at redistributing food surplus to those who desperately need it, and it’s great to get on board with those if we can. There are also plenty of ways that we can reduce our own food waste. I hold my hands up here – I’m guilty of throwing perfectly good food away, partly through laziness and partly because I didn’t know how to preserve it properly.

The great news is our household freezer is capable of so much more than we thought possible! Did you know you can freeze eggs, bread, cakes, cheese, cake & biscuit dough for example? All it needs is a little know-how as to the best way to go about it. If we have food that is getting near the end of its life, or we want to batch cook to save time & energy, our freezer is our friend.

Bread, cakes, biscuits, muffins… Pretty much all baked goods can be frozen. I slice up our sourdough bread and freeze it immediately after cooking. It’s so easy to defrost individual slices and it means we never throw away stale bread (which we used to do…). Most cakes can be frozen whole or cut into slices, and the same goes for pretty much every type of biscuit.

Homemade stock: You can freeze chicken bones and bits until you have enough to make a homemade stock. It’s brilliant for soups and tastes so much better than stock cubes. Alternatively, if you’re cooking a roast chicken, make a stock from the bones after you’ve finished the chicken, and freeze it into ice cube trays to add to casseroles etc. I also freeze vegetable peels and waste to make vegetable stock. You can use carrot ends, green beans that are a bit soggy, onion ends, tomato cores, asparagus ends, cauliflower stalks, runner bean ends – the list is endless. When you have enough, put them in a pot with water (they will shrink down a bit when cooking, so you don’t have to cover them completely). Add some herbs and seasoning. Simmer for about half an hour, then strain the liquid.

Cheese: Freeze lumps of cheese whole, or grate, freeze and use as required. If you’re grating the cheese, a tablespoon of cornflour or flour in the container will stop it sticking together when it thaws.

Eggs: If you want to use them for baking, separate the eggs and whites into the compartments of an ice cube tray. Otherwise, crack the eggs into a bag or container and freeze. Thaw them out in the fridge and use as normal.

Potatoes: You can make frozen homemade oven chips, all ready to use. Part boil in salted water, drain and cut into wedges or chips. Freeze them on trays before putting into a container. You can add oil and seasoning into the container before freezing if you like – then they’re completely ready to go. When you want to cook them, take them out and cook for 20 minutes or so in a hot oven. You’ll need to spray them with oil before they go in if you didn’t freeze them with oil. If you can, keep the skins on – it’s healthier.

Fruit: Raspberries and blackberries freeze very well. I just put them on a baking tray (see top picture) to freeze and then transfer to a container when frozen. They defrost brilliantly. Some other types of fruit, such as strawberries, blueberries, blackcurrants tend to go soggy when defrosted. I just use them in smoothies, jams, summer pudding and other desserts. For apples, I always peel, chop and cook them with a little honey and freeze in containers. I use the apple ‘stew’ on porridge, with yoghurt or as an apple sauce with meat. Bananas can be frozen whole and defrosted to use in banana cake. Otherwise, peel and chop and freeze in a container.

More ideas in my next blog post and I’ll also be talking about plastic free freezer containers.

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Dried Red Tomatoes…

So it’s harvest time at the moment, and we’re busily trying to squirrel away our excess produce for the winter. Even if you don’t have a vegetable garden or allotment, now is a great time to buy seasonal local produce, which is often at reduced prices in many farm shops around the country.

One of the challenges is storing all this bounty. Last year, we cooked up pans of onions, garlic and tomatoes and froze them to add to winter casseroles. This year I thought I’d try something different. We were given a dehydrator for a Secret Santa Christmas present a few years ago (see last post), and I’ve not really tried it out until now.

A couple of days ago, I dehydrated cherry tomatoes and blueberries with it (we have five blueberry bushes which are heaving with fruit) and the results were fantastic. I cut the cherry tomatoes in half, and placed them cut side upwards (the image at the top shows my trial batch – after that I really filled the layers in the dehydrator as much as I could), and I also stabbed the blueberries with a knife so that the excess moisture could escape. It took a while (a day or more) for them to fully dehydrate, but it’s definitely worth the wait. If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can use an oven on a very low heat.

The dehydrating process concentrates the flavour – both the tomatoes and blueberries are bursting with sweetness and have a real kick to them. I’m intending to use the blueberries for my Christmas biscotti biscuits, but I’m not sure they’ll last that long. The tomatoes will be put into casseroles and sauces. They’ll both keep for weeks, if not months in airtight jars.

There are plenty of other foods that can be dehydrated – bananas, melons, mangoes, strawberries to name a few. You can make crisps with potatoes, kale, carrots, parsnips and so on. Or why not try a fruit leather? Take some ripe fruit, add a spoonful of honey and some lemon juice, whizz in a blender, spread on a baking sheet and dehydrate in your oven’s lowest setting for about 6 hours.

And if you don’t fancy dehydrating, you can always make chutney, pickle, ketchup, soup, pesto, jam, bottled produce or jarred in olive oil. It’s great keeping the summer going into the winter!

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I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas…

Sorry if I’ve mentioned the ‘C’ word in August, but it takes a little planning if you want to have an environmentally friendly Christmas. I’m all for enjoying the festive season, and we can do it in a way which isn’t harmful for our planet.

Think of all the plastic involved in Christmas – cracker inserts, wrapping paper (there’s a lot of plastic in Christmas wrapping), presents, Christmas cards, glitter… Here are some great ideas to green up your Christmas and have fun at the same time.

I’m quite into crafts, so I enjoy making eco-friendly Christmas presents. In the picture I have some lip balm (using beeswax from our lovely honeybees), lavender hearts (we have plenty of lavender), beeswax tealights, a gift label made by my very talented stepdaughter and a hand knitted cotton washcloth. I also found some recycled kraft cards to make my own Christmas cards with – I printed them with a lino cut I made, so they didn’t take long to do and they cost 10p each including the envelope. There are so many ideas on the internet for fabulous things you can make that are also environmentally friendly. You could even combine some of them in a lovely gift box.

If you don’t like making things yourself, there are plenty of great crafters out there. Why not support a small, eco-friendly business? I’ve had some fabulous Christmas presents from small businesses, including some beautiful hand thrown teapots and mugs. Charity shops are fantastic for one-off presents. Often the quality of goods you can find in them is brilliant. That’s where this fabulous Christmas stocking came from.

My stepmum came up with one of the best ideas ever – a Secret Santa. We have a big family, and we were spending huge amounts of time and money on gifts for each other that, to be honest, often weren’t really wanted. So now, my stepmum co-ordinates our Secret Santa – we each choose a gift around £50 (set whatever price you want) and she sends the gift idea to another member of the family. We only receive one gift (the children get more) and we know it is something we will really use. My husband and I have used our Secret Santas to buy things like yoghurt makers, sourdough bread equipment, dehydrator for preserving fruit and so on.

There are plenty more ideas for a green Christmas – you can buy plastic free crackers (or make your own – there are kits out there too), recycle wrapping paper or buy eco-friendly paper, wooden toys for young children (rather than plastic). And if you think you’ve got enough ‘things’ – some of our family ask for a donation to their favourite eco-charity rather than a gift.

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Cunning Courgette Ideas

If you grow your own vegetables, or subscribe to a weekly vegetable box, you’ll know all about seasonal gluts. It’s a question that comes up a lot on the allotment and zero waste forums I belong to. The challenge when you grow vegetables or buy a locally sourced vegetable delivery is that it’s difficult to stagger the harvest of some vegetables, so you end up with a lot of one type. At the moment, we are swimming in French beans and courgettes.

Today I’m going to focus on courgettes, as when they get going, boy do they produce a haul! And if they’re not picked regularly, they become giant marrows, which tend to taste watery and nothingy (in my opinion). So, here are a few ideas for your courgette cornupcopia.

The brilliant thing about courgettes is that to be honest, when they’re cooked in something, they’re pretty tasteless. Why is that good? Because you can use them as a cunning way to get vegetables into your veggie-hating kids (or husband). They also add moisture when they’re added into baked dishes – perfect for this chocolate courgette cake shown above. There are any number of recipes for chocolate courgette cake on the internet, so I’ll let you pick one that suits you best. All I can say is that it tastes delicious and freezes brilliantly.

There are plenty of other ways of subversively adding courgettes to dishes – grate into spaghetti bolognese and other pasta dishes, grate and squeeze out the water and add to cake or bread recipes (courgette lemon drizzle cake is ace) or simply put into quiches or stews. I tried courgette and cheese muffins a couple of years ago and they worked a treat.

If you’re happy for the courgettes to take more of a starring role, try courgette and feta or courgette and sweetcorn fritters – Nigella has a fabulous recipe here. Other ideas include courgette and hazelnut burgers, courgette and tomato soup, ratatouille, mushroom and courgette curry. One of my favourite ways to eat courgettes is to oven roast them with peppers, sweet potato, onions, garlic and tomatoes and add them to couscous.

They’ll freeze brilliantly when combined with tomatoes and other veggies as a ratatouille and are perfect for adding to winter stews. If all else fails, and you end up with super marrows (I planted eight courgettes last year so it was a bit of a challenge dealing with them) – pigs love them. We have a lady in our village who keeps pigs and was happy to take any amount of giant marrows off my hands. Happy porkers…

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Pause for thought…

A few weeks ago, the wheat fields near us were this beautiful shade of greeny blue. Now they’re golden and almost ready to harvest. The seasons come and go so quickly don’t they.

This spring, two of my friends died. One of them had been struggling with motor neurone disease for a couple of years and the other contracted an aggressive form of cancer that took her life in four short months. Both of them were in their early 50s.

Time is running out for all of us. None of us knows how long we will spend in this beautiful world. And it feels as if the clock is ticking on our planet too.

I’ve made a resolution. To make every day count. To be thankful for the beauty and joy in my life, and to use the difficult times for good. If anything, I’m more committed than ever to doing what I can to preserve our planet for the generations after me.

I will follow my dreams with a passion. I’m a writer, and my goal is to finish a novel a year – so far so good with this year’s book. I will make time and space to try new things (basket weaving, making butter, visiting the west coast of Ireland and Lindisfarne are all on my list). Above all, I have vowed to spend time with those around my – my good friends, my family and my lonely elderly neighbours who are sometimes hard work, but who knows, I may be in their position one day. How about you? What are your dreams and goals?

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Fabulous Fruit

A brilliant way of helping the environment (and you) is to grow fruit trees in your garden. We’ve been planting some over the last few years and we’re now reaping the rewards. We also have fruit bushes we’ve grown from cuttings and strawberry plants that we have been propagating every year. It’s been a bit of a fight though, as the birds love our cherries – and the chickens are very keen on raiding the strawberries.

Last year, I was fed up with looking at empty cherry tree branches, so I made some ‘sleeves’ from some old netting to protect them from pesky predators. Hey presto – fabulous cherries for us, and I did leave a few for the birds too.

The beauty of fruit trees is that they come in all shapes and sizes, so even if you have a small garden, you can still grow some. Look out for dwarf rootstock plants if you need small trees. They will survive perfectly well in pots if you make sure you feed them well, so even if just have a patio, you’re good to go. And, if you have a sheltered garden with a wall that gets plenty of sunshine, you’ll also be able to get away with growing more ‘exotic’ fruit like apricots and peaches in front of it.

Taking cuttings from blackcurrants and redcurrants couldn’t be simpler – just wait until the bushes have lost all their leaves in the winter (so you know the plants are dormant) and then remove stems from the base of the bush – choose the strong healthy ones. I just plant them into a spare space in the garden or into a pot full of earth. For blueberries, take a 6 inch cutting from the end of a stem when the plant is actively growing and place in a pot of compost. You can easily grow blueberries in this country, but you’re better off using ericaceous compost as they need acidic soil. They will need protection from the birds too!

We don’t use any pesticides on our trees. One of our good friends is an apple farmer and we asked him for the best advice for growing our fruit organically. He told us that if we didn’t use pesticides, the young trees would probably get diseases in the first couple of years, but then they would become resistant. That’s exactly what happened, and our trees are now healthy and bear fantastic crops of fruit.

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Happy Tomatoes

My tomatoes are a wee bit late this year, as I grew them all from seed, and I was slow getting off the mark. They’re looking good, but at this stage they need a good feed to really get them going.

There are plenty of liquid tomato feeds available at garden centres and DIY stores but…many of them come in plastic containers and they have quite a few road miles under their belt.

If you’ve got room, it’s incredibly easy to make your own liquid comfrey feed – cheaper and greener, and due to its high nitrogen content, it’s a highly nutritious plant & vegetable feed – perfect for tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

Comfrey is a real wonder herb – it is used in healing salves, to restore lustre and shine to hair. Our chickens loved pecking at the comfrey plants – it’s high in protein, so very good for them. And…our honeybees feed on the flowers in early spring.

A word of warning – comfrey spreads like mad, so you might want to keep it isolated. We’ve grown it in a round flower bed and also on a steep bank at the front of our house, where its long root system has been brilliant for stabilising the earth in the bank. It has beautiful mauve flowers – an added bonus.

To make liquid comfrey feed, just pick the comfrey leaves from the base of the plant (you might want to use gloves as the hairy leaves can irritate). Chop them up and pack them into a bucket or better still, a tub with a lid (we used an old fat ball tub) – it does smell so the lid keeps the aroma contained and stops mosquitoes from laying eggs in the water. Cover the leaves with water – weigh them down with a large stone or old brick – and leave for a few weeks until you can see a brown smelly liquid.

Pour the liquid into a container and store in a cool, dark place (you can top up the leaves with more water for another batch if you like). Dilute the comfrey feed in a ratio of roughly 1 part comfrey liquid to 10 parts water and hey presto! Use as soon as your tomato flowers have set fruit.

You can also use comfrey leaves as a plant mulch and it’s great on the compost heap too. Alternatively, lay comfrey leaves at the bottom of your potato and runner bean trenches for a fantastic boost.

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