30 August 2009

The tomato blight is under control !

Sweet peppers and tomatoesWe've been lucky - either the hot weather or the Bordeaux mix has stopped the blight from taking hold and we're getting good crops of tomatoes from the plot. The capsicums and aubergines are doing well too and I've lifted my onions. So as well as eating lovely fresh salads and tasty Provençal dishes, every week we've enough veg to store in sterilised jars for the winter.

Ratatouille is often my choice because it's quick and easy. The smell and taste of it bottled is almost as good as freshly made and it's good for couscous, adding to a stew or to eat just on it's own. I simply stir fry all the ingredients in batches then put them together in a huge pan and reduce the water content by simmering then put them into Kilner or Le Parfait jars and sterilise them for 30 minutes.

Rocket stove for cooking and water heatingAt this time of the year we clear out the freezer. The ice melts quickly and the freezer dries properly ready to be filled again with our own meat and winter game. I use up all last year's meat to mix with the summer veg to make stews and curries and this week I've made a few batches of bolognaise sauce.

Reducing tomatoes and the long slow cooking needed to make a really good bolognaise sauce takes a lot of time and a lot of gas so we rigged up a cooking plate on the rocket stove with a simple chimney leading the flames towards our back boiler in the fireplace so while we're cooking we also get hot water.

We normally use tree branches as fuel but at the moment, we've thousands of light, clean, dry corn cobs lying outside. (We grow a couple of hectares a year for animal feed.).

A dozen pots of Bolognaise sauce sterilised ready for the cellarWe've been using them in the rocket stove with really good results. With one bucket of cobs we slowly reduced 7 kilos of tomatoes (four hours) and now there's enough water for a bath !

I usually to make a dozen or so jars a week of garden veg in August and September because there's not an awful lot to do outside and it's hot here in August !. So we can have "ready meals" two or three times a week throughout the year without having to buy veg or spend too much time cooking - which suits me just fine !

22 August 2009

Harvesting and storing Stevia

Ian and Luis have just reminded me that I haven't mentioned in my Stevia posts how to save the leaves for winter use. Stevia leaves can be used fresh, or dried and saved like any other herb such as one of my favourite teas Lemon Verbena (in French Verveine citronnelle).

To harvest Stevia, you can simply cut the complete branch and hang it up upside down somewhere dry and airy and within a week or so the leaves will be ready to take off the plant.

Pinching out SteviaI find that method a bit messy because the leaves can get dusty and hanging herbs seem to be favourite spots for spiders to spin their webs, so I prefer to cut off a small branch now and then and remove the leaves one by one at their base with my fingernails.

Pinching out the plant in the growing season will make it bushier as two new shoots will develop at each side of the growing point. You can then use the rest of the stalk to make a cutting to pass on to someone else. Towards the end of the growing season cut down the whole plant in the same way to prepare it for overwintering.

Dryin SteviaOnce you've a small batch of leaves, put them into an open paper bag and hang the bag up in a basket somewhere dry and airy. From time to time - about every three or four days to begin with - shake and tumble the leaves to make sure that they're drying evenly. If you've forgotten all about it and the leaves show any signs of going mouldy, throw them away.

When the leaves are completely dry they'll be crisp and can easily be crushed by hand or ground into a fine green powder. You can use a fine mesh sieve to separate the leaf stalks if you prefer. Once you're Stevia's ready it can be stored in small airtight jars. Be careful not to use too much - a tiny pinch of the powder goes a very long way !

Taking cuttings, growing, harvesting and saving Stevia isn't complicated in small quantities and for a household, just one well-grown pot plant contains a huge quantity of sweetener. It's no wonder then, that the sugar industry with their "Roundup ready" Sugar Beet and "Almost Roundup Ready" Cane sugar is nervous about the "safety" of Stevia - despite the fact that the controversial sweetener Aspartume seems perfectly acceptable for licensing as a food additive.

Lots of different kinds of food taste good naturally and there's no real need to add anything - but a fresh tomato with a bit of salt or new potatoes with freshly ground black pepper are real treats and adding some honey or Stevia to a cake or a rhubarb tart is a delightful ways of using nature's bounty to the full.

18 August 2009

The best conditions for Stevia cuttings

Stevia cuttings rooted in waterI've been experimenting with Stevia cuttings, using different mediums, taking them at different times of the year and at different phases of the moon. I must have taken over 100 cuttings over the past couple of years and the very best results I've ever had have been in rainwater, in shade, outside, in August and September.

After taking the cutting of about 12cms (4 or 5 inches) remove the bottom leaves for drying then put them immediately into water. Mist them from time to time.

This is a photo of one of the seven of my latest batch of twelve cuttings which produced roots after only 14 days in water. The photo was taken on the day of the full moon on the 6th of August. The plant is now growing well in a pot and was last seen hitching a ride to the north of France...

16 August 2009

Beautiful Araneus diadematus spider web in the garden

We rarely see big spider webs as beautiful as this one. We've has been watching the progress of it's reconstruction ever since I inadvertently broke it when I walked past it - or rather through it - when I was in the garden. Ever since, I've walked round it, encouraging the dogs to do the same because it's such a shame to destroy such a beautiful structure.

In reality, we needn't have worried, because according to Wikipedia This is an Orb Weaver spider (So called because of the wheel-shaped spiral webs they build.) and these spiders are said to eat their webs each night along with many of the small insects stuck to it. They then spin a shiny brand new web in the morning. These wonderful webs are built by the larger females who usually lie head down on the web waiting for prey to get entangled in it. The insect is then captured and wrapped in silk.

The spider isn't aggressive and will only bite if provoked but the venom isn't dangerous to humans. The much smaller male is obliged to approach the female very cautiously in order to mate as he risks being eaten by her.

There is more information about this spider and some amazing photographs (Especially the close-ups.) in Nic's Spiders

I was curious to find out a bit more about the geometry of the construction of the web as I remembered that the spider's web is a forex trading term - a golden section indicator which looks like a spiders web and is used as a key to stock market behaviour. (Presumably Peak Oil means that someone somewhere now has to do redo the whole thing!) I started a foray into economics and geometry then spotted this phrase : The epeira spider spins its web into a logarithmic spiral. ... which is composed of three bones in Golden Section to one another and takes the spiral shape of... Which led me to this this link (After a lot of barking up the golden mean tree) on the Geometry of the Epeira's Web Isn't the internet an amazing tool ? Imagine how much time and effort it would have taken to get this information from books !

It's fascinating to learn more about the world of wild creatures but first you have to identify them ! So my thanks to Kathy and Karunia in The France Forum who helped me find out that this is the common European garden spider Araneus diadematus and it's name in French is Epeire Diademe.

13 August 2009

Late Tomato blight strikes again this year

Green Beefheart Tomatoes, originally uploaded by hardworkinghippy.

I've hardly commented on how the vegetable garden is doing this year but - apart from tomatoes - things are coming along nicely and we should have enough vegetables to eat fresh and to store to last us all year.

I say apart from tomatoes because although we've a had a few kilos of early tomatoes, I've noticed the dreaded late blight rear it's ugly head and I'm hanging on in there hoping that the precautions I'm taking help to delay the onset of the disease just long enough for me to harvest our main crop.

Over the past couple of years we've had a problem with tomato blight, a fungal disease spread by spores in the atmosphere. The disease is highly contagious and although I've noticed that some varieties like Brandywine resist blight slightly longer all tomatoes succumb in the end and there is no cure for blight.

It's so annoying because I plant a lot of tomatoes and really look forward to getting a good crop which we use almost every day for salads throughout the summer and have loads left over to purée into tomato sauce and add to ratatouille which I bottle and keep in the cellar for the winter.

Late blight is caused by Phytophthora infestans an oomycete or water mould. (Early blight, caused by Alternaria solani, is usually called "potato blight".) Late blight was the major culprit in the devastating 1845 Irish and 1846 Highland potato famines.

The spread of the infection is most rapid during conditions of high moisture and moderate temperatures. It's spread by the wind or by rain splashing the spores on to the plants. Once the blight really takes hold the leaves, stems and even the tomatoes themselves go brown and the whole plant withers and dies. It spreads rapidly, devastating a crop in a few days.

The first year I saw blight I took the brown leaves off and burned then - composting them spread the disease. That stopped it for a while and my early season tomatoes ripened well. Later into summer - with a rainy and cool August the bottom leaves of all the the plants curled and started to have brown mottled patches.

I don't like putting anything on my plants so I decided to cut my losses and ripped them all up and burned them plus their wooden stakes in the fire and sterilised the metal electric fence posts to use again next year.

To try to prevent blight, I give my vegetables a very thick mulch to stop the earth splashing on them when it rains. I always water my tomatoes at ground level and never on the leaves. I plant tomatoes in full sun. This year we made a new raised bed using a hugelkultur bed and I decided to use it for growing tomatoes because almost all my existing garden has at some time or another had tomatoes on it and the new bed is tucked away behind trees and protected from the wind.

Last year for the first time I used Bordeaux mixture and it did help to delay the spread of the disease.

This year, I've sprayed the beautifully formed tomatoes once again hoping that they won't take long to get to to the stage when they start to go even slightly red and I can pick them and ripen them indoors. The blue haze on the plant isn't pretty and I have to forgo one of the garden's treats of being able to take a perfect ripe warm tomato from a plant and pop it straight into my moth - but needs must.

Although Bordeaux mixture is deemed suitable for organic growers, if it's used excessively (Hopefully once a year isn't "excessive"!) the Copper, it's principal ingredient, can lead to the destruction of beneficial organisms and cause an imbalance in the soil nutrients that probably reduce the ability of the organisms and the plants themselves to fight off disease naturally.

In that case, the truth of the saying "You are what you eat" leads me to believe that for the good of my own immune system, I should try to allow my vegetables to grow as naturally as possible and if they can't grow without my interference then I should replace them with something else.

That's very easy to say, but trying to replace tomatoes isn't going to be easy and for the time being I'll take my chances that nature will help me to restore the balance in the soil for the years to come.

4 August 2009