Saturday 10 February 2018

A man who knows his business

The road to our house runs along a 300-year-old canal, originally dug to transport turf -- dried peat moss, our main fuel here -- on horse-drawn barges to the damp and chilly homes of Dublin. The road is only a single lane wide, so even a short trip to the village and back involves a lot of pulling into driveways and letting other cars go past. 

On the other hand, it makes a lovely path to jog back and forth on weekend mornings, past rusted boat-hulls on the shore and neighbours with their dogs and children. It harbours many distractions for the aspiring jogger, like hedgerows filled with fruits and berries in season, the sweeping grandeur of our local herons in flight, or the darting brilliance of kingfishers and bullfinches.

As I jogged along the canal this weekend, my neighbour Liam waved to me, and I stopped to say hello.

How you keeping, I asked.

“Not a bother, Brian,” he said in his amiable rasp. “A little unsteady this morning -- I was up calving all last night.”

One of your cows gave birth? I asked. As long as I’ve lived here next to neighbours and friends who raise cattle and sheep, and even helped out a bit, I’ve never been with them during birth. Yet this is central to a farmer’s life -- one of my favourite television programmes on these islands is an annual event called Lambing -- Live!, where talk show hosts interview farmers in spring and talk about how the lambing is going.

“Sure, usually they’re just fine by themselves, but sometimes they need a hand, and it can keep you up until dawn,” he said.

Do they tend to all give birth around the same time, in spring? I asked -- it seemed a little early for that.

“Left to their own devices, they’d all give birth around spring, but I encourage them to spread it out a bit,” he said. “Makes it easier on me.”

Do you, um, bring the bull around at certain times, or what? I asked. Sorry, I’ve lived here long enough that I feel like I should know this.  

“Frederick,” Liam said -- “you’ve seen him in that field down along the canal banks - you know the one? He’s a good lad, and he’s been with me a while now.”
I’ve seen you with the bull, I said -- I’m impressed at how calm he is.

“Everyone’s terrified of bulls, but I’ve never been hurt by one -- I raised him, and he trusts me,” Liam said. “Occasionally he’s lifted me in the air with his head -- gently, just playing -- and set me down again. I’ve tried to pull him in the tractor, and he can just pull the other way and turn the tractor around -- so if he wanted to get me, I’d be gone. But he’s never wanted to do anything other than play a bit. It’s cows you have to be afraid of.”

Really? I said. You think of bulls as much more dangerous.

“Ah, bulls warn you when you’re getting on their bad side -- they stamp, they snort. They give you fair notice, and only fools ignore them. But cows can come at you out suddenly, just because the spirit took them.”

Liam has been handling cows since he was a boy -- in some cases, the great-great-grandparents of these cows -- so I trust his judgement on these things.

Saturday 3 February 2018

Garden in winter


Today I had a chance to step out in the garden and get a few things out of the way. We are tearing down the garden beds in our greenhouse, as the wooden beds are almost rotted through and we have used the soil for tomatoes over and over, so we need to get new beds and new soil.

If you don’t have a greenhouse yourself, think about making cloches, clear containers to protect your plants from frost and give them a head start. To make a cloche you can take a scissors and cut across the middle of a plastic fizzy-drink bottle, leaving a bell-shaped dome for your seedling. The resulting plastic will be quite floppy, so you might want to support it with a criss-cross of sticks poked through the plastic and taped together where they cross.  You can place the bottle over seedlings in the garden – preferably with the bottle-top screwed on at night to keep out frost, and left open during the day to allow the plant to breathe.

also drained water through our fireplace ashes, in the hopes of creating enough lye -- the alkaline water that drained out the bottom -- to make soap later this year. I spread the soaked ash over the margins of our property, piling cardboard and mulch over it, in the hopes of keeping brambles from invading and taking root in the margins. I checked the beehive, to make sure the bees are snuggled up cosy and have plenty to eat, and will be preparing some more sugar-water to get them through the next few weeks before the first flowers.

Finally, this is the right time of year to prune most fruit trees, so that they will put more energy into growing buds, flowers and fruit this summer. It’s also the time to coppice or pollard trees like willow and hazel, so that you can have firewood for next winter and the tree will send up new growth this summer. It’s not much fun to work outside when it’s this dreary, but the work has to be done now if the land is to be lovely and productive when it’s warmer.

This is the right time to cut willow, either to build a hedge, weave a basket or just spread the willow around. If you want to take a row of willows and make them into a hedge, cut the willow partway through the stem at whatever height you need. Cut only partway so that you leave some of the xylum, the inner bark that transports water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves, and energy from the leaves to the roots. Then fold the stem above the cut, and weave it around the trees and branches around it so it stays in place. If this is done properly, the tree will remain alive and continue to grow above the cut, and will create a living fence.

To spread willow over your property, cut stems off the tree and plant them in a bucket of water. Wait a few weeks until they grow a shock of white roots in the water, and then dig a hole where you want them to grow. Cut off the roots around the stem, plant them in the hole and refill it.

The days are getting longer again, so it’s a good time to think about what to put in the garden next year. When you plan your garden, try to think in three dimensions, using not just fields or garden beds, but hedgerows and woods. Our hazel trees produce nuts, and under them we planted blueberries and other shade-loving plants, and we will have sorrel and other ground crops lower still – multiple levels of crops going upwards.

This is not an easy month to get out in the garden – the days remain short and chilly. Everything remains wet, meaning that a shovelful of earth is much heavier than it should be. The more you are on top of things now, however, the less you have to wait later, and gardeners do enough waiting as is.
Most of the crops left in the garden at this time of year are root vegetables or cabbages -- for us, that means beetroot, parsnips, celeriac and kale. I’ve written before about how to make them into soup or other vegetarian dishes, but they are especially nice as crisps, and while not extremely healthy, they are probably a bit healthier than the store-bought potato crisps.

Take several parsnips, beetroot and a bulb of celeriac, and some kale leaves. Wash everything well and peel the vegetables -- with the celeriac you might have to peel a lot.

Slice the roots with a mandolin, thinly enough that, when held to the light, they are a bit translucent.
Heat a pan of oil to 180 degrees Centigrade. Fry them in batches -- about two minutes for each batch, or until they look crisp but not burnt -- making sure they are covered with oil and turning them frequently. Be prepared to withdraw them quickly, as they keep cooking and turning colour even after you remove them from the oil -- don’t let them get close to burning.

Let them cool and let the oil drain, dash some lemon juice over the lot, and sprinkle some salt and pepper. Some people like to fry up garlic cloves, or herbs like rosemary or sage, for some extra flavour; if you do this, best to cook them first and let the oil impart their flavour to the other vegetables.

You can also turn the kale into crisps. To do so pre-heat an oven to 150 degrees C. Put the kale in a dry bowl, drizzle a bit of olive oil over it and toss the kale until a thin layer of oil is coating everything. Line a baking tray with tinfoil and spread the kale over it, no more than one leaf thick. Cook for seven to ten minutes until crisp – they burn quickly too, so keep checking on them.

Introduce snacks like this to your kids or your junk-food-eating friends. It won’t turn them into home-farming health nuts overnight, but it does introduce them to the idea that, instead of simply buying fatty, expensive food from a company, they could make it themselves to their own taste, learn a bit of cooking skill, and have fun. It could be a first step to more adventurous experiments down the road.