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A new trench bed (pics of process & first spinach crop)

24 Jul
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I so believe in building a trench bed to improve extremely poor soil before planting seedlings.

A trench bed is like a compost bin, dug into the ground and consisting of alternate layers of fresh green ‘live’ organic material, brown ‘dead’ organic material, fresh manure and soil. NOTE that each layer of dead or live organic matter is covered with soil & watered before another layer is added.

Trench beds are also worth considering if you live in a dry climate. The result is water retention, good soil aeration and an on-going supply of nutrients for micro-organisms and plants.

MATERIALS NEEDED

Gather a spade, water (hosepipe or buckets), live organic matter in bags/piles: green garden and kitchen waste, moist seaweed, horse or cow manure or any other fresh untreated organic matter, dead organic material in bags/piles: newspaper, sticks, dead leaves & cuttings and any other dried out organic material. Compost is optional if you want to plant soon. You will also need four 1/2 metre long sticks (to be used as markers).

PREPARATION

Measure out your trench (however long you like but no wider than a metre (for easy reach). Dig out 30cm of top soil (pile it besides the trench, remove stones).

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Dig another 30cm of sub-soil (create a separate pile and remove any stones).

Loosen the base of the trench with a garden fork.

Cover the base and sides of the trench with cardboard or newspaper. Moisten with some water.

Lay sticks on the bottom (or other rough material) up to a height of 20cm.

Place 10cm of your subsoil over the sticks. Give a light shower of water.

Place 10cm of dry/dead organic material over the subsoil. Water lightly again.

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Lay 10cm of green/colourful live material over the brown material (I included rinsed seaweed), cover with a layer of soil and water.

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Place bits of horse or cow manure over the green layer and water, add some soil & water.

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Repeat the layering process until your trench is full (leave out the stick step).

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COMPLETION

Place 1/2 metre long sticks at each corner of the trench to use as markers.

Place the topsoil you dug out earlier over the top. The bed will now stand about 20cm higher than the ground but will drop with time. Add compost (one bucket of compost per m2), level out & water well.

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Place a mulch of your choice onto the ‘skin’ of the soil to protect it.

The bed is ready to be planted (wait for a month if you prefer to leave out the composting step). Just add a little patience and before long, you’ll be so glad you put in the effort (still can’t get over this spinach crop)!

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MAINTENANCE

Once your plants have taken, feed them with a liquid natural home-made fertiliser every week or so and compost every now and again. Avoid walking on the bed to keep it soft and aerated.

Life with my grandmother, a typical day

28 Apr
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My Nan…

On a Monday and Wednesday, I’d hop on my bicycle and freewheel downhill to meet my Nan for our Tai Chi class. ‘You know, if it wasn’t for meeting you here this morning, I’m not sure I would have come this morning… Thank goodness for you, I always feel so peaceful after tai chi!’ one of us was bound to say to the other. And there we were, anxious and enthusiastic beginners, my 85 year old grandmother and I learning tai chi together.

This is how other days went: we’d have tea at her place while going through her latest emails. Photographs of her great-grandchildren, my daily drawing sent in the early hours, or general news from the family in South Africa, the UK or Australia. We’d talk about life, the universe and everything, but whatever we discussed, I realise now, my Nan was always there, completely present.

Sometimes I’d pop in with my dog, Mascara after a walk on the beach. Mascara, a lightweight 25 kg bullterrier would always run up the stairs ahead of me, to be the first at No 8. Her tail wagging in anticipation as she faced the closed door, patiently waiting for her great-grandmother to open it and say ‘hello Mascara’.

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Sometimes we’d meet up at the end of the day and Marion would pour us each a strong g&t. We’d talk about the starling who had come to visit again, at the same time, at the same window, as it had done for an age. Or a white feather she’d found. Or she’d remind me that no she could not do tai chi on Friday because she had bridge but she could meet us for breakfast somewhere after art class another day. Sometimes we’d talk about life and literature… or how sad the sunset was that day.

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When I think of her now, I think of her presence, her consistency, how brave she was, how objective and honest. I think of her touching the ground, legs straight, hands flat on the ground. I think of smoked salmon sandwiches and champagne. Of her Christmas puddings and Christmas cake and how her dining room and lounge would be transformed into one giant table every other year.

Who could have known that this inspiring, self-actualised, even-tempered, modern woman had once upon a time run off to join the army, that she had fibbed about her age to get in? Who could have known that she would meet Lad, a fighter pilot in her late teens and find such a love that she’d never known before? That they would have six children together and raise them on their farm in Magaliesburg… And then, who was to know that she would lose Lad to a brain tumour when he was only 42 years old.

Since then, Marion witnessed the cycle of life repeat itself many times: her grandchildren would marry and they too would have children, too many to keep up with. There were more losses: her mother, her brother, her sister, some of her oldest friends… and just recently, her daughter, Candy. One can think of it as terribly sad, the loss of a close friend or family member… but…

As her little great-grandaughter Chiara said the other day, ‘Nan is in the clouds… and I think Nan is in love.’

My grandmother left us one year ago, on 26 April 2013. So many happy times shared.

My Nan bakes her fruit cake in a shoebox

2 Dec
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My Nan has mentioned that she sometimes bakes her Christmas cake in a shoe box. I’ve never seen this infamous ‘shoe box cake tin’ but, as luck would have it, when I visited yesterday, she was busy wrapping her Christmas cake. I walked into the kitchen to make tea and low and behold, there was a shoe box sitting on her stove! I looked inside to find no shoes — only cake crumbs.

Just goes to show that there’s no excuse for not baking if you don’t have a tin. On that note, my Nan often bakes in a biscuit tin. She uses about seven layers of greaseproof paper, cut to fit and sometimes adds a couple of layers of tin foil (see photo below). She secures the paper to the box with clothes pegs before pouring the batter into the box. Once the batter has settled, she removes the pegs and bakes her cake.

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You can find her marvelous traditional Christmas cake recipe here, together with photos of the process.

Click here for my Snowman Christmas cake — where I take my Nan’s cake and decorate it step-by-step with ‘plastic icing’ snowmen.

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If you’re keen to give small personal Christmas cakes as gifts, click here for an idea. This post tells you how to lay the marzipan and shows how to create someone’s name with royal icing.

Have fun!

My vegetable garden by the seaside (3 months later)

2 Dec
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The courtyard vegetable garden is blossoming in every way! I’m happy with the final layout (we dropped the circles) — hard to believe that all these plants fit into such a small space:

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Fruits: Passion fruit (pictured above), gooseberries (with gorgeous hanging lanterns intact), melon (no fruit as yet), blackberries and rasberries (growing well but no flowers as yet), baby avo tree (grown by my sister), forest of tomato plants (around 2m high in places with flowers and green fruit), baby grapefruit tree (grapefruit flowers smell incredible but unfortunately every one of the tiny fruits that developed dropped off — why, I have yet to find out), strawberries

Vegetables & herbs: Broccoli, cabbage, spring onions, rocket (Italian and wild), watercress, lettuce, carrots, radish, potatoes, celery, brussel sprouts, spinach, mint (three kinds but especially loving the spearmint), lavender, basil… self-seeded nasturtiums… and a couple of unidentified plants

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The front garden is also pulsing with life. It pretty much looks like a jungle though with blueberries, leeks, broccoli, tomatoes, basil, spinach and almond trees all doing their thing. Everything has grown incredibly well except for the pak choi which was constantly nibbled at. Oh, and the poor baby lemon tree which gets all the wind (it has produced two flowers and one fruit).

Nothing other than water (and some salt from the sea-breeze) has touched these plants… not a single drop of pesticide, organic or otherwise. The main reason most of the plants are still intact is due to the fact that worms and snails really can fly.

I wish them well in their new place of residence — besides, it’s more spacious in the plot next door.

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The blue flower pictured above is flax/linseed.

Vegetable gardening: how to prepare a trench bed

17 Aug
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It may have taken what felt like a day to dig and prepare our first trench bed (45cm depth x 3m length x 0.5m width) but what it did was get me in touch: I now know the intimate details of the soil’s make-up and where the sunny spots are in the courtyard at various times of the day. Best of all, there’s no doubt that our vegetables and herbs are going to have a nutritious and balanced diet.

I attended the Soil for Life course recently, so it’s thanks to Pat Featherstone (our inspired teacher who also wrote the manual) and Livingstone (who got us involved in the practical side) that I can confidently share the following information.

What is a trench bed?

You could think of a trench bed as a compost bin that’s dug into the ground. The bed is made up of alternate layers of fresh green organic material, dead organic material, manure and soil. This organic base is pretty much a dream diet in the making for your future plantings of vegetables or other plants.

Why a trench bed?

Trench beds are a good way to go if you’re living in a dry area or if you have poor or average soil. The bed allows for excellent aeration, water retention and a long-term supply of nutrients for your plants. It requires some muscle power to begin with… but you won’t look back once you’ve started!

What you’ll need

A spade, fork, water, newspaper, sticks, dead and alive organic matter, manure and mulch. You will also need compost if you want to plant sooner rather than later.

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Divide your organic waste into ‘live waste’ (green garden and kitchen waste, moist seaweed, horse or cow manure, any fresh untreated organic matter) and ‘dead waste’ (any of the former, but dried out).

PREPARATION

Meaure out your trench. It can be as long as you like but shouldn’t be wider than a metre (to allow for easy reach).

Dig out the first 30cm of top soil (pile the soil next to your trench and remove any stones).

Dig out the the next 30cm of sub-soil (place it in a seperate pile and remove any stones).

Use a garden fork to loosen up the base of the trench.

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Cover the bottom and sides of the trench with NEWSPAPER (or cardboard). Moisten the paper with a sprinkling of water. (I skipped this step because the base of this trench is like solid rock and it is the rainy season so no need to use paper to retain extra water).

LAYER THE ORGANIC MATTER

Lay STICKS (or other course material) over the base of the trench — aim for a height of 20cm.

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Lay 10cm of SUBSOIL over the sticks and water.

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Lay 10cm of DRY BROWN material over the subsoil and water well.

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Lay 10cm of WET GREEN material over the dead, dry brown material and water.

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Sprinkle horse or cow MANURE over the top and water.

Repeat this layering process (leaving out the sticks and newspaper at this point)… until the trench is full.

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FINAL STEPS

Insert 1/2 metre long marker sticks into each corner of the bed.

Lay the TOPSOIL over the last layer. The surface will be about 20cm higher than the surrounding ground at this stage. It will drop over time.

Cover the topsoil with a MULCH of your choice (eg. straw or leaves) to protect the area from the elements. (I used seaweed but beware of sand fleas!!)

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Let the bed rest for a month before planting. Alternatively you can speed up the process by working COMPOST into the topsoil before mulching. Use a bucket of compost per square metre, level the area out, water well and begin planting.

PS. Don’t walk on the bed! Also, even though you have given your plants a great start, keep feeding them with a weekly liquid natural home-made fertiliser… and keep composting every now and again.

White bread recipe – step by step with photos (use for baguettes or shape it how you like)

3 Aug
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Here’s the traditional baguette recipe that we practiced at pastry school. It’s the bread recipe I use most often — and not just because it’s sugar-free and fat-free. Besides being straight-forward and clean-tasting, it gives lots of crunch and is delicious.

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    There are three ingredients, besides water: bread flour, yeast and salt. The method involves mixing the dough, allowing it to rise, strengthening the dough and shaping it —and then leaving it to rise again before baking it. It will give you two medium sized loaves or four smaller baguettes.

    It’s a perfect recipe to prepare on a warm, expansive Sunday…. especially since I’m providing a rather detailed account of how to prepare it! (Alternatively, click here for a shorter version but note that the ingredients are halved).

    INGREDIENTS

    1 kg white bread flour
    20 g live yeast (reduce by 25% for dry yeast)
    20 g salt
    700 g warm water (comfortably warm… not hot)

    If you have a teeny oven or you’re new to baking bread, rather halve the recipe, in which case you’ll have two small loaves or one medium sized loaf. Bread-making isn’t difficult, it just takes a little practice.

    METHOD

    Mix the ingredients together:

    Place the flour in a bowl with the yeast. Rub the live yeast into the flour with your fingertips or simply mix in the dried yeast. Pour in the warm water and mix (using your hands or a wooden spoon).

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    Finally, mix in the salt — once everything is roughly combined (the mixture will be messy and sticky at this stage).

    Knead the dough:

    Turn the mixture onto a ‘warm’ work surface (warm up a cold marble surface for instance, as yeast needs warmth). Now pull the dough towards you and slap it down onto the counter, while trapping in as much air as possible.

    Work your dough for ten minutes or so until it feels light and silky smooth (the dough should be coming off your hands as you knead at this stage). If you haven’t kneaded dough before, don’t think the stickiness is going to last forever! See this post which links to a great demonstration by the master baker, Richard Bertinet.

    Now work the dough into a ‘ball shape’. Sprinkle some flour (or rub some olive oil) onto the bottom of a large bowl (big enough to allow the dough to double in size).

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    Gently place your dough inside (crease-side-down, smooth-side-up). Give a light sprinkling of flour over the top of the dough.

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    Cover with a dish towel, a towel or some plastic.

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    Rest the dough:

    Place the covered bowl in a warm, draught-free place.

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    Let the dough rest for 45 minutes to an hour until it has doubled in size.

    A word on timing: we were never given cooking times at pastry school. ‘It’s ready when it’s ready,’ is what Chef Tim always used to say. This approach caused anxiety at first but it forced us to develop our powers of observation. As a result, we developed a ‘feel’ and came to trust ourselves more. Failures were mostly still edible and that’s how we learned!

    Strengthen and shape the dough:

    Divide the dough into same-sized portions (depending on how many loaves you’re making).

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    Fold each piece of dough into itself in order to strengthen it: fold the outer area towards the centre of each piece. This should only take a couple of minutes.

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Once the dough is ‘tighter’ or ‘stronger’, you can go ahead and create the shape of your choice.

To make a baguette shape:

Work the dough into a sausage shape and then roll both ends into narrower sausage shapes. You could create a simple ball shape or a rough ‘ship-shape’… have fun with it, rather than strive for perfection. Keep a light touch and don’t overwork the dough!

Rest the dough again:

Sprinkle some flour on your oven tray before gently placing your bread on it. Use a sharp knife, scissors or a razor blade to slit the top of the bread (this releases pressure).

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Cover it and place it in a warm, draught-free place to rest again — for half an hour or so.

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Pre-baking:

Pre-heat your oven to 200 degrees celsius.

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If you want a good crust then spray some water over the bread and into the oven before baking. I often rub olive oil and some salt over the dough at this stage — this adds to the flavour.

Baking:

Gently place the oven tray into the centre of the oven (close the door quickly so you don’t lose too much heat). Turn the temperature down to 180 degrees celsius after about ten minutes.

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Bake for a further 20 to 45 minutes, depending on how many loaves you have in the oven. A golden brown crust tells you that the bread is close to ready. To check, tap the underside — if there is a sharp, hollow sound then it is ready. If not, place the loaf face down onto the oven tray and bake for a further 5 to 10 minutes.

Place the bread on a rack to cool down a little before serving it. A little olive oil rubbed over the bread will enhance it’s appearance, taste and smell.

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And if you want to give some to family, friends or neighbours, simply wrap in some wax-paper or pop it into a paper bag ~x~

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PS. Warning to other food bloggers: this post has been copied and pasted in it’s entirety by a content scraper/thief: Bocata.com. They posted it as their own at http://bocata.com/?p=181.

How to grow PEAS (a comprehensive guide…in retrospect!)

31 Jul
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Sadly, the peas featured below are the last survivors of a pack: they do not serve as examples of ‘the perfect peas’.

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They began their lives in an edible sprout container in the kitchen (with all the other peas). They were then planted in the garden with some garlic for company (I didn’t yet know the ‘companion planting rule’ of peas: don’t plant peas near garlic) and then re-planted in these little pots… with one little stick for support.

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Poor peas… but thank goodness there’s still time to try again. And since I want to get it right next time, I’ve done a lot of research on how to grow peas properly. In this post I summarise important facts that cover the life-span of a pea plant. Hope it’s useful to other new vege gardeners!

Topics include what peas need to grow into healthy plants (eg. soil, planting, growing and maintenance requirements), growing problems (and solutions), harvesting (and how to freeze bonus crops), saving seeds, composting the remains of the pea and tips on what to plant next, capitalising on the fact that pea plants leave valuable nitrogen behind in the soil for future generations of plants.

WHAT HEALTHY PEAS NEED

Correct Position and Timing

Planting time will depend on the variety of pea you’re sowing, as well as where you live in the world. It’s important to check planting guides for your particular area. (Capetonians who enjoy Winter rainfall can look forward to planting peas from April to August. South Africans can generally plant peas from March to July).

Position your peas in a sunny area.

Good Soil

Peas do well in a neutral, compost-rich soil (lime can help reduce an overly acidic soil). To ensure that your plants don’t grow too fast, refrain from adding fertiliser at the planting stage (and avoid high nitrogen fertilisers). Rather use a light dressing shortly before planting.

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Correct Planting Technique

Soak your pea seeds for 12 hours or so before planting them directly into your prepared soil. Allow 15 to 20cm of growing space between each pea and a depth of around 5cm below ground level. Cover and water.

If you’re not sure of the quality of your seed, plant three peas together. Your seedlings should emerge a week to ten days after planting. You can then keep the strongest plant and cut away the weaker ones.

Carrots, beans, radish and parsnips are good companion plants for peas. Don’t forget that peas shouldn’t get too close to garlic!

Well Prepared Containers (for those who don’t have spare ground)

Don’t use my already potted pea-pots as an example — they are too small but it’s too late to transplant them now.

Your container should have a minimum depth of about 15cm and must have holes at the bottom to facilitate proper drainage. Before sowing, place stones (or other drainage material) in the bottom of your pot.

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Although it doesn’t matter what your container is made of, it’s worth finding out the pros and cons of the material to accommodate for a happier plant.

A Good Diet (NB!)

Give your peas a regular dose of organic compost and water with liquid fertiliser once a week — this will encourage their health and add to their flavour. Natural liquid fertilisers can be made with manure, compost, comfrey, seaweed or weeds.

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Protection

Protect your peas from extreme heat and wind.

Water

Keep the soil moist by watering the ground around the plant rather than the leaves. The morning is a good time to water your plants.

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Mulch

Surround your seedlings with wood ash, compost, leaf mulch etc. Mulch helps prevent excessive evaporation in hot weather while keeping the soil warm in cool weather. It also helps to build the soil. I’ve used seaweed and sponges found on the beach as a mulch in the pic below.

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You can test the moisture content below the surface by pushing your finger into the ground.

Support

Support climbing peas with a trellis, a tepee, a wire tower, poles or sticks as soon as tendrils appear.

Weeding

By removing weeds you ‘kill two birds with one stone': you remove plants that compete for nutrients which you can then use to make a natural fertiliser. To make ‘weed tea’, soak a bunch of weeds in some water for a couple of weeks and then strain before watering your plants.

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‘Good’, healthy weeds like dandelion, fat-hen, stinging nettle (see above) and chickweed can be cooked and eaten — otherwise use unwanted healthy weeds as mulch or to feed your compost bin.

However, diseased weeds must be burnt or sent straight to the garbage bin.

GROWING PROBLEMS (and some natural solutions)

Weak-looking plants are possibly suffering from starvation. To ensure healthy plants with strong immune systems, keep the soil well-fed with nutrients and trace elements. Tall, thin, spindly plants may have enough food but not enough sunshine. Try adding some bone meal and blood meal to the soil if you have plants that are growing too slowly.

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You may encounter problems with aphids, mice, slugs, cutworm or birds along the way. A great many pests can be controlled naturally by providing healthy soil and balanced habitats (that encourage natural predators like spiders, lizards, lady birds and frogs).

Slugs can be discouraged by sprinkling broken egg shells around plants. Diatomite can be used as a second line of defense against snails. Diatomite also discourages aphids if you sprinkle it on leaves and the heart of new leaves.

To prevent cutworm from devastating your seedlings, cut toilet rolls into three parts and sink the base of each section into the earth around your seed. Leave the top section above the ground. If mice are a problem, try growing your seeds indoors in toilet rolls — they will be ready for planting when the roots show at the bottom of the roll.

Stop birds from eating your seeds and seedlings by covering your crop with netting.

HARVESTING PEAS

If all goes well, you should be able to harvest your fresh home-grown peas 14 to 16 weeks after planting. The younger peas are, the sweeter they are so pick your garden peas regularly! To do so, hold the stem firmly with one hand while pulling the pod skywards with your other hand.

Pea shoots can be cut when they are around 10cm, to be used in salads and stir-fries.

FREEZING PEAS

Frozen peas keep well for as long as a year. They can be cooked in their frozen state and will be ready to eat within minutes. If you have a bountiful harvest, why not make the most of your freezer?

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To freeze garden peas, first shell them and then blanch them in boiling water for a minute. (Sugarsnaps and mangetouts should be blanched for two minutes). Dip them into icy cold water or cool them under running cold water. Finally, dry them and place them in freezer bags.

SAVING PEA SEEDS

Leave a few pea pods on the plant if you wish to save some seeds. The first pods are often the the best. Mark them and leave them to mature and dry on the plant. Alternatively, you can cut the plant at ground level and hang it to dry in an airy environment (away from sunlight). Store unattacked, disease-free dried pods in a container.

COMPOSTING & PLANTING

And finally… make use of peas’ ‘underground gift’ …

Compost whatever remains of the plant but leave the roots in the earth! The reason? Pea roots harbour valuable nitrogen-fixing nodules. Make the most of this gift from your peas by planting a heavy-feeding leafy crop next. Leaves will be stronger and greener, thanks to the nitrogen-enriched soil.

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SOURCES

I used the following truly inspiring books (and will be referring back to them many times in the future):

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Pot it Grow it Eat it by Kathryn Hawkins (a British book)
One Magic Square by Lolo Houbein (an Australian book that’s been adapted for various countries)
Grow to Live by Pat Featherstone (proudly South African)

I also attended Pat Featherstone’s excellent Grow to Live weekend course at Soil for Life in Constantia. This is highly recommended for new organic vegetable gardeners in Cape Town, although it’s not only for beginners.

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