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.

Far Breton (or custard tart with prunes… or bread and butter pudding without the bread and butter?!)

30 Jul
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If you’re a baked pudding fan then you’re probably going to love this custard prune pudding… or should I say this bread-and-butter-type-pudding (minus the bread and butter). … or should I say crustless-milk-tart-type-pudding (with fruit in it)?!

Known as Far Breton in France, where it originates, it is incredibly quick and easy to make… and absolutely delicious!! I delivered a slice to my grandmother who is not known to repeat the words ‘THIS IS ABSOLUTELY DELICIOUS’ several times in a row. She insisted that I bake it for our next family get-together. She promised in return that she’d show me how to prepare her very own one-of-a-kind non-bake rice pudding recipe.

I used Richard Bertinet’s recipe from his bread book, Crust. I added a handful of raisins and reduced the amount of prunes called for. I also added a teeny sprinkling of cinnamon to the batter.

Ingredients

130g caster sugar (I used regular sugar)
220g eggs (I used 4 1/2 medium sized eggs)
110g plain white flour
750g full-cream milk (cold)
400g of stoned prunes — soaked overnight in 50g of rum or tea (I used brandy)

You will also need pinch of salt (I added 3 small pinches of salt) and some butter for greasing an earthenware dish.

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Preparation

Richard Bertinet recommends greasing a 20 x 25cm (or thereabouts) earthenware dish with 50g of melted butter. If you cut down on this then the dish is pretty much a ‘fat-free’ dessert. Your dish should be about 4cm deep.

Place your oven tray in the centre of your oven and preheat to 220 degrees celsius.

Method

Mixing up the batter shouldn’t take you much longer than 15 minutes.

Warm the prunes slightly and spread them out on the base of your dish (you could cut them into smaller pieces and use less fruit). Whisk the eggs and sugar together so that they are well combined. Gradually sift in the flour while whisking and add some salt. Finally, whisk in the milk and pour the batter over the prunes.

Bake

Pop the dish into the oven for ten minutes before turning the temperature down to 180 degrees celsius. Bake for another half an hour or so — until such time as a knife blade comes out clean. I added ten minutes to my baking time because I used less fruit.

Enjoy warm or cold, as a dessert or as a breakfast treat. Actually, Bertinet points out that Far Breton used to be eaten for lunch by agricultural workers in France. And why not? Far Breton can be sliced like bread when it is cold… which should make it perfectly suitable for anyone… at any time of day?

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Starting a vege garden (with one square metre of land)

20 Jul
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Growing and maintaining a vege garden always seemed beyond me until recently — thanks to a book called One Magic Square by Lolo Houbein.

Houbein, who witnessed the devastation of famine in Holland during the second world war, has made food security education a top priority. She lived through a time when 24 000 people starved to death in an area about as big as Gauteng in South Africa. She witnessed all the beautiful trees being chopped down for firewood and all the birds, animals and fish in her home town being killed and used for food. This thick little square book is a gift for survival and is especially encouraging to those who’ve never planted a vegetable garden before.

After reading the first few paragraphs my boyfriend and I were heading off to the hardware store to buy some seedlings, compost and a spade. These are the words that inspired: ‘To start growing your own food without delay, put down this book, go out in the garden and select a spot in the sun. Dig over one square metre with a garden fork and remove all the weeds by hand.’

Houbein doesn’t allow for analysis paralysis —she encourages the wanna-be-gardener to go out immediately and buy some seeds or seedlings, some blood meal and bone meal ‘since you don’t yet have compost and composted manure’. It’s easy to go ahead with your garden once you have these items: sprinkle and rake a few handfuls of the meals into the soil and then loosen it to a depth of 15cm before watering it. You can then read up on the vegetables you’ve bought before the seeds or seedlings are planted and watered. That’s it, to begin with.

We simply dug some compost and bone meal into the earth before planting the seedlings. And that was that… a few weeks later we were eating beautiful fresh rocket, parsley, chives and watercress from our one square metre garden.

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We’ve been dreaming of expanding the vegetable garden so that every spare metre of the property is covered with home-grown edibles. So far we’ve only been able to add another square metre, besides a few pots… been slowed down somewhat by our puppy who just loves getting her paws (and everything else) dirty! But then, as Houbein says, ‘most food gardening failures occur through starting too big.’ She recommends extending the garden by one square metre each season. By doing so, the pleasure is not lost ‘even as your self-sufficiency increases’.

Here’s a photo of our miniature vege garden three months later (with emergency dog-proof fence).

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Click here for a review of the book.

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