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

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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 the spinach)!

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

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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

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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)

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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

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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. Avoid walking 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)

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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.

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.

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

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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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