Sometimes Mother Nature does not gift us with what we expect but that is not to say she does not gift us at all; sometimes we just need to look elsewhere. This past year has been a challenging year for most small fruit growers with constant rain and grey skies through the spring and early summer which had a detrimental effect on the bursting fruit blossom, which, in turn, resulted in a very meagre harvest. However Mrs Dirtdigger did what she does exceptionally well and managed to forage many kilos of nature’s wonderful freebies from the hedgerows that border the allotment site, and so much so that by mid September she had harvested well over 5 kilos of blackberries which more than compensated for the gooseberry wipe-out earlier in the summer. Blackberries are not as pectin heavy as blackcurrants, but the use of an apple to boost the pectin level in the jamming process means there should be no need to use pectin added sugar. This year we put one of the large April Queen apples into the mix; the addition of the apple not only lifts the flavour but helps the final set. A pinch of ground clove adds an autumnal wow! factor, but too much will be overpowering, so no more than a fingers pinch. Alternatively place 3-4 cloves into a little muslin sachet and put into the boiling mix for the duration of the boil and remove before jarring.
Ingredients: 1 kg of fresh picked blackberries, thoroughly washed 1 kg of granulated sugar 1 large Dessert or Bramley apple, peeled, cored and chopped 150mls of water pinch of ground cloves knob of butter, salted/unsalted You will need a large stainless steel saucepan in which to boil the jam; 5-6 sterilized jars with clean lid and wax discs, a couple of saucers for the freezer, a tongs, a ladle, and a spoon or stirrer.
How to Jam it Up… Prepare all the ingredients and utensils you’ll need before hand; use a stainless steel pot and stainless steel or wooden spoon; have your jam jars washed and pop into the oven at 100 degrees for duration of the jamming process; wash and drain the blackberries; peel, core and chop the apple; pop two saucers into the freezer to have them chilled… 1. Put the blackberries, chopped apple and water into a large pot over a medium heat for 12-15 minutes bringing to a slow boil. 2. Once the fruit in the pot has softened and noticeably reduced turn the heat up full and begin adding the sugar, stirring constantly till the sugar is dissolved; this is where the benefit of a wooden spoon allows you fell what is between the wooden spoon and end of the pot. Once the sugar is dissolved bring the jam to a rapid rolling boil. At this stage add the knob of butter and the pinch of ground cloves, and leave it to boil for at least 7-8 minutes (boil time can vary depending on the actual fruit itself). 3. Remove pot from heat, and using a clean teaspoon pour a little of the jam onto one of the chilled saucers. Leave for 1 minute before running a finger through the blob of jam. If the surface of the blob crinkles your jam has reached setting point and is ready for jarring, if however the jam on the saucer is still too thin, return the pot to the heat and continue to boil for another 5 minutes before repeating the saucer test, and if necessary repeat once more till jam has reached setting point. 4. Once satisfied jam has hit setting point remove from heat. At this point take the jars out of the oven. Leave both jam and jars sit for 5 -8 minutes before carefully ladling the jam into the sterile jars. Fill jars almost to top, leaving 2-3mm at rim. Place a wax disc on top of jar, and screw on clean lid. The hot jam going into reasonably hot sterile jars should be enough to seal completely, but at times we then place the filled jar into a preserving pot of boiling water, completely covering the jars and boiling for 10 minutes to be sure to be sure! Using a tongs lift jars from the water and set aside to cool. 5. If your prep has been thorough and fresh fruit has been used and poured into sterile jars your blackberry jam should store for 6-7 months, of course, it probably won’t last that long at all once you start to dollop it onto fresh Devon scones, with a scoop of double cream perhaps………
“It rained on August 1st, and it rained again on the 2nd. It rained on the 3rd 4th and 5th; it rained the first Tuesday and again on Wednesday 7th and the next day also. Thus it rained the whole first week of August. It also rained each day of the second week, with another full encore the following week. In fact it rained every day the first twenty two days of August,,,”
That is how we opened the monster’s previous posting at the end of September. We’ve not been able to do much in the meantime; hence we’ve not had much to record. We had hoped (and rather naively it must be said) that if things were not to improve that at least they could not get much worse than our end of summer experience. We had had a typically Irish summer i.e. one of sunshine and showers in equal measure with a couple of good weeks in July, but Augusts’ arrival seemed to herald an earlier than usual autumn and one which precipitated a necessary change in plans and harvest outcome. And so, just as with all other allotmenteers on our site and farmers and smallholders right across the country we proceeded to harvest and lift what we could so as not to have them totally ruined should prevailing gut feelings come to pass. Well, come to pass it has. Autumn was rightly drowned: no bright days with golds and oranges and ochres; no piles of dried leaves to kick-up on walks through the woods and parks; no snapping twigs underfoot, and no fabulous transitional autumnal show from the branches before winter’s set-in. No, everything is sodden, soaked and flooded. Whatever crops we’d not lifted before October arrived have had an aquatic existence, and having been submerged for too long thus, are most probably beyond use now, but, we cannot even check this status until the standing water subsides.
It hasn’t stopped raining yet, and as such we’ve still not been able to do much with the monster’s measure. In recent weeks we have not been able to negotiate further than the full allotment site entrance as even the parking bays are under a foot of standing water. It rained most of August, and though early September brought a little respite from the deluge, October and November simply saw the situation deteriorate to a heavens opening down-pouring of almost biblical proportions. Large swathes of the country have already experienced flooding events; rivers have been in full spate for weeks on end, and in most low lying areas livestock has had to be housed already and that is a good 6-8 weeks earlier than usual and something not normally done till near winter’s end. A lot of the potato harvest could not be lifted, and a lot of the winter barley could not be sown, and to add a seasonal twist this last week has seen the mercury drop back significantly to what would be typically late December readings with daytime temperatures 3 degrees below average for early November. And to top it all off a forecast this evening of possible sleet and/or wet snow on a brisk north easterly and a forecast low tomorrow night of minus 4 degrees! Oh yes, come to pass it has: it was only a few short weeks ago we were mulling-over the potential of an early autumn, and suddenly we find ourselves in the grip of winter. Year after year, decade after decade, perhaps century after century even Ireland’s weather was always viewed as dependable. It was dependable in the sense that it was always quite unremarkable. You knew what to expect with weather in Ireland: never too hot, never too cold; an odd few days or perhaps a couple of weeks in July of fabulous summer sunshine, and once every couple of years a blanket of late seasonal snow which, if you were lucky enough, might just coincide with the late 19th and 20th centuries media-driven Christmassy sentimentality that somehow lulled generations into a false belief in the possibility of snow flurries between the 21st and 31st December every year, when records have always shown that we would have been most prone to snowfall, if indeed we were to have snowfall at all, from late January to late February each year.
For as long as anyone could remember Ireland’s weather was remarkably unremarkable in this sense: drizzle and sunshine, breezy, and blustery; soft spring days and soft summer days aplenty; frosty mornings, though not so many as to write home about and unnamed winter storms which blew in half-unexpectedly and without warning and invariably blew themselves out by Patrick’s Day. But, that was then, and now is the new weather reality. The pattern of weather in Ireland now is most definitely changed, and what was once by-and-large considered dependable and unremarkable is now most definitely become remarkably remarkable. As children of the twentieth century’s great and good technological developments and advancements, we here on monsterinthecorner have always valued the evidence and researched based conclusions which helped greatly improve the living standards, healthcare and education for many, many billions of people on this tiny blue spinning rock ninety-odd million miles from our nearest star; there is just no arguing with science when that science is done scientifically. And now almost all of The Science on climate change says…well, it says “we ain’t seen nothing’ yet!” We here on the monster’s emerald isle stomping ground now experience a pattern of weather with noteworthy extremes: we now have higher than average seasonal temperatures in both summer and winter; we now experience twice the historical mean number of Atlantic winter storms each season and ones which make landfall with greater and more sustained force than had been the case heretofore; we are now become acquainted with extra tropical storms and downgraded bona-fide hurricanes not to mention highly destructive and erosive tidal surges, and how can we ignore that steadily increasing number of days when rainfall amount surpasses former monthly equivalents. Most certainly, and for all the wrong reasons, our weather must now be regarded as remarkable, if not remarkably remarkable. Long before it was considered worthy of mainstream sound-biting we, here on monsterinthecorner, espoused an awareness of the fragility of the environment on which we all ultimately depend, and Mrs Dirtdigger has been a lifelong soft-shoed advocate and practiser of low-carbon footprint activity and sustainable living. So we’ll not attempt to outline the science here, we are just glad the giants in those particular fields have hoisted us onto their shoulders and, if truth be told, the whole world is (or at least should be by now) so well acquainted with the factual reality of climate change as to reduce quoted iterations here to little more than line and blog filler. So fact, the climate of the planet on which we live is in massive flux, and most of the dynamic drive behind that recent flux is undisputedly due to human abuse of the planet’s resources. Another fact is that even if every single plane, train and automobile stopped dead right now, and we mean right now; and if every single coal, oil and gas fired station on the face of the planet ceased production immediately, and if all the gigantic herds of intensively farmed livestock were culled overnight, and if not one more tree was to be felled anywhere across the globe from today, and even if production of all plastics and herbicides, pesticides and fungicides was ceased right here and now, well, it would all amount to nothing! Don’t get us wrong, this all needs to be achieved and it needs to be done YESTERDAY, but in the short term it will amount to absolutely nothing. Even if all this was somehow magically possible overnight it would not change one single iota of the unimaginable damage already done, and more importantly, neither would it slow nor suspend the disturbing effects we are now witnessing. This in no way is to sound sensational, nor defeatist, but this is the hard reality. We’ve tipped the climate into a reactive state and unfortunately we cannot tip it back again. We are going to have to ride this out, and that ride that is going to last for decades, perhaps centuries. Yet when you listening very carefully you hear we are developing our survival and mitigation discourse whilst seriously considering continuing to mine and burn, and pump and burn, and frack and burn, and cut and burn, and expand and grow economies, and maintain political viabilities, and talk the greatest talk that’s ever been talked, while we all hoodwinkingly walk somebody else’s walk to a mutually assured state of global chaos. It’s not The End of the F…ing World, oh no people, it’s much more serious than that, and if you/we/us/them are waiting for someone else to tell you what needs to be done and what you need to do, well then, you probably still haven’t got it.
It rained on August 1st, and it rained again on the 2nd. It rained on the 3rd 4th and 5th; it rained the first Tuesday and again on Wednesday 7th and the next day also. Thus it rained the whole first week of August. It also rained each day of the second week, with another full encore the following week. In fact it rained every day the first twenty two days of August, and that, as must be said put a real dampener on the late summer’s gardening experience.
It did dry up and improve somewhat toward month’s end but the dull damp conditions for most of the month took its toll: the potatoes were blighted, as was the polytunnel tomato crop; the pumpkins sat in the dull damp and those that survived the unseasonal water-logging and flooding simply called it quits and failed to mature and swell to anything near expected potential, the vines mildewed completely and we had to pick the remainders. We had to lift the late onions and shallots and cure them under cover, and the lettuce and rocket bed was obliterated by the constancy of the pelting droplets; the summer colour in Mrs Dirt-digger’s orangey-patch looked bedraggled and those sunflowers which actually managed to bloom looked forlorn. We did however have some cucumbers from the polytunnel, in fact – and perhaps by way of compensation – we have had a veritable cucumber glut, which we’ve put to good use by using all the excess in a store of pickles, a challenging exercise with our dried herb and spice rack; turmeric, mustard seed, fennel seed, dill, chive flowers and shallots, fifteen jars in all to see us through the leaner months.
Things improved greatly with the first days of September, skies cleared and the sun shone; we had days with temperatures well into the mid twenties and all breathe a sigh of thankfulness at feeling the remnants of summer before it disappeared completely again for another year. The nights are cooler now and the mornings mistier, and with the exception of a couple of overcast occurrences the first 20 days of September had been a bonus. As I type there is patchy blue sky once again, a strengthening breeze and an expected temperature this afternoon of 18 degrees, which for the latter end of September is as good as it gets.Rain is forecast. The early-fruits harvest through the early summer months was disastrous, a combination of last summer’s prolonged severe drought and this spring’s adverse blossom burst timing, and although our gooseberry and blackcurrant crop was practically non-existent as a result, these last few weeks Mrs Dirtdigger has been foraging some wonderfully plump blackberries which we’ve combined with April Queen Cider apple to make some seasonal jam that will more than compensate for the meagre store from the early season harvest.
We’ve already dipped into the pasta sauces and pizza sauces we jarred, just as we used the Rhubarb and Ginger Jam; we’ve also used plenty of the summer pickles, and this weekend we will set about combining our now fully ripened Cayenne peppers with Fresh coriander leaves and garlic bulbs harvested in July to make some Harissa, another of the monster’s staples. The Purple Cascade French Beans proved to be a winner, and though the vines are now spent we have over 10 lbs frozen for use in the coming months. The beets are finished and it’s just a tad too late to try a successional sowing, the autumn curly kale is ready anytime soon and we still have the parsnip bed which only lately seems to be spurting growth and this should herald a good crop, most especially with the warm damp soil conditions that are autumn parsnip heaven. And so with the drawing to a close of the monster’s annual cultivation activities, other activities come to the fore. We’ve already begun to plan some of those changes we need to make, and also some we want to make during the forthcoming winter season. Mrs Dirt-digger is planning a large octagonal herb wheel construct into which we’ll relocate most of our herbs early next year, and we will also finish the gothic picket fence which we started last winter. It rained again yesterday, but as we are now the darker side of the equinox the weather is as expected to be given that. The rudbekias and anemones shine in the speeding autumn sunlight, the dahlias stand blousy-bright and the autumn beauties are on sentry duty right the way around the monster’s perimeter.
This past weekend we set some lavender and bay laurel cuttings; we collected our marigold, sweetpea, poppy and calendula seed heads, we cut the last of the strawflower blooms and have them drying in the potting shed and we planted some ‘Thalia’, ‘Sunnyside Up’ and ‘Double Fashion’ daffodil bulbs for new colour next spring and with that action right there, this circle is squared for the year.
the evenings noticeably shorter and the days slightly cooler, weeks and months have slipped by in the blink of an eye, and summer is most definitely in autumnal transition. July lived up to its promise and in doing so conferred on us four weeks of reasonably warm sun-filled days, a small seasonal mercy given the experiences of the late spring and early summer. June was typically hit-and-miss, and of course April and May, well, least said there the better… But summer definitely arrived with July; however, it seems to have checked-out immediately on Augusts’ arrival. We’ve been returned to the all too familiar dull and wet routine this last week and the short range weather forecast indicates much the same for the coming week, but at least the temperature is holding up. Summer came but now is most definitely going, and yet it seems as though some of the monsters summer show has only just begun. The sunflowers have only shown their faces in the last two to three weeks, and only now (as we enter the second week of August) have the gladioli made a full entrance. The disastrously dull and damp spring not only hampered the annual seed sowing schedule through April and May, it also had a detrimental time delay on many of the other garden stalwarts. We’ve had very little in the way of a crop from the gooseberry, redcurrant and blackcurrant bushes, and the apple and plum trees have not fared much better, a combination -we thinks- of last summer’s and autumn’s severe drought followed by this spring’s constant grey and stormy washout. We did have some nice rhubarb while it lasted though; we also had kale, rocket and chard a plenty, some fine beetroot and potatoes which we are still harvesting and consuming as we need and by way of compensation perhaps we have had a good harvest of onions, shallots and garlic.
So, win some, lose some…plenty of alliums, and no strawberries. The effects of the delayed spring are visible still though, even in the polytunnel. By this time last year we had been harvesting our tomatoes for over a month, whereas this year most of the set trusses are yet to ripen; there is plenty of fruit and Mrs Dirtdigger has made some fabulous tomato, basil and onion soup already with the first flush, it’s just that most of the tomato crop is still green at present. We have had some fabulous courgettes, we’ve had Rosa Bianca aubergines, and we are having a veritable cucumber glut fest, so we’ve opted to make some summer pickle with the excess. The pumpkin vines have set fruit and hopefully these will bulk up over the next eight weeks or so. The parsnips have struggled a little, but in the last fortnight they have begun to crown out and leaf-up a little more vigorously perhaps indicating that there is some subterranean development as well.
We made and jarred some jam, but nowhere near the volume we made in previous years, and we’ll have to wait a while longer as the ingredients for some of the monster’s other staples are still only ripening, but, there’s time yet. Each gardening year is as different as different can be from those that have gone before. There are so many variables to consider when undertaking any gardening project it is surprising at times that anything at all is ever successful, and yet we continue to do it, day in, day out, and week after month, year after year. As any recorded sowing diary should show, you can sow the same varieties of seed on the very same day each year, and you can expend the same effort in care and attention to planting on and planting out and maintaining a thorough watering and feeding regime, and end up with results so different from previous years’ as to have you think you must have lost a whole month somewhere between April and July. And thus has been this year’s curve. It’s been dull and damp and warm and wet, maybe not when we wanted it to be, and at times certainly not when we needed it to be, but that is what we had to work with so we got to work while attempting to ignore the pop-up pond that appeared on the monster’s measure throughout the spring, and which has made an unexpected if not wholly unsurprising return this past weekend.
So win some, lose some, and we certainly lost some this year, but Mrs Dirtdigger’s pollinators patch has been buzzing, and we’ve had hares and pheasants and frogs and buzzards and bees, and what we failed to get on the one hand nature gifted us with the other. We have not had the success hoped for with some things this year, but the harvest is in full swing so we’ll see how things fare. We’ll not change too much mind you for some variables are beyond our control: we’ll continue to tread softly; we watch our track, pay attention to the footprint, and we here at monsterinthecorner will continue to play our part in negating damage to the wider planetary variables, conscious of the degree of long-term damage our species has had on the fundamental variables on which we all ultimately depend for our continued existence.