Something’s Rotten in the Garden Centre

Something has been happening in our garden centres. This blog post, I’m afraid, is a bit of a rant.

Recently, I had the most depressing experience. We were out and about, and with seed sowing season upon us, we needed to pick up a few bags of peat free compost for the garden. As it happened, we knew there was a garden centre just up the road – the glossy signage at the roadside bragged of it having won awards, and the car park, on a sunny February Saturday, was crowded.

Garden CentreThe bad omens started at the entrance. ‘No dogs’, said the sign. This was a nuisance because Dave dog was with us, of course. So he would have to wait outside with Hubby while I popped in to pick up the compost. And maybe one or two other bits and bobs. Even better, I had some National Garden vouchers in my wallet, so it was the best sort of shopping, the kind that doesn’t feel like it involves spending ‘real’ money.

The ‘information’ desk at the entrance (‘This is Not a Till’) was a bit odd, but the man in a suit standing behind it was able to confirm that they would indeed accept my vouchers. Oh goodie! I looked around. A few BBQs. A chimnea or three. A garden swing. Nothing really unexpected, and surely the good stuff would be just through there…

The sight that greeted me through the door, instead, was rather startling. A large hangar of a space, it was filled from side to side with tat. Not so much as a houseplant, as far as the eye could see. Instead, nick-nacks piled up on tables like some sort of demented car boot sale. I’ll admit, it took me a few moments to take it all in. A second adjoining cavernous space seemed to be filled with even more of the same. But where on earth were the plants?

Garden centre tat

In the distance I spied a door that seemed to lead outside. Perhaps, this was where I might find what I needed? After weaving through tables piled with clocks, picture frames, porcelain rabbits, and oversized tea sets, I stepped out into the sunshine. Here, finally, I found the plants, set out on staging. I could have danced. And there, against the fence, half-hidden by heaps of discarded wooden pallets, were piles of promising looking plastic sacks. At least I’d be able to pick up the compost I needed, and escape from this very perplexing place.

Compost SacksI couldn’t spot the peat free compost we normally buy, so I walked along the row looking to see what they had instead. It dawned on me, slowly, that the answer was ‘nothing’. Not a single bag of peat-free compost. I walked back along the row, slightly disbelieving, and checked all the labels carefully. But apart from the topsoil, wood chip, and the farmyard manure, all the potting mixes contained old-school peat.

Now, I’m not a peat free zealot. I understand that some gardeners, familiar and comfortable with its properties, find it hard to give it up. A bit like fossil fuels and global warming, it can be hard to link the bag of compost in your shed to the destruction of rare and fragile wetland habitat. I’ve made the personal decision to finally make the break, and our new garden will be peat free as far as it possibly can be – but I understand that not everyone is ready or able to make that jump just yet. It is surely a remarkable moral failure, though, to be denying your customers even the possibility of making the right choice.

Rather shocked, I turned around and tried to find the exit. On my way out, I spied the seed racks – the ultimate impulse buy for any keen gardener, and my personal retail kryptonite – hidden so far out of the way that I wasn’t even tempted to browse, let alone buy. A tiny range of cheap plastic propagating trays was piled haphazardly nearby, almost hidden behind a giant selection of multi-coloured welly boots.

I left, gift vouchers resolutely still in my pocket.

What has gone wrong when a garden centre can’t part a keen gardener with a pocket full of gift vouchers from even a penny their cash?  The failure to stock even one peat free multipurpose compost is beyond disappointing – actually I think it’s unconscionable; presumably it result from some bean-counter’s profitability analysis but surely it’s the bean growers’ needs that should matter?

Discussing this with friends on Twitter, I’ve been asked to name and shame, but that’s not my style. And depressingly, I don’t really need to – wherever you live in the country, unless you’re very very lucky, it’s likely your local garden centre, be it a chain or an independent, is somewhere rather like this. Some make a better job of pretending to care about the gardener than others, but a cursory look at the square footage is enough to make clear that the cafe, food court, interior decor, ‘giftware’, crafting supplies, pet shop, outdoor clothing (and indoor clothing for that matter), garden buildings, children’s soft play areas, and fishing tackle are more important than seeds, plants, and essential garden provisions.

This sad state of affairs appears to result from a nasty loophole in planning law which allows horticultural businesses – which real plantsman (and woman) nurseries absolutely are, but these garden centres are not – to be developed on agricultural land where permission would never be given for an out of town shopping centre. It’s the worst of both worlds, then – over-development of inappropriate sites, and the horticultural purpose, sadly, long forgotten. Instead, we get this rambling, low-rent, mixed-retail mess. And a mess which, to add insult to injury, now often fails even to fulfil its original purpose, of offering plants and horticultural supplies for gardeners.

So what are we to do? Well, you could do as we did, and visit the good guys.

Nursery PolytunnelIndependent local plant nurseries are the gardener’s friend and still hang on in most places despite competition from the big boys of the garden centre and DIY warehouse worlds. They probably don’t sell BBQs  – they may not have a cafe – but what they know, and excel in, is plants, and the knowledge and gear that you need to grow them successfully.

Fresh from our disappointing experience at the garden centre, we went along to Bodmin Plant and Herb Nursery. We immediately found the compost we needed, along with a very nice selection of pots, right outside the entrance. In the small inside space (into which Dave dog was welcomed), a good selection of seeds, seed potatoes, pea and bean seeds sold loose by weight, little bunches of snowdrops ‘in the green’ ready for transplanting, and a good selection of tools, along with tree ties, rabbit guards, and so on. Second-hand module trays, too, saved from landfill and a bargain addition to our potting bench. And not a nasty nick-nack in sight.

Plant selectionOutside, even in very early spring, a great range of fruit trees and bushes, and a really good selection of shrubs and bedding plants. I can’t wait to go back in a month or two when I expect a riot of colour and fresh growth. The staff don’t wear suits; they were helpful, knowledgeable and clearly cared about the quality of their plants and the needs of their customers.

I went home with my peat free compost, and a couple of other little bits that caught my eye (yes, there might have been a seed packet of two…) and left a nice bundle of gift vouchers behind me. In fact, the only slight cause of sadness was the relative emptiness of the car park, with only a handful of vehicles parked when we arrived.

Honourable mention also goes to Burncoose Nurseries near Redruth, which we visited last week on the way back from an outing to the Lizard. A great ‘pure’ plant nursery with a fabulous selection of specimen plants and shrubs, where I finally found the Tasmanian Snow Gum I’ve been looking for for about a decade. Don’t expect to find tools or supplies here, but for plant selection it’s one of the best I’ve seen.

So, even if you’re not ready to go peat free, why not reject the tat-merchants and DIY barns and make it your resolution to go garden-centre free this growing season, and instead, give your support – and your hard-earned cash –  to your local independent nurseries?

[The photos used in this post are Creative Commons licensed images sourced from Flickr (see image pages for details) – they are for illustrative purposes and do not represent the products, nurseries or garden centres discussed in this blog post.]

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Salmon with Leeks and Cream, from ‘Two Fat Ladies Full Throttle’ – Cooking the books, week 13

It was with great sadness that I heard of the death of the indomitable Clarissa Dickson Wright last month. She, and her Two Fat Ladies co-star Jennifer Paterson, who died in 1999, were in many ways quite the best sort of eccentric British women. They just don’t make them like that any more!

Two Fat Ladies - coverIt seemed right to choose a recipe from the Two Fat Ladies cookbook on my shelf – an Oxfam bookshop find a couple of years ago. The dust-jacket notes describe Clarissa and Jennifer ‘visiting the far corners of the British Isles in their continuing mission to rescue us from food fads and philistinism’ and really, wasn’t that always the point of the Two Fat Ladies?

The recipe I chose, as titled in the book, is ‘Salmon Cutlets with Leeks and Cream’ – and this immediately caused me a problem which would have Jennifer and Clarissa either spinning in their graves, or, I hope, chuckling gently to themselves.

Salmon cutletsThe humble salmon cutlet – or salmon steak portion – sliced straight across the fish with the backbone in the centre, and which I remember being a regular feature of the special-occasion dinner table while I was growing up has, it would appear, gone so far out of fashion that it’s no longer available from supermarket fish counters. Here in the Midlands, supermarket fish counters are they’re more or less our only fresh fish option.

The fishmonger shrugged apologetically as she explained that unless they had a whole salmon to sell off, it just wasn’t a cut they sold these days. Apparently fish with bones in isn’t the done thing any more.

And so, with profound apologies to Jennifer (for it is her recipe), salmon fillets it had to be. To serve two, you will need –

  • Slice & fry leeks Two salmon portions. Cutlets / steaks if you can get them, fillets if, like me, you can’t.
  • Two mid-sized leeks
  • 150ml double cream
  • Unsalted butter
  • ~100g of cooked prawns (mine were frozen, and defrosted before use)
  • A lemon
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 190C. Slice the leeks reasonably thinly and fry until softened with a large knob of butter.

Whip creamWhile the leeks are cooking, whip your cream until it reaches ‘dolloping’ consistency. This is remarkably hard work to do by hand, especially if like me you’re carrying an old wrist injury, so I suggest you don’t follow my example and instead use an electric whisk if you have access to one!

Spoon the remaining leeks overLightly butter or oil two pieces of aluminium foil, large enough to enclose each salmon portion generously. Start with about half the softened leeks in the centre, lay the salmon portion on top of these, and then spoon the rest of the leeks over.

Ready for the ovenFinally add a generous dollop of whipped double cream and half the prawns to each portion. Squeeze over about a teaspoon of lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Now carefully fold up your foil parcels, place these in an oven proof dish, and put in the pre-heated oven for about 25 minutes.

Fresh from the ovenOnce they’re cooked, unwrap your little packages, and serve with your choice of accompaniments (I made some boulangère potatoes, which were a good match). Squeeze over a dash more lemon juice, if you like.

This is a really nice dish – probably a bit swish for a weekday supper but actually, apart from the cream whipping palaver, pretty quick and straightforward. It feels a little bit like food from another era – and in some respects, of course, it’s just that – but the flavours are fresh, distinct, and complement each other nicely. I wasn’t initially convinced by the idea of the prawns, but they do add a sweetness and a different texture to the dish.

And serve!

**
Two Fat Ladies Full Throttle, by Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright.
Ebury Press, 1998.
ISBN 978-0-091-865-016
Hard cover, 192 pages, single-colour printing with full colour plates. RRP £17.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought second-hand from a charity bookshop. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

This book accompanied the third (and penultimate) series of Two Fat Ladies. The recipes are contributed equally by Jennifer and Clarissa and seem to leap off the page in their original voices, which is lovely. Yes, these are recipes full of sugar, butter and cream, offal, game and red meat. Really, what did you expect?

Two Fat Ladies - inner pageA lot of the recipes are highly seasonal or call for rather unusual ingredients (seafood and game feature strongly) and you may struggle to find all the bits and pieces on a trip to an average provincial supermarket! This is no bad thing in my opinion – too many recipe books these days seem to be compiled with one eye on the contents of the shelves of the local Tesco (I can’t help but think Jennifer in particular would have been appalled by how far the hegemony of the supermarkets has progressed in the last decade and a half).

The book, in both its content and presentation, couldn’t be more of a contrast to Jamie Oliver’s ‘Naked Chef’ reviewed here a few weeks back – it’s a bit startling to realise that the Two Fat Ladies and The Naked Chef overlapped on UK television in 1999 (and indeed shared a production company, Optomen Television) – they feel so much like food culture from different eras. The publication date, 1998, is just a year before Jamie’s first blockbuster book offering hit our shelves.

If Jamie was the first in the vanguard of the young, cool, celebrity chefs, then Jennifer and Clarissa were undoubtedly part of the culture of old-school cooks. As a reminder, then, that it serves us to look backwards to our own traditional food culture, as well as outward to that of other countries, these recipes deserve a place in all of our collections.

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

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Copper-Bottomed – natural cleaning with lemon and salt

For Christmas, Hubby gave me a gorgeous old copper pan we found in a second hand shop in Bideford a few weeks ago. Not everyone’s fantasy Christmas gift, I grant you, but very much to my taste, I’ve been looking for something like it for some time, but every one I’ve seen has been exorbitantly expensive.

Not so this one – a real bargain, as it happened! – but of course there’s always a catch, and the pan was in, well, shall we say ‘rustic’ condition? Well used, well worn, and yes, very stained and tarnished, both inside and out. Despite his best efforts with several rounds of ‘Brasso’ to try and make it presentable for its debut under the Christmas tree, it’s fair to say that still looked like a pan which had had rather a hard life!

I took some advice, and after considering the various cleaning options, ordered some ‘Barkeeper’s Friend’, which of course has yet to make its way through the Christmas post. I’d also come across some advice that lemon juice and salt might do a useful job of getting tarnish and stains off copper surfaces.  This morning I noticed a rather wizened half-lemon left over in the fridge, and thought, ‘hey, why not give it a go?’.

All I can say is ‘Wow!’.

Cleaning in progress

It works startlingly well, even on the dark burned stains. I used a quarter of lemon at a time, working gently in circles with a bit of table salt. You can just see the colour changing in front of your eyes. I was genuinely stunned by how quickly and easily this worked – so unexpected was it I didn’t think to take ‘before’ photos! Better still, the segments of lemon come along with their own natural gentle scrubbing pad.

Finished pan - inside

It’s not a perfect finish, by any means, but it’s a really decent clean that I would be more than happy to cook with, something I really couldn’t have said before! I think I’ll probably still try the Barkeeper’s Friend when that arrives, to see if I can get a slightly finer finish – but if I hadn’t ordered it already I don’t think I’d be bothering.

Finished pan - outside

I love the patination on the outside of the pan, so I’ve left that alone. Isn’t it gorgeous? I just can’t wait to cook in it now!

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Easily Hooked – oops, I seem to have taken up crochet!

We had so much to do in the garden this weekend, but the weather hasn’t been friendly!  At least we managed to get the turf cleared from the unpromising rectangle of old ridge & furrow grass which is to be my experimental cut flower patch – watch this space for more (and photos!) in due course.  The greenhouse seedlings continue to thrive, though I’m struggling to believe the tomato seedlings are ever going to grow up big and strong enough to fruit! This time of year in the garden is always a mix of hope and doubt, without much to show yet for our efforts!

Stormy spring beech tree

But it’s raining, and there’s nothing to be done outside for the time being!

I hate to have my hands unoccupied (stop giggling there in the back!) so I suppose it was only a matter of time before I gave in and took up crochet.  Many years ago (half a lifetime, really!) I learned to knit, got good enough at it to make myself a jumper, and mastered some fiddly cable work, but it never really grabbed me.  I’ve always been impressed by the flexibility of crochet work, the variety of shapes and textures which crochet seemed to be able to achieve compared to two-needle yarn craft.  And then, about three weeks ago, by chance, I stumbled over the first part of a learn-to-crochet part-work magazine, complete with a 3.5mm hook, two balls of yarn, and a guide to basic stitches. All for 99p.

Well, I couldn’t resist. I started tinkering with a few stitches and patterns from the starter pack.  I did a bit of playing and made a little round basket out of some jute garden twine, just to see if I could.  It’s the simplest thing, with just a circle of double crochet stitches for the base, made without turning, and sides the same, but turned between rows, picking up only the front loop of the  V to add a horizontal stripe.

Jute basket bottom    Jute Basket inside    Jute basket detail with twine

It makes a lovely coaster for the bottle-cut vase I made a few weeks ago, using the bottle cutting jig I made last year.  Better still, it was surprisingly easy to make, despite the less than promising choice of yarn!

Jute basket with bottle vase

So that was it, really, I was hooked.  Obviously a single hook and a big ball of garden twine wasn’t going to get me very far, so I scurried off to the internet for a few supplies (oops!) – a couple of books for inspiration, a lucky-dip selection of yarns, and of course a set of different sized hooks.  I was good to go!

What do you make first but a scarf? Of course!

Crochet scarfI’m really happy with my first effort, the pattern is from Sue Whiting’s ‘The Crochet Bible’, which has served me really well as a crochet primer so far!  For a complete novice it was a nice simple project which gave a pleasingly complex-looking result, and came together over the course of just over a week.  I used a heather-coloured yarn I got in my mystery-pack, and I’m thrilled with the result.  The photo doesn’t quite do it justice, it’s not as blue as that!

Dave kindly offered to model it for you all, so you can see it a bit more clearly. (He continues to do very well, thank you for asking!)

Dave the dog

Of course, I couldn’t stop at just the one project.  The current one is straight out of my own head, a crochet string-bag for the summer – I think it would be great for a day at the beach.  I’ve used two of the colours of yarn in my lucky-dip pack that I think I’d struggle to wear – an orange that can only be described as ‘health & safety high-viz’ and a bright sunny lemon yellow.  I’m after a relaxed, cool, hippy-ethnic look, and I think we’re headed in the right direction – more photos, and instructions, once it’s finished, but here’s a sneak-peek of the work in progress..!

String bag - work in progress

Finally, some sad news this weekend from my hens – Gertie, my white hen, and the final member of my original hybrid quartet, went the way of all things on Saturday.  So RIP, dear Gertie.  All good things come to an end…  There’s always been a white hen in my hen-house.  I feel rather bereft.

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Built Like A Barn Door – or, how to make your own shed doors [Guest Blogger]

Lemon TreeOur Guest Blogger is Ross, from Christchurch, NZ.  

You may recall the lovely series of lemon-glut busting recipes which Ross has shared with the blog.  As well as all that preserving, he’s been doing some DIY lately – and I was so impressed by this new shed door that I rather cheekily asked him for a write-up!

So, as they say, now for something completely different! But something which is still undoubtedly a very useful country skill – woodwork.

Scenario

We have a shed. It’s timber-framed, and until recently it was clad with asbestos boards. We got some professionals in to remove and dispose of it properly, and then had a local builder come and reclad the shed in plywood. So far so good, but his quote didn’t include reinstating the door – which, to be fair, was old, rotting, and had a sliding track which was ruined when the asbestos guys ripped it off.

Shed, doorlessWhat to do?

The aperture was 190-191cm high and 140-141cm wide. (Yes, the edges are not parallel; what do you expect?) An unusual size, and if I did get a door made to fit that, I’d also have to shell out for delivery as it wouldn’t fit in the car. Such a wide door would have quite a large swing, which could be a bother.

I got some door designs from various DIY books and websites. The traditional basic ledged-and-braced door design – described as having a “rustic” feel – would certainly work for us. In short, you lay out some planks side-by-side, then nail or screw two horizontals and a diagonal to keep them together, and there’s your door.

Single door panelI don’t have a good picture of the design that doesn’t infringe somebody else’s copyright, but – skipping ahead a bit – here’s what one of ours looks like.

I rapidly came to the idea of a double door to reduce the swing size. But if I made a pair of ledged and braced doors, I’d still have the same problem getting the parts home from our local DIY barn as the wood would be too long to fit in the car.

There was a bit of head-scratching, and a few minutes more spent getting the splinters out from under my fingernails, before I realised what I could do. Stable doors. That is to say, a pair of doors with the ability to swing independently but which fill the frame vertically.

So, to deal with the swing issue as well, I’d make a double stable door. That is to say, four doorlets to fill the space. What could possibly go wrong? I should point out that, between my partner and I, we have limited tools, skill and experience. We have an electric drill and a Workmate, and know what end of a hammer to hold (beginners please note, not the metal end), but New Yankee Workshop this ain’t…

Design

door drawingHere’s the design. H for hinge, S for a door-stop, and the brown rectangles are tower bolts.

If you compare it with other ledge and brace doors, you’ll notice this is a modified design. Traditionally the ledges would both be a little distance in from the top and bottom of each door. Here I have moved the central ledges nearly flush to the edge, for convenience in bolting them together. (I still needed to be able to bolt one side at the top and bottom, but I figured I would use off-cuts to extend the ledges where I needed to. You probably don’t want both ledges to be flush with the edges in case you need to shrink the doors later.)

So I spent a good while in Mitre 10 figuring out which of their available pre-cut timber widths would give me a reasonably convenient time of assembling it all. (I had hoped to find tongue and groove, but they don’t keep any. That was OK as their regular boards are uniform enough; some are a bit warpy but not too bad.)

It broke down like this:

  • Right side: 7x 13.5cm x 9mm boards per door
  • Left side: 2x 23cm x 9mm boards per door
  • Bottom half: Boards to be 1.2m long, uncut
  • Top half: The same 1.2m boards, to be initially cut a few cm too long, then later cut to fit precisely.
  • Ledges (horizontals): Cut to same width as their respective doorlets. I realised later they need to be a little smaller to allow for the swing of the door.
  • Braces (diagonals): Pythagoras tells us that these are going to be longer than the verticals or the horizontals. As they’re blocks with a non-zero width the length will be slightly longer than by Pythagoras, but it worked out within about 1%.

You may notice that (7 x 13.5cm) + (2 x 23cm) comes to 140.5cm, for an aperture that varies between 140 and 141cm in width. This would prove to be annoying later.

Assembling each doorlet

Assembling the doorletLay out your panels side by side. Use a spare block of wood to square up the ends. (For the 7-panel doorlets I did this in two stages, four boards then three, as my working area wasn’t quite wide enough.)

Clamp the ledges into place. I also used a sash clamp to hold the planks together laterally; I don’t know whether this was essential but I suspect I’d have needed more G-clamps if I hadn’t.

Then pin the ledges to the planks. You can do this with nails but I used screws (drilling pilot holes first, of course). I attached each end of the ledge to its corresponding board with three screws, then put one screw into each intermediate board; the same for the other ledge. This may have been overkill.

Next cut and attach the braces. We just marked these with a pencil and steel rule, then sawed as close as we could to the line (fixing up later). The braces have to fit well as they spread the weight of the door. I fixed each ledge with two screws into each end board and one into each intermediate. On reflection this was definitely overkill.

Then paint, varnish, or apply whatever decoration you wish. For efficiency we painted only the outward faces at this point (we have still to paint the shed exterior, after all) – in a less clement climate you might be well advised to paint all of it before hanging to try and prevent damp getting in and warping the wood to next week and back again.

The hinge conundrum

I had read in my DIY book that a tee-hinge was “traditional” for this sort of design of door, so I bought some without thinking much about it. Mistake! For an outward-opening door, it was only going to be possible to put these on the outside of the door, with the screws exposed to all comers: no good for security. (Thank you, Mitre 10 returns policy…!)

I replaced them with some ordinary door hinges, of the kind that doesn’t require you to cut a rebate into the frame.

It’s important to think about where the hinges will attach to, on both the door and the frame. You can’t put screws into the end-grain of a block of wood and expect them to hold. Similarly, putting them into the side of the plywood cladding would have been hopeless. These were going to have to go into a door frame, the shed’s timber framing, or something securely attached thereto.

Shed frameOn one side I had the timber stud. No worries – just have to chisel away a small section of the plywood edge so I could attach the hinges properly into the stud and not foul their pins.

Existing shed constructionOn the other side things were a bit more interesting. There’s no frame to be seen – just the edges of the interior wooden cladding, and a bit raggedy at that.

Adding part-frameTurns out the frame is just behind, so I bought a couple more boards to act as a part-frame, which I attached with long screws through the inner cladding and into the frame.

Hanging the doors

Finally, it was time to hang the doors. You can hang a single door yourself, but it’s a bit troublesome and involves a couple of wedges; much easier with a spare pair of hands. (Sadly, I didn’t have a third pair of hands to photograph this process.)

I started out with the lower two doorlets. Obviously, the bottom doors don’t go all the way down to the deck; you want them to sit slightly off the ground (one source I read said 6mm) for clearance over any debris that may lurk. First fit the hinges (remembering not to put screws into the end grain of a ledge); then put the door into its open position, jacked off the ground; mark the positions of the holes, drill your pilots, then screw it into place.

Except, if you’re me, at some point in this process you think “hey, if I cut rebates for the hinges on that side, even if they don’t need it, I’ll save the couple of mm that will mean I don’t have to trim the doors.” Mistake! I’ve never cut rebates before, and they were distinctly less than even. Worse, the rebates I cut were sufficiently deep that when closing the doorlets fully the pressure tried to rip the hinges off! I ended up packing the hinges with cardboard and crossing my fingers. This may yet come back to bite me, but at least it’s “only” a matter of turning the fake-frames over and rehanging two of the doors, right…?

Offering up the second (larger) door it was clear I was going to have to trim a few mm off the edge for it to fit. On hanging it I found I had somehow managed to give them a 6mm height differential. I wasn’t worried; they swung well, and it’s not surprising as the ground isn’t flat, but if only I had realised this first and hung one to match the other…

Bottom doorlets installedBy now it was getting late. I had bought four heavy-duty tower bolts for securing the doors to each other and the frame, so I used one of them to keep the doors from swinging freely, then called it a night.

Fitting the upper two doors was very much like the lower two, but less close to the ground. We offered each up in turn and trimmed them to fit vertically, as planned.

On closing them for the first time (one at a time), one of the ledges prevented the other door from closing, so we cut a bevel into it. Then the doors fitted!… just. Very very tight, not really usable, so we spent a few minutes hand-sanding the mating edges down. It’s just about usable. I am reticent to take more off yet until the doors have hung for a couple of weeks as they may settle, changing their shape subtly.

Door furniture

All doorlets with boltMy plan for using the door was to treat the whole thing as a double door most of the time. I fitted a tower bolt across each vertical pair to keep them together; this is why I put the central ledges where they are.

Most of the time we won’t need the full width of the door so will only open the larger half. I fitted a tower bolt vertically at the top and bottom half of the smaller pair to secure them. (I added a couple of off-cuts in the corners, butting up to the ledges, so I could attach the bolts with the same deep screws I had been using on the rest of the door. The shed sits on a concrete slab, so making a hole for the bottom bolt to drop into required a couple of minutes with a big masonry bit.)

Inside view, bolts installedThe door is secured by a hasp, staple and padlock across the top pair. I may fit a further tower bolt inside the bottom pair so we can have it held fast while the top pair are open stable-style.

A couple of door stops (not yet fitted at the time of writing) will complete the security, preventing the larger half of the door from being forced inwards when the shed is unattended.

Next steps

After the doors have had time to settle (a few weeks) I will have a good look at them and see if I need to adjust or re-trim anything. I suspect I will want to plane a few mm horizontally off the upper doors where they stick. You can see they don’t sit perfectly; can I claim some sort of amateur’s privilege?

Finished, doors closed

If you have a big gap between double doors you might want to fit an astragal. I may yet fit one on ours – depends how much I remove after it has had time to settle.

Materials and costings

[The costings won’t be of too much use if you’re not in NZ, but they give you an idea. At the time of writing the exchange rate is about NZ$1.90 to £1.]

  • Materials cost: $384.08  – of which $233 was wood, $97 door furniture, $44 paint.
  • Consumables: Sandpaper and sanding block; several dozen screws.
  • Tools used: hammer, wood chisels, electric drill (several different wood bits, a countersink, and a big masonry bit I bought specially so the bottom bolt could drop into the floor), screwdriver bits for the drill (a big sanity saver!), hand plane, G-clamps, 1.2m sash clamp (bought specially for this project; $48.15). Black & Decker Workmate.
  • Time taken: The lion’s share of three days, including trips to the DIY shop. A little more time will be needed after the doors have had time to settle.
  • Labour cost: zero!

The satisfaction of doing it ourselves: *Priceless!*

Lessons learned:

Think through your design. No, really. Don’t assume that hinges will be so inconsequential as to not require thought.

Mortising rebates is hard – or, at least, I don’t have the knack. Beware, it’s very easy to cut too much, which you can’t easily undo.

If you buy hinges that don’t require to be rebated, don’t cut rebates for them!

Remember that the door swings. A thick door, or one thickened by ledges and other attachments flush with the edge, is harder to swing than a thin one.

When hanging a pair of doors that you can see the tops of (e.g. a double stable door like this project), you might want to try and make sure the tops are level.

Ross is an expat thirtysomething Brit who went to the Shakey Isles in search of adventure. Works in technology, enjoys creating, has a love-hate relationship with his kitchen.

Thanks, Ross, for this great DIY tutorial!

It’s been so much fun having these guest blog posts from Ross – and they seem to have been appreciated, too!  So if any readers out there have favourite ‘country skills’ they’d like to share with the blog – particularly if, like Ross, you live on the other side of the world, or have great ‘urban’ country skills – then drop me a line on kate@countryskillsblog.com and we can have a chat!

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From the Bookshelf – foragers’ field guides

It felt like autumn was in the air this morning. Harvest is well under way (and didn’t I know it at gone bedtime last night, with the combine still beavering away under floodlights in the field next door!) and Keats’ ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is just around the corner. Autumn is a gift to foragers (human and animal alike!) and at this time of year, whoever you are, and whether you live in the town or the country, there is a bounty of marvellous free food just waiting to be gathered up, and the traditional British hedgerow is definitely the place to be going looking for it!

There are the wild fruit nearly everyone knows, of course – most of us would recognise a bramble (wild blackberry), a crab apple or a rose hip. But there are rarer (or at least, less well recognised) autumn fruit that are just as worthy of attention. Can you confidently recognise elderberries and rowans? What about telling the difference between damsons, sloes and bullaces? Are wild raspberries or hops growing in your local hedges? Did you spot the distinctive spring showing of your local cob nut trees, and the blossom of the blackthorn, and manage to commit them to memory? If you’re relatively new to foraging, or even if you’ve been doing it all your life and think you know the offerings of your local hedgerows, verges, and field margins (and don’t dismiss roundabouts!) intimately, a good field guide is essential to getting the most out of your local foraging opportunities.

[Full disclosure: ‘The Hedgerow Handbook’ came to me free of charge as a review copy from Random House. I bought ‘River Cottage Handbook No.7 – Hedgerow’ with my own money, a couple of years ago.  I do not have an amazon affiliate account, any links provided are for interest and convenience, and I don’t profit from them in any way!]

The Hedgerow Handbook, by Adele Nozedar‘The Hedgerow Handbook’, by Adele Nozedar, (illustrations by Lizzie Harper).
Square Peg / Random House, 2012.
ISBN 978-0-224-08671-4. RRP £12.99.
See this book at amazon.co.uk

The first thing you notice is what a beautiful little book this is, graced inside and out with the loveliest hand-drawn botanical illustrations.  It’s a pretty little hardback, nicely printed on quality paper, and has great ‘object’ qualities, to be handled, flicked through, and admired – all of the things that make physical books so special compared to their digital cousins.

The illustrations are a huge strength of this particular guide – hand-illustrations are always better than photographs for identification, as they allow all the relevant details and characteristics of a plant – and different stages of its life cycle, such as buds and leaves, flowers and fruit – to be shown together, when this would be impractical in a single photo. Illustrations also tend to be clearer, and generalise the appearance of a species rather than showing a particular ‘individual’ growing in a particular place at a particular time.

Inside page viewArranged alphabetically, each hedgerow plant in the book is fully illustrated, the illustration accompanied by a useful description of its habit (and habitat). Culinary and traditional medicinal uses are then briefly discussed, along with curiosities and anecdotes, and folklore associated with the plant – after which Adele shares one or more recipes.

There are some really exciting and unusual recipes here that I can’t wait to try, at an appropriate opportunity – it’s not just the usual suspects like blackberry jam and elderflower champagne.  The idea of pickled ash keys is intriguing, and I’ll definitely be looking out for these when they’re young and tender again next spring. There are plants in this book that I would never have thought were edible – for instance, I’d somewhere along the line picked up the conviction that ox-eye daisies were poisonous, it turns out the buds can be pickled, and the young flowers deep fried in tempura batter.

As a gardener, I’m delighted to to discover that in addition to nettles, other pernicious weeds like cleavers and ground elder can also offer up, if not a square meal, then at least a free green vegetable dish!

Of course, knowing you can eat cleavers in theory is all very well – it’s essential I think that a sensible suggestion is also made as to what you might like to do with them, and this, along with the really wide range of species included, is a real strength of this book.  Recipe suggestions include preserves, cordials, and country wines, as well as savoury dishes and deserts, and make a really interesting and inspiring collection.

If I had to make any criticism at all of this little book, it would be that I’m not quite sure alphabetical order is the most obvious organisation for a field guide – arrangement by season or habit / habitat feel more natural. A note of possible confusion species, and how to avoid making these mistakes, is often a feature of guides like this, and is missing here – though the quality of the illustrations and annotations make going astray quite unlikely.  Finally, for me, the author’s enthusiasm for herbal medicine was sometimes a bit distracting – but I must confess to liking my medicine firmly evidence-based!

All in all this is a great practical little book that should be on your shelf if you enjoy a spot of hedgerow foraging – and you needn’t be in the country to find it useful!  Being such a pretty little book, I think it would also make a really lovely gift!

River Cottage Handbook No.7 - Hedgerow‘River Cottage Handbook No.7 – Hedgerow’, by John Wright.
Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, 2010.
ISBN 978-1-4088-0185-7.  RRP £14.99.
See this book on amazon.co.uk

Another pretty little hardback without a slip-cover, this one is bright and full of photographs.  With the commentary on illustrations above in mind, this isn’t ideal – but considering that, they’re good photographs and ‘do the job’!

This book starts with a good comprehensive section on the generalities of foraging before moving on to identification of about 70 edible species.  After this, some of the potentially poisonous species are also identified – useful!  The back section of the book is set aside for recipes.

The front section of this book is especially useful, covering the legal aspects of taking plants and flowers from the wild in the UK, as well as a great tabular guide to the growing and harvesting seasons of the various species.  The set of edible species listed overlaps quite considerably, though not completely, with those in ‘The Hedgerow Handbook’ – as you would expect from two books covering the same ground.

Inside page viewFor each plant, one or more photographs are provided, along with a useful summary covering description, habitat, season and distribution.  Combined with the introductory section, this makes it a really useful practical field guide.

It’s reassuring – and really interesting, actually! – to be able to confidently identify the toxic hedgerow species, and the third section covers these – the hemlocks, nightshades, foxgloves and suchlike.

The recipes, when we finally get to them, are much sparser on the ground, and do contain some ‘usual suspects’ like elderflower cordial, but are generally of nice quality, and well fleshed-out and illustrated.

As a whole the book does sit very well among the others in the ‘River Cottage Handbook’ series (which I have to confess to having acquired, um, all of so far), and avoids duplication.  This does mean that other recipes for foraged foods turn up in other handbooks, particularly the Pam Corbin ‘Preserves’ book.  Mushrooms and costal foraging also have their own volumes, which are very similarly presented and also very competent, interesting little books.  I would definitely recommend this volume, but be aware it’s likely to act as a ‘gateway’ purchase to the rest of the series!

Both of these are cracking little books which I can thoroughly recommend to you. Whichever you choose (hell, get both, you know you want to!) I hope you find them really useful for your autumn foraging efforts, and for many years to come!

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Under Pressure – this elderflower ‘champagne’ is a lively brew!

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about making this year’s batch of elderflower champagne, which included my usual warnings (shared with anyone who’ll listen at this time of year!) about the hazards of bottling a rather wild, actively fermenting brew in glass bottles.

Here’s why –

Under Pressure!

The bottle on the right is the ‘donor’ bottle, containing half a litre of sparkling water.  The bottles on the left are my elderflower champagne, about four days after bottling.  They were filled, originally, to about 5mm below the neck of the bottle.  You can see the pressure in the bottles – despite ‘degassing’ daily up to this point – has inflated the bottle like a balloon (it reminds me of one of those cartoon moon rockets!) creating a whole heap of extra headroom in the process. The bottom of the bottle is also noticeably pushed downwards.  Perhaps a passing materials specialist will tell us what internal pressure is required to produce this sort of effect, one of these days!

The little bit of ‘give’ in the plastic has allowed this to happen without catastrophe, which is a luxury that glass doesn’t give you.  So please, please, use plastic bottles for elderflower champagne.  The reinforced sort that have held fizzy drinks (lemonade, tonic water, or sparkling mineral water, like these), not the sort designed for non-carbonated water or drinks.  Yes, I know it looks a bit tatty, but really, why take the risk of a spectacular and dangerous bottle bomb?

And how’s the champagne, you might ask?  Why, very nice, thank you!  For all the hassle involved, I’m really pleased I just managed to make this year’s batch!

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Last of the Harvest – elderflower ‘champagne’

Elderflower champagne is one of the tastes of summer for me.  It’s quite unlike anything else, and doesn’t keep well, so it’s there, and then it’s gone.  This a really feisty brew which breaks all the rules of home-brewing.  Please, whatever you do, don’t try and generalise from this brew to any other country wines you might like to make!

For a batch of elderflower champagne, you’ll need the following ingredients and equipment –

  • 30-40 good quality elderflowers (depending on the size of the blooms)
  • 2.5kg of unrefined ‘golden’ granulated or caster sugar
  • 5 lemons (unwaxed if possible, otherwise carefully washed in detergent and rinsed before use)
  • 1 lime (as above)
  • 2 tbsp of white wine or cider vinegar
  • 3 – 4 litres of boiling water, plus extra cold
  • Wine yeast & nutrient (optional)
  • Brewing bucket, at least 12l in volume (and a second is very useful – this can double with your spare vessel for the cordial, though!) with lid, or a clean muslin to cover
  • Enough screw-top plastic fizzy drink bottles to contain your brew (10 – 12 litres in total).  Don’t even think about using glass bottles for this brew.

The first rule that gets broken here is sterilisation.  I don’t sterilise my buckets for elderflower brews – I figure I’m about to throw half a hedgerow into it, so sterility is a bit moot!  But do wash and rinse it very very carefully, and if you have any doubt about contamination from a previous dodgy brew then definitely break out the steriliser!

Put all the sugar in the bucket and add enough boiling water from the kettle to dissolve it fully.  Then top the bucket up to about 8l with cold water.  The result should be a blood-warm sugar solution.

Zested citrus & elderflowers

Peel the zest from the lemons and lime with a potato peeler, as thinly as possible (leaving the bitter white pith behind).  Then juice them, and add the zest and juice to the bucket.  Add the two tablespoons of vinegar.

What's left behindNow to the elderflowers.  You’ve selected them carefully, so they’re all lovely and full of nectar and pollen.  You want to add the flowers – but, unlike the elderflower cordial, you don’t just get to shake the bugs off and throw them in, I’m afraid!  This time, you want to add as little of the green stems as you can.  There are several ways of doing this.  I favour just plucking the flowers off pretty roughly with my fingertips.  You could use a fork to ‘comb’ through the little sprigs and pull the flowers off, but you will tend to take quite a lot of fine stem with you.  Or you could snip the flowers off with scissors.

The reason for this bit of faff is to do with a nasty bitter flavour that the stems can impart to your brew, which is what will make it undrinkable, eventually, with storage.  If you’re planning to drink all your elderflower champagne within a couple of weeks of bottling, you probably needn’t bother, but if you’re hoping to get a month or so of drinking out of them, some of the compounds extracted during brewing from the green stems will eventually be converted (by the yeast?  By oxidation? I don’t really know I’m afraid!) into an overpowering bitter note that will make your champagne entirely undrinkable.  If you minimise the stem, you should minimise the taint.

Ready to ferment - elderflower champagne in the bucket

Add all your flowers, then, and you should have an amazing smelling bucket full of flowers & citrus peel.  Top it up to about 11l.  Now add a teaspoon each of yeast and nutrient (if you have some).  Traditionally elderflower champagne is allowed to go on it’s own with the wild yeasts that are expected to be present on the flowers.  I find this unreliable, and want a good predictable outcome.  Loosely cover it with its lid or a double layer of muslin. This is home-brew faux-pas 2 – sorry, no airlock for me!

Signs of fermentation should be evident within a day or so, in the form of bubbles visibly rising to the surface (you may also get a froth, depending on how vigorous your fermentation is).  Watch for a bit, you’ll keep missing them and catching just a little movement in your peripheral vision.  You may also notice the slightly sharp smell of the carbon dioxide.

Leave your champagne to ferment for about five to seven days.  As if we haven’t broken enough rules already, this is where the whole process goes horribly ‘wrong’.  We’re going to make no effort to wait until our brew has ‘fermented out’ (see this cider-making post for discussion if you’re interested), so the brew is still actively fermenting, with the yeasts consuming sugars and producing alcohol and carbon dioxide, when it goes into the bottles.  This ‘quick and dirty’ short cut allows us to go from flowers-into-bucket to drinkable-brew in about a fortnight, which is quite remarkable.  It does however carry a pretty serious risk of producing ‘bottle bombs’ – a quick google for ‘elderflower champagne exploding bottles’ will illustrate how widespread a problem this is.

For this reason, I only use screw-top plastic fizzy drink bottles for my elderflower champagne.  Make sure they’re fizzy drink bottles – the 1 litre and half litre bottles seem most ‘stable’ though you can use the 2l cola or lemonade bottles if you like.  Don’t use bottles from non-sparkling water or fruit juices.  Do sterilise these with home-brew steriliser or milton solution, and rinse carefully before use.

After your brew’s been frothing for a week, filter it through a jelly bag or muslin-lined sieve into the second bucket to remove the solids, and syphon into your bottles (or use a jug and funnel, though this is another breach of ‘protocol’!) and screw the lids down tightly.  I was reminded when doing this this year that the filtration process is can be slow and frustrating – the yeast and pollens clog the jelly bag to a remarkable degree – and in future I suspect I’m going to use a much more open filter – I may even experiment with a nylon sieve (the sort you’d use to sift flour for baking) or something similar.  Using the jelly bag to filter my ~10kg batch took well over two hours, which frankly I could have done without!

Bottled elderflower champagneOnce your champagne is *finally* in your bottles, put them at room temperature somewhere secure where you can keep an eye on them (I tend to store the filled bottles in the washed and dried brewing buckets).

Every day or so, give the bottles a squeeze.  As the brew continues to ferment, the bottles will become harder and harder, and may even start to bulge alarmingly.  If you notice this starting to happen, release the pressure by very gently opening the lid a crack to let the carbon dioxide escape.  You may need to do this about once a day for the first week or so!

Under Pressure!You can see from the photo on the right the extent to which pressure can build up in these bottles – for comparison, the ‘donor’ bottle in it’s original state – the elderflower champagne bottles were filled to just below the neck, and the gas produced has inflated the bottles like balloons, producing a really large volume of extra head-room in the process.  Really, folks, don’t risk glass bottles with this brew!

As soon as you have pressure in the bottles, you can start drinking it – though I suggest waiting a week from bottling before taking your first sip.  As time goes by, the champagne will become ‘drier’ in flavour, and higher in alcohol as the sugars are consumed.  Don’t try to store this brew long-term – once you like the flavour of it, drink it and enjoy it!  I find that even with care, after four or five weeks the flavour is starting to deteriorate.

Ready to drink!

Pour, and enjoy this beautiful ephemeral effervescent flavour of summer!

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Last of the Harvest – home-made elderflower cordial

After you’ve picked your elderflowers, it’s time to make some gorgeous drinks with them.  Give them a good look over, and sort through.  Throw out any browning flowers.  Shake out any bugs but do not be tempted to wash them – you’ll wash all the flavour away!  You’ll be straining the ‘bits’ out later anyway, so don’t worry about the odd aphid making it through!

Freshly picked elderflowers

These are the ingredients and equipment you’ll need for the elderflower cordial.  You can scale these quantities up or down to suit yourself, but when I’ve gone to the effort of harvesting the flowers I can’t see the point in making much less than this at a time. –

  • About 70 nice elderflowers
  • 6lb (2.7kg) of un-refined ‘golden’ granulated or caster sugar
  • 6 UK pints (3.4l) of boiling water
  • 4 lemons (ideally unwaxed, failing that washed carefully in detergent & rinsed)
  • 4 oranges (likewise)
  • 4oz / 100g of citric acid (get this from a home-brew supplier, or a chemist’s)
  • Large stainless steel pan or food-grade plastic bucket big enough to hold all the ingredients (if you have a second one of these, this will also come in useful), with lid
  • Jug, jelly bag / fine strainer and muslin
  • Enough bottles to hold your cordial – I use recycled screw-top wine bottles, plastic bottles are also fine and you can freeze cordial in them.
  • Campden tablets / powder (optional – if you’re a wine-maker you probably have these anyway – they’ll allow you to store your cordial for long periods at room temperature, which is very useful!)

3lb of golden granulated sugarWeigh out all your sugar – I know there’s a lot of it, on the plus side you’ll be drinking this watered down so it’s not quite as bad as it looks (hey, who am I kidding?).  I’ve seen it asserted you can make this with ‘Splenda’ rather than sugar if you insist, but I haven’t tried it so can’t vouch for the results!

Dissolve your sugar in the boiling water, and add the citric acid.  Stir until it’s all fully dissolved.  Now wait until it’s cooled down (immersing your pan or bucket carefully in a sink full of cold water can speed this process up greatly).

Sliced lemons and orangesSlice up your citrus fruit into thick slices (about 1cm thick), and add these to the cool sugar syrup.  Then add the elderflowers, one at a time so you can give them a good shake to dislodge any debris or creepy crawlies and discard any substandard flowers.

The smell will be amazing.  Steep for two or three days, covered, at room temperature.

Elderflower cordial, steeping

Straining the cordialOnce all the flavours have infused, it’s time to strain and bottle.  First, strain the cordial through the jelly bag or sieve lined with a layer of muslin.  I was about to discard the fruit with the elderflowers but couldn’t bring myself to do it – instead, I made a batch of ‘accidental’ marmalade, which is really very good!

Check your volume, then crush and add your campden (if using) at the doseage given on the pack – usually 1 tablet per gallon.  For me, the ingredients yielded just over a gallon (or 4.5l) of cordial, which was convenient for bottles, at a smidgen over six full wine bottles worth.

Stir well to dissolve, then allow your strained cordial to settle for at least 3 – 4 hours (or overnight) so that some of the sediment that’s survived the filtering – this will mostly be pollen, which is very small – will settle to the bottom of the bucket.  If you use a good fine jelly bag, there’ll be very little sediment to worry about.

Filling bottlesSterilise your bottles using home-brew steriliser (or in the oven like jam jars, but if so make sure you let them cool completely before filling – cold liquid into hot bottles is a recipe for disaster!).  Then fill them using a jug & funnel – you could use a syphon, and this might reduce your sediment a little, but it seems a lot of faff to me!

Filled bottlesWith campden, the bottles should store for a long while at room temperature (at least until next year’s elderflowers are ready – though I challenge you to save any that long!).  Without, they should keep in the fridge for a month or two, without refrigeration, there’s a significant risk that they start to ferment!  If you’re using plastic bottles, you can always stash them in the bottom of the deep freeze – they’ll keep for ages like that.

It looks lovely in a clear glass bottle, like fresh bottled sunshine (and we’ve had precious little of that this year!).  My favourite way to enjoy this cordial is with plenty of ice, a slice of lemon or lime, and sparkling water, in a tall glass on a hot summer’s afternoon.  But I also cherish it as an amazing taste of summer to remind you of the warmer, brighter days in the depths of a cold damp dark winter!

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Last of the Harvest – finally foraged the elderflowers!

I nearly missed this year’s elderflower season!  We’ve been having mad weather in the UK this year – a late, cold Spring and then so much rain in the past three months.  The elderflowers started late, and then meteorology managed to conspire with work and family commitments to leave me without a warm sunny day to go picking until today.  We’ve had a few heavy downpours in the past few days, with another one yesterday evening, and I was a bit worried there would be nothing left for me to pick.  A 5 mile, two hour foraging walk around the local lanes and byways eventually yielded the hundred good elderflower heads I needed.  They have never been so hard won!

I can’t remember when I started making elderflower cordial – it’s been well over a decade certainly (and before that – elderflower drinks are one of the things I really did learn from my grandmother!).  The desire to make my own elderflower champagne a couple of years ago drove the acquisition of my first small set of home-brew equipment – and what a great hobby (or can of worms, depending on your point of view!) that turned out to be.  Brewing came before curing and smoking and put me on the path to wanting to learn as much as I could about country skills – and hence, in the end, this blog.  So elderflowers and I go way back – they’ve had quite an influence on my life, one way and another!

Elderflowers and citrus fruit

These days I make a batch each of elderflower cordial and champagne, at the same time.  In a good year I’ll do this a couple or three times, but sadly this year it’s a one-shot deal, so I’d better make the best of it!  To make both, in the quantities I make, you need about 100 good blooms.

Different quality elderflowersAn ideal quality elderflower is one where all the little flower heads are open, the petals pure white with a lovely buttery-yellow bloom of pollen on it.  As the blooms age, the pollen (and nectar, and the best of the flavour and scent) dissipates.  The flowers then start to appear whiter – still ok to use, but not quite as flavoursome.  Then they start to brown.  Browning blooms will not contribute the flavour you want, and should not be used.  The photo to the left shows great quality blooms at the back, adequate to front left and sub-standard (discard) to the front right.   There were too many adequate and poor flowers today – earlier in the flowering season it’s much easier to get nice flowers!

Now you’ve picked your flowers, you’ll want the recipes.  Here they are –

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