PIGEON WAR: Nets and CDs (Oh yeah, and Bandit)

With the winter plants settling in nicely to their beds, the main worry now is keeping those dastardly birds off them. Pigeons and doves will peck away at chard, kale, lettuce, amongst other plants until there is very little leaf left for gardeners to enjoy. Garden netting can be found easily and is relatively cheap, but as we discovered, putting it up properly is a science in itself.

Planting the winter veg on October 12th was a busy day, and little time was left to lay over the netting, so we did a quick job of it, using a number of criss-crossed willow and bamboo sticks along the edges of the beds to hold the nets up. It kind of worked . . . for a bit, but after only a day the nets already began to pull at the sticks and sag, or be shaken loose by the wind. I then bought some clothes pegs and we reset the nets on upright bamboo sticks planted in the soil. Once again, after just a day the nets had a tendency to collapse, the pegs having popped off like corks. Oddly, this happened most often on the chard bed, and a closer investigation revealed what I had been fearing all along: the pigeons were landing on the nets to collapse them (the little b*st*rds). So it was back to the drawing board!

Finally, we added some strong central pillars for the netting in the chard bed, a little overkill perhaps, but no bird will be collapsing these babies, not even an ostrich. For the lettuce bed, two of our members came up with a different solution, setting up a willow frame for the netting. Not only is it effective, it looks pretty too.

The other netting problem we had concerned how to pin the edges down so nothing could slip under it. Using nails was not an option, as passing members would easily catch their clothes and skin on them, and SOAS would then have my head on a stick. Using staples was not practical either, as we needed something that was easy to remove. Another bright spark in our group came up with the solution, nailing thick staples to the edges of the beds, but then securing the netting to the staples using small sticks as pegs. Simple, practical and safe.

To provide extra protection from prowling pigeons we hung up a couple of CDs we found in the shed, providing movement in the wind and reflecting light to startle the birds.

…and then I brought Bandit out of retirement.

Bandit is a ‘scare-bird’ I built over the summer, using a cut section of a broom handle for his body, some willow, string, and bits of colourful cloth to make the wings, and a piece of glass for the beak, finally adding real feathers for the tail. The idea (as I had read in a book) is to make a fake bird of prey that will then scare away the other birds, remembering to move it every couple of days so that the birds don’t get too used to it being in one place. Okay, I admit he doesn’t exactly look like a killer, and I’m not sure whether  he is even remotely effective, but he adds a dash of colour to the garden. I’ll let the netting do the hard work while Bandit just hangs around, literally. I notice it has finally started to rain after a long dry spell, so it’s good to know we reinforced the netting just in time, as it is always less fun to do this sort of work in the wet.


Some years ago, back when I lived in Gloucestershire, I started storing a few extra tins of food in my cupboard, as well as some big 5 litre bottles of water, following some heavy rain in September 2000 that had caused concerns over potential flooding. Upon seeing this stored food and water taking up every inch of my kitchen shelf space, my sister said to me, “you are such a survivalist”. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it did make me wonder, was I a delusional survivalist? Forward a few more years, come 2007, as I once again went through the routine of sifting through my tins of food to check the expiration dates, I did start doubting myself. Could I be bothered with all this? I thought. Was I just being foolish? I figured it was time to wind down this hobby and downsize a little…

…that was until coincidence struck.

In June and July 2007, huge rainfall in many parts of the UK led to widespread flooding which caused considerable property damage and claimed at least seven lives. In Gloucestershire the rising waters also flooded the local water plant, cutting the supply of tap water to thousands of homes. To give the then-government its dues, within 48 hours the army had moved in water bowsers on virtually every street corner, as well as delivering piles of bottled water – more, in fact, than people knew what to do with. The first 24 hours, however, were interesting, with many people rushing to the shops for bottled water, and the usual jack-the-lads (i.e.: d*ckheads) re-selling water in supermarket car parks at £10 a bottle. With initial worry that the floods would affect the power stations too, there was also a small rush in shops for food; I saw at least one supermarket in Cheltenham implement a one bread loaf per customer policy.

Meanwhile, I was at home, with my big bottles of water, my tins of food, and having filled my bathtub and some saucepans with tapwater before it ran out . . . I was feeling ever so slightly smug, all the more so when my sister phoned and simply said: “Okay, you were right.” After all, you don’t often hear that from a sibling.

Now let’s be clear, I’m not saying that we should dig bunkers in our garden and await Armageddon, but there are random incidents in life that we could all be better prepared for in small ways: crime, redundancy, severe weather, cold winters, riots, shortages of public services, economic downturns, etc. There are different degrees to which you can take it, from storing some bottled water and tins of beans in your cupboard, which is easy, to going on a college course to learn new skills or growing your own food in a garden or window box, both of which take more time and effort (and then there is also building a bunker in your garden, but let’s not even go there). Learning simple self-sufficiency skills is not only helpful at home, preparing for unlikely but possible incidents, but also for when you are travelling abroad, where the unexpected for you might be a regular event to the locals. Even if you can’t afford the time or money to go on a college course, there are many ways one can pick up new skills, from craft shops and knitting groups, to taking up a martial arts class, and then there’s skill swaps, books, the internet, etc…

The key to preparing for unexpected times is to not let it go to your head by imagining ridiculous scenarios and letting it interfere with your life (no offence, but the whole 2012 Mayan calendar thing is bollocks . . . as was the movie). Keeping extra food and water in one’s cupboard, for example, is just a matter of being organized, storing food you would eat anyway at a later date, restocking when you’re down to two rather than down to none (or whatever suits your routine). These extra supplies are not necessarily to prepare for big disasters, as they can also come in handy the next time you temporarily run out of cash, or when your parents visit. So I’m definitely not talking about converting the guest room into an emergency pantry, or asking guests to mind the pyramid of bottled water on their way in. All that’s needed is a little bit of extra space, a shelf in the cupboard, or just a row on a shelf, something usable, practical and visible. Remember that having clean drinking water is more important than food. Naturally, if you have the space, you can also store food you would eat and enjoy, but don’t store extra supplies of your favourite treats and guilty-pleasures (mine being biscuits), as these will only end up getting consumed the next time you have a craving, unless you are very self-disciplined (I’m not). Also, the novelty of surviving on baked beans alone would wear thin rather fast, that is no matter how much you love baked beans, so consider widening your dietary repertoire. Variety is always good.

Following the collapse of the USSR, and of their ineffective agricultural system, vegetables grown in garden plots helped keep the population fed for the first few months of uncertainty, which goes to show it’s always worth sharpening one’s gardening skills. But until this country meets up with dire and unlikely collapse, growing vegetables in the garden should remain a pleasant activity, one that you can enjoy and learn more about along the way. If people think you are being odd, old-fashioned, a hippy or a silly survivalist then just see the funny side; a little bit of humour goes a very long way, especially when times are hard. And remember to remain in ‘if it happens’ mode, rather than ‘when it happens’, as the latter is the beginning of a slippery slope, the kind that makes you dig bunkers in your garden. Like I said, you don’t want to go there.

Self-sufficiency or survivalism? I’d rather just call it being adaptable, it’s less melodramatic.

UPDATE 30/10/11: As luck would have it, a faulty water pipe at my home tonight has deprived me of running water until tomorrow morning. But I still have my little stash of bottled water (although admittedly I could also have gone to the shops), and before the water was cut we filled a few buckets to flush the toilet. It just goes to show, you never know when these little inconveniences are going to happen.

Preserving Food (part 3): THE DRYING SHED

During the summer, with most of the volunteers away, the garden’s runner beans went on overdrive, as they tend to do, producing far more beans than I could eat for myself. So, feeling experimental, I hung about half of the beans to dry in the Common Ground garden shed. The shed has a corrugated perspex roof, transparent so it has a good greenhouse effect when sunny. I hung the beans on strings that I tied across the roof beams.

I had some years before experimented with drying food indoors when I lived in Gloucestershire. In the winter of 2002, using an electric heater, I dried slices of tomatoes, garlic, bread and apples; they all dried well and kept for a year, but ultimately they didn’t taste of anything, even when used as additives when cooking. Still, it was a start. Far more successful was the drying of green and red chilli peppers, which could then be crushed into a coarse powder and stored indefinitely.

The runner beans in the shed took their sweet time drying, seemingly impervious to the summer heat and days of blazing sunlight. But once the pods showed even the slightest sign of drying, the rest happened quite fast. On the whole, drying the beans took about four weeks. Some of the pods dried with beautiful uniformity, with the beans bulging along it, while other pods just shriveled up in a miserable way; I think this has something to do with the size of the beans inside the pod when I picked them off the plant – the larger the beans the more neatly they seemed to dry. If a pod contained very small beans, then the drying process often just destroyed them. When taken out of their pods, the large dry beans looked beautiful with their purple and black patterns, and I collected them in a jar to store for at least a few months. Some members have since suggested we use them to make beads for a necklace, but I’m thinking that eating them would finish the cycle more neatly. I like to take the expression “All things must pass” literally.

Seeing the beans drying in the shed soon inspired me to hang other things to dry alongside them. In the end I hung four seeding sunflower heads, some sage, mint, rosemary and thyme. I also placed some lavender, bay leaves and more mint in clear plastic trays to dry. The inside of the shed looked great, a place where stuff was really happening. I soon learnt, however, that some plants, such as mint and bay leaves, do not dry well in direct sunlight, as the leaves just turn scorched brown and crumble away, while other herbs like sage, thyme and rosemary seemed unaffected. For the mint I consequently built some drying boxes, stretching out string inside cardboard boxes for me to hang the mint on, allowing them to dry in relative darkness.

The dried herbs have been great for making tea or adding to dishes . . . that is, except for the lavender, which I put in little cloth sachets and put in my drawers to make my clothes smell nice (God, I must be getting old).

I notice tonight a pleasant winter chill in the air, and although this marks the end of sun drying vegetables, I might try my hand once again at drying things over the heater. I haven’t tried mushrooms yet. Try it yourselves, and let me know what you get.


On Wednesday a team of our new CG members turned up to help with the winter planting, following the delivery of the plants I had ordered, and a big thanks first for all the work they put in. So in went the spring and winter cabbages, rainbow chard, lettuces, carrots and broad beans (more about them later).

As I have mentioned earlier, although in charge of this garden, I am still a novice by any standards, so I just got our helpers to plant them in the beds in a standard way, nothing special, and we covered them with netting to protect the plants from those dastardly pigeons. Just how the plants grow over the coming weeks will be interesting, as I will doubtless miss a trick or two along the way in the art of planting and nurturing them, and I may or may not have prepared the beds properly to begin with.

I’ll be the first to admit that, apart from a great team of volunteers, our garden at the moment does not exactly boast the perfect growing conditions. In some ways, however, this just makes things more interesting. Some may see this as me just making excuses, but if you have the perfect conditions to grow vegetables – which in itself is something of an artificial setting – then there is a little drawback, namely predictability. I don’t know about you guys, but I already know what happens if you plant vegetables in perfect conditions, you get vegetables. Personally, I’m more interested in knowing how to grow them in less than ideal conditions. We are, after all, here to learn, and so it is to some advantage to be challenged along the way.

So we have pigeons attacking the vegetables, we learnt to deal with it. The beds might not have been properly prepared before planting, we’ll deal with it. Another cold winter is on its way apparently, we’ll just have to learn to deal with that too. We’re no experts in growing vegetables, so we’ll just have to learn through our mistakes . . . okay, through my mistakes.

Finally, we’re planting broad beans in autumn (don’t ask me, it just came with the delivery), so we’ll just see what happens. After all, with so few things growing in winter, we have room to experiment. Mind you, any tips appreciated!

COMMON GROUND GAINS A RAIN SHELTER (about bloody time too)

We’ve had a positive start to our new year, with a good turnout on our open day on October 2nd (not too many not too few) as well as for our first gardening sessions on the 5th and 8th. The main jobs so far have been to tidy the garden following the summer downtime, prepare the beds for the delivery of winter plants I have ordered (with trepidation), and also having a huge campaign of downsizing, mainly getting rid of stuff that has accumulated in the shed. It will take a while, but just chucking two bin bags full of rubbish feels good – can’t wait to do the rest.

We have also had time to organize a fire-lighting workshop on Wednesday, which we subsequently used to build a fire in which embers we roasted some chestnuts, kindly donated by our new member Holly, who had picked them in Hyde park. The embers were perhaps a bit too small to fully roast the chestnut, so they were a little underdone, but delicious all the same. On the Saturday we roasted more chestnuts but using the rocket stove and a hot plate (like they do in market stalls) which worked a treat, although the cooking area on the metal plate was quite small.

Work is also almost complete on the installation of a rain shelter for the garden – basically a tarp that can be put up in under a minute, should the heavens open. The prototype I installed on Wednesday protected us from a brief drizzle, so I must be doing something right. Rain in the past has on several occasions disrupted our activities, so the shelter will hopefully provide a place where volunteers can at least sit down in the dry and have a cup of tea.

After something of a solo summer, its great to see people in the garden again, getting to work and getting their hands dirty. Lots of new ideas floating about, and our regular Saturday slot has now been moved to Sundays, so changes are afoot.



Gardening aside, there are also plenty of opportunities to learn about seasonal foraging, something I would like us to expand on. For example, this is the time of year for hawthorn berries, and with them you can make your own candy. I originally learnt about this on the BBC Wild Food series with Ray Mears and Gordon Hillman, but I also found out it is commonly sold in China. The hawthorn’s trident shaped leaves, incidentally, are also edible, but they are best eaten in Spring.

Just a quick word on safety. As children, many of us were warned about red berries in the forest, being told that, as a rule of thumbs, they are poisonous. There are many varieties of red berries that are edible, either straight off the bush (such as redcurrants) or after a particular preparation (such as with rowan berries). But yes, there definitely are some red berries that are poisonous or cause irritation to the digestive tract. So, make sure you positively identify the berries before you pick them. If in doubt, don’t pick them. Also, once positively identified as edible, pick the berries carefully, making sure that branches of a toxic red-berried plant are not intermingled with the edible plant. It might only take one or two toxic berries mistakenly placed in a batch of edible ones to cause harm.

To make hawthorn candy, first pick a good bunch of hawthorn berries, two or three mugs’ worth, place them in a large bowl and squish them with your hand. Before you consider using a potato masher or spoon to squish the berries, I’ve already tried: using hands works best. Hawthorn berries have a stone in the middle, and squishing the berries reveals the stones in the mixture. You will probably need to add water, unless the berries are very juicy. You need the mixture to be slimy, slightly runny, but still thick. If it is too runny it won’t settle properly later on.

Pour or spoon the mixture through a sieve or muslin bag, gently pushing it through with your hand so that a thick orange goo comes out the other side. If it is very thick it may be reluctant to drip off, so you may just need to scrape the goo off the underside of the filter with a spoon. You can place the goo in a small container and let it jellify (which doesn’t take long), but for the purposes of making candy, it is best to let it drip onto some greaseproof paper. As if spreading tomato paste onto a pizza base, spread the goo onto the paper with a spoon, creating a layer roughly 2-3mm thick. Allow the goo base to jellify and dry for a few hours, all the better if you can leave it in the sun or near a heater. When the edges and surface of the goo base appear more rubbery, you can place another sheet of greaseproof paper over it, turn the whole thing over, and gently remove the original sheet of paper in order to expose the underside of the base. This can be made easier by starting to peel the edges off the paper with a knife and then removing the original sheet at a very acute angle, forcing the goo off without breaking it. Once the goo settles and dries enough, you will be able to pick it off the paper completely with your hands like a pancake. At this stage you need to leave it to dry some more, in the sun or near a heater; if the goo base takes too long to dry it will start going moldy after two or three days, so make sure that you have adequate drying conditions. It can help, once the base is solid enough, to cut them into strips and place them on an oven shelf or barbeque grill in order to properly aerate both sides.

Once very dry, you can store them in a jar or plastic bag, making sure that you do so in dry conditions to seal out any moisture. Funnily enough, they will look a lot like strips of red meat, so your vegetarian friends might need convincing before they try it.

Once you get the hang of it you can experiment with flavour, such as by adding sugar or jam either at the squishing stage or putting it into the subsequent goo. Sugar will also help with the drying process if you sprinkle a little bit on the goo base, as it will draw the moisture to the surface in a kind of liquid glaze, preventing the grease-proof paper underneath from going soggy. Doing so, however, will change the texture of the candy slightly.

Finally, I guess I should mention the maggots . . . yes, you heard that right. Hawthorn berries often contain tiny little white maggots, called apple maggot or railroad worm, or Rhagoletis pomonella if you like to flaunt your knowledge to others. You might spot them when you have laid out the goo base, as tiny specks of white in the red surface. They are safe, so you can either pick them out of the wet goo, or else just let the goo dry and forget about them. If anything, they’ll provide some extra protein. Enjoy!

Preserving Food (part two): PICKLING

Tending to the garden during the summer when most volunteers were away, I watched the rocket lettuce and chard grow so fast that I couldn’t eat or even hack it back fast enough, in the end throwing most of it in the compost. The garlic, beetroots and red onions in other beds were better behaved, as once ready they still last surprisingly long in the soil. Still, I knew that these vegetables couldn’t sit in that soil forever, and yet I couldn’t eat them all, so I decided to try my hand at pickling them.

When looking for pickling recipes, I wanted to find something simple that focused on food preservation rather than culinary excellence. There are thousands of pickling recipes on the internet – I got mine from allotment.org.uk, an excellent website with thousands of recipes that are simple and straightforward.

There are two basic forms of pickling: raw and cooked. Pickling cooked goods, such as beetroot, is fairly easy: you boil them, put them in a clean jar and pour in the pickling vinegar (which can also be boiled to make it last longer). Pickling raw goods, such as onions, takes a little more time as they first need to be dipped in a near-saturated salt-water solution for 24 hours, allowing the moisture to be drawn out of the veg, leaving room for the vinegar; you then rinse the content in water and place them in vinegar (but no boiling this time). The raw pickled goods then take about two months to soak in properly, while the cooked goods can be ready in as little as two weeks (but you may as well keep them longer, as that’s what pickling is for). You might note from the photos that I added a plastic lining under the jars, having read this prevented the vinegar corroding the metal lids. On reflection, however, most jars these days already come with plastic surfaces on the underside of lids. I have since pickled several other things just using the same principles, including cucumbers, garlic and eggs, usually without having to find other product-specific recipes.

The pickling vinegar I used at first was some cheap brand of Greek red wine vinegar I found in a cornershop, before I found a big jar of pickling vinegar in a supermarket. The latter was still good value and came in a jar that can itself be used for pickling. Note that pickling vinegar apparently needs to have an acidity of at least 6% – your standard splash-on-yer-fish-and-chips vinegar has only 5% acidity (pff!). It can be found cheaply, so don’t fall for any high-brow expensive versions of what is, after all, vinegar.

The jars I used were simple recycled sauce or pickle jars, thoroughly cleaned, sterilized with boiling water and dried in an oven at low-heat (or just flick-dried when I was in a hurry, remembering to keep a tight grip so the jar didn’t go flying across the room). Once again, some specialized kitchen shops will charge you £6 for a pickling jar just large enough to fit one shallot, and yet it is just what it is, a jar . . . an empty one at that. Uncle Ben’s on the other hand will sell you a good sized jar for under £2, and they’ll throw in a sauce inside it at no extra charge. One of my pickled onion jars is actually a glass juice bottle that I used for the smaller onions that could fit through the narrow neck of the bottle. It does the job.


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