Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Featured Gardener aka Bronwen's Beer Fridge

If you are anything like me, hearing about other people's gardens is the perfect inspiration to get you out working in your own. SO, I am starting a regular feature of gardeners I find inspirational. I'll start with people I know - most of whom live in the suburbs and are working with regular old back yards like most of you are. I like to call you urban farmers. I am so excited to have our first featured gardener on the General Farmer blog be my friend Bronwen! She is every bit as delightful as she sounds here, and has been wowing me with pictures of her many preserving feats, so I decided it was time to get the full garden story straight from her.

Please tell us a bit about how gardening fits into the history of your life.

I come from Wales, a lush green land where it rains pretty constantly. I grew up in houses with big gardens (that’s back yards to you folk!) but we never had veg patches. One house we lived in had nine apple trees and I was pretty much weaned on stewed apple (or apple sauce as you would call it!) and the house my parents still live in has two different apple trees, a Victoria plum tree and a very old quince tree which is in great demand and people reserve my mother’s quinces when they are just buds, as quinces are a dying breed. When we moved in, the previous owners left us with a legacy bed of gooseberry bushes. I don’t know if gooseberries are known over here [in America] but they grow on prickly bushes, look like hairy grapes and are sourer than the devil’s aftershave. The first summer we were there, we picked over 120lbs of gooseberries! We tried in vain to give them away and eventually my father took a machete to the plants and we gave up on our gooseberrying for good! There’s still one wild bush in the hedge but it grows red gooseberries which are not quite as offensive.

My husband’s family has always been gardeners. Many of the crops that grow so easily over here, like tomatoes, require a greenhouse and a lot of luck to grow back home and his father’s greenhouse was usually quite successful. They grew things like broad, runner, French and string beans, peas, courgette (zucchini), marrow, squash, pumpkins, carrots, broccoli, sprouts and cabbage – all things that can cope with the British climate.

And now we'd love to hear about your current gardening and preserving endeavors...

When we moved into our Milpitas [California] home, it came with beautiful old orange, lemon and lime trees. It’s nigh on impossible to grow citrus back home, and I cannot express the joy I get from watching tiny green balls turn into enormous ripe juicy sweet oranges even if I cannot eat them – I am fructose intolerant, which pretty much means no fruit eating. I like to share my Californian adventures with people back home and they cannot believe that I can go into the garden and pick an orange. Oranges come from supermarkets. Everybody knows that!

At the back of the house, we had what we named The World’s Most Boring Bushes. They were green and did nothing so we dug them up and bought a peach tree and an apricot tree because you can’t grow either back home - too much rain, not enough sun. As expected, they did nothing the first year. The second year, my sons and I were back in the UK when my husband harvested all 12 peaches and one apricot, so we didn’t really miss much. This year both trees went BONKERS! The apricots ripened first and there were hundreds! I had never seen so many. My little one adores apricots and worked hard to keep on top of the crop but there were just too many.

I had never jammed before. I made marmalade once. We called it Earthquake Lime marmalade as the first earthquake we experienced over here shook a laden branch of under ripe limes off our tree and I couldn’t bear to waste them. I was going back home that Christmas and managed to smuggle several jars home in my suitcase as Christmas presents! Jam was a new concept though. I sought advice from a friend in Florida who has her own jam business and she was happy to share her knowledge with me. I am not sure I approve of jam making in the summer as it was unbelievably hot in our kitchen and the standing and stirring was nearly my undoing, but the joy of seeing our home grown apricots turned into homemade jam is a feeling I will never tire of.

The only crop we do neglect is our prickly pears. Anyone local is welcome to come and help themselves to the tunas and nopales but they have to provide their own suit of armour and sign a waiver, as we will not be held responsible for the damage that monster cactus will inflict!

And how about vegetables?

We have big gardening plans under way. Our back yard is small and there was no room for a vegetable plot, but there was a long raised bed of money trees running all the way down the side of the house which my husband has chopped down. We are planning on replacing the wall and the earth this autumn so that by next spring we will have a raised veg plot. It gets great sun, is sheltered, and we have a lot of ideas. In the absence of a plot, we’ve done very well at growing tomatoes and carrots in pots and potatoes in black dustbins. Inspired by the happiness brought from growing things that cannot be grown back home, my boys bought a watermelon plant and a cantaloupe plant and we are proud to announce the birth of 4 tiny baby watermelons and 3 little cantaloupes. Their progress is being charted by being photographed with a variety of recognizable items so that people back home can see them grow. After all, watermelons, like oranges come from supermarkets so are never seen smaller than the average head!

Have you had any gardening / urban farming adventures you'd like to share with us?

Just as we finished making the last of the apricot jam, the peach tree went into over drive. I was sitting quietly minding my own business when I heard an eerie cracking noise followed by a soft THUNK, and one of the branches had given way to the weight of the fruit and was lying on my lawn. None of the fruit was ripe and there was no way I was going to let it go to waste, so after a quick Google, the kids and I set to, putting each green peach into a brown paper lunch bag and placed them on the deck in the sunshine.

After about 3 days, we started on a long and serious course of Peach Management whereby we had to check each bag (and there were 120 of them!) daily to see if they were ripe enough for jam. Meanwhile, the peaches on the rest of the branches, now propped up on wooden crutches, were ripening at an alarming pace and it was all we could do to keep up with them! Operation Brown Paper Bag managed to save about 75 peaches and we mixed them in with tree ripened beauties. Along with jam, I learned to can with the help of a lovely blog and now have a specially purchased jam fridge (like a beer fridge but just for jam!) in our garage, stuffed full of treasure!

I don't know about you, but reading that makes me want to get out and plant something! Or make jam... or buy a fridge on Craig's List! Thank you so much for sharing your garden with us Bronwen! (To see and purchase some of Bronwen's other creations, check out her facebook page!) If you'd like to be the next featured gardener, let me know in the comments section. I'm always excited to see what you are growing!

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