honey and the bee

gardening

Early spring. The freshest greens of the year, blossom, and over the last few weeks, sapphire skies.

After six months of slumber, our bees are active again. It was time for us to open the hive up and peer inside. Stretching my arms, I hold the first frame of bees to the sky. Sunlight pours onto nectar- gold on liquid gold.

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I had never lived in a city, and I’m a long way from my northern roots. But Bristol is now my home. Some things weave you to the fabric of a place, and our hive of bees have helped to do just that.

A hive manages to turn the gardens of a congested, grubby city into energy enough to give life to 50,000 bees. And of course to us beekeepers, some precious jars of honey. Along with the honey, they make comb, propolis (a glue they make from trees) and store pollen and nectar to power the hive.

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In our human world, we have times of happiness and sadness, gains and losses. But in the spring garden, I know that bees will be flying, the chickens will be laying and seeds will be bursting. They give a constancy, a backdrop to dip in to at any time.

Watching the bees entering and leaving the hive is deeply soothing. Some things are inherently good for us. To me it seems it’s the things we have always been doing- eating, drinking and life at its basic- both people and the wild.

 

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honey to harvest

Nearly all of our interactions with animals are with ones that are either domesticated or fearful. But the bees are neither, as well as venomous. So we treat them with respect, handling them gently and sensing the mood of the hive. Everything a bee does is for the good of the colony, to the point of working themselves to death. Their task is determined by their age. When they emerge as a day old bee, they clean. As they age, they go on to feed young, fan the hive, build comb, guard the entrance and finish as foragers. In the summer months they will last for only six weeks or so, before dying of exhaustion.

In the warmer months we inspect the hive every week or two. Each frame has to be freed from the gluey propolis with a hive tool and checked over. We are looking for eggs and larvae- signs the queen is well and living, for food stores to power the bees, and for their health.

A hive is intoxicating. Scented honey, deep musk, wood, and a thousand invisible pheromones.

three seasons & a patch of earth

allotment, bristol, gardening, growing

Nine months- a summer, a spring and a winter ago- we took on a patch of earth. It was January, it’s Britain, the previous owners didn’t leave behind a massive amount of inspiration. The place looked cold and tired, like life in greyscale. Dreams of the good life in this patch of earth seemed distant. 20141207_151643The willow tree is now full of leaf and life and shades our little shed. But in January, it stood stark against the slowly rotting pumpkins, plastic and weeds.

The soil was compacted. Weedkillers had been used. Before we had arrived there had been no plan.

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I wanted to breathe life and beauty and productivity back into the earth. But some things you can’t rush- after being compacted and poisoned by sprays, soil takes time to heal. I spread barrow after barrow of leaf litter, cow muck from a friend’s farm and even hops that smelt of sweet beer onto the beds. Over the months it became one with the soil, and gave me a space I could sow into.

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By the time it was mid spring, we had made the beds and the first of the crops were in. We knew were on the right path. We built the shed- four months of building- alongside shaping the plot, and suddenly we had a base, a centerpiece, of our plot.

shed summer

As late spring rolled into midsummer, we stood back and looked at what we had done. Nine months ago here was a lifeless space, a space with no heart. Here, now, there is a plot with colour and life- and hopes of spring after the winter that’s sliding towards us.

lavender redcurrantWhen you are working with the earth, it’s never just physical. Don’t view gardening as a list of tasks. Planting, nurturing, eating is always much more than that.

a midsummer garden

allotment, gardening, growing

It is the height of summer. The days are still and long, and after sunset, light lingers in the midnight sky.

At no other point in the year is there more energy for growth. After rainfall, the earth is warm and damp and it is perfect for life to thrive.

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After a morning of rain, I visited the plot. Along the pathways, ryegrass hung heavy under the weight of a nights rain. In the salad bed, the reds and greens of the leaves stood stark against the black earth. Egg shells and coffee grounds lay on the ground in a vain (but non-toxic) attempt to deter the slugs.

strawberry

We have been eating our first strawberries of the year. No moment is sweeter. I have sown wildflowers in and left ‘weeds’ and now there is a bed of blooded berries and sprawling leaves.

nasturtium

Here and there I have planted nasturtiums. Their leaves are punchy and spiky with heat and pepper and their flowers are the colour of summer. Raindrops collected on them like glistening jewels.

chive
In late May and early June, the chives burst into flower, and they are perfect for picking and scattering into dinner.

Walking the plot, picking, eating, will never fill my belly but it brings together months of work and rolling skies and nothing could be more satisfying.

making & growing

allotment, gardening, growing

As the end of last year slipped into deepest winter, we took on an abandoned allotment, with dreams of a shed and rows of vegetables and sun-baked days.BeFunky_Snapchat-1663300603017459615.jpg

In a world with terrorism on the tele and dog shit on the streets, building a little space amongst fruit and vegetables and wildflowers seemed a good idea.

We challenged ourselves to build the shed from anything that could do with a second life. We rummaged in skips, plundered street corners and searched antique shops.

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We barrowed bricks in a thunderstorm, put up a bench in mid-winter drizzle and fixed up the roof in milky April sunshine.

shed sawSlowly, the shed came together. Plank by plank, nail by nail, the shed took shape.

 

We could have bought a shed from B&Q. But amongst the old planks and wooden-frame windows, there was character and beauty.
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Building with reclaimed materials means that lines and corners aren’t perfect, but there’s a charm to creating new from old.

 

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From cast-offs and rotting timber, we have a base to everything else we want to achieve- to nurture, to grow, to eat and drink.
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promise & growth

bristol, gardening, growing, vegetables

With some seed in my hand and a little earth in which to sow, things feels good. Sowing a seed is sowing a promise- a promise of life and growth, and at the end of it, a promise of something to put on my plate. BeFunky_20150322_163810.jpgAll you need is a few pots, a little compost and seeds of whatever you like to eat. Put them on a windowsill and give them a little water and before long, you will see signs of life.BeFunky_20150322_142546 (2).jpg

Salad, herbs, chillis and corn have burst into life on my little windowsill. Suddenly I have something to nurture, with the hope of long summer days and food to pick.

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autumn and earth

gardening, growing, vegetables

So much is written about autumn, from fire-painted leaves to smooth, shining conkers. And yes, there is a deep beauty in it- the growth and vigour of the summer months is returning to the earth, ready to feed new growth after the long winter months.

BeFunky_photo 2 (3).jpgWe may choose to pile our waste into pits in the ground, but the natural world beats to a different drum, where old growth is cycled back into the soil. From death and decay comes life.

Immersed in the garden, you see, smell, feel see this. As the season melts into deep autumn, it is a time of harvest and slumber. Our pear tree has just one precious fruit, hanging on amongst the yellowing leaves.

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Over in the chicken run, the supply of eggs has slowed to a crawl. As the hours of light shorten and the temperature falls, their rate of production decreases. The slowing of the eggs is just another marker of the ebb and flow of the seasons.

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Our Sussex hen is going through a moult, where they drop their feathers and grow a new set. Her snow-white feathers are scattered over the grass. She is looking a little less proud with just a single tail feather.

Before winter sets in, the strawberries send runners off in every direction, creating a web of fresh growth amongst crisping leaves and black earth.

BeFunky_photo (3).jpgSome of these ‘baby’ strawberries I pot on, the others I leave to run riot wherever they take root. They say that they only fruit for a few years, but because of all these runners, you will always have a fresh supply of the plants and their fruit.

BeFunky_photo 2.jpgThe leaves of the strawberry dry to a blaze of red and rust and honey, a marker of the crimson berries to come in the height of summer.

blackberry and almond cakes- a recipe

baking, fruit, gardening, recipe

Picking blackberries, like the berry itself, is bittersweet. Right now, it’s the height of summer, but by the time of the last of the berries, night will be longer than day, and the leaves will be falling to a bed of swirling fire.

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Alongside the blackberries, in the hedgerows, the first elderberries are ripening to a pearlescent black. Both berries can be found along pretty much any path or track right now, making these cakes both seasonal and forageable. The cakes would work with any berry, so use whatever you can forage for, or just scatter on your no.1 berry.

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There’s no beating needed here, and with just 10 minutes baking, the result is light and crisp.

180g butter

50g flour

160g icing sugar

90g ground almonds

5 egg whites

a couple of handfuls of berries

Preheat the oven t 180C/c and melt the butter.

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Pour the icing sugar, flour and almonds into a bowl.

Whisk the egg whites in another bowl until they form a light, floppy foam.

BeFunky_image[20].jpgMake a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, tip in the egg whites and butter and stir it all in. Then it’s ready to be poured into the muffin tins. 

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Sprinkle in three or four chopped blackberries into each cake and bake for 10-15 minutes.

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The berries stain the sponge with the blood of late summer. The texture is like a good brownie- soft, fudgy centre and a crispy coat.

BeFunky_image[12].jpgForage, bake, eat.

 

a breathing space and the bumblebee

gardening, growing, wildlife

In our little back garden, we are striving to do big things.BeFunky_Chromatic_1sunf.jpgThe human message of our outdoor spaces, from cities to farmland to gardens, is so often about control and manipulation. Instead of battling nature with sprays, powders and weedkillers, we celebrate the life that creeps and crawls, flits and flies.

BeFunky_10592608_10152306932396376_1623240755_n.jpgWhy not embrace the living things that move in naturally? Why not see the weeds as the wildflowers they really are?

BeFunky_10588683_10152306930781376_2137402374_n.jpgWe cannot rely on the odd nature reserve to sustain wildlife. We can start by maintaining our gardens as breathing spaces for ourselves and the life that inhabits it.

BeFunky_Chromatic_1cour.jpgWe have watched wildlife flourish and grow in our small patch of green. It has been a life affirming experience.

BeFunky_10588540_10152306932411376_619164706_n.jpgBut our garden is not just a breathing space for creepy crawlies. It’s productive too. The first carrots we harvested were spindly and mightn’t win first prize in a beauty contest, but crunching into them is a moment of summer that isn’t forgotten. BeFunky_Chromatic_1.jpgaJust like our own lives, as the seasons roll by, there is life and death, growth and decay. BeFunky_hen4.jpgIn quiet corners of our garden, we leave nature to do its thing. It mightn’t be neat, but it’s alive.

the chicken and the egg

chickens, gardening

Six years ago, we brought four hens home to our suburban back garden. Getting hens was a small move in a big world, but it signalled a change in our lives.

BeFunky_10556392_10152306931121376_6726050040842515697_n.jpgThe hens connected us to our food, made us think about how we want to treat farmed animals, and to the ebb and flow of the seasons.

BeFunky_2014-05-18 18hen2.jpgKeeping chickens transforms an egg from a store cupboard basic to a simple, precious pleasure.

Looking after animals still embedded in the natural world has reconnected us with the food on our plates and to the world around us.

Cracking frozen drinking water on a chilled December morning, the first egg as the days stretch out in early spring, to the hens scratching around dewy grass and frosted apples, has enriched our lives.

Now our scraps go out to hens, and their waste is composted down into rich, dark compost which we use to grow fruit and vegetables. Chicken shit is a good thing.

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In our modern world of TVs and laptops, horror stories of animal abuse and processed food are many. Here, in our small back garden, there are good things happening.

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