Monday, February 21, 2011


The mornings have a touch of autumn now, an occasional chill mist thrusting tendrils in through the door as we eat breakfast. The sun gets up after us on school days, surprised to find us already at the table as he beams in blindingly over the cereal boxes. Not to say that summer is over. Hot days still demand sun cream and water bottles filled with ice cubes. We are just getting the first hint that we need to make the most of summer now, as its days are numbered.

In the herb garden I can see a progression. Summer profusion is gradually being supplanted by the need to make seeds, as the herbs, more aware of the harshness of winter than we are, make plans for survival next season. When I planted, I hadn’t really thought of a seed harvest. I was looking for leafy flavour for the kitchen, and gentle herbal remedies for family ailments. The seeds are an unlooked for bonus. Because now I can harvest even more flavour from the garden.

The coriander that bolts to flower all too easily, is now busily working on a harvest of coriander seed, spicy but with an orangey tinge, perfect for curries and vegetable stews.

The fennel plants, so tall and grand, are bowing over as their seeds ripen, sweet aniseed goodness for digestion, also good as a pinch of seed thrown into a veggie casserole.

The dill seeds too, similar but with a slightly less sweet flavour than fennel , are ready to harvest and if I can get round to cleaning them and removing the husks can be sprinkled ion rolls and loaves of bread.

I will keep some seeds over for planting next season and save the rest for eating. The rocket looks like it is busy sowing its own seeds for next season, so maybe my herb garden will be less ordered next year. Fewer neat geometric rows and more profusion of herbs all intertwined where they sowed themselves? I don’t know, but will wait to see, and remain in awe of the abundance that just a few packets of seeds  brings forth in one season. I haven’t even finished up the original seed packets yet, despite having more than enough of everything for a far bigger family than ours.

As a total co-incidence, or auspicious timing, whatever you will, after writing this post I have just looked up my moon gardening calendar for the best time to harvest seeds. A waxing moon in Leo it said. I check the date and guess what! Today and tomorrow the moon is in Leo just before the full moon on Friday so the timing is perfect.(edited to add – this was last week, as I never got round to posting!)  I’ll be cooking with seeds for sure this weekend!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

High School, New School and a Laundry Tip

First Day
The switch to a new school seems to be more of a culture shock to his parents than to our son. After four weeks of school, he seems to be taking it all in his stride, despite the change from Waldorf to conventional teaching and the jump from primary to high school.  We’re the ones still reeling at the demands. This stack of text books – does he really have to carry that heavy weight to school and around classes every day? Homework every single afternoon, which combined with the longer journey sometimes means that he’s only done by supper time. A six o’clock get up so that he can be ready to leave with my sister-in-law before seven. And uniform.

Our kids have never had uniform before; at the Waldorf school they wear their own clothes within reasonable bounds. He has no problem wearing the same thing every day, in fact he probably prefers it for making his life simple. I used to have to steal his clothes away from him after a few days of continuous wear as it was. I’m the one struggling with the new problem of white poly-cotton school uniform shirts, whose collars instantly acquire a dirty stained stripe on contact with sun-screen.

My super-woman status definitely does not extend to laundry. I tend to separate it out into whites and darks, chuck it in the machine and consider it clean. But those bright white shirts, with the grimy collars even after washing, threw out a challenge. The stain remover spray didn’t work, nor did the bicarb (baking soda). The final solution after much Googling was dish washing detergent. In the US it’s Dawn, but here in South Africa I tried our emerald green Sunlight. And it worked! For a nasty moment I thought I’d only succeeded in dying the collars green, but luckily the colour washed out, leaving the collars almost looking like new. Phew!

I may be the last mum in the universe to have newly discovered this laundry rescue remedy for removing sunscreen grime, but in case you are struggling with the same problem – here is the recipe.

Recipe for Sparkling White Shirt Collars

Take one white shirt collar, engrained with a tide line of dirt and sunscreen

Soak it with a generous dash of ordinary dish detergent

Scrub it in and leave to marinate for twenty minutes. * see edited note below

Add to the rest of the ingredients in your washing machine and wash as normal.

Hang out to dry and sparkle in the sunshine.

Repeat daily in term time.

As for the homework, I’ve always reckoned that our children were supposed to be doing it by themselves. I’ve helped a bit when necessary but tried not to interfere too much. But how do I resist an appeal to help with a book review, which has to be 150-200 words to include a summary of the plot and an assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. He’s never had to do anything like it before.

My professional pride is tickled and I give various insightful and useful tips, restraining myself from jumping in to try my own hand at it. But it still turned out to be a collaborative effort, as our opinion was sought at every stage, especially in the editing it down to within the word count. It then had to be set out as a Word document with a picture and printed off, so I was able to advise on formatting and sub-headings.... but after so much involvement, now I want to know what marks we got... really it’s no fun helping with homework if we don’t at least get a Very good or a gold star or whatever carrots are doled out in high school these days.

Repeat to myself three times daily:  “I must resist becoming a helicopter parent at this late stage in the game.”

Edited to add: This recipe worked well for a while and then on some occasions I found it hadn't worked. I amended it thus and now it works perfectly every time:  
After soaking the collars, scrub them a little under running water before adding to the wash. It doesn't need to be entirely scrubbed out; this just loosens it enough that the wash will do the rest.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Tomato Sauce - Fresh From The Garden

Every year when tomato season comes round again, I tell myself it’s time to learn the art of canning. Now we’re surrounded by trays of tomatoes, taking over the shelves where my pots and pans used to be stored and ripening too fast, and I still haven’t got around to it. It’s something about having to go out and buy canning jars seals and whatnot, that makes it seem like a huge undertaking. Or maybe it’s that simmering the filled jars in water. Anyway I’m still resorting to the freezer when it comes to preserving our tomato crop and the freezer is crammed to the gills.

When my mother was here we picked, peeled, chopped and froze kilos of tomatoes. They sit in a heap in the freezer in bags of the equivalent size to a tin of tomatoes, so that I won’t have to buy a tin for months. I made a huge batch of tomato sauce for pizza and froze it. A couple of double batches of Jane-Anne’s Roast Tomato and Onion soup are crammed in next to containers of stock, ready for slightly cooler weather. And still the tomatoes are ripening ready to harvest.

But there’s something so nice about having fresh ripe tomatoes with flavour always on hand for pasta sauce or salads. Our son may not agree when it’s pasta with tomato sauce again for supper, but the fresh tomatoes with fresh herbs from the garden are a hundred times better than any other tomato sauce in the world.

I’ve picked up a great tip from Marcella Hazan for a tomato sauce with tuna - start off the sauce with several tablespoons of chopped parsley fried in olive oil with a little garlic. It gives a wonderful depth of flavour to the sauce, mellowing it slightly and anchoring that fresh tomato sprightliness. Then you can throw in other fresh herbs to cook with the tomato and try different combinations to ring the changes. A little lemon thyme, or oregano, a sage leaf or a sprig of rosemary all give a slightly end result. Or a scattering of torn basil leaves thrown in at the very end.

Recipe For Fresh Tomato Pasta Sauce with Herbs and Tuna

About eight ripe tomatoes peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove of garlic peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons fresh parsley finely chopped
A few sprigs of mixed fresh herbs – oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary according to your whim
170g / 6oz can tuna drained
500g / 1lb pasta

Gently fry the chopped garlic in the olive oil until just starting to colour.
Add the chopped parsley and cook for about a minute stirring now and then.
Add the chopped tomatoes with the other  fresh herbs and a seasoning of salt and pepper.
Bring to a steady simmer and cook for about 15-20 minutes until the liquid has reduced and the tomatoes have reached a sauce like consistency.
Meanwhile cook the pasta to be ready at the same time as the sauce.
At the very end of the sauce cooking time add the tuna and stir it into the tomato sauce, giving it just enough time to warm through, but not letting it cook for any length of time.
Immediately the pasta has drained toss it with the sauce and serve. No need for parmesan with a tuna sauce, but you could sprinkle it with some torn basil leaves for extra flavour.

I sometimes have a little extra tomato and tuna sauce left over. It makes a delicious spread for bread at lunch time and Youngest loves it in her school sandwiches too.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

A Natural Flea Trap

Living on a farm with dogs, fleas are one of those banes that we are almost never without. Cold weather brings a little respite, but with the first spring warmth the dogs start scratching madly and sharing their fleas with us. With a Jack Russell that thinks she’s a princess and insists on napping on the sofa whenever she can get away with it, that means fleas hopping on us just when we want to relax. I don’t get bitten much, but Youngest seems to be very attractive to fleas and reacts to their bites. It’s an all out war.

The big shot chemical weapons have lost their effectiveness. The toxic pill only works if you can control the environment and how can we control the several acres that our dogs regularly roam?  The collar doesn’t work at all. The spot on treatment hardly. Besides the fact that all these things are toxic and cost a fortune for four dogs. We’ve tried the natural alternative of using diatomaceous earth around the house and on the dogs. It may or may not have some effect, but it wasn’t the instant success I was hoping for. So I’ve fallen back on this.

This high tech and very sophisticated flea trap consists of a white bowl of water, with a drop of soap in it to break the surface tension. The lamp is left on all night shining on the water. Fleas obligingly hop towards the light and drown in the water. Diligently applied night after night in several strategic places, I’m sure it is making a dent in the flea population inside the house at least.

What I like is that it is quantifiable. I can notch up the death count on the door post in the morning and have the satisfaction of knowing that that many fleas won’t be perpetuating their species. And it is totally non-toxic flea control. I don’t expect to stop the dogs scratching altogether, but hopefully I can catch the newly hatched fleas before they feast on us.

Any other tips for natural flea control? I'd love to know anything that works for you.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


Pottering with intent in the herb garden is the best way to start a summer’s morning, knowing that soon it will be too hot in blazing sunshine, enjoying the caress of cool air on bare shoulders while it lasts.

The smell of marigolds wafts from my hands as I type, an hour and several hand washings since my early morning pruning spree. Midsummer and the herb garden is burgeoning. The marigold seeds that I planted to ward off bugs, have lived up to their name; a name that I never bothered reading on the seed packet: Sunset  Giants. And they are still growing, overshadowing the parsley, surrounding the little rosemary bush, so that its destiny as part of a hedge is now threatened by an inferiority complex. I can hardly squeeze past on the path to pick rocket, where two thickets of marigolds meet and try to push each other out of the way.

It’s the last day of the old moon waning; it’s still in Capricorn and my moon planting calendar says prune, transplant trees. As soon as the children are safely bundled off to school, I forget about breakfast dishes on the table and wander out with secateurs and spade in hand.

Two tiny self seeded white stinkwoods need moving into pots, until winter, when maybe I can plant them elsewhere on the farm to grow into big trees one day. A sprig of yarrow comes with one, so I leave it in the pot. I love how rich the once-dry, sandy soil has grown since starting the garden in August. It’s nothing like the rich loam of some areas but it has a darker richer feel than before, like a sprinkling of cocoa in a sponge cake, and it is smoother and softer in texture.

The mulberry trees are reaching to the sky and need a trim to encourage bushing out, so that I can pick next spring’s crop of finger-inking berries without a ladder. I feel cruel cutting off tips that are so fiercely full of life. It takes a while to get used to that cruel to be kind aspect of gardening. I still can’t bring myself to thin out rows of vibrant rocket seedlings, so they end up growing thickly, vying for space and elbow room.

But I steel myself to deal with those pushy marigolds, planted to protect the other plants and now threatening to engulf them, deprive them of sunshine and air and take everything for themselves. A little trimming later, they look as huge as ever, but at least the path is clearer and the parsley and thyme now have some light. There is a vase of bright orange blooms on the dining table and a scattering of marigold prunings thrown on to an empty space, destined to hold garlic in a month or two, as mulch.

I never used to like the smell of marigolds much, but it’s growing on me, taking me out to my herb garden even when I am back inside, doors closed against the heat, typing away at the computer and gearing up for the dryer, dusty piece of work that awaits.