Ellen Nugent shares her lockdown experiences with herb-gardening, jam-making, and uncooperative sourdough starters.
I like having a cat. If I don’t feed her on time, she loudly reminds me of my lack of attentiveness. Unfortunately, if I forget to feed my sourdough starter, it just sits sadly in the fridge and ferments itself into an unusable mush. Three starters into lockdown, and it became clear that sourdough bread-making is not a talent that I possess.
I’ve spent the last few years thinking of all the skills I’d like to learn. Lockdown, unfortunately, ruined my usual procrastinating method of ‘but I have no spare time!’, and so I felt I should at least try some new things.
Not all of them were complete disasters. I kept some of my new gardening endeavours alive!
Picture a box hooked over the sill of the open kitchen window. There’s a light breeze and the kitchen smells of fresh mint as you take a few leaves of basil to shred into pasta. Herb window boxes are great for this very reason.
It was surprisingly cheap to set up my windowsill garden, and easy enough to maintain the plants. Many supermarkets sell potted herbs in their vegetable sections, and some sell compost, all at reasonable prices. I do recommend separating young plants before replanting them, as they’ll be clumped together. Remove the plant from the pot, and gently pry each individual stalk from the group, taking some of the roots with it. Leave a little space between each herb when you’re planting them, giving them room to breathe and encouraging growth. I think it’s worth sacrificing some box space for healthier, longer-lasting herbs.
Give mint its own box. Mint is a comic book supervillain that won’t rest until it has taken over every bit of soil it can reach.
Herbs won’t do as well over winter, although they should survive until spring. If you plan to start a window box in autumn, perhaps stick to hardier herbs like thyme, parsley, chives or mint. Make sure they’re sheltered from the wind and rain but get plenty of sunlight. Also, give mint its own box. Mint is a comic book supervillain that won’t rest until it has taken over every bit of soil it can reach. I pretty much chopped my mint to the ground on a regular basis for teas and lemonade, and it was fine- and tasty! It was also really good in jam. I grew up on my mum’s home-made jam, so naturally thought, hey, what could go wrong?
Much like my sourdough starter, many things could go wrong.
I did stick at the jam-making, though! I could make jam whenever I wanted, as long as I had jars and bought the fruit and sugar (and eventually asked advice from people who knew what they were doing). I already knew to sterilise jamjars in the microwave for 30 seconds, and the set point test. (Top secret: stick a small plate in the freezer for 5 minutes, and set your boiling jam on it. The plate goes back in the freezer for a minute, and it can be poured into the jars once it wrinkles when touched).
I learned a lot along the way, too. Jam made in small quantities works well, as it reaches its setting point faster (invest in a jam thermometer and wait for that 105 *C!). It also means that less fruit is wasted if the ingredient ratios are off.
The most important thing with jam making, and with the herb garden, is to enjoy it.
Speaking of ingredients. The most important thing with jam making, and with the herb garden, is to enjoy it. Skim different recipes, and take notes on things you’d like to try. Spices in jams are great – pop them in a tea strainer and put them into the mix as it boils. I’m partial to gooseberry, clove and cinnamon jam myself.
Be easy on yourself in this process, it’s built for time and time is built for trial and error.