Cutting Docken and grass

Again, the weather has been kind to me. I have been cutting the docken (don’t you just love that plural?) in the orchard area. I have lots of docks around the place, and often they get to seed before I cut them, thus seedlings grow and the docken proliferate. I have discovered that, contrary to conventional wisdom, if you get the growing top off the dock they don’t tend to grow back. So my technique is to cut with a spade, aiming to get a couple of inches of the tap root, and not worry too much about the rest of the root. We also have some sort of big pinkish white grub that eats dock roots – maybe they eat the remainder?

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Cutting Docken in orchard area

The orchard area was planted just over three years ago with plum, damson and cherry trees, and I added some apples 18 months ago. It is in a more sheltered dip at the top of the tree field, and I intend to add more soil to landscape the area. I wanted to give the trees as much soil as possible, and also try and keep them well drained. We get so much rain and this is one of the factors that make the fruit trees not grow so well and succumb to disease. At the moment the landscaping is partially done. The trees were planted on mounds, and I have been spreading soil between them. This is barrowed down from below the barn, where it was left from various trackway excavations. Although S. did move down some soil with the dumper, It took a lot of effort to then distribute it and dig out the couch grass and nettles that came too, so wasn’t really much of a labour saving in the end! The trackway down from the barn still needs grading, so is still a bit steep for comfortable barrowing, but at least the heavy bit’s downhill! Anyway, apparently along with the couch and nettles were also a lot of dock seeds which have subsequently germinated and done quite well (oh why aren’t they edible weeds?). So last week I and the dogs took the pink ball and the spade and barrow and set to work. One and a half days later we had cleared the docken, done a lot of fetching, discovered some nicely growing blackcurrant cuttings that I stuck in last winter, a big bone that Dougie had hidden there, a couple of very small spruce seedlings that were missed from several I had temporarily stuck in there eighteen months ago; that is the good news.

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Blackcurrant cuttings in orchard area

The docken were also lovely to dig up from the new soil – many came up with complete roots, so the soil should be good for other stuff to grow in. The bad news is that I also discovered that along with the docken we also have a lot of surviving couch grass (I now know what couch grass flowers look like), nettles and of course the creeping thistle that were in the field before the trees were planted. I’m hoping that continual pulling will deter the creeping thistles. This seems to have been reasonably effective in the tea garden, I had very little come back this year. It’s not the nicest job. You need need grippy gloves to grasp the stems so as to pull as much root as possible: I like the cloth ones with latex facing. However, the palms aren’t strong enough to stop all the prickles, so every now and then you have to pick out a prickle that has broken off in the glove and is sticking in you. I just pulled out the nettles (which will probably grow back) and ignored most of the couch. I know it’s going to grow extensively, but I’m hoping to complete the landscaping, and maybe do some planting this autumn. With a good thick mulch in the meantime and relying on the lovely light soil structure, I’m hoping it will come out then reasonably completely. Anyway, it’s only grass! I’ll probably plant out some of my exciting root crops there this autumn/winter since they will subsequently need digging out anyway giving me a second opportunity to remove the couch….

It was forecast to be dry until Thursday last week, and we were keen to get the paths in the tree field cut. It’s nice to have the grass long, but it makes my trousers wet as I’m walking through (even with wellies on), and S. also has difficulty telling the trees and other plants apart, so having a defined pathway makes it easier if he does have to drive a vehicle round. To be fair the docks are still bigger than some of the trees.  I’d asked him to get the mower out ready for me, so that I could cut the paths when I got home from the shop on Wednesday. It would be quite late, but the sun doesn’t set till gone ten for us at the moment, so there is still quite a bit of daylight. Anyway, he not only got the mower out, but he and the dog-boys went round all the trackways a few times. It wasn’t quite the way I would have done it. I’m not that keen on cutting the grass at all at this time of year. I would like the flowers to have set their seed. However, for reasons of practicality, a little pathway in the centre of the track seems like a good compromise. S. however, did the main trackway with several passes, and the main side loop also with a wider cut. I went round a second time trying to keep in the centre of the track, because the scythemower doesn’t cut that cleanly the first cut, and a second cut gives a more even result. A disadvantage of doing more than the minimum is that Muggins here then has to spend longer than neccessary raking up the extra cut grass. It looks slightly surreal with the long grass, trees and flowers, a mowed path, and the mounds of gathered cut grass.

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Hay mounds along mown trackway

Now I have a fair amount of material for mulching. I will have to wheelbarrow this up hill to the orchard area, where hopefully it will stop some of the noxious weeds growing back too strongly and feed the fruit trees in the longer term. If there is more than I need it can be used to mulch the trees nearest the path edge, or others strategically selected.
If we had more land I would like to cut some of it for hay. Corncrake have a hard time now on Skye, since most crofters just buy in their winter feed now and the in bye fields are now summer grazing. I heard one once here in Glendale a couple of years ago, but it didn’t stay.

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“leafu”

This post is for Amanda.

Leafu or leaf curd is a way of concentrating the protein in green leaves to make it accessible to humans. Apparently you can use almost any non toxic leaf, but nettle greens are what I have plenty of just at the moment. The resulting substance is up to 70% dry weight protein, which is useful for those following a vegan diet. Although not vegan myself, I fancied having a go with my nettles to see what could be achieved. The nettles here grow rather prickly and although I know you can have nettles as a green cooked vegetable, the results here are rather less than palatable. Someone else in the glen went so far as to import nettles from Yorkshire from a known good clump – but here they also grew prickly, so it seems to be something about the environment here. Maybe they need more sheltered conditions to grow nice, so perhaps when my trees are bigger and provide more shelter I will have lush nettles again.

The recipe for leafu is very simple:

1) Collect your greens (and wash them)

2) Bash them to release the cell contents

3) Strain off the liquid from the fibrous parts of the plant

4) Heat the liquid to boiling point to curdle the protein

5) Strain off the protein solids

6) Treat if necessary to preserve the leafu.

Collecting nettles was quite straightforwards. I was using a recipe from a Country Kitchen article by Fergus Drennan which I found online (http://fergustheforager.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/ckjuly09curdsaway.pdf) which intimates that 12kg of nettle leaf can produce 1 kg of moist leafu. I thought as a trial this was maybe a little large, so I aimed to collect 6 kg to make a pound of leaf curd. One carrier bag of nettles seemed to weigh about a kg, and I had no problem collecting 5 bags of youngish nettles – alternatively being able to collect this amount of nettles in my fruit garden could be considered to be a problem in itself! However, hopefully picking off the tops may knock back the growth a bit anyway. I did get stung a little – the gloves I like to use in the garden are the cloth type with latex palms. The nettles do sting through the fabric, so I got a bit stung on the backs of my hands. It’s supposed to be good for the circulation, or prevent rhumatism perhaps.

To bash the leaves I used a food processor. You can use a liquidiser, or a juicer, or a pestle and mortar, and probably other devices. It was quite slow and makes a mess. I would recommend not starting this job at 6 o’clock on a Sunday evening when you have to make and eat dinner and have a bath before bedtime! I started off cutting the nettles up on a chopping board and then feeding the pieces down a funnel into the processor with a little water to help it move. I soon worked out that actually I could feed the whole stems into the top of the processor which saved a lot of time. Although I thought I had selected the stems pretty well while picking them, I had to edit them a bit to get rid of a few eaten leaves, and rooty bits of stem. When the food processor was as full as I dared with liquidised nettles, I transferred the lot into a large jelly bag in my jam cauldron.

I found the pulp was very bulky and it more than filled the maslin pan. I decanted some liquid into a mixing bowl, even so had I actually persevered and pulped the whole 5 bags collected, there is no way my jelly bag would have been big enough. Fergus suggests using a pillow case, but I suspect at this stage something coarser would be OK – may be some environmesh insect screening? But you’d also need a larger container like a baby bath, or maybe a large plastic gardening trug? Anyway, since it was getting late and the pan was getting full I stopped after 2 bags.

I managed to suspend the heavy jelly bag over my mixing bowl and left it to drain overnight. The left over nettles went in the compost heap, as did the contents of the jelly bag the next day after I had squeezed what extra moisture I could from it. The liquid was very dark, almost black. I meant to have a go at paper making with the pulp as Fergus suggests, but forgot in the excitement of leafu production!

The next step is heating the liquid gently to boiling point and simmer for about a minute. I cook on a wood fired range cooker, so I normally use the oven to heat up large quantities, so this is what I did. I guess the oven was about 170 degrees celsius (top end of the hot on my oven door thermometer) and I then went away to do something else. When I returned sometime later remembering the leafu – it was hot and steaming with a dark coloured crust. When placed on the hot side of the hot plate on the cooker top it was already boiling gently, so I guess it must have been at boiling for rather longer than a minute. The crust was the leafu protein, so it seems to be a fairly tolerant process. I guess that if the nutrients such as vitamins are crucial to your diet, then cooking the liquid the minimum amount to coagulate the protein would be better than my extra time.

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Coagulated protein layer

The solid protein is very fine particles. I used a small jelly bag which has a very fine mesh. I expect a coffee filter might be suitable if big enough, but certainly the bag I used for the initial filtering of the nettle solids would not have caught the leaf protein. Again I left the bag to drip overnight and the result was about a cup of soft solids like a dark green mousse. I weighed this as about 4oz (100g). I also had a large bowl of nettle juice (less some of the protein) which I have kept to use as plant food.

Fergus gives various methods of preserving the leafu. Apparently in it’s fresh state it will not last very long, even in the refrigerator. It keeps a little longer if you add salt (about 1oz to every 4oz fresh curd) and refrigerate, or you can freeze it in portions or dry and use as stock cubes in stews, soups and sauces. I admit I got confused at this stage and both added salt and then dried the curd (sitting in a bowl on top of the cooker for a day or so with occasional stirring). The result was about 1 and a half ounces of leafu powder, of which one ounce was salt. So I’m afraid the overall taste at the end was salt. At the fresh curd stage It tasted strongly of green. Not an unpleasant taste, but I wouldn’t expect my husband to eat it neat! He won’t notice it added instead of marmite to a stew next time I do something suitable.

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Dried leaf curd and plant food (in milk cartons)

Verdict: This was a fun way to use a glut of inedible nettles. I think however, if you don’t need a protein concentrate, it’s a rather long process for a little gain. On researching around on the internet for nutrient content of leaf curd, I found a reference to someone who uses dried nettles as a condiment and I think this would be a more practical way for me personally to use them in the future. I can generally dry things in the polytunnel hung from the crop bars, or on cooling trays in the bottom oven, when the stove is on. I may have a go at this later in the year. I think that you would lose less of the other nutrients in the nettles (in the ‘whey’), although would need a greater amount of dried nettles for the same amount of protein. They do seem to contain about one third protein by dry mass (from wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urtica_dioica), so that would only need a bit more than twice as much dried nettle to have the same protein as dried leaf curd.