Doing the math…

A long time ago, in the early days of the WWW, I was a member of an inspirational American website & online community, Frugal Moms. There didn’t seem to be anything like it UK-based, although that, of course, has changed since. Everyone’s favourite book was Amy Dacyczyn’s Tightwad Gazette, and our battlecry rapidly became her iconic phrase “Do the math!” Just as appropriate here in the UK, even though we’d need an extra “s” – meaning, always sit down & work out whether it is actually worthwhile to do or buy something.

That doesn’t simply mean, “Can we afford it?” That’s a sensible question in its own right, but this goes further; I’d interpret it as, “Is it worthwhile affording it?” whatever it may be? As a very simple example, when we were looking for a new cooker, I insisted on quite an expensive make, rather than just one that fitted the space, did what we needed (to be fair, given a larger family, most modern cookers don’t) and looked the part. I put my foot down & insisted on a make that’s known for reliability and ease of acquiring & fitting spare parts, supplied by a firm with a good reputation for customer service. Which we’ve never needed so far, touch wood. We’re about 10 years down the line now and it continues to do the job well and without fuss; previously, no cooker had lasted us more than 5 years, and most had had engineers called out several times during their stint with us. Time is an important element in deciding whether something is worthwhile; your own time surrendered in paying for it, but also saved in using it, plus the length of time it’s likely to last you set against the initial cost.

Two more examples have come into focus lately. The question has been asked, post-Covid, whether it’s worthwhile for me to continue with my market & emporium stalls; after all, we “coped” without the extra income during lockdown. And they do take up some of my time & energy, and of course, there are costs involved. But as far as I’m concerned, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” – psychologically I need to have a little independent income, and I enjoy what I do, despite the hauling round of heavy stuff and inevitable mess while I clean and restore it. As far as I’m concerned, reclaiming worthwhile tools and materials is an excellent use of time, and I have lots of lovely, creative customers who I very much enjoy meeting. We couldn’t live on what I bring in, but it has for some years paid for extras. There will come a time when it’s no longer practical or possible, but – that day is not this day, to paraphrase a well-known fantasy film.

And is the allotment worthwhile, in purely financial terms? This has not been the most productive of years, thanks to a very dry spring, a mud-bath in May leading to a weed explosion which I’m still battling, and a cold grey August which led to stalled growth for the leeks and cabbages, the dreaded tomato blight, and an almost total lack of female flowers on my squash plants. However, quoting from a post I made on MSE’s forums:

“Another 850g of raspberries brought home this morning, along with a bag of just-popped-up spuds, enough beans for a meal for 5 and a courgette, plus a load of cabbage outer-leaves for the Girls (the chickens, rather than my daughters) from my neighbour, who’s clearing his plot for the winter – he will be rewarded with half a dozen eggs! I keep my plot producing over winter where possible, feeding the soil with mulches rather then resting it, and am currently planting mooli, overwintering onions and broad beans, with garlic yet to go; the kale, leeks (if they ever get any bigger!) and chard will keep producing right through. 

In response to a question from my Other Half, I was also working out whether allotmenteering is financially worthwhile; the plot rental is £50 per annum. But I don’t think a single week has gone by over the last year without me bringing home at least £5 worth of produce, at normal prices, and actually I’m growing without chemicals, so organic prices might be a better comparison. I’ve brought home over 5Kg of raspberries over the last few weeks; at W8rose prices of £3 for 300g, i.e. £10 per kilo, that’s the rent paid even if I hadn’t grown anything else! Of course there are some other expenses; I’ve bought some netting, some secondhand water pipes & a few seeds this year, but most of the tools & equipment I need have been sourced secondhand or free.”

Well worthwhile, in my view. Add in fresh air and exercise, meaning I don’t have to pay gym fees to stay active & relaxed, and for me, it’s a winner, though I’d still rather be growing it all in my own garden! (But sadly, that isn’t big or sunny enough.) I know I’m very lucky to be capable of maintaining it, albeit not all that well or quite as the site managers would like to see it (i.e. bare earth, neat rows) but I’d urge anyone who has the opportunity & the time to take one on to get stuck in & give it a whirl.

I’d also urge them to “do the math” – everyone’s situation is different. What pays off for me might not pay off for you, if you paid the plot rental but then weren’t able to keep it going. (Or if you bought lots of expensive tools and equipment, then gave up after a couple of years, which does seem to happen quite a lot.) The right cooker for our reasonably-sized kitchen and more-than-reasonably-sized family wouldn’t be the right choice for a singleton, or for someone producing food for sale. Some tools pay for themselves very quickly, in financial terms like a sewing machine can, or in terms of time saved, and some add so much to your quality of life that they’re worth every penny spent, but others – don’t. I’m reminded of the expensive food processor that just moved the work from before the meal to afterwards, because it was such nightmare to clean!

Anyway, enough rambling. I’ll leave you with some pictures taken at the allotment today…

A bee enjoying one of my daughter Sarah’s sunflowers.

Fast forward…

… to July, and any day now I’ll be a Grandma! A little quilt has duly been produced:

A little quilt for a little chap…

I even got to use some of my tie-dyed fabric on the back. All the fabric is reclaimed, rightly or wrongly.

Stars for a little star…

They have a night-sky theme going on in the nursery so the shapes & colours were chosen to fit in with that; they look darker in the pictures than they actually are, thanks to the seemingly never-ending gloom in June. It’s not meant to be an heirloom but a totally practical, wash & wear everyday item. There are a few touches that I hope will please the little man; some chenilled seams to intrigue little fingers, and it’s bound with satin ribbon, remembering how much his father loved labels and other smooth textiles as a baby & small child. That and some of the thread – I ran out! – are the only things bought new.

In the meantime, our house has filled up with stuff again; we had a massive last-minute panic to empty my mother’s bungalow. It had sold previously, but the chain collapsed at the last minute and the sale fell through. The estate agents marketing it asked us to leave her stuff there, as it’s easier to sell a home that looks lived in. But as the Stamp Duty Land Tax holiday tottered towards its end, we suddenly got a really good offer for it, provided the sale could go through within a week. Legally it was entirely possible; the new buyer didn’t need a mortgage and the paperwork was all ready to roll, but it was still full of a lifetime’s possessions; you can’t fit that much into her room at the care home, lovely though it is! So some of those possessions have ended up here with us; some will be sold, a few bits used (proper glass lemon squeezies! Oh yes!) but others I will have to make space for until various offspring have homes of their own to house them in. And yes, the lawyers pulled it off and the sale went through a day early.

The weird weather has left me with another space problem; things that should have come out by now over at the allotment are still in the ground, only just starting to go over. So I have several sets of plants ready to go into the ground, but no ground to put them in! And my “first early” potatoes & my maincrops are clearly all going to be ready at the same time. Needless to say, the weeds have galloped away; one minute they were tiny, hardly worth hoeing off, then it rained for weeks and now they are thigh-high. Some serious work called for over there! But some actual potential crops are thriving; I planted Greek Gigantes beans for the first time, and despite the deluge they seem very happy & are racing up their wigwam.

I’m sure there was something serious I wanted to witter on about, but I’ve entirely forgotten what it was, thanks to finding most of a treasure at the recycling warehouse earlier this week. A 1979 Rappard Wee Peggy spinning wheel, originally from New Zealand, but alas, she’s missing her flyer, whorl & bobbins. So that will be a Quest for me over the next few months; I either need to track some “orphan” parts down, or find something that can substitute for them. Without them, sadly she’s just expensive firewood; with them, she’s a beautiful and genuinely useful tool.

Most of a Rappard Wee Peggy…

So now I’m wondering how to gently tell the house clearance people that sometimes, bizarre-looking bits of wood & metal with odd protrusions, often stashed in baskets of brittle, age-old, moth-eaten fluff, are actually vital parts of something. And remembering the lady who found one merrily chucking parts of a loom into a skip, because he couldn’t work out how this “bookcase” fitted together…

Here we are, nearly the end of May…

…and I’m going flat out in the garden and at the allotment again. It’s still too cold put much out, and now what I have planted out is in danger of drowning, but our little greenhouse is full to bursting of tiny plantlets waiting to gallop into their full potential when conditions allow. There’s plenty of infrastructure work still to do up at the allotment to get ready for them, but I’ve hurt my back so will have to wait a few days more before I can get on top of that. In the meantime I’ve been cooking up an idea for a self-built “tomato-house” in an under-utilised space round the front…

Seedlings ready to go in. But not into a bog…

But whenever I’ve wandered over to the allotment to tend the potatoes and brave seedlings that have poked their tiny heads up (Yay! Parsnips! For the first time ever!) I’ve been saddened to walk past several “landscape gardeners”‘ pick-ups parked outside people’s homes, with shredders going full blast and branch after blossom-laden branch being fed into the chippers. Rootballs & whole shrubs chucked onto the lorries, bag after bag of rich topsoil going to the dump & sterile sand being barrowed in, followed by rolls of astro-turf. Massive, expensive plastic-rattan suites & flimsy “gazebos” are being delivered to take up half the outdoor space and blow-up hot-tubs to cover the rest. And the big new “executive” houses going up in the new estates all round our little town have tiny pocket-hanky gardens. It’s left me wondering how most people see gardens these days; do they just want their outdoor spaces to be a place to “be” in, or entertain in? Our local estate agents seem only to see gardens as potential building plots.

I do know that people are very stressed and don’t want to have to bother with “work” in the garden when they finally get home after queueing in traffic for half an hour to get through all the roadworks caused by the new builds. I know that the supermarkets have plenty of fresh produce you can buy for pennies, so why bother to grow your own? I know that to many, wildlife is something that lives “out there” and any living thing that shows up in your space is a pest or potential danger that should be got rid of; toads are slimy, hedgehogs prickly, bees, wasps and anything that looks vaguely like them might sting or bite, birds may poo on your expensive rattan suite, bats get stuck in your expensive hairdo, and so on. But don’t people have any idea what they are missing out on?

Some non-supermarket produce entertaining me…

When the sun shines, our little garden is a bit of a sun-trap, and there’s no greater blessing than to doze gently in a chair, listening to the hum of next-door’s bees coming in to drink at the pond and pollinate my crab-apples. We have a small solar-powered fountain, bought for a few pounds in an online sale, to keep the water clear & fresh for the tadpoles that will grow into frogs and toads that will keep the slugs at bay. The antics of the two hedgehogs whose “range” includes our garden amuse us hugely after dark, and we’re privileged to have one of them “nest” regularly in the lesser-visited recesses of the garage. The scent of the pittosporum at dusk in spring, and the roses all day in summer, are a constant delight. And the taste & texture of home-grown produce just beats any samey-same affordable supermarket vegetable hands-down. Ah well, perhaps I just belong in an older & kinder version of the world…

Spot the bee…

(For UK residents, here’s a link to a petition to Parliament asking for a ban on artificial grass in gardens: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/585520)

In other news, I’ve been making-do & mending as usual, and would love to share a little project with you all. Elder daughter had a favourite pillow-sham for many years, one of those nice M&S patchwork ones in pretty shades of blue & pink. I forget where it came from originally, but it’s lived here for at least ten years. However since about Christmas it’s languished at the bottom of the “putting-away” pile of clean washing, and when I looked more closely at it, I realised that it had actually disintegrated past the point of no return. But she couldn’t quite bear to rip it up for rags or just chuck it out.

A worn-out pillow sham…

So the parts that aren’t too worn are now two lavender-stuffed hearts, to scent her wardrobe or pop under her pillow for a good night’s sleep. There are two tiny bits left which might make a pin-cushion. Sometimes you don’t have to harden your heart & chuck out items with fond memories that have “had it” – it’s always worth thinking, what might they be next?

…becomes a well-stuffed lavender heart – a fitting end?

Actual practice…

I’ve been tidying the “sewing room” (aka the spare bedroom) in preparation for some serious stashbusting. I have far too much fabric, nearly all reclaimed, and all of it utterly gorgeous, so I’m choosing to see the current 4-week lockdown as an opportunity to do something with it! My plan is to make a handful of little quilts; nothing fancy, just scrappy strips & squares, according to my resources. Then I’ll have a stock of things to give to any new humans that might appear on my horizons, our assorted Offspring being of an age when that kind of thing may begin to happen. I’m seeing it as a rainy day project, because there’s a lot of work to do up at the allotment and in the garden, but at this time of year I’m a bit of a fair-weather gardener.

Random strips of torn-up bedding, converted into a “fuzzy” cot quilt

Many a slip, of course; the proof of the pudding will be in the quilting, to muddle several metaphors. One finished already, though! And some mending done, too.

I was intrigued to discover, at a Zoom meeting of our Guild last weekend, that other people had also mislaid their creative mojo during the spring & summer lockdown. I wonder if it will be different this time? We’ve had a bit more of a run-up at it, this time, and have a better idea of what to expect. Also, there isn’t that feeling of “anything might be about to happen, any time” that kept so many of us feeling almost paralysed, in a creative sense, last time. But whether very much creativity will actually happen this time is anyone’s guess.

I wandered into a couple of charity shops earlier in the week & was intrigued to see people making a beeline for the bookshelves, then scooping up several books at a time, almost without actually looking at them. The sad thing that struck me was that in all the shops, the books on the shelves were more or less the same. Same authors, same best-selling thrillers & bonkbusters, same prices. I do know they have to concentrate on what they know will sell, but there’s precious little actual choice out there now.

Anyway, shan’t witter on for too long; there’s plenty more stash to bust, and an allotment to tidy up & mulch for the winter. But look what I found hiding under the Jerusalem artichokes; a very tiny Turks’ Turban squash! I thought someone had dropped a satsuma on our plot, but it’s smaller than that; it’s next to a quince & a pomegranate in the pic, and about equal in size to the clementine behind it. It’s quite heavy, but I suspect there won’t be too many seeds in that one!

A very dinky but fully-formed squash.