Another cautionary tale…

On Wednesday of last week, I was so pleased & proud of the contents of my little greenhouse that I even took a couple of pictures; it all seemed to be going so well this year, after last year’s cool, damp spring when half the seeds I’d sown didn’t even bother germinating. I’ve had much better luck this year, even from the same seed packets.

Happy productivity…

On Thursday – devastation. Utterly wrecked. It looked as if a bunch of pirates had held a wild, wild party in there; the little plants had been trampled, been pulled up & strewn around, had their heads bitten off & left lying, grazed off. Random holes had been dug in seed trays, pots knocked over and tray lids sent flying in the quest to consume or just obliterate the contents. I could have wept; the devastation was pretty much total, except for the peppers & chillis on the top shelf & for some reason, the peas & beans. 2 trays of beetroot seedlings (my husband’s favourite) more than half of my tomatoes, aniseed, Russian Blue chives, Tuscan egg onions, Magentaspreen, Russian Tarragon, agapanthus, agastache, my daughter’s spinach & named-variety sunflower seedlings – all gone, or damaged beyond hope of survival.

Devastated beetroot, trampled agapanthus…

But it seems it was very much my own fault, if not my own doing. We’ve suspected for a week or so that we might have an unwanted rodent-shaped guest, as well as our friendly local hedgehog population; an ominous hole has appeared down under my work shed. Since the lockdowns began, I’ve picked up the poultry food bowls at night & keep them in a heavy-lidded metal box (not that there’s usually anything much left in them) so as not to attract trouble. But the seed for the wild birds is much harder to round up; it gets dropped all over the place, not necessarily just below the feeders, & there are sunflowers springing up in every crack in the paths. There’s a heavy-duty sonic deterrent on its way to us , but it hasn’t got here yet; I won’t use poison, because of the cats and the hedgehogs.

So why did the rascally rodent run riot in my seed pots & trays? My younger daughter pointed the finger firmly at me when clearing up the fallen bird seed. “Mum, did you deposit a load of cooked rhubarb under the apple tree?” No, I didn’t – but I did empty a bucket of last year’s failed rhubarb champagne there, then got distracted, went off to do something urgent and failed to remove the vastly over-fermented “fruit”… My tiny plants have paid the price for my failings; they’ve literally been danced on & devastated by an inebriated rodent! I can’t help hoping he had the mother & father of all hangovers…

I do know that this is no laughing matter, and that I need to take serious & urgent action to protect our friends and neighbours & our pets; if the sonic deterrent doesn’t work, I’ll be straight on the phone to the pest controllers. But I have to say I’d never have realised just how much damage could be caused by a rat-arsed rat…

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.

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?

Pass the fatted calf…

…we have a son returning home! Son no. 3 has spent most of the last ten years studying & living away, though he’s been home for holidays when in the UK. But he’s finally run out of stipend, hopefully having completed his thesis, and will be returning to the family fold imminently. And the bedroom required for a 28-year-old academic is not the bedroom that the 18-year-old student left behind…

It’s a different room, for a start. He used to have the smallest bedroom at the top of the stairs, but now the bigger, downstairs room that’s functioned as the guest room for the last ten years is more appropriate. He has a large collection of academic reference books to accommodate; my poor husband has already remarked many times that our elder daughter & I should just go & live in a library, so there isn’t much spare bookcase-space available. He will be job-hunting and keeping up to date in his field, so the room needs to work as a serious study as well as a bedroom.

He sent through a plan of how he thought it could be laid out, and as a little joke, included a wing-back chair, Sherlock-Holmes-style. It just so happens that I am always rescuing a certain make of old wing-back chair for an upholsterer friend, who re-makes them into the most fabulous, desirable & comfortable chairs going. But alas, all my usual sources are closed just now, so I put a request on Freecycle, not expecting anything as there were several listed locally on Ebay at exceedingly silly prices, i.e. more than my friend asks for them after she’s done them up professionally. To my astonishment, I got a reply within the hour, and picked up a modern, but very comfortable, reclining wingback chair the next day, for free. Joke returned! We may never get him out of there, though…

Free wingback recliner…

Then the hunt was on for serious bookcases. I answered an advert on Facebook Marketplace, for a tall painted wooden bookcase from a certain Scandinavian emporium. They did say it needed some TLC, but it was priced very reasonably at £10. We squeezed it into my van & bore it home triumphantly, but on closer inspection, though very heavy & originally very sturdy, it was actually particle-board and had been left outside for too long; the damage to the weight-bearing base was irreversible. But it hasn’t gone to waste; the shelves and one side have gone up into the loft as loft-boarding where there wasn’t any, and the damaged side has been trimmed to size & deployed across two (also Scandinvian) tall bedside tables to make a perfect, and rather stylish, laptop desk for my husband to work-from-home on, teamed with a comfortable office chair that came to us via Freegle. I also rescued the dowelling and other fixings from the shelves; they’re pretty standard across the whole range of their furniture, which we have a fair bit of, some of it even bought new. The only bits that went to the tip were the top & bottom trim and the flimsy back-boards.

I spotted an advert for all sorts of free furniture from a big Edwardian house being cleared only about 400 yards away from us. Old stuff, lovely quality, but mostly much too big & dark for modern homes. But there were two tall bookcases… I dashed off a polite request & heard straight back; the chap organising the clearance was upcountry, but thought they were a pretty standard size, i.e. 6′ tall x 3′ wide, so I replied that we would love to give both of them a home, please. So we went to pick them up from his brother the next day; they’re absolutely lovely in a shabby-chic sort of way, but actually over 7′ tall and well over 3′ wide! Only one would fit into the bedroom, but we’ve managed to make space for the other one in the hallway, replacing two smaller bookcases, one of which has also gone into the bedroom.

One free bookcase…

But he also needs a desk. And not the neat little desk that’s been in there all along; it needs to accommodate his laptop, a couple of big reference books plus notebooks, pens etc. and have plenty of space underneath for restless legs. However, add in the bed, wardrobe & a large chest of drawers (with small bookcase on top) and the remaining space is limited; 4’/120cm wide by about 20″/50cm deep is about all that will fit. Suggestions have been winging their way through the ether, but nothing ready-made has yet hit the spot in terms of style or size; he desperately doesn’t want white-on-white. However, a couple of days ago I picked up a Gumtree’d “Freebie” black desk top, also originally from the Scandinavian emporium, may their name be ever-blessed; I knew you could still buy legs to fit it very reasonably. So they’ve been ordered, and the desk top cut to size; it turned out to be easier to cut particleboard than I’ve always thought, given a decent jig-saw. I’ve added a board at the back to stop stuff falling off, as it’s side-on to the doorway. So, there will be a desk, which will have cost next-to-nothing, and *** It Will Do *** until he finds one of his own choosing, or the job of his dreams and moves out again!

After Christmas, when he announced he’d be returning home for some indefinable length of time, I was panicking mightily that I’d have to spend quite a lot of money on new furniture that really needs to be spent maintaining my van, as I’ve earned next-to-nothing over the last year & will need to go out & sell stuff on virtually every fine day this summer. But given time & access to a computer, I’ve been able to assemble bits & bobs that fit the bill for very nearly nothing. Thank you so very, very much, to all Freecycle/Freegle volunteers, Gumtree and Facebook Marketplace!

And another free bookcase!

Bizarre!

How strange! I feel as if a beloved friend has just left us… the time had come to replace my Mac Mini. We’d had it for over 10 years and it had served us well; it’s been replaced with an updated version as that’s what does the things I need from a personal computer the best & fits the space available. It had become slower & slower over the last few months, and every now & then the fan would kick in audibly as it struggled; I suspect it had got very dusty inside. I opted to go for the trade-in option, as that means that anything that’s still usable inside the box will get re-used, and the bits that aren’t will be recycled rather than just sitting in a cupboard until I got round to chucking it out.

So I did the Mac-to-Mac transfer, which wasn’t as horrendous or time-consuming as I thought it might be, though there were one or two little blips. But Apple Support were great & smoothed it all out for me, and the New Mac Mini was up & running easily a couple of days ago. Yesterday I managed to track down all the bits of data that had wandered off to other folders, so today was “Wipe Mac-Mini-1” day. I followed the instructions on the Apple website to prepare it for returning to Apple, but as it came to clicking the “Erase Disk” option I felt a real pang of sorrow!

It’s very strange; I know I’ll feel the same when my beloved Mazda Bongo finally trundles off to the great scrapheap in the sky. Or if my 1909 Jones Medium treadled sewing machine jammed irreparably, something having broken inside. My head knows perfectly well that they’re just machines; they don’t have personalities, they’re not my “friends” no matter how useful they are, but somehow my heart “knows” otherwise. And I suspect that that’s one reason why I feel I have to do what I do; I see perfectly good old tools, furniture or books sitting in a skip or at an auction and somehow they seem to be begging, “rescue me!” But that does rather lead to an excessively cluttered home, despite my efforts to re-home stuff profitably.

I suppose the answer is, stay away from skips, scrapheaps and auctions. But please tell me I’m not alone, and that other people out there do sometimes feel the same, and that some of the good old stuff that’s tossed away in our wasteful society will also be rescued – just not always by me…

My beloved “rescued-via-Ebay-for-£2.50” Jones Medium treadle, still very much in use!

A jolly Covid Christmas upcoming…

I dashed into our local big outdoor shopping mall whilst passing on another errand earlier, looking for a few last-minute gifts. What a grim experience… I went into one shop, which was rammed, and the little assistant by the door said to the guy immediately behind me (far too close!) “Please may I remind you, sir, to wear a face covering in the store?” to which he snorted, “It’s not a law, you can’t make me; do you want my money or not?” The poor little lass just looked down; she was evidently used to this & knew not to antagonise. The place was full of aimless plastic & polyester tat and people barging around with no regard for personal space, never mind social distancing, so I left & tried another place, a well-known kitchenware shop, which wasn’t so crowded & didn’t seem to be attracting so many idiots. There were some good things, but at very silly prices. They’ll be half that price next week, and so they should be! So I just bought a couple of everyday necessities and left empty-handed; I don’t go down there very often. It seemed to me that people are behaving every bit as daftly as they normally do at this time of year, totally ignoring the enhanced risk of the mutated virus. I think I’d rather risk disappointing my family & friends than shop with the herd again…

It was also noticeable how slowly everyone was driving. Conditions weren’t that bad; grey & drizzly, admittedly, but no worse than that. But we were trundling slowly along at a very steady & careful 27mph in a 40 zone before the driver in front of me nearly wavered into the kerb & I suddenly realised that it was lunchtime & they’d quite possibly had a bracing snifter or two; I think there’s a lot of that about, with people stressed by what seems like an endless onslaught of bad & worrying news, health, job & money worries and the pressure of trying to keep up appearances over the “festive season”. Or more worryingly, perhaps they weren’t feeling very well…

We are very much amongst the lucky ones this year. We have 3 of our 5 offspring here at home, with a 4th not very far away. Eldest and his delightful partner unfortunately still live in Tier 4 so won’t be joining us, except digitally, but we’re all healthy (so far!) & have plenty of food in the house & at the allotment. I’m sad for all those who will be alone, and those who don’t have enough to eat, never mind presents for the kids. And as for those with no roof over their heads, in this endlessly grim drizzle that will only end as the temperature falls… my heart sinks. What are we thinking, to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace with an orgy of buying plastic & polyester tat? Stuffing ourselves with expensive, unhealthily-processed foods when many don’t have enough to eat? And doing what I did today, actually risking our lives by rushing into crowded spaces where some people have no intention of following the guidelines, in pursuit of the “perfect” present?

Count me out of that next year, please… in the meantime, I’m wishing you all a happy & peaceful Christmas and a healthy & merry-hearted New Year.

Tree from our local RSPB reserve, decorated with baubles rescued from the Tip, hand-painted be-glittered fir cones and walnut shells – oh, and the non-recycled odd candy cane!

I don’t know why…

I just haven’t been able to write anything for the last few months. I’m not sure why; it’s not as if I haven’t been doing things, and plenty of them, but it’s seemed somehow like time apart from the mainstream of life. Part of me desperately wanted to record the sheer strangeness going on all around, but a larger part of me felt that committing it to type might make it real, somehow. A sort of feeling that if I held my breath, didn’t do anything, didn’t acknowledge the situation, it might kind of just fade away…


Anyway, the spell has been broken by the necessity of getting a newsletter out; there wasn’t much to put in it, so I ended up writing an article-ette to bulk it out, then suddenly, Bingo! The brakes in my head came off. And I have to report, it is real. At the start of all this, back in spring, I think we all hoped that in a few weeks, it would all be behind us, just another something-and-nothing. But it isn’t; it’s becoming apparent that that was just the start and we have a long & sometimes rocky road ahead of us. There have been many moments when it seemed that someone somewhere was playing a gigantic joke on us (drive 30 miles to test your eyes? You cannot be serious, that could actually be lethal) but no, it’s for real, the lunatics are in charge of the asylum and they’re not about to fly away over the cuckoo’s nest.

Where I live, we’ve been relatively lucky in that the virus has yet to gain much of a foothold. By and large, people have done what our leaders asked them to, and it’s easy for us to get out into the fresh air and stay socially distanced. But the price has been not seeing our families; we had a wedding in the family, the bridegroom being one of our sons, and my Other Half and I had to stay elsewhere so that he could be with his siblings before the ceremony & not break the Rule of Six. (All kudos to the bride & groom for staying calm and switching their arrangements several times at the drop of a government diktat, at considerable expense.) My mother had a spell in hospital and decided that she couldn’t bear to live alone any longer; we’ve found her a wonderful care home, which she’s enjoying hugely, but we can’t visit her except to yell up to her balcony, and we certainly can’t give her a hug. These are small sadnesses, and we know we’re very lucky in the great scheme of things, but they are also little rips in the social fabric that binds us all together, and we all know what happens to little rips that don’t get mended swiftly.

There are – undercurrents – that worry me. More and more places are refusing to accept cash, ostensibly because coins and notes may harbour the virus. But as our banks & government have been flying the kite of a cashless society for a long time now, this seems to be playing into their hands. Then what happens to those who are refused bank accounts, often for reasons beyond their control, like debts run up by a previous partner or occupant of their home? How can markets, independent traders, workshops & studios flourish without cash where the mobile connections aren’t reliable, i.e. anywhere outside major population centres?

It’s getting harder to get hold of big things that you really need. I won’t bore you with my greenhouse saga, but it took 5 months to actually acquire one, having originally ordered (and paid) in early April, and it was a nightmare to put together. In the end, though, I’m very pleased with it. It took 2 months to get hold of a new & much-needed freezer, which isn’t the make or model I wanted, but at least it’s the right size and actually here; the one I wanted is still unavailable. Apparently it’s equally hard to get hold of a new TV now too; “supply chain” problems. Interesting…

The bantams & their chicks investigate the new greenhouse…

You can’t actually see a doctor or dentist unless you’re on the verge of expiring. Phone consultations are better than nothing, but they can’t see the lump on your eyebrow that you hadn’t noticed or the fact you’re rather yellow. And so much blame is being misdirected – “NHS” Track & Trace, anyone? – which has nothing to do with the NHS itself and everything to do with money-grubbing super-corporations trying to dig their fingers into our pie, with appalling incompetence that would have got any public servant sacked & disgraced. But how can we hold our “leaders” to account when they’ve made it absolutely clear that they simply don’t give a damn what we think?

How do we know who to listen to? We’re told that policy decisions are “following the science” but whose science? Who’s paying for that science? It does rather seem that those with the highest responsibility are cherrypicking the science that they want us to follow, but have no intention of following it themselves?

Anyway, enough! What have I been up to? (Apart from growing stuff, failing to earn anything much (there are no vintage markets going on down here, and all the summer festivals & events were cancelled, and look likely to be next year, too) and trying to find ways that our family can celebrate things like weddings more or less together?) Well, not as much as I would like to be able to say. I taught myself to knot netting at the beginning, so that my peas could have something tough but soft to scramble up. The wild rabbits that infest our allotment site ate my peas. The rabbits also ate my carrots, my runner beans (including most of the ones that re-sprouted from last year’s roots) and nearly everything except beetroot & chard. (Which did give me the chance to learn to appreciate fresh home-grown beetroot, which is actually quite yummy.)

Home-grown beetroot…

They also tunnelled under the sunflowers, which depressed those somewhat & led to some strange multi-headed blooms. Once I’d realised that I had to defend everything against rabbit incursions, and my second line of beans were halfway up the poles and beginning to flower, we had a late frost – 23rd May – which killed those too, and most of the French beans, gave the potatoes a nasty headache and generally wreaked havoc. Only 4 plots got badly “hit” out of 126; it was then that we realised we’re at the bottom of a very gradual slope and cold air sinks downwards.

But that said, the courgettes went bonkers. We grew just one more plant than last year, when we had – enough, just about – but this year we ended up coming home with anything up to 12 courgettes on every visit, and giving a fair number away. 3 of the 6 plants are still going strong, as are the 3rd planting of runner beans. We only planted 3 tomato plants; the other 14 came up of their own accord. I didn’t keep on top of supporting them & pinching them out, etc., but we had a magnificent harvest before the blight struck, and ended up with a freezer full of ratatouille & passata. There’s plenty of chard, kale & leeks in the ground to see us over the winter and there are a number of “unofficial” Turk’s Turban squashes (i.e. grown from seeds from last year; they’ve come up pretty much like their parent plant & do taste good) sitting in the conservatory as well as a couple of little pumpkins. And the raspberries have been superb. For all the frustrations & setbacks, we still well & truly got our money’s-worth out of our little plot. Now it just remains to clear the beds that will be “resting” over the winter, sow a couple of lines of runner & Iron Age horse beans, and tidy up.

Well, maybe the rabbits didn’t get ALL of the peas…

I discovered how to make & drink rhubarb champagne, which is delicious, but I haven’t done a lot of craft-work; I did manage to twine a new cover for a small stool with the remains of a damaged old blanket, but that’s about it. Like with writing, I didn’t have the heart to start anything, somehow. But now I’m looking forward to actually using up some of my fabric, yarn, fleece and other resources in the long dark evenings to come. There are plenty of ideas beginning to bubble away in my head; time to start putting some of them into practise!

Small foot-stool re-covered in woven blanket

One person’s patina…

…is another person’s dirt!

I didn’t rush to the Minster’s annual Fair yesterday. Having been unable to trade for the last six months, I have a backlog of stock to shift before I can start acquiring new pieces for my customers’ delight & delectation. But I couldn’t quite resist the lure of the bric-a-brac stall, and who doesn’t need a look through the secondhand books? You never know where you’ll find hidden treasure, even when you’re half-an-hour late…

I looked at it more than once; a little old – ladle? pot? measure? – with a long handle which looked as if it might be brass. It was mostly black and quite revoltingly greasy to touch; there was a space on the tabletop around it where other people had removed items but left this well alone. It looked as if it had spent the last 50 years in someone’s garage, accumulating a heavy coat of engine oil. But the feel was more – many years of chips, bacon and burgers – i.e. heavy kitchen grease, which is a bit more amenable to cleaning than engine oil.

“I think that’ll clean up OK,” I said as I handed over my 50p. The man behind the stall looked shocked. “But won’t that destroy the patina?” he asked, without a trace of irony.

From my point of view, there’s a big difference between patina – the honourable dings, scratches and scars of everyday use, the subtle sheen from years of handling – and sheer filth. And what’s right for an old oil-can that has spent years on a dusty garage shelf is just not appropriate on a culinary tool. People are simply not going to buy something to display (or just possibly use) in their kitchen, café or bar that looks and feels filthy, however “authentic”. I hope I’ve managed to clean it up & do it justice so that its cheeky-but-competent character shines through, along with that lovely coppery glow.

I can’t help wishing now that I’d taken a “before” picture so it would be obvious why no-one else had spotted this sweet little old handmade beauty, but here it is after half an hour with a toothbrush, a tiny quantity of 00-gauge wire wool, a cleaning agent intended for human skin, an Irish crochet hook and a lot of gentle scraping with a human thumbnail… It isn’t going to earn me a fortune, but it has earned a little place in my heart.

 

 

This really matters…

IMG_2010
Allotment-grown goodies…

Get Food, Growing, Cooking & Nutrition on the School Curriculum

OK, I’m back! This little petition request (above) popped into my inbox this morning, and really lit a fuse under my still-somewhat-sluggish mind. It’s a subject dear to my heart and woven throughout the fabric of my life; food, and the production thereof, is THE most fundamental factor in our collective health after clean water. Even above sanitation & the miracles of modern medicine; if you are healthy & well-nourished, you stand a far better chance of fighting back effectively should misfortune strike.

But what people seem to lack today is the power to make sane & sensible food choices, because they have no basis to make those choices except advertising from the manufacturers & purveyors of junk foods. Thanks to the steady downgrading & elimination of Home Economics, Domestic Science and the like from our school curriculum (subjects that enabled people to stand on their own two feet at home and often went far beyond that) many people actually seem unaware that they do have choices apart from what’s in front of them on the supermarket shelf, no matter how devoid of actual goodness it may be. Not to mention the fact that they usually have no time to spend pursuing more sensible (and usually more delicious) choices, or actually cooking them, or experimenting to get the best out of them. And many people lack the space & time to grow their own.

How can small local food businesses, selling decent produce, survive in a marketplace dominated by giant supermarket chains unless people know there are other choices available? How can farmers stand up to the ever-growing pressure to reduce costs by cutting corners if we don’t care enough to reward them?

How can children appreciate good food if they’ve never tasted it? We all know the battles we’ve been through to get reluctant children to try something new, something that their friends perhaps don’t eat, but we also know that mostly, with persistence, that battle can eventually be won. I have fond memories of administering a “green box” scheme, where the farmer delivered to & the customers collected from my doorstep; one of my sons, then aged four, would prowl up & down surreptitiously to identify the customers who didn’t like kale, then happily inform them that, actually, he did. Nine times out of ten, thanks to his big blue eyes, we’d end up with extra kale to stir-fry to crispy with garlic & soy sauce. Naughty boy! But he still loves kale now, aged twenty-six and halfway through a PhD…

It doesn’t just come down to money, although time is definitely a big factor. We all know people who eat well & thrive on a tiny budget, and people who have plenty of money but are suffering from all the ills that modern society can inflict on them. That’s not to say that there aren’t people who genuinely do not have enough money or resources to eat well, or at all, much to our collective shame; there are far too many, for far too many different reasons, mostly not self-inflicted. But for the vast majority of people whose weekly trolleys are laden down with junk, it’s lack of awareness that there is another way that’s hammering them, from both the health and budgetary angles. Or lack of confidence to at least try… and that’s what could so easily be addressed at a young age, if the political will to act is there.

To put it in terms that even a politician could understand: people cannot make sensible choices if they are not aware that there are choices…

It’s no good insisting that this education should take place in the home, when many young parents have never learnt themselves to cook or budget. This is not necessarily a new problem; witness my poor mother‘s experience. (Luckily for us, my “aunt” Ethel was a good & dedicated cook…) The lack of importance given to this subject for many years, the downgrading of domestic knowledge and inspiration, the idea that domesticity equals drudgery have all played a part in crippling us. As has the idea that seeking to make the best of the resources available to you is somehow “cheapskating” rather than just plain sensible.

Personally I think the time has come to get angry about this; we are all, or have been, suffering because we don’t know any better, or we’re not confident enough to try – and we could be, so easily…

DSCF1352
Home-grown tomatoes, home-made preserves…

Aaargh…

Please forgive my absence for a while; I’ve had a bit of an unpleasant shock. Suffice it to say that a “routine” medical investigation revealed something rather nasty & I shall be having a little lie-down in hospital for a day or two next week. Apparently the signs are all good and I seem to be otherwise in good shape & should recover fast. I’m lucky enough to be supported by a very professional & helpful team, and even luckier to have lots of willing help & company at home, but still, it feels somewhat like a slap in the face with a wet fish.

Back when I’ve got my head around it and found my feet again! In the meantime, here’s a pic of a very cuddly & almost-fullgrown Poppy…

PrettyPoppy