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.

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?

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

From bunk beds to raised beds…

bunkbedraisedbed
Missy, Norma & Daisy inspect the “new” raised bed

It’s been an interesting few weeks… I’d have liked to document the Covid-19 lockdown – not that it’s over yet – but somehow hadn’t the heart for it. And I’ve been pretty busy, despite not being able to do my usual markets, fairs & festivals, or visit my family; the allotment suffered a fair bit of neglect last year, thanks to my less-than-ideal health, so there was some very hard work to put in over there; I never, ever want to see a creeping buttercup again. Luckily the weather was excellent so I could just head on over there & get on with the job. And there was lots of fun to be had raising seedlings!

It was very difficult to get hold of seeds for the things I’d run out of, because after the Great Loo Roll & Pasta Panic of 2020, the next thing the general public around here did was strip the garden centres bare before they had to shut their doors. The big online seed companies didn’t seem to know what had hit them & many only “opened” their websites for an hour or so each morning, in order to try to keep up with demand. However, the gardening magazines came to the rescue with packet after packet of “free” useful seeds; not always the varieties I’d have chosen, but there when they were needed! And some of the less well-known seed sellers – smaller companies, or enterprising individuals, mostly on Ebay – helped me acquire the things I really couldn’t be doing without, like Red Russian kale & Orelia courgettes.

I don’t have a greenhouse (sore subject – I should have one, having paid for one that was allegedly in stock back in April, but there’s no sign of it yet & no word from the vendors despite many queries, although they still seem to be trading) so most of this year’s seedlings were raised in half a small dilapidated polytunnel, which was bought in a panic to house my bantams in during the Great Bird Flu Panic. The cover was in bad shape, having been cut to make roll-up “windows” to keep the birds well-ventilated & healthy during their confinement, but the frame is OK (as we’re only using half of it) & I managed to roll & tie the damaged cover so that it basically did the job.

halfbakedpolytunnel
The “half-baked” polytunnel

It’s all well & good raising seedlings to go into the allotment, but we may be unable to access our crops if we get a localised total lockdown, which I believe is a distinct possibility as the epidemic progresses. So I wanted to create some space somehow in our small urban garden, which is already pretty full of fruit & nut trees & bushes, roses, day-lilies, a wildlife pond, a 6m chicken run, bantams, a small lawn, 3 cats and all their friends, & what seems like several acres of drying washing. A small raised bed running alongside the chicken run seemed like a good idea, until I priced them up & realised that, complete with a kit to make a cover, a necessity with free-range bantams, we were looking at £150 & I still had to put it all together myself.

So – what had we got that might be press-ganged into doing the job? An inspection of the lengths of wood lurking in the garage rafters yielded 4 x 2m sturdy pine “planks” that were once the sides of our elder boys’ bunk beds, a number of rickety pine shelves & some sturdy bits of 2×2. There was half a pot of green stain to take the edge off the orangey colour of the varnished pine, and plenty of long screws & staples left over from reconstructing the Gumtree’d freebie shed at the allotment. I did need to buy some heavy-duty ground cover to line it, and some butterfly net to make the cover, plus some compost to top off the home-made & reclaimed-from-dead-pots stuff underneath, but altogether I’ve spent less than £25. It won’t last forever, but if it does us until next Spring, I’ll be happy and so will my plants. Then if we’re staying put for another year (we’d like to move to somewhere with a bigger garden) we might invest in something a little sturdier.

IMG_5218
A pumpkin flower in a wombled cold frame, and borage for pollinators – and Pimms – at the allotment.

Putting a resolution into action…

Last night I woke with a start at 2am, as a random thought suddenly clicked into focus. I’d wondered a couple of times lately why the elderly chest freezer in the garage, which I’ve been meaning to defrost for months, had been switched to “super”, so I grumpily kept switching it back to normal. Maybe one of the girls needed to cool something rapidly & forgot about it? Maybe one of the cats trod on the switch?

No. In the dark of the night I realised that it was so iced-up it was running constantly, on “super” because normal just wasn’t maintaining the temperature any longer as warm air leaked in around the iced-up seals. So defrosting it suddenly leapt to the top of my “to-do” list & first thing this morning I was out there, hauling the contents out & stuffing them into a vast assortment of cool-boxes and insulating wraps – mostly old wool blankets. Luckily everything was still absolutely solid.

Then it struck me; oops, I had no idea how long some of the contents had been in there. It was high time for a good sort out… This freezer’s been great at keeping things very, very cold, but it is reaching the end of its expected life & showing the strain somewhat; I should be running the contents down & saving up ready to replace it within the year. So whilst it was defrosting enough to scrape the rest of the built-up ice off gently, I ran down to the market and invested in a notebook.

As stuff went back in, I logged it. I thought I only had a couple of packs of meat or fish in there; actually, there were 20-odd items. There’s cheese and butter. I thought I’d used the last of our home-grown beans up over Christmas, but there were 3 more bags in there. I’d completely forgotten the bags of grated golden courgettes, intended to bulk out soups & stews. There’s enough apple & pumpkin in the bottom to sink a battleship, and several bags of roasted butternut squash chunks. All of it carefully, lovingly & organically grown…

There’s no huge rush to use up the things I know only went in there a month or two ago, especially not as we still have trays of wrapped apples and several large squashes to eat up first. And the meat, not to mention the cheese, will see us through the next couple of months with very little need to visit a supermarket; the idea will be to use something from the freezer every other day at least. If I had a New Year’s resolution at all this year, it was to use up stuff that we already have; admittedly I was thinking of fabric & yarn, but it works across the board really. Here’s my chance!

Some of the other things had definitely been in there for longer than I cared to remember – raspberries, blueberries, & blackberries from 2018 or before, all of them market bargains or foraged from the hedgerows.  So I decided to make “Freezer Jam” with them, rather than let them go to waste.

I weighed the bags of fruit, then an appropriate amount of sugar – a little less than the total weight of the fruit; I don’t like my preserves too sweet – then chopped up the very last of this year’s quinces, hoping they’d provide at least a little pectin to set the jam. I chucked it all into my preserving pan & let it all melt down together. At this point I realised that some of the “blueberries” were in fact sloes, so had to stop & push the whole lot through a colander to remove the stones. But the taste was really gorgeous; deep, dark & tangy, well worth the extra work!

So now we have 5 full-size jars and 2 small ones of “Freezer Jam”. And yes, it seems to be setting just fine. When I made the Medlar jam, I said I hadn’t expected to be making jam in December. Well, I really hadn’t expected to be making it in January too!

freezerjam

That said, there’s a bag of Seville oranges in the conservatory awaiting my attention…

Enough already!

I’m shattered. We’ve been lucky enough to have had a wonderful apple crop from the two big trees (an elderly Blenheim Orange and a Russet) this autumn; I remember worrying in Spring that it wasn’t getting pollinated, as I couldn’t see any bees on the blossom. However a couple of months later the kiwi fruit plant was humming with pollinators, so loudly that you could hear them from the road, so they are still out there somewhere.

IMG_3767 A huge apple crop is a mixed blessing; they need to be dealt with as soon as they fall, especially if they don’t have a soft landing, as many of ours don’t, and circumstances just didn’t allow that this year. So a young friend’s pigs benefited from quite a few sacks of windfalls.

We’ve filled all our wooden apple trays, and the freezer’s bursting at the seams. Some have been dehydrated, and many turned into chutney or a base for other jams. Those neighbours who didn’t see us coming in time have been issued with carrier bags full. The garden’s littered with windfalls again and I still have a big basket of undamaged hand-picked apples to process. It’s amazing how many interesting apple recipes there are out there to try; Toffee Apple ice-cream is a new favourite! But the best news is that the windfalls have attracted a hedgehog back to our garden, after several years of not seeing any evidence of them.

So the arrival of a large crop of tree-quinces too has not been greeted with unalloyed joy, delightful though they are! We had just started picking them – they’re usually a little later than the apples – when a gale hit last weekend and brought most of them crashing down. They may have been ready, but I wasn’t! Believe me, quinces are much harder than apples to peel & chop, even assisted by a food processor. My hands are aching! But the taste of Quince, Pineapple & Rosemary marmalade makes it all worthwhile… And I’m almost out of re-used jamjars again, despite a kind friend donating 3 large bags full.

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I’ve been up to some interesting projects over the summer and will post more about those shortly. I’ll also do a d-i-y Christmas Cracker tutorial, as promised last year. Now the evenings are dark again, I can mysteriously find time to sit at the computer again, rather than going for lovely long walks at the riverbank!

 

 

This really matters…

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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…

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Home-grown tomatoes, home-made preserves…

A little bit of self-discipline…

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Making the most of the season!

…wouldn’t go amiss! Those of you who frequent the Old-Style MSE forum may have noticed that I’ve gone way over on my grocery budget this month, and I’m actually at a bit of a loss to explain it. That probably means it’s a combination of factors, starting with me not paying proper attention to what I’m buying/growing & cooking. There’s also definitely an element that basic foodstuffs have been steadily creeping upwards in price, downwards in quantity and in some cases vanishing altogether from the easily-available supermarket shelves.

Anyway, one of the best tools I have for keeping costs under control is the meal-plan. I used to plan the week’s meals on a Friday morning, when I did the main grocery shop at our local market, but things have changed; some stalls have gone altogether, and some no longer trade on a Friday but others only then, so most weekends I’ll need to pay more than one visit to the market. And of course I work a number of weekends, through the warmer months. So it’s all got a bit chaotic and I need to impose some self-discipline after we had a number of large bills to pay this summer, mostly on the motor & moggy maintenance front.

So I’m going to try to post my weekly meal-plans up here, along with my usual ramblings, and stick to them! Most of the time now I’m just feeding four adults; two omnivores and two pescatarians. The girls will often cook a “main” dish for themselves, though they’ll usually share our vegetables & any carbs, but I try to make sure there are resources available for them to make things with. “HG” stands for home-grown, “HM” stands for home-made, and I’m only planning to list the “mains” – puddings are mostly yogurt or fresh fruit, lunches are HM soup or salad, or poached eggs on toast (though our chickens are currently in the moult, so we’re getting one egg a day out of 10 birds) and breakfasts might be pancakes with fruit, porridge with HM apple butter or crab-apple jelly, or toast made with “good” bread – I’m working on a new & hopefully more palatable sourdough starter right now, thanks to Sharon of Learn Sourdough.

This week’s plan:

  • Saturday: lamb or sweet potato tagine (using leftover lamb) with bulgur wheat, HG beans, carrots & courgette.
  • Sunday: roast chicken/roasted veg with roast potatoes, broccoli and HG carrots
  • Monday: Macaroni & cauliflower cheese & baked beans – beans possibly HM., lots of HG tomatoes to use up!
  • Tuesday: Baked potatoes, sausages, eggs (if any!) & stir-fried HG veg
  • Wednesday: chicken curry/lentil dahl with rice – frozen veg? Depends…
  • Thursday: Sausage/bean casserole with any potatoes I can lay my hands on, HG or otherwise, hopefully HG beans & carrots.
  • Friday – fish dish of some kind, depending on what the market fishmonger’s got at a good price, and whether the boats have been out. Trout sounds good!

I’m hoping to do some more preserving, if the weather plays ball and I can get out for some more blackberries & crab apples. Looks to me like a few more jars of jelly/apple butter would come in handy to get us right through to next summer, but then I’ll move onto chutney. So – will I be able to keep to my self-imposed budget in October? Watch this space…

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Home-grown beans, courgette and two colours of carrot!