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…

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.

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

Just in case…

…you’ve been wondering where I’d got to, any spare time I’d imagined there might be has been well & truly usurped by these two cuties…

P&D
Poppy & Dora

Not to mention this:

Lottie18
Allotment, Spring 18

Or running my stall, or attempting to declutter via the local car boot sales, or helping my 92 y.o. mother prepare to move house, or preparing for the summer shows! Back in a little while, when things have calmed down and I can walk down the hallway without a kitten wrapped around my ankle…

Busy again…

IMG_1948
New allotment!

I know, I know, I’ve been rather quiet for rather a long time… but I’ve been busy! I moaned to a friend that I don’t have any space to grow veg here at home; we grow a lot of fruit & herbs, not to mention being almost self-sufficient for eggs, but there’s no space left for veg. And the two Offspring left at home are both pescatarians, surviving mostly on vegetables. Turned out that she desperately needed help with her large kitchen garden, her Other Half having gone walkabout. So I volunteered to help, and got stuck in.

But I’d also sent my annual “any chance of an allotment?” email to the Powers That Be. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I actually got a reply, not as usual reminding me that there’s a 20-year waiting list, but in the affirmative. They were opening a new site in town at the end of the week… so I went & inspected a plot, and with my Other Half, agreed we’d like to take it on.

Two plots, separated by a couple of miles, neither of them very close to home, is too much. Other Half doesn’t want to help with my friend’s garden, as he thinks we might lose it all at a stroke of a lawyer’s pen. Added to which, my elderly mother has been unwell, necessitating lots of visits – not that these are begrudged! – and waiting in for doctor’s phone calls. And the usual day-to-day dramas of a busy household, and my attempts to declutter after 25 years of large-family life, and the necessity of earning some money…

So now I’m desperately behind with everything! And I can only apologise to my friend; the weeds are galloping away up there & I’m failing heroically to keep on top of all the things that need doing . But we are eating well; better than we have for years, and I have her to thank for that, as the allotment is only just coming into production. There’s a recycling story to tell in a day or two, but in the meantime, here’s a pic of our beans 6 weeks down the line…

20170822_150947

And some of the gleanings from my friend’s kitchen garden…

IMG_2010