Thursday, 30 December 2010

Ten things for 2010 - Revisited

Well, usually I let any list of resolutions languish in the back of the drawer, but given that I posted this one in January, I thought it might be good to get it out, dust it down and see how much I achieved!

1. Have our very own vegetable garden. The garden re-landscaping went really well and we were both very pleased with how the raised beds area turned out, in particular. Actually growing fruit and veg in our garden turned out to be a little less simple... I fell pregnant at a particularly awkward time and was practically incapacitated with morning sickness just at the time when seedlings needed potting on or planting out in the late spring. Still, quite a few things did survive and we had some quite tasty root vegetables, a major crop of shallots and garlic, and the top fruit and soft fruit both gave us good yields. We had our fair share of disappointments too, though, with our tomatoes, peppers and cucurbits cropping well below the levels we had in our previous garden. Equally, the potatoes, sweetcorn and squash felt like the crop received didn't really repay the effort expended. And sadly, the early harsh winter meant that between them, frost, snow and flocks of pigeons did for the brassicas, which had looked quite promising! Still, it was a very good learning experience and, hopefully, we'll have more success next year.

2. Waterwise. We did get the eco option on the dishwasher and we also invested in the amusingly titled 'water imp' to help soften our limescale-heavy water ,which assists the efficiency of both appliances generally and the boiler. Unfortunately, because we've been having to prop our greenhouse up all year, we didn't get around to installing any kind of eco-watering system for the garden. We've agreed to invest in a new greenhouse at the beginning of this growing season, which will include guttering and down spouts to connect to a water butt or two, and I'm already lusting after a water butt drip system. With a new baby I'm afraid our water usage is definitely going to go up, but we'll be looking at a variety of ways to minimise the environmental impact - watch this space!

3. Make. I've made a number of items from scratch this year, mainly for friends and their babies! Now that I'm about to have my very own little nipper, I'm looking forward to making a variety of items. My baby wrap-blanket is almost complete (just in the nick of time!) and I'm planning to knit a couple of cardigans too. I'm also stocked up with the full range of Cath Kidston books now (Make, Sew and Stitch) to keep me occupied over the coming months with some more adult projects!

4. It's a wrap. See my earlier December post about Christmas wrapping - I've been relatively good all year on this and am now a pretty dab hand at wrapping without sticky tape! I'm also developing a disturbing tendency to horde bits of paper, ribbon, buttons, etc - fine for the minute but not sure what will happen when the cupboard's full...!

5. Charitable giving. Done and done, but it was pretty easy - charities want you to give to them after all so the process is fairly easy!

6. Activism. Hmm, well again, the pregnancy issue sort of got in the way with this one, but I did join my local Women's Environmental Network and I've also signed up to volunteer with the NCT at some point in the future, so some small movement on this one.

7. Skin deep. I'm pleased to say that I've been completely successful on this front, spurred on by being pregnant and not particularly wanting any nasties in my system. I once watched a pretty horrifying documentary (Beauty Addicts: How toxic are you?) fronted by Sarah Beeny of property-programme fame (as well as for the fact that she seems to be almost constantly pregnant), on the levels of plastics and other unwelcome chemicals that cross over into things like breast milk. I've therefore added to my organic/green brand shampoo, conditioner, face wash and moisturiser, with organic make-up and deodorant and we already had a house completely devoid of any non-green brand cleaning products (although most cleaning is done using just a microfibre cloth or some bicarbonate/vinegar anyway. That's when any is done at all... )!

8. Buying recycled. This is a fail, I'm afraid, although at least partly because I've not been buying very much of anything this year! Will do better next year.

9. Plastic bags. I've definitely been better at not accepting plastic bags in the shops, but have fallen down occasionally when I've been taken by the urge to shop and haven't had enough reusable bags on me. This one really is just about being prepared. Doubtless with my new-found 'Mum' skills will come the ability to always have absolutely anything required in my bag at all times, including more bags!

10. Outdoor activities. Well, beyond gardening, this ambition fell by the wayside and I'm going to try and blame this on being pregnant too! However, I have spent an inordinate amount of time in the garden, which surely has to count for something?!

Overall report card? Generally a good effort all round, with some highlights, but could do better. Here we come 2011, with all the new green challenges that our little baby is going to bring!

Friday, 24 December 2010

Christmas: it's all wrapped up

As I've written about previously, I've been baking, preserving and creating in the kitchen madly since September, partly so that I could give the gift of food to friends and family by way of a personalised festive hamper. Typically, of course, the extreme weather over the last week has precluded delivery of a number of these boxes, so some people won't be getting their Christmas pudding until the new year - hopefully they won't be too sick of Christmas fare by then!

Speaking of making Christmas goodies, don't get me started on the Delia/Waitrose 'Christmas cake in a bag' which appears to be being marketed somewhat confusingly at people who don't have time to cook, but still want to make a Christmas cake (if you don't have time, you don't have time and you buy one, if you do, why can't you just buy the ingredients??!!). One piece I read in The Guardian suggested that it was a good idea, because you didn't need to buy ingredients in quantity with the remainder mouldering in the cupboard unused. Let me tell you, my store cupboard ingredients never get the opportunity to go off, particularly at this time of year!

The ingredients for my sticky ginger cake, which we have in our house in lieu of Christmas cake - possibly winging it's way to your door, or already consumed!

My hampers have included a selection from: Christmas pudding, sticky ginger cake, raspberry gin, Christmas cookies, gingerbread biscuits, jam, port wine jelly, apple jelly, pickled shallots, fudge and candied orange peel!

A hamper including raspberry gin, Christmas pudding, ginger cake, port wine jelly and gingerbread.

You can see that this type of gift has really lent itself to the commitment I made earlier in the year to reduce my use of shop-bought wrapping paper for packaging gifts. As WH gets to benefit from seasonal treats first-hand, he does get more conventional presents for Christmas, but I've tried to ensure that they're wrapped imaginatively and with not a hint of sticky tape in sight!

WH purchased one roll of Christmas paper, which I've utilised, but otherwise it's all recycled paper filling from mail order deliveries for the most part, done up with raffia and ribbon. Sticking to just a few colours seems to help in the presentation stakes!

I've been very fortunate in that almost everything I've ordered online has been delivered in time for Christmas (and that goes for a mountain of baby things too, luckily!) The only thing that didn't arrive was the organic bubble bath for our friends' baby. I posted them their festive hamper earlier in the week, but didn't want to leave out the baby completely, so whipped up a quick festive rattle from repurposed items.

Cracker rattle
1x clean, empty spice jar
Lentils, rice, beans or other filling
for wadding
Fabric to cover
Needle, thread, pins, patience

1. Fill your empty spice jar about one-third full.

2. Wrap up in some material to give extra padding and secure with a couple of stitches.

3. Create a tube from your 'festive' coloured fabric. I made mine so that it can be taken off for washing.

4. Decorate and include a handle for grabbing.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Smells like Christmas!

Over the past two months I've been torturing both WH and myself with the tantalising smells of Christmas. First there was the annual mincemeat-making madness and, indeed, I think I succumbed earlier this year to making our first batch of mince pies (second coming up today and it's still November!). However, the really tantalising smell has been has been from the little production line of Christmas puddings.

Friends and family will be [ahem] delighted to hear that they'll be benefiting from home made Christmas hampers this year, all of which will include a Christmas pudding. The rest of the contents will remain secret - otherwise it spoils the surprise! - but I thought I'd share the Christmas pudding recipe here.

There's still just about time to make your own (unless you're a friend or family member - weren't you paying attention? I just said I'd made you one! How many Christmas puddings can you eat, anyway?!!) As this was my first attempt at puddings, I just went with the master and used St Delia as my inspiration, but swapped out the odd ingredient here and there for things I like more (ale for stout, etc.).

To make one, 1 pint pudding, you will need:

A surprising amount of stuff!
1 pint/570ml pudding basin
baking parchment
aluminium foil

115g shredded suet
55g self-raising flour, sifted
115g breadcrumbs (Delia says white, I used granary bread - don't believe it really makes a difference)
1/2 tsp ground mixed spice
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 lb soft brown sugar
115g sultanas
115g raisins
225g currants
30g dried cranberries (Delia doesn't use these, but I like them!)
30g mixed peel
30g flaked almonds
1/2 lge/1 sml apple, peeled, cored and finely chopped
grated rind of 1 sml orange and 1 sml lemon2 eggs
2 tbsp raspberry gin (or some sort of spirit, like rum)
75ml whisky (or some other sort of spirit or Delia uses barley wine)
75ml ale (or Delia uses stout)

  • Your mix needs to soak overnight, so start the day before you actually want to finish...
  • You have to steam these puddings for 8 hours before storing them, then for a further 2 hours when you're ready to eat them...
  • Make sure you start this recipe with the biggest mixing bowl you own - the contents multiply in volume until it becomes incredibly difficult to stir!
  • Don't forget to add your sixpence or other silver surprise if you're that way inclined!
1. Put the suet, flour breadcrumbs, spices and sugar in a bowl, mixing in each ingredient thoroughly before adding the next.

2. Gradually mix in all the dried fruit, peel and nuts and follow with the apple and the orange and lemon rind.

3. In a different bowl, beat the eggs and mix in the alcohol.
4. Empty this into the bowl with the dry ingredients and stir. Then stir some more. Everything must be thoroughly mixed!
5. Cover the bowl with a cloth and leave overnight. You'll come back to discover that it's swelled even more - particularly the breadcrumbs!
6. Grease your pudding basin and pack the mixture inside. Cover each basin with a layer of baking parchment, then mould a square of foil over the top and tie with string. At this stage you could also make a string handle to help you lower and raise your pudding into your steamer.

7. Steam for 8 hours. If you don't have a steamer big enough, you can use a large saucepan with a lid. Make sure you put a saucer at the bottom of the pan so that the pudding isn't touching the heat source directly and add water until half your pudding basin is submerged. Keep checking the water level.
8. When cooked and cooled, take off your foil and parchment and apply a new layer of both. Then store in a cool, dry place until Christmas.
9. Steam for 2 hours and serve.

The observant amongst you will have noted that I mentioned that I hadn't made Christmas puddings before. Never fear - we made an extra mini one to try before we inflicted these as gifts - it was yummy!

Sunday, 31 October 2010

New beginnings

Spring is traditionally the time for thinking about new beginnings and new life, as the trees bud and the first seeds begin to appear. Our first baby, however, is due in January and so we've been wrestling recently with exactly what this will mean, both for our lives and for our principles in the near future and longer term.

We've already taken the biggest step - the decision to have a child (plus, of course, the bit where we got pregnant!) - which represented the largest compromise to our eco ethics. Because there's just no escaping the fact that having children at this point is environmentally, and perhaps morally, irresponsible. An article in the Guardian last year, by Sam Wong, discussed research being done at Oregon State University 'that every child in the US adds 9,441 tonnes to each parent's carbon footprint. This is assuming that emissions per capita continue at today's levels. Compare that with 1,384 tonnes of carbon dioxide for each child in China, or 56 tonnes in Bangladesh.' It seems inevitable that having a baby will have a significant impact on your carbon footprint.

But more than that, greenhouse gas emissions are set to continue to grow up to 2030 as the larger developing nations reach our standards of living - by which we mean consuming and wasting. Depending on which research you read, we're either approaching or have reached the age of peak oil without any massive strides to reduce our dependency on oil and oil-based products. Industrial agriculture has destroyed the land and polluted our rivers and oceans. We all know about the problems with North Sea fish stocks, but recent research at the University of Oxford suggests that Britain alone is losing native species more than ten times faster than records suggest, and that the speed of this loss is increasing. I'm not sure if it's just because environmental stories are considered more newsworthy now, or if the rate of change is just accelerating, but it all leaves me wondering:'what kind of world will our children be inheriting?'

At the same time, I can't help but feel optimistic that new parents can make a difference. By bringing the three 'r's' to our parenting choices (that's reduce, reuse and recycle by the way!) we not only significantly reduce the environmental impact of our babies, but we can also instill in a new generation a way of living that is more in balance with the earth's resources. We can inspire them to want to be part of the solution, rather than simply, unthinkingly, continuing to contribute to the problem.

Well, this is certainly something that we'll be trying to do! I was about to say 'so buckle up for the ride' but this doesn't seem appropriate: after all, even with a baby on the way we haven't changed our view about not being car-owners. It simply means we have a different set of criteria for what we need from a pushchair (still doesn't make choosing one from the apparently thousands on the market any easier!). Maybe it's because we were cynically expecting it, but we've been terribly aware of the pressure on soon-to-be and new parents to buy, buy, buy! Even the NCT (National Childbirth Trust), a charity for whom I have a lot of respect, have a catalogue which includes a range of apparent 'essentials' from which I'm going to cherry pick my favourite -the Tummy Tub: Unique Baby Bath. This easy to fill, move and store item is 'easy and safe to use anywhere in your home'. I'm sorry, but it's a bucket! Why would I pay £20 for this bucket, when if I decided that it was a good idea, I could buy one from my local hardware store for a fraction of that price?! To be completely fair to the NCT, they also include a lot of products which are natural or reusable (gold star for selling organic babygros and washable breast pads!), not to mention their hiring schemes for tens machines (for pain relief in labour) or breast pumps, rather than forking out for a new one that you'll then have to dispose of once it's no longer needed.

In contrast to this crazy idea of not buying things, consider that from your very first appointment with an NHS midwife you're given a 'Bounty pack' to hold your maternity notes, exhorting you to 'join the UK's favourite parenting club' whose main sponsor appears to be Pampers. Inside this pack are a wealth of leaflets and 'magazines' containing money-off coupons and free samples. At 3 months you can pick up your next Bounty pack ('Mum-to-be') with yet more samples and coupons, followed by 'overnight essentials' apparently given to you in the delivery suite, 'newborn essentials' offered when you leave the hospital and, finally, a 'family pack' at 6 months (after which, presumably you're on your own for the next 18 years). I should say, I went to pick up my 'Mum-to-be' pack from our local Boots branch mainly out of curiosity and retained maybe three of the free samples (a newborn disposable nappy, a mini pot of sudocrem and a pack of breast pads - all of which I thought might come in handy at the hospital and it was better to use them than just chuck them away) and none of the coupons.

It concerns me that the whole system implies that you'll be buying all of these items anyway, so why not pay less for them. The majority of the coupons are for new, plastic, or plastic-derived items that are being marketed as 'essential' for new parents, without any questioning of who has decided that they're 'essential' purchases. (It's not clear who 'Bounty' are - are they a company? A charity? There's no 'About' information on their website and a link to a corporate site that hasn't been built yet.) The fear of not being a 'good parent' seems constantly to be played on by these multinational advertisers - don't give out your email address, or you'll be bombarded with 'baby e-zines' which purport to tell you about the developmental stages of your growing foetus as a front for some of the most outrageous advertising I've ever seen.

As we try and navigate our way through this new eco minefield in the coming months and years, I hope I can offer some thoughtful and inspiring insights on these topics - so tell your baby-ed up friends to get reading!

Sunday, 17 October 2010


I believe that I may have mentioned before that I love the autumn. I'm always slightly disappointed when, following a rainy summer, the predominant colours are browns and yellows. Although these can be beautiful too in the right light, on a drippy day at the end of October, they're really pretty uninspiring! For that reason, I've been taking pictures at every opportunity of any other colours that grace the garden (and the kitchen - it's cheating, but as I say, it's been a bad year!)

My favourite autumn colours are the reds - from fiery to deep - which make such a marked contrast to the yellows, browns and fast disappearing greens. The old adage that 'red and green should ne'er been seen unless there's something in between' just doesn't stand up in nature. Think about a tomato vine nestled amongst the plants' greenery, or, for a more seasonal take, to the glory of a holly tree in full winter regalia.

The last of the tomatoes in the greenhouse

In some lights, the ivy trailing over our fence is almost purple.

And here it is picked out with a rime of frost

Another interesting fact we hadn't been aware of - our red grape variety had leaves which turned red, whilst our white grape variety had leaves which turned yellow!

In the kitchen I've been converting our own raspberries and the glut of uneaten plums from our veg box into wonderful ruby-red jellies. Last week, I also picked the last of our tomatoes and chillies and I'm now enjoying their slow transformation to ripeness in a bowl sat in the intermittent sun.

This is actually a raspberry and apple jelly, made a few weeks ago, but it has the same gorgeous glow.

Ripening tomatoes and chillies

This year I've also discovered the attractiveness of the colours of our winter veg bed. Now that all the other beds are empty but for a fuzz of recently planted green manure, covered over with enviromesh to keep out the cats, the squirrels and the ash keys (we must have pulled up more than a hundred ash seedlings last year), the brassicas are really coming into their own. Our apple trees at the end of the pergola are almost bare now, and it's possible to see through them to these serried ranks of beds topped with white arches, flanked by a beautiful blue-green sea of kale, cabbages, brussels and purple sprouting.

A head of purple sprouting in the frost

And our first ever mini brussels just starting to appear

Monday, 13 September 2010

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

I must confess that I never really enjoyed Keats when we studied him for A-level, but it's always good to trot out a trite cliche every now and again - and the opening of the ode 'To Autumn' certainly fits the bill on this occasion!

Summer has gone and it's been such a shocking season for weather that it's amazing we've had a harvest at all - o'er filled the clammy cells of English beehives this year it has not! (Although we did get one of the first jars of honey from my Aunt's new hive and very yummy it was too). From the freezing winter getting the growing season off to a sluggish start, through the late frosts in May, the roasting June and July and the soggy August, plants have struggled to thrive. Fruit has been particularly badly affected this year with apples, plums and raspberries all rotting where they grew. Our potato harvest was also disappointing and this time last year we'd eaten numerous scrummy tomatoes; this year they're only just beginning to ripen. We're now crossing our fingers for some more settled weather in September to bring in the crop, or we'll be making an awful lot of green tomato chutney!

Still, amidst all of the problems, we've had some very nice food from the garden, if not in the quantities we might have expected. Whilst we've eaten quite a lot of our crop straight from the garden, the last three or four weeks since we returned from our holiday (very ably recorded here by WH) have been an endless round of harvest, wash, chop, boil, freeze, pickle, etc., so I thought I'd give you the highlights!

Preparation for freezing

We aren't really set up yet for dry storing our root crops and we've got quite limited space in the dark, cool kitchen cupboards. Although we've stored most of the potatoes, shallots and garlic, we opted for freezing the majority of our beetroots and carrots. For carrots this is an easy task of simply peeling, chopping, blanching for four mins and then freezing. For beetroot, you need to boil the roots for anywhere between 15 mins and two hours depending on their size, allow them to cool, rub off the skins, chop and then freeze.

We've attempted two pickles this year. Some shallots (which will be winging their way to my father for his Christmas present) and some more of our beetroot. We used the same pickling vinegar recipe for both, although we used a different vinegar base: malt for the beetroot and half-and-half red wine and white wine for the shallots. As ever, River Cottage Preserves has acted as my guide, but I substituted out a few of the ingredients for others and I also made it to half quantities as below.

Beetroot mountain becomes...

... pickled beetroot (plus rather a lot in the freezer!).

Pickled shallots
500g shallots
25g fine salt
300ml vinegar (see above)
75g honey
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp allspice berries
1 mace blade
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1/2 cinnamon stick

1. Peel the shallots, place in a shallow dish and sprinkle over the salt. Leave overnight.

Salted shallots

2. Meanwhile, put the vinegar, honey and spices in a pan, cover and bring to the boil then remove from the heat and leave overnight to infuse.
3. Strain the spiced vinegar. Rinse the shallots in cold water, drain and pack into a sterilised jar. At this stage you can add small slices of fresh root ginger too, if desired. Warm the vinegar and pour over, then seal with a vinegar-proof lid. Mature for six-eight weeks. Use within 12 months.

Ta da!

We've made two jams this summer - our first! Over the August bank holiday we turned 500g of our autumn-fruiting raspberries into two medium jars of jam. Unfortunately, what with it being our first time, we managed to over boil it so that it has a very firm set (and was a little burnt!). We'll do better next year. (Although we've a significant number of raspberries still to ripen and pick, most of these are destined for our now infamous raspberry gin recipe, so no more jam this year!).

Lovely colour - shame about the slightly-caramelised-boiled-raspberry-sweet taste

The weekend before last we tried again, this time with the first half of the plums. 1.5kg translated to seven small-ish jars, but the results were spot-on: it has a lovely set and a sharp-yet-sweet taste.

And finally, I'm just about to go and pot-up our 2010 batch of mincemeat. Another River Cottage Preserves stalwart, we made this last year and it was really delicious! It uses our own apples and the second half of our crop of plums. This year I was excited to be able to add some of the marmalade I made in February too! Again, this version substitutes out some of the spices and fruit options, but hopefully it will be a winner:

Plum and apple mincemeat
1kg plums
2-3 oranges, zested and juiced
500g apples, peeled, cored and chopped
500g mixed dried fruit
100g dried cranberries
125g demerara sugar
125g homemade marmalade
100g chopped walnuts
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
50ml ginger wine
80ml brandy

1. Wash the plums, halve them and remove the stones, then put into a saucepan with the orange juice and cook until tender (c. 15 mins). Blend to a puree - you need 700ml of juice (I added 800ml)
2. In a large bowl, combine the puree and all the other ingredients apart from the brandy. Mix thoroughly and leave for at least 12hrs (ours steeped for 24hrs).
3. Preheat the oven to 130C/Gas 1/2. Put the mincemeat in a large baking dish and bake uncovered for 2-2/1/2 hours. Mix in the brandy. Spoon into warm, sterilised jars making sure to remove any air pockets. Store in a cool, dry, dark place until Christmas.

I'll let you know how the mince pies taste and I hope that this has inspired you to preserve a little bit of summer 2010 for yourself!

The finished product!

NB. As I went to get the mincemeat out of the oven, I realised I'd made a foolish mistake - I added the brandy before cooking! I've added another 50 ml to the baked mincemeat, as the alcohol from the first lot will have evaporated off in the oven. Hopefully this won't impair the end product too much!

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Pausing for breath

I've tried fried green tomatoes, but I didn't think much of them. I definitely prefer them ripe and this monster will take some eating!
Well, I can't quite believe that I haven't posted anything about the garden since April! I've a number of excuses - I was quite ill for a lot of May, and then for June and July have barely had a weekend when I've been at home. Ah, the social whirl that is my life (apparently - never happened before!) Oh. And my dog ate it. Fortunately, we seem to have hit that summer lull, where things are starting to be ready to harvest, the weeds seem to have been burned out of the ground, and there isn't a huge amount to do - so here we go:

Of course, the combination of illness in May and social life in June couldn't really have come at a worse time in the gardening year. There were oceans of plants in the greenhouse to be potted on, then planted out - quite a number didn't make it past the seedling stage before they shrivelled to a crisp in the unseasonably hot weather we had in May. Those that did survive and were actually potted on, then had to reach the planting out stage ... Still, quite a number of plants have made it and we've been enjoying some harvest for a couple of weeks. First to crop were our strawberries, but we're also now sampled our broad beans (following a fantastic recipe for hummus from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall which we've already had a number of times this year), peas (simply boiled and served with a knob of butter and some mint) and carrots (we thought about entering the Caversham Horticultural Society show in the autumn and our carrots would definitely win the 'most misshapen veg' category!)
We've now harvested most of our first early potatoes (due to be sampled this week) and the second earlies are well on their way too, whilst the main crop of pink fir apple are still growing strong and have a very pretty white flower.
We've also had a good crop of garlic and a magnificent crop of shallots. The latter are currently drying in our mini-greenhouse (now situated outside the main greenhouse as it was starting to reach nuclear temperatures in there!) and I'm already looking at a number of pickling recipes with an eye to Christmas presents!

Our fruit is doing very well - all of the established trees in the garden seem to have borne our hesitant attempts at pruning with magnanimity. The grape vines in particular are well-established now and it seems a shame that we're going to have to cut them back in order to train them - one has a leader that is now taller than me! Our strawberries were delicious, but sadly over too quickly with nowhere near enough to think about jam this year. Fortunately, we've a number of new plants already growing on from runners from this year's purchases, so we'll have increased our crop for free next year! Our raspberries are autumn-fruiting so although we've had a handful of quite tasty berries we're still waiting for the main crop. The blackcurrant cropped (which it wasn't meant to in it's first year) but the berries taste quite bitter, so we're not planning to harvest them this year and will hope for a better result next summer.

The winter veg has rooted well and may soon outgrow our netted frames - we're looking forward to fresh parsnip, brussels, cabbage, leeks and kale from the autumn and getting into the purple sprouting broccoli in the new year. Finally, our solanaceas are all looking set to crop very well, with plenty of flowers and some emergent green fruit beginning to ripen - we should have courgette and squash by next weekend, although the tomatoes, peppers and chillis seem a bit slower. I've been feeding much less frequently this year (and I have actually only fed the tomatoes and the courgettes in the greenhouse - the other veg has grown without additional help).

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Soothing bath bag how-to

If, like me, you've reached the age where lots of friends have started to have babies, you too may have become intimately acquainted with the newborn ranges on offer on the high street. However, if also like me, you like your presents to be meaningful, charming and sustainable, you might like this how-to on making an all-natural bath bag. I got the concept from another great book - A Slice of Organic Life - but have taken it a step further in the gift presentation.

There are only two main ingredients: oats and dried herbs. You can use any herbs depending on whether you want your bath bag to be relaxing or invigorating, but I used chamomile here for its soothing properties. The oats contain a range of useful elements, including saponins and polysaccharides to produce both a creamy, soapy lather and a protective layer on the skin to prevent drying.

What you will need
  • A jar
  • Oats (rolled oats or oatmeal work equally well - don't use instant porridge oats though!); I used 250g, but it will depend on the size of your jar.
  • Dried herbs - the best source for dried chamomile is actually herbal tea bags. Again, the amount you need will depend on your jar, but I got through 18 tea bags.
  • A rectangle of muslin
  • A needle, thread and some pins
  • Materials for decorating your gift and for making a label

1. Fill your clean, dry jar with the oats and the dried herbs in alternating layers. Easy!

2. Now for the sewing-part!

3. Fold the two shorter sides of your muslin rectangle over to form a narrow hem (about 1 cm), pin and sew.

4. Fold the material in half, bringing your two, short, hemmed sides together (wrong side out): these will form the top of your bag, and if you want to, you could thread some raffia, ribbon or string through these hems to create a drawstring. Now pin and sew the two open edges.

5. Remove all the pins and turn your finished bag the right way out.

6. Finally, attach your bag to your filled jar, decorate as required and make a label with instructions for use.

Instructions for use: Half fill the bag with a mixture of oats and herbs. Close tightly with ribbon or string, leaving some space at the top to allow the contents to move around. Use in the bath or the shower. When wet, the bag will produce a lovely, creamy lather for washing sensitive skins.

Only use the contents for one wash, then empty the bag (you can compost the remains!) and stick it in the washing machine with a 60 degree load.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010


2010 definitely appears to be the year of GYO (that's 'growing your own' to the uninitiated). It feels as though you can't turn around at the moment without a celebrity book or TV series telling you how it's never been easier to start your own veg patch. There are organisations encouraging us to commit to the challenge: Garden Organic has a one pot pledge and the RHS has a veg pledge. Magazines of all kinds are filled with inspirational stories of people filling market stalls with produce from the balcony of their high rise, or how they wore down their local council until they were granted some scabby wasteland that, 'with everyone mucking in together' became a model allotment.

The thing is, I don't necessarily always agree that growing your own fruit and vegetables is satisfying, or cheap, or can be done if you have little time available. Yes, all things want to live and judging by the weeds in my garden, the vast majority of them will seed, grow, reproduce and die without any interference from me. But once you've planted something, you start to invest in its success or failure. Every green shoot is exclaimed over and quickly becomes the source of endless anxiety - too much water, too little, too warm, too cold, too dark, too light! Yes, it is satisfying when it goes to plan and your endeavours can be celebrated in a wonderful meal with home-grown ingredients, but it can be really quite depressing when it goes wrong and all your hard work gets eaten by the local snail population. Equally, it's possible to spend an absolute fortune on 'stuff', from trowels to heated propagators, from special seed boxes to engraved stone plant labels. Some of these things you need and some you really don't. Surely at some point it just becomes another way for us to consume, whilst kidding ourselves that we're doing something 'good', for our health and for the environment? Indeed, most of the gadgets on offer in the garden centre and marketed as time-saving. No time to water your plants twice a day? Buy this handy irrigation system with timer. Too busy to grow from scratch? How about some mini-plants, or even a garden in a box?

I mentioned before the RHS veg pledge: 28,912 people have now signed-up (you can see where they all are on a map, along with the veg that they're going to be growing). And I'm one of them. Because in spite of everything I've just said, growing your own food is a great thing. It brings a sense of magic and wonder to the everyday, as well as reinforcing just how fragile life can be. You start to really understand the food chain and become much more aware of the animals and insects around you. Growing your own connects you with your food in a way that shopping really doesn't: I *know* exactly what went in to the growing of my potatoes, meaning all that guilt about food miles, pesticides, local v organic, just isn't relevant. And finally, it's been proven that gardening stimulates the mind whilst combating stress - a powerful combination that we should definitely all find time for. Even if it's just by growing a pot of herbs, or ordering that ready-made garden in a box. There isn't a 'right' or a 'wrong' way to grow fruit and veg - the challenge is in finding out what works best for you, in your garden, with the plants that you want to grow.

Monday, 26 April 2010

April showers?!

I think that you know that your outlook on life has really changed when you wake up one Sunday, after two weeks of glorious sunshine and unseasonably warm weather, to discover that it's tipping it down. When your first thought is 'rats - I can't get out and do that weeding but at least the plants are getting a drink' rather than 'rats - it's going to ruin my barbecue', then you've probably discovered the insanity that is gardening (and particularly that watering cans are heavier than they look after you've lugged them 80ft)!

Thanks to the sunshine we've really noticed new growth taking off this month - unfortunately this includes new growth on the weeds, which have got a little out of hand in some areas as we've been so busy concentrating on planting and sowing! I think I've now found my level with regards to weeding - I seem to be able to weed a small patch for a concentrated period as long as I then get to put something else straight in its place! All six of our raised beds are now in use, although they're by no means all full. I've organised them into different plant groupings so that I can follow a fairly standard crop rotation:

Bed1 (legumes)
Bed2 (brassicas)
Bed3 (roots)
Bed4 (potatoes)
Bed5 (onions)
Bed6 (experimental - this is the bed that we'll use each year to grow something different and it won't be part of the rotation - this year it's sweetcorn!)

WH got out his toolkit again and whipped up a lovely A-frame to support the peas and beans. It's sized to fit into one half of the raised bed and we'll probably make its partner this weekend (the idea being that two one-metre A-frames would be easier to store and move than one two-metre one; they're also handily hinged for storing flat - oh yes, a budding DIY-genius!)

I started the peas and beans off in the greenhouse in late March and a number were ready for planting out this weekend. I ran out of mini-cloches (aka bottle-ends) but the uncovered beans don't seem to be suffering too badly at the minute - fingers crossed... I had intended to remove them from their cardboard root trainers, but some of the roots had already started to grow into the cardboard, so I figured they'd just rot off in the soil and might provide some additional protection!
My amazing A-frame

A row of beans ready to climb it

I confess, I'm having a slight problem with my roots bed, in which I sowed some carrot and beetroot seed on 31st March, followed by some parsnip a few weeks ago. There is a half row of each, currently protected by some horticultural fleece. Unfortunately, the weed seedlings have also taken advantage of the covering to germinate madly too, including in my drills, so that it is currently pretty difficult to work out what is a weed and what is seed I've sown! The carrots are fairly easy (they sprout very thin green fronds), but I've no real idea what the beetroot or the parsnip should look like, so I'm going to have to let everything grow a little more before I can confidently take out what shouldn't be there!

The enviromesh is also working well over the brassicas bed, where kale and cabbage are sprouting. I popped in some radish seeds last weekend, and this crop should have matured before I need to put in the brussels sprouts (currently thriving in the greenhouse) and purple sprouting broccoli.

Can you see my kale?

The covering came off the onions bed this weekend as the shallots are now well-established. It is now protecting the sunflower seedlings and (hopefully) encouraging the sweetcorn seeds to germinate in my last bed.

Reaching for the skies - we should get a good crop from these!

And the sacked potatoes are also doing well - one bag is almost completely filled with compost now.

Let's hope that there are lots of tasty tubers in here!

Moving away from the veg plot itself, the salads which are in one of the existing brick-built raised beds nearer to the house are now well away - when I was watering this evening I realised that I'll probably need to thin the lettuces this weekend - our first crop of the year!

One of the rows of spinach - actually, this might need thinning too!

We planted a substantial amount of new fruit over the winter as bare-rooted plants and it's really pleasing to see them all start to grow. I've now started the training for both the sweet and the acid cherry trees, including pinching out their lovely flowers. This would have felt much worse if we hadn't just enjoyed the plum tree in full (if startlingly brief) bloom. Although the petals dropping from the plum seemed to coincide with the first flower buds opening on the apple trees, which are now heavily in flower. Really, it couldn't have been better if it had been orchestrated! We've some flowers on the strawberry plants, which have started to emerge over the sides of the hanging baskets and containers. The goji berry bushes are looking very healthy and the blackcurrant, although still in its 'two twig' form, is covered in both leaves and the beginnings of flower buds.

The plum blossom - it was literally the day after taking this picture that most of it disappeared!

One of the first flowers to open on the apple tree - the buds are a deep crimson colour before they open into these delicately pale pink blossoms.

The first strawberry flower - there are a handful now!

The blackcurrant bush

The grapevines did a particularly excellent impression of being dead sticks for such a long time that we were starting to get concerned, but they've all sprung into life now and already have some pretty impressive leaves.

On the floral front, we've had a lovely display of tulips that is now starting to go over - we've got a whole load of seeds to plant in their place (including cornflowers, Californian poppies and some night-scented stocks). I got the tulip bulbs from the market, which was definitely a bargain, but:

a) I didn't think I'd bought any double-flowered varieties

and b) I didn't think I'd bought any pink ones!

Our hazel obelisk is now ready for it's sweet peas, which are currently growing in the greenhouse and we've started to pot-out some of the herbs we bought over Easter to dot around the gravelled area.

And finally, the story from the greenhouse is one of mixed success. Whilst the NASA tomatoes I got WH for Christmas are doing well and were potted on at the weekend, quite a few of the seedlings are succumbing to damping-off. I think that we probably panicked over the last two weeks when temperatures in the greenhouse soared and were overzealous with the watering can (damping-off is a fungal infection that is thought to be caused by poor ventilation and over watering). It could also be because I've sowed seed too thickly and haven't been pricking out fast enough. Either way, we've lost quite a number of the peppers (chilli and sweet) and a number of the tomatoes are going the same way (although not all the varieties seem to be as susceptible). Never mind - at least I've got my handmade potting table to use if I have to start over on anything!

NASA tomatoes (unknown variety) - they had a shaky start but are 'stellar' performers now

My potting table