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Wales, United Kingdom
Documenting one couple's attempts to live a more self-sufficient life.

Thursday 31 March 2011

Next (but one) needlework project

The title of this blog's been edited a couple of times since I thought of writing it the other day. First it was simply Next project, then I realised I needed to be more specific than that, as I have several projects going on in parallel, but will try to stick to just one at a time involving yarn, thread, fabric, or other textile related materials.

So this is what I was going to do next, textile-wise:

These cameras need a bag!

Ian has bought a new camera* and rather than let him spend even more money on a decent bag, I offered to make him one. Somewhat reluctantly, I must put aside the knooking hook and turn to my neglected sewing machine.

The bag needs to take the old and new cameras, as well as one spare lens. Fitting these together, I need to add one extra small pocket if I'm to make an sensible-shaped bag, so there'll be four pockets. I have this gorgeous green fabric - I'd like to call it baize, but I'm not sure if that's what it actually is - felt, maybe? - in the cupboard, which I think will make a rather fine lining, and some sturdy denim for the outside. In between the two it will need some substantial padding, so I'm planning to sacrifice an old cushion, and perhaps a flat pillow, too, if necessary.

I did start on this project, by consulting with the client - Tell me what you want now, because otherwise I'll make it and then you'll complain that it's wrong. - and lots of measuring and laying out. I'm starting with the four lining pockets and working outwards from there. Having sketched out the first bit on the back of an envelope, I looked at the fabric and realised that there is a point to patterns (I'm not generally a fan, as you may have gathered from my baby blanket) - the scope for error is just too great without a pattern.

It was just as well I made pattern pieces - I made enough mistakes measuring those out, I dread to think what a mess I might have made of the lovely green fabric. I then pinned these to the cloth...

Pinning pattern pieces onto the lining fabric. Pebble is helpful as ever.

... and marked all the corners with tailor's tacks.

Tailor's tacks marking corners

At this point, another, more urgent, project came up. Yes, that's right, an urgent needlework project. It involves knooking, and even better, I have to make new knooking hooks - two of them! More than that, I cannot tell you at this point.

This means that the camera bag is the next but one project, as I couldn't have two projects running in parallel, could I?


*I know that doesn't sound very consistent with our low-cost lifestyle, but it's for work and, having seen the photos, I have to admit it does make a big difference to his photography.

Not a tomato farmer

I've been thinking hard about the tomato question since yesterday. Berti (and other friends) suggested growing them on a bit and selling them. This sounds like good sense - a little bit of pocket money as a byproduct of what I'm doing anyway - but is it really?

Of the saved seeds, I've already pricked out 57 seedlings. I want 20ish, so there are plenty for me, for backup to replace the ones that die, and to swap with friends. The question is what to do with the hundred still in the seed tray, that are now looking a bit cramped.

tomato seedlings
Tomato seedlings in need of pricking out

If I want to sell them, I'll have to spend a couple of hours pricking them out and setting out a stall at the end of the driveway... actually, if I've got to find a table, materials, make up a sign, etc. that's probably more like three hours (not counting the time needed to go and buy more pots). A neighbour where we used to live sold small plants for 30p each, so I'll take that as the price. I could get more if they were bigger, but then they'd be taking up space for longer. Even so, they'd clog up the greenhouse for a while until they were big enough to sell. I'd also have to buy pots - which are 12p each for the smallest ones - and compost, for which I can't be bothered to calculate the price. Let's say I'm spending 15p per pot and selling for 30p. In the unlikely event that I manage to sell all hundred of them, I'd make £15 for three hours work, or £5 per hour.

£5/hr is not a stupidly low return on my time - roughly the minimum wage for 18-20 yr-olds - but it's not very much. Do I want to do that kind of work for that rate of return? It's not as if I'm sitting around twiddling my thumbs here. I always have a long list of jobs and projects ahead of me - which somehow always seems to include 'washing up'! I have to come back to the fact that the point of the new lifestyle is not to earn money, but to produce as much as possible of what we need directly. If I was going to get a much higher return on my efforts I might think selling things was worthwhile, but £5/hr is not enough to tempt me away from the path I've chosen to follow.

There is only one possible conclusion, though I say this with a heavy heart:
A hundred baby tomato plants are destined for the compost heap.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Liebster blogs

The lovely Gingerbread Lady has presented me with an award!

"Favourite blog" award

Isn't that nice? If you've come over here from there, welcome! Do have a look around :-) Oh, you already have, or you wouldn't have made it to this post. Well... thanks!

The idea is that I now pass it on to 3-5 of my favourite blogs, who have fewer than 100 followers. I'd like to send it straight back, because I really enjoy reading Gingerbread Lady's blog, but since getting the award she now has over 100 followers, so is no longer eligible.

So I'll just have to find a few more favourite blogs - oh the hardship!

First up is Susie at Useless Beauty. I did wonder whether to include Susie, as she was on Gingerbread Lady's list and also one of the other recipients chose her, so this'll be at least the third time she receives this award. On the other hand, I really do love her blog, so sod it! Useless Beauty is in! (I don't think this means you have to choose three times as many blogs to pass it on to, though, Susie ;) She writes about sewing, crochet and knitting quite a lot, but also life in general and can be very funny.

Next is Louisa at The Really Good Life. She may have more than 100 followers - she doesn't brag about it. Anyway, I like her practical gardening blog. She writes about other things too - cooking, making things, finding cheaper and less 'manufactured' ways of doing things - all sorts of things that I'm interested in, too.

Finally (and I think I'll stop at three - I'm mathematically minded enough to see how this could spiral out of control!), another good life blog I enjoy is Red's Colour it Green, which has the added bonus of a link to her main website, which is a repository of all kinds of useful information. She may also have more followers and keep quiet about it, but I'll take a chance - I like the blog.

I love reading other people's blogs - reading about people who are taking the same journey that we are; people who have travelled a lot further along that route and can offer the benefit of their experience; and people who are far more expert than me in some aspect and offer inspiration, as well as words of encouragement and comfort, as appropriate.

What am I going to do with all these tomatoes?

I've lost track track of when I last wrote about seed planting, if indeed I have at all. Suffice to say that some seeds have been planted.

Aubergine, gherkin and chilli seeds in a tray. Small quantities of each as they were freebies, but that's fine; I think one of each would probably be enough.

I've also planted some peas outside, though I'm really not sure that's a good idea. I think it may still be too cold - the RHS book says they can go outside as soon as the soil reaches 10°C. What does this mean? Does it have to be at least 10°C all the time, which would be well after the last frost? Or maybe it's deeper in the soil, in which case how deep? In any case, I don't have a soil thermometer. I do have a nice new max/min thermometer for the greenhouse though:

New greenhouse thermometer. As you can see, it's been pretty warm in there these last few days.

I tried to buy one at the (only) local garden centre, but they didn't have any. I was shocked, I tell you, shocked! Luckily, there is a wonderful shop tucked away in a side street of Aberystwyth called Charlie's, which sells all sorts of wonderful things, including max/min thermometers, waterbutts...

New waterbutt in the conservatory

... jamming kettles, kilner (-type) jars, knitting yarn, and shoes. I'm not so sure about the shoes, but I haven't actually ventured into that part of the shop yet. Charlie's is my favourite shop, ever. But I digress.

The other problem with planting peas directly outside is mice. Everyone tells me this and although I've taken my dad's advice and covered them liberally with holly leaves, I'm still worried the mice might 'ave 'em. So... I've planted a batch in the greenhouse, too, in funky little newspaper pots that seem to be all the rage on environmentally friendly gardening blogs.

The first 40 newspaper seedling pots. I need several hundred.

Mice might yet get into the greenhouse, but it has a sturdy base, with all the walls cemented to the ground, and I have a vigilant guard-cat to keep an eye on things:

Pebble guarding the peas in the greenhouse

We'll just have to see what survives.

I've finished sowing all the asparagus seeds, and the potatoes are now in the ground, having done their chitting:

Potatoes, all nicely chitted and ready for planting.

I got a bit confused about numbers of potatoes. Originally I guestimated that we'd need 100 plants (say one plant gives a meal's worth of spuds, that's two meals-worth per week for the year), but then I used JBA's potato calculator, which told me I only had space for 50... but I've just planted 100. I'm not sure how that happened. I may have planted them far too close together, but how did I end up ordering twice as much as I thought I had space for? It's a mystery.

The onion seeds I sowed back in January are coming along well.

Onion seedlings before pricking out

They really are the most extraordinary things. They come up in a hoop, then one end puts down a root while the other end, with seed still attached, slowly unfolds itself until the little plant is standing upright. Since taking this photo I have pricked them out into more seed trays so they have a bit more room. Here they are occupying all my seed trays, in the background of a picture of tomato seedlings:

Tomato and onion seedlings. Some of the tomatoes are in egg boxes because I ran out of plastic module trays and hadn't yet thought of the newspaper pots.

I had three types of tomato seeds, none of which I bought. Two were freebies with Grow It magazine, of which I was particularly pleased with Roma, that are good for sauces and bottling. The third were my saved seeds from cherry tomatoes I bought for eating. These are an unknown quantity, as they could well be hybrids and grow quite different fruit from the parent plant. Guess which ones are in the photo? Yes, the unknown, saved seeds were the ones that germinated quickly and prolifically.

I sowed two batches of each, a few weeks apart. I have pricked out 57 of the first batch of saved tomatoes and have another hundred seedlings in a tray. Of the free seeds, two or three of the Roma and one of the other (Tamina) have germinated from the first batch, with 30 Roma and about 10 Tamina germinating from the second batch. In total, then, I have about 200 tomato seedlings.

I really don't know how many tomato plants I'm going to need, and they take up quite a lot of space. Articles on the subject tend to say, "Five or six plants are usually enough for an average family." This isn't very helpful. A bit more research reveals that an average sort of a yield for a tomato plant might be 8-10 lb. This is much more useful information. For Roma, which will be mostly bottled (tinned, but in glass not tin), I can estimate how many bottles I'll need: If each one takes 1 lb fruit (similar to a tin) and I use two tins bottles per week, that's about 100 lb fruit, so twelve plants. I'll probably use more than that - make it twenty plants, which was my original estimate.

The others are more difficult to calculate, but for simplicity I could go for similar numbers of each, making 60 in total. That's a hell of a lot of tomato plants to find space for, but still leaves me with over 100 seedlings that I have no use for, and mostly very little idea of what kind of fruit they'll bear.

When I've figured out what to do with the tomatoes, maybe I'll have some idea of what to do with all this thyme:

Several thousand tiny thyme seedlings. The indentation is a paw print - punishment for putting seed trays all over the sunny windowsill.

Saturday 26 March 2011

Not switching the lights off for Earth Hour

It's coming up to the end of Earth Hour and I've been watching my electricity monitor for most of it. This is possible because I have the lights on.

About ten minutes in, the fridge happened to turn itself off, so the only things we had switched on were the lights. The other 'background' consumption, the heating, is off, mainly because it's broken. The monitor fluctuated between 19 and 27 Watts, which is not bad for four 7W bulbs. Then the fridge kicked in and the usaged jumped to around 160 Watts for the fifteen minutes until it switched itself off again. During that time, we both turned our laptops on - not a flicker on the monitor, in spite of the fact they're both plugged into the mains. If anything, the consumption dropped.

Now, as the hour comes to an end, we have both computers and four lightbulbs on, and the monitor is again fluctuating between 19 and 25 Watts.

I have very mixed feelings about Earth Hour. As you can tell from the above, we did not yield to WWF's exhortation to Switch off your lights to show you care about climate change and protecting the natural world. Is that because we don't care? No, of course not. It's because switching the lights off is purely a gesture - the lights evidently use much less power than the fridge; how many people switched their fridges off? - and I'm really not sure of the value of gestures.

Switching lights off is very visible, especially in cities (not sure anyone would notice the difference out here in rural Wales), so it's certainly an attention-grabbing gesture. Having grabbed the attention, what message does this gesture convey?

I find this question very difficult to answer. I guess the most positive possibility is that a lot of people think, We need to reduce our electricity consumption to save the Earth. I nearly wrote power instead of electricity but I think that would be over optimistic. The lightbulb is quintessentially electric; I'd be very surprised if the concept of saving power by switching them off would generalise to other forms of power. This is unfortunate, because electricity is only a medium for transporting power; its generation can come from the dirtiest of fossil fuels or the cleanest of renewables. I don't believe that targetting electricity per se is necessarily helpful.

More specific messages might be even less helpful. It's likely that focusing on light gives people the impression that lights are a relatively big consumer of electricity. If I'm to believe my electicity monitor (and I'm still not sure I entirely trust it), lights, especially modern low-powered bulbs, use relatively little power. This could easily distract people from the big energy users, and leave them thinking that regularly turning lights off will make a useful impact on their energy consumption.

As for the actual impact of Earth Hour on electricity consumption, I'd be surprised if much of the reduction was any more than displacement. For example, you could not boil a kettle during that hour by having your cup of tea either before or afterwards. You could delay putting the dishwasher on for an hour. No doubt some people charged batteries beforehand so they could use electrical devices without plugging them in during that hour.

As for carbon dioxide emissions, the effect of Earth Hour could have been to actually increase them. A friend mentioned that she was planning to use a paraffin lamp instead of electric lights, prompting me to search out this report. To save you having to read it all, I'll tell you that the interesting comparisons are found in graphs on pages 10 and 12. The first of these tells me that a pressurised paraffin lamp emits somewhat more light than an electric bulb; 180 Lux for the lamp vs. 120ish Lux for either a 15W compact fluorescent or the 60W incandescent bulb (it doesn't seem a fair comparison to look at the much more feeble hurricane lamp).

However, the difference in CO2 emissions is far greater; 260 kg/year for the lamp vs. 80 for the incandescent bulb and only 20 for the modern, low power bulb (OK, it may not be fair, but the hurricane lamp still has higher emissions than either of the lightbulbs, in spite of much lower light output).

Earth Hour: A grand gesture that focuses a lot of attention on the issue, may distract from higher impact ways of reducing CO2 emissions, and might have increased emissions during the hour itself. No, we're not turning off the lights for Earth Hour.

Friday 25 March 2011

Knooked baby blanket: Finished!

In spite of the title, I'm going to backtrack a little to start with. Last time I wrote about knooking, I was just about to try combining crochet with knitting. So how do did I get on?

This was my first attempt:

First attempt at combining knitting/knooking with crochet

Ian looked at this and said, You're not going to use that are you? I looked at it and I had to agree with him. Still, it demonstrated the principle that crochet can be incorporated into knooking work. I was really taken with the crocheted shell shapes that I'd just learnt, so I had another go:

Second attempt

I have to admit it's still a bit wibbly, but I wasn't about to scrap (frog?) another one, so I kept it. After that, I thought maybe I should try learning from someone with a bit more experience, rather than making it up as I went along. Taking inspiration from Ronda's All Twisted Up design, I tried alternating rows of knit and crochet, with some twists on the crochet rows. I've no idea how close it is to the orignal pattern - Ronda's working in 21st century American whereas my terminology, such as it is, is 19th century European. Anyway, I was very pleased with the result:

Twisty knit/crochet knooked square

Finally, I decided to add some crochet decoration to a knitted square, which I suspect is quite common practice amongst people who've never even heard of knooking, but I used the knooking hook throughout.

Balloons, or are they weeds?

My original idea was for a bunch of balloons, but when I showed it to Ian, he said, "Oh, I thought they were weeds." Weeds? OK, maybe they don't look very balloon-y. I'll settle for flowers, then.

I made other squares, too, and ended up with:

Set of knooked squares for baby blanket

You may notice that many, if not all, of these squares are not actually square. In fact, it's possible that no two are exactly the same shape. Fitting them together could be a challenge. But never fear - I had a plan!

Tapestry wool from the bottom of the sewing drawer

Using funky coloured tapestry wools found under sundry embroidery, darning, and other threads (mostly inherited), I would construct small sections of fabric to fill the awkward gaps.

The putting together of this blanket involved much rearrangement of squares, ponderous looking at it and going, "Hmmm." Pebble helped.

Pebble helping with the construction of the baby blanket.

Eventually, I got this (with apologies for the fuzzy photo):

Wonky knooked baby blanket

It was all going so well, right up to the end, which is where the yellow square with weeds meets the pink one at the edge - as if you couldn't tell where the problem is! I really should have unpicked the last bit and done it again. I nearly did. The only thing that stopped me was the nagging feeling that I'd probably introduce another problem, just as bad. Instead, I put it in the washing machine - mainly to check that it is indeed machine washable, as it's pretty useless to my sister if it's not - and tried to persuade it to be a bit flatter as it dried. That didn't make a huge amount of difference, so the finished baby blanket is not entirely blanket shaped.

I'm more worried that the tapestry wool sections will be too scratchy for the baby. The rest is lovely soft fluffy baby wool (most of which is not wool at all) but those bits are actual wool and the contrast in textures is striking.

I do hope it's usable and the baby likes it, but if not, I don't suppose my sister will be too disappointed. I don't think she really expected me to finish it anyway.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

I've finished the digging!!!

I've been wanting to write this post for so long - I keep thinking I'm nearly there and I'll be able to tell you I've finished by the end of the day and then realising just how much is left. The day after I wrote my last post on the subject it all got too much for me. I did an hour or so in the morning, then sat down with a cup of tea and nearly fell asleep in my chair - the chair in question being outdoors, in early March.

After that I took a break from digging, but gradually got back to it, a little at a time. I tried relatively small tasks such as, "Today I'll move one of those probably-fuscias to the Bed on the Edge." Unfortunately, the probably-fuscia turned out to be a monster:

Monster fuscia, uprooted

On closer examination, this turned out to be three plants, closely entwined. I split them up and replanted them, then had another good, long break.

The pyracantha I was promising to move in the last post finally got tackled just the other day. It was a predictably tough job, the roots being extensive, in rocks, and very close friends with a tree root, and that's before taking account of the thorns.

Here's the pyracantha in its new home, looking as if butter wouldn't melt

...and here's the hole it came out of. Yes, I know holes in the ground don't make for great photos, but it was a big hole, OK?

Whilst looking up the spelling of pyracantha, I learnt that the berries are edible as well as pretty, so it may yet earn its keep.

As well as digging things up, I have also made some new paths:

Existing path at the top of the picture, new paths at the right and middle. The old and new paths are parallel, but the old one is more horizontal, which makes them look wonky in this photo

This is all probably very boring, but I've done a huge amount of work and I'm feeling rather pleased with myself. If I can't brag a little on my own blog, what's the point of writing it?

Today, I finally finished digging over the garden. Even as I write this, I know it's not entirely true. There's still the Virginia creeper by the house to dig up and make way for tomatoes (though they could go in the conservatory instead), and I haven't done the strip along the fence for (yet more) sunflowers, but that's outside the fence, so that doesn't count. The third and final laburnam is still there, too, but I've decided to leave that until next year, mainly because it's surrounded by bluebells at the moment.

Today I finished digging over all of the existing beds in the enclosed garden.

All the beds are dug. The few bits of green are things I want to keep (mostly bluebells)

Just in case you were wondering, here's where I stand to get a photo of the whole garden:

Sturdy wall to stand on, at the edge of the conservatory roof.

As you can see, the hillside goes right along the top of the conservatory, so I can get to a good vantage point on the roof.

Finally, just so you can see how much stuff I've dug up, here's the compost heap:

Compost heap with fork, for scale.

Tomorrow I'll tell you about seeds, or knooking, or possibly both, but for now, I shall enjoy feeling a little smug.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Tapping birch trees for sap

Whilst hanging out on some bushcraft forum or other, way back last summer when I was still just dreaming of the new life, I learnt about tapping birch trees for sap. I'd already heard of tapping trees - that's the way maple syrup is made - but this brought it closer to home and made it seem like a realistic possibility. I read descriptions, watched Youtube videos and generally got quite excited about the idea.

Then I had to wait. The time of year for tapping trees is early March, when the sap is rising. So... a couple of weeks ago, when early March came round, I gathered together a tapping kit...

tree tapping kit
Kit for tapping a tree: Knife, pointed stick, and bottle for all the lovely sap

...identified a likely looking tree in the garden...

...and stuck the knife into it...

tree tapping attempt
Attempting to tap a tree

...and nothing. Not even a drop. I wondered whether I hadn't pushed the knife in far enough, or perhaps it was too early in the year, or maybe I was trying the wrong kind of tree. In spite of the convenience of being in my garden, the tree in question didn't have a lot to recommend it as actually being a birch tree. (Note that in my excitement at it being early March, I didn't actually bother to watch the video again, with its helpful advice on identifying birch trees when they have no leaves on).

Considering the last possibility, I set off into the nearby woods in search of a more likely looking tree. Finding one that presented itself more convincingly as birch, I stuck the knife into it... and was immediately rewarded with a gleaming drop of sap! But that was it. One drop was about all that came out. Oh well, at least I'd accomplished the first step - find the right tree. I decided to leave it a while to see whether I'd have any more luck later in March.

So it was that yesterday I set off into the woods again armed with knife, pointy stick and bottle. This time was much more successful - when I stuck the knife in, sap came out of the tree and kept coming. I didn't exactly pour out, but there was a distinct trickle, as in the video.

The next challenge was making the sap run along the pointy stick, instead of straight down the tree. Even in the demonstration video on Youtube it took a few attempts, so I knew this wasn't going to be easy, and it wasn't. Still, out of maybe half a dozen attempts on three different trees, I managed to get one (not the last one) to work. Drips formed and fell from the end of the pointy stick - more success!

Then I just had to fix up the bottle...

Bottle collecting sap

...and waited. The sap was coming at a rate of about one drip every five seconds to start with, but when I checked back half an hour later (after trying other trees) it had slowed to one every twelve seconds or so. I decided to leave it and collect it later. It wasn't exactly discreet, being right next to the footpath and at eye level, but I don't think I've seen another person in those woods since we moved, so I thought I'd chance it. What would it matter if someone did see it, anyway?

I went home and spent the rest of the day digging, then went back maybe five hours later to collect my booty. Here's what I got:

Glass of birch sap, with cat's paw for scale. It's not just because she walked in front of the camera, honest.

That glass of sap is all I got. That's not a wine glass, it's a sherry glass, or possibly port. I'm not sure, but it's small. If I'd been dying of thirst I'd have been glad of it, but then if I'd been dying of thirst in those woods I'd have been up for a Darwin award, for not following the sound of water to the stream in the valley.

It tasted nice - bright, fresh and springlike is the best way I can describe it. Not terribly sweet, though. I had optimistically hoped to get enough to make a bottle of wine from, but I doubt there'd be enough sugar in it for that. Similarly, people do boil it down to make syrup, as with maple syrup, but that seemed equally unlikely.

In spite of the very small quantity, I'd still say it was a successful experiment - though perhaps not successful enough to bother repeating. It was an entertaining way to spend an hour or so, anyway.

Monday 14 March 2011

Laundry gloop

Working my way through the list of things I can make, rather than buy, I get to washing machine liquid. I've known for a while that other people make their own, and found a link from someone's blog to a list of recipes (sorry, whoever's blog it was. I've forgotten where I found this). Quite a few of these use borax, which I don't have, but a couple just use soap and washing soda, both of which I have in the house. In fact, recipes 5 and 7 both use just soap, soda crystals and water, but in rather different quantities...

grated soap
Grated soap. Please ignore the state of my cooker.

I started by grating a bar of homemade soap (plus that leftover bit of Imperial Leather) and added hot water while I considered quantities. Both recipes call for roughly equal amounts of soap and soda, though expressed differently. I decided to match by weight, as that'll be easier to replicate if I do it again. The first step, then, was to weigh my other bars of soap to find out how much I'd just used. It was about two and half ounces, so I weighed out that quantity of soda crystals.

I then moved on to water - i.e. how concentrated do I want this? Comparing the two recipes, one suggests using four times as much soap/soda as the other per wash. Clearly, this isn't an exact science. If I take the average, that's recipe #5, but use one cup per load. Now, I'm used to using a concentrated liquid, so I'd like to end up with something similar. More to the point, I'd like to be able to fit it in the bottle - even scaled down, this recipe makes over a gallon!

So... I've scaled down the recipe to half, as that's how much soap I grated. That would give me 1.25 gallons, with instructions to use one cupful per load. One cupful is quite a lot - 240 ml, whereas the concentrated stuff I buy uses 35 ml per load. If I want to stick with the same cap measure, I need to reduce the total quantity by that ratio, so ten pints (1.25 gallons) x 35/240 = 1.46 pints. Hmm, how much did I put in the saucepan again?

I hadn't actually measured how much water I put in at the beginning (my excuse is that I thought I'd be adding more to it, and measuring the total). I took another saucepan of similar size and poured two pints of water into it. They looked about the same volume, maybe a bit less in the soapy one, so one and a half pints probably wasn't far off.

With the occasional stir between calculations, the soap had all dissolved (that's probably not technically correct, but I can't think of the right word) into the water, so I stirred in the soda crystals, mixed, and left it to cool. I was a bit concerned by the recipe note that it will gel. Having made it so much more concentrated, would it set solid? By the time it was lukewarm it still looked like milk, and I couldn't be bothered to wait any longer. I poured it into the old bottle, and most of it went in. There was about 100 ml over, which I put straight into the little ball for washing and put a load on. That's about three times as much as I'm expecting to use normally, but what else was I going to do with it?


Washing drying.
Note the bird feeder still on the line - perhaps not the best combination.

The washing looks and smells clean, at least with that quantity. After a night in the cold (the washing machine lives in the conservatory), the liquid had set solid, with an unattractive crust of suds on the top. I stirred it with a skewer and it turned into a gloopy liquid, just like the bought stuff, though not as smooth. I can live with lumpy laundry liquid - if it's effective it'll save us a fortune! OK, not a fortune - we never spent that much on laundry, but really, this homemade stuff is very cheap.

Sod. Now I've said that, I'm going to have to work out just how cheap it is. My homemade soap used 23 oz oil/fat, which this helpful conversion page tells me is approx 733 ml. Without bothering to look at each oil separately, that quantity of olive oil costs £2.38 at Tesco prices. Caustic soda costs £2.50 for 500 g at Boots and I used 3 oz, so that's... [can you hear the cogs whirring?]... 42.5p, making a total of £2.81 for the whole batch of soap. I used one twelvth of that for my bottle of laundry liquid, so that's 23.4 pence worth of soap. Not forgetting the soda crystals @ 92p/kilo, or 6.5p for the 2.5 oz I used, that makes a total of 30p for the bottle of laundry liquid. This compares favourably with the £4.30 we'd pay for the stuff we used to buy, I think you'll agree!

Electricity monitor

Our electricity provider has sent us a new toy to play with: A free gadget that measures and displays our electricity usage in real time. I'd been thinking of buying one of these, so I was very pleased to get one for free, but I did wonder why they'd do that. After all, the main purpose of the gadget is to help us reduce our electricity usage, which is not exactly in their interests.

Reading the small print, I thought I'd found the answer, "We reserve the right to monitor your usage, including time of day usage." (I should explain that the thing comes with a link-up to online software). Decent time-of-day usage data are highly valuable to an electricity provider, so they can optimise their output.

I've been very interested to see how much power different things use. The fridge and the central heating pump are our main 'background' users of electricity, taking 100-200 Watts each, but not all the time. I was relieved to see that the laptops use very little - about 40 Watts, and again, not all the time. Right now the monitor is displaying zero, although I have the computer plugged into the mains.

electricity monitor reading zero with computer
The little light by the power cable shows the laptop is plugged in and switched on, but the electricity monitor says it's drawing no power

This big users are predictable, but still startling. We all know that electric kettles use a lot of power, but seeing the monitor shoot up to 2.5 kW is a striking reminder of that fact. I'm sure it's going to encourage me to heat less water (so it's on for less time) and to make the tea straight away, so I don't have to reboil.

The washing machine also uses kilowatts, but I'm not sure I'm ready to switch to hand washing just yet. The real biggie, though, is the shower. We have an electric shower which is pathetically feeble, yet still manages to use 7.5 kW, and we use it for much longer at a time than the kettle. We really must crack on with those solar panels!

As well as power consumption, the monitor has a built in thermometer and displays the temperature. At first, I thought this was an added bonus. Most lists of tips for saving energy include advice to turn the thermostat down a degree or two, so a thermometer fits with that approach. However, this one is slightly different.

The accompanying booklet informs us that a temperature "below 17°C is considered too cold for healthy living," and "If flashing it is below 13°C, please turn your heating up." This thing is geared up to tell us to increase our heating, but will never tell us to reduce it.

Ever since it came into our house, this thing has been complaining that it's too cold:

Electricity monitor flashing warnings at me. I had trouble taking these photos, but the one on the left has no temperature information whereas if you look closely at the one on the right (or the one above), you'll see it says "too cold" and "11" in the bottom right hand corner*

Not only does it complain, but it consistently reads two degrees lower than the old fashioned thermometer we have on the wall. Call me cynical, but this company sells gas, too...


*We do keep our house cool but I have to agree that, even allowing for the two-degree error, 13°C is on the chilly side. This is because our central heating has broken, but that's another story.

Hair update: Water only washing

After giving up on not washing my hair at all, I felt the first step to washing had to be water only, even though I really didn't think it would make any difference. To give it a fair chance, I spent a long time in the shower massaging warm water through my hair. It felt horrible - really sticky, especially as it was drying. BUT...

Hair washed with only water
Hair after washing with only water (three times so far)

It worked! I've now washed my hair in plain warm water three times, spending less time over it each time and washing every other day, as I used to. It got less horrible each time, as the build-up of hair serum was washed out. Now I'm really happy with it!

As an added bonus, my eternally flat, lifeless, dead-straight hair has bounce and volume, and even a bit of wave. Oh, and it doesn't tangle. I can leave it to dry without brushing, then it brushes out fine when it's dry.

One caveat is that ends seem a bit dry. I may be willing to concede at this stage that a comb is not the best tool for spreading serum along the length of the hair, especially now there's so much less of it to spread. Perhaps it would be a good idea to buy myself a natural bristle brush after all. Now my hair's nice enough to stick with the no 'poo regime, it seems worth the investment in a new brush.

Thursday 10 March 2011

Soap and marmalade wine

A couple of updates here, as I left these two projects hanging, blogwise.

When we moved into this house in October, the previous owners had kindly left a bar of Imperial Leather on the bathroom basin. I did intend to use up this bar of soap before starting on my homemade stuff, but I got impatient...

Towards the end of January I gave in and started using my very first homemade soap. Here it is, next to the remains of the Imperial Leather. Don't you just love our beautiful basin? Our loo and shower tray are the same colour.

Half-used soap, next to remains of still-unfinished Imperial Leather

The reason the Imperial Leather is still there is that the new soap is actually much nicer, which is hugely pleasing. It does tend to go a bit squishy if it gets too wet, so I was worried to start with that it might just dissolve in a couple of washes, but as you can see, this hasn't happened. Although I gave away six bars as Christmas presents...

Fresh cut soap, left, and packed up as a Christmas present, right

... I still have six bars for myself, which could well last until next Christmas.

The marmalade wine was ready at about the same time as the soap, i.e. end of January. At least, some of it was ready. I had it fermenting in various different sized bottles, and the smallest one finished first. I tried some, and it was OK... I tested it on visiting in-laws, and they liked it too - enough to accept refils, so I'm fairly sure they weren't just being polite (though they are, of course, very polite people). Really - I was expecting it to taste 'interesting', which it certainly does - but it is surprisingly drinkable. There's definitely a bitter edge to it, from the bitter oranges, so it's not like other wines. Apart from that, it's not particularly orangey... I don't think I'd make a very good wine columnist, but you get the general idea. I like it. I gave away a couple of bottles as birthday presents (to people who like trying new and unusual drinks) - I hope they liked it too.

Since then, I've been drinking the bottles as they've finished fermenting, or in some cases before they've finished when I got impatient. The last bottle was bigger and took ages to finish. When it finally got there, I siphoned it off into bottles:

Pebble supervising the siphoning of the last bottle of marmalade wine

This batch is a fair bit stronger than the earlier bottles. Judging by its headache-inducing effects, there may be some methanol in there, too. I can't have more than a glass in an evening, and even then I feel the effects the next day.

That's really not good, is it?

Hmm, better do something about that.

OK, methanol has a lower boiling point than ethanol, so it should be possible to drive it off by heating...

Putting the old sugar thermometer to good use.

I looked up the boiling point of methanol, in Farenheit because my thermometer is very old (149°F, in case you're interested), heated the rest of the wine to somewhere near that temperature, and kept it there for half an hour or so. I meant to leave it for about 15 min, but got distracted and left it rather longer. I probably lost some of the ethonal too, but I think there was some to spare. I'm drinking a glass or two this evening, so I can let you know tomorrow whether the heating was effective. Either way, it still tastes pretty good.

Friday update: Yay! No headache this morning! I wonder if that's why I've been feeling a bit rubbish this week? I've been poisoning myself. Oops.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Hair experiment: Eight weeks

After six weeks I decided to give it another two, and now I have. I can't say my hair's changed very much in the last two weeks, so I'm not going to bother with photos again - just look back at the pics in the previous post.

This is disappointing. I had thought it was still improving, and hoped it might have got to a nice, silky soft state by now, but it hasn't. This is very frustrating, because it's fine really - it's not smelly or itchy, I'm quite comfortable with going out in public without it attracting attention (Actually, there's one person who may be able to tell me whether it's noticeably bad. I met up with her a week ago and I don't think she knew at the time that I was doing the experiment. Are you reading? Did my hair look awful?) The trouble is, it looks a lot nicer when it's just been washed, and I miss that. Not all the time, but at least some of the time I would like it to look that nice.

This means I'm going to have to give in and wash it. I'm not going to abandon two months of adjustment to a shampoo-free world and go straight back to the old shampoo-and-conditioner routine. I'll take baby steps from here, all the way to there if need be, but stopping short of the old routine if I can.

The first baby step is to rinse thoroughly with warm water. I'm very doubtful that this will have any impact on my hair, but I feel I have to try it first. After that I'll try very dilute bicarb in water accompanied by a nettle and vinegar rinse. I'm wary of bicarb because it did nasty things to my hair last time I tried it, but maybe if I use little enough of it I won't have those problems. Also, the vinegar should balance out the alkalinity - hopefully quickly enough to prevent the damage.

I should add that I've already experimented with the nettle and cider vinegar mix as conditioner, and had been using it for some time (after shampoo) before starting the no-wash experiment. I tried just nettles, that is, nettle tea made by boiling nettles for a while. The nettles themselves go on the compost heap, not on my hair.

My first attempt was nettle tea (with a bit of rosemary, to improve the smell, which didn't really work) without vinegar. This worked, but didn't keep - by the end of a week it was fermenting. I then tried adding cider vinegar at a strength of about one part vinegar to two parts tea. It stank. The third attempt was about one part vinegar to eight parts tea, and that seems pretty good. The smell is OK (I'm not particularly keen on the smell of nettle tea, but the vinegar isn't overpowering in this one. I've given up on the rosemary as it doesn't make much difference, so it's just a waste of rosemary) and it lasts well - I still have a little left from two months ago, and it hasn't gone off yet.

I'll keep you posted on the minimal washing experiments and in the meantime, I'm looking out for new season nettles.

Monday 7 March 2011

When to sow seeds?

Being generally befuddled by the range of contradictory advice on when to stick seeds in the ground, I was interested to see an article on moon growing in this month's Grow It magazine.

The editor's comment also rang true - "The date of the last frost, summer rainfall expectations and the strength of prevailing winds meld into the tapestry of influences that dictate what we grown and when we grow it. So the idea of adding another factor into the mix isn't instantly appealing." On the other hand, faced with different advice from different sources, maybe another factor could be the deciding one.

I'd heard of gardening by the moon before and been intrigued by it. It sounds rather like New Age mumbo jumbo, but the moon clearly does influence water levels here on earth, in the form of tides, so it's plausible that it could influence plants too. The article reported on a year's experiements conducted by the author, comparing a vegetable bed in which all the activities (digging, composting, sowing, harvesting, etc.) were carried out on appropriate days, according to the moon calendar, with a similar bed in which the same activities were carried out on what should have been exactly the wrong days. The results were impressive, at least for peas, beans and potatoes. As peas and potatoes are two of my main crops this year, this is good enough for me.

Naturally wanting to avoid spending money, I looked online for free information and found the reassuringly mainstream-looking Gardeners Calendar. Rather than reducing my confusion, this increased it by having three different systems; synodic (phases of the moon), biodynamic (zodiac signs, following Rudolf Steiner), and siderial (more zodiac signs, but different recommendations). The website firmly refrains from recommending one system over the other (or indeed moon gardening at all) but suggests starting with the synodic system whilst learning more about the others. This seemed like good advice, but I was bothered by the contradictions between the three, so started my learning with a visit to Wikipedia.

Overcoming my natural suspicion of anything involving zodiac signs, I looked up Biodynamic agriculture The article is very informative, but not hugely encouraging. For example,
Weeds are combated (besides the usual mechanical methods) by collecting seeds from the weeds and burning them above a wooden flame that was kindled by the weeds. The ashes from the seeds are then spread on the fields, then lightly sprayed with the clear urine of a sterile cow (the urine should be exposed to the full moon for six hours), this is intended to block the influence from the full moon on the particular weed and make it infertile.

This stuff is witchcraft! Apologies to any Wiccans, but really, this sounds like the kind of nonsense that gives witches a bad name.

So much for the biodynamic system (and because of its similarity, the siderial system, too). What did the author of the Grow It article use? She refers to a book called In Tune with the Moon, which a little research reveals she also wrote*. Rather irritating that she failed to mention this in her article, but ho hum. It doesn't undermine her results, if she reported them honestly, and why should I mind that she's an expert on the subject, rather than a merely an interested gardener?

*Edit - she's not the author, she's the marketing manager for the publisher. That makes me even less keen on her.

Links from the In Tune with the Moon webpage to pages on Biodynamic growing raise suspicions. I don't want any of this wacky nonsense, I want the kind with empirical evidence! Oh, hang on, they're the same thing. Am I a scientist, open to whatever the evidence says, or a dogmatist, who simply refuses to believe that exposing the urine of a sterile cow to the light of the full moon is going to have any effect on the ground elder?

I really don't know what to think. In addition to considerations of rain, frost, etc., I now have several guides to planting based on the position of the moon, some of which come with a hefty side helping of hocus pocus. I'm more confused than ever!