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

Wednesday 31 August 2011


That is all I have to say on the subject.

This keeps happening.
I don't think I'll be getting any pumpkins this year.

I'm going to have to get those carrots out of the ground ASAP

OK, this is beyond a joke.
What, apart from humans, eats onions, for goodness sake?

Wednesday 24 August 2011

First harvests: Carrots, runner beans and tomato

I've been a bit lax in my updates (as if you were interested!) on garden produce. I think once the excitement of getting any food from the garden wore off, I no longer felt compelled to tell you every time I picked something new.

I first dug up carrots three weeks ago:

First carrots

They're a bit short, in fact some of them are very short, so I need quite a few for each meal. They also have some damage which I think is caused by the dreaded carrot root fly. It's not catastrophic - if I cut the damaged bits out there's still plenty of edible root - but it does reduce the yield somewhat. I'm a bit disappointed with the flavour, too. I'm sure carrots of my childhood were deliciously sweet when pulled straight from the ground, but these are slightly bitter, just like supermarket carrots.

The runner beans are just getting big enough to harvest; I picked the first ones a few days ago.

First runner beans

There are no disappointments here: No sign of pest damage (yet) and they're just as delicious as they should be! There are plenty of small ones on the plants, so with luck I'll be freezing some of these as well as enjoying them over the next few weeks.

I've been watching the first tomato getting gradually redder and redder, and the other day decided it was time to pick it.

First tomato

Frankly, this was disappointing, too. I know what fresh picked tomatoes should taste like, and this wasn't it. It was slightly better than supermarket varieties, but not much.

Oh, well. When the disappointing crops are much the same as I would have bought if I wasn't growing them, and the good ones are much tastier, that's still a pretty good result on average.

Friday 19 August 2011

Flora and fauna

Again, I find myself thinking along the same lines as Mrs Green, who was stopped in her tracks by the beauty of a cobweb.

Do you remember the rather uninspiring brown clumps of crocosmia that I painstakingly moved, way back in February? Well, they're flowering now.

Crocosmia (formerly montbretia) flowers.
I don't know why the name was changed.

They're not the exuberant splashes of colour that they can be, but they're nonetheless very pretty and, more to the point, still alive!

I was admiring them the other day when I spotted this fellow:

Stripy caterpillar. I believe he will grow up to be a broom moth.

Isn't he magnificent? A little googling identified him, and found some stunning photos of his relatives. Until I saw those, I hadn't noticed the pattern on his sides - I thought he was plain brown between the stripes, but if you look closely (you can click on the picture to enlarge it) you can see the intricate markings.

It's amazing what you can see if you take the time to look.

French bread

I've been making bread using the no knead method about twice a week since before Christmas, so it's pretty much routine now. Having got the hang of that, I thought I might get adventurous and try making French bread, which is one of the few foods that Ian really loves. I thought it must be difficult and/or require fancy ingredients to get such delicious loaves, so I was quite surprised when I looked up recipes to find that they were very similar to the one I was already using. In fact, I learnt that French law requires bread sold there to have only four ingredients; flour, salt, yeast and water.

So what makes it so special then? As far as I can gather from these excellent instructions, it's how you handle the dough, and how you cook it.

Handling: when forming the baguettes, fold the dough lengthwise and pinch the edges together several times to form a backbone.

Cooking: turn the oven up as high as it will go and put a shallow pan of water in the bottom to create steam. This should be taken out roughly half way through cooking to allow a crunchy crust to form.

This morning, partly because I'd forgotten to make dough before I went to bed last night, and partly prompted by Mrs Green's recent post on the same subject, I decided to make a couple of baguettes.


This was my second or third attempt at making them, and they came out very well, if I do say so myself! I forgot to take the water out of the oven (that is, I remembered, but ten minutes too late, by which time the bread was cooked) so the crusts are a little soft, but the bread is as delicious as it looks - yummy!

Monday 15 August 2011

Potato yield

This is just a quick update on this morning's post about potatoes. I've now dried (more or less) and weighed all the spuds, so I can report the yields:

Foremost first earlies: 29 lb 7 oz (I found a few more this morning)
King Edwards maincrop : 51 lb 9 oz
Desiree maincrop : 41 lb 1 oz

Total : 122 lb 1 oz

If we eat potatoes twice a week and use one pound per meal (which I do), then a year's supply would be 104 lb, and we've comfortably exceeded this. If I get the storage right and the blight doesn't ruin the lot, then I've successfully grown an entire year's worth of spuds, which makes me very happy :-)

Sacks of spuds destined for the store room. Those that were dug too soon, or that I stuck the fork through (rather a lot of the Desiree) are in the kitchen, for using soon or turning into frozen chips.

Treadle powered sewing machine

I'm on a constant mission to reduce the amount of electricity we use and as part of that, I look at my various appliances and wonder whether there's an alternative to using electricity for that job. By happy coincidence, this week's challenge at Change the World Wednesday is about reducing electricity usage, so I can write about this project and link it to that challenge.

I have a 1970s electric sewing machine that I inherited from my mother. It's very, very heavy, but that's it's only downside. It's a robust bit of kit and has survived a good twenty years of neglect in my ownership without the slightest complaint. Examining the back of the machine, I found that the motor is attached to the back with a bolt-on bracket, and drives the mechanism by a simple belt. This might have been sold as an electric machine, but appears to be based on an older, probably treadle-powered, design.

I also have a treadle. My dad gave this to me some years ago, nicely powder coated (that's a way of applying paint, by the way, not a powdery finish) with a glass top to make a decorative table. It's certainly decorative, but it's also functional, and working the treadle makes the wheel spin smoothly in a most satisfying way.

Could I put these two together? Wandering around the internets, I came across treadleon.net, a website for people who want to actually use (rather than make museum exhibits of) old, human-powered sewing machines (isn't it amazing what you can find on the internet?!) Somewhere on this site* I found instructions for converting an electric machine to treadle-power. Bingo!

What I needed next was a sturdy table top to go between the treadle base and the machine. Since I needed to cut a hole in it, this needed to be solid, rather than strips that would separate when cut. I decided that I wanted something fairly big. Although the treadle would have originally had a fairly small top, not much bigger than the machine itself, I'm used to having the whole dining table to spread out on when I sew. I'm not going that big, or I'll never find house space for it (to be honest, that's going to be a problem as it is), but I'd like a reasonable amount of table to support the fabric as I sew.

Whilst visiting a wood-working friend of ours, a general offer of wood was made, so I mentioned that I was on the look-out for a table top, and he said he had just the thing cluttering up his workshop. It was a hefty lump of pine (strips glued together, but very strongly), 4' x 2'2" and an inch and a quarter thick. He was even kind enough to plane the edges for me, to remove the rather unattractive varnish (we agreed that it would be much nicer used upside down, removing just a little varnish to take it back to the natural pine colour. I did have to remove a couple of lumps of chewing gum, too.)

Where are we now, then? I have the machine, the treadle, and the table top to go between them. There's just one more thing I need, and that's the drive belt. A bit more internet research found Alan's Alterations. As well as altering things, Alan sells industrial sewing machines and traditional leather machine belts, as well as who knows what other unlikely things. He has a shop in Machynlleth which, would you believe it, is just down the road! Well OK, it's thirty miles down the road, but that's really not very far away and happens to be the same town as the Centre for Alternative Technology, which is an interesting place to visit.

My dad came to stay for a week and before he came, he said I should line up a project for him to help me with. I considered the home-made solar panels, but decided that the sewing machine had a better chance of being completed within a week, considering 1) I had all the bits lined up, and 2) we'd probably want to do other things in that week, too.

It turned out that I didn't quite have everything I needed. Dad said we'd need a wide, flat drill bit for the corners, so we went out and bought one of those. After all that preamble (most DIY jobs seem to take more work in the preparation than the actual doing), here's what we did.

First, assemble all the bits.

Sewing machine, table top, and various tools. There are other tools too, that didn't make it into this picture.

At this point I'd already removed the drive wheel from the machine so we could use it to gauge the length of the belt needed.

Next came lots of measuring, head scratching, and marking out of where the hole should be cut in the table top.

A pencil is the most important tool in many jobs

You may notice that the Cut out arrow doesn't go to the edge of the marked area. This is because the front edge of the sewing machine is set into the table, but supported. The instructions told us to cut the hole right through then screw another piece of wood underneath, but I thought it would be stronger, and neater, to leave the original wood in place and just cut a rebate (lowered bit) to take the machine.

While Dad started drilling holes...

Let the drilling commence!

... I removed the electrical gubbins from the machine.

No more electric light in my sewing machine! I wonder if I can fit a little candle into the space where this used to be?

Then came a lot of sawing and chiselling (for the rebate) that I don't have photos for, so you'll have to use your imagination for those bits. Eventually we removed enough wood that we could fit the machine into its new home.

Sewing machine in place, with string belt for lining up with the treadle

At this point we discovered that the slot for the belt needed to go quite a bit further back than the hole for the machine. Here, the rasp came in very useful. We just filed away until the dummy belt (bit of string) went round both wheels without rubbing against the table on the way.

All the measuring and cutting took about a day, and the next day we went up to Machynlleth to visit both CAT (being tourists) and Alan the sewing machine merchant. He sold us six feet of leather machine belt and a staple to hold it together. When asked, he even told me how to combine the two. He also said that after a few weeks' use (um, I don't think I'll be using the machine that frequently, but still) the belt will have stretched, so I'll need to take the staple out, shorten the belt, and join it again.

The next job then, was to cut the belt to size (easy) and join it together with the staple (very difficult). Punching the holes in the belt with a nail was hard enough, but when we'd got the staple posted through both ends we had to close it up with pliers. This was extremely difficult to do as the pliers tended to skid off. I'm really hoping I can get away without adjusting the belt when it's stretched with use, but I guess if it needs it, then I'll just have to do this job again.

Staple in leather belt. Much harder to do than it looks.

Finally, there was a bit of jiggling to make sure the machine was lined up with the treadle wheel** (never mind getting the table top square to the base, it's the machinery that's important) before screwing the table top to the base (or vice versa, as this was done from underneath).

So here it is, all put together, and whadda ya know, it works!

Sewing machine with treadle, all assembled and functional

I still have to sand down the table top to get rid of the old varnish and the pencil marks, then finish it with teak oil (making sure there are no traces of this left when I start using it for sewing). I should really take it all apart to do this, but because it's difficult to take the machine off its hinges, I probably won't.

I haven't yet tried sitting at the machine and actually using it, but I have pushed the treadle with my foot and got it all going round, with the needle going up and down and everything. No doubt it will take a bit of practice to learn to sew with this, but I'm looking forward to it!


* I can't actually find it again, but it must have been there somewhere. Although I couldn't find the instructions again, I remembered important bits, such as using the hinges of the machine to support the back. I didn't even know it had hinges before that!

** I found that the belt was in a different place when going round than it was when stationary, so it now rests against the edge of the hole, but hopefully will be clear of it when in use. I may yet need to make that hole a bit bigger.

Buried treasure

It's been rather longer than the recommended two weeks since I cut the tops off my blighted potatoes but my dad was staying, and then it was wet, and...

Well anyway, I finally got round to digging yesterday evening. It's backbreaking work and it left me with sore and blistered hands, but this moment is pure magic, every time:

That moment when the earth breaks, revealing beautiful potatoes

I couldn't manage the whole lot in one go, but I woke fairly early this morning so I decided to get up and dig up the rest before breakfast. So it was that by 8 am, my potato patch looked like this:

Potatoes drying in the morning sun

I was constantly amazed at how numerous, and how big, the spuds were. I'll weigh them when they're dry and I've brushed most of the dirt off, and let you know (and record for myself) the total yield.

I even managed to find the sacks I bought to store them in, but Pebble has claimed these.

Thank you for putting out these nice sacks for me to sleep on!

Friday 12 August 2011

All fall down

This post has nothing at all to do with the previous one, except perhaps for the inclusion of peas. We have quite a lot of peas at the moment; I may be slightly preoccupied with them.

There are quite a lot of plants that are usually offered support by gardeners. I don't mean a shoulder to cry on or encouragement to buck their ideas up, though these may be offered too, I mean canes and bits of string and suchlike. I have been observing some of these plants closely this year, and have come to the following conclusions:

Some of them, including peas and cucumbers, have no interest in standing up on their own, and actively seek out support. You really can't get away without the bits of string for these plants.

A cucumber plant seeking support. The clue is the tendrils.

There are other plants, including broad beans and tomatoes, that show every sign of falling over deliberately. They start out growing vertically, but as the fruit/pods form, they take a more horizontal approach. I used to think this was because we'd bred plants with larger and larger fruit, until the plants could no longer stand the weight of them, but looking at the plants in my garden, that theory just doesn't hold up. The key point here is that the stems aren't floppy and collapsing; they're just as firm as they ever were, but heading in a different direction.

Tomato plants going over there, if you don't mind.

It's my belief that this is a strategy on the part of the plant to get its seeds as far away from the parent plant as possible. Working on this theory, I haven't bothered to support these plants (it's not just laziness, honest!) The main disadvantage is that it's a bit more difficult to find the crop when it comes to harvesting. In addition, bean pods sitting on the wet ground are a bit more likely to go mouldy than those held up in the air, but I haven't had much mould damage. We'll see how it goes with the tomatoes, but for the time being, I'm letting them spread themselves around, if that's what they want to do.

On the dangers of peas and the marvels of reflexes

To be honest, it wasn't the peas as such that were dangerous, but if I hadn't been harvesting peas for dinner, I wouldn't have been out in the rain, and I wouldn't have been hurrying back in, wearing crocs, across the slab of wet slate that starts the steps to our front door.

Wet slate steps. It's raining now, too.

There I was heading into the house, then the next thing I knew, I was flat on my back. The peas went flying (later recovered) and the colander suffered a small dent, but apart from the shock, I seemed to have got away with no greater injury than a bruise on my well-padded behind.

It was about 24 hours later that I realised why my neck was aching so much: I had whiplash. It was only then that it struck me: I didn't bang my head. In the time it took me to hit the deck, which was far too fast for consciousness to keep up, my reflexes had responded to the situation by tensing my neck muscles in such a way that my head was protected from an abrupt encounter with the concrete patio. Isn't that amazing?

We humans tend to pride ourselves on our conscious reasoning, but the animal parts of us are also pretty darned impressive, when you think about it.

Thursday 11 August 2011

Who's been eating my cabbages?

I spent ages yesterday picking small green caterpillers off my cabbages, and a fair few little snails too, only to find this bad boy making himself at home this morning.

Everyone's been eating my cabbages!

Thursday 4 August 2011

Challenging times

I have mixed feelings about the challenges that people post on their blogs. I quite like occasional ones, like Mumma Troll's eat for £1 a day challenge. These are a nice way of starting conversation and links between blogs, building little communities in blogland. On the other hand, I'm not so sure about the regular ones like documenting your plastic waste every week.

I'm not quite sure why I feel uncomfortable about these regular challenges. Louisa touched on one aspect in her post on extreme frugal challenges, which was the competitive, one downmanship. There's also the regular commitment required. Of course, this can be a good thing, if it encourages the development of good habits. In the context of writing a blog, though, this is not something I want. Some people use weekly features to structure their blogs, and I often enjoy reading these, but for myself, I'd rather write about things as they occur to me; I don't want the blog to become a chore because I've set myself the task of writing about a particular thing each week.

There's also the nagging feeling that by signing up to someone else's programme of challenges, I'm letting them do my thinking for me. In general, I don't think it's a bad thing to find someone whose principles you agree with and follow their guidance on the day to day decisions in life. I'm aware that humans, as a species, do most things on auto-pilot and if we think we're making conscious, deliberate decisions about every aspect of our lives, we're kidding ourselves. On the other hand, I'm as vlunerable to the illusion of conscious control as the next person, and so I choose not to delegate my decisions to someone else.

All that said, I've been following Change the World Wednesday for a little while now. The idea of this blog is to have a little challenge each week that lots of people can sign up to, and spread the word about, with the aim of encouraging widespread behaviour change for greener living - a most laudible aim. Notwithstanding my reservations about signing up to things, I've tried the last couple of challenges.

The first challenge I tried was reducing shower times to five minutes. Ironically, since I stopped using shampoo, I tend to spend longer in the shower. Without the routine of shampoo - rinse - conditioner - rinse, I just stand under the water and my mind wanders, for 15 to 20 minutes sometimes. I've been thinking I need to do something about this, and the challenge was the nudge I needed. I found the timer function on my mobile phone, set it to five minutes and put it on a shelf in the bathroom as I stepped into the shower. When the timer pinged, I finished rinsing off the shower gel or whatever, and got out. Easy! I'll be sticking with that new habit.

The second challenge was to avoid using paper towels for a week, which confused me until I realised that this are what I call kitchen roll. I thought this one would be easy, as I hardly ever use them anyway, but then I remembered one thing that has me reaching for the big tissues without hesitation:

Cat sick, hiding on the hideous carpet. I'm so glad this wasn't a few inches further over, or I'd have stepped in it with bare feet.

I use washable cloths for cleaning up other things, but couldn't face the thought of cleaning out a cloth after using it for cat sick. I had a bit of a think - might there be an alternative to kitchen roll that I could use once and dump straight on the compost heap? How about big, soft leaves? I have comfrey...

As comfrey plants go, this one's quite small.

When the inevitable happened, I headed out into the garden and picked a few leaves. The first thing I discovered was that comfrey leaves don't hold together so well as paper towels - it's quite easy to put a finger through one. However, with two leaves together and a bit of care, that wasn't a problem. Once the bulk of the mess was gone, it was a bit more difficult to clean the remnants off the carpet, as the leaves started to disintegrate with scrubbing. If the puke in question had been wetter, I think I'd have had to give up and use... well, I could probably have coped with a cloth for that bit - it's a bit less icky by that stage.

So, could I give up kitchen roll for cleaning up cat sick? I'm not sure. The leaves are only available in summer, and this time it happened to be a nice, sunny morning and I wasn't in a hurry to do anything else. The leaves also weren't very good. I did manage to clean up the mess, but kitchen roll would have done it better. Still, the important part of that is that the leaves did work - the job was completed successfully. It's more faff and not as effective. Maybe I'll do it this way sometimes, but mostly I suspect I'll be back on the disposable paper, just for this.

How could she be guilty when she's so cute?

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Things I have learnt about blight

Since my potatoes got blight, I have learnt a few things about this condition.
  1. DO NOT dig the potatoes up immediately. Oops. The reason for this is that the fungus spores will fall off the infected leaves straight onto the tubers, given half a chance.
  2. Instead, cut the tops (haulms) off and remove them, preferably burning them. If you're being really fussy, cover the ground at this stage to stop any spores from washing into the soil when it rains. Leave spuds in the ground for a couple of weeks and then dig them up.
  3. A minor infection on a tuber is no big deal. It may show as a brown patch on the skin, which can be cut off easily and the rest of the spud is fine.

  4. Blight on potatoes, slightly more serious on the right hand one, but both possible to cut out and use the rest of the potato.
  5. If caught early, blight is essentially a storage issue. Blight spores on the tubers will make themselves at home, more quickly if the skin is damaged, and gradually ruin the crop. If the spuds can be used quickly enough, it really isn't a problem.
I lifted about half of my potatoes straight away, so they're no goood for storing. This meant that either we had to eat 45 lb of spuds in a few weeks... or I had to think of some other way of preserving them. The answer could only be chips!