About this blog

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

Saturday 25 February 2012

Spring flowers

I'll be away from the internet for a week or so, but I'll leave you with some pictures of spring flowers, taken about a week ago.



Friday 24 February 2012

Cutting down trees

If you're going to cut down trees, now is the time to do it, before the sap starts rising (so that the tree fights back) and the before the birds build their nests in the branches. We have a hedge made of leylandii or something similar. Small, as trees go, but trees nonetheless.

Hedge on a hill

This hedge runs up the side of the steep bit with oak tree, separating our land from a neighbouring field, in which sheep live. I would like to replace this hedge with native species, such as blackthorn, hawthorn, hazel, and ash, all of which are usefully productive. Most of all, though, I'd like wild roses in my hedge.

As it's a long hedge, I thought I might do the job in stages, one-quarter to one-third of the hedge each year, so as not to destroy all the nesting habitat all at once (top tip from my bird-watching neighbour). The other day was dry, so we grabbed our opportunity, along with the chainsaw (pausing only to find enough extension leads to reach the hedge, and rewire the plug indoors to solve a particularly irritating failure of plug to reach socket) and headed out to tackle the hedge.

I'd already cut some of the lower branches off the end two trees to make it easier to get to the trunks, and Ian set to with the chainsaw. He started with proper tree-cutting-down procedure, cutting a wedge out of one side, then cutting from the opposite side, so that the tree falls in a planned direction. That didn't go terribly well as the hillside impeded access for the last bit. On the other hand, taking the saw straight through the trunk worked surprisingly well as, once cut, the tree didn't go anywhere. The branches were so intertwined with the next tree that it just didn't fall over. Pushing did shift it though.

After Ian had cut down a couple I had a go, but just couldn't handle the machine. It was too heavy for me and I had to admit defeat and give the power tool back to my husband. After breaking for a cup of tea, I thought I'd have another go, this time with the new bow saw we bought from Charlies for £5 recently (heavily discounted for some reason - couldn't pass up such a bargain).

All the tools you need for cutting down trees
(so long as the trees are rather small)

It was much easier with the manual saw! I didn't have to cope with holding to the weight of the machine and could put all my energy into cutting. I was so pleased with myself that I carried on until I'd added six trees to the pile and was utterly exhausted.

A heap of small trees. The last one was very small indeed.

That, I think, is enough for this year.

Hedge with gap.

There is a fence running along behind the hedge, but we intend to stick small branches into the ground before lambing season gets under way, all the same.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Advance(d) meal planning

We're having a family party here at Easter, and a couple of weeks ago I was idly thinking about what I might serve for lunch, French bread, quiche, salad... Ah - salad. It occurred to me that if I want salad leaves in early April, I'd probably need to do something about it like, erm, now.

I rummaged around in my seed bucket and found a packet of Oriental salad leaves (mixed) that I hadn't bothered to grow last year. Those would do nicely, and into a seed tray they went. I also sowed some spring onions and some tomatoes, though I'm under no illusions about the tomatoes being ready by April; it just happened to be a good time to sow them. In no time at all, so it seemed, I had a forest of little seedlings in the salad leaf tray. Perhaps sowing the seeds wasn't quite as urgent as I'd thought.

This afternoon I carefully disentangled one hundred (I counted) of the tiny, delicate seedlings and transplanted them into deeper trays. The seedlings are now on the windowsill, looking a bit disorientated. I'm hoping that once they've settled in, they'll be able to stay in their new trays until harvest time. I gave them a fairly rich compost mix, so they should be quite well fed, I hope*.

Seedlings on a windowsill

Transplanted salad seedlings are in trays on the right of the picture, those left behind in the seed tray are at the top left. The tall plants in the middle are chillies that didn't come to much last year, but didn't die either, so I brought them inside. They're now, improbably, forming tiny fruits. Between the chillies and the left-behind salad are tomatoes, just coming through, and the little smudges of green that look like camera shake are spring onions. Notice the cat-sized space left on the windowsill. Pebble has strong feelings about this windowsill - if there's any sunshine to be had (which is rare), this is the place to catch it - and she makes her feelings felt in the form of deep paw prints in seed trays, if they take up too much space.


* If anyone who actually knows what they're doing would care to correct me on this, please do. It doesn't really matter for my salad - I'm happy to learn from my mistakes - but other people might read this and get the impression I know what I'm talking about.

Friday 17 February 2012

Cleaning tallow for storage

I use tallow (beef fat*) for chips, because I think it gives the best flavour. The first time I made a big batch of chips I bought some fatty offcuts of beef from the butcher specifically for that purpose (and got some good stock and meat for pies out of the process, too). However, I'd rather use leftovers if I can.

We recently had some beef brisket, and very tasty it was too. It also produced a good quantity of tallow, which I saved. Unfortunately, I've now made as many chips as I'm going to with this year's potatoes, so I don't have a use for that much tallow in the foreseeable future. Fortunately, tallow keeps very well, provided it's clean. I don't mind dirty tallow, i.e. with a little meat juice mixed in, for cooking, it just adds to the flavour, but that won't store well.

I looked up how to clean tallow, and it's not complicated. The fat should be melted in water, then the whole lot allowed to cool. The fat rises to the top, leaving everything else to sink to the bottom in the water. If necessary, this process can be repeated several times.

Tallow melting in a pan of water

As soon as it was all melted I poured it into the Pyrex pudding basin that I usually use for stock (transparent, so easy to see how thick the layer of fat is at the top, should you be interested). I had intended to let it cool and set before separating fat from water, but it occurred to me that this wasn't necessary. The two liquids separate out well before the fat sets, so I could scoop out the tallow while it was still liquid.

I wanted to store it in a jar with as little surface area exposed to the air as possible. This required the fat to be liquid when it went in, so it made sense to transfer it while still liquid rather than let it set, separate from the water, then melt it again to pour into the jar. I took a small ladle (yes, it could be said that having a choice of ladles indicates too many kitchen implements, but it was handy on this occasion) and scooped out most of the fat into a jar. The last bit was too difficult to get out without mixing it up with the water, so I left that to set. Once set, I lifted the solid layer off, scraped the underside of anything that wasn't clean yellow fat, and broke it into a (clean, dry) pan to melt again, so I could pour into the jar.

Jar of tallow

I now have a jar full of beautiful clean tallow, which I hope will keep for most of the year until I need it for chip-making again.

Oh, and the coating of fat left in the pan after pouring? I used that to fry onions for making bolognaise sauce.


*Fat from lamb and mutton is also called tallow, whereas fat from pork and bacon is lard, and I don't know about poultry or game. Come to think of it, there's probably not enough fat on game to warrant a name for it.

Thursday 16 February 2012


When Hazel mentioned navelwort on my previous post, I'd never heard of it, still less knew how to find it. When I followed her link to see a photo, however, I recognised the plant immediately, I just didn't know what it was called. This afternoon I had a look around for some. There was none in the garden, but I had a hunch there might be some by the railway line, so I went for a little walk. Sure enough, I found some...

Navelwort growing on a clump of moss in the railway cutting

... and it was exactly where I'd expected to find it, growing on the rocks in the cutting. Hmm, do you think perhaps I'd seen it there before, and my subconscious memory was what made me expect to find it there? I think that's a distinct possibility.

Here's a closer view:

Close-up of same navelwort, growing amongst the moss

When I was little my mum showed me how to blow the leaves up like balloons, but I've never managed to pull off that trick. Yes, I did try again today.

I tasted a few leaves, and liked it. I can't put my finger on what it reminds me of - perhaps nothing. It's bright and refreshing, but slightly bitter and quite a strong flavour. It would be good in salad, but I might also try some in soup (I put just about anything in soup) to see what it's like cooked.

There's not a great abundance by the railway, but enough for me to pick a meal's worth without having too much impact, and definitely enough to be worth the couple of minutes' walk to fetch it. That's two new wild foods in as many days, which is very exciting! Hazel also mentioned Alexanders (should that have a capital letter? It's only a plant, but it looks wrong without), which I've been wanting to try for a while, if only I can find them. I may have to get nearer the coast for that, though.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Spring greens

In spite of the mild winter, spring seems to be a little later this year than last. This time last year I was harvesting ground elder and nettles, so I went out to look for some but found hardly anything.

A few tiny leaves of ground elder under the hedge

On the other hand, there is a weed that's popping up all over my garden that I've a feeling might be edible, but I'm not sure what it is. That is, I think I saw a picture of it in a discussion of edible weeds, not just that I had a hunch!

I think these leaves are rather pretty, and they have nice white flowers later in the year, too

Consulting my general purpose book on wild things, I identified this as hairy bittercress, described as, An attractive common weed, which sounds about right. The name is somewhat misleading, as the hairs are so tiny they're almost invisible and it's not really very bitter. It is, however (further research revealed) edible, and tastes similar to watercress. Excellent! I have loads of the stuff.

I harvested some for dinner, together with what ground elder I could find, a few young leaves of rose bay willow herb (said by some to taste like asparagus, but I think they're confusing sparrow-grass with ordinary grass; it tastes of nothing much) and sorrel. I cooked these in milk for a few minutes, then added flour and butter to thicken, and cheese to make sauce.

Spring greens in cheese sauce, being a side vegetable.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Wood store mark 3

The wood store we bought a year ago is too small for a full load of fire wood, so we've moved it upstairs* to the patio, right next to the door for easy access from the sitting room. This makes space downstairs for a larger store.

Our next attempt was this:

Not very practical wood store

... which looks cool, but isn't actually very good for storing wood. For a start, lacking sides means that the rain just blows in and soaks the wood at the sides. Lacking sides also makes it very difficult to stack the wood efficiently without it all falling down. It takes a lot longer to stack a load of wood if you have to do it three times because it keeps falling down again. I speak from experience. The rain also tended to run down the back because we didn't seal the top edge of the roof. Finally, those twiggy bits don't half get in the way. All in all, a crap wood store.

So... a new design was needed. Having had big things delivered for the heating project, we were in possession of a few pallets. Two had already made their way into the mark 2 wood store, as you can see. The third was bigger, but rather less substantially built.

More a frame than a pallet, really

Having established the importance of sides to a wood store, I decided to use the smaller, sturdy pallets as the sides and the large frame to hold it together. After a false start, halfway through which it occurred to me that the side with three slats would be better for fixing things to than the side with only two slats, I got the three pallets fixed together.

After considerable manoeuvering to get the thing turned over without falling apart, in a space considerably too small for the operation (I'm glad I abandoned my original plan of making this in the workshop - I'd never have got it out again), I then fetched some old floorboards to use as slats across the back. I set the top one higher than the top of the slats, to give the roof a bit of a slope, then rested the wooden roof on top.

New wood store with old wooden roof

As soon as I looked at it I could see something was wrong. No, not the sag in the middle. This roof isn't much higher than waist height, and the store is deep. It wouldn't be much fun getting wood in and out of there. I pondered hinges for a while, then decided on an alternative, flexible solution. I fetched a sheet of plastic that had been wrapped round our big water tank and stapled it to the back edge of the store. I then raided the sewing basket for eyelets (and the gadget for putting them in) so I'd have something to fix the front down with.

Eyelet in wood store cover, hooked over a nail

Here's the finished store in use:

Wood store, full of wood

It has to be said that there's room for improvement with that roof, but having it removable was definitely the right decision. Stacking wood was also a great deal easier with sides to the store. All in all, I'm quite proud of this.


*NB references to upstairs and downstairs mostly refer to outdoor space, as that is where the stairs are. Both flights of stairs.

Monday 6 February 2012

Water-only hair washing, one year on

It's been over a year since I last used shampoo on my hair. I won't say since I stopped washing it, because I still do wash it, but with plain water only. I did try not washing at all (sebum only) but didn't get on well with it. On the other hand, I'm very happy with water-only washing; it's not just stubbornness that's made me stick with it for over a year.

I was a bit puzzled in early October to see a tuft of short hair growing from the crown of my head.


I hadn't cut it, I didn't think I'd lost any hair there, so why the tuft? I didn't worry about it too much until a couple of weeks later, when Ian said, Why have you got a bald patch on top of your head? A bald patch?! He was right, too...


Although this was quite alarming, I wasn't overly worried as the hair was obviously growing back - the skin wasn't smooth - and it was only a small patch. On the other hand, if that spread all over my head...

I monitored the situation for a week or so, as growth shows up quickly in very short hair. It shouldn't be many days before the bald patch was hidden again, and indeed that's what happened... but then it was back. At this point I started to worry. If the hair keeps falling out then I have a problem. I did a bit of online research, and learnt that patchy hair loss is not that uncommon in women, and has all sorts of causes. It can just happen and then get better again. That was reassuring, but not entirely helpful.

After a bit more reading and thinking, I came to the conclusion that the most likely cause was a bad habit I'd developed - scratching. From reading the Long Hair Community forum (whose abbreviation I can't see without thinking Large Hadron Collider) I'd got it into my head that scritching is good for hair, and this developed into a bad habit. With willpower backed by the fear of going bald, I managed to stop... well, mostly stop, and I'm glad to say my hair is growing back happily now. I may be tufty for a while yet, though.

My current routine is to wash my hair in hot water about twice a week. This shifts some of the sebum, which I find is now a waxy substance, rather than oily, and softens what it doesn't shift. Once the hair is dry (to avoid breaking wet, fragile hair), ideally within a few hours of washing, I brush thoroughly with a natural bristle brush. Because the brush is dense and my hair is at this point covered in a soft wax, this is very hard work and can make my neck muscles ache. As well as spreading the sebum along the length of the hair, brushing removes quite a lot of it, which then needs combing out of the brush afterwards. Apart from that, I just use my old plastic brush every morning, as I used to. Sometimes I don't get round to using the natural brush after showering, sometimes I use it more often.

So how is my hair? Apart from the slight stickiness after showering (which isn't evident just by looking at it), it looks pretty good. It's at its best the next day, looking good and feeling soft and silky. It also has a lot more life than it ever used to. About eighteen months ago, when a hairdresser offered to put a bit of body into my hair by blowdrying, my response was, Good luck with that. Now I have that naturally. I love the way it bounces back when I run the brush through it. I think it's still improving, too, very gradually.

Oh, you want a photo? Oh, OK then!

Hair that hasn't seen shampoo for over a year

Potato audit (and notes on peas and carrots)

I stored our potatoes in sacks in the store room and they've kept reasonably well, except that the King Edwards started sprouting in mid November, and the Desiree about six weeks later. I kept using them and just snapping off the shoots before cleaning them, but there comes a point when all the potato's reserves have gone into the shoots, and there's not much left in the tuber. A few days ago I decided that it was time to see what I have left.

The Desiree were in pretty good shape, though most had one or two short, fat shoots. Since I've found very little blight damage, I've decided these will be OK to use as seeds, so I picked out 36 medium spuds for planting, leaving half a dozen large ones that'll be good for baking, and a few small ones that I confess I couldn't be bothered with, so they've gone on the compost heap, where they'll no doubt turn into small plants to annoy me later in the year.

The King Edwards, on the other hand...

Sprouting King Edwards

There seem to be an awful lot of these, which should make me happy, but as they're all rather small and fiddly, and in urgent need of using up, it doesn't. They've been sitting in the kitchen for about a week, which probably doesn't help with the sprouting. This morning I was trying to avoid a less appealing task, so I picked out a heap of them to make into chips. One tray is currently freezing and another is waiting its turn for freezer space.

Somewhere along the line I must have got my calculations wrong. I thought I'd harvested a year's supply of spuds, but all I have left is about six pounds of chips and roughly the same again in the sack (including shoots). By my previous estimate of using two pounds per week, that's enough to see us through to late March, even assuming they last that long. I guess we must eat a lot more potatoes than I thought, or perhaps when we have sacks of spuds in the store room we eat more of them than I thought. But then, if I had planted a lot more, right now I'd be facing even more soft, sprouting tubers.

I think the answer is that we can eat lots of spuds from mid summer through to the end of winter, but only what I've frozen in spring and early summer. That would be the period known as the hungry gap. I'm very glad I have a freezer! Of course, I could always give in and actually buy some. We ran out of frozen peas in mid January, and carrots not long after that, so I've bought both of those recently. There may still be carrots in the ground, but they're increasingly slug-eaten, difficult to find now the tops have died off, difficult to get out of the frozen ground once I've found them, and on top of all that, I still have to cut away the carrot-fly damage. I've pretty much given up getting carrots from the garden.

In the meantime, when I was in town recently I noticed that Charlie's were selling seed potatoes from the same grower that I bought from online last year, so to add to the saved Desiree, I bought a bag each of Foremost, which I grew last year, and Red Duke of York, both first earlies.

Some potatoes have done more chitting than others.

So the year comes full circle.

Saturday 4 February 2012

Living with the new heating system

As expected, it took us a while to get used to using the new heating. To start with, we treated the stove as we had an open grate - building small fires that burnt well enough, but didn't really do much for us. For the first week or two we despaired of ever getting the water in the tank properly hot. So much for worrying the tank might be too small, I got seriously concerned that it might be far too big for the stove.

Then we gradually learnt how much wood to put on (more than that... no, even more) and how to control the air flow using the ash flap, and we're now pretty good at getting the tank up to temperature. I should point out that using the ash flap to manage air flow is not the recommended means of controlling a stove, in fact some would say it's downright dangerous, but we keep a pretty close eye on it and haven't seen any sign of overheating. This may have something to do with the fact that this is a multifuel stove but we're only using wood on it. We went through the whole design process working with the nominal heat output for this stove then right at the end, as a passing remark, the plumber said, Of course, if you're just using wood, you'll only get about half that. Now he tells us!

It's possible that our system is somewhat under-sized, but we got used to using it. Even after we'd learnt how much wood the thing eats, we still had to adjust our habits. We'd been used to lighting a fire at about 4pm, and it took quite a big adjustment to get used to lighting it in the morning. We had to remind ourselves that the specification of this system was to give us a couple of hours of heating in the mornings, so we'd be able to get dressed and breakfasted in some comfort before lighting the fire. As we got better at managing the fire, the time we needed to light it varied between about 9am and 4pm. We have two thermometers on the tank, one at the top and one in the middle, so we have a pretty good idea of how much stored heat we have at any one time. One of these days we'll get round to putting the doors back on the airing cupboard and then it won't be quite so convenient to check!

The system consists of three circuits. The first, stove to tank, is as simple as can be; stove back boiler - pipe - tank - pipe back to boiler. Hot water rises, creating a current round the circuit, taking heat from the stove to the top of the tank, and cooler water from the bottom of the tank back to the stove. Something we hadn't anticipated, but which is obvious when you think about it, is that this circuit flows in reverse when the tank is hot and the stove is cold. This isn't a big problem, as it just takes some heat back to the sitting room, but it reduces our level of control a little.

The hot water circuit is only slightly more complicated. There is a coil of pipe immersed in the middle of the tank through which mains water flows. When the tank is hot, the flowing mains water absorbs some of that heat and emerges hotter than it was when it went in. The slight complication is the thermostatic valve that mixes in a little cold water if it's too hot when it comes out. Actually, I have my doubts about how thermostatic that really is - hot water temperature seems to be heavily dependent on tank temperature. Apart from that, I love the simplicity of this system. There's no waiting a few seconds for a valve to notice that you've switched the tap on before it starts to deliver hot water, nor even a valve to wear out, like there is with combi boilers.

In contrast, the underfloor heating is very high-tech. Each room has a separate loop of heating pipe (apart from loo, bathroom and hall, which are all on one loop) and each loop is controlled by its own electric actuator valve. These sit in a row in the airing cupboard so we can see the little buttons pop up on the tops when they're open (you can tell why we haven't put the doors back on, can't you? It's not just because I've lost the screws.) These valves are controlled by a little computer, which receives information from these:

Thermostat. This one's for the hallway, as you'd probably guessed.

Each room has one of these fancy wireless, programmable thermostats. Learning how to use these was a challenge in itself. I felt sorry for the guys plumbing the system in, because they had to set it all up but they'd never seen this system before. They also felt they had to explain to the customer how to use it but I let them off that bit as the customer (me) had, after all, chosen the system in the first place!

We can choose between manual mode, in which we just set the desired temperature, and program mode, which toggles between daytime and nighttime desired temperatures at the programmed times (variable by day of the week, if you like). The fact that there is no off in the programme confused us at first, until we realised that off is replaced by comes on only when it's very cold, so you set the off temperature to the minimum you want the house to get down to.

We thought we had a problem with one of these when the bedroom heating started coming on at unexpected times. Eventually we realised that this was the auto on function, which starts the heating before the programmed time, so that the room gets up to temperature by the time you've asked it to come on. We soon turned off that function because the rooms were never getting up to temperature. We also pretty quickly changed the night/day temperatures from the pre-programmed 18/21 deg C. We were quite surprised by how low the temperature is that we find comfortable in the house: Between 14 and 16 deg C. I've heard that underfloor heating feels warmer at any given temperature, so that may be it.

So there we were, getting used to the fancy-pants electronic controls as well as coming to terms with just how much wood a wood burning stove will eat, and generally keeping quite comfortable, when the weather changed. We've been lucky to have a very mild winter so far, but the last few days have been very cold. We'd get the house up to a toasty 16 or 17 deg C and the tank full of hot water before going to bed, then by morning it's dropped to 11 or 12 and the tank has used up all its heat. This morning I started the fire at 7am and by about 9 it looked like this:

Hot fire; dirty windows

I'd built the fire up nicely, though it was still struggling to keep up with the demands of the heating. Shortly after this the temperature in the tank suddenly shot up. I'm guessing this was the effect of the outside temperature going up. This house is obviously far too affected by the temperature outside: We need better insulation.

And another thing... you may notice that those stove windows are filthy. This is an old stove and it does not have Clearview/Airwash/insert-trademark-of-your-choice technology, so the windows need cleaning frequently - every other day, ideally. This doesn't happen because by the time I remember that they need cleaning I want to get the fire lit, and cleaning them when it's hot is not a good idea. I have learnt about an excellent cleaning paste, though: Vinegar and ash. Do try to avoid contaminating your best spirit vinegar with ash, though, as I did. D'oh!

Nearly forgot to mention: Warm floors are looooovely!