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

Monday 28 May 2012

A feminist question

In our roles as music promoters our main promotional tool is the humble poster. Through this purely visual medium, we attempt to persuade people to come and listen to live music. Musicians often have their own posters printed and send us some to put up. When we received posters from the fabulous Sound of the Sirens I took one look and thought, That won't do.

Don't get me wrong, the poster's a work of art, and very eye catching. Even so, I didn't feel it was what we needed to attract people to the gig. Why not? Well where were the girls?

Here's the dilemma. There is absolutely no question that we booked this band on the basis of their musical ability and stage presence. We've seen them perform live twice and can't sing their praises loudly enough. They are hugely talented and wish to be judged on their music, not their looks. I respect this of course, but at the same time... well, they are three beautiful young women.

On our website I can include a link to their music and say to people, Here, have a listen to this and then of course they'll want to come to the gig. On a poster, I can't do that. The point of the poster is to attract people, without in any way deceiving them about what to expect when they turn up. Human faces attract attention, attractive human faces more so, and young, beautiful, female faces...

Here's the choice I had before me. The poster on the left is the one sent by the band, the much simpler one on the right is based on our standard template.

My job is to attract people to come and hear this band. In my opinion, the most effective way of doing that is to show a simple picture of the three musicians. Am I showing them a lack of respect by focusing on their looks? Does this make me part of the monstrous marketing machine that reduces women to objects of desire because sex sells?

With just over a week to go until the gig, I have already made this decision (arty posters in town, simple posters in the villages), but I'd be very interested to hear what you think. I'm sure the question will come up again.

Saturday 26 May 2012

Rose bay willow herb: Third attempt

You'd think that having tasted something twice and not liked it, I'd have learnt to avoid it by now, wouldn't you? Well... when I mentioned on facebook that I didn't like rose bay willow herb, a friend assured me that if you wait until the stems are really big and fat, then peel them, the insides are delicious eaten raw.

I decided to give this plant one more chance and today, whilst out for a walk (I was looking for mushrooms, but didn't find any) I spotted some nice fat willow herb.

Fat rose bay willow herb

Like asparagus, fat stems grow on older plants; the thin stems do not fatten up. I'd have to leave them alone for another year or two to get this kind of plant in my garden, and I'm not going to do that! I tried the stem, peeling it as my friend advised, and avoiding the tough lower portion (almost half the stem) and the much smaller bitter part at the top. Actually, I'm not sure bitter is quite the right description; astringent seems more accurate, like sloes or unsweetened cranberries. I munched too near the top of one stem so I had plenty of opportunity to reflect on this, as the taste stayed with me for some time.

Eating the part I'd found palatable last time I tried it, I have to admit, it was really quite nice. I'm not sure I'd go quite as far as delicious, but not far off. My friend was right about eating it raw, too. Cooking would achieve nothing apart from making it harder to peel or, if already peeled, probably spoiling the texture.

I'm still not sure I'd make a point of gathering this plant for food, but if I find myself out for a walk and feeling hungry, as I was earlier today, I might well eat a few of these stems again, now I know how to get the best out of them.

Friday 25 May 2012

Greenhouse patrol

If you can't find the little bugger who did this...

I had two of these pepper plants. See that empty pot...?

...keep searching...

As someone said on another blog,
You can't run, but you can hide.

... and poke him until he comes out into the open.

There is no escape here.

Then you've got him!

Early potatoes

I've only just got round to digging over the bed that had potatoes in it last year, and I can't believe how many I missed! They're all growing now, of course, and I had intended to leave them to develop, but that proved impossible for most of them as they were just too tangled up in the weeds, so I dug them up. I was even more surprised to discover that most of them already have little baby potatoes developing underground.

I dug the plants up carefully so I could tell which spuds were the old seed potatoes and which were the babies. Usually by the time you harvest potatoes, the seed tubers have gone soft and slimy, but at this early stage they're still firm and look just like any other spud. They're not good to eat though. All their reserves have gone into making a new plant and they're crunchy (why?) and tasteless, if you accidentally cook one and eat it.

Somehow at this time of year it seems worthwhile preparing potatoes that are barely bigger than peas.

First harvest of potatoes, served with wild garlic mayonnaise

This makes a much better lunch than rose bay willow herb!

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Rose bay willow herb for lunch

I've heard that the young shoots of rose bay willow herb can be eaten, and even make an acceptable substitute for asparagus. That sounded like a bold claim to me, but I tried eating some of the leaves when they first appeared, which I think was in January. They certainly didn't taste of asparagus. In fact, they tasted of nothing very much, so I didn't bother with them again.

Then looking at some of these plants that are putting on growth spurts all over my garden...

Willow herb, shooting up all over the place

... I wondered if, like asparagus, it's the stems that should be eaten. I gathered some plants, stripping off leaves and roots for the compost heap, until I had a reasonable quantity for a meal.

Willow herb stems, ready to cook

In retrospect, perhaps I didn't need quite so many, just to taste them. I steamed them for five minutes or so, as I would asparagus, and served with mayonnaise. The best thing that can be said about that meal is that home-made mayonnaise is very nice.

The root end was woody and the growing tip bitter. There was a palatable bit in the middle, but even that was surrounded by a thick, tough skin. I can't imagine why anyone would want to eat this stuff. I guess it wasn't the stems, then, that people are referring to when they say the shoots are edible.

Friday 18 May 2012

Tiny baby plants

I've been checking the asparagus beds daily for signs of life, for about the last three weeks. I keep telling myself that mid May is when I'd expect to see asparagus, and that last year we had a very warm April whereas this year it's been very cold, but still, the fact that they came up on 26th April last year (I know! I blogged about it!) and no sign of them yet, had me increasingly convinced they'd all died. But no!

Asparagus spear on a one year-old plant

I had to put my fingers behind the spear to photograph it, otherwise it was too small for my camera to focus on. I'm a bit disappointed that they seem to be no bigger this year than last year, but at least they're alive.

At the same time, the carrots are just starting to show.

Carrot seedlings

Things are coming along nicely.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Which hogweed?

Whilst browsing the 'ish website, I noticed that someone had shared a picture of cooked hogweed. Always interested in learning about new wild foods, I searched the internet for more information. What I found was a lot of pictures of giant hogweed, which is public enemy number two (Japanese knotweed being number one) of UK invasive plants, has such poisonous sap that getting it on your skin can give you problems that last for years, and is also, apparently, in my garden.

This information confused me, as giant hogweed did not sound like something you'd want to eat. With a bit more research, I realised that the edible one is common hogweed, not giant hogweed. So, which one do I have in my garden?

I'm pretty sure it's hogweed, but which kind?

I'd noticed this plant before and wondered what it was. I'd just about decided that as it has rather attractive leaves, I'd move it to the flower border. If it turns out to be giant hogweed, I probably shouldn't do that*.

I've looked up lots of websites that explain how to tell the difference, and looked at lots of photos of both, and I'm still not sure. Its size suggests the smaller species, but then it might just be a young plant. Its leaves certainly look more like the giant, but the stems lack the characteristic purple blotches. As to whether it's spiny or merely fuzzy, well I really couldn't say.

I suspect that what I have is a hybrid, since these two species can interbreed. Either way - unidentified or hybrid - I'm not going to try eating it.


* When I say probably shouldn't, what I mean is that it would be illegal for me to do so, as that would count as propagating an invasive species.

Saturday 12 May 2012

A bit of culture

In his self sufficiency book, John Seymour talks about True culture, about wild nights in the pub, when the Gaelic music and ambiance have been been fantastic. When I first read about this, I felt a little wistful. I would love to experience such culture, but how does one find it? Yet now, the first Wednesday of every month finds me in the pub, amongst friends, soaking up the fantastic ambiance and enjoying live music played by a motley selection of musicians who turn up and join in.

We are incredibly lucky that the owners of our local, The Hafod are keen to promote this kind of true culture. Not only are there the first Wednesday jamming sessions, but there are more organised concerts, with visiting musicians performing to a paying audience. These are also roughly once a month, and we've seen some excellent performances, but it was obvious that the promoter (not the hotel owners) was having difficulty doing the promotion on top of his day job. For a start, he doesn't even live nearby, so putting up posters, for example, was a lot of hassle. Eventually he decided that it was time to pass on the baton to someone else, and asked us if we'd be interested in taking over.

So it was that I, who spent my teenage years in fear of the question, What kind of music do you like? because I was so clueless about music, I have become a music promoter. This is very bizarre, but also very exciting. I do enjoy music, I just don't know anything about it! Luckily, Ian is a lot more tuned in to musical things than I am, so between us we stand a chance of making this work. We also have the considerable advantage of having friends who promote independent and unsigned musicians through online radio shows - Glenn's Thursday Breakdown on xrp radio (temporarily broken down, but hopefully back soon) and Kate's SunshineCast on Gashouse Radio (from Kent to Wales via Philadelphia - the wonderful world of the internet!) These two DJs* have introduced us to some wonderful musicians, some of whom we've booked to come and play at the Hafod.

We've already had our first gig, with the awesomely talented Troy Faid. One of our friends said to me that evening, I've never even heard of him. I've heard half a song and I'm already a fan. The rest of the audience were just as appreciative and the evening was a great success. The big fear with taking on something like that is that we could lose a lot of money, but we just about broke even (thanks to a rather generous arrangement with the sound engineer, who's a good friend of ours), which was a relief. We're hoping to build on this with our next gig, the Sound of the Sirens, another band we heard first on our friends' radio shows.

There's more to this than finding and booking excellent bands. It's not a huge amount of work, but posters must be distributed, and I need to dust off my html skills to work on the website. It's very nerve-wracking, not knowing whether people are going to turn up or not. Of course we want a decent audience for the artists, but it's also our money on the line! We're never going to make our fortune doing this, but if we can avoid losing money then we can keep organising gigs, and contributing to the true culture of our community.

I would have liked to show you pictures of music at the Hafod, but flash photography tends to disrupt the atmosphere a bit, so I couldn't find any decent pics. Instead I'll leave you with the promotional shot for the next gig, Tue 5th June - do come along ;-)

Sound of the Sirens
Sound of the Sirens

These girls are as talented as they are beautiful, which isn't always the case. We're really looking forward to introducing our friends to their music.


* Both are also musicians in their own rights, and we're very excited that Kate will be coming to play at the Hafod in August.

Thursday 3 May 2012

Planting up the new terrace

When last seen, my new terrace was looking distinctly brown on top. This is intended to be a lawn-type space for sitting out on, so since then I've been moving a selection of plants from other parts of the garden (many extracted whilst weeding veg beds - see, there was a reason for doing the terrace first!) and now it's more-or-less covered.

Greenery spreading over the surface of the terrace. I've done a bit more since taking this photo which, now I check the date, was a couple of weeks ago.

So what am I planting there? Mostly weeds, but not any old weeds. Although I accept the inevitability of grass, I'd rather not encourage it - I don't want to have to drag a lawn mower up those steps to keep the greenery reasonably short. This...

Sagina subulata, probably

... seems to me a much better alternative. It comes up all over my garden, particularly in the paths, which is encouraging with regard to whether it'll tolerate being walked on. It forms a dense mat of very short green leaves/spines and I think it has small white flowers, too. I asked my neighbour if she knew what it was and she didn't but guessed at some kind of moss. A google image search for moss brought up a plant that looks a lot like this, but isn't actually a moss. It's called Irish moss which, curiously enough, is the same name as a type of seaweed I was reading about recently.

I also transplanted some bittercress...

Flowers of hairy bittercress

... of which I have rather a lot, and which is flowering at the moment (therefore will shortly be shedding seeds everywhere, ensuring even more next year). Like the Irish moss, this is an attractive ground cover plant with pretty white flowers, but another thing they have in common is fairly short roots, which is not ideal here. I'm a little concerned about what happens when the wood - the material of the terrace - starts to rot down. There's a distinct possibility that the whole thing will disintegrate and slide down the hill. I'd rather that didn't happen, so I'm choosing plants with strong, deep and spreading roots, in the hope that they will hold it all together. Trees have strong, deep and spreading roots, but don't exactly qualify as ground cover. Within the limits of ground cover, two plants go a long way to meeting the requirements.

Alchemilla mollis

My neighbour had better luck identifying this one for me: Lady's mantle. Actually, she identified it by its latin name, Alchemilla mollis, first, and then lady's mantle, which I found easier to remember. Even though I didn't know what it was, experience has taught me that it has excellent roots. They make it very difficult to dig up when it's taking over the path or a flower bed, or both. The same is true of...


... buttercups. I adore these flowers and hate having to dig them up. At the same time, I don't want them to smother everything else. It's lovely having somewhere to put them, so I can now attack them with vigour elsewhere, happy in the knowledge that I'll still have a display of them on the terrace.

I've also moved a few non-weeds

I don't know what this is. It has pink flowers, which will open shortly.

I don't care for this plant much, but I have lots of it and some was taking over the path at the bottom of the steps by the terrace, so I moved that uphill.

Another pink-flowered plant that I can't identify

I'm not too fussed about this one either, but I think a bit of it'll look quite nice here.

Yet another pink-flowered plant, but I know what this one is: Geranium

There are several more of my favourite weeds:

Clover, to blend with the rest of the hillside

Speedwell, with its beautiful tiny blue flowers

Vetch, of the local variety, which has such pretty purple flowers.

I'd love to have vetch growing up through the hedge, but I'd like to give the hedge a chance to get established first. What hedge? I hear you ask. Patience - I'm coming to that. The vetch is currently in the middle of the terrace, but I'm sure it'll find its way to the edge in due course. Speaking of plants that put out long, snaking runners, we also have...

... Ivy, set off against a cat's paw

and there may possibly be the odd scrap of ground elder, but I didn't plant it, I promise!
That said, it will do a good job of tying things together.

I think that's all the ground cover plants. As well as being short, spreading, and having deep/spreading/strong roots, another requirement of these plants is that they can tolerate being walked on. That means they also need to stand up to this:

Pebble lying on the speedwell

Back to the plants, and that hedge I mentioned. Even this high above the stream, midges can be a problem in the summer. For this reason, and because a low hedge would be nice, I'd like a hedge made of the insect-repellant herbs southernwood and lavender. I had a reasonable-sized lavender plant that I thought I could spare from its original destination under the fruit trees.

Lavender, brought as a cutting from my last house

I also found a couple of southernwood mugwort seedlings around the garden, so I carefully transferred those.

I thought this was Southernwood, but it turns out to be mugwort. I love having a plant called mugwort, especially as it means midge plant!

I'll take more cuttings later in the year to add to these, and hopefully end up with a nice hedge. Being shrubby herbs, these have fairly long roots, which is good, but not good enough. The terrace is six foot tall at its highest, and those roots will never extend that far! I needed something else to reinforce the lower levels of the terrace. I had two ideas, and in a belt-and-braces approach, have implemented both.

The first was suggested by a friend: A living willow fence. Not only did he offer the idea, he also offered willow. That is, he lent me his secateurs and showed me where a lot of willow was growing in his garden.

Willow fence, hopefully living.

I've stuck the willow cuttings in the ground and woven them together. Hopefully they'll put out roots and keep growing, thickening up their trunks and putting out more shoots that can be further woven together. Even better, top shoots can be cut off and used for basket making!

My second idea was buddleia. As with buttercups and lady's mantle, experience has taught me just how deep the roots are if given a season to get established. I don't want such a tall plant on the top level - it would obscure the view - but how about planting it halfway up? The roots could reinforce the lower part of the terrace and the stems might offer some support to the higher level. I have plenty of buddleia seedlings - I've been pulling them up for months - the tricky part was how to plant them. The outer edge of the terrace is pretty open, so what to plant the seedlings in. I was also digging up lots of grass from various veg patches, and a clump of grass carries a good clod of earth in its roots. I turned some of these over and stuffed them into the twigginess, then planted the seedlings into them.

A tiny buddleia seedling surviving remarkably well

So there we are, lots of weeds transplanted onto the terrace. Pebble seems happy with the progress.

For an update on how the terrace fared over the next six months, click here. .