About this blog

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

Monday 22 October 2012

Terrace update

Well, it's still there. When I first built my new terrace, there was some concern about whether it would disappear off down the hillside as it rotted down, but it hasn't done so yet.

The plants are mostly thriving. By the end of May it was looking very pretty:

London Pride looking very pretty, with buttercups behind

Or for a more representative picture of the surface:

Buttercups flowering, but not exactly covering the surface. You can just about see the speedwell flowers there, too.

By the end of August it was looking very lush.

There were flowers showing over the edge...

The lavender is just about visible here. Sorry I don't have a better picture of it.

... and closer examination shows creeping buttercups living up to their name.

I think the leaf on the left is Virginia Creeper. This surprised me, as the roots had been above ground, presumed dead, for a year before I used them here.

Unfortunately most of the willow died - I didn't water it enough in the dry spell immediately after I planted it - but several buddleia survived and one of them even flowered.

I added buddleia seedlings throughout the year as I saw spaces for them.

Now in late October, the level of the terrace has dropped a bit, but not enough to show up in photos, nor enough to make it a less good place to sit out.

That shadow is from my laundry, actually drying outdoors.

To build up the level again, I'll add a thick layer of mulch when the plants have died back. I'll trim back the 'walls' and use the twigs as well. I hope the plants here will survive being buried so deeply. I've also taken some cuttings of lavender and southernwood, so I'll add those to the hedge in the spring.

In the meantime, I love having a place to sit and enjoy the view, on the rare days that we get sunshine.

The view from the terrace yesterday afternoon. For some reason the glorious autumn colours don't show up well in photos.

Thursday 18 October 2012

Speedwell tea

Whilst trying to find out whether a thick mulch would by likely to kill my speedwell,* I learnt that an infusion of speedwell can be drunk as an alternative to tea, and in herbal medicine, used to have a good reputation as an expectorant for the treatment of chesty coughs, amongst other things (though has fallen out of favour recently, for no apparent reason). As I'm currently suffering from a lingering chesty cough left over from a nasty bout of flu, I thought I'd give it a go.

Speedwell. This one's even flowering.

There are many varieties of speedwell, and I'm pretty sure that the one I've got is Germander Speedwell, or Veronica chamaedris by its latin name. Most information on its use seems to draw on Mrs Grieve's Modern Herbal which says, The Germander Speedwell has a certain amount of astringency, and an infusion of its leaves was at one time famous for coughs, the juice of the fresh plant also, boiled into a syrup with honey, was used for asthma and catarrh. That's what I need!

I picked a handful of shoots and added boiling water to make a tea. I didn't like the taste too much on its own, but with a little honey it was quite nice (I often drink mint tea with honey, too). As for the catarrh, it's hard to be sure, but this seems to be working a lot better than the commercial cough medicine I bought yesterday.


* I didn't manage to find a definitive answer to this question. Advice on eradicating it from lawns (why??) included letting the grass grow long to act as a living mulch and shade out the speedwell. On the other hand, it's also described as an invasive weed that's hard to get rid of, so I suspect it will survive most things. I'll try not to bury it too deeply, in any case. And in case you were wondering, this is related to maintenance of the terrace, which I'll write more about shortly.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Crab apple jellies

Whilst out for a walk with my neighbour on Sunday, we came to a place where the footpath was liberally strewn with crab apples. Not to let a good thing go to waste, we picked them out of the mud and gathered up as many as we could. Just a little further on, she spotted a rowan tree:

Rowan tree. It was a lot more visible in real life, and less blurred. How did I manage to blur half of the photo?

With a bit of mountaineering on my part, we collected a fair few rowan berries too. My neighbour tells me that the combination of these two fruits make tasty jelly that's a good accompaniment to roast turkey. Well, we only have roast turkey one day a year, but I'm sure it goes with other things too. She gave me all the fruit as she's too busy this week to do anything with them, so the task of jelly-making was mine.

I checked a recipe or two online and learnt that the recommended ratio of crab apples to rowan berries is roughly 1:1. I had considerably more apples, so looked for other ideas, and came up with herb flavoured crab apple jelly. Mint is favoured, but others can be good too.

I had just over 11 oz of rowan berries, so I combined those with 12 oz of crab apples (after washing the mud off, halving, de-stalking and cutting out obvious brown bits) and stewed. While that was cooking, I washed and picked over the rest of the apples, including a handful I gathered in the midlands a while ago. I also picked out seeds when they hadn't been sliced in half, as I'd like to include crab apple trees in a new hedge (this is a long-term project). This gave me just over two pounds of fruit.

By the time I'd prepared the rest of the apples, the rowan and apple mix had stewed pretty convincingly (small quantities are much quicker) so I strung that up to drip and started stewing the rest of the apples, then strung those up too. That required a second cup hook screwed into the kitchen beam - this is getting serious!

The next day...

Hmm, not going to get much jelly out of that. There are more than two pounds of crab apples there!

You've probably heard the dire warnings against squeezing jelly bags, Don't touch it - the jelly will go cloudy! Um, what's so bad about cloudy jelly? These bags were clearly in need of a good squeeze. If you have a similar set up, bear in mind that the weak point is the string. Hold tight to the top, or fruit pulp will squeeze out and make a terrible mess.

That's more like it.

Though considerable froth was produced, squeezing turned a few spoonfuls of juice into an amount that could feasibly be turned into jelly. It was hard work, and clearly left my arms in a state unfit to hold a camera steady, but I think you get the idea.

Next I decanted the pink juice into a measuring jug to see how much there was; 3/4 pint. The recipe I consulted said one pound of sugar for each pint of juice, so that's 12 oz sugar. I added it in the jug, so I could see what the total volume would be; 1 1/4 pints. Then began the hunt for jars - surely I had a load of smallish jars? Oh yes, I remember - I put jam in them. Some rationalisation of jam ensued, until I had a suitable number of jars. These went into the oven on low, sugared fruit pulp went into a pan on the hob, on high, and a small plate went into the freezer, on chilly.

Sugary gloop duly boiled (scary stuff. DON'T BLINK.), wrinkle test conducted to my satisfaction (it took a few goes, and I definitely saw wrinkles), jelly poured into jars, but not as many of them as I'd thought I'd need. Obviously this reduces quite a lot while cooking. Oh well, that's a couple of jars I don't need to find for the herb jellies.

Process repeated with the rest of the apples, but with the added complication of what herbs to add. In the end it came down to what I've got in the garden; plenty of mint (with fresh new growth, too), some rosemary, and a little sage. I think sage and apple would be good with pork, don't you? Taking a tip from Boboff on the 'Ish forum, I soaked the herbs in sugar solutions to start with, to stop them floating to the top of the finished jelly. The logistics of all this were quite a challenge, but I managed somehow. Once the apple gloop was ready, I poured the sage syrup into a heated jar, filled with apple gloop, and stirred in the jar. Next was rosemary, mixed in a basin then poured into two jars (I got the quantity exactly right for two jars - go me!). Finally mint, mixed in a saucepan in case it needed reheating (which it didn't) and poured into three jars.

Four jars of rowan jelly, three of mint, two of rosemary and one of sage.

Aren't they pretty? Who cares if they're cloudy, they're lovely colours, especially the rowan. The herb jellies all went quite exactly into jars with none left over, which was very pleasing, but meant I had none to taste. I did manage to salvage a teaspoonful of the rowan jelly, though. I can't really describe the taste - there's certainly a bitter edge to it, I suppose a bit like cranberries. On its own, I wasn't sure I liked it, but then I tried some with a bit of cheese. Oh, wow! That is something special. I don't care what it's like with turkey, I am not at all sorry that I have four jars of crab apple and rowan jelly.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Cute crochet cot blanket

My sister's having another baby any day now, so we went to visit while she was on maternity leave and still has some energy and capacity for adult conversation. I started to feel like doing crafts again a little while back (a good sign, I thought) and, having checked that another blanket would actually be useful, decided to tackle this really cute crochet pattern. Apparently its origins are lost in the ether, but Gingerbread Lady did a very helpful photo tutorial which meant that with my tenuous grasp on the terminology, I was able to look at the pictures and see whether my stitches looked like they were supposed to.

I had some green and blue yarn left over from the little hat, but that wouldn't be enough on its own. I popped into a charity shop and checked their bin of yarn, which turned out to be mostly baby wool (I say wool - it was mainly acrylic). I bought a load of blue and white and thought that would probably do... and it nearly did. I also dug out some bright pink halfway through.

New blanket artfully(!) draped over my sister's sofa

I think it takes a bit of imagination to see this as rows of cats, but it's still a pretty blanket and it was a nice project to do - not too big. I need things I can finish, and if they're cute and snuggly at the end of it, so much the better!

Friday 5 October 2012

A challenge too far

I've been struggling a bit lately, which you might have picked up on from my recent (lack of) posts. I was chatting to a friend (who happens to be a counsellor) about my sense of paralysis when faced with a to-do list and she said, You know, that sounds like depression. Of course it is! Why didn't I see that before?

I've had depression before and while this is a lot milder than my previous episode - I haven't found myself rocking gently and wishing the whole world would go away and leave me alone - there are some similar symptoms. For a start, my brain isn't working properly. It was a relief to realise this is due to depression - I'd thought it was getting rusty from under-use, what with giving up my job and all. Then there are the more obvious things like not being able to face tasks that I really should be able to manage, and not having any enthusiasm for things I enjoy. I didn't feel like picking up a crochet hook for months.

It's also fairly obvious to me why I have depression now. When I had it before it was the result of stress and in spite of the New Life, I've had a few stresses over the last couple of years. Going back eighteen months or so, I was attempting to be treasurer for a large club and failing. Failing badly. That drove me to the edge of a nervous breakdown, or possibly over the edge - I'm not sure where you draw the line. Luckily a good friend and fellow committee member spotted the signs and phoned me up to say, Would you like me to make it all go away? I wanted nothing more in the world, and I remain very grateful to those who picked up the pieces and sorted out the mess that I left.

Moving forwards to roughly this time last year, there was the heating project, then in February an even more stressful ten days helping my dad get a house in Cornwall ready for sale. The final stages of the heating project, the insulation, was unfinished when I left for Cornwall and has remained so ever since, so I have that hanging over me (or not, as the case may be. Things that should have stayed up, fell down.) More recently I've tackled the Wild West Wales project. It wasn't so much rewriting the website that freaked me out - though that was a pretty big challenge in itself - but the financial side, which reminded me too much of my failure as treasurer.

Although I faced up to that challenge and looked the bank account demons squarely in the eye, it took a lot out of me. There was an initial buzz of having achieved something, but since then I haven't felt able to face anything very much.

Knowing that this is depression is very helpful. For a start, it means that various other things are not the problem. It's not the case that my brain's going rusty from lack of use. It's not the case that the new life really isn't that great once the novelty's worn off. It's just depression. It's an illness I've had before and recovered from, and with the right management, I can recover from it this time too.

I say management rather than treatment because that feels like a more appropriate word. Treatment implies a separation from the rest of my life - there's the problem, there's the treatment, apply treatment and problem will go away - whereas depression invades everything. What I need to do is manage my life so that I can recover from it. Susie at Useless Beauty wrote some excellent tips for dealing with depression. I find number 1 particularly useful - small achievable goals are good, large goals of which half may get finished are no help at all.

At the same time, some specific treatments are worth including. I've always had problems with the shorter days in winter. It's the reducing light levels that get to me, especially around the equinox, as well as the lack of light in midwinter. On sunny days I can (and must) get outside, but a lot of the time it looks like this:

There's a view out there somewhere.

On days like this, there is an alternative. For several years I've been trying to tell myself I'm over the SAD and been meaning to get rid of the daylight lamp, but didn't get round to it so I was able to dig it out of the loft and start using it again (and by the way, if I was better at decluttering, I'd be looking at spending a couple of hundred pounds to replace that).

I got Ian to help me dismantle the spare bed so there's space to use the room for things other than sleeping.

As you'll see in the picture above, I've started knooking/crocheting again. This is a good sign as I'm obviously starting to get better already. If I can just fend off the seasonal blues and avoid any challenges that are too big for the time being, then I should make it through winter ready for a new start next spring.

To cheer you up after all that, here's a gratuitous photo of a cute small child:

My niece introduces me to one of her favourite trees.

Edit: After I posted a link to this on facebook, friends offered various pieces of useful advice that I know, but had failed to include here. As they might be useful to other people, here they are:

1. Exercise is probably the best treatment for depression. It doesn't have to be strenuous to be worthwhile, even a ten minute walk is worth doing.
2. Eat and sleep well. The second of these is harder to control than the first. Don't beat yourself up if you can't sleep, but try to give yourself the best chance.
3. Take notice of beautiful things, which is another way of saying count your blessings. They're there, but we often overlook them. Look out for them and pay attention so they register in your conscious awareness.
4. Alcohol is bad for depression. If I had any sense I would have stopped drinking (at least temporarily) by now, but I haven't.

If the first two of these feel like far too much effort, it's probably time to talk to your doctor and consider drugs (your doctor may have other suggestions, too). I am wary of this option unless things are really bad. I've taken antidepressants before and they did help, but they also have a lot of side effects and I still have restless leg syndrome to this day, more than ten years since I stopped taking the drug. No, I don't know how that works either.