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

Friday 30 May 2014

How to eat acorns

Acorns didn't make it into my foraging challenge last year, but they were something I'd been meaning to try. The trouble is, they have so much tannin in them that they're inedible raw. A typical guide to eating acorns calls for lots of soaking and drying to remove the tannins, and then further drying and grinding to make acorn flour, so I never got round to it.

Then this spring, while digging over the garden, I kept coming across sprouted acorns. I discarded a lot of these before I started to wonder whether sprouting might improve the flavour. I know that many seeds turn their starch into sugar when they sprout. I cautiously nibbled one and sure enough, it was sweet. Furthermore, the winter weather had done the job of all that soaking, and leached out most of the bitter tannins.

After that, I started looking out for sprouted acorns and collected them. Some had sprouted quite a lot.

I left them sitting on my kitchen counter for quite a while, so some of them dried out a fair bit, and those were pretty tough. I decided to boil them to soften the hard ones, and judging by the colour of the water I discarded, that removed some more of the tannins. I sliced them into a couscous salad, and they were really nice. Still a little on the chewy side, but that's no bad thing. I think those squirrels are onto something when they bury nuts - it's not just storage; it improves the flavour too.

Saturday 24 May 2014

Solar panels - planning and preparation

This is the biggie; this is the project I've been meaning to do for the last three years or so but haven't actually quite got down to doing. This was always part of the heating project grand plan and the thermal store (big water tank) was made with an extra coil to take the water from the solar panels when they were in place. We've probably had our heating operating below its capacity for the last three winters due to that empty coil.

Being me, we're not talking about a simple matter of buying solar panels and getting them installed, or even installing them myself. Oh no, I'm proposing to make them. Household radiators are usually filled with hot water and radiate the heat out into a room, but they'll work pretty well the other way round too. If filled with cold water and placed in sunlight, the water will heat up. This isn't a new idea, it made it into the Telegraph over a decade ago*. They obviously won't be as efficient as manufactured panels but they are a great deal cheaper, and the efficiency difference isn't as huge as you might expect.

I dithered over the project for some time because I was worried about constructing a roof that would support it. We have a south-facing gable end to this house, and I thought the obvious place for solar panels would be a lean-to roof against this wall, under which we'd store wood. However, a full radiator is very heavy and I doubted my ability to build a structure that would support several of them. Then one day my friend Gill asked if we had any plans for using the area above the conservatory.

Odd bit of hillside that's not much use for anything

I can't remember whether Gill suggested it or whether I thought of it myself, but that's a potential site for solar panels. It's east facing, not south, but that's not such a drawback as it might be. We have hillside and trees to the west of this property, so even the south facing wall gets shaded by about 4pm, and this spot gets shaded only about an hour earlier in the day. On the other hand, it gets the morning sun much earlier, even with the roof to the east. It's higher than the tank, so I wouldn't be able to use the thermosyphon system I'd been thinking of, but between this spot and the tank there's only one wall of the extension, as opposed to the three two foot thick walls I'd have to drill through to get to the other site. Also, being on the ground, this is much more accessible. On balance, this seems like a much better site than the other one, and avoids the danger of the whole construction collapsing due to my inadequate construction skills.

OK, so... DIY solar panels... what do I need? Radiators, obviously.

Radiators - check.

A sheet of glass over the top will improve the effectiveness considerably - the original greenhouse effect. I have acquired a selection of windows, from Gill's old house...

... and from Jasper's old caravan.

Glass - check

They'll need some kind of box to contain them. Um, what have I got? I have some floorboards...

... and a sheet of plywood that used to be the back of a wardrobe.

Wood for a box - sort-of check

Insulation behind the radiator would be a good idea, too, so the heat doesn't radiate straight into the ground.

Bags of insulation

My friend Ellie gave me some of that reflective stuff that goes behind radiators

and here's some insulation that's also shiny.
Yes, I think I can check the insulation box.

I'll obviously need pipes to plumb this all in, and I have some of those left over from the old central heating, too.

Copper pipes - check

And then because this won't be the thermosyphon system I originally wanted, I'll need a pump. Ah, hm, yes. I'll tell you about the pump in another post.


* I don't know whether the author has revised his views on global warming in the last ten years.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Garden update for April May

Oh dear, it's four weeks far too long since I last posted one of my weekly gardening posts; clearly this challenge isn't working for me, and even writing this post isn't easy to get down to. I'm finding that, unlike the foraging challenge, gardening really doesn't happen one plant at a time. Of course, foraging doesn't either, but adding one or two new plants per week seemed to work quite well for me, at least until the autumn. With gardening, plants don't get on with doing their thing until I get round to harvesting them, they all need sowing, then they all need planting out, more or less, then there's lots of weeding, and a fair bit of cutting back, none of which is confined to one plant at a time.

I'm glad to say that this doesn't mean I haven't been gardening, I just haven't been writing about it regularly. I think it's best to drop the blogging challenge, because it's making feel guilty, and then I don't feel like blogging at all. I'll just carry on with gardening, and I might write about it from time to time, or I might not. For now, here's a review of how things are going at the moment.

Let's start with the potato bed. First, I dug out lots of bindweed roots. I'm under no illusion that I got them all, but I did get a lot of them.

Bindweed roots dumped on a path to dry

These do not go on the compost heap; I put them on a path in the hope that they'll dry out and die before finding any soil to set up home in. When I got fed up of hunting for roots, I moved onto planting potatoes. This involved digging trenches and shifting lots of horse muck (with many thanks to my friend Sue for the muck).

One feverfew left in the middle of the bed as a marker. First earlies are in the near corner, up to that plant.

One month on, and most of the potatoes have leaves above ground. Interestingly, the Desiree, which I saved from last year's crop, have been slowest to appear. The King Edwards weren't far behind the first earlies (the variety of which I've forgotten. I wrote it down somewhere.)

Lots of potatoes coming up

I have an experimental corner of the plot... Last year I tried growing potatoes from seed. They did quite well until I planted them out in the garden, at which point they all died. I thought nothing of it until I was clearing out a seed tray this spring and found, amongst the dusty dry soil, dozens of tiny potatoes. I must have neglected some seedlings that somehow managed to form little tubers before the plants dried out and died. I've planted some of the larger tubers, that is, those bigger than peas. Some were even as large as broad beans! Most of these have managed to get leaves above ground (I planted them less deeply than the full sized tubers) so we'll see whether they survive, and what the results are like. I'm also growing potatoes from seed again this year, but I'm not sure where I'm going to put them. Some are currently in small pots, others are trying to climb out of the seed trays.

Another early sowing was broad beans (or field beans, to be accurate). These started well, but then most of them showed black around the edges of the leaves, and failed to grow much at all.

Blackened broad bean seedling

We'd had such hot weather that I wondered whether they might be scorched, but consultation with a gardening book suggested frost damage. I'm not sure we'd had frost, but perhaps there was too much difference between day time and night time temperatures.

Luckily, I'd sown only half of the seeds, so I sowed the rest, this time in the greenhouse so I could check they'd actually germinated, which they all did, and quite quickly. I planted these out a couple of days ago, to replace the damaged ones.

More beans. The taller ones are those that survived the blackening.

I also sowed peas, at intervals (i.e. whenever I get round to doing another batch). They seem a bit patchy, but I came across an old rhyme about sowing peas: "One for the mouse, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow." I guess a low survival rate is the norm. I have quite a lot still to sow, too, and I haven't started any green beans yet.

I'm told these peas are so short they won't need support. I'm not sure about that, but we'll see.

The shallots are looking great, even though I planted them far more deeply than you're supposed to. Some of the parsnips are doing very well, but others suffered from this sort of thing...

... so I've been replacing them with the seedlings that are still coming up where the year before last's parsnips were (i.e. those that seeded last year). This year's garlic may not have survived the rolling and the dry weather, but luckily the garlic I gave up on last year has all come up again, so I may yet get a crop.

Oh so innocent-looking now!

In two of the tubs by this bed I've sown carrots, and they're just coming up. I'm not getting too excited about these because they got to about this stage last year, then I lost the lot.

Carrot seedlings

In another tub, I have elder cuttings.

Elder, most of which appears to be thriving. Some even has flower buds.

This is part of the hedge project. I cut down a leylandii hedge in three stages, finishing this January. I would like to replace this with a native hedge and to that end, I've been looking around for suitable plants and moving them up there. There are two chestnut trees there that I actually paid money for, and a third in a pot waiting to go in when the top section of soil's recovered from the leylandii (I'm not sure about this theory, but I know leylandii are greedy, so the soil will certainly be depleted). I say trees... they're four foot twigs at the moment, but they'll be trees one day. I've found a few blackthorn suckers (very difficult to dig up), some wild raspberries, roses, a few ash saplings, one rowan, and several young hazel trees. There are also sycamore and holly seedlings, but I'm not sure about keeping these. The elder cuttings came from the elder tree that was impossible to harvest from. I've hacked it right back and hope that it will shoot again from the base, but if it doesn't, at least I have the cuttings. The rest of the hedge is difficult to photograph, so you'll have to use your imagination - twigs and saplings that are almost impossible to see against a wire fence.

Speaking of things that are almost impossible to see, next along from the tubs are the asparagus beds. The shoots are still tiny, but looking slightly more convincing this year.

Two small asparagus spears, in April

I confess I did cut a few to eat, even though they're far too small. I needed a little something to remind me that it's worth the wait. I reasoned that other animals in my garden are less restrained than me about leaving the asparagus to grow strong, so I might at least enjoy a little. The asparagus is taller now, and quite ferny, for the most part.

Asparagus ferns

Another perennial vegetable I'm trying is globe artichoke. I sowed some seeds last year and planted out eight, then put the rest in a spare trough as I didn't know what else to do with them. None of the eight survived, so I'm glad I kept the spares, as quite a few of those are fine. I've planted out two into a flower bed and when I'm sure I've seen all the asparagus, I'll put some more into the gaps in the asparagus bed.

I'm hoping these artichokes will grow much bigger

In the bed next to the asparagus is last year's brocolli. I'm planning to grow beans, sweetcorn and squash in that bed (the Native American Three sisters) which can stay in the greenhouse a while longer, so I'm leaving the broccoli to flower. I'm hoping I'll be able to collect seeds from it, but even if I don't, the flowers are spectacular and the bees love them.

Purple buds and yellow flowers on the broccoli

Appreciated by bees

In the greenhouse, lots of things are getting eaten, but some are surviving. I got very demoralised when all my tomato seedlings got munched by a slug, but then friends gave me some of theirs, and someone else gave me a couple of aubergine plants, which I wouldn't have had space for if I filled the greenhouse with tomatoes, so it all works out in the end. The key is not to get too attached to a specific plan (the particular varieties I'd hoped to try this year) but take what comes.

Mostly alliums. If I remember which are which it'll be a small miracle.

Tomatoes, squash, and lost of purslane

Another part of the garden I've spent quite a bit of time on is the terrace. I mentioned in February that I'd started the job of topping the terrace with soil and replanting it, and I've continued with that. It's not completely covered and it's still looking mostly brown, but I'm hoping there's enough there to spread and give me a green terrace by late summer.

The terrace. Not very green, but still a nice place to sit

Finally, let's not forget the flowers. I tend to neglect these as I focus on growing veg, but I do love flowers in the garden.

Tulips in April. I should have planted these out so they had more space, but they seem to have coped with their cramped conditions.

Apple blossom above the wild yellow poppies. We may get a few apples this year. The cherry tree and one of the plums also have blossom.

Acquilegias grow like weeds here. Aren't they pretty?

The oriental poppies are just starting to come out

So there you are. If I write about two months worth of gardening all at once, it sounds like quite a lot, doesn't it?