Old Year, New Year

It’s the time of year to reflect and to plan. I know I am a bit late with this, as it’s the start of February but I have lost my blogging mojo a bit. I made a serious error at the end of last year and deleted all the photos from my blog. I’m slowly trying to add them again but it takes time and it’s thrown me a bit. If you go to older posts, all of the photos are gone. I almost decided to give up on this project but I have lots of happy memories stored here. It’ll take time but I’ll get everything sorted out eventually.

So, onto reflecting and planning. This is a relatively new experience for me. Last year was the first time I consciously made any ‘resolutions’ for the year ahead. On the whole I’m pleased about how things turned out. Some of the things I wanted to do were run, knit, sew and grow…

1. Run 

IMG_0250I started training last January and progressed really well. I wouldn’t say that I am a committed and converted runner but it was satisfying to see how quickly I could build up my distance. Ultimately I completed my goal – the 10km ‘Total Warrior’ course that my husband had done the year before. I am back in training because I want to do it again. I also want to do the Great North Run, if I can get a place.

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2. Knit

After stocking up at the inaugural Yarndale in September 2013, I had a fabulous stash of yarn. Some of it really, really needed to be worked with needles, not a hook. I started my knitting adventures this year by casting on my first pair of socks. It did NOT go well to start with. This picture is actually the second sock, which I managed without my Mum, unlike the first one.IMG_9362Once I got the hang of holding the needles I began to LOVE sock knitting. Just going round and round doing plain old knit stitch is quite mesmerising. I found that working in variegated yarn was very helpful as a beginner. It’s much easier to identify and put mistakes right when each row is a different colour. My first socks were done in a non-traditional way with an ‘afterthought’ heel which was also knitted ’round and round’ and a toe done in a similar way. I had no idea how to pick up the stitches for the heel but I found a YouTube tutorial and away I went. When it comes to learning new knitting skills, Google and YouTube are your friends. IMG_9539I was ridiculously pleased with my first pair of socks and cast on pair two, this time in rainbow colours for my daughter.

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This time I wanted to learn how to turn a heel in the traditional way. I took my socks on holiday with me and put up with much joking about how much it would cost to pay me to make socks. If I was charging by the hour, they’d be very expensive socks.

IMG_9820IMG_0007Not only did I ‘turn’ the heel, I also managed to complete the toe with grafting or ‘Kitchener stitch’, thanks to this tutorial by Sarah, over at Continuum Mama.

Sarah also helped me learn another skill this year. She kindly gave me a live tutorial via Skype in which I learned the basics of intarsia. In other words, I learned to change the colour of my yarn and knit a coloured pattern. She choose a simple heart pattern centred into a wash cloth. It was a great first project and made a cute little birthday present for my great aunt.

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Spurred on by the success of these projects my current WIP combines sock knitting and intarsia. I’m not going to share it yet though as it is going to be another gift.

One of my more expensive purchases at Yarndale was some fluffy, fine kid mohair from Northumbrian producers, Whistlebare. I really only bought the yarn because I loved the free scarf pattern that came with it. I wasn’t at all sure that I would ever be able to knit it as  another new skill was required (using a circular needle) and the pattern clearly stated that it was not for beginners. I eventually plucked up the courage to cast on the required 216 stitches, carefully marking every 20 stitches. I did NOT want to start creating the pattern and find I had cast on the wrong number.

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Creating the ‘daisy’ pattern was a challenge. I couldn’t make any sense of the pattern and neither could my local knitting friends. Of course the great thing about the internet and dealing with small producers is that a couple of emails later, all my questions were answered by the pattern designer herself.

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Job done!

3. Sew

My Mum has always sewed, on and off, and it’s something I’ve always felt I should be able to do. I got put off as a child because my Mum’s sewing machine was very temperamental. I usually ended up jamming it up in great twists of thread that had to be hacked at and fought from the teeth of the machine. Now she has a much easier to use, modern machine that helpfully beeps at you when you do something stupid, like try to sew with the presser foot up.

I’ve also realised that I am a person who likes to do things by the book. I like instructions and I like to know that I am doing things the right way. Mum, it turns out, is much more instinctive and learned a lot just by watching her Mum. I do not work that way and am probably a nightmare to teach.

Earlier in the year, inspired by the Great British Sewing Bee, I decided I would make some pyjamas for Son Number One. I trawled the internet looking for a pattern that was simple enough but still looked like a traditional pair of button up pyjamas. This is what I settled for

Next I hunted in all the local charity shops for the fabric. Call me cheap but I had this idea that an old duvet could be ideal material for pyjama making. I wanted something soft, simply patterned and mostly cotton. I’m pleased to say that I managed to buy the fabric and make the PJ’s in time for the local show in September. I entered them into the ‘up cycled garment’ class and won first prize! It only took about five months from start to finish!IMG_1955 IMG_1956Later in the year I decided to make another garment, also using recycled fabric. The day my Mum and I went to Yarndale, we had a trip around the charity shops of Skipton. Mum was very taken with the print on this curtain and promptly bought it.

IMG_2282We then spotted this tunic in Joules and thought we could make something similar.

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So here is the pattern I chose

IMG_2273It turned out well but I must admit I haven’t worn it much yet. I need something to put under it for winter and I haven’t found a top the right colour yet.

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I’m pretty pleased with how my sewing skills have come on this year. I  think the most important thing I learned was that if you don’t measure yourself carefully you will probably make the wrong size. I generally wear a UK size 12 when I buy from the shops but I think I ended up making the size 16 on this pattern.

4. Gardening

My final aim for 2014 was to get into the allotment more and grow more of out own food. I don’t think I did a spectacular job of that. My biggest failing is letting pests get out of control. I’m not keen on slug pellets so I need to find another way to get rid of these beasties.

The things that did the best were the usual suspects: onions, courgettes, pumpkins, strawberries and gooseberries. My cabbages and broccoli survived but mainly by good luck. The sweetcorn also grew well and produced cobs of corn but I couldn’t seem to harvest them at the right moment – they were either under or over ripe. I’m hoping that some of them might still be useable for popcorn.

onions hanging in shed full grown sweetcorn purple sprouting broccoli psb cabbages and grass mulch growing cabbageIMG_4991IMG_1038chardcolourful harvest leeks chard beetrootopen pea pod

This year I’m going to try and produce more flowers.

sunflowers in vase I really enjoyed having a few homegrown blooms at home last season so I have planted a few rows of alium, tulip and iris bulbs though at the moment it looks more like I am growing canes with bottles on top.

spring bulb collage

It seems unbelievable that it will soon be time to start sowing and growing again. The months and years tick around so quickly. One month of 2015 has gone already.

So, what will 2015 hold? More of the same I hope. My training runs are well under way, I’ve got a special intarsia project on my knitting needles, I’m sure more pyjamas will be required soon and I’ll have to check my seed stocks before long.

I hope your 2015 is going well so far and your New Year Resolutions have lasted into February.

 

 

Autumn time begins in the allotment

My allotment is a disgrace. You can’t really tell from these photos because I’ve been very selective. You may note the lack of wide angle shots…IMG_1885

However, parts of it are thriving. The courgettes continue to grow at a fantastic pace. I can’t make them into cakes fast enough, even though I quadruple the recipe and make four loaves at a time. I’m on the lookout for the perfect chocolate courgette cake so if you’ve got any ideas about where I can find it, let me know.

sunny pumpkin patch and sunflowers

We’ve been really successful with pumpkins over the last two years. They are the ideal plant for me because they suddenly put on a lot of growth in late July and August, just at a time when I don’t get much opportunity for gardening. They are so big and prolific that their leaves seem to suppress a lot of weeds. Except for the ever present nasturtiums, of course.

IMG_1847 In my opinion, we have a nasturtium problem in our patch. Just like the pumpkins, they also have a tendency to take over in July and August when I take my eye off the ball. At this time of year, before any frosts, they are at their height. The Husband insists that there are worse weeds we could have and I suppose he is right. They are not particularly difficult to rip out, unlike the creeping buttercup and bindweed I’m currently wrestling with as I clear the onion patch. They are just very, very good at self seeding.

But, they are pretty. The bees love them and we can harvest them too.pale yellow nasturtiumnasturtium pesto

The leeks are one area that I have managed to weed. Don’t look at the edges of the picture though. In hindsight, I wish I’d grown more leeks to see us through winter. Maybe next year. So far they seem to be pretty low maintenance plants, which is a priority for me.

IMG_2148This is the chard patch. Another easy to grow, low maintenance vegetable that I have been adding to curries instead of spinach. I think I am more in love with how it looks than how it tastes, to be honest, but, I just keep thinking about how healthy it must be. It should stand all winter, being resistant to frost. A perfect cut and come again crop.

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climbing french beans I have managed a few meals from my climbing french beans. I think I will need to start these off earlier next year. It seems that they are just beginning to grow well. This is the most success I’ve ever had with climbing french beans so I’m pretty happy.

plug plants I succumbed to buying some plug plants from the local garden centre a week or two ago. I never got around to raising any purple sprouting broccoli or kale earlier in the summer but I really want to eat some in spring. I don’t normally like buying these kind of plants, it feels like cheating. However, I’ve got clear ground and I want it to be filled. I’ll just have to do better next time.

IMG_2142 Some of the cabbages I sowed in the spring have survived my lack of attention and the surplus of attention from the slugs and cabbage white butterflies. They are now growing well. I’d better start planning how I’m going to encourage the children to eat them. I’m hoping my mulch works. It is made up of dead grass that I pulled up from elsewhere in the plot. Using waste as a mulch? Will it work? Time will tell.

IMG_1891 The autumn raspberries are starting to ripen up but they are few and far between. I think they are still getting established in their new position and they are also a bit swamped by a vast carpet of nasturtiums. There are usually just enough for a little treat after a hard afternoon of weeding.

The start of September was very sunny, as it often is just as the summer holidays come to an end. As the children returned to school and nursery I returned to my routine of trying to get to the allotment more regularly. Having that little bit of space to dig and weed and plant and just sit in the sun is a real pleasure.

One day as I sat I was aware of lots of buzzing. The enormous flowering weed plant next to me was full of hoverflies busy sucking up all the nectar it had to offer. If I was a real gardener I wouldn’t have let this plant get so big, never mind flower. But, after spending time watching and trying to photograph all the insects I didn’t have the heart to chop it down.

IMG_1859IMG_1914Our sunflowers seem to be reaching their peak now, the tallest one is over 7ft.

IMG_2262These too attract the insects. There is something very appealing about watching a big, fluffy, bumble bee work it’s way across a sunflower head, probing each tiny flower for nectar.

IMG_2190I’m so glad I managed to plant some sunflowers. They are such happy plants. When the bees have had all the food they can get and the flowers have faded, the birds can take over and enjoy the seeds.

Autumn is slowly starting to make it’s presence felt. The autumn equinox was a day or two ago and my last few visits to the allotment have been in cooler weather. The mornings I have visited have been still and slightly misty with the damp air highlighting numerous, silky spiders webs.

The elderberries I could reach have been harvested and the birds are stripping the rest of the tree. Rose hips and other berries are brightening up the hedges as the leaves slowly begin to change and fall.

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IMG_1792The garden is fading from green to brown.

IMG_1789Autumn begins.IMG_1803

 

Recycled paper pots for growing seeds

I am flattered to have been asked to be the School of Thrift’s resident gardening expert. However, I think it would be more than a bit untruthful to describe myself as an expert. I would suggest ‘enthusiast’ is probably a better description. So, in the name of enthusiasm, here is a little post about a thrifty way to grow seeds.

Have you ever seen one of these?

IMG_9408The wooden pieces on the right are a little device used to make paper pots for seeds. I like the idea of starting seeds off in individual pots but I don’t like the idea of transplanting them. I’m not sure that the seedlings like it much either. It can’t be nice, having their delicate roots disturbed. Lots of gardening gurus recommend using small coir pots (made of coconut husks) that simply decompose when the seedling is eventually planted into the ground. These little paper pots do the same thing but you can make them for free and recycle your newspaper at the same time. Unfortunately I can’t tell you how effective they are because this is the first time I’ve tried them.

paperpotsYou simply roll a strip of newspaper around the cylinder part (not too tight) then starting at the seam, fold the bottom over. I found that three folds were enough to neatly close the gap. Next you press the bottom of your pot into the other part of the wooden former and twist. Finally, remove the pot from the wooden cylinder (this is sometimes a bit tricky and requires a bit of wriggling) and hey presto, you have a pot. Call me sad but I found making these little pots really addictive.

IMG_9511The next problem is how to store the pots once you have planted them up. Their very nature means that they are a bit floppy, especially after they have been watered. They also become slightly mouldy after a while, which is probably a good thing and all part of the decomposing process. I hunted around our shed for a suitable tray to put them in but all the proper seed trays had holes in the bottom. Not ideal for keeping leaky pots on a clean windowsill. Fortunately for me we had several old ice cream tubs out in our garage, waiting to be re-used. They turned out to be the perfect size for 12 little paper pots. Very satisfying.

My mind also skipped back to an image I had seen on Pinterest (you can take a look at my gardening board here) of a drinks carton being used as a plant pot. Rooting around in the recycling bag I found two empty cartons and chopped off one of the larger sides of each.

IMG_9510Bingo – just the right size for 8 little pots and the cartons themselves sit together on a windowsill or greenhouse shelf in a pleasingly snug sort of way.

So far I have sown sunflowers, leeks, sweetcorn, sweet peas, oregano and rosemary in these little pots and they are all germinating (well, except the rosemary, but that takes a notoriously long time).

Have you noticed my plant labels? I have been making these for a long time. I cut up old plastic containers, anything from margarine tubs to milk cartons and use them. They are probably not as durable as shop bought ones but they are free and I *think* the plastic in milk cartons is biodegradable.

Now, what I’d really like to see is someone ingenious enough to create a paper pot maker from recycled materials. Surely all you would need is a pipe to wrap the paper around and, erm, hmm, something to form the base. And that is where my creativity ends. Happy seed sowing everyone.

Starting to spring

The weather is starting to improve and the days are lengthening. It’s time to get into the garden (or allotment in my case) and do some work. Our allotment really is neglected. It’s a good job it’s on it’s own little plot because if we had neighbours, they’d be complaining. Can you see all the beds, full of weeds and dead plants? The majority of the plot looks like that.

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But now that Babykins is at nursery, my weeks are starting to take on a new shape. I have more time to devote to gardening, something that has been low on my priority list for ooh, about eight years. Although I loved the idea of taking the children to the allotment, the reality of it probably robbed me of a lot of my enthusiasm for gardening. It just wasn’t worth the effort. Not at the preparing and planting stage anyway. They are more distractible when there is a yummy crop to harvest.

Working on our allotment brings me a mixture of feelings. When I arrive, I generally feel dismayed by the amount of work there is to do. I really don’t like looking at the whole plot and thinking about all the tasks that should be done, about how wonderful it could look. There are so many basic things that need sorting out. I am choosing to try and focus on small, achievable targets.

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A couple of weeks ago, on a fabulously sunny, still day, I dug out all the remaining potatoes and cleared the bed that they were in. They are not great potatoes but I’ve been doing my best to be thrifty and use them up, despite the amount of slug damage they’ve got. Babykins actually helped me out on this occasion. He is actually quite happy helping out on our plot. In fact, I should really get him a few new tools, his spade is falling apart. It was such a glorious day that once Babykins was at nursery, I decided to go back for a couple more hours.

IMG_9162The sky really did look like this. Perfect. On days like this, the joy of gardening is easy to find.

IMG_9187I had a clear growing area so I planted a row of broad beans and a row of peas and covered them with horticultural fleece. Who knows if they will grow. The ground is probably too cold and wet and the fleece practically blew away shortly after but it made me feel that I was ahead of the game.

This week, I managed another short spell at my plot. Just an hour in the sunshine with no need for a coat as I dug and weeded. Digging and weeding, satisfying things to do. Tasks that give instant gratification. In a short space of time you can transform a messy looking area into a patch of neat, dark earth.

IMG_9308And no matter how many times I get out my fork and do some digging and weeding, I still enjoy seeing what turns up.

IMG_9306 A parsnip that must have self seeded…

IMG_9300 An extremely bright caterpillar (or grub – I don’t know)…

IMG_9305and earthworms. I never get bored of digging up earthworms, especially the big, fat juicy ones. They should be a reflection of the health of the soil so finding them gives me hope for a good crop later in the year.

There are other things to appreciate on the allotment at the moment.

IMG_9328 Drifts of snowdrops.

IMG_9317A solitary rose.

IMG_9314Rhubarb shooting up, getting bigger by the day.

So although looking at my plot as a whole can make my heart sink, looking at tiny parts of it makes my heart sing. At this time of year, when not much is growing, I can even enjoy the flowering weeds for a short time.

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Tomatoes in November

The pumpkin soup was a hit. We had it today with some ‘roman bread’ (spelt and honey). The weather was horrible so it felt like a good, warm, comforting lunch.Last night, whilst I was busy making the soup, I was also (finally) getting to grips with our tomato harvest. It seems strange to be dealing with tomatoes in November. Considering the terrible summer we’ve had, our tomatoes have done quite well. I think we had six plants. Three were in a mini greenhouse and three were outside. All were against a south facing wall so they got as much sunlight and warmth as they could

This picture must have been taken back in September. As you can see, there was plenty of fruit but not much of it was ripe. We left it as long as we could but finally picked everything about two weeks ago. We were also trying to stay ahead of Babykins. He liked picking tomatoes (enough said I think).I really hadn’t expected the green fruits to ripen up but they did. We kept them all together in a big bowl in a sunny place and gradually they started to turn. Of course they have to be preserved sooner or later or they just rot. When I weighed what remained of the crop there were 3.5kg of ripe tomatoes. I was torn between making passata, chutney or dried tomatoes to preserve in oil. My kilner jars still have gooseberries in them so passata was out, I have tons of rhubarb chutney already, so the latter option won. I preserved tomatoes like this a couple of years ago and they were delicious. As usual, I used my trusty River Cottage Preserves book. There isn’t much to the process…

First chop up your tomatoes and remove the seeds.Add a little salt and sugar, allow to rest for a while and then turn the tomatoes over. Cook them on wire racks in a very cool oven for about 6 to 10 hours.

I was persuaded by The Husband that I could do this over night. I put them in the oven at about 10.30 and turned it off at about 5 am, when Babykins woke me up. Alas, they were a bit too well done. Think tomato crisps, rather than shrivelled but still slightly plump. I probably could have gone on with the next stage in the process, which involves vinegar, oil and sterilised jars but they are very tasty just as they are. They would probably keep for quite a long time in an air-tight jar.However we will be playing host to some friends tomorrow night so I don’t think they’ll last that long. These tomato ‘crisps’ will be really tasty with some creamy, yoghurty dip.

I still have some green tomatoes to process so perhaps some chutney is in order as well. You can never have too much.

In the interests of not completely stealing someone else’s recipe, you may note that I have kept the instructions for how to dry tomatoes very brief. If you want to do this yourself, I suggest getting a proper recipe that might point out the pitfalls (other than leaving them in the oven too long of course).

 

 

 

September Food

Food has been on my mind. September should be a busy month for the home preserve maker. I bought some hard goats cheese ages ago with the intention of making nasturtium pesto. It really is tasty, I made some a few years ago but I still haven’t made the time to do it this year.

We seem to have nasturtiums growing in great quantities in the allotment so they should be put to good use.

Our allotment is so neglected. We have some little saplings in pots that we meant to plant out about two years ago. We still haven’t cleared the area that they are supposed to go in. They are bearing fruit this year, despite their roots being crammed into a small space with limited nutrients. I hope this means that when they finally do get planted they will crop heavily. I am longing to turn these crab apples into something tasty but I can hardly reach them, the area is so overgrown. Come to think of it, I’m not sure how I got the photo!

The hedgerows can be full of beautiful berries at this time of year (and I seem to get carried away trying to photograph them).

Some berries seem more sparse than usual this year. I haven’t seen any sloes near here but the elderberries have been as abundant as ever.

I managed to grab the few apples from my Mum’s tree and made a big batch of apple and elderberry jelly.

I really enjoy making this. You don’t have to peel or core the apples because you only want the strained, cooked juice from them. The cooking process is so visually satisfying. I was taking photos of it every five minutes as the colours in the pan changed. This blogging lark can do funny things like that to you.

It’s a bit of a drawn out affair as you have to let the cooked fruit drip through a muslin cloth over night. I know it’s strange/pathetic/not very rock and roll, but there’s something about that that I like too. I can’t really put my finger on why I enjoy doing it so much. I’ve tried to explain my love of making preserves in this post. There’s definitely something comforting about the routine of it.

The other preserve that I have managed to make this autumn is rhubarb chutney. The Husband noticed that our rhubarb was starting to go past it’s best. There was plenty of it, but it was a bit tough for using in desserts. That, and the fact that we recently used up our last jar meant a chutney session was in order. We have been making this rhubarb chutney recipe for quite a few years now and it is absolutely my favourite. It’s dark, soft and treacly. There are no chunky bits in it but it does have texture. We had enough rhubarb to triple the recipe and plenty of home grown onions too. One night while I was chopping and cooking the apples and elderberries the husband did all the chopping and mixing of the rhubarb chutney ingredients.

The next morning at about 6am I tipped it into our maslin pan, hoping it would all fit. It did, just. The house smelled of vinegar fumes all day while it simmered away. I could have bottled it sooner if I didn’t have three children to contend with but I just had to keep putting it off until they were in bed. I don’t suppose that’s good practice and I hope it doesn’t affect it’s keeping qualities. I couldn’t follow the usual instructions for the cooking time either. My preserve book suggests that it’s done when you draw a wooden spoon across the bottom of the pan and it leaves a clear trail for a few seconds. There was so much in the pan, there was no way you would be able to see the bottom. I think when the wooden spoon stands upright like this:

it’s probably done. It tastes ok, which is just as well because I’ve now got about 15 jars of it. My next mission is to create some apple and bramble treats – flavoured gin, anyone?