Friday 27 May 2011


Yesterday afternoon we had our first decent downpour for months.

Boy, did it rain! There was even some thunder.

I had a little dig in a bare bit of flowerbed and it seems to have soaked several inches of soil, which is reeeeally good news for the allotment. I wonder if it was enough to refill our poor dry pond... unlikely I suppose, but it will have done some good. I'll find out later today.

Look what else I caught on camera from my window yesterday!

This fox hangs around our garden quite a lot, often in broad daylight - sometimes he brings the family too - but it's always hard to get a good picture. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with them; it's always fun and interesting to get close to wildlife, but I've caught them chasing the cat several times, and even fighting the cat next door! Not an idea I'm comfortable with!

Thursday 26 May 2011

Wild Food Night - May

Yep, it's another report from The Country Bumpkin's Wild Food Night, and the chef excelled himself last night and produced the loveliest meal I've had there yet!

We started with three canapés made with hogweed: a sweet jelly, a mousse (much like a veggie paté or dip), and a drink made with hogweed and lime. It was interesting to taste the different ways the flavour came across, sweet and savoury, and though the jelly was not for me, the other two were delicious.

Hogweed (in the same family as carrot, fennel, celery, parsnip, coriander, parsley, lovage, cumin, dill and many more) may be tricky to identify in the wild as there are so many other wild plants very similar. Wikipedia gives it the latin name Heracleum sphondylium, but points out it is very closely related to Cow Parsnip (Heracleum lanatum, irritant to the skin, but apparently the young shoots are edible), which also looks like Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris, aka Wild Chervil), which is edible. Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) is also very similar, and edible - in fact very tasty! (Just to make things even more confusing, I mistakenly tweeted about cowslip last night - a slip of the brain, sorry! Cowslips are primula-family flowers and not at all similar.) However, all these plants also closely resemble the deadly Hemlock, or may be confused with the poisonous Fool's Parsley (Aethusa cynapium, aka Fool's Cicely) or the highly irritant Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum, aka Giant Cow Parsley...) Hmmm, confusing; I'm not sure I'm ready to go foraging for hogweed yet. I'm just glad our chef knows what he's doing!

Our starter was a crayfish bisque, made with crayfish caught in local rivers and served with a crispbread crouton topped with rouille. I'd never heard of rouille and had to look it up when I got home - it's a sauce made with oil, breadcrumbs, saffron, garlic and chilli, and used to garnish fish or fish soup. I can see why - the fresh tang of garlic and chilli and the hit of heat really complemented the delightfully rich soup. On the side, we had a sample of sesame-crayfish toast, just like the Chinese takeaway favourite, although of course much better, with a real thick layer of crayfish.

The main course was Rabbit Linguine, made with cream, bacon and tarragon. I'd never really tried rabbit before and it was really lovely; the meat was really flavoursome and succulent, and the creaminess and the tang of the tarragon went so well with it. It perhaps just lacked a little green matter - I would have liked to sample the hogweed as a plain old vegetable - but apparently even wild greens are suffering from the dry conditions of late and are in short supply.

Finally, a yogurt-based ice cream made with elderflower syrup - wow, what great flavour! I'd love to eat this again. Served with it was an elderflower fritter - just an elderflower head dipped in tempura batter, deep fried and drizzled with honey. I had a little trouble detecting the flavour of elderflower - it tasted oddly like sugar puffs! But it was a great accompaniment to the sweet and flavoursome ice cream.

Wild Food Night is a regular event in our diaries now - we're already looking forward to the next one!

Wednesday 25 May 2011


I was gratified this morning to see the first mangetout flowers ready to open...

...and the first tomatoes starting to form!


Tuesday 24 May 2011

Up From the Grave

The 'Everlasting Cauliflower' I thought was dead has sent up two new shoots from the base!

It even looks like it's getting ready to make new heads.

Trouble is, what do I do about the nasty hollow stem? Will it rot if it gets full of rain? Will it harbour creepy crawlies? Should I block it up with something? Chop it off just above the new shoots?

We got a few jobs out of the way on the plot this weekend, although there's still a lot of digging to catch up on.

We earthed up the potatoes.

We weeded the broad beans. There, you can see what I mean about the righthand 'Bunyard's Exhibition' doing so much better than the lefthand 'Aquadulce' now. The string was originally there to stop pigeons nibbling the young shoots, but now it's providing a bit of support against the wind!

And we planted out the chard and some sorrel (foreground) in the little border by the salad beds. Ooh, and I pulled up all the bolted spinach from the salad bed and planted some perpetual spinach in its place.

Going to plant out the cucumbers today, and sow some marigolds and nasturtiums. I usually just let them self-seed, but I don't see any popping up this year and I can't have an allotment without marigolds and nasturtiums!

And I'm a sucker for a 3 for 2 deal!

Saturday 21 May 2011

On The Right Road

A couple of years ago, I lost 40lbs of weight I didn't need. I'd put it on over many years - just a few lbs a year; not enough to really notice or worry about. Until it was. I put off losing weight for ages, not because I didn't care, but because I thought I couldn't. I love food. I hate exercise. I don't have a lot of self-discipline. I'd never done anything like that before.

Then I discovered a website called SparkPeople. And then, weightloss was easy.

SparkPeople has some really great tools for tracking your food and your exercise and your progress and for pushing you towards your goals. It has hundreds of useful and interesting expert articles. It has a lively community of like-minded folks always on hand for support and encouragement. But at the heart of it all is an ethos far greater than the desire to be thin and attractive, or even to be fit and healthy. The heart of SparkPeople is about motivation, systematic achievement of goals, and the belief that you can do anything if you put your mind to it. And I may have put a few pounds back on since a couple of years ago, but the principles I learned at SparkPeople will stay with me for life.

The most important thing SparkPeople taught me was this. To climb a mountain, you've gotta take a lot of steps.

Simple, huh?

The mountain may be huge, but each step is tiny and easy and ordinary. The mountain may seem a scary, insurmountable goal, but each individual step is absolutely achievable. Even when the going's tough and your steps are smaller or slower than you'd like, well, it's still progress. If you stumble and fall back a few steps, no need to throw yourself off the nearest ledge; just pick yourself up and take those few steps again - you've done it before, after all. And each step, though it may not bring its own rewards, is an investment in the future; a step in the right direction.

 Photo by Kerem Barut, taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Last August I finally got sick to death of slaving my life away for a company that didn't appreciate me, doing a job I didn't care for any more, and packed it in, promising I'd find a way to work for myself, or at least on my own terms, and start to work towards achieving my dreams. I was only able to do this because of my cheap living situation at the time, and I realise not everyone's so fortunate. Now, I'm not claiming to be any kind of success, nor any kind of expert. I'm scraping a few hundred pounds a month right now, at best. I said I'd be a proofreader but I haven't really applied myself to getting the work. I bought £100 worth of materials last year to have a go at making greetings cards to sell, but the box of materials is still sitting untouched under my bed. I have a couple of casual jobs, but shifts are really few and far between. So I'm not recommending all those unhappy with their jobs pack them in right away - not at all. But if I hadn't taken that first step last summer and quit my job, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be on the way now to getting my first screenplay produced.

Sure, the screenplay will make me some money, assuming it makes it to production (and there's always a danger it won't), but I have to wait for that. And I'm writing my butt off at the moment trying to get a few more scripts polished before someone asks me "so, what else have you got?" but there's no guarantee of any returns on that hard work either...

Basically it's all a massive gamble. Every day the time when we'll have to move out and stand on our own four feet again gets nearer, and if that time comes and I'm still not making enough money, well, back to the daily grind I go. But you know what? I'll still have achieved the things I've achieved during this time - I'll still have learned the things I've learned, and earned what money I've earned, and written the stories I've written, and made the contacts I've made, and certainly added a few things to my CV. I'll still be a few steps closer to my dreams.

It's easy to leave things the way they are, and it's easy to make excuses. Change is scary. Sacrifices are hard. Risks are... well, risky. But we only have one chance at life and if you're on a road that's wrong for you, the time to change it is NOW. You see, it's the road that matters, not the destination, because they all lead to the same place and it's too late then.

So what are your dreams? Write them down, each on a separate sheet of paper. Now pick one and list ten steps to achieving it. Now take that first step and break it down further; list ten steps to achieving that. Now break those down even further... Stop when you've got a list of dead-easy tasks. Tasks you could do in moments. Baby-steps. Be specific, and consider how or where each task would be done. If you don't know how or where, make finding out one of the steps. If you need to save up money in order to do something, include a step-by-step plan. And assign points along the way to celebrate your progress.

What are your first few tasks? Maybe find a phone number. Ask a question. Send an email. Buy some materials. Book a course. Get a book from the library. Do some sums. Skip the morning coffee and put the money you save in a jar. They're not so unachievable, those steps, are they? No - they're easy.

And one day, if you keep taking one step after the other, that final step will be the last one, and it'll be just as easy as all the others.

So tell yourself you don't want to, or you can't be bothered, or you've got more important things to do, or you're scared, or you don't want to make the sacrifice.

But never, ever tell yourself you can't.

A list I'd be well advised to follow is this:
  • Find proofreading course folder.
  • Complete final assignment (not a problem).
  • Phone academy: check final assessment cost.
  • Write cheque and envelope.
  • Photocopy assignment.
  • Send assignment off.
  • Contact previous customers for testimonials.
  • Compile and proof testimonials.
  • Update website with testimonials and qualification.
  • Alter phone number on business card design (online at VistaPrint).
  • Order new business cards.
  • Apply to SfEP's 'Associates Available' newsletter.
  • Book further training through SfEP - use vouchers.
  • Print 500 flyers (flyer is already created).
  • Distribute (to local businesses, universities, libraries, print shops, writers' groups, community noticeboards).
  • Research (online) ways to increase my web traffic.

The list goes on... These are all things I could do in a day - many of them in just a few minutes - and if I'd done so back last summer, I'd probably be earning a lot more cash by now. The "Buy some land and build a strawbale house" list starts with the plan to save up some money, so it's stupid of me to put it off. But I'm making excuses. Screenwriting's more important to me right now. I don't enjoy proofreading as much as I thought I would. I'm stressed. Stupid excuses. If I chose to apply myself, I could have the satisfaction of crossing off eight of those within an hour or two. Eight! And I'd be that much further along!

So go on, what's stopping you? If you want to write, polish up a few pieces and send them off. If you want to sell plants, go out and buy some seeds. If you want to be a singer-songwriter, grab your guitar and book yourself in at the local open-mic night. If you want to sell secondhand records, sell some secondhand records. If you want to sell greetings cards, turn that box of materials into the cards you flipping designed years ago and get 'em online!

No-one starts out with a retail empire or superstardom. We have to get ourselves on the right road first.

Do it!

Friday 20 May 2011

Ickle Courgette

So, remember how one of our tiny courgette plants started producing, and we popped it in a tub, fed it and hoped for an early courgette harvest?

More than a week later, it had barely increased in size, and the plant itself hadn't put on any growth either. It seemed the plant had a bit too much on its plate, what with growing up, settling into a new home and producing fruit at the same time, so we decided to pick the courgette and let the plant focus on growth.

But waste not want not. I still chopped it up and threw it in my pasta sauce!

Thursday 19 May 2011

Allotment Update

Despite being way ahead of ourselves earlier in the season, it's a real struggle keeping up with things at the allotment at this time of year and we've got the usual mix of good and bad going on.

Good: the potatoes are doing well, and ready to be earthed up just as soon as I pluck all the bindweed out.

Good: I've planted the leeks out. 12 Autumn Giant, 12 Malabar F1 and 12 Musselburgh. These were sown in seed trays in late February.

We plant them in a grid, pushing a 6" deep hole in the soil using the end of a hoe, dropping the baby leek in and watering well. I do think some of them were still a bit small really, so fingers crossed they're not too swamped! I'm keeping the extra seedlings on standby just in case.

Bad: the spinach has gone to seed in the warm, dry weather, and I barely got to harvest any! Boooooo.

The chard is finished too, and will need clearing a.s.a.p. to make room for a new lot.

Good: the broad beans are thriving and flowering away. As always, please ignore the carpet of weeds...

The two lefthand rows are Aquadulce, the two righthand rows are Bunyards Exhibition. I know which one I'm growing next year!

Good: We've weeded the asparagus (again) and planted out the petunias (reputed to keep away the dreaded asparagus beetle).

Bad: the asparagus beetles are really going for it this year and causing serious damage. Some of this could be slug/snail damage too. I've never seen anything like this - the whole tips are gone!

Good: we've netted the strawberries, adopting a much simpler system than the rickety frame we constructed last year!

The net is simply draped over a few canes topped with plastic bottles, and weighed down round the edges with stones tied into the netting.

Good: I've direct-sown runner beans (Polestar) round the feet of four obelisks, and a few rows of French beans (Delinel) in front. Eddie's grandparents kindly sent us a few runner bean plants back at Eastertime, too. They've been getting a bit stressed and lanky in their little pots and will take some settling in, but they're out there now and will hopefully give us a small early crop!

Bad: we still have to finish digging the brassica patch and the three squash patches! The weeds have really taken over since last growing season and the soil is very hard and dry because of the weather we've been having, so progress is slow. I'd hoped to have cleared the paths and got some weed-proof membrane down on them by this time too, but I guess that can wait til everything else is sorted.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Home Garden Tour

I took advantage of a couple of free days last week to get lots of things sorted in the garden. I planted out the tomatoes and peppers and gave the rest of the potted plants a bit of TLC and a tidy up.

As you know, I share a garden with my parents, and their ideas on gardening and mine are not really the same... So I try to keep my pots under control and squeeze them into as small a corner as I can! This is our little bit of patio:

On the lefthand side of the door is our 'herb garden', with flat-leaf parsley, curly parsley, basil, thai basil, red basil, sage, oregano, thyme, rosemary, chives, garlic chives, and some rather sickly and pot-bound lovage. Ooh, and a jalapeno pepper.

And on the right of the door, our salad bar!

Here we have, at the back, 'pizzo' mustard, mizuna, and little gem lettuce, and at the front, the last of our winter gems, purslane, the much more vigorous and highly recommended winter purslane (aka claytonia, aka miner's lettuce), chervil (not going down too well as a salad leaf, with its thin dry texture and aniseed flavour, but I think I'll try cutting and drying some to use as a herb), spring onions, and saltwort.

The saltwort's a funny thing. It's not at all salty - I wonder if I'm supposed to give it salt, as with samphire... And the plants are very small, with rather insubstantial narrow leaves. A quick bit of research shows that I'm supposed to pick the whole plant at once. Doh! I should have sown LOADS more!

Here are our tomatoes, planted out in their growbags. I've been a bit daring and planted six to a bag instead of the recommended three. As I've said before, these 'Angelle' plants are not very vigorous or leafy, so I think they'll get on fine like this.

And here are our peppers - four in a big trough, and four in individual pots, dotted around the place.

Some sorrel, grown from seed this spring, and French tarragon, bought from the garden centre on Saturday!

A lone strawberry plant, 'Eau de Cologne' mint, cat mint, and our 'Hundreds and Thousands' tomato plant (from saved seed). There's also a 'Sub-Arctic Plenty' tomato hiding in the background.

Wedged next to the bike shed is our potted courgette plant, some feverfew, and another pepper, with a growbag stuffed down the back and supports ready for our cucumber plants...

But the cucumbers have to get a bit bigger first - and I'm crossing my fingers they even get that far! A villainous mollusc climbed right to the top of our greenhouse to get at this one the other night:

Luckily the growing tip doesn't seem to be damaged, so hopefully it'll make a full recovery.

And on top of the shed are our leek and brassica seedlings and some back-up tomatoes! I'm wondering if I can keep them long enough for a late-season crop, or if they'll get too pot-bound while they wait...

I've been a bit anxious about the leek seedlings. Despite a late Feb sowing and a couple of doses of feed, they still seem so tiny! But I put a ruler to them today and actually, most of them are about six inches now - big enough to be planted out. I'll try to do that today...

Elsewhere in the garden we've got another tub of strawberries, a little behind compared to the ones on the allotment...

...and a column of mangetout! There are two varieties here; a golden-podded one and a giant-podded one! They seem to be struggling a bit to climb, but they're getting there.

Next to the greenhouse, our French beans are doing pretty well. (Why is it the ones in the corners are always smaller?)

And inside the greenhouse we have a couple of spare peppers and tomatoes, all our squashes waiting to be planted out, and a tray of pea-shoots.

Gosh! I've been starting to wonder if we still really need the allotment, with all this going on! Then I remember that without it, we wouldn't have room for potatoes, onions, leeks, root veg, brassicas, and my beloved pumpkins and winter squashes. We've been busy there over the weekend too, but I think that's enough for today. Allotment round-up tomorrow!

Monday 16 May 2011

A Digital Dumping Ground

We all know how important recycling is today, and what councils don't take away as part of kerbside schemes can be left at Household Waste Recycling Centres (that's tips, or dumps, to you and me) where it is carefully sorted and dealt with according to the latest regulations. Our local HWRC amazes me with its efficiency every time I go there. It's open seven days a week and superbly staffed - there's always someone available to help and to make sure everything's sorted properly and put in the correct areas. The county council provides an excellent document detailing what happens to different types of waste after it's left, and I really can't fault it. There are HWRCs like this in every county, nationwide, so there's no excuse for our rubbish to go anywhere else.

But it turns out not all recycling schemes are entirely honest about where their waste goes. Today's blog was going to be about all the things I've been up to in the garden and allotment over the weekend, but I saw a horrifying report on the news this morning that changed my plans.

Somehow, 100,000 tons of electrical and electronic waste is slipping out of the system here in the UK and ending up dumped illegally in Western Africa and South Asia. It's not just the UK either; it's estimated that only one third of the EU's electrical waste is being dealt with according to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, and plenty of American waste ends up in these places too. And it's hardly a new thing; it's an 'industry' that began nearly ten years ago.


Well, recycling's expensive.

The stuff is sent to poor developing countries under the guise of donations of second-hand goods - or even sold as such. Much of the broken equipment is sold on as fully-functioning in shops and markets. The rest is simply dumped, and adults and children in slums scavenge their livings by dismantling the equipment with their bare hands, stripping out copper, aluminium and other metals for resale, and burning the rest. These workers - and their communities, and the environment at large - are exposed to heavy metals such as lead and mercury, hazardous toxic smoke from the burning plastic, and poisonous leaching chemicals such as cyanide. Their air, soil and rivers are seriously polluted, and their health at risk daily.

The BBC news article can be found here. Tonight's Panorama at 8.30pm also covers the subject.

I feel so helpless when I read about stuff like this. I'm doing 'the right thing' with all my rubbish, and for what? If governments, councils and the waste companies responsible for the bottom-line stuff won't do their bit, and if manufacturers of goods won't take responsibility for their safe disposal, what can I do? 

The only answer - all right, save radical activism or a career in politics - is "don't throw anything away". Which ultimately comes down to "don't buy anything you will ultimately have to throw away". Effective but extreme, and of course in reality the few that adopt this attitude are too small a proportion of the developed world to make any kind of difference. Except to their own consciences of course - not an unworthy cause.

But we can try, can't we? Think a little more when we buy things about where they will end up? Care for what we have a little better? Think a little more before we toss things away? Frankly, right now I'm seriously impelled to keep my electronic rubbish next time something breaks down or wears out. I'd genuinely rather it was neatly stacked in a cellar or a shed down the garden, under a nice green roof perhaps, than smashed to pieces and burning on someone else's doorstep. It's my waste, after all.

Sunday 15 May 2011

May Strawberries!

I was delighted by the sight that greeted me at the allotment today!

No, no, not the thistles... No, not the bindweed! The red thingummys. And unmunched by bird or slug! Must get some netting over them pronto to keep it that way though...

Has anyone tried those white strawberries that apparently the birds don't touch? Just curious. Might give it a go one day, but today I'm very happy with the good old-fashioned red type.

Nom nom nom.
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