Monday, July 31, 2006

It's Raining, It's Pouring

We've been weeks without any rain. I've been going to the allotment every other day at least to water all the plants. In the last couple of days we've had the odd sprinkle for literally a few seconds, then nothing comes of it. Every night I've gone to bed expecting thunderstorms and cloudbursts in the night, but in the morning the ground is still dry and cracked.

But today we've had consistent drizzle. No thunder, no cloudbursts, no drama, but steady drizzle for at least a couple of hours now. That's the very best thing I could have hoped for. Beating heavy rain could flatten my established plants and wash away my seedlings, doing more harm than good. But this is perfect. Gentle steady rain. Fantastic.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Hire Car

We've got a hire car. The mechanic didn't get back to us on Friday with his final verdict, so I'll have to ring him on Monday and ask if the car is repairable or not. The tax runs out tomorrow so I'd really like to know!

I walked to the allotment on Friday to water anything, and pick a few courgettes before they turned into marrows. It's two miles away, but fortunately there's an off-license on the way back so I picked up a couple of bottles of Black Sheep Ale. Very nice.

Everything seems to be breaking down at the minute. The car seems to be dead. The washing machine needed repairing, but it does that once in a while. Even my digital camera has died, so I'll be posting older photos for while until I can figure out how to get pictures off my mobile phone onto the computer.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Tesco Boycott

It's been almost 4 weeks now since I've stopped shopping at Tesco and I have to say I've actually enjoyed the experience. Not only is my conscience easier knowing I'm not supporting their ethically bankrupt business, but I have really enjoyed exploring other places to shop, such as my local shops and The Unicorn. The organic box scheme is a delight, I even got a free bottle of organic wine when I signed up for a weekly box. I've been exploring farmer's markets, and stopping at every farm shop I pass and generally having a whale of a time.

Some of my readers have told me that they're trying to shop locally more and rely on the big 4 supermarkets less. That's great. Other people have asked me what's so bad about Tesco anyway? I found a great website which explains everything. Here's a quote from their homepage:
"Tesco now controls 30% of the grocery market in the UK. In 2006, the supermarket chain announced over £2.2 billion in profits. Growing evidence indicates that Tesco's success is partly based on trading practices that are having serious consequences for suppliers, farmers and workers worldwide, local shops and the environment."
If you're interested I suggest you check out the link. There's an Asdawatch website as well. Remember it's not just Tesco, but big supermarkets in general, especially on out-of-town sites, that are irrevocably destroying our local shops and therefore our choice. On the other hand, Co-op are Britain's most ethical retailer, the first to remove all GM ingredients from their own-brand foods, and with an impressive range of fair-trade products.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Broke down

My car broke down yesterday. It's the automatic gearbox, which is never cheap. It's going to be off the road for at least a week, I'm told. Ed says we can hire a car for a week, which would be very good. Where we live there is no way to walk anywhere, certainly not with kids in tow.

We live on the outskirts of the village, on a small crescent surrounded by a large dairy farm. The crescent opens on to a country lane with no footpath. The village centre is 2 miles away.

Today I am just sitting at home waiting for the garage to call. Well, I'm not just sitting, there's laundry to do, cleaning, keeping the kids occupied, not to mention the large pile of essays to be marked.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Compost heaps

The kids helped me make two compost bins out of the pallets we picked up yesterday. I've already cut down a bunch of comfrey to put in the first one, and trained the boys to pee on the heap. Eleanor will have to pee in the toilet shed, but perhaps I can give her a bucket and she can carry it back to our plot and pour it on the heap. I've also emphasised to the boys the "pee only" rule. No other toilet products are allowed on the heap. Not human products anyway. The chicken manure will certainly go on the heap.

We made a small bonfire out of the scraps of leftover wood, which kept the kids fascinated for a couple of hours. Next time I'll bring some spuds or sweetcorn or marshmallows. The kids ended up roaming around the plot looking for stuff to burn, and I had to chase around after them asking people "Did you give that to them or have they just pinched it?".

Peas and beans are starting to grow - too small to pick just yet, but it's a matter of days.

Runner beans, Unicorns and pallets

Ellie's runner beans are the tallest things on the plot - even taller than Ellie.

We went to The Unicorn yesterday and stocked up on dried peas and beans, wholewheat pasta and organic baked beans and other yummy things. Whilst I was there I noticed some broken pallets in the delivery bay so I asked what they did with them. Now I have a stack of about 6 or 7 complete (slightly broken) pallets and a bunch of bits sitting on the allotment waiting to be turned into a compost heap.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Looking for a sign

I liked the allotment sign so much I made another one for the back gate at home. When I started it the chickens were roaming free in the garden (and elsewhere!) so I hoped the sign would stop people leaving the gate open and letting the chickens out, hence the chicken motif on the sign. Now, of course, the hens are safely cooped up so the sign is unnecessary, but it's still cute so I fixed it up.

I wonder what other signs I can make?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Spuds, square eggs and blackcurrant ice-cream

Put some spuds in at the allotment. I thought it was too late for spuds but the nice couple who gave them to us said they'd be fine. We had a bare bit anyway where I'd planted some broccoli and cabbages that never came up, so now we have a row of spuds.

I can hear the red chicken from where I'm sat at the computer and she sounds like she's laying a square egg.

I made Sid's blackcurrants (see http://tinyurl.com/jcs8z) into blackcurrant double ripple ice cream. The recipe is from the book The River Cottage Year so I won't reprint it here. But it's on the River Cottage Website at http://tinyurl.com/zv8ry so if you want to make it you can look it up yourself. If you can get hold of blackcurrants I recommend you try it, it's absolutely delicious and also one of those recipes that look like you spent ages faffing on with difficult techniques, but actually it's really easy. I whipped up the first batch whilst I was also cooking dinner, as an afterthought, that's how easy it is. Of course, Sid's delicious allotment blackcurrants make all the difference, and I had enough for two batches so I've plenty of it. I think I'll save some from Sam until one of my sisters visits, because I'll bet they'd like it.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Minor annoyances

It's been a day of minor annoyances.

I noticed the chicken's drinker was empty. It takes a gallon and cleverly lets out a little at a time into a drinking bowl so they have a constant supply of fresh water. When I refilled it though it didn't let out a little at a time, it all poured out straight away. There's a large crack in the top that lets in air and stops the mechanism from working. Looks like something heavy has jumped on it. Hmmm - I wonder what that could have been?

Gaffer tape has fixed it for now, but how long it holds up remains to be seen.

Then I went to the allotment to water everything. It has been bone dry and very hot for a long while so I've been watering every day. It takes quite a while to do everything, as well. Just as I finished, it started to rain.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Sprout sleuth


Something has been nibbling my sprouts. I mean, seriously munching them. At first I thought of caterpillars so I had a good look and couldn't see any. But when I turned the leaves over lots of tiny white flies flew around. Surely those titchy flies couldn't have eaten great holes in my leaves. It was a puzzle.

The children came to the allotment with me but they left me alone because Sid (who is 90 years old) had given them each a plastic punnet and told them to pick all the blackcurrants they wanted, then ended up having to supervise them because they were doing it all wrong - picking green ones, squashing half of them, standing on other nearby crops and so on. Kept them out of my hair anyway.

When Sid had had enough of them he brought them back over to me, all purple and sticky and squabbling over who had picked most. So I asked him for his opinion of my sprouts. He's a little deaf. Actually he's almost stone deaf (which explains why he can tolerate the kids for so long) so at first the only advice I could elicit was "They need watering" (I knew that). But I kept at it because he has one of the most impressive plots with super fruits and veg. Then he started going on about clubroot, which was still no help, but when managed to draw his attention to the holes in the leaves he said "Oh, looks like pigeons have been at them" .

Ah, Pippa the scarecrow. You are sorely missed.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Yield, varlet!

I thought I didn't really mind about Pippa the scarecrow http://bean-sprouts.blogspot.com/2006/06/meet-pippa.html being destroyed, but today as I was weeding the allotment several mums pushed pushchairs along the path and each time the little children said "Where's the scarecrow? Where has it gone?" I didn't realise how much joy she gave to other people as well as myself, and it's such a shame that some yobs came and wrecked her.

One of the nice things about the allotment is coming home with armfuls of produce. Today for example I brought back loads of fresh onions, some green courgettes, and a punnet of redcurrants. The funny thing is I don't even grow any of those things, but people who have a glut give them to me (sometimes quite forcibly!) when they see me about. The allotment is producing things, mostly radishes and salad and gorgeous yellow courgettes. It won't be long until the runner beans start producing beans either, they have loads of red flowers on them.

In fact I think we'll probably have a glut of runner beans and I'll have to force them on other people. I read somewhere that 3 runner bean plants is enough for a family, but we've got dozens. It's one of the hardest things to find advice about - how much to plant. I've got one butternut squash plant. Will I get just one squash and think "That was silly, I should have planted more", or will I get loads of squash and think "Phew, good job I didn't plant 4 of them!"
I've looked in books, on the internet and on the back of seed packets but only rarely do you get any information about yields or recomended numbers to plant. Maybe I should do research for a few years and write a book about it.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Baking Day

Good, eh, and I'm not done yet. There are still more cooked cherries in the pan which will make a few more batches of cherry choc chunk ice cream as soon as I buy more cream.

And there's good news from the chickens. They hadn't been laying well over the weekend, producing one or no eggs a day. I was waiting for them to get back to normal, and today they produced three egss. Someone is overachieving, but I can't tell who since they both produce identical eggs.

Cherry Jam

Add 6 1/2 lbs pitted home-grown morello cherries to the juice of 3 organic lemons and simmer until the cherries are soft. Add 3 1/2 lbs Whitworth's Jam Sugar and boil until it reaches 106C, or until a small amount poured onto a saucer which has been in the freezer wrinkles when pushed with your finger. Pour into clean sterile jam jars and seal. Wipe and label jars and allow to cool.

Cherry Pie

Add 1lb pitted home-grown morello cherries to the juice of an organic lemon and simmer until the cherries are soft. Add fair trade granulated sugar to taste (probably at least 8oz). Then stir 2 teaspoons arrowroot to 1 tablespoon water and stir until dissolved. pour the arrowroot mixture into the cherries and stir for 30 seconds until thick. Pour the cherry pie filling into a prepared pastry case (I'm not putting pastry instructions here. If you don't already have a favourite sweet short pastry recipe, Google for one), and choose one of the following options:
  1. Open cherry tart - that's it. Bake your open tart.
  2. Lattice cherry tart - cut strips of leftover pastry and lay them on the tart in a lattice pattern. Brush with beaten egg and bake for about 20 minutes or until golden.
  3. Cherry pie - roll out a pie top and place on the pie, crimping the edges with a fork. Cut a hole or two in the top to let steam out during baking. Brush with beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar and bake for about 20 minutes or until golden.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Sign of the Times

I made this sign for the allotment. Steph suggested I put the address of the blog on it, and at first I thought that would just be geeky and sad. But then someone left a message on our allotment asking for my email address (they also left some seeds - allotment people are the best!) which made me think it wouldn't be a bad idea after all. I'm also tickled by the juxtaposition of old and new.

I picked a stone of cherries (14lbs or 6.5kg) off the tree in the front garden today, so this evening Ed and I will be de-stoning them and turning them into jam, pies, and ice-cream. I just looked up the price of cherries in Tesco and that's £44 worth of cherries. And by the time they're jam, pies etc. they'll be worth even more. I feel pretty good about that.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

For you, Tommy, ze war is over

Spent the day putting the final touches to the chicken run. I reckon it's now totally chicken-proof, cat-proof fox-proof (although I'm aware those are famous last words).

My favourite thing about it is that it didn't cost a penny. We built it entirely out of materials we already had, and hadn't even paid for in the first place. For example, the chicken-flap has a hinge made out of the woven nylon handle of an Ikea carrier bag, cunningly removed in such a way that the bag is still useable.

Went round to the neighbour who helped us round them up twice. I reassured them that the chickens were now securely contained, and gave them four eggs as a thankyou.

So hopefully that's the end of the chicken dramas. They're still free-range, just not quite as free-range as they had been, but that was altogether too free-range for my liking.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

This means war

The bloody chickens escaped again yesterday. We all came home from the library to find 3 neighbours rounding them up from various gardens in the street. We can't figure out where they're getting out. Everything from ground level up to 3 feet is surrounded with chicken wire, and I've never seen either of them fly unless they're being chased.

Ed has a theory that cats are getting in and spooking them, causing them to fly over the fence. We don't want to clip their wings because then they wouldn't be able to get away from the cats, so the only solution is to keep the cats away from the chickens. That means building a pen.

So today we've been making a cat-proof chicken run using the timber we saved when we took out a stud wall in the kitchen, and the chicken wire that we found in the garage when we moved here. I always like making something for nothing. Especially when the resource we are penning in is only providing 50pence worth of eggs per day, I don't want to spend £200 on timber to protect it.

The chickens haven't laid today. Maybe it's all the people in the garden all day long hammering and sawing which has upset them. Or maybe it's because they know their days of complete freedom are numbered.

Oh, and Pippa (the scarecrow http://bean-sprouts.blogspot.com/2006/06/meet-pippa.html) is dead. She was there last night at about half past eight but this morning she was thoroughly dismembered and most of her is missing. So near to the fence I suppose she was always going to be a vandal magnet, so I don't think we'll replace her. Rest In Pieces, Pippa. You may rise again on the smallholding, but you never stood a chance on the allotment.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The great escape

More chicken dramas last night, the damned things escaped right out of the house and over the road. Half the kids in the street and some of the adults got involved in rounding them back up again. Ed arrived home the precise second I was closing the gate having finally got them both back. Typical.

I read somewhere that 90% of the business of smallholding is purely about livestock penning. That could be right.

Anyway we've nailed more chicken wire around the place we think they may have got out. The place is starting to look like Colditz.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Good fences make . . .

The hens trashed Ed's flowerbeds, digging up expensive plants and laying waste to everything. He was Not Pleased At All. So today I put up fencing to keep them off the beds.

The fences are only very low and I'm not sure if they're up to the job. The chickens could jump over them if they had a short run up, they wouldn't even need to fly. But I didn't want to go straight to def con 3 and erect six-foot high chain link with floodlights and lookout towers, if a nine-inch high decorative plastic edging would do the job just as well.

So far it seems to be working. They're pretty stupid beasts and when they hit an obstacle they just change direction and go somewhere else. They don't seem to spend hours figuring out how to penetrate our defences the way, say, a dog would. The cost of the fencing sets back the date when the chickens start paying for themselves, or to look at it another way we learned a priceless lesson about the importance of fencing in livestock.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Home cooking

My first ever entirely home-produced meal. Chive omelette, steamed baby courgettes, three leaf salad with radishes, and peppermint tea. Every ingredient grown by us. I didn't even add salt and pepper, and I have to say I didn't need to either. It was delicious. Why don't you come over for lunch sometime?

Chickens and cherries

I couldn't resist this. A quilt with chickens and cherries. Says it all, really. From www.americanjane.com

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Swanky henhouse

Tell me what you think, honestly. Is it OTT for a henhouse to have leaded windows and checky red curtains?

The black hen got the idea shortly after the red one yesterday so we got 2 eggs within an hour of acquiring the chickens. Sam took the second one to school hard-boiled in his lunch box. Show-and-tell and lunch, all rolled into one.

They laid 2 more eggs today, in the nestbox in the henhouse rather than randomly amongst the bedding plants like yesterday. I say "nest box" - it makes it sound as fancy as the henhouse but in fact it's an old washing-up bowl with straw in it. I put 3 hard-boiled shop-bought eggs in it to give the girls a clue what they're meant to do there, and it seems to have worked a charm. I didn't fancy rummaging about in the borders every day playing "hunt the egg".

Monday, July 10, 2006

We have chickens

Today I collected 2 chickens from a Cheshire poultry breeder www.goodlifepoultry.co.uk and they settled in very quickly in their new home, a converted wendy house. The red one is my favourite so far - I'd only let her out for five minutes when she found and devoured a slug. Way to go, red!

I read up about chickens and decided they would be no more trouble than, for example, a rabbit, but with the added bonus of eggs. But I wasn't sure Ed would be keen on the idea. So I called him over to show him something on the computer and brought up the Eglu website www.omlet.co.uk. They have funky urban henhouses for the iPod generation. They look like someone has disembowelled an iMac and attached a run on the front. Ed agreed they looked great, and the website answered all his concerns about smell, noise, care and so on. When he agreed in principle I clicked "add to shopping basket" and showed him that they cost £400. Whilst he made choking noises I took him to Ebay and showed him some wooden henhouses for sale there, much more reasonable, only £200 http://tinyurl.com/ox25q. He was still an odd purple colour, so I suggested if he was going to be a tightwad we could convert the kids' wendy house into a henhouse for no cost at all, and buy a couple of hens from Goodlife Poultry for £10 each. He took this option with palpable relief. It's just as well it was the option I preferred from the outset.


UPDATE - We have eggs!

I came back from a guitar lesson and panicked when I could only see one chicken in the garden.
I thought the red one had legged it over the fence until I found her lurking in the shrubs. And this is what she had been doing. I fried it and shared it with Sam for lunch, and it was delicious. Good old red, definitely the favourite chicken.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Life is a . . .

We have a cherry tree in the front garden, but normally the birds eat the lot as soon as they start to show any colour at all. But for some reason this year they have left them completely alone, and today Sam and I went out and picked a large bowlful, leaving plenty of unripe cherries on the tree for later.

They're the sour type so you can't eat them raw but they're delicious cooked with plenty of sugar. Sam helped me make some of them into cherry choc chip ice cream, and I froze the rest to make pie or jam later.

Cherry Choc Chunk Ice Cream

De-stone and chop 1 cup of ripe home-grown cherries. Put half of them in a pan with 1 tablespoon of fair trade caster sugar and warm gently until the cherries are soft, then whizz in a blender until liquid. Add 350ml organic cream, 3 organic free range egg yolks and 100g fair trade caster sugar and whizz until well blended. The stir in the rest of the cherries by hand, along with 1/2 cup of fair trade dark choc chunks. I put all this in an ice cream machine, or you could put it in a tupperware container in the freezer and whisk it vigorously every hour until it is too solid to whisk.

In the news

Interesting story about allotments on the BBC news24 website. Apparently the occupation of allotments in Birmingham is soaring thanks to women with young families.

I liked this quote:

Ken Vaughan, who has gardened at the allotments for 13 years, said: "They've put a hell of a lot of work in and it has surprised me.
"Somebody said the other day, 'it's nice to see these women instead of the grumpy old men there used to be'. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/west_midlands/4965644.stm

Friday, July 07, 2006

Recycling

Ed came to the allotment today for the first time in weeks. He was gratifyingly impressed by the changes that have occurred since he saw it last, and did a little hoeing. He kept asking "What's that?" and "What's this?" and "What are those?" which was quite unnecessary because everything is labelled very clearly.

I've been making plant labels out of old milk bottles. They're a sturdy whitish plastic, and you can write on them with a permanent marker to make nice labels. I like them for three reasons. First, they're free. Second, they're recycled. And third, they help me remember what I've planted and where I've planted it.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

All Things Organic

As part of my Tesco withdrawal I signed up for an organic box scheme from www.all-things-organic.co.uk and today our first box arrived. Sam and I were very excited as we rummaged through our goodies. So far I'm impressed - there was a good balance between lots of variety and a decent amount of each product. The veg is even washed and picture-perfect, which makes me a bit suspicious about what happens to the differently-attractive produce. Part of the charm of organic food is washing the mud off yourself, and showing everyone the potatoes that look like Dennis Healy or whatever.

We're awash with carrots and tomatoes since I already had some in the fridge, but the delivery guy said we can request "no more tomatoes" in the next box, which will come in handy when the allotment starts producing. In the middle of a glut of runner beans the last thing you'd want would be a delivery of beans you have to pay for. They can even include organic dry goods (such as pasta and tea bags) or organic wine.

All Things Organic is specific to this area - apparently all veg comes "from Cheshire & Lancashire farms", but they are part of Organics 4U www.organics-4u.co.uk which deliver anywhere in the UK (in case any of my faithful readers think they might try it themselves).

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Pamper day

Sam's preschool have an imaginative approach to fundraising. No race nights or cheese and wine evenings for them, instead they have just put on a Pamper Evening. For £5 per 20minute treatment you could sign up for as many treatments as you wanted. I had the full monty and just spent a gloriously relaxing hour-and-a-half having an Indian head massage, Thai foot massage, reflexology and hand massage, with wine and nibbles thrown in.

Then when I got home the babysitter had not only given the kids their tea and put them to bed, she had also cleaned the living room and kitchen, and then thanked me for letting her watch my lovely children.

I must be dreaming.

If you're thinking that today's post has nothing to do with self-sufficiency, you're dead right. But it has quite a lot to do with the good life.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Harvest time

Today Sam and I pulled the first food produced by our allotment - 2 radishes. It was so exciting! They're spicy and crunchy and we grew them ourselves from seeds in the earth we dug. What a thrill.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Cold turkey

To my shame, I usually do most of my shopping at Tesco. I don't need to repeat all the arguments why supermarkets are the spawn of Satan, and we should all really support our local shops and producers. Actually there is a fabulous farm shop near my home which I use quite often. But they don't sell milk, or pasta, or clothes, so normally I just pick up my fruit and veg at the supermarket since I'm there anywhere. It's just so convenient isn't it? I do buy quite a bit of pasta and other things at The Unicorn, a wonderful co-operative grocery in Chorlton http://www.unicorn-grocery.co.uk/. But it's much further away than Tesco and it doesn't sell clothes, newspapers, honey or meat or other non-vegan things. I can actually get just about everything I need at Poynton high street. But you can't push a supermarket trolley up and down the high street so it means carrying heavy bags of shopping backwards and forwards to the car park, and not all the shops accept debit cards so I need to take some cash with me, and . . .

OK, I admit it, I shop at Tesco because I'm lazy. That's the real reason.

But I've decided to go cold turkey. No more Tesco for me. I'll get my fruit and veg from the farm shop a mile away (until the allotment starts producing stuff other than rhubarb). I'll get health-foody things like bran flakes and herb tea as well as environmentally friendly cleaning products and toiletries from the health food shop in the village. Most general grocery things can come from the Co-op http://www.co-op.co.uk/ which have a great range of fairtrade and organic products, as well as being an ethically-run company. And I'll do a run to The Unicorn once a month or so to stock up on the things only they provide. I'll keep you posted on how it's going.

Oh, I'll still fill up the car at Tesco. As far as I know all the petrol producers are as bad as each other, but the supermarkets are far cheaper. In fact, I believe they loss-lead on fuel http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loss-leader, so buying their petrol at a discount (whilst not buying any products which would make them a profit) will actually cost them money. At least that's how I'm justifying it to myself until I get around to doing some research about ethical petrol stations.

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