Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Vegan chickweed pesto

There's not that much growing at this time of year; but you will find fresh chickweed in UK gardens and allotments, even in the middle of the snow. It's usually considered a weed, but in fact it's edible, nutritious, and even quite tasty.

You can eat it raw, but I'm not very enthusiastic about it like that. Alternatively, you can treat it like spinach leaves and wilt it before eating. Or you can make chickweed pesto, which is what I did.

When harvesting chickweed, take only the tops of the plant. The lower leaves are tougher, and also by taking the top, you just encourage it to branch and produce more tops for future harvesting.

Chickweed pesto recipe

  • A few good handfuls of chickweed tops (I had maybe a couple of packed mugs' worth).
  • Handful of pine nuts or sunflower seeds.
  • 1–2 cloves raw garlic (if you can leave the pesto overnight to mellow), or 2 tsp minced garlic / garlic paste (if you want to eat it immediately).
  • Tbsp nutritional yeast (use parmesan for a non-vegan pesto).
  • Generous pinch of salt.
  • 2-3 tbsp olive oil (add as you need it while blending).

Throw all the ingredients into a blender and keep blending until it looks like pesto. Add the olive oil as needed to help the blender out (you can also add a very little water), and as needed for texture.

It worked well on pasta, but I also enjoyed it on crackers for the next few days as a mid-morning snack. And since chickweed will, apparently, grow on my allotment regardless of what I do, I might as well make the most of it, especially at this time of year.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Cycling in snow & ice

In the cloakroom queue after seeing Leftfield last weekend, while London was still covered with snow, another punter spotted my bike pannier.

"You're cycling?" he asked in tones of mingled surprise and enthusiasm. "Wow!"

"I'd far rather that than hanging around for the night bus," I said.

"Nice one!" he said with a grin that indicated he still thought I might be a little deluded; and I went off to start layering up for the ride home.

But really, the weather has to be really pretty dreadful for public transport to be a better bet than cycling. (Even more so when, as on Friday, the public transport option is two night buses and a very chilly 20-minute wait at Elephant & Castle, watching inebriated revellers throw up into the gutter). There are a few precautions that are worth taking first.

Wrap up warm

Perhaps an obvious one, but cold hands don't operate brakes well, so find yourself some long-fingered gloves. Woolly gloves are better than nothing, but the wind tends to blow right through them; really you want gloves that are at least windproof and preferably waterproof as well. If, like me, you have really rubbish circulation, consider glove liners as well.

A Buff is useful as a scarf/hat; alternatively, if you're wearing a regular scarf, make sure the ends are safely tucked into your jacket and can't get caught in any of the moving bits of the bike. If you're suffering from chilly feet as well as chilly fingers, waterproof overshoes are really helpful*.

Check over your bike

Letting a little bit of air out of the tyres is a good bet if riding on slippery surfaces like snow, slush, or ice, as it increases the amount of contact surface with the road. If you want to take the really hardcore route, you could switch to studded tyres (or do your own DIY version either with screws or with cable ties!). Tyres with tread may be a good idea if you normally ride on skinny smooth tyres.

You should also clean your bike a bit more regularly, as grit and salt splash up onto the frame, and are bad for the metal if left there. Your chain might need a slightly heavier-duty oil than in the summer, and will probably also need oiling more regularly. If you're nearly at the point where you need to replace chain and/or cassette, it's probably worth waiting, if you can, until the spring, as they'll wear much more quickly in this weather.

Make sure that your brakes are working well -- slippery rims will slow your braking down.

Riding in snow

The most important thing to remember is not to make any sudden moves. Stop and turn more slowly and carefully than you normally would, and don't corner too sharply or your back wheel may come out from under you. Brake well in advance, and gently.

Be more aware of hazards like metal access covers, which get very slippery in rain, snow, or ice. Watch out for black ice, and if in doubt, it may be worth getting off and walking for a bit if the surface is particularly treacherous (minor local roads may not have been gritted well or at all). However, if you find yourself already riding over the ice when you notice it, just stay calm, keep pedalling, and don't turn or brake if you can avoid it. (If you have to, brake very gently.)

Stay well out of the gutter, which is where all the snow and slush will have been pushed by the cars. Of course, you should always be riding well out of the gutter to maximise your visibility, but in poor conditions you may want to ride even further out. You'll be more readily seen, and you'll be more likely to be able to stay on the dry part of the road. Where possible, choose where you're riding to stay on the dry patches, but be careful – don't put yourself in danger by riding over on the wrong side of the road unless you're very, very certain that it's safe to do so. If in doubt, get off and walk until it's safe again.

If it's dingy, foggy, or actually snowing, put your lights on to increase your visibility, as well.

In summary: take it carefully, allow more time to get where you're going, wrap up warm; and you'll be sailing merrily past all the bus queues despite the weather.

* This year I've been wearing bike sandals and waterproof socks, instead of switching to my lightweight bike shoes in the autumn. (I confess that a significant driver for this is the fact that the dog chewed both velcro and laces off the bike shoes back in April, and I still haven't sorted that out.) Somewhat to my surprise, it turns out that thick socks + waterproof socks + sandals has kept my feet warmer than my closed-toe shoes ever did. The overshoes are good if it's below zero (when I'd need them anyway). I think this is probably because wearing two pairs of socks in my regular shoes doesn't leave enough room for my toes, reducing circulation and thus making them cold. This doesn't happen in the sandals. Of course one is then wearing sandals with socks, but I am less bothered about that than I am about having cold feet!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Experiments in free(ish) jelly

It's been a fantastic year for berries, so I decided the time had come to experiment with rosehip and hawthorn jellies.

Finding a sufficiency of rosehips and haws to cook up was straightforward; half an hour in the local park with a shopping-bag produced enough for a small jar's worth each of rosehip and hawthorn jelly. I took maybe a third, and left the rest for the birds. There's plenty I can't reach, anyway.

My first attempt at rosehip jelly turned out more like a cross between jelly and syrup. Rosehips don't have much pectin, but I didn't have any to hand, so I threw some lemon juice in, and relied on boiling it down to get it to setting-point. This was probably the root of the problem. It was also a little too sweet (at 1 lb sugar to 1 pt juice).

My first attempt at hawthorn jelly turned into hawthorn toffee instead, and had to be boiled back out of the jar. Haws do have plenty of pectin, but more importantly, there was a small quantity to start with (so easier to make mistakes), and I got involved with something else and went slightly too long without checking on it. It was very tasty, though (at 0.75 lb sugar to 1 pt juice).

Last weekend, I had another go at rosehip jelly, but with a double-handful of haws in to provide the pectin. Initial tastings indicate that it's done fairly well, although I thought I might have detected a slight underlying bitterness. I'll see what happens when I finish the test-jellies and open one of the jars.

Basic recipe:
- Pick over the hips or haws. In theory you should pick off all the twig parts, but I only took out the worst of them, on the grounds that it gets sieved anyway.
- Put into a pan, and cover generously with water. Boil for a while, mashing with a potato masher after 10 min or so.
- Strain through a jelly bag (or a muslin cloth) after about 30 min. If you leave the bag to drip, the jelly will be clear, but you'll have less of it. I always squeeze, myself. If you haven't got time to finish the job today, you can put the juice in the fridge overnight at this point.
- Put the juice into a pan with 0.8 lb sugar to 1 pt juice (this is my current ratio; experiment according to the sweetness of your tooth). Rosehips need either added pectin, or pectin-containing sugar.
- Bring to a boil and simmer until it sets. Test for setting by spooning a dab onto a plate and leaving it for a minute. Pull your finger across the dab, and if it wrinkles, it's good to go.
- Put into sterilised jars (sterilise by washing with hot water and putting in a 100deg oven until dry, after which you must REMEMBER THAT THEY ARE HOT), put a jam paper circle over the top, and screw on the lid.
- Label once cool.

(It's only free-ish because the sugar costs money.)

Friday, 29 October 2010

Autumn growth

Down the allotment this week (at sunset in only a T-shirt -- in October!), I noticed that the raspberries are cropping again. Admittedly they are autumn raspberries, but 'autumn' in raspberry parlance usually means August/September, not October/November. They're not as sweet as the earlier ones, possibly because less sun means less sugar developing, but they're big and juicy and still quite tasty. I reckon I'll get at least another pot-full, and maybe two. I also harvested what I think will be the last couple of smallish courgettes. There are still some more setting on the plant, but it's late enough in the season that the insects aren't really doing the pollination job any more; one of the harvested ones obviously hadn't been pollinated properly. I'll leave the plants for a bit longer, but I think that's it. The end of October is very late to be harvesting courgettes, though! The chard is doing nicely, as are my late planting of broad beans (not a huge crop, but worth the effort of chucking a few seeds in the soil in August, I think). It's also time to cut back the asparagus and shovel a good helping of compost over it; to dig up the last of the potatoes; and to finally tackle the Horseradish Horror (planted several years ago, and never dug up since digging up one of the four took so much effort).

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Autumn and winter planting

The season is definitely turning, and it's time to think about planting on the allotment for autumn and winter.

For me, autumn planting falls into two categories: things which you can plant now to harvest in the spring; and things which you can plant now to harvest over the autumn and winter, possibly with the help of a cold frame or two.

Planting for next spring

In the first category, this year I'm intending to plant broad beans and early peas in November, as usual; onions, after reading something suggesting that you can get an early spring crop with certain varieties planted in October; and purple sprouting broccoli.

I'm intending to plant lots of broad beans this year; previous years have seen only a few, and they don't crop all that heavily. They finish very early, so something else can use the same ground afterwards. I also have a catch crop of broad beans in currently (planted in August) which may yet produce the odd bean if it stays mild and the sun comes out.

Planting for this autumn

In the second category, there's kale, broccoli raab (which will probably do better in a cold frame), mustard greens, and pak choi. All of which I've tried before with varying levels of success.

More experimentally, I'm going to try an October sowing of carrots and turnips, to see how they do. They're unlikely to get very big, but apparently a late sowing of carrots can yield a few small but tasty roots, so we'll see what happens.

Tidying up

And there is, of course, all the usual tidying-up to do: dig up the potatoes and other roots, cut back the asparagus, mulch various things with compost, pick the rhubarb (and make jam!), dig up the horseradish that has now been there for 2 years due to being enormous and very difficult to extract, cut back blackberries and raspberries and dig out any rogue interlopers, prune the blackcurrant bush and perhaps the apple tree... Still busy despite the end of the main growing season!

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Very late potato-planting

Having harvested a handful of new potatoes from the balcony the other week (and then having to deal with the ants' nest thereby uncovered), I then noticed that I still have a couple of seed potatoes left from earlier in the season, which whilst a little wrinkled look basically still sound. Then, I came across a blog post talking about planting potatoes entirely out of season for a Christmas harvest.

This fits nicely with my beliefs about experimental gardening, so I'm off this afternoon to dump the earth back in the potato-box, and see what happens. I will report back.

In other balcony-gardening news: the red arrow-head lettuce appears to be flowering and setting seed (much to my pleasure), as is the dill (which pretty much just bolted the moment it was a real plant). I shall try planting some more of both.

The cherry tomatoes are doing well (2--4 to harvest daily, which isn't bad at this time of year), and are still busily setting more of themselves. I am tempted to try planting seeds from the earliest-growing one (a Peace Vine Cherry), to see if I can get a second batch of plants to provide a late harvest. It might, of course, just be a late harvest of green tomatoes; but this would suit me fine, as I very much like green tomato chutney and I've just eaten the last of last year's.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Planting salad leaves in late summer

It may already be the end of July, but it's not too late to plant a few salad leaves for this season. Unlike a lot of vegetables, which really do need the whole of the summer to produce a reasonable crop, loose salad leaves are sufficiently fast-cropping to be worth planting in July or even August.

Rocket germinates very fast and is worth planting at nearly any time of year. Throw a few rocket seeds into a pot or into the ground, cover lightly with soil and water in well, and you should start to see seedlings within a week or two. Rocket is actually better started either well after midsummer (so, about now) or well before it (early spring), as around June it will bolt (run to seed) much faster.

Leaf lettuces (lettuces that grow lots of single leaves rather than forming a 'head') are a better bet than headed lettuces for late planting, as you can start picking leaves as soon as there are a handful of true leaves on the plant. Lollo rosso is one popular option; as is royal oakleaf. Real Seeds sell 'Bronze Arrowhead' oakleaf lettuce seeds. I've had great success growing these lettuces at all times of year, and they taste great; however, they do take a while to germinate.

Most lettuces, helpfully, are at least a bit frost-hardy, so you can expect them to keep cropping well into the autumn. You can extend this further by building a cold frame. Last year I had rocket and bronze arrowhead lettuce growing throughout the winter, even when it snowed. The plants outside the cold frame survived, but didn't grow any new leaves until the spring.

Finally, if you have any pea seeds left over, or can get hold of some, they're also worth planting late. Some mange tout may yet produce a proper crop (experiment!), but at the very least, you can harvest and eat the pea tops as salad.

Friday, 23 July 2010

How to deal with ants: pt 2

I posted before about eco-friendly ways to deal with ants in the garden. Today I dug up the small box of potatoes I was growing (harvest small but hopefully tasty!), to discover an ants' nest, or at least a lot of ant eggs, in the bottom of the box.

This was especially irritating as I'd seen fewer ants around of late, and was hopeful that the cinnamon was doing the trick.

On this occasion, I did decide to try the boiling water, primarily aimed at getting rid of the eggs. As the potatoes were out of the box, it wasn't going to destroy any plants; and despite my reluctance to kill them, I am really not up for hosting an ants' nest on my 5m x 1.5m balcony.

After the boiling water (a kettle-full over the couple of buckets that the compost had been transferred into), I chucked a watering-can full of cold tap water in as well, in the hope of drowning or scaring away any remaining ants. Or at least convincing them to take their nest elsewhere.

Watch this space for results... [sigh] Unfortunately I think it's going to be hard to get rid of them altogether, since I have a lot of plant-pots that I'm loathe to dig out altogether; so there's always somewhere else for them to go.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Tar sands activism today and next month!

I was up early this morning to walk the dog before heading off to smash the Piggy Pinata (link to photos) outside the International Banking Conference this morning. Video here. We handed out a big stack of Never Mind The Bankers newspapers, and copies of the booklet about RBS' investment in the tar sands, to people going into the conference and to interested passers-by. The conference was looking at 'reforming the banks'. What they mean is "how do we avoid the criticism (environmental and financial) whilst maintaining business as usual". What we want is to stop investment into environmental disasters like the various tar sands projects and Deepwater Horizon -- which are only the most obvious of the problems that fossil fuel investment causes.

Elsewhere, in the British Museum there was another BP sponsorship protest, with non-toxic 'oil' being poured around the Easter Island statue. This is after the Liberate Tate 'oil' spill at Tate Britain outside and inside the Tate Summer Party (celebrating BP's sponsorship). (BBC report here.)

And, of course, Climate Camp 2010 is targetting RBS, the 'oil and gas' bank (currently investing in projects including tar sands) that is 84% owned by the public. Come up to Edinburgh in August to join in with the actions!

For more information, visit the Tar Sands In Focus blog or the No Tar Sands website.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Small luxuries

Yesterday evening, whilst picking raspberries and blackcurrants at the allotment, I was thinking about small luxuries.

One of the things I appreciate most about the summer, these days, is the ability to eat raspberries by the handful. I've always loved raspberries -- we had them in the garden when I was a kid -- and for years I could get only the tiny, expensive, and often tasteless punnets that the supermarkets sell. Now there are twenty canes of them in the allotment (ten summer, ten autumn), and more raspberries than I can eat from June till September. A glorious luxury, with the only outlay (I think we've long since earnt back the £20 spent on the canes four years ago) the time it takes me to pick them, which is a pleasure in itself.

When I was cycle touring, eighteen months ago, my self-indulgence was that after the sun went down, I would light up the stove again to make a mug of tea, then crawl into my sleeping bag and lie there snugly in my tent with tea, a couple of chocolate biscuits, and an episode of Stargate (I have a fondness for dodgy SF TV) on the netbook. I remember thinking at the time that the only thing that could make the experience better would have been the ability to knit at the same time (the tent, sadly, was too small to sit up in, and knitting whilst lying on my stomach gave me cramp in my hands).

Since I've been home, one of my favourite small luxuries is to go to the library, then take my lovely new library books across the Blue to Adam's CafĂ©, and read over a plate of chips and beans with a coffee. Costs around £3, feels fabulous.

It makes me immoderately happy, just to appreciating these little things.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Solar ovens

I made a pizza box solar oven at the weekend. I've been meaning to make a solar oven for a while, but this one struck my fancy because I had everything I needed already (including an old pizza box).

It turned out looking rather like this:

I used an A4 plastic document wallet (cut open and retaped to fit the hole I'd cut) for the film, and some black card (again, cut and retaped) for the bottom.

I tried it out with biscuits yesterday, and unfortunately wasn't all that impressed. I'm not convinced that the box itself seals particularly well (so the hot air is escaping), and even allowing for half an hour to heat up, the biscuits were only halfway cooked an hour or so after I put them out. They did definitely warm up quite a lot; but not to anything like the temperatures suggested in the instructions linked above.

This may be to do with the UK climate, but my south-facing balcony catches the sun pretty well, so I'm loathe to give up entirely. Instead I intend to try this option, as soon as I've collected the necessary kit and have some free time.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Dealing with ants

We have ants on the balcony. We also have ants on the allotment (farming the aphids, mostly, which is both impressive and really, really annoying, leading as it does to the death of the broad beans). I have, therefore, been seeking ways to get rid of ants.

The executive summary seems to be: you can't; learn to live with them. I have been trying this for some time, but the depredations are getting to be just a bit much. (Especially as they seem to have killed off the worms in the wormery as well.) So I've tried a few things.

I'm not prepared to do boiling water; plus it would take ages to boil enough with the storm kettle on the allotment, and on the balcony, it would kill whatever plant was in the relevant pot as well.

On the allotment, the best solution without a doubt has been ant nematodes. The compost heap was absolutely swarming with the damn things before I applied these, as was the paving by the pear tree; both are now clear. I also tried it on the balcony, but with less conclusive effect; the satsuma tree (which seemed to be the worst affected pot) looks to be mostly clear now, but they've just moved to the potato box.

Flooding out is one option (if they've built their nest in a pot where the plant won't mind that). After emptying most of a watering-can into the potato box, I very soon saw lots of frantic ants carrying away eggs. But where to? I fear I may need to excavate the Area Under The Herb Table. I'll repeat the treatment on the potatoes again shortly (and the potatoes should do well for it, as well).

Another suggestion I've seen a lot is cinnamon. So last night I went out and sprinkled cinnamon in copious quantities all over the balcony. Curiously, I couldn't actually see as many ants anyway as I had before, so maybe the drenching has sent them off to find a nest somewhere that isn't my balcony. I'll report back on the cinnamon in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Germination and experimentation

I've had better success with carrot germination this year than in previous years, on both allotment and balcony. This might be due to very thick sowing; the rate is still poor, but the actual number is higher. Carrot seed doesn't last from year to year, so you may as well sow the lot and thin if necessary, especially given the tendency to poor germination. Turnips and parsnips, on the other hand, have been worse than previously. According to the packet, turnips shouldn't be planted in May (presumably due to pest problems?), but as we're now into June, I planted another couple of rows this weekend, along with some more carrots and beets.

Another interesting suggestion in the book I mentioned in my last post is to reconsider advised planting times. The author mentions sowing French beans as a late summer catch-crop, sowing brassicas in June or July to avoid pest problems, and sowing carrots in June (advice which I've seen before elsewhere). What I've mostly taken from this is to experiment. Once the squash have gone out into the space reserved for them, I'm going to start planting other seeds into any spaces I have left, and see how they do. After all, the worst that happens is nothing, right? I should, though, probably keep slightly better records than I have tended to in the past.

Experiments started so far:
  • Late May carrots and beets.
  • Early June turnips, Brussels sprouts, and kale (some under protective hats, some not, mostly because I ran out of protective hats).

Experiments yet to be carried out:
  • June leeks.
  • June mange tout. (I have already planted some on the balcony.)

Last year I conducted some accidental experiments with tomatoes, as my tomato seedlings didn't get out into their final pots until July. The result: fewer tomatoes, and most of them still green by October when I finally had to take them in. (I did get some very nice green tomato chutney, though). This year, the first seedlings were planted out in early May, and they're already starting to flower. I've also found in the past through experimentation that tomatoes do much better in pots on my south-facing balcony than on the allotment, so the balcony is crammed with them and I'm looking forward to the first eating.

Experimental gardening does invariably involve a few failures, but at the least you wind up better informed about why the usual rules are what they are; and you may get surprisingly positive results. The usual rules are really just guidelines; it's only practice (and experiment) that gives you information about your space.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

we are weeds, vegetation

Things I do not recommend doing if you are a gardener (or, in fact, even if you're not, although it does get you out of doing any washing up for about two mnths): breaking your thumb. Despite this handicap, I have managed to be moderately productive on both allotment and balcony over the last month. You would think that weeding might be a one-handed activity, but it turns out that I use the other hand for balance more than I would previously have thought. Nevertheless, in the ongoing battle versus the weeds, I'm just about coming out on top. Two weeks off was more than enough to make it hard to catch back up; but when I did get going on the top bed (planted to roots this year), I found that carrot, beets, and one or two parsnips were making their way through the jungle. (What has happened to the rest of the parnsips? Who knows.)

I've also been reading a new book, "Organic Gardening the Natural No-Dig Way", by Charles Dowding, and so far have come up with a couple of useful messages. The first concerns weeds: "a year of weeds is seven years of seeds".

This has implications for green manure – if you don't intend to dig in your manure (see 'no-dig'), it will go to seed, making more trouble for you in the future. Dowding isn't in favour of green manures unless (like mustard) they're killed by frost before seeding.

It also has implications about the amount of work that needs to be done over the winter. This winter I did only very minimal weeding, as the weeds were growing only minimally, but in practice this just meant that I didn't get on top of it before they went to seed in the spring. I'm definitely seeing the results.

I've been reminded during the intensive weeding process of the last couple of weeks of something I read from Bob Flowerdew: that it pays to keep going back to a bed you've weeded thoroughly before it obviously needs weeding again. Keep cutting off the tops of the weeds (if using a hoe) or uprooting them (if weeding by hand) and they'll get weaker, so the job will become progressively easier.

I am constantly debating the issue of whether or not to bother keeping weeds that have gone to seed, and rhizome-type weeds, out of the compost. On the one hand, this is often recommended as otherwise your compost will just grow weeds. On the other hand, I'm never going to get rid of the weeds for ever anyway, and it seems a bit of a waste of compostable material. My current compromise is to leave the rhizome-rooted weeds out on the paths for a week or so to dry up before composting them.

This season I've also been thinking more about hoeing to speed up weeding. Making seed rows a hoe's width apart helps, but the problem I've then encountered is that my rows aren't always straight. With the next lot of planting (which will be the subject of my next post), I intend to actually use pieces of string, as I see the older gardeners on the allotment doing.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb

It is once again the time of year when the rhubarb crowns go from "tiny new spring-announcing shoots" to "enormous rhubarb-triffids" pretty much overnight. Rhubarb crumble is good, as is rhubarb jam, but I thought I'd try something different this spring, and make rhubarb juice.

I used this recipe (summary: chop stalks into inch-ish chunks, cover with water, add a teaspoon of honey, boil for half an hr, then pour off the juice), and got 700ml of juice from maybe 10 decent-sized stalks. A teaspoon of honey was plenty (I might not bother with any at all another time).

The juice is nice neat; but even better with a little vodka, a couple of icecubes, and a sprig of mint. Very refreshing.

I turned the leftover pulp into rhubarb bread, using this vegan banana bread recipe. I estimated the volume of rhubarb pulp at about 2 bananas' worth or a little more, so halved all the other quantities, and cut out the water as the rhubarb was pretty damp. Cooked for an hour at 180oC, it came out wonderfully. A bit like rhubarb crumble in cake form.

Next time I might try rhubarb liqueur.

Friday, 9 April 2010

A most relaxing week

I spent an incredibly relaxing week over Easter at the Ecolodge in Old Leake, Lincs, with my partner doop and Sidney-the-dog.

The Ecolodge belongs to a lovely couple called Geri and Andy, who live in the house next door to it (the houses are sufficiently separate that you don't see them unless you want to). It's entirely offgrid: the electricity comes from a wind turbine and solar panels, there's a compost loo, rain-water is collected for showering (although there is one tap in the kitchen which has mains drinking water), and heating and hot water are handled by a wood-stove in the main room. The stove is obviously usable for cooking as well – we did 90% of our cooking on it, but did use the little two-burner gas ring to boil the kettle.

One of the major attractions for us was the lack of 'proper' electricity. All the plugs in the place are 110V DC, so you need a special sort of plug for them, and you can't just plug in your usual electrical kit. Which means no phones, no laptops, no iPod speakers... Instead, we read, knitted (in my case), did one of the jigsaws we found on the shelves, cooked, and chatted. A couple of times I switched the battery-operated radio onto Radio 3, but mostly I was happy just to listen to the birdsong and the subdued roar and crackle of the stove.

There's a couple of acres of mixed woodland and meadow out the back, which Sidney particularly appreciated as it featured pheasants. If you are a 1-year-old lurcher cross who's never been out of the city before, pheasants are, apparently, about the most fun it is possible to have. Happily she didn't actually catch any, in large part because even the dopiest pheasant would have heard her coming from some distance away as she crashed merrily through the undergrowth. doop and I followed behind more sedately, watching the process of spring springing, with the trees bursting into leaf and the flowers starting to appear.

There are a couple of flattish local walks, or you can go a bit further afield if you're not limited by having to take the dog along. We also spent an afternoon in the Art Stop, a slightly battered caravan equipped with pencils, crayons, paints, paper, and a box of fossils. I had enormous fun playing with colours like a 4-year-old. There's also jigsaws (we completed a 500-piece one over around 6 hours and felt immensely proud), kids' games, and a box of dominos (although neither of us could remember the rules).

Cooking on the wood stove is a slow process. It sometimes felt like our days revolved pleasantly around food (planning it and minding it), but the actual work involved was minimal. Just chuck another log or two on the stove every 45 minutes or thereabouts. We made one stew that was in the oven for over 24 hours (although not actually being cooked overnight), and it was sensational. Veggies were provided by the local organic farm, and there's free-range eggs available locally as well. When we needed anything, doop set off on his bike to the Co-op in the village, 4 km away. Apparently cycling in this part of the world is a little bracing (read: windy).

I came back feeling incredibly relaxed and peaceful, and determined to spend more of my time not plugged into the internet. Indeed, I wrote this on my first no-wireless-at-home day on Wednesday (and have only just got around to posting it). Just switching off from everything was fantastic, and I felt so much better for slowing down. I may not be able to spend all day every day kicking back on the sofa while I'm back in London, but I do want to recreate some of that peace here. I'll update with how it's going after a month.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Spring is sprung

And therefore it is time to start on the planting.

In the last couple of weeks on the allotment, I've planted chard, parsnips, peas, carrots, and beetroot. The overwintered peas and beans from the balcony have gone out to join the beans that overwintered in the allotment (the peas appear to have expired somewhere along the way). I'm not sure how well the beans are actually doing, but we'll see. What I am sure of is that I should have planted many more of them to get anything like a crop. Ah well; a thing to remember for next year.

On the balcony, things are also getting moving. I've started my tomato, pepper, and chilli seedlings on the windowsill, and planted some carrots in a pot. The tomatoes appear a little reluctant to germinate; but I have 5 seedlings up and about now. (The chillis are known for taking ages to germinate and need it to be really warm.) Some of the overwintered peas have gone into balcony pots rather than to the allotment, and the cold-frames have been partway taken apart (they will be fully taken apart when there's more storage room).

The sage and mint cuttings I made over the winter have both taken, and the mint is now growing furiously; the thyme (which died back a little over the winter) is reinvigorating itself; and the chives are back up again (always one of my favourite parts of spring).

Very excitingly, I had a look at the worms in the wormery yesterday and they have produced actual compost! They also looked a little sorry for themselves; I have added a little water (the balcony got quite warm in the recent sunshine, and I'll need to bear that in mind over the summer) and some more food, so hopefully they'll perk up.

Friday, 1 January 2010

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