Wednesday 31 December 2014

My 2014

Sorry not many post over the last week or so - We've been busy with family and I've even managed to get some work in.

It's the last day of the year so I guess it's traditional to look back at the last year and see what we've achieved.

Children and family
The first major positive for this year was me taking over the full time childcare. I wasn't sure what to expect or even if I'd cope with it.
Making bread
 It's been amazing and I've loved the opportunity to spend more time with my children than I ever thought I would. We've done loads of things together, from days out, lot of baking (which has become a new hobby of mine), loads of time in the garden and visiting playgroups. Playgroups were tricky at the start as I was just the token dad in a room full of mums, but I've made some amazing friends with like minded people.
the children seem to have enjoyed the time with me as well (or at least I hope they have!) and this summer they were both sun kissed youngsters from spending so much time with me!
Lots of time spent messing around
We've also managed to spend time together as a family which is really important to us, having a great holiday in the summer and still managing to find time to do other things together like swimming and going to friends houses.

I've done the least amount of paid work since leaving school this year but luckily interesting and varied work has come my way to fill up my weekends and school holidays. Only working part time can be tricky for customers to understand but luckily I've got a few good ones that keep putting work my way and are willing to work around the limited time that I can give them.

I've already got a lot of work booked in for the new year to keep me out of trouble and to bring extra money in. It seems that work comes my way a bit easier now so hopefully it will keep coming in.

This has been my best year ever for learning and using homesteading skills. I've had to get to grips with doing the housework and trying to keep on top of washing clothes and cooking dinner every night (and not messing around and ruining it). I've preserved lots of food, experimented with new ingredients and cut right back on the amount of meat we eat, increasing the number of vegetarian meals to make the most of the veg that we grow. I've also got into the habit of baking with the children a couple of times a week and that's something we all enjoy (plus I love cake).

This has been my best gardening year as well. Not only have we had a great summer but I've also been in it a lot more than usual to take advantage of all that good weather. 
We've grown the majority of our own veg and I've started to experiment with new and usual fruit and veg. I managed to get the new greenhouse up just at the right time so we had a bumper crop of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, cucamelons and chillies, I also managed to divide the garden up making planning, rotating and managing the veg garden much easier and making it look much smarter. We control was pretty good as well, next year I need to gain better control of the weeds around the fruit bushes and increase my growing area for unusal crops.

Well we didn't increase much on this front. I didn't manage to finish the fencing early enough so we've just stuck with chickens this year but I've been told by one little girls that she wants piggies next year so I'll have to try hard on that one! The chickens have been great though and except for a fox attack we managed to keep the numbers fairly constant, although eggs haven't been produced much this autumn. We hatched out five chicks in the summer which is a great thing for the girls to be a part of and keeps steadily replacing our stock.
Fields and trees
I managed to plant a lot of trees this last year, with a new 42m hedge being planted on one of the first days of the year. I also started a willow coppice (although growth hasn't been great) and grafted over a hundred apple, pear and stone fruit trees to either be planted here or sold to help cover the costs of my hobby.
I've managed to get all the fencing up (although I've still got quite few gates to hang) and we made some nice hay in the summer, as well as keeping the grass in good condition. Hopefully we'll get some stock next year to help with this.

Major projects
Well in short the one we need the most didn't happen - the extension! By doing private work this year instead means that we should be able to better fund it but it hasn't pushed the project on. I'm hoping that we'll start in the spring once the ground dries up a bit, getting the porch built and then starting the main extension, plus we've got many drainage issues to deal with as well!
I did do a few minor project to the house that I'm really happy with, I finished the living room by putting up shelves and a mantle piece and I did a few projects to increase our amount of storage in the house.

It's been a brilliant year and I've really enjoyed having this blog to document it, the good and the bad, and all your (the readers) input as well, plus I've loved reading everyone else's blogs. The comments never disappoint me, when I have a question or want advice I get just what I was looking for and normally a new avenue to explore, plus reading other blogs gives me new ideas and things to try and it's nice to know that all over the world there are people out there who are just as bonkers as me!

Thank you all for reading and I hope you continue to do so in the new year! 

Happy New Year!

Thursday 25 December 2014

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone! 
Sorry I've been off the blogs for the last week or so - I've been very busy in the workshop finishing presents - there's been some late night but it was all worth it when I saw their faces! They seemed pretty pleased with their new house! 
Yesterday was a mad day of putting it all up. I even sheeted all the windows on the one side of the house so they wouldn't see it. I managed to get it all finished before it got dark so we could put the children to bed together and leave out a can of beer and mince pies for father Christmas - it's magical at their age.
The windows sheeted up! Wonder what the neighbours thought!

Some of Christmas dinner fresh out of the ground.
Today has been a much more laid back affair, opening presents, watching kids films on TV, enjoying a beautiful Christmas dinner cooked by my gorgeous wife with six veg, five grown here, and then trying to stay awake on the sofa all afternoon! 
Hope everyone had the day they wanted and are surrounded by the ones they love.
Merry Christmas to you all!

Monday 22 December 2014

Making Vanilla Extract

We don;t really buy cakes or cookies in this house so if I wan them we have to cook them. I normally want them! So the girls and me bake a couple of times a week, normally a cake and cookies, I've been messing with a cookie recipe for a month or so now changing it every week to get it perfect. One ingredient I've been using with them is vanilla extract and although it's not terribly expensive from Lidl I decided to make my own.
Lidl vanilla extract
 I went on eBay and found some "extract grade" vanilla pods for sale, 50 for £4.83 - bargain! The "extract" grade just means they're a little drier than normal but fine for what I wanted.
 I then had a hunt around the cupboards and found some half full bottles of vodka, from a life before children, untouched for probably 5 years! These would do nicely though.
 I then split 40 beans in half and had my two year old helper push them into the bottle of vodka. Topped it up, shook it and put it on the top shelf in the pantry.
All I need to do now is wait a couple of months and I should have a large bottle of vanilla extract ready to use. I'll let you know how it works out!
Anyone else made their own vanilla extract?

Saturday 20 December 2014

More Unusual Seeds Ordered And Thoughts On Hybrids

I know I shouldn't be buying things for the garden so close to Christmas but I decided that there was no way anyone was going to buy me these - Yacon, Oca And Fat Baby Achocha! Tubers and seeds to get planting next year. 
I'm blaming James Wongs book and Dawn's blog the other day for showing me her Oca harvest (view Dawn's post here) for buying these and a few more!
I found a small seed growing company on the internet that sold Oca and after reading a bit about them decided I really liked their ethos. They're called the The Real Seed Catalogue and they've got loads of interesting and unusual seeds for sale and none of it is hybrids or modified. In fact they send instructions with every pack so you can save your own seed and not have to buy from them again! 
They don't sell a large selection of each type of vegetable, just ones they grow and know work well for them and ones they think taste good.
Their site is really interesting and I think you should all check it out regardless of where you live. There's instructions on there for saving all sorts of seeds, how to stop cross pollination or to cross pollinate to create new stains (for squash and others) and how to build a seed cleaner with free plans.

They also talk a little about the terminology used by seed catalogues and how to read between the lines. Phrases like "Good For Freezing" mean that it all ripens at one time so it can be mechanically harvested and we'll be left with a glut, the other they picked out was "straight long shanks" usually means 'bred to fit the packing machine".  I had a look in a seed catalogue as I was writing this and found one straight away "excellent fruit uniformity" not much use for me but the seed producers have bred it for the supermarket where uniformity counts and taste is a secondary concern. 
Up until a while ago I guess I always thought that having F1's (hybrids) seeds was a good thing but the more I think about it the more it means we're being controlled by someone else, and having to buy new seed year after year. I will post about my seed swap soon to anyone that's still interested, I haven't many types to offer but they're tasty! 
What does everyone else think about F1's and hybrids?

Thursday 18 December 2014

Quick Kiss?

When I was a child we hung mistletoe from the beams in the utility room of my parents house (it's the first room you walk into). The tradition being that you have to kiss someone if you're both stood under the mistletoe. A great little excuse for a smooch!
We've got a clump growing here, so I decided to put a sprig above the door in the hope of extra kisses and to pass the tradition on to my children. I'm sure it goes back a long way in history and will carry on a bit longer here yet, where I grew up is also the last place in the UK to have a mistletoe market for the Christmas trade.
Bloggers around the world - do you have this tradition? Or if it doesn't grow where you live do you have something similar?

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Raised Bed Materials

Next year I'm going to increase my growing area in the veg garden again. The bottom area is very wet and holds quite a bit of water. The plan is to install lots of cheap (free) raised beds using pallet collars stacked two high. 
These worked brilliantly this year for growing my Jerusalem artichokes in, so the back fence will be lined with them giving me around ten 4ft x 3ft raised beds to house some of my more "unusual" crops and as a way of increasing a few of our staples like leeks. 
When I picked this spot for the garden I didn't realise how wet it got down the bottom, it was the obvious place though and once I get round to putting a drain below it it should be much better, but until then it's raised beds for the last 30ft of veg garden (the rest is fine as it all slopes that way).

These pallet collars are no good for one of my winter projects though, as I have a crop planned that will out live them by several times over - Asparagus. I've been looking at all the types of raised beds I could build and I have my usual problem of wanting to have my cake and eat it to. 
I want it to cost very little and I want it to last for ages! Is that too much to ask? It's going to be 20ft long by 4ft wide and about 18 inches high, so hopefully enough to give us a good spring feeding in a few years time.
My old garden raised beds made with half round rails
Half round rails - I did this at our last garden but I know they won;t last that long, in this wet spot I'd give them 5 years tops!
Some rather brilliantly made compost bins at my friends fathers garden using railway sleepers and galvanised steels concreted in to hold them in place
Sleepers and metal posts - sleepers are expensive, old ones have lots of creosote that will leak into the ground and new ones won't last!
Friends fathers garden - Slabs used on edge to hold back soil
Concrete slabs - difficult to install and will be difficult to get hight, would probably need a small footing as well, making it very permanent.
Friends fathers garden - Blocks laid to form a large raised area to the garden
Blocks - A good solution except for the need for footings and if they were to lie in the wet all winter heavy frosts might destroy them (although I can get frost proof blocks).

At the moment I'm thinking of building the raised beds out of corrugated galvanised sheeting with a wooden top and frame to hold it in place. The frame will be easy to replace when it rots and the sheeting should last as long as the asparagus crops for.
What would you use for a long lasting raised bed?

Sunday 14 December 2014

What Do You Want For Christmas?

I've finally started to make some Christmas presents today, the girls should be pleased with what I'm making them.
I haven't left it as late to start as I did for the kitchen I made them last year! Although I'm not saying that I'm not going to be finishing it Christmas eve again, as this years present is a much bigger project!
The kitchen I made them last year - its been a big success.
They are at a wonderful age though. 
Whenever we ask our eldest what she wants she just says "A dinosaur". No long list of toys or other wants - I know it won't last! 
As we get into adulthood we generally want less, I now struggle to think what I want for Christmas when I'm asked and I'm pretty happy if I get a good book or two, so long as the kids are happy.
What does everyone else want for Christmas? (no wishing for world peace please!)

Friday 12 December 2014

Cardboard Mulching

Cardboard mulching, lasagne gardening, call it what you will but I'm doing anything to keep the weeds down.
Our milder winters over the last few years mean that some of the weeds can grow steadily on and then with the first taste of spring they grow like mad and I'm back to digging over beds to remove suborn weeds instead of getting on with planting and other nice jobs!
Beginning to cover the dormant veg beds with cardboard.
This year I've been trying everything I can. From using my chickens (which worked really well and I'll do that next year) to using old carpet as a mulch (falls apart and is now a pain to get rid of - I know you told me so!). 
This autumn I've been covering beds with cardboard. I've been doing it just before it's going to rain, as once it's wet it seems to stay in place regardless of the wind. I've had a good supply of good sized pieces from different people and I've been doing it for a few months now and it seems to be working. The weeds are dying off and it should rot down fairly quickly ready for planting in the the spring, It saves buying any black plastic, which would be my other option, and is a good way of recycling. 
Anyone else using cardboard as a mulch over winter?

Wednesday 10 December 2014

North Facing

When we bought this place we did so because it had land and we could afford it. There was no worrying about soil type or what was already established here. The fact that it was all on a gentle north facing slope was of no consequence, we still wanted it.
The view about 9 the other morning. Lots of frost still on my land but the field in the distance (over the road) is clear of all frost.
 I don't think that the slope makes huge amounts of difference in the warmer months of the year but in the winter it can affect how long things are in the cold for. The other morning was a prime example of this and it was really easy to see. 
While our fields were covered in frost the one over the road, facing us slopping south, was frost free. 
The neighbours field is clear of frost. Full of weeds though but that's another matter!
I should say that this probably sets us back by at least two weeks in the spring compared to one facing the other way and makes our growing season a little shorter if we don't use fleece or protection of some sort. I guess the solution is to garden smarter and try to work around it. I'm planning on  building a big raised bed for asparagus over Christmas and I'll build it up so it slopes the other way if I can, so it should warm up a little faster come the spring. 
Anyone else sloping North (in the northern hemisphere! Or South in the southern)? How do you think it affects your growing year? What do you do to fight it?

Monday 8 December 2014

Jerusalem Artichoke First Harvest

Back in May I planted a late crop of Jerusalem Artichokes. I didn't expect much from them as it was about a month late to get them in the ground and they were just brought off eBay. 
They grew well through the summer and soon established themselves. I did water them a few times with my home made comfrey feed during a dry spell but other than that I left them alone and let our brilliant summer take care of them. 
Good sized tubers. Some as big as a good sized potato
 Last night I dug some up to have with our Sunday roast. I was very pleased with the amount we've got. I dug up one plant and it was far more than we needed, most of the tubers were huge as well which is always a bonus. 
As Cut flowers in September - an added bonus.
Roasted they are deliciously creamy with a beautiful flavour, I really do enjoy them and it was nice to have them again as I've not grown them since we moved here (the last ones rotted in the ground as I picked a wet spot before I knew my garden very well). Also I don't think that there are many more "ill affects" than I usually have and I think that it's a shame they have a reputation as "fartichokes" as I'm sure it puts people off these tasty vegetables. I also prefer their other name of Sunchokes as I think this sells them a little better!
How does everyone else use this veg? I've read that they make a nice soup so I might try that at some point. Anyone got any recipes they'd recommend?

Saturday 6 December 2014

Can Rotator Door/Can Storage Door

 Sometimes when I make something I'm more than a little happy with it. 
This is one of those things. 
I decided that although we have little space to store food I was going to invent a way to store canned food so we could keep a bigger and better organised stock of food over the winter. A month or so ago I posted a picture of my can rotator prototype, well this is what it was a prototype for - My can rotator door.
 The doors to our understairs cupboard were pretty useless. They opened inwards, so you lost the best bit of storage, and they got in the way. I'd even taken one of them off so I could fit through the gap. 
Jam packed cupboard and useless doors
 We hadn't really been using the space under the stairs very efefficiently, I decided to give it a good clean out and realised that most of the stuff could go. This left me with a nice sized space to start to use for food storage. But I knew I needed a new door so I decide to combine the two. That way it would take up very little space and use an area of the cupboard that wouldn't usually be used.
Once cleaned out the cupboard had quite a bit of space
 I worked out that I could have six rows of cans across the width of the door. I decided that we use more than six types so I split it into two again, so I'd have six rows of ten and six rows of seven. This type of system also means that you always use the oldest cans first - no finding a can at the back of the cupboard dated pre war any more!
Once I had a few sketches drawn up I decided to start to make it in a few spare evenings.

Working out the spacings for the cans

Cutting the strips for the sides

Routing the groves to receive the ply

All the groves routed

The groves weren't too deep so as not to weaken the plywood

Starting to assemble it. All glue and pins

Setting the bottom ramps for the cans

Cutting the ramps ready to fix on

The front of the door is faced with MDF grooved to look like match board

Once painted this should blend in nicely

I painted blackboard strips so you could easily identify what cans were in what slot. A bit of masking tape made sure my lines were straight!

The door opens on a castor so the weight is spread a little bit better - not just on the hinges

When full the door it will hold 102 cans. The top section has 10 of each type.

The bottom section holds cans we don't use quite so frequently so only holds 7 of each type

I decided on a ply body and MDF front to keep the costs down and to save having lots of different materials involved and to buy. I used two sheets of 1/2" ply and one sheet of 3/8" MDF plus hinges and handle so the costs came in at around £70 but I wouldn't like to price the labour involved as it was surprising how long it took (although it always does when you make the first of something).

The door opens really nicely (there is a castor on the one side) and although you can feel it's carrying a lot of weight it's still easy to open and shut. The number of cans it holds feels about right for us and having the vision slots on the front means it's easy to see how many you need to buy to stock up. I'm really pleased with the two little blackboard painted strips as well as it makes it much easier to see what tin you are grabbing and it kind of makes it feel a little more complete.

I'm feeling a little more organised now with food storage, although I have a long way to go yet. 
Anyone else have something like this in their house? 

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