This blog is not my life!

I read recently on the BBC that social media can damage your mental health. The idea behind the article was that looking enviously at other people’s lives, as portrayed on Facebook etc. is bad for you as you compare your life with theirs and find it lacking.

I find this rather sad. I love social media in all forms and find the posts on Instagram, Pinterest etc inspiring, rather than disheartening. So I’d like to publically declare that this blog does not represent my life in full (nor do my Facebook feed, Instagram posts, Tweets or Pinterest pages – links just there on the right, if you’re interested). All these are heavily edited to show you only the good bits, as I imagine other people’s are too.

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So enjoy what you see. Yes, I have a lovely garden and home, but it’s not all clean tidy and neat all the time – but that’s when I take the photos and share them with you. Of course, I could share more negative stuff – but that’s not what I want to read on other blogs, and I naturally inclined to optimism and finding the glad in things.

Happy New Year!

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Christmas at Home on the Hill

Christmas is a pretty big deal round here – I know it’s not everyone favourite time of year and some people find it incredibly difficult, but I love it. A time for celebrating whatever good we can find in the world and being thankful for all we have I’m writing this as the battle for Aleppo continues and I feel the contrast between their lives and mine. I have so much to be thankful for.

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But I’m not a Christian and I try to keep Christianity out of my midwinter celebration – well, maybe the odd carole, but the tunes are mostly much older than the Christian words anyway. So my tree has a duck at the top, not an angel. And my decorations are all secular.

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We always have a real tree from a local garden centre – they are grown as a crop and help to absorb some of our excess carbon. I always compost it afterwards. This is placed in the living room and decorated with classy glass ornaments. I used to have more homemade and plastic ones when we had small children but now I indulge my adult tastes.

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Also in the living room we have an enormous dresser – our wedding present to ourselves. I decorate this too, with glass baubles, bunting and mistletoe.

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Above the fireplace is where the advent calendar hangs, filled with lottery scratch cards that we never win on. About a week before Christmas I add more bits to the mantelpiece.

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I’ve had a go this year at using some garden trimmings to make wreaths. I’m not so sure about the one on the window sill at the front of the house, but I had fun making it.

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On the day itself, we usually host for as many of the family as want to join us – we have 6 children in total and they’re all invited. We’re usually joined by Keith’s ex-partner and her partner too, and anyone else who wants to join in. The number expected this year is 14, but there won’t be any small children this year. I organise the table, and Keith does the bulk of the cooking, although I help when necessary. Other people usually provide puddings, and a vegetarian turkey alternative.

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I think the year these were taken we ate early because of the little ones (just visible on the left at the window end). It’s usually getting dark as we sit down to eat. This picture looks quite civilised because it’s only the starter course. By the end the table is laden with wine and beer bottles, plus lots of pans and serving platters. Keith cooks a turkey – free-range from Manor Farm at Catthorpe, plus roast potatoes, carrots, brussel sprouts, cheesy leeks, sweetcorn, roast parsnips, mashed swede, french beans, gravy, stuffing and Yorkshire puddings. Plus anything else that people turn up with. It sounds like a lot, but there’s not much waste – some left-over veges go to the chooks, but some also becomes bubble and squeak, the left-over turkey gets eaten with chips, and made into soup and stock.

We’re generally pretty exhausted after putting on that feast so tend to spend the rest of the week pretty quietly – well, in the daytime. I think Keith has gigs and parties planned for most evenings this year.

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Wishing you all a peaceful and happy Christmas.

Donate to Oxfam’s Syria Crisis Appeal

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Autumn diary

I had meant to try and write a short post each week, including diary updates of what I’ve been up to in the garden, but I got a bit sidelined into something else important. Oh well…

So for this post here’s a quick list of what’s happened since the great garage tidy:

  • compost all turned, making room for dead plants from the autumn tidy
  • harvesting – spuds and chillies I’ve written about, plus squash, bean seeds, calendula seeds, parsnips
  • clearing of the vege patch has begun
  • greenhouse all cleared out and tidied – spent tomato compost bagged up to go onto the vege patch soon, half-hardy plants moved inside
  • Elaine has developed a new shrub border at the top of the orchard by the drive and filled it with some cheap buys and things re-homed from the chook run
  • Elaine has also tidied the naked garden borders for the winter – not too tidy, leaving stems and seed heads for the birds, but tidy enough to not look abandoned
  • tulips ordered and waiting to be planted
  • plans made for a new shrub border in the back garden
  • pergola removed and all the gravel re-homed – mostly by Keith, not me
  • holiday in Cornwall including 2 whole days at the Eden Project
  • had a letter published in Permaculture Magazine
  • put net on the top pond to stop it getting full of leaves
  • planted a Rosa rugosa in the woodland

Part of writing this blog is taking lots of photos and I’ve been struggling to find a way to store and categorise them. The set up is that I have a rather old laptop where some pictures can be stored, but we also have a large hub drive where we store all our photos together, organised by month. Generally I take 2 kinds of photo – garden ones and band/music ones. I have been storing them all on the hub drive and using Windows Photo Gallery to tag them. But this isn’t working well. Tagging takes forever – partly because I have been categorising everything and tagging every musician I know. Also, retrieving stuff off the hub is slow. So I’m about to start again! Plan B is to store garden images on the laptop, backed up to the hub drive, but with the primary source being the laptop. I’ll point Photo Gallery at the laptop drive, and leave the music pics on the hub drive for Keith to organise if he feels so inclined. I think this will work better. Also now I’ve had a bit of a play with Photo Gallery I have a better idea how it works and how best to develop a set of tags that works for me. Still, it’s a big job so if I’m quiet for a while it’s because I’m organising my photo library.

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Chillies

After a bit of a break I decided to grow chillies again this year. This was after I was given some seeds as a Christmas gift. I haven’t bothered for a few years as I always grew far more than we used, but I am resolved to preserve them and use them through winter.

The ones I was given were Prairie Fire, and then I bought some Basque from Real SeedsIMG_1596.JPG

Oddly, the Christmas gift ones came with some composted elephant poo to plant them in – I added it to my compost and used my usual peat-free organic compost from New Horizon.

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I sowed the Basque ones in February and the Prairie Fire a little later in March, due, if I remember correctly, to space in the heated propagator being at a premium. Anyway, all went well and I ended up with some splendid plants and lots of chillies.

The Basque were described as having respectable heat and good flavour. Hmm. They seemed pretty weak to me, and have very little flesh. I stuffed some with some left-over burrito filling, but they weren’t great. I still have quite a few so will probably give it another go, but haven’t bothered to save any seeds, although I think there are still some left from the original packet.

The Prairie Fire were also disappointing, and confusing. On our holiday we went to the Eden Project, and I studied their display of chillies and the Scoville scale – the more Scovilles, the hotter the chilli. Well the Prairie Fire had seemed to me to be not very hot so I needed to use quite a few to get enough heat – and they are tiny and fiddly to chop up. So I thought I would look for something both hotter and larger. In the shop there was a display describing them as ‘really really hot’ at 108,000 Scovilles. But then right next to this were some seeds with the Scovilles at 20,000 – 30,000.

So now I don’t know what to grow next year – I will need to experiment or just choose at random. I have planned to buy as much organic seed as possible, so that will limit my choices, which may be a helpful thing. Anyway, I used all the seed I had, and won’t be saving any.

I have hung the Prairie Fire seeds up to dry on the dresser in the living room.

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I’ve read that you can grind them to chilli powder in a coffee grinder kept especially for the purpose (we don’t like chilli flavoured coffee), but this small string is all there is – seems a little wasteful to buy a grinder just for these. I will look for a second-hand one, or try Freegle, I think.

So that’s my 2016 chilli harvest – small but how many chillies does one need? Flavours are disappointing, but I will grow something else next year and try to find something just right for us.

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Potatoes 2016

I thought I’d write short reviews of the crops I grew this year and ideas of what i want to do differently next year. So I’ll start with the potatoes I harvested a few weekends ago.

They were Sarpo Mira, bought at HEOG‘s potato day back in February

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I’ve never grown maincrops before because of the blight problems that usually destroy the crop, but Sarpo are blight resistant, so I thought I’d give it a go. I usually grow just one bed of earlies because I only want a few home-grown spuds – decent organic ones are commonly available in the shops and not overly expensive. I did miss digging up afew salad spuds in the height of the summer so am thinking about growing earlies in a pot next year – a whole bed of them is too many and lots get wasted.

So I planted them on 10th April, not very deeply, in a bed that had had my home-made compost added. Then I mulched with straw and added more straw as the haulms appeared.

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They resisted the blight pretty well, but did succumb in the end. So I cut off the dying haulms and put them in the green waste bin for the council’s hot compost heap to take care of. Then I left the tubers in the ground for about 4 weeks – I can’t remember how long I used to advise people to leave them. If you do this the spores from the haulms end up in the straw and on the soil surface.  After a number of weeks, with no potatoes to live on, the spores die and you can safely lift the tubers through the soil and straw and they won’t get blighted. I am really pleased with the crop – all these from 18 tubers in a 6′ x 4′ bed:

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They’re now in a large brown paper bag (upcycled chicken feed bag) in the (newly tidy) garage. Hopefully, they don’t have blight and will keep well for a few months, as we don’t eat lots of spuds. They’re rather waxy so will probably make good roast potatoes. There are quite a few lovely big ones for baking, although floury spuds are tastier that way.

So, for 2017, yes, I’ll grow maincrops again, but only blight resistant varieties. And a few earlies in a container for summer salads.

Local folk may want to know that HEOG‘s 2017 potato day is planned for 4th February 2017, 10am – 2pm, Kenilworth Senior Citizens’ Club CV8 1QJ.

 

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Great Garage Tidy 2016

Okay, so it’s not gardening related, but it is what I did with my weekend and I thought it worth documenting for future reference.

We’ve been on holiday from work for the last 2 weeks. We had a brief break in Cornwall, but then spent 4 days (yes, 4 whole days) tidying out our garage.

We took 6 van loads to the tip:

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Actually, I’m not quite clear what we threw out! There were lots of old toys and games  – our tip has a re-use shop attached which raises money for Age Concern (or maybe Help the Aged?) so they took all those to sell on. There were rather a lot of old boxes! You know when you buy a new kettle and keep the box for a few weeks just in case? Well we still had boxes from kettles long defunct. There was too much furniture in there, but it was all upcycled anyway – nothing we had bought new. In fact, one cupboard was in the kitchen when we moved in in 1998.

So here’s some before and after pics:

 

We did find a few really useful things- some Rootgrow that had been forgotten, a lovely set of watercolour pencils, and an Eden Project guide from our first visit in 2004.

So, just the shed to sort now:

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Cuttings v2.0

Sorry for the shock – 2 blog posts in so short a time. Yep, it’s time for another relaunch of Home on the Hill. You see, the main purpose of this blog is as a bit of a diary for me – but it doesn’t fulfil that function because I tried just posting once a month, and then it seemed such a huge task, that I simply didn’t do it. So now I’m going to try a ‘little and often’ approach, taking lots of photographs (which I do anyway) and letting them do the talking. I might even manage a weekly post, but don’t hold your breath!

So it’s Sunday afternoon and I’ve knocked off a little early this weekend because we’re off to Cornwall for a few days so I need to pack. Actually, we’re back now but I held off publishing so they weren’t too close together.

My friend Elaine does the ornamental parts of our garden for us – one whole acre is just too much for folk with full-time jobs. A couple of weeks ago she told me to take some cuttings of the salvias she had planted. Now I’m not great at cuttings but I had a go. But then we had an unseasonal heatwave last week (28 degrees Centigrade in September) and they ended up looking like this (they were in a heated propagator too):

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So today I had another go:

Then I went in the house and consulted the bible on how to do these things. Maybe should have done that first because I’m not sure I followed any of the instructions well. So we’ll see if they root.

I also did quite a lot of tidying up. I’d got a bit behind with the strimming because I was at the Permaculture Convergence one weekend, then ill the next weekend. Here’s some pics of the untidy bits:

And here’s a few before and after shots to finish:

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Making leafmould

From time to time I’ve written articles for Leicestershire Master Composters Composting Chronicle – a limited readership as I’m sure you can imagine. So I thought I’d ‘upcycle’ the work I’ve done and publish them here too.

So, Autumn, a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Time to gather in the apple crop, tidy the garden, and make leaf mould. Well, compost geeks like me make leaf mould.
Leaf mould is wonderful stuff – high in organic matter yet low in nutrients, ideal for those crops that need this kind of soil conditioner. But we’ll come to how best to use it later. First, how to make it – it couldn’t be simpler.

There’s nothing wrong with adding fallen autumn leaves to your regular compost heap. They rot fairly slowly on there, but will add browns (carbon) and are a useful addition. However, if you have the space, or a lot of leaves to deal with, leaf mould is a much better use of them. Unlike a regular compost heap, leaves on their own are mainly decomposed by the action of fungi, and it’s a little slower and colder than a compost heap. Ideally, construct a dedicated bin from chicken wire and some posts – something like this:

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Then simply gather your leaves and chuck them in. Leave it for a year or two, and you have finished leaf mould. To speed up the process, you can chop the leaves up first, using a leaf blower or by running over them with your lawnmower. You’ll need a new bin each year – don’t add this year’s leaves to last year’s or you’ll never get to harvest the finished leaf mould.

If you don’t have space for something on this scale (although that’s a pretty big bin in the picture – you can make something much smaller) then simply gather the leaves into black bin bags, puncture some holes in them and store them in a quiet corner – behind the shed, for example. If the leaves are dry when they go into the bags, great. If not, adding some moisture will help – if you can bring yourself to wee on them, that’s ideal! You can use the leaves of all deciduous trees, even walnuts (walnut trees exude a substance from their root which stops other plants from growing, which is why some people are reluctant to compost their leaves. But the offending substance breaks down in the leaf mould making process and won’t cause any problems when you use the product). Avoid leaves of evergreen species such as holly and conifers, but there’s no need to be too fussy – a holly leaf or three won’t hurt.

At the end of the process you should have something that’s pretty unrecognisable as leaves. It may have the odd unrotted leaf in it, but these can be picked out, leaving a crumbly rich brown soil-like material. One use of this is as seed compost. It’s low in nutrients, but seeds don’t need any nutrients to get started because they have it all within them. Simply fill up your seed trays with leaf mould and sow as usual.

It’s also a great soil conditioner for crops that don’t need lots of nourishment, like runner beans. Lots of people think runner beans are hungry, but this is wrong – they love lots of moisture at their roots, which is why they enjoy the traditional bean trench compost, but they fix their own nitrogen directly from the air, so the the nitrogen in the trench contents goes to waste.

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Far more sensible to just use leafmould or even newspaper to fill that bean trench, and add all those compost ingredients to your regular heap. Other places to use it include the plot where you plan to grow carrots or onions in the coming season. Or around perennial planting, such as shrubs and herbaceous plants, as a mulch. It will keep the weeds down, conserve moisture in the soil, and improve the soil as the worms and other invertebrates integrate it into the soil for you. Unlike regular compost, the time of year you use it doesn’t matter too much as there’s not many nutrients to leach away. Late winter is fine, if this is when you have time. But you can leave it where it is until it’s time to mulch your ornamentals or prepare that bean trench in spring.

So, this autumn, as well as gathering your apples, tidying your vege plot and enjoying the last of the sunshine, give making leaf mould a go. This time next year you’ll be reaping the rewards, and sweeping leaves is great exercise for your abs!

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St George’s Day weekend

Trying a different tack with the blog today – just going to post some pics from the weekend. 

Spent Saturday in the garden working on the veg patch – sowed a few more seeds, spread some compost, erected the sunflower frame.

You may be wondering what’s that on the side of the compost bin – well that’s what happens if you compost your not quite 100% cotton undies!


Then in the event I went to a HEOG meeting – a bread making demonstration. I’ve always thought bread-making was time consuming and faffy, but Susie made it look quick and easy. Feeling inspired to have a go. We ate lots of the stuff she cooked, and the pizza was especially yummy – although the smell of garlic on my breath this morning was so strong I’m amazed Keith managed to get in the room with me!


Finally set off back to the station, but managed to miss my train home by seconds – actually pressed the door open button, but they were already locked. Damn! 30 minute wait for the next one.


No photos from today, but we went to our son’s house across town and chopped back his massive laurel hedge for him. The have done some sewing because it was too cold and damp for gardening. 

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New season begins with the Edible Garden Show and a HEOG meeting

So the 2016 season is off to a good start with a trip to the Edible Garden Show and the first HEOG meeting of the year.

We had booked tickets for the Edible Garden Show way back in the autumn as it has returned to Stoneleigh which is very close to where we live. We went the first year (2011, I think) and haven’t been back since. Although it has grown since then and now fills 2 exhibition stalls, we were a little disappointed in the range of stuff and are not sure we’ll bother again. A big thing on my shopping list was seeds, and I have decided for 2016 to go as organic as possible and use organic seeds where they are available. Sadly, they weren’t available at the show – if they were, I didn’t manage to find them. I did buy some non-organic flower seeds to add to an ornamental area of the garden. Not that I subscribe to the idea that only food should be grown organically, more that I didn’t think I’d be able to get organic seeds of chinese chives from alternative suppliers. Most of the other stuff for sale seemed a bit ‘gadgety’ if I’m honest. There were lots of tools, but when you’ve been gardening for years, you don’t need to buy many tools. It all seemed a little too much like the GW show at Birmingham, full of stuff bought by people who like the idea of gardening but would rather buy it than do it. One exhibitor caught our eye – a compostinIMG_0125g toilet system. For some time I’ve been planning to install a loo in the lower reaches of the garden. My plan was to buy a shed and just pop a simple bucket and loo seat in it, with the bucket filled with sawdust – this would only be suitable for urine, but who pops down the garden for a poo? Ecotoilets supply a much posher system – fancy shed, separating toilet for liquid and solid waste, solar panels for provide light. But all in all, I think this is rather overkill for a garden loo – much more suited to allotment sites and boats etc. Mind you, I am tempted to replace one of the loos in our house with one of these fancy ones – it always seems such a waste to flush all that lovely nitrogen away.

A highlight of the morning was meeting Sean Cameron from the horticultural channel. He was an interesting and engaging speaker and has given me food for thought about this blog and my twitter, instagram and facebook activities.

After lunch we headed into the second hall. This was full of delicious food vendors, which we wish we had known before we bought boring sandwiches from the main cafe. It was labelled as the ‘good life’ exhibition and I was expecting more crafts and homemaking skills than artisan foods. So although it was interesting, we bought very little as we were full from our lunch.

IMG_0144An enjoyable part of the show is the smallholding section. I keep a few chooks and have no intention of expanding the livestock here, but I do love to see and hear about smallholding and the small-scale keeping of animals. So we watched the goats and sheep for a while.

 

 

HEOG meeting

After a successful potato day, the HEOG meetings started again properly with a talk from Suzanne from Down to Earth in Earlsdon, Coventry. It’s not a shop I’m familiar with as I don’t really go to Coventry to shop, and certainly not for food. But the conversation was interesting and I particularly liked the idea of organic meat and fish being sold from ‘under the counter’ so as not to upset the vegan customers. I must confess, I’m more interested in hearing about gardening and growing than shopping, and I tend to choose local food over organic (I do lots of our shopping at a farm shop on my way home from work, then top up with a Suma order every few months and supermarkets for everything these places don’t supply). My issue with this type of shop is that they are quite difficult for a working person to access – there’s nothing near my place of work, and they tend to be closed by the time I get home. I know I could shop on Saturdays, but I resent spending daylight hours shopping when I could be in the garden. So I’m not a great supporter of independent organic shops, I’m afraid. But the talk about how the business has grown and developed over the years was enlightening.

HEOG have a full programme of events lined up for the summer and autumn, and I have a new camera, so I’m hoping to document them more, take more photos and blog a little more. But we’ll see – I’ve planned that before and not done it, so I’m not prepared to make any promises!

 

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