Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Everything is green

This year I was determined to get more out of the garden than a few mushy courgettes. We don't have tons of space, but having lived in a garden-less studio flat previously, I count my blessings in this small yard with its single raised bed. I figure that if I can make a go of this space, then I will be skilled up for when I get my acre!

Our yard faces east. The raised bed is partially shadowed by a wall and by the holly tree.  I decided to stock this with as many perennials and easy annuals as I could, just to stop our (and the entire neighbourhood's) cats digging it over. So far I have planted sage, variegated sage, french tarragon, lemon balm, parsley, chives, nigella, honeysuckle, monbretia, clematis, calendula and a pale pink climbing rose that I am hoping will fill a gap in the privet hedge. There are a few gaps to fill with annual vegetables too, this year with courgettes.

The pots are devoted to annual vegetables. If I had been a bit more organised pehaps I could have made them even more productive, but it has been fun experimenting. I am delighted with my tomatoes, I have 'Purple Calabash' and 'Marmande Super' just starting to set fruit! There is also a huckleberry, some garlic and onions, sunflowers, potatoes, jerusalem artichoke, sweet peppers, oca, salad leaves and perpetual spinach. I am also experimenting with a loofah and some black eyed beans, but fear that I didn't get them started early enough, even if the English climate could support them through to a harvest! Indoors on my dining room windowsill I also have tomatillo, cape gooseberry and aubergine which I am hoping survive an aphid infestation.

We have spent about £130 on the garden since we moved in over two years ago. That has mostly been on masonry paint, compost, tools, plants and seeds.  With the exception of the brightly coloured 'gorilla tubs', all of the planters and pots have come from Freecycle, been pulled from skips, found fly-tipped or pulled from neighbours refuse before the bin men got there. The water butt came free from the local water company as we are in a drought prone region.

This week I will sow some late greens, as well as a few winter veg, which I haven't tried before. The Broad beans I planted are too far gone and so I will let them dry out and save the seed to pass on. I think that they have been a waste of space in terms of yield vs. space they occupy, delicious as they are. I also need to trim the privet hedge back before it smothers everything with fallen petals. I personally have a love-hate relationship with the thing, but the poor put upon bumble bees seem to love it; and as a mere human, I realise that they are more productive creatures than I can ever hope to be!

Friday, 25 June 2010

The joy of not spending.

The birth of our son meant that we have had to economise over the last few years. Lots of charity shop shopping, painting of second hand furniture, container veg growing, crafting, freecycling, home brewing and home cooking. It has actually made for a more fulfilling life – we are constantly learning, being more creative and becoming more confident and self reliant. We have saved money, which has allowed us to pay off debts accrued in the dumb years (as I shall now fondly refer to them) much faster.

I still struggle with buying stuff. A few weeks ago I was lusting after some glass storage jars. I have a few Le Parfait jars I bought a few years back. They are beautiful, functional and sturdy - but I have better things to spend a fiver on at the moment.

So instead of buying the jars, I asked the lady at the local chip shop to save me her pickle jars. She only gets through a jar every few weeks these days as pickles have fallen out of favour to mushy peas and curry sauce. But she saved me these two. They hold about 2.5 litres each, are robust and quite attractive sitting in the cupboard filled with barley and pasta. They have saved me about £4.50 a pop for the equivalent sized Le Parfait jars. Thats about 45 minutes worth of real hourly wages for one jar. It also kept them from the recycling plant for another few years.

One day I may have free reign to spend money on stuff that brings me joy, earned through paid work that brings me joy. When I get there, I suspect that I still won't want to buy so much - instead I will want to buy life experiences - travel, learning, a home of our own, a business. The mindset I am developing now will hopefully get us to that point a little faster - and stand us in good stead for a future that is looking rather more austere (if this week's emergency budget is anything to go by) than the last few years of excess.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Valuable information?

Over the last few years I have developed a terrible habit of buying 'lifestyle' magazines. Its a wasteful habit, and I realise now that I may as well have been buying packets of cigarettes for the good it has done me. Yesterday evening I audited my collection. I skimmed through them and ripped out the pages that I could use in my life; the rest I put out for recycling. I have reduced a 20 strong stack of glossy magazines to a collection of paper that measures 1cm thick, when folded in half. That is how much value I got out of thousands of pages and approximately £70 of investment.

A magazine is in effect a fixed bundle; you buy one article, you buy all (and you will at least skim them all, because you want to get your money's worth). There is not a single 'women's' magazine on the market that I think can be described as a quality publication. Almost every other page is a targeted advert for a product that will probably not serve your needs (if such a need even exists – if it doesn't the ad will create one in your mind). The pages in between are too often filled with naive journalism that neither serves the reader, the journalist or the often downtrodden subject of the 'special report' or 'real life insider'. The high maintenance  interiors and fashion, whilst beautifully staged, don't actually reflect a life of leisure and real beauty (unless you have staff of course).

The only magazine I can say that I have collected that I have truly loved was National Geographic. I was given a massive vintage collection as a child and was hooked. It opened up worlds I never knew existed and its breadth and depth I credit with making me a more informed, well rounded and worldly (and naturally modest...) adult. It is however an expensive investment, both in monetary and reinforced shelving terms; and alas I had to let it go a few years ago. I wish I had a photo of that wall of yellow spines that still sits back home!

There is no 'women's' magazine that will do that for you. There aren't even many specialist hobby and craft magazines that will do that. I have some craft magazines of my mothers from the 1970s that, whilst slim part-works, have more in-depth, useful information (and zero craft brand/product/crafting celebrity) in each feature than modern craft magazines have in a whole issue. Sure, you may find the odd recipe that you like; the odd picture that brightens your day; the odd craft pattern. But ultimately, on a 12 monthly cycle, the same ideas, the same features, the same themes come up again and again, packaged in different colours and fonts. Those magazines are an expensive form of escapism. They appeal because they often engender a feeling of belonging, that you are doing and buying and experiencing the 'right' things, the same things as other people are doing.

There are more rewarding and cost effective ways to feel informed, connected and authentic than that. A visit to the library or a second hand book store, a google search, a chat with a friend; and saving those pounds that you would have spent on a glossy magazine to buy a good book or a quality tool or ingredient that will help you on your way to a more authentic life.

I bought a jam skimmer in a charity shop for 50p yesterday. How stoked am I? 50p I didn't spend on an airbrushed picture of Jane Fonda selling snake oil, wedged between a few bland recipes 'updated' by celebrity chefs? Stoked!!! I think I have learnt my lesson.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Making my own life work

A few years ago, I was in a truly bad place. I had many drains on my energy; many of them in the form of 'friends', many of them from my own imagination (the drains, not the friends, that is!). I had failed to live up to the standards I had set for myself, or at least, the standards I thought were my own. Over the last few years, several events have transformed my view of the world and my place within it. The financial instability of the last few years combined with my increasing awareness of issues such as peak oil would have normally paralysed me with hopelessness and fear. Fortunately for me, my son arrived at the height of the chaos. There is nothing like being responsible for a baby human to make me buck up my ideas, apparently!

 A person whose writings have helped me greatly is this  wonderful lady. Her blog is a treasure trove not just of practical information, but also of inspiration and food for thought. She argues the case for voluntary simplicity and authenticity beautifully. She is not the only one of course, but her blog is an excellent starting point for those who feel something is missing in their overly hectic lives.

I want this blog to record my own thoughts, ideas and research on how to live a good life. Writing this post has allowed me to think about where I am coming from and where I will be going next. I still often feel that my life doesn't work as well as everyone else's. I have a natural tendency to dreaminess, an aversion to scheduling; and a far too strong inclination towards despondency. I still do not have great routine, laundry piles up and I find it hard to clear the kitchen sides after I have worked on them. I realise that my life would work a lot more smoothly if I could cut the clutter, prioritise and plan ahead; and in general be more hopeful and joyful. So my life is still; and ever will be; a work in progress - but I hope that I become more beautiful and refined as time goes by!

Friday, 18 June 2010

Salad Days

In an occasional nod to my nations culinary heritage, I whip up a 'traditional British salad', as my mummy made, consisting of a small amount of limp lettuce, a few soft tomatoes and half an overly bitter cucumber (perhaps even some grated carrot or vacuum packed beetroot that will irreversibly dye the whole salad, your table linen, your clothes and anything else that it touches bright pink), dressed with a liberal helping of salad cream. I think the last time I did it was Christmas 2005; and I've not gone there since.

No, normally when I make a salad, I make something wholesome and satisfying:

The picture doesn't do it justice. This salad deserved better light (more salady sunshine, less overcast skies) and a photographer with 20:20 vision that had a clue how to operate the auto-focus on her other half's fancy pants SLR.

I have found that feeding two adults who work crazy shift patterns and a voracious toddler healthy meals on a daily basis can get a bit trying. Making up a batch of salad every so often feeds us for two days, home or away. I use the portion guide here when measuring out my quantities. My salad will always include at least one grain (unless I know I can serve it with bread or crackers); one pulse or other protein source; two or three portions of fruit or veg; occasionally some nuts or seeds; and an oil based dressing with as many flavours as I can get away with...

Today's offering fed us our evening meal; and tomorrow will feed OH and the Boy at home and me at work.

Barley bean salad: Serves 5 (or in this case 4 adult servings, 2 for littl'un)

For the salad:

200g (dry weight) pearl barley, cooked with a bay leaf until tender, rinsed
200g (dry weight) black turtle beans, soaked and cooked until tender (not mushy!), rinsed.
1 large onion
250g green beans (frozen in this instance, ahem), just-cooked
4 large tomatoes

For the dressing:

4 Tbsp olive oil
3 Tbsp red wine vinegar
2 chopped garlic cloves
Approx 1 heaped Tbsp each chopped fresh tarragon and parsley
1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage
1/4 teaspoon mustard powder
1/2 teaspoon soft brown sugar
Salt and black pepper to taste

Whilst the barley and beans cool, mix the dressing ingredients in a lidded jar and shake vigorously until thoroughly combined. Leave to one side. Medium dice the tomatoes and onions. Chop the green beans into one inch lengths. Combine all three together in a large bowl. When the barley and beans are sufficiently cool, add them to the bowl. Shake the dressing again and pour over the salad. Mix thoroughly. The salad will last for 2 days if refrigerated.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The community orchard

This morning we went to the community orchard. I will post pictures soon because I cannot convey just how beautiful a space the orchard is. It is still a work in progress and has only been running for a couple of months, but it is glorious.

It is open to everyone and provides a lush green space in a very crowded city for green fingered people to get their hands dirty. There are numerous fruit trees, fruit bushes, vines, herbs, wild flowers and raised vegetable beds. There is an arbour, plenty of benches and patches of grass to lay down a picnic rug.

I am looking forward to spending time there. Whilst I am very grateful to have a small paved yard at home, I have stuffed that as full as is physically possible with pots. There are new and unusual plants at the orchard that I want to get to know as friends. I want my son to grow up with an appreciation of where his food comes from (unfortunately the hose and loose bricks of the unfinished paths are much more interesting to a 20 month old!). I also hope that a wonderful community grows up around the garden as more and more people realise what a wonderful resource it is and volunteer their time.


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