Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Running to seed

Bar a single half hour long 'shower' where the sky acquiesced and misted a few drops of rain down on those gardeners below carefully tending seedlings, the last three weeks have been dry. Dry - and baking hot (for the UK) - and oh so glorious. The weather held even for the bank holiday weekend, traditionally a good enough time as any for the sun to lose its nerve and retreat behind dark heavy clouds not to be seen again until June. It looks like the good weather may well continue through this weekend's festivities too.

The perpetual spinach that has served us through two winters has finally bolted, just in time for the chillies to take its place. I am truly grateful for all this plant has done. It germinated readily here even in November (way too late according to the packet) and it continued to produce servings of green leaves (even when cut right back to its base) whenever I needed something 'green' to go with dinner. The rainbow chard will no doubt be following suit fairly soon, another vegetable that has performed beyond anything I expected. We will definitely be resowing these again this year and in far greater quantities.

The lamb's lettuce that I planted last year receives a less than glowing report. It was slow to germinate, slower to grow - even when it was in full swing, the compact rosettes of small leaves couldn't be described as prolific. I think that I used a handful of leaves in a salad once; and that was that. It too has given up in the sweltering heat; and not before its time. If I can say nothing else good about it, I can say that its profusion of the tiniest white flowers were a delight to find today. But unless we acquire significant acreage any time soon, it probably won't be making an appearance on our seed list again.

Meanwhile everything else is blooming here, even yours truly, who usually wilts in warm weather such as this. Hope you are all enjoying good weather too, whatever that means to you.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

A new budget

Maternity leave is rapidly approaching; July is shaping up to be the last month I will receive my full salary. Our joint income is due to shrink by slightly over one fifth - incidentally, the amount that we have begun to put aside in savings. The aim is to continue to put money aside each month, though I doubt we will be able to afford such a proportion. Depleting our meager savings over a relatively trivial reduction in income is not something I want to contemplate in Austerity Britain 2011, at the very least I want to be living comfortably within our monthly earnings. Needless to say, I have had a few sleepless nights worrying about our finances.

The first step to calming financial jitters is to sit down with a pen and paper and rationally assess the situation. So yesterday we sat down to go over our budget. There are two versions, one for the four paydays up to the end of July; and one for the following nine months when our income will be reduced. Every non-discretionary expenditure is listed - rent, council tax, utilities, contract repayments - and the monthly payments tallied. Where payments are annual (for example our water supply bill) the figure is divided by 12 and highlighted - this is an amount that needs to be put into savings ready to pay the bill when it finally arrives. We have got out of the habit of saving monthly for these one off expenses and have suffered a few uncomfortably lean months as a result of large bills arriving.

The next section of the budget is discretionary spending. Some essentials, such as food, are included here, because there is a great deal of flexibility in how much we can spend. The food section is broken down further - there is the monthly expenditure for fresh goods; and as we plan to return to bulk shopping, a store cupboard fund, which is put aside ready to do a bulk shop every few months. Fuel and transport costs are now part of our discretionary spending - though we will budget for a tank of fuel a month - as neither of us will need to make regular 'essential' journeys once I have finished work. Many of the items on the lists will take the form of monthly savings set aside to be dipped into as needed throughout the year - payments to a holiday/fun fund, gifts, clothing, household and gardening expenses.

We will keep a copy of the budget on the wall above the computer. Last time I got creative with colouring pens and star stickers - anything to make sobering financial restrictions more appealing to look at. It makes a big difference to keep the budget prominent, as opposed to tucked away in a notebook, as it is the cornerstone of financial (and therefore household) well being. Last time we placed our debt repayment tally next to it - ticking off payments as we made them was very satisfying; and we could directly relate that to the effectiveness of our budget. Anything that motivates you to keep to your budget, whether that be a picture of your one-day desert island retreat, or a decreasing mortgage balance sheet, will have the same effect.

Now the budget is in place, we have to decide how to organize the practicalities of it. We plan to set up standing orders to our savings accounts for both our long term savings and irregular expenses, to go out at the beginning of the month. We will continue to use direct debits for our regular monthly payments. For all day to day expenditure except fuel, we will use an envelope/jar system and pay cash (if I am feeling particularly virtuous, or time rich, I will make some hard wearing, beautiful pouches such as these ones over at the Co-op). The bulk shop, which is usually done online, will be paid via debit card, as will fuel. Any small change left over from the envelopes will be put into our change jar and eventually paid into our savings accounts.

Just having written it all down has calmed my jitters and made me realize we are not screwed, as I had previously thought. Any tips would be very much appreciated by the way, especially if anyone has experience using the envelope system. It all sounds so simple on paper, but no doubt there will be a few false starts over the next few months. A plan, combined with a continuing quest to trim down budgeted for expenses in any way possible, makes us a little more resilient to whatever life, or a new baby human, can throw our way.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Lazy crochet day

Today I woke up with absolutely no get up and go. I completed a handful of chores, but mostly I lazed around, a lot. I had a days leave booked, which I normally spend doing the same old household stuff that I do most days, so I didn't feel particularly guilty this afternoon about lazing in bed with my newest crochet project, a bag. I fell asleep after an hour, but progress is progress. That is indeed a pile of laundry you can see waiting patiently at the end of the bed for my attention. It's still waiting now.

The pattern is loosely based upon a pattern in Susie John's Crochet for Beginners, but I have changed the yarn, dimensions, added a buttoned flap so that it can be closed; and will also probably add a lining. I am no embroiderer, so the embellishment will be different too. So far I love it. It's worked in Tunisian simple stitch on a Tunisian hook (a 35cm long crochet hook with a stopper at the end); working back and forth without turning the work. On every other row, you end up with a whole hook full of stitches, which you then work off the needle, before picking them up again on the next row.

The only complaint I have about regular crochet is that the fabrics produced tends to veer towards lacy and open, or dense and heavy, seemingly with no happy medium. This technique seems to change all of that. It has often been described as 'like knitting, but with a hook', which I naturally resent as someone with knit related trauma issues - this is very much a crochet technique. I will however get down from my precariously high amigurumi horse to recommend this technique to knitters that struggle with the 'loopiness' of crochet - and obviously to crocheters who want to learn a new skill. The fabric is drapier than double crochet, but not in the least lacy or 'holey' - although their are hundreds of stitches to learn including some open work and mesh.

Last year I promised myself I would not buy any more craft materials until I had worked through my stash. My excuse is that the recipient of this bag wanted a purple bag; and I didn't have any purple. Still, it does mean I have found a new natural fibre yarn - King Cole Bamboo Cotton - for when I do need to restock. This comes in very economical 230m balls, excellent value for a bamboo based yarn. It is soft with a lovely sheen, though it is loosely plied and liable to split if you aren't paying attention. I also had to buy the needles - I bought a set from Purple Linda Crafts (no affiliation, this just happens to be one of the only shops on the web to concentrate primarily on crochet - hence it is one of the only places you can buy Tunisian hooks for a reasonable price - and in shiny brightly coloured metallics no less).

If you want to have a go, I used the instructions in Jan Eaton's Encyclopedia of Crochet Techniques, a well explained and illustrated reference book to have in your library. There is a good clear video on Youtube, but unfortunately a Google search seems to throw up a minefield of confusing or poorly illustrated written instructions. If you do want to have a go, a normal round crochet hook (a size larger than you would normally use for your yarn) with a ball of Blu-Tack stuck on the end will allow you to practice a short width (about 8-10 stitches) before you decide to splash any cash on hooks.

Two posts in two days, internet connection and brain holding up well. I should take siestas more often.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Destructive, in a good way

No sooner do I get back from holiday with good intentions to use my Internet connection more mindfully (and to blog more regularly, as pregnancy brain fog is now lifting and I am actually doing things that I can write about once again), than said Internet connection is plagued by connectivity problems. I can't access Blogger, email or Google Reader reliably without it timing out; and so for the last week haven't been reading or responding to comments, emails or blog posts. This afternoon the connection seems to be holding, so here goes...

I have accomplished quite a lot this week, probably because of the lack of Internet connection. The house is a mess, because most of my time has been spent outside in the glorious sunshine, trying to find any excuse to stay out there. It has been so warm and sunny, my pasty complexion suffered its first annual flush of sunburn.

A pallet was dumped behind bushes at the end of our street a few years ago, but I never had anything to use it for and so left it, expecting someone else to make use of it. Nobody ever did; and this week it finally became mine for some therapeutically destructive crowbar therapy. It was hard work even for two of us, with a little wastage due to splitting, but after some very satisfying prising, sawing and nailing we now have some fetching wooden edging panels to stop the couch grass paths that separate us us from our neighbours from encroaching into our beds. Another two pallets have since fallen into my lap, each one being sufficient to edge one side of our plot; and I see a crowbar in their future.

I made a final push in the yard to get it ready for summer. I waged war on next doors privet hedge and collected 5 refuse sacks of clippings and loppings. I made the mistake of doing the green thing and letting the hedge flower last year, because the bees and insects love it. Unfortunately that just made it leggy and invasive on our side (the sunny side); and so I have taken it back right to the boundary where it won't drown out our pots, seating area and laundry line. I plan to plant lots of insect attracting flowers and herbs to make up for my destruction (which I am ashamed to admit was quite soothing - I hate that hedge). Unfortunately I can't make up for the local soil fertility that is going to be permanently lost when the clippings are sent to the local tip for composting. Using petrol (a precious resource these days) to transport another precious resource away is absolutely bonkers.

I also finally pulled back some stone slabs that have been stacked against a wall in our garden since we moved in- to reveal a mollusc's holiday camp. I put The Boy (who is too young to have developed any hint of squeamishness about such things yet) to useful work and he collected 40 or so of the blighters in a flowerpot - which he then proudly offered me as though it were a flower posy. Yuck. I did my own bit of temporary fly tipping and dumped this under the bushes at the end of the street, where they will either thrive in the undergrowth, or more probably have their numbers drastically reduced by the birds. The slabs are now up at the allotment, edging the long side of one of the beds. Slowly but surely it's all coming together.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Laundry weather

Today has been the sunniest, warmest day of the year so far. The patio was positively baking - perfect weather for hanging out the laundry, especially as there was a slight breeze blowing. Not the kind of day that I wanted to spend hanging around the house loading and unloading the washing machine.

Most of the western world is accustomed to being able to access (relatively cheap) concentrated forms of energy at the flick of a switch. Whilst line-drying is 'normal' in the UK, most of us never really have to arrange our lives around the intermittent availablity of energy or the passage of day or night. We can choose to do all of our work at night thanks to 24 hour electric lighting, we can dry our laundry whenever we want thanks to radiators and tumble dryers. Hot water increasingly comes from on-demand boilers. Any physical commodity we need can be produced far away and transported to us quickly over long distances with little effort on our part. I can't see this happy state of affairs continuing for much longer. Certainly in the short term I think we will see energy shortfalls that will force us to rearrange our lives around an intermittent energy supply and resource constraints. We will have to consider what use we want to put the energy and resources we do have to - and we will start to look at 'ambient' energy - the warmth of the sun, daylight hours - as an actual resource to work with.

As it turned out, I managed to get two full loads of laundry washed and dried. It smells lush - that faintly burnt but fresh scent that cotton sheets take on when they have been hanging out in the sun. It also gave me the opportunity to use the peg bag I have been crocheting for the past few evenings out of the ends of last years balls of dishcloth cotton. Every year I seem to buy new pegs as the old ones gradually go astray or I leave them on the line to get mildewy, rusty or brittle. Last week I bought some new wooden ones and vowed they would see me through more than one year of laundry hanging. Their new home is a little garish, but sturdy. I saved money, enjoyed some quiet crochet (and ensuing sense of accomplishment - small things, I know) - and, I hope, saved my pegs to see another summer.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Back - to the land

You may have noticed that I have been away from this space for a few weeks. I have been making the most of all the annual leave I have to use up before I go on maternity leave, visiting family in Derbyshire. A lovely week, with the best weather we have ever had (at any time of the year) visiting a much cooler and rainier part of the country - lots of sunshine and no rain for a whole week. No snow either, which means I will have to lay to rest my long running comedy bit about bringing crampons and down jackets every time we visit (in my defence, it did once snow  in June - meanwhile Portsmouth was basking in a heat wave).

I had a few sleepless nights whilst away, not for the cats or the guinea pigs we had left behind (who I knew would be amply cared for), but for our allotment, which has been left to fend for itself; and my dining room window sill, where I suspected the tomato plants I potted up before I went away were not going to survive my absence. Thankfully my neighbour had it all under control and we arrived home to find the tomatoes, chillies and loofahs doing beautifully. The allotment had also exploded into life in our absence - and as we haven't actually planted much up there so far, this was life of the overgrown weed kind. The quarter of the site that is yet to be cleared or mulched boasts admirable yields of chickweed (flowering and starting to set seed) and foot high nettles and dock. The grass paths (which haven't yet been edged due to the dearth of scavengable wood) are spilling onto the newly dug, mostly bare beds. Some of the cardboard mulch has become untethered by the elements and is ripping up, allowing some of the perennials we missed to poke through.

For the last few days we have spent a good few hours addressing these issues. Firstly, we got a few more things into the ground. We have two gooseberry bushes 'Invicta' and one crown each of rhubarb 'Stockbridge Arrow' and 'Champagne'. Preparing the patches of earth for these made me feel infinitely better about our predicament. I spent much of today enthusiastically tearing up clumps of chickweed and piling it into the compost bin, whilst Nick dug over a patch of ground and laid the patio slab shed base; and the boy looked on incredulously as his dad jumped up and down on paving slabs to level them. 

We wanted to spend as little money on 'furnishing' our allotment as possible; and wanted to rescue as many materials from the waste stream as we could. Unfortunately there isn't much house renovation going in these parts at the moment; and materials have been scarce. Today I got creative with the materials I had to hand and began edging one of the eight beds. Firstly I used half width paving slabs that we inherited from the previous occupants of our house to edge down one length of the bed, sinking them just below the surface to separate the bed from the (weedy, you will notice) path. Once those had run out I started sinking upturned wine bottles in. They were trickier to place than the slabs, requiring a trench to be dug and back filled very gently from both sides, whilst the bottles were held wedged up firmly against one another. The end result will be quite pretty once the labels have weathered off. Now I am asking everyone who will listen to save their empties for me. Thankfully for me the recession hasn't hit home wine consumption in the way it has home renovations.

The hardest part of establishing our allotment has been going with the flow - essentially bobbing along at a very gentle pace. I had wanted everything up and running after our first month. But the resources didn't flow as fast as we anticipated - neither the cash to buy the big items we needed; nor the scrap wooden planks, mulch materials and paving slabs I had expected to procure easily and cheaply. This has been a blessing, in retrospect. It probably isn't good for a pregnant woman to throw her back out speed digging an allotment in the depths of winter. It is probably best also that we had the time to observe what was going on and how we could make best use of our plot before we rushed in and dug like demons. Gardening is a slow art, especially in the depths of winter; and I don't think I would want it any other way.


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