I’m Busy

Yes, as usual, I’m busy. And I don’t think it is just a case of Parkinson’s First Law which states that work expands to fill the time available!

Since Steve Jones of Chapter 39 in Newtown, Powys challenged me to think about, and plan for, the year 2050 I have been doing so. And one of the results is a decision to have the chalet in the garden, originally built as consulting rooms for our Counselling business, refurbished as somewhere someone could live rent free in return for helping me in the garden and woods. Time was John and I would have done the work between us but he is dead and I am older so I have employed a builder to do the work that I feel unable to do. But he still needs me to make decisions, source things like the small woodburner that will heat the place and to pay the bills. And I am doing the jobs I can manage like decorating and building the carcasses for the kitchen units. It all takes time.

Because I am doing so much thinking and designing (the chalet is only the start although probably the most expensive  item on my list of changes) it seemed only sensible to get some credit for it and in the process have someone else to look at and comment on the plans. Therefore I have signed up for the Diploma in Permaculture Design which is a self directed course of study in which I have to submit 10 designs for land, house, lifestyle or whatever. I get the support of a tutor to guide me so that I meet the criteria for standard of work. Unfortunately there is no fixed time scale so I can prevaricate to my hearts content! And all those ideas, thoughts, musings have to be transferred from my head to paper in a form which makes sense to someone else. I must be mad! Why do I do these things to myself?!

Now in my dreams all that work would result in a house so easy to manage that I could drift round in dolled up to the nines, nearly tens, whilst the ghost of my mother beamed approvingly. I should explain that the greatest compliment she could pay another housewife (always a wife in those days – men did manly things not housework) was ‘You could eat your dinner off her floors’. Even as a child I wondered how she would react if that was put to the test! And my garden would look like those the National Trust runs – thriving plants, no weeds, tidy paths… Meanwhile my woodshed would be bursting with neatly stacked logs from the acre that was coppiced each year, my car would be valeted after every journey and my outgoings would be minimal because of my reduced energy and water bills, the volume of garden produce and my general thriftiness. Undobtedly only in my dreams!

In the real world 2 dogs and 3 cats help me trail in mud. They rub dirt on the soft furnishings as they pass and leave hairs everywhere. I am convinced that old spiders use this place as cobweb building boot camp for the youngsters and it is ideal for the purpose being old, wonky and full of nooks and crannies. In the garden it is jungle warfare and the jungle always wins. I clear, mulch, plant and before I can get back to the beginning the weeds have gone mad. I have couch grass, nettles, brambles, bindweed, rosebay willowherb and himalayan balsam in abundance and some of the banks between terraces are so steep that working on them is well nigh impossible.

I have given up writing ‘TO DO’ lists – they are too depressing. Partly that is because jobs like housework or gardening tend not to have defined finishing points – however much I have done I could do more or do it again. Instead I write lists of what I have done and often it is quite a lot.

One of my favourite definitions of stress is that it occurs in work when demand outstrips capability. Both those things are ultimately a choice for me. I have no boss telling me what I must accomplish by the end of the day, week or year. I decide what I want to get done and what, realistically, I might be able to manage. I can choose whether or not to give myself a hard time if I fail. And I can choose to say ‘I can’t do that. I don’t have the skill, knowledge, experience..’ or to say ‘I can’t do that YET but I could learn’. It is true that as I get older I tire more quickly and I have less brute strength than I used to. But I also know more, have more experience of doing things or watching others do them, and am more willing to ask for help or advice. One of the advantages of grey hair and wrinkles and going deaf is that people feel good about helping me.

So, yes, I am busy. At the moment I am particularly busy. And, you know what? I am loving it because I CAN be busy and it certainly beats being bored and reduced to watching daytime TV! Next time I grumble about how hectic life is you can remind me of that!

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Roses

For my 50th birthday my lovely romantic husband wanted to buy me a dozen roses. I agreed provided they had roots on! He was a bit taken aback by my pragmatism – I don’t know why because he was always the more romantic of the two of us! – but he swallowed hard at the price and agreed. So a dozen rose bushes, plus a bonus rambler to go on the gable end of the house, all from David Austen duly arrived later in the year.

It was not long after the bulldozer had departed for the last time and the garden looked like a quarry with no soil, just compacted shale everywhere.

IMGP0024We decided that the track up to the veg patch, which is at the same level as the house gutters, was wider than we needed and that we would plant the rose bushes on the left hand side of the first part of the slope with blackcurrants further up on both sides. I spent many hours digging planting holes through the stone using an assortment of heavy iron bars to shift the bigger lumps of rock. Often the holes were bigger than I intended when a particularly large rock had to be extricated from near the bottom and the sides collapsed. It also proved impractical to get the bushes evenly spaced for the same reason – a large stone could cause me to shift one way or the other. Eventually 12 holes were dug, filled with compost and the bushes planted.

The roses settled in happily to my delight. Unfortunately so did nettles brambles… and because of the stony ground I could keep cutting them back but getting the roots out was well nigh impossible. I managed to keep it all reasonably tidy until John’s deteriorating health meant I had very little time or energy to do gardening and what I had was concentrated on growing food not flowers. Luckily the roses survived – just.

IMGP0034Over the last few years I have gradually worked to rebuild the garden. Each year  have cut back the weeds on this patch, put down cardboard and topped it with a layer of chipped wood which I am able to get free from a local firm. This year I realised that almost all the deep rooted weeds have finally given up. They still grow on the bank behind the roses and flop over towards the path but in the soil around the bushes the weeds are light annual ones. The layers of card and mulch, augmented by leaves from the trees have made lovely friable soil and the annual stuff pulls out fairly easily. So this year, when I have finished the next layer I can plant in things to cover the ground and hopefully exclude the next crop of weeds. I have plenty of nasturtium and borage seeds, self seeded feverfew,  buckler leaf sorrel which needs splitting and mint which needs digging out. That should do for starters and look quite pretty.

Why learn Welsh?

This post is modified from something I wrote for the ‘Rootedness’ group of Paramaethu Cymru / Wales Permaculture and published on the Paramaethu website.

One of my regular tasks in training Relate counsellors was to do a session on working with couples from a different culture from the counsellor’s own. Trainees usually came expecting something on how marriage was done in Pakistan or the West indies or wherever but what they got was an exploration of the cultures in the room even if we were all white, Anglo-Saxon British! What emerged every time was that we assume that people who look like us and live (relatively) near us must be like us, think like us and live like us. In fact sheep farmers from the uplands of Wales and the Yorkshire Dales probably have more in common than either has with a dairy farmer from Ceredigion or an arable farmer from East Anglia. The life cycle of the sheep sets the rhythm of their days and years. Even next door neighbours may ‘do’ Christmas or birthdays very differently. My nuclear family culture is nested in, influencing and being influenced by, my extended family one, the regional one, the national one…

For these reasons I like the idea of rootedness much more. Traditionally the ways in which we are, do, live, have ben determined by the topography, climate, politico/legal system, religion and language of the area. On top of these, of course, issues like occupation  (in Wales think of the Landsker line / A40 divide with English occupation to the South and native Welsh to the North) and immigration (miners to the Valleys and retirees to tourist areas).Out of those opportunities and limits comes culture and since these underlying factors vary across Wales so do the cultures they engender. And it seems to me that Permaculture emphasises the importance of looking at and respecting those factors. By observation, trial and error people grew or reared what did well in the local conditions and what they liked to eat or see. Hence Barley bread across much of Wales where wheat did not do well; fish and laverbread on the coast and mutton in the hills. Religious affiliations and value systems came out of their experience of life and work and built community.; so Labour party affiliations in the mining communities where resources were owned by the few and a more Conservative approach in some of the farming communities where land ownership was more equal. By learning about and respecting those traditions we can save ourselves a lot of bother!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo Welsh culture is a broad church and a slippery thing. Perhaps this is why we keep coming back to language. If I have no word for something then can I think it? I certainly will struggle to communicate it. Just remember the frustration embodied in ‘I can’t put it into words’ or ‘I can’t find the words for it’. Language both shapes our thoughts and determines which ideas, emotions, responses and reflections can, and cannot, be shared with others linguistically. I suspect that one of the extra problems inherent in ‘Welsh culture’ is that the language is not unified – people from North and South may struggle to comprehend each other and this is, I think, a bigger difference than say Geordie and Devonian. But however frustrating it is to me as a Welsh learner that a book in North Welsh is hard to understand, the differences between dialects are less than that between any of the dialects and English with its different alphabet!

But we still need to remember that ‘Wales’ is a man-made, relatively modern political entity. On our boder roots and culture spread both ways.

The Abundance Continues

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After a few days away visiting my daughter and her family I came home to find that the tomatoes in the greenhouses had been ripening well. So well that some were too ripe and squashy to be used and only a few would keep to eat fresh. In the past I have cooked them up in a pan then sieved them to make passata which I have bottled. But being pushed for time this year I simply halved them, put them on baking trays skin side down. sprinkled them with slivers of garlic, some salt and a drizzle of olive oil and roasted them. they are now packed in boxes in the freezer to flavour big casseroles or turn into tomato sauces.

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To make space in the freezer I took out some sloes which I had picked last year. Those I stewed with the last of the apples from Marie and turned into jelly. I used to make sloe gin, then re-use the sloes in sloe brandy before finally adding them to apples for jelly but I have plenty of both the gin and the brandy so this year they went straight to jam!

 

IMGP0002As I started to clear the veg patch of old plants I found lots of climbing French beans which were too old to use. I had already pulled up some vines in one of the greenhouses and saved the pods for seed for next year so these I hulled and will use as fresh haricot. There are loads more plants to clear so I may have to get the dehydrator out and dry them to store for later in the winter.

There are potatoes in the shed, carrots and beetroot still in the ground, jerusalem artichokes ready to lift, and oca still growing. Sadly the parsnips disappeared – probably eaten by slugs – and the swede look wonderful but some pesky rodents have eaten all but the tops! I no longer grow cabbages since it takes me too long to eat a whole one but the red Russian kale and the perennial cabbages are looking good and I still have some perpetual spinach in one greenhouse. I have to buy mushrooms, exotics and tree fruit (since my trees are not productive and I cannot work out why), plus the things that fail like the parsnips but it still helps my food bill to grow what I do. And there is no comparison between the taste of a freshly pulled carrot that has been grown organically and the standard supermarket version.

A knitting challenge

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Just at the point in late summer when I was thinking how boring and samey my wardrobe had become my friend and yoga teacher Rose came back from a work trip to Brazil with a fabulous, drapey, sensual jumper. I wanted one! (I think half the class wanted one!) But Brazil is a long way to go so I would have to knit it myself and the chances of finding a pattern to buy were pretty much zero. I have often sewn clothes using a pattern cut from an old garment but never from knitting. But needs must! So I borrowed the jumper and started counting rows and stitches.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I started knitting I discovered I had misjudged the weight of wool to use. I had bought some Aran and had to start again in Double knitting. I chose some inexpensive synthetic yarn for this experiment because I guessed there would be quite a bit of unravelling and trying again. I bought cream because it is one of the few colours which varies so little between dye lots that underestimating the amount needed would not be a disaster. The front is very long so took a lot of time, the back went straightforwardly and I was just beginning to feel a bit smug when I discovered the sleeves were coming out too narrow. Some rethinking and (literally!) back-of-the-envelope calculations and I had a better pattern.

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When it was finished I asked Rose to wear her original to yoga and I wore my copy. They are not identical but I am rather pleased with my first go at copying and it has done my confidence as a knitter a lot of good.

Cooking for One

Last week in the Welsh class we were discussing keeping fit and healthy so talked about food. Richard, the tutor asked how I managed learning to cook for one when my husband died. His Father died over the summer and he was concerned that his mother was finding it hard to motivate herself to cook for herself. I understood that feeling – it takes a mental shift which is hard to do when grieving. However after the class I thought about the advice I could have done with when I was bereaved and emailed him some ideas. That was in Welsh but since I think most of my followers and readers are not Welsh speakers here it is in English!

My best friend is the freezer. I bought or saved lots of small plastic boxes, individual pie dishes, serving dishes and pudding basins to use in it.

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When I buy meat I buy a large amount of whatever type and cook it all as a huge stew, casserole, roast a big joint and make a big pot of soup from any bones. I eat some but put most into individual portions in those small boxes and freeze them. If I make a pudding I often find I have to make quite a lot because using 1/4 of an egg is wasteful and tricky. So I make enough for a family (or two families if that is more efficient) but cook it in small dishes or basins and freeze most of them. Last year I made Christmas puddings – one big enough for 3 or 4 people and 14 baby ones just for me!

I do not buy fruit or vegetables in ‘family packs’ unless it is to go in one of those big stews or puddings. Instead I buy small quantities of each type from the loose boxes. A friend, also a widow,  relies a lot on frozen veg which eliminates the peeling and the waste of overbuying.

One cabbage or cauliflower or lettuce lasts too long when you are on your own. By day 3 I am sick of the sight of it! I grow kale in the garden for winter and salad leaves in summer so I can cut what I need and leave the rest to grow on.

I find a steamer pan very useful because I can cook several veg on one ring and they do not get mixed up – less heat and less washing up!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI also bake or buy bread as rolls or small loaves and if I buy a big loaf I freeze half so it does not go stale, green and furry before I finish it. Similarly I make cupcakes or, if I need to bake a large cake I cut it into 2 or 4 pieces and only keep one in the tin at a time. That also means I can have several varieties in the freezer and ring the changes.

I usually buy wine by the box because it keeps better and I am less likely to drink it just to use it up.

I try to invite friends round for a meal when I can. It is easier to motivate myself to cook something a bit special if there will be others to share it. And hopefully they will invite me back so a night without cooking in return! I also usually make too much so I can have another nice meal another night (or 2, 3, 4..)

And it is nice to meet up with friends for coffee or lunch in town. It makes a change, improves my social life and maybe I can try something different to eat.

Having used my daughter’s when I visited her, I invested in a Combination oven with microwave, convection and grill which can all be on at the same time. I would not put the main oven on for a couple of hours to bake one jacket potato and it is not always convenient to bake one when I have it on for something else. In the combination oven it is cooked and the skin crisped in less than half an hour. It is now my second best friend!

The last piece of advice was given by my Grandmother when she was dying to my aunt who lived with her. ‘When you eat lay the table properly and sit at it.’ I find it makes eating an occasion and in the early stages of bereavement the ritual broke up the day into manageable chunks.

The food programme on BBC Radio 4 recently did an episode on ‘Eating Alone’ which told me that ‘Ready meals for one’ is a huge and growing sector of the supermarket business but also shared some interesting and innovative alternatives plus interviews with some people who, like me, have found ways to cook for one and eat alone without sacrificing the pleasure of food.

Apples

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy lovely friend Marie owns and runs a vegetarian guesthouse called ‘Over the Rainbow’ near Tanygroes, just inland from Cardigan Bay. find her here She also finds time and energy to cultivate an amazingly productive garden – so productive that each week in summer she has a stall at the award winning St Dogmaels market. And each year she very generously gives me applesWhen they arrive I delve into the freezer and retrieve other fruits I have collected and stored to make jellies but which need apples to give a decent set.

This year I have made 2 types so far – bramble and elderberry.There are sloes in the freezer too and still some apples left so hopefully this weekend I will make some sloe jelly too.

There was an apple pie made to a recipe which Mrs Snail shared and I have stewed some and bottled them for the winter.

The lovely thing about using produce I have had from friends, whether Marie’s apples, eggs from Jeni’s ducks or lamb from the flocks of Jeni or Phil and Michelle, is that every time I eat some of the results I think of the people who provided them. It is so much more special and personal than eating food bought in a shop!