Thursday, 26 January 2012

Happy Birthday to Me

It was my birthday on Sunday. We went to a ball on Saturday night for Sam's Uncle's 50th birthday so I kind of knew the day would pretty much be a right-off (and it was). Sam took me to an amazing restaurant in Brighton called The Chilli Pickle, an Indian restaurant which specialises in yummy regional street food. Eating there took me back to our time in India nearly 4 years ago. On Monday, I took the day off work and we went to Middle Farm, a lovely farm and shop with a nature trail and lots of cute animals to look at. We had a spot of lunch there and bought some yummy cider and gooseberry wine. I also treated myself to the metal trug you can see at the back of the picture.

I was very spoiled with presents this year and the theme was USEFUL. Sam, my Dad and my big brother all chipped in to get me a brilliant new camera (Nikon Coolpix 500) so that my blog photos will no longer be fuzzy iPhone pictures.
Sam's family and some of our friends all chipped in to buy me a new polytunnel to replace my greenhouse after the Great Greenhouse Disaster - we started putting it up on Monday but I am holding off putting the cover on until the weather is a bit more settled.
Sam's Mum bought be the 3 baking books you can see in the bottom of the picture, I haven't made any of the recipes yet but they all look yummy.
Sam also bought me 2 books:
  • The Spade as Mighty as the Sword by Daniel Smith is the story of the wartime Dig For Victory campaign. I'm about a third of the way through and I just love all the little facts that pop up as I read, like how people used to grow cabbages and tomatoes on top of Anderson shelters. Just the sheer amount of food grown by the British public during the war amazes me.
  • and while we're on the topic: Dig On For Victory by C.H. Middleton. Know as Mr Middleton, he had a wartime gardening radio programme on the BBC and wrote this book as a guide for growers. This is the second wartime book he wrote and I have just ordered the first book, Digging for Victory.
I also got a bottle of gin from my lovely work colleagues, they know me so well!

 All in all a lovely birthday haul. I love having presents that aren't just immediate (maybe apart from the gin anyway), the camera I will have to learn how to use properly, the polytunnel will need to be put up and the books will take me a while to get through.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

How to Make Soap

There's a Spring Fayre coming up at work next month and I have decided to take up a stall. I had one at the Christmas Fayre which was a surprise success. At Christmas I made sample decorations and took orders so that I didn't end up with lots of something no one wanted. I probably spent about £20 on materials - I already have a lot of craft stuff at home, and I took about £100 so not a bad profit.
This time around, I am making soaps and lavender hearts and maybe some other bits (but I haven't quite decided yet).
Here's how I make my soaps.

You will need:
Soap base
heatproof jug
essential oils for scent
colour (optional but don't use food colouring if you don't want to dye people's faces)
botanicals (flowers, salt/scrub granules, cocoa butter etc)

First, take the soap base and cut it into small even sized pieces (I got my base from Hobbycraft, it cost about £6 for a big block and I use about half a block at a time)

Put the pieces into a plastic jug and melt in the microwave - stop it and check every 15 or 20 seconds, you don't want to boil the soap base because this can discolour it and you seem to end up with lots of bubbles in it.

When all of the base has melted, you are ready to pour it into moulds. At this stage, add any scent or colour, you don't need very much unless you want really strong fragrances/colours.

Pour the liquid soap into your chosen moulds - I use silicone cupcake cases.

If you are adding any dried ingredients, only fill the moulds half way and let the soap set. Then add the dry ingredients and another layer of liquid soap to fill the mould. Leave about half a centimetre at the top of the mould to make it easier to get out once it has set.

If you want to, you can decorate the tops of your soaps with anything you like.

I have made 3 different kinds of soap for the Fayre; coconut and cocoa butter (the cocoa butter makes your hands feel really soft), lavender and rose, and elderflower and lemon with nutshell exfoliants.
I'm hoping everyone will like them (or I will have a lot of soap to get through!).

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Great Greenhouse Disaster

You might call our back garden exposed - it's on a steepish slope and backs onto the downs where there is nothing to buffer against the wind. Brighton is also notoriously windy (apparently). I always used to think of wind as a bit of a non-element when it came to gardening - you need sun to make things grow but too much sun can scorch and dry out plants. You need rain to nourish the plants, but again, too much rain can be damaging. BUT wind, I only realised it was something to not only be considered, but also to be slightly scared of since we moved into our house.
I put the greenhouse up last spring, an easy job or so I thought. Then a slight gust of wind had the cover half way across the garden. Unperterbed, I put the cover back on and tied it a little tighter. Sure enough, off it came again. And so this little game with my new elemental nemesis continued for some time. Finally, I enlisted Sam to help me wage war on the pesky winds that whipped up a gale through our garden. He spent 2 hours busily attaching string to anything which string could be attached to, weighting any stray bits down with bricks and he must have also been muttering some kind of ancient chant to the Windy Overlord - I couldn't quite hear but it had a lot of four letter words in it.

SUCCESS! The newly fortressed greenhouse survived the rest of the spring, into summer, autumn and then came December and some of the windiest days I have ever experienced. Our wheelie bin went off down the road somewhere, our fruit cage ended up 2 doors down and our greenhouse... well it went from looking like this:                                                                                To this:

Gone were my overwintering sweetpeas, my strawberry runners were mostly squashed but still surviving and remarkably my Salvia, Hot Lips which was right in the middle of all the chaos was unharmed.
The greenhouse itself however, unsalvageable. Perhaps we should have taken the cover off for winter but it was still being used for overwintering various plants, definitely something to learn for next time.

Is it Time to Grow Yet?

It's late January, all the gardening books and magazines are talking about digging and buying seed potatoes and holding off on sowing anything until at least early February. BUT I CANNOT WAIT! My green fingers are raring to go. So much so that I have largely ignored advice and started sowing (the seed packets said so...). I have tomatoes in my mini windowsill propagator (non-heated) that I got in the sale at the garden centre, I have sweetpeas to replace the ones that didn't survive the Great Greenhouse Disaster, aubergines (best to get an early start for a long growing season... no?) and I have asparagus (having only had a garden for a year I am still a way off eating any spears from the crowns I planted last spring).

Only about half of my tomatoes have germinated and the ones which have are a bit leggy and weak-looking, the sweetpeas are mostly germinated but about 5 inches tall with almost no leaves, the aubergines are a no-show and I can't decide whether the hair-thin shoots coming out of the asparagus pots are in fact asparagus seedlings or just weeds.

So lesson learned, even if the seed packets are optimistic and say things can be started in January, it's ALWAYS best to wait those few extra weeks because whatever you sow in February will catch up with your heat and light deprived January attempts.
Last year I held of sowing anything until after the Seedy Sunday seed swap (first weekend of Feb) in Hove and most things were pretty successful. I will be making a note of this date in my gardening journal and I'll be sure not to be lured by those seed packets before that second week of February again.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Clearing the Jungle

When we found our house on the internet, we looked through the pictures and knew that there was work to be done - the odd splash of paint here and there, a few flower beds in the garden, that sort of thing. Then we viewed it. The house was much as we expected, but the garden not so much. The picture included in the estate agent brochure was of a relatively flat garden, nearly all grass with a cute little shed in the corner and some big fir trees at the back. In real life, the garden was twice as long as the picture showed (good news), it was on a pretty steep incline (bad news) and behind the not big, but MASSIVE trees was a jungle. I was excited and terrified by this space in equal measure. It held (and still does hold) a lot of possibilities, but this was more work than the bit of hedge trimming we'd anticipated. The only gardening either of us had really done before was maintaining a few grow bags on the patio. I was desperate to live the good life dream and grow my own fruit and veg but this seemed like a far off dream when I looked at the mess surrounding us. But we took on the house, warts and all and decided that the garden would be a job for the spring.

First, we cleared a lot of brambles and long grass and rubbish so we could actually reach the end of our garden. Then, bit by bit we cut all the branches from the fir trees - these were actually slap bang in the middle of the garden excluding light and space from everything so they had to go.

Then we annoyed our new neighbours by having lots of bonfires (we made sure they didn't have any washing out first!)

I saved the ash from the fire and I use it on my potato and strawberry beds (ash is good for these apparently).

Once we had cleared a large chunk of ground, I earmarked a bit mesuring roughly 5 metres by 4 metres and started digging. I dug every weekend for what seemed like months. I discovered that what we had was a weed infested, rocky and very windy patch - not ideal by anyone's standards but a neighbour told me that another neighbour used to cultivate the land and grew lots of veg on it and this was encouraging.

I  marked out a nice sunny spot where I wanted my greenhouse to go (My parents and brother chipped in for a big plastic one from wilkos) and began levelling and tamping the ground to make a good base. We used the bricks from old storage heaters that we ripped out in the house to line the edges and stop the earth slipping.

Once the greenhouse was up and running, my growing season could begin in earnest. I couldn't wait.


When the days are cold and grey, there's nothing much that entices me away from my gardening books and seed catalogues and into the garden but one of the few dashes of colour still around is my swiss chard. I'm growing the variety "bright lights" that I got at the Seedy Sunday seed swap in Hove last February. I started it off in pots in March and planted it out in the plot in May. Since then it has been producing lots of multi-coloured stems with dark green leaves which are lovely to look at and delicious to eat. It is one of the few crops still giving me something to eat at this time of year.

I love how the leaves are so glossy and I noticed today how most of the stems have become the same colour as they get older.

It's delicious cooked up with some soy sauce and sesame oil and a nice change from the usual greens at this time of year. We tend to cut the stems away from the leaves and cook those off first to soften and then add the leaves in at the last minute to keep them fresh. Yummy!

What veg crops are still providing interest on your plot at this time of year?

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Dresser Makeover

The thing with buying your first house is that people use it as a chance to get rid of stuff they don't want in their houses anymore AND YOU MUST BE GRATEFUL FOR IT. We were given a lot of stuff that had seen better days which we couldn't afford to turn down or replace. One of those things was a welsh dresser my Mum and Dad had before they moved. They didn't want it anymore so it found it's way to our house. It was fully functional but the knotted pine darkened by age wasn't really my thing.

I took it apart and sanded it down so that paint would stick to its previously oiled surface. It got a coat of primer (I'm not sure why but everything I read seemed to tell me this was a good idea), and then two coats of green paint. I left it to dry for a couple of days (this lets the paint settle or something apparently) and then applied a varnish over the top to protect the paint from scratching off - the paint still scratches off but this just adds to the shabby charm I was looking for.

Next I went on the scrounge. Trips were made to the wallpaper aisle of our local B&Q and I painstakingly picked out something I didn't hate (too flowery, not flowery enough, too bright, too modern - I was the goldilocks of wallpaper much to Sam's annoyance). To cover the back of my dresser shelves I needed about 2 metres of wallpaper (allowing for matching the pattern up etc). I also needed a small amount in a different paper to line the drawer bottoms. I did NOT want to pay £20 for a roll of wallpaper to use such a tiny amount, so we loudly made noises about needing to take a sample home to check it against our walls while surreptitiously rolling as much as we dared of the sample roll and shoving it into our trolley.

Wallpaper pilfered, I embarked on the most fiddly part of the makeover. First I mixed up wallpaper paste and painted it onto the back of the dresser and inside the drawers, my Dad said this would make it a better surface to apply the paper to. This was left overnight to dry and I began to cut out the strips I would need. I needed 3 strips going down which would be made up of 2 pieces side by side so I had to match both horizontally and vertically. Having never wallpapered anything in my life, this was much harder than it seemed but after a few mishaps with my precious stolen wallpaper and a lot of wallpaper paste all over me, the dresser was almost complete.

I fixed it back together and as a finishing touch, my friend bought me some lovely ceramic knobs to put on the doors. And there it was, not quite how I had pictured the dream dresser in my mind, but I had made it and that kind of made me love it more.

(Fast forward about a week to when someone put a greasy plate down on the dresser which left a massive grease ring never to be removed and I learnt my next lesson: NEVER, EVER have guests in your shiny beautiful home if you want it to stay shiny and beautiful)

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The First Room

After being in the house for a few weeks, the rose tinted specs had well and truely fallen off and I was struggling to pass off having 3 different kinds of wallpaper and mismatched curtains in one room as "character". I was also conscious that we had decided to have both of our families over for the first Christmas in our new home. Said Christmas was now about 5 weeks away and we still had boxes to unpack and we only had enough space for 5 people to sit down, there would be 9 adults on Christmas Day, one toddler, one baby, 4 cats and a labrador. It was time for action. New sofas were ordered, wallpaper was stripped (this was about 4 layers thick in some places), and paint was chosen. Sam had to go away with work so I was commuting to work (I couldn't drive then) from Brighton to Surrey everday, coming home, decorating like mad, going to bed and doing it all over again everyday for a week. The front room went from looking like this:

To this:

We used the money we had been given for our housewarming presents to pay for the curtains and tv cabinet, we got the sofas on one of those buy it now pay for it in 100 years deals you always see on tv and I made most of the cushions (mostly after Christmas when I got my sewing machine).
I found the sideboard you can see in the second picture (behind the sofa) in our shed. I think it was one of the original free-standing kitchen units from when the house was built in the 50s. It was covered in dirt and cobwebs but I fell in love with its rustic charms. I cleaned it down and took the cracked, peeling laminate off the top and sanded it down. I bought some dark varnish and painted 3 layers on the top. I keep meaning to sand down the wood and paint that but there are always plenty of other jobs to do.

I painted the dining room chairs that we bought with us from Sam's Dad's house where we lived before the move. I bought a length of oilcloth from Dunelm for a tablecloth (this worked out much cheaper than buying a ready-made table cloth and you can't tell the difference). I also revamped our tired old pine dresser which was donated to us by my parents. (This will be the subject of a separate post.)

How to make a Kindle Cover

We decided that instead of buying presents for everyone this Christmas, we would make our presents. Some were easy like the sloe gin we made from sloes we foraged on Sunday walks in September which made the perfect gift for friends. Other people were a bit trickier to make for. I stumbled across this idea for a homemade kindle cover in a magazine and thought it would be perfect for my brother's girlfriend. Here's how I made it.

You will need:
Thick card or mountboard
A roll of wadding
Glue gun
Material of your choice (ideally something quite sturdy)
Length of elastic
One large button or toggle
Sewing machine
Needle & thread

First, cut out 2 pieces of card and 4 pieces of wadding (the size will depend on which version of the kindle you have but roughly 14x22 cm for the version with the keyboard), abd using the glue gun, attach a piece of wadding to either side of each piece of card.
Next choose your fabric and cut two rectangles (you can either use the same fabric for the inside and outside, or use 2 contrasting fabrics) measuring around 38x26.5 cm
Pin the fabric together, right sides facing and stich a 1 cm hem around 3 sides of the rectangle, leave the right hand short side unstiched. Turn the cover right sides out and slide one of your covered card pieces inside, it should fit snugly inside the fabric (if it doesn't take your hem in a little until it fits).
Next using the sewing machine, stich the fabric as close as you can to the edge of the cardboard to secure it in place. Sew a second line approximately 2 cm away from the first, this creates the "spine" of your book. Next slide the second piece of card into the cover, making sure it is as close as possible to the line of stitches you have just made.

Fold the open edges of the fabric inside the cover making sure the edges are even and pin together. Cut a length of elastic around 9 cm long, fold in half and tuck it inside the cover so you have a loop sticking out over the edge of the fabric (you will use this to fasten the cover closed). Machine stitch the final opening making sure the elastic is caught in the stitches and the cardboard can't move around inside the cover.

Choose a large button or toggle, sew it to the front of the cover (left hand page), lining it up with the loop of elastic. Make sure there is enough space between the button and elastic to create enough tension to hold the cover closed, but not so much tension that the material puckers.
Finally, cut 4 strips of elastic measuring around 7.5 cm and pin them diagonally onto the right inside cover. When you are happy the pieces are even, stitch them into place. These pieces of elastic will hold your Kindle in place.

And there you have it, a homemade Kindle cover. It makes an ideal present (my bro's girlfriend was chuffed with hers) at a fraction of the cost of a bought cover and it can be made in just a couple of hours. Of course, you can customise yours however you like. You could add a pocket to the inside left page by stictching in an additional smaller rectangle or triangle of fabric, you could stitch beads or buttons to the front or even sew your name to the front in letters of contrasting fabric. I'd love to hear your ideas and see your finished covers - send your pictures to me and I'll post the best ones to the blog.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Early Days

So there we were, a house of our own, boxes (mostly) unpacked and a whole load of dreams about the untold possibilities for making our mark... Then we realised we didn't have ANY money to put any of our dreams into action, and that our house would have to remain like this:
Front Room - Day 1
I would look at beautiful cushions in shops and then gasp at the price tags, I looked at our sad furniture that had seen better days and despaired... BUT still determined to turn our chintzy (and not in a good way), nicotine stained house complete with back garden jungle into the home of our dreams, I decided to have a go at making things myself.

Moving Day

So the day had finally arrived, boxes stacked up all around us and our hired truck waiting to be filled outside. We were EXCITED and eager to get going.

Sam in the empty truck at the start of moving day
Fast-forward... oh about an hour:

A lot less moving van joy.

So it turns out that removing all of our belongings from one place and putting them into a van to transport them to another place, just the two of us... not that easy. For anyone who hasn't had the joy of moving - NEVER do it yourself. If, like us, you can't afford a removals company, then rope in six of your strongest friends/relatives and pay them in tea and cake.

Our House

In the Middle of Our Street
29 October 2010, AKA Moving Day. The creation of the packing spreadsheet and the obsessive numbering of boxes and their contents had all led up to this day. Still catagorically one of the most stressful days of my life - but also one of the best. After what seemed like forever (3 months from finding a house to moving in isn't a long time in the property-buying world apparently), here we were, a place of our very own and heads full of ideas of how we would put our stamp on it.