Friday, 28 February 2014

a matter of taste

While we were in Birmingham we popped in to the City Museum to see The Vanity of Small Differences, an exhibition of six huge tapestries designed by the fabulous Grayson Perry. The work was conceived after he spent time making a three part documentary series for TV, All In The Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry.

He is interested in how people curate their possessions and shape their environments to consciously/unconsciously communicate where they want to fit ino society. The six tapestries are an homage to The Rake's Progress by William Hogarth, a cautionary tale of the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell, as he inherits and loses fortunes, ends up in debtor's prison and dies in a madhouse. In Perry's version, Tim Rakewell journeys through the British class system as he builds a fabulous career in the new tech industries.

We loved it so much we bought the book -  here's a taste of how beautiful it is:

…so inspired by Mr Perry, and with reference to my previous post
here is another of my favourites from Mr A-P's stash.

With daffodils ready for St David's day tomorrow of course...

Tuesday, 25 February 2014


Got a week off work - yay!

After all the upheaval of building work, 
we finally got to the nice bit - nesting!
One of the plus sides of living with an (under control) hoarder
- is the stash available to create decorative schemes.
I can wave my arms about and say 
'Let's have…..'

Aunty Dilys' chairs 
(beautiful oak from Port Sunlight)

the massive green school cupboard that nearly killed the removal men

the broken sunburst clock
it's always 6:05 in our house
 (note to self - dusting!)

The Iwan Bala - 'Views for News'

there's even a colour scheme emerging
- but what we really need… a defunct fire alarm!

We've been having guests round for dinner,
and using pretty things that have been boxed up for so long.
Putting bread in my favourite rush basket 
- and setting the table with vintage napkins.

Tomorrow we are off to Birmingham to see Youngest Stepson before he graduates.
I'm making beef and beer stew to portion up and freeze for him
 - brain food for a hungry student.

There's still plenty of work to do on the house.
But it's important to enjoy what we've managed to achieve along the way.
Must go - wallpaper to strip upstairs….  

Tuesday, 18 February 2014


Sunday lived up to its name - we had a day's respite from the rain and storms.
For the first time since before Christmas, I hacked ice off the car to go to work.

But look what has happened to my hotbed thermometer...

..burned and melted, buckled and busted.
Earlier in the week my colleague and I had turned the manure pile and restacked it neatly.

William Cobbett (1763-1835), says to turn it at least three times,
(but he didn't have to cook the tea when he got home!)
When I checked on Saturday it was nearly 50 degrees.

I am amazed by just how hot it has got
- too hot to keep your finger in.
I'm guessing 60-70 C.
That's a temperature on your oven.
There must be an idea for a recipe there somewhere….
..'Oeufs en Cacotte' anybody?!?

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

diary of a hotbed

It’s February, and for me that means it’s time to start thinking about horse manure! Every year we build a hotbed in the garden of Kennixton farmhouse. Even though it still feels like the middle of winter, for us gardeners it’s the very beginning of the new season. The soil in the veg patch will be cold and unwelcoming for a couple of months yet – but this is undersoil heating the traditional way. If you fancy having a go yourself - here’s an edited version of last year’s hotbed highlights:

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A great big pile of steaming horse hockey may not be every girl's dream Valentine but I was quite excited by today’s delivery.  Next week I am tasked with building a hotbed and the pile of fresh, (has to be fresh to generate heat), strawy stable manure will be the base for the frame.  It’s a traditional, low tech way of producing undersoil heating to get an early start on seed sowing. 

Sunday, 24 February 2013

I googled 'hotbed' to get a definition:

hotbed : noun

  • A bed of earth heated by fermenting manure, for raising or forcing plants
  • An environment promoting the growth of something, esp. something unwelcome.

I'm on about the first one here - a low tech way of warming soil to get a headstart on seed sowing.  It's a technique that's been around forever, but was particularly popular in the eighteenth century before steam or electric heat became our default settings.  Garden writers like William Cobbett, John Evelyn and Gilbert White devote pages to elaborate descriptions of how to set about building your hotbed and Beeton's Garden Management features it as a job for January in the monthly calendar.

Having trawled through all of them, I set to and gathered up the following materials:
  • a great big* pile of steaming fresh** horse manure - I reckon I had about 2 cubic metres.
    • * you need a reasonable volume for this to work.  
    • ** it has to be fresh to generate heat.
  • some faggots of tree prunings - suggested by some writers as a way of building up the structure if you're a bit short of manure. 
  • as many barrowloads of beech leaves as I could be bothered to rake up - some accounts suggest adding leaves as a way to temper the fierce heat of the manure. here is my step by step 'hotbed photo guide':

Build up the edges of each layer first then fill in the middle - 
make sure it's all firmed down so that it doesn't sink unevenly. 
Fill the frame with about 20cm depth of soil/compost mix.

I have a fancy glazed 'light' to go on top of the frame,
but old window units would work just as well.

The heat should start to build up rapidly over the next few days - the books say that you should wait for the temperature to stabilise somewhere in the region of 21-23°C before sowing seeds.  This seems wildly ambitious at the moment, but who am I to doubt the wisdom of the ancients?  I have stuck a thermometer in and will report on progress - I feel a chart coming on....

Monday, 4 March 2013

The ambient temperature in the garden first thing this morning was 2°C, but snuggled up in the hotbed it was 11°C. It hasn't heated up as quickly as I expected - about a degree or so a day.  There's certainly been no danger of the perils described by William Cobbett in his book, The English Gardener (1829):

...the heat of dung, though it will probably not come to a blaze... will burn as completely as fire;
and, if the earth be put on too soon, it will burn the earth into a sort of cinder, in which nothing will ever grow...

I've been taking its temperature and worrying like an overanxious parent. But it's definitely doing something, and a pointed stick pushed into the middle of the bed comes out warm to the touch.  Eleven degrees is halfway to a summer's day and definitely good enough to sow seed - I think I'll give it another week to see how far it gets. I'll still be about a month ahead of the game compared to sowing directly into the soil.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

We’ve been plunged back into sub zero temperatures this week, but the hotbed seems to have settled at a very respectable 16°C. So I decided today was the day to sow some seeds: some cabbages and kale, some leeks and a little row of parsley

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Even though it's still head-shrinkingly cold here with a raw wind coming in from Siberia, my little seedlings have been growing away nicely in the hotbed.  Today I thinned the rows of brassicas so that each individual little plant has a bit of elbow room to develop.  If they were in open ground I would thin progressively to allow for potential losses from slugs and other lurking dangers like pooping cats and dustbathing birds. In the safety of the hotbed I thought I would cut to the chase and give them enough room to get to transplantable size in one go.  It looks a bit drastic when you first do it, but they will reward your bravery by growing on quicker.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The seeds that I sowed in the hotbed back in March are now ready for transplanting out into the open garden. There is a bucketful each of kale and cabbage plants, and enough seedling leeks for two decent rows.  I also have about twenty parsley seedlings that I'm hoping are at that 'hard to guess' moment - big enough to make it past the slugs, but small enough that the transplant process won't make them bolt straight into their flowering phase.  I'm sowing more leeks and cabbages straight into the ground but my hotbed babies should produce a much earlier crop. It's still very cosy in there (18°C).  Obviously the air temp has caught up somewhat by now, (although you wouldn't believe it listening to the rain hammering on the roof as I type this). The important point is that the temperature doesn't fall away at night, and the glass light protects the plants from being battered by the weather. 

I've now filled the frame with six seedling cucumbers - okay, so I have to admit I cheated and started them off in pots on a sunny windowsill. This is my first go at this and I just wasn't sure how long the warmth would last, next year I'll have the confidence to sow in-situ.  

Monday, 9 September 2013

I've had a peaceful week in the September sunshine gathering produce for our Harvest Festival display – including leeks that started life in the hotbed and the last of the cucumbers. 

One of our reconstructed buildings at the museum is a Unitarian chapel from West Wales. Every year we host a Thanksgiving service and the gardening team always decorate the chapel with flowers and produce from the Estate. Since 2010 we have also held a Food Festival, so it seemed like a good fit to combine the two. It’s a great event that has really blossomed in the last couple of years. It feels like the entire Welsh food community come together to celebrate and showcase their work. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly - the perfect way to round off the season.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

old dogs, new tricks

The wind is howling through the trees outside and rain is lashing against the windows. At work today I attended a mental health awareness course. Among the list of '5-a-day' ingredients to boost your mental wellbeing were 'learning', 'connecting with others' and 'physical activity'. On that basis I would like to recommend….

extreme foraging*

collecting razor clams and mussels on a beach in Pembrokeshire, in weather as bad as today

the wind was so strong it was hard to stay upright

essential equipment for extreme foraging - plastic bags and an iPhone!

It might be hard to tell from these blurry photos - but we had FUN!!! 
All the bad stuff and busyness blew away.
We learned some new skills and emptied our heads at the same time.
(We even stopped making lists of things to do). 

It was a Saturday afternoon seashore foraging course, organised by Ed from the fabulous Llys Meddyg hotel in Trefdraeth (Newport Pembs). After a breath stealing few hours on the beach, we headed back to the hotel to cook up a seashore supper, eaten in front of the log fire in the hotel bar. Heavenly!

The next day the weather was like this….

Ed was running the course again on the Sunday,
(for wimps this time obviously).

*(it was my idea - but the lure of a weekend away with bit of fine dining thrown in convinced Mr A-P)