Sunday, 24 February 2013

baby's first hotbed

This week I have learned something new about myself. As well as a flair for languages and the ability to solve cryptic crossword puzzles, (but no hard sums please) - turns out I can really stack s**t up. Discovering a new talent like this is a moment to cherish - when the hard times come around it will be there to call on. My mantra has always been, 'You'll never be in the gutter if you're till trained' - we're talking life skills here people!

I googled 'hotbed' to get a definition:
hotbed : noun
  1. A bed of earth heated by fermenting manure, for raising or forcing plants.
  2. 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'e 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 Celsius 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....

Sunday, 17 February 2013

my life in the bush of currants

(with apologies to Brian Eno, David Byrne and Amos Tutuola)

It's been a 'glad to be alive' day in the garden today - there's nothing like a drop of winter sunshine on your back to inspire you to get on with stuff that needs finishing up.  Even my journey to work was a pleasure - enlivened by ragged crocodiles of men on bikes grinding up the long hill in front of me.  Their mesmerising lycra-clad buns of steel were a timely reminder that the sap is rising and time for winter pruning is fast running out.  So I'm happy to report that today I finally finished sorting out the soft fruit bushes.

The key fact about currants and gooseberries is that blackcurrants fruit best on new wood, while red/white currants and gooseberries fruit on old wood.  If you can't sort out your blackcurrants from your redcurrants, (and they do look extremely similar without fruit on), have a sniff. All parts of a blackcurrant; a crushed leaf, a cut stem and even the roots, smell strongly of Ribena.  Redcurrants just smell like... well - like plants.

The old/new wood thing means that you should take a different approach to pruning. Blackcurrants need 'renewal pruning', where you take out about a third of the (oldest) stems from the base.  A well tended blackcurrant bush should be a forest of slim young stems, with none of the growth more than about 3 years old.


With red/whitecurrants and gooseberries the aim is to build up a mature fruiting framework by 'spur pruning'.  Treat each branch as a cordon and work along it cutting all the side shoots back to two or three buds.  Fruit buds will form on these spurs and the wood will develop a more craggy appearance as the bark ages.


Wednesday, 13 February 2013

my steamy valentine

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.  More of all that next week – just wanted to share my excitement and whet your appetites. (Bleurgh!)

I’ll let you into a little secret – I don’t own the garden! (Just in case you were thinking I was a fabulously wealthy landowner with a penchant for historical recreation in my garden).  My employer doesn’t want to be identified – this might also be the moment to say that all views expressed in this blog are my own and not those of… blah bla blah etc

Yesterday the soil had dried out enough for me to prepare a planting area for some shallots and garlic.  I raked the bed out, top dressed it with a bit of bonemeal then planted 3 rows of garlic ‘Solent Wight’ and 3 rows of shallot ‘Golden Gourmet'.

nice fat garlic cloves

shallot 'Golden Gourmet'

The shallots are just snuggled down into the soil with their noses peeking out – I cover them up with a few pea sticks to try and foil the pigeons who like to tweak them out and hurl them about for sport.  The garlic goes in a bit deeper – I use a stick as a dibber to make holes to drop the cloves into; pushing them in can bruise the clove or damage the root plate.  Plant the fattest cloves and the biggest shallots you can get hold of to produce a generous crop for harvest in July.

Monday, 11 February 2013

voyage round my mother in law

To cap off our week of wallpaper stripping, we headed 3 hours north to see my mother in law this weekend. The family gathered to celebrate her upcoming 80th birthday.  We did manage to prevail upon her to let someone else do the cooking when there were going to be 10 of us, but for the rest of the weekend she turned out food for all her guests with a degree of vigour that puts the rest of us to shame - must be all those years of Chapel teas and feeding the men on the farm.

As well as enough roast dinner to feed a gang of hungry shearers, there is always a choice of homemade puds. I thought I should share her Pineapple Upside Down Cake - a thing of great beauty that must (surely) be set for a smart restaurant comeback any day soon.

She also quite often gives me stuff when she's clearing out her cupboards.  As well as a rather lovely 70's craft pottery cheese dome (that I currently can't find the bottom of so haven't photographed), I have acquired a new tea towel for my collection.

Now I like a souvenir tea towel..... I also like a map.  I particularly like a souvenir tea towel with a map, especially if it's somewhere slightly off piste.  The jewel in my collection has long been...

relic of a previous life in the film industry

But my lovely mother in law has added the perfect companion piece....

the refuelling stop of choice en route to the Falklands

(Note to self - consider ironing textiles better before photographing them)

Will be heading back up the garden path this week - hoping to get some garlic and shallots in if the ground doesn't freeze before I get there.  Also need to prune the soft fruit bushes - more of that later.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

gift shopping for ghouls

Okay - I'm officially over it with the wallpaper stripping, but still trapped in the house with the builders. (Not literally - don't send help). I'm on tea and decision making today - tedious but necessary.

So inspired by yesterday's post from Lakota at about the polar bear cookie cutter that she received as a pressie - I felt moved to dig out something special to share with you.

My conjoined gingerbread twin cookie cutter purchased from the giftshop of the fabulous Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, (medical museum - not for the fainthearted).

As a joint celebration of my stepsons' 18th and 21st birthdays a couple of years ago we took a big NYC/Catskills/Philly road trip.  The Mutter Museum was one of my personal highlights and their gift shop is truly special.  I urge you to check out their online store for a range of items that include a rather lovely selection of plush toys in the shapes of disease microbes and cells - my favourites included e-coli and a very cute brain cell.

Unfortunately, due to the current chaos in the house, I haven't managed to whip up a batch of these little fellas to show you.  My stepson wanted me to make them as a 'new baby' gift for our next door neighbours, but we decided that was maybe in poor taste.  I have made them once, but it's a rare social occasion that demands a conjoined gingerbread twin.

I bet Martha Stewart hasn't got one of these....

Monday, 4 February 2013

a taste of summer

This week I'm off gardening duty and it's full steam ahead with renovation.  The builders are in ripping out the ceiling in the back bedroom, while Mr Asparagus Pea and I plod on with stripping the acres of textured wallpaper that are welded to every surface of the high ceilinged Victorian/Edwardian lump of a house that we bought in the summer.

As they prised the cladding off the bay window, the builders came across a great big wasp nest (long vacated by its occupants).  It's so cool - I had to take loads of pictures of it, then take it round to my friend who teaches primary for her Nature Table.

Check this out....

Now I know wasps are a pain in the arse - but you've got to hand it to them!  It's amazing architecture considering it's entirely made from chewed up wood and wasp spit.  The layers have tiny pillars in between them like a little waspy multi-storey car park.

People have all kinds of theories about what constitutes the quintessential sound of British summer.  For some it's the gentle thwack of leather on willow and the (interminable) 'ball by ball' cricket commentary on Radio 4's Test Match Special.  For others it's the pop of a champagne cork followed by a sigh of disappointment as 99% of the British players exit Wimbledon in the first round.  But for me, I know that summer is truly upon us as I hear the traditional family ritual that involves sitting down for a picnic in an orchard, coating your children in sugary drinks - then beating at them with cardigans while screaming 'KEEP STILL, THEY WON'T HURT YOU!', as squadrons of wasps descend to join the party.

Happy days......

Saturday, 2 February 2013

february flowers

Okay, so this is not going to be about gardening, but hey – it’s February!  Even Alys Fowler’s doing houseplants in the Guardian today, and if it’s good enough for Alys….

We went across the border to Bristol today to pick up a sound engineering gizmo that Mr Asparagus Pea has bought for younger stepson’s birthday this week.  I went along for the ride so that we could have a nice lunch in Clifton and pop into Fired Earth to fantasise about tiles for the kitchen renovation.  We plan to knock out the old outside toilet to create more space, but I want to reuse the fab 70’s tiles from the lav as a splashback (!!!) for the cooker in the new kitchen.  I think it will be great to get a bit of pattern into the place – there should be enough to use in the new laundry room we’re planning too.

tile from the old loo

Across the road from the place where we got the sound doodah there was a great charity shop.  Couldn’t resist this old cotton sleeping bag for £3.  It’s such pretty material and I love that somone has patched it carefully in so many places.  I like the zip round the edge too – not sure if it works, but I would use it as a blanket anyway.

patched sleeping bag

So I’m gradually managing to sneak a bit of floral girliness into the ‘House of Bloke’ that is Casa Asparagus Pea.  ‘Slowly, slowly, catchy chicken’, as Mr AP likes to say; (Welsh is the first language for the boys in this house, so we have interesting new versions of a whole range of well known phrases and sayings).