Thursday, October 29, 2009

Adventures in Container Gardening - Episode 2

Welcome to my second month of green-fingered-ness. Stage one consisted of buying a tired-looking basil plant in October from a local market stall, planting it in soil nicked from my landlord's garden, and then complaining vocally when aphids quickly installed themselves. The basil was then potted up into a bigger pot with more soil, and the smaller pot used for a new parsley plant from the supermarket. I am still squishing aphids against the window pane every day, and close inspection of the soil surface shows various kinds of small crawling things as well as several different types of mould. Not good. In desperation I have watered both plants heavily with an infusion of garlic. I'm not sure that this will help, but it made me feel better. (Ditto hissing 'Die, aphids, die!')

Lessons learned: (1) don't buy plants from a stall to make sure they don't already have insect infestations; (2) use potting compost rather than soil full of living things unused to life in a pot on my windowsill; (3) wash out pots which have had infestations in before re-use.

Thus, stage 2. I have planted some daffodil and snowdrop bulbs in two pots with proper potting compost. (At least, I think it's potting compost. My Dutch isn't so hot, and my French dictionary was rather limited.) One is in my room (away from the aphids!), and the other is outside, so I can compare their performance! We shall see what happens next.

Stay tuned for Episode 3: Growing Cress In Cotton Wool Because I'm An Actual, Genuine Beginner.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Calculating my Carbon Footprint

I have calculated my carbon footprint, one of the many actions recommended by the fabulous 'Generous' community, and looked at the various advice available for reducing my impact on the environment. The idea is that I work out my current footprint and aim to reduce it over the next year.

However, the calculators and advice available offer very little for young people in my position. I am lodging in someone else's house, so I know nothing about the boiler's age and efficiency, nor how much the electricity bill comes to, nor what kind of insulation is in the roof. I am unable to fill cavity walls, double-glaze the windows or upgrade the washing machine. Until eco-friendliness is included in 'for rent' notices, I would really like to see some advice tailored for people in this category. For example, I can't change the cooker but I can cook with lids on pots; I can't switch to renewably-generated electricity but I can switch to an ethical bank. I have spent hours online looking for advice that I can actually use, but so far very little has turned up.

The act on CO2 website tell me I have a carbon footprint of 0.99 tonnes. The WWF calculator offers a figure of 9.14 tonnes - a slight difference! Both asked different questions, both failed to ask about eg chemical-free cleaning, washing clothes at 30 degrees or hanging washing up to dry.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

On bugs

So over the past couple of weeks, I have been waging a war against the insect world on two fronts. The cats aquired fleas from somewhere - oh, joy! I tend to react badly to insect bites (some even leave a scar), so I noticed that something was nibbling me pretty quickly. As some appeared to be in rows of three, I thought for a while it might be bed-bugs and went on a room-cleaning-panic to eradicate whatever there was. Then my mother called and told me she had bites all over her feet and ankles (like mine) from fleas on her cat. Aha, thought I, and spoke to the cats' owners. Several fleabombs and much hoovering later, we are still finding small black things jumping over our legs in front of the tv. We think we might have cracked it now, however, through the liberal application of baking soda (all hail!)

Meanwhile, upstairs, my basil plant (acquired some two weeks ago) was being nibbled. Closer inspection revealed small black flies. Cue hours of googling. Initially, I thought it was something similar to soil grubs due to overwatering, but watering less just makes the plant wilt. After more googling, I think I have identified the problem as aphids. Still not entirely sure, though. I've made a pesticide from garlic and peppercorns, and it seems to be improving the situation. If anyone who stumbles across this page knows anything about flies on basil, please let me know!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Jam - or something related to it

So yesterday was jam-making day. Berries duly collected and debugged (the insects are different here than in the UK. Bigger and creepier. I don't really do bugs. Ugh!). Removing the berries from the stalks took so long and was so boring. For future reference: bring a friend for this process. Also, I was going for jam but given how difficult it was to get all the stalks out and how persistant the various insects were, I'd go for jelly if you've got the time and the muslin cloth. You see, how I learn all these things by trial and error? In another twenty years or so, I'll be an expert at jams and jellies of all sorts and running workshops for the local WI. (Can I insert an evil cackle here?)

Then came the stewing to draw out juices, the addition of cooked apple for pectin and sugar, and finally the boiling. This used to be my favourite part of jam-making when 'helping' my mum, and I still love the colours, smells, and the translucent sheen on the boiling fruit. My problem? I still don't really know what I'm doing. Maybe not enough apple/pectin, maybe not enough acid/cider vinegar, maybe not enough sugar. But not enough of something, because I boiled it for nearly an hour yesterday, finally gave up and potted it, and it still hasn't set. I did test it repeatedly, but no discernible progress was made. So I have four pots of elderberry and apple coulis, which may not last as I did not have the wax discs and cellophane covers favoured by my mother. I left a half-inch or so gap, tightened the lids and hoped that as the jam cooled, this would create a bit of a vacuum. Not sure if it worked, but hey.

Which brings me to my final concern. I'm not actually certain that they are elderberries. When one of my housemates asked where I got them, and I explained where the tree was, he looked at me with such horror and fear that I called my parents and googled frantically. I've looked at several hundred pictures of elderberries online, and they all look exactly like the fruit I picked. I'm as sure as someone who has never before visually identified an elder tree could possibly be. Watch this space - I want to check this out before I actually eat the jam/coulis/soup.

So now I have jelly with is overset and jam which is underset. A healthy balance, then. :D

Friday, October 9, 2009

Wibble Wobble, Wibble Wobble, Jelly on a Plate...

Yesterday, I went exploring. I was hunting for my nearest Brico (chain of DIY and gardening stores), which is allegedly 15 minutes' walk away but of course I got lost, ended up walking 2 communes too far, and eventually arrived an hour later. I did find it however, and on my way spotted a number of berries which looked suspiciously edible. Research on the web when I got home suggested to me that they are elderberries. There's loads of them by the side of the road, and no one else seems to want them, so...

Of course, my first thought is jam/jellies. I have often dreamed of the traditional Edwardian housekeeper's office, with its shelves of jellies, jams, chutneys and cheeses all lined up... I'm the kind of person who would put little gingham circles over the lids and tie them with raffia or ribbon, just to make them look pretty. However, my first step into the world of fruit-preservation was not an out-and-out success.

About 3-4 weeks ago, I turned my hand to making crab apple jelly. It was the first time anyone has touched the crab apple tree in my parents' garden, and they moved in 15 years ago (picture of the tree above, taken Spring 2008). The poor overlooked apples needed some attention, thought I. An unused jelly bag was excavated from my mother's kitchen, and I carefully collected, chopped, simmered and strained the fruit. It smelt delicious and the juice came out this beautiful shade of pink. (Pictures will follow when I get the link between camera and computer up and running again). Sadly, I simmered the juice and sugar for too long and the jelly went way past the setting point. It's crab apple glue, rather than crab apple jelly. Tastes nice, but a challenge to spread on your toast. However, with the elderberries I am limited by the fact that I only have one empty jar on this side of the Sleeve, and that's probably just as well. (Although I have also found a recipe for elderberry and apple jam online, and am toying with that idea too. Saves me the trouble of using an old pillowcase as a jelly-bag!)

So, as I can only make one jar's worth, I plan to eat some with porridge and with my now-traditional Sunday morning drop scones, and maybe make a smoothie/milkshake thing. I would welcome any suggestions of other uses to put them to. My options are rather limited by the fact that my Belgian bank has seen fit to freeze my account this week (naturally the week my rent is due), leaving me to rely on my emergency fund (traveller's cheques) until they start talking sense again. I see from the Barefoot Gypsy Blog that you can dry them. This sounds like a fantastic idea, although I'm wondering whether you just lay them out on kitchen towel in a cool, dark place, or if it's more complicated than that. Any ideas?

This is of course assuming they are elderberries and not deadly nightshade or something...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Greetings, World of Online-ness

So hello. Welcome to the first post of this blog, in which I shall explain a little about who I am and what I shall be writing about.

I am a 21-yr-old graduate from the UK, currently taking something of a gap year in Europe. I'm supporting myself by teaching English while I work out what I want to do with my life, and while I try out various interests and hobbies.

Over the last year or so, I have become increasingly interested in the life-cycle of the things I own and use. We use things without really thinking about where they've come from and where they're going to after we're finished. I am increasingly a supporter of the do-it-yourself mentality. Earlier this year, I completed my first blanket, which I crocheted from wool accumulated over a decade of unfinished projects. I've rarely felt so satisfied and proud of any achievement. The act of physically making something both useful and (sort-of) decorative was, strange to say, empowering.

This has combined with my historian's interest in the old methods of doing things by hand, which are now less and less common. I want to learn some of these skills for myself - and top of the list is spinning.

This overlaps with ecological concerns about the manufacturing and disposal processes of the things I use, and I also dabble in making my own cleaning products, cosmetics and (most recently) growing herbs.

Finally, the name of this blog. A meadow orchard (also known as a Streuobstwiese) is a traditional landscape layout found in Western Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The mixture of plants encouraged wildlife whilst providing fruit to local communities. As this blog will contain a variety of topics, mostly related to doing things from scratch and in an eco-friendly manner, this seemed an appropriate name. Finally, it has long been a dream to have an orchard of my own. Ideally in a walled garden, accessed by a gate hidden by ivy, tucked behind a stone cottage with a log fire and gabled windows...


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