Sunday, August 9, 2009

Summer Gardening in Ireland

It's been a pretty dull summer so far. There were a few bursts of good sunshine in early June, and that got things off to a good - some might even say roaring - start. And since then, it's been mostly dull, often wet, and not particularly conducive to anything I have growing - more sunshine would have been very beneficial.

The peas did pretty well. We ate them all straight from the pod, and there are even a few more coming on now - for some reason, the early pods were small, with peas packed in tightly, and the later pods have been huge, with peas of the same size as the small ones, but more widely separated. The beans are less impressive; of four or five plants, I see two actual beans so far, and little sign of more - but perhaps they're a later crop. I've a later planting of some other broad beans coming in behind them, anyway - only seedlings as yet.

Also only at the seedling stage are the lettuces - this is because the damnable slugs (I think) have eaten every other lettuce of the four other attempts this year. These ones are being grown in containers on a shelf two-thirds of the way up the east-by-south-east facing wall of the shed; slugs that can reach them there will be impressive. I say slugs; I've not actually seen any, but I can't think of much else that will so thoroughly destroy seedlings.

The strawberries are suffering more from the lack of sun than anything else, really. There are lots of immature fruit - and I spent this morning making sure the strawberry bed is as thoroughly bird-proofed as it can be, and has netting strung high over it - but they're just not ripening. I reckon there'll be a better crop from them next year, assuming that there's more sun.

The onions seem to be doing relatively well. The stalks are falling, they're swelling nicely, and I'm happy to let them sit for a couple more weeks. Oddly, the ones in the middle of the patch seem to have done better than the ones on the edge, which is not what I would have guessed.

The pumpkins are fine healthy plants. There is, however, no sign of a vine as such, and no sign of flowers, let alone fruits setting. I'm blaming lack of sunlight again, although I suppose they might find the soil a bit uninspiring. I shall try adding more compost around some of them, keep the rest as a control, and see if that makes any difference. My aim for them is one decent sized pumpkin by Hallowe'en, so it shouldn't take too much for that. Right?

The Siberian tomatoes are on one fruit apiece, swelling slowly. The first tomato of the year fell off before it completely ripened, and had seen extensive use as a cat toy before I got to it. It's possible the Small Cat picked it himself, although not all that likely.

Last year's pepper has eight fruits - mostly small and black, but apparently turning green as they get bigger. I do not understand that plant at all; it's supposed to be a greenhouse annual, but it's producing better outdoors in its second year.

I think there's an asparagus frond out there. I'm not sure; I've never seen one before, but it's a delicate looking fern-ish thing, looking a bit like dill. Of three crowns, one frond is a little poor, but we'll see what happens next spring.

One blueberry bush took a sniff at our soil and died, the one right next to it seems to be fine, and has a couple of bunches of immature fruit. Some sunshine, much as with the rest of the garden, will probably ripen them nicely.

The fruit trees are there, leaves but no fruit, all but one pear, which looks dead. On the other hand, they flowered in frosts in late November last year, so I reckon a year for them to work out seasons is reasonable. A friend reckons her pear tree will over-produce this year, so I'll be seeing what can be done to preserve some of those. The soft fruit bushes - one gooseberry and some currants - seem to be in the same state. If they go about producing next year, I'll need more nets, though.

And in the herb end of things... the thyme which is alive, but really not doing much. I reckon the soil it's in may be too rich, although that would typically make it grow long stalks. I'll see how it's doing around September, and maybe move it elsewhere. Mint, two kinds, both confined to pots, are doing ok. They're not taking over every inch of space in their pots yet, and if they behave, they may get planted into clear ground. I know mint spreads, but I can live with that, and prefer it to lots of other possibilities. Oregano, alongside one of the mints, seemed to have rather arbitrarily dried out when I was looking at it today; I've given it a good watering, and will see what happens. And the basil - again, an indoor variety - is doing fine, if a little paler than I'd really like. There's a bay tree, which is thriving, and some lavender, which is doing well.

Finally, the potatoes grew up, grew flowers, some of them grew fruit, and fell over, all as it should be, except that as far I could see from the one row we pulled, they have about three potatoes per plant, plus a few really tiny ones. They're Roosters, so they should have some more than that. They were on the outside edge of the bed, though, so I reckon I'll leave the rest for a couple more weeks, and then see how we do.

The garden looks much more populated when I write it down than it does when I look out the window, I have to say...

Friday, June 12, 2009

Bedroom Decor

We've been considering a Moroccan theme for the bedroom, although I'm finding that widening that to North Africa/Middle East seems to be more productive. This is some of my current thinking.

The room is up under the roof, with a central section of flat roof, which slopes to about five feet on one side (in which there are some fitted wardrobes and access to the attic), and about three on the other, where the bed is, headboard against the wall. Furniture I'd really like to hang onto includes the antique wardrobe and chest of drawers/dressing table we got from freecycle. They're both dark mahogany.

I want colours to be either earth tones or jewel tones. No pastels, no primaries - I found myself looking at this one and going "what about blue and red?", but I reckon that pure blue and red aren't much used in this style.

Most things should have a texture of some kind - either patterning, or an actual physical texture.

Lighting should be from things that cast some of their own shadows - lantern style with patterned cuts, for instance. These Eygptian lanterns are utterly gorgeous, and I want them all. The central pendant light that's there at the moment really has to go.

And I'd like to do something with storage - books and clothes - that echoes the orderly market scenes. I'm not sure how to approach that one, though. I don't want open storage, and obviously, our clothes can't be made to fit the colour schemes. But I'd like it if drawers and wardrobes, when opened, looked like part of the room, and not the backstage area of the set, as it were.

Thinking continues.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pictures of Very Small Crops

The lettuces planted in the small pots are coming up as seedlings, and they could be seen coming for some time. However, the pumpkins took me by surprise. For one thing, all of them sprouted. And for a second thing, they exploded out of the soil, pushing chunks up in places, as you can see:

That was three days ago. They're even bigger now (and you can see the lettuces in the smaller pots):

In the meantime, the pepper plant which - more or less - survived the winter seems to trying to fruit again. In this picture, alongside various shades of leaf, you can see the beginning of the buds. I'll admit, you kind of have to know what you're looking for, but they're there. Peppers are supposed to be annuals, so quite what this one is at, I'm not sure. It's also not in a greenhouse, although it was in the house for the winter.

And finally, here's the very start of one of the Siberian tomatoes. You can just barely see it as a little green fruit, with light green stripes on darker green.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Bathroom Planning: Colours

We're planning to completely replace the downstairs bathroom in the house in the near future. A lot of the fittings in there have reached the end of their lifespan, and it only takes a few calls to the plumber before it becomes worthwhile to replace the whole lot. So we went in to B&Q yesterday evening to have a look around, and make an appointment to talk to someone about their planning and fitting service.

I'm boggled by the sheer range of shapes and sizes of bathroom fittings. Sinks go from things I reckon you could only get one hand into at a time to vats you could conceivably bath in. Baths come in straight, curved, L-shaped, deep, not-so-deep, really-quite-shallow, and swimming pool sizes. And yet, there was one thing that really stood out. If you wanted anything other than white, or colours close to it, you were pretty much out of luck.

As it happens, that's fine for us; the downstairs bathroom is quite a small room, and its only natural light is through a long shaft coming down from a skylight. It needs light colours. But if you wanted marble effects, green, slate, blue - all colours I've seen bathroom fittings in - nothing. Even the B&Q website has only five bathroom items in black, and they're all panels and levers. I'm a bit mystified by this - I suppose the other colours must be out of style at the moment.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

How the Garden Grows

The last few days - from Friday onward, really - have been a combination of clear skies, low winds, and high temperatures. It got up to 25C around our place yesterday - I don't have a reliable thermometer at the moment, but that's from a weather station a few miles away.

The garden is responding to this by growing visibly. The above-ground portions of the potatoes are easily half as big again in five days, the peas are starting to climb the cones, and the beans are putting on something over an inch a day. The onions aren't showing much change, but I assume they're swelling away under the surface there, and the strawberries are starting to fruit. I need to get some willow hoops or something under the netting there; they're coming up against it. The basil - recently moved to a bigger pot - is also booming along, which is vaguely surprisingly; my experience of basil before has mostly involved withered plants. And we were given a very fine mint plant by a friend, so I'll be interested to see how that comes on. I gather mint will take over any space it can, so it's staying in its nice terracotta pot for now.

In the meantime, the lettuce seeds sown ten days ago are now all coming up, and as soon as they're past the seedling stage, they'll be transplanted - some to the east end of the long bed, and some to the shady bed that's been lying fallow, so that I can see which works better. There's no sign of the pumpkins yet, but I live in hope. Once the lettuces go into the ground, I'll follow up with more sowings in the pots.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Building a Brick Barbecue: Implementation

The barbecue is built. In the end, I reckon the actual building took less time than the planning and the acquisition of the materials. I am not 100% satisified with the job, but since they're the first bricks I've laid in about two decades, I'm not badly unhappy with it either.

Having cleared off some of the flagstones in the back yard - which are laid on a deep bed of sand - I laid out the bricks, checked again that the grills would fit, and generally got things going. You can see a big pile of bricks in the background - there were 140 in total. 

A few courses up, things looked like this:

And by the time I took a break for lunch, some seven courses were laid in, reasonably level and reasonably square - all done by eye, since I don't own a spirit level, or any large square.

The flagstones that form the hearth went on after another two courses, and the next layer of bricks. The grill is on to make sure everything is still lined up:

The two flagstones are one aspect I'm not too happy with - I would have prefered one slab the whole way across, but the single item B&Q had that was big enough was also thick enough that I couldn't lift it. I'll look for some slate for v2.0, I think, in a piece big enough to go right across. There's an old slate quarry near my homeplace; it might be worth looking around there a bit.

As we get toward the top of the structure, things look very Lego-ish. I decided to stop one course short of where I was originally intending - I'll get some nicer bricks, ones that are solid through, to finish things off.

Here's the finished item - or at least, finished until I get that final set of bricks, and also some tiles to cover the area of bare bricks in front of the hearth.

The whole thing will get its inaugural run tomorrow. We spent the rest of the day outside as well, enjoying the glorious weather. The Fat Cat is also, unsurprisingly, a fan of the sunshine:

Friday, May 29, 2009

Building a Brick Barbecue: Plans

I've been wanting to build a brick barbecue for a very long time now. This year, I'm making that a reality. This will, strictly, be Barbecue v1.0, which will at some future date, after an extension is built, be replaced by Barbecue v2.0. However, for the next few years, v1 will be where it's at.

So my idea is pretty simple. I'm going to build three small walls in a U-shape, with the mouth of the U facing either the house, or the eastern fence. Supported by these walls, about 50-60cm from the ground, will be some sort of flat surface. I reckon at the moment that this will be a paving slab of some kind, but depending on available materials, it may be a brick-paved surface over a rubble core. This will be where ashes and spent coals fall - a hearth, in other words.

Protruding onto this surface from the walls, which will continue up, will be four bricks, on which will rest the coal grill. This will be about 6cm higher than the hearth surface, that being roughly the height of one brick. Above this - given room for the coal grill by the thickness of mortar - will be another four protruding bricks, preferably offset from those below so as to avoid issues where the coal grill gets stuck between bricks. On these will rest the cooking grill, giving another 6cm between the coal grill and the food. Now, I'm looking at that, going "6 cm is really not much space!", so it may have to be more like 13cm, or two bricks and some mortar, and I might have to leave a similar gap between the hearth and the coal grill. It would avoid the grill-getting-stuck-between-bricks possibility as well. I'll need to look at the materials.

And then, the walls will continue up another 2 courses of bricks or so, in order to shelter the food grill a bit. There are some "warming grills" in the grill package I'm using, so I may go so far as to put in some pins to rest them on - they don't rate full brick support, and I might not include accommodation for them at all.

So... some rough maths says I need about 105 red bricks, assuming they're near the standard size of 215mm x 102mm x 65mm. I think I'll get about 140, to be on the safe side. I'll also need that paving slab, if I can get one big enough - it can protude on two sides and make a neat shelf, if it's too big - or enough bricks to make a small front wall and pave the "hearth" if the slab option doesn't work out. I'll need some kind of masonry chisel in order to produce half-bricks for wall-ends, unless B&Q are ahead of me and provide them as well. And for the mortar, cement, sand and some plasticiser if I can find it. And a trowel. And a jointer, or at least a short piece of hosepipe, as I've seen used on building sites. And something to make the mortar in, or on... the local election posters look tempting.

That's quite a list, but I reckon it'll come out, pricewise, a good measure cheaper than a shop-bought charcoal barbecue, and last considerably longer. Not to mention that it will be terribly satisfying.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Strawberries, Willow Cones, and Potatoes

Over the last few weeks, we've been very active in the garden. These pictures are all from this evening - I have a few from the potato planting process as well, but I'm saving those for a whole post about nothing but spuds when we get the first ones dug up. The grass, you'll see, is nicely cut, and this is due to our fine new Black & Decker electric lawnmower, which made short work of the three weeks of grass since the last use of the manual mower bought from Lidl last year as a stop-gap device. It's already been claimed via Freecycle, so someone else can benefit from it for a bit.

Here's our strawberry bed. This has been double-dug, composted, ridged, and planted with strawberry plants we got from B&Q - Elsanta and Loran, according to my notes, although I have to admit I'm not 100% certain which is which. I think the bigger ones on the left are the Lorans.

Below, you see the very nice willow cones, and the runner beans and peas that are intended to grow up them. This bed was also double dug back last autumn, and had some overwintering lettuce and peas. The lettuce had some survivos, which we ate, but the peas never quite made it. To their right are some thyme and an aubergine plant - under a glass cover because of wind in the last few days which was giving it a bit of a battering. I don't reckon the extra heat will do it any harm either. In at the back of those you can see the onions, and the last of the mizuna - soon to come out and be replaced by (hopefully) lettuces and a couple of pumpkins.
Here's a brief glimpse of the potatoes - that's mayflower petals all over the bed, not some strange fertiliser! They're in need of some earthing up, which will probably happen at the weekend. They're in where the ill-fated greenhouse was last summer.

This is a rose from my wife's homeplace in Finland, brought over as tiny plants last autumn by my mother-in-law, and carefully planted here. There are four or five actual plants, but this is the only one flowering so far. We intend to let them grow into a combined bush, and the scent from even one flower is something else, so a number of them are going to be fantastic.

Here you see a juvenile gooseberry bush - already with plenty of spikes. The canes we planted have almost all failed to show, with only one growing at all. I think it's a blackberry, but it's so tiny that unless it does a lot of growing between now and September, there won't be anything from it this year.

These apparently empty pots contain the planted lettuces and pumpkins that are to go into the end of the long bed when they're big enough. They're outside, near the house, ready to be hauled in should there be a cold night.
And here, attended by the Small Cat, are two Siberian tomatoes, last year's surviving pepper (for certain values of surviving) and in beside it, a pot of supermarket basil that has not died, and indeed, seems to be thriving. It's also up for transplant to a larger pot, or maybe even into the bed beside the thyme, at the weekend.

More pictures as they appear!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Wallpaper Stripping and Painting

We had tested a few strips of wallpaper in the kitchen; they came off pretty easily. This was a good thing, because the most recent layer of paper was a kind of salmon-pink with a smudgy, feathery pattern in vague, faint green and maybe some half-hearted blue. It was every bit as bad as that sounds, and the accents of a strip around the room at waist height - dark green in a sort of paisley pattern - didn't help. That came off easily, as we thought. But under it was a far more tenacious stuff; white with little blue flower-things in an offset geometric pattern. In larger patches, it gave me odd visual effects - I don't want to imagine what it looked like over the whole room. It had to go, but having been pasted directly onto the plasterboard, it was well stuck.

Eventually, we hired a steamer. Man, those things are genius. They're basically a big kettle with a hose attached, and on the end of the hose is a device that shoots out some steam and traps it against the wall. The wallpaper just peels right off, or at least can be scraped with relative ease - but you have to do it immediately, while it's still warm. So it's pretty much a one-man job, which was especially fun up above the kitchen cupboards, where the escaping steam gathered, and made my hair curl so much it got crunchy. That's a strange feeling. When we re-do the kitchen, we're putting in cupboards right to the ceiling there - the gap at the top is a waste of space, and I reckon it makes the ceiling seem lower, too. And we won't have to scramble up after that to paint the wall there, either.

So after all the paper was down, the room looked pretty awful. We promptly put on two coats of paint in a colour called 'Antique White', and things were vastly improved. Having done some rearranging of furniture, and pinned some game maps back to the wall, things looked considerably better in the same corner:

The real change, however, is in the light levels in the room. Even on a dull day, I now forget to put on the light, whereas before, it was necessary on a sunny day. 

The guy in the shop where we hired the steamer reckons we could get a second-hand one for about €120, so we'll be taking him up on that when we next go to remove wallpaper. We'll then have it for the other four or five rooms that need doing here, and can sell it on, or keep it to lend to people, and have it work out a lot better than renting at €25 a day - not that that's a bad rate.

We've still to do the painting on the woodwork there, and the old dresser you can partially see in the top photo is going to be painted as well. We're looking for a kind of eggshell blue for that - just on the blue side of light grey, I think. Pictures of the process will be posted!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Garden Archaeology

I've been musing a bit on the things we've found while digging for vegetable beds in the garden. Or, more precisely, what we haven't found.

My homeplace is on the side of a hill in north Co. Wexford. There's been a house there since before there are any real records, I think, so there's plenty of stuff in the ground. Digging anywhere on the property brings up bits of metal, glass, crockery, and so on. Indeed, when lowering a floor on the ground level of the house, a cow's skull and some large vertabrae came up - best guess is that they're the remnants of a stolen cow, possibly even during the Famine.

But the same is true there, to a greater or lesser degree, of any field you care to dig in. Sure, you don't find vast numbers of objects, but you find some.

Our back garden seems to be rather different. Thus far, I've found two harrow spikes, a garden hose of fairly recent origin, and, while digging the asparagus bed, something that looked like a metal standpipe, but which went down too far to excavate without making a complete mess. And that's it. Stoney, way up in Aberdeenshire, finds more than that in his fields.

I know that the last few metres of the property were a field until quite recently - that's where we found the harrow spikes, in the area that would have been hedgerow or headland. The hose was in the original corner of the property, and I suspect it got buried when the old hedge was done away with. But the house has been around since the late 1970s, and I can't imagine that there was never any other use of the property, so the lack of oddments and remnants is really rather mystifying. On the one hand, it leaves good clear soil - not even that stony, from my hillside-brought-up point of view, but on the other, it's nice to dig up interesting things.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Further Planting

It's been almost summery here over the last weekend; we were able, after the exertions of gardening, to sit outside, form a plan of attack for the various things that need to be done in the house, and then drink good Darjeeling and read newspapers and magazines.

The exertions were mighty, though. In March, as planned, I planted carrots, onions, lettuce, coriander, and mizuna. Unfortunately, I was paying more attention to the dates on the seed packets, and not enough to the last frost dates, and all those seeds got a blast of wintry temperatures, which seemed to kill everything except the mizuna - and even it's only coming up slowly, although I'll freely admit I have no idea what's normal for it.

In any case, the bed I had dug - with much effort, I might add - for the carrots really isn't suitable for anything but quick-growing summer crops; it's in shade too much in spring and presumably in autumn as well. I'll plant some lettuce there in summer, but for now, it'll have to remain fallow.

So in the past couple of weeks, we've planted: potatoes (of an unknown cultivar, marked as 'good all-purpose potatoes), onions (Stur BC 20, from sets), asparagus (Connover's Colassal, three crowns), more carrots (Early Nantes), two new blueberry bushes, and a decent-sized bed of strawberry plants (Elsanta and Loran). 

We also put in a twisted hazel (Corylus Contorta) and a weeping birch (Betula pendula Youngii) at the front, removing a rather inappropriate small palm and some shurbs of unknown provenance to make room.  

We still have a variety of herbs, pumpkins, and tomatoes to plant when the weather warms a bit, or when I work out the logistics of cats and windowsill plantings. In the meantime, I received a gift of two small tomato plants (a Siberian black tomato, apparently) which are doing well on a north-facing and reasonably cat-safe windowsill - alongside last year's surviving sweet pepper, which seems to be having a go at being a perennial. The tomatoes will go outside later in the year, but I think the pepper will stay inside.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Winter into Spring

It's been a long cold winter here:

... but it's finally coming to an end. For the first time in years, we had snow that was almost worth speaking of, and it got cold enough for the canals to freeze over. Not so much that you could walk on them, although I saw someone try, but a solid covering of ice, sometimes for more than one or two days.

Now that's all gone, outside temperature are rising, and it's time to get out there and plant things. My first plantings will be in March, and I have these goods to work from:

You can see a wide enough selection of seeds there, and my two current best textbooks - Joy Larkcom's Grow Your Own Vegetables, and a book by a chap called Sutton, published in 1892, and titled The Culture of Vegetables and Flowers. There's also this year's Thompson & Morgan catalogue.

The seeds I planted last autumn have not been a success - mostly through my own fault in not providing netting for them. In my defence, it never even occurred to me that young lettuce, pea plants, or onions might be tempting to birds and beasts. This spring's plantings, though, will be getting more than adequate cover with wire netting, and I have other nets for the soft fruit bushes, assuming they've survived the winter intact. I think they have, although with the canes, it's impossible to tell, and some of the bushes are nearly as inscrutable.

I still need to get potatoes, leeks, onions, pumpkins and squash - and I'll probably add whatever else takes my fancy when I'm in front of a rack of seeds.

We planted some daffodils earlier in the year, and have found that there are more on the property, rising in odd places here and there. I've never been all that interested in flowers, but we may install a rockery to replace the front lawn, and the flowers for that will be interesting.

And speaking of lawns, the back one will soon need mowing again. It's far too muddy out there to consider it today, but as soon as there's a conjunction of dry ground and time, it'll need to be done.