Blocking Up – experimenting with peat-free soil blocks

I can’t quite remember where I first came across the idea of soil blocks for seed sowing, but they’re a rather neat idea. Compacted cubes of growing medium are used instead of pots or modules, freestanding seed trays with narrow air gaps between the blocks.

Big claims are made about the benefits of soil blocks for raising young plants in terms of reduced root disturbance and how ‘air-pruning’ of the roots prevents root binding of seedlings, all of which may well be true – I haven’t really got the horticultural background to say! But actually the thing that really attracted me to soil blocks was practicality.

Sowing seeds into soil blocks

I really don’t like module trays – they’re a pain to wash and re-use, if nothing else, they tend to degrade badly and crack up so that they only last two or three seasons, and are expensive and enormously wasteful if you’re using them only once. While it makes sense  to start certain seeds directly into 3″ pots, that takes up an awful lot of window sill space – something that’s definitely at a premium in my house at this time of year. And as we’re aiming to be completely peat free in the new garden, those little peat jiffy pots are right out (and the cost adds up quickly). A useful compromise has been home-made newspaper pots, but there’s quite a lot of effort involved in making these and I don’t always have time (also, my paper potter tool seems to have gone astray in the house move)! I’d more or less settled to using plain seed trays and pricking out seedlings at a small size, but that’s quite a lot of work and it can be rather traumatising for the seedlings, and has to be done at just the right time when inevitably I have too much else to do. So, no perfect solution.

Half trays of soil blocks in heated propagatorSoil blocks combine the convenience of the plain seed tray with the ‘modularisation’ provided by plastic module trays or individual paper pots – so could they be the best of both worlds?

Despite a real lack of cash just now, I decided to dig deep and find the twenty pounds for a four-block two inch cube soil block maker, which I bought from GreenGardener.co.uk. Only after diving in feet first with the purchase did I stop to consider the peat free problem; almost everything I read suggested that a peat-based seed compost was essential for making functional soil blocks. So had I just wasted my money?

Unwilling to compromise on our principles, I set about mining websites and gardening forums in search of a peat free recipe for soil blocks. None was quite right but some themes kept recurring. A base of peat free compost (fine textured seed compost ideally), something to help drainage (sand, perlite and vermiculite were variously mentioned) and loam or topsoil to help bind the mixture.

I’ve mentioned that money is a bit tight; going shopping for extra growing media is not on the cards, but I have a reasonable supply of New Horizon peat free organic multi-purpose compost and a rather soggy old bag of vermiculite (I generally use the New Horizon compost mixed 3:1 with vermiculite as my seed mix). We also have an almost inexhaustible supply of molehills, as the efforts of Mr Mole to create a ‘des-res’ for Mrs Mole are in full swing on our paddock!

So with a ‘make-do and mend’ attitude I did a few experiments and have come up with the following mix that seems, so far, to be working well for me. It will be the basis of my soil blocks for this season, while I get a handle on how things go germination-wise, and consists of –

  • Dry soil block mixture4 parts peat free multipurpose compost (you could sieve this to take out the biggest bits – but I’m fundamentally lazy and don’t own a garden sieve)
  • 1 part vermiculite, and
  • 1 part molehill (you should ideally sterilise this to get rid of weed seeds, I suppose, though it seems like faff) or substitute with bought topsoil (being careful it’s not been mixed with peat compost, as it often is!)

Wetted soil block mixMix the components thoroughly and then add water, a little at a time, until you reach a consistency that holds well together when you take a handful and give it a good squeeze. I find this is at the stage that you can just squeeze a tiny bit of water back out of the mix. Any wetter and the blocks slide straight out of the block maker – drier and the blocks tend to crumble. If you find you’ve over-wet the mix just add a bit more compost to dry it out again. A little trial and experimentation and you should get a good idea what you’re aiming for.

Filling the soil block makerTo make the blocks, level the wet compost mix about two and a half inches deep and as even as possible. Push the block maker down firmly into the compost until it hits the bottom, then push down on the handle without moving the press, to squeeze down on the blocks. You may squeeze a out a little water (if you’re seeing a lot, your mix is too wet). Then, release the handle and carefully pick up the block maker, tilting it on it’s side to reduce the risk of blocks falling out.

Making up soil blocks in seed trayPosition it where you want your blocks to go, and then press down on the handle again pulling the block maker up at the same time. If it’s all worked perfectly, you will have four even, neat little cubes each with a dimple in the middle. I find I can fit three rows of four blocks (12 blocks in total) into a half sized seed tray or seven rows of blocks (28 in all) in a full sized tray.

Half seed trays of soil blocksNow you’re ready to sow your seeds. Pop one seed into each dimple (or more than one if they’re small seeds and you plan to thin any extra seedlings) and cover loosely with a pinch of dry compost or vermiculite – or leave the seed uncovered if light is required for good germination. Then place the seed tray in your desired spot. I currently have two half trays of soil blocks in my heated propagator with tomato seeds in, and two full trays of salad leaves and brassicas in the unheated greenhouse.

Completed tray of soil blocksThe soil blocks are supposed to contain enough water to allow the seeds to germinate without further watering being required, but this depends on preventing excessive evaporation.

Covered seed trays in greenhouseI wrap the seed trays in the greenhouse with cling film (wetting the edge of the seed tray like a pie dish gives a good seal) and those in the heated propagator are under a closed lid. But if they do get a bit dry, don’t panic – mine held together fine when I watered them with a normal watering can and medium rose, just be gentle! Obviously you can’t use normal plant markers easily if you’re using cling film, so I label my trays using masking tape stuck to the seed tray. Keep your eyes open for signs of germination and remove the cling film before the seedlings reach it.

I’m waiting to see how things germinate in them now, and how they grow on, with no small degree of excitement!

Are you experimenting with soil blocks this year? How are you getting along?

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Something’s Rotten in the Garden Centre

Something has been happening in our garden centres. This blog post, I’m afraid, is a bit of a rant.

Recently, I had the most depressing experience. We were out and about, and with seed sowing season upon us, we needed to pick up a few bags of peat free compost for the garden. As it happened, we knew there was a garden centre just up the road – the glossy signage at the roadside bragged of it having won awards, and the car park, on a sunny February Saturday, was crowded.

Garden CentreThe bad omens started at the entrance. ‘No dogs’, said the sign. This was a nuisance because Dave dog was with us, of course. So he would have to wait outside with Hubby while I popped in to pick up the compost. And maybe one or two other bits and bobs. Even better, I had some National Garden vouchers in my wallet, so it was the best sort of shopping, the kind that doesn’t feel like it involves spending ‘real’ money.

The ‘information’ desk at the entrance (‘This is Not a Till’) was a bit odd, but the man in a suit standing behind it was able to confirm that they would indeed accept my vouchers. Oh goodie! I looked around. A few BBQs. A chimnea or three. A garden swing. Nothing really unexpected, and surely the good stuff would be just through there…

The sight that greeted me through the door, instead, was rather startling. A large hangar of a space, it was filled from side to side with tat. Not so much as a houseplant, as far as the eye could see. Instead, nick-nacks piled up on tables like some sort of demented car boot sale. I’ll admit, it took me a few moments to take it all in. A second adjoining cavernous space seemed to be filled with even more of the same. But where on earth were the plants?

Garden centre tat

In the distance I spied a door that seemed to lead outside. Perhaps, this was where I might find what I needed? After weaving through tables piled with clocks, picture frames, porcelain rabbits, and oversized tea sets, I stepped out into the sunshine. Here, finally, I found the plants, set out on staging. I could have danced. And there, against the fence, half-hidden by heaps of discarded wooden pallets, were piles of promising looking plastic sacks. At least I’d be able to pick up the compost I needed, and escape from this very perplexing place.

Compost SacksI couldn’t spot the peat free compost we normally buy, so I walked along the row looking to see what they had instead. It dawned on me, slowly, that the answer was ‘nothing’. Not a single bag of peat-free compost. I walked back along the row, slightly disbelieving, and checked all the labels carefully. But apart from the topsoil, wood chip, and the farmyard manure, all the potting mixes contained old-school peat.

Now, I’m not a peat free zealot. I understand that some gardeners, familiar and comfortable with its properties, find it hard to give it up. A bit like fossil fuels and global warming, it can be hard to link the bag of compost in your shed to the destruction of rare and fragile wetland habitat. I’ve made the personal decision to finally make the break, and our new garden will be peat free as far as it possibly can be – but I understand that not everyone is ready or able to make that jump just yet. It is surely a remarkable moral failure, though, to be denying your customers even the possibility of making the right choice.

Rather shocked, I turned around and tried to find the exit. On my way out, I spied the seed racks – the ultimate impulse buy for any keen gardener, and my personal retail kryptonite – hidden so far out of the way that I wasn’t even tempted to browse, let alone buy. A tiny range of cheap plastic propagating trays was piled haphazardly nearby, almost hidden behind a giant selection of multi-coloured welly boots.

I left, gift vouchers resolutely still in my pocket.

What has gone wrong when a garden centre can’t part a keen gardener with a pocket full of gift vouchers from even a penny their cash?  The failure to stock even one peat free multipurpose compost is beyond disappointing – actually I think it’s unconscionable; presumably it result from some bean-counter’s profitability analysis but surely it’s the bean growers’ needs that should matter?

Discussing this with friends on Twitter, I’ve been asked to name and shame, but that’s not my style. And depressingly, I don’t really need to – wherever you live in the country, unless you’re very very lucky, it’s likely your local garden centre, be it a chain or an independent, is somewhere rather like this. Some make a better job of pretending to care about the gardener than others, but a cursory look at the square footage is enough to make clear that the cafe, food court, interior decor, ‘giftware’, crafting supplies, pet shop, outdoor clothing (and indoor clothing for that matter), garden buildings, children’s soft play areas, and fishing tackle are more important than seeds, plants, and essential garden provisions.

This sad state of affairs appears to result from a nasty loophole in planning law which allows horticultural businesses – which real plantsman (and woman) nurseries absolutely are, but these garden centres are not – to be developed on agricultural land where permission would never be given for an out of town shopping centre. It’s the worst of both worlds, then – over-development of inappropriate sites, and the horticultural purpose, sadly, long forgotten. Instead, we get this rambling, low-rent, mixed-retail mess. And a mess which, to add insult to injury, now often fails even to fulfil its original purpose, of offering plants and horticultural supplies for gardeners.

So what are we to do? Well, you could do as we did, and visit the good guys.

Nursery PolytunnelIndependent local plant nurseries are the gardener’s friend and still hang on in most places despite competition from the big boys of the garden centre and DIY warehouse worlds. They probably don’t sell BBQs  – they may not have a cafe – but what they know, and excel in, is plants, and the knowledge and gear that you need to grow them successfully.

Fresh from our disappointing experience at the garden centre, we went along to Bodmin Plant and Herb Nursery. We immediately found the compost we needed, along with a very nice selection of pots, right outside the entrance. In the small inside space (into which Dave dog was welcomed), a good selection of seeds, seed potatoes, pea and bean seeds sold loose by weight, little bunches of snowdrops ‘in the green’ ready for transplanting, and a good selection of tools, along with tree ties, rabbit guards, and so on. Second-hand module trays, too, saved from landfill and a bargain addition to our potting bench. And not a nasty nick-nack in sight.

Plant selectionOutside, even in very early spring, a great range of fruit trees and bushes, and a really good selection of shrubs and bedding plants. I can’t wait to go back in a month or two when I expect a riot of colour and fresh growth. The staff don’t wear suits; they were helpful, knowledgeable and clearly cared about the quality of their plants and the needs of their customers.

I went home with my peat free compost, and a couple of other little bits that caught my eye (yes, there might have been a seed packet of two…) and left a nice bundle of gift vouchers behind me. In fact, the only slight cause of sadness was the relative emptiness of the car park, with only a handful of vehicles parked when we arrived.

Honourable mention also goes to Burncoose Nurseries near Redruth, which we visited last week on the way back from an outing to the Lizard. A great ‘pure’ plant nursery with a fabulous selection of specimen plants and shrubs, where I finally found the Tasmanian Snow Gum I’ve been looking for for about a decade. Don’t expect to find tools or supplies here, but for plant selection it’s one of the best I’ve seen.

So, even if you’re not ready to go peat free, why not reject the tat-merchants and DIY barns and make it your resolution to go garden-centre free this growing season, and instead, give your support – and your hard-earned cash –  to your local independent nurseries?

[The photos used in this post are Creative Commons licensed images sourced from Flickr (see image pages for details) – they are for illustrative purposes and do not represent the products, nurseries or garden centres discussed in this blog post.]

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

New Year, New Home – our plans for the garden

Crikey, we’re half way through January 2015 already – how did that happen?? It seems like only last week we arrived here, but it’s been over six months now since we moved, in the height of summer.

The house

It’s going to be an exciting year for us, and hopefully plenty of opportunities to showcase new skills and techniques here on the blog, too! Those of you who read here regularly will know that we were forced by the HS2 rail project to move from our lovely little cottage near Banbury. We decided to bite the bullet and make a big move – the move to the South West that Hubby and I had always told ourselves we would make ‘one day’, when the right opportunity arose. I have to say I’d always suspected the ‘right time’ might well have ended up being be 20 or 30 years from now, when we were thinking about retirement, so while it was a scary move, and stretches us financially, I’m delighted that we find ourselves here in Cornwall now, while we’re still young (well, relatively, hah!) and fit and able to work and build a life here and contribute to our local community. Even if it means we’re skint working-age folk rather than comparatively well-off retirees!

After an initial 6 months doing temporary contract work to keep our heads above water, I’ve started a new, permanent job for the new year, closer to home and with saner hours (occasional days off!) which will hopefully allow me to draw breath from time to time and spend a little more time making, doing and writing too!

So, as today is one such day, I thought I’d share a little about the projects we have coming up here at our beautiful new home in the course of the next year.

In the garden –

We’re amazingly lucky to have five acres of land with our new home, and in due course we hope to slowly build it up into a productive smallholding. For the time being we’re renting the pasture land to our neighbours for their sheep to graze, while we concentrate our time, effort, and resources around the house and gardens.

Dave dog on the paddock

Yes – gardens. I never thought I’d have gardens in the plural (well, if you ignore a scrap of front driveway!) but we have two, three if you count the old sheep fold where we’ve planted the orchard trees that we dug up and brought with us from our last home.

South gardenTo the south of the house, sloping away gently, we have a triangular garden with Cornish hedges on both sides which is going to be our ‘pretty’ garden. It has gorgeous views over Bodmin Moor and will be perfect for relaxing in on summer evenings if we ever get any time to rest!

The fish pondHubby has dug a pond here for our fish, who are settling in nicely, but otherwise this patch of land is likely to have to take a back seat for a while while we concentrate on more productive projects! With a bit of time and attention (ten years or so should do it!) I have high hopes for it being an even more beautiful place to be.

To the west side, we have an almost square, level garden with the house to one side and Cornish hedges to the other three sides, which essentially makes it a walled garden and the most protected growing space we have. This is an important factor as we’re nearly 900ft up on the edge of Bodmin Moor, and the winter weather and winds here can be a bit ferocious!

First raised bedsThis is going to be our kitchen garden, and as you can see the work has already started, the hens are settling in nicely, and the first three raised beds are planted with winter veggies.

We’re going to build a shed and a small seedling greenhouse here and add some more growing space as we go along. The soil is quite stony as we’re on granite and slate bedrock, but seems good and fertile so with a bit of luck and lots of patience and stone picking this should make for a lovely productive working garden. As long as we can keep the rabbits & mice at bay…

We plan to build a polytunnel outside the gardens to the side of the pasture paddock, to allow us to grow more tender plants like chillies, tomatoes, peppers and maybe even melons, and take even greater advantage of Cornwall’s lovely mild climate (well, by and large – it’s blummin’ chilly today!) and long growing season. The hens might even enjoy hanging out there in future winters, in the dry and out of the wind.

The hens nicely settledThe hens are doing OK now, after a disaster back in November when a stoat broke into the run and slaughtered three of the five girls we’d brought with us from Banbury. Of course, it killed my favourite, Midge, and I was completely heartbroken over the whole thing. We managed to find four new pullets to make up the numbers and all of them seem to be getting on really well now.

We’ve had far less trouble than on any previous hen introductions so we’re obviously getting the hang of this process. The new girls all have their own characters and temperaments and seem very chilled out around Dave dog, which is lovely.

There’s so much to do, but it’s so exciting! I’ve got some chillies in the heated window sill propagator (and rapidly realising I need a much bigger one!) and the first have germinated during the past few days. It won’t be long before every window sill in the house is full to bursting with seedlings – at least they’re nice thick walls, over two feet of solid granite for the most part, so I have plenty of ledge space.

Green shoots!

We missed out completely on last year’s growing season, which was torture. So even though we really should probably be focusing our time and efforts in other places, I refuse to let another whole growing year go by the wayside – it’s so very exciting to have seeds in compost again and to be seeing the very first green shoots of what should hopefully be our first great productive Cornish growing season!

Recycled cold frameIt’s a very conscious decision to concentrate our time and expenditure on the productive aspects of the gardens first – after all, the kitchen garden will go some way to feeding us. Landscaping and decorative planting, no matter how attractive, doesn’t help keep the larder stocked or reduce our food bills. We’re very much doing this on a budget, too – our rather lovely pair of cold frames are made from the glass out of the shower cubicle we had to replace when we got here.

Over the next few blog posts I’ll share with you some of our plans for the house – especially the kitchen – and for our outbuildings. Buckle up – it’s going to be a busy year!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Merry Christmas from the Country Skills Blog!

It’s been an incredible year (and one where this blog, I’m afraid, has felt rather neglected at times!). Here’s wishing all my lovely readers a very Merry Christmas – may your day be full of peace, joy, and laughter, good food and good company, and home-made goodies of course!

Merry Christmas 2014!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Take A Seat – how to re-upholster a dining chair, for complete beginners

So your dining chairs are looking a little tatty. Perhaps the seat fabrics are stained, marked, torn, threadbare, or just looking rather dated and no longer suit your decor. Time to throw them out and start saving up for some new ones, perhaps? Don’t be silly! For a start, chairs are really expensive (I mean, easily £100 each for nice ones!). If the chair frame is still sound, then DIY re-upholstery or re-covering of the chair pads is a job which should be within the grasp of anyone with a few basic craft and DIY skills.

Before and after

In order to do this job properly, you will require –

  • A chair or chairs in need of restoration
  • Staple-removing tool or tools
  • Heavy-duty staple gun suitable for upholstery tasks, and staples
  • Replacement covering fabric, of the mid to heavyweight upholstery type
  • New bottoming fabric (non-woven synthetic material)
  • Replacement seat foam (optional, see later)
  • Basic everyday tools such as scissors, screwdrivers, iron and ironing board
  • Adhesive spray and stain-repellant spray may also be useful

The right tools for staple-removingIt is possible to cut corners on the equipment list, of course – you can remove staples using a flat-headed screw driver (not one you’re particularly fond of, as it will never be the same again!) and a reasonably heavy-duty desk stapler could be pressed into service instead of a staple gun, but having the right tools will make the job an awful lot easier and quicker, not to mention safer for you! A staple gun and hinged-type staple remover should set you back about £10 between them, so won’t break the bank.

I would definitely replace the seat foam if the chair is imported, or is older than the 1988 UK fire safety regulations, as upholstery foams before this date (and some of those still in use overseas) can be incredibly flammable. If you know your chairs are more recent than this, and the seat foam is in good condition, not stained or breaking down, then it’s reasonable to re-use what you have. This is what I’ve done in this tutorial, as I know the chairs are at most six or seven years old and were originally manufactured here in the UK. Obviously this is a DIY job for my own use, the chairs won’t be labelled as complying with the regulations after re-covering, and consequently will not be suitable for sale or for use in a furnished rented property.

I want these chairs to last me many more years, so I’m doing this properly – yes, you could just wrap an extra layer of fabric over what’s there already and staple it down, it’s a quick-and-dirty approach which will save you a lot of time and effort, but you will inevitably add bulk, particularly at the corners and underneath, and the seat pads may very well not sit properly afterwards. Stripping the seat pads down is pretty hard work and takes time, but for me it’s worth it in terms of the quality of the eventual finish.

Right, to work!

Chair in need of re-upholsteryThese are the chairs I’m re-upholstering. I bought them from eBay to match four I already have, but they are very stained and all my stain removal efforts have failed. If you turn your chair over, it’s very likely that you will find the seat pad held on by four screws through the base, one at each corner. Remove these and set the screws aside, you’ll need them again later.

Seat pad - bottomRemove the seat pad and turn it over. The view that greets you will probably be a bit like this one, a sheet of bottoming cloth held on with staples all the way around. This is light non-woven fabric, generally, and while it’s tempting just to rip it off, you’re going to want to remove all the staples anyway, so you might as well get started. Leaving staples in situ is a tempting effort-saving decision (trust me, it will once you’ve taken a few out!) but will interfere with neat tidy fitting of the new fabrics later on, and may affect the way the seat pad fits back into the chair.

Personally I find having one of the wooden-handled, curved, pointy staple removing tools a real benefit, even though they’re quite expensive (expect to pay about £15 for a new one – but it will last you a lifetime) – I use it on the staples first, just to ‘break’ the back of them and make a little space in the centre. Then I use the jointed plastic handled tool, which grips the staples to pull them out evenly. You could save a little money and buy just one or the other – they will do the job on their own but the curved tool struggles sometimes when one side of the staple comes free first, and you’ll need pliers to pull out the other end. The plastic tool has a chunkier tip and is much less easy to squeeze under the tight staple to start with.

The wrong tools for removing staplesI mentioned you could use a screwdriver – well, you can, but it’s not the right tool for the job, you’ll damage the corners using it for leverage, and will require a lot more force to use, too. All of which means it’s a lot more likely to slip, and damage parts of the chair you want to keep. Or, you know, your fingers. Obviously you should keep all your fingers *behind* any tool you’re using like this (be it a screwdriver or a proper staple removing tool). Don’t say you haven’t been warned!

Once the bottoming fabric has been removed, you’ll find even more staples holding on the top fabric. You’ve guessed it, these all need to go too. In all, it’s quite likely there will be well over 100 staples in each seat. It’s a long old job and until you get the knack of it can easily take over an hour for each chair. But it’s worth it for the quality of the eventual result.

Finally, you’ll have all the fabric off the seats. Probably, what you’re left with will be a wooden (plywood or chipboard usually) board and a foam pad, which may or may not be glued together. If they’re not glued down, or you’re replacing the foam pad, then it may be worth turning the board the other way up before re-fitting, particularly if it’s chipboard and crumbling a little where the old staples have been. If you’re replacing the foam, it’s easiest to take one of the existing pads to a foam supplier and ask them to cut replacements the same size and shape for you – most will be happy to do this though they may charge you something to do it. I’m keeping the foam pads, because they’re relatively new and in good condition still.

Cut out fabric and mark wrong sideYou’ve probably chosen your replacement fabric already, and really anything could work, so let your imagination run wild! The fabric I have used is actually salvaged from a pair of heavy cotton curtains we found in the house when we got here. I’d taken them down and washed them as I didn’t like them where they were, but the subtle neutral check pattern makes a great seat and goes really well with the natural oak of the chair frames. And also, you know, it’s free, which is awesome!

If you’re buying fabrics to use, a thrifty option could be to have a look at the second hand curtains for sale in local charity shops, where you may find a real vintage bargain! Try to choose a fabric of a similar weight to the one that you’ve removed, as this should make the seat pad fit back into position best, without unexpected gaps or excessive thickness. If you’re buying new, don’t feel you need to restrict yourself to upholstery fabrics – for a little job like this, clothing fabrics like denim or a heavyweight woollen cloth could make great alternatives. Do bear in mind that a fabric with an obvious check or stripe, like mine, will show up any wonkiness and uneven tension in the fabric re-fitting much more than a fabric without!

Pre-wash, dry, and then carefully iron your fabric before cutting out. I hate ironing as much as the next person (in fact, I pretty much only ever iron at all if I’m doing a sewing or textiles project!) but do go to the trouble of doing this, it’s important I promise! Washing your fabric first should both shrink it, if necessary, and improve your chances of removing stains from it in the future, should you need to, without causing colour run.

Using the old seat fabric as a template, cut out your new seat covers. I prefer to cut a little larger, and to cut to square corners, without ‘scalloping’ them out. This just provides more of a margin of error for the fitting process! If there’s any risk of confusion, mark the ‘wrong’ side of your fabric clearly when you cut it out, to ensure it goes on the chair right-side-out! If your seat foam isn’t already glued down to the wood, consider using some spray adhesive to do this, as if the two are fixed in position already, it will make stretching the fabric over them much more straightforward.

Fix straightest edge with staple gunThen, starting along the straightest edge of your seat pad, secure the fabric with your staple gun. The first side is simple, but of course it gets a bit trickier after that. Do the opposite side next, so that your fabric is nice and straight. While it *is* possible to stretch, hold, and staple the fabric on your own, this task is a lot easier if you can recruit a glamorous assistant to help you (hello, Hubby!).

Wrap over fabric snugly and fix opposite edgeYou will want to pull the fabric as tight as you can, and this will curve and round-off the cut edges of the foam in the process. Work slowly and keep the tension even. I tend to work in a divide-the-difference pattern, placing each new staple in the centre of a gap, rather than trying to work along a line from one end to the other.

Then fix sides, maintaining desired tensionThen do the same with the two other sides, though you might find it easier to work on both sides alternately, rather than securing one side and then the other. Just keep checking your tension is even and appropriate as you go along, and don’t be nervous of taking staples out and trying again if you’re not happy with the result!

Once you’ve finished the sides, fold the corners over neatly and secure these too.

Finally staple down corners

With a bit of luck, you’ll end up with seat pads that look a bit like this.  Now just to finish the bottoms. You could re-use the bottoming cloths that you took off in the first place – if you managed to get them off without tearing – but they’ll look tatty and new non-woven fabric to replace them is very cheap (it’s usually available in black, grey, white, or beige and costs a couple of pounds a metre, so choose the one that will blend in best). You could even forget about it and just re-fit the seats as they are, but that will leave the raw edges of your covering fabric exposed and these will eventually fray.

Cut out replacement bottoming cloth using old fabric as templateA word to the wise – take it from me, and do not attempt to iron your bottoming fabric. Doing so (even on your iron’s lowest setting) will result in ruined fabric and a nasty sticky mess on the bottom of your iron. Do you really need to ask how I know this..?

Attach new bottoming cloth with staplesCut out the bottoming cloth using the old one as a template, and then staple this in place over the seat bottom, concealing all the rough edges and staples securing your top fabric as you do.

Treat seat pads with stain-repellant sprayMindful of why I had this job to do in the first place, I got out my trusty can of Scotchgard spray (other stain repellant products are available) and treated the re-upholstered seat pads before re-fitting them. This would also be a good time to make any repairs to the wooden chair frames, and oil, varnish, or even paint these if necessary.

Finally, fix seat pads back in position with screwsOnce everything is done, re-fit the seat pads using the screws you set aside at the beginning, and stand back and admire your handiwork! Aren’t they fine? I’ve only got another four to do, now!

Just consider the possibilities – old dining chairs in need of re-upholstery sell online and in general auctions for pennies on the pound compared to new ones. Doing the job yourself takes a little time and effort, but you can produce a really professional looking result, save a heap of money, and bring a great vintage feature into your home, too!

Admire your finished chairs!

 

Still doubt that this is a beginner’s project? Well, these chairs are the first things I’ve ever upholstered. If I can do it, I have no doubt that you can, too!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Cooking the Books – with some regret, I’m giving up the challenge!

Just after New Year, and struck with the realisation that I had lots and lots of cookbooks that I rarely seemed to use, I set myself a year-long blogging challenge – each week, I would take a recipe from one of my books (one I had never made before, if possible), cook it, and then write it up for the blog along with a review of the book in question. I’ve enjoyed this challenge hugely, both in the discipline of regular blogging, and in the wonderful new recipes, techniques, and flavours that I’ve been able to explore while doing it. My readers seem to have enjoyed it too, based on the lovely comments and feedback that I’ve received both here on the blog and on Facebook and Twitter.

We were doing so well until mid June! But since then, we’ve moved to a new home in Cornwall, and I’ve been working very long days (and nights, on occasion!). There is so much to do in our beautiful new home – including in the kitchen! – that I’ve finally had to admit to myself that I haven’t got the time to try to keep up with the weekly recipe challenge. Over the last few weeks, the feeling that I ought to be writing up a recipe has stopped me committing time to other blog posts that I could have written instead, which is rather counterproductive, all things considered!

At least my cookbooks are out of boxes again!

The cookbook shelves

So, while I hope and intend that there could well be a few more Cooking the Books posts between now and the end of the year, they’re going to have to be on an as-and-when basis. For the time being at least, trying to turn one out once a week just isn’t going to happen! And I hope, as compensation for all my lovely readers, to be able to offer blog posts and tutorials covering many of the other thrifty DIY skills and sustainable projects that are going to be part of the process of getting our new home the way we feel it deserves to be, without spending the earth doing it!

Thank you all for your great support and feedback on the Cooking the Books posts over the first half of this year, and I do hope you continue to find posts here that you enjoy going forwards!

‘Cooking the Books’ was my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Hopefully there will be one or two more in due course!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

We’re here! Just starting to get settled into our new life in Cornwall.

Thank you all for your patience in the recent blogging hiatus! We’ve moved (actually, we’ve been here four weeks now, I just feel I’ve barely had a chance to pause to draw breath since then!) and are starting to settle into this beautiful spot – and really start to realise all the work that is to come…

From the garden

This really does feel like a special little part of the world. We’re well off the beaten track, without mains water or drainage (mains gas is a wild and distant fantasy!) but with the amazing quiet and stunning scenery that comes from being just that extra little bit out of the way. The broadband is serviceable – good by very rural standards, actually – but any need for a Netflix subscription is a long way off… We’re lucky to have found ourselves with lovely neighbours, who we hope will become very good friends in time, and have been made wonderfully welcome and introduced to everyone in our great local pub. So far, no one seems to mind that we’re incomers, but are pleased that we’ve come to make a life long-term in their community, which is heartwarming.

 Sunset  At dusk  Meadow sunshine

I’ve been taking a few photos from the garden (because it’s just so pretty I can’t stop looking at it!) – that’s Bodmin moor, in the background of those photos. Our nearest village, Altarnun, which is mostly famous for having been the parish of the dodgy vicar in Dapnhe Du Maurier’s ‘Jamaica Inn’, has a gorgeous church, a little river running under an ancient stone packhorse bridge, and is exactly as full of whitewashed slate and granite cottages with flowers out in front as you might imagine.

The move itself was more than a little more ‘interesting’ than it might have been – one of our lorries was involved in a road traffic accident en route, and was held up for nearly a week while a new lorry was found and the contents transferred – the driver was blessedly uninjured, thank goodness – unfortunately for us the lorry contained all our plants and trees, which got to spend a week locked in the back of a lorry in a freight yard in full sun. We asked for them to be watered and I think that must have happened as they turned up in far better shape than we had feared – a few broken branches but not dried up husks. Otherwise, we’ve suffered the usual small number of breakages – thankfully though, nothing irreplaceable.

All of that somehow pales into insignificance now that we’re here. The insect and bird-life that we’ve seen just in the last few weeks is amazing – we have house martins nesting in the barn, and flycatchers and bullfinches join the more common sparrows, dunnocks, wrens, robins, blackbirds, thrushes, a variety of tits and some pretty serious birds of prey – buzzards definitely, but quite possibly kites, too – that we see in the garden, on the bird feeder, and out and about. At night, the swifts and house martins give way to lots and lots of bats.

I’m completely in love with the Cornish hedges – which are no such thing, of course, they’re mounds of granite packed with soil, as many an unwary motorist has discovered to their cost over the years. These are to all intents and purposes vertical wildflower meadows stretching for mile after mile, full of clovers and vetches, foxgloves, meadowsweet, cranesbills, honeysuckle, ferns of all shapes and sizes, and wild strawberries, so very lovely and unusual to see up at head height or above, walking between cornish hedges is a bit like lying face-down in a meadow, without the inconvenience and grass stains! I’m sure the hedges – and the grazing that they surround – are the reason we have so many wonderful butterflies, bees and other insects, and the amazing bird life in turn.

The houseThe house itself is beautiful, with bags of character, thick granite walls, slate floors and open fires, but it’s over 200 years old and was always likely to be troublesome – its first ‘surprise’ for us came in the form of a curtain of water running down the dining room wall when Hubby was having a shower a couple of weeks ago. The long and the short of it is we need to completely re-fit the shower and the bathroom tiles, something that we were planning to do in due course but wasn’t a priority for our currently rather strained finances. Ah well…

Apart from taming the overgrown grass, we haven’t even started on the garden yet… but the ideas, at least, are starting to come together.

Last weekend I started making the curtains and blinds for the living room from the gorgeous floral tapestry-like fabric we found for a bargain price on the Goldhawk Road market last time we were down in London. It’s not the easiest fabric to work with, but I think you’ll agree the results are quite rewarding? (There will be a blog post on how to make roman blinds coming up – the executive summary though? Very efficient on fabric yardage, but a lot more trouble than curtains in terms of time, effort, and required accuracy!)

Working on the blinds  Finished blind

I’ve discovered, meanwhile, that some beautiful fabric I had bought to make bedroom curtains for our old cottage – and never got around to because it soon became clear we would be moving before long – is *just* long enough to make two pairs of curtains for the new bedroom, even accounting for the inconveniently long 62cm pattern repeat. This discovery has made me implausibly happy.

Bookshelves!Just today we’ve managed to empty a load of book boxes onto the shelves. It’s amazing how much more lived-in – and less echoey – full bookshelves make a room seem! The cookbook collection finally has some space to spread out, a whole bookcase to itself! Of course I’m weeks behind with Cooking the Books now – who knows if I’ll ever manage to get caught up??

And of course, when we’re not trying to sort out the house, and I’m not at work (which feels like all the time at the moment!) there’s the wonderful Cornish coast and countryside to enjoy. Dave dog is absolutely delighted with his at-least-weekly visits to the seaside, something that could only be a very occasional treat when we were in the Midlands. We were even greeted by a swim-by of a pod of dolphins at Trebarwith Strand, Dave dog’s favourite beach.

What it's all about!

The weather has been absolutely gorgeous since we got here, which is both a joy and a torment, when I’m stuck at work sweltering staring at a beautiful sunny Westcountry summer’s day out of the window. Too warm, sometimes, for doing the things that we need to do around the house and garden – the pond remains un-dug and the trees are not yet planted – but at least the paint dries quickly!

I’ll stop rambling now as it’s a gorgeous sunny evening and while I’m sat in here typing, I’m not out there enjoying it! Hopefully the blog will feel a little less neglected over the next few weeks, though as I seem to be working all the hours, I’m not making any promises… All the stress and upset of the compulsory purchase of our lovely old cottage does seem to be fading into memory, and though I’m not a fatalist, something about how I feel about this place makes me wonder if we were meant to end up here all along..?

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Macaroni with Leeks and Bacon, from Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course, Cooking the Books, week 24

Pasta bakes are such a staple that it almost seems odd to treat them as a recipe. Still, we’re clearing the store cupboard and fridge as much as possible, and this variation on the classic macaroni and cheese caught my eye.

To serve two –

  • Ingredients for bacon leek macaroni175g of pasta (I used fusilli, penne would be more traditional)
  • 1 large leek (or one small one and a shallot, as I’ve used)
  • 90g streaky bacon or pancetta
  • Butter
  • Plain flour
  • 3/4 pint of milk
  • Ingredients for cheese sauce90g grated cheddar cheese
  • 45ml double cream
  • Whole nutmeg
  • 1 tbsp grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 tbsp breadcrumbs
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Salt and pepper

Put the pasta on to cook in plenty of well salted boiling water, and cook until not quite done, so that there’s still just a hard ‘bite’ to it. When you’re happy with it (about 8 minutes, probably) drain into a colander and run under cold water to stop the cooking, then mix in a drizzle of oil to stop it sticking to itself and set aside.

Mix pasta, leek and baconWhile that’s going, chop up your bacon into pieces and fry until just going crispy, set aside, and using the same frying pan, slice and fry the leek (and/or shallot or onion) until just soft but still nice and green-coloured.

Mix the leek and bacon into the pasta in an oven dish. Pre-heat your oven to 180C.

To make the cheese sauce, start with 25g each of butter and flour in the pan on a relatively low heat, melt the butter and make your roux, mix in the milk and bring up to a very light simmer. When it has thickened to your taste, melt in the cheese, and season with salt, pepper, and some freshly grated nutmeg.

Frozen cream-cubesNow, a little aside, if you don’t mind, about small quantities of cream. I’m always buying cream for this or that recipe, and then the rest goes off in the door of the fridge and eventually gets thrown away. But as it turns out, there’s an alternative. Take any surplus cream you have after cooking with it, and pour it into an ice cube bag (I prefer the bags for this to the open plastic trays, because the cream is fully sealed in them and can’t take on flavours).

Cream-cubesTie the top securely, and freeze. My bags produce cream-cubes of almost exactly 15ml each, conveniently a tablespoon measure. Then, when you need a little bit of cream for a recipe – sauces like this one are a classic example – just take what you need out of the freezer. I don’t think it would whip-up properly after this treatment, but for this kind of use it’s perfect.

To finish the sauce, add the double cream. You can thaw the cream-cubes out before using – it will tend to separate a bit but whip it lightly and it’ll come back together – or in this case, just throw the cream cubes into the hot sauce and stir until they’re dissolved. Or, add your fresh cream now, if you’re using it!

Macaroni ready for the ovenPour the cheese sauce over your pasta, pressing it down to make sure it’s all nicely covered. Then sprinkle over the breadcrumbs and parmesan mixed with a pinch or two of cayenne pepper. Pop the dish in your pre-heated oven until it’s browned and bubbling – just over half an hour should do it!

This is a really solid variation on the classic mac ‘n cheese. And you can easily substitute alternative alliums for the leeks, depending on what you have to hand. Other cheeses would be fine too – I felt it would benefit from something a bit punchier than the mid-range cheddar I had in the fridge.

Ready to serve

If you don’t over-cook your leeks they come out still looking lovely fresh and green, which is great. The cayenne pepper just adds a little unexpected warmth which is a great detail. It’s not haute cuisine, for sure, but it’s better than many. This may well be my new standard cheesy pasta bake.

**
Delia Smith - coverDelia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course (Classic Edition)
BBC Books, 1978 (revised 1992)
ISBN 978-0-563-362494
Paperback, 640 pages, black and white with colour plates. RRP £9.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

I honestly don’t know what to say about this book. If any book has a claim to be my ‘Kitchen Bible’, this is it. Mum has a copy, my Grandma had a copy, I bought my own copy in my first term of university because I couldn’t work out how to live – how to eat – without one. We have two at home, because when I discovered that my then-boyfriend (now-Hubby) didn’t have it, I bought one for him, too.

This particular dish is new to me. It’s classic Delia – simple home cooking that works first time, well tested and reliable, but still interesting despite being, really, pretty humble! I know this cookbook more or less inside out (just look at the state of it!) and I’ve never yet found a bad recipe. I have such faith in this book that I’m happy to try recipes first-time-out for dinner guests. This is where I come to time and time again to refresh my memory on times and temperatures for roasts and pot roasts. It’s my reference for basic pastry. It practically falls open on the well-splattered page for the classic All-In-One sponge cake.

Delia Smith - page viewYes, this book shows it’s age – actually, this is particularly the case when it comes to pasta, which to be fair had barely been ‘invented’ in the UK when this book first came out. But all of English cookery is here. This book has been in my life for as long as I can remember – in many respects it’s been the cornerstone of my culinary life.

All the fundamentals are here, and if you sent me to a desert island – obviously one equipped with a good kitchen and a full pantry! – with just one cookery book, it would have to be this one, hands down. What more is there to say, really?

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Indian-Style Kebabs with Yoghurt Sauce, from The Complete BBQ Book – Cooking the Books, week 23

BBQ weather returned this weekend (hurray!). This challenge is getting really difficult just now, because we’re due to move in just under a fortnight so not only is there stacks of other stuff I should be doing, but I’m trying really hard not to buy anything that’s going to be wasted when we go. So we really are down to store cupboard staples and creative substitution!

These kebabs are actually kabobs, in the recipe, as it’s a US-published cookbook. ‘Kabob’ is one of those words that just makes me laugh. I don’t know why! But let’s get on.

To serve two (four kebabs), you will need –

  • Kebab ingredients300g of good minced beef
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1″ length of fresh ginger
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1 tbsp curry powder
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • Pinch of chilli powder
  • 1 egg
  • Salt and pepper

Complete kebab mixMince the garlic, peel and grate the ginger, and add these with all the dry ingredients to your beef and mix well. Then add the egg, and mix this in. It will look to start with like there’s far too much egg, but keep mushing the mixture with your fingers and eventually any wetness from the egg will be absorbed it will all combine into an even dough-like mixture.

If you’re worried about this, you can always beat the egg first and add it in increments, but I suspect you’ll end up adding less than the mix would have taken – and if your egg is particularly large, or your minced beef particularly un-absorbant, you can always throw in a handful of breadcrumbs to rescue the situation, should it come to that!

Shaped kebabsSet aside your mixture in the fridge for 5 – 10 minutes to firm up a little, and then split into four even portions, and form each of these these around a BBQ skewer. The disposable wooden kind is just fine, I’ve long since given up on soaking them before use. I find rolling the mix around the stick doesn’t work very well and tends not to seal back up properly, so I form a sausage shape in my hands, first, insert the skewer into the centre, and then squidge the mixture around the stick to spread it out evenly. There’s no polite-looking way of doing this job, so feel free to giggle as you work!

Wrap up your kebabs and return them to the fridge for an hour or more before cooking – you could make these much earlier in the day, if you’re having a party.

Once the kebabs are made, prepare the yoghurt sauce, for which you require –

  • Yoghurt sauce ingredients2/3rd cup of plain greek-style yoghurt (conveniently, this is about 160ml, or give or take 1/3rd of a standard 500ml pot – eyeball it, the exact quantity is pretty unimportant here)
  • A sprig of fresh mint (about four leaves)
  • 1 tbsp of chopped fresh celery leaves (this replaces 1 tsp of dried fenugreek leaf from the recipe)
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • Yoghurt sauce mix1/4 tsp of honey
  • 1/2 tsp dried coriander
  • 1/2 tsp paprika (plus extra to garnish)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Chop the mint and celery leaf finely, and mince the garlic. Mix all of the ingredients together and cover and refrigerate until it’s time to cook.

Kebabs after turningWe ran out of charcoal, so these were cooked on the BBQ over wood, which is a nice treat anyway! Be very gentle with the kebabs as they’re quite soft-textured and could easily fall apart if you handle them too soon after putting them on the grill. They cook nice and quickly – three or four minutes per side should be enough, depending on the heat of your BBQ and the thickness of your kebabs! You could do these indoors under an electric grill, if you preferred.

I served my kebabs with a crunchy salad and fresh home-made pitta bread, a big dollop of the yoghurt sauce and a couple of wedges of lemon.

Indian kebabs, served

These are decent recipes, by and large. I’d like to try the yoghurt sauce again without the celery-for-fenugreek substitution. I also think it would really benefit from perking up with a little bit of lemon or lime zest and / or juice.

The kebabs had a lovely flavour and aroma but could have taken a little more heat. Whether you agree with this will depend very much on your palate and on the precise characteristics of the spices you use. I thought mine was a hot paprika, but tasted it later and discovered it wasn’t. My curry powder was a medium madras type – again, a hotter curry powder would have done the trick I think. I suspect next time I make these, I’ll use the same spices but add a finely chopped fresh red chilli to the mix, as this will add some good fresh flavour as well as the extra heat.

For a BBQ party, these would be great served in a toasted pitta or wrapped in a flatbread with just a squeeze of lemon and a dollop of yoghurt sauce, which makes them great standing-up food!

Complete BBQ - cover**
‘The Complete BBQ Book’
Chancellor Press (Octopus Publishing Group Ltd), 2003
ISBN 978-0-753-708088
Hard cover with spiral binding, 368 pages, black & white. No RRP.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

What can I say about this book? Well, it’s a collection, again. I hunted front and back and I can’t find an authorial or editorial credit at all, which is rather sad for the poor folk who put it together! I also can’t trace it on Amazon, so presumably it’s gone out of print now.

With over 500 recipes here, they’re inevitably going to be a bit hit-and-miss. The two I tried were competent, but could both do with some gentle refining. I suspect that’s likely to be the tone throughout. Then again, with this many recipes to choose from you’re probably going to find something to suit your tastebuds and the contents of your store cupboard!

Complete BBQ - page viewThere are a couple of highlights – a good section at the front contains a wide array of marinades which could easily be pressed into service for all kinds of different uses, on and off the BBQ, and there is a good selection of side dishes.

As it’s a US book, a set of American cup measures will save you a fair amount of mental arithmetic! Overall, I would rate it as competent but a bit uninspiring. I’ll keep it, but I don’t think you should all dash out and buy it at once.

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

A Summer Fling – my new favourite gin, apple and elderflower cocktail

Being able to mix a decent drink is a very useful country skill – it brings a splash of sophistication to life when you don’t live somewhere where you only need to chuck a rock to hit three decent cocktail bars.

Anyway, I had to share this one with you – it was suggested to me by an old school friend (who, fortunately for him, is safely on the other side of the world where I can’t hold him responsible for the consequences!) and it’s such a beautiful, fresh taste of summer, that I’ve fallen rather in love with it.

You will require –

  • Your cocktail ingredientsGin – whichever nice one you usually drink (beggars can’t be choosers at the moment at our house, so it’s Aldi’s London Dry Gin, which is surprisingly decent!)
  • Home-made elderflower cordial (or bought, if you really must – but they’re in full flower right now, so what a perfect excuse to make a batch!)
  • Really good cloudy apple juice, the best you can get, ideally quite a crisp, dry one.
  • Ice

In a tumbler, place three or four cubes of ice. Pour in a measure of gin (or why not a double – go on, you’ve earned it!). Now add a splash of elderflower cordial – only a little one! Finally, top up with apple juice.

Go on, have a sip!

There, how easy was that?

This is absolutely gorgeous (and one to try even if you don’t think you like gin). The apple juice is the star here, and really defines the character, so the better your apple juice, the better the cocktail (anyway, I’m sure it counts as one of your five-a-day). The elderflower adds a subtle sweetness and a gorgeous floral bouquet, and the gin just sits discretely in the background with a delicate waft of juniper and a little citrus zing. Be warned, though, it does go down very easily!

A sinister thought has occurred to me, which is that it might be possible to concoct a related drink, made with Plymouth gin, Cornish cider and hedgerow elderflower cordial, and call it a ‘Westcountry Wrecker’… Some experimentation may be required!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>