Sourdough Saga: Episode 8 – semi-sourdough baguettes

It’s difficult to believe that it’s over three years since sourdough baking became a regular part of our life and our diet, back in May 2012. I predicted at the time that life would never be quite the same again and, in a variety of small ways, that’s definitely true. A lot has changed in our lives since then, but home baking has remained a constant despite upheavals and long working hours. We make a mix of sourdough and traditionally-yeasted breads at home, and they’re all wonderful in their own ways; the bar is set very high for bought breads and when time precludes home-baking, we’re inevitably disappointed by what we can buy in the shops.

Fresh from the oven

Bread can seem like such a small, inconsequential thing, a cheap commodity which requires very little consideration. But good bread – really good bread – is a thing of great joy, not an afterthought but the crowning glory of a meal, or even a meal in itself. Still warm from the oven, with wonderful cornish unsalted butter melting into the crumb, I wonder if there is any more satisfying food in the world?

My wholemeal sourdough starter, ‘Seymore’, continues to thrive, and in some sense procreated last year when I started the process of converting a batch of starter to white flour. Each white flour feed progressively shifted the proportions and the starter is now 100% white. I find the white starter raises white loaves quite a bit more effectively than the wholemeal one did (presumably because the balance of microbes within it is already adapted to using white flour as a food source), so now like raises like – Seymore has an outing when I’m baking wholemeal or spelt, and the new white starter makes a quite wonderful, airy and chewy 100% white sourdough loaf.

A year or more ago, I had a hankering for home-made baguette. Initial experiments and trials with recipes in my cookbook library were all rather disappointing – they produced baguette-shaped loaves, but lacked not just the flavour, but also the crumb and the chewy, toothsome, slightly elastic crust of a genuine French loaf. French cookbooks, of course, were no use whatsoever – no French housewife in her right mind bakes her own bread, when there’s still a traditional ‘boulangerie’ in almost every village and on almost every street corner.

So I kept reading, and asking questions, and stumbled upon Paul Hollywood’s recipe from his pre-TV ‘100 Great Breads’ book, which begins with an overnight sponge, much like my everyday sourdough loaf. A bake through of his recipe produced one of the worst-behaved doughs I have ever worked with, but also gave me the best results to date. But it was still most definitely lacking ‘something’ in the flavour and texture departments. The sponge step, though, gave me an idea – what if I incorporated some of my white sourdough starter into the mix? Might that add, not just the complex savoury flavour that was lacking, but also the chewy elasticity to the crust? I had to experiment.

A year of trials later, I have a process that, while it’s not a ‘novice bake’, works very well and reliably for me, and as a bonus, can even be baked the same day you start if you forget to start the sponge the night before baking. It’s a ‘hybrid’ bread, making use of both the sourdough starter and of bakers’ yeast (much as many commercial loaves labelled as ‘sourdough’ do!). And while the results can sometimes look a little ‘wobbly’ and rustic, they have every bit of the flavour and characteristics of the loaves I enjoyed for my breakfast on a visit to Paris back in March. Torn in half, with unsalted butter and jam and a big mug of coffee, I challenge you to find a better everyday breakfast.

Of course, you can bake these loaves without the sourdough starter – you’ll be baking something like Paul Hollywood’s original recipe, and it’s not bad, but it’s just not the same!

To make these semi-sourdough baguettes, you will require –

  • Ingredients200g of 100% hydration white sourdough starter (that is, made up of 100g of flour and 100g of water), which has been ‘fed’ within the last 24hours. You’ll need to adjust the quantities of ingredients if your starter is balanced differently.
  • 400g of French bread flour (you can use British-style strong white bread flour, but the texture and flavour aren’t quite right; you’re going to a fair bit of trouble for these loaves, so it’s worth tracking down the good stuff!)
  • 200ml of water at room temperature (or gently lukewarm on a cold day or when short of time)
  • 1tsp or a 7g sachet of dried instant yeast
  • 1tsp salt (this is my personal preference – recipes often double this quantity)
  • 50g of softened unsalted butter
  • Oil for kneading, and
  • Semolina for dusting the baking sheet

Make up the overnight spongeIdeally the night before, combine the 200g of starter with 100g of flour and 200ml of water, add the spoonful of instant yeast, and combine to create a thin batter. A whisk can be helpful. Cover with cling-film and set aside overnight, or, if you’re not that organised, for at least an hour and more if possible.

The overnight sponge after mixingThe loaves will work fine with the shorter resting period but you’re inevitably sacrificing some flavour from the longer, slower fermentation. After resting, there should be some bubbles rising to the surface of your batter (more if you’ve left it overnight).

Roughly mix the dough and allow to restNow add the remaining 300g of flour, the salt and the softened (melted is fine) butter, and combine to make what will be a very soft, wet dough. Before kneading, just let it sit in the bowl for about half an hour to allow the flour grains to absorb as much as possible of the moisture and help the gluten start to set up.

Dough during kneadingTip the dough onto a well oiled worktop, scraping out any that sticks to the bowl, and knead it for at least 10 minutes. It will be very sticky to start with, but this will improve to some extent with working. Try to resist adding extra flour unless absolutely essential, and if you do, add a very little at a time. This is never going to be an easy dough to work, you’re aiming to get it just on the right side of ‘impossible’. Working it with plenty of oil will reduce its tendency to stick to things other than itself, and avoids changing the hydration with flour from surfaces being incorporated into the dough.

Form a ball and allow to riseOnce the dough is well kneaded, form a ball and set aside in a well oiled bowl, loosely covered with plastic or a tea towel to retain moisture, until it has at least doubled in size.

Divide risen dough into threeNow, turn the dough out onto a well-oiled worktop and divide it into three as evenly as you can, but without faffing about (no grabbing a bit from here and sticking it onto there). You’ll see recipes instructing you to ‘roll the dough out into a baguette shape’, but don’t, ok? What you’ll get it you do that is a stodgy, even-textured dough shaped like a baguette (much as you get from most UK supermarkets, sadly). If you want the stretched curst and almost concentric-structured crumb of a genuine baguette, you need to form the shape properly. I got the clue I needed, oddly, from a TV travel show about Paris, where they popped into a boulangerie, and there in the background, when I paused and re-wound the programme, was a guy making baguettes. This way is rather fiddly, but it works!

First, find your widest, shallowest-sided baking sheet, and dust it generously with semolina. This will stop the dough sticking, and provides the characteristic ‘crunch’ to the base.

Shaped loaves on baking sheetTake each piece of dough, and fold two edges towards the centre. Without turning the dough, do this again and again in the same direction until you have quite a tight ‘cylinder’ with a centre seam on top, which will be about a third or half the length it needs to be. Now stretch out the cylinder lengthwise, gently, trying to keep the diameter even all the way along. Turn the baguette over so that it’s seam-side down, and tidy in the ends by tucking under into the traditional point if you can, though don’t worry if the ends are a bit dumpy. Tuck the sides under along the length of the loaf using a dough scraper, if you have one, and then, quickly so that it doesn’t sag, transfer the loaf to the baking sheet.

This takes some practice and your first baguettes will probably be rather funny shapes. But don’t worry – it’s not at all important! The process is a bit tricky to describe (I wonder if I should try and get a video of me shaping a loaf?) but hopefully should make sense once you’re doing it.

You could just as easily quarter your dough and make four shorter baguettes; arrange them across the baking sheet rather than along, if you prefer littler loaves. The smaller loaves are obviously easier to handle, so it may make sense to start that way.

Cook-shops will sell you shaped baking sheets with rounded bottoms for baking baguettes on, and that will give you the characteristic rounded base – baking on a flat sheet will obviously give you a flat bottom, though as the dough springs up in the oven it’s often less obvious than you might expect. I’ve tried quite hard to avoid acquiring clutter and kitchen gadgets during my home baking experiments, and actually I find most of the time you can do perfectly well without them!

Cover and allow to riseCover your shaped loaves (I have a large sheet of polythene that I use to form a tent over them) and leave to rise for at least an hour or until at least doubled in size. Now set your oven to pre-heat at its highest temperature.

Slash the risen loaves along their lengthOnce the oven is up to temperature, uncover your loaves, and very quickly using your sharpest knife, slash diagonally along the length. I find two slashes per loaf works best, overlapping over the centre third to half of the loaf. If you hesitate at this stage, your loaves will deflate a lot, so be quick and decisive, and get the loaves straight into the oven.

Turn the baking sheet at least once to help the loaves bake evenly. You may find they need as little as 20 minutes in all – they’re done once the crust is a lovely deep golden to mid brown colour and the loaves feel crispy and sound hollow underneath. Remove them from the oven then and set to cool on a wire rack.

Tear & enjoy

Once they’re (almost!) cool, rip into one. I love to tear rather than slicing my baguette, it makes the most of the wonderful texture of the crust and crumb. Enjoy as the Parisiens do, with unsalted butter and jam for breakfast, or as the ultimate versatile sandwich loaf. Who wants one of those nasty stodgy ‘subs’?

Enjoy with unsalted butter

I would really love to know how you get on with this recipe, so please please come and tell me how it works out for you, by leaving a comment here or tweeting me @CountrySkills!

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No Weigh! – the bake-anywhere, traveller’s loaf

On holiday in self catering accommodation, staying in hostels, on a campsite, or even visiting family or friends, have you ever felt the urge to bake a lovely fresh loaf of bread only to discover that a key piece of equipment – usually a set of scales, or a measuring jug – is missing? I may be a bit odd, but I’ve even been known to go out and buy the missing piece of kit just to get my loaf baked! Since then, I’ve given the question some thought, done a few experiments, and so today I’m going to share with you my ‘no weigh’, measurement free, (nearly!) foolproof loaf recipe that you can bake very nearly anywhere, with almost no kitchen equipment.

Sliced, warm from the oven.

To make this loaf, the bare minimum equipment you require is –

  • A flat work surface or large chopping board
  • A teaspoon
  • Some sort of a liquid container (a pint glass or mug is ideal)
  • Something to bake your loaf on or in (a roasting tray, a pie tin, or whatever)
  • An oven (if you’re camping, you can even bake bread in a dutch oven, though you’ll need to adapt the process a little)

If you can also lay your hands on any of the following, it will make things a little easier –

  • A mixing bowl
  • Spatula or dough scraper
  • A plastic bag or tea towel
  • A sharp knife

And now the ingredients –

  • IngredientsStrong white bread flour
  • Dried instant yeast (a sachet, or from a pot)
  • Table salt
  • Water
  • Cooking oil (a light-flavoured olive oil is ideal, but whatever comes to hand)

Just a quick note first on difficulty – because this recipe depends, essentially, on judging the ‘feel’ of the dough to get the proportions right, complete novice bakers may struggle with this approach; but you don’t need to be an expert baker – if you’ve made a few loaves before, and have a sense of what a good dough should feel like, this technique will hopefully work well for you!

So, time to begin.

Make a well in the flourCheck how much flour is in your packet (standard packs of UK flour are usually 1.5kg but can be 1kg or even 3kg) and tip your best guess at 500g into your bowl or on to the work surface. Make a well in the centre, and add a heaped teaspoon of instant yeast (or a whole 7g sachet) and a teaspoon of salt. I tend to add the yeast to the well and the salt to the side.

It’s useful if you have an approximate idea of the volume of your liquid container. (You’re likely to need about half a pint of water, or a little over.) Fill your glass or mug with lukewarm water and add it a little at a time to the well in your flour, mixing as you go. If you’re using a work surface rather than a bowl you are, I’m afraid, likely to make rather a mess, so do use a mixing bowl if you have access to one. Salad bowls or other serving bowls can make a good substitute.

Form a sticky doughKeep adding water until all the flour is incorporated into your dough and the texture is a bit stickier than you really think it ought to be. The dough at this stage ought to be a bit tricky to work with and glue itself to everything. The reason for getting it to this stage is to make sure that the dough isn’t under-hydrated, as this is is the main cause of stodgy, disappointing loaves which don’t rise properly.

Dough after kneadingPour a generous glug of oil over your dough and work surface and start to knead the dough in the oil. Add more oil every if the dough gets sticky again. The process of kneading will mix the moisture evenly through your dough and you may well find the dough stops being excessively sticky just through the kneading process. But if you’ve been kneading for ten minutes or so and the dough is still too sticky, add an extra sprinkle of flour. Go gently with the flour, though, as I find it always needs less than it seems to get the texture of the dough nice and silky.

Cover with whatever you have to handOnce you’re happy with your dough, and it’s well kneaded, form it into a ball, oil it well, and set it aside in an oiled bowl if you have one (or leave it on the worktop). Cover the dough loosely – a supermarket plastic bag is ideal, or use cling film if you have it, or a tea towel, or anything else that comes to hand! Set aside to rise until the dough at least doubles in size.

Doubled doughOnce the dough has doubled (which may take as little as an hour, but could take quite a bit longer in cold conditions – be patient and don’t rush this bit!) turn the dough out onto an oiled surface.

Turn dough outNow, very gently, form it into a bloomer shape. I’m going to stress the ‘gently’ bit again, because it’s very tempting to get stuck in and almost re-knead the dough at this stage, and that’s not what you want to do at all. You’ll hear a lot of talk of ‘knocking back’ dough, but you’ll lose a lot of the air in the dough just in the shaping process.

Formed bloomerTo form a bloomer (the shape you want for a bread tin is very similar), I fold both long ends towards the middle, then rotate the dough 90 degrees and do the same from the side. Then I turn the dough seam-side down and tuck the sides and ends under neatly. That’s it. No kneading, no bashing, just some gentle folding. You can form a round cob loaf by bringing the edges into the centre until you form make a general round, before turning the loaf over seam-down and tucking the bottom under neatly.

Dust your baking sheet well with flour and place the bloomer in the centre of it. If you’re using a tin (or tin-substitute) I would oil or butter it first before dusting well with flour. Dust the top of your loaf with flour too, and put it back under loose cover somewhere warm for another hour or so.

Well-risen bloomerWhen the loaf is well risen, pre-heat your oven as hot as it will go. Take the cover off your loaf, and cut a straight slash down the centre with a sharp knife if you have one (or a more creative pattern, if you fancy!) and pop it straight into the centre of the oven.

The loaf will probably take around 30 minutes to bake, but this will depend on the quirks of the oven, which you probably aren’t familiar with, so take a first look around 20 minutes and then keep your eye on things pretty closely. If you happen to have access to a wood fired pizza oven, you can even use this – just remember that these tend to run very hot so baking times will be quite a lot shorter! Turn the loaf once or twice to avoid any hot spots in the oven baking the loaf unevenly, or even burning it.

The loaf is ready when the top is dark golden and crispy, and the base sounds hollow when tapped. If in doubt, put it back for 5 minutes – over-baking a loaf a a little is never a disaster – it just increases the thickness and crispiness of the crust – whereas an under-cooked stodgy middle is decidedly disappointing. If you have an oven rack to hand, set it to cool on this.

Fresh from the oven

There you go – a no-weigh, no-measure, home made, very tasty rustic white loaf, that you really can make almost anywhere you can get your hands on a few very basic ingredients & equipment. No excuse for rubbish bread this summer, then. Enjoy!

What did I do with mine?

Cucumber sandwich time!

Well, it was late lunch when it came out of the oven, so I sliced it, still warm (I know, but it’s irresistible, right?) and made an old-fashionned but wonderful cucumber sandwich with one of our home-grown cucumbers, harvested yesterday evening from the polytunnel. A little taste of summer heaven!

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The Eurovision Drinking Game – 2015 Edition

Well, folks, it’s that time of year again! The 60th Eurovision Song Contest will take place in Vienna, Austria, this coming Saturday May the 23rd. Where has the time gone?

This game is becoming a bit of a fixture on the blog, and slowly but surely is gathering a loyal following! Last year the Dutch broadcaster Pow.ned even recommended it to their viewers as part of their Eurovision coverage. How about that then?

Flags!Like so many good and worthwhile ideas, these rules started life at a university party, well over a decade ago. They have been carefully curated and updated over the years, and play-tested by a number of kind ‘volunteers’, some of whom even recalled enough the next morning to provide helpful feedback and suggestions! So, without further ado, I present to you – The Countryskillsblog.com Eurovision Drinking Game, 2015 Edition.

How to play –

This is a forfeit game. A variety of features of songs and the performances have been selected, and their appearance triggers a drinking forfeit. This is usually (but not always!) ‘take a swig’.

Shot glassesIt’s a really good idea to divide up the countries and songs between your players. You might do this by ballot, draw straws before each song, or adopt some other creative or arcane method of your choice. Smaller parties may chose not to allocate a player to every songs. All of the players playing for every song is likely to result in unpleasant consequences, and cannot be recommended!

The Competition –

Begin any song that you are playing with a fully-charged glass.

Certain features of the song and performance trigger a forfeit. These features can appear more than once in a performance (and sadly, often do!) and ‘score’ each time they appear – so the now legendary ‘Bucks Fizz’ skirt removal would represent a single costume change, because it happened in one go, but a song that repeatedly swaps languages or makes major-to-minor-and-back-again key transitions triggers a forfeit on each switch.

Take a drink for each instance of the following:

The song –

  • OrchestraChange of language
  • Change of key (take an extra swig if the key change is so egregiously telegraphed you can see it coming for miles)
  • Change of tempo
  • Wordless lyrics (da dum da, mana mana mana, lalalala)

The performer, costume and performance –

  • Folk DancersPerformer(s) not of nationality represented
  • Folk costume
  • Folk instrument
  • Folk dance
  • Weapons (with an extra-big swig if they’re ‘folk’ weapons – axes, pitchforks, flaming torches etc)
  • Uniforms – military & civil (including costume references to same – epaulettes, insignia, military-looking hats and suchlike)
  • Dubious uniformsOffice wear, three-piece-suits
  • Flags, banners, national symbols
  • Pyrotechnics, smoke, fog
  • Costume change
  • Bare feet, bare torsos
  • Underwear as outerwear
  • Spandex, lurex, sequins
  • Leather, rubber, PVC, bondage wear
  • LEDs or other lighting incorporated into costumes
  • Feather BoaFur, feathers, wings
  • Trapeze or wire-work
  • Magic, circus themes
  • ‘Booby Prize’ – if the performer does not appear to be human (note this rule applies whether or not the performer is human underneath!) – down the remains of your drink!

‘Fair Dinkum’ bonus 60th Anniversary Australian rule set –

In this auspicious 60th Eurovision year, we wish our friends from Down Under a warm G’day and welcome. Australia grants the Eurovision Song Contest similar cult status to back here in Blighty – as an international Gay Pride event and an excuse for a darn good piss-up. This year, our Australian friends have been invited to join in the fun as special guests! So for one year only (unless they win, of course, and get to come back next year) here are some ‘Fair Dinkum’ bonus rules to help get you absolutely roaring.

Australian ClicheAh, that beautiful Land Down Under, where blokes wrestle crocs or kangaroos while wearing hats with corks hanging off them. Gorgeous bronzed sheilas surfing on Bondi beach. Koalas, kookaburras, gum trees. Waltzing Matildas. Very large red rocks in the outback. Vegemite, tinnies, and prawns on the barbie. And all while upside down!

  • For any reference to an Australian cliché or stereotype by Graham Norton (or your national broadcast commentator), everyone takes a swig.
  • ‘Booby Prize’ – In the event that an Australian stereotype is referenced on the Eurovision stage (or Green Room), everyone downs the rest of their drink.

The half-time performance (or the ‘Riverdance’ slot) –

The host country puts on a performance on during the ‘voting gap’. Everyone plays for this segment, using the same forfeit list as for the songs.

For your convenience, I have made a ‘cut-out-and-keep’ forfeit card. Aren’t I thoughtful? Click for the full-size version, print it out and hand out copies at your party, or save to your mobile devices and share the Eurovision love!

Cut out and keep forfeit card

Graphics for the cut-out-and-keep forfeit card are use under Creative Commons licenses, see links for details: Flags by Anka Pandrea, Glasses by Nora Raaum.

Bottles and bottles

Voting –

The voting round should be considered advanced play, and may be unsuitable for novice players or those with a delicate constitution. These rules are intentionally kept simple. They need to be, by this time in the evening!

  • Before each set of results are announced, everyone guesses where the 12 points are going. If anyone gets this right, those who got it wrong take a swig.
  • ‘Booby Prize’ – Everyone downs their drink if the presenter gets the country they’re speaking to wrong, calls the national representative by the wrong name, or gets their pronunciation corrected by the national representative.

 

Well, that’s all, folks! Have fun at your Eurovision parties, and if you do decide to try these rules, please do comment here or tweet me @CountrySkills, where it’s quite likely some Eurovision live twittering may take place!

And remember, please drink responsibly (*ahem!*), and definitely don’t drink and drive, attempt DIY, deep fat frying, change important passwords or operate heavy machinery. Finally, your hangover is your problem, not mine, so don’t come crying to me in the morning!

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Reviewed – “Back to Basics – Your Essential Guide to Make Do and Mend”

I was really excited to be asked to review this brand new ebook, ‘Back to Basics – Your Essential Guide to Make Do and Mend’ edited by the lovely Jen Gale. Jen has been somewhat in the forefront of the eco, thrifty, make-do-and-mend trend in the blogosphere and social media over the last few years. During that time, she has accumulated a mountain of practical experience (do take a look at her website, http://www.makedoandmend-able.co.uk, if you haven’t already) and connected with individuals with a wide variety of practical skills, many of whom contribute chapters to this ebook.

[Full disclosure: ‘Back to Basics – your essential guide to Make Do and Mend’ came to me free of charge as a review copy. Screenshots are used with permission. Any links provided are for interest and convenience, I don’t profit from them in any way. Jen is a twitter friend, and while I obviously wish her well with her project I have tried very hard to be fair and impartial in giving my opinions here.]

What’s in this book? Well, all kinds of things. Don’t know how to fix a puncture on your bike, or wire a plug? The instructions are here for you, alongside more ‘crafty’ tutorials on sewing skills – biased towards mending and altering – basic introductions for knitting and crochet, helpful hints on caring for your clothes and fabrics so they last you longer, tips on painting and re-upholstering furniture to refresh tired pieces without needing to buy new, and lots of other things besides.

Contents Page

Darning SkillsThis is intended to be an entry-level guide, and because it covers such a broad range of topics, some of the chapters will already be familiar territory to practical minded readers – that said, I did pick up a few extra little tips even in areas where I consider myself to be reasonably proficient (Tom Van Deijnen’s tutorial on darning knitwear is particularly good, as is Lauren Guthrie’s really comprehensive general overview and introduction to using and caring for your sewing machine).

Re-making GarmentsAlongside these, there are a few chapters that cover what I would regard as more advanced-skill level making do and mending – Franki Campbell explains how to break down a garment and make a new sewing pattern from it so that it can be recreated (and possibly modified in the process), something which scares me enough – I’m a muddling-along standard home sewer who can make curtains, blinds, and the odd garment for myself; I can imagine it being rather baffling to the novice sewer.

Crochet flowersThere are little projects included with some of the chapters, too, and these can be a weakness of the book. Some are excellent, like this little crochet flower broach. On the other hand, the knitted dish cloth ‘project’ (no more than a sample square of garter stitch, which you are expected to source brand new cotton yarn for) was a bit less inspiring.

I think this is probably an inevitable consequence of a book put together in this way, from a variety of contributors. The focus, skill level, and quality of these chapters does vary, and on occasion it can make the whole feel a bit ‘bitty’ and unfocused. But that said there is some really excellent material here, and if you find even a handful of the chapters useful it may well turn out to be a good purchase for you.

Cover ShotWho is the ideal reader for this book? It might make an good gift for a teenager heading off to university or to their own home for the first time – a really modern housekeeping guide for the 21st Century young adult. Older readers, looking to (re)discover crafty, thrifty DIY skills may also find a lot to like here. It’s a very beautifully put-together ebook, and a lot of hard work has obviously gone into the design and photography.

“Back to Basics” is available in ebook (PDF) format only, priced at £8. You can find out more, and download it here.

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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?

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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.]

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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!

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