Beginnings and Endings – hopes of new life for a new year

The time around New Year is always a rather liminal time. A time of real and imaginary ends and beginnings. This year has been a particularly difficult one for me – and for a lot of people, I think. So, for the end of the year, I thought I would tell you a story. It’s a perfectly true story, as far as stories remembered from deep childhood ever can be. It’s a small story, really. But like many long-remembered stories, you can still hear its echoes, its resonance, if you listen.

In this story, I’m a small girl of six or seven. We’re on our first long-haul overseas holiday. It’s the first time we have left Europe, and we’re visiting California. We’ve ridden the teacups and the runaway mining cart at Disney World, and acquired a family portrait in pioneer dress, leaning on the rail of a wagon, which is still in the family album today. We’ve petted the bottle nose dolphins at Sea World, and marvelled at the flying Orca (this is long before Free Willy, and a more sensitive approach to these things). And on this particular day, we are at the San Diego Zoo.

Now, San Diego Zoo is an amazing place. Even in the mid 1980s, when our story takes place, it was a bastion of conservation zoology, blazing the trail with wide open, naturalistic, enriched enclosures. But I can’t honestly tell you that I remember any of that. Actually, that’s not quite true – I do remember the goat in the petting farm who stole a billfold from the back pocket of a man’s trousers, and then ate it. But apart from the goat with a taste for greenbacks, what I remember is the chicks.

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You see, there was an exhibit of hatching eggs. In my memory, it’s been set up in the middle of some sort of amphitheatre get-up, round or hexagonal maybe, with benching around, and a roof over. But who knows. Anyway, in the middle, is a large tray of hatching eggs in a big glass box. Fifty or sixty eggs. A few little chicks are standing around looking a bit dazed, some all fluffed up, some still rather damp and dishevelled. But this one egg, just here, is hatching. By family story, I refused to be moved for the more than two hours it took the chick to finally emerge from its shell. In my recollection, there’s no sense of time; just complete fascination and rapture.

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I can trace to that moment my focused fascination with animals, with biology and zoology. It must go some way to explain my later decision to study veterinary medicine, and so account, at least in part, for my current life as a working veterinary surgeon, and developing smallholder.

Earlier this year, I was thinking about the chicks for some reason – I can’t remember why, now – and I was struck with a thought that had somehow eluded me for the best part of three decades. San Diego Zoo, I realised, is not noted for its poultry collection. It is, however, recognised as holding one of the finest reptile collections anywhere in the world.

Now, I’m not overly sentimental, by and large. But the realisation, years later, that my little chick probably became snake food shook me. Looking back now, it was a very 2016 moment.

*

Why am I telling you this? Well, I’ve been thinking about chicks quite a lot, the past few days. And this is why.

img_3107On Christmas morning, I unwrapped an incubator. It’s a Brinsea Octagon Eco 20, with an automatic turning cradle, and I can think of few occasions, going right back to six year old me – perhaps with the exception of the year I received the My Little Pony Castle – when I have been so excited to unwrap a gift and get to work on the contents.

So, watch this space! I plan to load the incubator with a “pick ‘n mix” selection of fertile eggs next week, to hatch into a clutch of little fluffy chicks – with a lot of good luck, given it’s my first ever hatching attempt – around the end of January.

After what has been a pretty dreadful 2016, I could not be more ‘eggcited’ for 2017!

P.S. On the subject of bird ‘flu (H5N8 avian influenza), and the current restrictions in the UK – because someone is bound to ask – we’re lucky to have outbuildings here where we can keep our birds completely indoors if that becomes necessary. So while I’m hoping that restrictions will have been lifted by the time our little chickies are ready to go outdoors – once they have feathers rather than fluff, around the start of March – we’re in a really good position hopefully to take care of them while this awkwardness continues.

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Hugh’s on the Warpath – but is bin-shaming really the way to tackle food waste?

Last night the indefatigable Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched onto British television screens with a new crusade, ‘Hugh’s War On Waste’. After taking aim in previous campaigns at factory farming of poultry and against the practice of discarding fish catches at sea, this time his target is the vast scale of food waste in our homes and in the supermarket supply chain.

Let me start by saying, first of all, that I completely agree with Hugh’s view that food waste (and waste generally in our society, whether that’s disposable fashion or indiscriminate upgrading to the latest electronic gadget) is a disgrace. Perfectly edible food is wasted in the supermarket supply chain, downgraded for failing to meet the ‘Stepford Vegetable’ cosmetic standards the supermarkets insist that the British Housewife demands, or thrown in a skip when past the sell-by date. The food that makes it home with us is scarcely better off, discarded from our kitchens by the bag-full, whether this is misguidedly premature, led by confusion about food safety advice and the best-before date conundrum, or genuinely putrid, neglected and forgotten in the back of our fridges and the bottom of our fruit bowls, the victim of overbuying and poor meal planning.

Processed meat selectionThese two things, it seems to me, are very different problems; I think naming and shaming supermarkets (and other food businesses) for abusive contracts and wasteful supply chain practices is entirely worthwhile – they’ve shown that they don’t like having daylight shone on their dodgier business practices in the past – and has potential not just to reduce waste, but also to improve the situation of their farm suppliers, but I’m not all sure that rooting through people’s wheely bins on telly and shaming them for throwing away food is likely to have any useful effect on waste from homes.

Why? Well, people throw away food essentially for one reason – because they believe it’s ‘off’, and not good to eat.

Sometimes they’re right, as the hairy, slimy green peppers that I occasionally discover at the back of my fridge bear witness. But often they’re mistaken – much the food being discarded from kitchens is perfectly sound and being discarded on a precautionary basis by worried families without the food knowledge to tell the difference or the cooking skills to make great meals from ‘bits and bobs’ or ingredients which may be past their best, but remain perfectly edible.

People up aren’t throwing away edible food because they’re stupid, thoughtless, or enjoy throwing money away. They’re wasting food because they’re afraid of it. And the reason they’re afraid of it is, fundamentally, because of a huge gap in food skills that has developed in this country (and, I suspect, in many countries in the developed world).

Young adults in the UK today, if they’re unlucky, could be two generations away from the last person in their family who regularly cooked at home from fresh ingredients. Their grandmothers will have entered the workplace during WW2, and in many families, never left it afterwards. The war years with food rationing would have been inconceivably difficult, and the advent in post war years, first of domestic freezers, and then  of ready meals, would have seemed an incredible boon to these working families. As a result, many baby-boomers grew up in households where meals were rarely if ever cooked from scratch and their children, in turn, are now raising families of their own, stripped of the skills and knowledge that their grandmothers would have taken for granted, and with no obvious way of bridging the gap. It isn’t a matter of money, class, or even of general education, but rather a family-by-family lottery.

People I’ve known and worked with over the years illustrate this issue vividly. Lovely, intelligent ladies, all, and half a generation older than me for the most part. One refused to have anything in her fridge that wasn’t a sealed packet – anything, once opened and not consumed, was thrown away. My enquiries about leftovers were met with a look that I can only describe as alarm. Another fed herself, and her family, almost entirely on take-aways and what she called ‘ping-meals’ (microwave ready meals). Any jar she opened was labelled in permanent marker with the opening date and disposed of no more than seven days later – including very stable foods like jams and chutneys. Another admitted – and readers who grow their own veg might want to look away now – to furtively disposing of vegetables given to her by her allotment gardening neighbour, because they were ‘dirty, and had holes in’.

I genuinely don’t know how we solve this problem – but until we do, no amount of telling people it’s wrong to throw out food is going to make them eat something they suspect will harm them – quite probably wrongly, but nevertheless, or that they can’t see how to make into a meal. The lady with the bacon and eggs, shamed by Hugh into taking them back inside, is not, I suspect, going to eat them, no matter what she’s told. This skills gap, of course, has implications for problems beyond waste, including, most obviously, on heath.

I was incredibly lucky to have a grandmother who taught me a lot – not just about food and cooking, but in her attitude to life. Grandma, like many of her generation, considered wasting food to be almost sinful – I do wonder how we’ve come so far from this view now that we so often think of it as a normal part of life!

In the meantime, here are my top five tips for reducing kitchen food waste –

1) Buy the smallest fridge you can survive with, and the largest freezer you can find space for. And freezer baskets.

This makes sense when you think of how much perishable food goes into fridges only to be pushed to the back, forgotten, and allowed to go rotten. We have a much smaller fridge here in Cornwall than at our old house, not, initially, by choice. But by reducing the amount of fresh food we can keep to a couple of days worth of meat or fish and less than a week’s worth of green vegetables, we have dramatically reduced the amount of it that gets a chance to become inedibly past it’s best before we manage to eat it.

Sliced lemon and lime, bagged for freezingA big freezer gives you the capacity to freeze anything that you’re not going to get the chance to eat before it goes off, as well as freezing leftovers into home-made ready meals for later use. It also means you can keep a good variety of frozen vegetables which are a great, healthy, and low-waste alternative to perishable fresh vegetables.

Having access to a large freezer also means you can buy in bulk when you get the chance, and save money – but always remember to break large packs into sensible sizes before freezing – in our house packs of four chicken thighs are much more useful than trays of 20! But things can easily disappear into the back or bottom of large freezers, not to be seen for years – freezer baskets and a spot of organisation are essential to keep your frozen foods accessible and easy to find.

2) Don’t buy fresh meat, fish and vegetables from the supermarket. Definitely don’t buy ‘prepared’ vegetables.

Supermarkets sell fresh, perishable produce in pack sizes to suit themselves, not you. Then they often price them – with the help of 3-for-2 style offers – to encourage shoppers to take more home than they bargained for. The extra food may seem like a good deal, but unless it’s thoughtfully frozen, it will often end up going uneaten and ending up in the bin.

In addition to this, fresh fruit and veggies in supermarkets have sat in their supply chains for an awfully long time, far longer than you might expect in some cases – apples are stored in temperature controlled, oxygen-free warehouses which dramatically slows their deterioration, but that process cracks right on with a vengeance just as soon as the produce emerges from their enforced hibernation. Fruit and veg ‘fresh’ from the supermarket shelves often just doesn’t keep the way you’d expect.

Prepared fruit and veg – trimmed beans, peeled apples, diced mangoes, and the worst offenders of all, washed and bagged salads and stir-fry mixes – are some of the worst culprits in the food waste stakes. Despite the ‘protective atmospheres’ that these products are packed in, peeling, dicing, slicing and shredding vegetables dramatically reduces their shelf life (take two apples, slice one in two, leave the other whole, and stick them both in the fridge for a few days if you don’t believe me) making them much more likely to go to waste. And that’s without even considering the huge amount of packaging waste that also results from ‘prepared’ products.

A final reason not to buy fresh produce from supermarkets, is that their purchasing practices are pretty universally awful, full of waste and focused on supply-chain characteristics and cosmetic appearance far above flavour or nutrition.

So what are the alternatives? Well, find your local butcher and fishmonger, and buy from them. You’ll be able to get exactly what you want, in exactly the quantity you want – the quality will almost certainly be better than the supermarket, the butcher will likely be able to tell you about their origins, and you won’t end up paying over the odds, either. As for fruit & veggies your local grocer, if you have one, is ideal. That way, you can buy what you want, when you want. Veg boxes are great, but require a flexible approach to cooking and a willingness to try new things depending on what arrives in your box, so if this doesn’t honestly describe you, they may not be the right answer.

3) Meal planning

I admit, I’m bad at this one! But if you’re the organised, list-making type, it can save a lot of waste, not to mention a lot of money! If you can’t manage that, then try to keep a close eye on the contents of your fridge, bearing in mind what you’re going to eat today, and tomorrow. If there’s anything perishable in there that you’re not planning to eat in the next day or two, consider freezing it now – you can always defrost it again if you change your mind!

Not every food in your fridge will lend itself to freezing, but most will if you learn a trick or two. Meat and fish will usually freeze fine as it is. Milk, cream, butter and cheese, incidentally, can also be frozen – cream will often need to be whipped after defrosting, but is absolutely fine for cooking with. Vegetables often won’t freeze straight from fresh, but many will freeze really well after simple cooking such as dicing and roasting in the oven, or par-boiling.

4) Make and grow your own

I know this may seem impractical if you’re short on time and space, but even if you only grow a few salad leaves, some fresh herbs, or a single strawberry plant in a sunny window box, there’s something transformative about growing your own food.

Once you’ve planted the seed, cared for it, and watched it grow and ripen with anticipation, the idea of letting it go to waste is almost inconceivable. I go to great lengths to make sure I use every last thing I grow in my garden and polytunnel – freezing, pickling and preserving what I can’t use fresh – because the idea of wasting any of it makes me feel awful. That feeling can’t help but extend itself to food I buy, which, after all, has been grown with care and attention by someone else.

Tear & enjoyThe same principle extends to baking your own bread – one of the most wasted items in our kitchens. Once you’ve made your own glorious fresh loaf, believe me, it won’t be wasted. And you’ll go off the spongy supermarket rubbish pretty sharpish, too!

5) Up-skill!

Take every opportunity to improve your food and cooking skills and knowledge. I don’t mean by watching celebrity chefs on telly – that’s just sight-seeing. And you don’t need to go to expensive masterclasses or kitchen-school weekends.

Indian kebabs, servedKeen cooks are usually keen to share what they know – just look at the number of food bloggers out there! They will exist amongst your friends, your family, and your colleagues, so why not ask if you can cook with them? Perhaps there’s something else you can offer to teach them in return?

Practice. Experiment. Buy a few good cookbooks. And seize any opportunity to learn from others – from your grandparents, if they’re still with you, and other peoples’ Grannies, should the opportunity arise. Seek out older members of your family and learn what you can about your family food traditions. You never know, you may learn about a lot more than food!

Have you got any top tips on reducing food waste at home? Any bright ideas on how to close the food-skills gap? What do you think of Hugh’s approach to solving the food waste problem? Please comment below!

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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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Growing and Healing – back after an unscheduled break from blogging

So the blog’s been quiet for a bit! Sorry about that! I feel like I owe you all a bit of an explanation, so here goes – 

Back at the end of March, Hubby and I set off for a well-earned holiday, our annual-if-we-can-manage it ski trip.  We left my lovely in-laws looking after the house, garden, Dave the dog and the gaggle of poultry. A few days into our holiday, news came that Dave wasn’t well.  We tried not to worry – after all, we were almost half-way around the world, and there wasn’t anything we could do from there – he was in good hands and had been to the vets.  The days went by and rather than getting better, he was getting sicker.  By Easter weekend, he was in the hospital on a drip, having refused food for most of a week. By the time we arrived home the following week, he’d been admitted to a specialist referral centre – they were concerned that his liver might be failing, and didn’t know why.

We both hate to leave Dave and had been looking forward to the joyous welcome-home he normally gives us.  Instead the house was silent. We went to visit him at the referral hospital and he barely had the strength to give us a squeak of greeting.  A few more days went by, and after a CT scan which yielded a few answers, perhaps – ruled out some really sinister possibilities anyway – and a plan, kind of, he was fitted with a feeding tube.  Meanwhile, in a silent house, we were both struggling to keep our heads above water.  Times like this, if there were ever any doubt, we know what these creatures we invite into our lives truly mean to us.  I wonder if they understand how much they’re loved.

Dave with his feeding tubeAfter five day with the specialists, still not eating for himself but being fed through a tube inserted through the skin of his neck and into his oesophagus, Dave came home for us to care for.  He was incredibly weak and I really feared we wouldn’t be able to bring him back to health.

But one pill at a time, one liquidised-feed at a time, his strength returned and he started to eat for us again.  A week and a half ago his feeding tube came out, and he has continued to do better in the days since.  He’s still taking a pharmacy full of medication, and looks like a patchwork dog with all the hair that was clipped off to allow investigation and treatment, but over the last few days I finally feel like we’re getting our wonderful, beloved dog back, and while there are never any guarantees in this life, we have hope, and real joy.

Dave enjoying the sunshine

Some of you have been following the saga of Dave dog’s illness on twitter, and I would like to thank you all from the very bottom of my heart for your kind words and thoughts over these past few very difficult weeks.  They’ve been an immense source of strength and comfort, and have meant the world to me.

Of course, it’s a truism that whatever our personal turmoil, time doesn’t stand still.

It’s spring! At last! It really did feel like the winter that would never end! And while the blog has been quiet, we’ve still been very busy.

Dave the dogThe greenhouse we built in March is now stuffed full of seed trays and little emerging seedlings.  It has been performing wonderfully, and the automatic opening vent – a birthday present for myself and admittedly a bit of an indulgence – has been working brilliantly and prevented it becoming a seedling-cooking device on sunny days when we’re not around!  Incidentally, the giant climbing triffid in the foreground is one of my hop plants, grown from a bare root rhizome this year. It’s quite something, isn’t it!

Vegetable bedsOutside, we’ve almost finished sorting out the vegetable beds, and the potatoes are planted.  Now I just need to get a bed prepared for the cutting flower patch I’m experimenting with this year!

My window ledges are packed with chillies, tomatoes, and other things too tender yet to survive in the unheated greenhouse.  I’m hoping we’ve now had the last of the really cold nights and they may be able to go into the greenhouse in the next few days.

Chilli seedlingsI’m especially pleased with my chilli plants, despite an initial disaster (top tip here – don’t take your beautiful heated-propagator-raised chilli seedings outside on even a lovely sunny early March afternoon to prick out and pot on), the survivors, and second sowing are now thriving. I’ve grown two varieties – ‘Vampire’ (the purple-leaved ones in this photo) and ‘Twilight’ this year.  What is it about naming chilli varieties, incidentally???

Seedlings for the cut flower patchStarting these seedlings, and waiting for them to grow, has been the most amazing therapy and displacement activity against the stresses and worries of the past few weeks.  Seeing them start to grow and thrive is always such a great source of faith and hope for the year to come, but this year it’s felt particularly poignant somehow!

Oh, and I seem to have accidentally taken up crochet… more of which, no doubt, another day!

Thanks for your patience in the hiatus, folks, and I’m hoping that more normal (and frequent) blogging service will now be resumed!

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Felt Like This – washing machine felt, and five minute fingerless gloves

I have a confession to make – I can be a bit of a hoarder!  I’m at my worst when it comes to clothes, even when they’re worn out, damaged, or utterly unsuitable, not even good enough for the charity shop, I look at all the lovely fabric and can’t bring myself to throw them out. Instead, they end up pushed to the back of the cupboard, or in bags and piles for ‘doing something with’, one day.

Finished fingerless gloves

Browsing around the web a few months ago, I came across a reference to washing-machine felt, a technique for taking unwanted woollen knitwear and turning it into a wool felt which can then be used in other projects.  All the tutorials I found seemed to hinge on also having access to a tumble dryer (which I don’t), but I had a dig about in the back of the wardrobe, rounded up three dead jumpers (two of which had already suffered and shrunk a little in the wash) and decided to give it a go.  It’s important that the jumpers you’re felting are entirely – or almost entirely – made of natural woollen fibre, as polyester and other synthetics won’t felt properly.  Mine ranged from 80% to 100% wool.

The 'donor' jumpers, before feltingI threw them all in the washing machine with a scoop of normal detergent, and selected a 60 degree cotton wash with all the ‘extras’ selected – extra dirty, extra spin, you know the sort of things.  Kids, this is not a good or friendly thing to do to knitwear (do kids these days even wear woollens??).  The jumpers came out of the machine half the size they went in, and undeniably now made of felt.  Success – and no dryer required!  After a couple of days drying, I was ready to have a play.

The fabric you’ve made will now behave very much like manufactured felt (though it’s a bit thicker than the stuff you buy by the square foot at the craft shop – and rather more robust) or polar fleece. You can cut it without it unravelling, and the edges don’t need finishing.

Cut lengths from sleeves

For a really quick satisfying up-cycle from your first washing machine felt sweater, how about a pair of fingerless felt gloves?

Work out how long you want your gloves, and cut the appropriate length from the sleeves of the felted jumper.

Offer up for thumb position

You’ll probably want the cuffs of the sleeves to be the cuffs of the new gloves.

Snip thumb holesNow decide where you want your thumb holes, turn the sleeves inside out, and snip out that part of the seam from the inside of the sleeve, leaving a slit of the right length to fit your thumb through.  Err on the small size, you can always cut more later.

Completed fingerless gloveThat’s it, if you want it to be!  Not even five minutes work.

But you can embellish these gloves really easily, if you like.  The sky’s the limit, really, for embroidery and embellishment, but I decided simply to add some blanket stitch to the unfinished edges and thumb holes, using some pretty multicoloured contrasting knitting wool I had lying around.  Blanket stitching the cut edges, like I did, has the added bonus that it should stop the seam coming undone as time goes by.

Quickest, simplest fabric recycling project ever, isn’t it?  Anyone can do this, so give it a go!

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Relight My Fire – DIY recycled wax and wood-shaving firelighters

The chimney sweep came this week, and with the equinox just passed, the nights are palpably drawing in.  We use the wood-burning stove in our living room for an awful lot of our heating in the winter – the alternative for us, living off the beaten track (and off the gas main!) is our oil-fired boiler, which is both expensive and not terribly environmentally considerate.  But even if you’re not using your fire daily, there’s nothing better than a real wood fire as the nights get colder and darker!

Firelighter burning well

We have a fire most nights in the winter, and that brings with it a requirement for firelighting.  We cut our own kindling wood from our log supply (well, I say ‘we’ – Hubby does it!) so it’s not as tinder-dry as the bags of kiln-dried kindling sticks you can buy at great expense.  While I’ve succeeded in lighting the fire with newspaper, cardboard and kindling, it’s a frustrating exercise, doesn’t always work first time, and we tend to use a firelighter to get the kindling going nice and quickly and conveniently.  There’s only one downside – the white firelighter blocks you get from the co-op or the garage *stink* of kerosene.  I don’t want them in my living room!  And while I occasionally see the nicer wax & sawdust type for sale locally, I can’t buy them reliably.

But they gave me an idea – with the waste-wax I have available from old candles (believe me, I’m really bad at throwing things away, even stuff like this!), the really grotty old stuff that really can’t be recycled into new candles, from melt pools, stained with soot, with old wick and ash and even match-heads in it, in different colours and scents, could I make my own?

The answer is resoundingly *yes*, but with a caveat…

Equipment and 'ingredients' (1)You want about equal volumes of wax and closely packed wood shavings.  I was hoping to use some wood-shop waste, to make the whole thing completely free and recycled, but the stuff I could get hold of was too fine and dusty and mixed with big chunks of ‘stuff’.  I think the shavings produced when hubby breaks out the wood-turning lathe would be ideal, so I’ll save those in future.

'Ingredients' (2)For this batch I used a cup of wood shavings I stole from the supply we keep for the henhouse, it’s a tiny amount and probably cost a couple of pence at most (and technically I suppose is a recycled by-product, anyway!).  You also want an egg box (I had a few old dozen-sized egg boxes that have been damaged beyond useful re-use), and a double-boiler arrangement for melting your wax, preferably with an inner container you don’t want to use again for ‘clean’ candle-making, and a thermometer for safety.

Take your dirty grotty old wax and put it all into the double boiler, and heat the water up to about 75 degrees celsius.  This should allow you to melt the wax down without getting too close to the flash point of your wax.  I’ve used an old can which previously held malt extract for home-brewing, it’s about the perfect size for melting candle wax.  Really, any dirty old wax goes here, and don’t worry about trying to remove old bits of burnt or unburnt wick, wick sustainers, matchsticks, or anything like that.  Add more wax in stages as the contents of the can melt down, until you have the sort of volume of melted wax you need (it was about 1/3rd of the can, once melted, for me).

This part of the process is where my caveat comes in – it took a bit over an hour to melt down all this wax, during which I couldn’t really leave the wax unattended on the stove (though I did get the chance to have a nice chat on the phone with my little sister).  The time investment in making these as a standalone project probably, for me at least, make the cost / benefit of this project a bit suspect!  There may be ways around this, more of which later!

Melted wax with about half the shavings addedOnce all your grotty old wax has melted down (it will smell quite peculiar if, like mine, it contains fruity, citrussy and maple-syrup scented candle-waxes!), add your shavings in batches, stirring as you go.  You want most of the wax to be absorbed into the shavings, leaving just a little bit of ‘free’ wax to set the mix as it cools.  Pack the mix into the wells of the egg boxes, filling them to the top, and squeeze down the contents with your fingers (wait for it to cool partially before doing this, if you like).

Firelighters settingMy mix made an almost perfect dozen firelighters (I also made two ‘experimental’ lighters with rolled-up cardboard in the well). Allow the firelighters to cool, and then separate them (tear, or cut into the underside of the egg carton to get things going).  Mine look like rather suspect pink raw minced beef products because of the red waxes that went into the mix!  There’s a very subtle smell about them if you stick them right up to your nose, but nothing unpleasant.

So far so good, right?  But it’s all ‘for nowt’ if they don’t actually light fires!  Would they do the job?  Would all the wax melt and dribble out and make a mess of my lovely newly-serviced wood stove?

Setting fire to the lighter & kindlingBuild your kindling ‘jenga pile’, and nestle the fire lighter in the centre.  Then set fire to the cardboard edge of the lighter with a match, and watch it go!  It burned amazingly well, cleanly, with no wax dripping, and got up to a really good temperature, the kindling wood was snapping, fizzing and crackling almost immediately and the fire got off to a roaring start!

I suspect actually about half the total volume of firelighter would have done the job – a whole egg-well seemed a bit generous.  I might under-fill the wells a bit in future and see if it still does the job.

But ‘in future’, if the process is this time consuming?  Well, if the performance of these firelighters weren’t quite so good, I suspect I wouldn’t be making them again.  I think it will be a task that I do ‘in the background’ in a second can when I’m using the double-boiler for clean candle-making anyway (I’ll be doing quite a bit of this in the build up to Christmas!).  If you’re doing any similar candle craft, and have space for a second melting pot (or if you have one of those natty thermostatically controlled wax melting gadgets that you can set-and-forget to a greater extent) then I can thoroughly recommend making these free, recycled little firelighters.

Keep those home-fires burning bright!

Enjoy your fires this winter, folks (and have a look at my useful little tip for cleaning the glass on a wood-burning stove, while you’re at it)!

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Using Your Bottle – self-watering planter success!

Earlier in the week I wrote about my last batch of bottle cutting experiments.  Just a quick post to update, especially about the self-watering planter which, I had to admit, I had my doubts about!

Self-watering planter

Well, it works!  The compost is staying moist, the water level in the reservoir is very slowly – but visibly – dropping, and the basil seems to be thriving!  There seems to be an added bonus with this design, which is that the glass captures the heat from sunshine much more effectively than traditional pots.  The soil feels quite warm to the touch on a sunny day, which can only do good things for the plants’ growth over the winter, right?

So, many more of these to come, I think!  Hubby not too sure about me filling up our windowsills with recycled wine bottles, but I’m sure he’ll come around!

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Using Your Bottle – testing some ideas for bottle cutting crafts

I’ve been wanting to play some more with the bottle cutting jig since my first attempts at bottle cutting a few weeks ago.  This weekend I found a few hours and raided some bottles from the neighbours’ recycling bins, and got to work.

Almost completed bottle cutting projects

My success rate this time stayed stubbornly around the 1:3 mark.  It’s becoming clear that two things are combining to be a problem.  The first is that accuracy in the score mark is absolutely critical – if you don’t get a perfectly straight even score that meets neatly, there’s no chance of the bottle breaking cleanly.  The second is that bottles are *rubbish*.  Of the bottles I’ve cut – and failed to cut – so far, not one is made up of even thickness glass, and most of them aren’t even anywhere near round in section!  This makes getting an even score more challenging, as well as tending to make the bottle break unevenly as a result of the variable thickness of glass.   There are a handful of gadgets on the market (and one interesting looking one, called the Kinkajou, about to come on the market) which might well improve my hit rate on nice reliable score lines, but I’m still trying to keep this a low-cost hobby for now!

Glass cutting jigStill, a couple of hours work (mostly removing labels!) got me three new nicely cut bottles – a 500ml green cider bottle, and two punt-bottled wine bottles, one of which I cut long, and discarded the top to make a vase, and the other cut more centrally to give a top and bottom section.  Sanding down (see my previous post for more details of the cutting process) gave me safe cut edges.

I’ve really wanted to play with etching, because I’ve seen some beautiful glass decorating projects, but hubby really wasn’t very enamoured with the idea of me using concentrated acid paste in the kitchen (and I can kind of see his point!).  I settled on using some frosted-glass effect spray paint made by plastikote.  This slightly offends one of my fundamental design principles, actually, but never mind!

The ideas for using the bottles were mostly gleaned from Pinterest, which is a new and rather addictive time-sink (those of you who’ve also discovered this can have a browse of my boards here).  I used some black sticky-back vinyl as a masking material for two of the pieces.

Masked-off bottle topIsn’t it great when you discover that the bits and bobs you’ve bought for one craft can be pressed into service for another?  I dug out the rotary cutter, ruler and cutting mat I bought for quilting, and got to work cutting strips of vinyl.  Two to wrap around the bottom of the cider bottle, to give a striped finish, and the off-cut with some newspaper to mask off all but the edge of the cut-off top of the wine bottle.

Masked tealight holderThis vinyl is a great masking material for glass, as it adheres tightly, stretches just a little to account for the wonkiness of the bottles, and comes away cleanly without leaving any residue.  The resulting cider bottle makes a very pretty tealight holder which would make a lovely little gift.

Masked vase with rubber bandsFor the bottle destined to be a vase, I borrowed another idea in wide circulation on pinterest and applied rubber bands, some overlapping, rising and falling. The first thing to note about this approach is that the rubber bands don’t arrange themselves  – it actually takes quite a lot of faffing to get a pleasing arrangement of lines.  They’re not an ideal masking material, either.  As you apply the instructed two or three layers of the frosting paint, some will settle on the top edge of the rubber bands (this is much less of a problem with vinyl which is very thin and doesn’t collect ‘overspray’ in this way).

Dave with vaseThe rubber bands came off easily once the paint had dried overnight, but it took quite a lot of delicate trimming away of the extra paint with a scalpel blade to get a reasonable finish.  I’m still not entirely happy with the outcome, and if I try this approach again I’ll try to get away with one, perhaps two layers of paint rather than the three I used.  Still, the result is quite pretty, isn’t it?  Dave said he wanted to be in the photo, and who am I to disappoint him?

Landscape fabric with stringFinally, and perhaps most interesting for me, is the bottle cut in half.  I’ve made a self-watering herb planter, based on a photo I saw – guess where? – that’s right, pinterest again.  The top of the bottle is up-ended inside the bottom.  I lined it with a cut rectangle of landscape fabric about 4″ by 8″, one half of which I threaded through with a bunch of jute string. Fold this in half with the string dangling through the neck of the bottle. Then, fill with compost and plant (in my case, with some rather sorry-looking home-grown basil I always forget to water).

This is where I admit to being a really neglectful gardner.  I’m full of enthusiasm, but when it comes down to it I have a nasty habit of forgetting to water, to pot on, to plant out…  my garden thrives on it’s own resources more than on my care, and my houseplants have to have a strong will to survive!

Self-watering wine bottle planter

So if this contraption actually works (and the jury is still out on this – it’s early days) then it’s going to change my window-sill gardening forever.  Herbs that will water themselves!  In a planter which is recycled, free, and really pretty, rather than something ugly and plastic and more suited to greenhouse shelving than living room windows.

I’ll update with more photos of the herb planter once it’s clear whether there’s any merit to the design.  In the meantime I suspect there’s quite a bit more mileage in breaking bottles for fun and (perhaps??) profit…

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