Colour me happy this winter

As the evenings are drawing in and the leaves are falling from the trees, it’s easy to feel a little despondent. Especially when the landscape turns from a multicoloured Autumn spectacle into a drab brown, green and grey mire. That’s why this year I’ve been determined to bring a little cheer into my life. I do love Autumn but sometimes the persistent grey clouds and long, dark nights can be a drain, so now is a great time to turn up the saturation filter and get some winter blooms in place.

My back doorstep has become a little haven for potted plants. The steps are in a corner and sheltered from the winds that gather pace and blow furiously down the side of our house into the garden beyond, and surrounded by two brick walls offer a little lift in temperature. Earlier this summer I planted up a small herb pot for use in the kitchen, and since tidying up the steps I’ve potted up some winter colour bedding in various pots, sent to me from Plant Me Now.

Pansies for winter colour

As the name suggests, Plant Me Now sends out plants that are ready to go in NOW, so no worrying about whether it’s the right time of year, if they are suited to the British winter or all that malarky. I am still a bit rubbish about knowing which plants flower when and what are annuals as my main consideration is pretty much “are they good for pollinators”. So having a suitable selection to choose from is really handy.

Pansy Matrix Morpheus

Pansy Matrix Morpheus

I planted up the following flowers in my pots, all of which have been in for over a month and are looking as good as new. The pansy varieties are mostly compact and have been bred to last longer than other pansies:

Pansy – Cool Wave (yellows, whites, purples, blues – winter and early spring bloomer)
Pansy – Matrix Morpheus (yellow and purple)
Pansy – Matrix Marina (light blue, deep blue and white)
Pansy – Frizzle Sizzle Burgundy
Wallflower – Sugar Rush Yellow
Lemon Thyme (Thymus citriodorus) ‘Golden Queen’ (adds great texture, variegated colour and scent)

Pansy Frizzle Sizzle Burgundy

Pansy Frizzle Sizzle Burgundy

At this time of year you can also try primulas, polyanthus, violas and in spring cyclamen and bulbs such as irises, narcissus and tulips will bring earlier colour. Heuchera are also a fab choice as are evergreen herbs such as rosemary, lavender and sage.

Pansy Cool Wave Selection

Pansy Cool Wave Selection

I’m looking forward to still having some winter colour around, I find it’s good for the soul and will help just a little bit to keep away those winter blues…

How to Make Sloe Gin

It’s gin o’clock… almost!

Sloes for gin

The sloes have been ripening on the blackthorn bush for what feels like weeks now, and quite frankly, my impatience got the better of me. I need some sloe gin ready for Christmas and the longer I have to let the sloes ferment, the better my gin will be. I mean, you could leave it for a year and you’ll have something amazing. In 5 years you’ll have the best sloe gin ever known to mankind. But I’m too impatient. And at this rate, with 23C temperatures in September, it’ll be a long while until the first frosts hit – traditionally when it’s advised that you pick your first sloes.

So to compensate for the balmy Indian summer, I plucked the sloes from my own homegrown blackthorn bushes (at night, I should add, in my pyjamas and armed with a head torch) and stored them in the fridge for a few days. They then went in the freezer overnight to simulate a cold snap. And now, we’re ready!

Sloe - blackthorn bush

How to Make Sloe Gin

It’s really quite simple. Sterilise your jar. Pick your sloes, freeze them to split the skins, wash them,  bung them in an air-tight container, then add gin and sugar. The volume of gin should be 1:1, so if you have a container, fill it halfway with sloes and the rest of the space is taken up with the gin. Simple. You can find my full How to Make Sloe Gin post here if you need a bit more guidance (and check out the comments for some top tips).

sloe gin steeping in a kilner jar

My gin is now doing it’s thing and waiting for me to take the first slug in December. It’ll need a turn each day for a while, and then a gentle shake every week or so until thereafter. I opted for a cheap Ikea airtight glass jar to ferment it, and sterilised by washing in warm soapy water and then drying in the oven on a low temperature for a few minutes. I’m pretty sure a run through the dishwasher would be fine too.

What Gin Should I Use for Sloe Gin?

The general consensus is that you don’t need a top quality gin to make great sloe gin – even just a supermarket brand will do. I was given a bottle of Bombay Sapphire for my birthday last year, and because I don’t generally drink much (apart from damson gin or sloe gin in winter, it seems) I’ve still got loads left. So for me, from a frugal point of view it makes sense to use the Bombay Sapphire, but equally if I was to go out and buy a bottle of supermarket own that would do the job.

How Much Sugar Do I Put in my Sloe Gin?

It depends on your tastes – anything from a couple of tablespoons of sugar will do the trick. I have a fairly sweet tooth, so anything from 150g per half litre of gin should do the job. If you have a really sweet tooth, around 250g sugar per half litre of gin should be plenty!

One last tip…

When foraging for sloes, please only take 10-20% of the fruit on the bush. The rest is for the wildlife.


The Kitchen isn’t quite the heart of our home… yet

There has been so much going here at The Smallest Smallholding in the last month that all work on the kitchen has stopped. Rich has managed to replaster one wall in the utility room but the hallowed kitchen floor remains unlaid, and there is just “stuff” EVERYWHERE. Cooking hasn’t been much fun amongst all the clutter and piles of “stuff”* and my kitchen isn’t feeling like the heart of the home. Yet.

Now that things are calming down once again, and Rich and I are no longer taking it in turns to have a virus, we are aiming to get the kitchen updated and “finished” before winter really sets in. Seven years with bare concrete floor is enough, I think and there’s no way I’m going through another winter tiptoeing around to avoid having ice blocks for feet because the floor feels like it’s sucking up the cold. It would also be nice to sit down at the kitchen table once again. Just because I can.

Whilst we have a tendency to go about four steps backwards before we go forwards (Rich decided the utility room walls were far too wobbly so they needed doing before we could even think about the floor), there is now another consideration we need to take into account before we can consider our efforts finished. The kitchen cupboards.

pine kitchen cupboards

For the last three years or so we have debated whether to paint our custom pine kitchen cupboards, or just sand them down and wax them for a more natural look. As neither Rich or I are particularly tidy cooks and have a tendency to splat, splash and splatter things around, painting the cupboards could be risky. But with a good decade or more of cooking oil and water sploshing against the wood, they look pretty grim right now (this is the sanded version, the rest are even worse):

pine kitchen cupboards

Would painting them make them look even worse over time, or should Rich and I take a risk and just try to be really careful when we cook (easier said than done)?

And the next dilemma if we decided to paint – should we opt for country cream, subtle duck egg blue, or a muted sagey-willow green? Decisions, decisions, decisions (and work, work, and more work).

We are not in a position to refurb the kitchen at all, so it’s all got to be done by us, and on a budget. To be honest, it couldn’t look too much worse than it does right now, but I don’t want to have to touch it for a few years after it’s done, so I need to get it right.

We have been looking around at the likes of Wren Kitchens for traditional and shaker-style inspiration, and I have to say, I am erring on the side of painted kitchen cupboards. I do like the new-england country kitchen look (rustic but bright and airy) but we have to be careful as we will have a slate-coloured floor going down, together with dark worktops. I had worried that painted cupboards would look too contrasting against dark worktops and flooring, but it seems to work nicely in this instance. As our worktops are granite grey and the flooring slate grey, and the light coming from outside is reflected from green grass and blue sky, I think as long as we try to avoid too much grey-blue in the paint colour palette of the paint, we can retain some warmth in the colour scheme. Maybe a warm cream colour is the way to go after all?

Our worktop will have to stay the same (dark, easier to look clean and avoid staining by things like beetroot and red wine!), but both of us would love to one day go for butcher-block style worktops, a butler sink and lighter cupboards to make the most of what light we have in the kitchen. In the morning, the light streams in and it’s a lovely place to sit and have breakfast. Or, was.

Hopefully by the end of November, it will be again. I’m looking forward to settling down with a steaming hot cuppa, warm toast and some homemade jam… with a proper floor and good-as-new kitchen cupboards staring back at me. I’m looking forward to making big vats of veggie soups and sitting down at the kitchen table again with a book, or inviting family round for some Sunday dinner around the table.

But first, I need to tentatively ask Rich if he’s ready to pick up his plastering hawk and trowel so we can get back on track…

utility room

*A rogue mouse has also moved in behind the fridge and so far hasn’t been tempted into our humane catch and release mousetrap (vegan friendly!). We’ve tried homemade jam, sweets and peanut butter, but it’s not having it. Next up – tasty popcorn.

This post was written with the help of Wren Kitchens! All content is accurate and written by Lucy at The Smallest Smallholding.