Foundations for a bigger, better year

Lucy and moo the cat

I turned 32 years old on New Year’s Eve and the next day, it was a fresh new start as we welcomed in 2015. Last year was so hard in many ways – so much anxiety, stress and the feeling of hopelessness and being out of control. I’m really hoping that 2015 is a different kettle of fish. More proactivity, more progress. And more smiling.

This year I’ve decided to invest more in my Smallest Smallholding, and in myself. Gardening and growing has become a bit of a soul saver for me and with Rich’s growing interest (no pun intended) in our little patch of Bedfordshire, we’ve found our feet a bit more I think. Just generally, in life as well. I feel like we’ve got a bit more direction and a plan and this year, the stalemate that we’ve been in where it’s the same old rubbish day in, day out might finally end. The dark nights have been a trial of sorts, and I’m really looking forward to enjoying spring and being able to feel the sun on my skin again.

Speaking from a completely horticultural point of view, my first big change and investment is in my soil. It’s always been a bit crap. A bit undernourised and struggling to keep up with the strain I put on it by growing plants, fruits and vegetables. I realise now through my reading on permaculture and no-dig approach about just how much strain I’ve been putting on it, whilst expecting great results from my produce. So I’ve really gone back to basics even more this year and brought in lots of compost.

red onions

For my birthday, I was lucky enough to receive lots (and lots!) of gardening vouchers, which meant that instead of waiting for my compost heaps to be ready, I could get in early and take advantage of the £2.99 reduction on Horizon organic peat-free compost. I’d done a bit of research and it’s scored really well in a number of growing trials, and with a 3 for 2 promotion on the bags, I used my vouchers to really stock up.

But I won’t dig the compost in. I’ll simply leave it on my veg plots and let the worms and other soil dwellers take care of it for the time being whilst I focus on getting my shit together in other departments, like my greenhouse, polytunnel, pruning, learning, sowing. I am determined to get the polytunnel up and in working order this year. Our biggest problem is time and 2015 has got to be The Year That Lucy Got Her Polytunnel Up and Running.

My vouchers also enabled me to buy my first ever heated propagator. No more late sowing of chillies and peppers for me! All these little steps I’ve been taking signify a change and more proactiveness. Last year I almost lost my balance completely. This year, I’m building deeper, more solid foundations so that I can stand more solidly.

It’s time for tea, tea and more tea

Adagio loose leaf apple spiced chai

In the post-Christmas wind-down, Rich and I have both managed to catch the lurgie. Whilst we’re not particularly full of cold, we’re not able to control our temperatures very well (lots of being covered in blankets and clutching of hot water bottles going on), sore throats, and much fatigue. So boring. So it’s been somewhat of a relief and good timing to review some soothing, healthy teas from Adagio.

When I was contacted and asked whether I’d be interested in reviewing these loose-leaf tea blends, I jumped at the chance. 2015 is going to be a year focused on regaining my health, strength and fitness so finding a drinkable alternative to sugar-free squash is a good start. I requested for them to send over a selection of healthy teas since I’m not a black tea drinker at all (although Rich is, he could easily down six or more cups in a day).

They arrived before Christmas but we had to wait until Christmas Day for Rich to open his new swish OXO tea ball strainer, so that we could brew the loose leaf tea properly. We’ve since been sampling the various blends, including Spiced Apple Chai (my favourite so far), foxtrot (“a herbal cocktail of Egyptian chamomile, South African rooibos (with a touch of vanilla) and fresh peppermint”), Hojicha, Berry Blues (“a smooth and slightly tart blend of blueberries, apple pieces and hibiscus flowers”) as well as a whole host of loose leaf green tea blends.

Loose leaf spiced apple chai tea

The spiced apple chai loose leaf tea in the OXO good grips tea twisting ball strainer… enough for 3-4 mugs of tea

I’ve struggled in the past with pure green tea – although at one point I had “trained” myself to down a small pot within a morning at work – so for me, a green tea blend is a great way to try and stay hydrated and enjoy the various health benefits of green tea. The ball-type tea strainer we have has been really useful in helping us to achieve the strength of tea flavour that we want, and we’ve been able to share one scoops’ worth of tea in two cups easily, so there’s value for money to be had there.

I haven’t tried all of the teas yet, but I’m looking forward to taking them to work (the smaller samples come into foil fresh resealable packets) and being able to enjoy a proper cup of something calming and healthy whilst I work, rather than coming home wired and tired!

Ways to Save Money with the Poorly Department

Thyme and rosemary

My new weekend obsession is trawling the ‘poorly department’ of garden centres and finding bargain plants for sale.

Last weekend I found a load of pretty verbascum for £1 each (instead of £6.99 – £8.99). A couple of months ago I managed to get £60 worth of lavender for £2 – they had been slightly zapped by a late frost but have since completely recovered – and last year we salvaged a load of white and pink echinacea plants for £1 each too. This year they’re really strong and ready to bloom!

It’s well worth checking out the poorly department because more often than not, the plants are absolutely fine, just not pretty enough to compete against their counterparts who are often in bloom. Some may be a little neglected and just need a good water or feed, and often have more buds waiting to bloom. In fact, it puzzles me why people buy flowers in bloom, as by the time they are planted in they often only have a week or two of flowering time left in them. It’s essentially paying a premium and not getting the full benefit.

In my new age of austerity, I’m happy to eschew the stunning displays of plants and scour the poorly department of my local garden centres and wait for the plants to recover, flower the following year or later in the season. If I can’t find what I need, then there’s always the option of buying smaller, younger plants from our local nursery and waiting for them to grow!

£1 'Barbecue' variety of rosemary, £1 thyme and some garlic chives

£1 ‘Barbecue’ variety of rosemary, £1 thyme and some garlic chives

Of course, buying up tired plants that have finished flowering applies more to perennials as you’ll get a good few years out of each plant for a fraction of the price, but if you’re quick enough off the mark you might even be able to grab a few vegetable plants. Having a greenhouse or polytunnel (or just a small space under glass) to hand is always a bonus as poorly department veg plugs can be grown on later in their ‘natural’ season and avoid any frost damage.

We’ve also saved a heck of a lot of money buy sowing from seed – it’s just common sense. In the past, one packet of cosmos (around £2.50 plus a bag of compost) provided a stunning display throughout our long border from around August through to the first hard frosts in November. To buy that number of plants in from a garden centre would probably cost in excess of £80.

And whilst we’re still waiting for our current crops of vegetables to mature we’ll be filling in the spaces with bargain veg plants and easy to sow salad crops. So far we’ve found space for a ridge cucumber and another squash plant. I’ve got a few gaps in the flower borders that will easily accommodate edible plants, so this weekend I’ll be on the lookout for more cheap veg plugs to grow on!

Sharing is also a great way to keep food costs down – share and swap your homegrown fruit and veg plants and over the course of a season you could easily save the price of a few modest weekly shops. We have been given some tomato and fennel plants for free by a friend… Rich happily munches on tomatoes, but I’ve got to put a little research time into recipes with fennel. Any ideas?!