Tuesday, 31 March 2009


One of the aims I have always had with this blog is to make it a kind of resource for anyone else who might want to grow vegetables in containers on a fairly large scale. I'm not sure if I ever will get round to writing my single 'definitive' guide to what I have found works and what doesn't, but I can at least add to it by talking about my kale.

I put five plugs of kale in one of my large planters back in September. At the time, I didn't have huge hopes of a great harvest, or even much confidence that kale could actually be grown in a container. What I did want was something to grow over the winter and occupy some compost that would otherwise just get waterlogged and mouldy. Initially, my kale experiment was a constant battle with cabbage whites and their wretched caterpillars (surprising, I know), who munched one plant into oblivion, but after the first frosts in October I stopped having to mount a daily counter-attack. Since then, the kale has been growing slowly but steadily until they reached a fairly respectable size. The lack of space meant that two plants of the four were clearly 'dominant', but even the weedy ones produced a reasonable number of leaves. We have had kale twice with dinner so far, and I reckon there are probably another two servings on the plants. Admittedly the leaves are more like 'baby' kale than the kind of whoppers generally seen on allotments, but hey, the last time I checked supermarkets were charging twice as much for 'baby' sweetcorn, carrots and beans as they were for the full-sized version, so why not do the same for kale

In summary, container grown Kale is clearly never going to reach the large size of a plant in the ground. There just isn't the space for the roots. On the other hand, kale does seem happy enough to grow to a medium-sized plant with perfectly tasty leaves in quite cramped conditions, and more importantly, will occupy a planter all the way through from September to March, a time when little else will occupy those expanses of compost outside the front door. At six portions of fresh veg for about £1.50's worth of plugs, I imagine that I broke even with the cost, but this doesn't take into account the pleasure of having something growing over the winter and the convenience of being able to space the harvest out, rather than buying a big bag and then having to eat kale every night for a week.

I would normally here include a photo, but we ate too many of the leaves before I thought of writing this post, and the remaining kale looks rather like it suffered from a visit from the Very Hungry Caterpillar and is consequently not terribly photogenic.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Spin like a Viking

I got a new toy in the post this morning and I am very excited about it.

Yup, it's a spindle, complete with four blobs (rovings? tops? I'm not quite on board with all the jargon yet) of natural wool and an instruction leaflet. A start-to-spin kit, if you will, thanks to the nice people at www.forestfibres.co.uk .

The spindle is a pure indulgence on my part. Yes, I would love, love to be able to spin my own wool. Of course I would. There is a passage in my lovely Stitch 'n' Bitch book describing one of their designers, who taught herself to knit from a book, then learnt to spin and 'is now trying to work out how she can smuggle sheep into her Manhattan Apartment'. I don't have a single friend who hasn't read that and not immediately gone, 'hah. Sounds like you'. I would love to spin, but I really don't have the time to learn. Even at the moment, when I'm reliably knitting every night, I usually don't get a chance to start until 9pm, or even later. This is why my long knitted eco-wool waistcoat is only now approaching completion around a year since I started it, and why I still haven't made my dream skirt, even though I've had the material and the pattern for over six months.

I know all this, but I still couldn't resist the spindle. It actually never occured to me to get a spindle, even though as a good medieval historian I am very well aware that it is perfectly possible to spin on one, since spinning wheels were only invented around 1500 or so. It took another knitting medievalist to point this out to me, when I was sitting have coffee with a her and talking about spinning, knitting, crochet and many other forms of craft, just like 20-something students do, right? She was being extremely nice to me after I had heard that I didn't get a job I had really wanted, and was happy to listen to me ramble on about how much I would like a spinning wheel, except that our flat is already bursting at the seams (the spindle is going to be a bit of a squeeze). 'Why not spin with a spindle?', was the helpful suggestion. Immediately, visions of strapping medieval housewives wielding spindles and distaffs while happily waving goodbye to their viking husbands sprung fully formed into my mind. If generations of medieval women could do it, why not me? (I suspect I am about to find out, since rumour has it that spinning is not as easy as this 14th century lady makes it look. At the very least, I think it will be a while before I can spin and feed chickens at the same time.)

I'll let you know how I get on. Once I've cracked this, the next step is the sheep.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

A Pocket Wilderness

One of the odd things about living in Cambridge as part of the post-graduate community here is that I’m friends with surprisingly few Brits who still live here. As many of you will have noticed , K is South African and my dear neighbours are Australian, and I might add that a high proportion of my fellow medievalists are from the US or Canada. These lovely people are frequently heard to comment that Britain is not an island with much in the way of wilderness, and their voices adopt a somewhat wistful tone as they remember the vision of an empty road stretching off in to the distance, not a roundabout in sight. Now, I cannot help but agree that Britain as a rule lacks the kind of endless empty spaces of South Africa/USA/Australia etc, especially south of the Humber (I am still such a northerner at heart). But it is also true, I think, that England is also full of secret ‘pocket wilderness’, little patches of desolate, beautiful, wild spaces that have somehow escaped the press of people and houses which are so evident in most places.

With the aid of a car and an increasing number of years spent living in East Anglia, K and I are attempting to discover some more of these pocket wildernesses. On Saturday, we were privileged to find such a one less than two hours drive away, on the North Norfolk coast. To tell the truth, I have always felt a bit embarrassed that I have not visited this part of the world before. We are less than two hours drive away, and goodness knows enough people have recommended it to me . Even the difficulty of finding a decent enough Saturday, weather-wise, rather ceases to be an acceptable excuse after about six months. THIS Saturday, I insisted. The weather was good, work had been moderately kind to us and we had enjoyed an utterly crashy, I’m-not-leaving-this-sofa-if-it-kills-me Saturday the weekend before.

It was absolutely amazing. We went first to Titchwell Marsh RSPB reserve, because I had heard of it and because I had a member’s pass so we could get free parking. Beautiful reedbeds, marshland and salt flats stretching out under the wide sky, dripping with avocets, teals, shovelers and gulls. I got to spend a pleasing amount of time playing with the shiny camera K bought me for Christmas.

A snipe obligingly posed in front of a hide, causing me to drop my lens cover.

The reserve itself wasn’t much of a wilderness, however. Far too many chaps wearing about twelve telescopes arranged about their person (and I shall not comment further on such folk, except to say that there were ridiculous numbers of lesbians there. Quite astonishing. How had I never noticed this tendency in my birdwatching phase as a teenager?).

The reserve wasn't much of a wilderness, but the reserve opened out on to a beach. The beach was an English wilderness if ever I saw one. Ten minutes walk up said beach saw us well out of the range of other people, and our only companions were the sandlings running in the surf at the water’s edge.

The place was eerie. A low mist hung over the sea, barely discernible except when we realised that it wasn’t actually possible to say where the sea stopped and the sky began. We got quite a shock at one point when a large animal appeared to be suspended in mid-air; it turned out to be a grey seal bobbing up for air. The waves were very long, light swells, lapping insistently at the shore. The afternoon sun made the sand fade into the sky further up the beach, and the only sign of human presence was a village in the far distance. The overall impression was that the edge of the world was just over the horizon, not far beyond the seal. It was a far cry from my familiar beaches of Yorkshire and Northumbria, where red-tiled fishing villages trickle down right to the shore and the coast is interspersed with high cliffs. Even better, tourists haven't really discovered East Anglia yet - the entire region receives about four pages in the Lonely Planet Guide to Britain (and yes, most of this is Cambridge), and is that isn't a recommendation, then I don't know what is.

All in all, a day out I would recommend to any one, especially if they end the day with fish and chips at Wells-Next-the-Sea. The first fish and chips since abandoning my eight years of vegetarianism - that is a blog post in itself.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Hello again

Now for some reason it has started occurring to me that I would like to start blogging again, so I have decided to succumb to this urge. After all, a girl needs her distractions during the final months of a PhD. Also it is nearly time to start planting seedlings again, and I do so love talking about seedlings. Before I move on to seedlings, though, I’ll give you all a quick flavour of what I’ve been doing since October.

I’ve written some fairly meaty chunks of PhD and taught several undergraduates while early medieval history is really quite so exciting.

I've applied to quite a few jobs, which has resulted in a lot of exhaustion and frustration but unfortunately no job yet

(These two are the reasons why this blog has been quite so dormant)

I spent three weeks enjoying myself in Africa over Christmas and New Year. I spent a lot of time driving through Namibia and Botswana in one of these...

Yes, I know, very environmentally friendly. It doesn't stop me wanting one of my very own though. I took to dirt-road driving like the proverbial duck to water. Note the cow on the road. The only surprising thing here is that there was only the one cow, and that it was not accompanied by large numbers of goats and donkeys. Driving on a main road in Africa is a lesson in learning to stop quickly.

As well as cows, goats and donkeys, I also saw lots of these.

Which made me very happy.

I then spent two weeks in Cape Town, where K and I got engaged!! This made me even happier :-) I have a very, very, very pretty engagement ring.

I strained all the sloe gin and elderberry schnapps. Some of the sloe gin miraculously made it through three sets of customs and was delivered to K's family for Christmas. The rest is sitting more-or-less untouched on the booze shelf in my kitchen, since in an inexplicable moment of piety and enthusiasm I decided to give up alcohol for Lent. Updates will follow after Easter.

I did lots of knitting. More on this later.

I did much less gardening (soon to change, I hope).

I marvelled at how cold the winter was. We had some good snow here in Cambridge (although not when returning from a three week holiday to find it has been below freezing for a week).

All in all, life has been good.