30 April 2010

Nary a cloud...

Well, alright, there was one - but even that had gone ten seconds after I took this photo in the hayfield. It's been a very sunny month and is on track to be our best month ever in terms of the average amount of electricity generated each day by the solar panels.

The stream that runs down from the big pond is down to a mere trickle and the seasonal pond in front of the greenhouse has already dried up. Usually this doesn't happen until June (just when it's full of tadpoles).

The other odd thing has been the complete lack of any April frosts - the lowest temperature recorded this month was 0.4°C/32.7°F. The average temperature for April is usually 6.1°C/43°F - this month it has been 8.6°/47.5°F.

We're picking asparagus already - last year I didn't pick any until the middle of May - and the lilac is very nearly out. The trees generally seem more leafy than usual: I didn't notice such a big contrast between the advance of spring here and in England. I'm normally struck by how much greener it is over there at this time of year, but this time there wasn't a huge difference.

26 April 2010

Spring beauty

Claytonia virginica

Home truths

It's so good to be home again, especially given the volcanic ash cloud-chaos of last week. That sort of event makes you really think about how important it is to be able to get a lot of your food locally. In the greenhouse the plants have been growing with great exuberance in my absence. Many of the over-wintered greens have gone to seed and need to be pulled up (I expect the chickens will enjoy them). The weeds have been germinating with similar gusto and it will take a few hours to get them back under control again.

The other lovely part about being back is the availability of the most local of local foods, right here in our backyard. Lunch today was a salad made with greenhouse salad greens, eggs from the hens, croutons of home-made bread and the very first of the 2010 asparagus from our tire/tyre garden. Mmmmmm.

I had some lovely meals with family and friends in England, but you really can't beat the sense of achievement and delicious flavour that is offered by a plateful of home-produced food.

17 April 2010

Checking in...

The lack of recent updates is mainly due to me being working hard in England over the last week. Underneath a cloud of volcanic ash - although it was fairly hard to believe, looking out at the blue skies over Salford on Thursday. So I'm checking in here, but am beginning to get worried that I won't be able to check in next weekend at Heathrow to get home. I'm wondering whether there will be a Dunkirk situation arising soon, with small boats being requisitioned to take people to and from the UK across the seas.

As a bit of light relief from a busy week I got a chance to visit a friend's house in Lincolnshire yesterday. We met as undergraduates and have probably only seen each other half a dozen times since we left university. It was lovely to catch up and to meet her family and tour their domain. I don't think that either of us ever had any dreams about becoming self-sufficient when we were twenty-one, but both of our families have ended up with similar sets of values and lifestyles, twenty years later.

My friend's family have three different breeds of free-ranging chickens, with a very handsome Sussex rooster. The Cream Legbar hens were interesting too, with beautiful blue-shelled eggs. I know that shell colour doesn't have any impact on the flavour of the egg inside but there's something undeniably beautiful about the combination of the blue and brown eggs.

04 April 2010

Recipe for a Happy Easter

One of the easiest chocolate treats in my recipe book collection is the desperately unexcitingly-named 'Chocolate Refrigerator Cake' from the 1986 Hamlyn New All Colour Cookbook (a volume I've mentioned here before). The recipe ought to have a better name, because it is not just easy, but delicious, too.

The ingredients given in the recipe book are:

450g/1lb plain chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
100g/4oz butter
2 tablespoons brandy
225g/8oz crushed chocolate digestive biscuits
100g/4oz hazelnuts

You just melt the chocolate and butter together, stir in the other ingredients and pour it into a 7-inch square cake tin. Leave to set in the fridge for an hour or so (or in the freezer if you're in a hurry). Then just cut it into squares and watch them vanish.

I don't think I've ever made this with precisely the ingredients given above. I only ever have plain digestive biscuits, for one thing, and I don't put brandy in the mixture because the children usually demand one or two (or four) of the finished squares. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever put hazelnuts in them either. In today's version I put diced dried mango slices and raisins with the digestives (you could use Graham crackers instead of digestives). I've used diced preserved ginger in the past, too, which is particularly good. To be honest, almost any foodstuff is going to be improved by being coated in a luscious layer of decent chocolate and butter, isn't it?

They're always very popular. How can they not be, with ingredients like these? But I do think they need a more tastebud-tempting name. Any suggestions?

03 April 2010


Yesterday I wondered whether the miniature daffodils would be flowering by the end of the weekend. Today they obligingly opened: a full two weeks in advance of their flowering date last year. In front of them are the leaves of a delphinium I grew from seed in 2008 and which has yet to flower at all. I'm hoping this will be its year. Especially as I read yesterday that they often don't last much past three years. Maybe this will be its first and last year of flowering.

The earliest of the tulips are open, too.

I don't know much about tulips, apart from that they seem to like the weather conditions here. Can anyone tell me what variety these are? The flowers are smaller and shorter than the 'regular' tulips which flower here in late April and early May.

02 April 2010

Good Friday progress

The new greenhouse beds are full of soil now. I sowed broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages and romanesco in the far one this morning, using it as a nursery bed. I did the same last year and it worked very well. Although I haven't sown as much cabbage as I did last year (learned my lesson, there: we're still eating sauerkraut...).

Last year's beds are getting fairly full of seedlings already. I put up some wire for the sugar snap peas to cling on to. In front of those, carrots are germinating and I'm being as diligent as I can about thinning them. I've also sown peas, carrots and parsnips outside. The rodent-proofed peas are beginning to germinate: only five up so far, but that's five more than I had without the chilli experiment, so it was at least partially successful!

If you look at the top picture, you'll notice that we've got the side wall of the greenhouse rolled up. It was over 30°C in there at 10am (pushing 90°F!). Which I'm only saying to upset my friends and family in the UK, whose Easter weather is being less clement.

01 April 2010

Powering down

Perhaps you are a person who is interested in domestic energy consumption. It's not a subject area that absolutely enthrals me, I will admit, but it does interest Mike and he has kept a record of our monthly energy consumption from our electricity meter since we moved in.

I did think it was worth sharing the graph he showed me today and making a few observations on it. Electricity is our only externally-supplied fuel: we don't use natural gas or heating oil, so this graph represents our entire energy usage except for the wood we harvest from our land (which so far has been mainly from fallen or dead trees). A cord of wood generates heat at approximately the equivalent of 6,000 kilowatt hours of electricity. We probably burn about five cords over the course of an average winter.

During February 2008 we ran out of wood to heat the house and our electricity consumption rose, peaking in March at 3,500 kilowatt hours as we had to use the electric baseboard heaters instead. In that month, the average temperature was -2.3°C/28°F and there were 29 days where the temperature dipped below the freezing point. The dip in consumption in the January of 2008 was a result of us starting to use the big woodstove in the kitchen in that month (which we had been warned not to, as it didn't meet current safety codes - but there comes a point where all risks are outweighed by benefits and we reached it!).

In the summer of 2008, the geothermal system went in. In the last two winters we've had plenty of wood to burn, which has been our main source of heat, with the geothermal kicking in when it is really cold overnight and in the early mornings. With the exception of August 2009, our electricity use has actually been lower in 2009/2010 than it was in the first year of having the geothermal system. A lot of this can be attributed to the improved layer of insulation in the attic (installed January 2009) and to the windows and doors we've gradually been replacing. It hasn't been as cold this winter, either: over the November to February months, the average temperature has been nearly four degrees Celsius (seven degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than it was in the 2008/2009 winter.

We've reached the point now where our solar panels are generating the same amount of electricity that we are using - so our domestic consumption is getting close to being self-sufficient (although we are still using fossil fuels in our car and in the tractor).

To put all of this into context, it might be helpful to compare our energy use here to that of our old house in Manchester. There, we were using natural gas for heating and stove-top cooking. In the course of a year we would use the equivalent of 15,000 kilowatt hours of gas and 5,500 kilowatt hours of electricity (so 20,500 in all). Our total electricity use in a year here is 12,000 kilowatt hours, or about two-thirds of our previous usage. Which is quite a big difference, when you consider that the Manchester house was about half the size of this one, and the climate was considerably more temperate!

And if you're wondering, no, we didn't sit in the dark with candles for Earth Hour on March the 27th and I doubt we'll be doing anything for Earth Day (or Week, or Month, or whatever's next). Just get on and do something that has an impact all year round, I say.