Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Plants on the cheap!

We haven't got room for a greenhouse in our garden and it's against allotment regulations to build one there, so all our vegetables have to be started off outside or squeezed onto window sills. Not using slug pellets, everything we grow ends up being shared very generously with our terrestrial mollusc friends. Ours is never the most abundant of allotments.  No surprise then that we're always eager to supplement our seedlings with whatever we can glean from elsewhere.

Our efforts have been extra keen this year, not only for the allotment but for the garden also. There has been a fence replacement and we've waved goodbye to the old Wendy house which moved over the road, section by section, to a new 2 year old owner occupier who can actually fit inside it (as opposed to my kids who have spent the last couple of summers jumping around on its roof). The new fence and the gap left by the Wendy house have involved drastically cutting back a climbing rose and many other flower bed tragedies, so we've been on the look out for plant replacements. On a low budget, of course. 

Growing your own from seed is always cheapest but if, like us, you need extra supplies, here's our 2014 guide to sourcing plants on a shoestring:

1.   Let it be known to all your green fingered friends (especially those with greenhouses) that you'll take any surplus off their hands. We swap plants for eggs with one especially green fingered buddy. And hint (subtly, obviously!) that you like receiving plants for birthday presents! (I got a Rosemary plant, some Lobelia and two tomato plants for mine in April).

2.   Look out for handwritten signs advertising plants outside people's houses. Travelling around by bike or on foot means you're more likely to spot them. The table below was tucked in the front of the garden of somebody rearranging their garden and selling the resulting plants in aid of a Kenyan charity. The advantage of cycling slowly behind the rest of the family meant that I spotted this table of leafy delights whilst they pedalled furiously ahead.

3.   Keep your eyes peeled for plant sales. My favourite is organised by our local gardening society; lots of variety from shrubs to salads, reasonably priced plants and staffed by really knowledgeable gardeners. Coming from gardens with the same Corsham conditions as mine, I know that the plants will do well in my own and, best of all, have been grown with enthusiasm and love. This year I unintentionally came away armed with almost more plants than I could carry as I arrived in the last 20 minutes of the sale when they were selling everything at half price. 

4.   Summer fetes and other local events will also often have plant stalls. We've got several coming up in our town in the next few weeks, including Nick Mason (the drummer from Pink Floyd) and his wife Annette's Open Garden in aid of the Wiltshire Bobby Van Trust, which, as well as miniature donkeys, Kune Kune piglets, a celebrity cake auction, stalls and demonstrations, promises...plants. (Curiously though, no music). Will the plant prices match those of the Corsham Gardening Society, or will there be a celebrity premium, I wonder!

5.   Check out your local greengrocer. Ours sells locally grown veg plants at this time of year.

6.   Many supermarkets sell bedding plants cheaply at this time of year. They are not always looked after with the care and attention of the Gardening Society so if you are going to buy any, make sure they are thriving. On our recent Morrison's visit we were impressed at the wide range of plants on offer outside, many of which were not too expensive. In-store we especially liked the wildflower plants on special offer at £1 each.

7. Cheapy shops. Some of the bargain stores like Poundland and B&M stock plants. For as long as I can remember for precisely a week each year in the spring when they look at their most beautiful, I have hankered after having a Magnolia tree in my garden. I finally gave in to the desire a month ago (undeterred by last year's tree buying experience - see point 10 below), when the B&M store near work was selling sticks labelled Magnolia for £1.49! And guess what, my stick has already grown two leaves. Give it another 15 years and I may have a Magnolia blooming in the garden.

7.   Car boot sales. We got some strawberry plants at the one boot sale we've been to this year.

8.   Give and Take events. Last year, I 'took' a leggy Hawthorn plant, which is now filling out satisfactorily in one of our garden boundaries.

9.   Freebies from your own garden. We sometimes seem to do better with plants that sow themselves than the ones we've sown ourselves. We've got a Cordyline type thing that multiplies prolifically, Love-in-a-Mist self-sows eagerly, and the Wendy house removal revealed two Damson saplings that have been repotted for transplanting elsewhere in one of our boundaries. I take a go-with-the-flow appoach to gardening!

10.   Online. I can only report mixed success with online cheap plant purchasing but I'm prepared to be won over if anyone has had better luck. Last year, as part of the new fence = empty flower bed situation, we bought 'four for £20' fruit trees online which Husband planned to espalier along the fence. Only two have survived, despite lots of nurturing, encouragement and comments such as "I expect they're just dormant", from Husband. The dead pear tree sprouted a watershoot this spring (according to my botanist Uncle), from the plant that the dead pear would have been grafted onto. This is unlikely to bear fruit (says botanist Uncle) but in the interests of point 7. above, and recouping some of the cost, we're letting it grow. I'd think twice before I fell for any online 'bargains' again.

So there we have it, plenty of frugal plant buying opportunities, without even having to get in a car, or fight through the crowds at a garden centre.

How do you manage without a greenhouse/find bargain plants/deter slugs (delete as applicable)? And have I missed any other bargain plant hunting tricks?! 

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

'Cycling Music'

When we saw that Richard Durrant, concert guitarist, (who is doing his current UK tour by bike, towing his guitar and all his equipment in a trailer) was coming to our local arts centre, we knew it was one gig we couldn't miss. Other members of Spindles and Sprockets, the local community bike workshop, also turned out in force, and gave Richard's bike a good service before he left Corsham for Swindon the next day.

Cycling to all the tour venues with his trusty friend Sean combines several things for Richard. It reduces the large carbon footprint that he would usually generate from travelling, allows him to indulge his passion for bikes (which is also expressed in his new album Cycling Music) and generates funds for the Big C drop-in centre for cancer patients in Norfolk and Waverley (Sean's partner died from cancer last year and 20% of the funds from the tour are going towards the charity).

The gig was a real musical treat. Richard calls himself a concert guitarist rather than a classical guitarist because his music crosses all boundaries, and this was certainly the case last Friday evening. The music we heard included pieces by Barrios, a Paraguayan composer, and Bach, as well as music composed by Richard himself. (Any Canadian readers may be familiar with Wilbury Summer, which he played for us, as it is (or was?) used for the Canadian weather forecast!)

The centrepiece of the show was Richard's new 29 minute composition Cycling Music which he describes as minimalist in style (in his own words - using a few notes to create a lot of music). As well as the guitar, the music features other sound effects or bike percussion! A feature of Richard's work is also the use of projected images which enhance the music. This time using no big screen or projector (too heavy to carry on the bike) but still beautiful even when shown on a small laptop.

The show is touring all through May and June, building up to some gigs in Yorkshire which will coincide with the start of the Tour de France there. 

To see if Richard Durrant is cycling to a venue near you check out his website here.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Can we reuse old candle wax? Yes we can!

When we were doing the Slim Your Bin challenge last year to reduce our household waste, I couldn't bring myself to throw away the stubs of some old candles, and ever since then I have been hoarding bits of moulten wax and the dregs of tea lights with the intention of recycling them into new candles.

I bought some candle wick from Summer Naturals and procured a chipped cup to upcycle as a 'candle in a teacup'. Then I sat on the idea for a year or so. (I'm the classic Ariean - good at embarking on projects but not so good at following through...)

Last month my sister sent me a birthday present of, surprise, surprise, a 'candle in a teacup'. It really didn't look so complicated. Daughter spurred me on with her enthusiasm for the idea, and we got a couple more cups and saucers from our local secondhand shop. The perfect project for a bank holiday Monday.

Out came a year and a half's worth of old wax. (About the equivalent of a couple of jam jars full).

Melting the old wax.
Out came the cups.

Out came the wick.

We decided the easiest way to melt the wax was to stand the jam jars in a pan of simmering water. All the yucky, burnt debris sank to the bottom, and the old wick was easy to fish out.

We cut the wick to size and secured it to the bottom of the teacups with bluetac. Tying it to a lolly stick kept it in the right position.

Once the wax had melted, we poured it into the cups. There was just enough for three cup candles.

Daughter sniffed her way painstakingly through my lifetime's collection of essential oils to choose her favourite aroma, but after all that, decided trusty lavender was the best for the job, and added a few drops to her candle.

We left the recycled wax to set. There was an old Christmas candle in the mix which is why it looks like red wine.

Once the wax had hardened, it didn't look quite so alcoholic. 

The professionally made birthday candle I received next to the homemade birthday candle!

The proof of the candle is in the burning, and they burn very nicely. (Almost too vigorously. I would buy a narrower wick next time.)

My sister's birthday falls 17 days after mine. No prizes for guessing what I gave her last week... 

The problem with extending a project over at least a year, is that you forget what the costs for all the materials amount to. But I can remember that the wick was not expensive, the cups came to approximately £4 and most of the old candles had been gifts in the first place. I would say that the cost for each candle was £2 at most. The equivalent candle on Etsy retails from £4 to £15, so I think we've saved ourselves some money here.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Frugal bank holiday shopping?

We're always looking for ways to keep the price of our food shop down so we took up the opportunity of some vouchers to test out Morrisons over the bank holiday as part of their New Cheaper Morrisons! campaign. 

An Everyday Life On A Shoestring bank holiday food shop!

We went to our nearest Morrisons in Chippenham. This is somewhere I occasionally go for a few items on the way home from work, but would not usually visit for a big shop.

What did we find?

A lovely fruit and veg section. Although we didn't have much fresh produce on our shopping list it looked very tempting as it is so prettily displayed. Lots of the produce is loose, so great for using your own produce bags such as the Onya bags. 

Vegetarians are well catered for. Since we took ownership of four ex-caged hens last autumn, both my children have become mostly vegetarian. In general I'm dubious about fake meat products but make an exception for Quorn, which the kids love. Our local supermarket (a medium sized Co-op) does not have a big selection of Quorn products so Daughter went a bit mad when she saw a whole Quorn chiller section and snuck Quorn pepperoni slices, savoury eggs and sausage rolls into the shopping basket.

There was also a great wholefoods section where we stocked up on split peas (53p for 500g).

A Reduced to Clear section. I'm always drawn to the reduced section and Morrisons didn't disappoint. I picked up two jars of whole nut peanut butter (45p each).

Daughter also convinced me that she needed a reduced-to-40p special shower comb for combing her long golden hair when she washes it...she took advantage of my limited experience of washing long hair to convince me.  When I checked the receipt afterwards, the reduction had not been applied. Grrrr! I should never have agreed to it.

Throughout the store it was also easy to spot the New Cheaper priced items with their yellow stickers and there are also plenty of items in the Morrisons Savers range. We got some Savers Rich Tea and Digestive biscuits (23p and 31p respectively) and a bar of milk chocolate (30p).

2 out of 2 cats prefer Morrisons' dry cat food to Morrisons' wet cat food. The cats tried out the Morrisons' own brand pet food for us and although they turned their noses up at the wet food, were happy with the dry food for kittens. They also recommend the recycled wood pellet cat litter.

Anything else we were impressed with?
The healthy plants in the garden section. I hate seeing wilting and neglected bedding plants outside supermarkets, but these were well cared for.

We like to keep an eye on how much of our food packaging we'll be able to recycle easily without having to compromise our budget too much. We were able to steer clear of tetrapak-aged goods, and liked the biodegradable pots at the serve yourself fresh olive display.

What happened next...

Part of the blogging deal for the vouchers was to share a favourite recipe that we cooked over the bank holiday, and cost it. 

As it was a quiet weekend with lots of eating at home there were several options:

Homemade pizzas on Saturday night, featuring Morrisons' flour, passata, olives and mozzarella. (Three pizzas worked out at £3.45 which is 86p per person)

Daughter's homemade brioche on Sunday morning, main ingredient...Morrisons' flour.

Veggie Lasagne on Sunday evening (to use up Saturday's pizza ingredients).

But our special bank holiday meal was really a red onion and goats' cheese tart, served on Monday with baked potatoes and salad, when we had a guest to lunch.

Red Onion and Goats' Cheese Tart Recipe

For the pastry
125g wholemeal flour (8p)
125g white flour (14p)
125g sunflower margarine (25p)

For the filling:
100g goats' cheese (we used the creamy kind with a rind) (£2)
3 red onions (55p)
4 eggs (we used our hens' eggs rather than Morrisons', but if we had used their free range eggs they would have cost 93p)
a dash of milk
salt and pepper

Overall cost: 
£3.95 (which served 4 of us for lunch with a portion saved for Husband) 
79p per portion

Make the shortcrust pastry by rubbing the margarine into the flour (I used half wholemeal and half white but you could use all of either) and mixing with water until you get a rollable dough. 

Roll out and line a 9 inch tin or flan dish. 

Chop the red onions (in circles rather than finely chopped) and fry gently.

Meanwhile blind bake the pastry for ten minutes at 200 deg c, or Gas Mark 5/6 (depending on your oven - I use 6)

In some recipes, you just add some balsamic vinegar to the onions, lay slices of goats' cheese on top and bake the tart. We have a glut of eggs at the moment so we made ours more quiche-like and added the eggs (beaten with a dash of milk and seasoned with salt and pepper) to the onions and goats' cheese.

Bake for 30 - 40 minutes until the egg has set and the cheese has nicely melted and bubbled.


Evaluation of the whole experience?
The prices in Morrisons compare favourably with our usual supermarkets (local Co-op, Aldi or Lidl). However the Morrisons store is much bigger than any of those so leads to greater temptation! (I'm particularly thinking of the shower hair comb and the fresh olives...) As always, however resilient to pester power I believe I am, taking a child shopping with me leads to a certain amount of straying from the shopping list.

I'm not in the habit of costing out meals so it was good to see that even using an expensive ingredient (like the goats' cheese), cooking from scratch is definitely the cheap option compared with buying the equivalent quality of ready made product or eating out.

Disclosure: We received £80 worth of Morrisons' vouchers in return for blogging/tweeting about our experience and sharing a favourite recipe.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

In which we discover how a BBC period drama is filmed!

What's been the frugal fun here this week?

Watching Corsham, our Wiltshire town, transform into the Cornish city, Truro, for the BBC re-make of Poldark, due to be shown in early 2015. There's nothing like a proper period drama to counteract the post-Christmas blues.

The Poldark books by Winston Graham, follow the fortunes of the eponymous Ross Poldark in the late 18th century as he returns from the American Revolutionary War, loses out in love (and then wins some years later), and reopens the family's derelict tin mine. 

I read several of the books as a teenager. They are a dim memory now, however at the time were just the right fodder for someone who had grown out of children's books but was too young for grown-up literature. 

Over the bank holiday last weekend we watched some of our town centre buildings take on new persona.

The jewellers kept its theme but
changed its name from Coppins to S. Solomon.
The Post Office became a circulating library and publishers.
Our favourite Indian restaurant became a saddlers.
How I would love to be able to get a stage waggon from
here to Cornwall, EVERY DAY!
A Haberdashers appeared at the front of a house.
Lovely ribbons!
By the Sunday, the props people were very busy.

Making the plastic eggs look nice.
Fancy a plastic pork pie?

It's Cornwall so there have to be fake pasties!

Rabbit skins for sale!

Being a Devon lass, I've always bemoaned Wiltshire's
lack of coast and freshly caught fish, so I drooled over the pilchards.

On Tuesday the filming started. 

We've developed a new appreciation of our town's old buildings now we've seen them step back in time and look much as they would have done when they were newly built.

Actresses walking down Church Lane. The one on the
right is checking her phone, which looked a little incongruous.

Well behaved sheep in front of the Royal Oak.
They were complaining
that they always get typecast.

The Truro yokels receiving some instructions.
The star of the show is Aidan Turner, who plays Ross Poldark. I'd never heard of him before, but he is known for his role as Kili in The Hobbit. Obviously we're all his biggest fans now. Son's class got to walk down to watch the filming on Wednesday and saw Aidan in action. Sadly I only spotted him once filming was over on Thursday morning and he was walking back to his vehicle but the rear view of Aidan and his entourage (including his own umbrella carrier) was good enough for me. 

This cheerful chap (pictured in front of the town hall)
wasn't important enough for an umbrella or a warm jacket
but I'll still look out for him when the show is aired..

The extras didn't get umbrellas, or a Mercedes to transport them,
just plastic macs and minibuses.
By Friday evening, the town looked as if nothing had ever happened. The tons of gravelly stone used to cover up the double yellow lines had gone, as had all the horse poo, the market stalls, the shop fronts, and the hundreds of BBC production people. And the pilchards.

Monday, 5 May 2014

£30,000 or £9.99 for a new room?

Daughter inhabits the smallest bedroom in our house. If you live in the UK you'll be familiar with our three bedroom set up. Living room, kitchen/diner downstairs. Bathroom, two double bedrooms upstairs. And the tiny 'box room' over the hall.

By virtue of having a big model train set that takes up lots of space, Son has commandeered the back bedroom. Husband and I have the master bedroom, leaving Daughter with the smallest bedroom.

We've toyed with the idea of building an extension or converting the loft, but it's beyond our budget. The one architect who visited, estimated £30,000 for an extension. Ouch!

The 'old' room

What's the next best thing? 

Maximising the space as best we can, decluttering and decorating on a shoestring!

That means:

  • Salvaging some light coloured paint from the recycling centre.
  • Squeezing in Great Grandad's small writing desk by removing the lower shelves from the bookcase.

  • Creating as much floor space as possible by storing stuff up high (on a shelf made from reclaimed timber).

  • Or storing stuff down low. Husband made the entire bed from timber and bed bits that he rescued (the space is too small for a usual sized bed to fit - let's hope Daughter doesn't grow too much). He also built some big under-bed drawers.

  • What are the chances of being asked to review some knobs on the blog, just when you happen to be looking for some knobs? That was one quirky offer I couldn't turn down. Trinca Ferro, a global supplier of knobs (who'd have thought there would be such a thing, but there is and Trinca Ferro are it!) supplied them, quite rightly pointing out that they are a wonderful way to frugally accessorise a room. Trinca Ferro have a huge range. Daughter chose four spotty ceramic ones to put on the homemade drawers and we're really pleased with them. As you can see she wanted a slice of Cath Kidston kitsch, and the spots really fit the bill. The knobs would have cost £3.95 each so wouldn't have broken the bank.

    • Somebody was getting rid of this large mirror which we eagerly nabbed. Makes the room look bigger and is just right for a teenager who likes preening herself.

    Our other money saving hack was to:

    • Use a lot of stuff we already had. It's tempting to think a newly decorated room calls for new everything but aesthetically pleasing as it would have been to have matchy, matchy storage, we stuck with baskets and boxes that we already own. Ditto, the duvet cover, the lampshade, the homemade bunting, the bookcase and the rug.
    I'm not at all gifted when it comes to interior design but thanks to Husband's ingenuity and Daughter's ideas about how she wanted it to look, we have a room that feels more spacious than it really is. And what's most important when you're 13? Being able to have a sleepover IN YOUR OWN BEDROOM! This has already been trialled and yes, you can fit two 13 year olds into the space (and the 13 year old visitor was much taller than me).

    Final cost for the 'new' room? £9.99 (for the blind). Are we happy? If it saves us £29,990.01 then YES!

    Saturday, 3 May 2014

    Like a bicycle without wheels...

    A community bike workshop without a workshop is like, well, a bicycle without wheels...

    And that is the plight facing Spindles and Sprockets, Corsham's one and only community bike workshop. Their current home in the local community centre is being knocked down in a couple of weeks as part of the development of a new community campus housing the library, the leisure centre, a cafe and lots more. It will be an amazing asset for the town in every respect, apart from its lack of space for a bike workshop.

    To commemorate the end of an era, we went along to visit Spindles this morning. Husband has been involved with Spindles from the start, and on Saturdays we've learned that "I'm just going round to Spindles for an hour or two" really means "I'll be messing around with bikes all day."

    Yes, it's a perfect man cave, complete with coffee and doughnuts, and males of all ages (from 11 - 70+). But it's much, much more than that.

    They have serviced hundreds of bikes and sold reliable bikes at reasonable prices. All the bikes sold are ones that have been donated or rescued, and repairs are done using recycled parts where possible. 'Keep Corsham cycling' is Spindles' mantra and they have certainly done their very best to achieve this

    Several youngsters have gained invaluable practical skills.

    Josh, now in his last year of school,
     has been a key member of the group from its early days.

    There have been monthly bike rides organised by the group. These are family friendly rides for all ages and usually there is not a hint of lycra to be seen.

    Several local schools have benefited from Dr Bike sessions that Spindles have run in conjunction with Sustrans.

    Countless doughnuts have been eaten over the last four years.

    But all this is in jeopardy unless the group can find a new home. Months of searching for suitable premises have drawn a blank.

    We're all hoping for a last minute miracle. Otherwise there will be an awful lot of bikes to rehome.

    If you're local and you have ideas or can help spread the word, please get in touch! The Spindles website is here.

    And if you want to know more about the work of Spindles and Sprockets, take a look at their new film which has been produced to aid the quest for a new home.