Saturday, 27 February 2016

Raised garden beds for vegetables

To go with our gorgeous and hopefully very fruity orchard, we want to be able to grow our own vegetables and greens. I love organic vegetables but here in the Netherlands the selection is tiny, and in our more isolated neck of the woods, it's often pretty tired looking. So, I've opted to grow my own again - and believe me, fresh off the stem veg are WONDERFUL!
We spent a lot of time thinking about where to put our vegetable garden,There is a lot of space that has no plan yet, but I am still playing with lots of ideas and I didn't want to block off any potential options.  W finally pointed out that we have two large areas  that have no particular use in the foreseeable future - the riding ring and the starvation paddock. We don't want to remove them, as they are part of the value of the house as a horse property, but we don't have horses. Just perfect for raised beds, with a good sand base to make sure the drainage is good and lots of sunshine.
We did a lot of research on different ways of making raised beds. I was particularly looking at how to limit the need for watering in the middle of summer - I don't mind doing it once or twice a week, but I know from past experience that I don't have the will power to water every day. Two different types appealed : one is based off 'hugelkultur'  and one that had a water retention base layer. So, with lots of space to play in, we decided to try both!

 A hugelkultur based raised bed has a core of natural materials that absorb water and decay over time providing a continuous flow of nutrients into the soil. You can make the raised bed by heaping soil over a long pile of branches and sticks or over straw bales, but as we have lots of branches and twigs in a giant heap in the garden (the last owner really wasn't a gardener type) wood was going to be our base. With W's passion for wood working, the beds were going to be made in wood, and as I'm not getting any younger, I wanted them to be tall enough that I didn't have to do all of the maintenance on my knees. W chose a white deal plank which hasn't had any chemical treatment. We both realized it means we will need to redo them again in about 5 years, but I don't want any preservative chemicals leaching into the soil. Each bed is 240 cm by 120 cm and is made 3 planks in height. His first task was to cut and prepare all the planks to the same size, something that the Makita mitre saw made quick work of. He also used a kreg jig to pre-drill holes for screw in the end planks, two per plank edge. The long planks had a square piece of wood attached into the inner corners as strengthening, indented just enough to make room for the cross planks to run across the front. ,

With all the preparation complete, it was time to move out of the workshop and start doing assembly in the starvation paddock.The sand is pretty uneven, so the assembly was pretty difficult - we quickly decided to move back to the concrete to find a flat surface to work on. In this picture you can see the placement of the crossbracing corner piece., Each of the short planks on the rectangle are screwed in to the long planks on the interior diagonal courtesy of the kreg jig. It is then double secured with two screws from the outside into the cross bracing post. Rinse & repeat until all four corners are complete and you have a wooden rectangle without top or bottom.

We then used a weed control membrane to line the bottom of the box and tacked it into the box using a staple gun. I decided to go with a porous fabric rather than a waterproof liner, as I have learned the hard way just how much water the Dutch weather throws at us here. In a drier climate, I suggest you use a waterproof base, but make sure you pierce it below the root level. Capillary action will keep the upper layers of soil moist enough, but a few punctures will make sure you don't saturate the soil to the point that roots rot.  We lipped the membrane quite high up the side of the box, mainly because that was the width of the membrane, and I decided it wouldn't hurt to leave it like that.

Once the frame and membrane was complete it was time to fill the lower layers with branches and rotting wood. This was probably the most exhausting part of the day! Not because it was hard to collect and fill with the wood, but because every branch is perfectly designed as a dog chew - and Luca wanted to play - continuously!

One afternoon of focused work and the first three beds are assembled, lined and have their wood filling. We need to get soil delivered, spend another afternoon with a wheel barrow and spades doing the final filling - and then it's planting time! Tomorrow it's time to do the other beds and those will be with a water retention base style. For the rest of today, it's time for a hot shower and a relaxing drink whilst watching the sun go down in blazing colors.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Linen Project - how to make linen water and scent disks

One of the great joys of this house is the walk in wardrobe room. I've never had a really organised wardrobe room, and as I'm a packrat with highly fluctuating weight, I end up with far too much stuff to store in the traditional single wardrobe and dresser. This year, I made the resolution to actually get sorted and back down to reasonable quantities of  'stuff '.

We've spent a whole weekend going through everything fabric and we have another large box of materials to take to the charity shop in Hoorn for recycling and reuse. It's also been a wonderful opportunity to catch up the ironing and folding - and sorting out the room into a vaguely logical order. I hate ironing - with a passion! It is the most boring activity and is designed to waste precious time on something that is completely pointless. But it still needs to be done occasionally -  (read once a year) and this weekend was that weekend.

Steam ironing is the quickest way through the pain. I once bought a bottle of linen water from L'Occitane - it gave a wonderful  scent to the linen that lasted for ages. I've been interested in knowing how to replicate it, but with my own chosen scents for a while. Some quick research came up with lots of recipes on how to create your own linen water - essentially a blend of distilled water, essential oils and a clear alcohol (rubbing alcohol, vodka)  to break up the oils and diffuse them  through the water. Mix, shake extremely well, pour into a spray bottle (bought for 99c at the gRden centre) & voila - linen water!

The fresh linen brings a fresh scent to the wardrobe room - and it's something I want to have there, more than once a year. I'm still not keen on ironing - so instead I've made my own scent disks from a pine root which we dug out of the garden when we remodelled last summer. Once it was dried, W sliced it thinly to expose the growth rings. They are then dripped with my chosen essential oil blend & placed in drawers and cupboard corners. They need refreshing occasionally, but its quite and easy to do so. The disks in the picture are still quite rough, with feathers at the edge of the saw travel : you can sand them to make a more uniform shape, if you prefer. I love them rough and natural, but I do need to make sure they don't get too close to any delicate fabrics that they could snag.

It's been a steamy weekend, but I've got lots of lovely linen & Grandma's lace table runner all ready to go!

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Fabric design in a mudroom

After finishing the curtains for the craft room, I have started work on the mudroom curtains. I have 2 windows and a door in the mudroom to cover - and the mudroom door is a huge heat loss area. This is despite having put draft sealant around it and all the work we did with insulation during the rebuild. As the paint colors are inspired by the same design see as  as the craft room, I was hoping to use the same fabric. Thwarted  by fate apparently - it's limited edition and the fabric shop had sold out. There weren't many options in terms of fabric and I took a punt on a blue 1970's style diamond design. It's a reversible pattern with one side in shades of  blue and  one in shades of grey - and completely Austin Powers and swinging 60's London - Yeah Baby!

Lots of fun sewing - with Livia now deciding to attack the iron and ironing board instead of the sewing machine. I'm not really happy with the end results though (even less happy with the photo - it is impossible to get an image without massive amounts of white out). My blogs are normally happy blogs of success but I think this one is really a blog of 'must try harder'. I've run out of fabric before I got the third window done, but even so , I don't think I was going to win even with a full fabric haul.  The colors just don't work  at all in the room. They might blend with the paint colors, but they really don't work with the old tiles on the floor. They also don't work with the pine wood work - although that might change when the doors are on and I whitewash the wood. 
I am also not happy with the look of the window/door combination . I've been spending time trying to work out why not - and the only thing I can think of is that it's something to do with fact they are both on the same hanger rail. The rail is quite close to the top of the window and the door - but that's the way I have always hung curtains in the past, and it's never been a problem before. In this room, however, it really truncates the room - and the curtains look squat and ugly. I think I might raise the curtain pole to closer to the ceiling so that the curtains have a longer fall before I try my next attempt. What do you guys think? Help needed here,  I think!

Monday, 15 February 2016

Winter Beef pie - a redaction of an 18th century recipe

This weekend was Valentines weekend, and I decided to spend the weekend doing the things I really love doing - sleeping, reading and cooking ( followed shortly after by eating, of course!). I'm doing really well with my resolution to take homemade food into the office - and it's definitely paying dividends in terms of savings. It's also more filling than our office sandwich and thin soup broth options - and as a result I don't snack as much on biscuits and other junk food because I'm hungy in the middle of the afternoon. 

I decided to try an 18th century recipe from an old recipe book I own - I've collected quite a few originals and many reprints of historic recipe books over the years. In general, these give a list of ingredients, approximate proportions and general cooking guidance - but are not as detailed as modern recipes. It's been a long time since I made a pie - and I had 500gr of stewing beef in the fridge to use .

So : 

500 gr stewing beef
1 tbspn black treacle
1/3rd cup cider vinegar
2 parsnips, peeled and diced
1 onion - chopped
3 mushrooms - halved
3 garlic cloves, peeled & chopped
1 bottle of dark beer
3 bay leaves
3 cloves
1 or 2 tspn cornflour
salt & pepper to taste
4 heaped teaspoons of crumbly stilton or similar blue cheese
olive oil

Pastry -
350g plain flour
112g lard
1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 pint hot water

Soften the onions and garlic in the olive oil for a few minutes in a large pan. Add the beef, and the rest of the ingredients except for the cornflour and the parsnips, and simmer gently for forty minutes. Add the parsnips and simmer for a further 20 minutes.  Whilst the stew is simmering, make up the pastry. Make a well in the flour, sprinkle over the salt, and put in the egg yolk. Melt the lard in the hot water, then mix into the flour, stirring with a spoon until cool enough to handle. Put the dough on a floured surface and knead until soft & pliable. Place on a plate, cover with a bowl and leave to rest for 20 minutes in a warm place. Once rested, form the pie shape in a loose-bottomed tin which has been well greased. Heat the oven to circa 140 degrees.
Once the beef is soft and melting, strain the meat & vegetables away from the juices, and set to one side. Remove the cloves and the bay leaves if you spot them! Thicken the juices with the cornflour and boil rapidly to reduce.
Fill the pastry with the meat and vegetable mix, sprinkle over the stilton crumbles and pour over the juices. Form a lid with the remaining pastry, pierce a hole in the centre and decorate as desired. Brush with egg to develop a rich color. Put the pie in the oven and bake for approximately 30-45 minutes at 140 then turn up to 180 until the crust is golden and crispy. I think you might be able to cook at 180 throughout, for a shorter time, since the filling is completely cooked through before you start the baking process, however I haven't tested that yet - I used a raw pie approach initially. 
If you want to eat it as a pie, make sure you cool completely before slicing so that the juices set so that you can enjoy the cathedral beauty of the gems inside. Or have it straight out of the oven and soak the pastry with lots of lovely beef gravy from the inside. Either way, enjoy!

Monday, 8 February 2016

Resolution tracking : one twelfth of the way through 2016

At the beginning of the year, I shared a huge list of things I wanted to get done in 2016. It was a scarily long list - and it's time to see if I'm making progress, as January is gone, and February is running past quickly.

That's not as easy as it seems though! It's an interesting challenge to know if I am on track : there are 106 items and there are lots of different ways to make the count. The simplest way is to see if I've completed one 12th of the actions . That's probably fine unless  I complete all the smaller actions  early on  but will fall apart later when I'm left with all the large chunky actions to do.Yet it's definitely a non-linear list as I know that there are a large block that are going to be done all together in late April, early May when I have IDD, D & A back again to do the heavy lifting. I could work out some weighted formula and spread the load unevenly...but then again, where's the impetus to get things done if I do it that way?  Plus some of the goals are ongoing - they can't really be declared finished until the end of the year!

As I'm a bear of very little brain today, after staying up late to watch the Superbowl game, I'm going to go for the simplest way and I'm going to declare success - 10 boxes ticked ,  definitely on track ! We have focused on doing a lot of the indoor tasks, as it's been pretty cold and wet - winter in the Netherlands - and dark very early. But every little counts and I'm happy to be making progress.

Rock on February! How are you doing with your New Year's Resolutions?

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Renovating the Mudroom : build phase 1

When we first stepped into this house, our first impression of the house's interior was the mudroom. It was a dark and scruffy room.   and smelled faintly of damp. The walls had random pipes and industrial style ventilation tubing which crisscrossed over the whole room. The only light came from a tiny side window and the glass upper door. We knew this room needed to be radically changed - but I don't think we realised just how much we would need to do to make it a beautiful room.

There was a strange velvet flocked brick pattern wallpaper which was peeling away - and appeared to be held onto the walls by dint of many tin-tacks in the corners of kid's paintings that were pinned to the walls. One side of the room was lined with old kitchen cabinets for storage of paints and random stuff . This was the third kitchen in the house - definitely well equipped on the kitchen front! On the opposite side of the room, an old doorway had been partially bricked up, but poorly done so that it was only flat on the other side, leaving a strange dip in the wall in the room.

Wall paper stripping can be quite soul destroying - but I always find it interesting to see the history of the house emerge - different paper layers, and different colors of paint, as you strip away the paper. It's almost a consolation for the hours you have to spend steaming and stripping stubborn patches of wallpaper, in order to prepare for your new colors. At some point in time, some previous owners had a love for candy pink walls with a dark burgundy lower trim in a hard gloss. It makes a dark and small room even smaller and darker - and definitely doesn't match the yellow and green wooden trim of the doors! At least the gloss paint helped with the removal of the wallpaper, but on the pink surfaces it was so thoroughly glued that we had to scrape inch by inch.

Preparation continued on all sides - we also ripped out the old kitchen units, and then started to knock out the shape of a new window next to the entrance door. The plan was to build a window frame and insert a double glazed window pane into the double barn doors that form the front of the room. Nothing ever goes smoothly though - and as we started to cut, we quickly realized that the wall/barn doors had not been properly secured as it started to collapse. IDD to the rescue : he had the team quickly refocused on replacing and re-pinning structural framework and supporting the floor above. Once it was all repaired, we could continue with our window work  and replacing and increasing the insulation in the wall. As the hole emerged it made the most amazing difference to the light in the room - definitely one of the best decisions we could have made!

Once we'd stripped all the paper and  all the preparation work was complete, it was clear that the walls were too damaged to redecorate without re-skinning with plaster - and D is a plaster guru. He corralled a team and the lads started to re-plaster the whole room. This last summer was gloriously warm and sunny  : both a blessing and a curse when you are doing so much work. Hard for the workers as it's hot, heavy, hard work, but good for drying out the plaster. That's a double edged sword as it dries so fast it's hard to finish smoothly, but D took it in his stride. A few tips we learned as we went along : if you are mixing a lot of plaster, having a mixing paddle with a power motor is a must. There are lots of different grades of plaster and they are not completely interchangeable. We also used a metal corner brace to shape the corners of the room - it's lovely for a while, but a Great Dane can knock the thin plaster layer off in seconds!

Plastering done, we started the clean up - and discovered that plaster gets EVERYWHERE. It's really nasty stuff for spreading all over the house, and we learned the hard way that you can't just hoover it up. It's so fine that it goes straight through all the filters you have on your hoover, unless it's an industrial grade builders hoover , coats the engine and the electrics, and burns it out. We were not planning on replacing our Dyson hoover, but after it died halfway through the build , we had to! The tiles on the floor are quite old, uneven and full of nooks and crannies that the plaster can hide in  - mopping just seemed to push the plaster around. At some point in the future I plan to replace them and to level the floor which is incredibly wobbly and uneven, but not just yet, so we had to get them clean. We hired a circular sanding machine  with a bristle brush attachment and used that to break through the majority of the plaster dust, but in the end, nothing beats getting down on hands and knees with a scrubbing brush and good old elbow grease!

After so much work just to reach blank canvas stage, painting seemed quick and easy - although incredibly expensive in paint. The fresh plaster drank the paint like a desert drinks rain - and we had to do multiple coats to get the color even and streak-free. I have always like coastal themed homes and this Design seed inspiration picture set the tone for the direction I wanted the room to have. I didn't find an exact match - but I chose a white with a hint of blue - and a light blue accent wall for this room.  The woodwork was all repainted in a light neutral shade that complimented the wall colour.
I had spent quite a lot of time on Pinterest in the run-up to the work session, and had a good idea of the type of furniture I wanted in the room - and this picture gives the closest idea of what I wanted to achieve.I want to be able hide away the jumble of daily life that collects in your entrance way in deep cupboards - and still to be able to hang coats, scarves and dog leads in a convenient and easy location. With so much land, it's also essential to be able to remove boots and muddy shoes quickly, before continuing into the rest of the house. It's called  a mudroom for a reason. It was also going to be the room where Luca slept and stayed when the house is empty. Of course, like all best laid plans, I'm a complete softie, and Luca gets to go where ever he wants, whenever he wants! With the inspiration images to hand, IDD & D spent a couple of evenings drawing out plans and designing what we could best fit into the space.

Once the plaster was dry, IDD got to work gluing and cutting a lovely pine board to build the basic frame of the furniture. I intend to whitewash the pine to give it a hint of white - but as we haven't yet completed the doors and the trim, it's still on the to-do list. Roll on Phase 2! We ended up with a shelved cupboard and two deep wardrobes for coats and winter clothes. We have a comfy seat along one wall that you can sit on whilst you change shoes, backed  with a set of high open hooks for wet coats and accessories to dry on, before being put away in the cupboard.

Like all the best plans, we ran out of time before we managed to get the doors fitted and W has been fully occupied on so many other things that we still have an open set up in the mudroom. I can't wait to get the doors and trim done, so that I can paint and finish the room, but I think I will need to be patient until it's warm enough to work outdoors again. There's a lot of gluing and cutting to be done to achieve it and the stable block where we do most of our DIY work set up has no heating. It's still a lot better than it was  and like every entrance, is full of miscellaneous items that mysteriously migrate there when you are not locking. We even have a small dog table for Luca to drink his water from - as a Great Dane, he is prone to bloat, and needs to have his food and water elevated to a comfortable height.

Friday, 5 February 2016

San Diego Tourist

The last few days has been back into the swing of business travel - early morning runs in the dark icy cold to the airport and getting home late at night to faceplant on the sofa in front of a blaring TV that you don't actually register. Mostly these trips are hard work from start to finish, but just sometimes you have a ray of sunshine in the middle. Last winter, I had to spend two weeks in the US - and grabbed the  opportunity to go visit a childhood friend in San Diego. 
It was a real joy to step out of the cold & damp of Dutch winters into the glorious warmth of California's southern city. From brown twiggy leaf less plants to lush cactii in flower and dragon fruit hanging temptingly over garden walls, it's an amazing recharge of color and fragrance and life. I love seeing the difference that temperature makes to the plant selection that you see all around you : different plant mixes associate strongly in my mind with different memories - often the warm sunny plant combinations being associated with lovely relaxing beach holidays. 

I always scout the local area for interesting and unusual things to bring home, particularly in the  food & spice space. I've always felt that I live to eat, rather than eat to live - although as i get older and tubbier, I need to adjust the balance. Its harder and harder to genuinely find different foods - we've become so used to having food flown around the world and appearing in the local ethnic cornershop - but a trip to a supermarket is still as much fun as a museum trip for me. This time I came back heavily loaded with hominy, spices and mesa flour - also lots of lovely mexican chili varieties. I've interspersed our winter meals with flavours that send my memories right back into the warmth of the California winter.
My friend took me sightseeing  : I just cant find enough words to express the wonderful variety of things  you can see and do in the San Diego area.  I've been twice now, and there is still so much to do, that I think I'm going to have to go back a few more times yet. The Mormon temple has to be the amazing piece of architecture in the area - I am an avid fan of Tolkien and it really was something straight out of my imagination of his world. We spent nearly 30 minutes as I tried to capture the perfect picture of the White City in my imagination. We took a trip up to Mount Soledad, and visited the veterans memorial. It's a remarkably solemn area, and despite the blue sky and sun beating down, you still get a shiver running down your spine as you see the faces of so many service men and women who gave their lives in duty to their country. The story of the ongoing political arguments about the site of the memorial is also very engaging - albeit not documented anywhere obvious. You need a local to give you the story!

We finished with a day at the beach - swimming with seals, through rocky areas full of fish, dodging the ever present electric rays in the sand. We watched the sun drop over the horizon, then packed up and headed to the airport. Can't wait for my next San Diego trip!

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

How to make a window seat cushion and cover for a cat

rI just finished making the curtains for the craft room and had about a metre or so of fabric left over. I love the new look of the windows, but one thing still really bugged me, You can see it here in this picture taken just after the windows were dressed.

Miss Lumikki loves sleeping on the window sill, above the radiator. She has a bright pink fleece blanket that she loves which my sister's children brought off one of their long haul flights home. Sadly, florescent pink doesn't really suit my color scheme. Lumikki is mostly Maine Coon, so she's quite a substantial young lady and tends to overlap most pillows that we give her.

Luckily I had a bright idea! With left over fabric, and some of the offcuts of foam from making the dining room chair, I had the makings of a perfect kitty cushion for a Maine Coon princess.

First I measured up the windowsill to get the right depth & width. I had two different types of offcut foam - one which was quite tightly compressed, and was used for the top covering over the chair seat, and a more fuzzy filler which is generally used for quilting. I used the more compressed foam for the core and the quilting filler as the surrounding shaping and glued them loosely together using a hot glue gun.

I measured up enough fabric to cover the cushion all over, allowed for seam allowance, and started by sewing all the seams. I pinned the fabric so that it joined in the middle of the base then sewed the ends together with the fabric inside out. I then inverted the material back to the right way round and hand sewed the edges of the join together on both edges to reduce the size of the entrance hole. A couple of hooks and eyes later, filling the cover with the cushion pad that I made and we have a new cat cushion for Lumikki to stretch out in comfort on.

Lastly : I promise I didn't pose her for either shot : she just loves hanging a paw out in the rising warmth of the radiator!