Friday 29 May 2009

Frugal Friday - Growing Potatoes in Tyres

Years ago, on an episode of Gardener's World, Bob Flowerdew demonstrated his method of growing potatoes in tyres. I remember watching fascinated, thinking "one day, I'll try this". It didn't use much space, didn't seem to need much equipment and (important for me) didn't require a whole lot of effort.

Potatoes, Bob explained, need to be earthed up so that you get the maximum crop. But in a regular garden, that requires space. Bob used tyres to earth up his potatoes, stacking a new one on whenever the potato stems got tall enough and filling it in with compost. When he unearthed the potatoes in the autumn, Bob got 100-odd from just one stack.

At the bottom of my garden is a semi-barren patch where I've spent the last five years fighting weeds and brambles. Everything is covered in weed suppression cloth. The soil is like iron (about an inch down, it's pure clay. They used to make bricks around here). This is where I am growing my potatoes.

This year, I'm growing two tyre stacks worth. The method is simple. For each stack, you need four tyres (in total) and a sprouting potato. Place a tyre on the ground and fill it with compost / a grow bag / soil (if your garden has decent stuff). Bury the sprouting potato in the centre of the tyre, just below the surface of the soil, and water well. Water daily.

They grow fast. Here are the potatoes I planted three weeks ago, which I earthed up on Monday.
As you can see, they've grown a lot. We've had a little bit of rain this week (Monday evening, Tuesday) and a lot of sunshine. The ones in the foreground were more than ready to be earthed up again. I wasn't so sure about the ones at the back, so I plonked the next layer of tyres down and measured them up.

(The tyres are worn out ones I begged from the local tyre shop. They were free. I only took four the first time, so this afternoon I went and got some more.)

I decided against earthing up the one at the back. There weren't enough leaves peeking over the top. If I earthed it up now, it would struggle and possibly not develop as many potatoes.

So I just earthed up the front one, packing the soil under the rim of the tyre as well as filling in the centre. I'll continue earthing up the potatoes until the tyres are stacked four deep.

Not sure if you can see from the above photo, but the second batch of tyres is larger than the first. They must have come from a bigger vehicle (I didn't have any choice this time - the tyre shop only had four in their "to be disposed of" pile). You can get a better idea from the photo below.

It isn't as precarious as it looks. Next time, I'll use all the large tyres in one stack and the smaller ones in another.

The frugal part? The tyres cost nothing and the potatoes effectively cost nothing (they were sprouting in the veggie basket). To fill them in, I'm using up a 100 litre bag of "soil improver" (a.k.a. compost) purchased from the garden centre last year for three or four Pounds. Next year, when the Dalek compost bin has done its job properly, I'll use compost.

- Pam (looking forward to home grown spuds)

Wednesday 27 May 2009

Don't Panic Mr Mannering!

Are you as underwhelmed about Swine Flu as I am? Looking back over the last four weeks, it seems like the proverbial storm in a teacup. It seems to have morphed into a damp squib.

I have a theory about why Swine Flu isn't as virulent outside Mexico as it appears to be within it. It's quite simple and doesn't involve higher level genetics or virology. My theory boils down to this: Mexico is a poor country without a nationalised health service. To see a doctor or be treated in the ER, you have to pay. Therefore, I reckon that only the sickest of those infected sought out treatment in Mexico, the ones who were already at Death's door. Following on from that logic, it means that for the 100-odd deaths in Mexico, hundreds of thousands of people were infected with Swine Flu and have recovered from it. They weren't so ill that they would spend their hard earned dollars on a doctor's visit.

It isn't SARS. It isn't Bird Flu. It isn't that virulent. Journalists of the world should get over it. The rest of us should just employ good hygene, avoid touching our faces and washing our hands often.

- Pam

Friday 22 May 2009

Pattern: Fingerless Mittens

It seems rather ironic to be writing about fingerless mittens on the hottest day of the year so far, but less than two weeks ago, I was desperate! My office has two temperatures: winter icy cold, or summer boiling hot. The cold radiates inwards to my desk from the outside wall. Even when the heating is on, it does little to counteract the drafts.

For years, I've had a pair of commercially made, acrylic [spit] fingerless gloves in my desk drawer, which I wear as a last resort. Because they have fingers, they make my fingers feel fat and heavy, and it is much harder to type accurately. When I finished the Berrocco socks, I decided to make these from the leftovers:-


35 grams leftover sock yarn - 4 ply or fingering weight*
2.5mm double pointed needles ("DPNs")

Garter Stitch Rib:-

Row 1: knit all stitches.
Row 2: *K2, P2. Repeat from * to end of row.


  1. Cast on 56 stitches and divide them over 4 DPNs: needle 1, 10 stitches; needles 2 and 3, 20 stitches each; needle 4, 8 stitches. Ensure the cast on row isn't twisted and join the yarn by knitting from needle 1 onto needle 4.
  2. Place a marker at the start of your first row (I suspend a row counter from there).
  3. Work in K2, P2 rib for 10 rows.
  4. Rows 11 - 51. Work in Garter Stitch rib, ending with a first row.
  5. Row 52: commence on the thumb hole. At the marker, turn back on yourself and work as if knitting flat. *K2, P2 until you get back to the marker.
  6. Row 53: turn the work and knit until you get back to the marker.
  7. Repeat rows 52 and 53 eight times.
  8. Row 68: joining row. Slip the marker from the left needle to the right needle. Knit into the back of the first stitch on the left needle, taking your yarn over the needle instead of in the usual way, under the needle. You want to make this stitch as tight as possible. K1, *P2, K2. Work from * to end of row.
  9. Continue in garter stitch rib for 9 more rows, until row 77.
  10. Work in K2, P2 rib for 10 more rows (86 rows total). Cast off in rib.
  11. Weave in your ends and you're done.

- Pam

* Thanks to the postal scale at work, I know each mitten weights exactly 16 grams. I didn't quite have enough yarn so used a couple of grams of Lisa Souza's Sock! in Ecru to finish off each mitten.

Thursday 21 May 2009

Stepping back in time

Tonight, my mind is on events of nearly 70 years ago. For most of the last two hours, I have been a lifetime away, focused on the day to day events of the first year of the Second World War. In reality I'm in the middle of North Lincolnshire, staying at my regular hotel, on my monthly visit to Site, but it doesn't feel that way.

I have been attempting to finish Simon Garfield's excellent collection of diaries from the Second World War, We Are at War. I know I've written about it before, but I have to comment again about the power of the writing. The diarists are so eloquent as they chronicle their personal War: the privations; the sky-rocketing food prices; the crippling taxes; their fears over being bombed and the possible invasion. The War was hard on the civilian population, particularly those who were struggling to begin with. Once again, I find myself marvelling at how people survived and how they "made do".

I was so completely absorbed tonight that it took an effort to refocus my mind on my life, on the present day, on the waiter who brought my drink and the waitress who cleared the plates away. I'm looking forward to reading the other two books in this series: Private Battles, covering 1941 to 1945, and Our Hidden Lives, covering the post-War period 1946 to 1948.

- Pam

(If you're curious as to why this book wasn't finished months ago, the answer is simple: I don't get much reading time at home. It's too noisy or there are other things demanding my attention. I tend to do most of my reading when I'm travelling for work.)

Sunday 17 May 2009

Don't you hate it when this happens?

I have been knitting for 36 years, since I was seven. For 35 of those years, I worked from the outside of the ball inwards, unravelling the ball as I went. My mum tried to convince me to work the other way, from the centre out (her argument was that it kept your yarn clean), but she failed.

Last summer, Kate convinced me to try doing it the other way, working from the centre outwards and, also, to role centre-pull balls. Her logic was unassailable - if you work from the centre outwards, the ball doesn't need space to roll around so I wouldn't need to take my ball of sock yarn out of my small sock-knitting-purse. Fewer chances for it to roll off and get dirty.

Yesterday, I started knitting my latest pair of socks. And was rapidly reminded why I'd given up on centre-ball-outwards knitting 36 years ago:

Two rows in, I tugged on my yarn and hauled out a huge tangle from the centre of the ball. It took 50 rows to knit out. I'm now at the 73rd row and I'm still fighting tangles.

Don't you just hate it when that happens?

- Pam

PS: It's Opal's Harry Potter sock yarn in the Draco colourway.

Friday 15 May 2009

Frugal Friday - the Rice Trick

It's fair to say that we eat a lot of rice. Considering the number of curries I cook, you probably aren't that surprised. (I can hear certain readers of this blog going "Yeah, and....?" even as I type. Bear with me, guys.) Have I ever mentioned the "rice trick" to you before?

The Rice Trick only works with white rice; the variety doesn't matter. It is simple, saves fuel and stops you having soggy rice. You'll need rice, boiling water and a saucepan with a well-fitting lid. This is the Rice Trick:-

  1. Next time you're cooking rice, measure the quantity needed into a measuring cup or jug. Make a note of where it comes on the jug. Tip it into the saucepan and then measure out double the quantity of boiling water, adding that to the saucepan.
  2. Cover it with the lid. Bring it to the boil and, keeping it just below the point where it will boil over, boil it for two minutes. Use a timer.
  3. Switch off the burner and let it sit there for the next 15 minutes. (Again, use a timer.) Do not lift the lid until the timer goes off for the 15 minutes.
  4. Take off the lid, fluff up the rice with a fork and serve.

And there you have it. Freshly cooked rice that isn't soggy. And you've only used a quarter of the usual quantity of gas/electricity to cook it.

Note 1: Always use the proportions: 2 water to 1 rice.
Note 2: This doesn't work with brown rice. Even if you boil it for longer. I think the outer layer is too hard for it to soften sufficiently without the aid of heat.

- Pam

Sock it to me!

It's hard to believe that it was only three years ago when I started knitting my first ever pair of socks. At last count, I think I've now knit 25 pairs! And given two-thirds of them away.

And yet, it all started so unpromisingly. I was SO not a fan. Aunty Glady (my honourary non-grandmother) had knitted me a white, lacy pair of knee-highs when I was small. Which I wore once. They itched. The ribbing was tight. The purl ridges left painful indents in my feet under the spot where I laced up my school shoes.

More recently, when other knitters wrote about how great hand-knitted socks were, I had a hard time trying to understand their appeal. (See previous experience, above.) Surely they'd be too thick to wear with regular shoes? Also what was it with all the colour? Didn't coloured socks go out with the Eighties? How could I wear them to work? (90% of my socks were basic black - great for work when worn with loafers under a trouser suit and perfectly OK for the rest of the time. I think the rest were denim blue.)

And then there was the actual "knitting socks" part. Somewhere I'd heard that turning a heel was really difficult (that bit of misinformation came from Terry Pratchett*). Also, I'd had a bad experience with DPN's doing the v-neck ribbing on my first sweater, back when I was 11 or 12, and I didn't want to go back there ever again.

Finally, the Yarn Harlot's Knitting Rules book convinced me to have a go. We were going to Spain for five days in May 2006 and I wanted some knitting to take along. I knew from bitter experience that, in a hot country, anything that rests in your lap will make you feel hot, sticky and uncomfortable in very short order. (Growing up in Oz, I did crochet, embroidery or tatting in the summer, and then only if I could find somewhere to sit where my hands were cool enough not to be swollen or sweaty.) So I needed something small to take along and sock-knitting fitted the bill.

After a fruitless browse in the Reading branch of John Lewis for something labelled "sock yarn", I resorted to Google, typed "sock yarn" into the search field, ticked the UK checkbox and crossed my fingers as I hit enter. What I wanted was someone to hold my hand and tell me the correct needle size to use for whatever yarn I'd buy plus the correct quantity to purchase; what I found was Angel Yarns, who sold me an Opal Sock Knitting Kit complete with a set of Addi DPNs. (I think the Addi's were a consolation prize from their customer services department because my first choice of colourway (something blue) wasn't available. They also sent a pair of teddy-bear needle huggers.)

I didn't knit until we got to Spain. Casting on, I felt nervous; a new sensation for me as a knitter (I've been knitting since I was seven and tackled lace and stranded colourwork fearlessly as a teenager). But I gritted my teeth and worked through the first half-a-dozen rows with the DPNs before concluding that "Hey, knitting with DPN's isn't so bad after all. I can do this!". The self-patterning yarn intrigued me. I left Spain with one of these:

And I was hooked!

I can't say that first pair are the best I've ever made. The heel seems to go on forever (it's much too long) and I kitchener-stitched the toes the wrong way around so that there are purl stitches on the outside. Also, I had several lessons to learn about picking up the gusset stitches so that there wouldn't be a hole in the corner (look carefully and you'll see the hole), or down the sides. And they're slightly too big, but they're mine. I wear them ocasionally when my other handknitted socks are in the wash. They're like a walking demonstration of my skills.

Just as a comparison, here are the latest socks I've knitted, using the Berrocco Sox yarn that MOI sent me.

See how far I've come? These have a French/reinforced heel. Also, I've learned some tricks about matching up the pattern repeats that would never have occured to me back in the early days.
Once again, MOI, thank you for the yarn. The socks are lovely.

And no, I haven't a clue where all that guff about "turning a heel is difficult" came from. It is easy.

- Pam

*Terry Pratchett is a knitter. And a spinner. Yarn Forward interviewed him last year.

Thursday 14 May 2009

Good-bye Old Friend

I was putting the rice on for dinner on Tuesday night when it happened. I'd measured the 1.5 cups of rice, poured it into the pot and was measuring/adding the 3 cups of boiling water when it happened.... There was a popping noise. I looked down and saw that my 18 year old cup measure had cracked!

You can just see it on this photo.

(No, it's not the handle. DH broke that years ago.)

We've been together a long time. I've used that cup measure almost every night for measuring out rice. And there have been numerous cakes and pizzas made along the way.

Good-bye old friend.

- Pam