Friday 12 April 2024

Where are we at, then?

Well, it’s been a while (again), no? Here we are having been in our glorious new house for SEVEN FREAKING MONTHS - how did that happen? Well anyway, we have, and so here we are at just the right time to start focusing on the garden! 

First up - some scene setting. Our sellers liked being “in” the garden but also liked it being fairly low maintenance, so we inherited some plants (the most fabulous campanula, a large and possessive lavender, some ornamental grasses (bleurgh - not a fan), a very pretty jasmine, some foxgloves, and invading through the fence from next door a winter jasmine (hurrah - as our cuttings brought from our old one which in turn was originally bought in memory of HRH The Cat and Jazzlet-Doglet didn’t survive) and what might be a honeysuckle - we’re still waiting to see on that last.) We also inherited some gaps where some of their favourite plants used to be, and a fair number of quite determined weeds… there is a small lawn, and then quite a lot of patio - far more than two people who enjoy sitting outside, but only need a relatively small area to do so, needed, so a plan was hatched… 

A couple of weekends ago, lovely-Steve-the-Handyman came round with an assortment of tools and a good deal of determination, and cut/prised/bashed away at a roughly 4’ x 12’ area of patio - to create a new vegetable growing bed. It turned out to be a little more challenging than he (and we!) expected - in places the concrete base was over 3 inches thick, and there was more hardcore and rubble than you would even believe underneath it! Eventually though after about 4 hours of his time, one ever so slightly poorly drill, a fair bit of swearing, several chunks of slab and concrete that even he and MrEH between them struggled to move, and a further 5 hours of our time the following day involving a lump hammer and brick bolster, plus 4 tip-runs (and several more still needed) we ended up with a hole in the garden that would shortly swallow what felt like sufficient compost to keep a small garden centre going for months. And THEN, we ended up with this…

And yes, we’ve already started planting in it! In true “EH Style” we’ve gone as frugal as possible - and our planting is designed and planned to provide us with foodstuffs which either we use a lot of, or which are expensive or difficult to buy. In the back right corner is a redcurrant. We had one at the flat, and briefly debated whether we could move it, but had to decide that it wasn’t going to be practical. The new one was acquired from the half price section at our local branch of a large orange DIY chain, and doesn’t seem to have objected to the lengthy delay in planting it’s had to face while we got our act together with the garden! The other large plant in there is, as you can probably spot, a rhubarb - high on our list of “plants we want when we have space”. Along the edge there are a couple of small sorrel plants. - which won’t mind the shade that the rhubarb will undoubtedly (hopefully!) end up casting…


… and a thyme, which should quite enjoy what might end up being a fairly sunny and liable to be dry spot in that corner, as well as clambering around the edges of the slabs a bit to soften things. The other end has courgettes - three plants, which from past experience is enough to leave us needing to eat a LOT of courgettes AND casting around trying to find folk to give them to. We’ll also be getting some potatoes in there (excellent for breaking up the soil in the bed’s first year) and also probably some rainbow chard - we’ve grown this before and it’s a really good versatile leafy summer veg. I will probably also be adding some more bits here and there round the edges - almost certainly more herbs - I’d like a fennel for the back left corner, and I already have thyme seedlings on the go ready for more edge-softening… the back “might” get raspberries - that one still requires thought. 

Elsewhere in the garden we have also been busy - and busy reusing resources we already have so far as we can. Having removed a big chunk of patio in one place, we’re now increasing it’s size a little elsewhere - a line of reclaimed slabs along the “top” end now have herbs in pots on them…

…and some more are being used at the bottom end to widen the path there and make the area more user-friendly. It won’t be the most aesthetic result, but it will be functional. More reclaimed slabs have been used to line around the edges of the compost bin - we had a bit of an annoying vermin issue there when we first arrived - and the whole and part bricks and blocks we dug out of the new bed have been used to make a rough and ready “wall” across the back of the new bed to avoid any risk of a garden fork skewering the electric cable that runs there. Three gooseberry plantlets carefully dug up from the flat are all settled in and doing well, sadly it’s starting to look like the Bay we also brought with us might not have survived, although we do still have a spare in a pot if needed. 

Lots of sowing of seeds has also been happening - the mini greenhouse (bought for a bargain price in Wilko’s closing down sale - the price was so good we bought a spare one, too!) is full to bursting…

…masses of potted-on tomato plants, sunflowers, a big pot of miniature round carrots, various herbs (parsley, choices, that thyme, coriander, lots of basil) and various other odds and ends. 

In one of the raised beds on the other side of the garden we have a little thicket of Broad beans - SO nice to be able to grow those again as they are one of my favourite veggies! 

Meanwhile a trough of cut-and-come-again salad leaves and spinach is going great guns on the patio table - we’ll be able to start lightly harvesting from that soon, and I will be getting another trough of each sown at some stage too I think. The table is enormous, was left (with our agreement) by our sellers, and is far bigger than we need, so we’ll be using a good bit of it for now for various pots of salad we think - hopefully it might keep them out of the way of slugs and snails and will also make them super-easy to harvest too. 

Still to get sown in a few weeks will be more beans - runners this time, and back to our long standing favourites “Polestar” there. Most of our seeds were bought at the end of the growing season last year for very reduced prices - we’ve always favoured this, and as long as they have enough date left on them to enable them to be sown the following year it can be a good way of making home-grown even more affordable. Once the shops want to clear the space for other goods, they often sell seeds at rock-bottom prices so it’s well worth keeping your eyes open. Other little money-saving ploys in the garden include using the run-off from water for washing up (our boiler is in the loft so it takes an age to run through hot) to fill watering cans - as we are now metered we are paying for it, so I’d sooner it went on the garden than down the drain! 

So there you have it - your whistlestop tour of our little fledgling garden. It’s not huge - just an average sized town garden really, but it’s plenty for us to be getting on with while we get back into the swing of having proper growing space again. Just so you know, this entire post has been written sitting in the garden too which has been rather delightful. From my comfy seat in the corner it’s rather nice to survey the space which is hopefully going to go a good way to feeding  us, as time goes on - and yes, of COURSE I’ve been enjoying a cup of tea, too! 


Friday 26 January 2024

Frugal Friday…

 Time for an update on that grocery challenge I mentioned I think, don't you? 

Obviously we're now approaching the end of the month, I’m pleased to say costs have stayed generally  low in comparison to normal, and I'm beginning to feel that I am getting back to basics on the way we plan meals, ensure that food waste is nonexistent and make the best use of the resources we have.  There was a slightly bigger than expected shop in week one as I had lots of coupons from ThaT SupermarkeT which it seemed wise to use - they provide us with a combination of  additional loyalty points (and those points are then doubled in value, mostly to be used towards things which we would otherwise pay cash for) or indeed actual money off, not to be sniffed at! So we topped up on a few things, hit a spend threshold, bought a few bits which while we might not need them right now, we will certainly use, and wandered out with a not-too high spend and a nice wodge of extra points. We also took the decision to head to the Farmer’s market last weekend as we are unable to get there in February and I wanted to make sure we had sufficient meat to take us through. 

One thing I have found really helpful to make sure we make the best use of the food we have in is to run with a rolling meal plan - so once a week or so, I jot down the things I've got planned for the  next few days, then whole of the following week, and then some rough ideas to choose from for the week after that. I start with thinking about what we have in the freezer, fridge and cupboards (no larder any more, sadly!) - do we have eggs nearing the end of their date? Is there half a butternut squash in the fridge that needs using? Is there still a tub of that nice bolognese sauce I made the other week and froze a few portions of? I fit certain types of meals to particular nights of the week, too - Mondays are generally something really quick - a previously batch cooked pasta sauce from the freezer with some spaghetti for example, because who the heck wants to cook anything complicated on a Monday evening? Tuesdays I do something that can easily be split into two as MrEH has rugby training - couscous with roasted veg and some form of protein element is a big favourite - he can either eat it cold or heat it up depending how he feels, but all he needs to do when he gets home is assemble and eat. Wednesday and Thursday nights often involve a bit more cooking, and Fridays are usually something tasty, that might involve a bit more prep and cooking time - occasionally even an actual recipe! Weekends tend to be a bit more of a free-for-all depending on what else we have going on - on a Saturday I'm often just sorting lunch for myself for example as MrEH has headed off to rugby, so soup and bread or a toastie hits the spot nicely. Where possible I love to do some form of roast dinner on a Sunday - and that always provides us with more than the one meal as well. Last week's roast pork gave us a generous helping each for Sunday, then fed us again on Tuesday (with couscous) and Wednesday (stir-fried) plus there are another two double-helpings in the freezer - one in the forms of slices ready for another roast, and the other in chunks - that will probably be stir-fried in a future week.

I know I have said this before but starting with a quick review of anything you might have about that needs using is probably the best way I know of avoiding food waste, beyond the obvious planning and buying just what you need, of course!  As I mentioned the other week, it's often possible to prevent things from going past their best by making something out of them there and then - my soup was a good example. However, you can also sometime rescue things which you're not in a position to cook with immediately. Sweet peppers for example can be chopped and frozen (ideally spread out on a sheet of baking parchment or baking liner, then tip them into bags or tubs when frozen solid). Mushrooms hovering on the edge of slimy can be chopped and oven roasted with a drizzle of oil, then frozen in the same way. Green veg benefits from a light blanching in boiling water - then cool it as swiftly as possible and again, loose freeze for ease of use. we do, after all, spend a fair amount of our annual income on ensuring that we are fed - so it does make the best use of that money. 

One thing I have switched up recently is that I am doing a lot more of my shopping at a budget or “discounter” supermarket - and I do think it’s saving me money too. The one I use most these days also has a nice app which rewards you when you reach certain spend thresholds in a month - today for example I went back in after my main shop as I was able to claim a free bakery item - a nice crusty sourdough style loaf worth £1.99 - like all these things the trick is to shop normally and not be seduced into spending more to hit a particular level - although it has to be said if I was just a pound or so off one of the levels the week before the end of the month I might add something for the storecupboard into the trolley to push us over. If you shop there a few times a month, the app will probably be worthwhile for you though.

We’ve resisted the call of the takeaway this month although there was a meal out - pizza in a pub with pals last weekend, and most delicious it was!  (And also from our personal spending money, not our food budget!)

I know - not particularly frugal! (Tasty though!)

It’s looking like we’ll have about a £75 underspend on our January budget - possibly slightly less, but in that region, and I’m pleased with that. It’s been really good to properly focus back on a frugal challenge again this month, and I do feel that it’s also been beneficial to get back into the habit of proper meal planning again too.  Allowing that we are still fairly well stocked, I’m going to roll the challenge on into February as well so I’ll keep you posted on how we go. There will be no Frugal February his year I don’t think as we do have a couple of things planned through the month which will involved (planned and budgeted) spending, so having something to focus on and keep our heads in the thrifty game would be good! 


Thursday 18 January 2024

Plotting and planning...

River Stort - 14th January 2024

I was doing some reading back over the blog (on the basis that at least someone is still reading it, then!) and it's got me all inspired to maybe make some fun plans for the new year to share with you all - what do you think? First up - and as always really the cornerstone of everything, will be the financial stuff...

With the new house, our financial situation has changed fairly dramatically - although the new mortgage isn't particularly huge by many people's standards, we are working on precisely the same approach as when we had the mortgage on the flat (which was in fact slightly smaller than this one!) - that being, that we want to see it gone! As a result, and learning from our experience first time round, we made our first overpayment this time immediately - in fact, technically, before the first contractual payment was made - which was a pretty good feeling! We've overpaid each month since then, and will be continuing to do this going forwards. As before, the "saved" money from the two "free" Council Tax months will also go across to the mortgage as this has always been a good easy win. One thing that is an absolute joy this time is the ease of making overpayments - a complete contrast the faff last time round with having to phone up each time we wanted to make one, now I can simply pay money across whenever I feel like it from our banking app! It feels like a great novelty, even if I am perhaps driving MrEH (who keeps a proper tally of our overpayments, interest saved etc) just a little crazy by occasionally paying off odd amounts to bring us up to a nice round number outstanding! 

We're now working to a completely new budget as you might expect - and that is under fairly constant review at the moment. We are also still aiming to stash a decent chunk into savings each month - currently we can save at a higher interest rate than the mortgage is costing us, so while it makes sense to pay some money off against the mortgage, it also makes sense to ensure that the majority of our monthly surplus is still allocated to savings.  We have new savings pots - for things for the garden among other things - and are also having to adjust to having to carefully pick and choose what we say yes to doing, as the balance of what we want to do financially doesn't allow for the fairly regular weekends away we were able to agree to previously. We're also actively working to make savings where we can - and as always, as those savings are made, that money will be squirreled away into our Mortgage Overpayments Pot - from there, each time the balance reaches £100 a little chunk is paid to the mortgage. 

One substantial change we have to our plans for 2024 is that there will be no Great British Beer Festival - the decision had to be announced that we were unable to hold the festival this year due to issues with the venue. It's disappointing - as these days it forms a massive part of our year - but we will still be working hard in the background to ensure that when the festival makes its return in 2025 it's the best it has ever been. From my perspective this will mean some changes to the airshows I can attend as well - plus enabling me to do the whole of the Royal International Air Tattoo for the first time ever - although it doesn't actively clash with GBBF, it is at the time of year when MrEH and I are both frantically busy with stuff relating to it, so I shall be making the most of that one this year. As always, I am saving monthly towards airshow fun and games to come - this means that I always know that the money is there for the tickets and accommodation for the places I want to go - a real win! 

On the house front, there really isn't a huge amount of work we need to do - but there are a few things we would like to get done in due course. Of these the most pressing is to remodel the garden which currently has rather more patio and less growing space than needed - to a man with an angle grinder will be required to change this, and we want to get it done early in the spring as that will then make a big impact on what we can grow to help with feeding ourselves in 2024.  Beyond that, there are a few internal cosmetic bits and pieces - which we mostly have the paint for already, and then we are into potentially slightly further off jobs which we may start pricing up but are unlikely to do anything about actually getting done in the near future.

Personally, I'd really like to get back to more regular running again. A back injury last year lead me to stop running AND cycling - as the type of injury it was can be made worse by both those things. There's been no improvement for not doing them though, so I am now beginning to add a little bit of running back into  my life again - and I'm loving it! So nice to be back out there again - and all the more so because I am being kind to  myself, if it's wet, I'm not going. If it's so cold I know I will be uncomfortable - not going! So mostly when I'm getting out there at the moment it's lovely bright crisp sunny weather and that is by far the nicest weather to run in so far as I am concerned, so that's brilliant! The gym has been completely abandoned at the moment as that definitely was making my back worse, but I do want to get back to adding in some proper strength work again - that will be home-based, for now at least. Oh - and yoga! I KNOW that's good for me - helping with suppleness and strength - so that is something else I want to add back in - but let's take this one thing at a time, eh?! 

How about you then? Is there plotting and planning afoot? Have you changed things in your life dramatically and are now having to readjust to the differences those changes mean? Do stop by and tell me! 


Friday 5 January 2024

Frugal Friday…

Happy new year all, and, let’s be honest, there is nothing like a new year to rekindle thoughts of frugality and generally making sure that we look after our money so it can look after us, eh?

It’s been a while since we’ve done a FF post but it feels like time again - probably not for weekly posts, but certainly for one every so often.  Along with a few others on the lovely Money Saving Expert forums, I am planning a “how low can we go” month for grocery shopping this month. December always tends to be a steep one for most of us for food shopping doesn’t it - from the components of the traditional Christmas dinner, through to the snacky bits for boxing day and beyond, and of course all the treats because after all, it is a Christmas! As long as they can be afforded - and even better if they are budgeted for - then all well and good, but having spent our money on it, it makes sense to extract every last inch of value from it. And after all the spending in December, and undoubtedly for many of us still having plenty of leftovers from that, January is the perfect month to really make use of the resources we have and keep our costs below budget. 

Like many of us, I bought plenty of the supermarket 15p veg in the run up to Christmas week - while some items like the broccoli got used up fairly soon thereafter, I deliberately bought extras of items I knew would keep well - including several bags of parsnips. We love them with a roast dinner anyway, but the bulk of them were always designated for a favourite of ours - curried parsnip soup. It was made today, and turned in to quite the “use it up” meal too.

I started off with some of a  15p bag of shallots, cooked off in a little knob of ghee, then added the chopped parsnips and cooked the lot off gently for a while until everything had started to soften. While that was happening, I ground my spices that I had already toasted off a little earlier - coriander, cumin, black peppercorns and black mustard seeds, plus a little shake of smoked chilli flakes for a bit of background warmth…

Those were then added to the pot along with several big palmfuls of red lentils - these cook off to nothing but add some bulk and some protein to the soup - before it was time to add some liquid. This time round I used ham stock from the Christmas gammon - made up to the full quantity with an equal amount of vegetable stock. No salt being added this time as the ham stock is quite salty already. 

Then  it’s a case of stick a lid on and leave it to simmer until the lentils have essentially disappeared and the parsnips are starting to disintegrate, then off the heat and go and find your stick blender, ready to blast the heck out of it. Make sure to keep the blender fully submerged in the liquid too otherwise our next frugal Friday task will be “cleaning the kitchen with minimal products” - no need to ask me how I know… We’re looking for a completely smooth soup here, no lumps.  

Final step - and a bit more “using up” here - to add some creaminess you want a good slosh of cream, or, in my case today, half a tub of crème fraiche which is on the very end of its date…blend a bit more, and voila…

You end up with a pan of extremely tasty - and very economical - soup. I reckon this pan full cost around £1.50 in ingredients, plus the electricity to cook it - around 25p at a guess,  and it’s made 5 hearty portions, so around 35p a portion. It’s less than half the price of  supermarket tinned soup, and far tastier! Even with fully priced parsnips, it would still be really economical (and without the shallots, I’d just use a perfectly ordinary onion). 

This will be a good start to our month of minimal grocery spending as we’ll each have a bowl of this for lunch tomorrow along with some part-baked rolls we already have (gained as a freebie at the Good Food Show!) Meals are planned for the week ahead using ingredients we already have in too - with the only food on our shopping list this week being fruit, veg and milk. And who knows, I might even come back and update you on this little challenge - we’ll see!