Your gardening suggestions please…

… for things you can plant, that need next to no looking after, that yield an edible crop, year after year.

Rhubarb would be an obvious one, I think. Both of us think we don’t like rhubarb, but it could just be we didn’t like it as children and haven’t properly revisited our opinion in adulthood. Then there’s the worry of the “poisonous” leaves – Wikipedia says it would take the average adult 5kg of disgusting bitter leaves to get a lethal dose.

Raspberry canes might be another? I think you’re supposed to cut them down at the end of the season, but I’m sure I remember some self-seeded ones in my grandfather’s garden that did nearly as well as the highly-attended-to ones in the fruit cage.

We do have an elder tree which yields lovely flowers for elderflower cordial around this sort of time each year. This year, I’m also planning to have a go at elderflower vodka as well for something tasty to last a little longer.

We’ve no room for any more trees, and we have far more shaded parts of our garden than sunny, because of all the trees around the edges.

We have a few seedlings that have been kindly donated this year, which is more than we have managed in the past. If we manage to get them past the highly dubious stage where the local slugs eat out all the growing shoots, that will be a minor miracle.

Really cold

The weather station in my garden recorded a low temperature of -6.6deg last night – that is really cold! The Calverton weather page says that’s the lowest in seven years – although last year ran it close.

So cold that in the middle of the night there were strange noises that woke us up. We think they were the conservatory shrinking in the cold. The frost on the roof didn’t melt at all during the day (which is possibly an indication of how much our new conservatory is not actually a suntrap at all). Bedroom thermometer said the bedroom got down to 15 degrees, which given that it’s been remarkably constant at 19deg is quite a drop.

But not as cold as in my parents’ town in Herefordshire – their garden thermometer recorded a night-time low of -8.5.

The last week has shown cold, but sunny days, and the solar panel performance has been impressive. Until very recently I have worried a bit that solar won’t do enough over the summer. But these last few days, even though outside hasn’t got much over 10 degrees, the panel has consistently got above 30 degrees, which makes a good difference to the base temperature of our cylinder before the gas boiler kicks in in the evenings.

Observation shows that it takes the gas boiler a good two hours to heat the hot water cylinder enough over 60 degrees for me to have my planet-killing luxurious long hot shower in the morning. So I know that for the panel to completely replace the gas heating, the panel needs to get up to 80 degrees for at least two hours. That’s looking distinctly more possible over the summer if we can get over 30 degrees on sunny, cold wintry days.

Electric meter reading

My electric meter reading yesterday afternoon was 000000!

This is because Eon contacted me at the start of the new year and said it was time to replace my electric meter, which had reached the end of its life.

So yesterday, we went from this meter, with its old dials and wheels, and the wheel at the front to show how fast we were using power:

Old meter

To this soulless white monstrosity:

New meter

On the way, we also lost our radio teleswitch. No more thunks at 8am as the house is remotely switched off the Economy 7 tarif.

Radio teleswitch

I was a little annoyed that the meter is so basic. Routine meter replacement is an ideal opportunity to put in better meter technology. I was hoping for a smart meter which could be read remotely and give feedback on energy useage. Or at least relocation out of my hall, so that I no longer have to be home to have my meter read. I suspect the lack of a smart meter means it will have to be replaced again before long. The city council has been using remote smart metering extensively in the huge number of buildings the council is responsible for. This has helped them reduce costs and waste by monitoring energy and water use on an hourly basis. You know that a school using lots of water in the holidays has a leak, or has forgotten to turn off 15 minute flushing urinals that aren’t being used.

Back home, the measurements nerd in me is chuffed with a meter that briefly read 0. We have now used about 10kWh in our first day. I have no idea whether this is good or bad, but I do know that visitors to our house have sometimes been surprised at the lights we have on. Being green is as much about reducing routine energy useage as installing novel technology such as the solar panel.

In assessing our own energy useage, there’s good and bad to report. We routinely turn our telly off as we’re advised to. But I leave more computers running all the time than I should. Additionally, we do have a lot of lights on. This is partly because we forget to turn them off, but also because of a tension between green advice and safety advice. The green advice is turn off everything you’re not using. The community safety advice is try to avoid being burgled by using time switched and lights to make it look like someone is home. And further safety advice says things like leave the landing light on when you have visitors to prevent people unfamiliar with your home from falling down the stairs.

One last thing on energy monitoring: last year we switched away from Good Energy, the green supplier that gave kickbacks to the Lib Dems. This was mainly because we could no longer afford to pay the extra cost that came from having our gas and electricity supplied by two different companies. I’m now on an internet-only tarif with Scottish Power, which is useful firstly because they now email me when they want meter readings, and secondly because their online account details include previous data. This helps you manage your useage across years – how many kWh were you using this time last year? By logging in, I can see we averaged 12kWh a day for the two quarters we have data for.

Solar panel performance 07

Rather impressed to hear the solar panel working today, New Year’s Eve, on a grey, overcast day with no hint of sun.  It ran for less than an hour so if I hadn’t heard it, it wouldn’t have been recorded in the stats.

Since it started working in September, its mini-computer calculates that it has generated 385kW of heat for the hot water tank.

Using Nottingham Energy Partnership‘s energy ready reckoner, that’s about  £10.72 worth of gas.  We will have to see how well it performs when confronted with an actual summer.

Solar panel progress – in pictures

So, work has begun on the solar panel.

This is Tuesday:

Roof access

The company turned up, and spent an hour looking at the roof. Access is really tricky. There’s a car-port preventing them putting a ladder straight up to the south-facing roof. Eventually, they decide the easiest way, short of entirely removing the car port then replacing it, is to go up into the attic, out through the sky-light and clamber over the roof to the panel.

Solar panel - incomplete

By the end of the second day, they have fitted the top part and some of the tubes. Because they only have access to the top of the panel, and not the bottom from a ladder of platform, it’s slow progress.

Evacuated solar tubes

Here’s what the tubes look like close up.

Evacuated solar tubes

They’re longer than I am tall – but once they’re up on the roof, they don’t look nearly so big.

Solar panel

The panel was completed by the end of Thursday – but so far it’s not connected to anything inside! Work continues next week – replacing the hot water tank, moving the header tank, plumbing in a new shower, connecting the controls, lagging the pipes.

Here’s a picture of the new tank – with a wheelie bin in the background for size comparison pictures.

hot water tank

And here’s a picture taken through the hole in the top where the immersion heater goes. I love this picture. You can clearly see both coils – a larger one around the middle which will be connected to the ordinary boiler, and a smaller one with fins around the bottom, which will be connected to the solar panel.

inside hot water tank

Lazy weekend

Spent rather too much of this weekend watching TV and drinking coffee, with a break for heading out to the cinema to see Die Hard 4.

We also had plasterers in on Saturday morning. Our heating engineers did something under our hot water cylinder that lead to a square meter of plaster falling off. We don’t know what happened – but it is old plaster, so it may not actually have been their fault. Still, the cost of repairing it came out of their fee.

Hole in ceiling

They’ve screwed plasterboard over the top of the whole, and skimmed on top. They finished yesterday at midday, leaving a ceiling that looked like it had a chocolate covered carpet on it. It’s drying slowly to pink and by Monday we can paint it.

Wet plaster Drying plaster

Next weekend they’re coming back to redo our kitchen. I’ve started uncovering the weird boxes over the sink, hoping that we could remove them entirely. Unfortunately, what we found was an ugly rusty girder propping up an old lintel and bricks. So the best the plasterers can do is the cover it back up again and skim it smooth. Or… we could paint it and make an industrial looking feature out of it.


But the mess in the kitchen didn’t stop me baking when I got a moment. Homemade bagels. Some of the kneading done in the breadmaker, until the dough got too heavy and started straining the motor. To be honest, I think this falls well within the “life’s too short” category.

Homemade bagels


When we first moved in, one of our earliest thoughts about what to do to the house was to replace the tired lean-to with a new conservatory.
About two months ago, in talking about what we wanted from a conservatory, we then started to think maybe what we actually wanted was an extension, and started to think about talking to an architect.

This week I found out by chance that it’s National Architect Week, and many practices, including the one a colleague used to extend is house, are offering an hour of time with an architect in exchange for a modest donation to Shelter.  We’ve got our consult booked for a few weeks from now.  This year’s theme is how to make your house more environmentally friendly, which is great.
What we’ll actually end up discussing with the architect by then is anyone’s guess.  The first few weeks of extension planning ended up with a fairly modest proposal.  Then it started to get silly, and the latest des res plan now includes glazing the full height of the house, a mezzanine, a retrofitted solar chimney for passive solar air conditioning.

One thing is certain: following a slightly bizarre set of events, all councillor planning applications to Nottingham City are now decided by the Development Control committee, of which I am a member. For obvious probity reasons, I wouldn’t be allowed to take part in the decision myself, and neither would any of my close friends.  So it will mean in a meeting like today that I have to leave the room while the rest of the councillors get shown photos of my house and discuss the relative planning merits of my plans.

It’s important to me that the extension is fairly green. Not least because since I have invested a lot of time extolling the virtues of sustainable development to the committee, it would be hypocritical of me not to put my money where my mouth is when it comes to my own house!

I’ve been trying to read around the subject of extending houses, but haven’t found a suitable google term.  “Extension” means something else in computing terms, which throws up all sorts of distracting hits in searches.

I did, however, find this lengthy horror story of a loft extension gone wrong. – I spent far too long last night reading it through as the nightmare developed step by step.  Eeep!