Alison Crowther-Smith

Archive for April, 2016

‘Allotment v Woman’ (so far, it’s a draw)

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

The allotment is swinging into full-on summer mode.  In the greenhouse, which is here and not on the allotment, I have many veg seedlings nurdling their way through to becoming food.  Chard, sprouts, kale, beans, chillis, courgettes and squash are all doing well, and this weekend will see a start on the pricking out that will take a while.

On the plot, I have baby broad beans:

And the potatoes are continuing to sprout – though not the white ones which went in later than the pink ones (note scientific use of the correct variety names.  You’re welcome).  So I have removed the top tyre from the white towers, in order to admit more light as they seem to be struggling to get going.  Here’s a pink one, fighting its way back out:

In the seed beds, I have grass-like carrot seedlings, which I must now thin out:

I thought these had failed, or been washed away in the heavy rain storms we had just after I sowed them, but they have done very well, so far. Spurred on by this and also cos I had a half-pack of seeds left over, I have sowed a further bed with carrots.  I also sowed, very densely, peas.  I don’t want peas, or mange-tout, but I do want pea-shoots, the leafy salad crop that is the tender green leaves and stems on peas.  This, my friends, sells for its own weight in GOLD in them fancy shops, such as that Waitrose (where I never go, for fear of becoming convinced that every-day essential items include, for example, yak-breath cheese or truffle infused custard, and then buying the yak-breath cheese and coming home with it, only to instantly wonder what the HELL I WAS THINKING).  Anyway, I digress as ever. Pea-shoots.  Yes, they taste of peas, but not very, and they are delicious.  About five years ago I sowed a bag of dried kitchen peas in a border here to see if I could replicate the pea-shoot salad thing that was causing mayhem in M&S food halls all over London and Cornwall.  I could!  It worked, so well in fact that we went on to have actual peas, as we could not eat all the pea-shoots in time!

I have sowed half  an old bag of dried peas, so we will see.  I sowed them thick, only centimeters apart as I do not care if they are crowded and in any case I can thin them.

I also sowed two rows of carrots in the ground of the plot, so I could compare results. These have germinated but less well.  There are extended patches in each line with no seedlings, so I think the rain did for these.  Or maybe the seeds blew out of my hands as I often decide to sow very fine dust-like seeds in the teeth of a gale force wind, being basically a Chelsea Gold Medal winning veg grower, as I am.  Also, these lines in the main plot are infested with weed-seeds as is the entire plot, but especially the middle third section.

A lovely crop of fresh dock leaves in amidst the beans:

This is a source of deep irritation to me.  For one thing, I hate hoeing.  It’s something I rarely do at home.  I have the weeds pretty much under control, and in any case, I like the free things you get if you hoe infrequently, such as foxgloves, alliums and even tomato seedlings from the home-made compost.  But on the allotment, the seeds are epic.  The first thing I did, back at the end of October 2015, was to dead-head the weeds.  Some of these beasts were several feet high, interlaced with old cabbages and unidentifiable vegetables that had all gone to seed as well.  I knew I had no  chance of digging these up and disposing of them before they all set even more seeds, so I chopped them down to about six inches above ground level, carted the seed-bearing vegetation away, and then set to with The Big Dig.

Clearly, they had already had a field day though and now, even if I turn my back for three days, they all just come back up.  The chief culprits are docks, dandelions and I think, plantains.  It is very testing, each time I go there, to have to hoe these up before I can do anything else.  Still, allotment life seems destined to be a journey of peaks and troughs and I am sure it is good for my soul, if not my back.  But the carrot lines need hand-weeding and this is a whole new level of joy.

Carrots or weed-seeds?

At home I have gooseberries and I layered some lower branches in the late autumn.  This has made me three new plants and I dug them up and moved them to the allotment this week:

We were going to make a large brassica cage and we priced it up.  But two reasons have made me change my mind.  1)  I am not very good at DIY and so I quail at the prospect – and it is very expensive; a ready-to-assemble kit, while not bespoke or as roomy, is cheaper.  And 2)  if I give the allotment up, I will find it far less easy to de-construct a complex beam and met-post structure, much less be able to use it at home.  But with a kit, I can more readily see me being able to get it down and re-use it.  Now that is not to say I am going to give it up.  Far from it.  But, I am realistic enough to know that I can’t do this as a solo project.  Mark has dug a lot for me, and the kids who are really my allotment partners, do come down as and when they can – but they can’t, with the best will in the world, do much more than they now do.  So I have decided to give it a full year, and in this year, now almost half over, to give it my very best shot and what time I can reasonably afford around my work and home demands.  If, after this year, I am still loving it (mainly) and I have reaped rewards of food and well-being, I will carry on.  If not, I will keep it tidy and weed-free and then hand it on.

This week, Lily came down with me and completed the shed painting which I really appreciated:

And finally, a gratuitous goat-arse shot. Meet my friend, Manny:

A Word About Arthur. And Medlar Rises Again.

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

The thing is, Arthur is an under-dog.  In his mind.  And I hardly ever mention him, do I?  But in fact, he is the sweetest, best-mannered, gentlest little dog that ever walked Dog’s good earth.  He just melts away, often, into the background while Rupert and to a lesser extent, Medlar (Lord of Darkness) perform acts of willful mayhem and lay the village to waste.

When Arthur was a puppy, which is seven years ago this September, he was snubbed by Rupert.  They gradually got along and now they are joined at the paw, but it is, I feel, still a bit of a one-way street.  Arthur adores Rupert. He actually cries pitifully when Rupert has to go to the vets, so we usually take him along too, to calm him down.  If Arthur has to go, Rupert just goes to sleep in his sleeping bag.  He doesn’t cry.

Arthur longs only to be loved, held, cuddled and stroked.  He will put his paw on your arm, or rest his chin on your leg, solely for the purpose of being instantly alerted should you try and get away.  He nuzzles and taps you on the leg to be picked up.  When you do, he just sighs and goes to sleep.  He is also very, very handsome:

Arthur on Landscape for Blog

This is him modelling for Elements.  And here are some of his other portfolio shots:

Arthur and the apple close up

That’s an apple.

Arthur on apple petals

See how lovely he is?

Arthur in Helebore border


You know how much I love Rupert, right?  My first very own dog, and he’s my shadow.  Maybe a bit less so now he’s older and likes sleeping even more than he used to.  But he is my soul-mate.  However, I have never met a dog as lovable as Arthur.  Unlike Rupert, he never gets nasty, or moody or stubborn.  He doesn’t (often) steal food and if he does, he will obey me when I command him to give it up or stop.  Rupert just looks at me as he wolfs his ill-gotten gains and basically sticks two fingers up at me.   Arthur will walk, off the lead, right by my heel.  He will not run off and chase seagulls or bark at prams, as Rupert does.

But mainly, Arthur is just the most loving, loyal gentle little dog ever.  Timid he may be, and also, perhaps, not the sharpest dog in the pound.  It just makes him even nicer.  I could not love him anymore than I do.

In the interests of balance, here is a picture from last weekend of them both, Rupert at the front as ever.  He now has almost no tan.  It is almost all white and some of the black is now grey.  How can he be eleven this year?  Surely it is only about six months since I brought him home, wrapped in a blanket?

In other news, Medlar, Dark Lordling of Puriton, has been poorly.  He is now much better but he was really ill for several days resulting in two very expensive trips to the vet.  My word, he was unwell.  He began by just being really dopey and then, after half a day, I realised that he was not eating or drinking.  The next day, I took him to the vets and in a sure sign that he was really poorly, he submitted to all the tests (though he did come out of the back having had both front legs shaved to take blood, as he resisted the first attempt.  Apparently).  I don’t know exactly what happened out there but they were gone for ten minutes and when the vet came back she said: ‘I think we need to give him antibiotics in case it is an infection but I rate your chances of getting tablets into him as zero so I will inject them – this will last for two weeks.’  And she did.  He was furious.

The blood tests proved all fine.  The chief reason I was so worried was that some cats in our village have been poisoned.  To date, five cats (four from one household, over a period of about four months) have been killed with anti-freeze poisoning.  Two other cats have disappeared.  I did not think he had the symptoms of this which are fairly rapid and utterly horrific, but I was keen to make sure.  It was not a toxic issue in his case.  Still he would not eat or drink.  I boiled chicken and tried to get him to drink the cooled, weak stock.  Nope.  I bought cat-milk.  Nothing.

So that day, in a valiant or possibly foolhardy attempt to get some water at least into him, Florence and I held him wrapped in a beach-towel (this was Florence’s job) while I went to the dangerous end of Medlar and used a soft pipette to gently shoot some liquid into his mouth, which was partially successful.  If by successful you mean no-one died, we were able to keep him from dehydration, and the kitchen was fine after a deep clean.  I also, probably in contravention of all known wisdom but I am fine with that so don’t bother telling me off, smeared tiny semi-melted blobs of vanilla ice-cream on his front paws and he licked that off quite happily.  I think he had a very sore throat.

He did go back to the vets though because I was still frightened that he was not responding.  By day three, he was a bit less dopey and drank some water.  That night he also ate for the first time.  All through this time and indeed a week or so afterwards as he slowly improved, he did little other than sleep.  But, he only wanted to sleep where we were.  So he slept in the kitchen all day, or in the sitting room if I moved; and on our bed all night. He is not a very affectionate cat, really.  Or he wasn’t.  But since this illness, he has been totally soppy and very demanding of baby-style cuddles and shoulder-perching, along with 100% devotion to stroking him.  He has suggested we do this on a family rota basis.

He is older now too.  He is ten, but in his prime still.  See how he smiles for you?  Sweet, is he not?

Medlar Halloween 15


Smith & Jones @ John Lewis, Cardiff, Saturday 23 April.

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

Logo for Press and Trade Release

If you are in, near or within hailing distance of Johnny Lou-Lou’s Cardiff on Saturday 23 April, please come along as say hello to me and Donna (Jones to my Smith).  We will be signing books, showing all the things from Elements and generally hoping to meet and chat to as many knitters as we can.  As Donna and I both started our Rowan careers as in-store Design Consultants for Rowan, we can also sell knicker elastic, bra-extenders and reminisce about the halcyon days when you could buy ribbon by the yard…


Anyway, this Saturday, John Lewis, Cardiff, 11 – 2.  Hope to see you there!

The Allotment Project (AKA Oh My God! It’s Rhubarb Madness)

Monday, April 18th, 2016

When I first got the allotment, one lady told me that she had to take over-supply of produce (beans, I think) home in a wheelbarrow.  Yesterday, I had to take some rhubarb home in my wheelbarrow.

This patch of rhubarb is just incredible.  It has never died off totally over winter, which my rhubarb at home does.  I had to cull a lot of it in November as it had completely overgrown the shared pathway nearby.  And about three weeks ago, I thinned it by 1/3rd, composting all the old, woody stems, and still having about 14 lbs of fresh, tender pink stems left, most of which I gave away at the Knitting Club Afternoon Tea that week.

So we thinned it again yesterday, removing about 1/3rd again, as it had easily replaced all that I picked before, plus a lot more growth.  It stands at almost hip-height to me and is thickly dense with the finest, slim and pink stems, topped with lush, exotically huge shading leaves.  It is, effectively, forcing itself in this thicket.  I note that it is eleventy-pounds sterling for a half kilo in the hallowed halls of M&S, so this patch of mine is basically a huge money-heap, except that I will be giving it away, at Knitting Club Tea events, so do come!

I walked round the allotments before I left, to stagger back home with my cwt of rhubarb.  Almost everyone has some growing, but none is the size of mine.  I can, of course, take no credit for this as I inherited this nuclear-fruit.  Still, I do have a sense of reflected pride.  I haven’t killed it.  In fact, Mark and the others voted to dig it up and compost it when we first took the plot over, but I vetoed that.

In other news, the first lot of potatoes had once again peeped through so a fresh pile of loam was heaped on their little purple leaves.  Florence murmured that it must be the most dispiriting of all vegetable-lives, that of the potato, since any progress you make into the light and the air is instantly smothered with another bucket-full of earth.  No sign of the white potatoes yet, but these were planted three weeks after the purple ones.  More tyres have been acquired but we will need, I estimate, two more.

The broad beans are doing quite well.  These are a very early variety, that can be sown from November, which is what I did.  November was very mild, as warm at times, as September can be, and they instantly grew.  And then they grew some more.  Then we had a lot of storms and some were broken, others bent.  I began to worry that I had made a mistake, especially as no other plot-holders had any broad beans in at all.  Then, about a month or six weeks ago, other plots began to sport broad beans, but they were obviously not sown from seed in situ, as they just arrived as little plants.  I assume the idea was to sow a little later, and at home perhaps and then bring them down to the allotment after the worst of the storms had passed.

Anyway, mine are bigger (at the moment) than everyone else’s and a lot less straight!  But they are smothered in flowers and bees.  Broad bean flowers have a nice, sweet scent but you do have to lie on the grass or the earth, really, to get your nose close enough.  I am hopeful of a good if not a bumper crop, that will be mighty early as planned, so I can pop in the French beans once the broad beans have gone.

In the greenhouse, I have sown brussel sprouts and chard.  Plus courgettes (three varieties:  Black Beauty – in fact, dark green, it assures me – £1 for a lot of seeds, Wilkos; plus a pale green one and a yellow one.  So far, 100% germination from the £1 Wilkos, but some hopeful signs from their exotic sisters).  The chard will be red, and also an orange variety.  What is enchanting, is that the tiny, waif-like seedlings are already red and pale orange, right from the get-go.  So clever.

and orange:

Outside, kale is germinating.  I have also sown squash seeds – two types, both of which are sulking; and chillies, again a £1 Wilkos special.  Nada at the moment.

We earthed up the celery, apparently this is necessary:

And the beans and garlic look lush:

But I think the best news is that we have a breakthrough on the Vast Digging Project.  Aside from clearing a fresh mountain of weeds and roots, it is basically all now dug, from top to bottom.

My hip and knee injuries have probably not been worth it, but there we are.  When I think back to the bright and warm day in the autumn when we took it on, and my heart really did sink, to this weekend when it looks, if bare, under control and full of potential, I can’t really believe we did all that work.  I vow never to have to dig it again in this way.  I hoe it every week, all over, as the weed seeds which had such a field day last year are very determined to regain control.  I hate this job but it beats digging hands down.

In my wander about last evening, I had a look at the lot we almost got.  I do not know the man who has this, but it looks like civil engineering to me, and I certainly could not have managed this.  I am just so glad we got the plot we did, and that we have taken it from this:

And this:

To this:

The Severn Collection from Smith & Jones Knits

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

Logo for Press and Trade Release

Over on my sister-blog at S&J Knits, a little look at the design inspiration behind two of the accessories I have designed for our next venture – a mini-collection of eight accessories.  Due out in the autumn.

You can read about it here.

The Wrong Way to Knit.

Friday, April 1st, 2016

Today, I read a post from a US based knitting teacher.  She wrote about a knitting subject that is very important to me.  What is the best way to knit?

Her answer is:  any way that suits you, produces the results you want, does not hurt you and is physically sustainable. I completely agree.

I feel really strongly about this because of two things.  First, we all knit differently from one another.  There is English, Continental, with many variants, hands-over, hands-under etc, etc.  And I reckon I have seen most of them.  Second, I was once told, in public, that I knitted ‘the wrong way’. Why was this?  It was because I knitted with my hands on top, thus letting go (you don’t actually let go, though you do move your right hand but anyway) of the right hand needle to throw the yarn.  What they said was: ‘I can hardly bear to watch you knit that way!  How can you stand it?  It looks so awkward and wrong!’  As you can see, I am very over it.  No, I really am, in fact I am grateful to this ill-mannered ‘spade-speaker’ and in a minute I will tell you why.  I had knitted this way all my life, because that was the way my mother and grandmother knitted, and they taught me.  Some of the best knitters I know also knit this way, incidentally.

Now that was some years ago.  I was very embarrassed and sat for the rest of the session – it was a knit club – in hot silence.  I also felt very self-conscious about the way I held the needles for some time afterwards. If it was now, I’d tell them to go and get stuffed.

Some years later, after I began working for Rowan, I began experimenting with other ways of holding the yarn and needles.  I did this because I wanted a bit more speed. I also like nerdy things like that.  I taught myself to knit with my hands underneath, to knit left and right handed, and continental. But still to this day, if I need a lot of fine control for a tricky move, I go back to hands on top.

What that event taught me, aside from how stunningly rude some people can be, was that I never, ever wanted anyone I taught, or helped in a shop, or knitted with socially, to feel that way.

I have heard it said that some people feel they too may knit ‘the wrong way’.  You don’t. Assuming you like it, your hands or shoulders are not suffering pain and you get the fabric you want, it is the right way. If you feel that any of these things is not right, well maybe you could think about making some adjustments, but otherwise, it is fine. When I am teaching, I can almost always find a way to teach The Thing We Are Doing without you having to accommodate your usual style to suit me.  That is not what teaching is about.

If anyone tells you that you are doing it wrong, please refer them to me.