Wednesday 28 March 2007

Oh yes, this blog is about

france, gardening, self sufficiency and plants.


So I won't dive into a rant about the provision of mental health services in the UK, just note in passing that if anything would drive one mad that would be it.

And back to the main event!

The picture above shows the chinese artichokes, the eddoes and some babington leeks. If you can't work out which is which click on the picture and go to the flickr stream which has notes on it.

The babington leeks are older plants lifted from the allotment last autumn. It's taken them a couple of years to develop this leek shaped character but now it's possible to see why they have the name. I would eat these in the interests of research but think I'll take them with us next time we cross the channel and see if they are as attractive to deer as the real thing.

We also have several more thongs of horseradish to plant out and jerusalem artichokes potted in the autumn which have not yet shown themselves.

Tomorrow I must start making lists for packing, starting with the cat and all his paraphernlia. Watch this space for the next thrilling installment!

Sunday 25 March 2007

Getting it for nothing.

Wouldn't it be nice never to have to pay Mr. Gates again?

My real gripe at the moment is having bought a fresh clean install of XP on a new machine from Dell last year I can't use it because the hardware was crisped by lightning (see entries for last summer). The hard drive survived but of course the Dell image needs identical hardware and I'm not paying Dell prices for new motherboards. On the other hand buying a new XP or, worse, Vista seems equally uneconomic even if it was possible to accept the increasing intrusion and compromise needed to run MS products. Something has to give.

There is an alternative. I don't consider myself computer illiterate but I've no real desire to struggle with an operating system. Luckily it seems Linux is starting to come within my comfort zone.

Current hardware is a rather old Athlon PC 1.05 GHz, 768MB ram, with two drives so ideal for a dual boot if it could be done without too much difficulty, and my core requirements are to play media, use Firefox, Thunderbird, Ameol (a proprietary off-line reader that is only available under Windows), a word processor / office type tools, and an HTML editor. And countless other things of course but those are the essentials. However it was achieved I needed to be able to back out of it gracefully, this is my only working computer at this time.

Last time I looked Ubuntu seemed a very attractive bet but this was a while ago (four years in fact!) so I asked around and was advised that it was still considered a good option for a beginner. Ubuntu's installation will run from the DVD drive as a live system allowing you to play with the environment without installing anything. I downloaded an iso, burnt it and gave it a go and immediately hit a problem to do with video drivers - my poor old hardware has ATI Radeon 9550 graphics and doesn't appear to be supported from this image. The most serious problem with this was that the install program produced a window too large for the resolution I was getting and the buttons weren't visible, so I couldn't even make the installation in the hope of sorting it all out later.

Anyway researching fixes for that led me to this article which covers a number of linux distros from the point of view of a naive newbie and is quite positive about a unbuntu based version called Mint. And that to cut straight to the chase is what I went for next.

It was the same procedure with downloading an iso (in this case Bianca), burning a CD and running it live but luckily the graphics managed an 800x600 screen this time and it was possible to see enough of the install screens to make progress. Installing was dead easy once I took the courage to agree to format an entire hard drive which is never trivial and the dual boot part was handled without further intervention and absolutely painless. Mint mounts the windows drive so all the data there is accessible and has no problem with external USB drive I bought for backups. Windows, of course, totally ignores the linux drive but I can live with that. Networking sprang into life and internet connection was achieved during the install as far as I could tell. Excellent so far, but I was never going to get used to an 800x600 screen so that was a continuing issue.

Does anyone really want to read how I sorted out my applications? Suffice to say then that Mint installs Firefox and OpenOffice by default and some codecs that will play MP3s (something of a contentious issue in licence free open source space). For other things they provide a couple of utilities to sort stuff out including the extremely useful synaptic package manager that lists, fetches and installs software for you. I used this to collect Thunderbird, my preferred email client and Wine, a windows emulator that allows me to run Ameol. There is a HTML editor, bluefish, available which looks the business and installs itself from the website rather conveniently. These word processing and editing apps seem familiar in layout and function but are sufficiently from a different universe to make me uneasy. I'm sure that will pass.

Far more difficult was getting the screen resolution right but eventually I found a very comprehensive reply to someone else on a forum and by cutting and pasting their commands into a root terminal that's now sorted. Of course, that was after I learned how to log on as root because the Mint/ubuntu installation doesn't seem to create an accessible root user and I had to find out how to set the root password so I could use it. I'm going to need to make a note of these discoveries because I find linux command lines opaque in the extreme. The process of fettling is still not complete. My current problem is finding a way to get linux to talk to my printer. It recognises make and model, it suggests drivers but although each time I ask it to print the printer goes into its warm up nothing actually gets printed and eventually everything seizes up and has to be restarted from scratch. I've found some drivers which I believe are correct and have not the slightest clue how to get them into position. These skills will come I'm sure, it's not really linux at fault here but I'd much rather it just worked.

Of course, what most linux tyros do is try every distro available until one sticks. It is often recommended that the investigator builds up a test bed out of scrap parts because linux will run on almost anything and it's safer than using the mission critical hardware but as I've discovered making it behave in a sophisticated manner on old hardware is not for the faint hearted. I would not recommend this as a route for someone who just wants to get away from Microsoft, it will frustrate and dishearten you. After backing up essential data try a modern distro that will organise a dual boot and install it on your year old hardware. It's really the only way you're going to find out if linux is for you.

For me, having decided to move away from MS as a ground rule I may rebuild the lightning struck machine with a new motherboard and try again with a different distro there because Mint has crashed on me a few times and I'm not convinced it's all my fault. I've received more recommendations for distros to try since I've started and if I can keep the old hardware up and running for a while I can play with the newer machine and different builds until I'm comfortable to make the complete break. Linux is nearly there and I'm incredibly thankful to the many people who've put in so much effort and time to provide this open source and free software particularly since I lack the skills to contribute myself and money is in short supply. It really is magnificent work and should be supported wherever possible.

Monday 19 March 2007

Square Metre Gardening revisited

plot lostscrap wood

At last we've made some progress. After I made a start clearing a plot in the garden on Friday, Paul kindly put together a magnificent construction made out of old wood and nails to enclose the new bed. It's not quite a metre square due to some issues with the found materials but it's pretty close, quite deep; about 25cms(I might measure it and correct this later) and has some uprights to hold netting or fleece if necessary. Paul christened it "the four poster bed".

four poster bedneatly boxed

The space I've chosen for it is tiny scrap of well sheltered south west facing ground backed by the fence on the east side and the greenhouse on the north side. It should get full sun for most of the day. The soil in the plot is actually quite rich already having received a full load of compost in the recent past from when I grew some pumpkins there although it was sadly invaded by brambles, bindweed and ground elder when I came to clear it this time. I'm hoping to have got the worst of those out and dug it all over to avoid any hard panning beneath the new frame.

The frame has been filled with some two year old well rotted compost from our bins and, although I shouldn't have been surprised, took a remarkable volume of material. We're lucky with space enough to keep our two metre cube compost bins working at all times but if you had to buy the compost in you'd need something in the region of five 75 litre bags, not cheap.

We're going to concentrate on quick growing and baby veg suitable for salads and eating raw and the first planting plan is as follows;
Peas (for salad shoots), red mustard, carrots.
Beetroots, mixed cutting lettuce, purslane.
Spinach, white onions, radishes.

Of course, the weather will not oblige and has decided to have a spell of frosty nights so I haven't actually planted anything yet. I'll get some lettuces started indoors and then plant my peas, beets and carrots straight into the soil as soon as the cold snap is over. Can't wait.

Cat Update: The cat enjoyed his visitors yesterday and his health is improving, long may it continue.

Oh, and one other thing, trawling about on the web yesterday I discovered The Vegan News is still being published. This is a very quirky and individual quarterly publication with recipes, reviews of vegan products and books and tips on veganic gardening and I'm very pleased to find it again. Take a look.

Friday 16 March 2007

Trying to keep up

Having promised to get on with a square metre plot way back I've achieved very little in that direction. Today is the day I've decided to go out and make a start in the back garden in NP for a single bed in this country. All plans for France are currently on hold because of the sick cat.

This sq. metre will have to be fenced too, not because of deer but to stop cats using it as a toilet. I plan to make the frame from planks from an old door we have replaced in the house but I'm not sure what my pegs/corner joints/fence posts will be made from yet. It will be necessary to explore the garage to find out what's available. The weather is beautiful and when this blog is finished I'll have no excuse not to go and get on with it.

My early seedlings are looking a bit weedy. There are frequent experiments showing that early plantings have little advantage over seeds planted in late March - exceptions I've found to this are petunias (and I'm too late for them now I think) which start so tiny that they really need all the time you can give them and celeriac, although nothing I do to these will make the football sized roots one sees in the supermarkets. I'm reluctant to start quantities of anything for transplanting though even though it makes us vulnerable to missing the sowing window altogether. With our next trip some time away and space in the vehicles always at a premium the transportation difficulties will be immense.

Among the seeds I planted last time were some seville orange pips. There are now 15 little trees coming along which I hope to bring to a decent size even if I do have to build an orangery for them. Today I plan to plant some pomegranate seeds, not the miniature hardy one but from a full sized fruit. It will be an interesting experiment but with global warming going as it is it may even be possible to grow these outside eventually.

The cat is now back from the vets. The 'bland' food they provided was rejected with some force so he's currently existing on fish fingers and fun crunch fed from the hand. It's not an adequate diet. More worryingly still, since coming home he's developed a sneeze and we're worried he's caught something from the hospital. Still he's happier in himself and nearly as demanding as usual.


Monday 12 March 2007

Black Cat down


Bagheera is very unwell. He's at the vet's now and we're waiting for more information when the tests come back. We're all very worried.


Cat has had a quiet night and they're going to try him with some food this morning.

UPDATE 13/3/07 19:49

Bags is staying in overnight. The vet says he has licked the tomato sauce off some food (culinary advice my suggestion) and is a bit more relaxed after an afternoon of being prodded about by people at the animal hospital. If all goes well tonight he can come home tomorrow.

So I've cancelled Ireland (yes, all of it, sorry)

UPDATE 14/3/07 09:17

The cat will be back from hospital today at about 4.00 p.m. along with a huge quantity of drugs and instructions not to mention an immense bill.

So that's all right for now.

Tuesday 6 March 2007

A trip to Ireland


So I've finally bitten the bullet and organised myself a couple of days in Leitrim so that I can instruct agents, solicitors and utility providers that the house MUST be sold.

After much agonising my travel plans are the cheapest I can find - train through from Milton Keynes to Dublin and a cheap hire car after that to make my way across country to Ballinamore and our poor old house. It's not the fastest journey but for £52 return and no airport taxes or airport stress it's got a lot going for it. You can find out about trains to Ireland here

More on this absolutely thrilling expedition when I've been.

In the meantime I've also been helping out the woman formerly known on this blog as the 'cat lady'. She's now turned her attention to rehoming dogs and after wasting rather a lot of time on a web site design for her that I felt was elegantly coded and she didn't like I ended up pasting her new content into the old cat design and changing the pictures. Which is o.k. but makes me feel strangely displeased.

A good deal of my irritation comes from having to interact with her chosen domain name provider and hosting service. The hosting ftp is just as flaky as it was before - and I did ask her not to use them again, and the domain name reseller user interface is opaque. They really don't want people messing with their setup. Anyway, it seems to be done now and the results are here. Compliments on a postcard please but if you don't like it don't tell me, I'm just holding it for a friend.

And of course, if you can home a dog in the UK or France or offer financial support do contact them. It's a never ending battle.